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LACMA’s ‘20th Anniversary Tribute’ a Treat for Film Fans

Kenneth Turan

10/7/2010 12:00:00 AM

Its title may lack sizzle, but "20th Anniversary Tribute to the Film Foundation" is in fact the most exciting and impressive repertory series in Los Angeles in quite some time.

Beginning Friday with a dynamite film noir double bill of "The Big Combo" and "They Made Me a Fugitive," this wide-ranging series features stunning prints of significant films rarely presented on the big screen. This is what the art of film is all about, which makes its setting — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — more than a little ironic.

As L.A. film fans know too well, LACMA came within a hair of closing its invaluable program last year. But if you read between the lines of a recent Times interview with the museum's president, it's clear the institution would still dismember the program in a heartbeat if it felt it could get away with it.

So if you care about seeing great films in great surroundings like LACMA's 600-seat Bing Theater, and you'd like to prove to LACMA's minions that you care about this kind of programming, this is your chance to take out two birds with one stone. Vigilance is going to be the price of LACMA screenings for some time to come.

Though its name is not well-known, the Film Foundation has provided an invaluable service in its two decades of existence. Founded by Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers, the nonprofit has partnered with archives around the world to help fund the preservation and restoration of more than 500 films, including the features in this series.

To highlight restorations the Foundation has assisted in financing, LACMA has selected gorgeous films by some of the greatest directors of photography ever. These include "The Red Shoes" and "The Barefoot Contessa" shot by that acknowledged master of classic three-strip Technicolor, Jack Cardiff.

"The Red Shoes," screening Saturday, is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's emotional story of the demands that art makes on life. Set in the world of ballet, it showcases deep, vivid hues that will leave viewers gasping.

"The Barefoot Contessa," on Oct. 15, is a prime example not only of Cardiff's ability to make color come electrically alive but also of the considerable talents of writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Featuring Humphrey Bogart as a cynical director and Ava Gardner as a reluctant star, the 1954 film retains the zing of Mankiewicz's exemplary language more than half a century later.

Less frequently screened but no less gorgeous are two other color films, showing Oct. 16: the Luchino Visconti-directed "Senso" and John Stahl's "Leave Her to Heaven."

"Senso" is a triumph of heightened visual style and operatic emotions. Set in 1866 during the last months of Austrian rule over Italy, it stars Alida Valli as a fiery Italian countess who gets unwisely infatuated with Farley Granger's seductive Austrian officer. This tale of mad passion in tumultuous times fully validated Visconti's feeling that melodrama was "situated right on the border between life and theater."

Speaking of melodrama, it doesn't get much more melodramatic than "Leave Her to Heaven," reportedly Fox's top moneymaker of the 1940s and memorable for its Technicolor version of New Mexico décor. Part film noir, part three-hanky extravaganza, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who doesn't hold back when it comes to love and Cornel Wilde as the writer she becomes infatuated with. The plot is overwrought and not completely rational, but when you get right down to it, that's the whole point.

Also not to be missed is another color gem, Elia Kazan's "Wild River," showing at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater. As "East of Eden" demonstrates, Kazan was expert in working with widescreen cinematography, and he deploys a fine cast including Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet in a still timely New Deal-era story of the Tennessee Valley Authority's conflicts with local landowners.

Just because there is so much color in this series doesn't mean it neglects black and white. Screening are Alfred Hitchcock's unnerving "Shadow of a Doubt," 1928's silent "Beggars of Life" (the last American feature for Louise Brooks), and a rare chance to see a pristine print of Fritz Lang's "Cloak and Dagger." Especially satisfying is Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali," a treasure of world cinema resurrected after its original negative was destroyed by fire.

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Preservation Road

Kent Jones

10/7/2010 12:00:00 AM

Two meticulously prepared film devotees sat before their Macs at the appointed hour and discussed (via Skype) Cavalcanti’s 1947 gangster/noir revenge melodrama, They Made Me a Fugitive, a restored print of which will be screened this weekend as part of LACMA’s tribute to the Film Foundation, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

“Shall we just jump into it then?” said Wes Anderson.

“Absolutely,” said Kent Jones.

“I wonder if we need to begin in such a way that we’re kind of announcing why we’re talking about this movie,” said Anderson thoughtfully. “Here’s a possible opener: ‘One of the films showing in the tribute to the Film Foundation is They Made Me a Fugitive. I had never seen this movie before, and I’d never heard the one name of its director, Cavalcanti.’ ”

Jones was mildly surprised. “Really?”

