Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some Reflections on Visiting the Edison Factory

This past Saturday (August 13),  I took a trip to the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. I've visited here a number of times over the years, and each time I visit I am struck by the sense of wonder I feel at being the very spot where (depending on which version of the history you read) motion pictures were born.

This time, I visited the museum with my friend Jim Gisriel, a fellow film enthusiast who shares my interest in the early years of cinema. We arrived on a scorching hot Saturday morning, right before noon. After checking in at the visitors center, we made our way in to the small theater where a selection of early Edison films were playing on a monitor. After watching a couple minutes of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (we walked in just as the bandits were forcing the passengers to disembark from the train), Jim and I made our way out the back of the theater and over to the Black Maria.

Or rather, a replica of it. Originally built in 1893, the Black Maria is recognized as the world's first dedicated film studio, and although it was torn down only a decade later, this replica was constructed in 1954 by the U.S. National Park Service and stands as a tribute to the place where America's earliest films were made. The Black Maria is quite a striking building -- covered in tarpaper, it got its name from the knickname given to police paddy wagons, which it resembled.

With the scorching hot noonday sun beating down on us, Jim and I observed the Black Maria for about 20 minutes before heading inside for a presentation on Edison's contributions to the motion picture. While we were outside, we took in all the little details of the structure, from its wooden tracks that allowed the studio to turn and face the sun, to its hatch roof that could open to allow the sunlight to shine in. Several bees swarmed around, apparently having nested inside a pipe fixture on the side of the building.

Unfortunately, we were not able to actually go inside the Black Maria, but the side door was open, allowing us a look at a replica of the Chinese Laundry set from Edison's 1895 film of that same name, as well as what appeared to be a replica of an Edison camera, though it was difficult to tell from the angle that it was positioned at. What is most striking about this replica -- which is the same size as the original studio -- is how small it can look from the outside. And yet, the interior was large enough to house not only the performers, technical crew, and equipment, but also a small dressing room on the end for visiting talent. The studio was described by some of those who worked there as hot and cramped, the most uncomfortable building in which to work. On a hot day like this, it was easy to see why they might feel that way...

But imagine the larger-than-life personalities who set foot in this little studio more than a century ago! It gives me chills to stand out there at the site of the original studio, and think of the icons of late 19th/early 20th century American show business -- Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Sandow, among them -- who stepped before Edison's camera one afternoon and achieved immortality on film. It's thrilling to stand in that spot where they once stood, and realize we are only separated by time.



With the lecture about to start, we headed inside and up to the second floor of the factory, where a tour guide gave a short talk on the invention of the movies. A small but appreciative audience was gathered, and it was fun watching the kids in the group as they looked at photos of the Kinetoscope and small strips of film that were passed around. I couldn't help thinking how excited I would have been, as a budding film enthusiast, to attend a presentation like this at their age!

The second floor of the Edison factory is where W.K.L. Dickson built his first motion picture camera, and also where the very earliest camera tests were shot. In the far corner of the second floor is a wall with a placard that designates it as the spot where Dickson's invention took place. To stand and look at this little corner of an industrial factory in suburban New Jersey, in the exact spot where the art form of motion pictures was born, is a humbling experience. Imagine being able to see the first cave wall where the first painting was created, or to stand in the exact spot where the first musical note was played. And think of all the dreams that sprang forth from Dickson's invention that day...



On display was an original Edison Kinetoscope, though it was not up and running. In a glass case was an early film repair kit consisting of a splicer and glue, used for patching up broken prints. As Jim observed, this little kit represents the birth of film editing. Next to it was a prototype cylinder viewer, one of the methods for playback of moving images that was abandoned early on. This method involved tiny individual frames that would be viewed on a turning cylinder to create the illusion of movement. I peered at the little frames and recognized the image to be from "Monkeyshines", one of the earliest surviving camera tests said to date from 1890, which features an Edison employee waving his arms about before the camera.

Jim and I proceeded to tour the rest of the museum, which includes rooms dedicated to music, sound recording, and photography, as well as Edison's impressive personal library (which takes up three floors). But the highlight of the visit was certainly the chance to spend some time in the place where the motion picture first came to light some 125 or more years ago. I think of those people who were there at the very moment of the birth of the art form, and wonder whether they had any idea of the power and the potential of the tool they had created. It is awe-inspiring to think of the artistic heights the cinema has reached in just its first century of existence, and what still lies ahead.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Jonas Mekas' "Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971"

Among the literature written on the subject of film, there are a few works that I would consider absolutely "essential". Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas, is certainly one of them. Representing nearly a third of the columns that Mekas wrote for the Village Voice over a period of about 15 years, it provides a vivid, first-hand account of the films and filmmakers of the New York avant garde cinema, written "as it happened" by the movement's most passionate champion.

