Friday, December 25, 2015

Independent Filmmaking circa 1959

Occasionally on this blog, I like to let readers know about particularly interesting articles, video essays, or other external links that I think will be of interest.

This is an excellent Filmmaker Magazine article from 2013, by Allen Baron, the writer, director and star behind the 1961 independent film noir classic, BLAST OF SILENCE (also one of the best Christmas movies ever made). In the article, Baron talks about the resources that were required to make an independent film around the time he made BLAST OF SILENCE in 1959, and the experience of shooting on location in New York guerrilla style. The article also gives a good sense of the opportunities available to independent filmmakers at the time. As Baron notes, the higher number of independent productions today makes it more difficult for films to be discovered by potential distributors (BLAST OF SILENCE was distributed by Universal and led to a studio contract for Baron), but the advent of digital video has also made it much easier to get your independent film made, and there are more festivals in which to showcase them.

Here is the link to the article. It is a fascinating (and inspiring) read by an absolutely brilliant filmmaker.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blast of Silence (1961)

Now this is an unconventional Christmas movie!

This low-budget noir stars Allen Baron (who also wrote and directed) as a small-time Cleveland hit man who comes to New York around Christmastime to bump off a mobster, but gets in over his head when he lets slip that he wants this to be his last job. Much of the film consists of shots of the hit man walking the streets of New York, alone with his thoughts (narrated by Lionel Stander). It is ultimately a tragic tale, though never one tainted by cheap sentiment or unearned, misguided calls for sympathy. It is hard-edged, brutal, and terrifyingly honest in many ways.

The locations of NYC play such an integral part in the film, heightening the hit man's sense of loneliness and alienation amid the crowds. Without exaggeration, the location photography here is some of the finest, and certainly most effective, that I have yet seen. A climactic sequence taking place in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is particularly striking for its stark, bleak imagery (clearly filmed during a brutal windstorm) as a backdrop in which the violent final shoot-out takes place. The haunting, lyrical shots of raindrops falling in the water, the reeds blowing in the wind, and the contrast between the marshes and the busy highway visible in the background, achieve a real poetry.

I really have no idea how I never saw this one before, but it's certainly one of those movies that I instantly connected with after just one viewing. This is a special film, to be sure.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Polyester (1981)

John Waters' first mainstream film is a clever if uneven satire of early '80s suburbia, filtered through the style and conventions of '50s melodramas by directors like Douglas Sirk, about much put-upon housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) whose life falls apart around her in a series of comically over-the-top circumstances. POLYESTER is very much a mid-point film for the director, coming as it does between his underground features and later, more polished films. Despite its place as Waters' first mainstream effort, it keeps one foot firmly planted in the outrageous, "shock value" sensibilities of his earlier work, and therefore has more in common with his most recent films (especially A DIRTY SHAME) which strike that same balance, rather than the two films that immediately proceeded it (the nostalgic HAIRSPRAY and CRY-BABY).

The satire is greatly aided by the level of production value afforded by the higher budget, with the skillfully-executed lighting and set design doing an excellent job of visually referencing the films that served as Waters' model here. Divine gives a fine performance, taking his usual characterization in a new direction here, and Tab Hunter (an inspired bit of casting) clearly has a lot of fun playing a caricature of his '50s heartthrob persona. The rest of the cast is made up largely of Waters' regular stock company, including Edith Massey and Mink Stole, as well as punk rocker Stiv Bators as a neighborhood delinquent.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Unseen Horrors: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most successful examples of the Val Lewton approach to the horror film: that is, creating scares out of what we don't see. Every time I re-visit the film, I am struck by just how really effective it is in its use of "found footage", a technique that has become utterly overused in the past 15 years, though it is no more fair to blame the unprecedented success of Blair Witch for inspiring such countless cheap knock-offs and imitations than it would be to blame The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the plethora of mindless slasher flicks that followed in its wake. For like that highly influential horror film, The Blair Witch Project was a game-changer to be sure, by tapping into our deepest fears.

The "found footage" approach here allows directors Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez the freedom to conjure up whole unseen horrors -- the kind that we find ourselves fearing are lurking in the dark. As the three documentary filmmakers panic and lose their way, venturing further and further into the bowels of the forest, they are menaced by unseen sounds and sensations that disorient them and confuse them, until they lose all sense of their surroundings. Even with the passing of several days, time seems to stand still for them in the middle of the woods, as they slowly lose their perception of reality. This descent is captured so viscerally through the increasingly chaotic and disorienting movements of the camera, which manages to create some of the most unsettling and truly terrifying effects when simply pointed into the vast, black void of the nocturnal forest.

The idea of getting "lost in the woods" touches on some of our deepest mythologies and fears about the forest and the potential evil that dwells within in it, a black vastness that can swallow up those who dare to enter. At one point in the film, one of the characters reassures her companions that it is impossible to truly get lost in the woods in America in this day and age, since man has done such a thorough job of de-foresting our natural landscapes. But as they discover, nature is an unstoppable, merciless force. In the end, it is not the Blair Witch that ultimately proves to be their undoing, but rather, their helplessness in the face of the forces of nature.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Book Review: "English Hitchcock" by Charles Barr

With a few exceptions, the films made by Alfred Hitchcock during the early part of his career in England are too often relegated to a footnote in his filmography, or are even misunderstood by people coming to them expecting to see work more clearly recognizable as that of the same director who made films such as North by Northwest and Psycho.

In English Hitchcock (Cameron Books, 2000), film scholar Charles Barr offers the most comprehensive study of this period of Hitchcock's career, which is actually quite varied and interesting for those studying the evolution of the director's work. Barr covers every film, though he does so by grouping certain films together for the purposes of comparison, an approach that helps to clearly demonstrate the relationship between films that at first seem to bear little in common with each other. He pays special attention to Hitchcock's literary influences, as well as his screenwriting collaborators, Eliot Stannard and Charles Bennett.

Barr does an excellent job of tracing Hitchcock's journey in filmmaking from his time as an apprentice in the British film industry and formative directing work, to his professional struggles with studio-assigned projects during the early '30s, and his eventual success with suspense thrillers such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps before accepting the call to come to Hollywood. Through his careful analysis, Barr also offers an appreciation of such lesser-known and less-examined titles as The Farmer's Wife and Number Seventeen, which are worth a second look.

English Hitchcock provides a much-needed critical context in which to view this important, if sometimes erratic and seemingly disparate, group of films that Hitchcock directed during his time in England.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Screen Space in the Films of Edison and Lumiere

In formal terms, one of the most striking differences between the films of the Edison Company and the Lumiere brothers is in their approaches to screen space and depth of field. Although films from both companies initially restricted themselves to a single camera set-up, lasting for the entire duration of a roll of film, their approaches to the compositions within the shot could not be more different from each other.

