Tag Archives: Movies

The Band’s Visit

Sometimes I get a movie from Netflix, and it just sits there on the table because I’m not in the right mood. Then when I finally get around to watching it, I realize that it is just the right movie at the right time. I’m sure I would have liked The Band’s Visit anyway, but seeing it this week, it resonated with a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about and feeling.

The Band’s Visit is a small, unpretentious film about an Egyptian police band that arrives in Israel for the opening of a new Arab cultural center. The eight men get on the wrong bus and end up stranded in a small town in the desert. To even call it a town is a stretch; it’s really just a clump of ugly apartment buildings rising up in the middle of nowhere. The band spends the night among the locals, and then they leave in the morning to play their concert. It’s so simple, but in the course of the night, these individuals find a little bit of common ground. Their loneliness is eased, or at least it’s shared and understood by someone else.

The blind date, the local guy and the band member.

Even though this film is in three different languages, it really takes place in the quiet spaces between the words. One of the funniest and most touching sequences happens at a cheesy roller disco. One of the band members has invited himself along on a local’s blind date. This local guy can’t skate, he’s awkward around girls, and his date ends up sitting next to him crying quietly. Playing Cyrano, the band member coaches the local on how to comfort the girl. He does it by demonstrating, and the local guy mirrors his actions. It’s difficult to describe in words, but delightful to watch on film.

Another one of the band members has never been able to finish a concerto for clarinet that he’s written. He plays it for a local man who’s struggling with his marriage. After they spend some time together in his home with his family, the local tells the band member, “Maybe this is how your concerto ends. I mean, not a big end with trumpets and violins. Maybe this is the finish, just like that, suddenly. Not sad, not happy. Just a small room, with a lamp, a bed, a child sleeps, and tons of loneliness.”

This naturally reminds me of what Thoreau expressed when he wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation….” I’ve been thinking this week about loneliness and isolation, about how we fail to communicate with others, about how we can be surrounded by people and still be alone. Hardly groundbreaking or original, but what’s important is whether these reflections lead to any positive action. In the week ahead, I’m going to try to shut up and listen. To reach out to the people around me in a deeper and more meaningful way. To try to recognize the loneliness and pain in others.  In other words, I’m going to take a visit outside of myself and have a good look around. I will report back what I find.

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A Silent Scream

Today kicks off the 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.  It will be my third summer attending, and it’s one of the highlights of my year. 

Like most people, I was ignorant of the power and beauty of silent film, until I had a very strange dream in 2006.  It was a chaotic tumble of images, and when I woke up, I had a name pounding in my head like a pulse.  It was insistent.  (I don’t usually hear voices in my head, I swear!)

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

The name was Louise Brooks.  I wasn’t certain I knew who she was, so I looked her up and discovered she was a silent film star who wrote a well-respected book called Lulu in Hollywood.  I went to my neighborhood used bookstore (remember those?) to find it, but they didn’t have a copy, so I bought Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns instead.  The Silent Clowns is a wonderful book about the great silent comedians, focusing on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  I read it cover to cover.  Then I rented my first Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman, and that was it.  I was in love.  Not just with the comedian himself but the whole era of film.   It probably helped that I had a bout of flu soon after that allowed me to watch every single Buster Keaton silent film and short in the course of a week.  There’s nothing like total immersion.

Many people today have never seen a silent film.  Certainly there aren’t many who have seen one in a movie palace with live music.  Even those of us fortunate enough to attend the SF Silent Film Festival, which is the closest we get to the original experience, are missing an important element.  The original films were made on silver nitrate film stock.  Silver nitrate  film shimmers beautifully when projected, which is where the term “the silver screen” comes from.  Unfortunately, it is also highly inflammable, and it emits toxic fumes when it’s deteriorating.  It is so dangerous that it’s now actually illegal to project silver nitrate film without a special projector and viewing room.  Only those with access to film archives get to watch them anymore.  Oh, how I’d love to be one of those privileged few!  The films that have been restored and shown to the public have been transferred to safety film, which is just that–safe–but it’s not the same.   

There are so many misconceptions about silent films.  Nowadays people dismiss them as primitive, artless, badly acted, jerky and unwatchable.  While it’s easy to find films poorly produced on cheap DVDs that validate this dismissal, a little effort will reveal an artistry, freshness and level of creativity that makes one envious of early film audiences.  Some of the most beautiful films were created in 1928, just as sound was being introduced. 

 Theatres and studios were making the big transition to sound by 1929.  Ironically, the very first film audiences had no interest in sound, since it was the miracle of moving images that fascinated them.  Sound would have been developed for film much sooner, but early experiments were dropped until the novelty of moving images wore off.  Silent film audiences became extremely sophisticated and had no trouble lip reading.  They complained loudly, or laughed knowingly, when the actors mouthed lines that didn’t match the intertitles. 

Projection speed (the number of frames per second) is the reason so many silent films look wrong today when they’re not shown correctly.  When filmmaking was in it’s infancy, nothing was standard.  Different companies produced film stock that was different widths, with different numbers and shapes of sprockets.  The movie cameras were hand cranked, with different kinds of scenes cranked at different speeds for different effects.  The movie projectors didn’t have standard projection speeds.  Unscrupulous movie theatre owners would show films extra fast to allow more showings for greater profit.  ( They’d probably still be doing it today if they could get away with it!)  For years it was believed that all silent films should be projected at 28 frames per second, but that rule of thumb is too fast for some and too slow for others.  Cue sheets were sent out with films to the cinemas, and the musicians playing along  also provided sound effects.  Special scores were written for prestige films, as well as songs, and the movie palaces in big cities were accompanied by full orchestras.  Just imagine it!

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

The comedies of Buster Keaton are a brilliant introduction to silent film.  Keaton’s work remains fresh and even postmodern, and he’s called the most silent of the comedians, because his comedy needs the fewest intertitles.  It’s probably a mistake to begin with the dramas, since they are the ones that come across as melodramatic to modern audiences.  After some exposure to them, you get used to the heightened emotion and gestures, and they are genuinely moving.  Here’s a list of some of my favorite silent films:

  • The General and The Navigator (okay, just about any Buster Keaton silent)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc
  • Tol’able David
  • The Kid Brother (Harold Lloyd’s comic tribute to Tol’able David)
  • Metropolis (look for the newly restored version due out soon)
  • Diary of a Lost Girl
  • Sunrise
  • The Thief of Bagdad
  • Sparrows and Daddy Long Legs (for two sides of Mary Pickford)
  • The Crowd
  • Modern Times (Chaplin, made in the 30s, because he was stubborn)

Oh, and read Lulu in Hollywood.  Louise Brooks insists.

For more information, visit www.silentera.com (silent film history and criticism) and www.pandorasbox.com (Louise Brooks Society).

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An Invitation to the Ball

I have some really great friends, but lately I’ve been driving them to distraction talking about my passions.  Which they don’t always share.   So I’ve started blogging.  It seems like a good way to make new friends and reach out to old ones.

I love movies.  All kinds of movies.  Silent cinema, independent film, British films, popular Hindi cinema, big budget blockbusters, foreign language films–I love them all.  Lately, the films that have touched me, that ones that I like the best, are the ones that have “heart.”  That’s really vague, I know.  It’s hard to describe but hopefully easy to understand.  It’s not the quite same as “feel-good,” because some of the films I love have sad endings. 

Films that I’ve watched recently that I love:

  • Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont
  • In The Loop
  • In a Day
  • Heartlands
  • The Best of Youth
  • Up
  • (500) Days of Summer

I am currently obsessed with two British actors, Michael Sheen and Matthew Goode.  I think Michael Sheen is a brilliant actor.  Matthew Goode is simply hot.  There will be a lot more about these two and their work, coming soon.

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