May 23, 2012
Memorial Day weekend used to mark the start of the summer movie season, although just like baseball the industry keeps stretching out its schedule. The record-breaking opening for Marvel’s The Avengers brought Hollywood a palpable sense of relief that even a lackluster Battleship opening couldn’t dim. The Avengers has done remarkably well, but so have movies in general this year. A Wall Street Journal report on Monday noted that box-office receipts are up 15.7% over last year, and if the trend continues, movies could earn close to $5 billion this summer.
With Friday’s opening of Men in Black 3, the blockbuster season is officially here. Snow White and the Huntsman opens June 1; Prometheus and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, June 8; Brave, June 22; G.I. Joe: Retaliation, June 29; The Amazing Spider-Man, July 6; Ice Age: Continental Drift, July 13; and the summer’s 800-pound gorilla, The Dark Knight Rises, on July 20.
Notice anything unusual about the schedule? That’s right, apart from Pixar’s Brave, every single title is a sequel, reboot, or, in the case of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, an unofficial prequel. Even The Avengers can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Marvel features like Iron Man and Thor. Throw in some August remakes and updates like The Bourne Legacy, The Expendables 2, Sparkle, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and Total Recall, and it seems as if Hollywood has turned its back on original projects.
A look at the all-time top-ten grossing films will show you why:
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
4. Marvel’s The Avengers
5. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
7. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
8. Toy Story 3
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
According to Box Office Mojo’s list of worldwide grosses, only two of these top ten movies—Avatar and Titanic—are stand-alone titles, and not part of a series. And six of the remaining eight titles were adapted from another medium: books, comic books, toys and amusement park rides.
Cause for alarm? Or simply business as usual? Take the five top-grossing films of the 1990s. Three of them—Terminator 2, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Batman Returns—were sequels, and a fourth was adapted from the best-selling novel Jurassic Park. (The fifth was the original Home Alone.) How about the 1970s? Jaws, The Exorcist and The Godfather were all best-selling books; Grease was a hit stage play; and all spawned at least one sequel. 1977′s Star Wars became its own media empire.
The truth is, Hollywood’s biggest hits have almost always been based on well-known properties: Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, etc. On one level filmmakers are following sound business principles by working from material that has already succeeded in the marketplace, with a pre-existing audience. Today, no studio executive wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on a project with no name recognition, no built-in audience and no way to cross-promote.
Filmmakers knew the value of adaptations and tie-ins right from the start. Take The Kiss from 1896, based on a scene from the play The Widow Jones. When it opened, an enterprising customer could see the movie, attend the play and read about both in the Sunday World all in the same day.
Artists have always faced the dilemma of telling something new, yet making it seem familiar. Painters like Dürer and Rembrandt revisited the same subjects throughout their careers. Shakespeare wrote sequels, and under royal pressure dragged characters like Falstaff back onto the stage in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Due to demands from the public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over fifty Sherlock Holmes short stories and four novels—even after killing off the detective in 1893. Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Blue Yodel” in 1927 was so popular that he made twelve additional versions, up to 1933′s “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel.”
In movie serials and comic strips, which matured at roughly the same time, artists perfected the trick of telling a story in which things kept happening but nothing ever changed. Viewers came back to episodes of The Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon because they could sense that no matter how bad things got, Pauline and Flash would somehow survive. The same holds true today in television series like “CSI” and “Law and Order” and even “The Big Bang Theory.” Week after week, viewers return to see the characters they like doing roughly the same thing—only different. Gradual change is fine. Characters can fall in and out of love, and when agents insist and contracts fail can even be killed off, reassigned or move to their own series. In The Thin Man movies, the characters played by William Powell and Myrna Loy eventually went from newlyweds to parents. But change too much and the public will turn away, as Sylvester Stallone found out when he gave up Rocky and Rambo for Rhinestone and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot.
But it’s still not easy selling the public a story it already knows, which makes achievements like Aliens or The Godfather Part 2 that much more remarkable. In his first sequel to Men in Black, director Barry Sonnenfeld managed to give the plot enough tricks and variations to win back moviegoers who enjoyed the original. But there was a sense that the characters were biding their time, that the jokes seemed forced.
