Joining Celluloid: The Art of Film Editing

FILM IS THRIVING….BUT WHAT ABOUT FILM SPLICING

Image result for lala land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in an image from La La Land (2016). Image from Indiewire

With the recent critical releases of La La Land, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, and Hidden Figures, audiences are witnessing the beauty of film at the cinema.  Add in Kodak’s new Super 8 Camera (image below) and the return of Ektachrome 100 film stock (both to be released later this year), many young people are gaining interest in celluloid acquisition.  The new Super 8 camera reaffirms Kodak’s commitment to making motion picture film stock and for innovating within the field.  These critically acclaimed film releases combined with Kodak’s exciting announcements are encouraging movie makers across the globe to shoot film.  There is truly an analog renaissance happening.  The positive news is fostering in interest in the art of the moving image – an art that has thrived for 120 years.   The properties of celluloid and a traditional film education continue to build an acute awareness of the potential of the medium of film as a creative tool.  Many know of the values of film acquisition – crew discipline, unlimited color, large exposure latitude, and proven archival properties.  However, what many people do not know, is the value of a traditional film post- production workflow.  The intention of this article is to explore some of the merits of traditional film splicing and share some of the reasons for working in this tradition.  For those who are interested in journeying into the magical landscape of celluloid post production, please read on.  Hopefully you will find the inspiration and courage to cut your first true motion picture on film.

Image result for kodak super 8 camera

Kodak’s New Super 8mm Movie Camera

Image result for tacita dean editing film

Tacita Dean’s Exhibition of “Film” at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern Museum

EDITING AND FINISHING ON FILM

We are just the beginning of the analog renaissance, and although we have seen mainstream movie makers in greater numbers capture on film, many are finishing in the digital realm.  The hybrid process of shooting film, scanning, and editing digitally works well, but the film does lose some soul in the process.  When celluloid film is projected, the image seen on the screen is made by the light shining through the material, not a representation in digital 1s and 0s.  This factor is what makes working with the material of film unique.  This leaves room for filmmakers and labs to develop a modern workflow for traditional film editing and finishing.  Every artist will have his/her own reasons for engaging with a particular medium.  With video someone may prefer the ability to edit and revise and add effects and with film they may prefer the tangible and malleable qualities of the physical material.  In 2011, British film artist Tacita Dean made a piece titled, Film, for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern Museum.  The 11 minute 35mm film celebrated the analogue process, and gallery patrons were able to see what a pure film – shot, edited, and finished on film looks like.  Dean turned the film on its side, displayed the perforations, and manipulated the image through mattes.  Her work was truly a portrait of the medium of film.

In a 2015 interview for BFI, Dean articulates:

“As an artist who makes and exhibits film for reasons indexical to the medium, I have had no choice but to fight to get film re-appreciated for what it is: a beautiful, robust and entirely different way of making and showing images in the gallery and in the cinema. Film has characteristics integral to its chemistry and internal discipline that form my work and I cannot be asked to separate the work from the medium that I used to make it. We need to keep the medium distinct from the technology; we need to keep the choice of film available for artists, filmmakers and audiences.”

Image result for michael kahn editing

Steven Spielberg and Academy Award Winning Editor Michael Kahn mark a cut with a grease pencil.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FILM AND VIDEO EDITING

In order to truly understand the innate difference between the mediums of film and video, one should venture down the path of completing a short film entirely in the photo-chemical process.  Keep a journal by your side and jot down the discoveries as you go, as you will not only learn about film editing, but it will teach you the values of video editing as well.  It is only through experience that we can articulate defining characteristics of each medium.  Film editing brings many changes to process in the way of thought and creativity.

I feel the same passion for working with film as Tacita Dean.  This enthusiasm for a pure film led me to complete my own adventure series, Navigators of the Shadow Ring, entirely through analogue means.  From typewriter to splicer, I challenged myself and my creativity to work within the medium of celluloid.  During the making of the first chapter of my 16mm adventure film, I made several discoveries in the 16mm workflow.  Many of these discoveries came from the editing of the film on an Upright Moviola and cutting on a traditional film bench.  Were there frustrations?  Yes, a few, such as trying to transfer sync sound using a Siemens 2000 projector that had a wild variable speed motor.  I did spend hours trying to make this basic projection tool work against its purpose, but even that long engagement taught me how to transfer and cut sound on my own without a lab. There’s always something to learn if you are open to listening during the process.   Overall, I felt a sense of freedom, freedom from distractions and from the computer.

