March 16, 2012
Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.
This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.
This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.
Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.
Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.
“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”
The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.
Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.
The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”
A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.
Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”
Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”
The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”
In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.
I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.
Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”
March 14, 2012
My post Watching Movies in the Cloud discussed the implications of streaming movies onto your computer. It focused on the end result: how watching movies on your computer compared with watching them in a theater. But commenter Paul Kakert raised a very good point. Where are new movies, in particular documentaries, coming from? Will streaming affect the subject matter of the movies themselves, and not just their sound and image? Can you find worthwhile titles in the cloud that haven’t played in theaters?
Kakert cited his nonprofit, the Iowa-based Storytellers International, which promotes and distributes its titles through DocumentaryTV.com. Documentaries are a chronically underfunded genre, and it’s almost as difficult to get them into theaters as it is to make them.
Several documentary distributors have established online sites, including Appalshop, where you can stream Mimi Pickering’s troubling Buffalo Creek Flood: an Act of Man; Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which offers the Alaskan films by Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling; Docurama Films, covering arts, social issues, and ethnic documentaries; Kartemquin Films, the organization behind Hoop Dreams; Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films; and many others. Independent distributors like Milestone, Criterion, and Kino also offer documentary titles.
What sets something like Kartemquin Films apart from distributors is that Kartemquin also helps produce titles. Traditionally it’s been very difficult to get money to make documentaries. Robert Flaherty, about whose films the critic John Grierson coined the very word “documentary,” struggled throughout his career to finance his projects. Nanook of the North, one of the most famous titles in the genre, was paid for in part by the French furrier John Revillon. Once Nanook became a box-office hit, Flaherty signed with the Hollywood studio Paramount.
Paramount was remarkably adventurous in the 1920s, financing Flaherty and the filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, at the time making documentaries like Grass and Chang, but soon to stun the world with King Kong. Most studios established footholds in the genre, usually through newsreels and short subjects. By far the biggest sponsor of documentaries was the government, both on local and federal levels. The state of Connecticut produced educational films on everything from hygiene to citizenship, while in the 1930s, Washington, DC, became a haven for artists like Flaherty, Pare Lorentz, and Virgil Thompson.
Government involvement in film production spiked during World War II, when the film industry’s top leaders either enlisted or cooperated with propaganda efforts. After the war, documentarians went back to scrounging for money. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1949) was financed by Standard Oil, while John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) received funding from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Many fledgling filmmakers turned to the United States Information Agency, or USIA, the government’s overseas propaganda arm.
Documentarians became adept at freelancing. David and Albert Maysles made television commercials for Citibank. D A Pennebaker worked on ABC’s Living Camera series. Wiseman signed a contract with WNET, the New York City public television outlet.
In fact, public television has become a prime outlet for documentaries. Adapted from the BBC series Horizon, NOVA has acquired or produced scores of documentaries since its inception in 1974. Created in 1984, American Masters offers biographies of artists like Margaret Mitchell and Merle Haggard. Since 1988, POV has screened some 300 independent documentaries, including works by Wiseman, the Maysles, and Errol Morris.
For the past decades, HBO Documentary Films has dominated the commercial front, due in large part to Sheila Nevins, who is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. (Full disclosure: I worked in HBO’s story department back in the 1990s.) Nevins exerts remarkable influence, as director Joe Berlinger told me last fall.
“Sheila Nevins was a big fan of Brother’s Keeper, our first film,” Berlinger said. “After it had a nice run, she sent us a little article, a clipping that had made it to like page B20 of the New York Times, an AP wire service story picked up from a local paper.” That was the basis for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of documentaries Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky made about the West Memphis Three.
HBO and PBS operate like the major leagues for documentarians, suggesting topics, funding research, providing publicity and all-important exposure. But what if you haven’t made a documentary yet? How do you get funding?
In his blog The Front Row, New Yorker writer and editor Richard Brody linked to a fascinating Steven Spielberg interview in which the director claimed that right now is a great time to make movies. The director was quoted:
You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it! If no one hires you, use the camera on your phone and post everything on YouTube. A young person has more opportunities to direct now than in my day. I’d have liked to begin making movies today.
