Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The NFR Project #43: 'The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England' (1914)

One of Wishing Ring's many beautiful shots.
The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England
Dir: Maurice Tourneur
Prod: William A. Brady, Shubert family
Scr: Tourneur, from play by Owen Davis
Phot: John van den Broek
Premiere: November 9, 1914
54 min.

Maurice Tourneur inadvertently had the best possible training to be a film director. Born in Paris in 1876, he trained in the visual arts, assisting artists such as the sculptor Rodin. After military service, he took on the theatrical world, starting from the bottom up as a bit actor. Soon he was a valued director and designer as well.

He jumped into film in 1911, after working on more than 400 stage productions. Soon he rose to the top of the profession in France. His studio sent him America to make films and get them into that lucrative market. Wishing Ring is his third American film.

The story, taken from a play by Owen Davis, is nothing to write home about. It concerns an earl’s wastrely but good-hearted son, a parson’s daughter, mistaken identities, gypsies, deception and reconciliation. A stage-tested sure bet, presented in a clear and engaging manner, the film is part of a deal with theatrical impresarios the Schuberts to bring “quality entertainment” features to the movie theaters, instead of the genre shorts that predominated to that point.

Fort Lee, N.J., standing in for Old England
The Wishing Ring is valuable in that it demonstrates that D.W. Griffith did not sprout cinema single-handedly, like some aesthetic parthenogenesis. After almost a decade, every aspect of filmmaking was improving, and directors such as Tourneur were putting all the elements together and crating superior work.

Tourneur saw the screen as a theatrical proscenium; unlike many who came before him, he perceived it in depth, and gives us deep-focus shots decades before Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. His compositions keep the eye involved without calling attention to themselves; he is subordinating everything in proper proportion, focused on propelling the story forward. Best of all, he understands actors and lets them do detailed work while keeping them from going overboard.

This kind of tasteful, deftly observed drama would become a Hollywood staple and house style, and Tourneur was a master of it. He helmed great successes such as The Last of the Mohicans in 1917, as well as work with Mary Pickford. His son Jacques would become an acclaimed director as well.

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Boulder’s iconic Video Station closes after 35 years

It’s the end of the world. No hyperbole could encompass the humanity-threatening, seismic impact (for film lovers) of the closing, after 35 years of existence, of Boulder, Colorado’s movie-rental store, The Video Station, yesterday, March 6. It was a playground for introverts, a de facto center of film culture, a lens through which we could see 50,000 ways of looking at the world -- the most comprehensive commercially available film library between Chicago and L.A. For one of the few times in history, most of one art form was in one place, capable of being surveyed to the heart's content. We will never have the same opportunity to understand and enjoy movies again. If you feel strong enough, read on.

I was getting my hair cut last week, and I informed my long-time barber of the sacred repository’s imminent doom.

“That sucks, but I have Netflix, Hulu, so many streaming services,” she said. “I can watch whatever I want.”

This is why video stores failed. A decade after the birth of the video rental store in 1975, Blockbuster and other lowest-common-denominator video-rental chains began knocking off the independent, idiosyncratic film-rental libraries. Next, Netflix’s 1998 innovation of renting DVDs through the mail rapidly won over consumers reluctant to go shopping for them. Once broadband streaming challenges were overcome in 2007, the proliferation of subscription services began, dooming the holdouts. (One last, lone store, the Videotique in Denver, survives by focusing on material selected for its LGBT content.)

The Video Station was born in 1981, the brainchild of Scott Woodland. Its first location, near 38th and Arapahoe, was before my time. In 1990, Woodland and his partner Ivory Curtis moved it to a funky, freestanding two-story building at 1661 28th St. In 2002, Woodland sold the business to Bruce Shamma. By 2013, traffic had slowed to the point at which the store needed to reduce its rent, and the store moved to much smaller quarters at 5290 Arapahoe. Finally, economics caught up with them.

 A good video store was the best incubator for cinephiles (its most famous offspring being Quentin Tarentino). Video Station’s former employees include director Derek Cianfrance and his long-time editor, Tim Helton, Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy, and Turner Classic Movies’ Richard Steiner. Steiner, ironically, is Vice President of Digital Activation for TCM, which is rolling out streaming plans as we speak.

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, FilmStruck, Star, Showtime, and others are now fighting for eyeballs. Average viewers would rather subscribe to a stream than own a collection of films. Not surprisingly, most of these viewing services are turning into de facto production houses, finding more income in the creation of original projects than in stocking older work.

