Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The NFR Project #11: 'Life of an American Fireman'

Life of an American Fireman
Dir: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming (both uncred.)
Prod: Edwin S. Porter (uncred.)
Scr: Edwin S. Porter (uncred.)
Phot: Edwin S. Porter (uncred.)
Premiere: January, 1903

The first original narrative film in America . . . was plagiarized, of course. Nonetheless, it serves as the starting point for the generation of ideas that would lead to full-length stories on film.

Edwin S. Porter is best known as the director of The Great Train Robbery, but he filmed Fireman before it. It’s a rip-off of, or “tribute” to, English filmmaker James Williamson’s Fire! Of 1901. Plagiarism ran rampant in the film industry of the time (as it still does), as pioneers searched for stories and formulas that would make money.

In this case, what could be a better choice for a visual medium than the excitement of a fire, and easier to film? Amateur and professional firefighting companies were prominent sources of civic pride at the time. The heroics of firemen made them larger-than-life figures, and their aggressive, macho ways created a “Bowery b’hoy” subculture that dominated the rough-and-tumble New York City of the early 19th century. In theaters, a series of plays about the rough but sentimental Mose the Fireman drew consistent crowds of rowdies, such that theatre was considered suitable only for men for decades in the city.

So, firemen were ready-made heroes, and the charging teams of horses pulling pumps and hoses to the scene were perfect for the camera. Porter freely mixes staged, “narrative” shots and outdoor, “documentary” shots, bestowing verisimilitude to the stagey scenes and giving the “actuality” footage context and narrative heft.

The opening scene is a trick, split-screen shot. We “read” the shot from left to right, as a fireman in a firehouse sits and indicates he is “thinking,” as the vision of a mother and child going to bed fade in and out on the right. Is the fireman thinking of his own family? Is this a premonition? Foreshadowing?

We fade immediately into the picture of a fire call box. (Porter uses dissolves, not sharp cuts.) Someone rings it, we never see who. We are treated to very functional, straightforward scenes of firemen suiting up, sliding down the firehouse pole, harnessing their teams. A long, continuous shot shows an array of fire equipment coming at a slant past the camera, from right rear to left front, an old Lumiere trick that emphasizes the speed and changing size of the approaching vehicles.

The fire and rescue and then shot twice, once from the interior perspective and one from the exterior, the actions matching as closely as possible. What’s so frustrating here is that all the elements are in place for parallel editing — the cutting back and forth from different perspectives to create a narrative. In fact, for many years scholars thought Porter had invented that with this film, as someone later took the footage and cut it together in precisely that way. It took an examination of the film’s paper prints in the Library of Congress to dispel that myth.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: D.W. Griffith invents the gangster film in ‘The Musketeers of Pig Alley.’

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The NFR Project #38: 'In the Land of the Head Hunters'

In the Land of the Head Hunters
AKA In the Land of the War Canoes
Dir: Edward S. Curtis
Prod: N/A
Scr: Edward S. Curtis
Phot: Edmund August Schwinke
Premiere: Dec. 7, 1914
65 min.

Edward S. Curtis ran a race to document and preserve Native American life before it vanished. The self-taught, profoundly gifted portrait photographer won prizes wandered into an association with scientists who hired him to document their expeditions. This opportunity led to his nomination by industrialist/philanthropist J.P. Morgan to produce a massive study, The North American Indian, which appeared in 20 volumes between 1907 and 1930.

Although he employed numerous assistants to collect, interpret, and record data, Curtis himself recorded more than 10,000 wax cylinders of Native American speech and music, and took more than 40,000 photographs of his subjects. His efforts bankrupted him, caused his divorce, alienated him from his family, and led to his selling off his work at rock-bottom prices.

A self-educated ethnologist of the highest degree, he proved again and again incapable of monetizing it. While studying the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia, he got the idea of creating a feature film, interweaving documentary-style recreations of tribal culture with . . . a romantic plot. The result is In the Land of the Head Hunters.

The idea of combining “genuine” footage of aboriginal people with a concocted plot was common at the time, used previously in films such as White Fawn’s Devotion and Hiawatha, and more were on their way. These early docudramas were compromises between the desire to capture authentic images and the fear that a narrative was needed to keep audience engaged with the movie. The results were mixed – films like Nanook of the North and Chang were praised, most others were mish-moshes of plots lifted from European romance and fairy tale. All these films were marinated in sentimental regret, ironic mourning for the cultures that technology was destroying.

Curtis was different. He didn’t condescend to his subjects, and his portraits of them – some of the best portrait photography of all time – clearly communicated his respect for them. The imposed love triangle plot in Head Hunters is clumsy, but it chains together the non-narrative patches adequately.

Again, Curtis was wrong about the money end of things. He spent $20,000 to produce the film; it only made $3,269.18 on its initial release. The film was lost for decades, until a single damaged print was fished out of a dumpster and donated to Chicago’s Field Museum. A reconstruction took shape in 2008. What remains to be seen are 40 intermittently fascinating minutes. The melodramatic, fictional parts are tiresome but the depiction of beautiful, intriguing rituals, dances, clothing, ceremonial architecture and more (all forbidden by the Canadian government as part of their assimilation plans for their indigenous citizens, and so trotted out happily by the participants) are fascinating in and of themselves.

An unintended but most vital side effect of efforts such as Head Hunters has led to the recovery of some tribal language and culture by the descendants of the subjects of study.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Mabel’s Blunder.’

National Film Registry Project update: the new batch

Every year around this time, the Library of Congress announces 25 new selections to join its roster of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" films on the National Film Registry. The total number of films on that list now stands at 700. I am on entry number 31 in my attempt to see and discuss all the films on that roster in chronological order.

Are we downhearted?

