Tuesday, December 23, 2014

God-awful: Problems of the postmodern Biblical epic

Christian Bale as Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" -- no, he does not suppose his toeses are roses.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Dir: Ridley Scott
Prod: Peter Chernin, Mohamed El Raie, Mark Huffam, Teresa Kelly, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Hisham Soliman, Mirel Soliman, Adam Somner, Jenno Topping, Sebastian Alvarez
Scr: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian
Phot: Dariusz Wolski
US Release Date: Dec. 12, 2014

As eagerly as watchmen await the dawn, I yearned for the arrival of Ridley Scott’s new movie, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” As the gorgeous, slow-motion train wreck unfolded before my eyes, I leaned back in satisfaction. Here was another classic misfire for the ages.

Let me explain. I come from a family of Biblical-epic connoisseurs. As we are compulsive jokers whose religious beliefs range across the spectrum, leaning heavily by consensus towards nihilism, Biblical epics have been a touchstone of interactive family enjoyment for decades. Long before “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” we were seated before the TV, snacked up and ready to crack comic exegesis on “The Ten Commandments,” “King of Kings,” “The Bible: In the Beginning” and much, much worse.

These showed up at regular yearly screenings on network TV, or came on via the opportunistic and short-lived SFM Holiday Network, which would tar over the holes in regular programming created by holidays.

Having actually read and retained the Bible at one point, I was fascinated by the discrepancies between the Holy Word and Hollywood. I began to seek these scriptural extravaganzas out. (Maybe it was trauma – I was taken to John Huston’s “The Bible: In the Beginning” at the drive-in. Watching a 40-foot-tall George C. Scott overact as Abraham might have done it. Yep.) I have toiled through “Barabbas,” “Esther and the King,” even “The Big Fisherman” featuring Howard Keel as Saint Peter.

So I came into the screening ready for anything. This factors in my love/hate relationship with Ridley Scott. As far as I can recall, his first film, “The Duellists,” is the only one I have ever sat through, gone out to the lobby, paid again, and watched straight through a second time. This is the guy who gave us “Blade Runner,” “Alien,” “Thelma and Louise.” And – and – “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” “G.I. Jane.” The Russell Crowe “Robin Hood.” You see what I mean? I’m conflicted.

It’s particularly appropriate that Scott tackle the Moses story, as I think he has become our generation’s Cecil B. DeMille, just as I think of Spielberg as a modern-day John Ford. (Please note: I am aware that Scott has more talent in his pinkie than I have in my entire area code and that on his worst day he made more money than I will over the course of my entire life.) Like DeMille, Scott is addicted to scale. But what worked in a time when the shared values of the mainstream could sustain the mythic weight of the story didn’t work this time for Scott. How do you make a postmodern Biblical epic?

Like “The Ten Commandments,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” goes with the solid premise that all Egyptians walk around like they have poles up their bums and speak with, if not a British accent, a languid and effete tone and that the Hebrews are grungy, hairy, vernacular-speaking jist-plain-folks. We are quickly acquainted with Moses (Christian Bale) and his brother/rival Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Both are color-coordinated for ease in differentiation. Also, Bale is the only Egyptian sporting a full head of hair and a beard. Perhaps this is a bit of fore-five-o’clock-shadowing.

The story was made for CGI. One thing that always frustrated me but DeMille’s work, especially in “The Ten Commandments,” is the flatness of the compositional plane. With rare exceptions, everything moves along in a two dimensions; the stagings, postures, and even line readings are as stiff as a local religious pageant might be. When Moses parts the Red Sea, a trio of women poses in a setup remindful of a Raphael composition.
“The Ten Commandments” is meant to look like the faded religious prints handed out in Sunday school. DeMille’s presentation is steeped in tradition.

Scott, frantically dynamic in comparison, plunges us into battle almost immediately in the new “Exodus,” and by minute 12 there has already been a major disembowelment of the entire Hittite nation by the two princely brothers. Scott seemingly makes references to Ford, Wellman, and even Nolan in this first huge action sequence, as if to unleash all the compositional framing and editing tropes and get them chucked over the shoulder properly before proceeding.

In “The Ten Commandments,” the action centers around an invented love triangle involving Moses, Ramses, and Anne Baxter as the nostril-flaring Nefertiri. In the new “Exodus,” it’s all politics. Ben Mendelsohn plays a corrupt official who reveals Moses’ past to discredit him in so swishy a manner that it he seems he has involved the ghost of Franklin Pangborn. Aaron Paul is wasted as Joshua, who spends most of his time spying disbelievingly at Moses while he talks to his invisible friend God. Ben Kingsley is thrown into the mix for no particular reason at all, Sigourney Weaver has three lines, and the rest of the women’s roles are pretty much nonexistent. People come and go in “Exodus,” mainly to hold the space in between the effects sequences.

Ultimately, Scott stakes the whole narrative on the contrast between Moses and Ramses. Bale wavers between his normative British accent in “Egyptian” scenes and some kind of pseudo-Brooklynese when dealing with the Hebrews, as though they brought him in touch with his inner S.Z. Sakall. He is so human as Moses as to be uninspiring.

Meanwhile, Edgerton’s Ramses is so waspish, snotty, and passive-aggressive that after a while I thought he was doing a Ricky Gervais imitation. Deliberately. He is so lost in wimpy self-involvement that it’s a wonder he can summon up the energy to be the scourge of the Hebrews. There is zero dramatic tension generated, despite the smash-bang emphasis editing, and the portentously pointing scoring by Alberto Iglesias.

Of course, this story screams for CGI, and Scott is quite capable of making it as grand as we can stand. His visual imagination is so strong that, unless the material can stand it, the image drowns the idea underpinning it. In successes such as “The Duellists,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Thelma & Louise,” and “American Gangster,” there’s parity. In misfires such as the Russell Crowe “Robin Hood,” “White Squall,” and “Legend,” what’s up there looks great but makes little sense.

In this way Scott reminds me of another director, an expert genre stylist who faded when he moved into epics. Anthony Mann’s film noir and Western triumphs (“Raw Deal,” “The Naked Spur”) still overshadow the later big-scale efforts such as “El Cid,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” and “The Heroes of Telemark.” It’s almost as if these projects are so ambitious that the directors can no longer see the trees for the forest. Given the historic periods Scott chooses to work in, it’s frequently impossible not to think of Monty Python. It’s as if Scott’s films were made before the English comedy group’s satiric deflation of the epic form took place, instead of after.

There is a bigger problem underlying the weaknesses in casting, the pretentiously serious tone, the incongruous dialogue (Moses refers to his thinking as “delusional,” and Moses and Ramses have a nice colloquy about the tricky economic impact of the liberation of slaves en masse), the old Moses-sees-the-Burning-Bush-after-getting-hit-in-the-head gambit, the nervy conception of God’s messenger as a surly 8-year-old, the honey-I-brought-the-nation-of-Israel-home-for-hummus denouement, and the Ten Commandments afterthought. It’s the nagging problem with Scott’s Skeptic Hero.

In the Scott movies “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” the protagonist comes into the story alienated and distanced from his culture. Russell Crowe’s Maximus is a republican in an imperial time; Orlando Bloom’s Balian has no use for a faith that condemns his suicide wife to damnation. In these cases the tough-guy attitude of estrangement allows director and viewer to examine the film’s world with a critical eye, almost as if the heroes in these films were beamed in from our time, rigged out in full with modern rationalism and irony.

This doesn’t work for Moses, though. DeMille’s Moses is two-dimensional; he is just as earnest and overwrought at the end as he is at the beginning. Exodus is on one level a fable, and only stereotypes carry the mythic freight of so ancient and well-known a tale. Thinking of Moses as a cynical action hero who swashbuckles first and asks questions later just doesn’t work.

