The Big Picture
by M. Faust
The Buffalo International Film Festival Debuts on Friday, and for two weeks aims to make Buffalo feel like a big city again
Putting together a film festival is not the easiest thing in the world to do, especially if you want one in the truest sense of the words. But that’s just what Edward Summer, president and founder of the Buffalo International Film Festival, whose first edition opens this weekend, has done.
Why? Three reasons:
1. Because he feels that Buffalo, birthplace of the movie theater, deserves a proper film festival.
2. Because he has the connections to put one together.
3. Because he wants to have one to go to.
You know about that first one, right? As best as anyone can tell, the first space specifically designed for the presentation of motion pictures was built in the Ellicott Square building and opened in October 1896. That’s substantially earlier than any competitor, and in the years since this was uncovered by Buffalo theater historian Ranjit Sandhu and researched by Summer, no one has laid claim to a previous one. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pretty much accepts the claim.
Summer has connections after years of working in the film business in various capacities. And while he didn’t specifically say so during a long conversation about the upcoming BIFF, it’s clear that after years of living away from Buffalo, Summer probably misses the kind of film culture that can be found in a lot of larger cities.
He’s anything but a film snob: The last movie he saw was Zombieland. (He liked it.) Summer grew up at a time when movie-going was a passion you could luxuriate in. “I used to go see movies downtown when there were a dozen exquisite movie palaces there,” he recalls, “of which Shea’s, which I love but which was built as a vaudeville theater and not a moviehouse, was not the nicest.”
As he tells it, he backed into moviemaking by accident: “When I first went away to school there was a film club run by Peter Adair, who was an experimental filmmaker. I went to a meeting thinking I was going to get to see movies. Instead he handed me a Bolex 16-millimeter camera and said, go make a movie.”
Except where noted, all events are in Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, 617 Main Street, Buffalo.
Friday, October 9, 7pm:
Charlie Chaplin, The Lost Scenes from City Lights, never-before-seen film clips presented by Frank Scheide, America’s greatest expert on Chaplin.
Saturday October 10, 7pm:
Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights with music performed live by Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The film will be preceded by “Musically Speaking,” a presentation by Frank Scheide, America’s greatest expert on Charlie Chaplin. Kleinhans Music Hall.
Sunday, October 11, 6pm:
The First Annual Al Boasberg Comedy Awards, an informal ceremony in honor of the Buffalo-born comedy writer. Comedy Sportz Theater, 4476 MainStreet at Harlem.
Monday, October 12, 7pm:
Dans La Vie (Two Ladies, France 2007), Comedy-drama about a wheelchair-bound Jewish woman who bonds with the Muslim woman hired to tend to her. French Embassy Archive Print.
Wednesday, October 14, 7pm:
A Mini-Workshop for Independent Filmmakers with director Dwayne Buckle, including the Western New York Premiere of The Minority, a drama about a black man who thinks he is accepted by his white co-workers until he learns otherwise.
Thursday, October 15, 7pm:
Tribute to The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, Part 1: Screening of the new documentary Walt & El Grupo, directed by Theodore Thomas, introduced by Disney expert J.B. Kaufman, who will sign his new book, South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.
Friday, October 16, 7pm:
Tribute to The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, Part 2: Screening of the Disney animated feature The Three Caballeros, introduced by Disney expert J.B. Kaufman, who will sign his new book, South of the Border With Disney: Walt Disney and the Good Neighbor Program, 1941-1948.
Saturday, October 17, 2pm:
The Ray Bradbury Saturday Matinee: It Came From Outer Space in Anaglyph 3D (35mm Universal Studios Archive Print), plus Buck Rogers Serial and a Bouncing Ball Cartoon, “Mr. Gallaher and Mr. Sheen,” all introduced on video by Ray Bradbury. North Park Theater, 1428 Hertel Avenue.
Saturday, October 17, 7pm:
Proud, (2004) the story of the USS Mason, the only African-American crewed Navy warship that went into into combat in World War II. Starring Ossie Davis, Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea, and a cast of local actors. Introduced by director Mary Pat Kelly and Lorenzo Defau, the last surviving crew member of USS Mason.
Sunday October 18, 3pm:
The Living Nickelodeon. Live performance by film scholar and pianist Rick Altman that reconstructs the experience of American storefront theaters between 1905 and 1910 using a reel of period films (copied from paper prints in the Library of Congress) and illustrated song slides. The event will take place on the site of the world’s first permanent movie theater. (Please note that seating is limited to 150 people.) Ellicott Square Building, 295 Main Street.
Monday, October 19, 7pm:
Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, documentary about the influential comic book artist and creator of “The Spirit” (published in Buffalo). Presented by the film’s director Andrew Cooke.
Wednesday, October 21, 6pm:
Cult filmmaker Charles Band of Full Moon Studios presents a 35mm studio archive print of Doctor Mordrid, (1992), a fantasy adventure starring Jeffrey Combs loosely adapted from the “Dr. Strange” comic books.
