Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saturday Nitrates


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The other day a fellow cinephile asked me if I'd seen Good Night, and Good Luck or Capote yet. My answer was no, that these days I'm generally not drawn to seeing films that seem to me (perhaps I'm being short-sighted) to be made for DVD or cable TV as much as they're made for theatrical release, no matter how good they're reported to be. I'm much more likely to put a priority on seeing something purely cinematic like The Weeping Meadow, especially since I've never seen a Theo Angelopoulos film in a cinema before. His previous film, the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning Eternity and a Day was theatrically released while I was living abroad in a city where prints of his films probably have never played, and Ulysses' Gaze before my cinematic interests included 3-hour art films by Greek auteurs. I won't pretend that I understood the significance of everything I saw in The Weeping Meadow, but I can assure you that my eyes popped over and over. This epic, which Angelopoulos intends to follow with two sequels, is undeniably composed for large screen theatrical viewing, not for even the most audacious of home systems. His long shots need to overpower the viewer with their complexity and their size. His long takes cannot be interrupted by the distractions of the home environment. A pause button would kill this film, and its incredible debut performance by Alexandra Aidini. Perhaps that makes it somehow too fragile to be of much use in the current aesthetic climate, but as long as there's a place like the Balboa taking the risk of showing such a film (if only for four days; The Weeping Meadow ends this Monday Oct. 31!) I'm going to be there.

The same reasoning draws me to as many revived classic films as I can fit into my viewing schedule. Films made in the era before anyone thought seriously of reducing and broadcasting them to mass audiences can feel like revelations when returned to their natural setting. Such was the case of Singin' in the Rain, which I saw at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre last weekend. I'd only ever seen it on a television set before, and though I liked it, to be honest I'd never quite grasped why it could be so highly esteemed as to earn a place on so many notable top 10 lists; why it had become perhaps the quintessential Hollywood musical. No wonder; in a way I'd never really seen it! It wasn't just that the vastness of the screen helped me to see details like the broken hairs on Donald O'Connor's bow by the end of "Fit as a Fiddle", or the wrinkle in Cyd Charisse's panty hose when she appears in the "Broadway Melody" sequence. It was that the deep blacks, bright whites and vivid candy store colors emphasized the story's fantastic elements and made me more easily forgive the anti-historical, pro-talkie mythologizing. I was able to dream along with the film.

I don't think I'd ever seen any Technicolor print so rich in color and clarity. So when I noticed that the Stanford's printed calendar boasted that every Saturday would feature a screening of "a beautiful original print (usually nitrate from the UCLA film archive)" I had to wonder if I had just seen a nitrate print! I was familiar with Paolo Cherchi Usai's term "epiphany of nitrate", meaning the moment a cinephile may have when viewing cellulose nitrate (the Stanford being one of the few places in the world insured to run the obsolete material through its projectors for the general public) when the palpable difference between it and safety stock is understood, and all but assumed that my experience with this Singin' in the Rain print must have been mine!

But subsequent research showed me to be wrong. I found sources saying that the original nitrate print of Singin' in the Rain had been lost forever, and others implying that Singin' in the Rain was not quite old enough to have been distributed on nitrate prints, the format having been retired in 1951. In any case, a call to the Stanford Theatre's box office confirmed that the Saturday nitrate screenings will always be for the films being shown at 7:30 PM. I had seen nitrate after all; the other half of the double bill. It was a nicely-colored, but horribly scratched (the worst I've seen at the Stanford) and badly spliced print of the airheaded Don Ameche/Betty Grable musical Moon Over Miami. Nothing jawdropping. No epiphany, nitrate or not.

But I'm going back. According to the person I spoke to on the box office phone number, they'll be showing at least six more nitrate prints over the next few months, including Seven Days to Noon (tonight), Stormy Weather (Nov. 5), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (Nov. 12, and specifically promised to be "gorgeous" in the program guide), Down Argentine Way (Dec. 3), Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (Dec. 10) and Cover Girl (Dec. 17). I know you can't expect to force an epiphany, but I'm going to see if I can't try anyway. And who knows, maybe there will be some incredible safety stock restorations as second features?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Boom Crash Opera


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Nobody would mistake me for a regular operagoer. In 1990 I went on a high school field trip to see a matinee of Die Fledermaus at the SF Opera. On a 1996 trip to New York I caught a performance of the Philip Glass opera the Voyage at the Met. And the other night I saw my third-ever "legitimate" opera performance, Doctor Atomic, about Robert Oppenheimer and the Trinity test. I was impressed. The John Adams score was great (admittedly I'm a partisan; I think Harmonium just might be the greatest piece of music composed in my lifetime.) The starkly radioactive design of the sets, lights and costumes created an otherworldly space on the War Memorial Opera House stage. The placement of the actors' bodies on the stage reinforced the sense that humanity was at this moment perhaps more clearly than at any other, dealing with something it was simply unable to truly comprehend. The final moments of the opera were particularly breathtaking and intense.