In the year’s earlier “Noah,” director Darren Aronofsky takes one of Scott’s favorite actors, Russell Crowe, and posits him as a proto-hippie patriarch. Despite the hallucinatory tang of the piece and some missteps such as the helpful golem/Nephilim, who resemble no one so much as the Excalbian in “The Savage Curtain” episode of the original “Star Trek” series, “Noah” maintains some coherence because Noah stands for something. Scott’s Moses always seems uncertain, provisional.
Rock Creature: "Noah"
Rock Creature: "Star Trek"
At the end of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” the ramshackle tribes of Israel clatter across barren waste towards a undifferentiated, hazy horizon. Moses is hauled along in a cart, his tablets clutched at his weary side. The 8-year-old angel gives him a manly affirmative head-bob before vanishing. It’s the saddest, most anticlimactic ending since “Lawrence of Arabia.” The lights went up in the theater, but I still felt in the dark.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Daffy's Debut: 'Porky's Duck Hunt'

From the archives: as edited and presented by the fine folks at Senses of Cinema in Sept, 2005 -- 

Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937 USA 7 mins)

Source: NFVLS 
Prod Co: Warner Bros. 
Prod: Leon Schlesinger 
Dir: Fred (Tex) Avery 
Anim: Virgil Ross, Robert Cannon, Robert Clampett (uncredited) 
Mus Dir: Carl W. Stalling 
Voice: Mel Blanc (Porky, Daffy), Billy Bletcher (Upstairs Neighbour, Bass Fish)
Cast: Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, “Rin-Tin-Tin”

Even icons have to start somewhere.

Just as film divas of flesh and blood began their careers with humble bit parts, so did that of that temperamental, greedy, cynical waterfowl, Daffy Duck. And the unassuming cartoon short in which he first appears, Porky’s Duck Hunt, is significant not only as his debut, but as the launching point for the snappy, smart-ass tone that would separate Warner Bros.’ cartoons from its competitors, and keep their work relevant and resonant today.

American animators in the 1930s were a scruffy, itinerant bunch. Most bounced around from studio to studio, serving apprenticeships in the cartoon production houses of such figures as Walt Disney, Walter Lantz (best known as the home of Woody Woodpecker), the Fleischer Brothers (Betty Boop, Koko the Clown), and Disney’s once and future partner, Ub Iwerks. Serendipitously, an irreverent and rowdy crew came together at Leon Schlesinger  Productions, in a ramshackle, bug-infested back-lot bungalow that later earned the affectionate sobriquet of “Termite Terrace” (1).

For a time this group included such leading lights as Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Robert McKimson, and Bob Clampett, all working under the loose supervision and raucous inspiration of Fred “Tex” Avery (who lost the vision in one eye during an office paper-clip fight!). The team enjoyed that most happy of fates to be found inside any corporate structure – they were largely ignored. Left to their own devices, they began gradually and collectively to shrug off the sickly-sweet sentimentality of the Disney studio’s approach, as well as the nominally logical, linear, kid-oriented whimsies that emerged from other rivals’ drawing boards.

In terms of structure, Porky’s Duck Hunt uses elements of both the “hunted-outsmarts-hunted” paradigm that dominated “Warner Bros. cartoons” (although that studio ultimately owned the characters, Schlesinger was, in essence, an independent contractor until Warners bought him out in 1944) until its demise, and the hodgepodge “riffing” technique that was in common use up to that point. This latter “attack” would take a generic subject (the city, hunting, hospitals) and wring all the gags the creators could out of it.

The opening of Porky’s Duck Hunt has a Pickwickian resonance to it. To the jaunty musical strains of “A-Hunting We Will Go”, the camera pans right across an assembly of objects – a manual on “How to Duck Hunt”, and several empty boxes labelled One Sure Fire Shotgun, One Wear-Well Hunting Suit, Assorted Duck Decoys, and 25 Shells. We then find our hero, Porky, admiring himself in a full-length mirror in his otherwise tumbledown apartment.

Porky would be the last of the studio’s harmlessly “cute” leading characters. His toddler-like appearance, clumsiness, and gentle disposition marks him as a figure geared to appeal to preliterates. Even his stutter contributes to the pity the audience may have felt for him.  Joe Dougherty, Porky’s original voice, was genuinely afflicted with one, and in this film, Mel Blanc “plays” Porky for the first time, retaining the character’s distinctive speech impediment.

Poor Porky is all thumbs – he frightens his pet dog, and then accidentally blasts a hole in his ceiling. This prompts a knock at his door, and a punch in his face, from his upstairs neighbour, who displays the buckshot hole in his pants as he turns to go back upstairs.

The scene quickly shifts to the wild, as Porky cautions his dog to “be very, very quiet” – foreshadowing Elmer Fudd’s lisping catchphrase in his appearances with Bugs Bunny (and sometimes Daffy Duck). The gags, good, bad and indifferent, begin to flow. A single duck flies overhead, prompting a phalanx of hidden hunters to emerge, blasting away – and missing. A dog-headed, cross-eyed hunter (the soundtrack dredges up “I Only Have Eyes for You” – Carl Stalling’s nimble manipulation of pop tunes is displayed here) brings down a brace of airplanes.

Finally, Daffy enters the picture, landing amid a raft of decoys and quacking. Porky winks at the camera – not the first time the fourth wall will be broken here. He wades out under the surface of the lake and pops up, getting the drop on Daffy. The duck cringes but remains in place patiently, so that the joke will play out (the gun squirts a harmless stream of water). Already we are in new territory. This is vaudeville, not naturalism. Avery and company seem to have an unstoppable need to transcend the conventions of the still-new medium. To mockingly play to the audience is the most effective way to get that audience to subvert its expectations, a tendency that only grows as the years pass at Termite Terrace. Now we are complicit with the animators – and now there’s a reason for adults to keep an eye on the screen as well.

More tangential joking breaks up the flow of the narrative. Daffy alighting on an unlikely floating barrel of booze leads to its blasting, transitioning to a chorus of drunken fish crooning “On Moonlight Bay” in close harmony. Later, a hand holding a sign will point out “This is an electric eel, folks”, right before Daffy swallows it and lights up – a contemptuous deflation of a bad joke.

Daffy’s first speech erupts from another interruption. Porky downs Daffy, his dog makes like a retriever (“Go g-g-get him, R-R-R-Rin-Tin-Tin!” exclaims the ecstatic swine). When the two animals return, it is Daffy who has rescued the unconscious pooch. Quickly, he whips out a sheaf of paper and cries, “Hey, that wasn’t in the script!”

Daffy replies, “Don’t let it worry you, skipper – I’m just a crazy darn-fool duck! HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” And away he goes, strutting, flipping and bouncing away across the surface of the lake. Clearly, after this, anything goes. Although Daffy was destined to change from pure zany to disgruntled egotist, the foundation of the basic driving conflict in Warners animation shorts is here. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey – only the damned quarry won’t cooperate! The Elmer/Bugs, Tweety/Sylvester, Road Runner/Coyote dynamic is established. (In fact, a loose remake of this film made the following year, Porky’s Hare Hunt, gives us a rabbit that, two years later, will crystallise into the Bugs Bunny we know and love.)

Later in the film, Porky again draws a bead on Daffy. The gun won’t fire. Tsk-tsking, Daffy takes the gun from Porky, fixes it, and returns it. “It’s just me again!” Daffy announces. “HOO-HOO! HOO-HOO!” Even the target’s assistance can’t facilitate his demise.

