May 31, 2011

Auteurist amusement parks

Today's IMDb Daily Poll asks an intriguing question: which filmmaker's work most deserves its own theme park? "Deserves" is probably the wrong word choice, but I got to thinking about which directors' oeuvres are most suited to a theme park. Cinephiles and thrill-seekers alike, rejoice!

Steven Spielberg
Main attraction: By my count, at least four Spielberg films have been adapted into actual theme park attractions. But none of them compare to the thrill of the Minority Report Tilt-A-Whirl, which boasts consistently short lines because anyone who even thinks about riding it is preemptively arrested.

Martin Scorsese
Main attraction: Travis Bickle's Taxi Ride. An animatronic Bickle guides you through the seedy underbelly of a small-scale New York. Hopping out and providing guidance to the various underage prostitues scattered about is encouraged.

Steven Soderbergh
Main attraction: It's hard to say...all the rides are so different...are you sure this is all the same park?

Federico Fellini
Main attraction: The 8 1/2 Coaster. Enjoy the delightful Nino Rota music in the background and pay no attention to the fact that they're building the coaster as you ride it.

Quentin Tarantino
Main attraction: Quentin's Scrambler. The ride itself is an homage to this obscure underground Scrambler that Tarantino rode once in Japan.

Christopher Nolan
Main attraction: Inception Teacups. You're spinning around in a teacup...which is inside a bigger teacup...inside a bigger teacup...

Lars von Trier
Main attraction: Lars' Freefall. It's an excruciating descent into the ground and upon impact, everybody dies.

Robert Altman
Main attraction: Altman's Bumper Cars. Up to 30 people can ride it at once, frequently  crisscrossing and interacting.

The Coens
Main attraction: Rooster Cogburn's Wild West Show. With a script completely devoid of contractions!

Woody Allen
Main attraction: Woody's Wooden Kiddie Coaster. See, it's small cuz uh, I get indigestion and the scary rides remind me of my mortality, ya know? JEW already go on it?

Alfred Hitchcock
Main attraction: Hitchcock is the most obvious candidate for his own theme park - where to begin? Get soaked on Marion Crane's Psycho Shower Water Ride. Swing on the Lifeboat Pirate Ship. See the whole park from the Strangers on a Train Miniature Railway (comes with one free murder of your choice), or L.B. Jeffries' Observation Deck. There also used to be a Vertigo roller coaster, which has since been torn down and replaced. Butif they just gave it a new coat of paint, it'd be a dead ringer for the old one...

Stanley Kubrick
Main attraction: Humbert Humbert's Carousel. You must be less than this tall to ride.

What auteur amusement parks would you like to see?

May 17, 2011

Tick tock

Be honest - hearing the phrase "24-hour video installation" makes you recoil a little. It sounds like work, not fun - something you experience because it's "good for you," like medicine or exercise. But if you're lucky enough to see a part of Christian Marclay's The Clock, it may be one of the more fun and exciting cinematic experiences you can have this year or any other.

The Clock is a 24-hour film that assembles thousands of movie clips to create a cinematic clock, with shots of timepieces and/or characters stating the time. It also corresponds to real life - when a clock in the film shows 2:37 pm, it's really 2:37 pm. Now, that might be a bit of punishing exercise if that's all there was, but Marclay also lets most clips run a little longer, letting viewers in on the action, suspense, comedy, romance, or horror that made the source film compelling in the first place. Additionally, at least half the clips feature a clock in the background where you'd never notice it otherwise, meaning the primary focus is elsewhere. LACMA (LA's primary art museum) played the film in a good-size theater for an uninterrupted 24 hours, and I managed to head over and watch an hour and a half's worth. In that time, (5:30-7:00 pm), I watched Derek Zoolander and Hansel puzzling over files "in" the computer, Bernstein reminiscing about Charles Foster Kane, George Wells explaining his time machine, Roy Munson making out with Claudia, Guy Haines playing tennis, Rose Loomis getting a refund on a now unnecessary train ticket, Margo Channing taking a car ride, Troy and Gabriella running down the hall, Mr. Banks singing about the consistency of his life, and more. It's the ultimate movie montage, starring every actor and actress imaginable. (Plus, you never need to check your watch!)