But, as we know, the machinations of the marketplace don’t always result in the best for mankind, even with an art form we’d like to pretend is not one. What about all the film nuts – lovers, students, writers, explorers, aspiring filmmakers, historians, researchers (of which I am almost all). Can you watch whatever you want online? Easily? Most importantly – how do you navigate what cinema is inside a relatively unnavigable space, with no humans to interact with, no guideposts, and no context?

The way that movie-browsing takes place now online is awful. The analogy that springs to my mind is this – take all the books from the public library and throw them in a pile. Now, make a mask with a thin horizontal slit for your eyes. Now – organize them. There are multiple copies of the most popular titles and genres on top, along with everything the library GUESSES you might like. Everything else is mixed in and settling to the bottom. Advanced search capabilities? Not so much. Oh, and if you really need to find a film, you need to pay to belong to a bunch of COMPETING libraries on the off chance that one of them is carrying it this month.

Plus – what do you do when the lights won’t come on? Going back to my barber – in the same conversation, she talked about their wifi going out at home.

“For two whole days!” she said. “We couldn’t do ANYTHING. I was so bored, I almost read a book!”

There is no remedy for losing access, whether for technical or financial reasons. In front of and smaller than the sheer terror of a person not being able to function in this world without access to the digital realm is the still lively fear that I won’t ever, ever again get to check out the Wim Wenders’ cut of “Until the End of the World,” or Gance’s “La Roue,” or the kicky ‘60s sci-fi/horror “Wild Wild Planet,” all of which I could grab at the Station, manufacturing the most bizarre triple- and quadruple-feature evenings you could imagine.

The most recent study I could find, from March of 2016, estimated that Amazon Prime Video carried over 20,000 titles, Hulu over 10,000, and Netflix carried a little over 7,000. At its most expansive, the Station was two stories crammed with easily more than 50,000 titles (there was some duplication during the VHS-DVD transition), corralled into categories and subcategories that wound across and down shelf after shelf, upstairs and down – groupings by director, actor, country, genre, subgenre, sub-subgenre (and for some time, a discreetly curtained and well-frequented adult-film nook). You could wander for hours, glancing through film boxes, compiling wish lists, or flipping through immense folders of TV offerings – the Station was ahead of the game in its collection of vintage television, especially British fare.

The 'old store' at 1661 28th Street 
The stock was the definition of eclectic – from de Sica to stag films, obscure artistic revelations and the crudest of B-movies. What was essential was that you had a schematic in place, and a staff that was hired on the strength of their passion for and knowledge of film (Scott used to test them regularly). Some were friendly, some were jerks, but everyone had strong opinions. That’s what made a query there worthwhile.

Categories were defined and could be explored, connections could be made, loves and hates defined. The Station encouraged you to dig into its catalogues – there were $1 nights for sci-fi and horror, pre-1960 American films, and TV fare. To pick any movie from any category was to take hold of a long string of associated ones. Take war films. Did you like Samuel Fuller’s “The Big Red One” (director’s cut, of course)? Then how about “Battleground,” or “The Big Parade”? Working along these lines, I stumbled into Klimov’s intensely disturbing World War II drama “Come and See,” a game-changer.

The Station was on a mission, and it succeeded, at least as far as I am concerned. I came to Boulder with some knowledge of film, but once I became a customer, that knowledge increased exponentially. I began renting from them so long ago that I can recall renting not only their VHS tapes but a bulky blue VCR to play them on as well.

I’d see the other regulars, and we’d compare selections. On weekend nights, the lines would be out the door, all eyes glancing nervously at the IN/OUT board to see if they could grab the last copy of whatever was hot. I saved my nickels and pennies and would rent my way through entire sections – film noir, Westerns, silent film, BBC chestnuts, Shakespeare, opera, avant-garde weirdness, and on and on. By 2001, I’d cracked the film-writing market and have been at it ever since. I couldn’t have done it without the Video Station.

When Oliver Stone visited the Boulder International Film Festival in 2011, he held up one of his DVDs. “This may be the last time you see one of these,” he said. “People won’t be able to come over and see what movies you have. What are you going to do – tell people, ‘Hey, check out my Netflix queue?’”

The store at 5290 Arapahoe
There seems to me something vitally necessary, damnably important, about being able to get your hands on an artistic artifact, to see it in context among its fellows, to be part of a community of interest. With the loss of the Video Station, this model falls apart. There was a sweet spot in time, when customers and product could intersect without agenda, let or hinder. The video store was where you could go to discover the capabilities of the medium. 

