Monday, June 10, 2019

Formative Film 15/16 -- 'Network'/'Rocky'

Movies were changing in a very concrete way, and the contrast between these two pictures shows us what happened.

Dir: Sidney Lumet
Prod: Howard Gottfried, Fred C. Caruso
Scr: Paddy Chayefsky
Phot: Owen Roizman
Release date: Nov. 27, 1976

Dir: John G. Avildsen
Prod: Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler
Scr: Sylvester Stallone
Phot: James Crabe
Release date: Dec. 3, 1976

Lakeside Twin Theatres
4655 Harlan Street
Wheat Ridge, CO

The New American Cinema movement that began with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 was dazzling. Thanks to uncaring parents and lax ticket-sellers, for a decade I could see a lot of things I was way too young to see over at our local Arvada Plaza movie theater, a 20-minute walk from our house. The films were revelations, difficult and strange in a way that was a lot more bracing and appealing than the kids’ movies of the day. I devoured them all without flinching.

Then came Jaws in the summer of 1975. Everyone saw it, and it became the number-one of topic of conversation until the fall; the next summer, we all went to see The Omen. These were good old genre pictures writ large, throwbacks to B movies with A movie budgets. Ten years of bold experimentation were winding down, and crowd-pleasing extravaganzas hearkening to the tried-and-true clichés of the Studio Era were in the air.

The Lakeside Twin was a very nondescript, functional duplex of a movie theater. Now that I was old enough to drive, I scorned taking girls to my childhood movie theater. At the same time, “my” car was my mother’s 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, called the Skunkmobile due to its black paint wearing off in nice, white longitudinal stripes along the top of the vehicle. The Skunkmobile did not really have any uphill power, so when I took girls out, I always had to choose places that could be reached by a level route. The Twin was far enough from home, but not impossible to get to.

I already knew about Chayefsky, one of the most legendary figures from the live TV era, which I’d just missed out on. Network was wonderful — dark and canny, relentlessly downbeat, a Swiftian scream of satire directed at TV, the medium that had propelled Chayefsky to face in the first place. It was also a classic New York film, full of tough, hyperarticulate performers not afraid to mess around with contradictions. Watching them act was just as enthralling as absorbing the subject matter. I wanted to do that. I could do that. I was going to be an actor, preferably William Holden.

(One of my favorite memories took place in the NYU dorms the night Network premiered on network television; during the famous "mad as hell" scene, everyone in lower Manhattan opened their windows at home and screamed out into the street. It was hilarious.)

Meanwhile, my girlfriend was bored. My enthusiasm for whatever film I watched has always been quite complete; I generally walk around talking like the characters for an hour or so after and require a long debriefing. Thanks to our cinephile mother, were raised to observe and analyze movies in detail.

This night, my beloved was having none of it. I looked at realized that, beautiful and sweet though she might be, she didn’t like to discuss movies and would have to go. I dumped her. (She did let me know that she had only been seeing me out of pity.)

The next week, I got up the nerve to ask another girl out, and Rocky was on the bill.

In the time long before online fan clubs and aggregation reviews, buying a movie ticket was a crap shoot. You had word of mouth and one or two newspaper reviews to go on. We were swept away by the energy and heart of Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough effort about a boxing underdog and his girlfriend.

Now, Rocky is built on the foundations of the boxing-film subgenre, and I hadn’t watched them — Golden BoyChampionKid Galahad, and Body and Soul — yet. Once I did, I realized how by-the-numbers Stallone’s script was. Here was the chipper striver, embodying the American dream by coming outta nowhere, a Cinderella boy making something of himself, and discovering the important things in life as well. It was corny, easy to swallow, easy to root for. It was a premonition of the simplistic 1980s. We bought it, but the star-spangled chauvinism would get old fast.

THAT night, my date and huddled in the car after the show as a wet snow swirled around us. Were we making out? Hell no, we were discussing the movie. We drove over to Goodberry’s at Wadsworth and Ralston for some coffee and cinnamon rolls, and we stayed together through high school.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

NFR Project: 'Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street'

Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street
Dir: N/A
Scr: N/A
Phot: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer
Photographed May 21, 1905

It’s hypnotic. The simple progress of a subway car uptown seems banal today, but when it opened it was a technological miracle worthy of public interest.

Many films made during the first decade of the medium’s existence were “actualities”; that is, unedited reels of documentary film that captured far-off and exotic locations. The idea that movies could annihilate the frustrations of distance was a powerful one. For a time, many customers paid for a chance to see a place they might otherwise never visit, such as the Pyramids, the Rockies, and the like.

This film documents the recently opened New York subway, following a car as it made its rattling way along the system’s new tracks, along the line of the IRT #5 line that still runs under Park and Madison Avenues on Manhattan’s east side. Capturing the images was quite a project, requiring a train holding the camera to pace the subject car from behind, along with a companion car on a parallel track pacing the subject car and illuminating it with a bank of lights.

The effect is striking, a staccato rippling of light that’s simultaneously soothing and unnerving (early travelers were warned not to look at the scenery flashing by). The effect seems like a precursor of Dada’s absurd experiments with film, or Stan Brakhage and Joseph Cornell’s 1955 collaboration The Wonder Ring, which documented NYC’s soon-to-be-torn-down 3rd Avenue elevated train.

The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Friday, May 17, 2019

NFR Project: 'Something Good -- Negro Kiss'

It’s only 20 seconds long, but the contrast it provides in thinking about on-screen presence is a valuable one.

Something Good — Negro Kiss
Dir: Unknown
Prod: William Selig
Scr: N/A
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 1898
20 seconds

This “Negro kiss” film came as a direct result of the 1896 John C. Rice/May Irwin “The Kiss,” a huge nickelodeon hit from 1896 which wewrote about here. Evidently William Selig, an Edison competitor who based his Selig Polyscope Company in Chicago, thought a similar product, enacted by black people for black audiences, would make money. This is the earliest preserved Selig-produced film.

It probably failed, as it languished unknown, until it was rediscovered by USC archivist Dino Everett decades later, and properly identified with the help of Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of the University of Chicago. It depicts two vaudeville performers, Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle, embracing.

In sharp contrast to the stagey and stiff Rice/Irwin kiss, Brown and Suttle sway in gentle harmony together, locking lips then parting, then returning to kiss again. In between kisses they smile, they laugh, they josh with each other. For the first time, we see two normal, unaffected people close up, a refreshing blast from the past that belies all the staid and awkward filmmaking of that period, and eloquently contradicts all the white-promulgated stereotypes about African American behavior common at the time. It’s a breath of fresh air.

The National Film Rregistry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Reviewing China’s sci-fi blockbuster ‘The Wandering Earth’

In recent years, China has stepped up as the world’s largest consumer of entertainment. The gravitational pull of its enormous audience means that, for years, Western films have been rewritten and recut to appeal to Chinese audiences (and Chinese censors). Now the Chinese film industry is cutting out the middleman and producing its own blockbusters, films completely off the West’s radar such as the romantic comedy The Mermaid, adventure films such as Wolf Warrior 2, and fantasies like Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back.

The Wandering Earth (Liu lang di qiu)

Dir: Frant Gwo
Prod: Gong Geer, Yang Hongtao, Hong Wang
Scr: Gong Geer, Junce Ye, Yan Dongxu, Frant Gwo, Yang Zhixue
Phot: Michael Liu
Premiere: February 5, 2019
125 min.

The new science-fiction epic The Wandering Earth is garnering attention due to its unpromoted posting onto Netflix this week. Why the streaming service would choose not to trumpet such a profitable film smacks of cultural prejudice. Why not promote the hell out of it? Can China produce a viable blockbuster, and is it worth seeing?

Yes on both counts. The Wandering Earth breaks no new ground, but it is entrtaining, kinetic and visually rich, mounted firmly on the template of the by-turns wisecracking and tear-jerking action flick.

Like many another science-fiction film, the premise is ridiculous. The sun is unexpectedly expanding, and Earth is threatened with destruction. Scientists discover another viable star to orbit, “only” 4.2 light years away. Outfitting the planet with 10,000 “Earth engines” to push it through space on a 2,500-year journey to its new home is a practically unworkable idea — but if you let go of that, the movie flows along nicely. (There's already a good story by Emily Rome via Inverse about the scientific plausibility of the film.)

