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 23, 2012
Memorial Day weekend used to mark the start of the summer movie season, although just like baseball the industry keeps stretching out its schedule. The record-breaking opening for Marvel’s The Avengers brought Hollywood a palpable sense of relief that even a lackluster Battleship opening couldn’t dim. The Avengers has done remarkably well, but so have movies in general this year. A Wall Street Journal report on Monday noted that box-office receipts are up 15.7% over last year, and if the trend continues, movies could earn close to $5 billion this summer.
With Friday’s opening of Men in Black 3, the blockbuster season is officially here. Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1; Prometheus and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, June 8; Brave, June 22; G.I. Joe: Retaliation, June 29; The Amazing Spider-Man, July 6; Ice Age: Continental Drift, July 13; and the summer’s 800-pound gorilla, The Dark Knight Rises, on July 20.
Notice anything unusual about the schedule? That’s right, apart from Pixar’s Brave, every single title is a sequel, reboot, or, in the case of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, an unofficial prequel. Even The Avengers can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Marvel features like Iron Man and Thor. Throw in some August remakes and updates like The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, Sparkle, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and Total Recall, and it seems as if Hollywood has turned its back on original projects.
A look at the all-time top-ten grossing films will show you why:
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
4. Marvel’s The Avengers
5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
8. Toy Story 3
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
According to Box Office Mojo’s list of worldwide grosses, only two of these top ten movies—Avatar and Titanic—are stand-alone titles, and not part of a series. And six of the remaining eight titles were adapted from another medium: books, comic books, toys and amusement park rides.
Cause for alarm? Or simply business as usual? Take the five top-grossing films of the 1990s. Three of them—Terminator 2, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Batman Returns—were sequels, and a fourth was adapted from the best-selling novel Jurassic Park. (The fifth was the original Home Alone.) How about the 1970s? Jaws, The Exorcist and The Godfather were all best-selling books; Grease was a hit stage play; and all spawned at least one sequel. 1977′s Star Wars became its own media empire.
The truth is, Hollywood’s biggest hits have almost always been based on well-known properties: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, etc. On one level filmmakers are following sound business principles by working from material that has already succeeded in the marketplace, with a pre-existing audience. Today, no studio executive wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a project with no name recognition, no built-in audience and no way to cross-promote.
Filmmakers knew the value of adaptations and tie-ins right from the start. Take The Kiss from 1896, based on a scene from the play The Widow Jones. When it opened, an enterprising customer could see the movie, attend the play and read about both in the Sunday World all in the same day.
Artists have always faced the dilemma of telling something new, yet making it seem familiar. Painters like Dürer and Rembrandt revisited the same subjects throughout their careers. Shakespeare wrote sequels, and under royal pressure dragged characters like Falstaff back onto the stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Due to demands from the public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over fifty Sherlock Holmes short stories and four novels—even after killing off the detective in 1893. Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Blue Yodel” in 1927 was so popular that he made twelve additional versions, up to 1933′s “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel.”
In movie serials and comic strips, which matured at roughly the same time, artists perfected the trick of telling a story in which things kept happening but nothing ever changed. Viewers came back to episodes of The Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon because they could sense that no matter how bad things got, Pauline and Flash would somehow survive. The same holds true today in television series like “CSI” and “Law and Order” and even “The Big Bang Theory.” Week after week, viewers return to see the characters they like doing roughly the same thing—only different. Gradual change is fine. Characters can fall in and out of love, and when agents insist and contracts fail can even be killed off, reassigned or move to their own series. In The Thin Man movies, the characters played by William Powell and Myrna Loy eventually went from newlyweds to parents. But change too much and the public will turn away, as Sylvester Stallone found out when he gave up Rocky and Rambo for Rhinestone and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.
But it’s still not easy selling the public a story it already knows, which makes achievements like Aliens or The Godfather Part 2 that much more remarkable. In his first sequel to Men in Black, director Barry Sonnenfeld managed to give the plot enough tricks and variations to win back moviegoers who enjoyed the original. But there was a sense that the characters were biding their time, that the jokes seemed forced.
Men in Black 3 may be Sonnenfeld’s canniest work yet: it doesn’t just tell the same story as the earlier movies, it expands upon them, revealing just enough about the backgrounds of Agents J and K to add real emotional heft to their characters. All while delivering the monsters, jokes, action, subsidiary characters and narrative twists that viewers expect. And while adding a rueful, melancholy tone that once the ending is revealed makes perfect sense.
It’s an accomplished balancing act, one I hope doesn’t get lost among the more obvious, less nuanced blockbusters that surround it.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 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 27, 2012
As I wrote earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival ends this weekend with a screening of The Avengers, the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation and a linchpin in a marketing plan that now extends to 2016, when The Avengers 2 will be released. The Festival has already handed out its awards, including Best Documentary Feature going to The World Before Her, and a special jury mention for The Revisionaries.
The most intriguing awards went to Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s feature drama about three young Cubans. The film won for Best New Narrative Director (Mulloy), Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature Film (Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder), and Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (Dariel Arrechada and Javier Núñez Florián). Arrechada picked up his award at the Festival, but Florián and a third costar, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, dropped from sight at the Miami airport and may have defected in real life.
CinemaCon, billed as “the largest and most important gathering of movie theatre owners from around the world,” ended its four-day run at Caesars Palace on August 26. The annual trade show of the National Association of Theatre Owners, CinemaCon featured panels on marketing, employee relations, demonstrations of equipment (e.g., “Light Levels: Optimizing Screens and Lamps”); awards to stars like Jeremy Renner, Charlize Theron, and Taylor Kitsch; and corporate suites, cocktail parties, and dinners emceed by the likes of Jack Black.
More important, CinemaCon is a chance for studios to preview their summer blockbusters. Attendees saw excerpts from Pixar’s Brave, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows and The Dark Knight Rises, and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson stirred up some controversy by asking theater owners to project The Hobbit in a version that runs at 48 frames per second, a speed he said would produce greater clarity and be “more gentle on the eyes.” (24 fps has been the standard since the industry switched to sound at the end of the 1920s.)
CinemaCon is targeted toward theater owners and only incidentally to moviegoers. The Orphan Film Symposium, on the other hand, covers films that have no audience, and in many cases no clear owners either. Made to Persuade, the eighth edition of the symposium, ran from April 11–14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, offering almost 100 films and as many speakers. (I also wrote about the 7th symposium for Smithsonian.)
The symposium lets archivists and historians meet and share work, and also screen restoration work before it becomes available to the public. Funding for archives and for preservation work in general is a bigger problem than ever, and several of the over 300 attendees had stories of lost jobs, curtailed projects, and rejected grants. A greater surprise for me was the sharp rise in digital as opposed to film presentations, which I hope to explore in more detail in a future posting.
Some of the highlights of the symposium included a screening introduced by Jay Schwartz of a newly restored version of The Jungle, a 1967 film about gang violence made by actual members of a North Philadelphia gang. A stark, haunting combination of documentary and staged footage, The Jungle is an uncompromising portrait of an urban nightmare.
Walter Forsberg screened a series of computer animation films from AT&T/Bell Labs, highlighting the difficulty in preserving art that began as software code.
Jon Gartenberg showed excerpts from films shot by Tassilo Adam in the Dutch East Indies in the 1920s. Although preserved digitally, the material had the lustrous sheen of the nitrate on which it was originally filmed. Adam filmed with the cooperation of authorities, who staged processions and gatherings for his camera. Nevertheless, his footage shows a considerably more sophisticated vision of Bali than other films of the period.
A session devoted to Sheldon and Lee Dick included School: A Film about Progressive Education, a 1939 documentary that predates cinema verite techniques by some twenty years, and Men and Dust (1940), about the effects of silicosis on mine workers. A publisher and photographer as well as a filmmaker, Sheldon Dick was also an heir to the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine fortune. He is perhaps more famous today for murdering his third wife and then committing suicide.
More lighthearted fare included a series of advertising films I will discuss in a future posting, Presidential campaign ads from 1948, a film produced by several Hollywood studios promoting 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” and Past and Present in the Cradle of Dixie, a silent short from the Paragon Feature Film Company that used romance and the threat of a house fire to promote Montgomery, Alabama as a great place to live.
Sergei Kapterev of the Moscow Research Institute of Film showed the beguiling educational film The Flight to Thousands of Suns, made by Aleksei Yerin at Popular Science Films, a Leningrad studio founded in 1933 as Techfilm Factory #1. The studio released some 4,000 titles. Equally as fascinating was Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated short by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used in psychological studies.
Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash, previous winners of the Helen Hill Awards for animation, hand-drew directly onto a reel of 70mm clear leader to take advantage of the Museum of the Moving Image’s 70mm projectors. The 2012 Helen Hill Awards went to Jeanne Liotta and Jo Dery. In films like Loretta (2003), Liotta builds menacing worlds from strips of film, exposed rayograms, and abstract sound. Dery’s films use cutouts, animation, and a mordant sense of humor to make accessible if unsettling cartoons. Woodpecker in Snow Shoes (2008) was particularly strong.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project, announced that the next symposium will be held in 2014 at the EYE Film Instituut in Amsterdam. Streible just co-edited, with Devin and Marsha Orgeron, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States for Oxford University Press. He also received a 2012 Academy Film Scholar grant for his book proposal Orphan Films: Saving, Screening, and Studying Neglected Cinema.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 6, 2012
April 15 marks the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a milestone that has received generous coverage at Smithsonian. Filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron jumped the gun a bit by re-releasing a 3D version of his epic Titanic to selected theaters on Wednesday, April 4. Early box-office returns look promising.
Titanic is a movie that buffs love to hate, perhaps because it was such a blockbuster hit. I saw it when it first opened and was astonished by Cameron’s vision, grasp of detail, and sheer tenacity. It was a film that bulled its way to the top despite all the obstacles against it, earning respect if not admiration.
Cameron didn’t change much for the 3D upgrade (according to this article by Frank Lovece, the only new shot is a corrected map of the night sky), but the film now seems even more impressive. The 3D effects are minimal—most effective for me when the weight of water burst rivets from a buckled hull—but they have the paradoxical effect of making Titanic seem bigger and more intimate.
What’s clearer now, some 14 years after the film’s original release, is just how astute Cameron’s storytelling was. Titanic could have been just another disaster film, a period Poseidon Adventure in which we wait to see which cast member will die next. Instead, Cameron found a way to personalize this horrific incident through a romance as unlikely as it was compelling. The characters played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet are conceived so well that viewers want them to survive, to beat the odds, just as they want their love affair to take hold despite family and class obstacles. The fact that their romance played out during a disaster gave added urgency to the unfolding events.
Titanic has its flaws, including over-the-top villains, too many water-sloshed corridors, and that grating pop song over the credits. But focused screenwriting, majestic imagery, crisp editing, and, now, 3D enhancements help make it an unforgettable moviegoing experience. The film’s sheer size and emotional pull work best in theaters, where viewers can share in a sort of communal catharsis.
For several years now, Luke McKernan’s blog The Bioscope has been a first-rate source of research into the world of early cinema. (He also edits an excellent early cinema aggregator on Scoop.It.) His latest piece, And the ship sails on, seems to me to be the definitive take on Titanic footage, real and faked. He also includes a clip of the recent British Pathé re-edit of the only genuine extant footage of the ship.
What I find fascinating is that filmmaker William H. Harbeck was a Titanic passenger, and may have shot footage during the fateful voyage. That film would be something to see. Mr. McKernan will cover this and more on April 15 at London’s The Cinema Museum when he delivers a talk on The Titanic Centenary, Featuring “The Ill-Fated Titantic.”
Unfortunately, as Mr. McKernan points out, the Titanic clip has been edited down from the original ten-minute Gaumont short.
Closer to home, Serge Bromberg will be hosting a night of screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday, April 9. Mr. Bromberg was one of the key figures behind the recent restoration of A Trip to the Moon, which I wrote about last year. In addition to the Méliès film, Bromberg is showing a new restoration of Buster Keaton’s The Boat and A Trip Down Market Street, a film of hypnotic beauty that was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment. Bromberg is a performer as well as an archivist and preservationist, and it’s always a treat to hear him play piano and provide backgrounds to the screenings. Plus he usually has a surprise film or two up his sleeve.
The Eighth Orphan Film Symposium starts on April 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I wrote about the Seventh Symposium, which featured little-known films by Orson Welles and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. The Symposium is an opportunity for archivists from all over the world to share their work, giving attendees sneak peaks at films that may become more accessible later. It’s where I first saw A Trip Down Market Street, for example. This year’s films include When the Organ Played “O Promise Me,” an Auroratone short starring Bing Crosby, and The Jungle, a 1967 drama about Philadelphia inner-city gangs made by the 12th and Oxford Street Film Makers.
On the West Coast, the TCM Classic Film Festival starts on April 12. A celebration of more mainstream films (Cabaret, Black Narcissus, Charade) that takes place in a number of Los Angeles theaters, the festival can be pricey, with passes running as high as $1199. The perks include the chance to mingle with stars like Mel Brooks, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds, and TCM host Robert Osborne.
In a related note, Hugh Neely is asking for your help with the Mary Pickford Foundation’s funding of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. You can sign a petition to insure that the institute’s work continues.
Finally, my editor pointed out this video by filmmaker Jeff Desom. Using Photoshop and After Effects, Desom took the wide shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and condensed them into a three-minute time-lapse shot that covers the entire film. As Desom explained in this interview, the original project turned the film into a continuous, 20 minute loop.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 23, 2012
If you’ve somehow avoided the marketing juggernaut behind The Hunger Games, the film version of Suzanne Collins’ novel is poised to become the first box-office blockbuster of 2012. Opening today, the movie has already broken the first-day sales record on Fandango, topping the previous leader, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Should it match that title’s receipts, The Hunger Game could top $150 million within days.
Despite muted reviews from old-line media like Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, and Time, The Hunger Games has already helped to boost the stock price of distributor Lionsgate by over 80% in the past three months. So you can count on Hunger Games sequels in the near future. Three more episodes are currently planned (the last book will be split into two parts, like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)
With almost 25 millions copies in print, Collins’ series of young adult novels are a phenomenon in their own right. Set in a dystopian future, the premise features televised Olympics-style battles to the death among 24 teenagers selected from the 12 colonies that had rebelled against the ruling class. Personally, I am uncomfortable with how children are used in The Hunger Games, and even more uncomfortable with one of its immediate predecessors, Battle Royale. A 1999 novel by Koushun Takami that was adapted into a 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale is far more violent and morally ambiguous than The Hunger Games. In it, high school students are sent to a remote island in a rigged fight to the death. Collins has stated that she was unaware of Battle Royale when working on The Hunger Games. The stories still share a surprising number of plot elements. Although Quentin Tarantino professed it a favorite, Battle Royale has never received a legitimate release in the U.S.
Call me a hypocrite, but I’m generally fine with other forms of screen mayhem. The upcoming Jason Statham vehicle Safe has a body count in the dozens, as well as a young protagonist who directly causes the deaths of several villains. But director Boaz Yakin never pretends that Safe is anything but escapist entertainment, and he doesn’t dwell on how the movie’s victims die.
Just as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels popularized vampire and werewolf themes for a young-adult audience—making a fortune for Warner Bros. and Little, Brown in the process—The Hunger Games takes a premise that has been around for decades and refashions it for a new audience. Here are five other films in which humans hunt each other to the death.
5. The Running Man. Based on a novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman), this 1987 film starred two future governors: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. Schwarzenegger, at the height of his popularity as an actor, plays a contestant in a televised duel-to-the-death hosted by smarmy emcee Richard Dawson. Arnold simultaneously must defeat the corrupt regime ruling a post-apocalyptic United States. Directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the original Starsky in TV’s “Starsky and Hutch.” Both novel and film borrow from an influential 1958 short story by Robert Scheckley, “The Prize of Peril.”
4. The Naked Prey. Directed by and starring Cornel Wilde, this 1966 adventure finds Wilde chased across the South African veldt (actually Zimbabwe) by tribesmen who have already murdered the other members of his safari. Considered shockingly brutal for its time, the film is more notable today for its exceptional location photography (by H.A.R. Thomson) and Roger Cherill’s lean, incisive editing. The screenplay, by Clint Johnston and Don Peters, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Criterion Collection DVD release includes the original inspiration for the movie: a 1913 short story “John Colter’s Escape,” about a trapper fleeing Blackfoot Indian pursuers. According to this website, Joel and Ethan Coen remade the film on Super 8.
3. The 10th Victim. This 1965 sci-fi adventure by Elio Petri features screen icons Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress in another televised death match, this one called “The Big Hunt.” Anyone who survives five attacks and commits five assassinations wins a million dollars. With its “modernistic” decor, disaffected characters, and parody TV ads, the film predicted today’s cynical take on violence and celebrity. The 10th Victim was based on a Richard Scheckley short story, “The Seventh Victim.” Director Petri would later win an Oscar for his satirical 1970 police procedural, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
2. Spartacus. It may seem a stretch to connect a 1960 gladiator epic, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, to The Hunger Games. But there are odd parallels. As their unlikely lead characters, both stories feature impoverished outcasts. In both, these innocents are forced to perform in a deadly ritual for a corrupt ruling class. Both undergo rigorous training in a decadent capitol. In order to survive, both turn into reluctant killers. And both are drawn into political intrigues. I’ll end the comparison by noting that Spartacus doesn’t have the happiest of endings.
1. The Most Dangerous Game. My favorite in the human prey genre, this 1932 film was based on a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in which survivors of a shipwreck come face to face with the infamous Count Zaroff. (Read the original story.) With no way off Zaroff’s tropical island, the guests must play along with his deadly demands. More a horror film than an adventure, The Most Dangerous Game was filmed at the same time, and on the same sets, as the RKO classic King Kong. (Ernest B. Schoedsack was co-director of both films.) It also featured a mesmerizing score by Max Steiner, one of Hollywood’s premier composers. Starring a young Joel McCrea (still a few years from his success as a leading man at Paramount) and Fay Wray (at the time the screen’s reigning scream queen), The Most Dangerous Game has the inexorable logic of a nightmare, and the gloomy, swampy locations to match.
The Most Dangerous Game has been overshadowed by King Kong, but filmmakers (and other artists) really took to its premise. In A Game of Death (1945), Zaroff’s villain became a Nazi; the film was directed by Robert Wise, who also helmed The Sound of Music. Run for the Sun (1956), directed by Roy Boulting and starring Richard Widmark, took place in Central America. Orson Welles appeared in a radio version in 1945. The Most Dangerous Game has an amusing cameo in Zodiac (2007), David Fincher’s drama about the San Francisco-area serial killer.
The Criterion Collection released an excellent edition of The Most Dangerous Game that is available on Hulu Plus. You can also find an edition from Legend Films that includes a colorized version overseen by special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. (In honor of Wrath of the Titans, I will be writing about Harryhausen and stop-motion animation next week.)
Or you can view The Most Dangerous Game online, at the Internet Archive or on YouTube:
March 16, 2012
Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.
This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.
This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.
Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.
Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.
“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”
The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.
Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.
The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”
A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.
Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”
Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”
The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”
In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.
I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.
Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”
March 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.
January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.
January 25, 2012
Call me a cynic, but I couldn’t help viewing yesterday’s press conference by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce the 2011 Oscar nominations as a calculated attempt to prolong a lackluster holiday season. And am I the only one who sees the irony in holding a pep rally on prestige releases at the same time the industry is dumping its dogs on the market? (January is historically the worst month to release new films, so that’s when Hollywood gets rid of what it perceives to be losers.) Sometimes the hoopla translates into increased ticket sales for those nominees still playing in theaters. Just as often there is no noticeable box-office bump, despite an increase in advertising budgets. (At least one film, Rango, is getting a limited re-release.)
Changes in the Academy’s voting procedures have opened up the Best Picture category, which features nine titles this year (out of a possible ten). Each of the Best Picture nominees had to receive five percent of the vote to make the list, which meant that several critical favorites—Melancholia, Drive, Young Adult, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example—were shut out. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, on the other hand, had enough of a passionate support group to sneak in a nominee. The most surprising inclusion may be Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that has received some scathing reviews.
Media pundits love to count up nominations as if they were proof of merit. They’re not, but they are often a good indicator for the eventual Best Picture winner. The record for most nominations (14) is shared by All About Eve and Titanic, perhaps the only time those films are ever mentioned in the same sentence. This year, Hugo received 11 nominations, and The Artist 10. As a result, prepare yourself for more articles about how to watch silent films, or about how Hollywood wants to examine its past.
This might be a good spot to point out what I think is a secret about The Artist: I don’t think viewers like it very much. The Artist has been open for nine weeks, during which time it grossed a little over $12 million. In that same period, The Descendants made over $50 million, and Hugo $55 million. Yes, The Artist hasn’t been showing in as many theaters, due to The Weinstein Company’s wary release strategies. Right now all three films are in roughly the same number of theaters, but for a long time the Weinstein Co. kept the theater count low for The Artist, hoping word of mouth would build from a few select showings. It also assembled a trailer that tried to pretend that the film was sort of a musical, and not a mostly silent drama. But mainstream filmgoers have spent over ten times the take for The Artist on tickets to Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. (There’s also this story from The Telegraph that frankly reeks of a publicist’s plant, “Cinema-goers complain that Oscar favourite The Artist has no dialogue.”)
In previous years, blockbusters like Mission: Impossible would at least be acknowledged by the Academy, usually with a technical nomination like Sound Mixing or Visual Effects. (That’s where you’ll find Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) But Mission: Impossible got shut out completely. Were voters making a statement about Tom Cruise, who has shepherded the M:I franchise to the point of picking screenwriters and directors, and investing his own money?
Cruise wasn’t the only superstar dismissed by Academy voters. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was ignored for his turn as J. Edgar Hoover, probably because the film received at best lackluster support. Pixar (with Cars 2) was shut out for the first time from Animated Feature Film, which has instead such little-known titles as A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. (Also ignored: Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture cartoon The Adventures of Tintin.) I’d love to see the smart, funny Rango win, but I believe it’s more likely the Academy will award Puss in Boots 3D, a smart addition to a very successful franchise.
More puzzling to me was how Shailene Woodley, so affecting in The Descendants, was overlooked for Best Supporting Actress. The Descendants, my choice for Best Picture, has had a puzzling reception. Some critics feel that it is old-fashioned, perhaps because its director, Alexander Payne, still pays attention to elements of filmmaking like composition and editing. Moviegoers, on the other hand, seem reluctant to try a film that appears to be about death. But no other movie in 2011 cut so deeply into what it means to be in love, to be in a family, to lose what you hold most dear.
With nine Best Picture nominations, and only five for Best Director, Oscar host Billy Crystal will have plenty of chances to repurpose one of his classic jokes from previous ceremonies: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that apparently directed itself.” He can use Best Picture noms The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball as well, none of whose directors were nominated. This is the first time director Stephen Daldry wasn’t nominated for one of his films. And Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, received nods in four other major categories. (Let’s see if Columbia tries to cash in on Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination when it releases 21 Jump Street in March.)
Oscars are often awarded for careers, not for individual films. James Stewart’s Oscar for The Philadelphia Story is viewed now as a consolation prize for losing out on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Max von Sydow, whose resume includes landmark Ingmar Bergman films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as decades of appearances in Hollywood titles, might win for a stunt supporting role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Christopher Plummer started in films in 1958, starred in The Sound of Music, and was nominated in 2010 for The Last Station. His role in the crowd-pleasing Beginners could finally net him an Oscar.
Finally, Documentary (Feature), a category the Academy fiddles with to little avail. The list of past films that didn’t even receive nominations is shocking: The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Roger & Me, for example. This year the Academy offered voters a shortlist of 15 titles, somehow neglecting to include Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. Among those that failed to make the final cut of five movies was the extraordinary and moving Project Nim. Still in the running: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a documentary I believe helped free the West Memphis Three from prison. I was fortunate enough to interview co-director Joe Berlinger in one of my first Reel Culture postings.
Next year the Academy will change the nominating procedure once again. Documentaries will not only have to have a theatrical release, they will have to be reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. That will make it much harder for films about challenging subjects to reach an audience.