An Artist is Born Singin’ in the Rain

I’ve been bombarded with questions about The Artist.  Everyone I see asks me about it.  I felt that I had to give it a look, and a fair chance, before answering.

Before I go on too far, let me say that I’ve seen zillions of silent films.  I know how they are supposed to look and feel.  I am a harsh judge of movies that get history dreadfully wrong and don’t seem to care about it.  I have been a vocal critic of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) for many years.  Sure, it has great singing and dancing in it, but it gets the feel of the era entirely wrong, and it puts “history” out there that is completely and utterly bogus.  I wince every time I see the movie.

I went to see Hugo a while back, in a nice theater, in 3D, and it underwhelmed me.  This ties in with The Artist, because Hugo is another film that is set in that same period, the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Hugo did a delightful job recreating the period.  Ben Kingsley is brilliant.  The effects are great.  Most of the history is fairly good, although it’s been warped for ease of storytelling.  Ultimately, for me, it didn’t say enough about the magic of movies and had a tedious, predictable sub-plot with the station inspector.  The sub-plot felt like it had been ripped from the film adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and we all had to wait for this plot element’s resolution before getting back to the main action.  Mostly enjoyable, but not a film I’d call a classic.

Many films that are set in this period get the history so far wrong that I want to throw things at the screen.  I generally don’t have to do this, because some moron in the front row is already doing it by the time I find my motivation level rising.  Public Enemies, the Johnny Depp film from a couple of years ago, was particularly offensive.  The filmmaking techniques were right out of Michael Bay: cut-cut-cut editing, mushy shot-on-video camerawork, never a tripod or steady shot.  Depp’s Dillinger robs palatial block-wide banks in rural Indiana–located in towns that are still just barely dots on the map.  Not only does it get the facts wrong, but it gets the feel wrong.  Public Enemies plays like teenager’s first feature-length video on YouTube.  We might have been impressed that a teen could pull off such a feat, but we’re embarrassed that talented professionals would allow their names to be attached to such a lousy film.

I’m inclined to give a movie a break if it tends to get the feel right.  Some are better than others.  The Sting is so accurate that it sometimes feels colorized.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? plays fast and loose with the facts, but when it gets down to brass tacks, the film feels authentically 1930s.  I recommend both movies.  I hesitantly recommend Hugo, too, although with some reservations.

And on to The Artist.  This film has pretensions you can cut with a butcher knife.  Not only does it attempt to recreate the 1920s/30s, but it is also presented in black and white, in the 1930s aspect ratio, and, most importantly, as a silent film.  It’s tough to make a silent film these days.  First, modern audiences aren’t used to the dramatic techniques used in them, so sometimes they’ll draw an unintentional laugh.  Second, a lot of things have changed in the intervening years, so it becomes a technical challenge.

Does it work?  Yes, it mostly does.  The plot is fairly pedestrian, basically a retooling of A Star is Born, but that plot was old in 1937.  George Valentin, a major silent star, played by Jean Dujardin, is a little careless in his personal life, has an alienated wife, and meets Peppy Miller, a rising young flapper, played by Bérénice Bejo.  As sound comes in, he is increasingly unable to maintain his status, while Peppy goes on to major success.

The film progresses and we see Valentin’s downfall as we see Peppy rise to greater and greater heights, up until, well, you oughta see the movie.

Dujardin turns in an excellent performance.  He manages to capture the swagger of Douglas Fairbanks with a bit of the continental charm of Ricardo Cortez.  It works well within the context of the film.  Bejo is not quite as good, although still commendable.  She just seems a bit too bubbly at times.  Also at hand are reliables like James Cromwell as the long-suffering chauffeur/butler, and John Goodman as the studio chief.  They are nothing short of great, but then I would expect nothing else from them.

Director Michel Hazanavicius does a great job recreating the style of the times.  Not too many closeups, which we love to use today, slower editing pace, and he even undercranks the film just a hair to give it that late 20s feel.  It works.  He matches the style of intertitles and even recreates the 1920s fonts very well.  (You knew I was picky.)

I just wish it had been more, somehow.  I suppose that it should be enough that Hazanavicius has recreated the period well enough that he’s made a run-of-the-mill late silent picture.  If you’re hoping for a truly great silent picture, a drama like Sunrise, a love story like Lonesome, then, well, it isn’t here.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but I can tell you that I’ve been to conventions to watch day-long silent film marathons, and The Artist would not be a huge standout.  It would get good reviews, a few smiles, and we’d move on.

There are myriad little nitpicks, from the unblimped Mitchell cameras to the 2000’ film cans, to the way the nitrate doesn’t burn fast enough, to… well, OK, you get the point.  More severe are problems later in the picture.  Peppy Miller seems to be in 1920s flapper attire, short skirts and all, way too far into the 1930s.  The climactic sequence uses a music style that almost sounds like big band music from the early 1940s, which isn’t right, either.  The cutting is actually too slow, and there is a tendency to dwell on to actors speaking without cutting to an intertitle, which would not have been done at the time.  But I nitpick.

The single greatest failure of the film, to my mind, is a plot point.  Goodman’s studio boss calls Dujardin into his office and basically fires him, saying that the movies need to flush out all the old silent actors and replace them all with new ones.

WHAT?

Sure, there were silent actors who didn’t make it far into the sound era.  A lot of leading ladies got older, were married and retired.  Lon Chaney died.  John Gilbert was an alcoholic and was probably blackballed by Louis Mayer.  Douglas Fairbanks found sound films dull to make.  Chaplin took time to adapt to sound.  But there were so many others who starred both in silent and sound films, many who didn’t even seem to notice the bump…

Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, WC Fields, Ronald Colman, Ricardo Cortez, Gary Cooper, Warner Oland, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young all sailed through the transition.  Even though comedy didn’t flourish in the 1930s as it did in the 1920s, still stars like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Vernon Dent, and many others, at least found work.  Harold Lloyd was especially prosperous in the sound era.  Keaton’s downfall came not with the advent of sound, but rather with his contract moving to MGM, and even with his boozing and bad films, he still worked steadily through the 1930s.

The idea that stars were summarily flushed out of the system for talkie stars is just wrong.  There were a few stars with unsuitable voices, which is an idea that was blown way out of proportion with Singin’ in the Rain.  Raymond Griffith had a vocal injury and couldn’t speak above a whisper.  Sound films didn’t quite end his career, but it was close.  Karl Dane had a very thick accent and had trouble in sound films, as did Anny Ondra, whose voice was dubbed in Blackmail (1929)In general, even those actors with relatively thick accents still did well: Bela Lugosi, Charles Boyer, and Paul Lukas come to mind quickly.

This is why the biggest flaw in The Artist is the goofy idea that a studio would summarily drop a big, moneymaking star who simply had yet to make a talking film.  I can’t think of a single time that happened.  Perhaps someone can correct my memory.  Movies are, and always have been, about making money, not about art.  If the star makes money for them, they’ll put up with about anything.  As soon as they stop making money, they’re out.  Do you honestly think that studios would have put up with the drug-addicted, temperamental Judy Garland had she not been brilliant and profitable?

No one should ever get their history from movies made about movies.  For some reason, films are neglected art and film history seems particularly unimportant.  I have no idea why, but you’re more likely to get a good reconstruction of a Napoleonic campaign than a talking film from 1931.

***Special Side Note***

Kim Novak has gone on record complaining bitterly about the use of music from Vertigo (1958) during the climactic section of The Artist.  Her remarks were pointed and used a rape metaphor.  Novak has been accused of looking to get her name in the papers again, and of being overly sensitive.   The music is used to back up a particularly poignant scene, and no one ever did poignant like Bernard Herrmann, the composer of Vertigo’s score.  Several people have said that it doesn’t really matter, because the music is from an old film anyway, and, after all, who would notice?