Wednesday, October 21, 8:30pm:
Thursday, October 22, 7pm:
North American premiere of Pearl in the Forest, a Mongolian film about the effects of Stalin’s purges on a Mongolian village in the 1930s. The film will be introduced by the filmmakers, writer, and performers.
Friday, October 23, 7pm:
Kate and Fred: Hepburn, Astaire—Public and Private. World premiere of an illustrated talk by David Heeley and Joan Kramer featuring unseen outtakes and rare footage of Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and other Hollywood notables.
Saturday, October 24, 6pm:
Erich Von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed: The Reconstruction, introduced by Rick Schmidlin.
Sunday, October 25, 2pm:
Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008), documentary about the 2003 nonviolent protest by thousands of Liberian women that brought down warlord president Charles Taylor, introduced by producer Abby Disney.
Monday, October 26, 7pm:
Lon Chaney in London After Midnight and Touch of Evil (1968, Orson Welles), introduced by Rick Schmidlin.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009, 2pm:
World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, press conference. Market Arcade Office Building Conference Room.
Prices: adults $10; students, seniors, Buffalo Film Society Members $8; children 12 and under $5 (Ray Bradbury Saturday only—no children’s tickets at evening events).
All ticketing fees benefit the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Tickets can be purchased at the following:
Summer was one of the first students at New York University’s film school, where he met the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma. One of his student films had the distinction of being the first film shown to Manhattan’s Film Forum.
As do many whose names never manage to rise above the title (or even always get into the credits), Summer worked in the film business for years in a variety of capacities. A lifelong comic book and animation fan, he wrote the story adaptation for Conan the Barbarian (John Milius and Oliver Stone got the credit). He also worked on Das Boot, Star Wars, The Towering Inferno, and DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise.
He returned to Buffalo a few years ago to care for his mother, and started laying the groundwork for a film festival because, as he puts it, “there wasn’t one here, which I thought was strange. A well-run professional film festival can be an extraordinary benefit to the economy of a city.”
Summer hastens to note that he isn’t disparaging such worthy programs as the Buffalo Jewish Film Festival, the Women’s International Film Festival, the Disabilities Film Festival, or any of the other programs that bring movies to Buffalo, but points out that all of those are more properly film series, of more limited scope than a real festival.
How does he define a film festival? While acknowledging that the BIFF will have a way to go to reach such a league, he says that “the model is Cannes. They established the feeling—lots of movies, starlets, big deals, glitz. Toronto has become the successor. Tribeca is a wonderful exercise in excess, there are so many movies there, more than Toronto, and a film festival by nature is excessive.” At least for now, though, he says, “The BIFF is closer to the model of the New York Film Festival, a curated film festival.”
With the exception of Tuesdays, when Summer doesn’t want to compete with the Buffalo Film Seminar, the BIFF has an event scheduled for every day from October 9 through October 28. And, as an integral part of the film festival model, each screening will be presented by someone integral, either the director or, in the case of the older films being shown, an archivist or restorer.
While at press time Summer was still negotiating with four Hollywood studios to get the premiere of a new film to include, the first BIFF is largely weighted toward older films. All are either connected with Buffalo in some form or include significant amounts of unseen material. The opening on Friday night, October 9, features never-before-seen footage from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece City Lights—not outtakes, but entire scenes, two reels of them, including a proposed opening sequence that Chaplin decided to delete. They will be presented by Chaplin scholar Frank Scheide, who on Saturday will host a screening of City Lights at Kleinhans, with the score performed live by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Try to duplicate that on your big screen plasma TV.
Another hugely rare opportunity comes on Saturday, October 24, when film preservationist Rick Schmidlin presents a DigiBeta screening of Greed. Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 adaptation of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague was planned to run 10 hours over two nights, but was cut by the studio to less than a quarter of that time. Worse, the excised footage was later destroyed. IN 1999, Turner Classic Movies hired Schmidlin to restore the film using von Stroheim’s original notes and surviving photographs. The result is a four-hour version of what is universally considered one of the greatest films ever made.
“It just doesn’t disappoint you,” Summer says, “if you know anything about movies, or even if you just like a deeply layered, gripping story. [Schmidlin] presents it with a Q&A session during the intermission rather than when the film is over, because he’s found that by the end people just aren’t able to talk.”
Later in the festival Schmidlin will present two other films he helped restore, Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (consisting entirely of linked photographs, as no footage is known to survive) and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. (There’s a small chance that Walter Murch, the sound designer who has come to define that craft, may be present for the latter, which he worked on.)
A life-long animation fan, Summer worked especially hard to get Walt and El Grupo, a new documentary about Walt Disney’s time in South America making culture-bridging films sponsored by the US government. (An early BIFF event was “Mickey Mouse Movie Masterpieces: A Walt Disney Celebration,” held last February at Shea’s.)
“Outside of New York and LA, Madrid and a couple of European film festivals, it’s not being shown,” Summer says. “The studio wasn’t going to let us have it until I talked to the director [Theodore Thomas, son of the celebrated Disney animator Frank Thomas] and he got them to do it, and we were lucky because only one of those prints was in the US.”
