Overlooking/ Looking Over Huston

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When director John Huston died in 1987 during post-production of James Joyce’s The Dead, filmdom lost its last reigning monarch—for Huston was the last of the Hollywood lions, harking from D. W. Griffith through Howard Hawks and John Ford. But if any made the screen equivalent of the “Great American Novel”, it was John Huston. He lived his life as if he were the most vigorous and most colorful character from that mythical novel, and it was Huston who successfully made over a couple of great American books– Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled classic, The Maltese Falcon (’41, WB), setting the tone for the noir-detective genre and creating the Bogie-cult in the process; and Moby Dick (’55 ), whose Ahab-Peck colored my vision even as I read Melville’s novel years later. His adaptation of B. Traven’s novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) is perhaps his version of the Great American novel, and says as much about American ideals and experience as say, Welles’ version of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which preceded it by several years. Welles and Huston also both made their first features in 1941—both dark commentaries on the American dream—Citizen Kane and the aforementioned …Falcon.

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Yet unlike Ford and Hawks, John Huston was not simply a great American director, he was also the prototype of the new international director of the 1950s and 1960s. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) was the first Hollywood project to shoot the bulk of its length outside the U. S. (a location/studio version of Mexico that is still fixed in my mind as the true representation of the country) and during the fifties all of his films were shot and often produced abroad. It was Huston who would survive the studios’ collapse to turn out some of his most interesting films in the seventies and eighties: The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor. How’s that for a Hollywood Renaissance?

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Huston was a survivor of many things: falls while hunting foxes in Ireland, numerous affairs and a handful of marriages, angry African elephants, boxing matches, a constant indebtedness that sometimes forced his hand into film projects he had no heart for, a near fatal swim through a canal sluice that might have killed him as a boy. He survived the “auteur theory”–as dubbed by Andrew Sarris in 1962 in his interpretation of the French “la politiques des auteurs”–an aesthetic notion that posited the director as author, based on the foundation of a recurring style and thematic. He survived it by continuing to choose as film material stories of a disparity not usually found in the oeuvre of noted auteurists—before he mined the literary echelons of Joyce in The Dead, he’d also yelled ‘action’ on Annie, and after that turned actor Albert Finney loose in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of the most ponderously subjective novels of the 20th century. He shrugged off questions regarding style, since the style of each of his pictures had been determined by its content (from the steely look of Moby Dick to the coppery Moulin Rouge, in both the director battled studio and Technicolor to get the look he wanted) and location—putting the camera and crew in tough remote spots gave his films a kind of Hustonian authenticity. An extension of Huston’s combative personality was in fact his insistence on putting the camera in places where they’d never attempted to film before, an us versus the jungle, or desert, or sea mentality (i.e. his insistence on filming Moby Dick at sea necessitated a double decked rig, lost ships and mock whales, and insurance issues for cast and crew, but there’s so much of the book made visceral by the fact, the film virtually smells of salt).
No American director ever worked so hard to get “art” into his films as did Huston. He had a strong sense of composition and set-up and had sketched and painted his way thru hard times in Europe, was an art afficianodo; he had visited the great museums of the world, and could talk at length on Western and Eastern painting, and had a knowledge of pre-Columbian art as a collector.

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Despite an early life of being on the move, Huston got a good dose of the classics, and read widely all his life; as a boy he especially enjoyed the heroic, exotic stories of Kipling, and later professed admiration for Joyce, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Balzac, Dreiser, O’Neill and Heminway, according to biographer Lawrence Grobel. He would dabble in the theatre, and write a sort of memoir of his travels and experiences—bullfighting and the Mexican cavalry, his bumming around Europe—but his professional life would begin at Warners. There, as a writer, he learned the art of collaboration, for writing at that time was a group project—with credits often shared amongst two, three or more writers. It was on action and dialogue that Huston would hone his skills: for the blue-collared WB his credits include Jezebel, Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, Sergeant York, High Sierra, and at Goldwyn/MGM, Wuthering Heights. Later, he worked the same way as a director—hunkering down closely with writers like Ray Bradbury on Moby Dick, James Agee on The African Queen, Truman Capote on Beat the Devil. But the one thing that unites these titles is not so much the writing or the camera as the desperation of his recurring oddball characters and the impish, wrinkled grin of Huston behind them.

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Like most of his heroes, Huston was a bit of misfit, a rogue and a dreamer–self-imposed exile in Ireland as a gentried regular, disdain for the little bean counters of the studio yet needing those beans to support his extended familial obligations. He was addicted to gambling and horse racing (he once took a $40,000 advance on his next film to cover a bet in Vegas, flying roundtrip to SF overnite to get the money)—and perhaps it’s in this way that one finds the thread of the director running through the bulk of his forty-three films. It’s been suggested that Huston’s real art was the life he led, that his film output was but an avocation. Despite the tempests and the carousings, he managed to put his directorial stamp on the action-adventure odyssey, the caper, the detective noir, the dark comedy, the epic, and tackle some of the tougher adaptations. And that’s the half of it—he also acted in over 30 films, played Noah in his own adaptation of The Bible, was nominated as Best Supporting for Preminger’s The Cardinal, and who can forget his Noah Cross face-to-face with Nicholson’s Jake Gittes on tide pools and moral culpability in Chinatown? His documentaries produced for the War Dept. during WWII - Report from the Aleutians, Battle of San Pietro, and Let There Be Light - have been noted by critics and film historians. Yet since his death no major study of Huston has emerged (excepting Lawrence Grobel’s essential biography, The Hustons), no major retrospective mounted. John Huston’s films could stand looking over, before history overlooks his considerable talent and contributions.

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In Hollywood it’s long been fashionable to label directors—Capra, “Master of the Screwball”, Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense”, Wyler, “Master of the Long Take”, Welles, “Master of the Baroque”, Hawks, “Master of Any Genre”. It’s perhaps to Hawks that Huston owes the most—a no-nonsense style of camera movement and framing that centers traditionally on the action and the dialogue, and exploits the actors’ talents, depending on the tone and story need. Like Hawks he would try his hand at many masculine genre forms, but also romantic comedy–his screwballer was The African Queen - and like Hawks seemed to leave no visual trace of his personality behind. What was Hustonian (or Hawksian) were the characters and their relationships and a code of behavior that transcended gender. A Daniel Boone of filmmaking, Huston liked remote locations – he spent his last years living alone on Indian lands in Mexico, reachable only by boat. Like Boone he appreciated “elbow room”, and set his stories of uneasy camaraderie on a frontier of busted dreams, be it an urban wasteland or an alkaline desert.

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At Warners, Huston formed a friendship with producer Henry Blanke, which led to his first directing assignment, The Maltese Falcon (’41), a property WB already owned and which had been made twice unsuccessfully (in ’31 by the same title, in ’36 as Satan met a Lady). Huston’s idea was to minimally adapt Dashiell Hammett’s book, to lift whole passages of the book as it stood, and too excise the rest. The lean, constricted look and pace of the film are a perfect counter to the intricacies of the plot and the overly rich characterizations. The actors were almost all Warner regulars—Humphrey Bogart would get a break here, playing the tough detective Sam Spade after a near decade playing gangsters; it was a pivotal career move for the actor who would work with Huston five more times. Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet would also shine and the film would be a great success with critics and the public. In fact, Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade have become the archetypes for most of the detective films issued during the American film noir cycle of the forties and early fifties, and if Bogart did Marlowe, as in The Big Sleep, the crowd remembered Spade. And of course Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (’74), with Huston as the leering, ultra-malevolent Noah Cross, is a Watergate-filtered right-to-the-source homage.
The Maltese Falcon is a movie that continually satisfies, even today—Bogart’s cynicism, Astor’s always fatal femme, Elsiha Cook’s Wilmer, and the final line and repudiation of the American pursuit of happiness, after half a dozen murders to acquire a priceless yet ultimately worthless bird statuette—“It’s the stuff dreams are made of”. The falcon was a fake of course—and there’s Huston grinning off-camera. James Agee and Pauline Kael considered it the best private-eye film of all time.

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During WWII, Huston, like most of Hollywood and America, was part of the Allied effort. Under the auspices of the Office of War Information and Frank Capra, Huston and Anatole Litvak produced three wartime documentaries – Report from the Aleutians, and Let There Be Light, the latter perhaps the most significant. A cutting-edge chronicle of veterans being rehabilitated in a military hospital state-side, using modern psycho-therapeutic methods, it was filmed with hidden cameras and microphones. At a screening for the Pentagon in ‘46, an angry general huffed, “He’s made an anti-war film, a goddamn anti-war film”, to which Huston sarcastically replied, “If I ever make a pro-war film, take me out and shoot me”.

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With the acquisition by WB of Maxwell Anderson’s play, Key Largo, Huston would work again with Bogart only this time with his new wife, Lauren Bacall, and the legendary Lionel Barrymore, old screen gangster figure Edward G. Robinson, and Claire Trevor as Robinson’s ex-babe, a role for which she took the Oscar. The film unfolds like a play, set in a hotel during a hurricane until the plot boils over into the Gulf, but what makes it work is Huston’s use of camera and his rapport with actors. Bogart, Barrymore and Bacall are adequate here, but it’s Robinson as the reptilian Johnny Rocco (who can forget his thick torso in a bathtub, surrounded by suds with a fat stogie in his mouth?) and Trevor as the singer-girlfriend that makes this a joy to watch. The ending is Hemingway-esque and owes a lot to Hawks’ version of To Have and Have Not; in fact, it could have been the ending to any of a number of Hemingway’s own stories.

