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Jack Angstreich

Ken Russell Retrospective is Long Overdue

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Ken Russell retrospective, Russellmania, -- which ran from Jul. 30 - Aug. 5 -- was both long overdue and a missed opportunity. Savage Messiah, Lisztomania, and Mahler were all screened in faded prints and those were not the only disappointments of this series. Some of the good news, however, is that Russell has been present at every evening screening.

On Friday night, Russell confirmed that he is a devout Roman Catholic and took umbrage at the suggestion that his extraordinary The Devils is an unflattering portrait of the Church. He appeared onstage with Vanessa Redgrave who was a very moving presence and looked fabulous. The Devils, directed at the height of Russell's powers as a filmmaker, features amazing sets designed by Derek Jarman and bold, widescreen compositions shot by the incomparable David Watkin. (I am told that Jarman had designed the sets for a version of Gargantua and Pantagruel that Russell was set to direct and which was abruptly cancelled, one of many interesting Russell projects that were never produced.) The film was screened in the American release version in an original IB Technicolor print from the Harvard Film Archive but archive rules permit only one screening; subsequent screenings were from a DVD.

Harold Bloom described D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love as a candidate for the "inescapable" novel in the English language; Russell's adaptation is effectively cinematic. However, the film was screened in a disappointing print; photographed and printed in the DeLuxe color process, there was some color-fading, typical of the process.

Russell's subsequent The Music Lovers, however, represents a quantum-leap -- bravura filmmaking from the first shot to the last, also in widescreen, with mesmerizing long-takes and arresting, staccato editing. The film was screened in a beautiful 35-millimeter print although some of the original vividness of the color appears to have been lost in this printing.

The Boy Friend
, after Sandy Wilson's stage musical, and also shot by Watkin in widescreen, represents the peak of this retrospective along with The Music Lovers and The Devils. The film is an homage to the English music hall, to Busby Berkeley, and to Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain and features a charming performance by Twiggy and some wonderful dancing by Tommy Tune.

Tune, looking splendid, appeared with Russell at Sunday evening's screening and ascended the stage to perform a brief set of dance moves from the film. He also thanked Russell for changing his life and Russell replied in kind. The film was screened in the long version in a very good 35-millimeter print from a British source, marred by a burn mark -- unfortunately present for much of the film's duration -- toward the center of the screen.

Valentino, the latest film screened in this retrospective, is not one of Russell's more distinguished efforts -- indeed it was a great, lost opportunity. The strongest element here is Peter Suchitzky's beautifully lit photography, also in the DeLuxe color process, shown off in this print to excellent effect, despite some very slight color fading in some reels.

Hitchens at the 92nd St Y

Last night, at the 92nd Street Y, famed author Salman Rushdie interviewed Christopher Hitchens onstage about his new memoir, Hitch-22. Neither Rushdie nor Hitchens are especially systematic thinkers, so whenever the conversation turned to politics, one felt a wasted opportunity in not having a more probing interlocutor than one of Hitchens's best friends. That's especially true when you take into account  Hitchens' unique views.

The peculiarity of Hitchens's allegiances bears repetition: he sides with the Red Army against the Whites, the Republicans against the Loyalists, the Palestinians against the Israelis, and the Sandinistas against the Contras, but supported Margret Thatcher in the Falklands war and the US against Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

But why bother going to a talk to hear Hitchens repeat his inane views about Iraq, etc., in any case? What value Hitchens possesses as writer and speaker has less to do with the sharpness of his insight than the sharpness of his wit -- which faculty was, thankfully, on abundant display. Though Rushdie is less witty than Hitchens, he proved to be a helpful partner in bringing about a lively evening, the stage having been set by Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, with an amusing introduction.

I certainly hope that the Y recorded the event and will release a podcast version so everyone might enjoy the hilarity.

From Rendezvous with French Cinema: In the Beginning

In the Beginning
written and directed by Xavier Giannoli

starring Francois Cluzet

In the Beginning tells the story of a con-man who persuades the members of a small French provincial town afflicted by industrial blight to restart an abandoned road project; things fall apart when he unwittingly becomes enmeshed in his own deceptions. One of the film's strengths is its complexity of tone, keeping in balance the comedy of hoodwinking and the pathos of the hoodwinked. 

In the Beginning presents an ironic vision of contemporary capitalism, dramatizing Marx's insight that capital is (merely) a social relation, a composite of fictions. The film is held together by Cluzet's effective performance, although he is given first-rate support by an impressive ensemble, including Emmanuelle Devos and Gerard Depardieu.

Economically shot and briskly edited, the movie was screened in a decent transfer from a digital format, but would have looked better shown on video.

A View of Rendezvous with French Cinema

The annual Rendezvous with French Cinema sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center is a Love Crimeconsistent disappointment when judged against its earlier incarnation, which was co-programmed by Cahiérs du Cinema. The present version usually features only a handful of films by significant directors; this year's program is no exception.

Directors championed by Cahiérs with new films this year include François Ozon, Benoit Jacquot, and Catherine Breillat as well as two experimental film programs curated by Cahiérs critic, Nicole Brenez. The Positif (another French film journal) favorite, Bertrand Tavernier -- who, it is interesting to note, was championed too by auteurist critic, Robin Wood -- also has a new feature and will appear in person for an onstage conversation about his career.

Another director celebrated by Positif was Alain Corneau who just recently passed away and is being honored with a retrospective tribute screening of his neo-noir Série noire, adapted from a novel by the extraordinary Jim Thompson with dialogue by Oulipo legend, Georges Perec.

Corneau's last film, the entertaining and well-crafted Love Crime, a clever critique of contemporary capitalist mores, is also being screened in the series. The excellent Ludivine Sagnier gives a noteworthy performance but the greatest thrill is owed to Kristin Scott-Thomas, sensational here as an alpha-female executive.

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