Friday, December 11, 2009

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" (2009)

The newest film by Werner Herzog is a deceptively simple inversion of narrative expectations.

The film is told largely through flashbacks, recalling the events that have led up to a man, Brad McCollum (Michael Shannon) being involved in a standoff with police (headed by a brilliant Willem Dafoe as Detective Havenhurst) after murdering his mother. Chloe Savigny as Ingrid, Brad's girlfriend, and Udo Kier as Brad's friend Lee, round out the main players in the cast. Other familiar faces include an interesting turn by Brad Dourif and a brief appearance by Verne Troyer. A real standout is Grace Zabriskie, so memorable in David Lynch's 2006 masterpiece, "Inland Empire", here portraying a mother role that is quite unlike anything I've seen before.

The film takes it narrative and stands it on its head, creating a sense of humor and reflexivity that works well. The opening sequence with Willem Dafoe really sets this tone perfectly. There are the delightful absurdities: Brad's pet flamingos, the ostrich farm, the basketball in the tree, and so on. The relationship between Brad and his mother, and Brad and Ingrid, and Ingrid and Brad's mother, provides a fascinating character dynamic.

There is also a reflexive use of the staging of a play around which Herzog weaves the film's themes, couched in the terms of a Greek tragedy. The scenes are at one pathetic and funny.

The film's narrative discourse is arranged in such a way that the careful revealing of plot points to the audience allows the plot to unfold in such a way that, even though depicting events which have been revealed early on, the film's ending is a magnificent moment of surprise.

"My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done" played at the IFC Center in the West Village tonight with Herzog himself in attendance. Speaking before the film, Herzog explained his desire to make the film on a low budget, allowing for greater control. He also spoke of his collaborating with David Lynch's Absurda company, which produced the film, and that, specifically, Lynch took a very hands-off approach in terms of intervening with the film's direction, despite rumors that he had directed certain scenes himself. Herzog did point out a delightful reference to Lynch's "Blue Velvet" in the scene in which Michael Shannon observes a man, running on a treadmill, and wearing an oxygen mask.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


I recently had an opportunity to attend a screening of Richard Lester's film, "Petulia", from 1968. I had never heard of the film before, which is surprising considering how much I have sought out Lester's work from that period. I was even more surprised to learn of the high reputation the film enjoyed (tying with "Annie Hall" for third place on a 1978 list of the best films of the past ten years).

With this bit of build up, I was quite intrigued to see the film itself. Watching the film, the influence of the French New Wave, and Godard in particular, became quite apparent. The film involves a recently-divorced middle-aged man, played by George C. Scott, and his relationship with a mod London girl, played by Julie Christie. The film is awash in 60s cultural touchstones, including musical performances by Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

Without getting too wrapped up in the details of the plot (which is quite complicated), I couldn't help but feel, as I watched the film, that a large part of its critical reputation was based on the fact that Lester was employing these New Wave techniques in the service of a "serious" drama. It was, in fact, the film's narrative concerns that held it back and seemed to restrain the brilliant visual flourishes that Lester engages in during the film's more inspired sequences.

I couldn't help but compare the film with Lester's previous work; his two films with the Beatles, certainly, but also "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" and "How I Won the War", in which New Wave techniques are allowed to flourish without concern for narrative logic. It's hard to think of any scene more vibrantly joyous and alive than the "Can't Buy Me Love" sequence in "A Hard Day's Night", with its perfect synthesis of rock and roll and New Wave cinematic technique. The techniques that Lester employs in his work from this period seem much better suited to the kind of freewheeling comedy and musical films he'd been making up to this point. In The Beatles, he found the perfect subjects for his filmmaking style-as eclectic, vibrant and innovative in music as Lester was in the cinema. In "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", Lester has the opportunity to work with one of his direct cinematic ancestors-Buster Keaton-whose performance style works perfectly in the context of what Lester is doing. And "How I Won the War" is one of the best satires from any period. With the same aesthetic applied to a character drama, there is a definite tension between the elements as Lester deals with narrative concerns on the one hand, and with stylistic concerns on the other.

