Rick’s Journal    —    MY FILM CAREER

I earlier noted for my readers that my lists of best books  —  rather, favorite books  —  about film lacked a good title on animation and needed a history of the western.  Some of you may have noticed a further glaring gap.

What about documentary film?

John Grierson

I have in my own library on film a book from 1946 called Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsyth Hardy.  From the publisher’s  jacket flap:  “In the early thirties a new word and a new name began to appear with some regularity in the comparatively new sphere of film criticism.  The new word was ‘documentary’ and the new name John Grierson.  Documentary had indeed made its first appearance some years earlier in a review written by Grierson for the New York Sun.  It was derived from documentaire a word applied by the French to their travel films.  Grierson used it to describe Flaherty’s ‘Moana,’ an account of the South Sea islanders.  In some fifteen or twenty years it has come to represent a vast, far-reaching use of the film for social analysis.”

Critic Forsyth Hardy has gathered here Grierson’s most important writings to that time in a readable collection with 92 illustrations.

This is as solid an introduction to documentary and its history, and significance, as one could wish for.  But think of how much has transpired in film and documentary film especially since 1946.

Can anyone suggest a good book for us?



The heading in the New York Times reads “National Film Registry Adds Three Standouts.”  The short article on the Arts, Briefly page reports the year’s inductions into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  The three outstanding films, according to the Times, are the original Walt Disney Cinderella, Jurassic Park and My Fair Lady.  It gives one pause that the Times chooses My Fair Lady from a list that includes Hud, The Shining, Brokeback Mountain, and The Lady From Shanghai.  (New York Times, 12/12/18.)

NEXT FRIDAY POST April 12:  “The Best Cowboys Are From Ohio”

Until then,
See you at the movies,


But first, something to consider:  “…how the camera eye of the drone has taken over from the crane shot as the eye of God in TV and film dramas.”  from Ali Smith’s novel Winter, New York, Pantheon Books, 2017.

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In Road to Valor, the book about heroic World War ll cyclist Gino Bartali, the authors offer a unique look back at Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (usually known in the United States as The Bicycle Thief):   “…Ladri di biciclette…best captured the centrality of the bike in postwar Italy.  The film starts with…Antonio…waiting in a long queue for jobs.  When he finally gets to the front   of the line, he is offered work on the condition that he has a bicycle.  On his first day of employment  —  putting up posters around Rome for a movie that starred Rita Hayworth (herself a Bartali fan in real life, and vice versa)  —  his bicycle is stolen.  After several fruitless efforts to recover it, Antonio makes a pathetic and failed attempt to steal a bicycle for himself.”

De Sica’s great one

Throughout the film “bicycles permeate life…They are the subject of fantasy…And they are also a spiritual symbol of the spiritual dignity to which man can aspire in his workaday life…”

“The bicycle was considered so integral to the lives of all Italians that stealing a bicycle was always viewed with particular severity by the judicial system…”  —  comparable to stealing a horse in nineteenth century America.

Recall De Dica’s shot of that bank of bikes outside the stadium, the bank which Antonio will rob.

Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette)
Vittorio De Sica

Road to Valor; a true story of World War ll Italy, the Nazis, and the cyclist who inspired a nation by Aili and Andres McConnon.  New York, Crown, 2012.

Rick’s Flicks is indebted to collaborator BKG for the concept of this post.

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Leo DeLuca, writing in Ohio Magazine about the restoration of the Memphis Belle, makes clear how important William Wyler’s 1944 film was to the thirteen-year-long restoration.  “More than 11 hours of footage that didn’t make it into the film proved vital to the restoration, according to Jeff Duford, lead curator of the Memphis Belle project.”

The exhibit of the restored bomber, now at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, includes “rare archival footage from Wyler’s 1944 film,” Wyler’s uniform and two Medals of Honor of the Flying Fortress crew.

Almy Stock P

Memphis Belle: a Story of a Flying Fortress
William Wyler

(High-Flying Summer” by Leo DeLuca in Ohio Magazine, June 2018.)

Cf. Rick’s Flicks 5/16/18.


Until then,
See you at the movies,





The National Board of Review has announced its award winners for 2015.  The best written, best directed film with the best performance by an actor is The Martian, and the best film is Mad Max.  Interesting.  But then, the National Board of Review is always interesting.  Actually, they are.  And one must admire their going always their own way as the Golden Globes used to do before succumbing  —  to what?  I still admire the National Board for presenting its best actor award to William Hurt AND Raul Julia for Kiss of the Spider Woman.  We need more getting away from the idea of a single award for a single performance among all the year’s great work.  The Golden Globes make an effort but only by pretending that certain films are comedies.

