Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The NFR Project #22: 'Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest'

Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest
Dir: J. Stuart Blackton
100 min.
Here’s a movie that’s more significant for the repercussions it caused than for its inherent fascinations.

On July 4, 1910, in the middle of downtown Reno, Nevada, two men squared off for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. One was black, and one was white, and therein lay the problem.

The black man was Jack Johnson, first African-American heavyweight champ. His unapologetic prowess and confident personal style upset racist whites – a vast majority nationally at the time. His opponent, James Jeffries, was a former champ brought back to battle Johnson by those who yearned for a “Great White Hope” that would defeat Johnson. (This later became the title of Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer-winning 1969 play on the same subject, which also brought actors James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander fame.)

On a punishingly hot day (110 degrees), observed by 20,000 spectators, Johnson ground Jeffries down until his side threw in the towel in the 15th round. 

The fact that a black man had beaten a white man in an athletic competition was intolerable. Race riots broke out that night in more than 25 states and 50 cities. More than 20 were killed and hundreds were injured.

Meanwhile, the complete film record of the bout (nine cameramen were on the job that day) was being rapidly copied and distributed for exhibition throughout the country, as films of such contests were routinely done at the time (see “TheCorbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” entry here). Three days after the fight, calls to ban the film began. Eventually, in 1912 Congress banned the interstate transportation of fight films; the ban would remain in place until 1940.

Jeffries never fought professionally again. Johnson held his title until 1915, and continued to fight until 1938, when he was 60. He continued to suffer persecution, legal and otherwise, for the rest of his life.

The film still exists, now primarily as data for boxing scholars and historians to assimilate. It remains a relic of the sad days when the idea of a black person being the equal or better of a white person was enough to cause panic in the streets.

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The NFR Project #21: 'Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy'

Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy
Dir: J. Stuart Blackton

The “trick” film has been around since Georges Melies built his own camera in 1896. Special effects sell tickets. Here’s one that admirably combines a handful of animation and filming techniques to create a madcap fancy on film.

Vitagraph Studios was founded in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton, a former journalist and sketch artist, and Arthur E. Smith, a stage magician. They soon found themselves attacked by Edison over patent violations, but soldiered on and eventually worked out a settlement with the litigious inventor.

“Princess Nicotine” takes its name from a popular 1893 stage vehicle for the legendarily beautiful singer and actress Lillian Russell, but little else. The film’s marching-cigarette stop-motion concept was attributed to the earlier short animation “The Animated Matches” by French animation pioneer Emile Cohl in 1908.

More recent research has revealed that Cohl stole the conceit from English animator Arthur Melbourne Cooper, who made the first stop-motion animation short in 1899, that pled for the donation of matches to British troops fighting the First Boer War in South Africa (the government had forgot to send some, you see).

Until it turned out that Cooper had in turn filched the stop-motion concept from its true originators: Vitagraph’s Blackton and Smith. 1898’s “The Humpty Dumpty Circus,” featuring jointed dolls seemingly walking under their own power, was the true first stop-motion film.

This illustrates vividly how imitative film was at the time. It was a brand new medium, with no rules. People were making hundreds of films a year, trying anything, seeing what took the public’s interest and responding to that, or blithely going their own way. Repeating formulas, doing knockoffs of others’ successes, things we think of as contemporary problems in the commercial film industry, were present at the beginning. And we see similar patterns of development with the many significant, pervasive mediums that characterized the century.

The film is notable for the way it subordinates its effects to its theme, if not a coherent plot. The previous “trick” film discussed here, 1906’s “Dream of Rarebit Fiend,” seems clunky in comparison.

Blackton and company craft a fun little romp, utilizing double exposure, stop-motion, and mirror work (Blackton worked as a magician also). Stage experience gave Blackton the sense of knowing what to play to – and the sense to nail the camera down, the better to pull off the many incorporated stage illusions that form part of the film’s charm. (The only cut-in shots are there to make the particular effects work.) It’s a hybrid – a theatrical form now embedded in something a bit more interdimensional.

