Thursday, May 5, 2011

In the Eyes of the Beholder

My friend Mark Topkin and I were sitting in the balcony of the Music Box Theatre one spring night in 1966, watching a performance of Hostile Witness (starring Ray Milland) when we simultaneously pointed to a section of the stage and whispered "The lighting stinks in that corner."  It's not that Jack Roffey's play was particularly boring. We were college students training our eyes and ears to sharpen our theatrical acuity.

As the old saying goes: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." While beauty may lie in the eyes of the beholder, a film's stature as a work of art will draw equally subjective responses. A new documentary entitled These Amazing Shadows examines why, when, and how certain American films have been deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and listed in The National Film Registry.

Directed by Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton, These Amazing Shadows documents the passage of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 and explains how this law set in motion a system to identify notable films. While the average moviegoer could probably care less about whether or not a film has been chosen by the Library of Congress, film aficionados will find this documentary a constant source of delight and, in some cases, validation.

These Amazing Shadows explains how items ranging from educational/propaganda films about how to seek shelter in the event of a nuclear explosion (Duck and Cover, The House in the Middle) to 1974's Blazing Saddles were chosen for this honor. A variety of talking heads (including directors, archivists, members of the National Film Preservation Board and the Librarian of Congress) explain why certain films reflect the American psyche -- either truthfully or in the ways we lie about ourselves.

Several years ago, a friend told me that my obesity gave me an extra advantage in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Why?  Supposedly, fat people take five seconds longer to burn up. Watching Duck and Cover and The House in the Middle (and enjoying its really cheesy score) more than a half century after they were filmed becomes an almost laughable experience considering how much we now know about the dangers of nuclear radiation.

These Amazing Shadows pays tribute to historic films and filmmakers in surprising ways:
As Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, notes:
“American film really transformed the way in which a young nation learned to express itself, express its exuberance, expose its problems, and reflect its hopes. It wasn’t simply a form of entertainment; it was living history…audio-visual history of the Twentieth century.”
These Amazing Shadows is chock full of cinematic trivia from people who share a passion for all kinds of film. Here's the trailer:

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While at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, I had a chance to attend a screening of Hong Sang-soo's new film entitled HaHaHa. This was one instance where I found myself wanting to like the film, but often frustrated by how much I felt I was missing due to the translation. The premise is fascinating and is best explained with the help of the production notes:
"Filmmaker Jo Moon-kyeung (Kim Sang Kyung) is planning to leave Seoul to live in Canada. Several days prior to his departure, he meets his close friend, film critic Bang Joong-sik (Yu Jun-Sang) at a nearby mountain to drink makgeolli, a traditional Korean rice wine. After a few rounds of drinks, they discover that they were both visiting same small seaside town (Tongyeong) at the same time. They decide to reveal their accounts of the trip over drinks under the condition that they only stick to pleasant memories.

Moon-kyeung was in Tongyeong to visit his mother (Yoon Yeo-jeong) before he left the country. During his stay, he met a cultural tour guide named Wang Seong-ok (Moon So-ri). Although he was attracted to her, she already had a boyfriend (Kim Kang-woo) who was a poet and ex-Marine. But Moon-kyeung managed to catch him cheating on Wang Seong-ok and finally won her heart.
Moon-kyeung (Kim Sang-kyung) and Wang Seong-ok (Moon So-ri)

Meanwhile, Joong-sik was in Tongyeong on a tryst with his secret lover, flight attendant Ahn Yeon-joo (Ye Ji-won). During his trip, he had a great time with his young poet friend -- who is now based in Tongyeong -- and the young poet’s girlfriend (who were, in fact, the very same couple that Moon-kyeung had encountered). He also got to meet many interesting people through the young poet.
Kim Kang-woo as the poet, Kang Jeong-ho
Without realizing that they were in the same place, at the same time, and with the same people, the two men’s reminiscences of a hot summer unfold like a catalogue of memories."
It's easy to get confused watching Hahaha and yet the film has an undeniable charm. One of the problems I had was that it was occasionally difficult to read the subtitles, which were moving at a fairly rapid clip. The other problem is that I'm sure there is a lot of cultural subtext that will be lost on American audiences.  Here's the trailer:

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