“No,” said Anderson. “But then I realized I’d seen Dead of Night, the horror omnibus movie from Ealing [Studios] — and he directed the most famous episode, ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,’ and also ‘The Christmas Party,’ which are both very interesting. Do you know his other films?”

“He was Brazilian,” offered Jones as he downshifted into information mode, “and sometimes he used his first name, Alberto. He worked in France, crossed paths with Jean Renoir, wound up in England working for John Grierson’s documentary unit, and then made those great fiction films. For instance, he made a tremendous wartime movie called Went the Day Well.”

“I should see that,” said Anderson. Jones sensed genuine excitement in Anderson’s voice: He was always on the lookout for new discoveries. “I loved They Made Me a Fugitive. The grittiness and the style and the great, great dialogue. It’s sort of like a British Sweet Smell of Success — which I suppose was directed by an English person, anyway.”

“But written by two Americans. The dialogue in this one is amazingly pungent,” said Jones by way of amplification. There was to be a good deal more mutual amplification.

“It’s very good, and very hard,” Anderson continued. “The violence of the language is much more blunt than you’d ever expect of a movie from 1947. What’s that sound?”

“New York police sirens,” answered Jones abstractedly, as the whining from Broadway peaked and gradually died away. “Maybe we should clearly state that you’re in Paris and I’m in New York …”

“… and that we’re talking about a British film showing in Los Angeles.”

“After the war, there were a lot of very tough British movies set in the underworld,” Jones said, “like It Always Rains on Sunday and Brighton Rock — in fact, all three were made in 1947.”

Brighton Rock is also brutal,” Anderson said with an audible tinge of excitement. “They’re unexpectedly cruel and frank in their language and violence — they don’t hold back.”

“For me, Trevor Howard gives They Made Me a Fugitive a special energy.”

“Yes, Trevor Howard is great,” agreed Anderson, “and so is the guy who plays Narcy. He’s wonderful. What’s his name?”

“Maybe since we’re on our computers, we can look it up.” An idle remark, which initiated a quiet cacophony of frantic transcontinental typing.

“Isn’t it incredible that there’s a gangster named Narcy, short for Narcissus?” asked Jones as his index finger hit the “return” key.

“That’s kind of one you want to steal,” said Anderson as his computer chimed. “Narcy is … Griffith Jones.”

“Who was also in … Olivier’s Henry V as the Earl of Salisbury. And whose real name is Griffiths Jones — hard to pronounce,” Jones said.

“Another thing that intrigued me about They Made Me a Fugitive was that it always seemed like it was going to veer into pure expressionism. Like Sally’s beating, for instance, done in a quick montage, which includes a distressed close-up, unusual for its time.”

“It’s shot by a German cameraman, isn’t it?”

“We’d better double-check the good old IMDb.” Another round of typing.

“He’s an Otto — but maybe he’s not German,” Anderson suggested. Jones suddenly remembered the menacing German women on The Darjeeling Limited. “That expressionist current of feeling combines with the location shooting and the type of story being told, the rawness of it all, to give the movie a documentary-ish flavor. It’s a strange combination. And the dialogue is so graphic and blunt.”

“Boy, is it ever. It’s like they were trying to outdo the Americans in the hard-boiled department.”

“But it’s also very literary — quite inventive and funny. They’re highly verbal characters.”

“So many gaudy, outlandish exchanges. I like the conversation between Narcy and the cop when they run into each other on Sally’s stairway,” Jones said, quoting: “ ‘How’s the undertaking business these days?’ says the cop. ‘Booming,’ says Narcy. ‘I wish I could interest you in one of our new models. And don’t forget to tell your friends.’ Like when the cop asks him if he can smell a rat — ‘I’ve got a cold. I can’t even smell you.’ Or: ‘Clem’ll get about as far as I could throw a dead elephant with one hand tied behind me back.’ ”

“Narcy has so many great lines, and line readings. I like when he says, ‘Curly’ll have to cock you one on your pretty coconut’ — and he tells one of his boys that if the girl makes any trouble, ‘Bash her face in.’ It’s not just hard-boiled, it’s kind of funny, and I think they meant it to be?”

“How about the old woman? ‘Watch out you don’t overdo it, Narcy. The cops’ll be out like hornets ’round a jam jar.’ ”

“I missed half of her dialogue,” admitted Anderson, “because it’s so fast and British.”

