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RHYTHMS OF LIFE AND OF CHINA

Times Staff Writer

The rhythms of daily life captivate Danish film-maker Jorgen Leth, who brings acute, understated powers of observation to his just-completed works, “Moments of Play” and “Notebooks From China,” which will screen Tuesday only at 7:30 p.m. at the Monica 4-Plex with Leth present.

In the first film, Leth extends the notion of play to include all kinds of pleasurable activities--sports, dance, games--that he believes stimulate a “richness of thought” in its participants. Leth doesn’t go in for grand philosophical conclusions, but he does leave us sensing that play is crucial in helping define reality for us.

For this 82-minute film Leth and his cinematographer Dan Holmberg shot in Bali, Brazil, China, Denmark, Britain, Haiti, Spain and the United States and captured one beautiful image after another, accompanied by an infectious Antonio Carlos Jobim score. We see children learning to perform an ancient ritual frog dance in Bali and fishing with bow and arrow on the Amazon; we discover that the concentration and grace of a Spanish bullfighter in practice is matched by that of a Southern California frisbee champ in action.

For all its focus on the beauty of motion and the eloquence of Leth’s poetic narration, “Moments of Play” could be more involving than it is simply by brief, unobtrusive subtitles indicating locale; the film needlessly invites distraction by constantly allowing us to wonder where we are.

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There’s no such problem with the 75-minute “Notebooks From China,” which presents everyday life in the People’s Republic framed by Leth’s 6,000-mile train journey through the countryside, much of it verdant and unspoiled. Again, it’s the seemingly ordinary that attracts Leth’s attention, allowing us to see, for example, the extraordinary grace with which an elderly woman makes noodles. “Notebooks From China” recalls Joris Ivens comprehensive survey of China--but Leth has no need to extol the nation’s new society and instead lets us see it for ourselves. Leth’s films are being presented by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Danish National Committee of Southern California in cooperation with the International Documentary Association. Information: (213) 394-9741.

The UCLA Film Archives Frank Borzage retrospective continues Thursday at Melnitz Theater at 5:30 with “Young America” (1932), a Depression drama starring Spencer Tracy--and unavailable for preview--followed at 7:30 with “Street Angel” (1928) and “Liliom” (1930). When Janet Gaynor received the very first best actress Oscar, it was for three performances, in “Sunrise,” Borzage’s “Seventh Heaven"--and “Street Angel.” Of the three films, all of them silent, “Street Angel” today is the most obscure, although at the time it was made it was a popular re-teaming of Gaynor with Charles Farrell. An introductory note tells us that the film will be about “human souls made great by love and adversity,” as succinct a summary of Borzage’s enduring theme as one could wish. It’s fortunate that the film has visual elegance and a shining sincerity, for it is otherwise very dated. Gaynor, a waif of old Napoli, has been driven into the streets to pay for her dying mother’s medicine, and, sure enough, when she falls in love with handsome but priggish painter (Charles Farrell) her past catches up with her. The film’s resolution is genuinely moving, but the painter’s narrow-mindedness is insufferable.

Borzage’s talkie version of Molnar’s “Liliom” is virtually a filmed play, albeit a striking one thanks to Harry Oliver’s starkly stylized sets--Oliver also designed the appropriately romantic settings for “Street Angel.” It’s not in the same league as Fritz Lang’s 1934 French version with Charles Boyer, but Farrell, initially awkward in the new medium of sound, grows into his title role as the well-meaning wastrel most effectively, and Rose Hobart is a lovely Julie. The concluding sequence is real eye-boggler, involving Liliom taking off to heaven in a cloud-painted celestial choo-choo. Information: (213) 825-25881.


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