This Is the Modern World

You say you always wanted to go to film school but you couldn't afford the tuition? You panic when some pompous cineaste such as me expounds upon the parallels between Pauly Shore's work in Bio-Dome and Charlie Chaplin's in Modern Times? You wouldn't know Meliäs from Mayles, or Battleship Potemkin from Mandy Patinkin? Well, here's your chance to get up to speed. As part of the Wolfsonian's inaugural exhibition ("The Arts of Reform and Persuasion, 1885-1945"), the cultural repository on Miami Beach presents The Shock of the New: Film in the Modern Age, a series of films exploring the explosive development of modern cinema as a form of artistic expression and propaganda.

No Brad Pitt films made the cut, but several other filmmaking luminaries are represented. The series opens on Friday, January 26, at the Colony Theater on Miami Beach, with Fritz Lang's brooding futuristic masterpiece Metropolis. Using stunningly original set designs and special effects, Lang creates a thriving but polarized 21st Century city whose residents live underground and behave like drones. When unrest arises, a saintly woman named Maria quells it. But a mad scientist (as if there were any other kind) bent on world domination creates an evil Maria robot to incite revolt. Bearing in mind that Lang made the film 70 years ago, the sci-fi classic holds up remarkably well today.

Lang's silent film in its original form ran for more than two hours. Several versions have been released on videotape, ranging in length from 83 minutes to 139 minutes, with musical soundtracks that include everyone from symphony orchestras to Giorgio Moroder, Bonnie Tyler, Pat Benatar, and Queen. The Wolfsonian's copy runs 95 minutes, and, in order to re-create the original moviegoing experience, which included an in-the-flesh orchestra, the Boston-based Alloy Orchestra will provide live musical accompaniment.

The "Shock of the New" series continues through February, with all subsequent films screened in the Wolfsonian's auditorium. Offerings go as far back as 1902's eleven-minute -- Trip to the Moon by Georges Meliäs, the French magician and seminal filmmaker who first introduced narrative structure into movies. Meliäs created his works at a fabled glass-enclosed studio on the outskirts of Paris, where he quickly mastered the techniques of double exposure and superimposition; he combined these with ingenious staging tricks adapted from the theater. (And you thought George Lucas and Steven Spielberg pioneered the use of special effects. Ha!)

Lang and Meliäs are as good a starting point as any for aspiring students of cinema, but the Wolfsonian program doesn't stop there. The museum will also showcase Buster Keaton (the machines-run-amok 1922 short Electric House), Charlie Chaplin (1936's Modern Times), Leni Riefenstahl (both 1938's Olympia II and 1935's Triumph of the Will), and Sergei Eisenstein (1925's Battleship Potemkin, with its legendary -- and oft-imitated -- Odessa steps montage sequence). And then there are lesser-known works by important celluloid artists such as Marcel l'Herbier and Man Ray. The art of persuasion -- sometimes subtle, sometimes not -- is the thread that ties them all together.

Whether you plan to call some hapless movie reviewer's bluff the next time he invokes Eisenstein or Lang or Riefenstahl in one of his critiques or you just want to amaze your friends with your knowledge of cinema history, this series affords you a perfect opportunity. You won't get a grade when it's over, but you'll have witnessed some classic examples of the most powerful artistic medium of the Twentieth Century as we prepare to flip into the next millennium.


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