Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 7, 2012
It’s not often that I wire over a thousand dollars to European banks for the privilege of screening an obscure western. And, yes, more than one bank was involved because the exhibition rights were held in Germany (Beta Cinema GmbH), while the actual owner of the 35mm print resides in Switzerland (Kinemathek Le Bon Film). My interest in Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (aka: Il Grande Silenzio, Le Grand Silence, The Big Silence, 1969) was sparked by my interview with Alex Cox on March 13th of last year, in which he referred to it as “maybe the best western of all time.” That was the kind of glowing recommendation that made me want to screen it at the film series I program to share with my general audience, but my initial attempts at finding someone in this country that had a print fell short of any decent leads.
When I refer to The Great Silence as “an obscure western” I should perhaps add the words “to the uninitiated.” The film is regarded by many critics as the best of the non-Leone helmed Westerns, and you can find over 50 reviews for it on IMDB. During its original release it was poorly received in Italy, but it did decent business in France and was a big success in Germany. In the U.S., however, 20th Century Fox gave it a premature burial. “The studio boss, Daryl F Zanuck, took against he picture: according to Corbucci, he swallowed his cigarette while watching it.” (Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways To Die) Perhaps this might account for the omission of The Great Silence from The Overlook Film Encyclopedia by Phil Hardy dedicated to The Western, but it’s still a strange and glaring absence given Hardy’s otherwise exhaustive tome. Corbucci is not overlooked in Ephraim Katz’ Film Encyclopedia, which offers this concise two-sentence overview for the Italian director (b. 1926 – d. 1990):
In his book on Westerns, 10,000 Ways To Die, Alex Cox devotes 10 pages to The Great Silence, but in an effort to match Katz’ piercing brevity above, I found these words by Alex from his DVD intro to also sum things up in two short (and in my view more colorful) sentences:
Outside its original theatrical run and specialty screenings, The Great Silence could only be found as a truncated Region 2 DVD by Imagica, but in 2004 it received a Region 1 DVD release in by Fantoma that includes a five minute video introduction by Alex, an alternate ending, and an original theatrical trailer. You can also rent it on Netflix (it’s not yet available for streaming), and I had every intention of screening it at home… until I saw that the Film Forum was screening a 35mm print last June as part of their retrospective on Spaghetti Westerns. I knew Alex had been flown out there to introduce the June 7th screening of The Price of Power (1969, directed by Tonino Valerii), so I figured he could get me the email to whoever I should talk to at the Film Forum. This led to my being forwarded useful information from Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, as well as a gentleman at Cinema Nova in Brussels who had all the contact info needed to acquire The Great Silence.
It was while talking to the private collector and owner of the film, Thomas Oehler, that it became clear that the 35mm print in question was the only one he had. The lending contract specified (and this was news to me) that the print was dubbed into English but also had German and French subtitles. The lending contract also contained a lot of boiler-plate language that any reel-to-reel house used to screening archive prints should know to do, all of which is in the service of doing everything possible to protect the film from any further damage.
Thomas let me know that The Cinefamily in L.A., would be screening the film before me in September. The Cinefamily did a great job of highlighting the fact that this was the “only surviving 35mm print,” as can be seen from this screen grab of a trailer they put up on Vimeo:
When friend and fellow die-hard cinephile, Toby Leonard, who programs the Belcourt Theater, saw that I’d put The Great Silence on my fall schedule, he suggested that I alert other exhibitors to this opportunity to show this rare print before it’s returned to Switzerland. This I did, and the happy results mean that now people in Portland (Oct. 17), Cleveland (Nov. 3), Montreal (Nov. 24), and Nashville (Dec. 2) will have a shot at seeing this rare title on celluloid before it returns to Europe.
As soon as The Cinefamily was done with their screening, I contacted them for an update on the shape of The Great Silence print, mainly as I was keen to know what aspect ratio it was. The lending contract didn’t include this information, and the internet provided conflicting reports. Mark Robinson then provided a very concise and accurate print report, which ended with this: “There are scratches (both heavy and light) throughout the entire film. I’ve graded it a ‘D’ on our scale. But personally I feel it is acceptable. We have run far worse without complaint.”
