Saturday, April 25, 2015


The idea was probably more like The Good, The Bad, The Weird at sea than Pirates of the Caribbean Korean style but whatever the motive the results were fun. Lee Seok-Hoon has made a good old-fashioned adventure flick with modern effects and an Asian attitude toward human prowess that would make Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn gape with envy at the antics of these Korean pirates and bandits. I think they'd recognize the film's spirit as kin to their own, however.

Two parallel storylines eventually converge as we follow a 14th century hero and heroine who become treasure-hunting rivals and, inevitably, partners and lovers. Jang Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil) is an army officer who doesn't go along when his general supports a coup d'etat. Jang fights his way out of immediate peril to become a forest bandit, the Crazy Tiger, complete with a comedy-relief monk with a big appetite. Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) is a pirate princess who leads an uprising against her mentor Captain Soma (Lee Geung-young) when he conspires with officials to save his own ass by selling out loyal crewmates.

The bad guys (above) and the good guys (below)

The coup being successful, the new regime receives legitimacy from "Ming," aka China. Legitimacy comes with a new country name, Joeson, and a new royal seal. The latter gets lost at sea and swallowed by a whale. The new ruler offers a huge reward for the recovery of the great seal, attracting both pirate Yeo-wol and bandit Crazy Tiger to the treasure hunt. Crazy Tiger is a total lubber but he has the expertise of ex-pirate Cheol-bong (Yoo Hae-jin), who quit Soma's crew due to chronic seasickness but often falls landsick as well. He proves helpful to the bandits even though he has a hard time making them understand just how big a whale is. Yeo-wol has a competitive advantage not just because she's a pirate but because she has an affinity with whales going back to her childhood. But she finds herself fighting with Crazy Tiger over equipment, most importantly over imported European explosives. Meanwhile -- wouldn't you know? -- the vengeful Soma and Crazy Tiger's old commander have joined forces to catch the whale and take the treasure for themselves.


That's the framework for some oldschool swashbuckling with a wuxia edge as well as FX setpieces more reminiscent of the Caribbean movies. The main such event comes fairly early: an urban chase scene with Yeo-wol pursuing Crazy Tiger, using an aqueduct as a flume ride until Tiger wrecks it with an antique rocket, setting an attached giant water wheel rolling through town, in and out of the heroes' path. I'm not sure of the physical logic of the wheel's wanderings but it's an amusing spectacle. There's good comic chemistry between the leads, too, who go through a lot of adventure tropes together, from Defiant Ones style shackling to mutual seduction through boastful comparison of battle scars. The comic relief is solid throughout, especially the award-winning Yoo Hae-jin as the cantankerous misfit who bridges the pirate-bandit divide, but the monk is cool as well. There's also some presumably veiled political satire, with the usurping Joeson regime an analogue for North Korea, though the usurper is offered redemption with advice to shun the influence of Ming that seems directed at modern China. For foreigners, the film doesn't suffer if you don't get any of that. The spirit of high adventure that prevails translates pretty well into any language.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On the Big Screen: OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928)

Harry Beaumont's flaming-youth film was billed as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's first sound film -- the studio's first with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Filmed at a time when silent film, at the brink of extinction, had reached a peak of expressive artistry, Our Dancing Daughters is a silent that feels like it should have been a talkie. Consider its signature moment, Joan Crawford's wild dance scene at a sort of wild party. The scene did for Crawford what the dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever did for John Travolta; the film as a whole made her a superstar and a sex symbol. But by the standards of sound cinema something isn't right about it. The dance music wasn't recorded live; the scene was filmed silent and scored in a studio afterward. Crawford moves at silent-film speed, filmed by Beaumont with little sense of style or choreography. She looks frantic, almost more spastic than sensual, and for all I know this was the desired effect and the way the flapper's era saw her: crazed energy bursting to express itself in wild motion. But from here Crawford calms down quite a bit, to the point where this, her star-making movie, is nearly stolen from her by the film's real bad girl, Anita Page.