I think that's why it's such a hit - when it screened in a tiny gallery in New York, people waited for hours in the cold to catch a glimpse. It doesn't talk down to you. It's egalitarian. It gives equal weight to undisputed classics and throwaway B-movies. You can ponder what its structure means about the passing of time, or you can just have fun trying to identify the clips. You can watch as much or as little as you want. There's truly something for everyone, and as an LA Weekly piece noted, it's rare that a single work generates this much interest.

Anything popular receives an inevitable backlash, however, and many in the art world scowl that it's mundane, unoriginal, or - gasp! - too accessible. I say that anyone complaining about people coming out in droves to experience art is way off base. If nothing else, you can make the Harry Potter argument - "hey, maybe the books aren't masterpieces, but at least it's getting kids to read." To me, The Clock has the earnestness and transparency of, say, an 18th-century portrait; the artist in both cases is saying "I used my skills to produce something aesthetically pleasing that I hope you enjoy."

And lest you think Marclay is merely a passive curator, let me stress that his editorial skills are indeed stunning. With grace and humor, he intercuts clips to create themed sections or new meanings. Characters from different films have telephone conversations, eyelines match, someone opens a black and white door to a color world, various cinematic train stations are cut together as one. The audience loved, for instance, when crosscutting made it appear that Helen Morse in Picnic at Hanging Rock was flirting with Kurt Russell (in some film I couldn't identify). A surge of chimes, shrieks, and whistles often signal the change of an hour. I'm also told that it gets really exciting at midnight, but I can't verify that personally.

So why am I telling you this, since it was a one-day only engagement that has just ended? To gloat! (Kidding, kidding!) Seriously, though, if you live in LA, you still have a chance to catch The Clock, at least partially. Apparently LACMA formally acquired the piece, and will have it playing in some capacity in their Art of the Americas wing through the end of July. Unfortunately, it will only be during regular museum hours, so the 9 pm to 11 am portions will remain a mystery. And don't hold your breath for a DVD release - holy rights issues, Batman! I could see it having sort of a roadshow presence in years to come, however, in a similar fashion to the similarly clip-laden Los Angeles Plays Itself. Basically, if any opportunity arises to see it, GO! Even the most modest of cinephiles will get a kick out of it.

Angelenos, New Yorkers, or Londoners: have you had a chance to check out The Clock? Or would you want to?

May 15, 2011

USA Network's Character Project

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to to the exclusive LA premiere of the USA Network's Character Project short films. It seemed pretty legit - eight new short films produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, a discussion moderated by Elvis Mitchell, non-transferable invitations, and free hors d'oeuvres. I immediately assumed that I had received this email for one of the following reasons:

1. By mistake
2. As part of an elaborate murder plot devised by someone who knows I am unable to resist free hors d'oeuvres

I ruled out the first reason pretty quickly, since I have a pretty unusual name and the person inviting me was citing my blog in some detail. The second seemed more accurate, but since the screening was at the Arclight (10 minutes from my apartment), I figured it was worth a shot (but I brought along my boyfriend for security).

I am happy to report that there were no murder attempts - at least as far as I could tell. Rather, I was treated to a delightful evening of entertainment courtesy of a network that I must commend for trying something different.

For six years now, "Characters Welcome" has been the slogan of the USA Network. In recent years, the network decided to move past it as a mere catchphrase and actually use it as a springboard for a concept, and thus the Character Project was born. Last year's incarnation was a photography exhibit, where 11 renowned photographers took to the streets to capture the character of America. This year took it a step further, as the network commissioned eight short films about interesting characters, both real and fictional. I'll admit that I'm totally oblivious to the world of short films - it's such a huge, uncurated mess that I tend to ignore them entirely. Technology like digital cameras and YouTube have provided great platforms for shorts, but they've also chipped away at the legitimacy of the form - after all, doesn't a Funny or Die sketch or a montage of your dog technically count as a short film? But I have to give kudos to the USA Network for reminding its audience of the prestige and quality that shorts can have. Below is a rundown of each film, accompanied by my thoughts.