The seeds of the transition of Porky from leading man to sidekick is in that exchange. Daffy’s relentless putdowns and humiliation of Porky, as well as his grandstanding, turns  Porky into a comic foil – a role he would play to perfection in such outings as Chuck Jones’ Drip-Along Daffy (1951), Deduce, You Say (1956) and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century (1951). Only in his few appearances as the disgruntled owner of a nervous, mute Sylvester (Jones’ Scaredy Cat, 1948, Claws for Alarm, 1954, Jumpin’ Jupiter, 1955), or as the unwilling master of the little-remembered but strongly conceived Charlie Dog (Jones’ Little Orphan Airedale, 1947, The Awful Orphan, 1949) will he get to re-exercise any kind of dominance.

As Porky’s Duck Hunt plays out, the padding becomes more apparent. Porky’s shooting a hole in his boat prompts Joe Penner to rise from the water, delivering his then-familiar catchphrase “Wanna buy a duck?” (2) Porky jackhammers himself into the ground with the force of his firing. Finally, Porky’s dog swallows his duck call and begins to hiccup-quack, and the two flee for home, pursued by shot and shell.

Porky returns home. Continuity is completely abandoned – it bears no resemblance to the apartment Porky left at the beginning of the cartoon. Outside his window, a flock of ducks led by Daffy display themselves, in spite, as a shooting-gallery menagerie. Porky aims, but his final impotence is underscored when he discovers, “D-d-d-d-doggone it! No more bullets!” He throws the gun to the ground – and of course, we get a reprise of a blast through the ceiling, and the neighbour’s angry retaliation.

All in all, the introduction of Daffy, as well as the full debut of Blanc (the defining voice talent of his generation) and the intimations of the “license” to come, all make this short a groundbreaking effort.

© Brad Weismann, September 2005

1.      Camera Three: The Boys from Termite Terrace, CBS-TV documentary, 1975, passim.
2.      Joe Penner (nee Josef Pinter), 1904-1941, was an American vaudeville and radio comic who enjoyed a brief but spectacularly large burst of fame during the years 1933 and 1934. His famous non sequiturs “Wanna buy a duck?” and “Oh, you NAS-ty man!”, as well as his nyuck-nyuck laugh, made him the first comedy star of the radio era. See entry on Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0672101/bio.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Formative Film, Part 5: Ballad of the Arvada Plaza

Richard Fleischer's "Fantastic Voyage," 1966.

The former site of the Arvada Plaza
It couldn’t be a more mundane location. The Arvada Plaza movie theater (9374 W. 58th Ave.) anchored the end of a row of stores at the local shopping mall. It was modestly scaled, strictly functional, and designed with economy in mind. There was no grand fa├žade – just a simple marquee. Inside, there were no decorations, no gilt, no Art Deco frippery – just a streamlined box of a theater, dominated with the burnt orange and sour-cherry color scheme of the mid-‘60s.

It didn’t look like an exploding box of dreams, but for me that’s just what it was.

From the time we moved to the Denver area in 1967 until I escaped 10 years later, the Arvada Plaza was our local movie house. A decent bike ride or long walk from home, it was a place where we were always welcome . . . even if we weren’t actually old enough to see the movies inside, thanks to parents who didn’t care, a profit-minded theater management, and a staff that usually included some of our neighbors, and older brothers and sisters.

This was both problematic and wonderful. We were only forbidden to see such extreme fare as “The Godfather” and “The Exorcist” – but of course we all sneaked away and saw them when they came to our unromantic little home away from home. And were traumatized for life.

Being dumped off with a carload of friends, with $1.20 in hand for a ticket and perhaps even A WHOLE 50 CENTS for treats was a Saturday morning ritual, and eventually we branched out into catching whatever opened on Friday night. I still remember the burning scent of overtaxed vacuum cleaners in the lobby, and the solid, waxy taste of my most beloved Flicks chocolate-drop candies, which came in a cardboard tube covering in glittering foil and a logo of a Dutch boy running towards or from something . . . I could never figure out what.
The tubes made excellent blowguns after emptied, and we would routinely assault each other if the movie wasn’t that hot. Occasionally, an extremely unmotivated usher might appear and caution us to keep it down.

Here are some of the films I saw there that really stuck with me. The dates attached are initial release dates. Hard as it is to believe in this age of instant gratification but in some cases, we got the movie a year or more after its premiere – such were the mechanics of film distribution at the time.

Fantastic Voyage
Dir: Richard Fleischer
Prod: Saul David
Scr: Harry Kleiner, David Duncan
Phot: Ernest Laszlo
Aug. 24, 1966

The conceit that an epic film can be made inside the human body worked for this 6-year-old. Richard Fleischer, son of master animator Max, was one of those hit-or-miss directors who have made some remarkable films (the original “Narrow Margin,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “10 Rillington Place,” “Soylent Green”) and some absolute train wrecks (“Doctor Dolittle,” “Mandingo,” the Neil Diamond “Jazz Singer,” Amityville 3-D”).

It’s a Cold War-themed sci-fi thriller, complete with Bondian operative (Stephen Boyd) and a miniaturized submarine full of saboteur suspects, including a saintly surgeon (Arthur Kennedy), his lissome assistant (Raquel Welch), an affable pilot (William Redfield) and the shifty, shuttering Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasence).
Note the patented gloomy stare and suspect sweat of exemplary film villain Donald Pleasence.
Guess who the saboteur is!

You see, in a world where miniaturization is possible an hour at a time, a genius defecting to Our Side carries the secret to indefinite miniaturization in his mind, but is injured after an assassination attempt. The CDMF (Combined Miniaturized Deterrent Forces) team has to be shrunken to microbe size and injected into the patient to eliminate a blood clot in his brain so that, presumably, he can wake up tell us what he knows and we can create tiny armies and beat the Russkies. Of course, the team only has 60 minutes before it returns to normal size, which tends to damage the patient.

So we have a ticking clock, huge graphic interfaces in a NASA-like control room, scuba divers on high-wire harnesses, and fanciful art direction. The typical military men are played by typical military men -- character actors Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell. If they could have squeezed in Whit Bissell, we would have had the trifecta!
O'Brien (left) and O'Connell expressing concern in the control room.

The film does as well as one can hope for a pre-CGI vision of the human body. One body that stood out in particular was Raquel Welch’s -- the primary actors are described, in the sexist parlance of the time, as "four men and a BEE-YOO-TI-FUL girl"; she was ogled an appropriate amount for a movie of that era, and her staid beehive hairdo is in stark contrast to the racier silhouette of her extremely pneumatic diving suit.

Note the assertion: "THIS IS THE WAY IT WAS". . . . "a savage world whose only law was lust!"
One Million Years B.C.
Dir: Don Chaffey
Prod: Michael Carreras, Aida Young; Hal roach (uncr)
Scr: Michael Carreras, Mickell Novack, George Baker, Joseph Frickert
Phot: Wilkie Cooper
Feb. 21, 1967

What do you get when you combine Britain’s Hammer Studios (lurid color horror), stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen, and Raquel Welch in a fur bikini? A moderately interesting, staggeringly inaccurate fantasy film (dinosaurs vs. cavemen) that makes money. As Tumak says, "AI-YEEE!"

I mention this trip to the movies not because of the feature, but because this is when I saw the trailer for “Bonnie and Clyde.” (“NO CHILDREN’S TICKETS SOLD” trumpeted the ads.)What’s going on here? Is it a romance? There's faux-Copland Americana scoring under the initial montage. Wait now they're shooting. Now it's a comedy? There’s banjo music and Denver Pyle and . . . oh Lord they just shot someone in the face! I stripped my gears as I tried to fathom it.

I can’t find the trailer I saw in digital records, but what sticks with me 50 years later is the brief vision of Faye’s Dunaway’s body as she races to her closet and throws on a dress after catching Clyde stealing her mother’s car. That glimpse did something to me.
Dunaway in "Bonnie and Clyde" -- her nakedness obscured and punctuated by symbols of the domesticity she's about to spontaneously spurn.
I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I had seen, but I found nekkid ladies profoundly interesting. And I made a mental note to see more of them when possible.

