Saturday, September 29, 2007

Cinema Still Life: The End of Summer

Summer's over and Fall is here. Before getting my next seventies Oscar post up and my Oktober Fest of horror, beer and sausages underway I thought I'd take one last look at summer as we bid it farewell.

Douglas Fairbanks, jr and Joan Crawford enjoy a relaxing (and posed) day on the beach. They met on the set of Our Modern Maidens and were wed on June 3, 1929. Doug was four years her junior and had to lie about his age (he was twenty) to get married. At the time in New York you had to be 21. That charming rake Clark Gable distracted Joan for most of her marriage (this was before he got Loretta Young pregnant) and Joan divorced Doug in 1933.


Feeling the financial pinch? Not sure where you can turn? Do you have a gift for re-naming full grown adults against their will? Well you've come to the right place! Just give up and coming actress Lucille Le Sueur a much more common and boring name like Joan Crawford and you could be the lucky winner!

As always, click to enlarge (and read the fine print).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cinema Still Life: L'Age D'or

This edition of Cinema Still Life adds a couple of posters for L'Age D'or to the Luis Bunuel Blogathon hosted by Flickhead.

"From a surrealist perspective, the movie couldn't have been better." - J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

"L'Âge d'or is a destructive and anarchic response to the strategies of containment and repression of what the surrealist movement of the late 1920s considered the corrupt technological age." - Sophy Williams, Senses of Cinema

"Mr. Buñuel and his co-scenarist, none other than Salvador Dali, have packed just about every-surrealist symbol they could think of into this rebellious epic." - Eugene Archer, The New York Times

"Surreal, dreamlike, and deliberately, pornographically blasphemous." - Pauline Kael, The New Yorker

"What in the hell is this goddam thing?" - Sydney Applebaum, Brooklyn, New York

"I'm confused." - Betty Sanders, Peoria, Illinois

"Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese." Luis Bunuel, cartoonist, ice sculptor

"Instead of stubbornly attempting to use surrealism for purposes of subversion, it is necessary to try to make of surrealism something as solid, complete and classic as the works of museums." - Salvador Dali, some guy, a painter I think

"It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it." - George W. Bush, yarn collector

"Thank God I'm an atheist." - Luis Bunuel, dairy farmer

"I find your lack of faith disturbing." - Richard Cheney, angel of death.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Man, I am never going to get to see this movie!

I don't usually take time out of what I normally do here at Cinema Styles to relate current events in my life but this recent episode in my life is bizarre, almost surreal. Some friends and I (six of us to be exact) were invited by another friend to come over one night and watch The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel. Naturally we accepted, excited for the chance to watch it together. Oddly though, when we arrived, our host, Sophie, told us we were mistaken and it was the next night. This couldn't be true I protested, I'm busy tomorrow night and I wouldn't have accepted if it were then. We left dejected and depressed.

Fortunately we found a theatre, the Cabaret Voltaire showing it later that week. What a stroke of luck! When we arrived however, it was locked. Damn! The usher, Hugo, let us in but the movie wasn't showing. The manager had died and his body was laid out in the lobby awaiting a coroner. Eeeewwww. We got the hell out of there as fast as we could.

We finally settled on a date that we were all absolutely sure of and met at Tristan's house to watch. He just recently became a father so we all call him "Dada" now. Anyway, Dada had the DVD all set to go when a group of military thugs led by two guys named George and Dick came storming in and shot everything up. They even shot the television. Son of a bitch!

Well, I don't have to tell you I was really starting to get pissed off about all of this.

Finally, FINALLY, we met at Jean's (or was it Hans, I can't be sure) and were set to go. I picked up the remote to start the movie and it seemed a little light. The damn thing was made of cardboard - and so was the television! They were just props! Then a curtain goes up and, Jesus Christ almighty we're on a stage! If my pants hadn't been down I wouldn't have minded so much (hey I was hot, okay).

Ah screw it! We're never going to see that damn movie. Then Marcel says, "Hey why don't we just start walking down this road." "Where to?" I ask. "Maybe it's playing somewhere down there," he answers. So we just started walking. Still haven't seen it anywhere. Anybody know how it ends?

Visit Flickhead for more links to the Luis Bunuel-a-thon.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Gender Benders

I was looking through Kim Morgan's MSN Movies Filter the other day and saw her post on Pirate Performances complete with a picture of the poster from Douglas Fairbanks The Black Pirate.

