December 30, 2011
Each year the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films to the National Film Registry. This year’s selections include four silent films, five documentaries, and such popular features as Forrest Gump. I’ve already written about one title, the Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s).
One of the goals of the Registry is to alert the public to the need for preservation. Another is to draw attention to movies that reach beyond features, like Jordan Belson’s experimental Allures. Belson died this year, as did George Kuchar, whose I, An Actress was also added to the Registry.
Several titles mark return visits for filmmakers like John Ford (with the sprawling Western epic The Iron Horse), Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century, an early screwball comedy starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), Frank Capra (the WWII documentary The Negro Soldier), Walt Disney (Bambi), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, an expose of alcoholism), and John Cassavetes (Faces).
This is the first appearance on the Registry for noted filmmakers like Chick Strand (Fake Fruit Factory) and Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street). Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs may provoke some debate, but the selection that has bewildered film buffs the most is Stand and Deliver, a message drama with patently good intentions but not much sophistication.
I will be writing more about the individual titles in the future, but for now I’d like to point out A Cure for Pokeritis, a 1912 comedy starring John Bunny. Bunny and his frequent foil Flora Finch were probably the most accomplished and funniest of the early film comedians in the United States. Bunny was an international star before a cult of celebrity developed; when he died of Bright’s disease in 1915, it was front page news. Had he lived a little longer, he might be more widely known today. But Bunny’s influence stretches on over the decades, in the works of everyone from W.C. Fields to Carrol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson.
Here is the complete list of titles for 2011:
The Big Heat (1953)
A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)
The Cry of the Children (1912)
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
El Mariachi (1992)
Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Growing Up Female (1971)
Hester Street (1975)
I, an Actress (1977)
The Iron Horse (1924)
The Kid (1921)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
Norma Rae (1979)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Twentieth Century (1934)
War of the Worlds (1953)
December 28, 2011
In a perfect world, Top Ten lists would entertain as well as illuminate, without condescension or elitism. In practice, “Top Ten” or “Best of” lists either confirm or deny your tastes, at the same time calling into question your standards and your commitment to the subject at hand. I have to say it’s a bit dismaying to look over a Top Ten Rock Singles or Ten Best Novels and realize I don’t know any of them.
Film critics—some of them anyway—get paid not only to see movies, but to impress you with their opinions. Too many use the latter as an opportunity to show off, to remind you that you didn’t get to go to a festival in Cannes or Venice, that you didn’t chat with this director or that star, that your town might not even support a repertory theater.
I’m just as starstruck as anyone else, and I still get excited when a big-budget mainstream film turns out beautifully, or when someone screens an obscure title that turns out to be great. But rather than tout a film that you probably already decided to see (or avoid), I’m going to use this space to describe my most memorable screening experiences this year.
1. Amateur Night. I’ve written about this collection of home movies before, and was lucky enough to view the film back in January. I didn’t expect Amateur Night to be so moving, but catching glimpses of the past in these unguarded, innocent pieces proved surprisingly poignant. Watching Alfred Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, in a backyard frolicking with his daughter Patricia transormed him from a remote “great artist” to a more approachable proud father. I hope that filmmaker Dwight Swanson—who assembled the film with the help of several archives—can schedule more screenings in the coming year. As he pointed out before, it’s unlikely that Amateur Night will ever be available on home video.
2. Vitaphone Vaudeville of 2011. For the past several years, Bruce Goldstein at New York’s Film Forum has scheduled a night of Vitaphone shorts, introduced by Ron Hutchinson of the invaluable Vitaphone Project. Vitaphone shorts were one of the ways the Warner Bros. studio introduced sound to moviegoers in the late 1920s. At first just filmed records of stage acts, they later evolved into mini-playlets that featured future movie stars like Pat O’Brien and Spencer Tracy. Fortunately for us they also captured an era of vaudeville that was just about to disappear. This is what entertained the masses back then: musicians, dancers, comedians, and novelty acts, one after the other in dizzying succession. My favorite of the night was Conlin and Glass in Sharps and Flats, a slice of raunchy, roughhouse slapstick that kept veering into bizarre tangents.
