June 13, 2012
Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.
It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:
1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.
2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”
3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.
Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.
There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.
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.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 25, 2012
This Friday marks the release of The Raven, a Relativity Media thriller directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, who learns to his dismay that a serial killer is re-enacting murders from his stories.
With his mysterious death in Baltimore never fully explained, Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect cautionary tale of genius gone wrong. The poet’s demise haunts 19th century melodrama—and by extension, the works of early filmmakers like D.W. Griffith.
Poe’s ignominious end was not his fault, of course—it was drink, or his broken childhood, or the death of his consumptive love Virginia Clemm, that drove Poe to his doom. Today we summon different demons to explain his failings, schizophrenia perhaps, or chemical dependency, some form of Tourette’s, a bi-polar tendency, all of which he wrote about convincingly in his stories and poems.
Our image of Poe changes through the years, as does our interpretation of his work. For most he is a guilty pleasure of adolescence. His gruesome horror stories are like fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, peopled by tricksters and shape-shifters who betray the innocent with elaborate, deadly, and pointless booby traps. Who but a madman would go to the trouble to use a razor-sharp pendulum as a murder weapon? Poems like “The Bells” and “The Raven” have an unnerving, sing-song lyricism that once learned are never forgotten.
Many readers skim Poe’s work and then outgrow him. Even his contemporaries had their doubts. “Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” was how poet James Russell Lowell put it. But behind all the insanity and gore Poe was capable of extraordinary writing. “To Helen,” for example, or this example of an Alexandrine couplet unearthed after his passing:
Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.
It’s no surprise that early filmmakers turned to Poe. They were after all desperate for material, and ransacked everything from the Bible to the daily newspapers for material. The author’s influence can be seen in the scores of trick films that dazzled early 20th century moviegoers. With his own carefully nurtured martyr complex, Griffith saw many affinities with Poe. In 1909, he directed Edgar Allan Poe, in which actor Herbert Yost tries to write “The Raven” while his wife dies beside him. One of Griffith’s first features was The Avenging Conscience (1914), like The Raven a mash-up of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Annabel Lee,” and other Poe works.
With stories like “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe is often given credit for inventing the detective genre. His C. Auguste Dupin inspired generations of private eyes, as well as scores of pulp novels and films whose narratives depend on solving codes. This is an angle The Raven hopes to exploit, although the film looks like it will dwell on the author’s use of horror elements as well.
And here’s where Poe deserves some of the blame for the cycle of horror films sometimes called “torture porn.” In stories like “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he latched onto primal fears with sadistic relish, acting out what society seeks to repress. Poe offered a moral framework for his depictions of torture, something often jettisoned by later writers and filmmakers. “The Premature Burial” evolved into the 1984 novel The Golden Egg and then into The Vanishing, a ghastly 1988 Dutch film directed by George Sluizer (who also directed a 1993 American remake). From The Vanishing it’s a short step to Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in a coffin, or Brake (2012), in which Stephen Dorff is buried alive in the trunk of a car.
Universal Studios made a fortune in the 1930s with horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. Director Robert Florey was pulled from Frankenstein at the last minute and assigned to The Murders in the Rue Morgue instead. Based very loosely on the Poe short story, the film portrayed torture as graphically as any movie of its time. Along with The Island of Lost Souls, The Murders in the Rue Morgue helped bring about stricter censorship regulations. When the Production Code lost power in the 1960s, producers could be more explicit about their intentions. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was adapted into the 1967 German film The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.
Poe has attracted peculiar filmmakers: independents like James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, working in a stable in Rochester; or the cartoonists at UPA, who were busy in the 1950s undermining the animation industry. Experimental filmmakers like Jean Epstein, iconoclasts like Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, and Roger Corman. Filmmakers responsible for what critic Manny Farber referred to as “termite art.”
Sibley and Watson made a 13-minute version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; that same year, Epstein directed the feature-length La Chute de la maison Usher. Both relied heavily on an expressionistic filmmaking style developed in Germany, in which foreshortened sets and angled compositions made up for a lack of narrative clarity.
The 1930s saw an Art Deco The Black Cat, with almost no relation to the Poe story but with one of the few pairings of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Shepperd Strudwick starred in 1942′s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, an amusing bit of hogwash, and Joseph Cotten in 1951′s Man with a Cloak.
