Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The National Film Registry: Class of 2014

If one is looking for themes in this year's collection voted into the Nation Film Registry, it can be summed up in two subjects: CalArts and Carmen Miranda.Two films feature the Brazilian singer/dancer/song stylist, and a few films are the work of CalArts alums (Benning, Lasseter, and Bechtold). There's a smattering of box-office hits (a couple of genuine classics among them), some worthy examples of a by-product of the Registry—preserving films of note for their significance to U.S. history, culture, and art—and an education of the significance of something other than white guys in the development of the art form. Presently, women film-makers are making cracks in the glass projection booth, but they've always been there since the early days of the moving image. And the Registry is making sure that their legend, as well as their works, don't fade away.

Here are the latest additions, acknowledged to be precious commodities of American film.

13 Lakes (James Benning, 2004) It is simply that: 130 minutes of static shots of lakes of the western United States, composed simply, half of water, half of sky.  Each lake is given 10 minutes, the length of a roll of film, as water ebbs and flows, clouds and sun move at a natural pace, accompanied by the sounds of the area without alteration (and only the rare encroachment by man).  The segments are separated by a seconds long cut to black, harshly removing the image we have become used to, making us miss it, before cutting to a new lake, a new vision, something we will warm to, focus on, and be yanked from us in the same way.  Film doesn't get more elemental (no pun intended) than this: how the image can affect an audience, even in its most simple form, by making us watch, making us absorb, and making us think.

Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Unknown, 1913) Never completed, this collection of rushes and outtakes from what would have been the first full-length film to feature black actors was found, donated by Biograph Studios and untouched for a century, in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. No script remains and there are no remarks as to story-line or notes to where the film fragments might appear in continuity. Shot before the next significant film featuring black performers (The Birth of a Nation), it is more telling in the outtakes, showing the harmony between crew and performers and the lack of caricature, save for one detail. The film starred Bert Williams, described in the Registry's citation as "the first African-American to headline on Broadway and the most popular recording artist prior to 1920." Given that, however, he is the only performer to appear in "black-face," which was evidently "required" of a production to allow the other actors to appear without it.  

W.C. Fields (who performed with Williams for Flo Ziegfield's Follies) called him "the funniest man I ever saw...and the saddest man I ever knew."

The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) In Los Angeles, a getting-by stoner Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is accosted by a couple of toughs who wreck his place and pee on his carpet. This harshes the Dude's mellow. Encouraged by his bowling buddies Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), he follows the clues from that night, stumbling on the kidnapping of the wife of the "other" Jeffrey Lebowski in town (David Huddleston) by nihilists (including Flea and Peter Stormare) and volunteering his services to replace his soiled rug. Written and directed by the Coen brothers, who had just made an Oscar-haul with Fargo, The Big Lebowski did well at the box-office, but achieved a mega-cult status (with yearly conventions!) for its stoned take on the detective stories of Raymond Chandler (actually, for the great lines and the funny bits...but it's all part and parcel).  And now, it's part of the national record.

Truly, the Dude abides.

Down Argentine Way (Irving Cummings, 1940)  A product of the film industry's "Good Neighbor" policy towards Mexico and South America in the 1940's, this eye-popping Technicolor musical featured Betty Grable in her film debut as well as the introduction to America of Carmen Miranda, who exemplified Latino exoticism throughout the decade for her lively, often campy, dance routines. The movie's pure fluff with a "Romeo and Juliet" story of feuding families and the youngsters (Grable and Don Ameche) who fall in love, despite the families' bad blood. It was a winning formula for the studio, as the movie proved to be a big hit at the box office, and it also features one of the amazing dance routines of the fabled Cotton Club entertainers, The Nicholas Brothers.

A couple of Miranda's routines is below. ("Ssssh. Car-men Mi-randa..")