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His next project would reunite him with his father–Walter, who cameo’ed as the skipper in The Maltese Falcon, and was one of America’s top stage leads– in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48), based on a book by the reclusive, practically nonexistent author, B. Traven. Traven, an exiled German Communist living in Mexico had produced an action-adventure novel, clumsy with political allegory. Huston’s version sidesteps the rhetoric that cluttered the book and concentrates on the dream of riches and the saga of odyssey. Treasure… is the basically the same story Huston always tells: a group of oddball dreamers striving for something ultimately unattainable. This plot thread runs from The Maltese Falcon through The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, and certainly The Misfits. Huston again expanded the range of Bogart (as Dobbs, the heavy, a role he wasn’t overly eager to play), and Tim Holt was as usual, adequate in his way. But it was from his father that Huston got a great performance. The elder Huston was one of our stage’s legendary performers, but his film roles are remarkably few. Son John had him play the old timer without his false teeth, but Walter got his laughs when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film was shot by Gabriel Figuerora, and manages to successfully intercut the studio sets and actual locations, evoking a sense of Mexico both real and mythic. Noteworthy are the shots of the fist fight in the cantina – quite groundbreaking for the time, extremely striking in composition and cutting. One is struck by Huston’s (and some of this owes to Traven) sympathetic portrayal of the country and its people – the Indian peasants are honest and intelligent and proud. Both men had lived and traveled in Mexico extensively—Traven was married to a Mexican, and Huston lived by special arrangement on the seaside of native reserves in Las Caletas in latter life. In pre-production Huston tried to rendezvous with the mysterious Traven in Mexico, but was only met by his “agent”; later, Huston would insist that the agent was really the author in disguise! Also of note, the thousands of air miles Huston logged scouting locations—typical of his thirst for adventure and of travel. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of our classic adventure-odyssey pictures, and one with more of a message than most. (It is not as some assert, a Western, but a protracted “caper”; by mere presence of Bogart as much as anything.)

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His work with crime novelist W. R. Burnett on High Sierra would pay off again with the co-written The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. The opening shots are as grey and dismal as any noir cityscape and the plot twists tighter and tighter like a vice on the caper—a heist of half-million dollars worth of jewels through manholes, sewers and basement walls. Sterling Hayden played the hooligan hooked on the horses, Sam Jaffe the professor and brains of the outfit who had a yen for young girls, Louis Calhern the corrupt attorney who was suddenly short of cash, Jean Hagen as Hayden’s loyal love interest and Marilyn Monroe debuted as the naïve, sexy temptress who fondly called her keeper—Calhern–“Uncle Lon”. Cappy, played by Marc Lawrence outdistanced the rest of the cast with his nervous, sweating bookmaker, and James Whitmore did a nice take on the humpbacked diner operator with a real chip on his shoulder. The film seems almost formally perfect on every level; it’s only real weakness is the didactic DA played by John McIntire, ensuring the American public that crime doesn’t pay. Today it’s considered the prototype of the “big caper” film influencing later capers like The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Getaway, and Reservoir Dogs.

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His next, also for MGM, was a pet project, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic; in which Huston cast authentic WWII hero Audie Murphy in the title role over the objections of the studio. He also cast GI-cartoonist/ journalist Bill Maudlin, and when he couldn’t shoot in Virginia (where the story was set) he shot on a California ranch he’d once owned. Though a low-budget novella of a film, Huston still tried for a type of naturalism, pointing his cameraman to Mathew Brady’s photographs and a bright, stark finish—it plays like a newsreel from 1864. After a preview screening, audiences and critics were unmoved and MGM proceeded to cut the film virtually in half. So what remains is one of those cinematic curiousities like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, whose duration was dramatically excised without the participation of the director. Huston couldn’t figure out what went wrong but in various biographies mentions it with fondness. It must be remembered that Huston was, like Maudlin and Murphy, in WWII and under fire with his camera crew—his sequences in Battle of San Pietro have a similar starkness, and cold immediacy, and his respect for Crane’s story makes for a very personal film. It would be an apt double bill with Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiners.

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Perhaps Huston’s softest romantic take would be The African Queen, which he co-scripted with the equally hard-drinking James Agee. It’s known he wanted a darker ending – the German boat torpedoed only after Hepburn and Bogart had been executed as spies. Producer Sam Spiegel was probably right about the ending though, as the film has gone on to be one of America’s classic romantic comedies, with conventional antagonisms between gender, class and world-view; plus it featured Katherine Hepburn, a natural screwball heroine. Shot on various locations in Africa and later wrapped on-stage in England, the woes of the production have been widely documented—the boat was a big problem, the weather, and Huston’s insistence on combining business with pleasure, i.e. big game hunting. Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart, based on a script by Huston confidante Anthony Veilier, is probably as close to the drama -and for Huston, one suspects the drama in real life was keenly important – and the truth as any other account. The fact is that Hepburn herself went hunting at least once with the director and that Huston had accidentally endangered his hunting companions, hoping for the big score. Bogart was anxious to get out of the jungle and back to civilization and the studio, where he could film the leech sequence with fakes in a tank. Huston continued however to tease Bogart that the scene needed real leeches to succeed, to the point that Bogart threatened to walk off set.

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Who would you hire to write a script based on Moby Dick? Perhaps one of the best young sci-fi writers around, say Ray Bradbury? So he had Bradbury (who refused to fly) take a boat to London where he would hammer out a half-dozen screenplays. Huston had his hands full dealing with logistics – i.e., Huston insisted on filming on an actual sailing ship which necessitated a double decking, one for camera and the upper for actors, and his running battle with Technicolor for a cooler (no reds or yellows) palette. The casting of Ahab initially had some resistance, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone but Gregory Peck in the role – and he has several commanding moments, as when he nails the gold doubloon to the mast, or as he goes twirling off to oblivion ensnared by his own harpoon to the whale’s hide. Orson Welles has a powerful cameo as Father Mapple preaching from the pulpit-bow, and one of Huston’s old cronies, Count Friedrich Ledebur plays Quuequog quite convincingly. Richard Basehart however, as narrator Ishmael, is clearly too old to play the part, and seems as out of place as he did in Fellini’s La Strada; born in 1914, he was forty-two years old and actually two years older than Gregory Peck. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris of the BSC, and it was his dedication, along with the director’s that produced a look as icy and as dispassionate as Melville’s voice. The film came in finally at $4.5 million, fifty percent over budget, but the reviews were stellar – Newsweek called it “one of the greatest pictures of the decade, if not the century”. These accolades were nothing new; Huston had been garnering great reviews for the past decade and more.

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Unfortunately, his next four pictures, in the last half of the 1950s, would represent a downturn in his career, capped by a particularly disastrous picture with John Wayne, The Barbarian and the Geisha. Huston frequently clashed with The Duke, who had his own ideas about script and camera, and was being paid nearly $750,000 to star. Huston, with his usual ambiguous direction, and constant rewriting, drove Wayne nuts. Originally scripted as The Townsend Harrison Story, the title was changed by Fox before release, and disowned by Huston.

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In the late fifties, Huston read an Arthur Miller story about washed up contemporary cowboys who made extra cash by mustanging wild horses for the dog food factory. At the time, Miller, along with Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston would work on Night of the Iguana in a few years), were America’s most important playwrights, and the collaborative possibilities intrigued Huston. (Note: he’d also recently met with the esteemed existential writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Satre about a script on Sigmund Freud, and now he could be working with Miller.) So Miller went to Ireland and came up with the initial script for The Misfits, after Huston clarified his characters as misfits, anti-heroic types who refused to sell-out. Miller’s script would arguably give his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable, their finest roles. It would also be their final roles. The shoot was rife with tension from the onset since Miller was losing Monroe, and Monroe was ever dependent on her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, wife of method guru Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, dressed in long black robes and pointed hats, stood off-camera during every shot Monroe was in, infuriating Huston. He complained that Monroe was taking all her cues from Strasberg, while Gable was forced to wait hours in the hot desert sun for Monroe to finally emerge from her dressing trailer. Expectations were high based on the assembled cast, and everything Monroe did was news—the entire production was under scrutiny by one publication or another—so Huston hit the gambling casinos by night. Yet what came out of it was a fine, fine picture. For Huston, he’d stumbled back into his old magic, no matter how tough the production nor the acrimony on and off set, there’s always the possibility that what you were doing was worthwhile. Like every Huston film, the actors sparkled, veterans all, with Thelma Ritter’s performance as memorable as the leads, and Monroe’s hair shone bright platinum against the desert night in Russell Metty’s photography. Huston had shot the film chronologically nurturing the off-set tensions and pulling a performance from Clark Gable many were surprised to see. Going against the studio’s wish for a color picture to flatter the stars they’d lined up, Huston insisted on B & W, the color, he said, of “waste” (at $4 million, it was the most expensive B & W film ever, mostly due to star salaries. The B & W also reinforces the film’s connection to Stroheim’s Greed, the desert setting certainly but more to the point that characters at the edge/end of the frontier in both tales are desperate!). Westerns then were big-budget color epics, and Huston and Miller knew what they had was a smaller, character-driven story, a post-Western look at say, Ford’s Ethan Edwards, from The Searchers, finally ready to settle down, if he could have only met Monroe’s character about eighty years earlier. There’s a leanness, and a meanness and an aura of defeated sadness in The Misfits, a feeling that anticipates Ritt’s Hud with Paul Newman (also in B & W). Both chronicle the demise of the Western male in terms of domesticity, both display a bitterness and a resignation at the prospect of “Western life” in the future, both end with “new beginnings”. Gable was proud of doing most of the stunts himself – when asked how fast to drag Gable behind the stunt truck resembling a runaway mustang, Huston supposedly responded, “why 30-35 mph”, as fast as a horse gallops. No one knew more about horses than Huston, who’d broken his leg just months earlier in a fall during a hunt in Ireland. Clark Gable would die just weeks later of a heart attack, exacerbated by his drinking and smoking, and some said, the rigors of the The Misfits shoot. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe divorced shortly after; Marilyn, who’d gotten her first role in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, died in 1960 before playing in another picture, but she’d saved her best for last.

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A short while later, Huston would hook up with a Tennessee Williams story, Night of the Iguana, about an ex-New England minister turned tour guide in Mexico. Huston had been spending time there since his youth and knew and loved the country. The film would be a wild bus ride with Huston as the driver and Richard Burton as the defrocked master of ceremonies. Elizabeth Taylor would be there too as wife (supposedly to keep the hard drinking Burton in line, while shooting he stuck to beer), along with actresses Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyons of recent Lolita fame. Gardner had a great time as the hotel owner and for the naughty midnight swim managed to get over the hump with a few suggestions from the director, but Burton was the whole show, and his exuberant performance probably tickled the hell out of Huston. It’s not just the irreverence (Huston was a professed atheist), but the fact that Huston was an actor in real life himself, not just on screen where he was quite successful (an Oscar nomination for Preminger’s The Cardinal) but seemingly in the dramas of his life and career, where the sticky situations of Burton’s character had a precedence. Plus the reputations for living large, that he shared with the actor. Though Burton was Welsh, Huston saw himself as a kindred spirit having lived a great deal in Ireland. Still, the film has a feeling of spontaneity that was lacking in most Hollywood productions—because the wild bus ride was an actual, crazy wild bus ride, you are in Mexico not in a Hollywood back lot–it seems a film that somehow anticipates when everything studio began to break apart. The film would seem a companion to Under the Volcano, made two decades later; Albert Finney was also allowed to chew up the set and his fellow actors, as Malcolm Lowry’s alcoholic Consul. Yet Night of the Iguana (also shot in B & W) has an uncharacteristic, un-Hustonian balmy fecundity; maybe the warmth I feel for this picture has to do with the fact that my father considered Richard Burton the greatest actor of his generation, and that’s good enough for me.

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During the rest of the sixties Huston’s choice of work went in boundless directions, from The Bible (he played Noah) to Casino Royale, Sinful Davey,and the gimmicky The List of Adrien Messenger. In 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye was released – its production had paired Huston with Southern writer Carson McCullers, who visited the director at his Irish estate. An eerie Gothic piece almost now forgotten – the film has the look of murky pond water and feels like its played underwater – a typical brooding role by Marlon Brando as an Army base commander with a fixation on another GI (his homophobic voyeurism echoes Psycho or Peeping Tom), Elizabeth Taylor plays the wife and, oh yeah, there’s a horse involved. The accents are not right, and there’s a heck of a lot wrong with it, but as a curio Reflections retains a kind of morbid fascination with its own tragic telling. And it’s probably more McCullers than Huston. Later, in 1979 Huston would film fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, one of the most offbeat films of the entire offbeat decade.

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The success of Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, one critical, one commercial, got Huston off to a rousing start in the seventies. Stacy Keach stars as a washed-up boxer who takes a kid (Jeff Bridges) under his wing in the washed-out looking Fat City (’72). The low-budget film has an atmosphere akin to a Bukowski saloon, with characters who are too worn down to get up and leave. There’s a brilliant scene at the end with Keach and friends drinking in a bar, and for a second, or maybe two, everything just STOPS – a crystalline moment for Keach’s character when he sees the depravity and broken promises of his life frozen on the end of his fork. A moment not unlike beat writer Kerouac’s analogy of a “naked lunch”, which was appropriated by William Burroughs for his book. It wasn’t a freeze frame, for the smoke was drifting. Huston claimed the idea just came to him, that the Devil inside him made him do it. Improvised or not, it worked beautifully. This picture, photographed by veteran Conrad Hall, put himself and his director on the carpet- Columbia was worried about the look of it, but released it as Huston and Hall intended. The finished film premiered at MOMA in NY and critics approved, taking note of Keach’s and newcomer Bridge’s performances. Fat City is one of the really great films of the seventies, a decade which would find Hollywood and Huston revitalized.

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Huston’s love of Rudyard Kipling was what kept The Man Who Would Be King (’75) project alive, that and the enthusiasm of actors Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Caine had nothing but respect for Huston and was thrilled to be working with him—his admiration went back to his teenage years when he had watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre at his neighborhood theater six days in a row. Huston found a couple of drinking buddies and Connery the role of a lifetime as the King’s sergeant, deluded and ultimately done in, by his self-promoted throne. Caine serves as narrator and royal sidekick, and a framing device attempting to tie the work to Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer) seems arbitrary and clumsy, but the thrust of the film is typical Hustonian tragedy on a grand scale. The film was shot in Morrocco (for India) and was one of the more rugged terrains Huston had ever shot in. It would be one of the last of Huston’s large-scale, commercial successes, released by Columbia, featuring two mainstream stars.

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In 1978 he would commit to a small-scale vehicle produced by Michael Fitzgerald, featuring the up and coming Brad Dourif (then a recent Oscar nominee for his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in the lead role. It was to be based on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, shot on a shoestring of one million dollars, and would not only be one of the strangest films Huston ever made, but one of the real curios of American cinema.
The film was to be shot in Macon, Georgia, with a supporting cast of Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty and Daniel Shor. The script had been finished for some years as producer Michael Fitzgerald tried to line up the financing. Story goes that Huston told him he’d direct it for $100,000 if he ever got it lined up. So in the fall of ’78 atheist Huston found himself directing a film about religion again, this time featuring a Christ-like Hazel Motes who returns from the service to confront his fundamental Baptist past (Huston even played the bit of the grandfather preacher). As Motes tries to out-martyr every other “pretender”, he ends up self-blinded, with his chest self-encased in barb-wire. There was some rewriting evidently on the ending, and when Huston saw the final pages he remarked, somewhat surprised, that, “Jesus had won.” The plot itself (which features a fake gorilla and a stolen-mummified baby Jesus) is but one of the curious aspects of Wise Blood - the flat, drab set pieces which seems as timeless and unmemorable as the buildings in a Hopper painting, the tone of the film which veers from black comedy to outright farce and slapstick. Even the score is a little goofy. But underneath is the performance of Dourif, whose stricken look of hurt and outrage powered the film. Huston got another bravura performance from his lead actor even if he did not quite understand O’Connor’s novella. The finished film puzzled some critics, delighted others. Gavin Miller in the British Sight and Sound, declared Motes “the ultimate Huston protagonist. He manages to do what Ahab was trying to do in Moby Dick – beat the devil. But for the first time the Huston misfit drive himself, comically or tragi-comically, not toward survival, but to extinction”. I first saw this film in Paris in ‘79 where the line for Wise Blood was dwarfed by the line down the street for Apocalypse Now. Judging from their reactions the French audience loved it, and so did I. Still do, it’s way up high on my inner cult list. Even watching it now though, my laughs are uncomfortable, as if wondering if it’s OK to laugh. (footnote: Grobel mentions in his book, The Hustons, that actor Dourif had countered to screenwriter/ producer Fitzgerald that maybe Motes should’ve laughed at Stanton’s Asa Hawks character, instead of taking him seriously, that his performance would be less “flat”, and the film more “poetic”, to which Fitzgerald replied that that was what one got from author O’Connor, “there was nothing poetic about Flannery. It is as black and brutal as you can get”. Which explains the protracted deadpan that is the inner joke.

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Into the eighties Huston was as busy as ever—and would direct three important films—Under the Volcano (’84), Prizzi’s Honor (’85) and The Dead (’87). But first in ’82, there was Annie. Featuring child-star Aileen Quinn in the title role, it boasted a solid supporting cast with Albert Finney in a surprisingly good fit as Daddy Warbucks and tasty roles for Carol Burnett and Tim Curry. What attracted Huston to a musical? Remember even action director Howard Hawks had turned to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes late in his career, and for Huston it was perhaps a kind of challenge as his health was declining and emphysema had him attached to oxygen tanks. For a man who loved adventure and high risk, maybe Annie was all the risk he could afford to take. Perhaps he saw something very American in the funny page story of the the red-haired orphan girl who was a pop icon of the 20s and 30s, as well known as Mutt and Jeff and the Katzenjammers. And certainly there was the money. Huston’s mercenary choices of film vehicles through out his career certainly links him to the characters in his fictions. But at the same time, the movie worked, was a hit and still enjoys annual sales.

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Huston would team up with Albert Finney again in 1984 in Under the Volcano, with a script by Guy Gallo from the Malcolm Lowery novel. The collaboration quite likely enabled Finney to his best acting performance as that of the alcoholic Consul, who pontificates and reels into his death in 1930s Mexico. Once again Huston found an actor who he could let go on the set, and Finney was doing his best Burton, and again in a Mexican setting. Jacqueline Bisset flitted through the film as the Consul’s wife, and Andrew Stephens played the younger brother Hugh, but their performances are mere background for Finney’s revels. Gallo’s script from the densely subjective Lowery novel is nothing short of art itself, and Huston knowing a good script when he had one made the most of it. Still the ending is drearily final. Where was the one glimmer of hope, of ironic optimism, so much a part of earlier Huston films?

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Darkness, albeit comic, abounds in Prizzi’s Honor , his next film starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as two smitten-mobsters hired to off one another. It had an excellent role for Angelica Huston too, who would get the career boost she needed from her director father and win an Oscar. Nicholson would go against character as the slightly-dim, Charley, his jowls and waistline thick with Jerseyese; and Turner, who’d only acted in a handful of films at the time, would solidify her comedic talents under the director’s tutelage. Nicholson, who’d had a long relationship with Angelica and was practically Huston’s son-in-law, was awed by the ease with which the director put the actors through their paces. Prizzi’s Honor was well-received: Huston won the NY Film Critic’s award for Best Director, and the film received eight Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor. But it won only one—the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress went to Angelica Huston, and the father-daughter tandem everyone hoped for failed to happen. Nevertheless, it’s one of the director’s best efforts, and perhaps only Huston could fully exploit the sly, dark humor in Richard Condon’s and Janet Roach’s script (from Condon’s novel).

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By this time Huston was living alone in Las Caletas, Mexico, in a hacienda accessible only by boat. He spent his time writing a memoir, painting, mulling new projects. His health had worsened and he was no longer able to indulge his beloved cigars. Yet he pushed on—with an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, from a script by his son Tony, with a choice role for daughter Angelica, and a heavily Irish cast. Everything was coming full circle—Ireland, and the dark Catholic musings of Joyce on love and marriage. From the Dubliners collection, the fairly plotless story is set on Christmas day and climaxes with a confrontation between husband and wife; it was perhaps this commentary on fidelity that attracted Huston, or more a chance to be reunited with his children. His spirits were high, but during production work was halted at times by Huston’s emphysema, and his receding energies. Finally, it was decided that Tony would finish the shoot. Upon its release, The Dead brought in excellent reviews, making many critic’s Top 10 lists for the year. The old guy was going out on a roll!

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John Huston died on August 28, 1987 in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-one.
His directorial career spanned forty-six years; forty-six years of the rockiest in American studio history. Yet, despite occasional lulls, he managed to produce quality titles throughout that span, finishing strong with some of his best work in his sixties and seventies. The filmmakers Huston was known to admire were D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa; directors admired for the depth of their characters and breadth of their story-telling talents—to his private pantheon let us add one more.

- Mike Jones

(footnote: There was a film released in 1972, Never Give an Inch, directed by and starring Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin, and it feels like a John Huston film. It was based on Ken Kesey’s sprawling novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the story of a renegade logging family headed by stubborn patriarch Fonda. It stands as Kesey’s contribution to the idea of the Great American Novel, featuring fiercely self-reliant generations, against the backdrop of progress and wilderness. The movie ends with Fonda’s death but with his amputated arm nailed to the logging boat, his dead hand formed into the finger, with son Newman grinning underneath those squinting eyes. The impish, rascally end of the film, as well as the characterizations, making me wonder if Huston had ever seen the script by way of Newman, maybe even discussed it. Paul Newman had starred that same year you see in Huston’s parodic Western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, when director and actor got along famously, mutually enjoying the antics of Huston’s pet-dancing bear!) .

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The Brad Pitt-Andrew Dominik Double Feature Picture Show

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It seems Andrew Dominik’s two Brad Pitt films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly, are destined to be no more than footnotes in American film culture.  It’s a bummer.  Jesse James made only 4 million dollars domestically, while Killing Them Softly made only 7 million its opening weekend.  The failure of these films to find more of an audience is remarkable, especially since they feature one of Hollywood’s most photogenic and recognizable men as the lead and were not badly reviewed.  (Perhaps they don’t like the goatee/mustache combo Pitt sports in each?)  Despite these poor performances, I believe Dominik has made two of the best “violent” films of the last decade.  The heavy dread of death which Dominik manages to elicit is almost cleansing after so many other depictions of careless human dispatch.  The body counts are refreshingly low, and each death is meant to be felt.

In most violent films you’re allowed, if not encouraged, to forget a character after he dies. But Dominik works against that coarse amnesia, even going so far as to follow the remains.  In Jesse James, one man’s naked corpse is thrown into a snowy ditch, the camera lingering on his bluing skin amid the whiteness.  Near the end, the titular gunslinger’s form is literally put on ice and displayed for ghoulish fascination and profit.  In Killing Them Softly, we watch the internment of two victims in a morgue, where they are toe-tagged and slid into shiny silver walls. Perhaps most filmmakers would like to do something like this, but feel they don’t have the story time to do so.  Dominik makes the time.

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I wonder with a sick heart if audiences might have welcomed this type of approach if Dominik had picked more likable, “justified” characters to depict.  I’m glad he didn’t.  There are enough righteous gunmen—you might call them “designated killers”—who get free passes to maim and murder if a blood tie has been kidnapped/raped/tortured,  the country’s safety is threatened, or if their quarry is neon vile with a foreign accent.  Ripped, ferocious avatars for the audience, they are the player ones who get to avenge their formulaic injustices in the most vicious ways, decorating screens balloons-and-confetti-style with blood, fire, and noise.  But in Dominik’s films, the circumstances are mostly absurd, brought about by greed or sycophantism, the killing and dying done by men who are often slimy, cruel, and dishonorable.  But when they are shot through the skull at close range or when their chests are blown open by pump shotguns and they whimper and gurgle, the pathos is real. Before they are killed, they live and breathe.  They are people.

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In addition to the qualities mentioned above, the two films share first-rate cinematography and sound design, superlative ensembles, and two strong performances from Pitt.  They are very different films.  Clocking in at almost three hours, Jesse James has a mythic, mesmeric (some claim somnolent) grandeur, while Killing Them Softly is compact, punchy.

Jesse James is a dirge, a moaning depiction of obsession and hero worship.  The visuals supplied by Roger Deakins and score by Nick Cave work seamlessly to create a strange, lush, melancholy dream of the past.  Casey Affleck owns his role as Robert Ford, the man who infiltrates the James gang just before its dissolution and gains access to Jesse James as he succumbs to the paranoia and misery of life as a hunted man.  Their relationship alone makes me like the film, because it is so odd and uncomfortable and unclassifiable.  Does Jesse James keep Ford around to determine his viability as a threat, or does he like to loyal pet?   Or does he see all, and decide it is right that Ford should kill him?    The questions drift and echo and you are allowed to wonder.  Dominik has the taste not to supply the answer.

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Killing Them Softly, the story of a mob enforcer’s efforts to find those responsible for a robbery at an illegal poker game, is the weaker film for two clear reasons: the use of music and the preponderance of references to the 2008 election.  In the first case, Dominik forgoes any traditional scoring and uses pre-existing songs instead, often using music that rings just a little too obvious in any active filmgoer’s mind.  Pitt, as the killer and enforcer Jackie Cogan, enters the film to the strains of Johhny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.”  When one of the robbers shoots up, the sleepy guitars of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” chug-chug-chug-chug into life.  The real sin of the film, though, is the absolute blasting of the viewer with audio and visual cues meant to connect the political and criminal spheres.  As these hoods go in and out of bars and cars, Obama, McCain, and Bush are all heard uttering their empty promises and pat phrases, to the point where Dominik isn’t just beating the drum, but punching his fist through the drumhead.

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Still, the film features brutally funny and depressing dialogue, and a layered vision of the mob that does, as Dominik knows all too well, smack of workaday life.  How badly a man should be beaten, the tendency of man to “get touchy-feely” if you execute him at close range, the cost of an outsourced hitman’s plane ticket—these matters are all discussed with the same tired obligation as expense accounts and overtime hours.  It’s all such a drag.  In brief instances you see the weight of all the desperation, greed, and deceit weighing on Pitt’s character, and when it comes to getting his money at the end of the film, he lets fly a barrage of hard, angry sentences about America that are as thrilling and satisfying as any action scene I’ve ever witnessed.  Killing Them Softly is so satisfyingly bitter that you almost miss the venom dissipating in your veins once you’ve left the theater.

Other recent films have treated violence with a similar gravity to what I’ve described here.  Some even won Oscars and topped the box office, but the ratio is still so lopsided.  Expendables 3 will be here soon enough, or Taken 3. The good guys will kill again.  But maybe try out one of Dominik’s films.  Drift into the limbo, where no one really deserves it, but it comes anyway.  Feel that feeling.  “You made a mistake,” Jackie Cogan repeats to a man he’ll be killing soon, and the camera hangs on his face, his lip quivering as he digests this.  He made a mistake and now he’s going to die.  He’s not a bad guy, but he made a mistake.  When he finally does die, it’s so sudden, so final, and you feel something.  You feel something.

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Deep In the Woods : On the Set of Jim Stramel’s ‘Reviled’

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What better way to usher in the Halloween season than to take you on the set of Jim Stramel’s upcoming zombie pit fighting web series “Reviled”. It took me over an hour to get to the remote set in the boondocks of Powhatan County, Virginia . There in the back woods of an old farmhouse were signs posted telling a weary traveler how to get to the set. The trail went long and deep into the woods, but finally you get to a clearing to see what Stramel’s successful fundraising on indiegogo paid for. The make up tents, the spread of food, coolers full of beverages and the lighthearted feel of the place on a warm September afternoon.

Once I got there I saw that Jim’s wife Renee was applying the gore to Randy Boyer, one of the actors playing a zombie. Renee’s experience in gore goes way back to the early days of Jim’s reign as the kingpin of homegrown exploitation films like “The Thrillbillys” (2001) and “Degenerates Ink” (2010). Don’t sit to close to the screen, you might get some on you. I’ve known Jim for a number of years through my work with the James River Film Society. Jim has always felt comfortable in the underground; he would rather promote his flicks at Tattoo conventions than at film festivals. Plus he puts on one hell of a yard sale full of horror and B movie memorabilia .

Once I got to the set I saw a cage built from scratch . Jim said it took them four days to build it.

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Made from old barn wood, barbed wire, and straw, the custom-built cage also featured smoke barrels in the background and a few bales of hay used for seating the onlooking audience. Each zombie was equipped with a metal hook in his back to be controlled by their keeper. These keepers are controlling their zombie fighters with long poles with grappling hooks. Observing Jim and the way he manages his set was quite an experience. He likes to keep the atmosphere very lighthearted. Everyone is joking around. Jim lets his actors improvise their lines. But Jim is also a man with an eye for detail. Using a single camera he shoots the action from several angles, often doing reshoots to capture the light refracting off of a character’s hat.

The fight scenes take a long time to shoot. Jim was filming the zombie’s face getting raked along the fence in order to capture the latex flesh being rolled back in gory detail. He often calls upon Renee to do touch ups on the make up, calling out specific colors by name.

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The final shot is of the audience placing their bets on the carnage to follow. All the extras – myself included – were there shouting and cheering the fight taking place in the cage. Latex body parts were hurled out in the audience for comedic value, because after all this web series is tongue in cheek all the way. The zombies were being poked and prodded by onlookers. For a September afternoon it was 90 degrees out in rural Powhatan and I’m sure the guys in all of the zombie make up were suffering for their art. As the evening was approaching , Jim was losing sunlight. He knew he had to rush to get those last few shots in.

Jim told me ‘Reviled’ was making it’s debut at the end of 2013 or very early 2014. Keep an eye on the Facebook page for further details regarding“Reviled”, a horror web series not to be missed. Happy Halloween and remember try to to get any on you . – Jeff Roll

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Déjà vu

A view through an iris, followed by a direct cut to a kiss. In 1957, it was Gene Barry and Eve Brent in Sam Fuller’s western Forty Guns. Three years later, it was Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless.

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Defenders of Freedom, Real and Imagined

Lincoln and Skyfall.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg.

There is a moment, a very small moment in Steven Spielberg’s very large film Lincoln that I found to be the most telling portrait of the somewhat mysterious 16th president. Lincoln is loafing–and that’s the only way to describe it–around the bedroom of the White House, discussing politics with his wife Mary, and we see him, papers in his lap, on a chair. His legs are extended and he’s bootless. At the end of those stilts are a pair of gray woolen socks, their ends flopped over as if he’d just pulled off those boots. Discussions of the 13th Amendment, the crux of the film, have found their way into the bedroom, and this beleaguered man must stretch out and rest his dogs. Here is Lincoln in repose.

These small details are a welcome sight in Spielberg’s film, and augment what might be the best performance of the year. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln, and he’s a marvel: Day-Lewis chewed the scenery as Daniel Plainview, a man who shaped mountains and sea in There Will Be Blood. Here he makes Lincoln a man with a higher pitched, decidedly Midwestern accent, but he’s a more humble man, a man who spoke softly and moved others to shape mountains and sea. When his Lincoln speaks, his audience smiles and nods, happy to hear the stories he spins, proud that such a man is their leader. And then something twists in his fable, the stories he tells turn on the slightest note, and the listeners–politicians, citizens, soldiers–begin to find themselves stirred, roused somehow to fight for this man’s every cause.

Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, attempts to be a film about this politician, Abraham Lincoln, and specifically his attempt to pass the 13th Amendment. Lincoln takes place in the weeks following the 1864 election, when Lincoln won in a landslide, and Republicans swept to take decisive control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This should make passing the Amendment easy, where once voted through it will go to the state legislatures for ratification.

But these were the days when there was hardly any party unity. To pass the Amendment required a two-thirds majority, so some Democrats had to be on board. To make matters even more intriguing, you had to have hard-line Republicans, like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, enjoyable, but chewing his lines a bit), men for whom compromise is seen as a weakness. The 13th Amendment is not enough for men like Stevens, he wants more, and he doesn’t want to compromise. Then you had old-school Republicans who demanded that Lincoln sue for peace, to end what remains the bloodiest war in history.

Problem was, if Lincoln ends the war, then, according to the story (and I don’t disbelieve this), they’ve lost much of the impetus for the 13th Amendment. Bring back the Southern States, secure peace, and they’ll demand that peculiar institution. Lincoln knew damn well that he needed to get the Amendment through before peace. He knew that unless there was a permanent end to slavery, the war would have been for naught, that more bloodshed would come.

To achieve this end, Lincoln ally and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, playing himself), works with three wicked men to try and forge that two-thirds majority. Here we see Spielberg’s best moments: the trio, played by a freshly corpulent James Spader (the weight and the grease suit the man well), John Hawkes, and the woefully underused Tim Blake Nelson, work the taverns and restaurants and back alleys, follow beleaguered Democrats as they duck hunt, making a variety of promises (“you can be postmaster general!”), bribes, and threats to secure a vote.

This is somewhat exciting stuff. I say “somewhat” because this political football is almost entirely the wrong tack for a filmmaker of Spielberg’s sensitivity. Spielberg, as usual, drenches this film in dappled light as it dribbles in past dark curtains, brilliant from stardust. As is always Spielberg’s bane, he seeks to telegraph every moment for the grade school educated audience he thinks is watching Lincoln. Has a movie been so awfully didactic as this one? Each new conversation on the subject begins with a brief summary of what we’ve already seen and heard, even his wife saying things like “I know you’re worried about the 13th Amendment…” Scenes in the halls of Congress should feel energized, instead seem like we’re watching a reenactment video you might catch at some Civil War museum.

The film drags along, diffused with long asides about Lincoln’s family, Mary’s madness (she’s played by Sally Field, who gives a remarkably nuanced performance in spite of itself), and some worthlessness about his elder son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Army against his parents’ wishes. In a regrettable scene that could’ve been cut entirely, Lincoln hauls Robert to an army hospital to dissuade him from enlisting. A couple of black soldiers push a wheelbarrow dripping blood past the young man who sees–horror!–that it contains the amputated arms and legs of soldiers, which must’ve come as a surprise to literally no human being who watched this movie.

There’s no pop and crackle to the film, and the compromises, the chasing after votes, seem oddly clean, oddly without emotional impact. Sad, too, are a pair of bloody scenes from the war: an opening battle pitting black soldiers against white, and so staid and dull that you’d think Spielberg had just grafted in a moment from Glory. Then, toward the end, we see Lincoln touring a battlefield, and moved almost to tears. “I’ve never seen anything like that before” he admits to Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris.) Would that we could say the same–there are literally battlefield moments in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that have more impact, more blood and gore and meaning.

It is pretty clear that Spielberg’s great focus as a filmmaker is on history, but mostly World War II history. Schindler’s List, Empire of the SunSaving Private Ryan, even Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tinin reflect his love of that era. There’s moments of genuine madness in those first two films, and I couldn’t help but imagine how potent the long discussions of the 13th Amendment would have been had they been framed by battles that had even a tenth of Saving Private Ryan’s intensity. But perhaps the Civil War doesn’t pique Spielberg’s innovative nerves as the Second World War.

And that’s a shame, because it wastes that central performance, and wastes a lot of that beautiful detail, and frankly it wastes a decent subject in how political compromises shaped, and continue to shape, this nation. I’ll give Lincoln a hesitant recommendation, because if anything else it reminds us–Day-Lewis reminds us–that Honest Abe was a man, a remarkable man, whose words had incredible meaning, and whose heartfelt expression of those words changed history. If only Spielberg understood what Lincoln did so well–that the telling of the story is just as important as the facts.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes.

I really hope that someone can tell me the name of the screenwriter who clearly died during the making of the newest James Bond film, Skyfall. For the sudden death of the writer is the only explanation for a movie as schizophrenic as this one.

Frankly, I’m at a loss about the trend towards seriousness in our most shallow stories. James Bond, Batman, Star Wars–these are great entertainments that have all taken a sudden turn in the last two decades toward a strange sort of respectability, as if these goofy stories should soberly reflect modern terrorism, faith, the role of government.

The newest Bond once again sees Daniel Craig suiting up in his tight-fitting, slightly retro gunmetal blue suit with the four-in-hand knot in his tie (that’s my knot, too–it’s awesome. But I digress.) We open with a great fight on the top of a train, this following a most ridiculous motorcycle and SUV chase through an Istanbul street. From the top of the speeding locomotive, Bond is accidentally shot pursuing a bad guy who has a hard drive (inexplicably dangling from his neck) with the names of NATO spies across the globe. With this list, their secret identities will be revealed, and they’ll be killed.

This being a Bond film, I’m happy–very happy in fact–to set aside all the gaping plot holes, like the fact that the spy Bond always seemed to relish using his real name. Or the fact that the shrapnel from Bond’s shoulder, from a wound suffered in the opening sequence, can be traced to only three people on entire planet. Anyway, Bond is shot off the train, falls from five hundred feet into ten feet of rushing water with a quarter-sized hole in his chest from his own side’s weapon, somehow ends up on an island taking bets that he won’t get stung by a scorpion while drinking whiskey, and fucks a beautiful island girl. This is all in the first half hour.

What fun! Skyfall moves swiftly, with a bang and without any regard for the realities of the world. This is what Bond is all about–car chases, whiskey, sex, guns, gadgets. It’s all here, but with some neato twists: Q is now a weird kid, a hacker with horn-rimmed glasses, mussed up hair and crazy cardigans, and the new Moneypenny, meant to be a surprise (though pretty damned obvious), is a great choice, sexy and intelligent and dangerous.

You’ve got strange Bond girls, showers with said Bond girls, and a fight in a luxurious Macau casino that ends ends with a massive thug being hauled to his death by a Komodo dragon. Who cares that this is a ridiculous scene? It’s a welcome moment (if not a slightly disappointing use of the one gadget in the film), a genuinely Bond moment. This is why we still watch these movies after a half century of play.

Then there’s the evil villain: Javier Bardem plays Silva, a former “00″ agent who is on the warpath. Bardem is totally over-the-top, isolated on an island, upending the world with computer hacking that is unparalleled. He’s toppling financial institutions, blowing up buildings, and having a blast.

And so are we. Skyfall, despite Craig’s lack of Conneryesque charm, is still fun to watch, and the filmmakers, this time Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, borrow wholesale from the newer spy films, like the Bourne series, and even X-Men to a degree. This is all well and good, servicing a fairly creaky franchise.

There’s other sweet little moments. Bond, hands tied behind his back, is caressed by our villain, Silva, in what is the most overtly homosexual moment in all of the movies. And we find ourselves rooting for Silva, who is certainly distressing Bond more than he lets on (welcome to the 21st Century, Mr. Bond.)

From the great chases, to the very strange Silva, from a tower assassination in Shanghai to a weird island off the coast of China, with its abandoned buildings and toppled statues, Skyfall is a Bond film for the ages. Well, at least until Silva is captured.

And here comes the Macguffin: Silva was betrayed by M years ago, in 1999 to be precise, when Britain was handing Hong Kong over to the Chinese. He was tortured for months, bit into a cyanide capsule that didn’t work, but that ate away most of his upper jaw and his insides. “Life clung to me like a disease,” Silva says, through plate glass to a stunned M, played for the last time by Judi Dench.

See, Silva was M’s favorite. Now Bond is her favorite. We see that she is risking her career by keeping Bond in the field, when he’s in fact failed both his physical and psychological tests. She loves Bond like a son, and Skyfall quickly becomes this weird movie about warring sons, the good against the bad.

This would not necessarily be a bad thing were it not for the fact that Silva’s character becomes, well, something else entirely–maybe Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, from No Country for Old Men? Up to the point in which Silva escapes, he was a hacker extraordinaire, who skills exceeded even Q’s. But when he’s free, what does he do? Well, for the rest of the film, Silva will literally walk around shooting his guns and throwing hand grenades, and doing neither very well. It was hinted that he was a better spy than Bond, though we suddenly see none of that–he’s instead a lousy shot, not very nimble, nor very smart.

And the filmmakers make some serious errors in their entertainment judgment. Called to the carpet for losing the list of spies, M is brought before a government panel to defend herself amidst calls for her retirement. Like the long, boring moments of parliamentary debate that made The Phantom Menace such a drag (admittedly among many other moments), here we get Dench’s M defending, in a long speech, the merits, not of the real MI:6, but of these “00″ agents, who aren’t actually real. We don’t need to hear why these spies are important to make the world safe–they’re fantasy. Note to filmmakers: don’t explain or try and make real the fantasy during the fucking fantasy. In closing her speech, M tearfully reads a quote from Tennyson, perhaps the most misguided use of poetry in cinema history.

Silva is hell bent on killing M, just as Bond is hell bent on keeping “Mum” alive. The character of Silva as he’s been developed in Skyfall will never be seen again–the strangely mannered, brilliant man has been replaced by a scowling dude with a bunch of thugs who walk up in broad daylight to a Scottish castle where Bond and M are hiding to kill them. Even by the often weak standards of James Bond, these villains are remarkably tedious–a good dozen or two are dispatched by an old man (Albert Finney, here for no apparent reason except to give us more backstory–this time about Bond) and M. There’s more needless gunplay, and a showdown in a church, and the bad guy is defeated. Gone is Silva’s wit, his genius, the use of computers to achieve his evildoing, gone is really everything that made him appealing.

This is terrible news especially for a movie that started so promisingly. Why this need for endless backstory, for a government hearing, for tearful emotional moments between Bond and M? I mean, I don’t give a rip about M–I care, if you can call it that, about James Bond leaping and jumping and having fights with his gadgets and then marveling as an exotic and beautiful woman is tossed fantastically naked into the mix. I’d love to see updates–maybe a female Bond, but the young Q and Silva’s stroking of Bond’s pants will do for now. But what I don’t need (and what we also saw in this summer’s The Avengers) are filmmakers trying to show us that these falsehoods are really quite important. Of course they’re important–fantasy is important. Until it seeks respectability. And then it’s lost its honesty, and really its heart. Skyfall, like Bardem’s Silva, has been betrayed by good intentions, and has its insides rotting out.

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The True Cost of Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Wes Anderson behind an Aaton 16mm Motion Picture Camera on the set of “Moonrise Kingdom”

Myth

As a college professor teaching filmmaking students in the “digital age,” I often encounter many misconceptions as to the true cost of shooting and finishing a film on celluloid.  Students mistakenly believe that if it was not for the “digital revolution” and the “democratization” of the moving image that they would never have had the means or capability of producing a film due to the “high” price tag of film stock and lab costs.  Guests visit our campus and say the same thing “we could not have done this if it wasn’t for digital.”  When the guest artist is then asked about how much their project costs, they say “$60,000.”  Wow!  I have priced out feature 35mm films for under $20,000.  What about the many young filmmakers who made films on film for over 120 years?  They shot many films on celluloid and made masterpieces…on very low budgets!  As moving image artists, we should feel free to use the medium of our choice and know the truth about the tools we use.  The unfortunate thing is that students and new producers and directors are sincerely unaware of the actual cost of shooting on film.  The intention of this article is not to disregard the creative attributes of digital technology, but to make the reader mindful of the price tag that comes with working with digital video as well as film.  This post can also be utilized as a resource guide to help movie-makers who are interested in shooting on film.

Cost
Indeed film does cost money, and this is nothing new.  Motion picture film has always had an expense, but that expense is very manageable over time.  Also, that expense encourages expertise and also helps to elevate the quality of the project.  If you spend $300 on a five minute short that screens in twenty festivals, is not the investment of shooting on film worth it?  If you put quality in, you get quality out.  If you respect your work to invest in it with both time and money – it certainly shows on screen.  Film has a unique way of encouraging everyone from the director to cinematographer to actors to perform her/his very best.  Movie-makers who work with film, commonly refer to this attribute as the “film discipline.”  Ultimately, film places the responsibility of preparation and  budget savings on the filmmaker.  Film can be really expensive in one person’s hands or cost less than working with digital video another’s hands.  It all depends on one’s creative practice.

Cinelicous Quote: Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Film Takes Top Dramatic Awards at SUNDANCE. Think Indies can’t afford to shoot film… Can they afford not to?


“Here’s a surprising fact that independent producers may want to consider before they write off film as “too expensive”: There were 120 films in competition at Sundance this year. Based on our research and conversations with Kodak and Fuji only 5% were shot on film… and yet that small minority took 100% of the most coveted Jury and Grand Jury prizes in the US and World Dramatic competitions, as well as winning the Excellence in Cinematography Award in the US Dramatic category.  It’s true that producers of sub-$1M independent film need to watch the bottom line… but isn’t the ultimate goal to win awards and thereby sell the movie?”

Ratios
It may sound ludicrous to electronic ears, but shooting film can actually be cheaper in a variety of situations.  If one shoots at a shooting ratio under 5:1, film will come in below the cost of purchasing or renting electronic equivalent cameras.  Steven Spielberg and his veteran crew are known for shooting quickly and efficiently with very few takes.  It can be done, if one so desires. My career has focused on shooting on Super 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm on modest budgets.  To some, these modest budgets of $300 are too often misinterpreted as a lot of expenditure for a short film because digital costs nothing, right?  Wrong, there is always an expense.

The Secret is Out
What’s actually happening is that students and newcomers are sold inaccurate statements about film by the electronic companies and by people who have never worked with motion picture film.  They say that film is “costly, cumbersome, and risky.”  The majority of these comments come from RED, SONY, CANON, and PANASONIC.  These companies want you to BUY cameras.  Of course they are going to downplay the importance of shooting on film and give film a bad press.  Where film stock usage can be controlled by the filmmaker over time, the video camera has a larger up front investment.

These major digital camera makers prey on the vulnerable newcomer to attract them to their product.  Once hooked, these companies know you are likely to be addicted….for life.  Or at least this is what they hope.  Unlike film cameras that last forever, digital cameras depend on resolution and software upgrades.

This addiction to upgrades focuses on the false promises that your project will be better because it was shot on the newest RED camera (like the RED Epic or RED Scarlet).  Much like any addiction, the substance abuser does not see the expense in their actions.  They go for the fix every two years or even sooner!  Like the iPhone, each new upgrade promises more.  If you do not upgrade in six months, you become an outdated fossil – left behind.  Most will agree, a mindset obsessed with technology can get in the way of the artistic journey.

Truth
Film users are addicted to celluloid, but with film, the addiction to camera upgrades does not exist.  Let’s take a look at some well made clockwork 16mm cameras as a case study.  A Bell and Howell Filmo 70DR, Kodak K100, or a Krasnogorsk 3 camera with three prime lenses or a zoom will only set you back $500.  Most of the 16mm camera models out there were made from 1950-1990 and are still going strong.  They may need a $200 clean, lube, and adjustment every 15-30yrs depending on use.  Why are Arri, Aaton, and Panavision not making any new motion picture film cameras?  The answer is: there are so many excellent used film cameras out there……one cannot make a profit since film cameras can last forever.  Pick up a used Filmo or Kodak K100 and run some film through it – you’ll see what I mean.

Resolution

These $500 film cameras give one the resolution equivalent of a 3K sensor with no color compression. A 3K digital camera like the RED Scarlet will cost you $10,000.  Ten grand is quite a chunk of change and many short films can be shot on 16mm and 35mm for less than this price.  Super 8mm is equivalent of HD video (properly lit, exposed, and shot on low speed film stock with a professional grade camera), Regular 16mm is 2K, Super 16mm and Ultra 16 are 3K digital equivalent, and 35mm is 8K digital equivalent.

Planned Obsolesce

In fact, one can make ten 15 minute short films with a 3:1 shooting ratio for the price of the RED Scarlet.  If you make a short film once a year, it will take you ten years to add up to the investment of the RED Scarlet.  Even if you are shooting two projects a year, in five years the Scarlet will be obsolete.  RED, CANON, and SONY marketing departments should give themselves a pat on the back for getting folks to buy into purchasing these cameras.  Newness sells.  If you are the business of selling cameras, digital has opened up a whole new market since digital video cameras have built -in/planned obsolescence.  You can market a whole new line every two years and turn a big profit from young and old users.  It wasn’t long ago that the Panasonic DVX100 (2003) was all the rave, then came the HVX200 (2005), and now the AF100 (2010).

Film School Investment
It’s crazy that even the largest film schools have bought into buying $6,000-$70,000 cameras.  I have heard Universities dropping as much as $300,000 on buying Sony Professional HD video cameras.   Many programs have been operating with the rugged ARRI 16S cameras since the early seventies.  Talk about an excellent investment.  How many purchases has the average American made that last 42 years- lifetime?  Keep thinking………perhaps your toilet?  These Sony cameras are mostly made up of cheap plastic and are nowhere near the quality of the ARRI 16S cameras in craftsmanship and durability.  The Sony cameras have about a 5 year lifespan, if they don’t break first, the film department will likely upgrade in 5 years.  Dropping $300,000 every few years sounds like a large waste of money.  Would not that money be better spend on student project grants?  This way, student senior thesis projects can be shot in the format the student feels best suited for his/her production.  More creative choices will foster critical thinking, resulting in more quality work regardless of medium.

ARRI-16S

Computer and Software

In fact there’s more hidden expenses when working with digital video.  These expenditures are easily overlooked due to their prevalence in our society.  Yes, computers are integrated into our every day lives, but as of now….we still have a choice when we make art.  These costs need to be taken into account in order to gain an accurate picture of the digital workflow.  On top of your camera package, you need a computer, a monitor, and editing software.  The major players here are Apple, HP, Adobe, and Avid.  What’s their upgrade cycle?  You’ve guessed it… about 2 years.  Without education discounts, a computer w/ monitor for editing will cost $2,000 and a software package will cost $1,800.  The average PC buyer may spend $650 on a computer, but to work with the high data rates of video, one will spend around $1200.  Think of every news channel who switched to video in the early 1980s.  How many expensive video cameras and editing systems did they purchase over the last 30 years?  These news stations missed out on archiving history in the switch.  Film’s shelf life when properly stored is 500 years, making it future proof to be scanned into any electronic format in the future.  Digital video must be migrated to a new hard drive every 5 years.  Just take a look at my office, and you’ll see twelve hard drives.  One TB (terabyte) costs around $100.  Now times that by two.  One for the project and one backup.  Oh, but you really should have two back-ups.  We’re up to $300 every 5 years.  In a New York Times article, “The Afterlife is Expensive for Digital Movies,” the paper reported on the results of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archival research. “Titled “The Digital Dilemma,” the council’s report surfaced…..: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.”

Film and Digital for Education
“What about DSLRs, can’t I pick up a Canon T4i kit for $1,000?”  Yes, we currently live at the height of the DSLR proliferation.  Canon released the T1i in 2009, now in 2012 they are already on the fourth incarnation, the T4i.  The professional 5DMKII was released in 2008, now they sell the 5D MKIII.  Talk about out of control upgrades.  The DSLR shoots in 1920x1080p HD, this is the equivalent to Super 8mm ($200 for Canon 1014E, Nikon R10, Nizo Professional .)  The difference here is that the film has infinite color where the DSLRs utilize highly compressed H.264 codec and have shutter jingle and moire. Super 8mm has limitations too, such as inconsistent registration and prominent grain (if shot with high speed stock).  I use and have a great time shooting with a Bell and Howell Filmo 70DR, and would not hesitate to use it even on a feature. Obviously one makes concessions in any format and chooses the right tool for the right job or uses what works best for them.   Below will be a comparison on a student budget as well as a micro “indie” pro budget.  In order to make the comparison competitive, the following criteria will be used: 2K resolution, lowest camera purchase price w/ lens, native workflow, and finishing.

Canon Rebel T4i

Estimates
The following gear and prices are general ballpark figures and in no way are absolute.  If you are resourceful, you can manage with lower prices in any of these work-flows.  You may be the small percentage of people who hold on to software and equipment beyond their designated expiration date.  Maybe you edit with Lightworks  ($60/year for Pros and $30/year for students!) instead of Adobe or Avid.  Perhaps your parents gave you a camera or found one that was your grandma’s.  Good for you!!  You are saving money!  The best tool is often the one that you already own or one that you pick up at a yard sale for very little.

Professional “Indie” Digital Package

  1. Black Magic Digital Cinema Camera + Quality Zoom Lens – $4,000
  2. Apple Macbook Pro w/Retina Display+AppleCare- $2,600
  3. Adobe CS6 Production Premium (Professional) – $1800
  4. Lifespan of software and gear – 2 years

Total: $8,300/15 minute short a year cost = $4,250

Professional “Indie” Film Package w/ Photo-chemical Finish

  1. Bell and Howell Filmo 70DR w/ C-Mount Lenses – $500
  2. Viewer/Rewinds/Splicer/Projector – $200
  3. Film Stock – 1500ft/45 minutes  - $450
  4. Processing/Workprint – .$40/ft – $600
  5. Photo/Chemical Finish Print – $1000
  6. Lifespan of gear: lifetime (Equipment cost is subtracted for the second year.)

Total: $2,750/15 minute short a year cost – $2,050

SUPER 8, 16MM, 2K/DSLR WORKFLOW PRICE CHART
Chart Based on a 15 minute Short Film w/ Shooting Ratio 3:1.  Kodak Education Store 16mm prices are used for student estimates. KODAK OFFERS A 30% DISCOUNT FOR ALL STUDENT AND FACULTY PRODUCTIONS!  Education discounts are one of the most helpful ways of saving money when shooting on celluloid.  The lowest lab and camera costs available were factored in. Sources are at the end of the article.

Class Cam Lens Edit Stock 2K/HD Scan Soft Lab Total
Pro 2K
Digital
Back Magic Kit
3,500
Canon
$500
Apple
$2,000
N/A N/A Adobe
$1800
N/A $8,400
Pro 16mm 70DR
$200
C-mount
$300
Splice$200 $450 N/A N/A $1600 $2,000
Pro 2K 16mm
Scan
70DR
$200
C-mount
$300
Apple
$2,000
$450 $620 $1800 $180 $5550
EDU DSLR
Digital
T4i
$1,000
Kit Lens
$0
Apple
$2,000
N/A N/A $450 N/A $3450
EDU S8mm
Film
1014
$200
Kit Lens
$0
Splice$200 $150 N/A N/A $180 $730
EDU S8mm
Scan
1014
$200
Kit Lens
$0
$2,000 $150 $360 $450 $180 $3,340
EDU 16mm
Scan
$200 $300 $2,000 $450 $385 $450 $180 $3965

35MM, ARRI ALEXA, RED EPIC WORKFLOW PRICE CHART

Chart Based on a 15 minute Short Film w/ Shooting Ratio 3:1.  35mm film stock prices consist of .08/ft SHORT ENDS (ie. left overs from large budget productions), which give an 88% SAVINGS over purchasing fresh stock from Kodak.  The table focuses on the micro independent filmmaker’s approach to shooting film and utilizes the most economical shooting methods which includes the use of MOS film cameras with non-sync sound.  If you are interested in a 2K scan of 35mm film, just subtract $1,000 from the total cost.

Class Cam Lens Edit Stock 4K Scan Soft Lab Total
Buy 35mm
Print Finish
Arri 2 C
$2,000
$1,000 $500 $360 N/A N/A $4,000 $7,860
Buy 35mm
+ 4K Scan
Arri 2C Buy
$2,000
$1,000 $2,000 $360 $2200 $1,800 $540 $8,440
Buy ARRI
ALEXA/RED
$60,000 Zeiss
$15,000
$2,000 N/A N/A $1,800 N/A $95,000
Rent
ALEXA/RED
$4,500
3 days
$1500 $2,000 N/A N/A $1,800 N/A $9,800
Rent
35mm + 4K Scan
$600
3 days
$1500 $2,000 $360 $2200 $1,800 $540 $8,700

Stanley Kubrick with ARRI-2C 35mm Motion Picture Camera

Choice
The choice is up to the artist, not the camera companies.  There are many ways to save on any of these processes, whether film or digital.  Both mediums can be inexpensive or very expensive depending on one’s resourcefulness.  The longevity of film equipment, the low cost of archiving, and low shooting ratios are the biggest ways film has the potential to save over digital.   From the above chart, one can see that a 35mm motion picture camera can be purchased for $3,000.  That camera is the legendary, ARRI 2-C – a favorite of Stanley Kubrick.

Research, be selective and if you want to shoot on film, go for it!  Expense should not be an issue, especially with so many passionate and friendly resources out there. Kodak, Alpha Cine, NFL Films Lab, Colorlab, Cinelab, Duall Camera,  Super 16 Inc, Light Press, and Process Blue are just a few companies with folks who can help you on your journey.  If you do not exercise your creative right to choose film, you may lose the option.  Film is not just for the big budget projects of Steven SpielbergChristopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.  It’s for all of us.  There are ways to work on celluloid, even on a modest budget.  As Nolan and others have professed (as seen on the chart), working photo-chemically all the way to the finished print has some advantages and can possibly save money.

Film and digital video are not just mediums, they are a creatives processes, a way of life – each unique in its own way.  Think of shooting film and video like knitting and crochet, both demand different mental and physical processes.  Some folks switch easily back and forth, others stick to their preferred craft.  From many years working and teaching film, I’ve noticed that the tools of celluloid film emphasize process over product.  The speed and immediacy of digital video tends to favor the product over process workflow.  If you enjoy a good odyssey where the universe collaborates with the movie, you may be a good candidate to give film a try.

Educate yourself and your producer.  Shooting Super 8 with the exceptionally sharp Kodak 7203 and 7213 is a superb low cost option for students and ultra low professional budgets. A $25 Yashica Super 800 Electro Super 8mm camera that you pick up on ebay for $25 is a good investment.  Let your imagination soar and do not get caught up in camera and software marketing. Celluloid has given us Chaplin, Keaton, and Murnau and continues to be a catalyst for creative filmmaking.  Film is a viable option, but it does demand a conscious effort and participation on your part, especially if you are on a tight budget.  Own your vision and stay true to your artistic process!

To see a list of projects shot on Kodak Motion Picture Film, visit: http://motion.kodak.com/motion/Customers/Productions/index.htm

For independent and experimental works, visit:

http://canyoncinema.com/catalog/films/

Sources

  1. Labs
    1. Alpha Cine Lab
    2. NFL Films Lab
    3. Color Lab
    4. Dwayne’s Photo
  2. Film Camera Purchase
    1. Ebay
    2. Duall Camera
  3. 2K/4K Film Scanning
    1. Process Blue
    2. Cinelicious
    3. LightPress
  4. Digital Camera Purchase
    1. B&H Photo Video
    2. ARRI Group
    3. RED Digital Cinema
    4. Black Magic Design
  5. Rental
    1. Abel Cinetech
    2. Gearhead Camera
  6. Film Stock
    1. Kodak Motion Picture Film
    2. Kodak Education Store
    3. Releasing.net (35mm Short-ends)
  7. Software
    1. B&H Photo Video
    2. JourneyEd
  8. Super 16 Inc. (Film Camera Servicing and Modifications)
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Your No Nonsense Night at the Movies

John Goodman, Alan Arkin, and Ben Affleck anchor “Argo”, the most solid entertainment of the year.

Howard Hawks, perhaps the most reliable director of filmed entertainment in American history, once said his goal was to make every movie have “three great scenes and no bad ones.” I swear that most of the crap from this summer didn’t have one good scene, much less three, and were filled with bad ones, thanks to a crappy script, directing, or acting.

Hawks’ pictures are masterpieces, but they hardly call attention to themselves, and maybe because he has so damn many great films that his work doesn’t make it on canonical games like Sight & Sound’s Top 50 Films of All Time poll. But check out his oeuvre: The Big Sleep, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Red River, Rio Bravo, Scarface, Twentieth Century, Only Angels Have Wings, Ball of Fire and, well, you get the point.

The point is this: there’s a few of directors out there today who try and emulate the Kubricks, Ozus, and Altmans of the world, and that’s fine (that’s more than fine, it’s awesome) but I wish, sometimes, that more of them would emulate Howard Hawks, if only to make a solid, entertaining picture. Three great scenes and no bad ones. How hard is that?

Well, Ben Affleck appears to have a well-worn copy of the Hawks playbook by this side, as his newest directoral effort, Argo, is the most thoroughly entertaining movie I’ve seen this year, a solid picture that, while no masterpiece, tells a damn good tale. And the older I get, the more I appreciate damn good tale.

The story is pretty incredible. We all know about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when protestors stormed the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, holding at gunpoint the entire staff for over a year. If you lived at that time, you may remember the grinding weariness of seeing the news, day after day, the poor hostages with their eyes covered by a ripped cloth, trotted out for the world to see next to an angry man with a gun, the yellow ribbons on the trees, the repurposing of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” into “Bomb Iran”, the wondering how this will end, if it will end.

But what we may not have known is that six members of the embassy escaped, working at the time in the passport office, with an easy exit onto the streets. THey found refuge at the Canadian embassy. Problem was, these escapees were almost more in danger than their counterparts held hostage. By escaping, they were thumbing their noses at Iran, and if captured, were probably going to meet certain, and certainly painful, death.

Enter the CIA. Supervisor Jack O’Donnell (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), an expert at “exfiltrating” (getting sensitive subjects out of tough situations), try and hatch a plan to get those six out of the toughest country on earth from which Americans could escape. The State Department’s staff is full of thoroughly stupid ideas, including one lamebrained idea that involves issuing six bicycles to our subjects so they can make a 300 mile trek over mountains.

But the “best bad idea” comes from Mendez: he’ll fly to Iran, pretending to be a Canadian movie producer of a Star Wars knock off called Argo, a space epic that needs ‘exotic locales’ like Tehran, with its deserts and minarets, and leave with his ‘crew’–the six embassy workers–in tow. “It’s the best bad idea we have,” O’Donnell admits to the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (Bob Gunton) and his assistant, played by Philip Baker Hall.

So the chase is on. But first to Hollywood! To make this thing plausible, there needs to be some gravitas to this fake movie. Mendez has a pal in Hollywood, Oscar-winning make-up man John Chambers (John Goodman), most famous his work on Planet of the Apes. Chambers takes his friend to meet producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a composite of every crazy producer who’s ever walked this earth. They create a fake company, find a good, weird script, have a press event to get the thing in Variety, make storyboards, the works. Once Argo looks like a real production, Mendez leaves the sunny funny farm of Los Angeles for the near-frozen revolutionary crucible that is Tehran.

Argo is not a complex film, but this lack of complexity actually works beautifully. This is a patriotic, fun movie that, like many of Hawks’ pictures, is about men (and some women) faced with a dilemma, disagreeing but ultimately respecting one another, and then working their tails off to get the job done. I’m happy to see a lack of scene-chewing bad guys (even the Iranians are given a lot of respect, and their motives are crystal clear, the script allowing for the Shah’s years of abuse to be a focal point.) Argo moves from point A to point B with no fooling around, much like the CIA operation itself. That works perfectly.

Argo captures three very disparate worlds, and it does each one well. From Washington to Hollywood to Tehran, director Affleck fills each location with tons of rich detail, but never lingering over each to drive home that you’re in the 1970s. The clothing, the music, the cars, even the politics are kept at arm’s length but help give Argo its credibility.

Affleck moves his plot along at a steady place, allowing you to settle into each and every location, and it’s surprising that his risky choice to have himself play the lead is effective–his Tony Mendez is confident, and exactly the guy you want to follow for a whole movie. He’s got a simple backstory–separated, misses his son–that is never dwelled on. His quiet confidence is the perfect fit for an actor of Affleck’s limitations–and it’s a strength for an actor to realize that in himself. Mendez is never more than a solid, intelligent man, not some hunk (though he’s dressed like a 70s swinger), nor some Bond-like hero.

Affleck is well-cast, but, again like Hawks, like a well-composed baseball team with a deep bench, his supporting cast is, well, fucking brilliant. Every actor and actress stands out, but doesn’t overplay their hand, from Arkins’ producer to Cranston’s CIA supervisor to the Canadian ambassador played by Victor Garber to Omid Abtahi the Iranian cultural liaison who escorts the “crew” around the central bazar. With this solid crew, every scene in Argo is so well executed you start to relax into the story, confident you won’t be let down. The script gives them some great dialogue, at times funny, at times nerve-wracking, without seeming overwrought.

While a great, visionary director might have made Argo an homage to the paranoia of the 1970s, contrasting D.C. with Hollywood with Iran (which admittedly would have been great), Argo is, simply put, not that movie, and Affleck is not capable of making that movie. This is not a multi-layered film, but a story about heroes, while at the same time not bludgeoning us with the flag, not spelling out this desire to celebrate these people and their actions. Affleck, unbelievably, never overplays his hand.

Until the unfortunate ending. Argo is the story of the removal of these six people from a terrible situation, and even those unfamiliar with anything but the basics of history knows these six weren’t captured and executed. Like All the President’s Men, Affleck manages to keep us on the edge of our seats despite knowing the rough outcome. But when his nervous, unprepared crew makes it to the airport, Argo almost becomes a joke, as nearly every Hollywood cliche from every cliffhanger makes its cameo appearance. A last minute cancellation of the operation? Check. A phone call at the eleventh hour? Check? Critical people who are detained from getting to the room to answer that critical call? Check. A guy racing across an airport to deliver a key message (that he could’ve called or paged)? Check. A phalanx of jeeps and cop cars chasing a moving airplane down the tarmac? Sigh. Check.

And where Argo should have ended with its bizarre nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, instead it goes deep into backstory we didn’t need, and a string of scenes that seem to suggest that Affleck thinks you didn’t get his point. His Mendez comes back to his wife, hugging her while the flag whips in the background (awful), falls asleep with his son in his lap (please…), and then we see the Canadian ambassador receiving a plaque, shots of the real people, and even, for God’s sake, a voice over with Jimmy Carter recounting the heroic deeds.

Still, that makes up maybe ten minutes of a really straightforward, totally entertaining movie about interesting people and a wild event with a crazy twist. A good script, good actors, and a director who doesn’t want to get in the way. Three good scenes and no bad ones–would that most of our movies follow this simple, straightforward recipe. We’d all have a much better time at the cinemas.

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