Welles in L.A.

tumblr_md2zx6ipxw1rovfcgo1_1280

I’ve got a piece in today’s LA Weekly previewing Academy @ LACMA’s new Orson Welles series, the most comprehensive in this city in at least a decade. The series includes more readily available titles, but there are a few more films Welles directed that are available online; I thought I’d list some here:

The Fountain of Youth (1956) (YouTube) This very witty television show, based on a story by mid-century fantasist John Collier, was only broadcast once in 1958, but it still managed to win a Peabody Award. It was intended to be the pilot for an anthology, but Welles was never permitted to continue the series.  It might have sank into obscurity if it wasn’t for the many Welles fans and experts who have rightly championed it for years.

The Immortal Story (1968) (Hulu Plus) Made for French TV, this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen short story stars Jeanne Moreau as the daughter of a man who’s ex-business partner (Welles) is now an aging business tycoon who hatches a plan to make an erotic urban legend come true.  It’s a strangely sedate and ethereal drama for Welles, and it downplays the potentially lurid elements of the story and replaces them with a reflective, simmering tone.

F for Fake trailer (1976) (YouTube) Welles made this lively nine-minute trailer when his film was released in the U.S., but the distributor never used it.

Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) (YouTube) Produced for West German television, this is an amiable “conversation” with Welles at the editing table, regaling the viewer with the colorful story of his three-year independent production of Othello. Among other things, he talks about his collaboration with designer Alexandre Trauner – whom he cites as one of the true artists of the profession (along with William Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda and Georges Wakhevitch). He also incorporates a fascinating after dinner talk with his old theater friends (and Othello costars), Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, who engagingly discuss the themes of the play.

Filming ‘The Trial’ (1981) (YouTube) A feature shot by Welles’ late cameraman, Gary Graver, recording a live Q&A discussion at USC following a screening of the film.

It’s All True (1993) (Amazon streaming) This documentary about Welles’ experience in Brazil during the 1940s shooting his unfinished film for RKO makes extensive use of Welles’ original footage that was discovered and restored in the ’80s and ’90s. Despite a slightly dated flair in the narration, it’s beautiful, well-researched and well-written (by critic Bill Krohn, Welles associate Richard Wilson, and critic Myron Meisel), detailing the complex events and political undercurrents at the time.

The Projection Booth: The Magnificent Ambersons (2013) I recently came across this gem, a roughly 48-minute podcast from last December about Ambersons that includes interviews with experts such as Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum.  You can also find a four-hour version; I’ve only listened to a portion of that one, but it seems to feature a lot more material by the hosts of the podcast.

A Chat with the Academy’s Bernardo Rondeau

Despite its reputation as home for the entertainment industry, Los Angeles has a thriving alt/repertory film scene, one of the realities I hoped to reflect when I started this blog eleven years ago.  One of the city’s best programmers, Bernardo Rondeau, has maintained the beleaguered LACMA weekend film screenings in the five years since they were initially threatened, and has brought such rare gems to Los Angeles as Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, and several series built around the museum’s excellent Stanley Kubrick and Gabriel Figueroa exhibits.

Happily, Rondeau has recently been hired to program a regular weekend film series for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in LACMA’s 600-seat Bing Theater, great news for cinephiles desperate for a mid-city, centralized venue for regular retrospectives, revivals and highlights from the festival circuit. (Presumably, it also helps set the stage for the Academy/LACMA plan to build the city’s first major movie museum by 2017.)

LACMA
La Perla, 1945

Doug Cummings: I was curious about the Gabriel Figueroa film series you programmed at LACMA; is that traveling anywhere?  I’m sure it was difficult finding the prints.

Bernardo Rondeau: Yes, it was quite a formidable project.  We had the support and backing of Fundación Televisa, who had access to a lot of the films, so they were extremely helpful in that regard. Mexico does have a rather robust government support for film.  But generally speaking, there is still a tremendous amount of prints that do not have English subtitles, and there is still restoration work to be done.  I did get a fair number of emails from programmers asking where I found some of the prints. Maybe some of the films will turn up somewhere down the line; I hope they do, because there are a lot of fascinating films that deserve to be better known; just absolute landmarks in Mexican cinema of such stature that it’s important for American filmgoers to at least be aware of them.

DC: Mexican films still haven’t gained wide cinephile appreciation here in the States, they still seem to be missing from many of the established art house DVD catalogues.

BR: Absolutely.  I’ve been trying to make the impression upon people that these are really important films to be rediscovered, or discovered, period.  We’ll see what the long term impact of that is, but I do hope that some of titles begin to surface here.

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 5.07.17 PM

DC:  Can you tell us about your new Academy @ LACMA series?

BR: The Academy is doing screenings at LACMA on Fridays and Saturdays. I only joined the Academy in early December, and things didn’t really get rolling until after the Oscars, but we’ve already offered an introduction series to Jim Jarmusch, which included prints that the Academy Archive itself had newly struck (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train) and then we did a screening of his latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton in conversation with Henry Rollins. So that was the first event in this program.

This month, we’ve done the complete Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. We’ve had a soft launch with these events, and then in May, we’re going to begin longer series; we’ll have two series running, one every Friday and one every Saturday. As much as possible, we’re going to have extra components, such as special guests, which I really didn’t have the resources for when I was on my own at LACMA.

la_ca_0414_turan_on_film
Welles directing Too Much Johnson (1938).

DC: I’m excited to hear about your Orson Welles retrospective in May.

BR: We’re mainly taking a look at many of Welles’ more or less “completed” works, although we are starting with Too Much Johnson, which is the Mercury Theatre film he directed but never finished. It was created as a series of interstitial pieces for a stage production in 1938 – so it was a few years before Citizen Kane (1941) – in the hopes of incorporating film into a theatrical setting.  It was recently rediscovered, of all places, just outside the Italian town of Pordenone, where they now have a major silent film festival, and the National Film Preservation Foundation has managed to reassemble it with the help of George Eastman House, so it will be really wonderful to show that; it has only been shown in a couple places so far.

From there, we’ll show pretty much all the feature films he directed from Citizen Kane to F for Fake (1973). In addition to our series, the Cinefamily will be showing Othello (1952). And LACMA’s Tuesday matinees will support the Saturday series, with other titles Welles either directed and/or starred in.

DC: It has been a long time coming to Los Angeles.  In the last dozen or so years that I’ve lived here, the American Cinematheque has offered one or two Welles spotlights, but they never include the elusive Chimes at Midnight (1965), which a lot of critics (myself included) consider one of his best films, so I’m delighted you’re showing it.

BR: We’ll also be showing some new DCPs, both The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Touch of Evil (1958) are new DCPs; Mr. Arkadin (1955) is a relatively new print made by the Munich Film Museum. So this will be the first Welles series of this stature in L.A. in the past decade.  We’re coming up on his centenary in 2015.  He was one of the earliest filmmakers that I saw that I connected with on a deep level, whose work taught me a tremendous amount about filmmaking and film viewing.  Your attention was drawn to the style of the film as much as the content – the camera placement, movement and editing – his signature was the mechanism, not so much the types of films that he made. Even with a scarcity of resources, he would still apply his inexhaustible curiosity and work at a very high level of sophistication with his framing and sound design and everything else.

PDVD_020-604x272
Night Train (1959)

DC: Also in May, I understand you’re showing Martin Scorsese’s program of Polish cinema?  What have been some of your personal discoveries in that series?

BR: We’re getting 17 or 18 of the 21 titles available.  A fair amount of it was educational for me. We’ll be doing those on Fridays in May, and actually fold them into Tuesday matinees in June to fit them in, and we’ll be partnering with Cinefamily on some titles as well.

We’re kicking off with two films by Krzysztof Zanussi (Camouflage and The Constant Factor), who makes these really cerebral films that explore issues with a kind of intellect you don’t often find in American movies.  Films will often use characters such as scientists or doctors in a strategic or dramatic sense, but for Zanussi they’re people who live in a world of weights and measurements that becomes a kind of metaphor for their lives. A lot of these films take place within specific time frames; many of them look at the trials and tribulations and sacrifices that span over lifetimes.  They also feature music by great Polish composers, with lots of atonal, highly modernist scores.

Night Train (1959) by Jerzy Kawalerowicz takes place over the course of a single night as a train moves through the countryside, and it’s a great black-and-white noir, so I definitely recommend that.

Innocent Sorcerers (1960) by Andrej Wajda is a Polish cinema all-star movie: Skolimowski’s in it, Polanski’s in it, Krzysztof Komeda is the composer.  It’s a really great, shambling, New Waveish film that, again, takes place over the course of a single night.

Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) is a film you’ve got to imagine Béla Tarr saw because of its muddiness – non-mystical muddiness, because there’s mystical muddiness and non-mystical muddiness! – and great compositions in every shot.

Vidor and Ulmer at TCM Fest

Photographer: Mark Hill

Photographer: Mark Hill

The TCM Classic Film Festival wrapped Sunday, and as always, it was a whirlwind of celebrity appearances, new prints, flocks of out-of-town tourists, and general TCM geekdom.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling this year’s program emphasized the tried-and-true and was less exploratory than previous editions. One might have hoped TCM’s recent Peabody Award for its elaborate presentation of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film would have inspired it to cast a wider net.  But even the “Discoveries” section included films such as Eraserhead, Godzilla, Freaks, The Muppet Movie, and other standards of repertory or the DVD market.

Still, a lot of great films played at the festival, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone (especially, say, tourists from towns lacking revival screens) the opportunity to see such masterpieces as The Best Years of Our Lives, City Lights, How Green Was My Valley, The Innocents, Johnny Guitar, Make Way for Tomorrow, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Nutty Professor or Tokyo Story projected on the big screen.

For me, the highlights were seeing two features by King Vidor – The Stranger’s Return (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937) – and the newly restored Her Sister’s Secret (1946), a rare melodrama directed by Edgar G. Ulmer.

I’m still catching up with titles from Vidor’s long and diverse career, but Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon, in their groundbreaking 1988 book on the filmmaker, place The Stranger’s Return as part of Vidor’s “back to the land” trilogy (including Our Daily Bread and The Wedding Night) and describe Stella Dallas as a key melodrama that “lines up among the ‘pure’ weepies,” setting the stage for the “wild sexual struggles of Vidor’s postwar melodramas” such as The Fountainhead, Beyond the Forest and Ruby Gentry.

strangersreturn

The Stranger’s Return is a gentle ensemble drama about an eccentric farmer (Lionel Barrymore) who welcomes his sophisticated, east coast granddaughter (Miriam Hopkins) to the family farm; she gets to know the community, kindles a half-hearted romance, and instigates the jealousy of her relatives.  Most of the film takes place in the homes, cars, and porches of the small community, and the breezy drama culminates in a lightly comic ruse. Vidor’s relaxed visual style matches the airy drift of the characters, save for a standout scene in which the camera pans quickly back-and-forth in a seasick expression of Hopkins’ frantic attempts to feed a horde of hungry harvesters.  (On a completely trivial note, it’s fun hearing the characters champion the work of stage actor Fritz Leiber, the father of the fine science fiction author of the same name.)

stelladallas

Film historian Jeremy Arnold (a TCM writer whose commentary for Sony’s DVD of Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome I’ve enjoyed) introduced Stella Dallas. Beginning, justifiably, by praising Barbara Stanwyck’s career diversity and performance in the title role, he went on to talk about the “sacrificial mother” theme beloved by Depression-era Hollywood, and said the film-within-the-film playing at a theater Stella visits is actually Henry King’s 1925 film version of the same material. Coincidentally, this film also ends on a ruse, this time involving Stella’s attempt to alienate her grown daughter to persuade her to leave home. While the famous, bittersweet ending reminded Durgnat and Simmon of Les Misèrables, I couldn’t help invoking Late Spring.

hersisterssecret

Finally, Ulmer’s Her Sister’s Secret is a compelling and unusual melodrama produced at Poverty Row studio PRC. Nancy Coleman stars as a young single mother who secretly gives up her child to her married but childless sister; things don’t go as planned, of course, and when the true father turns up, the characters are embroiled in turmoil.  Shot by the noted German cinematographer Franz Planer, the film has an elegance that belies its meager budget, but what really impresses is the humanist goodwill of every character in the film – there’s not a baddie to be found in the bunch, just wounded characters trying to act honestly and graciously in trying circumstances. It’s a guileless and gripping film.

Standout Melodramas at IFFLA

One of the great things about living in Los Angeles is the many smaller festivals throughout the year that focus on regional cinema, giving us a broader sense of the movies being made in any given country than the typical artistic skimming that occurs at the larger fests. Now in its twelfth year, the well organized Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles is about midway through its run, showcasing about 16 features (plus shorts) that generally fall within the thoughtful mainstream of Indian cinema.

Two films screening tomorrow – debut features, both – are intriguing melodramas about adolescents: Phoring and Fandry (Pig).

phoring-604x270

Phoring dramatizes a friendship between a neglected boy (Phoring) and his doting new teacher (Doel), a beautiful newcomer to their rural Bengali town who suspects Phoring is capable of better things. The film has an easygoing charm to it, often dipping into gentle comedy, absurdist fantasy sequences – even toilet humor – but just as it begins to feel predictable, it takes some dramatic turns that send Phoring on a transformative journey through the streets of Calcutta.

If the story sounds vaguely familiar to cinephiles, the film is loosely based on Ritwik Ghatak’s early feature, Runaway (Bari Theke Paliye, 1958), in which another youth with a bullying father seeks his fortunes in Calcutta and meets a variety of mentors, but ultimately abandons his fantasies in light of the harsh realities of urban living.  Both films are coming of age tales with different emphases: Runaway’s protagonist develops a social conscience but Phoring is about a boy who quiets his insecurities.  It’s director Indranil Roychowdhury’s feature debut, but it reveals a sure hand with disparate, even clashing, sensibilities.

fandry-604x270

Fandry is a more issue-driven melodrama that targets the unofficial caste system in India, and it proceeds at a slow boil until a volatile ending implicates even the viewer. In broad strokes, it follows an untouchable Dalit boy whose poor family is a Maharashtra village’s wild pig rustlers. The story’s use of a rare black sparrow as an unwilling sacrifice is a bit too literary, but the emotional turbulence poet-turned-filmmaker Nagraj Manjule builds by layering tensions in the final act is unsettling and provocative.

TCM Classic Film Festival

drag-out
Try and Get Me (The Sound of Fury) (1951)

It has been about a year since Film Journey has been updated, but I’ve been hard at work publishing a variety of print pieces, particularly for the LA Weekly.  The site is freshly rebooted now, and you can check out some of my writing from the past year on the More Publications page at top.

This past weekend was the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. I often remark that I have a love/hate relationship with the Festival.  On the one hand, it’s a pass-driven festival promoted to out-of-towners who can afford to spend a weekend in Hollywood watching mostly standard repertory, and as such, it’s either too expensive or too mundane to attract local cinephiles. On the other hand, it always includes a handful of restorations and true rarities. Would it hurt TCM to offer a discounted three- or five-film package for cash-strapped moviegoers in the Festival’s host town?

In addition to the usual celebrities, TCM brings in important figures for introductions, panels and Q&A’s. Some of the people I wanted to see this year included filmmakers John Boorman, Albert Maysles and Haskell Wexler; author and filmmaker Susan Ray; actors Norman Lloyd and Max Von Sydow; historian Kevin Brownlow; Film Forum/Rialto programmer Bruce Goldstein; and the Alloy Orchestra. You can watch clips of many of these folks on TCM’s video page.

By chance, most of the screenings I attended were extremely good films noir, all of them must-sees:

• It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Postwar French critics may have focused on wartime American films they termed “noir,” but this blend of social realism and psychological isolation from Britain’s Ealing Studios is clearly cut from the same cloth. Beginning with a flurry of character introductions and a couple of flashbacks, the film takes a while to build steam, though Douglas Slocombe’s vivid cinematography pinpoints the rundown housing and rain-soaked streets with precision. Director Robert Hamer paints a portrait of London’s East Side in the course of a day that more or less revolves around a fugitive from the law (John McCallum) and his ex-flame (Googie Withers), now the dissatisfied mother of a squabbling family. Strong performances and an even stronger sense of place make this an unusually compelling drama from a studio typically known for its comedies.

• They Live By Night (1948)

Seeing Nicholas Ray’s first film on a large screen made its fatal romanticism seem especially intense, and it was nice to hear presenter Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation (see below) describe this film as every bit an audacious ’40s debut as Citizen Kane. The youngest member (Farley Granger) of a criminal trio on the run falls in love with the guileless daughter (Cathy O’Donnell) of a corrupt farmer. One of the most deeply felt of films noir, pivoting on ideals of innocence verses loyalty and fate. You really care about these characters.

• The Tall Target (1951)

This Anthony Mann thriller has been on my radar for a long time, but it nevertheless exceeded my   expectations. For one, it’s based on a fascinating but little-known historical anecdote about an assassination attempt on Lincoln after he was elected and en route to his inauguration. Virtually the entire film takes place on a train, one of the great claustrophobic settings for any thriller, and Mann not only orchestrates the action suspensefully, he fills his cars with finely drawn characters representing a cross-section of a country on the verge of civil war. We may not be there again yet, but the echoes of today’s political partisanship are potent.

• Try and Get Me (The Sound of Fury) (1951)

This rarely seen picture, based on the 1933 lynching that inspired Fritz Lang’s first American film, Fury (1936), has been showing around L.A. as a beautiful new restoration funded by the Film Noir Foundation. (According to Glenn Erickson, its only home video release was a 1990 VHS.) It’s a masterpiece of emotional intensity, telling the story of a desperately unemployed family man (Frank Lovejoy) who falls in with a hoodlum (Lloyd Bridges) who turns increasingly sadistic. Bridges gives a wild, expressionist performance that starts off dandyish and comic but soon becomes a flailing nightmare. Cy Enfield directed, and the film’s acute sense of social anger, implicating capitalist whims and the media alike, went a long way to tragically sealing his blacklist. If the new restoration comes your way, don’t miss it.

Reemergence

After a lengthy hiatus, Film Journey is gearing up for new activity, so make sure your RSS feeds are well-oiled and in good working order. As Paul Brunick wrote in Film Comment some 18 months ago, the site has always been “updated on a schedule that’s leisurely but sustained,” and that will continue.

Last year, I became the web editor at UCLA Film & Television Archive (where I continue to work), and in my spare time published articles in the LA Weekly, hosted a monthly screening/discussion group at Echo Park Film Center, and helped with AFI Fest programming, blogging, and daily eblasts. Between that and giving my four-year-old daughter the attention she demands (and deserves), the blogging slowed from leisurely to laggard, but that will now improve.

UCLA Film & Television Archive is a place that offers many rewards for a cinephile employee, and I want to take a moment to highlight some of our upcoming public programs. First, we’ve launched the “Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years” series that will subsequently tour North America. You can download the PDF catalog, which includes a number of entries I wrote. In compiling the catalog, there was a communication error that resulted in two pieces being written for James Whale’s Show Boat (1936), so I’m publishing my entry here instead. The Archive is screening a new print of this rare and highly enjoyable movie this Saturday at 4:00 p.m. with actress/author Marilyn Knowlden and author/historian Miles Kreuger in person.

Widely considered the best film adaptation of the 1927 Kern and Hammerstein Broadway hit (itself based on a 1926 novel), this James Whale-directed musical about intrigues onboard a Mississippi River floating entertainment was so expensive, it forced the Laemmles to permanently sell their interest in Universal.

The cast includes many veterans of the musical’s various stage iterations, including Irene Dunne as ingénue Magnolia Hawks; Charles Winniger as her father and showmaster, Cap’n Andy; Helen Morgan as Julie LaVerne; Hattie McDaniel (who later became the first African American to win an Academy Award) as the maid Queenie and renowned baritone Paul Robeson as her husband Joe.

A large portion of Universal’s resources were devoted to the production, which included 58 sets and at least seven acres of backlot transformed into the riverside town of Boonville, complete with waterfront landing and hundreds of extras. Famed artist Doris Zinkeisen designed the period costumes, and Hammerstein himself adapted the screenplay.

Though mostly known for his films in Universal’s horror cycle (Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man), Whale set aside his dry humor and expressionist shadows to replace them with a vibrant and highly detailed evocation of the turn-of-the-century Midwest. While the story retains its implicit racism (including an unfortunate blackface routine), Whale particularly bonded with star Robeson. Their mutual respect shines in Whale’s elegant camera moves and doting close-ups that make Robeson’s rousing performance of “Ol’ Man River” one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

It’s sadly ironic that the show-stopping appearance of Robeson—a committed social activist blacklisted in the Fifties—was partly responsible for Show Boat’s removal from the public eye. It remained out of circulation for decades before making appearances on cable television and VHS in the 1980s and ‘90s. It remains unavailable commercially on American home video today despite ranking 24th on the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals” and being placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1996.