No, actually. Nor am I daunted by Daniel Egan's excellent 2009 reference America's Film Legacy, which covers the same ground and which I discovered to my temporary dismay after I started the project in 2011.

I decided to press on, as I found that there was room for more than one voice on the subject, and mine is much more informal, irreverent, and opinionated (and uneducated). In short, I am still having a ball, learning as I go, and enjoying sharing what I find out with you. I hope you are enjoying it, too, and that this can be slapped into a more permanent form someday.

Meanwhile, here's a link to an excellent writeup in Deadline about the new entries. In effort to keep the chronology straight, after today's pending installment (Edward S. Curtis' 1914 In the Land of the Head Hunters), I will backtrack and treat two new additions to the roster that predate it -- Edwin S. Porter's 1903 Life of an American Fireman and D.W. Griffith's pioneering gangster film, 1912's The Musketeers of Pig Alley.

So, on we go . . . send questions, suggestions, and whatever money you have laying about. You may also want to track my parallel series on the National Recording Registry, which can be found at my site. Thank you!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Kirk Douglas – the movies you need to see

I say better a tribute now than a eulogy later. Kirk Douglas is 100 years old on Dec. 9. Happy birthday, sir! Plus I just found out he goes to a Conservative shul, so we have literally been on the same page for years. Nice to know.

You always know what you’re getting when Kirk Douglas acts. Intense is an understatement. He is so very strong and direct, and was for years was the cinematic go-to guy for anguished, angry parts. A kid from the slums, he hustled all his life and it shows. His need to be watched, to be heard, is a need for validation, and he employs charm, ruthlessness, and energy to get it. He was never afraid to play a heel, and most of his great roles are tragic ones -- a dark edge for a leading man that prefigured the alienated film antiheroes of the 1960s. In his quiet moments onscreen, he lets the vulnerability show through. The tension between the active and resting states of being Kirk Douglas give him texture and depth in performance.

Of course, he’s easy to parody. A lot of people don’t like his work, calling it over-the-top and one-note. But hey, at his worst he holds your attention -- and from the 1970s on, he is primary reason to watch most of the poor film vehicles he’s in. And he could surprise you. Hell, the first thing I saw him in was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which he SANG!? For years after, when I saw him in a movie, I always wondered, “Why don’t they let him sing?” (And he could poke fun at himself -- check out his SNL sketch “What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?” sometime.)

So, anyway, here's a dozen of my favorite Kirk Douglas films.

Out of the Past/Dir: Jacques Tourneur/1947

Champion/Dir: Mark Robson/1949

Young Man with a Horn/Dir: Michael Curtiz/1950

Ace in the Hole/Dir: Billy Wilder/1951

Detective Story/ Dir: William Wyler/1951

The Bad and the Beautiful/ Dir: Vincente Minnelli/1952

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea/ Dir: Richard Fleischer/1954

Lust for Life/ Dir: Minnelli/1956

Paths of Glory/Dir: Stanley Kubrick/1957

Spartacus/Dir: Kubrick/1960

Lonely Are the Brave/Dir: David Miller/1962

The Hook/Dir: George Seaton/1963

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The NFR Project #37: Animation takes off -- 'Gertie the Dinosaur' (1914)

Gertie the Dinosaur
Dir: Winsor McCay
Prod: Winsor McCay
Scr: Winsor McCay
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: Interactive, Feb. 8, 1914; Screen only, after Nov. 1, 1914

Winsor McCay wasn’t the first film animator, but he was the first great one. He moved with ease from illustration to cartooning to moviemaking, setting aesthetic and technical standards all along the way.

He rode the wave of popularity of the first-generation newspaper “funnies,” and his Little Nemo in Slumberland was proto-surreal, a wildly imaginative comic strip that still marks an apex of artistry. His work seemed destined to be adapted for film, despite its patent impossibilities. Edwin S. Porter had directed a live-action adaptation of McCay’s Dreamof a Rarebit Fiend in 1906.

Meanwhile, animated film had commenced in the hands of early practitioners such as J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Cohl. In 1911, McCayproduced some animated footage of his LittleNemo characters and used in conjunction with his vaudeville act – a logical extension of his early “chalk talks,” in which he would sketch and perform live on stage.

Narration had been done with magic-lantern shows for decades before, some with moving parts that prefigured full animation, but McCay was the first to unite separate mediums, making to-dimensional creatures that he could “play” with in person. McCay’s next animated short, How a Mosquito Operates, was derided for trickery, with viewers claiming that McCay traced or manipulated a dummy to achieve his lifelike drawing effect. McCay then determined to animate something next that could not have been photographed.

Enter the dinosaur. Although they had been discussed in popular culture for decades, speculative visuals of them didn’t take off until the turn of the 20th century, as museums began to display their skeletons and artists began to try to imagine what they looked like. The American Museum of Natural History’s “brontosaurus” skeleton, installed in 1905, inspired McCay. He drew 10,000 images to bring Gertie to life for approximately seven minutes.

As with Little Nemo, McCay crafted the Gertie footage as material to be incorporated into his vaudeville act. The simple but charming scene shows us an somewhat anthropomorphized, roly-poly, sassy, childish and playful creature who responds to commands, gets distracted, misbehaves, and finally pulls its creator onto the screen for a ride. The smooth jump between the real and unreal will come back again and again in films from Sherlock Jr. to the Purple Rose of Cairo.

Unfortunately for McCay, he had a contract with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who didn’t like McCay’s theatrical freelancing. Thwarted from performing, McCay shot eight minutes of live framing footage for Gertie, contextualizing the creation of the dinosaur as a bet McCay has with other animators that he can do it (a bit lifted from the earlier Nemo short).

While creating Gertie, McCay coined many foundational animation techniques. He used registration marks to keep the frame stable; he repeated sequences as needed to save labor, a process known as “looping”; and he invented key-framing, in which an animator draws the significant points and poses of action in a sequence, and then “in-betweens” the intervening drawings to bridge those vital points.

