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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

But the War Starts at Midnight!

Of William and Michael and David and Emeric and Hein and Stan and Vittorio and Jack and Allen and John…

A truly great film - a tiny epic masterpiece... one of a small handful of films that break the mold, becoming more than a film; a transcendent piece of art for the ages… and It came across my desk... a wonderful gift from Criterion. Not just to me, while I'm certainly appreciative, but to the entire public, cognizant of DVDs of quality. Based upon, but entirely different than, the famous English print cartoon by David Low, I consider it to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Twenty years ago, when we were working on the Napoleon tour and the recordation of the score, I had the good fortune to work within Zoetrope Studios. Under Francis Coppola's aegis, this tiny motion picture production lot, which used to be the base for Harold Lloyd, was an oasis. Set up so that older sometimes semi-retired filmmakers could mentor their younger counterparts, it was the home of many faces, both recognizable and not.

I had always been an Anglophile when it came to classic cinema. And one day, it came to pass that the lunch wagon arrived - a special time of the day - and I found myself standing in line just in front of a slim scrupulously attired British gentleman, wondering precisely who he might be. About that same time, Zoetrope's Tom Luddy arrived and began a conversation with both of us simultaneously. Realizing that we might not have been previously introduced, I seem to remember Tom saying something like, "Michael, do you know...?"

And then it all clicked. I had seen his photograph numerous times, but somehow had never thought of myself waiting on line with him at the lunch wagon at the corner of Santa Monica and Las Palmas in Los Angeles. It was one of those moments when you can literally feel the hair on the back of your neck standing at attention. And appropriately so.

After regaining my composure, I regaled my new acquaintance with question after question, attempting to restrain myself to simply the past half century of British film history. All during which he attempted to get a sandwich near his mouth.

"Did you see dailies in color," I recall querying. The answer was that, of a day's shoot, possibly a single shot would be returned by Technicolor in the miraculous three strip Technicolor process.

"How often did the cameras go down?"

"What sort of problems came of three strip processing and printing?"

"How did you light?

Poor Michael. I realize today that he probably felt as if he had been hit by a tidal wave of questions. But the gentleman that he was, I was invited back to his office after lunch… and he endured more. It took a while for me to finally realize that he really didn't mind. Here was a man so passionate about his work… his art… that the more technical the query, the more he rose to the occasion. I doubt that without having him at Zoetrope, Francis' One From the Heart, which I would welcome on DVD, would have been anywhere near as beautiful.

In many ways One From the Heart took its breath from those British films, The Red Shoes*, Tales of Hoffman, Black Narcissus* , A Matter of Life and Death - the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, so in tune with their production designer Hein Heckroth and director of photography Jack Cardiff (just to be correct, it should be noted that Christopher Challis was DP on Hoffman, and Georges Perinal on Blimp, with Alfred Junge as production designer). Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese could not have picked a better filmmaker on whom to heap their respect.

And so when The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp* made its way to me, based on a new high definition, non-widescreen transfer, it didn't make my day or week or month... but possibly my year.

For those who love the cinema, (or think they do) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp* may well be the most important release of 2002. I'll tell you absolutely nothing about it. I generally don't like to discuss a film's content anyway. I much prefer that people enter these worlds cold.

But I will merely say, "Go out and buy a copy."

While we're discussing Criterion...

...I feel that I can leak a small bit of information about a March 2003 release based upon the work of another gentleman who's life's work I hold in the highest esteem. A muti-disc set with many, many of his films included. One of my favorites is a little film called Mothlight.

And it was this film that brought the greatest concern for DVD. Compression is based, for the most part, on a continuum of information going from frame to frame - and precisely how much information is the same from frame to frame. Well, Mothlight in no way fits the mold. I don't understand precisely how it can be compressed. But the report reached me that it had been tested and had somehow compressed beautifully, even allowing for frame-by-frame examination. It had been produced working frame-by-frame and making single exposures of well… moth wings, legs and other parts placed on film and exposed to light.

I don't know if he is an "independent artist" an "experimental filmmaker" or both... but he is certainly much, much more; one of the true artists and innovators working in film and one of the true creative geniuses of our time.

Stan Brakhage has created his own medium on film - his own world painting with light. That world includes over 300 films. And what a world it is.

But how does David fit into this?

Fincher that is. For those of you who have seen a little film called Se7en*, you may recall the extremely inventive main title sequence.

Pure Brakhage. Lovingly borrowed as an homage.

Color and light are what make up film, exposed to silver halide grain particles. Whether the final product happens to be in color or black and white, it's the same thing really.

Examine the work of William Cameron Menzies.

Take a look at the incredible production design of Gone with the Wind* or Duel in the Sun* and you'll get some concept of what the artistic mind can do with color and production design. There is a progression of course, as one generation learns from the previous.

To my mind it went swiftly from Menzies to Powell, via Heckroth and Cardiff, as they painted with light. From Freddie Young with his shafts of light found in Goodbye Mr. Chips and the famous scene in Treasure Island, as Bobby Driscoll hides in the barrel, to the following generation of Daviou and Toll and Deschanel and Almendros and another painterly cinematographer famous for his use of color, Storaro.

It's all the art of filmmaking.

Color, light and film grain coming together to create… that "wow" factor.

These are all artists who have captured the imagination with images. Telling stories with bits of light and shadow, they have given us that particular stuff that dreams are made of. And when their work makes its way through to us on DVD, with that "wow" factor intact, we can appreciate the miracle of those little silver coasters.

While commentary tracks have become almost a de facto situation on DVDs, many having not the slightest bit of import, and some being more of a vanity situation of the participants, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp* contains one of the most important documents that we have on the film - a discussion by Martin Scorsese and director Powell.

It should be noted that Mr. Powell was (at the time of the commentary) about 82 years old, and while his speech pattern had become a bit halting, the brain driving it was running on all 12 cylinders. We are indebted to both the participants and to Criterion for having the foresight to record their thoughts for the original laserdisc release.

The Films of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Spy in Black (Uboat 29) - 1939
The Invaders - 1941
One of Our Aircraft is Missing - 1942
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - 1943 - Technicolor
A Canterbury Tale - 1944
I Know Where I'm Going - 1945
A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven - w/cuts) - 1946
Black Narcissus - 1947 -Technicolor
The Red Shoes - 1948 - Technicolor
Hours of Glory - 1949
The Fighting Pimpernel - 1950 - Technicolor
Gone to Earth - 1950 - Technicolor
Tales of Hoffman - 1951 - Technicolor
The Wild Heart - 1952 - Technicolor
Oh… Rosalinda - 1955 - Eastmancolor / CinemaScope
Battle of the River Plate (Pursuit of the Graf Spee) - 1956 - Eastmancolor/VistaVison
Night Ambush - 1957 - VistaVision

YELLOW = Available on DVD

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

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