The conflict of the film stems from the Earth’s flyby of Jupiter, intended to give it a gravity assist to propel it out of the Solar System. Unfortunately, Jupiter’s gravity knocks out many Earth engines and threatens the Earth with capture and destruction by the giant planet. It will take the efforts of astronaut Liu Peiqiang (played by film star Wu Jing), his estranged son Liu Qi, and assorted misfits to come up with a strategy to save the planet. (Comic relief is provided by the half-Chinese, half-Australian goofy ne’er-do-well Tim; is this a slam of Western slackerism?)

The defining feature of The Wandering Earth is its relentless pace, it nervous giantism. It mounts set piece after set piece, each one bigger than the last. Director Frant Gwo has obviously studied the work of directors George Miller and Luc Besson; unfortunately, he’s also studied Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer. The movie strains to prove its technical chops, and it succeeds; it looks great. But narratively, the result is like an overpacked closet — you open the film, and everything comes tumbling out, overwhelming you.

Something is ALWAYS on the verge of not working out in the film; it’s one last-second escape to the next. Imagine a film made out of nothing but climaxes, and you have The Wandering Earth. The breakneck pace is halted only when an emotional speech needs to be made, during which everything comes to a shuddering halt. The production design is Standard Gritty Futuristic, with inventive art direction by Ang Gao; Roc Chen’s score is a horn-heavy imitation of the swelling orchestral accompaniments we’ve come to expect with this brand of fare.

So, our heroes struggle again and again to overcome impossible odds. Given the relentless stimulation the move feels compelled to provide, it’s hard to maintain the emotional through-line the movie is trying hard to lay down as well. The film premiered in Chinese New Year — a time when families gather together from across the country (and go see movies together). At bottom, The Wandering Earth is about family connecting — a father with his children, a brother with his sister. This gives the film just enough heart to keep it from floating away on a cloud of technological frenzy.

And there’s a hint of subversiveness as well. The hero must override a HAL-like computer system, and bureaucratic resistance from the never-seen United Earth Government, to save the day. Considering how conformist we’ve been taught Chinese society is, it’s refreshing to see a little unilateral John Wayne-style action take place.

So, with The Wandering Earth it’s obvious that China can replicate Western tent-pole cinema. Now: can it do better?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The NFR Project #71: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1920), or: Political Incorrectness in the Big Woods

Wallace Beery captures Lillian Hall in The Last of the Mohicans.
The Last of the Mohicans is another difficult “classic.” The 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper is enshrined as the first Great American Novel. It is almost more famous as the focus of Mark Twain’s immortal and incendiary 1895 critical thrashing, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Mohicans has been dug up, re-examined, re-interpreted, lauded or hooted at, and returned to the grave several times in literary history. It is reviled today by the right-thinking due to its inherent racism, its endorsement of Manifest Destiny, its obsession with the perils of what was termed miscegenation. Wait a minute — maybe that’s what MAKES it the Great American Novel.

The Last of the Mohicans
Dir: Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown
Scr: Robert A. Dillon
Phot: Philip R. Du Bois, Charles Van Enger
Premiere: November 21, 1920
73 min.

Like it or not, we are stuck with it on our reading lists. As poorly written as it is, as wooden as the characters are, it is what we used to call a “rip-snorter.” It’s set during the French and Indian War, 1757, and has some basis in historical fact . . . making it, fittingly, the first notable “based on a true story” trope as well.

The basic plot is the effort to get two sisters, comely and of marriageable age, Alice and Cora, to their father, a British colonel who commands a frontier fort. The evil mainspring of the plot is Magua, a crafty and deceitful Huron who desires vengeance against Cora’s father for hooking him on that ol’ white lightning, and who develops a hankering for Cora. The ensuing complex of chases, rescues, captures, sieges, combat, torture, massacre, and whatnot crowd the pages.

This is a basically a battle over the ovaries of the young ladies involved. Cora and Alice are half-sisters. Alice is blond, and betrothed to dashing young Major Duncan Heyward, who is also a bit of a thickie. Cora has dark hair — due to her vaguely, miniscule yet significant amount of West Indies blood! — that drives Magua ka-ray-zay. It is this Cora-inspired lust that places all of them in peril, again and again, and eventually gets three people killed. Wombs are treacherous.

Working on the side of the angels, fortunately, are the prototypical calm, noble savages Chingachgook and Uncas (the latter our titular, doomed hero), and Natty Bumppo aka Hawkeye, a frontiersman with superhuman powers — he can hunt, shoot, fight, canoe, leap, stab, and presumably go to the bathroom with greater strength, agility, and speed than any man in fiction. The Last of the Mohicans may not be a Great American Novel, but it is the first Great American Action Movie.

This is the first of three Hollywood runs at the tome. Behind the camera was Maurice Tourneur, a prestige artist three of whose films — The Wishing RingThe Poor Little Rich Girl, and The Blue Bird — precede this entry on the National Film Registry list. Tourneur got through about 40 percent of the filming when illness forced him off the project. Into his place stepped his editor and second-unit man Clarence Brown. This turned out to be Brown’s big break.

It’s interesting to guess at who shot what. Tourneur used a very stage-picture kind of look in his films, with plenty of visual cues placed to create a sense of depth. Brown’s shots are very flat and functional, two-shots that emphasize emotion and relation. (Brown would later become Garbo and Crawford’s go-to director.) This is the reverse of later Hollywood habit, when second units were sent to do the action sequences and links, and the name directors stayed in the studio with the lead performers.

Their joint creation works well, moving briskly from one picturesque sequence to another (much shooting was done at Big Bear Lake and in Yosemite). There are stunts, explosions, a bit of gore, even a little baby-tossing. The problem of miscegenation is stated boldly; unlike in the novel, there is an unconsummated passion displayed between Cora and Uncas that makes their movie-logic doom all the more certain. Sure, Magua (Wallace Beery!) gets it in the neck, but not before we are shown a dying Uncas crawling to the body of Cora, and twining his fingers with her, before expiring.

Of course, it is condescending (an intertitle describes Uncas’ “simple words of a savage – yet revealing depths of thought and imagination”) and white actors in “redface” play Native Americans (Boris Karloff is in there, somewhere). This it has in common with other films of period, ones we’ve covered previously: Traffic in SoulsBroken BlossomsBirth of a Nation. It was symptomatic of the time, but still deserving of study.

And the text is not as irredeemable as it seems. Though the 1936 version, starring Randolph Scott as Hawkeye, reiterates the conceits of the original, take a look at Michael Mann’s 1992 adaptation. Mann is not a director we associate with pastoral settings (ThiefManhunterHeatThe Insider) but he makes something compelling, visceral, and questioning of the narrative. Daniel Day-Lewis trained for the role of Hawkeye by legendarily going off into the forest and living off it for a few months before filming, just to get into the right frame of mind. He goes for authenticity, employing nearly 1,000 Native American actors.

The result stands the fairly narrow ideas of Cooper and gets them to resonate. Tourneur and Brown’s version is beautiful, but rings hollow.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Making of an American.’

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Predictably, I disliked the new 'Dumbo'

Michael Keaton as the incarnation of all that is evil -- Walt Disney? 
Did you ever play pile-on as a kid? It’s pretty simple; you tackle whoever has the ball and everybody else piles on top of you until the carrier is crushed at the bottom, out of breath.

It’s what’s happening right now critically with Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which if it had been better, or made more money, would be referred to as Disney’s Dumbo. It’s pile-on time for Burton. This is unfortunate, as it’s not his fault.

Dir: Tim Burton
Scr: Ehren Kruger
Phot: Ben Davis
Release date: March 11, 2019
112 min.

First of all, I’m going to see whatever Burton makes. I’m one of those people. There are a couple of dozen directors out there whose work I’m going to watch. Even if it blows. Why? Because they are interesting, and I like to see what they are thinking about and how their work is evolving, for better or worse.

