Saturday, December 29, 2007

Intolerable Silence


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Here's a bizarre thought. Imagine if Martin Scorsese had filmed the Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, the Gangs of New York and the Departed back-to-back during a period of a year and a half. Instead of releasing them separately over the course of two decades, he edited parts of them together into a single epic-length film, stripping each story down to its essential plot, and cross-cutting between the four to emphasize parallels in their narratives.

What kind of film would this be? Well, it would certainly be an epic of epics, taking place over four distinct times and places. Would it bring forth the stylistic and thematic similarities between these four distinct Films By Scorsese? Or would it encourage us to look at their differences? I'm not exactly sure, but I suppose the closest we'll get to knowing the answer is to view the only film I know of, though not By Scorsese, that was made in this fashion: D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. The 1916 film was first imagined as a straightforward exposé of the societal injustice of the day, but upon the extraordinary financial success of the perniciously racist Birth of a Nation, that concept was combined with retellings of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, of the crucifixion of Christ, and of the fall of Babylon into a single film with a vast scope. It's like a one-film template for an auteurist approach to reading cinema. As cinematographer Karl Brown told it, the four stories were shot in succession and assumed by most of the crew to be destined for four different releases that for some whim of Griffith's happened to share the same title: the Mother and the Law. In fact, two of these four would indeed be re-edited and released as stand-alone films in 1919: the Fall of Babylon and the current-day the Mother and the Law.

The releases and various re-editings and theatrical re-releases of Intolerance were never able to put the picture in significant profit. A September 1928 Variety article reported a $1,750,000 total gross on the picture at the close of the silent era, relative to $1,600,000 in costs, which may well have been even higher (wikipedia suggests it may have come closer to $2,000,000). But the financial failure of the film neither prevented Griffith from continuing his career as a director, nor has it kept many critics from hailing Intolerance as an unmatched high-water-mark of the silent film era. Take one of the most influential institutions of critical canon-formation, the Sight & Sound Top 10, which since 1952 has compiled "Ten Best Film" lists from critics around the world. That first year of the survey, Intolerance placed fifth in both the tallied result as well as on a simultaneous reader survey (incidentally, though they aligned on Intolerance in this survey, as well as the top two choices, the readers were ahead of the critics on Citizen Kane, which was a runner-up on the critics' compiled list but #3 on the readers'.) Since that 1952 assessment, a selection of contributors who have put Intolerance among their chosen ten includes Henri Langlois, Dilys Powell, Jonas Mekas, Enno Patalas, Vincent Canby, Armond White, and since Sight & Sound began inviting film directors to participate, Sidney Lumet, Masahiro Shinoda and Roy Andersson among others.

Most recently, the American Film Institute, in its tenth anniversary of the AFI 100 swapped out Birth of a Nation (#44 back in 1997) for Intolerance (at slot #49). Still, in the age of DVD subscription services and laptop movie-viewing, I sense that a huge-scale film like Intolerance begins to become more and more marginalized by modern movie watchers. Which is why I was so glad to get a chance to see the film tower above me on the Castro Theatre screen earlier this month, courtesy of the SF Silent Film Festival and Photoplay Productions, whose Patrick Stanbury brought a tinted print from London, introduced the screening, and performed 42 manual projection speed changes to ensure that we had the best presentation of the film possible. What a revelation it was to see the film exhibited this way! For the first time, I felt I was starting to understand not only the technical scale and skill involved in the film's making, but also the way the four interlocking stories joined to create a unique and modern narrative. That the three historical tales end in disaster due to intolerance and lack of empathy, makes the 'contemporary' tale become a moving plea of hope that the tragedies of history might not have to repeat themselves. This may be obvious to most, but it's something I'd never grasped before, when trying to watch a home video version of Intolerance, admittedly half-bored, on a television set. Anyway, the film's ultimate message cannot be fully comprehended just by reading about it; it's the precise filmmaking techniques Griffith employs that give Intolerance its emotional impact.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell have marked the birth year of the "classical cinema" style in Hollywood to be 1917. Griffith's cinema in Intolerance, released a year earlier, bears many signs that it is a precursor to that style, in which the 180-degree rule is enforced and editing emphasizes match cuts on eyeline or action. Griffith has broken out of what Thompson and Bordwell refer to as the "tableau approach" that contains all the action of a given scene in a single shot. Still, I noticed in Intolerance numerous instances in which cuts between shots in a scene jarred because they were not matched on action, or even because they would repeat the same action from different angles. Kevin Brownlow, in his chapter on film editing in the Parade's Gone By... mentions a theory by Ray Angus that these double action mismatches were entirely deliberate, but doesn't go into specifics. Some of these actions are dramatic enough that I wonder if Griffith thought audiences would be excited by seeing them repeated, as for example Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew clearly did when showing off Tony Jaa's most impressive Muay Thai moves from multiple angles. But that musing doesn't explain instances in which the repeated action is not particularly interesting, nor the other examples of oddly-timed cuts. The issue isn't that the Thompson/Bordwell milestone year of 1917 hadn't been rung in yet, as there are certainly examples of smoothly-edited films made before then; one I can recommend wholeheartedly is Cecil B. DeMille's the Golden Chance from 1915. Don Fairservice in his book Film Editing: History, Theory, Practice discusses several possible explanations, but gets to the heart of the matter, I feel, in this passage:
What must be acknowledged is that the jumps and mismatches in Intolerance generate a tension within scenes which transcends continuity, the jaggedness of the cutting contributing to the content. One of the main difficulties facing a modern spectator who brings to the experience of seeing the film all the accumulated baggage and conditioned responses of continuity cinema is that Griffith's work demands a different quality of understanding wherein the whole is infinitely more important than the parts...
There has been a recent discussion at girish's place about the function of musical accompaniment with a silent film. Let this screening of Intolerance stand as my Exhibit A in the argument for a terrific live performer providing music for a theatrical screening. It's interesting that I found myself registering cutting 'discontinuities' much less frequently in the action sequences, particularly toward the film's culmination as three of the four stories' narrative arcs (the Judean segment having become visually de-emphasized about halfway through the film) converged into a thrilling alignment. I have no doubt in my mind that Dennis James's unflagging Wurlitzer score had as much to do with my emotional involvement in Griffith's converging melodrama as any visual strategies of the director's own making. Does this mean I was manipulated by the music? Yes. But I'm pretty sure it was a manipulation Griffith would have approved of; he was always concerned with the quality of the musical scores sent to the orchestras in theatres playing his pictures, and I can't picture him wanting audiences to watch Intolerance in silence.

