June 13, 2012
Pixar’s new release Brave is being singled out for, among other things, having the studio’s first female lead character. For years writers have been criticizing Pixar and its parent company Walt Disney for holding onto outdated gender attitudes: helpless princesses, evil witches, etc. After Disney’s 2009 feature The Princess and the Frog underperformed at the box office, the company renamed its “Rapunzel” feature to Tangled in an attempt to attract a wider (read: “male”) audience.
It didn’t help Pixar’s reputation with feminists when Brenda Chapman, the original Brave director, was replaced by Mark Andrews well after production started. (Chapman still receives co-director credit.) But it’s not like DreamWorks or other studios have gone out of their way to let women direct animated features. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is an industry problem or just a reflection of society. But film has been blessed with some extraordinary women animators. Here is a brief list:
1. Lotte Reiniger. Credited with directing the first feature-length animated film, Reiniger was born in 1899 in Berlin. Fascinated as a child by acting and movies, she worked on an animated sequence in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1918) and other films. Reiniger earned recognition for her use of cut-out silhouettes that she would move frame by frame. Capitalizing on a German fascination with “shadow plays,” a technique stretching back to the time of the Egyptians, Reiniger began work on a project in 1923 drawn from the 1001 Arabian Nights. Released in 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a delicate, whimsical, enchanting film built around tinted silhouettes, with some sets and figures constructed from wax, soap, and sand. After a screening in Berlin and a premiere in Paris, the film became an international hit. Reiniger continued making movies until 1979′s The Rose and the Ring. The Adventures of Prince Achmed has been beautifully restored for this Milestone release.
2. Janie Geiser. A world-acclaimed puppeteer, Janie Geiser was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957. After attending the University of Georgia, she formed her own puppet company, whose work she began to document on film. Gradually she began to experiment with animation techniques to make stand-alone films like The Red Book (1994). Geiser’s films combine cut-outs, dolls, graphics, newspapers, and other items to form a collage of animation effects. She uses collage for the soundtracks as well, layering snippets of dialogue, industrial sounds, and music to form dense, elusive aural clouds. Geiser teaches at CalArts, and is the co-founder, with Susan Simpson, of Automata, a Los Angeles-based organization devoted to experimental puppet theater, film, “and other contemporary art practices centered on ideas of artifice and performing objects.”
3. Jennifer Yuh Nelson. Born in South Korea in 1972, Nelson grew up in Los Angeles. An encounter with a storyboard artist at California State University, Long Beach inspired her to try a career in animation. After working on direct-to-video and cable projects, Nelson was hired by DreamWorks as a storyboard artist, where she worked on Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Madagascar, and the first Kung Fu Panda. Her accomplishments on that film convinced DreamWorks executives to give her Kung Fu Panda 2, a project that took three years to complete. “There aren’t a lot of female story artists, and it’s baffling to me,” Nelson told LA Times reporter Nicole Sperling. “There are a lot of kids in school that are female and I wonder, where did they all go? People have brought it up, asking me, ‘What did you do?’ I don’t really know. I puttered along, did my thing and gender has really never been an issue.”
4. Helen Hill. Animator, documentary filmmaker, activist, teacher, wife and mother, Helen Hill completed 21 short films that explored the full range of animation, from stop-motion with models to painting directly onto celluloid. She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1970, and began making Super 8 movies at the age of eleven. Hill studied animation at Harvard’s Visual Environmental Studies Program and later at the California Institute for the Arts. After obtaining her masters, she joined her husband Paul Gailiunas in Nova Scotia, where he was attending medical school. When he received his medical degree, they moved to New Orleans.
Hill loved film as a medium, studying filmmaking methods and learning how to process stock. Her Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet has become a standard resource for alternative filmmakers. In shorts like Scratch and Crow (1995), Hill’s exuberant drawing and surreal sense of humor captivate viewers. Many of her films are available from the Harvard Film Archive, which preserved her work after it was damaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
5. Sally Cruikshank. One of the first countercultural films to break through to a mainstream audience, Quasi at the Quackadero enlivened many midnight screenings when it was released in 1975. It was written, animated, and directed by Sally Cruikshank, a New Jersey native who attended Yale Art School on scholarship. She finished her first cartoon, Ducky, at Smith College, then enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute. She found inspiration from the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney as well as experimental filmmakers, and by combining these two traditions, made films that were anarchic as well as accessible, filled with memorable characters and bizarre gags. Cruikshank went on to animate some twenty pieces for “Sesame Street” and contributed animated sequences to feature films like Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982). She offers this DVD collection of her work.
There are several more female animators I hope to discuss in the future, including Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Hubley, Vicky Jenson, Lorna Cook and Danielle Ash.
May 18, 2012
Over on the newly designed, buggy, and glacially slow Salon website, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi recently “channeled” a studio executive to address race in movies—specifically white actors playing non-white roles. It’s been a sore point in the film industry for over 100 years, one that deserves better than Mandvi’s take. The comic throws out a few smart-aleck remarks and a dozen or so flimsy but admittedly embarrassing examples, reaching back to 1937′s The Good Earth. But he ignored the more obvious examples practically staring him in the face—like The Dictator, the Sacha Baron Cohen comedy about the leader of the North African country “Wadiya.”
Based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, The Good Earth might appear racist today, but at the time it was considered an enlightened, sympathetic account of peasant life in China. Louise Rainer even won an Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan; like her costar Paul Muni and the rest of the Caucasian cast, she taped up her eyebrows to approximate an Asian appearance. Picking on The Good Earth for its largely progressive racial attitudes seems pretty silly, given that most Hollywood films at the time limited Asian roles to cooks, valets or villains like Fu Manchu.
And there are so many more relevant examples to choose from. Early film in particular is rife with examples of unapologetic racism. In Chinese Laundry Scene (1895), an Irish cop chases a Chinaman; both are depicted as buffoons. (The film starred the vaudeville team of Robetta and Doretto, so this could be the earliest example in movies of a white portraying a member of another race.) In A Morning Bath (1896), a “mammy” stereotype tries and fails to wash the color off a black infant’s skin. Watermelon Feast (1896), The Chicken Thief (1904), The Greaser’s Gauntlet (1908) and similar titles featured even cruder caricatures. Few films delivered as potent, or as damaging, an account of race than The Birth of a Nation (1915), a work that mixed African-American actors with whites wearing blackface.
Early filmmakers treated Europeans with equal cruelty, as well as Southerners, New Englanders, Midwesterners, farmers, laborers, sales clerks, bankers, rubes, city slickers, women, children—you get the picture. In a sense filmmakers were simply reflecting the media around them. It was a time when minstrel shows were still touring the South, when singers like May Irwin and Nora Bayes were famous for “coon” songs, when the African-American star Bert Williams wore blackface on stage.
That doesn’t excuse the filmmakers, theatrical producers, songwriters and performers who took advantage of looser standards to belittle another race or culture; who typecast blacks, Mexicans, and Asians as servants, bandits, and all-purpose villains; who prohibited them from appearing on screen at all, replacing them with white actors. (Or, in an even weirder example of racism, ordered actress Fredi Washington to wear darker makeup so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a white woman in The Emperor Jones.)
The issue gets murkier with a character like Charlie Chan, who was based on the real-life Honolulu detective Chang Apana. In 2003, when the Fox Movie Channel started broadcasting the Chan films prior to releasing them on DVD, some Asian activists protested, objecting to both the way Chan’s character was written and the fact that he was portrayed by Caucasians (including the Swedish-born Warner Oland). (I haven’t found any protests against Manuel Arbó, who portrayed Chan in 1931′s Spanish-language Eran Trece.)
Chan—the smartest person in his films—was ultimately an empowering figure, and a good corrective to Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, impersonated on screen by Boris Karloff, among others.
Artists always have a choice. I can’t recall a single instance of Charlie Chaplin using racial humor, but my favorite filmmaker, Buster Keaton, too often made blacks the brunt of jokes. Similarly, writer and director Preston Sturges liked making his black bartenders and butlers frightened and not especially bright (for example, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story), something his contemporary Val Lewton never did.
In his piece, Mandvi overlooked several of the more striking examples of whites playing other races. Al Jolson used blackface throughout his career, including his groundbreaking musical The Jazz Singer. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney wore blackface in the musical Babes in Arms. These can be seen as attempts to appropriate black culture, and as such are uncomfortable to watch. But when Fred Astaire did an impersonation of Bill Robinson in Swing Time, it seemed like a genuine homage, an attempt to honor a respected fellow dancer.
Was it racist when Orson Welles donned dark makeup to play the lead in his screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello (1952), or an artistic choice? When Laurence Olivier made his version of Othello in 1965, would it have been better received if he hadn’t gone to such extremes with his makeup?
So, yes, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1960), just like Chuck Connors played Geronimo (1962) and Jeff Chandler, Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950). But Wayne also played Swedish sailor Ole Olsen in John Ford’s adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play The Long Voyage Home (1940)—arguably a tougher stretch for the Duke. Should filmmakers be given credit for treating these characters with respect? Is it worse when Tony Curtis impersonates the Pima Indian hero Ira Hayes (in The Outsider, 1961), or when he pretends to be a 15th-century knight (in The Black Shield of Falworth, 1954)?
Perhaps the real issue here isn’t whether Caucasians can portray different races, sexual orientations, or genders. What should bother us is if it is clear that the artist’s intention was to hurt. And this seems to be at the center of the Arab-American response to The Dictator.
Guessing the motives of artists is tricky work. In Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen mocks the people of Kazakhstan, portraying them as ignorant and perverted. But for many, Baron Cohen got away with his character because he also portrayed Americans in the film as ignorant and bigoted. When Baron Cohen mocked homosexuals in Bruno, the critical response was more muted.
Complaints against Baron Cohen started early on in The Dictator publicity campaign: Nadia Tonova, a director of the National Network for Arab American Communities; attorney Dean Obeidallah on CNN Opinion; writer Lucas Shaw on The Wrap.
Because his character in The Dictator is an evil fool, Baron Cohen again feels he has license to employ jokes that in other hands would be racist. New York Times critic A.O. Scott finds this logic “repellant” in his review. “We could laugh at his grossness, secure in the knowledge that we weren’t really xenophobic because we were also sneering at the fools falling for the trick,” Scott writes. “Dumb hicks. Dumb foreigners. Thank goodness we’re not bigots like them!”
Racism, closely linked to xenophobia, is inextricably laced into popular culture. In his Words and Places; or, Etymological Illustrations of history, ethnology and geography, Isaac Taylor listed the many ways the names used for different ethnic groups could be traced back to roots meaning “other,” “outsider,” “barbarian,” “enemy.” It’s when we intentionally limit our understanding of the peoples we don’t know, or insist on seeing them as “others,” that we become racist.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 25, 2012
This Friday marks the release of The Raven, a Relativity Media thriller directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, who learns to his dismay that a serial killer is re-enacting murders from his stories.
With his mysterious death in Baltimore never fully explained, Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect cautionary tale of genius gone wrong. The poet’s demise haunts 19th century melodrama—and by extension, the works of early filmmakers like D.W. Griffith.
Poe’s ignominious end was not his fault, of course—it was drink, or his broken childhood, or the death of his consumptive love Virginia Clemm, that drove Poe to his doom. Today we summon different demons to explain his failings, schizophrenia perhaps, or chemical dependency, some form of Tourette’s, a bi-polar tendency, all of which he wrote about convincingly in his stories and poems.
Our image of Poe changes through the years, as does our interpretation of his work. For most he is a guilty pleasure of adolescence. His gruesome horror stories are like fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, peopled by tricksters and shape-shifters who betray the innocent with elaborate, deadly, and pointless booby traps. Who but a madman would go to the trouble to use a razor-sharp pendulum as a murder weapon? Poems like “The Bells” and “The Raven” have an unnerving, sing-song lyricism that once learned are never forgotten.
Many readers skim Poe’s work and then outgrow him. Even his contemporaries had their doubts. “Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” was how poet James Russell Lowell put it. But behind all the insanity and gore Poe was capable of extraordinary writing. “To Helen,” for example, or this example of an Alexandrine couplet unearthed after his passing:
Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.
It’s no surprise that early filmmakers turned to Poe. They were after all desperate for material, and ransacked everything from the Bible to the daily newspapers for material. The author’s influence can be seen in the scores of trick films that dazzled early 20th century moviegoers. With his own carefully nurtured martyr complex, Griffith saw many affinities with Poe. In 1909, he directed Edgar Allan Poe, in which actor Herbert Yost tries to write “The Raven” while his wife dies beside him. One of Griffith’s first features was The Avenging Conscience (1914), like The Raven a mash-up of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Annabel Lee,” and other Poe works.
With stories like “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe is often given credit for inventing the detective genre. His C. Auguste Dupin inspired generations of private eyes, as well as scores of pulp novels and films whose narratives depend on solving codes. This is an angle The Raven hopes to exploit, although the film looks like it will dwell on the author’s use of horror elements as well.
And here’s where Poe deserves some of the blame for the cycle of horror films sometimes called “torture porn.” In stories like “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he latched onto primal fears with sadistic relish, acting out what society seeks to repress. Poe offered a moral framework for his depictions of torture, something often jettisoned by later writers and filmmakers. “The Premature Burial” evolved into the 1984 novel The Golden Egg and then into The Vanishing, a ghastly 1988 Dutch film directed by George Sluizer (who also directed a 1993 American remake). From The Vanishing it’s a short step to Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in a coffin, or Brake (2012), in which Stephen Dorff is buried alive in the trunk of a car.
Universal Studios made a fortune in the 1930s with horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. Director Robert Florey was pulled from Frankenstein at the last minute and assigned to The Murders in the Rue Morgue instead. Based very loosely on the Poe short story, the film portrayed torture as graphically as any movie of its time. Along with The Island of Lost Souls, The Murders in the Rue Morgue helped bring about stricter censorship regulations. When the Production Code lost power in the 1960s, producers could be more explicit about their intentions. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was adapted into the 1967 German film The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.
Poe has attracted peculiar filmmakers: independents like James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, working in a stable in Rochester; or the cartoonists at UPA, who were busy in the 1950s undermining the animation industry. Experimental filmmakers like Jean Epstein, iconoclasts like Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, and Roger Corman. Filmmakers responsible for what critic Manny Farber referred to as “termite art.”
Sibley and Watson made a 13-minute version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; that same year, Epstein directed the feature-length La Chute de la maison Usher. Both relied heavily on an expressionistic filmmaking style developed in Germany, in which foreshortened sets and angled compositions made up for a lack of narrative clarity.
The 1930s saw an Art Deco The Black Cat, with almost no relation to the Poe story but with one of the few pairings of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Shepperd Strudwick starred in 1942′s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, an amusing bit of hogwash, and Joseph Cotten in 1951′s Man with a Cloak.
James Mason narrated 1953′s animated The Tell-Tale Heart, a cunning cartoon from United Productions of America (UPA) that delved into the mind of a killer just as it began to unravel. (A set of UPA cartoons, including The Tell-Tale Heart and Gerald McBoing Boing, has just been released by Turner Classic Movies and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment under the title The Jolly Frolics Collection.) Director Ted Parmelee would later go on to Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Producer and director Roger Corman finished House of Usher, the first of his eight Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, in 1960. “The film was about decay and madness,” Corman wrote in his autobiography. “I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes.” His largely teen audience saw a lot of premature burials and implied incest instead, as well as a curious mix of new stars like Jack Nicholson and veteran actors like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
That blend of showmanship and exploitation continues to this day. A whiff of the forbidden clings to Poe adaptations. Then as now they were marketed to horror fans, to adolescents, to those with a taste for depravity and pain. A different audience than for, say, Pollyanna or The King of Kings. We know snatches of the writer’s work now, bits and pieces like black cats and manacles, ghosts carrying candelabras, images that as likely as not come from movie posters and trailers. The upcoming months will see several more Poe adaptations, including Terroir with Keith Carradine and The Tell-Tale Heart with Rose McGowan.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 6, 2012
April 15 marks the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a milestone that has received generous coverage at Smithsonian. Filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron jumped the gun a bit by re-releasing a 3D version of his epic Titanic to selected theaters on Wednesday, April 4. Early box-office returns look promising.
Titanic is a movie that buffs love to hate, perhaps because it was such a blockbuster hit. I saw it when it first opened and was astonished by Cameron’s vision, grasp of detail, and sheer tenacity. It was a film that bulled its way to the top despite all the obstacles against it, earning respect if not admiration.
Cameron didn’t change much for the 3D upgrade (according to this article by Frank Lovece, the only new shot is a corrected map of the night sky), but the film now seems even more impressive. The 3D effects are minimal—most effective for me when the weight of water burst rivets from a buckled hull—but they have the paradoxical effect of making Titanic seem bigger and more intimate.
What’s clearer now, some 14 years after the film’s original release, is just how astute Cameron’s storytelling was. Titanic could have been just another disaster film, a period Poseidon Adventure in which we wait to see which cast member will die next. Instead, Cameron found a way to personalize this horrific incident through a romance as unlikely as it was compelling. The characters played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet are conceived so well that viewers want them to survive, to beat the odds, just as they want their love affair to take hold despite family and class obstacles. The fact that their romance played out during a disaster gave added urgency to the unfolding events.
Titanic has its flaws, including over-the-top villains, too many water-sloshed corridors, and that grating pop song over the credits. But focused screenwriting, majestic imagery, crisp editing, and, now, 3D enhancements help make it an unforgettable moviegoing experience. The film’s sheer size and emotional pull work best in theaters, where viewers can share in a sort of communal catharsis.
For several years now, Luke McKernan’s blog The Bioscope has been a first-rate source of research into the world of early cinema. (He also edits an excellent early cinema aggregator on Scoop.It.) His latest piece, And the ship sails on, seems to me to be the definitive take on Titanic footage, real and faked. He also includes a clip of the recent British Pathé re-edit of the only genuine extant footage of the ship.
What I find fascinating is that filmmaker William H. Harbeck was a Titanic passenger, and may have shot footage during the fateful voyage. That film would be something to see. Mr. McKernan will cover this and more on April 15 at London’s The Cinema Museum when he delivers a talk on The Titanic Centenary, Featuring “The Ill-Fated Titantic.”
Unfortunately, as Mr. McKernan points out, the Titanic clip has been edited down from the original ten-minute Gaumont short.
Closer to home, Serge Bromberg will be hosting a night of screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday, April 9. Mr. Bromberg was one of the key figures behind the recent restoration of A Trip to the Moon, which I wrote about last year. In addition to the Méliès film, Bromberg is showing a new restoration of Buster Keaton’s The Boat and A Trip Down Market Street, a film of hypnotic beauty that was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment. Bromberg is a performer as well as an archivist and preservationist, and it’s always a treat to hear him play piano and provide backgrounds to the screenings. Plus he usually has a surprise film or two up his sleeve.
The Eighth Orphan Film Symposium starts on April 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I wrote about the Seventh Symposium, which featured little-known films by Orson Welles and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. The Symposium is an opportunity for archivists from all over the world to share their work, giving attendees sneak peaks at films that may become more accessible later. It’s where I first saw A Trip Down Market Street, for example. This year’s films include When the Organ Played “O Promise Me,” an Auroratone short starring Bing Crosby, and The Jungle, a 1967 drama about Philadelphia inner-city gangs made by the 12th and Oxford Street Film Makers.
On the West Coast, the TCM Classic Film Festival starts on April 12. A celebration of more mainstream films (Cabaret, Black Narcissus, Charade) that takes place in a number of Los Angeles theaters, the festival can be pricey, with passes running as high as $1199. The perks include the chance to mingle with stars like Mel Brooks, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds, and TCM host Robert Osborne.
In a related note, Hugh Neely is asking for your help with the Mary Pickford Foundation’s funding of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. You can sign a petition to insure that the institute’s work continues.
Finally, my editor pointed out this video by filmmaker Jeff Desom. Using Photoshop and After Effects, Desom took the wide shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and condensed them into a three-minute time-lapse shot that covers the entire film. As Desom explained in this interview, the original project turned the film into a continuous, 20 minute loop.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
March 16, 2012
Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.
This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.
This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.
Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.
Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.
“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”
The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.
Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.
The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”
A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.
Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”
Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”
The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”
In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.
I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.
Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”
March 7, 2012
For 60 years, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been the gold standard for how to film a fairy tale. It was the most successful musical of the 1930s, out-performing Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Show Boat. It popularized such best-selling songs as “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And it was the first in a remarkable run of animation classics from the Disney studio.
Two new live-action movies will look to unseat Disney’s version of Snow White in the coming weeks. First up, and opening on March 30: Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen. It will be followed on June 1 by Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a huge risk for Disney, but also the only direction he could take his studio. Disney’s cartoon shorts helped introduce technological innovations like sound and color to the moviegoing public, and characters like Mickey Mouse became famous the world over. But Walt and his brother Roy could not figure out a way to make money from shorts—the Oscar-winning Three Little Pigs grossed $64,000, a lot at the time, but it cost $60,000 to make. Like Charlie Chaplin before them, the Disneys needed to commit to feature films to prosper.
Disney picked the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” because of a film he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and starring Marguerite Clark, the 1916 Snow White was distributed by Paramount. As a star, Clark rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. She had appeared on stage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Winthrop Ames and produced in 1912. By that time Snow White had already reached the screen several times. Filmmakers were no doubt inspired by a special-effects laden version of Cinderella released by Georges Méliès in 1899 that was a favorite Christmas attraction in theaters for years.
A popular genre in early cinema, fairy tale films included titles like Edwin S. Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which took six weeks to film; a French version of Sleeping Beauty (1903); Dorothy’s Dream (1903), a British film by G.A. Smith; and William Selig’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1903).
Ames borrowed from the Cinderella story for his script, but both the play and film feature many of the plot elements from the Grimm Brothers tale “Little Snow White.” Although Snow White the film has its dated elements, director Dawley elicits a charming performance from Clark, who was in her 30s at the time, and the production has a fair share of menace, black humor, and pageantry. The film is included on the first Treasures from American Film Archives set from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Young Walt Disney attended a version in which viewers were surrounded on four sides by screens that filled in the entire field of vision. “My impression of the picture has stayed with me through the years and I know it played a big part in selecting Snow White for my first feature production,” he wrote to Frank Newman, an old boss, in 1938.
Disney was working on his Snow White project as early as 1933, when he bought the screen rights to the Ames play. That same year the Fleischer brothers released Snow-White, a Betty Boop cartoon featuring music by Cab Calloway, who performs “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The short owes little to the Grimm Brothers, but remains one of the high points of animation for its intricate surrealism and hot jazz.
The Fleischers, Max and Dave, had been making films for almost twenty years when they started on Snow-White. In 1917, Max patented the rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace the outlines of figures—a technique still in use today. He was making animated features in 1923, introduced the famous “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons the following year, and captivated Depression-era filmgoers with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye.
The pre-Code Betty Boop was a bright, lively, sexy woman, the perfect antidote to bad economic times. Soon after her debut she was selling soap, candy, and toys, as well as working in a comic strip and on a radio show. Snow-White was her 14th starring appearance, and the second of three films she made with Cab Calloway. Her other costars included Bimbo and Ko Ko, to me the eeriest of all cartoon figures.
(For flat-out weirdness, I don’t think anything tops Bimbo’s Initiation, but all the Fleischer brothers’ films have something to recommend them.)
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had an enormous impact on Hollywood. Variety called it “a jolt and a challenge to the industry’s creative brains.” The film ran for five weeks in its initial run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing to some 800,000 moviegoers. Although it cost the studio $1.5 million to make, the film grossed $8.5 million in its first run. Its success helped persuade MGM to embark on The Wizard of Oz. The Fleischers, meanwhile, set out to make their own animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman will make, but they are following some tough acts.
February 29, 2012
During a four-hour interview with Fast Company, director Martin Scorsese cited 85 film titles. Not so surprising for someone so steeped in cinema history, as screenwriter John Logan pointed out in my posting on Hugo: “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.”
Author Rick Tetzeli repurposed snippets and outtakes of the interview to come up with Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film. Not really a fair title, as it’s doubtful that Scorsese intended to improvise a course curriculum while publicizing Hugo. On any given day the director might have mentioned 85 other films, 85 other directors, 85 other memorable cinematic moments.
And why 85? Had the interview lasted longer, he might have hit 100 films, the sweet spot for the many, and increasingly maligned, AFI lists. Asked point-blank which films he thought were essential, Scorsese might have limited himself to 10, 20 or 25 titles.
As a snapshot of the director’s tastes on one particular day, the list displays an impressively broad range, reaching back to early silent films and on up to titles made by contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Robert Altman (who gets 6 titles, including HealtH, cited by Ronald Reagan as “the world’s worst movie”). Does the absence of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas mean anything, especially considering Scorsese was finishing up his first film aimed at children? Can we infer anything from the other films and directors that didn’t make the cut?
Some hasty observations:
- Nineteen (or 20, if you consider The Third Man British) of the 85 films are foreign, roughly 20%.
- Nine titles were directed by Roberto Rossellini, over 10 percent of the films you would see at the “Scorsese Film School.”
- Countries and regions not represented: Asia, Africa, South America, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, Russia. So, no films by Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein, Luis Buñuel, F.W. Murnau, Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray. No German expressionism, Soviet montage, Bollywood, or martial arts.
Scorsese cites three silent films, one understandably by Georges Méliès. The other two are an Italian short I frankly know nothing about (I segreti dell’anima) and Rex Ingram’s epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a significant film to be sure but at its time a pretty mainstream crowd-pleaser. Omitted: Edison, the Lumière brothers, Biograph, and D.W. Griffith. No Mary Pickford, Thomas Ince, Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. De Mille. More important, no silent comedy, perhaps the crowning achievement of silent film. Chaplin, Keaton, Mack Sennett, Max Linder, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey, Laurel & Hardy — all missing.
For that matter, where are the sound comedies? The “Scorsese Film School” ignores the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Ernst Lubitsch, Bob Hope, Myrna Loy, and too many others to list. The list lacks any animation (no Walt Disney, no Bugs Bunny, no Popeye), documentaries (goodbye, Robert Flaherty and Frederick Wiseman), or experimental films (adios Ralph Steiner, Stan Brakhage, and Ernie Gehr).
Among the really glaring omissions: Howard Hawks, William Wyler, John Huston, Nicholas Ray. Five Orson Welles films, but no The Magnificent Ambersons? Three Anthony Mann films, but no The Naked Spur?
Heck, the list doesn’t even include films that Scorsese loves so much that they appear in his own movies, like The Searchers and The Big Heat (in fact, Fritz Lang didn’t make the cut at all). Or movies whose restorations he helped finance, like Once Upon a Time in the West (no Sergio Leone anywhere else either).
By now I hope you can see how pointless this exercise is. It’s insulting to suggest that Scorsese doesn’t know or care about the films that aren’t on his list, just as it’s wrong to pretend that seeing this list of 85 films will make you an expert on cinema.
Is there a list that will make you an expert? The National Film Registry, which now has 575 titles, makes a stab in that direction. (29 of Scorsese’s 85 movies are on the Registry.) In writing two books about the Registry, I’ve bumped into some of its flaws (why no Woody Woodpecker or Coal Miner’s Daughter?), but the big problem with the list is that it’s becoming a bit unwieldy. Right now it’s almost a two-year course.
Roger Ebert has made his feelings about lists well known (like this Wall Street Journal article), but he’s also offered a different approach: lists that don’t mean anything. Take his Top 16 movies involving parakeets, which immediately drew its own controversy (no Oscar-winning, super-saccharine Bill and Coo?)
On the NitrateVille forum, film preservationist David Shepard wrote, “When AFI was promoting a run of its ‘hundred greatest’ this-and-that lists, some friends and I made a list of films with ‘Greatest’ in the title that actually weren’t much good.” He’s right — try it yourself on IMDb.
In the long run, how valuable are these lists anyway? Doctors cite list-making as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and luckily enough, here is a list of the top OCD-related films. (But where’s Conspiracy Theory?)
Here’s a list format that can’t cause any trouble: titles that when combined, form a sentence:
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948)
Without Honor (1949)
Four Jacks and a Jill (1942)
Down in the Delta (1998)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953)
How many can you compile?
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 1, 2012
Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVI, pitting the New York Giants against the New England Patriots, will be one of the highest-rated shows on television this year. (Last year’s game was the most watched show in television history; it was also the fourth consecutive Super Bowl to set viewership records.) Advertising revenue for the broadcast will top well over a half-billion dollars. The game and its surrounding pageantry are so significant that some churches have closed rather than compete, while a counter-programming industry has sprung up to capitalize on disaffected consumers.
Football hasn’t always been so dominant in American culture. In fact, for years the sport barely registered outside of college alumni fans. Baseball was considered the “national pastime,” and as such was frequently a setting in film. Prizefights, on the other hand, played a major role in legitimizing the entire medium, as Dan Streible points out in Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. (Interestingly, boxing had a similar function with television.)
Apart from newsreels and actualities (like this 1903 Edison film of a game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan), Hollywood took a bemused attitude towards football, using it largely as a setting for collegiate humor. In 1925, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman and MGM’s Brown of Harvard, starring William Haines and Jack Pickford, covered similar territory: plucky collegians, gorgeous co-eds, proms, cheers, betrayals and the Big Game. The Marx Brothers took a blowtorch to the genre in Horsefeathers, but cartoons like Freddy the Freshman also mocked the raccoon coats, Model Ts, and convoluted offenses that were how most viewers perceived college football.
These films inadvertently pointed out a problem with portraying the sport on screen. When newsreel companies like Fox Movietone and Pathé covered big games, their cameras were almost always situated high in the stands, at the equivalent of the 50-yard line—the best position for cinematographers to cover a play that could extend to either end zone. In Horsefeathers or Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923), on the other hand, filmmakers could break plays into individual components, concentrating on one or more players, cutting from a quarterback to a receiver, switching from sideline to end zone, even tracking along with runners as the play and story demanded.
Football became increasingly more popular in the 1950s and 1960s, in part because of how it was broadcast on television. Just like they did with baseball, sports directors learned to turn football games into narratives. As CBS director Sandy Grossman put it, “The reason [the gridiron] is easier to cover is because every play is a separate story. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then there’s 20 or 30 seconds to retell it or react to it.”
Now just about every player on the field can be isolated during a play, allowing the director to build a story line from different takes. Slow motion enables viewers to see precisely where a play succeeds or fails. Off-field graphics and interviews inserted into the game build personalities for the players, who otherwise might appear anonymous.
Contrast a football game with hockey or soccer, where play is essentially nonstop, forcing cameramen to revert to a high-shot from the middle of the rink or field. Or with basketball, where games are usually decided only in the final minutes. (Baseball, with its many points of stasis, trumps even football in terms of how successfully it can be televised. Because players are more or less stationary for most of the game, directors can hone in on them in close-ups so tight even Sergio Leone would have been impressed.)
As the means for depicting football evolved, both on television and in movies, so did the way the game was treated. From comedies that emphasized the frivolity of the sport, Hollywood moved to biopics like Knute Rockne All American (1940). Here football served as an all-purpose metaphor: for our struggle with adversity, as an affirmation of the American way of life, as an example of how we will defeat our enemies. Knute Rockne grew out of the Warner Bros. version of history, in which figures like Louis Pasteur and Emile Zola received reverential treatment in biopics, and was constructed as a morale-builder as the country faced the onset of World War II. It’s known today mostly for Ronald Reagan’s performance as George Gipp. (One football film that’s often overlooked is the engaging Easy Living, starring Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, which took a relatively hard view of the sport’s injuries and their consequences.)
Like movies in general, sports films became more psychologically complex in the 1950s and beyond. Titles like Paper Lion, Brian’s Song, and North Dallas Forty presented a more realistic view of the game and its players, albeit while romanticizing football overall. But filmmakers still tended to treat the sport as a metaphor: disapproving in Everybody’s All-American, uplifting in Rudy.
Rudy marked another recent shift to true-life stories centered around football. Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans, Invincible, Gridiron Gang, The Express and Radio are a few examples of films based on true stories. 2009′s The Blind Side, based loosely on a book by Michael Lewis, hit the jackpot, winning Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar.
While The Blind Side was being filmed, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were shooting a documentary on the Manassas High School Tigers. The finished film, Undefeated, received an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature. Again, the filmmakers insist that Undefeated isn’t a “football” movie.
“One of the biggest challenges is telling people what Undefeated is about,” Martin told me in a phone conversation. “If you say, ‘It’s a high school football team…’ they answer, ‘Oh, like Friday Night Lights.’ But it’s not, Undefeated is about something different than football.”
And in fact Undefeated paints a touching and at times troubling portrait of North Memphis youths struggling to find their way in the world. As coach Bill Courtney says at one point, “You think football builds character. It does not. Football reveals character.”
Which gets me through this posting without having to deal with Black Sunday, in which a suicidal lunatic played by Bruce Dern tries to blow up the Goodyear Blimp at Super Bowl X.
January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.