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.

The Big Push

I’m going to let you in on a secret.  This blog is only a ploy to get you to look at the rest of my web site.  Well, it’s not really a secret.

You see, I created Dr. Film as a TV show a couple of years ago, and the web site has been up for ages.  I couldn’t get anyone to look at the site.  No one wanted to look at my demos, either.

There will be another screening of the complete show on August 4, 2011, at Garfield Park in Indianapolis.  Here’s the link if you’d like to attend.  It’s free.  If you don’t know about the complete show, then read on, Macduff.

The reason this is “the big push” is that I’ve only now figured out a decent marketing campaign, and the show is now going to a number of venues.  I spent more time figuring out a marketing campaign than I did making the show.  There is new art, an upgraded web page, and I’ve got a publicist on board.  I hope this will put us over the top.  It’s a lot of work for a show about old movies.

You see, I love old films, and it bothers me that so few people watch them anymore.  It’s my feeling that most people are uninitiated and just don’t understand what they’re seeing.  I think that some people are a little put off by the hosts on the major channels.  They treat film as high art (which it is), but we sometimes miss the raggedy fun of a strange old film we’ve never seen.

After all, Citizen Kane is great art, but how many times can you watch it?  And in my experience, there is so much stuff that is sitting out there unseen and unpreserved that it saddens me to see the same old warhorses trotted out for the “old movie show.”  Theater owners and TV stations think that if it isn’t a title you know, then you won’t watch.

I’ve got some experience in this.  I’ve taught film history and appreciation, and people seem to like my classes.  I also remember the old days of TV, with the rough-edged local host doing a movie.  I thought that if I could combine the come-what-may atmosphere of the old days, no suits, no slickness, and weave in a little real history, we might have a good show.

That’s what Dr. Film is.  Or what it will be.

The show is designed to highlight unusual films that you don’t see on television much.  It’s definitely got a “what the heck is that” factor built into it.  I’m hoping to catch some errant channel flipper on his way past the classic film channel.  I hope he stays long enough to see what we’re showing.

Yes, I did make a complete pilot that’s broadcast-ready at 96 minutes.  I’ve taken some heat for not posting it.  It’s not on iTunes or YouTube either.  Why not?  Because it took so much time and effort to make the episode that I can’t afford another one.  If I give this one away, then the networks look at the show as “contaminated” by having been out there in the “free” world.

Trust me, in an ideal world I’d love to do this for free.  The stats are painful, though.  Three full days of shooting, many, hours of rewriting, days of film transfer work and re-transfer work.  Then the ultimate: I had to add titles, artwork and composite the show.  It took me a solid month to do it.  I admit that Episode 2 would take less time, but it’s still a lot of work.  I can’t spend this kind of time on a show unless I can get money back out of it.

The good news is that I’ve got the whole thing down to a staff of 3 people, and I’m the one who does most of the work.  That means that I can crank out episodes for a pretty inexpensive price compared to what other places have to charge.  Sometimes being a film geek and an engineer has its benefits.

I hope you’ve seen enough of the site to be excited about the show.  I hope you’re excited about the blog.  I’m the worst person in the world on marketing, but I know one thing.  I call it the marketing triangle.  I need three people to do effective marketing.  If I tell you that my restaurant is great, you won’t believe me.  I’ve got a stake in it, and you’ll raise your eyebrow and walk away.  It’s human nature.  But if a buddy of yours tells you that my restaurant is great, you’ll give it a chance.

I can’t just tell people that Dr. Film would be a cool show, and that this is an interesting site.  You have to tell a friend.  Hopefully, your friends will tell friends too.

What else can you do?  Well, if you have a friend with money who might like to sponsor the show, then let him know about it.  If you know any potential network or cable outlet that might like to pick up the show, then let me know.  Please don’t pester people, but a polite, “Hey, this is good,” is always welcome.

Would you like to have a free commando screening of the pilot episode?  That’s great, and I can help arrange it.  I realize that people want to see the show, and that’s fine.  I just can’t go making copies of it for public consumption.  Terry Gilliam got Brazil released on word of mouth.  I’m hoping that Dr. Film might get the same reception.

I know it’s crazy.  I’m told that often.  But one of my blog posts recently went viral in Europe.  I got about 20 pingbacks in an hour.  I never thought that would happen.  Maybe this can happen too.

Plan 9 from Out of Sequence

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) gets the name of being the worst film ever made.  It isn’t; it isn’t even Ed Wood’s worst film.  Plan 9 does have that oddly poetic Wood dialogue that doesn’t make sense and can’t quite be read properly by his actors.  It also has a raft of really awful cinematic mistakes, particularly in editing.