None of this is to take away from what Lester does achieve in "Petulia". It's a remarkably mature film, and particularly through Scott's nuanced performance, is a very intricate character study as well. Nicolas Roeg's cinematography, with its heightened emphasis on bright reds, works very well within Lester's visual style. There are certainly moments where the film's narrative and character development seem at odds with the techniques Lester is employing, though. It comes back to the concern that critics are willing to see things in a serious drama that they may never acknowledge as existing in "lower" genres, which overlooks the incredible work that Lester had been doing all along up to this point.

"Petulia", in this sense, may be a kind of 1960s equivalent of equally-forgotten films like "Cavalcade", wherein the very qualities the film was praised for have become passe. Fortunately, in the case of "Petulia", the film still has much to recommend it for contemporary viewers, from Lester's strong visual style, to the intricate performances of its lead actors.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bold Bank Robbery (Lubin, 1904)

Siegmund "Pop" Lubin is remembered today perhaps as one of Edison's chief rivals in the patent wars at the turn of the last century. Lubin was based in Philadelphia, and is all too often referred to in the history books only for his "remakes" (rip-offs) of popular Edison titles.

It's true that the Lubin company turned out some pretty audacious imitations (their version of "The Great Train Robbery", released a year after Edison's version), but along the way, Lubin turned out some pretty interesting films which deserve to be evaluated on their own terms.

One such picture is "Bold Bank Robbery", made in 1904 by Jack Frawley (who also wrote and shot the picture). The film begins a group of men enjoying a drink and a smoke, dressed in elaborate tuxedos and top hats. They are framed in a theatrical manner in front of a painted flat. What's remarkable is the sense of space that this single, flat backdrop provides. It's both highly theatrical yet also hints at the kind of screen space that more sophisticated sets would come to provide in the near future.

The gentlemen depart, and head out to their horse-drawn carriage waiting outside the club. We are immediately aware of the use of the actual exterior location compared to the interior shot we had just witnessed.

Arriving at a home, they don masks and change into burglar garb, then head out to meet a car parked out front waiting for them. They are driven down to an embankment, where they proceed to tie up their driver and dump him in a ravine. The rest of the group drives off to the bank (another painted set), where they knock out the teller and proceed to blow up the vault, making off with bags of money and make their getaway in the car.

Meanwhile, a couple stumbles upon the bound body of the driver, laying on the side of the road. Telling them what has happened, the police are called, who track the robbers down to the home they are meeting in. A rooftop chase ensues, leading through the streets, through a lake, on a streetcar, and even on to a train. The police miss catching the last robber as he rides off on the train, so they have the station agent wire ahead to the next stop, where two officers wait for the robber to get off the train, whereupon he is placed under arrest. Finally, we see the three robbers serving time in a prison, working on a chain gang.

This ten minute film includes a tremendous amount of action. There are numerous chase scenes, and the final business, with the last robber being pursued through the streets, on the train, etc. is a remarkable bit of action staging. The exciting outdoor visuals contrast nicely with the painted flats of the interiors.

There are, of course, inevitable comparisons to be made to Edison's "The Great Train Robbery" and to Frank S. Mottershaw's "Daring Daylight Burglary" (produced by Charles Urban), both from 1903. Even the title is reminiscent of the latter film, and the staging of the action recalls Edison's "Great Train Robbery" in the bank scenes, and also the final chase with the law pursuing the criminals. Lubin's films may not have been the most original in their content or innovative in their style, but "Bold Bank Robbery" remains an exciting film in its own right, with some interesting location changes and, in a few instances, above-average production design.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tunneling the English Channel (1907)

One of Georges Melies' most prophetic of his pseudo-science fiction efforts, "Tunneling the English Channel" is a delightful combination of political satire and fantasy.

Made in 1907, the film is presented in a lavishly hand-colored print (although the print used for the recent "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" collection begins with a rather rough, black and white copy and switches to a pristine, hand-colored source about halfway through. This was presumably pieced together from the best surviving elements). The films begins with a sort of split-screen set up, featuring the King of England and the President of France getting ready for bed. As they dream, visions of the building of the tunnel underneath the English channel play out. We see the construction of the tunnel on both the English and French sides, as well as the celebrations following the successful completion of the project. However, their dream turns to a nightmare when disaster strikes as two trains collide in the tunnel, waking both the King and the President from their dream. At this very moment, an engineer comes to see both men with plans to build a channel tunnel, and both leaders forcibly eject him from the scene!

