Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October got your goose?

Don't forget: October starts tomorrow and with it the festivities here at Cinema Styles. Check in early and until then be careful when traversing barbed wire - especially if there are scarecrows around!

Monday, September 28, 2009

An Absence of Style? Elia Kazan at 100

I was perusing the pages of Wikipedia recently and came upon the birthday of Elia Kazan. He was born on September 7, 1909 making this past September 7th his 100th birthday. The 100s are always pretty big events in the blogosphere but I don't recall reading anything on Kazan on that day. Nothing odd about that, I don't get around the entire blogosphere so I'm sure there were posts written that I missed. It's just that even when I went to the sites that compile the links, such as Greencine Daily or David Hudson's The Auteurs, I still didn't find anything overwhelming. I do remember back in July of 2007 the legions of posts dedicated to Barbara Stanwyck when she turned 100 and every year there are birthday celebrations of the great figures of the cinema from Alfred Hitchcock to Bette Davis. But call out to the blogging world for a hundred year celebration of Kazan and you'll hear nothing but an echo in return.


We all know Elia Kazan ran afoul of the film community back when he decided to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a decision that seemed harmless to his career at the time (hell, one could even say it was helpful in that Oscars and glory followed with On the Waterfront) but a changing attitude towards the committee (dissolved in 1975) and the almost comically ironic fact that a committee investigating things "Un-American" and doing so by enlisting citizens to rat out each other's political preferences is more Soviet than American, decidedly placed Kazan on the wrong side of history. But as others much better at this than me have said, in the end, the guy had a family and wanted to protect his career. That doesn't make him the most courageous man on Earth but it's not a position any of us glass house dwellers are likely to be in anytime soon. But I don't think that's why he doesn't get the red carpet treatment on the movie blogs.

So what is it? Style, or the lack thereof. Kazan has no signature as a director, at least in none of the important cinephile categories of visual style, genre mastery or pacing/editing technique. Seeking out a connecting visual motif between Gentleman's Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire or America, America is a task doomed to leave the seeker unsatisfied and empty-handed. Seeking out genre mastery will also prove futile: Ford had westerns, Hitchcock suspense, Spielberg adventure/sci-fi but Kazan? Nothing. Well, drama, but that's the standard genre around which all others are built which is to say, to state the obvious, Ford's westerns are dramas too. How about editing or pacing? Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz come up spades in that area knowing how to race through set-ups and dialogue with ease allowing them to work in all genres, especially Hawks, and stamp their signature on each, but again, Kazan doesn't stand out here either.

No, in the end, Kazan's signature was the ease in which he worked with actors. Pick an Elia Kazan movie out of a hat and it probably has acting nominations and awards to its credit. From A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to On the Waterfront, Kazan movies are known for their performances. Both of those films received Oscars for acting and one of his films, A Streetcar Named Desire, damn near swept the field in 1951 winning all but Best Actor for Marlon Brando's seminal performance as Stanley Kowalski. But winning or being nominated for Oscars makes no difference because even in cases where there were no nominations, such as in the case of Andy Griffith's inexplicable snub for A Face in the Crowd (a film that received not one nomination - not one!) it is generally agreed that when one watches a Kazan movie, one will be treated to some great acting. And acting I have noticed (as Cinema Styles good friend Marilyn Ferdinand has noticed with dancing) isn't much discussed among cinephiles in general. To be sure, actors are discussed, from the aforementioned Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis to Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando, but when a cinephile writes up a movie or a director's career they want a motif on which to hang their hat, a visual style, an editing technique. It might be accepted that Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw all do a great job in Jaws, but when a cinephile decides (s)he's going to analyze Jaws it's going to come down to Spielberg's cinematographic and editorial decisions more often than focusing on the performances. It is agreed, in other words, that while the performances are good what makes the movie good is Spielberg's decisions on how to show the shark, when to show the shark, how to create tension on the boat, and so forth. The performances are an added bonus.

But consistently eliciting great performances from actors is a talent underestimated in the film world and Elia Kazan did it better than most. Whether working with the stoic actor (Gregory Peck), the theatrical actor (James Dunn), the classical actor (Vivien Leigh), the entertainer/comedian turned actor (Andy Griffith), the new to the medium actor (Eva Marie Saint), the child actor (Peggy Ann Garner), the non-actor (Stathis Giallelis) or the reputation-precedes-him actor (Marlon Brando), Kazan knew how to draw a performance from all of them that was not only great but that didn't stand out in contrast to every other performance in the movie. He produced acting consistency in his movies. He standardized the acting in his movies by bringing the big actors down, the little actors up and the working actors to the fore. It's a cliche I can't stand but it's fitting: He made sure everyone was on the same page. In the end, the best way to describe his talents might be to call him an Ego-Wrangler. He could lasso vanity and insecurity in equal measure and haul them both in.

Elia Kazan died in 2003 and four years prior, in 1999, received an Oscar for a lifetime of achievement. Ten years later his 100th birthday didn't even show up on my radar and I'm sorry for that. I am an actor and know how difficult actors can be for directors. I also know how difficult a bad director can be for an actor. And I know that Elia Kazan's talent with actors is just as important to me as Hitchcock's talent with genre. So Happy Birthday Elia. Sorry it's so late.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

...and then they realized he wasn't the director

Sorry for disappearing this week except at my photo blogs. All shall return to normal by Monday, no need for corporal punishment. And don't forget, October will soon be upon us and you know what that means don't you? That's right, a month-long celebration of industrial safety films! Oh yeah, and just to mix it up a bit I'll throw in some horror posts too. Thanks.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lost in the Wasteland

Part One: The Vast Wasteland

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.

Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC, in the speech "Television and the Public Interest" delivered to the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961.

So said Newton Minow in his famous speech to the National Association of Broadcasters upon taking up the job of Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. It has since become known as the "Vast Wasteland Speech" taking its name from the last line of the first paragraph quoted above in which it is just as often mis-quoted that he said "television is a vast wasteland." To be fair, immediately preceding this most famous section, he actually praised television and specifically called out shows that he considered noteworthy including but not limited to Victory, Twilight Zone and CBS Reports. That section rarely gets mentioned but it's important because without it he is just another anti-television crank. With it he becomes a balanced observer. By recognizing the quality that television has to offer he can bemoan the fact that it also serves up generous portions of drivel that act as filler between the select few good pieces of drama and entertainment out there. Such it is with film, literature, music and probably any other art form to which one devotes anything more than casual attention. One must cut away at the weeds to find the beautiful saplings underneath. Most of the output of the popular arts is lazy, cliched and mediocre. Simply peruse the aisles of a bookstore or video store (if there are any left) if any of this is in doubt.

However, each medium produces a different kind of problem inherent to its method of production that produces in each a unique type of badness when the output is below the upper tier. That is to say each one has unique traits that allow them to be bad in very different ways, and equally good in different ways as well. Since television is the subject for this post, and that's a first here on Cinema Styles, it is television's unique methods of storytelling that will receive our focus and I leave it up to the reader to determine for discussion at a later date what exactly constitute the weaknesses or strengths inherent in film and literature when delivering their stories to the non-discriminating consumer. For our purposes we will stick with the tube, the boob tube as it so infamously known, and it's storytelling strengths and weaknesses.

Unlike a film or a novel, even a film or novel series, television is unique in that it has not only a continuing set of characters but their stories continue in real time. In other words, even in a serial, such as James Bond or Nancy Drew in both film and literature, the continuing adventures of these characters continues on a yearly basis, monthly at best. Where it can take decades to reach 26 installments in the story of a character in the mediums of film and literature, television can produce 26 installments in six months on a weekly basis. Given so much opportunity to develop the character, television can indeed produce great things and has done so with many characters over the years. Shows such as M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, Homicide, and The Sopranos enjoyed success by building on the lives of their characters over many seasons while other shows like Bob Newhart, Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Law & Order and Columbo were content to develop traits for the characters that could be recognizable from one episode to the next while developing individual storylines that never required the character to be fully developed over time as each episode stood alone. These are in fact the two primary storytelling templates of television, usually referred to as serial and episodic, despite the fact that all television is episodic in that it is produced in segments, or episodes. Nonetheless for our purposes, episodic refers to shows that produce stand alone episodes, such as M*A*S*H, and serials are shows that provide a continuing, building story, such as Lost, the popular series still in its initial run, and these two shows will be the focus of Part Two.

As to the two types of television storytelling I have more often than not preferred episodic to serial. The episodic show can still develop characters, such as M*A*S*H listed above, but has the freedom to explore different stories without a continuous need for a connecting thread at the end of each episode or even more dramatic, and difficult to achieve on a weekly basis, the cliffhanger. Episodic television also avoids the problem of deciding when the mid-point of the show has been reached since thematically it doesn't matter. Not knowing when the story will complete itself often cause serials to repeat themselves while awaiting a decision or to provide endless loose ends few of which are ever resolved. The cliffhanger, or connecting thread at the end of each episode, is necessary to keep the viewers coming back, but without a definable beginning, middle and end those cliffhangers can't produce real change on the show lest they ruin what may become an important story thread later. Back in the nineties Fox aired a serial drama about five siblings making their way after the death of their parents, Party of Five. Its greatest strength was that its teens and twentysomethings spoke like teens and twentysomethings and not like clever Hollywood writers, an annoying trend of ignoring the character for which the lines are being written and simply giving every character the same clever voice, that of the writer (This hallmark of bad writing plagued such atrocities as Dawson's Creek and continues to plague much television drama and comedy as well as everything on the Disney Channel). It's greatest weakness was that there was no dramatic arc, a weakness shared by most serial dramas. Most serial dramas (most, not all - see Part Two), aren't building towards anything and Party of Five was no different. It was just there, week to week, as we followed the characters living their lives. There was nothing the show itself was moving towards, no goal, no endgame and that was not and is not conducive to good dramatic storytelling. Storytelling likes beginnings, middles and ends. Serial storytelling rarely if ever knows where that middle is and even more rarely has an end in sight. Usually the end arrives simply because the characters have run out of steam and viewers are tuning out. As the seasons went on with Party of Five the characters grew weaker and the desperate attempts at weekly cliffhangers grew more deceptive. Near the final season was a particularly deceptive one. The scene: Bailey (Scott Wolf) and Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) go to the apartment of her mother because Sarah has not heard from her for days and is worried. As the episode reaches it's climax the two enter the apartment together with Bailey then entering the bedroom alone. The music ominously swells to a crescendo as the camera zooms into a tight close-up of Bailey's horrified face as he stammers "oh my God." Smashcut to black, to be continued. Pretty dramatic huh? Was the mother dead? Suicide? Murder? Did a grisly scene await Sarah just outside the door? No, no, no and no. The mother was simply gone and the room was in disarray. That was where the "oh my God" had come from, seeing the room in disarray. Then they found a message that she had gone on an impulsive trip, to Vegas I believe. And that was it. After a couple of bait and switch routines like that you learn to stop trusting serial television and start expecting mediocrity and laziness. But you can't fault the writers too much. They were tasked with bringing the audience back even if they knew there was no dramatic arc and nothing would ever happen.

The bait and switch of deceptive cliffhangers becomes necessary in a storytelling structure that has no beginning, middle or end. They all have a beginning to be sure but without knowledge of where the second act commences even the beginning is questionable. Daytime soap operas rely on cliffhangers on a daily basis and yet they continue for years, sometimes decades, without any meaningful story or character changes occurring. At their core, serial characters and stories progress virtually unchanged, languishing in a storytelling limbo that has no idea what final resolutions await the characters. This is, I believe, the fundamental flaw of network television. Episodic or serial, the characters and stories flop about, playing for time as executives and ratings determine whether the show will continue or not. All the rich character development in the world is meaningless if the character ends abruptly because the writers never knew what was the story arc of the drama.

A novel or film has an enormous advantage over television in that the writer knows going into the story where and when it will end. That doesn't mean every novel and film is better than every television show, quite the contrary, simply that the method itself in producing novels and film is more conducive to proper storytelling. But what about the long term story?

The long term story is one in which the writers at least know how the story will end even if they don't know exactly when it will end. In the cases of miniseries they do know both the "how" and the "when" but we will stay with regular seasonal series for this discussion. In the case of the long term story, television has its advantage over novels and film in that it can take its time developing the characters knowing full well their final fate. The long term story can be told quite differently from show to show and can exist in both episodic and serial series. Let's look at one from each, an episodic and serial example, M*A*S*H and Lost.


Part Two: The Long term Story, M*A*S*H and Lost

M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, two years after the successful Robert Altman film based on the 1968 novel by Richard Hooker. While the show was episodic in nature with each episode standing alone the creators and writers of the show knew how it would end, with the cease fire in 1953, if not when it would end. This allowed them to slowly build towards a finale and build stories for the main characters that could be continued in a non-serial sense. For instance, Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, played by Alan Alda, hailed from Crabapple Cove, Maine, was unmarried, had a strong relationship with his father, womanized, drank heavily and slowly but surely developed affection for and sexual intimacy with Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, played by Loretta Swit. The writers continued to develop these character traits and situations of Hawkeye without necessarily connecting one episode to another with a continuing serial plot line. The story continued but the plots changed from episode to episode.

During the course of its eleven year run M*A*S*H "remembered" what had happened in previous episodes to keep the basic story going and characters developing as they made their way towards a conclusion. But the show also broke traditional episodic television norms with its character changes. Most episodic television, then and now, replaces a departing character with a similar character to keep what was popular going. For example, if Gomer Pyle exits The Andy Griffith Show then his brother, Goober Pyle, takes over providing almost the exact same character for fans to enjoy. When the simple minded Coach leaves Cheers a younger simpleton, Woody, takes his place. But M.A.S.H. did things differently. When McLean Stevenson left the show his character of Colonel Henry Blake was killed, and the befuddled, gentle non-military Blake was replaced with a career military man, sharp and disciplined, Colonel Sherman T. Potter, played by Harry Morgan. When womanizing Trapper John left, faithful father and husband B.J. Hunnicutt arrived. Incompetent buffoon Frank Burns stepped out, highly skilled, erudite and culturally aloof Charles Emerson Winchester stepped in. And that mirrored reality more than situation comedy. It's rare anyone is replaced at a job they've left with an oddly similar doppelganger. But television is more often than not afraid to take the chance that the audience will stay with them if something new is introduced, hence the preponderance of pod-people replacement characters in the history of network television.

In the end, M*A*S*H knew where it was going but didn't know when it would arrive and this hampered its originality as the show progressed. Because the show was immensely popular the network kept it going despite the fact that the story was based on a historical three year long event. They knew eventually the actors would clearly look to have aged more than just three years but didn't want to lose a cash cow and the writers and actors didn't want to stop developing characters of which they had grown so fond. As a result, plot lines started to feel familiar and the show began to borrow from itself heavily. Hawkeye writing a letter home to his father became a familiar and all too easy way to show a variety of vignettes that required no plot but could keep the show going. Other episodes used "racing against the clock" plots in which the surgeons once again struggled to save a patient before time ran out. It is not to say that the writers and actors did a poor job with this, just that over time, most dramatic situations had been done multiple times and were starting to feel stale.

After eleven seasons M*A*S*H finally made its way to the historical cease-fire of the textbooks and did its best to tie up loose ends and give the characters a fitting send-off. For the most part it succeeded but as a story with a dramatic arc, a beginning, middle and end, it failed. Despite having a firm conclusion in advance there is no feel of a building storyline ever present when watching an episode of M*A*S*H Watching an episode from the second season back to back with an episode from the ninth season, the viewer would notice different characters and a bit of age on the returning characters but otherwise see no furthering along of the story. They would see doctors in Korea in a M*A*S*H unit, they would see dramatic moments and comedic moments and then see the credits roll with that episode's plot neatly wrapped up. And here is the curse of episodic television: The beginning can only be the very first episode, the ending can only be the very last episode and the middle is doomed to be everything in between, and that makes for one hell of a long second act, too long to work dramatically.

But what about serial television? As noted earlier, it suffers from the same fate when it has no endgame in sight but what if the series is developed with not only a conclusion in mind, but an end date as well? Such is the case with Lost, the current ABC dramatic series about the survivors of downed flight Oceanic 815 on a mysterious island somewhere in the... well, somewhere in the Pacific. Supposedly, Lost was developed with an end in sight and its principal writers and developers stated well in advance that it would end after its sixth season, the one to begin this January. Is it really as tight as all that? Perhaps.

The time frame of Lost is brief. From beginning to end it covers only a few months on the island, however, there are three years that take place off the island as well as three years that take place back on the island thirty years prior with other time displacement events scattered throughout. All this is to say that the main story of the crashed survivors on the island itself, in the present day of the story, last only a few months. Having never watched an episode of Lost on commercial television but in fact watching all of the first five seasons online I was able to approach the show from a unique perspective. Roughly speaking, I was able to watch the show in about the same time as the events on the show were taking place. And I must say, considering that the actors have been playing the roles for five years now but are supposed to have only been on the island for a little over a hundred days, they look remarkably similar from one season to the next. The continuity alone is extremely impressive and probably deserves some sort of special award. But it is the development of the characters and the story that are our concern, and the question of whether Lost succeeds where so many other serial dramas have failed. It does but not without some of the same longevity problems that will most likely always plague serial drama.

First, the story arc. Watching the show every day online, often several episodes at a time, until reaching the end of season five, may have impressed with its continuity prowess but revealed flaws perhaps not as noticeable to the weekly viewer, and the show didn't necessarily produce an episode every week in the first place. Those flaws came in the form of redundancy. Most of season two into the first half of season three felt like watching the same episode over and over and I admit, after the beginning of season three I was ready to call it quits. Apparently the shows creators and producers; J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof; were in negotiations with the networks and an end date was undecided so they didn't want to continue much further with the arc of the story until it was. Watching all episodes back to back to back on a daily basis this was more than obviously the case.

More importantly the series has created an abundance of characters and an over-abundance of story threads that makes one suspicious of how easily all the loose ends will be tied up. Take the characters of Ben Linus and John Locke, played by Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn, for my money far and away the two most interesting characters and two most skilled actors on the show. Their two characters have undergone multiple jarring revelations of who they are, where they come from and what their motives may be for their actions. Logic is applied and then abandoned. Red herrings are most assuredly the order of the day. They are fascinating characters but the misdirections concerning them seem to be doubling over onto themselves at this point. There is a feeling too many cans of worms have been opened to close at this point and perhaps those negotiations in season two and three will be, in the end, the tragic flaw of Lost. By playing for time they may have introduced too many story arcs with which they have to deal. Or maybe, as some fans fear, they're going to reboot for season six to make the clean up a little tidier.

Without going into many details (and to a non-fan of the show explaining the plot at this point would be a fundamentally futile endeavor, a more intricately latticed plot line you will rarely find in network television history) Lost deals with familiar science fiction tropes including that of time travel. At the end of season five a catastrophic physical event made possible by several characters occurs, in the past, which will, they hope, set everything back to normal, but which may just set the show back to day one, when the crash occurred, so that the viewer can watch the final season possessing knowledge the characters don't have as they achieve a conclusion to their woes. While it would be interesting to watch a final season repeat the first season but at a ninety degree angle it would also be a cop out of the first order to destroy every loose end by simply blowing them up. Still, there is a feeling more than most shows I have watched that the writers do indeed know where they are going, and even though it hasn't yet concluded, I can discern a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning seems clearly to be season one through the halfway point of season three, the middle is the halfway point of season three through season four and season five clearly feels like the machinations of a final act. To the writers of Lost, bravo, especially considering how complicated the storyline has become.

So the story arc of Lost is good but its quality cannot be fully determined until the series concludes. What about its character development? Here we find Lost's greatest strength and its completist approach to the backstory for each character, achieved through flashback coupled with the present day situation, provides the show with characters as well drawn as any in film. So well drawn that it sometimes becomes distracting to have to follow the plot because of the desire to watch certain characters simply interact.

Lost proves, so far at least in its unfinished condition, that television can produce a proper story arc over multiple seasons, providing an identifiable beginning, middle and end. While it suffers from the fact that two of its defacto leads, played by Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lily, aren't nearly as interesting as most of the other characters and certainly nowhere nearly as interesting as the second leads of Linus and Locke, it still holds the viewers attention and I am as eager as any to follow it to its conclusion, although now I wish I had waited for it to end and just watched the entire series online so there would be no infernal waiting for a final season.

Unlike film and literature, television has great difficulty bringing a story full circle because it operates in the dark most of the time. It wanders around that vast wasteland that Newton Minow described so many years ago, wandering and waiting to learn its fate, rarely knowing when the end will come. But it can succeed and many times has even if many more times it has failed. It probably deserves more credit than it is given for having to extend most characters lives well past their expiration date and continue stories with no end in sight. Maybe in the future more shows will determine their story arcs in advance, allowing the creators and writers to develop a show fully before the first scene is even shot. Until then most television will continue to wander blindly but not all will be without direction. Currently, on ABC, there is a show that, so far, proves one can wander the wasteland...

...and not get lost.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Now with 30 percent more posting power!

Like the Muscle Beach denizens above I have now been granted the strength to post even more photographic history online, described here in what may be fairly called the greatest blog post ever written in all of human history, or at least since there have been blogs. Yes, I have joined the team of the renowned culture blog If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats. I haven't posted any photos there yet because the announcement just went up but I look forward to doing so and would like give my most sincere thanks to Tom Sutpen, proprietor of said blog, for extending the offer and allowing me this opportunity.

It all started in this last week as I decided to reboot The Invisible Edge (I have changed the rules there and now post much more frequently - six times in the last three days - go visit now!). In the reboot I mentioned my frustration with holding back on so many photos and mentioned Tom's blog and Tom promptly arrived and extended the offer to join the Gunslinger, which I quickly and happily accepted. That's about it. I'm very excited about joining such a great team of contributors and hope I can hold my own. Thanks Tom.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

One from the Heart

One from the Heart famously bankrupted Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope Studios after its budget shot through the clouds and its box office take sunk to the bottom of the ocean. It cost over 25 million (roughly 119 million adjusted for inflation) and took in only a little over 600,000 (roughly 3 million today). One need not have certification as an accountant to see those numbers don't come out the right way and Coppola said most everything he made for the next ten years was about paying back the debts he incurred during production. Watching it 27 years later, removed from the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release, one sees a movie so simple and basic it's hard to believe it came from the man who made The Godfather movies, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now and even harder to believe it caused any sort of a stir at all. Aside from the controversy it received mainly negative reviews upon its release, negative reviews that now seem short-sighted and clueless.  Let me explain.

The production design by Dean Touvalaris is, quite simply, extraordinary. It doesn't recreate the Las Vegas strip as has always been said, it interprets it, reinvents it and comes up with something completely different and wholly original. It's not Vegas, it's a small intimate town, a village that just happens to have a lot of neon lights.

Then there's the great music by Tom Waits. An Oscar nominated song score sung by Waits and Crystal Gayle that brings every scene to life and propels the story.

There's the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and Ronald Garcia. It captures the set and all of Coppola's visual tricks and theatricalities, like using scrims to mount split-screen scenes in-camera, perfectly and beautifully. The whole film has a gaudily beautiful look of arch falseness about it, one that no one has quite achieved before or since.

But there's something else I wish they'd done, and it's not a criticism really, just a simple wish. With the great actors involved in this movie, and the lyrical quality of it, I wish Coppola had made it into a musical, or at least, let the Tom Waits songs carry the movie and make the dialogue incidental on a level of Jacques Tati. From first frame to last, with the beauty and artificiality of the set design and simple story of two lovers, a man and a woman, falling out of and back in love, this film would have worked even better as pseudo-silent film, carried only by the visuals and music. In many ways this film took its cue from the silent masterpiece Sunrise, with its multiple visual overlays and vibrant city atmosphere providing a backdrop for two people rediscovering their love for each other. But it should have taken one more cue and favored the silent mode of storytelling over the spoken one.  Still, the picture works extremely well and 27 years later it seems Coppola made something much better than people at the time realized, something truly from the heart.


Here is One from the Heart told in pictures. The opening credits are presented here in a video clip and then stills from the rest of this extraordinary looking film. Enjoy.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hey you!

Yes you! Stand still laddy! Sorry, wrong movie (album). Anyway, don't forget, tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. EST Pat Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre will be hosting Toerifc's September selection if....

Be there or be militantly and rebelliously square.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Seventies Last Dance

1952. A crowd boards a streetcar, presumably to go to work, at least for the man with the briefcase. I don't go to work myself since being laid off but do keep myself very busy and hope to land work before all the money runs out. In the meantime the weather changes and the greyness of fall and winter sets in. I always love the autumn weeks but soon struggle to make it through the low-light conditions of winter. I like to think someone boarding that streetcar had the same struggles and after reading the marquee across the street thought, "I'm going to go see that later. The movies always cheer me up."

I have been fascinated, obsessed, delighted, awe-struck, intrigued, invigorated and re-invigorated by the movies for decades now but sometimes find myself at a loss as to what to do with them besides watch them. That sounds odd of course, what else does one do with a movie besides watch it? Well, write about it, discuss it, take it apart and put it back together, feel it, live it and sometimes even connect to it on a deeply personal level. Lately though, I've just been watching them. In fact, thanks to my recently unemployed status I've probably watched more movies in the last two months than I watched in the preceding six months and still, I have little to say about them. Right now, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder has a blogathon going on concerning the films of Brian De Palma. I have seen several Brian De Palma movies but find myself unsure as to what to write about any or all of them. I know that I like Carrie and Blow Out and that Casualties of War was a disappointment to me but nothing on the level of Body Double which felt like a disaster or some kind of cinematic lost bet. Many love Scarface, I do not. The Untouchables was enjoyable but I haven't returned to it in years and have little desire to do so now. The thing is, I find De Palma an excellent filmmaker in scenes more than in whole movies which is a part of my difficulty in writing about one particular film. Even when De Palma disappoints me however, and he has done so often, he can still amaze me with individual scenes and set-ups. I'm sure I'm not the first to think that the museum moment in Dressed to Kill is one of the greatest seduction scenes ever filmed. Or the moment in Blow Out when John Travolta is listening to the tape over and over again while a split screen shows us the car tire in close-up and as Travolta realizes he is hearing two bangs, the gunshot first and then the blow out, the audio and visuals come together so beautifully it's almost like watching a dance between the two, choreographed perfectly by De Palma.

In fact, I think Blow Out is probably my favorite De Palma film but I still have little to say about it. I imagine anything I say will fall far short of the insightful analysis my better prepared brother and sister bloggers can and most likely will provide. But this is a blogathon and it is about De Palma and my favorite film of his is Blow Out so dammit, I should say something and so I shall. I shall try to express why it is my favorite of his films, one part having to do with him and one part having to do with timing.

The first part, having to do with De Palma, concerns the assassin Burke, played brilliantly by John Lithgow. Following his actions throughout the movie makes it another dance as it were, with John Travolta's soundman Jack, each partner countering the other while moving closer together. Most conspiracy films only cover one side, the protagonist. Whether it's The Conversation or The Parallax View we usually get little in the way of what the bad guys are up to but in Blow Out we follow Burke's centered, obsessively focused movements just as closely as we follow Jack's on the other side. As Burke does everything he can to cover his tracks, with the precision of a Swiss clockmaker, including the horrifying yet brilliant plan of killing similar women in an effort to make it look like the work of a serial killer so that when he finally kills our heroine, Sally, played by Nancy Allen, no one will think anything more of it than she was just the next victim in line, we see both his and Jack's axis lines moving towards the same point, knowing they will cross and knowing Jack will be powerless to stop what follows. Not only are Burke and Jack's movements countered and observed throughout the movie but De Palma does so with sound and video, rarely dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue of course, but the important aspects of the story are all represented visually, as Jack cuts out the photos from the "accident" to reconstruct them or Burke replaces the tire on the car. From beginning to end Blow Out is movie for people who love the movies. Like the works of Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson years later, it celebrates moviemaking itself as it tells its story, and not through visual quoting of films past but through the sheer exuberance, detail and thoughtfulness put into each shot.

The second part to this, the other reason Blow Out is my favorite De Palma film, has little to do with De Palma and more to do with its release year of 1981. Unbeknownst to De Palma, Blow Out was a signal post for the cinema, the last one for the seventies. In my mind, maybe in yours as well, it marked the end of the great seventies experiment where production companies and studios paid good cash for writer-directors to put whatever the hell they wanted to up there on the screen, with little interference. The movie has the feel of what came before and none of what came after. Blow Out, like so many of the great works of the seventies, from Chinatown to Taxi Driver, The Last Detail to The French Connection, The Parallax View to Dog Day Afternoon, has an ending that is bleak, despairing and hopeless with its hero coming up on the wrong end. The world, it seems, isn't a very fair place after all. The very next year E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was released and felt like it emitted from another era than Blow Out, separated by decades, not twelve months. The seventies were officially over and the eighties had begun. There would still be all manner of movies with endings both happy and sad but no more with the feel those seventies movies had, at least in the mind of this admittedly nostalgic writer. While many people welcome a respite from movies with bleak endings or find them too hard to watch in the first place I maintain, as have many others including Roger Ebert who probably said it most famously, and I paraphrase, good movies are never depressing, bad movies always are. Like that commuter that I imagined planning to see The Sellout, a movie like Blow Out still cheers me up despite its somber resolution, full of despair and quiet surrender. It cheers me up because great film, great art, always does and even if I don't always know what to say about it I appreciate the gift nonetheless.


This post has been a contribution to the Brian De Palma blogathon hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

if.... you're interested....

if.... you're free next Monday and if.... you want to discuss a film and if.... sorry. Next Monday, September 14th, Pat Piper of Lazy Eye Theatre will be hosting Toerifc Nine which is nothing like Ice-nine but very much like a film discussion, this time centered around Lindsay Anderson's classic if...., from 1968, a film I've seen many times over. Please go to Netflix or your local video outlet to reserve your copy now. I've checked both Amazon video on demand and i-tunes and it's a no-go. I'm afraid you've got to get the DVD so do it before the weekend and then join us for another rousing discussion on Monday. See you there.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cinema Styles October - Coming Soon

This October Cinema Styles will be exploring the passion of horror rather than the slashing, killing and maiming. Love, madness, obsession, desire. All those deep primal emotions, feelings and states of mind that horror has always exploited so well. From Dracula to Christine, Peeping Tom to Fade to Black, Lust for a Vampire to The Wolfman and everything in between, before and after, Cinema Styles will be celebrating it all month long. I have a trailer here for your viewing pleasure. I'll have original works in store this October again and new banners for each day. See you then!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everybody was dancing in the blog-light

And what a warm light the blog gives. This blog was tagged by Marilyn, proprietor of Ferdy on Films and inventor of the dance blogathon. This time it's a meme concerning fifteen favorite dancers on film. Well here's the thing: I don't know if I have fifteen favorite dancers on film that wouldn't be everybody else's favorite fifteen but the good thing about memes is you can knead them and mold them into whatever you want. So I'm going to go with ten and not just ten favorites like Kelly, Astaire, Charisse and so on. Oh no that would be too easy. I'm going to go with the ten dancers I never got to see enough of for any number of reasons: they weren't glamorous enough for leads, they had a style not suitable to very many films, they weren't the right race to succeed in the classic era of Hollywood, and so on. They almost all succeeded gloriously on Broadway but Hollywood was another story. With that explanation allow me to now present the Cinema Styles 1st Annual Underused Dancers of the Silver Screen.

Gwen Verdon. She just didn't have the right face for Hollywood. Oh it was pretty and had an appealing over-bite and the hair was good and... but you know, she just didn't look like you're supposed to look to be a Hollywood glamour queen.

Ben Vereen. He's more known for his dramatic role in Roots than his dancing and it was his dancing, specifically the kind choreographed by Bob Fosse, that made him famous (if that sentence makes any sense please let me know). Thing is, in the seventies, musicals were box office poison. Vereen came about at just the wrong time.

Bob Fosse. Since he's so closely associated with the first two dancers on this list I might as well make him number three. His choreography is well known but his on-screen output is, like everyone on this list, tantalizingly small.

Russ Tamblyn. He was an incredibly athletic dancer. He could do the back flips, jump over a car and do full splits seven feet in the air without breaking a sweat. But he didn't light up the screen dramatically and had a boyish face. And that doesn't translate into dance idol success in Hollywood.

Michael Kidd. Again, like Fosse, his choreography is known but despite a few good roles he's not really as known. And he was around at a time when there was only room for one Gene Kelly.

Fayard and Harold Nicholas. They could move like no others but they were Black and it was the thirties and forties and if I have to explain to you why they didn't get any leads in big budget musicals coming out of MGM then your knowledge of Hollywood history is woeful.

Leland Palmer. (No, not the Twin Peaks character although I bet Ray Wise can really cut the rug if he wants to) Again with the Fosse but hey, he had a knack for finding terrifically talented dancers that didn't have perfect noses for Hollywood cinematographers to frame. So again we get tiny glimpses, mainly from All That Jazz.

Ann Reinking. Okay, I guess I should just rename this the 1st Annual Bob Fosse's Dancers List. Anyway, she did have the right nose but... well... she just didn't have much onscreen presence, but maybe that's because she kept getting cast in non-dancing roles!

Savion Glover. He's done choreography, tv and been in exactly one film, Tap. Let's face it, you come of age as a tap dancer in the nineties and you can forget about ever being immortalized on film.

Joel Grey. What the hell, let's make the Fosse circle complete. And really, outside of Cabaret and Dancer in the Dark, what the hell do the movies have to offer Grey in the way of dancing? Fortunately, he's a pretty damn good character actor. It's just too bad we couldn't have more dancing on film from him.

And that wraps up my top ten (although this one goes to eleven thanks to the Nicholas Brothers).

I now insist, nay, DEMAND that Bill, Krauthammer and Ryan come up with their own since they were whining about it the other day (and in Krauthammer's case, I just want a new post to go up, period). In fact, they have to list their top 500(!) dancers in film. No. 1500! Get to it gentlemen, and Bill, Edward Woodward better be on your list. Thank you.


p.s. - Since Marilyn put videos of all of her selections up and I didn't I feel I have shortchanged you. Please view this, perhaps the greatest dance routine ever committed to film, as a catch-all proxy for the missing videos above.