Monday, June 23, 2008

Beyond Belief: Trinity and Beyond

Around this time of year I always begin reading about the Manhattan Project. It enters my psyche this time every year as the date draws closer to July 16th, that fateful day in history when, in 1945, the world officially entered the atomic age. I have a small library of information, biographies and histories on the subject as it's fascinated me for years. Around nine or ten years ago I bought a DVD entitled Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. According to the info on the back cover it won a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, the Gold Award at both Worldfest Houston and Worldfest Charleston (apparently Worldfest just couldn't get enough of it) and the Golden Scroll from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Pretty impressive, I guess. Upon finishing up my first viewing of it my immediate reaction was, "Wow, must of been a pretty damn weak year at the Worldfest." Ten years later, that reaction hasn't changed.

Trinity and Beyond is the work of Peter Kuran, special effects expert who has an Oscar for a color film restoration process he engineered and one he uses to great effect here. The problem with Trinity and Beyond is that's all it is, a restoration of nuclear bomb tests with William Shatner narrating, William Stromberg providing some of the most bombastic film music in history and dry, very dry, analysis. It offers no insight into the tests, no opinion on the decisions made, no social commentary. It's just... there.*

The problem with all of this is that the choice of music, narration and interview subjects makes the documentary appear to be pro atmospheric testing.

The documentary contains all of two interview subjects: Physicists Edward Teller and Frank Shelton. If you don't know who Edward Teller is (and I have no idea why you wouldn't) the following linked ad pretty much sums him up perfectly. It was taken out in The Washington Post after the Three Mile Island accident. I'd tell you the headline of the ad but it's too beautiful to spoil the surprise. It simply must be clicked on here. Teller has two interview clips in the documentary, both strongly in favor of nuclear weapons and testing and both letting the viewer know how why he was ahead of his time in his thinking (one does not go to Edward Teller for modesty or humility).

Then there's physicist Frank Shelton, who provides a very straightforward, cold description of the tests and their experimental results. Here is a man who in the face of all of the horrors of nuclear warfare speaks academically about pellets of tritium doubling yields. Nothing seems to excite him about the idea of nuclear weapons, rather, they are mathematical constructs to him. It's all yields and pre-cursor winds and how best to measure them.

In between Teller's ego rants and Shelton's academic explanations there's nuclear test footage, and lots of it. Beautifully (if that's the right word) restored footage of nuclear bombs blowing up. Footage of pigs and goats being fried in their wake. Footage of houses and buildings and buses imploding upon impact of the shock wave. Footage of bombs being blown up in space. Lots and lots of footage with no perceivable point of view. None. It succeeds in detailing decades of nuclear weapons testing without having any point of view about it. How can you not have a passionate point of view about it one way or another? Well, he doesn't. And then the movie ends. Ah, but that ending.

The finale is the only point where Kuran seems to be trying to make some sort of a statement but what is it? I don't know, I really don't. Maybe you, dear reader, can help me. I've put the finale up below. It starts by saying how many tests the United States did and how many countries signed the treaty to stop testing. Then it says "However" and shows scenes from China's Cultural Revolution followed by one of the most bizarre nuclear tests you've ever seen. But that's not all! The tests has been mashed-up by Kuran. Yep, I know my test footage (as I explained at the start I've been obsessed with this for a long time) and Kuran uses at least four separate tests as well as CGI created smoke effects. So what's his point? We shouldn't have stopped testing because China started testing? We should be prepared for all out nuclear war with China? Christ I don't know. I do know this: The footage you are about to watch from the end of the film is the only original and interesting moment in the whole movie. I've talked with friends who've watched it as well and that's pretty much all they remember: The Chinese soldiers shooting machine guns at the camera as they ride on horseback towards a nuclear explosion, with both themselves and the horses decked out in gas masks. It's quite a sight to see. The movie isn't.


* Further evidence that Kuran has never actually thought upon the subject of nuclear weapons and what they mean to civilization: The DVD I ordered from his company (this was in the days before Amazon had everything under the sun) came with 3-D glasses for a special 3-D explosion, a viewfinder reel of blasts and a little slide viewer with a picture of a detonation that you hold up to the light. Ugh. McDonald's must've turned him down on a tie-in deal.

