July 17, 2012
The National Film Preservation Foundation recently announced grants to help preserve 60 films over the coming months. These range from a silent 1913 comedy long thought lost to The Sun Project (1956), a collaboration between sculptor Richard Lippold and composer John Cage.
Many of the grants go to home movies, including some by a Pullman porter; a series about downtown Atlanta in the 1940s; a Hitler youth rally shot by brothers on a European vacation; and the Everly Brothers collection. The latter, being restored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum prior to a 2013 exhibit devoted to Don and Phil Everly, includes footage of performers like Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
Home movies are a particularly vulnerable genre of film, as many families are unwilling to pay for conversion of 16mm and 8mm stock to digital formats, yet don’t have the resources to project and store what can be large collections. [Full disclosure: I worked with a mountaineering group to obtain an NFPF grant to preserve 1950s home movie footage of the Adirondacks.]
But all of the films here deserve to be saved, because losing them will erase part of our cultural heritage. For example, the George T. Keating Home Movies from 1929, in a collection at Washington University in St. Louis, contain the only known footage of novelist Ford Madox Ford.
Film buffs will be excited about Drifting, a 1923 melodrama about opium smuggling directed by Tod Browning. Better known for his work with Lon Chaney, Browning used Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong, at the time fifteen years old, here. The restoration will feature new English intertitles.
Art buffs will want to see the titles made in the 1980s by Beryl Sokoloff, a photojournalist known for his films about artists. Maze documents animated sculptures; Drum City, a bus ride through New York City. Sokoloff made a number of films about his life partner, Crista Grauer, and about artists like Clarence Schmidt, Jose Bartoli, and Carl Nesjar.
Grants were awarded to the Center for Visual Music for two films by the influential animator Jordan Belson, who passed away last year. His Vortex Presentation Reels (1957-59) were part of famous multimedia concerts held at San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium.
Jeff Lambert, assistant director at the NFPF, singled out the cult favorite 33 Yo-Yo Tricks (1976), being restored for the Harvard Film Archive. Lambert also pointed out That Other Girl, a 1913 comedy starring Pearl White that was long presumed lost. An archivist going through holdings at the University of Southern California found a can labeled “Niver,” and knew enough to guess it referred to film preservationist Kemp Niver. Inside was the only known copy of That Other Girl.
Lambert agreed that preserving films is becoming more difficult. “There are fewer and fewer labs who can do this kind of work,” he said in a recent interview.
Getting the films to interested viewers is harder too. “The preservation on most of these projects will take almost a year, if not more, so there’s always that lag time,” he explained.
One of the requirements of the grants is that the archives make the grant-funded films available to the public, but not everyone can travel to San Diego or Rochester or Keene to see a movie. “At the NFPF we are continuing to put more of our grant-funded films online,” Lambert said, “and more of the organizations out there are doing the same.”
Lambert encourages readers to apply for grants themselves. The next cycle opens in December. You can find more information here.
There are historical and cultural reasons to preserve these films, but they are just as important for the pure pleasure they bring. Like the delightful 1940 home movies by Slavko Vorkapich, one of the masters of montage. Or Brooke Dolan’s 1934 expedition to the Himalayas. Just for their glimpses into the past, I’m looking forward to the educational films by Tad Nichols about Apache and Navajo life in 1940 and color footage from Wethersfield’s Tercentenary Parade (1934).
Being preserved for the University of Oregon: Adaptive Behavior of Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels, a 1942 educational film by Lester Beck that led to Squeak the Squirrel, a film I wrote about in one of my first pieces.
This will be the last posting for Reel Culture, which is going on indefinite hiatus. You can still follow me on Twitter at @Film_Legacy, and I will be posting periodic articles and updates at my Film Legacy website.
I’ve enjoyed writing these pieces. My main theme over the past year is that what we think is new in movies can usually be traced back to earlier innovators, just like our contemporary novels and songs have antecedents in the past. But in today’s marketplace a sense of history has become a luxury.
July 3, 2012
As we celebrate this Independence Day, some might wonder why the Revolutionary War has been shortchanged by filmmakers. Other countries have made an industry out of their past. Shakespeare’s historical plays are filmed repeatedly in Great Britain, where filmmakers can borrow from old English epics like Beowulf and contemporary plays like A Man for All Seasons. Even potboilers like the Shakespeare conspiracy theory Anonymous, or The Libertine, with Johnny Depp as the second Earl of Rochester, are awash in details—costumes, weaponry, architecture—that bring their times to life.