The difference in approach is largely a result of their respective filming conditions: Edison shot his films inside a specially-built studio, dubbed "The Black Maria", which was constructed on a rotating platform with a retractable roof that could be re-positioned at all times for optimal sunlight. The studio was a small, tarpaper-covered affair that allowed just enough room for performers and camera. Characteristic of the Edison company's films was an emphasis on the performer or subject, illuminated by bright sunlight against the black backdrop of this studio. The effect of the sunlight resembles a spotlight being shone on the performer, as in a theatrical setting.

Conversely, the Lumieres shot outdoors, in natural lighting, which likewise gave their films a naturalistic style that differed from Edison's more theatrical arrangements. In the Lumiere films, the subject is often life itself -- the daily routines of workers leaving the factory, for example, or the family feeding their baby. In the latter film, for instance, the fascination for early audiences was as much with the foliage moving about in the breeze in the background, as it was with the subject in the foreground of the shot.

Where the difference is most striking, however, is in the use of depth of field. Edison's films, at least those shot inside the studio, are flat, lacking any sense of the space between foreground and background. By eliminating the background completely and replacing it with a black void, Edison ensured that the focus would be on the performer. The Lumieres, in contrast, not only provided distinctive backgrounds with their own details, but even allowed their subjects to interact with those backgrounds.

Take one of their most famous films, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). The shot is set up so that the train station is visible on the left of the screen, the platform is on the right, and the track runs roughly down the middle of the shot. The track serves as the linking visual element that brings the subject (the train) from the background into the foreground, and right past the camera as it comes to a stop. The film's first audiences reportedly reacted with panic at the sight of the train rushing toward them -- a testament to the power of the Lumieres' use of the screen space.

Then, there are the little background details that make the film so vital and rich: the crowds milling about on the platform, the conductor running from the background to the foreground to catch up with the slowing train, and the disembarking passengers who exit the train. Throughout the entirety of the shot, there is no unused or dead space within the frame; the Lumieres find all of the details and film the scene so that they are all visible.

Within a couple years of the development of cinema, these techniques would become more commonplace among producers. Edison, for example, made his own "train" film, Black Diamond Express, later in the same year that the Lumieres had made Arrival of a Train. Eventually, the distinctions become blurred as filmmakers learned from and copied each other's techniques, while other approaches became outmoded or discarded entirely. But the fundamental difference between the Edison and Lumiere approaches to composition is exemplified by their respective uses of screen space in their earliest experimental films.

She's Funny That Way (2014)

A deliberately old-fashioned throwback to the heyday of screwball comedies, Peter Bogdanovich's latest film is a heartfelt and charming farce, even if the humor misses more than it hits. The premise involves a prominent theater director (Owen Wilson), in New York to direct his latest play, who spends the night with a Brooklyn call-girl (Imogen Poots) and pays her $30,000 if she promises to quit her job and pursue her dreams instead. It turns out her dreams involve being an actress, and she auditions for the play that Wilson just happens to be directing. Turns out she's great, and the rest of the cast pressure Wilson into giving her the part. Needless to say, this complicates things greatly, especially since the play stars the director's wife (whom the leading man also harbors a long-lasting romantic desire for). This being a farce, the zany cast of characters all intersect at inopportune moments, leading to much comic confusion and mishaps, but of course, all is set right in the end.

Bogdanovich obviously has a real love for the models that he's working from here, and peppers the script (co-written by Louise Stratten) with references to many of Hollywood's great romantic comedies (most notably Lubitsch's Cluny Brown, which provides the film with its running joke about the line "squirrels to the nuts"). He works with a splendid cast here, headed by Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte, Austin Pendleton, Illeana Douglas, and Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis, who are especially funny as the aspiring actress's bickering, working-class parents.

Most of the reviews I have read dwell on the fact that the film is old-fashioned. The comedy is old-fashioned, certainly, though not always in the way Bogdanovich may have intended. It was evidently originally conceived as a vehicle for John Ritter in the 1990s, and feels very much like the kind of mid-budget Indie comedy that might have been made at that time. Still, there's an undeniable charm about it that works, thanks to the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having. There are not really any surprises here, sure, and it is unlikely to be remembered as one of Bogdanovich's better films, but it's an affectionate tribute to the fine comedies from Hollywood's golden age, made by a filmmaker (one of our greatest) who clearly loves those films.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Social Network (2010) Re-visited

Back in 2007, when I was in film school, I enrolled in a course on the films of David Cronenberg. It was the final course that I needed to complete in order to earn the credits to graduate, and since it was offered in the summer, the long class periods allowed us to immerse ourselves in lengthy discussions about the films. Even after screening nearly all of Cronenberg's filmography (excepting maybe two or three minor works), the film that made the greatest impression on me was his prophetic 1983 science fiction thriller, Videodrome, which certainly gave me much to think about in terms of the film's prescient views of the ways in which humans interact with technology.

A comparison can be made between the ways in which Cronenberg depicts his characters' relationship with television, and the relationship between Internet users and social media sites today. I was especially intrigued by the character of the McLuhan-esque media theorist, who only appears "on television" -- that is, via a televised image. His representation in the form of a video image is accepted as "real" by the flesh-and-blood characters, but when Max Renn tries to meet the professor in person, he learns that he has recently passed away, and "lives on" only through pre-recorded videotapes, which are naturally limited in terms of the experiences and interactions they can provide.

In watching the film, I was struck by the similarities to the depiction of the professor's video representation being accepted as reality, and the digital representations of users on social networking sites like Facebook that come to create an illusion of reality of their own, which are accepted by other users, but are similarly limited in terms of the experiences and relationships it can provide.

Because of this fascination with thinking about these ideas in relation to social media, I have also been interested in thinking about them in relation to The Social Network, the 2010 film -- written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher -- about the creation and rise of the popular social networking site. I had avoided the film when it premiered at the New York Film Festival in 2010, as well as on its theatrical run, perhaps because I was concerned that the critical enthusiasm surrounding it was a misplaced excitement for the website itself, and that the film would turn out to be little more than a ride on the wave of Facebook's growing popularity.

When I finally caught up with the film last December, I was struck by just what a good film it is in many ways, and by just how much it "got right" from the vantage point of 2010, when the site was hardly in its infancy, but when its future seemed a lot less certain in terms of what directions it might take. As a biographical drama, it succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of the historical moment in which the website appeared, and the factors that contributed to its longevity and success where other similar sites of the period failed.

It seems to me that the trick in writing a film about any social phenomenon is to avoid falling into the trap of becoming instantly dated, of creating something that quickly becomes the target of camp condescension for its laughably inaccurate predictions of the future. If Facebook had gone the way of MySpace or Friendster, say, in the intervening years since the film's release, it would no doubt look very different today.