Delightfully stylized moments occur throughout. The set representing the channel tunnel is very elaborate, with sand and silt underneath the tunnel, and the sea itself above, in which we see various submarines, fish, and other aquatic creatures moving about. Melies packs an incredible amount of visual detail into every frame.

Melies' fascination with industry and technology is present throughout. In Melies' narration, written to accompany the film, he goes in to great detail on the scientific and technological details of the construction. In his book "Flickers: A Century of Cinema" (1995), British critic Gilbert Adair notes that, technically speaking, "Tunneling the English Channel" offers a more daring vision of the future than Melies' more famous film, "A Trip to the Moon", in that-while travel to the moon became a reality 67 years after that film's release, the Chunnel did not become a reality until 88 years after the release of this film.

The ending of the film, with both leaders soured on the idea of a tunnel because of their nightmare, leads to a perfect comic close to the whole film. There are some moments of fun political satire throughout, such as the moment when the leaders' respective footmen mock their pompous march in a celebratory parade.

A delightful film on all counts, this lesser-seen Melies title deserves its place among his best work. It is available as part of the "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" DVD set, available from Flicker Alley, which includes 173 of the cinematic magician's films in pristine copies with the original hand-coloring and narration intact.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Rough Sea at Dover (1895)

There is something strangely haunting about this short (very short) actualitie piece shot by Birt Acres and R.W. Paul in what must have been one of their earliest efforts. It provides an interesting contrast to Edison's films in terms of the use of a location. Whereas Edison preferred to showcase a performer, making location a secondary issue of concern strictly for practical purposes, Acres and Paul showcase the sea as a subject in itself.

Shot on an apparently stormy, dour day at a pier at Dover, the filmmakers capture the raw energy made possible by the scope of the subject (the sea would return as a favorite subject for many future films, and its continual movement still possesses a hypnotic quality and a strangely cinematic element, which Griffith used to such good advantage when he shot his first film on the shores of Santa Monica beach nearly 15 years later).

The film also differs from the Edison approach in its use of two shots, one a full view of the pier, and the second a medium shot, taken a little closer to provide a greater detailed view of the waves.

Unfortunately, the surviving print (featured on Kino's "The Movies Begin" DVD set for those interested in seeing it) is in pretty rough condition itself. It would serve as a nice reminder to DVD producers that perhaps another set is in order, consisting of more of these early pioneering efforts from around the world, in order to shed some light on lesser-seen films by people like Acres and Paul.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caceido with Pole (1894)

On the excellent Kino/MoMA Thomas Edison set, there is a fascinating little film that I've been tempted to write briefly about for some time now.

Titled "Caceido with Pole", and dating from 1894, the film is remarkable for being the first Edison film shot outdoors of the Black Maria. There is something strangely enticing about the film for this reason alone. Without further research, I can't be sure where the film was photographed, precisely, though it was almost certainly either right outside of the Edison lab, or in a very nearby location to Orange, New Jersey.

In many ways, the subject matter and presentation are no different from the countless other early Edison shorts, depicting popular vaudeville and show business figures performing a condensed version of their act before the static Kinetograph. Yet there is something undeniably vibrant, fresh and even cinematic about the performance of Juan Caceido as he performs elaborate leaps and somersaults on a wire.

For some reason, I find this short strip of celluloid both very exciting and also hilariously funny. The "outdoor" location plays a part in both. It's exciting to watch the elaborate tricks of the performance, of course, but it's also fun to see W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise, the film makers, discover the cinematic qualities of shooting outdoors in a natural location. The location in the case appears to be someone's backyard, with a tall wooden fence and a neighboring house visible in the background. This brings me to the part which I find so utterly hilarious-the idea of such a fantastic performance being recorded by the cinematic medium, then in the earliest stages of its infancy, against such a seemingly "normal" backdrop.

Edison films like this one are, of course, also a great reminder of the tremendously diverse kinds of entertainment audiences had available to them at the turn of the last century. Watching Juan Caceido seemingly effortlessly bouncing off the wire, while keeping his balance with a pole, and performing complex somersaults, is a spectacle to see. One can only imagine what other spectators must have thought.

