FESTIVAL NOTEBOOK: Beatles, Bolsheviks and endangered Indian classics take center stage at Italy's leading festival of film preservation and restoration.
A large crowd queues impatiently outside the cinema and, when the doors open, rushes in. In an instant, every available seat is taken. Toward the back of the auditorium, a dispute breaks out between two passholders over who was there first. It’s a common enough sight at film festivals the world over: Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto. Only this time, we are in the serene college town of Bologna and the coveted premiere isn’t the latest work by a prize-winning auteur, but rather an early Hollywood sound film believed to have been unseen in nearly 70 years. The movie is called “Why Be Good?” (pictured above) and it was one of the hottest tickets you could come by at the 28th edition if Il Cinema Ritrovato (June 28-July 5), which screened the 1929 Vitaphone feature in a sterling new restoration.
One of the more than 100 feature films directed by the extremely industrious William A. Seiter (grandfather of screenwriters Ted and Nick Griffin), “Why Be Good?” is, as its title implies, one of the many vivacious, morally loose romantic comedies Hollywood made in droves before the imposition of the Breen Office Production Code in 1934. Colleen Moore, the popular star of many silent Westerns, and a brief rival for Clara Bow’s crown as America’s favorite flapper girl, stars as a free-spirited department store clerk who hooks up with a swell-seeming beau (Neil Hamilton) during a wild night of Jazz Age partying, only to discover the next morning that he’s actually the boss’ son. Eager to please Daddy, who has newly installed him in the personnel office, Junior promptly pinkslips his new sweetheart and spends the rest of the movie trying to win her back. It’s a wisp of a premise, but executed with such effortless professionalism by Seiter, and so gracefully acted by Hamilton and the button-cute Moore, that one can scarcely quibble.
Moore (who died in 1988) retired from acting in the 1930s and went on to make a killing in the stock market, but she remained a keen keeper of her own cinematic legacy, donating personal prints of her films to archives and appearing in documentaries like Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s “Hollywood.” At a time when “Why Be Good?” was considered a lost film, it was Moore who said she knew there to be an extant copy in Italy. But it would take until 2014 for the film to make a proper comeback. That it finally has is a credit to Warner Bros. (which owns the film), the Milan Cinematheque (where a nitrate dupe negative was stored) and the New York-based Vitaphone Project, a group of film and record buffs who have devoted themselves to preserving the phonograph-disc soundtracks used by Warner and sister studio First National for all of their early sound films (including “The Jazz Singer”).
In one of those dastardly quirks of film festival scheduling, “Why Be Good?” was programmed at the exact same time as a press conference given by director Richard Lester, whose landmark Beatles film “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) was screening the next evening in the magnificent Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s state-of-the-art outdoor cinema. Without making much fuss about it, Lester unofficially retired from moviemaking after his Paul McCartney concert docu “Get Back” in 1991 and today rarely ventures far from his home on the English coast (near the Isle of Wight). But the 50th anniversary of “Night” — and an accompanying restoration from The Criterion Collection — has put him, however reluctantly, back in the spotlight.
Fortunately, I managed to catch up with Lester later that same evening in Bologna, over dinner with his wife of more than 50 years, Deirdre, and the French critic Michel Ciment (who first interviewed Lester for the influential film magazine Positif in the 1960s), and it was a delight to find that the 82-year-old filmmaker remains every inch the sly, consummate raconteur he seemed in Steven Soderbergh’s book-length interview “Getting Away With It,” published in 2000. Tall and dapper in a tan sport coat, his words clipped by a faint, not-quite-British accent, the Philadelphia native admitted to being surprised by the longevity of “Night” (his second feature, following 1963’s “The Mouse on the Moon”). “I said at the time that we were making something ephemeral that would be forgotten in a year or two,” he said with a chuckle. “That comment has come back to bite me.”
That was the start of a remarkable and undervalued career in which Lester proved himself a master of jaunty yet sophisticated pop entertainments, including the bracingly modern, fragmented screwball romance “Petulia” (1968), the ebullient swashbucklers “The Three Musketeers” (1973) and “The Four Musketeers” (1974), and the elegiac “Robin and Marian” (1976), with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as older, wiser versions of the eponymous Sherwood Forest lovebirds. But ask Lester today and he’ll tell you he harbors a special fondness for his crackerjack doomed-oceanliner thriller “Juggernaut” (1974), soon to be released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. “We had only two weeks to prep and five weeks to shoot,” Lester says proudly, further noting that all of the film’s effects were achieved practically, in arduous open-water conditions.
It was, to say the least, a radically different filmmaking era. “Back then, all they wanted to know was ‘Who’s in it?’, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ and ‘When can you deliver it?,’” says Lester, who enjoyed a close creative partnership with then-United Artists CEO David Picker. (Earlier this year, when Lester received a career achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., he sent Picker as his proxy.) But by the ’80s, things had irrevocably changed: “Finders Keepers” (1984), Lester’s beautifully executed madcap train farce, was barely released in theaters, while the subsequent “Return of the Musketeers” (1989) premiered on basic cable. Asked if he misses the movie business, Lester’s answer unsurprisingly came fast and unequivocal: “Not at all.”
By coincidence, Lester could also lay some small claim to one of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s most exciting finds: “Lenin in Poland,” Russian director Sergei Yutkevich’s audacious 1966 biopic of the Soviet revolutionary leader. When the movie premiered in Cannes, Yutkevich won the best director prize from a jury that included Lester among its members. Presented in Bologna as part of a festival sidebar devoted to 1960s Polish CinemaScope movies, “Lenin” seemed as fresh as if it had been made five minutes ago, imaginatively envisioning the world as it would have looked from Lenin’s own p.o.v. during the 12 days he spent in an Austrian prison in August 1914 on charges of espionage.
Yutkevich gives us, in the words of festival director Peter Von Bagh, “an intimate Lenin, with humorous touches” — something the film largely achieves by eschewing direct dialogue in favor of running voiceover narration meant to be Lenin’s internal monologue (a technique borrowed from Sacha Guitry’s 1936 masterpiece, “Story of a Cheat”). From his cell, Lenin (brilliantly played by dead-ringer actor Maksim Shtraukh) wistfully reflects on the two previous years he spent living in Polish exile, fomenting revolution at home from a safe remove, by turns anxious, hopeful and even occasionally giddy. When else have you ever seen Lenin slide down a banister and do a merry little kick in the air?
Between Beatles and Bolsheviks, there was much else to discover — or rediscover — in Bologna, including a program of travelogues and newsreels filmed in the Ottoman Empire between 1896 and 1914; a retrospective of the Italian genre maestro Riccardo Freda (a specialist in swords, sandals, vampires and witches); and another devoted to William Wellman, an incredibly prolific Hollywood craftsman whose career stretched from the silent era to the late 1950s.
Today, Wellman may be best remembered for directing the first best picture Oscar winner (1927’s “Wings”) and 1943’s classic Western “The Ox-Bow Incident,” with its haunting cautionary tale of mob rule. But Wellman was rarely better than when he was at the helm of quicksilver programmers like “Other Men’s Women” (1931) and “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933), steeped in what Manny Farber called Wellman’s “private runways to the truth.” “Wild Boys,” especially, holds up as 68 airtight minutes of fast-talking, joy-riding, boxcar-jumping mayhem that hauntingly sets the brash freedom of youth against the genuine horror of the Great Depression — one of the great American films of the ’30s.
Il Cinema Ritrovato divides itself fairly equally between films brought back from the brink of extinction (like “Why Be Good?” and the magnificent 1964 Chinese film “Two Stage Sisters,” newly restored to its Technicolor brilliance by the Shanghai Film Festival) and those still teetering on the precipice. This year, that latter camp included screenings of eight Indian films from the 1950s that have all fallen into disrepair in a country that has done alarmingly little to preserve its rich cinematic heritage. One man who’s working passionately to turn that tide is Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who first came to Bologna three years ago as the director of an excellent documentary, “Celluloid Man,” about the founder of India’s beleaguered National Film Archive, P.K. Nair. This year, he was back as both curator and missionary, programming his “endangered classics” in the hope of generating support for their preservation and eventual restoration. (Dungarpur has launched the nonprofit Film Heritage Foundation expressly for this purpose.)
Two of those films, “Pyaasa” (1957) and “Paper Flowers” (1959), are the work of Guru Dutt, a mythic figure in Indian cinema who made a splash as a prodigal actor-writer-director in the Orson Welles mold, then almost as quickly burned out, dying of a sleeping-pill overdose in 1964 at age 39. Dutt’s tragic life looms large “Paper Flowers,” in which he stars as a self-destructive filmmaker flashing back on his tumultuous life (estranged wife and daughter, beautiful young ingenue whom he turns into a star, tabloid scandals) as he wanders ghostlike through the film studio where he was once a giant. The influence of “Citizen Kane” is unmistakable, but in its sense of empire, loneliness and the irrecoverable past, Dutt’s movie merits the comparison. Alarmingly, the worn 35mm CinemaScope print screened in Bologna, on loan from the Indian archive, is said by Dungarpur to be the only one in existence.
When the many archivists, programmers and academics who flock annually to Bologna aren’t sitting in screenings, they’re engaged in spirited discussions about the challenges they face in the brave new digital world. While the technology for restoring films has never been more advanced, there remain major questions about the funding of such endeavors. Museums and archives with large celluloid inventories are beginning to work on digitizing their collections so as to make them more accessible to the public, while contemporary filmmakers working almost exclusively in digital are being encouraged to create 35mm preservation copies of their work, lest they end up lost somewhere in the cloud.
And there are other, more philosophical debates to be had about what the very word “film” even continues to mean in today’s fast-moving landscape. “Do we change the name of Cannes to the Cannes Video Festival?” the young Italian director Alice Rohrwacher asked playfully of Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux during one especially lively panel discussion held on the grounds of the Cineteca di Bologna. While Fremaux likened the evolution from film to digital to the dawn of talking pictures at the end of the silent era, Rohrwacher (whose second feature, “The Wonders,” recently won the Grand Prix at Cannes) remained adamant about her commitment to shooting — and, whenever possible, exhibiting — her work on celluloid.
“I was born in a digital world,” she said. “So for me, film is the great technological innovation of my life. In this digital world, when I saw film for the first time, I said, ‘This is incredible. Who invented this?’”
Positioning himself literally and figuratively midway between his two combatants, Cineteca director Gianluca Farinelli complimented Rohrwacher on leaving visible film artifacts (including grain and scratches) in the final version of “The Wonders,” while noting that the Cineteca’s own recent project to distribute classic films (such as Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush”) to cinemas across Italy would be impossible without digital projection.
“What I care about most is preserving the collective ritual,” concluded Rohrwacher. “There aren’t that many possibilities today to be together in silence with people we don’t know.” The mission of Il Cinema Ritrovato boiled down to its very essence.