IMG_1175.JPG

This is an image of the author’s editing room with an Upright 16mm Moviola pictured left of the work bench.

TRADITIONAL FILM EDITING

  • Rushes(dailies)- From watching the rushes with your crew to hanging the trims, having the physical film in your hands puts the team directly in touch with the images made on location.  It is a joy to sit with the cast and crew and watch the 16mm dailies in full color flickering on a homemade screen in your living room.  The film becomes more intimate and you have a deeper knowledge of what images you have captured and how best to use them.  There is a tendency with video editing to just dive into the footage, skip logging, and take short cuts.  The process of logging film gives time to learn about your footage and find the gems in the footage.
  • Relevance – The Upright Moviola machine, tape splicer, and rewinds will not text you, email you, or tempt you to look up some bit of irrelevant information.  The single purpose of the film editing tools keep your eyes on the film and thinking about the story and the concepts.  When one runs into a mind block when editing on a computer, you can simply escape the process by searching for some random information or by completing an email task.  Film forces you to stay with the problem and solve it.
  • Reverie – The traditional editing process encourages note taking and pre-visualizing before each cut.  One is constantly making connections while sitting at the editing table or at other places where reverie takes place, such as the shower.  There is a lot of forethought going on before you place down a piece of tape.  When I cut on video, I work rapidly and in a primal way – just responding to the movement and image changes.  A lot of images are joined without stopping to think.  Sure, I can step away from the computer for a few days so I can reevaluate, but with film it seems I am reassessing at each cut.
  • Control – The images are right in front of you.  You can see a long strip of film with many frames on it at once.  This gives you a strong sense of the frame and where to make the cut.  One physically moves the the film through a film viewer or pushes down on the pedal to drive it forwards and backwards through the Moviola.  The speed adjusts easily by your body motion.  When you stop or put on the breaks, the film stops right there for you to examine it.  There is no need to worry about hard drive crashes, incompatible formats, or a random glitch in the software.  You just feel in control as you orchestrate the motion of images.
  • Resolution – Working with film in a video editing system opens up a number of possibilities which includes cropping, coloring, and adding in effects, but what it lacks is native physical quality.  Working with film instead of a file of the film, one works with the full image resolution (no compression) and infinite color every time.  When the 16mm image is projected on a screen, it is how the audience will see it.  I can project the film on any screen size or wall and my image quality stays the same.
  • Rewards- Creating a reel of film is rewarding. One can see the length of the film building up – longer and longer as you edit on.  There’s a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction to feeling the length of the movie run through your finger tips.
Film Splicer.jpg

Ediquip/Rivas 16mm Film Splicer

One could say that the “digital revolution” has helped shape filmmaking as its own medium by contrasting it to the virtual nature of video medium.  Each medium has a very different workflow.  Hands will handle film footage every step of the way, where video will be run through software every step of the way.  From my experience on Navigators I was inspired to bring traditional editing to our new motion picture editing course.  In my Cinema and Screen Studies editing course at SUNY Oswego, I created two film splicing projects – Making Montage and Television Suspense.  Students were able to explore Russian montage and Hollywood continuity editing physically on film before going into a final project edited in software.  The students kept a journal throughout their process.  Here’s what some of the SUNY Oswego CSS majors had to say after their first montage splicing project:

“This gave me a new perspective on filmmaking because it really did help me see how much power the editor has.” – Moreli Abreu, SUNY Oswego, 2018

“Being able to control the film through a viewer frame by frame allowed me to realize the importance of cutting on a frame. – Julia D’Rozario, SUNY Oswego, 2016

“Editing on actual film is a mobile act.  You are walking around picking shots off the wall, making order out of the shots and seeing the length not only in time but in feet.  It adds a completely new perspective on what editing is.”  Victoria Jayne, SUNY Oswego ,2018

“To actually hold the film in your hands and tape it together gives it this real feel to it and a whole new appreciation.” – Erin Knaul, SUNY Oswego

Image result for thelma schoonmaker flatbed

1970s image of Thelma Schoonmaker working on a KEM 35mm flatbed editor.

