This is a nice companion piece to the American Movie Critics conversation Ryan and I recently had on Alexander Bakshy. Bakshy was bullish on the coming of sound, but he was in the minority. Greg points out how panicked most studios and filmmakers were, trying to figure out what to do with this newfangled technology.
Charlie Chaplin, a July, 1928, article, expresses his concerns that the cinema would quickly devolve into “photographed stage plays,” and one story starts off with the suggestion that cinematographers will be put out of work as the sound engineer takes over and the camera gets locked in place. If you ever needed proof that people have unreasonable fears about anything and everything new, just read stories from 1928 about sound in movies.
I always enjoy Ryan’s “classic” series, looking at a still from a classic film and discussion its meaning; this time, he gives his analysis in a brief but trenchant paragraph, saving space to reminisce over the previous 49 entries in the series.
Today marks the fiftieth image in the series, and in honour of the half-century mark, I decided to keep it simple: I’ve gone with my favorite shot from my favorite classic. There are dozens of other iconic shots from THE GODFATHER that I could have chosen, but for me, so much about America is said in this one frame.
All around it is the untamed natural environment it came from. Front and centre is one of the game-changing inventions that made it great. Inside of said invention, we have a glimpse of the violence that has defined it for more than 200 years. In the background, the promise of what it could be, what it wants to be, and what so many want to deny it being.
This guy pretty much nails it. Knowing all the movies in advance like this doesn’t whet my interest, it just makes me exhausted. How much cooler would it be to wake up on a Friday, check the local listings, and be like “holy crap, there’s a Captain Marvel movie and it’s out TODAY?! Awesome, I’m going to THAT!” Of course, that will never happen anymore. I’m only planning to see a few of these, since I actually don’t care about being “a good movie geek,” (and I may see fewer than that if they’re as interconnected as it seems), but I’m still dreading the next SIX YEARS of stupid non-news that’ll be all but unavoidable unless I cut myself off from online film culture completely.
The difference here is that this is a list of films we are going to see, a list of films we had better start planning our lives around right now, if we are going to be good movie geeks. It has nothing to do with being surprised and everything to do with being kept in a state of vague anticipation for a half-decade before watching a movie that will inevitably result in a mild feeling of anticlimax. It has everything to do with taking that surprise and leeching all of it out of our moviegoing experience, bit by bit, until finally seeing the movie is just the last chore on the list. It’s a Christmas morning when we don’t just know the packages but have gotten done playing with them ages ago.
I have occasionally been guilty of complaining that just because a film is preserved and archived doesn’t mean anyone will see it, and been corrected that most quality archivists consider exhibition to be an integral part of preservation, and To Save and Project is a visible sign of that commitment. I wish I were in New York to attend.
Late last month, on the outrage machine known as Twitter, Variety tweeted the following: “Most films and TV shows are now available online legally, says a new study”. As with most provocative headlines, it turned out to be incredibly misleading. The “study” was commissioned by NBC Universal and performed by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG. They only chose to track the most “popular and critically-acclaimed” films, which according to them comprises films with the “highest gross box office receipts” and those that won Oscar Best Picture awards. So this is a highly selective, entirely meaningless 808 film sample that overlooks the majority of film history. [...] A situation is growing where studios don’t want to ship prints of rare titles, but neither do they want to shell out the money for a decent HD transfer and clean-up, a very expensive proposition to enact on a large scale. Thus my dream of a 127-film 4K-scanned Edward L. Cahn retrospective will never come to pass.
That is why festivals like To Save and Project are so vital.
If you think we’ve had a lot of superhero movies already, scroll down this post a minute to the Image of the Day and take a look at what’s in the pipeline, if both Marvel and DC hit all their announced release dates (I’m betting DC won’t, but that’s neither here nor there). Then come back and read Matt Brown’s astute take on why this rivalry might destroy moviegoing as we know it. Personally, I’m in for about four of these announced films, but I’m feeling fatigue already.
I’m not referring to the glut of similar properties (though that will be a factor) and the perennial movie business column-incher called “audience fatigue.” I’m simply referring back to the infinities of scale problem above. Great: you’ve assembled fifty superheroes and literally saved the universe. What now? What’s next?
DC and Marvel’s real-world pissing contest will force each of them to go bigger and bigger and bigger or go home, home, home. But on both a conceptual and visual level (and alongside them, a financial one), there is actually a ceiling on how big these movies can get. Iron Man vs. Captain America in Captain America 3? Brilliant, but what do you do for an encore?
Most of the time “12 Great Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen”-type lists irritate me, because I usually have seen many of the films on them, and it’s incredibly difficult to target one of those lists well when your potential audience is everybody. First of all, this one doesn’t make the mistake of titling itself with “you haven’t seen”, but it also focuses on films that are well-known and revered in Russia but not as well-known outside of Russian, which is a fascinating tack for me. I’d love to see more lists like this from other countries.
The Diamond Arm (Leonid Gaiday, 1969)
Perhaps the best Russian comedy, the story of an ordinary man who was incidentally involved in illegal diamond trafficking. It’s a parody of crime movies and of the Hitchcockian “wrong man in wrong circumstances” plot, as well as a satirical sketch of Soviet life. Sometimes the American audience might need some knowledge of Soviet realities, but I’m sure real cinephiles would highly appreciate the stylistic diversity and charms of the actors.
It’s a short Roundup this week – I wasn’t able to get to a lot of my blog reading this week, so I ended up focusing just on film items. I read some great stuff about film, though!
This is an excerpt from a book by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who shot The Innocents (recently released by Criterion) for Jack Clayton. I’m not a super-technical person, but I found his descriptions of how they achieved the effect they did fascinating, and easy to follow even as a layperson. A great read, and I’m curious to seek out his whole book now.
Although of course it is a CinemaScope picture, the audiences don’t usually realize it was shot in the process. By this I mean that there are no edges to the film; most, if not all, the content of the picture is concentrated in the center with the remaining area going off into sets, foliage, and darkness. The effect was that the action and images usually take place in the center. As far as Fox was concerned, they had a negative that was CinemaScope ratio, and as far as Jack was concerned, he had a film that was framed in normal film proportions. We never had any complaints.
There’s a common sense factor to this that’s hard to deny – exhibitors are the ones who have the most to lose by losing the theatrical window. On the other hand, I suspect the finances on this are more complex even than this, given the high percentage of box office take that the studios get, especially in the first few weeks. The suggestion to have the theatrical window only last the first three weeks (when movies make most of their revenue) would, I think, be highly problematic according to current arrangements, since theatres don’t see hardly any money from a film until AFTER that third week. Also, my bigger concern is not that new releases don’t get to VOD fast enough – the window is pretty damn short already (two to three months in most cases) – but that studios are doing a terrible job of making their catalog releases available for digital rental or subscription, and that doesn’t involve theatres at all.
Yes, they know that making people wait months on end for a legal VOD or home video release accomplishes nothing but fueling piracy. They know that you want what you want when you want it and they know that they’ve spent tens – in some cases hundreds – of millions of dollars convincing you to want their products now only to make you wait. And they understand that having a divide between theater and home video release is foolish. But they have no choice. And the legally enforced gap between the people who actually make the movies and the people who control how and when you get to see them is responsible for Hollywood’s glacial pace of change. It’s the exhibitors, bluntly, not the studios.
Set your DVRs for TCM on October 6th! They don’t often play animation on the channel, but they’re pulling out some real rarities from the 1920s, from studios like Bray and Van Buren who were leaders at the time, as well as animation pioneer Windsor McKay. I’m super-stoked! This is Steve Stanchfield’s short behind-the-scenes take on working with TCM, and here’s Jerry Beck’s more newsy post about what’s going to be included in the segment.
This brings us to what I’ve been up to the last few weeks – working on finishing touches for a block of classic animation on Turner Classic Movies! I was invited to speak about Van Beuren animation and to show some of the films for my section of the animation day. Tom Stathes is presenting a program celebrating 100 years of the Bray Studios, and John Canemaker is presenting some of the great work of Winsor McCay.
I love reading about rediscovered classic films, and this sounds like a doozy – possibly the first feature film with a black cast, though it apparently was never completed and released (speculation is that it was too soon after Birth of a Nation, which scared the producers away). If you live in New York, you can see the footage at a MOMA screening in the near future. The rest of us will have to wait.
For decades, the seven reels from 1913 lay unexamined in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. Now, after years of research, a historic find has emerged: what MoMA curators say is the earliest surviving footage for a feature film with a black cast. It is a rare visual depiction of middle-class black characters from an era when lynchings and stereotyped black images were commonplace. What’s more, the material features Bert Williams, the first black superstar on Broadway. Williams appears in blackface in the untitled silent film along with a roster of actors from the sparsely documented community of black performers in Harlem on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance. Remarkably, the reels also capture behind-the-scenes interactions between these performers and the directors.