July 2, 2012
Megan Gambino’s The Top 10 Books Lost to Time inspired me to think about the movies that we’ll never be able to see. Not movies that were actually “lost,” like the thousands of titles that have decomposed or otherwise disappeared over the years. Some estimate that 80 percent of all silent features are gone, for example. They include movies starring Laurel and Hardy (The Rogue Song), Greta Garbo (The Divine Woman), and Lon Chaney’s sought-after “vampire” film London After Midnight.
This posting instead is about movies that were never completed, or in some cases never filmed at all. Every filmmaker has a list of projects that just didn’t work out. Either they couldn’t find financing, or schedules were too complicated, or situations suddenly changed. William Wyler prepared How Green Was My Valley, but due to scheduling conflicts John Ford ended up directing it. Frank Capra had planned to make Roman Holiday, but eventually gave the project to Wyler. Steve Soderbergh was ready to direct Moneyball until Sony replaced him at the last moment with Bennett Miller.
Directors and other creative personnel invested a lot of time and money into the five films below. In some cases, the fact that they could not complete the films seriously affected their subsequent careers.
1. I, Claudius—After helping make Marlene Dietrich an international star in seven visually astonishing films, director Josef von Sternberg burned a lot of bridges at Paramount, made two minor films at Columbia, then fled Hollywood. In London he accepted an offer from producer Alexander Korda to film an adaptation of I, Claudius, a 1934 novel by Robert Graves about the first-century Roman emperor. The cast included Charles Laughton, one of the most respected actors of his time, and the imperiously beautiful Merle Oberon.
Korda was hoping to build on the success of his film The Private Lives of Henry VIII, while Sternberg, who had filmed Dietrich as Catherine the Great in The Scarlet Empress, relished the chance to explore the Roman court. But the production was troubled from the start. Sternberg couldn’t establish a working relationship with Laughton; in his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry he wrote: “when he was not in front of the camera he seemed no more abnormal than any other actor.” The director also infuriated the British crew with his autocratic methods.
The final straw came when Oberon had a serious car accident a month into shooting, bringing the production to a halt. (At the time, some suspected that her £80,000 insurance settlement helped offset shuttering the film. Oberon would go on to marry Korda in 1939.)
In 1965, director Bill Duncalf assembled the surviving footage—about 27 minutes—in the documentary The Epic That Never Was. Sternberg was a master at melding production design and cinematography to build atmosphere, and his I, Claudius would have been a stunning achievement.
2. It’s All True—Orson Welles was still a wunderkind when he left the United States for Brazil in 1942. Behind him: Citizen Kane, an unedited version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and the sophisticated pulp thriller Journey Into Fear. Asked by the Office of Inter-American Affairs to make pro-Brazil propaganda as part of the country’s “Good Neighbor” policy, Welles was greeted like a star when he arrived in Rio de Janiero with a $300,000 budget from RKO.
In a treatment to potential backers, Welles wrote, “This is a new sort of picture. It is neither a play, nor a novel in movie form–it is a magazine.” The director envisioned a four-part feature, later reduced to three. It would include My Friend Bonito, written and produced by documentarian Robert Flaherty and directed by Norman Foster, about the friendship between a Mexican youth and a bull. For The Story of Samba, Welles shot black-and-white and Technicolor footage of Rio’s Carnaval.
Welles read a Time article, “Four Men on a Raft,” about four fishermen who sailed 1650 miles in a “jangada,” little more than a raft, to protest poor working conditions. He decided to reenact the trip for the centerpiece of his film. Unfortunately, Manoel Olimpio Meira, the leader of the fishermen, drowned during filming.
The mood of the country turned against the director. He also lost the support of his studio when executives were replaced. Rumors have RKO dumping It’s All True footage into the Pacific. Welles later claimed the film had been cursed by voodoo. The surviving footage was assembled into the 1993 documentary It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles.
