~Pixar & Stephen Sondheim
Ralph Eggleston, Pre-production sketch, For the Birds, 11 x 17″, Pastel
MOMA FILM SERIES
PIXAR â€“ 20 YEARS OF ANIMATION
12/14/05 – 2/6/ 2006
ARTISTâ€™S CHOICE: STEPHEN SONDHEIM
12/19/05 – 1/8/06
December 2005 by JAN ALBERT
MOMA deserves kudos for presenting two stellar film series this season. The Pixar Animation retrospective should pull in the crowds
with the first overview of the trail blazing film studio that introduced the first completely computer generated animated feature film
a mere 10 years ago. As John Lasseter (director of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and the forthcoming CARS) reminded himself
at the press preview, the companyâ€™s name comes from Pixel, (the smallest visual component that makes up the picture on your
computer screen) and Art, and the art of Pixar has always been inspired by the technology.
Many of Pixarâ€™s top animators were on hand at the opening and it was kind of touching to see how jazzed the best and brightest
of todayâ€™s computer artists seemed to be about receiving their first full retrospective at the museum. It was fun watching them
check out their animated bios (which the public will be able to access via computers in the galleries) and trying to explain
the fine points of digital animation to us journalists â€“ who manage to manipulate a few words on a good day! The way the
preparatory sketches and video monitors are arranged on the floor it becomes apparent how much drawing and sculpting and
painting still goes into creating computer animation. Thatâ€™s heartening news in a year when Disney made the bittersweet
announcement that it had reached the end of an era â€” the studio which pioneered the animated feature (Snow White-1937)
will no longer produce hand drawn films.
In addition to screening all the major Pixar features, this is a great opportunity to see the short cartoons Lasseter and his
colleagues have produced since the mid 1980s, including One Man Band, a cute riff on dueling street musicians,
which is having its debut at MOMA in conjunction with the exhibition.
KIDS UNDER 16 ADMITTED FREE.
But, I must admit I am personally more excited about MOMAâ€™s masterstroke in asking Stephen Sondheim to curate
one of the museumâ€™s periodic â€œArtistâ€™s Choiceâ€ shows. Sondheim, the preeminent artist of the American musical theater
over the past 40 years, was there at the birth of West Side Story, contributing lyrics. He cut his creative teeth on Gypsy
and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, deconstructed the medium in works like Company, reconstructed
every genre of theater song that had preceded him in Follies, and tackled American politics in Assassins. One of his most
brilliant shows, Sweeney Todd, is now on Broadway, born again in a bare bones, musically thrilling revival from Britain.
Sondheim has always been a big film fan and he has devoted all of his choices to the museumâ€™s film collection, which for me
is like receiving a big box of chocolates. All of the choices look delicious â€“ in fact, Iâ€™ve tasted many of them before and
know how good they are. For those of you who prefer the savory to the sweet, just consider this a wonderful
smorgasbordâ€“a tasting menu of the cinematic treats that stimulate the pictures Stephen Sondheim creates
with words and music.
And heâ€™s picked some great flicks, judging by the ones Iâ€™ve seen already:
My all time favorite scary movie — Dead of Night (1945) a fantastically atmospheric and â€œcreepy,â€ as Sondheim puts it – collection
of 5 supernatural short film stories within a 6th dreamscape. By the end, you wonâ€™t be sure if that feeling of deja vu has been
induced by the film or whether youâ€™ve been there in another life. Whatever – itâ€™s not an easy film to shake.
The Sea Wolf (1941) directed by Michael Curtiz. Sondheim selects this as â€œmy favorite of the Warner Brothers stock
company melodramas.â€ EG Robinson and John Garfield square off on shipboard, surrounded by a crew that
seems pretty intent on killing themselves before they reach shore. A heck of a story with great big scenes for
grandstanding actors. Screenplay by Robert Rossen (from Jack Londonâ€™s novel), who would go on to direct
Garfield in Body & Soul before being blacklisted in the 50s.
Pygmalion (1938) directed by Anthony Asquith. â€œFor the performances,â€ says Sondheim, and I second that emotion.
The divine squaring off of the elusive, elegant Leslie Howard and the emotional guttersnipe with the poise of a princess,
played by the wonderful Wendy Hiller. I remember what a great discovery this film was for me when I saw it at MOMA
20 years ago and realized how Bernard Shawâ€™s play had kindled the flame of one of the greatest musicals ever – MY FAIR LADY.