Here are my two cents’ worth:  Who would notice?  Gee whiz, guys, you are making a movie and targeting fans of older films.  Don’t you think it would be obvious?  Vertigo isn’t just some old movie… it’s an all-time classic, and it’s one of the greatest film scores ever written.  People know it.  A lot of people know it.  Don’t believe me—believe Google.  Perhaps Ms. Novak is a little extreme in her wording, but she has a good point.  If I were writing a symphony, I could easily lift the last few minutes from a Beethoven symphony.  It might work well, and it would be perfectly legal.  But why would I do that?

Artistically, it’s a bad call.  It immediately took me out of the film.  The rest of the score, by Ludovic Bource, is quite excellent at imitating the style of the period.  He even does a pretty good job of foreshadowing the quote from Vertigo.  But it still doesn’t match.  Vertigo is 1950s Herrmann, not 1920s pop.  It’s great, it mostly works, but it’s intrusive.  I would have been happier with an ending by Bource.  I think he could have done it justice.  (For an illuminating answer as to why Bource didn’t have his music in this scene, please check Bruce Calvert’s comment below.  I didn’t know about it before publishing this.)

I am not going to jump on the bandwagon criticizing Novak.  She is not stupid, and she is not a publicity hound.  The use of Vertigo music in The Artist is strictly legal and above board, but I don’t think it works with the film.  Vertigo is Vertigo and I think it would have better been left alone.

All that said, The Artist is still a fun film, and a great cinematic experiment.

The Lost Weekend With Buster

I’m going to apologize in advance for this departing from my usual blog format.  I normally like to do reviews or some sort of film thing, but this is mostly about me.  Still, it’s about film preservation, and I think it’s a worthy thing to discuss.

I’d been aware for some time that Kino/Lorber was producing a new Blu-Ray edition of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925).  It’s certainly not Keaton’s best feature, not by any measure, but it’s a nice picture, and I loved it.  It still has one of my favorite Keaton moments in it: Chased by scads of women who lust after his potential fortune, Keaton has accidentally started a rockslide in order to get away from them.  The women outsmart him and get to the bottom of the valley before he can, while the rockslide gets progressively worse.  Keaton looks up at the rocks, and down at the women, and he’s flummoxed.  He scratches his head as he wonders which fate is worse.  It’s quick, understated, but it’s pure Keaton.  William K. Everson often stated that Keaton seemed to be a visitor from another realm, confused and unaware of our rules and conventions.  This little moment sums that up for me.

But that’s a digression.  The key point is the Seven Chances had a Technicolor opening sequence.  It’s in two-color Technicolor from early in the days of the process, back when it was fairly unstable.  Some years earlier, I’d toyed with restoring the color from Kino’s previous edition, and I had come up with some curves in Photoshop that got the color back to some semblance of the way it used to look.  I had the file sitting dormant on my hard drive.

My friend, film historian Bruce Lawton, has been consulting with Kino on some of their new Buster Keaton Blu-Ray releases.  He’d let the producer of the new disc, Bret Wood, know about the work I’d done on it.  I knew that it had been delayed and pushed forward a number of times.  I also knew that if they could do the restoration in-house, that they probably would, because that would be easier and cheaper.  That was all great.

Finally, Bruce told me that they were making little headway with the color sequence.  Bret sent me some notes and FedExed me the opening sequence at HD resolution from the material preserved at Library of Congress.

Let me back up and tell you that this was at the beginning of October 2011, the 7th to be exact.  I’ll also tell you that I don’t work in film exclusively: I’m also a computer consultant, with a degree in Electrical Engineering.  On the morning of the 7th, I had gotten a call that a client of mine had had some printers fail on him, and I was obligated to spend the afternoon fixing them.  The package from Bret arrived sometime in the afternoon.

Now, October is a crazy time for me.  Everyone wants me to do Halloween movies, and this year was no exception.  I generally run all over my home state of Indiana doing shows.  I also consult and project with the Heartland Film Festival, and that was due to start on the 13th.  I’d also promised my supportive girlfriend that we were going to go off for 2-3 days, a long-delayed break from a hectic schedule.

And then the package arrived…

Well, I had the file, and notes on what I’d done.  How hard could it be?  I was obligated to go out for our local art celebration that night, but not before I’d snatched a quick look at the new files.

Instantly I realized why this was a problem.  The material that I’d recalibrated those years back was from a different print.  The new one was faded beyond use.  I could get only a very little color out of it.  I went off to our artist party and pondered it.

I was about to give up on the whole thing.  I thought that there probably was no hope for it.

Then I remembered something.  It was from my engineering training.  When American video was defined, it was designed to be compatible with older black and white TV.  The color was designed to be overlaid on a standard black and white image.  If I could take only the filtered color from the old print and overlay it on the new print, then it might do what we need!

Immediately I knew that this would be a lot of work.  My girlfriend and I had been holding out hope that I might be able to do a belated one-day trip, but as this whole thing progressed, I realized that it probably wouldn’t happen.  I knew I’d be lucky to get it done at all!

If you’re about to skip to the end, fearing this is an article with charts, graphs, and math, then fear not!  (I’ve been asked previously to keep this blog a math-free zone.)  I find this to be a human interest story, and I’ve taken as much technical material out of this as I can.  All that’s left is the bare bones to get the story across!  If you’d like to read a slightly more technical version, please refer to the Nitrateville interview I did recently. You can also feel free to ask questions in the comments.

I knew what the calculations would be.  I got Kino’s new video file, located the same frame in my older file, and I realigned the color by hand.  Frankly, I was amazed.  It looked better than the old restoration I had tried, because the new print was so much sharper.

But that was ONE FRAME.  The whole thing is 4440 frames! (I just looked it up, so there.) Bret had already told me that Kino had to have this on Monday the 10th.

How could I possibly do this in such a short time?  I had to think about it.

Bruce got my sample frame, and was very enthused about the prospect of resurrecting the sequence. But now I had to figure out how to automate it.  I decided to go to bed and get a little sleep.

When I awoke, I tried several different programs to try to automate this process.  Nothing worked too well.  Frankly, the amount of computation was pretty severe, and it slowed my computer down quite a bit (I have a very fast home-brew computer… remember I’m an engineer.)

I worked on it all day with varying degrees of success.  Nothing was very promising.  Most of the ideas I had involved processes that would simply take longer to run than the time I had left.

By Saturday night, I just about gave up on the whole thing.  I fell asleep at about 3am, upset and dejected.

I woke up Sunday morning to find that my computer had locked up and, despite the fact that I had carefully saved everything, I still needed 2-3 hours to get back to where I’d been.  I figured out a better method, but it required me hand-clicking the mouse over every frame, 4440 times.

I couldn’t look at the restoration while I was doing it, so I clicked away and discovered the whole thing was horribly misaligned.  Well, this takes about 3 hours just to run, so off for another shot.

Round two was much better, but still not usable.  Three more hours.  Round three worked pretty well, but the alignment between the sources drifted a little as it progressed, so it was necessary to readjust at about the halfway point. Another ninety minutes.  Time was tight.

Round three and a half: alignment was finally decent, and color fairly good.

It was now late Sunday night.  I had not left the house or showered in over two days.

I finally had a pretty good color version, but I had to get it to Bret, and it was 700MB (very very large)!  I set it for overnight upload, and I hoped they could get it in time.  By Monday morning, I had another idea for a slight update, which I did.  It arrived by Monday afternoon.  I know that my results were further corrected in Kino’s color suite, but I only had time to send what I had!

Bruce and Ken Gordon finished recording their commentary, which Bruce then feverishly edited and uploaded for Bret, and so ended a long weekend.  Wrong.  Bret was excited enough about my results on the color sequence that he wanted me to record a commentary for it.  By this time, I was in the midst of 16+ hour days at the Heartland Film Festival, so I came home, recorded a little, and tried again.  I hope it sounds okay.  I fear I sounded like a horrid idiot, but I was wiped out!  I slept very hard in November… trust me!

