Thursday, July 29, 2010

Through Child-Like Eyes

As our world grows increasingly cynical, true innocence becomes a surprisingly precious commodity. We hear so many lies from corporate executives -- and so much feigned innocence from media whores and celebutards -- that we often must turn to simpler minds to remember the joy of discovery, the freedom of unabashed delight, and the ecstatic glee of an unexpected moment of happiness.

As the following two videos demonstrate, dogs (even after learning certain types of behavior) do a remarkable job of retaining their innocence. Indeed, for some dogs there are tricks that can never grow stale.

Capturing a genuine sense of innocence onscreen is easier said than done. When working with kids, one has to find children who are not self conscious, who can just relax and be themselves. If kids feel that they have to perform for the cameraman, their actions become more calculated. If they are being manipulated by parents and/or directors, their smiles can seem artificial. Their behavior can quickly become forced.

Two new films capture a childlike kind of innocence from very different perspectives. In one, a child takes delight in the world around him. In another, a mentally challenged young woman does the best she can to cope with a sudden change in her surroundings.

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Written and directed by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio, Alamar (To The Sea) focuses on the last summer a five-year-old boy will be able to share with his father and grandfather. Natan (Natan Machado Palombini) was conceived during a period when his parents were young, impetuous, and not really thinking about the future. His father (Jorge Machado) is a fisherman of Mayan descent who lives an extremely simple life in a watery paradise. His mother (Roberta Palombini) lives halfway around the world in the bustling environment that is modern-day Rome.

If there are many moments when Alamar feels like a documentary, that's because the filmmaker has chosen to let nature take its course. The audience watches Natan and his father leave the city, travel to Jorge's remote water house on stilts, and spend the summer fishing with Natan's grandfather (Nestor Marin). Some of their catch is sold, but they eat most of what they take from the ocean.

Natan spends his summer learning how to fish (a newly hooked barracuda puts up one hell of a fight), dive for lobsters, and be careful about the crocodile that lurks under his father's shack. He happily chases after an elusive white egret he has nicknamed Blanquita, all while living in a home with minimal electricity that is far from the civilized life he leads in Rome. As Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio writes in his director's notes:
"I first traveled to the Mexican Caribbean at a very young age. Some of the images in my mind are of dirt roads surrounded by a dense jungle, crabs and iguanas crossing it, a sea with plenty of colorful fish right underneath the pier. Six years ago I moved to Playa del Carmen, probably driven by that childhood experience. Many things had changed. What once used to be a fishermens' village now was the epicenter of the fastest growing urbanization in Mexico.

At this touristic oriented development area, I've witnessed the lack of environmental awareness: the destruction of an extensive coral reef to make a long dock for cruise ships, the destruction of hectares of mangrove along the coastline to build big chain hotels, polluting the sea with sewage water, hence affecting the whole ecosystem of the area and pushing many of its species to an ill-fated future.

Banco Chinchorro, the main location where the documentary takes place, was declared a Natural Reserve of the Biosphere in 1996 by UNESCO and serious efforts are being made to make it a World Heritage Site. It is home to thousands of different species and the biggest coral reef extension in our country. By photographing and developing a story based on the current relation between man and his habitat in Chinchorro, I intend to portray my love for this region and the admiration and respect I have towards the lives of its fishermen.

Natan Machado Palombini

I didn't want to take a distant or intellectual approach in this film. What I wanted was to achieve a visual experience that could trigger emotions of empathy with the characters. During the same time of research I was working on a story based on a father and son relationship. In Alamar I was inspired by the simplicity of happiness.

The day-to-day activities at Chinchorro and the interaction with Matraca, the old fisherman, resulted in a perfect experience for Natan to learn about an ancestral interaction between man and nature. He is a child who moves between both worlds: one an austere life while spending time with his dad and the other in urban society along with his mother. Not that any of the realities is better than the other. They are simply different. The child is able to be himself in both, free from any preconception or judgement. I tried to focus on the boy’s point of view, to accomplish a pure feeling in every way.

The main location embraced the characters naturally as if they belonged there, in a timeless sense to the environment. But the idea of impermanence is present in the characters’ reality from the very first moments of the story to the last frame. The father’s decision with the present is to go back to his origins in order to teach his son the true values in life."
Natan Machado Palombini and Jorge Machado

Watching Alamar is a very curious experience. Much of the film feels like a nature documentary with the human interest factor hovering in the background. However, Alamar also depicts the kind of easy bonding between father and son that many people never had. Set in a watery paradise far from urban congestion, the film offers viewers a visit to a lifestyle that is unimaginable to city dwellers.

What Gonzalez-Rubio does, however, is show that although Natan's parents have grown apart from each other (and no longer share any interests other than their son), they both accept and respect each other's choices. Unlike many couples that have separated, there is no vindictiveness or sniping between them. They both want the best for Natan and take great joy in watching him develop. Here's the trailer:

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A deeply moving film from Argentina, Anita was recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Written and directed by Marcos Carnavale, Anita stars Alejandra Manzo as a young woman with Down syndrome whose life is shattered after a terrorist bomb explodes in her neighborhood.

Anita Feldman and her mother Dora (Norma Aleandro) live above a small stationary store in Buenos Aires. Anita's brother, Ariel (Peto Menahem), is a tense business executive whose obsession with soccer causes him to renege on his promise to take Anita to the zoo. Although they have a long-established dance routine in which he pretends to be the "turdy monster" whenever he greets Anita, his devotion to his developmentally disabled sister is genuine.

Alejandra Manzo as Anita Feldman

On July 18, 1994, a terrorist attack on the Acociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, killed 85 people and injured many more. In Carnavale's film, Anita's mother has just left to run an errand to the AMIA building and promised her daughter that she will return "when the big hand [of the clock] hits the top." Dora is killed when the car bomb explodes. The blast from the explosion knocks Anita off a ladder as she tries to tidy up in the store.

Alejandra Manzo as Anita Feldman

As Anita crawls out of the wreckage and heads into the street, she has no way of knowing that her mother is dead. Because of her limited vocabulary and difficulty communicating with strangers, she finds it hard to identify herself or even ask for help. Although in her late teens, the only name by which she knows her mother is "Mommy." She doesn't know her home address or how to contact her brother.

What Carnavale's film demonstrates is just how easy it is for someone like Anita to become invisible or be treated as an annoyance in a big city. As she wanders the sidewalks of Buenos Aires in a daze, people rush by her.
  • A street performer tells Anita to move away from his spot and stop cramping his style.
  • As she leaves the examining room in a local hospital, no one notices her exit in the midst of a crisis.
  • A drunk photographer (Luis Luque) gives Anita shelter for two nights, but eventually ditches her on a city bus.
  • The owner of a small Chinese grocery store keeps accusing Anita of trying to steal food until the owner's mother invites the confused young woman to dinner.
  • A scavenger finds Anita hiding under a highway during a downpour and brings her home to his sister, Nori (Leonor Manso), who is a registered nurse.
Meanwhile, Ariel and his wife have all but given up hope that Anita could still be alive. When word finally reaches them that she has been found, Ariel is afraid the news could be a hoax.

Although there is much to admire in Anita, this film is no tearjerker. Alejandra Manzo gives a breakout performance in the title role, mostly by just being herself. Whereas Natan (the young boy in Alamar) is innocent and capable of soaking in new knowledge like a sponge, Anita is using what little knowledge she can access in order to survive. Anita is a magnificent story -- a film that should not be missed. Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Confronting Our Baser Instincts

Corruption has become the backbone of American business and politics. Whether it involves bribing elected officials through perks offered by lobbyists or using substandard materials on a construction project, someone is always looking for ways to peddle influence, cheat on materials, skim money off a contract, or scam potential victims. While some people think of corruption only in terms of power and money, the corruption of basic thought processes reaches deeper into our society than ever before.
The folks at decided to give Breitbart a taste of his own medicine by using his own editing techniques to produce the following video:

Unfortunately, MoveOn's efforts cannot undo the damage done to Shirley Sherrod. Nor will it get equal time from the media outlets that rushed to air Breitbart's video. In Emily Brown's recent essay on ("I Will Write Your College Essay For Cash") she stated that:
"My next client, whom I actively solicited on Craigslist, wanted me to write an ethics paper. She had no idea this entailed irony of any kind. She had no idea what the word 'irony' meant, until I used it in her essay and sent her a link to a dictionary definition.
I sell my services under the pseudonym 'Charles Darwin.' Not a single client seems to realize that's not my real name. While I'm happy to do college and grad school work, doing high school work (especially work contracted by a parent so unimpressed with her own child's intellect that she's trawling Craigslist) seems deeply wrong. Disturbingly wrong, like something akin to child abuse. My college students and grad students don't affect me that way. They're adults. They're ruined already."
For a sexual predator like Don Juan, nothing beats the thrill of deflowering a virgin. For a con artist, new challenges are just over the horizon. But for the intellectual snob, nothing beats corrupting the mind and destroying the integrity of an innocent, well-meaning person.

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Last year, when CentralWorks offered the world premiere of Machiavelli's The Prince, I was struck by the playwright's skill at making Machiavelli's treatise on the use of power so relevant to contemporary politics. My reaction was primarily with regard to the Bush administration (which had been accused by John Dilulio of being micromanaged by Karl Rove's team of "Mayberry Machiavellis."

CentralWorks recently revived this production, which was inspired by Machiavelli's so-called "handbook for tyrants." A year after its premiere, playwright Gary Graves seems to have grown even more prescient. As one listens to his description of the corruption and decay in Florence, one can't help but compare the playwright's references to failing infrastructure, homelessness, public apathy, and the loss of a general fund to the crises America faces today.

Mark Farrell as Machiavelli (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with the use of deceitful measures in power struggles (whether they involve political intrigue or flat-out war). But his writings have proven remarkably accurate. This time around, many of his references seem to be aimed at the Obama administration for its growing defensiveness and naive clumsiness in using political capital to keep its enemies at bay.

Essentially, Machiavelli's The Prince involves a battle of wits between two men: the young Prince Lorenzo who has suddenly risen to great power and his former tutor (Machiavelli) who has become a master of political intrigue. The younger man is extremely idealistic, wanting to make peace with his enemies and restore Florence to its former greatness. He finds it extremely difficult to believe how cynical his former teacher (who has been banished from the city) has become.

A former diplomat, Machiavelli has evolved into a master manipulator who is more than willing to twist his way into his former student's mind in the hope of infiltrating the current circle of power and authority.

Cole Alexander Smith as Prince Lorenzo (Photo: Jay Yamada)

This year's production offers a new cast, with Mark Farrell as Machiavelli and Cole Alexander Smith as the Prince. Both men offer carefully etched performances which keep the audience on edge throughout the play's 70 minutes.

Kudos to Graves (who also directed the play) and Gregory Scharpen (whose sound design offers a subtle underpinning to the battle of wits between the two protagonists). It isn't often that a play challenges its audience to wrestle with so much information while the moral values of each argument are delivered with such passion and intensity. Machiavelli's The Prince continues through August 22nd at the Berkeley City Club (you can order tickets here).

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It's one thing to foment evil. It's quite another to accuse everyone else of being evil. Recently, the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented a rare screening of 1922's Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages. This film is essentially a lecture on how the men of the Catholic church exercised their misogyny during the Middle Ages by accusing women of practicing witchcraft.

Poster art for Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages

Written and directed by Benjamin Christensen (who had become fascinated with the text of the Malleus Maleficarum), Haxan became the most expensive silent film ever made in Scandinavia. Christensen appears in the film as both Jesus Christ and Satan.

Haxan was initially banned in the United States for its graphic depictions of nudity, torture, and acts of sexual perversion. However, when seen by a modern audience, the film proves to be highly educational in unexpected ways.

Apparently, one of the superstitions surrounding witchcraft was that people who were witches had willingly kissed Satan's ass. The film also suggests that the general lack of knowledge about such illnesses as sleepwalking, kleptomania, Parkinson's disease, and senile dementia probably caused many women to be accused of witchcraft during the Inquisition.

Add in layers of superstition (promoted by supposedly pious men of the cloth) and one can easily see how mass hysteria was generated, often with tragic results. Torture quickly became a sure way to get frightened and confused women to confess to their own witchcraft. It also helped to deliver the names of other women suspected of worshipping Satan.

Because the screening started nearly an hour behind schedule (this was the last of six programs presented on Saturday, July 17th), Haxan did not let out until nearly 12:15 a.m. Those who stayed through to the bitter end (many remained in their seats just to hear Sweden's acclaimed Matti Bye Ensemble accompany the film) should be saluted for their determination. Haxan is currently available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Here's a trailer:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Meanwhile, Down On The Peninsula

With so much happening on Bay area stages, it's all too easy to narrow one's focus to events taking place in San Francisco and the East Bay. Doing so would be a disservice to arts organizations on the Peninsula that stretches from San Francisco down to San Jose.

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1972, a friend drove me down to Stanford University for a performance by the Harkness Ballet. Since then, some of the Peninsula's arts organizations have succumbed to funding problems or merged with other companies.

Long before Silicon Valley businesses became a potent source of arts funding, community orchestras and theatre groups were evolving into major organizations and regional theatre companies. What began as the San Mateo Community Theatre subsequently morphed into the Peninsula Civic Light Opera in 1983 and since 1999, has been known as Broadway By The Bay.

For many years, the company's performances have taken place in the drab San Mateo Performing Arts Center (the auditorium for San Mateo High School). With that facility closing for repairs and renovations, the company has announced that it will be moving its performances to the Fox Theatre, a 1600-seat former movie palace that was built in Redwood City in 1929 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. As the company celebrates its 45th anniversary, the Fox's Spanish-Moorish interior and Gothic Revival exterior will be a welcome relief from the bland functionality of the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.

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Last week I attended two performances produced by Broadway By The Bay that could not have been more different. On the main stage, the company was offering a revival of Annie, a 1977 musical with a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip by cartoonist Harold Gray, the musical ran for six years on Broadway and has remained popular with regional audiences as a family attraction that is almost guaranteed to do well at the box office.

Annie (Maya Donato) with Sandy (Scooter)

Call me a curmudgeon, but when I first saw Annie 30 years ago I could not, for the life of me, fathom what everyone was screaming about. Revisiting the musical only confirmed my impression that, as a stage property, it is a ploddingly mechanical and manipulative beast that is surprisingly lacking in charm. If you're the kind of person who does not find child actors totally endearing, irresistibly adorable, and hopelessly cute, Annie may not be your cup of tea.

Annie (Maya Donato) comforts another orphan
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

What is it, then, that continues to draw audiences to this show? Some of its musical numbers ("Tomorrow," "Easy Street," and "It's A Hard Knock Life") have strong appeal. Others ("I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," "We'd Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover," "You Won't Be An Orphan For Long," "Something Was Missing," and "A New Deal For Christmas") induce yawns.

While Miss Hannigan's big number ("Little Girls") offers lots of opportunities for comic mugging and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile" captures the sound and spirit of early radio, most of Annie's script lumbers around the stage with a perplexing heaviness. Even the big production number "N.Y.C." becomes an oddly mechanical and deflating experience.

Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks (Curt Denham) and Annie (Maya Donato)
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

I don't think this is the fault of William Liberatore's occasionally slow tempos or Bill Carrico's sound design (which added an extra level of shrillness to the voices of the younger members of the cast). I think it just comes with the territory. Annie is a very old fashioned show which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

What did surprise me was how timely some of the dialogue between Daddy Warbucks and Franklin Delano Roosevelt became when talk turned to government's so-called responsibilities toward business. The production was well directed by Alex Perez with choreography by Katie Kerwin. Maya Donato displayed a firm voice and appealing personality in the title role while Curt Denham worked hard to animate Oliver Warbucks.

The shtick that keeps the show alive rests on the shoulders of the villains, most notably Noel Anthony as Rooster Hannigan, Brittany Ogle as Lily St. Regis (named after the hotel), and Cami Thompson as the evil Miss Hannigan (a solidly sung performance which often seemed to be channeling Bette Midler).

In smaller roles, Juliet Heller was appropriately ingratiating as Grace Farrell, Ryan Halprin had some nice bits of business as Drake, Shaun Repetto was a slick Bert Healy, and Don Cima milked the role of FDR as much as possible. As is the case in many performances of Annie, the most genuine performance came from Scooter as Annie's dog, Sandy.

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On the other side of Highway 101, at the Bayside Performing Arts Center (which functions as the school auditorium for the Bayside Science, Technology, Mathematics & Engineering Academy), singer, songwriter, and jazz pianist Jason Robert Brown did double duty on Saturday by conducting a master class for young performers in Broadway By The Bay's Youth Theatre Conservatory during the afternoon and performing a solo benefit concert in the evening. To say that Brown's concert had all the vitality, electricity, and wit that Annie so sorely lacked would be a severe understatement.

In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, Brown is one of America's most promising songwriters for the musical theatre. Although he frequently performs with his band (The Caucasian Rhythm Kings), he has yet to play any gigs in San Francisco. Hopefully, this situation can be remedied by the folks at Yoshi's or The Rrazz Room.

Brown's wit radiates in lyrics to numbers like "The Stars and the Moon" and "Surabaya Santa" (from 1995's Songs For A New World). But what proved most exciting and fascinating for me on Saturday night was his dexterity as a jazz pianist and the skill of his arrangements.

Singer-songwriter Jason Robert Brown

In between bantering with the audience, Brown performed songs from several of his shows. I particularly enjoyed "The Old Red Hills of Home" (from Parade), "Moving Too Fast" (from 2002's The Last Five Years), "Being A Geek" (from 2007's 13), and three songs from 2005's Wearing Someone Else's Clothes ("Nothing In Common," "I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You," and "Over").

I'm always fascinated to watch a singer-songwriter perform his own work, particularly because of the skill required to accompany yourself while performing. A joyous clip of Brown singing the hilarious When You Say Vegas (from Honeymoon In Vegas) on YouTube that is well worth watching.

Jason Robert Brown

In recent seasons, some of San Francisco's smaller theatre companies have staged productions of Songs For A New World and The Last Five Years. The students in Broadway By The Bay's Youth Theater Conservatory will be performing Brown's latest musical, 13, from August 5-8. You can order tickets here.

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In May of 1990, the Portland Opera presented the world premiere of a challenging new musical drama. Meg Bussert starred in Christopher Drobny's opera, Lucy's Lapses, about a woman who knew she was losing her mind to Alzheimer's and had to find a way to kill herself while she could still think straight.

