October 28, 2011
Vampires thrive in many cultures, from ancient Persia to modern suburbia. They seem especially prevalent now: HBO announced a fifth season of True Blood; entering its third season, The Vampire Diaries has been one of the more successful series on The CW; and November 18 marks the release of part one of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, the fourth entry in the film series adapted from Stephenie Meyer’s books.
Our interest in vampires stems largely from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, which the author tried to mount as a stage production soon after its publication. Stoker’s widow Florence fought to prevent bootleg adaptations, almost succeeding in destroying F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1921), in which the German actor Max Schreck made a very convincing bloodsucker.
Mrs. Stoker authorized Hamilton Deane’s London stage version of Dracula in 1924, which opened in New York in 1927 and later in a road company production starring Bela Lugosi. The play set down many of the “rules” of the vampire genre, from Dracula’s motives and weaknesses down to his clothes. (His cape, for example, helped disguise the trapdoors necessary for stage disappearances.) Universal adapted the play for the screen in 1931, paying Lugosi $3500 for seven weeks’ work as the lead. His performance—the halting speech, icy expressions, and sinister hair—set the standard for future screen vampires (and forever typecast him). Remnants of Lugosi’s work can be seen in everything from the series of Dracula films Christopher Lee made for Hammer Studios to “The Count” from Sesame Street and Count Chocula cereal.
Vampires took on different forms in Asian cultures. In Yuewei Caotang Biji, the Qing Dynasty author Ji Xiaolan described a “jiangshi virus” that could turn victims into hopping vampires. Jiangshi bloodsuckers operate much like Caucasian ones, only they are afflicted with rigor mortis that causes them to hop with arms outstretched after their victims.
In 1985, producer Sammo Hung (a major screen star in his own right) initiated a phenomenally successful series of hopping vampire films starring Lam Ching-ying as a Taoist exorcist. Mixing comedy and martial arts, movies like Mr. Vampire and its sequels are broad, easygoing fun, full of lighthearted chills and intricate slapstick. They inspired numerous imitators through the years, even as filmmakers grabbed ideas from Hollywood. The Twins Effect (also known as Vampire Effect in the US), for example, used themes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to become Hong Kong’s number one box-office title of 2003.
1987 saw the release of two films that tried to rejuvenate the vampire myth, The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The former, featuring a passel of Brat Pack wannabes and directed by Joel Schumacher, found kid vampires running amok in a California beach town. The latter, featuring much of the cast of Aliens and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, took a darker approach: vampires as bikers terrorizing small towns in a desolate West. Although a commercial failure, Near Dark developed an extensive following over the years. Gruesome, funny, and morbid, it has some of the most vicious action scenes of its time. (Both directors are still working. Schumacher’s Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, just opened; Bigelow won a Best Directing Oscar for The Hurt Locker, and is currently prepping a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.)
Vampyr (1931) was also a commercial failure on its release, but no other film has as nightmarish a vision of the undead. Directed by Carl Dreyer as a follow-up to his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr was produced independently on the cusp of the transition from silent to sound movies. Dreyer planned French, German, and English versions; only the first two were apparently finished. It was the director’s first sound film, and he shot on location with a largely untrained cast. The negative and sound elements have been lost; prints today have been pieced together from incomplete copies. All of these factors help contribute to the movie’s sense of unease.
The plot, adapted from J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, finds amateur occult specialist Allan Grey (played by the film’s producer Baron Nicolas de Gunszburg) investigating a mysterious illness in the village of Courtempierre. What he uncovers has become the building blocks of today’s horror genre. Consciously or not, filmmakers around the globe have plundered scenes and special effects from Vampyr, but no one has quite captured its spectral tones. Combined with Dreyer’s extraordinary use of screen space, the disorienting cinematography by Rudolph Maté and the deliberately fleeting soundtrack make watching Vampyr the equivalent of being trapped in an inexplicable and deeply menacing dream.