James's performance December 1st was all the more remarkable given that the previous night he'd been at the Stanford Theatre, playing to Frank Capra's the Strong Man (just days ago inducted into the National Film Registry) and that he would be providing music for Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil at the Castro that evening. As an example of the formally mature Hollywood style, released ten years after Intolerance, it's a superbly-made film. Yet it portrays an outlook on women that felt like a huge step backward from the strong heroines played by Constance Talmadge and, at least by the end of Griffith's picture, Mae Marsh. Luckily Garbo is a supernatural force that transcends roles borne out of a fear of female sexuality in the flapper era. But before this turns into another huge post topic entirely, let me turn away from my own thoughts on the film and recommend Anne M. Hockens' thoughtful analysis of Flesh and the Devil as a film noir predecessor (and speaking of noir...)

The Silent Film Festival's morning program gave Mr. James a chance to rest his hands and feet, as we were treated to a program of nine mostly-delightful, mostly-hilarious Vitaphone shorts featuring mostly-forgotten vaudeville stars telling jokes and playing music. If you're wondering why a silent film festival deigned to show a program of talking pictures, think of how many silent stars got their start on vaudeville stages (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, "Fatty" Arbuckle, and Mary Pickford are a few names you might recognize), how many theatres (including the Castro) brought both silent films and vaudeville acts to their patrons, and how important the coming of sound is to an understanding of the history of silent film, and you'll get the idea. Also, the films are really entertaining, and this particular program had never been seen together, much less in Frisco where a theatrical audience for Vitaphone shorts might grow quite healthily. My personal favorites of the nine shown were the Foy Family in Chips of the Old Block, and the Norman Thomas Quintet in Harlem-Mania, featuring a truly unforgettable drummer, and some unexpected camera positions to help accommodate his gymnastics.

In case you haven't noticed, it's been a while since my last post, which I can blame on the busyness and distractions associated with a cross-town move and the holiday season. I'm going to be playing a bit of catch-up on Frisco film events over the next few weeks here at Hell on Frisco Bay before I head off to Park City, Utah. But for now, while I'm on the topic of silent-era films, let me just point out the upcoming screenings of silents with live accompaniment I'm aware of in the next few months.

Monday night at Grace Cathedral there will be two performances of perhaps the most widely-seen of all silent films today, the Lon Chaney, Sr. Phantom of the Opera. It'll be accompanied by Dorothy Papadakos on the sanctuary's Aeolian-Skinner organ. I've never seen a silent film playing in a functioning place of worship before (no, the Paramount doesn't count!) so I'm particularly intrigued to check this out. There will be performances at 7PM for those of you with parties to go to by midnight, and 10PM for those of you who want to end 2007 with a scary movie.

The Pacific Film Archive has a terrific calendar for January-February, surely their best since, oh, way back in September-October at the very least. There's too much to process in one flip-through of the calendar program, but four series are of interest to appreciators of silent film and live music. First, a trio of Sessue Hayakawa films that, as I mentioned in my previous post, screen in conjunction with a UC Berkeley conference on silent cinema February 8-10. Second, a kid-friendly set of Saturday afternoon matinees including a program of Georges Méliès delights January 19th and a February 9th screening of Harold Lloyd in Speedy. Third, an extremely impressive series of European classics, some silent and some not, called the Medieval Remake, including Fritz Lang's rarely-shown Die Nibelungen in two parts January 20th, Dreyer's the Passion of Joan of Arc (paired with Robert Bresson's 1962 interpretation) January 27th, and Murnau's Faust February 16th. Finally, the resuming of the popular Film 50 series of screenings and lectures on the history of cinema will start off in the silent era and include a February 6th showing of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

If you miss that screening, which you're likely to as tickets for Film 50 screenings are scarce, know that you'll get another chance to see Robert Wiene's expressionist masterpiece on this side of the bay in a few months. SFJAZZ has announced the April 12, 2008 return of the Club Foot Orchestra to the Castro Theatre, where the ensemble will perform the signature scores from their heyday: Nosferatu and Sherlock Jr. as well as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. These folks haven't performed together here since before I was smart enough to realize how great silent films are; I'll definitely want to be on-hand for the reunion.

The Niles Essanay Film Museum has announced its Saturday evening program schedule through March, though not yet on its website. The year starts with Lon Chaney in False Faces January 5th, and continues with selections such as the Black Pirate January 26th (also expected to play the Balboa for that theatre's annual birthday bash February 27th), Charley's Aunt February 2nd, the Docks of New York March 15th, the Covered Wagon March 22nd, and much much more.

And just wait 'til you hear what Frisco's got in store when it comes to talkies!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Quick Flick Picks


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On the eve of a day-long movie marathon, I just wanted to get some items off of my to-blog list.

In my last post on silent film, I mentioned that the Berlin and Beyond festival will, as usual, be showing a German silent film as part of its 2008 program. It's just been revealed that the festival, running January 10-16 at the Castro Theatre, will present the 1929 comedy the Oddball with live musical accompaniment by Dennis James.

Some noteworthy though not-so-silent entries in Berlin and Beyond 2008 include Michael Verhoeven's the Unknown Soldier, and a three-film tribute to the recently-deceased actor Ulrich Mühe: along with his recent triumph in the Lives of Others the festival will screen a film from his East German film career, Half of Life, and his role in the Austrian Michael Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, just before the Sundance premiere of that director's apparently all-but shot-for-shot remake. The opening night film is the Edge of Heaven by Fatih Akin, contradicting the program guide on the Castro's website, which says it will be Yella. Christian Petzod's film will still play in the festival, but its opening slot was switched out for Akin's after the Castro schedules went to press.