Men in Black 3 may be Sonnenfeld’s canniest work yet: it doesn’t just tell the same story as the earlier movies, it expands upon them, revealing just enough about the backgrounds of Agents J and K to add real emotional heft to their characters. All while delivering the monsters, jokes, action, subsidiary characters and narrative twists that viewers expect. And while adding a rueful, melancholy tone that once the ending is revealed makes perfect sense.
It’s an accomplished balancing act, one I hope doesn’t get lost among the more obvious, less nuanced blockbusters that surround it.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 18, 2012
Over on the newly designed, buggy, and glacially slow Salon website, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi recently “channeled” a studio executive to address race in movies—specifically white actors playing non-white roles. It’s been a sore point in the film industry for over 100 years, one that deserves better than Mandvi’s take. The comic throws out a few smart-aleck remarks and a dozen or so flimsy but admittedly embarrassing examples, reaching back to 1937′s The Good Earth. But he ignored the more obvious examples practically staring him in the face—like The Dictator, the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy about the leader of the North African country “Wadiya.”
Based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, The Good Earth might appear racist today, but at the time it was considered an enlightened, sympathetic account of peasant life in China. Louise Rainer even won an Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan; like her costar Paul Muni and the rest of the Caucasian cast, she taped up her eyebrows to approximate an Asian appearance. Picking on The Good Earth for its largely progressive racial attitudes seems pretty silly, given that most Hollywood films at the time limited Asian roles to cooks, valets or villains like Fu Manchu.
And there are so many more relevant examples to choose from. Early film in particular is rife with examples of unapologetic racism. In Chinese Laundry Scene (1895), an Irish cop chases a Chinaman; both are depicted as buffoons. (The film starred the vaudeville team of Robetta and Doretto, so this could be the earliest example in movies of a white portraying a member of another race.) In A Morning Bath (1896), a “mammy” stereotype tries and fails to wash the color off a black infant’s skin. Watermelon Feast (1896), The Chicken Thief (1904), The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and similar titles featured even cruder caricatures. Few films delivered as potent, or as damaging, an account of race than The Birth of a Nation (1915), a work that mixed African-American actors with whites wearing blackface.
Early filmmakers treated Europeans with equal cruelty, as well as Southerners, New Englanders, Midwesterners, farmers, laborers, sales clerks, bankers, rubes, city slickers, women, children—you get the picture. In a sense filmmakers were simply reflecting the media around them. It was a time when minstrel shows were still touring the South, when singers like May Irwin and Nora Bayes were famous for “coon” songs, when the African-American star Bert Williams wore blackface on stage.
That doesn’t excuse the filmmakers, theatrical producers, songwriters and performers who took advantage of looser standards to belittle another race or culture; who typecast blacks, Mexicans, and Asians as servants, bandits, and all-purpose villains; who prohibited them from appearing on screen at all, replacing them with white actors. (Or, in an even weirder example of racism, ordered actress Fredi Washington to wear darker makeup so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a white woman in The Emperor Jones.)
The issue gets murkier with a character like Charlie Chan, who was based on the real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana. In 2003, when the Fox Movie Channel started broadcasting the Chan films prior to releasing them on DVD, some Asian activists protested, objecting to both the way Chan’s character was written and the fact that he was portrayed by Caucasians (including the Swedish-born Warner Oland). (I haven’t found any protests against Manuel Arbó, who portrayed Chan in 1931′s Spanish-language Eran Trece.)
Chan—the smartest person in his films—was ultimately an empowering figure, and a good corrective to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, impersonated on screen by Boris Karloff, among others.
Artists always have a choice. I can’t recall a single instance of Charlie Chaplin using racial humor, but my favorite filmmaker, Buster Keaton, too often made blacks the brunt of jokes. Similarly, writer and director Preston Sturges liked making his black bartenders and butlers frightened and not especially bright (for example, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), something his contemporary Val Lewton never did.
In his piece, Mandvi overlooked several of the more striking examples of whites playing other races. Al Jolson used blackface throughout his career, including his groundbreaking musical The Jazz Singer. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney wore blackface in the musical Babes in Arms. These can be seen as attempts to appropriate black culture, and as such are uncomfortable to watch. But when Fred Astaire did an impersonation of Bill Robinson in Swing Time, it seemed like a genuine homage, an attempt to honor a respected fellow dancer.
Was it racist when Orson Welles donned dark makeup to play the lead in his screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello (1952), or an artistic choice? When Laurence Olivier made his version of Othello in 1965, would it have been better received if he hadn’t gone to such extremes with his makeup?
