Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rage, lust, ambition, and obsession

Ahead of this Sunday's Academy Awards broadcast, in which the hit silent-era pastiche The Artist is up for Best Picture, David Denby in the latest issue of The New Yorker has a terrific piece on, among other things, the "lost style of acting":

The silent cinema hit the world like a hurricane, destroying élite notions of culture overnight. As a feature-length art form, it lasted less than twenty years, from 1912 to 1929, yet more than ten thousand features were made in that period in the United States alone. From the beginning, the silent cinema was an art devoted to physical risk and to primitive passions, to rage, lust, ambition, and obsession (silence made emotions more extreme in many ways), and it produced obsession in its huge audience. I’m hardly the first man to worship at the shrine of Louise Brooks’s careless but overwhelming appeal. “The Artist,” a likable spoof, doesn’t acknowledge that world of heroic ambition and madness—it’s bland, sexless, and too simple. For all its genuine charm, it left me restless and dissatisfied, dreaming of those wilder and grander movies.

Accompanying Denby's piece is a slide show, The Lost Stars of Silent Film. The title is a bit askew as its nine images present three of the great women of silent cinema — Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, and Louise Brooks. One commenter there gripes that too many of the truly fine silent-film women go unrepresented altogether, and even I — who, like Denby, am reduced to bibbling tumescence at the existence of Louise Brooks — wouldn't allocate four of only nine slots to her. Still, I'm pleased to see it there.

On my iPad, the tablet version of Denby's article adds a video. It's Denby explicating Louise Brooks' backstage seduction scene in Pandora's Box. It's a scene that literally took my breath away the first time I watched it, and it still leaves me swooning many viewings later. Denby's video is not available for linking, alas. (My own say on Pandora's Box is at DVD Journal.)

In related matters...

The 16th annual Kansas Silent Film Festival starts tomorrow at Washburn University. Among the numerous delights there will be the newly restored version of Georges Méliès 1902 ur-classic, A Trip to the Moon, which featured so prominently in Hugo.

Next month, the 17th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival headlines a new restoration of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, "the Holy Grail of silent masterpieces," with a new score conducted live by composer Carl Davis, at the Art Deco Paramount Theatre in Oakland. "Due to the expense, technical challenges, and complicated rights issues involved, no screenings are planned for any other American city." Hoo boy!

Finally, at We Are Movie Geeks, TCM Celebrates THE ARTIST With List Of 10 Most Influential Silent Films. I appreciate that the list does hit "most influential" rather than just "most popular/familiar."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dear San Francisco, it's so nice to be in you again

Light posting lately. One reason is that Elizabeth and I have been (and are) back in San Francisco for another business/pleasure trip.

In lieu of a real post, here are some random thoughts I've jotted down while here:

  • Fave thing about San Francisco #42: The number of people you pass on the street who look like characters in a movie or novel set in San Francisco.
  • From the Fillmore-area house that's becoming our regular SF pied-à-terre, we set out for wine with the manager in his Seven Sisters house, which will be a setting in Elizabeth's next novel. Bourbon and cigars with Dashiell Hammett afterward.
  • From notes for next theatrical production, based on current lodgings: Genre - musical comedy. Title - There's Something About a Bidet. Consider "Dancing Fountains" number in second act.
  • While researching her novel, a murder mystery set in San Francisco in the 1920s, Elizabeth guided us up Telegraph Hill to seek out the site of Edwin Booth's cottage. Why? because according to public records he complained about the gravel quarry that, before his death in 1893, was eating away the hill so deeply it threatened to landslide his house into the bay. The quarry was still there in the '20s, so Elizabeth decides there's a great place to ditch a body. Also while there, I noted that anyone high up Telegraph Hill in 1906 would have had an astounding view of the earthquake and subsequent fire devastating the city below. As a reminiscence from a character, that's now going into the novel.
With Elizabeth and Jacques Tati back at Cafe Zoetrope (owned by Francis Ford Coppola).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Screw CGI, no. 10: Aurora 2012

"Last week I was again in Norway for shooting northern lights. This time I was very lucky, there was a lot of activity on the sky especially on the 24 January. The scenes are from Ravnastua, Skoganvarre and Lakselv. The first two days I had a lot of trouble with frozen Cameras. It was -25°C (-13°F) and after 1-2 hours of shooting the lens was frozen."

