Wednesday, March 12, 2014

2010 National Film Registry

Time Cannot Wither...

The National Film Registry and Preservation Board last week picked those 25 films thought to be put into the Library of Congress as, according to the LoC's press release,  "they are 'culturally, historically or aesthetically' significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the 'best' American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture." Funny that they need to add that caveat, but one cannot argue with the effect of these films on the culture.  The list features prominent names that have passed this past year, and it's interesting that there is a lot of cross-pollination going on between films in the list.  Here they are:

Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 1980) Airplane!?  Surely, you can't be serious! 

I am serious. (And don't call me "Shirley").

The story goes that a Paramount exec, trying to mollify a disgruntled studio script "reader," asked if there were any projects that had been thought to have been mistakenly put into "turn-around."  The glaring example the reader brought up was Airplane!, a bizarre joke-filled spoof of "disaster-in-the-sky" movies, written by the Zuckers, and, once green-lit and with a minimal budget to risk, directed by them, too.  It was a left-field box-office smash and revived the careers of character stalwarts Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Robert Stack, and especially Leslie Nielsen, who dead-panned his serious acting career (I dare you to watch Nuts—directed by Martin Ritt with Nielsen in his last serious role—and not think he's about to prat-fall) and went on to top-line the Zucker's TV-series "Police Squad!" and the subsequent Naked Gun movies. It also featured choice cameos by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Barbara Billingsley ("Excuse me, stewardess...I speak 'jive'"), and Ethel Merman. Downright silly, smutty, and, despite jokes of its era (no one "gets" the Howard Jarvis cameo anymore), surprisingly timeless.

All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) It probably will never play in the Nixon Presidential Library. But maybe it should. Pakula completed his hat-trick of paranoid thrillers (which included Klute and The Parallax View, all d.p.'d by the brilliant Gordon Willis) with this by-the-bestselling-book adaptation of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's deep background chronicling of their Watergate coverage for The Washington Post. Executive produced by Robert Redford (who played Woodward, with Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein), it's a highly glamorized version of the equal parts legwork and lucky breaks that put into black and white the internecine machinations of the Nixon White House (which, along with the other Washington buildings gleam like overshadowing negative beacons in the dark in which most of the movie takes place). Great film, and it served as a stylistic template for David Fincher's Zodiac.

The Bargain (Reginald Barker, 1914) William S. Hart's first starring role, the one that made him an icon of the screen, although he is now largely forgotten. But, consider: people have been making westerns as long as they've been making movies—The Great Train Robbery, anyone?—and the film-making era started as the era of "The Western Frontier" ended, with the migration to California with its sunny filming conditions. Hell, John Ford had Wyatt Earp advising him on his westerns. Hart was not movie-star handsome (in 1914 that wasn't even a concept), but he communicated an earnestness that made him a star, especially considering his relatively complex roles of that era. I haven't seen it, so I can only tell you that it was chosen for "Hart's charisma, the film's authenticity and realistic portrayal of the Western genre and the star's good/bad man role as outlaw attempting to go straight."

Cry of Jazz (Ed Bland, 1959) From the press release: "'Cry of Jazz' is a 34-minute, black-and-white short subject that is now recognized as an early and influential example of African-American independent film making. Director Ed Bland, with the help of more than 60 volunteer crew members, intercuts scenes of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods with interviews of interracial artists and intellectuals. 'Cry of Jazz' argues that black life in America shares a structural identity with jazz music. With performance clips by the jazz composer, bandleader and pianist Sun Ra and his Arkestra, the film demonstrates the unifying tension between rehearsed and improvised jazz. 'Cry of Jazz' is a historic and fascinating film that comments on racism and the appropriation of jazz by those who fail to understand its artistic and cultural origins."

Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (George Lucas, 1967) Lucas' impressive student film that launched his career (and which he then expanded for Francis Coppola's fledgling American Zoetrope Studios, the ramifications of which made film history—its failure at the box-office made a cash-strapped Coppola to take the job directing The Godfather). Lucas' film has a lone denizen of an insular technocratic society make his escape, his progress and subsequent chase-down told entirely from the perspective of omnipresent security cameras and the monitor-drones keeping ineffectual tabs on his progress. In a way, Lucas has kept making the same story, just changing the time and place. This one's fast, cheap and tells its simple chase story in a completely unconventional way.

The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) George Lucas' follow-up to the mega-successful Star Wars and directed (extraordinarily) by Irvin Kershner. This one expands the Imperial-Rebel conflict with some brilliant action set-pieces: the ice-planet attack of dinosaur-like Imperial war machines; a giddily kinetic chase through an asteroid field; the light-saber confrontation between Luke Skywalker and his...uh...nemesis, Darth Vader; and an aborted rescue mission in a floating Oz-like city in the clouds. But, the capper—in the sense of making the unexpected seem credible—is the extended sequences featuring the last remaining Jedi master, the diminutive frog-like Yoda, audaciously represented by a puppet, stellarly performed and voiced by muppeteer Frank Oz. Even after the CGI versions of the prequels, it is still the best realization of that other-worldly creature. There is a continuing debate in the "Star Wars" fan base of whether the sequel is better than the original; that there is a debate at all is enough to give the movie its due.

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) Friedkin's exploitive fright-fest of William Peter Blatty's best-seller about the demonic possession of the child (Linda Blair) of a film-star (Ellen Burstyn). Friedkin managed to walk a fine line taking a primitively National Enquirer subject and making a high-toned film of it, but he sacrificed Blatty's humor and any giddy thrills that might have been mined out of the material (for that see Blatty's own The Exorcist III, and to see how it could have all gone completely sideways, check out John Boorman's Exorcist II!) It is SO serious, thereby pleasing the Catholic Church, who could take their green-vomit and pooh-pooh it, too. It became the film to see, despite reports of fainting and vomiting patrons. I believe it to be the only exorcism movie ever nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Despite all the religious trappings, Friedkin's use of a passed-around medal (for some symbology or other) is the director's attempt at ambiguity and only manages to confuse the issue.

The Front Page (Lewis Milestone, 1931) Very early talkie version of the knockabout Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play about a group of jaded newspapermen making the most out of the escape of a death-row inmate. The jokes and cynicism come fast and loose in this adaptation that manages to escape the bounds of the early cumbersome sound technology—probably because the dialog is delivered at shouting volume with a pace that is frenetic.  The Front Page has been remade twice—by Howard Hawks in the gender-bending His Girl Friday, and Billy Wilder's particularly astringent Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau version.

Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1976) From the press release: "Grey Gardens" is an influential cinema verité documentary by Albert and David Maysles that has provided inspiration for creative works on the stage and in film. Through its close and sometimes disturbing look at the eccentric lives of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Beale, two women (cousins of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy) living in East Hampton, N.Y., the film documents a complex and difficult mother-daughter relationship and a vanished era of decayed gentility." This is the documentary, not the HBO dramatic movie of the same name and same subject.

I Am Joaquin (Luis Valdez, 1969) From the press release: "'I Am Joaquin' is a 20-minute short film based on an epic poem published by Rodolfo 'Corky' Gonzales in 1967. Gonzales’ poem weaves together the long tangled roots of his Mexican, Spanish, Indian and American parentage and a past mythology of pre-Columbian cultures. The film is important to the history and culture of Chicanos in America, spotlighting the challenges they have endured because of discrimination. Luis Valdez, often described as the father of Chicano theater, produced and directed 'I Am Joaquin' as a project of Teatro Campesino (the Farmworkers Theater), which he founded in 1965 to inform, encourage and entertain Chicano farm workers. Valdez later directed the Chicano-themed Zoot Suit in 1981, a retelling of the early 1940s Los Angeles race riots, and La Bamba in 1987."

It's a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934) "Ah, yes." This makes three W.C. Fields films in the National Registry now. This feature, about a put-upon grocer who, on the whole, would rather be in California in the hopes of buying an orange-grove, is merely the slenderest thread of plot for extended set-pieces of Fields' drollery.  Check out the "shaving scene" below, and you'll see many similarities to the extended comedic set-up's Blake Edwards would later employ in his "Pink Panther" films.  

Makes one yearn for the era of the "gag"-men, who would meticulously expand on the idea of "Scene: China Shop. Insert: Bull." Based on a story by Fields.


Let There Be Light (John Huston, 1946) An astounding documentary done by Huston during his Army Signal Corps service about the psychological breakthroughs in treating traumatized World War II vet's suffering from "shell-shock" as it was known, but is now called PTSD.  As extraordinray as it is, it was banned by the Army for 35 years, and when it was finally released it was hard to imagine what all the fuss was about (which always seems to be "The Way"). The issue was officially that the soldiers' faces were not obscured in any way, but one suspects the Army didn't want the American people to know the effects their "good war" had on "The Greatest Generation." It certainly could have discouraged recruiting in the future. A must-see film, and one of the greatest of Huston's storied career.

Lonesome (Paul Fejös, 1928) From the press release: "'Lonesome' is one of the few American feature films directed by the gifted Hungarian-born filmmaker and scientist Paul Fejös (1897-1963). The film has been recognized for its success as both a comic melodrama (about young lovers who become separated during the chaos of a thunderstorm at Coney Island) and for its early use of dialogue and two-color Technicolor. The film was restored by the George Eastman House and has found renewed popularity with repertory and film-festival audiences.

Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) Leo McCarey made two films in 1937—this one and The Awful Truth.  When the latter won the Best Picture Oscar, McCarey groused "They gave it to the wrong one." But the eclectic director of everything from Marx Brothers comedies to An Affair to Remember was right. This story of economic times wreaking havoc on the lives of a devoted elderly couple was a melancholy protest of an indifferent society—which is not something anybody wanted to hear in the valley of time between the Great Depression and World War II. Incredibly, Make Way for Tomorrow only had its release to DVD in 2009 (it wasn't, with its subject matter of the way American society basically discards its seniors, a box-office success). Orson Welles once remarked that it was one of the greatest—and most heart-breaking—movies he ever saw.  "It would make a stone cry," he said.

Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) Lee's eclectic, epic biographical film on the civil rights leader, whose strategem for racial parity ("by any means necessary") is the philosophy behind the film-maker's "40 Acres and a Mule" production company—it ends all of those films. Lee traces Malcolm's life from low-life to prison to religious conversion and rise as a Black Muslim leader and influencer and the more radical side of the Civil Rights movement. A free-thinker, Malcolm was reconsidering his past positions and his relationship with the leaders of the Black Muslim faith when he was assassinated at the age of 39. That is a lot of life to fit into 39 years...and a single biographical film. 

From the press release: "Featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington, the film exemplifies the willingness of the American film industry in the early '90s to support the making of mainstream films about earlier generations of social leaders."  
Lee must surely be grimly smiling at that description, as he personally called prominent black entertainers to secure the funds to complete it, as he describes, movingly, in this clip from "Inside the Actor's Studio."

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) Not an anti-western, per se, (as was fashionable at the time) so much as it is a post-modern western twice removed. Altman's film takes the genre, and does it in a way that's still prettified (thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond's brilliant photography), but not blind to the realities of what makes a community—which is what "the western" is all about. That the founding fathers are an itinerant gambler and the town madam just means we're far-afield of the saloon white-wash. I still remember being riveted by the opening sequence set to Leonard Cohen (see below), and it's one of the rare films where "The West" doesn't just mean California, or the plains. Where so many westerns feel set in towns dropped fully formed from the sky, this one feels like it probably was...a community built on the fly as best as could be expected for what was needed. It's an amazing piece of work. 

Newark Athlete (William K.L. Dickson, 1891) From the press release: "Produced May-June 1891, this experimental film was one of the first made in America at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, N.J. The filmmakers were W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise, both of whom were employed as inventors and engineers in the industrial research facility owned by Thomas Edison. Heise and especially Dickson made important technical contributions during 1891-1893, leading to the invention of the world’s first successful motion picture camera—the Edison Kinetograph—and to the playback device required for viewing early peepshow films—the Edison Kinetoscope."

Our Lady of the Sphere (Larry Jordan, 1969) From the press release:  "A leading figure in the California Bay Area independent film movement, Lawrence Jordan has crafted more than 40 experimental, animation and dramatic films. Jordan uses "found" graphics to produce his influential animated collages, noting that his goal is to create "unknown worlds and landscapes of the mind." Inspired by "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," "Our Lady of the Sphere" is one of Jordan’s best-known works. It is a surrealistic dream-like journey blending baroque images with Victorian-era image cut-outs, iconic space age symbols, various musical themes and noise effects, including animal sounds and buzzers."

The Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1964) Two cinema icons were exposed to the movie-going public for the first time with this one: Peter Sellers' throwback to the classic film comedians, the perpetually bumbling Inspector Clouseau, and that star of movies, TV and insulation, The Pink Panther (he's only in the animated Main Title, as the name refers to an exquisite jewel that all the fuss is about). Peter Ustinov was initially set to play the inspector pursuing jewel thief The Phantom, but Sellers, stepping in at the last moment, is an inspired choice that won over audiences. So much so that when production on the hit stage-play A Shot in the Dark was to star Sellers, he balked at the script and Edwards was approached to re-imagine the project, so he and The Exorcist's William Peter Blatty rewrote it for Sellers' Clouseau. The Pink Panther is not as funny as A Shot in the Dark, but it's a good first look at the character.

Preservation of the Sign Language (1913) From the press release: "Presented without subtitles, "Preservation" is a short, one-reel film featuring George Veditz, onetime president of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) of the United States, demonstrating in sign language the importance of defending the right of deaf people to sign as opposed to verbalizing their communication. Deafened by scarlet fever at the age of eight, Veditz was one of the first to make motion-picture recordings of American Sign Language. Taking care to sign precisely and in large gestures for the cameras, Veditz chose fiery biblical passages to give his speech emotional impact. In some of his films, Veditz used finger spelling so his gestures could be translated directly into English in venues where interpreters were present. On behalf of the NAD, Veditz made this film specifically to record sign language for posterity at a time when oralists (those who promoted lip reading and speech in lieu of sign language) were gaining momentum in the education of the hearing-impaired. The film conveys one of the ways that deaf Americans debated the issues of their language and public understanding during the era of World War I."

Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) Rocketing both John Travolta and The Bee-Gees to fame, this combo of street realism and disco glitz, I consider to be a terrible film.  It was released in two versions, one rated R in which the hero participates in a brutal rape, and a PG version which toned down the language and excised the scene...for the Travolta fans, I guess.  Still, as a document of the time when the nation lost all manner of taste and went disco-crazy with polyester leisure suits and three-inch platform shoes...with The Bee-Gees as its pounding soundtrack (shudder), well, it'll be handy when we tell our grand-kids about "the dark times" to have some proof, or they'll never believe it.  (I blame the influx of cocaine into the U.S. in the 70's, but it might have been an attempt to corporatize the grassroots music culture of the 60's—I keep waiting for a Nixon memo about it). Coincidentally, fellow inductee Airplane! has a grand time making fun of the dance sequences of this film, speeding up "Staying Alive" to chipmunk speed.

Study of a River (Peter Hutton, 1996) From the press release: "Experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton is best known for his thoughtful and beautifully photographed ruminations on the co-existence of urban areas and natural waterways. His most renowned films focused on the Hudson River. "Study of a River" is a meditative examination of the winter cycle of the Hudson River over a two-year period, showing its environment, ships plying its waterways, ice floes, and the interaction of nature and civilization. Some critics have described Hutton’s work as reminiscent of the 19th century artist Thomas Cole and other painters of the Hudson River School."

Tarantella (Mary Ellen Bute, 1940) From the press release: "Tarantella" is a five-minute color, avant-garde short film created by Mary Ellen Bute, a pioneer of visual music and electronic art in experimental cinema. With piano accompaniment by Edwin Gershefsky, "Tarantella" features rich reds and blues that Bute uses to signify a lighter mood, while her syncopated spirals, shards, lines and squiggles dance exuberantly to Gershefsky’s modern beat. Bute produced more than a dozen short films between the 1930s and the 1950s and once described herself as a "designer of kinetic abstractions" who sought to "bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding with the … rhythmic cadences of music." Bute’s work influenced many other filmmakers working with abstract animation during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and with experimental electronic imagery in the ‘50s."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) Kazan's first film belies the type of career he would eventually have making movies.  This one, based on a portion of Betty Smith's coming-of-age novel, is sweetly soapish, and though it offers all sorts of drama: Mom washes floors to make a living, Dad's a drunk who can't find work, the floozy aunt comes to stay, all causing connniptions at the Legion of Decency in the post-war '40's, but nothing compared to what Kazan would delve into a few short years later, with films long on hysterics and social issues.  It's a beloved film, though, garnering many Academy awards, and establishing Kazan as formidable director of the screen as well as stage.

A Trip Down Market Street (1906) A 100 year mystery story in 13 minutes.  It's the simplest of set-ups: mount a camera on the front of a cable-car and just use the whole thing as an elaborate "dolly-shot" and start cranking.  Sounds dull to us, but to the folks who might have seen it "back in the day" it was very exciting—a slice of everyday life...before a national tragedy.  It was shot just days before the devastating San Francisco earthquake (for us, it would be like watching the movies that contain glimpses of the World Trade Center).  The film is presented below, and below that, Morley Safer's excellent piece about the film that aired on "60 Minutes."

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