Films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Kagemusha do the same for earlier Japanese culture. The Hong Kong film industry would not exist without its films and television shows set in the past, and mainland Chinese filmmakers often use period films to skirt present-day censorship restrictions.
In the golden age of the studio system, Western films provided more income and profit than many A-budget titles. And the Civil War has been the backdrop of some of the industry’s biggest films, like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. But successful American films set in the Revolutionary period are hard to find. You’d think that filmmakers would jump at the chance to recreate our country’s origins.
Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times. D.W. Griffith released The Birth of the Nation on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some moviegoers could remember the fighting, and many of the props in the film were still in general use. When Westerns first became popular, they were considered contemporary films because they took place in an identifiable present. Many of Gene Autry’s movies are set in a West that features cars and telephones.
Westerns were so popular that an infrastructure grew up around them, from horse wranglers to blacksmiths. Studios hoarded wagons, costumes, guns. Extras who could ride got a reliable income from B-movies.
That never happened for films set in the Revolutionary period. Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?
Still, some filmmakers tried, as you can see below:
America (1924)—The Birth of a Nation made D.W. Griffith one of the world’s most famous filmmakers, but it also put him in the position of trying to top himself. After directing movies big and small, Griffith found himself in financial trouble in the 1920s. When a project with Al Jolson about a mystery writer who dons blackface to solve a crime fell apart, the director turned to America. According to biographer Richard Schickel, the idea for the film came from the Daughters of the American Revolution via Will Hays, a former postmaster and censor for the film industry.
Griffith optioned The Reckoning, a novel by Robert W. Chambers about Indian raids in upstate New York. With the author he concocted a story that included Revere, the Minutemen, Washington at Valley Forge, and a last-minute rescue of the heroine and her father from an Indian attack. When he was finished, America was his longest film, although when the reviews came in Griffith quickly started cutting it down. Critics compared it unfavorably not only to The Birth of a Nation, but to work from a new generation of filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks, Ernst Lubitsch, and James Cruze.
1776 (1972)—Turning the second Continental Congress into a Broadway musical may not seem like much of a money-making plan, but songwriter Sherman (“See You in September”) Edwards and librettist Peter Stone managed to parlay this idea into a Tony-winning hit that ran for three years before going on the road.
Edwards and Stone teamed for the film adaptation, directed in 1972 by Peter H. Hunt, who also directed the stage show. Many of the actors repeated their roles on screen, including William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum and Howard Da Silva. The film received generally poor reviews. Vincent Canby at the New York Times complained about the “resolutely unmemorable” music, while Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie was an “insult.”
What strikes me, apart from the garish lighting scheme and phony settings, is its relentlessly optimistic, upbeat tone, even when delegates are arguing over slavery and other demanding issues. When the play opened many liberals thought it was commenting indirectly but favorably on the Vietnam War. On the advice of President Richard Nixon, producer Jack Warner had the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” cut from the film because it presented the delegates as elitists trying to protect their wealth.
Revolution (1985)—Not to be confused with the 1968 hippie epic with music by Mother Earth and the Steve Miller Band, this 1985 film starred Al Pacino as a New Yorker drawn unwillingly into fighting the British in order to protect his son. Blasted by critics on its release, the $28 million film reportedly earned less than $360,000 in the US.
This was the debut feature for director Hugh Hudson, who went on to helm the international smash Chariots of Fire. For the recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Hudson complained that the film was rushed into release before he could finish it. His new director’s cut adds a voice-over from Al Pacino that helps hide some of the production’s bigger flaws, like an inert performance from Nastassja Kinski and a laughable one from Annie Lennox, as well as a plethora of dubious accents.
In “Is Hugh Hudson’s Revolution a neglected masterpiece?” Telegraph writer Tim Robey is willing to give the film a second chance, commenting on Bernard Lutic’s gritty, handheld camerawork and the squalor on display in Assheton Gorton’s production design. But Revolution was so ill-conceived, so poorly written, and so indifferently acted that no amount of tinkering can rescue it. It remains in the words of Time Out London “an inconceivable disaster,” one that nearly destroyed Pacino’s movie career.
The Patriot (2000)—Mel Gibson has made a career out of his persecution complex, playing a martyr in everything from Mad Max to Braveheart. The success of Braveheart, which won a Best Picture Oscar, may have encouraged Gibson to make The Patriot, essentially the same plot with a Revolutionary setting. (With variations, that story engine also drives We Were Soldiers, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, even his remake of Edge of Darkness.)