So, yes, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1960), just like Chuck Connors played Geronimo (1962) and Jeff Chandler, Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950). But Wayne also played Swedish sailor Ole Olsen in John Ford’s adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play The Long Voyage Home (1940)—arguably a tougher stretch for the Duke. Should filmmakers be given credit for treating these characters with respect? Is it worse when Tony Curtis impersonates the Pima Indian hero Ira Hayes (in The Outsider, 1961), or when he pretends to be a 15th-century knight (in The Black Shield of Falworth, 1954)?
Perhaps the real issue here isn’t whether Caucasians can portray different races, sexual orientations, or genders. What should bother us is if it is clear that the artist’s intention was to hurt. And this seems to be at the center of the Arab-American response to The Dictator.
Guessing the motives of artists is tricky work. In Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen mocks the people of Kazakhstan, portraying them as ignorant and perverted. But for many, Baron Cohen got away with his character because he also portrayed Americans in the film as ignorant and bigoted. When Baron Cohen mocked homosexuals in Bruno, the critical response was more muted.
Complaints against Baron Cohen started early on in The Dictator publicity campaign: Nadia Tonova, a director of the National Network for Arab American Communities; attorney Dean Obeidallah on CNN Opinion; writer Lucas Shaw on The Wrap.
Because his character in The Dictator is an evil fool, Baron Cohen again feels he has license to employ jokes that in other hands would be racist. New York Times critic A.O. Scott finds this logic “repellant” in his review. “We could laugh at his grossness, secure in the knowledge that we weren’t really xenophobic because we were also sneering at the fools falling for the trick,” Scott writes. “Dumb hicks. Dumb foreigners. Thank goodness we’re not bigots like them!”
Racism, closely linked to xenophobia, is inextricably laced into popular culture. In his Words and Places; or, Etymological Illustrations of history, ethnology and geography, Isaac Taylor listed the many ways the names used for different ethnic groups could be traced back to roots meaning “other,” “outsider,” “barbarian,” “enemy.” It’s when we intentionally limit our understanding of the peoples we don’t know, or insist on seeing them as “others,” that we become racist.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 16, 2012
May 14–18 marks the third annual “For the Love of Film” campaign. Hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand’s Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath’s This Island Rod, and Farran Smith Nehme’s Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon raises money for specific preservation projects.
The first blogathon helped finance the restoration of two Westerns, The Sergeant (1910), which contains the earliest narrative footage from Yosemite, and The Better Man (1912), a Vitagraph short with tinted intertitles. Both films were rediscovered at the New Zealand Film Archive. Thanks in part to the “For Love of Film” blogathon, they were included in the National Film Preservation Foundation‘s box-set Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938.
Last year the blogathon donated preservation funds to the Film Noir Foundation to restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 thriller starring Lloyd Bridges and directed by soon-to-be-blacklisted Cy Enfield. Physical restoration of the film will take place next year, and a repremiere is scheduled for the 2014 Noir City 12 festival in San Francisco.
This year the blogathon has selected The White Shadow, another New Zealand restoration project I first wrote about here. Directed by Graham Cutts, The White Shadow is an important early credit for Alfred Hitchcock, who would later become one of cinema’s most significant directors. Film restorer Eric Grayson wrote this on his excellent Dr. Film blog:
We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed. It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good. Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see! Why? Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director.
To movie buffs, one of the most frustrating aspects of film preservation is the fact that it’s almost impossible to see the finished products. Archives can restore a feature film, but often can’t show it outside of a museum or festival setting. Donor restrictions on materials, rights issues, the costs of making and shipping prints—all these factors can make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to screen restored titles, or make them available to home markets.
That’s what makes this year’s “For the Love of Movies” blogathon so significant. Rather than fund a restoration (since The White Shadow has already been restored), it is funding access. Once it reaches its goals, the National Film Preservation Foundation will host an online version on its website, complete with a new musical score by Michael Mortilla.
Viewing films online has its drawbacks, but at least it enables people to see what preservationists are doing. Coincidentally, to publicize the Casablanca 70th Anniversary Three-disc Blu-ray + DVD Combo Edition from Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Digital Distribution is hosting a complimentary screening of the film today on the Casablanca movie Facebook Page at 7:00 p.m. ET and again at 7:00 p.m. PT. You must begin watching Casablanca prior to 9:00 p.m. PT through the film’s Facebook Page. Only one screening per Facebook account is permitted.
