“The Century of Cinema”
In 1955 the British Film Institute commissioned 18 TV documentaries from 18 different nations and regions to commemorate “The Century of Cinema.” Twelve of these, plus Martin Scorsese's huge, three-part meditation on American cinema, will be on view at the Roxie this week. The series comprises a range of works running from banal clip-and-interview episodes (Stig Bjorkman's Scandinavian segment) through to such idiosyncratic works as one by Nelson Pereira, in which the entirety of Latin America cinema (with but a single exception) is represented by outre 50-year-old melodramas from Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. A balding man pores over them in search of a scene from his youth, while a youthful acolyte cries out Marxist-Freudian analyses from the back of the screening room. As silly as this sounds, the end result is actually rather touching, although any resemblance to a balanced survey of Latin American film is completely accidental.
Stephen Frears' segment on British film achieves just the right balance of autobiography and historical balance; his witty commentary turns on his own career journey, one shared by so many other English filmmakers, from British TV artiste to Hollywood moviemakers. But it is of course the American entry, grandly titled A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which will for obvious reasons receive the most attention. It is very good, like Frears' work at once personal and educational, although the gaps visible in the hourlong British episode (no Kubrick, no Lester) grow to gaping chasms in Scorsese's nearly four hours of clips and comments. Our genial host is in one sense an ideal instructor, most passionately involved with the films of his childhood and youth (c. 1946-62), but interested in everything, and anxious to share with us his glories: westerns, gangster films, musicals (Part 1), silent films, '30s films, epic films, noir (Part 2). Missing in action? Comedies, fantasies, Hitchcock.
Well, it's a personal journey, after all. Yet aside from his opening recollection of seeing Duel in the Sun as a 4-year-old, and some comments at the end of Part 3 comparing the movie theater to a church, Scorsese actually says little about his evident obsession with those good old movies. (Perhaps his own films are more eloquent testimony to this.) In any event, Part 3 is the least interesting when it should be the best, covering as it does the 1960s, when Scorsese was beginning his own career. Alas, Scorsese officially ends his film in 1970, although occasional forays into the '90s are made throughout the series. It is here that we find the most depressing segment: some unconvincing praise by Scorsese pals George Lucas, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola of modern computer-generated effects, which look pretty pathetic after a solid three hours of beautiful cinematography from films past. Will Jack or Mission: Impossible inspire today's 4-year-olds to make movies? This seems doubtful.
The entire series (projected video instead of movie film as it is) is obviously a must-see for serious filmgoers.
Sunday, Nov. 17: France (by Anne-Marie Mieville and Jean-Luc Godard; no subtitles), noon; Latin America, 1:15 p.m.; Poland and Russia, 2:30 p.m.; Scandinavia and Germany, 4:30 p.m.; America Part 1, 6:30 p.m.; Part 2, 8 p.m.; Part 3, 9:30 p.m.
Monday, Nov. 18: Britain and Ireland, 2:30 and 7 p.m.; America Part 1, 5 and 9:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 19: Korea and Hong Kong, 2:30 and 7 p.m.; America Part 2, 5 and 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 20: New Zealand and Japan, 2:30 and 7 p.m.; America Part 3, 5 and 9:30 p.m.
The Roxie is at Valencia and 16th Street; call 863-1087 for details. Various of the programs are also running on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. through November at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley at a $1.50 reduced admission. Call (510) 643-5041.
— Gregg Rickman