James Mason narrated 1953′s animated The Tell-Tale Heart, a cunning cartoon from United Productions of America (UPA) that delved into the mind of a killer just as it began to unravel. (A set of UPA cartoons, including The Tell-Tale Heart and Gerald McBoing Boing, has just been released by Turner Classic Movies and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment under the title The Jolly Frolics Collection.) Director Ted Parmelee would later go on to Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Producer and director Roger Corman finished House of Usher, the first of his eight Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, in 1960. “The film was about decay and madness,” Corman wrote in his autobiography. “I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes.” His largely teen audience saw a lot of premature burials and implied incest instead, as well as a curious mix of new stars like Jack Nicholson and veteran actors like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
That blend of showmanship and exploitation continues to this day. A whiff of the forbidden clings to Poe adaptations. Then as now they were marketed to horror fans, to adolescents, to those with a taste for depravity and pain. A different audience than for, say, Pollyanna or The King of Kings. We know snatches of the writer’s work now, bits and pieces like black cats and manacles, ghosts carrying candelabras, images that as likely as not come from movie posters and trailers. The upcoming months will see several more Poe adaptations, including Terroir with Keith Carradine and The Tell-Tale Heart with Rose McGowan.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 20, 2012
This year’s Earth Day has an ambitious theme: Mobilize the Earth. Two new film releases—Disney’s Chimpanzee and Warner Bros.’s To the Arctic 3D—were timed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Earth Day, with To the Arctic 3D taking a strong, even pointed, stance on climate change.
The film industry has a long history of movies with environmental messages, although they are usually tied in with other genres. Early Edison films like The Miller’s Daughter (1905) contrasted corrupt urban lifestyles with the more innocent morals of the countryside, something D.W. Griffith would espouse in dozens of bucolic shorts for Biograph. In part filmmakers were catering to their audience, at the time largely lower- and middle-class patrons who were suspicious of the wealthy. Take 1917′s The Public Be Damned, in which farmers are ruined by a “Food Trust,” or The Food Gamblers from that same year, in which food speculators deliberately oppress the poor.
Environmental issues were often folded into social critique films, movies that covered problems between industry and labor, for example. Mining was a favorite topic, and although plots were usually couched in terms of strikes, titles like The Lily of the Valley (1914) and The Blacklist (1916) showed the negative impact the industry had on the landscape.
The environment became a central factor in documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Grass (1925). The former, directed by Robert Flaherty, showed how the Inuit lived in harmony with a harsh Arctic landscape; the latter, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, covered the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe through the grasslands and forbidding mountains of what is now Iraq.
Scenes of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl filled newsreels in the 1930s, and the subsequent Okie migration inspired novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, later filmed by John Ford with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell as displaced farmers.
The federally funded documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains tried to address the causes of the Dust Bowl. Under the direction of Pare Lorentz, cameramen Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, and Leo Hurwitz began shooting footage in Montana in September, 1935. Lorentz hired Virgil Thompson to write the score, and worked closely with the composer while editing and writing the narration. Released by the U.S. Resettlement Administration on May 28, 1936, the film played in 3000 commercial theaters before enjoying a long life at Army posts, Sunday schools, and cinema clubs.
Lorentz followed The Plow with The River, an even more ambitious film that started out in 1936 as a survey of the Mississippi River. Heavy flooding in January, 1937, changed the focus of the film, which ended up arguing for approval of Tennessee Valley Authority dam and electrification projects. With another score by Virgil Thompson, The River was funded by the Farm Security Administration and released theatrically by Paramount. It was awarded best documentary at the 1937 International Film Festival at Venice, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.
Many of the filmmakers on the Lorentz titles went on to significant careers in documentaries. Willard Van Dyke worked on The City (1939) and Valley Town (1940), for example, two films that dealt with the environment. Power and the Land (1940, directed by Joris Ivens) continued the arguments set forth in The River. The politically provocative Frontier Films released People of the Cumberland (1937), in which Elia Kazan in his directing debut examined an isolated coal mining community. (Later in his career, Kazan returned to the area to make Wild River, a sort of rebuttal to The River.)