Some of you may be unfamiliar with the film.  It’s a low-budget story of aliens who come to Earth and re-animate dead people.  For some reason, the aliens believe this will frighten the living into listening to a dire warning: mankind is on the brink of a discovery that could threaten the entire universe.  If this doesn’t make sense, then you should watch the film, because that doesn’t make sense either.  Plan 9 is also notable for being Dracula star Bela Lugosi’s last film.  Lugosi died suddenly in 1956 during tests for a movie that was to be called Tomb of the Vampire.  Three years later, Wood cribbed this footage and used it to make Lugosi seem to be one of the walking dead.  For most of the picture, he’s awkwardly doubled by a guy holding a cape over his face.

When I teach classes in film history, I use the graveyard scene chase from this Plan 9 as an example of bad editing.  The scene is intended to be a tense chase through an old cemetery.  The walking dead chase Mona McKinnon as she struggles to stay ahead of them. This aim fails completely, because Wood has cut it in such a way that there is no consistent geography to it.  The shots are all over the map, some out of sequence, and some just wrong.  Now, that monster is… over there… and… over there, and she ran through that set once, no, now backwards, and that monster moved left to right and now right to… oh, I give up.

The other problem that the editing exposes is the utter poverty of the film.  Bela Lugosi’s double basically trips over a cardboard gravestone, and we see it bobble.  Wood hired an actor with a gigantic posterior to pick up Mona McKinnon at the end of the scene, and he cut it so that the posterior is seen far too often.  Tor Johnson has a nice shot in which he is seen emerging from his grave, but the bulky actor can’t quite stand upright, and struggles to get to his feet.  Rather than cut away… please CUT, Wood leaves it in, because big Tor looked so cool.

Watch Ed’s cut for yourself.  Now that I’ve pointed out the myriad errors, we can move on from there.

This is a sequence that lends itself to reordering, because the soundtrack is essentially just the Plan 9 theme.  The music is actually pretty good.  The monsters are at least somewhat spooky.  The photography is fine.  The problem is that the sets are cheap, and the editing is horrid.  Apart from one shot at the beginning of the sequence, there’s not a single shot with a monster and Mona McKinnon in view at the same time.  This is not fixable, but a good editor can minimize it.

I noted several key problems with the scene:

  • Mona McKinnon takes forever to run out of the shot with Lugosi’s double, and there’s no sense of drama in it.  Too long.
  • Tor Johnson’s grave emergence takes too long and slows the pace.  If we start it earlier and shorten the whole thing, making it seem as if he’s coming out just as McKinnon is going through the cemetery, then we’d have more tension.
  • McKinnon goes through the same set 3-4 times in different directions to pad out the scene.  It’s confusing, and too long. CUT.
  • The actor who rescues McKinnon at the end takes too long getting around the car and his posterior is embarrassing.  Let’s help him out by minimizing that.
  • OK, we all know that Bela Lugosi was long dead by the time this movie started shooting.  Wood’s use of test footage is actually pretty clever, but the double (Dr. Tom Mason) is glaringly obvious because he looks nothing like Lugosi.  In order to give us a little illusion, let’s not hold on long shots of Mason.  Let’s also not use the same shot of Lugosi six times just because he’s billed in the film.  If it doesn’t make sense, it needs to go.

I had to fudge a little.  I didn’t have access to the sound stems (the separate tracks for music, sound effects, and dialogue), so I was stuck using the sound as it was on the finished soundtrack.  By the time dialogue occurs, late in the scene, I’d cut the better part of a minute out of it, so I had to overlap two pieces of disparate music to make it work.  Here’s what I did with it:

The point in all of this is to show what an editor does.  People think he just cuts out the boring parts of a movie.  That can be true (it was in this case!), but he’s also responsible for making the film flow properly.  He takes a bunch of shots that the director supplies him and has to make sense of it.  If the film’s shooting was a disaster, then he’s essentially trying to rescue the film at the last moment.  There are people known as film doctors who specialize in taking footage from troubled films and creating something better out of them.

One of the episodes of the Dr. Film TV show will be dedicated to editing techniques and how films are put together, as we trace the development of the art through the years. Look at this and sort of a sneak preview of what is to come if the show gets picked up.

Stephen King directed Maximum Overdrive (1986).  He told an interviewer that when he saw the “rushes” of the film with his editor, he thought he had another Plan 9 from Outer Space on his hands.  The editor told him that all films look like Plan 9 until they’re cut properly.

Plan 9 would never have been a good movie, but Wood’s editing makes it a lot worse than it had to be.  Sometimes it’s what you do with the lemons that makes all the difference.