Films like Casablanca, Ben-Hur, and Gone With the Wind are first in line for upgrading whenever a new preservation format or standard is established. For instance, Warners released an “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Casablanca in 2008. But studios and archives are sitting on thousands of other titles that might not get restored. If you love movies, you should jump at the opportunity to actively target titles you want to preserve and protect.
NFPF director Annette Melville reminded me, “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free.’ The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
The goal of “For the Love of Film” blogathon is $15,000, enough to host The White Shadow online for three months. You can donate directly to the NFPF.
Since those participating in the blogathon are supposed to write something about Hitchcock, I’ll add the following. In addition to being one of the medium’s best directors, Hitchcock understood the business of film better than most of his peers. Fairly early in his career, the director obtained artistic control over his projects. For his British titles, he could pick his stories and cast, determine what and how to shoot, and oversee editing. Apart from some budgetary and censorship limitations, films like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) look exactly the way Hitchcock wanted them to.
However, Hitchcock didn’t own the films themselves. They belonged to his producers, which is one of the reasons why so many of his British titles had fallen into public domain in the US, and are available here in cheap, badly duped versions. [Robert Harris points out that copyrights to Hitchcock's British films were restored in 1996 as part of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. But many distributors still market illegal copies as "public domain" prints.]
When he came to the United States, Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Their relationship gave Hitchcock access to great stars like Ingrid Bergman and writers like Ben Hecht, but it also limited him to what Selznick wanted to do.
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was still working under contract to studios like Paramount, but he arranged to have rights for certain projects revert to him after a specified time. Rear Window, for example, was released by Paramount in 1954 and rereleased in 1962. Hitchcock obtained control of the rights and film elements in 1967. Unfortunately, he decided to scrap what was considered to be extraneous film and sound elements, and to store the remaining camera negative, separation masters, and sound tracks in a non-air-conditioned warehouse.
Using these materials, Rear Window was reissued in 1970. But when Universal tried to reissue the film again in 1983, the negatives were faded and damaged, and the optical soundtrack could not be used.
Robert Harris and James Katz undertook a new restoration in 1997, this time resurrecting a Technicolor dye transfer process that had been dormant since 1974. During their restoration they got an appreciation of just how brilliant a filmmaker Hitchcock was. For example, there are no dissolves from one scene to another in Rear Window. Instead, Hitchcock would have cinematographer Robert Burks fade to black between scenes. Amazingly, these fades were performed in the camera, not in a lab. Hitchcock was so confident about his timing, pacing, and rhythm that he felt comfortable risking his shot on the set rather than waiting to use a film lab’s optical process.
Hitchcock went on to establish a media empire of sorts, making feature films, producing and hosting a long-running television series, and even adding his name to books and magazines. By doing so, he remains one of the most recognizable directors over 20 years after his death.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 10, 2012
When The Artist won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, the achievement was noteworthy not just because the film was silent, but because it was made in France. So few foreign films get screened in American theaters that moviegoers might not be aware of long-established film industries in countries like India, Norway, and the Philippines.
By some accounts India has the largest film industry in the world; it’s certainly the largest producer of movies. According to the Central Board of Film Certification, over 1250 feature films are released in India each year. In terms of revenues, Japan’s film industry is slightly larger than India’s. And at some point this year, China edged past Japan to become the second-largest film industry, with receipts well over $2 billion a year. (The US industry makes around $11 billion a year.)
For several decades, the film industry here has counted on foreign revenues for profits. In previous decades, studios actually opened production offices in Great Britain and Italy to take advantage of currency restrictions. Many Hollywood films receive some form of foreign financing to offset production costs. And in some cases—Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and John Carter, for example—overseas box-office receipts were much higher than the domestic take.
For some industry executives, China is the next frontier. For the past two decades, Asian films have exerted a strong influence on American filmmakers. Hong Kong-based filmmakers like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and John Woo have developed careers in Hollywood. Woo helped raise the bar for stunt choreography and gunplay throughout the industry, finding a new market for action choreographers like Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo Ping. Actors like Liam Neeson and Jason Statham now employ moves that a previous generation of action stars never knew existed.
