Friday, September 19, 2008

A Brief History of Time

Standard business models usually have something to recommend them otherwise they would never have become standard. When models of doing business intersect with art it becomes trickier but still the two can work together. The movies have always been a combination of the two, business and art. In the days when the studio moguls reigned supreme business often took the upper hand, forcing the artist to find more creative ways to get their art to show through, and more often than not, they succeeded. Some of the greatest works of film art were made at a time when the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and Sam Goldwyns were wielding unrivalled power and final say over the films they financed.

The studios still have power over the in-house product but much more often than used to be the case, they spend their time working out distribution deals with independent producers to circulate product that didn't originate with the studio. And so their business models have changed. Everything is pumped into the opening weekend and successive DVD and foreign distribution deals. Why? Many, many reasons. Too many to go into here. But one factor that plays a part, the part that currently concerns this piece, is time. Running time, that is.

There was a time when showings per day was all important. Get 'em in and get 'em out. But then the studio lost control over the final product and the films got longer. Multiplexes became necessary because to get the same amount of showings per day for a given film, what with its extended running time, previews and twenty minutes of commercials, it had to be shown on more screens. And all of this started circulating in my head because Fox, of Tractor Facts, made a comment in a recent post about the two hour and fifteen minute running time of Speed Racer. Whatever the merits of that film may be, my immediate question was, "Why? Why two hours and fifteen minutes?"

Allow me to bitch for just a moment. Citizen Kane managed to weave one of the most cinematically adventurous tales in film history, covering the life of its protagonist from childhood to death, in 119 minutes, just one shy of two hours. Frankenstein gave the Gothic tale of Mary Shelley new life in 71 minutes. Its superb sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, did even more and added just four more minutes to the running time. Decades later Hammer Studios reinvented Gothic horror with The Curse of Frankenstein and did it all in 82 minutes. Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City introduced the world to Italian Neo-Realism in 93 and 100 minutes respectively. And it took Jean-Luc Godard just 90 minutes to blast the French New Wave onto the International Scene with Breathless.

But Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? Well, naturally, that story couldn't be told in less than ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY EIGHT MINUTES! And the two Jack Sparrow tales that preceded it? 143 minutes for the first and 150 minutes for the second. Holy cow!

And now we've hit upon the problem. I am not bothered by long running times if the story demands it. Certain stories are sweeping enough in scope and peopled enough in characters that more time is required to tell the story: The Godfather films, The Right Stuff, Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind, etc. I'm not saying those films are good because of that or that they're good at all, I don't even like all of them, just that I understand why the story takes a bit longer to get across. But for me personally, I have always believed that the most effective method of successfully delivering a good Action/Adventure story is brevity. It's the soul of wit and as it turns out, the soul of a well turned thriller.

And that's what perplexes me about the long running times of modern day action/adventure movies. My wife and I saw the Pirates of the Caribbean, the first one, with our son who was in his early teens when it came out. He was the target audience. He was seeing it for the second time, we for the first. He loved it and wanted us to watch it with him. Not being Ogres, we agreed. It wasn't long after the hour and a half mark that both my wife and I felt, "This movie needs to end now!" Not because we hated it, although unlike some cinephiles who did like the Pirate movies I was not and am not a fan, but because as an adventure movie that's the point when one starts running out of good will. Give me a complicated character like Guido Anselmi in 8 1/2, played by Marcello Mastroianni, and I'll gladly watch him and discover his inner workings for 138 minutes. But Jack Sparrow has nothing to offer me after the requisite 90 minutes of adventure time. *(see "P.S" below)

Our son noticed the squirming and that's when the remarkable occurred. He said, "Yeah, it is really long."

That's when I thought, "Boy the people who make these movies are remarkably stupid. Their own target audiences realize the films are too long. If they would just check their ego at the door and let the editor do his job not only would the result be a better, tighter film but they'd make so much more money from all the extra showings per day they'd get. Wow. I mean, WOW! They're dumb."

Okay, that's a little harsh but you get the point. At least I hope so. I'll reiterate just in case. Long running times: no problem. But you've got to know when a long running time FITS YOUR STORY. And that's what many action/adventure directors just DON'T GET ANYMORE. I love action/adventure. But with few exceptions I don't want my action/adventures to be epic. It's action! There's just so much I want to see before the lack of character depth makes me start looking at my watch. I want them to be visceral and emotional and thrilling and long running times don't mesh with that experience. Action/Adventure, along with Sci-Fi and Horror, can be some of the most emotionally engaging movies out there (yes that's right, emotionally engaging) but they create those emotions using visceral and primal means and after a certain point that can become draining.

One of the best adventure/fantasy films out there is King Kong from 1933. I adore the original, really, absolutely adore it. I've seen it enough times that I lost count of how many times years ago. If it's on TCM I'll watch it. Doesn't matter what else is on or how recently I've seen it. I'm happy to spend 100 minutes with that movie any day. And 100 minutes is just about right for the story of a maverick filmmaker going to a hidden island to capture a forty foot tall ape. I mean really, who could take that simple, engaging fun-filled setup and let it linger for 187 minutes until all the life was drained out of it? Who? And why? Why would someone do such a thing? I mean, I feel like I'm in Barton Fink - "it's a wrestling picture!" - and I'm saying to the director, "Okay, let's go to the island, get the gorilla, have some fun with him in the big city before we shed a tear for the big lug when he falls to his death. Roll credits. Time: Hour and forty minutes. Let's do it."

But 187? Sorry, I know the remake has many fans, and there was much I liked in it, but if the remake were Dan Quayle and the original was John Kennedy and I was Lloyd Bentsen (I'm not by the way, he's dead) I'd be telling it right now, "You're no Jack Kennedy." And to quote Frank Wilson from a 96 minute drama about rugby I happen to like very much, "They'll still be saying that in a hundred years!"



P.S. - Just so we're all clear, I'm not saying an action-adventure movie can't have complex characters, but that the emotional reactions elicited by those characters come from the action, not dialogue or dramatic conflict. That being the case, the impact is more immediate, and thus, requires less running time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How the Heart Approaches What it Yearns

A couple of weeks ago I was tagged by the inimitable Fox of Tractor Facts for another 12-movies meme and politely declined having just finished up a 12 movies meme for another inimitable blogger, Mr. Pat Piper. Then I was tagged for the same meme again by the ... hmmm, what's a good adjective I can use here... oh, I got it! - inimitable Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Boston Red Sox Rule. So, I'm finally going to do it but like Dennis, I don't really care about following the rules on these things. The original meme can be viewed here, courtesy of MovieMan0283 of The Dancing Image.

Okay, first, I'm just glad I've got all that linking out of the way. Second, I'm listing 12 movies I haven't seen but I don't know how available or unavailable they are, just that I want to see them and still haven't. Also, in a twist on the rules, I gave myself a twelve year period from which to choose, 1928 - 1939. Some years are not represented at all while others have multiple listings. Let's get started. Here they are in chronological order with a short blurb for each:

Sadie Thompson 1928 - I thought of this for two reasons. One, Dennis mentioned Raoul Walsh's White Heat as one he hadn't seen and this is directed by Walsh as well. Second, I haven't seen a lot of Gloria Swanson's classic silent work and this is one of her most famous.

Atlantic 1929 - Is this movie any good? Probably not. I've never heard anything particularly good about it and the first two years of the sound period produced some real duds but it's got Madeleine Carroll and is a fictionalized telling of the Titanic so that's enough for me. It's curiosity more than anything else.

The Big House 1930 - See my post here.

M├Ądchen in Uniform 1931 - No, I've never seen it. Not even the remake. And unfortunately, from what I've read, the film was cut and censored so heavily after it's initial release that a good original print no longer exists. It's been released on video in the U.S. but this is not the complete original version.

Blonde Venus 1932 - Morocco, seen it. The Blue Angel, seen it. Shanghai Express, seen it. The Scarlet Empress, seen it. Blonde Venus, haven't seen it. It's a gap in the Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich catalog that I hope to fill soon.

The Count of Monte Cristo 1934 - I love adventure movies and I love this story but I've never seen this version. I saw the 2002 version. Couldn't. Stand. It.

Death Takes a Holiday 1934 - Fantasy film about Death coming to Earth in human form as played by Frederic March. Like Cristo, also remade but that one I avoided.

The Gay Bride 1934 - Carole Lombard with the recently discussed here on Cinema Styles, Chester Morris. Interestingly The Gay Divorcee was released the same year and became a smash hit, thus destroying any chance The Gay Bride had of using the title for a sequel.

Werewolf of London 1935 - I love horror movies of the thirties but this represents a definite gap in my viewing. The estimable Jack Pierce did the make-up, giving the werewolf a sleeker look than the makeup he used six years later for The Wolfman with Lon Chaney, Jr.

Secret Agent 1936 - There's not much Hitchcock I haven't seen. This is one.

Of Mice and Men 1939 - No strong urge here, but curiosity. Definitely curiosity. Especially to see Lon Chaney, Jr play Lennie, a role he seems perfectly suited for with his size, voice and demeanor.

Beau Geste 1939 - And we finish up with another adventure film, this one Beau Geste from 1939. It was directed by one of my favorite directors on the twenties and thirties, William "Wild Bill" Wellman, although no one talks about him or remembers him much these days. But he had a great talent for pacing and getting a story across in stripped down form that never made it feel unfinished or rushed.

So there's my list. This is usually the point where I tag everyone in general because I hate tagging people and forcing them to do something they don't want to do. And so I'll tag everyone again, but to keep the classic movie motif alive I'd like to offer up a completely optional tag to any classic film blogger that wants to do a list themselves, from Raquelle at Out of the Past and Carrie at Classic Montgomery to Amy-Jeane at It'll Take the Snap Out of Your Garter (actually Amy-Jeane never does stuff like this but I just wanted to put the link there because if you're not visiting her site and you love old movie and celebrity stills, you're missing out). Start listing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Piercing the Realm of Glamour

Experimental filmmaking has a lineage that goes back to the starting point of the medium. Those first Georges Melies shorts, devoid of story but rich in cinematic fantasy, could be said, in a stretch, to be the first experimental movies. In fact, non-narrative moviemaking has been around long enough and produced enough variety that the terminology itself has expanded to define the different sub-genres within the catch-all phrase "experimental filmmaking" or "abstract filmmaking." Maya Deren made Avant-Garde films (a generic catch-all term in and of itself) , Michael Snow made Structural films and Luis Bunuel worked in Surrealist Cinema.

The Avant-Garde and Surrealist movements in Experimental filmmaking took hold until Michael Snow's Wavelength brought the structuralist movement into the forefront. With new artists jumping into the fray regularly, the structuralist film has expanded greatly in the forty years since Michael Snow made Wavelength. Structuralist film is defined by P. Adams Sitney as employing fixed camera positions (the camera can zoom but it remains in place), strobe effects, rephotography (showing photographs of the same subject at different times or intervals within the film) and looping, wherein the same scenes or shots are repeated many times throughout.

This is all well and good but if I may, some abrupt questions: Can any of this be enlightening or entertaining? Is it worthwhile to make a film that has no story, at least no discernibly narratively composed story of characters and dialogue? Do people watch Wavelength for fun? Why am I going on about this anyway?

I don't have concrete answers to all of those questions but I do know why I'm going on about it. I'm going on about it because last weekend the Cinema Styles staff (myself, my wife and our youngest) took in The Cinema Effect, currently on exhibit at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and coming to an end this Sunday (and through sheer coincidence so did Nathaniel of The Film Experience - here's his take)

The exhibition has the works of 19 experimental filmmakers in a multi-staged exhibit that one must weave through, picking and choosing what to sit and watch (unless one has hours and hours to spare). As the New York Times review says, "Fatigue may set in by the second half of the show, which is unfortunate, because this section features several installations of dizzying structural complexity. Among them are Isaac Julien’s sweeping multi-screen projection 'Fantome Creole' ..." I couldn't agree more.

As I walked through the exhibit watching snippets of this film here and shots from that film there it was Isaac Julien's Fantome Creole that stopped me dead in my tracks. Projected on four screens and filmed in the arid region of Burkina Faso and the arctic region of Iceland the film follows two people (Vanessa Myrie and Stephen Galloway) as they wander through these landscapes, never interacting with one another or anyone around them. In between we see townspeople, beaches, waterfalls, hallways and ruins. Occasionally everything stops and faces of the "characters" in the movie appear, staring at us for several seconds. The effect is unnerving.

For the most part, the camera is fixed, shots are re-used and images from different vantage points and times are employed. I didn't notice much of a strobe effect (although at the end there is "light show" effect, so to speak) but all in all it's a fine example of a Structural Experimental film. And despite the rather dry description given in the above paragraph, it's captivating. Why? I really couldn't tell you. What's the film about? I don't care. You read that correctly, I don't care.

Here's a short description of the film on Isaac Julien's website. If you're anything like me that description will send you running and screaming for the exit. Go ahead, click on it and read it. It's a doozy (implied interiority!??!?). Here's the thing, I despise anti-intellectualism and am constantly dismayed at what I view as the dumbing down of our culture by elevating the pedestrian to the desirable social status and diminishing the culturally urbane to the status of social pariah. But I'm just as annoyed with pseudo-intellectualism and that description smacks of it. I don't know if Julien approves the copy for the website or if someone does it for him but my suggestion is scrap the flowery descriptions and the purple prose and let the film speak for itself.

And Fantome Creole does speak for itself, boldly. It proves once again that the right images and juxtapositions orchestrated by the right director can be entrancing. I have my own meaning that I drew from those images and different viewers will perceive different meanings than I did. But despite a lack of standard narrative I never had a feeling I was watching randomly placed images on a screen. I felt, and knew, I was watching a story. I wasn't sure what the story was at first, but I knew upon further viewing and later reflection that the cracks would be filled in. To me that's the sign of a filmmaker in control of his art and I look forward to more work from Julien in the future. I'm glad I got to see Fantome Creole and if it's ever on exhibit at an art museum near you I highly recommend going to see it.

So why does Experimental Film get such a bad rap? Most would point to its excesses (Empire, Sleep) but every genre has excesses. Every genre has greatness and mediocrity and garbage. Experimental is no different. And yet, I avoid it myself. Fantome Creole is a film with which, had I only read the description on the website, I would have said, "Thanks but no thanks," and I would've missed something special. Having now seen it and enjoyed it I may still have the same reaction to future experimental films. Why? I have my own personal answer to that.

For me personally, and despite my build-up about avoiding them, I believe experimental forms of filmmaking within the mainstream have become ubiquitous. They're no longer viewed as something special or unique. Whereas several decades ago one would have to turn to an experimental film to see wild fantastical images juxtaposed sinisterly with the mundane now every other CGI summer movie does just that (Speed Racer, The Incredibles). Or how about going to experimental film because it was the only place for quiet rumination and insight into the human psyche that standard narrative films couldn't provide? That too happens in the mainstream now, perhaps not as financially successful as the summer fare, but it does occur (Cache, Mulholland Drive). And so purely experimental filmmaking seems superfluous, or worse, antiquated. And somewhat elitist. I found myself thinking throughout The Cinema Effect exhibit, "I've seen this idea done better on YouTube." Yes, YouTube. But the folks uploading their home made experimental films on YouTube don't have the grants or financial backers to get their movies made on 16 or 35 mm film and shown at an international exhibit.

Experimental film feels unnecessary now but it's not. It's all around us. We're not avoiding it, we're consuming it every day on television, the internet and the cinema. To make a point of going to see something that has been so thoroughly integrated into everything else as a stand alone event feels redundant now to many people. It's true, I would've missed something special by not seeing Fantome Creole but I've also seen some amazing work on the internet and a part of me feels that the internet work deserves my attention more because it's done by filmmakers and artists just trying to get noticed. In fact, I find myself retreating more and more from big screen cinema and exploring the rarities and lost classics that DVD and the internet offer.

In the end, experimental film is alive and well. It has successfully assimilated the mainstream into its way of thinking, a clever trick that. It's imagery, at one time disturbing and mysterious, has now been made acceptable in the Hollywood Realm of Glamour. And while it may seem superfluous in this sensory overloaded age of integrated imagery I am still thankful for the filmmakers like Isaac Julien. If nothing else, Fantome Creole reminds me that the best filmmakers still only need images to tell their stories.