World War II changed the focus of documentaries from cautionary to supportive. Produced by Walt Disney, The Grain That Built a Hemisphere (1943) and Water—Friend or Foe (1944) viewed the environment as something that could be channeled to the war effort. After the war, Disney embarked on a series of True-Life Adventures, nature documentaries like The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both Oscar winners. Disney cartoons like Johnny Appleseed (1955) and Paul Bunyan (1958) had implicit environmental messages.
Based on Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us (1953) won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Carson, whose later book Silent Spring (1962) is credited with bringing the problem of pesticides to the attention of the public, did not like the film and would not permit any of her other works to be filmed. The Silent World (1956), directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau, also won an Oscar. Cousteau went on to become one of the foremost spokesmen on the aquatic environment and the creative force behind an entire library of oceanographic movies.
But the most significant environmental films of the period were found on television. Stories like 1959′s “The Population Explosion,” 1960′s “Harvest of Shame” and 1968′s “Hunger in America” (all for CBS Reports) addressed environmental issues that were largely ignored in feature films of the time.
It’s not that filmmakers didn’t want to cover the environment. The problem then and now was finding both funding for projects and theater owners who would show the films. Formed in 1969, Appalshop, a nonprofit arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, addressed these issues by funding and distribution movies, video, books, recordings, and radio shows. Director Mimi Pickering joined Appalshop in 1971, four years before she released The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, which documented a dam failure that killed 125, injured 1,100, and destroyed 700 homes. A year later, Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Harlan County U.S.A.
Apart from the occasional title like the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), television is still the best bet today for finding environmental films. Feature films, on the other hand, tend to tie environmental themes to larger stories. The China Syndrome (1979) is more a political thriller than an environmental one, although its lessons are chilling. Silent Running (1972) and WALL-E (2008) comment on the environment, but have other stories to tell. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) turns its issues into an adventure tale.
For me one of the most powerful environmental films Hollywood ever released is How Green Was My Valley (1941), the film that famously beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Based on an autobiographical novel by Richard Llewellyn, the story ostensibly depicted the decline of the Morgan family, proud coal miners in a small Welsh village. But it is really about the destruction of both a landscape and a way of life for reasons its characters never fully grasp.
There are no answers in How Green Was My Valley. Work is deadly, management and unions corrupt. Religions feud among themselves, authorities are powerless, families fall apart. The downward arc of the film, from its sunny vistas to dank mines, from life to death, is as chilling as any in American film.
March 29, 2012
Opening Friday, Wrath of the Titans is the latest in the somewhat puzzling genre of movies fashioned from Greek mythology. A sequel to the surprise box-office hit Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans boasts upgraded computer graphics and 3D technology while hewing to its predecessor’s formula: modern versions of stories thousands of years old.
Most recent films set in ancient times—like 300, Troy, Alexander, and Gladiator—are largely excuses to show gigantic battles on screen. The two Titans movies fall into a sort of fantasy subgenre popularized in large part by stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. In fact, the 2010 Clash of the Titans was a remake of a 1981 MGM film for which Harryhausen oversaw the special effects.
Stop motion is one of the first special effect processes perfected in cinema, one I’m sure came about by accident. You achieve it by filming a scene, stopping the camera, and then changing something within the scene before starting to film again. For Edison films like The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (August, 1895) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), dummies would be substituted for actors when it came time to portray their deaths. In scores of films, Georges Méliès made characters appear and disappear with the same effect, often using a cloud of smoke to disguise the switches.
Edison rivals J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith took the process a step further by making it seem as if inanimate objects could move in The Humpty Dumpty Circus (1897). They did this by shooting a single frame at a time, shifting objects before the camera a little after each frame. Pieces of furniture, letters of the alphabet, in fact almost anything that could be filmed could be moved as well. A film like The Thieving Hand (Vitagraph, 1908) shows how quickly stop-motion techniques advanced.
In stop-motion animation, filmmakers build models which they move frame by frame. These tend to be miniatures because they’re easier to control, but the process is still incredibly time consuming, requiring obsessive attention to details like lighting and surfacing. Films like The Ant and the Grasshopper (1911) and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Ladislas Starevich (also known as Wladyslaw Starewicz) show just what could be accomplished with insects, matchboxes, and tiny costumes.
