June 6, 2012
Today Google celebrates the opening of the first drive-in theater in 1933 with a doodle. Four years ago, Smithsonian.com celebrated the 75th birthday of the distinctly American innovation with a story about the history of drive-ins and the man who started it all, Richard Hollingshead. While the idea of watching movies outside wasn’t entirely new, explains Robin T. Reid, in the article, Hollingshead, a sales manager in his father’s auto parts company, focused the idea around the automobile. His key invention was a ramp designed for each parking space that allowed every viewer to see the screen (as shown in this diagram from an August 1933 edition of Popular Science).
Here’s an excerpt from Reid’s article detailing how Hollinghead’s idea evolved from a pair of sheets nailed between two trees to the American icon the drive-in theater is today:
“He first conceived the drive-in as the answer to a problem. ‘His mother was—how shall I say it?—rather large for indoor theater seats,’ said Jim Kopp of the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association. ‘So he stuck her in a car and put a 1928 projector on the hood of the car, and tied two sheets to trees in his yard.’
“Hollingshead experimented for a few years before he created a ramp system for cars to park at different heights so everyone could see the screen. He patented his concept in May 1933 and opened the gates to his theater the next month.”
On June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey, people paid 25 cents per car, plus 25 additional cents per person, to see the British comedy Wives Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou and Margaret Bannerman. A year later, the second drive-in, Shankweiler’s, started in Orefield, Pennsylvania. While a few other theaters sprung up, it was not until the early 1940s, when in-car speakers hit the scene, that the concept really spread. Fast forward to 1958 and the number of drive-ins peaked at 4,063.
Their early success was relatively short-lived, however. As Reid explains:
“The indoor theaters were more flexible about scheduling… and could show one film five or six times a day instead of only at night. So to sell as many tickets as possible, the movie studios sent their first-runs to the indoor theaters. Drive-ins were left to show B movies and, eventually, X-rated ones. And being naughty helped some drive-ins survive.”
Land prices also contributed to the decline of the drive-in. As cities grew, plots of land that had formerly been on the outskirts of town suddenly became valuable. Today roughly only 400 drive-ins remain in the United States. Although, as the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association reported, there are approximately 100 more worldwide with new drive-ins popping up in China and Russia.
February 22, 2012
Of the three Oscar categories devoted to short films, Documentary (Short Subject) tends to be the most rewarding. Filmmakers can focus on one item, covering it fully but not at an indulgent length. The format opens up a world of potential topics, from character studies of individuals both renowned and obscure to examinations of specific moments or events on to explanations of beliefs or policies. Travelogues, criminal cases, oddities of the natural world, history—all have received Oscar nominations over the years.
There may not be a readily recognizable Academy style, but looking back it’s clear that voters favor specific subjects and genres. Artists, for example. Short documentaries about Leon Fleisher, Jim Dine, Norman Corwin, Mark O’Brien, Sally Mann, Red Grooms and Paul Rudolph, among others, received nominations. War is another favorite genre. The first years of the award were devoted almost exclusively to war-related shorts, and recently nominations were given to films about wars in Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq.
Academy voters love films about social justice. In recent years, A Time for Justice examined endemic racism in the South; The Blood of Yingzhou District told about AIDS orphans in Fuyang, China; Freeheld showed the problems Laurel Hester had assigning her pension benefits to her partner.
These three trends continue with this year’s nominees, which cover extraordinary individuals, social justice, and war, as well as an account of post-earthquake Japan.
Decades ago shorts were a part of most theatrical programs. Now it is difficult to see shorts of any kind, let alone documentaries. The best filmmakers can hope for is a run on PBS or HBO (the latter will be showing three of the five nominees, starting in March with Saving Face). As it did with animated and live-action shorts, ShortsHD has packaged the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts online and in theaters. On February 21, many of the Oscar-nominated shorts will become available on iTunes.
In alphabetical order:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, this nineteen-minute short introduces James Armstrong, a barber who participated in the 1955 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Armstrong is a wonderful character whose upbeat personality is infectious. “Things are changing!” he exclaims, and how much the world has changed since 1955 is one of the points of the film. “The worst thing a man can do is live for nothing” becomes a motto of sorts for Armstrong. The film itself is a bit too discursive, but it has something to teach everyone.