Above all, it's a fun reminder of the joy, energy and even cinematic fervor that can be found in even a little film like this. Dickson undoubtedly shot the film outdoors for purely practical reasons (the act was too complex to shoot inside the Black Maria's confined space). Yet, whether or not he fully realized it, he was tapping in to the same kind of effects that "real" locations provide which Louis Lumiere would really take to new heights the following year (the moving leaves in the background of "August Lumiere and Baby" from 1895 captured audiences' attention as much as any of the staged foreground action).

While "Caceido with Pole" is hardly a groundbreaking film in any real sense, it nevertheless presents, for perhaps the first time in the American cinema, the qualities of outdoor shooting that countless directors have explored since.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. (1996)

This 1996 documentary remains perhaps the most thorough look at the man who came to earn the reputation as the "worst director of all time". It focuses a great deal on his failures, which is also a big part of the problem I have with it.

The film consists of interviews with a number of Wood's friends and collaborators, beginning with Crawford John Thomas. Thomas and Wood set up a commercial production company in Hollywood in 1947, the year they both arrived there. Interviews with Thomas lead in to some rare behind the scenes footage of Wood directing a 16mm Western short with future collaborator Conrad Brooks, who produced the short film with his brother to serve as an acting demo reel. The footage shows Wood, impeccably dressed in a sports coat with his Errol Flynn mustache, enthusiastically directing the scene.

We next see outtakes from an unfinished early short, "Crossroads of Laredo", which Wood produced in 1948, ostensibly to sell to television, although it's hard to imagine the film, which essentially amounts to a home movie, being shown on TV at all.

The major Wood films are addressed individually, with comments from a whole host of collaborators, including makeup man Harry Thomas, actors Conrad Brooks, Lyle Talbot, Paul Marco and Gregory Walcott, even Rev. Lynn Lemon (who produced "Plan 9 From Outer Space". There are also comments from Vampira, one of the key members of Wood's cinematic entourage, as well as actresses Dolores Fuller and Loretta King. Bela Lugosi Jr. has very little positive to say about his father's work with Wood, whom he sees as a "user and a loser". This may seem rather harsh, since by most accounts Wood and Lugosi shared a deep friendship, and Wood did provide Lugosi with work, even if it was below the standards of his best work.

The problem I have with the documentary is that it focuses too much on Wood's failures. While his career in the movie business could hardly be labeled "successful" by any conventional definition, the simple fact is that Wood succeeded where so many have failed; namely, in actually making his films.

I'd like to see a serious, non-ironic study of Wood's contribution to independent filmmaking. Not that I would encourage some sort of postmodern view that elevates Wood to "auteur" status on the basis of effort alone, mind. However, as has been pointed out, Wood made very well have been the first horror/science fiction filmmaker who actively loved the earlier serials and B-movies of his youth, and who sought to recreate some of their spirit and energy. Considering that his films still hold up as entertaining more than half a century after their creation, I think it's fair to say that he succeeded in terms of entertainment value, even if the production values and technical craftsmanship are genuinely subpar. It should be noted, though, that when given a half-decent budget, as he was with 1955's "Bride of the Monster", the results are actually quite good. "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is justifiably recognized as a poorly-crafted piece of filmmaking, but one has to consider the extreme difficulties Wood faced in just getting it finished at all. And there's still no denying that Wood populated his films with memorable characters that are rather unlike anything else in Hollywood cinema of the time.

The documentary does skirt over Wood's final years, jumping from the completion of "Plan 9" to his death in 1978 in a superficially brief amount of time. Granted, the details of Wood's final years are not necessarily the kind that one would want to dwell on in a biography, but he did produce a prolific amount of work in that period which should not be ignored.

This documentary can be purchased as part of the "Ed Wood Box", a DVD set which features his major films (plus a recently-restored film "Night of the Ghouls", which Wood completed in 1959 just after shooting "Plan 9", but which he was unable to release as he never had sufficient funds to have the negative developed. The film was restored in 1983 by Wade Williams.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)

Robert Altman was a filmmaker who never seemed to feel the need to keep "in fashion" the way other directors have. Beginning with his real breakout film, "MASH", he developed a very personal approach to filmmaking with emphasis on character and dialog that was perfectly suited to certain films ("Nashville", perhaps his supreme masterpiece), but other times seemed wrong for the material ("Popeye").

