June 15, 2012
In honor of Father’s Day, you could watch some of the noble parents who have appeared in film over the years. Perhaps the heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Or the benignly cranky Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1950), remade with Steve Martin in 1991. Maybe Life With Father, filmed in 1947 with William Powell as the dyspeptic but loving stockbroker Clarence Day. Or even A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which won James Dunn an Oscar as the suicidal Johnny Nolan.
Or maybe you find the whole idea of Father’s Day—generally believed to have been invented by Sonora Smart Dodd in 1910, but popularized by merchants like the Associated Men’s Wear Retailers in the 1930s—just another a moneymaking ploy. If that’s the case, a less-than-stellar Dad might be more entertaining.
Movies and television are filled with bumbling, inept dads, like the henpecked Harold Bissonette W.C. Fields played in It’s a Gift (1934), or Arthur Lake as Dagwood in his long series of “Blondie” movies, or our reigning champion, Homer Simpson. Adam Sandler, who already starred in Big Daddy, takes the lead in That’s My Boy, released today to cash in on Father’s Day.
But a darker strain of stories stretching back to the Greeks shows fathers in a different light. More recently, Eugene O’Neill had an ambivalent relationship with his father, the actor James O’Neill, while Tennessee Williams presented a monstrous Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Weak or downright bad fathers abound in the works of Dickens and Faulkner, and in their film adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock’s father once had him locked as a child in a jail cell, an experience that colored many of the director’s subsequent films.
Here are some more bad movie fathers:
1. People Like Us (2012). In Alex Kurtzman’s film, loosely based on real events, hot-shot salesman Sam Harper (played by Chris Pine) has been estranged from his father Jerry for years. When Jerry, a former record producer, dies, the deep-in-debt Sam expects a helpful settlement. Instead, he learns that Jerry had a separate family, and that his stepsister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom and recovering addict, is getting the money he needs. Both siblings have bad memories of their father, which may explain why they are in such terrible shape as the film begins.
2. The Kid With the Bike (2011). Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this small-scale movie focuses on Cyril (played by Thomas Doret), an eleven-year-old living in an orphanage in Belgium. Cyril keeps trying to contact his father Guy (Jérémie Renier), unwilling to accept that he has been abandoned. Few scenes are as cold and heartless as one in which Cyril finally confronts Guy in a restaurant. As an actor, Renier gives an admirably detached performance that adds to the film’s poignancy.
3. Five Easy Pieces (1970). A countercultural touchstone, Bob Rafelson’s film shows why classical pianist Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson) ends up a working in an oil field: it’s Dad’s fault. A scene in which Nicholson battled a diner waitress over a chicken salad sandwich helped make him a superstar, but the film inexorably circles back to his crippling relationship with his father. Nicholson, who told one reporter that he does not know who his biological father is, encountered another fearsome parent in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
4. My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford’s great Western is ostensibly about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the Gunfight at O.K. Corral, but once you see the film you will never forget Walter Brennan as Ike Clanton, a villain for the ages. Whether rustling cattle, whipping his sons for failing him or shooting a rival in the back with a shotgun, Brennan’s Clanton is a father to be feared and obeyed. Brennan plays him perfectly, without a shred of decency or honesty.
5. There Will Be Blood (2007). Playwright Rob Potter reminded me of this 2007 film by Paul Thomas Anderson. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar as Daniel Plainview, a prospector who cheats and murders his way to oil wealth, with Dillon Freasier as his hapless son. Potter cites this dialogue from Plainview: “Drainage! Drainage, Eli! Drained dry, you boy! If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and I have a straw and my straw reaches across the room and starts to drink your milkshake—I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
6. Star Wars. Do these films still need spoiler alerts? When writing Star Wars, George Lucas was enamored of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which asserted that a specific hero myth has figured through many cultures. Campbell and TV reporter Bill Moyers even discussed how Lucas used the book in a scene filmed at Skywalker Ranch. The second and best episode to be filmed, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), is suffused with an almost Biblical sense of destiny. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) is fated, or doomed, to confront his nemesis Darth Vader, a villain so evil he thinks nothing of destroying entire planets.
