Tag Archives: france

Olivia de Havilland Lecture at Oxford and Other Classic Film Adventures in Europe

Readers, I returned to the United States on Tuesday after 2 weeks in Europe, and as my jet lag seems to finally have been conquered, I wanted to write to you about the lecture and the other classic film-related things I did while abroad. It was an absolutely magnificent trip, filled with many wonderful surprises.

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Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

My trip began in Oxford, where I stayed at Lady Margaret Hall with a side trip to Bruern, a small town in the English countryside. At Bruern I attended a lovely dinner with Olivia de Havilland’s lawyers and other guests of the lecture, one of whom happened to be a retired British Supreme Court justice. It was fascinating to talk to him about Olivia de Havilland’s case, and the differences between intellectual property law in the US and in Britain. I learned that in Britain, the press is much more legally restrained than in the United States, where the courts tend to do whatever they can to defend the freedom of the press. I also had wonderful chats with Olivia de Havilland’s daughter, Gisèle Galante Chulack, son-in-law Andy Chulack, and other fascinating people from varied walks of life. It was very intellectually stimulating, and I came away from the evening with many new perspectives on law, life, and politics.

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Flower gardens of Bruern, near the cottage where I stayed overnight.

The next day, the other guests and I returned to Oxford for the lecture. Gisèle gave a beautiful introduction, after which Suzelle Smith and Don Howarth took the podium to talk about the history of the case. Suzelle and Don are Oxford fellows, and go to Oxford every year to talk about various cases that they have argued. They were proud to show me, too, a gate in front of Lady Margaret Hall that is named for them.

They spoke about the cases that Olivia de Havilland v. FX was based on, including Eastwood v. National Enquirer and Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting, and demonstrated the legal precedents that provided evidence for de Havilland’s argument. As I have noted here before, much of the case was terribly misrepresented in the mainstream press, and huge amounts of corporate money was thrown into FX’s defense. One of the judges on the 3-judge panel at the appellate court had served as legal counsel for NBC, and before being appointed to the appellate court had worked for the same law firm that was representing FX against Olivia de Havilland. Ideally, an appellate court judge would be unbiased, but as we know, the legal system doesn’t always work that way.

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Lawyer Suzelle Smith presents the lecture.

The whole event was warm, positive, and communal. I very much felt like I was part of a family, one of dedicated and passionate people trying to advocate for truth in media and corporate accountability. I am currently in the beginning stages of a soon-to-be-determined project about the case. I’m not yet sure what it’s going to look like, but I will be sure to keep you posted as it progresses.

From Oxford I headed to London, where I spent several days exploring. I discovered that the BFI Southbank was playing Letter From an Unknown Woman during my stay, part of their series of free matinées for seniors. Well…I’m far from a senior, but I was happy to pay the nominal fee for non-seniors to attend what I consider to be one of the screen’s greatest dramas.

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Letter From an Unknown Woman tells the story of obsession and rejection in 19th century Europe, with Joan Fontaine playing a girl madly in love with a pianist, whose undying love continues into adulthood. She ultimately finds that the pianist, a charming and uncommitted womanizer played by Louis Jourdan, couldn’t care less about her. If you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend finding a copy along with a box of kleenex. It was one of Fontaine’s personal favorite projects, and this tragic melodrama shows her acting skill to a tee–as she plays the same character from girlhood through adulthood.

I ended up being the only one there under 80, and I shared the situation with my Twitter followers, as it was simultaneously amusing and par-for-the-course. I received a reply from the proprietor of Knebworth House, Henry Lytton Cobbold, who was rather impressed at someone who would give up an afternoon in London to see Letter From an Unknown Woman. He invited me up to the house to talk about Joan Fontaine, and see some paintings of hers that were there. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that I had a train out of London the next afternoon.

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I awoke at 6 AM, arriving at Knebworth House at 8, in order to make the most of my time before heading back to London for my train. What I found was a magnificent 15th century castle, updated in the Gothic style, which has served as a filming location for such major movies as The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It has also housed major rock concerts by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Henry Lytton Cobbold is the 19th generation to live there, and he is also a filmmaker and devoted Joan Fontaine fan. He knew her well from the 1980s until the end of her life, and she willed him two portraits upon her death. Those are the paintings Henry was inviting me to see.

The portraits were absolutely beautiful, and after we had seen those (and a room full of Joan Fontaine posters), we went through binders of photos, documents, and letters that Henry has in his possession. I interviewed Joan Fontaine in September of 2013, shortly before she died, and this interview was the last one she ever gave. Our mutual connection provided the fodder for much enthusiastic conversation as we pored over Henry’s collection. I could have stayed there an entire week, as we both noted–I was in my element in a way that I rarely experience.

