Review: BNAT vintage line-up offers Richard Pryor, 'Hunchback', rare Welles and Ronald Reagan
AUSTIN, TX - One of the things that I've always found most irritating at Butt-Numb-A-Thon is when a vintage title begins to play and someone gets up to leave the theater, thinking it's okay to miss "the old ones."
Well, "the old ones" are the point. Anyone can call a studio and ask to see a movie that's coming out in a week or a month or next year, but it is incredibly personal and revealing to program at least five or six vintage titles every year, and in some years, even more than that. If you want to know someone's real movie taste and get some sense of the breadth of their knowledge, ask them to recommend six films for you from before 1980. Tell them to do it quickly, without looking. Ask them for specific genres. Ask them to program to a theme. You'll know who they are very quickly, and it's bound to lead to a great conversation.
As a result, I find that I spend my pre-BNAT anticipation trying to guess how Harry might build his program around a central idea, and inevitably, the enjoyment of seeing a flawless print of something unexpected and beloved on a bigscreen with an audience of friends is the thing that really sticks with me after each year's festival. That's the thing… it's a personal event. It's a birthday party. So a big part of the festival's kick-off each year is a sort of roast-atmosphere greeting by Tim League that somehow involves the active humiliation of our dear friend Jeff Mahler. Jeff is old-school Ain't It Cool. Family. And the epic-level teasing at this point has just become legendary to witness. We enjoyed a stuttering insult comic named Gravy at the start of the fest, and later, Jeff was served a disturbing dessert that he proceeded to pelt several of us with. The later it gets, the weirder it gets at BNAT. Last year's videotape of various Hollywood figures roasting Harry was amazingly raw, and it feels like each year, the ante gets upped.
This year, in an interesting scheduling strategy, Harry put most of the vintage programming upfront. Normally, he alternates back and forth, occasionally doubling up a pair of new films or a pair of old films. But this year, he opened with "True Grit," then showed Quentin Tarantino's personal print of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 film "Le Samourai," a regularly-cited influence on a generation of crime filmmakers. And for good reason, too. Melville and his co-writer Georges Pellegrin crafted a bare-bones scenario, dry and deliberate and observational, that is punctuated by occasional bursts of almost clinical violence. Alain Delon, one of the great icons of screen cool, pretty much established the archetype here that he spent the rest of his career chasing as Jef Costello, a cooler-than-cool killer for hire. He is a self-styled ronin, a masterless samurai willing to do anything for a fee, and he is exceptionally good at playing a situation out, thinking ten steps ahead at all times. He's careful. He's slippery. He's invisible. He's barely alive, which makes him hard to catch. He only lives in those few moments when he is actually pulling the trigger, in that room, eye to eye with the one he has to kill.
The print was in good shape, and it's a wonderful slow burn. Seeing it theatrically makes a difference for the little details, like the sound of Costello's bird in his awful little apartment, and that's what makes Melville's work special. My favorite sequence in the film is a long, elaborate set-piece built around a police line-up. Costello is picked up along with many other people, and he's walked out in front of the people who witnessed his latest hit. Melville takes it in stages, introducing Costello's alibi, bringing in witnesses to help with that, testing them, testing Costello, and the entire time, Delon holds it together. The more he stays cool, the more unbearable the tension is. Without any of the cheap tricks of many mainstream thrillers or suspense films, and without faking it, "Le Samourai" is an exercise in pure tension, a portrait of a man drowning in his own lifestyle, alone and afraid and so closely guarded that he's forgotten how to react beyond killing, killing, and more killing. He may go down, but he'll have his sword in his hand, blood on the blade, and he'll know he never changed, never betrayed his code.