Dir: Ivan Tors
Prod: Art Arthur, Ben Chapman, Sven Persson
Scr: Art Arthur, Arthur Weiss
Phot: Lamar Boren, Sven Persson

This 1964 film about saving megafaunic ungulates was no winner in itself, save for a classic Harry Guardino bad-guy performance, a lovely Shirley Eaton (who was to next play the ill-fated, gold-plated Jill Masterson in "Goldfinger"), and nifty little score from Lalo Schifrin. However, it was my first and most treasured kiddie matinee at the Plaza.

This was probably near the final manifestation of an old-fashioned “full” film program, recreated by a theater manager who must have wanted to recreate the good old days. For our money, we got previews, a Pink Panther cartoon (really hated them), and a chapter of the old 1954 Western serial “Riding with Buffalo Bill,” before the film! After the show, they held a drawing, called my ticket-stub number, brought me up to the front . . . and laid a Baby Ruth bar on me the size of my forearm.
I don’t recall winning another prize, but I was a faithful Saturday attendee for years.

NEXT TIME: Charlton Heston’s Superapocalyptic Trilogy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: "Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics," Fifth Edition

Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, Fifth Edition
Michael Rabiger & Mick Hurbis-Cherrier
Focal Press, Burlington, MA, USA
517 pgs.

So you want to be a movie director? Read this book. That’s it, you’re ready!

Comprehensive is too weak a word for the contents of the freshly updated “Directing.” In contrast to past tomes I’ve reviewed in the publisher’s FilmCraft series, this is not a string of anecdotal accounts about an aspect of the film profession. Possessed of a depth and scope far beyond what might suffice for laymen, this is a playbook for people who are serious about learning how to do this job called directing.

Film-school education has long turned away from the days when theory, interpretation, and critique held sway. The film industry is the quintessential capitalist/industrial venture – every movie a startup, an invention, an experience, a product, a gamble on the ability of the filmmaker to connect with a paying audience. And, like most artistic endeavors, you learn a lot more and a lot faster on the ground getting it done than sitting around thinking and talking about it. Film is a practicum: if you can’t make it happen, you won’t get far.

That being said, this would be the book to read before diving in to the daunting business of directing. The key to its effectiveness as an introduction, a classroom text, a reference work, or as a literal template for a specific film project is its straightforward, forthright style, peppered with both flashes of humor and a serious sense of purpose. The concern of the authors to be as clear and logical as possible is clearly felt, and the text is profusely illustrated with relevant stills and diagrams as well.

The organization of “Directing” is as impressive as the scope of work it suggests is the director’s responsibility is staggering. The book begins with basic premises through storytelling, film aesthetics, and cinematic “language,” on to preproduction, casting, working with actors, hiring a crew, breaking down the script, all the way through post and concluding with a friendly reminder to the filmmaker not to drink too much after the first screening, so that he or she can network more effectively.

Original author Michael Rabiger’s work has been seamlessly updated by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, who writes with a similarly engaging thoroughness. (We are even treated to a photo of Rabiger’s father, makeup artist Paul, brushing Shirley Eaton down with gold paint for her memorable appearance in “Goldfinger.”)

The upshot for me, personally, after reading “Directing” is that I do NOT want to direct. It seems to demand a combination of the personality traits of Superman, Moses, Patton, and Renoir, with a double portion of the patience of Job.

A caveat – this is a text loaded with valuable content, and it means slow going and careful digestion for the reader who wishes to make full benefit of it.

“Directing” is exemplary not only in its address of its subject, but as a model for anyone who would seek to cover a subject thoroughly, with insight, and a healthy sense of how a neophyte should proceed. Really? You really want to direct? Read “Directing” and call me in the morning.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dear John Cassavetes: I love you, you fascinating bastard

It doesn’t break any ground to recognize John Cassavetes as “the father of independent cinema” – a misleading title that shortchanges his real achievements. Like most geniuses, he got screwed over while he was alive and then was canonized and miscategorized after death.

Actually, independent cinema has been churned out since the medium was invented. At the beginning, it was ALL independent, wasn’t it? -- before the integration of production and distribution created the mainstream studios, which studiously crushed the competition. (A complete primer of off-center, innovative work can be found in Treasures from American Film Archives, More Treasures from American Film Archives, Treasures III and IV, Kino’s marvelous Avant-Garde and Avant-Garde 2 collections, and the dauntingly large 7-disc Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant Garde Film.)

Cassavetes entered the scene an as actor; for better or worse, under the influence of the Method. The quest to delve into the self for meaning, to find and project authentic content as a performer, transformed the profession.

It was an improvisation Cassavetes came across while teaching the Method that led to his inspiration to make his first film, Shadows. To show you how well-received it was, it couldn’t get any U.S. distribution – it had to win the Critics award at the Venice Film Festival in order for European distributors to grab and show in the States – as an import!

The bedrock of his approach is to strip away all the trappings of “quality cinema” – the production values and internalized code of taste that kept mainstream movies the safe, bland product it was sculpted to be. It’s just the script, the characters, the actors in focus and up front, and it lives or dies on those values.

You can see Cassavetes’ discomfort with the dominant Hollywood paradigm in his performances. He is typically cast as the wise guy, a smartass, an outsider who knows that the system is rigged – at the end of the scale a duplicitous, untrustworthy cynic. His Academy Award-nominated performance as Franko in The Dirty Dozen, his doomed Johnny North in the awful The Killers remake, even his Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby are desperately tired, scratching at the walls, almost but not quite rolling their eyes at the gimcrackery around them.

When Cassavetes gets behind the camera, he relaxes. He wants something real, and by God he goes and gets it.

His cinema is one of obsessively curious observation. There are no pat answers, no denouements, no moments of cleansing catharsis in them. Cassavetes films are full of stutter-steps, blind alleys, agonizingly long takes. Watching takes patience, forbearance, but it pays off.

He only made 9 films the way he wanted: Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night, Gloria and Love Streams.

Of Cassavetes’ 9 “personal” films, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is the most frustrating and revealing. Of course, people hated it. As usual, I loved it.

Its center, strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, is in a way Cassavetes himself. He’s marvelously played by Ben Gazzara. He’s a little guy with big dreams. As the film opens, he pays off a loan shark the money he owes on his club, the Crazy Horse West, finally owning it outright.

It’s a shithole, frankly, a tawdry showplace that’s nominally enlivened by a stage show that’s a cruel parody of its namesake, the erotic Paris nightclub that features elaborate stage shows. Here, the handful of dancers trot out and intersperse flashes of breasts with jokes, punctuated by the damp, unenthused singing and musing of the show’s emcee, the portly, balding, top-hatted “Mr. Sophistication.”

But Cosmo loves it. It’s his dream, his love child, his creative offspring. He stands in the back of the room, everything fresh and alive in his eyes. Later that night, he takes out three of his dancers to celebrate – charmingly, bringing each a corsage like some smitten prom-goer.

But Cosmo blows it. He and the ladies go gambling. The same impulses that push him on undo him, and he finds himself in debt to the tune of $23,000 to some shady types. They have him by the balls, and the squeezing begins. Before you know it, they have pressured him into the title act.

Although the movie has the structure of a tight noir tragedy, this is Cassavetes, and the plot takes a back seat to the people involved. Digressive swoops give us insight into Cosmo, his workers, the “bad guys,” and any incidental characters that pop up along the way. Every character, no matter how brief his or her time on the screen, gets their moment, gets to define themselves.

