May 21, 2017

43rd Seattle International Film Festival: Restored Marx Brothers and Rediscovered Nitrate

I started my 43rd Seattle International Film Festival experience yesterday with a pair of films that could hardly be more different. The Marx Brothers classic Animal Crackers is familiar to many classic film fans, while the experimental documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time is a mysterious work, full of discoveries.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Marx Brothers expert and author Robert Bader spoke before the screening at the Egyptian Theater and answered a few questions at a brief Q&A afterwards. It was great to have his perspective, because I don’t think I would have appreciated what a treat this screening was otherwise.

The print was fully restored, which made me realize how many bad prints of Marx Brothers movies I'd been watching over the years. It was such a novelty to see everything sharp and clear, even in scenes when the lights went out. Now that I've got a taste of it, I really want to see a great print of Duck Soup (1933).

Some moments that are believed to have been trimmed for a 1936 release, after the production code started to be enforced, were restored for this version as well. The scenes only amount to a few minutes, and they don't stand out much, but it was nice to see a print without the awkward jumps that are familiar to film fans.

I was also intrigued by Bader's comment that Marx brother Zeppo had a lot more to offer as a performer, but through various circumstances never had the opportunity to fully develop his comic persona. That got me wondering about what kind of an impact the famous brothers would have had if four of them fully flexed their comic chops. That certainly didn't happen with Zeppo's brief moments in this film; a practically blink-and-you'll-miss-it role. Poor guy.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Director Bill Morrison's dreamily-paced documentary plays essentially like a silent film, with a collage of film clips, photos and subtitles. I enjoyed viewing it in the intimate setting of the SIFF Film Center. It tells the story of a gold rush town in the Yukon and the discovery of a stash of over 500 nitrate films found under its ice rink, many of them thought to be lost. Several clips from the recovered film are shared, sometimes with titles added to give historical perspective. I look forward to writing more about this fascinating film upon its full release. Suffice to say, the unusual, nostalgic tone and visual style had me thinking: this is the greatest documentary Guy Maddin never made.

Check out my full SIFF 2017 coverage here.

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