It is difficult to fathom how incredibly important Facebook has become to the lives of many of its users in those intervening years. And, I think, where the film is most effective is in how neatly it explores the seductive ways in which the site becomes accepted as a substitute for real interaction, through book-ending scenes depicting opposing moments in the life of its creator: from the early popularity-seeking and competitive self-comparisons of the college years, to the wistful reflection on the people with whom connections have been broken over the years, and the (false) hope of re-kindling those connections through digital representations.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Berberian Sound Studio (2013)

An intriguing little thriller about a meek, sheltered English sound engineer who accepts a job working on an especially disturbing Italian horror film, an experience which gradually begins to alter his perception of reality as he loses himself in the work of creating the soundtrack for the film's brutal, violent images.

The plot is a model of economy, conjuring up a real sense of dread and isolation in the claustrophobic little dubbing studio in which most of the action takes place. Unfortunately, after a strong first half, the interesting premise loses direction toward the end, which feels both protracted and rather confused. The fine character actor Toby Jones perfectly embodies the awkward, withdrawn sound man, who finds himself something of a stranger in a strange land, and slowly reveals aspects of his character, including hints of suppressed rage, that are at turns pathetic and sinister. Despite the problems with the ending, director Peter Strickland creates a thoughtful, dark character study made with a real attention to period detail and the genre conventions of the film-within-the-film, which should be especially appealing to fans of Italian giallo cinema.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Scream (1996)

When Wes Craven passed away earlier this year, and as I read several of the tributes to the director and his career, it occurred to me that -- as much as his work had been a major part of the pop cultural landscape during my childhood and teen years -- I had seen surprisingly little of his films. In fact, outside of Last House on the Left, I couldn't swear to it that I had seen any of his films at all (not even the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise).

I was 12 when Scream was released, and although I did not see it then, there were few films at that time that I recall creating more excitement among my peers, who talked endlessly about it. So by the time I finally got around to seeing the film 19 years later, there weren't too many surprises. I was already familiar with the premise (a girl is stalked by a serial killer on the anniversary of her mother's murder), its clever approach to the genre (a post-modern, self-aware take on the slasher film), its much-publicized casting gimmick (Drew Barrymore's character is killed off in the first ten minutes), and of course its now-iconic "ghost face" serial killer character.

Scream is still not the kind of film I typically care for, but Craven is clearly committed to the material and has fun with the self-aware approach to the genre that he had made such an indelible mark on, and it is to his credit that it actually works, rather than just serving as a glossary of the genre's tropes, or name-dropping famous movies or scenes for their own sake, as lesser films might have.

There's something else about this film that I enjoyed immensely, and that was the performance of Matthew Lillard. Whatever happened to him? He emerged as one of the most interesting, offbeat character actors of the 1990s, thanks to his roles in John Waters' Serial MomHackers, and a fine starring turn in the indie black comedy Dead Man's Curve, but I have not seen him in anything since 2004's Without a Paddle (an otherwise forgettable comedy). His performance in Scream was a highlight of the film for me, and reminder of just what a unique and immensely talented actor he is.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Werewolf Triple Feature

With Halloween right around the corner, I recently had the opportunity to attend a triple feature screening of "Werewolf" movies at the historic Loew's Jersey theater in Jersey City. For any film enthusiast who has not had the pleasure of seeing a movie in this gorgeous 1929 movie palace, you owe it to yourself to check it out if you're ever in the New York City area. Each Halloween, the Loew's puts on a great program of classic horror films (in years past I've seen such favorites as Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein there).

This year's program included a trio of "werewolf" movies that provide a neat evolution of the genre:

Werewolf of London (1935)
Universal's first attempt at creating a "werewolf" franchise as part of its horror cycle, it's clear why this film failed to take off with audiences in the way the studio's earlier efforts had. The single biggest problem is the rather unremarkable performance of stage actor Henry Hull in the title role. Hull lacked the larger-than-life presence and charisma that had made the performances of Lugosi and Karloff instantly iconic. Apparently, Hull objected to makeup man Jack Pierce's proposed makeup design, as he felt it obscured too much of his face, an attitude which exemplifies the problems with Hull's performance here. Additionally, director Stuart Walker was not a visual stylist on the level of Tod Browning or James Whale, and as a result, the film's look is flat and uninspired. Perhaps the best way to describe the film is "forgettable". It's not bad; it just fails to make much of an impact at all.

The Wolfman (1941)
Everything the studio got wrong in Werewolf of London, it got right in The Wolfman, starting with the inspired casting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the title role. He manages to create a great deal of sympathy in his portrayal of a good-natured everyman who becomes tortured by guilt after committing acts of killing that he cannot control. Director George Waggner was a reliable craftsman who made full use of the studio's resources to create the highly evocative atmosphere that the earlier film lacked. Makeup man Jack Pierce was also allowed to use his original makeup design for the Wolfman, which is far more effective than the compromised look he was forced to settle on before. I had forgotten what a really great supporting cast the film has, too, including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William, Maria Ouspenskaya, and even Bela Lugosi in a brief but memorable appearance, plus the usual array of great character types who populated the world of the Universal horror film. If the Universal horror cycle was beginning to run out of steam by the early '40s, this film proves that the studio was still capable of turning out a really first-rate, genre-defining classic.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis remains one of the most critically-neglected American filmmakers of the post-'70s/New Hollywood era. Perhaps that's because he works in highly commercial genres and directs hit crowd-pleasers, such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, which -- like the work of his contemporary Steven Spielberg -- can be easy to take for granted. But as a filmmaker, he has a distinct and unique sensibility that provides him with the quite rare gift of being able to make a film that spans the genres of comedy and horror without ever compromising either the laughs or the scares (most recently evidenced by his very funny, and grossly underrated, Burke and Hare). An American Werewolf in London is perhaps his best film, filled with self-aware irony and humor while simultaneously creating a modern "werewolf" classic for a new generation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Note: As this is a current release still in theaters, I am issuing a spoiler warning with this review as it deals with key plot points of the story.

I'm not normally a fan of science fiction, and tend to prefer those films in the genre that deal with larger existential questions about our place in the universe or the attraction of exploration and wondering "what's out there?", such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact, along with a few others. When I first learned the premise of The Martian -- based on a hit novel by Andy Weir, which I have not yet read -- about a botanist (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and his ingenious efforts to survive until a rescue mission can arrive, I had hoped that the film would follow in the vein of the aforementioned films in tackling the larger existential themes with which the situation would seem to be ripe.

Because of that, I was mildly disappointed with The Martian upon initial viewing, but after giving it more thought, I realized that I was unfair in my reaction, which amounted to expecting the film to be something it is not. What it is is an solid adventure film, expertly directed with characteristic skill and polish by Ridley Scott, whose earlier Alien and Blade Runner remain two of the most highly influential entries in the genre of the past half century. Compared to those two films, The Martian is decidedly lighter fare. There's none of the dark, brooding tone of Blade Runner, or the horror elements of Alien. Indeed, there's little suspense at all for that matter, as there's never any real doubt that the astronaut will make it safely back to Earth.

A large part of the appeal seems to be the sheer likability of Damon's unflappable astronaut, whose reaction to realizing that he has been abandoned on Mars and left for dead by his crewmates is to make sarcastic comments into his computer's video diary log, more like a smarmy YouTube vlogger rather than a man who has just found himself utterly alone on a foreign planet. To be sure, the incessant dialogue lacks poetry and avoids dealing with the existential implications of the situation, but Damon is undeniably likable in the role, and portrays just the kind of hero the script calls for -- an everyman who also happens to possess nearly superhuman resourcefulness and intelligence.

Perhaps more frustrating are the long stretches of screen time spent back on Earth, where the team at NASA is running a race against the clock to bring the astronaut home before he runs out of food. These scenes are all perfectly well-handled, helped by such fine performers as Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiorfor and Kristen Wiig, but they can't help feeling a little dull compared to the scenes detailing Damon's ingenious methods of survival, which seem rushed and glossed over in comparison.

Similarly, the scenes on board the spaceship, with Damon's loyal crewmates deciding to take matters into their own hands to attempt a risky rescue procedure, are weakened by being a little too pat in their handling of the complexities between the characters' responsibilities to their families and their original mission, and their sense of duty toward a fellow astronaut. Rather than delving deeper into these conflicts, Scott pads the rescue scenes out with the expected eleventh-hour complications and repeated shots of large crowds across the world, gathered in recognizable locations and watching with bated breath as the rescue mission plays out live on TV.

But to harp on these weaknesses is to ignore where the film really succeeds, which is on the strength of its brash, rich images (especially stunning when seen in the 3-D presentation), its vivid evocation of Mars, and above all, in telling a splendid, escapist adventure story about an intrepid individual trapped in a most unusual situation, and the people dedicated to bringing him home safely.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg is in top form with this Cold War-era political drama about a Brooklyn attorney (Tom Hanks) who is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the return of an imprisoned Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in exchange for a captured American pilot. The plot itself is fairly predictable and familiar, which works against the dramatic potential of key scenes, but Spielberg's skillful handling of the material is typically assured, involved, and exceptionally well-paced, even if the writing (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers) and performances are a bit too mannered at times. There really aren't any surprises here, but it's always worth seeing Spielberg at the top of his game.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

1941 (1979)

A rare comic effort from Steven Spielberg, 1941 is also one of the director's rare misfires. A big, loud spectacle that recalls an earlier generation of comedy epics like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race, 1941 unevenly combines the broad physical gags of those films with the equally broad satire of wartime paranoia in films such as The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! The premise involves a Japanese sub that surfaces off the coast of California shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, inspiring mass hysteria among the citizens.

The ensemble cast includes such names as Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen as the nominal romantic leads whose amorous escapades in a runaway airplane over Los Angeles precipitate a hysterical reaction from the military and townspeople, John Belushi as crazed fighter pilot Wild Bill Kelso, Dan Aykroyd as no-nonsense Sgt. Frank Tree, Ned Beatty as a meek family man whose backyard is commandeered as the site of anti-aircraft gun, Lorraine Gary as his long-suffering wife, Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese sub commander, Christopher Lee as the German officer, Murray Hamilton and Eddie Deezen as a couple of goofy civilians put on guard duty atop a Ferris wheel, Slim Pickens as the unsuspecting hick who discovers the Japanese sub, and in one of the film's most inspired bits of casting, Robert Stack as Major General Stilwell, who would rather take care of more important business like watching Disney's Dumbo than deal with distractions such as the pending invasion of Los Angeles and riots in the streets. As with his performance in the following year's Airplane!, Stack's stoical, straight man characterization is the perfect complement to the zany goings-on around him.

Unfortunately, none of the performers are ever really on-screen long enough, or given enough to do individually, to make much of an impression. Because of the structure of the script -- by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who also wrote the story along with John Milius) -- the zany situations piled on top of one another don't add up to much of anything, since the escalating comic chaos is never given much of a chance to build naturally. Instead, it's one forced, manic set-piece after another, with gratuitous slapstick violence that eventually just begins to drag the pace down and feel repetitive. The plane chase scenes through LA are undoubtedly impressively-staged, and are a remarkable achievement for their scale and execution. But as comedy, it quickly begins to feel like overkill.

Spielberg's direction feels unsure and even uncomfortable working with the broad comedy material, which was certainly never his forte in any case. It's difficult to pinpoint just where his direction goes wrong here, but perhaps it is simply too heavy-handed, which works against the lightning-paced cartoon antics called for by the script and even dilutes the effectiveness of the satire due to the total lack of subtlety. John Landis, or the team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker, would have been ideal choices for this material, since they could have perhaps reigned in some of the more extravagant excesses that tend to swamp the comedy (even the non-stop parade of sight gags in Airplane! are handled in such a way that the viewer is rewarded for paying attention to the kinds of small jokes which are virtually non-existent here).

As one of our greatest filmmakers, even a lesser Spielberg effort like 1941 is still of interest, if only for an example of the director working outside his comfort zone, exploring new material and trying something different. Even if the result is ultimately a failure, it is an interesting failure.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage was the first of Hitchcock's British films that I had the opportunity to see, though it was not a film that I especially sought out for itself. Instead, I came across it rather by chance. In the days of VHS, the local Best Buy had a shelf consisting of nothing but the "Hollywood Classics" tapes from Madacy home video. Madacy was notorious as perhaps the worst of the bargain-basement video dealers at that time, with cassettes mastered from sub-par elements in the low-quality EP speed. Their selection of public domain titles littered the shelves at numerous video stores I frequented.

Still, as a budding cinephile on a tight budget, their affordable price tag (about $5 a pop, if I recall) made them an attractive option, especially for films that were not out in any other edition, and I'd frequently check out their selection on trips to Best Buy. Scouring the shelf on one such trip, I came across Sabotage, which caught my attention because it was a Hitchcock film, and I was making it a point to see all the Hitchcock films I could find in order to check them off my list. I knew little about Sabotage, other than that it was one of his early, British films, a period of his career with which I was woefully inexperienced. Watching the film in that low-quality, blurry tape, I was nonetheless gripped by the suspenseful plot, and impressed by the imaginative techniques (especially in the editing) that appealed to me as an aspiring filmmaker.

Later, as I read more critical appreciations of Hitchcock's body of work, I was surprised to learn that Sabotage had its detractors, including Hitchcock himself, who had misgivings about his decision to include what would become the film's most memorable and suspenseful scene, involving a young boy who unknowingly carries a bomb onto a London bus and is blown to bits. That particular scene is indeed deeply disturbing, all the more so as it is followed immediately by a shot of other characters laughing at something unrelated, which still cannot help but leave a sour taste, as if the whole incident is being treated as a sick joke (Hitchcock used a similar device to greater effect in The 39 Steps). But it is also so expertly handled, such a tour-de-force of editing and structure, that I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer brilliance of its execution. I studied Hitchcock's shot selection and editing, watching the scene multiple times.

