Reduced to their essence, this is what movies are: a dance of darkness and illumination, splashed across a screen. The Emory University film series “Painting With Light” celebrates the medium’s power at its most basic and most glorious with a range of titles that take us from the silent era to the end of the 20th century.
The curator, Emory professor Karla Oeler, says the series was partly inspired by Patrick Keating’s book “Hollywood Lighting From the Silent Era to Film Noir.” “When we were thinking of a series, it seemed that one of the most powerful things about watching films is the experience of light and color washing over you, especially in a large-screen format,” Oeler says.
But that big-screen experience is slowly diminishing. That’s due in part to changing viewing habits, with fewer people bothering to seek out films on the large screen, opting instead for DVDs or digital streaming on TV or computer screens. And another thing is chiseling at the big-screen tradition. Hollywood, notoriously negligent of its own heritage (prime example: destroying whole libraries of early films by dumping them into Santa Monica Bay), doesn’t seem to have wised up in 100 years.
“The eye-opener for me is how difficult it is to get prints of films now,” Oeler says. “Studios aren’t transferring their old 35mm prints to high-quality digital, or making new prints.”
For instance, she originally wanted to book “Queen Christina,” from 1933, to show how cinematographer William H. Daniels lit Greta Garbo as compared with Lee Garmes’ approach to Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express.” “I wanted to show the way they created glamour,” Oeler explains. But a print of “Christina” simply couldn’t be found. (Instead, the intended slot is being filled by the terrific documentary “Visions of Light.”)
The Emory series is smartly eclectic in its blend of black-and-white and color works and in its sweep of genres — from hard-boiled, low-budget noir (“T-Men”) to lush color melodrama (“Black Narcissus” and “Leave Her to Heaven”) to underappreciated contemporary classic (“Out of Sight”).
Personally, Oeler is looking forward to the showings of “The Crowd,” the King Vidor silent drama, and “The Conformist,” Bernardo Bertolucci’s unsettling 1970 masterpiece. “[That’s] the one I’m probably most excited about, because I haven’t seen it in 20 years,” she says. “I saw it at a very impressionable age and I never forgot it.”
She hopes film lovers will take the time to see the offerings in their intended format. “Size really does matter in film. And I’m really happy with everything we’re showing.”
All the Emory Cinematheque screenings will be free and will be on Wednesdays starting at 7:30 p.m. in 205 White Hall on the Emory University campus.
January 25: “The Crowd” (1928). In King Vidor’s silent classic, James Murray and Eleanor Boardman (Vidor’s real-life wife) play a couple coping with the realities of adulthood and marriage. Veteran silent-film scorer Donald Sosin will play live piano accompaniment for this screening.
February 1: “Shanghai Express” (1932). Marlene Dietrich shimmers as the notorious Shanghai Lil, passenger on the titular train in this film from Josef von Sternberg (whose “Blue Angel” launched Dietrich to stardom).
February 8: “Visions of Light” (1992). A lovely documentary that helps explain, with radiant examples, the magic that cinematographers do — the focus of this series.
February 15: “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957). This bitter cocktail of a noir-flavored showbiz tale stars Tony Curtis as an ambitious press agent and Burt Lancaster as a powerful new York columnist with an unhealthy fixation on his own sister.
February 22: “T-Men” (1947). Director Anthony Mann’s low-budget noir about Treasury agents who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring.
February 29: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1935). Mickey Rooney makes a memorable Puck in Max Reinhardt’s lustrous version of Shakespeare’s rural romp. (Emory Distinguished Writer-in-Residence Sir Salman Rushdie is scheduled to introduce this film.)
March 7: “Baby Doll” (1956). Tennessee Williams’ twisted joke of a flick stars the creamy, dreamy Carroll Baker as the crib-sleeping child bride of sexually stoppered Karl Malden. Eli Wallach plays the business rival who schemes to seduce lil’ miss sexpot.
March 21: “Raging Bull” (1980). Martin Scorsese’s knockout version of boxer Jake LaMotta’s life story, starring Robert De Niro. That “Ordinary People” bested it at the Oscars is all you need to know about the Oscar voting system.
March 28: “Black Narcissus” (1947). Mother Superior Deborah Kerr and her nuns face the sensual temptations of the Himalayas — and so do viewers of Michael Powell’s lush color film, shot, of all places, entirely in England.
April 4: “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945). A Technicolor scream, starring Gene Tierney as a socialite whose love for husband Cornel Wilde takes her to murderous extremes.
April 11: “The Conformist” (1970). Bernardo Bertolucci’s fever dream of fascism and sexual repression stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dominique Sanda and a wintry forest that serves as one of filmdom’s most memorable settings for murder.
April 18: “Personal Velocity: Three Portraits” (2002). Rebecca Miller (daughter of playwright Arthur and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis) directs Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey and Fairuza Balk in this triptych about women facing difficult relationships with men.
April 25: “Out of Sight” (1998). A perfect marriage of potboiler plot and high-art filmmaking, this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel stars George Clooney as a bank robber on the lam and Jennifer Lopez (in her single really solid screen performance) as the federal marshal who falls for him while trying to drag him back to prison. (Footnote: the son of the film’s cinematographer, Elliot Davis, is an Emory student.)