Perhaps vampires affect us so deeply because they fit so many metaphors. Bram Stoker may have been influenced by the rise in immigration rates in London, or the spread of venereal diseases like syphilis. Or he may have been writing about his boss, actor Henry Irving, a tyrant who sucked away the author’s ambitions. Vampires have been portrayed as foreigners, neighbors, villains, clowns, lovers. They are misunderstood, demonic, lonely, noble, evil, both killer and prey. Preserved on film, they have truly become undead.
October 26, 2011
Critical consensus earlier this year was that the 3-D boom in motion pictures was dying. “Not every movie, in my opinion, should be in 3-D,” director Steven Spielberg said at July’s Comic-Con. “Audiences have now come to realize there are bad movies that can be in 3-D as well and, on top of that, you’re being charged an extra $5 to see a movie that was as bad as one you saw in 2-D,” said Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Spielberg’s producing partner on the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.
The rerelease of a 3-D version of Disney’s The Lion King quickly eliminated the doom saying. After the 1994 film grossed over $100 million (see my earlier posting), the 3-D process took on an air of inevitability. Disney is converting Beauty and the Beast to 3-D, followed by Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Directors as prominent as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Francis Coppola (Twixt) have committed to the process. So have low-budget filmmakers and even documentarians like Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the Chauvet Cave in France) and Wim Wenders (Pina, about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch).
This isn’t the first go-round for 3-D movies. The principles behind stereo photography were known well before the invention of motion pictures, and in the nineteenth century stereoscopic viewers were popular household toys. According to Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, 3-D might have had a more immediate impact in the dawn of cinema if the first moving pictures hadn’t already provided more depth than still photography. “The illusion of the moving image stopped the development of 3D moving image for a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Drössler, one of the world’s leading experts on 3-D, will give a highly anticipated lecture this Saturday, October 29, at the Museum of Modern Art. In 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! An Illustrated History of Stereoscopic Cinema, he will demonstrate the myriad examples of 3-D movies stretching back to the early 1900s. Among his topics: the German inventor Max Skladanowsky, who tried to animate 3-D images in the late 19th century.
Even movies by the pioneering special effects director Georges Méliès can be projected in 3-D, thanks to the fact that he often filmed with two synchronized cameras side by side, the second camera providing a “protection” negative. (Filming with two cameras was a common practice in Hollywood as well; the second negative could be used for European markets or to replace footage once the first wore out.) Méliès didn’t plan to make 3-D films, but with modern technology we can re-synchronize his images to provide a realistic illusion of depth.
I’ve seen some early examples of 3-D movies at previous MoMA screenings, like William Van Doren Kelley’s “Plasticon” shorts from the 1920s, and can attest to their eerie, ghostly power. The sense of depth in the shorts is startling. As captured on lustrous nitrate stock, the images have a haunting beauty as well. They bring the past to life in ways that “flat” movies can’t.
After his lecture, Mr. Drössler will introduce a screening of Robinzon Kruzo (1947), most likely the first 3-D feature. Produced in the Soviet Union, it “was shown exclusively in one Russian cinema for about two years,” he wrote. “You even find reports about it in Sight and Sound magazine.” Robinzon Kruzo was re-released several times in the USSR, and drew a half-million moviegoers during a four-month run in London.
Mr. Drössler’s talk will cover other processes as well, their names evoking the hucksters that helped make movies a commercial success: Zeiss Ikon Raumfilm, Plasztikus Films, Stereokino 70, StereoVision, SpaceVision. He will also address 3-D’s inability, until now, to establish a permanent foothold in the industry.
In the 1950s, when directors like Alfred Hitchcock were experimenting with 3-D, the biggest drawback to the process may have been the fact that it required two prints running simultaneously through two projectors. Lose a frame on one print, and your movie was no longer synchronized. Today’s digital projectors can provide 3-D depth with only one print.
Still, 3-D faces an uphill battle with consumers. As Mr. Drössler notes, “It’s true that today more theaters than ever are equipped for 3-D projection, but the process is still not dominating mainstream cinema: The majority of films in the box-office top ten are not 3-D, hardly any 3-D films have been in competition at the big film festivals, and none has ever won a prize in these festivals.” The biggest problem with the process for Mr. Drössler: “As long as there is no satisfactory 3-D system without glasses for cinema and for TV, it will never become a dominant force in the mainstream film industry.”
