Much has been written of the enormous strides made by genuinely independent cinema in recent years. In 2004, nearly every review of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation cited its “budget” of $218 and touted its desktop iMovie roots as a harbinger of things to come. Theatrical distribution for no-budget personal documentaries didn’t last long. YouTube would launch within six months.
Nevertheless, digital moviemaking has been embraced as a uniquely democratic avenue, the kind of game-changer that fundamentally alters who makes and consumes media. The ease of digital production and dissemination cannot be denied, but neither should we assume that the film era presented insurmountable barriers to entry. If anything, the disappearance of analog workflows makes the achievements of the past all the more impressive. How did aspiring filmmakers ever master exposure, A/B roll cutting, synchronization, and magnetic sound recording? These technical hurdles were real, but they hardly stopped a flood of alternative media, dissident art, regional filmmaking, and genuine oddities from reaching the screen.
Efraín Gutiérrez is one of the least likely, most bewildering figures of the celluloid era. With minimal capital and technical experience, Gutiérrez managed to produce and distribute three features and one short film in the latter half of the 1970s—the first films to depict the Chicano community from the inside. The details of Gutiérrez’s career became the stuff of legend, particularly after the filmmaker’s 1980 disappearance. Some speculated that he’d been a drug runner or a hit man and financed his films through illicit means. The sympathetic critic Gregg Barrios made a case for Gutiérrez as a pioneering Chicano filmmaker while acknowledging the consensus view that his films were “sexist and racist diatribes that should be ignored and forgotten.” Continue reading
When Portrait of Jason opened in 1967, there were no LGBT film festivals. Major newspapers and respectable citizens referred to gays and lesbians in appallingly derogatory language. Civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin had been shunted to the sidelines by Adam Clayton Powell, for fear that this homosexuality would undermine the movement. To be black and gay meant a life on the margin of the margins.
And here was Jason Holliday talking for nearly two hours about his brave, bawdy life before the camera.
There was some precedent for Portrait of Jason in Andy Warhol’s flurry of talkies, particularly the Ron Tavel-scripted Fire Island gabfest My Hustler. Warhol also made film portraits of uncomfortable intensity—Edie Sedgwick going about her daily business in The Poor Little Rich Girl, for example.
The debt to Warhol is economic and logistical, not just aesthetic. The unprecedented mainstream interest in Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls strained the passive distribution capacity of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which booked mostly college showings and underground establishments. To break into first-run theaters coast-to-coast, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Louis Brigante created the more commercially-minded Film-Makers Distribution Center. Portrait of Jason would be handled by the new FMDC, a potential cross-over hit in an era when Hollywood had largely missed recent upheavals in American taste. Holliday even cut a comedy LP. Continue reading
The Director as Commodity
I couldn’t help chuckling over a poster glimpsed in the Cinemark lobby recently—an advertisement that boasted that only RealD’s 3D system allowed the audience to see the movie exactly “as the director intended.”
You probably don’t need a stereoscopic slogan to recognize that director is routinely and reflexively held up as a film’s author, its artist, and its true voice. Between director’s commentaries and director’s cuts, the fledging auteurism of the ’60s has become commodified and thoroughly unremarkable. Indeed, we’re so inured to the director cult that we often neglect to examine some of the critical assumptions that underpin auteurism. Continue reading
Aside from Pulitzer-winning source material or a dose of Merchant-Ivory patina, subtitles are often judged the surest indication of a movie’s pedigree. Dialogue that would provoke guffaws and catcalls in its native tongue, the truism goes, reads profound and poetic in subtitled subterfuge.
The snobbism cuts both ways, of course. “It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow,” Hollis Alpert advised his Saturday Review readers in 1959, “depending on whether the word Bergman suggests Ingmar or Ingrid.” Snarkier still was Mike Rubin’s contention in the Village Voice in 2001 that “the Osama bin Laden videotape was, for most American viewers, probably their first experience watching something with subtitles.” (Grant Rubin the courage of his hilarious convictions, at least; he went on to compare the aesthetic strategies of the terror tape to recent work of Jacques Rivette and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.) Continue reading
Can anything else be said about The Night of the Hunter? After a BFI monograph, two book-length accounts of its production, an exhaustive Criterion Collection edition, and numerous critical appreciations, one fears not. Robert Mitchum’s monologues are quoted with giddy abandon and the spectral image of Shelley Winters underwater is recalled with undiluted emotional immediacy. James Agee’s screenplay (long ridiculed by associates who outlived him) is now released under the banner of the Library of America—an honor that the screenplay basically aspired to long before such a collection existed. Continue reading
What do Upstream, The Devil’s Passkey, Mare Nostrum, The Last Moment, A Woman of Paris, London After Midnight, The Old Dark House, The Case of Lena Smith, and Little Man, What Now have in common? Continue reading
Every other week, we seem to get a new lament about the End of Cinema. Usually, the blame falls on modern Hollywood and its infantilizing comic book movies. Never before in the history of movies, claims David Denby in The New Republic, was so much attention and capital devoted to an endless succession of sequels aimed at ten-year-old boys. The eight-decade reign of Adult Movies is a distant memory. Continue reading
Posted in Blog
Tagged Program Notes
Everyone brings their own personal baggage to the movies, and I don’t think I’m alone in treating them too readily as literature. Much of the vocabulary we apply to film comes from long-ago high school English classes. We assume that every detail is a puzzle piece that leads inexorably to a deliberate display of thematic unity and artistic expression. Analyze this film, we’re asked, and we begin to point out a camera movement like it’s an enjambment in a poem. We’re blessed with a bag of critical tools but we apply them as if every work is a self-contained thing that we can understand without leaving the house. Continue reading
Between fuzzy adolescent memories and Amazing Dreamcoats, getting a real fix on Technicolor has always been difficult. A dizzying example of total branding supremacy, Technicolor was not just a process but cultural shorthand for a certain kind of overripe, retina-scarring engagement with the world around us. (It was a Hollywood fantasy, and an irresponsible one.) With the name used as adjective to describe anything from a candy store to a brilliant automobile, it’s time to husk away the shades of grey. Continue reading
If one wanted, for whatever reason, to sketch a dividing line between the casual movie fan and the serious cinephile, the early talkies are probably the place to do it.
Their stars are unfamiliar—flashes-in-the-pan whose popularity is more mysterious and unaccountable than those that came immediately before and after. (Modern audiences instinctively understand the magnetism and sexuality of Valentino and Garbo or Stanwyck and Gabin; not so El Brendel, whose narrow ethnic burlesque is such an acquired taste that it beggars belief he was ever accorded starring roles in big-budget specials.)
Too often, discussion of the earliest sound movies (say, between 1928 and 1932, but especially those made before the summer of 1930) is heavily laced with apology. It’s assumed that they’re successful in spite of incontrovertible deficiencies. Their music often comes across as a soupy, repetitive mess. The sets are sometimes barely dressed. The takes are long and the camera movement minimal. The dialogue is so heavy it’s no wonder they were called talkies. Continue reading
Posted in Blog
Tagged Program Notes