Why we live in the best possible time to watch film history
“The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth enters.” — Opening titles of Charles Chaplin’s “Limelight”
On March 5 of this year, another 20th-century auteur passed from this world. Groundbreaking documentarian Albert Maysles (“Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter”) died at age 88, leaving behind a legacy of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking (with his brother David) that changed the way documentaries were made forever. Maysles died before his final film was released, and that film is now playing at Liberty Hall.
“Iris” profiles 93-year-old interior designer and fashion icon Iris Apfel, who has done restoration work at the White House for nine presidents. With her loud outfits and oversized glasses, she hob-knobs with people like Kanye West in public, but in private she bemoans the ravages of old age.
It hasn’t slowed her down. In 2005, a Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art exhibit raised her profile considerably. During the course of “Iris,” her husband Carl turns 100. Maysles, meanwhile, retains the celebratory eye for the unusual and iconoclastic, something first glimpsed in 1975’s “Grey Gardens,” which created fashion icons of eccentrics Edie and Edith Beale.
The young will take over for the old filmmakers eventually, but thanks to modern film restoration, old movies live on. One thing that’s truly special about the time we live in now is the ready availability of high-quality versions of films from the past century. There’s no use for worn-out, fuzzy VHS tapes I grew up on: companies like Criterion are restoring movies from past masters that have depth and clarity that gives them new life on any screen.
Charles Chaplin, who scholar Andrew Sarris called “one of the first auteur filmmakers,” has been getting the restoration treatment from Criterion recently, and “Limelight,” his semiautobiographical 1952 film, is out in a new Blu-ray release this week. In it, Chaplin plays Calvero, a down-on-his-luck “tramp comedian” in 1914 London who rescues a young woman from a suicide attempt. They become close friends, and help each other through hard times in this melancholy drama from the old silent master.
“Limelight” is not a silent film, of course, but like he used to in his early years, Chaplin wrote, directed, starred in, and composed the music for the movie. It was Chaplin’s last great film, and it showcases not just a love for the performing arts (she’s a ballerina, he’s a vaudevillian), but also Chaplin’s effortless sentimentality.
As an extra added bonus, “Limelight” contains the only moment Chaplin and Buster Keaton ever performed together on film. It's a small part, but Keaton plays Calvero's old partner, and they share the stage during the film's climactic comeback performance.
Jean-Pierre Melville is an auteur of the first order, and his debut 1949 film “Le Silence de la Mer” is a stunner. It’s a wonder it even exists, in fact. Adapted from a novella secretly published by the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied France, Melville made the film completely independent of any studio and with total creative freedom.
The film essentially has three actors, and only one of them — a Nazi officer billeted with an old Frenchman and his niece — speaks. The family’s unspoken vow of silence is their only form of protest against their oppressor, and what develops between the trio is surprising. For an angry film, “Le Silence de la Mer” is surprisingly quiet.
Criterion’s new restoration captures the deep black tones in Melville’s low-angled “Citizen Kane”-inspired cinematography. Although the movie’s narrative and acting style are typical of older films, “Le Silence de la Mer” has a modern sensibility and feel, embracing subtlety and ambiguity in a way that was idiosyncratic at the time.
On the subject of “Citizen Kane,” a new documentary about Orson Welles is out now on Blu-ray from the Cohen Media Group. From master of montage Chuck Workman, “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles” isn’t the first documentary to cover the career of Hollywood’s troubled and celebrated auteur, but it is the first movie to feature such an extraordinary trove of archival footage.
Using rare clips from Welles interviews and unfinished film projects, Workman focuses on Welles’ innovations and influence rather than the soap opera-esque details of his life. “Magician” is a brisk documentary that dismantles many Welles myths, some of them by the great man himself — as he tells the same story three different ways in different interviews.
Lastly, the turning point of German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, the 1971 film “The Merchant of Four Seasons,” has been restored and newly released by Criterion.
Like Chaplin before him, Fassbinder oversaw all aspects of production, including the music. Having just discovered the works of director Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder used the structures and conflicts of Sirk’s melodramas to critique modern German culture and hypocritical attitudes of the time.
“The Merchant of Four Seasons,” about an ordinary fruit salesman, is an extremely earnest movie, which is what makes some of its Brechtian staging and advanced camera movement really stick out. Fassbinder is going for realism, but almost a heightened, stagey version of it. This strategy makes the film more deeply felt, amplifying the awkwardness.
Do yourself a favor and catch up with the films and lives of these auteurs, whose personal way of making films ensured that they will be influential for years to come.
"Iris" is showing at Liberty Hall. "Magician" is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and a Digital HD download. Over 900 films in The Criterion Collection are available to stream from Hulu Plus at just $7.99 a month, while the newest releases are on Blu-ray and DVD as well.