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COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

12/22/2020 12:00:00 PM

If you love the cinema, you live with it. The films that comprise its history and the most precious manifestations of its particular power and beauty live with you in turn. You evolve and so does your relationship with individual films. Sometimes you grow away from them: they reveal their fault lines and their weaknesses and you come to see that the you of a particular time and age completed the film for itself. But there are other films—very, very few—that become more emotionally complex and uncanny with each new viewing.

To grow up in the 60s and 70s with parents and grandparents and a television set was to live through the 30s and 40s and 50s through their eyes as they watched the films they’d first seen as children and young adults. So, I saw Dodsworth for the first time on television. I don’t remember the circumstances, I just knew that my parents liked it and that I liked it, and that I found it very special without really knowing why. The older I got, the more it moved me. Watching the Academy/Film Foundation restoration on a big screen one year ago, with a packed audience that included William Wyler’s daughters Catherine and Melanie, was a deeply moving experience for me.

Dodsworth is a film about misplaced devotion and the freedom to become yourself. It is deeply felt by its director, who translates his feelings into cinema. It is, unlike many other American films of its era, absolutely frank about adult matters like who is sleeping with whom and what love is and isn’t. The opening image of a slumped Sam Dodsworth, not just acted but embodied by Walter Huston, looking out for the last time on the auto factory he’s created and is leaving behind…Dodsworth on the deck of the Queen Mary making the transatlantic crossing, gazing out like a wonderstruck boy at Bishop’s Light on the English coast as a fur-clad Mary Astor calls out to him from her deck chair…the stunning confrontation between Dodsworth, his wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) and her European lover (Paul Lukas) when he’s caught them red-handed…Fran’s chilling encounter with the traditional Viennese mother of a second lover…I could go on and on and on about moments big and small, the subtle inflections and gestures that are the lifeblood of all great films. I’ll just say that Dodsworth builds unassumingly to a final confrontation between man and wife that is perfectly staged, eternally shocking, deeply stirring, and genuinely deserving of a term that has been severely cheapened through overuse: life-affirming.

See you in 2021.

- Kent Jones

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COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

12/16/2020 12:00:00 PM

Sometimes, the act of preservation is the film.

W.C. Fields, a man of the 19th century, started on the music hall circuit as “the Tramp Juggler,” remade himself as the “Eccentric Juggler,” and he gradually came to be known (or publicized) as the world’s greatest juggler. Before he turned 20, he was supporting his family with his increasingly elaborate act, and he toured the world. He began to incorporate little remarks and exclamations and asides into his routine. He moved onto vaudeville and then to Broadway, where he made the transition to comedy, and then the Ziegfeld Follies, where he became a full-blown sensation. He appeared in a few silent films but he became a film star with the coming of sound. Between 1930 and 1933, he made a series of two-reelers that were built around his persona and his almost supernatural comic timing, physical and verbal, and a merciless sense of humor that would enshrine him, along with The Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart, as a countercultural icon long after his death.

I’m not sure if The Fatal Glass of Beer, restored by UCLA with the help of The Film Foundation, is my favorite of the shorts, but it’s by far the most outlandish. It looks like it was shot in a matter of hours rather than days, on sets constructed by underpaid carpenters between lengthy visits to the bar. Visually, it makes an average Brady Bunch episode look like a Mizoguchi movie. But the ramshackle nature of the enterprise is part of the point and crucial to Fields’ act—everything, including the man himself, seems to be on the verge of falling apart and then falls back together again. The humor of this particular film is satirical in nature, and the targets are great white north rescue melodramas and the mid-19th century theatrical sensation The Drunkard.

To people with no knowledge of these reference points and no sense of Fields’ popularity, The Fatal Glass of Beer might be as incomprehensible as Babylonian cuneiform. But I think that “accessibility,” especially when it’s “immediate,” is a severely overrated attribute of movies or literature. In the case of many of the films that I love, I was intrigued or sparked by something within them before I fully understood them. In the case of The Fatal Glass of Beer and the other Fields shorts, I would suggest watching them for the first time with a child by your side, if at all possible.

**

Today, on a personal note, I want to remember someone who passed away this year, largely without notice. Robert Geisler, known to his friends and many acquaintances as Bobby, would have turned 69 yesterday. He and his old partner in life and business, John Roberdeau (who died in 2002), have three film credits to their names on IMDb, the last of which is The Thin Red Line. Bobby had many more projects that he tried mightily to get off the ground, for the stage and the screen, right up to the end. He was a dreamer, on an elaborate scale, and his dreams kept him alive. He was a true believer, and I never met anyone else quite like him. Yesterday, his mother Ann made a donation to The Film Foundation in his name. That would have made him smile.

- Kent Jones

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COMMEMORATING 30 YEARS OF TFF

12/10/2020 10:00:00 AM

When I was young, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was not universally considered to be a classic. For one thing, it wasn’t so easy to see. Plus, despite its enormous initial success in Great Britain, it had wound up in an odd category of films from the 40s and early 50s that were designed to bring high culture to the masses—Fantasia, Carnegie Hall, Invitation to the Dance, I’ve Always Loved You and the Archers’ later Tales of Hoffmann offer further examples. And, on the occasions that it did appear on television and in repertory theatres, the quality of the image was substandard. There were severe problems with the color registration, creating a disorienting halo effect around characters and objects. It’s the kind of thing we’ve all grown used to seeing in before-and-after restoration demonstrations included as supplements on Blu-Rays and DVDs. It was once commonplace.

I used to believe that a great film can shine through all intrusions, limitations and corrosions. But that was before digital restoration tools. To see films like Ugetsu, Pather Panchali, Giant and Detour brought back to life has been a startling experience—as Geoffrey O’Brien once said, you realize that you haven’t really seen these films before. And as Martin Scorsese has pointed out, the poor registration and the lack of definition we used to live with affected the performances—you often couldn’t see the eyes of the actors clearly—hence the emotional impact, hence the clarity of the narrative, hence the film.

I’ve admired The Red Shoes for a long time, but I have to admit that I have rarely been as stunned as I was when I sat down in the theatre in Cannes and saw the UCLA restoration, three years in the making. I immediately forgot that I’d ever seen it before—it was like watching a brand new film, and it made almost everything else around it seem paltry and small. I knew how much work and loving attention had gone into that restoration, made possible by The Film Foundation, the Louis B. Mayer Foundation and HFPA. Bob Gitt and his team at UCLA worked in association with the BFI, ITV and Janus, and Thelma Schoonmaker was closely involved at absolutely every stage.

The film throbs with emotion from the very first frames of the doormen waiting nervously before they open the doors to the waiting horde of students rushing up the stairs like a flash flood to get gallery seats for a ballet performance. The film is about art—making it, experiencing it, living for it and dying for it. Actually, the word “about” is wrong, because it implies a theoretical distance that has no part in The Red Shoes. The passion of art is felt from behind and before the camera, it’s felt in the artistry of every craftsman and every actor, and it’s felt in every cut and every choice made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And that passion is also felt in the restoration, which is the greatest I’ve ever seen.

- Kent Jones

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Top movies to stream include Greta Thunberg documentary and Martin Scorsese picks

Jack Coyle

12/10/2020 7:00:00 AM

“I Am Greta” premieres Friday on Hulu.

“I Am Greta” premieres Friday on Hulu. (Courtesy of Hulu/AP)

Here’s a collection of top movies to stream this week.

“I Am Greta”

Hulu

When Greta Thunberg began protesting outside Swedish Parliament two years ago, it only took days for director Nathan Grossman to start trailing her in her mission to prod government leaders on the climate crisis. “I Am Greta,” which premieres Friday on Hulu, documents the enormous movement fueled by Thunberg’s one-person school strike, and a few very surreal years for the Swedish teenager. Along the way, she meets world leaders, speaks at the United Nations and reckons with her newfound notoriety.

This image released by Apple shows filmmakers Clive Oppenheimer, left, and Werner Herzog behind the scenes of “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” a documentary about meteors and comets, premiering globally on Apple TV+ on November 13. (Apple via AP)

This image released by Apple shows filmmakers Clive Oppenheimer, left, and Werner Herzog behind the scenes of “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” a documentary about meteors and comets, premiering globally on Apple TV+ on November 13. (Apple via AP) (AP)

“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”

Apple TV+

Is there a more simply compelling equation for a documentary than Werner Herzog + meteorites? In “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds,” Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer ponder the mythic, spiritual gravitational pull of meteors and comets on humanity — and on Herzog, himself. Having already surveyed volcanoes with his co-director in “Into the Inferno,” Herzog here turns his gaze to the cosmos to rhapsodize on the hunks of rocks hurtling through space. On Apple TV+ Friday.

Director Martin Scorsese poses for photographers upon arrival at the opening ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Director Martin Scorsese poses for photographers upon arrival at the opening ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP) (Vianney Le Caer/Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Criterion Channel’s Film Foundation series

Criterion Channel

Three decades ago, Martin Scorsese founded the Film Foundation. Since then, it has been a critical bulwark of film preservation, saving an enormous number of movies from deterioration and illuminating the brilliance of countless others. Over 30 years, the nonprofit organization has aided in some 850 restorations. To celebrate the Film Foundation, the Criterion Channel on Sunday will begin a 30-film series, set to expand over the next year, featuring some of the titles given new life by Scorsese’s creation. Among them: “The Red Shoes,” “It Happened One Night,” “Ugetsu,” “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Primary.”

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