I had the same thought I've always had looking at that poster: "He looks like he's wearing a dress." Now I love Fairbanks but the costume seems a bit bizarre. A little silk black two strap number for a pirate? I guess. But Kim didn't post the best possible pic to show this. To the right is my favorite.

Go ahead, click on it to enlarge. I've not altered it in any way, except for the usual filmstrip frame that accompanies Cinema Still Life photos. Is it just me or does he look like he's suffering from a bad case of gynecomastia? And the shoulder straps?

For my second mirror image I draw my inspiration from If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger there'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats where I'm pleased to hear that Kimberly Lindbergs of Cinebeats is now a regular contributor.

Her first official contribution was this shot of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth boarding a plane in 1946, around the time of The Lady from Shanghai.

My post has them from the same time, only switching chairs, Rita's Orson and Orson is Rita, only Orson's not as lovely and in no way resembles a meter maid.

As always, click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Director's Commentary: Foreign Film List

Below is the list I sent to Edward Copeland for the Foreign Film poll, which is now completed (The results can be viewed here.). Surprise, surprise, three of my top five come from the thirties and two from the forties. It's a bias I know, but whenever I think of any list of great movies I tend to weigh the earlier efforts heavier because of a belief that they were setting standards and inventing the rules, not following them. For instance, when Fritz Lang made M sound film had just recently come into existance. Cameras were much more restricted in their movements than they were at the height of the silent period, actors barely understood the difference between silent pantomime and theatrical overreaching and foley (incidental sounds, ambient sounds, etc.) was in its infancy. And yet Lang managed to create an extraordinary film, using sound, light, shadow and motion to great effect throughout. Something like Wings of Desire, made much later (which is why it's number 25), achieved great things in those areas too, but could do so without battling technology at the same time.

There were other movies I dropped from the initial list. I did not rank Day for Night this time around. I felt unsure about it in the first place and included it mainly for the sake of nostalgia but when I saw the results of the nominating committee I realized there were other films I had "forgotten" about that should have made my list over Day for Night, like Rome: Open City and Sansho the Bailiff. I had no idea until I looked at the results of the nominating committee that I had left off Rome: Open City or Sansho the Bailiff. I have even written about Rome: Open City on this very site so I am glad I got a chance to correct the omission of such an incredible film.

And then there were a couple I did not see until very recently such as Contempt and Hiroshima Mon Amour. I could not see all of the films on the list that I had not yet seen but I did see several in the last few weeks and found these two to be outstanding.

As for the ranking to be quite honest it's a little muddy after number ten. I had a hard enough time as it was putting these in any order but for the first ten I felt confident of my selections and their order. After that it was all a little random with any film easily changes places with another depending on mood, time of day or what have you.

These are the 25 I submitted and next to their title on the right is their final ranking on the poll.

1. M - 3

2. The Blue Angel - 93

3. Bicycle Thief - 5

4. Grand Illusion - 7

5. Rome, Open City - 78

6. Battle of Algiers - 9

7. Belle de Jour - 32

8. Breathless - 21

9. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - 36

10. Rules of the Game - 1

11. Wild Strawberries - 30

12. Amarcord - 69

13. Aguirre, the Wrath of God - 8

14. Beauty and the Beast - 35

15. Hiroshima , Mon Amour - 71

16. Playtime - 23

17. Tokyo Story - 12

18. Viridiana - 85

19. Au hasard Balthazar - 24

20. Sansho the Bailiff - 46

21. L'Avventura - 29

22. Contempt - 20

23. Ikuru - 14

24. The Conformist - 18

25. Wings of Desire - 41

Monday, September 17, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Howard Hawks directs the Coop

Howard Hawks (seated to the left of the arc light) directs Gary Cooper (three guesses which one he is) in Sergeant York, the highest grossing film of 1941. Cooper played Alvin York, a real life war hero who took up arms after years of pacifism. And this Cinema Still Life proves one thing without a doubt: I don't have to like the movie to find the photo interesting, and I have never liked Sergeant York.

It's one of the few Howard Hawks films I don't like. Maybe it's all the blathering on about the "good book" or the naive huckleberry routine of Cooper. But mainly it's this: I don't like Alvin York.