Spielberg in fact worked with the 1960s equivalent of a camera phone, Super 8 film, on which he made a number of shorts and even a feature, Firelight. He also had a preternatural grasp of film technique and grammar and uncanny insight into the culture of his time, skills that made him one of the most successful directors of our time. The problem with his YouTube argument is that while almost anyone can make a movie, not everyone has the same abilities. And finding an audience can be overwhelmingly difficult.
Nurturing and mentoring young filmmakers is one of the goals behind the Tribeca Film Institute’s many development programs. The TFI Documentary Fund provided $150,000 in grants to filmmakers like Daniel Gordon (whose The Race examines a disputed contest in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Penny Lane and Brian Frye, who use the President’s home movies to provide a new look at Our Nixon.
The Tribeca Film Festival also offers the following programs. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund helps filmmakers complete feature-length documentaries with social justice themes. Tribeca All Access pairs new filmmakers with established professionals for intensive workshops and one-on-one meetings. The TFI New Media Fund offers grants to projects that integrate film with other media platforms. One especially intriguing TFI program involves teaching digital storytelling to immigrant students. In Los Angeles, experienced filmmakers team with teachers, community activists and parents to help students script their own stories in an 18-week program. The program has been operating for six years in all five of New York City’s boroughs. This year, for example, a Bronx school will partner with one in Brazil to make a film.
The Sundance Institute offers several programs as well, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which gives up to $2 million in grants to between 35-50 documentary projects a year; Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, a $3 million partnership between the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation; and invitation-only Creative Documentary Labs.
Unwilling to tailor your film to fit the rules and regulations of grant organizations? Kickstarter allows you to reach out to peers for financing. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter currently lists 2715 documentary projects, including films about David Lynch, Simone Weil, and the Oscar-nominated short Incident in New Baghdad.
Girl Walk // All Day is a perfect example of a Kickstarter project. A 77-minute dance video synched to the 2010 album All Day by Girl Talk (sampling artist Gregg Gillis), the project received almost $25,000 from over 500 donors. It’s hard to see how director, editor, and co-cinematographer Jacob Krupnick would have received funding from traditional documentary organizations, but his movie has already been compared to the 3D dance film Pina by Variety. Because of rights issues, it’s unlikely that the film will get a commercial release, but you can screen it online.
March 9, 2012
Well before its premiere this Saturday on HBO, Game Change was generating controversy. A docudrama about how Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain’s running mate in his campaign for President, the film was adapted from the best-selling book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The cable broadcaster trumpeted the film’s accuracy in press releases, stating that “The authors’ unprecedented access to the players, their wide-ranging research and the subject matter itself gave the project a compelling veracity that has become a signature of HBO Films.” Even though there’s no such thing as bad publicity, the film quickly came under attack, with Palin aides calling it inaccurate and Game Change screenwriter Danny Strong defending his work as “as fair and accurate a telling of this event that we believe could possibly be done in a movie adaptation.”
The biggest surprise about Game Change is that it’s more about campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) than about either of the two candidates. (Actor Ed Harris plays McCain.) Much of the film is told from Schmidt’s point-of-view, which means that he gets to analyze the candidates’ motives and abilities. Since Palin and McCain declined to be interviewed for the film, Game Change can’t get into their minds the way it does with Schmidt. And the candidates can’t rebut his account of what happened.
Hollywood screenwriters love flawed heroes, and if there’s one theme that ties together films about campaigns and politicians, it’s the idea that candidates are afflicted with hamartia, a tragic flaw that determines their fates. In films as old as Gabriel Over the White House (1932) and as recent as The Ides of March (2011), candidates and politicians alike are pried apart on screen for viewers to inspect.
Ironically, it’s usually the candidate’s willingness to compromise that brings about his or her downfall. On the one hand, everyone wants politicians to have integrity. But isn’t the ability to compromise central to politics?
James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe (1941), Spencer Tracy in State of the Nation (1948), Henry Fonda in The Best Man (1964), Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972)—all lose support when veer away from their personal beliefs in order to attract voters. The Great McGinty (1940), which won director and writer Preston Sturges an Oscar for his screenplay, offers a wonderful twist on this idea of a character flaw. A bum-turned-party hack (Brian Donlevy as McGinty) is elected governor in a crooked campaign, only to throw his state’s politics into turmoil when he decides to go straight.
The theme is muted but still present in Game Change. Palin flounders when she tries to obey campaign strategists. Only by returning to her roots can she succeed as a candidate. What I found more interesting in Game Change is how the filmmakers borrowed so many scenes and settings from The War Room.
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker, The War Room (1993) gave moviegoers unprecedented access to the people who ran Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. By concentrating on strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, The War Room showed how campaigns are waged, decisions made, and the press manipulated. (The Criterion Collection has just released The War Room on Blu-Ray and DVD.)
The War Room has inevitable parallels with Game Change. Both films deal with scandals that were fed and amplified by the media; both focus on conventions and debates. And both concentrate not on the candidates, but on their handlers—in previous films largely objects of scorn. But The War Room is a documentary, not a docudrama. Hegedus and Pennebaker weren’t following a script, they were trying to capture events as they happened.
Tellingly, Pennebaker admits that the filmmakers won access to the campaign’s war room in part because Carville and Stephanopoulos felt “somehow we were on their side.” Pennebaker was one of the cinematographers on the groundbreaking documentary Primary, in my opinion the film that first opened the political process to the public. An account of a Wisconsin primary in 1959 between Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy, Primary took viewers behind the scenes to see how campaigns actually operated.
Primary set up a contrast between Humphrey, shown as isolated, out of touch, and Kennedy, a celebrity surrounded by enthusiastic crowds. It was a conscious bias, as Pennebaker told me in a 2008 interview. “Bob [producer Robert Drew] and all of us saw Kennedy as a kind of helmsman of a new adventure. Win or lose we assumed he was the new voice, the new generation.” As for Humphrey: “We all saw him as kind of a nerd.”
As influential as Theodore White’s The Making of the President, 1960, Primary set a template for every subsequent film about campaigns.
March 2, 2012
You can’t say you weren’t warned. A year ago New York Times critic Dave Kehr was proclaiming the end of DVDs: Goodbye, DVD. Hello, Future. Unit sales were down 40%, Blockbuster had gone into bankruptcy, and Netflix was shifting from a mail-order purveyor of DVDs to “a streaming video company delivering a wide selection of TV shows and films over the Internet,” in the words of chief executive Reed Hastings.
Kehr pinned his hopes for home video on Blu-ray, citing that format’s ability to deliver high-definition versions of films. But despite industry efforts, Blu-ray has never really caught on with consumers. Released to the public in 2006, Blu-ray currently accounts for 23% of total disc sales, according to Home Video Magazine. When you examine the Top 20 Sellers last week, that proportion can drop even further—15% of sales for The Help were on Blu-ray, 11% of “Downton Abbey”—unless, like Disney did with Lady and the Tramp: Diamond Edition, you force buyers to purchase a Blu-ray package.
Especially for older library titles, studios are scaling back on disc releases. Warner Bros. (which also controls most of the classic MGM titles), Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Sony are now all offering what they refer to as “MOD” or “manufacturing on demand” titles, essentially burning new discs only after they are ordered. MOD discs lack the extras—and the longevity—of consumer discs, but in many cases they are now the only way to see obscure movies.
The industry seems to be heading toward forgoing discs of any kind, aiming instead for an environment in which viewers stream content to their computers and televisions. Cable companies have been offering “video on demand” options for some time, both at home and in hotels. Also in the hunt for viewers: Apple’s iTunes, Hulu, Wal-Mart’s VUDU, and Amazon Instant Video, Vimeo, and Netflix. Even PBS is into streaming. This week the broadcaster announced its first Online Film Festival.
Search engines want a piece of the action as well. Search for “Harry Potter” on Bing, and you will get an option to “Watch Now.” Google, meanwhile, will be happy to send you to YouTube.
MediaHound, a search aggregator that resembles a Kayak for TV and movie titles, shows some promise. Pop in a title, and MediaHound will give you options for purchasing and streaming. Right now it does fine for recently released titles, but draws a blank for lesser-known items.
Is this good news or bad for film buffs? On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to find and purchase specific titles. I caught the sparkling Pre-Code comedy Havana Widows a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies, but despaired of ever seeing it again. Now it’s available at Warner Archives, and for a fairly reasonable price.
But step outside releases from major studios, and it suddenly gets much harder to pin down a title like Ride the Pink Horse or Under a Texas Moon.
I find watching films on my computer disconcerting. Without a high-speed Internet connection, a film may sputter, skip frames, or stop entirely during playback. Rewinding and fast-forwarding are ostensible options, but in reality they disrupt the feed so much that they are unusable.