It is certainly one of Hitchcock's darkest films, both in terms of its subject matter but also in terms of its shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a sense of despair hangs over the characters, who seem trapped in a humdrum existence that borders on the oppressive. Mrs. Verloc's marriage to the much older, emotionally distant Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) isn't exactly an unhappy one, though it's certainly not conventionally happy, either. It seems to be more a case of mutual dependence. Mrs. Verloc also takes care of her awkward, gangly adolescent brother (Desmond Tester), with whom she moved from America to England some years before, ostensibly to look for better employment opportunities, but hinting at something more complicated.

As the film opens, London is in the midst of a blackout, the result of an act of sabotage perpetrated by Mr. Verloc. It is unclear whether Mrs. Verloc is genuinely oblivious to her husband's involvement in the blackout, or whether she might be in denial about it, but in any case, Mr. Verloc the attention of a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder), who uses Mrs. Verloc as a conduit to investigate her husband's activities. In the end, Mrs. Verloc loses her brother, and is betrayed, or at least deceived, by both her husband and by the young detective (though the latter does stand by her and protect her in the film's final moments).

While it is an uncharacteristically grim film from Hitchcock, the mood never feels artificially imposed, and it makes for an interesting contrast with the director's usual approach. There is only one scene that employs Hitchcock's playfully morbid sense of humor: after learning of her brother's demise, Mrs. Verloc, in a state of shock, wanders into the cinema, where a Disney cartoon ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") is playing on the screen, and whose plot offers an ironic commentary on the events of the film. Hitchcock excels in his juxtaposition of the familiar with the sinister.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

Sometimes you can stumble upon a movie in the most unlikely of circumstances. I came across this one for the first time about 20 years ago, when I found a VHS copy from Goodtimes Home Video at a tent sale in a shopping mall parking lot in Pennsylvania. It sounded interesting enough from the description on the box cover copy, but I decided not to buy it (probably due to a lack of allowance money -- I was only 12 or 13!) and came away empty handed.

The description of the film stuck in my mind, and over the years I would try to find a copy, but to no avail. Recently, however, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I finally had the opportunity to see it for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised by what a really entertaining, tightly-constructed little thriller it is. The premise involves a couple of young schoolteachers on vacation in the Yorkshire Moors, where one of their colleagues had recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When they become stranded on the moor on a dark and stormy night, the women seek shelter in an old house belonging to a brilliant but troubled pianist (James Mason), with whom one of the women falls instantly, madly in love. But when it becomes apparent that Mason is harboring dark secrets from his past, and is given to violent episodes, the two women begin to fear that they are in danger, especially when they learn that their colleague had also been staying in the house at the time of her disappearance.

Directed by Leslie Arliss, from a script by Arliss and John Argyle adapted from a novel by Alan Kennington, with Gunther Krampf's stylish, high-contrast cinematography giving it just the right look, and a colorful supporting cast including Joyce Howard, Tucker McGuire, Mary Clare, Wilfrid Lawson and John Fernald, this is a superb wartime British thriller, oozing mystery and atmosphere, and perfect viewing for a cold, gray, rainy night.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Sugarland Express (1974)

This early Spielberg film is a rollicking, fast-paced road picture about a Texas couple who kidnap a policeman and force him to drive them across the state to reunite with their child, who has been taken out of their custody by the state. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton make the most of their rather one-dimensional characters, though at times it seems as though they are appearing in two different movies (with Hawn too frequently playing her part in broad caricature, while Atherton seems to be trying to get at something darker and more intense with his performance). Michael Sacks is effective enough if rather bland as the young officer forced to drive the pair across the state against his will, though his transformation at the end, sympathizing with the outlaws and betraying his duties to the law by alerting his abductors to a potential police ambush, is handled too abruptly and without any real explanation as to why he (or the audience) should care so much about these two. Ben Johnson gives the film's strongest performance, as the weary old lawman leading the difficult pursuit to bring the couple to justice.

Overall, it's a skillfully-made debut theatrical feature from Spielberg, who proves himself especially effective in his handling of the large-scale, high-speed car chases (recalling his celebrated work on DUEL a few years earlier), though the pacing frequently lags between these set pieces, bogged down by heavy-handed commentary on gun violence, police corruption, and the nature of celebrity in America. It's not that these points aren't relevant to the events in the film, but Spielberg's handling of them is too self-conscious and telegraphed to be really effective. Coming between his brilliant early work on DUEL, and his first full-fledged masterpiece, JAWS, the following year, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS perhaps can't help but feel like a minor effort in Spielberg's filmography.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blackmail (1929)

It is difficult to imagine the incredible pressure that must have been weighing on Alfred Hitchcock's shoulders when he undertook the production of his tenth film, Blackmail, in 1929. Consider the lofty and unique position he had attained at this point in his career: rising quickly as he did through the ranks of the British film industry, having achieved a great deal of acclaim for what was only his third film (1926's The Lodger, held up as a shining example of what the British cinema could be), which in turn catapulted him to a level of celebrity remarkable for any director at that time. Now, having mastered the purely visual storytelling of the silent film, Hitchcock was thrust into the midst of a technological change that had a profound altering impact on the medium. Not only was Blackmail to be Hitchcock's first talking film, it was also the first all-talkie produced in the UK (it was billed as "Britain's All-Talkie Challenge To The World"). There were undoubtedly high expectations for Hitchcock to deliver a film worthy of this distinction and of his celebrated reputation within the nation's film industry. Keep in mind, he was not yet 30.

The resulting film was the most accomplished he had yet made, demonstrating an astonishing command of and inventiveness with the infant medium of sound film. Working within the suspense genre for which he had shown such aptitude in The Lodger, for his source material this time Hitchcock turned to a play by Charles Bennett (who would become of one the director's most valuable collaborators later in the 1930s), and handled the task of adapting the script himself. Blackmail established the model for many of the themes, techniques and plot devices that Hitchcock would return to again and again in his mature work.

Like many early talkies, Blackmail was produced simultaneously in both sound and silent versions. There is the opinion in some quarters that the silent version is the superior one, an expression of "pure cinema" unencumbered by the restraints of the newfangled commercial sound film technology. The silent version is certainly effective enough, but a comparison of the two versions reveals that Hitchcock used the new creative possibilities afforded by sound -- specifically, its ability to heighten the tension between what we see and what we hear -- in order to create a more fully-realized and satisfying suspense film.

