Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Extensions


A couple of weeks ago, the incomparable Dennis Cozzalio posted the latest in his series of fabulous film quizzes, this one entitled the PROFESSOR ARTHUR CHIPPING’S MADDENINGLY DETAILED, PURPOSEFULLY VAGUE, FITFULLY OUT-OF-FOCUS BACK TO SCHOOL MOVIE QUIZ , named for the lovably shy and retiring don played twice on the silver screen. Writing deadlines have prevented me from taking part in the quiz, but since Dean Cozzalio has agreed to open-ended extensions for everyone, I'm finally able to dive in and tackle what's sure to be another challenging set of questions. Chips ahoy!



1) What is the biggest issue for you in the digital vs. film debate?


Roger Ebert is constantly raising questions about the viewing processes of digital v. film-- that there's literally a perceptual difference between the media that inevitably effects our understanding and experience of the movie. Others have noted both the advantages and disadvantages that digital preservation presents for our access to and understanding of film history (where would we be without the on-demand resources of the Warner Archive, for instance)? Personally, I'm excited by the access that digital shooting and editing (as well as online viewing spaces like YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) can give to younger filmmakers who lack the access to (or even interest in) more corporate spaces of filming and presentation; I'm also concerned that the "realness" of digital encourages a false belief in the moral superiority of 'authentic' genres like documentary (and all the tired tropes of "realism" that already feel like Gen Y lingua franca). But what's mostly a concern is the tendency of the debate to organize around Chicken Little absolutisms about the "end of cinema" (whether that prospect is seen positively or negatively), keeping us trapped in counter-cultural/moralistic rhetoric about cinema and society and the "mass" that we should have let rot back in 1975.

2) Without more than one minute’s consideration, name three great faces from the movies.




3) The movie you think could be interesting if remade as a movie musical.

What about My Man Godfrey? Gregory LaCava's perfectly-staged physical slapstick (from pushing Cornelia into the dump-pile, to Carlo's ape-like dance around the study, to Carole Lombard's dizzy "he loves me!" tumble out of the shower) already feels like the stirrings of a Tommy Tune-like choreography; the boy-meets-girl's-family love story has all kinds of possibilities for songs both hilarious and achingly lyrical; and the show's once-historically-fixed social commentary might once again feel fresh in our recessioned age. I think Jason Robert Brown could do wonders with it.

4) The last movie you saw theatrically/on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming.


Two weeks ago, I had the great good luck of seeing Lawrence of Arabia theatrically, as part of the film's 50th anniversary celebration: it was playing for one night in our multiplex in Westlake, Ohio, and while I'd seen it a couple of times on home video, I was not going to miss it on the big screen. I was expecting something grand and epic, and got it (of course), but I was not prepared for the overwhelming emotional power of seeing it in a theater, larger than life (if not in 70mm) and so utterly present in my imagination. I was not expecting to feel like I was twirling dizzily, happily, inside of David Lean's kaleidoscopic eye, his framing and cutting creating geometric patterns that felt both unlikely, strange and yet completely right. I was not expecting my synapses to fire in quite the way they did, moving rapidly between cinephilic bliss and historical curiosity, my brain mapping out patterns between film-history-film history like Lawrence planning his guerrilla raids. And most of all, I was somehow not prepared for Peter O'Toole, seven years before he played Mr. Chips, as Lawrence. I say "somehow" because, again, I'd seen the film twice before; I knew what was coming; I knew how good he was. And yet I didn't know how good he was, how important that large screen was for framing his larger-than-life face against an even larger backdrop of sand and history. I didn't realize how powerful those eyes were, their Bowie-like stares evoking another movie about a man out of place, overwhelmed by the forces he thinks he's controlling; I didn't realize just how alien Lawrence was, and that alienation paradoxically draws us further into his struggle. O'Toole has long been one of my favorite actors, ever since I saw My Favorite Year on cable as a young teen, but Lawrence of Arabia was a reminder of just how underrated, even fifty years on, he really is.