The quality of the image suffers as well. Projected nitrate, even that which has been restored and preserved on polyester stock, has a lustrous look and sheen to it. At low resolution on a computer monitor, it can seem pixellated, corroded with digital artifacts, lacking balance and contrast.
But get used to it, because streaming is taking over the home consumer market. It is impacting the archival world as well. As Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, wrote me, “Viewing film online is already becoming the 21st century way to enjoy films that once screened on the repertory circuit. But it also holds promise for revolutionizing access to archival films—films of historic interest that were formerly seen only by scholars who had the resources to travel to film archives to do research.”
The NFPF has assembled five DVD packages under its highly recommended “Treasures” umbrella, 214 titles in all. They range from studio features to home movies, from animation to documentaries. But the NFPF also posts titles for streaming to its website, like these films recently discovered in New Zealand. (Check out comedienne Mabel Normand’s charming Won in a Closet, or the early Western Billy and His Pal, starring director John Ford’s older brother Francis.)
“With the web, we can make available other movies—without costly-to-produce ‘extras,’ such as new music and commentary. We don’t see this web exhibition as replacing the Treasures DVD sets—or the experience of enjoying films in a movie theater—but rather as a way to democratize film access,” Melville said.
Democracy comes with a cost, however. “Exhibiting films on the web is far from ‘free,’” Melville said. “Currently the NFPF is planning two major web premieres for later in 2012. The biggest obstacle is paying for the bandwidth to carry the surge in web traffic. We had a wake-up call when a single repatriated film went viral, increasing our web-hosting bill more than 3000%! Clearly to continue on this route, we will need donors committed to increasing film access and willing to support it.”
As a consumer, you’ll pay coming and going. Yes, you can watch some titles for free on IFC (like The Larry Sanders Show), Hulu (currently offering six silent titles—with commercial interruptions—from The Criterion Collection, including Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights), and other sites. But most titles cost between $3 and $10.
And now cellphone carriers want to charge you for hogging bandwidth while streaming and downloading movies. As The Wall Street Journal put it, AT&T Ends All-You-Can-Eat.
February 29, 2012
During a four-hour interview with Fast Company, director Martin Scorsese cited 85 film titles. Not so surprising for someone so steeped in cinema history, as screenwriter John Logan pointed out in my posting on Hugo: “Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
Author Rick Tetzeli repurposed snippets and outtakes of the interview to come up with Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film. Not really a fair title, as it’s doubtful that Scorsese intended to improvise a course curriculum while publicizing Hugo. On any given day the director might have mentioned 85 other films, 85 other directors, 85 other memorable cinematic moments.
And why 85? Had the interview lasted longer, he might have hit 100 films, the sweet spot for the many, and increasingly maligned, AFI lists. Asked point-blank which films he thought were essential, Scorsese might have limited himself to 10, 20 or 25 titles.
As a snapshot of the director’s tastes on one particular day, the list displays an impressively broad range, reaching back to early silent films and on up to titles made by contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Robert Altman (who gets 6 titles, including HealtH, cited by Ronald Reagan as “the world’s worst movie”). Does the absence of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas mean anything, especially considering Scorsese was finishing up his first film aimed at children? Can we infer anything from the other films and directors that didn’t make the cut?
Some hasty observations:
- Nineteen (or 20, if you consider The Third Man British) of the 85 films are foreign, roughly 20%.
- Nine titles were directed by Roberto Rossellini, over 10 percent of the films you would see at the “Scorsese Film School.”
- Countries and regions not represented: Asia, Africa, South America, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Russia. So, no films by Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray. No German expressionism, Soviet montage, Bollywood, or martial arts.
Scorsese cites three silent films, one understandably by Georges Méliès. The other two are an Italian short I frankly know nothing about (I segreti dell’anima) and Rex Ingram’s epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a significant film to be sure but at its time a pretty mainstream crowd-pleaser. Omitted: Edison, the Lumière brothers, Biograph, and D.W. Griffith. No Mary Pickford, Thomas Ince, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. De Mille. More important, no silent comedy, perhaps the crowning achievement of silent film. Chaplin, Keaton, Mack Sennett, Max Linder, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey, Laurel & Hardy — all missing.