Shamma is currently boxing up all his movies and putting them in storage, with no intent of selling off his stock. Good for you, Bruce! Smart move. In 20 years, or less, video will return just as vinyl did, and it will be time to rent out a storefront again. If worse comes to worst, they could be donated to an institution for the tax write-off, and at least preserved as an accessible collection.

I went in one last time, renting Ken Russell's extremely disturbing, hard-to-find "The Devils" and Henry King's silent drama "The Winning of Barbara Worth," certainly the only movie to ever co-star Ronald Colman AND Gary Cooper. I couldn't make myself visit the store on the last day. My wife did, and scored a homemade poster lauding "The Red Shoes," which will now go to a place of honor in our house alongside a light bulb from the marquee of Denver's long-gone art house The Flick.

Meanwhile, I have more than 1,000 films at home, Let me know if you need to borrow something.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Finishing touches: ‘Obit’ as film, and vocation

Obituaries do not float to the top of the head when thinking of hot topics for documentary film. First -- the concise summation of a freshly dead person’s life story is not an outwardly kinetic, action-packed process. Second, many think of the craft, or interest in it, as morbid, the work of pale ghouls.

A filmmaker named Vanessa Gould saw through this, though, and created a fine feature documentary film, “Obit,” profiling the legendary obituary department at the New York Times, that’s making the rounds of the festival circuit, including two screenings at the Boulder International Film Festival this weekend.

Oh, and did I mention I’m in it? My obituary hobby is, rather. This is the part where I recuse myself from objectivity, altruism, and lack of self-interest in writing this story.

Here’s what happened – I got a lovely LinkedIn message from Gould a few weeks ago (this would mark the first and only time in 11 years of membership that LinkedIn has proven useful to me, by the way) telling me about the film, her impending visit to Boulder in conjunction with the film . . . and the intriguing message that I was in the film. Would I moderate the screenings and conduct the interviews afterward?

Let’s backtrack. I am a lifelong, dedicated reader of obituaries, with a special place in my heart for expert obituarists such as Fox, Weber, Jim Sheeler, Maureen O’Donnell, and the dearly departed Robert McG Thomas, Jr. and Alana Baranick. The Digital Age expanded the reach of the aficionados of the genre, and now news of notable deaths stream in from around the world, day and night. As deaths occur, they are hierarchized. Those deemed most significant get the most ink, whether saint or serial killer. A newspaper, and even a website, has to make choices about what goes into it, and how big a story needs to be.

I wondered about those obituaries below the radar. The mainstream carries a whimsical obit now and then, but what about the rest? And what about those who, while not world-shakers, lived a life, made a contribution to the world? Surely there must be a sweet spot between the generals, politicians, business leaders, celebrities and others who always got big play above the fold and those who escape notice altogether?

'Obit' director Vanessa Gould
So in July of 2010 I started the Obit Patrol – not a string of self-written obituaries, but a collection of links to obits written around the world, researched and daily and curated with an extreme and stubborn subjectivity. I want to celebrate lives and emphasize positive human capabilities, and have done so, week in and week out, ever since.

Back to the movie. It also happens that, for a decade, I helped out in all manner of ways with the infant Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF), now in its 13th year, including moderating and interviewing. My friends there were happy to have me back, and soon I was viewing the “Obit” screener.

Believe it or not, I would love this film whether or not I accidentally wandered into its frame. For both the obit fan and the casual viewer, “Obit” provides great insight into the process. It takes a canny director to coax life literally out of death, which Gould does here. She faces the crippling challenge, too, of creating compelling cinema out of a job that basically consists of doing research, making phone calls, and typing. Not too sexy. Gould makes it work.

She gives the piece a spine by following the creation of one obituary over the course of the film, punctuating it with interviews, delineations of the daily work cycle, and smash-cut archival collages, illustrations of lives in passing. Brief snatches of scratchy old home-movie footage cements the viewer’s identification with the process – here are the raw recorded remnants of memory, here’s where it starts, the piling and collating of experience, the sieving of significant detail from the mundane mass, the final making of how we remember someone. (Even the master of the Times “morgue,” Jeff Roth, gets to illuminate his role in things as he plows through room after room crammed with files and cabinets of files, hunting down information on the deceased.)

Ideally, an obit is not, as “Obit” explains, a paid death notice, nor a eulogy nor a paean (nor a last chance at revenge), but an honest and factual account of the significant details of one life, preferably about 800 words in length.