The Patriot was a big-budget film, with a cast that included rising star Heath Ledger, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and careful treatment from the directing and producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Devlin even credited the Smithsonian for adding to the picture’s historical accuracy.
But the script reduced the Revolutionary War to a grudge match between Gibson’s plantation owner and a callous, cruel British colonel played by Jason Isaacs. Of course if the British murdered your son and burned down a church with the congregation inside you’d want to hack them to pieces with a tomahawk.
Northwest Passage (1940)—Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.
Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.
July 2, 2012
Megan Gambino’s The Top 10 Books Lost to Time inspired me to think about the movies that we’ll never be able to see. Not movies that were actually “lost,” like the thousands of titles that have decomposed or otherwise disappeared over the years. Some estimate that 80 percent of all silent features are gone, for example. They include movies starring Laurel and Hardy (The Rogue Song), Greta Garbo (The Divine Woman), and Lon Chaney’s sought-after “vampire” film London After Midnight.
This posting instead is about movies that were never completed, or in some cases never filmed at all. Every filmmaker has a list of projects that just didn’t work out. Either they couldn’t find financing, or schedules were too complicated, or situations suddenly changed. William Wyler prepared How Green Was My Valley, but due to scheduling conflicts John Ford ended up directing it. Frank Capra had planned to make Roman Holiday, but eventually gave the project to Wyler. Steve Soderbergh was ready to direct Moneyball until Sony replaced him at the last moment with Bennett Miller.
Directors and other creative personnel invested a lot of time and money into the five films below. In some cases, the fact that they could not complete the films seriously affected their subsequent careers.
1. I, Claudius—After helping make Marlene Dietrich an international star in seven visually astonishing films, director Josef von Sternberg burned a lot of bridges at Paramount, made two minor films at Columbia, then fled Hollywood. In London he accepted an offer from producer Alexander Korda to film an adaptation of I, Claudius, a 1934 novel by Robert Graves about the first-century Roman emperor. The cast included Charles Laughton, one of the most respected actors of his time, and the imperiously beautiful Merle Oberon.
Korda was hoping to build on the success of his film The Private Lives of Henry VIII, while Sternberg, who had filmed Dietrich as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, relished the chance to explore the Roman court. But the production was troubled from the start. Sternberg couldn’t establish a working relationship with Laughton; in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry he wrote: “when he was not in front of the camera he seemed no more abnormal than any other actor.” The director also infuriated the British crew with his autocratic methods.
The final straw came when Oberon had a serious car accident a month into shooting, bringing the production to a halt. (At the time, some suspected that her £80,000 insurance settlement helped offset shuttering the film. Oberon would go on to marry Korda in 1939.)
In 1965, director Bill Duncalf assembled the surviving footage—about 27 minutes—in the documentary The Epic That Never Was. Sternberg was a master at melding production design and cinematography to build atmosphere, and his I, Claudius would have been a stunning achievement.
2. It’s All True—Orson Welles was still a wunderkind when he left the United States for Brazil in 1942. Behind him: Citizen Kane, an unedited version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and the sophisticated pulp thriller Journey Into Fear. Asked by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to make pro-Brazil propaganda as part of the country’s “Good Neighbor” policy, Welles was greeted like a star when he arrived in Rio de Janiero with a $300,000 budget from RKO.
In a treatment to potential backers, Welles wrote, “This is a new sort of picture. It is neither a play, nor a novel in movie form–it is a magazine.” The director envisioned a four-part feature, later reduced to three. It would include My Friend Bonito, written and produced by documentarian Robert Flaherty and directed by Norman Foster, about the friendship between a Mexican youth and a bull. For The Story of Samba, Welles shot black-and-white and Technicolor footage of Rio’s Carnaval.
Welles read a Time article, “Four Men on a Raft,” about four fishermen who sailed 1650 miles in a “jangada,” little more than a raft, to protest poor working conditions. He decided to reenact the trip for the centerpiece of his film. Unfortunately, Manoel Olimpio Meira, the leader of the fishermen, drowned during filming.
The mood of the country turned against the director. He also lost the support of his studio when executives were replaced. Rumors have RKO dumping It’s All True footage into the Pacific. Welles later claimed the film had been cursed by voodoo. The surviving footage was assembled into the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
3. Napoleon—The famously obsessive Stanley Kubrick started and dropped many projects over his career. For years he tried to film Aryan Papers, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, giving up the project when Steven Spielberg started Schindler’s List. A short story from The Moment of Eclipse by Brian W. Aldiss became A.I., which Kubrick never started because he was waiting for better computer effects. It was eventually completed by Spielberg.
After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a figure he had studied for decades. Jan Harlan, his brother-in-law and executive producer of his later films, says Kubrick was fascinated about how someone so intelligent could make such costly mistakes.
Kubrick and MGM announced Napoleon in a July 1968 press release. The director hired 20 Oxford graduates to summarize Napoleon biographies, and filled a file cabinet with index cards detailing the dictator’s life. “I must have gone through several hundred books on the subject,” he told journalist Joseph Gelmis. “You want the audience to get the feeling of what it was like to be with Napoleon.” His relationship with Josephine was “one of the great obsessional passions of all time…So this will not be a dusty historic pageant.”
Staff found locations in Romania, and procured the cooperation of armed forces there for extras. Thousands of uniforms were prepared. Kubrick experimented with special low-light lenses that would enable him to work with candlelight.
According to Harlan, shooting was ready to start when Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, was released. The failure of that film caused Kubrick’s backers to pull out. While the director continued to amass research on the subject, he could never find enough funding to restart the project. He did incorporate some of his findings into his adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975). Alison Castle has edited a remarkable book from Taschen, Napoleon, that gives an indication of how much Kubrick put into the project.
4. Elective Affinities—Playwright, scientist, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, artist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the towering figures of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. His Sorrows of Young Werther swept Europe, changing the culture’s concept of masculinity and inspiring a rash of suicides. (Napoleon carried a copy with him to Egypt.) Faust became the source of a half-dozen operas and symphonic works. Goethe inspired everyone from Nietzsche and Beethoven to Francis Ford Coppola.
Elective Affinities, Goethe’s third novel, was published in 1809. The title refers to how elements bond chemically; the plot describes how relationships change with the addition of a new person. A husband falls in love with an orphaned niece; his wife, with The Captain, her husband’s childhood friend. In chemical terms, AB + CD → AD + BC. Goethe implied that passion and free will were subject to the laws of chemistry, an idea that playwright Tom Stoppard developed further in Arcadia by bringing in chaos theory to the argument.
In 1979, few filmmakers were as respected as Francis Ford Coppola. He had won an Oscar for writing Patton, then directed three of the most accomplished films of his time: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. While working on the calamitous epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola conceived of adapting Elective Affinities into a multi-part film that would combine Eastern and Western influences.
Coppola was not a dilettante about the East: along with George Lucas he was helping to produce Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Coppola studied Kabuki theater, intrigued by how the form abandoned realism for illusion in scenery, story, and actors. He pictured Elective Affinities as four episodes taking place over a ten-year period in both Japan and America, a series that would examine the couple and their lovers in detail.
Walking through the Ginza section of Tokyo, Coppola was reminded of Las Vegas, which became the setting for One from the Heart, “a little musical Valentine,” as he described it to an interviewer. The poor box-office performance of that film, coupled with the crippling debt he assumed for Apocalypse Now, scotched any chance of filming Elective Affinities.
5. Nostromo—David Lean, the director of such epic masterpieces as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, had his share of aborted projects. In the 1970s, after he completed Ryan’s Daughter, he and screenwriter Robert Bolt spent years on a two-part adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty. When Bolt suffered a stroke, Lean eventually abandoned the project, which ended up being directed by Roger Donaldson as The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian.
Lean’s outstanding adaptation of A Passage to India won two Oscars. For his next project he chose Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, a 1904 novel that examined the corrupting influence of a silver mine in a fictional South American country. Director Steven Spielberg agreed to produce the film for Warner Bros. Lean worked with playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and later reunited with Bolt on a newer draft.
Conrad’s novel is filled with adventure on a massive scale, as well as penetrating psychological analyses of flawed characters. It’s also a gloomy, depressing story with a downbeat ending. I read a draft of the script when I was working at HBO in the 1980s, and it captured the scope and feel of the novel while adding Lean’s own jaundiced take on society. It was also a seriously ambitious project for an ill director in his 80s.
Delays followed delays as Spielberg, Hampton and Bolt all departed the project. Lean persisted despite the throat cancer that was killing him. He assembled a cast that included the European actor Georges Corraface as well as Isabella Rossellini and Marlon Brando. Screen tests were shot. Millions were spent constructing sets. Lean wanted to shoot with the Showscan Process, a high-speed, large-format, and very expensive stock. At the very least he insisted on 65mm. Cinematographer John Alcott came up with an ingenious solution for lighting a scene that takes place in a dark mine: make the silver appear phosphorescent.
