AWARD BIZARROS

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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DOCUMENTARY SHORT LIST

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?  REALLY?

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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SOMETHING BESIDES AWARDS

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.)

NEXT Friday POST JANUARY 15

Until then,
See you AT the movies,
Rick

VOICES, VOICES EVERYWHERE

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.

NEXT  POST    THURSDAY    NOVEMBER 5,  BIRTHDAY OF VIVIEN LEIGH

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

TAKEI BEING TAKEI

my GeorgeTo Be Takei
Jennifer M. Kroot
2014

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,
Rick

 

POTPOURRI

NEWS

ACADEMY BIZARROS 2012

     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.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

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.”

SOMETHING ELSE TO THINK ABOUT

“…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.

NEXT POST, FRIDAY OCTOBER 19

See you at the movies,
Rick

BANNERS AND BINOCULARS – OLYMPICS ON FILM

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
1966

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 20

See you at the movies,
Rick

ANSWERING BEC

Reading the feedback from thoughtful correspondent BEC [responding to my October 31 post UP AT CARNEGIE HALL, a short review of LOST BOHEMIA] recalls me to days on the UCLA campus, listening to a tape, a recorded interview — no doubt from an early assemblage of what would become today’s splendid UCLA Film and Television Archive. I heard a tape of Lillian Gish reflecting on the difference between silent and sound film. As I remember, Miss Gish said at the time — sorry, no interview date — that she thought of talking pictures as walking pictures. Accustomed to beginning a scene with interaction between or among characters, she was surprised to see a scene introduced by one of the participants walking toward a house, then going to the door, then being admitted, then finally beginning the scene’s conversation.

BEC’s response set me thinking on the accuracy and inaccuracy of Lillian Gish’s observation and speculating on whether she would alter those remarks today. If we were thinking this way along with her we would have to think in terms of driving pictures rather than walking pictures. Today this is true even in films from those far-flung lands where autos used to be rare.

How often do we learn anything about a character from the vehicle he or she is driving? Is the shot good shorthand or an empty filler? There are, of course, numerous other filler shots beyond walking and driving including, in the past, a lot of such shots designed to do what was called “opening up” the play being made into a movie. The artificiality of this was usually evident but is of little importance today in an America where there are almost no plays.

Actually, while Gish’s point is well taken in regard to talking and walking, it is neither fully accurate nor entirely fair. In the days of silents, action was frequently interrupted by over-long intoductions of characters and players and just-as-long moralizing or humorous titles involving much word play rather than visual jokes.

What would Lillian Gish make of so many of today’s films in which important exposition is given by talking characters who are running up and down steps or running along the sidwewalk beside a screaming emergency vehicle? British critic Halliwell, describing BLUE THUNDER (1983) wrote: “…too often it is fashionably inaudible.” There is the other extreme in which crucial plot information or character revelation is given in bed in whispers. Try an experiment: The next ten new films you see, notice how much whispering there is.

Meanwhile, back with BEC where all this started, her obsevations pull together several phenomena: the illustrated lecture (my name for the typical American documentary); the standard art museum tape (listening to pictures) which BEC links in form and intent to the commentary feature so common to the extras on the usual DVD; and film music which certainly belongs here but is different in kind from LET’S LISTEN TO PAINTINGS AND FILMS INSTEAD OF WATCHING THEM. Music as film sound is too large a subject to be addressed as a coda here. As Marlene was wont to say, “We do that one later.”

But we will do that, BEC, with your invited participation. For thinking about: Films with elaborate scores programmed to characters and settings. Films with scores which advance the plot and deepen character. Films in which music competes with dialogue and/or submerges it (Have you seen SARATOGA TRUNK?). Films with no music. Films in which music contributes humor. Silent films and the importance of music for them.

I am interested in hearing from you out there as to whether the current hit THE ARTIST addresses any of these questions about sound and music. How important is music in THE ARTIST besides the great finale in which this love letter to old Hollywood reminds us that Fred and Ginger helped Americans dance away the Great Depression? How did you react to the dream scene and its sudden sound effects?

There have been plays within plays for centuries. THE ARTIST rests firmly in this tradition with its opening in which we the audience watch an audience watching a film and, in a variation of “meanwhile backstage,” we watch an actor on the other side of the screen watching himself on that screen. Throughout THE ARTIST we also frequently watch audiences applauding, probably more than they applauded historically in movie theaters then.

I was amused to read and hear repeatedly during the days before the recent Academy Awards presentation that THE ARTIST was the first silent film nominated since the first year of the awards. You would have thought there have been dozens of ignored silents — sorry, SNUBBED silents. (In today’s critical parlance, any film or peformer not nominated is snubbed.) There have not been any silents during all those years, of course. There have been a few films without dialogue. Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES. THE GOOD EARTH featuring Luise Rainer’s almost totally silent role. An American film called THE THIEF directed by Russell Rouse in 1952. There is the Bresson canon in which, though sound is crucial, actors’ dialogue is minimal. And I was surprised to find this year how much of SHAME is conveyed without dialogue and through long but tense silent segments. Susan Wloszczyna in an article in USA TODAY 2/17/12 makes interesting observations about silence and silents in other 2011 films. I especially like her subhead: “Performances go beyond dialogue.”

THE ARTIST really is silent. But the average filmgoer and typical critic is mistaken in thinking he or she is seeing a movie exactly like the silent movies of the past. It is a mistake to think of those films as just like talkies except for the lack of sound and dialogue. The world of silent film was a world of pantomime, a world of scripts imagined and invented for silent portrayal; scripts with ideas and psychology devised for faces that fit this nonspeaking world. The literary, title-heavy exceptions prove the rule. John Gilbert’s voice, as proven on sound tracks, was fine; but the voice jarred with his silent image, his audience’s image. Ramon Novarro’s voice was not quite as good, but he was a talking success.

THE ARTIST, which I like and admire and which deserves its many accolades, seems at times a contemporary movie with the sound removed. It self-consciously loves its era and medium, somewhat akin to the manner in which GONE WITH THE WIND loves the Hollywood of its time and its own technicolor beauty. I WOULD LIKE HEARING FROM READERS WHETHER OR NOT YOU AGREE WITH THIS TENTATIVE, STILL EXPLORATORY VIEW OF The Artist.

I thought of BEC’s feedback when watching, on Turner Classic Movies, CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF. The only narration in this 90 minute documentary are comments by the subject himself when interviewed. There are clips — and they are long enough to be meaningful — from his celebrated work, including A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the fascinating BAREFOOT CONTESSA, the famous PANDORA and the glorious UNDER CAPRICORN. The film considers Cardiff’s work as director as well, including his finest SONS AND LOVERS. There is so much enlightenment here, so much film history and film fun, without someone chattering every bloody minute on the sound track.

Lost Bohemia
Josef Astor
2010

The Artist
Michel Hazanavicius
2011

Cameraman: The Life and Work
of Jack Cardiff
Craig McCall
2010

NEXT POST March 24

Silently yours,
Rick

UP IN CARNEGIE HALL

Lost Bohemia

Josef Astor, director

2010

Historically, American documentaries  —  with ravishing exceptions like The Plow That Broke the Plains and Louisiana Story  —  have tended to be aural rather than visual experiences.  Documentary films made by Americans have almost always suffered from over-narraton.  You can’t even enjoy a sunset behind a mountain lake without an obtrusive, unnecessary voice telling you that you are looking at a beautiful sunset behind a beautiful mountain lake.  This approach to film as illustrated lecture stems in part from the American cultural fear of even a moment of silence.  Go to any art museum today, and you can observe visitors, sprouting wires from their ears, who prefer to listen about paintings and sculptures rather than view them.

But most of the vital talk in Josef Astor’s Lost Bohemia comes from his several characters, a group of artsy folk who until recently lived in studio apartments atop Carnegie Hall.  The camera captures their cluttered dwellings, their past and ongoing work and the maze of corridors upstairs in the Hall.  The soundtrack delivers their own words of philosophy, their ruminations about work, their humor and joie de vivre.

We see and hear pianist Don Shirley, photographer Bill Cunningham, singer Jeanne Beauvais, acting teachers and actors, ballet instructors and dancers, and composers as well.  We glimpse Marian Seldes and hear John Turturro and learn about previous tenants like Paddy Chayevsky and Marlon Brando.  Most of the tenants we meet are elderly, but Astor’s film reveals them as hearty in spirit. Their eyes are alive with youthfulness.

My favorite is photographer Editta Sherman, ninety-five, working on ninety-six, when filmed here.  She radiates unsentimental goodness  —  grandeur of soul, I find myself wanting to say.  Even when working hard at preserving the arts community’s way of life as they all receive eviction notices when the hall is scheduled for renovation, she is determined to confront this without anger or hostility.

Photogapher Josef Astor has brought to his film Lost Bohemia his repect for all the tenants and his own love of his own craft.  He has given us a work that is simple, focused and revealing.

Next Post:  November 14

See you at the movies,

Rick