I will admit to being somewhat concerned at the idea of screening a film print that had been given a “D” grade. How can that be acceptable? But Mark was right, and the color was still mostly strong, and we also screened the film (twice) with no complaints. Better than that: customers came wearing cowboy hats, clapped at the end, and we had almost twice as many people on the second day as we did on the first – so the word of mouth was good.
Below are some images, as taken from the projection booth, of what our customers saw. I’m using three shots to represent “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” albeit in reverse order.
The Ugly – and in this case I’m not only talking about Kinski’s portrayal of the brutal bounty hunter Tigrero, but rather I’m referring the heavy wear-and-tear that was especially visible in scenes with snowy landscapes and, of course, near the heads-and-tails on every reel:
The Bad – which included moments with light scratching, not to mention the two sets of subtitles:
The Good – with strong, vibrant and warm colors, and deep blacks so rich you can barely tell where the matting begins.
As a small exhibitor struggling to stay alive in the face of huge changes in the cinematic landscape, I sometimes wonder if all the efforts required to put on a moving picture show in our current digital age is worth the trouble. The big changes orchestrated by the studios have criminally imperiled the existence of a thousand independent film exhibitors across the nation, and it continues to get harder every year to compete with the mountain of distractions available to us at the push of a button.
At the same time, I can’t help but recall a parenthetical note that Peter Schjeldahl inserted into his article from the September 24th New Yorker on the Warhol exhibit at the Met, titled “Going Pop: Warhol and his influence”:
I could have spared myself a lot of aggravations by screening The Great Silence on DVD, on a nice scratch-free transfer without German and French subtitles, but as I think of reproductions and facsimiles, and reflect on why the medium matters, allow me to contribute two twice-removed reproductions of my own.
On the left you have a screen grab from the DVD of The Great Silence, and on the right you have a screen grab of the same shot of Jean-Louis Trintignant as photographed from the projectionist booth. The DVD is clean, free of the distractions of age, and well-worth watching (of course), but when I see Trintignant’s gaze from the shot captured from the film it carries with it the authenticity of its time. I hope I’m not alone in appreciating the small miracle of this act of people watching the same and original film print that unspooled before audiences in Europe over 40 years ago, in a shared moment, in a large venue, as 24 frames flicker past the light of the projector.
The act of projecting the same physical object in 2012 that was projected in 1969 is something that will never happen in a multiplex, especially now that most of them have tossed aside their 35mm projectors. This reinforces the point that small, and locally programmed, independent arthouse theaters are completely different animals than their larger brethren, the large, entertainment complexes built for the purpose of reaping profits from overpriced concessions. The former film venues are moving picture museums that are preserving the machines that allow you to see films in the same way as they were seen by those who preceded us. You would think the big studios would have appreciated keeping a few of those around rather than killing them off in large numbers, but that’s exactly what they are doing by refusing to keep the 35mm format alive.
Is there really only one surviving 35mm print of The Great Silence? If you were to refine the wording to include “the only surviving 35mm print that is currently available for public exhibition” you get closer to the truth. Quentin Tarantino recently wrote an article for The New York Times that spent most of its time heaping praise on The Great Silence and it’s pretty clear that his upcoming film, Django Unchained, owes much to Corbucci. I’d guess Tarantino has some nice Corbucci film prints in his private collection, but I’d also understand he reluctance to share them. His article can be found here:
To end on a fun note, I’m including here a link to the video introduction that I had Alex film for our screening of The Big Silence. We shot it a few weeks ago in his backyard. Alex stepped into his storage shed, put his camera on a tripod, and gamely dressed up in Kinski-inspired garb to stump for this film for which he is a clear champion. As he makes clear in his book, one of the remarkable ideas paraded by The Big Silence is this notion “that sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing.” As a small independent exhibitor who is trying to raise the exorbitant funds required to equip my venues with the Digital Cinama Package now required by the studios, I can’t help but feel like the suits behind this digital steamrolling are acting like Klaus Kinski’s band of lawless killers, whereas the fate of the film series I program is dangerously close to that of Silence.
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