The attempted theft may seem more obvious now; modern audiences may be more attentive and responsive to her character's fearsome dysfunction. Bred to be a gold digger by a mother so mercenary that she's an outright kleptomaniac, Page steals Crawford's millionaire boyfriend (as an Alabama football star with a fortune, John Mack Brown plays a wealthier version of himself) but isn't happy and is probably incapable of happiness. I thought Page had shown me something with her one-punch KO of Buster Keaton in Sidewalks of New York that had been hidden in her now best-known picture, The Broadway Melody, but Our Dancing Daughters shows her in full rage mode. Her jealous drunken tirade against Crawford and Brown is a sustained bit of suspense set against open windows and steep staircases; you expect her to fall or throw herself to her doom at any moment as she releases all the pent-up bile that may have kept her alive all along. The sequence climaxes with her mocking (and self-mocking) chiding, from the top of that perilous staircase, of three scrubwomen cleaning the floor at the foot of the stairs for failing to raise pretty daughters to keep them from having to work. If Page had been able to speak during the scene, she may well have stolen the film completely from Crawford. Her mad scene is still the highlight of the silent film.

Crawford still earned her fame with a performance that plays for pathos the way Twenties audiences liked, and Dorothy Sebastian, who completes an actress troika that went on to make two thematic sequels, is fine in the least showy role of a newlywed struggling to live up to her love for and responsibility to a husband (Nils Asther) who proves a bit of a stick in the mud. Beaumont's direction is mostly overshadowed by the film's art-deco production design, but he achieves at least one coup de cinema, opening the first party scene by parting a frame-filling screen of balloons to reveal the dance floor as seen from the ceiling. Until recently that shot opened Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Night" intro montage, and it set the tone quite nicely.  Our Dancing Daughters was indisputably a success on its own terms in its own time, but it may have gone over even bigger as a talking picture. It would have been better objectively had it not been burdened, as many late silents and part-talkies were, with an insipid love theme. The turgid ballad, "I Love You Now As I Loved You Then" is the antithesis of the jazz rhythm that possesses Crawford on the dance floor; it has no business on the soundtrack of a flapper film, but juxtapositions of that sort were all too common in the late Twenties. They shouldn't surprise us in as obviously transitional a film as this one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE WILD PARTY (1929)

Imagine, if you're a film buff, The Blue Angel if Marlene Dietrich was a student in Emil Jannings' class, and Jannings was more of a hunk than a hulk, and you get an idea of what The Wild Party might have been. It was, above all, the talking debut of Clara Bow, the superstar "It Girl" of silent cinema. Bow is one of those silent stars whose trouble with talkies became legend. There's nothing wrong with her voice this first time -- if anything, she sounds less trumpet-like here than she would a few years later in Call Her Savage -- but we can safely assume that she didn't sound the way fans expected Clara Bow to sound. Maybe they expected something higher or cuter, boopier or doopier. The ultimately damaging thing, perhaps, was that, like John Gilbert, there was nothing special about her voice, but that seems appropriate for the mostly brainless character, a college student, she plays in Dorothy Arzner's film.

Like most of her schoolmates, Clara's character seems to be in college because she can -- that is, she can afford it. The only girl who worries about expenses is the studious, mousy but pretty wallflower (Shirley O'Hara)who has to hit the books hard and often to stay in the running for the academic scholarship that alone keeps her in school. Clara is a special friend to this character and that's her redeeming quality, whether you see subtext in it or not by virtue of Arzner's sexuality. Our heroine seems to recognize that her friend really deserves a college education, not to mention a break or more, and ultimately Clara will sacrifice her own academic ambitions, such as they were, to keep this good girl in school.

The main event of The Wild Party -- the title event is a mere episode -- is Clara's war of wills with her new anthropology professor. The first act of the picture climaxes, after Clara recounts to her suitemates her tryst with a stranger on a train, with the revelation that the new teacher (Frederic March in his second credited screen role) is that same stranger. The mutual recognition makes classes uncomfortable for both people, though most of the discomfort is theoretical on March's part. He doesn't want her to think that he's showing her any favoritism, so he goes to the opposite extreme and singles her out for embarrassing criticism. He drives her from the classroom in tears after he accuses her of plagiarism in an admittedly hastily thrown-together essay. But circumstances keep throwing them together. Both, we realize, are restless spirits. While Clara just likes to go out in search of fun, especially when the authorities at school and in the dorms frown on it -- she and three friends head for a rough roadhouse after getting thrown out of a "stag" party for wearing identical skimpy showgirl costumes -- March likes to go out nights for walks on dark roads. That gets him into trouble when he rescues Clara from roadhouse mashers and later gets shot by one of them. The reluctant lovers seem to be in a race toward self-destruction that accelerates when Clara decides to take the fall when the class tattletale discovers letters that could get Helen, the wallflower, expelled for dating a man. The letter is unsigned, enabling Clara to say it's hers, even if the context -- Helen writes of the importance of that academic award -- makes Clara an unlikely author. The authorities buy her confession, nevertheless, but her departure has an unintended consequence. March resigns his professorship, eliminating the hierarchical complications that had compromised his relationship with Clara. Ironically, he promises her a future of intellectual adventure; they'll be doing fieldwork in Malaya for their honeymoon.

For those who aren't movie buffs, Clara Bow was the "It Girl" because she was said by the novelist Elinor Glyn to be one of the very few people in Hollywood to have "It," an otherwise indescribable magnetism. "It" seems to have been relative or chronologically specific, like Elinor Glyn's own fame, rather than a timeless quality. Bow is attractive but to me, at least, she's far from the most magnetic female of silent cinema, much less talkies. Her vapid character in Wild Party and the chaotic shrubbery she sports on her head in parts of the picture further diminish her vaunted magnetism, more of which is on display in her more assured (or more manic) turn in Call Her Savage. She's also sabotaged by the primitive nature of early talkies. While Arzner is credited with innovating a "fishpole" microphone to accommodate the restless Bow Wild Party isn't much less stodgy than the immobile pictures parodied in Singin' In The Rain. With Wild Party Arzner and Bow caught up with film technology but their frivolous film remains something that very soon would be very much a thing of the past. The Thirties required a different kind of wild that Bow eventually proved herself capable of but unwilling to sustain. By the end of the Pre-Code era she had retired from cinema to become a relic of the Roaring Twenties. In that sense, despite the uncomfortable novelty of sound Wild Party is a representative work, though the silent, stylized Bow is probably the best one to see.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the Big Screen: FOLLOW THRU (1930)

Movies have always been capable of making art of its absences. Silent film is recognized now as a distinct style rather than the mere absence of speech. At its best, black and white cinematography was a positive artistic choice rather than the mere lack of color. Shouldn't this also be true of movies made in "two-strip" or "two-color" Technicolor, before the process was perfected and could capture the color blue? Watching these films -- either special scenes in otherwise monochrome pictures (e.g. the silent versions of Ben-Hur and The King of Kings) or else full-length features (e.g. Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate) is like watching cartoons with an eccentric if not obsolete aesthetic sense. Hollywood was well aware of the limitations of the process and its pictures were art-directed accordingly until the world was turned red, green and brown. History has judged harshly, however, perhaps because the heyday of two-color was also the infancy of sound film, not to mention the epoch of the part-talkie, for which few artistic excuses can be made. Few of these early Technicolor films survive intact. Technicolor sequences or entire films survive only in black and white; some don't survive at all. Follow Thru is an exception: a full-length 1930 Technicolor musical that survives intact, though it was considered a lost film, like so many others, for a long time. Musical comedy seems like the ideal material for the two-color process, which highlights the essential, deliberate unreality of all the proceedings. Watching Follow Thru in 1930 may have been a little like watching an all-CGI picture today; you can tell it's not "real," but you weren't exactly looking for "real," were you? That Follow Thru is fantasy we can take for granted. That it's actually quite funny is what puts it over for posterity.