Duck (dir. Jakob Daschek): Duck features no quacking animals but instead tells the story of 10-year-old Emmanuel, who suffers from an extreme fear of being touched (haphephobia, as it's apparently called). Now, it's normal to not be a touchy-feely person, but Emmanuel goes to great lengths to avoid even brushing by someone on a crowded bus. Fearing for his development and facing complaints from teachers, Emmanuel's mother signs him up for boxing lessons. Now, I know this is a short, but the film offers no explanation as to why his mother chose this strangely specific course of action - she just suddenly drops him off at a gym. There, Emmanuel discovers that his supposed weakness could work for him in a way he never knew. The film was well-acted, especially by the surprisingly soulful boy in the lead, and aesthetically confident except for a bit of an over-reliance on the handheld camera. Daschek did say in the Q&A, however, that a lot had to be cut to keep it within the time limit, and there was somewhat of a pervading feeling that the film was fighting against its short length.

Fish (dir RJ Cutler): Cutler is best known for helming the documentary The September Issue, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at editor Anna Wintour's efforts to assemble said issue of Vogue. He provides another entry in the people-doing-their-job genre with Fish, which documents chef Jon Shook's efforts to get his new seafood restaurant off the ground. Now, Shook isn't just any chef - with partner Vinny Dotolo and virtually no experience, he opened Animal, which quickly became LA's hottest restaurant. Shook is a fascinating contradiction because on one hand, he's a dudebro from Florida who opened the restaurant because he "never really felt like working for anybody else," and on the other hand his skills and expertise have made him one of the top chefs in the world. The seafood restaurant Son of a Gun is his latest venture, and in keeping with his dedication to providing fresh and local food he goes out fishing and sees what he can make from his catch (which ends up being some bizarre fish I've never heard of). Cooking, like nuclear physics, is one of those disciplines that I am completely unable to wrap my head around. And I get frustrated by recipes - cooks have to invent their own, and unlike other art forms the result has to look AND taste good. My boyfriend lamented that the film seemed a bit "reality show-esque," but for all the junk on Bravo and TLC these days, their earlier shows like "Project Runway" are truly compelling displays of professional skill and creative problem-solving. That kind of problem-solving also creates suspense and drives a narrative - hell, it's basically the meat of the Bourne trilogy. Plus, Cutler resisted the urge of many documentarians to crowd the film with intertitles, graphics, and over-editing, letting the story tell itself organically. Coming from someone who can barely boil water, I have to say that I quite enjoyed Fish.

Love Without Regret (dir. Tomás Peña): This film was listed in the program, but not shown. So yeah. The only explanation I can think of is that the synopsis seemed to prominently mention the use of a Lexus CT Hybrid, meaning perhaps it was more of a commercial...?

Monster Slayer (dir. Caskey): This film is a narrative that tells the story of Ben, a young man suffering from an unspecified psychiatric disorder. It opens with his girlfriend calling him out for avoiding his medication, the outcome of which becomes apparent as Ben starts seeing a host of fanciful characters. It begins innocently enough in the form of a cute little girl with wings (who, it should be noted, appeared in costume at the premiere), but the characters intensify in size, aggression, and construction, eventually putting him face-to-face with menacing stop-motion beasts. Somewhat reminiscent of an indie A Beautiful Mind, the audience starts out wondering why on earth Ben wouldn't take his medication, but we come to see how much a part of him these characters are. On paper, this film sounded obnoxious - the combination of stop-motion animation and mental illness sounds like a student film gone wrong. Turns out, however, that it navigates a tricky subject well and avoids the obvious pitfalls. The characters are sympathetic and real, the creatures are imaginative, and it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Perfect (dir. Amie Steir): Of all the films, Perfect was the most traditional narrative and seemed the likeliest candidate for expansion into a feature, but without feeling abridged. It's also the most star-studded of the bunch, featuring Carla Gallo (recognizable for having a kooky bit part in almost every Judd Apatow production) and Tony Hale ("Arrested Development"), as well as talented newcomer Maria Blasucci in the lead. Unless you're an only child, you can probably relate in some way to the story, which concerns Anne (Blasucci) being overshadowed on her wedding day by the arrival of her beautiful, perfect sister Sara (Gallo). Steir mines some great comedy from Sara's hyperbolic achievements, amplifying them in the context of the small-town setting. Events take a hilarious and rather touching turn as Sara hogs more and more attention...but not for the reasons you'd think. I'd also have to say that this film was the most confidently directed of the night, possibly because Steir was, surprisingly, the only director to have helmed other shorts (also featuring some big names, which would explain her ease with actors). 