October 24, 2011
In “The Sniping of Partisans, This Time on Screen,” New York Times entertainment reporter Michael Cieply pointed out the political implications of releasing a film like Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the assassinated President, before or after the 2012 Presidential election.
Cieply went on to cite several films, including the upcoming Butter from the Weinstein Company, that he felt might “play a role in voters’ choice for the White House.” Cieply’s opinion, buttressed by quotes from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, is that we have reached the point where movies and politics have converged. Actually, that point arrived a long time ago.
Examples of advocacy filmmaking stretch back to the beginnings of cinema. I am simultaneously appalled and charmed by films made about the Spanish-American war, in particular Battle of Manila Bay (1898), a short that helped make the reputations of J. Stuart Blackton and his partner Albert E. Smith. Working with boat models in a bathtub, Blackton reenacted Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory for the camera. When his footage reached vaudeville houses a couple of weeks later, it was a tremendous hit, causing a succession of imitators to try their hands at faking war footage. Edward Atmet used miniatures to make Bombardment of Matanzas, Firing Broadside at Cabanas and other films. Film historian Charles Musser believes that The Edison Company shot fake battle movies like Cuban Ambush in New Jersey. To cash in on the war craze, the Biograph company simply retitled its film Battleships “Iowa” and “Massachusetts” to Battleships “Maine” and “Iowa.” Musser cites one newspaper article that reported “fifteen minutes of terrific shouting” at its showing.
World War I unleashed a tidal wave of anti-German propaganda from US filmmakers. Perhaps no one capitalized on the mood of the country better than Erich von Stroheim, who played villainous Huns so effectively that he became “The Man You Love to Hate.” Liberty Bond rallies featuring stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks drew hundreds of thousands of spectators; Chaplin even made a short, The Bond, to help sales. It was one of at least thirty bond fundraising films released by the industry.
Some of the industry’s dirtiest political tricks took place in California in 1934. As detailed in Greg Mitchell’s book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor (Random House), media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and the Chandler family (of The Los Angeles Times) made a concerted effort to defeat Sinclair, whose End Poverty in California (EPIC) program was gathering significant grass-roots support. Joining in the attack: MGM, which under the direction of studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg filmed two newsreels that presented Sinclair in the worst possible light. Actors playing toothless immigrants swore their devotion to the candidate, while “hoboes” gathered at the California border, waiting for Sinclair’s election so they could take advantage of his socialist policies.
Newsreels have long since been supplanted by television news, but filmmakers never stopped making advocacy pieces. When director Frank Capra saw Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious pro-Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, he wrote, “Satan himself couldn’t have devised a more blood-chilling super-spectacle.” Capra responded with Why We Fight, a seven-part, Oscar-winning documentary that put the government’s objectives into terms moviegoers could understand.
When William Wyler set out to direct Mrs. Miniver for MGM, he admitted, “I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationist.” The story of how an upper-class British family reacts to German attacks, the film made joining the war effort seem like common decency. Mrs. Miniver not only won six Oscars, it became a prime propaganda tool. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked that the movie’s closing sermon be broadcast over the Voice of America and distributed as leaflets throughout Europe. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying that the film’s impact on “public sentiment in the USA was worth a whole regiment.” Wyler received a telegram from Lord Halifax saying that Mrs. Miniver “cannot fail to move all that see it. I hope that this picture will bring home to the American public that the average Englishman is a good partner to have in time of trouble.” (Years later, Wyler admitted that his movie “only scratched the surface of the war. I don’t mean it was wrong. It was incomplete.”)
Some may find the idea that movies can directly influence political discourse hard to swallow. Sure, movies like Outfoxed or The Undefeated make strong arguments. But aren’t they just preaching to their followers? Can they really change the minds of their opponents?
