Sunday, May 1, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 11: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is in its final week. It runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (FRANCE: August & Louis Lumière, 1896)

playing: at 5:00 PM at the Castro as part of the Retour De Flamme: Rare And Restored Films in 3-D program, which has only this single screening during the festival.
distribution: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat has been released on several different DVDs, including this one by Image Entertainment. But not in 3-D. In fact, though many of the works showing tonight have been released on video by different companies, 3-D systems for home viewing are still notoriously subpar, not to mention expensive. It seems fair to guess that this particular collection of films might never be screened together in a San Francisco theatre again.

It's one of the most-often repeated founding myths of the cinema. When a Paris audience at one of the first public exhibitions of films by the pioneering Lumière Brothers saw on the screen an indistinct object near the vanishing point become a locomotive charging towards them, the crowd mistook the illusion of the image for a real train and panicked, screamed, and even fled their seats to get out of the vehicle's path. It's hard to imagine people being so naive about the cinema, even in its earliest days, to react so drastically. It's been a while since I last read Martin Loiperdinger and Bernd Elzer's article on the film from a 2004 edition of the journal The Moving Image, but I recall it being a convincing, if not quite conclusive, debunking of this tale. As I recall, the next issue of the journal included a reader letter theorizing that the October 1895 Montparnasse Station accident might have made the January 1896 Lumière screening audience more jittery about the possibility of an indoor locomotive crash. Myths always contain elements of truth within their falseness, and if we sense that this early audience didn't react quite as dramatically as we often hear to seeing Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat for the first time, some of the assembled members might have had a much more spirited response than we'd expect from our seat-neighbors nowadays.

Can a cinematic effect come closer to replicating the kind of physical response we imagine for this nineteenth-century Paris audience than 3-D? I'd sometimes turn my head away from the screen to watch my fellow audience members bob and sway in reaction to certain "comin' right at ya" 3-D effects, when the Castro Theatre used to regularly host classic-era 3-D film series. The last one was spontaneously turned into a classic-era 2-D film series due to a projector breakdown, and I've heard no rumor of another stereoscopic series on the horizon. This evening's screening will be in digital 3-D, just as the program was presented in Telluride and elsewhere.

Curated and presented (and, in the case of silent-films, accompanied on piano) by French archivist, filmmaker and impresario Serge Bromberg, this set includes films made in 3-D from all eras, and each person who attends will receive two different pairs of 3-D glasses to keep up with the different kinds of processes used over the decades. The best-known era of classic 3-D is the 1950s, which provides several program titles including the only 3-D Chuck Jones cartoon Lumber-Jack Rabbit. But the evening reaches back to the early silent era to filmmakers like Georges Méliès (who only inadvertently worked in 3-D, as I'm sure Mr. Bromberg will explain) and forward to more modern 3-D animations from institutions like Pixar and the National Film Board of Canada. In addition to the screenings, Bromberg will be interviewed on stage in conjunction with his receipt of the Mel Novikoff Award for "work which has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." Previous recipients include critics like Donald Richie, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert, and archivists like Paolo Cherchi Usai, Kevin Brownlow and David Shepard, who has written an excellent article on Bromberg for the program guide.

But what does this program have to do with Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat? More than just the fact that the Lumière film might be the genesis of that "comin' right at ya" philosophy of 3-D filmmaking that I'm sure some, but not all, of this evening's films will exhibit. Apparently a 3-D version of some Lumière Brothers films, including this one, was prepared and presented in the mid-1930s. I haven't be able to determine whether this 1930s 3-D version was a remake/reshooting of the 1896 film, or if it was some kind of primordial back-conversion akin to that of The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D. I can't wait to see it and find out tonight.

SFIFF54 Day 11
Another option: The Autobiohgraphy of Nicoale Ceausescu (ROMANIA: Andrei Ujica, 2010) Over the past six or seven years or so, Romania as been put on the international cinematic map in a very high-profile way, with filmmakers like Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu emerging with award-winning films liike the Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Frequently this "new wave" has been characterized as a signal of a new drive for self-expression, a delayed flowering after the decades of artistic repression under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu, who was overthrown (and executed) by his people twenty years ago. So what was Romanian cinema like under Ceaucescu? Few outside that country know very much, but this three-hour compilation of footage shot by the cameramen officially assigned to cover the man's addresses, official state visits with foreign leaders, and even his vacations, is providing festival audiences with a hard look at one particular strain of filmmaking sanctioned under the regime. There is no commentary (besides a few select musical cues overlaid upon some of the images) to contextualize what we are seeing, yet a narrative of history emerges through curation and editing, even if the viewer has only the slimmest knowledge of Cold War-era Romania. The final hour of the piece is wall-to-wall packed with astonishing documentary footage, and built upon the previous two hours it makes a ferocious impact.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: ...But Film Is My Mistress and Images From the Playground at the Rafael Film Center in Marin County. These are a pair of documentaries on Ingmar Bergman, made since the Swedish director's death a few years ago. that are screening only on this day. Director Stig Björkman, a film critic who has also written books and/or made documentaries on Lars Von Trier and Woody Allen, will be in attendance for the screenings.

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