Brando, Magnini, Powell, Pressburger, the deep South, England & India: Saturday night at the PFA

My wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive Saturday night. This was not a double bill.

The Fugitive Kind

The PFA series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema just keeps rolling along, and now it’s getting into the great Italian actress’ American films. This 1960 drama co-starring Marlon Brando was directed by Sidney Lumet.

Brando plays a drifter and washed-out musician, nicknamed Snakeskin, trying to turn over a new leaf in a small southern town. He’s tired of uneven work, police trouble, and with women throwing themselves at him.

Magnini’s character runs a store owned by her vile, vengeful, and invalid husband. She hires Snakeskin, and her motives aren’t entirely mercantile. Their romance won’t be easy.

Tennessee Williams and Meade Roberts wrote the screenplay, based on Williams’ play Orpheus Descending. Occasional monologs remind you of the story’s theatrical past. Brando starts the film with a near monolog as he answers an unseen judge’s voice. Joanne Woodward, playing a very wild young woman, has an exciting monolog about bar hopping and dancing to juke boxes.

Despite the almost entirely white cast, The Fugitive Kind deals indirectly with the racism one would expect in a small southern town at the beginning of the 1960s (and unfortunately, bubbling up again today). A store that served both black and white customers was burned down years before. And the sheriff makes it clear that to Snakeskin isn’t much better than a…you know the word.

I give The Fugitive Kind an A-.

According to Associate Film Curator Kate MacKay, they screened a 35mm preservation print. When a film is preserved, a brand new negative and print are created from whatever source is available–without the extensive repair work done on a full restoration. The print was certainly workable, but it had more than its share of scratches–probably left over from the source print used to create the preservation.

After the screening, those willing to pay $40 were treated to “a special Anna Magnani–inspired dinner” at Babette. My wife and I chose to skip the dinner and see the next movie.

Black Narcissus

I failed to give this tale of nuns in India its due in the past, giving it only a B when it turned up in my weekly newsletter. I described it as “Not much more than a well-done but silly melodrama.” My previous experience with the movie came from watching it alone on DVD. Theatrically, it’s a whole other experience.

Yes, it’s a melodrama, but so is CasablancaBlack Narcissus tells an intriguing story about a clash of cultures, contrasting the austere life of a convent with the exciting, sensually-rich world of the Himalayas. And it only gets truly silly in the last act, when one of the nuns goes completely bonkers.

Black Narcissus starts the PFA’s series Arrows of Desire: The Films of Powell & Pressburger. With their company named The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collaborated as producers, screenwriters, and directors on 17 films from 1942 through 1956. Their work includes
The Red Shoes
, Stairway to Heaven, and one of my all-time favorites, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

In Black Narcissus, the nuns live in an abandoned fortress high on a cliff–a castle originally built to hold a harem. They intend to bring healthcare and education to the peasants living in the valley below. Sabu plays a young and haughty local ruler. The handsome David Farrar plays the only white man in the film–helpful but cynical about religion. His presence produces problems with two nuns trying to hang onto their vows (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron). A not-yet-famous Jean Simmons, in brown face, plays an exceptionally sexy but non-speaking native.

You’ve probably already guessed that Black Narcissus has a race problem. Made the same year that India won its independence, it portrays pleasant but immature natives. When Farrar’s character describes them as children, neither the nuns nor the filmmakers object. The Indians represent a simple and yet sexual innocence, without even trying–as the nuns do–to keep their desires in check.

Story wise, the film’s greatest strength comes from the uneasy relationship between the nuns and the secular man who tries to help them. But story was never Powell and Pressburger’s strength; visuals were. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff could work magic with Technicolor’s clumsy but beautiful three-strip process. His lighting and lens choices creates a semi-realistic world where riotous colors fight with repressed grays. Production designer Alfred Junge and costume designer Hein Heckroth helped considerably, as well.

Black Narcissus, set entirely in India, was actually shot in England. And yet you believe every frame (well, almost).

The PFA screened a mouth-wateringly beautiful imported 35mm print. I don’t know if it was IB dye transfer, but I wouldn’t be surprised. With deep colors and almost scratch free, it was the sort of print that reminds one how wonderful physical film projection can be–even while digital projection gets better and better.

Elle: Very much a Paul Verhoeven movie

B- Mystery/drama
Written by David Birke; from the novel by Philippe Djian
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven’s new film, Elle, is silly, tasteless, and unbelievable. And kind of fun to watch. But then, that’s what you should expect from the man who made Basic Instinct, Total Recall, and Showgirls. Paul Verhoeven makes strange, violent, disturbingly sexual films that can’t really be taken seriously–even when he probably wants you to take them seriously.

And that’s true whether the Dutch director is making a big-budget Hollywood movie or, as in this case, a medium-budget French art film. Elle stars the great Isabelle Huppert, who also has a reputation for making films that go over the edge.

