Sunday, September 1, 2013

The French Connection (1971)

WHO: William Friedkin directed this.

WHAT: I finally recently watched, on DVD, ten years after it was first released, Richard LaGravenese & Ted Demme's documentary on 1970s Hollywood filmmaking A Decade Under the Influence. It's a slick doc filled with interviews with many of the more famous directors and some other figures who had their careers made in that turbulent cinematic era. Its reverence for the landmark films made during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations goes down smoothly, except for in a rare critical moment when Julie Christie notes the paucity of juicy female roles when compared to male ones- I could have done with more exploration of this angle and more moments like it. (The film also elides mention of Elaine May, Joan Micklin Silver, Barbara Loden and any of the decade's other women directors I may be failing to think of right now- which seems a worse omission than that of any other single director like John Carpenter or Stanley Kubrick.) 

What A Decade Under the Influence is best for is getting the viewer excited about watching or revisiting the (mostly) famous films excerpted in clips during its 3-hour run time, and for hearing figures like Francis Ford Coppola, Jon Voight, Ellen Burstyn, Peter Bogdanovich, etc. speak about their work and their peers' work in their own voices. But of all the directors speaking about both topics, the most eloquent and illuminating in the film must be William Friedkin. Here's a sample of his  commentary on his Oscar-winning film The French Connection, which I haven't seen in about twenty years and definitely need to revisit.
I could see that I could induce the documentary style into this story. I would talk to the lighting cameraman, Owen Roizman, and give him a general area of where the action was gonna take place. I would talk separately to the operating cameraman, who was a guy named Ricky Bravo, who was a Cuban exile, who actually photographed the Cuban revolution at Castro's side. I'd set up a scene with the actors but I wouldn't show it. I then put Ricky in the room with the camera, and it was up to him to find rhe action. I'd say, "A guy's gonna be running down the street over there", and Ricky would say in his broken English, "Okay, I use the wheelchair?" "Yeah." We'll put him in a wheelchair and wheel him along. We never laid dolly tracks down. A lot of the stuff in the chase was an accident; was never planned! There weren't supposed to be any crashes in that chase. They were all supposed to be near-misses. There was no optical effects or anything. It was all done the way you saw it, and the camera captured it as best it could on the run.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens at the Empire and other Cinemark Theatres around the Bay Area today at 2:00, at the Kabuki on Wednesday, September 4th at 2:10 and 7:00, and at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive on September 14th at 8:30.

WHY: Today and Wednesday's digital screenings of The French Connection can be an appetite-whetter for the six-film William Friedkin tribute coming to the PFA in a couple weeks, at which The French Connection will screen in 35mm. Friedkin was just honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival where he also debuted a new digital version of what I agree with him to be his greatest film, Sorcerer. The September 19 Berkeley screening of this DCP in the United States, after a long battle between director and studio to get it back on the market. Film purists may wish this event had been set up before the DCP version was ready, as the last time a 35mm print of Sorcerer screened in the Bay Area was 2007 at the Castro (I was there, thankfully). But I'm glad it'll be screening at all, and that Friedkin will be interviewed in person by my friend and fellow film-blogger Michael Guillén, who interviewed the director for Mubi last year. 

Friedkin will also be on hand for a book signing of his memoir, and screenings of Crusing and Killer Joe on September 21st. Both of these will also be shown digitally, but the first three films in the series (To Live and Die in L.A. and The Boys in the Band along with The French Connection) will be in 35mm, though not with the director present.

HOW: As noted above, The French Connection screens via DCP at the Cinemark & Kabuki, and via 35mm at the PFA.

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