Tag Archives: Program Notes

Saying Something New: In Defense of the Topical Film

okay-america

Museum of Modern Art / Film Stills Archive

Is there any more dismissive response to a film than slagging it off as “dated?” Does a film lose its relevance merely because its clothing and hair styles are passé, its slang forgotten, its topicality turgid, its passions yoked to a particular time and place?

It’s a charge related to, but ultimately distinct from, the realization that a beloved film’s attitudes toward gender or race are indefensible. It shouldn’t be controversial to acknowledge that The Birth of a Nation (1915) advocates white supremacy, that Gone with the Wind (1939) puts a positive spin on marital rape, or that casting Mickey Rooney as a Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is an act of thermonuclear indifference. It’s legitimate to view those films as products of the culture that produced them, as failures of empathy and imagination that reflect the limitations of their social horizons. Continue reading

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Don’t Trust Your Local Film Programmer

devils-insertWhich version of The Devils are you going to show on Monday?

We’ve been asked this question over the phone, in person, and on social media since announcing we’d be screening The Devils at the Music Box. And it’s a perfectly reasonable question, as there are at least four versions The Devils commonly cited: the 111-minute X-rated British theatrical cut; the 108-minute X-rated American theatrical cut; the R-rated American version (either 106 or 109 minutes) released on VHS decades ago; and a spectral cut that re-integrates footage discovered by the critic Mark Kermode.

Adding to the confusion, Warner Bros. prepared a digibeta transfer of The Devils over a decade ago and commissioned several DVD extras but never released a disc—bowing, at least in the imaginations of fevered Ken Russell fans, to a Vatican conspiracy or the resurgent Evangelical stirrings of the Bush era. The studio eventually licensed the transfer and extras to the British Film Institute, which released a Region 2 DVD that runs 107 minutes—but that’s not a new iteration, just a slightly sped-up version of the 111-minute British cut because the video is encoded at the 25 fps PAL standard.

So, which one are we showing?

The fact is, film programmers frequently operate in the dark about these matters and have limited means of seeking clarification. The print arrives at the venue a week before the show (at most), and long after calendars have been printed and disseminated.

Programmers rely on distributors, archives, and private collectors to supply film prints for public exhibition. We interface with studio bookers, who almost always have no physical access to the prints they send out. At best, they have notes about the prints, but not always. The prints are usually in another building on the studio lot or located in a storage depot hundreds of miles away, operated by a third-party logistics firm in Sun Valley or Long Island City. To verify the condition of a print, let alone the specific version it represents, bookers can order an inspection from the depot (which costs money and often overstates a print’s deficiencies) or they can rely on scattered remarks from previous venues. Of course, some venues fail to report prints that have been torn in half, while others phone in a detailed assessment of every scratch and speck of dirt (and expect a price adjustment for their trouble). In an era when some studios are eager to junk prints, every condition report is a provocation and potential death sentence. Continue reading

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“Enhanced in Entertainment Value By About 25% (In Our Estimation)”:
An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Magnascope_600Old Ironsides—the 1926 super-production, helmed by one of Paramount’s most important directors, James Cruze—isn’t much shown these days. It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it was briefly available on VHS in the late 1980s, when Paramount mined its silent library for a 75th anniversary promotion. If you’ve come across Old Ironsides at all, it’s likely been as a footnote in a film history textbook, duly credited as the film that introduced Magnascope—a widescreen projection process developed by Lorenzo Del Riccio that is itself a footnote in the development of Cinerama and CinemaScope.

But should we dismiss Magnascope so quickly? Yes, we can draw an evolutionary line between Magnascope and the more durable widescreen processes. We can also readily glimpse the Magnascope concept in today’s IMAX presentations. But Magnascope’s true legacy is something else, situated between chintzy striving and earnest grandeur, between what filmmakers thought they were making and what projectionists made instead. Continue reading

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An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Are You Ready for the Great Atomic Power?: Decontaminating Doom Town

DT_13Before tonight’s screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, we’ll be presenting a rare short: Doom Town. Call it a prelude or a grim appetizer to Tarkovsky’s vision of the apocalypse, but Doom Town is so compelling in its own right that it deserves a few words. Originally released in polarized 3-D, Doom Town will be screened in 2-D, in a print made directly from one of Doom Town’s original camera negatives.

Whenever I try to explain the Film Society’s interest in physical media to a mixed audience, I shamelessly shoplift from other disciplines. Approach film prints like an anthropologist, I suggest. Who made them? Who used them? What do the print’s material characteristics suggest about its origins and purpose? Continue reading

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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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Searching for Efraín Gutiérrez – An Interview with Chon Noriega

AmorChicano_PosterMuch 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

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The Anti-Restoration of Portrait of Jason: A Conversation with Dennis Doros

POJposterWhen 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

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Irving Lerner: A Career in Context

CITY OF FEAR (1)
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

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From the Bottom Up: Mostly About Subtitles

Aparajito SubtitlesAside 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

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