Related posts:

Screw CGI, no. 9: "My god, it's full of stars!" (plus a gold-coated ant holding a blue widget)

Screw CGI, no. 8: Ice finger of death

Screw CGI, no. 7: Stunning Space Station time-lapse

Saturday, February 11, 2012

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to ... Iran

In a piece in The New Republic, "How Iran Produced the Best Film of 2011 — and What Americans Can Learn From It," the always worthwhile David Thomson persuasively asserts that the Iranian film A Separation, written and directed by Asghar Farhadi...
...seems to me the best film of 2011. It is one of the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Picture, but by any sense of justice in any nation (let alone the self-assessed greatest in the world) it would have been nominated for Best Picture before anything else.

Says Thomson:
The ways in which the characters in A Separation struggle for truth and honor, while yielding sometimes to compromise and falsehood, is not foreign to us. Few other films made last year give such a striking sense of, "Look—isn't this life? Isn't this our life, too?" In a complete world of film-going, we should no longer tolerate the label "foreign film," especially since it seems likely that a film from France in which the French language remains tactfully silent is going to stroll away with Best Picture. The Artist is a pleasant soufflé, over which older Academy voters can wax nostalgic. But A Separation is what the cinema was invented for.

Roger Ebert, praising the film, spoke with its director, Asghar Farhadi, who's also Oscar nominated for his original screenplay. Farhadi noted the often fraught state of world-audience filmmaking in his home country:
Mostly people have liked the movie. It has had a large audience and fortunately has evoked a lot of discussion, which is exactly what I hoped would happen. Seeing people gather in little groups after each screening to discuss the film: That's exactly what I wanted, and gives me a nice feeling. It was also well received by the critics in Iran. But the official reaction was mixed. Being cautious towards commenting on the film was the common thing in all their reactions. Officials are used to judge the film and the film-maker together. And they know that we don't agree on a lot of subjects. Well, let's just say that they can't make any comment without reservation. We have a proverb in Iran: 'a hit on the nail, a hit on the horseshoe'.

Citing a piece in The Guardian about that "official reaction" backlash in Iran following the film's success in the West, Anthony Kaufman at Indiewire suggests that the success of A Separation puts a critical finger not only on the movie, but also on "Iran's often complex relationship with its artists" and the regime's "highly nervous" reaction to how the country is represented to the world:
At a time when relations between Iran and the West couldn't be more contentious, you'd think a good work of art could help break down some walls between them. But no government--not in the U.S. either, I should add--likes to let someone else come along and make bridges without their approval. It takes away their power. And I think that's one of the reasons why the film isn't being universally accepted at home. Success spoils the government's ability to censor and control. 

(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.)

Thomas Edison was a dick

... but he made things happen. Including several of the foundations of modern movie-making.

Today's his birthday. Here's the version of Frankenstein shot over three days at the Edison Studios in the Bronx, New York City, 1910. Written and directed by J. Searle Dawley, it owes less to Mary Shelley's novel (already nearly 100 years old at the time) than to the very loose stage play adaptations that had been the craze for decades. (The same can be said for the famous 1931 version with Boris Karloff.) But it's pretty cool, with a "creation" scene that's a keeper.

The unbilled cast include Augustus Phillips as Dr. Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster, and Mary Fuller as the doctor's fiancée.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Yep, pretty much every screenwriter I know

Click for the Push In shot.

From screenwriter Mike Le (@DFTVYP)

(Via Go Into The Story)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Whose movie is it?

Spurred by American Prospect's Tom Carson's stand against
  1. the National Film Registry's choice of Forrest Gump in its annual list of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films," and 
  2. the Village Voice's firing of highly regarded critic J. Hoberman after 24 years...
... Tim Cavanaugh at Reason re-evaluates the auteur theory, "that durable French import which holds that the director is the author of the film."

Cavanaugh's piece is a bit of a ramble — and I look askance at his phrase "a bunch of socialist critics" — but I nod at his assertion that no one person can claim credit for creating a movie:
Writers are supposed to hate the auteur theory, but my reason for thinking it is of little value has nothing to do with any confidence in scripts. The problem is that for once the Academy has it right in giving the Best Picture Oscar to the producer. In all but a vanishingly small number of movies, the producer(s) is/are responsible for the largest share of the outcome.....
What we really need is a death-of-the-auteur theory. Making a movie is such a crap shoot, involving so many parties with conflicting motives, that we should consider it a fluke when something gets made that holds together as well as My Cousin Vinny. An actual masterpiece (whatever your choice of masterpiece may be) has to be considered a heroically improbable event, and one that depends on both the movie itself and the audience’s response to it.

As far as I can tell, movie-making, especially Hollywood style, provides enough proof of Chaos Theory, Quantum Uncertainty Principles, and Alternate History Butterfly Effects to put 89% of theoretical physicists out of work.

On a related note of high interest: the New York Times recently talked with Hoberman about The Village Voice and film culture in "Changing Science of Movie-ology."

(Via Zack Beauchamp at The Daily Beast. Image by Peter Stults.)

Screw CGI, no. 9: "My god, it's full of stars!" (plus a gold-coated ant holding a blue widget)

This time it's a two-fer:

A spectacular time-lapse from the Chilean "Astronomer's Paradise":

Also, because you know you want to see a gold-coated ant holding a blue widget....

Related posts:

Screw CGI, no. 8: Ice finger of death

Screw CGI, no. 7: Stunning Space Station time-lapse

Screw CGI, no. 6: Chilean volcano ash cloud lightning

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Probably Adorable

Because I'm a science guy as well as a movie guy, I can't resist stories like this one by Lisa Grossman at NewScientist:

Clint Eastwood might sound like an unlikely candidate to help investigate the evolution of the brain, but he has lent a helping hand to researchers doing just that. It turns out that brain regions that do the same job in monkeys and humans aren't always found in the same part of the skull.

Previous studies comparing brains across species tended to assume that human brains were just blown-up versions of monkey brains and that functions are carried out by anatomically similar areas.

To test this idea, Wim Vanduffel of Harvard Medical School in Boston and the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium, and colleagues scanned the brains of 24 people and four rhesus monkeys while they watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. They compared the brain responses of each individual to the same sensory stimulation, and identified which brain areas had similar functions.

The majority of the human and monkey brain maps lined up, but some areas with a similar function were in completely different places.

The team say the discovery is crucial to building more accurate models of our evolution. "You can't assume that because A and B are close together in the monkey brain, they need to be close together in the human brain," Vanduffel says.

The Guardian has a more in-depth article on the study and the science involved.

No word on whether the subjects were outfitted with ponchos and cigars.

I swear, there's the seed of a hit rom-com here somewhere.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Max Landis’ "The Death and Return of Superman"

We all know there's a new Superman movie in the works. The cast, at least, has me comfortably jazzed about its prospects. I've been a casual fan of the big blue dude since I was a kid. Over the decades I've picked up the comics so infrequently that I only rarely could say I was up to date on what was happening in the mythos. And yet, largely because of my fondness for the first Christopher Reeve film (now a relic of another age) and my affection for Superman as a character that seems to perpetually regenerate from some deep part of our collective mammalian brain, I still get a fanboy thrill at the notion of the whole Superman thing being reinterpreted for and reintegrated into yet another generation.

But that's one hard row to hoe, and getting harder. Keeping Superman not only relevant but interesting has never been a bigger challenge. (My own fiction spin on that relevance question was published ten years ago.) The very subgenre Superman triggered — superhero adventure — has over 74 years grown so vast and deep and (in its rare best examples) sophisticated that it has outgrown Superman, antiquated him. Keeping him on top of that has proven to be a serious creative challenge.

On film, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns in 2006 is an obvious case in point. While I like the movie and will defend it to its detractors, I concede that some big choices behind it (#1 being its awkward linkage to the Chris Reeve series) resulted in a final product that aimed for worthy ends and was artfully crafted, but landed broken and underpowered. It's to the DC film "canon" what Ang Lee's Hulk is for Marvel: noble aspirations ground between the gears of big-money movie-making.

In the comics, the obvious case is The Death of Superman, DC Comics' 1992 storyline developed through a multi-issue story arc under the title The Death and Return of Superman. Years after missing its initial print run, I tried reading the collected omnibus edition. Instead of being thrilled by the ol' gosh-wow, I was bored bored bored. Couldn't finish it. "Doomsday," the alien super-monstrosity that the DC team created to best Superman once and for all (or not) — brain-jellingly boring. I dropped the book into a donation pile and never thought of it again.

Until this past week, when Max Landis — son of John and screenwriter of Chronicle — released his "educational parody" titled The Death and Return of Superman. He recounts what happened in 1992 when DC  decided to kill, then resurrect, Superman. Landis breaks it down for us hilariously, aided by a justice league of Elijah Wood, Mandy Moore, Ron Howard, Chris Hardwick, Simon Pegg, and more.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The return of the return of the West Seattle Grouchos

The West Seattle Grouchos are a phenomenon I've posted about before.

To recap:

For three consecutive Aprils, 2007-2009, a curious sight popped up on my daily drive to and from my home. Soon after you'd hit the eastbound lane of the West Seattle Bridge connecting our neighborhood peninsula to mainland Seattle and downtown, and if you slowed down just enough to take a look into the woodsy area south of the bridge, there amidst the trees and the brush, you could spy — like a National Geographic photographer on a field assignment in wildest Freedonia — a guerrilla public art grouping of cutouts depicting Groucho Marx, each in full crouch as if foraging for wealthy widows among the greenery. (The spot is geo-marked at Wikimapia and wiki.worldflicks.)

But in 2010 they didn't show at all. We were left bereft of this anonymous urban art giggle-bombing. Where had they gone?

A year later, 2011 was shaping up to be another Groucho-less year. But then, as mysteriously as before, they re-appeared late in the summer. Hooray! Within a month or so they were gone again, slinking stealthily back to wherever they came from.

I've wondered when they'll show up again this year — or if they would at all. Today I was rewarded with an answer, and it came months earlier than expected. Plus, they've moved to a nearby spot more out in the open.

Two weeks after the big snow dump we now have blue skies and as far the senses can tell it might as well be April. Apparently the Grouchos think so too, because there they are, now off the westbound lane, integrated into the set of four bronze sculptures called "Walking on Logs."

"Walking on Logs" in its natural state.
I'm a fan of urban art, and "Walking on Logs" is a welcome adornment as you curve into the West Seattle gateway. It's not unusual to see the four bronze children outfitted with T-shirts or other accoutrements, usually promoting one cause or another. Lately they've been plugging the local Campfire Girls candy sale. And today I noticed that the unknown Marxists have struck again to lend a hand ... rather, a head. Five of them, in fact. To wit:

Clambering up the muddy hillside to take these shots, I'd never before been able to get this close to them. Only one was the full crouching figure, and it had blown over. As I set it upright again, I experienced the tingle of temptation to take it home and add it to my Movie Room decor. But the Harpo on my left shoulder yanked my ear something fierce. Besides, if I added one more Groucho Marx image up in our house Elizabeth would give me The Look. And who am I to deprive my fellow Seattleites of Rufus T. Firefly, Capt. Spaulding, Prof. Wagstaff, and Dr. Quackenbush?

"From the moment I opened your blog up until I closed it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it." — Groucho Marx (revised)

Related posts:

"It's a gala day for you!"

Eugene O'Neill with a Groucho chaser; or, Hello, I must be blogging

Happy Father's Day from Groucho Marx

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party (2005) — Bing! And many more

Forget it, Jake. It's Groundhog Day.

I've never met Stephen Tobolowsky. But I'd like to, so I'll raise a glass of Groundhog Red while facing down the coast L.A.-ward, then hit play on a DVD I acquired some years ago when it arrived unbidden across my desk. It's been on my shelves ever since, a disc I like to pop in when I need some comfortable down-time with an interesting person (albeit vicariously) and the pleasure of a small (very small), under-hyped, refreshingly sincere and unaffected independent film.

Stephen Tobolowsky is a Hollywood character actor. You know him, even if you don't know him. For over 25 years he's been one of L.A.'s reliable workhorses, one of the broad-gauge, nearly anonymous actors you've seen everywhere — Groundhog Day, of course ("Ned Ryerson?" "BING!"), Memento, The Insider, TV episodes of Seinfeld, C.S.I., The West Wing, Deadwood, Heroes, recent high-profile recurring roles in Californication, Community, and particularly as Sandy Ryerson (Ned's brother?) on Glee — and, oh, some 200 other films and TV gigs. His IMDb page lists more than a dozen titles since 2010 alone. His series of podcasts at /Film, "The Tobolowsky Files," makes a fine companion to our title under discussion here. If staying active is the secret to a good life, he has raised the bar for the rest of us. (Frankly, I'd rather be sitting in front of the bar, but I'm working on that other thing too.)

It turns out that when you get him off the set and into the comfort of his Malibu home, with a pot of beer-boiled sausages for the barbecue, he's also one hell of a storyteller.

That's who we find in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party: a naturally affable raconteur at ease telling his friends funny, epiphanal, moving and often bizarre tales from his life. Think of Stephen (and we may call him Stephen) as a softer, rounder, more existentially content Spalding Gray, or the film as a My Dinner with Andre in a pullover sweater and sensible shoes. Both classically trained and disarmingly "one of us," when he employs the Pinteresque pause it's usually to hoist a beer.

Shot over one day in 2004, the birthday party is the setup for this album of Stephen's stories. Hosting friends over cake and candles and glasses clinked together, he dramatizes his twenty-one hours in a freezing pool with "vegetarian piranhas" and faulty mechanical face-eaters on the set of Bird on a Wire. And that time he talked his way out of a gun pressed to his head in a supermarket by inviting the gunman over to dinner. Being dragged off the street in Thailand and beaten with sticks by monks (it was a great honor). His mano-a-mano stare-down with an alpha-male dolphin. The effects of ammonia-laced marijuana while fronting a rock band. His early experiences as a young and hungry actor (Ronald McDonald had no need for commedia dell'arte training). The Christmas LSD ("if the dog talks to you, always listen"). The time Buzz magazine nominated him, temporarily, for the 100 Coolest Guys in L.A., a city he describes as "like Hell but with good restaurants."

His account of his girlfriend's (now wife's) unplanned pregnancy becomes a way to illuminate connections between the life-altering joys and losses we share with others. He played a KKK leader in Mississippi Burning, and his memories of a harrowing experience with real Klansmen during a late-night shoot leads to drinks raised in a toast to a young boy's courage and grace under pressure.

At 6'-2" and deep into male-pattern baldness of Shakespearean magnificence, he is so ordinary-looking that (he tells us) he's been mistaken for a forty-year-old box boy. He'd fit into a police lineup with Paul Giamatti, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

That bland average-joeness really accents the telling of his more ribald stories, and most of those are in this DVD's 90 minutes of extra scenes. That's where we find his misadventures as a naif among the sex shows in Thailand, his all-night date with a stripper (it's not what you think), "live bug tacos," and a college frat party that involved a 300-pound prostitute and the phrase "sloppy twenty-seconds."

