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Review: Pageant not just still lifes

With character often broken and movement injected, 'The Big Picture' theme serves to remind us how jarring moving pictures were at their advent.

July 08, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Cast member Ian Ring waits for his cue backstage to take position in Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" during Pageant of the Masters Preview Night in June.
Cast member Ian Ring waits for his cue backstage to take… (Don Leach )

There's a moment in the 1976 comedy "Silent Movie" in which Mel Brooks, playing a Hollywood director, calls the French mime Marcel Marceau and offers him a part. Brooks asks the question through title cards — it's a silent movie, after all — only to have Marceau, a man expected to be mute under any circumstances, audibly reply, "No!"

I thought of that gag Saturday at the Pageant of the Masters when the "living picture" models, who typically hide behind makeup and lighting and look as non-lifelike as possible, broke character and moved. The first time, I thought it had been a flub: Harold Lloyd, dangling from a clock tower in an image from "Safety Last!", lost his hat to the wind or some unknown force and grabbed at it futilely. In the next tableau, Charlie Chaplin dismounted his scenery and pulled the curtain shut, and the motif became apparent.

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At the Pageant of the Masters, is a moving actor as jarring as a mime talking in a silent film? Yes — and even though it's not the first time the pageant has used motion, it illustrates an important point in a program about cinema history.

Human eyes get used to anything, and it may take a show like "The Big Picture," the pageant's 80th-anniversary production, to remind us how revelatory movies were at the beginning. Two years ago, a pair of Oscar-winning films, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," provided an engaging flashback to the years when filmmaking was in its infancy.

Still, we looked at those movies through our jaded 2010s perspective. Even while the characters in "Hugo" gasped at Lloyd hanging from the clock, we experienced the movie itself in state-of-the-art 3D. Watching "The Big Picture" spring to life midway through makes us feel what viewers must have felt a century ago — the feeling of astonishment at the very concept of moving pictures.

Indeed, context is key throughout "The Big Picture," whose lineup — encompassing Renaissance art, Edward Hopper, lobby cards and even the statue of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima — makes its title almost an understatement. For a movie-themed pageant, it would be easy enough to sort through Hollywood classics and string together a few dozen iconic images. "The Big Picture," though, doesn't take a greatest-hits approach to cinema. Rather, it's like watching the art form itself come into being.

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