**Shelton, Frank H. 1988. Reflections of a Nuclear Weaponeer. Shelton Enterprise Inc. pp. 6-13 to 6-14.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

All Glory is Fleeting; Just Ask Thomas Meighan

About a month ago the Siren put up a post on movie actors she didn't like. It elicited a big response and after reading her choices I wrote a lengthy comment myself. A quick summation: I said that few of the actors she mentioned were well known to the average filmgoer today with some exceptions (Bing Crosby, Ronald Reagan). Now, of course, anyone here knows them all and everyone who visits her site knows them all and there's not an obscure name on the list but to the average filmgoer today the names Dan Dailey or Jeanette MacDonald won't ring a bell. If you don't believe me do what I did; ask any of your non-cinephile co-workers if they know either of them. The answer I got was "no" as I suspected it would be (full disclosure - I didn't ask anyone in their sixties or up - the point is to see if a star is known to someone who was not born until that star's career was either over or they were dead). Now ask your co-workers if they've heard of Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant or James Cagney. Unless they're very young, I bet you'll get a "yes."

My point on the Siren's post was that maybe the reason they're not as remembered is because they lacked something that translates through the decades that those other names don't lack and maybe that's why they don't appeal to the Siren or many other cinephiles. At any given time there are hundreds to thousands of actors working in the movies. Of that lot, many a multitude is famous. Go through the top box office winners of the week and there won't be a movie where you don't recognize at least one of the actor's names. In most cases, you should recognize at least three. If that's the average, that's thirty actors right there that are currently famous plus a couple hundred more that you and I could easily name. That's now. What about in 80 years? Who will be left? And why?

To prove I'm not crazy (without spending money on psychiatrists and expensive drugs) I turned to my old movie books. I've got quite a few. When I say "old" I don't just mean the ones I got when I was a kid from the seventies and eighties or ones that were old then, from the sixties. I mean "old" as in forties and fifties (in case you're wondering, secondhand bookstore). One that I was thumbing through after the Siren's post was Classics of the Silent Screen from the mid-fifties. At the time it was written the Silent Period hadn't been over for even thirty years yet so it would be like reading a book today on classics of the seventies and early eighties. The interesting thing is when you get to the section "The 75 Greatest Stars of the Silents." Now I'm a cinephile and have been since I was in grade school. I've watched a plethora of old movies and read through stacks and stacks of movie books and I can tell you that a good 20 percent of the names were unfamiliar to me. Of the other 80 percent I recognized, at least half I knew by name only. That is, when I see the name "Mae Murray" I know she's an actress from the early days of Hollywood and I even had a still from Circe, the Enchantress on my sidebar for the longest time several months back. But I don't really know Mae Murray. I don't know 90 percent of her movies. I just know the name.

Others, like Ben Turpin and Harry Langdon, I easily recognize by name and face because of their distinctive looks and styles (what movie book of old doesn't have a picture of Turpin's crossed-eyes?) and even know a few of their movies.

Then there's the stars that every cinephile knows: Lon Chaney, Ronald Colman, John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish. And of those, known to the average filmgoer, is probably Chaplin, Garbo, maybe Keaton. Think I'm wrong? Go back to your co-workers (unless you work in the movies or with other film critics that is). I am constantly amazed at people having no idea who Clara Bow is, or Ronald Colman or yes Buster Keaton and Lon Chaney. I'm serious. You follow movies your whole life and you think those people are known to everyone and, well, sad to say, they're not.

At any given time in Hollywood there are hundreds of famous names but time whittles it down until there are just a few mega stars left, stars that if not known to the average filmgoer by face are at least known by name.

One example I gave on the Siren's site of someone who has enjoyed recent fame was William Atherton. Anyone who watched movies in the seventies and eighties knows William Atherton. He starred in The Sugarland Express, Day of the Locust, Looking For Mr. Goodbar, The Hindenburg and others. Not in bit parts, he starred in them. Then he fell to supporting and minor supporting (Ghostbusters, Die Hard) then appearances on popular tv shows. His star burned out. Something about him just didn't work for enough people in enough movies and Hollywood selected him out of the lead roles. We all know him now and our kids may be familiar with him vaguely due to things like Ghostbusters but in fifty years good luck finding a thirty year old filmgoer who knows who in the hell William Atherton is.

And who will be selected out now? I have a few nominees on both ends of the spectrum. While Oscar winners tend to stay in the memory longer winning an Oscar is still no guarantee. Most filmgoers today and even some cinephiles aren't familiar with George Arliss despite his Oscar win. Nevertheless it's a definite advantage. Stars of the eighties and before are already well established and we're already seeing who will remain and who will not. Stars like Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro and Faye Dunaway are here to stay. I don't think many people will be scratching their heads over those names 80 years from now. Stars from the nineties through today like Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington and Cate Blanchett will still be known in 80 years, probably. But how about Halle Berry, Hillary Swank, Jude Law, Mark Ruffalo? And you should know, if you haven't already picked up on it, none of this has to do with their respective talents as actors. I don't think Mark Ruffalo will be forgotten and Russell Crowe remembered because one is a better or worse actor than the other. I don't think William Atherton is a bad actor, in fact, I think he's very good. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood (definitely remembered forever - no doubt at all) in Unforgiven, "Talent's got nothing to do with it."

Personally, I would lament Mark Ruffalo not being remembered but so far, I don't think he has the "star power," whatever that is exactly, to translate through the ages. Hell, most people I talk to today don't know who he is so what chance does he have with history. But I want him to be remembered because I think he's one of the best actors in the movies today. When I think of other actors who will be remembered for sure that I don't like it Ruffalos my feathers even more. For instance, I know Tom Cruise is here to stay. Now I thought he was terrific as Frank "T.J." Mackey in Magnolia. I thought he was good in his breakout movie Risky Business. But I don't like him. Really, I don't. Ah hell, I'll be honest, I can't stand the guy. I'm not talking about acting talent (though judge it as you will) I'm saying I don't like him. He bugs me. He makes movies he's in unenjoyable to me (unless he's playing a dick, like in Magnolia). I want him selected out and Mark Ruffalo selected in but I know that's not going to happen.

And I want forgotten stars of the twenties and thirties to be rediscovered. I brought up Glenda Farrell both at the Siren's site and here shortly thereafter and re-submit her name for rediscovery now. As Arbogast said in the comments on my post about her, she was "a force of nature." Indeed. And how about others from the thirties and forties that have fallen away? Or the fifties and sixties? Actors that we wish more people knew, and some actors that we wish they'd just forget about. I've got quite a list but I'll wrap this up now and leave it with Ruffalo and Farrell for the time being. I'd hate to flash forward to the future and find Ruffalo's name as unfamiliar as Thomas Meighan, mentioned in the title of this post. He was one of the 75 Great Stars mentioned in that book. He made over 80 movies. And now his IMDB mini-bio begins this way: "Sadly, this once-popular silent screen star and older matinée idol for Paramount Studios, is all but forgotten today. Thomas "Tommy" Meighan was one of the rulers of the Hollywood roost, between the years 1915 and 1928." I could be wrong of course. Careers of those mentioned in this post could skyrocket or fall unexpectedly in the next century or so. But there are so many talented actors in the movies both yesterday and today that it's a shame so many of them will have the same opening to their mini-bios in a century that Meighan does now. Truly. As George C. Scott, who starred in Hindenburg with William Atherton, says at the conclusion of Patton, "All glory is fleeting."

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Direction and Imagination of Peter Brook

All this talk of stars on stage, and a mention of Lotte Lenya and The Three-Penny Opera in the comment section by Marilyn, got me to thinking of my days of studying theatre, Peter Brook and his film version of The Beggar's Opera (1953).

I still haven't seen it.

Peter Brook's name came up often when I was formally studying theatre in college and anyone who has studied the theatre is probably familiar with The Empty Space, his book on theatre that emphasizes the importance of the connection between performers and audience, and is less enthralled with that connection taking place in a traditional setting.

I must admit some of my most engaging memories of theatre have come from small intimate spaces rather than the large 500 seat auditorium. I once saw a production of Hurlyburly performed in a lab space in which there were only two rows of fold up chairs in front of the performers and two along the right side. Sometimes the characters were screaming at each other right in front of your face, other times sex was being had at your feet. Make-up was important in this space. That is, it couldn't look like make-up. When the stripper shows up screaming after being thrown out of the car, it looked like someone had just beaten her up off-stage to achieve the proper effect. And when they smoked their joints on stage, they understood the space they were in. They knew the audience could not avoid the smoke, or the smell. The smell of cigarettes would've spoiled the illusion so when they fired up, well, let's just say the aroma was unmistakable. To this day it still feels like the only reality show I ever saw in person. Peter Brook would have liked it I think.

Brook played with color on stage often and to great effect. His production of A Midsummer Night's Dream* for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1970 is now legendary and you can read about it here. There are some great stills on the page from their archives, including one showing a young Ben Kingsley as Demetrius, but none as good as this one (IMHO), provided by yours truly:

Another legendary production of Brook's at the RSC was Marat/Sade** (1964), which he later made into a film in 1967. Here's a still from the RSC production:

Brook worked in film sporadically, never devoting his full attention to it as his love for the stage was too great. The only films of Peter Brook that I've seen are Lord of the Flies (1963 - B/W) and Marat/Sade (1967 - Color), but the one I've wanted to see for years is The Beggar's Opera which stands as the only musical Laurence Olivier ever did. He even did his own singing. Olivier plays the infamous highwayman Macheath, Mack the Knife to you and me, and Hugh Griffith is the beggar relating the story. But alas, the DVD is only available in Europe. On this side of the pond the usually reliable Netflix only has the Roger Daltry version. Given the fact that so many people now have region-free DVD players I wish Netflix would start carrying more European imports and simply label what region they are for the unaware. Oh well.

So I will continue my quest to see Brook's version of The Beggar's Opera, and recommend a reading of The Empty Space to anyone interested in the theatre who has not yet read it. Brook turned 83 in March and to my knowledge still works in the theatre. As recently as 2002 he helmed a production of Hamlet for television. And even if his best work is behind him, it's an impressive enough body of work to require no further elaboration.


* When putting on the production on Broadway a year later, Brook received the Tony for Best Direction.

** Brook received the Tony for Best Direction for the New York production for this as well.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

That Oliver Nelson Sound

Oliver Nelson is not a familiar name to non-jazz aficionados but he should be. Nelson made his name with the composition "Stolen Moments" in 1960 and quickly found himself in high demand for television and film in the sixties and seventies. He toured with Quincy Jones in 1960-61 and the two became the driving force behind the sounds of tv and movies for over a decade before the crashing orchestral strains of John Williams in the mid-seventies ended their time at the top. But fallen from popular grace or not, his sound is distinctive to a fault. As musician Phil Woods said of Nelson, "He had what we all seek - an identity. He had that in his writing and in his horns."

Nelson's first full original score for a film, Death of a Gunfighter*, came about due to an interesting conversation. Universal Studios' Musical Director, Stanley Wilson, played a piece of music for Benny Carter (another favorite of mine) that Nelson had arranged. He asked Carter if he could reproduce that sound for the movie. Rather than try and come up short Carter simply said, "Why don't you just get Oliver Nelson?" Wilson called up Nelson and Nelson agreed.

I've been a fan of Nelson's work ever since I heard a live rendition of "I Remember Bird" back in the eighties and fell in love with the sound. Afterwards I learned that he died young, of a heart attack, at age 43 in 1975. I was immeasurably disappointed because at the time I had been wondering what he might have done lately that I could listen to. When I finally did listen to his work it became heartbreaking to understand that such a talent was lost forever at such an young age. But in the short time he composed he defined a sound that will forever be identified with tv and movies of the sixties and early seventies.

I first heard the piece I used for Frames of Reference, "Complex City," on a Verve Collection of Oliver Nelson compositions of the sixties that I bought in the early nineties. From the moment I heard it I was in love. Here was a jazz composer not afraid to let obvious homages to Aaron Copland, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky (some of his favorite composers as well as Debussy) break through the jazz traditions. The opening of "Complex City" could have been composed by Copland, and most of the jarring, discordant breaks could easily be mistaken for something out of "The Rite of Spring."

Nelson worked on the scores for most of the big shows of the late sixties and early seventies. Even if he didn't compose their theme songs (he often didn't) he did the incidental music and scores for pilots, from Ironside to Columbo to The Six Million Dollar Man. Of course, this led to derision among many jazz aficionados at first (Horrors! Composing for Television?!?) and actually lessened his reputation for a time, until he was rediscovered by a new generation of jazz buffs in the eighties (Ahem, cough, people like me, cough) who didn't hold it against someone if they worked for a living.

If you're old enough to remember the television score sound I'm talking about listen to the piece at the end of this post. It's title is "A Typical Day in New York," another favorite Nelson composition, and one that was in the running for the soundtrack to my movie. In the end, it didn't have enough of the variation I was looking for but I may still put something together with it. When you listen to it, especially at around the 28 second mark, you can practically hear an announcer saying, "Tonight on Mannix..." When the song gets going shortly after that you can easily imagine a chase scene involving Steve McQueen or Jim Brown kicking some bad guy butt. It's got that Oliver Nelson feel, the one Stanley Wilson wanted so badly, and one I wouldn't do without it for anything. Give it a listen:


*Death of a Gunfighter has become notable as the first film to ever use the Alan Smithee directorial credit. Richard Widmark did not get along with director Robert Totten at all and had him replaced with Don Siegel who then refused to have his name put on the film because Totten had directed the majority of it and Siegel felt he had done a great job, despite Widmark's misgivings. Widmark would have none of it and the Director's Guild of America came up with the compromise of placing the pseudonym "Alan Smithee" in place of either Totten or Siegel.