February 1, 2012
Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, will be one of the highest-rated shows on television this year. (Last year’s game was the most watched show in television history; it was also the fourth consecutive Super Bowl to set viewership records.) Advertising revenue for the broadcast will top well over a half-billion dollars. The game and its surrounding pageantry are so significant that some churches have closed rather than compete, while a counter-programming industry has sprung up to capitalize on disaffected consumers.
Football hasn’t always been so dominant in American culture. In fact, for years the sport barely registered outside of college alumni fans. Baseball was considered the “national pastime,” and as such was frequently a setting in film. Prizefights, on the other hand, played a major role in legitimizing the entire medium, as Dan Streible points out in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. (Interestingly, boxing had a similar function with television.)
Apart from newsreels and actualities (like this 1903 Edison film of a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan), Hollywood took a bemused attitude towards football, using it largely as a setting for collegiate humor. In 1925, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and MGM’s Brown of Harvard, starring William Haines and Jack Pickford, covered similar territory: plucky collegians, gorgeous co-eds, proms, cheers, betrayals and the Big Game. The Marx Brothers took a blowtorch to the genre in Horsefeathers, but cartoons like Freddy the Freshman also mocked the raccoon coats, Model Ts, and convoluted offenses that were how most viewers perceived college football.
These films inadvertently pointed out a problem with portraying the sport on screen. When newsreel companies like Fox Movietone and Pathé covered big games, their cameras were almost always situated high in the stands, at the equivalent of the 50-yard line—the best position for cinematographers to cover a play that could extend to either end zone. In Horsefeathers or Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923), on the other hand, filmmakers could break plays into individual components, concentrating on one or more players, cutting from a quarterback to a receiver, switching from sideline to end zone, even tracking along with runners as the play and story demanded.
Football became increasingly more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because of how it was broadcast on television. Just like they did with baseball, sports directors learned to turn football games into narratives. As CBS director Sandy Grossman put it, “The reason [the gridiron] is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there’s 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it.”
Now just about every player on the field can be isolated during a play, allowing the director to build a story line from different takes. Slow motion enables viewers to see precisely where a play succeeds or fails. Off-field graphics and interviews inserted into the game build personalities for the players, who otherwise might appear anonymous.
Contrast a football game with hockey or soccer, where play is essentially nonstop, forcing cameramen to revert to a high-shot from the middle of the rink or field. Or with basketball, where games are usually decided only in the final minutes. (Baseball, with its many points of stasis, trumps even football in terms of how successfully it can be televised. Because players are more or less stationary for most of the game, directors can hone in on them in close-ups so tight even Sergio Leone would have been impressed.)
As the means for depicting football evolved, both on television and in movies, so did the way the game was treated. From comedies that emphasized the frivolity of the sport, Hollywood moved to biopics like Knute Rockne All American (1940). Here football served as an all-purpose metaphor: for our struggle with adversity, as an affirmation of the American way of life, as an example of how we will defeat our enemies. Knute Rockne grew out of the Warner Bros. version of history, in which figures like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola received reverential treatment in biopics, and was constructed as a morale-builder as the country faced the onset of World War II. It’s known today mostly for Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. (One football film that’s often overlooked is the engaging Easy Living, starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, which took a relatively hard view of the sport’s injuries and their consequences.)
Like movies in general, sports films became more psychologically complex in the 1950s and beyond. Titles like Paper Lion, Brian’s Song, and North Dallas Forty presented a more realistic view of the game and its players, albeit while romanticizing football overall. But filmmakers still tended to treat the sport as a metaphor: disapproving in Everybody’s All-American, uplifting in Rudy.
Rudy marked another recent shift to true-life stories centered around football. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, Invincible, Gridiron Gang, The Express and Radio are a few examples of films based on true stories. 2009′s The Blind Side, based loosely on a book by Michael Lewis, hit the jackpot, winning Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
While The Blind Side was being filmed, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were shooting a documentary on the Manassas High School Tigers. The finished film, Undefeated, received an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature. Again, the filmmakers insist that Undefeated isn’t a “football” movie.
“One of the biggest challenges is telling people what Undefeated is about,” Martin told me in a phone conversation. “If you say, ‘It’s a high school football team…’ they answer, ‘Oh, like Friday Night Lights.’ But it’s not, Undefeated is about something different than football.”
And in fact Undefeated paints a touching and at times troubling portrait of North Memphis youths struggling to find their way in the world. As coach Bill Courtney says at one point, “You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.”
