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Film culture: Anna May Wong in Piccadilly.

A Night at the Movies

There aren’t many places to watch old movies around here anymore. Specifically, I mean movies on 35 or 16mm film, not video, projected on a decent-sized screen. This is truly unfortunate.

Film has by no means disappeared—yet. The Spencertown Academy runs classic world and independent cinema regularly, and a couple of North Country organizations—Saratoga Film Forum and the Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls—will mix older films into their programs of mostly recent selections. Still, local commercial cinemas don’t book revivals anymore, Proctor’s has settled into its niche as a second-run theater and midnight movies disappeared from this market in the mid-’90s.

Maybe the problem is that there just aren’t any film schools around here, so there is no real center for classic film appreciation. Maybe the problem is that most schools—college or high school—just don’t run film anymore, opting for the convenience of video. Part of the problem, certainly, is that most studios don’t have the number of prints available for rent that they did even 10 years ago. (I still shudder at the memory of the chewed-up print of Rosemary’s Baby screened at the Madison Theatre around ’97—the image itself shuddered all through the first reel.)

Why should anyone care? Film is just more aesthetically pleasing. Maybe it’s the illusion of movement created by watching 24 frames of film flash by, every second. Maybe it’s sitting in the dark, with (hopefully) no distractions, getting lost in the movie. Whatever the reason, I prefer film: I’ve seen 70-year-old, slightly beat-up 16mm prints that were more visually pleasurable than the best DVD. And, take my word for it, I own a truckload of DVDs.

Which brings us to the Capital Region’s last bastion of repertory programming, the New York State Writers Institute, and their film series at Page Hall on the UAlbany downtown campus. They program a wide variety of interesting titles from the silent era to contemporary releases, but the emphasis is on the “classics.” Last Friday evening (Oct. 8), they showed a beautiful copy of a recent rediscovery from the silent era, E.A. Dupont’s 1929 British film Piccadilly.

There is a comfortable certainty in their presentations. The Film Notes made available before the screening will be insightful, if occasionally too revealing of the film’s plot, and will be written by Penn State’s Kevin Hagopian; Hagopian has continued to provide these notes from wherever his academic postings have taken him over the last dozen years. Unless there is a celebrity guest, the audience will be about one-half to two-thirds full. And, like any institution, the Writers Institute film series has its quirks, like the headsets the student minions of the institute wear as they flit about Page Hall. (Operations weren’t any smoother before the headsets.)

All these qualities were in full effect Friday night. Though Piccadilly was featured at the New York Film Festival, and three biographies of its star, Anna May Wong, were published this year, the hall was half-full at best. I went with some trepidation, as the film was to be accompanied by the Writers Institute’s regular silent-film accompanist, and, sadly, he isn’t very good. (Actually, he’s the worst I’ve ever heard.)

Happily, however, the live piano accompaniment was provided by jazz pianist and music educator David Arner. Even better, Arner had actually seen the film—twice—and it showed. Arner’s playing was perfectly keyed to most of the big dramatic moments, and his jazz background helped immeasurably in the scenes featuring the film’s showpiece set, a swanky, cavernous London nightclub.

Since the majority of films made before 1950 have turned to dust, major cinematic rediscoveries don’t exactly happen everyday. So when the British Film Institute unveiled their restoration of Piccadilly a few years back, film scholars, archivists and buffs took notice. (Especially folks who had only seen the heavily censored American-release version.) Made by the German director E.A. Dupont and featuring Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, Piccadilly is a fascinating, sexually charged slice of London nightclub life. This taut melodrama also explores issues of race, sex and class in a way that still resonates.

The 35mm print was truly stunning to look at. Almost everything about the presentation went perfectly. (All right, the image seemed to be slightly cropped on the left side. Oh well.) It’s just too bad that more people didn’t show up.

Which is why we should appreciate what they do at the Writers Institute. They’re the only game in town.

—Shawn Stone



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