Although I got to the theater slightly late, I managed to squeeze in right at the Casino Royale trailer. Then the 70s Warner logo appeared, heralding in the image of curtains parting. This intrinsically theatrical image is then supplemented with a flickering film within a film between the open curtains of a comic book a child is reading. The camera closes in on an illustration of a building, which then blurs... and becomes a photographic image, which tilts up to the moon and beyond...
...and with a deep drum roll, a credit appears in the film within a film image, first coming into focus then approaching the screen... the curtains and the film within a film border fall away as that credit keeps coming, bursting free of the Academy ratio and filling the Panavision frame, then shooting behind you as the music mounts... a propulsive ostinato that mounts and mounts until a familiar shield appears on the screen; and when the title appears on the screen, the London Symphony Orchestra announces it musically... "Superman!" the music firmly states, and so begins Superman: The Movie.
This film opens by calling attention to its palette; a similar opening would later grace The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2 for all of you non-Americans), where backstory and clips are presented in black and white Academy ratio to a monaural soundtrack, which then opens out into the full anamorphic frame and thunderous Dolby Stereo sound for the opening chase. But while in The Road Warrior the emphasis is on the technology the entertainment will be delivered, the opening of Superman firmly places itself in the epic tradition.
The film's title sequence is voluminous, to be sure. Swooping letters may not be the novelty they were at the time either. And the spacescape is illogical, though seeing that sparkler on the big screen was strangely revelatory; in the relatively modest dimensions of a television set, it is merely a sparkler. But when blown up to the gigantic proportions of the Ziegfeld, it takes on an abstract aspect. Of course, this is one of the effects that Superman Returns would "update" in its own title sequence as hommage to this one. But I have to admit that I love it as much for the spectacle as I do that the Superman title sequence has one of my favorite main titles ever.
John Williams' Superman march is, honestly, one of my favorite pieces of music, period. In addition to how iconic it has become, there is also the fact that it is made up primarily of variations of orchestral figures that are basically saying, "Superman." Seriously. Listen to it. The "Superman" statement is heard first when the name of the film appears on the screen. The music is the primary Superman theme, which is reprised towards the end of the march but isn't heard again until Superman catches the helicopter - this part of the theme is exclusively for Superman proper, and is only ever heard when he's in the blue tights and red cape. In this case, the "Superman" is most apparent as it opens the theme; but the other three represented aspects of the theme - the fanfare (which is more of a Kal-El theme) the bridge and "Can You Read My Mind" - all lead up to the "Superman" phrase. Not to mention that the ostinato itself... well, you get the picture. I think it is an amazing construction, not least of all because it manages to be effective in its own right while paying its respects to the music from the Fleisher cartoons and the television series.
Superman at the Ziegfeld. The screen filling my field of vision. The score enveloping me. I couldn't possibly guess at how many times I've seen this film, but one of the aspects carried over from the epic genre is its use of the scope of the image. That is to say, this is a film that was meant to be seen on a really big screen. This is evident not only through the content of the images, but the discourse itself, such as the measured quality to the camera movements, or the long takes. This is a quality that adds immeasurably to the first two parts of the film.
Which leads me to another aspect of why I think this film still works, despite the elements that date it. There are three distinct parts to this film, and each time the gears shift, the color scheme changes as does the idiom of the score. The Krypton segment is primarily monochrome and the music is proud but otherworldly, the Smallville segment is mainly earth tones while the music is pure Americana and the Metropolis segment is brightly colored and the score is splashier and more aggressive. For this reason, while the pace of the movie is very stately, and fairly long (this was the 2000 cut) it never wears out its welcome owing as to constant variety.
The first two parts of the film are very serious, but as Donner was treating this as the modern American myth that it is, there is a timeless quality that offsets such elements as the more outmoded special effects and Margo Kidder. When the film gets to Metropolis, however, a humor element is added which stems from the in-your-face 70s New York setting ("No, we're going up! Up! Up!! Up!!!") and the rapid-fire Hawksian dialogue in the Daily Planet ("...and don't call me sugar!"). Unlike the slapstick comedy seen in Superman II and III, however, the humor here grows out of the juxtaposition of Clark Kent (and later Superman himself) against a gritty urban setting. The bumbling naïveté of Clark and the stalwart morality of Superman allows the film to maintain a bright-eyed innocence despite the harshness of some of the situations and the sexual innuendos.
The trial scene, which I must admit looked a hell of a lot more impressive on the big screen than I was expecting, only buttressed my interest in Richard Donner's cut of Superman II. Many of the scenes with the Kryptonians were reshot by Lester, and Terrance Stamp's General Zod has a tendency to be a bit more cartoonish than in the Donner footage. Look at how layered Stamp's performance is in Superman, particularly when he is confronting Jor-El (Marlon Brando)... his fury is balanced by his fear. He is desperate but refuses to lose face. And Brando never has to throw a big "S" at him.
Now I also have to admit, while the effects themselves had an archaic aspect to them, because Donner has so much emphasis on the characters and the story, they are rarely cringeworthy, even on a screen the size of the Ziegfeld. In fact, some of the model work is actually more effective on the big screen. In many ways, Star Wars took some of Superman's thunder; while the Superman project predates Star Wars, the scope of the production (two very large films being shot back-to-back) meant that the completed Superman didn't get released until after Star Wars had already wowed audiences. But there are a lot of really well-done special effects in the film.
Williams' score is, in my opinion, one of his most interesting. In addition to the various different themes and motives (I particularly like how the piece heard when Clark is chasing the train at the beginning of the film is reprised when Superman saves the train in California, for example), there is also a very keen sense of dramatic storytelling here. Donner's concept of treating Superman as a mythology extended to the music, which is why I think that it was so successful at being associated with the character. I make no secret of the fact that I enjoy bold, large scale music, and Superman is nothing if not that. The one aspect I think doesn't work at all - and this is a problem with the film as well - is that Margo Kidder's vocal on "Can You Read My Mind" is... well, I understand that she speaks it because she couldn't sing it.
One thing that you never get from watching a film on video, no matter how good your sound system or how John Holmes your monitor is the audience. I don't know what was better, seeing this film on such a big screen, or the fact that it was a packed house. Movies are always better when seen with an enthusiastic audience, and they were. There were several rounds of applause, for Richard Donner's credit, Superman's first appearance in the Fortress, him catching the helicopter and the finale of the film. Every joke in the film hit its mark with this crowd, even the minor quips.
I loved Gene Hackman's awful outfits, too.
I should also mention that the large dimensions of the Ziegfeld brought me a new appreciation of Valerie Perrine's cleavage.
In other news, courtesy of hadara
When you absolutely positively gotta Stupefy every last Death Eater in the room
ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES
I've never had a substitute teacher like Grubby-Plank. All of my substitute teachers sucked.