It is really quite staggering to think about the scope of what Mekas' writings cover here -- really the entire rise and development of one the most creatively fertile movements in the history of cinema, offering impassioned defenses of some of its most notable participants including Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Gregory Markopolous, Harry Smith, and Marie Menken. Mekas traces not only the films and the people who made them, but also how they were distributed, exhibited, and received. He provides a vibrant portrait of the New York underground art scene in which these films were shown, and the increasingly ambitious ways in which they were presented, such as interactive, live "happenings". His descriptions of the challenges in dealing with New York's film licensing and censorship laws of the time reminds us of how courageous these artists were in fighting for the right to make the films they wanted. Most significant in this respect is Mekas' account of his arrest over the showing of Jack Smith's highly controversial Flaming Creatures, which was released in 1963 and found to be obscene.

Then there are the accounts of the development of the Filmmakers' Co-op, which served as a distribution network for avant garde cinema, and the Anthology Film Archives, created as a place to preserve and screen the films for future generations. The stories behind these two landmark cultural institutions deserve volumes of their own; their inclusion here reminds us how prolific (and tireless) Mekas has been in his quest to champion alternative forms of cinema.

Mekas is also a prescient visionary, particularly when it comes to his ideas about making cinema available in the home (to be collected and consumed like books), and in his idea of using 8mm (home movie) cameras in the service of social justice. The advent of home video, and the prevalence of consumer camcorders (as well as online video on which to share the footage) have proven him right with time.

Mekas has said that everything he did, he did because there was a real necessity for it. That is what comes through most strongly in his writing. One gets the sense that this is not a man with any time for trivia; his vision was (and remains) astoundingly clear and focused on the task at hand. The post-war American avant garde cinema flourished thanks to the critical context provided by Mekas, along with the institutions for distribution and exhibition that he was instrumental in creating. Mekas is an inspiration to anyone who cares about the possibility of cinema as a tool for personal expression rather than as a commercial business. This collection of his writings is a testament to that. As a critic, he has that most important of gifts: the ability to inspire his readers to seek out for themselves the films about which he wrote.

Movie Journal was originally published in 1972, and has been long out of print until this 2016 reissue by Columbia University Press. The new edition contains a foreword by Peter Bogdanovich.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Review: "A Manhattan Odyssey" by Herman G. Weinberg

In researching the life and work of pioneering film exhibitor, subtitler, critic, and avant garde filmmaker Herman G. Weinberg, I came across a copy of his memoir, A Manhattan Odyssey, which was published in 1982. I hoped that it would contain information about his time in Baltimore, when he served as the manager of the Little Theatre, an early arthouse cinema that was the city's sole outlet for foreign and avant garde films at the time.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Weinberg devotes an entire chapter of his book to his time in Baltimore. He recounts being sent there by the operators of the 55th Street Playhouse, an art cinema in Manhattan, to oversee the opening of the Little Theatre. He ended up staying in the city for six years (from 1929 to 1936), living off of Mount Vernon Square and even meeting his first wife, Erna Bergman, who worked at the Little and was the star of his landmark experimental film Autumn Fire.

Beyond that, however, Weinberg's memoir is a fascinating evocation of a time and place that no longer exists. Most of the book focuses on his many years spent living in Manhattan, from his early childhood (a particularly tragic story involves the death of his young sister), to his years as a luminary of New York's arthouse film scene (during which time he authored a long-running column, "Coffee, Brandy, and Cigars", which ran at various times in publications such as Film Culture and Variety). Unlike our current age, in which every film enthusiast is expected to develop a specialized area of expertise in the most niche, unexplored aspect of the medium, Weinberg was a generalist, bringing his talents to bear in several different areas of the cinema.

Weinberg entered the film world through his musical training, after writing a trio of articles on silent film scoring that brought him to the attention of the burgeoning arthouse scene in Manhattan in the late 1920s. He developed the process of subtitling foreign films that has become the standard (superimposing the translated dialogue at the bottom of the screen), wrote pioneering studies of directors including Lubitsch and Sternberg, and in his later years, was a regular presence on the film festival circuit for many years, where he rubbed elbows with many Hollywood greats.

The chief delight in reading Weinberg's memoir, however, is his eloquent style, and wide-ranging references to literature, art and poetry. He re-produces a number of poems throughout the book (including one by his daughter Gretchen) that reflect a real appreciation for that art form. Like the best critics, Weinberg's enthusiasm for the subjects about which he writes is infectious.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Great Gatsby (1949)

The second screen adaptation (after the tantalizingly lost 1926 silent version) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, this 1949 version -- directed by Elliott Nugent -- is an offbeat film, with its '40s post-war sensibility striking an uneasy balance with the '20s Jazz Age setting. Fitzgerald's novel is re-worked here as a rise-and-fall narrative more typical of the '30s gangster film, combined with elements of post-war crime dramas. Gatsby is portrayed as a hardworking young man who develops a thirst for wealth and the power it brings. But his meteoric success is ultimately undone by his misguided devotion to the woman for whom he has carried a torch over the years. It's no wonder that this version is often talked about in terms of '40s film noir, both for its emphasis on Gatsby's tragic rise and fall, and for its often shadowy, high-contrast visual style.

Alan Ladd is an interesting choice for Gatsby. He is able to convey the naive, almost childlike qualities of the character, as well something darker, even somewhat sinister, under the surface. The casting of Ladd, a staple of Paramount's series of dark crime dramas of the decade (This Gun For Hire, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia), further places the film's interpretation of Gatsby within post-war noir's long line of tragic protagonists. One of the more frustrating results of this approach, however, is a reductive morality imposed on the story, which undermines some its power. Nowhere is this more glaringly obvious than in the frankly trite and unnecessary prologue, which has Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker (now married) visiting Gatsby's grave in the present day, and reflecting back on the tragic events that led to his downfall.

Paramount's 1949 version of The Great Gatsby ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, fails to convey the spirit of the Jazz Age zeitgeist that Fitzgerald captured so well in his novel, but it is, also inevitably, revealing as a glimpse of that era as viewed through the very different sensibilities of the time in which it was produced.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Professor Beware (1938)

Of the major silent film comedians, Harold Lloyd's transition to sound was in some ways the most seamless. Whereas Chaplin continued making silents throughout the 1930s, and Keaton was assigned by MGM to a series of increasingly uncharacteristic (albeit financially successful) farce comedies, Lloyd took something of a middle-ground approach, gradually adapting his character and scripts to better suit changing tastes in screen humor, without sacrificing the best qualities of his silent work. This approach resulted in such superb films as The Cat's-Paw and The Milky Way, both of which demonstrated that Lloyd still had what it took to remain a top comedy star in the '30s.

Professor Beware was Lloyd's final independently-produced feature, and marked his retirement from film acting (with the exception of his return in Preston Sturges' nostalgic The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a decade later). Lloyd plays Dean Lambert, a timid Egyptologist who becomes convinced he is the victim of an ancient curse, and sets off on a cross-country chase from Los Angeles to New York in order to join an expedition departing to Egypt, where he hopes to find the missing tablet that will remove the curse.

This picaresque plot provides an excuse for lots of fun if loosely-connected sequences built around the professor's misadventures on his cross-country journey, peppered with a colorful cast of character actors such as Raymond Walburn, Lionel Stander, William Frawley, Thurston Hall, Cora Witherspoon, Sterling Holloway, and many other familiar faces. There is also a pleasant romantic plot involving Harold and a young heiress (Phyllis Welch) on the run that, as others have pointed out, bears more than a passing resemblance to It Happened One Night.

Often cited as a highlight of the film is the extended chase scene in which Lloyd and his traveling hobo companions (Raymond Walburn and Lionel Stander) have to keep running along the top of a moving train headed toward a low tunnel. Perhaps in 1938, when there was such a dearth of good visual comedy on the screen, this sequence would have seemed like a welcome throwback to the best of silent comedy, but seen today, it feels rather clumsy and is marred by the overuse of unconvincing back-projection.

Much more satisfying is the action-packed climax, in which a newly-invigorated Harold finds the courage to rescue the heiress from her father's yacht. The scene is like a throwback to the ending of his silent comedies such as For Heaven's Sake and Speedy. Harold rounds up a gang of various tough guys by taunting them and egging them on to give chase, which they do -- following him right on to the yacht and unwittingly acting as Harold's personal army as they engage in an all-out brawl with the yacht's crew. It's a well-timed and expertly-constructed sequence that demonstrates Lloyd's still-considerable skills for physical comedy even at this late point in his career.

Other highlights include a sequence with Harold hiding a stolen chicken under his coat and being forced to engage in some amateur ventriloquism to assuage the sheriff's suspicions, and a memorable sight gag of a frost-bitten Harold emerging from a refrigerated train car in which he has just spent the past several hours traveling across the state.

Overall, however, Professor Beware is far from Lloyd's best work. Too often the pacing lags between set-pieces, some scenes (particularly the clothes-changing sequence with William Frawley) go on too long, and Lloyd himself is just a bit long-in-the-tooth to be playing the overeager young professor getting worked up over superstitions around an ancient curse. But it's hard to dislike the pleasant, silly humor of it all, and there are still enough flashes of brilliance, particularly in the exciting climax, to make it a worthwhile and enjoyable effort from a master comedian.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Red Line 7000 (1965)

One of Hawks' final films, Red Line 7000 is an odd and often frustrating film. It never goes quite where you expect it to. Hawks largely dispenses with any concern about story here, instead focusing on the characters -- a group of racecar drivers and the women they love -- and follows them through their triumphs and tragedies on the racing circuit. To watch Red Line 7000 is to see a director totally in command of his style, relaxed, assured and not caring one whit about pleasing anyone other than himself with the results. That alone makes it worth checking out.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bigger Than Life (1956)

An interesting counterpart to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the same period, Bigger Than Life is Nicholas Ray's powerful critique of post-war suburbia and the nuclear family. It's a hard-hitting, "ripped from the headlines" story about a mild-mannered suburban schoolteacher who is transformed into an abusive tyrant after becoming addicted to the experimental drug cortisone, which he has been prescribed to treat a potentially life-threatening condition. Well-acted by James Mason (who also produced), bringing a fiery intensity to his role, and ably supported by Barbara Rush as his sympathetic wife and Walter Matthau as his friend and fellow teacher who stand by him through his battle with addiction.