Monday, September 29, 2008

Cinema Styles October Kill Fest is on its Way!

The Kill Fest will soon be upon us and so to celebrate here's that famous, and justly so, poster for 1930's Alraune. Or is it for 1928's Alraune. Yep, Miss Helm played Alraune in both films made within two years of each other. The poster for it was provocative, then and now, what with the same old floating heads crap we get with every other movie released these days. And if you click on the poster you'll find I've provided a nice big scan for printing.

You see, you can find this poster all over the internet, but never big except when covered with watermarks. Until now that is. So consider it my gift to all you fans of the movie and the poster.

Now then, about this October Kill Fest thingy. Here's the deal: Starting October 1st my blog will change it's look and the new October banners will begin. There will be a new post each day all month long and a new banner every other day. And except for the first post which I'll put up at midnight EST, each post thereafter will go up at 7 a.m. E.S.T. the following day. I'll get the month rolling with a new original Cinema Styles production.

Starting on Day 2 (that's Kill Fest plus 1) the pictures begin. What pictures? Well, 60 percent of my posts during the Kill Fest will be original works of mine (movies and pictures). The pictures are pics of the stars - KILL FEST-A-FIED. Okay that word sucks. Um... how about GORIED UP. Nah. Anyway, you'll get it when you see them. Hollywood legends from the thirties through the sixties made to look just a tad bit different. Some will be small subtle changes while others will be so different as to be barely recognizable. The first pic goes up on the 2nd and then a new pic goes up each even day after that, the 4th through the 26th. That's 13 in all. It's October, I had to make it 13.

And one final note. I plan for the month, my favorite month of the year, to be all about fun, so don't come here looking for anything too decidedly serious. I will have a couple of reviews up though of some classic films I've recently watched that I hope you'll enjoy (both the films and the reviews). But outside of that, I'm looking to take it easy and enjoy. I've already got 28 of the 31 posts done, saved and scheduled to be published so I'm well ahead of the game.

It all starts on October 1st. Hope you have a killer of a good time. I know I will.

Here's the trailer again in case you missed it the first time.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

No Mere Actor

One of my earliest memories of Paul Newman outside of the movies was watching him on Phil Donahue debate nuclear proliferation with some Edward Teller type decrying Newman and anyone like him as wet noodle pinkos. Since I was already obsessed with the topic at an early age thanks to my father's books on Oppenheimer I took a particular interest in the debate and came down squarely on Newman's side.

His arguments were nothing special but they were logical to a fault. For instance, he used the old warhorse about matches in a gas filled room. If one will blow it up then what point is it to have more matches than the other guy? If a few hundred well placed nuclear warheads can destroy an entire nation and a few thousand, the world, then why continue to spend billions building up arsenals in the tens of thousands?

I'm not trying to create a political agenda with this post, and please feel free to not discuss this topic at all in the comments. I'm just saying that as someone with a substantial interest in this topic, Newman became one of my earliest movie heroes off the screen.

Most people get annoyed at celebrities getting political in the public arena but it's never bothered me. In most cases, I find their views simplistic and uninformed. Easy to ignore. But if they want to use their public profile to push a pet cause of theirs, and no one is being hurt, I say more power to them. But Newman annoyed people because he wasn't simple and he wasn't uninformed. He spoke from the heart and did his research. He pissed people off because he couldn't be written off. I admire him for that.

And, oh yeah, he was a hell of an actor. I admire that too.

Favorite Moments: Lost in America

Since Brian and I were just discussing it, in a roundabout dreamlike way...

And remember, it's the early eighties, so take the $100,000 and make it around $250,000.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Petrified Forest, Redux

A rare still from The Petrified Forest, done for Producers Showcase on NBC in 1955. Lauren Bacall took on the role of Gaby, played by Bette Davis in the 1936 film version of the play, and Henry Fonda took on the role of Alan Squier, originally played by Leslie Howard in both the play and the film version. Humphrey Bogart played the role of Duke Mantee in both the stage and film version with Leslie Howard as well. But who played Duke Mantee in this 1955 television production? Why Humprey Bogart of course! Stage, film and television. I think it's safe to say the role of Duke Mantee is Bogart's.

Edward G. Robinson was originally slated to play the role of Duke Mantee in the 1936 film version but star Leslie Howard insisted on Bogart. The studio didn't want Bogart because he was a B-Movie lead and supporting player, not a star. But Howard won out. Bogart was forever grateful to Howard for sticking up for him and on August 23, 1952 he named his newborn daughter Leslie Howard Bogart in honor of him.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Here amidst the shuffle of an overflowing day

So I have my coffee, check my blog and begin the process of making the rounds. Then I think to myself, "sometimes, this blogging thing can really make my head spin." Before long my mind turns into a jumble of thoughts; disorganized and confused. To try and organize them I begin writing. It's what I always do to organize my thoughts; write them down. As I knock about from blog to blog I think:

Am I a movie-lover or a cinephile, and is there even a difference? Should I feel bad because I don't get into talking about the technical aspects of film as much as the emotional aspects? Am I an elitist because when I read about some film seminar where a film is analyzed frame by frame, I wonder, "Do they even like movies? Do they feel them at all? Is it just a technical exercise to them?"

Then I read a piece about some technical aspect, like film grain, on Glen Kenny by way of the Siren and I think, "Why don't I write more stuff like this? They're talking about the technical stuff but doing so in a movie loving way. And there's good interaction in the comments section with people even declaring their love for The Godfather, Part III, which is astonishing to me because I can barely make it through that movie without giggling." So yeah, screw the emotional stuff, let's get technical

Then I flip the page to another blogger and he's got a funny post up. "That's what I should do, more funny pieces. Everyone loves a good laugh," I think, "No more emotional or technical approaches to the movies. It's joke time!"

But wait a minute. If I do too many of those then I won't be taken seriously as a blogger. I'll be shunned by the Academic crowd and I've got a lot to say about German Expressionism, Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave. Yeah, it's time to get serious. More gravity. Problem is I don't know what to write. I'm stuck. Drawing nothing but a big huge blank.

How about a video? Yeah! I could put up a video of a great moment in Cinema History. Just posting it will cover the technical, emotional and academic bases because it's all about watching the piece itself and discussing it in the comment section. No commentary necessary. But not too much video posting, then you just look lazy. You know, like Rick Olson.

And... oh crap! I suddenly remember I commented on his blog yesterday and never saw the response. I go to his blog to see it and there are now 27 other comments and an entire discussion I missed.

Flummoxed, I check my e-mail and find I have received 37 new e-mails concerning film festivals, free screeners, blog contests, pleas to review short subjects and other independent films and of course, that e-mail from the online jewelers who wanted me to do a review of their jewelry website on Cinema Styles. No, I'm serious. I was asked to do a review of an online jewelry store. ON A MOVIE BLOG!

Then despair sets in. I have nothing original to say. Every topic I've ever written about has been covered elsewhere and most times, better. So now what? Do I stop just because my post about genre had already been tackled around 10,000 times by other bloggers?

It's not long after that that the blogging insecurities start to surface. Why didn't Marilyn comment on that last post of mine? Is she mad at me? Did I do something wrong? Where's Brian? He must not like Cinema Styles anymore. Why is it so hard to get a response out of Larry? Does he secretly hate me? Where's Bill? I guess now that he has his own blog I don't matter anymore.

Then it hits me: I'm at work and have five deadlines I've completely ignored because I've been blogging and writing about blogging and commenting on other blogs. Jesus Christ, I've got to focus, get down to work and stop obsessing about blogs and movies.

Okay, I'm going to get to work. Focus, man, focus. I'm going to do these dry, mind numbingly boring reports for the Public Affairs dept then have a meeting about that software redesign and then book tickets and a hotel for that goddamn business trip to Atlanta on freakin' Election Day!!! I am. Really.

Right after I check my blog ...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And That's When It Happened

George Sidney, director of Cass Timberlane: "So yeah, anyway, I was having a hard time getting a scene with Spencer and Lana to work. I said, 'Spence, if you nail this scene I'll get you an ice cream cone.' Well, he nailed it and I had to explain to him that I didn't have any ice cream. Oh boy, big mistake. He pouted the rest of the day and wouldn't allow us to set up even one shot. He would purposely stand right in front of the camera whenever we tried. I was like, 'Spence, c'mon, aren't you being a little childish,' and he'd be all like, 'I know you are but what am I.' Anywho, I was all totally like, 'Whatevs' and just rehearsed scenes with Lana until an intern finally managed to wrangle a Nutty Cone for His Royal Highness. Geez, what a baby."

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.

Mädchen 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.

Friday, September 12, 2008

And You Know it Don't Come Easy

Alfred Hitchcock with Claude Jade (center) and Dany Robin

It's getting harder and harder to come up with a scan that isn't already up on Hitchcock Wiki or Doctor Macro what with the thousands of pics they have but still I manage. I did a search first to make sure this wasn't up on Hitchcock Wiki (I just like typing those words in over and over - Hitchcock Wiki - say it out loud for added entertainment) and was pleased to know it wasn't, although if they want to put it up now I guess they can. D'oh! Actually, that would be great if they did. As I learned from HUAC star Ginger Rogers, "Share and share alike. That's the American way!"

But the main reason I put this up was because of Claude Jade, not because I was trying to beat (here it comes again) Hitchcock Wiki to the punch. Recently, something happened to me while reading up on Jade that has happened to me a few times before, perhaps even to you (I hope I'm not alone in this): Someone dies in the film world and it completely flies under my radar for years. Please tell me I'm not the only one. So imagine my surprise when I decided to find out what the lovely star of Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board and Topaz had been up to recently. After all, she would only be 58 this October. Surely she was still active in the community, making movies and television shows in France. Then I discover she died in December 2006 of complications from retinal cancer after suffering from liver cancer. I had no idea. 21 months have passed and I just found out. Perhaps if I had been blogging, or even just reading the blogs, in December 0f 2006 I would have known this, for surely it was mentioned.

Well consider this a late goodbye. Francois Truffaut was one of the first foreign language directors I latched onto as a cinephile and then, as now, I found his movies utterly accessible to even a novice. And since Hitchcock's Topaz was shown over and over on TBS in the early days of cable, this, combined with the Truffaut obsession, put Claude Jade front and center in my mind as far as foreign actresses go. Most latch onto Bibi Anderson first, or Liv Ullman, or Monica Vitti or Anita Ekberg when first diving into the deep waters of cinephilia because they are in the big movies, the movies made by Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni. But for me it was Jade. There she was, ever present on TBS running it's old print of Topaz over and over and in Stolen Kisses, having to win back Jean-Pierre Léaud because he fell for someone else, which if it hadn't been done it such a lighthearted manner by Truffaut would've stretched the limits of believibility.

I didn't see a lot of her movies and practically nothing she made after 1980 but nonetheless she was always there as the first "foreign actress fascination" of my early days. Always popping into my mind whenever any discussion online or off of Truffaut took place. I'm sorry she didn't live a longer life, sorry she had to suffer so much in her last year and also sorry it took me so long to find out. But mainly I'm just sorry she's gone.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Just a few quick notes on the Joe Franklin book

One, I love the dedication. Read it closely. He's saying, "I love Lois and Brad, but they didn't help out one lick with this book." Without their cooperation, he wrote the book. And he's letting us know that.

Two, I love that people back in the fifties (and I hope there are still some people that do this but I'm not one of them) had personal seals made up for the books in their home library. This seal is on the inside cover. I blurred out the name as a quick Google search brought up plenty of family still in the Maryland area (and from what I could gather they're all quite rich - I guess that's why they had personal book seals).

Three, I love these excerpts:

On What Price Glory - "And lip-readers can still have a field day watching curses that will probably never become commonplace on the sound screen, no matter how 'adult' the cinema becomes." Sorry Joe but you were way off on that prediction. I wrote about this movie and profanity in the cinema last year here.

On Sunrise - "If, heaven forbid, I had had to select the five great American films, instead of the 50, one of those five would most certainly have been Sunrise."

On The Crowd (which he liked very much) - "As a rule, I don't like films about 'ordinary' people doing 'ordinary' things. If that sounds snobbish, I don't mean it to be. But we all see ordinary people every day of our lives. Why pay a dollar to see them on the screen when for fifteen cents or so we can see the same thing on a bus?"

On movies from 1928 to 1932 - "... let me say that talkies at this period did little else but talk."

On John Barrymore - "Only really great actors can get away with ham, and only really great actor can get away with not taking themselves quite seriously! On all counts, John Barrymore was one of the greatest."

On Charlie Chaplin - "There are those who feel that Chaplin is a god, at least cinematically, and can do no wrong. I am not one of them. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his work, and consider him one of the foremost craftsmen of the screen. But to me Buster Keaton was a far superior comedy creator."

On Neil Hamilton - "In these days of mumbling types, I for one would welcome his soft, pleasant, clear diction back to the screen again."

And finally, quoting Mae Murray on the character of Norma Desmond, after viewing Sunset Boulevard - "None of us floozies were that nuts!"


All quotes taken from Classics of the Silent Screen, copyright 1959 by Joe Franklin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ah yes! I remember it well.

After hearing the news of Anita Page's death on Saturday at the age of 98, I started reading up on her in my old movie books. One of the first books I went to was Classics of the Silent Screen, published in 1959 and written by Joe Franklin, yes, that Joe Franklin. According to his Wikipedia entry, "Franklin has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music, musicians and singers, the Broadway stage shows, the films and entertainment stars of the first half of the 20th Century... he is an acknowledged authority on silent film..." I believe it, and Classics of the Silent Film is one of the most enjoyable movie anthology books out there. I picked it up from a used book store one day long ago and have returned to it for entertainment and information time and again.

But one of the striking things about reading a movie book written in the fifties and before (I've got a few older ones too) is how apparent it is that the movies being written about were not readily available for viewing. Sure we've all told stories of how we'd stay up late to watch a classic movie on the late show in the days before cable and video hit the scene but that's nothing compared to the fifties and before when, in many cases, if one didn't see the movie in the theater, one didn't see the movie, period.

This struck me again reading Franklin's entry on Our Dancing Daughters from 1928, which starred Joan Crawford, John Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian and of course, Anita Page. Franklin writes a brief couple of paragraphs on the "Jazz Age" films of the twenties acknowledging It with Clara Bow as the most famous but declaring Our Dancing Daughters to be "the best of the lot." Yes, the best of the "Jazz Age" films of the twenties! Easily. And then this: "Quite frankly, I can't recall too much of the plot of Our Dancing Daughters."

Like I said, it's a very entertaining book.

I suspect Franklin may have wished to jog his memory on the plot of Our Dancing Daughters but simply couldn't without writing MGM and requesting a print for rental at a steep price (and this is before even dealing with renting or acquiring the proper projection equipment). For just a two page entry (and most of those two pages are filled with pictures; the ones you see here, scanned from the book) it probably didn't seem worth it. And Franklin being Franklin, he decided to be forthright and admit most of it was now lost in the fog of time.

How much of early movie history was written this way with critics and historians recalling a movie from years ago with no opportunity to see it again except by replaying it in their head? How many movies were overstated because the memory was too strong while others fell down the memory hole because they were lost in the shuffle of the critics everyday life? I'm thankful to the Joe Franklin's of the world for taking it upon themselves to be the story tellers and torch bearers of early film history. The ones who remembered the greats of the silent period, wrote it down and retold the stories until technology finally made it possible for all of us to enjoy them. But I'm a little wary as well. How much of the praise heaped upon little known or lost films from the twenties and thirties is accurate? Lord knows, I've had many a movie I thought was great only to revisit it ten years later and be bowled over by my newfound indifference. If I was to write a book now about the movies I saw in my teens without the opportunity to see them again before writing, I can't imagine how uninformed the results would be. At the same time it's certainly possible to view a film, forget many details, yet still recall the general greatness of the film. The overall experience isn't lost, even if some of the details are.

Still, I'm glad we have such a treasure of older films at our fingertips now especially since there aren't many Joe Franklins left in the world to be our experts on silent film. I'm happy that we don't have to rely on memory if we don't want to. But sometimes it's nice, with a certain treasured childhood or adolescent favorite, to let it linger in the head rather than bespoil the nostalgia with a fresh viewing complete with world-weary cynical eyes. To close out on that point I go back to Franklin who finishes up his short piece on Our Dancing Daughters with this passage:

I can remember Joan's Charleston - more than one, in fact - champagne glasses flowing, wild, frenzied parties in huge mansions the like of which, probably never existed outside of M-G-M's stages, scores of balloons floating heaven-wards, and endless short skirts swaying in fast-paced rhythm to the jazz bands. And that, after all, is how most of us remember the 20's - or like to think we do.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ain't Got Nothin' but Time

Chester Morris gets ready to go to the dungeon, the name for solitary confinement in this fantastic still from The Big House, 1930.* Chester Morris never impressed me as a great actor but I always found him likable in movies like the Boston Blackie series and early sound soap operas like The Divorcee. Alas, The Big House is another early thirties film I've yet to see and not carried by Netflix. Curses! One day I will see every film made in the early thirties that isn't lost. But for now I must wait.

The movie also stars Wallace Beery, nominated for Best Actor for his role as the convict chum of Morris, and Robert Montgomery as the un-hardened criminal, killing someone while drunk driving. It seems like just last week I was looking for Hell Below with Montgomery and couldn't find it, now this. Oh wait, it was last week.

*Scanned from The MGM Story, c 1975.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hey, I Said Get Your Kill Face On...

... not take if off!

*****This has been a tribute post to "The Kill Face Chronicles" of Arbogast on Film. They're kind of like the Chronicles of Narnia, only there's no Jesus/Lion figure and everyone pictured has murder on their mind. So, yeah, I guess it's not like Narnia at all. Anyway...*****

Saturday, September 6, 2008

And..... Pose!

From If Winter Comes made in 1947 with Walter Pidgeon, Angela Lansbury, Deborah Kerr and Janet Leigh (not pictured, obviously). It was a dud for all of them but did mark the first occasion on which Lansbury and Leigh would star together in a film. The next time they did the results were decidedly ... well, actually, about the same. It was The Red Danube in 1949 with Pidgeon once again in the starring role. Finally, in 1962 Lansbury and Leigh figured out that to succeed they had to dump Pidgeon and scored a winner with The Manchurian Candidate. Pidgeon had his own politically charged movie that same year, Advise and Consent, sans Lansbury and Leigh. Still, I wish they'd given it just one more try. Think of the great things they could have done as a trio if they'd put their minds to it: Jules and Jim in reverse or an early incarnation of Three's Company with Charles Laughton as Mr. Roper. Now that would've been a winner! Walter Pidgeon as Jack Tripper? Are you kidding me? He would've nailed it! Oh, if only... if only. Sigh.

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.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Nice Car but Who's the Girl?

Before the influx of cable with it's plethora of networks and the internet with it's billions of sites and thousands of video launching platforms that have served to create a seemingly infinite number of niche markets, there was The Toast of the Town hosted by Ed Sullivan. Later it became known as simply The Ed Sullivan Show and it served as the YouTube of its day. New music acts, comedy acts, poodles, elephants, spinning plates and Topo Gigio were served up on a weekly basis.

And as such things went back then they often advertised within the show. Rather than cut to a filmed commercial done by an advertising company the host would stroll over to the product and hawk it himself. What can I say, they were a hard working generation. Usually at the halfway point the company would have a filmed commercial show up as well but the popular host shilling for them was their bread and butter. And being corporations with eyes fixed on the bottom line they knew how to exploit it. So here's a 1955 magazine ad where the ad photo is a photo of Ed selling the car on the show (And what a car! Gas mileage be damned I want that thing!). Kind of an ad of an ad. Helping shill for Ford is a lovely lady who appeared with Ed on Toast of the Town many times, always going on about those damn cars. She is credited with being the first household name ever for a spokesperson, though she's not exactly famous in the movie world. Truth be told, I only know of her from my constant reading up on such cultural minutia as this, not from direct viewing experience. I have seen her in her biggest movie appearance, but she's not the star. Well, I think I've played it down enough - Anyone care to guess who it is (or madly google for the answer)?

***** You can click the photo to enlarge, but I've blacked out the name. *****

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Another day?

Is that the best you can come up with? "Tomorrow is another day?" Try this on for size: Tomorrow is a brand new day. See, that's optimistic! That's saying, "Tomorrow is a brand new opportunity for me to turn things around, to really make a change for the better!" But "another day?" It's generic. Tuesday last week? Another day. Third Friday this October? Another day. That time you slapped Prissy around before squeezing a baby out of Melanie? Another day. They're all just another day, each and every one of them. Just a couple of words waiting for Paul McCartney to put some music on 'em. If that's the best you can do to motivate yourself I gotta be honest with you, I don't blame Rhett for leaving you. I mean really, who wants to be with someone with such a weak grasp of motivational language? I'd probably leave you too. And not to be too picky, but as the final statement on the four hour story of your life? One word: Limp. I could go on, but frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.