3. Napoleon—The famously obsessive Stanley Kubrick started and dropped many projects over his career. For years he tried to film Aryan Papers, an adaptation of Louis Begley’s novel Wartime Lies, giving up the project when Steven Spielberg started Schindler’s List. A short story from The Moment of Eclipse by Brian W. Aldiss became A.I., which Kubrick never started because he was waiting for better computer effects. It was eventually completed by Spielberg.
After the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a figure he had studied for decades. Jan Harlan, his brother-in-law and executive producer of his later films, says Kubrick was fascinated about how someone so intelligent could make such costly mistakes.
Kubrick and MGM announced Napoleon in a July 1968 press release. The director hired 20 Oxford graduates to summarize Napoleon biographies, and filled a file cabinet with index cards detailing the dictator’s life. “I must have gone through several hundred books on the subject,” he told journalist Joseph Gelmis. “You want the audience to get the feeling of what it was like to be with Napoleon.” His relationship with Josephine was “one of the great obsessional passions of all time…So this will not be a dusty historic pageant.”
Staff found locations in Romania, and procured the cooperation of armed forces there for extras. Thousands of uniforms were prepared. Kubrick experimented with special low-light lenses that would enable him to work with candlelight.
According to Harlan, shooting was ready to start when Waterloo, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, was released. The failure of that film caused Kubrick’s backers to pull out. While the director continued to amass research on the subject, he could never find enough funding to restart the project. He did incorporate some of his findings into his adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975). Alison Castle has edited a remarkable book from Taschen, Napoleon, that gives an indication of how much Kubrick put into the project.
4. Elective Affinities—Playwright, scientist, philosopher, novelist, travel writer, artist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the towering figures of the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries. His Sorrows of Young Werther swept Europe, changing the culture’s concept of masculinity and inspiring a rash of suicides. (Napoleon carried a copy with him to Egypt.) Faust became the source of a half-dozen operas and symphonic works. Goethe inspired everyone from Nietzsche and Beethoven to Francis Ford Coppola.
Elective Affinities, Goethe’s third novel, was published in 1809. The title refers to how elements bond chemically; the plot describes how relationships change with the addition of a new person. A husband falls in love with an orphaned niece; his wife, with The Captain, her husband’s childhood friend. In chemical terms, AB + CD → AD + BC. Goethe implied that passion and free will were subject to the laws of chemistry, an idea that playwright Tom Stoppard developed further in Arcadia by bringing in chaos theory to the argument.
In 1979, few filmmakers were as respected as Francis Ford Coppola. He had won an Oscar for writing Patton, then directed three of the most accomplished films of his time: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. While working on the calamitous epic Apocalypse Now, Coppola conceived of adapting Elective Affinities into a multi-part film that would combine Eastern and Western influences.
Coppola was not a dilettante about the East: along with George Lucas he was helping to produce Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Coppola studied Kabuki theater, intrigued by how the form abandoned realism for illusion in scenery, story, and actors. He pictured Elective Affinities as four episodes taking place over a ten-year period in both Japan and America, a series that would examine the couple and their lovers in detail.
Walking through the Ginza section of Tokyo, Coppola was reminded of Las Vegas, which became the setting for One from the Heart, “a little musical Valentine,” as he described it to an interviewer. The poor box-office performance of that film, coupled with the crippling debt he assumed for Apocalypse Now, scotched any chance of filming Elective Affinities.
5. Nostromo—David Lean, the director of such epic masterpieces as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, had his share of aborted projects. In the 1970s, after he completed Ryan’s Daughter, he and screenwriter Robert Bolt spent years on a two-part adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty. When Bolt suffered a stroke, Lean eventually abandoned the project, which ended up being directed by Roger Donaldson as The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian.
Lean’s outstanding adaptation of A Passage to India won two Oscars. For his next project he chose Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, a 1904 novel that examined the corrupting influence of a silver mine in a fictional South American country. Director Steven Spielberg agreed to produce the film for Warner Bros. Lean worked with playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and later reunited with Bolt on a newer draft.
Conrad’s novel is filled with adventure on a massive scale, as well as penetrating psychological analyses of flawed characters. It’s also a gloomy, depressing story with a downbeat ending. I read a draft of the script when I was working at HBO in the 1980s, and it captured the scope and feel of the novel while adding Lean’s own jaundiced take on society. It was also a seriously ambitious project for an ill director in his 80s.