After several hours at Knebworth House, I reluctantly made my way back to London, where I caught a train to Paris. I wanted to write about going to see a film at my beloved Christine 21 Ciné (which I call the “Rue Christine”), my favorite movie theater in the world. I spent many a homesick hour there while living in Paris 8 years ago, losing myself in My Man Godfrey and Mildred Pierce for the price of 3 euros. Sadly, though, the Rue Christine is on a summer schedule and the movies playing during my brief time in Paris didn’t grab my attention. So alas, no Rue Christine this trip. But you can read about my connection to this theater, and the other theaters of the 6ème arrondissement here.

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The last few days of my trip were spent with a good friend in the south of France. This friend is a close relative of Marion Davies, and I have become very close to her over the past few years of my research. Together we watched Lights of Old Broadway, the movie I introduced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. Lights of Old Broadway is a delightful comedy, one of the many early films in which Marion plays a dual role. Here, she plays actual twins, separated at birth and adopted by two very different families–one from the aristocracy, and one from the poor slums of New York. The movie showcases Marion’s skill as an actress, as she plays each twin with really astonishing nuance. One of my favorite aspects of the movie is that the character of Fely, the twin from the slums, is very much like Marion Davies in real life. Anne, the aristocratic twin, is soft and refined, but Marion still inserts just a touch of the real Marion Davies in her, too. It’s a complex interpretation, and Marion’s acting style in this movie really deserves an analysis all its own.

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I began my journey home on June 24, and finally arrived home in the afternoon of June 25. It has been a busy, classic film-filled few weeks, and I feel that there is going to be more to do than ever in the coming months. I will be sure to keep you posted on my Olivia de Havilland project, and anything else that comes of this trip.

Thanks for reading!

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Noir City 17: BREATHLESS (1960)

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Two weekends ago, I braved rainy San Francisco weather and a quickly dying cell phone to attend Noir City 17’s presentation of À Bout de souffle, also known by its English title as Breathless. Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece of New Wave cinema, it is widely credited as having invented the very movement itself. I have long been a fan of this film, and hold a deep respect for the innovations in style, both cinematic and fashion, that Godard has brought about.

I hesitate to call myself a francophile, as I feel that term cheapens the connections I have to France. But I do have deep connections there, both in my heritage and in my personal life. I used to live in Paris, and Backlots was born there. Several branches of my family tree ended up in France and I seem to have endless French cousins (one of those cousins is the operatic soprano Madeleine Grey, a fact that I used whenever I wanted to impress my professors in Paris!) I teach the language and hold near native fluency in it. I try to go back to France every year, as possible.

As such, I’ve always felt quite a connection to Jean Seberg, the American-turned-French actress who stars in Breathless and straddled the line between the two sides of the Atlantic. Despite her excellent French, she never lost her strong American accent, belying her Marshalltown, Iowa roots. That accent endears me to her just as much as her often androgynous fashion. Short hair, capris, striped shirts–combining American casual with French chic–that’s Jean Seberg. Her life was often filled with sadness, and her rocky existence and tragic end merit their own blog post. But her unique image speaks to me as an American who often operates in French spaces, and I’ve always had an intrinsic fascination with her as an actress and a person.

Breathless is a film that the French might call bouleversant, a movie that turned French cinema on its head and changed it forever. It is at once influenced by the style and nuances of American cinema and French cinema of the past decade. While in certain sections the dialogue is reminiscent of the previous year’s thoughtful and pensive Hiroshima mon amour, Breathless also very much belongs on a Noir City program–the story of Michel, a French gangster on the run and his American girlfriend struggling with her attraction to him, her own legal interests, and her own morality. This cinematic duality was intentional on the part of director Jean-Luc Godard, who had longed to make a film himself while writing for the publication Cahiers du Cinéma in Paris.

The story itself was based on a newspaper article that François Truffaut had read about the real-life criminal Michel Portail and his American girlfriend Beverly Lynette. Truffaut and Claude Chabrol collaborated on an early versions of the story, and gave Godard their treatment, acting as advisors on the film and using their clout to help push the movie to distributors with the unknown Godard as the director. Godard, while writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, had come to the conclusion that American directors were the only the ones who really understood how to make important and interesting films, and the French could learn from the way they used the camera and the scenery. Hence, he shot Breathless in a noir style, and the final film really may be considered an American noir set in Paris, in French, with a French director.

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Jean-Luc Godard, director of Breathless.