Because Hitchcock would soon develop these techniques and ideas to a greater degree, beginning just a few years later with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Blackmail can appear, in contrast with those classics, to be a quaint work primarily of historical interest as an early, formative effort from a great director who would go on to do much better things. In some ways, to be sure, it is that. But to view the film this way does a disservice to the inventiveness and creativity, and indeed the apparent ease, with which Hitchcock adapted his style to the new sound film medium. In that context, Blackmail remains an remarkable achievement, and one of the most important films the director ever made.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tomorrow's Children (1934)

During the 1930s and 40s, it seemed that virtually no topic was considered off-limits as fodder for exploitation filmmakers. This specimen, from 1934, deals with the subject of forced sterilization, certainly a hotly-debated issue at the time, when the eugenics movement in the US had gained astonishing support. The story is sensational stuff, involving a young woman who comes from a socially undesirable family, and is thus deemed unfit to reproduce and ordered by law to be sterilized.

Though predictably heavy-handed and didactic in its presentation, the film is nevertheless effective in its condemnation of compulsory sterilization, offering a sympathetic view toward the conditions of the different individuals forced to undergo the procedure. Of course, it also lives up to expectations as exploitation, combining elements of graphic, quasi-informative medical jargon (the doctor explaining the vasectomy process to a criminal), silly, slapstick comedy (Sterling Holloway accidentally imbibing a glass of castor oil) and ludicrous, high melodrama (the girl is saved in the end by the efforts of her fiance and a conscionable doctor, who are able to stop the procedure at the last minute after obtaining a tearful confession from the girl's mother that she was, in fact, adopted!). Otherwise, it's a pretty typical piece of '30s exploitation filmmaking, directed without any particular distinction by Crane Wilbur.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)

An artifact from a time when documentarians were as concerned with formal experimentation as they were with making a point, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936) was produced by the Resettlement Administration to examine conditions that led to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, and simultaneously functions as a visual poem contrasting a pastoral ideal with encroaching modernity.

There is one moment in particular that stands out: a shot of an old farmhouse, set against a stark sky, situated on a dusty plain with sparse vegetation, with a broken wagon wheel in the foreground. With an apparent simplicity belying its careful composition, and the sparse but evocative selection of representative objects, it's a kind of cinematic equivalent to William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow".

Written and Directed by Pare Lorentz; photographed by Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner and Paul Ivano; narrated by Thomas Chalmers. The film is in the public domain and is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Burke and Hare (2010)

Here is that rarest of films -- a recent comedy that is actually funny. Not quirky, not cute, not ironic, but genuinely, uproariously funny. It's the kind of comedy that leaves you elated even after it's over. How this one didn't get more attention upon its release is beyond me. Director John Landis blends broad slapstick farce (reminiscent of Mel Brooks' best work) with characteristically British black humor to tell the story of the pair of grave robbers who made a living by acquiring cadavers to sell to Edinburgh University's medical school.

Landis (along with screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft) skillfully turns this premise into a cheerfully silly (and exceptionally handsomely-mounted) period comedy that succeeds in large part due to the superb performances of Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in the title roles, supported by some of Britain's finest acting talents (both comedic and dramatic), including Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Ronnie Corbett, Jessica Hynes, Isla Fisher, Hugh Bonneville, David Schofield, David Hayman, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Lee, and fun cameo appearances by filmmakers Ray Harryhausen, Michael Winner and Costa-Gavras, among others.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Nightcrawler (2014)

This is one of those movies whose premise alone made it a must-see for me: Louis Bloom, a down-on-his-luck jack-of-all-trades, kicking around the streets of LA without a job, discovers an opportunity to make some money by shooting explicit crime scene footage and selling it to the local evening news. Before long, we get the sense that he's maybe a little too good at the job, that he enjoys it maybe a little too much. Prowling around the mean streets under cover of darkness, with his camera and his uncanny ability to beat even the police to the scene of the crime, it becomes clear that he'll stop at nothing to get the scoop on the latest tragedy.

Jake Gyllenhaal creates a truly terrifying characterization in Louis, who veers between the persona of a wide-eyed, over-eager naif, and an impossibly canny, manipulative psychopath. With his ability to simultaneously dazzle and intimidate everyone he comes into contact with, Louis rises quickly to the top of his cynical, mercenary profession, unburdened of the restrictions of possessing a conscience. It is a brilliant performance that strikes all the right notes.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (this is his directorial debut, and he is definitely a talent to watch) has crafted a gripping, atmospheric Neo-Noir thriller that is part character study, and part damning satire of the news business. Gilroy does an especially admirable job of using Los Angeles as a character all its own. He makes the city appear deceptively bright and mundane by day, coming alive at night with all sorts of sordid goings-on that seem to exist only to satiate the appetites of the nightly news audience, hungry for stories of blood and death that they can devour through the window of their television screen.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Hitchcock (2012)

There is a moment in HITCHCOCK when the Master of Suspense, in a state of personal and professional crisis, stares contemplatively at a photograph of himself as a young man, directing one of his earliest films (his arm and index finger extended in a characteristic "director" pose) with his wife and assistant director Alma Reville directly over his shoulder. The photo, taken during the production of Hitchcock's second film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, in 1926, captures the sense of enthusiasm that the movies inspired in Hitchcock, as well as the collaborative working relationship he and Alma shared from the very beginning.

HITCHCOCK, directed by Sacha Gervasi, examines the relationship between Alfred and Alma (played, respectively, by Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren) during the period when the great filmmaker was about to embark on the production of PSYCHO, perhaps the riskiest and most controversial film of his career. Early in HITCHCOCK, Alfred is explaining to Alma that in order to get the film made, he will need to put up the money personally, borrowing against the house and standing to lose a fortune if it is a flop. Alma asks him why he wants to make this film so badly, to which he responds that he longs to feel something of that excitement again that they felt in the early days of making movies, when they invented new approaches as they went along. With that explanation, Alma understands the importance that the project holds for him. And it captures what made Hitchcock such a singular artist and visionary filmmaker, someone who was not content to rest on his laurels (which, by 1960, were considerable), and for whom the creative possibilities offered by the medium retained their strong attraction throughout his life.

