Sunday, May 29, 2016

A dummodest proposal: how to save the movies

You have very few choices left to make to draw people to movie venues. There is no genetic imperative that drives people to movie theaters. We've only been doing it for 120 years. We didn't hang on to our party-line dial phones, and we don't have to sit together in the dark to watch something. We just don't. 

Should we because it was conceived to be received that way? Nickelodeons were literally that -- for five cents you peeked through a visor at the loop of film. Arguably, we're getting back to the origins of cinema. No -- stuff made for a large field of vision follow a certain set of aesthetics by necessity. (If it doesn't have that certain movie-ish zing to it, it's TV in movie house.)

Anyway, you can A. Give them something they can't get anywhere else -- good luck in this digital era. Four years ago, I saw a film at a film festival that was on the shelf at the local library. I was shocked then, but now it happens all the time.

However, in some cases the stock of seeable films has shrunk,oddly, and future releases of physical product such as DVDs that one can keep and examine like any other work of art are doomed. It is always a struggle to save and restore films, and to find ways to project them properly, or even just to ferry it over to a new medium, however imperfectly. The canonical wonders we were brought up on during the great European/American New Wave are surprisingly forgotten, because they don't live via a repertory parlance any more. The democratization of the means of production has not meant much economically, save for more visible Exceptions that Prove the Rule. And there's continents full of people that are making films that we hear nothing about. Good movies slip by all the time -- how is the exhibitor to find and promote same, with no profit margin to speak of? 

B. Go full analog. Live theater, of course, owns this forever, but movies can use it too. In the Denver/Boulder region, where I live, Davy B. Gravey's Tiny Cinema, for instance. The silent films with live music at Chautauqua. Friday Night Weird at Boedecker. The 88 Drive In. The constant stream of treats via Pablo Kjolseth at IFS or the folks at Sie Film Center at DFS. The film festivals. Live people. Emphasize the human, social aspect of it, have fun, make it an event. Do more preshow curtain speeches about the films, as they do classical concerts. Be as live as you can. 

C. Enable the spectator to become the participator. Create a community. Teach people how to teach themselves more about cinema. Nobody knows. I and my friends who know the standard canon of films walk around the like survivors in 'Fahrenheit 451,' whispering things to each other like, 'Oh, Jerry,, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars!' EDUCATE THE CUSTOMER. Context. We need context.

D. Promote the living beejeesus out of it. Do that all day long, every day, as long as the screenings last. And when they are not. Be a resource, a reference, an ombudsman. You cannot let up. It can be silly, lo-fi, digital, I don't care. Maintain a heartbeat.

And -- it's movies, people. Lighten up.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The NFR Project #27: 'A Cure for Pokeritis'

Flora Finch and John Bunny -- film's first unhappily married couple.
A Cure for Pokeritis
Dir: Laurence Trimble
The first American film comedy star was not the balletic Chaplin. John Bunny was from Brooklyn, and would have been hard to pick of a crowd as a likely leading man. He was short, and round as a billiard ball. His large nose glowed red with a rosacea that most mistook for a hard-drinking life. (He neither drank nor smoked.) A vaudeville veteran, he saw the future, walked into the Vitagraph Studios in New York, made some pictures, and found himself internationally famous. Between 1909 and his death in 1915, he was as celebrated as the first rue film comic, Frenchman Max Linder.

Bunny wouldn’t have made such as impact without his partner, Flora Finch. As thin as he was stout, she played the waspish wife to his wayward husband. The archetype of the childish husband and the nagging, maternal wife, was something everyone connected with in a culture that seemed to apologize for male privilege by casting the man as haplessly ensnared into a penis-less existence by the castrating hausfrau.

This popular comic trope, which resurfaces regularly like a pulse in the American comic dialogue combined with the classic fat/thin contrast dynamic, worked. Their 160 films, made between 1910 and 1915, were called “Bunnygraphs,” “Bunnyfinches,” or “Bunnyfinchgraphs,” they were so well-known. (James Cagney, a Vitagraph neighbor as a child, used to climb over the fence and watch them make some of this series.)

These were akin to modern, more modular entertainments – much more like TV shows than films. These simple one-reelers, involving one simple setup, comic hook, and payoff, were also essential baby steps – working out one effective gag sequence could lead to two, then three, then more complex comic films. Back then, anything went and everything was tried; the field was wide open and everyone learned as they went.

In this outing, Bunny plays poker, comes home late, swears not to transgress again, but then comes up with some lying pretext for getting away. His annoyed wife calls in her cousin Freddie, who hatches a scheme to frighten Bunny and his truant companions. Disguised as police, Freddie and his bible class (?) raid the joint where the game is taking place. Terrified and repentant, the men give up – and then the wives stream in, and all is forgiven.

