To Save and Project: The 10th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation
Diversity is something many a film festival promises, but few can match the wide-ranging selection of titles showcased at MoMA’s annual “To Save and Project” series. In its 10th anniversary edition, the Museum of Modern Art’s mix of restoration premieres, discoveries, and revivals, which this year features J. Hoberman as guest curator, remains a haven for the omnivorous cinephile.
Where to begin? At the beginning of the medium itself, surely, with a pair of features from Giovanni Pastrone, the Italian pioneer whose 1914 epic Cabiria reportedly had D.W. Griffith himself taking notes. Offering a more intimate story without abandoning grandiose emotions, Il Fuoco (1915) chronicles the spiraling relationship between an artist and his muse, a fitting narrative for the launching of the filmmaker’s own dark-eyed Galatea, Pina Menichelli. Swathed in predatory furs and feathers, Menichelli swans and swoons, a force of nature who literalizes the fire of the film’s title by smashing a desk lamp and comparing her wild passion to the ensuing flames. Tigre Reale (1916), about a troubled Russian countess juggling lovers, builds to an even more incendiary climax inside a burning theater, though not before Menichelli shuttles back and forth between Roman drawing rooms and snowy Siberian fields. Brimming with D’Annunzio-like sensuality and often surprisingly modern camerawork (one brief, striking half-circular pan moves from the tenors on stage to audiences rapt in their seats, all viewed from the heroine’s balcony seat), these are silents with an unmistakable operatic timbre.
The Face Behind the Mask
Filmed in less than two weeks, The Face Behind the Mask (1941) is suspended fascinatingly between horror and film noir. A Hungarian laborer (Peter Lorre) arrives in New York bubbling with enthusiasm and hope, only to have his face hideously disfigured in a hotel fire. Shunned by his former promised land, he dives into its underworld and becomes the head of a crime ring, his enormous liquid eyes peering from behind a frozen visage. Had Fritz Lang directed it, this would have been a masterpiece; in the hands of fellow émigré Robert Florey, it’s an effectively and affectingly lurid B-flick, with shadows forever creeping into the canted angles and the subversive dialogue by soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico: “Money is all it takes” is this society’s recurring refrain. It’s the great Lorre’s performance, however, that gives the film its haunted center—whether his character is struggling to reconnect his burned-off emotions with a blind girl (Evelyn Keyes) or gazing with perverse satisfaction as his enemies bake in the desert sun, Lorre sublimely communicates the terror of realizing how close the American Dream can be to a nightmare.
Tell Me Lies
In a cinematic oeuvre that featured such offbeat items as a Laurence Olivier musical and a neo-realist adaptation of Lord of the Flies, legendary British theater director Peter Brook scarcely had a more unclassifiable project than Tell Me Lies (1968). Coming after his claustrophobic Marat/Sade (67), this revue of skits, interviews, and reenactments is no less confrontational in its ruminations on the Vietnam War. Subtitled “A Film About London,” it hinges on a young leftist activist (Mark Jones) as he wanders around the city gleaning reactions from people on the war. Contemplating horrific pictures of maimed Vietcong children, the protagonist faces the camera and belts out the Adrian Mitchell poem that lends the film its title (“I was run over by the truth one day…”), participates in street protests, saunters into cocktail parties to eavesdrop on protracted debates, and asks monks about self-immolation. Elsewhere, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company recite passages from Mao’s little red book and ponder the film’s modes of representation: “Semi-fiction? Semi-documentary.” Shot with Brechtian layers of artifice and white-flame vehemence, it suggests a British cousin to Godard’s La Chinoise, or perhaps a dead-serious version of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War.
Unfurling during “the only time of the year when happiness and laughter prevail,” The Prom (1982) is Ulrich Seidl’s poker-faced, 50-minute autopsy of the festivities at the small Austrian burg of Horn. Young students get dressed and practice their dance moves for the ball, parents and teachers mouth platitudes about life before heading for the drinks on the tables, and everyone comes together for the ineffably alarming spectacle of an entire room of revelers stiffly doing the Chicken Dance in slow motion. Something like Seidl’s The Firemen’s Ball, the Teutonic enfant terrible’s early short (which reportedly got him expelled from the Vienna Film Academy) skewers ritualized blandness while providing a virtual blueprint for his stark, absurd style, depicting a conformity-choked community that could certainly use some of the life-affirming perversity of his later cinematic provocations.
Stay tuned for another dispatch from MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series.