culture: Anna May Wong in Piccadilly.
Night at the Movies
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
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
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
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.