The most significant advance here of course is that an animated character is invested with personality. With that, it becomes an entity with which the audience can identify, that can bear the weight of a narrative.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: In the Land of the Head Hunters.’

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The NFR Project #40: 'The Perils of Pauline' (1914)

The Perils of Pauline
Dir: Louis J. Gasnier, Donald MacKenzie
Prod: N/A
Scr: Charles W. Goddard and Basil Dickey
Phot: Arthur C. Miller
Premiere: March 23, 1914
410 min. original; surviving version, 199 min.

The idea of an episodic series is not new. Dickens, Tolstoy, and many other 19th-century writers published serially, building up a literate middle class in the process. When film adapted the idea, the result was nearly 50 years of once-a-week adventures that satisfied a faithful, mostly young public – until television wrested the form away.

The film serial was a byproduct of one of the first examples of transmedia storytelling. Two years before The Perils of Pauline, the first American film serial, What Happened to Mary, was released to theaters in 12 weekly chapters, in sync with the same story being published in The Ladies’ World magazine. The story was performed as stage play as well, and published as a novel.

The serial took time to assume its “cliff-hanger” form. The Adventures of Kathlyn in 1913 first introduced the concept, but it’s not to be found in Pauline. Instead, each episode is self-contained (and therefore interchangeable, a boon to exhibitors). The shooting style in unimaginative, functional – a stark contrast to the much more inventive camera of French filmmaker Feuillade’s Fantomas serial of the previous year.

The spring of the plot is that Pauline is a young heiress whose uncle has died, leaving his conniving secretary in charge. The secretary controls the inheritance until Pauline marries, or if she dies . . . As nice as it would be to see Pauline as a proto-feminist figure, we are a long way from Laura Croft here. Despite Pauline’s spunky and assertive persona, in each episode she is the damsel in distress. She can get herself into trouble, but rarely out of it. The emotional payoff for the audience is, of course, the hook of melodrama – the last-minute rescue, the triumph of virtue. It’s the mechanical tension-and-release component of narrative and game-play, repeated weekly. Addictive.

The series was so popular that it was expanded from 13 episodes to 20 while still in production. Pauline made a star of Pearl White, a spunky comic actress who did her own stunts. She went on to make 11 serials over the course of the next 10 years. When she retired, she had saved $2 million, and spent the rest of her life in Paris.

Other clichés of the serial were in the air, but not in The Perils of Pauline. The heroine tied to the railroad tracks surfaced in1913 in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life; attempting to bisect the hero or heroine in a lumber mill with a big circular saw blade originated in the 1890 stage melodrama Blue Jeans, and crept into many serials.

The version of Pauline that exists is less than half its original length, a nine-reel version salvaged from French archives, saddled with badly translated intertitles. (At least it’s viewable – The Exploits of Elaine, from the same year and also starring White, can  be found on the National Film Registry but not in general circulation.)

An odd sidelight to this film’s story is how it frames the career of Spencer Gordon Bennet. This is Bennett’s first film credit, billed as assistant director and as a miscellaneous performer. A fast and competent worker, he wound up making more serials than any other director (over 100), eventually becoming known in Hollywood as “The Serial King.” He directed the last one, Blazing the Overland Trail¸ in 1956. His tombstone reads: “His Final Chapter.”

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: an early cliffhanger, ‘Gertie the Dinosaur.’

Monday, October 31, 2016

20 modern horror films -- personal faves

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom -- obsession and damage.
Last year, when I wrote a list of old-school horror filmfaves for Westword, I made a note to myself to continue that list, starting at the pivot from the ‘50s into the ‘60s when Peeping Tom and Psycho changed the horror film forever.

If the list looks odd (why In the Mouth of Madness and not Halloween? Where is Psycho and Last House on the Left, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, Re-Animator, Dead Alive, Aliens, Scream, Evil Dead, etc.?), it’s because I restricted it to my personal favorites instead of hitting the points of general consensus and historical significance.

In this I am guided largely by my aversion to gore and hyperviolence onscreen. It is what it is, and I have soldiered manfully through many films even though they turned my stomach because they were brilliant – Dead Ringers and Society come to mind – but it’s not stuff I would run through again if I had the chance. I have little use for giallo, and much of Miike, Argento, Fulci, Roth and the like is lost on me.

A pretty odd dilemma for a horror-film fan, so perhaps these suggestions will help if, like me, you are a confirmed between-finger-peeker. Whether you might term some of these thrillers, or fantasies, or sci-fi, it’s all the same in result. These films scare the beejeesus out of me.

The Incredible Shrinking Man
Dir: Jack Arnold

It all begins here for me – the first first-person monster movie, and in that a major step forward. Typical guy Scott Carey (the underrated Grant Williams) is exposed to some kind of radioactive cloud while out on his boat – and he starts shrinking. He’s our narrator as well, and the story ties the viewer’s empathy squarely to Carey, who becomes a heroic figure even as his ability to register in “our” world vanishes. His final statement of self-affirmation, too, is remarkable.

Horror of Dracula (Dracula)
Dir: Terence Fisher

The first and to date only successful reboot of the Universal monster cycles begins here, in the beautiful Bray Studios of Hammer Films, in London. (The Curse of Frankenstein precedes it, but this film has a lot more resonance to it, doesn’t seem like a forced remake, as Curse sometimes does.) Three of Hammer’s horror stars, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough are here in a Technicolor reimaging of the Count as a rather more suave and commanding figure, with plenty of toothsome young actresses to bite. Soon the studio would churn out dozens of outlandish, scary titles we loved to watch.

Peeping Tom
Dir: Michael Powell

A mind-bending experience, very similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and released just before it. Something was in the air. For my money, Peeping Tom is vastly more frightening. Photographer Mark Lewis likes to take pictures of attractive women – as they watch while he kills them. The multilayered tale was so disturbing that it derailed Powell’s (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) career. The key is that the villain is portrayed as a victim, and the examination between desire and aggression, control and submission, the confused complicities of the audience, and the very nature of “making a picture” as an art form are all put into play here. Still an extremely uncomfortable movie to sit through.

The Innocents
Dir: Jack Clayton

The best adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is a point-of-view tour de force. Is the governess (Deborah Kerr) nuts, or are perverse ghosts infecting her charges’ minds? After watching a dozen times, I still can’t decide. “It was only the wind, my dear.” WAAAH!

The Haunting
Dir: Robert Wise

Another great am-I-losing-it-or-did-I-just-see-something movie. (Robert Wise could make a great film in any genre, and almost did them all.) A psychic investigation goes wrong – a simple premise, but it’s played out with a patient sense of menace, with a rhythm that imperceptibly pulls you into the feelings and mental distortions of the protagonists.

The Masque of the Red Death
Dir: Roger Corman

Corman’s Poe adaptation cycle is wonderful, even given the lack of budget and time spent on them. He and screenwriter Richard Matheson (who also gave us I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and other seminal sci-fi and horror texts) created an exciting, odd, claustrophobic world usually presided over by the inimitable Vincent Price, that transmits the spirit if not the precise sense of Poe’s works. Here, as an out-and-out Satan worshipper, Price is at his most unrepentantly sadistic.

Dir: Masaki Kobayashi

A stylistically vibrant quartet of ghost stories. The horror anthology film originated with Dead of Night in 1945, and studios such as Britain’s Amicus made a ton of money from them – but this is the best. As beautiful as it is terrifying.

Planet of the Vampires
Dir: Mario Bava

Ridiculous, campy fun from the inventive Italian director. The title says it all, and an all-star cast (who reportedly couldn’t understand each other) fight the bloodsuckers in extremely stylized costumes and surroundings that proved influential for films such as Alien.

Dir: John Frankenheimer

What if you could live all over again, young and healthy, with all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained? That’s the Faustian premise of this deadpan piece of paranoia. It’s about the horror of having your dream come true, a particularly American problem.

Don’t Look Now
Dir: Nicolas Roeg
It’s a harrowing film about loss, memory, identity, fate, and communication. Set in a wildly edited world of flashback and flashforwards, a couple grieving the death of their child try to put their lives back together. It’s a heart-rending view, and Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are great in it.

The Wicker Man
Dir: Robin Hardy

The idea that there is an older, more powerful religion underneath the trappings and niceties of current theologies is a constant in fantastic fiction. It’s the vision of it out in the open, relaxed and unashamed of its realities – and necessities – that’s so disturbing here. Everybody on Summerisle is in on what’s happening save for the crusading Sergeant Howie and the audience. That calm progression towards the unthinkable at the film’s end is a soul-crushing experience.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
Dir: Nicolas Gessner

Rynn Jacobs is 13, and lives with her father. But nobody seems to have met him. Is everything all right? In the hands of Jodie Foster, Rynn is just fine – until a snooping neighbor and her pedophile son (an impossibly creepy Martin Sheen) start poking around. This horror classic is also an introvert’s fantasy – everything’s fine, just leave me alone!

The Howling
Dir: Joe Dante

Certainly the jauntiest werewolf movie ever made, it’s witty, chockful of references to all things lycanthropic, rips along at a lovely pace, and includes some of SFX/makeup creator Rob Bottin’s best work, all of it pre-CGI, of course.

The Lair of the White Worm
Dir: Ken Russell

There is a tinge of horror underlying every movie the flamboyant and provocative Russell made, a disconnect with reality that defines all his main characters. In truth his The Devils, a film still largely unfindable in the United States in its original cut, is more disturbing. Still, this Bram Stoker adaptation is blasphemous, ridiculous, gratuitously gory, and very enjoyable.

Lady in White
Dir: Frank LaLoggia

Death and disaster invade Norman Rockwell country, as an old murder comes to light and sympathetic characters are found to have disturbing pasts. This beautifully filmed ghost story is balanced between poles of light and darkness.

In the Mouth of Madness
Dir: John Carpenter

Carpenter’s contributions to horror are limitless, having created the template of the slasher film with Halloween, and gems such as They Live and Escape from New York. His ‘apocalypse trilogy’ of The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and this film created an imaginary universe in which doom was unavoidable, nothing was trustworthy, and meaning drained away into a sinkhole of despair and annihilation. Sounds like a hoot, no? Madness goes furthest in asserting the transience of the veneer of consensual reality, and the fragility of the human mind.

Sleepy Hollow
Dir: Tim Burton

Though Tim Burton is seen as the natural inheritor of the Gothic sensibilities of American cinema, he’s made surprisingly few straight horror films. This comes closest. Though it’s an adaptation of the classic Washington Irving tale, it’s full of Burton’s steampunk sensibilities, and references to other horror greats such as Bava and Fisher. The control of the in-studio shooting makes this one of the best art-directed modern horror films.

Dir: David Cronenberg

Cronenberg has done more for modern horror than anyone on this list. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly . . . and on and on. Centered firmly on body horror, Cronenberg manifests all the cultural dislocations of our time in the bodies of his protagonists, literally pulling them into strange new shapes, obliterating their consciousnesses, submitting them to the will of a brutal new order. Here, he mixes the unreal and real so thoroughly that the film is a nightmare in itself, a deadly locked room from which no one can escape.

Dir: Terry Gilliam

Death and madness are the high points of this jarring exploration of abandonment. A young girl loses her father and mother and, trapped in the middle of nowhere, falls into relationships with more damaged souls. A terrifying, dark poem set in bleached Texas sunlight.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Dir: Guillermo del Toro

The present master of horror has many great movies to his credit, but this is his most magical. It’s a fatalistic fairy tale, and connects to the horrors of everyday life – Spain in 1944 – strongly enough to make its meanings clear. Del Toro’s vision gives palpable heft and believability to his most extreme imaginings – as though he were showing us real species heretofore undescribed.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The NFR Project #35: William S. Hart, cowboy hero -- in 'The Bargain' (1914)

The Bargain
Dir: Reginald Barker
Prod: Thomas Ince
Scr: William H Clifford, Ince
Phot: Robert Newhard, Joe August (uncred)
Premiere: Dec. 3, 1914
70 min.

William S. Hart was the first great cowboy hero of film. Tall, grim, and melancholy, he was a strangely Hamlet-like figure playing a rough, tough protagonist; but it was this mixture of deep feeling and freewheeling action that made his movies interesting, and imprinted him on the public consciousness.

"The Bargain" -- the epic landscape.
This, his third Hollywood venture, is his breakthrough film. Long a respected Broadway actor specializing in Shakespeare (he was the original Messala in the stage adaptation of “Ben-Hur,” real horses and all), Hart thought he’d try his luck in the movies at the age of nearly 50. Hart had traveled in the Old West as a boy, and the way the movies portrayed cowboy life struck him as deeply inauthentic. He thought he could do better, much better. Fortunately, Thomas Ince saw something in him. Both men were right.

The girl, Hart, the father.
Ince was the first great film producer, a massive and tasteful success who conceived of putting all aspects of film production and distribution in one physical location. He did so at the site of an old ranch at Sunset and Pacific Coast Highway, eventually ruling over 18,000 acres in the Pacific Highlands dubbed “Inceville.” The movie studio was born, and Ince lived in a house literally above it all.

Ince’s brilliance served Hart well. Westerns had already proved profitable. The first cowboy star was “Broncho Billy” Anderson – originally Max Aronson from Atlanta. Broncho Billy starred in dozens of popular short films, but he was a figure of convenience. If the scenario dictated that he play Billy as the hero, he would; if it was Billy as the badman, so be it. He had a name but no persona, that set of rules about a character that give it integrity.

Stolid suffering
Hart was different. He had literal stature and his face was classic, with sharp cheekbones, a Roman nose, and a soulful look in his eyes. Here, as in most of his subsequent films, Hart plays the “good bad man,” the outlaw redeemed by suffering, a woman’s love, and/or the word of God. While not blatantly Christian, Hart’s films seem as much moral fables as they do shoot-‘em-ups.

 Here’ Hart is Jim Stokes, the Two-Gun Man, a clever bandit who, wounded on the run from the posse, staggers to the Brent ranch, falling in love with the daughter there (and she him). Fortunately, the traditional donkey-riding eccentric minister shows up, and they are wed. Jim wants to return the money he stoles from his last holdup, and goes to town – where he is promptly captured.

Stumbling through purgatory
Again fortunately, the sheriff loses all the stolen money at the roulette table, and he and Jim make a deal. Jim robs the gambling hall, gives the sheriff back the money, and is set free with his beloved. It’s a simple story, but it works.

Director Reginald Barker was one of Ince’s stable of dependable directors; here, he gives Hart the time he needs to emote during a scene, a very slow kind of take opposite to the convention screen acting of the time, sharp and strong. Hart is melodramatic – there is nearly always a tension in his stance. He keeps his face still, almost a deadpan, and it invests his underplaying with intensity, as though something might suddenly happen. There’s almost a feminine energy in his low-key suffering; at other times he seems like some hypermasculine forest spirit; a vengeful cowboy ghost.

Ince’s good eye for talent includes using two great early cinematographers here, in each of their first films – Robert Newhard and Joe August. August, particularly, is known for his outdoor work and his low-level lighting achievements – tricks he learned out of necessity. There are many beautiful compositions in “The Bargain” – valley views centered on Hart’s roving figure, textured rock walls through which he wanders, and equating his heroic profile with the heroic landscape behind it.

Surprisingly, here’s the earliest 360-degree pan as well. Most think it to be in Buster Keaton’s short “One Week” in 1920, but here a little over 38 minutes in, the Border Rest Saloon and Gambling Hall gets the full once-over, the adventurous cameramen somehow cranking the projector and stepping through a full circle at the same time, while the actors stayed focused on establishing action in the background. It’s a remarkable move for its time. Perhaps the rarity of the film has kept this from being noticed to date.

Hart would make 70 films, most Westerns, through 1925. Joe August shot more than 40 of them. Ince died mysteriously on his yacht in 1924. The Western continued to grow in popularity, but with the rise of Hart, it began to grow in depth and complexity, too.

Hart was the original "strong, silent" type. He worked the paradox of, one one hand, being a manly ideal -- a "man" in Western culture being a heroic one who fights and dares, wins and loses -- and being human, a flawed, feeling person. It's a dynamic that would inform the performances of his cowboy-hero descendants such as Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: an early cliffhanger, ‘The Exploits of Elaine.’

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The NFR Project #34: 'Traffic in Souls' (1913)

Traffic in Souls aka While New York Sleeps
Dir: George Loane Tucker
Prod: Walter MacNamara, (uncred) Jack Cohn
Scr: Tucker, MacNamara
Phot: Henry Alder Leach
Premiere: Nov. 24, 1913
97 min.
Suddenly, in 1913, it seems like the American film industry turns the corner in terms of being able to tell a story. “Traffic in Souls” is crucial in many ways. First, it made Universal Pictures possible, earning the studio $400,000 from a budget of $7,500. It’s the first “sexploitation” film, a torn-from-the-headlines cautionary tale about what was called – white slavery.

What was white slavery? It represents a tradition that Caucasian women are favored sexually by men of other races and must be forced into sexual bondage under them, and has been peddled down the centuries by racists against immigrant populations, especially Jewish, Asian, and Italian men.

The most popular modern form of the stereotype erupted in 1909, when it took the form a nationwide sweep of books and pamphlets condemning the practice. People everywhere imagined sinister networks of “foreign devils” who would kidnap toothsome young maidens, drug them, and prostitute them, keeping them imprisoned in the seamy hellholes of Manhattan. The Mann Act, forbidding the transporting of women across state lines for “immoral purposes,” was generated by this spurious, hysterical concern.

The madam, the pimp, and the little sister 
It’s clearly a projection of male anxiety about “losing” women to male rivals outside the clan (and Klan) group, as well perhaps a wish that one could act with such ruthless, decadent . . . stimulating . . . disregard for the sanctity of womanhood (remember that?) as one thinks those dirty swine were doing. There's also the still-strong distrust of "the big city." America was primarily rural, and the city was thought of as a sinful place, a locale where values were relative and life was cheap.

All this appprehensive energy gets pured into the classic American “based-on-a-true-story” feature film. The premise is taken from the stage melodramas of the 19th century – the guilty are punished, the innocent are redeemed – with the thrilling forbidden hot-topic sexiness thrown in! It revels in the details of the horrible things it is denouncing, then gets to condemn it and give the beat down to all the baddies involved, without showing any skin or sexual activity.

The plot triangulates on three speculative sources of white slaves: girls from the country, immigrants, and dumb clucks. Each type is shut in a cold-water flat bossed by pimps and madams, fed only whippings, drugs, and, evidently, takeout. An example of each is brought to peril in the hands of a covert, complex criminal empire controlled by a criminal mastermind who uses sophisticated technology and masquerades as the head of an ‘International Purity and Reform League.’ It rings oddly like a precursor to Fritz Lang’s 1919-1920 serial adventure film “The Spiders.” (Monopolies had been getting crushed by President Theodore Roosevelt the decade prior – the editorial-cartoon image of the Monopoly as far-reaching Octopus was ripe for transposing to a criminal identification in a film.)

The sanctimonious mastermind listens in on his gang from a secret microphone.
A few of the outdoor scenes are shot on the fly in a barely controlled crowd, on location. The actors are mixed in freely among the spectators, some of whom gape, gawp, wave, and leer at the camera – behavior that would normally spoil a shot. Studios were on the verge of creating versatile areas and sets. Electrical lighting was getting stronger and at the same time less harsh. But by immersing itself in everyday reality, the exaggerated narrative makes a strong build for plausibility. It’s happening in an unstaged space; isn’t it a documentary, then?

The heroine, a saintly salesgirl who cares for her aged father, a tinkerer in wheelchair and skullcap. When her little sister is drugged (never go with a strange man to an ice cream parlor!) and taken away to become a professional ho-lady, the heroine is of course fired. Luckily, her boyfriend is brave Officer Burke. The two of them, using recording technology her dotty old pater has assembled, catch the bad guys, save the sister, and dispatch in the chief pimp in a running gun battle on the New York rooftops.

Rooftop battle
The film still works. There are sophisticated parallel story lines, cutting for contrast as well as for pace, and relaxed characterizations. Film is falling into itself, finding its strengths.

When the hypocritical mastermind is exposed and released on bail, a crowd assails him, and he pushes through the teeming mass ringed by cops. The city’s outrage boils around him like a scene from Dante’s “Inferno.” His daughter loses her engagement to a high-society beau; what’s worse, his wife dies of shame.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: William S. Hart becomes the first great cowboy hero in ‘The Bargain.’

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

R.I.P. Curtis Hanson, the ultimate craftsman

This is an expanded version of my Obit Patrol post on his passing.

Director and Oscar-winning screenwriter -- via the New York Times. An excellent writer, and a filmmaker who didn't mind trying all the genres, or working with no budget. He wrote standout screenplays, such as the under-rated "Silent Partner" and "White Dog"; he made horror movies, spring-break comedies, even the "Karate Kid" ripoff "The Little Dragons." But he made really good thrillers, such as "The Bedroom Window" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." When he got the chance to make a noir with style, he gave us "L.A. Confidential," which both revels in the style of the period and shatters its conventions at the same time. "Wonder Boys" is another gem, a grown-up stoner comedy. "8 Mile" is compelling, and his last big project, "Too Big to Fail," took a tough complex story and made it understandable.

My admiration for him lies in his love for the movies. He loved them so much that he took on all kinds of hackery projects and learned how to make them work. He loves the old tricks and twists of Golden Age cinema, and in his films he figures out how they work and then he starts to bend them to his own purposes. His shots are there to move things along. He does not waste your time. He gets good work out of people.

Unfortunately, it seems he went into a quick physical decline in the past few year. Thankfully, he left behind some good stuff to remember him by.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Link: Profile of filmmaker Dana Romanoff in Boulder magazine

Been quite busy, but here's a link to a profile I wrote of filmmaker, photographer, and journalist Dana Romanoff in the new issue of Boulder magazine. A great  interview with a real pro, who knows how to combine advocacy with strong narrative and vivid human interest.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The NFR Project #33: 'The Preservation of the Sign Language'

(The) Preservation of (the) Sign Language
Dir: George Veditz
Prod: Unknown
Scr: Unknown
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 1913

This unique eye-only “speech” is part practical demonstration, part political statement – and an aesthetic experience in itself.

A comprehensive and eloquent essay on the film by Christopher Shea is posted at the National Film Registry here. In a nutshell, it represents the attempt by educator and former National School for the Deaf president George W. Veditz to make a case for the preservation of “manual” (gestural), as opposed to “oralized” (verbalized) sign language.