There must be other bad dads lurking in movies. What are your favorites?
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
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 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 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.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
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 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.
February 17, 2012
As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, guessing which shorts will win an Academy Award is often the hardest part of Oscar office pools. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few mainstream viewers ever see these titles, making predictions about them the equivalent of playing darts while blindfolded.
Animated shorts tend to be easier to judge than live-action shorts. Cartoons are either funny, beautiful, compelling—or not. Live-action shorts, on the other hand, are more like miniature versions of feature films. As such, they can range from abstract and experimental to conservative, even classical in style, and from melodramatic to slapstick in approach. In judging them, you have to take into account a wider range of expectations than for cartoons.
As I’ve argued before, television has taken over the role once played by shorts. Without commercials, broadcast sitcoms are about 22 minutes long, roughly the same length as a two-reel short. For better or worse, the five nominees for live-action shorts are essentially television shows. More ambitious, perhaps, and in some cases with classier actors and production values, but all in all they are surprisingly, even disappointingly, conventional. Some are tall tales spun out a bit too long, some are sentimental to a fault, but frankly none moved me as much as a typical episode of The Good Wife.
In alphabetical order:
Pentecost, written and directed by Peter McDonald. Financed in part by the Irish Film Board, this short comedy takes place in a small parish in 1977. The archbishop is coming to visit, and disgraced altar boy Damien Lynch is given a chance to redeem himself as thurifer during Mass. Before the service, a sexton gives a pep talk to the servers, much as a coach would do to athletes before a game. McDonald throws in an underdeveloped subplot about soccer, but this is a very slender piece whose ending might mean more to Irish viewers still breaking free from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church.
Raju, directed by Max Zähle. If anything cries out “Oscar bait” among the live-action nominees, it’s this crisis of liberal guilt. A European couple adopts an Indian child only to uncover troubling inconsistencies in the youth’s background. Shot on location in Calcutta, Raju has a gritty look and feel to go along with its manipulative story line. The film might have been more persuasive as a documentary, but then director Zähle wouldn’t have had the opportunity to focus so deeply on his characters’ emotions.
The Shore, written and directed by Terry George. Financed in part by the Northern Ireland Film Commission, The Shore is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation played out among the vernal landscapes of suburban Belfast. As a teenager, Joe flees the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for the U.S., returning 25 years later to confront the people he left behind. With his haunted eyes and mournful visage, the accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds (who has a supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is perfectly cast as the stoic Joe. Terry George, who earned Oscar nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, wraps up the sentimental plot a little too patly, but The Shore is still a polished if middlebrow piece of entertainment.
Time Freak, written and directed by Andrew Bowler, moves quickly and engagingly in telling a tall tale about time travel. Starring Michael Nathanson as a science geek obsessed with detail, the film reworks the great feature comedy Groundhog Day to pretty good effect. Bowler draws his characters and settings with sharp strokes, but Time Freak is a one-joke idea that, unlike Groundhog Day, never develops beyond its cute gimmick.
Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø. My personal favorite among the nominees, but then I love Norway so much I watch television shows like Fjellfolk even though I don’t speak the language. Scandinavian humor is an acquired taste, and a comedy about a lonely, bitter farmer with six days left to live will strike many as too dark and morbid. Oskar (played by Edvard Hægstad) wants to die alone, but the local Jesus Club has sent Inger (Ingrid Viken), a blond teenager, to be his “Angel of Death.” Naive but determined, Inger consults a Road to Death guidebook about the five stages of dying before dispensing advice (and sleeping pills). Oskar, meanwhile, must decide whether to contact his long-estranged brother Jon before it’s too late. The premise behind Tuba Atlantic may be grim, but the film succeeds due to its understated acting and agreeably deadpan jokes.