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The awards madness has begun, and award givers continue to let journalists and talking heads influence their decisions, which decisions the journalists and talking heads will then decry.  While it is hard to take seriously a journalist whom the once-staid New York Times allows to use most to mean almost, the article in the 12/15/15 paper at least is not by the cynical Michael Cieply and did teach me that the typical budget for a best picture campaign  —  yes, you read that correctly, campaign  —  is one million dollars.  (“The Oscar Race Begins…” by Cara Buckley, 12/3/15.)

It does become increasingly difficult to take the Academy Awards seriously.  I have to keep reminding myself that the award did honor Vivien Leigh twice, even being ahead of its time in recognizing AT THE TIME what would prove to be the timelessness of the Streetcar performance.  (There seems some present confusion about their decision, however,  since clips from the film on the Oscar show never show HER but only feature non-winner Marlon Brando.)  In the past the Academy twice honored Olivia de Havilland as well for two remarkable performances  —  and Luise Rainer whose talents and two Oscars it is fashionable to denigrate today.  Some Academy voters had the guts to vote for Hamlet as the best picture of 1948.  They also recognized Maggie Smith in her Prime and the sets in Hugo and the editing of Body and Soul.  I wander.  There HAVE been good decisions.  I can’t dismiss the award though I reserve the right to despise the annual show.

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The Academy has released a short list of 15 films being considered for the feature documentary award.  The list includes The Hunting Ground, Going Clear, and Where to Invade Next.  The final five will be announced January 14.  (My information from the New York Times 12/3/15.)

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Matt Damon, among the best and brightest of current stars, has joined the ranks of those saying dumb things about Academy Awards.  Speaking at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Damon apparently described himself as “shocked” to discover that Ridley Scott had never won an Oscar as best director.  How could he need to discover that?  I’ve always known it.  Perhaps it only means that the Oscars are not that important to him.  I can respect and admire that while being shocked myself that Damon has not been nominated for such outstanding portrayals as those in The Rainmaker, Mr. Ripley, Bagger Vance, Contagion, The Informant and Pretty Horses.  No one admires Matt Damon more than this critic, but his comments disturb me since they suggest that artists should receive the annual Oscar for overall career work.  Isn’t That what the honorary ones are for?  (See Rick’s Flicks, 4/1/12, “The Myth of Cary Grant’s Oscar.”)

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If you are in Astoria, New York or can get there, you will not want to miss the Museum of the Moving Image, especially its exhibit “Walkers:  Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact,” (through April 10).  You will also find it time well spent to run down Kristin M. Jones’ beautifully written article about the exhibit’s juxtaposition of posters, stills and clips from Hollywood’s past with works of art influenced by filmmakers and their films, especially, apparently, Hitchcock and Ford.  (Wall Street Journal, 11/18/15.)


Until then,
See you AT the movies,


From Lillian Ross’ book PICTURE, about the making of The Red Badge of Courage

–     Producer Gottfried Reinhardt:  “And I thought that John would be able to show what goes on inside the boy.  If we had narration for the picture  —  maybe with that we could show what goes on inside.  But John kept saying, ‘No narration.’  Billy Wilder in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ had the nerve; after the man is dead he has him do the narration.  Joe Mankiewicz uses narration.  Narration is good enough for them but not for John.”

–     “Reinhardt said, ‘John, you have to tell people what the picture is.  We should start the narration at the beginning, before the scene at the river.  That scene is puzzling.  You pay for clever openings.  We must tell them, “Here is a masterpiece.”  You’ve got to tell it to them.'”

–     “Suddenly, late in the spring of 1951, the big word around the studio was ‘narration.’  ‘We are using the words of Stephen Crane himself to tell the audience what is happening,’ Reinhardt said to his wife one night, ‘and the picture will start with an introduction that tells the audience that they are going to see a great classic.’  Only Mayer didn’t think that narration (‘Jabber, jabber, jabber.  Who wants to listen?’) or anything else would help.”

–     The review of The Red Badge of Courage in the New York Herald Tribune mentioned “a redundant narration that clutters up the sound track from time to time explaining facts already clear in the images…”

I could not be more tired of the American documentary.  I have been watching The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of the American Cinema, and I am tired of what passes for film while being in fact an illustrated lecture; the persistent, droning voice-over accompanied by often meaningless pictures.  Here the narrator tells us that Thanhouser was born in Baltimore, then shows us an old map of Baltimore.  Who the hell cares about an old map of Baltimore?  Who can see anything on it unless you’re mightily familiar with the city and know just where to look for what.  This is padding.  This is illustration supposedly enlivening text.  This is the American documentary style and, increasingly, international style as well.  There is so much talk; there is such overload of information or the tautology of telling you what you are already seeing  —  or making up for the fact that there’s nothing to see.  One longs for a moment’s silence; time to see; time to reflect.

Ned Thanhouser, who narrates his own film, has a good voice.  He is enthusiastic and is justifiably proud of his grandparents’ contribution to early film; but…It never stops.  The voice never stops, even during film clips.

The Thanhouser documentary offers a good introduction to the young star Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid, and to the early career of James Cruze.  There are fine stills of Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, also Alice Guy and Herbert Blaché.

Now Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows, also has lots of narration.  But the effect is different.   Presented by Martin Scorseseand and a product of TCM, it is finely paced and subtly, expressively edited  —  including the narration.  In fact, occasionally when offering a fact or observation, the narration approaches the laughably corny as the voice tries too hard to match a dark mood or suspenseful moment.  But that’s quibbling.  This is a good job.

The Man in the Shadows is comprised of not just stills and posters and voice-overs.  There are film clips  —  not Academy style or Golden Globes style but real clips, allowing you time to look and grasp and appreciate.  In its determination to be complete, it gets a bit long; but this is an excellent piece of work and sends you back to the films.  Look for it on TCM,

Val Lewton, the Man in the Shadows     Kent Jones (writer & director)     2007

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of the Cinema     Ned Thanhouser     2014

I recently viewed Harlan County U.S.A. on Turner Classic Movies.  It is still as gripping as any fictional film imaginable.  There are occasional titles  —  to identify an individual, to give a date.  But the filmmaker lets us learn for ourselves through gut-wrenching images and moving, pertinent music and the brave, candid testimony of participants.  Harlan County U.S.A. is an hour and forty-five minutes long, and THERE  IS  NO  NARRATION.

Harlan County U.S.A.     Barbara Kopple     1977

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I have just been watching Woody Allen’s Zelig.  The sound track so perfectly reincarnates, mocks and satirizes the American documentary voice-over, especially the newsreel voices of the 40s (marvelously performed here by Patrick Horgan), that I am amazed  the form is still afloat.  Zelig should have sunk it.  But it spreads, and foreign films are catching it.  Flaherty and Lorenz and Grierson and Franju spin in their graves.

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Lillian Ross’ Picture was originally published in The New Yorker.  It is currently published by Da Capo Press.


Until then,
See you at the movies,


my GeorgeTo Be Takei
Jennifer M. Kroot

To Be Takei is an unusual American documentary.  It is so skillfully edited that though it is made up of the stuff of today’s typical nonfiction film for television or theatrical distribution  —  interviews, film clips, a mix of black and white  —  it boasts a smoothness that never jars.  It is very much of a piece and hangs together emotionally and thematically.  It’s chronological when that helps and nonlinear when it doesn’t.  Its balance reflects the balance of the actor and man it portrays.

If you were worried that actor Takei was becoming a professional gay, this sympathetic but honest depiction of a sympathetic but honest individual puts that concern to rest.  We watch a successful actor lead an enjoyable, meaningful life in which he keeps his sense of humor.  After the film my collaborator BKG remarked that George Takei takes a lot of things seriously but never himself.

To Be Takei is organized around four aspects of its subject:  his early years in an American concentration camp during World War ll; his international success as a beloved continuing character in television’s original Star Trek series; his uneven movie career; and his celebrity life as he appears at various kind of events, Trekky and otherwise, and works for reparations for descendants of the incarcerated Japanese and for legalization of same- sex marriage.

As we more than once see and hear him talk about his family’s experiences during the incarceration, we observe a man who lives his life without bitterness.  His humor and his lack of anger make him an ideal candidate for his causes.  He has lived his life without hating anybody.

I don’t know how William Shatner enthusiasts will feel about the film’s giving him what it considers a deserved comeuppance, but even here the laughing eyes of George Takei shine.