Now, why did I do this?  For the money?  For the glory?  Hah, hardly.

I had a moment of insight on that Friday night that I’ll share with you.  I realized (as did Bruce) that I might be the only person in the world who could and would do this restoration.  I know that sounds pompous, but it really isn’t.  My girlfriend remembers discussing this with me and encouraging me to go on with the project.  She felt so strongly that I should pursue this that she was willing to give up the vacation.    It needed someone familiar with early Technicolor, a competent computer user, a guy who knows how complex non-linear color filtering works, and someone who cared enough to lose a complete weekend doing it.

I thought that there might not be another person who could do this, and I feared that if I didn’t do it, then it might never be done.

That’s why I had a lost weekend with Buster.  Bruce and Bret wanted him to shine in color once again.  So did I.

Thanks to Kino/Lorber for permission to use these images and to Bruce Lawton for finding the rare stills.

The Fame of Kane

I get a little tired of people telling me that Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made.  Don’t get me wrong; I love the film, but calling it the “greatest ever” seems a little hard to swallow.  I’ve seen a lot of Welles films, but certainly not all of them… I have to tell you that I don’t even think Kane is the best Orson Welles film.  I tend to like Touch of Evil better.  It seems a much more relaxed and confident film to me.

(For the record, I’m frequently interviewed by people who ask me variations on this… “What is your favorite film?”  “What’s the greatest film ever made?”  I don’t have an answer for this.  The greatest film ever made, and my favorite, is moldering in a can somewhere, waiting for me to find it.  I have a real weakness for auteurish films by obscure people like Max Davidson, Warren William, or Charley Bowers.)

Citizen Kane could hardly have been a bad movie if it tried.  Welles was a first-time director, but he was given a great cinematographer (Gregg Toland), a great composer (Bernard Herrmann), a great editor (Robert Wise), a great co-screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) and a great cast.  He was protected from studio interference by contract and they adhered to it.

RKO in the early 40s was a really great place to make a movie.  I often cite William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) as another film done at the same studio at about the same time, that is also a great film.  Both Welles and Dieterle were influenced by German expressionism, with the editor, composer, and studio brass the same for both films. (I would be remiss not to point out the scene at 47:05 when we first see Simone Simon.  I will only say that I’d have worked on this film for free.)

Some of these same people went on to do other great pictures at RKO.  Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, moved up to the director’s chair, and worked for producer Val Lewton.  Lewton headed up a B-unit there that made twelve amazing pictures, largely free of studio interference, between 1942 and 1946.  Lewton was allowed to make pretty much anything he wanted so long as he used the studio’s title, which led him to make a film like Curse of the Cat People (1944)–basically a sentimental Christmas story with a ghost in it.

I realize that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of RKO as a studio that left artists alone.  I do remember what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons, but that was an unfortunate anomaly that was not typical of RKO’s behavior at the time.  In fact, Robert Wise, who was responsible for the studio-backed recutting of Ambersons, was embarrassed and defensive about it even as late 1995 when he was grilled about it at Cinecon.

But as I get back to Kane, I see a film with Welles being extra ambitious to make an artsy film that would get people talking.  He succeeded, but as a result, Kane is not exactly subtle.  The direction calls attention to itself at nearly every opportunity.  Flashy editing, flashy photography, dramatic lighting… it’s all there.  This doesn’t make Kane a bad film–far from it–but I find that Welles matured as a director and did more confident, more cinematic work later in his career.

The legend around Citizen Kane is that Welles did his very best work for his first film, and that everything he did afterward was a step down.

I don’t believe that.  Welles was highly idiosyncratic, and he had a reputation of being “difficult.”  He tended to offend studio people and they tended not to hire him for a second picture.  This meant that it became progressively more difficult for him to get work as a director, and he had to resort to using technical people who were less than the stellar crowd he got on Kane.

That’s easy to say, because the crew for Kane is among the best ever assembled for a movie.  Almost any other crew would be a step down.

Welles was unable to make great films from lousy budgets, but he managed to do good, solid work with much smaller budgets.  The Lady from Shanghai (1947), made for skin-flint Harry Cohn, still has a lush Wellesian feel, especially when we compare it to other films made at Columbia during this period.

When I watch Citizen Kane, I note that Welles seems to be relying heavily on advice from his cinematographer, Gregg Toland.  Kane is very much a photographer’s film, and that’s fine by Welles, who loved heavy Expressionist lighting.  But there comes a point at which I feel Welles is using Toland almost as a crutch.

Toland was tinkering with special lenses that let distant objects and closer objects stay in simultaneous focus.  Normally directors use different lenses, focus on the character speaking, and then rely on the editor to combine disparate shots of actors in the cutting room.  This practice is rough on inexperienced actors, because they are frequently not talking to another person, but rather to a bank of lights and a camera lens.

Watch this scene from Citizen Kane.

This is all one continuous shot, with no edits, which is pretty amazing.  The actors are all in focus at once, so that they can speak and react to each other.  It’s great from an acting standpoint, and we have nothing but respect for Toland at being able to set up shots like this.

Ultimately, though, Welles has used technical bravura to forward his thinking, and it’s stage-bound.  The scene plays like a well-lit, well-acted stage scene, which is basically what it is.  There isn’t much that is terribly cinematic about it.

Compare this to the opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958)

This is also a continuous shot with no edits, but notice that Welles is thinking differently.  Characters come in and out of frame, cars move, lighting shifts.  It’s not a stage scene; it could never be a stage scene.  Welles still doesn’t like the cut-cut-cut editing mentality, but he’s made a quantum leap forward in how to implement it successfully in a movie.

It is fair to say that Welles never made another movie as slick as Citizen Kane is. I think Welles is judged unfairly by film fans.  I doubt that anyone in the history of film ever had a deal as sweet as the one he got for Kane.  That his later films can’t live up to that isn’t his fault.  I think he did grow and mature as a director, but casual viewers get so lost in the flair of “Rosebud” that they miss his other accomplishments.

The “greatest film ever made” is a highly subjective thing.  It makes people angry and combative.  I find the AFI lists of greatest films consistently annoying, because they omit so many films that I love in a rush to get to the most popular ones.  If you want to say Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made, then that’s OK for you.  I’m here to say that it probably isn’t his best work as a director.  Many people don’t like the film because it’s so flashy.  I understand that too.

I respect individual taste on what constitutes a great film—just so long as “great film” and “Adam Sandler” don’t go together.

Our Man and Cavanna

I am frequently fascinated to discover the diversity of supporting players employed by WC Fields (“our man” in this title.)  Fields liked to portray himself as a misanthrope of the highest order, but I think this is a great facade he put on to disguise the fact that he was a softhearted sentimentalist.

There’s been a lot written on Fields, much of it by people more qualified than I am, including Fields’ grandson, Ron.  Simon Louvish has a theory that Fields became the characters he played.  I can’t say; I wasn’t there.  I can only look at some of the incidentals and comment on what they show me.

I’m not the first one to notice that Fields used some supporting performers over and over again, and he was immensely loyal to them.  Irving Bacon appears with him nine times!  Lew Kelly seven times. Bill Wolfe seven times. Elise Cavanna five times.  Jan Duggan five times.   Alison Skipworth four times.  Grady Sutton four times.  Dell Henderson four times.  Kathleen Howard three times.  Oscar Apfel three times. Clarence Wilson three times. Franklin Pangborn three times.

Some of this could easily be explained by the fact that Fields worked with contract players at studios.  They might assign who would work with Fields on a particular picture.  That doesn’t explain all of it, though.  Irving Bacon worked with Fields in nine pictures by four studios.  Elise Cavanna’s meager five appearances with Fields are in both the silent and sound era and follow Fields from the Astoria studios in NY (where his silents were shot) to the Paramount Studios in Hollywood (where his talkies were shot).

