Friday, May 27, 2011

SIFF — The Thief of Bagdad: Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.

Something else SIFF does that makes me happy: screenings of acclaimed vintage films along with all the new titles. This year we get Powell and Pressberger's Black Narcissus from 1947, Fellini's La Dolce Vita ('60), and this high fantasy spectacle from 1924 starring Douglas Fairbanks, who all but leaps from the screen to radiate sheer boisterous charisma like the Malibu sun.

The Thief of Bagdad: Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.
U.S., 1924/2011
SIFF's page with trailer

When this title first pinged my SIFF radar, my response was a mix of geeky excitement (my fondness for silent-era classics being what it is) and forehead-puckering curiosity. That E.L.O.? Jeff Lynne's overelaborate electro-orchestral pop group that, alongside Abba and Frampton, saturated the '70s airwaves like Chiffon margarine with "Livin' Thing," "Telephone Line," "Mr. Blue Sky"? Plus that Shadoe Stevens? (Okay, honestly, I had to look him up. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Why? As The Stranger's SIFF Picks put it: Because shut up, that's why.

Actually, I'm on board with any project that exposes new audiences to the great movies from the 1910s and '20s, and this rollicking, ambitious Arabian Nights adventure-romance-fantasy, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and directed by Raoul Walsh, is indeed one of the greats (albeit not one of my top faves from the era). This "re-imagined" version also came with a high buzz quotient from the SIFF programmers.

So I was particularly excited to catch this one on a big screen with a big audience. I was not disappointed.

I won't go deep into the particulars of the film itself (TV Guide and Movie Diva offer fine overviews). I will note that it presents Fairbanks, playing the roguish slacker-thief who must prove himself worthy of the Princess, at his most flamboyantly dashing — all bare-chested vim and lithe athleticism as he runs, leaps, bounds, scales walls, and fights a giant spider under the sea, stopping occasionally to woo his high-born love or strike a swashbuckling pose, fists on hips, head tossed back in a hearty laugh. At 42 (!) he looks damn good doing it and is undoubtedly having a hell of a lot of fun. Watching him here, it's not at all surprising that The Thief of Bagdad was his favorite of all his movies.

The story itself is rudimentary stuff: our hero races his comic-book rivals (princely suitors of an unambiguously odious lot) to collect Plot Coupons in a blithely dispatched quest fantasy to win the Princess. What props it up are the film's ageless fantastical attractions: the gorgeous story-book Bagdad built of curvy dreamscape minarets and willowy arcing interiors like an inspiration for Dr. Seuss; a magic rope, a flying carpet, and, in the spectacle-rich second half, episodes set in the Valley of Fire, the Valley of the Monsters, a Sirens' lair on the ocean floor, the Cavern of Enchanted Trees, the Abode of the Winged Horse, and the Citadel of the Moon.

The vast sets and their screen-filling ornamentation were designed by the great art director William Cameron Menzies, and their grace and opulence still impress. The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive productions of the era, and you can see all over the screen that the money was well spent.

All the leads here, especially Fairbanks, display the highly emotive, florid pantomime acting style that by '24 was already heading out of fashion in favor of more naturalistic performances. But nobody gesticulated with snappy, robust gusto like Fairbanks and it's just petty carping to imagine him doing it any other way. His final screen moments deliver one of the most memorable Hero exits in cinema history, in a stunt that could have ended up crushing dozens of day-worker extras if that steel-plate Magic Carpet came crashing down instead of zooming with triumphant flourish over their heads and into the starry Arabian skies.

Silent-film buffs are also treated here to beautiful Anna May Wong as the sparsely clad slave girl aiding and abetting the villainous Yellow Peril Mongol Prince, and Noble Johnson (mostly wasted) as the Prince of the Indies.

The 145-minute print itself was in good shape for an unrestored public-domain master, with only infrequent reminders of the original's 87 years of age. The color tinting was handled with a mindful touch, reproducing the original ochers and blues to good effect.

As for the post-colon "Re-imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.": The newly applied musical scoring worked, often very well, although if you're not a die-hard E.L.O. fan (I'm lukewarm on the subject) some of the choices are repetitive and probably won't dazzle you as being "like the music was written for the film" (as Stevens reports was Jeff Lynne's assessment of an early cut). As the lights came up at the end, a number of my fellow attendees expressed high praise for the doubly retro pop mashup, and I can't say I have firm grounds to disagree with them.

Afterward, as Elizabeth and I were chatting about it at a watering hole in Seattle's Pike Place Market, she said that for her the E.L.O. score was the least interesting part of the event. As a relative newbie to silent-era films, she felt that it was a keener pleasure just to see The Thief of Bagdad in a theater at all.

Stevens himself attended the screening, speaking before and after the show and sitting just a couple rows behind us. Still a SoCal shaggy-blond at 64, Stevens clearly has been allowed access to that secret Goldie Hawn Improbable Youth Extension Treatment Center we all know exists in Hollywood somewhere. To hear him tell it, his youthful enthusiasm stems directly from his first viewing of The Thief of Bagdad as a boy. That experience made a life-shaping impression, as great films are wont to do, and this "re-imagining" is the result of his 30-years-long "obsession" to give "this real piece of 20th century art" a "definitive, perfect-perfect absolute final" musical scoring. With it he can share both the film and his pure fanboy love buttressed by, as he put it, "fanaticism at its most absurd." Before the show started I overheard him tell someone, "I made it for myself," and that sincere fan-geeky passion showed through the frames, earning him the right to place his ostentatiously spelled name up there in the title.

Unfortunately, TToB:RbSSwtMoELO is not a commercial project for wide release outside festivals and special screenings, at least not yet. It's still a work in progress as Stevens solicits studio support and investment funds to refine it with a fully restored print and a new digitally processed color palette inspired by the paintings of Maxfield Parrish, whom Fairbanks had wanted originally for the film's artistic design team. It's a shame that Parrish didn't take the job, so I'd love to see what Stevens might do to help us finally see what might have been.

Stevens told us that over the past thirty years he has put together some fifty different versions of the film in his home studio, laying down music tracks from classical to rock to experimental in various combinations. The all-E.L.O. score is the one he's most satisfied with. Me, I'd snap up a DVD or Blu-ray that brought home The Thief of Bagdad with five or ten or twelve of the diverse audio mixes he's assembled over the years, each score shaping a different experience of the film.

That I woke up today with "Mr. Blue Sky" stuck in my head I won't necessarily count as a negative. But if it happens again tomorrow... well played, Stevens, well played, sir.

Music: Rolf Lislevand, Nuove Musiche
Near at hand: Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2011