Speaking of which, there's a lot to talk about on those Castro schedules, and I'm not even going to cover it all here. A MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS triple bill of Burt Reynolds films including Peter Bogdanovich's rarely-revived tribute to Lubitsch, At Long Last Love, plays December 7th, and another threefer starts with possibly the most heartbreaking summer vacation movie of my teenage years, which was also Winona Ryder's first film role, Lucas. That plays February 8th, the Friday before Valentine's Day (on which Marc Huestis brings Olivia Hussey for the 40th anniversary of Romeo & Juliet.)

There's another in the Castro's continuing series of classic films organized by composer, this time nine days (December 26-January 3) of double-bills scored by the great Miklos Rosza, including multiple collaborations with Billy Wilder and Vincent Minelli. January 4-9 brings the nine of the ten most well-known pairings of the "Emperor" Akira Kurosawa and his "Wolf" Toshiro Mifune. They made sixteen films together, and I wish the selection included Red Beard or some of the rarely-screened early films like the Quiet Duel and the Idiot, but I'm glad for the opportunity to see any of these again on the Castro's mighty screen. I've never seen the Seven Samurai, for example, on anything larger than a regular television set, which is probably enough to send me to the cinephile stocks.

If you're concerned about how to fit the new cut of Blade Runner playing at the Embarcadero into your schedule this week, know that it will make a return appearance at the Castro for a week starting February 15th. The early-eighties revival I'm most excited about seeing in a Landmark theatre is one I've never seen in any cut before: Jean-Jacques Beniex's Diva, which opens at the Shattuck in Berkeley as well as somewhere in Frisco December 7th.

The Roxie has a pair of films from this past spring's SF International Film Festival on its upcoming slate. One I've seen and can recommend: Les Blank's new documentary All in This Tea. Not being particularly interested in gourmet tea varieties, I was skeptical going in, but I found the film to be a fun but serious peek into the blossoming of capitalism in China. It opens December 14th. The other is one I missed in May but won't in January, when it opens on the 11th: El Violin from Mexico.

The Red Vic has its full December (highlight: the Draughtsman's Contract on the 16th & 17th) and January (highlight: the Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford on the 15th & 16th) schedules online, but its paper copy extends a bit beyond that, revealing among other things that the Battle of Algiers will play February 3-4.

More time-sensitive news is that two programs of British experimental films from the 1960s and 1970s will play at at the SF Art Institute this coming Monday evening, December 3rd. This tip comes from Jim Flannery, who left it on the cinephile bulettin board that is girish's blog. More on the series here. It's the beginning of a busier-than-usual week of public screenings at SFAI, where a cellphone film event called mini-PAH will take place December 7-8.

SFMOMA, which is currently reprising the Joseph Cornell films it showed earlier this fall as part of its exhibition on the collagist, has also been running a fascinating film series I'm sorry I haven't really mentioned here before. In conjunction with a Jeff Wall exhibition, the museum will screen John Huston's Fat City this and next Saturday afternoon, R.W. Fassbinder's proto-emo-fest masterwork the Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant December 13th and 15th, Ingmar Bergman's Persona December 20th and 22nd, and perhaps most exciting since I've never seen this legendary epic, Jean Eustache's the Mother and the Whore December 27th and 29th. Then, beginning January 5th with a screening of Point of Order, SFMOMA will run a retrospective of the films of Emile de Antonio. In the Year of the Pig plays January 19th and 24th.

The current Year of the Pig ends February 6th, 2008. You may know that the Japanese Zodiac is based on the Chinese Zodiac, though the Pig is replaced with the Wild Boar in Japan (in Thailand the Pig becomes an Elephant). But since Japan celebrates New Year January 1st like we in the West, not the Lunar New Year of the Chinese, the Year of the Boar will end sooner than the Year of the Pig. Have I lost you yet? Either way, the new 12-year Zodiac cycle will begin next year, on either January 1st or February 7th, with the Year of the Rat. Shortly after the latter there will be a Pacific Film Archive tribute to Japanese-American silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa, who was born in 1889 (the year of the Ox, like me only 84 years earlier). February 9th screens Hayakawa's star-making role in Cecil B. DeMille's the Cheat, and on February 10th the Devil's Claim and Forbidden Paths will be shown. All three will be accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano, and are presented in connection with a two-day conference on silent film called Border Crossings: Re-Thinking Early Cinema. Fascinating stuff, and I'm hopeful that there will be more Hayakawa films announced soon.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Adam Hartzell interviews the director of Host & Guest


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I have to hand it to the 10th SF Asian Film Festival and the 5th Korean American Film Festival, both of which ended for me Sunday with a screening of the 1963 Korean War movie Marines Who Never Returned. Its first ten minutes felt as eerily documentary-like a depiction of combat as any I've seen on film. It makes me glad I still live in the Richmond District not far from the 4 Star Theatre, though for some of the programs hosted there in the past week and a half I would certainly have traveled much longer distances. And I was delighted to learn last Friday that the venue had booked four more days of festival fun, starting yesterday and ending on Thanksgiving, in the form of a Chinese-American Film Festival. Along with films from China and the Chinese diaspora, there will be one more Korean film in the program. Sometime contributor to this site Adam Hartzell has more:
This year, when asked to help out with the San Francisco Korean American Film Festival, I decided it was time for me to do more than simply write the program notes as I have been asked to do in the past. And do more I did, much more than a guy who has a regular day job that requires him to wake up at 4:30 AM, work 10 hour days, and travel abroad from anywhere from a month to two months should really do, but that’s what you get sometimes for volunteering. Thankfully, I worked with a great bunch of people who equally worked their butts off. But regardless of how much you work, some things just don’t work out.

And one of those things that didn’t work out was we weren’t able to get Sin Dong-il’s (alternate Romanization is Shin) wonderful film Host & Guest into the festival. This had to do with coordination difficulties across the globe, conflicting country holidays and work schedules. Let’s just say I was working outside of my skill set. But thankfully, Director Sin intervened on my behalf and Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre offered to open up some slots amidst his Chinese-American Film Festival that began this Monday. Host & Guest will be screening this Wednesday, November 21st at 9:30pm, and Thanksgiving Day at 5pm.