This means I sat through Alice in Wonderland (2010), which read like an epileptic fit I once had inside Meow Wolf. This means I sat through the new Dumbo. Because by God, I am going to give Tim Burton the benefit of the doubt.

And really, does any director have a chance with Dumbo? Disney’s new Brilliant Plan consists of reshooting everything successful — as live-action when the original was animated, and I’m sure vice versa when we run out of intellectual property — back and forth, across eternity. Given the importance of the character, it was, natch, necessary to update all the racism and underage drinking out of it, meanwhile making it fall within the parameters of today’s set of mainstream sensibilities — racially and ability-sensitive, anti-corporate, inclusive.

Given that, it’s a pleasant way to pass the time, especially if you never saw the original. In fact, if you never saw the original, you would wonder what all the fuss was about. In that context, it’s a diverting fantasy. Compared to the original, though, it’s a train wreck (or fire — things tend to burn down in this film). How come?

Oddly, the original Dumbo was prompted by a merchandising tie-in. In 1941, a new toy called a Roll-a-Book, much like a panorama or an early Viewmaster, needed a sample story for the device to use. The device failed, but Disney bought the story rights.

The original Dumbo was not produced under optimal circumstances. In the wake of the box-office failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo was made in a stripped-down, cost-effective fashion unlike Disney’s previous, more craftsman-like efforts. In addition, a five-week animators’ strike during production affected the work, and permanently changed the atmosphere at the studio.

The original was one of those traumatizing Disney experiences I suffered as a child, along with PinocchioMary PoppinsBambiSnow White, Old Yeller . . . With Dumbo, you have to jettison a lot. In the original, Dumbo drinks water spiked with champagne, leading to the bizarre and inventive “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence (which freaked me out as a kid and inspired in 5-year-old me an epic anesthetic-triggered sequence of nightmares during my tonsillectomy), which leads directly into the insanely problematic “When I See An Elephant Fly” sequence.

Dumbo and his friend Timothy the mouse are befriended by a group of crows, who are characterized as African American men. Yeah. Just to make sure we get it, their leader is named Jim Crow. He is voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white man (best known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) using a stereotyped “Negro” voice. The rest of the voices are performed by black performers (James Baskett, Hall Johnson, Nick Stewart).

So, we have to get rid of all that. Unfortunately, the screenwriter goes to the old Disney standby — the dead parent! It can’t really be a Disney film unless someone is dead or dying, can it? There’s one beautiful moment when Holt the trick rider and single parent (Colin Farrell) talks to his precocious oldest child Milly (Nico Parker) in the lamplight of their circus tent, which behind them bears the illustration of Holt and his wife and partner, Milly’s dead mother. Which the film promptly comes back to again and again until you’re like OK I GET IT.

But it doesn’t help. The screenplay fails because it is timid, it tiptoes around the story, it doesn’t want us to get too upset, it is afraid of messing it up. Which causes it to mess it up. Dumbo wants to be edgy and impactful, but it doesn’t have the balls.

Basically, the new version is about being yourself and all that shit. That Colin Farrell has to walk around with a sawdust-filled fake arm is pretty representative of the whole problem. He’s a traumatized WWI veteran! Can he still be a valuable member of society? Sure! Cast away thy superfluous simulacrum of an appendage! The character is saddled with symbolic action that no one would ever really engage in.

It’s difficult to tell what, if anything, is real here. The entire production was studio-shot; there are no outdoor sequences at all. It is vacuum-sealed. Is it fair to call it live-action? It is really a digital work, with human bits pasted in here and there. This is now out mainstream cinema, all superheroes and fantasies. Late-empire dreaming.

What other problems were there . . . .oh, yes, why is Eva Green in this movie? She’s a great actress when you give here something to do. She’s given nothing here. Is she good? Bad? Indifferent? Does she have a backstory? Is her character anything but a means to an end? Nnnnnnope.

And Michael Keaton. Well. He gets to do that thing that every classic Disney villain does — he gets to yell, “GET THOSE KIDS!” (Later he gets to yell, “GET THAT ELEPHANT!”, which is just icing on the cake.) With Keaton, you get something killer or you don’t. In this case, he does not get the opportunity to create a distinctive character. When his theme park burns down, I find myself worrying about the villain’s insurance policy. This is not what the audience should be thinking about when this is happening. In fact, the whole idea that this new story is some kind of subversive allegory about the evil corporation stamping the life of out of the American Dream doesn’t fly either.

On the plus side, Danny DeVito does fine, he’s indestructible. (There’s a brief attempt at pathos, when it’s revealed he’s not a set of twins, as advertised. Why? What was that?) Burton also takes very good care of his supporting players. He finds great faces, including in this outing Sharon Rooney as Miss Atlantis, DeObia Oparei as Rongo the Strongo the strongman (and one-man band, and accountant), and Frank Bourke the organ grinder. It’s a pleasure to see Roshan Seth as the snake charmer (loved him since Juggernaut) — though he is called on repeatedly to portray stereotypical Indian characters, he is charming and memorable.

And the heavy-lifting award goes to Phil Zimmerman, who must undertake the thankless chore of playing the psychotic, sneering, sadistic Disney villain, named Rufus Sorghum to underline his bumpkin-nature. Here he must play the animal trainer who torments the animals (WHY do they always hire sadistic psychos to take care of the animals? What are the hiring procedures implemented by the circus? Can they not make applicants take the Myers-Briggs test?) and of course must suffer a satisfying grisly and embarrassing punishment-death as a result. Right on, Phil!

Oh, and Dumbo flies. That was cool.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Adieu, Agnes Varda (1928-2019): A Tribute

It serves no purpose for those who say they were long into Agnes Varda before she was popular save to massage their pretentious little egos.

That being said, I was WAY into Agnes Varda before all y’all.

She was 90 years old, so her passing is like that of any extremely old relative — sad but not unexpected.

Why is she such a big deal? The fact that she won general acceptance without trashing her integrity made her unique. She remained herself, despite the tendency of media to neutralize her outrageous independence as cute and winsome. For many she was just a tiny little troll lady who made quirky, inoffensive films. But her work was not cute. She was by far the most subversive of directors.

First of all, she was just a good filmmaker. She could make great narrative films (‘Cleo from 5 to 7,’ ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,’ ‘Vagabond’) and great documentaries (‘Black Panthers,’ ‘Uncle Yanco’).

She is lauded as the Mother and Grandmother of New Wave cinema. She was cited as a leading Second Wave feminist, a thinker and a writer on gender and society. It’s a topic she treats directly, and that permeates her work as a filmmaker. How could it not?

However, she went far, far beyond that in her films that are called documentaries but aren’t (‘The Gleaners and I,’ ‘Daguerrotypes,’ ‘The Beaches of Agnes’). This is the work she did that was really life-changing for me as a viewer and as a writer.

She would focus on a subject and, basically, look into it with her camera. (This got easier for her as filming gear got smaller and lighter, less obtrusive.) At times you felt she was spying on reality. She could capture a world, a scene, a vibe. She could insert observations, confessions, admissions of a lack of understanding. She could use film like an instrument with many components, constructing meaning and argument with the ease of a magician.

That approach reads like a blueprint for self-indulgent disaster, and in the hands of many it is. Varda’s gift was her intelligence and honesty. She would never take the easy way out. She would let her own ambiguities into the film, so that we could see and factor in her viewpoint, even her bias. Her subjective honesty is revolutionary for me. It allows the author to investigate, to feel, to think, to get all that in front of people, to get them to see freshly. Varda shows you how to do it. If you follow her lead, you find how stony and narrow this path is.

She had heart. Not sentimentality, but heart in the true sense of inciting and sharing her passionate, compassionate truths. She could listen with her camera, the hardest thing of all. The impulse of anyone who wields a camera is to say what they have to say. Varda lets the camera follow, sits quietly in the corner, breathes. The humans in Varda films are substantial, thorny, complicated, real.

Her films are classics because to can return to them and finds new things, always. By giving us fresh visions of humanity, she endorsed the human experience. You walk out of a Varda film and for a minute your persistence of vision gives you the world as she saw it, delightful and moving.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The NFR Project #70: The Attack of the Jewish Mother in 'Humoresque' (1920)

Dir: Frank Borzage
Scr: Frances Marion, William LeBaron (uncred.)
Phot: Gilbert Warrenton
Premiere: May 30, 1920
71 min.

Schmaltz. It’s a Yiddish word that literally means chicken fat; my wife can remember her grandmother keeping a jar of it handy in the fridge, for frying or simply for spreading on bread. It’s an acquired taste, strong and cloying, but an integral part of home life for most Jewish-American families (especially for those for whom butter was dear, or for those who observed the law of kashrut, which forbids the mixing of dairy and meat). Perhaps this is how the word grew out of its original usage and came to mean any entertainment larded with excess sentimentality. Humoresque is pure schmaltz.

One of the oldest jokes to still kick around from vaudeville days is, “Doc, will I be able to play the violin after this operation?” “Certainly.” “That’s great! I didn’t know how before!” The gag stems directly from the enormous, nation-wide success of Humoresque. (The Marx Brothers’ first film, now lost, was a 1921 parody titled Humor Risk.) The story of the travails of an impoverished musical prodigy is a tribute to the spirit of the immigrants who fought their way out of squalor; it’s also a monument to the monstrousness of mother love.

The screenplay was adapted by Fannie Hurst from her own story. In those days, magazines were plentiful, their pages crammed with freelance contributions, and there were many well-known and popular female authors whose work was adapted to the screen, including Hurst, Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Edna Ferber (Showboat), and Mary Roberts Rinehart (The Bat).

Humoresque is set and shot in New York City’s Lower East Side, still a teeming tenement in the 1920s. Papa Kantor works in a shop on the ground floor, blithely forging antiques. Upstairs, his large brood is crowded into a cold-water flat outside of which the elevated train tracks run, so close you could touch it.

Despite these circumstances, the home atmosphere is warm and cozy — in Yiddish, hamish. While Mama Kantor rules the roost, little Abraham plays down in the street, when he’s not dodging anti-Semite kids who beat him up and chalk a dollar sign on his back. In love with Abe is little Gina, who’s so poor her only pet is a dead kitten she pulled out of the garbage. (I’m not kidding!)

While to Abie’s father a cash register is “beautiful moosic” (the film manages to affirm many more Jewish stereotypes than it dispels), Abe falls in love at first sight with a violin. He begs for one. His mother’s dream suddenly comes true. Mama Kantor is the classic Jewish mother — short, stout, emotional, smothering. “My baby – a musician!” she exclaims.

It’s important to remember that in this period, excellence in the arts was a pathway out of poverty for scorned minorities. Talent sometimes overrode prejudice, and many star-struck parents pushed their children relentlessly to make something of themselves. Mama Kantor, the real head of the house, overrides Papa’s reluctance and gets Abe his violin. “Sublimest (sic) of all is the faith of a mother,” reads a title card.

Of course, Abe grows up to be a brilliant concert violinist, performing literally for the crowned heads of Europe. (As he plays, Mama Kantor buttonholes the servants, opening her locket to display a baby picture of Abe, naked on a bearskin rug. Oy.) Abe returns home for a triumphant benefit concert for the neighborhood. (The prolific and gifted silent-era film composer Hugo Riesenfeld wrote a score for the film; it would be great to find it and hear it in sync with the movie.) He opens with the Kol Nidre, the ancient and heart-tugging melody that opens the High Holy Days. His signature piece is Humoresque, presumably the well-known Dvorak piece of 1894.The crowd goes wild — he gets 15 encores.

A big-time booker shows up with a contract, but Abe can’t sign it. “I just signed a contract with Uncle Sam,” he says proudly. He’s off to WWI. Needless to say, Mama is not pleased. “Cut out my heart – but leave me my wonder boy!” she cries. He responds, “You wouldn’t want me to hide behind my violin?” This is where the love of a mother turns really scary. She can’t let go of him. She’s kissing him on the lips. She makes him sit on her lap! In his uniform! This is the kind of stuff that Philip Roth would break down for us decades later.

He leaves his mother holding his violin, a painfully obvious Freudian moment. Abe comes home from the war with a shoulder wound and a psychological block. He’s afraid to try and play again. An operation fixes the physical problem, but not the mental. It takes his faithful girlfriend Gina (remember her? She hangs on at the edges of the film, ceding center stage largely to Mama) to break him out of his fear, and, frankly, his mother’s domination.

Frank Borzage’s direction is unremarkable technically. There were two kind of studio directors at the time — artists who used the camera in a bravura way, and those who simply stuck to telling the story as unobtrusively as possible. Borzage is not a visual innovator, but he was great at getting in close and conveying relationship and emotion. This would serve him well later in a string of hits featuring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (Seventh Heaven, 1927; Street Angel, 1928; Lucky Star, 1929). Borzage would pick up Oscars for his direction of Seventh Heaven and 1931’s Bad Girl.

In a more aware age, it’s easy to assign pathologies to the characters, but at the time this was a heart-warming, heart-wringing success that ran at New York’s Criterion Theatre for an amazing 12 weeks. It dates terribly today, but Humoresque spoke clearly to the audience of the in what was called Mammaloschen – the mother tongue.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Maurice Tourneur’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’

Monday, February 18, 2019

Watching Washington: Presidents’ Day movies, Part 1

The Apotheosis of Lincoln, illustration ca. 1865.
Presidents’ Day is jacked up. To begin with, it’s not on the right day. Or days.

As a celebration, it’s a conflation of the birthdays of two iconic American presidents: Abraham Lincoln (#16) and George Washington (#1). Lincoln’s birthday is on February 12, 1809; Washington’s is on February 22, 1731, except Washington’s was really on February 11, 1731 as the British Empire didn’t switch over to the Gregorian calendar until Washington was 21, in 1752. Then Congress changed it and since 1971, it’s taken place on the third Monday of each February, so now their birthdays can be commemorated anywhere between February 15 and February 22 of any given year. Got me?

And how IS it celebrated? We don’t really party; we don’t dress up like Abe or G Dubs. We go shopping, which was perhaps the whole point of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to begin with. Before then, each day was observed on its own.

Perhaps I remember this more vividly because it was a constant in school for me through age 10. The twin icons of American self-definition loomed over the second month of the year in the classroom. We were living at the pinnace of the American Century, and Washington and Lincoln, neither yet interrogated by more probing historians. They were our two secular saints, our patriarchs and role models. Colorful posters of them unfurled above us; we drew them, played them, we memorized their words. For a brief, illusory time we had one version of history, relaxed and assured, unrevised and incorrect.

As cinematic material, the two men couldn’t been more different. Lincoln is most congenial subject of biography, and fable, that American history has yet spawned. A lifetime is not enough to absorb all the material examining him. Washington lies at a further remote, before photography and other voracious technologies were there to document him as obsessively as Lincoln was.

We can’t construe versions of Washington in the public imagination very well. He is instantly recognizable — Zeus-like, imperturbable, stiff . . . stodgy. Colorful does not enter into it. He had wooden teeth and slaves (and in fact, Washington’s slaves weren’t even a part of our era’s history lessons. Mount Vernon evidently came from IKEA.) Not a lot to work with there. In numerous historical films, Washington just kind of parachutes awkwardly into the scenario to lend a sense of authenticity (“Hey, look! It’s Washington!”), usually to endorse a hero, inspire somebody, or seal the deal on a happy ending.

In keeping with Washington’s proverbial seriousness, the actor who have played him have uniformly possessed a sense of gravitas. That is, they have to play a stiff. The first guy to make a thing of playing Washington was Joseph Kilgour, who did so in four films between 1909 and 1915, the first of which was Washington Under the American Flag.

Joseph Kilgour as Washington

Arthur Dewey played Washington in D.W. Griffith’s America (1924), his Revolutionary War epic. 

Arthur Dewey as Washington in America (1924)
Prolific British character actor Alan Mowbray played him three times, most notably in Alexander Hamilton (1931), a vehicle for actor George Arliss, who made a career out of playing historical figures.