The only conclusion that I can reach is that WC considered these people great friends and he must have lobbied to get them work.  Most of them did other picture work, but many will list a Fields picture as their first work.  Ron Fields documents WC trying to get Grady Sutton for The Bank Dick when Universal complained that there were other actors who would be just as good in the part.

Some of these are brilliant, eclectic people, just as WC was himself.  He seemed to attract genius-level people to him, and they stayed in his orbit for years.

One of these geniuses was Elise Cavanna.  She was often seen hanging out in Fields pictures, but she’s probably best remembered as the “lady rassler” patient in The Dentist (1932).  As Fields attempts to pull her tooth, she recoils in pain and wraps her legs around Fields, getting her feet stuck in his pockets as he pulls her around the room.  (This scene was censored when Raymond Rohauer reissued the film in 1949, but restored in subsequent prints.)

Tall and lithe, Cavanna could never be described as beautiful, but she was certainly striking, with a memorable presence. She was one of those people who did a lot of different things in her life.  Like Fields, she was born in Philadelphia, but it’s likely they met when she was doing the Ziegfeld Follies with him. Many sources claim she studied dance with Isadora Duncan in the early 1920s.  I’ve not been able to verify that she did, although apparently she did dance in the Follies for a while.  The popular story is that Cavanna studied with Duncan in Germany, but it could also have been at Isadora’s school in Paris. We know that Cavanna spoke French, given the fact that she translated captions for a book of drawings by artist Jean Charlot.

Cavanna was a strict vegetarian, and wrote a book about low-fat cooking.  Fields laughed at her about this, saying that that healthy living was useless since you were only going to die anyway.  For those few who might not know, Fields‘ lifestyle was distinctly unhealthy.  Ironically, he lived to be 66, while Cavanna only made it to the age of 61.

Most importantly, however, Elise Cavanna was a major artist, mostly in abstracts, and she still has a large following. She illustrated other books, including a hand-signed edition of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a volume called Have We an American Art?, and a number of others.

Her work is difficult to track down, and her complex personal life makes the task even more difficult.  Married three times, she generally painted using her maiden name, Seeds, although sometimes she just used her first name.  But she also worked under her married names: Elise Cavanna (first marriage), Elise Armitage (second marriage), and Elise Welton (third marriage).

One of her most-seen paintings is not abstract at all: it is a mural at the post office in Oceanside, California.  There is an entire website dedicated California New Deal projects. I’m going to reproduce the picture here because I fear that the original website may go away.  The site is cool, so please visit it and have a look for yourself.

The photo comes from this page: http://livingnewdeal.berkeley.edu/map/view.php?&l=615#pic819

Like many of Fields’ frequent co-stars, Cavanna stopped working with Fields after his illness in 1936-7.  Most of them had regular work in other film series or had other interests.  Cavanna’s film work trickled down to almost nothing, and she focused more on her art.  She closed out her acting career in the same way she’d started it: with Ziegfeld.  She appeared in an uncredited bit (like most of her other roles) in The Ziegfeld Follies (1945).  Cavanna was one of the few original Ziegfeld people to appear in the film.  By the time it was made, the greats like Will Rogers and Bert Williams were gone.  Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn were busy on the radio.  And Fields was just plain too ill to do it.

I’m sure that there is more info out there on Cavanna waiting to be unearthed.  She deserves her own web page and a good catalogue of her artworks.   At least one more mural may still survive in Los Angeles, but I have been unable to find it.  I’d also love to see photos of her at art openings.  She apparently dyed her hair purple during the 1940s, at a time when such things were not done, even in Hollywood.

Stay tuned for more mini-bios of Fields’ co-stars.

(Thanks to Bruce Lawton and Glory-June Greiff for research help on this article.)

News Flash: I Don’t Hate Everything Digital

I keep getting asked this question, so I suppose I have to answer it.

“Why is it that you hate everything digital?”

Here’s the short answer:  I don’t.  What follows is the longer answer.

Before I start, I know that I’ll be called on the carpet as a luddite, anti-digital idiot.  This is inaccurate.  The Dr. Film pilot was shot and edited digitally, right on a hard drive… only a few seconds of it was ever on digital tape.  My background is in Electrical Engineering, and I used to write digital imaging programs that would make your eyes glaze over.  I welcome digital technology, but I use film, too.  They both have strengths and weaknesses, and I think that throwing out film is a mistake.

I can best describe my reaction to the digital revolution with an analogy.  A good friend of mine once refused to go to a fast-food Mexican restaurant with me.  “I hate that stuff,” he said.  A few months later, he suggested going to a Mexican restaurant.  “I thought you hated that stuff,” I said.

“No,” he said.  “I just hate cheap Mexican food, especially when it’s passed off as the real thing.”

I was just in attendance at a premiere showing of a DVD.  This was supposed to be a high-class, dress-up affair.  The projection was inexcusable.  It was set the way that 95% of all DVD projectors are set, with maximum brightness, so that the white levels bloom and clip, leaving anything bright looking like either hopelessly angelic or like a rejected effect from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I sat calmly and gritted my teeth as I watched the projector’s brightness overload.  Fortunately, most of the footage was shot indoors, because all of the outdoor stuff looked awful.  It made me sit and stew for an hour as I watched a good documentary be marred by guy who set up the projector and didn’t know what he was doing.

This is the digital that I do hate, and I hate it not because it’s digital, but because it looks bad.  We’re sold this bunkum about its being state-of-the-art, and yet it would look better on a TV screen. Now, mind you, I’m talking about a standard-resolution DVD, not a Blu-Ray.  And I am in a good position to complain because I have run film in that very venue and it looked a whale of a lot better than their presentation did tonight.

I’ll make a few points here and then back away:

  1. Standard-resolution DVDs aren’t intended for large screen projection and seldom look good unless projected on the very best equipment.  It’s easy to mis-adjust the projectors and blow out the whites on it.  They have just 525 lines of resolution.  (Sorry about the math, but more lines = sharper picture.  That’s all you need to know.)
  2. Projected Blu-Ray (1080 lines) can look very good, and if it was sourced from good materials (usually film elements), it can look better than many 16mm prints and some 35mm prints.
  3. Many proud Blu-Ray owners tell me that their images are always better (or at least as good) as 35mm film. I can’t argue with your perception.  What I will do is cite a measurable statistic: Blu-Ray uses 1080 lines.  In theaters, the high-end digital projectors that will replace 35mm film are 4000 lines (actually 4096 in most cases, but let’s not haggle).  That’s right.  Cost-conscious Hollywood studios think they need 4000 lines to replace 35mm.  Don’t you think they would all use cheaper 1080-line Blu-ray projection if they thought they could get by with it?

Even though it’s demonstrably not true, people tell me that a standard DVD is “just as good as film.”  I heard those very words this weekend.

People are serving me Taco Bell projection and telling me it’s just as good as authentic Mexican.  It isn’t.  Good digital is fine.  Third-rate digital is not only annoying, but it also makes good films look bad.

If good digital is out there, then why do I tirelessly advocate film? Well, for starters, a lot of really great material isn’t on Blu-Ray, DVD, or 4000-line digital.  Much of it never will be.  I also think projected film has a beautiful, rich quality missing in all but the best digital presentations.  If you’re careful and picky about prints (and few are pickier than I am), then you can find nice, sharp materials that are sometimes better than what was used as a source for the DVDs.

Much of the point of the Dr. Film show is to give people an opportunity to see rare materials that are not easy to find in the marketplace.  My live shows are intended as way to see rare films in a theatrical venue, with an audience, as they were intended to be seen.

I am fully aware that film projection will eventually go the way of the steam engine.  It won’t be as fast as some say, because most movies are still shot on 35mm, and archival preservation still takes place on 35mm.  I don’t mind being compared with a guy who fixes a steam engine.  Diesel engines have no romance.  I think we need to be able to see movies shown on film for as long as we can.  I am not in a rush, as most places are, to throw out all my film and replace it with digital copies (partly because I can’t!)

I know lots of theaters that are gleefully ripping out their 35mm projectors and then running only third-rate DVDs, mis-adjusted, at sizes never intended for that use.  They all say the same thing:  “It’s just as good.”  I will continue to rail against this, because it’s wrong.

It isn’t “just as good.”  It isn’t even good.  In the mad rush to get cheaper and easier projection, we’ve thrown quality out the window.  I hope I’m not the only one who notices it.

Come Back, Mr. Cooper! Come Back!

This has been roiling around in the back of my brain for a long time.  Showmanship in movies is dead, and yet the one thing that needs to return to movies is showmanship.  Hollywood has decided that the only people who see movies are 15-year-old boys who like to see explosions and special effects.  Production values, story, presentation, acting, etc… they don’t matter.

Don’t believe me?  Andy Hendrickson, a Disney executive, admitted it last month.

This reminds me of Merian C. Cooper, who went through draft after draft of the screenplay to King Kong until he got it exactly the way he wanted it.  When Cinerama came in, it was Cooper who insisted that it be done right.  He knew that Cinerama was so cool that he built it up with a deliberately-too-long intro with Lowell Thomas.  He knew if he kept it going long enough, the audience would be wondering what Cinerama was and why it was so interesting.  It worked.  The opening shots of the roller coaster are still breathtaking.

This is Cinerama blew out all records and was the top grossing film of 1952.  This was at a time when TV was killing movies, or so they said.  Cooper was enough of a showman to make it work.

Sadly, those days are gone.  Even as late as the 1970s, we occasionally had “road shows” in which the studios allowed only one theater to run a particular film that was shown carefully and well.  There was but one theater running Star Wars when it came out in Indianapolis in the 1970s, and it ran there for a year.  It was run properly; it was an event.  If you wanted to see it, then you’d see it there.

Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, 2001, and many others were given deluxe road-show treatments.  Columbia revived the practice briefly when Lawrence was restored in 1989, making that an event as well.  It worked, and people came out to see it.

Movies are never an event anymore.  They are a commodity.  Where once you could go into a clean theater and see a movie run by a trained projectionist, today we have an untrained teenager starting a projector he doesn’t understand, in the midst of an unclean theater, ripped screen, and people chattering endlessly on cell phones.

Focus?  Sometimes.  Framing?  Usually.  Oh, and you tell me that the digital revolution will make things better, eliminating the untrained projectionist?  Nope.  Whereas the old projectors were workhorses and would run continuously for years, the new digital ones are so persnickety that vapors of popcorn oil cause them to start projecting with a green cast and then shut down.

Hollywood has figured out that there seems to be an endless hunger for movies, and they turn out more and more of them with dumber and dumber plots.  The idea is that no one sees films in a theater anymore, and that films need to be made for multiple viewings on handheld devices and small-screen friendly.

So if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean 40 times at home, you might figure out the plot.  Oh, rapture.  But heaven help you if you see it just once in a theater.

There’s an old saying that applies here.  “Some people know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”  Hollywood is doing the same thing.  They are making more and more movies with less and less money, fewer and fewer viewers per film.  The day will come when everyone has free films with zero quality.

This shouldn’t be.

Hollywood is digging its own grave.  They are killing off theatrical exhibition by killing off the reasons why people go to movies.  They’ve been doing it for years.  When fewer people started going to movies, their response was to raise ticket prices.  The theater owners had to get by on less money.  Do you know why you pay more than $5 for a small popcorn?  That’s because the theater owner pays 90+ percent of the ticket money back to the studio for a new release.

The studios also got the cute idea of making exclusive contracts for movies.  You’d have to sign up for a particular title for six weeks.  If it was a dud, then you were stuck with it.  Theater owners made multiplexes so they were able to shuffle duds off to small screens in the back and get the good titles in the bigger houses.

Single-screen theaters died.  They couldn’t compete.

Once they had multiplexes, they got automation.  One projectionist could run 15 screens.  There once was a day when the projectionist had to be there during the entire film, so that if something went wrong, he’d see it immediately.  Now, we’re lucky if he has time to get there within 15 minutes.  With digital projection, there’s no one up there at all, and the guy who can fix it is probably in the next county.  Heaven help you if the lamp blows.  Come back next week.

All of this cost-cutting is also throat-cutting.  Corporations assume people are stupid and will put up with anything.  They’re not.  People realize they’re getting a sub-standard product and they don’t show up.

This is the long-standing contradiction that is Hollywood.  There’s a disconnect between art and commerce.  Art is stagnant if you do the same things over and over again.  But commerce encourages sameness.  When you can make the same thing repeatedly, you can make it cheaper and more efficiently.

So art is suffering these days because commerce is winning.  What Hollywood hasn’t figured out is that people respond to the art.

Movies aren’t like McDonald’s, no matter how much we’d like to make them like that.  When you’re out driving at midnight, tired and hungry, you can always stop at McDonald’s, and you know what you’re getting.  It tastes the same no matter where you go.  It’s almost comforting in a way, even though it’s not something you would want to do all the time.

On the flip side, movies are boring if they’re too repetitive.  Clint Eastwood says that every year he’s asked to do another Dirty Harry movie, and yet he’s now 80.  That doesn’t matter, they say.  People will come to see it.  And Clint won’t do it because he knows it wouldn’t be any good.

The other quality vs. showmanship battle that I fight is over DVD, or even worse, downloaded movies.  I’ll say it now: if you can avoid it, then you should never show DVDs on a big screen.  They’re not designed for that.  Blu-ray is better but still not very good.  Hollywood is using projectors better than blu-ray on all of the digital setups, so even they understand that they can’t get by with it.

But I work with a lot of small theaters who want to cut costs.  They’ll tell me that they have no money, and ask what I can do to help.  I bring in good prints of uncopyrighted movies, things I’ve collected over the years, and I introduce the films.

Usually I can bring in a decent crowd for a special event movie.   Seeing this, a few places have gotten the idea to cut me out of it.  Let’s not pay that guy for good prints.  Let’s not pay him to tell people why this film is interesting.  I can buy a DVD or download something free from archive.org and then we can run something for free.

No one shows up, and it confuses them.

Anyone can buy a DVD or download from archive.org.  It’s no longer an an event, nothing special.  People are smart to see through that and don’t show up.

I do see glimmers of hope on the horizon.  Kevin Smith, of all people, has seen that doing road shows, with cast members in attendance, is probably a good tactic.  His new film, Red State, is doing city-by-city shows.  Ticket prices are higher, and he’s taken criticism for it, but he’s sticking with it.

I think that, if theatrical exhibition is going to survive, then it will be with higher quality shows that are special events.  Kevin Smith is on to something.

Another failing is the persistent idea that only 15-year-old boys show up to movies.  Well, when we tailor all movies to 15-year-olds, then that’s who shows up.  Teenagers are an automatic audience for movies, because they want to leave the house.  You want to attract an older audience?   There’s one out there.

Here’s how you do it…

  1. Enact a “no cell phone” policy in theaters and stick to it.
  2. Hire an usher for every theater who has the ability to force noisemakers to leave.
  3. Movies that have a plot are your friends.  Bring them back.  That doesn’t mean boring, but it means they have to make sense.
  4. Stars are your friends.  Build up stars and hire people who can act.  Stars are not people who show up a lot on TMZ.  Johnny Depp opens movies because he’s a good actor.  Jason Statham is simply a guy who can take a beating during the course of an action film.
  5. Clean the theaters after each showing.
  6. Partner with local restaurants so that folks can get out, have dinner, and see a movie.

People don’t see movies anymore because it’s too much work, and they perceive it as too expensive.  Make it easier for them to do it, and make it worth their while, and they’ll show up.

What this world needs is more showmen like Merian C. Cooper.  What this world needs less is more cynical businessmen like Andy Hendrickson.

Thinking like Cooper will save the movies.  Thinking like Hendrickson will kill them.

Spielberg Without the Schmaltz

I’ve taken a lot of verbal abuse through the years for my aversion to two “classics” by Steven Spielberg, specifically ET and Back to the Future.  I’m not in the camp that hates any film with Spielberg’s name on it.  In fact, I have grudging respect for Close Encounters, I really liked 2 of the 4 Indiana Jones films (the last one has some good moments), and I thought Schindler’s List was a great film.  Spielberg, in my humble opinion, is an amazing director with a great sense of camera placement and movement.  On the other hand, sometimes he is unable to pick a good script, and sometimes he can’t resist doing the cheesiest possible cinema tricks to extend a scene.

This is why I was very hesitant to see the newest Spielbergy picture, Super 8.  Now, I realize that the film is the brainchild of director JJ Abrams, but then Back to the Future was ostensibly Bob Zemeckis’ picture.  It’s long been my contention that the streak of schmaltziness that runs through the center of Back to the Future belongs to Spielberg, since most of Zemeckis’ other films suffer less from it.  And then there’s the Spielberg-(executive) produced The Goonies, which was so bad that I couldn’t even make my way through it. (Yes, I realize that there’s a group of people who think that was a great film, and I weep softly for them.)

Abrams is a mixed bag for me.  I saw some of his TV series Lost, but one of the things it lost was my interest.  I understand it spent several years building to a cheat “whoops, I’m dead” climax, something out of Twilight Zone 101.  Star Trek I didn’t see, because I just couldn’t face the idea of it.  I’ve enjoyed Abrams’ Fringe on the occasions I’ve seen it.  And, strangely, I was the one guy who liked Abrams’ writing debut, Regarding Henry.    Well, I guess there were a few others, but for some reason, there are a lot of people who hated Regarding Henry.

What generally bothers me about the Spielberg-produced “kid films” is that they all have similar themes.  You can run them off like a laundry list: 1) All of the adults are idiots.  2) The kids are magically smart.  3) There will be a stupid plot device late in the film that will be milked past the point of credulity… one that will make me squirm in my seat.  4) The main kid will have trouble with his father or father figure because Spielberg himself did, and, since he can’t get over that, we have to sit through him working it out in all his movies.

Abrams doesn’t do this!  He doesn’t fall into the Spielberg traps!  Amazingly, Super 8 does a very good job of working on two levels: a) it’s aimed at 15-year-olds with lots of explosions and chases but b) it’s not so stupid that adults wince while watching it.  This is an amazing feat these days.

People leave me nasty comments if I don’t talk about the plot a little, so I will: A group of kids accidentally capture a train wreck on film during the making of their amateur horror picture.  It turns out to be an Area 51-type conspiracy.  The train was carrying an alien who may or may not be evil and murderous.  And the Air Force wants to cover the whole thing up.

I have a number of things to say about the film, and I’ll segment it into three categories:

THE GOOD

Abrams’ teen characters are believable and feel real.  I really liked the interaction, and it did feel like it was taking place in 1979.

The 8mm filmmaking material is impeccably handled.  Extra bonus points for the courage to show the teens’ finished film over the credits.  Classy.

The adults in this film have a real story and aren’t just idiots.  Rather than being one-dimensional clichés (ET), you can see interpersonal struggles and it works well.  They are trying to be good people and parents under bad circumstances.  There is no Spielbergian happy ending in which the clueless parent suddenly wakes up and hugs his kid.  The hug happens here, but it resonated with me much better, because it was a happy reunion: the kids and the adults had come through the same troubles and worked through them.

I’ve been sick of the interminable computer-generated monsters for years.  Abrams is really smart about his monster.  We don’t even see it for some time, and then when we finally do, it’s only in little bits.  There’s an extended suspense of “what is this?” that is handled in the same way it might have been done in the 1950s.  We never actually see the alien in the full sunlight, so the spidery sinewyness of the creature is never lost on us.  Sometimes we see more when we see less.  (Please read this paragraph, Michael Bay.)

Elle Fanning as the teen romantic interest is an amazing actress.  She is able to express emotions fluidly and well.  She steals every scene she’s in.  I predict that good things lie ahead for her.

THE BAD

I’ve seen train wrecks and the one in this film is ridiculously over the top.  It lasts too long and gets silly in its excess.  I remember in physics class they taught us that momentum = mass times velocity.  Some of those cars are moving faster after the accident than before it.

I know that modern films avoid having real plots.  I’m not quite sure why this is.  Could we get more explanation of what the alien is doing on the water tower at the end?  I’m sure that there’s probably a director’s cut of this film that makes more sense than what got released.  Is it too much to ask that plot points be explained a bit?  Just a bit. Please?

There is a scene near the end that is classic junk Spielberg.  The kid who loves explosives can’t get his lighter to ignite at the proper moment, which is milked as a suspense point.  Fortunately, Abrams doesn’t drag it out interminably.  Please note that ET’s “death” and the Christopher Lloyd’s endless fumbling at the top of the bell tower in Back to the Future are far worse.

THE UGLY

Yes, it’s cool that Abrams really shot this in anamorphic Panavision.  There are a few dozen of us who actually understand this.  However, the photography in general is pretty mushy and indistinct, which probably means the digital intermediate was not done well.  Furthermore: “Yes, JJ, we understand that you love the blue Panavision lens flares.  We get it.  Please don’t do them in every night shot.  It gets old.”

Abrams does an admirable job of fluid camerawork, but some of his direction is a little too precious and brings attention to itself.  It’s faux-Spielberg, and it’s the one area in which he fails to live up to the standard.  Spielberg is a master at setups, and Abrams is simply very good.  He’d be better if he tried to be less flashy.

For some reason, it was seen as necessary to shoot Noah Emmerich’s acne scars to look as bad and deep as possible, in the classic Dirty Harry tradition.  Can we move past the tired idea that flawed face equals flawed character?  For heaven’s sake, folks, these guys should start a union: “Pockmarked actors for stock movie villains.”

THE CONCLUSION

Most of the reviews compare Super 8 to the Spielberg “classics” that inspired it, and many have said, patronizingly, that it’s a nice effort, but the old ones are better.  I disagree.  Super 8 is actually better than many of the early Spielberg films.  I hope he watches and takes some hints from it.

If You’ve Got History, Flaunt It!

I visited an amusement park the other day.  I won’t name it, because I’m going to rake the management over the coals.  They do deserve a good coal-raking, though!  This is an older amusement park, with large sections of it that are delightful relics from the 1950s.  They had hand-painted signs, miniature golf, sky rides, ferris wheels, and real wooden roller coasters.

But now, in a desperate attempt to compete with the “big” amusement parks, like Six Flags and Kings Island, new owners are ripping out the old stuff and installing new rides to appeal to “modern” tastes.

It’s going to kill them.  They don’t have the money or the space to do what they want to do (the place is on a little peninsula), and it can’t really be expanded.  And what they’re losing in the bargain is one of the last historic amusement parks around.  It’s not just the owners who are losing what they have.  We all are.

The problem is that it is very difficult to compete with those bigger corporate parks, and, frankly, I don’t visit those.  I have no desire to lose my lunch on a metal coaster that takes me upside down three times.  The older wooden coasters are much more fun and much harder to find these days.

I have a huge problem with people throwing out their history in a desperate attempt to seem hip and with the times.  Sometimes it’s that very history that makes them hip.  There’s nothing particularly historic about Kings Island, despite their “Coney Mall.”  I’d love to shake the new owners of this historic park and tell them that what they’re ripping out is what makes them unique.  I doubt they’d listen.

Take another example.  I’ll name these folks because I have nothing bad to say about them.  Zaharako’s is a great ice cream parlor in Columbus, Indiana that knows its niche and exploits it brilliantly.  For years, the place was in a state of disrepair.  The old man who owned it was enthusiastic enough, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I heard that he died, and I feared the worst.  I was wrong.

A new owner purchased the building and lovingly restored it.  Zaharako’s beautiful orchestrion (a mechanical organ/orchestra, from the early 1900s) was lost.  The owner found it, bought it, restored it, and put it back exactly where it had been.  The skylight was restored.  Pressed tin ceilings were restored and replaced, even to the point that the new air conditioning system uses vents carefully matched to the original ceiling tiles.  The original soda fountain completely repaired and restored (beautiful onyx!)

When you walk into Zaharako’s today, it’s as close to walking into a 1900s-era ice cream parlor as can be replicated.  You want attention to detail?  They even have paper straws.  Not this plastic stuff.  Paper.  The way it used to be.

A lot of people would have counseled the new owners to be as cheap as possible, throw in some soft-serve ice cream machines, and to cut costs to the bone.  They could have done that, and if they had, the place would be closed now.  After all, Zaharako’s is right around the corner from a Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen is what it is.  Zaharako’s is something different, and they know it.  Zaharako’s has a historic ambience that is their greatest strength.  It doesn’t hurt that their food and ice cream are outstanding as well.

Was it a crazy dream?  Nope.  I’m happy to report that the place is filled to overflowing on most weekends, to the point that I couldn’t get a table on a recent visit.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s a nice problem I’d prefer to have.  I’ll get down there again on an off-time, and I’ll have them crank up the orchestrion.  I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it… it’s still cool.

Another historic place that does things right is the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York.  While Zaharako’s is in a fairly healthy metropolitan area, Rome is, well, an economic disaster.  I could go on and on about things that have been done poorly in Rome.  Worse, many of their key industries have packed up and gone away.  The place is full of lovely, but often empty, buildings.

The Capitol, I’m happy to say, is not among them.  I’m always amazed to see giant old theaters that are still running the way they were designed.  I once spoke to an architect who told me his main job was rehabbing old theaters: “Nobody sees movies anymore, especially in single-screen theaters, so you gut these buildings like a fish and turn them into music venues.”  It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard, and the obnoxious echo of it still stays with me.

The Capitol is already a music venue, because it always was.  It is also a stage venue, because it always was.  It was designed for these multiple uses. Movies?  Yes, they do them as well, on a large screen.  Low-power cheap xenons bulbs or wimpy DVD projection?  NEVER.  The Capitol uses old-fashioned carbon-arc projectors, everything in 35mm.  Absolutely stunning pictures.  Someday they’ll get a 16mm working.

Art Pierce, owner of the Capitol, is smart enough to know what he has.  You won’t be seeing Transformers 3 there.  That’s not a tragedy, since all the multiplexes are running that.  On the other hand, the multiplexes are not running classics in beautiful 35mm.  And you’ll never see a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace at a multiplex.

The Capitol has managed to become a regional theater with varied programs, and it’s working for them.  They have embraced their history and it’s paying off.  It’s one of the best-run historic theaters I’ve ever seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for people who are determined to do things properly.  I took a lot of guff for some of my decisions on the Dr. Film pilot (many people wanted it to be 30 minutes with only film clips, but I wouldn’t allow it.)  I think the public is a lot smarter some of the cynical marketers think.

I have to feel that way.  It would drive me crazy to live in a world with only Dairy Queen and Transformers 3.  I don’t mind the easy choices so long as we have something else once in a while…

 

Why Ted Turner is Cool

Ted Turner has, at least in the eyes of film fans, perhaps the worst reputation of any living person.  The commonplace idea that I hear from fans is that he is assured of a place in Film Purgatory for his colorization efforts and that he only really deserves praise for Turner Classic Movies, which was something he didn’t care about very much.

Bunk, I say.  Bunk.

Let me address a minor sticking point here: some of my dear readers may say that since I’d like to sell my pilot for Dr. Film to Turner Classic Movies, then I probably am giving a suspect opinion so that I can butter up a potential buyer.  Again, not so.  Ted is long gone from any active position at Turner Classic Movies, and I’ve been singing Ted’s praises for years, far before Dr. Film was even a gleam in my splicing block.

Ted may be the single greatest contributor to film preservation in the history of the 20th Century.   He’s certainly in the top 10.  Don’t believe me still?  Here’s why:

MGM has had a troubled history since the late 1950s; they had a big sale of their studio memorabilia as early as 1970 and they were bought and sold and bought and sold and bought and sold (I think that’s actually the right number.)  At a particularly low point in 1986, Ted bought MGM—the entire studio, films, buildings, everything… lock, stock, and barrel.  People said he was crazy.

That wasn’t the first time.  Turner bought a floundering TV station in 1970, renamed it WTCG.  It was still broadcasting in black and white, so he held a telethon to raise money to get color equipment.  He sold bumper stickers and sold ad time cheaply just to keep cash flowing.  People said he was crazy.

He was one of the first people to buy space on one of those giant, old-fashioned satellites.  These are the ones that used to litter the countryside at every hotel with a FREE HBO sign.  But Turner’s station was just up there for free, not some premium channel.  He generated his money from ads.  People said he was crazy.

Turner dreamed of having a media empire, and he had only a measly UHF TV station and a space on a satellite.  He renamed his station WTBS, nicknamed it the Super Station, and then set his sights on another goal.

He started another station, this time on satellite only, and called it CNN.  It was a 24-hour news channel.  Everyone said he was crazy.  There wasn’t enough news for a 24-hour cycle, they said, and tiny Atlanta, Georgia was too remote from the hubs of the universe (Los Angeles and New York) to get any decent news coverage.  I remember people making fun of him.

In the late 1980s, with CNN a success, Turner fought for squeezed space on the large satellites and got another station on the air: TNT.  He did every deal he could with as many carriers as he could to get it on the air.  People said he was crazy.

But I jump ahead of myself.  Remember I said that Turner wanted a media empire?  He dreamed of owning a movie studio and making his own movies.  In 1986, with MGM in the doldrums, having merged with United Artists, also in the doldrums, underwater with debt from films that failed to make money, Turner thought it might be a good chance to buy the studio.

It didn’t work out.  Many people claim that Turner was acting as a corporate raider, just cherry-picking the items he wanted from the studio, but I tend to believe that Turner hoped to maintain the studio as it had been.  For whatever reason, Turner and his investors sold off the studio and its assets one by one, except for one item: MGM’s film library.

In the mid-80s, with one station, and another planned, it made sense for Turner to have access to a large film library, and MGM had it: the entire Warners library pre-1948; the entire MGM library to 1986, and the entire RKO library.  All of this material was deemed worthless by most experts.  It had been played to death on local television over a period of 30 years.  There was no real home video market for any but a few titles.

Amazingly, Turner did what no one else would do.  He poured money into preservation.  New 35mm prints were made for distribution to theaters.  MGM’s restoration efforts, which had started years earlier, were stepped up and enhanced.  Turner entered the home video market, even the laserdisc market, which was just starting.  Anything that even had a chance of selling was issued.

When TNT (Turner Network Television) launched in 1988, Ted scheduled it full of films that hadn’t been seen in years.  They were all transferred from beautiful 35mm prints.  That lasted until he found he could make more money with newer material, so the movies got forced out.  Those were great days at TNT, though, because there were movies shown there that have rarely been screened since.  In the early days of the channel, everything was fair game.

