Category Archives: Blog

Sucking in the Seventies: Re-Examining the Wondrous, Incoherent Decade

ERRBI’m pretty sure the first movie book I read cover-to-cover was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a high-calorie, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ gross participation page-turner that maps the ascent and deflation of the “New Hollywood” filmmakers from 1967 to 1980. For a high schooler, it was a simple story with an irresistible through line and a cast of unsavory, irascible geniuses. Even without seeing all the films described in the book, this gossipy chronicle of long-haired movie brats sold a seductive premise: a vanished kingdom of personal, American auteurist cinema, wiped off the beach by Jaws and its blockbusting successors.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, published in 1998 shortly after the release of Boogie Nights, spawned a ’70s revival that has now calcified into a peculiar critical consensus. The best-seller inspired two talking-head documentaries (A Decade Under the Influence and another named for and adapted from the Biskind book) and endless appreciations of films that were hardly underappreciated in the first place: The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now.

Nor can we forget the recent films that consciously channeled the “New Hollywood Renaissance,” taking the procedural aloofness of All the President’s Men as a retro Rosetta Stone: Argo, The Informant!, Michael ClaytonZodiac, American Hustle, and host of less memorable pictures. Grain equals grit.

By now, the ’70s are accepted so reflexively as “Hollywood’s Last Golden Age” that there’s little point in quibbling. Still, it’s difficult to name another era in Hollywood filmmaking impervious to the critic’s naturally revisionist impulse. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the ’30s or the ’80s are roundly ridiculed, but the ’70s class (Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall) remains lionized. Continue reading

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Crimes of Opportunity: Ben Hecht, Anti-Auteur

Crime Without Passion_FuryWe’re all auteurists now. The notion that the director is primary author of a film, once a fringe idea debated in little magazines and grindhouse theater lobbies, is now the implicit premise of movie production, criticism, and advertising. When 3 Days to Kill is promoted as “A McG Film” and Pompeii is, contractually speaking, “A Film by Paul W. S. Anderson,” we must recognize that the debate is well settled.

In our era of automatic auteurs, the contentious critical arguments of generations past can seem downright quaint, if not fitfully obscure. The once-controversial figure of the writer-director is a case in point.

In the earliest years of cinema, production roles were rarely delineated: actors and directors could improvise a scenario on standing sets, or a cameraman might call the shots. A quintessentially industrial art thrived on a pre-industrial division of labor. The growth of the studio system in the late 1910s and 1920s gradually forced filmmakers into more rigidly defined roles. The transformation culminated with the coming of sound, which introduced the idea of the modern screenwriter—not a semi-literate scenario scribbler or a witty intertitle aphorist, but someone who resembled a professional Broadway playwright.

The moguls aspired to employ sharp, college-educated playwrights, but the working conditions they offered were frequently demeaning and atrocious: no matter how fine a script was, the studio machinery would insist upon re-writes. The script would be passed from one employee to another as a matter of habit.  One cannot overstate how thoughtlessly this imperative unfolded in practice. The process that birthed Midnight (1939) may be apocryphal, but it remains illustrative: unsatisfied with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s draft, Paramount threw the script into the rewrite pool and programmatically assigned the task to another team—Wilder and Brackett, as it turned out, who submitted their uncorrected ‘revision,’ which was judged a tremendous improvement. Continue reading

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Punch Cards, Veronica Mars, and the Digital No-Wave

votomaticLet Us Compare Mythologies
You’ve probably heard by now that the ongoing digital cinema conversion has fundamentally transformed the way movies are produced, distributed, and exhibited. Taken on their own, petitions and protests that aim to save 35mm film can look nostalgic, naïve, or simply Luddite. With 92% of American screens already film-free, this looks like a settled issue, with no outstanding questions.

The scene looks different at a farther remove. Cinema is hardly the only industry in the midst of a digital transition, after all, and comparative analysis promises fresh insight.

Let’s talk about the parallel upheaval in voting technology for a moment. In the wake of the Florida’s extraordinarily close vote totals in the 2000 presidential election, America focused anew on problems at the polling place. Poor ballot design, antiquated punch cards, obsolete lever machines—all came under post-mortem scrutiny. The technology was an incongruous, even dangerous, anachronism for the dot com economy. “In the age of the microchip,” CBS News opined, “the leadership of the free world is being decided by boxes of paper ballots with hanging and half-punched “chads,” leaving it to harried election officials to decide who meant to vote for whom.” In California, the ACLU cited the scattered usage of the much-maligned Votomatic machine as an impediment to equal protection guarantees and sued to delay a state-wide election until all the machines could be replaced. Continue reading

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Beacons of Cinema: In Defense of Trailers

MPAA in 70mmNow that the film vs. digital debate is winding down, the National Association of Theater Owners has turned its attention towards more pressing matters. Last month the exhibitor’s trade group issued new guidelines for movie trailers and related promotional material, effective October 2014. It was a canny move, seizing upon public sentiment that “trailers are too damn long” and thus earning ink for NATO in publications like RedEye that would typically ignore its pronouncements. (When you share an acronym with the instantly recognized North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it’s hard to get mainstream press coverage. Then again, as an industry trade group, perhaps you don’t want the sunlight in the first place.)

The new NATO guidelines, which are completely voluntary, mandate that movie trailers run no longer than two minutes and be released no more than five months before than the movie that they’re promoting. (Trailers are presently around two and half minutes apiece.) Each distributor will qualify for two exemptions per year, though these exceptional trailers cannot be any longer than three minutes. NATO’s latest also clamps down on “direct response prompts (QR codes, text-to, sound recognition, etc.)” in trailers and endorses practices that most theaters abide by already, such as assuring that age-appropriate trailers accompany each feature so that Dallas Buyers Club isn’t pitched at the Frozen crowd. Continue reading

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We Are the 92%: The Wolf of Wall Street and the End of 35mm

WoWS One-SheetNo sooner had this blog observed that film’s death watch was leveling off than the Los Angeles Times delivered a bombshell: Paramount Pictures was the first of the big studios to drop 35mm, with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues being its last title released on film. Henceforth, all Paramount titles would be DCP only, beginning with The Wolf of Wall Street. (How ironic that, in one of Wolf’s best scenes, Leonardo DiCaprio teaches his charges how to scam small-time investors by selling them shares of Kodak before moving on to worthless penny stocks.)

Richard Verrier’s Times piece was thinly sourced, with the studio refusing to comment and the “theater industry executives” who leaked the news remaining anonymous. The article included no quotes from the memo itself, nor any indication of how many people received it. In some ways, this is old news. Anchorman 2 was released a month ago, and the gist of the Paramount memo was circulating on specialist message boards like film-tech.com back in November. At least one forum member cited a Wolf booking at a 35mm venue, but the balance of the evidence suggests that the phantom memo is, in fact, true. Continue reading

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2013 in Review: Whose Film Is It, Anyway?

DCP DriveGlobal Recession Saves 35mm
Tradition dictates that this blog publish an end-of-year overview looking back on distribution trends and chronicling the fate of film exhibition. Compared to the past two years, we saw fewer signal events in 2013—no headline-grabbing bankruptcies, less saber-rattling ‘do it or die’ announcements from the studios, fewer (or, at least, less hysterical) media stories chronicling the fate of struggling, straggling mom ‘n’ pop operations. Generally speaking, 2013 was the year that digital cinema became so normalized as to be unremarkable.

With the wide-scale digital conversion of first-run movie exhibition accepted as a fait accompli, the belligerence and defiance have cooled considerably. Back in 2011, studios strongly suggested that 35mm prints would be unavailable after 2013. The message was clear: gobble up the carrot of 3D surcharges and labor-saving automation now, before we bring out the stick of absolutely refusing to accommodate your out-moded film equipment. This warning did its job: by the end of 2013, so many theaters had converted that threats as such were less necessary. The threats were also less credible: Kodak, newly emerged from bankruptcy, reports that the studios have contracted for raw film stock through at least 2015. Continue reading

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Cinema & Shutdown:
What the Library of Congress Teaches Us About Public Life

LC LogoIn the short history of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, we’ve faced some formidable challenges. In our first season, a 16mm print of Silver Lode was lost in transit. In our second season, one of the Portage Theater’s 35mm projectors fell off its pedestal right before a show of Comanche Station. And of course, back in May we found ourselves locked out of the Portage with no advance notice, collateral damage in the new landlord’s curious scorched earth campaign against his own theater. These kinds of obstacles are familiar enough for any film exhibitor or small business owner: logistics problems, equipment malfunctions, property disputes.

But there’s another looming problem that’s definitely out of the ordinary: the ongoing shutdown of the federal government. Continue reading

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Burned Out: The Nitrate Legacy

Sabotage_NitrateAlfred Hitchcock frequently cited Sabotage as the film that forced him to refine his technique: suspense above all—or at least, up to a point. It was a mistake, he later reckoned, to mix suspense too closely with sentiment, to tighten the noose while remaining indifferent to the neck. In the film’s most (in)famous sequence, a bomb explodes on a London bus, the work of a terrorist who plants the device on an innocent boy. “I broke the rule,” Hitchcock said, “that the hero is always rescued from danger at the last minute … There were yowls of protest from everyone, especially the mothers.”

This fatal indifference is actually crucial to the effectiveness of Sabotage, which possesses a straight-ahead ruthlessness that Hitchcock’s other British films generally lack. There’s no time for music hall routines or local color here. Not that Sabotage lacks for black humor. All this bus hubbub unfortunately overshadows a wicked irony embroidered into the script; when the boy climbs up to the bus, the operator stops him and informs him that he cannot bring two reels of nitrate film onboard. It’s flammable, after all. Continue reading

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The True Story of Tinted Talkies: An Interview with Anthony L’Abbate

ONE HOUR WITH YOU 002Our new season begins on Wednesday with One Hour with You. If you’ve never seen it, you have a wonderful, adult, emotionally resonant musical to look forward to. If you have seen it before—say, on Criterion’s budget-line Eclipse DVD or in a 16mm print at the old LaSalle Bank Cinema—you haven’t really seen it either.

That’s because Universal’s 35mm print is tinted. Derived from a restored negative from UCLA Film and Television Archives, this version doesn’t include any new scenes, but around half of the footage is tinted sepia or lavender. (The remainder of the film is black-and-white.) That makes the print unusual in 2013, but hardly so in 1932. Continue reading

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Western Vernacular

Lone Ranger
The Lone Consensus
For box office watchers, last month’s failure of The Lone Ranger offered an opportunity for city slicker schadenfreude and quick-draw conclusions. Boasting a combined production and marketing cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million, The Lone Ranger has no absolutely chance of turning a profit or kick-starting a new summer franchise. Nevertheless, its failure hardly imperils the future of its studio, as prior runaway productions like Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate once threatened to do. Industry consensus says that Disney will simply take a nine-figure write-down and steer clear of committing that much money to an unproven brand again, at least for a while. (The same lesson was presumably learned last year in the wake of John Carter, but The Lone Ranger had already left the station.) Continue reading

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