Adapting Shakespeare: Ran and Chimes at Midnight

400 years after his death, people still love William Shakespeare. I can think of no other story teller whose works have remained popular so long. His talent, obviously, has a lot to do with it. But so is his adaptability. His plays, written with almost no stage directions, give actors and directors countless interpretations.

Most Shakespeare productions, either on stage or in film, stay loyal to his work. A production of Hamlet may be shortened, and set in a time and place that the Bard of Avon could never imagine. But the dialog would all come from Hamlet.

But some imaginative directors can take a Shakespeare play–or five of them–and create something totally new.

Within a few days of each other at the Pacific Film Archive, I caught two of the most imaginative, and two of the best, Shakespeare adaptations ever recorded on film. Not coincidentally, they were made by two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers: Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa.

The PFA didn’t screen these films as part of a Shakespeare series. They were just classic films that had recently received beautiful, new digital restorations. Both films were screened off 4K DCPs.

Chimes at Midnight

Orson Welles stuck almost entirely to Shakespeare’s language in his 1966 retelling of the Falstaff story. But he didn’t stick to one particular work. The dialog comes from five separate plays.

Most of Chimes at Midnight comes from the plays Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, with a smattering of dialog from Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Winsor. From these plays, it tells the tragi-comic story of Sir John Falstaff and his doomed friendship with Prince Hal–the future King Henry V.

Years before I knew that this film existed, I wanted someone would make it. Henry IV, Part 1 is my favorite Shakespeare play. I never cared much for Part 2, except for the brilliant ending that closes the story much better than anything in Part 1. Welles combined the two plays to use the best from each of them.

Quick rundown on the story: King Henry IV (John Gielgud), struggles with a rebellion and his own guilt in the overthrow and murder of Richard II. He also worries about his oldest son, Hal (Keith Baxter), who’s spending his time drinking, carousing, and whoring with a bunch of lowlifes led by a fat, drunken, lying knave named Sir John Falstaff (Welles). Inevitably, Hal will have to set aside his wild ways and take on his royal responsibilities.

It would be tough to find a more perfect actor to play Falstaff than Orson Welles. He was extremely overweight by the 1960s, and yet he still had that star charisma. His Falstaff is rowdy, tricky, mostly joyful, often funny, and inevitably heading for disaster. Like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, he’s a good man with a tragic flaw. But his flaw is his zest for life.

The cast also includes Jeanne Moreau, Fernando Rey, Margaret Rutherford, and Ralph Richardson’s voice narrating from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

As is true with so much of Welles’ work, Chimes at Midnight was made with very little money. Shot in Spain in black and white, it’s a remarkably beautiful film for its budget. Welles and his collaborators create a battle with a smattering of extras, shoot the castle scenes in old, crumbling ruins, and re-imagine the ultimate Merry Olde England pub and bawdy house.

But the low budget shows itself in the soundtrack. Almost all of the dialog had to be post-dubbed after the shooting–and not always with the same actor who had played the role onscreen. The lips don’t always match, and the sound is often too clean for the onscreen environment. I found this a big problem early on. Eventually, I got used to it.

I might not have gotten used to it if it wasn’t otherwise such an excellent film.

Ran

William Shakespeare created his saddest, most hopeless tragedy in King Lear. And Akira Kurosawa loosely adapted it in his saddest, most hopeless film, Ran.

Kurosawa altered the story considerably. In the most obvious change, the three daughters become three sons. When your story is set in 16th-century Japan, giving land and castles to daughters would have been unthinkable.

But another alteration takes Ran into a deeper space than Lear. Kurosawa tells us something about the aging warlord’s past. The Lear figure Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is now a senile old man, but was once a cruel and fearsome warrior. He attacked and destroyed his neighbors without pity, killing his rivals, forcing their daughters into marriage, and blinding children who might one day want revenge.

He’s carrying some very bad karma, and he will pay for that karma before the film ends. So will his sons–two of which are as bad as he used to be. Many innocent people will suffer as well. Kurosawa shows no optimism in Ran. The evil will pay for their sins, but that’s of little comfort to their victims. (The title, Ran, loosely translates into English as chaos.)

While turning Lear’s two evil daughters into evil sons, Kurosawa also created one of cinema’s great villainesses in the oldest brother’s wife (Mieko Harada). Seemingly the proper Japanese high-born wife, she manipulates her husband and, after his death, her brother-in-law in her desire to destroy Hidetora’s family. We understand her reasons; Hidetora killed her family and forced her into marriage, but she doesn’t care how many good people must die for her vengeance.

Kurosawa and his collaborators created a stunningly beautiful film in Ran, but it’s often a strangely ugly beauty. The exceptionally gory battle scenes run with a bright red, and a sense of unnecessary yet inevitable death. A castle siege, with no sound except haunting music, may be the best medieval battle scene ever filmed.

I discussed Ran at greater length in 2010–also after a PFA screening. It was screened then off a new 35mm print which I described at the time as “beautiful.” Was that better than the new DCP? How should I know; that was six years ago. But I’d call the digital version beautiful, as well.

Late Spring at the Pacific Film Archive

As people grow, the way they relate to their family inevitably changes. Some fight the change, and others accept it.

I went to the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday night to see Yasujirô Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece, Late Spring, about a young woman resisting change. She wants to stay with her widowed father, but he senses that it’s time for her to make a life without him.

Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is 27, and seems completely happy living with and taking care of her father (Chishû Ryû). No other actor in the history of cinema could radiate kindness and joy like Hara, and she makes us know with absolutely certainty that she’s contented in her life.

But her father worries about her. Most women her age are married. If things don’t change soon, she will be lonely after he’s gone. So, with the help of friends and family, he searches for a suitable husband and–with far more difficulty–convince her to marry.

Today, a film about a woman being pressured into marriage would carry a strong feminist message: A woman can lead a full and happy life without being chained to a man. I’m not entirely sure if Ozu felt that way when he made Late Spring. Probably not, but the film actually works within that point of view. After all, she doesn’t meet that perfect man. But Ozu never looks down on the father and the others trying to bring Noriko to the alter. They’re clearly acting on what they believe are her best interests.

Besides, Noriko is already chained to a man she loves–her father.

Noriko’s reluctance to change makes her judgmental of change in others–a surprising character trait on someone so warm and friendly. She calls a divorced male friend “dirty” (with a smile) because he remarried.

Late Spring is shot and edited in Ozu’s patented simple, elegant style. Especially in interiors, he kept the camera low–only a few inches from the ground–and rarely moved it. You take in the room and see how everyone reacts to each other.

Ozu’s slow editing pace helps bring you into the world of the characters. He shows us a tea ceremony, trolley rides, Tokyo and rural streets, and a good bit of a Noh play. As an American born in the second half of the 20th century, I found these moments fascinating and enlightening. But I couldn’t help wondering how these scenes may have effected Late Spring‘s intended audience. For them, much of this must have felt like boring old life.

While Ozu’s camera stays on day-to-day life, much of the story is concealed–another common part of Ozu’s style. For instance, we never see the man everyone is pressuring Noriko to marry.

Late Spring has recently benefited from a new 4K restoration, and the PFA screened it off a 4K DCP. I’m getting a little tired of praising the latest 4K restoration; starting with Children of Paradise in 2012, they’ve all been gorgeous. Late Spring’s restoration had a few washed out moments, but other than that, it looked great.

Late Spring will screen again on Sunday, July 17, 5:00.

3 Views of America: What I saw in theaters this weekend

I saw three movies in theaters this weekend.

Free State of Jones at the Elmwood

Being a history buff, and particularly one interested in the Civil War and reconstruction, I couldn’t help rushing out to see Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones. I caught it at the Elmwood.

Matthew McConaughey stars as an actual historical figure, Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a band of escaped slaves and other discontents. They fought the Confederacy and successfully held considerable land. After the war, he supported reconstruction and tried to help the freedmen gain their rightful place in society.

It’s an interesting piece of history, and one that Americans should know something about. What’s more, it makes for an exciting movie. (I don’t know to what degree the movie is historically accurate. I suspect not much.) It can’t help being something of a white savior movie, but that flaw really couldn’t be avoided in a story that really needed to be told.

I give it a B.

I’ve been to the Elmwood many times, but always for something showing in the theater’s big, downstairs auditorium. This time, Jones played in one of the two small, upstairs auditoriums. It was horrible. The front row was way too far back, and there was no way to get close enough to the screen.

Even worse, a low wall in front of the front row was much too close for comfort. I had to tuck my legs under the seat. My back was sore at the end of the movie. Some low chairs, or even bing bang chairs, in the front would help.

Next time something I want to see is at the Elmwood, I’ll make sure it’s screening downstairs before I go.

Scarlet Letter at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

Sunday was the last day of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, and the 1926 version of The Scarlet Letter was the final movie of the day. I introduced the film, explaining how star Lillian Gish pushed to get the film made despite censorship issues.

In case you don’t remember reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel in High School, it’s set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne, whose husband disappeared years ago, has a baby out of wedlock and suffers from religious intolerance.

The film, which is very much the MGM version, emphasizes the romance between Hester and her lover, the church minister Arthur Dimmesdale. But unlike the universally reviled Demi Moore version, MGM kept the tragic ending. It’s a powerful story, well-told. I give it an A-.

The 16mm print screened was washed out and fuzzy. As I have never seen a good print of this film; I suspect that nothing better is available.

Bruce Loeb did a wonderful job on piano. His music enhanced the emotions onscreen and deepened the story.

The Lusty Men at the Pacific Film Archive

Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it.

The Lusty Men is not, as I had assumed, about a love triangle. At least not in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s about two men and one woman, but the men don’t compete for the woman. It’s the wife who must compete against her husband’s new bromance.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jeff McCloud, a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. He latches onto the happily-married Wes and Louise (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward). Wes is a cowhand, working for someone else, and badly wanting enough to buy his own place. The rodeo promises quick, easy, yet dangerous cash, and Jeff offers to mender him. Wes eagerly jumps into the world of constant travel, heavy drinking, poker, bar fights, and the adrenaline rush of riding a wild horse or (much worse) bull. Louise is pulled into it far more reluctantly.

The rodeo industry clearly approved of this film’s production–although I can’t help wondering if they had read the script. The film contains a good deal of actual rodeo footage. Much of this footage, accompanied by on- and off-screen announcers, celebrate the real cowboys on the real horses and bulls we’re looking at. One problem: This real-live footage didn’t match well with the footage shot for the film. It was grainier and slightly out of focus.

I give The Lusty Men an A-.

The PFA screened a brand-new 35mm print (I’m delighted to know that Warner Brothers is still making them). For the most part, it was beautiful, and did service to Lee Garmes’ moody black and white photography. The occasional scratches were, I assume, from the source material.

Friday at the PFA

I caught two very different films, from two very different series, at the Pacific Film Archive Friday night. Both films were shown without an introduction.

Bachelor’s Affairs

This was the second screening of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016 series, and the first in that series that I was able to attend.

Before the feature, we were treated to a Vitaphone short from 1929, Me and the Boys. Like all early Vitaphone shorts, it was basically a vaudeville act performed in a movie studio—in this case, a song. I found it moderately entertaining. The print was tinted yellow; like the silents they helped replace, Vitaphone pictures were often tinted. The preservation was clearly made from a print that suffered a lot of nitrate decomposition.

The feature looked much better. And while I wouldn’t list this 1932 marriage farce among the great pre-code comedies, it was fun. Adolphe Menjou starred as a middle-aged millionaire who unwisely marries a young blonde who’s being pushed into the marriage by her older sister. She wants to party and, we assume, sleep with younger men. He’s too old for this lifestyle. Meanwhile, his secretary really loves him.

The rumba dance sequence was very funny, and most of it proved entertaining. And at 64 minutes, it was pleasingly short. I give it a B.

Like everything in this UCLA series, the film is screened in 35mm instead of off of a DCP. These films have only been preserved, not restored. Preserving a film is still an analog, film-based process. You make a new negative from the best source you have. Restoration, where you try to make the best-possible recreation of the film, has become a digital process and with good reason.

These films either don’t need a full restoration (Bachelor’s Affairs certainly didn’t), or aren’t important enough for the expense (probably the case with Me and the Boys).

The Wrong Move

I’m beginning to see why the PFA called this series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road. This is the second film in the series that I’ve caught, and it’s the second road movie.

The Wrong Move is a more even film than Kings of the Road. It lacks the brilliant scenes that made Kings so memorable. On the other hand, at 103 minutes, it didn’t sag in places like the other film did.

The film looks at a temporary family that creates itself on the road. It’s told through the eyes of Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler). He wants to be a writer, but he worries that he’s too emotionally remote to be a good one. And he’s probably right. He’s a pretty cold guy.

He sets out to see Germany on train, and becomes the nucleus of a group of travelers. There’s the former Nazi officer filled with guilt (Hans Christian Blech), the teenage girl who never talks and develops a crush on Wilhelm (Nastassja Kinski in her first screen role), a beautiful blonde who might be an actress (Hanna Schygulla), and the bad poet comedy relief (Peter Kern). They travel together for a while, and then go their separate ways.

These people interact with each other in some intriguing ways, but they learn very little on the trip. I give this one a B, too.

As with everything in this series, The Wrong Move recently received a 4K digital restoration. It was screened off a DCP.

More on the new PFA Theater

Before the first film, I walked up to the back of the theater, and took some photos:

Friday at the PFA

Friday night, I finally got around to visiting the Pacific Film Archive‘s new theater in downtown Berkeley. I’ve been busy.

The theater is lovely, with the raised seats common in new multiplexes. The screen, I would guess, about the same size as in the previous theater.

The acoustics sounded very good, but since the first film was a silent with non-amplified piano accompaniment, and the second was in mono, I didn’t really get a chance to experience the new Meyer Sound system at its best.

Now, onto the movies:

Le lion des Mogols

This was the last screening in a series on the films of Jean Epstein. I’m not familiar with his work, and Le lion des Mogols only impressed me occasionally.

This 1924 French silent starts like an exotic epic, in the visual style of Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (also from 1924). An intertitle tells us we’re in Tibet, but it looks like an Art Director’s fever dream of the exotic East around 1000 AD.

The heroic prince (Ivan Mozzhukhin) saves a virgin about to be deflowered by the evil Grand Khan, and then has to run for his life. I wasn’t quite sure if this early part was meant to be funny.

Our hero has to run for his life, and he runs right into the 20th century and a romance with a movie star.

As you can probably guess, the story is a real mess–a melodrama that sometimes feels like a comedy, that gets most of its laughs at moments that I wasn’t sure were intentional.

But the movie had moments of brilliance and daring in the camera work and editing. Its best moment happens in a scene where the hero drinks in excess in a nightclub. In one shot, half the screen was in focus and other half wasn’t. suggesting hero was too drunk to focus his eyes properly.

But a few good scenes, one great scene, and a lot of bad scenes don’t completely add up. I give it a C+.

The archival 35mm print looked a bit washed out and showed nitrate decomposition. Without a very expensive digital restoration, I doubt it will ever look better than this. The print had French intertitles, and the PFA digitally projected English subtitles below them.

Judith Rosenberg did her usual excellent job on the piano.

Our Man in Havana

This was a popular film, and the theater was nearly full.

There’s a good reason. Our Man in Havana is one of the best espionage comedies to come out of the cold war.

Like Ninochka, this 1960 movie was out of date before it was released. An opening title card tells us that it’s set in the recent past, “before the recent revolution.”

Alec Guinness stars as Wormold (no one calls him by his first name), an English shopkeeper in Havana, trying desperately to make ends meet–a difficult task with his shopaholic teenage daughter. When he’s offered a very lucrative job by British secret intelligence, he takes it strictly for the money.

He’s supposed to recruit and oversee a team of spies, but he has no idea how to do it. He joins a country club and tries to make contact with possible recruits, but his attempts come off as homosexual advances. Then, on the advice of his best friend (Burl Ives), he starts making things up. He creates a fictitious team and starts reporting bogus information.

Of course his bosses back in London (led by a very funny Ralph Richardson) believe everything he reports. They’re all idiots.

The film was shot in that very short period between Castro’s revolution and Cuba’s isolation from the West. The new rulers must have approved of Graham Greene’s script (based on his novel). It shows the previous government as cruel, corrupt, and evil. The great TV comedian Ernie Kovacs plays a high-ranking police officer known to torture people in between attempts to woo Wormold’s daughter.

Looking at it today, Our Man in Havana seems to predict the Cuban missile crisis. Wormold’s biggest lie involves alleged secret weapons in the Cuban hills, spotted by an airplane pilot.

The movie isn’t all laughs. The serious moments include the death of a major character. But it’s usually funny and always a good story. I give it a B+.

Our Man in Havana, made by Columbia Pictures, was shot in Cinemascope, at a time when every studio except Twentieth Century-Fox was switching over the Panavision. Sony has just restored the film in 4K. The PFA screened it off a DCP, and it looked and sounded terrific.

Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

The Force Awakens at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission

Thursday afternoon–the last afternoon of 2015–my wife and I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And we went out of our way to see it at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. It was our first experience seeing a movie there.

It was a lot of fun, but expensive.

I’ve already written about the New Mission–the restored movie house now run by Alamo Drafthouse. They offer gourmet food, a great variety of alcoholic beverages, comfortable seats, and the best projection (digital and film) available. Their main downstairs theater–the one we went to–has a huge screen.

Taken by author before the theater was ready to open

We arrived early and spent some time in the bar before moving to our reserved seats–front row center. Yes, we were very close to the screen. But for this type of movie, it was just perfect.

Soon after we sat down, our waiter came by, introduced himself, and took our order.

Like so many theaters today, there was a pre-show. But unlike most pre-shows, this one was movie-specific. Instead of annoying advertorials, we were treated to a selection of some of bizarre Star Wars-related videos. We watched Darth Vader dancing like Michael Jackson, with a chorus line of storm troopers behind him. The final short asked the question “What would Star Wars be like if wookiees sounded like Pee-Wee Herman. Then it brought tears of laughter by answering that question.

The real show began with this entertaining but serious warning:

(The version screened in the theater was appropriately censored.)

The food service continued through the movie, but with minimum distraction. Waiters and waitresses bend down when they walk in front of you. If you want to order something after the movie starts, you place a card vertically in a slot on your table. Someone will come over and get it, with no speaking required.

I had a cup of tea and a vegan pizza. The pizza was delicious; the tea was fine, but took an awful lot of time to get to me. My wife had a hamburger with fries. She didn’t think it was exceptional.

But here’s what was exceptional: The projection. The theater used two Sony top-of-the-line 4K digital projectors working together. We had opted to see the film in 2D (because the movie wasn’t actually shot in 3D), which meant that the two projectors were projecting the same image. Why? Brightness. It looked about as good as anything I’ve seen short of film-based Imax. The sound as excellent, as well.

We loved the movie. Director J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars far better than he ever understood Star Trek. In fact, he understands it better than George Lucas ever did. He knows that A Star Wars movie must be big and exciting, with mind-blowing action sequences and special effects. It also needs not-quite-believable, bigger-than-life characters and a simplistic view of good and evil. And he understands that, most important of all, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s Tolkien-like fantasy with sci-fi hardware.

He got just about everything right.

Now the downside: If you’re not careful, going to the New Mission can cost a fortune. The seats were $13.25–and that was for a 2D matinee. The food and beverages were also expensive. My wife’s cocktail cost $14 (including tip). We spent $40 (including tip) for the burger, pizza, and tea; the tea alone cost $5. Including BART fare (we live in the East Bay), the total experience cost us almost $100.

But we went in assuming that this would be splurge. We could have seen it for less than $20 in a nearby theater. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much fun.

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