Colin Fleming

3/27/2013 12:00:00 AM

Colonel Blimp—newly re-released by the Criterion Collection—packs emotional depth and a touch of magic as it tells the story of two men's true friendship in wartime.

Britain's usually thought of as the runt of the power countries in film history. Its cinematic output trails, by a wide margin, the CVs of America, France, Russia, and Japan. There was the Kitchen Sink movement of the late 1950s, which was incendiary in its way, but before that, British films tended to fit their country's stiff-upper-lip stereotype. Which is what makes 1943's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp all the more surprising: England's greatest film ever, it turns out, is an emotional epic.

It's pretty rare that two filmmakers co-direct, co-write, and co-produce—or, at least, share a title card saying that do—but so it went with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, close friends who dubbed themselves The Archers. The British Powell directed; his Hungarian partner, Pressburger, wrote; both produced. Pressburger's scripts tend to be almost novelistic in scope, with myriad turns and characters from earlier portions returning for later bits, but with a feeling of order and concision.* Needed honing came courtesy of Powell's camera, a peppy traveler with a penchant for wonder and a bardic soul. All of this means that The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is especially suited for its new release from Criterion on Blu-ray, a transfer that might be the sharpest the company has done yet.

The plot ought not to work as well as it does, considering its range, but Pressburger knew how to cram a lot of story into a short amount of space through subtle layering, making it feel almost like several films have been superimposed into one. The movie is tripartite in structure, with an intro and a reprise—with fresh parts—as a coda. The titular fellow would have been familiar to all Brits as the subject of a popular cartoon strip. But this Blimp—a.k.a., Major General Clive Wynne-Candy, played by Roger Livesey—is a long way from the funny pages, even if his younger self likes a good joke.

We first see him as an old man, doing training exercises in WWII-era London, and being upstaged by a Johnny-come-lately officer. Then we journey back to the turn of the century, courtesy of a tracking shot across the waters of a Turkish bath that knits the present to the past. On leave from the Boer War, Candy, as just about everyone refers to him, goes to Berlin to try and put a halt to anti-British propaganda. There he meets Deborah Kerr's Edith Hunter, a fellow Brit, and ends up fighting a duel against a man he has never met. Said man—Theo, played by Anton Walbrook—and Candy convalesce in the same nursing home after carving each other up, and become close friends. That's even though Theo announces his engagement, in broken English, to Edith, the woman that Candy loves.

The build-up to the duel is both comical and terrifying in its detail, but when it's time for the rapiers to start flying, Powell's camera simply up and leaves through the roof of gymnasium where we have sat in so much expectation. You don't need to see this, it seems to say. Let me take you over here to what is more important. The blows do not matter; not physical blows, at least. But emotional ones—and recoveries from them—are why Blimp remains cinema's most convincing testament to friendship.

A middle sequence plays out against a backdrop of World War I. There is a falling out between the two men over cultural divides, divides made all the more pronounced in wartime. Candy meets a nurse, also played by Kerr, and seeing in her the woman his best friend married, he makes her his wife. Come the third part of the tableaux, she has died, Edith has died, Theo is an alien in England in the Second World War, and Candy has been axed from service, though he does have a driver who looks suspiciously like—yep, you guessed it, there's Deborah Kerr again.

One gets used to the romantic theme, and sees Kerr coming in her various iterations. Which, of course, is exactly what Powell and Pressburger expected. There is solidity there, firm footing for the movie's principal relationship to try and work itself out. The staging feels almost three-dimensional, like you've gained ingress into your television set, with the story playing out all around you. The backgrounds of Blimp invite you to look deep and hard at them: Snow, for example, has a knack of falling when characters are inside, and viewers can direct their gaze to the window to see the descending flakes. Those details are enhanced by a most ambulatory camera; we travel through the air, through windows, through walls. The visual sumptuousness mirrors the bounty of any true friendship, and a most delicate positioning along a line where the quotidian and the magical coexist. Few filmmakers knew how deeply unpredictability factored into friendship, which in turn led to Blimp's knack for making that unpredictability visual in a way no British movie—or any movie, for that matter—has. The camera is an all-seeing eye in the world of Blimp, but we never know, exactly, what it will share with us next, so that what is really a study in friendship gains an aspect of magic that would have made perfect sense to Walt Disney.

One of Blimp's most remarkable moments—the moment that could be its Best in Show moment against any sequence from any British film—occurs when Theo sits in a threadbare room with several clerks in the background, an interlocutor in front of him, and makes his case for remaining in England, having fled Germany after the Nazis came to power. He gives his reasons. They are strong reasons. They are deemed, by the interlocutor, not good enough. He resolves to start again, prefacing his remarks by saying that in the first instance, he did not lie, but he did not tell the truth, though he will say his truth now. He does so for three of the most intense minutes in all of filmdom, in a single, uncut take, which is the cinematic equivalent of the epic—but intimate—close of Joyce's "The Dead."

The pace of his words never varies, and never has a camera felt more like a recording console. Out of that stillness, from the left of the frame, comes the kind of emotional payoff, made visual (let's just say a most unexpected fellow appears). And, frankly, any viewer needs that payoff, after that speech, in that moment, in the same way that you need a friend to pick up the phone because of whatever had just gone down in your life.

Powell and Pressburger replicated that feeling, that emotional aesthetic, in most of their best works, but not quite with the range and drama of Blimp. It is, in a sense, a cinematic White Album, with weird back corridors and asides that you think are mere asides but that lead to moments you could not have seen coming five minutes, or two hours, prior. It helps to have a capacity for wonder when you sit down with a film like this. But should you not find yourself so equipped, one will be provided, courtesy of the Archers, for the whole of this viewing session, at least. 



2/19/2013 12:00:00 AM

Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winning American film director, screenwriter, producer, actor, and film historian and preservationist, will deliver the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The annual lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

“Martin Scorsese is a scholar of, advocate for, and icon of American cinema,” said NEH Chairman Jim Leach. “He is the first filmmaker designated as a Jefferson Lecturer, but he follows in the tradition of earlier speakers like John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, and Arthur Miller in revealing a profound understanding and empathy for the human condition.”

Scorsese will present the 42nd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday, April 1, 2013, at 7:30 PM at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he will discuss the evolution of his films, the art of storytelling, and the inspiration he draws from the humanities.

The acclaimed director and producer of some 50 films, Scorsese has directed such landmark works as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006). His singular vision has helped define modern American film. Drawing inspiration from such wide-ranging sources as Fellini, Powell and Pressburger, Hitchcock, Dante, and Dostoyevsky, Scorsese is renowned for having expanded the boundaries of his art. His films, though incredibly diverse in subject and style, are reputed for their incorporation of camera and editing techniques from different genres and distinctive treatment of signature themes of isolation and tribal identity, violence and loss, guilt and redemption, faith and spirituality.

Underlying many of Scorsese’s films is a vital sense of place— in particular, a nostalgic reverence for his native New York, which he captured in meticulous detail in such films as Mean Streets (1973), The Age of Innocence (1993), and Gangs of New York (2002). He has grappled with universal questions of faith, grace, and religion in films like Kundun (1997) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). A music aficionado, Scorsese is known for both his distinctive use of music in film and his engagement with music and music-making in his documentaries The Last Waltz (1978), The Blues (2003), No Direction Home (2005), George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) and in his 1977 musical New York, New York. Films such as Hugo (2011), The Aviator (2004), the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and Il Mio Viaggio in Italia (1999) display his exhaustive knowledge of and passion for film and film history.

In addition to his work as a filmmaker, Scorsese is a champion of film preservation and education. In 1990, Scorsese established The Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history by providing support for preservation and restoration film projects at leading film archives. Since its inception, The Film Foundation has helped save over 560 motion pictures and has been instrumental in raising awareness of the need for film preservation. In 2007 he established the World Cinema Foundation, which works to preserve and distribute neglected global films from around the world, particularly from countries without the financial or technical means to do so.

Martin Scorsese was born in 1942 in Flushing, New York. His mania for film dates to the Italian films he watched as a child on television or local movie theaters with his family. By age eight, Scorsese was drawing his own storyboards, his vision of humanity shaped by the view through the fire escape of his grandmother’s Little Italy apartment. Scorsese studied at Washington Square College, now known as New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1964, and received a Masters in Fine Arts in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1966.

Scorsese is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including an Academy Award for Best Director for The Departed, which also took home the Oscar for Best Picture (2006), three Golden Globe awards for Best Director, an Emmy for Best Director for the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010) and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award (1997.) He received the 2010 Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 67th Golden Globe Awards, was awarded the Palme D’Or and Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, won the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, Emmys, and a Grammy Award. He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2005 for his contributions to cinema, honored at the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors, and awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2001.

The Jefferson Lecture is the Endowment’s most widely attended annual event. Past Jefferson Lecturers include Wendell Berry, Drew Gilpin Faust, John Updike, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Bernard Bailyn, Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, James McPherson, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert Penn Warren. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium, set by statute.

Tickets to the lecture are free of charge and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Ticket requests may be submitted through an online form on the NEH website ( which will be made available beginning on March 11. The April 1st Jefferson Lecture will also be live-streamed online. Check for further details.



Terry Mikesell

1/10/2013 12:00:00 AM

With its next series, the Wexner Center for the Arts will celebrate the rescue of the odd and the unusual.

“Avant-Garde Masters: A Decade of Preservation” will begin tonight with a series of short films introduced by Jeff Lambert, assistant director of the National Film Preservation Foundation in San Francisco.

According to the Film Foundation, which is dedicated to movie preservation and restoration, half of all American movies made before 1950, and more than 90 percent of films made before 1929, are lost.

Want to see The Way of All Flesh, the 1927 movie for which Emil Jannings won the first best-actor Academy Award? You can’t; the film is considered to be lost. The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a five-minute snippet of footage.

One of the culprits is the nitrate film stock that, before 1950, was the industry standard. Nitrate film easily decomposed and, even worse, was flammable. Acetate film, which replaced nitrate, tended to fade. Not until more-stable polyester film was created in the 1990s did the problem lessen.

Plus, before the secondary home-viewing market took off, out-of-circulation movies were often treated like old magazines and discarded.

“The nitrate film was expensive to ship and dangerous,” Lambert said in a phone interview. “At the end of its run, there were often instructions to just dispose of the prints. Luckily, there were projectionists and other people who held on to them.”

Hollywood has gotten behind the preservation effort. In 1990, director Martin Scorsese created the Film Foundation, which has salvaged more than 560 movies.

In 1992, Congress became involved by asking the Library of Congress to study film conservation. The resulting report led to the creation of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

“The mandate of the Film Preservation Foundation is to deal with the non-Hollywood films: home movies, industrial films, documentaries, educational films, travelogues,” Lambert said, “things that wouldn’t survive without public support, because there’s no market incentive.

“But they’re of immense historical interest — home movies by an African-American porter on a train from the 1950s. It’s very unique to get his point of view.”

Lambert was inspired to work in preservation as a student at San Francisco State University. There, he took a film-history class taught by Scott Simmon, a film scholar who had helped restore the single surviving copy of a 1920 Spanish movie.

“It was through his film-history class that my eyes were opened to the way that film preservation could help fill gaps in film history,” Lambert said in a subsequent email.

And he takes a glass-half-full approach to the statistics on the number of films lost.

“While . . . (the figures mentioned) seem discouraging, I’ve learned to take an optimist’s approach,” he wrote. “Instead of bemoaning what we think is lost, better to think of all the discoveries there are to uncover.”

Among the restored works to be screened at the Wexner are avante-garde films such as Cosmic Ray (Bruce Conner, 4 minutes, 1961), Prefaces (Abigail Child, 10 minutes, 1981), Rabbit’s Moon (Kenneth Anger, 16 minutes, 1950), and The Velvet Underground in Boston (Andy Warhol, 33 minutes, 1967).

On Wednesday, a tribute to the filmmaking Kuchar brothers will take place.Experimental filmmaking is near and dear to Lambert, who produced the DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde, 1947-1986 and is curating the foundation’s next set, Treasures 6: Next Wave Avant-Garde, due for release in 2013.