A new play by Laura Schellhardt which is currently receiving its world premiere production from Theatreworks down in Palo Alto introduces the audience to a dysfunctional family almost as hopeless as the one in Drobny's opera. As directed by Meredith McDonough, Auctioning the Ainsleys demands that its audience rise to the challenge of dealing with some fairly wild concepts that race across the stage almost as quickly as knowledge is disappearing from the brain of the family's matriarch. The characters onstage include:
  • Alice Ainsley (Diane Dorsey), an elderly woman who knows that she will soon die. Alice is rapidly losing her memory and has hired a young man to help her record her thoughts while she can still articulate them. Her late husband was a popular auctioneer whose gavel traumatized each of their children.
  • Avery Ainsley (Heidi Kettenring), Alice's oldest daughter. The only Ainsley who managed to leave home and develop a life of her own, Avery has has not returned to the Ainsley Auction House for 15 years. With a gift for rapid-fire speech, she followed in her father's professional footsteps and became a talented auctioneer. For some unknown reason, she always wears a red rubber glove on her right hand.
  • Annalee Ainsley (Molly Anne Coogan), Alice's middle daughter. Annalee has manically been trying to file things according to a unique system that only she understands. Whenever people start annoying her -- or she begins to feel overwhelmed -- Annalee relies on the bizarre techniques her therapist has given her to cope with stress.
  • Amelia Ainsley (Jessica Lynn Carroll), Alice's youngest daughter. Amelia is obsessed with pairing objects together. She firmly believes that she can match people up according to to their belongings. If only her own marriage could be managed so easily!
  • Aiden Ainsley (Liam Vincent), Alice's only son. A gay man who is also a control freak, Aiden hates clutter and has "issues."
  • Arthur (Lance Gardner), the young man Alice recently hired. It doesn't take Arthur long to realize that he's dealing with a severely dysfunctional family. Nor does it take him long to fall in love with Aiden.
Avery (Heidi Kettenring) and Amelia Ainsley (Jessica Lynn Carroll)
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

I first saw Auctioning the Ainsleys in a staged reading last August as part of the 2009 New Works Festival at Theatreworks. At the time, I had trouble imagining how some of the scene transitions and various bits of stage business would be managed. Thanks to the witty set and costume design by Annie Smart (which positions the Ainsley Auction House on a rotating turntable with Aiden living in a basement apartment) and Meredith McDonough's spry stage direction, those problems have been nicely solved.

What's important to understand about Schellhardt's play is that it should not be taken too literally. While much of Auctioning the Ainsleys is about letting go of the possessions one has allowed to define one's life, a great deal of the play is also about pacing, appreciating the musical beats in the script, and enjoying the many absurdities to be found in a family with three adult children who have never left home. As the playwright explains:
"Recently I've become obsessed with the idea that we're given a finite amount of time in this life to do (or not do) something important. It's too easy to take that time for granted without stopping to consider where you are at any given moment. Recently, it seems time goes by incredibly fast.

I became equally obsessed with what it might feel like if everything we had to show for our lives began to disappear, piece by piece. That's where the character of Alice began. A woman who's had a long and complicated life waking up one morning to discover all the remnants of that life are disappearing before her eyes."
Avery (Heidi Kettenring) and Annalee Ainsley (Molly Anne Coogan)
(Photo by: Tracy Martin)

It takes a while for the audience to grasp the rhythms in Schellhardt's dialogue and latch onto the farcical nature of what could otherwise be an extremely depressing moment in a family's life. Auctioning the Ainsleys is also one of the few new plays I've seen in recent years whose second act is much stronger than its first.

I especially liked the performances of Molly Anne Coogan as the intensely manic Annalee and Liam Vincent as her pissy gay brother, Aiden. Lance Gardner's Arthur and Heidi Kettenring's Avery helped move the action along. The following clip offers a sense of the play's absurdist charm:

Auctioning the Ainsleys continues at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 8 (you can order tickets here). While this play may be an acquired taste, it has a unique charm that makes for an entertaining -- and often challenging -- evening in the theatre.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Women On The Verge of A Breakthrough

During the early 1960s theatergoers noticed a curious phenomenon among new shows opening on Broadway. It seemed as if there was a contest to see who could create the longest title to cram on a theater marquee. Among the top contenders were:
While trying out in Detroit and Washington, D.C., a new musical directed and choreographed by Gower Champion labored under the clumsy title of Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman. After its producer, David Merrick, heard a recording of a song Jerry Herman had written by famed jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, he quickly changed the name of the show to "Hello, Dolly!" Through a series of brilliant casting coups, Merrick managed to keep it running for 2,844 performances at the St. James Theatre.

To be sure, Dolly Levi isn't the only exasperating woman to be found on stage and screen. Who can forget Ruth Gordon's geriatric sexpot in Harold and Maude, Lucille Ball's antics on I Love Lucy, Vicki Lawrence's characterization of Thelma Harper, or Bea Arthur's sharp-tongued Maude Findlay? What about such classically difficult women as William Shakespeare's bloodthirsty Lady Macbeth, Jean Giradoux's wily Madwoman of Chaillot, or Euripides' tragic Medea? Each of these women had what we now politely refer to as "issues."

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Lots of people get stoned in Agora. However, very few of them end up giggling about it. Written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, Agora is set in Roman Egypt in 391. A..D. Covering a period of intense religious and political unrest in which Christians hate Jews and Romans hate Egyptians, one thing remains constant. Men -- particularly hyperreligious and stupid warrior types -- really hate smart women.

Enter Hypatia of Alexandria (Rachel Weisz), a Greek philosopher, gifted mathematician, aspiring astronomer, and budding atheist. In other words, a damned exasperating woman! The proud daughter of Theon of Alexandria (Michael Lonsdale), Hypatia is seen teaching an all-male class of students as the movie opens.
  • One of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), who is very impressed with himself, is surprised that Hypatia would reject his advances. As the years go by, Orestes converts to Christianity and becomes Governor of Alexandria.
  • Although he is not one of her students, Hypatia's surprisingly intelligent slave, Davus (Max Minghella), also attends her lectures. Davus is deeply in love with Hypatia, but his love is unrequited.
  • Another student (Rupert Evans) grows up to become Synesius of Cyrene.
Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and her slave Davus (Max Minghella)

Over the years, as her students grow into powerful politicians and religious leaders, Hypatia keeps wrestling with the mysteries of the night sky. An early believer in heliocentrism (which postulates that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun), she eventually discovers that the planets travel along elliptical rather than circular paths and that the sun is one of two foci in each ellipse.