Raised a christian until his father died when he was eleven, he abandoned his faith until later in life becoming a fundamentalist born-again. He tried to exempt himself from fighting in World War I as a conscientious objector but was enlisted anyway. Apparently he was swayed that fighting in a war could be endorsed by the Bible. How in the hell could it not? There's enough slaughter and mass murder in that book, and done by God for the most part, to fill the Grand Canyon with blood and entrails from end to end. So he fought, killed 25 Germans, captured over a hundred others and came back a hero. Hooray for pacificst ideals! Years later he refused to let Hollywood make a movie about him... unless Gary Cooper played him. Lord, what an ego. And thus came Sergeant York, a jingoistic movie about a phony, egotistical fundamentalist fraud. Sounds familiar doesn't it?

But hey, pretty cool photo, huh?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Unseen Images: Walkabout

Walkabout was released in 1971, received great reviews and then disappeared for more than 25 years. It was not even released on VHS until the late nineties and only recently on DVD. When Roger Ebert placed it on his "Great Movies" in 1997 he noted this himself and even now while other Nicholas Roeg films like Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth have become standards of seventies cinema, Walkabout is rarely mentioned. I think I know why.
The original reviews of Walkabout describe it as "beautiful," "magical" and "a delightful family film." It would not be unexpected for the average filmgoer to walk into it expecting an earlier, Australian version of The Black Stallion: Innocent(s) lost in nature, helped out by a mysterious knowing guide (in The Black Stallion, a horse, in Walkabout, an aboriginal boy) and connecting with nature in the process. But this does not describe Walkabout at all. Roger Ebert described it as "deeply pessimistic" and he has a point. Walkabout portrays nature as brutal and harsh, communication between cultures as an obstacle (and one that cannot be overcome) and the world as unblinkingly uncaring. It is in many ways not only a film that could not be made today, but one that would not be accepted even if it were. And that would explain its disappearance and subsequent relegation to obscurity.
The film begins with shots of the Australian urban environment, surrounded by trees and ocean but ignorant of the nature that consumes it. There are exotic trees, but they are conveniently labeled, there is a beautiful ocean but the children swim in a pool instead. And their father sits alone on a bench outside work, then at home stares at his children in the pool with a hollowness that makes him a phantom in his own world.
Shortly after, through a series of panning shots of walls that leads us into the outback, we see the family Volkswagen with father and children it tow, in the middle of the desert. The father has taken his children here for a picnic but seems oddly disconnected from anything going on around him. He studies geological charts as his daughter (Jenny Agutter) sets up the blanket and food and his son plays with his toys and water pistol. Without warning the father begins shooting at his children. His son thinks he is playing and "fires" back with his water pistol. The daughter takes off running, scoops up her brother and drags him to a trench, out of sight of their father. Shortly after, the father burns the car and shoots himself. Son and daughter are alone in the middle of the outback. The story, as it were, begins.
The scenes of the father are never explained. Did he lose his job? Did he do something wrong for which murder/suicide seems to be the only out? It is never stated. And remarkably, in a film utterly and absolutely devoid of sentimentality, the daughter never reacts. She guides her brother as best she can, telling him that Dad went on ahead and they have to catch up. But she never cries. She never reveals emotion of any kind connected with the shocking events that just transpired. It seems odd at first but as the film progresses the recognition of a lack of emotion becomes palpable, then understandable, then accepted. The movie isn't about emotion or cheap sentimentality. It is about survival and communication. The survival part is apparent. The communication aspects are revealed more slowly, cautiously until by the end the viewer is convinced no one in the film has understood anything that anyone else has done, including themselves.
The sister carries her brother to an oasis where they drink muddied water and eat berries from a tree. By morning the water is gone and death seems a certainty. And that is when they spy an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) on a walkabout. The girl cannot communicate to him that they need water but her brother has no problem. For whatever reason the younger brother seems able to communicate with the aborigine much easier than the sister. The aboriginal boy shows them how to get water from a dry bed and soon they are a threesome, surviving in the outback.
There is not much else in the way of plot on which to elaborate. They wander, kill for food, eat, sleep, swim in the nude and survive. But it is how they do these things, and how Roeg frames his shots that tell the real story of Walkabout. And it is the visual telling of the story that separates it completely from a film of today. A quick look at comments on IMDB shows a woeful misunderstanding of the film by many based on what they think they should be seeing due to film cliches set in stone from the eighties on. It is told differently than it would be today. And those differences are worth noting.