“There’s a certain freedom that the filmmakers take, the artists take,” he said. “It forces audiences to look at film in a different way than what they’re used to.

“When you come out of an avante-garde, you look at the world differently.”



Susan King

11/25/2012 12:00:00 AM

Alfred Hitchcock's restored silent film 'The Ring' screens at the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

With his acute sense of irony and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock would appreciate the fact that he's one of the hottest directors in the world even though he's been dead for 32 years.

Fans and critics have always been fascinated with the Master of Suspense, who directed such seminal films as 1940's "Rebecca," 1945's "Spellbound," 1946's "Notorious," 1954's "Rear Window," 1960's "Psycho" and 1963's "The Birds." But 2012 has been an exceptional year in the Hitchcock legacy.

For decades, the British Film Institute's periodical Sight and Sound's poll of critics named Orson Welles' 1941 masterwork "Citizen Kane" the best movie ever made. Then this summer, Hitchcock's 1958 psychological thriller "Vertigo" nudged "Kane" out of the top spot.

He's also the subject of two movies — HBO's "The Girl," which premiered in October, examining his Svengali relationship with actress Tippi Hedren during the making of "The Birds," and the just-released feature "Hitchcock," which chronicles the production of "Psycho" and his marriage to screenwriter Alma Reville.

Even before this recent hoopla, the British Film Institute unveiled its restoration of the 1927 Hitchcock silent film "The Ring" at the Cannes Film Festival in May "where it was received incredibly well," said Ellen Harrington, programmer at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The restored "The Ring" will have its U.S. premiere Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

The digital presentation will feature a new score by British jazz and hip-hop musician Soweto Kinch and the Soweto Kinch Septet which was composed and performed for the film's screening this summer at the London 2012 Festival. The film is part of the BFI's "Rescue the Hitchcock 9" project to digitally restore the nine surviving Hitchcock silent movies.

"It's probably the most extensive program that we have done," said Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive.

The only one missing from the list is 1926's "The Mountain Eagle," a melodrama Hitchcock later disparaged. "It seems to have been lost since the late 1920s," said Baker.

The BFI had received the original nitrate negative of "The Ring" in 1959. "When it came to us, it wasn't in great condition," said Baker. When the BFI made a copy of the damaged negative, all the inherent problems in the original were printed in the copy.

To make matters worse, the copying process "wasn't done as well it could have been. There were all kinds of blurring within the image in how it was printed. So we had real problems," Baker noted. "What we have managed to do in terms of stabilizing the picture, I still can't believe it."

Hitchcock scored a huge hit in 1927 with "The Lodger," an evocative thriller about a serial killer terrorizing women in London, where he began work on "The Ring." "The Ring" though is not a suspense thriller, but a melodrama about two boxers who are in love with the same woman. It is the only one of Hitchcock's films on which he has sole writing credit.

Carl Brisson stars as "One Round" Jack, a boxer working in a carnival show who loses a bout to Australian champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack also finds himself losing his girlfriend Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) to Bob. Though not the archetype "Hitchcock blond," Mabel is a coolly manipulative woman who doesn't hide her flirtations with Bob from Jack even after they marry.

"He was legitimately fascinated with boxing in his personal life," said Harrington. "There was a famous boxer named Albert Hall who appears in the film. Hitchcock had gone to see his championship bouts."

Though there are many sophisticated visual touches in the film — Hitchcock would return to the carnival milieu in 1942's "Saboteur" and 1951's "Strangers on a Train" — "it's very much not a Hitchcock movie," said UCLA Film and Television archive head Jan-Christopher Horak, who described it as an "English film melodrama."

"In other words, it is one of those films like his 'The Farmer's Wife,' which is made right around the same time," Horak said. "It is cut together well, the acting is fine, but it has not what we consider Hitchcock in terms of his themes and obsessions. I don't think he had found his voice yet."

Principal restoration funding provided by The Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation. Additional funding provided by Deluxe 142 and The Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation.



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