February 29, 2012
During a four-hour interview with Fast Company, director Martin Scorsese cited 85 film titles. Not so surprising for someone so steeped in cinema history, as screenwriter John Logan pointed out in my posting on Hugo: “Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
Author Rick Tetzeli repurposed snippets and outtakes of the interview to come up with Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film. Not really a fair title, as it’s doubtful that Scorsese intended to improvise a course curriculum while publicizing Hugo. On any given day the director might have mentioned 85 other films, 85 other directors, 85 other memorable cinematic moments.
And why 85? Had the interview lasted longer, he might have hit 100 films, the sweet spot for the many, and increasingly maligned, AFI lists. Asked point-blank which films he thought were essential, Scorsese might have limited himself to 10, 20 or 25 titles.
As a snapshot of the director’s tastes on one particular day, the list displays an impressively broad range, reaching back to early silent films and on up to titles made by contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Robert Altman (who gets 6 titles, including HealtH, cited by Ronald Reagan as “the world’s worst movie”). Does the absence of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas mean anything, especially considering Scorsese was finishing up his first film aimed at children? Can we infer anything from the other films and directors that didn’t make the cut?
Some hasty observations:
- Nineteen (or 20, if you consider The Third Man British) of the 85 films are foreign, roughly 20%.
- Nine titles were directed by Roberto Rossellini, over 10 percent of the films you would see at the “Scorsese Film School.”
- Countries and regions not represented: Asia, Africa, South America, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Russia. So, no films by Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray. No German expressionism, Soviet montage, Bollywood, or martial arts.
Scorsese cites three silent films, one understandably by Georges Méliès. The other two are an Italian short I frankly know nothing about (I segreti dell’anima) and Rex Ingram’s epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a significant film to be sure but at its time a pretty mainstream crowd-pleaser. Omitted: Edison, the Lumière brothers, Biograph, and D.W. Griffith. No Mary Pickford, Thomas Ince, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. De Mille. More important, no silent comedy, perhaps the crowning achievement of silent film. Chaplin, Keaton, Mack Sennett, Max Linder, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey, Laurel & Hardy — all missing.
For that matter, where are the sound comedies? The “Scorsese Film School” ignores the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ernst Lubitsch, Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, and too many others to list. The list lacks any animation (no Walt Disney, no Bugs Bunny, no Popeye), documentaries (goodbye, Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman), or experimental films (adios Ralph Steiner, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr).
Among the really glaring omissions: Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Huston, Nicholas Ray. Five Orson Welles films, but no The Magnificent Ambersons? Three Anthony Mann films, but no The Naked Spur?
Heck, the list doesn’t even include films that Scorsese loves so much that they appear in his own movies, like The Searchers and The Big Heat (in fact, Fritz Lang didn’t make the cut at all). Or movies whose restorations he helped finance, like Once Upon a Time in the West (no Sergio Leone anywhere else either).
By now I hope you can see how pointless this exercise is. It’s insulting to suggest that Scorsese doesn’t know or care about the films that aren’t on his list, just as it’s wrong to pretend that seeing this list of 85 films will make you an expert on cinema.
Is there a list that will make you an expert? The National Film Registry, which now has 575 titles, makes a stab in that direction. (29 of Scorsese’s 85 movies are on the Registry.) In writing two books about the Registry, I’ve bumped into some of its flaws (why no Woody Woodpecker or Coal Miner’s Daughter?), but the big problem with the list is that it’s becoming a bit unwieldy. Right now it’s almost a two-year course.
Roger Ebert has made his feelings about lists well known (like this Wall Street Journal article), but he’s also offered a different approach: lists that don’t mean anything. Take his Top 16 movies involving parakeets, which immediately drew its own controversy (no Oscar-winning, super-saccharine Bill and Coo?)
On the NitrateVille forum, film preservationist David Shepard wrote, “When AFI was promoting a run of its ‘hundred greatest’ this-and-that lists, some friends and I made a list of films with ‘Greatest’ in the title that actually weren’t much good.” He’s right — try it yourself on IMDb.
In the long run, how valuable are these lists anyway? Doctors cite list-making as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and luckily enough, here is a list of the top OCD-related films. (But where’s Conspiracy Theory?)
Here’s a list format that can’t cause any trouble: titles that when combined, form a sentence:
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948)
Without Honor (1949)
Four Jacks and a Jill (1942)
Down in the Delta (1998)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
How many can you compile?
February 24, 2012
With 11 Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards, Hugo is one of the most honored films of 2011. “Everything about Hugo to me is poignant,” screenwriter John Logan told me. “From the broken orphan to the old man losing his past to the fragility of film itself.”
The story of a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station and his momentous discoveries, Hugo marks director Martin Scorsese’s first film for children, and his first using 3D. The movie was based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo: The Shooting Script has just been published by Newmarket Press/It Books. Along with Logan’s script, the book includes photos, full credits, and production notes.
Mr. Logan took time out from his intimidatingly busy schedule to speak by phone about working on Hugo. “The reason we all made the movie is because we loved Brian’s book,” he says. “It works on so many levels—as a mystery story, an adventure novel, an homage to cinema. The challenge in adapting it was keeping tight control over the narrative. Because despite the 3D and the magnificent special effects and the sets and the humor and the sweep and grandeur of it all, it’s actually a very austere and serious story. Secondary to that, and this part really was challenging, was hitting what I thought was the correct tone for the piece.”
Since Selznick’s book was a 500-page combination of text and illustrations, Logan had to eliminate some characters and plot strands to fit the story into a feature-film format. “Also there were things we added,” says Logan. “We wanted to populate the world of the train station. What Marty and I talked about was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) by René Clair. Like those films, we wanted Hugo’s world to be filled with characters, and I had to write vignettes to dramatize them. Particularly the Station Inspector, played so memorably by Sacha Baron Cohen. We wanted to build that character up to be more of an antagonist to Hugo, so I did a lot of work there.”
Film history is a key element in Hugo, whose plot hinges on early French cinema. And as part of his homage to older styles, Logan incorporated as many cinematic devices as he could. Hugo has voice-over narration, flashbacks, a dream-within-a-dream segment, silent sequences, flip animation, and even scenes that recreate early 20th-century filmmaking techniques. “We tried to suggest all the different ways of telling a story on film,” Logan explained. “Even the trickiest devices in the world, like the nightmare within a nightmare, which is straight out of Hammer horror films. We wanted Hugo to be a cornucopia of cinema, a celebration of everything we do in movies.”
Writing silent scenes as opposed to those with dialogue was “almost like using two different parts of the brain,” Logan said. One part “writes description, which is prose and relies on adjectives, leading a reader and a moviegoer through the action in a sort of kinetic way. The other part of your brain writes dialogue, which has to find the perfectly chosen phrase with just enough syllables, not too much, the appropriate language for the individual character in the individual scene to express what’s going on.”
I found the flashbacks in Hugo especially intriguing and asked Logan to show how he found entry and exit points into the past for a scene in which Hugo remembers his father. “The danger is, if you leave the present narrative for too long and get engaged in a narrative in the past, you’ll have to jump start getting back into the reality of the present,” he says. “And always you want to follow Hugo’s story. So going into the memories about his father, I had him looking at the automaton—which is also when we reveal it to the audience for the first time—and Hugo thinking about the genesis of the machine and therefore his relationship with his father. The transitions for me were always about what Hugo is thinking and feeling.”
Like the clocks, toys, and projectors within the story, Hugo is itself “a precise, beautiful machine”—which is how Logan introduces the train station in his script. For Scorsese and his crew it was an immense undertaking. (One traveling shot through the station early in the film took over a year to complete.) When Logan began work on the project, the director hadn’t decided to use 3D yet. But the author insisted that technical considerations didn’t impact his writing.
“That’s just not the way I work or the way Marty Scorsese works,” Logan argued. “I wrote the script I needed to write to tell the story to be true to the characters, and the technical demands followed. The reality of filmmaking, of bringing a script to life, which are the technical requirements, follow. So I never felt limited in any way to write any particular way.”
Still, some changes to the script were made on the set. “Marty is pretty faithful in shooting,” he says. “But he’s also very generous with actors in exploring different avenues and different ways of expressing things. And of course Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
I use intimidating to describe Logan not just for his skill, but his working habits. In addition to adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for movies, he is collaborating with Patti Smith on a screen version of her memoir Just Kids, and has completed the script for the next James Bond film, Skyfall. In addition to Hugo, last year saw releases of two more of his screenplays, Rango and Coriolanus, adding an Oscar-nominated animated feature and a challenging Shakespeare adaptation to his credits.
It’s just “kismet” that all three films came out in 2011, Logan thought. “Movies achieve critical mass at completely different times for a hundred different reasons,” he added. “You know I’ve been working on Hugo for over five years, and it just happened to come out when it did because that’s when we got the budget to make it, post-production costs took a certain amount of time, this release date was open. But it just as easily could have opened this year depending on any of those factors. Any pundit who says, ‘Well this is a big year for nostalgia about Hollywood’ because Hugo and The Artist are coming out at the same time knows nothing about movies.”
At its heart, Hugo is about broken people seeking to become whole—a consistent theme throughout Logan’s work over the many styles and genres he has mastered. He has written about painter Mark Rothko (the play Red), Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and the demon barber himself in Tim Burton’s version of the musical Sweeney Todd. “Yeah, I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken,” he said. “I’m not interested in happy people. It just doesn’t draw me as a writer. Theater people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian, and I’m a tragedian. And the vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don’t understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me.”
February 22, 2012
Of the three Oscar categories devoted to short films, Documentary (Short Subject) tends to be the most rewarding. Filmmakers can focus on one item, covering it fully but not at an indulgent length. The format opens up a world of potential topics, from character studies of individuals both renowned and obscure to examinations of specific moments or events on to explanations of beliefs or policies. Travelogues, criminal cases, oddities of the natural world, history—all have received Oscar nominations over the years.
There may not be a readily recognizable Academy style, but looking back it’s clear that voters favor specific subjects and genres. Artists, for example. Short documentaries about Leon Fleisher, Jim Dine, Norman Corwin, Mark O’Brien, Sally Mann, Red Grooms and Paul Rudolph, among others, received nominations. War is another favorite genre. The first years of the award were devoted almost exclusively to war-related shorts, and recently nominations were given to films about wars in Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq.
Academy voters love films about social justice. In recent years, A Time for Justice examined endemic racism in the South; The Blood of Yingzhou District told about AIDS orphans in Fuyang, China; Freeheld showed the problems Laurel Hester had assigning her pension benefits to her partner.
These three trends continue with this year’s nominees, which cover extraordinary individuals, social justice, and war, as well as an account of post-earthquake Japan.
Decades ago shorts were a part of most theatrical programs. Now it is difficult to see shorts of any kind, let alone documentaries. The best filmmakers can hope for is a run on PBS or HBO (the latter will be showing three of the five nominees, starting in March with Saving Face). As it did with animated and live-action shorts, ShortsHD has packaged the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts online and in theaters. On February 21, many of the Oscar-nominated shorts will become available on iTunes.
In alphabetical order:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, this nineteen-minute short introduces James Armstrong, a barber who participated in the 1955 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Armstrong is a wonderful character whose upbeat personality is infectious. “Things are changing!” he exclaims, and how much the world has changed since 1955 is one of the points of the film. “The worst thing a man can do is live for nothing” becomes a motto of sorts for Armstrong. The film itself is a bit too discursive, but it has something to teach everyone.
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this half-hour short profiles Dolores Hart, a Hollywood starlet who abandoned her acting career in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun. Now in her seventies and a Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Hart reminiscences about her films and plays, her religious vocation, and her personal sacrifices. Cammisa also interviews Hart’s colleagues and provides a somewhat romanticized portrait of life in the abbey. Hart has a glowing personality, but God Is the Bigger Elvis skims over her story in a superficial manner. The film will premiere on HBO on April 5.
Incident in New Baghdad—Produced, directed, and edited by James Spione, this short is built around notorious aerial surveillance footage (released by Wikileaks) of a U.S. assault on a photojournalist in Baghdad that left eight dead. Ethan McCord, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, was one of the solders seen in the video trying to help two Iraqi children wounded in the attack. Back in the U.S., McCord explains how the incident affected his family, and why he aligned himself with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Spione’s style pushes emotional buttons without connecting narrative dots, making Incident in New Baghdad at 22 minutes seem simultaneously forced and unfocused.
Saving Face—Although grueling to watch, this film about Pakistani women whose faces have been scarred by acid is precisely the type of story that attracts Oscar voters. According to the film, over 100 such attacks occur each year, with victims as young as twelve having their faces ruined with battery acid, gasoline, and other corrosives. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy use Dr. Mohammad Jawad as an entry into the story. A plastic surgeon in London, Jawad donates his time to work at a burn center in Islamabad, offering facial reconstruction surgery to the victims. The directors focus on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, in particular, following them to their homes and interviewing their relatives and lawyers. Saving Face is a film of great honesty and conviction and even greater courage—on the part of the victims but also the filmmakers. In one chilling scene they confront one of the attackers, showing us just how difficult it is for women in that situation to obtain justice. Saving Face will debut on HBO on March 8.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom—The standout among this year’s nominees, this forty-minute film shows the horrifying aftermath of a natural disaster, but also focuses on the endurance and resiliency of its survivors. Director Lucy Walker received an Oscar nomination for her last film, the feature-length documentary Waste Land, which against all odds found hope among scavengers of a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she traveled to the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region. Adopting a cool, quiet tone, Walker tours the region, interviews rescue workers and residents, and connects ancient traditions to current events. Her great feat is to take a story we think we already know and show it in a new light, using the words and memories of the survivors to give a sense of how their lives changed. The film (with cinematography by Aaron Phillips) finds beauty in the midst of destruction, but never lets us forget how cataclysmic the tsunami was. This is journalism lifted to a new level of artistry, a remarkable achievement by a talented filmmaker. (Learn more at http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com)
February 17, 2012
As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, guessing which shorts will win an Academy Award is often the hardest part of Oscar office pools. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few mainstream viewers ever see these titles, making predictions about them the equivalent of playing darts while blindfolded.
Animated shorts tend to be easier to judge than live-action shorts. Cartoons are either funny, beautiful, compelling—or not. Live-action shorts, on the other hand, are more like miniature versions of feature films. As such, they can range from abstract and experimental to conservative, even classical in style, and from melodramatic to slapstick in approach. In judging them, you have to take into account a wider range of expectations than for cartoons.
As I’ve argued before, television has taken over the role once played by shorts. Without commercials, broadcast sitcoms are about 22 minutes long, roughly the same length as a two-reel short. For better or worse, the five nominees for live-action shorts are essentially television shows. More ambitious, perhaps, and in some cases with classier actors and production values, but all in all they are surprisingly, even disappointingly, conventional. Some are tall tales spun out a bit too long, some are sentimental to a fault, but frankly none moved me as much as a typical episode of The Good Wife.
In alphabetical order:
Pentecost, written and directed by Peter McDonald. Financed in part by the Irish Film Board, this short comedy takes place in a small parish in 1977. The archbishop is coming to visit, and disgraced altar boy Damien Lynch is given a chance to redeem himself as thurifer during Mass. Before the service, a sexton gives a pep talk to the servers, much as a coach would do to athletes before a game. McDonald throws in an underdeveloped subplot about soccer, but this is a very slender piece whose ending might mean more to Irish viewers still breaking free from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church.
Raju, directed by Max Zähle. If anything cries out “Oscar bait” among the live-action nominees, it’s this crisis of liberal guilt. A European couple adopts an Indian child only to uncover troubling inconsistencies in the youth’s background. Shot on location in Calcutta, Raju has a gritty look and feel to go along with its manipulative story line. The film might have been more persuasive as a documentary, but then director Zähle wouldn’t have had the opportunity to focus so deeply on his characters’ emotions.
The Shore, written and directed by Terry George. Financed in part by the Northern Ireland Film Commission, The Shore is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation played out among the vernal landscapes of suburban Belfast. As a teenager, Joe flees the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for the U.S., returning 25 years later to confront the people he left behind. With his haunted eyes and mournful visage, the accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds (who has a supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is perfectly cast as the stoic Joe. Terry George, who earned Oscar nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, wraps up the sentimental plot a little too patly, but The Shore is still a polished if middlebrow piece of entertainment.
Time Freak, written and directed by Andrew Bowler, moves quickly and engagingly in telling a tall tale about time travel. Starring Michael Nathanson as a science geek obsessed with detail, the film reworks the great feature comedy Groundhog Day to pretty good effect. Bowler draws his characters and settings with sharp strokes, but Time Freak is a one-joke idea that, unlike Groundhog Day, never develops beyond its cute gimmick.
Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø. My personal favorite among the nominees, but then I love Norway so much I watch television shows like Fjellfolk even though I don’t speak the language. Scandinavian humor is an acquired taste, and a comedy about a lonely, bitter farmer with six days left to live will strike many as too dark and morbid. Oskar (played by Edvard Hægstad) wants to die alone, but the local Jesus Club has sent Inger (Ingrid Viken), a blond teenager, to be his “Angel of Death.” Naive but determined, Inger consults a Road to Death guidebook about the five stages of dying before dispensing advice (and sleeping pills). Oskar, meanwhile, must decide whether to contact his long-estranged brother Jon before it’s too late. The premise behind Tuba Atlantic may be grim, but the film succeeds due to its understated acting and agreeably deadpan jokes.
February 15, 2012
When it comes to predicting Oscar winners, it’s pretty easy to guess among feature film nominees. Foreign films and documentary features can pose more of a problem, although buffs can usually find enough information to make educated choices.
Shorts films, on the other hand, are deal breakers when it comes to office pools and Oscar night competitions in front of televisions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few viewers ever get the chance to see the shorts, making predictions about them the equivalent of a stab in the dark.
Starting in 2005, ShortsHD began packaging Oscar-nominated shorts into programs for theatrical and cable release. ShortsHD teams with Magnolia Pictures to bring the Oscar nominees to theaters, at the moment on 200 screens. (Find a theater near you.) On February 21, many of the shorts will become available on iTunes. The packages are also available via some “On Demand” cable systems.
The animated nominees include an entry from Pixar, two hand-animated films from the National Film Board of Canada, and two independent computer-animated films. If you’re looking for trends, the past is again king. Four of the five films dispense with dialogue, or use nonsense words or intertitles. One makes explicit reference to silent comedian Buster Keaton, another imitates the look and feel of black-and-white cartoons, and a third manipulates vintage black-and-white newsreel footage to provide a setting for its story.
In alphabetical order:
Dimanche/Sunday, directed by Patrick Doyon, is a melancholy look at a Sunday afternoon through a small boy’s eyes. Sundays can be tough when you’re young, especially in the country: dress-up clothes, church, a visit with grandparents and relatives dominated by drinking and adult talk. In a film of stark graphics and wistful music (by Luigi Allemano), Doyon plays with scale to imitate a child’s perspective: trains and adults alike tower over the youth, and small objects achieve immense importance. Dimanche is harsher than most cartoons, and its morbid sense of humor might cost it at the ballot box. From the National Film Board of Canada.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, at 15 minutes the longest of the animated nominees, was codirected by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg. Joyce is an illustrator and author of children’s books whose works have been turned into films like Robots and Meet the Robinsons. Flying Books flings its Keatonesque hero via a tornado to a black-and-white world where books are living things with wings and feelings. They might die if no one reads them. The feel-good storyline incorporates flip-book animation as well as up-to-the-minute computer imagery to comment on technology and obsolescence. Although it’s ostensibly about books and reading, the film relies exclusively on a cinematic grammar, an irony no one connected with Flying Books bothers to address.
La Luna, directed by Enrico Casarosa, is hands-down the most accomplished of the nominees, due in no small part because it comes from Pixar. Cars 2 marks the first time the studio was shut out from Oscar’s Animated Feature competition, so La Luna may pick up some sympathy votes. Frankly, it deserves to win. A beguiling story of two men and a boy in a rowboat on a moonlit sea, La Luna has a wholesome but succinct premise, an adventurous plot, intelligent and genuinely funny sight gags, and music and animation that are simply breathtaking.
A Morning Stroll, directed by Grant Orchard, is the most original and energetic of the nominees, but it may skew a little too young for Academy voters. The film recounts the same gag in three different time frames, each with its own lovingly detailed style and technique. It would be unfair to reveal the storyline other than to say that the film gets great revenge on those clueless pedestrians who zone out to their smart phones.
Wild Life, directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, is another entry from the National Film Board of Canada, over the past 50 years one of the best producers of short films. Typical of NFB films, Wild Life is smart, expertly made, and defiantly non-commercial. Since Forbis and Tilby are working for an art crowd, not a mainstream audience, they don’t have to pay as much attention to details like gags, structure and length. They can be digressive, focus on context rather than entertainment, and tell small stories with diffident characters. Many will appreciate the artistry and care that went into Wild Life‘s story of an English transplant in 1909 Alberta; some will long for a bit more juice.
All of the nominees are worthy contenders, but if I were voting myself I would give serious consideration to La Luna and A Morning Stroll. For Oscar pool purposes, remember that voters love a sentimental story that pretends to be about something, which would make The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore a front-runner.
The Academy keeps tweaking the rules for animated shorts. This year voters were allowed to view screeners for the first time, for example. I just hope the regulations don’t prevent Daffy’s Rhapsody from competing in next year’s awards. A throwback to the heyday of Warner Bros. cartoons, Daffy’s Rhapsody is currently playing before Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Sam Register, Warner Bros. Executive VP, Creative Affairs, previewed a short clip this past November. It is a blast.
February 10, 2012
This year Hollywood offers two variations on romance movies for Valentine’s Day. The Vow, an old-fashioned tearjerker, is loosely based on a true story, although it also owes some of its narrative inspiration to Random Harvest, a 1942 MGM melodrama based on a James Hilton novel and starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Both films see love as a sort of minefield or obstacle course in which fate tries to keep people apart, in this case through amnesia.
It’s a ploy that storytellers have used for centuries—not necessarily amnesia, but some outside force that prevents lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Beatrice and Dante from finding happiness. In films like 7th Heaven and Gone With the Wind, Hollywood seized upon war as a means of separating lovers. Other, trickier devices have included car accidents (Love Affair), an arrest for pickpocketing (Remember the Night), brain tumors (Dark Victory), domineering mothers (Now Voyager), jealous wives (In Name Only), jealous husbands (The Postman Always Rings Twice), clowning around on a speedboat (Magnificent Obsession), politics (The Way We Were), ice bergs (Titanic), and murder (Ghost).
A lot of the classic Hollywood romances look cruel today, with heroes and heroines martyring themselves for the sake of love. The lovers in Brief Encounter both choose unhappiness to avoid hurting their families. The only way Ingrid Bergman can prove her love for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is to allow herself to be poisoned by a Nazi.
On the other hand, there’s This Means War, a romantic comedy in which love is a battle between two contestants vying for the same person. The roots of This Mean War come from one of Hollywood’s favorite formulas, the romantic triangle. It’s one that goes back to silent clowns like Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, but which found its greatest success in the screwball romances of the 1930s.
With The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey (who was also responsible for Love Affair) came up with a story line that Hollywood has plundered repeatedly. (To be fair, The Awful Truth was based on a play that had been filmed twice before.) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a wealthy, glamorous couple who through sheer stubbornness wind up in divorce court. The audience knows they are meant for each other, but McCarey keeps finding plot complications to keep them apart: a Tulsa oilman, a nightclub dancer, even their pet dog. In the course of the film Grant and Dunne get to express emotions like desire, jealousy, and anger that are often shunted aside when things like war and brain tumors come into play.
The screwball comedy, as films like The Awful Truth came to be called, is where Hollywood really excelled at depicting romance. Movies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The More the Merrier took viewers right into the give and take of love, with its ever shifting balance of power and its constant outside threats.
Both The Vow and This Means War were originally supposed to open on Valentine’s Day, just as the Warner Bros. omnibus film called Valentine’s Day did last year. But folks at 20th Century Fox apparently got cold feet going up against The Vow and pushed the opening of This Means War back to February 17 (apart from some sneak preview screenings).
If that’s too long to wait, you can find remnants of the screwball formula in films like Something’s Gotta Give and You’ve Got Mail, although they seem too labored and desperate for many viewers. And there’s usually a Katherine Heigl comedy around somewhere (currently the aptly named One for the Money), even as her reputation in the industry plummets.
The best romance movies I’ve seen lately have come from Asia. Released in 2008, If You Are the One focused on a middle-aged bachelor’s search for love. Starring Ge You and Shu Qi, it outgrossed Titanic in China, and led to a sequel and a reality TV show. Or there’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2010), in which an architect and a banker compete over a working girl. Directed by Johnnie To, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is funny and rueful in equal parts, just the way Hollywood used to make them.
February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
February 6, 2012
Most Oscar awards make sense, even if presenters have to explain what Sound Mixing is every year during the ceremony. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began handing out Scientific and Technical awards in 1931, separated that potentially confusing area from the telecast long ago.) Surprises may pop up in the Foreign Film and Documentary Feature categories, but otherwise the nominations seem to be drawn from a small pool of fairly recognizable titles.
Except for shorts, which receive awards in three separate categories: Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Documentary Short Subject. These are the real dark horses at the Oscar ceremony, films that almost no one has seen because so few venues schedule them. ShortsHD has recently started arranging theatrical releases for the short nominees through a program called The Oscar® Nominated Short Films. Last year’s grossed over $1.3 million; this year’s, released through Magnolia Pictures, will run in over 200 theaters starting February 10. The films will also be available on iTunes starting February 21.
In the early days of cinema, all films were shorts. In fact, the first films consisted of one shot that lasted sixty seconds or less. As films matured they became longer. The early blockbusters A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery lasted 14 and 12 minutes, respectively. Since titles were sold by the foot, exhibitors adopted a shorthand of one-reel and two-reel subjects.
A reel consisted of 1000 feet of film, roughly ten minutes. Feature-length movies in the silent era could run anywhere from six to eight reels, with exceptions for epic productions. Filmmakers and studios gravitated toward bigger and longer movies, but short films remained an important part of the industry.
First, obviously, shorts were cheaper than features. Everything from casting to processing cost less for short films. Second, shorts were a sort of minor leagues for the industry, a way to test and train talent before moving them up to features. In recent years this role has been taken over by film schools, advertising and the music video industry, all of which provide a steady supply of writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. Third, shorts were a way to introduce new technology to viewers, like Technicolor, 3-D, and IMAX.
That still doesn’t explain why shorts are so popular with audiences. In their heyday, short comedies and cartoons could outgross the feature attractions they supported. Theaters would advertise Laurel & Hardy or Popeye shorts to attract viewers, and some theaters showed only short subjects.
Up until the 1950s, shorts were an expected part of a theater program, along with trailers, newsreels, and cartoons. They covered a wide range of topics, from MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series and patriotic films from Warner Bros. to nature films released by Walt Disney. Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley made hilarious shorts like The Sex Life of a Polyp. The government helped sponsor political films like Czechoslovakia 1918–1968. Shorts gave opportunities to experimental artists like Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer. And who doesn’t love cartoons?
We may not be as familiar with today’s Oscar-nominated shorts as audiences were back in the 1930s, when Hal Roach, Pete Smith, The Three Stooges, and Our Gang were household names. But in a sense, shorts are just as popular as they always have been. We just don’t call them shorts anymore.
Think of a short film or a newsreel as a ten- or twenty-minute unit of entertainment. Today’s network news broadcasts and sitcoms, minus commercials, run roughly 22 minutes. An average talk-show segment runs seven to ten minutes, the length of most cartoons. 60 Minutes segments vary in length, but are generally under 20 minutes long.
Basically, the broadcast television schedule is made up of shorts and then longer-form dramas. (Right now I’m uneasy trying to equate documentaries with reality shows.) And by interrupting shows with commercials every seven to ten minutes, broadcasters are giving viewers the equivalent of one-reel shorts.
TV schedules even duplicate the programs movie theaters used to offer: a newsreel, a short either humorous or instructive, then the big feature. Or, in TV terms, a news show, a sitcom, then The Good Wife.
I’d even argue that television commercials can be seen as shorts. Poorly made and incredibly annoying shorts for the most part, but we can’t deny that some advertising campaigns over the years have been clever and well-made. In fact, big-ticket shows like the Super Bowl and the Oscars have become showcases for commercials, like this Honda ad that updates Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Next week I hope to go into more detail about this year’s shorts nominees.
February 1, 2012
Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, will be one of the highest-rated shows on television this year. (Last year’s game was the most watched show in television history; it was also the fourth consecutive Super Bowl to set viewership records.) Advertising revenue for the broadcast will top well over a half-billion dollars. The game and its surrounding pageantry are so significant that some churches have closed rather than compete, while a counter-programming industry has sprung up to capitalize on disaffected consumers.
Football hasn’t always been so dominant in American culture. In fact, for years the sport barely registered outside of college alumni fans. Baseball was considered the “national pastime,” and as such was frequently a setting in film. Prizefights, on the other hand, played a major role in legitimizing the entire medium, as Dan Streible points out in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. (Interestingly, boxing had a similar function with television.)
Apart from newsreels and actualities (like this 1903 Edison film of a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan), Hollywood took a bemused attitude towards football, using it largely as a setting for collegiate humor. In 1925, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and MGM’s Brown of Harvard, starring William Haines and Jack Pickford, covered similar territory: plucky collegians, gorgeous co-eds, proms, cheers, betrayals and the Big Game. The Marx Brothers took a blowtorch to the genre in Horsefeathers, but cartoons like Freddy the Freshman also mocked the raccoon coats, Model Ts, and convoluted offenses that were how most viewers perceived college football.
These films inadvertently pointed out a problem with portraying the sport on screen. When newsreel companies like Fox Movietone and Pathé covered big games, their cameras were almost always situated high in the stands, at the equivalent of the 50-yard line—the best position for cinematographers to cover a play that could extend to either end zone. In Horsefeathers or Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923), on the other hand, filmmakers could break plays into individual components, concentrating on one or more players, cutting from a quarterback to a receiver, switching from sideline to end zone, even tracking along with runners as the play and story demanded.
Football became increasingly more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because of how it was broadcast on television. Just like they did with baseball, sports directors learned to turn football games into narratives. As CBS director Sandy Grossman put it, “The reason [the gridiron] is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there’s 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it.”
Now just about every player on the field can be isolated during a play, allowing the director to build a story line from different takes. Slow motion enables viewers to see precisely where a play succeeds or fails. Off-field graphics and interviews inserted into the game build personalities for the players, who otherwise might appear anonymous.
Contrast a football game with hockey or soccer, where play is essentially nonstop, forcing cameramen to revert to a high-shot from the middle of the rink or field. Or with basketball, where games are usually decided only in the final minutes. (Baseball, with its many points of stasis, trumps even football in terms of how successfully it can be televised. Because players are more or less stationary for most of the game, directors can hone in on them in close-ups so tight even Sergio Leone would have been impressed.)
As the means for depicting football evolved, both on television and in movies, so did the way the game was treated. From comedies that emphasized the frivolity of the sport, Hollywood moved to biopics like Knute Rockne All American (1940). Here football served as an all-purpose metaphor: for our struggle with adversity, as an affirmation of the American way of life, as an example of how we will defeat our enemies. Knute Rockne grew out of the Warner Bros. version of history, in which figures like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola received reverential treatment in biopics, and was constructed as a morale-builder as the country faced the onset of World War II. It’s known today mostly for Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. (One football film that’s often overlooked is the engaging Easy Living, starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, which took a relatively hard view of the sport’s injuries and their consequences.)
Like movies in general, sports films became more psychologically complex in the 1950s and beyond. Titles like Paper Lion, Brian’s Song, and North Dallas Forty presented a more realistic view of the game and its players, albeit while romanticizing football overall. But filmmakers still tended to treat the sport as a metaphor: disapproving in Everybody’s All-American, uplifting in Rudy.
Rudy marked another recent shift to true-life stories centered around football. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, Invincible, Gridiron Gang, The Express and Radio are a few examples of films based on true stories. 2009′s The Blind Side, based loosely on a book by Michael Lewis, hit the jackpot, winning Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
While The Blind Side was being filmed, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were shooting a documentary on the Manassas High School Tigers. The finished film, Undefeated, received an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature. Again, the filmmakers insist that Undefeated isn’t a “football” movie.
“One of the biggest challenges is telling people what Undefeated is about,” Martin told me in a phone conversation. “If you say, ‘It’s a high school football team…’ they answer, ‘Oh, like Friday Night Lights.’ But it’s not, Undefeated is about something different than football.”
And in fact Undefeated paints a touching and at times troubling portrait of North Memphis youths struggling to find their way in the world. As coach Bill Courtney says at one point, “You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.”
Which gets me through this posting without having to deal with Black Sunday, in which a suicidal lunatic played by Bruce Dern tries to blow up the Goodyear Blimp at Super Bowl X.