April 27, 2012
As I wrote earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival ends this weekend with a screening of The Avengers, the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation and a linchpin in a marketing plan that now extends to 2016, when The Avengers 2 will be released. The Festival has already handed out its awards, including Best Documentary Feature going to The World Before Her, and a special jury mention for The Revisionaries.
The most intriguing awards went to Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s feature drama about three young Cubans. The film won for Best New Narrative Director (Mulloy), Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature Film (Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder), and Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (Dariel Arrechada and Javier Núñez Florián). Arrechada picked up his award at the Festival, but Florián and a third costar, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, dropped from sight at the Miami airport and may have defected in real life.
CinemaCon, billed as “the largest and most important gathering of movie theatre owners from around the world,” ended its four-day run at Caesars Palace on August 26. The annual trade show of the National Association of Theatre Owners, CinemaCon featured panels on marketing, employee relations, demonstrations of equipment (e.g., “Light Levels: Optimizing Screens and Lamps”); awards to stars like Jeremy Renner, Charlize Theron, and Taylor Kitsch; and corporate suites, cocktail parties, and dinners emceed by the likes of Jack Black.
More important, CinemaCon is a chance for studios to preview their summer blockbusters. Attendees saw excerpts from Pixar’s Brave, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows and The Dark Knight Rises, and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson stirred up some controversy by asking theater owners to project The Hobbit in a version that runs at 48 frames per second, a speed he said would produce greater clarity and be “more gentle on the eyes.” (24 fps has been the standard since the industry switched to sound at the end of the 1920s.)
CinemaCon is targeted toward theater owners and only incidentally to moviegoers. The Orphan Film Symposium, on the other hand, covers films that have no audience, and in many cases no clear owners either. Made to Persuade, the eighth edition of the symposium, ran from April 11–14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, offering almost 100 films and as many speakers. (I also wrote about the 7th symposium for Smithsonian.)
The symposium lets archivists and historians meet and share work, and also screen restoration work before it becomes available to the public. Funding for archives and for preservation work in general is a bigger problem than ever, and several of the over 300 attendees had stories of lost jobs, curtailed projects, and rejected grants. A greater surprise for me was the sharp rise in digital as opposed to film presentations, which I hope to explore in more detail in a future posting.
Some of the highlights of the symposium included a screening introduced by Jay Schwartz of a newly restored version of The Jungle, a 1967 film about gang violence made by actual members of a North Philadelphia gang. A stark, haunting combination of documentary and staged footage, The Jungle is an uncompromising portrait of an urban nightmare.
Walter Forsberg screened a series of computer animation films from AT&T/Bell Labs, highlighting the difficulty in preserving art that began as software code.
Jon Gartenberg showed excerpts from films shot by Tassilo Adam in the Dutch East Indies in the 1920s. Although preserved digitally, the material had the lustrous sheen of the nitrate on which it was originally filmed. Adam filmed with the cooperation of authorities, who staged processions and gatherings for his camera. Nevertheless, his footage shows a considerably more sophisticated vision of Bali than other films of the period.
A session devoted to Sheldon and Lee Dick included School: A Film about Progressive Education, a 1939 documentary that predates cinema verite techniques by some twenty years, and Men and Dust (1940), about the effects of silicosis on mine workers. A publisher and photographer as well as a filmmaker, Sheldon Dick was also an heir to the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine fortune. He is perhaps more famous today for murdering his third wife and then committing suicide.
More lighthearted fare included a series of advertising films I will discuss in a future posting, Presidential campaign ads from 1948, a film produced by several Hollywood studios promoting 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” and Past and Present in the Cradle of Dixie, a silent short from the Paragon Feature Film Company that used romance and the threat of a house fire to promote Montgomery, Alabama as a great place to live.
Sergei Kapterev of the Moscow Research Institute of Film showed the beguiling educational film The Flight to Thousands of Suns, made by Aleksei Yerin at Popular Science Films, a Leningrad studio founded in 1933 as Techfilm Factory #1. The studio released some 4,000 titles. Equally as fascinating was Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated short by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used in psychological studies.
Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash, previous winners of the Helen Hill Awards for animation, hand-drew directly onto a reel of 70mm clear leader to take advantage of the Museum of the Moving Image’s 70mm projectors. The 2012 Helen Hill Awards went to Jeanne Liotta and Jo Dery. In films like Loretta (2003), Liotta builds menacing worlds from strips of film, exposed rayograms, and abstract sound. Dery’s films use cutouts, animation, and a mordant sense of humor to make accessible if unsettling cartoons. Woodpecker in Snow Shoes (2008) was particularly strong.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project, announced that the next symposium will be held in 2014 at the EYE Film Instituut in Amsterdam. Streible just co-edited, with Devin and Marsha Orgeron, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States for Oxford University Press. He also received a 2012 Academy Film Scholar grant for his book proposal Orphan Films: Saving, Screening, and Studying Neglected Cinema.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 19, 2012
The 11th Tribeca Film Festival opened yesterday with the world premiere of The Five-Year Engagement, a romantic comedy that opens in theaters nationwide on April 27. The festival ends on April 29 with a special screening of the highly anticipated Disney adaptation of The Avengers. In between these two “tentpole” events is a sprawling festival culled from almost 6,000 submissions.
The festival will be screening 89 features in several New York venues, with series like “World Narrative Competition,” “Spotlight” and “Cinemania,” as well as an expanded online presence, industry panels and a number of free events—including the return of the Tribeca Drive-In, this year showing Jaws, Goonies and the new baseball documentary Knuckleball.
Last year’s edition attracted some 400,000 visitors, but the Tribeca Film Festival in some ways still seems to be searching for an identity. Founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, the festival was originally intended to bring people back to New York’s downtown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then it has grown into a combination of civic booster and industry incubator, with offshoots like the Tribeca Film Institute helping to fund documentary and independent projects.
Other film festivals have done a better job in staking out their territory: the New York Film Festival focuses on European auteurs; SXSW on independents and mixed media; the Toronto International Film Festival, towards more purely commercial titles; Sundance, on low-budget, downbeat character studies.
Geoffrey Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival, now heads an overhauled programming staff at Tribeca. He joins Frédéric Boyer, formerly with the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and now Tribeca’s artistic director. In press conferences, neither is willing to define a “Tribeca film,” citing goals of presenting excellent and unseen titles instead, a way to reintroduce viewers to “film culture.” “A platform for discussion,” as Gilmore went on in a recent interview, “a place where a filmmaker can be discovered.”
Tentpoles aside, the majority of movies at Tribeca are niche titles that don’t receive wide distribution. Exposure is key, and this is where the festival can really help bring attention to deserving projects. By grouping films together, Tribeca can cause a sort of “umbrella effect,” in which a music documentary like The Zen of Bennett, about the popular singer, might help highlight The Russian Winter, which follows former Fugees member and ex-con John Forté on his concert tour of Russia.
In fact, this year’s Tribeca is top-heavy with music documentaries, some of which look irresistible. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey follows Filipino singer Arnel Pineda from the slums of Manila to lead singer of the rock band Journey. Searching for Sugar Man examines the mysterious career of 1970s rocker Rodriguez, who became an inexplicable favorite in South Africa. Queen: Days of Our Lives is filled with archival footage of the band on stage and in the studio. Wagner’s Dream, featuring Deborah Voigt, charts the Metropolitan Opera’s five-year plan to stage Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Several thrillers fill out this year’s schedule, proving yet again that, in the words of critic Otis Ferguson, “Crime doesn’t pay—except at the box office.” Set in the Philippines, Graceland follows the aftermath of a botched kidnapping in an unacknowledged reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low. In Unit 7, police tackle drug dealers in Seville. The cop in the French film Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche) has to ransom his son with stolen cocaine. In Canada’s Deadfall, a blizzard blocks a crook and his sister (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) in their attempt to get across the border. And in Freaky Deaky, directed by Charles Matthau, stars like Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, and Michael Jai White try to bring Elmore Leonard’s crime novel to life. (Leonard, Slater, Glover and Matthau will appear in a panel following the April 21 screening.)
Scouts have been touting titles like First Winter (which my insider spy criticized as dull and pretentious); 2 Days in New York, Julie Delpy’s follow-up to 2 Days in Paris; and Francophenia (or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), the latest in writer-actor-director-teacher James Franco’s media onslaught. Here are four films I am looking forward to:
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story—Director Raymond De Felitta returns to Mississippi to examine the aftermath of his father Frank’s 1965 documentary about racism in a film that proves that intolerance is still a way of life in the South.
The Revisionaries—How textbook standards are set by the 15-member Texas State Board of Education.
Side by Side—Writer and director Chris Kenneally interviews the industry’s top filmmakers, including James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, about the differences between digital and film processes. If you’ve been following this blog, you can bet that I’ll be covering this film in greater detail in the future.
The World Before Her—Director Nisha Pahuja takes a look at both the Miss India beauty pageant and a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls to show how women are perceived in contemporary India.
April 13, 2012
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Lake Placid, New York, you’ve probably passed the Palace Theater, a fixture on Main Street since 1926. “The Pride of the Great North Woods,” as it used to be advertised, The Palace has hosted everything from vaudeville to organ recitals and silent film festivals. Now with four screens showing first-run films, the theater draws residents and visitors who are either exhausted from outdoor activities or seeking a respite from Adirondack storms.
Newcomers and old hands alike find a warm, friendly theater graced with period details and modern enhancements. Since 1961, the Palace has been owned by Reg Clark, who runs the theater with his wife Barbara and their children. “It was a wedding present,” Reg told me, standing in the lobby between shows. “We got married in 1960 and I bought the theater in 1961. I went to her and said, ‘Barbara, I just bought the Palace Theater.’ Almost had a divorce on my hands.”
“He said, ‘How much money do you have? I need to borrow some,’” Barbara adds. “And he said right off this would be a family project. We have five children, and they all have helped here. Right now one daughter does all the advertising, the other works in the box office, one son gives out passes, and the other does a lot of the little things that always need doing.”
In 1926, Lake Placid business leaders decided that the town needed a first-run theater to attract visitors. (An earlier theater, The Happy Hour, closed soon after the Palace opened.) They spared no expense, outfitting the venue with a stage and proscenium, and installing a Robert Morton pipe organ that still attracts aficionados.
“When we bought the theater, the people who had it were going to enlarge the proscenium arch,” Reg recalls. “They were on ladders drilling out the wall when they came to this cable that had hundreds of colored wires inside. They asked the contractor, ‘What do you do with this cable?’ It was from the pipe organ.”
Barbara picks up the story: “Each wire was the equivalent of a note, and a note had to match the wire or the sound wouldn’t pass through. We had a young man at the school who taught music, and he and our manager at that time did the matching.”
The Clarks have made other changes to the theater. “In 1980 we doubled, or twinned it, we put a wall between the downstairs and upstairs,” Reg explained. “In 1983 we tripled it by putting a wall that split the upstairs theater. And in 1985, we took the stage out and built a new theater there.”
But the Clarks made sure to hold onto the details that made the Palace so distinctive when it opened. A large fireplace sits behind the concession stand, and the lobby boasts hand-stenciled designs that evoke patterns from the 1920s.
Films are screened twice a night year-round, with weekend matinees in the winter and daily matinees in the summer. Although the Clarks recently raised admission prices for the first time in ten years, tickets are a bargain by anyone’s standards: $7 for adults at night, and $5 for children. Plus, candy and popcorn are a steal. “We could charge more,” Barbara admits, “but we like to see more people.”
Barbara believes that the Palace serves as a sort of anchor for Main Street. Reg agrees: “When I used to work here, the Palace was the center of everything in town, and it still is.” The Clarks have a working relationship with the Lake Placid Film Festival and the nearby Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The Palace occasionally screens silent films, with Jeff Barker coming up from New York City to accompany on the organ. In cooperation with the Lions Club, the theater shows The Polar Express free for local children every December, bringing Santa Claus in for the occasion.
In recognition of the Palace’s importance to Lake Placid, TAUNY—Traditional Arts in Upstate New York—added the theater to its Register of Very Special Places in July, 2010.
Summer is a wonderful time to visit Lake Placid, and every night crowds gather under the Palace marquee. But even on cold, wintry nights, lines can stretch down the block. Entering the theater is like stepping back into a time before tablets, cable, before television itself hijacked our nights.
The theater’s biggest recent hit was Titanic, which played for fifteen weeks when it opened. But the Clarks are too busy to actually attend their screenings. “We have a date night once in a while,” Barbara admitted. “I don’t watch too many,” Reg said. “If I’m here and it’s quiet I’ll go in and watch some of the show.”
Tell us about your favorite movie theater in the comments section.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me @Film_Legacy.
March 14, 2012
My post Watching Movies in the Cloud discussed the implications of streaming movies onto your computer. It focused on the end result: how watching movies on your computer compared with watching them in a theater. But commenter Paul Kakert raised a very good point. Where are new movies, in particular documentaries, coming from? Will streaming affect the subject matter of the movies themselves, and not just their sound and image? Can you find worthwhile titles in the cloud that haven’t played in theaters?
Kakert cited his nonprofit, the Iowa-based Storytellers International, which promotes and distributes its titles through DocumentaryTV.com. Documentaries are a chronically underfunded genre, and it’s almost as difficult to get them into theaters as it is to make them.
Several documentary distributors have established online sites, including Appalshop, where you can stream Mimi Pickering’s troubling Buffalo Creek Flood: an Act of Man; Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which offers the Alaskan films by Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling; Docurama Films, covering arts, social issues, and ethnic documentaries; Kartemquin Films, the organization behind Hoop Dreams; Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films; and many others. Independent distributors like Milestone, Criterion, and Kino also offer documentary titles.
What sets something like Kartemquin Films apart from distributors is that Kartemquin also helps produce titles. Traditionally it’s been very difficult to get money to make documentaries. Robert Flaherty, about whose films the critic John Grierson coined the very word “documentary,” struggled throughout his career to finance his projects. Nanook of the North, one of the most famous titles in the genre, was paid for in part by the French furrier John Revillon. Once Nanook became a box-office hit, Flaherty signed with the Hollywood studio Paramount.
Paramount was remarkably adventurous in the 1920s, financing Flaherty and the filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, at the time making documentaries like Grass and Chang, but soon to stun the world with King Kong. Most studios established footholds in the genre, usually through newsreels and short subjects. By far the biggest sponsor of documentaries was the government, both on local and federal levels. The state of Connecticut produced educational films on everything from hygiene to citizenship, while in the 1930s, Washington, DC, became a haven for artists like Flaherty, Pare Lorentz, and Virgil Thompson.
Government involvement in film production spiked during World War II, when the film industry’s top leaders either enlisted or cooperated with propaganda efforts. After the war, documentarians went back to scrounging for money. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1949) was financed by Standard Oil, while John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) received funding from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Many fledgling filmmakers turned to the United States Information Agency, or USIA, the government’s overseas propaganda arm.
Documentarians became adept at freelancing. David and Albert Maysles made television commercials for Citibank. D A Pennebaker worked on ABC’s Living Camera series. Wiseman signed a contract with WNET, the New York City public television outlet.
In fact, public television has become a prime outlet for documentaries. Adapted from the BBC series Horizon, NOVA has acquired or produced scores of documentaries since its inception in 1974. Created in 1984, American Masters offers biographies of artists like Margaret Mitchell and Merle Haggard. Since 1988, POV has screened some 300 independent documentaries, including works by Wiseman, the Maysles, and Errol Morris.
For the past decades, HBO Documentary Films has dominated the commercial front, due in large part to Sheila Nevins, who is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. (Full disclosure: I worked in HBO’s story department back in the 1990s.) Nevins exerts remarkable influence, as director Joe Berlinger told me last fall.
“Sheila Nevins was a big fan of Brother’s Keeper, our first film,” Berlinger said. “After it had a nice run, she sent us a little article, a clipping that had made it to like page B20 of the New York Times, an AP wire service story picked up from a local paper.” That was the basis for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of documentaries Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky made about the West Memphis Three.
HBO and PBS operate like the major leagues for documentarians, suggesting topics, funding research, providing publicity and all-important exposure. But what if you haven’t made a documentary yet? How do you get funding?
In his blog The Front Row, New Yorker writer and editor Richard Brody linked to a fascinating Steven Spielberg interview in which the director claimed that right now is a great time to make movies. The director was quoted:
You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it! If no one hires you, use the camera on your phone and post everything on YouTube. A young person has more opportunities to direct now than in my day. I’d have liked to begin making movies today.
Spielberg in fact worked with the 1960s equivalent of a camera phone, Super 8 film, on which he made a number of shorts and even a feature, Firelight. He also had a preternatural grasp of film technique and grammar and uncanny insight into the culture of his time, skills that made him one of the most successful directors of our time. The problem with his YouTube argument is that while almost anyone can make a movie, not everyone has the same abilities. And finding an audience can be overwhelmingly difficult.
Nurturing and mentoring young filmmakers is one of the goals behind the Tribeca Film Institute’s many development programs. The TFI Documentary Fund provided $150,000 in grants to filmmakers like Daniel Gordon (whose The Race examines a disputed contest in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Penny Lane and Brian Frye, who use the President’s home movies to provide a new look at Our Nixon.
The Tribeca Film Festival also offers the following programs. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund helps filmmakers complete feature-length documentaries with social justice themes. Tribeca All Access pairs new filmmakers with established professionals for intensive workshops and one-on-one meetings. The TFI New Media Fund offers grants to projects that integrate film with other media platforms. One especially intriguing TFI program involves teaching digital storytelling to immigrant students. In Los Angeles, experienced filmmakers team with teachers, community activists and parents to help students script their own stories in an 18-week program. The program has been operating for six years in all five of New York City’s boroughs. This year, for example, a Bronx school will partner with one in Brazil to make a film.
The Sundance Institute offers several programs as well, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which gives up to $2 million in grants to between 35-50 documentary projects a year; Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, a $3 million partnership between the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation; and invitation-only Creative Documentary Labs.
Unwilling to tailor your film to fit the rules and regulations of grant organizations? Kickstarter allows you to reach out to peers for financing. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter currently lists 2715 documentary projects, including films about David Lynch, Simone Weil, and the Oscar-nominated short Incident in New Baghdad.
Girl Walk // All Day is a perfect example of a Kickstarter project. A 77-minute dance video synched to the 2010 album All Day by Girl Talk (sampling artist Gregg Gillis), the project received almost $25,000 from over 500 donors. It’s hard to see how director, editor, and co-cinematographer Jacob Krupnick would have received funding from traditional documentary organizations, but his movie has already been compared to the 3D dance film Pina by Variety. Because of rights issues, it’s unlikely that the film will get a commercial release, but you can screen it online.
January 12, 2012
With the movie industry chasing dwindling audiences, studios are discovering that tried-and-true methods of the past no longer work the way they used to. That doesn’t stop executives from repeating themselves, or copying from rivals. The list of 2012 titles from major studios is dominated by sequels, spin-offs, and virtual clones of past successes.
Gaining increasing prominence in 2012: 3D, an added element for around 30 features. In fact, four major titles are getting rereleased in 3D: Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Titanic and Finding Nemo. 3D means increased revenue for studios, since theaters can charge more per ticket. Two perhaps unintended corollaries: 3D forces theater owners to spend more to upgrade their screens. 3D is also a digital process, further reducing screens that show projected film.
Along with sequels and spin-offs, 2012 will see more comic book movies. Sometimes they are both: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, sequel to Nicolas Cage’s earlier Ghost Rider; The Avengers, which brings together Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor while adding at least two more superheroes with franchise potential. The latter is the first Disney film to feature Marvel characters since the studio purchased the venerable comics company. The Avengers is written and directed by Joss Whedon, which is reason enough to raise expectations.
Expectations are pretty low for The Three Stooges, an updating by the Farrelly brothers of a once-popular comedy franchise. Work began on the project back in 2000. At one point Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were attached to star; the trio is now portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso.
Among other head-scratching choices: a new Dredd, “unrelated” to the earlier Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd although based on the same comic book; yet another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this one in 3D; John Carter, a Disney production taken from novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs—and a film whose budget is reputed to top $275 million; reboots of the TV series 21 Jump Street and Dark Shadows; and new versions of Total Recall, Red Dawn, and the Jason Bourne character (in The Bourne Legacy).
Several current and former big-name directors are releasing titles in 2012, including (in roughly chronological order) Steven Soderbergh (Haywire and later Magic Mike), Ridley Scott (with an Alien-linked Prometheus), Madonna (W.E.), Tyler Perry (Good Deeds and later The Marriage Counselor), Lasse Hallstrom (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Walter Hill (Bullet to the Head), Lawrence Kasdan (Darling Companion), Boaz Yakin (Safe), Tim Burton (Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie), Peter Berg (Battleship), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black III), Christopher Nolan (concluding his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises), Oliver Stone (Savages), Sam Mendes (a curious choice for the James Bond entry Skyfall), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), Judd Apatow (This Is Forty), Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), Kathryn Bigelow (whose Osama bin Laden film has had its release postponed to after the Presidential election) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit).
And then there’s The Great Gatsby, already inspiring as much grousing as Tom Cruise’s casting as Jack Reacher in an adaptation of Lee Child’s One Shot. Earlier versions of Gatsby—including a 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and a 1949 version with Alan Ladd—were not critical successes, to put it kindly. (A silent version released in 1926 is one of the more lamented of lost features; only its trailer remains.) This version, in 3D and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is directed by Baz Lurhmann, whose last film was the widely derided Australia.
All in all, a pretty exciting lineup, even with the clunkers I deliberately included.
2012 also marks the centennial of both Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios—or at least it’s the date the firms have chosen to celebrate. While it’s true that Paramount founder Adolph Zukor started the Famous Players Film Co. in 1912, Paramount did not exist as a legal entity until 1914. Some feel that Universal should date its beginnings from the opening of its Universal City studio in 1915; others cite founder Carl Laemmle’s 1906 film exchange and his IMP Studio in 1909 as potential starting dates.
Both studios plan major celebrations; I’ll be writing about the restoration of Paramount’s Wings next week. In the meantime, the studio offers Paramount 100 for iPad, which raises the question: Why would you write an iPhone/iPad app with Flash content? Universal promises restorations of titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Jaws, The Sting, Out of Africa, Frankenstein and Schindler’s List. (There’s even an official Universal Centennial website.)
Complementing new releases is the alternate universe of festivals and conventions devoted to older films. I hope to write about some of them in more depth later on, but here is a quick list of the more notable gatherings:
Cinefest 32 in Liverpool, New York (outside Syracuse), from March 15 – 18. Highlights include Mr. Fix-It (1918) with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mamba, “not seen in the U.S. in 81 years.”
The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood from April 12 – 15.
Cinevent 44 in Columbus, Ohio, from May 25 – 28.
The 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival from July 12 – 15.
Capitolfest, held at the Rome Theatre in Rome, NY, from August 10 – 12. This year’s festival features a tribute to Warner Oland, the screen’s most famous Charlie Chan.
Cinecon 48 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, August 30 – September 3. According to Bob Birchard, the president, “Cinecon is the oldest and the grandest of the movie-related fan festivals.”
Cinesation, at the Lincoln Theater in Massillon, Ohio, September 27 – 30.
And for those with deep pockets, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival runs October 6 – 13.
For film buffs, the most eagerly awaited restoration is Napoleon, playing for four nights this March and April at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The culmination of Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow’s fifty-year obsession with Abel Gance’s epic, this version of Napoleon runs over five hours, and will be screened with a full orchestra playing a score by Carl Davis. Do not wait for this to appear on DVD, as Mr. Brownlow has stated repeatedly that it is too expensive to commit to a home video transfer.
2012 actually looks like a pretty promising year for movies, both old and new.
October 19, 2011
Few movie stars have adapted to celebrity as well as George Clooney. The actor, screenwriter and director has dominated media coverage in New York City for the past two weeks, first for his political thriller The Ides of March, and just this past weekend for The Descendants, a drama about a family from Hawaii coping with a crisis. (Fox Searchlight will be releasing The Descendants on November 18.)
To promote the former film, Clooney participated in a live “10 Questions” conference with Time magazine’s Richard Stengel. Seated on a low stage before a hundred or so writers and staffers, the actor was just like we want our movie stars to be: warm, funny, articulate, willing to clown around with reporters but also to speak knowledgeably about Darfur. Asked if he would consider running for office, he quipped, “Run from is more like it.”
You could gauge Clooney’s appeal from those who attended the conference, including more well-dressed women than, say, Newt Gingrich might have attracted to his 10 Questions event. Even the male journalists were dressed up.
Clooney acknowledged that he received more attention than he probably deserved, but the corollary is that everyone expects something from him. And although The Ides of March received some lukewarm reviews, Clooney still had to play nice, giving reasoned answers to sometimes ridiculous or borderline offensive questions. And he was at it again later that evening for the New York premiere of The Ides of March at the Ziegfeld Theatre.
For The Descendants, Clooney appeared with many of the cast members and director Alexander Payne for a short conference at the New York Film Festival after a screening Sunday morning, October 16. (This was after another screening and conference the night before at a joint SAG/BAFTRA event.) Again Clooney faced maddening questions: Why did he wear Hawaiian shirts in the movie? What would he do if his girlfriend cheated on him? (“I’m not going to say anything because I don’t want that answer coming back to me.”)
Behind the joshing and teasing, Clooney seemed far more relaxed than he did promoting The Ides of March. For one thing, he did not direct, co-write, or produce The Descendants. But both the actor and the reporters present seemed to realize that The Descendants was something different, a movie of old-fashioned, even classical craft, one that offers Clooney perhaps the strongest role of his career.
The hyper-articulate Alexander Payne, director of such critical favorites as Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt, told the audience that he adapted The Descendants (originally a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings) with Clooney in mind. An indication of the actor’s power is that filming started only four months after he agreed to star in it.
In its settings and characters, The Descendants evokes a long tradition of Hollywood films that used to be called message dramas, or more frequently soap operas. They dealt with upper-cast life in posh settings, allowing viewers to luxuriate in unattainable life styles while reassuring them that they wouldn’t be happy there anyway.
The Descendants takes place on the big island of Oahu, and Payne captures its achingly beautiful vistas in ways that haven’t been seen much feature films. (He also cushions the story with classic Hawaiian music by Gabby Pahinui, Keola Beamer, and other traditional artists.) The director’s calm, unhurried style puts the audience at ease before he springs the plot’s tough moral questions.
The story centers on Matt King (played by Clooney) and his two young daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller). Their mother has fallen into an irreversible coma after a boating accident. King, a distant father at best, tries to reconnect with his children in an awkward but instantly recognizable journey to some form of reconciliation.
The Descendants is ultimately a story about forgiveness, albeit one played out among country clubs, private schools, and beachside cottages. Payne cited two “ins” into the story, one in which King decides how to confront a rival, another in which a wife (played by the estimable Judy Greer) must face up to her husband’s infidelities. Both moments ask viewers to consider how they would react, a narrative strategy that’s the polar opposite of Hollywood’s usual punch/counter-punch approach to storytelling.
Clooney is usually the alpha male in his movies. Think of his lawyer in Michael Clayton, a ruthless fixer who can talk his way out of any situation. Or Governor Mike Morris in The Ides of March, a politician so confident he can step beyond rules meant for more ordinary men.
Payne does something different in The Descendants: he strips Clooney of his power. Matt King isn’t articulate, he isn’t a very good father, and he was a failure as a husband. Cousins and in-laws, to say nothing of his daughters, push him around with ease. King puts up a good fight, but by the end of the movie everything he believed about himself has been taken away.
Clooney plays King as someone in a state of perpetual stunned disbelief. He reacts silently to each new revelation rather than spinning out glib one-liners, and he lets his pain show. It’s a performance that makes him and The Descendants immediate front-runners in the Oscar race.
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.
September 30, 2011
General Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was not an immediate hit when it was first published in 1880. But within a decade it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, inspiring a stage adaptation by William Young that the famous theatrical team of Klaw & Erlanger produced in 1889. An unauthorized 1907 film version written by Gene Gauntier and directed by Sidney Olcott led to considerable legal problems, and in the process helped extend copyright protection to motion pictures. The second film adaptation, a troubled production that stretched from Rome to Hollywood, was an enormous hit for MGM when it was released in 1925. One of the many assistant directors on the project was William Wyler, who worked on the famous chariot sequence.
When MGM initiated a remake some 30 years later, Wyler took on the project in part as a dare, to see if he could “out DeMille DeMille,” a master of Biblical melodrama. Wyler also relished a return to Rome, where he and his family had lived while he was making Roman Holiday. Released in 1959, Wyler’s Ben-Hur was an epic blockbuster that went on to win 11 Oscars, a record at the time.
For its 50th anniversary, Warner Home Video prepared a new restoration, released on Blu-ray and DVD earlier this week. And lucky New Yorkers who were able to score tickets will see the movie on the big screen tomorrow at the New York Film Festival.
Ben-Hur has always been marked by excess. It was the largest, most expensive production of its time—on stage, in 1925, and in 1959. Statistics overwhelm artistry: Wyler’s crew went through a million pounds of plaster, 100,000 costumes, 15,000 extras, and 40,000 tons of white sand from Mediterranean beaches, data trumpeted to the world by MGM publicists.
Even the renovation work was epic, costing Warner Brothers $1 million. “We have been working on this extensive restoration for several years, hoping we could be ready with a 2009 release for the actual 50th,” Warner Brothers executive Jeff Baker explained in a press release. After attending a screening, Fraser Heston, actor Charlton’s son and a director in his own right, said, “It was an extraordinary, life-changing experience, like sitting next to Wyler in his answer print screening, only better.”
Wyler’s daughter Catherine was one of the many celebrities and dignitaries who visited the set, and she spoke to me about the impact the film had on her. A college student at the time, she spent the summer and vacations in Rome during the shoot and was well aware of the problems her father encountered during the production. “From having read the script and been on the set and listened to my father talk about it for a couple of years, I knew a fair amount about the film before I saw it,” she said. “I was prepared for it to be large-scale, for the acting to be terrific. But it doesn’t matter what your expectations are, the film was so much bigger and more epic and more outstanding than anything we had seen before.”
Ms. Wyler admits to a slight ambivalence about Ben-Hur, worried because it tends to overshadow the rest of her father’s career, and for the critical response he received. “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film,” she said. “He was someone who was interested in making all kinds of movies, in giving himself challenges, and it wasn’t something that critics were willing to consider. But they should have asked themselves why Ben-Hur succeeded so much better than the other epics of the time. The impact of the chariot race is undiminished, but look at how well the intimate scenes work.”
She added, “My father spent so much time thinking about the project, how to portray Christ, how to portray the crucifixion, being aware that so many great minds through the centuries had taken this on. He used to joke that, ‘It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.’”
Ms. Wyler, who directed a 1986 documentary about her father, Directed by William Wyler, hopes that the publicity for Ben-Hur will help introduce viewers, “especially younger people,” to his earlier movies, including such outstanding titles as Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress.
Wyler had a reputation as a difficult personality, something his daughter attributes to his perfectionist streak. “It’s true that actresses found him difficult,” she admitted. “But he wanted them to come to work with their own ideas. It they didn’t, he could be short-tempered. Some called him inarticulate. But I think he wasn’t inarticulate at all, he just didn’t want to tell actresses, or actors, what to do. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves, show him their ideas. If he didn’t like those ideas he could always offer his own, but he always hoped there might be a better way.”
The perfectionism carried over to Wyler’s home life as well. “He expected a lot of himself and his kids,” Wyler said. But her memories of her father are warm: “He was full of humor and adventure, he was really fun to be with. He was also politically involved, he cared about the world and put his beliefs out there. He was madly in love with his wife. He was just a great guy.”
September 23, 2011
Film festivals used to have two seasons, roughly spring and fall. Spring saw Berlin’s Berlinale and the Cannes Film Festival; fall was reserved for Venice’s La Biennale di Venezia, now in its 68th year and one that promotes itself as the world’s oldest. Since Venice first started handing out awards back in 1932, film festivals have grown into a year-round industry, with line-ups devoted to everything from medical films to silent Western star Broncho Billy Anderson.
Notorious for its parties and starlets, Cannes has lost some influence over the years. More distribution deals are struck at the Toronto International Film Festival, which this year screened some 300 films to audiences of distributors, critics, and moviemakers. Kevin Lally, executive editor of Film Journal International, gave me a rundown of his time in Toronto: “I saw 23 films and one shorts program in six days. For me, some of the best were less heralded foreign-language films like Terraferma and A Better Life (not the Chris Weitz movie). I suspect it was a good lineup this year, since there were a lot of well-received films I never got to. Three hundred movies is a lot to wade through.” (You can read more of Kevin’s impressions on his Screener blog.)
That’s the problem with most film festivals in a nutshell: how do you see all the titles on display? Toronto gave awards to Where Do We Go Now?, The Island President, The Raid, and Monsieur Lazhar, few of which will make it to your local multiplex. Venice gave its Golden Lion to Faust, loosely based on Goethe’s tragedy and the fourth part of a tetrology by the Russian director Aleksander Sokurov. (The other three films in his series concerned Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito.) I bet more viewers wanted to see films like Shame and The Descendants at Toronto, and The Ides of March and Damsels in Distress at Venice—all of which will receive US theatrical releases.
With a limited number of award-worthy films available, it can be tough for festivals to find and preserve an identity. Schedules tend to lean to the middlebrow, with awards given to the films that most closely affirm the beliefs of their viewers. The treasures are often hidden behind more glamorous titles. Toronto had a new film by the great Hong Kong director Johnnie To, and the latest by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Japanese filmmaker with a gift for depicting families and children. Venice screened a new Wuthering Heights, as well as Carnage by Roman Polanski and A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg.
The New York Film Festival, now celebrating its 49th edition, operates under a different dynamic. Running this year from September 30 to October 16, the festival doesn’t give out awards, and limits its screenings to a relatively small number of feature films. The editing process becomes key. Over the years, filmmakers from Jean-Luc Godard to Pedro Almódovar, among others, have become festival “favorites.” Richard Peña, the Festival’s program director, has singled out several deserving directors and cinema trends that New Yorkers might not otherwise see. But the Festival needs customers, which helps explain the presence of such commercial titles as the aforementioned Carnage, A Dangerous Method and The Descendants.
Again, it’s the marginal titles that might be the most interesting to die-hard film buffs. This year the Festival’s long-running sidebar “Views from the Avant-Garde” offers 104 films from 80 artists, including the remarkable experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. Another sidebar celebrates the centennial of the Nikkatsu Corporation, including the noteworthy anti-war film The Burmese Harp. A “Masterworks” section includes a new edition of the monumental Ben-Hur as well as a digital restoration of Nicholas Ray’s last movie We Can’t Go Home Again.
Of the New York Film Festivals I’ve attended, none was more moving than the 2001 edition, which took place in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Among the films that year was Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. The sight of its star Bill Murray mingling with friends and well-wishers on the sidewalks outside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall prior to the screening proved to me that the city would recover.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”