Friday, July 24, 2015

Mardik: Baghdad to Hollywood (2008)

I became interested in learning about screenwriter Mardik Martin when I first discovered the films of Martin Scorsese as a young film enthusiast. At that age, roughly 12 or 13, I focused on the names in the credits in order to study the individuals beyond the director who contributed to the film, and I saw his name pop up again and again, first on RAGING BULL, then MEAN STREETS, then THE LAST WALTZ, and NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Over the years, I was intrigued by this frequent collaborator who seemed to be involved in nearly all of Scorsese's early efforts, even going back to his NYU student films. I was surprised, then, that I could not find more information about him.

Recently, however, I learned of a documentary that had been produced several years ago about this enigmatic individual who had obviously made such a tremendous contribution to some of the most important films of the New Hollywood period, and then seemed to largely vanish from the Hollywood scene. Directed by Ramy Katrib and Evan York, MARDIK takes an affectionate look at its subject, telling the remarkable story of Martin's journey from Baghdad to New York at the age of 18, working his way through NYU's film school (after deciding to abandon economics, his original major of choice), meeting Scorsese (who, like Martin, felt like something of an outsider in his early days at NYU), his early film collaborations with the director made while they were both students -- and subsequently instructors -- at NYU, and their meteoric rise to the top of the American film industry during the 1970s. The documentary also deals with Martin's dark days in the early 1980s, marked by instability resulting from drug addiction and an inability to write the kind of scripts that Hollywood was looking for at that time. However, the story has a happy ending, as Martin returned to his love for teaching, this time at USC, where he continues to inspire a new generation of film students with his direct, honest teaching style, and tremendous insight in to the art of screenwriting. Martin was further recognized for his work when the WGA named RAGING BULL one of the 101 greatest screenplays in 2006.

The documentary, running a brisk 76 minutes, serves as a nice overview of Martin's life and work, though it moves a bit too quickly from one chapter of his career to the next, leaving certain questions and issues unexplored. For example, though it's obvious from their joint interview scenes that Scorsese and Martin are still very close and have a great deal of respect and affection for each other, it would have been interesting to hear why they have not collaborated on a project together since 1980's RAGING BULL. The film necessarily spends a good deal of time on Martin's collaborations with Scorsese, but solo projects such as REVENGE IS MY DESTINY and VALENTINO still get something of a short shrift.

There is also a disappointing lack of archival footage and stills, relying far too often on the kind of jokey animation segments that have become de rigeur in documentaries like this. I have no idea when (or why) this practice began, but it really is time for documentarians to retire this technique, as it only serves to distract and is a poor substitute for more thoughtfully-selected and carefully-researched visual source material. The directors include a moment in which Martin scolds them for shooting endless hours of footage without advance preparation in planning out the interview on paper, which presumably is intended to demonstrate Martin's own disciplined approach to crafting an interview script, but also perhaps reveals some of the shortcomings of the directors' approach to presenting the material, which overall feels rather shapeless and loose (though, somewhat confusingly, Martin is credited as the sole writer of the documentary).

Martin is such an engaging and entertaining speaker, however, that the film is at its best when it simply allows him a chance to share his story and his ideas in his own words, and it's good to see this master craftsman being given his due in the form of this documentary tribute.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Captain Hates the Sea (1934)

An offbeat comedy-drama with an all-star ensemble cast, set aboard a cruise ship on which various characters cross paths. There is the alcoholic writer (John Gilbert) who is on board to dry out and finish his novel. There are the private investigator (Victor McLaglen) and the crook he's pursuing (Fred Keating) who engage in a battle of wits over the stolen bonds and over the affections of the crook's partner-in-crime (Helen Vinson). There is the unhappy wife (Wynne Gibson) whose abusive husband (John Wray) hurts and humiliates her because of his embarrassment over her checkered past. Presiding over these and the various other passengers is the blustery, hot-tempered captain (Walter Connolly) who struggles to maintain control over his ship.