Next up, we got a trailer for the gloriously crappy "Xanadu," with songs by "The Electric Light Orchestra," and honestly… if Harry had shown the film and not the trailer, I would have been perfectly happy. But he went with class over trash, opting for a movie that Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly made together a full 32 years before they made "Xanadu," and sharing "On The Town" with a packed BNAT audience is automatically one of my favorite memories from the entire 12 years of the fest. Here is a scientifically proven fact: there is nothing better than Gene Kelly dancing. I am of the opinion that "Singin' In The Rain" is pretty much as good as movies get. "On The Town" was written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, first as a play, and then as a film, and then two years later, they collaborated with Donen and Kelly again on "Singin'." You can absolutely see the same energy and wit at work in both of the films. "On The Town" stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as three sailors with a 24-hour shore leave in New York, determined to see the sights, have some fun, and get a little.
For a 1949 musical, "On The Town" is delightfully smutty about its intentions, and what feels particularly modern about the piece, even today, is the way the women in the film are the characters in sexual power. Ann Miller, all boobs and hips and long long legs, sings her big number about how the only man who could satisfy her would be a caveman, while Betty Garrett, playing the nightmarishly named Brunhilde Esterhazy, decides the moment she sees Chip (Sinatra) that she is going to break off a piece, no matter what, and she sings a full two musical numbers about just how much she is determined to have sex with him. And no matter how overt, it's all just charming and sweet and funny.
Kelly's character Gabey spends his day tracking down a girl he sees on a poster in the subway, and their romance is the central driving force of the film as they live through this accelerated singing-dancing big-city '40s version of "Before Sunrise." Every song's a killer, every number is impeccably staged, and there's a ballet dream sequence for Kelly that is stunning. There has never been a more casually masculine dancer on film than Kelly. He makes everything look easy and he makes it look cool. The movie is packed with awful puns and pop culture references and one-liners, and for every groaner, there's a dozen shots that land. It's fast, it's gorgeously photographed, Donen knows how to shoot both dancing and comedy, and it's a film you end up humming afterwards. A pure delight.
It was appropriate that the "Rango" footage we saw had a sort of a Western feel to it, since the fest opened with "True Grit" and then, after a break for the new, resumed with "Santa Fe Trail," the film that Michael Curtiz made right in the midst of one of his best runs of films, wedged in there between "The Sea Hawk" and "The Sea Wolf," just a few years after the classics "The Adventures Of Robin Hood" and "Angels With Dirty Faces" and just a few years before the back-to-back grand slam of "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and "Casablanca." He's one of Harry's favorite filmmakers, and one of the great Hollywood entertainers behind the camera. "Santa Fe Trail" is an uncommonly edgy film for Curtiz, a look at the life and the controversial work of abolitionist firebrand John Brown, played here by Raymond Massey, and the way the film chooses to tell the story is tricky, fascinating. Robert Buckner was a studio writer for a good twenty years and squeaked out another ten in TV after that, an admirable run, and his work was solid, unremarkable. But here, he managed a piece of historical fiction that's pretty sophisticated, an adventure film with some complicated moral material at play just under the surface.
The film starts at West Point, and it tells the story of a graduating class that includes Jeb Stuart (Errol Flynn), George Custer (Ronald Reagan), and the subversive and mercenary Rader (Van Helfin). They're posted out west in Kansas, still a territory at that time, and it's a real hotspot with both abolitionists and unionists wrestling for some sort of control over which way Kansas is going to enter the United States. Right in the middle of it, there's real violence, what could practically be called terrorism, and John Brown's the man with his hand on the trigger. The film manages to put the characters into situations where there is only grey, where they really don't have any easy answers. Olivia de Havilland is another of the great Hollywood beauties, and she's a constant flirt in this one, playing Flynn and Reagan off of each other, and it's a great fun triangle to watch. Massey is a wild-eyed nightmare here, amazing to watch, and a complicated villain for a film. He's got the right moral compass on the big issue, slavery, but his willingness to spill blood in pursuit of his goals is unacceptable. The print that Harry found for this one was amazing, too, the icing on the cake.
After we watched "The Fighter," the next two vintage titles played back to back without any interruption, adding up to roughly 215 minutes of black-and-white in a row. In tying the films into the theme of the evening, an exploration of Cinemandom, Harry said he wanted to show two films that celebrated the Cinematic Fat Man. In order to do so, he showed Charles Laughton's 1939 version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a beautiful, sad version of Victor Hugo's story where the subtext has been almost completely subverted from Hugo's original intent. It's a really interesting riff on the novel, and the way Laughton's Quasimodo haunts the outer edges of the film for the longest time before finally making his heartbreaking entrance is just exquisite.
The second film was the Orson Welles "Chimes At Midnight," which I'd never seen before. I've read enough about it to feel a surge of excitement when Harry announced the title. This is one of those films that is not available in any commercial format, and which is rarely screened, so getting a chance to see it as part of the fest was a real treat. Having said that, I feel like the film suffers from a lot of the same faults as many of the later films that Welles directed. He was such a brilliant man, such a force of nature, but so completely unable to conquer the business side of things. His films suffered so much technically as a result, and even though "Chimes" is a 1965 film, it looks like it was made in the '30s. It's just rough. There are some remarkable things about it, not the least of which (at least in mass) is the Falstaff interpretation that Welles offers up, one of the saddest, most broken-down Falstaffs I've ever seen. The film is a strange sort of uber-Shakespeare mash-up, with characters from many plays showing up here and there. It's a sprawling movie that feels much longer than 115 minutes, dense with language. John Gielgud offers a moving, quickly fading Henry IV, and Keith Baxter is taxed with carrying this thing, surrounded by these titans, and mostly rises to the occasion with a solid interpretation of Prince Hal. I enjoyed seeing the film, but it's not one of the ones I'd return to frequently if it were available. I think it's important that someone put this out on Blu-ray and spend some money to make sure they've got the absolute best print possible, because there's magic in the moments, and it was one of the things Welles held most dear in his own filmography. It deserves to be seen, and not just by the lucky 200 of us in Austin last weekend.
The last of the vintage titles was, for me, the highlight of the evening. Old or new, nothing gave me as much pleasure as finally seeing a theatrical screening of "Richard Pryor Live in Concert," which I consider one of the finest filmed live performances of all time. Music, comedy, theater… whatever. Nicky Katt brought the print as a favor to Harry, and I loved that it was a print that had definitely been around, with some water damage, a print that looked like it was well-loved, frequently-played. This is the first time Harry's ever shown something like this, a concert film, and it was a heck of a way to put a toe in the water.
I remember my first viewing of the film. I was eleven years old, and I was staying with my grandmother. The cool one. The one who lived in the apartment, the one who smoked, the one had cable and was willing to let me sleep in the living room with the movie channels on all night long. She was a church organist, but she pretty much didn't care what I watched. I saw so many crazy movies in those long overnight stays at her place, those early pre-NAT training sessions for me as a nascent movie geek. I knew there was a Richard Pryor film coming on that particular night, and I knew who he was, but I had never been exposed to his stand-up comedy.
What I saw during those wee small hours blew my mind, and watching it now, almost thirty years later, I am struck by just how fresh Pryor's observations still are, just how great his performance still is. He was an actor in every single moment he was onstage, and it didn't matter if he was giving voice to his wife, his grandmother, his father, a neighbor's dog, or Leon Spinks, he always slips completely into the character he's playing. He is a gifted physical performer, and he paints these vivid pictures with each new story. I laughed with abandon as we watched, and it was pure middle-of-the-night catharsis. I haven't had the best year on the personal side of things, and hearing an artist as great as Pryor transform his own personal angst and pain and sorrow and joy into laughter with the alchemical precision he exhibited in this, the very best of his concert films… it was liberating. It was exactly what I needed, and seeing it like that, at that hour, was almost Proustian for me, transporting me back to the beginning of my love of the art of stand-up.
I'll wrap up my BNAT coverage with my review of "Drive Angry 3D," and we've also got some more "TRON Legacy" interviews for you today as well as the Morning Read, back after a brief travel-enforced hiatus. The industry may be going on vacation right now… and they are… but i'm going to be right here, with plenty of new content under the tree for you for the rest of December.