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Akron’s Nightlight

If you live in northeast Ohio or can reach it for filmgoing, you need to experience Akron’s Nightlight Cinema at 30 N. High Street in downtown Akron.  It’s a no nonsense, unpretentious but comfortable theater where it’s what’s on the screen that counts.  You will sit with a knowledgeable, attentive audience excited about what’s on that screen.  Plus popcorn and bar and browsing issues of Sight & Sound and Cineaste.  Their website details upcoming programs  —  none of them to be missed.  Brighten your evenings and your life.  Checkout http://www.nightlight.com.

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AND on Friday, August 29 at 7:00 Kurtiss Hare of Nightlight and Akron Film + Pixel is presenting, at the Lincoln Theatre in Massillon, Ohio, Erich Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été).  This is an opportunity to see Rohmer’s 1996 comedy, in theatrical release in America this year for the first time.

NEXT Friday POST August 29

See you at the movies,





     Viewers interested in documentary film and/or Academy Awards need to see David Itzkoff’s article in the New York Times of 10/3/12, “Flaws Seen in New Rules for Oscars.”  Itzkoff is writing about the documentary category, and the title speaks for itself.  He quotes objections to new procedures by Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore.  I admire both filmmakers, but their objections strike me as objectionable as the procedures they are protesting.

     Anthony Breznican reports in the Entertainment Weekly recd. 10/5 that Seth MacFarlane has been chosen to be the host for what used to be a presentation of Academy Awards and is now television’s most vulgar variety show (vulgar in the oldest, broadest sense).  Breznican quotes producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan on their expectations, and their remarks reveal no more respect for the show or the awards than Breznican apparently has despite the pretense by all three that they are worried about MacFarlane’s lack of taste.


From  The Great Moviemakers by George Stevens, Jr.  (cf.  POST on September 7 this year):  In his student days at the UCLA film school Paul Schrader “favored the fims of Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer.”  In 1972 the University of California Press published Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film:  Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, most recently available as a Da Capo reprint in 1988.  The Stevens book quotes Schrader:  “In many ways Taxi Driver is the struggling of a Bresson film through a Peckinpah kind of environment.”


“…the wide screen , finally, has gone a long way toward destroying the last pretenses of a meaningfully organized image.”  Rudolf Arnheim in Film as Art (University of California Press, 1958).

I would appreciate receiving comments  on this last quote.


See you at the movies,


Enthralled for all three hours of Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, I was astonished to find it ranked with but two and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.  Maltin rarely errs about ANYthing.  Reading further, I found the following:  “If you’re lucky enough to see the superb original version of this documentary about the 1964 Olympics, shoot this rating to ***1/2.  This one was cut down for U.S. release and virtually destroyed by insipid narration…” (2007 Movie Guide.)

Readers may recall my earlier blog of October 31, 2011 titled “Up at Carnegie Hall” in which I discuss the penchant of American documentary film for narration, aiming not so much for film as for illustrated lecture. ( See also response by reader BEC ,December 21, 2011, and my further response to that, March 16, 2012.)  One of the features of Tokyo Olympiad which so impresses me is its absence of voice-over.  There is occasional narration to supply information not visually expressible.  But Ichikawa’s film is made up of moving pictures of moving athletes.

It is an artful selection of the summer events of 1964.  Ichikawa likes banners and pigeons and binoculars, tense throats and bleeding feet, the comical twitching butts of speed walkers  —  and the enthusiasm of unknown spectators rather than today’s coverage of celebrity parents.  The ’64 games are a sharp contrast to today’s Olympics which have become a television show.  Here the parade of nations is still important as are national anthems.  Winners are moved enough to sing and weep.  Losers are covered, respectfully, even tenderly.  The opening and closing ceremonies are eloquently simple.  Ichikawa’s art makes the most of them and of everything else.  Especially memorable is the second consecutive gold medal run by Ethiopia’s champion Abebe Bikila.

The Criterion DVD includes a splendid interview with the great Ichikawa in which, among other topics, he offers comparison of his film with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad of the 1936 games.

N.B.:  The Variety Guide mentions “English commentary supervised by Donald Richie.”  I wrote earlier of the unlikelihood of Leonard Maltin in error; but I have a hard time imagining Japanese cinema expert Richie supervising an insipid commentary.  But I am now writing about a version I never saw and should not discuss.

Tokyo Olympiad
Kon Ichikawa


See you at the movies,