If you live in Los Angeles and need to feed your big-screen movie fix before Saturday, I highly recommend tonight’s double feature at the Million Dollar Theater downtown. First, it’s the Archive-restored Mickey One (1965), directed by Arthur Penn and shot in crisp, unromantic black-and-white by Ghislain Cloquet (whose handiwork with Bresson you can see Saturday night at the Aero in 1969’s Une Femme douce). After that is the “rediscovered” film noir Blast of Silence (1961), in the public eye again after its recent Criterion DVD release. With standout atmospheric sequences and a rare second-person narration (serving in effect as the protagonist’s incriminating, cynical conscience), it’s a brutal and beautiful film.

AFI FEST 2010

AFI FEST starts up today in Hollywood, and this year, I’m the Editor of the Festival blog, AFI FEST NOW, as well as an Associate Programmer. I’ll be introducing the screenings of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, A Screaming Man, Free Radicals, Kubrick’s Lolita, and the double feature of Kim Ki-young’s 1960 classic The Housemaid (which can be viewed for free in its entirety at MUBI, here) and Im Sang-soo’s new remake. I’ll also introduce the Hong Sang-soo double feature, HaHaHa and Oki’s Movie, and I’ll facilitate the Q/A with Hong.

All of these screenings are free, and if you haven’t already gotten your tickets, don’t forget that more tickets will be released online at 10:00 a.m. the day before each screening, and at the Festival box office the day of the screening. When not introducing films, I’ll be working at the Roosevelt Hotel’s AFI FEST press room. If you happen to see me, don’t hesitate to say hi.

Updates

Though I haven’t updated in a couple weeks, I’ve been up to my ears in film viewing. Some recent projects:

• I’ve written the program notes for LACMA’s “20th Anniversary Tribute to the Film Foundation,” which starts today. I’ve also guest-blogged about it for my Save Film at LACMA partner, Debra Levine, at her blog, artsmeme.

• I’ve been working as an Associate Programmer (screening submissions) for this year’s AFI FEST (November 4-11) and I’m starting back up as the Editor of the festival’s website this year–AFI FEST NOW. Additionally, I’m always on the lookout for good writers, so if you’d like to contribute, please email me and let me know.

• I’ve also been screening films and writing notes for FESTWORKS, the consulting group behind this year’s inaugural Anaheim International Film Festival (October 13-17) and the Santa Fe Film Festival. The FESTWORKS team is superb at what they do, and any festival that enlists them will be richer for it.

• On top of all of this (plus freelance graphic design work), I’ve somehow managed to see Haile Gerima’s brilliant Teza (2008), a profound memory film that mixes radical activism in East Germany in the ’70s with political upheaval in Ethiopia during the ’80s and ’90s through the recollections of a shell-shocked doctor haunted by both. Gerima’s Sankofa (1993) was one of the first films I reviewed for this site back in 2003, and his new feature is a powerful and worthy follow-up. Check it out if it comes to your area.

New Documentaries on Filmmakers

Two new documentaries about Hollywood craftsmen opened in Los Angeles this week: Something’s Gonna Live and Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (already on DVD in the UK). Both focus on likeable professionals and are brimming with movie clips, making them compulsive viewing, but I ultimately found the former much more compelling than the latter.

In some ways, Something’s Gonna Live is an expansion of director Daniel Raim’s 2001 Oscar-nominated short, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, which focused on production designer Robert Boyle (who died last month). Raim’s new feature expands his focus to include Boyle’s associates: production designer Henry Bumstead, cinematographer Conrad Hall, illustrator Harold Michelson, production designer Albert Nozaki, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

The group of aging professionals–all of them octogenarians or older during the film’s ten-year production–meet together in living rooms, offices, and at movie screenings, and discuss their history, craft, and what they miss most about the studio system. (A sense of community and accessibility at all levels of production is a common refrain.) What sets the film apart are its tender sense of camaraderie (felt in many candid, informal conversations) and its thematic heft: these artists genuinely want to reflect the human condition, a value often lost in today’s technological extravaganzas.

“These were people who had a very strong appreciation of not only the human condition, but of their social obligation in portraying that condition,” says Boyle. Commenting on the way the original The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) explored different attitudes about money without pinpointing them, he says, “I think we look back on films which were searching for essential truths, sometimes in abstract means.” Wexler adds, “Films have always been commercial, you know….No one ever wanted to make a film and say, ‘I don’t want anybody to see it.’ But people did say, ‘I want to make this film. And I want to make this film because I believe in it.”

