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.

For more details about stereography  take a listen to this episode of Jeff Curto’s brilliant History of Photography podcast or visit these comprehensive links to stereoscopic photographs.

I leave you with a few interesting views:

Co. of Japan-in-America.

Co. of Wikipedia.

Co. of Stereoviews.com.

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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).

Amazingly this one was respectably released by Warner Bros. in the DVD boxset Cult Camp Classics vol. 2: Women in Peril.

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?

Destry Rides Again

My favourite performer, Jimmy Stewart, in his first western. Dietrich characteristically appears out of place, but wait in particular for the moving ending.

Gone with the Wind

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.

Only Angels Have Wings

I find this movie pretty serious, but it’s atmospheric and exciting, and Cary Grant makes a great adventure hero.

La Règle du Jeu

A funny, delicate and complex ensemble drama directed by and featuring Jean Renoir. Worth seeing a few times.

The Roaring Twenties

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.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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.

Stagecoach

The film that galvanised the western genre and created John Wayne’s mighty star image.

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums

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 Wizard of Oz

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.

My favourite of these? The Wizard of Oz. The movie I’d watch right now? The Roaring Twenties.

Surely I haven’t missed any?


Parade

Jacques Tati's Parade (1972) available on BFI DVD, 22 June 2009

Rarely seen, this is a welcome release of master French comic Jacques Tati’s final film as both director and performer. Made for television, Parade is a live compendium of circus, music hall and magic acts hosted by Tati himself. With opening scenes of audience members taking their seats, the film appears at its outset to be a recording of a 1970s Tati-on-tour live show, a final attempt to sell tickets as a comic giant’s career wanes. But although we may witness a mid-show interval and genuine audience reactions, it becomes apparent that the film is a playful and imaginative take on the experience of seeing a show. Sketches play out in the corridors, in the theatre bar and indeed after the show has ended.

In a similar vein to Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, in which he revisits his music hall past, Parade is a return to Tati’s own music hall experiences during the 1930s. Tati’s key performances during the film revolve around the miming acts that gave him early success. He is transformed into a goalie, a boxer and a tennis player, and even at one point becoming an English policeman. While at first these may appear as comic ideas too antiquated to still remain humorous, Tati infuses them with an accuracy that is indeed very funny – in particular watch for his recreation of a tennis match in slow motion.

The film is filled with surrealistic touches, with cardboard cut-outs planted amongst the audience and a set that is constantly being painted even as the show is playing out. During the interval the bartender bursts open a soft drink only to find his own head springing a leak. With the audience playing a key role in the film’s focus, the space between audience and performers become blurred, especially when members of the audience cross onto the stage and participate in the action. One enthusiastic bald spectator finds himself compelled to jump into the ring and ride a wild pony, while a conspicuously bored blonde boy wanders in and out of the action. As these participations occur, the character of the audience shifts from innocence to complicity, yet throughout the film the audience’s reactions are so convincingly spontaneous that they are clearly fulfilling their role as genuine spectators by having a good time.

Other acts performed by the troupe include juggling, acrobatics, sword swallowing, singing and clowning. Even when performed to the 1970s audience, these acts appear as though from another time, each one evoking a lost circus and music hall tradition. As such Parade acts as a kind of final record of long-forgotten acts and entertainments. Traditions such as mimesis, which Tati himself excelled in, have long since been ridiculed as the cliché of outdated entertainment but what Parade does is show us how it is meant to be done. This results in unexpected reactions; a miming showjumper forces us to imagine a galloping horse, only for that very animal to then stride into the ring for real and put flesh to our fantasies.

Parade is the latest in a range of Jacques Tati films that the British Film Institute have strived to make available on DVD, and they have done so in this case with a pristine transfer. The film was originally produced on a combination of video, 16mm and 35mm, and has undergone a digital restoration which has resulted in Parade looking and sounding as good as it possibly can on DVD.

Special features
Previously unseen interview with Jacques Tati, filmed in London in 1977 (19 mins)
Illustrated booklet with essays by Philip Kemp and Jonathan Rosenbaum; director biography and credits

Available At
Amazon.co.uk
BFI Filmstore

Release date: 22 June 2009
RRP: £19.99 / cat. no. BFIVD808 / cert U
France / 1974 / colour / French language with English subtitles / 84 mins /
Ratio 1.33:1


Here is an excellent Radio 4 programme all about silent filmmaker Percy Smith who specialised in detailed studies of the natural world. Named after one of his most famous films, The Balancing Bluebottle (1908, also known as The Acrobatic Fly, above), this programme features two of the greatest silent film experts: Bryony Dixon and Luke McKernan.

Take a listen on BBC iPlayer.

As Luke McKernan has pointed out on The Bioscope, Percy’s famous The Birth of a Flower (1910), in living colour, is available to view online here.

George Kennedy alongside James Stewart in Shenandoah (1965)

George Kennedy alongside James Stewart in Shenandoah (1965)

On Tuesday night (22nd April 2009) I had the great opportunity to attend a live interview with George Kennedy at the BFI Southbank. The conversation was preceded by a screening of Cool Hand Luke in which Kennedy played Dragline, the self-appointed leader of the prison gang who transforms into Luke’s most ardent disciple. His performance of rough masculinity contrasts well with Newman’s cooly confident title character.

I knew Kennedy primarily from his films with James Stewart such as Shenandoah, The Flight of the Pheonix and Fools’ Parade, but of course he has starred in a range of films such as The Sons of Katie Elder with Dean Martin and John Wayne, The Dirty Dozen, Demented with Joan Crawford and the Aiport and Naked Gun series.

When Kennedy took the stage he was gracious and talked engagingly about getting drunk with John Wayne, befriending Bette Davis and even hanging out with Leslie Nielson and O.J. Simpson in their Naked Gun days. I was also interested to find out that he had served in the airforce and went on to act as a technical advisor on Sergeant Bilko where he witnessed the artistry of the vaudevillians at work.

Of particular interest to me was his recollections of knowing James Stewart. To Kennedy, who never knew his father, Stewart became a kind of father figure. Without ever having a male role model in his life, Kennedy believed that Stewart embodied everything a man should be. Interestingly this rings true with our perceptions of Stewart through the virtuous characters he played on-screen. Kennedy had seen Stewart’s films in the 1930s, naming Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and felt extremely lucky to have worked with and known him. Indeed Kennedy talked of him with reverence and came to hold him in the highest regard of any male in his life. He did not mention the connection between his own wartime service in the airforce (he actually participated in the Battle of the Bulge) and James Stewart’s famously distinguished wartime service.

The evening was a rare opportunity, as would be the next night. It was revealed that Kennedy had flown to London with his old friend and co-star, Ernest Borgnine.

BBC Radio 5 Live

I will be one half of a debate on The Richard Bacon Show on BBC Radio 5 Live on Thursday 15th January at 12 midnight (Thursday night).

As the classic film expert I will be talking about how they don’t make ’em like they used to.

You can listen live on the BBC Radio 5 Live website.

Or listen again for up to a week after broadcast at Radio 5 or on the BBC iPlayer.

Sullivan's Travels (1941)  

The Ultimate Film Archive is a hand-picked chronology of films from each decade (starting with the 1940s), all of which I highly recommend you seeking out. Not an exhaustive list but it’s a start as further films are added.

How many of these have you seen? Either leave a comment or email me at classicfilmshow@gmail.com.

Have I missed any out? Any further suggestions would be greatly appreciated. 

It starts…

1940s

1940 The Grapes Of Wrath (USA, John Ford)
1940 Fantasia (USA, Walt Disney Productions)
1940 The Great Dictator (USA, Charlie Chaplin) … See all here

The Criterion Collection have just announced that they have opened up their collection online. For $5 you can rent a film for an entire week, the fee of which will actually go towards the purchase of the actual disc when you want to buy it.

For now there is a small selection including Au Revoir Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987), Cléo From 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962), Juliet of the Spirits (Fellini, 1965), Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983), The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973) and The Thief of Baghdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, 1940). Every week more titles will be published.

Perhaps even more exciting is that they have partnered with The Auteurs where you can stream movies for free. Right now. These include a selection of modern quality world cinema, including one of my very favourites, After Life (Japan, 1998, dir: Hirokazu Kore-Eda). Other titles currently available include Le Vent de La Nuit starring Catherine Deneuve, Midnight directed by Walter Salles and another Kore-Eda film, Maborosi.

There are huge possibilities here for serious filmgoers and for films that are costly to publish to DVD and to export. 

Now to see if I can rent Criterion from outside the U.S…

After Life:

afterlife

Contact Me

Christian Hayes
classicfilmshow@gmail.com
christianhayes.net
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