One of the first jarring differences concerns that ubiquitous disclaimer found on movies today that "no animals were harmed during the production of this film." Well, that's out the window. Animals are beaten, gouged, clubbed, shot, stabbed, vivisected and devoured by flies and maggots in scene after scene. There is a pungent scent of death that permeates the whole production. The aboriginal boy (David Gulipilil, a real aborigine with admirable hunting skills) is shown hunting, for real, just as Nanook is shown hunting the walrus in Nanook of the North. Kangaroos and buffalo and reptiles are speared and clubbed, ripped apart and disemboweled. Roeg employs freeze frames and cross-cutting throughout. One such cross-cutting, of the aboriginal boy vivisecting a kangaroo while a butcher in the city is seen chopping up meat in his shop, is the subject of a misguided comment on IMDB bemoaning being hit over the head with a lecture on how bad those urban imperialists are and how natural the aborigines are. There must be an award somewhere for missing the point so badly. But it is understandable, given what is expected from a tale like this told today, in these "kinder, gentler" times. The point made so abundantly clear throughout is that they (the two different cultures) are one and the same, no one worse than the other, just two different cultures performing the same task in decidedly different ways but achieving the same results. There is no judgment in this film of one culture over another whatsoever. Anyone viewing it that way needs to see it again.
It is the wall of communication that Roeg is concerned with, not elevating one culture at the expense of another. Many scenes, such as one where the aboriginal boy sees a settlement but does not lead the brother and sister to it, indicate that he clearly does not understand that they are lost and need to contact someone. Perhaps he thinks they are on a walkabout too. Or when he crosses over a paved road, a clear sign of civilization, and still does not bother to point it out to the girl, who only discovers it later.
Finally, the aboriginal boy performs a courtship dance for the girl that frightens and confuses her. She does not see its grace or gentle entreaties to companionship. He does not see that it frightens her and makes her uneasy. After this scene we come to what is possibly the single most misunderstood scene of the film. The day after the courtship dance, the girl's brother tells her of the paved road and the two of them clean up to travel down it. She wonders where the aboriginal boy has gone, assuming he went back to his tribe, only to have her little brother remark, "He's dead." He takes her to his body, suspended from a tree, and regards it passively and without emotion. And then they travel on.
Many viewers have made the erroneous assumption that the aboriginal boy killed himself, which is not true. Even the entry on Wikipedia states the boy hangs himself after being rejected by the girl, this despite the fact that the most casual glance will show he has not been hanged but is dangling from his arms. Although it is not made abundantly clear in the film (again it is about lack of communication and without the third person narrator of the book upon which it is based there is no real way to communicate it to the audience) the aboriginal boy has been sick, infected with a virus of some kind, and knowing his death imminent has suspended his body from a tree. It is a deeply held belief of the aboriginal tribes of Australia that bodies must be suspended above the ground to allow their spirits to leave the body and not be taken into the ground, or nether regions. Knowing he was dying was also why he performed the courtship dance at that time, believing this lost girl with whom he had no real connection was his last chance. Before he performs the dance he is shown at rest among the skeletal carcases of dead buffalo, a further indication of his impending death.
The custom of bodily suspension is also seen earlier in the film as an aboriginal tribe (perhaps that of the boy's?) is playing around the burned out Volkswagen. We can see they have suspended the rotting corpse of the dead father in a nearby tree.
After the sister and brother head down the road they come across a small mining town with one inhabitant. They knock on his door to ask for help but all he can think to tell is that everything is private property and they can't touch anything. He too, doesn't appear to understand the severity of the situation. The children do not help either. At no point do they explain what has happened, just that they are lost.
We never see them rescued, whisked back to their mother or dealing with the aftermath of the trying events. We simply see the girl, some years later, in the same type of apartment as her parents, looking past her husband as he tells her about his promotion and raise. Her face is emotionless and we see flashbacks to the outback. Does she long for it or miss it? Does she want to be back? Or is she just thinking about it because her life and husband bore her immensely? Again no answers, just images.
Throughout the film Roeg employs freeze-frames and cross-cuts liberally. He even freeze-frames lap dissolves before they have completed their dissolve and let's their image hang over the frames of the following scene like ghosts dancing about the outback. He succeeds admirably in visually detailing a harsh and brutal environment with no emotion, no sentimentality. He observes a tragic lack of communication from all concerned and is content to let the observation be enough. Walkabout is precisely the type of film, made today by a director like Steven Spielberg, that would be ruined with message and gooey sentiment. I can imagine torment and grief played out by the girl after the shooting incident. I can imagine the girl explaining the customs of the aborigines to her younger brother as they weep beneath the dangling body of the aboriginal boy (if they let him die at all). And I can certainly imagine a lump in your throat reunion with the mother, as John Williams' strings rise to a crescendo. The problem is, for too many modern day viewers of Walkabout that's what they're imagining before they see it and when they don't get it, they're disappointed. But if the viewer is not concerned with cliched expectations being met then Walkabout is a richly rewarding experience. And one not soon forgotten.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

End Credits - Cinema Still Life: It's a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping!

End Credits and Cinema Still Life have combined for a Preston Sturges salute.

First Preston's very own rules for comedy. They don't sound very sophisticated but they (almost) always seemed to work for Preston. Then The Lady Eve as advertised in Spain, Italy (twice) and Germany. Spain and Italy decided for some reason that the film was "The Three Nights of Eve" while Germany settled for "The Fake Gambler". My favorite is the second Italian one with the proper title. It looks like it's advertising a horror film with Stanwyck cast as Medusa.

Preston Sturges Golden Rules of Comedy

*A pretty girl is better than a plain one

*A leg is better than an arm

*A bedroom is better than a living room

*An arrival is better than a departure

*A birth is better than a death

*A chase is better than a chat

*A dog is better than a landscape

*A kitten is better than a dog

*A baby is better than a kitten

*A kiss is better than a baby

*A pratfall is better than anything

Monday, September 10, 2007

Director's Commentary: The Princess vs The Duke

Oscar posts can take alot out of you. Unless you're content to do it all from memory (I am not) there's a voluminous amount of movie watching that takes place between each post. I'm doing the seventies this month and still have three more movies to refresh myself on for 1970-1974. I plan on watching all three this week and then finally get down to picking. I've seen almost every nominee (there are a few from the twenties and thirties I still haven't seen and a few more from the 2000's I still haven't gotten around to but other than that, I've seen 'em all) and have seen every single winner. The Oscars were kind of an obsession as a kid.

So why am I going on about this? Because while preparing the Oscar post I have little else to post and hate letting my little place here go more than a day or so without a new post, even if it's just a photo or a list. So, anyway, my brain being mush from a hellish week at work I found myself thumbing through The Book of Lists 2 (2: because the world demanded it). Yes - I'm pathetic. So I'm in the movie section (of course) and I come across the contributions of Princess Grace Kelly and John Wayne. Why these two were selected to contribute I have no idea. Some questions remain mysteries through the ages. The Princess and The Duke may be gone but we lucky little people have their neatly listed thoughts on acting and movies written in stone for all time. So let us now examine in this exceedingly lazy, uh, I mean, very thought provoking post their personal choices and select a winner.

The Best Actors of All Time

The Princess picks:

1. Marie Dressler

2. Mae West

3. Greta Garbo

4. Ingrid Bergman

5. Elizabeth Taylor

The Duke picks:

1. Spencer Tracy

2. Elizabeth Taylor

3. Katharine Hepburn

4. Laurence Olivier

5. Lionel Barrymore

The Princess picked only actresses for some reason so I guess the comparison will be a little skewed. They have only one name in common: Elizabeth Taylor. I'm guessing a Nobel Prize winning physicist well versed in the minutia of Venusian Vector Calculus couldn't figure that one out so I'm not going to even try. They've got everyone from Tracy to Grant to Bergman to Hepburn to Peck to Redgrave to O'Toole to Loy to Powell to Bacall to Bogart... and Taylor they have in common. Hmmm. Maybe they had both just watched Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the night before. She's pretty damn good in both of those. I'm pretty sure they hadn't just watched Butterfield 8. And it does go to show the Duke didn't let politics get in the way of his decisions as Taylor pretty much stood squarely opposite of everything he held dear.

The Princess restricts herself to actresses and puts Marie Dressler at the top. And eschewing conservative thinking places Mae West at number two. Now I love Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and certainly feel The Princess limited herself by choosing only actresses, but for having the gumption to go with Marie and Mae at the top I'm giving her the edge over The Duke.

The Best Movies of All Time:

The Princess:

1. The Quiet Man

2. The Bicycle Thief

3. Gone with the Wind

4. Grand Illusion

5. Some Like it Hot

The Duke:

1. A Man for All Seasons

2. Gone with the Wind

3. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

4. The Searchers

5. The Quiet Man

Wow. I mean, can I just say... wow. The Duke picks only five movies and two of them are ones he starred in. I guess you don't get a nickname like "The Duke" by being modest. This time they have two selections in common: Gone with the Wind (excuse me one second ... ... ... ... okay, I'm back. Sorry about that. I had to go throw up) and The Quiet Man. Unfortunately the scholarly Book of Lists 2 doesn't bother to list years of production or directors or anything foolish like that so we can't be sure if Duke meant the 1921 Four Horsemen or the 1962 Four Horsemen. He was John Wayne - he could have actually meant the 1962 version. But I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant the 1921 Rudolph Valentino classic. And yes, what a jolt for all you fools out there, wasting endless days and nights on garbage from Welles, Ozu, Renoir, Lang, Huston, Visconti, Pasolini and Bunuel only to find out that A Man for All Seasons is the greatest film ever made. You secretly knew it all along didn't you.

As for the Princess, with the single exception of that Civil War film they have in common (ahem) it's a pretty solid list. The Quiet Man may not be the Ford most would go with but there's no denying the greatness of The Bicycle Thief, Grand Illusion and Some Like it Hot. So the Princess gets my vote here as well. And she gets extra points for NOT listing a movie she starred in, and she starred in Rear Window for chrissakes! She truly was grace personified.

And so the battle ends. In a 2-0 knockout, the Princess comes out on top. Yeah, that's it, just two lists. The Princess and The Duke couldn't be bothered to list more than five actors/actresses and movies. They were busy people. She had lots of royal stuff to attend to and he was busy being pissed off at baby boomers. Ah, but what a worthless ... um, uh, I mean fascinating look into their mind's eye. And what a tease. I don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight wondering what the Princess and the Duke would have thought were the five best tv shows of all time, or the best ice creams, or the best lawn furniture. Man, you could write a book. 2.


Saturday, September 8, 2007

End Credits: The Seven Deadly Sins

The seven films shown at "The Seven Deadly Sins Film Festival" in New York in 1987, each representing one of the deadly sins:

Envy - All About Eve (1950)

Gluttony - Sugarbaby (1985)

Greed - Greed (1924) Well, what else could it be?

Sloth - Oblomov (1979)

Lust - Sunrise (1927)

Anger - Fury (1936)

Pride - The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Cinema Still Life: You're Not Looking Yourself Today

This edition of Cinema Still Life focuses on pics of the stars not quite looking like we're used to them looking. Not because of theatrical or latex make-up, just a different look. In Chaplin's case it's the lack of make-up that makes the difference.

Lucille Ball, that wacky... blond?

Gregory Peck going all loose and cool with shades and a goatee.

Katherine Hepburn. It's just not her.

Charlie Chaplin, sans moustache, cane and little tramp costume.

Myrna Loy with... long hair?
Pictured with Ian Keith.

Groucho Marx. Still got the stogie, but no moustache (greasepaint or otherwise) and no bushy head of hair.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Director's Commentary: The 70's - The Second Golden Age?

This month I will be revisiting the Oscars of the seventies in my ongoing series on the Oscars. Before I get to the next entry (1970 - 1974) I thought it might be useful to re-examine the idea that the seventies were a second golden age for American cinema.

1970 saw a major re-awakening of American film that would carry through to the mid-seventies. Finally realizing that it was losing the youth audience to foreign imports Hollywood starting financing films that today would be lucky to get backed at the Sundance Film Festival: Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, Alex in Wonderland, Gimme Shelter, Husbands, I Never Sang for My Father, A Man Called Horse, Joe, Woodstock, Little Big Man. Okay, Hollywood didn't finance all of those but the studios started to distribute as many as they could while smaller distribution companies were getting into the act as well. Now defunct National General Pictures co-produced and distributed both Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse. The studios themselves continued to put out big movies like Ryan's Daughter, Patton, Catch-22, Tora, Tora, Tora and Airport of which some were successful and some were not. The start of the reputation of the seventies as a second Golden Age of the movies had begun. But the story of the second golden age isn't entirely true.

There were before and have been since just as many good to excellent to great small, intimate films made each year as there were in the seventies. The difference was in the promotion of those films and their box office take. Put it this way: In 2003 Lost in Translation was released to excellent reviews and terrific word of mouth with a limited marketing campaign. That same year Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was also released to excellent reviews with a massive marketing campaign. Lost in Translation pulled in 44 million and Return of the King pulled in 377 million. Thirty years earlier, in 1973, it would have been the other way around (and the special effects for Return of the King would have been considerably worse). That was the difference. The big box office winners were the small character driven dramas and comedies. Going back to 1970 the biggest budgeted, special effects extravaganza was Tora! Tora! Tora!. It cost $25,000,000 to make and pulled in... just $14,500,000. By contrast M*A*S*H cost all of $3,500,000 to make and pulled in... $73,200,000.

The reverse of today was true in the early seventies. Big budget, big special effects, low box-office. Low budget, no special effects, big box-office.

And if you're thinking that M*A*S*H grossed much more than Tora! Tora! Tora! due to its considerably higher acclaim consider this: In 2001 Pearl Harbor, based on the same events as Tora! Tora! Tora! and opening to even worse reviews, grossed $450,400,000 worldwide by the end of its run. With an estimated budget of $140,000,000 that's a gross of over three times the cost of the film. In the same year, 2001, Mulholland Dr. opened to near unanimously great reviews. Its worldwide gross was $20,112,339. With an estimated budget of $15,000,000 that's just a 33% take over the cost of the movie.

Mulholland Dr. is exactly the type of movie that would have flourished in the early seventies. As the baby boom moved into adulthood they were interested in seeing more adult themes on the big screen. The studios, always going where the money is, gave them what they wanted. With the success in 1969 of Easy Rider ($340,000 budget, $60,000,000 take by 1972) and Midnight Cowboy ($3,600,000 budget, $44,785,053 take) and the failure of Hello Dolly ($25,000,000 budget, $15,200,000 take) and Sweet Charity ($20,000,000 budget, $4,000,000 take) it was clear where the money was. As an added bonus the movies bringing in the most money cost the least amount to make.

By 1971 the biggest movies with the biggest marketing campaigns starred actors and actresses like Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson and Glenda Jackson. Movies like The French Connection (made for $1,800,000 and taking in more than $51,000,000 - a whopping 28 times the cost of the movie) were winning at the box-office, the critics polls and the Academy Awards. For a short, dreamlike period it seemed that art and business had finally found a way to sleep in the same bed together. Gone were the days of the little guy being stepped on by the big studios. Gone were the days when the artist would have to struggle to get financing. Now the studios were seeking out the film students and the artists and giving them the keys to the kingdom. Young filmmakers just out of film school found themselves in the same demand that theatrically trained actors and actresses found themselves in at the advent of the sound era. The movies they and other old newcomers (like Don Siegal and Robert Altman and Hal Ashby) who had struggled under studio supervision for years, produced were challenging, engaging, thought-provoking. Titles like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Straw Dogs, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Last Picture Show, The Hospital, Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, The Getaway, Sounder, Fat City, The Heartbreak Kid, Play it Again Sam, American Graffiti, Drive He Said, The Last Detail, Charley Varrick, Don't Look Now, The Long Goodbye, The Exorcist, Scarecrow, Papillon, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Serpico, Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Conversation, Chinatown, Harry and Tonto, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, The Man Who Would be King, Hester Street and on and on. I've left out quite a few actually, but you get the point. The bonds of playing to the box-office had been broken. From here on out the writer director could make the movie he wanted and not worry about focus groups or whether or not it would play in Peoria. Of course it would. It's what everyone wanted. It was blue skies as far as the eye could see.

But there were clouds on the horizon.

As much money as the low budget personal films were making there were other movies raking in big bucks too that had nothing to do with artistry. Big time musicals (Sweet Charity and Hello Dolly) and over-inflated dramas (Tora! Tora! Tora! and Ryan's Daughter) were no longer bringing in the big box-office that had always been guaranteed them for decades. But in 1970, by pure chance, Hollywood discovered something that brought the audiences in by the multitudes. In decades prior, disaster films had never done poorly at the box office but they were rarely ever big box-office winners either. Hollywood had even released a couple of airplane based disaster movies, The High and the Mighty (1954) and Zero Hour!(1957) that did middling to good box-office so there was no reason to believe another one would be that different. But they were wrong. Very wrong. In 1970 Airport fulfilled an unknown desire of the masses to see has-beens, former Oscar winners and second bananas gather together for an hour and a half of turgid soap-opera followed by twenty minutes of disaster management. It grossed over $60,000,000 in its initial run and went on to gross more than $100,000,000 overall worldwide.

Hollywood being Hollywood, by 1971 they had moved everyone to a ship, sent a rogue wave in its direction and called it The Poseidon Adventure. Big time box-office once again. They were on to something. And the directors that made these films weren't nearly as much a pain in the ass as those young kids making movies the studio heads didn't understand in the first place. And the actors (former stars happy to get work, character actors happy to have leads) were very easy to work with. Willing and cooperative. Hmmm...

By 1974 the disaster genre had become standard. Two big ones were released in that year: Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Earthquake cost $7,000,000 and took in $79,700,000 worldwide by the end of its run. The Towering Inferno cost $14,000,000 and pulled in $116,000,000 worldwide before its run ended. And with plenty of studio loyalists voting, The Towering Inferno even managed to get a nomination for Best Picture! No film had yet raked in $100,000,000 domestically on its initial run but that wasn't far around the corner.

In 1973 The Exorcist had eschewed the standard distribution technique of opening in the big two, New York and Los Angeles, and then slowly making its way around the country with limited engagements before going into general release. Instead it was released en masse in as many towns and cities and on as many screens as the studios could rent. The result was big box-office as it shattered opening weekend records. By the time its general release ended it had raked in more than $89,000,000 at the box-office domestically. The idea of a wide release in lieu of limited engagements seemed like a possible goldmine. Within two years the studios would strike that gold they had long been mining for: $100,000,000 domestic.

In 1975 it happened. Jaws opened on 465 screens (nothing compared to the thousands of screens a big movie opens on today, but there were no multiplexes back then) and by the end of its initial run had pulled in $129,549,242 domestically, more than The Towering Inferno had pulled in worldwide. The Age of the Blockbuster had begun. And that Second Golden Age of low-budget independently made films was rapidly heading for the door.

Of course, there would still be many more low to mid-range budgeted movies coming out of the studios for years to come. Films like Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Days of Heaven and Kramer vs. Kramer would still be made, still receive acclaim and still do well at the box-office. But the studios had discovered (as they always seem to do) an easy formula for big bucks: Special effects, wide releases, summer openings. It wasn't perfect. For every Star Wars there was a Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century, for every Airport 75 there was a Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. But perfect or not, the big box-office takers raked in enough to cover for the failures.

By the late seventies Hollywood had gone back to the business it was used to: Studio directors, churned out scripts, re-hashed ideas, proven formulas. The small movies were still there, they just weren't getting the star treatment they had received in the early to mid-seventies. The Second Golden Age turned out to be more smoke and mirrors than reality. The movies were great, no doubt, and there were probably slightly more of them made due to studio interest than there have been in other years. But it was studio financing and promotion that made it seem bigger than it was.

So was there a second golden age in the seventies? Yes and no. There were many more great independently made "small" films in wide release than ever before but the blockbusters, from Airport through Jaws, were still there and eventually took the attention away from the smaller films. But for a few short, shining years the filmmaker as artist stood at the forefront of American movie making. If that's what it takes to create a golden age, then here's hoping we have many more to come.


Saturday, September 1, 2007

Cinema Still Life: Working with the Actors

Otto Preminger thinks Sinatra is as good as gold on the set of The Man with the Golden Arm.

Arthur Penn gives some bulletproof guidance to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty on the set of Bonnie and Clyde.

Stanley Kubrick takes his actors beyond the infinite in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal Ashby fills in the details for Jack Nicholson and Otis Young on the set of The Last Detail. In case you're wondering Jack Nicholson is the shore patrol.

Terrance Malick provides a road map for Martin Sheen in Badlands.

Wim Wenders helps Peter Falk's performance take flight in Wings of Desire.

Peter Greenaway cooks up some motivation for Helen Mirren in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Martin Scorcese gambles that he'll have another hit with Robert DeNiro in Casino.