November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 23, 2011
For once the hype is accurate: The Artist is an honest-to-goodness black-and-white, silent, presented in the old-fashioned Academy aspect ratio instead of in widescreen. If you’ve never seen a silent movie, this is an excellent place to start. If you’re a buff, The Artist is a treasure trove of film references, in-jokes, pastiches, and references to filmmakers both famous and obscure. And if the Weinsteins apply the same media hammerlock that they used with Shakespeare in Love, this has a good chance of being the first silent to win any Oscar since Tabu 80 years ago.
We call them silent films today, but they were almost always accompanied by some form of music and sound effects. Thomas Edison originally thought of motion pictures as an adjunct to his phonograph, and his staff experimented with synchronized sound as early as 1895—you can see the results on the Library of Congress American Memory site.
The language or grammar of film that evolved from those days is still in use today: close-ups, cross-cutting, tracks and pans all would be familiar to early directors. But watching a silent film is different than watching a sound film. For one thing, you have to concentrate more—you have very little leeway, no opportunities to look away from the screen. You have to pay attention all the time. Characters make themselves known through action, not dialogue, so silent directors were always looking for bits of business or even costuming that would identify personality types quickly. Actors tended to be more physically expressive, with their hands and bodies, but also their smiles and grimaces.
Some look at silents as a more primitive form of talkies, but the best filmmakers achieved a connection with viewers that transcended the medium’s limitations. Directors like F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir made silence a part of their arsenal. Often their characters couldn’t talk, whether because of the situation they were in or their natural reticence. When newlyweds embark on their honeymoon in King Vidor’s The Crowd, their feelings are unmistakable, despite the absence of dialogue. Murnau’s The Last Laugh unfolds without any intertitles for dialogue at all.
Almost all of the great directors in the 1930s trained in silents, and if there is one distinguishing characteristic that unites artists as disparate as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, it is their ability to tell a story in purely visual terms. What is said in films like The Searchers or Psycho is important, but you don’t have to hear anything to understand the story.
Music was a crucial component in early silent film: it could color the emotions in a scene, enhance pacing, help identify characters and their motives. As the industry matured, prestige movies received elaborate scores that were delivered by full orchestras in first-run theaters. Even more modest films had cue sheets that recommended songs or musical themes for scenes.
The transition from silents to talkies at the end of the 1920s was short and painful. Careers were destroyed, techniques abandoned, subtleties lost. It took years for Hollywood to regain its artistic footing. Silents continued to be made well into the 1930s, usually due to economic considerations. Apart from the occasional stunt like Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, “talkie” filmmakers tended to assimilate silent strategies in sound settings. The ending of Jules Dassin’s Topkapi is almost completely silent, for example. So is the opening of Pixar’s WALL-E, and a gorgeous montage detailing the lives of a married couple in Up.
In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius borrows liberally from several silent films and filmmakers, but he also cites such film classics as Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born, Citizen Kane, and The Thin Man. In a sense, these references are short cuts, ways to set mood and atmosphere for viewers, to hand-hold them with familiar and popular story lines and characters while they adjust to watching a film without dialogue. By placing well-known moments from classic sound films into silent settings, Hazanavicius points out how closely the present is related to the past. The famous montage at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane, for example, where Kane’s marriage falls apart over a series of glances and changing newspaper headlines, is a silent sequence that Hazanavicius can rework effortlessly in The Artist.
The director took a similar approach in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a James Bond spoof that featured The Artist‘s leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Entertaining but not earthshaking, OSS 117 and its sequel Lost in Rio were affectionate and respectful. If you like spy films, you might appreciate the jokes more than someone who’s never seen one.
In the same way, if you’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks movies, you’re in a better position to judge just how gracefully and winningly Dujardin imitates him. If you don’t know Fairbanks, you still know his type, and Hazanavicius gives you another “in” to the story by reminding you of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.
Once you get past the stunt aspects of The Artist, you’re left with a story that often doesn’t make narrative sense, that turns morose and maudlin for much of its second half, that stints on Bejo’s character, and that lacks the kinetic action that marked the best silent comedies. The Artist is solidly middlebrow—entertaining, yes; well-made, certainly; but not the equal of the films it imitates. On the other hand, it’s not a turgid “masterpiece,” not an endless, portentous epic about the plight of mankind. It’s approachable, fun, undemanding, like a lot of mainstream movies from the silent era. Why not find out how enjoyable films like My Best Girl with Mary Pickford, or The Mark of Zorro with Fairbanks, or any of the shorts and features from the great comedians like Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, can be?
Despite the hopes of film buffs, I don’t think The Artist will inspire a rash of copycat silent features. But if it persuades at least some viewers that silents are nothing to be afraid of, and possibly even something to enjoy, it will have been worth the effort.
November 18, 2011
Several major film preservation projects have been in the news recently. Back in September, I posted about A Trip to the Moon, restored from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. (Its director, Georges Méliès, plays an important role in the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo.) Dave Kehr just wrote about a $100 Laurel and Hardy collection from Vivendi. And film buffs are eagerly awaiting the January 24, 2012 release of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD, one of the more difficult of the Best Picture Oscars winners to view. (I’ll be writing more about its restoration in the future.)
These are big-budget items that deserve media coverage, but I’d like to draw attention to another set of films that recently received preservation funding. On October 26, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced its latest grant winners. The NFPF targets movies it aptly describes as “under the radar of commercial preservation programs.” Silents, documentaries, independent films, home movies, avant garde pieces—in other words, works that generally wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial marketplace. (Full disclosure: working through the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, I helped secure financing through the NFPF to restore mountaineering footage shot in the Adirondacks in the late 1940s.) You can read the full list of films here, but some highlights are described below.
H. Lee Waters in Burlington (1939–40): Waters was an itinerant filmmaker based in Lexington, North Carolina. Armed with a Kodak Cine Special 16mm camera, he traveled to small towns throughout Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, filmed the inhabitants, then screened his work in local theaters. Waters was a fine photographer but an even better interviewer who managed to meet and film total strangers, putting them so at ease that they came across as warm and comfortable on screen. His films from Kannapolis, NC have been selected to the National Film Registry.
Also on the Registry is Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, a 1988 documentary about the Yup’ik people of Alaska. Made by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, it captures the beliefs and traditions of a passing generation, as well as the beautiful but harsh environment in which the Yup’ik live. The dozen or so dances included in the film have the effect of erasing time, as one observer put it. Just as important, the filmmakers find ways to explain a remote culture, to turn the exotic into something we can understand and appreciate.
An earlier generation knew Lowell Thomas as a globetrotter and journalist on radio and television. (He was also an early supporter of the Cinerama process, and narrated the opening reel to This Is Cinerama.) Thomas’s 1924 book With Lawrence in Arabia helped turn T.E. Lawrence into a celebrity. Six years earlier, Thomas and cinematographer Harry Chase filmed Lawrence and other figures significant in the Palestine campaign of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence toured the world with a show about the Middle East, complete with slides, film clips, dancers and a live orchestra. In 1919, he released With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, a silent film version of his very popular extravaganza. Thomas’s descendants donated 35mm acetate print to Marist College, which, thanks to the NFPF grant, is now being restored.
Halloween fans should be delighted about Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter’s first student film at the University of Southern California. Written and directed by Carpenter in 1969 for an introductory film class at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the eight-minute, black-and-white short was rediscovered by archivist Dino Everett. He sees connections between the protagonist in this film and Michael Myers in Halloween, as well as an early use of Carpenter’s signature strategy of shooting from the attacker’s point of view. What Everett actually found were A/B negative rolls and the sound track, not a positive print. The NFPF grant will help ensure that a viewing print is struck.
In a phone call, Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The American Bank Note Company, a 1924 reprint of a 1915 film documenting the Bronx plant responsible for printing paper money and stamps for the United States and other countries. The company was formed in 1858, and its operations were consolidated in the Bronx in 1911. An early example of an industrial film, the movie examined the plant’s facilities and explained printing processes. It also described the employees’ pension plan, an unusual benefit at the time. This print was discovered in 1923 in a decommissioned plant in West Philadelphia and transferred to the Smithsonian.
The NFPF grants help finance film preservation masters and two access copies of each work. The public can view these films on-site; many also become available through screenings, DVDs, and the Internet. Without the grants, a significant number of these films—most of them one-of-a-kind—might be lost forever. To date the NFPF has saved more than 1,850 films and collections through grants and collaborative projects.
November 16, 2011
A recent posting on Smithsonian‘s history blog Past Imperfect, The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial, discusses at length the murder case that helped ruin the comedian’s career. Since his films disappeared from the screen in the 1920s, Arbuckle (who personally disliked the nickname “Fatty,” preferring his given name Roscoe) has become a sort of shorthand for movie scandals. When news shows trot out montages of Hollywood sex scandals, his photo is invariably included. By neglecting to mention that the actor was exonerated, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a 2006 documentary about the film ratings system, implies that Arbuckle was guilty of manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe.
Lost in the lurid hoopla is an understanding of Arbuckle’s standing in the history of cinema. He is one of the key figures in film comedy, as important in some ways as pioneers like Mack Sennett, who hired him to work at his Keystone studio in 1913. Arbuckle was on stage by the age of eight, and spent a decade touring the country as an actor and dancer. It was the kind of training the great screen clowns like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton received. The experience taught Arbuckle how to play any kind of scene or situation, from rube to aristocrat, rural to urban, slapstick to melodrama. He knew what made a joke work, what endeared characters to theatergoers, and how far he could push a gag. Like the best screen comedians, Arbuckle knew how to make anyone laugh in a manner so effortless that it seems magical.
At Keystone, Sennett at first employed Arbuckle as a fat man, the butt of jokes. He didn’t originate the type on screen—the corpulent John Bunny, the first well-known film comedian, had made a string of successful movies at Vitagraph. Indeed, it’s a stereotype that appears throughout culture: think of the Greek god Bacchus, or Shakespeare’s Falstaff.
Arbuckle flourished on screen, starring in a wide gamut of films that appeared almost weekly. He built a stock company of actors and technicians, began overseeing his scripts, and eventually became a director. He teamed with Mabel Normand in a series of domestic comedies that set a template for today’s television sitcoms, and held his own with comic stars like Charlie Chaplin. At the same time, he helped develop a new type of screen comedy, one based more on psychology than pratfalls, one that could examine the motives and feelings of its characters instead of just hurling them into slapstick chases.
Perhaps because of his dance training, Arbuckle was an uncommonly graceful performer, adept at comic falls but also at sleight of hand. He loved working with props, juggling everything from frying pans to vases, and he loved stretching out routines. Good Night, Nurse, for example, opens with a three-minute scene in which he tries to light a cigarette in the driving rain.
Arbuckle was also a fearless performer who would try anything for a laugh. He could be casually subversive, employing ghoulish black comedy in Good Night, Nurse, with its hints of dismemberment and murder at a sanitarium. He frequently dressed in drag, enjoyed the kind of violent jokes that would become standard in cartoons, and could be casually contemptuous of the status quo. On screen he was a man of enormous appetites—immature, irreverent, disdainful of authority and obsessed with sex in a weirdly adolescent way.
Just as important as his performing style, Arbuckle worked out new ways to film comedy. He used unusual angles to emphasize jokes, experimented with point of view to involve viewers more closely with characters, and found new ways to exploit technology. Watch how the camera slowly goes out of focus when his character is sedated in Good Night, Nurse. Or how carefully he frames his jokes in The Garage.
Like Chaplin, Arbuckle outgrew Keystone. He moved to New York, where producer Joseph Schenck established the Comique Film Corporation for him. In 1917, Arbuckle met Buster Keaton, at the time a vaudeville star, and convinced him to try movies. The fourteen subsequent films they made together document one of the best comic teams ever captured on film. Arbuckle taught Keaton the fundamentals of cinema, while Keaton helped hone his mentor’s comic skills. In 1920, Arbuckle signed a contract with Paramount, the first comedian to make the switch from shorts to feature films.
His screen persona worked against him when he was arrested after Rappe’s death. Stirred up by sensational newspaper accounts of debauchery, Americans were perfectly willing to believe that Arbuckle was guilty. When the truth became apparent, it was too late to save his career. Fortunately, many of his films survive. They rank with the best of the silent comedies. Ironically, it is their sense of innocence and wonder that distinguishes them from the more calculating slapstick shorts of the period. Fatty and Mabel Adrift, for example, displays a sunny, rural surrealism that has no real equivalent in films of the time.
Consciously or not, Arbuckle’s influence continues to be felt on screen and television. Keaton reworked many of the gags from the films he made with Arbuckle in his own series of shorts and features. Arbuckle’s nephew Al St. John had a long screen career. Hollywood loves the stereotype Arbuckle inhabited: from Oliver Hardy down through Sydney Greenstreet, Laird Cregar and Peter Ustinov. In recent years John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley met untimely ends; John Goodman, George Wendt, Kevin Smith and others follow in the screen tradition established by John Bunny and Roscoe Arbuckle.
November 11, 2011
This Veterans Day I’d like to single out some of the movies that concern members of our armed services. Not war films per se, but stories that deal with what happens to soldiers after the fighting is over.
As might be expected, the industry has taken a generally respectful attitude toward the men and women who have fought for their country. Filmmakers began turning to the Civil War as a subject when its 50th anniversary approached. Searching copyright records, film historian Eileen Bowser found 23 Civil War films in 1909; 74 in 1911; and 98 in 1913. Most of these focused on the moral choices the war demanded. For example, in The Honor of the Family, a Biograph film from 1910, a father shoots his own son to hide his cowardice on the battlefield.
Identifying performers in film as veterans became a narrative short-cut, a quick way to establish their integrity. Often veterans have been portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures, as stand-ins for filmmakers who want to address a different agenda. Actor Henry B. Walthall played Ben Cameron, “The Little Colonel,” a Civil War veteran, in D.W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation (1915). Unfortunately, Griffith turned Walthall’s character into a racist vigilante who forms a Ku Klux Klan-like mob to attack African-Americans during the Reconstruction.
During the Depression, veterans could be seen as down-on-their-luck victims, as in Heroes for Sale (1933), where the noble Tom Holmes (played by Richard Barthelmess) suffers drug addiction and imprisonment after he is wounded in World War I. In The Lost Squadron (1932), destitute former aviators are reduced to flying dangerous stunts for an evil Hollywood director (played by Erich von Stroheim). But in The Public Enemy (1931), a gangster played by James Cagney berates his sanctimonious veteran brother, reminding him, “You didn’t get those medals by holding hands with the Germans.”
The most lauded film to examine veterans is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood, and starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell as three soldiers who face differing fates when they return home. While its plot can be overly schematic, the film has an honesty and courage unusual for its time—perhaps because Wyler was a veteran who experienced bombing runs while making the war documentary Memphis Belle. Russell, whose hands were amputated after a training accident, won a special Oscar for his performance.
Not all post-World War II films treated veterans so kindly. The Blue Dahlia, for example, a mystery thriller written by Raymond Chandler. In it, Navy aviator Alan Ladd returns home to an unfaithful wife who killed their son in a drunk driving accident. “A hero can get away with anything,” his wife sneers after he knocks her around. Ladd’s pal William Bendix, a brain-damaged vet with a steel plate in his head, flies into violent rages when drinking. Worried about the film’s negative portrayal of soldiers, censors forced Chandler to come up with an ending that exonerated the obvious killer. Veterans as villains show up in Crossfire (1947), a drama that also tackled anti-Semitism, and in Home of the Brave (1949), which dealt with racial issues.
More inspirational were films like Pride of the Marines (1945) and Bright Victory (1952). The former was based on the real-life Al Schmid, a Marine who was blinded at Guadalcanal, with John Garfield delivering an impassioned performance as someone unable to come to grips with his infirmity. In the latter, Arthur Kennedy plays another soldier blinded in battle. Kennedy’s vet is flawed, with bigoted racial attitudes and uncontrolled hostility towards those trying to help him. Quietly yet convincingly, the film builds considerable power as Kennedy learns to accept his limitations. Marlon Brando made his film debut as a World War II lieutenant who becomes a paraplegic after being wounded in battle in The Men (1950), directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) developed an intricate conspiracy plot around Korean War veterans who were brainwashed while prisoners.
I don’t have time or space here to discuss the more recent conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Their films range from sentimental (Coming Home) to morbid (The Deer Hunter), with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker managing to hit both extremes. Not to mention the industry’s most profitable film veteran, John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone in four films between 1982 and 2008. All deserve further discussion in another posting.
But I would like to bring up two documentaries that have been selected to the National Film Registry. Heroes All (1919), a fundraising film for the Red Cross, was set in the newly opened Walter Reed Hospital (the renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center shut down at this location and moved to Bethesda, Maryland in August). It detailed efforts to rehabilitate wounded veterans through surgery and physical therapy, but also through vocational classes and recreation. Heroes All had to balance the soldiers’ pessimistic past with an optimistic future, as well as detail both a need and a solution—a reason to give money and proof that the money would help. Its narrative structure and choice of shots became models for later documentaries.
Like Let There Be Light, completed in 1946 and directed by John Huston. It was shot at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where soldiers received treatment for psychological problems. A member of the Army at the time, Huston was given specific instructions about what he was calling The Returning Psychoneurotics. Huston was to show that there were few psychoneurotics in the armed services; that their symptoms weren’t as exaggerated as had been reported; and that someone might be considered psychoneurotic in the Army, but a “success” as a civilian.
Instead, the director provided a very detailed look at how Army doctors treated soldiers with psychological issues. Like Heroes All, Huston showed private and group therapy sessions, vocational classes, and recreation. He also filmed doctors treating patients through sodium amytol injections and hypnosis. (Huston found electroshock treatments too troubling to work into the movie.) When the War Department saw the completed film, it refused to allow its release. It took until 1981 before the public was allowed to see Let There Be Light. Despite its flaws, it remains one of the most sympathetic films to deal with veterans.
November 9, 2011
When I grew up, no one “owned” feature films apart from businesses and eccentric collectors. Many families made home movies, and some companies offered condensed versions of cartoons and comedy shorts on 16mm and 8mm for the home market. But the idea of purchasing individual copies of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz seemed preposterous. For one thing, who had the space to store the eight to ten reels of 35mm stock that made up a typical feature film, let alone purchase and learn how to operate a 35mm projector? And how could the home viewing experience compete with an actual movie theater?
Standards changed after a generation grew up watching movies on television rather than in theaters. Hollywood was wary of television at first, concerned that it would cannibalize the filmgoing audience. But by the 1960s, studios embraced the medium as a new source of revenue. Late-night TV was how many film buffs first became acquainted with classic movies. When videocassettes first became available to home consumers in the 1970s, Hollywood again held back. Concerned about losing control of their product, studios tried to rent rather than sell movies. Vestron Video helped change the rules when it marketed Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller as a “sell-through” rather than rental tape.
The revenue from videocassettes, and later from laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, proved irresistible to studios, despite fears over bootlegging and piracy. For an industry desperate to keep control over its product, streaming is seen as a holy grail. Consumers “use” a product by viewing it, after which it returns to the copyright owners.
Streaming sites are evolving daily as studios and platforms jockey for position. Netflix has made some notable blunders in trying to switch to an all-streaming platform, but the conversion away from hard copies is inevitable. In a sense, storing movies in the cloud is like a return to the past when studios, and not consumers, determined how and when a film could be seen.
In the meantime, here are three sites that offer free streaming. (In case you missed the first post in this series, I outlined some other collections back in August.)
Affiliated with the University of South Carolina, University Libraries Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) combines its holdings under four major umbrellas. MIRC started in 1980, when it received a donation of the Movietone News library from the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Fox Movietone News was one of the most significant producers of newsreels in the early twentieth century, and the University of South Carolina’s Collection is arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture from that period extant anywhere in the world. While not complete, the holdings include all silent newsreel elements (nitrate) from the original Fox News library (1919 – 1930), and all outtake and unused film from Volumes 1 through 7 of Fox Movietone News (1928 – 1934).
MIRC also includes a collection of Science and Nature Films, Regional Films, and a Chinese Film Collection. The Moving Image Research Collections is open to the public at its facilities in Columbia, South Carolina. But you can screen much of the material online—everything from Chinese cartoons to Appalachian music.
The National Film Preservation Foundation also streams films on its site, for example, The Lonedale Operator (1911), a key title in the development of film narrative. Back in college we might have to wait an entire year to see The Lonedale Operator in a scratched-up 16mm dupe copy. Here is a pristine version preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. In The Lonedale Operator, you can watch D.W. Griffith working out the fundamentals of cross-cutting, of building suspense through montage, and see how he learned to define and contrast locations. Filmmakers today are still using similar techniques. Films on the NFPF site include cartoons, naval documentaries, and Spindale, one of the wonderful local titles made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters.
Today’s third site is devoted to films from the Thanhouser Company. In 1909, actor Edwin Thanhouser converted a skating rink in New Rochelle, New York, to a motion picture studio. By the time Thanhouser Films went out of business in 1917, it had produced over a thousand shorts, ranging from slapstick comedies and children’s films to adaptations of David Copperfield and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thanhouser films were distinguished by their excellent location photography, strong story lines, and accomplished actors.
In 1988, Thanhouser’s grandson Ned formed a non-profit organization devoted to restoring and preserving the studio’s output. In an e-mail, Mr. Thanhouser wrote: “As of today, I have found 224 surviving films around the globe at archives and in private collections; since there are some duplicate titles, there are 156 unique Thanhouser titles that survive.”
Mr. Thanhouser has made 56 of the surviving titles available for view on his website. He also sells copies of the original poster artwork for titles, and markets DVD collections of Thanhouser films. “I am working on another three-disc DVD set and online release of 12 to 15 films that is targeted for late 2012,” he wrote. “Of the known surviving Thanhouser films, there are about a dozen to 18 films that still need preservation as they are still on nitrate film stock.”
Thanhouser films can be extremely entertaining, like Her Nephews from Labrador. Because they’re from Labrador, they’re immune to cold, as the youths cavorting in an icy New Rochelle river prove. If you think Shark Week is a new invention, check out In de Tropische Zee, shot in the Bahamas in 1914 and featuring a startling way to bait for predators. I saw Seven Ages of an Alligator a few years back and still have nightmares about it.
November 4, 2011
The lag between current events and their appearance in films is hard to explain at times. It’s been almost three years since Bernard Madoff was arrested, for example, and Hollywood is just getting around to criticizing him in the amiable but toothless Tower Heist. Movies that dealt with the 2008 economic collapse—like Company Men and the more recent Margin Call—felt outdated when they were released, no matter how good their intentions.
The film industry isn’t opposed to tackling social issues as long as a consensus has formed around them. Movies have always defended orphans, for example, and can be counted upon to condemn crimes like murder and theft. (In fact, a Production Code put into effect in the late 1920s ordered filmmakers to do so.) From the early days of cinema, the rich have always been a reliable target, even though the message within individual titles might be mixed. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and studios like MGM loved detailing how luxuriously the wealthy lived before showing that they were just as unhappy as the poor. And in some films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), the poor were vicious and cruel.
Like Greed, D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) was adapted from works by Frank Norris, a San Francisco-based writer who died before completing a trilogy of novels about American business. A Corner in Wheat attempted to show how a greedy businessman inflicted starvation on the poor, but worked better as sort of moving picture version of a political cartoon. Other filmmakers followed Griffith’s example with more insight but largely the same message. As the Depression took hold, features like Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (both 1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) portrayed the country’s economic downturn as the result of mysterious, even unknowable forces.
Comedians actually did a better job depicting economic conditions than did more serious directors, perhaps because many screen clowns positioned themselves as outsiders. In shorts like Easy Street and The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin took poverty as a given, and immersed viewers into the lives of the poor. The jokes in his feature Modern Times had serious things to say about the impact of assembly lines and surveillance monitors on workers. It also aligned Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” screen persona firmly with the left when he picks up a red construction flag and inadvertently finds himself leading a Communist march.
Buster Keaton made an even more daring connection in his short Cops, filmed not that long after anarchists exploded a bomb on Wall Street. Riding a horse-drawn wagon through a parade of policemen, Keaton’s character uses a terrorist’s bomb to light a cigarette. It’s a stark, blackly humorous moment that must have rattled viewers at the time.
Today’s Occupy Wall Street protests are reminiscent of the tent cities and shanty towns that sprung up across the United States during the Depression. Sometimes called “Hoovervilles,” they were the focal points of often violent clashes between the homeless and authorities. My Man Godfrey (1936) opens in a shanty town and landfill on Manhattan’s East Side, and details with cool, precise humor the gulf between the rich and the poor. Unusually for the time, director Gregory La Cava offered a cure of sorts to unemployment by getting the rich to build a night club where the shanty town stood. In It’s a Gift, one of the best comedies of the decade, W.C. Fields treats a migrant camp as a simple adjunct to his story, an exotic backdrop where he spends a night during his trip to California. It’s a brave gesture for a character who could have been swamped in despair.
Fields’ journey to a West Coast promised land evokes the Dust Bowl migration documented by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. When adapting the film version, director John Ford sent camera crews into actual labor camps to document conditions accurately. With its uncompromising screenplay and superb acting, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) stands as one of the finest films to address economic inequality.
Released the following year, Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, included a sobering, seven-minute montage of soup kitchens, breadlines, flop houses, and missions. The film’s main character, a pampered director of lamebrained comedies like Hay Hay in the Hayloft, sets out to find the “real” America by disguising himself as a hobo. The lessons he learns are as provocative today as when the film was originally released.
World War II changed the focus of Hollywood features. Training barracks and battlefields replaced slums and tent cities as the film industry embraced the war effort. Social problems still existed after the war, of course, but in message dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), filmmakers tried to offer solutions—to unemployment among veterans, for example. In the 1950s, movies zeroed in on individuals and their neuroses rather than on a collective society. A Place in the Sun (1951) stripped away most of the social commentary from the original Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy to concentrate on the dreamy romance between stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) was more about a former boxer’s crisis of conscience than it was about a system than exploited dockworkers. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reduced juvenile delinquency to a teen’s romantic and familial problems.
In the 1960s, Hollywood began to lose its taste for social dramas, preferring to target films to a younger audience. Message films are still released, of course: Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, Courageous. But more often than not the message in today’s films is hidden in the nooks and crannies of plots. Is Battle: Los Angeles about our military preparedness? What does Cars 2 say about our dependence on foreign oil? Filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the old line attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. “If you want to send a message,” the producer said, “call Western Union.”
November 2, 2011
Industry expectations were not high for the first Paranormal Activity, released back in 2009, in part because it was filmed for $10,000 in director Oren Peli’s home. (The premise behind the film is simple: a video camera records what happens when a troubled couple goes to sleep at night.) When the independent production was purchased by Paramount Pictures, it had been screened a handful of times. Paramount ordered a new ending before giving the film a limited opening in 13 cities in September, 2009.
Paramount tied the film’s national release to hits on eventful.com, one of the early instances of using social media to promote a motion picture. Even so, executives were surprised when Paranormal Activity outperformed such established horror entries as Saw IV at the box office. Two additional Paranormal Activity films have been released, one in 2010, the other this past October. Each has garnered better reviews and high box-office returns, guaranteeing further episodes. Imitators have popped up as well, like Cloverfield, which documents an alien monster attacking Manhattan, and the critically reviled Apollo 18, which used fake video surveillance footage to explain what happened to a doomed spaceflight.
The immediate inspiration behind Paranormal Activity was The Blair Witch Project (1999), a horror movie built around “recovered footage” shot by student filmmakers who were subsequently murdered. The genius behind Blair Witch was the filmmakers’ decision to make their lack of funding and experience part of the narrative, and not an obstacle to overcome. Blair Witch pretended that its out-of-focus shots, uneven lighting, shaky camera, ugly framing, and distorted sound were unedited, unembellished “reality,” and not Hollywood artifice. In the film’s logic, the footage in Blair Witch had to be “real” precisely because it was such poor quality.
That’s actually a trick filmmakers learned decades ago. When journalists are investigating Charles Foster Kane’s life in Citizen Kane, for example, they screen newsreels about the newspaper magnate. Director Orson Welles and his crew based this fake newsreel footage on The March of Time, using different film stock and cameras to capture its look. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, using a hand-held camera to imitate combat footage for scenes in which a military base is attacked. In Peeping Tom, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career, the camera itself is a murder weapon, and the footage we see from it documents the filmmaker’s crimes.
The term “recovered footage” works better with these films than “found footage.” To my mind, “found footage” should refer to titles like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) or Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), in which artists have repurposed material taken from other movies. It’s an interesting genre that deserves its own posting.
Some historians used to refer to “film within a film,” but this term became unwieldy once it became clear how frequently movies showed people watching other movies. Take Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), for example, cited as the first feature-length comedy. In it, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand attend a screening of A Thief’s Fate, where they learn what to expect from a crime they committed earlier. Buster Keaton may have come up with the most creative example of a film within a film: in Sherlock Jr. (1924), he plays a projectionist who enters into the film he is showing. Woody Allen “borrowed” this idea for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but it was a frequent ploy of animators as well. Both Bugs Bunny and Popeye on occasion would appeal to their audience for help during difficult situations. And in the delightful Porky’s Preview (1941), Porky screens his own cartoon to a barnyard audience. Primitive stick figures, bare landscapes, mistimed music, scratched-out drawings, wretched animation: it’s the same narrative strategy as Blair Witch, only funnier.
Closer to the theme of Paranormal Activity, in The Evidence of the Film (1913) an editor examines dailies from a movie shoot to solve a crime. A similar ploy is used by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981)—and, for that matter, seemingly every other episode from television forensics series, from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Bones. The modern thriller could barely exist without surveillance monitors. The Bourne trilogy, Enemy of the State, Vantage Point, all resort to video footage for plot twists. Oren Peli’s smartest decision in Paranormal Activity may have been to strip away all the elements other filmmakers feel are so important: stars, special effects, production values, and plot.