The number of movie theaters in China has doubled to 6,200 over the past five years, and is expected to double again by 2015. But breaking into that market has been tough for Hollywood. One approach has been to include Chinese subjects and characters in films that might otherwise be taking place somewhere else. Mission Impossible: III had a sequence set in Shanghai, for example.
All foreign films must be approved by the China Film Group, which in past years has limited the number of U.S. films allowed to screen in China to 20. (A recent agreement, which has sparked a bribery investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, allows 14 additional films, provided they are 3D and/or IMAX.)
But producers have found a workaround: co-productions are considered domestic titles, and are exempt from the 34-film limit. So the 2010 version of The Karate Kid, co-produced with the China Film Group, could be screened without restriction in China.
When Titanic 3D opened in China this past April, it earned $58 million, the best weekend opening ever in that country. Perhaps not so coincidentally, director James Cameron attended last week’s Beijing International Film Festival, where he told reporters that he was considering shooting the sequels to Avatar in China. “I think by the time Avatar 2 and 3 come out, China could easily be the same size market as the United States,” he said. In Beijing, “you see how they’re basically skipping the latter part of the 20th century and going straight to the 21st century, with installation of 3D compliant digital theaters in towns that never even had a movie theater before. They’re just skipping film completely. There’s no film in their film business – which is pretty cool.”
Which brings us to Iron Man 3, a joint production of The Walt Disney Company in China, Marvel Entertainment, and DMG Entertainment, a China-based media company that was also involved with the Bruce Willis vehicle Looper. Just as The Karate Kid used Jackie Chan to help draw in Asian moviegoers, Iron Man 3 producers are currently negotiating with Andy Lau for a significant part in the new movie.
Studios like Walt Disney, 20th Century Fox, and DreamWorks Animation have already set up shop in China. They have been joined by production companies like Legendary, Relativity Media, and Village Roadshow. Endgame Entertainment worked with DMG on Looper. Keanu Reeves is filming his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, in China.
In his interview, Cameron couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the Chinese market, pointing out that Hollywood filmmakers could skirt around restrictions against science fiction films, for example. “The standards are relaxing,” was how he put it.
Not everyone agrees. While there is no central production code, censors have to approve individuals titles. Without written guidelines, filmmakers must guess what will or won’t pass. Terence Chang produced the historical epic Red Cliff for director John Woo. “It did not encounter censorship problems because it had absolutely no political implications,” he told me. “However, a couple of years ago I produced a small romantic comedy, and its original English title, Dirt Rich in Shanghai, was banned. There was a scene in which everybody smokes in a boardroom. That scene had to be cut. I guess nobody in Shanghai was dirt rich, and Chinese people did not smoke in boardrooms.” Chang agreed that he and Woo would not be allowed to make their breakthrough hit Hard-Boiled in mainland China today.
Born in Vietnam and based in Hong Kong, director Tsui Hark filmed Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame at a Chinese studio complex at Hengdian. He, too, worried about filmmakers censoring themselves in order to win a mainland audience. “That’s a very tricky step,” he told me. “There are a lot of taboos, so many things you can’t touch upon, especially when you’re filming modern-day material. We couldn’t make A Better Tomorrow or The Killer for mainland China today. Before you start shooting, or writing, you’re worrying about what will get a green light, what distributors will agree to show on the mainland.”
Johnnie To, perhaps the most polished director working in Hong Kong today, faces similar problems. After making a string of incredibly tense and realistic crime films (including Triad Election and Exiled), he turned to romantic comedies to avoid censorship problems. While filming Romancing in Thin Air, he spoke with reporters about his changed goals. “This is intentional. We need to cultivate that market. It’s difficult to do that with the kind of movies we typically make. In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies. If we make a crime movie or one of our more personal films, there will be more obstacles.”
Speaking of obstacles, one of the main problems facing Asian filmmakers is finding a way to get viewers here in the United States to watch their movies. Next week I will write about how you can find some of the best movies being made today.
May 4, 2012
The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, has started to make its way through the cable television universe. I saw a few minutes of it this week on FX, and was surprised by how different the film seemed than when I saw it in a theater. On TV it looked smaller, less distinctive, more ordinary, harder to tell apart from the sci-fi films and shows surrounding it. Avatar is a movie you can only truly appreciate in a theater setting—something director James Cameron understands as well as anyone in the business. He makes movies for theaters, not homes.
