Notes on Il Cinema Ritrovato

Piazza Maggiore

The outdoor screen at the Piazza Maggiore. It is much larger than it looks in this photo!

This year I finally had the opportunity to attend–and participate in–the annual Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy. Hosted by the Cineteca di Bologna, the festival features a truly global range of newly restored films, retrospectives and curated glimpses into forgotten avenues of film history. Screenings take place in the Cineteca’s screening rooms and the nearby Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas, to say nothing of nightly public screenings on the city’s main square, the Piazza Maggiore. Attendees at the festival regularly include film archivists and historians, distributors, critics and journalists. Thanks to the festival’s congenial atmosphere, it offers excellent networking opportunities for people working in those areas.

In fact the festival offers far more screenings and other events than one person can possibly take in, requiring difficult choices. One of the festival’s regular sidebars is entitled “One Hundred Years Ago” (“Cento anni fa”); it is now moving into the first major feature films. This year’s edition of the festival (2014) included a screening of Giovanni Pastrone’s groundbreaking 1914 feature Cabiria with a live orchestra. For those specializing in American cinema, this year there were sections on restored James Dean films and “William Wellman: Before Silent and Sound.”

For me, arguably the most exciting program this year was “Riccardo Freda: A Master of Popular Cinema.” I’ve long admired Italian popular cinema, especially the horror films of Mario Bava, and have seen a couple of Freda’s horror films, but this series filled an important gap in my understanding of Italian cinema of the postwar era. Black Eagle/Aquila Nera(1946) is a sumptuously mounted, exciting adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s story “Dubrovsky.” I Miserabili (1948), Freda’s ambitious two-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, may not displace Raymond Bernard’s 1934 5-hour French version as the definitive screen version of the novel, but it holds up surprisingly well and has a strong lead performance by Gino Cervi. Theodora, the Slave Empress/Teadora Imperatrice di Bisanzio (1953) represents studio filmmaking at its most entertaining, with taut pacing and strong lead performances. Georges Marchal as Justinian is a dimwitted hothead, while Gianna Maria Canale as Theodora is beautiful, crafty and wise. The climax, in which leopards and other big cats are unleashed upon soldiers, transforms into a deliriously stylized montage. Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock/L’orribile segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962) is still one of the most atmospheric and perverse Italian Gothic horrors, although the only print available for screening was badly worn. Not one of these films by Freda is officially available on DVD with English subtitles, which is precisely why festivals such as Il Cinema Ritrovato are so valuable for film scholars. Another section that I attended heavily was “The Golden ’50s: India’s Endangered Classics, ” which included a rare (and severely worn) CinemaScope print of Guru Dutt’s magnificent Kaagaz ke Phool/Paper Flowers (1959), the first widescreen film made in India, Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik (1958) and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953). Also of interest was “Polish New Wave and CinemaScope,” which included rare 35mm prints of Andrzej Munk’s The Passenger (1963) and Sergei Yutkevich’s Lenin in Poland (1966). (Some of the same Polish films will screen in restored DCPs at Emory University this fall, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents/Milestone Films touring retrospective entitled Masterpieces of Polish Cinema.)

One of the festival’s most important roles is to showcase film restoration work. In that regard, the great revelation for me was Murnau Stiftung and Cineteca di Bologna’s latest digital restoration of Robert Wiene’s Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which used the surviving camera negative extensively. It truly brought out the beauty and craftsmanship of the film’s cinematography—not always apparent in previously available versions—to say nothing of many subtle facial expressions in the performances. For me, even the film’s notorious painted sets revealed a stylistic variety that I hadn’t appreciated before; Wiene’s film in fact functions partly as an homage to modernist painting circa 1920. During one of the festival’s numerous educational programs, Anke Wilkening from the Murnau Stiftung outlined the film’s complex restoration history and discussed the methodology behind this latest attempt. Other restoration highlights included Raymond Bernard’s classic antiwar film Wooden Crosses (1932), Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964) and King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967). Roundtables and lectures on restoration included Ned Price (Warner Brothers), Grover Crisp (Columbia) and Schawn Belston (20th Century Fox).

My own participation in the festival was connected with the Film Foundation/World Cinema Project and the Cineteca di Bologna’s newly completed restoration of Sergei Parajanov’s masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates/Nran guyne (1969). (I served as a historical consultant on the film’s production and censorship history, wrote a text for the program catalog, and helped introduce the June 28 screening of the film.) Olivia Harrison, through George Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation, had graciously funded the restoration and mentioned during her introductory remarks how Martin Scorsese, who is a great admirer of Parajanov, had sparked her interest in the director by giving her a DVD box set of his films. Although I have seen the film many times on various 35mm prints and on DVD, this was my first time seeing the new restoration of the Armenian release version. They restored both the Armenian release version and the re-edited Yutkevich version, though they selected the Armenian version for theatrical exhibition. Most of the restoration comes from a 4k scan of the camera negative, and I can say that it on the whole it looks better and more consistent than I have ever seen it. I even spotted colors and details that I had never noticed before in a number of shots. (I will write more about it in a separate blog entry.)