Willis O’Brien, a cowboy, guide, boxer, sculptor, and cartoonist, began working in stop-motion animation in 1915. His fascination with dinosaurs led to several films in which he developed ways to combine animation with live action, and to make models more lifelike with latex, armatures, bladders, and gel for “saliva.” Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, The Lost World (1925) featured some fifty dinosaurs, stunning audiences worldwide.
O’Brien set to work on Creation for RKO, but it was cancelled by studio head David O. Selznick after some 20 minutes had been completed. Merian C. Cooper, who would later replace Selznick as head at the studio, brought O’Brien onto a new project about a giant ape terrorizing New York City. King Kong (1933) would become one of the touchstones in cinema, due in no small part to O’Brien’s meticulous animation.
At times O’Brien was moving his models as little as an eighth of an inch per frame. A mistake meant starting over from the beginning of the shot. Fur on the Kong models was impossible to control completely. (Watching the film you can see the ape’s fur change shape from frame to frame.) But to viewers then and today, Kong became a living, breathing figure of terror, perhaps the greatest single achievement in stop-motion technology.
O’Brien worked on both Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). For the latter, he hired Ray Harryhausen, an animator whose life had been changed by seeing King Kong. “You know it is not real, but it looks real. It’s like a nightmare of something in a dream,” he said later.
Born in 1925, Harryhausen modeled his own creatures from old clothes and clay before working on George Pal’s stop-motion Puppetoons at Paramount. Enlisting at the start of World War II, he worked in the Signal Corps making movies like How to Bridge a Gorge (1942). After the war, with O’Brien as friend and mentor, Harryhausen made shorts adapted from Mother Goose stories.
Animating The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) led to work on It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), where Harryhausen met producer and partner-to-be Charles Schneer. The animator had been working for years on a project “based purely on Greek mythology” called The Lost City. With Schneer’s help, Harryhausen ended up with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Schneer sold the idea to Columbia for a budget of $650,000, little of which went to the cast (contract player Kermit Mathews, future Mrs. Bing Crosby Kathryn Grant) or for location shoots. Filming in Spain was cheaper and offered stark beach, mountain and desert scenery with landmarks like the Alhambra Palace to back up Harryhausen’s animation.
Yes, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is ostensibly derived from The Arabian Nights, but Harryhausen would return to similar monsters and situations for the rest of his career. Sinbad’s swordfight with a skeleton shows up in an expanded form in Jason and the Argonauts (1963), for example. With their elemental, larger-than-life narratives and outsized monsters, Greek myths were perfect for Harryhausen’s methods.
Harryhausen learned from O’Brien how important it is to develop personalities for his characters—like a Cyclops who pulls over a bench so he can watch his dinner cooking in Sinbad, or the skeletons’ feral grins in Jason. Harryhausen’s figures, with their awkward lurches and puzzled gestures, have a charming, lifelike quality that is often seems to be missing from today’s CGI.
Stop-motion animation continues today in work by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline), Jan Švankmajer (Alice, Faust), the Brothers Quay (The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes), and Nick Park (who won an Oscar for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). Upcoming stop-motion features include The Pirates! Band of Misfits from Park’s Aardman Animation and Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton.
If you think that filmmakers don’t reach back to the past, you can spot very funny Thieving Hand references in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and the upcoming The Cabin in the Woods.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 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.
February 24, 2012
With 11 Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards, Hugo is one of the most honored films of 2011. “Everything about Hugo to me is poignant,” screenwriter John Logan told me. “From the broken orphan to the old man losing his past to the fragility of film itself.”
The story of a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station and his momentous discoveries, Hugo marks director Martin Scorsese’s first film for children, and his first using 3D. The movie was based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo: The Shooting Script has just been published by Newmarket Press/It Books. Along with Logan’s script, the book includes photos, full credits, and production notes.
Mr. Logan took time out from his intimidatingly busy schedule to speak by phone about working on Hugo. “The reason we all made the movie is because we loved Brian’s book,” he says. “It works on so many levels—as a mystery story, an adventure novel, an homage to cinema. The challenge in adapting it was keeping tight control over the narrative. Because despite the 3D and the magnificent special effects and the sets and the humor and the sweep and grandeur of it all, it’s actually a very austere and serious story. Secondary to that, and this part really was challenging, was hitting what I thought was the correct tone for the piece.”