HOLLYWOOD VOICES

My students and I am certainly not the first people to distinguish the very real difference between the film and digital video workflows.  In fact many Hollywood filmmakers and artists have spoken up recently.  Tacita Dean, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, and J.J. Abrams are just some of the voices championing the film medium and encouraging others to maintain the choice of image capture.

Academy Award Winning editors Michael Kahn and Thelma Schoonmaker have shared their thoughts on the importance of learning to edit on film by tape splicing. Schoonmaker makes the case of film simplicity.  She says “I do think that everyone is rushing headlong into this complicated [digital] technology now to the point where interfacing with somebody else, or some other system, becomes so complicated, sometimes you just wish you could go to your flat-bed editing machine and just flick a switch and it would come on.”

Long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn cut all of Spielberg’s films on the Upright Moviola from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull(2008). Spielberg said in a 2011 article in the Guardian ” My favorite and preferred step between imagination and image is a strip of photochemistry that can be held, twisted, folded, looked at with the naked eye, or projected on to a surface for others to see.”  The students and Steven Spielberg’s thoughts line up on how the imagination and the physical come together in the act of working on film.  Others are on to this fact too.  Tacita Dean handles film from start to finish and Nolan continues to cut work-prints while Tarantino championed the return of Ultra Panavision 70mm projection for The Hateful Eight and owns the New Beverly Cinema.  The New Beverly is dedicated to showing films on 35mm prints.  Dean, Tarantino, and Nolan have been outspoken and continue to show the world through their work why the choice of film is important to movie makers and audiences and why the projected film print has a place at the cinemas.

At the Getty Museum discussion titled “Reframing the Future of Film,” Nolan spoke on a panel with Tacita Dean along with curators, archivists, and executives and said,

“What I’m hoping we are doing here today is acknowledging the need. That we need film projectors, we need film prints, we need these things forever,” Christopher Nolan said during the discussion. “We shouldn’t view film as a technology that is there to be supplanted, we should view it as a medium. We want to see a world where it’s there as a choice.”

A Pixar illustration that accompanied their gift of editing tape to director Ken Loach

Sulley and Mike to the rescue … The Pixar illustration that accompanied their gift of editing tape to director Ken Loach. Photograph: Pixar – Image from the Guardian

We live a world where we have so many ways to make an image, and that is a good thing.  Why would we reduce our tools to just one instead of expanding them to many.  Maintaining film and the celluloid choice guarantees diversity in art and foster’s creative innovation.  The choice extends into post-production and exhibition, too.  The ideal situation would be for cinemas to be outfitted with projectors to screen in the way the film or video maker desires – whether it would be 35mm, 70mm, or 4K digital video.  Think of the cinema becoming more like an art gallery, where the artist works with the gallery to set up an installation.

Film and video makers can support one another.  A great example of this support can be found in a 2013 article from the Guardian.  The article covers director Ken Loach’s plea for hard to find edge numbering tape to finish his film Jimmy’s Hall.   This tape is used to code number traditional film for syncing.  Loach and his team could not find any tape in the UK and after running an add in Screen magazine, their request was answered by none other than the editors at Pixar!  The fight for film is not about endorsing a technology, it’s about building community and making visionary work that lasts.

Image result for sergei eisenstein montage

Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein  examines a shot at his editing bench.