Another Englishman, Montagu Love, played him twice — most notably in the Oscar-winning 1939 short Sons of Liberty, starring Claude Rains as Haym Salomon, patriot and financier of the American Revolution.

After this, there is scant evidence of the first Chief Executive on the screen. When he did return, it was almost exclusively to television — Washington could not generate enough charisma to sustain a feature film. John Crawford makes a brief appearance as Washington in John Paul Jones (1959), the only visual evidence of which scorns the historical accuracy of the scenario. 

Long-time bad-guy Myron Healy played him in an episode of the bizarre hippie-rebels-fight-undercover-for-the-American-Revolution 1970 TV series, The Young Rebels (“Suicide Squad” 10/25/70); Will Geer played him for laughs in a two-part episode of the TV sitcom Bewitched (“George Washington Zapped Here” 2/19, 26/1972).

It took about 200 years for us to begin to grapple with the idea of Founding Fathers as non-mythical characters — pushed no doubt by both the Bicentennial and Gore Vidal’s provocative counter-story in his novel Burr (1973) and subsequent Narratives of Empire historical fiction series. Richard Basehart was craggy but troubled in the 1975 TV movie Valley Forge; Peter Graves required minimum adjustments to appear as the Father of Our Country in 1979’s The Rebels, part of an immense and awful TV miniseries that attempted to film all of John Jakes’ long Kent Family Chronicles pop-history book cycle.

Richard Basehart
Peter Graves
Finally, a healthy effort to sex up Washington took place in the 1984 TV miniseries George Washington, featuring Barry Bostwick as G.W. “No one knew of the secret desire that burned within him!” the promo exclaims, promising to tell us his “little-known, intimate story.” Evidently the writers inserted a life-long, steamy, illicit, bodice-ripping romance between Washington and childhood friend Sally Fairfax, played by Jacklyn Smith, to try to keep us awake. A soporific sequel, George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, followed. Alexander Hamilton is portrayed here as an unsympathetic, snobbish, disruptive character, a role he was routinely relegated to in films about the period until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s huge Broadway historical hip hop musical hit, Hamilton, hit the stage in 2015.

More recently, Jeff Daniels lent a doughy earnestness concealing a solid will to the character in the TV movie The Crossing (2000), concerning the famous crossing of the Delaware River to attack the Hessians on December 26, 1776. 

Kelsey Grammer plays a rather oblivious Washington in Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor (2003). David Morse put on the most convincing impersonation to date in the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008). His Washington is grumpy and taciturn, a reluctant icon. Plus, it always looks like his teeth are killing him.

Washington suddenly becomes more malleable as a concept. Voiced by Michael Santo, he is more of an action hero in Liberty’s Kids, a 40-episode animated PBS half-hour from 2002 about the American Revolution, with teenagers in the foreground, suspiciously like 1970’s live-action Young Rebels. In AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017), Ian Kahn plays Washington as a cunning schemer. 

The thrust of this series, the story of an American double agent who must violate the laws of heaven and earth and risk scorn in the name of a just cause, is a direct throwback to the original notable exploitation of Washington as a literary character — none other than James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, and his first international success, 1821’s The Spy. In it, peddler Harvey Birch is a double agent for Washington, who whisks in and out of the novel in the guise of the mysterious “Mr. Harper.” The prototype of the espionage and spy genre starts with the fictional assent of the Father of Our Country.

TURN: Washington’s Spies is also a kind of Age of Enlightenment/John le Carre mélange crossbred with the Smudged-Faced School of Historical Reenactment, to which is added a soupcon of Tarentino. It is, then, the embodiment of the formula for the successful broadcast pseudo-historical saga of today. The same kind of approach is taken in the History 2015 miniseries Sons of Liberty, in which Jason O’Mara plays Washington as a kind of a badass.

Washington figures in obliquely with the other Founding Fathers in the hit pseudo-historical thriller National Treasure (2003); a key scene in the film takes place at Mount Vernon. On the Fox TV series Sleepy Hollow (2013-2017), Washington is a necromancer; in “The Washingtonians” episode of the anthology Masters of Horror (1/26/2007), he was the founder of a cannibal cult. In the “Capture of Benedict Arnold” episode (12/12/2016) of the time-travel series Timeless (2016-2018), he’s a dick.

"The Washingtonians"
In the end, it took Christopher Jackson onstage in Hamilton to make Washington a magnetic and dynamic presence. When, decades hence, the show stops running, some future stars will fight to embody Washington yet again on screen.

Christopher Jackson as Washington in Hamilton

Friday, February 8, 2019

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘The Rider’: will the Real West please stand up?

Brady Jandreau in 'The Rider.'

Tim Blake Nelson in 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.'

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen
Scr: Joel & Ethan Coen
Phot: Bruno Delbonnel
Premiere: Nov. 9, 2018
133 min.

The Rider
Dir: Chloe Zhao
Scr: Chloe Zhao
Phot: Joshua James Richards
Premiere: April 13, 2018
104 min.

You can’t keep a good genre down. Just last year, two horror films, The Shape of Water and Get Out, vied for Best Picture. (Hollywood is normally allergic to honoring horror films — call them horror-‘inflected’? Horror-‘infused’?) Two of the most striking films of 2018 are Westerns, and as far apart in approach as you are likely to find.

The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part, rambling series of shaggy-dog stories in the Style Coen, affected, winking, and baroque. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider is a low-key, documentary-style fiction, set here and now, using non-actors in a narrative evoked by their true experiences. One’s amusing, the other’s affecting. Both will send traditionalists screaming into the streets.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an aggregation of shorter films ranging about 20 minutes in length each — pretty close to television-episode length, although the filmmakers assert that the scripts worked out their times organically.

Now, the most important thing about discussing a Coen Brothers film is not to think about it too hard. Many critics have jiu-jitsued themselves into knots trying to analyze, interpret, and otherwise create conceptual cages for them. It is supposed to be fun, and their fancies first and foremost do transform the Western into a landscape as unfamiliar as the subject of an exotic travelogue, giving newcomers and old hands both some things to think about.

The directors bring an intimate knowledge and love of filmmaking and film history to every project, and part of the fun of watching their movies is spotting the homage, getting the inside joke. There is a rich vein of movie-Western ore to be assayed here. A love of recreating powerful film sequences in the genre that read like dreams is the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, for the stories themselves tear apart and dissipate like clouds on a windy day. At its worst, Buster Scruggs plays Cowboys and Indians.

Most specifically, the Coens are ghosting through other styles, inhabiting some of cinema’s and fiction’s approaches to understanding the American West. (All these styles, ironically or not, are firmly from the pioneer perspective.) The first sequence crash-lands the singing-cowboy Western of the 1930s and -40s; the second has the dirty kinesis of a Leone spaghetti Western. A huge part of the next three tales is their reliance on the stiff, earnest Victorian dialogue stuffed into the mouths of the characters, in the style of American adventure writers from James Fenimore Cooper through Bret Harte, Owen Wister, Max Brand, and the like. A Poe-esque coda concludes.

The only thing all the stories have in common is the presence of death, presented as a nearly unavoidable commonplace. The dark stain of that funeral potential lurking in every frame sustains the suspense in the stories, and colors their humor. Where a well-aimed arrow or a misaimed cough could put you underground in a matter of hours, life is both more profound and more provisional.

Zoe Kazan in 'The Gal Who Got Rattled' section of 'Scruggs' -- death as punchline.
The first sequence, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is an immediate leap into lunacy, as Tim Blake Nelson appears out of nowhere, singing and talking to the camera as the cheerful and tuneful outlaw Buster Scruggs. (In his all-white outfit, he resembles both Gene Autry and the hero of Bugs Bunny Rides Again.) His nerdy sincerity and confidence makes him an object of scorn, but not for long, due to his six-gun prowess. Incidentally, he’s a preening smartass as well.

His random opponents exist merely to make him look good, and he can destroy a man and then make fun of him in an impromptu Hollywood song and dance number. It’s a fun idea, but it kind of runs out of gas quickly. This is a problem throughout the stories — great standalone ideas play out, but they fail to sustain or connect. It’s one bravura sequence after another. When he meets another musical vaquero, the inevitable duet of death acts itself out.

