Fright's new night: Ted Kotcheff's Wake in Fright' (1971) was a sought-after rarity that had been out of circulation for decades before the Australian National Film Archive's recent digital restoration.

SFIFF53: The Art of Revival

Dennis Harvey April 29, 2010

For most people the prime attraction of a festival like the San Francisco International is its obvious raison d’etre: the opportunity to see the best of new world cinema, most of which won’t otherwise be coming to a regular theater near you anytime soon, if ever.

But older movies can be hard to see as well, and through most of its history SFIFF has featured revivals of restored classics and little-known gems. They’ve run a very wide gamut from the surrealist jape of Marcel Carne’s 1937 Bizarre, Bizarre and programs of George Kuchar’s antic underground shorts to its recent annual tradition of showing silent films with live original scores.

This year’s golden oldies span 80-plus years of cinematic history–or from mid-WW1 to just before Sept. 11, 2001, if that makes the time expanse more vivid. The earliest was made a year before The Birth of a Nation, the latest just a decade ago (though, like D.W. Griffith’s still-controversial game-changer, it’s also a Civil War epic).

The antique of the lot arrives in tandem with the festival’s most eagerly awaited musical event: Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields follows American Music Club, Yo La Tengo and other alt-music acts in presenting and playing a live score to a silent classic. Given his interest in older song idioms, Merritt (who will be accompanied by other players including Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket and Castro organist Daniel Hegarty) would seem a natural choice for this format no matter what the particular film.

In this case, however, the movie itself is of equal interest as one few are likely to have seen, at least on the big screen. The second film adaptation of Jules Verne’s prescient 1869 sci-fi novel–the first being a 1907 Georges Méliès short, the most famous Disney’s 1954 live-action version– 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a major endeavor for producer Carl Laemmle and his then-fledgling studio Universal in 1916. So major that Scottish-born writer-director Stuart Paton threw in not just elements of the titular book, but also elements from Verne’s followup, Mysterious Island. (This allows the inclusion of Jane Gail as leopard-skin-clad A Child of Nature whose Isadora Duncan-styled entrance dance must be seen to be believed.)

The main lure, however, was a novelty not narrative but technical. Billed as “The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed!," this adventure was shot under the supervision of the Williamson Brothers, early deep-sea divers who’d “solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography.” (After this title card, they appear onscreen to take a bow.)

Thus audiences of 1916 were treated to what one character terms “scenes God might never have intended us to see.” (Take that, God!) Using the Williamson’s system of mirrors and watertight tubes, Paton was able to show Bahamas sea-bottom landscapes and men in heavy primitive diving suits walking there, bent almost vertical against the current.

This amusing thrill package represented a career peak for the director, whose later output consisted mostly of B-grade westerns and serials. (He seemed to specialize in canine adventures, making numerous films starring Dynamite the Dog, as well as Wolfang and Lobo the Marvel Dog.) 20,000 Leagues’ Captain Nemo, Allen Holubar, was born right here in San Francisco’s own Castro District. A year after essaying this grizzled-avenger role at the ripe old age of 28, he quit acting to write and direct for his own production company–often creating vehicles for his wife Dorothy Williams, a major 1910s star who is forgotten today. Sadly, Holubar died from routine-surgery complications just six years later.

Nearly four decades and immeasurable leagues of sophistication later, Luchino Visconti entered the greatest period of a fascinating screen career with 1954’s Senso, which has been painstakingly restored from its damaged three-strip Technicolor negative.

After three first features that anticipated, then expanded upon postwar Italian neorealism, Visconti–a certified Count who often directed opera–acknowledged his taste for the operatic and aristocratic with this doomed period romance set during the Italian-Australian War of the 1860s. Alida Valli plays a Venice Countessa who embarks on a disastrous affair with an Austrian military officer (Farley Granger) even though he’s sent her beloved, politically agitating cousin into exile.

Starting with intrigue at the opera house during a performance of Il Trovatore, Senso spirals into an amour fou tale whose mix of passion and elegance established Visconti’s mature style.

Indian master Satyajit Ray hadn’t yet finished his famous Apu trilogy when he took time out in 1958 to make an unrelated feature. Comparatively little-seen, The Music Room is considered by some aficionados one of his masterpieces. Like Senso, it is set in a world of wealth and discontent: Huzur (Chhabi Biswas) is the last in a line of wealthy Bengalese landowners whose 19th-century glory years are now history amidst the roiling changes of the 1920s.

Apathetic in the extreme, Huzur seldom stirs from the slowly crumbling palace he calls home, his one public indulgence being throwing concert parties that show off his love of Indian classical music. But Huzur is goaded into action of a sort by distaste toward a vulgar, money-grubbing neighbor whose nouveau riche fortunes rise as our protagonist’s inherited ones dwindle. This unsentimental end-of-an-epoch character study is as gracefully, insightfully spare as anything in Ray’s oeuvre.

Worlds apart tonally and stylistically is Wake in Fright, a 1971 film by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. It stirred some controversy and critical acclaim–if little commercial success–at the time, mostly under the alternate title Outback. But it became a sought-after rarity that had been out of circulation for decades before the Australian National Film Archive’s recent digital restoration.

The story is simplicity itself: A schoolteacher (Gary Bond) on holiday stops in the quintessential “godforsaken” outback dive town where the menfolk are macho, drunk, violent louts, and the women mostly just try to stay out of their way. At first repulsed, our hero gradually devolves under the influence of various unsavory locals including Halloween’s Donald Pleasance and Australian screen folk hero Chips Rafferty (as a menacing sheriff). By the end he’s literally and spiritually soiled–half-mad, homeless, disheveled, desperate for drink, almost feral.

Small wonder Australians didn’t take to the movie then: It suggests one need barely scratch the nation’s civilized modern veneer to find the unwashed prison-colony beast within. Wake is no genre film, but it’s a horror flick nonetheless, one about the depths to which human nature can all too easily revert. It was a striking demonstration of talent from Kotcheff, whose still-active (at age 79) subsequent career has been anything but predictable, ranging from two excellent Mordecai Ritchler adaptations (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Joshua Then and Now) to the first Rambo movie and teen comedy Weekend at Bernie’s.

Another dark, exceptional drama hasn’t been hard to see, though that didn’t stop people from missing it somehow: 1999’s Ride With the Devil, from the celebrated team of director Ang Lee and scenarist James Schamus (who’ll be present to accept this year’s Kanbar Award). It’s certainly their most neglected major work, a purported $35 million production–though inexpensively filmed, given its large scale–which recovered barely one-fiftieth of that cost at the U.S. box office.

Why did everyone go to Cold Mountain, but not this? Well, that subsequent film was starrier, bestseller-based, and more conventionally romantic. Ride is the better Civil War epic, and arguably the medium’s best ever. It will be shown in a new 160-minute Director’s Cut restoring 22 minutes cut from the original theatrical release. Since studio-mandated edits apparently only made a long film feel longer, this extended version should improve chances of Ride being appreciated as one of the great neglected films from recent years.

Other SFIFF 2010 features of archival interest include Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, which reconstructs the making and unmaking of a would-be 1964 thriller by the Diabolique director that was abandoned mid-shoot. Serge Bromberg and Rukandra Medrea’s documentary is a fascinating look at artistic daring and, ultimately, failure.

Then there’s Jean-Louis Delassue’s unclassifiable 14-18: The Noise and the Fury. Assembling rare newsreel footage and other materials into a remarkable narrative following one fictive soldier’s long march through the entire length of World War 1, it’s an ingenious gambit that’s not to be missed.

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