The Vitaphone Project has helped locate and restore these shorts; more important, Hutchinson and his colleagues have made them available to the public in screenings across the country. Even better, you can obtain dozens of them, including Sharps and Flats, from the Warner Bros. Archive.
3. 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! Back in October, Stefan Drössler delivered a talk at the Museum of Modern Art that covered 3-D processes from around the world, including clips of shorts and features from Russia, Hungary, and Hong Kong. I hadn’t seen the program when I wrote about it in October, but it turned out to be as thrilling a show as I attended all year. Used properly, 3-D can make you a participant in a film narrative in a way that no flat process can duplicate. The problem is, so few filmmakers know how to use it, as titles like Sucker Punch!, The Green Lantern, and Priest proved.
Drössler’s well-chosen clips ranged from martial arts to erotica, but it was otherwise negligible films like an Alpine travelogue that really impressed me. Snow churned up by skis was so realistic it seemed to fly into your face. And two films by Georges Méliès (who has to be regarded as the film comeback of the year) were simply astonishing. To try to prevent piracy, Méliès used a two-camera set-up: one negative for Europe, the other for North America. Thanks to modern computing, these complementary negatives can be adapted to 3-D, as Drössler showed with The Oracle of Delphi and The Infernal Cauldron, both from 1903. The films themselves didn’t change: the sets, the acting, the editing all remained the same. But the 3-D process gave them a wonderful depth and gravity. The characters’ movements seemed more lifelike, and the sets and props more substantial. As viewers it felt as if we were being drawn into the actual filming process, eyewitnesses to Méliès and his actors at work. The experience made a project to convert Charlie Chaplin shorts to 3-D a lot more palatable.
4. A Trip to the Moon. One of my first pieces for Reel Culture was about the restoration of this landmark of early cinema. I didn’t get to see it until Serge Bromberg brought it to the Museum of Modern Art in November, along with his expertly made and moving documentary about Georges Méliès, The Extraordinary Voyage. Learning about the restoration process behind the film was one thing. Actually seeing A Trip to the Moon projected in 35mm, with Bromberg accompanying it on piano, connected me and the rest of the audience with the very beginnings of cinema.
Sadly, bad screenings outweighed the good in 2011. Whether it was Russell Brand in a crushing, clanking remake of Arthur, or the blaring, overstuffed Cars 2—Pixar’s first disappointing film—terrible movies lurked everywhere. Just last night my wife and I saw enough of Undercover Christmas to realize that the filmmakers had not just stolen the premise from Remember the Night, but transformed that remarkable film into a degrading mess.
December 23, 2011
By now the Yuletide studio releases have been screened for critics, and most have opened for the public, although not without some histrionics. In early December New Yorker critic David Denby ran a review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo too early, causing producer Scott Rudin to ban Denby from future press screenings. Rudin also delayed press screenings of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until it missed several awards deadlines. This may have been intentional: last year he was touting The Social Network, which many writers feel peaked too soon in the awards race. By holding Extremely Loud back from just about everyone, Rudin could reap publicity without having to worry about bad reviews. Now that the film’s opened, he can’t stop critics like Manohla Dargis from referring to its “stunning imbecility” and “kitsch” qualities.
My title is only somewhat is jest. If learning that a film like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol contains a lot of action will ruin the movie for you, then stop right now. On the other hand, it’s easy to draw some generalizations about the current crop of Hollywood releases—and a little dismaying to find that the same generalizations apply almost every year.
1. Anything can explode.
I know of one talk-show host who differentiates between independent and Hollywood movies simply by explosions. In this year’s crop of big-budget productions, you can say goodbye to stately Scandinavian mansions, the Strasbourg cathedral, a Paris train station, half of the Kremlin, the World Trade Center (again), most of a Moroccan port, and a wide swath of Europe. Even J. Edgar starts off with a terrorist bombing.
Early filmmakers tried to draw viewers away from competitors by throwing money at the screen. It became a mark of prestige (and profit) to construct expensive sets, drape costly costumes on extras, flaunt excess by paying too much for actors and properties.
Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille helped develop a corollary to this lure: it’s even more impressive to take that expensive world you created and destroy it. To build massive sets and demolish them on screen is the fullest expression of conspicuous consumption. The history of cinema is marked by disaster epics: Intolerance, The Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark in the silent era (although the latter had sound sequences); King Kong and San Francisco in the thirties. David O. Selznick essentially torched the RKO backlot for Gone With the Wind. Monsters tore apart entire cities in the fifties: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Godzilla, etc. In Star Wars, George Lucas could destroy an entire planet. James Cameron made a fortune flooding his Titanic sets.
CGI and digital effects have changed the equation a bit. Nowadays sets aren’t always ruined. Instead, post-production houses use computers to simulate explosions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Special effects carry their own prestige, at least until they filter down to Citibank ads.
2. Longer is longer.
Size matters to filmmakers. I have to admit, 132 minutes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol fly by pretty quickly (until the soggy ending), but did Steven Spielberg really need 146 minutes to tell War Horse? Or David Fincher an excruciating 158 minutes for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Movies used to be a minute long. But in order to tell a story more complicated than squirting a gardener with a hose, directors had to resort to longer movies. A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) both dragged on for 12 minutes. Theater owners began complaining about excessively long movies. After feature films took hold in the marketplace, directors used length as proof of how important their work was. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) clocked in at almost 200 minutes. Next spring film historian Kevin Brownlow will be screening a 330-minute restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).
Most films were and are much shorter, of course. Val Lewton could produce a richly textured masterpiece like Cat People (1942) in 73 minutes. But bloated films command attention: Giant (1956), 201 minutes; Ben-Hur (1959), 203 minutes; Dances With Wolves (1990), 181 minutes—before director Kevin Costner added additional footage. Even a mainstream comedy like My Cousin Vinnie took two hours to unreel.
In 2003, Hong Kong director Andrew Lau released the taut, complex police thriller Infernal Affairs at 100 minutes. By the time director Martin Scorsese remade it in 2006 as The Departed, it had swollen to 151 minutes. (Scorsese’s current Hugo lasts 126 minutes.) Terrence Malick needed only 94 minutes for Badlands, his remarkable 1973 serial killer drama. This year his The Tree of Life took 139 minutes.
3. The past is better than the present.
Of course no film can take place in the absolute present because the medium is by necessity recorded. But it’s surprising how many current releases reach back to a fairly distant past: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; A Dangerous Method; Hugo; War Horse; The Artist; The Adventures of Tintin; My Week With Marilyn; J. Edgar; The Iron Lady.
The past is generally more expensive too (see comments above on “prestige”). The past in movies can be seen as a setting, like outer space or inner city or wilderness—a setting that has to be dressed with period props, costumes, special effects. For writers the past is a way to streamline narratives. Placing a story in Victorian England or World War II Britain is a sort of shortcut because viewers already know how the story ends. In fact, dealing with the past is easier on many counts: we can understand the past, explain it, investigate it, mold it, make it relevant to the present, turn it exotic as needed.
Last year half of the nominees for Best Picture were set in the past. But before I drag out this “past is better” argument too long, half the nominees back in 1943 were about the past as well. Forecast for future films: a lot of very long period pieces in which many things blow up.
December 22, 2011
Film geeks are a touchy bunch, and nothing gets their dander up like newbies making pronouncements about their territory. With both The Artist and Hugo likely to receive Oscar nominations, writers with little or no expertise in films of the 1920s are suddenly having to drum up opinions on what constitutes a good silent movie or why Georges Mèliés slipped into obscurity. (In Notebook, David Hudson gives amusing round-ups of coverage for both The Artist and Hugo.)
Meanwhile, die-hard fans of silents argue among themselves about whether The Artist and Hugo will bring about a surge in silent features. NitrateVille, the usually great, at times insufferable forum devoted to older movies, has long threads on both films, along with interminable arguments about the proper fps (frames per second) speed for projecting silents.
For raising hackles, it’s hard to beat the reaction to Bryony Dixon, “a silent film expert from the BFI” who threw out several opinions in an interview for the BBC. Her remark that, “You have to concentrate and this gives you a greater emotional involvement” when watching silents drew an extended rebuttal from Nick Redfern on his Research Into Film site. “I am aware of no research that compares the viewing pleasures derived from silent films to sound films,” Redfern begins, “and I have not been able to find any such research.” (Evidently he missed Rebecca Keegan’s 24 Frames blog posting on an fMRI study at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute that shows that silents engender a more complex creative process in the brain than sound films.)
Redfern’s efforts to apply scientific analysis to subjective opinions are as illogical as Matthew Sweet’s conclusion in the Telegraph that “Too late, we realise that silence was golden in the cinema“: “Why are we receptive once more to the pleasures of silent film? Because they are lost. Because it’s too late.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan also wrote about the difference between watching sound and silent films. Comments like “For while sound particularizes, silence turns out to universalize, allowing an audience to share completely in the on-screen dream” would no doubt infuriate Mr. Redfern, but in a nice touch Turan also recommends four silent features: Seventh Heaven, Show People, A Throw of Dice, and The Unknown.
How difficult is it to watch a silent film? Well, they’re different, but they are still movies, just like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is a movie. Warning viewers about silents is like warning Elmore Leonard fans that Henry James is a “slower” writer. Just as you would when reading works by Dickens or Shakespeare, you have to accept the vocabulary and conventions of silent films in order to appreciate them. You might have to pay more attention watching Sunrise than We Bought a Zoo, but you’re also likely to feel more rewarded when you’re finished.
Here is another approach.
What do you like in contemporary movies? Do you like action films like Mission: Impossible or Sherlock Holmes? Then try a film like The Black Pirate by Douglas Fairbanks, who performed a lot of his own stunts. Or Clash of the Wolves, an action-packed thriller starring Rin Tin Tin. Or the original Last of the Mohicans, chock full of raids, chases, and massacres.
Do you prefer romance? Silent films by the director Frank Borzage, who directed over 100 titles, have an emotional power that is hard to match today. Lazybones and Lucky Star are as impressive as his big hit 7th Heaven. Films like Son of the Sheik, with Rudolph Valentino, or Flesh and the Devil, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, helped define screen romances.
Are you attracted to science fiction, or to spectacle? Try Fritz Lang’s delirious Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), or his newly restored Metropolis, or D.W. Griffith’s mammoth epic Intolerance, or Cecil B. DeMille’s original version of The Ten Commandments.
I’m convinced that silent comedies are every bit the equal of comedies made today. They are deft and light in ways that elude most present-day filmmakers. And there is a whole world of comedy to explore, not just well-known names like Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but brilliant performers like Charley Chase and Max Davidson.
When you decide on a silent film, try to see it in a movie theater. I recently introduced a screening of King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade at New York’s Film Forum. Viewers afterward told me how amazed they were at the film’s scope and sophistication, aided immeasurably by Steve Sterner’s largely extemporaneous piano score. The experience of watching as part of an audience gave a special charge to the film.
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.
December 15, 2011
Never argue politics or religion, the warning goes, especially in a bar. Our beliefs are so ingrained that we often take opposing views as personal affronts. Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to argue about movies. All films are political on at least one level, because all films have a point of view. And all films require faith to succeed: in order to watch a movie, we must suspend disbelief and accept that individual frames (or, increasingly, digital bits) containing visual information can be seen as motion.
Mainstream filmmakers shy away from overtly political or religious films, afraid to offend their intended audience or their opponents. Of course exceptions abound, but they rarely capture the imagination of viewers the way that more entertainment-oriented movies do. That is unless you look deeper into them. How much do the Star Wars movies deal with politics, for example, or the Indiana Jones films with faith? The former feature rebels fighting evil tyrants over the centuries; the latter uncover the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail during their adventures.
In no particular order, here are five films built almost exclusively around faith. That is, with belief rather than dogma, ruling out obviously religious films like King of Kings or Diary of a Country Priest. There are several other examples ranging from Peter Pan and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to the wonderful French film Ponette, but let’s start with five that you might not have thought about the following in terms of faith.
1. Leap of Faith (1992): Steve Martin plays Jonas Nightengale, a con man masquerading as a tent-show evangelist who is put to the test when his truck breaks down outside a small Kansas town. Drought has crippled the economy, leaving the townspeople susceptible to Nightengale’s fraudulent faith healing. But filled with self-loathing, he reaches a crisis that threatens his identity. The plot owes a lot to The Rainmaker, a play filmed with Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn in 1956, but Leap of Faith is more hard-boiled, less forgiving about the consequences of belief. Critic Roger Ebert was particularly impressed by Martin’s performance as “a seedy, desperate, bright, greedy man without hope.” The movie has been adapted into a musical that will tentatively open on Broadway in 2012.
2. Devi (1962): A film by the extraordinary Bengalese filmmaker Satyajit Ray, Devi, or The Goddess, is set in Chandipur in 1860. A wealthy landowner dreams that his daughter Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) is the reincarnation of the goddess Kali, and as such must be worshipped. Peasants bring her gifts in hopes that she will intercede for them. Doyamoyee’s husband Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee) tries to fight what he sees as outmoded beliefs, but a miraculous cure upends his thinking. Devi has the feel of a fairy tale, one with a sharply barbed moral. Ray also directed the Apu Trilogy (Tagore made her debut in The World of Apu), Days and Nights in the Forest, Distant Thunder, and several more remarkable movies. Tagore, who displays unearthly composure and gravitas, was just sixteen when she filmed Devi.
3. The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912): Noted film historian Kevin Brownlow groups this movie, filmed with the cooperation of the Fresh Air Fund, with a cycle of “social conscience” films popular at the time, like Life at Hull House (1911), or Children Who Labor (1912). The Land Beyond the Sunset concerns Joe (Martin Fuller), a newsboy living in wretched conditions in a New York City slum. A invitation to a Fresh Air Fund picnic in the Bronx opens up a world Joe never realized existed. Through a storyteller, Joe finds something to believe in, but he will pay a terrible cost for his faith. Film historian William K. Everson called this “the screen’s first genuinely lyrical film,” and while it is certainly beautiful, it stings in an unexpected way.
4. Stars in My Crown (1950) Based on a popular novel by Joe David Brown, Stars in My Crown takes the form of a memoir as a child recalls his father, a post-Civil War minister who backs up his beliefs with hand guns. Directed by Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past), the film is a warm, nostalgic look at life in the small-town West—until it tests the beliefs of the minister (played by the Western veteran Joel McCrea) and his family in a surprisingly brutal manner.
5. Ordet (1955) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this could be the acid test for films about faith. Adapted from a play by Kaj Munk, Ordet (“The Word”) takes place on a rural farm where three sons follow different paths of belief with tragic results. Few filmmakers grasped the power of the medium as well as Dreyer. In films like Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc, he used intensely emotional material to connect with viewers on deeply personal levels. You can either surrender to the power of Dreyer’s imagery, to his hypnotic pacing and scorching insights, or you can resist his work entirely. Scores of film buffs dismiss him as a bore; actual filmmakers, on the other hand, realize how difficult it is to duplicate his accomplishments. No question that Ordet is demanding, but it pays off in ways that simpler, easier films cannot.
December 9, 2011
It’s been a busy year for Steven Spielberg. Witness The Adventures of Tintin, opening in the United States on December 21, and War Horse, opening four days later. Few directors manage to get two films out at once, but in addition to his directing chores, Spielberg received an executive producer credit on 11 film and television projects this past year, including Super 8, Real Steel and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (He also found time to criticize the last 20 years of filmmaking, saying there are “not a lot of movies” that he would watch, while still putting a plug in for The X Factor.)
Spielberg’s sudden increase in output—he directed only seven other features since 2000—prompted me to think about whether quantity helps or hurts a filmmaker. Mumblecore pro Joe Swanberg has released six feature films over the past year: Art History, Autoerotic, Caitlin Plays Herself, Silver Bullets, Uncle Kent, and The Zone, displaying an admiral work ethic despite increasingly scathing reviews. Swanberg generally produces, writes, directs, and edits his films, which makes his output even more impressive. Some directors spend years on a single project, and several have spoken of their regret over not accomplishing more.
But Swanberg doesn’t come close to the medium’s more prolific directors. Take Takashi Miike, born in Osaka in 1960. After graduating from the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film, he released his first feature in 1991. Since then he has completed over seventy productions in theater, film, and television. In 2001 and 2002, he received credit on fifteen features. Some of his films were direct-to-video releases, and not many have opened in the United States. Miike has worked in all genres, from family films to period adventures, but built his reputation on films like Audition (1999), a horror film based on the novel by Ryi Murakami. Its torture scenes unsettled even seasoned directors like John Landis and Eli Roth.
Although his recent 3D action film Hari Kiri: Death of a Samurai showed at Cannes, Miike seems to thrive on the controversy his movies elicit for their sex and violence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder provoked controversy of a different sort. Before he died at the age of 37 from a drug overdose, the German director made 40 feature films and two television series, as well as acting in dozens of films and plays and directing dozens of stage pieces. At various times he was also a cinematographer, editor, composer, and theater manager.
Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and by the French New Wave, Fassbinder cranked out film after film, relying on a troupe of actors that included the wonderful Hanna Schygulla. Films like The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won Fassbinder world-wide acclaim and the ability to make films like Despair (1978), adapted from the Vladimir Nabokov novel by Tom Stoppard, and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), perhaps his most popular work. Two years later made the television Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin and released as a 15-hour movie in the US.
Fassbinder’s personal life was a stew of largely failed relationships compromised by his self-destructive tendencies. In public he was the subject of frequently bitter personal attacks from gays and conservatives, as well as mere critics. How he managed to complete 40 films in fifteen years is a mystery.
Then there are the real workhorses of the industry, the B-movie directors who flourished in the 1930s and 1940s. Joseph Santley directed over ninety features, including films with The Marx Brothers and Gene Autry. (Autry had his own punishing schedule: as well as making six to eight features a year, he hosted a weekly radio show, had frequent recording sessions, and sponsored a rodeo that toured the country annually.) William Witney, cited by Quentin Tarantino for his expertise, started directing low-budget serials when he was twenty-one. He is credited with more than 60 feature films, as well as hundreds of episodes of TV series.
It would be hard to top the output by William Beaudine, who started out in the industry as an actor for Biograph in 1909. After assisting D.W. Griffith on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he directed shorts and then features for everybody from Samuel Goldwyn in the 1920s to Embassy Pictures in the 1960s. Beaudine worked with Mary Pickford, W.C. Fields, Will Hay, and Bela Lugosi. He also directed one of the most successful exploitation films of all time, Mom and Dad (1945). Accounts vary widely as to how many movies he actually directed, but sticking to only theatrically released features, he made more than 175.
Some records will never be broken, in part because the rules have changed. Buck Freeman, who played first base and right field for teams in Washington and Boston, was credited with two strikeouts in over 4000 at bats. A modern-day player could only strike out once in his career to top that record. Unfortunately, strike-outs weren’t an official statistic for most of Freeman’s career, so his record can hardly be considered valid. (On the other hand, it’s unlikely that anyone will top Cy Young’s 511 wins—or his 316 losses, for that matter.)
Similarly, it’s hardly fair to count the films D.W. Griffith made at the start of his career, since they were only one- or two-reels long up until the four-reel Judith of Bethulia in 1913. But they were still marketed as individual titles to be sold and later rented to theaters. Griffith made 141 in 1909 alone, including such groundbreaking titles as A Fool’s Revenge (a condensed version of Rigoletto), Those Awful Hats (about screening conditions in movie theaters), The Cricket on the Hearth (from the Dickens story), Resurrection (from the Tolstoy novel), A Fair Exchange (from Silas Marner), Pippa Passes (the first film reviewed in The New York Times), and The Lonely Villa (a thriller starring Mary Pickford).
Griffith and his crew were essentially making a film every three days, a burst of white-hot creativity that in my opinion will never be equaled. What’s even more remarkable was that he was simultaneously inventing narrative cinema as we know it today. Griffith may not be the world’s most prolific filmmaker, but he is certainly one of its most important.
December 7, 2011
Success breeds success, one of the reasons so many new movies resemble previous box-office hits. With so much money at stake on each movie, executives who can okay a project are reluctant to approve anything but tried-and-true genres and formulas. That’s why so many big-budget films are adapted from novels, plays, and comic books—in other words, pre-sold titles with built-in recognition factor. It’s also why Hollywood loves biopics: As Bob Verini pointed out in Variety, this year has seen films about Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe, Georges Méliès, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Margaret Thatcher, J. Edgar Hoover, Billy Beane, and Aung San Suu Kyi. “Six of the past 10 best-actor Oscar winners and eight of the past 12 actresses have limned real people.” he wrote.
It’s been that way since filmmakers stumbled over each over trying to shoot fake battle footage of the Spanish-American War, or celebrities passing by in parades. But occasionally, the coincidences can be jarring.
How can the marketplace support two Snow White movies, for example? Last year’s Alice in Wonderland didn’t perform as well as Cars 2, at least not in the United States, but it did phenomenal business overseas, enough to push its total box-office take to over a billion dollars. Even a greenhorn could predict what would happen next: more films based on fairy tales.
Veteran producer Joe Roth, who also worked on Alice in Wonderland, is part of the team for Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron (soon to be disturbing moviegoers in Young Adult) and Twilight centerpiece Kristen Stewart. Casting problems may have contributed to the film’s late start date; director Rupert Standings was still shooting material a month ago in England.
That gave Mirror Mirror the chance to greet moviegoers first. Starring Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Sean Bean and Nathan Lane, Mirror Mirror opens in the United States on March 16, 2012.
Production schedules for cartoons can stretch over three, five, or even more years, and once you’ve committed a staff to a project it’s hard to start over. John Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues began working on A Bug’s Life in 1994, the same year producer Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney for DreamWorks, where he set up Antz. Although the films have markedly different characters and plots, Lasseter felt “betrayed” when he learned that Katzenberg was angling to get Antz into theaters a month before A Bug’s Life. (Antz was released on October 2, 1998; A Bug’s Life on November 25.) Katzenberg, on the other hand, may have been retaliating for the fact that A Bug’s Life would be competing against another DreamWorks cartoon, The Prince of Egypt.
DreamWorks ran into a similar problem that year with its asteroid disaster film Deep Impact, in which Morgan Freeman plays the President and Robert Duvall a spaceship captain who sacrifices himself to blow up a chunk of space debris that threatens the Earth. Two months after its release, Touchstone brought out the bigger, louder, and more profitable Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis sacrifices himself to blow up another asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
Sometimes egos can force competing projects to completion even though they might suffer at the box office. Buena Vista, the distribution arm of the Disney empire, released Tombstone, a film about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, on December 24, 1993. Kevin Costner was originally supposed to star with Kurt Russell, but left to make his own O.K. Corral project, Wyatt Earp, which came out from Warner Bros. exactly six months later.
Costner ran into similar trouble with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, released in 1991. Filming at the same time: Robin Hood, starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman. Costner’s version meant that the Bergin Robin Hood was shown on television rather than in movie theaters.
Sometimes films get made to mark anniversaries, or celebrate figures important enough to sustain more than one movie. Twentieth Century-Fox released Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford, on May 30, 1939. Nine months later RKO came out with Abe Lincoln in Illinois, with Raymond Massey taking on the title role.
Producer David O. Selznick was more protective of his projects. He threatened to sue Warner Bros. over Jezebel, an overheated Southern melodrama starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, because he felt it would harm his Gone With the Wind. Groucho Marx got into a protracted and extremely funny legal battle with Warner Bros. because the studio was worried that A Night in Casablanca, starring Groucho and his brothers Harpo and Chico, might harm its Best Picture-winner Casablanca.
What I’m curious to see is how many moviegoers will feel that seeing Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, set for release in June, 2012, means they won’t have to watch with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, coming out later that year.
Do you have any favorite instances of doubled-up movie themes?
(Corrected the release dates for Antz and A Bug’s Life from 1988 to 1998.)
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”