Which gets me through this posting without having to deal with Black Sunday, in which a suicidal lunatic played by Bruce Dern tries to blow up the Goodyear Blimp at Super Bowl X.
January 6, 2012
Purely by coincidence, two new features paint complementary portraits of the South. Although Joyful Noise and Undefeated couldn’t be more opposite in their approaches (a glossy, mainstream feature vs. a gritty, handheld documentary), they share some telling themes. What’s even more interesting is seeing how Hollywood handled similar issues in the past.
Opening January 13, Joyful Noise is a comedy–drama about the travails of a Baptist choir from Pacashau, Georgia. Perennial also-rans in a gospel competition called “Joyful Noise,” the Pacashau choir struggles for survival in the midst of a harrowing economic downturn. Starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, Joyful Noise presents its plot as a series of conflicts and problems that are, in the manner of TV sitcoms, resolved a bit too easily.
But the film also raises worthwhile topics: how to keep small businesses alive in an environment that’s tilted towards national chains, what is the true value of workers in a service economy, how can churches best help the unemployed. Even its ostensible premise—the battle between “old school” gospel choirs and a new generation of pop-oriented singers and dancers—has merit and relevance. And while writer and director Todd Graff generally settles for tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road solutions, he deserves credit for bringing up subjects most films ignore.
After a short run to qualify for the Academy Awards, Undefeated—a documentary about the Manassas Tigers football team—will get a wider theatrical release from The Weinstein Company on February 10. The Tigers are from the Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee, a town that has seen hard times since its Firestone plant closed in 1990. The film covers the 2009 season, as volunteer coach Bill Courtney tries to take his underdog team to the playoffs for the first time in 110 years. Like The Blind Side, Undefeated has wealthy whites helping underprivileged black students, and even has one player, O.C. Brown, move in with a coach’s family for tutoring help. Brown and the other characters in Undefeated will haunt you long after the film is over.
While The Blind Side (which also took place in Memphis) was a factor in making Undefeated, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were clearly influenced by Hoop Dreams, the outstanding 1994 documentary about inner-city Chicago high schoolers and their efforts to play basketball. Hoop Dreams may have more depth and scope than Undefeated, but both films deal honestly with the limited options available to students living in poverty. Like gospel singing in Joyful Noise, football may be the only chance Undefeated‘s students get at a better life.
Joyful Noise and Undefeated present the South as a place in which simply surviving takes precedence over all other problems. Apart from economic inequality, it’s an almost post-racial world, and in fact Joyful Noise boasts not one but three interracial romances handled in such a matter-of-fact manner that no one comments on them.
The movie industry doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to race. Films from the turn of the 20th century can be appallingly insensitive, but at least filmmakers were equal opportunity offenders. Irish, Jews, Hispanics, and Asians were treated just as harshly as blacks, and in the case of Asians that insensitivity extended for an unconscionably long time (just watch Mickey Rooney with taped-up eyes as I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961′s Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But blacks may have received the brunt of poor treatment, from the racial demagoguery of The Birth of a Nation to the countless butlers, cooks and maids who filled out Hollywood features.
The history of racism in the media is too long and messy to do justice to here. That said, I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement. I watched demonstrations, marches, and race riots on television. We walked past “whites only” restrooms and water fountains when we visited an uncle in Washington, and argued at dinners with family and friends over the best way to achieve integration.
Our local theater outside of Philadelphia wouldn’t even show movies like A Time for Burning or Nothing But a Man, citing the potential for riots. (The same argument would later be used for films like Do the Right Thing.) I heard neighbors complain about Sidney Poitier in the relatively innocuous Lilies of the Field, let alone the more charged In the Heat of the Night. For all its simplistic arguments, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner became a sort of acid test: did disagreeing with the film’s premise make you a racist? (When the film was released, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.)
So when I watched Keke Palmer as Olivia and Jeremy Jordan as Randy fall in love in Joyful Noise, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what life was like in Georgia not so long ago. Seeing Undefeated‘s Coach Courtney embrace O.C. Brown at the end of the season, I thought about how Poitier and his costar Rod Steiger were threatened by shotgun-wielding racists when they tried to shoot scenes for In the Heat of the Night in Tennessee. Racial problems are by no means solved, but we have to be encouraged about the real progress that has been made.
December 30, 2011
Each year the Library of Congress adds 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant films to the National Film Registry. This year’s selections include four silent films, five documentaries, and such popular features as Forrest Gump. I’ve already written about one title, the Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s).
