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Seven Selections from the St. Louis International Film Festival's First Weekend 

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click to enlarge The King and the Mockingbird. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • The King and the Mockingbird.

The King and the Mockingbird
Directed by Paul Grimault
12:05 p.m. Sunday, November 8
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

I had never heard of Paul Grimault's The King and the Mockingbird until about eighteen months ago, even though the film has a production history going back more than 60 years. Given the international market for animation and the home-video explosion of the 1980s, it seems unthinkable that some version of Grimault's film wouldn't have reached America. And given the quality of the film itself, it's even more remarkable that the French film industry hasn't been touting it as proof that a European animator could produce an animated feature every bit as inventive and attractive as a Disney film.

And yet, that's exactly what happened: A film made under difficult circumstances, taken from its director and released in an incomplete form, restored and re-assembled (or more accurately, remade) years later, but almost completely unknown outside of France. Grimault, France's most prominent animator, began his film in 1948, only to have the unfinished work taken out of his control; a hastily edited version falling far short of Grimault's original conception was released in 1953 as The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (the title of the Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired only a small section of the film). An English-dubbed version was released as The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird and featured a vocal performance by Peter Ustinov. That unofficial and truncated version — you can watch it on YouTube — is not without interest, but it falls short of the ambitious design Grimault had in mind. Twenty-five years after it was released, Grimault acquired the rights to the film, restored sections and prepared new sequences to create The King and the Mockingbird as he had originally planned it. His version opened in France in 1980 but evidently remained unreleased the rest of the world.

It's a strange and beautiful film, reminiscent of the earliest Disney features — if Uncle Walt had dropped his homespun Midwestern values and let surrealist art and political satire filter into his films. I won't spoil the story except to note that it includes a talking bird, a Metropolis-like kingdom, paintings coming to life, underground cities, a giant robot, and an ineffectual king whose thoughts are as wicked as his eyes are crossed. The design ranges from understated modernism to storybook simplicity, and the screenplay by Jacques Prévért is at times poetic and fanciful, just as you might expect from the author of Children of Paradise. There's hardly a moment which doesn't reach fairy-tale perfection, which perhaps makes its troubled production history all the more appropriate: It's like a buried treasure suddenly popping up after a six-decade sleep.

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Directed by Kent Jones
7 p.m. Tuesday, November 10
Webster University's Moore Auditorium
470 East Lockwood Avenue

click to enlarge Hitchcock/Truffaut. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Andrew Sarris once said that the very first review he published was also the one that generated the most hate mail: The sophisticated Village Voice readers of 1960 couldn't believe that such an uber-hip publication would waste ink on, let alone actually praise, shameless trash like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Sarris' review was the first American shot in an international cultural war that had been started in France by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema (many of whom — Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol — were starting to make names for themselves as leaders of the Nouvelle Vague) and would soon change how movies — especially American ones — were understood. Though it may not have seemed obvious at the time, the 1966 (1967 in the U.S.) publication of Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock, an in-depth and meticulously illustrated interview with the director, was concrete proof that the critical war was over and that the auteur theory — the idea that filmmakers expressed themselves as much through the style and composition of their work as through the subject or theme — had won the day. The product of a week of conversation between two major film artists, Truffaut's Hitchcock was a rarity, a book about movies that contained instead in-depth discussions of technique rather than anecdotes and gossip.

Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut is both an appreciation and a recreation of the book and the critical method it championed. Jones, a leading critic in his own right, working with Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana as cowriter, lets filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich and Olivier Assayas describe the influence that both directors had on their work, while scenes from films such as Notorious and The Birds duplicate the shot-by-shot analysis that made Truffaut's book so unique. Most effectively, Jones gives Hitchcock and Truffaut their own voices, using excerpts from the original interview recordings and adding a new level of intimacy to the print material.

Five decades later, the idea that Hitchcock deserves to be taken seriously is no longer a radical one, and the young turks of the Nouvelle Vague have become Old Masters. Hitchcock/Truffaut offers a refresher course in a now-established critical approach and a tribute to what became one of its key artifacts.

click to enlarge Einstein in Guanajuato. - COURTESY SLIFF
  • Courtesy SLIFF
  • Einstein in Guanajuato.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Directed by Peter Greenaway
2:35 p.m. Wednesday and 9:20 p.m. Friday (November 13 and 15)
Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
1701 South Lindbergh Boulevard

Sergei Eisenstein, one of the most celebrated artists in the world thanks to the international acclaim for his film Battleship Potemkin, went to Mexico in 1931 to make a loosely planned film called Que Viva Mexico, to be produced by novelist/activist Upton Sinclair. After shooting nearly 50 hours of film Eisenstein had alienated his producer, come under suspicion by the Mexican authorities, and provoked rumors of ideological impurity in his home country. He returned to Russia and was never allowed to edit the Mexican project, nor would he ever quite return to the good graces of the Stalinist regime.

For director Peter Greenaway (still best known for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), Eisenstein's year of freedom is the subject of a homo-erotic slapstick fantasy, with the fright-wigged Russian director driven into a frenzy by the freedom of the decadent West. Like most of Greenaway's work, it's visually luxurious, but atypically playful. Greenaway experiments with split screens, multiple images and digital effects, but even the most impressive of these are overshadowed by Finnish actor Elmer Back's relentlessly kinetic performance as Eisenstein, a heavily accented, manic tour de force. Greenaway has a lot of fun at the expense of Eisenstein's leftist American supporters and plays fast and loose with history ­­— we hardly ever see Eisenstein working on his film, yet somehow those fifty unedited hours were produced. But Greenaway balances his inventions with lots of name-dropping and one lengthy scene cleverly drawn from actual letters and telegrams exchanged between Sinclair and Stalin. As a biography of the great Soviet director, Eisenstein in Guanajuato is unreliable, but as a fanciful account of a major cultural clash between the spirit of high modernism and the heavy hand of totalitarianism, it's an unexpected treat.

The 24th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival runs from November 5 through 15. Tickets for individual films are $12 to $15 and can be purchased through each theater’s box office in advance or the day of show. Festival passes good for six tickets ($65) or ten tickets ($100) are available through the Hi-Pointe, Landmark Plaza Frontenac and Landmark Tivoli Theatre box offices in advance. An all-access pass good for two tickets to every film in the festival is available through Cinema St. Louis at 314-289-4153. For more information and the complete schedule, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.

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