Since avant-garde movies first attracted a substantial audience in America under the auspices of indecency and subversion of established ideas about politics, art, society, and especially sexuality, many don’t expect that such films can also be exceedingly gentle, even reverential towards their subjects. Continue reading
“Sometimes miniature electric train cars simply will not stay coupled. At some crucial tunnel, curve, or grade, the locomotive charges forward, leaving uncoupled cars behind and possibly derailed. It often seems that extra exertion at switches, curves, and grades has something to do with the uncoupling.
“Much, perhaps most, of the film footage that you project is coupled into “trains.” Like those miniature trains, films must stay coupled and on track through something like tunnels, curves, and grades, and switches. Therefore, couplings—let’s, of course, call them splices or joins—are crucial. Making good splices is one of your key responsibilities as a film handler. ”
– The Kodak Book of Film Care, 1st Edition, 1983 Continue reading
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If a major American studio falls in the forest, does it make a sound?
To the average movie fan in 1956, probably not. For those who got their Hollywood news from Hedda Hopper’s syndicated newspaper column, RKO’s Stage Struck sounded like business as usual, with casting news and production leaks coming at regular intervals. Early chatter had pegged Jean Simmons for the starring role of ingénue actress Eva Lovelace, but Bill Dozier, Joan Fontaine’s ex-husband and producer of high-class fare like Letter from Unknown Woman, now held the reins at the newly restructured RKO and had his sights set on Susan Strasberg. The 18-year-old actress, daughter of legendary acting instructor and Method prophet Lee Strasberg, had already acquitted herself with supporting parts in Picnic and The Cobweb, but her profile had been raised immeasurably by the Broadway success of The Diary of Anne Frank, then in the midst of a run that would exceed 700 performances. Strasberg was signed. Cameras would roll in January 1957 in New York City.
Henry Fonda’s participation was announced in August 1956. That same month, Sidney Lumet was attached as director. This spoke to enormous confidence in the theater- and television-trained Lumet, whose feature debut 12 Angry Men had already been shot but would not be released by United Artists until the following spring. Herbert Marshall was added to the rolls in September and Christopher Plummer in December.
After the shoot began the following month, Walter Winchell fanned whispers that Strasberg had been romancing James MacArthur, her co-star in the upcoming Underdog. (The son of Helen Hayes, MacArthur suggested a parallel, irresistible case of theatrical royalty.) Another syndicated columnist, Leonard Lyons, noted that the Stage Struck crew had briefly rendezvoused with the FBI when the feds paid a visit to photograph the Commies assembling at the Chateau Garden next door. The Washington Post reported on Mrs. Lee Strasberg watching her daughter with “hawklike intentness” every day on the set. “Isn’t she amazing?,” the stage mother asked. “How her grandfather would have adored her. She just IS theater, isn’t she?” Talk about Method. Continue reading
Would some films not exist at all but for their aspect ratios?
Put another way: although we tend now to think of aspect ratios as somewhat perfunctory aesthetic choices made during the preproduction process, the equation was almost exactly reversed at the dawn of the widescreen era. The shape of the screen was the engine that drove everything else and, in some cases, dictated the content before the cameras.
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This week’s feature, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has long been regarded as a political hot potato. Like High Noon, it’s either a preachment for vigilance in the face of a Communistic menace or a cautionary allegory of a conformist overreaction to that selfsame menace. But for a certain kind of cinephile, the aspect ratio of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is just as contested as its ideological underpinnings. Moviegoers shouldn’t be passive pods for received wisdom, so we thought it would be edifying to discuss the context of theatrical exhibitions in the 1950s and beyond. – Eds.
The shape and configuration of theatrical film has been basically unchanged since the earliest days of the twentieth century—35mm in width, four uniform perforations per frame. The relative apportionment of image and sound within that frame has changed tremendously, however, and projectionists have long been expected to extract images of all shapes and sizes from the same old film strip. Through a combination of specialized lenses, lens attachments, aperture plates, and screen masking, they present a range of rectangular images known in industry parlance as aspect ratios.
These shapes are expressed in numeric terms, as a ratio of image width to image height. The common aspect ratio 1.37:1, for example, means that the image on screen is 1.37 times wider than it is high. Counterintuitively, many of the wider aspect ratios like 1.85:1 achieve this apparent horizontal superiority simply by artificially constricting the height of the frame; since we’re talking in ratios rather than absolutes, cropping the top and bottom from the frame does yield a wider image, albeit with some loss of clarity when blown up on an enormous theater screen. The ultra-wide Cinemascope—2.39:1—uses a two-piece lens to anamorphically stretch a heavily compressed image on a conventional film strip. Continue reading
Who was this movie made for?
Often the answer is obvious enough (housewives, teenage boys, the Friday night drive-in bumpkin, the half-conscious grindhouse denizen, etc.), but in some special cases, the interrogation itself opens up and deepens the mystery of the film in question. In those instances, the absence of a readily identifiable target audience makes the fact of a film’s production and release all the more beguiling.
Let’s talk about Wild Boys of the Road. It’s commonly reckoned an exemplar of the social problem film as developed by Warner Bros. in the 1930s. As Nick Roddick points out in his study of the studio corpus, A New Deal in Entertainment, such films were memorable and distinctive, but hardly plentiful. Warner Bros., like every other major studio, released a film a week in the 1930s, most of them bread-and-butter pictures that kidded campus life or military hijinks. The ambitious, socially-conscious pictures like Black Legion or They Won’t Forget were the exception to the surly, comfortable rule. Continue reading
Tonight we’ll be screening an original IB Technicolor 35mm print of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments at the Portage. This 1956 epic is unequalled in its elemental power—its confusing mix of knotty, alien carnality and religious fervor has rightly frightened generations of children. (It’s also sufficiently iconic and hip enough to earn a nod in Arnaud Desplechin’s recent A Christmas Tale, alongside Nietzsche and Blackalicious.) But this four-hour spectacle wasn’t DeMille’s first attempt at bringing the Exodus to the screen. As a prologue to tonight’s festivities, we’re presenting a lengthy account of DeMille’s 1923 version. (To put that in some perspective, Charlton Heston was born in 1923.) Written in 2008, but previously unpublished, we hope you enjoy this article. And remember: You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you. – Ed.
• • •
“Intolerance unfortunately was the picture really that broke [Griffith], because he made a dramatic error that should never be made,” remarked Cecil B. DeMille in 1958. “He told four stories under the guise of one, and consequently all four failed. Because that is a formula that so far as I know has never been successful on the stage. One-act plays can be successful but not … the same theme running through four separate stories as one play.” DeMille himself never made any film as structurally ambitious as Griffith’s masterwork but his first rendition of The Ten Commandments perhaps comes closest. Intrinsically bifurcated rather than mosaical, DeMille’s 1923 super-production nevertheless stands as one of the very few Intolerance descendants to seriously attempt anything resembling Griffith’s thematic integration of parallel spectacles.
DeMille embarked on his own ‘dramatic error’ after a string of failed pictures. The latest of them, Adam’s Rib, struck many critics as another unnecessary entry in that most frivolous of genres, the high-society marital farce, which DeMille had practically created in 1918 and had been more or less confined to working in ever since by the Famous Players-Lasky front office. Meanwhile epic pictures from Fairbanks’s Robin Hood to Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame were brought to the screen in hopes of sating a public primed for expensive costume spectacles by German imports such as Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry. Famous Players-Lasky even had the effrontery to let James Cruze, then a relative neophyte, spend $782,000 on The Covered Wagon while forcing its star director to hew to a formula of diminishing appeal. Unlike Griffith, DeMille’s screen career began with and paralleled the development of the feature, his name practically synonymous with a certain notion of middle-class entertainment. Producers everywhere now laid claim to an audience that DeMille had nurtured. DeMille insisted on entering the million-dollar picture race himself, which would mean working on a scale he had not been permitted since Joan the Woman of 1916. Continue reading
When Reds was released in late 1981, its admirers tended to downplay its political dimension. It was a sweeping romance that happened to be about Communists—a perhaps necessary bluff (or a revealing delusion) after American politics had taken a sharp swing towards the right. “It is that personal, human John Reed that Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’ takes as its subject,” Roger Ebert assured us, but not without cautioning that “there is a lot, and maybe too much, of the political John Reed as well.” Andrew Sarris, who had frequently used his Village Voice perch to mock routinely liberal movies, finally found one he could get behind. “Reds is more a love story than a revolutionary chronicle,” Sarris wrote, “and as it happens, I prefer love stories to revolutionary chronicles.”
The detractors tended to agree with the brunt of this assessment, but understandably saw this as a liability. Pauline Kael called it “the least radical, the least innovative epic you can imagine” and the Soho News corrected the record with “What Reds Won’t Tell You About Louise Bryant.” It was a movie about John Reed that even Reagan could love—and indeed, he did. One can easily imagine him nodding along with Beatty’s Reed as he denounces Zinoviev for his individual-annihilating, freedom-denying brand of Communism.
Paramount’s 2006 small-scale reissue of Reds clearly addressed a shift in the political landscape. The trailer for the DVD positioned Reds as a blockbuster rendition of a prototypical Daily Kos diary, fired up with indignation over an illegal war and a dissent-crushing mainstream. Implicitly, Reds inaugurated a tradition that now included such softly provocative left-wing cinema-events as The Constant Gardener and Syriana.
Do we yet have the tools and sobriety to reckon with Reds? Its technical achievement is unimpeachable. There’s a moment early on in Reds when Bryant buttonholes Reed for an interview after his very brief speech at Portland’s Liberal Club. When can we talk? “Now,” and editors Dede Allen and Craig McKay cut on that word, that syllable to a scene in her apartment. The whole movie has this clipped quality, all tumbling out and jammed up together in a rush of decisions and judgments. In a sense, Reds feels like the culmination of the Resnais-influenced, half-glance New Hollywood editing style that Allen herself initiated in Bonnie and Clyde. Reds is the movie that fashions a working and supple grammar out of it. Nothing carries the appearance of classical cross-cutting here, even when that description is perfectly apt—the shots seem to hover, always looking stitched together and brittle, as if the whole edifice will atrophy when the music stops. Continue reading
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What do they call this place we are going to?
No, I mean, other people.
Oh, they call it Brooklyn.
What to do with a picture like Give Us This Day?
For one thing, it stands up very well as a domestic drama, a successor in certain ways to King Vidor’s The Crowd. It’s about how the everyday luxuries that constitute the fabric of American culture are not, contra magazine spreads and stump speeches, simply the logical reward of hard work and individual initiative. Give Us This Day shows, in scene after painstaking scene, how a family with the best of intentions may well never achieve its dream. That this obvious fact of sociology nevertheless sounds radical and unexpected in entertainment terms makes a film like Give Us This Day quite bracing, especially today. Indeed, to watch Give Us This Day now invites a certain wistful nostalgia for a moment when a family headed by a sporadically-employed immigrant bricklayer could even contemplate owning a home, an unspeakable ambition for a generation’s worth of college graduates and advanced degree holders these days.
But Give Us This Day is notable for far more than its rarely-fashionable grimness. Like Salt of the Earth, its more storied successor, Give Us This Day is a movie made by blacklisted talent exiled from Hollywood and unusually committed to feeling out what a socially-implicated narrative feature might look and sound like. Inarguably, the answer offered by Give Us This Day is curiously circumspect: aside from an errant ‘CP’ scrawled innocently on a beam in the background of an early scene, there’s next to no acknowledgement of the radical political ideas that halted the careers of actor Sam Wanamaker, writer Ben Barzman, and director Edward Dmytryk. Though such issues as workplace safety and incentive structures that pit workers against each other form important plot points, the possibility of unionization is hardly broached. A ‘union meeting’ is cited once—as the half-assed alibi that Wanamaker supplies when visiting his mistress (Kathleen Ryan). Continue reading
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Spend the night with Sherlock Holmes
Hold me tight like Sherlock Holmes
Just pretend I’m Sherlock Holmes …
I can dance like Sherlock Holmes
I can sing like Sherlock Holmes
But I can’t be Sherlock Holmes.
It’s no fresh insight to declare the 1960s the most schizophrenic and unsatisfying decade in Hollywood history. It’s certainly the decade where any responsible account of American cinema cannot focus wholly, or even mostly, on Hollywood product. If a historian wants to spend all his time studying Doctor Doolittle and The Sound of Music while ignoring or ghettoizing the avant-garde work of Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Barbara Rubin, Bruce Baillie, Bruce Conner, Shirley Clarke, Pat O’Neill, Jonas Mekas, Kenneth Anger, and a host of others, I suppose that’s his right.
Still, the studio features of that era do compel a certain fascination, more as half-aware artifacts than as artistic wholes. Hollywood could feel its own irrelevance acutely. The time-shifting aesthetic of Alain Resnais found its way into American art efforts like Petulia and, on the other end of the production scale, cheap thrillers like Mister Buddwing. Even with increasing freedom to show skin and revel in violence, a film like The Collector feels wholly uncomfortable with carrying its sexual content to its unambiguous conclusion. The anger of Seconds is ravishing, but incoherent—not just in its targets, but in its very subject.
To appreciate films from this period, it’s best to disabuse yourself of any straightforward relation between intent, effect, and achievement. Surely the experience of something like Wild in the Streets is more complicated than the film’s ultimate conclusion that hippies are just disheveled brown shirts. (And even if they are brown shirts with old-age concentration camps in the offing, Wild in the Streets still notably presents this fascist posse’s multi-ethnic, pansexual make-up as something basically unremarkable.) Continue reading
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