Follow Thru is about golf, sort of. At least that ensures a lot of green in the picture. The plot is typical musical comedy. Two female golf champions -- Nancy Carroll's the good girl, Thelma Todd the cheating villain -- are rivals for the affection of Jerry, a male golf pro (Charles "Buddy"Rogers). Jerry has been hired as a personal instructor for Jack Martin (Jack Haley), a girl-shy department-store heir. Jack goes into eyebrow-twitching seizures at the sight of pretty girls. Coincidentally, he once proposed drunkenly and gave a ring to Angie Howard (Zelma O'Neal), who happens to be the BFF of Nora, the good-girl golfer. Fearing girls, Jack wants to leave the country club where Nora and her rival are competing, but practically everyone contrives to make him stay so Jerry will. Acting as a facilitator, as far as his ability allows, is bra manufacturer "Effie" Effingham (Eugene Pallette), who's willing to help anyone out it gives him a better chance of having his bras sold in Jack's stores.  Because the characters usually act from ulterior (ableit benign) motives, many misunderstandings result from eavesdropping or too-candid conversations, but everything's resolved in time for Jerry to coach Nora -- the film makes clear that her talent only requires moral support -- for her ultimate showdown with her nemesis.

All of the above is scaffolding on which Follow Thru hangs its showpieces. The show was a smash hit on Broadway, and at least one of its DeSylva, Brown & Henderson songs, "Button Up Your Overcoat" ("Take good care of yourself/You belong to me") has entered the "Great American Songbook." The odd thing is that all the best songs go to the comics, while the romantic leads are stuck with several reprises of the uninspiring "We'll Make a Peach of a Pair." Even the third-rate juvenile couple (Margaret Lee and Don Tompkins) get a funny number, "Then I'll Have Time For You." The comedy numbers bring this Roaring Twenties relic close to the spirit of Pre-Code, as when Tompkins sings, "Once I've ruined the figgers/Of a dozen gold diggers/Then I'll have time for you." Probably the ultimate expression of this is Zelma O'Neal's big number, "I Wanna Be Bad," which is also the film's cinematic highlight. As directed by Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, the number crosses what we could call the Berkeley Boundary. Angie Howard is supposed to be singing an impromptu song at a costume party with a live jazz band, but the directors jazz things up with double exposures and other special effects to make the scene a more purely cinematic experience. Just as golf as a subject suits two-color Technicolor's peculiar palette, so the process's favoring of red encouraged filmmaker to imagine vivacious visions of Hell, even if Zelma can't call the place by name. At this point you may as well see this clip of Technicolor Temptation Triumphant. Yellow42758 posted it to YouTube.

It falls short of the Berkeleyan standard mainly because the camera itself doesn't cross the Berkeley Boundary to roam among the ranks of falling angels. The song is virtually a Pre-Code anthem, though I'd argue that the more authentic Pre-Code sentiment is "I've Gotta Be Bad!" Still, for 1930 it's a great movie moment that I'm grateful to have seen on the big screen during the Madison Theater's one-day Jazz Age festival.

Overall, Follow Thru succeeds as much as a comedy as it does as a musical. O'Neal and Haley are holdovers from the original Broadway cast and really know how to put over the comedy songs. In their hands "Button Up Your Overcoat" is more reciprocal bullying than love song. Once the future Tin Woodsman makes clear that he's got more going on than the thing with the eyebrows he really grows on you. His non-musical scenes with Pallette are also good, especially a bit that must be one of the first scenes in which men invade a women's locker room. The idea is that Jack must get in there to recover the ring he gave to Angie way back when while she's showering, so that he isn't disinherited for losing a family heirloom. This is a country-club locker room so cocktails are served by a black woman in a nurse's uniform. Pallette's idea is that the boys play plumbers, and in their fake moustaches I'll be damned if they aren't spitting images of Mario and Luigi, except for the derby Pallette sports. There's good farcical slapstick here, and to top it off the plumbers escape by mugging two women, stuffing them in lockers and stealing their clothes. After that the conclusive golf match can't help but be anticlimactic. The main romantic plot often seems like an afterthought, so overshadowed are the stars by the comedians, but Carroll and Rogers are pleasant enough not to be as unwelcome as, say, the musical leads in a Marx Bros. picture. They certainly do nothing to suppress the spirit of fun that prevails here. There's pathos, too, though you have to read that into a picture that was popular, according to reports, despite being obsolete in many ways the moment it appeared. There's a temptation to treat anything that survives from this brief, doomed moment as a treasure, even though much of what does survive is as bad, if not worse with age now, as it was thought to be then. Fortunately, with Follow Thru you don't have to resist that temptation too much -- and that's just how the film would want it

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B (1926)

In the mid-1920s Cecil B DeMille became a sort of movie mogul as the mastermind behind the Producers Distribution Corporation, which later merged with the more established Pathe company. DeMille's biggest hit as an independent was his own Jesus picture The King of Kings but his company released pictures from many hands, in all genres. DeMille as a comedy producer sounds like an unlikely proposition but The Cruise of the Jasper B. allowed him to tap, at whatever remove from the actual creators, into his inner Mack Sennett. Director James W. Horne filmed an adaptation by three writers (including future director Tay Garnett) of a novel by humorist Don Marquis. Best known now for his whimsical "archy & mehitabel" pieces, allegedly written by a cockroach jumping on his typewriter keyboard, Marquis wrote Jasper B in 1916 as a kind of mock epic, and Horne's film is even more mockingly epic. It mocks the conventions of melodrama and adventure by taking them way, way over the top, into the realm of the absurd.

Swaggering in his pirate shorts, star Rod LaRocque (who'd go on to play perhaps the most smart-assed version ever of The Shadow in the movie International Crime) looks like a parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, which came out nine months before Jasper B. A prologue establishes the storied history of the Cleggett dynasty as the original Jeremaiah Cleggett wins a wife by rescuing her from scurvy ravishers. Since then, the heir to the line comes of age and into his fortune when he takes the old pirate vessel Jasper B onto the open sea to be married on it. By the eighth generation, however, the Cleggett line has grown decadent and bankrupt. The present Jerry Cleggett, whose exact likeness to his distant ancestor raises suspicions of inbreeding, will sleep through the auctioning off of his estate if not for the dedication of his manservant Wiggins (Jack Ackroyd). The beleaguered man must dress in front of prospective buyers, including plenty of women. He insists that they turn their backs, but the ladies whip out their trusty mirrors in the meantime, supposedly to adjust their lipstick. Rarely since the 1920s has the Hollywood male been so subject to the female gaze, but LaRocque is a good sport and unashamed. His performance requires comic timing worthy of the great clowns, especially early on as his bath goods and wardrobe are being snatched from him every time he turns his back. It's starting out as the worst day of Jerry's life, but his salvaging of his ancestor's original pirate costume augurs a change in fortunes.

And just across the way, the ink hasn't dried yet on a revised last will that bestows a fortune on the dying man's niece Agatha Fairhaven (Mildred "First Mrs. Charlie Chaplin" Harris) while virtually disinheriting the hateful Reginald Maltravers (Snitz Edwards). A maid taunts Reginald by waving the new will at him until the wind blows it out of her hand, after the runty villain jumps for it in vain, the will blows through a bathroom window to plaster itself, ink side down, on the bathing Agatha's naked back. Now it's not enough for Reginald to rip the paper text to shreds. To win his fortune, he must scrub the fatal backwards lines off Agatha's body. And so the chase begins, the villain pursuing with a loofah, until Agatha seeks shelter with Jerry Cleggett. It's love virtually at first sight under fire, and the dramatic title cards give an idea of the sensibility at play here:

Agatha: "Don't let him wash my back!"
Jerry: "NEVER!"

Jerry subdues the despicable Reginald and orders Wiggins to "soak" him. The loyal manservant misunderstands this as a command to "croak" the offender, but fortunately lacks the killer instinct. Instead, Maltravers plays dead in hope of escape and gets stuffed into a coffin-like crate which the men then dump out a window. But like Dracula aboard the Demeter the un-dead villain rides the roof of the Cleggett car, somehow unconfiscated, to where the old Jasper B is moored so Jerry can come into his own before the boat is turned into a floating chop house. They barely make it to the boat as Wiggins abandons the driver's seat to investigate the roof and the brake slips. A crash landing luckily leaves everyone unscathed, and Wiggins rejoices that they're at least rid of the accursed box until the thing slides down the hill to cut his legs out from under him.

Meanwhile, gangsters are robbing a mail truck to steal a priceless tapestry stored a in a crate that farcically resembles Reginald Maltravers' quasi-coffin. You can see where this is headed, but you probably don't know how far it's going. You can probably guess that Maltravers will end up leading the gangsters in a raid on the Jasper B. But while this storm gathers the wheels of government keep turning. The driver of the mail truck appeals to the local constable for assistance. "It's a federal matter," that official answers before taking him to the police. "It's a federal matter," the police agree before taking it up with the militia. "It's a federal matter!" an officer affirms before consulting the Navy. An admiral reviews the information up to this point and is about to deliver an opinion when everyone in the frame draws close to hear exactly what they, and by now you, expect. This gradual escalation features some of the best use of title cards I've ever seen in a silent film, and this extra beat of anticipation as everyone cocks their ears is a stroke of genius. And when the admiral (or his card) screams silently "IT'S A FEDERAL MATTER!" it's the cue for the film, already screwy, to go howling mad.

For as a federal matter the theft of the tapestry brings the full military power of the United States to bear against the Jasper B. In a sequence that may have inspired scenes from Duck Soup, infantry, air and naval power and even those newfangled tanks are mobilized against the pirate ship and its crew of three. A montage of stock footage and special effects portrays an apocalyptic assault on the plucky boat. Shelled by naval guns and land artillery, carpet bombed from the air, the ship somehow remains intact as Jerry battles Maltravers and the gangsters, though the villain himself is blown out of his clothes by one lucky shot even as our hero chastises him. Now that's a climax!

I wasn't surprised to learn that James W. Horne's subsequent career was split between slapstick and serials. Immediately after Jasper B. Buster Keaton recruited him to do the directing chores for College. He later directed Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West and some other films before ending his career in the Columbia serial department. You can see the knack for thrills and the comedy timing in Jasper B., which for all I know (which is little) of the man's work is his masterpiece. It definitely proves again that silent comedy had more going for it than the canonical clowns, yet it was a film I hadn't heard of before it was announced as part of this weekend's Jazz Age film program at the Madison Theater. The definitive work of genre criticism, Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns, had nothing to say about it. That just goes to show how deep the talent pool was in those days, and how much possibly this good remains to be discovered once we look past the big names of comedy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pre-Code Parade on the Big Screen

