Monday, July 17, 2006

An early scene in Frank Capra's"Lost Horizon" (1937). Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movie Hall of Fame

Finding the Lost Horizons

What is a film made in 1937 doing in the Boomer Hall of Fame? First, the idealism of Frank Capra, often specifically American but also as universal as the Bill of Rights and the other foundation documents, was part of the 60s spirit. Many of his films were revived in the early 70s and afterwards, but not so much this one--the most universal of them all. Now at last it can take its rightful place, and we can hear the remarkable speech that links it so strongly to the aspirations of the 60s.

Lost Horizon is a famous film I hadn't seen since I was very young, and then only on television. I had only a hazy memory of it, as somewhat mystical but mostly confusing. After that, I don't recall it being mentioned much in the company of classic films, or even in references to Capra, his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe and the Oscar winning It Happened One Night being the ones usually cited.

So I rented the DVD, which turned out to be a restored version from 1999. The history of this movie would be bizarre even if it wasn't shared with a lot of less remembered films. Capra was the producer as well as director of this epic attempt to film the best selling novel by James Hilton. His rough cut was something like 5 hours long. The first version tested with an audience in Santa Barbara was 3 hours, and was considered a disaster.

With lots of cuts, some reshaping of the narrative and even new scenes shot, the movie was released in Los Angeles and other big cities in 1937 with a running time of 132 minutes. But the version that went out to theatres across the country was considerably shorter, by about 25 minutes. Even at that it was longer than the usual 90 minute movie, and individual theatres cut even more of it.

Then thanks to an offhand reference to Shangri-la by President Roosevelt, it was re-released during World War II, with more cuts for content reasons-taking out questionable references to allies, and too much of that pacifist stuff. (It is rather remarkable that it was made by the director who would soon be fashioning the Why We Fight "documentaries" ---they were actually mostly composed of pieces of Hollywood films---but then these Capra productions probably saved a lot of Italian Americans from internment camps.) By the time the movie got to television in the 50s, which is probably when I saw it, it was pretty much an incomprehensible mess. A plane wreck, snow, Shangri-la, escape, more snow, an avalanche, and a young woman suddenly becoming old. That was about it.

By the early 1970s, there wasn't a good intact negative of any version of the film anywhere. The American Film Institute, and later the UCLA film preservation project, began a series of restorations. The major finds that made the 1999 restoration possible in particular was an intact 132 minute soundtrack, discovered in British film archives. Several prints and dupe negatives of varying length and quality were located and though they were all shorter than 132 minutes (some considerably shorter), they were missing different scenes, and some had scenes the others didn't.

Two versions were particularly notable: a British dupe, shorter than even the 108 minute version but containing scenes no other version had, and a knarly print cut for Canadian TV, dubbed in French. This version had key moments missing from the others, usually within scenes.The restorers even used some outtakes preserved on a reel shown to film exhibitors at a convention in Ohio before the film's release---in fact, before Capra had finished shooting the movie. With all that put together, they still lacked about seven minutes, but the 1999 restoration uses the complete soundtrack, so still photos are substituted for these minutes (using photos of the scenes where possible.)

Another remarkable fact about this restoration is that in 1999, digital enhancement and repair was still prohibitively expensive, so only a few scenes were given the full digital treatment. Most repair was done by "wet-printing," a technique then new that fills in film scratches with liquid so they fade from the print.

Given all the versions Capra assembled, and the cuts he made at the studio's insistence, it's fruitless to try to establish a definitive version, but this is as close as 25 years of restoration work could come to reproducing "Lost Horizon" as it was seen at its Los Angeles premiere in 1937.

Though not quite the clarification that the restored "Metropolis" was a few years ago, it is still quite a revelation.The film's flaws are perhaps even more clearly exposed. American action actor John Howard was obviously miscast as Ronald Colman's mercurial, weak and prejudiced brother (David Niven was said to be the favorite, but Howard was cast just days before shooting began.) The minor characters, while well acted for the most part, have a certain charm but don't quite jell. This isn't Capra at his characteristic best. Yet at this remove, even these flaws say something memorable.

