May 11, 2012
Like the rest of the world, Hollywood has a soft spot for mothers, even though expressing that love can be difficult. Predictably, the film industry has devoted considerable screen time to the subject of motherhood, with mothers and babies figuring into the earliest cinema actualities. Once narratives developed, mothers became central figures in many movies. Edison’s The Klepto-maniac (1905) showed what happened to a poor mother when she stole food for her children. In Lubin’s Mother’s Dream (1907), a mother has a nightmare about what would happen to her children if she died.
But just as often mothers in movies were peripheral characters who either approved the actions of their children, or not. Filmmakers found it easier to examine the romance and courtship that led to marriage and motherhood, subjects that might not evoke feelings of responsibility and guilt from their male viewers. When it came to mothers themselves, early filmmakers tended to adopt the Victorian sensibilities that pervaded American culture at the time. In D.W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart (1913), for example, Lillian Gish’s character, a recent mother, flies into a rage when her husband rejects her for a cabaret dancer.
The depiction of mothers, and women in general, changed dramatically as movies matured in the 1920s. The industry also began to target women as an audience. Films like Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and Are Parents People? (1925) made fun of Victorian stereotypes, and even a melodrama like Miss Lulu Bett (1921) was more sympathetic toward deceived women than earlier titles might have been. In films like Where Are My Children? (1916), director Lois Weber took on birth control, abortion and other controversial topics. Film historian Richard Koszarski described Our Dancing Mothers (1926) as “a Jazz Age version of A Doll’s House.” (The play itself was filmed three times between 1917 and 1922).
Motherhood remained sacred in mainstream culture—magazines, popular songs like “Mother Was a Lady.” The novel Stella Dallas (1923) struck a particular chord that has resonated to this day. Written by Olive Higgins Prouty, Stella Dallas took motherly sacrifice to painful extremes, forcing its mother to give up her daughter so she could enjoy a better life. The novel became a play in 1924 and a film the following year. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Henry King, and starring Belle Bennett and Ronald Colman, the movie was an enormous hit.
Stella Dallas became one of the first and most successful soap operas on radio, broadcasting almost twenty years. It was also the basis of a Bette Midler vehicle—Stella—in 1990. But the version that succeeds best was directed by King Vidor in 1937 and starred Barbara Stanwyck in one of her signature roles. Brash, vulgar, Stanwyck’s Stella is a difficult woman to like, but one whose maternal instincts are impossible to fault.
Characters like Stella spread throughout popular culture. Some actresses refused to portray mothers, worried that it might date them in their fans’ eyes. But in Blonde Venus, Marlene Dietrich became an especially glamorous sacrificial figure. Ginger Rogers worked around the age issue by adopting an abandoned infant in Bachelor Mother (1939, later remade with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher as Bundle of Joy).
Mothers faced other issues in movies, notably race in the two versions of Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959). More matronly actresses developed careers as mothers. Beulah Bondi, for example, who brought extraordinary nuances to her many roles. In Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) she has to cope with being betrayed by her children. In Of Human Hearts (1938, a Civil War-tearjerker, she begs President Abraham Lincoln to spare her son from a court-martial verdict. In Remember the Night (1940) she balances her son’s happiness with his lover, a pickpocket who could destroy his career. And in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) she has to help her son through a lifetime of emotional crises. Jane Darwell was a memorably steely Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). The sentimental Ford usually had a stalwart mother somewhere in his movies, like Dorothy Jordan in The Searchers.
Movie mothers in the 1940s became more psychologically complex, just like film in general. A star like Olivia de Havilland might suffer the moral stigmata of unwed motherhood in To Each His Own (1946)—and win a Best Actress Oscar in the process. But in Now, Voyager (1942, based on an Olive Higgins Prouty novel), Bette Davis had an ambiguous relationship with her domineering mother. Barbara Stanwyck was torn between caring for her two boys and pursuing her own happiness in My Reputation (1946, based on the novel Instruct My Sorrows by Clare Jaynes). And for Oscar-winning Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945), motherhood meant competition with her daughter Veda (played by Ann Blyth). Kate Winslet starred in the 2011 remake, an HBO miniseries.
How far a mother would go to protect her children became the basis of The Reckless Moment (1949), a first-rate suspense film directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Bennett. It was updated recently as The Deep End, starring Tilda Swinton. The 1950s saw the flowering of Douglas Sirk’s overheated soap operas. In All That Heaven Allows (1955), children exert a malevolent influence on their widowed mother Jane Wyman.