When violence erupts between the pagans and the Christians, Hypatia takes refuge in the library of the Serapeum. Soon she is struggling to save the knowledge of classical antiquity contained in Alexandria's famous library as she tries to prevent the library's scrolls from being destroyed.

Hypatia's father was also the uncle of Saint Cyril of Alexandria (Sami Samir), the Bishop of Alexandria. As the leader of the Christians, Cyril (who resents Hypatia's influence over Orestes) tries to force her to convert to Christianity. After she refuses, Cyril condemns her and orders that Hypatia be stoned to death. Davus softens her death by suffocating her instead. As the film's star, Rachel Weisz notes:
"Really, nothing has changed. I mean, we have huge technological advances and medical advances. But in terms of people killing each other in the name of God, fundamentalism still abounds. In certain cultures, women are still second-class citizens, and they’re denied education."
Rachel Weisz with the cast of Agora

As much as I love historical fiction on the silver screen, Agora can be a very frustrating film to watch. It sometimes leaves viewers with the feeling that they are watching two movies (one about astronomy, intellectual integrity, and individual freedom and the other about old-fashioned macho rivalries). Agora's script ranges from the radical to the ridiculous. Much of the cast's acting ricochets between preachy philosophizing and political pomposity.

The film's near schizophrenic approach to examining Hypatia's life could easily prevent viewers from seeing this film. The best way to enjoy Agora may very well be to ignore much of the story and instead focus on its abundance of visual riches.

Unlike many modern films that use CGI scripting for battle scenes, special effects, and as a means of reproducing a different era, the huge sets for Agora were built on the island of Malta where the film was shot. If you have a passion for Egyptian history and artifacts, you'll want to see this film simply for its recreation of period detail.

The fact that Amenabar ends up relying on CGI scripting for his journeys into outer space (in order to give a better perspective on the film's astronomical issues) becomes a slight annoyance compared to the richness of Xavi Giménez's cinematography and Frank Walsh's superb art direction. Here's the trailer:

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Over the years, one of the responsibilities embraced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been to introduce audiences to neglected masterpieces. The Woman Disputed (a 1928 melodrama starring Norma Talmadge as the patriotic prostitute who saves Austria's independence) definitely qualifies as such a film.

Although it was not embraced by the critics at its premiere, when screened during the recent 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The Woman Disputed proved to have a powerful story centered around a woman torn between conflicting loyalties.

Norma Talmadge as Mary Ann Wagner

As the film opens, a man is seen running and looking for a place to hide. With the help of Mary Ann Wagner (Norma Talmadge) a streetwalker who just happens to be in the right place at the right time, he manages to conceal himself in a garbage can. As Talmadge sits astride the garbage can, preening for potential clients, she draws the attention of Otto Krueger (Gustaf von Seyffertitz), a mysterious man who follows her to her rented room with the intention of committing suicide.

Krueger has assured the young woman that she will be well taken care of by his nephew. When she contacts Nika Turgenov (Arnold Kent), he arrives with his best friend, Paul Hartman (Gilbert Roland), by his side. Although they are soldiers in the Russian and Austrian armies, the two friends stand up to the police on Mary Ann's behalf and soon befriend her.

Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland

As time passes, the three become inseparable until two closely-related events change their lives. When Paul asks Mary Ann to marry him, the news comes as a rude shock to Nika (who thought the young woman would surely want to marry him, instead).

Soon thereafter, both men are called to report for duty after war breaks out between Austria and Russia. After Paul asks Nika to allow him an hour of happiness with Mary Ann before he heads off to war, Nika vows to savor his own hour of happiness someday, somewhere, somehow.

Time passes and Mary Ann receives a message from Paul asking her to meet him in a nearby town where they can be married. When Russian soldiers advance on her town and start to blow up buildings in their way, Mary Ann has no idea that the enemy's commanding officer is Nika.

Nika establishes his headquarters in the local church and declares that anyone who tries to escape from town will be shot. But he is surprised to see Mary Ann brought before him as one of the people violating his order.

A trio of social snobs (including a man who once noticed Mary Ann on the street when she was a working girl) declares that Mary Ann is not fit company for respectable people like themselves. However, after Mary Ann is offered a chance to save her life by forsaking Paul and marrying Nika, the hypocrisy of the Passerby (Boris de Fast), Count (Nicholas Soussanin), and Countess (Gladys Brockwell) becomes laughably obvious.

Although Father Roche (Michael Vavitch) encourages Mary Ann to give her body to Nika, in a private session he tells her that he is actually a spy named Liebert, who needs to escape so he can get vital news to the Austrian forces. After he appeals to her sense of patriotism, Mary Ann finally gives in to Nika's demand, allowing Liebert to flee to safety. When the Austrian army marches into town, who should be their commander but her fiancé, Paul!

When Nika and Paul come face to face, Paul learns of Mary Ann's shameful acts. What Paul does not understand is that his triumph was the direct result of Mary Ann's surrender to Nika -- a point driven home in the dramatic finale as Mary Ann is hailed by one and all as the woman whose patriotic sacrifice changed the course of the war.

It was fascinating to watch Talmadge (whose marriage to the film's producer, Joseph Schenck, was deteriorating during the filming while she was involved in a torrid affair with her co-star, Gilbert Roland). The direction by Henry King and Sam Taylor turned The Woman Disputed into a deeply satisfying drama (the plot is based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant). Stephen Horne's musical accompaniment on piano and flute -- in a performance that included a fierce run of double octaves at one of Mary Ann's most challenging moments -- supported the action so strongly that, by the film's finale, the audience was enthralled with the plot, the actors, and Horne's insightful score.

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Also screened at the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a provocative film never released in the United States. Directed by George Wilhelm Pabst, 1929's Diary of a Lost Girl is a tale of middle class morality gone to rot. As the film begins, Thymian (Louise Brooks) is a slightly zaftig teenager preparing to celebrate her christening day. She can't understand why her devoted governess, Elizabeth (Sybille Schmitz), is mysteriously being forced to leave their employ in shame.

Thymian may be clueless about her father's infidelity, but his assistant is not. Meinert (Fritz Rasp), the young man who works downstairs in the pharmacy owned by Thymian's father (Josef Rovensky), promises to explain everything to her at 10:30 that night. He promptly gets her pregnant.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth (the pregnant governess) has drowned herself, Thymian's father has brought home, married, and impregnated a young woman named Meta (Franziska Kinz), and wants his shameful daughter out of his house. Simultaneously, the elder Count Osdorff (Arnold Korff) has decided to cut off his son, Count Nicolas Osdorff (André Roanne), who enjoys a fairly debauched lifestyle.