The constrictions of the format are as challenging as any in journalism, the deadlines are as rigorous, and the grieving witnesses interviewed about the life in question can be just as cagey, mendacious, difficult, and outright inaccurate as those interviewed about any criminal investigation. Also – no pressure – this may be the last or only time the person in question will be profiled. An obit freezes the way in which a person perceived. It is not a job for slackers or the timid.

From where did the idea for the film come? I called Gould a few days ago and asked her.

“I went to Columbia, and majored in physics and art history,” she said. “When I made my first film, ‘Between the Folds,’ it was kind of a magnum opus. It contained everything I had been thinking about, concerning the art process and the idea of making things physical.”

The 2008 documentary concerns artists and theoretical scientists obsessed with origami, the beautiful intersection of mathematics and art. One of the subjects was sculptor Eric Joisel, who died in October 2010.

“When I was finishing ‘Between the Folds,’” she said, “one of the artists got lung cancer. So, we knew his time was pretty limited. He was reclusive, his family had disenfranchised him. To them, he was this guy folding paper in the family barn, which they thought was embarrassing. Meanwhile, he was reaching a level of creative inspiration that he had never achieved earlier. The sense of cultural loss that was accompanying my feelings around his death was deep. So, I contacted the New York Times, told them about him. And I was amazed. They produced this wonderful obit on this utterly unknown, seemingly inconsequential artist. And I began to think about the layers of it, and the myriad of life stories that flow through that place.”

Gould had challenges. Obituarists were working on deadline as she covered them.

“I promised each writer we would only do one day with them (on the job),” Gould said. “I took the time beforehand to meet with them and talk to them, establish a rapport. Still, we had to get in, get the footage, and get out. It had to be surgical. You don’t screw around with the Times. We shot only about 100 hours of film. Editing took two years.”

Away from the workplace, her miniature portraits of the writers – Fox, Weber, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, and Paul Vitello – really succeed in illuminating their personalities and bring home the qualities need for the job. All involved are thoughtful and eloquent, have extensive experience in other news departments, demonstrate expertise in unrelated disciplines, have lives, share anecdotes. It’s a cliché that reporters a step away from retirement are likely to be sloughed onto the obit desk, but a certain amount of life experience and tact are required, personal experience with loss and a sense of the vagaries of life. (Would you like a 19-year-old intern calling you up for obit info after Grandpa dies? I don’t think so.)

“My main impression,” Gould says of her subjects, “was the abundance of professionalism. They are at the service of and very deferential to their subject matter. That being said, we really savored those moments when they opened up and were vulnerable and human.”

(As to my “appearance” -- it’s a brief clip of now-retired NYT deputy obit editor Jack Kadden checking my site in 2014 that makes a 0:03 appearance near the beginning of the film, and is listed as “additional material: incidental capture,” which also roughly describes my life to date. It is immensely satisfying to know that Obit Patrol is of practical use, especially to the only newspaper to which I still subscribe.)

My three seconds of fame -- screen capture from 'Obit.'
Obvious puns aside, obituarists do seem to be in a dying business. The “news hole,” and staff, and resources, have all shrunk significantly since the great nationwide journalism purges that began in 2009. In fact, obits, death, mourning, dying, and even end-of-life planning and the problems of aging are taboo subjects in a society that clings desperately to images of youth and vitality. Perhaps only the oncoming bulge of geriatric Baby Boomers will stimulate more serious consideration of those topics.

You never know, though. I just checked the Society of Professional Obituary Writers site, and there are more than five dozen members listed, more than I can recall seeing since its inception in 2007. Death is a constant, and curiosity about it is still there. We still want to know when someone has died, and why, and what their lives “meant.” We still want a sense of that life, even if it’s a life that made no sense. We want context and continuity. And we live in hope that we will be remembered in turn as well, that someone will do justice to our efforts on this planet.

If worse comes to worse, you can always start your own obituary service. I did.

Obit will be screened at the Boulder International Film Festival on Saturday, March 3 at 5:15 p.m. at Boulder High School, 1604 Arapahoe Ave., and on Sunday, March 4 at 12:30 p.m. at eTown Hall, 1535 Spruce St. For tickets and information, please visit

Obit (2016 U.S. 93 min)
Prod Co: Green Fuse Films, Imperfect Films, Mystic Artists Films Productions, Topiary Productions Prod: Vanessa Gould et al (14 listed) Dir: Vanessa Gould Scr: N/A Phot: Ben Wolf Ed: Kristin Bye Mus: Joel Goodman
With: Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Jack Kadden, Douglas Martin, Jeff Roth, Daniel Slotnik, Paul Vitello, Peter Keepnews, Dolores Morrison, Jon Pareles, Earl Wilson