I wrote about this elsewhere, but watching the new DVD version of 1945's Children of Paradise was revelatory, and one of the greatest movie-watching experiences of my life. The film is magical, at once classical and post-modern, and one of those rare times when a film lives up to, and then transcends, everything you've ever read about it.


Almost on a whim a couple of weeks ago, I looked up Italianamerican (1974), Martin Scorsese's beautiful tribute to his parents, on YouTube. I'd always wanted to see the hard-to-track-down picture, and was delighted to find it up in six parts on the site. That lead me to watch some of the other Scorsese films (his college shorts, The Big Shave, his documentary about Giorgio Armani) that I'd never seen. I enjoyed them all, but none of them prepared me for American Boy, his 1978 documentary about childhood friend and sometime actor Stephen Prince, made just after Prince had appeared in Taxi Driver and New York, New York, and streaming on YouTube.

It uses a similar anecdotal/interview/archival footage format to Italianamerican (and later Scorsese documentaries, like those on American and Italian cinema), and introduces us to Prince, a childhood friend who, in addition to his film work,also road-managed Neil Diamond (about whom he has very funny war stories). He's also a confirmed heroin addict, and tells harrowing stories of using and recovering, including a tale of using an adrenaline shot to restart a woman's heart that Quentin Tarantino, um, borrowed for Pulp Fiction. It's the drug abuse that structures the film, as Prince's stories of using move from nudge-nudge, wink-wink 70s hedonism, to braggadocio about everything his been through, to sadness at all he's lost (as well as pride in his recovery). Visually, too, the contrast between the nervous, twitchy, open-yet-on-guard Prince (with his roving eyes and tightening jaw) and the younger Prince we see in home movie footage, is devastating without being mawkish.

But what's more interesting than Prince are Scorsese's own choices as a filmmaker.

As the film began, I thought it was
going to be really dull, even at only 55 minutes-- there's an air of distraction and machismo and indulgence that almost feels like someone doing a parody of Scorsese (or maybe Cassavettes). But as it goes, and the stories build, and Prince's roving eyes distract you from what he's saying, I realized there's a real structure in the looseness, a way in which its ramshackle quality both reflects and wryly comments on Prince's wayward life. What's particularly fascinating is how Scorsese uses the seeming lack of structure to be self-reflexive, leaving in the dialogue about setting up at the beginning, squeezing in and out of shots, walking in front of the camera, at one point even gesturing grandly to his cameraman to pan, like a magician waving his hand over the girl in the box. And there's an amazing moment in the last three or four minutes where Prince tells a story about talking to his Dad on the phone, and when
he's done Scorsese sounds peeved (off-camera); he asks to cut, and we see them talking, as Scorsese complains that he heard a much more interesting version of the same story on the plane, and that's what he wants. And you realize that even in this "documentary" setting, he's coaxing a performance out of his actor, talking about emotion and motivation, trying to get him to reconnect to the sadness, like a Method documentarian.

5) Favorite movie about work.



Probably Wonder Boys: when Katie Holmes tells Michael Douglas, "You know how in class, you tell us a writer has to make choices? Well, it feels like you...didn't," I always laugh with a slight shudder, because it captures that fear of simultaneous over-coverage and incompletion that comes with any project. Also, Robert Downey, Jr., is terrific as Douglas's editor.

6) The movie you loved as a child that did not hold up when seen through adult eyes.


What are you saying? I had excellent taste as a child, and watched only the classics. But I imagine Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, seen in 1983 at a friend's birthday party, and enjoyed many times since on TV (but not since I was 12) might not be the kick-ass masterpiece I thought it was when I was ten.

7) Favorite “road” movie.

Speaking of the classics...



8) Does Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention change or confirm your perspective on him as a filmmaker/movie icon? Is that appearance relevant to his legacy as a filmmaker?