After Thymian refuses to marry Meinert, her baby is given to a midwife and the young girl is shipped off to a strict reform school. The director of the school (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife (Valeska Gert) are latent sadists who enjoy disciplining the girls placed under their care. The younger Osdorff has no success in persuading Thymian's father to take her back from the reform school.

With help from her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), Thymian escapes from the facility and ends up working with Erika in a luxurious brothel run by a fat old madam who was probably forced into prostitution in her youth. One night, Thymian's father visits the brothel and barely recognizes his daughter.

However, when Thymian's father dies, she is invited to the reading of his will. Upon seeing Meta and her children about to be left penniless, Thymian gives her money to Meta's youngest child in the hope that the little girl won't have to follow in Thymian's footsteps. Having learned of her generosity, the elder Count Osdorff proposes that they marry so that he can make up for the hardships Thymian endured in her youth. She soon becomes a Countess and is enjoying herself at the beach when her aunt Frieda (Vera Pawlowa) spots the Count.

Soon Frieda and her friends have invited Thymian to join a committee of concerned women who help young girls in trouble. Much to her shock, Thymian is taken to the same reform school she attended and confronted with an unhappy young girl who is being severely disciplined. She quickly realizes Erika and realizes that the same sadistic couple are still running the school.

Louise Brooks joins a brothel in Diary of a Lost Girl

As the film ends, Thymian takes Erika under her wing after informing the other women on the committee that she already knows the so-called benefits of their reform school. Louise Brooks delivers a beautifully layered performance in the title role. I wish I could identify the impressive actress who portrays the brothel's kind and corpulent madam.

The key to the plot of Diary of a Lost Girl is that, on her christening day, Thymian was given a diary in which she could record all of her secrets. The diary's first entry is Meinert's note to meet him in the pharmacy at 10:30 p.m. From there, her life's twists and turns keep getting recorded in her diary. The screening of Diary of a Lost Girl at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Luckily, the film can be seen in its entirety on YouTube: Here's part 1:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales of the [Gritty] City

As millions of Chinese laborers abandon an agricultural lifestyle and flock to large cities in search of new lives, they follow patterns laid down by young people from generation to generation. Whether one thinks of Petula Clark's 1965 hit song, "Downtown," or the Village People's 1978 hit "Y.M.C.A.," bright lights always draw hopeful souls to the big city.

While Kander and Ebb's title song for Martin Scorsese's 1977 film, New York, New York, gave voice to the dreams of millions with the lyric "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" a more cynical sentiment from Stephen Sondheim's 1970 breakthrough musical, Company, describes the grim reality of life in the big city:
"Another hundred people
Just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people
Just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people
Who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day the ones who stay
Can find each other in the crowded streets
And the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees
With the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls
With the crude remarks.
And they meet at parties
Through the friends of friends
Who they never know.
'Do I pick you up
Or do I meet you there
Or shall we let it go?
Did you get my message?
'Cause I looked in vain.
Can we see each other Tuesday
If it doesn't rain?
Look, I'll call you in the morning
Or my service will explain.

And another hundred people
Just got off of the train.

It's a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
And every day some go away
Or they find each other in the crowded streets
And the guarded parks,
By the rusty fountains and the dusty trees
With the battered barks,
And they walk together past the postered walls
With the crude remarks.
And they meet at parties
Through the friends of friends
Who they never know.
Do I pick you up
Or do I meet you there
Or shall we let it go?
Did you get my message?
'Cause I looked in vain.
Can we see each other Tuesday
If it doesn't rain?
Look, I'll call you in the morning
Or my service will explain.

And another hundred people just got off of the train.
And another hundred people just got off of the train,
And another hundred people just got off of the train,
And another hundred people just got off of the train.
Another hundred people just got off of the train."
Hopes and dreams get shattered in many big cities with astonishing regularity. Whether disillusionment is delivered by the Gangs of New York or The Wizard of Oz, one soon realizes that the word "city" rhymes with "pretty" just as easily as it does with "gritty" and "shitty."

* * * * * * * * *
Not quite a modern-day reworking of Hansel and Gretel, Lance Daly's new 75-minute indie feature follows two suburban kids on their trip to the big city. Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) are next door neighbors trapped in suburban hell. Although Kylie lives with five siblings and their overworked mother (Cathy Malone), she is still better off than Dylan, whose alcoholic father (Paul Roe) is often abusive and violent toward Dylan and his mother (Neili Conroy).

Dylan (Shane Curry) in his home.

Kisses follows a clearly symmetrical artistic vision. The opening and closing sections of the film -- which depict suburban hell -- are filmed in black and white to highlight the bleakness of Kylie and Dylan's lives. Once they decide to run away to the city, color seeps into the film as they hook up with the captain of a small dredging boat (David Bendito), who safely delivers them to downtown Dublin.

Left on their own with some money Kylie had saved, the two adolescents find their way to a shopping mall where Dylan gets a haircut, they buy some new clothes, and make friends with a busker (Jose Jimanez) who finally agrees to give Kylie some of his take. When darkness descends and the two youngsters must fend for themselves in the streets and back alleys of Dublin, they are faced with two menacing subplots.

Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry)

It seems that ever since Dylan's father kicked his no-good brother Maurice (Sean McDonagh) out of their home, the alcoholic Maurice has been squatting in empty flats and sleeping on the streets of Dublin. Dylan's earnest attempts to find his uncle are countered by Kylie's fears of encountering the Sack Man (a bogeyman who kidnaps little children and carries off their bodies in a cloth sack).

The modern day version of the Sack Man turns out to be a sexual predator ((Willie Higgins) who tries to kidnap Kylie. Using the wheels built into his newly-acquired sneakers, Dylan bravely holds onto the bumper of the man's automobile during an intense car chase. Later, the two children encounter an entertainer named Down Under Dylan (Stephen Rea), who impersonates Bob Dylan in nightclubs and lets the kids have the remainder of his beer.

Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neill)

Despite Kylie's insistence that she will never go back home (and the discovery of Maurice's dead body in a back alley), the children eventually turn to the police for help and are delivered back to their parents. As they return to the bleakness of their suburban misery, each child feels stronger and more confident of the future, knowing that there is a true friend by their side.

