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COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

9/23/2020 11:00:00 AM

The literary critic and novelist Lionel Trilling made an observation in one of his essays that’s stuck with me over the years—younger people in the America of the 50s, he wrote, had developed an unfortunate habit of reflexively equating reality with evil. This habit of mind persisted for many years. If it seems to be fading away, that’s because no one at a moment like the one we’re in now can afford to be casually hopeless or pessimistic.

Delmer Daves was an American artist who was passionately invested in dramatizing the good in people. It’s a truism that the villain is always the most interesting character in a narrative. Not so in Daves’ films, where the villains are sadly one-dimensional because they are so single-minded and unimaginative, grievance-driven intruders in the creative richness shared by mutually caring, respectful and merciful people. Daves always risked tilting into naiveté, but he had a genuine vision of community, and that’s a rarity in cinema.  

The Film Foundation has worked with UCLA to restore one of Daves’ films, and one of his most unusual. Starting in the 50s with Broken Arrow, about the American betrayal of Cochise and the Apaches, Daves became primarily known as a director of westerns, and he was a westerner through and through. The Red House, made in 1947, is more of an “eastern,” with an ambience and certain thematic and narrative trappings (a man haunted by his secret past, a farm that borders a forbidden forest) redolent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales. The film was made independently, the first production from a company formed by Sol Lesser and the film’s star Edward G. Robinson. Robinson and Judith Anderson as his sister are remarkable, but it’s the presences and most of all the faces of Allene Roberts, who made her film debut here, and Lon McAllister that ground the story, Roberts in particular—the threats to her fragile, tremulous innocence and simplicity give the film real force. For many years, The Red House languished in public domain hell and was available only in substandard copies. It’s a gift to see it fully restored, and to be able to appreciate its great visual beauty—a hallmark of Daves’ cinema. As is his fierce commitment to dramatizing and incarnating the good in people.

- Kent Jones

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Home viewing: Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Michael J. Casey

9/17/2020 12:00:00 PM

In 1990, Martin Scorsese brought together a band of cinema enthusiasts to protect motion picture history by creating The Film Foundation (TFF) — a bridge between Hollywood studios and archives. Its mission: Preserve America’s visual art form for future generations. Thirty years in and 850 restorations later, TFF remains a beacon of hope in a myopic industry.

But American borders couldn’t contain Scorsese’s catholic tastes. In 2007, he established the World Cinema Project (WCP) to focus on the works made in countries not typically associated with cinema. To date, 42 films from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, South America and the Middle East have been rescued, restored, preserved and exhibited for a global audience. And on Sept. 29, The Criterion Collection releases the latest box set of cinematic discoveries, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3: After the Curfew (Indonesia), Dos monjes (Mexico), Downpour (Iran), Lucía (Cuba), Pixote (Brazil) and Soleil Ô (Mauritania).

Of the six, Pixote is the most familiar to U.S. viewers as it garnered a bevy of acclaim and awards upon its release in the early 1980s. It was director Héctor Babenco’s third feature, made after authorities shut down the documentary he was working on about abandoned children stuck in the reform school system. No biggie: Babenco took what he’d seen and translated it into a scripted narrative à la William A. Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road and Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados. The result is a powerful work that feels completely authentic, no matter how grisly the story gets.

World Cinema Project/The Criterion CollectionMagda Haller and Víctor Urruchúa in ‘Dos monjes’

Probably the least familiar movie in the set is the 1934 Mexican melodrama from Juan Bustillo Oro, Dos monjes — a movie unknown to Scorsese when the title was offered for restoration. But Dos monjes’ exemplary blending of contradicting narrators, gothic horror, expressionistic photography and exaggerated set designs proves that what we don’t know could fill the sky.

Cinema is everywhere, and Scorsese’s work is never done. In 2017, TFF partnered with UNESCO, Cineteca di Bologna and the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers for the African Film Heritage Project — an initiative to locate and preserve 50 classic African films.

Soleil Ô from director Med Hondo was the first film restored under the banner, and the film is a revelation. Blending animation, documentary and narrative, Hondo follows an African immigrant (Robert Liensol) looking for work in an intolerant France, one that refuses to look at him, let alone employ him, while simultaneously stripping him and his country for parts. “I am bleached by your culture,” he muses.

Made over three years for $30,000, Hondo describes Soleil Ô as therapy: “For everything that disturbed me in both my physical and moral life, after all that I’d been through, that others had been through.” Not long after the restoration of Soleil Ô, Hondo died at the age of 82. Thankfully, his experiences and images live on.

World Cinema Project/The Criterion CollectionRobert Liensol in ‘Soleil ô’

Each of the six films included in Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3 are new, restored 4K digital transfers complete with introductions from Scorsese, interviews with filmmakers and scholars, and a substantial booklet collecting essays on each film.

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COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

9/16/2020 1:00:00 PM

The Film Foundation has facilitated the restoration and preservation of two films by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. One of them, All About Eve, is one of the enduring classics of world cinema. The other, The Barefoot Contessa, restored by UCLA, is certainly well known but it’s less often discussed now. My wife and I took a fresh look at it about a month ago and we were both amazed and moved.