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this half-hour short profiles Dolores Hart, a Hollywood starlet who abandoned her acting career in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun. Now in her seventies and a Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Hart reminiscences about her films and plays, her religious vocation, and her personal sacrifices. Cammisa also interviews Hart’s colleagues and provides a somewhat romanticized portrait of life in the abbey. Hart has a glowing personality, but God Is the Bigger Elvis skims over her story in a superficial manner. The film will premiere on HBO on April 5.
Incident in New Baghdad—Produced, directed, and edited by James Spione, this short is built around notorious aerial surveillance footage (released by Wikileaks) of a U.S. assault on a photojournalist in Baghdad that left eight dead. Ethan McCord, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, was one of the solders seen in the video trying to help two Iraqi children wounded in the attack. Back in the U.S., McCord explains how the incident affected his family, and why he aligned himself with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Spione’s style pushes emotional buttons without connecting narrative dots, making Incident in New Baghdad at 22 minutes seem simultaneously forced and unfocused.
Saving Face—Although grueling to watch, this film about Pakistani women whose faces have been scarred by acid is precisely the type of story that attracts Oscar voters. According to the film, over 100 such attacks occur each year, with victims as young as twelve having their faces ruined with battery acid, gasoline, and other corrosives. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy use Dr. Mohammad Jawad as an entry into the story. A plastic surgeon in London, Jawad donates his time to work at a burn center in Islamabad, offering facial reconstruction surgery to the victims. The directors focus on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, in particular, following them to their homes and interviewing their relatives and lawyers. Saving Face is a film of great honesty and conviction and even greater courage—on the part of the victims but also the filmmakers. In one chilling scene they confront one of the attackers, showing us just how difficult it is for women in that situation to obtain justice. Saving Face will debut on HBO on March 8.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom—The standout among this year’s nominees, this forty-minute film shows the horrifying aftermath of a natural disaster, but also focuses on the endurance and resiliency of its survivors. Director Lucy Walker received an Oscar nomination for her last film, the feature-length documentary Waste Land, which against all odds found hope among scavengers of a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she traveled to the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region. Adopting a cool, quiet tone, Walker tours the region, interviews rescue workers and residents, and connects ancient traditions to current events. Her great feat is to take a story we think we already know and show it in a new light, using the words and memories of the survivors to give a sense of how their lives changed. The film (with cinematography by Aaron Phillips) finds beauty in the midst of destruction, but never lets us forget how cataclysmic the tsunami was. This is journalism lifted to a new level of artistry, a remarkable achievement by a talented filmmaker. (Learn more at http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com)
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”
November 11, 2011
This Veterans Day I’d like to single out some of the movies that concern members of our armed services. Not war films per se, but stories that deal with what happens to soldiers after the fighting is over.
As might be expected, the industry has taken a generally respectful attitude toward the men and women who have fought for their country. Filmmakers began turning to the Civil War as a subject when its 50th anniversary approached. Searching copyright records, film historian Eileen Bowser found 23 Civil War films in 1909; 74 in 1911; and 98 in 1913. Most of these focused on the moral choices the war demanded. For example, in The Honor of the Family, a Biograph film from 1910, a father shoots his own son to hide his cowardice on the battlefield.
Identifying performers in film as veterans became a narrative short-cut, a quick way to establish their integrity. Often veterans have been portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures, as stand-ins for filmmakers who want to address a different agenda. Actor Henry B. Walthall played Ben Cameron, “The Little Colonel,” a Civil War veteran, in D.W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation (1915). Unfortunately, Griffith turned Walthall’s character into a racist vigilante who forms a Ku Klux Klan-like mob to attack African-Americans during the Reconstruction.
During the Depression, veterans could be seen as down-on-their-luck victims, as in Heroes for Sale (1933), where the noble Tom Holmes (played by Richard Barthelmess) suffers drug addiction and imprisonment after he is wounded in World War I. In The Lost Squadron (1932), destitute former aviators are reduced to flying dangerous stunts for an evil Hollywood director (played by Erich von Stroheim). But in The Public Enemy (1931), a gangster played by James Cagney berates his sanctimonious veteran brother, reminding him, “You didn’t get those medals by holding hands with the Germans.”
The most lauded film to examine veterans is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood, and starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell as three soldiers who face differing fates when they return home. While its plot can be overly schematic, the film has an honesty and courage unusual for its time—perhaps because Wyler was a veteran who experienced bombing runs while making the war documentary Memphis Belle. Russell, whose hands were amputated after a training accident, won a special Oscar for his performance.
Not all post-World War II films treated veterans so kindly. The Blue Dahlia, for example, a mystery thriller written by Raymond Chandler. In it, Navy aviator Alan Ladd returns home to an unfaithful wife who killed their son in a drunk driving accident. “A hero can get away with anything,” his wife sneers after he knocks her around. Ladd’s pal William Bendix, a brain-damaged vet with a steel plate in his head, flies into violent rages when drinking. Worried about the film’s negative portrayal of soldiers, censors forced Chandler to come up with an ending that exonerated the obvious killer. Veterans as villains show up in Crossfire (1947), a drama that also tackled anti-Semitism, and in Home of the Brave (1949), which dealt with racial issues.
More inspirational were films like Pride of the Marines (1945) and Bright Victory (1952). The former was based on the real-life Al Schmid, a Marine who was blinded at Guadalcanal, with John Garfield delivering an impassioned performance as someone unable to come to grips with his infirmity. In the latter, Arthur Kennedy plays another soldier blinded in battle. Kennedy’s vet is flawed, with bigoted racial attitudes and uncontrolled hostility towards those trying to help him. Quietly yet convincingly, the film builds considerable power as Kennedy learns to accept his limitations. Marlon Brando made his film debut as a World War II lieutenant who becomes a paraplegic after being wounded in battle in The Men (1950), directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) developed an intricate conspiracy plot around Korean War veterans who were brainwashed while prisoners.
I don’t have time or space here to discuss the more recent conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Their films range from sentimental (Coming Home) to morbid (The Deer Hunter), with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker managing to hit both extremes. Not to mention the industry’s most profitable film veteran, John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone in four films between 1982 and 2008. All deserve further discussion in another posting.
But I would like to bring up two documentaries that have been selected to the National Film Registry. Heroes All (1919), a fundraising film for the Red Cross, was set in the newly opened Walter Reed Hospital (the renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center shut down at this location and moved to Bethesda, Maryland in August). It detailed efforts to rehabilitate wounded veterans through surgery and physical therapy, but also through vocational classes and recreation. Heroes All had to balance the soldiers’ pessimistic past with an optimistic future, as well as detail both a need and a solution—a reason to give money and proof that the money would help. Its narrative structure and choice of shots became models for later documentaries.
Like Let There Be Light, completed in 1946 and directed by John Huston. It was shot at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where soldiers received treatment for psychological problems. A member of the Army at the time, Huston was given specific instructions about what he was calling The Returning Psychoneurotics. Huston was to show that there were few psychoneurotics in the armed services; that their symptoms weren’t as exaggerated as had been reported; and that someone might be considered psychoneurotic in the Army, but a “success” as a civilian.
Instead, the director provided a very detailed look at how Army doctors treated soldiers with psychological issues. Like Heroes All, Huston showed private and group therapy sessions, vocational classes, and recreation. He also filmed doctors treating patients through sodium amytol injections and hypnosis. (Huston found electroshock treatments too troubling to work into the movie.) When the War Department saw the completed film, it refused to allow its release. It took until 1981 before the public was allowed to see Let There Be Light. Despite its flaws, it remains one of the most sympathetic films to deal with veterans.
October 24, 2011
In “The Sniping of Partisans, This Time on Screen,” New York Times entertainment reporter Michael Cieply pointed out the political implications of releasing a film like Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the assassinated President, before or after the 2012 Presidential election.
Cieply went on to cite several films, including the upcoming Butter from the Weinstein Company, that he felt might “play a role in voters’ choice for the White House.” Cieply’s opinion, buttressed by quotes from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, is that we have reached the point where movies and politics have converged. Actually, that point arrived a long time ago.
Examples of advocacy filmmaking stretch back to the beginnings of cinema. I am simultaneously appalled and charmed by films made about the Spanish-American war, in particular Battle of Manila Bay (1898), a short that helped make the reputations of J. Stuart Blackton and his partner Albert E. Smith. Working with boat models in a bathtub, Blackton reenacted Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory for the camera. When his footage reached vaudeville houses a couple of weeks later, it was a tremendous hit, causing a succession of imitators to try their hands at faking war footage. Edward Atmet used miniatures to make Bombardment of Matanzas, Firing Broadside at Cabanas and other films. Film historian Charles Musser believes that The Edison Company shot fake battle movies like Cuban Ambush in New Jersey. To cash in on the war craze, the Biograph company simply retitled its film Battleships “Iowa” and “Massachusetts” to Battleships “Maine” and “Iowa.” Musser cites one newspaper article that reported “fifteen minutes of terrific shouting” at its showing.
World War I unleashed a tidal wave of anti-German propaganda from US filmmakers. Perhaps no one capitalized on the mood of the country better than Erich von Stroheim, who played villainous Huns so effectively that he became “The Man You Love to Hate.” Liberty Bond rallies featuring stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks drew hundreds of thousands of spectators; Chaplin even made a short, The Bond, to help sales. It was one of at least thirty bond fundraising films released by the industry.
Some of the industry’s dirtiest political tricks took place in California in 1934. As detailed in Greg Mitchell’s book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor (Random House), media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and the Chandler family (of The Los Angeles Times) made a concerted effort to defeat Sinclair, whose End Poverty in California (EPIC) program was gathering significant grass-roots support. Joining in the attack: MGM, which under the direction of studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg filmed two newsreels that presented Sinclair in the worst possible light. Actors playing toothless immigrants swore their devotion to the candidate, while “hoboes” gathered at the California border, waiting for Sinclair’s election so they could take advantage of his socialist policies.
Newsreels have long since been supplanted by television news, but filmmakers never stopped making advocacy pieces. When director Frank Capra saw Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious pro-Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, he wrote, “Satan himself couldn’t have devised a more blood-chilling super-spectacle.” Capra responded with Why We Fight, a seven-part, Oscar-winning documentary that put the government’s objectives into terms moviegoers could understand.
When William Wyler set out to direct Mrs. Miniver for MGM, he admitted, “I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationist.” The story of how an upper-class British family reacts to German attacks, the film made joining the war effort seem like common decency. Mrs. Miniver not only won six Oscars, it became a prime propaganda tool. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked that the movie’s closing sermon be broadcast over the Voice of America and distributed as leaflets throughout Europe. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying that the film’s impact on “public sentiment in the USA was worth a whole regiment.” Wyler received a telegram from Lord Halifax saying that Mrs. Miniver “cannot fail to move all that see it. I hope that this picture will bring home to the American public that the average Englishman is a good partner to have in time of trouble.” (Years later, Wyler admitted that his movie “only scratched the surface of the war. I don’t mean it was wrong. It was incomplete.”)
Some may find the idea that movies can directly influence political discourse hard to swallow. Sure, movies like Outfoxed or The Undefeated make strong arguments. But aren’t they just preaching to their followers? Can they really change the minds of their opponents?
To some extent all films are political, because all films have a point of view. Movies that deal with perceived injustices—in Spielberg’s case, The Sugarland Express and Amistad—are on some level criticizing a system that allows them to occur. Even Spielberg’s mass-oriented adventures, like the Indiana Jones series, express a points-of-view: Jones, on the surface apolitical, is drawn into battling tyrannical regimes that threaten the American way of life.
On the other hand, setting out with the goal of making political points through film almost never succeeds, as the graveyard of recent Iraq war-related movies shows. A film has to capture the zeitgeist, it has to deliver a message that moviegoers are ready to accept, in order to have an impact of the culture. When it works, as in the phenomenal box-office results for titles as disparate as Iron Man and Avatar, it doesn’t even matter whether the films have artistic merit.
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.
August 24, 2011
Eighteen years ago filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were alerted to a murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three youths – James Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelly – were accused of raping, murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys. All three were convicted, and one, Echols, was sentenced to death. The film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), made a convincing case that the suspects known as the “West Memphis Three” were in fact innocent.
Berlinger and Sinofksy continued to document the West Memphis Three, releasing Paradise Lost: Revelations in 2000 and completing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory just this summer, which is scheduled to air on HBO in January 2012. When the Memphis Three were released from prison last week, the Paradise Lost trilogy joined an honored genre of advocacy films that helped right injustices.
“When we set out to make Paradise Lost, I don’t think we ever envisioned an epic journey,” director Joe Berlinger said recently. “The goal was not to right a wrong, just the opposite.” He and Sinofsky were tipped off to the story by Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. The story “seemed like an open-and-shut case of guilty, Devil-worshipping teens who had done this rotten Satanic ritual killing of these three 8-year-old boys. We thought, ‘Let’s go make a film about rotten kids,’ kind of like a real-life River’s Edge,” a reference to the 1986 movie about a teen murder.
The case presented by the prosecution was flawed – lost confessions, debunked experts, no physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime – enough that Berlinger and Sinofsky were soon convinced of their innocence. But Berlinger also knew that they would be found guilty. “We experienced a real-life Salem witch trial,” he said.
Berlinger credits thousands of acts, small and large, for helping bring about the release of the West Memphis Three. Lawyers who worked for free, donations that paid for DNA tests and other legal costs, and the support of people like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp all contributed to the cause. But there’s no question that Paradise Lost played a significant role in bringing the case to the public.
Just as there’s no question that The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 film by Errol Morris, helped free Randall Adams from prison. Adams was convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and sentenced to death. Morris, a former private investigator, reconstructed the case on film, in effect conducting his own investigation into the crime. Adams was exonerated the following year when, after twelve years on Death Row, prosecutors dropped charges against him.
“Interestingly, I was very much influenced by Errol’s The Thin Blue Line,” Berlinger said. “Not by the advocacy standpoint—it didn’t inspire in me the feeling that ‘I want to fight for social justice.’ It inspired me to become a filmmaker of a particular type of movie. It made me want to make non-fiction theatrical films for moviegoing audiences, because in the late 1980s you could point to very few documentaries that ever made it to movie theaters.”
The “theatricality” of The Thin Blue Line inspired Berlinger and Sinofsky to make their first documentary feature, Brother’s Keeper. And the success of that film drew the attention of Nevins at HBO.
Berlinger notes, “Stylistically Paradise Lost was very different from The Thin Blue Line – no recreations, pure cinema verite – but I think both films do something many filmmakers are afraid to do: treat the audience like jury members. Viewers are actively engaged, instead of being passively lectured to. You come to your own conclusions.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky came to the case through a particular set of circumstances. In a sense, the Memphis Three were lucky; how many other defendants have film crews following their cases?
“Every time the Paradise Lost movies air on TV, we get inundated with letters from either convicts or relatives declaring their innocence,” Berlinger said. “With the help of The Innocence Project and other organizations, there have been hundreds and hundreds of DNA exonerations, which points to the fact that a lot of innocent people are in prison.”
In September 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court decided that the West Memphis Three deserved an evidentiary hearing that could have led to a new trial. Berlinger believes this is why Arkansas prosecutors suddenly offered the Three the opportunity to accept an “Alford plea.”
“This deal got hammered out in less than two weeks when it became politically and financially important to the state of Arkansas,” Berlinger complained. “Financially because the state worked out an agreement that it couldn’t be sued for wrongful conviction. Politically expedient because an evidentiary hearing scheduled for December was going to be embarrassing for a lot of people.”
The West Memphis Three will no longer be in prison, but in the eyes of the law they are still convicted child killers. “You know Jason Baldwin was very much against doing the Alford plea,” Berlinger said. “Unfortunately the state made it an all or nothing deal. Jason agreed to take it because he was basically saving Damien’s life. The idea of spending another two, three, four years on death row for Damien was untenable. His health had deteriorated, he hasn’t had sunlight on his body in ten years, his eyesight is damaged, he’s physically weak. It was time for him to accept a plea bargain.”
Berlinger understands the choices the West Memphis Three made. “God knows I couldn’t have survived death row under such brutal conditions. But I am extremely disappointed that the state of Arkansas didn’t have the courage to admit what we all know, there were major mistakes made in this case.”
Randall Adams’ exoneration and release from prison after the release of The Thin Blue Line was also bittersweet, as detailed in his New York Times obituary. In Texas, wrongly convicted prisoners receive a lump sum payment of $80,000 for each year of their confinement. But Adams was ineligible for any money, even the $200 traditionally handed out to prisoners who have served their sentences, because his case had been dismissed.