Virginia Film Festival 2015: Day 3

Virginia Film Festival 2015Film festivals aren’t just about the latest films to hit the circuit: often they also offer a chance to see old classics with new eyes.





The Maltese-Falcon 500

Film festivals aren’t just about the latest films to hit the circuit: often they also offer a chance to see old classics with new eyes. Case in point—Saturday’s screening of John Huston’s 1941 The Maltese Falcon, hosted by Leonard Maltin. I’d say this film needs no introduction, except that when Maltin asked for a show of hands for people who would be seeing it for the first time, about one-third of the audience raised their hands. The first-timers were not entirely young people, either. When Maltin asked who would be seeing this film for the first time in an auditorium, almost the entire audience raised their hands. Goodness knows I’ve seen it many times, on TCM, on DVD, on my computer even, but there’s nothing like seeing a film in an auditorium with an audience that is also there to enjoy the film (what Maltin termed “a simpatico audience”).

I’m not going to summarize The Maltese Falcon, because if you are reading this, you probably are already familiar with it, and if you are not, you can look up the film on the internet or in any book about classic films—and watch it yourself, if you haven’t already, because it’s the kind of film that is both great in itself and influential in the course of movie history. A more interesting subject, I think, is the ways that watching a familiar film in the theater provides a different experience from watching it at home.

The first is that the ritual of being at the theater puts you in the mood to hear a story, which is particularly important for films from this era. The literary and somewhat fantastic nature of the tale to come is established in the opening credits sequence, which begins with a shot of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, followed by a series of title cards introducing the story of the Knights Templar paying tribute to Charles V of Spain by sending him “a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with the rarest of jewels,” which was stolen by pirates, so that “the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day…”. Not only does that opening assume the audience can read, and is interested in books, but it also cues you to sit back and get ready to be told a story that has its roots in a world far from your own.

A second difference is that seeing a film on the big screen allows you to appreciate details that might pass unnoticed on your computer or TV. I found myself noticing all the different devices people used to light their cigarettes, for instance—matches, yes, but also an array of complicated cigarette lighters that signify a different era, when smoking was common and acceptable (even for the female lead!) and the associated accouterments were a way to show off your good taste and/or wealth. Another thing I noticed this time around was how, at the crime scene where Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) was shot, the neighbors are peering out of their windows, Weegee-style, to get a look at what all the fuss is about. It’s a small detail, but one that shows that Huston was thinking about everything the audience would see on screen, not just the progress of the main story.

In many ways The Maltese Falcon feels more like a stage play than a movie, and this is heightened by the fact that all the characters are conscious that they are performing. When Miles practically trips over himself because his eyes are glued to “Miss Wonderly” (Mary Astor), for instance, it’s funny, but it’s also congruent with the world created by Huston and the cast. Astor’s constant, and frequently obvious, switching of tactics is also the kind of behavior you would expect in such a world, as is the heightened dialogue—The Maltese Falcon takes place in a world where people can say things like “I am a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk” and “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” without seeming affected or ridiculous. Huston’s straightforward presentation of the story, with unfussy camera work from Arthur Edeson, allows the actors and dialogue to shine and allows us to experience the story without actually noticing that we are viewing a constructed object.

It’s probably unfair for any film to follow a classic like The Maltese Falcon, but such was the fate of Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, an arthouse film about the wanderings and temptations of Jesus near the end of his 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert. The film has gotten some good buzz, and the fact that the cast includes both Ewan McGregor (playing Jesus and the Devil) and Ciaran Hinds (playing the father of a family Jesus encounters during his wanderings) was enough to get me there. I didn’t realize it when I was choosing my tickets, but Garcia also directed Albert Nobbs, which shows that he’s willing to take on stories that are outside the mainstream.

Unfortunately, I found the idea of Last Days in the Desert more interesting than the film itself. On the plus side, you have a lot of beautiful desert vistas (granted, of California rather than the Middle East) and a deliberate pace that forces you to slow down and share in the experience portrayed on screen. McGregor and Hinds are also very good, as is Ayelet Zurer as the mother of the family McGregor encounters (and whose domestic problems provide most of the story of the film). Unfortunately, Tye Sheridan as the pivotal character of the son frequently seems to be reciting his lines rather than embodying a character.

My other objection is that Garcia failed to realize the potential of his material. Even if you don’t believe in Christianity, or in any religion at all, the story of a person struggling with questions of identity and spirituality and cosmic issues of right should feel universal. In this film, it just feels small and overly literal. We can understand that the trouble Jesus is having with his noncommunicative father, a.k.a. God, parallel those Sheridan’s character is having with his traditionalist father (who wants him to remain in the desert rather than going to the big city of Jerusalem to learn a trade) without having to see Sheridan literally running around yelling “I am not a bad son!”. Similarly, Garcia doesn’t do much with fact that devil and Jesus are played by the same actor, and in fact this has to be the dullest devil ever to grace the screen—it’s hard to believe he could ever tempt anyone to come over to his side, and that drains all tension from the spiritual struggles Jesus is supposed to be experiencing. | Sarah Boslaugh

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