Shea asserts that manual signing, though vastly preferred by the deaf, was shunted aside for a time as a result of the efforts of the “oralized” faction. Veditz’s monologue is transcribed here, and he eloquently espouses his point. Abstract ideas are expressed, far beyond what an uneducated person might think could be communicated in this way.

It’s recorded straight into the camera, with no soundtrack (of course), nor any sub- or intertitles to explain or contextualize anything Veditz was signing. This film is made expressly for a deaf audience, with no concessions to the hearing whatsoever – which must have been a nice change of pace for the non-hearing minority. (This is an era when a routine nickname for a deaf person was “Dummy”.)

Film also finds new use here. As Shea points out, the transcription of this technique using static methods – words and images – would be voluminous, inaccurate, and impractical. Like choreography, signed speech is best documented with the motion picture.

Veditz demonstrates the inherent advantages of manual signing in his presentation. Who wouldn’t be more eloquent with gestures at their disposal? Veditz’s signing is an excellent template – he works from a solid foundational stance, with strong and flowing movements of the arms, hands, and torso accompanied by appropriate facial expressions, and a constantly swiveling head, sweeping out with his gaze to make sure he’s being followed. As performance, it’s akin to a kind of intimate solo ballet, a flight of hands and fingers.

Beyond that, “Preservation” reaches further, at an anthropological level. How do we create meaning? How do we codify it? How do we transmit it? For someone unlearned in manual sign language, Veditz’s message is all but incomprehensible, unspooling beautiful, ghostly gestures along the way.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Traffic in Souls.’

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

From the files: ‘Do let’s be brave’ – Lean directs Coward

Lean converses with Coward between setups on "In Which We Serve."
I was fortunate to write up the Criterion Collection's excellent four-film set of David Lean's direction of Noel Coward's work in his first outings as a director for Film International in 2013. It has only seen print to date -- 

“I loved its follies and apathies and curious streaks of genius,” wrote Noel Coward of his decision to return to England when World War II began. Had he not, the rise of David Lean would not have been deterred, but it may not have been as swift or as assured.

Coward provided Lean with writing that was strong and well-structured; Lean, as an already accomplished editor, knew how film worked. He could eliminate the extraneous. He had a keen sense of how to breathe cinematic life into a flat concept or character. Lean serves the material; later he will serve himself, with ever-more preposterous results.

Their mutually beneficial relationship is captured definitively in Criterion’s new box set. The first film in the series, the breathtaking World War II propaganda film “In Which We Serve,” was written for the screen; the next three – “This Happy Breed,” “Blithe Spirit,” and “Brief Encounter,” are stage-derived. Lean solves the problems put to him in two out of three cases by the plastic limitations of the material, at best with “Encounter,” but to middling effect in “Breed” -- and comes up empty in “Spirit.”

When the war began, Coward was in a unique and ambivalent position. A tremendously popular entertainer, he was a prolific songwriter and playwright with a reputation as an effete, cutting drawing-room wit whose undeclared but obvious homosexuality both amused and repelled England’s middle class. Coward had written his grand stage chronicles of English life, “Cavalcade” and “This Happy Breed”; his patriotism was showing. He volunteered for the war effort in numerous ways, and “In Which We Serve” was the grandest of these, earning Coward an honorary Oscar and an air of unassailable legitimacy.

 Based on the exploits of Coward’s friend Lord Mountbatten early in the war, the naval saga “In Which We Serve” is a perfectly pitched paean to the fighting spirit. In this case, it is delineated not by violence and victories, but by patience and fortitude in the face of what were at the time seemingly impossible odds. In this film, Britain’s classes are exemplified, and barriers between them are tacitly overcome as all bond together in unity, modesty, understated humor, and stiff-upper-lip stoicism.

Coward, in particular, was making a huge gamble. His insistence on making it “his” project included casting himself as the brave Captain Kinross, master of the destroyer Torrin. Coward’s portrayal of a noble, unaffected, and incredibly straight naval officer was probably his greatest performance. Coward’s Kinross is absolutely calm, repressed to the point of being wooden; an apt critique of the heterosexual male stereotype in performance. (Later, Coward would overhear criticism of his performance from a neighboring table at a restaurant. As he left, he flounced over the offenders, put his hands on his hips, and hissed, “Well, I thought I was VERY GOOD!”)

Coward knew he needed top help to realize his project. He selected talents such as future Oscar winners and nominees Lean, producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Ronald Neame, and camera operator Guy Green. Likewise, his casting initiated long-term relationships between Coward and Lean and actors such as Bernard Miles, John Mills, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey, Celia Johnson, and Richard Attenborough.

Neame’s inky shadows and sharp highlights lend depth and dimension to the combat scenes, a nourish contrast to the traditionally lit domestic and flashback scenes. This high-contrast look will maintain itself in all succeeding black-and-white Lean films.

Lean, known already as the best film editor in England, now showed his organizational and leadership capabilities. Although he was a notoriously bad hand at drawing, he resolutely storyboarded the action -- and annotated his shooting script to within an inch of its life before hitting the soundstage. “All the important imaginative thinking, he (Lean) maintained, had to be done before the shooting commenced; there was no time for lengthy improvisations on the set when a director was working with numerous actors and technicians.” (1) This thoroughness and discipline served him well in future; his stone-faced seriousness on set would later lead to rifts with more easygoing colleagues such as Trevor Howard and Robert Mitchum.

Lean began production on “In Which We Serve” as a glorified assistant director; however, Coward wearied of the time-consuming, technical rigors of film direction and turned over the helm entirely to Lean after a few weeks. Even in his first effort, some of Lean’s trademarks -- confident pacing, deep-focus shots, and close attention to the human face -- are evident. “. . . .the fact that Lean was able to stamp his personal style upon a production overshadowed by Coward’s looming (and egotistical) presence says much for his ability.” (2)

Overcoming a initial lack of support and cooperation from the British military with an intervention from King George VI himself, Coward and Lean’s film wound up on release to be quite literally a rousing success, serving as a template for the stiff-upper-lip heroics of war films to come. The fruitful association continued.