The Dragon Painter (William Worthington, 1919) Sessue Hayakawa was Hollywood's first Asian-American star, and was so popular he had the clout to form his own production company, Haworth films, which produced The Dragon Painter

It tells the story of a "young, brilliant artist of untamed talent" who loses his artistic abilities after marrying a "dragon princess." The film also stars Hayakawa's wife, Tsuru Aoki.   

The tinted film shows great promise in technique and in subject matter, and won acclaim for its location work, which might recall Japan, but was actually filmed (unmistakably) in Yosemite Valley, California.

Felicia (Bob Dickson, Alan Gorg, Trevor Greenwood, 1965) A documentary film that made its way into the category of "educational film," Felicia is a study of life in Watts before the 1965 riots broke out. The Registry writes: "Felicia’s first-person narrative reflects her hopes and frustrations as she annotates footage of her family, school and neighborhood, creating a time capsule that’s both historically and culturally significant."

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) "Bueller?....Bueller?"  Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is skipping school...for the umpteenth time. Faking illness, he's planned an outing in Chicago with his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) and his best girl Sloane (Mia Sara). But, to pull it off, he must evade the detection of his principal (a particularly oily Jeffrey Jones), his parents (Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward) and the jealous rage of his sister (Jennifer Grey). He accomplishes this with a battery of technology and his own cock-sure brio that approaches the superhuman. Or sociopathic. The result is simultaneously thrilling...and slightly annoying—the little prick is the very definition of "entitled," and is such a conscienceless violator of all societal protocol that you can't help but hate him...and want to be him. Writer-director John Hughes maximizes the comedy potential (aided and abetted by the crackerjack cast) and only falters when dealing with the responsibility conflicts of pal Cameron.  

Ferris Bueller is a demonstration of just how much fun anarchy can be...when you're the only anarchist.

The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkley, 1943) I guess it was Carmen Miranda's year! Another Fox musical—this one starring the original star of Down Argentine Way, Alice Faye, there's not much here, story-wise (soldier meets girl/soldier turns out to be rich playboy) except that Berkley directed and choreographed this one after a stint with M-G-M and Warner's.

It features one of Miranda's iconic musical numbers (wildly staged by Berkley) "The Girl in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat" that veers into Dali-esque surrealism, and some suggestiveness that ran afoul of censors at the time.

The Gang's All Here is something of a camp classic, and did very well at the box-office. This would be Faye's second to last film before retiring, a risky move as she was Fox's hottest star.

House of Wax (Andre de Toth, 1953) No, no, no. Not the one with Paris Hilton. This is the 1953 version with Vincent Price that helped usher in the 50's era craze of 3-D films (Ironically, the director Andre de Toth was blind in one eye and couldn't see the effects!). It's the story of a brilliant wax sculptor (Price) who is caught in a fire set in his museum by his business partner who had urged him to make a more compelling exhibit of murderers and horrors to bring in the patrons. The sculptor manages to survive, but the business partner commits suicide and a new museum is bought, but with a decidedly ghoulish theme to it. Price's sculptor is crippled and his hands are too damaged to sculpt, leaving the art to the hands of an assistant (Charles Buchinsky, who would become known as Charles Bronson). But, there's something odd about the new wax-works, matching the artist's earlier life-like capabilities, and Phyllis Kirk begins to suspect what it is when her friend (Carolyn Jones) goes missing, and then the latest installation of Joan of Arc looks exactly like her!

Hmmm. Probably because of de Toth's vision issues, the 3-D effects are a lot subtler than most 3-D films (then and now), and the film resonates. I saw it on television at ten years of age and still remember it vividly.  

Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport (Mark Jonathan Harris, 2000) The latest of the films to be entered this year, this documentary about the 10,000 children sent to England before the outbreak of World War II by parents in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, won that year's Academy Award for Best Documentary.   The film (narrated by Judi Dench), interviews several of the now-adult children, bringing a very personal account of how the children reacted and grew up with the status of their Moses-like exile by their parents to save their lives, and the children's ultimate having to cope with the knowledge that their parents who took such pains to protect their kids, might have themselves become victims of the war.

Gut and heart-wrenching documentary.

Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) Arthur Penn's revisionist Western based on Thomas Berger's novel about the only survivor of Custer's Last Stand—a scout named Jack Crabbe (Dustin Hoffman) who is found in a nursing home and tells the incredible story of his life—if it's actually true.  It's a rambling tale of the West, of how Crabbe is stolen by Indians and is raised as one of their own (by Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in North Vancouver, Oscar nominated for his work). Crabbe bounces from Native culture to Western culture (or lack of it), where the whites are all various stripes of neurotic and The Human Beings (as the Cheyenne called themselves) are adorable innocents waiting to be slaughtered. History is a bit more complicated than that, but the depictions of Cavalry attacks against Native villages are shown as savage murder rampades and resonated as being akin to killing Vietnamese (this was during the height of the Vietnam War), something that seemed new (if one hadn't been watching the later films of John Ford). Hoffman, fresh off The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, landed his first major big-budget film with this one, and it also featured Faye Dunaway, Jeff Corey (as Wild Bill Hickock) and Richard Mulligan as a seriously deranged George Armstrong Custer. It was extremely difficult to take that historical character seriously after this film.

Luxo Jr. (John Lasseter, 1986) The very first primitive computer generated cartoon created by Pixar (which had been recently sold by George Lucas to Steve Jobs) and its chief talent at the time, John Lasseter.  

Luxo, Jr. involved smooth-planed more easily rendered surfaces on two articulated lamps and a rubber ball, the surface details are understandably and integrally minimal, but the real key to the success of the animation is the personality invested in these ('til now) inanimate objects, a trait that has been the hallmark of all the Pixar productions. 

That attention to personality and how to communicate it on-screen has always been right there from the start. Those bouncing, clanking lamps have been steadfastly incorporated into Pixar's introductory logo ever since, as much a symbol of its intentions as Leo the Lion is for M-G-M.. 

And here's the film's first "pencil test."

Moon Breath Beat (Lisze Bechtold, 1980) Surrealist flowing animation from Bechtold, a CalArts student.  From the Registry notice: "What happens when an animator follows a line, a patch of color, or a shape into the unconscious? What wild images would emerge?" Moon Breath Beat reveals Bechtold responding with fluidity and whimsy. Her two-dimensional film was animated to a pre-composed rhythm, the soundtrack cut together afterward, sometimes four frames at a time, to match picture with track, she says. The dream-like story evolved as it was animated, depicting a woman and her two cats and how such forces as birds and the moon impact their lives. Following graduation, Bechtold was the effects animator for the Disney short The Prince and the Pauper (1990) and principal effects animator for FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992).

Please Don’t Bury Me Alive! (Efrain Gutierrez, 1976) From The National Film Registry: "The San Antonio barrio in the early 1970s is the setting for writer, director and star Efraín Gutiérrez’s independent piece, considered by historians to be the first Chicano feature film. A self-taught filmmaker, Gutiérrez not only created the film from top to bottom on a shoestring, he also acted as its initial distributor and chief promoter, negotiating bookings throughout the Southwest where it filled theaters in Chicano neighborhoods. He tells his story in the turbulent days near the end of the Vietnam War, as a young Chicano man questioning his and his people’s place in society as thousands of his Latino brethren return from the war in coffins. Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, wrote, 'The film is important as an instance of regional filmmaking, as a bicultural and bilingual narrative, and as a precedent that expanded the way that films got made. ...' Cultural historians often compare Gutiérrez to Oscar Micheaux, the pioneering African-American filmmaker who came to prominence in the 1920s."

The Power and the Glory (William K. Howard, 1933) Howard made 54 films in his career (from 1921 to 1946) and The Power and the Glory is his most famous film, but mostly because of who wrote it. It was the first screenplay of Preston Sturges, which was bought by Fox, unbidden, for $17,500 and a percentage of the film's profits (which just wasn't done back in the day). It launched Sturges' career as a screenwriter, which propelled him into the director's chair, starting a storied, if brief, career. The film was notable for two reasons: it was a solo effort by Sturges, and its flashback structure was called out by Pauline Kael in her "Raising Kane" article in The New Yorker as one more example of why Citizen Kane might not be as revolutionary as it was given credit for.  

The film begins at the funeral of Tom Garner (Spencer Tracy—The Registry's notes cites "The Nation magazine called Spencer Tracy’s performance in the lead role 'one of the fullest characterizations ever achieved on screen.'") a powerful railroad tycoon who has committed suicide. The movie then backtracks telling of Garner's rags-to-riches story of his rise in business and fall from grace (aspects of which in this pre-Code film caused controversy and some censorship). The film hasn't weathered well, but it's a sophisticated film that calls into question the price one personally pays for success...and hubris.
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) Rio Bravo was a welcome return of director-producer Howard Hawks to the Western—he hadn't made one since Red River in 1948, and hadn't worked with John Wayne since. By the time he got to it, he had some things to say. In contrast to John Ford's by that time melancholy re-thinking of the Conquering of the west, Hawks' film has no great vistas but is a reply to the western responsibilities conundrum posed by Kramer and Zimmerman's Oscar-winning High Noon. It was Hawks' contention that if the chief lawman of the community has to ask for help, then he shouldn't be in that position. So, Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) spends a lot of time refusing help (amateurs only get in the way and make his job harder), even though his deputies consist of a drunk (Dean Martin, in a wonderful dramatic turn after his split with Jerry Lewis) and an ancient with bad hips (Walter Brennan). Then, things get a little crowded with a newly arrived wagon train (led by Ward Bond) with a cocky kid (Ricky Nelson) riding shotgun. The stakes are serious on a personal and professional level. But the Hawks game-plan is all about community and how it comes together in good times and bad...especially bad. Wayne is at his "cranky papa" best whether practicing tough love on his deputies or awkward love with the good/bad girl (Angie Dickinson, one of the best of Hawks aggressive females) who doesn't seem to want to leave town. It is one of Hawks' best, most successful films and he would do variations of it (with Wayne, who never got to play the drunk) with El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970).

The only question I have: why did it take so long for this one to make the list?
Hawks uses song and sing-along's to show collaboration between former rivals.
None is better than this unlikely one from Rio Bravo.

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968) Horror producer-director William Castle vaulted from his B-movie career into the A-category with this adaptation of Ira Levin's novel, produced by Paramount Pictures, overseen by Robert Evans, written and directed by Roman Polanski, and starring "it" girl Mrs. Frank Sinatra—Mia Farrow. The film is rooted in the 1960's (with dream sequences featuring Jack and Jackie Kennedy), but the story—about an upwardly mobile young couple (John Cassavettes plays the duplicitous husband) finding success and horror by dealing with the devil is a lovely little metaphor, cacklingly directed by Polanski. As perverse a director as Polanski is, what sets this version of Rosemary's Baby apart from its unofficial sequels and remakes is the almost gleeful humor, indicating that Polanski, who also wrote the script, really wasn't taking any of this too seriously. A lot of the imagery comes directly from Levin, but Polanski lends them such a creepily loony atmosphere that it's hard to be too offended by the proceedings (the film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and all sorts of nervous nellies). Ruth Gordon won an Academy Award (and a major career resuscitation) for her portrayal of one of the loopy neighbors in the stately Bramford Building (actually the tony Dakota Building), which the couple are amazed they could buy into. No surprise, really. Rosemary has been selected to bear the son of Satan, and, as much suspicion as Polanski generates, the truth is only revealed at the end, which goes from hysteria to a nicely perverse ending. Even almost 50 years old, it's still a major player in the horror genre.

And I still have an aversion to chocolate mousse.
Producer William Castle's cameo in the film.

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, 1935) One director who regularly makes it into the National Film Registry (along with Ford, Hawks, and Huston) is Leo McCarey. Not as widely known as the others, McCarey was a director of considerable taste and humanity (if not of a particularly identifiable style) and could bring out the best in all manner of genres, whether he was directing the Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), Bing Crosby (Going My Way) or Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember). This year, it's McCarey's lone western-of-a-sort, Ruggles of Red Gap, a fish-out-of-water story about a British man servant (Charles Laughton) who is won in a poker game and must make a new life for himself in the backwater town of Red Gap, Washington. It's also a bit of a fish-out-of water story for it's lead actor, Laughton, who was more known for his dramatic roles (that same year he starred in Mutiny on the Bounty and Les Miserables) than for comedy—although he could always be counted on for a certain drollery and, in short doses, whimsy. Ruggles goes from a life of servitude to independence in his new country (when he is mistaken for an English colonel) and learns of his worth in the new surroundings. It's charming and very funny.

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) My memory of first seeing Saving Private Ryan is vivid—sitting opening day at the Guild 45th Theater in the University district among a sparse crowd, I had an unexpected reaction about 10 minutes in; I was in pain. Saving Private Ryan begins (after a brief but poignant preamble) with the landing at Normandy (re-staged before in other movies) but never presented quite in this way—savage, visceral, disorienting, surround-sound bullets whizzing by your head. I was in pain...because I was slumped in my seat, as if to avoid the bullets. That was different. I've never cowered during a movie before. The combat in SPR is flesh-chewing and gooey, the disparate platoon dynamics is slightly compressed—not everyone acts to stereotype—and the group has been through enough their numbers have been cut to the point where their worth as a fighting brigade might be compromised—so they're tasked with finding the last surviving son of the Ryan family to send him home.

Going home is the end-all/be-all of the dogfaces of Saving Private Ryan. The alternative is unthinkable, although the evidence of it is all around them. For the rest, they must deal with survivor's guilt—an aspect of SPR that is difficult for some viewers to fathom (and is spelled out succinctly in the film's coda). The cast of veterans (Tom Hanks, Dennis Farina, Ted Danson) is complemented with a lot of talented new faces—Vin Diesel, Tom Sizemore, Barry Pepper, Ed Burns, Matt Damon, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Jeremy Davies, Bryan Cranston, Paul Giamatti and Nathan Fillion—leave deep impressions and made quite a few stars.

It also ended the reticence that surviving WWII veterans had in discussing the horrors of "The Good War" and led to the re-appraisal of and greater understanding and respect for what would be called "The Greatest Generation."

Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916) The name of Lois Weber has fairly disappeared from historic records of the birth of cinema, but at the time she was making films, she was as well-known as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and exercised as much directorial clout as those men. A creative force in cinema, and a strong voice for progressive women's issues, Weber produced parables that illustrated societal injustices, and by dramatizing them in film-form, sought to educate audiences to the reformist cause. An auteur who insisted on control of her films and fought any studio interference on any level of production, she was also a frugal filmmaker whose films attracted controversy and drew in the crowds, which pleased her backers. Shoes tells the story of a shop-worker (Mary Maclaren) who is trying to support a family of five on five dollars a week. When her only pair of shoes falls apart, to acquire a necessary new pair, she resorts to prostitution to afford them. The subject matter was controversial, but Weber made her protagonist so sympathetic it defied judgement.  

Below is a sample reel by the company that did the restoration work.

State Fair (Henry King, 1933) Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, this first version of State Fair (based on a novel by Phil Strong) starred Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayers and featured Will Rogers as the head of the Frake family of Iowa who spend a week at the state fair, and is the only one of the three versions that is not a musical.

While the elder Frakes are concerned with winning ribbons and medals, the Frake kids find romance in the arms of a reporter and a trapeze artist.  This version is also pre-Code, which created some outrage among the blue-noses, who especially objected to a scene where dialogue from the Frake son and the high-wire artist were heard off-screen over a shot of a rumpled bed with some scattered clothing.  That scene was cut by the Fox Studio when the Hays Office was created in 1934 for subsequent re-releases and it has never been restored to the film.

Unmasked (Grace Cunard, Francis Ford 1917) Francis Ford was the older brother of eventual director John Ford and Cunard was a multi-talented hyphenate: actress-writer-director, who co-directed 17 films, most with collaborator Ford (when she was on-screen, he directed and when he was on-screen, she directed). Unmasked is a cat-and-mouse game between two thieves who are after the same precious necklace. From The National Film Registry: "Produced at Universal Studios, the epicenter of female directors during the silent era, Unmasked reflected a style associated with European filmmakers of the time: artful and sophisticated cinematography comprised of complex camera movements and contrasting depths of field. With a plot rich in female initiative and problem-solving, Cunard fashioned a strong character who does not fit the image of traditional womanhood: she relishes her heists, performs unladylike physical exploits, manipulates court evidence, carries on with a man who is not her husband and yet survives the film without punishment. In essence, the character Cunard created echoed the woman behind the camera. Today, Unmasked serves as a succinct but illustrative example of the role of women in film history, as depicted in fact and fiction."

V-E + 1 (Samuel Fuller, 1945) Silent documentary footage taken the day after V-E day by infantryman Samuel Fuller (who would go on to become a much-heralded writer-director of tough B-movies) that presents the burial of the concentration camp victims at Folkenau, Czechoslovakia by the citizens of the town. The city elders denied knowing anything about the camps, which, given the nature of conditions there, would have been impossible. At the orders of commanding officer liberating the camps, city officials were forced to prepare the bodies, transfer them through town, and bury them in the town's cemetery, an act serving to punish the complicit and honor the dead. (Fuller would go on to dramatize the events in his film The Big Red One).

In 1988, documentarian Emil Weiss made a film about those events with Fuller's participation in Falkenau: The Impossible.

The Way of Peace (Frank Tashlin, 1947)  Produced by the American Lutheran Church, this 18 minute stop-motion animation film was directed by Frank Tashlin, former cartoon director for Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, and who would go on to direct films for Bob Hope, Martin and Lewis, and Lewis solo. Tashlin wrote and directed in a highly stylized, but wonderfully dramatic manner that shows his strength as a visual story-teller.  The extraordinary puppets and effects were designed by Wah Ming Chen and the film is narrated by Lew Ayres.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971) "Come with me/and you'll be/in a world of pure imagination"  Pure imagination on a very limited budget, but what folks remember are the script (officially by the book's author Roald Dahl, but aided and abetted by David Seltzer) and the performances—especially Gene Wilder's risky take on the titular candy-maker who may be a couple rice-krispies off plum.  Despite the meager budget (financed to promote a line of candy that never materialized) the ideas behind it are more than enough to keep audiences young and old entertained (and featuring mostly great songs from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley including the evergreen "The Candy Man"). 

In it, the mysterious head of a chocolate factory (Gene Wilder) holds a world-wide lottery—five golden tickets are hidden in the large Wonka chocolate bars. The possessor is given escorted tour of the wondrous (if secret) factory by Mr. Wonka himself.  The winners turn out to be four very entitled brats and one impoverished lad.  The factory is a wonderland of confectionery delights (even if it does hold some dangers) and is worked by a third-world staff of the diminutive Ooompa-Loompa tribe...and the motives of the CEO are very suspect.  A combination of comedy and kid-horror, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is wonderful...and semi-sweet, but never bitter.
Gene Wilder insisted on this entrance to give Wonka an edge...
"From that time on, no one will know if I'm telling the truth..."
Ya know, the best way to end this...is with that song.  Film is a medium of pure imagination every step of the way...even if you're trying to find a way to tell a documentary's story.  May film...and imagination...never fade away.

Or be stifled.

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