Friday, June 30, 2017

Keeping an Eye on Movies from Around the Globe

The hot topic in Hollywood right now is the diverse new class of movie folk (774 of them) who’ve been invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, most of the attention has gone to the fact that many on the invite list are people of color. (Last year’s Oscar-winning Moonlight has itself spawned a large group of invitees, including director Barry Jenkins, actresses Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe, and cinematographer James Laxton. ) But Justin Chang’s article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times points out another aspect of the Academy’s new thinking: it’s reaching out to respected filmmakers from all over the globe. Chang happily enumerates offbeat but worthy new academy members from Brazil, Greece, Japan, Hong Kong, Portugal, Iran, and the Philippines, along with a gaggle of Bollywood stars.

I can’t pretend I know every name on Chang’s list of moviemakers from foreign lands. (Shame on me, of course, but there are so many movies and so little time.) Still, I’m thrilled at this recognition of the international appeal of cinema. My recent travels have reminded me that a love of movies extends far beyond American shores.  

Film history snobs will be quick to point out that moviemaking was international from the start. In many ways it began in France (via Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers), and some of its most prized stylistic ideas came from Russia and Germany. But there’s no question that Hollywood-style movies became pre-eminent, and the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age are still cherished the world over. Case in point: last week when I walked into a trendy Amsterdam coffee bar, I was instantly captivated by its décor. On its walls were dozens of close-up movie stills of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman, each of them posed clutching a cup of coffee.  

  Many cities around the world have film centers where fans can gather to watch and discuss movies, as well as enjoy movie-themed exhibits. In Paris, the Cinémathèque Française is legendary, dating back to the saving of silent films during World War II. New York can boast its Museum of the Moving Image, now housed in a former building of the historic Astoria Studios in Queens. Shockingly, Los Angeles has never had a full-fledged film museum, though the American Cinematheque screens films both in Hollywood (at the Egyptian Theatre) and in Santa Monica (at an historic neighborhood movie-house called the  Aero). Happily, a long-awaited museum sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is now under construction next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In Amsterdam, I was privileged to visit EYE Film Institute Netherlands, housed in a spectacular building across the Ij River from the city’s central train station. (Its name comes from a pun on the Dutch pronunciation of the river it overlooks, and you take a free ferry ride to get there.) On a recent Saturday evening, I arrived too late to enjoy a vast display of memorabilia relating to the career of Martin Scorsese. But I could choose between four films to watch in comfortable screening rooms. In this particular timeslot, only two were in English: an ethereal Japanese travelogue on Mt. Fuji and Raoul Peck’s hard-hitting I Am Not Your Negro, based on the writings of James Baldwin. I watched the latter, surrounded by respectful Dutch viewers. And then there was time for a glass of wine and a tasty meal in a busy café overlooking the lights of Amsterdam. The Dutch know how to do movies right.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Frank Capra: A Not Always Wonderful Life

Director Frank Capra’s famous 1971 memoir, The Name Above the Title, contains a phrase that is often quoted in Hollywood: “Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men in the dark.” These were the words that Jane Fonda had inscribed on a plaque as a 1981 Christmas gift for her producing partner, Bruce Gilbert, around the time they made On Golden Pond. Like many other Hollywood denizens, Fonda found inspiration in the courage that had allowed Capra to make such hard-hitting social comedies as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

Alas, as Joseph McBride points out in his powerful 1992 biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Capra was not always the gutsy maverick his own memoir makes him out to be. Capra, a Sicilian immigrant desperate for fame and social acceptance, was a shrewd man who knew how to be affable. Actors loved him for his relaxed and supportive behavior on the set. But—determined to live by an auteurist credo of “one man, one movie”—he proved to be ungenerous to collaborators, never fully acknowledging the role played by such talented colleagues as screenwriter Robert Riskin and cinematographer Joseph Walker. Moreover, especially later in his career, he had debilitating periods of self-doubt.

During World War II the patriotic Capra enlisted in the military and proved essential to the U.S. cause as the head of the unit producing the “Why We Fight” morale films. He ended the war as a full colonel, valued by General George Marshall to the extent that he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. But the post-war period brought him little personal satisfaction. An attempt to form an independent film company was a flop, and he seemed to lose the buoyant spirit that had marked his earlier movies. McBride sees the suicidal George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life as a near-portrait of Capra himself, without the Christmas-card ending.    

McBride, a longtime scholar and journalist (as well as a Roger Corman alum who once dreamed up the plot for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School)  had the advantage of working directly with Capra on the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tribute evening. When McBride moved on to this biography, he gained access to the Capra archive at Wesleyan University, as well as to documents in government files. He also spoke to many of Hollywood’s leading lights, who shared a wide range of opinions about the beloved but complicated director. A tireless researcher, McBride did not fail to pinpoint contradictions between Capra’s charming but self-serving memoir and the truth to be found in the paper trail. No wonder the book took him eight years to write.

