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.
October 12, 2011
How important were home movies in your family? Since motion pictures were first marketed in the late19th century, they were available to home consumers as well as professionals. Pathé offered the specifically home-oriented 28mm filmstock in 1912, and by the 1930s, both 16mm and 8mm cameras had entered the home consumer market.
For the next two decades home movies were an expensive and at times demanding hobby. Miriam Bennett, whose delightful comedy A Study in Reds (1932) was selected for the National Film Registry, was the daughter of famous still photographer H.H. Bennett and helped run the family studio in Wisconsin Dells after his death. Wallace Kelly, an illustrator and photographer whose Our Day (1938) is also on the Registry, skipped lunch for a year to pay for a motion picture camera. Their work might better be called “amateur” rather than “home” movies.
But as Baby Boomers matured in the 1950s, and the cost of equipment and film stock dropped, home movies became a mainstay of family get-togethers. A grammar of home movies emerged as filmmakers focused on the same familiar tableaus. Children grouped around the Christmas tree, for example, or seated at a picnic table on the Fourth of July. Birthday parties, new cars, playing at the beach or by a lake, a big storm: home movies became a combination of the unusual and the everyday, with clothes and haircuts marking the passing of years.
Founded in 2002, Home Movie Day celebrates them all: the bizarre and the brilliant, the obscure and the famous. Formed as a sort of outreach effort for archivists, the annual affair gives everyone who attends the chance to screen their films. For a lot of family members without access to working projectors, this is a great opportunity to see what’s in their collection. At the same time, it lets archivists counsel on the need for preservation.
According to Brian Graney, a co-founder of Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the project, the first event took place in 24 locations, almost all within the United States. This year Home Movie Day will take place in 66 sites across 13 countries on Saturday, October 15. (See the full list here.)
Graney, currently the Media Cataloger at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, wrote to me in an e-mail about the need to protect what can be extremely vulnerable films. “All home movies are at risk to some degree,” he explained, “because there’s no negative behind a home movie—the reel on the projector is the same one exposed in the camera. In commercial films you have multiple copies of the same content. Here, there’s just the one, and even for home movies held in archives, keeping that one safe might be the best we can do.”
According to Graney, “The greatest risk is in the widely held and wrongheaded idea that home movies are without interest to anyone but their creators, or that they’re all alike and all equally banal.”
Home Movie Day has helped bring some extraordinary films to a wider public, like Our Day and the Registry title Disneyland Dream (1956), a wonderful travelogue by the accomplished amateur filmmaker Robbins Barstow. Each year holds the potential for new discoveries.
Perhaps the best proof of the variety and scope of home movies can be found in Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, an extraordinary feature produced and directed by Dwight Swanson. A compilation of 16 films dating back to 1915, Amateur Night provides an introduction to everything that is important about home movies, from personalities and historical events to sheer aesthetic pleasure.
The celebrities in Amateur Night include director Alfred Hitchcock frolicking with his wife Alma Reville; the real-life Smokey Bear, shown recovering from burn wounds from a forest fire; and President Richard Nixon, mingling with crowds on an Idaho airport tarmac.
Other films in Amateur Night give us new approaches to incidents we think we may already know. For instance, Helen Hill’s Lower 9th Ward (2005, from the Harvard Film Archive) is a first-person account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, filmed by someone who lived in and loved New Orleans. For me, Hill’s impassioned advocacy is more affecting than the reports of journalists trained to be objective about what they are covering.
Or take Atom Bomb (1953, from the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia Libraries), filmed by Louis C. Harris, a journalist and later editor at Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle. Harris, who served in the 12th Air Service Command during World War II, was invited to Nevada to view the detonation of the 16-kiloton “Shot Annie” on March 17, 1953. His footage captures the awesome, terrifying effects of a nuclear blast in ways that more official accounts don’t.
“In the past two decades archives, scholars, and hopefully the general public, too, have started to develop a deeper understanding of home movies and amateur films,” Swanson wrote to me in an e-mail. “The curatorial philosophy behind Amateur Night is to show the range of diversity that has been found in the universe of amateur film, and to persuade people to think of them in new ways and not dismiss them as purely family records.”
For the past year, Swanson has been screening Amateur Night across the country. Sunday, October 16, he’s showing it in Los Angeles as part of the Academy Film Archive’s Home Movie Weekend. On Friday, November 4, he’ll be at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Do not miss the chance to attend a screening, because you won’t find Amateur Night on DVD. “There are no plans for DVD distribution,” Swanson said, “since we wanted it to be a film preservation project and to showcase the [nondigital] photochemical preservation work being done by preservation film labs such as Cineric, Inc.”
So drop into a local Home Movie Day event, and see Amateur Night if you can. As Swanson put it, “The goal is to show that there are some wonderful and amazing films found both in archives and in homes.”
September 2, 2011
It’s one of the most famous films in cinema, a special-effects, science-fiction extravaganza that became an international sensation when it was released in 1902. Almost instantly it was pirated, bootlegged, copied and released by competing studios under different names. And for decades it’s only been available in black-and-white copies.
Now, after a 12 year project that approached a half-million euros in cost, Lobster Films, The Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and Fondation Groupama Gan pour le Cinéma are unveiling a new version of A Trip to the Moon, “resurrected,” in the words of preservationist Tom Burton, from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. For the first time in generations viewers will be able to see the color version of the film that stunned early 20th-century moviegoers.
Le voyage dans la lune, to use its French title, is one of over 500 movies made by Georges Méliès, perhaps the first filmmaker to fully grasp the potential of cinema. The son of a wealthy shoemaker, Méliès was born in 1861. Fascinated by magic and illusions, he left the family business in 1888. Buying the Robert-Houdin theater from his widow in Paris, he developed a successful act with illusions such as “The Vanishing Lady.” Méliès was in the audience when the Lumière brothers held their first public film screening on December 28, 1895, and within months was exhibiting movies at his theater.
Méliès made his first film in November, 1896, built his own studio in 1901 and formed the Star Film brand to market his work in France and internationally. He made movies about current events and fairy tales, replicated his stage illusions on screen and developed a highly advanced technical style that incorporated stop-motion animation: double-, triple-, and quadruple-exposures; cross-dissolves; and jump cuts. More than any of his contemporaries, Méliès made movies that were fun and exciting. They were filled with stunts, tricks, jokes, dancing girls, elaborate sets and hints of the macabre.
A Trip to the Moon had several antecedents, including the 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and A Trip to the Moon, a four-act opera with music by Jacques Offenbach that debuted in 1877. Méliès may also have been aware of a theater show at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, called A Trip to the Moon. Filming started in May, 1902. It was released on September 1 in Paris and a little over a month later in New York City.
At the time exhibitors and individuals could purchase films outright from the Star Films catalog. Color prints were available at an extra cost. Probably not too many color prints of A Trip to the Moon were ever in existence, but it came out right around that time color became a real fad. Within a couple of years, the hand-painting was replaced by tinting and stencil process, so color became more prevalent and less expensive. Several color Méliès films survive, but it was believed that the color Trip to the Moon had long been lost.
But in 1993, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films obtained an original nitrate print from the Filmoteca de Catalunya. The only problem: it had decomposed into the equivalent of a solid hockey puck. In 1999, Bromberg and Lange, two of the most indefatigable of all film historians, began to try to unspool the reel by placing it in the equivalent of a humidor, using a chemical compound that softened the nitrate enough to digitally document individual frames. (The process also ultimately destroyed the film.)
Years later, Bromberg had some 5,000 digital files, which he handed over to Tom Burton, the executive director of Technicolor Restoration Services in Hollywood. In a recent phone call, Burton described how his team approached this “bucket of digital shards.”
“What we got was a bunch of digital data that had no sequential relationship to each other because they had to photograph whatever frame or piece of a frame that they could,” Burton recalled. “We had to figure out the puzzle of where these chunks of frames, sometimes little corners of a frame or a half of a frame, where all these little pieces went. Over a period of about nine months we put all these pieces back together, building not only sections but rebuilding individual frames from shattered pieces.”
Burton estimated that they could salvage between 85 to 90 percent of the print. They filled in the missing frames by copying them from a private print held by the Méliès family and digitally coloring the frames to match the original hand colored source.
“It’s really more a visual effects project in a way than a restoration project,” Burton said. “A lot of the technology that we used to rebuild these frames is the technology you would use if you were making a first-run, major visual effects motion picture. You’d never have been able to pull this off 10 years ago, and certainly not at all with analog, photochemical technology.”
For Burton, A Trip to the Moon represents the beginnings of modern visual effects as we know them today. “Seeing it in color makes it a whole different film,” he said. “The technique involved teams of women painting individual frames with tiny brushes and aniline dyes. The color is surprisingly accurate but at times not very precise. It will wander in and out of an actor’s jacket, for example. But it’s very organic. It will never rival the way A Trip to the Moon first screened for audiences, but it’s still pretty amazing.”
A Trip to the Moon was shown at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in May, and is screening on September 6 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bromberg will be showing it at this year’s New York Film Festival, and on November 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, along “with the world premiere of my documentary about the restoration. An absolute must!” as he wrote in an e-mail. Was this his most exciting restoration? “One of them, of course,” he answered. “The best one is the next one!!”
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.
August 26, 2011
One of the towering moments in 20th-century oratory, the speech we now know as “I Have a Dream” was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was one of the turning points in the civil rights movement, a gathering of more than 200,000 people on the National Mall to hear leaders from the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups.
At one point called “A Cancelled Check,” the speech was actually an amalgam of several of King’s previous talks and sermons, including “Unfulfilled Hopes” in 1959 and “The American Dream” in 1961 and 1962. This may not be the best place to discuss the purpose, merits and antecedents of “I Have a Dream,” although I confess that its ending never fails to move me to tears. What’s more germane is how difficult it has become to actually view the entire 17-minute speech.
You can find any number of truncated versions on YouTube, and television networks reliably pull out clips every February for Black History Month. (Smithsonian.com offers the full audio version.) The opening ceremonies marking the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial in Washington, D.C., has provided even more opportunities for more broadcast segments about the speech. (Hurricane Irene has caused the postponement of these ceremonies.)
Some 1,600 press passes were issued by organizers of the March, and it was covered extensively by both print and broadcast journalists. Cameramen were stationed throughout the National Mall, even in the Washington Monument. CBS broadcast the Lincoln Memorial segment live, and the three major networks led with the story on their nightly news programs.
Surprisingly, few of the initial press accounts dealt with King’s speech, focusing instead on the upbeat mood of the attendees and agreeing with the demands for equality expressed throughout the day. Many writers also pointed out the celebrities in attendance such as Mahalia Jackson and Joan Baez.
But as “I Have a Dream” grew in popularity, it also attracted legal attention. In 1999, the King estate sued CBS over the copyright status of the speech. The dispute centered around the fact that King had not registered his speech with the Registrar of Copyrights. However, the United State Court of Appeals ruled that the King estate did in fact have copyright over the speech. (The parties eventually settled out of court.) The court decision partially explains why video of the complete speech is hard to find online. The audio version, pulled from a radio broadcast, is considered in the public domain.
Two films made prior to that decision incorporated large portions of the speech. Released in 1964, The March was made by the United States Information Agency, the government’s unofficial propaganda arm whose films were shown mostly to foreign audiences. George Stevens, Jr., at the time the director of the USIA, wanted a documentary about the march despite the controversy he knew it would generate. “We hired many 35mm cameramen through Hearst News and covered the event thoroughly,” he told me over e-mail in 2009. “I think it was afterward that I asked [director] Jim Blue to become involved. No one at Hearst could craft the kind of film we wanted.” Stevens was pleased with the results: “It was, for the most part, wonderfully received by USIA posts overseas.” The film is available for streaming or download from the Internet Archive, or split up in three parts on YouTube
Conceived and produced by Ely Landau, the second film, King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis, provided a three-hour biography of King. The film capitalized on the fact that King was one of the first public figures whose entire career had been documented on film. In a way, King… showed how the politician molded his image as he evolved from a small-town minister to national spokesman. King… condenses the “I Have a Dream” speech to eight minutes, with Landau and his crew forced to rely at times on scratched footage.
Watching the speech today shows how sophisticated politicians have become at defining an image. To best get his message across, King had to learn how to control the film or television frame. In his early appearances, he often seems just a face in the crowd. Even while delivering “I Have a Dream,” King is framed with irrelevant and at times distracting figures, including a policeman who adjusts a row of microphones and people in the background who are not always paying attention. In King…, editors John Carter and Lora Hays, assisted by Hank Greenberg, Steve Roberts and Jack Sholder, had to resort to several different film viewpoints in order to present the best available version of King’s oration.
King….A Filmed Record….From Montgomery to Memphis is available for purchase from its associate producer Richard Kaplan.