“Near Algodones” is an exercise in style in which yet another Coen protagonist is the plaything of fate. James Franco as Cowboy robbing Stephen Root’s Teller and the subsequent absurd permutations of the Cowboy’s fate is a demolition-derby smash of archetypes, none of them registering long enough to engage identification. Is this some kind of Brechtian alienation technique, one that forces us to disengage emotionally in order to engage intellectually, and deconstruct and analyze the genre’s assumptions? You see what I mean about overthinking all of this?

The most unpleasant story in the bunch, “Meal Ticket,” describes the existence of a performer with emotional accuracy — by way of Tod Browning’s Freaks. A limbless orator dubbed The Artist (Harry Melling) recites classic poetry and speech for the unwashed masses on the frontier, towed around in a ramshackle wagon by Liam Neeson, aka The Impresario. Get it? Spoiler alert: When sold on the superior profitability of owning a performing mathematical chicken, The Artist finds himself superfluous.

Who doesn’t want to see Tom Waits as Gabby Hayes? In “All Gold Canyon,” he gets to play a colorful ol’ prospector who finally strikes it rich. The real glory of this story is pristine setting of the high mountain valley it takes place in; it is not CGI’d. I’ve been there. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it is. Here the most important tension is that borne by every pioneer — between the obvious love for the glorious beauty of the unspoiled wilderness and the desire to dig treasure out of its guts, ruining it forever.

Tom Waits in the 'All Gold Canyon' section of 'Scruggs.'
In the last two stories, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains,” we are again thrown into the maw of death and uncertainty, to the point that when a sweeping, breathtaking panoramic shot of a wagon train, 15 of them hand-built for the movie by production designer Jess Gonchor and staff, all I wondered was how many smaller movies might be funded with that shot’s accrued costs.

In all these stories, death runs rampant, and the stories’ protagonists turn out to be those who are alive at the end. This is a recurrent Coen theme — short-circuiting the audience’s sympathies and pulling the rug out from under characters for any reason or no reason at all. Behind all the craftsmanship and style is the grim humor of chaos and death. It’s a nihilism that the Coens share with Tarentino, another stylist who plays with genre and makes choices for effect that don’t support the narrative. This is top-down, by-the-storyboard filmmaking, and after a while, despite the beautiful pictures, it all gets too precious and contrived, bloody but bloodless, the West as curio under glass.

The Rider is a great film, hands down, and it speaks more to the myths and tragedies of the West than any film I can remember. Its genesis was the interaction of filmmaker Zhao and Brady Jandreu, a Lakota Sioux cowboy and bronc rider she consulted during the making of her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me. A head injury in the arena took Jandreu out of competition, and the challenge to his way of thinking and way of life fuel the resulting fictionalization.

The actors are non-actors, but this is not a lifeless re-creation of some documentary event. Somehow, giving imaginative wiggle room allows the story to reach a searing emotional level. In the film, Brady struggles with the injury’s assault on his abilities, learning that he has to give up riding or die. On his South Dakota reservation, there’s not much to do outside of ranching. Brady finds himself stocking shelves in a drug store. He never voices his humiliation, but it’s palpable. His loyal visits to a friend permanently disabled by just the same injury gives him a graphic picture of what his life might be like. This subtle lead performance is mirrored stylistically in Nathen Halpern’s gentle, hypnotic score.

Brady’s callous father battles him, and his autistic sister bucks him up. If there is a romantic relationship in the film, it’s Brady’s with horses. A long sequence in a corral highlights Brady’s way of gentling a wild horse; it’s a revelation about a deeply feeling, empathic, and nurturing capacity that, frankly, I’ve never seen a man demonstrate on film before. It made me cry. The camera loves the barren, tawny, rolling Dakota hills as much as Brady does, and it instills the viewer with the same unsentimental, raw love of the land for its own sake that grounds real Westerns.

Frustrated beyond belief, Brady contemplates competing in the rodeo again. As in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the protagonist has to choose between evolving and dying, and there are echoes of Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men as well. Poor wombless men! We are possessed of the strange compulsion to test ourselves again and again, usually by hurting ourselves and others. What happens to a male when he can longer fight the fight he wants to fight? If he is forced to settle for less, is he less? Or he is more? Can he submit to the wayward and unknowable will of God?

These are great questions that need to be asked. The Western is a masculine genre, a lens through which we sort out our identities. The Western movie still lives, because we are still sorting it out. Scruggs runs roughshod but Rider gets farther using a steady canter.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Film review: 'Shoplifters' is a visit to a human place

Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Scr: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Phot: Ryuto Kondo
121 min.

Here’s a perfect test for someone about whom you may have doubts. Take them to see Shoplifters. If they don’t enjoy it, they are a replicant.

Yes, a human-scaled film full of life and feeling is becoming as exotic as a Voight-Kampff empathy test right out of Blade Runner. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is exactly that. It’s rich, it’s complex, and it makes you think.

The story is deceptively simple. A group of people on the margin, living together as a makeshift family in squalor, run across a neglected, freezing child on the street and take her in. Eventually and inevitably, their togetherness frays and falls apart.

The film has been described both as “heart-warming” and “heart-breaking,” which only highlights the limitations of both phrases. It shows you everything, and refrains from judging its protagonists. Others have compared this film and more of Hirokazu’s films to the slow, deliberate, and intimate work of director Yasujiro Ozu. If I had to compare it to the work of any previous director, I think of Jean Renoir, whose dictum “everyone has their reasons” certainly applies here.

Hirokazu’s brilliant, subversive storytelling gives us a household of six sharply observed characters, four adults and two children. They live in a tiny, crowded house surrounded on all sides by blank-walled, towering condos. None is related by blood to each other. All are engaged in some kind of illegal, or at least skeevy, way of getting by. And yet there is bliss in their cramped little universe, an affection and acceptance that is not found outside of it.

The group’s idyll is captured beautifully by Ryuto Kondo’s cinematography — the actors seem lit from within. No fancy moves here, no bravura shots, save for one exquisitely painful moment involving a bag of oranges bursting free on the pavement. The ensemble acting is superb, though I would single out actress Sakura Ando, who is both self-possessed and vulnerable enough to really be alive in front of the camera at all times. Her quiet emotional power is amazing.

This family by choice is not toxic, as are the “natural” families are depicted. Here, the well-intentioned system sustains its weakest members only by accident; when it does step in to restore order, it destroys everything. Yet Hirokazu doesn’t bulldoze his characters into convenient positions of victimhood. Everyone has their reasons in Shoplifters, but they are also crippled with flaws and blessed with wisdom. They suffer, they give, they move on. Above all of this hangs a searing desire for the belonging and sense of identity and safety their relationships gave them, without a hypocritical sense of hope to go with it. The film ends with an image that puts the question in the lap of the viewer: why is it like this? What can you do?

Oh, and Shoplifters has subtitles. Now, normally I would assume this would throw most people off, but my description above cold also fit Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which is a heavy contender for Best Picture at the Oscars — and is in black-and-white to boot.

This is welcome news, because it means that we as viewers can get over these supposedly marketing-averse artistic choices and really enjoy and get a lot of something that isn’t a bland comedy, graphic horror film, another superhero saga, or worst of all a boring-ass “serious” drama that goes down like castor oil. I’d like to think we’re getting sick as a culture of the flashing screens, blare and blurps of the digital pseudo-reality being shoved down our throats. Movies such as Roma and Shoplifters show us the way back to analog, human reality.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Power of the Picture: Looking at ASC’s 100 Milestone Films

Lawrence of Arabia
First the facts, then the spurious ruminations. On January 8, the American Society of Cinematographers celebrated its 100th anniversary. To listmakers’ delight, they issued a Top 10 list of cinematographic achievements, as well as 90 other choices, sorted by date of release.

ASC 100th Reel - 01:40 from American Cinematographer on Vimeo.

1.      Lawrence of Arabia (1962), shot by Freddie Young, BSC (Dir. David Lean)
2.      Blade Runner (1982), shot by Gordon Cronenweth, ASC (Dir. Ridley Scott)
3.      Apocalypse Now (1979), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
4.      Citizen Kane (1941), shot by Gregg Toland, ASC (Dir. Orson Welles)
5.      The Godfather (1972), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
6.      Raging Bull (1980), shot by Michael Chapman, ASC (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
7.      The Conformist (1970), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
8.      Days of Heaven (1978), shot by Nestor Almendros, ASC (Dir. Terence Malik)
9.      2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, BSC w/additional photography by John Alcott, BSC (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
10.  The French Connection (1971), shot by Owen Roizman, ASC (Dir. William Friedkin)

Titles 11–100 (in order of release):
Filming a scene in Metropolis
Metropolis (1927), shot by Karl Freund, ASC; Günther Rittau (Dir. Fritz Lang)
Napoleon (1927), shot by Leonce-Henri Burel, Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller (Dir. Abel Gance)
Sunrise (1927), shot by Charles Rosher Sr., ASC; Karl Struss, ASC (Dir. F.W. Murnau)
Gone with the Wind (1939), shot by Ernest Haller, ASC (Dir. Victor Fleming)
The Wizard of Oz (1939), shot by Harold Rosson, ASC (Dir. Victor Fleming)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940), shot by Gregg Toland, ASC (Dir. John Ford)
How Green Was My Valley (1941), shot by Arthur C. Miller, ASC (Dir. John Ford)
Casablanca (1942), shot by Arthur Edeson, ASC (Dir. Michael Curtiz)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), shot by Stanley Cortez, ASC (Dir. Orson Welles)
Black Narcissus (1947), shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC (Dir. Michael Powell)
The Bicycle Thief (1948), shot by Carlo Montuori (Dir. Vittorio de Sica)
The Red Shoes (1948), shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC (Dir. Michael Powell)
The Third Man (1949), shot by Robert Krasker, BSC (Dir. Carol Reed)
Rashomon (1950) shot by Kazuo Miyagawa (Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Sunset Boulevard (1950), shot by John Seitz, ASC (Dir. Billy Wilder)
On the Waterfront (1954), shot by Boris Kaufman, ASC (Dir. Eliz Kazan)
Seven Samurai (1954), shot by Asakazu Nakai (Dir. Akira Kurosawa)
The Night of the Hunter (1955), shot by Stanley Cortez, ASC (Dir. Charles Laughton)
The Searchers (1956), shot by Winton C. Hoch, ASC (Dir. John Ford)
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), shot by Jack Hildyard, BSC (Dir. David Lean)
Touch of Evil (1958), shot by Russell Metty, ASC (Dir. Orson Welles)
Vertigo (1958), shot by Robert Burks, ASC (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
North by Northwest (1959), shot by Robert Burks, ASC (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Breathless (1960), shot by Raoul Coutard (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961), shot by Sacha Vierny (Dir. Alain Resnais)
8 ½ (1963), shot by Gianni Di Venanzo (Dir. Federico Fellini)
Hud (1963), shot by James Wong Howe, ASC (Dir. Martin Ritt)
Black Narcissus
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), shot by Gilbert Taylor, BSC (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
I Am Cuba (Soy Cuba; 1964), shot by Sergei Urusevsky (Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov)
Doctor Zhivago (1965), shot by Freddie Young, BSC (Dir. David Lean)
The Battle of Algiers (1966), shot by Marcello Gatti (Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), shot by Haskell Wexler, ASC (Dir. Mike Nichols)
Cool Hand Luke (1967), shot by Conrad Hall, ASC (Dir. Stuart Rosenberg)
The Graduate (1967), shot by Robert Surtees, ASC (Dir. Mike Nichols)
In Cold Blood (1967), shot by Conrad Hall, ASC (Dir. Richard Brooks)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), shot by Tonino Delli Colli, AIC (Dir. Sergio Leone)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), shot by Conrad Hall, ASC (Dir. George Roy Hill)
The Wild Bunch (1969), shot by Lucien Ballard, ASC (Dir. Sam Peckinpah)
A Clockwork Orange (1971), shot by John Alcott, BSC (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Klute (1971), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC (Dir. Alan J. Pakula)
The Last Picture Show (1971), shot by Robert Surtees, ASC (Dir. Peter Bogdanovich)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC (Dir. Robert Altman)
Cabaret (1972), shot by Geoffery Unsworth, BSC (Dir. Bob Fosse)
Last Tango in Paris (1972), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Exorcist (1973), shot by Owen Roizman, ASC (Dir. William Friedkin)
Chinatown (1974), shot by John Alonzo, ASC (Dir. Roman Polanski)
The Godfather: Part II (1974), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Barry Lyndon (1975), shot by John Alcott, BSC (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), shot by Haskell Wexler, ASC (Dir. Milos Forman)
All the President's Men (1976), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC (Dir. Alan J. Pakula)
Taxi Driver (1976), shot by Michael Chapman, ASC (Dir. Martin Scorsese)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Duellists (1977), shot by Frank Tidy, BSC (Dir. Ridley Scott)
The Duellists
The Deer Hunter (1978), shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC (Dir. Michael Cimino)
Alien (1979), shot by Derek Vanlint, CSC (Dir. Ridley Scott)
All that Jazz (1979), shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC (Dir. Bob Fosse)
Being There (1979), shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC (Dir. Hal Ashby)
The Black Stallion (1979), shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC (Dir. Carroll Ballard)
Manhattan (1979), shot by Gordon Willis, ASC (Dir. Woody Allen)
The Shining (1980), shot by John Alcott, BSC (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Chariots of Fire (1981), shot by David Watkin, BSC (Dir. Hugh Hudson)
Das Boot (1981), shot by Jost Vacano, ASC (Dir. Wolfgang Petersen)
Reds (1981), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC (Dir. Warren Beatty)
Fanny and Alexander (1982), shot by Sven Nykvist, ASC (Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
The Right Stuff (1983), shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC (Dir. Philip Kaufman)
Amadeus (1984), shot by Miroslav Ondricek, ASC, ACK (Dir. Milos Forman)
The Natural (1984), shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC (Dir. Barry Levinson)
Paris, Texas (1984), shot by Robby Müller, NSC, BVK (Dir. Wim Wenders)
Brazil (1985), shot by Roger Pratt, BSC (Dir. Terry Gilliam)
The Mission (1986), shot by Chris Menges, ASC, BSC (Dir. Roland Joffe)
Empire of the Sun (1987), shot by Allen Daviau, ASC (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Last Emperor (1987), shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
Wings of Desire (1987), shot by Henri Alekan (Dir. Wim Wenders)
Mississippi Burning (1988), shot by Peter Biziou, BSC (Dir. Alan Parker)
JFK (1991), shot by Robert Richardson, ASC (Dir. Oliver Stone)
Raise the Red Lantern (1991), shot by Lun Yang (Dir. Zhang Yimou)
Unforgiven (1992), shot by Jack Green, ASC (Dir. Clint Eastwood)
Baraka (1992), shot by Ron Fricke (Dir. Ron Fricke)
Schindler's List (1993), shot by Janusz Kaminski (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), shot by Conrad Hall, ASC (Dir. Steven Zaillian)
Trois Coulieurs: Bleu (Three Colours: Blue; 1993), shot by Slawomir Idziak, PSC (Dir. Krzysztof Kieslwoski)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), shot by Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC (Dir. Frank Darabont)
Seven (1995), shot by Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC (Dir. David Fincher)
The English Patient (1996), shot by John Seale, ASC, BSC (Dir. Anthony Minghella)
L. A. Confidential (1997), shot by Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC (Dir. Curtis Hanson)
Saving Private Ryan (1998), shot by Janusz Kaminski (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Thin Red Line (1998), shot by John Toll, ASC (Dir. Terence Malick)
American Beauty (1999), shot by Conrad Hall, ASC (Dir. Sam Mendes)
The Matrix (1999), shot by Bill Pope, ASC (Dir. The Wachowski siblings)
In the Mood for Love (2000), shot by Christopher Doyle, HKSC (Dir. Wong Kar-wai)
In the Mood for Love
Cinematography seems a perverse and difficult art to me. It is painting in time, constrained by the whims of fate and circumstance. If you’re ever watched anyone make a film, you realize it’s a wonder the thing gets made at all, let alone well. It is so very easy to do it poorly — it requires, if not a few resources, then at least a director that wants to collaborate, not dictate. Filmmaking is a team sport.