One of the goals of the Registry is to alert the public to the need for preservation. Another is to draw attention to movies that reach beyond features, like Jordan Belson’s experimental Allures. Belson died this year, as did George Kuchar, whose I, An Actress was also added to the Registry.
Several titles mark return visits for filmmakers like John Ford (with the sprawling Western epic The Iron Horse), Howard Hawks (Twentieth Century, an early screwball comedy starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard), Frank Capra (the WWII documentary The Negro Soldier), Walt Disney (Bambi), Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, an expose of alcoholism), and John Cassavetes (Faces).
This is the first appearance on the Registry for noted filmmakers like Chick Strand (Fake Fruit Factory) and Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street). Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs may provoke some debate, but the selection that has bewildered film buffs the most is Stand and Deliver, a message drama with patently good intentions but not much sophistication.
I will be writing more about the individual titles in the future, but for now I’d like to point out A Cure for Pokeritis, a 1912 comedy starring John Bunny. Bunny and his frequent foil Flora Finch were probably the most accomplished and funniest of the early film comedians in the United States. Bunny was an international star before a cult of celebrity developed; when he died of Bright’s disease in 1915, it was front page news. Had he lived a little longer, he might be more widely known today. But Bunny’s influence stretches on over the decades, in the works of everyone from W.C. Fields to Carrol O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson.
Here is the complete list of titles for 2011:
The Big Heat (1953)
A Computer Animated Hand (1972)
Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963)
The Cry of the Children (1912)
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
El Mariachi (1992)
Fake Fruit Factory (1986)
Forrest Gump (1994)
Growing Up Female (1971)
Hester Street (1975)
I, an Actress (1977)
The Iron Horse (1924)
The Kid (1921)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s)
Norma Rae (1979)
Porgy and Bess (1959)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Stand and Deliver (1988)
Twentieth Century (1934)
War of the Worlds (1953)
November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 18, 2011
Several major film preservation projects have been in the news recently. Back in September, I posted about A Trip to the Moon, restored from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. (Its director, Georges Méliès, plays an important role in the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo.) Dave Kehr just wrote about a $100 Laurel and Hardy collection from Vivendi. And film buffs are eagerly awaiting the January 24, 2012 release of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD, one of the more difficult of the Best Picture Oscars winners to view. (I’ll be writing more about its restoration in the future.)
These are big-budget items that deserve media coverage, but I’d like to draw attention to another set of films that recently received preservation funding. On October 26, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced its latest grant winners. The NFPF targets movies it aptly describes as “under the radar of commercial preservation programs.” Silents, documentaries, independent films, home movies, avant garde pieces—in other words, works that generally wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial marketplace. (Full disclosure: working through the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, I helped secure financing through the NFPF to restore mountaineering footage shot in the Adirondacks in the late 1940s.) You can read the full list of films here, but some highlights are described below.
H. Lee Waters in Burlington (1939–40): Waters was an itinerant filmmaker based in Lexington, North Carolina. Armed with a Kodak Cine Special 16mm camera, he traveled to small towns throughout Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, filmed the inhabitants, then screened his work in local theaters. Waters was a fine photographer but an even better interviewer who managed to meet and film total strangers, putting them so at ease that they came across as warm and comfortable on screen. His films from Kannapolis, NC have been selected to the National Film Registry.
Also on the Registry is Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, a 1988 documentary about the Yup’ik people of Alaska. Made by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, it captures the beliefs and traditions of a passing generation, as well as the beautiful but harsh environment in which the Yup’ik live. The dozen or so dances included in the film have the effect of erasing time, as one observer put it. Just as important, the filmmakers find ways to explain a remote culture, to turn the exotic into something we can understand and appreciate.
An earlier generation knew Lowell Thomas as a globetrotter and journalist on radio and television. (He was also an early supporter of the Cinerama process, and narrated the opening reel to This Is Cinerama.) Thomas’s 1924 book With Lawrence in Arabia helped turn T.E. Lawrence into a celebrity. Six years earlier, Thomas and cinematographer Harry Chase filmed Lawrence and other figures significant in the Palestine campaign of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence toured the world with a show about the Middle East, complete with slides, film clips, dancers and a live orchestra. In 1919, he released With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, a silent film version of his very popular extravaganza. Thomas’s descendants donated 35mm acetate print to Marist College, which, thanks to the NFPF grant, is now being restored.
