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 22, 2012
The statistics about sexual assault in the military are shocking. The Department of Defense reported 3,158 cases of assault in 2011. Less than half of these were referred for possible disciplinary action, and only 191 military members received convictions. The Department estimates that less than 14% of victims report assaults, suggesting that the actual number of attacks approaches 19,000 per year.
While the numbers come from the Department of Defense, we only learn about them in the documentary The Invisible War, released today by Cinedigm/Docurama Films. Written and directed by Kirby Dick, The Invisible War is an old-school expose, one that shines a light on material that some would prefer remained hidden.
You might wonder why we need The Invisible War at all. Sexual assault in the military is not a new topic. In 1991 the major television networks gave extensive coverage to the Tailhook scandal, during which more than 100 aviation officers were alleged to have assaulted over 80 women. PBS devoted an episode of Frontline to the incident.
In 1996, the Army brought charges against 12 officers for sexual assault of female trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Again this received widespread media coverage, as did a 2003 scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy. More recently, attorney Susan Blake and sixteen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit over sexual assaults at the Marine Barracks in Washington, DC, and other locations.
And yet The Invisible War catalogues a subsequent series of rapes and sexual assaults in all branches of the armed forces, and gives pretty conclusive evidence that they are largely ignored. In numerous interviews, victims describe how they were pressured and at times threatened not to report assaults, or found themselves charged with adultery while their attackers went free. According to the filmmakers, a third of servicewomen were too afraid to report assaults because their commanding officers were friends of the rapists. A quarter of the time, the commanding officer was the rapist.
How has the Department of Defense responded? According to Dick, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the film on April 12. A few days later, he announced changes in how sexual assault cases will be prosecuted. And early this June, Major General Mary Kay Hertog, who has voiced her support for the new initatives, was replaced as director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO).
Dick has directed several documentaries, including Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) and Outrage (2009), which dealt with closeted politicians who support anti-gay legislation. He is a deliberately provocative filmmaker, “a brilliant generator of indignation” in the words of New York Times critic A.O. Scott. An earlier generation might have referred to him as a muckraker.
Outrage generated controversy, with several reviewers refusing to name the politicians Dick outed. When the film failed to receive a nomination at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s 21st GLAAD Media Awards, the director complained that the organization was “playing into the same philosophy that has kept the closet in place in politics for decades.”
Sometimes Dick’s methods can backfire. In This Film Is Not Yet Rated, perhaps his most widely seen project, Dick attacked the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, the organization responsible for classifying movies as P, PG, etc. In the film he hired a private eye to stalk MPAA members, a stunt that served no purpose other than to bring him publicity. Dick took troubling factual shortcuts, implying that ratings boards in other countries are more lenient than the U.S. when the opposite is frequently true. He also tried to bait the board by submitting his own work for review.
Similarly, in The Invisible War Dick ambushes former SAPRO director Dr. Kaye Whitley during an interview by asking for statistics and definitions. And he uses a time-honored “60 Minutes” trick of focusing the sweat on the face of another interviewee.
But how fair does The Invisible War have to be? Twenty years of sexual scandals have done little or nothing to change military policy. The testimony of the victims is appalling, but frustrating as well in the face of so much inertia. Dick amazingly finds bipartisan agreement, with both Democratic and Republican representatives calling on camera for reform.
Earlier generations of filmmakers also dealt with social issues in the military. I recently wrote about John Huston’s Let There Be Light, which dealt with shell-shocked WWII veterans. Movies like The Reawakening (1919) and Heroes All (1920) did the same for WWI vets. Frank Capra oversaw The Negro Soldier, a groundbreaking documentary about the role of race in the armed forces.
The Invisible War continues this tradition, with some Internet updating: a website, Invisible No More, that lets you participate in reform.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
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.
June 4, 2012
Folk music lost a legend with the passing of Doc Watson on May 29. Justly famous for his flatpicking expertise, Watson influenced a generation of guitarists, including Bob Dylan (who said his playing was “just like water running”) and Ry Cooder, who wrote this reminiscence in Wednesday’s New York Times.
Watson had close ties with Smithsonian Folkways Records, as you can learn in Wednesday’s Around the Mall posting Remembering Doc Watson, Folk Guitar Hero (1923-2012). It includes links to his albums with Clarence Ashley and Bill Monroe, as well as a clip of “Deep River Blues” from the Smithsonian Folkways instructional DVD Doc’s Guitar: Fingerpicking & Flatpicking, produced by Artie Traum’s Homespun Music Instruction.
Watson played a key role in the folk music revival of the 1960s, not just for his singing and playing, but for his eclectic taste. Purists of the time tended to slavishly recreate songs they learned from Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music. Watson embraced everything: jazz, blues, country, rockabilly, pop. He gave equal weight to all genres, and found inspiration in both traditional songs and Tin Pan Alley concoctions. He helped listeners find a common thread across musical boundaries.
The guitarist recorded for a number of labels, including Vanguard, Capitol and Sugar Hill, and appeared on innumerable radio and television shows. Many of these can be found on YouTube, and like the Smithsonian Folkways link above, are mostly excerpts from larger pieces. Like “Old, Old House,” a clip from the 2008 Appalshop documentary From Wood to Singing Guitar.
The definitive Doc Watson documentary has yet to be made, and it can be frustrating catching glimpses of his performances instead of learning more about what he was like as a person. Three Homespun instructional DVDs—Flatpicking with Doc, Doc’s Guitar, and Doc’s Guitar Jam—show a more unguarded portrait of the musician.
Another good source of Watson material is Stefan Grossman’s Vestapol Videos and DVDs. Doc and Merle Watson In Concert (1980) has footage of the musicians at home. Doc Watson–Rare Performances 1963-1981 assembles clips from TV shows like “Hootenanny” and “Austin City Limits.”
It can be difficult to find folk musicians like Watson on film, the occasional “Austin City Limits” notwithstanding. It’s been over a decade since PBS offered American Roots Music, a somewhat cursory overview of “Blues, Country, Bluegrass, Gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and Native American” styles. Public television’s American Masters series has devoted episodes to Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell. But the genre has yet to receive the treatment it deserves.
Rural music was treated with more respect back in the 1920s, when movies were beginning to switch from silent to sound. Warner Bros. introduced its Vitaphone sound system to the public on August 6, 1926, with a program of eight short films. The only popular, as opposed to classical, title was Roy Smeck, “The Wizard of the String,” in “His Pastimes.” Smeck, whose career extended into the 1960s and beyond, played the banjo, ukulele and Hawaiian (or slide) guitar. Warners released His Pastimes on its Jazz Singer box set.
Country and rural acts appeared in a number of musical shorts of the period: Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys, The Rangers in “After the Roundup,” Oklahoma Bob Albright and His Rodeo Do-Flappers, etc. Watson told journalist Dan Miller that he switched from the Maybelle Carter “thumb lead” style of playing to flatpicking because of Jimmie Rodgers. “I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks.’ So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks.” “The Father of Country Music,” Rodgers filmed a short for Columbia Pictures in Camden, New Jersey, The Singing Brakeman, in October, 1929.
In the 1930s and 1940s, “singing cowboy” movies gave a platform for rural artists like Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Jimmie Davis. Similarly, “Soundies,” a precursor of sorts to music videos, could star Merle Travis or Spade Cooley. Bob Wills, another Watson favorite, appeared in over a dozen features and shorts during the period. Pete Seeger appeared in an educational short, To Hear Your Banjo Play (1947), directed by Irving Lerner and Willard Van Dyke.
Genuine folk music became harder to spot in movies during the 1950s, perhaps because a younger generation was turning to rock and roll. Fans could spot Merle Travis singing “Re-enlistment Blues” in From Here to Eternity, but often rural music was the subject of derision, as in A Face in the Crowd.