“It seems that Otto Heller was actually Czech,” Jones reported. “He did a lot of great work in color — Peeping Tom, Richard III, The Lady Killers. He also made one of the most incredible British films of the ’40s, The Queen of Spades.”

“This might be a good moment to mention how much They Made Me a Fugitive will benefit from restoration,” said Anderson, dutifully circling back to the topic at hand. “On the DVD, you can see how beautiful the black-and-white photography should be, and how much work is needed.”

“Some passages are in good shape, others less so. I can’t wait to see the restoration. Should we mention some of the other films in the series?”

“Well, there’s The Red Shoes.”

“Which might be the most stunning restoration I’ve ever seen.”

“And Bonjour Tristesse. And Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which is a masterpiece and probably his best known film.”

"There’s also Shadow of a Doubt by Hitchcock,” added Jones, “an impeccable movie with one of my favorite actresses, Teresa Wright.”

“And there’s Cloak and Dagger by Fritz Lang, with Gary Cooper.”

“As a scientist — curious idea.”

“Yes. In fact, I saw it with a physicist. Aren’t they trying to smuggle out a German scientist?”

“Yes. Strangely cast, but a striking film.”

“There’s Wild River by Kazan.”

“Which is a great film. It’s based on Kazan’s memories of going down South in the ’30s.”

“There’s The Big Combo by Joseph H. Lewis.”

“Shot by the legendary cinematographer John Alton.”

“With Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy.”

“And Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef as the two gay enforcers.”

“Anyway, it’s going to be a great series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Starting Friday, October 8.”

“That’s right, Wes. And for more information, go to lacma.org.”

“The perfect ending.”

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USA WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS THE STORY OF MOVIES

Susan Wloszczyna

10/3/2010 12:00:00 AM

Whether it's at the neighborhood multiplex, on a 52-inch flat-screen TV or downloaded on an iPad, flickering film images provide much more than mere entertainment.
 
At their best, movies are time machines that transport us to worlds real or imagined. They provide an intimate window on lives we could never have experienced and on events we could never have witnessed.
 
Almost everyone has that one movie he saw as a child that left a lasting impression. Steven Spielberg vividly recalls being wowed by the CinemaScope splendor of Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 Academy Award winner. “It brought an entire section of the world into focus for me,” says the filmmaker, who would go on to make his own war epics, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
 
Now, a marquee of A-list directors, led by Martin Scorsese and including Spielberg and George Lucas, has come together to turn the magic of movies into life lessons for America's young people and, in the process, infuse a new generation with an appreciation for film.
 
Just as a family shares a treasured scrapbook, America shares enduring movie scenes.
 
Who can forget Jimmy Stewart's young senator, hoarse and exhausted, as he filibusters against corruption in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Or when Michael Rennie's alien issues a warning against the use of atomic weapons by causing a planet-wide blackout in 1951's The Day the Eart Stood Still? Or when a gallery of black townsfolk stand to honor Gregory Peck's lawyer, defeated while striking a blow against racism, as he strides out of the courtroom in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird?
 
This trio of films is the core of The Story of Movies, a groundbreaking middle-school curriculum that began in 2005. The movies have much in common, including a distinctive style of visual storytelling. Scorsese recalls that one feature was especially essential in the selection process: “Everyone agreed they should have children in key roles.”
 
Each movie has another compelling and very American similarity, Spielberg points out: “There is one person who can make a difference in all our lives, someone who is fighting on your behalf.”
 
The Film Foundation wants children to embrace another cause: the preservation of older films, prone to damage and disintegration without proper storage. Mishandling has led to the loss of half the American movies made before 1950. “We want movies to be treated with the same reverence and respect that is given to literature, music, architecture and art,” Spielberg says. “I always believed that film is the American cultural narrative.”
 
Scorsese first realized the extent of the problem while attending screenings in Los Angeles in the 1970s. “Color prints were faded to magenta, and the black-and-white ones were deteriorating. Studios got serious about protecting their legacies once video, laser discs and, later, DVDs hit the market. But the public still had to be educated about a vital
part of their culture that was vanishing.” In the past 20 years, the foundation has restored more than 550 titles. And in five years, 8.6 million students and 37,983 teachers have participated in The Story of Movies, whose materials can be downloaded free at storyofmovies.org.
 
The foundation is expanding the curriculum to include upper-elementary grades, where silent films and comedies would be taught, and high school, with an emphasis on animation and the technology behind it.
 
“Every student has access to a camera on his computer or a little Flip camera,” says Lucas, whose Star Wars franchise inspired generations to become filmmakers. “Being able to communicate by using cinema has been democratized in the same way that the printing press allowed people who weren't monks to read and write. Now everyone can learn the grammar of film.”
 
Says Madison Brister, 13, who studied The Day the Earth Stood Still at Oslo Middle School in Vero Beach, Fla.: “I remember thinking, ‘This is an old movie in black and white.' I wasn't very interested. But once we pulled things apart, I noticed things differently. Before, I always wanted to see new films. Now, if I see an old one on TV, I'll watch it.”
 
And that could be just the beginning. As Spielberg says, “It is quite possible that a child who is taking this course will grow up and tell a great story like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Life is a story. We — all of us — are stories. Film teaches that. And if we could be like the main characters in these three movies, we would be better people.”

USA Weekend

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Scorsese’s Film Foundation Preserving Lifetime of Movies

Raeanne Marsh

9/20/2010 12:00:00 AM

“The future of film itself was at stake. The celluloid reels, whether catalogued in storehouses or gathering dust in an attic corner, were succumbing to the ravages of age. Against the forces of nature-and corporate indifference-Martin Scorsese began deploying his own forces: the not-inconsiderable weight of his own name and a prestigious starting cast of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg.”

“There was no system in place or incentive to make sure films would be around in the future. Now, with 545 restored films to The Film Foundation’s credit since he founded the organization dedicated to that purpose in 1990, Scorsese remains passionate about the continuing need for film restoration. In addition to the narrative feature films “we all respond to,” he says, there are “avant-garde films that are deeply compelling and can change the way you look at cinema. Or the earliest silent films that show everyday events and remind us how life has-and hasn’t-changed in over 100 years. There are documentaries, newsreels, home movies that can show the spectrum of human experience and open our eyes to moments and events from the past in a most powerful way.”

“Scorsese, as a young filmmaker, had been inspired by the old RKO films and others from the past. But he noticed that the prints he say, whether from a library or a studio, were pink; the colors were faded. He spearheaded a campaign for Kodak to develop a low-fade stock so the color would be more stable, advocating for it during his press tour in 1980 for “Raging Bull”-which he shot in black-and-white specifically so as not to be worried about it fading 10 years down the line.”

“The board (The Film Foundation) helps select the preservation projects the foundation will fund, based on historical and technical significance such as a director’s first use of color, a specific color process or wide screen. Explains Scorsese, “The archives send in a proposal each year, outlining and prioritizing the films most in need of preservation, and the board reviews the titles and proposals, the materials available and the additional information on the cultural and historical significance of the pictures provided by the archives. And then we decide.”

“Two years after launching The Story of Movies, TFF grew in another direction: It consolidated with Artists Rights Foundation, whose mission paralleled TFF’s. ARF’s focus on protecting the films’ creative elements over issues such as colorization and unauthorized editing underscores concerns that restorers constantly grapple with: Using today’s advanced technology to make something look as good as it can without adding one’s own aesthetic.”

“Choices inform the look of the final product. Archivists and TFF’s board study films and look at reference prints (and, in ever more rare cases, even talk to the director) to know what a director may have been going for in his body of work or specific film.”

“John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris used a subdued color palette that was almost sepia, even though it was done with the three-strip [Technicolor] process.”

“Three-strip Technicolor films used three different cameras, each creating a color record for the red, blue or yellow section of the color chart. Digital technology enables the color records to be aligned exactly, which give Technicolor a new look. ‘The original was a soft look,’ says Bodde (Margaret Bodde executive Director of TFF), ‘but did the director want that, or would he have wanted a sharp look?”

“Using “The Phantom of the Opera” as an example-it was shot in black-and-white but has one sequence featuring Lon Chaney wearing a brilliant red cloak-Jackson describes the dilemma of leaving the color in the “rather crude, hand-painted-look, two-color process of the time” or improving the appearance and making it more perfect.”

“Assume nobody’s an expert,” he says. “[Offer] the view of how audiences would have seen ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in 1925 and how it would have looked if [the director] would have had access to our technology. …The capacity on discs is such that there’s no reason you can’t offer both versions at no extra cost.” And he adds, “It wold inspire interest, and may make some young viewer into a future historian.”

 

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