Delays followed delays as Spielberg, Hampton and Bolt all departed the project. Lean persisted despite the throat cancer that was killing him. He assembled a cast that included the European actor Georges Corraface as well as Isabella Rossellini and Marlon Brando. Screen tests were shot. Millions were spent constructing sets. Lean wanted to shoot with the Showscan Process, a high-speed, large-format, and very expensive stock. At the very least he insisted on 65mm. Cinematographer John Alcott came up with an ingenious solution for lighting a scene that takes place in a dark mine: make the silver appear phosphorescent.
What a film Nostromo would have been: bold, sweeping, magisterial, mysterious. Lean died six weeks before the start of shooting.
June 27, 2012
The most frustrating aspect of being a film fan is not being able to see the movies you read about. So when a remarkable home movie becomes available, grab the opportunity to see (or record) it.
This Saturday morning, June 30, at 2:15 a.m. Eastern time, Turner Classic Movies is showing Multiple SIDosis, a 1970 short by the amateur filmmaker Sid Laverents. The occasion is a rare screening of Laverents’ remarkable autobiographical film The Sid Saga (1985–2003), a four-part account of his career as a vaudeville performer, salesman, aviation engineer, and amateur filmmaker. (Turner will be broadcasting the first three parts along with the short.)
The term “amateur filmmaker” may seem demeaning today, but when movies started, everybody was an amateur. By the 1920s, the film industry was over 30 years old, with established production and distribution processes. An alternate system of educational and instructional films had developed as well. The home movie market was also an important source of revenue for Kodak. Amateur films, an offshoot from home movies, became an increasingly respectable niche. They were shown in film clubs and art galleries, and were celebrated in magazines like Movie Makers and Creative Art.
“Amateur films” became a catchall phrase that included a wide variety of titles, from documentaries to fiction and animation. Literary adaptations (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928), abstract experiments (The Life and Death of 9413 A Hollywood Extra, 1928), landscape essays (Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther, 1939)—all were “amateur” not because they lacked artistic merit, but largely because they were difficult to see in commercial theaters.
Born in 1908, Sid Laverents had lived several full lives before he bought a Bolex 16mm camera in 1959 to film a vacation in Canada. He screened his footage for the San Diego Amateur Film Club, founded in 1949. Over the next few years Laverents made industrial and promotional films, as well as Snails (1966), an educational film that was purchased by the California Department of Education for use in classrooms.
In 1964 Laverents filmed The One-Man Band, which recreated his vaudeville act and acted as a sort of warm-up for Multiple SIDosis. A dazzling display of double-tracking, the film shows Laverents playing the pop chestnut “Nola” on banjo, ukulele, bottles, jaw harp—all at the same time. Through double-exposures, up to eleven Sids appear on the screen, an effect achieved in camera rather than with an optical printer. Trust me, it’s an incredibly complicated maneuver, and one mistake means you have to start all over again.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Laverents loved solving technical problems, but Multiple SIDosis is much more than a puzzle film. An inveterate performer, Laverents was also a canny one, and he learned over the years how to entertain a wide variety of people. He went to the trouble to invent different characters for each musician in Multiple SIDosis, changing his hair, clothes, even donning Mickey Mouse ears at one point.
Multiple SIDosis was named to the National Film Registry largely because of Melinda Stone, an amateur film expert. “I just started hounding people, calling the Smithsonian, calling the Getty, just anybody I knew who had an interest in folk-film culture,” she said later. Film preservationist Ross Lipman oversaw the restoration and blow-up to 35mm of both Multiple SIDosis and the first three parts of The Sid Saga. Laverents succumbed to pneumonia in May 2009.
Robbins Barstow was another amateur named to the National Film Registry, for his movie Disneyland Dream (1956). Born in 1920, Barstow started making movies at the age of twelve. When he was 16 years old, and already a member of the Amateur Cinema League, he made Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, a 12-minute film that showed his grasp of composition, editing, and structuring scenes.
A husband and father of three, Barstow worked for 34 years as a director of professional development for the Connecticut Educational Association. He also continued to make movies. Disneyland Dream came about as the result of a 3M “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest, for which his son Danny won the family a trip to California. Barstow built a narrative structure around the trip, then filmed it as a story, not as a travelogue, turning his family into characters and inserting shots that commented on their behavior.
Barstow shot on 16mm until 1985, when he switched to 8mm and then to video. When converting his old 16mm films, he added soundtracks and narrations. Over seven decades he amassed more than a hundred productions.
Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry in 2008. By that time Barstow had been championed by Northeast Historic Film and Home Movie Day, among others. Barstow died in 2010 at the age of 91.
Many of his films are available at the Internet Archive, an invaluable resource that has a large collection of home movies. Among these: works by railroad buff Fred McLeod, watchmaker Stanley Zoobris, and Wallace Kelly, whose Our Day was also named to the National Film Registry.
June 20, 2012
With the release this Friday of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, this week’s most overhyped buzz word will be “mash-up.” In music, a mash-up combines two separate songs into a new work. On an episode of TV’s “Glee,” for example, Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” merges with Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” I cherish the 1961 single “Like Long Hair” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, which turns a theme from Rachmaninoff’s C Sharp Minor Prelude into a raunchy rock instrumental. Frank Zappa was expert at finding unexpected connections. At a Mothers of Invention concert he once promised, “We’re going to butcher two of your favorite songs,” then had his musicians play Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Them’s “Gloria” at the same time.
The most famous video mash-up may be Robocop vs Terminator by AMDS Films, which has been seen millions of times around the world. YouTube is the repository of choice for fan mash-ups, like the many Buffy vs. Twilight entries. (Buffy vs Edward: Twilight Remixed has been seen over 3 million times.) There you can also find examples of re-cut trailers like a version of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining by Robert Ryang that makes the horror film look like an upbeat family comedy.
Seth Grahame-Smith, a screenwriter and producer who grew up on Long Island and Connecticut, gets credit for initiating a cycle of mash-up novels with his 2009 work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the first of his novels to reach the screen, and it follows what has become the formula with the genre.
First, the all-important title. Like a “Wheel of Fortune” answer, it must combine two elements that are thought of as unrelated. Jane Austen and zombies, for example, or Lincoln and vampires. Tim Burton, director of Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows as well as a producer on this project, wanted to option the novel before Grahame-Smith had even finished it. “It sounded like the kind of movie I wanted to see,” Burton said in the film’s press notes.
Second, capitalize on popular trends, notably vampires. In fact almost all of the current crop of mash-up novels rely on horror elements, because who wants to read Abraham Lincoln: Geneticist or Abraham Lincoln: Financial Advisor?
Third, go downscale rather than highbrow. Reviewing Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, New York critic Sam Anderson noted that “the sea-monster subplots, considered independently, rarely rise above pulp clichés,” and that reading the original in tandem “sadly diminished” the mash-up.
This formula isn’t limited to mash-up adaptations. Snakes on a Plane relied on the same principles, and was even sent back for reshoots when executives determined the first cut wasn’t vulgar enough.
“Lincoln’s life story is an archetypal superhero origin story,” Grahame-Smith said in the film’s press notes. “He’s as close to an actual superhero as this country’s ever seen.” It’s hard to argue with the author’s approach, at least from a financial standpoint. Grahame-Smith is currently adapting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and his 2012 novel about the Three Wise Men, Unholy Night, for the screen, and contributed to the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, who was born in the former Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. Bekmambetov made educational films and commercials before turning to features and television miniseries. His Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006), based on a fantasy novel by Sergey Lukyanenko and released here by Fox Searchlight, depicted a battle between supernatural forces that took place in a contemporary version of Russia. In them Bekmambetov perfected a style of hyperkinetic action as illogical and pointless as it was exciting. (Production has not yet started on Twilight Watch, the third part of the trilogy.)
Mash-up films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—with a hero already known to virtually every United States citizen merged with consumer-approved horror elements—are a marketing department’s dream. So much so that you’d think someone would have tried it before. Which is why Fox publicists desperately hope no one mentions Cowboys and Aliens.
Oddly enough, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter isn’t even the first film to use bloodsuckers in the Civil War. In 1993′s Ghost Brigade, aka The Killing Box, aka Grey Knight, the North and South have to join forces to defeat zombies who are massacring the troops.
Here are some earlier films we might call mash-ups today:
Sherlock Holmes in Washington. Victorian-era sleuth Sherlock Holmes finds himself in the corridors of power searching for missing microfilm in this 1943 mystery. Universal released three Holmes films set in World War II, all starring Basil Rathbone and featuring anti-Nazi story lines. Would Abraham Lincoln have as much success fighting the Axis as he did with the undead?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. A mash-up for the ages, this film came about because Universal had both the vaudeville comedians and a stable of monsters under contract. Costello reportedly said, “My five-year-old daughter can write something better than that” when he first saw the script, but he has some priceless jokes in a story about two baggage clerks who accidentally help Dracula revive the Frankenstein monster. When the lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot warns Costello that he will turn into a wolf when the moon rises, the comedian replies, “You and twenty million other guys.” The film was successful enough to lead to four more monster teamings.
Forbidden Planet. Filmmakers have always turned to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about repurposing older material, for inspiration. Anthony Mann’s Western The Man From Laramie used plot elements from King Lear, for example. The Oscar-winning West Side Story placed Romeo and Juliet on New York streets. The Boys From Syracuse reworked The Comedy of Errors, while Kiss Me Kate is a musical updating of The Taming of the Shrew. The MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet was a pretty clever adaptation of The Tempest, a play that author Tony Howard argues is also the basis for the excellent 1948 Western Yellow Sky.
The Valley of the Gwangi. This 1969 Western with special effects by stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen pits cowboys against dinosaurs some 40 years before Cowboys and Aliens. The film may not have the most credible plot line, but for a while it was an underground favorite on college campuses. Not to be confused with lower-budget efforts like Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (1966) or Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).
“Second City TV” I know, not a film per se, but the writers and performers on SCTV masterminded a series of brilliant mash-ups during their sketch comedy series. Among my favorites: “Play It Again, Bob,” in which Woody Allen (Rick Moranis) tries to persuade Bob Hope (Dave Thomas) to appear in his next film; “Bowery Boys in the Band,” in which Robin Williams tries to hide his alternative lifestyle from his fellow gang members; and a scene in which Floyd (Eugene Levy) from “The Andy Griffith Show” asks a favor from The Godfather (Joe Flaherty).
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
June 13, 2012
Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.
It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:
1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.
2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”
3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.
Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.
There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.
June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
May 25, 2012
Suppressed for over thirty years, Let There Be Light has never received the attention it deserves as one of the most moving and honest of wartime documentaries. A new restoration undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration and hosted on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website may help bring this John Huston film to a wider audience. With help from Fandor.com, the NFPF is making this restoration available online from now until August 31, 2012.
I’ve written about Let There Be Light before, on this blog and in my book about the National Film Registry. I also contributed to Sara Fishko’s recent piece about the film for WNYC radio. I relied on the available prints: scratched, dupey 16mm copies with muffled soundtracks and frequent splices. The restored version makes it clear that Huston was among the best documentarians of his time.
Huston was an established screenwriter (Jezebel, Juarez) and a promising young director (The Maltese Falcon) when World War II broke out. Like many of his colleagues, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which made instructional films for members of the armed forces, as well as propaganda for more general audiences.
Huston worked on several Signal Corps films, but devoted his full energies to a trilogy of documentaries: the Oscar-nominated Report from the Aleutians (1943), about the building of an airstrip in Adak; The Battle of San Pietro (1946), about a small Italian town recovering from an extended fight with the Nazis; and Let There Be Light (1946). The films form an incisive portrait of three phases of war: preparation, fighting, and its aftermath.
Rey Scott, a cameraman on San Pietro, suffered what was called shell shock after the bombardment of Caserta during the Italian campaign. He was treated at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. When Huston, who was working in Signal Corps studios in nearby Astoria, visited Scott, he became intrigued about how soldiers with psychological injuries were being treated.
In the spring of 1945, the Army asked Huston to make a film about the “Nervously Wounded.” (The film’s original title was The Returning Psychoneurotics.) Officers wanted Huston to reassure viewers that there were very few psychoneurotics in the armed services, and that their symptoms had been exaggerated in the press. Most important, Huston’s film would show that someone classified as psychoneurotic in the Army could still be a “success” as a civilian.
Huston began filming without a finished script, but with a good idea of what he wanted to cover. Much as cinema verite directors would do some twenty years later, the director tried to capture the day-to-day routine at Mason General in unstaged, unscripted scenes. He set up cameras in receiving rooms, classrooms and offices, covering both individual and group sessions. The patients were told they were being filmed for a documentary, and in his autobiography An Open Book, Huston wrote that the presence of the cameras had a positive effect on the soldiers. He claimed they became more responsive and recovered more quickly when they were being filmed.
According to film historian Scott Simmon, Huston’s cameramen shot 375,000 feet of film—almost 70 hours—which was edited down to an hour. These interviews—raw, painful, hopeless—form the core of Let There Be Light. They have an immediacy and honesty missing from most films of the time. What haunts me about them is the inability of many soldiers to articulate their problems and needs.
By letting the soldiers and doctors speak for themselves, Huston could build a subtle case about war and its impact without stating it directly. Let There Be Light exposed the racism and class divisions that were a part of the armed services. More troubling was the director’s suggestion that the issues the soldiers faced extended beyond the war itself. Drugs or hypnotherapy were not going to cure problems like unemployment. “Every man has his breaking point,” as Walter Huston warns in a voice-over.
Unfortunately, the Army wanted a film that blamed shell shock on actual shells, not intractable social problems. Although some Army officers and a few civilian critics saw the film when it was finished, Let There Be Light was shelved. Huston left the armed services soon after to work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
That might have been the end of the story, but as Scott Simmon points out, the Army did end up releasing a film about shell shock (in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). Shades of Gray, directed by Joseph Henabery, was released in January 1948. It essentially remade Let There Be Light, but with an almost all-white cast of actors—not soldiers—and with strikingly different conclusions. (You can see Shades of Gray online at the Internet Archive.)
Let There Be Light didn’t surface again until 1980, when producer Ray Stark, motion picture lobbyist Jack Valenti and Vice President Walter Mondale campaigned for its release. (Stark was producing Huston’s adaptation of Annie.) Viewers who saw it then were underwhelmed, perhaps expecting an expose of horrid conditions instead of a sober, quiet examination of how war cripples soldiers emotionally as well as physically.
Since then, Let There Be Light has circulated in poor quality 16mm prints and even worse videocassettes and DVDs. But soundtrack on the NFPF version, restored by Chace Audio by Deluxe, makes audible several passages that had been close to unintelligible. For the picture, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created a new negative from an acetate fine grain master, the best surviving source. NARA is still in the process of preparing a 2K scan of the film in order to make high resolution copies.
Was Huston fair in his portrayal of Mason General? Should the Army have censored his film? The best way to decide is to watch it yourself.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 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.
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.
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 22, 2012
Critics love to impress readers with obscure films, titles that most moviegoers rarely get the chance to see. Something similar happened with Margaret, a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. But in a twist, critics are helping to bring this film back to the public.
Margaret was named to several of last years’ Top Ten Films lists, even though it played in the U.S. briefly in only two theaters, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. When the film dropped out of circulation, Jaime N. Christley, a critic with Slant, started an on-line petition (since closed) to bring it back. The Film Society of Lincoln Center scheduled a screening on February 25 with Lonergan and much of the cast in attendance. Now, remarkably, the film is receiving more screenings, starting tomorrow, March 23.
First, a little history. Lonergan, a playwright (This Is Our Youth), screenwriter (Analyze This) and director (You Can Count on Me), began writing Margaret in 2003, although he had the idea since high school and thought of it as a feature film since 1995. He began shooting the film in 2005, finishing that December apart from some pick-up shots and reshoots.
