Friday, April 20, 2018

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema by Ira Gallen

Ira Gallen's study of the early career of D.W. Griffith is one of the finest books on the subject of film published in recent years, and certainly one of the most thorough published about the complex, often contradictory, still controversial man who did more than any other figure to advance the art of film in the medium's formative years.

Gallen, a film & TV historian, collector, and archivist, has done tremendous work in recent years in championing Griffith's legacy, between authoring this book, and editing Seymour Stern's writing on Griffith's still-extremely controversial masterwork, The Birth of a Nation, which must certainly rank as one of the most important contributions to silent film scholarship. (He also has posted a number of videos of Griffith's Biograph shorts on his YouTube channel, contributing a valuable online archive of Griffith's early films.)

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is focused on Griffith's early life and his career in film up through his final year at Biograph. By concentrating his study on this, the most fertile period of Griffith's career, Gallen provides a comprehensive overview of the innovations that the director was making in leaps and bounds during those years. This study, which contains analyses and production histories of key Biograph short subjects, clearly establishes Griffith's contributions to the development of film grammar, without either the hyperbolic and exaggerated claims that have been made in Griffith's favor in the past, or the tendency in recent years to downplay Griffith's contributions in favor of shining a (deserved) light on the achievements of other directors of the period.

The final sections of the book contain details about Griffith's producing arrangement with the Aitken brothers, which resulted in The Birth of a Nation, and a scrapbook of photos from the Biograph company. Gallen also includes commentary on Griffith's legacy from leading film historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Arthur Lennig, and addresses the cowardly and shameful removal of Griffith's name from the DGA's career achievement award in 1999, solely on the basis of the racism of The Birth of a Nation. Sadly, such an act seems somehow appropriate given the film industry's shabby treatment of Griffith during much of his own lifetime as well.

D.W. Griffith: Master of Cinema is a first-rate piece of film scholarship that does justice to the complexity and importance of its subject, and Gallen is to be commended for his in-depth study of this master filmmaker's formative years, which are really the formative years of the art of cinema.

Buy the book at Barnes and Noble:

Ira Gallen's Website:

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Schindler's List, Gilliam, Porter

I watched SCHINDLER'S LIST tonight for what I realized was the first time in 21 years, the last time being when it aired, uncut, on NBC in 1997. I had picked up the DVD recently on a trip to Barnes & Noble, and was interested in revisiting the film as I've re-watched many of Spielberg's films in the past few years. I don't know why it's taken me so long to come back to this one, though. It's undoubtedly one of the strongest works in Spielberg's filmography -- powerful and moving while only very occasionally (near the end of the film) moving toward the kind of manipulative sentimentality that often mars his work. Technically it's brilliant, and in terms of the ideas, certainly one of Spielberg's most sophisticated (and sincere) films.

I remembered that Terry Gilliam had criticized SCHINDLER'S LIST for what he saw as Spielberg's neat and reassuring conclusion to the events of the film, and quoted Stanley Kubrick as saying that SCHINDLER'S LIST “is about success. The Holocaust was about failure”.

Without disputing his point, I'm not sure it's fair to criticize Spielberg for not making the film that Kubrick would have made.

There's also a very powerful visual touch -- the young girl in the red coat seen early on in the film, whose reappearance later on is made all the more visceral by the standalone use of color. This device recalls Edwin S. Porter's use of the hand-colored red coat worn by a little girl in his film, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, where the selective use of color was also an effective form of visual punctuation.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Christine (2016)

As most viewers going into the film are presumably familiar -- as I was -- with the tragic story of news anchor Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide on live television, CHRISTINE works in reverse, looking back from rather than leading up to its conclusion (which, crucially, is tastefully portrayed with a sobering matter-of-factness).

Perhaps because of this, the film rises or falls on its depiction of Christine, and thankfully, Rebecca Hall turns in a fine performance that fully works to center the film and hold it all together. She brilliantly conveys the pain and frustration of the aspiring news anchor's personal and professional struggles.

Especially poignant is the moment in which Christine learns that her colleague has received the promotion which she desired so strongly for herself. It's a heartbreaking moment, for sure, but Hall plays it with an astonishing restraint and honesty that makes it all the more painful to watch.

Currently streaming on Netflix.


Friday, April 06, 2018

Pocket cameras, 3D

After writing about Sony's Bloggie 3D camera the other day, it occurred to me that these kinds of pocket camcorders are quickly becoming a thing of the past due to the ubiquity of smartphone cameras. That's understandable, but I hope they don't go away completely. The Bloggie that I have was listed as out-of-stock even when I first began looking into getting one three years ago.

I currently have a smartphone that I use mostly for work, and while it has a nice camera on it, I find it less convenient to use than a pocket camcorder. For one thing, the storage space fills up more quickly, and getting the video off of it can be a bit of a hassle, but overall I can certainly see why most people would be perfectly content to use the smartphone as an all-purpose still- and video-camera.

Still, I hope that the market for these pocket camcorders holds on. I remember the first one that I ever bought, back in 2009, when I was making the switch to shooting in HD. I didn't want to spend a small fortune on an HD camcorder when I wasn't quite sure what to do with the format yet, so I bought one of those cheap Aiptek cameras at Best Buy. I can't recall how much I paid for it now, but I believe it was less than $100, maybe even less than $75. The only things I didn't care for about it were the fact that it had a very close lens (which I was able to workaround by adding my own attachment for a wide-angle adapter), and the fact that it had absolutely no image stabilization whatever, which made it almost impossible to get decent handheld shots. Other than that, it was the perfect transitional camera when I began shooting in HD.