Along the way, we keep seeing Cosmo in shifting perspective. Is he a competent businessman? A killer? A clown? Right away, the conventions of the genre break down. The stolen car given to Cosmo to take him to the hit blows a tire on the freeway. Cosmo flees, and calls a cab. While waiting, he calls his club and checks on the show, quizzing the staff and berating them when they don’t even know where in his scenario the action is.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” says Cosmo’s victim, off camera before he pulls the trigger. “I’ve been a bad person.” It’s as if Cosmo’s killing himself, or at least the part he thought was safe, the part that would last. Later, when the killing’s contractors come after him to silence him, he seems unsurprised, resigned. Unimpressed by the danger. Indifferent.

Cosmo takes a bullet, but there’s no heroic end for him. Things slowly unravel, and he marches on, schmoozing with the help backstage, starting the show, lingering outside on the sidewalk waiting to greet the customers and hustle them inside, even as he quizzically dips his hand into his jacket to feel the blood dampening and spreading there.

There the filmmaker stands, too, seemingly unashamed of his rickety product, dying or not dying of his wounds, obdurate to anything that stands between himself and the fulfillment of his dreams, however crass and untidy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Formative Film, Part Four: 'You Only Live Twice'

You Only Live Twice
Dir: Lewis Gilbert
Prod: Albert R. Broccoli, Harry Saltzman; Stanley Sopel (uncr)
Scr: Roald Dahl; Harold J. Bloom (uncr)
Phot: Freddie Young
Wadsworth Drive-In
5050 Wadsworth Blvd.
Arvada, Colorado
June 13, 1967

When I was six years old, we moved west from our farmland home in Iowa. At the end of the road was a new home, and a completely new phenomenon for me – the drive-in movie.

This was back in the days when you would spend your entire career at the same company. Being a loyal credit sales supervisor for the hardware chain Gambles-Skogmo, Inc., my father was subject to a regional reposting to the Denver area – and when they told you to go, you went. The movers came, we got in the car, mom and dad in front, myself and my infant sister rolling around loose on the back seat (seat belts were not legally mandated until a year later).

Surprisingly as it may seem now, the Jefferson County public schools west of Denver were highly rated (they are now mired in controversy and protest for suppressing negative U.S. historical information from their advanced-placement curriculum). This spurred my parents to settle down in the bedroom community of Arvada, Colorado – it turns out that we were only 12 miles downwind from a nuclear weapons plant, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

My primary impression of that ride was straining to see the mountains loom in the distance. That shut me up for about an hour after we crossed the Colorado border; they finally sprang into view near Keenesburg. In the midday sun they lacked all depth and definition and looked to me like painted stage flats.

We didn’t take possession of the house that night. Instead, we put up at a motel, staying on the second floor. After eating and getting ready for bed, I was told by my father to look outside.

Out there in the evening was a huge ribbon of movie floating in the darkness. A distant roar and rustle of echoing soundtrack trailed the images on a slight delay. A man was flipped up into a wall inside a Murphy bed and riddled with machine-gun bullets. I had just walked into the opening of the fifth Sean Connery James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.”

I was flabbergasted. I was absorbed by Maurice Binder’s patented stylized title sequence. I saw them bury Bond at sea. His bandage-swathed corpse sank to the bottom. But wait! Here came some scuba divers!

Of course, my parents continued their long tradition of showing me something fascinating and then telling me to go to bed. They had to pry my clutching fingers from the balcony railing and drag me inside, whining.

It took about five years until I could actually see the whole film and finally satisfy my curiosity. (Spoiler alert: Bond doesn’t die . . . I had worried.) The exuberance of Roald Dahl’s extremely free adaptation of Ian Fleming’s source novel is grandly scaled, full of plot holes and non sequiturs. The film opens with kidnapping and murder in outer space, then kills Bond and resurrects him. THEN shoots him out of a torpedo tube.

This film sports the best incarnation of Bond villain Blofeld as well, the inimitable Donald Pleasence. With his blank stare and quietly creepy sense of menace, it’s a performance that seems now to be predestined for parody (Mike Meyers’ Dr. Evil). It’s not often you get to write or recite lines such as, “The firing power inside my crater is enough to annihilate a small army,” and the mishmash of enormous filming stage, miniatures, and just-flat-bad rocket animations pushes “You Only Live Twice” into the state of fever dream.

The male fantasies of power find their perfect distillation in Connery’s Bond, a great, hairy Scotsman who happens to be a genius at killing people and destroying things. Charming without being pleasant, his Bond is a superman sans cape, he beds everything he meets with a reflexive carnivorousness. And his associates keep herds of women around – even good-guy “Tiger” Tanaka grandly states, “I will share all my possessions with you,” as a cross-fade brings up a serving line of bikinied Japanese women at his home, ready to service whoever their boss brings home, evidently.

We were being indoctrinated, but it didn’t quite take. The American New Wave was a year from arriving, and the cascade of changes in film, and the social revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s, would shatter the suppositions that came before . . . to a degree. Bond films still make money, and Bond’s descendants populate almost every action movie made.

In retrospect, “You Only Live Twice” is for me the last unambiguously self-assured Bond film -- the last before Connery’s hiatus of discontent, and the imposition of a wife on the next Bond, George Lazenby, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” When Connery returned in “Diamonds Are Forever,” the fun seemed gone, the sexist platitudes stale and anachronistic. The series began to comment on itself, a gamy, joking self-awareness that would expand during Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond. Only after much struggle during the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan years would the Daniel Craig reboot restore a thuggish complexity to Bond’s character.

Meanwhile, the drive-in wouldn’t become a focal point of my film-watching career again until we got driver’s licenses and used them as places of refuge for forbidden behavior. We’ll get to that in a few more chapters.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Alan Arkin's 'An Improvised Life'

 An Improvised Life
Alan Arkin
Da Capo Press, 2011

This is not a critical review. This is not analysis. It’s excessive gushing followed by extensive quoting. Hope that works for you.

I’ve idolized Alan Arkin all my life. First, he made me laugh until I hurt in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!” Then he scared the crap out of me in “Wait Until Dark.” Then he made me cry in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Then he did all three in “Little Murders.” And on it’s gone, to my delight, for decades since.

When I found out he got started, along with many of my other performing heroes, in improv, I was determined to do the same. I spent 15 years on stage making things up, and loved it. Except for that time I got a concussion. Or the time I ate the cigarettes. Or when I challenged 150 people to a fistfight. Those are other stories for other days.

So, when I saw his memoir on the shelf, I grabbed it. I can happily say that it’s one of the most readable reminiscences I’ve encountered in a long time – especially because it’s not really that. I’ll explain.

Most autobios retail anecdotes – I did this, then I did that, I slept with her, him, them, I got this award, that honor, I was great. Arkin serves his readers by focusing specifically on the art of improvisation and its transformative power. Reading “An Improvised Life” is a rewarding experience for those who know the craft, those who are curious, and those who became, like me, burned out and dead-ended in the discipline. Arkin’s book will remind the latter why this calling is so intoxicating, fruitful and worth the struggle.

Arkin wisely provides us with just enough of his life story to set the stage for his thoughts on performance. Indeed, watching the writer get out of his own way is in itself a treat. His professional ups and downs, marriages, and relationships with his offspring are subordinate to his discussion of the use of the form to promote self-understanding and growth. He is more interested in being a genuinely good person than a star.

He sees performance as a revelatory (but not self-indulgent) process, instead of as an act of commodification. He writes:

“We live in a culture where everything is selling. I watch TV and I don’t see events, I see people selling me events. The newscasters are not reporting the news, they are dramatizing it, selling it, selling themselves as good reporters. They’re making the news “interesting” . . . actors are selling products they have no feeling for; the political forums are all jazzed up and contain endless faked fights . . . We’re so imbued with the onslaught of selling, selling ,selling – products and personalities – so bombarded with hype and false excitement that I think we forget what a real experience feels like . . . we begin to believe that since we are expected to have an experience that we are actually having one.”

