Czech & Peck: Czech New Wave and Gregory Peck Films at the Pacific Film Archive

Last night I visited the Pacific Film Archive to see two different movies. The first, Fruit of Paradise, opened the series Three Czech New Wave Classics. The second, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, was for the series Gregory Peck: An Agreeable Gentleman.

Fruit of Paradise

This isn’t the real title, or even an accurate translation. Other sources, including the subtitles during the opening credits, identified the film as We Eat the Fruit of the Tree of Paradise. Either way, it’s supposed to be a Garden of Eden parable.

The picture is totally weird, and not in good way. The first seven minutes are nothing more than a light-and-double-exposure show of a naked man and woman wandering around in nature. If you attended student film screenings in the early 70s (around the time this professional feature was made), you saw a lot of this sort of thing. It gets dull quickly, even with nudity.

Eventually things settle down to something resembling a story. Eva and her husband Joseph appear initially to be living out of doors by themselves. Every so often, another person crossed their path. One of them, a young man named Robert, catches Eva’s eye.

More people appear, and occasionally they’re indoors. Eventually we figure out that they’re all staying in a spa. And Robert may be a murderer–a fact that appears to turn Eva on.

Much of the picture was shock at self-consciously odd camera angles and shooting speeds. That did not help.

As the badly-scratched print unspooled, I found myself wondering how the Biblical story could be better updated, and whether a film made in 1970 really qualifies as being part of the Czech New Wave, which was crushed by Russian tanks in 1968. It’s nice to know that even after their intervention, the Soviets gave Prague enough freedom to made weird movies filled with Biblical allegory, extreme undercranking, and nudity. But that didn’t make the movie any better.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

The Gregory Peck feature was much better, although still far from great. Based on the Hemingway novel of the same name, it gives Peck a chance to play a character clearly based on Hemingway himself. He’s a hard-drinking, hard-loving, successful novelist with an obsession with big game hunting. Out on safari with his wife (Susan Hayward), he’s dying from an infected leg wound. They talk, and flashbacks tell us about his previous life–primarily his previous love lives.

Much of it concerns his first marriage. The movie implies that his first wife (Ava Gardner) was the love of his life. But oddly, his new wife seems a better match.

Shot in three-strip Technicolor in 1952, it suffers from the usual problems of studio-era Hollywood movies set in Africa. The rear projection is obvious, and the casual racism troubling. The racism isn’t anywhere near as bad in as many jungle movies–Peck’s character seems to understand that these “boys” are human beings–but it’s clear that their only function is to serve white people.

As you can probably guess, the movie is also episodic and not entirely satisfying, although it’s not a complete mess, either. I enjoyed it.

I’d love to know something about the print provided by Twentieth Century-Fox. I’m pretty sure it was a real Technicolor dye-transfer print–something I haven’t seen in years. The colors were breath-taking. Most of it was sharp, but some shots were fuzzy, with some color fringing–suggesting some shrinking in the three negatives.