The screen work is unexciting – filmed straight on, just like a stage show. Bunny lights a match to check the time on his watch, but we are shooting in obvious daylight. In one case, cousin Freddie pops up behind an oblivious Bunny after he exits the house, a move impossible for film watchers to buy today.

A second later, though, a nice bit of business is executed. We look in through an upper window at the poker game. Cousin Freddie’s head rises slowly into the frame, eclipsing the sight of the players. Then, it slowly sinks down again. And Bunny turns slowly towards the window, just missing Freddie’s head at the window. There’s a well-timed nugget of visual humor that could only work that well on screen. People are learning how to use the medium, building a vocabulary and grammar of filmmaking.

Comedy as social corrective comes into play here, as transgressors are brought back inside society’s norms as determined by its arbiters, the “ladies.” Oddly, cousin Freddie is clearly possessed of effeminate traits himself – handkerchief in his sleeve, rolling eyes, extravagant gestures, probably one of the first gay characters in film. Stereotypically, he is the wife’s confidante, and when he costumes his fake policemen he parades them before the wives like a fashion designer showing off his fall line. In the culture of the time, the gay character can be a magical, two-dimensional helper, but that’s about all. For – what self-respecting heterosexual man would help break up a card game?

Bunny died at the age of 52, a year after Chaplin started making movies. What other work might be have done if he had 20 years more?

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

Thursday, May 12, 2016

At last: 5-hour ‘Until the End of the World’ a revelation

Solveig Dommartin, obsessed with her dreams on tape in "Untill the End of the World."
Until the End of the World
Dir: Wim Wenders
Scr: Wim Wenders, Peter Carey
Phot: Robby Muller
288 min.
Sometimes it’s worth the wait. Neue Kino film legend Wim Wenders made this “ultimate road movie” 25 years ago, and even though it was initially released in a confusing, truncated 158-minute form, it was so visually rich, thought-provoking, and intriguing that I was tantalized by it. I yearned to see the “full” version. Finally, thanks to curator Pablo Kjolseth and CU’s International Film Series, a lucky group of viewers got to see it in its director’s-cut, 288-minute version, prepared and restored under Wenders’ supervision.

It’s a high-tech sci-fi thriller that meanders along. It contains no car chases or explosions. Every time Wenders has the choice to lapse into a mainstream cinematic cliché, he deliberately goes the other way, subverting expectations. This is a movie that’s dares to be constructive, kind, and positive without being boring. It’s about personal and social evolution, about healing the world, about memory and perception, about recognizing what is real and of value.

For years, the film’s been more celebrated for its soundtrack, perhaps the best compilation film score ever made. Wenders, whose musical taste is excellent, went to artists such as Lou Redd, Patti and Fred Smith, Nick Cave, and Elvis Costello and commissioned them to write tracks about the end of the world. These songs, interlaced with Graeme Revell’s sinuous score, are virtual characters in the film, propelling the sequences and helping set the pace of its stately rhythm.

About that rhythm. It may seem regressive and dull in contrast with the hyperkinetic pace and editing of modern films. But it’s natural pace, a saunter that gives the viewer time to really look around the frame, to see what is happening, to think about it. It’s sad that only film geeks will have the patience and will to sit through it.

Wenders also keeps his camera movement slow and flowing. He repeatedly uses a hypnotically elevate-and-pan maneuver to open a scene up, revealing the information needed to make sense of the scene. Even when the characters are driving deep into themselves, Wenders keeps us anchored in the natural world, constantly reminding us of the larger perspective. He’s an Ozu of motion.

The film is set a decade ahead of the time it was filmed, creating a putative 1999 that still resonates. Wenders anticipates GPS, iPads, and cell phones – his intuition about the coming digital world is astounding. The film opens as an Indian nuclear satellite goes out of control and threatens to crash, panicking humanity. Out of the chaos comes the film’s central figure, Claire (Solveig Dommartin), a dissipated divorcee who drags herself out of a life of dissipation and determines to have a mission in life. A chance accident puts her in the path of two laissez-faire robbers who trust Claire and let her smuggle an insane amount of ill-gotten gains into Paris for them.

The robbers don’t seem to mind when Claire starts appropriating wads of money to enable her to follow Travis (William Hurt), a mysterious American fugitive with a price on his head on whom she becomes romantically fixated. It turns out he is gathering data from his siblings to transmit to his blind mother (played by Jeanne Moreau) using a device invented by his stern scientist father (Max von Sydow) intended to enable her to see, after a fashion. It’s a task that’s debilitating, and Claire heals Travis with the aid of some traditional medicine.

The two almost make to his parents’ hideout lab in the Outback when the U.S. detonates the rogue nuclear satellite, creating an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out technology, including the engine of the plane they are flying. After an exhausting trek, they make to the lab.

What was an effort to restore sight changes after the mother passes away. Now it seems that dreams can be recorded and viewed as well. Immediately, the aboriginal staff leaves rather that abet exploration into that sacred territory. The primary characters continue, dreaming and then viewing the dreams. They vanish into narcissism, staring intently at the readouts, ignoring everything else, trying to re-dream their dreams and improve them, to “get them right.” With the aid of Claire’s ex-husband and the film’s narrator, the writer Eugene (Sam Neill), Claire is weaned from her addiction. In the film’s coda, she is revealed to have gone on to join the space program as an ecological observer, circling the planet and beaming down on it like a benevolent goddess. She is watching everything, in real time, for a real purpose.

The idea that the psyche has to be turned out towards the world to stay sane isn’t new, but it hasn’t been expressed as eloquently before this. Now that we are in an age when Wenders’ devices and processes aren’t so far-fetched, it’s a lesson we could use. We need to not only perceive the real, but use it as our building material. Only by filtering experience through our consciousness, by interpreting and reordering it for others, turning it into narrative, can we really own it.

At one point, an old aboriginal man in a truck is reciting a story to a group of travelers in his own obscure language as it moves across the desert. “He’s the man who tells the story of the land,” says Travis. “He is responsible for this part of the country. Every landmark is a character. That tree could be Jonah; that rock, the whale. He must tell the story of the land or it will die. And so will he.”

Wenders embodies this assertion in the act of making the film itself. The characters are impossible without the landscape. The architecture, movement, color, and light tease out the story that is never explicitly laid out in dialogue or heavy-handed inmagery. The frames are packed with information. The viewer must work patiently. The result is a meditative masterpiece.

And there’s Solveig Dommartin. The actress, who co-wrote this film with Wenders, has beauty, but more importantly, she is particularly alive on screen, always watchable, her eyes full of life. She died young in 2007, but we have her work in this, Wings of Desire, and other films to remind us of her extraordinary appeal.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The NFR Project #26: 'The Cry of the Children' (1912)

The Cry of the Children
Dir: George Nichols
The 1910s in America were filled with sentiments of reform. It was the end of the Progressive Era that brought social activism and political reform into the culture. This film displays, for one of the first times in cinema, the ability of the medium to expose substandard conditions and injustice. Of course, it “sells” these idea through the conventions of the stage melodrama, and through that, the Dickensian superpathos of the poor, including the traditional child-crucifixion, in which a helpless youngster dies, primarily in order to serve as a rebuke to society’s neglect.

Shot by the short-lived Thanhouser Company of New Rochelle, NY, the dramatic short gives us the squalid lives of a working family whose life is only lit by the presence of the youngest child, Little Alice. (Little Alice evidently stays alone in the wretched hovel they call home, winsomely dusting whilst the clan toils.) The wife of the rich, ruthless mill owner sees Little Alice and wants to adopt her for cash. No dice, says the tyke.

When the mother becomes ill, the youngest must work in her place at the mill, and the danger and drudgery drives her to the mill owner’s mansion, where she begs to be adopted. But no! They got a cockapoo instead. Little Alice goes back to the mechanical looms, where she quickly expires dramatically, downstage center.

On the way back from the funeral, Little Alice’s mother berates the mill owner’s wife as she and her husband drive past the unfortunates. Little Alice’s family is somewhat comforted by an angelic vision of her, but in their palatial mansion the mill owner’s wife is stricken with conscience. A quick, masterful set of dissolves shows her, the mill, a relay of the child’s death, the funeral procession, and back to the rich couple.

It’s conventionally shot otherwise. James Cruze, the future director of many silents, stars as the father and Little Alice was played by Marie Eline, whom the studio was trying to build up as a celebrity, the Thanhouser Kid.

The strangest parts of the film turns out to be the scenes filmed inside or in front of an unidentified factory. It’s easy to tell the actors from the workers by the pancake makeup used, and the intermingling of reality and narrative is odd, especially as the film is an indictment of such factories. Maybe the novelty of it lowered the owners’ guard. At any rate, there we are, watching as the characters work the actual machines. Everyone eaves the factory at the end of the day, the actors shuffled in among the people they are supposed to be portraying. It won’t be the last of film’s Alice-in-Wonderland moments.

It's instructive that, despite her sorrow at the death her husband's factory causes, the mill owner's wife does nothing. It’s heavy-handed, as much “muckraking” non-fiction and fiction by the likes of Upton Sinclair and Frank Norris tended to be. But it provides no solutions, no plan of action. The poor are to be pitied, and that's about it. Progressives and crusaders loved it; Woodrow Wilson cited it in his 1912 campaign. However, child labor wasn’t outlawed until 1938, and is still largely legal in the agricultural industry. 

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