Editing took three years, in part because Lonergan was supposed to hand over a two-hour movie to distributor Fox Searchlight. A lawsuit between producer Gary Gilbert and Fox Searchlight ensued; Lonergan is currently involved in a separate lawsuit which prevents him from talking about many of the production details.
The Margaret Fox Searchlight eventually released in September, 2011 “is the version that was completed in 2008,” Lonergan told moviegoers at the February screening. “I think it’s wonderful and I’m very proud of it.”
Margaret clocks in and just under 150 minutes, which can seem either too long or too short. (The Hunger Games, which opens Friday, runs 142 minutes.) The film follows teenager Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin, after she inadvertently helps cause a fatal accident on the streets of Manhattan.
Traumatized, she reaches out to adults for advice and comfort. Single mom Joan (actress J. Smith-Cameron) and divorced dad Karl (played by Lonergan) do not respond the way Lisa wants, and teachers (played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, among others) also fall short. On her own, Lisa campaigns to right what she perceives as an injustice, taking on the police, the legal system, and strangers in a quest as quixotic as it is poignant.
“I was trying to look at that phenomenon when you suddenly become aware of the world, and all the horrible and interesting things in it, as though no one else had noticed them before,” Lonergan told the audience. “You haven’t been worn down yet. You’re 17 and you think something can be done about it.”
The director recalled a comment Elaine May told him: “Only a teenager could think she could have that big an effect on the world.” “We get tired,” Lonergan went on. “We get to be thirty and say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make my life right, and the people around me right.’ At best most teenagers find that to be hypocritical and weak.”
The film’s title comes from “Spring and Fall,” a 1918 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it, Margaret grieves over leaves falling from a tree. As Lonergan put it, “I remember being in ninth or tenth grade at a friend’s house, and a little sparrow flew against the window and knocked itself out, killed itself. I felt, ‘Oh my god, that sparrow just died.’ Now I could walk past a dozen dead sparrows without blinking an eye.”
Losing that sense of sorrow and injustice is what Lonergan tries to detail in Margaret. But for me, Margaret is special for what it is, not what it is about. Lonergan is a superb writer, but more important, he is a patient one. You Can Count on Me is one of the more heartbreaking movies in recent memory precisely because it unfolds so casually, so unerringly.
Like that film, Margaret is uncomfortably intimate. Lonergan shows us what we would rather not see about his characters: how they fail, make mistakes, give up, ignore or betray each other—the same way we all do. Despite this, Lonergan still finds what redeems his characters, and why we should care about them.
Margaret is also a film in which every location feels authentic. This is what New York City is like: beautiful, chaotic, ghastly, all at once. One shot that sweeps through the Metropolitan Opera has a jaw-dropping grandeur; another, in which Lisa is accosted by toughs, can make you cringe.
One scene in the middle of Margaret crystallizes the problems Lonergan had in editing the film. In it, Broderick gives an interpretation of lines from King Lear; a student (played by Jake O’Connor) offers a different, contradictory meaning. Their extended argument is a comic highlight, “even though it doesn’t actually further the plot,” as Lonergan admits.
“What I think it does do and why it wasn’t just a fun scene that we could cut out was that it is representative of how impossible it is, taken from the teacher’s point of view,” the director went on. “If he can’t convince one kid in one class of one point of one line from Shakespeare, nor can the kid convince the teacher to take another look at the line in any way whatsoever—meanwhile Lisa is trying to do something which much much more difficult.
“I think the reason the scene was written and the reason that it stayed in the movie, to me it’s right on the money of what she’s up against: the fact that people just think what they think.”
This is the beauty of Margaret, a film that expands from its premise to embrace different points of view, to offer reasons for perceived wrongs, to show how one person finds her place in the world.
I’ll gives the last words to Richard Brody of The New Yorker: “Margaret runs the risk of falling into undeserved oblivion—albeit only temporarily. It will be remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders, and will leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.”