Although the box office is trending higher in recent months, National Association of Theatre Owners records indicate that movie attendance is at a 20-year low. Receipts have fallen a half-billion dollars. Facing a growing number of rival entertainments, the film industry needs to find a way to bring viewers back to theaters.
Hollywood faced these problems before, with the spread of radio in the late 1920s, and the rise of television some 30 years later. To fight TV, the industry turned to widescreen processes, more color (as opposed to B&W), the first sustained attempts at 3D, and a plague of religious epics that descended on theaters in the 1950s.
More recently, filmmakers have been resorting to similar tactics to differentiate the movie-going experience from TV, YouTube, and games: bigger budgets, louder soundtracks, 3D, and stories whose visual scope can’t be contained on iPads and other handheld devices. Weirdly, these tactics happen to converge with movies derived from comic books.
The industry has always relied on comics and cartoons for inspiration. In a sense movies and comics grew up together, and each helped the other to thrive. The Edison Manufacturing Co. released The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog in 1905, capitalizing on a popular series of lithographs. A year later Edison put out Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip. McCay animated another of his strips for what is now known as Little Nemo (1911). (The film was actually released as Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics.)
McCay did more than anyone to turn both comic strips and screen animation into art forms. He helped free artists from a visual style based on stage performances, with action occurring on a flat plane behind a proscenium. McCay opened up a world with depth, with shifting horizons, and his influence can still be seen today in cross-cutting techniques and in the angled compositions found in X-Men or Transformers.
In following years stories moved from comics to film and back again. Blondie, Dennis the Menace, The Addams Family, Jungle Jim, Li’l Abner, Popeye, Dick Tracy, and many others worked in both comics and movies. A star of radio and screen, Gene Autry had his own comic book as well. (So did his rival Roy Rogers.) Universal made so much money from a serial derived from the comic strip Tailspin Tommy that it made a deal with King Features Syndicate to develop other comic-strip-based movies. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Secret Agent X-9 (written by Dashiell Hammett) followed quickly. Based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon was so popular that theater owners showed episodes at night on top of matinee screenings for kids. (The serial was later re-edited into a feature version.)
Before he was impersonated by Christian Bale, George Clooney, and Michael Keaton, even before he had his own television series, Batman starred in a 1943 Columbia Pictures serial. Superman started out in a cartoon series for Paramount before starring in a TV series and then making the jump to features in the 1970s and again in 2006′s Superman Returns. Both superheroes are part of the DC Comics stable, now owned by Warner Bros. (The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, will be released on July 20.)
DC rival Marvel Comics approached film warily at first. Republic Pictures produced a serial of Captain America in 1944, and Cannon Pictures released a ludicrous, low-budget Captain America in 1990. But it wasn’t until recently that Marvel Studios began aggressively developing its characters—including Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers. (Starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man will open on July 3.)
Despite works from filmmakers as renowned as Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tin-Tin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret), some critics worry that comic book adaptations are destroying cinema as an art form. Reviewing Green Lantern, New Yorker critic David Denby asked, “Do these movies really satisfy anyone except kids and overgrown boys?”
Or take today’s lukewarm review of The Avengers by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who called the film “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” When he isn’t giving away the film’s best jokes, or identifying with The Hulk, Scott is busy lambasting “the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”
I attended the same screening Scott did, and felt that the audience was much more enthusiastic about the film. Yes, it’s big, and so loud that its explosions were positively percussive. But I also found it nimble, clever, funny, and fast—equivalent to any action film of the year so far. Scott arrived late and had to sit in the front rows and to the side of the screen, which may have colored his experience. (Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal sat through the first half-hour of the film with defective 3D glasses, but at least he acknowledged that in his review: “The technical screw-up was so upsetting that it may have skewed my judgment about the movie as a whole.”)
The Times critic has never been a fan of action blockbusters, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when he refers huffily to “overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences”—the precise reason why many viewers love the comic books. What has raised eyebrows is the reaction on Twitter by Samuel J. Jackson (S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the film), who fumed that “Scott needs new job!”
Predictably, several critics defended Scott, if not his opinions. But I’m on Jackson’s side here. If you need to cite a 1959 Howard Hawks film, the Rat Pack, and an irrelevant TV role from the 1960s, you have placed yourself pretty definitively outside the demographic The Avengers is targeting. And if the best you can say about the comic book genre is that it’s “entered a phase of imaginative decadence,” you can just ignore all the elements that make The Avengers so enjoyable.