The rest of the film gets bogged down in a lot of artificially-imposed marital melodrama involving suspicions of an affair between Mrs. Hitchcock and an opportunistic hack writer, hints of Mr. Hitchcock's unsavory behavior toward his female stars, and a series of ill-conceived fantasy sequences in which the director wrestles with some vague inner demons through imagined conversations with serial killer Ed Gein (whose gruesome murders provided the inspiration for PSYCHO), none of which add up to very much at all. But there are tantalizing glimpses of the film that could have been when it evokes the shared creative passion that brought these two people together as young artists at the center of an exciting new medium filled with endless possibilities, and continues to give their lives meaning.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Fading Gigolo (2013)

Here is an idea that, at first glance, would seem to be filled with potential, but upon closer consideration, is simply too illogical and absurd to work effectively as played relatively straightforward here. A comedy built around the mishaps of a reluctant, aging gigolo (played by John Turturro, who also wrote and directed) and his bumbling, elderly pimp (played by Woody Allen, of all people, in a rare acting-only turn) would work better as a fast-paced farce, where you don't have enough time to question the absurdities of the plot, much less the more serious implications of the situations and character relationships. Presented as a kind of bittersweet, at times melancholy romantic comedy, however, the idea falls apart under its own introspection, especially with so many comic possibilities left undeveloped or unexplored entirely.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Elstree Calling (1930)

Certainly one of the most obscure films in Alfred Hitchcock's filmography, this musical revue extravaganza was British International Pictures' response to such Hollywood productions as MGM's THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, Warner Bros.' SHOW OF SHOWS, and PARAMOUNT ON PARADE, which showcased the respective studios' leading stars as they demonstrated their acting chops in the new medium of sound film through elaborate music numbers, songs and sketches. The variety of acts presented here include some of the top names in British vaudeville and music hall of the time, emceed by comedian Tommy Handley, with the individual performances structured around the framing gimmick of an early television broadcast. The film is a lavishly-produced affair, with obvious expense invested in the production, including four color sequences, but it suffers from pacing issues and static photography and staging.

As a Hitchcock completest, I sought this film out solely because of his involvement with it, though it is certainly an atypical and impersonal project. Adrian Brunel is the official credited director, while Hitchcock is credited with "sketches and other interpolated items". Reportedly, Hitchcock's segments include the framing sequences involving the television broadcast, as well as a scene that is more characteristic of his style, about a young man and woman involved in an illicit affair with a darkly comic twist ending.

Although his work on this project was little more than a obligatory studio assignment, made early on in his directorial career in England, Hitchcock's involvement was met with excitement by the New York Times, reviewing the film at the time of its release, saying "Alfred Hitchcock is responsible for the general direction, which is tantamount to saying that the British producing company has sought out the most expert guidance available in this country." Seen today, it's an historical curio strictly of interest to Hitchcock completests.

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 Stooges), 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.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Films of Georges Melies: Part I

This is the first in a series of writings on the films of Georges Melies. As with the Films of Edwin S. Porter series, this will cover a number of titles from the director's filmography taken from films currently available for viewing. Some of these notes were taken during screenings of the films during a course on silent French cinema at NYU in fall 2009. I plan to expand and publish these notes in the future.

Playing Cards
Melies’ first film, this is shot in the tradition of similar subjects taken by both Lumiere and Guy. Melies appears in the film himself, hinting at the central acting roles he would play in future projects. The film exhibits none of the tricks that Melies would introduce and perfect in his later work. The film is shot from a static position, as with Melies’ other films, but lacks the kind of dynamic action and mise-en-scene that defines his later work.

The Terrible Night
A comedy short, this depicts a comic character trying to sleep while his bed is infested with bugs. It opens with a comically-exaggerated insect climbing up the bed and then up the wall, suggesting that Melies was already interested in exploring the fantastic elements of cinema. The exaggerated makeup of the character, as well as the simple set, suggest the stage origins of sketches like this one.

Vanishing Lady
An early film in the style with which Melies became best known, here he plays a magician performing a vanishing act with his female assistant. Where Melies deviates from the usual stage origins of this act is in his use of stop-motion, which becomes his trademark technique in his later work, in creating special effects (the vanishing lady not only disappears under the sheet, but also re-appears at one point as a skeleton). Both performers directly address the audience at the end of the film. In this subject, we see that Melies was interested in not just re-creating magic acts that could be performed on stage, but also in enhancing them with effects only possible through the camera.

A Nightmare
Another comedy short, this one is staged with an emphasis on special effects humor, as a sleeping man envisions a woman seated at the foot of his bed, who transforms in to a blackface banjo player and a clown. Melies cuts between these different transformations with stop-motion effects. He also plays with spatial perspective by bringing the small figure of the moon closer to the screen so that it appears to have giant proportions as it gets closer.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dazed and Confused (1993)

A landmark of the '90s indie film movement that still holds up remarkably well, thanks to its fine ensemble cast and the sharp writing and direction by Richard Linklater. It's one of the great films -- like AMERICAN GRAFFITI or THE LAST PICTURE SHOW -- about a group of young people on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, and the experiences they share over one the course of their last day of high school. Linklater creates a vivid portrait of the mid-70s Texas milieu (infused with a distinctly '90s "slacker" sensibility) that manages to be authentic evocation of a specific time and place while also transcending it and speaking to the shared experiences across different generations.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Entourage (2015)

Big-screen adaptation of the hit HBO show about actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his buddies from the old neighborhood who have made it big in Hollywood. The plot of the movie is loose and episodic, following the exploits of Chase and his friends as they attempt to make their dream project against the interference of Texan financiers and skeptical executives, but it is Jeremy Piven as high-power agent Ari Gold that holds it all together. Piven maintains an incredible level of energy throughout and creates a probably only-slightly exaggerated characterization of an utterly crass Hollywood big-shot.

The movie will no doubt please fans of the TV show, but it's also self-contained enough that even viewers with no prior exposure to the program can enjoy it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Superb British crime caper about a group of crooks who pull off a major heist in order to pay back a massive gambling debt one of the gang incurred in a rigged card game. Fine performances throughout by Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, Jason Statham, Steven Mackintosh, Vinnie Jones, and Sting, among others.

Guy Ritchie's direction is a triumph of style. He weaves together several plot threads that come together in an explosive showdown, providing enough twists and turns to sustain the energy right up to the end, and creating something really unique out of a familiar premise.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Four Rooms (1995)

Extremely uneven, bizarre omnibus film -- in four segments, directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, respectively -- following the misadventures of hapless Ted the bell-hop, played by Tim Roth as a kind of weird cross between Peter Sellers and Jerry Lewis. In the first segment, he gets involved with a witches' coven; in the second, he becomes the unwilling participant in a pyschosexual role-playing fantasy; in the third segment, he has to look after two mischievous kids left alone in their hotel room, which they proceed to destroy; and in the fourth, he takes part in a dangerous re-enactment of the story "Man from the South" with a deranged Hollywood star and his entourage.

None of the segments really live up to their potential, with many of the situations confusingly set-up and poorly executed, no doubt hindered by the limited amount of time granted to each one. Tarantino's episode is the longest, and also the best, though it still feels rushed and underdeveloped. It was an interesting idea to bring together four emerging directors of the period to contribute to an anthology film, but the clash of styles and tone between the episodes result in a wildly inconsistent misfire.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Crying Game (1992)

Bold psychological thriller about an IRA assassin who becomes obsessed with the partner of the man who he'd been assigned to kill during a hostage situation. That's only the set-up, however, for this thoughtful and provocative character study about the relationship that forms between two people brought together through tragic circumstances.