“This Happy Breed” was a sentimental, historical stage epic in the style of Coward’s previous “Cavalcade” of 1931 (that show initiated the cliché in which a loving shipboard couple wanders away from in front of a life preserver . . . labeled “H.M.S. Titanic”!). Where “Cavalcade” profiled the upper crust, “Breed” looks warmly, if condescendingly, at the working class.

"This Happy Breed"
It’s another tribute to the spirit of embattled England, studded with heartaches and happiness, rendered in a deliberately dull Technicolor palette to more accurately reflect the dingy reality of plebian life. It’s an uneven if deeply felt panorama that fails to engage.

“ . . .he took every mundane event the cinema avoided – washing up, drying clothes, a great many meals – and worked the dialogue into them. For a British film to do this was unusual enough, but to show the kitchen sink, albeit in muted Technicolor, was revolutionary.” (3) This, along with a not-so-obscure moralizing about the comeuppance of those who don’t know how to “keep their place” oddly presages the conventions of British “kitchen-sink” social realism that were to flower 12 years later with John Osbourne’s “Look Back in Anger.”

“Blithe Spirit,” a farce about ghosts and fidelity, initially hailed as a masterful work, has not stood the test of time. Its brittle drawing-room sauciness is a return to form for Coward, and it had a long and happy run on stage in London. However, in Lean’s hands, the jokes fall flat – male lead Rex Harrison waspishly declared years later that it’s useful to make a comedy with a director who knows what’s funny. It is known best watched for its Oscar-winning special effects and Margaret Rutherford’s definitive performance as the batty medium Madame Arcati.

"Blithe Spirit"
Lean and Coward’s final collaboration, “Brief Encounter,” equals “In Which We Serve” in quality and significance. A third adaptation of a Coward stage work, it tells the story of two married people who meet by chance in a railway station, fall in love, realize that an affair would destroy them both, and part.

It’s a fever-dream, stream-of-consciousness visual poem punctuated with the heavy thuds of “realities” to be faced up to bravely. Our narrator and protagonist, Laura (Celia Johnson is absolutely perfect as the clipped, overwrought, unconventionally ravishing heroine) feels so keenly the lost chance that Alec (Trevor Howard as a noble young doctor) represents that she contemplates throwing herself under a train a la Karenina in the penultimate scene.

"Brief Encounter"
As is the case in almost every subsequent Lean film, the willing spirit is chained by the weak flesh, the social imperative. Wild, nonconformist impulses threaten the blasé normality from which they sprung and are snuffed out ruthlessly. Tellingly, Lean is quoted as saying: “I am drawn to the person who refuses to face defeat even when they realize that their most cherished expectations may go unfulfilled.” (4)

Like Rosy Ryan in “Ryan’s Daughter,” Zhivago, Lawrence, and Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Laura is swept out of and above mundane reality by her passionate obsession, but is flung to earth. In the end she does the right thing – and crushes out her soul like a cigarette butt.

Coward and Lean both moved on to reach iconic heights – Coward as a sort of aging roué, and Lean as the eminence grise of cinema, for better and worse. To watch these four films in chronological order is to see Lean grow from a contractor to a fully assured artist who is ready to do what he needs to make his vision come to life.

  1. “Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean,” Gene D. Phillips, pg. 55.
  2. “Noel Coward: A Biography,” Philip Hoare, pg. 328.
  3. “David Lean: A Biography,” Kevin Brownlow, pg. 181.
  4. Phillips, pg. 96.

In Which We Serve (1942)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Brief Encounter (1945)

In Which We Serve (1942)
Director Noel Coward, David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director David Rawnsley
With Noel Coward (Capt. E.V. Kinross, R.N.), Bernard Miles (Chief Petty Officer Hardy), John Mills (Ordinary Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake), Celia Johnson (Mrs. Kinross), Joyce Carey (Mrs. Hardy), Kay Walsh (Freda Lewis), James Donald (Doc), Derek Elphinstone (Number 1), Michael Wilding (Flags), Robert Sansom (Guns), Philip Friend (Torps), Richard Attenborough (Young Powder Handler – uncredited)
Runtime 114 minutes

This Happy Breed (1944)
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward (uncredited), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame
Producer Noel Coward, Ronald Neame (Neame uncredited)
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
With Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), Reg (John Blythe), Vi (Eileen Erskine), Kay Walsh (Queenie), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Amy Veness (Mrs. Flint), Alison Leggatt (Aunt Sylvia)
Runtime 111 minutes

Blithe Spirit (1945)
Director David Lean
Screenplay David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Noel Coward (Coward uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward
Director of Photography Ronald Neame
Art Director C.P. Norman
Costumes Rahvis (dresses only)
With Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth), Kay Hammond (Elvira), Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Jacqueline Clarke (Edith)
Runtime 96 minutes

Brief Encounter (1945)
Director David Lean
Screenplay Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (latter three uncredited)
Producer Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame (latter two uncredited)
Director of Photography Robert Krasker
Art Director Lawrence P. Williams (as L.P. Williams)
With Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot)
Runtime 86 minutes

USA, 2012
Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1)
Aspect Ratio 1:37:1
Sound Mix Mono

Extras New high-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archives’ 2008 restorations. Audio commentary on Brief Encounter by film historian Bruce Eder. Interviews with Coward scholar Barry Day on all four films. Interview with Ronald Neame, short documentaries on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter, TV documentary David Lean: A Self Portrait (1971), 1992 episode of The Southbank Show on the life and career of Coward, 1969 audio recording of conversation between Coward and Attenborough, trailers, 46-page booklet with essays by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Kevin Brownlow.