There have been many Hollywood movies about Hollywood that operate under the pretense of frankness but that, in the end, are nothing of the kind. I’m a fan of Vincente Minnelli’s films, but The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, wild melodramas set in the milieu of Hollywood (and Hollywood on the Tiber), have a refracted, prismatically re-directed view of Hollywood itself. The same is true of George Cukor’s 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, a film that I love. But The Barefoot Contessa—shot in stunning Technicolor by the great Jack Cardiff—really stands alone, because it looks directly into the face of the ruthless exploitation of women practiced by powerful men in and around the world of big budget moviemaking. Ava Gardner’s Maria Vargas is courted by one filthy rich man after another (played by Warren Stevens, Marius Goring and Rossano Brazzi), each of whom promises glory but delivers possessiveness and a increasingly refined forms of debasement. It’s impossible to overestimate how rare such frankness and brutal honesty were during the high Hollywood era. Most movies made after the establishment of the production code, even great ones, fell back into soft cushions of decorous gentility when it came to wealth and power, and the ruthlessness was assigned to a few bad apples. Here, it’s the way almost everyone operates. It’s interesting to compare the publicists played by Jack Carson in the Cukor film and by Edmund O’Brien in The Barefoot Contessa. Carson’s character is judged to be mean and crass…by Charles Bickford’s kindly studio head! O’Brien’s unctuous, sweaty Oscar veers in the direction of whoever holds the power in any given situation, and for him, the virtues of honor, fidelity and respect espoused and practiced by Humphrey Bogart’s director are sentimental holdovers and beside the point. And there is absolutely no gentility whatsoever in Mankiewicz’s portrait of the jet set gathered around the roulette tables and the watering holes of the Riviera. They are lowlifes in fashionable dress.

At the emotional center of The Barefoot Contessa is Bogart’s Harry Dawes, the man who makes Maria a star fully knowing that it will ultimately lead to her destruction. No other actor could have played the role. From the 40s on, Bogart was one of the greatest artists in movies, and this is one of his most beautiful and heartbreaking incarnations of broken disenchantment.

- Kent Jones

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Out of the Vaults: Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, … (1982)

Meher Tatna

9/15/2020 12:00:00 PM

In the wake of a series of unsuccessful movies like Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and Health, culminating with the tanking of Popeye in 1980, director Robert Altman sold his film company to Lions Gate, pulled up stakes in Los Angeles, and moved to New York with the idea of working in the theater and adapting plays for films. He vowed never to work with big film studios again.

The first project he took on was the direction of the Broadway production of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The play starred Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Kathy Bates, Sudie Bond, Marta Heflin, and Mark Patton. It closed after 52 performances.

Undeterred, Altman decided to make a movie version with the same cast.

The film is set in 1975 in the fictional town of McCarthy, Texas, 62 miles from Marfa where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean shot Giant. In the story, a reunion of the Disciples of James Dean, a fan club, marks the 20th anniversary of Dean’s death in a dime store that is set up as a shrine to the late actor. Juanita (Bond) runs the store; Cher plays the gregarious Sissy who works with her; Mona, played by Dennis is the fragile leader of the club; Bates is Stella Mae who married a rich man and moved away, and Edna Louise is played by Heflin, permanently bullied and pregnant with her seventh child. As the women catch up on their lives, the narrative changes when glamorous Joanne (Black) walks in, unrecognized by them until the dramatic denouement: she is their old friend Joe after a sex change operation.

Altman shot the film in 19 days. In a series of ingenious flashbacks interspersed with the present-day action, using two-way mirrors built especially for the purpose, he moved the action back and forth twenty years, relying on the actors to convince the audience of the time changes, eschewing all makeup and costume changes to do so (he used the same stage set from the movie adapted for filming.) And so through the flashbacks, the story becomes more about the lives of the women in the past twenty years, and the secrets and lies they have lived with, than a tribute to Dean. As Mona describes the facades of Giant on which she was an extra, it becomes clear that the theme of the movie is the facades that the women have built for themselves and the lengths they go to preserve them till they crumble.

Cher, in only her third movie role, is a standout and got a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress for playing Sissy. Altman was planning to cast Shelley Duvall in the role, but auditioned Cher on her request and ended up casting her. The rest of the cast is wonderful as well, though Heflin’s and Bates’ characters are rather underwritten, despite the very talky script that was also written by Graczyk. The whole action is still confined to the dime store as in the stage play, and every so often a character will step outside of the store’s entrance to shout to unseen people, enhancing the staginess of the piece. Altman’s roving camera helps to mitigate that somewhat, as do the closeups, mostly on Dennis, who arguably has the most dramatic scenes. His direction and the ensemble acting rescues the film from the inherent soapiness of the storyline.

One has to make special note of the handling of a transsexual character at a time when not one was seen in mainstream cinema, let alone treated sympathetically. It is easy to forget the shock value of Joanne’s place in the story back in 1982 when seen through the prism of today’s times. While it received a ten-minute standing ovation at the Chicago Film Festival in 1982 and won the Gold Hugo Award for Best Feature, contemporary movie critics were not kind. Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times was savage: “Ed Graczyk's screenplay, based on his flop play as directed by Mr. Altman on Broadway this year, is small, but less likely to be salvaged in the near future than even the Titanic. It’s a sincerely preposterous, pathetic, redneck comedy-drama that sounds as if its author had learned all about life by watching ‘Studio One’ at his mother's knee.” With that kind of notices and a limited release in art-house theaters, the film grossed $840,958 domestically, then aired on Showtime the following year.

Critical perceptions have since changed as the experimental and even radical staging by Altman – as well as the performances – have come to be better appreciated. Come Back was restored in 2011 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation.

Working in collaboration with Paramount Pictures, Cineric Laboratories created a 35mm blow-up color internegative directly from the Super 16mm original camera negative, which was scanned and digitally cleaned up to remove the excess dirt which marred the original. Title sequences and additional pickups were scanned directly from the 35mm CRI (color rendering index) material. NT Picture & Sound output the restored picture and track negative to 35mm film.

The restoration premiered at the Billy Wilder Theater as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation in March 2011 and was introduced by its director, Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak.

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