To some extent all films are political, because all films have a point of view. Movies that deal with perceived injustices—in Spielberg’s case, The Sugarland Express and Amistad—are on some level criticizing a system that allows them to occur. Even Spielberg’s mass-oriented adventures, like the Indiana Jones series, express a points-of-view: Jones, on the surface apolitical, is drawn into battling tyrannical regimes that threaten the American way of life.
On the other hand, setting out with the goal of making political points through film almost never succeeds, as the graveyard of recent Iraq war-related movies shows. A film has to capture the zeitgeist, it has to deliver a message that moviegoers are ready to accept, in order to have an impact of the culture. When it works, as in the phenomenal box-office results for titles as disparate as Iron Man and Avatar, it doesn’t even matter whether the films have artistic merit.
October 19, 2011
Few movie stars have adapted to celebrity as well as George Clooney. The actor, screenwriter and director has dominated media coverage in New York City for the past two weeks, first for his political thriller The Ides of March, and just this past weekend for The Descendants, a drama about a family from Hawaii coping with a crisis. (Fox Searchlight will be releasing The Descendants on November 18.)
To promote the former film, Clooney participated in a live “10 Questions” conference with Time magazine’s Richard Stengel. Seated on a low stage before a hundred or so writers and staffers, the actor was just like we want our movie stars to be: warm, funny, articulate, willing to clown around with reporters but also to speak knowledgeably about Darfur. Asked if he would consider running for office, he quipped, “Run from is more like it.”
You could gauge Clooney’s appeal from those who attended the conference, including more well-dressed women than, say, Newt Gingrich might have attracted to his 10 Questions event. Even the male journalists were dressed up.
Clooney acknowledged that he received more attention than he probably deserved, but the corollary is that everyone expects something from him. And although The Ides of March received some lukewarm reviews, Clooney still had to play nice, giving reasoned answers to sometimes ridiculous or borderline offensive questions. And he was at it again later that evening for the New York premiere of The Ides of March at the Ziegfeld Theatre.
For The Descendants, Clooney appeared with many of the cast members and director Alexander Payne for a short conference at the New York Film Festival after a screening Sunday morning, October 16. (This was after another screening and conference the night before at a joint SAG/BAFTRA event.) Again Clooney faced maddening questions: Why did he wear Hawaiian shirts in the movie? What would he do if his girlfriend cheated on him? (“I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want that answer coming back to me.”)
Behind the joshing and teasing, Clooney seemed far more relaxed than he did promoting The Ides of March. For one thing, he did not direct, co-write, or produce The Descendants. But both the actor and the reporters present seemed to realize that The Descendants was something different, a movie of old-fashioned, even classical craft, one that offers Clooney perhaps the strongest role of his career.
The hyper-articulate Alexander Payne, director of such critical favorites as Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt, told the audience that he adapted The Descendants (originally a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) with Clooney in mind. An indication of the actor’s power is that filming started only four months after he agreed to star in it.
In its settings and characters, The Descendants evokes a long tradition of Hollywood films that used to be called message dramas, or more frequently soap operas. They dealt with upper-cast life in posh settings, allowing viewers to luxuriate in unattainable life styles while reassuring them that they wouldn’t be happy there anyway.
The Descendants takes place on the big island of Oahu, and Payne captures its achingly beautiful vistas in ways that haven’t been seen much feature films. (He also cushions the story with classic Hawaiian music by Gabby Pahinui, Keola Beamer, and other traditional artists.) The director’s calm, unhurried style puts the audience at ease before he springs the plot’s tough moral questions.
The story centers on Matt King (played by Clooney) and his two young daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Their mother has fallen into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. King, a distant father at best, tries to reconnect with his children in an awkward but instantly recognizable journey to some form of reconciliation.
The Descendants is ultimately a story about forgiveness, albeit one played out among country clubs, private schools, and beachside cottages. Payne cited two “ins” into the story, one in which King decides how to confront a rival, another in which a wife (played by the estimable Judy Greer) must face up to her husband’s infidelities. Both moments ask viewers to consider how they would react, a narrative strategy that’s the polar opposite of Hollywood’s usual punch/counter-punch approach to storytelling.