What a film Nostromo would have been: bold, sweeping, magisterial, mysterious. Lean died six weeks before the start of shooting.
June 27, 2012
The most frustrating aspect of being a film fan is not being able to see the movies you read about. So when a remarkable home movie becomes available, grab the opportunity to see (or record) it.
This Saturday morning, June 30, at 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, Turner Classic Movies is showing Multiple SIDosis, a 1970 short by the amateur filmmaker Sid Laverents. The occasion is a rare screening of Laverents’ remarkable autobiographical film The Sid Saga (1985–2003), a four-part account of his career as a vaudeville performer, salesman, aviation engineer, and amateur filmmaker. (Turner will be broadcasting the first three parts along with the short.)
The term “amateur filmmaker” may seem demeaning today, but when movies started, everybody was an amateur. By the 1920s, the film industry was over 30 years old, with established production and distribution processes. An alternate system of educational and instructional films had developed as well. The home movie market was also an important source of revenue for Kodak. Amateur films, an offshoot from home movies, became an increasingly respectable niche. They were shown in film clubs and art galleries, and were celebrated in magazines like Movie Makers and Creative Art.
“Amateur films” became a catchall phrase that included a wide variety of titles, from documentaries to fiction and animation. Literary adaptations (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928), abstract experiments (The Life and Death of 9413 A Hollywood Extra, 1928), landscape essays (Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther, 1939)—all were “amateur” not because they lacked artistic merit, but largely because they were difficult to see in commercial theaters.
Born in 1908, Sid Laverents had lived several full lives before he bought a Bolex 16mm camera in 1959 to film a vacation in Canada. He screened his footage for the San Diego Amateur Film Club, founded in 1949. Over the next few years Laverents made industrial and promotional films, as well as Snails (1966), an educational film that was purchased by the California Department of Education for use in classrooms.
In 1964 Laverents filmed The One-Man Band, which recreated his vaudeville act and acted as a sort of warm-up for Multiple SIDosis. A dazzling display of double-tracking, the film shows Laverents playing the pop chestnut “Nola” on banjo, ukulele, bottles, jaw harp—all at the same time. Through double-exposures, up to eleven Sids appear on the screen, an effect achieved in camera rather than with an optical printer. Trust me, it’s an incredibly complicated maneuver, and one mistake means you have to start all over again.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Laverents loved solving technical problems, but Multiple SIDosis is much more than a puzzle film. An inveterate performer, Laverents was also a canny one, and he learned over the years how to entertain a wide variety of people. He went to the trouble to invent different characters for each musician in Multiple SIDosis, changing his hair, clothes, even donning Mickey Mouse ears at one point.
Multiple SIDosis was named to the National Film Registry largely because of Melinda Stone, an amateur film expert. “I just started hounding people, calling the Smithsonian, calling the Getty, just anybody I knew who had an interest in folk-film culture,” she said later. Film preservationist Ross Lipman oversaw the restoration and blow-up to 35mm of both Multiple SIDosis and the first three parts of The Sid Saga. Laverents succumbed to pneumonia in May 2009.
Robbins Barstow was another amateur named to the National Film Registry, for his movie Disneyland Dream (1956). Born in 1920, Barstow started making movies at the age of twelve. When he was 16 years old, and already a member of the Amateur Cinema League, he made Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, a 12-minute film that showed his grasp of composition, editing, and structuring scenes.
A husband and father of three, Barstow worked for 34 years as a director of professional development for the Connecticut Educational Association. He also continued to make movies. Disneyland Dream came about as the result of a 3M “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest, for which his son Danny won the family a trip to California. Barstow built a narrative structure around the trip, then filmed it as a story, not as a travelogue, turning his family into characters and inserting shots that commented on their behavior.
Barstow shot on 16mm until 1985, when he switched to 8mm and then to video. When converting his old 16mm films, he added soundtracks and narrations. Over seven decades he amassed more than a hundred productions.
Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry in 2008. By that time Barstow had been championed by Northeast Historic Film and Home Movie Day, among others. Barstow died in 2010 at the age of 91.
Many of his films are available at the Internet Archive, an invaluable resource that has a large collection of home movies. Among these: works by railroad buff Fred McLeod, watchmaker Stanley Zoobris, and Wallace Kelly, whose Our Day was also named to the National Film Registry.