In conjunction with the opening of the the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, the documentary and The Three Caballeros will be presented on October 15 and 16 by Disney Expert J.B. Kaufman.
Summer had planned to bring a long-time friend of his, the legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, to the BIFF, to host a screening of the 3D film It Came From Outer Space. Travel for the 89-year-old writer became impossible after he suffered a second stroke, so Summer instead arranged for Bradbury to videotape an introduction in which he also answers questions previously submitted by Buffalo fans. The program will be part of a Saturday family matinee at the North Park Theater, including a cartoon and an episode of a Buck Rogers serial.
A longer goal of the BIFF is to celebrate the roles of Buffalo and Buffalonians in the history of Hollywood. “We’ve located more than 400 people from here who were important in the movie business,” he says, and some of them will surprise you.
Most prominent among these is Al Boasberg, whose name has fallen into near-anonymity since his early death at the age of 44 in 1937.
Nonetheless, Summer says, “It’s fair to say that Al Boasberg was the most influential comedy writer of the 20th century, period. He invented the personas and styles of Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, the Three Stooges, and Burns and Allen. He was like a joke machine—there was not a comedian in vaudeville that was not using his material.
“Bob Hope was the first important successful comedian who did nothing but tell jokes. So Boasberg invented the modern standup comedian—there’s not a comedian today that doesn’t owe their livelihood to him.
“Jack Benny hired him for his radio show at $1,200 a week, which in 1937 was a lot of money. And he didn’t write anything. Benny said, he reads the script—if Al can’t find anything wrong with it, it’s fine with me. Boasberg got his first check and within a few days he died of a heart attack.”
In the movies, Boasberg worked on the Marx Brothers biggest hits, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Summer says, “The Marx Brothers hired George S. Kaufman to write a script for Opera, but [producer Irving] Thalberg hated it. So they hired Boasberg, and it was his idea for them to take the show on the road and work it out. It was then that the majority of the material was written and shaped, including the famous stateroom scene.”
The writer will be the namesake of the Al Boasberg Comedy Awards, with a certificate specially designed by illustrator Drew Friedman, which the BIFF plans to present annually in several categories.
“We want to honor the elder statesmen while they’re still around,” Summer says, “and writers, because they are largely ignored in the face of comedians. We live with the cult of the director, where reasonable people believe that directors make movies all by themselves. People used to think that Cary Grant made up his own lines as he went along.”
The first Boasberg Awards will be a low-key affair because of two setbacks. First, Summer was unable to secure a print of A Night at the Opera to screen. And second, the recipient of the first Life Achievement Award, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H, Tootsie), passed away last month. Before his death, Gelbart suggested two other honorees: writers Joseph Stein, who was one of his co-writers on Your Show Of Shows, and Everett Greenbaum, a Buffalonian with whom he often collaborated (he wrote 24 episodes of M*A*S*H).
Awards will also be presented to another Buffalo native, Kathleen Howard, an opera singer whose strong voice made her a popular character player in the 1930s (she was W.C. Fields wife in It’s a Gift and The Man on the Flying Trapeze) and the comic artist Harvey Kurtzman. The ceremony will take place at the newly opened Comedy Sportz Theater at Main and Harlem in Amherst.
What with the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, which unspools in spring, preparing for its fourth year, it remains to be seen whether Buffalo can support two film festivals. Summer doesn’t see why not.
“There are more than a dozen film series here. I would love to see the organizers of all of these getting together and organizing their schedules, so the Convention and Visitors Bureau can say, “Whatever time of year you come to Buffalo there’s always a film series.’ Toronto has 50 film festivals—that’s almost one a week!”
And of course, any chance to see movies on a theatrical screen needs to be seized. It’s not just a preference that lingers in those of us who grew up when every neighborhood had a local moviehouse or two, along with all of those glorious downtown movie palaces.
Summer points to the example of The Three Caballeros, the Disney film he will show next weekend. To some viewers it may only be a cartoon, no different that what they grew up with on television. “But it is an extremely intricate, ornate, busy animated film. There’s so much stuff going on that it’s kind of mind-blowing. You can watch it on a TV set, but you can’t see it that way. When it’s 20 feet high, you see all kinds of detail.
“The aesthetic of old movies was that the compositions were such that they worked big. The art direction works big. There were people that took a lot of care with the stitches in the clothing, you can see the pearls, the spangles. On TV, you can hear the dialogue and see them moving around, but you can’t really see it. It’s very important.
“And of course it’s an audience experience. I never understood why W.C. Fields was funny until I saw him at the Circle Art on Connecticut Street. The Fields films when you watch them on TV seem a little too slow. In a theatre, when he says a line, people start to giggle. Then he says another and it starts to fill in, and you realize what a genius at pacing he was.”
After all, what’s the point of living in a city if you don’t want to take in communal experiences? “Movies,” Summer says, “are the last important social event besides church and football games. And movies are the only art that are nearly as religious as church: People don’t talk at movies, they sit and absorb.”
Artvoice and BIFF will be giving away tickets to each of the events throughout the festival. Enter for your chance to win!blog comments powered by Disqus
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