Back to the Future

In my years at this post, there have been no fewer than three re-releases of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. (A measure, some might suggest, of a too long length of time.) The latest one, at the Ken Cinema for the following week, makes the grade as rather a full-blown restoration than a simple reissue, boasting almost a half-hour of new footage from a 16mm print uncovered two years ago in Buenos Aires. Even with all that, a couple of lacunae still remain, and for these we have blank-screen intertitles to explain to us what we would be seeing if we had the footage to show it. In hopes of avoiding a misunderstanding, let me state straightaway that this vision of the future from the vantage point of 1926 — this seething Expressionistic, Christian, Freudian, Marxist stew — ought to be mandatory viewing for any devotee of the cinema in general, and in specific the silent cinema or the science-fiction cinema. There. Duty done. Having said that, however, I may go on to say that the prospect of a two-and-a-half-hour Metropolis aroused in me as much annoyance as curiosity. Enthusiasm ran a distant ­third.

While fully granting the importance and influence of the film, I have to say that it has never been particularly dear to my heart, a thing to be seen again and again, and that on merit The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, as a nearby example, deserves to be revived at least as often as Metropolis. (Actual number over the same period: zero.) I have to stress, too, that it achieved its importance and its influence without the benefit of this extra half an hour. Its reputation can in no way be said to have been damaged by the withheld footage. The new longer version, restoring the work to a form in which it was never widely exhibited, would seem to be designed more for scholarship than for pleasure, an assertion that might be made to some degree about any of the shorter versions as well, ranging anywhere from around an hour and a half to two hours. It’s true that certain restored films have been proven to move faster or at any rate feel shorter in their longer forms: Visconti’s The Leopard and Ludwig come to mind. This is not one of those cases. Whatever Lang’s strengths may be (and they are several: composition, architecture, atmosphere, angst, most prominently), his pacing has never been one of them, although the disco Metropolis with the Giorgio Moroder score, released in 1984 at a full hour shorter than the current version, moved along nicely to the best of my recollection. In like manner, the restoration of Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (uncirculated theatrically) served above all to slow down what had been one of his liveliest ­creations.

The vast bulk of the recovered footage from Buenos Aires comes down to added shots or lengthened shots within existing scenes (the only new scenes, if I was paying attention, involve the subordinate characters of the Big Brother spy, the fired underling, and the menial laborer with whom the sappy hero trades places), and by far the largest concentration of these occurs in the “Furioso” climax, as it is explicitly titled. Some of these last additions could arguably be held to heighten the intensity of the finale even as they unduly drag it out. I’m not sure. It’s a little hard to tell. All of the added footage is easily and immediately identified by the poor quality of the print: the nonstop cascade of vertical scratches and the black bars at the top and left side of the image to make it conform to the aspect ratio, even if in smaller dimensions. This ease of identification makes it easy as well to gauge how unnecessary most of the additions are and how judicious was their original excision. And their substandard visual quality, standing out in stark contrast to their pristine surroundings, affords still another reason to cut them. Any intensity that might have been gained in the climax is more than offset by the distracting, disrupting voice in your head that is continually registering new... old... new... old... new... ­old....

The elementary lesson to be taken away from all this is that not everything shot for a movie, no matter how deeply beloved or revered, demands to be seen. A filmmaker’s every thought cannot be taken to be his finest or final thought. Quite likely the inevitable DVD will include the option of watching Metropolis with or without the additions, according to preference. But the finger of guilt nonetheless must point at the DVD industry, with its marketing ploys of “deleted scenes” and “outtakes” and “director’s cut” and such, for feeding the fire. The excised footage makes no demand on its own; the demand is fomented. And the customer’s sense of entitlement, sense of proprietorship, grows and grows. Forget the director’s cut; it’s the customer’s cut that counts. One can imagine the frenzy for restorations someday reaching a point of absurdity where the newly discovered footage will be mere sweepings from the cutting-room floor found in an unemptied trash bin in a cellar in Brussels or ­Prague.

To return to the present: Sex and the City 2, again written and directed by Michael Patrick King, transfers the base of operations from New York to Abu Dhabi, the advertised New Middle East where the self-indulgent girls — er, self-indulgent middle-aged gals (Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall) will be overindulged on an expenses-paid jaunt courtesy of an Arabian film producer, where they can bring their consumerist perspective to another culture (on the Muslim veil: “Certainly cuts back on the Botox bill”), and where Samantha, the only remaining unmarried in the group, can scandalize the backward natives (“New Middle East, my ass!”). This getaway from the Big Apple is also a getaway from an inchoate marital comedy about Carrie’s new husband’s couch-potato propensities for television and takeout, and his radical proposal (not an alternative open to the average married couple) to spend two nights a week in separate apartments. More than a getaway, really; more of a jump-ship. Loyal followers who consider these ninnies as personal friends will have their tolerance tested to the limit. Anyone as yet unacquainted with them should be encouraged to hold ­steady.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is an Arabian Night-ly video game of computerized desertscapes, an all-over rosy glow, a magic dagger than can turn back time, a pretentious and presumptuous plot parallel to the present-day search for nonexistent WMDs in Iraq, and a British-accented Jake Gyllenhaal to fit in with Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, and Gemma Arterton, not to mention director Mike Newell. The major struggle, overpowering that for the prized dagger, is the viewer’s versus the ­sandman.

The City of Your Final Destination, concerning the efforts of an Arab-American academic to secure the co-operation of the family for a biography of a suicided one-book author in Uruguay, is a Jamesian literary tale without the concentration, the ardor, the resonance. A James Ivory film post-Ismail Merchant (d. 2005), but still with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to do the screenplay and Anthony Hopkins to anchor the able cast (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Laura Linney, Omar Metwally, Norma Aleandro), it is wholly adult, articulate, cultured, and all that, yet somehow becalmed and ­enervated.

Harry Brown, directed by Daniel Barber, naturally calls to mind Gran Torino, if only for its proximity in time. But the vigilante-revenge plot brings it closer to a geriatric Death Wish, with a widowed pensioner in a London slum arming himself against Clockwork Orange ultra-violent youth and drawing on his training in the Royal Marines to avenge the murder of his chess mate. Michael Caine, to be sure, is no Clint Eastwood, nor was he ever a Charles Bronson, but he does set off a few faint echoes from the Harry Palmer spy films, Get Carter, The Destructors, et al. The gray and gritty surface and the elevated social consciousness do not diminish the ­implausibility.

And which of these four will we still be watching in eighty-four ­years? ■

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The Ken has never been generous with showing other German silent films. 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' is one I'd certainly get up for (funny reading recently that it's one of Mike Leigh's all-time fav's!).

Independent Film Channel show time alert:

For those who get IFC -and don't already own a DVD of it- on Thursday the 10th, 8:30AM & 2:30PM, Alain Resnais's exquisite 'Private Fears in Public Places' can be got.

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