My modified Aiptek with wide angle lens attachment (2009).

I also had one of those MiniHD Flip cameras for a short time, which I had been given as a gift, but I can't say I used it very often. It was a very convenient little pocket camera from what I recall, and it came in very handy for filming a conference presentation I gave at NYU around the time I had received the camera. Unfortunately, it seems that the battery began to fail rather quickly, and I could no longer re-charge it via the USB stick. The Flip cameras were discontinued not long after I had received mine -- no doubt another casualty of the Smartphone market.

The Sony Bloggie 3D works great, though, and after looking into some new editing software, I'm drawn to the idea of starting to shoot more 3D footage. YouTube used to automatically convert the left/right images into anaglyph 3D, but did away with that feature, so I now have to figure out how I can do that with the editing software I have (although it looks like I'm going to have to upgrade that in order to be able to do so. I love the idea of having the option to record in 3D on a regular basis. I'm hoping to put together a new short film project this summer and, if I can get the technical issues sorted out, would like to make it my first short film in 3D. The little Bloggie will be getting a good workout on that project, I'm sure!

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Day for Night, Cinema is King

I screened a clip of the "Cinema is King" montage from Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT and was struck once again by how well it captures the joy and triumph when the making of a film comes together. Godard attacked Truffaut for romanticizing and sugarcoating the filmmaking process. I still find DAY FOR NIGHT more resonant of my own experiences on making my own small little movies, than any other film on the subject (Tim Burton's ED WOOD comes close, actually). In contrast, I found Godard's take on the process in CONTEMPT to be a little too jaded and cynical. While I have no doubt Godard was sincere in his attitude toward the process, it doesn't ring as true for me as the joyful sense that Truffaut conveys so well in his film. With Truffaut, there is no doubt that -- for him -- cinema is king.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


I began watching Scorsese's HUGO again the other night on DVD. It's a film I want to like a lot more than I do. It fell flat for me even when I saw it in its 3D presentation and theaters, and a subsequent viewing on Netflix did little to improve my overall impression of it.

Still, there are some moments that really work. The re-creations of Georges Melies' studio and the making of his films are vivid and work quite nicely. I could watch those scenes again and again.

There is a really odd moment somewhere toward the middle of the film, when the two children take a journey through the history of film. Scorsese puts the film on hold while he delves in to an appreciation of the magic and power of cinema. It's obviously a highly personal moment for Scorsese, and there's no denying that there is something powerful about the sequence, but it still stands out quite sharply, almost like a scene from another movie.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Godard, Sony Bloggie 3D

Jean-Luc Godard filming with the Bloggie 3D camera
I had received one of these little cameras as a Christmas present a few years, and still love using it. I believe they went on the market back around 2010 or 2011, and by the time I had got mine, the cameras had apparently already been discontinued by Sony, so they're harder to come by now.

I was thrilled to learn about the options for budget 3D cameras on the consumer market,and the Sony Bloggie 3D produces a nice image. Up until a few months ago, you could view the footage in 3D by uploading it to YouTube and watching it with red/green 3D glasses, but they have since disabled this function. The nice thing about the camera is that you can toggle between 3D and 2D filming options. I use the latter just as often, because the camera's size and light weight makes it the perfect pocket camcorder to take on trips or just carry around in your pocket.

Browsing the web last night, I came across this image of Jean-Luc Godard using one of these cameras, presumably during the shooting of his 2014 3D film Goodbye to Language. I love that this most innovative of filmmakers continues to find new ways to use consumer tools.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

I saw Spielberg's new film, Ready Player One, on its opening night. There's rarely any film that attracts me enough to see it on the day of its release, and I have zero interest in the current crop of slick, overproduced, corporate blockbusters, and about the same amount of interest in video games. But I was interested enough to see what Spielberg had done with the material.

Set in the near future, it deals with a lonely young man who spends his days inside the fantasy world of an immersive role-playing video game. His only friends are his virtual ones, and his life experiences are limited to being tethered to the virtual reality station. When he begins to fall in love with a female avatar in the game, and has to stop an evil corporate scumbag from hijacking control of the entire game for his own nefarious purposes, the lines between reality and virtual reality begin to blur.

This is another one of these science fiction stories reflecting the anxieties of our obsession with technology, our loss of humanity within the fantasy worlds created by social media, the stunted development of generations raised perpetually plugged-in to electronics and glued to screens, etc. None of it is explored in any real depth here, and the ending is too facile in its dealing with any of these ideas to offer much to think about afterward.

It's a little difficult to buy any such idea from this film, anyway, when it's obviously conceived as an escapist withdrawal into the world of '80s and '90s pop culture nostalgia. The result is such a hodge podge that you come away from it feeling a little dazed.

I will say that I enjoyed it considerably more than his previous film, The Post, which is Spielberg at his safest and most ossified, and totally predictable, yet -- perhaps like the nostalgia mined in Ready Player One -- there can be something oddly comforting in that.