Clooney is usually the alpha male in his movies. Think of his lawyer in Michael Clayton, a ruthless fixer who can talk his way out of any situation. Or Governor Mike Morris in The Ides of March, a politician so confident he can step beyond rules meant for more ordinary men.
Payne does something different in The Descendants: he strips Clooney of his power. Matt King isn’t articulate, he isn’t a very good father, and he was a failure as a husband. Cousins and in-laws, to say nothing of his daughters, push him around with ease. King puts up a good fight, but by the end of the movie everything he believed about himself has been taken away.
Clooney plays King as someone in a state of perpetual stunned disbelief. He reacts silently to each new revelation rather than spinning out glib one-liners, and he lets his pain show. It’s a performance that makes him and The Descendants immediate front-runners in the Oscar race.
October 14, 2011
The 49th New York Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with a screening of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Critical response to the festival has been somewhat muted, perhaps because, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times summary, so many of the scheduled films will receive theatrical releases in the future.
One of the high points of the Festival was the appearance of the West Memphis Three for a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see my earlier posting). Interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, co-director Joe Berlinger described how moved he was to see the Three’s reactions as they watched a sunset from a Manhattan rooftop, free after 18 years in prison. (Disclaimer: my wife is the executive producer of the Leonard Lopate Show.) Paradise Lost 3 is a remarkable film, one that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in justice.
A festival coup was a sneak preview of director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s novel Hugo Cabret. Billed a “work in progress” at the screening, the completed Hugo will be released by Paramount on November 23. (Watch the trailer.) Disney employed a similar stunt during 1991′s Festival when it screened a rough draft of Beauty and the Beast. Scorsese also showed his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World prior to its broadcast on HBO.
Scorsese is making an appearance at a different New York festival that opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation highlights 35 films from 14 countries, as well as a retrospective tribute to filmmaker Jack Smith. On November 7, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will be introducing the uncut, 163-minute version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team behind such classics as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. (Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow.)
Blimp is not too difficult to see, and in fact Criterion offers a well-regarded home video version. The same can’t be said for many of the other films in To Save and Project. Director Joe Dante opens the festival with The Movie Orgy (1968), a unique assemblage of trailers, commercials, training films, and newscasts that he and Jon Davidson screened at colleges 40 years ago. On Saturday, Dante will introduce his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), “It’s a Good Life,” along with Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), an early anti-discrimination film starring William Shatner.
Due to rights complications, The Movie Orgy will most likely never be available to the home market. Many other restored films languish in a limbo of restricted access. It’s been over 20 years since I attended a screening of Under a Texas Moon (1930), the first sound Western shot in Technicolor and an early screen credit for Myrna Loy. Film buffs grumble about being unable to see the restored versions of The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor’s World War I epic, or Wings (1927), the only Best-Picture-winner not legally available on home video. Rights can be a huge stumbling block to museums and archives, making it difficult or impossible for fans to see their favorite movies.
And then some of the films in To Save and Project are just too obscure to warrant distributing to the home market. How about a series of five ethnographic shorts that noted documentarian Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the late 1940s? Or Robinzon Kruzo (1947), considered the first 3d feature-length film? To Save and Project devotes a segment to comedies from distributor Jean Desmet, to film and dance performances by Elaine Summers, and to five CinemaScope and widescreen films from Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of these titles will eventually trickle out to Turner Classic Movies and the home market, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), showcased in last year’s festival. But I am eagerly anticipating the chance to see hard-to-find titles like Afraid to Talk, a 1933 Universal melodrama about political corruption; Hoop-La (1933), a romantic comedy that was Clara Bow’s last screen role; and Les Halles centrales (1927), a documentary of a market in Paris by Boris Kaufman, later a noted cinematographer and the younger brother of Russian director Dziga Vertov. I also plan to attend The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s existential film noir about getaway expert Ryan O’Neal, to see how it compares to Nicolas Winging Refn’s wildly overhyped new release Drive.
