Classic films have a lot to offer at this year’s festival

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Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad is one of the family-friendly matinee classics playing on November 9. Image: courtesy of VFF Ray Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad is one of the family-friendly matinee classics playing on November 9. Image: courtesy of VFF

In recent years the Virginia Film Festival, under the leadership of Jody Kielbasa, has increased the number of new releases, concentrating on up-and-coming filmmakers, local productions, and sneak previews of high-profile independent features destined for wider release over the holiday season. It’s a wise choice for the festival, which has broken attendance records since 2009.  The repertory screenings—revivals of older and classic films—are still a part of the schedule, now organized by Wesley Harris, a longtime festival employee who was promoted to the festival’s programmer.

As someone who grew up attending (and worked for) the Virginia Film Festival, the classic films have always been one of my favorite parts.  This year offers several strong options, some of which will be shown on original film prints, rather than digital projection. “It’s a great opportunity to see something on 35 [mm] that you might never get the chance to see elsewhere,” Harris said.

At the top of the list is The Birds. Alfred Hitchock’s body of work as a director is nearly unparalleled; he made over 50 films, stretching from the silent era through the 1970s, and at least a dozen of them are perfect. The Birds (1963) is a late career highlight, and considered the Hitchcock’s last masterpiece.

Hitchcock was one of the first directors to become a widely recognized celebrity, in part because he fashioned himself as something of an armchair psychoanalyst of the public’s tastes and desires. More often than not, his plots were based on sordid crime headlines or lowbrow bestsellers, and he would trot out the latest pop-psychology claptrap as a justification or inspiration.  The Birds is therefore somewhat unique in the Hitchcock canon, because it draws much of its horror from the fact that absolutely no explanation is given—neither scientific nor supernatural —for the films’ terrifying events.

It begins as a superbly crafted domestic drama—a Bay Area socialite pursues her latest crush up the coast and engages in a passive-aggressive domestic clash with his rural, domineering mother. The film slowly becomes apocalyptic as the area’s birds—first seagulls, then chickens, sparrows, and crows—start violently attack the fishing town’s human population without warning or reason.

The film’s conventionally dramatic scenes and edge-of-your-seat horror sequences are brilliantly constructed, and much of the eerie power comes from the total lack of a musical score—Hitchcock’s experimental tendencies were not always successful, but this one paid off. Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, who had previously scored Pyscho and Vertigo (and had a famously combative relationship with the director), was put in charge of the film’s sound, and generated the electronic bird sound effects.

Hitchcock was also notorious for clashing with his actors; never more so than his famously contentious relationship with Birds star Tippi Hedren. By all accounts, the controlling Hitchcock effectively terrorized the actress, but her performance in the film exudes a weary tension and bottled-up anxiety that serves the role perfectly. Hedren appears at the festival to discuss the film at Friday’s screening of The Birds, at 7:30 pm on November 8 at the Paramount Theater.

Ray Harryhausen, who passed away this spring, was a master of special effects, and the majority of films he worked on over the course of his career (beginning with Mighty Joe Young, and ending with Clash of the Titans) were essentially forums for his elaborate stop-motion set pieces. Jason and the Argonauts is his probably his best-remembered film, but the comparable Sinbad trilogy is equally enjoyable.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger were made decades apart, and unlike today’s franchises, no effort is made to connect the films, which have different lead actors and no connecting threads other than the trappings of Middle Eastern-flavored seafaring adventure films. They also contain Harryhausen’s finest work, and serve as an overview of his career, showcasing the technological advancements he pushed with each new film.

In 1958’s 7th Voyage, journeyman character actor Thorin Thatcher manages to make his villainous magician a specific, memorable character rather than a generic racist cliché, and Kerwin Matthews and Kathryn Grant are indelibly charming in the lead roles (though the same can’t be said of the inexplicably morose child who plays the Genie).  The nonsensical quest plot gives Harryhausen the opportunity to animate a giant cloven-hooved Cyclops, a belly-dancing snake woman, a dragon, several two-headed birds, and in a preview of the delights to come in Jason, his first sword-fighting skeleton. Also boasting a classic Herrmann score, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad screens on Saturday, November 9 at 3pm at the Newcomb Hall Theater.  It’s a matinee classic that still retains much of its charm.

Another film recommended for younger viewers is 1955’s The Court Jester, a Robin Hood pastiche that is arguably the career peak of dancer/comedian Danny Kaye, whose 100th birthday provides the opportunity for the screening. It’s a tour-de-force performance for Kaye, who gets to sing, dance, engage in swordfights both sincere and slapstick, and in the films finest moments—riff on Abbott & Costello-esque wordplay.

The always excellent Basil Rathbone reprises his villainous role from the Errol Flynn Robin Hood two decades earlier and what’s fascinating is that Rathbone’s performance is nearly identical to the one in the original swashbuckler; yet another instance of the actor’s uncanny ability to find significant overlap between deadpan humor and straight-faced genre performance (see also: 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, in which he is funnier than anything in Mel Brooks’ remake).

The rest of the supporting cast is superb as well, from the adorable Glynis Johns to a young Angela Lansbury, and the set design and vivid Technicolor rivals that of the original adventure films this one parodies. (Harris says he’s still unsure whether The Court Jester will screen digitally or on film.)

Though some parents may be drawn to the screening of Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan a repeating feature at the festival shown again this year in a newly restored digital version—they should be advised that the film contains many shockingly offensive caricatures of American Indians, which effectively derail the film’s final half hour.

Far more harmful than the short-sighted “soft racism” inherent in the exoticism and “othering” of films like Sinbad, the racist depictions in Peter Pan are deliberately mean-spirited and cruel, and it’s unconscionable that the film continues to be shown widely, without any disclaimers or explanations for younger viewers, especially since Disney has now shelved other films from its’ catalog which contain racist caricatures (such as Song of the South, and several shorter cartoons).

I would instead recommend the Court Jester; though it’s live action instead of animation, it’s similarly comical and lighthearted, and features plenty of swashbuckling. Slightly older children with a tolerance for frightening adventure should steer towards Sinbad (and talk to them about the film’s portrayal of Middle Eastern cultures) and for tweens, teenagers, or adults who can handle a good scare—The Birds is an absolute must.

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