For that matter, where are the sound comedies? The “Scorsese Film School” ignores the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ernst Lubitsch, Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, and too many others to list. The list lacks any animation (no Walt Disney, no Bugs Bunny, no Popeye), documentaries (goodbye, Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman), or experimental films (adios Ralph Steiner, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr).
Among the really glaring omissions: Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Huston, Nicholas Ray. Five Orson Welles films, but no The Magnificent Ambersons? Three Anthony Mann films, but no The Naked Spur?
Heck, the list doesn’t even include films that Scorsese loves so much that they appear in his own movies, like The Searchers and The Big Heat (in fact, Fritz Lang didn’t make the cut at all). Or movies whose restorations he helped finance, like Once Upon a Time in the West (no Sergio Leone anywhere else either).
By now I hope you can see how pointless this exercise is. It’s insulting to suggest that Scorsese doesn’t know or care about the films that aren’t on his list, just as it’s wrong to pretend that seeing this list of 85 films will make you an expert on cinema.
Is there a list that will make you an expert? The National Film Registry, which now has 575 titles, makes a stab in that direction. (29 of Scorsese’s 85 movies are on the Registry.) In writing two books about the Registry, I’ve bumped into some of its flaws (why no Woody Woodpecker or Coal Miner’s Daughter?), but the big problem with the list is that it’s becoming a bit unwieldy. Right now it’s almost a two-year course.
Roger Ebert has made his feelings about lists well known (like this Wall Street Journal article), but he’s also offered a different approach: lists that don’t mean anything. Take his Top 16 movies involving parakeets, which immediately drew its own controversy (no Oscar-winning, super-saccharine Bill and Coo?)
On the NitrateVille forum, film preservationist David Shepard wrote, “When AFI was promoting a run of its ‘hundred greatest’ this-and-that lists, some friends and I made a list of films with ‘Greatest’ in the title that actually weren’t much good.” He’s right — try it yourself on IMDb.
In the long run, how valuable are these lists anyway? Doctors cite list-making as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and luckily enough, here is a list of the top OCD-related films. (But where’s Conspiracy Theory?)
Here’s a list format that can’t cause any trouble: titles that when combined, form a sentence:
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948)
Without Honor (1949)
Four Jacks and a Jill (1942)
Down in the Delta (1998)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
How many can you compile?
February 24, 2012
With 11 Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards, Hugo is one of the most honored films of 2011. “Everything about Hugo to me is poignant,” screenwriter John Logan told me. “From the broken orphan to the old man losing his past to the fragility of film itself.”
The story of a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station and his momentous discoveries, Hugo marks director Martin Scorsese’s first film for children, and his first using 3D. The movie was based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo: The Shooting Script has just been published by Newmarket Press/It Books. Along with Logan’s script, the book includes photos, full credits, and production notes.
Mr. Logan took time out from his intimidatingly busy schedule to speak by phone about working on Hugo. “The reason we all made the movie is because we loved Brian’s book,” he says. “It works on so many levels—as a mystery story, an adventure novel, an homage to cinema. The challenge in adapting it was keeping tight control over the narrative. Because despite the 3D and the magnificent special effects and the sets and the humor and the sweep and grandeur of it all, it’s actually a very austere and serious story. Secondary to that, and this part really was challenging, was hitting what I thought was the correct tone for the piece.”
Since Selznick’s book was a 500-page combination of text and illustrations, Logan had to eliminate some characters and plot strands to fit the story into a feature-film format. “Also there were things we added,” says Logan. “We wanted to populate the world of the train station. What Marty and I talked about was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) by René Clair. Like those films, we wanted Hugo’s world to be filled with characters, and I had to write vignettes to dramatize them. Particularly the Station Inspector, played so memorably by Sacha Baron Cohen. We wanted to build that character up to be more of an antagonist to Hugo, so I did a lot of work there.”
Film history is a key element in Hugo, whose plot hinges on early French cinema. And as part of his homage to older styles, Logan incorporated as many cinematic devices as he could. Hugo has voice-over narration, flashbacks, a dream-within-a-dream segment, silent sequences, flip animation, and even scenes that recreate early 20th-century filmmaking techniques. “We tried to suggest all the different ways of telling a story on film,” Logan explained. “Even the trickiest devices in the world, like the nightmare within a nightmare, which is straight out of Hammer horror films. We wanted Hugo to be a cornucopia of cinema, a celebration of everything we do in movies.”
Writing silent scenes as opposed to those with dialogue was “almost like using two different parts of the brain,” Logan said. One part “writes description, which is prose and relies on adjectives, leading a reader and a moviegoer through the action in a sort of kinetic way. The other part of your brain writes dialogue, which has to find the perfectly chosen phrase with just enough syllables, not too much, the appropriate language for the individual character in the individual scene to express what’s going on.”
I found the flashbacks in Hugo especially intriguing and asked Logan to show how he found entry and exit points into the past for a scene in which Hugo remembers his father. “The danger is, if you leave the present narrative for too long and get engaged in a narrative in the past, you’ll have to jump start getting back into the reality of the present,” he says. “And always you want to follow Hugo’s story. So going into the memories about his father, I had him looking at the automaton—which is also when we reveal it to the audience for the first time—and Hugo thinking about the genesis of the machine and therefore his relationship with his father. The transitions for me were always about what Hugo is thinking and feeling.”
Like the clocks, toys, and projectors within the story, Hugo is itself “a precise, beautiful machine”—which is how Logan introduces the train station in his script. For Scorsese and his crew it was an immense undertaking. (One traveling shot through the station early in the film took over a year to complete.) When Logan began work on the project, the director hadn’t decided to use 3D yet. But the author insisted that technical considerations didn’t impact his writing.
“That’s just not the way I work or the way Marty Scorsese works,” Logan argued. “I wrote the script I needed to write to tell the story to be true to the characters, and the technical demands followed. The reality of filmmaking, of bringing a script to life, which are the technical requirements, follow. So I never felt limited in any way to write any particular way.”
Still, some changes to the script were made on the set. “Marty is pretty faithful in shooting,” he says. “But he’s also very generous with actors in exploring different avenues and different ways of expressing things. And of course Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
I use intimidating to describe Logan not just for his skill, but his working habits. In addition to adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for movies, he is collaborating with Patti Smith on a screen version of her memoir Just Kids, and has completed the script for the next James Bond film, Skyfall. In addition to Hugo, last year saw releases of two more of his screenplays, Rango and Coriolanus, adding an Oscar-nominated animated feature and a challenging Shakespeare adaptation to his credits.
It’s just “kismet” that all three films came out in 2011, Logan thought. “Movies achieve critical mass at completely different times for a hundred different reasons,” he added. “You know I’ve been working on Hugo for over five years, and it just happened to come out when it did because that’s when we got the budget to make it, post-production costs took a certain amount of time, this release date was open. But it just as easily could have opened this year depending on any of those factors. Any pundit who says, ‘Well this is a big year for nostalgia about Hollywood’ because Hugo and The Artist are coming out at the same time knows nothing about movies.”
At its heart, Hugo is about broken people seeking to become whole—a consistent theme throughout Logan’s work over the many styles and genres he has mastered. He has written about painter Mark Rothko (the play Red), Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and the demon barber himself in Tim Burton’s version of the musical Sweeney Todd. “Yeah, I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken,” he said. “I’m not interested in happy people. It just doesn’t draw me as a writer. Theater people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian, and I’m a tragedian. And the vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don’t understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me.”
February 22, 2012
Of the three Oscar categories devoted to short films, Documentary (Short Subject) tends to be the most rewarding. Filmmakers can focus on one item, covering it fully but not at an indulgent length. The format opens up a world of potential topics, from character studies of individuals both renowned and obscure to examinations of specific moments or events on to explanations of beliefs or policies. Travelogues, criminal cases, oddities of the natural world, history—all have received Oscar nominations over the years.
There may not be a readily recognizable Academy style, but looking back it’s clear that voters favor specific subjects and genres. Artists, for example. Short documentaries about Leon Fleisher, Jim Dine, Norman Corwin, Mark O’Brien, Sally Mann, Red Grooms and Paul Rudolph, among others, received nominations. War is another favorite genre. The first years of the award were devoted almost exclusively to war-related shorts, and recently nominations were given to films about wars in Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq.
Academy voters love films about social justice. In recent years, A Time for Justice examined endemic racism in the South; The Blood of Yingzhou District told about AIDS orphans in Fuyang, China; Freeheld showed the problems Laurel Hester had assigning her pension benefits to her partner.
These three trends continue with this year’s nominees, which cover extraordinary individuals, social justice, and war, as well as an account of post-earthquake Japan.
Decades ago shorts were a part of most theatrical programs. Now it is difficult to see shorts of any kind, let alone documentaries. The best filmmakers can hope for is a run on PBS or HBO (the latter will be showing three of the five nominees, starting in March with Saving Face). As it did with animated and live-action shorts, ShortsHD has packaged the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts online and in theaters. On February 21, many of the Oscar-nominated shorts will become available on iTunes.
In alphabetical order:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, this nineteen-minute short introduces James Armstrong, a barber who participated in the 1955 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Armstrong is a wonderful character whose upbeat personality is infectious. “Things are changing!” he exclaims, and how much the world has changed since 1955 is one of the points of the film. “The worst thing a man can do is live for nothing” becomes a motto of sorts for Armstrong. The film itself is a bit too discursive, but it has something to teach everyone.
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this half-hour short profiles Dolores Hart, a Hollywood starlet who abandoned her acting career in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun. Now in her seventies and a Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Hart reminiscences about her films and plays, her religious vocation, and her personal sacrifices. Cammisa also interviews Hart’s colleagues and provides a somewhat romanticized portrait of life in the abbey. Hart has a glowing personality, but God Is the Bigger Elvis skims over her story in a superficial manner. The film will premiere on HBO on April 5.
Incident in New Baghdad—Produced, directed, and edited by James Spione, this short is built around notorious aerial surveillance footage (released by Wikileaks) of a U.S. assault on a photojournalist in Baghdad that left eight dead. Ethan McCord, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, was one of the solders seen in the video trying to help two Iraqi children wounded in the attack. Back in the U.S., McCord explains how the incident affected his family, and why he aligned himself with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Spione’s style pushes emotional buttons without connecting narrative dots, making Incident in New Baghdad at 22 minutes seem simultaneously forced and unfocused.
Saving Face—Although grueling to watch, this film about Pakistani women whose faces have been scarred by acid is precisely the type of story that attracts Oscar voters. According to the film, over 100 such attacks occur each year, with victims as young as twelve having their faces ruined with battery acid, gasoline, and other corrosives. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy use Dr. Mohammad Jawad as an entry into the story. A plastic surgeon in London, Jawad donates his time to work at a burn center in Islamabad, offering facial reconstruction surgery to the victims. The directors focus on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, in particular, following them to their homes and interviewing their relatives and lawyers. Saving Face is a film of great honesty and conviction and even greater courage—on the part of the victims but also the filmmakers. In one chilling scene they confront one of the attackers, showing us just how difficult it is for women in that situation to obtain justice. Saving Face will debut on HBO on March 8.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom—The standout among this year’s nominees, this forty-minute film shows the horrifying aftermath of a natural disaster, but also focuses on the endurance and resiliency of its survivors. Director Lucy Walker received an Oscar nomination for her last film, the feature-length documentary Waste Land, which against all odds found hope among scavengers of a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she traveled to the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region. Adopting a cool, quiet tone, Walker tours the region, interviews rescue workers and residents, and connects ancient traditions to current events. Her great feat is to take a story we think we already know and show it in a new light, using the words and memories of the survivors to give a sense of how their lives changed. The film (with cinematography by Aaron Phillips) finds beauty in the midst of destruction, but never lets us forget how cataclysmic the tsunami was. This is journalism lifted to a new level of artistry, a remarkable achievement by a talented filmmaker. (Learn more at http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com)
February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.
January 25, 2012
Call me a cynic, but I couldn’t help viewing yesterday’s press conference by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce the 2011 Oscar nominations as a calculated attempt to prolong a lackluster holiday season. And am I the only one who sees the irony in holding a pep rally on prestige releases at the same time the industry is dumping its dogs on the market? (January is historically the worst month to release new films, so that’s when Hollywood gets rid of what it perceives to be losers.) Sometimes the hoopla translates into increased ticket sales for those nominees still playing in theaters. Just as often there is no noticeable box-office bump, despite an increase in advertising budgets. (At least one film, Rango, is getting a limited re-release.)
Changes in the Academy’s voting procedures have opened up the Best Picture category, which features nine titles this year (out of a possible ten). Each of the Best Picture nominees had to receive five percent of the vote to make the list, which meant that several critical favorites—Melancholia, Drive, Young Adult, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example—were shut out. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, on the other hand, had enough of a passionate support group to sneak in a nominee. The most surprising inclusion may be Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that has received some scathing reviews.