I’ve often referred to this as “the Broadway experience.” If you shell out big bucks for a concert, play, movie or activity, it’s very difficult to admit disappointment or even dislike. Along with the rest of the audience, you are on your feet at the end, applauding. Why? Well, because you feel like a dupe if you don’t. Early in my career as a critic, I was often unduly harsh in reaction to the complacency I perceived. (Needless to say, my snarky comments didn’t bring the revolution.)

Arkin, like me, is a big fan of Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” and advocates throwing away stale behaviors and perceptions onstage and off, getting fresh eyes. The second half of Arkin’s book deals almost exclusively with his work directing improvisational seminars, and it’s his demand that people stop looking for the punch line, to STOP ACTING, that I find so exciting.

The roots of improvisation are spontaneously play; when harnessed to the exigencies of appearing on a comedy stage, they turn into predictable setups. The standup comic traditionally likes to get a laugh in his or her routine with a frequency of between 15 and 20 seconds. That need caused me and others, countless times, to cut to the gag in an improvised instead of trying a more difficult, less payoff-certain path. Eventually, improv games became routinized, from development to payoff to blackout line. I was bored out of my skull, but didn’t have the wit or ability to push against the compulsion.

Arkin reduces the onstage impulse to intention and the emotional context stemming from same. He reframes the motivating spring between people onstage from “conflict” to “objective,” sidestepping the often fatal flaw of creating opposition in a scene gratuitously. He sees his function in leading a workshop as, one, providing support and a lack of judgment and two, “to help people get out of their heads. Their clever place.” He describes the results as “deeper, more spontaneous and more connected.” I believe it.

Making room for honest feeling and reaction allows players to invest the work with meaning. They don’t have to “buy into” anything, because they are being real, even in a willfully imagined context.

Arkin’s later workshops seem to involve people from all walks of life, not dedicated performers. As someone who has done many of these seminars, and who always felt guilty about taking money for them, I wondered frequently if people really got anything out of the experience, took something home with them that they could use in their “real” lives.

Arkin provides an answer: “If something is to come out of the experience it will come out of devotion to what is taking place right now. I believe this fervently, both in life and in a workshop: that if this present moment is lived whole-heartedly and meticulously, the future will take care of itself.”

That’s quite a punch to the gut, especially for someone as approval- and accomplishment-oriented as I still am. What? I don’t have to prove anything? I can just be? How does that work?

“In the final analysis, it’s all improvisation,” Arkin concludes. “We’re all tap dancing on a rubber raft. We like to think otherwise, so we plan our lives, we plot, we figure, we find careers that will guarantee us early retirement, we look for relationships that are permanent, we fill out forms, we do scientific experiments, we write rules – all in an attempt to solidify, concretize and control this universe of ours that refuses to be pigeon-holed, to be understood, pinned down, categorize, or even named . . . It’s all the nagging, the complaining, the plotting, the fears, the endless need to keep the universe in all its majestic chaos at bay – that with a little more thought and effort we can figure it all out, control it all, the universe, our destiny. This is what kills us, robs us of our spontaneity, our ability to improvise . . . “

Inspiring is an overused term, but appropriate in this case. For those who want to reach a place of authenticity and immediacy, the outline is right here. “An Improvised Life” asserts that there is a significant spiritual dimension to life, and that process trumps both end and means. It redeems much for me. Thanks, Mr. Arkin. Thank you very much!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Filmed in Colorado

Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann's 1953 "The Naked Spur," whose key scenes were shot near Durango.
This story originally appeared in 5280 magazine in 2009 and hasn't been updated since then. The "Hollywood, Colorado" exhibit organized by the Boulder History Museum in 2012 is a vastly more comprehensive and up-to-date history. Here's a Westword blog post about it.

If you're from Denver, and you're willing to take a chance on the soon-to-be-released Eddie Murphy comedy, "Imagine That," you'll see a lot of familiar territory. If you were at the premiere of "Catch and Release," the 2006 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner, you'll remember Boulder residents cheering themselves as they appeared on the screen as extras, drowning out the principals' dialouge.

Jog your memory of recent films you’ve seen, either in the theater or on the tube. “About Schmidt”? “Nurse Betty”? “The Laramie Project”? “Bowling for Columbine”? If you’ve seen them, you’ve seen Colorado.

From the medium’s beginnings to the present day, Colorado can be seen in the cinema’s parade of images again and again. As backdrop, production base, and breeding ground, it has figured more prominently in film history than a casual observer might suspect. Since silent days, Colorado-based films and filmmakers have covered territory from classic Westerns to cutting-edge documentaries. They include work honored with Oscars and with places in the National Film Registry. These films are as varied as a musical about cannibal Alferd Packer and the seminal work of pioneering experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage.

It all began with the frenzy of film production that followed the first public projection of inventor Thomas Edison’s movies in New York City on April 3, 1896. Edison sent out photographers across the country from his plant in West Orange, New Jersey to record snippets of reality in fifty-foot, thirty-second snatches of film. These “actuality” films recorded persons, places, and events of interest to audiences of the day. Viewers were entranced early viewers with titles such as “Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower,” “Annie Oakley,” and even the vaudeville oddity “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.”

In this pursuit, in 1897 the head of the Edison Company’s Kinetograph Department, James H. White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden shot the first extant footage of Colorado, in sequences such as “Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys,” and the kinetic “Denver Fire Brigade,” in which horse-drawn engines, careening and chuffing smoke, dart obliquely toward and past the camera as an excited throng crowds both sides of a downtown Denver street.

Meanwhile, one of Edison’s rivals, a former stage magician and theatrical impresario from Chicago named William Selig, chose Colorado as a film site because of its mild climate and many days of sunshine, and the excellent quality of the light (essential in the age of primitive equipment and film stock). In addition, Selig’s film company, Selig-Polyscope, was among a host of competitors who pirated the Edison patents that were vital to filmmaking. In an effort to maintain his monopoly, Edison sued his rivals and enjoined them from making movies.

All this did was force them west, away from the powers of the court. Selig recruited pioneer Denver still photographer H. H. “Buck” Buckwalter as his cameraman. By 1902, Buckwalter had begun his work for Selig on dozens of short films. He took footage of local sights -- “Arrival on Summit of Pike’s Peak,” “Runaway Stage Coach,” and “Panorama of Denver from Balloon at Elitch’s.” In a promotional stunt, Buckwalter advertised the mild climate by filming Denverites strolling 17th Street in their shirtsleeves one January day in 1905 (after unexpected snow canceled a couple of earlier tries). “Denver in Winter” may rank as one of history’s first filmed commercials.

Hot on the heels of the smash success of the first Western, pioneering Edison director Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 “The Great Train Robbery,” Buckwalter photographed Colorado’s first narrative film, a tale of violence and mob retribution -- “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek”. The true Western hadn’t arrived out West yet, however. A man would shortly be arriving from Chicago who would change all that -- the creator of the cowboy hero, “Bronco Billy” Anderson.

Actor/writer/director/producer George M. Anderson was born with the decidedly un-Western moniker of Max Aronson in 1883. Changing his name early in his acting career to avoid anti-Semitic hindrances, he eventually joined Edison’s film company, playing three different roles in Porter’s “Robbery” (he’s the one falling off his horse in the chase scene). He continued to learn all he could about the film business, acting and directing for the Edison Company and the Vitagraph Company.

In 1907, the ambitious Anderson went to Selig and convinced him to lend him funds and Selig’s Denver filming crew in order to make authentic Westerns on location, working in the Golden/Morrison area. Displeased with the results, he split with Selig and formed Essanay Studios with George K. Spoor, proprietor of the National Film Renting Company in Chicago. Anderson returned to Denver in the fall of 1909 with money, equipment, and a small company of actors. Here the inventive, resourceful Anderson began rehearsing the ideas and techniques that would culminate in the wildly popular adventures of Bronco Billy.