Altman's final film is a wonderfully dreamy film that depicts a highly theatrical world; in this case, the backstage of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Stylistically, the film belongs to Altman, although it's cheery yet dry humor is pure Garrison Keillor. Keillor holds court with his performers, acting as a kind of master of ceremonies for a variety of acts, mostly country-western types (recalling "Nashville"). The performers are all standouts: Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a sister country-western act, Lindsay Lohan as their daughter, Kevin Kline in a wonderfully comical turn as detective Guy Noir, L.Q. Jones as Chuck Akers, an aging country music singer, and perhaps the biggest standouts, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson as a comic cowboy duo, whose "Bad Jokes" number provides the best laughs in the film.

Most interesting is Garrison Keillor playing himself, an inveterate weaver of tall-tales and interesting characters, and facing his responsibilities as host with a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor and calm. Keillor is a living legend, and this film (from his own script) stands as a real testament to his unique brand of humor that stems from a long tradition going back to Twain.

Altman died just shortly after completing the film. Like Stanley Kubrick, who died just weeks after completing his final film, "A Prairie Home Companion" is also a kind of tribute to the show business world in which Altman spent his career working. In one scene in which the new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) of the show's theater arrives to survey his new property, he comments that the whole thing seems like something out of the past, a point also made in the opening narration by Kline's Guy Noir. There is also a wonderfully supernatural element to the film that seems particularly resonant given Altman's passing shortly after the film was released.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is a film both of an earlier time, and ahead of its time. It stands as one of Altman's finest and most personal works, and a wonderful record of the uniquely American humor of Garrison Keillor.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Scorsese's First Feature: Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Scorsese's debut feature, Who's That Knocking at my Door has an interestingly checkered history which may account for moments of unevenness in an otherwise intriguing and personal film.

According to various sources, the film began life in 1965 as a student short by Scorsese at NYU, about J.R. (Harvey Keitel) and his friends. This was then combined with the plot between J.R. and the Girl that became a feature in 1967, then titled I Call First. Finally, in 1970, an independent distributor agreed to pick the movie up if Scorsese shot some sex scenes to be edited into the film.

As it is, the film has much to offer. The clear influence here is John Cassavetes. In fact, there are moments that the film feels so much like a Cassavetes picture that it's almost hard to tell them apart stylistically. Scorsese lets his actors improvise long scenes of dialog, which doesn't always work well. As in Cassavetes' work, the improvised dialog all too often comes across as awkward, unnatural, and even occasionally embarrassing. There is also simply too much talk-the scene where the guys go hiking in the woods, for instance, could have played much more effectively without the dialog.

The moments that stand out are the scenes with Keitel and Zena Bethune, both who achieve a good chemistry with oneanother. Their initial encounter is pure Scorsese, with Keitel extolling his praise of John Wayne, and of The Searchers in particular.

The film takes an interesting and dark turn when Keitel finds out that the girl has been raped, or so she claims. Torn with guilt, he must choose whether or not he can continue his relationship with her. What stands out in the film is Scorsese's clear embracing and exploration of his Catholic upbringing. At a time when so many Catholic film makers were exploring their faith on screen, Scorsese in particular stands out for his fascination with the Catholic iconography, beautifully photographing the inside of the St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The black and white cinematography, no doubt more a budgetary choice than an aesthetic one in this case, actually works to the film's advantage, and offers a few moments that are visually stunning, especially the scene on the deck of the ferry, with Keitel and Bethune cast in harsh, bright light from the lights on deck. As it is, though, the film is primarily carried through its dialog, and does not present as many of the visually distinct, stylistic flourishes that Scorsese developed in his proceeding films.

What ultimately makes the film of such interest is that it is an intensely personal work by a film maker who has always pursued a singular vision, even in his more "commercial" projects, and seamlessly weaves aspects of his own life, experiences and interests into a work that transcends its time and place.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pilgrimage (1933)

The gem of the new "Ford at Fox" set is this 1933 melodrama filled with Ford's favorite themes. Profoundly sad, moving and sentimental, this film marks the beginning of Ford's mature style in the sound era.

