Thursday, December 31, 2015

National Film Registry 2015

Hope for the Best/Expect the Worst

In Mel Brooks' 1970 film of The Twelve Chairs, there is a lovely little song (written by Brooks and his dependable composer John Morris) called "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst"* in which the third stanza has the words "You could be Tolstoy/or Fannie Hurst." In the chocolate box of film's picked this year by the National Film Registry (which confers on each "special attention" and the promise of oversight by the National Film Preservation Board) there are two works, right in the alphabetical middle,  based on the novels of Fannie Hurst—the progressive writer who pointed out in her soapy works the subjugated position of women, and the vagaries that Society can put them through if they don't toe the line of "what is expected." She is derided (when remembered at all) for her tears-soaked prose and plots, but there's a little bit of brilliance making a statement about the Nature of things in crude entertainment—you know, like pointing out the value of making moral decisions in a space opera. Or, how loyalty and bonding can bring strength in a fight against natural—or supernatural—disaster. Or, how simple homilies and platitudes may balm but never solve complex problems. Or the shallowness of seeking revenge. Or...yeah, I can't find a lesson in Top Gun other than "don't eject into your canopy." "Go shirtless when playing beach volleyball?" Nah.

The statements by the Film Registry are presented first, followed by my comments (where applicable) in the usual font.

Being There (1979) Chance, a simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers) whose only contact with the outside world is through television, becomes the toast of the town following a series of misunderstandings. Forced outside his protected environment by the death of his wealthy boss, Chance subsumes his late employer’s persona, including the man’s cultured walk, talk and even his expensive clothes, and is mistaken as "Chauncey Gardner," whose simple adages are interpreted as profound insights. He becomes the confidant of a dying billionaire industrialist (Melvyn Douglas, in an Academy Award-winning performance) who happens to be a close adviser to the U.S. president (Jack Warden). Chance’s gardening advice is interpreted as metaphors for political policy and life in general. Jerzy Kosinski, assisted by award-winning screenwriter Robert C. Jones, adapted his 1971 novel for the screenplay which Hal Ashby directed with an understatement to match the subtlety and precision of Sellers’ Academy Award-nominated performance. Shirley MacLaine also stars as Douglas’s wife, then widow, who sees Chauncey as a romantic prospect. Film critic Robert Ebert said he admired the film for "having the guts to take this totally weird conceit and push it to its ultimate comic conclusion." That conclusion is a philosophically complex film that has remained fresh and relevant. 

What's that line from Star Wars:"Who's the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?" Being There is the perfect modern horror story of mis-perceptions. Chance knows nothing except for gardening and what he's seen on television. And he couches everything he says in gardening techniques that somehow speak to the listener as simple truths. Nothing could be further from the truth—Chance is a man in a child's mind, and it is the listener's vaulting interpretations of what he says that gives them any weight. Or any perceived wisdom. Ultimately people see in Chance what they want to see. And many see him as a potential political candidate. That implication is where the horror story comes in. Imagine if a candidate only spun things people wanted to hear but had no idea how to accomplish them. (Hmmmm) Being There was the last great performance of Peter Sellers.

Black and Tan (1929) In one of the first short musical films to showcase African-American jazz musicians, Duke Ellington portrays a struggling musician whose dancer wife (Fredi Washington in her film debut) secures him a gig for his orchestra at the famous Cotton Club where she’s been hired to perform, at a risk to her health. Directed by Dudley Murphy, who earned his reputation with "Ballet mécanique," which is considered a masterpiece of early experimental filmmaking, the film reflects the cultural, social and artistic explosion of the 1920s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington and Washington personify that movement, and Murphy—who also directed registry titles "St. Louis Blues" (1929), another musical short, and the feature "The Emperor Jones" (1933) starring Paul Robeson—cements it in celluloid to inspire future generations. Washington, who appeared with Robeson in "Emperor Jones," is best known as "Peola" in the 1934 version of "Imitation of Life." 

Dracula (Spanish language version) (1931) Before the advent of sound, the only significant difference between films seen by domestic audiences and foreign ones was the language of the subtitles, which could be adapted for each market. When talkies arrived, American studios began shooting foreign-language versions for international and non-English-speaking domestic markets, generally at the same time they filmed the English versions. In one of the most famous examples of this practice, a second crew—including a different director and stars—shot at night on the same sets used during the day for the English version of the Bram Stoker classic starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. In recent years, the Spanish version of the film, which is 20 minutes longer, has been lauded as superior in many ways to the English one, some theorizing that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of watching the English dailies and improving on camera angles and making more effective use of lighting. Directed by George Melford (best known for the Valentino sensation "The Sheik"), the Spanish version starred Carlos Villarías (billed as Carlos Villar) as Conde Drácula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Barry Norton as Juan Harker and Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield.

Having seen both films, I'd have to go with the Browning version, as it's "tighter" and the performances are more subtle (first time I've thought of Lugosi's performance as "subtle"), but it's true and while the atmospherics are the same, there is something much creepier about the Lugosi Dracula and how Browning bathed the film in a visual sickness that isn't there in the more clear-eyed Spanish version.  It's always interesting to see the "other-language" version of the early talkies, as Hollywood struggled to find a way to satisfy the rest of the world, pre-dubbing and post-title cards, with the technological limitations of the medium at the time. Sometimes the differences are telling.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) Based on noted illustrator Winsor McCay’s popular comic strip that ran in the New York Evening Telegram from 1904 to 1914, this short fantasy comedy by film pioneer Edwin S. Porter employed groundbreaking trick photography, including some of the earliest uses of double exposure in American cinema. Porter used camera sleight-of-hand to create the hallucinatory dreams of a top-hatted swell (Jack Brawn) who, after gorging himself on Welsh rarebit, is beset by dancing, spinning furniture and mischievous imps. To create the dream effects, he used a spinning camera and moveable set pieces, along with multiple exposures. Stop-motion and matte paintings added to the film’s whimsical appeal. Porter, who joined Thomas Edison’s company in 1899 and advanced the special effects pioneered by Georges Méliès, completed the seven-minute film in nine days at a cost of $350, which is about $10,000 today. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film. 

An early attempt to match the surrealism of Winsor McCay's comic work in the medium of film, borrowing heavily from the French film-maker's work. Given the way films were, at this point, being used to merely photograph reality in motion. This short, must have been truly disorienting for the viewers.

Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) Created over the course of a decade by Thom Andersen, a onetime UCLA film student, this documentary delves into the work of the man whose pioneering studies and concept of persistence of vision led to the development of motion pictures. The film looks at Eadweard Muybridge’s personal and professional struggles, and examines the philosophical implications of his sequential photographs, or zoopraxographs, as he called his studies of animal locomotion. Andersen re-animates the images Muybridge originally presented on a zoopraxoscope, a predecessor of the projector. The documentary features cinematography by Morgan Fisher, a script by Fay Andersen, music by Mike Cohen, biographical research by Robert Bartlett Haas and narration by Dean Stockwell. When the PBS affiliate set to broadcast the film declined the completed piece, Andersen ultimately sold his work to New Yorker Films, which recognized Andersen’s unique voice as a cultural commentator and helped launch his career. In the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum described the production as "One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject." The UCLA Film & Television Archive, in consultation with Thom Andersen, did the preservation work on the film. 

Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894) One of the earliest film recordings and the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (Jan. 7, 1894) is commonly known as "Fred Ott’s Sneeze" or simply "The Sneeze." W.K.L. Dickson, who led Thomas Edison’s team of inventors, took the images of fellow engineer Ott enacting a snuff-induced sneeze. In March 1894, Harper’s Weekly magazine, which requested the pictures, published a sequence of still images taken from the film. "The Sneeze" became synonymous with the invention of movies although it was not seen as a moving picture until 1953 when 45 frames were re-animated on 16 mm film. The full 81 frames published in Harper’s Weekly were never seen as a movie until 2013 when the Library of Congress made a 35 mm film version. In this new complete version, Fred Ott sneezes twice. 

Way too short.  (Oh, and Bless you)

A Fool There Was (1915) The phenomenal success of "A Fool There Was"—based on a Rudyard Kipling poem and a subsequent play—set off a publicity campaign unparalleled at the time centering on its star, an unknown actress bearing the exotic name of Theda Bara. Bara was promoted as "the woman with the most beautifully wicked face in the world" and became filmdom’s quintessential "vamp," enticing male pillars of society to relinquish family, career, respectable society, and even life itself, while yearning to remain under her entrancing spell. With such ego-shattering commands as "Kiss me, my fool," Bara’s destructive powers appealed to women as well as men. "Women are my greatest fans," Bara stated, "because they see in my vampire the impersonal vengeance of all their unavenged wrongs." Bara retired from the screen four years later after starring in some 40 films, establishing a new genre, and helping Fox studios become an industry leader. Only one other film from her heyday is known to exist as well as two she made during an attempted comeback in the mid-1920s. The film has been preserved by Museum of Modern Art Department of Film. 

Theda Bara is one of those Hollywood stars lost to modern audiences due to the volatility of the medium in which she appeared. Only two films of hers remains—the rest have either exploded or corroded to the point of unrecoverability—and there are scraps here and there of others. But, there's a wealth of photographic evidence of her career. At a time when women in cinema were wilting flowers or madonnas in the religious sense, Bara was a sensation—her characters (including Cleopatra and Salome) were powerful, sensual, well aware of it, and not afraid to use that to their advantage. Think of strong women in the cinema, or pop culture for that matter, and they are a direct lineage to Theda Bara. If you are to accentuate the presence of women in cinema, Theda Bara, the first real sex symbol of celluloid, should be prominently on the list.  

Marilyn Monroe posing as Theda Bara in 1958 for Richard Avedon

Ghostbusters (1984) One of the most popular, quotable films from the past three decades and a touchstone of cultural reference, "Ghostbusters" can also easily be seen as a loving homage to those earlier wacky horror comedies from Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and others. Three lapsed science academics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) set up shop to handle the under-appreciated (and never-ending) task of ferreting out ghosts, and will not rest until the paranormal becomes New York normal once more. These days, the trio would find a home in reality TV, but, given the era, they must prove their bona fides through clever publicity and satisfied customer word-of-mouth. Leading this Gotham firm in the fight against ever-present slime, is sleazy, yet charming, Bill Murray who brings a breezy air of can-do insouciance to the job of dealing with a rogues gallery of malevolence, including puffed-up existential threats such as the Marshmallow Man. Murray takes regular time outs from spirit-chasing to romance brainy cellist Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), who becomes a channeler of the demon Zuul. The infectious insanity of "Ghostbusters" makes it a favorite film of the ‘80s. 

Hilariously quotable—especially from Murray ("I feel sooo funky" "We came! We saw! We kicked its ass!"). Technically amazing.  Always entertaining. Never gets old. Ghostbusters is one of those film-confections where so many elements could have gone wrong (like the second one, for instance), that it is, frankly, a miracle that it came out so right.

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) Writer-director Preston Sturges probably was the only filmmaker in Hollywood in the 1940s who could satirize the worship of war heroes and mothers during wartime. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times credited the success of this film to its "sharpness of verbal wit and the vigor of visual expression" and the ability of Sturges to temper "irony with pity." Nominated for an Academy Award for the best original screenplay category, "Hail the Conquering Hero" follows the foibles of a would-be war hero dismissed from active duty because of chronic hay fever and enlisted by a group of Marines to return home as the war hero that he has pretended to be in letters to his mother. The lightning-paced plot that develops upon his return offers Sturges—a budding "Hollywood Voltaire" in Crowther’s eyes—myriad opportunities to spoof corruption in small town politics as well as the propensity to idolize the military. The great French critic André Bazin called this film "a work that restores to American film a sense of social satire that I find equaled only ... in Chaplin’s films." 

This is a brilliant Preston Sturges movie and one might almost call it subversive for scraping against the populist grain of "lovin' our soldier boys" (especially during World War II). In this case, Eddie Bracken's bitter dispeptic ex-Marine is turned into a "Cinderella" of a war-hero by four Marines who think it's a crime that he can't go back to his hometown because of his shame at being medically discharged for hay fever. But with some puffery from the four jar-heads, he is brought home to thunderous applause and the attention of the local political machine...until he is considered a potential candidate for office. Well-done in the best Sturges manner—sweet with a hint of acid.

Humoresque (1920) Based on a story by Fannie Hurst, "Humoresque" presented to mainstream American audiences a sympathetic portrayal of immigrant Jewish life through its vivid details of street life and rituals, and a riveting performance by Yiddish Theatre actress Vera Gordon, "seemingly a character from life, living," rather than acting, as a New York Times reviewer observed. Although it was not the first film to dramatize the acculturation experiences of recent Jewish refugees from Russian massacres, "Humoresque" became a great screen success, inspiring Hollywood to produce many other films set in the Lower East Side’s tenements during the ensuing decade. In this, his first hit film, director Frank Borzage sympathetically treated faith and love—in this case "mother love"—with the utmost solemnity, in a manner that admirer Martin Scorsese has commented "makes him so unfashionable now." Having solidly established its setting and characters through its many poignant and atmospheric touches, the film "touches the deep places of the heart," as one Variety reviewer wrote, and makes its audience believe that prayers are answered and that love can restore health.

Imitation of Life (1959) Film melodrama comes in many variations, but director Douglas Sirk’s style of domestic melodrama is marked by stylized interiors and use of mirrors, where the role of photography is crucial, with exquisite use of primary colors and camera angles to convey emotion and mood. During the 1950s, the Universal team of Sirk, producers Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner, released a series of glossy, often deliriously flamboyant "women’s picture" melodramas, including "All That Heaven Allows," "Magnificent Obsession," "Written on the Wind" and "Imitation of Life." The often-lurid plots in these films may have seemed laughable and unrealistic, but the emotional impact on audiences packed a wallop that led to major box-office bonanzas for Universal. Sirk’s last American film, "Imitation of Life," is based on the Fannie Hurst novel about two mothers (one white and one African-American) and their daughters (one white and one who wishes to pass for white). Sirk’s 1959 version (with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore as the mothers) offers a telling contrast to the more restrained melodramatic style used by John Stahl in the 1934 version (previously selected for the registry), starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. One can also spot in Sirk’s film fascinating glimpses at the evolving social standards and mores the country had undergone in the 25 years that elapsed between the two films, particularly in the characters of Moore and her daughter Susan Kohner. However, New York Times reviewers did not note much difference in the two versions. The paper’s 1934 reviewer called the film "the most shameless tearjerker of the fall" while Bosley Crowther’s 1959 review proved little different: "It is the most shameless tearjerker in a couple of years." Sirk’s version ends with Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World" during the penultimate funeral scene and daughter Susan Kohner begging forgiveness while hugging her dead mother’s casket.

One wonders which had the more impact on audiences in expanding minds and easing prejudices, this film or the more "up-front" Pinky (directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1949). I'd hazard a guess it was this film, which wove the story of a black woman trying to "pass" for white into the narrative of a glamorous white woman, and supplanting that story in importance. Whichever, Sirk has garnered acclaim for his compositions and telling a story through clever mise en scene. He raised "soap" to art.

The Inner World of Aphasia (1968) This empathic and often poetic medical-training film features a powerful performance by co-director Naomi Feil as a nurse who learns to cope with aphasia, the inability to speak as a result of a brain injury. Feil, a social worker whose career has focused on communicating with language-impaired patients, produced this film and dozens more with her husband Edward Feil. In the film, the patient’s inner thoughts are heard through voice-over as she struggles in frustration to overcome her disability and to connect with her caregivers. The Council on International Non-theatrical Events (CINE) awarded "Inner World" its top honor, the Golden Eagle. More than 47 years later, the film is still being screened by media artists and independent filmmakers who appreciate its innovative artistic qualities. 

John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946) The African-American folk hero John Henry was probably based on an actual person who worked on the railroads around the 1870s. The legend began to appear in print in the early 20th century, but emerged early on as a popular folk song. Akin to other such rugged folk heroes as Paul Bunyan, John Henry is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man," hammering a steel drill into rock and earth to build tunnels and lay track. According to legend, his prowess was measured in a competition against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the race against "Inky-Poo," only to collapse and die, hammer in hand. Stop-motion animation pioneer George Pal created this short film after the NAACP and Ebony magazine criticized his offensively stereotyped Jasper series of cartoons. The magazine later praised "John Henry" as the first Hollywood film to feature African-American folklore in a positive light and to treat its characters with "dignity, imagination, poetry, and love." Highly popular during its time, the film was nominated for an Academy Award. It has been preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

L.A. Confidential (1997) This well-crafted and suspenseful story, directed by Curtis Hanson, teams a trio of incompatible cops who ultimately bring down a corrupt police department and political machine. Hanson and Brian Helgeland adapted the James Ellroy novel and together they successfully interpret film noir’s dark and seamy allure for new audiences. Detective Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) an in-it-for-himself type, Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe), who believes in bending the law to enforce it, and Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), a straight arrow whose self-righteousness alienates him from his colleagues, all possess some deep-rooted sense of honor that draws them together to untangle the film’s web of corruption that climaxes in its virtuoso choreographed shootout. The cast is rounded out by Danny DeVito as the film's occasional narrator and reporter for "Hush-Hush" magazine, Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake look-alike call girl, and James Cromwell as the duplicitous chief of police. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti infuses this homage with a Technicolor richness seldom seen in noirs of the 40s and 50s.

Even "L.A.Confidential's" author Ellroy didn't think you could turn it into a movie. Curtis Hanson boiled the complicated plot down to its essentials and created a savage and brutal condemnation of "good-old-boy" networks whether it be Hollywood Studios, organized crime or the LAPD. It introduced Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce into the minds of American audiences and gave very juicy parts to Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger, who has never been better. There are parts of L.A. Confidential that, to this day, haunt me with their power.

The Mark of Zorro (1920) Douglas Fairbanks was gifted not only with a winning smile and athletic prowess, but also with keen insight. Aware that post-World War I audiences had grown weary of the romantic comedies that had made him a star, Fairbanks adapted his persona to create a daring hero and established himself as an icon of American culture. Under the name Elton Thomas, Fairbanks penned the screenplay for his first swashbuckler, portraying Don Diego Vega who has recently returned to California from Spain. Upon finding a despotic governor (George Periolat) persecuting the local inhabitants, he first poses as a preening fop to divert suspicion, then dons a cape and mask to defend the downtrodden armed with a razor-sharp sword and leaving behind his signature "Z" to taunt the evil Captain Ramon (Robert McKim) and his henchmen. The film, directed by Fred Niblo, also stars Marguerite De La Motte and Noah Beery. The Museum of Modern Art Department of Film has preserved the film.

The Old Mill (1937) This cartoon, produced by the Walt Disney Company as one of its Silly Symphony entries, depicts a community of animals—mice, doves, bats, bluebirds and an expressive owl—battling a severe thunderstorm that nearly destroys their home in an abandoned windmill. Directed by Wilfred Jackson, the film acted as a testing ground for audience interest in longer form animation as well as for advanced technologies, including the first use of the multiplane camera, which added three-dimensional depth. It also featured more complex lighting and realistic depictions of animal behavior that would be perfected in "Snow White," "Fantasia" and "Bambi." The dazzling imagery was complemented by Leigh Harline’s compelling orchestral scoring inspired by a Strauss operetta. In "The 50 Greatest Cartoons Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals," edited by historian Jerry Beck, Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston recalled, "Our eyes popped when we saw all of The Old Mill’s magnificent innovations—things we had not even dreamed of and did not understand." The film won an Academy Award for best animated short in 1937, and the studio won an Oscar for its revolutionary camera. 

Our Daily Bread (1934) During the heart of the Great Depression, as the nation’s capital experimented with New Deal programs to solve the nation’s ills, most Hollywood productions remained escapist. A radical exception to the rule, King Vidor’s "Our Daily Bread," faced the problem of unemployment head-on by dramatizing an experiment in cooperative farming that proposed pooling resources collectively as an alternative to individualistic competition for jobs. After all the studios passed on his idea, Vidor financed the film himself with borrowed funds. Criticized for its purportedly socialist ideas and also for its seemingly fascistic traits, "Our Daily Bread" remains a document that embodied political contradictions that marked widely divergent contemporary assessments of the New Deal itself. In its widely acclaimed climactic ditch-digging sequence, the film presents images celebrated muscular working-class manhood that also marked public art of the period, which addressed anxieties about the masculinity during times of economic crisis. 

Portrait of Jason (1967) In one of the first LGBT films widely accepted by general audiences, Shirley Clarke explored the blurred lines between fact and fiction, allowing her subject, Jason Holliday (né Aaron Payne), a gay hustler and nightclub entertainer, to talk about his life with candor, pathos and humor in one 12-hour shoot. Clarke originally envisioned Jason as the only character, but she subsequently revealed: "When I saw the rushes I knew the real story of what happened that night in my living room had to include all of us [the off-screen voices. her crew and herself], and so our question-reaction probes, our irritations and angers, as well as our laughter remain part of the film." Bosley Crowther of "The New York Times" described it as a "curious and fascinating example of cinéma vérité, all the ramifications of which cannot be immediately known." Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman called it "the most extraordinary film I've seen in my life." Thought to have been lost, a 16 mm print of the film was discovered at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in 2013 and has since been restored by the Academy Film Archive, Milestone Films and Modern Videofilm. 

Seconds (1966) Two staples of 1960s cinema—evil organizations and the wasteland of suburbia—combine to drive this sinister tale about the perils of seeking a second chance, a life do-over. Bored with his banal marriage and unexciting daily grind, banker John Randolph meets the representative for a mysterious company offering the "too-good-to-be-true" opportunity to erase his current Scarsdale existence for a makeover in the guise of Malibu painter Rock Hudson. Headed by grandfatherly scion Will Geer and master-of-the-hard-sell executive Jeff Corey, "The Company" takes care of everything surrounding Randolph (in his new Hudsonesque persona) with business reps and human "seconds," in order to smooth his transition to a new life and keep him from spilling the lucrative-but-dark corporate secret. His new identify seems idyllic, but Randolph chafes with unease and demands a return to his now fondly remembered past average life. With no intention of imperiling its advertising message and humming assembly-line template for reborn humans, the company has a "third chance" plan in mind for Randolph: he learns "you can’t go home again," in the wry words of a New York Times reviewer quoting Thomas Wolfe. Director John Frankenheimer crafts a memorably creepy sense of foreboding in "Seconds," aided immensely by the black-and-white cinematography, disorienting camera angles and lenses of cameraman James Wong Howe, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie score. Critic David Sterritt lauds "Seconds" as "the third and crowning chapter of what’s now known as Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy" following "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Seven Days in May." 

John Frankenheimer went "over-the-top" with Seconds making a film that didn't look or feel anything like the ordinary relatable film experience. Coming from the television direction world, he explored what made film far less restricting and freeing in subject matter, pushing the boundaries on this one from discomfort to disorientation. Seconds is like a sci-fi/horror story (they're still remaking this movie ala this year's Self/less) but far beyond the "Twilight Zone" roots in presentation. He cast Rock Hudson—familiar, dependable Universal contract player—in the lead and Hudson gives the performance of his career. It tests the patience, but pushes the boundaries of cinema almost to the breaking point.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) From a modest start as a critical success, but something of a commercial bust upon initial release, "The Shawshank Redemption" now often rates as the top film in Internet Movie Database polling. Like many Stephen King novels and stories, it was adapted to film, but, as some critics have noted, the best movies have arguably resulted from the non-horror part of King’s literary output (such as the novellas "Stand by Me" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption"). Banker Tim Robbins is wrongly convicted of the double murder of his wife and her lover. However, he spends much of his prison sentence beset by guilt over whether he contributed to her infidelity and consumed by the knowledge that he had seriously contemplated murdering her. Eventually, Robbins decides he must "get busy living or get busy dying" and plots a meticulous, long-term plan for escape. Critics have struggled at times to explain the immense public affection for "Shawshank," but perhaps it’s due to the poignant Thomas Newman score and most importantly the moving character portrayals and deep friendship between inmates Robbins and Morgan Freeman, highlighting the abiding resilience of the human spirit. 

When I presented a scene from The Shawshank Redemption this year, I got a lot of comments about it being a "favorite film." One can see why. It's my favorite of all of Stephen King's stories—from that extraordinary four-plex of novella's "Different Seasons," but maybe not my favorite movie adaptation. It is rough for me to watch it, even though I know how it will turn out. Despite the epiphany at the end, it is still a rough sentence to sit through the film. Despite the many glories of the screenplay, the perfect meticulousness of the casting (right down to the essential Morgan Freeman: "Why do they call you 'Red?'" "Maybe it's cuz I'm Irish"). It is an inspiring motion picture—it's just so tough to watch the lead character suffer (Funny that I can sit through L.A. Confidential, though).

Sink or Swim (1990) In this autobiographical tale told in voice-over by a teenage girl (Jessica Lynn), Su Friedrich relates a series of 26 short vignettes that reveal a subtext of a father preoccupied by his career and of a daughter emotionally scarred by his behavior. Black-and-white film clips of ordinary daily activities illustrate Friedrich’s poetically powerful text to create a complex and intense film. Of this work, which garnered numerous festival awards, Friedrich wrote, "The issue for me is to be more direct, or honest, about my experiences, but also to be analytical. ‘Sink or Swim’ is personal, but it’s also very analytical, or rigorously formal." Friedrich’s films and videos have been featured in retrospectives at major museums and festivals, and she has received both Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. Michael Zyrd wrote in Senses of Cinema: "The textures, cinematic and emotional, of Friedrich’s work are both private and highly mediated, embodying an aesthetic style and range of concerns that make her one of the most innovative and accessible artists currently working in the dynamic tradition of the modernist American Avant-Garde." 

The Story of Menstruation (1946) Sponsored by Kimberly-Clark, the makers of Kotex, this title was produced by the Walt Disney Company through its Educational and Industrial Film Division. Distributed free to schools and girls’ clubs with an accompanying pamphlet titled "Very Personally Yours," the film used friendly Disney-style characters and gentle narration to "encourage a healthy, normal attitude" toward menstruation. Although a few such educational filmstrips were available before World War II, this version was seen as more progressive than previous offerings and, according to advertisements in "The Educational Screen," it replaced superstitions with "scientific facts" and dispelled "embarrassment." Some contemporary scholars, however, take issue with the approach. Sean Griffin of Southern Methodist University’s Division of Film and Media Arts and author of "Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out" suggests that Disney’s abstract representation of the body "‘bleaches’ the more ‘unsavory’ parts of the lesson, such as making the menstrual flow white instead of red." According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," approximately 93 million American women, mostly teenagers, viewed this film between 1946 through the late 1960s.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) William Greaves worked at the intersection of many cultural focal points, including as an original co-host and producer of the landmark "Black Journal" public television series. He, however, is perhaps best known for his prolific work as a documentary film director and producer. He was associated with more than 200 productions during his career. His best-known film, "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One," faced a strange, lengthy road to recognition. As recounted by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, Greaves shot the film in 1968 and completed production in 1971 in hopes of a debut at the Cannes Film Festival, but was turned down. The film then spent two decades unseen before being rediscovered by a Brooklyn Museum curator who premiered it at a retrospective of Greaves’ voluminous work in cinema. Its acclaim grew and caught the attention of a later champion, actor/director Steve Buscemi. The film is a unique 1960s’ time capsule, a telling look at the myriad tensions involved in film creation—a film on the making of a film—with three camera crews recording different parts of the process and personalities involved (director, actors, crew, bystanders). Though Greaves is undoubtedly the film’s visionary auteur—notable for an African-American filmmaker in the 1960s—it is truly a film made collectively by Greaves and his multi-racial crew, whose staging of an on-set rebellion becomes the film’s drama and its platform for sociopolitical critique and revolutionary philosophy. Filmed entirely on location in New York City’s Central Park, with a score by Miles Davis, Greaves’ film serves as a vivid tabloid of this heady historical era and a memorable document of this creatively prosperous period of American independent filmmaking. The New York Times’ critic A.O. Scott lauded the film’s creativity and imagination: "It is one of the great New York films, one of the great experimental films, one of the great ’60s films, one of the great black films—just one of the great films, period, largely because it remains so fresh, so radical and so hard to assimilate more than 45 years after it was made."

Top Gun (1986) Though a wag might be tempted to call this Tony Scott film "The Testosterone Chronicles," the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production actually comprises a deft portrait of mid-1980s America, when politicians promised "Morning in America Again," and singers crooned "God Bless the U.S.A." The U.S. Navy, for one, did not complain: applications to naval aviation schools soared in part as a result of this relentless, pulsating film famed for its vertiginous fighter-plane sequences. Scott, always most at home when crafting slick, visually arresting action-set pieces with distinctive flair, delivers on all fronts. Among others, director Christopher Nolan has highlighted "Top Gun" for the clear influence of the film’s celebrated visual style on future filmmakers. Tom Cruise here graduated to the top echelon of in-demand actors, aided by his good looks, cocky attitude, omnipresent smile, and brazen attempts to woo and secure steamy personal time with (at first amused and later swooning) civilian instructor Kelly McGillis. 

MTV meets your local recruitment center. The Armed Forces did set up tables in the lobbies of theaters where Top Gun played. Why wouldn't they? Top Gun was as much a fantasy as Star Wars was—no training was shown, rarely any discipline, and combat played like a video game. Plus, it was the era when Tom Cruise was trying too hard (today, he's doing some of his best work). It's a great cast, with Kelly McGillis, Tom Skerritt, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer, and little Meg Ryan, and some of the shots of carriers and jets is truly stunning—Tony Scott was good at getting unusual images in the B-roll. I've only sat through it once. Never again.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Actor Jimmy Stewart collaborated with director Anthony Mann on eight films during the 1950s. Most renowned was an influential series of five taut, psychological Westerns from 1950-55 revolving around themes of hidden secrets, vengeance, shifting personal morals and concepts of heroism. The movie "Winchester ’73" launched their partnership. Film historian Scott Simmon calls "Winchester ‘73" "the La Ronde of Death, as opposed to the love that keeps the Schnitzler play in motion," and "the film where a gun is more of an object of worship than in any other American film." Ironically, in light of current debates about gun-carry rights, it’s fascinating that even in this most gun-obsessed of movies, nobody is allowed to carry a gun in town. But for a man caught out in the desert without ammo, he has not "felt so naked since the last time I took a bath." Stewart’s obsessive quests are to avenge the death of his father and pursue a Winchester rifle as it moves from one owner to the next, changing everyone into whose hands the gun briefly passes, and culminating in a justly-famous shootout amidst steep, rocky terrain.

The first of five westerns Stewart made with Anthony Mann in the 1950's that deepened and darkened the Stewart persona from the "aw, shucks" townie to a complex, psychologically challenged characterwho could be pushed to undisciplined anarchy, "Winchester '73" has more going on in it than most of the other Stewart-Mann films, which had more straight-forward story-telling through lines. This one is practically episodic, as McAdam and fellow-traveler "High-Spade" (the terrific Millard Mitchellstart in Dodge City with run-ins with Wyatt Earp (Will Geer, before the blacklist got him), Bat Masterson and a stranger-in-town named Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) before winning the perfect Winchester in a shooting match.

He doesn't have it for long as the stranger beats McAdam up and steals it from him. From there, it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous Indian trader (John McIntire), a Sioux warrior (Rock Hudson--you read that right), briefly in the hands of horse-soldiers Jay C. Flippen and Anthony—soon to be Tony—Curtis), then to an untrustworthy homesteader (Charles Drake) and finally, the possession of desperado Dan Duryea. Quite the cast (where's Harry Morgan?), and add in Shelley Winters as the saloon-girl trying to make good, and even if you didn't have Mann's steady hand with action, you'd have a movie full of good character parts.

But in the same year as Stewart and Delmer Daves dared make a western that showed the First Peoples' side of things ("Broken Arrow"), Mann and Stewart (and Stewart and other directors) began a decade-long exploration of the cracks in Western civilization's veneer that showed the fragility of the individual—how, in a so-called "decent" society, there's only an angel's breath of morality distinguishing a maverick and a psychopath. Everyone can be pushed over the edge. And the only advantage is how many rounds you can fire off before the other guy feels the first one. The repeating fire-arm was the great leveler when it came to fighting. But it was also what prevented letting cooler heads prevail. Cooler heads don't have a chance against hot lead fired by a cold heart. It's how the West was taken...and still is.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The Family Curse
The Emperor's New Clothes

No, really, it's quite good. Why wouldn't it be? It's Star Wars with a new cast...with the added nostalgia of the old cast.  J.J. Abrams did this before with the re-boot of Star Trek,* and he's pulled off the same Jedi mind-trick here (and remember that those work on the weak-minded or the slavishly fannish), but the end-result is very entertaining and frequently moving (as I am also slavishly fannish—I cut the original trilogy a lot of slack and acknowledge it for taking a lot of story-telling risks, even if they weren't communicated in the best manner).

But, it is basically the same story as the first movie or, as it's known now, Episiode IV. We start on a desert planet but it's not Tatooine. We have more "vital information" loaded upon another droid. We have a multi-tiered battle over a large battle station but it's not The Death Star. We have The Force (in various shades). We have a hero who abandons their dull hard-scrabble life for a hero's path. We have a mystical guide. And a not so mystical mentor (in fact, it's the same guy). We have a bad guy with bad history. And we have family drama and sacrifice. And droids and creatures. A restaurant scene, not a bar scene. But, it's Star Wars all over again. One expects a bit more than a simple re-hash. There are, however, some aspects where it improves things.

It's a politically correct Star Wars. A riskier Star Wars. A Star Wars that shows some progress. It's not a Star Wars from a white kid from the 60's with good intentions. This Star Wars is a bit more inclusive. And I like that.  It's natural for a galaxy of such bio-diversity (which has been one of the series' charms from the beginning) to not quite be so "white-boy"-centric—the last vestiges of its creator's 1950's origins are packed away as if from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." There's room for girls who don't necessarily want to be princesses. There's room for a storm-trooper who's not so weak-minded that he rebels from the evil work he's become a part of.** But it's still a sci-fi-fantasy/fairy-tale polyglot of good intentions and evil desires; Grimm by way of Campbell. And Tolkien. And Herbert. And westerns. And Kurosawa

And Lucas.

Abrams has kept the blast doors so solidly sealed on the details that to reveal anything beyond what has been seen in trailers WOULD spoil things—because it's so familiar. Not much has changed in the 30 years since The Return of the Jedi. It is a dark time for the galaxy...again. Space is just not big enough for there to be harmony. There is still a schism in the scheme of things. The Empire hasn't completely died out with the death of Emperor Palpatine. A new order called The New Order led by another Force Lord named Snoke (played by Andy Serkis with a large holographic presence) is ostensibly in charge, but the commanders (like General Hux played by Domhnall Gleeson) are in charge of operations creating terror through the galaxy with another Doomsday Weapon (the name of which is culled from an old Star Wars draft).

A rebel pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on a secret mission to try and find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course), the last Jedi Knight who has gone missing, which is something of interest to both warring factions; the Order, to do something bad with him (it's never explained exactly what) and the Rebels, because he is the brother of their General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, also, of course). Something's up and where Luke fits into it all is a mystery. Abrams keeps things very vague. There are a lot of missing pieces throughout the movie, but as this is planned to be a trilogy, I'm sure we'll find out who's related to whom in the next one, and the third one will have another Doomsday Machine (as that's how the pattern seems to be again). This is merely the set-up for the story. The story will come a bit later.
It is amazing to see an actor of Oscar Isaac's gifts committing so fully to the Star Wars world.
Dameron gets what he's looking for, but, due to an Order attack, he secretes the information vital to the Rebellion in his R-2, sorry, it's the BB-8, a rolling droid that gathers no moss, but does gather a lot of interest from the bad guys. The wandering droid falls into the possession of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a nomadic scavenger of useful parts from hulks of Imperial flotsam of past wars littering the landscape of the desert planet of Jakku. Not Jakée. Jakku.

Rather than sell the little guy, she keeps him, and that puts her right in the cross-hairs when the Imperials come looking for it. She is joined in the escape by another character with interests in running away from the Order, Finn (or FN-2187 played by John Boyega), a former storm-trooper who, in a moment of conscience, has his own personal rebellion and has helped Dameron escape to the planet. Together, Rey and Finn must find out the mystery hidden in BB-8, while keeping under the Imperial radar.

Sound familiar?  It should. But, even with the template cemented firmly in place, to go beyond what is said already will just spoil the joys that TFA does offer. And they are considerable. Familiar, but considerable. Abrams and writer Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark and writer-director of a lot of fine non-genre pictures) know what worked with the other films, and what didn't work and they cherry-pick the ones that have that comfort-food level. Things are contrasted between the high-tech functioning First Order and the dusty, held together by Hutt-spit and restraining bolts cast-offs  used by the rebellers. Nothing ever fails for the bad guys; things have to be jerry-rigged by the good-guys...or they depend on Faith...or The Force. All of the Vietnam metaphors of the Lucas' vision still remain 30 years after the fact.

And that's just it—it's Lucas' vision. The series became a hit, then a phenomenon and Lucas futzed with it, trying to make it "just so," with digital effects, fewer ambiguities in morals (like Han shooting first) and a tortured consistency that was unnecessary when his "Star Wars" was just a scruffy independent film that stuck out like a bantha in the desert of glossy but deficient Hollywood product (those of us from "the old times" remember that the only reason theaters were "forced" to take "Star Wars" in 1977 was so they could get a lock on the Holiday release of The Other Side of Midnight—which eventually went begging for theater screens because Star Wars was still playing on them...six months later).

Different planet/same vision.
What Abrams brings to the party is the same thing he brought to the re-booted Star Trek: energy. Cameras are not so locked down. Now they swoop and glide and dance around everything, but at least with an identifiable dramatic editing logic that keeps events and relationships tied together, making them discernible even in the most vertiginous circumstances. A little of that goes a long way, but the movement allows the movie to breathe a little and seem less static than the Lucas versions.

And here's where I come in: unlike initial reviews, I don't see this as the Second Coming of Star Wars. There are flaws galore for those who want to see them. The script is not much—a watered down wine in the old bottle, albeit played with energy by both newbies and veterans. Casting is an Abrams strength—he pulled off a miracle with the new Star Trek cast—and the new SW performers are a joy to watch and they do more than the scripts warrants in establishing the new characters. Daisy Ridley has the necessary pluck and a good set to the jaw when she's determined, but we really never know who she is, and why she's so good at what she does in the film is left a mystery. A really big one. John Boyega is terrific as the renegade storm-trooper Finn and he makes the most of some of the funnier lines in the film just by his own agitated reactions to the situation he finds himself in. Oscar Isaac is one of our best actors these days, and one of the joys of The Force Awakens is seeing him commit so fully to the theatricality the Star Wars Universe demands of its actors. It ain't method acting—it's "story-book" acting where you have to walk the tight-rope of being just a little over-the-top, but not being camp.
No "Trekkian" lens flares this time. But Abrams is awfully fond of rooster-tails here.
That's the good guys. The bad guys are a bit...un-formed for now. Chief of them is Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis), who is only seen as an elephantine hologram image. Why he's important other than a figurehead is not known. The "Governor Tarkin" of this one is General Hux (Gleason), who seems practical, even though he's still imperially dumb enough to put all his eggs in one Death-star (they're in the future, why does everybody have to LIVE on the Galaxy's most powerful weapon so it's easy to take everybody out by blowing it up—have we learned NOTHING in 30 years?)

Then, there's the Chief Bad Guy, even though not in status. That would be Kylo Ren, the mystical arm of The First Order, who yields that Excaliburian light-saber, and who holds a "deep, dark secret." It's certainly not pent-up rage, as he tends to make a light-sabered mess of any room he has a hissy fit in. And he has them whenever something doesn't quite go his way. He's a "kill-the-messenger" kinda guy. Played by Adam Driver (in a way you wish Hayden Christensen had played Anakin Skywalker), his is the most interesting story in the film, much as Darth Vader's was in the rest of the movies. Funny how it's always the bad guys...

But the big draw for film-goers is the "old guard:" Hamill's Luke Skywalker is barely in the movie (he's not even on the posters), and Carrie Fisher**** has a bit of screen-time, though not much. It's Harrison Ford's movie, as he steps back into the Han Solo role that endeared him to so many fans. He's a bit more genuinely "scruffy-looking" than previously, and he wobbles a lot when he runs, but it's the story of Han Solo that's the most intriguing instance in the movie—not so much for what he's doing now (he's back to smuggling because...well, that's part of the story that should be kept secret)—but for what he's become. The script and role in it must have meant enough to Ford that he plays it fairly straight—he was doing a lot of exaggerated mugging when last we saw him in Jedi—he didn't really want to be there, and had actually asked that Han be killed off in Episode VI. He was politely refused. But, he came back for this one, probably because apart from Rey and Finn, it's his story, with a natural continuation to his character. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the smart-alecky rogue of the first film should become something of a fair-weather father. But, there is one major change. Throughout the trilogy, Han Solo was the Doubting Thomas in regards to "The Force." Here, Abrams gives him one of his strongest close-up's in the film when he admits to being a living witness*** (and it's done at approximately the same location on the Millennium Falcon).

"It's true. All of it. The Force. The Jedi. They're real."

Han, we hardly knew ye. Ultimately where you land on The Force Awakens depends on what you think constitutes a "good" Star Wars film. The movie is no good without your prejudices (the opposite from how you'd approach a new and wholly original film, with no preconceived notions). Just the way fans of the James Bond films will argue who's a better Bond—the rough ones or the male-model ones—or where in the film "the gunbarrel" should go, or what tone the film should adapt (very serious or jokey, Skyfall or SPECTRE?), it all depends on the one you saw first, or the one you associate most with the series. Do you see the Star Wars series as "kids' films," the way Lucas envisioned his "Flash Gordon with dirt" or do you want them without an ounce of cute—A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back

For me, I can see why people like The Force Awakens—and why the initial reviews were so rapturous. It IS entertaining, on the flashy surface level. It zips and zooms the way you thought the old movies did, but now when you look at them, you wonder "why is it so slow?" Memory is its own Jedi mind-trick. But this new one held no surprises for me. I'd seen this movie, but with a different cast, and back then, it was totally new. Now, it's a 40 million dollar business holding, and the investors are going to take the safest route by providing what they think their property is and guessing that's what its target audience wants. The result, unfortunately, will be the same path that Marvel takes, by doing their best work on new assets but coasting on what is already established as crowd-pleasers. The difference is "Star Wars" is a very small Universe, built on recycled materials that are already familiar. There are other stories to tell given the foundation of the fantasy landscape that Lucas established. But, given all the toiling done on The Force Awakens, it seems they will only scrape the surface, eroding what was once fertile ground. The result will be more desert planets, and as one of the characters said of his in the first film, it will be farthest from the brightest spots of its potential.

* Despite overhauling the look, feel, and cast of Star Trek, Abrams still felt the need to include the sentimental favorite from TOS—Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock.

** The storm-troopers are still problematically disposable, falling over like the white ten-pins they resemble.

*** Of course, a lot of the waggish fan-boys had a field day with that line...

**** Fisher—as always—had the best line about doing another Star Wars movie thirty years later: "Oh, it was just the same, only we're a lot meltier." That's right up there with my favorite shot of hers at Lucas' merchandising: "Every time I look in the mirror I owe George a quarter!"