The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Seven

Cinema didn’t tell the story, it was the story.

Two episodes back I said how much I enjoyed the 1940s episode, especially since I love film noir so much. Well, my second favorite movement or faux genre might just be the French New Wave, so I’m definitely biased to enjoy Chapter 7 as well. If the 1950s were a cinematic pressure cooker bursting at the seams, constrained by the studio system and the mores of the time, then the ’60s were the explosion. The world had been in upheaval in the ’50s, but it became even more tumultuous in the ’60s, with the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, increasing nuclear fears, the hippie generation, free love, revolution, etc. Times were changing, and cinema, somewhat conservative in the ’50s, was now ready to change with them.

Before getting to the New Wave itself, though, Cousins looks at some of the highly individual directors who laid the groundwork for the more personal cinema that the New Wave celebrated. We’re in well-worn cinephile territory here (and really throughout this episode), with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Federico Fellini, but Cousins still manages to bring out insights into their films and relation to the larger Story of Film that I hadn’t really noticed. These are all directors who started their careers in the 1950s or earlier and thus were an inspiration to New Wave filmmakers, even as they continued their own careers throughout the 1960s and beyond.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Six

In popular American nostalgia the 1950s have a squeaky clean reputation – according to our collective memory, it was a time of white picket fences, domesticity, cohesive family units, and the American Dream coming to fruition. Just looking at the movies of the 1950s disproves that notion, as we instead see sexual desire, teenage rebellion, and discontent seething below the seemingly perfect exterior, ready to burst through the seams at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, cinema was truly going global in the 1950s. Prior to this, the United States and Europe dominated, with some side notes of interest in Japan and China, but in this chapter Cousins highlights notable films from Egypt, India, Brazil and Mexico as well – new national cinemas bursting through the seams onto the world stage.

The world was undergoing great social change in the 1950s – in America, we had the invention of the “teenager” as a social construct and the development of rock and roll, while in Africa and around the world decolonization was creating new nations intent on forging a national identity and with it, a national cinema. What ties these together for Cousins is their shared use of a form of cinema that’s also bursting at the seams – the melodrama. The melodrama has kind of a negative reputation as being overwrought and emotional, but as Cousins will show, there are a ton of great melodramas, and melodrama as a form encapsulates the kind of repressed emotion just waiting to bust out that characterized the 1950s. Cousins calls the melodrama a “pressure cooker of pent-up emotions” and finds them dotting the globe at this point in film history.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Five

Movies had to get this raw because life had become this raw.

I’m running behind, as Chapter Six aired last night on TCM. I’m hoping to get caught up tomorrow.

The world changed in the 1940s, a world war casting its presence over half the decade and its shadow over the rest. Nothing would ever be the same, and neither would cinema. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, Marc Cousins states that prior to the 1940s, movies had focused on fantasy and escapism, but in the ’40s, movies darken visually and morally. Obviously, this is an oversimplification (and to some degree Hollywood-centric), but Cousins knows that. In the episode, he gives the escapist cinema of the 1940s a passing mention with a Betty Grable musical, but quickly affirms that the essential cinema of the ’40s is neo-realism and film noir, a claim that’s not particularly unreasonable.

But before he goes into the development of neo-realism in Italy and film noir in the United States, he goes back to look at the development of deep staging and deep focus in Stagecoach and Citizen Kane. The Hollywood romantic tradition preferred long lenses which threw the background out of focus, drawing attention to and flattering the star. Deep focus democratized the frame, allowing the viewers’ eyes to wander at will, while encouraging deep staging to emphasize spatial relationships between people and things. Cousins shows shots from Stagecoach that use deep focus and deep staging, including a wide shot of a room including ceilings, something that Citizen Kane is often credited with doing first (Robert Osborne even mentioned the ceilings as revolutionary in Citizen Kane in the intro, but Cousins didn’t challenge him).

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Four

It’s a common understanding among silent film fans that something beautiful and inherently cinematic was lost when sound took over at the end of the 1920s. Silent film had reached great heights of visual splendor, highly complex ways of conveying story, psychology, and mood by visual means, and innovative ways to use the camera, editing, and actors within the frame.

The coming of sound meant learning how to make cinema all over again. Technological limitations meant that the camera was no longer free to roam about the frame – that would have interfered with the sound recording. Similarly, shooting on location became difficult, because ambient sounds were difficult to avoid, so filming moved back onto studio sets (where they would largely stay for the next twenty to thirty years). Cousins points out things that I’d never really thought of or seen mentioned before in his clip of Bing Crosby singing – a two camera shoot ran live, like live television eventually would, to record the sound unbroken. This meant framing was limited; shots couldn’t be restaged for different angles, nor could lighting be reset for different shots, lending everything a flatness. These were all challenges that filmmakers had to learn to overcome to figure out how to use sound cinematically.

But creatively thrives on challenges, and as Cousins mentioned in his introductory interview with Robert Osborne, filmmakers quickly learned to use sound creatively, using it to help set mood, or even undercut the visual for ironic purposes. As early as 1932, Rouben Mamoulian used the everyday morning sounds of Paris waking up as a kind of symphonic overture to his film Love Me Tonight, and used tricks like substituting yapping dogs in for society ladies chattering. Sonic trickery becomes possible, and sometimes even more effective than the visual trickery of the silent era. It’s interesting that I tend to forget Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight, because it reminds me so much of the Lubitsch films of the same era (several of which start Love Me Tonight‘s Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald), but with Cousins’ praise for Mamoulian’s innovation, I’m excited to rewatch it with Mamoulian in mind.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Three

It was a time of fantasy cinema and its brilliant alternatives. Movies were on a high. This sublime tension should have lasted forever.

Chapter 3 of The Story of Film follows pretty closely on the heels of Chapter 2. The way Cousins transitions from one chapter to the next makes the whole thing surprisingly palatable to marathon as one very long documentary, and in this case, Chapters 2 and 3 seem incomplete without each other. In Chapter 2, Cousins laid out the foundations of Hollywood romantic cinema, as codified by the studio system in the 1920s, and began looking at the rebel filmmakers who challenged it. In Chapter 3, we find out that the realist filmmakers he discussed in Chapter 2 were actually the first of eight challenges to romantic cinema. What is a rebel filmmaker? It’s not difficult to figure out from the documentary, but Cousins helpfully defined it in his interview with Robert Osborne before TCM’s airing of Chapter 3. Paraphrasing a bit, a rebel filmmaker is someone who looks at the way we do things and knows there’s another way to do it. They want to annoy people on one level, but they also want to innovate – to explore other ways to use cinema to tell stories.

Challenges #2-8 to romantic cinema take up the entirety of this episode. First, Ernst Lubitsch. Yep, just Lubitsch all by himself. Lubitsch took the still-Victorian way that sex and love were depicted in the movies and mocked it, making some of the most urbane, witty, and slyly naughty films of the twenties. And the thirties, to be honest. Interestingly, this is maybe the only one of the challenges Cousins identifies that is primarily content-related rather than stylistic. On the other hand, style is content and of course the stylistic things that make up the rest of the challenges also have an ideological element.

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Two

Turner Classic Movies is airing the US premiere of The Story of Film: An Odyssey one episode per week from September through December, accompanying it with selected films discussed in each week’s episode. It’s a film history eduction in and of itself. I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the documentary and whatever films I have time to watch from TCM’s programming, but I don’t have much time these days, so fair warning, I may be saying “I didn’t have time to see this” a lot.

In the hills of Los Angeles, the myth of Hollywood had just begun.

It was a dictatorship, but some say there was genius in it.

In some ways, though they’re often overlooked by classic film fans now because bridging the gap between sound and silence takes a leap even for us, the 1920s were the true heyday of Hollywood filmmaking. Coming out of World War I, the United States was relatively unburdened financially, while much of Europe was devastated, their film industries languishing while they struggled to recover from the war. This led to Hollywood staking its claim as the center of the international movie industry, a status it has enjoyed to one degree or another ever since.

But Mark Cousins doesn’t go into the business side of things very much – for that, check out the TCM-produced series Moguls and Movie Stars, which documents the creation and demise of the classic studio system. Instead, Cousins is interested in what the studios produced, and he starts this chapter (entitled “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels”) by showing the look and feel of Hollywood films throughout the studio era, from 1920 through the 1950s. Obviously styles changed during that time, but he points out the relatively constant throughline of what he calls “romantic cinema” and how that played out in different studio styles (the prestige of MGM, the vitality of Warner, the opulence of Paramount, etc.).

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The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter One

[I posted this last week on my own blog, following the premiere of The Story of Film: An Odyssey Chapter One on TCM the first week of September. As I posted about the second chapter this week, I thought it would be fitting to crosspost this series here, especially since The Story of Film is so beloved in the Third Row. I will post the second one shortly, and then be on schedule for the rest of the series. The third episode aired tonight.]

Turner Classic Movies is airing the US premiere of The Story of Film: An Odyssey one episode per week from September through December, accompanying it with selected films discussed in each week’s episode. It’s a film history eduction in and of itself. I’ll be presenting my thoughts on the documentary and whatever films I have time to watch from TCM’s programming, but I don’t have much time these days, so fair warning, I may be saying “I didn’t have time to see this” a lot.

Visual ideas are the real things that drive cinema.

It’s time to redraw the map of movie history that we have in our heads.

These two quotes taken from Mark Cousins’ narration in the prologue to The Story of Film could well sum up the entire undertaking. Here he lays out his two-part thesis. First, the story of film as far as he’s concerned is preoccupied with seeking out visual ideas, innovation, and cross-pollination throughout film history. Second, he is going to question the accepted story of film, which is Hollywood and Europe-centric. Certainly he covers European and Hollywood cinema and recognizes the advances they made (much of the first episode is devoted to giants like Edison, the Lumieres, and Griffith), but throughout the he’s quick to point out when the established national cinemas fell into complacency and innovation was strongest elsewhere – Japan, or China, or Senegal. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

The fact that Cousins begins with this prologue is important. Besides giving a hint into Cousins’ breadth of knowledge and eye for visual echoes, it establishes this documentary not as primarily a textbook film history, striving for completeness and objectivity, but as a dissertation that takes a position and argues for it, via exhaustive knowledge and personal passion. Though the film is factual and highly informative, it is also very explicitly “Mark Cousins’ Story of Film,” as opposed to mine or yours or anyone else’s, and the film is stronger for it. Though his modern-day footage sometimes seems out of place, it strives to create a feeling of contemplation, of getting lost in a reverie. Not content to tell the history of cinema, Cousins wants you to get lost in the dream of cinema, and he makes his documentary a part of that cinema as well.

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Review: The History of Future Folk

Brooklyn-based folk singer Bill plies his trade in seedy bars, performing in a red jumpsuit and helmet and explaining that he is a visitor from the planet Hondo. The backstory is his daughter’s favorite bedtime story as well, and he faithfully recounts to her the journey of General Trius and his search for a new homeworld for the Hondonians, as a comet slowly but surely makes its way toward a collision course with Hondo. Upon reaching Earth, the story goes, General Trius planned to release a virus that would clear out humanity in preparation for Hondonian take-over. Instead, he heard music for the first time and decided not only to spare Earth, but to live among them and become a musician.

With such an unlikely premise begins one of the most charming and heartwarming films I’ve seen in quite a while – exactly the kind of experience you always hope for when you go into a relatively unknown quantity. Future Folk is a real band, a duo that has been performing in New York City for years using this backstory, one even more elaborate than what is on offer with tiny budget and short runtime, but the film takes this imaginative approach to music performance and realizes it in such a delightful way, its breeziness is its charm. Nils d’Audlaire is not an actor, but plays Bill/Trius with a sweet naturalism, while bandmate Jay Klaitz (who has Broadway, film, TV, and video game credits) carries the more overtly comedic side of the film as the Almighty Kevin, come from Hondo to try to get the mission back on track.

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Review: Blancanieves

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On paper, the Spanish film Blancanieves seems to piggyback on two recent trends – homage to silent cinema (if this plus The Artist can be considered a trend), and films about Snow White, following two Hollywood takes on the tale. Lest that suggest, however, that Blancanieves is a derivative tail-follower, nothing could be farther from the truth. This is a grand film, with director Pablo Berger showing both a solid knowledge of and a deep love for European cinema of the 1920s.

Pulling not only from the tale of Snow White, but also from sister fairy tale Cinderella (and even a little from Beauty and the Beast), the film follows young Carmen through her horrid childhood after her matador father is paralyzed in a bullfighting accident and her sinister stepmother (played by Maribel Verdu, of Pan’s Labyrinth) takes over, forcing Carmen to work like a slave and psychologically torturing her at every turn. As the film switches from Cinderella to Snow White for inspiration, the jealous stepmother wants a now-grown Carmen dead, but the young woman escapes, albeit with an amnesia-causing head injury, and falls in with a group of traveling circus dwarves. This eventually leads to Carmen becoming a matador herself.

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Shorts Program: Paperman

Who would’ve guessed that in 2012, Disney Animation’s films would arguably beat out Pixar’s contributions? Many found Wreck-It Ralph‘s retro gamer charm superior to Brave‘s Scottish princess story, and I can certainly say that as charming as I found the Brave-preceding short La Luna, I was much more blown away (pun intended) by Disney’s black and white romance Paperman, which played before Ralph. The Academy agrees, nominating Paperman as Best Animated Short. I’d probably go even further and call it the best animated film, short OR feature, I saw all year. It’s not surprising to learn that director John Kahrs was a Pixar animator in arguably their heyday (1998-2007) before moving over to Disney Animation – perhaps he and other animators are bringing Disney Animation itself into another renaissance.

Paperman is certainly a step in that direction, and Disney has been kind enough to put it online for all of us to enjoy. So, enjoy!

Favorite Older Films I Saw in 2012

Always an awkward post title, but I can never seem to manage to figure out a good way to sum up the kind of list I’m presenting here. My list of Top 2012 Films is included in the Row Three group post back here, but now I want to focus on the films I enjoyed the most this year which were released prior to 2012. I should stress that this is hardly an objective list, were such a thing even possible – it’s just what I liked the best and felt most desirous to share out of my first-time watches this year, excluding 2012 releases.

What older films did you love the best in 2012?

GIRL SHY (1924)
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (1926)
WHY WORRY (1923)

GirlShy

I’d seen Harold Lloyd’s best-known film Safety Last before, but I really consider 2012 my crash course in his comedy, with a trio of films I saw in close succession and really convinced me for sure that he belongs in the silent comedian pantheon. Girl Shy is, in fact, my favorite new-to-me film I’ve seen all year, and thanks to its sweet romance and breathtaking final chase scene, I actually liked it more than I do Safety Last. For Heaven’s Sake, with Lloyd as a millionaire bringing in street thugs and miscreants to fill up an inner-city mission’s pews to impress the preacher’s lovely daughter, is a ton of fun, too, full of insane gags and stunts. I liked Why Worry, with Lloyd as a hypochondriac who gets mixed up in the Mexican Civil War, the least of the three, but it’s still a solid film and a whole lot of fun. With these three under my belt, chalk me up a definite Lloyd fan.

THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)

virginspring

Sometimes Ingmar Bergman films are a bit tough for me to get into – I can appreciate their austere humanism, but they often feel remote and uninvolving to me. The Virgin Spring grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I collapsed at the end breathless, like the grieving father in the story. A young girl is violated by a group of men who later unknowingly seek shelter in her father’s home, whereupon he finds out what happened and exacts retribution. But nothing is so simple in Bergman’s world, and this is a deeply thoughtful and starkly beautiful film, questioning a God who allows tragedy to happen and yet also accepting that personal vengeance may not be the best way either.

THE DRIVER (1978)

The-Driver

Clearly a prototype for 2011’s Drive (a recent favorite of mine), The Driver stars Ryan O’Neal as a laconic getaway driver who’s being hunted by an arrogant cop (Bruce Dern) who wants to collar him simply because he’s never been caught. In between them are a gambling woman who may be playing both sides and a bunch of thugs who are no match for the Driver. It’s a mystery to me why this film isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with great car chase movies like Bullitt and The French Connection, because the chases here are every bit as good. Mix in the Le Samourai-esque lead character, and this film was made for me.

SOLARIS (1972)

Solaris

First of all, it took me several days to get through this meditative sci-fi film musing on love and loss. I’m not proud of that, but it can certainly be blamed on my pregnancy-related tiredness at the time rather than the film itself, although the film itself is definitely on the slow side. I actually liked the pacing and thought it worked well for the kind of heady, evocative sci-fi this is. That said, because of the viewing conditions, I had difficulty holding it all in my head at once or feeling like I had a solid grasp of it by the end. I’m already looking forward to a rewatch, upon which time I think I will appreciate it even more.

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)

passion-of-joan-of-arc

I know Mike Rot (and probably others) are going to tell me that even Top Five placement is not high enough for this film, and that’s probably right. The movie is an intriguing combination of austerity (sparse set design) and raw emotion (Marie Falconetti’s extraordinary face, usually seen in close-ups). I’ve seen a couple of other Dreyer films, and I generally find them a bit difficult to relate to stylistically, and I have to say I felt kind of the same tension here. I do think some rewatches will move it much higher on my list, though – it feels like the kind of film I will grow into. Also, the print on HuluPlus does not have a music track with it, and I don’t think that helped my experience.

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