Every Doc Films program contains at least a few must-see movies, but the autumn calendar contains an embarrassment of riches. There are partial retrospectives of four of the most important filmmakers working today—Terence Davies, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, David Fincher, and Olivier Assayas—as well as one devoted to John Cassavetes, one of the most important U.S. filmmakers ever. (If only that revival of A Woman Under the Influence weren’t taking place at the same time as that Sparks concert at Lincoln Hall . . . ) The other series are nothing to sneeze at, with programs devoted to early sound cinema (featuring a once-in-a-blue-moon revival of F.W. Murnau’s Tabu), comedies about murder, and Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz (wittily titled “Odd Todds”).
As usual, several major titles on the program are unavailable on region 1 DVD. These include, shockingly, most of the Davies films playing in the Monday series: The Terence Davies Trilogy (which kicks off the calendar this coming week), his masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and its sequel The Long Day Closes (1992). The latter two titles screen on October 21 and November 4 respectively. Do whatever you can to attend them—they capture the shape and flow of memory like very few other movies do. (If my recommendation isn’t enough, I encourage you to read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1989 Reader essay on Distant Voices, which concludes, “I have every reason to believe that years from now when practically all the other new movies currently playing are long forgotten, it will be remembered and treasured as one of the greatest of all English films.”)
Also difficult to find in the States: Assayas’s Cold Water (1994), screening October 10, Hou’s Dust in the Wind (1987) and City of Sadness (1989), screening October 14 and 28 respectively, and Cassavetes’s Love Streams (1984), screening December 4—all major works. But my personal favorite among the rarities is James Whale’s Remember Last Night? (1935), which screens in the murder-comedy series on Sunday, October 13. The film is a lark, a Thin Man knockoff about hard-partying socialites investigating a murder that took place at one of their soirees but which no one remembers because they were too drunk. Still, it’s a funny and gorgeous-looking lark. Bride of Frankenstein was in the middle of its hugely successful commercial run when Remember went into production. The film essentially served as an after party, with Universal Pictures giving Whale plenty of money to do whatever he wanted on the film. (Well, almost anything. Fearing the censors, Universal changed the title from The Hangover Murders and forced Whale to include an antidrinking message near the end of the story.)
Whale, who began his career as a set designer on the London stage, spent the money on elaborate art deco sets. He also indulged his taste for cheeky humor by filling the dialogue with non sequiturs and inside jokes. (For instance, before one character drunkenly dives into a pool, she shouts, “Look at me! I’m Dracula’s daughter!” This is a reference to a horror sequel that Universal had tried to get Whale to direct after he expressed desire to work in other genres. To ensure that he wouldn’t have to make the film, Whale delivered a script treatment so blatant in its sexual overtones that he was thrown off the project.) Unfailingly bright and opulent, Remember is the sort of film that makes you think that Hollywood filmmakers once took the phrase “silver screen” literally.