How many of the details are authentic and how many does he embellish for dramatic or comedic license? When the teller is such good company, does it matter?

For first-time director (long-time cinematographer) Robert Brinkmann, this project is a personal labor of love for his old friend Stephen. With co-producer and editor Andrew Putschoegl, Brinkmann keeps the film simple and plain-speaking. After an opening story on Malibu beach — with a timely cameo from a pair of dolphins — we're in Stephen's kitchen (copper cookware, nice), out back by the grill, or in his living room, where the camera places us in the semi-circle of a dozen or so show-biz friends such as actors Mena Suvari, pre-Junebug Amy Adams in blue jeans, Greg Wagrowski and Stephen's wife, actor Ann Hearn. The rhythm gets shaken up now and then by personal testimonials from Suvari, Hearn and Wagrowski, but the rest of the time it's all Stephen's show.

Other than some of the stories feeling necessarily shaped and rehearsed, the film displays a welcome lack of artifice. Brinkmann and Putschoegl let us sometimes glimpse another camera, and they add no techniques flashier than professional, good-looking point-and-shoot.

It never pretends to be more than what it is, and that's one of the reasons it works so well. It's entertainment stripped down to Aristotelian elementals: a gifted artist telling stories. Its intentions toward a personal connection between subject and audience deliver such a pleasant change that Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party deserves an audience beyond the festival circuit where its buzz began.

In an email Putschoegl told me that "it appears to have an almost universal appeal." Indeed. While viewing this disc a second time, my wife, smitten, uttered, "I want to know him." Then our resident hip-hopping teenager, transfixed, turned to me and said, "Why isn't he your friend?"

So Stephen, next time you're in Seattle, call.

By the way, the DVD is worth mentioning on its other merits too. It was released in 2006 (on, in fact, the day of Stephen's 55th birthday party). So that the filmmakers' investment returns stay where they belong, with the filmmakers, the DVD is available through the official web site, plus and Netflix. The web site also includes some amusing trailers not found on the DVD.

It's a well-produced disc. Shot on high-definition video, the image delivers a faultless presentation. The DD 2.0 stereo surround audio isn't showy, though Stephen's occasional piano support (Bach's Prelude #1 in C Major, Debussy's "Clair de lune") spreads the sound around the room a bit.

For extras we get those 90 minutes of extra scenes already mentioned. Any of these fourteen self-contained outtakes could easily work within the film. Together they become a slightly raunchier ad hoc STBP: Part II that's longer than the main attraction's 87 minutes. It's all gold, and their presence here is a welcome bonus.

Music: Sharon Isbin, "Duarte: Appalachian Dreams, Op. 121 - 1. Fantasia"
Near at hand: The moleskin reporter's notebook for "In the Human Museum"

Homer Gump


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

More reimagined movie posters

I am quite liking this trend.

Last October, the New York Times served up a piece on Mondo, "an offshoot of the Austin, Tex., theater chain Alamo Drafthouse. It commissions artists to design alternative versions of posters for films considered cult or genre pictures." Before that, Wired gave some feature attention to a number of the artists I link to below.

I could click through Mondo Archive and Reelizer ("The fine art of film art") all day. And I want to write books just so Olly Moss can do the cover art.

Alex Kittle  (via Fuck Yeah, Movie Posters!)

Joel Amat Güell at unHollywood

Bart van Ackooij

Eye Noise via Alamo Draft House | Reelizer

Jason Munn via Mondo Archive (If there's already a classic of the form, that Bonnie and Clyde art is it.)

Olly Moss via Mondo Archive

Nick Hollomon via Rectangular Film via Collections | Reelizer

Oliver Barrett via The Astor Theater | Reelizer

Laz Marquez via Hitchcock Re-Envisioned | Reelizer

Martin Ansin via Universal Monsters | Reelizer

Related posts: