If you're a regular visitor to Jeffrey Wells' Hollywood Elsewhere site, you already know how I spent my Saturday—making the trek to Suffern, New York to pay a visit to my pals at the majestic Lafayette Theater, and check out their inaugural offering for the new season of its Big Screen Classics rep series, a new digital restoration of David Lean's 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. I did not bring my camera, but I should have, because the reason the season started a little late this year is because the theater was undergoing some significant restoration, particularly on its gorgeous main hall ceiling, and it's really a sight. Jeff put up some video on his site, but I'll get some more shots when I go back for...well, I'll get to that in a bit.
Apparently the new digital restoration of Kwai is mostly for dissemination in the digital domain (the Blu-ray comes out on November 2). A variety of circumstances led to Lafayette projectionist Pete Apruzesse projecting the picture digitally, from a hard drive, more or less. Wells was not thrilled with the new version; I thought it looked very mixed, but really shone in certain scenes, particularly the jungle pursuit of the Japanese soldier by Jack Hawkins and Geoffrey Horne (Jeff had left the screening by this point). But as good as it could look, there was no escaping its, well, digitalness; the film grain in the low-angle shots of the sun-blasted blue sky (a lot of these perspectives reminded me of Black Narcissus, by Lean's old collaborators and masters Powell and Pressburger) looked like the expert reproduction of film grain rather than, you know, the real thing. As my friend Kent Jones commented in a below post apropos the various projections of Olivier Assayas' shot-on-35mm/projected-in-the-U.S.-only-in-digital Carlos, everything's in a state of transition now. Flux is the name of the game. We're gonna get a lot of good with the bad, and for the most part we're gonna get a lot of mixed, for a while. On the whole I wasn't displeased with how this look.
And I was really thrilled to re-experience the film on such a big screen and such a willing-to-receive-cinematic-bliss atmosphere, which is a real intangible of theater viewing experience and one that the Lafayette delivers every time. Truth to tell, it's been decades since I've seen Kwai in its entirety, and I was really blown away by what a marvel of cinematic engineering and construction it is. Once William Holden's Shears makes his escape, the film moves along two parallel narrative tracks that eventuallym, and of course tragically, converge. Neither of those narratives—the building of the bridge and the mission to infiltrate its site and destroy is—is an inordinately complex one in and of itself, but Lean and screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, working from Pierre Boulle's novel, build in all these modules in the form of set pieces that enrich the film's characterizations and tensions beautifully, highlights of course including the failed dinner negotiation scene between sad Japanese martinet Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and his seemingly masochistic but (or is it "and"?) actually crazy-like-a-fox defier Nicholson (Alec Guinness), and the aforementioned jungle chase. The actual "story" of Kwai could have been cinematically told in ninety or 110 minutes; the two hours and forty minutes or so that the film actually takes feel absolutely necessary, because what looks to be added-value material actually comprises the nervous system and guts of the film.
In any case, an amazing pleasure. One glitch was that the cavernous house was a trifle chilly, which so discomfited my companion Mr. Wells that he had to split early, as he relates in one of his posts. As Pete and myself point out there, this was truly by accident rather than design—a furnace malfunction that cropped up suddenly and couldn't be fixed in such short order—and future Big Screen Classics events, including its frankly incredible three-day Horror-thon coming November 5, 6, and 7, which I'll be drooling about further in the near future, promise to be fully heated. I'm sorry Jeff was uncomfortable, but I'm glad he got the chance to check out the venue, which I know impressed him. I give the guy kind of a hard time about a lot of stuff; much of it is internet theater, but the fact is that we do have strong opinions and strong personalities and we hold to those things. But Jeff is a true believer in the cinema, and a trip to this joint is good for the true believer's soul. And it was fun hanging with him; he blusters a lot on his site (as I, of course, do here), and at his most eccentric he can come off like a character out of The Bonfire of the Vanities as rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse, but he's the real deal. It was fun to have this excursion and I hope he comes out again.