Boyle, Bumstead, and Nozaki were USC architecture students looking for work in the ’30s, and the only industry thriving in Los Angeles at the time was film. But while they may have entered the movie business for expediency, they stayed in it for passion. Bumstead designed his last films–Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima–at the age of 91. Raim also recounts one historical outrage: soft-spoken Nozaki was fired from the studio hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and forced to relocate to the Manzanar concentration camp. Paramount eventually rehired Nozaki, who suffered from a genetic eye condition that resulted in his blindness; he retired in 1969.

One of the highlights of the film is its section on Hitchcock’s 1963 The Birds (you can watch a clip on Hulu here). Boyle and Michelson revisit the schoolhouse location and marvel at the “new” trees looming over the landscape. Raim uses a four-way split screen to compare the present locations with movie clips, original storyboards, and designs. Michelson suggests today’s digital tools could easily generate birds at the press of a button, but today’s filmmakers wouldn’t leave anything to the imagination.

“I look back at the film,” says Boyle, “which had a lot of imperfections. Which, as I look back, didn’t matter. The imperfections were part of the film process. If you made it today it would be absolutely perfect. Every bird would be in place. And there would be millions of them. There would be nothing left to the imagination. I think in our version of The Birds you could imagine a lot of things. What wasn’t seen was as important as what was.” Michelson concurs, “It’s so sophisticated today that it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. Now write me a good story.”

The elegiac tone was all the more poignant at last weekend’s public screening that attracted roughly a dozen viewers (including Wexler himself). The film is only playing for a week, and is still seeking a distributor even though its world premiere occurred at last year’s AFI FEST. At a time when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art still threatens to whittle away at its repertory film program due to a supposed “lack of funds” (although president Melody Kanschat admitted in print the program covered its costs last year), the under-the-radar feel of this tribute to titans in a company town raises the question, Why isn’t there major industry initiative to preserve its heritage?

Presumably, the industry is so focused on films opening on Friday they don’t stop to think about films from last week, let alone last century. But Something’s Gonna Live–a reference to artistic legacy–is a sensitive and important documentary, taking its time to observe and listen to its subjects, and uncover the creative values that underly their work. It’s a film the industry should cherish.

* * * *

Craig McCall’s Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is a more slick–and conventional–biography than Raim’s film, and it begins to run out of steam about halfway through, as it plods through a laundry list of titles, clips, talking heads, and juicy but derivative anecdotes. In many ways, it seems like a movie version of Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour: A Life in Movies (1997).

Cardiff, who passed away last year, was one of the first great color cinematographers (Powell and Pressburger films, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, and many more); he was also a director, photographer, and painter. Eloquent but earthy, Cardiff claims his adolescent reading of a pornographic book first inspired him to delve into the arts.

He first entered the film business as an actor in 1918, and began working as a clapper boy in the early days of sound production, eventually becoming a camera operator. Cardiff was selected by Technicolor as its resident technician in Europe, winning the position over countless interviewees by skipping over technical details and talking about Rembrandt and painting instead. The film provides ample evidence of Cardiff’s skill as a colorist, a quality Powell and Pressburger took advantage of in A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and subsequent pictures. (The film reverses expectations by shooting the heaven scenes in black-and-white and the earth scenes in color.)

Cardiff lensed countless films, and the documentary tries to cover as many as possible, padding material with unnecessary still-life arrangements of movie props, and sound bites by the likes of Ian Christie and Martin Scorsese (oddly lit devilishly from below), and Thelma Schoonmaker. On the plus side, its highlighting of Cardiff’s work on the quasi-documentary Western Approaches (1944) and Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), emphasizing its long takes by cleverly fast-forwarding through one of them, inspired me to add these titles to my viewing pile. Another highlight of the documentary is the clips it incorporates from Cardiff’s 8mm home movies he acquired on movie sets.

Cardiff is a major figure and this documentary is a decent tribute, but its form is so routine and the content so summary, it lacks conviction and ultimately seems too polished for its own good.

Upstream (1927)

Yesterday, I attended the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ preview of the world re-premiere of John Ford’s Upstream (1927), which screens for the public tonight. “Re-premiere” because the film was long believed to have been lost before it was rediscovered last year in the New Zealand Film Archive; the film is part of 75 American silent films that are currently being brought to the U.S. under the guidance of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF).

In addition to the NFPF and the New Zealand Film Archive, the re-premiere is possible with the cooperation of the Academy Film Archive, which found the film and supervised its preservation, which was paid for by Fox, who owns the rights. The NFPF’s Annette Melville tells me an effort on this scale probably couldn’t have happened in previous decades, when rights holders and archives were more possessive with their materials; global communications and current technologies are helping facilitate new discoveries, and recent attitudes embrace this cooperation as a win/win cultural scenario.

Upstream is a big win for John Ford enthusiasts. It’s one of only about a dozen films that survive today from Ford’s silent period, which numbered over 60 titles. It was made in 1926 at a time when Fox was under great expansion, in large part under the creative inspiration of F.W. Murnau, who had been invited to the studio and given carte blanche to make Sunrise. I’ve written about Murnau’s influence on Frank Borzage before in conjunction with Janet Bergstrom’s excellent documentary on Edition Filmmuseum’s DVD of The River, but Murnau’s influence was widespread.

Sunrise was produced at Fox from August of ’26 to February of ’27, when Ford saw a rough cut and went on record proclaiming it the greatest film yet produced, and suggesting that he didn’t think it would be surpassed for a decade. Ford travelled to Germany to shoot some footage for upcoming works and to study Murnau’s craft. As Joseph McBride describes it in Searching for John Ford:

“During his month in Berlin, Ford gave himself a crash course in German filmmaking techniques. He screened several of the major expressionist films and spent time with Murnau, who graciously showed him some of the extensive preproduction designs for his pictures and explained his shooting methods.”

Ford’s next two films–Four Sons and Hangman’s House (both of which are available in the Ford at Fox DVD box set) where highly indebted to Murnau’s mobile camera, moody sets, and expressive acting. As Tag Gallagher describes it in John Ford: The Man and His Films:

Ford was enchanted by the intense stylization of Murnau’s painterly invention, in which a character’s conscious rapport with his physical world seemed suddenly palpable. Ford’s movies had been relatively unstylized. But henceforth lighting creates dramatic mood through emphatically contrasting black and whites, macabre shadows, shimmering shafts of light, chiaroscuro, and other abstractions.

Upstream is being touted as a late-’26, Murnau-influenced production, but having seen the film, I’m hard pressed to make a very strong case for that. Firstly, it’s a light drama with a lot of humor, so it doesn’t afford a lot of opportunities for brooding cinematography. Its plot revolves around a love triangle in a boarding house full of eccentric vaudeville performers, and an opening title card describes their lives as “burlesque.” An ostentatious actor goes to Europe to play Hamlet and is an unexpected success, and a lot of the film stresses the difference between passion and loyalty and earning respect versus caprices of fame and shallow pride.

There are a few moments in the film that evoke Murnau’s expressionism: a long traveling shot down a dinner table featuring various characters is unusual for Ford, who typically preferred stasis; a nervous actor imagines the spirit of his mentor in a shot that recalls the climax of Nosferatu; flashbulb explosions from news reporters precede a character’s entrance and emphasize the emotional potency of the moment in the eyes of his abandoned lover; and the stage decor of the Hamlet production compares to the grandeur and artificiality of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), with the play’s resounding applause doubly-exposed for intensity. But by and large, the film feels like an effective but fairly classically styled studio drama, and citing examples such as these can seem a bit reaching.

This may have to do with the fact that Upstream was made prior to Ford’s Berlin tour, which by all accounts seems to have been the decisive event for his evolution as an artist. Another lost film that exists in part is Ford’s Mother Machree, which was shot in September ’26 but not released until ’28 after it had been retooled for sound. Gallagher describes the surviving footage, writing that “pre-Murnau Ford–pretty and picturesque, just like The Shamrock Handicap–contrasts with post-Murnau expressionism,” and cites examples of the latter, such as “angled shots of a tenement staircase” and another shot’s “theatrically expanded perspective.” There isn’t anything so overt in Upstream, so I suspect it was made even before Mother Machree (I haven’t yet been able to track down production dates).

If that’s the case, it’s not really fair to judge the film in relation to the work of Murnau. Upstream is an entertaining film with very charming performances, good timing, and breezy humor; one scene involving foot play under the dining table and mistaken identities is particularly funny, largely from the way the scene is cut and the way the actors play against type. Any rediscovered Ford is a welcome turn of events, and this film helps flesh out the talents and aesthetic inclinations of the filmmaker on the brink of his artistic evolution.