Halloween fans should be delighted about Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter’s first student film at the University of Southern California. Written and directed by Carpenter in 1969 for an introductory film class at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the eight-minute, black-and-white short was rediscovered by archivist Dino Everett. He sees connections between the protagonist in this film and Michael Myers in Halloween, as well as an early use of Carpenter’s signature strategy of shooting from the attacker’s point of view. What Everett actually found were A/B negative rolls and the sound track, not a positive print. The NFPF grant will help ensure that a viewing print is struck.
In a phone call, Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The American Bank Note Company, a 1924 reprint of a 1915 film documenting the Bronx plant responsible for printing paper money and stamps for the United States and other countries. The company was formed in 1858, and its operations were consolidated in the Bronx in 1911. An early example of an industrial film, the movie examined the plant’s facilities and explained printing processes. It also described the employees’ pension plan, an unusual benefit at the time. This print was discovered in 1923 in a decommissioned plant in West Philadelphia and transferred to the Smithsonian.
The NFPF grants help finance film preservation masters and two access copies of each work. The public can view these films on-site; many also become available through screenings, DVDs, and the Internet. Without the grants, a significant number of these films—most of them one-of-a-kind—might be lost forever. To date the NFPF has saved more than 1,850 films and collections through grants and collaborative projects.
November 11, 2011
This Veterans Day I’d like to single out some of the movies that concern members of our armed services. Not war films per se, but stories that deal with what happens to soldiers after the fighting is over.
As might be expected, the industry has taken a generally respectful attitude toward the men and women who have fought for their country. Filmmakers began turning to the Civil War as a subject when its 50th anniversary approached. Searching copyright records, film historian Eileen Bowser found 23 Civil War films in 1909; 74 in 1911; and 98 in 1913. Most of these focused on the moral choices the war demanded. For example, in The Honor of the Family, a Biograph film from 1910, a father shoots his own son to hide his cowardice on the battlefield.
Identifying performers in film as veterans became a narrative short-cut, a quick way to establish their integrity. Often veterans have been portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures, as stand-ins for filmmakers who want to address a different agenda. Actor Henry B. Walthall played Ben Cameron, “The Little Colonel,” a Civil War veteran, in D.W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation (1915). Unfortunately, Griffith turned Walthall’s character into a racist vigilante who forms a Ku Klux Klan-like mob to attack African-Americans during the Reconstruction.
During the Depression, veterans could be seen as down-on-their-luck victims, as in Heroes for Sale (1933), where the noble Tom Holmes (played by Richard Barthelmess) suffers drug addiction and imprisonment after he is wounded in World War I. In The Lost Squadron (1932), destitute former aviators are reduced to flying dangerous stunts for an evil Hollywood director (played by Erich von Stroheim). But in The Public Enemy (1931), a gangster played by James Cagney berates his sanctimonious veteran brother, reminding him, “You didn’t get those medals by holding hands with the Germans.”
The most lauded film to examine veterans is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood, and starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell as three soldiers who face differing fates when they return home. While its plot can be overly schematic, the film has an honesty and courage unusual for its time—perhaps because Wyler was a veteran who experienced bombing runs while making the war documentary Memphis Belle. Russell, whose hands were amputated after a training accident, won a special Oscar for his performance.
Not all post-World War II films treated veterans so kindly. The Blue Dahlia, for example, a mystery thriller written by Raymond Chandler. In it, Navy aviator Alan Ladd returns home to an unfaithful wife who killed their son in a drunk driving accident. “A hero can get away with anything,” his wife sneers after he knocks her around. Ladd’s pal William Bendix, a brain-damaged vet with a steel plate in his head, flies into violent rages when drinking. Worried about the film’s negative portrayal of soldiers, censors forced Chandler to come up with an ending that exonerated the obvious killer. Veterans as villains show up in Crossfire (1947), a drama that also tackled anti-Semitism, and in Home of the Brave (1949), which dealt with racial issues.
More inspirational were films like Pride of the Marines (1945) and Bright Victory (1952). The former was based on the real-life Al Schmid, a Marine who was blinded at Guadalcanal, with John Garfield delivering an impassioned performance as someone unable to come to grips with his infirmity. In the latter, Arthur Kennedy plays another soldier blinded in battle. Kennedy’s vet is flawed, with bigoted racial attitudes and uncontrolled hostility towards those trying to help him. Quietly yet convincingly, the film builds considerable power as Kennedy learns to accept his limitations. Marlon Brando made his film debut as a World War II lieutenant who becomes a paraplegic after being wounded in battle in The Men (1950), directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) developed an intricate conspiracy plot around Korean War veterans who were brainwashed while prisoners.
I don’t have time or space here to discuss the more recent conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Their films range from sentimental (Coming Home) to morbid (The Deer Hunter), with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker managing to hit both extremes. Not to mention the industry’s most profitable film veteran, John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone in four films between 1982 and 2008. All deserve further discussion in another posting.
But I would like to bring up two documentaries that have been selected to the National Film Registry. Heroes All (1919), a fundraising film for the Red Cross, was set in the newly opened Walter Reed Hospital (the renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center shut down at this location and moved to Bethesda, Maryland in August). It detailed efforts to rehabilitate wounded veterans through surgery and physical therapy, but also through vocational classes and recreation. Heroes All had to balance the soldiers’ pessimistic past with an optimistic future, as well as detail both a need and a solution—a reason to give money and proof that the money would help. Its narrative structure and choice of shots became models for later documentaries.
Like Let There Be Light, completed in 1946 and directed by John Huston. It was shot at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where soldiers received treatment for psychological problems. A member of the Army at the time, Huston was given specific instructions about what he was calling The Returning Psychoneurotics. Huston was to show that there were few psychoneurotics in the armed services; that their symptoms weren’t as exaggerated as had been reported; and that someone might be considered psychoneurotic in the Army, but a “success” as a civilian.
Instead, the director provided a very detailed look at how Army doctors treated soldiers with psychological issues. Like Heroes All, Huston showed private and group therapy sessions, vocational classes, and recreation. He also filmed doctors treating patients through sodium amytol injections and hypnosis. (Huston found electroshock treatments too troubling to work into the movie.) When the War Department saw the completed film, it refused to allow its release. It took until 1981 before the public was allowed to see Let There Be Light. Despite its flaws, it remains one of the most sympathetic films to deal with veterans.
November 9, 2011
When I grew up, no one “owned” feature films apart from businesses and eccentric collectors. Many families made home movies, and some companies offered condensed versions of cartoons and comedy shorts on 16mm and 8mm for the home market. But the idea of purchasing individual copies of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz seemed preposterous. For one thing, who had the space to store the eight to ten reels of 35mm stock that made up a typical feature film, let alone purchase and learn how to operate a 35mm projector? And how could the home viewing experience compete with an actual movie theater?
Standards changed after a generation grew up watching movies on television rather than in theaters. Hollywood was wary of television at first, concerned that it would cannibalize the filmgoing audience. But by the 1960s, studios embraced the medium as a new source of revenue. Late-night TV was how many film buffs first became acquainted with classic movies. When videocassettes first became available to home consumers in the 1970s, Hollywood again held back. Concerned about losing control of their product, studios tried to rent rather than sell movies. Vestron Video helped change the rules when it marketed Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller as a “sell-through” rather than rental tape.
The revenue from videocassettes, and later from laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays, proved irresistible to studios, despite fears over bootlegging and piracy. For an industry desperate to keep control over its product, streaming is seen as a holy grail. Consumers “use” a product by viewing it, after which it returns to the copyright owners.
Streaming sites are evolving daily as studios and platforms jockey for position. Netflix has made some notable blunders in trying to switch to an all-streaming platform, but the conversion away from hard copies is inevitable. In a sense, storing movies in the cloud is like a return to the past when studios, and not consumers, determined how and when a film could be seen.
In the meantime, here are three sites that offer free streaming. (In case you missed the first post in this series, I outlined some other collections back in August.)
Affiliated with the University of South Carolina, University Libraries Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) combines its holdings under four major umbrellas. MIRC started in 1980, when it received a donation of the Movietone News library from the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Fox Movietone News was one of the most significant producers of newsreels in the early twentieth century, and the University of South Carolina’s Collection is arguably the single most complete moving-image record of American culture from that period extant anywhere in the world. While not complete, the holdings include all silent newsreel elements (nitrate) from the original Fox News library (1919 – 1930), and all outtake and unused film from Volumes 1 through 7 of Fox Movietone News (1928 – 1934).
MIRC also includes a collection of Science and Nature Films, Regional Films, and a Chinese Film Collection. The Moving Image Research Collections is open to the public at its facilities in Columbia, South Carolina. But you can screen much of the material online—everything from Chinese cartoons to Appalachian music.
The National Film Preservation Foundation also streams films on its site, for example, The Lonedale Operator (1911), a key title in the development of film narrative. Back in college we might have to wait an entire year to see The Lonedale Operator in a scratched-up 16mm dupe copy. Here is a pristine version preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. In The Lonedale Operator, you can watch D.W. Griffith working out the fundamentals of cross-cutting, of building suspense through montage, and see how he learned to define and contrast locations. Filmmakers today are still using similar techniques. Films on the NFPF site include cartoons, naval documentaries, and Spindale, one of the wonderful local titles made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters.
Today’s third site is devoted to films from the Thanhouser Company. In 1909, actor Edwin Thanhouser converted a skating rink in New Rochelle, New York, to a motion picture studio. By the time Thanhouser Films went out of business in 1917, it had produced over a thousand shorts, ranging from slapstick comedies and children’s films to adaptations of David Copperfield and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Thanhouser films were distinguished by their excellent location photography, strong story lines, and accomplished actors.
In 1988, Thanhouser’s grandson Ned formed a non-profit organization devoted to restoring and preserving the studio’s output. In an e-mail, Mr. Thanhouser wrote: “As of today, I have found 224 surviving films around the globe at archives and in private collections; since there are some duplicate titles, there are 156 unique Thanhouser titles that survive.”
Mr. Thanhouser has made 56 of the surviving titles available for view on his website. He also sells copies of the original poster artwork for titles, and markets DVD collections of Thanhouser films. “I am working on another three-disc DVD set and online release of 12 to 15 films that is targeted for late 2012,” he wrote. “Of the known surviving Thanhouser films, there are about a dozen to 18 films that still need preservation as they are still on nitrate film stock.”
Thanhouser films can be extremely entertaining, like Her Nephews from Labrador. Because they’re from Labrador, they’re immune to cold, as the youths cavorting in an icy New Rochelle river prove. If you think Shark Week is a new invention, check out In de Tropische Zee, shot in the Bahamas in 1914 and featuring a startling way to bait for predators. I saw Seven Ages of an Alligator a few years back and still have nightmares about it.
October 26, 2011
Critical consensus earlier this year was that the 3-D boom in motion pictures was dying. “Not every movie, in my opinion, should be in 3-D,” director Steven Spielberg said at July’s Comic-Con. “Audiences have now come to realize there are bad movies that can be in 3-D as well and, on top of that, you’re being charged an extra $5 to see a movie that was as bad as one you saw in 2-D,” said Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Spielberg’s producing partner on the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.
The rerelease of a 3-D version of Disney’s The Lion King quickly eliminated the doom saying. After the 1994 film grossed over $100 million (see my earlier posting), the 3-D process took on an air of inevitability. Disney is converting Beauty and the Beast to 3-D, followed by Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Directors as prominent as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Francis Coppola (Twixt) have committed to the process. So have low-budget filmmakers and even documentarians like Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the Chauvet Cave in France) and Wim Wenders (Pina, about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch).
This isn’t the first go-round for 3-D movies. The principles behind stereo photography were known well before the invention of motion pictures, and in the nineteenth century stereoscopic viewers were popular household toys. According to Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, 3-D might have had a more immediate impact in the dawn of cinema if the first moving pictures hadn’t already provided more depth than still photography. “The illusion of the moving image stopped the development of 3D moving image for a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Drössler, one of the world’s leading experts on 3-D, will give a highly anticipated lecture this Saturday, October 29, at the Museum of Modern Art. In 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! An Illustrated History of Stereoscopic Cinema, he will demonstrate the myriad examples of 3-D movies stretching back to the early 1900s. Among his topics: the German inventor Max Skladanowsky, who tried to animate 3-D images in the late 19th century.
Even movies by the pioneering special effects director Georges Méliès can be projected in 3-D, thanks to the fact that he often filmed with two synchronized cameras side by side, the second camera providing a “protection” negative. (Filming with two cameras was a common practice in Hollywood as well; the second negative could be used for European markets or to replace footage once the first wore out.) Méliès didn’t plan to make 3-D films, but with modern technology we can re-synchronize his images to provide a realistic illusion of depth.
I’ve seen some early examples of 3-D movies at previous MoMA screenings, like William Van Doren Kelley’s “Plasticon” shorts from the 1920s, and can attest to their eerie, ghostly power. The sense of depth in the shorts is startling. As captured on lustrous nitrate stock, the images have a haunting beauty as well. They bring the past to life in ways that “flat” movies can’t.
After his lecture, Mr. Drössler will introduce a screening of Robinzon Kruzo (1947), most likely the first 3-D feature. Produced in the Soviet Union, it “was shown exclusively in one Russian cinema for about two years,” he wrote. “You even find reports about it in Sight and Sound magazine.” Robinzon Kruzo was re-released several times in the USSR, and drew a half-million moviegoers during a four-month run in London.
Mr. Drössler’s talk will cover other processes as well, their names evoking the hucksters that helped make movies a commercial success: Zeiss Ikon Raumfilm, Plasztikus Films, Stereokino 70, StereoVision, SpaceVision. He will also address 3-D’s inability, until now, to establish a permanent foothold in the industry.
In the 1950s, when directors like Alfred Hitchcock were experimenting with 3-D, the biggest drawback to the process may have been the fact that it required two prints running simultaneously through two projectors. Lose a frame on one print, and your movie was no longer synchronized. Today’s digital projectors can provide 3-D depth with only one print.
Still, 3-D faces an uphill battle with consumers. As Mr. Drössler notes, “It’s true that today more theaters than ever are equipped for 3-D projection, but the process is still not dominating mainstream cinema: The majority of films in the box-office top ten are not 3-D, hardly any 3-D films have been in competition at the big film festivals, and none has ever won a prize in these festivals.” The biggest problem with the process for Mr. Drössler: “As long as there is no satisfactory 3-D system without glasses for cinema and for TV, it will never become a dominant force in the mainstream film industry.”
October 24, 2011
In “The Sniping of Partisans, This Time on Screen,” New York Times entertainment reporter Michael Cieply pointed out the political implications of releasing a film like Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the assassinated President, before or after the 2012 Presidential election.
Cieply went on to cite several films, including the upcoming Butter from the Weinstein Company, that he felt might “play a role in voters’ choice for the White House.” Cieply’s opinion, buttressed by quotes from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, is that we have reached the point where movies and politics have converged. Actually, that point arrived a long time ago.
Examples of advocacy filmmaking stretch back to the beginnings of cinema. I am simultaneously appalled and charmed by films made about the Spanish-American war, in particular Battle of Manila Bay (1898), a short that helped make the reputations of J. Stuart Blackton and his partner Albert E. Smith. Working with boat models in a bathtub, Blackton reenacted Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory for the camera. When his footage reached vaudeville houses a couple of weeks later, it was a tremendous hit, causing a succession of imitators to try their hands at faking war footage. Edward Atmet used miniatures to make Bombardment of Matanzas, Firing Broadside at Cabanas and other films. Film historian Charles Musser believes that The Edison Company shot fake battle movies like Cuban Ambush in New Jersey. To cash in on the war craze, the Biograph company simply retitled its film Battleships “Iowa” and “Massachusetts” to Battleships “Maine” and “Iowa.” Musser cites one newspaper article that reported “fifteen minutes of terrific shouting” at its showing.
World War I unleashed a tidal wave of anti-German propaganda from US filmmakers. Perhaps no one capitalized on the mood of the country better than Erich von Stroheim, who played villainous Huns so effectively that he became “The Man You Love to Hate.” Liberty Bond rallies featuring stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks drew hundreds of thousands of spectators; Chaplin even made a short, The Bond, to help sales. It was one of at least thirty bond fundraising films released by the industry.
Some of the industry’s dirtiest political tricks took place in California in 1934. As detailed in Greg Mitchell’s book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor (Random House), media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and the Chandler family (of The Los Angeles Times) made a concerted effort to defeat Sinclair, whose End Poverty in California (EPIC) program was gathering significant grass-roots support. Joining in the attack: MGM, which under the direction of studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg filmed two newsreels that presented Sinclair in the worst possible light. Actors playing toothless immigrants swore their devotion to the candidate, while “hoboes” gathered at the California border, waiting for Sinclair’s election so they could take advantage of his socialist policies.
Newsreels have long since been supplanted by television news, but filmmakers never stopped making advocacy pieces. When director Frank Capra saw Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious pro-Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, he wrote, “Satan himself couldn’t have devised a more blood-chilling super-spectacle.” Capra responded with Why We Fight, a seven-part, Oscar-winning documentary that put the government’s objectives into terms moviegoers could understand.
When William Wyler set out to direct Mrs. Miniver for MGM, he admitted, “I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationist.” The story of how an upper-class British family reacts to German attacks, the film made joining the war effort seem like common decency. Mrs. Miniver not only won six Oscars, it became a prime propaganda tool. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked that the movie’s closing sermon be broadcast over the Voice of America and distributed as leaflets throughout Europe. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying that the film’s impact on “public sentiment in the USA was worth a whole regiment.” Wyler received a telegram from Lord Halifax saying that Mrs. Miniver “cannot fail to move all that see it. I hope that this picture will bring home to the American public that the average Englishman is a good partner to have in time of trouble.” (Years later, Wyler admitted that his movie “only scratched the surface of the war. I don’t mean it was wrong. It was incomplete.”)