Since Selznick’s book was a 500-page combination of text and illustrations, Logan had to eliminate some characters and plot strands to fit the story into a feature-film format. “Also there were things we added,” says Logan. “We wanted to populate the world of the train station. What Marty and I talked about was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) by René Clair. Like those films, we wanted Hugo’s world to be filled with characters, and I had to write vignettes to dramatize them. Particularly the Station Inspector, played so memorably by Sacha Baron Cohen. We wanted to build that character up to be more of an antagonist to Hugo, so I did a lot of work there.”
Film history is a key element in Hugo, whose plot hinges on early French cinema. And as part of his homage to older styles, Logan incorporated as many cinematic devices as he could. Hugo has voice-over narration, flashbacks, a dream-within-a-dream segment, silent sequences, flip animation, and even scenes that recreate early 20th-century filmmaking techniques. “We tried to suggest all the different ways of telling a story on film,” Logan explained. “Even the trickiest devices in the world, like the nightmare within a nightmare, which is straight out of Hammer horror films. We wanted Hugo to be a cornucopia of cinema, a celebration of everything we do in movies.”
Writing silent scenes as opposed to those with dialogue was “almost like using two different parts of the brain,” Logan said. One part “writes description, which is prose and relies on adjectives, leading a reader and a moviegoer through the action in a sort of kinetic way. The other part of your brain writes dialogue, which has to find the perfectly chosen phrase with just enough syllables, not too much, the appropriate language for the individual character in the individual scene to express what’s going on.”
I found the flashbacks in Hugo especially intriguing and asked Logan to show how he found entry and exit points into the past for a scene in which Hugo remembers his father. “The danger is, if you leave the present narrative for too long and get engaged in a narrative in the past, you’ll have to jump start getting back into the reality of the present,” he says. “And always you want to follow Hugo’s story. So going into the memories about his father, I had him looking at the automaton—which is also when we reveal it to the audience for the first time—and Hugo thinking about the genesis of the machine and therefore his relationship with his father. The transitions for me were always about what Hugo is thinking and feeling.”
Like the clocks, toys, and projectors within the story, Hugo is itself “a precise, beautiful machine”—which is how Logan introduces the train station in his script. For Scorsese and his crew it was an immense undertaking. (One traveling shot through the station early in the film took over a year to complete.) When Logan began work on the project, the director hadn’t decided to use 3D yet. But the author insisted that technical considerations didn’t impact his writing.
“That’s just not the way I work or the way Marty Scorsese works,” Logan argued. “I wrote the script I needed to write to tell the story to be true to the characters, and the technical demands followed. The reality of filmmaking, of bringing a script to life, which are the technical requirements, follow. So I never felt limited in any way to write any particular way.”
Still, some changes to the script were made on the set. “Marty is pretty faithful in shooting,” he says. “But he’s also very generous with actors in exploring different avenues and different ways of expressing things. And of course Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
I use intimidating to describe Logan not just for his skill, but his working habits. In addition to adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for movies, he is collaborating with Patti Smith on a screen version of her memoir Just Kids, and has completed the script for the next James Bond film, Skyfall. In addition to Hugo, last year saw releases of two more of his screenplays, Rango and Coriolanus, adding an Oscar-nominated animated feature and a challenging Shakespeare adaptation to his credits.
It’s just “kismet” that all three films came out in 2011, Logan thought. “Movies achieve critical mass at completely different times for a hundred different reasons,” he added. “You know I’ve been working on Hugo for over five years, and it just happened to come out when it did because that’s when we got the budget to make it, post-production costs took a certain amount of time, this release date was open. But it just as easily could have opened this year depending on any of those factors. Any pundit who says, ‘Well this is a big year for nostalgia about Hollywood’ because Hugo and The Artist are coming out at the same time knows nothing about movies.”
At its heart, Hugo is about broken people seeking to become whole—a consistent theme throughout Logan’s work over the many styles and genres he has mastered. He has written about painter Mark Rothko (the play Red), Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and the demon barber himself in Tim Burton’s version of the musical Sweeney Todd. “Yeah, I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken,” he said. “I’m not interested in happy people. It just doesn’t draw me as a writer. Theater people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian, and I’m a tragedian. And the vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don’t understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me.”