Before reading this biography, I had not realized the extent to which Capra’s life was shaped by politics. The myth fostered by Capra himself was that he was a champion of the little guy within American life. And so his best films make him seem. He also, by playing a leadership role in the formation of what would become the Directors Guild, appeared to be siding with labor against the studio system. But he was also a lifelong Republican who consistently voted against FDR and at one time admired Mussolini. In the difficult years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was so desperate to avoid accusations that he became virulently anti-Communist, even to the point of naming names to the FBI. Said one former colleague, “The blacklist killed him—that panic. In effect, he was a victim of the backlist. [But] he had the soul of an informer.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

“The Player”: Pitching “The Graduate, Part II”

Few would consider Robert Altman a Hollywood director. Though he enjoyed hits like MASH (1970), the box-office failure of Altman’s ambitious McCabe and Mrs. Miller made studios reluctant to send production money his way. Still, no one has been better than Altman at skewering the way Hollywood goes about its business. I just re-watched his 1992 film, The Player, and marveled at how well it understands moviemaking, Hollywood-style.

 Not that my own years in the film industry resembled what happens on the movie lot depicted in The Player. Working for B-movie maven Roger Corman on the low-budget end of Hollywood, I hardly spent my days in a capacious office suite, nor enjoyed pricey lunches among the beautiful people. (In fact, my deal required me to eat at my desk, while going through piles of script submissions.) Still, I experienced enough of Hollywood to recognize the film’s acid-dipped portrayal of insecure people jostling one another for position. I understood Hollywood’s obsession with star-power and with cranking out formulaic movies chockful of the list of traits described in The Player: “Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.”  I grasped why nearly every pitch heard by studio types within the film has a role guaranteed to be tailor-made for Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts.

And, of course, I love The Player because it features my friend Adam Simon. Fans of the movie will remember that The Player begins with an eight-minute tracking shot that roams the studio lot repesented by Hollywood Center Studios, the former site of Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope. As the roving camera fleetingly captures development execs driving through the gate in sleek cars, listening to pitches, and giving Japanese investors insider tours, a down-at-the-heels screenwriter-type named Adam Simon is desperately trying to accost anyone who might be interested in his latest project. He’s shrugged off by one and all, and a dapper Griffin Mills (star Tim Robbins) demands to know who let him onto the lot. As the film’s story begins to unfold, poor Adam (his actual name is used on screen) is being hustled away, still trying to convince someone—anyone—of his value as a storyteller. It’s a better picture of the writer’s status in Hollywood than any other I’ve seen.

(Adam Simon is still around and still writing. I knew him in my Concorde years as the writer-director of several horror films, including the innovative Brain Dead and Roger Corman’s biggest video hit, Carnosaur. His horror documentary, The American Nightmare, is well worth a look. He got the gig in The Player partly because he’s a longtime friend and colleague of Tim Robbins, with whom he helped found the Actors’ Gang, a local theatre troupe. Adam can’t spell, but he’s a very good guy.)

Adam Simon is not the only sighting in The Player of the writer-as-victim. The film is, among other things, a thriller, and a writer named David Kahane comes to a bad end in a way that sends Griffin Mills’ life completely out of control.  But there are lots of other writer-characters as well, most of them busy pitching their hearts out to suits who are barely being polite. That long tracking-shot at the start features a pitch by none other than Buck Henry, who’s enthusiastically pushing a follow-up to his own screenplay for The Graduate: “Ben and Elaine are married still. . . . . Mrs. Robinson, her aging mother, lives with them. She’s had a stroke. And they’ve got a daughter in college—Julia Roberts, maybe. It’ll be dark and weird and funny—with a stroke.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

One Summer at the Movies: Bill Bryson Looks Back

What’s the big deal about 1927? Bill Bryson, my favorite pop historian, devotes an entire book to the events between May and September of that year. The book is called One Summer: America, 1927. Bryson makes a great case for the fact that the personalities who came to the fore during that six month period—aviator Charles Lindbergh, baseball great Babe Ruth, President Calvin Coolidge, anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—helped make the United States into the 20th century powerhouse it would soon become.

Naturally, the subject of movies crops up. Movies were evolving back then from a cheap attraction for the lower classes into a full-fledged art form, and their use in capturing reality can’t be overstated. When Lindbergh made the first successful aerial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, newsreel cameras were in Paris to greet him. Manhattan’s huge new Roxy Theatre showed an exclusive Movietone newsreel of Lindbergh taking off from Roosevelt Field, in which sound was an integral component. As Bryson describes it, “loudspeakers were set up in the theater wings, and a technician with good timing played a separate sound track so that the engine’s initial sputters and final triumphant roar matched the image on the screen.” The combination of sound and visuals brought six thousand patrons to their feet at every screening.

Feeding on the excitement generated by this new era of aviation, Walt Disney released a new Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Plane Crazy.” And after his flight the triumphant but very private Lindbergh was offered $500,000 and a percentage of the profits to star in a cinematic version of his life. According to Bryson, he could have earned as much as $1 million if he’d agreed to be filmed while searching for and finding the girl of his dreams, culminating in a Hollywood-style wedding.

Meanwhile taciturn President Calvin Coolidge was discovering how much he liked appearing on film. Having shown up at a South Dakota hunting lodge for a long summer vacation, he insisted that his whole entourage reload their luggage into cars and drive 200 yards down the road so they could re-enact the presidential arrival for the newsreel cameras.

In Los Angeles, home of movie magic, the big sign in the hills still read Hollywoodland, advertising a local housing tract. But studios were churning out 800 feature films a year. Movies were now the country’s fourth largest industry, but few individual pictures made much profit. Early film moguls looked for answers in new stars (like the sexy “it” girl Clara Bow), new cinematic expertise (the aerial stunts in Wings were spectacular by any standard), and new technologies (this was of course the year of The Jazz Singer and the advent of the talking picture). Meanwhile, exhibitors tried to elevate the moviegoing experience by building extravagant movie palaces. Bryson mentions the kitschy Orientalism of Grauman’s Chinese but especially the bejeweled Roxy on 50th Street and 7th Avenue in New York City. It seated 6,200 moviegoers, but could also accommodate elaborate stage performances. Fourteen Steinway pianos were at the ready; the Roxy also boasted air-conditioning and push-button ice-water dispensers. A New Yorker cartoon of the era showed an awed child asking her mother, “Mama, does God live here?”

Bryson laments, as so many cineastes do, the fact that talkies swept in as silent film was reaching its aesthetic peak. But he makes a fascinating statement about the impact of sound in movies. With a few exceptions, Hollywood’s stars spoke with American voices. “With American speech came American thoughts, American attitudes, American humor . . . America was officially taking over the world.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Best in Show: A Mockumentary that’s Going to the Dogs

A few weeks back, while huffing and puffing on the elliptical trainer at my gym, I chanced to flip TV channels and came upon the Beverly Hills Dog Show. History was being made: for the very first time the dog show’s Best in Show competition was being broadcast on television. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine who would care. Then again, I don’t understand the rationale behind dog shows in the first place.

Yes, the dogs are – one and all – quite beautiful. Best in Show means that the winners in various specialized categories (the work dogs, the terriers, the toys, and so on) are competing against one another, with one to be named the overall winner. The Best in Show competition in Beverly Hills pitted a whippet against a corgi, a bichon frise, and several others. As is apparently typical of dog shows, none of them is expected to do anything spectacular (like, say, rescuing Timmy from a burning building). Each trots around a circle at his or her master’s side, and then stands at attention, waiting to be admired for being a credit to his or her breed. Judges study the dogs from all angles, examining their teeth and gently lifting their tails. Frankly, it reminded me of a scene from Twelve Years a Slave, except that these dogs were competing for trophies, not being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

The other distinctive thing about a dog show is that the dogs are far more graceful and aristocratic than the human beings. Each owner accompanies his or her prize-winner around the ring, sprinting lumpily at the canine’s side. They’re an unlikely lot: the men dressed in sober business suits, the women in ill-fitting tailored attire (with skirt inevitably too short, too tight) and flat-heeled shoes. And their seriousness of purpose can’t be missed.

No wonder Christopher Guest felt that dog shows were ripe to be satirized. Guest (also known, as the 5th Baron Hadon-Guest) first fell into the mockumentary business when he appeared as rocker Nigel Tufnel – the one whose amp goes to eleven -- in Rob Reiner’s 1984 classic, This is Spinal Tap. Following up this comic salute to “one of England’s loudest bands,” Guest began directing his own semi-improvised mockumentaries, featuring a troupe that generally includes Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, and Parker Posey. I’ve never quite gotten over their first effort, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, about a small-town musical revue whose castmates dream of showbiz success. (Guest himself is a hoot as Corky St. Clair, imported from Broadway to lead the locals to glory.)

But Best in Show (2000) may be the merry band’s most popular effort. I think it’s because audiences love dog movies, and also because in this film the dogs have so much more dignity than their human handlers. Take Sherri Ann Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge), a trophy wife whose standard poodle Rhapsody in White is the stoic victim of Cabot’s penchant for sartorial makeovers. Or Gerry and Cookie Fleck (he has, quite literally, two left feet, while she seems to have past history with every man she runs across): they like to serenade their Norwich Terrier, Winky, with their own semi-musical dog barks. Or the Swans (Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock), a yuppie couple whose own social and sexual neuroses seem to have caught up with their Weimaraner. Only Guest’s own character, a backwoods type named Harlan Pepper, actually seems at one with his bloodhound. Who wins? That’s for me to know. . . .

But I’d say it’s the audience. (Then again, I find  beauty pageants hilarious too.)