No, not at all. I have no problem separating out the personal wackiness of Clint Eastwood from his brilliance as an actor and producer/director. I found his "performance" at the GOP convention to be a strange choice for an actor who always seemed so graceful and astute in managing his public image, and I certainly don't agree with his politics. But none of that takes away from Dirty Harry, or The Man With No Name, or the Pale Rider, or how much I enjoyed Play Misty For Me, Tightrope, Hang 'Em High, In The Line of Fire, or so many others (OK, maybe not Firefox). Jean-Luc Godard famously asked, "How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?" It's an interesting question about the relationship of acting to iconography, and real-life to image, but it also seems like there's a Gordian knot solution to Godard's problem (and those implied in your question): I can do it because the screen and the life often feel separated as much as they feel intertwined, and the "Eastwood" I see on-screen (or sense in his directing) is full of wit, grace and endless, wonderful contradiction, regardless of how much that off-screen guy yells at a chair and asks paradoxical questions of the President.

And look, if nothing else, it gave the underrated Bill Hader a wonderful showcase:




9) Longest-lasting movie or movie-related obsession.


Well, I saw this movie in 1980, and just hung the poster from it on my office wall. Does 32 years count?

10) Favorite artifact of movie exploitation.

Aside from film posters like the one above, or film soundtracks, I actually don't have a lot of paraphernalia. I'm not sure why-- I love the fetish quality of cinema, but I suppose I've always felt like that stuff was a bit out of my price range, and my fascinations were funneled into getting things on tape or disc, and later books on film. The only other things I can think of, depending on far we want to stretch the definition, are action figures-- as someone born in 1973, I was perfectly positioned for the Lucas-Spielberg toy onslaught, and they certainly made many a Christmas and birthday magical. Most of them were Star Wars figures, most of which I gave away to a friend's younger brother when I was fourteen. I was happy to see them go to a someone whose young imagination would be as fired up by them as mine had been, although I'll admit that this choice probably enhanced my appreciation of this scene:




11) Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie theater? If so, when and why?

Not that I'm aware of. I did almost fall asleep watching Triumph of the Will in a graduate film class, though.

12) Favorite performance by an athlete in a movie.

It's a surprisingly long list, from Ahnuld in the first Terminator, to Brett Favre in There's Something About Mary (a good example of the actor/person split I mentioned above, as I despise the Gunslinger in real life, but think he's pretty funny in the film), to Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen to Ray Allen in Spike Lee's unfairly overlooked He Got Game. But for sheer charisma and fun, has any former athlete ever been better than this?



Carl Weathers, a former pro linebacker from New Orleans, is so good in those first three Rocky movies that he utterly upsets the emotional calculus of the films; yes, Stallone is great and touching (in the first film, especially), but who needs the lumbering "Italian Stallion" when you have someone as fast, smart and funny as Apollo Creed? Imagine the films from Creed's perspective: they could be both rollicking comedies about the joys of fame, and thoughtful dramas about race and media, and existing in the constant spotlight, for a black athlete in the 1970s (in this film, the Rocky-as-underdog narrative becomes something forced and vaguely sinister). And the beauty of Weathers-- an actor who never again got a role as potentially complex as this one-- is that he could play in those films and the more cartoonish ones he was actually in, and make his character grounded and real in both: you can't take your eyes off of him.

13) Second favorite Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie.

The only one I've seen is In A Year of 13 Moons, a film I can appreciate but from which I get no enjoyment.

14) Favorite film of 1931.


There's this lottery ticket, see...



15) Second favorite Raoul Walsh movie.

My favorite Walsh film is the delightful Gentleman Jim, in which Errol Flynn has never been better as the titular boxer. My second-favorite is another Flynn film, which might be my favorite combat movie.



I haven't seen the film in many years, but I still can't shake the terse brilliance of Flynn out of my head when I think of it, or how well Walsh incorporates documentary technique into his melodramatic structure, respecting each while blending them to make us feel the struggle of soldiers displaced and under fire. Gripping.

16) Favorite film of 1951.


There's a tennis player, see...




17) Second favorite Wong Kar-wai movie.


"They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever."

18) Favorite film of 1971.


There's this gambler, see...



This is my favorite Altman film, too.

19) Second favorite Henri-Georges Clouzot movie.

I feel ashamed that I have not seen as much Clouzot as I should, but after Le Corbeau, this one's pretty good:



Of course, when I first saw it, I was a raw and churlish nineteen-year old, and thought it was excruciatingly dull (ah, youth)! It was also the film that Ian Fleming cited in a letter to a friend, when talking about the tone he hoped the just-optioned Bond films could achieve. They wouldn't really get at that stripped-down, existential tension for 25 years, until Timothy Dalton took over for The Living Daylights. Interestingly, that film establishes itself with an opening sequence built around a exploding truck, as if the series finally caught up with Fleming's dream:



20) Favorite film of 1991.

The Rocketeer, Point Break, Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Fever, Silence of the Lambs, Boyz In The Hood and The Fisher King would all be right up there. But when I caught this film on TV again this summer, I was reminded of just how damn good everyone is in it, and how well Barry Levinson (possibly for the last time) creates a menacing, seductive world, and slips us right into it:



21) Second favorite John Sturges movie.


It can't hold a candle to The Great Escape, but it's more fun than McQ.

22) Favorite celebrity biopic.

I don't know if he's a "celebrity,"per se, but I have a great deal of fondness for 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan's delirious mockumentary-style rave-up about music producer, club owner and TV personality Tony Wilson. It captures the energy of the music and the Manchester scene of the 80s and 90s, making you understand their fascination even as it casts a skewed eye on the crazy pretensions of its protagonist. And the soundtrack is killer.



23) Name a good script idea which was let down either by the director or circumstances of production.


This is a hard question to answer, since, as Dennis himself mentions in his answers to the quiz, it's hard to know (unless one has read the screenplay) how much to sort out from the script, v. the direction, v. the actors, etc. And while production histories are helpful, they are also subject to memory, willful forgetfulness, power-mad revisionism, etc. Having said all that, the first thing that popped into my head was Greystoke, which had been a passion project of the brilliant Robert Towne for years. I've read different accounts of why he left the project, but I'll leave it to the reliable historians at TCM to fill in the blanks:

Greystoke began as the dream project of famed screenwriter Robert Towne. He had come up through the informal "Roger Corman School" of filmmaking, writing and/or acting in several Corman productions ranging in quality from the slapdash Puerto Rican-filmed quickie Last Woman on Earth (1960) to the stylish and widely praised Poe adaptation The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Towne would later pen such iconic 1970s screenplays as The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Shampoo (1975) in addition to being one of the most in-demand "script doctors" of the 1970s. His intent with Greystoke was to fashion the definitive Tarzan picture, ingeniously told largely from the point-of-view of the apes. Towne was known to have been working on the script even before Chinatown was finished, and had been thinking about it for years even before that. By 1977 the property was officially in pre-production at Warner Bros. with Towne directing, and he and his proposed director of photography, Michael Chapman, scouted locations in Africa.

Peter Biskind, in the scathing but well-researched bestseller Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, wrote that Towne had been warned by his friend Warren Beatty that the studio would never entrust a $30 million project to a first-time director. Yet, it seemed as if they would, in spite of the fact that Towne's script ran to 240 pages and he could never seem to finish writing the last act. In 1980, Towne was completely distracted by another project, but Warner Bros. felt that this smaller project would provide the writer with directing experience before he tackled the larger jungle epic. Unfortunately for Towne, Personal Best (1982), the "small" $7 million picture dealing with female Olympic hopefuls, had gone wildly over schedule and over budget - to $16 million. Towne had been held responsible for the overage, and according to Biskind he sold the Greystoke script outright to Warner Bros. in order to finish Personal Best; (in typical Hollywood fashion, accounts vary and afterward lawsuits flew between Towne, producer David Geffen, and the studio over the particulars).

Warner Bros. gave Towne's script to British director Hugh Hudson, who had helmed Chariots of Fire (1981) to a Best Picture Oscar®. In turn, Hudson brought on scriptwriter Michael Austin (The Shout [1978]) for a major rewrite. The new script retained much the original's approach to the society of apes that raise the orphaned Tarzan, but greatly elaborates on the manor house settings of the elder Greystoke family; the non-jungle scenes end up comprising more than half of the final film. (Famously, Towne had his name taken off the credits and replaced with the name of his pet sheepdog).