June 22, 2012
The statistics about sexual assault in the military are shocking. The Department of Defense reported 3,158 cases of assault in 2011. Less than half of these were referred for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members received convictions. The Department estimates that less than 14% of victims report assaults, suggesting that the actual number of attacks approaches 19,000 per year.
While the numbers come from the Department of Defense, we only learn about them in the documentary The Invisible War, released today by Cinedigm/Docurama Films. Written and directed by Kirby Dick, The Invisible War is an old-school expose, one that shines a light on material that some would prefer remained hidden.
You might wonder why we need The Invisible War at all. Sexual assault in the military is not a new topic. In 1991 the major television networks gave extensive coverage to the Tailhook scandal, during which more than 100 aviation officers were alleged to have assaulted over 80 women. PBS devoted an episode of Frontline to the incident.
In 1996, the Army brought charges against 12 officers for sexual assault of female trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Again this received widespread media coverage, as did a 2003 scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy. More recently, attorney Susan Blake and sixteen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit over sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, and other locations.
And yet The Invisible War catalogues a subsequent series of rapes and sexual assaults in all branches of the armed forces, and gives pretty conclusive evidence that they are largely ignored. In numerous interviews, victims describe how they were pressured and at times threatened not to report assaults, or found themselves charged with adultery while their attackers went free. According to the filmmakers, a third of servicewomen were too afraid to report assaults because their commanding officers were friends of the rapists. A quarter of the time, the commanding officer was the rapist.
How has the Department of Defense responded? According to Dick, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film on April 12. A few days later, he announced changes in how sexual assault cases will be prosecuted. And early this June, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, who has voiced her support for the new initatives, was replaced as director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
Dick has directed several documentaries, including Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) and Outrage (2009), which dealt with closeted politicians who support anti-gay legislation. He is a deliberately provocative filmmaker, “a brilliant generator of indignation” in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott. An earlier generation might have referred to him as a muckraker.
Outrage generated controversy, with several reviewers refusing to name the politicians Dick outed. When the film failed to receive a nomination at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 21st GLAAD Media Awards, the director complained that the organization was “playing into the same philosophy that has kept the closet in place in politics for decades.”
Sometimes Dick’s methods can backfire. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, perhaps his most widely seen project, Dick attacked the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization responsible for classifying movies as P, PG, etc. In the film he hired a private eye to stalk MPAA members, a stunt that served no purpose other than to bring him publicity. Dick took troubling factual shortcuts, implying that ratings boards in other countries are more lenient than the U.S. when the opposite is frequently true. He also tried to bait the board by submitting his own work for review.
Similarly, in The Invisible War Dick ambushes former SAPRO director Dr. Kaye Whitley during an interview by asking for statistics and definitions. And he uses a time-honored “60 Minutes” trick of focusing the sweat on the face of another interviewee.
But how fair does The Invisible War have to be? Twenty years of sexual scandals have done little or nothing to change military policy. The testimony of the victims is appalling, but frustrating as well in the face of so much inertia. Dick amazingly finds bipartisan agreement, with both Democratic and Republican representatives calling on camera for reform.
Earlier generations of filmmakers also dealt with social issues in the military. I recently wrote about John Huston’s Let There Be Light, which dealt with shell-shocked WWII veterans. Movies like The Reawakening (1919) and Heroes All (1920) did the same for WWI vets. Frank Capra oversaw The Negro Soldier, a groundbreaking documentary about the role of race in the armed forces.
The Invisible War continues this tradition, with some Internet updating: a website, Invisible No More, that lets you participate in reform.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 15, 2012
In honor of Father’s Day, you could watch some of the noble parents who have appeared in film over the years. Perhaps the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Or the benignly cranky Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950), remade with Steve Martin in 1991. Maybe Life With Father, filmed in 1947 with William Powell as the dyspeptic but loving stockbroker Clarence Day. Or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which won James Dunn an Oscar as the suicidal Johnny Nolan.
Or maybe you find the whole idea of Father’s Day—generally believed to have been invented by Sonora Smart Dodd in 1910, but popularized by merchants like the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers in the 1930s—just another a moneymaking ploy. If that’s the case, a less-than-stellar Dad might be more entertaining.
Movies and television are filled with bumbling, inept dads, like the henpecked Harold Bissonette W.C. Fields played in It’s a Gift (1934), or Arthur Lake as Dagwood in his long series of “Blondie” movies, or our reigning champion, Homer Simpson. Adam Sandler, who already starred in Big Daddy, takes the lead in That’s My Boy, released today to cash in on Father’s Day.