It’s been over two years since I’ve seen Host & Guest, but it’s a film that's slowly grown on me as I've sat with the images and dialogue of the bizarre coupling of a bitter, arrogant film-less Film Professor and a conscientiously-objecting Jehovah's Witness. What I recall after two years away from the film (for thoughts fresh from my viewing the film at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2005 you can go here) is that I appreciated how, although strong in its contempt for the Cheney/Bush administration, the film didn’t focus its critique solely outward, but inward as well. Host & Guest is equally as critical of the South Korean government as it is the United States. Host & Guest is equally critical of itself as it is others. In this way, what might appear clumsy in less skillful hands was gently laid to grow within my thoughts and my emotions that followed me after sharing witness with Sin’s vision.

I asked Sin if I could do an interview with him of a few simple questions over email. I offered him the option to respond in Korean if he felt more comfortable speaking in his first language. He responded mostly in Korean with an exception I will note. Along with thanking Sin for taking the time to answer my brief, amateurish questions, I must also thank Kaya Lee for her willingness to translate under a tighter deadline than I’d prefer to request. I adjusted some of her translation for flow, but I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her. Equally helpful to bringing the film to San Francisco were the SF Korean American Film Festival director Waylon McGuigan, Frank Lee of the 4 Star Theatre, Kim Hee-jeon of CJ Entertainment, and Director Sin’s sister who lives in the Bay Area but whom I won’t name because time constraints don’t allow for me to confirm whether she’s comfortable with my posting her name here.

The following is the interview.

Adam Hartzell, for Hell on Frisco Bay: The title, Host & Guest, is an interesting one. What brought you to use that title for the film?

Director Sin Dong-il: I was building the story’s plot and surprisingly, the English title Host and Guest came across my mind before the Korean title. I really loved the English title; so, I chose one of the main characters’ names as “Ho-jun” from “Host” and the other’s name was “Gye-sang” from “Guest”. I felt so much interest in the idea that two characters who have totally different ideologies respectively on the surface meet each other as a host and an uninvited guest, that is, as a visitor. As their relationship proceeds, each character becomes a host and a guest as well, and it means both are the host of their own lives.

HoFB: Could you talk a little bit about military service in South Korea to give American audiences an understanding of it since an understanding of the obligation all young Korean adults have is important to the film?

Director Sin: Korean people have been considering men’s military service as an obligation that they should accept naturally without doubt because of ideological confrontation and military tension between North and South Korea which has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Such represents that nationalism is controlling Korean people’s consciousness. It is true that people who refused the military obligation under conscience demands for peace have not been known to the South Korean public. I believe nationalism is an anachronism as the cold war composition has already collapsed around the world.

HoFB: Being a first time film director, having one character be a film professor who has never made a film makes me wonder how much he is based on your own experiences. Does that character represent your life in any way? Or is he more the kind of person you are worried you could become?

Director Sin: My life experience helped in making the film. Unlike the U.S. film market, South Korea’s independent film industry is very vulnerable. It is very hard to pursue my original thought into film without negotiating with the commercial/business world. South Korea’s film industry is focusing on box-office value too much. Actually it will bring serious risks/result in the end. I débuted with a feature film, but making a feature film is too hard. I am so gloomy whenever I think about how to get financial support for my third film. If anybody is interested in my third work after watching Host and Guest, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I always welcome producers for my work… just like a host and a guest. [laugh] It’s half seriousness and half joke. In addition, even though Ho-jun is called a professor, he is actually a part time instructor.

HoFB: If there is any kind of statement about the film you wish to make, feel free to add anything else you might want to say.

Director Sin: [Here, Director Sin Dong-il chose to type in English.]

Most people see only what they want to see. This world labels you a stranger once you trespass the standardized rules of the society. I want to open the door that is shut fast to these strangers.

If you want to look at this film closely, I would like to call your attention to Ho-jun’s snobbish elitism, deeply ingrained in his personality. Ho-jun finds himself transformed into an enemy of himself after having gone through days full of breakdowns and failures. He then meets Gye-sang, another soul, who’s also wounded by the prejudice and ignorance of the world. Thanks to Gye-sang, Ho-jun finds himself again, no longer as a "visitor" in his own life, but as both "host" and "guest."

I dedicate this humble film to those who are dreaming of a different world.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wuthering Heights


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How many ways are there to segue from a Blog-A-Thon on William Wyler to one on Luis Buñuel? More than you might think. Flickhead, the host of the latter 'Thon, has illustrated one pathway by posting a terrific photograph with the two men posed less than a yard apart from each other (Wyler's standing next to George Cukor, who's standing behind Buñuel). It was not the first time the directors had rubbed elbows. In 1971, in celebration the Cannes Film Festival's 25th edition, both men were among a group of twelve international auteurs honored. The others were Lindsay Anderson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Frederico Fellini, Vojtech Jasny, Masaki Kobayashi, Orson Welles (who was not present at the festival) and Serge Youtkevitch. You may say, "wait a minute, that doesn't add up to twelve!" Blame the New York Times article of May 13, 1971 from which I obtained this list, for coming up one short. Wyler biographer Jan Herman wrote that there were five directors honored, not twelve: Wyler, Buñuel, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Rene Clair. Obviously further research on this gathering is merited.

Another clear path between the two directors is that they, with apologies to Yoshishige Yoshida, Peter Kosminsky, Suri Krishnamma, Robert Fuest, A.V. Bramble and Jacques Rivette, directed the two most enduring film versions of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. It seems Buñuel had the idea first, as the book was a favorite of his surrealist crowd in the early 1930s. According to Francisco Aranda's Luis Buñuel: a Critical Biography he worked with Pierre Unik, and briefly with Georges Sadoul as well, to write a screen adaptation shortly after the completion of Land Without Bread in 1932. But Buñuel would not have the ability to get the project off the ground until after he'd established himself as a director of narrative features in Mexico. Wyler's Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, earning numerous Oscar nominations and establishing Laurence Olivier as an international star. Buñuel would not begin revising his old script until 1952. The film was shot in 1953 and released in 1954 under the title Cumbres Borrascosas (the title the Brontë book was known by in Spanish translations). Later it was retitled Abismos de Pasión.