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.
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.
April 19, 2012
The 11th Tribeca Film Festival opened yesterday with the world premiere of The Five-Year Engagement, a romantic comedy that opens in theaters nationwide on April 27. The festival ends on April 29 with a special screening of the highly anticipated Disney adaptation of The Avengers. In between these two “tentpole” events is a sprawling festival culled from almost 6,000 submissions.
The festival will be screening 89 features in several New York venues, with series like “World Narrative Competition,” “Spotlight” and “Cinemania,” as well as an expanded online presence, industry panels and a number of free events—including the return of the Tribeca Drive-In, this year showing Jaws, Goonies and the new baseball documentary Knuckleball.
Last year’s edition attracted some 400,000 visitors, but the Tribeca Film Festival in some ways still seems to be searching for an identity. Founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, the festival was originally intended to bring people back to New York’s downtown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then it has grown into a combination of civic booster and industry incubator, with offshoots like the Tribeca Film Institute helping to fund documentary and independent projects.
Other film festivals have done a better job in staking out their territory: the New York Film Festival focuses on European auteurs; SXSW on independents and mixed media; the Toronto International Film Festival, towards more purely commercial titles; Sundance, on low-budget, downbeat character studies.
Geoffrey Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival, now heads an overhauled programming staff at Tribeca. He joins Frédéric Boyer, formerly with the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and now Tribeca’s artistic director. In press conferences, neither is willing to define a “Tribeca film,” citing goals of presenting excellent and unseen titles instead, a way to reintroduce viewers to “film culture.” “A platform for discussion,” as Gilmore went on in a recent interview, “a place where a filmmaker can be discovered.”
Tentpoles aside, the majority of movies at Tribeca are niche titles that don’t receive wide distribution. Exposure is key, and this is where the festival can really help bring attention to deserving projects. By grouping films together, Tribeca can cause a sort of “umbrella effect,” in which a music documentary like The Zen of Bennett, about the popular singer, might help highlight The Russian Winter, which follows former Fugees member and ex-con John Forté on his concert tour of Russia.
In fact, this year’s Tribeca is top-heavy with music documentaries, some of which look irresistible. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey follows Filipino singer Arnel Pineda from the slums of Manila to lead singer of the rock band Journey. Searching for Sugar Man examines the mysterious career of 1970s rocker Rodriguez, who became an inexplicable favorite in South Africa. Queen: Days of Our Lives is filled with archival footage of the band on stage and in the studio. Wagner’s Dream, featuring Deborah Voigt, charts the Metropolitan Opera’s five-year plan to stage Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Several thrillers fill out this year’s schedule, proving yet again that, in the words of critic Otis Ferguson, “Crime doesn’t pay—except at the box office.” Set in the Philippines, Graceland follows the aftermath of a botched kidnapping in an unacknowledged reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low. In Unit 7, police tackle drug dealers in Seville. The cop in the French film Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche) has to ransom his son with stolen cocaine. In Canada’s Deadfall, a blizzard blocks a crook and his sister (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) in their attempt to get across the border. And in Freaky Deaky, directed by Charles Matthau, stars like Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, and Michael Jai White try to bring Elmore Leonard’s crime novel to life. (Leonard, Slater, Glover and Matthau will appear in a panel following the April 21 screening.)
Scouts have been touting titles like First Winter (which my insider spy criticized as dull and pretentious); 2 Days in New York, Julie Delpy’s follow-up to 2 Days in Paris; and Francophenia (or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), the latest in writer-actor-director-teacher James Franco’s media onslaught. Here are four films I am looking forward to:
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story—Director Raymond De Felitta returns to Mississippi to examine the aftermath of his father Frank’s 1965 documentary about racism in a film that proves that intolerance is still a way of life in the South.
The Revisionaries—How textbook standards are set by the 15-member Texas State Board of Education.
Side by Side—Writer and director Chris Kenneally interviews the industry’s top filmmakers, including James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, about the differences between digital and film processes. If you’ve been following this blog, you can bet that I’ll be covering this film in greater detail in the future.
The World Before Her—Director Nisha Pahuja takes a look at both the Miss India beauty pageant and a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls to show how women are perceived in contemporary India.
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 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.”