Two more "Treasures from the Archives" at this year's London Film Festival

29 October 2011

You know the drill. A short write-up of The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Cry Danger (1951) can be found here from earlier in the week. Without further ado, I'll write a little on last Sunday's films, which, like the two preceding them, screened at the Southbank as part of the LFF's Treasures from the Archives strand, programmed by Clyde Jeavons.
Elia Kazan adapted America America (above; also known as The Anatolian Smile) in 1963 from his own book, an account of the journey made by the director’s uncle in the 1890s from Turkish Anatolia to the Promised Land of the title. It’s been restored by Warner Bros., supervised by Ned Price and the film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Film Foundation, whose founder Martin Scorsese lists Kazan as one of his favourite filmmakers.

Over America America’s sublime opening imagery, Kazan informs us that he is Greek by blood, Turkish by birth and American because of the journey his uncle made long ago. From the outset, the tone is one of pride, and the filmmaker emphasises throughout the physical and emotional hardships suffered by protagonist Stavros Topouzoglu (Stathis Giallelis) that beget his material impoverishment, during which he must at any cost retain the mental strength to carry on.

Contextual scenes depict the brutal oppression of Armenians and Greeks by the Turkish state, culminating in many deaths, among them that of Stavros’s Armenian friend Vartan (Frank Wolff). After this, the young Greek is entrusted with his family’s wealthiest possessions, sacrificed to him in the hope that he can exchange them for a job in Constantinople, from which he may acquire further wealth and secure their own migration to the capital. Along the way he becomes fixated by the idea of escaping Turkey altogether and emigrating to the USA.

Stravros, whose journey unfolds in that episodic way you might expect – with each episode a smaller narrative in itself – befriends people of various sincerity: a hanger-on (Lou Antonio) exploits and betrays him; an older fellow worker (John Marley) looks out for his utopian interests; a wealthy merchant (Paul Mann) expects marriage of him to his daughter (Linda Marsh); an American (Robert H. Harris) is embittered when his own wife (Katharine Balfour) has an affair with him; and, recurringly, Stavros encounters a young Armenian (Gregory Rozakhis) also hopeful of a new life in America.

Six minutes shy of three hours, it’s an epic, against-all-odds migrant’s story. Its episodes vary between intense and comedic, and the film makes a virtue of mirroring its protagonist’s plight with a gruelling running time. This certainly makes for an effective sense of its central character’s temporal and geographical achievement, but because we never leave him for a second, we’re gasping for a broader picture through large segments of the film – especially given the essentially foregone conclusion that he “makes it in the end”.

It’s not without its moments – and due to its length the film has plenty of them – but Kazan seems to have trouble making consistently dramatic material with genuine cohesion; that might be a fault of Stathis Giallelis’s strangely unsympathetic performance, but I don’t think it is – and at any rate, if it was, surely the director would be partly responsible.

At any rate, though of interest in itself, America America ends at the point at which all the political intrigue would begin. But we don’t see much at all of the land of opportunity; Kazan’s focus is on ancestral journeys, and he stops before anything can be said of his own life in America. Given his woolly political convictions and general opportunism (he informed on fellow ex-members of the American Communist Party in 1952 in order to preserve his career), perhaps that was for the best. From his own point of view at least.

Bye Bye Birdie (1963) rounded off my weekend last Sunday evening. It’s been digitally restored by Grover Crisp’s team at Sony-Columbia – like Saturday’s Caine Mutiny – from an apparently “badly-faded Eastmancolor original, complete with refreshed 4-channel stereo track”.

It’s a pretty unsophisticated musical on the whole, with an overabundance of camp and kitsch but a whole lot of colour that may just about compensate if you’re in a forgiving mood.

Satirical in intention but a drag to sit through, the film concerns the kafuffle caused in and by the media when Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army at the height of his fame. Tom Parker didn’t allow Presley to star in a work parodying himself, so here we get Jesse Pearson as Conrad Birdie as the draftee-to-be, having to undergo a public farewell on the Ed Sullivan Show (whose host appears as himself), an event devised by songwriter Dick Van Dyke and girlfriend Janet Leigh, who have arranged for Birdie to kiss lucky fan Ann-Margret, from Sweet Apple, Iowa, on air, to the delight of mom and dad (Mary LaRoche and Paul Lynde) and to the despair of high-school boyfriend Bobby Rydell.

The film is too long by a stretch. The numbers begin well but wear thin soon after, their presentation rather unimaginative in cinematic terms, though director George Sidney does to his credit allow for a great deal of body acting in the sequences in between, keeping his camera at a safe distance and barely cutting – some might complain of a production struggling to go beyond its Broadway (1960) origins, but it’s become retroactively refreshing by now to see actors given space to act.

Following The Caine Mutiny, this was the second film of the weekend containing a subplot with Oedipal tensions; in the earlier film it was a bit redundant, but here it’s made increasingly insufferable by the one-dimensionality of Dick Van Dyke’s onscreen mother (Maureen Stapleton, whose fault it isn’t). Lazily done, it had me silently screaming for the kind of treatment Hitchcock offered the same year in The Birds. (By sheer coincidence, IMDb tells me Hitchcock’s film premiered in New York a week before Bye Bye Birdie’s theatrical release in the US.)

Birdie will be familiar to those who’ve seen the third season of TV’s Mad Men; the second episode of that season involves an attempt by the show’s central advertising agency to cash in on Ann-Margret’s sex appeal with a pastiche of her title number, in the film’s opening sequence, to promote Patio diet drink. You can watch a comparison between the two sequences on YouTube, which will also show you the main appeal of Birdie itself: Ann-Margret’s stunning presence, a redheaded bundle of possibly-projected gullibility and inexpressible eroticism. She gives the film a much needed oomph whenever she graces the screen. The Mad Men connection might conjure images of Christina Hendricks, but I was reminded more of Amy Adams (apologies if that’s a given).

A final word

Making do with what resources I can, I’ve been attending the LFF for six years now. “Attending” seems to be the wrong word, though, especially this year. For starters, I’ve only ever been for two days at most, but this time around, friends and I went solely with the “Treasures” strand, because – as I noted at the beginning of the month – between underseen but oversold films and the more celebrated features that are getting released soon anyway, these restored works seem the safest bet.

Six years ago we caught Frank Capra’s pre-Hays Code Forbidden (1932) in the same “Treasures” strand; two years later we saw the Richard Widmark Western The Last Wagon (1956); last year was the Hal Roach gender-bender comedy Turnabout (1940) and the 1933 Jimmy Cagney vehicle The Mayor of Hell. Last week, seeing four “Treasures” in two days, was the first time the NFT1 – wherein the quartet screened – wasn't packed. In fact, all four screenings looked disappointingly anaemic.

Having always associated my annual trips down to the Southbank with a purism hard to come by up north, I was dismayed – especially in light of recent rants – to hear people chatting and even eating during the films, the absolute lack of which I’d classed as something of a haven six years ago (you can imagine my delight when a whisperer was collectively and curtly shushed about three seconds into Forbidden). It wasn’t too bad, but it was noticeable. I wonder if it was a knock-on consequence of the venue’s fairly recent and casually shameful decision to accommodate latecomers...

Maybe not.