Yet something felt missing from the experience. I'm inclined to agree with the various reviews I've found that place the blame on the libretto, which was built out of a wildly diverse selection of texts of completely different registers, including favorite poems of Oppenheimer's and declassified government documents. Such blending is not a bad concept and in fact fits with Adams's record as a "populist" composer. Except that it didn't really feel as if there was any blending, sonnets difficult to absorb on a single listen unceremoniously dumped next to transcripts of a lot of talk about the weather. As a result, the opera felt entirely too episodic, without enough consistency of threads of theme or character running through it to sustain a sense of drama. Project setbacks would be introduced and seemingly solved before the next aria. Though the music conveyed an urgency that would make me susceptible to being grabbed by the throat and pulled headfirst into the monumental ethical dilemmas inherent in this moment in history, only in a few scenes did "Doctor Atomic" approach that feeling.

Perhaps I was supposed to be already quite familiar with the poems and/or the other documents used as text, and if I had been I would have been able to comprehend how they actually subtly fit together to form a narrative line. Or perhaps narrative line was intentionally out the window, or simply boiled down to a three-hour anticipation of the inevitable detonation. But somehow I don't think an effect that deliberate was really the basis of this pastiche libretto. More likely it was a compromised consequence of Alice Goodman's sudden withdrawal as librettist shortly before its due date. Goodman's recent explanation for bowing out doesn't seem borne out by the finished product. Whether this is because her concerns about anti-Semitism in the opera's structure were overblown all along, were remedied without her participation, or were valid but undetectable to an inexperienced audience member like myself, it's a fascinating subplot, and one that I somehow doubt will come to light until a day when the various parties' own documents become declassified.

A reason why Doctor Atomic's backstage drama is so fascinating connects to the reason why I felt compelled to see the opera in the first place: the Death of Klinghoffer. It's some kind of irony (which kind probably largely depends on your political persuasions) that Goodman reused the same "anti-Semitism" label that had been applied to her last collaboration with Adams and Sellars. I only became familiar with this opera about the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian terrorists through the Penny Woolcock film, which I first saw with a rather small Castro Theatre crowd at the 2003 SFIFF. I was incredibly moved, most-especially during the scenes where the panicked hijackers begin terrorizing the infinitely-more-frightened passengers and crew in the ship's dining room. Somehow, in the tragedy of the abrupt violence, singing feels like not only an operatic convention but a hyper-realistic effect even more appropriate than crying or shouting to convey the anguish of the situation. Woolcock's decision to shoot in a very immediate documentary style paradoxically minimized distraction from the music and text at the same time that it fleshed out details of character and setting.

This was my first time seeing an opera on film (opera really has been a big blind spot for me!) and I was as impressed by the BBC production's ambitiousness and daring as I was emotionally drained by the experience. I was disheartened to see how neglected the film was by critics, audiences, and theatre bookers that year. I can only assume that people are either scared off by the "opera" tag or the "anti-Semitic" one that has followed the Death of Klinghoffer since before its premiere nearly 15 years ago. Perhaps the opera and/or the film are indeed anti-Semitic; it's not obvious to me. I've encountered compelling arguments why it isn't, made by Adams and Woolcock on the DVD commentary track and by this guy here. I haven't yet heard a compelling case that it is though.

I've since taken a few stabs at trying to see how other opera films look next to Woolcock's. Bergman's the Magic Flute is a light confection in comparison. I didn't have the patience to watch more than the first 20 minutes of Losey's Don Giovanni on DVD. Maybe it was just my occasional Mozart allergies acting up again. Aria was an interestingly weird experiment but in an entirely different vein. Three Tales was even more interesting, weird, and different (and, like Doctor Atomic, strangely unsatisfying as a whole). I'm excited to try out the Tales of Hoffman when Criterion releases it next month, but I'm not expecting similarities between it and the Death of Klinghoffer. I'm perhaps most intrigued by Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, directed by its composer. (Should I say composed by its director?)

Anyway, what I'm trying to get around to saying is that I highly recommend cinephiles take a look at the the Death of Klinghoffer DVD, even if you've had bad experiences with opera in the past. Let me know what you think of it, if you think it's anti-Semitic or not, if there are other opera films you've seen that share its aesthetic philosophies, or if I need to wipe off my Harmonium afterglow before you'll trust a John Adams recommendation from me again.

Oh, and check out the final final few Doctor Atomic Goes Nuclear programs at the PFA. I've been remiss.