Today the sight of Shangri-la is not quite as awe-inspiring as it was supposed to be, since it resembles a jumble of Frank Lloyd Wright and a half dozen other styles in a complex that looks like a World's Fair exhibit, or maybe a 1960s housing development crossed with a corporate campus. Some of the doorways and interiors seem borrowed from a Flash Gordon serial.The idea that the heathens of Tibet need to be taught civilization by a European priest, whose natural superiority they recognize by making him their High Lama, is laughable. Yet none of these flaws, not even Capra's uneasy sentimentality about the idea of Shangri-la, completely distort the timeless power of this film, revealed especially and in some ways, for almost the first time, in this restoration.

The heart of the film is in Colman's wonderful performance, but its soul is in Sam Jaffe's haunting speeches as the High Lama. This was the most controversial part of this movie even while it was being made. Columbia Studios demanded Jaffe be replaced, and his scenes were shot with another actor, before test audiences affirmed Capra's choice of Jaffe's portrayal. Then much of the key scene was shortened and reshot again, after the Santa Barbara preview. (Another character was given some of its exposition, which required more shooting.)

Frank Capra monitored the restoration until his death, and requested that in particular the Lama's scenes be restored. This is in fact this version's great gift. It's remarkable how much of it was cut out in the various versions. Some of the most important lines have no existing footage at all, others only the grainy remains of the Canadian TV dupe.

The view of the world expressed here can be understood as coming from the Great Depression era and after the Great War, during the obvious prelude to another World War, just as the censoring of these scenes would be a product of World War II and the Cold War. But in another sense they are, if not timeless, then of our time as well as theirs.This is a film worth seeing. If you've seen it in earlier versions, you probably haven't seen the lovely scenes with Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt inexplicably cut from most versions---and without them the movie really doesn't make that much sense. It's worth seeing for Ronald Colman--"beautiful of face and soul, sensitive to the fragile and gentle, responsive to poetic visions and hard intellect," as Frank Capra describes both the character and the actor in his autobiography.

[text continues after photo]

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in "Lost Horizon" Posted by Picasa
But if you don't get around to it, here is the best transcription I can offer of the High Lama talking about the meaning and purpose of Shangri-la:

It could have been delivered yesterday, or tomorrow.It came to me in a vision long long ago. I saw all the nations strengthening, not in wisdom but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy. I saw their machine power multiplying, until a single weaponed man might match a whole army. I foresaw a time in which man exalting in the technique of murder would rage so hotly over the world that every book, every treasure will be doomed to destruction.

This vision was so vivid and so real that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and of culture that I could, and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing.Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! What unintelligent leadership! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing against each other, propelled by an orgy of greed and brutality. A time must come, my friend, when this orgy will spend itself. When brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword.

Against that time is why I avoided death...When that day comes the world may begin to look for a new life. It is my hope they will find it here. Their books and their music, and a way of life based on one simple rule: be kind. When that day comes, it is our home that the brotherly love of Shangri la will spread throughout the world. When the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic will at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Victor Sjostrom and and Bibi Anderssen in"Wild Strawberries" Posted by Picasa


Ingmar Bergman

The 60s generation was in many ways the film generation. We enthusiastically endorsed the discovery of foreign filmmakers, and of film as an art form. One of the most important directors in world cinema we watched was Ingmar Bergman.

Though he was a young man when he started making films, Ingmar Bergman has always been the trademark filmmaker of mortality. The epic battle on the beach with the devil in "The Seventh Seal" is famous enough to be routinely parodied, and the intense beauty of Cries and Whispers is framed in pain and fatality. Even the child in "'Through A Glass Darkly" seems to be glimpsing mortal lessons as the adults around him pose and flail on their train trip to the end of the line.

But oddly perhaps, his early film concerning old age is among his most gentle. The Criterion Collection DVD of Wild Strawberries includes an extended interview with Bergman when he had just passed the age of that film's protagonist. (Described below.) He was a sharp and physically graceful 80 (and this was in 1998. He's gone back to making films since---his latest release was 2003.)

Both the movie and the interview turn out to be rather encouraging. Ingmar Bergman's films were the closest thing to holy writ I can remember from my college days through the early 70s, when I was editing Janet Maslin's review of "Cries and Whispers" for the Boston Phoenix. Because I hadn't seen a "foreign film" until college, I was learning the cinematic vocabulary and syntax by osmosis mostly, and mostly by watching the French New Wave filmmakers, the Italian giants, and Bergman. Partly because the experience of watching Bergman had been conditioned by his reputation as being deep and depressing, I've seldom gone back to those films. But curiosity for what Bergman can tell me now, inspired me to take a look at this DVD of "Wild Strawberries."

"Wild Strawberries" is the story of an eminent 79 year old doctor, who lives alone with his housekeeper, on the day he is to receive a prestigious honorary degree in another city. It opens with a dream and contains several reveries---the kind of thing that became pretty standard on television dramas like "Thirty-something," but was disconcerting in 1957. Even with all these copycats, these scenes in this movie retain their power: they are economical, with not an extra image or a sound, and elegant.

The doctor wakes up from his unusual dream and suddenly decides instead of taking a plane as was planned, he will drive to the ceremony. Then his daughter-in-law appears; she's been staying with him, and asks to come along, since he'll be driving to the city where she lives. Why is she going back to her husband now? Why has she left?

They pick up three young hitchhikers---including the radiant young Bibi Anderssen, who reminds him of a lost love (who she also plays in his reverie). They get involved in a traffic accident, a bickering couple piles into the car, and suddenly we're in another prototype: the road movie.The group covers a lot of ground in the past and present, and so does the movie, in a compact ninety minutes. But then, it was his 19th film. And he wasn't half done.)

In one of his essays on Bergman, Truffaut comments that Bergman's women are "infinitely subtle," while his men "are mere conventions." This film is a rarity in focusing on a male character, played by Victor Sjostrom, a giant of Swedish theater and film who was all but forgotten by the time this movie was made, and he came out of retirement to act in it. Bergman said he did more than that---he took it over. The character was originally based (at least physically) on his father, but the film ceased being Bergman's, he said, and became Sjostrom's.

If he meant through the subtle performance and the life he brought to the character, then it was all to the good.This is an enjoyable film to watch, and there's extra enjoyment in watching it again with the commentary of film scholar Peter Cowie. His commentary has just the right mixture of preparation and spontaneity (as when he comments on how good a particular scene looks on DVD---the film is in glorious black and white.) When Cowie explains how precious the summers are in Sweden, just a few weeks of warmth and sunshine, it helps you feel the power of the imagery, in the professor's recollections of family summers by the sea.

Ingmar Bergman at 86, directing "Saraband" (2005). Posted by Picasa
Bergman at 80

In a greenish patterned shirt with a black sweater vest, Bergman at 80 sat and talked easily with a friend and fellow filmmaker and writer, Jorn Donner, for a 90 minute interview made for Swedish television, and widely available for the first time here on the DVD of Wild Strawberries.

He spoke about the relationship of his life to his work, elements of his autobiography (especially his exile from Sweden when he felt he was being persecuted by authorities on tax evasion charges that later proved groundless), and about his work habits, and his beliefs.Harsh parental discipline and formality felt as coldness dominated Bergman's experience of his childhood, as he portrayed in several films.

While his older brother survived it through aggressive assertion, he said, he survived it by adopting a persona pleasing to his parents, and by being a liar. "I lied freely and without restraint."It's remarkably close to what Truffaut said about his own childhood survival technique. "I see life as very hard; I believe one should have a very simple, very crude and very strong moral system," Truffaut said in an interview. " One should say, 'yes, yes,' and do exactly as one pleases. This is why there can't be any direct violence in my films. Already in The 400 Blows, Antoine is a child who never rebels openly. His moral system is more subtle than that. Like me, Antoine is against violence because it signifies confrontation. Violence is replaced by escape, not escape from what is essential, but escape in order to achieve the essential. "

Bergman affirms his continuing relationship to his childhood, which is central to "Wild Strawberries." "The whole of my creativity is finally childish," he says, at age 80. "I can, in a second, go back to my childhood...Anything I've done that's of value [is] a dialogue with my childhood."It was his fear of death, strongest in his teen years, that led him to write and film "The Seventh Seal," released just before "Wild Strawberries," and which he says exorcised that particular demon.

Bergman writes by hand, on the same kind of thick square yellow pads that were standard issue for screenwriters in Sweden when he started in 1942, but which in later years he had to have specially made. His only concession to change is that he's switched from a fountain pen to a ball-point.He always begins with notes in workbooks.

He fills many for each project. "Workbooks are fun!" By the time he starts writing the script itself, he knows exactly what he wants to do. "It goes quickly, but it's so boring. It goes quickly because it's so boring...The workbooks are the creative process. Scripts are the process of putting it in order."

He adheres to a strict schedule: three hours a day, in 45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks. This is as much ritual as routine, he agrees.Bergman's tumultuous private life, which got translated into his domestic relationship films, is well known. But his last long marriage of 24 years ended with his wife's death, and he says he survived only by strictly scheduling his day, and finally by forcing himself to write. He has lived alone since, and though he enjoys talking on the telephone, he is comfortable in solitude.

He says he's not religious but is aware of "the possibilities of bigger patterns...I have a lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I also have the feeling that we're part of an infinitely large pattern, that we never analyze [or] understand. You can feel that sometimes."But he is sternly practical about his work, which at the time of his interview was mostly as a theatre director (though he'd had a decade of writing many scripts and stories.) Fame doesn't help the next day's work, he says, when he goes to rehearsals with the same prayer: "Let this day go well. Let it be meaningful and let it be alive.""Let the work be meaningful for those who do it and then also be alive, so that it will live its own life. That's the only thing I'm afraid of---that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving will be taken away from me. I'll no longer know how to do it."He has that anxiety every time, "the anxiety that what I do won't live."

There are many stone dead days, he says, it's the most terrible thing there is. "This is my recurring nightmare.""I'm a craftsman, and I make a good product. I make a product to be used. I'll be terribly upset if nobody wants to use my product."

The documentary ends with Bergman walking down the beach of his island of Faro, where he lives and the only place he writes. With his walking stick carried more like a sword, his stride is quick and sure, fluid, elegant and full of authority, like Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence or the King of England.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

James Garner & Julie Andrews in "The Americanization of Emily" (1964) Posted by Picasa

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

The Americanization of Emily

Of all the movies he made, James Garner said this was his favorite. So did Julie Andrews, his co-star. So did James Coburn, who had a more prominent role in many other films than he did in this one.

It was producer Martin Ransohoff's favorite of his movies, and Arthur Hiller's favorite of the many movies he directed. Script writer Paddy Chayevsky, who wrote several classics and an Academy Award winner, said this was one of his two favorite films.

Yet until the DVD release, The Americanization of Emily had all but disappeared. Perhaps because in many ways it was unclassifiable: a romantic comedy, a war movie, an anti-war movie, or as director Hiller insists, "an anti-the-glorification-of-war movie."Made in 1964 in black and white, it may have become overshadowed by other more famous films of that era and that style on something like that theme: "Dr. Strangelove," perhaps even "Fail-Safe."

Set in World War II, it was more distanced and with a dryer wit than the anti-war war novel of that time, "Catch-22."But the new DVD reveals its considerable virtues: the eloquent and characteristically Chayevsky script, the fine, committed performances by Garner, Andrews, Coburn and Melvyn Douglas, among others. The rhythms and fluid camera of Arthur Hiller's first major directing job, that managed to make a single movie out of a unique combination of elements.

Hiller's DVD commentary is a great bonus. Producer Ransohoff bought the William Bradford Huie novel of the same title, which was a pretty straightforward romance about an English girl falling in love with an American soldier stationed in England during World War II. At some point he got the idea of asking Chayevsky to write it. Chayevsky flew from New York to Hollywood, and told Ransohoff it really wasn't for him. But on his flight back he thought of a way to do it, and called Ransohoff, explained this very different approach of making the hero a selfish sensualist who despises wartime heroics, but winds up being an accidental hero himself. For some reason, Ransohoff liked it.

Various directors and actors were attached to the project---at one point William Holden was the lead, and James Garner was to play his friend. When Holden dropped out, Garner moved up, and Coburn was added (possibly at the behest of Garner.)Julie Andrews hadn't done a major movie yet---but she went from this one directly to making "Mary Poppins."Arthur Hiller was a young and untested director, who got the job when better known directors turned it down.

He was pretty nervy for a kid. He insisted on making it in black and white, which the studio opposed, since color films made more money. He set up shots so they were done without cuts, so the studio could slice and dice his film.

Later, Hiller recounts, Ted Turner bought the TV rights and colorized it. Hiller protested loud and long, as did other directors and film buffs. Eventually Turner listened and not only stopped colorizing, he joined Hiller in leading new efforts to preserve America's movie heritage by restoring and preserving endangered films.

This film was released when the Cold War was foremost in public consciousness and concern, but it's fairly brutal take on war, and very different take on what constitutes courage and cowardice, became more relevant to the Vietnam war than some of the other similiar films of the early to mid 1960s.