Elle offers two main pleasures. First, Huppert gives a strong, gutsy, courageous performance. I don’t think she’s capable of anything else. Second, it’s fun to see how ridiculous the movie can get. And it gets very ridiculous.

It begins with a brutal rape. A man in a ski mask is having his way with the title character on her expensive living room floor, now scattered with broken wine glasses.

Once he leaves, does she call the police? No. She takes a bubble bath. A small patch of blood rises from her groin region to surface in the suds. She doesn’t seem particularly upset.

And the rapist keeps coming back. At least two other times (not including flashbacks and fantasies) he breaks into her house and rapes her again. He also harasses her over the Internet. She tells her friends and co-workers about it, and they’re shocked that she’s so mater-of-fact about it.

In a normal film, one would assume she was suffering from PTSD. But in this one…who knows? Perhaps she likes it.

But then, Elle has a pretty strange history with violence. Her father is a mass murderer in prison for life. People still recognize her as the murderer’s daughter, and treat her as guilty by association. (Her severely botoxed mother, ugly through countless plastic surgeries, has a young hunk of a lover.)

Elle’s job also deals in violence. She runs a video game company specializing in extremely violent games–and rape is a common theme. Soon after her own experience, she tells her employees that a rape scene has to be more graphic, more violent, and sexier.

She’s one of two women running the company, filled almost entirely with male employees. Most of them hate her.

Elle has a klutzy grown son with a pregnant girlfriend. When the baby is born, the son refuses to see that he can’t possibly be the biological father.

Meanwhile, Elle’s having an affair with her business partner’s husband. She also sets her sights on a neighbor with a very religious wife and children.

To some extent, Elle works as a mystery. She tries to find the man who’s continually attacking her. (I guessed who it was early, but I was wrong. My wife guessed right.) I’m not sure if she wants his identity so she can turn him in, or so she can start an affair.

If you like weird, amoral, but well-made sleaze, you’ll probably enjoy Elle. I did. But I wouldn’t want a constant diet of this sort of thing.

Louise Brooks at the New Mission

I confess. I was wrong. I gave G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl a B+ in this week’s newsletter. I should have given it an A. Pabst’s second film starring Louise Brooks is a better film than I had recalled.

Or maybe the movie seemed better because the music was better. That can happen with a silent movie.

Saturday night, my wife and I attended a screening of Lost Girl at the New Mission‘s huge and beautiful Theater 1. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted this presentation, part of the New Mission at 100 celebration. The Musical Art Quintet provided the live accompaniment.

Made in 1929 Germany, Diary of a Lost Girl portrays a society driven by sexual hypocrisy. Men use attractive women, worship them, then toss them to the curb. And only the women are punished for what the men do to them.

Brooks’ character is raped by one of his father’s employees and becomes pregnant. When she refuses to marry her rapist (who keeps his job), she’s sent to an exceptionally cruel reformatory. She escapes, and finds a home and a family of sorts in a bordello. She is, in every reasonable sense of the word, a good person. As the story moves into its final act, she must decide between respectability and what she knows is right.

The Musical Art Quintet provided musical accompaniment with a new score composed by bass player Sascha Jacobsen. Combining classical music and jazz, it carried the emotions and enhanced the occasional humor. My wife, Madeline Prager, who plays and teaches viola professionally, put it better than I could:

“The band nailed it. Interesting too, in that most silent film scores for ensembles utilize winds and large percussion instrumentation. This score, for string quintet, was versatile and so hauntingly effective.”

The New Mission projected Diary of a Lost Girl digitally, from a recent 2K restoration that, for my eyes, could have used a little more restoration.

Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society had a table set up in the lobby, selling copies of the Margarete Böhme novel on which the film was based. He also sold Diary of a Lost Girl DVDs and Blu-rays containing his own audio commentary. We talked a bit about the art of recording these commentaries (he plans them out carefully), and he told me that Beggars of Life will be coming out next year.

All in all, it was a great way to end an otherwise horrible, election-centered week.

Denial at the Albany

Wednesday night, I went to the Albany Theater to see Denial. They were screening the drama in the big, downstairs theater.

I thought I was going to be the only person in the audience. But as the trailers were starting, I heard someone sit down a few rows behind me. I turned around, saw a man, waved to him, and he waved back. An audience.

In case you’re not familiar with the film, Denial dramatizes professional Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel lawsuit against historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). Irving (Timothy Spall at his most loathsome) sued her in England because of that country’s absurd libel laws, which begin with an assumption of guilt. Lipstadt had to prove in court not only that the Holocaust happened, but that Hitler ordered it, Irving is a bigot, and that he distorted history intentionally.

