June 5, 2012
This weekend, Snow White and the Huntsman, a twist on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, hit theaters with a star-studded cast: Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron and the Twilight trilogy’s Kristen Stewart, among others. But, what would the Grimms think if they were around for the premiere? Smithsonian.com’s K. Annabelle Smith spoke with Jack Zipes, one of the most prolific authors in fairy tale and folklore studies, about the newest of the mainstream fairy tale adaptations.
There seem to be a lot of fairy-tale-themed television shows and movies coming out—“Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Snow White and the Huntsman—what’s your initial reaction to this influx?
First, it’s a mistake to say that there is a recent surge—there has been interest in fairy tales since the 1890s. All of this spectacular talk is not really a new interest in fairy tales, but a new way to exaggerate and embellish productions that cost millions of dollars. What’s new is the hyping—films that are just absolutely mindless can make it seem like you are going to be sent into a world that will astonish and delight you for a couple of hours while you eat your popcorn.
What’s your opinion on the adaptations that have come up over the years?
We have every right and should adapt tales because society changes. But the Grimms would flip over if they were alive today. They were better known during their time as scholarly writers; they were in the pursuit of the essence of story telling. By collecting different versions of every tale they published, they hoped to resuscitate the linguistic cultural tradition that keeps people together—stories that were shared with the common people. In these adaptations you can gain a good sense of whether artists are writing to make money or to celebrate themselves. As critics, we owe it to our culture to dismiss 95 percent of the stuff we see.
What from the original versions of fairy tales seems to remain?
We don’t really know when fairy tales originated. I’ve tried to show in my most recent book, the Irresistible Fairytale, that in order to talk about any genre, particularly what we call simple genre—a myth, a legend, an anecdote, a tall tale, and so on—we really have to understand something about the origin of stories all together. What the Greeks and Romans considered myths, we consider fairy tales. We can see how very clearly the myths, which emanated from all cultures, had a huge influence on the development of the modern fairy tale. These myths are not direct “Snow White” tales but already they have the motif of jealousy and envy of a woman that one character wants to kill. In any of the Greek myths that involve female goddesses, you see the same thing: Who’s more beautiful? Who is more powerful than the other? These themes—jealousy of the mother or stepmother regarding the beauty or power of a younger, mortal woman—are what drive “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Fairy tales have changed a lot—so much so that if children heard the original versions today, they might be surprised. What might people find shocking about the originals?
The Grimm collections were never intended for children. Not because kids were excluded, but because the division we make today of children’s literature didn’t exist then. The idea of protecting children from tales with violence didn’t occur until the earlier part of the 19th century. In [the original] “Cinderella,” birds peck the stepsisters’ eyes out after the girls cut off their heels and toes to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper. In the 1812 and 1815 editions of “Children’s and Household Tales,” there is a story in which children pretend to be butchers and slaughter the child who plays the part of the pig. The Grimms didn’t eliminate sex and violence, but they sugar coated some of it in later editions. In the 20th century version of “Red Riding Hood”, for example, the wolf never gets to eat Grandmother. That would be considered indecent.
What about the Brothers Grimm? Why do you think their name has remained a staple in American storytelling?
The Grimm tales stick because they were good artists—consummate writers, even if they made [the stories] easier to digest over time. It’s not their sexism in “Snow White”, it’s the sexism of the time. The way children were beaten to adhere to moral guidelines, the way women are portrayed [in the fairy tales] were ideas that were a product of the era in which they were written. When the Grimms began gathering the first versions of “Snow White” before it was published, it was a tale about a mother who is jealous of her daughter and wants to have her killed. The Brothers Grimm went through seven revisions and by the second edition in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm began embroidering the story, making it more sexist. He has Snow White saying ‘I’ll be your good housekeeper’ to the dwarves; he changed the mother to a stepmother. It changes a lot.
What was your first reaction to Snow White and the Huntsman?
This movie represents a backlash to the feminist movement. “Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror—those shows and films focus on women and their conflict with one another. What the heck is going on in contemporary fairy tales? Women are not dominating the world; they are not evil. Why are we redoing the Grimm tales in a retroactive way that doesn’t understand the complex problems women have today? These films have nothing to say to the world today.
What message do you think comes through with the female characters?
There is always a touch of faux feminism, or false feminism. Snow White becomes a warrior, but we still have this glorification of the virgin princess.