But the 1950s also produced several films about large and extended families. Myrna Loy played real-life efficiency expert Ernestine Gilbreth Carey in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950). (In-name-only updates starring Steve Martin appeared in 2003 and 2005.) Betsy Drake and her then-husband Cary Grant grappled with the problems of an adopted child in Room for One More (1952). By the 1960s, the genre had evolved into Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), with Lucille Ball mothering eighteen kids, and Doris Day in her last feature film to date taking on four that same year in With Six You Get Eggroll. (Yours, Mine and Ours was remade in 2005 with Rene Russo.)
Two of the most frightening film mothers from the period can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the 1962 film adaptation of the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy.
The 1960s also saw the rise of television sitcom mothers in shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show.” More recent examples include Roseanne,” “Reba,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”
In the past few years motherhood has become the provenance of the Lifetime cable channel, which has built an audience around mothers deceived and defrauded when they and their children aren’t being stalked by psychopaths. So it was a relief to encounter Michelle Pfeiffer in Dark Shadows. As matriarch Elizabeth Collins, she stands up to vampires, witches, and werewolves fearlessly—the kind of mother you want in your corner.
March 22, 2012
Critics love to impress readers with obscure films, titles that most moviegoers rarely get the chance to see. Something similar happened with Margaret, a drama written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. But in a twist, critics are helping to bring this film back to the public.
Margaret was named to several of last years’ Top Ten Films lists, even though it played in the U.S. briefly in only two theaters, one in Los Angeles and one in New York. When the film dropped out of circulation, Jaime N. Christley, a critic with Slant, started an on-line petition (since closed) to bring it back. The Film Society of Lincoln Center scheduled a screening on February 25 with Lonergan and much of the cast in attendance. Now, remarkably, the film is receiving more screenings, starting tomorrow, March 23.
First, a little history. Lonergan, a playwright (This Is Our Youth), screenwriter (Analyze This) and director (You Can Count on Me), began writing Margaret in 2003, although he had the idea since high school and thought of it as a feature film since 1995. He began shooting the film in 2005, finishing that December apart from some pick-up shots and reshoots.
Editing took three years, in part because Lonergan was supposed to hand over a two-hour movie to distributor Fox Searchlight. A lawsuit between producer Gary Gilbert and Fox Searchlight ensued; Lonergan is currently involved in a separate lawsuit which prevents him from talking about many of the production details.
The Margaret Fox Searchlight eventually released in September, 2011 “is the version that was completed in 2008,” Lonergan told moviegoers at the February screening. “I think it’s wonderful and I’m very proud of it.”
Margaret clocks in and just under 150 minutes, which can seem either too long or too short. (The Hunger Games, which opens Friday, runs 142 minutes.) The film follows teenager Lisa Cohen, played by Anna Paquin, after she inadvertently helps cause a fatal accident on the streets of Manhattan.
Traumatized, she reaches out to adults for advice and comfort. Single mom Joan (actress J. Smith-Cameron) and divorced dad Karl (played by Lonergan) do not respond the way Lisa wants, and teachers (played by Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick, among others) also fall short. On her own, Lisa campaigns to right what she perceives as an injustice, taking on the police, the legal system, and strangers in a quest as quixotic as it is poignant.
“I was trying to look at that phenomenon when you suddenly become aware of the world, and all the horrible and interesting things in it, as though no one else had noticed them before,” Lonergan told the audience. “You haven’t been worn down yet. You’re 17 and you think something can be done about it.”
The director recalled a comment Elaine May told him: “Only a teenager could think she could have that big an effect on the world.” “We get tired,” Lonergan went on. “We get to be thirty and say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to make my life right, and the people around me right.’ At best most teenagers find that to be hypocritical and weak.”
The film’s title comes from “Spring and Fall,” a 1918 poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In it, Margaret grieves over leaves falling from a tree. As Lonergan put it, “I remember being in ninth or tenth grade at a friend’s house, and a little sparrow flew against the window and knocked itself out, killed itself. I felt, ‘Oh my god, that sparrow just died.’ Now I could walk past a dozen dead sparrows without blinking an eye.”
Losing that sense of sorrow and injustice is what Lonergan tries to detail in Margaret. But for me, Margaret is special for what it is, not what it is about. Lonergan is a superb writer, but more important, he is a patient one. You Can Count on Me is one of the more heartbreaking movies in recent memory precisely because it unfolds so casually, so unerringly.
Like that film, Margaret is uncomfortably intimate. Lonergan shows us what we would rather not see about his characters: how they fail, make mistakes, give up, ignore or betray each other—the same way we all do. Despite this, Lonergan still finds what redeems his characters, and why we should care about them.
Margaret is also a film in which every location feels authentic. This is what New York City is like: beautiful, chaotic, ghastly, all at once. One shot that sweeps through the Metropolitan Opera has a jaw-dropping grandeur; another, in which Lisa is accosted by toughs, can make you cringe.
One scene in the middle of Margaret crystallizes the problems Lonergan had in editing the film. In it, Broderick gives an interpretation of lines from King Lear; a student (played by Jake O’Connor) offers a different, contradictory meaning. Their extended argument is a comic highlight, “even though it doesn’t actually further the plot,” as Lonergan admits.
“What I think it does do and why it wasn’t just a fun scene that we could cut out was that it is representative of how impossible it is, taken from the teacher’s point of view,” the director went on. “If he can’t convince one kid in one class of one point of one line from Shakespeare, nor can the kid convince the teacher to take another look at the line in any way whatsoever—meanwhile Lisa is trying to do something which much much more difficult.
“I think the reason the scene was written and the reason that it stayed in the movie, to me it’s right on the money of what she’s up against: the fact that people just think what they think.”
This is the beauty of Margaret, a film that expands from its premise to embrace different points of view, to offer reasons for perceived wrongs, to show how one person finds her place in the world.
I’ll gives the last words to Richard Brody of The New Yorker: “Margaret runs the risk of falling into undeserved oblivion—albeit only temporarily. It will be remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders, and will leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.”
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 17, 2012
As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, guessing which shorts will win an Academy Award is often the hardest part of Oscar office pools. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few mainstream viewers ever see these titles, making predictions about them the equivalent of playing darts while blindfolded.
Animated shorts tend to be easier to judge than live-action shorts. Cartoons are either funny, beautiful, compelling—or not. Live-action shorts, on the other hand, are more like miniature versions of feature films. As such, they can range from abstract and experimental to conservative, even classical in style, and from melodramatic to slapstick in approach. In judging them, you have to take into account a wider range of expectations than for cartoons.
As I’ve argued before, television has taken over the role once played by shorts. Without commercials, broadcast sitcoms are about 22 minutes long, roughly the same length as a two-reel short. For better or worse, the five nominees for live-action shorts are essentially television shows. More ambitious, perhaps, and in some cases with classier actors and production values, but all in all they are surprisingly, even disappointingly, conventional. Some are tall tales spun out a bit too long, some are sentimental to a fault, but frankly none moved me as much as a typical episode of The Good Wife.
In alphabetical order:
Pentecost, written and directed by Peter McDonald. Financed in part by the Irish Film Board, this short comedy takes place in a small parish in 1977. The archbishop is coming to visit, and disgraced altar boy Damien Lynch is given a chance to redeem himself as thurifer during Mass. Before the service, a sexton gives a pep talk to the servers, much as a coach would do to athletes before a game. McDonald throws in an underdeveloped subplot about soccer, but this is a very slender piece whose ending might mean more to Irish viewers still breaking free from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church.
Raju, directed by Max Zähle. If anything cries out “Oscar bait” among the live-action nominees, it’s this crisis of liberal guilt. A European couple adopts an Indian child only to uncover troubling inconsistencies in the youth’s background. Shot on location in Calcutta, Raju has a gritty look and feel to go along with its manipulative story line. The film might have been more persuasive as a documentary, but then director Zähle wouldn’t have had the opportunity to focus so deeply on his characters’ emotions.
The Shore, written and directed by Terry George. Financed in part by the Northern Ireland Film Commission, The Shore is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation played out among the vernal landscapes of suburban Belfast. As a teenager, Joe flees the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for the U.S., returning 25 years later to confront the people he left behind. With his haunted eyes and mournful visage, the accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds (who has a supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is perfectly cast as the stoic Joe. Terry George, who earned Oscar nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, wraps up the sentimental plot a little too patly, but The Shore is still a polished if middlebrow piece of entertainment.
Time Freak, written and directed by Andrew Bowler, moves quickly and engagingly in telling a tall tale about time travel. Starring Michael Nathanson as a science geek obsessed with detail, the film reworks the great feature comedy Groundhog Day to pretty good effect. Bowler draws his characters and settings with sharp strokes, but Time Freak is a one-joke idea that, unlike Groundhog Day, never develops beyond its cute gimmick.
Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø. My personal favorite among the nominees, but then I love Norway so much I watch television shows like Fjellfolk even though I don’t speak the language. Scandinavian humor is an acquired taste, and a comedy about a lonely, bitter farmer with six days left to live will strike many as too dark and morbid. Oskar (played by Edvard Hægstad) wants to die alone, but the local Jesus Club has sent Inger (Ingrid Viken), a blond teenager, to be his “Angel of Death.” Naive but determined, Inger consults a Road to Death guidebook about the five stages of dying before dispensing advice (and sleeping pills). Oskar, meanwhile, must decide whether to contact his long-estranged brother Jon before it’s too late. The premise behind Tuba Atlantic may be grim, but the film succeeds due to its understated acting and agreeably deadpan jokes.
February 10, 2012
This year Hollywood offers two variations on romance movies for Valentine’s Day. The Vow, an old-fashioned tearjerker, is loosely based on a true story, although it also owes some of its narrative inspiration to Random Harvest, a 1942 MGM melodrama based on a James Hilton novel and starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Both films see love as a sort of minefield or obstacle course in which fate tries to keep people apart, in this case through amnesia.
It’s a ploy that storytellers have used for centuries—not necessarily amnesia, but some outside force that prevents lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Beatrice and Dante from finding happiness. In films like 7th Heaven and Gone With the Wind, Hollywood seized upon war as a means of separating lovers. Other, trickier devices have included car accidents (Love Affair), an arrest for pickpocketing (Remember the Night), brain tumors (Dark Victory), domineering mothers (Now Voyager), jealous wives (In Name Only), jealous husbands (The Postman Always Rings Twice), clowning around on a speedboat (Magnificent Obsession), politics (The Way We Were), ice bergs (Titanic), and murder (Ghost).
A lot of the classic Hollywood romances look cruel today, with heroes and heroines martyring themselves for the sake of love. The lovers in Brief Encounter both choose unhappiness to avoid hurting their families. The only way Ingrid Bergman can prove her love for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is to allow herself to be poisoned by a Nazi.
On the other hand, there’s This Means War, a romantic comedy in which love is a battle between two contestants vying for the same person. The roots of This Mean War come from one of Hollywood’s favorite formulas, the romantic triangle. It’s one that goes back to silent clowns like Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, but which found its greatest success in the screwball romances of the 1930s.
With The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey (who was also responsible for Love Affair) came up with a story line that Hollywood has plundered repeatedly. (To be fair, The Awful Truth was based on a play that had been filmed twice before.) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a wealthy, glamorous couple who through sheer stubbornness wind up in divorce court. The audience knows they are meant for each other, but McCarey keeps finding plot complications to keep them apart: a Tulsa oilman, a nightclub dancer, even their pet dog. In the course of the film Grant and Dunne get to express emotions like desire, jealousy, and anger that are often shunted aside when things like war and brain tumors come into play.
The screwball comedy, as films like The Awful Truth came to be called, is where Hollywood really excelled at depicting romance. Movies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The More the Merrier took viewers right into the give and take of love, with its ever shifting balance of power and its constant outside threats.
Both The Vow and This Means War were originally supposed to open on Valentine’s Day, just as the Warner Bros. omnibus film called Valentine’s Day did last year. But folks at 20th Century Fox apparently got cold feet going up against The Vow and pushed the opening of This Means War back to February 17 (apart from some sneak preview screenings).
If that’s too long to wait, you can find remnants of the screwball formula in films like Something’s Gotta Give and You’ve Got Mail, although they seem too labored and desperate for many viewers. And there’s usually a Katherine Heigl comedy around somewhere (currently the aptly named One for the Money), even as her reputation in the industry plummets.
The best romance movies I’ve seen lately have come from Asia. Released in 2008, If You Are the One focused on a middle-aged bachelor’s search for love. Starring Ge You and Shu Qi, it outgrossed Titanic in China, and led to a sequel and a reality TV show. Or there’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2010), in which an architect and a banker compete over a working girl. Directed by Johnnie To, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is funny and rueful in equal parts, just the way Hollywood used to make them.
January 25, 2012
Call me a cynic, but I couldn’t help viewing yesterday’s press conference by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce the 2011 Oscar nominations as a calculated attempt to prolong a lackluster holiday season. And am I the only one who sees the irony in holding a pep rally on prestige releases at the same time the industry is dumping its dogs on the market? (January is historically the worst month to release new films, so that’s when Hollywood gets rid of what it perceives to be losers.) Sometimes the hoopla translates into increased ticket sales for those nominees still playing in theaters. Just as often there is no noticeable box-office bump, despite an increase in advertising budgets. (At least one film, Rango, is getting a limited re-release.)
Changes in the Academy’s voting procedures have opened up the Best Picture category, which features nine titles this year (out of a possible ten). Each of the Best Picture nominees had to receive five percent of the vote to make the list, which meant that several critical favorites—Melancholia, Drive, Young Adult, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example—were shut out. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, on the other hand, had enough of a passionate support group to sneak in a nominee. The most surprising inclusion may be Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that has received some scathing reviews.
Media pundits love to count up nominations as if they were proof of merit. They’re not, but they are often a good indicator for the eventual Best Picture winner. The record for most nominations (14) is shared by All About Eve and Titanic, perhaps the only time those films are ever mentioned in the same sentence. This year, Hugo received 11 nominations, and The Artist 10. As a result, prepare yourself for more articles about how to watch silent films, or about how Hollywood wants to examine its past.
This might be a good spot to point out what I think is a secret about The Artist: I don’t think viewers like it very much. The Artist has been open for nine weeks, during which time it grossed a little over $12 million. In that same period, The Descendants made over $50 million, and Hugo $55 million. Yes, The Artist hasn’t been showing in as many theaters, due to The Weinstein Company’s wary release strategies. Right now all three films are in roughly the same number of theaters, but for a long time the Weinstein Co. kept the theater count low for The Artist, hoping word of mouth would build from a few select showings. It also assembled a trailer that tried to pretend that the film was sort of a musical, and not a mostly silent drama. But mainstream filmgoers have spent over ten times the take for The Artist on tickets to Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. (There’s also this story from The Telegraph that frankly reeks of a publicist’s plant, “Cinema-goers complain that Oscar favourite The Artist has no dialogue.”)
In previous years, blockbusters like Mission: Impossible would at least be acknowledged by the Academy, usually with a technical nomination like Sound Mixing or Visual Effects. (That’s where you’ll find Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) But Mission: Impossible got shut out completely. Were voters making a statement about Tom Cruise, who has shepherded the M:I franchise to the point of picking screenwriters and directors, and investing his own money?
Cruise wasn’t the only superstar dismissed by Academy voters. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was ignored for his turn as J. Edgar Hoover, probably because the film received at best lackluster support. Pixar (with Cars 2) was shut out for the first time from Animated Feature Film, which has instead such little-known titles as A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. (Also ignored: Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture cartoon The Adventures of Tintin.) I’d love to see the smart, funny Rango win, but I believe it’s more likely the Academy will award Puss in Boots 3D, a smart addition to a very successful franchise.
More puzzling to me was how Shailene Woodley, so affecting in The Descendants, was overlooked for Best Supporting Actress. The Descendants, my choice for Best Picture, has had a puzzling reception. Some critics feel that it is old-fashioned, perhaps because its director, Alexander Payne, still pays attention to elements of filmmaking like composition and editing. Moviegoers, on the other hand, seem reluctant to try a film that appears to be about death. But no other movie in 2011 cut so deeply into what it means to be in love, to be in a family, to lose what you hold most dear.
With nine Best Picture nominations, and only five for Best Director, Oscar host Billy Crystal will have plenty of chances to repurpose one of his classic jokes from previous ceremonies: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that apparently directed itself.” He can use Best Picture noms The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball as well, none of whose directors were nominated. This is the first time director Stephen Daldry wasn’t nominated for one of his films. And Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, received nods in four other major categories. (Let’s see if Columbia tries to cash in on Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination when it releases 21 Jump Street in March.)
Oscars are often awarded for careers, not for individual films. James Stewart’s Oscar for The Philadelphia Story is viewed now as a consolation prize for losing out on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Max von Sydow, whose resume includes landmark Ingmar Bergman films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as decades of appearances in Hollywood titles, might win for a stunt supporting role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Christopher Plummer started in films in 1958, starred in The Sound of Music, and was nominated in 2010 for The Last Station. His role in the crowd-pleasing Beginners could finally net him an Oscar.
Finally, Documentary (Feature), a category the Academy fiddles with to little avail. The list of past films that didn’t even receive nominations is shocking: The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Roger & Me, for example. This year the Academy offered voters a shortlist of 15 titles, somehow neglecting to include Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. Among those that failed to make the final cut of five movies was the extraordinary and moving Project Nim. Still in the running: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a documentary I believe helped free the West Memphis Three from prison. I was fortunate enough to interview co-director Joe Berlinger in one of my first Reel Culture postings.
Next year the Academy will change the nominating procedure once again. Documentaries will not only have to have a theatrical release, they will have to be reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. That will make it much harder for films about challenging subjects to reach an audience.
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.
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.
November 4, 2011
The lag between current events and their appearance in films is hard to explain at times. It’s been almost three years since Bernard Madoff was arrested, for example, and Hollywood is just getting around to criticizing him in the amiable but toothless Tower Heist. Movies that dealt with the 2008 economic collapse—like Company Men and the more recent Margin Call—felt outdated when they were released, no matter how good their intentions.
The film industry isn’t opposed to tackling social issues as long as a consensus has formed around them. Movies have always defended orphans, for example, and can be counted upon to condemn crimes like murder and theft. (In fact, a Production Code put into effect in the late 1920s ordered filmmakers to do so.) From the early days of cinema, the rich have always been a reliable target, even though the message within individual titles might be mixed. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and studios like MGM loved detailing how luxuriously the wealthy lived before showing that they were just as unhappy as the poor. And in some films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), the poor were vicious and cruel.
Like Greed, D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) was adapted from works by Frank Norris, a San Francisco-based writer who died before completing a trilogy of novels about American business. A Corner in Wheat attempted to show how a greedy businessman inflicted starvation on the poor, but worked better as sort of moving picture version of a political cartoon. Other filmmakers followed Griffith’s example with more insight but largely the same message. As the Depression took hold, features like Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (both 1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) portrayed the country’s economic downturn as the result of mysterious, even unknowable forces.
Comedians actually did a better job depicting economic conditions than did more serious directors, perhaps because many screen clowns positioned themselves as outsiders. In shorts like Easy Street and The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin took poverty as a given, and immersed viewers into the lives of the poor. The jokes in his feature Modern Times had serious things to say about the impact of assembly lines and surveillance monitors on workers. It also aligned Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” screen persona firmly with the left when he picks up a red construction flag and inadvertently finds himself leading a Communist march.
Buster Keaton made an even more daring connection in his short Cops, filmed not that long after anarchists exploded a bomb on Wall Street. Riding a horse-drawn wagon through a parade of policemen, Keaton’s character uses a terrorist’s bomb to light a cigarette. It’s a stark, blackly humorous moment that must have rattled viewers at the time.
Today’s Occupy Wall Street protests are reminiscent of the tent cities and shanty towns that sprung up across the United States during the Depression. Sometimes called “Hoovervilles,” they were the focal points of often violent clashes between the homeless and authorities. My Man Godfrey (1936) opens in a shanty town and landfill on Manhattan’s East Side, and details with cool, precise humor the gulf between the rich and the poor. Unusually for the time, director Gregory La Cava offered a cure of sorts to unemployment by getting the rich to build a night club where the shanty town stood. In It’s a Gift, one of the best comedies of the decade, W.C. Fields treats a migrant camp as a simple adjunct to his story, an exotic backdrop where he spends a night during his trip to California. It’s a brave gesture for a character who could have been swamped in despair.
Fields’ journey to a West Coast promised land evokes the Dust Bowl migration documented by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. When adapting the film version, director John Ford sent camera crews into actual labor camps to document conditions accurately. With its uncompromising screenplay and superb acting, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) stands as one of the finest films to address economic inequality.
Released the following year, Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, included a sobering, seven-minute montage of soup kitchens, breadlines, flop houses, and missions. The film’s main character, a pampered director of lamebrained comedies like Hay Hay in the Hayloft, sets out to find the “real” America by disguising himself as a hobo. The lessons he learns are as provocative today as when the film was originally released.
World War II changed the focus of Hollywood features. Training barracks and battlefields replaced slums and tent cities as the film industry embraced the war effort. Social problems still existed after the war, of course, but in message dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), filmmakers tried to offer solutions—to unemployment among veterans, for example. In the 1950s, movies zeroed in on individuals and their neuroses rather than on a collective society. A Place in the Sun (1951) stripped away most of the social commentary from the original Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy to concentrate on the dreamy romance between stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) was more about a former boxer’s crisis of conscience than it was about a system than exploited dockworkers. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reduced juvenile delinquency to a teen’s romantic and familial problems.
In the 1960s, Hollywood began to lose its taste for social dramas, preferring to target films to a younger audience. Message films are still released, of course: Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, Courageous. But more often than not the message in today’s films is hidden in the nooks and crannies of plots. Is Battle: Los Angeles about our military preparedness? What does Cars 2 say about our dependence on foreign oil? Filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the old line attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. “If you want to send a message,” the producer said, “call Western Union.”
November 2, 2011
Industry expectations were not high for the first Paranormal Activity, released back in 2009, in part because it was filmed for $10,000 in director Oren Peli’s home. (The premise behind the film is simple: a video camera records what happens when a troubled couple goes to sleep at night.) When the independent production was purchased by Paramount Pictures, it had been screened a handful of times. Paramount ordered a new ending before giving the film a limited opening in 13 cities in September, 2009.
Paramount tied the film’s national release to hits on eventful.com, one of the early instances of using social media to promote a motion picture. Even so, executives were surprised when Paranormal Activity outperformed such established horror entries as Saw IV at the box office. Two additional Paranormal Activity films have been released, one in 2010, the other this past October. Each has garnered better reviews and high box-office returns, guaranteeing further episodes. Imitators have popped up as well, like Cloverfield, which documents an alien monster attacking Manhattan, and the critically reviled Apollo 18, which used fake video surveillance footage to explain what happened to a doomed spaceflight.
The immediate inspiration behind Paranormal Activity was The Blair Witch Project (1999), a horror movie built around “recovered footage” shot by student filmmakers who were subsequently murdered. The genius behind Blair Witch was the filmmakers’ decision to make their lack of funding and experience part of the narrative, and not an obstacle to overcome. Blair Witch pretended that its out-of-focus shots, uneven lighting, shaky camera, ugly framing, and distorted sound were unedited, unembellished “reality,” and not Hollywood artifice. In the film’s logic, the footage in Blair Witch had to be “real” precisely because it was such poor quality.
That’s actually a trick filmmakers learned decades ago. When journalists are investigating Charles Foster Kane’s life in Citizen Kane, for example, they screen newsreels about the newspaper magnate. Director Orson Welles and his crew based this fake newsreel footage on The March of Time, using different film stock and cameras to capture its look. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, using a hand-held camera to imitate combat footage for scenes in which a military base is attacked. In Peeping Tom, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career, the camera itself is a murder weapon, and the footage we see from it documents the filmmaker’s crimes.
The term “recovered footage” works better with these films than “found footage.” To my mind, “found footage” should refer to titles like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) or Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), in which artists have repurposed material taken from other movies. It’s an interesting genre that deserves its own posting.
Some historians used to refer to “film within a film,” but this term became unwieldy once it became clear how frequently movies showed people watching other movies. Take Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), for example, cited as the first feature-length comedy. In it, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand attend a screening of A Thief’s Fate, where they learn what to expect from a crime they committed earlier. Buster Keaton may have come up with the most creative example of a film within a film: in Sherlock Jr. (1924), he plays a projectionist who enters into the film he is showing. Woody Allen “borrowed” this idea for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but it was a frequent ploy of animators as well. Both Bugs Bunny and Popeye on occasion would appeal to their audience for help during difficult situations. And in the delightful Porky’s Preview (1941), Porky screens his own cartoon to a barnyard audience. Primitive stick figures, bare landscapes, mistimed music, scratched-out drawings, wretched animation: it’s the same narrative strategy as Blair Witch, only funnier.
Closer to the theme of Paranormal Activity, in The Evidence of the Film (1913) an editor examines dailies from a movie shoot to solve a crime. A similar ploy is used by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981)—and, for that matter, seemingly every other episode from television forensics series, from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Bones. The modern thriller could barely exist without surveillance monitors. The Bourne trilogy, Enemy of the State, Vantage Point, all resort to video footage for plot twists. Oren Peli’s smartest decision in Paranormal Activity may have been to strip away all the elements other filmmakers feel are so important: stars, special effects, production values, and plot.