The Dude (dir. Jeff Feuerzeig): Everyone knows the character of the Dude, immortalized by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. But did you know that he was based on a real person? Indeed, film producer Jeff Dowd served as the inspiration to his friends Joel and Ethan Coen in creating the character. Unfortunately, Feuerzeig has so much faith in the appeal of his subject that he slacks in the director's chair. There are many aspects to Dowd's personality and life, and Feuerzeig tries frantically to touch on all of them in the film's short running time. We hear about his political activism and involvement in the Seattle Seven, his film career, his friendship with the Coens, follow him to a Lebowski Fest, and even see him re-enact the beginning of Lebowski shot-for-shot, all while being drowned in excessive camera angles and other stylistic choices. For all of that, the film barely touched on what about Dowd led to the creation of the Dude - there's little more than a throwaway sentence about the Coens picking up on some of his mannerisms. Now, it may seem harsh to say that Feuerzeig mismanaged his subject, and I might not lay all of the blame on him if I hadn't seen Dowd in person. He was the rock star of the premiere, liberally distributing hugs and being trailed by an ever-expanding pack of groupies. Even before we knew who he was, my boyfriend and I could just tell that he had to be somebody famous. In a way, I learned more about Dowd from just seeing him mill around than I did from the film. Although I was the most excited for this film coming in, I found it to be the most disappointing.

The Fickle (dir. Bryan Poyser): There's not much to say about this one other than the fact that it's a simple concept done incredibly well. Expanding on the conceit that all your insignificant sexual and romantic encounters kind of blur together, the film is a SINGLE SHOT depiction of a morning with a nameless hookup, as portrayed by about two dozen different men. The choreography is so seamless that I didn't even realize until the director mentioned it later that it was in fact a single shot. It's the very definition of short and sweet, and truly embraces the form.

Wyckoff Place (dir. Lauri Faggioni): Based on a highly unscientific assessment of buzz, this seemed to be the crowd favorite. The film is a documentary chronicling several children of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds living in harmony in a Brooklyn apartment building. I know that sounds like a cheesy 80s TV show that exploits kids of different backgrounds for laughs and "awww"s, but it didn't play that way at all. I can't stand children and wince whenever they're used for cuteness or comic relief, but Faggioni seemed genuinely interested in discovering what makes these kids tick. She explained in the Q&A that she expected the kids to be more aware of each other's differences, but said that their primary concern was the impenetrable Berlin Wall of boy vs. girl. That isn't to say that the boys and girls didn't play together and get along, but they were constantly aware of that insurmountable divide. As someone with a great interest in psychology and sociology, I loved watching the scenes of the kids playing together and seeing the complex social and power structures that formed. Special mention goes to scene-stealer Clark, an eight-year-old with the vocabulary and awareness of someone three times his age. In all likelihood, based on his behavior and speech patterns, he had Asperger's or ranked higher than average on the autism spectrum, but he was still liked by his peers and had apparently captured the hearts of all the girls. For all this rich material, Faggioni seemed a bit overwhelmed by the task of editing, and mentioned that she had hours and hours of footage she regretted having to leave on the cutting room floor. Indeed, this could easily be a feature, and seemed to struggle against its length. Consequently I also had some trouble keeping the kids straight, since the editing made it unclear who the "main" kids were supposed to be and other kids meandered through without so much as an introduction. Ultimately, however, Faggioni's hands-off approach provides a good (if somewhat uneven) platform for the great material.

Lucky for you commoners who don't get invited to premieres, you still have a chance to catch these films. If you live in LA, Chicago, or San Francisco (or New York and you have access to a time machine, since it was this past weekend), you can attend a touring roadshow that apparently takes place in tiny, state-of-the-art screening rooms made from shipping containers WHAAAT?! True story, folks. If you do not live in the aforementioned cities, you can check them out online. Although that may seem like the more appealing choice, those tiny magical screening rooms sound pretty sweet. Anything and everything can be found at the Character Project website. Support USA Network's effort to be more than "that channel with the Law and Order reruns!" (I'm not being facetious - I think it's really cool of them.)

Check out the films and let me know what you think!

(Special thanks to Emily Garvey of 360i for inviting me to this event. All images courtesy of USA Network.)

May 8, 2011

TCM Classic Film Festival wrap-up - Part II

When we last left our intrepid heroine, she was leaving a screening of Pennies From Heaven and talking in the third person. I went straight from there to La Dolce Vita. I had seen the film before and been underwhelmed, but at my boyfriend's urging (it's one of his favorites), I decided to give it another shot. Mankiewicz introduced the film by saying that "la dolce vita" is Italian for "Donald Trump is an idiot" (heh), but on a more insightful note he said that you could watch the film without subtitles and still understand everything that was going on. I bore that in mind while viewing, and it turned out to be surprisingly true.
Lobby card provided at the screening
The technical details deserve special mention. The presentation was a joint restoration by the Film Foundation and Gucci, and it looked GORGEOUS - the FF does not mess around. Even better was the fact that we were sitting fairly close and the screen was huge, so we were positively enveloped in the shimmery silvery goodness. Since the film (at least for me) was mostly an aesthetic experience, the nature of the viewing really made a difference. There was trouble in paradise, however - just before the famous fountain scene, the sound cut out! It turned out to be a problem with something on the projector called the "exciter" (Mankiewicz: "I can't believe there's something called the exciter"), but they fixed it, rewound it, and all was right with the world again.

As for the film itself...well...

Going back to what Mankiewicz said, perhaps the film would have been better off without dialogue. To me, it just reads as a serious of vignettes in a short span of one man's life, but you keep expecting that with a three-hour running time it's going to add up to something. It doesn't, really. I'm okay with that type of film in theory, but I guess that for the amount of time invested, I wanted to know more about the character of Marcello; he seemed like more of a vehicle to take us through the events. There are certainly some indelible images and great scenes, but perhaps I just don't have the stamina for whatever brilliance lies within.

I hadn't planned on attending anything on Sunday, but then I received word that two of the films I had regrettably missed were getting encore showings. Thus, I headed on down to the craziness that calls itself Hollywood Blvd and got in line for This Is The Night. The film has been nearly impossible to see for decades, and although I hadn't heard of it prior to its inclusion in the festival, the promise of screwball misunderstandings and a young Cary Grant was all I needed to hear. The crowd received a warm introduction to the film by film scholar Foster Hirsch, who provided some historical background and said of its sauciness, "if you think 'wait, did I just hear them say that?' - you really did."

Three men and a javelin
And indeed, like the best pre-Code flicks it had scandalousness to spare: unpunished adultery, allegedly heterosexual men drunkenly saying they love each other, women's dresses constantly being torn off, javelins as phallic symbols, and enough double entendres to make Michael Scott blush. It's far from perfect - far too much screen time is given to the cardboard Lily Damita, in a role that really could've been something with a talent like Joan Blondell or Carole Lombard. Plus, although it was Grant's screen debut and he's fifth-billed, you can't help but want to see more of him. Having said that, it's a lot of fun, with great gags and one-liners set against a beautifully fake Paris and Venice (tinted blue for night scenes). It's like Lubitsch lite, and there are far worse ways to spend 80 minutes. If that sounds good to you, you're in luck: TCM has rescued the film from obscurity and released it as a double feature with the Marlene Dietrich rarity Song of Songs.

Speaking of Dietrich, I returned to the theater that evening to see MoMA's restoration of the final Josef von Sternberg / Dietrich collaboration, The Devil Is A Woman. Minutes before it started, my boyfriend told me the news about bin Laden (he has an iPhone), and it was strange to possess that knowledge in a room full of classic film fans who didn't. I put that aside to mentally process later, and settled in for some von Sternberg lusciousness. The print looked beautiful, as did Marlene, of course. The character of Concha is in some ways the quintessential Dietrich character - seductive, alluring, destroyer of men - but she's also borderline sociopathic. I don't mean that as a criticism of the character or the film; rather, it's the simplest way to convey Concha's proclivity for toying with human lives for pure amusement. Typically the Dietrich character's soft spots and desires are revealed throughout a film, but here she doesn't appear to have any.

No words necessary.
It's fairly bleak, but surprisingly lively, and somewhat humorous to the absurd extent that men let her betray them repeatedly. Not only is Marlene beautiful, but everything that surrounds her is too - from the extravagant trappings of Carnival Week in Spain to the unbelievably ornate costumes and accessories that only she could pull off. It's a must for Marlene fans, and probably a good introduction for neophytes as well.

I left the theater that night lamenting that the festival was over, and wishing it could go on year-round. My boyfriend pointed out, however, that living in LA basically is a year-round film festival. I had to agree. But that doesn't mean I won't be totally amped for next year's fest.

Did you attend the festival? What was your experience? If you couldn't make it, what would you have liked to see?

May 3, 2011

TCM Classic Film Festival wrap-up - Part I

Last year, while the first-ever TCM Classic Film Festival took place in Hollywood, I followed the proceedings online from several thousand miles away while seething with envy. This year, I walked 10 minutes from my apartment and experienced it firsthand, and I was in absolute hog heaven. As is the case with many festivals, everyone's experience is different, so I thought I'd share mine.

I didn't attend any screenings, but I half-coincidentally stumbled upon the red carpet arrivals for the festival. I planted myself on the sidewalk opposite the action, and before long I spotted the silver stallion known as Robert Osborne ("Bobsborne," as I call him). As my boyfriend can tell you, I have an utter obsession with Bobsborne that frequently manifests with me screaming "HE'S A NATIONAL TREASURE!" In all seriousness, though, as the face of TCM he really has done great things for the world of classic cinema, and I know even my boyfriend begrudgingly respects him. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera, but I savored his classiness from across the street.

Before long I heard two girls behind me wondering what they were witnessing, and I told them. We got to chatting, and I learned that they were visiting from Wisconsin and had only been here for an hour. In that hour they would go on to see more celebrities than I had seen in three months of living in LA. We became celeb-spotting buddies, teaming up with other people around us to deduce the identity of the faraway and partially obscured faces. Ultimately I saw Peter O'Toole, Kate Flannery (Meredith from "The Office"), Ben McKenzie, Tippi Hedren, Ben Mankiewicz (the other TCM host), Illeana Douglas, Priscilla Presley, and Hugh Hefner with his fiancee (also flanked by an additional Playboy Bunny, presumably for symmetry). Later internet research revealed I had also seen Ann Rutherford, Hayley Mills, and Patricia Ward Kelly (Gene Kelly's widow). That sated my craving for celebrity sightings for a while!

Hef and his ladies (picture courtesy of someone with a significantly better view)

I had work during the day, but the night was dedicated to a screening of Spartacus in the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater - with Kirk Douglas in attendance! Not being a passholder, I got into the line for mere mortals (standby) over an hour early and there were 50 people ahead of me. They managed to get the whole standby line in - no small feat, considering that the 1100-seat venue was completely sold out. I had never been inside the Chinese, and lemme tell ya, they hold all the premieres there for a reason. Bobsborne took the stage, and as far as I was concerned, I was seeing the Beatles circa 1964.

Then Kirk came out, to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. He's slowed down by age and by the stroke he had many years ago, but his mind and wit are as sharp as ever and he has the same twinkle in his eye (or so I presume - I was sitting pretty far back). He was quick to point out that he was only 94 and wouldn't be 95 until December, and finished all his rambling trains of thought with a cheeky "did that answer your question?" Though it's common knowledge to many film buffs, it was great to hear the man himself rehash stories of how his devil-may-care attitude merged with his social conscience to implement changes in Hollywood. Specifically, he recalled his insistence that blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo be properly credited for Spartacus, and his reaction upon reading the script for Paths of Glory: "This picture won't make a nickel, but we have to do it." Douglas also said that his personal favorite film he did was a 1962 curio called Lonely Are the Brave, where he plays a cowboy unable to adjust to modern life. I've seen the film and didn't really care for it, but Douglas was great as always and I could see how it's a role an actor could really connect with. He concluded by expressing humble gratitude to the hordes of people who came out to see a film he made over 50 years ago.

Despite the darkness and 10x digital zoom, I assure you that this is Kirk Douglas and Bobsborne.
The film itself, which I hadn't seen before, was predictably great. The famous Alex North score hooks you from the overture and doesn't let go. Although I have a short attention span and long movies typically make me fidgety, this one held my attention pretty well (although I was rather sleepy at the end from having worked that day). As with most epic films, I enjoyed the first half a lot more, since it contained the origin story part (as compared to the second half of this or any epic, which usually consists of large battles and cramming in huge chunks of time and plot). The film was infamously a director-for-hire gig for Stanley Kubrick and is derided for not being very Kubrickian, but there were definite echoes of Paths of Glory in the stark life-and-death reality of the gladiators' lives. Douglas' charisma anchors the thing, but the supporting cast is one for the ages, and was apparently made possible by Douglas basically lying to each actor about the size of his part. Peter Ustinov in particular stands out, providing comic relief in an Oscar-winning role, as does Charles Laughton and a delightfully miscast Tony Curtis bringing his Noo Yawk accent to ancient Rome. I was glad I hadn't gotten around to seeing the film before, because this was certainly the way to do it!

I decided that I didn't have the energy for a 9:30 A.M. showing of This Is the Night, so I hung tight until the 3:30 showing of Citizen Kane. It was my fourth or fifth time seeing it, but my first on the big screen. Ben Mankiewicz came out to introduce the film, and while I grumbled at being deprived of my beloved Bobsborne, I had a change of heart after remembering that Kane was cowritten by Mankiewicz' grandfather (which BMank made a point of mentioning several times, as Welles notoriously took full credit).

Also present was Norman Lloyd, an actor who appeared in a range of films as well as being a member of Welles' Mercury Theater. Asked to compare Welles to Hitchcock (who directed Lloyd in Saboteur and Spellbound), Lloyd said that Hitchcock was essentially a storyteller, while Welles was more invested in the theatricality of cinema. He also shared a great anecdote about Welles: upon discovering ex-partner John Houseman's plans to produce a film adaptation of Julius Caesar (which the two had previously staged for the theater), Welles threw a can at Houseman's head in a restaurant and shouted "you stole MY play!" Extreme, sure, but as Lloyd noted, the world needs people who are that passionate about their material.

Norman Lloyd and Ben Mankiewicz (I promise!)
Kane was presented as a digital restoration, but I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the picture quality wasn't anything exceptional (maybe it was just me?). Nonetheless, time spent watching Citizen Kane is always time well spent. For the intimidating behemoth of cinema that it seems to be, it's actually quite compulsively watchable (and re-watchable). Once you're familiar with the "meat" of the story, you can savor the little details, like Agnes Moorehead's brief but chilling performance, Jed Leland saying "dramatic crimicism" while drunk, or Bernstein's great anecdote about the lady in the white dress.

From there, I scrambled off to catch Pennies From Heaven. Illeana Douglas introduced the film, which I hadn't seen before, and offered some amusing Christopher Walken stories. Apparently he has a penchant for breaking out into song and dance not only on set, but while cameras are rolling. She also recalled that they used to carpool to a film set together, and one morning he wasn't in the car. About half the ride passed before she realized he was in the backseat, to which he replied in his typical Walken manner "Sometimes I like to disappear. I don't tell anyone."

The film was fantastic, and I'm glad the festival gave it some love. It's pretty much a Fred and Ginger musical with all the harsh realities of life (and the Depression) thrown in - poverty, prostitution, sexual fetishes, adultery, murder, and hopelessness. It sounds like a strange combination - and it is - but it works on a meta level, combining the escapist entertainment of that time with the lives of the suffering people viewing it. Steve Martin is great in the lead, walking a line between pathos and comedy, and is ably supported by Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper. And let's not forget Christopher Walken, playing a sleazy pimp with a knack for tap dancing. Now, I had heard about his performance in this film and figured that people were grading on a curve - that is, praising his ability because it's more than you'd expect of Christopher Walken. Not so. Had he been born earlier (and had a different mug), he would have been Gene Kelly. Peters and Martin show off their moves too - Martin spent months in training, and it shows. The only thing that was somewhat odd was that none of the actors sang their own songs, despite being notably capable singers. Instead, old recordings are used, which does lend a nice period vibe but still seems like a waste. Also a bummer was that the film print, which was allegedly new in honor of the film's 30th anniversary, looked like a VHS dub. Even though the theater was only about half full, the crowd was great, applauding enthusiastically after every dance number.

A still from Pennies From Heaven...look familiar? 
In the next installment, I'll cover Saturday night through the end. I know you can only handle so much of me at once.