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:

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog's films are certainly experiences, with the director's intrepid spirit of adventure and discovery reflected vividly in his work. The extreme conditions under which he made this film (including filming on location in a Peruvian rainforest) are evident on-screen, depicting the harrowing conditions faced by a group of explorers led deep into the Amazon jungle in search of the mythical city of El Dorado by a renegade Spanish soldier, Aguirre (Klaus Kinski, in a brilliant performance). Herzog takes a deliberately-paced, contemplative approach, which makes the explorers' mental and physical breakdown all the more dramatic, and frighteningly believable. Kinski perfectly conveys the descent into madness of a man on a quest in search of an unattainable goal.