Why do you think these stories have stood the test of time?
Fairy tales in general stick because they are relevant to us in adapting to society. The tales help us understand complex topics like child abuse, rape, even sibling rivalry. They tend to offer a counter world to our perverse world where things are resolved or, at least, a sense of justice occurs. We come back to these tales because they help us navigate our way through the world. Almost all the modern fairy-tale films and prose fairy tales have strayed far from the originals, and hey, that’s all right. The question is whether the adapters make a new work of art that provokes us to think and dream and want to make the story our own.
February 24, 2012
With 11 Oscar nominations and a slew of other awards, Hugo is one of the most honored films of 2011. “Everything about Hugo to me is poignant,” screenwriter John Logan told me. “From the broken orphan to the old man losing his past to the fragility of film itself.”
The story of a young orphan who lives in a Paris train station and his momentous discoveries, Hugo marks director Martin Scorsese’s first film for children, and his first using 3D. The movie was based on Brian Selznick’s bestselling novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo: The Shooting Script has just been published by Newmarket Press/It Books. Along with Logan’s script, the book includes photos, full credits, and production notes.
Mr. Logan took time out from his intimidatingly busy schedule to speak by phone about working on Hugo. “The reason we all made the movie is because we loved Brian’s book,” he says. “It works on so many levels—as a mystery story, an adventure novel, an homage to cinema. The challenge in adapting it was keeping tight control over the narrative. Because despite the 3D and the magnificent special effects and the sets and the humor and the sweep and grandeur of it all, it’s actually a very austere and serious story. Secondary to that, and this part really was challenging, was hitting what I thought was the correct tone for the piece.”
Since Selznick’s book was a 500-page combination of text and illustrations, Logan had to eliminate some characters and plot strands to fit the story into a feature-film format. “Also there were things we added,” says Logan. “We wanted to populate the world of the train station. What Marty and I talked about was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris) by René Clair. Like those films, we wanted Hugo’s world to be filled with characters, and I had to write vignettes to dramatize them. Particularly the Station Inspector, played so memorably by Sacha Baron Cohen. We wanted to build that character up to be more of an antagonist to Hugo, so I did a lot of work there.”
Film history is a key element in Hugo, whose plot hinges on early French cinema. And as part of his homage to older styles, Logan incorporated as many cinematic devices as he could. Hugo has voice-over narration, flashbacks, a dream-within-a-dream segment, silent sequences, flip animation, and even scenes that recreate early 20th-century filmmaking techniques. “We tried to suggest all the different ways of telling a story on film,” Logan explained. “Even the trickiest devices in the world, like the nightmare within a nightmare, which is straight out of Hammer horror films. We wanted Hugo to be a cornucopia of cinema, a celebration of everything we do in movies.”
Writing silent scenes as opposed to those with dialogue was “almost like using two different parts of the brain,” Logan said. One part “writes description, which is prose and relies on adjectives, leading a reader and a moviegoer through the action in a sort of kinetic way. The other part of your brain writes dialogue, which has to find the perfectly chosen phrase with just enough syllables, not too much, the appropriate language for the individual character in the individual scene to express what’s going on.”
I found the flashbacks in Hugo especially intriguing and asked Logan to show how he found entry and exit points into the past for a scene in which Hugo remembers his father. “The danger is, if you leave the present narrative for too long and get engaged in a narrative in the past, you’ll have to jump start getting back into the reality of the present,” he says. “And always you want to follow Hugo’s story. So going into the memories about his father, I had him looking at the automaton—which is also when we reveal it to the audience for the first time—and Hugo thinking about the genesis of the machine and therefore his relationship with his father. The transitions for me were always about what Hugo is thinking and feeling.”
Like the clocks, toys, and projectors within the story, Hugo is itself “a precise, beautiful machine”—which is how Logan introduces the train station in his script. For Scorsese and his crew it was an immense undertaking. (One traveling shot through the station early in the film took over a year to complete.) When Logan began work on the project, the director hadn’t decided to use 3D yet. But the author insisted that technical considerations didn’t impact his writing.
“That’s just not the way I work or the way Marty Scorsese works,” Logan argued. “I wrote the script I needed to write to tell the story to be true to the characters, and the technical demands followed. The reality of filmmaking, of bringing a script to life, which are the technical requirements, follow. So I never felt limited in any way to write any particular way.”
Still, some changes to the script were made on the set. “Marty is pretty faithful in shooting,” he says. “But he’s also very generous with actors in exploring different avenues and different ways of expressing things. And of course Marty Scorsese is the world’s greatest cineaste. In his head he carries an archive of practically every film ever made. When we were working, astounding references would sort of tumble out of him.”
I use intimidating to describe Logan not just for his skill, but his working habits. In addition to adapting the Broadway hit Jersey Boys for movies, he is collaborating with Patti Smith on a screen version of her memoir Just Kids, and has completed the script for the next James Bond film, Skyfall. In addition to Hugo, last year saw releases of two more of his screenplays, Rango and Coriolanus, adding an Oscar-nominated animated feature and a challenging Shakespeare adaptation to his credits.
It’s just “kismet” that all three films came out in 2011, Logan thought. “Movies achieve critical mass at completely different times for a hundred different reasons,” he added. “You know I’ve been working on Hugo for over five years, and it just happened to come out when it did because that’s when we got the budget to make it, post-production costs took a certain amount of time, this release date was open. But it just as easily could have opened this year depending on any of those factors. Any pundit who says, ‘Well this is a big year for nostalgia about Hollywood’ because Hugo and The Artist are coming out at the same time knows nothing about movies.”
At its heart, Hugo is about broken people seeking to become whole—a consistent theme throughout Logan’s work over the many styles and genres he has mastered. He has written about painter Mark Rothko (the play Red), Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and the demon barber himself in Tim Burton’s version of the musical Sweeney Todd. “Yeah, I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken,” he said. “I’m not interested in happy people. It just doesn’t draw me as a writer. Theater people say you are either a comedian or a tragedian, and I’m a tragedian. And the vexing, dark characters, the ones where I don’t understand their pain or their anguish, they are the characters that appeal to me.”
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)
February 17, 2012
As mentioned in Wednesday’s post, guessing which shorts will win an Academy Award is often the hardest part of Oscar office pools. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few mainstream viewers ever see these titles, making predictions about them the equivalent of playing darts while blindfolded.
Animated shorts tend to be easier to judge than live-action shorts. Cartoons are either funny, beautiful, compelling—or not. Live-action shorts, on the other hand, are more like miniature versions of feature films. As such, they can range from abstract and experimental to conservative, even classical in style, and from melodramatic to slapstick in approach. In judging them, you have to take into account a wider range of expectations than for cartoons.
As I’ve argued before, television has taken over the role once played by shorts. Without commercials, broadcast sitcoms are about 22 minutes long, roughly the same length as a two-reel short. For better or worse, the five nominees for live-action shorts are essentially television shows. More ambitious, perhaps, and in some cases with classier actors and production values, but all in all they are surprisingly, even disappointingly, conventional. Some are tall tales spun out a bit too long, some are sentimental to a fault, but frankly none moved me as much as a typical episode of The Good Wife.
In alphabetical order:
Pentecost, written and directed by Peter McDonald. Financed in part by the Irish Film Board, this short comedy takes place in a small parish in 1977. The archbishop is coming to visit, and disgraced altar boy Damien Lynch is given a chance to redeem himself as thurifer during Mass. Before the service, a sexton gives a pep talk to the servers, much as a coach would do to athletes before a game. McDonald throws in an underdeveloped subplot about soccer, but this is a very slender piece whose ending might mean more to Irish viewers still breaking free from the grip of the Roman Catholic Church.
Raju, directed by Max Zähle. If anything cries out “Oscar bait” among the live-action nominees, it’s this crisis of liberal guilt. A European couple adopts an Indian child only to uncover troubling inconsistencies in the youth’s background. Shot on location in Calcutta, Raju has a gritty look and feel to go along with its manipulative story line. The film might have been more persuasive as a documentary, but then director Zähle wouldn’t have had the opportunity to focus so deeply on his characters’ emotions.
The Shore, written and directed by Terry George. Financed in part by the Northern Ireland Film Commission, The Shore is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation played out among the vernal landscapes of suburban Belfast. As a teenager, Joe flees the “troubles” in Northern Ireland for the U.S., returning 25 years later to confront the people he left behind. With his haunted eyes and mournful visage, the accomplished actor Ciarán Hinds (who has a supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is perfectly cast as the stoic Joe. Terry George, who earned Oscar nominations for writing In the Name of the Father and Hotel Rwanda, wraps up the sentimental plot a little too patly, but The Shore is still a polished if middlebrow piece of entertainment.
Time Freak, written and directed by Andrew Bowler, moves quickly and engagingly in telling a tall tale about time travel. Starring Michael Nathanson as a science geek obsessed with detail, the film reworks the great feature comedy Groundhog Day to pretty good effect. Bowler draws his characters and settings with sharp strokes, but Time Freak is a one-joke idea that, unlike Groundhog Day, never develops beyond its cute gimmick.
Tuba Atlantic, directed by Hallvar Witzø. My personal favorite among the nominees, but then I love Norway so much I watch television shows like Fjellfolk even though I don’t speak the language. Scandinavian humor is an acquired taste, and a comedy about a lonely, bitter farmer with six days left to live will strike many as too dark and morbid. Oskar (played by Edvard Hægstad) wants to die alone, but the local Jesus Club has sent Inger (Ingrid Viken), a blond teenager, to be his “Angel of Death.” Naive but determined, Inger consults a Road to Death guidebook about the five stages of dying before dispensing advice (and sleeping pills). Oskar, meanwhile, must decide whether to contact his long-estranged brother Jon before it’s too late. The premise behind Tuba Atlantic may be grim, but the film succeeds due to its understated acting and agreeably deadpan jokes.
February 15, 2012
When it comes to predicting Oscar winners, it’s pretty easy to guess among feature film nominees. Foreign films and documentary features can pose more of a problem, although buffs can usually find enough information to make educated choices.
Shorts films, on the other hand, are deal breakers when it comes to office pools and Oscar night competitions in front of televisions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars for animated and live action shorts since 1931, and for documentary shorts since 1941. Few viewers ever get the chance to see the shorts, making predictions about them the equivalent of a stab in the dark.
Starting in 2005, ShortsHD began packaging Oscar-nominated shorts into programs for theatrical and cable release. ShortsHD teams with Magnolia Pictures to bring the Oscar nominees to theaters, at the moment on 200 screens. (Find a theater near you.) On February 21, many of the shorts will become available on iTunes. The packages are also available via some “On Demand” cable systems.
The animated nominees include an entry from Pixar, two hand-animated films from the National Film Board of Canada, and two independent computer-animated films. If you’re looking for trends, the past is again king. Four of the five films dispense with dialogue, or use nonsense words or intertitles. One makes explicit reference to silent comedian Buster Keaton, another imitates the look and feel of black-and-white cartoons, and a third manipulates vintage black-and-white newsreel footage to provide a setting for its story.
In alphabetical order:
Dimanche/Sunday, directed by Patrick Doyon, is a melancholy look at a Sunday afternoon through a small boy’s eyes. Sundays can be tough when you’re young, especially in the country: dress-up clothes, church, a visit with grandparents and relatives dominated by drinking and adult talk. In a film of stark graphics and wistful music (by Luigi Allemano), Doyon plays with scale to imitate a child’s perspective: trains and adults alike tower over the youth, and small objects achieve immense importance. Dimanche is harsher than most cartoons, and its morbid sense of humor might cost it at the ballot box. From the National Film Board of Canada.
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, at 15 minutes the longest of the animated nominees, was codirected by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenberg. Joyce is an illustrator and author of children’s books whose works have been turned into films like Robots and Meet the Robinsons. Flying Books flings its Keatonesque hero via a tornado to a black-and-white world where books are living things with wings and feelings. They might die if no one reads them. The feel-good storyline incorporates flip-book animation as well as up-to-the-minute computer imagery to comment on technology and obsolescence. Although it’s ostensibly about books and reading, the film relies exclusively on a cinematic grammar, an irony no one connected with Flying Books bothers to address.
La Luna, directed by Enrico Casarosa, is hands-down the most accomplished of the nominees, due in no small part because it comes from Pixar. Cars 2 marks the first time the studio was shut out from Oscar’s Animated Feature competition, so La Luna may pick up some sympathy votes. Frankly, it deserves to win. A beguiling story of two men and a boy in a rowboat on a moonlit sea, La Luna has a wholesome but succinct premise, an adventurous plot, intelligent and genuinely funny sight gags, and music and animation that are simply breathtaking.
A Morning Stroll, directed by Grant Orchard, is the most original and energetic of the nominees, but it may skew a little too young for Academy voters. The film recounts the same gag in three different time frames, each with its own lovingly detailed style and technique. It would be unfair to reveal the storyline other than to say that the film gets great revenge on those clueless pedestrians who zone out to their smart phones.
Wild Life, directed by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, is another entry from the National Film Board of Canada, over the past 50 years one of the best producers of short films. Typical of NFB films, Wild Life is smart, expertly made, and defiantly non-commercial. Since Forbis and Tilby are working for an art crowd, not a mainstream audience, they don’t have to pay as much attention to details like gags, structure and length. They can be digressive, focus on context rather than entertainment, and tell small stories with diffident characters. Many will appreciate the artistry and care that went into Wild Life‘s story of an English transplant in 1909 Alberta; some will long for a bit more juice.
All of the nominees are worthy contenders, but if I were voting myself I would give serious consideration to La Luna and A Morning Stroll. For Oscar pool purposes, remember that voters love a sentimental story that pretends to be about something, which would make The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore a front-runner.
The Academy keeps tweaking the rules for animated shorts. This year voters were allowed to view screeners for the first time, for example. I just hope the regulations don’t prevent Daffy’s Rhapsody from competing in next year’s awards. A throwback to the heyday of Warner Bros. cartoons, Daffy’s Rhapsody is currently playing before Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Sam Register, Warner Bros. Executive VP, Creative Affairs, previewed a short clip this past November. It is a blast.
February 10, 2012
This year Hollywood offers two variations on romance movies for Valentine’s Day. The Vow, an old-fashioned tearjerker, is loosely based on a true story, although it also owes some of its narrative inspiration to Random Harvest, a 1942 MGM melodrama based on a James Hilton novel and starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Both films see love as a sort of minefield or obstacle course in which fate tries to keep people apart, in this case through amnesia.
It’s a ploy that storytellers have used for centuries—not necessarily amnesia, but some outside force that prevents lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Beatrice and Dante from finding happiness. In films like 7th Heaven and Gone With the Wind, Hollywood seized upon war as a means of separating lovers. Other, trickier devices have included car accidents (Love Affair), an arrest for pickpocketing (Remember the Night), brain tumors (Dark Victory), domineering mothers (Now Voyager), jealous wives (In Name Only), jealous husbands (The Postman Always Rings Twice), clowning around on a speedboat (Magnificent Obsession), politics (The Way We Were), ice bergs (Titanic), and murder (Ghost).
A lot of the classic Hollywood romances look cruel today, with heroes and heroines martyring themselves for the sake of love. The lovers in Brief Encounter both choose unhappiness to avoid hurting their families. The only way Ingrid Bergman can prove her love for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is to allow herself to be poisoned by a Nazi.
On the other hand, there’s This Means War, a romantic comedy in which love is a battle between two contestants vying for the same person. The roots of This Mean War come from one of Hollywood’s favorite formulas, the romantic triangle. It’s one that goes back to silent clowns like Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, but which found its greatest success in the screwball romances of the 1930s.
With The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey (who was also responsible for Love Affair) came up with a story line that Hollywood has plundered repeatedly. (To be fair, The Awful Truth was based on a play that had been filmed twice before.) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a wealthy, glamorous couple who through sheer stubbornness wind up in divorce court. The audience knows they are meant for each other, but McCarey keeps finding plot complications to keep them apart: a Tulsa oilman, a nightclub dancer, even their pet dog. In the course of the film Grant and Dunne get to express emotions like desire, jealousy, and anger that are often shunted aside when things like war and brain tumors come into play.
The screwball comedy, as films like The Awful Truth came to be called, is where Hollywood really excelled at depicting romance. Movies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The More the Merrier took viewers right into the give and take of love, with its ever shifting balance of power and its constant outside threats.
Both The Vow and This Means War were originally supposed to open on Valentine’s Day, just as the Warner Bros. omnibus film called Valentine’s Day did last year. But folks at 20th Century Fox apparently got cold feet going up against The Vow and pushed the opening of This Means War back to February 17 (apart from some sneak preview screenings).
If that’s too long to wait, you can find remnants of the screwball formula in films like Something’s Gotta Give and You’ve Got Mail, although they seem too labored and desperate for many viewers. And there’s usually a Katherine Heigl comedy around somewhere (currently the aptly named One for the Money), even as her reputation in the industry plummets.
The best romance movies I’ve seen lately have come from Asia. Released in 2008, If You Are the One focused on a middle-aged bachelor’s search for love. Starring Ge You and Shu Qi, it outgrossed Titanic in China, and led to a sequel and a reality TV show. Or there’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2010), in which an architect and a banker compete over a working girl. Directed by Johnnie To, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is funny and rueful in equal parts, just the way Hollywood used to make them.
January 20, 2012
Watching Gina Carano work her way through the cast of Haywire is unexpectedly “satisfying,” as director Steven Soderbergh put it. In the course of the film, which opens nationwide on January 20, mixed martial arts champ Carano punches, kicks, flips, twists, and otherwise disables opponents like Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender.
Haywire was a chance for Soderbergh to make his own version of a 1960s action and espionage film like From Russia With Love, “probably my favorite Bond film,” as he told a audience after a preview screening last month. “I really felt there was a dearth of female action stars,” he went on. “Or at least I guess my attitude is, ‘Can’t there be more than one?’”
Soderbergh may have been singling out Angelina Jolie, one of the most bankable stars in the world on the strength of films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but Haywire makes a more interesting point: in the best action films, actors tend to perform their own stunts. For Soderbergh, handheld cameras, fast cutting, and heavy scoring have been “crutches,” ways of “disguising the fact that people can’t really do what’s required.”
There are plenty of female protagonists in action films: Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels and other films. But there are very few contemporary actresses (or actors for that matter) who routinely perform their own stunts. And when they do, it’s often with the protection of special effects and CGI. As Liu said in one interview, she knows “movie kung fu,” not “real” martial arts. In her Resident Evil series, Mila Jovavich has made an effort to master the sword- and gunplay her zombie killer role requires, but still was prevented performing stunts deemed too dangerous by her producers.
Viewers can usually tell the difference between a star and a stunt double. That’s really Carano in Haywire leaping from one Dublin rooftop to another or sprinting through the streets of Barcelona, and Soderbergh stages the scenes so that she’s unmistakable. “Professional athletes carry themselves in a way that’s very difficult to imitate,” as he put it.
Another athlete broke into film in a similar manner. Five-time World Karate Champion Cynthia Rothrock signed a contract with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest in 1983. She made her screen debut in 1985′s Yes, Madam (also known as In the Line of Duty Part 2). Rothrock, who holds six black belts, including a sixth degree black belt in Tang Soo Moo Duk Kwan, was a star in Asia before appearing in several B-movies in the United States.
Rothrock’s costar in Yes, Madam was Michelle Yeoh, better known to moviegoers here from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also featured the wonderful Pei-Pei Cheng) and the James Bond entry Tomorrow Never Dies. In the 1990s, Yeoh held her own against Hong Kong’s biggest action stars, appearing with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and others. For sheer thrills, catch the last half-hour of Supercop, in which she clings to the side of a speeding bus, falls onto the windshield of a moving car, flips over a gun-wielding villain, and then drives a motorcycle onto the top of a freight train boxcar.
Yeoh was performing in an industry that valued female action stars like Angela Mao, Pei-Pei Cheng, Kara Hui, Joyce Godenzi, and Yuen Qui. Like Jackie Chan, Yeoh took pride in performing her own stunts live, and the difference is apparent on screen. (I’ll be writing more about Yeoh’s latest film, The Lady, next month.) With the rise of wirework and computer generated imagery, however, it’s easier to stage stunts that look dangerous but are actually fairly safe.
Filmmakers in the United States once placed a premium on female action stars. Generally acknowledged as the first serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn, released in December 1913, quickly led to The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White. Pauline presented a new kind of screen heroine, one who could drive cars, race horses, and put up a fight when attacked. White eventually starred in nine Pathé serials, consistently ranked in the top five in motion picture popularity polls, and wrote one of the first movie star autobiographies, Just Me. Ruth Roland and Helen Holmes also starred in serials; like Mary Pickford, they portrayed women who rebelled against conventions and took control of their lives.
World War I helped end the era of serials about women. In the 1920s, screen actresses could be spunky, even tomboyish, like Pickford in Sparrows, but it took many years before they would get the chance to be action stars again.
I know it’s not fair to leave a 50- or 60-year gap in this posting, and I promise someday to write more about action in movies.
December 22, 2011
Film geeks are a touchy bunch, and nothing gets their dander up like newbies making pronouncements about their territory. With both The Artist and Hugo likely to receive Oscar nominations, writers with little or no expertise in films of the 1920s are suddenly having to drum up opinions on what constitutes a good silent movie or why Georges Mèliés slipped into obscurity. (In Notebook, David Hudson gives amusing round-ups of coverage for both The Artist and Hugo.)
Meanwhile, die-hard fans of silents argue among themselves about whether The Artist and Hugo will bring about a surge in silent features. NitrateVille, the usually great, at times insufferable forum devoted to older movies, has long threads on both films, along with interminable arguments about the proper fps (frames per second) speed for projecting silents.
For raising hackles, it’s hard to beat the reaction to Bryony Dixon, “a silent film expert from the BFI” who threw out several opinions in an interview for the BBC. Her remark that, “You have to concentrate and this gives you a greater emotional involvement” when watching silents drew an extended rebuttal from Nick Redfern on his Research Into Film site. “I am aware of no research that compares the viewing pleasures derived from silent films to sound films,” Redfern begins, “and I have not been able to find any such research.” (Evidently he missed Rebecca Keegan’s 24 Frames blog posting on an fMRI study at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute that shows that silents engender a more complex creative process in the brain than sound films.)
Redfern’s efforts to apply scientific analysis to subjective opinions are as illogical as Matthew Sweet’s conclusion in the Telegraph that “Too late, we realise that silence was golden in the cinema“: “Why are we receptive once more to the pleasures of silent film? Because they are lost. Because it’s too late.”
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan also wrote about the difference between watching sound and silent films. Comments like “For while sound particularizes, silence turns out to universalize, allowing an audience to share completely in the on-screen dream” would no doubt infuriate Mr. Redfern, but in a nice touch Turan also recommends four silent features: Seventh Heaven, Show People, A Throw of Dice, and The Unknown.
How difficult is it to watch a silent film? Well, they’re different, but they are still movies, just like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is a movie. Warning viewers about silents is like warning Elmore Leonard fans that Henry James is a “slower” writer. Just as you would when reading works by Dickens or Shakespeare, you have to accept the vocabulary and conventions of silent films in order to appreciate them. You might have to pay more attention watching Sunrise than We Bought a Zoo, but you’re also likely to feel more rewarded when you’re finished.
Here is another approach.
What do you like in contemporary movies? Do you like action films like Mission: Impossible or Sherlock Holmes? Then try a film like The Black Pirate by Douglas Fairbanks, who performed a lot of his own stunts. Or Clash of the Wolves, an action-packed thriller starring Rin Tin Tin. Or the original Last of the Mohicans, chock full of raids, chases, and massacres.
Do you prefer romance? Silent films by the director Frank Borzage, who directed over 100 titles, have an emotional power that is hard to match today. Lazybones and Lucky Star are as impressive as his big hit 7th Heaven. Films like Son of the Sheik, with Rudolph Valentino, or Flesh and the Devil, with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, helped define screen romances.
Are you attracted to science fiction, or to spectacle? Try Fritz Lang’s delirious Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), or his newly restored Metropolis, or D.W. Griffith’s mammoth epic Intolerance, or Cecil B. DeMille’s original version of The Ten Commandments.
I’m convinced that silent comedies are every bit the equal of comedies made today. They are deft and light in ways that elude most present-day filmmakers. And there is a whole world of comedy to explore, not just well-known names like Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but brilliant performers like Charley Chase and Max Davidson.
When you decide on a silent film, try to see it in a movie theater. I recently introduced a screening of King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade at New York’s Film Forum. Viewers afterward told me how amazed they were at the film’s scope and sophistication, aided immeasurably by Steve Sterner’s largely extemporaneous piano score. The experience of watching as part of an audience gave a special charge to the film.
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 23, 2011
For once the hype is accurate: The Artist is an honest-to-goodness black-and-white, silent, presented in the old-fashioned Academy aspect ratio instead of in widescreen. If you’ve never seen a silent movie, this is an excellent place to start. If you’re a buff, The Artist is a treasure trove of film references, in-jokes, pastiches, and references to filmmakers both famous and obscure. And if the Weinsteins apply the same media hammerlock that they used with Shakespeare in Love, this has a good chance of being the first silent to win any Oscar since Tabu 80 years ago.
We call them silent films today, but they were almost always accompanied by some form of music and sound effects. Thomas Edison originally thought of motion pictures as an adjunct to his phonograph, and his staff experimented with synchronized sound as early as 1895—you can see the results on the Library of Congress American Memory site.
The language or grammar of film that evolved from those days is still in use today: close-ups, cross-cutting, tracks and pans all would be familiar to early directors. But watching a silent film is different than watching a sound film. For one thing, you have to concentrate more—you have very little leeway, no opportunities to look away from the screen. You have to pay attention all the time. Characters make themselves known through action, not dialogue, so silent directors were always looking for bits of business or even costuming that would identify personality types quickly. Actors tended to be more physically expressive, with their hands and bodies, but also their smiles and grimaces.
Some look at silents as a more primitive form of talkies, but the best filmmakers achieved a connection with viewers that transcended the medium’s limitations. Directors like F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir made silence a part of their arsenal. Often their characters couldn’t talk, whether because of the situation they were in or their natural reticence. When newlyweds embark on their honeymoon in King Vidor’s The Crowd, their feelings are unmistakable, despite the absence of dialogue. Murnau’s The Last Laugh unfolds without any intertitles for dialogue at all.
Almost all of the great directors in the 1930s trained in silents, and if there is one distinguishing characteristic that unites artists as disparate as John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock, it is their ability to tell a story in purely visual terms. What is said in films like The Searchers or Psycho is important, but you don’t have to hear anything to understand the story.
Music was a crucial component in early silent film: it could color the emotions in a scene, enhance pacing, help identify characters and their motives. As the industry matured, prestige movies received elaborate scores that were delivered by full orchestras in first-run theaters. Even more modest films had cue sheets that recommended songs or musical themes for scenes.
The transition from silents to talkies at the end of the 1920s was short and painful. Careers were destroyed, techniques abandoned, subtleties lost. It took years for Hollywood to regain its artistic footing. Silents continued to be made well into the 1930s, usually due to economic considerations. Apart from the occasional stunt like Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, “talkie” filmmakers tended to assimilate silent strategies in sound settings. The ending of Jules Dassin’s Topkapi is almost completely silent, for example. So is the opening of Pixar’s WALL-E, and a gorgeous montage detailing the lives of a married couple in Up.
In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius borrows liberally from several silent films and filmmakers, but he also cites such film classics as Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born, Citizen Kane, and The Thin Man. In a sense, these references are short cuts, ways to set mood and atmosphere for viewers, to hand-hold them with familiar and popular story lines and characters while they adjust to watching a film without dialogue. By placing well-known moments from classic sound films into silent settings, Hazanavicius points out how closely the present is related to the past. The famous montage at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane, for example, where Kane’s marriage falls apart over a series of glances and changing newspaper headlines, is a silent sequence that Hazanavicius can rework effortlessly in The Artist.
The director took a similar approach in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, a James Bond spoof that featured The Artist‘s leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Entertaining but not earthshaking, OSS 117 and its sequel Lost in Rio were affectionate and respectful. If you like spy films, you might appreciate the jokes more than someone who’s never seen one.
In the same way, if you’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks movies, you’re in a better position to judge just how gracefully and winningly Dujardin imitates him. If you don’t know Fairbanks, you still know his type, and Hazanavicius gives you another “in” to the story by reminding you of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.
Once you get past the stunt aspects of The Artist, you’re left with a story that often doesn’t make narrative sense, that turns morose and maudlin for much of its second half, that stints on Bejo’s character, and that lacks the kinetic action that marked the best silent comedies. The Artist is solidly middlebrow—entertaining, yes; well-made, certainly; but not the equal of the films it imitates. On the other hand, it’s not a turgid “masterpiece,” not an endless, portentous epic about the plight of mankind. It’s approachable, fun, undemanding, like a lot of mainstream movies from the silent era. Why not find out how enjoyable films like My Best Girl with Mary Pickford, or The Mark of Zorro with Fairbanks, or any of the shorts and features from the great comedians like Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, can be?
Despite the hopes of film buffs, I don’t think The Artist will inspire a rash of copycat silent features. But if it persuades at least some viewers that silents are nothing to be afraid of, and possibly even something to enjoy, it will have been worth the effort.