Watson’s emergence, along with the rise of individuals like Dylan and groups like Peter, Paul & Mary and The New Lost City Ramblers, helped burnish folk’s reputation. Suddenly folk musicians were everywhere on TV. Film caught up later with the Oscar-winning Bound for Glory (1976), a fanciful biopic about Woody Guthrie, and the genre was gently roasted by the Spinal Tap gang in A Mighty Wind (2003). The next Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, recreates the 1960s MacDougall Street/Greenwich Village folk scene.
It’s a treat to see Johnny Cash perform in the otherwise mediocre Hootenanny Hoot (1963), but it seems to me that filmmakers of the time rarely captured the essence of folk music. One exception is John Cohen, a musician with The New Lost City Ramblers, photographer and writer as well as a documentarian. The High Lonesome Sound (featuring Roscoe Holcomb) and in particular Sara & Maybelle: the Original Carter Family present folk music the way it should be heard. If you can find his DVD, grab it.
This is a very abbreviated overview, one that leaves out whole swaths of performers and musical styles. Les Blank, for example, has made excellent documentaries about Louisiana and Tex-Mex music, and filmmakers like D A Pennebaker have dug deep into Americana music. There’s always more to learn, one of the best lessons listening to Doc Watson taught me.
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.
April 20, 2012
This year’s Earth Day has an ambitious theme: Mobilize the Earth. Two new film releases—Disney’s Chimpanzee and Warner Bros.’s To the Arctic 3D—were timed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Earth Day, with To the Arctic 3D taking a strong, even pointed, stance on climate change.
The film industry has a long history of movies with environmental messages, although they are usually tied in with other genres. Early Edison films like The Miller’s Daughter (1905) contrasted corrupt urban lifestyles with the more innocent morals of the countryside, something D.W. Griffith would espouse in dozens of bucolic shorts for Biograph. In part filmmakers were catering to their audience, at the time largely lower- and middle-class patrons who were suspicious of the wealthy. Take 1917′s The Public Be Damned, in which farmers are ruined by a “Food Trust,” or The Food Gamblers from that same year, in which food speculators deliberately oppress the poor.
Environmental issues were often folded into social critique films, movies that covered problems between industry and labor, for example. Mining was a favorite topic, and although plots were usually couched in terms of strikes, titles like The Lily of the Valley (1914) and The Blacklist (1916) showed the negative impact the industry had on the landscape.
The environment became a central factor in documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Grass (1925). The former, directed by Robert Flaherty, showed how the Inuit lived in harmony with a harsh Arctic landscape; the latter, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, covered the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe through the grasslands and forbidding mountains of what is now Iraq.
Scenes of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl filled newsreels in the 1930s, and the subsequent Okie migration inspired novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, later filmed by John Ford with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell as displaced farmers.
The federally funded documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains tried to address the causes of the Dust Bowl. Under the direction of Pare Lorentz, cameramen Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, and Leo Hurwitz began shooting footage in Montana in September, 1935. Lorentz hired Virgil Thompson to write the score, and worked closely with the composer while editing and writing the narration. Released by the U.S. Resettlement Administration on May 28, 1936, the film played in 3000 commercial theaters before enjoying a long life at Army posts, Sunday schools, and cinema clubs.
Lorentz followed The Plow with The River, an even more ambitious film that started out in 1936 as a survey of the Mississippi River. Heavy flooding in January, 1937, changed the focus of the film, which ended up arguing for approval of Tennessee Valley Authority dam and electrification projects. With another score by Virgil Thompson, The River was funded by the Farm Security Administration and released theatrically by Paramount. It was awarded best documentary at the 1937 International Film Festival at Venice, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.
Many of the filmmakers on the Lorentz titles went on to significant careers in documentaries. Willard Van Dyke worked on The City (1939) and Valley Town (1940), for example, two films that dealt with the environment. Power and the Land (1940, directed by Joris Ivens) continued the arguments set forth in The River. The politically provocative Frontier Films released People of the Cumberland (1937), in which Elia Kazan in his directing debut examined an isolated coal mining community. (Later in his career, Kazan returned to the area to make Wild River, a sort of rebuttal to The River.)
World War II changed the focus of documentaries from cautionary to supportive. Produced by Walt Disney, The Grain That Built a Hemisphere (1943) and Water—Friend or Foe (1944) viewed the environment as something that could be channeled to the war effort. After the war, Disney embarked on a series of True-Life Adventures, nature documentaries like The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both Oscar winners. Disney cartoons like Johnny Appleseed (1955) and Paul Bunyan (1958) had implicit environmental messages.
Based on Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us (1953) won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Carson, whose later book Silent Spring (1962) is credited with bringing the problem of pesticides to the attention of the public, did not like the film and would not permit any of her other works to be filmed. The Silent World (1956), directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau, also won an Oscar. Cousteau went on to become one of the foremost spokesmen on the aquatic environment and the creative force behind an entire library of oceanographic movies.
But the most significant environmental films of the period were found on television. Stories like 1959′s “The Population Explosion,” 1960′s “Harvest of Shame” and 1968′s “Hunger in America” (all for CBS Reports) addressed environmental issues that were largely ignored in feature films of the time.
It’s not that filmmakers didn’t want to cover the environment. The problem then and now was finding both funding for projects and theater owners who would show the films. Formed in 1969, Appalshop, a nonprofit arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, addressed these issues by funding and distribution movies, video, books, recordings, and radio shows. Director Mimi Pickering joined Appalshop in 1971, four years before she released The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, which documented a dam failure that killed 125, injured 1,100, and destroyed 700 homes. A year later, Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Harlan County U.S.A.
Apart from the occasional title like the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), television is still the best bet today for finding environmental films. Feature films, on the other hand, tend to tie environmental themes to larger stories. The China Syndrome (1979) is more a political thriller than an environmental one, although its lessons are chilling. Silent Running (1972) and WALL-E (2008) comment on the environment, but have other stories to tell. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) turns its issues into an adventure tale.
For me one of the most powerful environmental films Hollywood ever released is How Green Was My Valley (1941), the film that famously beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Based on an autobiographical novel by Richard Llewellyn, the story ostensibly depicted the decline of the Morgan family, proud coal miners in a small Welsh village. But it is really about the destruction of both a landscape and a way of life for reasons its characters never fully grasp.
There are no answers in How Green Was My Valley. Work is deadly, management and unions corrupt. Religions feud among themselves, authorities are powerless, families fall apart. The downward arc of the film, from its sunny vistas to dank mines, from life to death, is as chilling as any in American film.
April 11, 2012
Opening Friday, April 20, To the Arctic 3D is the 35th IMAX documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. Narrated by Meryl Streep and with songs by Paul McCartney, the film examines how polar bears and other Arctic wildlife are struggling with climate change. But the real draw to the film is the astonishing cinematography by Greg MacGillivray and his crew.
The foremost name in large-format filmmaking, MacGillivray Freeman has been making IMAX documentaries for over 35 years. It is the first documentary production company to earn a billion dollars in box-office receipts. The company began in the late 1960s when surfing fanatics Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman pooled resources to work on documentaries and commercials. They gained a reputation for aerial photography after their 1971 short about Mexico, Sentinels of Silence, won two Oscars.
The company won a commission from the Smithsonian Institution to make a large-format film about aviation as the opening attraction at the National Air and Space Museum (and to tie-in with the nation’s bicentennial). To Fly!, the second highest-grossing large format film of all time, is still regularly screened at the museum. (Jim Freeman died in a helicopter accident two days before the premiere of To Fly!)
With titles like Everest, The Living Sea, and Hurricane on the Bayou, MacGillivray Freeman not only helped legitimize the IMAX process, it helped establish a new audience for films. Dozens of museums and educational facilities have built IMAX theaters, and large-format wildlife documentaries have become a right of passage for a generation of schoolchildren. “And IMAX is growing by leaps and bounds in developing countries,” MacGillivray adds. “Particularly China. In five years there will be over 200 IMAX theaters in China.”