But a darker strain of stories stretching back to the Greeks shows fathers in a different light. More recently, Eugene O’Neill had an ambivalent relationship with his father, the actor James O’Neill, while Tennessee Williams presented a monstrous Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Weak or downright bad fathers abound in the works of Dickens and Faulkner, and in their film adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock’s father once had him locked as a child in a jail cell, an experience that colored many of the director’s subsequent films.
Here are some more bad movie fathers:
1. People Like Us (2012). In Alex Kurtzman’s film, loosely based on real events, hot-shot salesman Sam Harper (played by Chris Pine) has been estranged from his father Jerry for years. When Jerry, a former record producer, dies, the deep-in-debt Sam expects a helpful settlement. Instead, he learns that Jerry had a separate family, and that his stepsister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom and recovering addict, is getting the money he needs. Both siblings have bad memories of their father, which may explain why they are in such terrible shape as the film begins.
2. The Kid With the Bike (2011). Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this small-scale movie focuses on Cyril (played by Thomas Doret), an eleven-year-old living in an orphanage in Belgium. Cyril keeps trying to contact his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), unwilling to accept that he has been abandoned. Few scenes are as cold and heartless as one in which Cyril finally confronts Guy in a restaurant. As an actor, Renier gives an admirably detached performance that adds to the film’s poignancy.
3. Five Easy Pieces (1970). A countercultural touchstone, Bob Rafelson’s film shows why classical pianist Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) ends up a working in an oil field: it’s Dad’s fault. A scene in which Nicholson battled a diner waitress over a chicken salad sandwich helped make him a superstar, but the film inexorably circles back to his crippling relationship with his father. Nicholson, who told one reporter that he does not know who his biological father is, encountered another fearsome parent in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
4. My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford’s great Western is ostensibly about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but once you see the film you will never forget Walter Brennan as Ike Clanton, a villain for the ages. Whether rustling cattle, whipping his sons for failing him or shooting a rival in the back with a shotgun, Brennan’s Clanton is a father to be feared and obeyed. Brennan plays him perfectly, without a shred of decency or honesty.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007). Playwright Rob Potter reminded me of this 2007 film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who cheats and murders his way to oil wealth, with Dillon Freasier as his hapless son. Potter cites this dialogue from Plainview: “Drainage! Drainage, Eli! Drained dry, you boy! If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake—I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
6. Star Wars. Do these films still need spoiler alerts? When writing Star Wars, George Lucas was enamored of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which asserted that a specific hero myth has figured through many cultures. Campbell and TV reporter Bill Moyers even discussed how Lucas used the book in a scene filmed at Skywalker Ranch. The second and best episode to be filmed, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is suffused with an almost Biblical sense of destiny. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) is fated, or doomed, to confront his nemesis Darth Vader, a villain so evil he thinks nothing of destroying entire planets.
There must be other bad dads lurking in movies. What are your favorites?
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 13, 2012
Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.
It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:
1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.
2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”
3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.
Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.
There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.
June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
June 6, 2012
Upgraded to Blu-ray, the John Wayne Western Hondo has just been released by Paramount Home Media. Hondo sold over a million units when it was released on DVD in 2005, but the Blu-ray boasts a new 1080p high definition transfer as well as many extra features.
If you’re familiar with Wayne’s classic Westerns, like Stagecoach, Red River, and Fort Apache, Hondo may come across as a change of pace. Based on a Louis L’Amour short story (which the author later turned into a best-selling novelization), Hondo stars Wayne as a mysterious, at times menacing Civil War veteran and widower who becomes the sole protector of single mother Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her feature film debut) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker).
Set in the deserts of New Mexico, the film is surprisingly forward thinking in its attitude towards women, Native Americans, and the frontier in general. Filmed in color and 3D in Mexico, Hondo made excellent use of cutting-edge technology—even if cinematographers Robert Burks and Archie Stout were often ill-at-ease with 3D effects. (An excellent article by Bob Furmanek and Jack Theaston on the new 3-D Film Archive site shows how involved Wayne and studio head Jack Warner were in the technical side of the filming.)
Hondo features a number of actors and filmmakers familiar from Wayne’s Westerns, like the garrulous Ward Bond and screenwriter James Edward Grant, both of whom are profiled in Blu-ray extras. James Arness, later the star of TV’s “Gunsmoke,” has a small role.
