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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DVD Review: Ozu – Three Melodramas

Ozu – Three Melodramas is, you guessed it, a DVD collection containing three fine examples of Yasujiro Ozu’s work within the genre he was most synonymous with, melodrama. I use that term lightly, as his subtle touch doesn’t seem to fit the mould, more just the subject matter of much of his work. Included in the set is an early silent film, Woman of Tokyo (1933), and the two films he made after Tokyo Story, Early Spring (1956) and Tokyo Twilight (1957). Below I give brief reviews of each feature and look at the set as a whole.

Woman of Tokyo

Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay: Kogo Noda & Tadao Ikeda
Starring: Yoshiko Okada, Ureo Egawa and Kinuyo Tanaka
Country: Japan
Running Time: 45 min
Year: 1933

Produced not long after Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth, Woman of Tokyo is one of Ozu’s later silent films and, like the former, isn’t quite as refined and perfect as his later, more popular work, but is nonetheless beautifully made and can be recommended to fans of the director.

Woman of Tokyo tells the story of Ryoichi (Ureo Egawa) and Chikako (Yoshiko Okada) who are brother and sister and share an apartment in Tokyo. Ryoichi is a student and relies on Chikako to pay his way with her office job. Ryoichi’s girlfriend Harue (Kinuyo Tanaka) however, hears a rumour through her policeman brother that Chikako actually moonlights at night as a prostitute to make ends meet. When Ryoichi finds out he doesn’t know how to react to this shocking revelation.

Being a short ‘semi-feature’ at only 45 minutes and having actually been produced very quickly (in 8 days), Woman of Tokyo does feel quite rushed when compared to Ozu’s more well known work. It has many early examples of his great use of cutaways, but here they are often used over scenes playing out rather than to break things up. There are some wonderful match cuts though, such as when a scene of Chikako heading off on her latest ‘job’ ends on a street lamp then cuts to Ryoichi’s room light to signify that he’s been waiting up all night for her. Of course it looks fantastic too as Ozu had settled into his signature style by this point.

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Happy Birthday, Judy Garland

Back when I was a Hollywood musicals-obsessed kid, Judy Garland was understandably one of my favorite stars. By the time I was 15, I could count the number of her films I HADN’T seen on one hand. As a youngster with lots of time and parents who encouraged my classic film obsession, I made many attempts to form marathons to watch favorite stars’ films on their birthdays, but the Judy Garland one is the only one I stuck with for years in a row – even today, when I see June 10th looming on a calendar, her name immediately springs to my lips, as if an old childhood friend’s birthday was once again right around the corner.

As I grew older, my appreciation for her bigger-than-life talent and her courage in the face of personal hardship only grew as well, along with an unshakeable sense that not only was she a great singer (undeniable by anyone who’s ever heard her sing), but she was also an underrated actress, as evidenced not only by her perfect control of emotion while singing, but also in her few purely dramatic roles like The Clock and Judgement at Nuremberg, and a gifted comedienne, as evidenced by her comic timing in most every film, and her satirical performance in numbers like “A Great Lady Has an Interview” in Ziegfeld Follies (watch). In short, Judy was the consummate performer, managing to be relatable and awe-inspiring at the same time, and we haven’t seen anyone to match her since.

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Blu-Ray Review: This Happy Breed

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean & Ronald Neame
Based on a Play by: Noel Coward
Starring: Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, John Mills, Stanley Holloway
Producer: Noel Coward
Country: UK
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1944
BBFC Certificate: U

David Lean is one of Britain’s most well respected directors, responsible for such undisputed classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Great Expectations to name a few. Starting his career as an editor, he got into directing through working with the renowned playwright and actor (among other talents) Noel Coward on four films, In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter and this, his first solo directorial credit, This Happy Breed (In Which We Serve came first, but was co-directed with Coward).

This 1944 film is being re-released at a perfect time with the Queen’s Jubilee fresh in our minds as it’s full of unabashed patriotism and is a film that openly celebrates ‘true Britishness’. Made at the height of the Second World War, This Happy Breed is a clear attempt to drum up a ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude on our green shores by telling the story of a supposedly average family, the Gibbons’. The film begins just after the end of the First World War and spans the trials and tribulations of a married couple (Robert Newton & Celia Johnson), their three children and their mother and spinster sister that live with them all the way up to the eve of the following war in 1939. The first half is all peaches and cream with friends being made, romances blossoming etc. but the second half puts many hardships onto the family which they battle through with poise and strength.

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For the Love of Film Blogathon: The White Shadow

[I’m reprinting this article I posted on The Frame yesterday in support of the For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which continues until tomorrow. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work The White Shadow will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event, to support the National Film Preservation Foundation’s desire to stream the film online for free. Be sure to donate so you can see this very-nearly lost film yourself!]

We excitedly gathered on the sidewalk, anticipating being let into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ own screening room, the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. VIPs slipped by, headed toward the bar or lounge in their finery, while the rest of us waited, patient but anxious to begin the evening’s entertainment. Any screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre is a treat, a step into a more opulent past presented by the self-appointed guardians of Hollywood history, but this was no ordinary screening. This was the very first appearance of an early, long-thought-lost Hitchcock film pretty much since its original release in 1924. Well, technically Hitchcock was the Assistant Director on the film (and he tended to get in on every part of production he could in those early days, so likely he was doing much more), the second of two collaborations with director Graham Cutts and actress Betty Compson, apparently rushed into production to capitalize on the popularity of the first, Woman to Woman. According to producer Michael Balcon, “it was as big a flop as Woman to Woman had been a success.” But Woman to Woman remains a lost film, and in any case, The White Shadow could’ve been a terrible movie and we still would’ve been ecstatic to see it.

Our excitement was first of all out of curiosity to see if we could see any glimpses of Hitchcock in the film’s style, but also simply because here’s a film that has been thought lost for decades, turned up (partially at least) in an archive in New Zealand, along with a bunch of other long-lost films. If we can still locate treasure troves like this in 2011, what else might still be out there, waiting for intrepid archivists to find it, figure out what it is, and restore it so the world can rediscover it?

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Cinema Classics: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

[Originally published on The Frame as part of a Blind Spots series addressing films on my List of Shame]

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

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Rep Cinemagoing: Modern Times

The thing that makes me happiest in the world is seeing audiences respond to classic films with joy and wonder, and that’s exactly what I saw last week when Cinefamily screened Modern Times to a nearly full audience. First off, it’s awesome that 150 people will choose a Chaplin silent film over the hoards of other entertainment options in this city, but it’s proven to me again and again that Chaplin (or Keaton) will still pack them in at Cinefamily, as they run these films every year or so to delighted audiences. Last time they ran Modern Times, though, I think I wasn’t able to go. This time it coincided with my volunteering night, so once I finished taking tickets, seating people, and clearing up a minor popcorn vs gravity issue, I settled in just as the credits finished to watch my favorite Chaplin film with a wonderfully receptive audience.

I’ve seen Modern Times probably five or six times, but never before with an audience, and it added an awful lot to the experience. The film itself is incredible, and falls squarely within my top twenty of all time. Chaplin’s tramp starts off as a cog in the machine (literally, at one point) of a steel factory, spending his days tightening bolts on an endless stream of conveyor-belt carried steel plates. Slowing down piles him into the workers further down the assembly line, and stopping (for lunch) puts him into spasms as his muscles try to continue the tightening motions. After being put into an automatic lunch machine to test it – with hilarious results – he ends up having a nervous breakdown, losing his job, getting arrested by accident, meeting up with an orphan waif from the docks, trying to find a job to support her and protect her from the child services authorities, etc.

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Fighting for 35mm…and Our Cinematic Heritage

There’s no doubt that the future of cinema is going to be digital rather than film (as a physical format). Theatres are converting to digital projection right and left, with fewer and fewer 35mm film prints struck all the time, and the major camera manufacturers are ceasing production of film cameras to focus solely on digital cameras instead. It’s where the demand is. But this shift to digital doesn’t only affect new films, which are likely to be shot, edited, and projected digitally, never spending any phase of their creation on physical film – it also affects older films, which were shot on 35mm and meant to be projected on 35mm. Many Hollywood studios have declared their intention to stop producing 35mm prints of older films for use in repertory cinemas, museums, film forums, universities, etc, instead presenting those films only in digital formats as well.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why this makes sense to them. Digital copies are much easier and cheaper to store and transfer to theatres than bulky 35mm film prints. And many people will argue that digital looks better anyway, or at least consumers won’t be able to tell the difference. I heartily disagree with that – I love the tactile, physical look that 35mm has vs. the sterility of digital. But my point of view is quickly labeled romantic and old-fashioned in a world where cinema is a business and 35mm is antiquated technology. To some degree, it is a romantic perspective. I certainly get a rush of emotion every time I walk into the Silent Movie Theatre and see the film canisters sitting there, ready to be lovingly threaded through the projector by the seasoned projectionist for the evening’s screening. I smile when I see the cigarette burns signalling a reel change. I feel a connection to other audiences when a print is flawed through its many uses in other cinemas, screened for other audiences in other places. But what do my emotions, certainly the emotions of a minority of cinemagoers, matter in this equation?

I’m definitely not alone in my love for seeing films projected on 35mm (or 70mm or whatever format was originally used to shoot them) – Julia Marchese of Los Angeles’s New Beverly Cinema, one of the foremost repertory cinemas in the country and one that would certainly feel the loss of 35mm prints, has started an online petition to Fight for 35mm. It currently has nearly 6,000 signatures of a hoped-for 10,000. Here’s the bulk of her plea:

I firmly believe that when you go out to the cinema, the film should be shown in 35mm. At the New Beverly, we have never been about making money – a double feature ticket costs only $8. We are passionate about cinema and film lovers. We still use a reel to reel projection system, and our projectionists care dearly about film, checking each print carefully before it screens and monitoring the film as it runs to ensure the best projection possible. With digital screenings, the projectionists will become obsolete and the film will be run by ushers pushing a button – they don’t ever have to even enter the theater.

The human touch will be entirely taken away. The New Beverly Cinema tries our hardest to be a timeless establishment that represents the best that the art of cinema has to offer. We want to remain a haven where true film lovers can watch a film as it was meant to be seen – in 35mm. Revival houses perform an undeniable service to movie watchers – a chance to watch films with an audience that would otherwise only be available for home viewing. Film is meant to be a communal experience, and nothing can surpass watching a film with a receptive audience, in a cinema, projected from a film print.

I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for. As one voice I cannot change the future, but hopefully if enough film lovers speak up, we can prove to the studios that repertory cinema is important and that we want 35mm to remain available to screen.

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