For the first time, a moviemaker was telling stories of the West in the real West, a place still largely untouched by civilization. There was no need to costume the cowhands who rode and playacted for the camera -- the stories were silly, but the details were documentary. Anderson worked hurriedly, cranking out five films a week (in the next seven years, he would complete nearly 400).

The character he was developing in films shot in the Golden/Morrison area, like “Ranchman’s Rival” and “On the Warpath,” and was to christen “Bronco Billy” a year later, is that of a lively, violent, bluff and hearty good/bad cowpoke. Anderson discovered that establishing a central character with whom the audience could identify in film after film was vital to success, and these recurring appearances became a huge box office draw. Anderson’s persistence and entrepreneurial savvy paid off. With the aid of authentic experience in Colorado, the first Western star was born.

Anderson recruited extras and bit players from the cowboys whose ranches he filmed at, and in doing so sparked the career of Colorado’s only movie cowboy hero -- Pete Morrison.

Pete and his brothers Chick, Carl, and Bob were grandsons of the town of Morrison’s eponymous founder, George. They were called on to wrangle the Anderson’s rented stock, and were all eventually pressed into service in front of the camera. The Denver Post described the outfit’s activities during the making of “The Heart of a Cowboy” in 1909: “G.M. Anderson ... has been in Denver for six weeks, ‘making pictures’ ... ’Colorado is the finest place in the country for Wild West stuff’ (stated Anderson) ... the company reached Mt. Morrison at 9, where the train was met by a bunch of trained cow ponies and riders under the command of the Morrison brothers themselves.” Pete, Chick, and Carl took to the lucrative pay and the excitement of slapping pictures together.

Anderson ultimately moved his base out to Southern California, where the preponderance of film production was taking place. A few years later, the Morrison boys migrated to Los Angeles together to make careers of movie work. Chick would eventually move behind the camera to become one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded horse trainers, until he was tragically killed by an Arabian stallion he was taming in 1924. Pete caught on as a leading man and appeared in 204 silent Westerns for Universal between 1918 and 1926, only 3 of which survive today. Although his star had faded to the extent that he was reduced to driving mule trains in another film hero’s first Western and first starring role, “The Big Trail” (1930), he was to a have a lasting impact on that young actor’s career. Marion Morrison, concerned that people would confuse him with the popular Pete, changed his name -- to John Wayne.

Another great Western star served his apprenticeship in Colorado. Tom Mix, silent film’s “King of the Cowboys,” was a drifter who had turned his hand to just about every kind of job the West offered when he hooked up with Selig-Polyscope in 1910. A year later, he was part of a band of filmmakers that set up camp August 3, 1911, above Central City. Two weeks later, the Gilpin County Observer reported, “Central City was treated to a sensation today. A group of masked outlaws held up a bank on Main Street in broad day light and carried away with them a sackful of money. But not in dead earnest. The bank was a fake and the bold, bad men were actors of the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, who have made our city their temporary headquarters.” After churning out five films in three weeks, the company moved to Canon City. The locals were ecstatic to find glamorous movie folk in their midst, and welcomed the earnings from stock rental and pay as extras (children, $1.00 per day, adults $5.00). The Canon City Record proudly exclaimed, “There is some thought that Canon City may become the movie capital of the country.”

The Selig-Polyscope Company, with Mix, spent two summers in Canon City, renting out headquarters there in a two-story office building at 314 Main Street. The cast and crew made films like “Told in Colorado” and “Why the Sheriff Is a Bachelor,” and joined in the life of the town, attending church and putting on free shows for the inmates at the State Prison. The men whooped it up in the local saloons at night, one anecdote recalling Mix’s penchant for shooting lemons perched in empty shot glasses off the bar in nearby Hell’s Half Acre.

Here Mix began to form his flashy, stunt-oriented, broadly humorous style. Colorado became one of Mix’s favorite places, and he returned often after achieving stardom a few years later in California. In 1926, he filmed “The Great K & A Robbery” in Glenwood Springs, a film memorable for a stunt in which Mix slides down a cable from the top of Glenwood Canyon straight to the bottom, into the saddle of his wonder horse, Tony.

The Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed in 1913 by investors in Denver and Canon City. Production began in 1914, the company taking over Selig-Polyscope’s vacated headquarters in Canon City. The venture was doomed to be cut short by tragedy. On July 1, 1914, the last day of principal photography for “Across the Border,” leading lady Grace McHugh was crossing the Arkansas River when her horse shied and threw her, and she was swept away by the strong current. Cameraman Owen Carter leapt into the river and, grabbing her, struggled to the river’s bank. They almost made it. Both were caught again in the swift current, carried downstream, and drowned. Carter’s body was found a week later; McHugh’s, a week after that. Her family sued, and the judgment bankrupted the fledging company. With rare exceptions, it would be over 30 years before Hollywood visited Colorado again.

Historian Larry Jensen states that “Hollywood didn’t venture into the mountains of Colorado until after highways were improved in the late 1940’s.” These postwar improvements aided companies looking for Technicolor scenery and sweeping stories that would lure viewers away from their televisions. The jailbreak thriller “Canon City” broke the ice with location filming at the State Penitentiary in 1948. It inspired a young local photographer named Karol Smith to promote Colorado in Hollywood, and to eventually form what was to become the first state-legislated film commission in 1969.

In 1949, director Raoul Walsh filmed “Colorado Territory” in the San Juan Mountains, utilizing the old Silverton-to-Durango narrow gauge railroad for some scenes. In the next 15 years, over two dozen movies used the line and the surrounding area as a backdrop for Westerns, epics, and adventure tales such as “How the West Was Won,” “Viva Zapata!,” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Legendary American director John Ford added Colorado to his palette of Western locales for “The Searchers” and “Cheyenne Autumn.” The San Juans stood in for Leadville in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” -- Debbie Reynolds was so enchanted by the location that she settled her mother there shortly afterwards.

Gradually, filming spread across the state. In 1957, a standing Western set near Canon City named Buckskin Joe was constructed, and is still in use today. Much of “True Grit” was filmed in Ridgway in the southwest corner of the state, and some of the film’s additions to the town’s architecture still stand in place. John Wayne spent some time in local saloons; his Stetson hung for years in a hallowed place behind the bar of the Outlaw Restaurant on Ouray’s Main Street. Meanwhile, Colorado began to be seen as a setting for more than just Westerns. All kinds of movies shot some or all footage here, from the heavy drama of films such as “Scarecrow” and “Badlands” to the buffooneries of “Every Which Way But Loose” (those nostalgic for Sid King’s East Colfax strip club are advised to take a peek) and the National Lampoon “Vacation” series.

At the same time, Colorado blossomed as both a setting and home for documentaries and documentarists. David and Albert Maysles tracked the creation of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s monumental but short-lived environmental art piece that filled Rifle Gap in August, 1973, in their “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” Master documentarist Frederick Wiseman filmed “Meat,” his examination of the processing of animals into food products, in the stockyards and processing plants of Greeley. (Wiseman returned to Colorado in 1991 to film a portrait of “Aspen.”) Chris Beaver’s 1983 “Dark Circle” ruthlessly exposed the traumas inflicted on employees and neighbors of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. And in 1998, Coloradans Donna Dewey and Carol Pasternak took home an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject for their portrait of a deformed Vietnamese boy and his life-changing surgery in “A Story of Healing.”

