Pre-Code Holy Grail: The Story of Temple Drake on tonight TCM

One of the most eagerly sought pre-Code films, Stephen Roberts’ The Story of Temple Drake (1933), is showing tonight on TCM at 8:00 p.m. An adaptation of William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary, it stars Miriam Hopkins and features atmospheric cinematography by Karl Struss.

According to a source from Turner Broadcasting, “TCM paid for a broadcast master from MoMA’s print materials – which were in great shape, as the film has essentially remained unseen for so long.  Although it’s a Paramount film, Fox owns it, as they bought the underlying property, Faulkner’s SANCTUARY — & the original film – for a remake in 1960.”

I saw a poor-quality print several years ago and remember the film as an especially jaw-dropping pre-Code drama. I have not, however, seen the remake directed by Tony Richardson and starring Lee Remick as Temple Drake and Yves Montand (!) as Candy Man.

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White Material

Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Claire Denis is such a magnificently visual director that no one should miss the opportunity to see her latest film, White Material (2009) on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray. I only wish that Beau Travail (1999) would receive such luxurious treatment! Working with a new cinematographer (Yves Cape) Denis manages to strike a fine balance between off-the-cuff spontaneity, precisely observed details and the pictorial beauty of the West African landscape. And yet, despite the film’s entrancing visual style, it doesn’t quite come off.

To my mind, the film falters in two areas. First, the main character of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), the head of a coffee plantation on its last legs before the region falls to civil unrest, is too single-minded and unmoving. Her conflicts are wholly externalized; that is, we never see her work through any self-doubts or arrive at any meaningful turning points. This makes the film’s dramatic trajectory too single-minded and ultimately predictable. When she snaps at the end, her act of violence is also patently incredible. That said, Isabelle Huppert does a superb job of bringing the character of Maria physically to life, regardless of the limitations of the script.

The second flaw has do with the director’s decision to set it within “Africa” and not a specific country. Despite Claire Denis’ undeniable gift for establishing atmosphere and drawing fine performances out of even the smallest extras, we wind up with a fairly abstract parable about colonialism: a Decaying Coffee Plantation, the Woman Who Refuses To Leave, the Escaped Rebel, Child Soldiers, and so on. Ironically, as the accompanying interview with Denis makes clear, she draws upon a deep personal knowledge of Africa; details such as the ubiquitous transistor radios are very much grounded in quotidian reality. Even so, the narrative feels schematic. I’m not opposed to parables in principle, but in this particular case the story would have worked better if Denis and her co-writer Marie N’Diaye had grounded it more concretely in a specific context.

The director-and-cinematographer-approved transfer on the Criterion Blu-ray does an excellent job of conveying the look of a film that was shot largely with available light in a beautiful but unforgiving landscape. Special features include interviews with Denis, Huppert and actor Isaach de Bankolé, and a documentary by Denis on the film’s premiere at the 2010 Écrans Noirs Film Festival. White Material may not merit a purchase unless you’re a die-hard Denis fan, but it’s certainly worth seeking out as a rental.

Update (7/1o/2011):

David Denby offers a devastating critique of the film in The New Yorker. Among other things, he writes:

The movie is an attack on white postcolonial arrogance and stupidity, but none of the African characters are more than a handsome face.

This charge is difficult to refute. The critical character of “The Boxer” in particular lacks a meaningful backstory, although viewers closely familiar with African history and politics might be able to draw some inferences about him. The casual viewer (like me) ends up out in the cold with little more than beautiful faces, as Denby astutely points out. I still think the film is worth a look, but I am increasingly inclined to agree with Denby.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams revisited

This week the 3D version of Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams continues its run in Atlanta at the Regal Hollywood 24. Having seen it now in its proper 3D format, I can testify to the huge difference it makes to see the artwork in its original spacial context on the cave walls. The Upper Paleolithic artists made astonishingly sophisticated use of the cave wall contours; in at least one case, they extended the legs of an animal over a curved wall so that they looked normal when viewed from the proper angle. In another instance, the effect of a bison turning its head toward the viewer is enhanced by the curve in a wall. Effects such as these come across far more clearly when viewing the film in 3D. In general, the 3D works to give you a better sense of the space within the cave.

To be sure, not all of the 3D works equally well. At one point we see a couple of scientists standing in front of a wall painted with handprints, and the odd seams around them suggest that the 3D effect in this particular shot was created digitally, after the fact. But on the whole the format adds greatly to the emotional impact of the film.

On this second viewing I was even more impressed with Ernst Reijseger’s haunting score–I want to become more familiar with his work.

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Mondo Cinema 2011

What do Jean Rouch, Fisher-Price Pixelvision and Liberace have in common? That is for you to find out. Andy Ditzler’s Film Love and Mondo Homo have a special screening programmed this Sunday, May 29, 2011, 7:00 PM at My Sister’s Room in East Atlanta. Address: 1271 Glenwood Ave., Atlanta, GA 30316. Admission is a mere $7.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the Tara

My love-hate relationship with the Tara Theatre in Atlanta took yet another twist this past weekend with their engagement of the new Werner Herzog documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Yes, the Tara shows some excellent foreign and independent films, but the mediocre projection too often dilutes the pleasure of seeing them on the big screen. This time, in addition to the usual dimly lit screens, the audience was treated to a flat (2-D) version Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That said, the documentary itself still holds up well in 2-D because of the inherent fascination of the subject matter, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France. I suspect that for this film the 3-D image works to give viewers a better sense of the contours of the cave walls, which is important because their effect depends partly upon the surfaces on which they were painted.

Clip from Cave of Forgotten Dreams, courtesy of IFC Films.

A product of the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian culture, the oldest paintings in the Chauvet Cave date to 30,000-32,000 years ago–the earliest surviving cave paintings and not that much younger than the Venus of Hohle Fels, the earliest known example of figurative art. The Chauvet Cave paintings in particular are astonishing because of the sophisticated manner in which they employ expressive lines and shading, and how they are drawn to suggest movement. Around the same period one can find the first musical instruments such as an ivory flute, making this era the dawn of human culture as we understand it today.

Herzog interviews a number of scientists and thus provides the necessary context for understanding the cave art. And Herzog being Herzog, he also doesn’t shy away from the sheer alienness of the Upper Paleolithic culture and the mystical force behind the paintings. Ernst Reijseger’s otherworldly trance music works better than most scores of that type and certainly fits with the subject matter. I’m still not sure what to make of the ending, which shifts focus to a nuclear power plant and albino alligators; perhaps Herzog means to show the how the climate of that region is again in the process of changing, this time due to human activity. But between this film and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he seems increasingly obsessed with reptilian points of view.

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Die Walküre at the Met

Wagner must be the crack cocaine of opera–not long after coming down from yesterday afternoon’s high of watching the live HD broadcast of Die Walküre from the Met, I had to drag out the Boulez/Chereau DVD from my secret stash and watch portions of that as well.

To my mind this new production is far more satisfying than the Metropolitan Opera’s 1990 production by Otto Schenk, also conducted by James Levine. I liked James Morris as Wotan, but Gary Lakes and Jessye Norman lacked the necessary chemistry as Siegmund and Sieglinde to carry off Act I. This new production, directed by Robert Lepage, opens compellingly with Jonas Kaufmann and Ewa-Maria Westbroek as the passionate siblings. Jonas Kaufmann in particular stole the show with his fluid singing and magnetic stage presence; I can’t wait to see him perform more Wagner roles in the future.

The rest of the cast was solid. Perhaps Deborah Voigt doesn’t have as much power in her voice as the greatest Brünnhildes, but I liked the almost childlike enthusiasm she gave the character in Act II. Over the course of the opera she and Bryn Terfel developed an emotionally convincing rapport as the god Wotan and his favorite daughter, especially in the farewell scene of Act III.

In his April 23 review in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini complained about the obtrusiveness of Robert Lepage’s multi-bladed mechanical apparatus, which apparently creaks and has been notoriously prone to mechanical problems. (Saturday’s broadcast was in fact delayed by 45 minutes.) In some ways, I wonder if Lepage didn’t direct the opera with its afterlife on video in mind as much as live productions on the stage. The performances all display a great deal of nuance that is probably lost in the large Metropolitan Opera auditorium. Certainly, any creaking noises were not audible in the broadcast. The only thing I found distracting was that occasionally the actors blended into the background too much when the textured light projections fell on them; this was especially apparent when Jonas Kaufmann stood against the ash tree in Act I. Also, in the same scene it was odd to have Siegmund and Sieglinde stand below the level of the main stage so that they were cut off at the knees.

The video direction of the broadcast was skillfully executed, maintaining just the right balance between closer shots and larger tableaux. (The earlier Met HD broadcast of Nixon in China, directed by Peter Sellars himself, was overly enamored of details and too often forgot to pull back and show the stage as a whole, undercutting the impact of Sellers’ own, very striking stage design.) I, for one, look forward to seeing what Lepage does with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung next season.

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Henri Cartier-Bresson at the High

If you haven’t seen the retrospective of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs at the High Museum (Atlanta), you must go. Now. This touring retrospective, which originated at the Museum of Modern Art, runs in Atlanta until May 29.

This is the most impressive museum exhibit of any kind that I have seen in the past few years, and one of the most impressive that I have ever seen, period. During his very long life (1908-2004) Cartier-Bresson visited practically every country on the planet, some of them more than once. His works range from Surrealist-influenced work during the Thirties to photojournalism and portraits. What I found amazing is that using mainly a single kind of camera–a Leica with a 50mm lens–and almost exclusively black-and-white film, he demonstrated as much artistic range as a great painter. He also had a rare gift for capturing life as a series of spontaneous but expressive moments, his subjects seemingly oblivous of his presence. Exhibit highlights include the photo-essays on the daily operations American bank (depressingly familiar today) and the Great Leap Forward in China; photos taken during two separate trips to the Soviet Union; the Mexican photos; the celebrity portraits. I was so overwhelmed by almost every image that I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite. Another aspect which I found fascinating was observing how photographic paper and printing styles changed over the years. 

Plan to spend at least four hours for the entire exhibit, or break it up over two days. You won’t regret it. I’d like to go back for a second viewing.

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Taxi Driver restored

I just returned from a special screening of the restored Taxi Driver (1976) at AMC Phipps Plaza: a very unusual opportunity–in Atlanta, at least–to see a 4k digital restoration of a film projected in its native format. (The Blu-ray disc downsized from the same restoration streets on April 5.)

The fifty-odd spectators looking forward to a spiffed-up tour of Scorsese’s cinematic Inferno barely escaped getting dragged by thousands of gleeful imps into a Hell of an entirely different, more terrifying sort: the Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston comedy Just Go With It. It seems that an inattentive projectionist forgot to boot up the correct file. One person sitting next to me pointed out, this wouldn’t have happened if it were a 35mm print. At least it didn’t take very long to fix the problem.

Still, after tonight’s viewing I think that 4k digital projection is a viable alternative to 35mm prints for films originally shot on 35mm. I didn’t spot any of the burnt-out highlights that crop up from time to time in HD video-originated material, and the film’s original grain structure was very much apparent. The restoration itself properly maintained the look of Seventies film stock, but since Sony went directly to the original negative for the digital restoration, the image had greater density and especially had better color–those infernal reds!–than the other versions I’ve seen over years. The main exception is the final shootout, which is still heavily desaturated as it looked during its initial theatrical release.

Paul Schrader’s script, with its voiceover diary entries, is a dark and perverted mirror of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. (In case you doubt this, Schrader even tosses in a throwaway reference to stomach cancer.) The film as a whole remains a brilliant tour-de-force, but there is one thing that continues to bug me: if Travis Bickle is really so uneducated and out of touch that he doesn’t know the word “moonlighting,” then why does he use the word “venal” in his diary? Still, Robert De Niro is so convincing that he makes the role come painfully alive. Harvey Keitel is also indelible as the pimp–I would go so far as to say that his insidious slow dance with Jody Foster represents his absolute best work as an actor aside from Mean Streets. I’ve seen Taxi Driver many times on video, but that scene stood out unexpectedly on the big screen.

For more about the film’s restoration, see Grover Crisp’s interview on The Digital Bits.

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Salman Rushdie at the movies: Pather Panchali

Subir Bannerjee as Apu in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955).

As anyone familiar with Sir Salman Rushdie’s works must know by now, he is a great cinephile in addition to being a great writer. As the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory, this semester he is curating a series entitled “Great Works of Fiction Made Into Great Films,” sponsored by the Department of English, the Department of Media Studies, and the Office of the Provost at Emory. Monday night’s film (Feb. 21) was Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), in a restored 35mm print from the Academy Film Archive.

After the screening Rushdie commented that one important difference between the film and Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s novel was that the novel went further in its depiction of the brutal conditions of life in rural Bengal. Among other things, the film left out the pervasive domestic violence which many women characters suffered. Rushdie argued that Ray’s film adaptation was ultimately even better than the novel, which is a literary masterpiece in its own right; one aspect in particular that he singled out is the film’s extraordinary visual lyricism.

I have to agree: seeing the film in 35mm confirms that Pather Panchali surely stands among the greatest films ever made, together with the other two films in Ray’s trilogy. The ending is almost unbearably heartbreaking–it never fails to reduce me to tears no matter how often I see it. But the film’s visual lyricism is also critical to the cumulative effect of the trilogy as a whole: in the first film, the lyrical passages don’t just soften a story that would have been otherwise too bleak for most viewers. They’re important because they help us share Apu’s emergence into consciouness and the development of his poetic sensibility as a future writer. Although it is a very different kind of film, its treatment of a poet’s childhood impressions–or rather, its depiction of how the world shapes a poet’s consciousness–reminds me a bit of Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. The other aspect I find astonishing is Ray’s handling of nonprofessional actors, which at least equals or possibly surpasses similar efforts by Renoir and the Italian neorealism movement. There is not a single false note in the entire cast.

The other screenings in the series are John Huston’s The Dead (February 28), Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (March 14) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (March 21). The screenings are free and open to the public, and the venue (White Hall 208 on the Emory campus) benefits greatly from a pair of newly installed 35mm projectors.  The image positively gleamed Monday night.

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Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at the Atlanta Symphony

Joseph Karl Stieler: Beethoven mit der Missa solemnis Ölgemälde, 1819. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Atlanta residents have the all-too-rare opportunity to catch a pair of live performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Op. 123) with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on  January 20 and 22 (Thursday and Saturday). Donald Runnicles is conducting with with the principle soloists Christine Brewer (Soprano), Karen Cargill (Mezzo-Soprano), Thomas Cooley (Tenor) and Eric Owens (Bass-Baritone). If you have not seen this work live, it can be an overwhelming experience.

Beethoven considered this work to be his greatest, and I’m inclined to agree. The choral writing is astounding, especially the two lengthy, virtuosic fugues that cap the Gloria and the Credo. While the Mass as a whole is monumental in scope, it also has passages of sublime lyricism (the entire Benedictus) and ethereal beauty (the Credo’s Et Incarnatus Est). The latter passage, which is in the Lydian mode, also illustrates how Beethoven closely studied Renaissance and Baroque music while composing this radically innovative work.

Because the Mass is so long and complex, it benefits greatly from multiple listenings. To my mind, the three most successful recent recordings are by John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe and James Levine. Gardiner’s period instrument recording with the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir is often regarded as the best in the catalog. I like the transparency of texture that Gardiner brings with his relatively smaller orchestral and choral forces. The soloists are uniformly excellent, and I think his brisk tempi are very much on the mark. Herreweghe takes a similar approach with the Ghent Collegium Vocale and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, but benefits from the deep spiritual conviction that the conductor and his ensemble bring to the work. While in general I favor the faster tempi that Gardiner and Herreweghe take, I do think there’s a limit to how far this approach can go; David Zinman’s recording with the Zurich Tonalle Orchestra features dazzling performances, but at times it is simply too rushed for the music to have the spiritual impact that Beethoven intended.

James Levine’s live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, Leipziger Rundfunkchor and Swedish Radio Chorus is my personal favorite of the numerous recordings with a conventionally-sized (large) orchestra and chorus. The soloists (Cheryl Studer, Jessye Norman, Placido Domingo and Kurt Moll) are decidedly operatic, but I think they blend well and one could argue that such an operatic style is legitimate here. The chorus is also extremely impressive, even thrilling in places. One aspect I like about this recording in particular is that despite the large forces, it maintains an effective balance between the orchestra, chorus, soloists and organ–something which is apparently difficult to pull off. You can hear a number of details which often get buried elsewhere. Levine’s tempi are broader than Gardiner’s and Herreweghe’s but not unduly so, and he brings considerable vitality to the aforementioned fugues.

Whichever recordings you choose, this is one work that needs to be heard live for its full impact.

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