Notable mainly for its superb cast (which also finds room for such talents as Alison Skipworth, Leon Errol, Akim Tamiroff, and The Three Stooge), the film manages to be more than a just a curio, thanks to its intelligent script and to Lewis Milestone's direction, which contains some interesting camera choices that grant a strong degree of visual interest to the material. The interwoven threads of the various characters' stories are made all the more compelling through the deftly-handled shifts in tone between them, veering from moments of freewheeling comedy to sober drama. John Gilbert, in his final screen appearance, is especially poignant as the heavy-drinking author, considering the personal difficulties he was facing at this point in his career. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: "Amateur Cinema: The Rise of North American Movie Making, 1923-1960" by Charles Tepperman

An excellent survey on the origins and developments of amateur filmmaking, from its rise following Eastman Kodak's introduction of the 16mm gauge in 1923, to its decline in the postwar period. Charles Tepperman frames the survey largely through the history of the Amateur Cinema League, an organization that offered amateur film enthusiasts the opportunity to connect and share their work, and did much to promote the art of home-made films.

Tepperman draws on articles from Movie Makers, the official publication of the Amateur Cinema League to present a vivid portrait of the movement, including common types of films, the demographics of home movie camera enthusiasts, and the relationship of amateur cinema to Hollywood. He also includes a solid overview of key filmmakers in the movement. Of particular interest is his chapter on Theodore Huff, a film historian who also worked in the documentary and avant-garde modes in addition to his contributions to amateur cinema.

Tepperman wisely avoids drawing too many comparisons to the present day situation with YouTube and online video, though he does address the way in which these new media are an outgrowth of the ideas of democratizing production and using the camera as a tool for personal expression, which originated with the founding principles of the Amateur Cinema League. Overall a fine study into a much-neglected area of film history that has much to offer for filmmakers and historians alike.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part V

The Pillar of Fire
A gorgeously hand-tinted print of this film is presented on the Melies DVD set, heightening the fantastic elements that Melies is showcasing here. A devil-like figure dances about, waving a torch over a pit of fire, out of which rises a woman, who proceeds to perform a Serpentine dance. It is interesting to note the difference in the use of the Serpentine dance in the film compared with that used by Alice Guy. Melies heightens the fantasy element by having the dancer conjured up by a devil, and includes such frenetic action and movements that the whole screen seems to come alive through the motion alone. The use of hand-tinting also emphasizes the place of the film within the “Cinema of Attractions” mode, offering a full experience for viewers, who would have most likely encountered the film in fairgrounds.

“Dreyfus” films
A series of tableaux depicting events in the trial of Captain Dreyfus, this ambitious series of films is one of the most un-typical in Melies’ work. The films are difficult to comprehend without a knowledge of who the characters are. While they would have undoubtedly been more familiar to contemporary audiences, it is still difficult to imagine the films playing without some kind of descriptive narration. There are some remarkable moments, such as the scene in which a fight breaks out among reporters, who are seen running toward the camera to create a really claustrophobic sense of being crowded in to the tiny room. Some of the scenes are depicted with a fair amount of realism, while others are clearly staged in front of painted flats. Overall, this series was an extremely ambitious and daring undertaking, and Melies’ defense of Dreyfus is clear in his casting himself in the role of Dreyfus’ defense attorney.

The Magic Lantern
A very self-reflexive film, this depicts two characters viewing moving pictures through a Magic Lantern device. At one point, of the characters is able to see himself on the screen. They also open the Magic Lantern up, and various characters come out from the device. This may be one of the earliest examples of characters in a film interacting with a screen image (a “film-within-a-film”, essentially).

Hilarious Posters
More than any of the other films screened, this one creates the most elaborate manipulations of space within the frame. A giant advertising space, lined with posters, comes to life, with each of the illustrated characters “acting out” the advertisements they appear in. Eventually, they “break out” of the ad, and police chase them around, before becoming “trapped” in the ad themselves. There are a number of levels of screen space and direction, with three separate rows of advertisements across the screen, as well as foreground and background dimensions.

Palace of the Arabian Nights
An elaborate fantasy, Melies develops a strong narrative thrust in this film which is more involved than most of his fantasy films up to this point. It follows a journey into an elaborate palace to retrieve treasure, and the Prince’s encounters with various obstacles along the way. The film is notable for demonstrating the move toward narrative cinema, away from the “Cinema of Attractions” model, while also finding room for isolated moments of spectacle. The elaborate set design, costumes, and placement of actors and props within the frame show the lengths that Melies was going to in order to create a fully-realized fantasy world. The detail in the painted sets, for instance, lends to the overall universe that Melies transports viewers into.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part IV

Adventures of William Tell
A fascinating use of stop-motion, in this film a clown puts together a human figure, which comes to life to torment the clown, who plans to perform a “William Tell” routine. The figure beats the clown, whose form disappears underneath his costume, then-after the figure has left-reappears, gathers himself, and exits the scene. It is a rough film, filled with roughhouse and knockabout physical business, and playing with audience expectation about how the routine will play out.

The Astronomer’s Dream
Anticipating the kind of lunar fantasy he would explore in A Trip to the Moon, Melies here presents an astronomer who falls asleep while observing the moon through a telescope. It comes dangerously close to his observatory window, even devouring him at one point. There are other various transformations that take place, including the window being replaced by a stone wall. This is one of the most elaborate manipulations of space and spatial continuity that Melies has demonstrated to this point. By changing the position of the moon, he suggests a far greater depth to the screen than is actually there.

Four Troublesome Heads
A delightful comedy piece, Melies here plays a musician-singer who removes his head three times, placing them on the table, and singing along together. The remarkable aspect of this film is the timing that Melies achieves with four separate film elements playing together, and really creating an illusion that the action is all taking place at the same time within the frame.

Temptation of St. Anthony
This film could be read as religious satire or criticism, as it presents a very strong emphasis on the women figures who “tempt” St. Anthony, and at one point, the Christ figure on the cross transforms into a woman. There is an element of almost vaudeville-like humor in the scenes in which the women tease St. Anthony, dancing around him, and disappearing and reappearing around him in comic fashion. Finally, St. Anthony himself is presented as an almost comic figure, with exaggerated makeup and movements, all of which lead the viewer to suspect that Melies was presenting a critique or possibly a satire on the religious elements he depicts here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part III

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine”
Here is an interesting example of Melies using special effects to create a kind of “documentary” short. We see divers pulling bodies out of the sunken ship (actually using dummies to stand in for the bodies), while Melies has used double-exposure to print images of the fish over top of the original image. This creates an unsettling effect, in that the grim and gruesome subject matter is played out on a painted backdrop, with clear special effects in use to help create the overall effect, reminding the viewer that what they are seeing is only a re-creation of the actual event. It becomes difficult, however, to separate that knowledge from the gruesomeness of the subject matter.

Panorama From Top of a Moving Train
One of the few cases of a “moving camera” in Melies’ work, the camera is here mounted on a moving train and takes a straight-ahead view of the journey. An interesting effect is achieved by having the train pass under low bridges, which creates an interesting spatial effect.

The Magician
A great example of a Melies trick film, we see here a magician with a magic box. As he leaps into the box, disappearing, he is transformed into a small clown, which then transforms into a taller one after jumping down from the table. There are also playful hints of sexuality as a statue is transformed into various women. Despite a static camera, the image is never a dull one, as frenetic action and constant cutting within the frame provide a continuous sense of movement.

The Famous Box Trick
A trick film with some moments of gruesome humor (a boy is split into “two” separate boys with an axe), Melies performs the lead role, focusing the audiences’ attention on his different movements, which provide a remarkable sense of visual rhythm. Working with the box as his center prop, he presents an interesting transformation between the human form and objects, such as transforming one of the boys into a piece of paper, which he then tears up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part II

The Haunted Castle
Another stop-motion trick film, this one (taken from a hand-colored print) features a man in a haunted castle, with various transformations taking place around him (the chair disappears out from under him, and he encounters various spectral presences). It is interesting here how much movement Melies creates within the frame. Even though the camera itself is completely static, there is so much going on in the frame that it creates a strong illusion of rhythm and movement.

Surrender of Tournavos
A departure from the trick films, this is a staged, “newsreel”-style piece depicting a shoot out between soldiers. It is shot in a very straightforward manner, with understated performances. It is an interesting example of the diversity of Melies’ work from this period.

Between Calais and Dover
In some ways, this is a difficult film to respond to, as it was unclear to me exactly what effect Melies was trying to achieve. The film depicts a rough sea voyage, with a tilting stage to create the illusion of a rocking boat. The action itself is somewhat exaggerated, leading me to question whether Melies was exploring the comic potential of such a set-up. At the same time, its presentation is very straightforward, which suggests Melies was trying to depict the situation without exploiting the tricks for any kind of comic effect.

After the Ball
Another difficult film to analyze, this one seems to belong to a kind of “peepshow” tradition of “blue” movies so popular in this period. We see a woman undress and stand in a tub, where her maid proceeds to pour water on her then dry her off. Clearly intended for its erotic qualities, the film is yet another departure from Melies’ usual trick films. While Melies’ films are often filled with sexual elements, few are as explicit in their intention than this one.