October 12, 2011
How important were home movies in your family? Since motion pictures were first marketed in the late19th century, they were available to home consumers as well as professionals. Pathé offered the specifically home-oriented 28mm filmstock in 1912, and by the 1930s, both 16mm and 8mm cameras had entered the home consumer market.
For the next two decades home movies were an expensive and at times demanding hobby. Miriam Bennett, whose delightful comedy A Study in Reds (1932) was selected for the National Film Registry, was the daughter of famous still photographer H.H. Bennett and helped run the family studio in Wisconsin Dells after his death. Wallace Kelly, an illustrator and photographer whose Our Day (1938) is also on the Registry, skipped lunch for a year to pay for a motion picture camera. Their work might better be called “amateur” rather than “home” movies.
But as Baby Boomers matured in the 1950s, and the cost of equipment and film stock dropped, home movies became a mainstay of family get-togethers. A grammar of home movies emerged as filmmakers focused on the same familiar tableaus. Children grouped around the Christmas tree, for example, or seated at a picnic table on the Fourth of July. Birthday parties, new cars, playing at the beach or by a lake, a big storm: home movies became a combination of the unusual and the everyday, with clothes and haircuts marking the passing of years.
Founded in 2002, Home Movie Day celebrates them all: the bizarre and the brilliant, the obscure and the famous. Formed as a sort of outreach effort for archivists, the annual affair gives everyone who attends the chance to screen their films. For a lot of family members without access to working projectors, this is a great opportunity to see what’s in their collection. At the same time, it lets archivists counsel on the need for preservation.
According to Brian Graney, a co-founder of Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the project, the first event took place in 24 locations, almost all within the United States. This year Home Movie Day will take place in 66 sites across 13 countries on Saturday, October 15. (See the full list here.)
Graney, currently the Media Cataloger at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, wrote to me in an e-mail about the need to protect what can be extremely vulnerable films. “All home movies are at risk to some degree,” he explained, “because there’s no negative behind a home movie—the reel on the projector is the same one exposed in the camera. In commercial films you have multiple copies of the same content. Here, there’s just the one, and even for home movies held in archives, keeping that one safe might be the best we can do.”
According to Graney, “The greatest risk is in the widely held and wrongheaded idea that home movies are without interest to anyone but their creators, or that they’re all alike and all equally banal.”
Home Movie Day has helped bring some extraordinary films to a wider public, like Our Day and the Registry title Disneyland Dream (1956), a wonderful travelogue by the accomplished amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow. Each year holds the potential for new discoveries.
Perhaps the best proof of the variety and scope of home movies can be found in Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, an extraordinary feature produced and directed by Dwight Swanson. A compilation of 16 films dating back to 1915, Amateur Night provides an introduction to everything that is important about home movies, from personalities and historical events to sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The celebrities in Amateur Night include director Alfred Hitchcock frolicking with his wife Alma Reville; the real-life Smokey Bear, shown recovering from burn wounds from a forest fire; and President Richard Nixon, mingling with crowds on an Idaho airport tarmac.
Other films in Amateur Night give us new approaches to incidents we think we may already know. For instance, Helen Hill’s Lower 9th Ward (2005, from the Harvard Film Archive) is a first-person account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmed by someone who lived in and loved New Orleans. For me, Hill’s impassioned advocacy is more affecting than the reports of journalists trained to be objective about what they are covering.
Or take Atom Bomb (1953, from the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia Libraries), filmed by Louis C. Harris, a journalist and later editor at Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle. Harris, who served in the 12th Air Service Command during World War II, was invited to Nevada to view the detonation of the 16-kiloton “Shot Annie” on March 17, 1953. His footage captures the awesome, terrifying effects of a nuclear blast in ways that more official accounts don’t.
“In the past two decades archives, scholars, and hopefully the general public, too, have started to develop a deeper understanding of home movies and amateur films,” Swanson wrote to me in an e-mail. “The curatorial philosophy behind Amateur Night is to show the range of diversity that has been found in the universe of amateur film, and to persuade people to think of them in new ways and not dismiss them as purely family records.”