There was a channel dedicated to older films at the time, and that was American Movie Classics (AMC).  They even had a long-term lease on the RKO package that eventually expired and reverted to Turner.  In those days, AMC was commercial-free, its fees paid by the cable companies who carried it.  Turner started Turner Classic Movies in 1994 following AMC’s model.  He also made sure that anyone picking up TCM had to pick up WTBS and TNT as well, guaranteeing that he’d have some extra income from the movies.

Ted felt that the best thing he could do was treat his investment with respect so that he could make as much money off it as he could.  I say more power to him.  Some people look at classic film as some supreme royal sacrifice, something that one does just for art’s sake.  Turner did it and made it pay.  And he made it pay the right way.  Restoration, video availability, cable showings, 35mm booking prints.

We only need look to the example set by Hallmark recently for the other end of the spectrum.  They purchased the Hal Roach back library, rather unenthusiastically, as a tax loss investment.  They were begged to release Laurel and Hardy films, maybe some Charley Chase titles.  SOMETHING.  Eventually, Turner Classic Movies got a package out of them.  Hallmark couldn’t be bothered to look through what they had.  They didn’t care, and the materials languished.  Thank heaven UCLA now has all of it and is giving it the care it deserves.  The problem is that this stuff could have made them money–maybe not a lot, but some.

OK, I avoided talking about colorization, but here goes.  I hate it, I’ve always hated it.  It looks fake.  Turner’s pushing it was obnoxious, and I didn’t like it.  I never saw a single picture that looked better with it, although I’d nominate the nasty color version of King Kong as the worst one.  That being said, it’s an interesting technical experiment.

I’ve always rather suspected that Turner never really wanted to change the world with colorization, but only to get some publicity with the idea.  After all, boring old movies never get any press, and he sure got it.  He ruffled feathers in the process, but that never bothered him.

Eventually, he even got a chance to make his own movies, and they’ve gotten a fair amount of respect.  Maybe he was right the whole time about needing a studio.

(As an aside: you want loyalty to friends?  Ted’s your man.  Anchorman Bill Tush [with a short u] started with Turner in the WTCG days.  He stayed as a news anchor until Ted gave him a weekly show in 1980, a groundbreaking original comedy.  When that didn’t gel, Tush got a cushy job at CNN that lasted for many years.  Ted takes care of his friends.)

Having accomplished what he set out to do–creating a media empire–Turner sold his stock to Time Warner and cashed out.  Turner, for all his flamboyant crazy behavior, seemed to run his stations more efficiently than the conglomerate does.  The crown jewel in the collection is probably still Turner Classic Movies, which showcases classic movies from most of the major studios.  I love the irony that Warner Brothers bought back their own, “worthless,” catalog of films when they bought Turner Broadcasting.  Who’s really crazy?

Turner strikes me as somewhat of a throwback to the brazen showman/marketer types like Merian C. Cooper in the 1930s.  Turner had a vision, and was going to pursue it.  He was loyal, but anyone who criticized him could be stepped on.  Quality was paramount.  Even if it was pro wrestling, he wanted it done well.

We could use a few more people like that.  Viva Ted.

Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People

I get really upset about people showing movies or running video with the wrong screen shape.  I’ve been warned that this forum should stay a “math-free” zone, so I won’t mention ASPECT RATIOS and use numbers, but we shouldn’t need them.  While I rant about this–and expect me to go on about it–let me interrupt with an aside that’s particularly telling.

I went to a screening of The Quiet Man (1952) a few years ago.  Maureen O’Hara was in attendance before and after the film, but she went out to dinner during the showing itself.  She said she’d seen the movie enough and didn’t need to see it one more time.  I was dismayed to see the picture start with the grand Republic Pictures logo, an eagle over a globe… this time only to say A Republic… (without the Picture.)

You see, the projectionist had decided not to do his homework on this film, and he ran it in widescreen format.  If he’d bothered to check, he would have known that in 1954 the industry switched from conventional “Academy-sized” format (almost square, like most tube-TVs), to widescreen (much like your newer flat-screen TVs).  The problem is that if you run an older film in widescreen format, you cut off the top and bottom of the image, which is what was done with The Quiet Man

ALL THE WAY THROUGH…

I found this highly annoying, since it ruined much of the movie’s great photographic composition.  I plotted my revenge against this idiot projectionist until it dawned on me that I might have a much more powerful ally.  Ms. O’Hara did a nice Q&A session with the audience, and I saw that this is a woman who takes no guff.  From anyone.  Ever.  She’s very nice about it, but whenever someone said something stupid or wrong, she corrected the error.

I wanted the projectionist to be in big trouble for screwing this up (after all, they’d taken my money for the show), so I figured the best thing I could do was to tell Maureen O’Hara about it.  I waited until the Q&A was over and went to the reception.  Gingerly, I approached her and introduced myself.  (Forgive the numbers here… but I am reproducing what I told her…)

“Are you aware that they ran that entire picture at 1.85?” I asked.

Her eyes flashed.  “What?  That’s not a widescreen picture!”

I was happy that she knew exactly what I meant without explanation.  She went on…

“What about the scene when Duke is dragging me across the glen?” she asked.

“You were off the bottom of the screen during the entire shot,” I answered.

“I ruptured a disc on that scene!  I’m going to speak to them about this!”

I reported this story to a friend of mine who’s in “the industry,” and he was amazed.  This fellow had met O’Hara as well.  He had only one question:  “What did she do with the bodies?”

The projectionist had decided that they had a wide screen, and he had to fill it.  I’ve heard the quote from people before: “I paid for a wide screen, and I’m going to fill it up.”

And you can do that, but you’ll have to stretch, crop, and malign the image so much that any artistic intent of the original filmmakers is completely lost.  In this case, the projectionist cropped the image.  This annoys me in the extreme.

The problem is that there are several different screen sizes, and they literally do not fit with each other.  The rectangles are different shapes.  That’s why they call the newer formats “widescreen.”

These are the notable ones:

1) Movies 1894-1954 are generally in what’s called “Academy format,” which is a narrow rectangle slightly wider than it is high.  (Yes, film geeks, I’m aware that silent aperture is different, and I project them properly, but that gets a little technical, so don’t bug me.)

2) Movies 1954- adopted a widescreen format that is wider.  In America, this is a bit wider than in Europe, so there a European widescreen and an American one.

3) Cinemascope/Panavision (1953-) uses a special photographic process to squeeze a widescreen image into the older Academy format and that yields an even wider screen. (Yes, I know that’s not quite accurate, film geeks… lay off!).

4) Finally in the 2000s, TV got into the act, adopting another screen size that is between the size of American widescreen and European widescreen.

The upshot of this is that we have to mix and match screen sizes all the time.  If you run a widescreen movie on a narrow Academy screen (like old TVs), then it doesn’t fit, so you either have to crop off the sides (ick) or “letterbox” it, where we see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

These black bars aren’t there because we’re masking off part of your narrow screen, but rather because the narrow screen isn’t wide enough to accommodate the picture.  See what I mean here:

The opposite problem is now occurring because we have widescreen TVs that are showing older Academy programs.  That, properly shown, would leave black bars at the sides of the image, like this:
Instead, the vast majority of TV owners opt to stretch out the narrow image to fill the black bars, like this:

 

I HATE THIS!  When the picture is stretched out this way, thin people look fat and fat people look enormous.  I call it “the egg people,” because everyone has an oblong, egg-shaped head.

Here is a brief animation showing how the image is stretched in your TV to create egg people:

I’ve had people tell me that “you get used to it,” and that they like the screen filled up.  Well, I don’t get used to it, it’s wrong, and don’t expect me to get used to something that is wrong.  I hate watching movies and sports this way.

I’m telling you all that if you don’t reset your TVs to eliminate the egg people, I’m going to send Maureen O’Hara out to your house.  She’ll do it for you.

And she’s not as forgiving as I am.