March 30, 2012
Many film fans first heard the news in a Los Angeles Times article by Bob Pool, “Storied West Hollywood studio buildings to be demolished.” “The Lot,” a movie studio complex with sound stages and editing rooms, will be demolished by its new owner, CIM Group. As Pool wrote,
[T]he first phase of work involves the demolition of the studio’s Pickford Building—built in 1927 and remodeled in 1936—and Goldwyn Building, which was built in 1932 and is used for sound editing. Later phases will involve the removal of the studio’s Writers Building, Fairbanks Building and Editorial Building and a block-long row of production offices that line Santa Monica Boulevard. Replacement buildings will rise to six stories.
The story spread quickly to LAist (“Historic West Hollywood Studio Lot Will Soon Meet The Wrecking Ball“), The Cinementals (“Save The Pickford-Fairbanks Studios!“), HollywoodPatch (“Developer Plans to Demolish The Lot, Rebuild Studio Buildings“) and other sites. A Save Pickfair Studios! petition went up on Care2, and filmmaker Allison Anders and historians Hala Pickford and Sal Soul-Pilot Gomez formed Save the Pickfair Studios!
A studio existed on the site since Jesse Durham Hampton began construction in 1917. In 1919, four of the movie industry’s most important figures—D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford—formed United Artists, prompting the comment from a rival executive that, “The inmates are taking over the asylum.” Griffith and Chaplin had their own studios, but Fairbanks and Pickford needed a place to work, and renovated the Hampton site.
Their complex has been known by many names, including the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, the Pickfair Studio, United Artists Studios, the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Warner Hollywood Studios, and most recently as simply The Lot. Just about every significant name in the motion picture industry worked there at one time or another: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando. Movies made there (in whole or in part) include Wuthering Heights (1939), Some Like It Hot (1959), West Side Story (1959), and the cantina scenes in Star Wars (1977).
The loss of such a facility would be a significant blow to our cultural heritage, one of the reasons why petition efforts have attracted members of the Fairbanks family as well as filmmakers Guy Maddin, Joe Dante, and Nancy Savoca; actors Gabriel Byrne, Tony Shalhoub, and Rosanna Arquette; critics Roger Ebert and David Ansen; and Antoine de Cazotte, an executive producer of The Artist. But as Hollywood Heritage points out,
[T]his is a case which stretches back a number of years and received approval at that time for the scope of work then submitted. The original development plan was approved in 1993. In 2006, the City of West Hollywood issued a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for a revised development plan, focusing on the project’s impacts on historic resources.
Both the Los Angeles Conservancy and Hollywood Heritage testified at the Planning Commission and the City Council hearings, focusing on the Supplemental EIR’s failure to consider alternatives to demolition. In May 2007, the West Hollywood City Council approved a revised development plan that included the demolition of some, but not all of the buildings at the site.
In other words, not all of the studio site will disappear. Some of the historical buildings will remain. As noted on Nitrateville.com, the demolition plans were approved more than five years ago. Protests against them should have occurred then.
By coincidence, the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education announced on March 27 that it had lost funding from the Mary Pickford Institute, a charitable trust founded by the actress. Ironically, the coming months will see the release of several Pickford features from Milestone Films, which currently offers Rags to Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection for institutional sale.
In researching this story, I was surprised to learn from film buff Greta de Groat of another studio loss, this one in New York City. As film historian Paul Gierucki informed me, 318 East 48th Street was originally built as a warehouse before it was purchased by Joseph Schenck and converted into a multi-level film studio. It housed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, the Constance Talmadge Film Corporation and Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation.
The sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge were two of the most popular movie stars of the 1920s. Norma started out at Vitagraph, where she worked with comedian John Bunny, moved to Triangle Pictures under D.W. Griffith, then formed her own company when she married Schenck. Constance also started at Vitagraph, had an important role in Griffith’s Intolerance, and specialized in comedies, many of them written by her friend Anita Loos.
Roscoe Arbuckle, probably better known by his screen nickname Fatty, worked on the third floor of the building. It was here that he introduced Buster Keaton to moviemaking in the slapstick short The Butcher Boy, the start of their prolific and creative partnership. Keaton’s first job was to get hit in the face with a sack of flour. As he wrote later, “I said, ‘How am I gonna keep from flinching?’ He said, ‘Look away from me. When I say turn, it’ll be there.’ He put my head where my feet were!”
Arbuckle and Keaton made six films at the 48th Street studio before moving to the Balboa Studios in Long Beach. The Talmadges remained at their studios until 1922, when they moved to California. (Keaton would later marry a third Talmadge sister, Natalie.) Gierucki believes that Lewis Selznick (father of Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick) may have controlled the studios for a while, but the building was converted at some point into a parking garage. (For more information on the Talmadges, visit de Groat’s first-rate Norma Talmadge Website.)
Film historian Ed Watz found an undated news release online with this information: “The Republic of Singapore has purchased 318 East 48th St., a 45,000 s/f garage that will be converted to a UN Mission. The sale price was $29.5 million…Singapore will reconfigure the building to house its Mission to the U.N.”
As Gierucki wrote, “Unfortunately, the word “reconfigure” was a bit of an understatement. Not a single thing remains. Another critical link to our motion picture past has been lost forever.”
Thanks to Paul Gierucki, Greta de Groat, and Ben Model for help with this post.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 29, 2012
Opening Friday, Wrath of the Titans is the latest in the somewhat puzzling genre of movies fashioned from Greek mythology. A sequel to the surprise box-office hit Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans boasts upgraded computer graphics and 3D technology while hewing to its predecessor’s formula: modern versions of stories thousands of years old.
Most recent films set in ancient times—like 300, Troy, Alexander, and Gladiator—are largely excuses to show gigantic battles on screen. The two Titans movies fall into a sort of fantasy subgenre popularized in large part by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. In fact, the 2010 Clash of the Titans was a remake of a 1981 MGM film for which Harryhausen oversaw the special effects.
Stop motion is one of the first special effect processes perfected in cinema, one I’m sure came about by accident. You achieve it by filming a scene, stopping the camera, and then changing something within the scene before starting to film again. For Edison films like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (August, 1895) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), dummies would be substituted for actors when it came time to portray their deaths. In scores of films, Georges Méliès made characters appear and disappear with the same effect, often using a cloud of smoke to disguise the switches.
Edison rivals J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith took the process a step further by making it seem as if inanimate objects could move in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897). They did this by shooting a single frame at a time, shifting objects before the camera a little after each frame. Pieces of furniture, letters of the alphabet, in fact almost anything that could be filmed could be moved as well. A film like The Thieving Hand (Vitagraph, 1908) shows how quickly stop-motion techniques advanced.
In stop-motion animation, filmmakers build models which they move frame by frame. These tend to be miniatures because they’re easier to control, but the process is still incredibly time consuming, requiring obsessive attention to details like lighting and surfacing. Films like The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Ladislas Starevich (also known as Wladyslaw Starewicz) show just what could be accomplished with insects, matchboxes, and tiny costumes.
Willis O’Brien, a cowboy, guide, boxer, sculptor, and cartoonist, began working in stop-motion animation in 1915. His fascination with dinosaurs led to several films in which he developed ways to combine animation with live action, and to make models more lifelike with latex, armatures, bladders, and gel for “saliva.” Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Lost World (1925) featured some fifty dinosaurs, stunning audiences worldwide.
O’Brien set to work on Creation for RKO, but it was cancelled by studio head David O. Selznick after some 20 minutes had been completed. Merian C. Cooper, who would later replace Selznick as head at the studio, brought O’Brien onto a new project about a giant ape terrorizing New York City. King Kong (1933) would become one of the touchstones in cinema, due in no small part to O’Brien’s meticulous animation.
At times O’Brien was moving his models as little as an eighth of an inch per frame. A mistake meant starting over from the beginning of the shot. Fur on the Kong models was impossible to control completely. (Watching the film you can see the ape’s fur change shape from frame to frame.) But to viewers then and today, Kong became a living, breathing figure of terror, perhaps the greatest single achievement in stop-motion technology.
O’Brien worked on both Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). For the latter, he hired Ray Harryhausen, an animator whose life had been changed by seeing King Kong. “You know it is not real, but it looks real. It’s like a nightmare of something in a dream,” he said later.
Born in 1925, Harryhausen modeled his own creatures from old clothes and clay before working on George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons at Paramount. Enlisting at the start of World War II, he worked in the Signal Corps making movies like How to Bridge a Gorge (1942). After the war, with O’Brien as friend and mentor, Harryhausen made shorts adapted from Mother Goose stories.
Animating The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) led to work on It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), where Harryhausen met producer and partner-to-be Charles Schneer. The animator had been working for years on a project “based purely on Greek mythology” called The Lost City. With Schneer’s help, Harryhausen ended up with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Schneer sold the idea to Columbia for a budget of $650,000, little of which went to the cast (contract player Kermit Mathews, future Mrs. Bing Crosby Kathryn Grant) or for location shoots. Filming in Spain was cheaper and offered stark beach, mountain and desert scenery with landmarks like the Alhambra Palace to back up Harryhausen’s animation.
Yes, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is ostensibly derived from The Arabian Nights, but Harryhausen would return to similar monsters and situations for the rest of his career. Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton shows up in an expanded form in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for example. With their elemental, larger-than-life narratives and outsized monsters, Greek myths were perfect for Harryhausen’s methods.
Harryhausen learned from O’Brien how important it is to develop personalities for his characters—like a Cyclops who pulls over a bench so he can watch his dinner cooking in Sinbad, or the skeletons’ feral grins in Jason. Harryhausen’s figures, with their awkward lurches and puzzled gestures, have a charming, lifelike quality that is often seems to be missing from today’s CGI.
Stop-motion animation continues today in work by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Jan Švankmajer (Alice, Faust), the Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), and Nick Park (who won an Oscar for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). Upcoming stop-motion features include The Pirates! Band of Misfits from Park’s Aardman Animation and Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton.
If you think that filmmakers don’t reach back to the past, you can spot very funny Thieving Hand references in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the upcoming The Cabin in the Woods.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 23, 2012
If you’ve somehow avoided the marketing juggernaut behind The Hunger Games, the film version of Suzanne Collins’ novel is poised to become the first box-office blockbuster of 2012. Opening today, the movie has already broken the first-day sales record on Fandango, topping the previous leader, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Should it match that title’s receipts, The Hunger Game could top $150 million within days.
Despite muted reviews from old-line media like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, and Time, The Hunger Games has already helped to boost the stock price of distributor Lionsgate by over 80% in the past three months. So you can count on Hunger Games sequels in the near future. Three more episodes are currently planned (the last book will be split into two parts, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
With almost 25 millions copies in print, Collins’ series of young adult novels are a phenomenon in their own right. Set in a dystopian future, the premise features televised Olympics-style battles to the death among 24 teenagers selected from the 12 colonies that had rebelled against the ruling class. Personally, I am uncomfortable with how children are used in The Hunger Games, and even more uncomfortable with one of its immediate predecessors, Battle Royale. A 1999 novel by Koushun Takami that was adapted into a 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale is far more violent and morally ambiguous than The Hunger Games. In it, high school students are sent to a remote island in a rigged fight to the death. Collins has stated that she was unaware of Battle Royale when working on The Hunger Games. The stories still share a surprising number of plot elements. Although Quentin Tarantino professed it a favorite, Battle Royale has never received a legitimate release in the U.S.
Call me a hypocrite, but I’m generally fine with other forms of screen mayhem. The upcoming Jason Statham vehicle Safe has a body count in the dozens, as well as a young protagonist who directly causes the deaths of several villains. But director Boaz Yakin never pretends that Safe is anything but escapist entertainment, and he doesn’t dwell on how the movie’s victims die.
Just as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels popularized vampire and werewolf themes for a young-adult audience—making a fortune for Warner Bros. and Little, Brown in the process—The Hunger Games takes a premise that has been around for decades and refashions it for a new audience. Here are five other films in which humans hunt each other to the death.
5. The Running Man. Based on a novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), this 1987 film starred two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Schwarzenegger, at the height of his popularity as an actor, plays a contestant in a televised duel-to-the-death hosted by smarmy emcee Richard Dawson. Arnold simultaneously must defeat the corrupt regime ruling a post-apocalyptic United States. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the original Starsky in TV’s “Starsky and Hutch.” Both novel and film borrow from an influential 1958 short story by Robert Scheckley, “The Prize of Peril.”
4. The Naked Prey. Directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, this 1966 adventure finds Wilde chased across the South African veldt (actually Zimbabwe) by tribesmen who have already murdered the other members of his safari. Considered shockingly brutal for its time, the film is more notable today for its exceptional location photography (by H.A.R. Thomson) and Roger Cherill’s lean, incisive editing. The screenplay, by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Criterion Collection DVD release includes the original inspiration for the movie: a 1913 short story “John Colter’s Escape,” about a trapper fleeing Blackfoot Indian pursuers. According to this website, Joel and Ethan Coen remade the film on Super 8.
3. The 10th Victim. This 1965 sci-fi adventure by Elio Petri features screen icons Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress in another televised death match, this one called “The Big Hunt.” Anyone who survives five attacks and commits five assassinations wins a million dollars. With its “modernistic” decor, disaffected characters, and parody TV ads, the film predicted today’s cynical take on violence and celebrity. The 10th Victim was based on a Richard Scheckley short story, “The Seventh Victim.” Director Petri would later win an Oscar for his satirical 1970 police procedural, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
2. Spartacus. It may seem a stretch to connect a 1960 gladiator epic, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, to The Hunger Games. But there are odd parallels. As their unlikely lead characters, both stories feature impoverished outcasts. In both, these innocents are forced to perform in a deadly ritual for a corrupt ruling class. Both undergo rigorous training in a decadent capitol. In order to survive, both turn into reluctant killers. And both are drawn into political intrigues. I’ll end the comparison by noting that Spartacus doesn’t have the happiest of endings.
1. The Most Dangerous Game. My favorite in the human prey genre, this 1932 film was based on a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in which survivors of a shipwreck come face to face with the infamous Count Zaroff. (Read the original story.) With no way off Zaroff’s tropical island, the guests must play along with his deadly demands. More a horror film than an adventure, The Most Dangerous Game was filmed at the same time, and on the same sets, as the RKO classic King Kong. (Ernest B. Schoedsack was co-director of both films.) It also featured a mesmerizing score by Max Steiner, one of Hollywood’s premier composers. Starring a young Joel McCrea (still a few years from his success as a leading man at Paramount) and Fay Wray (at the time the screen’s reigning scream queen), The Most Dangerous Game has the inexorable logic of a nightmare, and the gloomy, swampy locations to match.
The Most Dangerous Game has been overshadowed by King Kong, but filmmakers (and other artists) really took to its premise. In A Game of Death (1945), Zaroff’s villain became a Nazi; the film was directed by Robert Wise, who also helmed The Sound of Music. Run for the Sun (1956), directed by Roy Boulting and starring Richard Widmark, took place in Central America. Orson Welles appeared in a radio version in 1945. The Most Dangerous Game has an amusing cameo in Zodiac (2007), David Fincher’s drama about the San Francisco-area serial killer.
The Criterion Collection released an excellent edition of The Most Dangerous Game that is available on Hulu Plus. You can also find an edition from Legend Films that includes a colorized version overseen by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. (In honor of Wrath of the Titans, I will be writing about Harryhausen and stop-motion animation next week.)
Or you can view The Most Dangerous Game online, at the Internet Archive or on YouTube:
March 22, 2012
Critics love to impress readers with obscure films, titles that most moviegoers rarely get the chance to see. Something similar happened with Margaret, a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. But in a twist, critics are helping to bring this film back to the public.
Margaret was named to several of last years’ Top Ten Films lists, even though it played in the U.S. briefly in only two theaters, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. When the film dropped out of circulation, Jaime N. Christley, a critic with Slant, started an on-line petition (since closed) to bring it back. The Film Society of Lincoln Center scheduled a screening on February 25 with Lonergan and much of the cast in attendance. Now, remarkably, the film is receiving more screenings, starting tomorrow, March 23.
First, a little history. Lonergan, a playwright (This Is Our Youth), screenwriter (Analyze This) and director (You Can Count on Me), began writing Margaret in 2003, although he had the idea since high school and thought of it as a feature film since 1995. He began shooting the film in 2005, finishing that December apart from some pick-up shots and reshoots.
Editing took three years, in part because Lonergan was supposed to hand over a two-hour movie to distributor Fox Searchlight. A lawsuit between producer Gary Gilbert and Fox Searchlight ensued; Lonergan is currently involved in a separate lawsuit which prevents him from talking about many of the production details.
The Margaret Fox Searchlight eventually released in September, 2011 “is the version that was completed in 2008,” Lonergan told moviegoers at the February screening. “I think it’s wonderful and I’m very proud of it.”
Margaret clocks in and just under 150 minutes, which can seem either too long or too short. (The Hunger Games, which opens Friday, runs 142 minutes.) The film follows teenager Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin, after she inadvertently helps cause a fatal accident on the streets of Manhattan.
Traumatized, she reaches out to adults for advice and comfort. Single mom Joan (actress J. Smith-Cameron) and divorced dad Karl (played by Lonergan) do not respond the way Lisa wants, and teachers (played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, among others) also fall short. On her own, Lisa campaigns to right what she perceives as an injustice, taking on the police, the legal system, and strangers in a quest as quixotic as it is poignant.
“I was trying to look at that phenomenon when you suddenly become aware of the world, and all the horrible and interesting things in it, as though no one else had noticed them before,” Lonergan told the audience. “You haven’t been worn down yet. You’re 17 and you think something can be done about it.”
The director recalled a comment Elaine May told him: “Only a teenager could think she could have that big an effect on the world.” “We get tired,” Lonergan went on. “We get to be thirty and say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make my life right, and the people around me right.’ At best most teenagers find that to be hypocritical and weak.”
The film’s title comes from “Spring and Fall,” a 1918 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it, Margaret grieves over leaves falling from a tree. As Lonergan put it, “I remember being in ninth or tenth grade at a friend’s house, and a little sparrow flew against the window and knocked itself out, killed itself. I felt, ‘Oh my god, that sparrow just died.’ Now I could walk past a dozen dead sparrows without blinking an eye.”
Losing that sense of sorrow and injustice is what Lonergan tries to detail in Margaret. But for me, Margaret is special for what it is, not what it is about. Lonergan is a superb writer, but more important, he is a patient one. You Can Count on Me is one of the more heartbreaking movies in recent memory precisely because it unfolds so casually, so unerringly.
Like that film, Margaret is uncomfortably intimate. Lonergan shows us what we would rather not see about his characters: how they fail, make mistakes, give up, ignore or betray each other—the same way we all do. Despite this, Lonergan still finds what redeems his characters, and why we should care about them.
Margaret is also a film in which every location feels authentic. This is what New York City is like: beautiful, chaotic, ghastly, all at once. One shot that sweeps through the Metropolitan Opera has a jaw-dropping grandeur; another, in which Lisa is accosted by toughs, can make you cringe.
One scene in the middle of Margaret crystallizes the problems Lonergan had in editing the film. In it, Broderick gives an interpretation of lines from King Lear; a student (played by Jake O’Connor) offers a different, contradictory meaning. Their extended argument is a comic highlight, “even though it doesn’t actually further the plot,” as Lonergan admits.
“What I think it does do and why it wasn’t just a fun scene that we could cut out was that it is representative of how impossible it is, taken from the teacher’s point of view,” the director went on. “If he can’t convince one kid in one class of one point of one line from Shakespeare, nor can the kid convince the teacher to take another look at the line in any way whatsoever—meanwhile Lisa is trying to do something which much much more difficult.
“I think the reason the scene was written and the reason that it stayed in the movie, to me it’s right on the money of what she’s up against: the fact that people just think what they think.”
This is the beauty of Margaret, a film that expands from its premise to embrace different points of view, to offer reasons for perceived wrongs, to show how one person finds her place in the world.
I’ll gives the last words to Richard Brody of The New Yorker: “Margaret runs the risk of falling into undeserved oblivion—albeit only temporarily. It will be remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders, and will leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.”
March 16, 2012
Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.
This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.
This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.
Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.
Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.
“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”
The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.
Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.
The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”
A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.
Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”
Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”
The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”
In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.
I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.
Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”
March 14, 2012
My post Watching Movies in the Cloud discussed the implications of streaming movies onto your computer. It focused on the end result: how watching movies on your computer compared with watching them in a theater. But commenter Paul Kakert raised a very good point. Where are new movies, in particular documentaries, coming from? Will streaming affect the subject matter of the movies themselves, and not just their sound and image? Can you find worthwhile titles in the cloud that haven’t played in theaters?
Kakert cited his nonprofit, the Iowa-based Storytellers International, which promotes and distributes its titles through DocumentaryTV.com. Documentaries are a chronically underfunded genre, and it’s almost as difficult to get them into theaters as it is to make them.
Several documentary distributors have established online sites, including Appalshop, where you can stream Mimi Pickering’s troubling Buffalo Creek Flood: an Act of Man; Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which offers the Alaskan films by Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling; Docurama Films, covering arts, social issues, and ethnic documentaries; Kartemquin Films, the organization behind Hoop Dreams; Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films; and many others. Independent distributors like Milestone, Criterion, and Kino also offer documentary titles.
What sets something like Kartemquin Films apart from distributors is that Kartemquin also helps produce titles. Traditionally it’s been very difficult to get money to make documentaries. Robert Flaherty, about whose films the critic John Grierson coined the very word “documentary,” struggled throughout his career to finance his projects. Nanook of the North, one of the most famous titles in the genre, was paid for in part by the French furrier John Revillon. Once Nanook became a box-office hit, Flaherty signed with the Hollywood studio Paramount.
Paramount was remarkably adventurous in the 1920s, financing Flaherty and the filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, at the time making documentaries like Grass and Chang, but soon to stun the world with King Kong. Most studios established footholds in the genre, usually through newsreels and short subjects. By far the biggest sponsor of documentaries was the government, both on local and federal levels. The state of Connecticut produced educational films on everything from hygiene to citizenship, while in the 1930s, Washington, DC, became a haven for artists like Flaherty, Pare Lorentz, and Virgil Thompson.
Government involvement in film production spiked during World War II, when the film industry’s top leaders either enlisted or cooperated with propaganda efforts. After the war, documentarians went back to scrounging for money. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1949) was financed by Standard Oil, while John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) received funding from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Many fledgling filmmakers turned to the United States Information Agency, or USIA, the government’s overseas propaganda arm.
Documentarians became adept at freelancing. David and Albert Maysles made television commercials for Citibank. D A Pennebaker worked on ABC’s Living Camera series. Wiseman signed a contract with WNET, the New York City public television outlet.
In fact, public television has become a prime outlet for documentaries. Adapted from the BBC series Horizon, NOVA has acquired or produced scores of documentaries since its inception in 1974. Created in 1984, American Masters offers biographies of artists like Margaret Mitchell and Merle Haggard. Since 1988, POV has screened some 300 independent documentaries, including works by Wiseman, the Maysles, and Errol Morris.
For the past decades, HBO Documentary Films has dominated the commercial front, due in large part to Sheila Nevins, who is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. (Full disclosure: I worked in HBO’s story department back in the 1990s.) Nevins exerts remarkable influence, as director Joe Berlinger told me last fall.
“Sheila Nevins was a big fan of Brother’s Keeper, our first film,” Berlinger said. “After it had a nice run, she sent us a little article, a clipping that had made it to like page B20 of the New York Times, an AP wire service story picked up from a local paper.” That was the basis for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of documentaries Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky made about the West Memphis Three.
HBO and PBS operate like the major leagues for documentarians, suggesting topics, funding research, providing publicity and all-important exposure. But what if you haven’t made a documentary yet? How do you get funding?
In his blog The Front Row, New Yorker writer and editor Richard Brody linked to a fascinating Steven Spielberg interview in which the director claimed that right now is a great time to make movies. The director was quoted:
You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it! If no one hires you, use the camera on your phone and post everything on YouTube. A young person has more opportunities to direct now than in my day. I’d have liked to begin making movies today.
Spielberg in fact worked with the 1960s equivalent of a camera phone, Super 8 film, on which he made a number of shorts and even a feature, Firelight. He also had a preternatural grasp of film technique and grammar and uncanny insight into the culture of his time, skills that made him one of the most successful directors of our time. The problem with his YouTube argument is that while almost anyone can make a movie, not everyone has the same abilities. And finding an audience can be overwhelmingly difficult.
Nurturing and mentoring young filmmakers is one of the goals behind the Tribeca Film Institute’s many development programs. The TFI Documentary Fund provided $150,000 in grants to filmmakers like Daniel Gordon (whose The Race examines a disputed contest in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Penny Lane and Brian Frye, who use the President’s home movies to provide a new look at Our Nixon.
The Tribeca Film Festival also offers the following programs. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund helps filmmakers complete feature-length documentaries with social justice themes. Tribeca All Access pairs new filmmakers with established professionals for intensive workshops and one-on-one meetings. The TFI New Media Fund offers grants to projects that integrate film with other media platforms. One especially intriguing TFI program involves teaching digital storytelling to immigrant students. In Los Angeles, experienced filmmakers team with teachers, community activists and parents to help students script their own stories in an 18-week program. The program has been operating for six years in all five of New York City’s boroughs. This year, for example, a Bronx school will partner with one in Brazil to make a film.
The Sundance Institute offers several programs as well, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which gives up to $2 million in grants to between 35-50 documentary projects a year; Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, a $3 million partnership between the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation; and invitation-only Creative Documentary Labs.
Unwilling to tailor your film to fit the rules and regulations of grant organizations? Kickstarter allows you to reach out to peers for financing. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter currently lists 2715 documentary projects, including films about David Lynch, Simone Weil, and the Oscar-nominated short Incident in New Baghdad.
Girl Walk // All Day is a perfect example of a Kickstarter project. A 77-minute dance video synched to the 2010 album All Day by Girl Talk (sampling artist Gregg Gillis), the project received almost $25,000 from over 500 donors. It’s hard to see how director, editor, and co-cinematographer Jacob Krupnick would have received funding from traditional documentary organizations, but his movie has already been compared to the 3D dance film Pina by Variety. Because of rights issues, it’s unlikely that the film will get a commercial release, but you can screen it online.
March 9, 2012
Well before its premiere this Saturday on HBO, Game Change was generating controversy. A docudrama about how Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain’s running mate in his campaign for President, the film was adapted from the best-selling book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The cable broadcaster trumpeted the film’s accuracy in press releases, stating that “The authors’ unprecedented access to the players, their wide-ranging research and the subject matter itself gave the project a compelling veracity that has become a signature of HBO Films.” Even though there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the film quickly came under attack, with Palin aides calling it inaccurate and Game Change screenwriter Danny Strong defending his work as “as fair and accurate a telling of this event that we believe could possibly be done in a movie adaptation.”
The biggest surprise about Game Change is that it’s more about campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) than about either of the two candidates. (Actor Ed Harris plays McCain.) Much of the film is told from Schmidt’s point-of-view, which means that he gets to analyze the candidates’ motives and abilities. Since Palin and McCain declined to be interviewed for the film, Game Change can’t get into their minds the way it does with Schmidt. And the candidates can’t rebut his account of what happened.
Hollywood screenwriters love flawed heroes, and if there’s one theme that ties together films about campaigns and politicians, it’s the idea that candidates are afflicted with hamartia, a tragic flaw that determines their fates. In films as old as Gabriel Over the White House (1932) and as recent as The Ides of March (2011), candidates and politicians alike are pried apart on screen for viewers to inspect.
Ironically, it’s usually the candidate’s willingness to compromise that brings about his or her downfall. On the one hand, everyone wants politicians to have integrity. But isn’t the ability to compromise central to politics?
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941), Spencer Tracy in State of the Nation (1948), Henry Fonda in The Best Man (1964), Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972)—all lose support when veer away from their personal beliefs in order to attract voters. The Great McGinty (1940), which won director and writer Preston Sturges an Oscar for his screenplay, offers a wonderful twist on this idea of a character flaw. A bum-turned-party hack (Brian Donlevy as McGinty) is elected governor in a crooked campaign, only to throw his state’s politics into turmoil when he decides to go straight.
The theme is muted but still present in Game Change. Palin flounders when she tries to obey campaign strategists. Only by returning to her roots can she succeed as a candidate. What I found more interesting in Game Change is how the filmmakers borrowed so many scenes and settings from The War Room.
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, The War Room (1993) gave moviegoers unprecedented access to the people who ran Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. By concentrating on strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, The War Room showed how campaigns are waged, decisions made, and the press manipulated. (The Criterion Collection has just released The War Room on Blu-Ray and DVD.)
The War Room has inevitable parallels with Game Change. Both films deal with scandals that were fed and amplified by the media; both focus on conventions and debates. And both concentrate not on the candidates, but on their handlers—in previous films largely objects of scorn. But The War Room is a documentary, not a docudrama. Hegedus and Pennebaker weren’t following a script, they were trying to capture events as they happened.
Tellingly, Pennebaker admits that the filmmakers won access to the campaign’s war room in part because Carville and Stephanopoulos felt “somehow we were on their side.” Pennebaker was one of the cinematographers on the groundbreaking documentary Primary, in my opinion the film that first opened the political process to the public. An account of a Wisconsin primary in 1959 between Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, Primary took viewers behind the scenes to see how campaigns actually operated.
Primary set up a contrast between Humphrey, shown as isolated, out of touch, and Kennedy, a celebrity surrounded by enthusiastic crowds. It was a conscious bias, as Pennebaker told me in a 2008 interview. “Bob [producer Robert Drew] and all of us saw Kennedy as a kind of helmsman of a new adventure. Win or lose we assumed he was the new voice, the new generation.” As for Humphrey: “We all saw him as kind of a nerd.”
As influential as Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1960, Primary set a template for every subsequent film about campaigns.
March 7, 2012
For 60 years, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been the gold standard for how to film a fairy tale. It was the most successful musical of the 1930s, out-performing Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Show Boat. It popularized such best-selling songs as “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And it was the first in a remarkable run of animation classics from the Disney studio.
Two new live-action movies will look to unseat Disney’s version of Snow White in the coming weeks. First up, and opening on March 30: Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen. It will be followed on June 1 by Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a huge risk for Disney, but also the only direction he could take his studio. Disney’s cartoon shorts helped introduce technological innovations like sound and color to the moviegoing public, and characters like Mickey Mouse became famous the world over. But Walt and his brother Roy could not figure out a way to make money from shorts—the Oscar-winning Three Little Pigs grossed $64,000, a lot at the time, but it cost $60,000 to make. Like Charlie Chaplin before them, the Disneys needed to commit to feature films to prosper.
Disney picked the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” because of a film he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and starring Marguerite Clark, the 1916 Snow White was distributed by Paramount. As a star, Clark rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. She had appeared on stage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Winthrop Ames and produced in 1912. By that time Snow White had already reached the screen several times. Filmmakers were no doubt inspired by a special-effects laden version of Cinderella released by Georges Méliès in 1899 that was a favorite Christmas attraction in theaters for years.
A popular genre in early cinema, fairy tale films included titles like Edwin S. Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which took six weeks to film; a French version of Sleeping Beauty (1903); Dorothy’s Dream (1903), a British film by G.A. Smith; and William Selig’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1903).
Ames borrowed from the Cinderella story for his script, but both the play and film feature many of the plot elements from the Grimm Brothers tale “Little Snow White.” Although Snow White the film has its dated elements, director Dawley elicits a charming performance from Clark, who was in her 30s at the time, and the production has a fair share of menace, black humor, and pageantry. The film is included on the first Treasures from American Film Archives set from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Young Walt Disney attended a version in which viewers were surrounded on four sides by screens that filled in the entire field of vision. “My impression of the picture has stayed with me through the years and I know it played a big part in selecting Snow White for my first feature production,” he wrote to Frank Newman, an old boss, in 1938.
Disney was working on his Snow White project as early as 1933, when he bought the screen rights to the Ames play. That same year the Fleischer brothers released Snow-White, a Betty Boop cartoon featuring music by Cab Calloway, who performs “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The short owes little to the Grimm Brothers, but remains one of the high points of animation for its intricate surrealism and hot jazz.
The Fleischers, Max and Dave, had been making films for almost twenty years when they started on Snow-White. In 1917, Max patented the rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace the outlines of figures—a technique still in use today. He was making animated features in 1923, introduced the famous “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons the following year, and captivated Depression-era filmgoers with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye.
The pre-Code Betty Boop was a bright, lively, sexy woman, the perfect antidote to bad economic times. Soon after her debut she was selling soap, candy, and toys, as well as working in a comic strip and on a radio show. Snow-White was her 14th starring appearance, and the second of three films she made with Cab Calloway. Her other costars included Bimbo and Ko Ko, to me the eeriest of all cartoon figures.
(For flat-out weirdness, I don’t think anything tops Bimbo’s Initiation, but all the Fleischer brothers’ films have something to recommend them.)
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had an enormous impact on Hollywood. Variety called it “a jolt and a challenge to the industry’s creative brains.” The film ran for five weeks in its initial run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing to some 800,000 moviegoers. Although it cost the studio $1.5 million to make, the film grossed $8.5 million in its first run. Its success helped persuade MGM to embark on The Wizard of Oz. The Fleischers, meanwhile, set out to make their own animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman will make, but they are following some tough acts.
March 2, 2012
You can’t say you weren’t warned. A year ago New York Times critic Dave Kehr was proclaiming the end of DVDs: Goodbye, DVD. Hello, Future. Unit sales were down 40%, Blockbuster had gone into bankruptcy, and Netflix was shifting from a mail-order purveyor of DVDs to “a streaming video company delivering a wide selection of TV shows and films over the Internet,” in the words of chief executive Reed Hastings.
Kehr pinned his hopes for home video on Blu-ray, citing that format’s ability to deliver high-definition versions of films. But despite industry efforts, Blu-ray has never really caught on with consumers. Released to the public in 2006, Blu-ray currently accounts for 23% of total disc sales, according to Home Video Magazine. When you examine the Top 20 Sellers last week, that proportion can drop even further—15% of sales for The Help were on Blu-ray, 11% of “Downton Abbey”—unless, like Disney did with Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, you force buyers to purchase a Blu-ray package.
Especially for older library titles, studios are scaling back on disc releases. Warner Bros. (which also controls most of the classic MGM titles), Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Sony are now all offering what they refer to as “MOD” or “manufacturing on demand” titles, essentially burning new discs only after they are ordered. MOD discs lack the extras—and the longevity—of consumer discs, but in many cases they are now the only way to see obscure movies.
The industry seems to be heading toward forgoing discs of any kind, aiming instead for an environment in which viewers stream content to their computers and televisions. Cable companies have been offering “video on demand” options for some time, both at home and in hotels. Also in the hunt for viewers: Apple’s iTunes, Hulu, Wal-Mart’s VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video, Vimeo, and Netflix. Even PBS is into streaming. This week the broadcaster announced its first Online Film Festival.
Search engines want a piece of the action as well. Search for “Harry Potter” on Bing, and you will get an option to “Watch Now.” Google, meanwhile, will be happy to send you to YouTube.
MediaHound, a search aggregator that resembles a Kayak for TV and movie titles, shows some promise. Pop in a title, and MediaHound will give you options for purchasing and streaming. Right now it does fine for recently released titles, but draws a blank for lesser-known items.
Is this good news or bad for film buffs? On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to find and purchase specific titles. I caught the sparkling Pre-Code comedy Havana Widows a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies, but despaired of ever seeing it again. Now it’s available at Warner Archives, and for a fairly reasonable price.
But step outside releases from major studios, and it suddenly gets much harder to pin down a title like Ride the Pink Horse or Under a Texas Moon.
I find watching films on my computer disconcerting. Without a high-speed Internet connection, a film may sputter, skip frames, or stop entirely during playback. Rewinding and fast-forwarding are ostensible options, but in reality they disrupt the feed so much that they are unusable.
The quality of the image suffers as well. Projected nitrate, even that which has been restored and preserved on polyester stock, has a lustrous look and sheen to it. At low resolution on a computer monitor, it can seem pixellated, corroded with digital artifacts, lacking balance and contrast.
But get used to it, because streaming is taking over the home consumer market. It is impacting the archival world as well. As Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, wrote me, “Viewing film online is already becoming the 21st century way to enjoy films that once screened on the repertory circuit. But it also holds promise for revolutionizing access to archival films—films of historic interest that were formerly seen only by scholars who had the resources to travel to film archives to do research.”
The NFPF has assembled five DVD packages under its highly recommended “Treasures” umbrella, 214 titles in all. They range from studio features to home movies, from animation to documentaries. But the NFPF also posts titles for streaming to its website, like these films recently discovered in New Zealand. (Check out comedienne Mabel Normand’s charming Won in a Closet, or the early Western Billy and His Pal, starring director John Ford’s older brother Francis.)
“With the web, we can make available other movies—without costly-to-produce ‘extras,’ such as new music and commentary. We don’t see this web exhibition as replacing the Treasures DVD sets—or the experience of enjoying films in a movie theater—but rather as a way to democratize film access,” Melville said.
Democracy comes with a cost, however. “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free,’” Melville said. “Currently the NFPF is planning two major web premieres for later in 2012. The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
As a consumer, you’ll pay coming and going. Yes, you can watch some titles for free on IFC (like The Larry Sanders Show), Hulu (currently offering six silent titles—with commercial interruptions—from The Criterion Collection, including Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights), and other sites. But most titles cost between $3 and $10.
And now cellphone carriers want to charge you for hogging bandwidth while streaming and downloading movies. As The Wall Street Journal put it, AT&T Ends All-You-Can-Eat.