Like many of his contemporaries, Wayne started taking more control over his career in the 1950s as the studio system faded. With his partner Robert Fellows, Wayne formed a production company that would evolve into Batjac. Director John Farrow, an Australian native, had worked for Wayne’s company earlier that year on the thriller Plunder of the Sun. (Farrow married actress Maureen O’Sullivan; their daughter Mia has enjoyed an extensive acting career, appearing as Christopher Walken’s wife in the upcoming Dark Horse. And as a bit of trivia, biographer Tad Gallagher wrote that John Ford directed two of the shots in Hondo.)
Choosing projects entailed a lot more risk than simply accepting studio assignments, but it also gave Wayne the chance to take on more nuanced characters than those he portrayed in some of his earlier films. Hondo is a suspicious, close-mouthed character, someone who doesn’t want to get involved in the problems surrounding him. His relationship with Angie is a difficult one—which Geraldine Page emphasizes in her performance.
Wayne’s son Michael took over Batjac in 1961. As well as producing movies, Michael oversaw the company’s complicated holdings, which included copyright and distribution rights to Hondo, The High and the Mighty, Islands in the Sky, and McLintock! I spoke with his widow Gretchen Wayne this week, and she went over the specifics of how zealously her husband protected the Batjac films. She also took over the responsibility of running Batjac after Michael died in 2004.
Gretchen Wayne oversaw the Blu-ray upgrade, as well as a complete restoration of the 3D version of Hondo, which she has screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and other venues. She praised the new Blu-ray restoration. “Has it been on television? Yes,” she said. “Has it looked as good as it does now? Absolutely not. What you’re going to see here is a newer film, and you’ll see it in enhanced widescreen.”
She agrees that Hondo was an unusual role for Wayne. “It’s a little more intellectual than his other films. There are a lot more subtleties, more tension. And more respect for the Indian nation,” she said. “And then there’s some dialogue that the average woman today would shudder at, like when Geraldine Page says, ‘I know I’m a homely woman.’ But she’s so strong in that part—she got an Academy Award nomination for what was her first starring role.”
I wondered if John Wayne’s screen persona can still connect with an audience today. “Well, it’s interesting,” Mrs. Wayne replied. “I’ve got a 26-year-old granddaughter in the advertising business, and all her friends know who John Wayne is. They watch his films on their iPhones, which drives me crazy. You go to all the trouble to make a film that will look good in a theater and these kids are watching them on telephones!
“But they are connecting to him. His films are on all the time. Their fathers watched them, or their grandfathers. Or their mothers will talk about them. He’s a hero—just ask anyone in the military who John Wayne is. If writers or directors today want to give you a character with civility, honesty, and patriotism, they will give you someone like John Wayne.”
Mrs. Wayne met her future husband when she was fourteen, so she was intimately familiar with the Duke for several decades. She described him as a gentleman, someone respectful to women, and polite to the point of shyness. “He didn’t bound into a room all boisterous,” she said. “In front of me and my sisters-in-law, I never heard him say a vulgar word in all those years.”
What would get Wayne mad was a lack of professionalism on his movie sets. “My husband told me that when they went on location, the Duke was the first one there in the morning, and the last one away at night. He expected the same from everyone, particularly his own family. He meant it when he said, ‘Sun’s up, where are you?’ He couldn’t stand to waste time, it was like burning money.”
Wayne is an iconic figure, perhaps the most recognizable Western star and a potent cultural symbol. Growing up, it was easy for me and my friends to dismiss him as old-fashioned compared to anti-heroes like Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. With hindsight, I recognize how difficult many of Wayne’s choices were, and how honorably he treated his audience.
Today many viewers tend to lump Wayne in with more straightforward action stars instead of giving him credit as an actor. In his best films Wayne shows many different personalities: the conflicted boxer in The Quiet Man; the bitter, aging rancher in Red River; the homesteader who sacrifices his happiness in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and the grim, driven vigilante in The Searchers. It’s notable that in many of his films, like The Quiet Man and Angel and the Badman, Wayne plays men wary and suspicious of violence.
Mrs. Wayne singled out these films as favorites, as well as The Shootist, where “I thought he gave one of his best performances ever. It was touching to us, the family, more perhaps than to other people because we knew how sick he was.” Appropriately, The Shootist incorporates footage from Hondo to explain Wayne’s character’s background.
Mrs. Wayne pointed out that Angel and the Badman provided the template for the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, and many of today’s action stars evoke Wayne, consciously or not. Hondo gives you the chance to see the real thing, one of the screen’s most memorable heroes at the height of his fame.