Now, admittedly, Towne is a much, much better writer than director. But his work does tend to move and quiver with a lot of passion, and an eye for character. Could his Greystoke really have been any worse than the sluggish Wild Child/Return of the Man Called Horse mash-up that Hugh Hudson delivered?


24) Heaven’s Gate-- yes or no?


I've never seen it. I suppose I should. I can't imagine it's as bad as its reputation suggests. And at a moment when the online debates about "good" movies are so often pitched at a level both hysterical and cliquish, I'd imagine Michael Cimino's infamous epic might look pretty good, and its supposedly slow pace and epic framing refreshing in the age of Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle. But here's the thing-- I hate The Deer Hunter. I hate Year of The Dragon. Kris Kristofferson gives me hives. None of this makes me want to throw the Criterion disc into a player at the earliest possible moment. But I'm guessing it's better than Dances With Wolves.

25) Favorite pairing of movie sex symbols.


Does it get better than this?

26) One word that you could say which would instantly evoke images and memories of your favorite movie. (Naming the movie is optional—might be more fun to see if we can guess what it is from the word itself)

Shocked!

27) Name one moment which to you demarcates a significant change, for better or worse, on the landscape of the movies over the last 20 years.



I'm sure tomorrow I'll think of something else (and something more positive), but how about The Blair Witch Project? Along with the far more skillful Scream, it ushered in a revival of increasingly desperate teens-under-siege horror films (and bad remakes like the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre); its mockumentary style started the ball rolling on the tired trope of "found" footage; its low-budget success gave a shot in the arm to independent film, but also made budget a fetish that, qualitatively, is no different than celebrating the excess of larger-budgeted films; and it also spawned a crappy sequel a year or so later. I'll admit that horror is one of my least-favorite genres, but as Greg Ferrara recently pointed out, it at least used to provide the technical pleasures of sincere terror. The self-consciousness he dissects in his piece might not have started with The Blair Witch Project, but it was certainly sped up by it, and not, as Phoebe Buffay might say, in a good way.

28) Favorite pre-Code talkie.


Seven years ago, while watching the house of a film professor with a non-region DVD player and a very big collection of tapes and DVDs, I had a series of cinematic revelations about Frank Capra. Like so many American cinephiles, I was raised on the myth of Frank Capra as the Voice of the Little Guy, the 1930s Man of the People, a myth enhanced by Capra's own autobiography and a host of PBS documentaries. And of course, I join in the chorus of praise for It Happened One Night and It's A Wonderful Life, and raise a cheer for underrated gems like Lost Horizon,Meet John Doe and State of the Union.

But let's be honest-- David Thomson is right when he notes the fascistic undertones of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the anti-democratic sneering that film does at the notion of compromise (despite a brilliant cast, especially a never-better Thomas Mitchell). You Can't Take It With You is a handbook of moral smugness for budding hipsters, which fails to realize how much its ethos of "follow your bliss" relies on the independent wealth of its twee characters. And the less said about Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, the better-- I might have been the only person in America who didn't weep when Adam Sandler remade it, since I never thought much of the original, or how poorly it uses Gary Cooper. Add to that the way Joseph McBride's masterful 1992 biography of the director dismantles the mythologies Capra was so good at perpetrating, and lays bear the filmmaker's tendency to use and abuse his colleagues, and, well... by the time I was housesitting in 2005, Frank Capra was in my bad books.

But ah, pre-Code Capra! I watched a big batch of them that summer, and became addicted. His collaboration with Joseph Walker (one of the greatest of all cinematographers) and his infatuation with Barbara Stanwyck brings to these films a lightness of touch, a sharpness of eye, and toughness of spirit that makes even potentially mawkish material like Lady For a Day shimmer with generosity and bouncy humor (to see just how bad this can be in other hands, watch the same story told as Pocketful of Miracles (1962), when Capra has been replaced by a pod person of the same name, and misses every single mark he hits in the original version). And Ladies of Leisure, Platinum Blonde, Broadway Bill, the prescient American Madness, the startling Miracle Woman and the otherworldly The Bitter Tea of General Yen make the case for Capra as a far more fluid director across genres than he's often given credit for. I adore all of these films, but it is the problematic, fascinating Yen-- as if Capra is channeling and then outdoing Von Sternberg's most ornate, Orientalist visual fantasies-- that I would probably name as my favorite of them all. The tensions between the cliched and stereotyped narrative, and the way it is framed and deepened by the camerawork and performances, makes Yen a must-see, not in spite of its contradictions, but because of them. The tension makes the film quiver. And none of his work better displays Capra's admitted desire for his leading lady, like a Vertigo 26 years early.



