Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Nanook of the North" (1922)

For those very few filmgoers who are unfamiliar with it, "Nanook" tells the story of an Eskimo and his family as they struggle for survival in the frozen tundra. It is very much a "documentary" in that it documents the day-to-day life and process of survival, including the building of an igloo and a seal hunt.
But it is in these more "spectacular" scenes that the film earned its detractors. Take for example the interior shots of the igloo. Due to the intensity of the heat generated by lighting equipment necessary in 1922, the shots had to be faked using a "set", half an igloo with one side completely open for natural light to allow for filming, not unlike the open-air stages that permeated Hollywood in the early silent days. The seal hunt, too, is not entirely truthful-in fact, an already-dead seal is substituted for a live one in order to allow Nanook more freedom in his "performance" of spearing the seal and dragging it to the surface of the ice. In addition, the film presents the Eskimos performing rather ancient hunting and survival rituals, not exactly as advanced as genuine Inuit culture of 1920.

Flaherty's film remains the seminal, landmark film in the documentary genre. Flaherty himself was later denounced after facts regarding the fictionalization of certain scenes in "Nanook" came to light. Eventually stripped of his credibility among documentarians, film historians continued to appreciate his sophisticated use of location photography, which often produced beautiful and poetic results. By the end of his life, in 1951, Flaherty found renewed appreciation for his work by less harsh critics who found high praise for the humanism apparent in all his work, and the enthographic dedication with which Flaherty took time to learn about the cultures he was documenting. His final film, "Louisiana Story" (1948)-a tale of oil drillers in rural Louisiana-combined a narrative with documentary techniques, and for many years was frequently cited as one of the ten great films in the history of the medium.

Perhaps no other filmmaker has seen his reputation plummet more than Flaherty; once one of world cinema's most respected and highly praised artists on the level of Chaplin, Eisenstein, DeSica, etc., he is now a name in the footnotes of film history texts. Sadly, his work is in danger of neglect to the point of extinction from the cultural consciousness. The annual Flaherty Seminars keep his spirit of humanism in documentary film alive, however. Perhaps Flaherty's work will enjoy a renewed appreciation as more and more serious study toward documentary films comes into being.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Elia Kazan, I should state, is not one of my favorite directors. That is to say, his films do not draw me to them because of his name alone. Nothing about his style, or his technique, or even his common themes, draw me to his work consistently. Because Kazan's style is so strong, I find it hard to be indifferent to his work the way I would with an ordinary, pedestrian filmmaker. With Kazan, one could say you either love him or hate him.

Without wishing to sound uncommitted, I would say there are certain Kazan films I admire for what they are. His adaptation of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is a nice adaptation of the book, which I enjoy. "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a fine filming of that Tennessee Williams play, and introduced the Method acting of Marlon Brando. "Baby Doll" is as bizarre a film as you're likely to see. And my personal favorite of Kazan's films is the wonderfully atmospheric "On the Waterfront", which I admit I love for purely personal reasons-my grandfather worked in the docks of Baltimore City in the same type of environment at the time the film was made, and it is strongly reminscent of the descriptions he gave of the days and nights working on the waterfront.

To my list of Kazan films that I enjoyed, I can now add the most recent film I have watched, "A Face in the Crowd", one of those indictments of mass media (especially television) that was so popular in the 1950s. With it's no-holds-barred approach to expose style filmmaking, "A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith, in a career-defining performance), an ex-con and guitar picker who finds himself a huge superstar overnight thanks to some appearances on local radio and television. As his fame increases, he hurts those around him and sinks into a decay of booze, drugs and sex.

The casting of this film is quite interesting. Andy Griffith portrays the disgusting, crude Rhodes, and Patricia Neal is the woman who loves him. We have the screen debut of Lee Remick as Griffith's teenage bride, and Walter Matthau in an early role as the introspective TV producer. That fine silent film director Marshall Neilan even turns up in a supporting role as a Senator who takes Griffith under his wing. It is interesting to see Griffith in this brilliant performance before he became typecast as Andy of Mayberry and Matlock. He proves himself one of the finest actors of his generation, along with Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Ernest Borgnine.

The film moves at a good pace, bridged by fades, and really paints a believable image of Griffith's rise to fame within the story. Too often, "rise to fame" sequences are handled with a montage of screaming fans and newspaper headlines, but this film does an excellent job of making it believable and interesting. Griffith's character becomes a beloved teddy bear persona, but holds his many adoring fans beneath contempt (this proves to be his downfall). The film is rather unclear about who precisely is at fault here-on the one hand, the media is blamed as a corrupting influence, but at the same time, the adoring fans are seen as being somewhat stupid, easily-led sheep.

As always in my reviews, I don't want to harp on the story. I encourage viewers to seek the film out and watch it for themselves. I tend to focus on the film in the context of the "bigger picture", as it were. "A Face in the Crowd" reminded me, in a roundabout way, of "Sweet Smell of Success", another 1957 picture that demonized the power and corruption of the media. In the 1950s, there was clearly a sort of paranoia about the power of the media, and part of that may have been due to the increasing competition between the film and television mediums. I'm reminded of the scene in Douglas Sirk's "All that Heaven Allows" in which Jane Wyman, in an effort to emphasize her character's lonliness and sense of isolation, is presented with a brand new TV set as a present. In another prophetic moment in "A Face in the Crowd", Griffith develops a "reaction machine" consisting of playback options of canned laughter, applause, etc. This immediately calls to mind the scene in "Annie Hall" were Woody Allen admonishes Tony Roberts for using such a machine to bump up the laughs on his sitcom.

"A Face in the Crowd" holds up quite well today. It may very well be required viewing for anyone studying popular presentations of American media, along with such films as "Network", "All the President's Men", "Sweet Smell of Success", "His Girl Friday", and "Ace in the Hole".

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the Importance of Location

The other night I watched a classic film that I have to admit I had not yet seen; "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), released by Warner Bros., and directed by John Huston.

I will not give a review of the film here; instead, I wanted to comment on the aspect of the film that perhaps struck me more than any other: its use of location. Location is an often overlooked aspect of filmmaking. Too often, a good location has to be sacrificed because of cost, time, permission or other external factors often beyond the producer's control. Thankfully, and perhaps remarkably, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" must stand as one of the finest examples of location work committed to film.

At first I was uncertain where the film was photographed. I assumed it was a combination of location work within driving distance of Burbank, and backlot work done at the Burbank Studio. However, there was a convincing atmosphere to it that made it very impressive and after some research, I found that the film was in fact shot extensively on location in Mexico.

The use of authentic Mexican locations adds immeasurably to the film. For those unfamiliar with it, the film tells the story of Fred Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), an unemployed American stranded in Mexico, who, along with a fellow American (Tim Holt) and a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston), takes to the mountains to pan for gold. Jealousy, greed and fear soon consume the group before events turn ugly. To give a sense of the isolation and destitution of Bogart's character, the authenticity of the grimy, gritty Mexican town provide a perfect backdrop. Those mountains where the trio goes prospecting are so perfectly chosen, so completely atmospheric, that it is easy to forget one is watching a fictional, "studio" film.

Location work was still rather uncommon even in 1948. Despite the increased demand for "realism" in the years following World War II, Hollywood films were often still shot on sound stages and backlots. This made economic sense, after all. Even though the production financing of films now had to come from more independent sources (since the studio-owned theatre chains which generated a constant cycle of profit had been broken up in anti-trust rulings in 1946), the studios still called most of the shots, and in many cases, films were shot entirely at the studios just as they had been in the "studio era", even using all the staff technicians on studio payroll. Location photography was used for bigger budget productions, but during the 1930s and 40s, it seems that many producers forgot that natural locations were one of the first major differences between cinema and theatre, which first caught the attention of audiences 30 and 40 years earlier.

"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" represents a major step forward in American filmmaking. It goes beyond its use of locations, of course, but these are at the heart of its innovations and significance. One can look at the film as a step forward in a sort of "maturation" process that Hollywood was undergoing. It can be seen, too, as a representative film of the increasing power that certain directors were able to exert over their productions. During this period following World War II, more and more directors were able to make artistic decisions that had previously been made at the sole discretion of the studio heads. Huston was one of the most instrumental directors in effecting this change. Along with fellow directors William Wyler and George Stevens, he represents the "old guard' directors who were able to successfully make the transition to the post-war era while becoming more independent as artists.

It is ashame, indeed, that more filmmakers do not pay attention to locations the way Huston did in this film. As it is, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" remains a benchmark film, and its locations still emphasize the power of setting in the cinema.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hands Up (1926)

With all the work of the major silent comedians so readily available, it's easy to forget about the other, less-known clowns whose work isn't as easy to find. Raymond Griffith falls under this category, because so much of his work is lost, and what does survive isn't that easy to see.

What struck me immediately was the endless parade of sight gags in the film. The opening scene with Abraham Lincoln meeting with his cabinet set up a serious tone that is delightfully contrasted in the very next scene, when Ray Griffith rides up to visit General Lee. The sight gags begin immediately, and in this scene reminded me of similar battlefield gags in DUCK SOUP (shells flying through the window, etc). Thankfully, the rest of the film kept up the ingenuity and clever gags found in this scene.Griffith himself is a very fun performer to watch. His characterization of the unruffled gentleman in the silk hat played very well against the overall zaniness of the film. I would really enjoy seeing more of his work. Mack Swain, always great, turned in a memorable supporting appearance here.

The length of the film is perfect for a comedy. It's one thing that pre-WWII comedies had as a major advantage-that they could end after 60 or 70 minutes and not have to hang on a lot of exposition and plot wrap-up for the mandatory 90 minute-plus running time of today.