The Thief of Baghdad (1940) Boy this is a different vision of Bagdad than the one we are all carrying around today.
This luminous 1940s color film which won the Oscar for cinematography, is full of kitchy dialogue and fantastical sights.
The blind prince recalls his loverâ€™s eyebrows as resembling, â€œtwo crescent moons.â€ There are flying carpets, jolly genies,
and an evil vizier who observes as he turns Sabu (the title character who saves the day) into a dog, â€œitâ€™s amazing how an
annoying kid can make an extremely pleasant dog.â€ A true flight of fantasy by one of the cinemaâ€™s most joyful genies,
co-director Michael Powell. Take your little kids to this one – theyâ€™ll love it and so will you.
Lest you think, Sondheimâ€™s picks all predate the modern age, thereâ€™s :
The Barbarian Invasions (2003) directed by Denys Arcand.
As Sondheim says, â€œa truly literate movie-full of ideas, as well as emotion and a portrait of an era which includes
everything from its politics to its sexual morality.â€â€”If you enjoy this, go home and rent Arcandâ€™s 1986 talkfest,
The Decline of the American Empire, which introduced many of the same characters and actors seen in â€œBarbarian Invasions.â€
They are fascinating bookends to a generation.
Barry Lyndon (1975) directed by Stanley Kubrick.
I always felt this was a vastly underrated picture with Ryan Oâ€™Neal & Marisa Berenson. Sondheim admires it
for its control and sumptuous presentation; â€œthe use of extravagantly beautiful photography to depict
bloodlessness and violence.â€
L’Histoire d’Adele H. (1975) directed by Francois Trauffaut.
This horrifying and heartbreaking film about Victor Hugoâ€™s daughter, Adele, and her obsession with a soldier still
packs a wallop. Sondheim notes that it is virtually the same scenario as the Italian film, Passione d’Amore, which
planted the seed for his own musical, Passion. Sondheim says both films move him, â€œbut in opposite ways, which makes
for an interesting comparison.â€
Anyway – this all gives me a tremendous desire to see the Sondheim picks I havenâ€™t caught up with yet, including:
Gus Vant Santâ€™s Elephant (2003). Sondheim praises its minimalist style as â€œeven creepier than Dead of Night!â€
Karacter (Dir. Mike Von Tieh) He describes this 1997 Dutch foreign film Oscar winner as â€œa Dickensian tale
with rich and strange characters, many established in just a few strokes.â€
Hal Hartleyâ€™s Henry Fool (1997) with Parker Posey and James Urbaniak :â€œcompletely original in tone and story
but not just a private whim like a lot of independent movies. Itâ€™s genuinely mysterious.â€
Akira Kurasawas High and Low, Kon Ichikawas Nobi – Fires on the Plain – â€œgood and shockingâ€, Louis Malleâ€™s Le Voleur (The Thief)
with Jean Paul Belmondo & Genievieve Bujold, and The Organizer, directed by Mario Monicelli, whom Sondheim cites
as â€œone of my favorite directors and this is my favorite film of his.â€
Finally, a shout out for The Last of Sheila – the 1973 film Stephen Sondheim wrote himself with actor,
Tony Perkins of Psycho fame!
An Agatha Christie – like mystery involving Hollywood actors, directors, producers, and assorted hangers-on,
trying to bed or kill each other during a â€œtruth or dareâ€ kind of cruise arranged by their host, James Coburn, played
with that fine, devilish smile of his. Wonderful fun performances from the whole company – Joan Hackett, Richard Benjamin,
Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, James Mason and Ian McShane (after a full career in secondary roles now enjoying
his BIG moment in the sun as the super sinister bad guy in DEADWOOD on HBO). Itâ€™s a blastâ€”a campy, clever, suspenseful
and nasty mystery to solve.
After youâ€™ve absorbed some of Sondheimâ€™s movie picks at MOMA, rent The Last of Shelia, then pay the $ to see his
masterpiece (and I do not say that lightly), Sweeney Todd on Broadway. In my humble opinion, sitting in the dark
with a bunch of like-minded individuals, letting beautiful images, sound and ideas wash over you,
is the perfect way to pass the holidays.
For the schedule & more Information: www.moma.org.