Under the expert curatorial guidance of Ed Budz, the Thalia theater at Symphony Space is offering a remarkable cinematic series this summer. Appropriately if prosaically titled Classics in HD, it includes some of the most memorable films in 20th century film history. And each one is being screened twice so as to make it easier for viewers to attend. I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone catch at least a few of the remaining screenings in July and August. Symphony Space is also offering a special brunch along with Big Daddy's Burger -- and you can't do much better than a classic film and a juicy burger, as far as this critic is concerned. For those who don't know it, the Thalia is an Upper West Side piece of New York cultural history. I remember seeing my first Pink Panther flics and Yves Robert's hilarious Le Grand Blond Avec Une Chaussure Noire (The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe) with my mom and best friend Daniel Holtzman there when I was a kid, and I am glad to see that this tradition of excellence is still going strong today. I recently caught two restored classics there -- The Children of Paradise and Metropolis.
Marcel Carné's three-hour long epic Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis), with script by Jacques Prévert, stands apart in the history of cinema. Starring the incomparable Arletty as the bewitching Garance and shot during the German occupation of Paris, it provides a unique historical record of sorts of the long-gone "pre-modern" Paris of the July Monarchy. The action takes place on the aptly named Boulevard des Crimes, much of it at the Théâtre des Funambules. Funambule means tight rope walker in French and this clever metaphor for acting -- and life in general -- runs throughout the film.
"Garance, comme la fleur," ("Garance, like the flower") Arletty repeats whenever anyone asks her name. No less than four men fall madly in love with her: the great mime Baptiste Dubureau (played by Jean Louis Barrault) whom Garance also loves; a famed but dissipated actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the good Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou) and the rascal, thief and murderer Pierre de Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). There are a lot of classic come-on lines in this film, but the best one to my mind belongs to Lemaître: "La vie est belle et vous comme elle" ("Life is beautiful and so are you.")
As a cultural historian or film buff, it's exciting to realize that Lacenaire and Lemaître existed in real life and that many of the other characters in the film were also based on true-life characters. Screenwriter Prévert-also one of France's finest poets -- undercuts the seriousness of matters with some fine, understated humor. My favorite: "Love is so simple" (if only, one sighs, it were truly so). Distributor Emerging Pictures' masterfully retouched screening copy is everything a great movie should be -- exciting, visually stimulating and stupendously acted. Carné takes this time to show human frailties and the tragedy of human love in all its incarnations. The term "paradis" in the title refers here to the top floor of the balcony -- the rest of the movie is filled with other innuendo and clever double entendres, not the least of which is the name of the local pub, Le Rouge Gorge -- meaning both red robin and red throat, as in slit by a knife! To retell the plot would do the film a disservice. Suffice it to say, there is trickery and corruption everywhere; love, deceit, murder and much joy and suffering, and a plot that more or less revolves around the quest for money fame and love. And always, the ever-elusive and delicate Garance, weaving in and out of the four men's lives like a temptress or some unquenchable desire. Like Baptiste, Garance is honest to the core, make no mistake about it, but she is also an orphan born of the streets and survival at all costs is her number one priority in life. As the film builds to its exquisite final "chase" scene -- simple yet heartbreakingly dramatic -- you can't help but feel your heart sink even as you realize that you have just been privileged to share the theater with Arletty and her band of merry men. Les Enfants du Paradis appears on many Top Ten all-time lists -- and if you think that you've seen some good films lately, consider the fact that no less than François Truffaut once said "I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis."
Fritz Lang's glitzy, sexy expressionistic 1927 masterpiece Metropolis is a horse of an entirely different color. Holy Case of Mistaken Identities! is all I could think as I watched the masterfully retouched Janus release of the film -- which I must have seen at least five times before. That and how utterly stunning the three-dimensional drawings in this silent classic truly are. But like any great work of art, every viewing reveals new layers and detail. I remembered Metropolis as a cautionary tale of technology begetting inhumanity -- and as a visual precedent for a whole line of sci-fi films all the way down to Blade Runner and, noblesse oblige, even the 1989 Madonna music video Express Yourself. Metropolis was the most expensive film ever produced at the time it was released and it looks it -- from the spellbinding Escher-like drawings and exquisite sets down to its remarkable special effects. (Interestingly enough for New Yorkers, Lang took his original inspiration for his art deco masterpiece from the vertical pull of Manhattan's skyscrapers!) But I didn't remember that it was also a somewhat obvious religious parable and a reminder that what make us human is our empathy and heart -- hence the film's unofficial motto "The mediator between the head and hands must be the heart."
As the workers toil below, Freder (Gustav Frölich) the son of the city's wealthy capitalist ruler Joh Frederse (Alfred Abel) and Maria (Brigitte Helm) preach Christian (read: socialist) love and empathy in an attempt to unify the classes and bridge the gulf between rich and poor. But Fredersen has lost all sense of reality and decency and instructs the crazed mad scientist Rotwang to create his own Frankenstein by kidnapping Maria and shaping a "machine-person" or Maschinenmensch to her lovely figure -- a machine that becomes (who else?) the Whore of Babylon. The rest of the film is essentially a race against time: will Maria and Freder outmaneuver the Whore of Babylon and save the workers and their children from their untimely fate? Or will evil win out as it would a few centuries later in Nazi Germany? Watching the film today, it's hard not to find the acting overdone (hence its "expressionistic" label) and not to cringe at the facile dichotomies established between good and evil, capitalism and socialism, love and hate -- women must be particularly appalled at the virgin/whore roles that seem the only option for women in this film. Lang and wife von Harbou throw in everything short of the biblical kit(s)chen sink -- including come-to-life statues of the Seven Deadly Sins and a recreation of the rise and fall of the Tower of Babel for good measure. But you can't understand a good patch in the development of modern cinema without sitting through the entire two and a half hour restored version of Metropolis at least once. Rotwang for example and the evil Thin Man who does Fredersen's bidding have become part and parcel of our cinematic vocabulary. As the main characters race against time and themselves, your own heart races along with them, hoping against all hope that heart will indeed unite head and hand. Metropolis was written by Thea von Harbou with cinematography by Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttman and a haunting score by Gottfried Huppertz.
You can catch the second Thalia screenings of Children of Paradise on August 17th and Metropolis on August 10th. Other classics coming up in the series include Marcel Camus' 1959 Black Orpheus, Fellini's 1954 tear jerker, La Strada, two Hitchcock classics (Psycho and Rear Window), Kurasawa's Seven Samurai and Monty Python's Life of Brian. A complete list of screenings is available at: symphonyspace.org/film.