Media pundits love to count up nominations as if they were proof of merit. They’re not, but they are often a good indicator for the eventual Best Picture winner. The record for most nominations (14) is shared by All About Eve and Titanic, perhaps the only time those films are ever mentioned in the same sentence. This year, Hugo received 11 nominations, and The Artist 10. As a result, prepare yourself for more articles about how to watch silent films, or about how Hollywood wants to examine its past.
This might be a good spot to point out what I think is a secret about The Artist: I don’t think viewers like it very much. The Artist has been open for nine weeks, during which time it grossed a little over $12 million. In that same period, The Descendants made over $50 million, and Hugo $55 million. Yes, The Artist hasn’t been showing in as many theaters, due to The Weinstein Company’s wary release strategies. Right now all three films are in roughly the same number of theaters, but for a long time the Weinstein Co. kept the theater count low for The Artist, hoping word of mouth would build from a few select showings. It also assembled a trailer that tried to pretend that the film was sort of a musical, and not a mostly silent drama. But mainstream filmgoers have spent over ten times the take for The Artist on tickets to Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. (There’s also this story from The Telegraph that frankly reeks of a publicist’s plant, “Cinema-goers complain that Oscar favourite The Artist has no dialogue.”)
In previous years, blockbusters like Mission: Impossible would at least be acknowledged by the Academy, usually with a technical nomination like Sound Mixing or Visual Effects. (That’s where you’ll find Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) But Mission: Impossible got shut out completely. Were voters making a statement about Tom Cruise, who has shepherded the M:I franchise to the point of picking screenwriters and directors, and investing his own money?
Cruise wasn’t the only superstar dismissed by Academy voters. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was ignored for his turn as J. Edgar Hoover, probably because the film received at best lackluster support. Pixar (with Cars 2) was shut out for the first time from Animated Feature Film, which has instead such little-known titles as A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. (Also ignored: Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture cartoon The Adventures of Tintin.) I’d love to see the smart, funny Rango win, but I believe it’s more likely the Academy will award Puss in Boots 3D, a smart addition to a very successful franchise.
More puzzling to me was how Shailene Woodley, so affecting in The Descendants, was overlooked for Best Supporting Actress. The Descendants, my choice for Best Picture, has had a puzzling reception. Some critics feel that it is old-fashioned, perhaps because its director, Alexander Payne, still pays attention to elements of filmmaking like composition and editing. Moviegoers, on the other hand, seem reluctant to try a film that appears to be about death. But no other movie in 2011 cut so deeply into what it means to be in love, to be in a family, to lose what you hold most dear.
With nine Best Picture nominations, and only five for Best Director, Oscar host Billy Crystal will have plenty of chances to repurpose one of his classic jokes from previous ceremonies: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that apparently directed itself.” He can use Best Picture noms The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball as well, none of whose directors were nominated. This is the first time director Stephen Daldry wasn’t nominated for one of his films. And Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, received nods in four other major categories. (Let’s see if Columbia tries to cash in on Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination when it releases 21 Jump Street in March.)
Oscars are often awarded for careers, not for individual films. James Stewart’s Oscar for The Philadelphia Story is viewed now as a consolation prize for losing out on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Max von Sydow, whose resume includes landmark Ingmar Bergman films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as decades of appearances in Hollywood titles, might win for a stunt supporting role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Christopher Plummer started in films in 1958, starred in The Sound of Music, and was nominated in 2010 for The Last Station. His role in the crowd-pleasing Beginners could finally net him an Oscar.
Finally, Documentary (Feature), a category the Academy fiddles with to little avail. The list of past films that didn’t even receive nominations is shocking: The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Roger & Me, for example. This year the Academy offered voters a shortlist of 15 titles, somehow neglecting to include Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. Among those that failed to make the final cut of five movies was the extraordinary and moving Project Nim. Still in the running: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a documentary I believe helped free the West Memphis Three from prison. I was fortunate enough to interview co-director Joe Berlinger in one of my first Reel Culture postings.
Next year the Academy will change the nominating procedure once again. Documentaries will not only have to have a theatrical release, they will have to be reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. That will make it much harder for films about challenging subjects to reach an audience.