February 15, 2012
When it comes to predicting Oscar winners, it’s pretty easy to guess among feature film nominees. Foreign films and documentary features can pose more of a problem, although buffs can usually find enough information to make educated choices.
Shorts films, on the other hand, are deal breakers when it comes to office pools and Oscar night competitions in front of televisions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few viewers ever get the chance to see the shorts, making predictions about them the equivalent of a stab in the dark.
Starting in 2005, ShortsHD began packaging Oscar-nominated shorts into programs for theatrical and cable release. ShortsHD teams with Magnolia Pictures to bring the Oscar nominees to theaters, at the moment on 200 screens. (Find a theater near you.) On February 21, many of the shorts will become available on iTunes. The packages are also available via some “On Demand” cable systems.
The animated nominees include an entry from Pixar, two hand-animated films from the National Film Board of Canada, and two independent computer-animated films. If you’re looking for trends, the past is again king. Four of the five films dispense with dialogue, or use nonsense words or intertitles. One makes explicit reference to silent comedian Buster Keaton, another imitates the look and feel of black-and-white cartoons, and a third manipulates vintage black-and-white newsreel footage to provide a setting for its story.
In alphabetical order:
Dimanche/Sunday, directed by Patrick Doyon, is a melancholy look at a Sunday afternoon through a small boy’s eyes. Sundays can be tough when you’re young, especially in the country: dress-up clothes, church, a visit with grandparents and relatives dominated by drinking and adult talk. In a film of stark graphics and wistful music (by Luigi Allemano), Doyon plays with scale to imitate a child’s perspective: trains and adults alike tower over the youth, and small objects achieve immense importance. Dimanche is harsher than most cartoons, and its morbid sense of humor might cost it at the ballot box. From the National Film Board of Canada.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, at 15 minutes the longest of the animated nominees, was codirected by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg. Joyce is an illustrator and author of children’s books whose works have been turned into films like Robots and Meet the Robinsons. Flying Books flings its Keatonesque hero via a tornado to a black-and-white world where books are living things with wings and feelings. They might die if no one reads them. The feel-good storyline incorporates flip-book animation as well as up-to-the-minute computer imagery to comment on technology and obsolescence. Although it’s ostensibly about books and reading, the film relies exclusively on a cinematic grammar, an irony no one connected with Flying Books bothers to address.
La Luna, directed by Enrico Casarosa, is hands-down the most accomplished of the nominees, due in no small part because it comes from Pixar. Cars 2 marks the first time the studio was shut out from Oscar’s Animated Feature competition, so La Luna may pick up some sympathy votes. Frankly, it deserves to win. A beguiling story of two men and a boy in a rowboat on a moonlit sea, La Luna has a wholesome but succinct premise, an adventurous plot, intelligent and genuinely funny sight gags, and music and animation that are simply breathtaking.
A Morning Stroll, directed by Grant Orchard, is the most original and energetic of the nominees, but it may skew a little too young for Academy voters. The film recounts the same gag in three different time frames, each with its own lovingly detailed style and technique. It would be unfair to reveal the storyline other than to say that the film gets great revenge on those clueless pedestrians who zone out to their smart phones.
Wild Life, directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, is another entry from the National Film Board of Canada, over the past 50 years one of the best producers of short films. Typical of NFB films, Wild Life is smart, expertly made, and defiantly non-commercial. Since Forbis and Tilby are working for an art crowd, not a mainstream audience, they don’t have to pay as much attention to details like gags, structure and length. They can be digressive, focus on context rather than entertainment, and tell small stories with diffident characters. Many will appreciate the artistry and care that went into Wild Life‘s story of an English transplant in 1909 Alberta; some will long for a bit more juice.
All of the nominees are worthy contenders, but if I were voting myself I would give serious consideration to La Luna and A Morning Stroll. For Oscar pool purposes, remember that voters love a sentimental story that pretends to be about something, which would make The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore a front-runner.
The Academy keeps tweaking the rules for animated shorts. This year voters were allowed to view screeners for the first time, for example. I just hope the regulations don’t prevent Daffy’s Rhapsody from competing in next year’s awards. A throwback to the heyday of Warner Bros. cartoons, Daffy’s Rhapsody is currently playing before Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Sam Register, Warner Bros. Executive VP, Creative Affairs, previewed a short clip this past November. It is a blast.