For the past year, Swanson has been screening Amateur Night across the country. Sunday, October 16, he’s showing it in Los Angeles as part of the Academy Film Archive’s Home Movie Weekend. On Friday, November 4, he’ll be at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Do not miss the chance to attend a screening, because you won’t find Amateur Night on DVD. “There are no plans for DVD distribution,” Swanson said, “since we wanted it to be a film preservation project and to showcase the [nondigital] photochemical preservation work being done by preservation film labs such as Cineric, Inc.”
So drop into a local Home Movie Day event, and see Amateur Night if you can. As Swanson put it, “The goal is to show that there are some wonderful and amazing films found both in archives and in homes.”
October 7, 2011
Nothing beats the experience of watching movies in a real movie theater. Not the concrete boxes in a multiplex, but an actual theater with aisles, a stage, and perhaps even a balcony. In what I hope will be a recurring feature, I’d like to introduce you to some of the classic movie theaters across the country. Send in your own suggestions as well to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll feature the best entries on the blog.
I’ll start with the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Located right on a downtown main street, the Colonial is both a connection to the past and an anchor for a thriving community.
The Colonial started when Harry Brownback lost his family’s Majolica pottery plant to fire and a bad economy. Using $30,000 in proceeds from his settlement, Brownback combined two storefronts on Bridge Street into the Colonial Opera House. The theater opened on September 5, 1903, and the first movies were shown there that December.
The theater alternated between stage shows and concerts at first, but movies became an increasingly important part of the schedule. A Wurlitzer organ introduced Fox Movietone newsreels, and the theater was wired for sound in 1928 when Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer screened. 1925 saw the theater’s last stage show, Very Good Eddie, although the venue continued to be used for benefit performances.
George Silverman purchased the theater in the late 1950s, and rented it out to Good News Productions in 1957 to film The Blob, a low-budget horror movie starring Steve McQueen. That might have been the Colonial’s high point, because by the 1970s it was, like most theaters of its kind, in danger of closing.
Mary Foote moved to Phoenixville in 1987 and attended one of the Star Trek films a few years later. “All I remember was that the sound was terrible, the picture was horrible, and the seats were uncomfortable.” she told me recently. “But it was a really cool building.”
Several owners of the Colonial tried but could not make a profit with the theater. The building closed in 1996, but that December, concerned residents, including Ms. Foote, worked with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation to try to re-open the theater, using a new non-profit group, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT).
“There were organizational problems, business problems and then building problems,” Foote, who is now the executive director of the theater, remembered. “We put together a small group with strong ties to the community, people we knew could help us raise money. We were lucky to have a few businesses who took a risk. For example, a hospital foundation gave us $75,000 toward our first campaign. The feeling was the theater would improve the health of the community.”
ACT needed a half-million dollars to install new projection equipment and get the building up to code. “The audience for the theater had dwindled to nothing, so we also had to build the business,” Foote said. “We decided to go with art and independent films rather than compete with the twenty-some screens right in our back yard. We also wanted to bring a better level of programming to the area.”
The Colonial re-opened on October 1, 1999, as Run Lola Run screened with over 300 in attendance. Since then ACT has initiated several phases of renovations, investing over $2 million in the theater. It has also expanded its programming calendar to include concerts, lectures, and film series.
“We do classics on Sundays, we’re moving into documentaries, and we do a pretty broad children’s program,” Foote said. “We have a Blobfest every summer. We do a Rocky Horror Picture Show once a year. We just launched a new program with TED – Technology, Entertainment, and Design, a speaker forum in which smart, interesting people come and speak. The hook is they can only speak for 18 minutes because the organizers believe you can say what you need to say in that time”.
Savvy theater owners always knew the key to success: adapt or die. The 1920s saw the rise of the movie palaces, opulent, ornate theaters designed to awe and overwhelm their customers. During the Depression theaters staged “dish nights,” in which they gave away chinaware and cutlery, and acted as babysitters during Saturday matinees. Competing with television and multiplexes is obviously tough, but as Foote put it, “Our first competitor isn’t the movie theater down the street, our first competitor is the cost of cable, Netflix, all the other reasons people stay at home. But we feel that if you offer quality programming, people are just dying to get out and enjoy themselves with other people.”
ACT continues to renovate and refurbish the Colonial, and plans to expand into a bank next door to the theater that was built in 1925. “We opened in 1999 on a block on Bridge Street where all of the changes in society that caused downtowns to go downhill were evident. We had a very low occupancy rate, most of the stores were gone, there were very few restaurants,” Foote said. “Right now Phoenixville is a pretty vibrant place.”
The Colonial deserves some of the credit for the resurgence in downtown Phoenixville. When you attend a film or concert there, you join theatergoers who saw Mary Pickford live on stage, or the first run of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with Wind. It is a wonderful experience.
October 5, 2011
More than most art forms, cinema was founded on science. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison drew on optics, chemistry, metallurgy and neuropsychology in devising and perfecting motion pictures. Edison’s early cinematic developments were covered by Scientific American, while Popular Science and similar magazines devoted articles to film technologies like color and 3D processes.
And yet for over a hundred years, feature films have played with science’s facts and distorted its principles and theories. Think of the astronomers who, after being shot from a cannon, discover beauty queens on the moon in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Or The Thieving Hand (1908), in which the eponymous hand attaches and detaches itself from unsuspecting hosts to go on crime sprees. Rockets that roar through the vacuum of outer space, doctors who turn into insects via electrical pulses, donated eyes that see ghosts: the list of cinematic crimes against science seems endless. Whether bringing dinosaurs to life through snippets of DNA in Jurassic Park or turning robots into assassins in The Terminator, filmmakers have leaned on science to add credibility to their work—whether or not their interpretations made any sense.
Starting in 2005, Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, then the associate director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, and entrepreneur Richard Anders began addressing the disconnect between film and science. The Coolidge (a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts) initiated a series that brought the “top minds in the world of science, medicine and technology,” as Taylor-Mead wrote later, to introduce films that matched their interests. Science on Screen quickly became a favorite part of the Coolidge’s schedule and since 2010 has received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The 2011 season began this week with a screening of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), introduced by Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at Harvard University and co-author of “Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?” Who better to introduce a film about a giant, man-eating plant?
In November, the Coolidge is showing Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, preceded by Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at HMS. No one in cinema handled dreams better than Buñuel, which is why Dr. Stickgold will be talking about the dreaming brain. December’s entry, 12 Monkeys, is paired with journalist Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses. In January, MIT physics professor Edward Farhi discusses the physics of time travel for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Taylor-Mead admits that the series had some growing pains. “Just searching for the closest match in terms of subject matter,” she wrote, “can mean you’re often stuck with a less than stellar example of film art, and that you’re merely attempting to illustrate information already given.”
The key was to find pairings that made sense but were still surprising. For example, Guy Crosby, a professor of food science and nutrition at Framingham State College and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, as well as the science editor for Cook’s Illustrated and the science expert for America’s Test Kitchen, spoke about how our sense of taste works for Babette’s Feast (1987). In my favorite pairing, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, introduced George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Questions he raised included: What explains zombies’ lack of executive function? Why do the walking dead have such lousy balance, and why are they always so hungry?
Starting in January, 2011, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began awarding grants to non-profit art house cinemas to create their own Science on Screen programs. Eight theaters were chosen: The Loft Cinema, Tucson, Arizona; California Film Institute, San Rafael, California; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, New York; Maiden Alley Cinema, Paducah, Kentucky; Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Circle Cinema, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; SIFF Cinema, Seattle, Washington; and Tampa Theatre, Tampa, Florida.
In addition to Science on Screen, the Sloan Foundation has funded a Film Program “to expand public understanding of science and technology.” Since 1996, the Sloan Foundation has offered screenwriting and film production awards, as well as sponsoring science seminars and panels at major film festivals. Over 250 projects have received funding, including such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. The Sloan Science and Film page on the Museum of the Moving Image website offers more information, and you can also stream some of the winning shorts.