Eddie Muller discussed these nuances before the film at the Castro, and finished by asking the audience to raise their hand if they’ve never seen the movie before. I was at once surprised and excited to see how many in the audience raised their hands–at least 3/4 of the audience was watching Breathless for the first time. Seeing a movie on the big screen with an audience watching it for the first time is an inexplicably joyful experience for a movie fan, and during the film, I was not disappointed. The audience seemed to be collectively holding its breath throughout the whole movie, as the pursuit of Michel unraveled and the film came to its inevitably dramatic and somewhat eerie conclusion.

Noir City is a carefully curated and lovingly crafted San Francisco gem. We are lucky to have it every year at the Castro, and the passion of Eddie Muller is palpable throughout the entire program. I’m happy to be able to attend every year and I thank Eddie Muller, the Noir City staff, and the Castro Theatre for putting on such a magnificent presentation year after year.

The program is traveling around the country, and here are the upcoming dates and cities:

NOIR CITY Seattle: Feb 15-21, 2019
NOIR CITY Hollywood: Mar 29-Apr 7, 2019
NOIR CITY Austin: May 17-19, 2019
NOIR CITY Boston: June 7-9, 2019
NOIR CITY Chicago: Sep 6-12, 2019

Thanks for reading, and be sure to attend Noir City in one of the upcoming cities if you’re nearby!

Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Another marvelous festival has come to a close, and these five days were certainly ones to remember. With world-class guests such as Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg and some of the greatest silent film accompanists in the business, festival attendees experienced the very best that silent film has to offer.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of my favorite festivals to cover. The films are carefully chosen to provide a beautifully diverse program, with silent films from international markets, newly-restored gems, and hits from other silent film festivals such as Pordenone and Bologna. A survey of the schedule reveals 7 different countries represented in a program of 21 features, and several newly discovered movies that have been buried deep in the archives for decades.

Highlights included a beautiful showing of the Greta Garbo and John Gilbert classic Flesh and the Devil, one of the most stunningly photographed and erotic movies of the silent era. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a Swedish silent film orchestra that makes an appearance at the festival every year, I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to witness it on the big screen. This has long been one of my favorite movies to watch, both for the exquisite cinematography and the alluring character of Felicitas, who lives her life her way.

Serge Bromberg presented an uproariously funny selection of Charley Bowers shorts, showcasing the absurd and surreal filmmaking that swept the underground cinematic landscape in the early 1920s. Following World War I, the surrealist movement known as Dadaism began to grow in Europe and extended to the United States, and though Charley Bowers was not Dadaist in the true sense of the word, aspects of the genre can be seen in some of his best work.

Here is one of the funniest movies we saw. Ignore the video’s soundtrack if you can.

And here is some classic Dadaism:

Serge Bromberg presented the movie, and also played the score on the piano. It was a truly impressive program!

One of the most highly anticipated events of the festival was a newly found film that continues to be a work-in-progress in terms of editing. The movie is called Lime Kiln Field Day, a 1913 all-black comedy starring Bert Williams. Williams is often compared to Charlie Chaplin in his physicality and comedic style, and the similarity was evident in the movie. We heard a fascinating presentation beforehand that detailed the painstaking research that went into identifying the actors and directors, and gave the audience a sense of how the movie was made, and how it was found and restored. We saw a movie that was about 90 minutes long, which included multiple takes and outtakes. It will be exciting to see how the project progresses in the coming years, and it was a real treat to see an all-black movie from so early in the history of film.

Perhaps my favorite screening of the festival was another presentation by Serge Bromberg, of a beautiful family drama called Visages d’enfants. It tells the story of a young boy in rural France who experiences the death of his doting mother, and tries to come to terms with his father’s remarriage. Visages d’enfants is a startlingly modern tale, and feels as though it could have been made in the modern day instead of 90 years ago. Jean Forest, whom we also saw a few years ago at the festival in Gribiche, gave an immensely emotive and tender performance as the troubled boy, cementing my inclination to say that he was one of the most talented child actors to come out of the silent era. I would love to see Visages d’enfants released widely on DVD, as I think it has the potential to become a beloved classic.

Visages d’enfants.

The festival went out with a beautiful screening of the 1925 Ben-Hur, presented again by Kevin Brownlow and featuring Carl Davis’ magnificent score. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen, and anything less doesn’t do it justice.  I have seen this movie several times, but when I saw it at the Castro on Monday evening, I felt like I had never seen it before. The Technicolor sequences shone, and the score elevated the chariot race to thrilling heights unable to be reached on the small screen. It is moments like watching Ben-Hur at the Castro Theatre when I swell with pride as a Bay Area native, being mere steps away from some of the best festivals and screenings in the world of classic film. Thank you to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for another great year, and I can’t wait for next time!