I'm just back from the Madison Theater here in Albany, where today the Pine Hills Film Colony hosted a one-day film festival called Lost Paradise: Four Films from the Jazz Age. Chronologically speaking the feature program covered the late Twenties up to 1930, including two silent pictures, one early talkie and one early musical. These were interspersed with Charley Chase short subjects, though they inexplicably were from his end-of-the-line Columbia period instead of his golden days with Hal Roach. The best I can say about them is that they were better than Buster Keaton's work for the home of the Three Stooges. The features deserve coverage in more detail, and this post serves as a preview of coming attractions. In the coming days I'll be posting reviews of the four features, which in chronological order are: James W. Horne's Cruise of the Jasper B. (1926), Harry Beaumont's Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Dorothy Arzner's The Wild Party (1929) and the Lloyd Corrigan-Laurence Schwab collaboration Follow Thru (1930). For now, here are some general comments about the event:

The program extended over 9.5 hours, including a dinner break of not quite two hours between the third and fourth features and about a half-hour apiece separating the earlier segments. Film Colony director Michael V. Butler acted as MC, delivering a general introduction to moviegoing during the 1920s, emphasizing the multimedia experience of film, live music and occasional olfactory effects, as well as individual intros for the features. Source materials varied extremely, Follow Thru being a digital burn of the Museum of Modern Art's copy of the all-Technicolor musical while Jasper B. was an Alpha Video disc with predictable limitations. Technical problems were perhaps too evocative of the early days of sound as the theater staff struggled to call up the soundtrack for Follow Thru, while the aspect ration on Wild Party was juggled a little to make Clara Bow appear less chubby than she initially appeared. These can be written off as learning experiences for the event organizers, who should be forgiven much for putting this program together. Once everything was in sync Follow Thru was a spectacular experience, while the humble-seeming Jasper B. was a hilarious surprise from producer Cecil B. DeMille in Mack Sennett mode. The Wild Party was the nearest thing to a dud on the program, while Our Dancing Daughters is elevated above its soapy subject matter by powerhouse performances from Joan Crawford and Anita Page. But I'll have more to say about all of them in short order. For tonight congratulations are in order for the Pine Hills Film Colony along with encouragement for their next program tentatively scheduled for the fall. As for the Madison, despite switching to a primarily second-run format after being a repertory house for much of last year, the historic neighborhood theater still runs classic oldies or cult films every week, including Metropolis this week. Albany's a lucky town to have this theater as well as a thriving arthouse like the Spectrum. I hadn't been to the Madison for several months, more for personal reasons than anything else, but today was a perfect day to come back.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015)

The title of world's oldest person has changed hands twice this month but amid the coverage of those milestones I missed the passing of the world's oldest film director until I saw a small item on the Milestones page of the newest Time magazine today. To be exact, Oliveira (who died on April 2) had been the world's oldest active director, having released a short subject last November. If his name didn't pop up on Google News despite his record that was probably because he has no truly canonical classic in his filmography. He started out as a documentarian and really came into his own relatively late, in his sixties during the 1970s. As he pushed on, his work gained curiosity value, and curiosity was often rewarded by the quality or at least the ambition on Oliveira's work. I haven't seen very many of his films but was impressed by I'm Going Home (2001) and the death-enamored Strange Case of Angelica (2010), though less so by Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2009). Even then, I saw proof of a rigorous pictorial intellect, and Oliveira understandably worked in continuity with older literary and cultural traditions, so that his later films have always looked interesting, at least, on their own terms as well as for their testimony to their director's endurance. It's hard to know who to put on Oliveira's throne since the really old timers may put several years between projects. How much time must pass since the most recent feature before you can say a director's no longer active? For that matter, should we distinguish between fiction film makers and documentarians? Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, is still turning interviews filmed decades ago into feature-length films, most recently in 2013; he turns 90 this fall. Restricting ourselves to fiction film, the older of the Taviani brothers will be 86 this year and they have a new film out. Just behind Taviani in age are the always provocative Jean-Luc Godard and the sometimes indiscriminate Clint Eastwood, both of whom released acclaimed features last year. But who can say, other than their doctors, if older folks like Agnes Varda or Andrzej Wajda are really done yet? Oliveira gave them all something to shoot for, both by retaining his capability for so long and by actually having things to say until the end.