February 6, 2012
Most Oscar awards make sense, even if presenters have to explain what Sound Mixing is every year during the ceremony. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began handing out Scientific and Technical awards in 1931, separated that potentially confusing area from the telecast long ago.) Surprises may pop up in the Foreign Film and Documentary Feature categories, but otherwise the nominations seem to be drawn from a small pool of fairly recognizable titles.
Except for shorts, which receive awards in three separate categories: Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Documentary Short Subject. These are the real dark horses at the Oscar ceremony, films that almost no one has seen because so few venues schedule them. ShortsHD has recently started arranging theatrical releases for the short nominees through a program called The Oscar® Nominated Short Films. Last year’s grossed over $1.3 million; this year’s, released through Magnolia Pictures, will run in over 200 theaters starting February 10. The films will also be available on iTunes starting February 21.
In the early days of cinema, all films were shorts. In fact, the first films consisted of one shot that lasted sixty seconds or less. As films matured they became longer. The early blockbusters A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery lasted 14 and 12 minutes, respectively. Since titles were sold by the foot, exhibitors adopted a shorthand of one-reel and two-reel subjects.
A reel consisted of 1000 feet of film, roughly ten minutes. Feature-length movies in the silent era could run anywhere from six to eight reels, with exceptions for epic productions. Filmmakers and studios gravitated toward bigger and longer movies, but short films remained an important part of the industry.
First, obviously, shorts were cheaper than features. Everything from casting to processing cost less for short films. Second, shorts were a sort of minor leagues for the industry, a way to test and train talent before moving them up to features. In recent years this role has been taken over by film schools, advertising and the music video industry, all of which provide a steady supply of writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. Third, shorts were a way to introduce new technology to viewers, like Technicolor, 3-D, and IMAX.
That still doesn’t explain why shorts are so popular with audiences. In their heyday, short comedies and cartoons could outgross the feature attractions they supported. Theaters would advertise Laurel & Hardy or Popeye shorts to attract viewers, and some theaters showed only short subjects.
Up until the 1950s, shorts were an expected part of a theater program, along with trailers, newsreels, and cartoons. They covered a wide range of topics, from MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series and patriotic films from Warner Bros. to nature films released by Walt Disney. Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley made hilarious shorts like The Sex Life of a Polyp. The government helped sponsor political films like Czechoslovakia 1918–1968. Shorts gave opportunities to experimental artists like Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer. And who doesn’t love cartoons?
We may not be as familiar with today’s Oscar-nominated shorts as audiences were back in the 1930s, when Hal Roach, Pete Smith, The Three Stooges, and Our Gang were household names. But in a sense, shorts are just as popular as they always have been. We just don’t call them shorts anymore.
Think of a short film or a newsreel as a ten- or twenty-minute unit of entertainment. Today’s network news broadcasts and sitcoms, minus commercials, run roughly 22 minutes. An average talk-show segment runs seven to ten minutes, the length of most cartoons. 60 Minutes segments vary in length, but are generally under 20 minutes long.
Basically, the broadcast television schedule is made up of shorts and then longer-form dramas. (Right now I’m uneasy trying to equate documentaries with reality shows.) And by interrupting shows with commercials every seven to ten minutes, broadcasters are giving viewers the equivalent of one-reel shorts.
TV schedules even duplicate the programs movie theaters used to offer: a newsreel, a short either humorous or instructive, then the big feature. Or, in TV terms, a news show, a sitcom, then The Good Wife.
I’d even argue that television commercials can be seen as shorts. Poorly made and incredibly annoying shorts for the most part, but we can’t deny that some advertising campaigns over the years have been clever and well-made. In fact, big-ticket shows like the Super Bowl and the Oscars have become showcases for commercials, like this Honda ad that updates Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Next week I hope to go into more detail about this year’s shorts nominees.
February 1, 2012
Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, will be one of the highest-rated shows on television this year. (Last year’s game was the most watched show in television history; it was also the fourth consecutive Super Bowl to set viewership records.) Advertising revenue for the broadcast will top well over a half-billion dollars. The game and its surrounding pageantry are so significant that some churches have closed rather than compete, while a counter-programming industry has sprung up to capitalize on disaffected consumers.
Football hasn’t always been so dominant in American culture. In fact, for years the sport barely registered outside of college alumni fans. Baseball was considered the “national pastime,” and as such was frequently a setting in film. Prizefights, on the other hand, played a major role in legitimizing the entire medium, as Dan Streible points out in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. (Interestingly, boxing had a similar function with television.)
Apart from newsreels and actualities (like this 1903 Edison film of a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan), Hollywood took a bemused attitude towards football, using it largely as a setting for collegiate humor. In 1925, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and MGM’s Brown of Harvard, starring William Haines and Jack Pickford, covered similar territory: plucky collegians, gorgeous co-eds, proms, cheers, betrayals and the Big Game. The Marx Brothers took a blowtorch to the genre in Horsefeathers, but cartoons like Freddy the Freshman also mocked the raccoon coats, Model Ts, and convoluted offenses that were how most viewers perceived college football.
These films inadvertently pointed out a problem with portraying the sport on screen. When newsreel companies like Fox Movietone and Pathé covered big games, their cameras were almost always situated high in the stands, at the equivalent of the 50-yard line—the best position for cinematographers to cover a play that could extend to either end zone. In Horsefeathers or Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923), on the other hand, filmmakers could break plays into individual components, concentrating on one or more players, cutting from a quarterback to a receiver, switching from sideline to end zone, even tracking along with runners as the play and story demanded.
Football became increasingly more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because of how it was broadcast on television. Just like they did with baseball, sports directors learned to turn football games into narratives. As CBS director Sandy Grossman put it, “The reason [the gridiron] is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there’s 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it.”
Now just about every player on the field can be isolated during a play, allowing the director to build a story line from different takes. Slow motion enables viewers to see precisely where a play succeeds or fails. Off-field graphics and interviews inserted into the game build personalities for the players, who otherwise might appear anonymous.
Contrast a football game with hockey or soccer, where play is essentially nonstop, forcing cameramen to revert to a high-shot from the middle of the rink or field. Or with basketball, where games are usually decided only in the final minutes. (Baseball, with its many points of stasis, trumps even football in terms of how successfully it can be televised. Because players are more or less stationary for most of the game, directors can hone in on them in close-ups so tight even Sergio Leone would have been impressed.)
As the means for depicting football evolved, both on television and in movies, so did the way the game was treated. From comedies that emphasized the frivolity of the sport, Hollywood moved to biopics like Knute Rockne All American (1940). Here football served as an all-purpose metaphor: for our struggle with adversity, as an affirmation of the American way of life, as an example of how we will defeat our enemies. Knute Rockne grew out of the Warner Bros. version of history, in which figures like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola received reverential treatment in biopics, and was constructed as a morale-builder as the country faced the onset of World War II. It’s known today mostly for Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. (One football film that’s often overlooked is the engaging Easy Living, starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, which took a relatively hard view of the sport’s injuries and their consequences.)
Like movies in general, sports films became more psychologically complex in the 1950s and beyond. Titles like Paper Lion, Brian’s Song, and North Dallas Forty presented a more realistic view of the game and its players, albeit while romanticizing football overall. But filmmakers still tended to treat the sport as a metaphor: disapproving in Everybody’s All-American, uplifting in Rudy.
Rudy marked another recent shift to true-life stories centered around football. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, Invincible, Gridiron Gang, The Express and Radio are a few examples of films based on true stories. 2009′s The Blind Side, based loosely on a book by Michael Lewis, hit the jackpot, winning Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
While The Blind Side was being filmed, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were shooting a documentary on the Manassas High School Tigers. The finished film, Undefeated, received an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature. Again, the filmmakers insist that Undefeated isn’t a “football” movie.
“One of the biggest challenges is telling people what Undefeated is about,” Martin told me in a phone conversation. “If you say, ‘It’s a high school football team…’ they answer, ‘Oh, like Friday Night Lights.’ But it’s not, Undefeated is about something different than football.”
And in fact Undefeated paints a touching and at times troubling portrait of North Memphis youths struggling to find their way in the world. As coach Bill Courtney says at one point, “You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.”
Which gets me through this posting without having to deal with Black Sunday, in which a suicidal lunatic played by Bruce Dern tries to blow up the Goodyear Blimp at Super Bowl X.