June 4, 2012
Folk music lost a legend with the passing of Doc Watson on May 29. Justly famous for his flatpicking expertise, Watson influenced a generation of guitarists, including Bob Dylan (who said his playing was “just like water running”) and Ry Cooder, who wrote this reminiscence in Wednesday’s New York Times.
Watson had close ties with Smithsonian Folkways Records, as you can learn in Wednesday’s Around the Mall posting Remembering Doc Watson, Folk Guitar Hero (1923-2012). It includes links to his albums with Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe, as well as a clip of “Deep River Blues” from the Smithsonian Folkways instructional DVD Doc’s Guitar: Fingerpicking & Flatpicking, produced by Artie Traum’s Homespun Music Instruction.
Watson played a key role in the folk music revival of the 1960s, not just for his singing and playing, but for his eclectic taste. Purists of the time tended to slavishly recreate songs they learned from Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. Watson embraced everything: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly, pop. He gave equal weight to all genres, and found inspiration in both traditional songs and Tin Pan Alley concoctions. He helped listeners find a common thread across musical boundaries.
The guitarist recorded for a number of labels, including Vanguard, Capitol and Sugar Hill, and appeared on innumerable radio and television shows. Many of these can be found on YouTube, and like the Smithsonian Folkways link above, are mostly excerpts from larger pieces. Like “Old, Old House,” a clip from the 2008 Appalshop documentary From Wood to Singing Guitar.
The definitive Doc Watson documentary has yet to be made, and it can be frustrating catching glimpses of his performances instead of learning more about what he was like as a person. Three Homespun instructional DVDs—Flatpicking with Doc, Doc’s Guitar, and Doc’s Guitar Jam—show a more unguarded portrait of the musician.
Another good source of Watson material is Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol Videos and DVDs. Doc and Merle Watson In Concert (1980) has footage of the musicians at home. Doc Watson–Rare Performances 1963-1981 assembles clips from TV shows like “Hootenanny” and “Austin City Limits.”
It can be difficult to find folk musicians like Watson on film, the occasional “Austin City Limits” notwithstanding. It’s been over a decade since PBS offered American Roots Music, a somewhat cursory overview of “Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and Native American” styles. Public television’s American Masters series has devoted episodes to Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell. But the genre has yet to receive the treatment it deserves.
Rural music was treated with more respect back in the 1920s, when movies were beginning to switch from silent to sound. Warner Bros. introduced its Vitaphone sound system to the public on August 6, 1926, with a program of eight short films. The only popular, as opposed to classical, title was Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the String,” in “His Pastimes.” Smeck, whose career extended into the 1960s and beyond, played the banjo, ukulele and Hawaiian (or slide) guitar. Warners released His Pastimes on its Jazz Singer box set.
Country and rural acts appeared in a number of musical shorts of the period: Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys, The Rangers in “After the Roundup,” Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do-Flappers, etc. Watson told journalist Dan Miller that he switched from the Maybelle Carter “thumb lead” style of playing to flatpicking because of Jimmie Rodgers. “I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks.’ So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks.” “The Father of Country Music,” Rodgers filmed a short for Columbia Pictures in Camden, New Jersey, The Singing Brakeman, in October, 1929.
In the 1930s and 1940s, “singing cowboy” movies gave a platform for rural artists like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Davis. Similarly, “Soundies,” a precursor of sorts to music videos, could star Merle Travis or Spade Cooley. Bob Wills, another Watson favorite, appeared in over a dozen features and shorts during the period. Pete Seeger appeared in an educational short, To Hear Your Banjo Play (1947), directed by Irving Lerner and Willard Van Dyke.
Genuine folk music became harder to spot in movies during the 1950s, perhaps because a younger generation was turning to rock and roll. Fans could spot Merle Travis singing “Re-enlistment Blues” in From Here to Eternity, but often rural music was the subject of derision, as in A Face in the Crowd.
Watson’s emergence, along with the rise of individuals like Dylan and groups like Peter, Paul & Mary and The New Lost City Ramblers, helped burnish folk’s reputation. Suddenly folk musicians were everywhere on TV. Film caught up later with the Oscar-winning Bound for Glory (1976), a fanciful biopic about Woody Guthrie, and the genre was gently roasted by the Spinal Tap gang in A Mighty Wind (2003). The next Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, recreates the 1960s MacDougall Street/Greenwich Village folk scene.
It’s a treat to see Johnny Cash perform in the otherwise mediocre Hootenanny Hoot (1963), but it seems to me that filmmakers of the time rarely captured the essence of folk music. One exception is John Cohen, a musician with The New Lost City Ramblers, photographer and writer as well as a documentarian. The High Lonesome Sound (featuring Roscoe Holcomb) and in particular Sara & Maybelle: the Original Carter Family present folk music the way it should be heard. If you can find his DVD, grab it.
This is a very abbreviated overview, one that leaves out whole swaths of performers and musical styles. Les Blank, for example, has made excellent documentaries about Louisiana and Tex-Mex music, and filmmakers like D A Pennebaker have dug deep into Americana music. There’s always more to learn, one of the best lessons listening to Doc Watson taught me.
May 30, 2012
News last week that Wanda, a real estate company based in China, purchased AMC Entertainment has raised concerns in some quarters over a foreign incursion into the U.S. film industry. Based in Kansas City, AMC is the country’s second-largest film chain, operating 5,034 theaters. Founded by billionaire Wang Jianlin, Wanda operates 730 screens in China, and is also involved in production and distribution.
In The New York Times, reporter David Barboza calls the deal “risky,” in part because of AMC’s heavy debt load, but also because of the challenges Wang faces in making the Wanda Group a global brand. (Wang had ties to disgraced politician Bo Xilai, but he told the Times that they had “a working relationship,” not a personal one.) The billionaire has not ruled out purchasing theaters in Europe, although the bulk of his real estate empire consists of commercial developments, hotels, and resorts.
Will AMC begin screening more Chinese films? Yes, but not because of the Wanda deal. DreamWorks Animation is building a production studio in Shanghai in a joint venture with China Media Capital and the Shanghai Media Group. As I wrote earlier, Walt Disney and Marvel Studios are producing Iron Man 3 in China. Two weeks ago, the News Corporation, which owns 20th Century Fox, bought 19.9% of Bona Film Group, a China-based film distributor. So it’s simply a matter of time before more Chinese co-productions start reaching screens here.
Barboza raised a more interesting question: will the Wanda deal impact what movies AMC screens? Wang is sticking with AMC’s current management for the time being, and told the Times that he would not interfere with its decisions. But what if AMC tries to show a documentary supporting uprisings in Tibet? Or Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman’s documentary about the activist artist that is currently making the rounds of film festivals? How would Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), based on the life of the 14th Dalai Lama and a source of contention between Disney and Chinese authorities, have fared?
Some viewers here might worry about an influx of Chinese propaganda, like the recent films celebrating Sun Yat-Sen (including 1911, Beginning of the Great Revival, and Bodyguards and Assassins). But Chinese moviegoers enjoy the same types of films we do here—often the same titles. Top grossers include comedies, romances, animation, and blockbusters. Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar 2 were big hits, as were the Transformers and Harry Potter series.
Unfortunately, very few of the movies made in China reach American theaters. I hope to write about this in more detail, but for now let me list some recent Asian productions that are available here.
1. Let the Bullets Fly (2010). Set in the 1920s, this genre mash-up is the all-time top-grossing Chinese production. Directed by Jiang Wen, the film describes what happens when a notorious bandit (played by Jiang), a corrupt governor (Ge You), and the local crimelord (Chow Yun Fat) battle each other over impoverished Goose Town. Jiang uses action and comedy (and some serious filmmaking skills) to drive home his political points, and finds the time to reference everyone from Sergio Leone to Mozart. Check out the brilliantly choreographed train robbery that opens the film, the equal of many big-budget Hollywood productions. All three leads will be returning in Jiang’s sequel. Available from Well Go USA Entertainment.
2. Love in the Buff (2012). A sequel to 2010′s Love in a Puff, this romantic comedy follows a mismatched couple from Hong Kong to Beijing. Grappling with new jobs, Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue) struggle to maintain their passion for each other in a city full of temptations. The two met over cigarettes in the original film, forming a skeptical bond over shared humor and the laws of physics. Anyone who likes romances will be engaged by director Pang Ho-Cheung’s grasp of how relationships evolve and fail. Falling in love is the easy part: what’s hard is dropping your guard and making a commitment. The film has a breezy, cosmopolitan style—Beijing seems filled with glamorous nightclubs, restaurants, and expensive apartments—and an assured grasp of a present of iPads and text messages. Available from China Lion Entertainment.
3. Life Without Principle (2011). Without the infrastructure of Hollywood studios, producers in China can be more nimble, responding to events that can take years to work their way through Hollywood development hell. The great Hong Kong director Johnnie To built this drama around the Greek debt crisis. To examines the financial repercussions to a bank employee (Denise Ho), a minor crook (Lau Ching-wan), and an underpaid cop (Richie Jen), among others, weaving their stories into a world of greed and anxiety. The director draws out a scene in which Ho talks a retired widow into investing her savings in a risky stock until the suspense is unbearable. No release has been set yet for the U.S., but DVDs are available.
4. A Simple Life (2011). Directed by veteran filmmaker Ann Hui, and loosely based on producer Roger Lee’s life, A Simple Life explores the relationship between an upper-class accountant (Andy Lau) and a servant (Deanie Ip) who has devoted her life to his family. A blend of tears and humor, of memory and loss, the film details Ah Tao’s (Ip) decline after a stroke. She moves into an assisted living home, where Hui documents her inevitable decline with humor and sensitivity. Lau, one of the superstars in Asian culture, and Ip, his real-life godmother, work wonderfully together in a story that is both poignant and honest. Available from China Lion.
5. I Wish (2011). A ringer of sorts, I Wish is the latest film from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. In it two young brothers vow to meet overlooking a railway line where bullet trains passing in opposite directions meet—supposedly the point where wishes will come true. Kore-Eda is an excellent writer and editor, but his real skill is with actors. The two brothers here, Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, give remarkable performances, but so do the rest of the performers. Simple, funny, and heartbreaking, I Wish is an unforgettable coming of age story. Available from Magnolia Pictures.
May 25, 2012
Suppressed for over thirty years, Let There Be Light has never received the attention it deserves as one of the most moving and honest of wartime documentaries. A new restoration undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration and hosted on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website may help bring this John Huston film to a wider audience. With help from Fandor.com, the NFPF is making this restoration available online from now until August 31, 2012.
I’ve written about Let There Be Light before, on this blog and in my book about the National Film Registry. I also contributed to Sara Fishko’s recent piece about the film for WNYC radio. I relied on the available prints: scratched, dupey 16mm copies with muffled soundtracks and frequent splices. The restored version makes it clear that Huston was among the best documentarians of his time.
Huston was an established screenwriter (Jezebel, Juarez) and a promising young director (The Maltese Falcon) when World War II broke out. Like many of his colleagues, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which made instructional films for members of the armed forces, as well as propaganda for more general audiences.
Huston worked on several Signal Corps films, but devoted his full energies to a trilogy of documentaries: the Oscar-nominated Report from the Aleutians (1943), about the building of an airstrip in Adak; The Battle of San Pietro (1946), about a small Italian town recovering from an extended fight with the Nazis; and Let There Be Light (1946). The films form an incisive portrait of three phases of war: preparation, fighting, and its aftermath.
Rey Scott, a cameraman on San Pietro, suffered what was called shell shock after the bombardment of Caserta during the Italian campaign. He was treated at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. When Huston, who was working in Signal Corps studios in nearby Astoria, visited Scott, he became intrigued about how soldiers with psychological injuries were being treated.
In the spring of 1945, the Army asked Huston to make a film about the “Nervously Wounded.” (The film’s original title was The Returning Psychoneurotics.) Officers wanted Huston to reassure viewers that there were very few psychoneurotics in the armed services, and that their symptoms had been exaggerated in the press. Most important, Huston’s film would show that someone classified as psychoneurotic in the Army could still be a “success” as a civilian.
Huston began filming without a finished script, but with a good idea of what he wanted to cover. Much as cinema verite directors would do some twenty years later, the director tried to capture the day-to-day routine at Mason General in unstaged, unscripted scenes. He set up cameras in receiving rooms, classrooms and offices, covering both individual and group sessions. The patients were told they were being filmed for a documentary, and in his autobiography An Open Book, Huston wrote that the presence of the cameras had a positive effect on the soldiers. He claimed they became more responsive and recovered more quickly when they were being filmed.
According to film historian Scott Simmon, Huston’s cameramen shot 375,000 feet of film—almost 70 hours—which was edited down to an hour. These interviews—raw, painful, hopeless—form the core of Let There Be Light. They have an immediacy and honesty missing from most films of the time. What haunts me about them is the inability of many soldiers to articulate their problems and needs.
By letting the soldiers and doctors speak for themselves, Huston could build a subtle case about war and its impact without stating it directly. Let There Be Light exposed the racism and class divisions that were a part of the armed services. More troubling was the director’s suggestion that the issues the soldiers faced extended beyond the war itself. Drugs or hypnotherapy were not going to cure problems like unemployment. “Every man has his breaking point,” as Walter Huston warns in a voice-over.
Unfortunately, the Army wanted a film that blamed shell shock on actual shells, not intractable social problems. Although some Army officers and a few civilian critics saw the film when it was finished, Let There Be Light was shelved. Huston left the armed services soon after to work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
That might have been the end of the story, but as Scott Simmon points out, the Army did end up releasing a film about shell shock (in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). Shades of Gray, directed by Joseph Henabery, was released in January 1948. It essentially remade Let There Be Light, but with an almost all-white cast of actors—not soldiers—and with strikingly different conclusions. (You can see Shades of Gray online at the Internet Archive.)
Let There Be Light didn’t surface again until 1980, when producer Ray Stark, motion picture lobbyist Jack Valenti and Vice President Walter Mondale campaigned for its release. (Stark was producing Huston’s adaptation of Annie.) Viewers who saw it then were underwhelmed, perhaps expecting an expose of horrid conditions instead of a sober, quiet examination of how war cripples soldiers emotionally as well as physically.
Since then, Let There Be Light has circulated in poor quality 16mm prints and even worse videocassettes and DVDs. But soundtrack on the NFPF version, restored by Chace Audio by Deluxe, makes audible several passages that had been close to unintelligible. For the picture, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created a new negative from an acetate fine grain master, the best surviving source. NARA is still in the process of preparing a 2K scan of the film in order to make high resolution copies.
Was Huston fair in his portrayal of Mason General? Should the Army have censored his film? The best way to decide is to watch it yourself.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 23, 2012
Memorial Day weekend used to mark the start of the summer movie season, although just like baseball the industry keeps stretching out its schedule. The record-breaking opening for Marvel’s The Avengers brought Hollywood a palpable sense of relief that even a lackluster Battleship opening couldn’t dim. The Avengers has done remarkably well, but so have movies in general this year. A Wall Street Journal report on Monday noted that box-office receipts are up 15.7% over last year, and if the trend continues, movies could earn close to $5 billion this summer.
With Friday’s opening of Men in Black 3, the blockbuster season is officially here. Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1; Prometheus and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, June 8; Brave, June 22; G.I. Joe: Retaliation, June 29; The Amazing Spider-Man, July 6; Ice Age: Continental Drift, July 13; and the summer’s 800-pound gorilla, The Dark Knight Rises, on July 20.
Notice anything unusual about the schedule? That’s right, apart from Pixar’s Brave, every single title is a sequel, reboot, or, in the case of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, an unofficial prequel. Even The Avengers can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Marvel features like Iron Man and Thor. Throw in some August remakes and updates like The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, Sparkle, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and Total Recall, and it seems as if Hollywood has turned its back on original projects.
A look at the all-time top-ten grossing films will show you why:
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
4. Marvel’s The Avengers
5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
8. Toy Story 3
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
According to Box Office Mojo’s list of worldwide grosses, only two of these top ten movies—Avatar and Titanic—are stand-alone titles, and not part of a series. And six of the remaining eight titles were adapted from another medium: books, comic books, toys and amusement park rides.
Cause for alarm? Or simply business as usual? Take the five top-grossing films of the 1990s. Three of them—Terminator 2, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Batman Returns—were sequels, and a fourth was adapted from the best-selling novel Jurassic Park. (The fifth was the original Home Alone.) How about the 1970s? Jaws, The Exorcist and The Godfather were all best-selling books; Grease was a hit stage play; and all spawned at least one sequel. 1977′s Star Wars became its own media empire.
The truth is, Hollywood’s biggest hits have almost always been based on well-known properties: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, etc. On one level filmmakers are following sound business principles by working from material that has already succeeded in the marketplace, with a pre-existing audience. Today, no studio executive wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a project with no name recognition, no built-in audience and no way to cross-promote.
Filmmakers knew the value of adaptations and tie-ins right from the start. Take The Kiss from 1896, based on a scene from the play The Widow Jones. When it opened, an enterprising customer could see the movie, attend the play and read about both in the Sunday World all in the same day.
Artists have always faced the dilemma of telling something new, yet making it seem familiar. Painters like Dürer and Rembrandt revisited the same subjects throughout their careers. Shakespeare wrote sequels, and under royal pressure dragged characters like Falstaff back onto the stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Due to demands from the public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over fifty Sherlock Holmes short stories and four novels—even after killing off the detective in 1893. Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Blue Yodel” in 1927 was so popular that he made twelve additional versions, up to 1933′s “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel.”
In movie serials and comic strips, which matured at roughly the same time, artists perfected the trick of telling a story in which things kept happening but nothing ever changed. Viewers came back to episodes of The Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon because they could sense that no matter how bad things got, Pauline and Flash would somehow survive. The same holds true today in television series like “CSI” and “Law and Order” and even “The Big Bang Theory.” Week after week, viewers return to see the characters they like doing roughly the same thing—only different. Gradual change is fine. Characters can fall in and out of love, and when agents insist and contracts fail can even be killed off, reassigned or move to their own series. In The Thin Man movies, the characters played by William Powell and Myrna Loy eventually went from newlyweds to parents. But change too much and the public will turn away, as Sylvester Stallone found out when he gave up Rocky and Rambo for Rhinestone and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.
But it’s still not easy selling the public a story it already knows, which makes achievements like Aliens or The Godfather Part 2 that much more remarkable. In his first sequel to Men in Black, director Barry Sonnenfeld managed to give the plot enough tricks and variations to win back moviegoers who enjoyed the original. But there was a sense that the characters were biding their time, that the jokes seemed forced.
Men in Black 3 may be Sonnenfeld’s canniest work yet: it doesn’t just tell the same story as the earlier movies, it expands upon them, revealing just enough about the backgrounds of Agents J and K to add real emotional heft to their characters. All while delivering the monsters, jokes, action, subsidiary characters and narrative twists that viewers expect. And while adding a rueful, melancholy tone that once the ending is revealed makes perfect sense.
It’s an accomplished balancing act, one I hope doesn’t get lost among the more obvious, less nuanced blockbusters that surround it.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 18, 2012
Over on the newly designed, buggy, and glacially slow Salon website, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi recently “channeled” a studio executive to address race in movies—specifically white actors playing non-white roles. It’s been a sore point in the film industry for over 100 years, one that deserves better than Mandvi’s take. The comic throws out a few smart-aleck remarks and a dozen or so flimsy but admittedly embarrassing examples, reaching back to 1937′s The Good Earth. But he ignored the more obvious examples practically staring him in the face—like The Dictator, the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy about the leader of the North African country “Wadiya.”
Based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, The Good Earth might appear racist today, but at the time it was considered an enlightened, sympathetic account of peasant life in China. Louise Rainer even won an Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan; like her costar Paul Muni and the rest of the Caucasian cast, she taped up her eyebrows to approximate an Asian appearance. Picking on The Good Earth for its largely progressive racial attitudes seems pretty silly, given that most Hollywood films at the time limited Asian roles to cooks, valets or villains like Fu Manchu.
And there are so many more relevant examples to choose from. Early film in particular is rife with examples of unapologetic racism. In Chinese Laundry Scene (1895), an Irish cop chases a Chinaman; both are depicted as buffoons. (The film starred the vaudeville team of Robetta and Doretto, so this could be the earliest example in movies of a white portraying a member of another race.) In A Morning Bath (1896), a “mammy” stereotype tries and fails to wash the color off a black infant’s skin. Watermelon Feast (1896), The Chicken Thief (1904), The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and similar titles featured even cruder caricatures. Few films delivered as potent, or as damaging, an account of race than The Birth of a Nation (1915), a work that mixed African-American actors with whites wearing blackface.
Early filmmakers treated Europeans with equal cruelty, as well as Southerners, New Englanders, Midwesterners, farmers, laborers, sales clerks, bankers, rubes, city slickers, women, children—you get the picture. In a sense filmmakers were simply reflecting the media around them. It was a time when minstrel shows were still touring the South, when singers like May Irwin and Nora Bayes were famous for “coon” songs, when the African-American star Bert Williams wore blackface on stage.
That doesn’t excuse the filmmakers, theatrical producers, songwriters and performers who took advantage of looser standards to belittle another race or culture; who typecast blacks, Mexicans, and Asians as servants, bandits, and all-purpose villains; who prohibited them from appearing on screen at all, replacing them with white actors. (Or, in an even weirder example of racism, ordered actress Fredi Washington to wear darker makeup so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a white woman in The Emperor Jones.)
The issue gets murkier with a character like Charlie Chan, who was based on the real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana. In 2003, when the Fox Movie Channel started broadcasting the Chan films prior to releasing them on DVD, some Asian activists protested, objecting to both the way Chan’s character was written and the fact that he was portrayed by Caucasians (including the Swedish-born Warner Oland). (I haven’t found any protests against Manuel Arbó, who portrayed Chan in 1931′s Spanish-language Eran Trece.)
Chan—the smartest person in his films—was ultimately an empowering figure, and a good corrective to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, impersonated on screen by Boris Karloff, among others.
Artists always have a choice. I can’t recall a single instance of Charlie Chaplin using racial humor, but my favorite filmmaker, Buster Keaton, too often made blacks the brunt of jokes. Similarly, writer and director Preston Sturges liked making his black bartenders and butlers frightened and not especially bright (for example, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), something his contemporary Val Lewton never did.
In his piece, Mandvi overlooked several of the more striking examples of whites playing other races. Al Jolson used blackface throughout his career, including his groundbreaking musical The Jazz Singer. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney wore blackface in the musical Babes in Arms. These can be seen as attempts to appropriate black culture, and as such are uncomfortable to watch. But when Fred Astaire did an impersonation of Bill Robinson in Swing Time, it seemed like a genuine homage, an attempt to honor a respected fellow dancer.
Was it racist when Orson Welles donned dark makeup to play the lead in his screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello (1952), or an artistic choice? When Laurence Olivier made his version of Othello in 1965, would it have been better received if he hadn’t gone to such extremes with his makeup?
So, yes, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1960), just like Chuck Connors played Geronimo (1962) and Jeff Chandler, Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950). But Wayne also played Swedish sailor Ole Olsen in John Ford’s adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play The Long Voyage Home (1940)—arguably a tougher stretch for the Duke. Should filmmakers be given credit for treating these characters with respect? Is it worse when Tony Curtis impersonates the Pima Indian hero Ira Hayes (in The Outsider, 1961), or when he pretends to be a 15th-century knight (in The Black Shield of Falworth, 1954)?
Perhaps the real issue here isn’t whether Caucasians can portray different races, sexual orientations, or genders. What should bother us is if it is clear that the artist’s intention was to hurt. And this seems to be at the center of the Arab-American response to The Dictator.
Guessing the motives of artists is tricky work. In Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen mocks the people of Kazakhstan, portraying them as ignorant and perverted. But for many, Baron Cohen got away with his character because he also portrayed Americans in the film as ignorant and bigoted. When Baron Cohen mocked homosexuals in Bruno, the critical response was more muted.
Complaints against Baron Cohen started early on in The Dictator publicity campaign: Nadia Tonova, a director of the National Network for Arab American Communities; attorney Dean Obeidallah on CNN Opinion; writer Lucas Shaw on The Wrap.
Because his character in The Dictator is an evil fool, Baron Cohen again feels he has license to employ jokes that in other hands would be racist. New York Times critic A.O. Scott finds this logic “repellant” in his review. “We could laugh at his grossness, secure in the knowledge that we weren’t really xenophobic because we were also sneering at the fools falling for the trick,” Scott writes. “Dumb hicks. Dumb foreigners. Thank goodness we’re not bigots like them!”
Racism, closely linked to xenophobia, is inextricably laced into popular culture. In his Words and Places; or, Etymological Illustrations of history, ethnology and geography, Isaac Taylor listed the many ways the names used for different ethnic groups could be traced back to roots meaning “other,” “outsider,” “barbarian,” “enemy.” It’s when we intentionally limit our understanding of the peoples we don’t know, or insist on seeing them as “others,” that we become racist.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 16, 2012
May 14–18 marks the third annual “For the Love of Film” campaign. Hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand’s Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath’s This Island Rod, and Farran Smith Nehme’s Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon raises money for specific preservation projects.
The first blogathon helped finance the restoration of two Westerns, The Sergeant (1910), which contains the earliest narrative footage from Yosemite, and The Better Man (1912), a Vitagraph short with tinted intertitles. Both films were rediscovered at the New Zealand Film Archive. Thanks in part to the “For Love of Film” blogathon, they were included in the National Film Preservation Foundation‘s box-set Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938.
Last year the blogathon donated preservation funds to the Film Noir Foundation to restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 thriller starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted Cy Enfield. Physical restoration of the film will take place next year, and a repremiere is scheduled for the 2014 Noir City 12 festival in San Francisco.
This year the blogathon has selected The White Shadow, another New Zealand restoration project I first wrote about here. Directed by Graham Cutts, The White Shadow is an important early credit for Alfred Hitchcock, who would later become one of cinema’s most significant directors. Film restorer Eric Grayson wrote this on his excellent Dr. Film blog:
We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed. It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good. Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see! Why? Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director.
To movie buffs, one of the most frustrating aspects of film preservation is the fact that it’s almost impossible to see the finished products. Archives can restore a feature film, but often can’t show it outside of a museum or festival setting. Donor restrictions on materials, rights issues, the costs of making and shipping prints—all these factors can make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to screen restored titles, or make them available to home markets.
That’s what makes this year’s “For the Love of Movies” blogathon so significant. Rather than fund a restoration (since The White Shadow has already been restored), it is funding access. Once it reaches its goals, the National Film Preservation Foundation will host an online version on its website, complete with a new musical score by Michael Mortilla.
Viewing films online has its drawbacks, but at least it enables people to see what preservationists are doing. Coincidentally, to publicize the Casablanca 70th Anniversary Three-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Edition from Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution is hosting a complimentary screening of the film today on the Casablanca movie Facebook Page at 7:00 p.m. ET and again at 7:00 p.m. PT. You must begin watching Casablanca prior to 9:00 p.m. PT through the film’s Facebook Page. Only one screening per Facebook account is permitted.
Films like Casablanca, Ben-Hur, and Gone With the Wind are first in line for upgrading whenever a new preservation format or standard is established. For instance, Warners released an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Casablanca in 2008. But studios and archives are sitting on thousands of other titles that might not get restored. If you love movies, you should jump at the opportunity to actively target titles you want to preserve and protect.
NFPF director Annette Melville reminded me, “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free.’ 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.”
The goal of “For the Love of Film” blogathon is $15,000, enough to host The White Shadow online for three months. You can donate directly to the NFPF.
Since those participating in the blogathon are supposed to write something about Hitchcock, I’ll add the following. In addition to being one of the medium’s best directors, Hitchcock understood the business of film better than most of his peers. Fairly early in his career, the director obtained artistic control over his projects. For his British titles, he could pick his stories and cast, determine what and how to shoot, and oversee editing. Apart from some budgetary and censorship limitations, films like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) look exactly the way Hitchcock wanted them to.
However, Hitchcock didn’t own the films themselves. They belonged to his producers, which is one of the reasons why so many of his British titles had fallen into public domain in the US, and are available here in cheap, badly duped versions. [Robert Harris points out that copyrights to Hitchcock's British films were restored in 1996 as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. But many distributors still market illegal copies as "public domain" prints.]
When he came to the United States, Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Their relationship gave Hitchcock access to great stars like Ingrid Bergman and writers like Ben Hecht, but it also limited him to what Selznick wanted to do.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was still working under contract to studios like Paramount, but he arranged to have rights for certain projects revert to him after a specified time. Rear Window, for example, was released by Paramount in 1954 and rereleased in 1962. Hitchcock obtained control of the rights and film elements in 1967. Unfortunately, he decided to scrap what was considered to be extraneous film and sound elements, and to store the remaining camera negative, separation masters, and sound tracks in a non-air-conditioned warehouse.
Using these materials, Rear Window was reissued in 1970. But when Universal tried to reissue the film again in 1983, the negatives were faded and damaged, and the optical soundtrack could not be used.
Robert Harris and James Katz undertook a new restoration in 1997, this time resurrecting a Technicolor dye transfer process that had been dormant since 1974. During their restoration they got an appreciation of just how brilliant a filmmaker Hitchcock was. For example, there are no dissolves from one scene to another in Rear Window. Instead, Hitchcock would have cinematographer Robert Burks fade to black between scenes. Amazingly, these fades were performed in the camera, not in a lab. Hitchcock was so confident about his timing, pacing, and rhythm that he felt comfortable risking his shot on the set rather than waiting to use a film lab’s optical process.
Hitchcock went on to establish a media empire of sorts, making feature films, producing and hosting a long-running television series, and even adding his name to books and magazines. By doing so, he remains one of the most recognizable directors over 20 years after his death.
May 11, 2012
Like the rest of the world, Hollywood has a soft spot for mothers, even though expressing that love can be difficult. Predictably, the film industry has devoted considerable screen time to the subject of motherhood, with mothers and babies figuring into the earliest cinema actualities. Once narratives developed, mothers became central figures in many movies. Edison’s The Klepto-maniac (1905) showed what happened to a poor mother when she stole food for her children. In Lubin’s Mother’s Dream (1907), a mother has a nightmare about what would happen to her children if she died.
But just as often mothers in movies were peripheral characters who either approved the actions of their children, or not. Filmmakers found it easier to examine the romance and courtship that led to marriage and motherhood, subjects that might not evoke feelings of responsibility and guilt from their male viewers. When it came to mothers themselves, early filmmakers tended to adopt the Victorian sensibilities that pervaded American culture at the time. In D.W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart (1913), for example, Lillian Gish’s character, a recent mother, flies into a rage when her husband rejects her for a cabaret dancer.
The depiction of mothers, and women in general, changed dramatically as movies matured in the 1920s. The industry also began to target women as an audience. Films like Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and Are Parents People? (1925) made fun of Victorian stereotypes, and even a melodrama like Miss Lulu Bett (1921) was more sympathetic toward deceived women than earlier titles might have been. In films like Where Are My Children? (1916), director Lois Weber took on birth control, abortion and other controversial topics. Film historian Richard Koszarski described Our Dancing Mothers (1926) as “a Jazz Age version of A Doll’s House.” (The play itself was filmed three times between 1917 and 1922).
Motherhood remained sacred in mainstream culture—magazines, popular songs like “Mother Was a Lady.” The novel Stella Dallas (1923) struck a particular chord that has resonated to this day. Written by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas took motherly sacrifice to painful extremes, forcing its mother to give up her daughter so she could enjoy a better life. The novel became a play in 1924 and a film the following year. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Henry King, and starring Belle Bennett and Ronald Colman, the movie was an enormous hit.
Stella Dallas became one of the first and most successful soap operas on radio, broadcasting almost twenty years. It was also the basis of a Bette Midler vehicle—Stella—in 1990. But the version that succeeds best was directed by King Vidor in 1937 and starred Barbara Stanwyck in one of her signature roles. Brash, vulgar, Stanwyck’s Stella is a difficult woman to like, but one whose maternal instincts are impossible to fault.
Characters like Stella spread throughout popular culture. Some actresses refused to portray mothers, worried that it might date them in their fans’ eyes. But in Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich became an especially glamorous sacrificial figure. Ginger Rogers worked around the age issue by adopting an abandoned infant in Bachelor Mother (1939, later remade with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher as Bundle of Joy).
Mothers faced other issues in movies, notably race in the two versions of Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959). More matronly actresses developed careers as mothers. Beulah Bondi, for example, who brought extraordinary nuances to her many roles. In Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) she has to cope with being betrayed by her children. In Of Human Hearts (1938, a Civil War-tearjerker, she begs President Abraham Lincoln to spare her son from a court-martial verdict. In Remember the Night (1940) she balances her son’s happiness with his lover, a pickpocket who could destroy his career. And in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) she has to help her son through a lifetime of emotional crises. Jane Darwell was a memorably steely Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The sentimental Ford usually had a stalwart mother somewhere in his movies, like Dorothy Jordan in The Searchers.
Movie mothers in the 1940s became more psychologically complex, just like film in general. A star like Olivia de Havilland might suffer the moral stigmata of unwed motherhood in To Each His Own (1946)—and win a Best Actress Oscar in the process. But in Now, Voyager (1942, based on an Olive Higgins Prouty novel), Bette Davis had an ambiguous relationship with her domineering mother. Barbara Stanwyck was torn between caring for her two boys and pursuing her own happiness in My Reputation (1946, based on the novel Instruct My Sorrows by Clare Jaynes). And for Oscar-winning Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), motherhood meant competition with her daughter Veda (played by Ann Blyth). Kate Winslet starred in the 2011 remake, an HBO miniseries.
How far a mother would go to protect her children became the basis of The Reckless Moment (1949), a first-rate suspense film directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Bennett. It was updated recently as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton. The 1950s saw the flowering of Douglas Sirk’s overheated soap operas. In All That Heaven Allows (1955), children exert a malevolent influence on their widowed mother Jane Wyman.
But the 1950s also produced several films about large and extended families. Myrna Loy played real-life efficiency expert Ernestine Gilbreth Carey in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). (In-name-only updates starring Steve Martin appeared in 2003 and 2005.) Betsy Drake and her then-husband Cary Grant grappled with the problems of an adopted child in Room for One More (1952). By the 1960s, the genre had evolved into Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), with Lucille Ball mothering eighteen kids, and Doris Day in her last feature film to date taking on four that same year in With Six You Get Eggroll. (Yours, Mine and Ours was remade in 2005 with Rene Russo.)
Two of the most frightening film mothers from the period can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the 1962 film adaptation of the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy.
The 1960s also saw the rise of television sitcom mothers in shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show.” More recent examples include Roseanne,” “Reba,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
In the past few years motherhood has become the provenance of the Lifetime cable channel, which has built an audience around mothers deceived and defrauded when they and their children aren’t being stalked by psychopaths. So it was a relief to encounter Michelle Pfeiffer in Dark Shadows. As matriarch Elizabeth Collins, she stands up to vampires, witches, and werewolves fearlessly—the kind of mother you want in your corner.
May 10, 2012
When The Artist won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, the achievement was noteworthy not just because the film was silent, but because it was made in France. So few foreign films get screened in American theaters that moviegoers might not be aware of long-established film industries in countries like India, Norway, and the Philippines.
By some accounts India has the largest film industry in the world; it’s certainly the largest producer of movies. According to the Central Board of Film Certification, over 1250 feature films are released in India each year. In terms of revenues, Japan’s film industry is slightly larger than India’s. And at some point this year, China edged past Japan to become the second-largest film industry, with receipts well over $2 billion a year. (The US industry makes around $11 billion a year.)
For several decades, the film industry here has counted on foreign revenues for profits. In previous decades, studios actually opened production offices in Great Britain and Italy to take advantage of currency restrictions. Many Hollywood films receive some form of foreign financing to offset production costs. And in some cases—Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and John Carter, for example—overseas box-office receipts were much higher than the domestic take.
For some industry executives, China is the next frontier. For the past two decades, Asian films have exerted a strong influence on American filmmakers. Hong Kong-based filmmakers like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and John Woo have developed careers in Hollywood. Woo helped raise the bar for stunt choreography and gunplay throughout the industry, finding a new market for action choreographers like Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo Ping. Actors like Liam Neeson and Jason Statham now employ moves that a previous generation of action stars never knew existed.
The number of movie theaters in China has doubled to 6,200 over the past five years, and is expected to double again by 2015. But breaking into that market has been tough for Hollywood. One approach has been to include Chinese subjects and characters in films that might otherwise be taking place somewhere else. Mission Impossible: III had a sequence set in Shanghai, for example.
All foreign films must be approved by the China Film Group, which in past years has limited the number of U.S. films allowed to screen in China to 20. (A recent agreement, which has sparked a bribery investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, allows 14 additional films, provided they are 3D and/or IMAX.)
But producers have found a workaround: co-productions are considered domestic titles, and are exempt from the 34-film limit. So the 2010 version of The Karate Kid, co-produced with the China Film Group, could be screened without restriction in China.
When Titanic 3D opened in China this past April, it earned $58 million, the best weekend opening ever in that country. Perhaps not so coincidentally, director James Cameron attended last week’s Beijing International Film Festival, where he told reporters that he was considering shooting the sequels to Avatar in China. “I think by the time Avatar 2 and 3 come out, China could easily be the same size market as the United States,” he said. In Beijing, “you see how they’re basically skipping the latter part of the 20th century and going straight to the 21st century, with installation of 3D compliant digital theaters in towns that never even had a movie theater before. They’re just skipping film completely. There’s no film in their film business – which is pretty cool.”
Which brings us to Iron Man 3, a joint production of The Walt Disney Company in China, Marvel Entertainment, and DMG Entertainment, a China-based media company that was also involved with the Bruce Willis vehicle Looper. Just as The Karate Kid used Jackie Chan to help draw in Asian moviegoers, Iron Man 3 producers are currently negotiating with Andy Lau for a significant part in the new movie.
Studios like Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, and DreamWorks Animation have already set up shop in China. They have been joined by production companies like Legendary, Relativity Media, and Village Roadshow. Endgame Entertainment worked with DMG on Looper. Keanu Reeves is filming his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, in China.
In his interview, Cameron couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the Chinese market, pointing out that Hollywood filmmakers could skirt around restrictions against science fiction films, for example. “The standards are relaxing,” was how he put it.
Not everyone agrees. While there is no central production code, censors have to approve individuals titles. Without written guidelines, filmmakers must guess what will or won’t pass. Terence Chang produced the historical epic Red Cliff for director John Woo. “It did not encounter censorship problems because it had absolutely no political implications,” he told me. “However, a couple of years ago I produced a small romantic comedy, and its original English title, Dirt Rich in Shanghai, was banned. There was a scene in which everybody smokes in a boardroom. That scene had to be cut. I guess nobody in Shanghai was dirt rich, and Chinese people did not smoke in boardrooms.” Chang agreed that he and Woo would not be allowed to make their breakthrough hit Hard-Boiled in mainland China today.
Born in Vietnam and based in Hong Kong, director Tsui Hark filmed Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame at a Chinese studio complex at Hengdian. He, too, worried about filmmakers censoring themselves in order to win a mainland audience. “That’s a very tricky step,” he told me. “There are a lot of taboos, so many things you can’t touch upon, especially when you’re filming modern-day material. We couldn’t make A Better Tomorrow or The Killer for mainland China today. Before you start shooting, or writing, you’re worrying about what will get a green light, what distributors will agree to show on the mainland.”
Johnnie To, perhaps the most polished director working in Hong Kong today, faces similar problems. After making a string of incredibly tense and realistic crime films (including Triad Election and Exiled), he turned to romantic comedies to avoid censorship problems. While filming Romancing in Thin Air, he spoke with reporters about his changed goals. “This is intentional. We need to cultivate that market. It’s difficult to do that with the kind of movies we typically make. In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies. If we make a crime movie or one of our more personal films, there will be more obstacles.”
Speaking of obstacles, one of the main problems facing Asian filmmakers is finding a way to get viewers here in the United States to watch their movies. Next week I will write about how you can find some of the best movies being made today.
May 4, 2012
The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, has started to make its way through the cable television universe. I saw a few minutes of it this week on FX, and was surprised by how different the film seemed than when I saw it in a theater. On TV it looked smaller, less distinctive, more ordinary, harder to tell apart from the sci-fi films and shows surrounding it. Avatar is a movie you can only truly appreciate in a theater setting—something director James Cameron understands as well as anyone in the business. He makes movies for theaters, not homes.
Although the box office is trending higher in recent months, National Association of Theatre Owners records indicate that movie attendance is at a 20-year low. Receipts have fallen a half-billion dollars. Facing a growing number of rival entertainments, the film industry needs to find a way to bring viewers back to theaters.
Hollywood faced these problems before, with the spread of radio in the late 1920s, and the rise of television some 30 years later. To fight TV, the industry turned to widescreen processes, more color (as opposed to B&W), the first sustained attempts at 3D, and a plague of religious epics that descended on theaters in the 1950s.
More recently, filmmakers have been resorting to similar tactics to differentiate the movie-going experience from TV, YouTube, and games: bigger budgets, louder soundtracks, 3D, and stories whose visual scope can’t be contained on iPads and other handheld devices. Weirdly, these tactics happen to converge with movies derived from comic books.
The industry has always relied on comics and cartoons for inspiration. In a sense movies and comics grew up together, and each helped the other to thrive. The Edison Manufacturing Co. released The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog in 1905, capitalizing on a popular series of lithographs. A year later Edison put out Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip. McCay animated another of his strips for what is now known as Little Nemo (1911). (The film was actually released as Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics.)
McCay did more than anyone to turn both comic strips and screen animation into art forms. He helped free artists from a visual style based on stage performances, with action occurring on a flat plane behind a proscenium. McCay opened up a world with depth, with shifting horizons, and his influence can still be seen today in cross-cutting techniques and in the angled compositions found in X-Men or Transformers.
In following years stories moved from comics to film and back again. Blondie, Dennis the Menace, The Addams Family, Jungle Jim, Li’l Abner, Popeye, Dick Tracy, and many others worked in both comics and movies. A star of radio and screen, Gene Autry had his own comic book as well. (So did his rival Roy Rogers.) Universal made so much money from a serial derived from the comic strip Tailspin Tommy that it made a deal with King Features Syndicate to develop other comic-strip-based movies. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Secret Agent X-9 (written by Dashiell Hammett) followed quickly. Based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon was so popular that theater owners showed episodes at night on top of matinee screenings for kids. (The serial was later re-edited into a feature version.)
Before he was impersonated by Christian Bale, George Clooney, and Michael Keaton, even before he had his own television series, Batman starred in a 1943 Columbia Pictures serial. Superman started out in a cartoon series for Paramount before starring in a TV series and then making the jump to features in the 1970s and again in 2006′s Superman Returns. Both superheroes are part of the DC Comics stable, now owned by Warner Bros. (The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, will be released on July 20.)
DC rival Marvel Comics approached film warily at first. Republic Pictures produced a serial of Captain America in 1944, and Cannon Pictures released a ludicrous, low-budget Captain America in 1990. But it wasn’t until recently that Marvel Studios began aggressively developing its characters—including Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers. (Starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man will open on July 3.)
Despite works from filmmakers as renowned as Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tin-Tin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret), some critics worry that comic book adaptations are destroying cinema as an art form. Reviewing Green Lantern, New Yorker critic David Denby asked, “Do these movies really satisfy anyone except kids and overgrown boys?”
Or take today’s lukewarm review of The Avengers by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who called the film “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” When he isn’t giving away the film’s best jokes, or identifying with The Hulk, Scott is busy lambasting “the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”
I attended the same screening Scott did, and felt that the audience was much more enthusiastic about the film. Yes, it’s big, and so loud that its explosions were positively percussive. But I also found it nimble, clever, funny, and fast—equivalent to any action film of the year so far. Scott arrived late and had to sit in the front rows and to the side of the screen, which may have colored his experience. (Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal sat through the first half-hour of the film with defective 3D glasses, but at least he acknowledged that in his review: “The technical screw-up was so upsetting that it may have skewed my judgment about the movie as a whole.”)
The Times critic has never been a fan of action blockbusters, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when he refers huffily to “overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences”—the precise reason why many viewers love the comic books. What has raised eyebrows is the reaction on Twitter by Samuel J. Jackson (S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the film), who fumed that “Scott needs new job!”
Predictably, several critics defended Scott, if not his opinions. But I’m on Jackson’s side here. If you need to cite a 1959 Howard Hawks film, the Rat Pack, and an irrelevant TV role from the 1960s, you have placed yourself pretty definitively outside the demographic The Avengers is targeting. And if the best you can say about the comic book genre is that it’s “entered a phase of imaginative decadence,” you can just ignore all the elements that make The Avengers so enjoyable.
May 2, 2012
News that a press screening of The Avengers had to be delayed over two hours because the digital file was accidentally deleted spread through a number of film and tech sites: Slate, Tecca, Y!Tech, etc. For some, it was further confirmation of the warnings raised by Gendy Alimurung in a recent LAWeekly article: “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm.”
Not everyone agrees. For example, Leo Enticknap, a film historian with the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, pointed out on an archivists’ listserv the many times film screenings had to be postponed due to prints not arriving on time, or being spliced together incorrectly, or falling off their platters, or any number of mechanical failures with projecting equipment.
Still, digital failures, as opposed to analog ones, seem to stir up more publicity, perhaps similar to the alarmed newspaper accounts of horseless carriage accidents before the rise of automobiles. For many theater owners, Film vs. Digital has become a moot point. As the March/April 2012 issue of Screen Trade points out, “The pace [of conversion to digital] is fast and the pressure tightening. At a very near point, if you do not have digital, you will not show movies.”
The recently concluded 8th Orphan Film Symposium was not just a chance to see movies from around the world, but an opportunity to catch up with historians and archivists to talk about the state of film preservation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, funding continues to be the most significant factor facing archivists. What surprised me the most in the two years since the previous symposium was how quickly digital has dominated screenings.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project and the author of a forthcoming book about the orphan genre, agreed that more and more presenters “were opting to choose a high definition digital transfer and not even bother with film.” Streible agreed that digital files were easier and cheaper to duplicate. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he went on. “The piece we’re about to watch [The Jungle] wasn’t shown yesterday because a file was missing. And definitely all the examples I have seen here verified for me that film prints are always superior to the digital transfers.”
For Dwight Swanson, a founder of the Center for Home Movies, making 16mm prints, often a condition for preservation grants, is becoming prohibitively expensive. “We were just working on a grant proposal, and it turns out we couldn’t do a project because of the costs of film,” he said. “We could make a digital file, but what then? Our organization has no IT structure. We’d end up with a hard drive on a shelf. Who knows how long that would be viable?”
To screen a 16mm film, Swanson would very likely have to supply a projector and someone who knew how to operate it. “And what is the point of spending thousands of dollars to get a 16mm print that might be projected once?” he asked. “Everyone else will watch it on DVD.”
“Our experience was that a lot of the new 16mm prints we had made for the 7th Orphan Symposium got damaged in their first showing,” Streible revealed. “Was it worth that extra few hundred dollars, or would it have been better for a ten-minute film which never looked very good to begin with to just be satisfied with digital?”
Eli Savada of the Motion Picture Information Service believes that, “Film will be presentable for another few years—it depends on how much equipment can be kept in shape.” David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, told attendees that his staff had to send to Uruguay for a replacement bulb for an Elmo 16mm projector.
Anka Mebold, a film archivist and restorer with the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, Germany, believes that film will continue to serve as a preservation medium. “As archivists, we are in a double-bind. Do you allow film to be projected or keep it on a shelf?” she asked. “Perforated plastic with photographic emulsion is probably the most stable carrier, so I think film is not going to go away. It will probably vanish from exhibition, however. Digital projection doesn’t threaten possibly unique film elements.”
But as Walter Forsberg, a research fellow at NYU Libraries, points out, “Digitization is more expensive than film. The long-term costs of paying someone to be a digital custodian, to exercise the drives, to perform ongoing management files, to migrate from format to format indefinitely into the future, is way more expensive than film, than preserving materials on celluloid.”
Skip Elsheimer, a media archeologist with A/V Geeks, believes that access to materials is key. “Access is the first step toward preservation,” he said. “When films are online, people can access them and identify areas for research. You can say, ‘You know what? That title’s important because it was made by a special company, or it’s the first time a musician scored something, or it’s an early appearance by an actor.’”
Digital answers some of these access issues, but also raises other questions. “Videotape is going away,” Elsheimer pointed out. “The crushing blow was the tsunamis in Japan last year that hit the Sony tape manufacturing plants. A lot of people changed over to file-based formats at that point.”
But what format do you use? “When YouTube came out, it was a pretty big deal,” Elsheimer said. “We’re still talking to archives who want a YouTube channel, so that’s what the bar is. And that bar’s not very high. But a lot of people just want to see something, even if they’re seeing it in the worst possible quality.”
Elsheimer believes how we watch movies determines the delivery format. “With High Definition, video has gotten bigger, but people are watching it smaller—on iPhones and iPads,” he said. “What’s changing now is the software for reading video files. Final Cut was a big thing for a while, but we’re shifting to another format. Are QuickTime files going to be valuable anymore? Probably not.”
Some are still holding onto film, grimly, stubbornly, perhaps out of a misplaced nostalgia. Still, Elena Rossi-Snook, the moving image archivist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, received an enthusiastic round of applause when she delivered this manifesto:
We’re preserving the experience of watching analog film being mechanically projected, and then we’re also preserving the social and cultural role of the public library film collection. Which means that regardless of economy, age, political affiliation, religion, race—you will have access to the mechanical projection of 16mm motion picture film onto a white screen in the dark. That is your right as a patron of the library.