Lipstadt is American, which allowed the film to show the British legal system through the shocked eyes of an outsider. Her lawyers, played by Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty) and Tom Wilkenson, must explain a great deal to her. She wants to take the stand; they don’t want her to. They even refuse to let actual Holocaust survivors testify. They feel it would hurt their case.

Lipstadt and Wilkinson’s lawyer develop a testy but eventually warm friendship. I’m glad to report that the filmmakers felt no need to work a romance into the story.

Wednesday, the day after the election, was absolutely the worst day to see Denial (which may explain the empty theater). The film has neo-Nazis and a bigoted, bullying villain who refuses to accept clear reality. Spall’s performance kept reminding me of Donald Trump. One passing statement of his suggests Trump-like attitudes about women.

I’m a Rachel Weisz fan, but the British actress just couldn’t manage an American accent–or at least not the accent of a Jew raised in Queens. I could hear her consciously flattening long A sounds.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the use of black British actors playing historical African American roles–Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma, and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving in the upcoming Loving. So I guess it’s no surprise that we get a British Jew (Weisz) playing an American Jew in Denial. But I sure wish they had found a British Jew who was better at accents.

I give the film a B.

A+ List: Do the Right Thing (also Napoleon)

For a 27-year-old film, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. The only obvious difference is that when cops kill an unarmed black man, no one records it on their cellphone.

By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn’s Bed Stuy neighborhood over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things that are right) about race relationships in America. But it’s not an out-and-out lecture. Do the Right Thing is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. Having just revisited the film after a long absence, I’m now putting it on my A+ list of films that I’ve loved over the decades.

But before I discuss Lee’s masterpiece in detail, let me bring your attention to a very different A+ movie: Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

Okay. Back to Do the Right Thing.


Hot weather results in hot tempers, and in an environment already marred by racial distrust, that leads to tragedy. There’s no obvious protagonist in this film. Everybody is right, and everybody is wrong. And almost nobody can see the other person’s point of view. I can’t watch this film without feeling that if only one person had just been a little more diplomatic, tragedy would have been averted.

But life-saving diplomacy feels unlikely on a hot day in race-minded Brooklyn.

Sal’s pizzeria serves as Do the Right Thing‘s epicenter. Sal (Danny Aiello) is a decent man, proud of his Italian-American background, his restaurant, and its overwhelmingly black clientele. But he also has a tinderbox of a temper. His son Pino (John Turturro) hates that clientele; an out-and-out racist, Pino badly wants to work in a different neighborhood. Spike Lee himself plays Mookie, the only local and the only African-American working for Sal.

Unfortunately, Mookie’s behavior confirms many of Pino’s stereotypes. He’s a lazy and undependable worker and an absentee father. His girlfriend, the mother of his son (Rosie Perez in her first major role), orders a pizza just to get Mookie into her apartment.

Do the Right Thing doesn’t stay inside the pizzeria. It introduces us to a vibrant community of richly-painted individuals. Ossie Davis plays Da Mayor, a friendly alcoholic who proves to have some surprising strengths. Davis’ real-life wife, Ruby Dee, plays the block’s wise but overly judgmental matriarch. Bill Nunn, with his hulking body and sad eyes, carries a giant boom box and a dark destiny. Other characters carry such nicknames as Smiley, Coconut Sid, and my favorite, Sweet Dick Willie. Future comedy star Martin Lawrence plays Cee.

Speaking of soon-to-be-famous members of the cast (there are several), Samuel L. Jackson plays the Greek chorus as a DJ broadcasting from the block. Looking out a picture window, he reports on what he sees between songs.

For all its inevitable tragedy, Do the Right Thing contains plenty of warmth and humor. When Sal and Mookie argue, we understand that they love each other.

Motion pictures lost a great cinematographer when Ernest Dickerson became a director. His work on Do the Right Thing won him a New York Film Critics Circle Award and should have won him an Oscar. He makes us feel the heat, the closeness of the environment, and the time of day.

Do the Right Thing stirred up plenty of controversy in 1989. I imagine it would stir up just as much if not more today–maybe more; that was before Fox News. Its brilliant, unsettling filmmaking leaves you thinking about race, bigotry both in your face and below your conscious thoughts, and the flaws inherent in the American experiment.

And oddly, it might also leave you wanting a pizza.

Jean Renoir and Spike Lee at the PFA

I saw two highly-regarded classic films Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. This was not a double feature. They were about as different as good films can be.

The Golden Coach

This was my first experience with Jean Renoir’s 1952 commedia dell’arte about, well, commedia dell’arte. It’s also about arrogant aristocrats, starving artists, and, yes, a horse-drawn coach gilded with gold. But the movie’s primary purpose is a simple and yet noble one: To make the audience laugh.

Anna Magnani stars as a member of a commedia troupe in 17th-century South America, stranded in a remote outpost of the Spanish empire. Here Magnani’s character finds herself juggling a dashing soldier, a famous and egotistical matador, and the aristocratic viceroy of the colony–and thus causing her life to reflect the commedia dell’arte in which she performs. Despite the French director and the Italian star, The Golden Coach‘s dialog is overwhelmingly in English–presumably for commercial reasons.

I can’t quite agree with François Truffaut’s description of The Golden Coach as “The noblest and most refined film ever made,” but I can tell you that it’s a very fun and funny movie, thanks largely to a clever script and Magnani’s precise comic timing. I give it a B+.

Claude Renoir shot the film in three-strip Technicolor, but the heavily-scratched 35mm print screened Saturday night lacked the beautiful, saturated colors I’d come to expect from a dye-transfer Technicolor IB print. On the other hand, the colors were often inconsistent, sometimes changing within a shot–a flaw I associate (perhaps inaccurately) with IB prints. The last minute or so looked especially bad.

Update: Hours after I posted this article, PFA projectionist Seth Lorenz Mitter filled me in on the print:

I was projecting THE GOLDEN COACH last night. That was a Janus Films distribution print on color positive print stock (struck from an internegative) – I know it looked old and worn, but it wasn’t old enough to be an IB print.

Registration errors from the Technicolor three-strip printing process were very noticeable at times and I have to assume were flaws in the master material from which the internegative was made (or in the camera original itself).

The PFA screened The Golden Coach as part of the series Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It will screen again on Sunday, December 4, at 4:00.

Do the Right Thing

I first saw Spike Lee’s masterpiece in first run. A few years later I rented the Criterion Laserdisc. I saw it again Saturday night at the PFA. It’s every bit the masterpiece I remembered. I give it an A+.

For a 27-year-old film, Do the Right Thing feels very much like the here and now. When the cops kill an unarmed black man in this 1989 film, the only difference is the lack of cellphones.

By focusing on a few blocks of Brooklyn over the course of one very hot day, Lee dramatizes and analyzes everything wrong (and a few things right) about race relationships in America. And yet the movie is touching, funny, warm-hearted, and humane. It’s beautifully written, acted, photographed, paced, and edited.

I won’t go into detail now. I’m writing a whole other article on the film, which I’ll post soon.

This is a film of bright and hot colors, and the beautiful 35mm print screened Saturday night was all one could hope for. The soundtrack was recorded and presented in Dolby Stereo Spectral Recording, an improved version of the Dolby Stereo I’ve discussed earlier. The PFA’s new Meyer sound system showed that soundtrack at its best.

Do the Right Thing was the first screening of a very short PFA series, Three Lives: Classics of Contemporary African American Cinema.

Moonlight shines new light on the inner city

Drama
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney; based on his play
Directed by Barry Jenkins

Moonlight is the best new American film I’ve seen this year.

With the advantages of a white skin, it’s easy to assume certain stereotypes of those on the margins–especially African Americans living in what is now called the inner city. Writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and director Barry Jenkins find human truth behind those stereotypes in this remarkable film.

This is Jenkins’ first feature film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. He’s made a huge improvement over that interesting yet flawed first try.

McCraney sets the story in three distinct chapters, each one focusing on a different time in the protagonist’s life. Jenkins uses three different actors to play the main character. In the first section, Little, Alex R. Hibbert plays him as a child, caught between his troubled, single mother and the drug dealer who becomes his surrogate father. Ashton Sanders plays him as a teenager, and a target for bullies, in Chiron. Trevante Rhodes, muscle-bound and dripping with gold, plays the adult. A drug dealer by trade, he looks like the stereotypical scary thug. But he’s really a shy, confused, lonely, gay man deep inside the closet.

Only Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s mother, appears in all three sections.

Mahershala Ali (one of the most interesting actors around today; you’ll probably recognize him from Game of Thrones) carries the first section as the head of a drug-dealing operation. That defines him clearly as a villain by normal Hollywood standards. But to the young Chiron, he’s a gentle, kind man who recognizes that this child needs more parenting than his mother can give. Among other things, he takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him to swim.

In one scene, Chiron asks about the word faggot. His surrogate father tells him that it’s word people use to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the confused child that if he turns out to be gay, that’s fine.

Only one brief line suggests a violent side to the drug kingpin’s line of work. But even there, it’s about self-defense.

The bullying Chiron suffers in the first two sections make a prologue for what he is in the third. At first glance, he’s the super-macho gangsta that no one will mess with. But on the inside, he’s still the scared and lonely little boy.

Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell avoid the musical clichés of “in the ‘hood” movies. Rap pops up only briefly in the third act. Most of the music is rich and symphonic, with some recognizable classical pieces.

This isn’t a story of tough dudes in the ghetto. It’s the story of a confused young man trying to make his way in a scary world.