The story involves a small town mother, Hannah Jessop, played to perfection by Henrietta Crossman in the role of a lifetime. Norman Foster turns in a surprisingly subtle performance as her son, Jim, who is engaged to be married to the daughter of a local drunk. When Hannah finds out about this, she signs Jim up for the draft, whereupon he is shipped off to war. During a brief layover in his home town, Jim learns that his fiancee is pregnant, but he is killed in France before being able to return home to marry her. The rest of the film deals with Hannah's coming to terms with her relationship with her son during a visit to France to visit his grave.

"Pilgrimage" has been referred to as a "women's picture", which might surprise casual viewers more familiar with Ford's macho stories of tradition in the face of battle. What is remarkable about the film is that Ford's direction keeps the story from ever becoming mawkish or overly sentimental, preferring instead to portray the strong and noble qualities of his characters. Hannah Jessop is a remarkably defined character, helped in no small part by the incredible performance of Henrietta Crossman (it is truly surprising that she didn't have more of a career in films). Ford steers clear of cloying, manipulative sentimentality by portraying Hannah as a flawed woman, driven to despair by her own sense of self-righteousness. In one scene, she expresses regret over hiding her selfishness under the guise of "Christian" values. Realizing that her stubbornness has cost her son his life, she shows her change of heart by helping out another young couple whom she meets in France, and whose situation resembles that of her own son and his fiancee.

To dismiss "Pilgrimage" as a "women's picture" is to deny the raw emotional intensity of what Ford accomplishes here. He puts his audience, as well as his characters, on an emotional rollercoaster by indulging in his penchant for rustic, "cornball" humor between the film's more heart-wrenching moments. The extended visit to France provides a good opportunity for some "small town folks in a strange land" type of humor, which is interesting in pitting the stereotypical rustic types against the "sophisticated" urban types. In doing so, Ford draws an interesting parallel between the clearly distinct types of films so popular during the period in which the film was made (directors like Ford and Capra tended to portray smaller, even rural environments, while Lubitsch, say, or Stevens, focused on an upper-middle to upper class urban milieu). It has the effect of giving the film a truly encompassing, human-epic feel. There is a particularly funny moment at a shooting gallery, in which Hannah surprises the onlookers with her sharpshooting skill. It ends with a ridiculous bit of corny humor that is so silly and good-natured that it's impossible not to laugh.

Stylistically, Ford plays with some of the classical conventions in which he was working. An unusual approach used early on in the film features the actors speaking directly into the camera, rather than looking slightly off-screen in the direction of the character to whom they're speaking. It seems to have been an effect that Ford abandoned, as it really doesn't turn up in his later work, or even in the later scenes of this film.

The cinematography, by George Schneiderman, is gorgeous, particularly in the rural scenes. Ford frames his actors in deep focus shots, allowing the backgrounds to sprawl out behind them for as far as the camera can see. There is one scene, in particular, where Norman Foster's character leaves his home at night to meet with his fiancee, that shows the influence of F.W. Murnau and of German Expressionism in general which had so affected Ford's style in the late 1920s. Indeed, the theme of the film resembles those he dealt with in his seminal 1928 work, "Four Sons".

Ford's theme of Catholic guilt is very heavy throughout the film. There is a scene in particular, in which the mayor of the town tries to convince Hannah to make the trip to France to pay tribute to her son, and to represent the town. He shames her into going, playing on her guilt, while in the next scene, as he is seeing her off on the train, tells her how "proud" the whole town is of her. There is a particularly painful scene in which Hannah tells the other mothers with whom she is traveling that she doesn't deserve to be there, as she feels so wracked with guilt over her son's actions. The theme of guilt runs heavily throughout the film, serving as a catalyst for several of the film's major plot turns. As usual with a Ford film, the characters develop organically from their environment, rather than serving as pawns in the plot. Several other Fordian elements are present, including the presence of a family dog which follows Hannah around in moments of distress, and which plays an important symbolic role in the final scene.

There is no denying that Ford had developed into a full-fledged artist with a distinct style during the 1920s. In the silent film medium, his masterworks such as "The Iron Horse", "3 Bad Men" and especially "Four Sons" stand as a testament to that. With the coming of sound, however, Ford-like so many other directors-had to take time to re-adjust and to develop his style within the new medium of the talking picture. With "Pilgrimage", he emerges fully formed, displaying the kind of breadth and scope of subject matter which has earned him the reputation as America's finest filmmaker.

"Pilgrimage" is available on DVD through the "Ford at Fox" collection, in a pristine restored print. The disc features an optional commentary track by Ford biographer Joseph McBride, and comes with my highest recommendation.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The First Films

Question: when was the first movie made?

Ask this question to ten different historians and you will receive ten different answers. For years it was fashionable to say that cinema was "born" on the night of December 28, 1895 in Paris, when the Lumieres held their famous first screening (in actuality, it wasn't even the Lumiere's first screening, let alone the first screening before an audience anywhere in the world).

Others will say that it was Edison, with films like "The Sneeze" and "Sandow", although of course Edison's own output goes back earlier than that.

Still some will make a case for one of the sadly neglected, often overlooked pioneers like Max Skladanowsky in Berlin, or William Friese-Greene in England, or France's Augustin Le Prince (who actually did succeed in capturing a few frames of motion as early as 1888, but never perfected playback of his device-despite persistent rumors to the contrary-and disappeared under mysterious circumstances before he could make any more progress).

Thanks to a joint effort between Kino on Video and the Museum of Modern Art, we can now get a little closer at looking at the beginning of film, at least from the Edison company.

The two earliest experiments on the set are called "Monkeyshines" (nos. 1 and 2). Dating from sometime in late 1889 or early 1890, the fragments (or what survives of them, at least), represent nothing so much as a series of very blurry still photographs.

The second film offers a slight improvement on the sharpness of the image, but is still a blur in terms of its movement.

These images were played back on a cylindrical device that could be cranked by hand. The images were run in front of a little viewer, creating the illusion of continuous movement-sort of a "live action" version of the Zoetrope. While these represent an important step toward the eventual development of the full blown movie, I feel that they are closer to the "series photography" of Eadweard Muybridge or Jules-Etienne Marey than they are to the moving picture that Edison and his chief developer, W.K.L. Dickson, would eventually arrive at.

An important development came in 1891, when Dickson completed the "Dickson Greeting" test, in which the inventor steps before the camera and removes his hat. This film has the distinction of being the first test shown to a larger audience. Edison's wife was a member of the Federation of Womens' Clubs, and Edison arranged a demonstration for the members at his Orange facility. The event was recorded in the news of the time.

Viewed today, the film is extremely brief when projected at its proper speed. The important step is that the movement appears entirely natural. The Kino DVD offers the opportunity to view the film in a "slow motion" playback to better appreciate the individual frames.

Two more of these early camera tests are included on the disc, "Newark Athlete" and "Men Boxing", both from 1891 and both demonstrating a "natural" movement upon playback, along with a photographic clarity, missing from the first tests.

With the invention of the Kinetograph, Edison and Dickson succeeded in perfecting playback of their films within the "peepshow" viewing format. Edison, of course, preferred the "single person" viewing option of the Kinetoscope as he thought it would increase revenue by charging admission to each individual viewer rather than screening it for an entire audience. At the time (1893), it was surely enough to have perfected not only the photographing but the playback of the moving image with such natural movement, such image clarity, and for such a sustained amount of time.

What's most interesting about Edison and Dickson's "Blacksmithing Scene" from 1893 is that Dickson chose to use costumed actors for his subject. The artifice of the medium is already apparent in the staged scene, with actors (most likely other technicians) dressed in blacksmith garb, and passing around a bottle of alcohol after finishing their work. (It's also worth noting in passing that another one of Dickson's technicians-maybe even Dickson himself!-is visible in silhouette, blocking part of the image by standing in front of the camera during the first half of the film, an error oddly overlooked in many accounts of the film).

By choosing to re-create a scene from the past, Dickson was already getting at the possibilities that moving pictures provided to stage fiction as well as record reality, and how often that line would be blurred over the years. Although it may not be apparent to viewers today, at the time people would have recognized the blacksmith scene as deliberately hearkening back to a "simpler time", especially in the allowance of alcohol in the workplace (which was already frowned upon by 1893). Dickson also draws a parallel between the simpler "industrial" workers of an earlier era, and the craftsmanship of his own team of inventors who developed and built the camera being used to film it.

Most importantly, Dickson had discovered the ease of shooting in a studio. Due to the incredible size of the early camera, it made sense. The "Black Maria", Edison's studio, provided an ideal means of shooting each film, as it could turn to face the sunlight, and even had a dressing room attached for the various celebrities who would
come to be photographed before Edison's camera. Dickson's preference for shooting in the studio was certainly echoed by whole generations of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, who found the artifice and controlled conditions of filming on a stage to be preferable to working on location.

The "Blacksmithing Scene" was also notable for being displayed at the Brooklyn Institute of Technology in 1893, providing an important step up in the public awareness of motion picture development.

Examining these early tests provides an interesting glimpse into the development of the medium in its earliest days, and as is apparent by looking at the work of just one of the people developing the motion picture at that time, we can see why it's impossible to point to any one film as the "first".

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog must surely rank as one of the most ruggedly individualistic filmmakers working today, with a kind of adventurous, "pioneer" spirit that would have made John Ford or Raoul Walsh proud.

In the past, he has explored the most obscure regions of the world in films like Aguirre the Wrath of God, and more recently in Gizzly Man, in which he ventured in to the documentary format to examine the eventual breakdown and destruction of a man at the hands of an environment he did not fully understand.

Encounters at the End of the World takes the viewer to the unexplored vastness of Antarctica. Herzog looks at the individuals who choose to come there to explore. Many of them are Ph.D.s, musicians, philosophers and other unlikely types with a passion for adventure, exploration and knowledge. Herzog shows us the practical side of their experiences (training for white-outs by placing buckets over their heads, and quickly losing all sense of direction), drilling holes in the ice for diving (and explaining that a diver must be able to find his way back to the exit or risk being trapped under hundreds of miles of ice).

He makes the point that Antarctica is largely the final frontier among the continents. Somehow it seems very appropriate that Herzog would make this film. In the process of revealing the vastness and even danger of the environment, he also paints a very revealing picture of the individuals who choose to make such exploration possible in the first place.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Shadows (1959)

John Cassavetes must surely rank as one of the most influential filmmakers from any country, in any style or genre, of the last 50 years. His work is, in many ways, so influential that his influence is almost hardly noticeable, much in the same way the stylistic touches of Godard-so radical in their time-have almost come to be accepted as conventional.

However, like the films of Godard, it's impossible to watch a Cassavetes film and feel indifferent or blase about his incredible innovation and startling originality. I had the pleasure of watching the Criterion DVD of Cassavetes' "Shadows", a film so ahead of its time that it's almost difficult to conceive of what it must have looked like to audiences in 1959. The Criterion DVD uses a print restored by UCLA, and the care put into the restoration is detailed in a special restoration featurette included on the disc. The film is still rough, given its independent roots, but looks and sounds quite good all things considered.

It's the seminal film of the American Independent film movement, and departs from the experimental "underground" movement of the same period by weaving the technical and thematic innovations with a slightly more conventional approach (a feature length, narrative film). "Shadows" is a truly experimental film, however. It captures its setting-Manhattan circa 1957-with the same kind of "documentary" realism that Truffaut and Godard lensed the city of Paris through in their seminal New Wave films such as "The 400 Blows" or "Breathless". The jazz score, featuring incidental music by Charles Mingus, compliments the imagery perfectly, but also works well with Cassavetes' cinematic technique, which is almost jazz-like in its improvisation and deft style.

"Shadows" is, above all, an intensely personal film. As I mentioned earlier, it's impossible to watch it and not get caught up in the excitement of something new and original. It's easy to imagine younger viewers seeing the film and wondering what the "big deal" is; especially ironic considering how many younger filmmakers indirectly steal Cassavetes' techniques without even realizing where they come from. The film is technically rough, yes, but shooting it on 16mm, "guerilla style", as Cassavetes did, was the only way to achieve the kind of results he was after.

It remains one of the truly seminal films in the history of American cinema, and like his counterparts in Europe, Cassavetes remains a true innovator whose ideas will never grow stale, regardless of how many times they are imitated, copied or stolen.