Both the 1939 American version and the 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights were filmed in their respective countries' Southwestern scrub desertlands. Wyler's version had its outdoor scenes shot in the still-rural outskirts of Los Angeles. Buñuel, according to biographer John Baxter, shot the film
at the hacienda of San Francisco de Quadra in the barren uplands of Guerrero, near Taxco. Critics noticed immediately that this was pretty odd country. Thunderstorms crash and flare each night, but dawn reveals a land as parched and bare as the slopes of Paracutin. Most of the trees are dead, but Eduardo, the effete Hindley character, still finds plenty of butterflies and insects for his collection.
But Buñuel's Wuthering Heights makes no reference to geography, and indeed changes the names of its characters so that Cathy becomes Catalina (played by Irasema Dilián), and Heathcliff becomes Alejandro (Jorge Mistral). If Wyler's version attempted a recreation of Brontë's Yorkshire, down to the vast quantities of Calluna vulgaris imported from England and planted on the hillsides, Buñuel's version seems set in its own unique landscape if not land, an arid one all the better to inflame the illogical passions of the characters.

Buñuel wanted to enhance the l'amour fou aspects of Brontë's novel, and one way he achieved this was by beginning the film at the moment of Heathcliff/Alejandro's return upon having made his fortune. By spending so much time with Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley as youths, Wyler's film explains the tragedy of the romance quite plausibly. He shows how the connection between Heathcliff and Cathy is sown, and also how their class differences must keep them apart. Buñuel, by contrast, simply drops us into a world in which the fundamental bonds and barriers between the characters have long since been established, and insists we pay attention instead to just how they are resisted. As Sue Lonoff de Cuevas has so succintly put it, Wyler's version of the romance is "sentimental" and Buñuel's "anti-sentimental."

This despite a romantic-style musical score adapted by composer Raul Lavista from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Buñuel had used this music before, in both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. When discussing these two films, and specifically in reference to the latter, Peter Conrad has written, "An orchestra happens to be playing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which treats love as a mystical rapture; for Dali and Buñuel, it is more like a demented regression." In Wuthering Heights Wagner's themes are rapture and regression all at once, the Liebestod endowing the final sequence in particular with a great deal of its disturbing resonance. Watching it recently, I found myself wondering if it was at all possible that Bernard Herrmann might have seen Buñuel's film before being inspired to masterfully borrow the same theme to signify the l'amour fou of Vertigo. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights, suggests that the film had not played in New York City (Herrmann's lifelong home) until 1976, except perhaps at one of the city's Spanish-language theatres. It's intriguing to imagine the composer catching a Mexican Buñuel film at a place like the Elgin (which played only Spanish-language films in the 1950s), but the connection is most likely to be happy coincidence, I suspect. Yet, apart from its placement in the final scene, Buñuel was not happy with the music in Wuthering Heights. At least, he said as much later in life. Aranda quotes him:
It was my own fault. My negligence. I went to Europe, to Cannes, and left the composer to add the musical accompaniment; and he put music throughout the film. A real disaster. I intended to use Wagner just at the end, in order to give the film a romantic aura, precisely the characteristic sick imagination of Wagner.
But Baxter notes that the director did not leave for Europe until April 1954, after the music track for the film had already been fixed in place. And Aranda quotes Buñuel again, this time from an interview that took place while he was in Cannes that year serving on the jury that selected Gate of Hell as top prizewinner: "For Cumbres Borrascosas I put myself into the state of mind of 1930; and since at that time I was a hopeless Wagnerian, I introduced fifty minutes of Wagner." Here Buñuel seemingly is taking personal credit for the abundance of music in the film, and in the context of a discussion of how much he generally dislikes film music, too. So did he change his mind, or just his tune? Another subject for further research, it appears.

More reviews of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights well worth reading include: Ed Gonzalez's take at Slant, Fernando F. Croce's capsule at CinePassion, and a review newly-written for this very Blog-a-Thon by Robert Monell of I'm In a Jess Franco State of Mind.

And if you're in the Frisco Bay Area wondering when your next chance to see a Buñuel film on the big screen might be, it looks like you may have to wait until December 17th, when Belle de Jour will be brought to Artists' Television Access along with a post-film discussion. It's part of a series devoted to silver screen sex workers presented by Whore! Magazine to benefit the health care efforts at the Mission District's St. James Infirmary. This fall at ATA looks particularly busy with interesting screenings in general, including the Other Cinema fall program, the ATA Film and Video Festival October 10-12, a continuing series of Guy Debord films, a stint as a venue for the 11th Arab Film Festival (which has just released the full contents of its program), and an October 26th evening of music and film entitled Roman Meal that you really do not want to miss. Trust me on that one.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Interview With Judy Wyler Sheldon


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André Bazin once called him "the consummate artist". James Agee said he was "one of the great ones." He was William Wyler, and this weekend has seen a confluence of celebrations, re-evaluations, and analysis of the work of this director, in the form of the William Wyler Blog-A-Thon hosted by Mike "Goatdog" Phillips.

William Wyler and Margaret Tallichet ("Talli"), his wife, named their first two children after characters in his films. The eldest daughter Catherine was, like a great many girls born in 1939, named after Merle Oberon's character in Wuthering Heights. She would executive-produce a documentary on her father called Directed By William Wyler, built around the last interview he ever gave, three days before his death in 1981.

The second Wyler daughter was born just before the 1942 release of Mrs. Miniver, and was named Judy after the on-screen daughter of Greer Garson's title character, who was played by child actor Clare Sanders in the film. Now, under her married name Judy Wyler Sheldon, she is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, an organization that I volunteer for. To contribute to this Blog-a-Thon, I thought it might be fun to interview a Wyler family member. Indeed, it was a delight to experience Judy's warm humor over the phone, and to hear her share a few reminiscences about a man who, as David Cairns succinctly put it, was "interested in human experience in its entirety." Here is my transcription of the conversation:

Hell on Frisco Bay: Though we've never met, I've seen you on the stage at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. How did you become interested in silent films?

Judy Wyler Sheldon: I really was neither interested, nor did I know a thing about them until my siblings and I were invited to go to the festival in Italy - the other big silent film festival, called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, which takes place in Pordenone every year up in the Friuli area of Italy. They were doing a retrospective of my father's silent films in '95, '96, something like that, and they wanted us to come over. I have two sisters and a brother, and we thought, "Oh! Film festival? Italy? Why not!" We were thinking it was going to be like Cannes or Venice: what are we going to wear, what jewels should we take...