Some may find the idea that movies can directly influence political discourse hard to swallow. Sure, movies like Outfoxed or The Undefeated make strong arguments. But aren’t they just preaching to their followers? Can they really change the minds of their opponents?
To some extent all films are political, because all films have a point of view. Movies that deal with perceived injustices—in Spielberg’s case, The Sugarland Express and Amistad—are on some level criticizing a system that allows them to occur. Even Spielberg’s mass-oriented adventures, like the Indiana Jones series, express a points-of-view: Jones, on the surface apolitical, is drawn into battling tyrannical regimes that threaten the American way of life.
On the other hand, setting out with the goal of making political points through film almost never succeeds, as the graveyard of recent Iraq war-related movies shows. A film has to capture the zeitgeist, it has to deliver a message that moviegoers are ready to accept, in order to have an impact of the culture. When it works, as in the phenomenal box-office results for titles as disparate as Iron Man and Avatar, it doesn’t even matter whether the films have artistic merit.
October 14, 2011
The 49th New York Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with a screening of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Critical response to the festival has been somewhat muted, perhaps because, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times summary, so many of the scheduled films will receive theatrical releases in the future.
One of the high points of the Festival was the appearance of the West Memphis Three for a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see my earlier posting). Interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, co-director Joe Berlinger described how moved he was to see the Three’s reactions as they watched a sunset from a Manhattan rooftop, free after 18 years in prison. (Disclaimer: my wife is the executive producer of the Leonard Lopate Show.) Paradise Lost 3 is a remarkable film, one that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in justice.
A festival coup was a sneak preview of director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s novel Hugo Cabret. Billed a “work in progress” at the screening, the completed Hugo will be released by Paramount on November 23. (Watch the trailer.) Disney employed a similar stunt during 1991′s Festival when it screened a rough draft of Beauty and the Beast. Scorsese also showed his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World prior to its broadcast on HBO.
Scorsese is making an appearance at a different New York festival that opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation highlights 35 films from 14 countries, as well as a retrospective tribute to filmmaker Jack Smith. On November 7, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will be introducing the uncut, 163-minute version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team behind such classics as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. (Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow.)
Blimp is not too difficult to see, and in fact Criterion offers a well-regarded home video version. The same can’t be said for many of the other films in To Save and Project. Director Joe Dante opens the festival with The Movie Orgy (1968), a unique assemblage of trailers, commercials, training films, and newscasts that he and Jon Davidson screened at colleges 40 years ago. On Saturday, Dante will introduce his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), “It’s a Good Life,” along with Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), an early anti-discrimination film starring William Shatner.
Due to rights complications, The Movie Orgy will most likely never be available to the home market. Many other restored films languish in a limbo of restricted access. It’s been over 20 years since I attended a screening of Under a Texas Moon (1930), the first sound Western shot in Technicolor and an early screen credit for Myrna Loy. Film buffs grumble about being unable to see the restored versions of The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor’s World War I epic, or Wings (1927), the only Best-Picture-winner not legally available on home video. Rights can be a huge stumbling block to museums and archives, making it difficult or impossible for fans to see their favorite movies.
And then some of the films in To Save and Project are just too obscure to warrant distributing to the home market. How about a series of five ethnographic shorts that noted documentarian Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the late 1940s? Or Robinzon Kruzo (1947), considered the first 3d feature-length film? To Save and Project devotes a segment to comedies from distributor Jean Desmet, to film and dance performances by Elaine Summers, and to five CinemaScope and widescreen films from Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of these titles will eventually trickle out to Turner Classic Movies and the home market, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), showcased in last year’s festival. But I am eagerly anticipating the chance to see hard-to-find titles like Afraid to Talk, a 1933 Universal melodrama about political corruption; Hoop-La (1933), a romantic comedy that was Clara Bow’s last screen role; and Les Halles centrales (1927), a documentary of a market in Paris by Boris Kaufman, later a noted cinematographer and the younger brother of Russian director Dziga Vertov. I also plan to attend The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s existential film noir about getaway expert Ryan O’Neal, to see how it compares to Nicolas Winging Refn’s wildly overhyped new release Drive.