c'est la guerre

i know a lot of you folks aren't from austin or don't get to come to town very often. i'm sure there are also a few of you that live here that have yet to avail yourself of what that jewel of congress avenue, the paramount theater, has to offer. so, in honor of tonight's special program, i thought i would show you the view from row q.

this is what it looks like from where i sit a good number of evenings in the summer. this is the vantage point from one of my favorite places on earth. if you are more of a balcony person this is what you have in store for you.

she was built in 1915 and, in addition to showing films, has hosted everyone from houdini to the marx brothers. you can probably see why i am so fond of her, a lovely building. it is such a shame that there are so few true movie palaces left. john eberson, the architect that built her, designed and built over 130 theaters in his time. less than twenty-five are still standing, even fewer are operational. i am grateful beyond measure to have one of the best right here as my home away from home may through september. i have had a number of great experiences here and tonight has to rank near the top, thanks to a spectacular film and some special visitors.

graham reynolds, composer and leader of the golden arm trio composed an original score for william wellman's wings (1927) and his ensemble performed it live at this evening's screening. wings won the very first academy award for best picture and is, as the program notes pointed out, the first, last and only silent film ever to take home that prize.

now, i had never seen this before and even without reynolds' excellent score this was a revelatory experience. wings was a sensation upon its initial release, playing for 63 weeks ("held over" is an understatement) before moving to second-run theaters. i can certainly see why. even by today's digitally enhanced standards, the aerial photography and dogfight sequences are thrilling. clara bow has a vivacity that bounds off the screen, enough to launch fantasies about the girl next door into the next century. beautiful enough to stand out at the folies bergere, rough and tumble enough to help you take your jalopy apart without batting an eye, there was certainly something special about her. you can still easily see it eighty-odd years later.

those things are all very obvious, though. the real pleasures to be found in this film are in the minor moments and the tiny details. even the intertitles are beautiful, and that's just the beginning.

i think i will always remember that when jack says goodbye to mary as he is leaving for ground school you can see that tears have dropped onto her dress. nothing is done to call your attention to it. in fact, in may have very easily been accidental, but it made that simple scene so much more for me. it put me in mind of the thousands of very real women that had to do that very thing, that stood in the driveway long after their husband, boyfriend, father or brother was gone, wondering if they would see that man that they loved ever again. it is a beautiful detail. another simple but effective touch was the obvious swearing our heroes did in the closeups during the dogfights. you don't have to be a master lip reader to work it out. if this film wasn't silent they might have had to institute the hays code a few years early. and it damn well ought to be that way. when you are taking machine gun fire in your tail i doubt you are going to exclaim "oh, cheese and crackers!".

but where the film really sets itself apart, especially in contrast to today's action films, is in the way it depicts our heroes' genuine affection for one another. in a manner that few contemporary hollywood films (or audiences) seem to be comfortable with, it allows you to see true fraternal love and tenderness between these men. it doesn't have to be arch, winking or ironic. it doesn't have to occur in any sort of sexual context. it is both refreshing to see and disappointing in that it reminds us that we don't see it very often. i think john cassavetes working with peter falk and ben gazarra was the last time i saw it handled this honestly (if extremely melodramatically). sadly, i can't think of many more examples. perhaps you can. if so, let me know. it was certainly a different era, to be sure. you could have a masculine hero bring a childhood toy into battle as a good luck charm and it wouldn't be sneered at. even with the spanish flu pandemic and the first world war raging all around you, you still had the luxury of naiveté. it must have been nice for things to be so uncomplicated.

graham reynolds' wonderful score was built primarily around a number of permutations of a lovely, arpeggiated motif. i thought it was most effective when it was either simply piano/strings or the full ensemble ratcheting up the bombast during the aerial battle sequences. it reminded me a little, at times, of rachel's, if that means anything to you. it made the drama more dramatic, the romance more romantic, the revelry more revelrous. it was just a great experience. you simply can't beat live music in the theater with a film like this, especially with such talented, accomplished musicians performing music that serves the images so well. after last year's buster keaton/guy forsyth extravaganza i was sold. i'm doubly sold now. thanks, paramount. let's do it again soon.

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