In the film, a gentleman nods off while loading his pipe. Two tiny fairies pop out of a cigar box and play tricks on him. There are oversized props – hay serves as tobacco – and the man traps the fairies in the box. Out of it he pulls a rose that blows smoke at him – his peer through a magnifying glass at it reveals a rose/girl hybrid puffing away gaily on a cigarette European-style, with the third and fourth fingers.

We cut back to the wide shot of the room; for some reason, the richly appointed drapes and furnishings that were there for the first two minutes vanish for the rest of the film. The matches, cigarettes, and smoking implements dance. (Anyone who remembers the smoking culture of the 20th century knows that it was largely a male ritual, complete with tools such as cigar cutters, Zippos, cans of loamy pipe tobacco, papers and bags of Drum or Bugler for roll-your-owners, cleaners and scrapers, the ubiquitous pipe cleaners, etc.)

The most transcendent moments belong to a rose that takes center stage via stop-motion, then de-petals itself and swirls dreamily into the shape of a dancing, circling wreath that transmogrifies and condenses into a dancing cigar. The man returns, lights up, finds one of the tiny fairies trapped in a bottle, smashes it. She flashes him coyly. He blows smoke at her, she sets fire to the table top, he washes her away with a squirt of seltzer water (could this be the earliest use in film of this ancient gag?), and manically ends up squirting himself in the face as well.

It is often alleged that the film served in part as product placement for Sweet Caporals, a popular cigarette brand of the day; however, a frame examination of brand names on the boxes don’t seem to correlate with any known at the time. If this were a true purpose, that would make this the very first example of the integrated commercial.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest.’

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trailer Trash: Here comes big ‘Ben,’ again

I'm betting on Morgan Freeman's hair for the win, Dick.
I have always been a fan of big, cheesy films, none more than Biblical ones. Part of it was the time I grew up in – the days of “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Well, here comes the reboot of a classic – a new adaptation of Lew Wallace’s “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” written in 1880.

There have been six movie versions of the book including this new one, the most memorable being the 1959 William Wyler-directed monster starring Charlton Heston. This time, the director is Timur Bekmambetov, famous for his pair of dark-fantasy Russian epics “Night Watch” and “Day Watch.” The star is Jack Huston, grandson of director John.

Supposedly, Jesus figures big in this one. Way big. Producer Mark Burnett and friends, known for many Christian-oriented film and TV projects, are helming this one, and it seems we are going to get a blockbuster for Christ. In an interview, the director talks about this version being much more about forgiveness than revenge, but I couldn’t really see any forgiveness in the trailer, due to the massive amount of intervening REVENGE.

Here are some of the impressions I got from a look at the trailer:

1.      We are in CGI Heaven. We see a battle scene, and not one element of it is real.

2.      Sweaty bodies. Always OK in a Bible movie, if it indicates suffering.

3.      Were the ancient Romans in the habit of using people they didn’t like as hood ornaments for their battering rams?

4.      Oh, no. POV CGI.

5.      Ben-Hur is adrift, floating on a mast after the battle. And the mast is in what shape? Johnny? That’s right. A cross. I guess you would call it a Christ-mast.

6.      Morgan Freeman in the Hugh Griffith role! Wow. I dig his dreads, and of course he gets all the sonorous exposition in the film Good call.

7.      Looks like there’s even a wit bit o’ sex.

8.      And lots more Jesus!

9.      And vengeance. Let’s face it, the most memorable scene in “Ben-Hur” is not everything working out at the end thanks to you-know-you (hint: rhymes with mee-sis) – it’s when one guy’s trying to kill another with a buckboard while they’re racing plimmety-bimmety around a big track, 27 horses flyin’ this way and that, fans getting horse snot and wore all over ‘em!

The new “Ben-Hur” will, I predict, be as deliciously awful as the recent “Noah” and “Exodus,” both of which I went to voluntarily and paid my own money to get into. I will do the same here. It’s the same ridiculous, hypocritical dynamic that drives all religious epics.

To make your money back, you have to show the vengeance. You have to get some sex in there, and the sinning – making sure to condemn by examining it in luxurious detail, the better to commit them to memory for future reference. It’s OK as long as the bad guys get it in the end – as graphically as possible, of course. Violence is fine as long as it metes out what is usually interpreted as God’s punishment and slakes the thirst for revenge.

Then, as in the book, after revenge is taken, the forgiveness can begin (and the vengeful Jew turns into the loving Christian, which ends up being the point of all this). The dialogue already sounds awful – a great, random mash-up of contemporary colloquialisms and pretentious pseudo-Scripture. Messala actually says during the chariot race, “Are we having fun yet, brother?” I can hardly wait! 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The NFR Project #20: 'Lady Helen's Escapade'

'Lady Helen's Escapade' -- where is it?
Lady Helen’s Escapade
Dir: D.W. Griffith
8 min.

At last, an entry that allows me to say: what gives?

This film is very difficult to find; in fact, I can’t find it. Normally, I do pretty well with research. If by chance you know where and how I might watch it, please let me know! I am particularly happy to find out if I’ve overlooked some resource or research technique, so that I can get better at this.

I am able to find mentions via Mubi, and Roberta E. Pearson’s excellent “The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” and synopses via the usual encyclopedic resources. Even David Shepard’s expertly curated 2002 Kino compilation “D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts” does not include it.

It features the first “movie star,” Florence Lawrence AKA Florence Bridgwood. This is one of no fewer than 81 films that she shot that year. She was anonymous for most of that year, as Biograph, the studio she worked for, did not list players in the credits, as a rule. Neither did any of the other American studios. Why?

First, film was disreputable among stage actors, akin to a legit film actor using their real name in a porn movie today. Second, the producers were afraid that player identification would create a star system that would take money out of their pockets. They were right, but the Hollywood system introduced a branding concept when it came to players the audiences responded to, and everyone wound up making more money.

At the time, though, film production companies had a chokehold on the means, and manner, of production. Although fans wrote in asking who Lawrence was, the studio would not name her. Finally, when she and her husband, director Harry Solter, went to Essanay Company to try and get better pay, Essanay simply ratted them out to Biograph, which fired them.

Fortunately, Carl Laemmle, the feisty independent who started Universal, took them on, and started using Lawrence’s name in advertising. Sales skyrocketed, and soon all the studios were busy building and/or manufacturing stables of “stars.”

Florence Lawrence
The film’s plot description: “A bored Lady Helen goes slumming as a domestic in a boarding house. There she falls in love with a sensitive young musician. The other women in house are jealous, and accuse her of trying to steal the musician’s violin.”

All this in eight minutes? It really deserves a look. The Freudian implications of the violin alone make it worth watching. And this begs the question of why it’s not readily available. In an ideal world, all the films in the Registry would be collected, annotated coherently, and made available to all and sundry. However, there are immense problems with rights and licensing, to begin with; revenue streams still issue forth form the screening of many of these classics as well. That’s a task I wouldn’t envy anyone attempting.

But – these designations of significance are surely for a reason. What does it mean when we can’t grasp those cultural artifacts that we deem important? (Insert my generic rant on the lack of funding for cultural endeavors that would only interest a few folks.) Well, if we can spend all that money and time on missiles, celebrity freaks, and traffic-camera tickets, we can throw a few bucks and a little effort into the preservation and propagation of art as well.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Princess Nicotine: or, The Smoke Fairy.’

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Formative Film 13: 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Dir: Jim Sharman
Prod: Lou Adler, John Goldstone, Michael White
Scr: Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien
Phot: Peter Suschitzky
Release date: Sept. 26, 1975
Ogden Theater
935 E. Colfax Avenue, Denver

 O sweet transgression!

We were from the suburbs. We didn’t know shit.

But we weren’t averse to enlightening ourselves. In high school, our particular group centered itself inside the theater department. And, as soon as we could drive, we were out auditioning for shows around town. Our baby experiments with the world outside home and school were rewarded. We fell in with rapscallions.

Aunts Tim and Jerry, to be precise. In the foul, dimly-lit dens of community theater they prowled, singing, dancing, acting, writing, and directing. They were hilarious, brutally honest, incredibly gay, and up to no good. (Why were they hanging out with high-school boys? Please.)

Still, they were kind and thoughtful, protected us from real sexual predators, and for better or worse treated us like fellow adults, complex humans with identities who had ideas. They weren’t afraid to talk about art and politics, and they knew who played Laurie in the original London cast of “Oklahoma!” instantly, long before there was an Internet to look things up on.

There we were, in bars we had no business being in (“How old are these children?” roared the bartender. “These girls are 18!”), drinking – except me, I remained pure for some time, immensely dull for everyone else but I had enough problems to keep me occupied. And, of course, part of the running the gauntlet was going to “Rocky Horror.”

Midnight movies were still a relatively new phenomenon, centered in New York and San Francisco, where films such as “El Topo,” “Targets,” “Equinox,” “Freaks,” “Pink Flamingos,” “The Harder They Come,” Arrabal’s “Viva la muerte” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” tested the sensibilities and stomachs of true-blue, hardcore, film-loving guerilla freaks everywhere.

“Rocky Horror” opened as the midnight movie at the great Waverly cinema in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in mid-April 1975, replacing “Night of the Living Dead.” The B-movie horror template of the young couple menaced in a haunted house became a metaphor for budding sexual awareness. A mad scientist makes a big, strong surfer-dude monster, for the express purpose of using him as a boy toy. By film’s end, everyone’s in corsets, fishnets, and heels, almost indistinguishable (which I suppose is the point, really.) By the fall, people in the audience at the Waverly were cracking wise at the screen. By Halloween, people were dressing up and singing along and acting along with the film. It took two years to spread to 50 cities.

What made it explode? The ‘70s were a lot about pure carnal satisfaction, for one. It was truly the Me Decade. We were psychically spent, rebounding from the bitter, dragged-out end to Vietnam, Nixon’s criminal betrayals, and the beginning of real loss as an industrial power. We wanted to get screwed up and dance. There were lots of drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll, and few consequences – or was that the consequence of being that age as well? Touchy-feely spiritual vibes floated in the air; we were open to suggestion.

A corrective was coming. “Rocky Horror” caught the first board in the wave of punk cynicism, with star-spangled panache. It equated old-school horror with its long-dormant subtext, alternate sexuality (even filming in the Bray studios that housed Britain’s cherished Hammer horror studio for decades). It camped it up as hard as it could. Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s adaptation of O’Brien’s original stage “Rocky Horror Show” was fast-paced, tuneful, and genuinely funny.

The show’s tough, kinky production style leaned on quoting the ‘20s, much as the ‘60s had done – but this was the dark, German, Expressionist, Brechtian ‘20s. ‘50s values were being spoofed through the putative hero and heroine, squeaky-clean Brad and Janet, but so were ‘60s values – by their sheer omission. There’s no peace and love in “Rocky Horror,” just sex, violence, and jaunty despair.

Through its heavy lean on horror tropes, it became a joyous puzzle for the hip to unravel and comment on – it’s not surprising that this would become the first piece of participatory cinema. Like a true cult, its members repeated the ritual week after week, enacting its liturgy. Only it’s dark and funny, and you could cross-dress. Danger and transgression in the safety and comfort of your local movie theater. We could be rude, and fresh, and cuss out loud, and dance in the aisles, and sing as loud as we liked. These forbidden slabs of raw, bleeding Weirdness were like crash-cart convulsions applied to our boring suburban souls.

And what better house to witness the glory in than Denver’s wonderful old repertory cinema, the Ogden? Now a first-class concert hall, it was a treasure house of obscure double-, triple-, and quadruple-bills changing almost daily – a complete cinematic education on the city’s seediest street, East Colfax.

Part of the fun of “Rocky Horror” was standing in line outside, being harassed by the born-agains. There was a nearby Pentecostal church, the Lovingway, set up in an old house near 14th and Emerson Streets, close by the theater. The group had an old panel van spray-painted with slogans such as ‘REPENT OR DIE,” which they drove up and down Colfax in front of the theater as we stood in line, shouting helpful phrases such as “Burn in hell!”

The Ogden was one of the last old-time neighborhood movie houses, and it was in moderate disrepair – not as bad as the former movie palaces downtown that had deteriorated into scummy porn houses. It reeked of cigarette smoke, the floors were a little sticky, but it was comfortable.

The balcony was the best, and reeked of a different kind of smoke. We crowded as close to the front as we could, laden with the proper participatory props: rice, newspapers, squirt guns, candles, toilet paper, toast, playing cards. Already a tawdry handful of reenactors was gathering on the main floor in front of the screen.

“Rocky Horror” taught us tolerance. Difference was illusion, and today’s prom queen could become tomorrow’s Lotte Lenya. We weren’t doomed by the culture’s expectations of us. We learned, too, that if the dominant paradigm didn’t speak to us, we could create our own culture and be perfectly happy within it, oblivious to the tides of normalcy, at home in the Weirdness. Of course, subcultures and modern tribes have their own codes, tyrannies, and shit lists, which we would find out about later.

The house lights went down. Aunt Jerry snorted a noseful of poppers, lit a joint, stretched out his arms in Jolson-like supplication and screamed, “GIMME THE LIPS!” And out of the darkness, those steamy, bright-red lips appeared, like Man Ray’s “A L’Heure de l’observatoire: Les amoureux,” or Beckett’s “Not I.” And they began to sing . . .

Up next: "The Man Who Would Be King." 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The NFR Project #19: 'A Corner in Wheat'

A Corner in Wheat
Dir: D.W. Griffith
15 min.

Perhaps the first film where Whitey gets it.

This anti-capitalist fable is the work of silent film legend David Wark Griffith, still years away from making his controversial masterpiece “Birth of a Nation,” his directing career had begun a year earlier. Like everyone in the new movie-making industry, Griffith was cranking out dozens of short films a year to begin with; the quantum difference is his eye and his superb sense of how to make film tell a compelling story. Griffith learned quickly.

He’s thinking, much as a stage director would, of the picture as perceived from the audience. Instead of just filming actors and action, Griffith is thinking from the perspective of the camera. His compositions are meticulous, designed to communicate the maximum amount of meaning in a given frame. Before in film, actors stood in a stele-like row, or clumped together naturally and awkwardly. Griffith is positioning his actors so that they relate coherently not to each other, perhaps, but definitely from the perspective of the viewer.

There are parallel stories here, and ideas at play. Three hungry farmers cast their seed while a business tycoon corners the market in wheat.

(The trio uses a wooden harrow, outmoded even in 1909. Emphasizing the archaic nature of the farmer’s toil serves to ennoble the rustic types. Griffith frequently synonymized the urban life with sin and corruption, as did most of the movie-going audience, still predominantly rural at the time. Griffith’s camera placement, with the farrows angling into and past the camera from deep right rear to left foreground, is ballsy for the time – the actors end up walking right out of the shot!)

Prices rise, the poor begin to starve and riot, put down by police. The rich man, visiting one of his granaries, exults over his good fortune – and tumbles into a silo, suffocated by the sluicing grain. The farmer at film’s beginning is shown again, minus his companions. He ambles weakly along, casting his seed again.

The huge advance here is the cutting together of three stories, the principals of which have no awareness of each other. Meaning is created through juxtaposition, the montage technique later perfected by Kuleshov and Eisenstein in the Soviet Union. Near the center of the film, the poor’s breadline is presented as a static shot – not a frozen frame, but as a kind of mural of misery.

It is easy to cast “A Corner in Wheat” as the first Socialist film. It certainly stigmatizes the rich and the social control systems in place at the time – but don’t forget, this is the same director who glorified the Klan in “Birth of a Nation” six years later. The tycoon in “Wheat” is more a God-punished sinner than the terminal sufferer of ironic consequences. Griffith’s real ideology is sentiment, and through the still-viable dramatic strategy of melodrama, he is a master at invoking it.

Griffith is using all the elements at his disposal to create sympathy and emotion, and it’s here that film goes right and wrong at the same time. All of a sudden, it seems that seeing a film can be a much deeper experience – and it opens up the possibility that the same kind of pretensions that plagued existing art forms could infect cinema as well. For better and for worse, every film made from this point on has the potential to be, or not be, a work of art.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Register, in chronological order. Next time: ‘Lady Helen’s Escapade.’