You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2010.
On the first page of The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield announces:
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.
Holden Caulfield was one of the few people I’d ever heard of who hated the movies. He despises the fact that his brother D.B. is out screenwriting in Hollywood, ‘being a prostitute’. But later he does recall this story of going to the movies with his sister Phoebe:
I mean if you tell old Phoebe something she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about. I mean you can even take her anywhere with you. If you take her to a lousy movie, for instance, she knows it’s a lousy movie. If you take her to a pretty good movie, she knows it’s a pretty good movie. D.B. and I took her to see this French movie, The Baker’s Wife, with Raimu in it. It killed her. Her favourite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddamn movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up from this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Pheobe’ll say right out loud in the movie – right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it – ‘Can you eat the herring?’ She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that really jolly German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Pheobe beats him to it – she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.
R.I.P. J.D. Salinger. January 1, 1919 – January 27, 2010.
In an occasional series I will be publishing images of stars found in contemporary cities. Here we have an image of Marlene Dietrich in Berlin. You can see Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and James Stewart in another city here.
I’d love to see any of your images of stars in the city, send them over and I’ll add them to the site: firstname.lastname@example.org.
photograph by Christian Hayes.
By looking at early and silent cinema you are investigating primal questions about cinema. What is cinema, where did it come from and how does it actually function? Your understanding of silent cinema will adjust your understanding of cinema right up to the present day. So if you want to study, write or talk about cinema, you’d better get reading.
Here are five books I highly recommend that will give you a foundation for understanding where cinema came from, and frameworks with which to think about early and silent film.
The Emergence of Cinema by Charles Musser
Charles Musser is a leading authority on early American film. This was the first volume of the excellent History of American Cinema series and takes a definitive look at the origins of cinema and its development. Musser makes an important distinction that cinema emerged out of existing traditions rather than being invented in an ‘Eureka’ moment. Essential for an understanding of cinema as a whole.
The Dream That Kicks by Michael Chanan
In this book Michael Chanan rethinks everything. All our assumptions about cinema are questioned and reassessed. He provides an insightful account of the emergence of cinema, deconstructs the myths that have surrounded ‘persistence of vision’ and provides an excellent account of how celluloid came to be cinema’s medium. A thought-provoking and exciting book.
The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vols 1-5 by John Barnes
This ambitious five-volume masterwork investigates the cinema in England from 1904 to 1901. Written by revered film historian John Barnes, this was the most complete survey of early film in Britain at the time of publication in the 1970s (reprinted in the 90s) and it remains an authority on the subject to this day. To collect all five volumes will set you back £250, so if you ever find a bargain on one of the volumes, don’t think twice.
Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative edited by Thomas Elsaesser
Published in 1990, this key collection of essays gathered groundbreaking research on early film from the 1980s. This new wave of early film study was a direct result of the annual conference of the International Federation of Film Archives held in Brighton in 1978, in which over 200 early films were studied and reassessed. What scholars found was that pre-conceived notions of early film as ‘primitive’ and ‘unsophisticated’ had to be rethought. This inspired new research methodologies, theoretical frameworks and a reassessment of the work of the Lumières, Méliès, and the Brighton school. This book acts as an important overview of early film scholarship after 12 years of research.
The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow
The book that rekindled an interest in silent film. Today’s enthusiasm and preservation for silent film owes a lot to Kevin Brownlow who has tirelessly championed, preserved and documented silent film throughout his life. The Parade’s Gone By was the end product of a series of pioneering interviews that Brownlow undertook with forgotten filmmakers during the 1960s. The place to start for an understanding of the silent film in Hollywood.
still from Les Palais Des Mille et une Nuits (Georges Méliès, 1905) available in the Five Volume DVD Set Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)
I’ve received a lot of emails on my post about Why 3D Does Not Work. Many agree, but some others seem to have problems with it.
For those left scratching their heads, here are five simple points:
- The 3D object exists on a 2D plane. There is no weight to this 3D object. It’s paper-thin.
- 3D effects draw attention to themselves and take us out of the film experience, distracting us from the narrative.
- 3D can cause a loss of sharpness to the image. Particularly in fast-paced sequences images can become blurred, losing clarity and resolution.
- Our eyes adjust quickly to 3D. We most likely will notice 3D effects at the start of a film but not at the end. If we’re not actually noticing it, it might as well be 2D, because:
- The ‘2D’ image already has an incredible depth that is totally convincing. It’s part of the reason why both photography and film have remained so powerful to this very day.
In 3D individual, isolated spectacles are most effective, for example a bubble leaving the screen and heading towards you, a fish swimming out from the ocean or a secret passageway extending deep into the screen.
3D is most effective as a novelty, not as a sustained visual system throughout a feature film. And there has not yet been a film to prove otherwise.
Photograph (US, J. R. Eyerman, 1952) of an audience at Bwana Devil. Originally published in Life Magazine, hosted by and co. of Google.
My post on Why 3D Doesn’t Work has proved to be both popular and contentious, so I thought I’d follow it up by making it clear that 3D is not the sole domain of multi-million dollar movies. 3D imagery is in fact a 19th Century technology.
Stereoscopic photography emerged around the late 1830s, soon after the development of photography itself. But the stereograph boom really occurred in the 1850s after its success at the 1851 Great Exhibition.
There is something endlessly fascinating about early stereoscopic views and they work in a far more delicate and beguiling way than the latest wave of 3D cinema. I urge you to seek out a stereoscopic viewer, whether in a museum or even seeking out your own online, or even make your own.
I leave you with a few interesting views:
Co. of Japan-in-America.
Co. of Wikipedia.
Co. of Stereoviews.com.
Louise Brooks in Overland Stage Raiders (1938)
The only thing tragic about Louise Brooks’s appearance in Overland Stage Raiders (1938) is that it was her final film. No longer the icon of the silent screen, here she is unrecognisable. Her exoticism has turned to homeliness and her famous Pandora’s Box (1929) bob has been replaced with a shoulder length cut as Lulu meets rising star, John Wayne:
Available on a cheap 20-disc John Wayne DVD set.
Veronica Lake in Flesh Feast (1970)
The beautiful Veronica Lake starred in now-classic noirs such as This Gun For Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), and also sparkled in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one of the finest films of the 1940s. Yet she went on to have a tragic life. Dropped from Paramount at the end of the 1940s, she failed to continue her career independent of a studio contract. Washed up, she wound up working in bars and turned to drink and eventually died at the age of 53. Her final acting appearance was in the cheap Flesh Feast (1970), a world away from her films of the forties.
Available on a schlocky DVD release.
Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)
By the 1940s Joan Crawford was giving some of the most stylised and unique performances of classic cinema. It felt like films such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946) and Possessed (1947) were constructed around her image of a fragile yet powerful woman. Kicked out of the studio system and into the world of low budget horror, Crawford still attempts to hold some control through the mannered nature of her performance. But then again she was starring in films such as Straight-Jacket (1964) and Berserk (1967). Once an icon of refinement, here we see the surreal sight of the great Joan Crawford on the quest to discover a frozen monkey…. thing, in her final theatrically-released film, Trog (1970).
Mae West in Sextette (1978)
Mae West, one of the true comediennes of the studio era, famously returned to the screen in the 1970s after a 30-year hiatus for the films Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978). As the name would suggest West continued to play a sex-kitten even though she was in her eighties.
Available on a now-expensive out-of-print DVD.
Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother (1989)
Of course Bette Davis continued to work non-stop from the 1930s to the 1980s, eventually featuring in over 100 movies. Her final film was Wicked Stepmother (1980), an eighties ‘comedy’ that has come to be widely reviled, partly for its sense of exploiting a once-great star. Rumour has it that she even walked off the picture mid-production. Most shocking, however, is how frail Davis looks at the very end of her life. Yet even though she looks impossibly skeletal, she still seems tough as ever.
This one is currently unavailable and DVD, but can be found on an old VHS release.
If you know of any other final films as tragic, surreal or as shocking as these, please let me know.
I was recently asked by the BBC to comment on whether Avatar would herald in a new revolutionary kind of cinema, and whether its CGI and 3D effects meant that it would be far more immersive and spectacular than anything we’d ever seen before. It’s a shame they asked me before the film had actually been released. On the radio I warned: ‘Don’t believe the hype’ and that turned out to be pretty much the case, except I wasn’t prepared for how bored I would be.
Here’s the real problem with 3D. The 3D plane that detaches itself from the screen and heads towards you is itself 2-dimensional, creating an effect that is explicitly artificial. Yet as the 3D effects continue our eyes adjust and we no longer notice it, as was the case in Coraline, Up and Avatar. 3D has to draw attention to itself to be noticed but by doing so distracts you from the film itself.
3D cinema breaks the primal illusion of cinema, that a flat image can appear to have depth. 3D suits its status as a novelty for good reason. It’s 2D cinema that’s the truly immersive experience.
Here’s a secret: I watch new movies. I even like some new movies. But truthfully it’s becoming more and more difficult to care about any new releases.
With all the recent Top 10 lists of the films of 2009 and indeed the decade, it was interesting to see how dull a lot of the choices were. Of course there were some great movies over the past 10 years, but I was surprised how many of the choices were movies I didn’t like. There also seemed to be a desperation to pin down the ‘important’ films of the last ten years, but I can’t help feeling that it’s all been done before.
I can’t help thinking that you’d have a far better time watching an old film.
So as an antidote to those lists, here’s my Top 10 of 1939, 70 years prior. It’s almost too easy a selection in this case, as many have commented on how this was perhaps the ‘golden’ year of classical Hollywood.
Could any movie from 2009 beat any of these?
My favourite performer, Jimmy Stewart, in his first western. Dietrich characteristically appears out of place, but wait in particular for the moving ending.
The best kind of epic: spectacular and passionate, yet with a tight focus on its central character. It features both one of the greatest performances and one of the greatest characters of the era, Vivien Leigh as Scarlet O’Hara, a character surely based on Becky Sharp.
I find this movie pretty serious, but it’s atmospheric and exciting, and Cary Grant makes a great adventure hero.
A funny, delicate and complex ensemble drama directed by and featuring Jean Renoir. Worth seeing a few times.
The definitive film about prohibition and the rise of the gangster with Cagney continuing to mark his territory as the performer who revolutionised film acting in the sound era.
The movie that defined James Stewart’s star persona as the naive outsider who brings about law, order and decency. It’s funny and light-hearted in places, but also as political as you want it to be.
The film that galvanised the western genre and created John Wayne’s mighty star image.
This famous Japanese drama directed by Kenji Mizoguchi is vivid, delicate and moving, with long takes that give it a naturalistic and gentle pace. See this one on the big screen if possible as it’s not currently available on disc.
The film that sums up the Hollywood film experience with its escapist theme and Technicolor technology. See the new Blu Ray transfer if you can, it’s so detailed that it’s practically a new film.
Surely I haven’t missed any?