Fine performances by Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, Miranda Richardson, and a standout performance by first-time actor Jaye Davidson. Sensitively directed by Neil Jordan (who also wrote the script), it's a disarmingly moving and honest film.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Oliver Stone's ultra-stylish, ultra-violent satire on American culture's obsession with violence, following the outlaw husband-and-wife team Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) as they embark on a road trip killing spree and become national celebrities in the process.

Stone pulls out all the stops, creating an explosive pastiche of styles and techniques. Based on a story by Quentin Tarantino, it shows his influence throughout. Hugely controversial, it made quite an impact at the time of its release and still packs quite a punch today. The supporting cast includes Robert Downey Jr. as the host of a "true crime" tabloid TV show, Tommy Lee Jones as an opportunistic prison warden, Tom Sizemore as a corrupt, superstar detective, and -- most memorably (and disturbingly) -- Rodney Dangerfield in his only dramatic role, as Lewis' abusive and incestuous father.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lost in Translation (2003)

Meditative character study about the special relationship that forms between two strangers in a strange land. Fading Hollywood star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is in Japan to shoot a commercial, being paid a small fortune for what he ultimately considers an artistically empty and unrewarding experience. In his downtime at the hotel, he meets an unhappily married young American woman (Scarlet Johansson), staying with her emotionally distant and rather vapid husband. Left to their own devices, and utterly alone in their unfamiliar surroundings, the two form an unlikely bond as they attempt to come to terms with feeling lost and directionless at different points in their lives.

Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, offers profound insights into these characters and situations drawn from her own experiences, without ever resorting to the kind of predictable, lazy navel-gazing so common in this type of film. Murray's older, wiser, world-weary actor makes for a good contrast with Johansson's sensitive but ultimately immature young woman, both struggling to find meaning and to deal with the damaged relationships in their lives. It's a bittersweet story about "what might have been".

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

This homage to the subgenre of 1980s "summer camp" movies is a mild but amusing comedy mainly of interest for the talents involved. The talented cast of comedians (Janeane Garafolo, David Hyde Pierce, Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Molly Shannon, among others) bring a certain irreverent charm and energy to the film that elevates it beyond its predictable and silly subject matter, which we've seen a thousand times before (though, that's really the point). Fans of movies like PORKY'S and MEATBALLS will probably enjoy the good-natured sending-up of the familiar conventions and stock characters, but there's not really enough solid laughs here to recommend it to general audiences.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Departed (2006)

Scorsese is very much in his element with this stylish crime drama about corruption and collaboration between the Boston police department and the criminal underworld. Matt Damon plays a superstar young cop who rockets to the top of the force, but it turns out he's feeding tips to crime boss Jack Nicholson, in order to line his own pockets and keep the gangsters one step ahead of the law. Meanwhile, a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) with ambitions of joining the force goes undercover for the department in order to prove himself and to infiltrate Nicholson's gang, but his life is put in serious jeopardy once it's revealed there's a rat among the gang, and his superior officer is suspiciously killed when he begins to suspect that someone on the police force is leaking information.

This is one of Scorsese's best films in years, with a solid, unpredictable script and a fine cast (which also includes Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin) making the most of their roles. There are echoes of GOODFELLAS and CASINO in its depiction of the criminal underworld, but Scorsese takes a fresh approach by focusing on corruption within the police force and contrasting the character dynamics between a good cop and a bad cop. As a result, it doesn't feel like a re-tread of material we've seen before, instead making this an interesting departure for the director that ranks among his best work.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

El Mariachi (1993)

Landmark indie film of the '90s, made (or so the story goes) for just $7000, launching the career of writer-director Robert Rodriguez, and inspiring a whole generation of aspiring filmmakers to make their own low-budget movies in the process. Seen today, it's difficult to separate the film out from the legend surrounding its production and the unexpectedly wild success with which it was met upon release, but it holds up as a highly entertaining, expertly-crafted action film, tightly-paced with nary a wasted moment, and stylishly directed by Rodriguez.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

An "Autumn Fire" Update

In my recent post on the Baltimore filming locations of Herman G. Weinberg's 1931 short film, Autumn Fire, I wrote about the city's appearance in this important early work from the American avant garde film movement, and identified some of the locations used in the film, specifically the view of the Baltimore Trust Company and First National Bank buildings as seen from the Inner Harbor. However, there were a few other locations used in the film that I was not able to identify, though the presence of the actors in those shots suggested that these, too, had been filmed in Baltimore.

I'm pleased to report that one more location has been identified. The credit for this ID must go to my mother, Pamela Barry, who recognized the distinctive stairs leading into the Preston Gardens Park, located at the corner of Saratoga Street and St. Paul Street. Knowing of my interest in identifying the locations that appear in Autumn Fire, she visited Preston Park to take photos of the stairs as they appear today, which I have included below, and also sent me the following notes:

"While I was watching Autumn Fire, I was struck by those sweeping stone stairways. I knew that I had seen them somewhere before. When I was a girl, my mother would drive us into the city by way of St.Paul Street as there was no Jones Falls Expressway or 83 South at that time. My favorite part of the drive came when we passed that little green space known as Preston Park. I thought those stairs were beautiful and the image always stayed with me."

The steps used in the film appear to be on the right side of this unique staircase (if you're facing it as in the photo above). Here is the staircase as it appears in the film:

Of the photos my mother sent me, it was this one that provided the positive ID when we looked at them together:

It is taken from a slightly different angle than the one from the film reproduced above, but a look at the spot where the two adjoining staircases meet provides the clue: the slight, straight ledge where actor Willy Hildebrand rests his arm in the film. Immediately to the right is the adjoining staircase banister, with its distinctive L-shape at the top, and to the left is the wavy banister that is clearly visible in front of Hildebrand in the screenshot from the film above.

Here is another view of the staircase from the film, which matches a bit more clearly the one in the present day photo, as it is taken from a similar perspective:

Below is a cropped version of the present day photo to match more closely the above screenshot from the film:

Here is another screenshot from the film, taken from the top of the stairs:

The steps today (seen from a different angle than in the film):

These glimpses of Baltimore, as seen in Herman G. Weinberg's Autumn Fire in 1931, are valuable for providing a filmed record of the city for posterity. In the previous post, the comparison between the "then and now" photos demonstrated how much the city's skyline and Inner Harbor area has changed and developed in the intervening 85 years. These photos from Preston Park reveal a unique piece of architecture that has survived intact to the present day.

Autumn Fire, in addition to being an important work in the early American avant garde film movement, also serves as a record of the architecture and urban development (as so many early films inadvertently do) of Baltimore, and is a precious filmed snapshot of the city from a time when so few moving images of it survive.

Present day photos of Preston Gardens Park courtesy of Pamela Barry.

Update July 5, 2015:
I took additional photos of the locations, including the exact staircase from the same angles as in the film, and have provided these shots here for then-and-now comparison: