Oh, that old canard:
Film culture in that old-fashioned, top-down genteel-chat sense inherited from Susan Sontag and 1963 doesn’t provide a way to do that anymore, and hasn’t for quite a while. That isn’t the New York Film Festival’s fault or the movie industry’s fault or my fault, but it’s no good pretending it isn’t true. Do we need to find new ways to talk about movies that connect them to the real world and the media landscape as it actually exists? Do we need to get over the idea that the form or medium of cinema is somehow sacred?
Today’s Hollywood is full of eccentricities and extremes—there are unambiguously crass and demagogic movies that wear their product-hood like a badge, and then there are movies of an extremely personal idiosyncrasy, some of which have had surprisingly high budgets (“Hugo” and “The Tree of Life” are two examples among many), such as could never have been made in classic Hollywood. Nonetheless, the “Death of Movies” think piece is, by now, a familiar genre, in which digital technology, as employed by Hollywood, has become a stock villain.
The same way that some films never made it to VHS and from VHS to DVD, it's a given that some won't make it to DCP restoration and will remain locked in studio vaults. "I think studios, if they had their way, would've done this very sneaky changeover. There were some studios that started to destroy prints," says Marchese.
You may also be likelier to have a good projectionist who uses well-kept equipment, since 70mm releases tend to be screened at theaters that are closer to temples of cinema than sticky mall twelveplexes. If, for example, the operator cleans the dust out of the projector's film gate regularly, the film won't get scratched up on the first weekend. It also costs a lot more, simply because film that's twice as wide requires twice as much silver halide in the emulsion — and with silver at around $34 an ounce, that is not inconsiderable. Film prices are on the rise, and 70mm, always reserved for somewhat extravagant film releases like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, grows a little rarer every year. A 70mm print costs thousands of dollars more than a 35mm print does.
My essay, “Academic Blogging and Disciplinary Practice: Implications for Film and Media Studies,” puts forth my best articulation for why I blog and why I think more scholars should blog, too. I based my polemic in large part on what academic blogging has achieved in other disciplines, and I foresaw that film studies could adopt many of those practices. However, I have to admit that the essay now reads like a swan song for a dying practice. Academic blogging in film studies is not dead, mind you, especially since there are still some terrific active blogs from film and media scholars, but qualitatively and quantitatively there seems to be less energy and dialogue than even before.
Finally, I wonder if it’s the movies themselves that are the problem (or, more precisely, if it’s our perception of the movie industry). Chris is perhaps the best example out there of a scholar who uses his blog to explore film history, but blogs seem best suited to looking at the contemporary, the immediate, and as a number of non-academic film critics have asserted, there may be reasons to be pessimistic about the current state of the film industry. Richard Brody of The New Yorker is more subtle here than David Denby or David Thompson, who both seem to have concluded that cinema is declining or dead. But there seems to be an on-going and inescapable sentiment that movies have lost their cultural relevance.
And did we mention the critics? Or maybe just the critic?
My father introduced me early on to the French New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and thought it important to tell me that they were critics first, who learned how to make films partly through their masterful dissections of other movies. I grew up and became a filmmaker with less of the typical hatred of critics, and more with reverence that stemmed from those Enfants Terribles at Cahiers du Cinema. As I became a professional filmmaker, I started of course to see the difference between critics who talk about film from an artistic point of view, actually writing about story and meaning within a context, and those who confabulate, dramatize, and write—usually poorly—for the sake of panning or deifying or watching their own bad capital letters streak across a movie poster. As the internet has taken over, the critics that do care about writing have dwindled even further, giving way to the rush of Twitter reviews and blog posts that appear just minutes after screenings. And as we go further into this madness of 140 character reviews, I naturally want to seek refuge in the place where I usually go for that—the late 60’s and early 70’s, when critics like Pauline Kael wrote reviews that turned into statements about cinema in general
Kael logged her first hours at the movies during the silent period, and her writing was predicated on the silent era’s belief in film as a universal language, what she once called “Whitman’s dream of the great American audience.” Kael was practically Emersonian in her belief that movies had unique potential to wake people up, to make them think for themselves and learn to tell good from bad without having to hear it from an authority. Ironically this was the point on which she could be most didactic, and on which her ever-present sense of humor tended to fail her: “The educated person,” she wrote in her first piece for The New Yorker, in 1967, “who became interested in cinema as an art form through Bergman or Fellini or Resnais is an alien to me (and my mind goes blank with hostility and indifference when he begins to talk).”
This edited anthology seeks to understand the current state of film criticism and how it has developed. It aims to examine the challenges that the Internet offers to the evaluation, promotion, and explanation of artistic works as well as digital technology’s impact on traditional concerns about the disposability or permanence of cultural criticism. The collection will furthermore contain a historical dimension that investigate how the status of the critic has changed in the last fifty years and to what extent critics can still intervene into current popular discourse about arts and culture.
"Here is a place we come unprotectedly upon the limitations of criticism by the fact of something that is called personal taste. About It Happened One Night I said that its appreciation depended on a certain acceptance of Claudette Colbert; but my sense of The Awful Truth is that if one is not willing to yield to Irene Dunne's temperament, her talents, her reactions, follwing their detail almost to the loss of one's own identity, one will not know, and will not care, what the film is about. Pauline Kael, for instance, in her Profile of Cary Grant, has this to say about Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth: "though she is often funny, she overdoes the coy gurgles, and that bright toothy smile of hers -- she shows both rows of teeth, prettily held together -- can make one want to slug her." Whatever the causes of this curious response, it disqualifies whatever she has to say as a response to The Awful Truth." [Pursuits of Happiness] [via]
Lest we forget everyone's a critic...
- "the stars aligned" may be the only explanation for 1995 being the greatest year in the history of movies. How else do we make sense out of the bounty that included no less than three Christina Ricci vehicles, career-bests for Ron Howard, Michael Mann, Mel Gibson, Richard Linklater, Amy Heckerling, Todd Haynes, and Clint Eastwood, the speedy ascension of Sandra Bullock's star, a talking pig, AND Showgirls? Individually, these movies aren't that great. In fact, few are better than merely charming, but as a collection of memories and personal influences, 1995 is unparalleled.
- There are notable echoes between the very beasts in question: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) both live their lives outside any master's dogma, or related organized rules of etiquette or discipline. Each one is offered up by their directors (Benh Zeitlin and Paul Thomas Anderson) as retro-fueled models for a post-modern living that has been too tamed by technology, corporations, and stultifying social systems like race, gender, class and sexuality.
- Naturally, patriotism is aligned with gluttony. In 2011, the producers of Captain America: The First Avenger (itself a blatant recruitment tool for the military) were looking for a fresh ad campaign, because audiences were fatigued by a surplus of superhero films. How to sell regurgitated patriotism back to Americans? Comfort food! The studio set up corporate tie-ins with Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins, and other fast-food franchises. And it worked! Apparently, “America [does] run on Dunkin,” or as Pasolini might say, capitalism “is almost always lying, hypocritical even when sincere.” A Marxist televisual project might include TV shows about corporate greed and the pathologies of the wealthy 1%. But we generally don’t humiliate the rich, nor do we pathologize them as “mentally ill.” [via]
One critic fighting the good fight is FOC Sean Burns, who still calls 'em "pictures" and actually writes about film as, um, film. [clutches pearls]
- Shooting on obsolete large-format film, Anderson eschews vistas, constricts the frame and relishes the enhanced resolution’s capacity for minute detail. The movie is mostly close-ups with an extremely shallow depth of field, making every twitch and blink seismically resonate. (Depressingly, The Master screened for critics on the AMC Boston Common’s rinky-dink digital system, but you can watch it in full 70mm glory at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, one of only a handful of cinemas in the country to reinstall old projectors, so their patrons can see this film as it was intended to be shown.)
- But perhaps not wanting to seem too influenced by his mentor, Lorenz garishly over-lights the picture, with haphazard framing and slo-mo money shots highlighted in bold by a deafening soundtrack that should be placed on trial for putting the audience in an illegal chokehold.
- The main event here is Gordon-Levitt’s young Willis impression. Despite the distracting prosthetic nose, it’s an uncanny collection of squints, slow-burns and long exhales. (He basically acts like my college pals and I did every time we re-watched The Last Boy Scout after coming home drunk.) Johnson has never worked with a movie star like Willis before, and the most satisfying portions of the picture genuflect at the altar of Willis-ness. In his wheelhouse as a sullen, heartbroken badass, Willis’ costumes are even a throwback to his Pulp Fiction getup, and sometimes I think we forget how well he wears a T-shirt soaked in blood. Ah, if he had only smoked cigarettes. Willis is easily the best movie smoker since the 1940s.
- Can we speak for a moment about Roth? Just because he’s British and has been in some great movies, his egregious overacting gets overlooked. When has Roth ever met any scenery that he hasn’t eaten outright? As a hard-boiled Noo Yawk police officer, Roth makes a meal out of his vowels, thrusting out his neck muscles and carrying on like he’s in a much bigger, more theatrical film than the one we’re watching.
This clock measures the exact unit of time from the moment you step into a movie theater while it’s still daylight outside to the moment you leave the cool darkness into a shadowy evening.
This clock is the weight of water which flows through it.
This clock is the sun passing through the curtain patterned with pinks and greens, smiling lions and guffawing hippos, crisscrossed by leafy forests, and further cut by the bars onto a crib where sadness rages and weeps, getting lost in the fold of blankets and the sweat of midday struggles. The sweat cools, the sadness settles and notices the gaps. It lifts and blinks, stumbling awake to peer through and beyond.
This clock is the amount of kissing one can do before one’s lips are thoroughly chapped.
This clock is the duration of John Keats’ last cough.
This clock refuses to show its face out of shyness.
This is the clock of imagined dragons in sweetlands ruled by children with dirty faces; of low-hanging jerks and funereal theaters hovered over so that all those who did wrong can be witnessed in their woe with glee; of mothers and fathers coming home from long trips, and all the gear for all the dolls, and the disastrous day when all the kickball games have been won, for ends of books and the worries of the day, turning away from the drum and batter of the quotidian and becoming a tossled head sneaking deeper into feathers.
This is one of Dali’s clocks, flaccid and droopy, deciding it has served its time being splashed with domestic lager on frat house walls and printed poorly upon umbrellas and journal covers, and is going off-scene for a ten-dollar Double Corona and some time alone to read a George Simenon paperback.
This clock measures whimpers and orgasms....
This clock is a moment of time in every movie collected by a small coterie of watchers that is diligently stitched together by a single man. He does not care particularly about film, or time. He only loves the sounds of stitching.
And, at the same time, as I was going to the movies less and less and I was very disappointed when I did go, I was very happy to be outside what was being done everywhere. In the end, I no longer felt like being a filmmaker, like making films. And the questions that I was asking myself for more than a year came to this: why do we make films? What is it for? I found myself in the most total confusion and I considered giving up movies. I had always enjoyed working on other people’s films more than my own. For what is in other people’s films, when I edited them, I felt like I thought more deeply about them, that I brought more to them. The work I’m most happy with in cinema is that which I've accomplished on other people’s films and not on my own ones...
I just want to say a few words in praise of the zero-gravity shag-pile strip-tease cockpit title sequence, particularly the moment when Barbarella (Jane Fonda) removes her space helmet, releasing not only her luxurious locks but the letters of the actress’s name. This eye-popping blocking — an effect created by building a section of the cockpit on its side, so that the camera could peep up (down? Outer space is confusing!) at Fonda squirming around on a sheet of glass — speaks volumes about 1968, the midpoint and apex of the Sixties (1964–73)
Garbo is one of the remaining enigmas of Hollywood history: did she love men? Women? Both? Did she turn her back on Hollywood? Did she truly “want to be alone”? Was she a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, the product of light and mirrors, or a woman in control of her own destiny? To me, she is pure cinema: the most exquisite alchemy of light, celluloid, and the human form.
I mean, Roland Barthes had it completely right:
Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.
And secret lives...
The motion picture, Thurber observes, is being produced for "the millions of Americans who never even heard of Walter. These people I am told go movies to avoid the humdrum and if they are forced to watch a quiet dinner party in progress on the screen they will not be completely happy unless one of the guests shoots the hostess."
Thurber didn't confine his complaints about the movie to private screenings; he went off about it in public, too. An early pre-release review in Life included this:
James Thurber, a mild man, grows almost profane when he thinks of how his story […] has been corrupted. He calls the result The Public Life of Danny Kaye and is appalled by the star's songs in gibberish, the Dick Tracy plot and the traditional Goldwyn opulence of production. "It began to be bad with the first git-gat-gittle," he says. "If they'd spent one tenth of the money, it would have been 10 times as good."
"The story was the king, and the character was the story," Hock told me. "I think that's what maybe some people miss when trying to appreciate Steve Sabol's influence. They talk about the orchestral music, and they talk about the slow-motion close-up cinematography, and all that is true. But what was at the core of that was empathy for the subject of the film. It wasn't just a beautiful image of two football players close-in, 96 frames a second, hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage. It was a presentation of a human being struggling with a purpose—with a goal. That provided America with an understanding of professional football player in a way that it had never had before. And that's why it worked."
Now obviously, when a man like Mitt Romney owns up to his favourite anything (film, book, sexual position), the revelation tends to say more about the perceived taste of the electorate than it does about the candidate himself. In this case, the message is charmingly transparent. You thought Romney was a dull, cold-blooded technocrat? Perish the thought. There's nothing he likes better than the goof-ball antics of those wacky Coen dudes. (Incidentally, the US comic Rob Delaney has tweeted that Romney says "Ha ha ha! Terrific!" every time Jar Jar Binks appears on screen. It's not hard to imagine him delivering a similar verdict each time George Clooney starts fussing with his hairnet.)
In early 1932, a commercially available zoom began to be sold by Bell and Howell (pat#1,947,669). This was known as the B&H/Cooke Varo. Initially it was made to order, but later was available as stock. In later advertisements the lens was said to have been acquired by all the major studios and by the government. As confirmation of studio use, I have found zooms in films by RKO, Fox, and MGM, but as yet no sightings in Warner/First National productions. The lens was also available as a rental to any reputable producer, so it may have found its way to independent producers or a small studio like Monogram.
Finally, after a stretch of professional vexations this month, a gif posted by a former student, reminding the cinetrix why the fuck she bothers sometimes. [The top image comes from the same student.]