HoFB: I hear it's a pretty down-to-Earth festival.

JWS: It's VERY down-to-Earth. Everybody was in blue jeans. So we went to the festival and had a wonderful time. I saw my father's silent films for the first time. He never talked about his silent films. He just considered that part of his schooling. We saw not only his but a lot of other people's silent films. It was a week-long festival. When I got back, I was talking about it, and a friend of mine said "Well you know San Francisco has a silent film festival. It's pretty young, and you should find out about it." I did, and I got involved a couple of years later, joined the board, and now I'm the president of the board. So that's how it came about, but until then I really didn't know anything about silent films. And of course seeing my father's films... you know he started very young. At Pordenone they showed the films that they had chronologically. They started with those two-reel Westerns, which we thought were perfectly horrible. I remember sitting in the theatre with my siblings and we're kind of elbowing each other as we saw one film after another, all kind of the same plots, terrible camera-work, and wondering "what are we going to say?" We knew we were going to be interviewed, and answer questions. Fortunately as he got a little more experienced they did get better, so the last few that they showed were okay.

HoFB: I think William Wyler is probably best-known today for all the Oscars and Oscar nominations his films were awarded. Did you watch the Oscar ceremony growing up?

JWS: Well, I don't so much remember watching them on television, but I did go to the Oscars a couple of times. I went the year that he was nominated for Roman Holiday but didn't win, and I went the year that he did win for Ben-Hur. Those were really exciting. Although it was embarrassing, as they'd always send a limo to take you to the Oscars. You'd collect into this long line of limos going to (wherever the Oscars were being held in those years), and there'd be fans there lining up to see the stars getting out of their limos. They'd come and look through the windows, which weren't smoked in those days. They'd peer in and they'd say "Oh, that's nobody," because my father wasn't recognizable except to a few people in the know. I just remember finding that so humiliating, that they'd dismiss us with "Oh, that's nobody" and go on to the next car trying to find some big movie star.

HoFB: I believe Roman Holiday is one of at least two of your father's films in which you can be seen in an on-screen role. Is that correct?

JWS: Right. There are only two, and the first one, which is the Best Years of Our Lives, I'm in for about three seconds in a scene in the drugstore. There are lots of clients in the drugstore, just sort of in the background, and I'm a child of five or so, with my sister.

HoFB: Is there any way we can recognize you if we play the DVD?

JWS: Gosh... I'm just a little girl in a dress, with my sister, who's three years older than I am. It's just fleeting, and I can't even remember which scene it is. It's obviously one of the scenes with Dana Andrews.

HoFB: I recently looked at those scenes and I think I spied a pair of little girls looking at him in the very first scene where he visits the store.

JWS: It could be that one. I'd have to go back and look myself, but it's really fast. In Roman Holiday I got a little bit more of a chance. It was maybe five seconds more (laughs) and I actually was supposed to mumble "don't take my camera," because I was wearing a camera and Gregory Peck wanted to take pictures of Audrey Hepburn getting her hair cut. His photographer friend Eddie Albert wasn't with him, so he goes out and sees a group of schoolgirls at the Trevi Fountain. He comes up to me and tries to take the camera from around my neck and I'm saying, "Don't take my camera." My sister, who was in the scene as another schoolgirl, calls the teacher. She says, "Oh, Miss Weber" and the teacher comes over and glares at him. We have a younger brother and sister who say that we did such a bad job in that scene that, as a result, none of us were ever asked to appear again in a movie. And my younger brother and sister were never in a movie. They blamed us completely!

HoFB: I read somewhere that there was an attempt to get them into Ben-Hur...

JWS: I don't remember that there was ever any attempt to get them in. They did both have these very elaborate costumes made for them by the costume department at Cinecittà. They were wonderful costumes. My brother and sister were six and eight. My brother had this wonderful Roman soldier costume made for him, with a helmet, you know, and the whole thing was just fantastic. My sister had a woman's kind of toga. The Roman soldier costume has passed around our family, and my two sons both wore it as a Halloween costume.

HoFB: Roman Holiday was notable for being shot on the streets of Rome, helping to take Hollywood out of a studio-bound mindset. Did you enjoy life on location with your family there?

JWS: Oh, yeah. Although I was in school in Switzerland for most of the time. I was in Rome during the summer, when he was first shooting the film. It was a lot of fun, and my father had lots of fun making that movie. It was the first movie he made in Europe on location, and I guess it was the first big Hollywood movie that had been made in Rome. I remember my parents saying how the city authorities leaned over backwards to make it easy for them to film there, closing off streets and all the stuff that's much harder to get done today. My father had just the most wonderful time, and my mother as well, living there while making this movie. They just had the best time, and my father ended up buying... well, I don't know if he bought it or if it was given to him... a Vespa, like Gregory Peck had in Roman Holiday . He careened around and then brought it back to the States with him. We were living in Beverly Hills when he had it. We had a weekend house in Palm Springs, and that's where he took it, and we have lots of home movies of the whole family piled on this Vespa: my father, my mother, the four of us. We even have one with the dog!

HoFB: I'd like to go back to the Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just a tremendous film. One of the very best of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. That film, and your father's direction in particular, have been praised as unusually sensitive in portraying a character who lost his hands in World War II. Your father lost most of his hearing in an accident while shooting documentaries of the war in Europe. Was his deafness something that was publicly known at the time?

JWS: It wasn't something that he was trying to keep a secret. He was deaf in one ear. He could hear in the other ear, so he wasn't totally deaf. He did come back from the war with that injury wondering if he'd ever be able to direct, because at first it was much more serious. I think that did give him a lot of empathy with the character you mentioned. And also just the experience of coming back and having to adjust to their old lives, or new lives. I think that made it very personal.

HoFB: Is it a coincidence that the Silent Film Festival uses American Sign Language interpreters for all the film introductions and q-and-a's? Was that policy something you brought to the festival?

JWS: No, no. That was not something I had anything to do with. In fact, I think it predated my being part of the festival. But it's such a natural for our audience because, I would guess, silent films could be very attractive to people who are hearing-impaired.

HoFB: In 2002 the festival brought the silent version of a William Wyler film called Hell's Heroes.

JWS: Yes, and that was the centennial of my father's birth, which is why they chose that one. And actually the year that I went to Pordenone for the first time with my siblings, they showed that.

HoFB: What was it like to bring Hell's Heroes to the Castro screen, and to the Silent Film Festival audience?

JWS: Well, it was wonderful, naturally. To get to see these films on a big screen with live music in an old movie palace. I mean, as you know, there's nothing like it! It was thrilling, and that year we were able to get Terrence Stamp to introduce the film. Obviously, he wasn't a silent film actor, but it's harder and harder to find any of those these days! It was wonderful to have him give some reminiscences about working with my father on the Collector. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. Most of my siblings were there, and other family, and of course my kids were there, and my husband, and it was just great.

HoFB: Do you often watch your father's films?

JWS: I watch them from time to time. I have DVDs of most of them, the ones that are available. But there's just nothing like seeing a movie on a big screen. I have to say I much prefer seeing a film in a theatre, if it's possible. Of course, that's not always possible.

HoFB: Hopefully somebody will put together a full retrospective of his films one of these days!

JWS: Wouldn't that be nice? We'd love that! When I say "we" I mean the family. We would encourage that, and support that, and work for that in any way we could. That would be great!

HoFB: Is there anything else you think film buffs might like to know about your father?

JWS: Well, he was my father, so I'm biased, but growing up, I never thought that much about the fact that I was the daughter of this well-known film director. It's only in my adulthood that I've begun to appreciate what he brought to the craft. But as a human being, he was a really wonderful guy. He was not only interesting, he was funny, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a humanitarian, and cared very deeply about all kinds of causes, and was just a great person. I feel very proud to have had him for my father.

HoFB: Well, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and with the readers of this Blog-a-Thon!

JWS: You're very welcome!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Steamboat Buster


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This coming Wednesday, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the very best venues on Frisco Bay to view silent films with live musical accompaniment, will screen a pair of Buster Keaton features with Christian Elliot performing at the Wurlitzer organ: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the Navigator. Though it was filmed partially in this city, and is reputedly among his most crowd-pleasing films, I've never seen the Navigator. I've been saving it for just such an opportunity to be pleased by it among an appreciative crowd in a theatre like the Stanford.

Steamboat Bill Jr. I have seen, on video years ago as I was first acquainting myself with Keaton's work. I count it among my favorites and am really looking forward to finally seeing it in 35mm. In the meantime, I thought I'd contribute to Thom Ryan's current Slapstick Blog-A-Thon by taking a closer look at one particular gag from the film, one of the most renowned gags Keaton (or anyone) ever performed. Though calling it a gag may be inaccurate, as it's really more nerve-wracking than funny. In fact, Lincoln Spector says it's "probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star." If you've seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, you already know what gag/stunt I'm talking about. If you haven't, and you want to remain oblivious to one of the film's most breathtaking surprises, you'd better not continue reading this entry.

The concept of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was generated by frequent Charlie Chaplin collaborator Charles Reisner, who then co-directed the film with Keaton. Reisner is in fact the only director in the film's credits, as Keaton often relinquished official credit for the films he directed. This was the final film he made with the independence accorded during his longtime professional relationship with his brother-in-law and producer Joseph Schenck, before signing up with MGM in a move that many claim led to Keaton's artistic and creative downfall. As Sherlock, Jr. had taken its title from the fictional detective Keaton's character wanted to emulate, so too was Steamboat Bill, Jr. named for a character best known from a popular song. I'm not going to recount the film's plot. For my current purposes, it's merely important to know that at one point in the film Keaton's character Willie finds himself in bed, with the walls and roof over his head torn off and blown away by a cyclone. The winds carry his four-legged craft down the street, in an image somewhat reminiscent of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend or another Winsor McCay fantasy.

Soon the bed has been pushed in front of a large wooden house. Keaton has, as is his wont in any weather, fallen. This time, out of the bed and onto his head. The front wall of the house has been separated from the rest of the building, revealing a gaping crack and a terrified man on the top floor of the house. This bearded fellow jumps out of an open window, his fall softened by the bed sitting in the street below, and the would-be steamboat captain underneath it. The man runs away, and the bed is picked up by the wind and follows. No sooner has a rather battered and dazed Willie slowly stood up and staggered forward a few steps, than all two tons of the house's façade has crashed down all around him, the actor only saved from being crushed because of the open window he was perfectly placed underneath. The stunt, more than anything else he ever shot, emphasizes that aspect of the Buster Keaton screen persona which depends on an unwitting collaboration with fate or the forces of nature for his survival. And though Keaton-as-Willie survives through dumb luck, Keaton-as-actor's luck was not dumb; he knew what he was getting into. He had practiced a far less dangerous version of the gag using lighter walls in previous films Back Stage and One Week. He confidently, meticulously planned out the mechanics of the falling wall, giving himself only a few inches of clearance. Had there been the slightest glitch in the execution, Keaton would have been "Steamrolled Bill," and he knew it.

I heard about this sequence before I saw it. The way I was told, Keaton, who joked about suicide relatively frequently in his films (in Hard Luck and Daydreams, for example), was suicidal on the day of the stunt's filming. Several sources claim that just the day before, Keaton had been unexpectedly informed by Schenck that this would be their last film together. While crew members looked away, and even Reisner abandoned the set to pray in his tent, Keaton felt so despondent about his uncertain professional future that he was perfectly willing to risk, or perhaps even court, death. I haven't done the research to be sure if this version of events is the true one; it holds a ring of plausibility, but it may also be making more of a late-in-life quote from Keaton, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing," than was intended.

Whether or not the real turmoil inside Keaton during this stunt outmatched the simulated turmoil of the cyclone created by Keaton's production team, the result was iconic. Robert Knopf writes:
By showing the wall fall in one shot, Keaton emphasized his own performance: his ability to calculate and execute this stunt as well as his bravery (some would say his foolishness) in performing it himself.
The face-on, unbroken long-shot view is somehow reminiscent of the theatre, or at least it is until the moment of collapse. But again, "unbroken" may be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor. Though the camera holds its view of the entire house from before the moment its façade begins to tumble, until after it has landed, the impact of the shot is augmented by the shots preceding it. Though my research has been far from exhaustive, I have yet to find an analysis of this stunt that discusses the shots directly leading up to the death-defying one. Let me try a little, with screencaps.

Six shots prior, in the final profile view that puts the cracking façade and Buster in the same frame, we can clearly see the distance between the wall and the actor's position on the street. (He's under the bed.)

The next five shots do not contradict this geography, and the last of these is a full shot that ends with Keaton taking a few steps forward and away from the house. He still doesn't seem far enough from the building to escape being flattened should it fall.

But the next edit is a deceptive one. It's difficult to perceive this, even when analyzing the shots on DVD, but in the iconic wall-tumbling shot, Keaton is standing further from the house than he was just prior to the cut. He must be, or else he would be crushed.

I strongly suspect that even if we aren't anticipating the collapse, we on perhaps a less-than-conscious level assimilate this spatial discrepancy, and factor it into our horrified reaction of seeing the façade begin to come down, and our commensurate relief when our hero is spared by the open window. It makes the effect all the more impressive, and it exploits a dimension of the motion picture medium that, apart from certain observations by Rudolf Arnheim in his seminal Film as Art, I do not often encounter when reading film criticism: the control a filmmaker has over the perception of relative distances between objects in the frame, due to the nature of transposing three-dimensional space onto a flat surface.

A thrilling stunt like this one remains exciting to watch again and again. I'm not so sure a modern-day computer-generated effect can have the same kind of staying power, but that's a subject for another post sometime. It's no coincidence that successful silent-era comedians specialized in them. Chaplin would upon occasion perform a dangerous stunt, perhaps most memorably the Circus's high-wire scene in which he is beset by capuchin monkeys. And if there's any stunt sequence more breathtaking and iconic than Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. heart-stopper, it's surely Harold Lloyd climbing a department store and dangling from a giant clock in Safety Last (which, Frisco Bay audiences take note, is opening a week-long classic film series at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on September 28th.)

But here's a legitimate question about some of these stunts that provoke more gasps than laughter: is it slapstick? Is it perhaps beyond slapstick? Our host of this Blog-a-Thon has proposed that the key to slapstick is that, though violence may be "unexpected, socially unacceptable [and] exaggerated for effect" it must be "staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury." How does it work in gag situations in which there is threat of violence, but the violence is averted? Is slapstick funny because of schadenfreude? If so, are gags in which the victim escapes injury or humiliation as funny as those where he or she apparently (thanks to the illusion of film) doesn't?

What do you think?

Saturday, August 4, 2007

My Two Andersons


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Royal, the Royal Tennenbaums:
I'm not talking about dance lessons. I'm talking about putting a brick through the other guy's windshield. I'm talking about taking it out and chopping it up.
Barry, Punch-Drunk Love:
I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.
In this corner, weighing in at 111 pounds and wearing aqua blue trunks, the only man to have tamed Bill Murray, Anjelica Huston, the Wilson brothers and Kumar and Dipak Pallama, ladies and gentlemen lets hear it for the man they call the "Next Scorsese," Wesley Wales Anderson!!!

And in this corner, weighing in at more than 82 pounds and wearing frog-green trunks is the one man who could conquer William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, and of course Philip Baker Hall, please give a roaring welcome to the "Commando from San Fernando", Paul Thomas Anderson!!!

They're both writer-directors under the age of forty, saw their first feature films hit the big screen in 1996, and have developed their distinct styles in three more features since. They each have a new film coming to screens this fall. And they coincidentally share surnames. Some would say Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson are already champion filmmakers, while others would say they're both still up-and-coming challengers. Still others strongly prefer one over the other. And some haven't made up their mind yet. For four nights starting tonight, Frisco will host matches between the two filmmakers' films on the big screen. Ringside seats will be at the Castro Theatre. It's a chance to see these films on the big screen again and discover how the last few years have treated them. I know I've seen a few of these films over and over, but most just once, and perhaps even then only on home video. But that's not going to stop me from trying to make predictions on the outcome of each bout:

August 4: Boogie Nights vs. Rushmore. I think this is likely to be the most decisive match-up. A KO by Rushmore in an early round. For me, Boogie Nights fell into the trap of the overly-sprawling period piece trying to cram too much history into a single film's running time. The salacious content of the history couldn't save it from its unfocused structure. While Rushmore is currently my favorite film directed by ANYone named Anderson (yes, including Lindsay Anderson, whose If... was surely an influence on this "school film"). Still, I haven't seen Boogie Nights in nearly ten years so who knows...

August 5: Magnolia vs. the Royal Tennenbaums. This is a tough one. I'm wondering if Magnolia might win on points in a late round, maybe even the twelfth. On first viewing, I found the three-hour film to be intelligent and cathartic, but I was living in a foreign country and pretty much starved for any movies that might be a change of pace from blockbuster action and lowbrow comedy. Since then I've read almost nothing but dismissals of the film when it comes up, written by critics I usually trust, to the point where I've really begun to wonder about my own initial opinion. On the other hand, While I liked the Royal Tennenbaums and even rewatched it once or twice, I've also found it a bit of a cold, uninvolving film, in a way that Rushmore certainly isn't. So we'll see how that plays out.

August 7: Hard Eight vs. Bottle Rocket. Though in neither case were these films my introduction to their respective makers, in both cases I've seen them only once and have only a rather foggy memory of a few scenes, and a general feeling that I liked them. They say it's a bad idea to bet on the draw though, so I'm going to give a slight edge to Bottle Rocket to win on points.

August 8: Punch-Drunk Love vs. the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. For this one I'm going to say Punch-Drunk Love. Quite possibly in a knockout or a T.K.O. Though Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance is way too over-the-top and under-motivated for me, it's a small part that barely mars this bold, sweet film. The sound design alone would have convinced me to follow PTA wherever he's going next, as long as he's bringing Jon Brion along with him. On the other hand, the Life Aquatic made me wonder if Wes Anderson might be treading brackish water, recycling elements from previous films and just plopping them onto the larger canvas of the open ocean. It deserves the second look I never gave it when it came out, but my expectations are not high.

Still, any of these match-ups could end up in an upset. I might not be able to attend each bout, but if you do, why not share how they turn out in the comments below?