While I enjoyed Kisses much more than 2006's Once (another Irish indie film), the English subtitles can't compensate for the misery faced by these children. During the period when they are heading to Dublin on the boat, one can almost feel their lives improving as color starts to seep into the film and small moments of joy can be seen on their faces. Once night falls, however, they are nothing more than two children lost in the [urban] woods whose home situations will probably not improve. Here's the trailer:

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Urban nightmares come in many shapes and sizes. But few are as bizarre as the lost footage featured in Yael Hersonski's 88-minute documentary, A Film Unfinished, which will be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. In the spring of 1942, Nazi filmmakers spent 30 days shooting footage in the Warsaw Ghetto, documenting the faces and lifestyles of many German and Polish Jews.

The photographers had little understanding of why they were given these assignments. As they spoke with some of the Jews they filmed, they often found them to be surprisingly optimistic, expecting to be resettled in someplace like Madagascar. Very few residents of the Warsaw Ghetto had any idea they would soon be sent to die in the extermination camp at Treblinka. Indeed, Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Jewish Council, used a cyanide tablet to commit suicide on July 22, 1942 (the day the Nazis began deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto).

What the German filmmakers were actually doing was capturing footage for Nazi propaganda films. The Nazis wanted to show that, even under duress, Jews lived luxurious lifestyles. Scenes were staged that pandered to stereotypes of Jews as greedy and selfish people who would not even lend a helping hand to hungry children. The footage found at an East German archive includes previously unseen outtakes showing Jews being used as actors in scenes ranging from funeral processions to eating in a restaurant.

Poster art for A Film Unfinished

Many of the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto were already dying of starvation (corpses of deceased relatives often littered the sidewalks). The documentary contains footage of naked, emaciated corpses being sent down a slide into a mass grave. As Hersonski explains in his lengthy director's statement:
"The Holocaust confronted humanity not only with inconceivable horrors, but also for the first time, with their systematic documentation. More than anything else, it is the photographic documentation of these horrors that has changed forever the way in which the past is archived. Atrocities committed by the Nazis were photographed more extensively than any evils, before or after. Yet since the war, these images created by the perpetrators have been subjected to mistreatments: in the best of cases they were crudely used as illustrations of the many stories; in the worst, they were presented as straightforward historical truth.

With the prospect in mind of a time when no survivor will be left to remember the events, I tried in A Film Unfinished to examine the silent footage, which alone will remain; to critically inspect the potential of the photographic image to bear witness as well as the limits of its ability to do so.

In what ways can archival footage filmed by the perpetrators testify to the suffering of the victims? And in the case of Nazi propaganda footage, where does cinematic manipulation end and reality begin?

For me, it begins with the victim’s gaze into the camera. That gaze contains what is perhaps the only emotional truth not crushed under the wheels of propaganda, the only truth that cannot be possessed and that remains forever, as if to testify: 'I was there, I existed in this world that words cannot describe.’

I wanted to expose the message enfolded in this captured gaze, but at the same time question the 21st century viewer’s perception of the past; to undermine his confidence in his knowledge of history and reinforce his emotional ability to see beyond the layers of time.

I've always sensed that archival footage, unlike the paper document, bears a much more layered testimony regarding the reality it documents -- a testimony that remains forever open for investigation. Thinking of the time when no witnesses will be left to remember, when the archives will remain our only source of understanding our history, I was haunted by the idea of exploring the silent images (not as illustrations enslaved by different stories but as story tellers themselves).

My interest in the archival footage from the Holocaust also stems from the fact that World War II not only confronted humanity with inconceivable atrocities, but also produced and carried out, for the first time, a systematical, obsessive cinematic documentation of that horror.

In order to understand better the way we perceive the infinite number of images which are being broadcast into our living rooms, computers, and mobile phones from dozens of satellites, images of our present reality and its catastrophes, I chose to go back to the historical point in time where it all began. I strongly believe that after the world had witnessed the horror documented during the liberation of the extermination camps, after screening the cinematic evidences displayed at the Nuremberg trials, something was changed in the collective consciousness. Images were no longer as they were before.

Only when seeing the complete sequence can one understand the manipulation of its making, the evil behind it, and the distorted manner in which these images were [mis]used during the postwar years in dozens of documentaries and in the form of recycled bits and pieces. Within the context of those documentaries, it seemed that the fragmented sequences could only suggest that the partial reality framed inside them reflected the true reality of Jewish life inside the Ghetto. But how could an image, shot from the point of view of the perpetrator, truly reflect the reality of its victim?

In most cases this manipulative point of view, which ironically was burned as part of collective imagery of postwar mourning, was never discussed. My shock stemmed also from the fact that after so many years being an Israeli citizen, bombarded with so many films and images that concerned the Jewish Holocaust, I still didn't know anything about this film. The film was well known to film archivists, museums, and filmmakers from all over the world, and was available for research at the German film archives. Yet A Film Unfinished is the first documentary that shows this footage almost in its entire length and exposes its actual intensiveness.

Several days after watching the Warsaw Ghetto film for the first time, I traveled to Berlin, where the footage is still preserved. I'd decided to study German for the sake of the research and met the German film archivists in order to learn more about the history of the footage. I was told that the Warsaw Ghetto film, at least as far as the German film archive is concerned, was perhaps the most mysterious footage of the Third Reich that had survived (90% of the footage shot by the Nazis was destroyed during the last days of the war). After more than 70 years, no one among the archivists (mainly Germans and Americans) was able to find even a single document to reveal the identity of the film's initiators, the purpose of its making, nor the reasons for the timing of the shooting or why the film was never completed.

The Warsaw Ghetto footage was first revealed in 1954, inside the East German film archive's area in Potsdam-Babelsberg, in a concrete film vault that once belonged to the Third Reich. It was just after the Soviets, who controlled the eastern parts of Berlin, had retreated to Moscow (taking with them all the Nazi propaganda footage they could locate after nine years of sorting through the Nazi archive remains).

During the 1960s, a German historian who was doing research inside the Polish archives about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising came across an entry permit to the Ghetto dating from May 1942 (the actual time of the shooting). The entry permit was given to Sonderführer Willy Wist, a cameraman. It was the first and only occasion when the name of one of the film's cameramen was revealed. During the Post Cold War era, the united German film archive tried to locate Wist with the aim to discover more about the filmmaking. Letters to all Wist relatives in Germany were sent asking after the former cameraman. All Wist families replied the same: 'We don't know him.'

In 1998, British film researcher Adrian Wood was inside a film vault on an American Air Force base. He was looking for footage that dealt with the 1936 Olympic games when he noticed two film cans lying on the floor titled Das Ghetto. Wood, who had years of experience with Holocaust footage was very familiar with the Warsaw Ghetto film and immediately recognized that the reels belonged to the main film. It contained two sequences with 30 minutes of outtakes left on the editing floor. The outtakes exposed not only the number of takes that were taken by the Nazi film crew (even in the case of the seemingly documentary scenes of extreme poverty and death), but also moments in which cameramen accidentally entered each other's frame.

All attempts to identify the specific propaganda unit or the identity of one of the cameramen according to their uniforms or faces were in vain. Many times the film crews were uniformed with general uniforms of the Nazi Air Force or the Wehrmacht. We were not able to decide who these filmmakers were. In addition, we could not find any documentation that concerned a film production -- not even one invoice. In the case of Nazi bureaucratic documentation this is certainly quite rare!

In making A Film Unfinished, the accuracy of every detail was of immense importance to me. Every document (typed or handwritten), every page of diary, every archive corridor and staircase which are being shown in the film are the authentic ones. The languages in which the diaries were written were kept in their original Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew.

We were extremely fortunate to have such a diligent and persistent Israeli researcher, who was calling all the survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto that still live in Israel (including some who live in Poland, England, and the United States). Most of them were teenagers or children in the Ghetto, and were wandering the streets, mainly trying to rescue their families. Many times it was the child, supplied with his fresh enthusiastic courage, athletic body, and curiosity that supported his parents. Thus, more than the parents, it was the child who would witness the film crew working in the streets.

Nine survivors remembered the filmmaking. It was our plan to invite each one of them into the darkness of the cinema hall and to confront them with the horrifying footage, which was something I feared not all of them could withstand. They were over 80 years old, courageous souls in fragile bodies, filled with memories they were compelled to store away in order to keep on living. What I in fact intended to show them was the scenery of their childhood, when they experienced some of the most horrendous events in their lives.

I decided to not only explain to them in the most detailed manner what they were about to watch, but to invite only the ones who were absolutely certain that they would be capable of doing it. I was relieved to realize that five of them were more than willing to come. I was even more relieved to realize they had their own urgent interest in the film: they wanted to be the last to comment on the silent images, for they were there.

Those days of filming the survivors watching the footage were the most difficult ones for me. After every session I found myself physically numb and mentally knocked out. I couldn't even begin to imagine what the survivors themselves must have felt after such an incredibly intense situation. The four women who were filmed watching the footage are still living in Israel. The only man who took part in these testimonials died last year."
What gives Hersonski's extraordinary documentary an extra jab to the solar plexus are the segments in which survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto recognize people they knew from the streets. A brief stretch of found footage on colored film stock makes A Film Unfinished seem even more surreal. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
The most eagerly awaited program at the 15th Anniversary San Francisco Silent Film Festival was, without any doubt, the screening of the full version of Fritz Lang's legendary science fiction extravaganza, Metropolis. Barely 10 weeks after its world premiere on January 10, 1927, Lang's masterpiece was being sliced and diced by a lethal combination of German censors, studio bean counters, and American entrepreneurs who felt that its original length of 150 minutes was simply too long for audiences in the United States.

Metropolis was filmed over the course of 310 days and 60 nights, using 750 bit players, 750 child extras, 26,000 male extras, and 11,000 female extras at a cost of more than 5 million Deutsche Marks. Over the years, Metropolis has been shown in any number of clumsily edited versions.

A film that tackles the mythology of capitalism (pitting the owners against the workers in fabulous Art Deco sets), Metropolis is a feast for the eyes from start to finish. The fact that the new footage found in 2008 in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina by Paula Félix-Didier and her ex-husband, Fernando Pena (who had been on a 20-year quest to find the missing reels of film) is of lesser print quality than the previously restored footage which makes up the bulk of the film only heightens the sense of watching cinematic history.

Poster art for Fritz Lang's Metropolis

As the two Argentinians readily admitted in their presentation to the audience at the Castro Theatre, had the missing film been found 20 years ago, they would not have had access to the digital technology used in film restorations. Although many in the audience grumbled about the late start of the program, they were gently reminded that after waiting 83 years to see the complete version of Metropolis, an extra 40 minutes was not really all that terrible.

In terms of my own history with Metropolis, the delay really didn't matter. The truth is that, until last weekend, I had never had a chance to see Lang's film. Witnessing it in its entirety (with a magnificent accompaniment from the Alloy Orchestra) was an incredible thrill.

Lang's film had a huge impact on popular culture. Superman's city, Metropolis, was named after the film's fantastic setting. The character C-3PO (from Star Wars) was modeled on the robot machine in Lang's film. Even Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory in later films can be traced to the look of the laboratory run by C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in Metropolis, an inventor whose "machine man" takes on the physical characteristics of the sweet and shy schoolteacher (Brigitte Helm) before running amok.

Rotwang's robot undergoes a revolutionary transformation

Whether gawking at the stop motion sequences which show futuristic visions of urban transportation or the scenes in which Lang floods the set as the workers seek higher ground, one can't help being awed by the vivid images and dramatic tension in Lang's film. Not only did the sheer scope of Metropolis require incredible planning (keep in mind this was long before computers were available to handle such a wealth of details), none of Lang's film had the technological advantages of CGI scripting.

While the film basically follows the disillusionment of Freder Frederson (Gustav Frohlich), who discovers what his powerful capitalist father Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) has done to dehumanize the workers who toil underground and keep them in their place, there are wonderful supporting performances from Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man, Heinrich George as Grot (the guardian of the heart machine), and Brigitte Helm as Maria. The special effects originally created by Ernst Kunstmann (together with Erich Kettlehut's trick photography and the special visual effects by Eugen Schufftan) set thrilling new standards for film artists.

The newly complete version of Metropolis will be released this fall on DVD by Kino, I doubt the small screen can do justice to the experience of seeing Lang's film on the Castro Theatre's huge screen accompanied by a pulsing percussive performance from the Alloy Orchestra. The screening of Metropolis at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was 2-1/2 hours of pure cinema magic. Here's the trailer: