Monday, November 29, 2010

Irving Kershner and The Luck of Ginger Coffey

It must have been around thirty years ago that I first saw The Luck of Ginger Coffey. At the time, so early on in my experience with the world of cinema, I thought it was an extraordinary film. As I saw more movies, I thought, perhaps, it was not perfect as I imagined but it never fell from my top ten of the best working class dramas of the sixties. It is an excellent film with a commanding performance by Robert Shaw at its center. But its look, its feel, its pacing and its just right touch of pathos and humor can be credited to one man who time and time again exhibited the kind of skill and talent that made several more popular movies work but for which he rarely got noticed. That man, director Irvin Kershner, died on November 27, 2010 and the world of cinema may not quite realize just how great a director it lost.

Kershner wasn't working on any current films so the loss isn't one of immediate impact. There won't be any unfinished work that can't go on without him. The loss is that there is now no time left to honor a director that the world of cinema should have honored a long time ago. Of course, his films will continue to honor him but I would have liked to have seen the man himself share in that honor that seemed to constantly elude him.

On the obituaries you see all over the internet right now, from the major media outlets, three movies are listed front and center by which to remember Kershner: The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop 2 and Never Say Never Again. And I understand, too. Popular titles dealing with franchises such as Star Wars, Robocop and James Bond should not be ignored and if that gets people to notice him, more power to them. Certainly his turn with the Star Wars Saga was the best of the series and took an already excellent screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, and through his expert choices in framing and editing, added layers of depth unknown to any other movie in the Star Wars Universe.

But he did more, so much more, and the pinnacle of his other achievements was The Luck of Ginger Coffey and the impact it had on me cannot be overestimated. When I first saw it, on TBS back in the very early eighties, I was in the opening stages of advanced cinephilia. I had checked out all the classics, from Rules of the Game to Citizen Kane to 8 1/2 to Chinatown, and was steadily taking in more every week. When Ginger Coffey popped up on the schedule I had never heard of it. None of my many "History of the Movies" books had so much as mentioned the title. Kershner wasn't mentioned either, anywhere. So, I watched it with little expectations of anything more than a run-of-the-mill drama, directed by, as it turns out, that guy who did the last Star Wars movie.

Then I saw it, and everything changed. I was floored by how good it was and amazed it wasn't mentioned anywhere. And then, at that moment, I learned my first life lesson of cinephilia: Movie books, critics and historians lean heavily on a select few works, what might be called "the canon", and rarely venture outside of that safety zone. If you want to be a cinephile, you've got to stop relying on the movie books to guide you and make your own way.

It's a lesson movie blogs have really driven home with me, as in the last nearly four years of blogging I have discovered so many great films, films that I would easily rank alongside the canonical ones, that I hadn't even heard of until some adventurous blogger sought it out and wrote it up. It doesn't mean those films in the canon aren't worthy, they are. It simply means there is so much more that's been ignored or overlooked that deserves our attention. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is one of those films for me. In fact, it was one of the first reviews I did on Cinema Styles, something I didn't do often then and still don't but something I wanted to do to call attention to such a good film. It's a review I don't think too much of now, heavily relying on plot description more than anything else, but there it is anyway, one of only four reviews listed on IMDB's "external reviews" for the film, a sad testament to how undervalued it is.

Irvin Kershner died on Saturday and took with him a talent and skill for character in drama that made films like The Empire Strikes Back stand out from the rest of the series and made dramas like Ginger Coffey that much more resonant. He will be missed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ingrid Pitt, 1937 - 2010

Ingrid Pitt, Hammer Films star and featured player in classics such as Where Eagles Dare and The Wicker Man has died at 73. I watched The Vampire Lovers again in October but never wrote it up, though now I wish I had. She'll be missed. Rest in peace, Ingrid.

Monday, November 22, 2010

For the Love of Film (Noir)

Last February, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy of Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren, held a blogathon to raise money for film preservation. The money raised, some $30,000, was used to restore two silent film shorts, The Better Man (1912) and The Sergeant (1910), discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2009. This time around, things will done a little differently. I'll let Marilyn explain it from her post currently up at Ferdy on Films:

Last year, we didn’t know what films we would be helping to restore, but this year, we do! In 1950, United Artists released a searing drama called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in.

I know everyone loves noir, and that noir crosses all borders of time and place. That gives everyone a lot of choice of topics, and we hope everyone will join in what is bound to be a gigantic party. Once again, we’ll be offering helpful advice and taking suggestions from the film community on the For the Love of Film Facebook fan page, which we’ll be adding to regularly. Become a fan, and take a look around in the coming weeks for suggestions of topics, discussions about the blogathon, information about film preservation, and a lot more. And go to the For the Love of Film blog, where Cinema Styles’ Greg Ferrara has posted banners you can use on your own blog and Facebook page to promote participation and awareness.

The banners Marilyn mentions come in large and small sizes for use either within a post or on a sidebar. One of them, with Joan Bennett leaning against a street lamp, comes from Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang's 1945 masterpiece that my wife and I recently took in on the big screen at the AFI. I plan on writing that one up, as well as proselytizing, as usual, for seeing as many classic films on the big screen as possible because, once again, a movie I liked became a movie I loved once seen as originally intended. I also plan on giving to the cause, as I did last year, and hope you can too.

Here at the National Archives, my place of employment, I got to take in Upstream, a 1927 John Ford backstage comedy that was a part of the 2009 New Zealand treasure trove and, though we didn't specifically fund that one, felt proud to have been a part of a greater whole, one that works towards the goal of restoring works of art and pieces of history that might otherwise be lost forever.

So put up the banners, watch plenty of film noir and come ready to write, read, discuss and make a difference. I'll see you there.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Coming at ya!

Enough of this no posting shit! Cinema Styles is back... with a vengeance!

What does it mean, "back with a vengeance?" I don't know. I mean, I don't harbor any ill will towards any of you and certainly don't feel the need to right some ancient wrong through violent means. All I know is that the off-site work that was stressing me out and driving me nuts is over and now, thanks to extra hours put in, I get to comp myself a couple of days at home this week. So, Cinema Styles is back. Whether vengeance is involved will be decided at a later date.

Earn 25 Cinema Styles Dollars* by naming the movie pictured in this post.

*Cinema Styles Dollars are a non-existent promotional item that contain no value, either real or imaginary. Cinema Styles Dollars cannot be used for any transaction, either real or imagined, and are for entertainment purposes only, said entertainment being "entertainment" in the nominal sense only by which, henceforth, shall be considered to be neither real nor imagined. Cinema Styles reserves the right to revoke Cinema Styles Dollars at any time and for any reason, most likely because Cinema Styles believes you do not deserve to bask in the glory that is Cinema Styles Dollars. Cinema Styles also reserves the right to pursue legal action on any individual seeking any means of compensation from Cinema Styles Dollars, up to and including a $50,000 settlement and/or 25 years exile on the island of Cinema Styles' choosing. Cinema Styles also reserves the right to wrest control of your home, finances and familial benefits should you attempt, in any way, to use Cinema Styles Dollars. Thank you for using Cinema Styles Dollars.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Location Work

I will be hard at work this next week as my job takes me off-site for several days so I will return Monday, November 15th and when I do, let's do things differently around here. I've been doing this for almost four years now and it seems like I should change things up a bit, but how? I'm thinking more anger, snap judgments, off-the-cuff opinionating and ad hominem attacks. Much more! Make this kind of a destination spot for the cinematically disgruntled and depressed.

Or maybe I'll just try to update more. See you in a week.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Upstream (d. Ford, 1927): An Archives Experience

The Movie

When Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren held a blogathon fundraiser for the National Film Preservation Foundation earlier this year, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to see one of the films preserved on the big screen with original musical accompaniment but that's just what happened recently. Of the 75 American films from the silent period that were discovered in a New Zealand film archive in 2009, the one that garnered the most attention was an early John Ford backstage comedy, Upstream, and last week it was shown at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

As I now work for the National Archives, it was my honor to attend and meet Eric Schwartz, one of the co-founders of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) and Brian Meacham, Short Film Preservationist at the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Both were more than familiar with the blogathon and Brian even told me he had just finished work doing the commentary for The Better Man (1912), one of the films that our blogathon specifically helped restore (the other was The Sergeant (1910)).

Upstream was presented with an original score composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by Mortilla on piano and Nicole Garcia on violin. An excellent score, it captured the essence of the film by providing the perfect counterpoint to what was happening up on the screen while never detracting from the experience by calling attention to itself.

As for the film, it's quite entertaining even if nothing more than a lark, but a very well done lark, to be sure. Primarily, it shows Ford had an early flair for the kind of pacing that comedy demands, and it's a pacing that would serve him well in his later dramas and westerns. It also celebrates the kind of communal existence evident in so many later Ford films, from the migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath and the coal mining community of How Green was My Valley to the ragtag collection of brothers-in-arms in Stagecoach and The Searchers.

The film takes place in a boarding house for performers: actors, dancers, knife-throwers and other barrel-bottom-scraping followers of the footlights. The story concentrates on Jack La Velle (Grant Withers), knife thrower, Gertie (Nancy Nash), his assistant and object of his affection and Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox), his rival in love. Brashingham is, as his name suggests, a brash, ham actor from a famous acting family (insert "Barrymore" here) who gets pegged to play Hamlet in London simply because his name is Brashingham. John Barrymore Hamlet and profile jokes ensue with little relent. After some coaching by another boarder, Mandare (Emile Chautard), Brashingham becomes a hit in London, despite everyone's expectations of his outright failure. He returns to America an acting idol and finds Jack and Gertie have married, much to his chagrin.

There's not much more plot than that but there doesn't need to be. Upstream throws more jokes at the screen than a feces hurling howler monkey imitating Mel Brooks on a three day joke-writing bender. Not two seconds pass in this movie without a new joke and if that one doesn't work, don't worry, here comes another. It's this perpetual motion machine brand of comedy that makes the thin plot work and Ford never lingers on a shot for too long, lest the pace be broken. I found myself quite surprised both by how quick the film was and how well the audience responded to it, which is to say, there was plenty of laughter.

In the end, while it may be an entertaining movie for anyone who enjoys good farcical comedy, it is of particular interest to cinephiles who can see John Ford steadying his hand and becoming his own director. The lighting is a little different for Ford, making use of tinting and harsh lighting effects, although a little haphazardly(Murnau and German Expressionism were mentioned in the discussion but, perhaps because I have watched Murnau again so recently, I found little similarity between the two). Ford doesn't do a lot with the camera, it's true (most of the film is medium distance, center framed, stationary camera all the way), but when Ford does move in on something; a close-up of a skull-fashioned salt shaker or the expression of Gertie as Brashingham ruins her wedding day, it has a purpose and confidence. Besides, Ford didn't need to do much because the supporting cast of oddball boarders are entertaining enough that to dolly around them too much would have detracted from their compulsive energy.

What really made the film a great experience to watch was seeing it on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. I really can't emphasize strongly enough how important it is to take in silent films on the big screen whenever possible. Just last year, viewing The Crowd at the AFI Silver Theatre with an organist playing the original score, took it from being an excellent movie in my mind to being a truly great one. More than any other type of film, a silent film comes alive on the big screen like nothing one would expect. The difference between seeing one on DVD and seeing one in a theatre could be measured by factors of ten. If you see Upstream on DVD (it will be released as the next set of DVDs by the National Film Preservation Foundation) you will enjoy it but if you can see one of the too few theatrical presentations of it being escorted about the country by Brian Meacham, you will have a wonderful filmgoing experience that will stay with you for years.

The Restoration

Brian Meacham and Eric Schwartz spoke to the audience before and after the presentation, with Brian Meacham revealing the incredible story of how the discovery came about and how the restoration took place. In 2009, Brian and his wife were set to take a vacation to New Zealand and Brian, as he does before any trip, e-mailed the local film archives in New Zealand and asked if a tour would be possible when he arrived. He was given the green light and received an e-mail back detailing all the American films in their archives. From John Ford to Mabel Normand, big names popped out and arrangements were made to select 75 shorts, trailers and features to be restored and returned to the United States.

The reason the American films were in New Zealand in the first place is quite mundane, really, having to do with, of all things, shipping costs and rental cycles. As it turns out, New Zealand was usually at the end of the rental cycles for film prints from Hollywood making their way around the world. By the time they were done the American studios had little desire to pay exorbitant shipping costs for movies they'd never show again. Besides, the prints at that point were pretty worn so the studios gave the go ahead to junk the films. Thing is, many theatre owners kept them rather than toss them into the garbage and eventually they made their way into the New Zealand Film Archives. In 2009, they made their way back home, finally.

Because of the deteriorated condition of the nitrate film, the decision was made to restore Upstream in New Zealand and then ship it to the United States. The process was lengthy and costly but fortunately, Fox Studios picked up the tab knowing there was no real prospect of making any money off the venture. Good for them, and us.

One final note: the title. Why exactly is a farcical comedy about an eclectic group of performers all living together in a boarding house called Upstream? In the movie, there is one belabored moment that doesn't fit at all, where Mandare is telling Brashingham, about to leave for London, to "go upstream to your success!" And, indeed, the word is bolded and italicized just like I have it here because they're clearly trying to tell you, "This is where the title comes from." Only, who in the hell would say that and even if they did, why make that one word, from that one isolated line, the title? The real answer, provided by Brian Meacham, was all business.

Back in 1927 the studios not only churned out movies like Model T's coming off an assembly line but also owned the theatres in which they were shown, the better to keep the line moving smoothly. This meant programs, information, placards and posters were sent out well in advance to populate the lobbies and let moviegoers know what was coming next. Sometimes, plans changed in the middle of the process. After sending out all the info for a Dolores Del Rio film, Upstream, the production fell through and eventually went to MGM where it was released in 1928 as The Trail of '98. Meanwhile, Fox Pictures had just wrapped up a comedy directed by John Ford called The Public Idol. Since no advertising had gone out on it yet, and everyone was expecting a film called Upstream they inserted a new title card, threw in the intertitle delivered by Mandare quoted above and Upstream was born. Somehow, after all it's been through to finally return home in good condition, the title at long last seems apt.