Keeping this in mind, this is wisely a list of films, not one of “the greatest” individual cinematographers. But if you sift the stats as if it were a sporting competition, the clear leaders on the list are Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Klute, The Godfather: Part II, All the President's Men, Manhattan) and Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Searching for Bobby Fischer, American Beauty) with five films each. Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor) and Caleb Deschanel (Being There, The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural) follow with four apiece.

Barry Lyndon
In terms of directors whose works are cited, a quick tally foregrounds the filmmakers whose styles (and each of them has a distinct and imitable way of making a movie) are seen as seen as what used to be called “painterly.” Their films are beautiful, sometimes degrading into the merely pretty. Stanley Kubrick leads the pack with five films cited (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining). Second with four is Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). Three-timers are comprised of Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor). Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil), John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, The Searchers), David Lean (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago), and Ridley Scott (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner).

Cinema fans think of certain directors and their directors of photography hand-in-hand: classic match-ups such as Ingmar Bergman and Gunnar Fischer (The Seventh Seal), then Sven Nyquist (Fanny and Alexander), Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse (everything from Strike to Ivan the Terrible), Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro, Wim Wenders and Robby Muller, and Jonathan Demme and Tak Fujimoto, and ongoing artistic partnerships such as between Mike Leigh and Dick Pope, the Coen Brothers and Roger Deakins, Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro, Claire Denise and Agnes Godard.

Other directors went through directors of photography prolifically: Jean Cocteau, Vincente Minelli, Josef von Sternberg, George Cukor, Michael Curtiz, Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese. Others just do it themselves: Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh. The path from cinematographer to director would seem to be a logical one, and there are a few: Ronald Neame, Zhang Yimou, Barry Sonnenfeld, Haskell Wexler, Nicholas Roeg — but they seem to be outnumbered and critically outgunned by the editors (David Lean, Robert Wise, Hal Ashby, John Sturges, for example).

What else do the numbers tell us? (My subtle way of telling you imma gonna let you know what I think they say.)
Apocalypse Now
Big. Bold. Sweeping.

Movies are as close as popular culture gets to the opera. Mainstream, non-analytical cinema aims to sweep us up, to take us into a magical world, composed with strict attention to maintaining internal logic that keeps us from succumbing to disbelief, that we can get lost for a while. So it’s not surprising that at least 40% of the films listed are consciously crafted, immersive, “epic” efforts, weighted toward those who enjoyed the advantages of a widening aspect ratio and cheaper, more responsive color film (In 1950, Eastmancolor’s single-negative process soon supplanted three-strip Technicolor. From 1939 to 1966, there were separate Oscar categories for the cinematography of color and black-and-white films. After that, shooting in black and white would be considered an aesthetic choice). If you want to be remembered, make it big.

Where’s Billy Bitzer?

Oh, I’m a grumpy old cuss, but I have my favorites, including D.W. Griffith’s favorite cameraman, the former electrician Billy Bitzer (Intolerance). I search the list in vain for Joe August (Gunga Din), though other stalwarts such as James Wong Howe (Yankee Doodle Dandy, but gets in for Hud?), Arthur Edeson (Casablanca, but many more as part of Warner Brothers), and Arthur C. Miller (How Green Was My Valley; a whiz for Fox) crept onto the list. Only 24% of the films on the list were made before 1960, my conceptual halfway point in movie history. It seems to me that a few foundational figures, their efforts not seen as especially flashy today, deserve a space. Names such as Charles Lang (Some Like It Hot), George Folsey (Forbidden Planet), John Alton (An American in Paris), Floyd Crosby (High Noon), William H. Daniels (The Naked City), Gabriel Figueroa (The Exterminating Angel), Freddie Francis (The Innocents), Joe McDonald (My Darling Clementine), Rudy Mate (The Passion of Joan of Arc), Oswald Morris (The Man Who Would Be King), Sol Polito (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Eugen Schufftan (People on Sunday), and Joseph Walker (Only Angels Have Wings) all need love too.

Billy Bitzer at camera as D.W. Girffith.
Part of this emphasis on films later in the timeline is due to the early limitations of film technology. The Mitchell Standard 35 mm motion picture camera, debuted in 1920, finally gave the cameraman a decent viewfinder to look through. This allowed filmmakers to think about the contents of the frame more concretely, to plan sequences and create a unity of style.

Also, for the first 30 years of filmmaking, original, orthographic black-and-white film stock was used. It was notoriously touchy, and awful at reproducing any shades of subtlety, even giving actors white eyes and black lips. Commercially viable panchromatic black-and-white film came along in 1926; anyone who has seen a well-projected late-silent and early-sound film can testify as to the amazing range of tones it renders. The earliest films on the ASC list come from 1927 (Metropolis, Napoleon, Sunrise), followed by a 12-year gap until we get to the glories of Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, and The Wizard of Oz.

And of course, we all have our little favorites. Where is Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark)? Where are my French homme-ies? Armand Thirard (The Wages of Fear), Roger Hubert (Children of Paradise), Henri Decae (The 400 Blows)? Up there in Movie Heaven, is Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider) upset that Vilmos Zsigmond got three mentions and he got none? And I know Robert Surtees is in there twice already, but couldn’t we squeeze in his work on Ben-Hur? He really conquered the challenges of widescreen, producing beautiful and balanced compositions while juggling huge logistical problems and brand-new hardware.
Saving Privaate Ryan -- dudes filming dudes doing dude things.
Sausage party

No women on the list. A function of sexism (in the early film industry women were allowed to be editors, as the idea was that putting a film together was something akin to knitting . . . but camerawork? Never) means that the first century of films made are centered unequivocally in the male gaze. Only time will redress that imbalance. There are top-notch female cinematographers out there, but you have to look out for their work and see it when you can. Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Rachel Morrison (Black Panther), Maryse Alberti (The Wrestler), and Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) are just a few examples.

This is not to say that there is a distinct female visual sensibility. There ain’t. (At least, not in a negative sense. I know that when I watch any films made by my quartet of favorite female filmmakers — Agnes Varda, Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, and Andrea Arnold — I feel like I’m receiving a more complete set of data, somehow, as though the imperatives of manly filmmaking — conflict, action, decision, assertion — blocks out a lot.)

Does it matter if it’s real?

Once Russell Carpenter won the Oscar in 1997 for best cinematography for his work on James Cameron’s CGI-heavy Titanic, the race has been on. Now that computer-generated imagery is here, it can create not only fantasy environments (more superhero movies, anyone?) but replicate the backdrops for historical epics and the like, previously prohibitively expensive. The cinematographer no longer has to manipulate reality to get the look he wants — he can create it himself. Is this a help or a hindrance?

The ASC list stops at the year 2000, and includes only one significantly digital entry, Bill Pope’s work in The Matrix (1999). So far, it looks as though the DPs and not the production designers are still in primary charge of the visual. Cinematographers to date are simply adding that set of digital tools to their kits and using them with discretion. Audiences have seen enough bad digital filmmaking to keep the filmmakers honest; there is nothing more unsettling than these cinematic trips into uncanny valleys where everything doesn’t quite look right.
The Sharknado series -- how not to use CGI.
Moving on . . .

Other, current cinematographic names to conjure with — Wally Pfister (Inception), Emmanuel Lubezki (legendary work on Children of Men), Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros), Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk), Robbie Ryan (The Favourite). The dedicated moviegoer will find themselves looking for these names as well when new films emerge. We can bookmark these names and follow their work just as we do that of our favorite actors and directors. A list like this piques interest and gets the conversation going.

If nothing else, let it persuade you to try things you haven’t. May I suggest I Am Cuba, with its impossible and deeply moving tracking shot? Little gems like that help you see the world afresh and challenge the limits of cinema.