Boulder served as home, workplace, and inspiration for experimental (“...called ‘experiment’ by those who don’t understand it”) filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who traveled the world as an honored theorist, lecturer and artist. After years of travel, contact with the avant-garde, a stint of commercial film work, and even a brief episode running a theater in Central City, he came to reject commercial cinema.
“There is virtually no art of the film to be found in any formalized motion picture producing system I know of and probably never will be, “ he stated in his document “Metaphors on Vision.” His 1964 epic vision “Dog Star Man,” made in and around Boulder on a shoestring budget, has been placed in the National Film Registry. In it and other early works, Brakhage postulates the camera/eye as first-person protagonist in a “lyrical cinema” that reflects his unique sensibilities. He returned to Boulder in the late ‘80s, where he served as Distinguished Professor at CU’s Department of Film Studies. (Two of Brakhage’s erstwhile students were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who set their hit series in the mythical Colorado mountain town of “South Park.”)

The past twenty years featured sporadic bursts of industry growth in the state. Viacom’s choice of Denver for the production of its series of Perry Mason TV films (1985-1993) pumped millions into the local economy and involved a number of local talents, and has subsequently attracted similar outside film and television projects. Warren Miller Films, pioneer makers of snowsport films since 1947, relocated to Boulder from California in 1993 and, under the ownership of Miller’s son Kurt and Peter Speek, has stepped up and diversified its cinematic efforts.

Recent films that use the mountains and plains have ranged from determined independents such as documentarians the Beeck sisters (“Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed,” “Free Boulder”) and CU’s Jerry Aronson (“The Life and Times of Allan Ginsberg”) through the bizarre and seedy noir of “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead”) to unabashed schlock such as “The Dragon and the Hawk,” “Destroyer,” “Brain Creature,” “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend,” “Atomic Train,” “Visions,” and the twin JonBenet Ramsey murder TV treatments -- “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town” and “Getting Away with Murder.”

The state will continue to host filmmakers and those who love them. Who knows? You might find me handling a clapboard slate up in the mountains this summer myself.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Canon fire: the passions of Pauline Kael

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael
Edited by Sanford Schwartz
828 pgs., Library of America

Pauline Kael makes me so mad. Yes, in the present tense. The brilliant, renegade film critic still pisses me off, 20 years after she stopped writing and 10 years after death. I grew up reading her, frequently flinging my copy of The New Yorker across the room . . . then retrieving it and pressing on, teeth grinding. The Library of America’s refreshing compendium of her work, “The Age of Movies,” brings all that back to me, but it also makes me realize what a great writer she was and how strongly she influenced my own film criticism.

She’s just so damn sure of herself. She hates “West Side Story,” “A Clockwork Orange,” Dirty Harry films, “Network.” She loves Brian DePalma? Hates Cassavetes? You see what I mean. She was mean – a compulsive iconoclast, snob, loner, egomaniac, infighter. For the first two decades of her writing career, she dined on dissatisfaction. She was compulsive – adding up the bulk of her 13 books -- most with blithely suggestive titles such as "I Lost It at the Movies" -- reveals a total of 6,791 pages. That “Age of Movies” editor Sanford Schwartz was able to make his way through this torrent of words and pare them down to an essential and readable 10 percent of the total puts him in my mind in line for sainthood.

The first piece in the collection, “Movies, the Desperate Art,” sets the tone for everything that follows. She is whip-smart, fully articulate, like an angry newborn looking to punch out the obstetrician. “The film critic in the United States is in a curious position: the greater his interest in the film medium, the more enraged and negative he is likely to sound.” She also seems to blithely excoriate her own approach, later in the same paragraph: “A few writers . . . have taken a rather fancy way out: they turn films into Rorschach tests . . . The deficiency of this technique is that the writers reveal a great deal about themselves but very little about films.”

She contradicts herself constantly throughout her career. She calls Brando’s career dead, then hails his resurrection in “Last Tango in Paris.” She loves Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” then stomps him to death in her review of “Raging Bull.” When she loves a film or filmmaker, she waxes embarrassingly rhapsodic. She was perhaps the greatest put-down artist in history of criticism, and seemed to enjoy every second of it. She was Joan of Arc with a typewriter.

But these mad capers were always intelligent, entertaining, compelling, and in the service of the higher good, as she defined it. “In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising,” she wrote. She was right.

She let genius in. Many of the movies we now consider to be the highlights of the American New Wave (from “Bonnie and Clyde” until “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” basically) – works by Altman, Coppola, Scorsese and the like – were not as well-recognized at the time as we seem to remember now. Kael was there to praise them and lead us through them, and her articulate analysis (minus the hosannas) really made their virtues concrete for us. Here and there, she made us see with her eyes, and she had glorious visions of what movies could be when they were honest, efficient and rich in content.

In the end, she was right about much more than she wasn’t. She yearned to be ahead of the game, able to foresee the future, to be the smartest person in the room. She frequently was all three at once. It’s surprising, too, how sustained the quality of her writing is, despite its volume (volume both in terms of length and tone). She tosses off aphorisms and bon mots by the thousands, like sparks from a steel mill.

And no one is safe. To understand her real achievement, you must look back at what film criticism was before she came along. With the exception of thoughtful, stylish analysts such as James Agee and Manny Farber, most film critics were for decades really just publicists in disguise, a state of things we have reverted back to in our times. Those who weren’t were vilified as moralistic curmudgeons.

Bosley Crowther and Dwight Macdonald were anathemized as such by Kael, Andrew Sarris and Richard Schickel when they grew to prominence in the 1960s, although each of these men had championed significant and innovative films in their time. The angry young critics themselves split apart, particularly over Sarris’ adoption and promotion of Francois Truffaut theory of auteurism, the claim that directors exercise a creative control over any sequence of films they helm.

Kael would not subscribe to any critical theory or method of classification. She responded with her gut, claiming never to see a film more than once and then rendering its salient points in stupefying detail. (This could be so; I have the uncanny ability to remember almost every movie, play or work of art I’ve seen, and every bit of music I’ve ever heard – meanwhile, my children must still wear nametags at home.) She was constantly, obsessively watching film and adding each to her stockpile of knowledge and experience, weaving ever-more intricate meditations out of each screening.

This for me is where she really becomes heroic. She does not write as a woman, or disguise or mute her keen cross-disciplinary knowledge. Unlike the gentlemanly reviewers of the past, or the scholarly or programmatic critics of her time (Molly Haskell is a feminist film critic; Kael is a critic plain and simple and if you don’t like then to hell with you), Kael commits completely to her impressions – she follows her chains of thought to their remorseless ends – she is all in, all the time, fully present, unafraid of being wrong, unable to admit to ever being wrong, because she isn’t ever wrong – her thinking and prose evolves just as she does. She has the integrity of the lone cinematic cowpoke who follows his own cryptic code of honor.
 She hates artistic pretense and loves enthusiastic crap. She is ready to throw aside any statement of faith she has ever made in honor of a new, vital film experience. This is a liberation unlike any other. Most criticism seeks to contain, define; her writing is always exploding, blowing outward. At her most narrow-minded, she inspired me to respond, first mentally and then with my own writing.

Was she a bitch? Was she trailed everywhere by a band of acolytes? Did she trade favors for influence? Who cares, really. I have read a few of the other reviews of this work that have come along; some seem to want to nail her down and others want to nail her to the wall. In that way, not much changes in the back-biting world of journalism and criticism . . . at least, in the tattered remnants of those two professions. What she has to say endures, and that’s the only thing that matters now.

After Kael, critics could not write in a rote manner and expect to be taken seriously. She gave us permission to ramble, a bit, examine things from a multitude of perspectives, to have the balls to be enthusiastically wrong, to bring all of ourselves to whatever we wrote. What a wonderful gift. (Plus, she loved movies like “The Killer Elite,” “Used Cars” and “Melvin and Howard,” which makes me feel pretty pleased with myself, I must say.)

Now that I’ve made my way through “The Age of Movies,” I feel invigorated. And traumatized. I’ll have to read it again, in 20 years or so. Thanks, Pauline.