Large-format filmmaking requires different skills than those for feature films and television. “The shots are longer, and you’re shooting wider—wider lenses and wider scenes so that the audience experiences the material in a kind of interactive way,” MacGillivray told me by phone last week from his Los Angeles offices. “In a normal movie, the director controls what you look at. The shots don’t last very long because you’re getting the audience to look at specific things. An IMAX shot, on the other hand, can be twenty or thirty seconds long. The audience has time to look around the frame, see the birds flying in the distance, a flock of geese coming overhead, the wind whipping up in the background. The viewers aren’t manipulated, they’re experiencing it on their own terms.”
The opening shots of To the Arctic 3D, a majestic aerial view of a glacial shelf complete with calving icebergs, puts MacGillivray’s theories into practice. The images have a startling beauty and clarity, and patient filmmaking gives viewers time to appreciate them fully.
The director is coming to grips with inevitable changes to the IMAX process. IMAX offers both film and digital projection systems. Digital is required for 3D projection, but it won’t reach 4K resolution for another two years or so. And according to MacGillivray, 4K is necessary to duplicate the IMAX experience on film.
Most IMAX theaters in museums are film based, and will remain so for at least three or four years. “It will be bad if theaters change over to digital before the quality is there,” MacGillivray believes. “The films could lose their audience.”
MacGillivray still shoots on film for 70 percent of the time, even though an IMAX magazine holds enough for only three minutes of footage. Plus it can take ten minutes to load a new magazine when you’re working in sub-zero temperatures. “That becomes tricky when shooting wildlife,” MacGillivray points out. “You have to plan when you will be reloading.”
Why work in such a cumbersome process? “When you’re capturing on IMAX 15/70 film, you’re getting ten times the resolution of the highest form of digital today,” MacGillivray says. “4K digital, for example, is about 12 million pixels per frame, and IMAX in 15/70 film is over 120 million—some say 150 million— pixels per frame.”
MacGillivray hopes the digital process will eventually reach 8K, at which point it could duplicate or even better the resolution from the film system. But there will still be differences in how each process looks on screen.
The film image, for example, is built from grain that forms when silver halide particles are exposed to light. MacGillivray explains that the grain particles form a random pattern. “Grain isn’t structured like a screen door that you’re looking through, but pixels are. Film-based grain is just all over the place, one frame totally different from the next. So your edges are coolly sharp and have a different feeling, an organic feeling rather than this mechanic feeling you get with digital. A lot of people relate it to the difference between vinyl music and digital music.”
Another difference between film and digital: “Film has far more color shades. It’s called bit depth in digital terms. And most bit depth in digital is about twelve, but film bit depth can be twenty to thirty. And so you just have more shades of yellow and red and oranges and everything. You can get extra shades of color with digital if you had more storage, but then you’re defeating the chief advantage of the process because everything would get bigger and more expensive.”
If the color, organic look, and smoothness of film are superior to digital, why switch processes? “With digital you do have the advantage of having an absolutely rock steady image because there’s no projector gate, no perforations, no film weaving through a machine. And there’s no dust, and no scratching.”
MacGillivray also finds digital easier to work with, “a lot easier until something goes wrong. And then you have to close down for two days so an expert can come in.”
To the Arctic 3D is being presented through the One World One Ocean Foundation. Founded by MacGillivray and his wife Barbara, this new initiative is intended to raise awareness to ocean issues through IMAX and feature films, television specials, YouTube videos, and other social media. The director cites the work of Jacques Cousteau, who in the 1960s would broadcast as many as three or four ocean-related television specials a year. “The ocean needs a voice in the entertainment base, and we’re going to try to bring the same continuity of effort that Cousteau did some 40 years ago,” he says.
Read about how astronauts were trained to use IMAX cameras on the space shuttle on our Around the Mall blog.
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.
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)