29) Oldest film in your personal collection. (Thanks, Peter Nellhaus)

Blacksmith Scene (1893), an Edison film that appears in the first Treasures From The American Film Archives box.



30) Longest film in your personal collection. (Thanks, Brian Darr)


I'm not sure, actually, but I'll say the 200-minute Gone With The Wind-- off-hand, I can't think of anything I own that's longer.

31) Have your movie collection habits changed in the past 10 years? If so, how?


Yes-- first the availability of rental-by-mail with Netflix, then streaming video on Netflix, and then online rentals through I-Tunes and online viewing services like YouTube, Vimeo and Daily Motion, all mean that I buy far fewer films than I used to (which might not be readily apparent from the stacks of discs around the house). It also means that far more films are available than might have been years earlier, when video stores, Borders and the whims of the marketplace could sometimes determine viewing patterns (I am very grateful, too, for on-demand services like The Warner Archive, making available films that had fallen out of the public eye, and thereby transforming both my viewing and teaching).

32) Wackiest, most unlikely “directed by” credit you can name.

The Bicycle Thief, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Along those same lines, there's this:



33) Best documentary you’ve seen in 2012 (made in 2012 or any other year).

I'll go with Italianamerican, mentioned above, if only because it gives me the excuse to share a clip.



34) What’s your favorite “(this star) was almost cast in (this movie)” anecdote?

Can you believe they almost cast Lucille Ball as Mame??? That scratchy voice belting out those great songs??? Crazy, those early 70s filmmakers! Wacky!



Um, moving on...

My favorite "almost cast" story involves, once again, The Bicycle Thief. Producer David Selznick was fascinated by Italian neo-realism, and had become friendly with Vittorio De Sica. He told De Sica he would gladly fund his new movie, as long as he cast Cary Grant and gave it a happy ending. Despite how good Grant is in None But The Lonely Heart (and he's much more wonderful than that film's reputation would lead you to believe) and despite his ability to be both dark and pathetic as need be, it's a hard thing to picture. But it's a great story, and one I suspect Michael Tolkin had heard when he wrote The Player: in the original novel, crafty film executive Griffin Mill's mind reels as he watches the final scene: they don't find the bike, he slowly realizes. It's going to have an unhappy ending! And then Mill calms himself by realizing you could always remake it with a happy one.

35) Program three nights of double bills at a revival theater that might best illuminate your love of the movies.

Let's just assume time limits, sleep and bladders don't exist, and we can program to our aesthetic heart's delight, here at The Duck Soup, America's favorite cinephilic meeting place...

(Also, since I initially read it as triple bills, and my mind tends to think in threes, I'm going to throw in one extra film a night-- for free!).

Night One



Night Two



Night Three



36) You have been granted permission to invite any three people, alive or dead, to your house to watch the Oscars. Who are they?


Setting aside family and friends and only focusing on famous people...

1) Martin Scorsese-- the great movie obsessive. Because I want someone else in the room who appreciates a good historical montage, because he'll be generous about the cheesier segments of the program (and probably find a way to link a Rob Lowe-Snow White dance to Jean Renoir), and because he'd be a lot of fun to talk film with during the commercials.

2) Anthony Bourdain-- who better to bring the snacks? Plus, he's a closet cinephile with a real French New Wave fetish.

3) Helen Mirren-- Because she's Helen Mirren, of course.

37) Favorite Mr. Chips. (Careful...)

There's only one Mr. Chips, my friend.










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