Madonna di San Luca

The long ascent to the Madonna di San Luca, on a hill overlooking Bologna

It is worth taking extra time to explore the city of Bologna, a fascinating destination in its own right. The city center is based on a medieval walled city, and although it was heavily bombed during World War II, a large number of original structures still remain. For me one of the most fascinating places was the Basilica di Santo Stefano complex, parts of which back to the 5th century. If you are in good physical condition, I recommend following the very long arched walkway from the Porta di Saragozza up to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. The city is also home to one of the world’s oldest universities and benefits from a thriving student culture and progressive political outlook; its annual LGBT pride parade and festival took place at the same time as Il Cinema Ritrovato. And of course Bologna is known for outstanding food, including hand-rolled pasta and many varieties of hams and salamis. Perhaps what I enjoyed most was the presence of so many people out on the street socializing, even late at night. The Italians know how to live.

(Originally published on the Woodruff Library Blog, July 29, 2014, with some minor changes added.)

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Art exhibit in New York: Sergei Parajanov, the Creator


“Mona Lisa in Hell” (1988). Courtesy of the Sergei Parajanov Museum, Yerevan.










At long last an exhibit of Parajanov’s artworks from the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan has come to New York City. Entitled Sergei Parajanov: The Creator, the exhibit runs through June 30, 2014 at Gilbert Albert, 43 West 57th Street, in the 2nd floor gallery space.

Sponsored by the Russian American Foundation and IBEF, Inc., this exhibit consists of 35 pieces, including several of the main highlights of the Parajanov Museum collection. They include paintings, sketches, collages, assemblages, dolls, and hats, ranging from the 1950s to the end of his life.

Below is the text that I wrote for the exhibition catalog (reproduced with permission):

Sergei Parajanov (1924-1990) unquestionably has played a major role in global film culture, thanks to such dazzling and stylistically innovative works as Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Ukraine, 1965), The Color of Pomegranates (Armenia, 1969), The Legend of the Surami Fortress (Georgia, 1984), and Ashik-Kerib (Georgia and Azerbaijan, 1988). He was also a prolific and accomplished artist in other media. By far the largest and richest collection of Parajanov’s artworks is housed at the Sergei Parajanov Museum in Yerevan. This represents the first exhibition from the Parajanov Museum collection in New York, a signal event in the realms of both art and cinema.

Parajanov’s drawings, collages, and assemblages not only shed light on the creative process and underlying thematic concerns in his films, but they also demand attention on their own terms. While a number of other filmmakers have created artworks as an avocation, Parajanov offers a unique case both in terms of the sheer quantity of works that he created and their overall artistic achievement.

Coming from the sizable Armenian community in Tbilisi, Georgia, Parajanov grew up immersed in the rich cultural environment of the South Caucasus. His father, Iosif Parajanov, ran a commission shop for antiques and thus imparted a lifelong fascination with antiques and art objects in the young boy. His mother Siran played the piano. Thus, it is not surprising that from the start Parajanov displayed an aptitude for the arts. Before enrolling in Igor Savchenko’s film directing workshop at the VGIK (the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), he studied voice at the Tbilisi Conservatory, as well as violin and dance. During his years at the VGIK (1945-1952) he studied art history and drawing as part of the curriculum; his earliest surviving artworks date from that period or slightly later.

Over time, artworks occupied an increasingly significant place in Parajanov’s creative imagination. During the 1970s and early 1980s—when he was designated persona non grata by the Soviet authorities, imprisoned in Ukraine (1973-1977), and denied the opportunity to make films—drawings, collages, and assemblages became his primary outlet. If in a very real sense glasnost originated in Georgia with the production of Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance (1984, released 1987) and Parajanov’s return to filmmaking with The Legend of the Surami Fortress (1984, released 1985), perhaps another sign of it was the first public exhibition of Parajanov’s artworks, which took place in Tbilisi in January 1985. Armenia also hosted an exhibition in 1988 at the Museum of Folk Art in Yerevan, leading to the construction of the Sergei Parajanov Museum in that city.

By turns whimsical, provocative and surreal, these pieces reflect Parajanov’s free spirit, his gift for caricature, and his penchant for transforming mundane objects and situations into something magical. They further recall some of his primary artistic influences, which range from Armenian and Persian miniatures (often “quoted” as fragments in his collages), religious icons, folk art, painters from the South Caucasus such as Pirosmani and Hakob Hovnatanyan, and the Italian Renaissance. Of special note is a series of collages that radically transform the Mona Lisa. Besides paintings, drawings, collages and assemblages, Parajanov created a large number of dolls and hats. In their cheeky appropriation of found objects and reproductions, his collages and assemblages express a distinctly postmodern sensibility. They also offer a glimpse into his private memories and the people he knew and admired.

When friends and strangers alike visited Parajanov’s family home in Tbilisi, which was crammed with his own creations, he liked to transform it into a space for Andy Warhol-style “happenings.” As a visitor to this exhibition, you are invited to join in his games.

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How I Discovered Parajanov

During my November 18 author talk at Emory University for my book The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, someone asked how I got interested in Parajanov’s work. Here is the story in more detail.

I first learned of Parajanov in 1987, when Alan Stanbrook published an article about The Legend of the Surami Fortress for the magazine Sight & Sound. I was intrigued by his description of Parajanov’s films, especially their striking use of color. In 1988, during a course in film analysis taught by Jean Decock at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, we watched excerpts from the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in class and I was completely stunned; it looked like nothing I had seen before, it opened up an entire world.

That same semester, Yuri Illienko visited Las Vegas on his way to screen an unsubtitled print of his long-banned film A Well for the Thirsty (1966) at the San Francisco Film Festival. He was friends with the composer Virko Baley, who was at time the Artistic Director of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and who composed the score for Illienko’s Swan Lake: the Zone (1989). Illienko spoke to the film analysis class and Baley arranged a for a special screening that evening of A Well for the Thirsty and the first few reels of The Eve of Ivan Kupalo (1968) at the movie theater located inside the Gold Coast casino. Illienko’s films likewise left a tremendous impression.

Later, I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in its entirety in a course on Soviet cinema, and a few years after that I arranged for a special screening of the Armenian release version (the so-called “director’s cut”) of The Color of Pomegranates at the Huntridge Theater with the support of Hart Wegner, the chair of the film department at UNLV. (The screening also would not have happened without the help and encouragement of my late friend, Bruce Ireland.)

Even though Parajanov was recognized as a major figure in world cinema and obviously lived a colorful and dramatic life, at that time there was almost nothing published about him in English, so I decided to enroll in graduate school and devote myself to studying his life and work. I ended up choosing Emory University at the suggestion of David Cook, the chair of their film studies program at that time; he visited UNLV to lecture on Central Asian cinema around the time that I was organizing the screening of The Color of Pomegranates. It has proved quite an adventure, learning multiple languages over the years, doing research in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia, and meeting many fascinating people as a result.

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Philip Glass and Tim Fain at the Schwartz Center


This Friday’s concert (September 27, 2013) at the Schwartz Center at Emory University revealed both Philip Glass’s continuing growth as a composer and an inspiring new collaboration with the extraordinarily talented violinist Tim Fain.

The centerpiece of the concert was unquestionably Glass’s Chaconne which, as he explained, combined two movements in his 2011 Partita for Solo violin. Here Glass obviously has in mind the expansive Chaconne from the J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2. Considering that this is the single most sublime work ever composed for solo violin, Glass risks an unforgiving comparison. But Glass’s Chaconne is also sublime. Many of its chord progressions and arpeggiations are recognizably in the Glass style, yet I feel that he has achieved an entirely new level mastery in tonal composition with this work. It weaves an intense spell for twenty minutes as it explores the full range of the violin, and Fain’s execution of it left me and my colleague literally gaping with amazement. Fain drew a heartbreakingly rich tone from his 1717 Gobetti violin; if anything it sounded even better than the excerpt in the above video clip performed in April 2012. I cannot wait to hear Fain perform the entire work live someday.

For his solo pieces, Glass performed Mad Rush, Metamorphosis No. 4 and Etude No.  2. His keyboard music is no doubt more difficult to perform than it might seem at first glance, because its transparent structures immediately expose any imperfections in the playing. Glass is a very capable (though perhaps not great) pianist, and it was a treat watching him perform is own works. Mad Rush in particular is lovely, though over time these solo keyboard works tend to display a certain sameness in texture. I think his piano accompaniment for the Allen Ginsberg poem Wichita Vortex Sutra (which he performed as part of the program) is actually more effective as a piano composition. It is in fact one of his more moving pieces, the clear highlight of the chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox (1993). In this context, hearing a recording of the late poet’s voice over live piano accompaniment created a distancing effect that slightly hampered the work’s emotional impact, though the piece itself is undeniably fine.

Fain’s duets with Glass (selections from The Screens and an arrangement of Pendulum) were beguiling; again Fain’s affinity for Glass’s music and his expressive freedom showed off these compositions to full advantage. At the end of the concert Glass beamed with pride as he watched Fain play an encore, the virtuosic Knee Play No. 2 from Einstein on the Beach, and it is not difficult to see why. Any composer would be delighted to have such a gifted exponent of one’s work.

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Parajanov sings in Ukrainian

During the past couple months I have been busy correcting the proofs and preparing the index for the Parajanov book.

While I am waiting for copies to arrive from the printer, here is a YouTube video of Parajanov singing “Verbova doshchechka,” one of the many Ukrainian folk songs used on the soundtrack in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  (You can hear it during the scene of Ivan and Palagna’s wedding.) Thanks to Mary Kalyna from Philadelphia for drawing my attention to this video.

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Kiss of the Damned

Kiss of the Vampire

After a one-week engagement at the Landmark Midtown, Xan Cassavetes’ film Kiss of the Damned has returned to Atlanta’s Plaza Theater. A love letter to the 1970s erotic horror films of directors such as Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, it mines the same vein of oneiric, melancholy poetry, but with a somewhat bigger budget and somewhat better cinematography, script and actors.

A vampire living in a country house outside of New York, Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) encounters the handsome mortal Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), but rebuffs his advances since she does not wish to harm him. However, Paolo is thoroughly smitten and insists on a romantic relationship with her even after he learns the truth. Djuna introduces him to the nighttime world of vampirism, but their romance is threatened by the arrival of Djuna’s unscrupulous sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida).

I admire Xan Cassavetes for taking the material seriously. It would be altogether too easy to approach the genre through  camp or snarky parody. Thankfully, she doesn’t wink at the audience like Quentin Tarantino does when he makes his Seventies references. The dialogue at times seems vaguely stilted, but it is clear that this, combined with the heavily accented lead actresses, is part of the aesthetic that Xan Cassavetes wants to evoke. The cast is attractive and the sex scenes generate real erotic heat. While the film focuses more on mood and character relationships more than horrific thrills, the nighttime hunting scenes are tense and well-executed.

Ultimately, one could argue that Kiss of the Damed lacks the perverse flights of imagination that give the films of Franco and Rollin their distinctive personality. For instance, Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) goes much further in the direction of surrealism and Rollin’s Lips of Blood (1975) reveals deeper psychological insights. Still, is is the best vampire film I have seen in some time. This is Xan Cassavetes’ first feature film–previously she directed the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)–but I am eager to see what she does next.

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Grainwrecks: The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray

Hitchcock masterpiece

A couple months ago I finally had the opportunity to delve into last October’s release of Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection on Blu-ray, a simultaneously rewarding and frustrating experience. In each case the Blu-ray versions offer visible, and in some cases major, improvements over the older DVDs. But a number of the discs also betray a surprising degree of inconsistency and carelessness. Based on what I am seeing in the transfers, it appears that many (but not all) of the problems in the set are due in part to improperly applied or overly broad “grain-management” or digital video noise reduction tools at the encoding stage. Since Universal is releasing many of discs individually starting this summer, it will be interesting to see whether some of the problems identified below get fixed in the stand-alone releases.

There are already numerous reviews online, so I will forego detailed reviews for every disc in the set; the bulk of this piece will focus on the grain problems I observed. I recommend that you track down the reviews by Robert Harris in his column at Home Theater Forum. His takes on the individual discs are summarized here. Another knowledgeable source is Nick Wrigley, a longtime DVD and Blu-ray producer for Masters of Cinema, who authored the must-read essay “Crimes Against the Grain” for the December 2012 issue of Sight and Sound. He has reviewed the Hitchcock Blu-rays on his blog.

On the positive side, the black-and-white films (Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt) look excellent. In Rope the encoding seems OK, but the 35mm print used contains prominent color fringing due to misaligned Technicolor matrices. This might require an expensive restoration to fix, assuming that it is even technically possible. The Man Who Knew Too Much benefits from the enhanced detail of the VistaVision format, but the color is very uneven. Not only do some sequences have a prominent yellowish tinge, but even within individual sequences the color timing does not always match up well between shots. I think that Universal could have gotten much better results with this film if they had spent more time on it. The Trouble with Harry is largely excellent, though it has a curious visual artifact–occasional ghosting in the image–that I believe has to do with jumping frames or registration problems and may be inherent to the VistaVision negative. Since VistaVision used a horizontally fed 35mm negative, any such jumping would have been side-to-side rather than vertical, and indeed the ghosting is horizontal. My initial impression is that Vertigo looks strong throughout, perhaps because it was shot in Vistavision and thus has high density of detail and a finer grain structure. I found myself spotting many details in the production design that I had not noticed before.

Here is where we get to the grain problems.

Rear Window. The new transfer mostly looks gorgeous. But in one shot at the beginning, mesh-patterned grain briefly appears in the sky. Several shots also have had too much grain removed. The iconic shot of Grace Kelly kissing James Stewart is marred by sharp horizontal banding in the background, an basic video compression artifact. This is difficult to forgive, since it is one of the best-known shots in the film. Still, the detail and color are mostly excellent on this Blu-ray.

The Birds. I recently saw a new 35mm print of the film, and the Blu-ray’s overall look closely follows that print, including the minor discrepancies in the look of location versus studio footage and the heavily diffused closeups of Tippi Hedren. I am sympathetic with Harris’s point about the need to use noise reduction and grain equalization for a consistent look on video because of the many process shots and complex production history of the film. Even so, there are places where the grain seems to swim on top of the image, and at times it becomes distracting.

Marnie. The color looks good, but the encoding contains a very obtrusive layer of digital noise (or faux grain). If you are viewing from a smaller screen or from a distance, it may be less obvious. I found it obvious indeed on my 46” Samsung LCD TV. As Nick Wrigley observed, for some strange reason it clears up suddenly in the last couple reels of the film. However, the color timing also changes markedly at that point–the skin tones take on a purplish hue. The kind of mesh-patterned grain mentioned above in Rear Window is very prominent in the first shot of the film. Some reviewers have expressed uncertainty whether this mesh pattern in the sky is something inherent to the photographic image, but I am inclined to say that it is a video encoding artifact given its brief presence in Rear Window as well. Marnie should have looked a lot better than it does.

Frenzy. A monumental failure. They have gone completely overboard with DVNR so that the image has a waxy look throughout; critical detail has been scrubbed away. During a key point in the film–when the camera backs down a stairway and out the door–digital banding becomes all obvious, blunting the scene’s emotional impact. As with Rear Window, these artifacts appear in what is arguably the film’s most famous shot. How can a major company like Universal release a Blu-ray like this for the most important film in late-period Hitchcock?

Family Plot is indeed the disaster that everyone claims, and if there were any justice Universal would recall the disc and set up an exchange program. The encoding software appears to be fighting the heavily fluctuating grain levels on the print and losing badly. Many shots crawl with digital faux-grain as a result. I suspect that Universal could have obtained better results simply by dialing down the filters and allowing the grainy, mediocre look of the old transfer to stand on its own. Nobody would have been thrilled with the results, and it still would have been the weakest Blu-ray in the set, but it might have been acceptable. Even so, it still looks better than the DVD in the older red velvet Masterpiece Collection DVD box set. Revisiting that DVD, I was surprised at just how bad it looked in retrospect.

To be fair, the films in this collection were made over a span of more than thirty years (1942-1976), during which time film stocks changed a great deal, as did studio production practices in general. Moreover, it is understandable that Universal would invest more resources into the transfers of Rear Window and Vertigo than they would some of Hitchcock’s lower profile films. But even allowing for these practical considerations, Universal still could have spend more time and effort to bring these Blu-rays up to the level of standard catalog releases by the other major studios. They are Hitchcock films, after all.

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Brooklyn Rider string quartet at Emory

The Brooklyn Rider string quartet performance at Emory’s Schwartz Center (April 12, 2013) offered a compelling demonstration of why live performance still matters, and how musicians can keep the Western art music tradition vital and exciting through creative programming and engaged performances. Brooklyn Rider is fun to watch and interacts well with the audience, but they are also a very talented ensemble that has mastered a wide range of styles. The quartet consists of: Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Nicholas Cords (viola), Eric Jacobsen (cello).

The first half of the concert, derived from Brooklyn Rider’s soon-to-be-released album Walking Fire, contained music with a marked ethnic component. Johnny Gandelsman showed off his flair for klezmer-style playing in Budget Bulgar by Lev Zhurbin. For me, hearing this piece brought to mind the underlying connection between klezmer and Roma lăutari music, since I had recently watched the Soviet-era Moldovan film Lautari (1972) by Emil Loteanu. It has been a while since I heard Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2. I was struck by how modern this work still sounds, with its challenging structure and a style of writing for strings that differs radically from quartets of the Romantic era, though it is ravishingly beautiful in its own right. The first half of the concert closed with Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet, which evoked Persian themes. While the three pieces did use Persian-style improvisations in the melodies, they thankfully avoided any clichéd Orientalism. In general, the new compositions in the first half tended to rely heavily on melodies elaborated over quasi-ostinato accompaniments; this programming choice risked becoming repetitious, though the compositions themselves were lively and enjoyable.

The second half of the concert was derived from Brooklyn Ryder’s album Seven Steps: a group composition entitled Seven Steps and its intended companion piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.131 in C sharp minor. Compared to the new compositions in the first half, Seven Steps showed a broader range of compositional styles, including (if I heard correctly) minimalism and Ligeti-style microtonal polyphony. In a way, the piece might be understood as a kind of tour through twentieth century music history.

In truth, I was drawn initially to the program by the opportunity to see a live performance of the Beethoven String Quartet Op.131, which is one of Beethoven’s most perfect compositions and arguably the pinnacle of all string quartet repertoire, with its profoundly conceived structure and sublime interplay between the four instruments. The work can present a quandary for contemporary performers, since it has been so widely recorded that it is difficult to come up with a fresh interpretation that won’t be compared negatively to the many classic recordings that audience members may have heard already. As they acknowledged in the program, Brooklyn Rider was inspired partly by an older performance style that uses less vibrato and somewhat more liberal portamento, namely pre-World War II quartets such as Busch, Capet and Rosé. In fact they did not push this interpretive strategy too far, so the performance did not come across as willfully eccentric. They also tended to use relatively fast tempos throughout. The opening fugue (Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo) was perhaps too fast and they could have pulled more expressiveness from it, but the rest of the quartet came off very well indeed. I liked how the cellist conveyed humor in some of the pointed pizzicati in the central theme-and-variations movement and the abrupt opening phrase of the fifth movement. This is precisely the sort of thing that is possible in live performances but may not get conveyed adequately in a recording. The finale was simply outstanding, a vividly dramatic and rhythmically forceful reading that capped the work in exactly the right way.

Incidentally, Brooklyn Rider’s recording of Beethoven’s Op.131 on the Seven Steps album is also definitely worth a listen, as is the album as a whole. In the opening fugue they use even less vibrato than what I heard in the live performance. Combined with the fast tempo, it seems to emphasize the fugue’s connections with early music. This is a genuinely interesting idea, considering Beethoven’s references to Baroque and earlier music throughout his late compositions, including the use of the Lydian mode in the Op.132 string quartet and the quasi-sarabande as the main theme in the last movement of the Op.109 piano sonata. While I do feel that as result the fugue loses some of its wrenching emotional depth–Wagner reportedly said that it “reveals the most melancholy sentiment expressed in music”–they deserve credit for thinking deeply and creatively about Beethoven’s composition as a whole. The recording space is a shade too resonant for my taste, but nonetheless the recording is unusually well-engineered, enabling one to hear the individual instruments very clearly. While listening to it I picked up on many details in the instrumentation that are normally apparent only by following the written score. Considering the absurd bounty of Beethoven recordings out there, it says something that I look forward to hearing Brooklyn Rider’s interpretation again in the future, along with the rest of the album.

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Top Blu-rays of the Year

Below are five Blu-rays released in 2012 which, through the quality of their presentation, deepened my appreciation of the films themselves. One Blu-ray—Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse—is a new film that received only a limited theatrical release this year.

5. Rosemary’s Baby – Roman Polanski, 1968 (Criterion Collection)

Rosemary’s Baby holds up as one of the greatest films of the 1960s and one of Polanski’s richest masterpieces: a precision-crafted horror film about a woman who is systematically deprived of control over her own body. The new director-approved transfer brings out the film’s visual textures like never before.

4. The Loves of Pharaoh – Ernst Lubitsch, 1922 (Alpha-Omega)

Considering the incomplete state in which Lubitsch’s film survives, this Blu-ray looks nothing short of amazing thanks to Alpha-Omega’s digital restoration. This is not Lubitsch’s strongest film by any means, though its recreation of ancient Egypt is impressively conceived and the Blu-ray brings out the detail of the costumes. The real highlight of the disc is Eduard Künneke’s orchestral score, originally composed for the 1922 premiere. It is arguably better than the film itself, and the new recording (performed by the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln and conducted by Frank Strobel) shows it off to full advantage.

3. Lawrence of Arabia – David Lean, 1962 (Sony)

Please forgive the use of “amazing” a second time, but this Blu-ray really does look amazing. Although the Blu-ray format cannot match the resolution of an actual 70mm print, the sharpness of the image and the depth of color remind me of the thrill I experienced watching Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen years ago. I picked up the less expensive two-disc version, but the collector’s set is even more crammed with features.

2. The Turin Horse – Bela Tarr, 2011 (Cinema Guild)

Bela Tarr’s final film (or so he claims) is one of his best. Last month I wrote the following comments for the Emory University website:

Everything else released this year looks puny in comparison to Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse”: It is the end of the world. A Hungarian farmer with a paralyzed arm, his daughter and his one horse struggle against the constant wind. The film’s vision of human existence, stripped down to the barest essentials, brings to mind Samuel Beckett.

Tarr once again demonstrates his usual stylistic mastery, using only 30 shots in a mesmerizing film that runs almost two and a half hours. He has claimed that this will be his last film. The film unfortunately did not play theatrically in Atlanta, but Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray does a marvelous job conveying the textures of Fred Kelemen’s extraordinary black-and-white cinematography.

I would only add that while the film does indeed remind me of Beckett’s Endgame in some respects, it is wholly cinematic in the camera’s implacable gaze upon the world. This is the kind of fully realized vision of cinema that one rarely sees today.

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Masters of Cinema)

This was an easy first choice. If you haven’t purchased a region free Blu-ray player, the revelatory Masters of Cinema edition of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one very good reason why you should. Even if a company such as the Criterion Collection eventually releases the film on Blu-ray in the U.S., it is unlikely that they will top Masters of Cinema’s thoughtfully produced package.

For this edition, Masters of Cinema has conducted their own 2k digital restoration based on a preservation negative made from the rediscovered nitrate print of the original Danish premiere version. (Although mainly a French production, the film premiered in Copenhagen in April 1928, several months before its premiere in France.) This is in fact the same basic source material that Gaumont used for their earlier restoration and which the Criterion Collection released on DVD. The new Masters of Cinema restoration, supervised by James White, is markedly superior for a variety of reasons.

The most important difference is the projection speed. Whereas the Gaumont restoration was generally shown at 24 frames per second, including on the Criterion DVD, in retrospect that speed is almost certainly too fast. The Masters of Cinema restoration is shown at 20fps, although the Blu-ray also offers 24fps as a secondary option. Dreyer’s film tends to use rapid cutting, and the slower projection speed allows the actors’ facial expressions and gestures to register properly with the viewer and achieve a deeper emotional impact. When comparing the two speeds, I also noticed that in the 24fps version the characters spoke entirely too quickly. In the 20fps version, their lip movements, although at times very fast, felt more natural. Although my French is not very strong, I even began to pick up words from the actors’ lips. As if by some uncanny mechanism the film seemed to emerge from silence into speech. All of Dreyer’s artistic choices coalesced—the intensely expressive close-ups, the blank walls and the oddly angled windows, the eccentric tracking shots—and the world of the film opened up to me.

Another key difference is that Gaumont’s earlier restoration replaced the Danish intertitles with reconstructed French intertitles. While that was understandable given the film’s production history and subject matter, I prefer Masters of Cinema’s decision to respect both the print as a historical artifact and the integrity of the Danish premiere version in its own right. The Danish text uses a distinctive typeface that contributes to the overall character of the film, whereas the reconstructed French intertitles of the Gaumont restoration have a modernized feel that don’t entirely fit.

The image quality of the new restoration is uniformly excellent, especially considering the wear on the surviving print. The restoration team has done much to stabilize the image and to repair damage digitally, but these tools have been tastefully applied and the film’s original texture has been preserved well. The transfer also beautifully renders the film’s delicate range of grays. To get a sense of the radical difference between this new restoration and older iterations of the film on DVD, check out DVD Beaver’s extensive comparison.

The soundtrack comes with two options: silence, or a piano score by Mie Yanashita. Most silent films really demand some kind of musical accompaniment; but I have come around to agree that The Passion of Joan of Arc is best watched in silence, as Dreyer is said to have preferred. Still, Yanashita’s piano score works well as a traditional-style accompaniment. (For the record, I have always found that Richard Einhorn’s oratorio Voices of Light competes with the film in an unhelpful way because of how it adds choral singing on top of what is already a dialogue-heavy silent film.) The optional 24fps presentation of the film includes an avant-garde score by Loren Connors.

The Masters of Cinema set also has a generous booklet that includes a detailed history of the film by the Danish scholar Casper Tyberg.

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Ukrainian Poetic Cinema at the Lincoln Center

The Film Society of the Lincoln Center is showing the cream of the crop of Ukrainian cinema on September 7-12 in a series entitled “Capturing the Marvelous: Ukrainian Poetic Cinema.”  All of these films are nothing short of dazzling and some of them are not readily accessible on DVD with English subtitles, so if you live in New York you would be crazy not to catch them on the big screen. I write about most of these films in my forthcoming book on Sergei Parajanov, so they are still very much fresh in mind.

A Well for the Thirsty (1965)


Broadly speaking, Ukrainian poetic cinema tends to focus on Ukrainian identity and culture (especially folklore), employs a painterly visual style and pushes the boundaries of film technique and narrative. The term “poetic” comes primarily from the films’ abundance of metaphors and symbols, but one can further extend the parallel with poetry as a literary genre and how many of the films use the language of cinema.

Generally, critics trace the origin of Ukrainian poetic cinema to the films of Alexander Dovzhenko. His silent films Zvenigora / Zvenyhora (1927) and Earth (1930) are readily available on video and are widely written about, so I do not need to belabor their virtues here. If there is an omission in the series, it is Dovzhenko’s first sound film, Ivan (1932), whose experiments in editing and sound likely influenced Ukrainian poetic filmmakers in the 1960s.

Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) was his first international success and his masterpiece alongside the Armenian production The Color of Pomegranates (1969). Easily the most widely seen and discussed Ukrainian film after Dovzhenko’s Earth, it initiated the Ukrainian poetic cinema revival of the 1960s, which was based out of the Dovzhenko Film Studio in Kyiv. As with Shadows, the majority of these Sixties films were set in the past or in rural locales, a trope which the filmmakers used to explore questions of Ukrainian history and identity.

Yuri Illienko (1936-2010), the director of photography for Shadows, subsequently became a major director in his own right. His brilliant debut, A Well for the Thirsty (1965, also translated as A Spring for the Thirsty), based on a poetic script by Ivan Drach, was surely one of the most daring formal experiments ever produced in Soviet cinema. Virtually plotless and lacking dialogue for large portions of its running time, the film concerns an old man who lives alone since his wife has passed away and his sons have departed. The village where he lives is surrounded by parched soil, but the water from his well sustains the villagers and, years earlier, soldiers who passed through during the war. The man envisions a beautiful young woman, presumably his wife at a younger age, carrying pails of water. The densely textured film uses repeated visual and audio motifs to create a structure akin to a musical composition. Continuing the experiments with film stock that Illienko began while working on Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the film uses special high-contrast stock, at times pushed even further so that the stark black-and-white imagery looks like an engraving or ink drawing. The sound track is a complex audio collage of recited poetry, song fragments, cries and sound effects such as ringing bells; no doubt it served as a major source of inspiration for Parajanov’s use of sound in The Color of Pomegranates. The film ran afoul of the authorities and was banned until 1987, when it was finally released along with a number of other long-banned Soviet films.

The Eve of Ivan Kupala (1968)

Illienko’s second feature, The Eve of Saint John (1968) is an ambitious adaptation of Gogol’s story of the same name. (Arguably, a better translation would be The Eve of Ivan Kupala, since it refers to the summer festival that originated as a pagan fertility rite.) The film’s style and imagery attempt to recreate the phantasmagorical world of Gogol’s prose in cinematic terms through jump cuts and other forms of trick editing, exaggerated Ukrainian decorative motifs, and distortions of scale and perspective. Beyond that, Illienko tries to make the film into a meditation on Ukrainian history; at one point, the main character of Pidorka (Larisa Kadochnikova) is caught up in the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century and subsequently witnesses Catherine the Great and Potemkin’s legendary tour of facade-villages in the Ukrainian countryside. Ultimately, the film seems overburdened with trick effects and was coolly received by Soviet critics, but it remains memorable for its extraordinary wealth of surrealistic imagery. It is an absolute must on the big screen.

White Bird With a Black Mark (1970)

Illienko’s greatest commercial and critical success was by far White Bird with a Black Mark (1970), which won the Golden Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 1971 and drew 10.5 million admissions in the Soviet Union as a whole. Co-written by Illienko and its star Ivan Mykolaichuk (the star of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), the film concerns an impoverished Hutsul family whose loyalties are divided between the Soviets and the Romanians during World War II. It deploys a straightforward narrative and pointedly orthodox representations of negative figures such as the band of Ukrainian nationalist insurgents and the priest. But it also contains many of Illienko’s characteristic stylistic touches, including jump cuts, 360-degree tracking shots, and telephoto camerawork that strongly recalls Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

The Stone Cross (1968)

Leonid Osyka (1940-2001) may not be as well known in the West as Parajanov or Illienko, but The Stone Cross (1968) stands alongside their works on its own terms. Based on a script by Ivan Drach and adapted from the writings of Vasyl Stefanyk, it depicts an old man in Western Ukraine who tires of working his barren plot of land and decides to emigrate with his family to Canada. On the eve of his departure, he catches a thief on his farm and plans to kill him, but succumbs to compassion while his neighbors stand fast in their rigid code of honor. As a memorial to his life in his homeland, he leaves a stone cross on a hill. Especially noteworthy is the farewell party, which takes up about half of the 80-minute film. In a series of long takes, the camera circles around the villagers, following the old man while he approaches various individuals, speaks, and offers to drink toasts with them. The overall texture of the film is deliberately spare compared to the kaleidoscopic quality of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors or The Eve of Ivan Kupala, and it depends more heavily on dramatic dialogue than A Well for the Thirsty. Still, a great deal of the film’s sense is conveyed through its expressive imagery, including intense close-ups of the villagers’ time-ravaged faces and the heavily flattened, almost abstract images of the countryside.

The Ukrainian poetic cinema revival continued through the early 1970s, though some of the films were banned or shelved, and others received only limited distribution outside of Ukraine. In May 1974, less than a month after Sergei Parajanov’s imprisonment on politically motivated charges of homosexuality, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, publicly condemned Ukrainian poetic cinema and declared it “overcome.” Despite this, Yuri Illienko continued to make innovative works, though his first three films remained his strongest. Leonid Osyka’s subsequent output was more uneven. Still, the films shown in this series represent a major contribution to world cinema and the best postwar Ukrainian films alongside those of the Odessa-based Kira Muratova.

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