CONCLUSION

There has been an analog renaissance countering the “digital revolution” and it can be seen at the cinemas in small films such as I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Loving (2016) through larger Hollywood productions such as Hidden Figures (2016)and the newest Christopher Nolan epic Dunkirk (2017).  This is only a few of the many notable productions from around the world creatively utilizing film.  Students and young filmmakers are looking for something fresh, exciting, and deeply rewarding.  Making a movie on film satisfies all three of these requirements.  It is not about cheaper and faster, it is all about ideas and quality.  Quality not just meaning image quality, but quality time in the editing room – thinking time.  My privilege of introducing 16 SUNY Oswego Cinema students to traditional splicing was deeply rewarding.  The two assignments made Eisenstein’s 5 types of montage and D.W. Griffith’s continuity editing techniques come alive.  Together we toured through the art of motion pictures, and the students were able to walk in the footsteps of legendary filmmakers and editors.  After the montage project one student remarked that she felt like an artist while she cut and spliced film.  I responded back to her, “that’s wonderful because you are an artist” and “making movies” is an art.  Yes, she said, but this revelation had not happened while she edited video in a software on past projects.  The other 16 students agreed that there is something special about moving around, driving the film through a viewer, and using your hands to join the images.  The film needs you and you need the film.  In this way, the editor develops a relationship with the material by making the picture union.  The relationship in turn gives birth to new ideas, whether they be in the style of Dziga Vertov’s “Kino Eye” or Sergei Eisenstein’s “Kino Fist.” This is the power of cinema, so let’s keep it alive and share the knowledge of traditional film editing.  Go ahead, grab a splicer and some tape and become a filmmaker!

Bibliography:

  • Ehrlich, David. “Legendary Editor Thelma Schoonmaker Reveals the Process of Cutting ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’.” MTV News. MTV News, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Forever, BFI Film. “Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean to Headline ‘LFF Connects’.” British Film Institute. BFI, 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Hernandez, Eugene. “Notebook: The Future of Film.” Film Comment. Film Comment, 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Hess, John P. “Watch: The Soviet Theory of Montage & the Five Editing Methods.”Watch: The Soviet Theory of Montage & the Five Editing Methods. Filmmaker IQ, 20 Apr. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Higgins, Charlotte. “Tacita Dean’s Turbine Hall Film Pays Homage to a Dying Medium.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • http://www.indiewire.com/author/erichkohn/. “‘La La Land’ Review: A Lively Supercut of Classic Musicals Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.” IndieWire. IndieWire, 30 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Pulver, Andrew. “Ken Loach’s Plea for Hard-to-find Editing Equipment Answered by Pixar.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Shapiro, Ari. “Kodak To Revive Storied Super 8 Camera.” NPR. NPR, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Scorsese, Martin. “Steven Spielberg & Martin Scorsese: The Joy of Celluloid.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 10 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Silva, Bianca. “Kodak Brings Ektachrome Back to Life.” Time. Time, 5 Jan. 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Ulaby, Neda. “As Film Stocks Dwindle, Movie-Makers Weigh What May Soon Be Lost.”NPR. NPR, 8 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
  • Wire, http://www.indiewire.com/author/cfg/ Indie. “How Quentin Tarantino Resurrected Ultra Panavision 70 for ‘The Hateful Eight’.” IndieWire. IndieWire, 23 June 2016. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
Posted in Film, film studies, Filmmaking, James River Film Society, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yoshihiko Matsui’s The Noisy Requiem

The Noisy Requiem

There is a moment in Toshihiko Matsui‘s epic 1988 underground film The Noisy Requiem where a young school girl recalls a strange dream to her friend. In it, she sees a boy feeding pigeons and taking notice of a single white pigeon in a swarm of greys. The white pigeon tries hard but is not able to get a single piece of grain, watching the grey pigeons constantly getting in the way and preventing it to be fed. Soon, she tells her, the white pigeon turns black and transforms into a crow, and as it changes, so does the scene, going from pigeons feeding grain to crows feasting on dead bodies. After reciting this haunting dream, she then leaves to generously give 1000 yen to two crippled homeless soldiers on the streets of downtown Osaka (the film’s setting), one of Japan’s most impoverished areas, begging for change. Her friend shocked at such a gesture asks her why, to which she replies: “Everybody turns into a crow when they’re hungry.”

Yet unknown to her, the crippled soldiers could not be saved.  Moments after her and her friend depart, the crippled soldiers crosses paths with Makoto, one of the film’s main characters as well as one of the many crows that inhabit The Noisy Requiem. A deranged soul that walks the streets of downtown Osaka, murdering women and bird in the black-lots, salvaging their organs to add to his plastic doll or to him, the love of his life. As he sets eyes to the former soldiers, he berets them; accusing them of being Koreans and never actually participating in the war. As Makoto watches the soldiers slowing lose their tempter, we watch him slowly reach for a claw-hammer concealed behind his pants. What happens next is a brutal scene of violence.

These moments aren’t scarce Matsui’s film. It would be an understatement to say Noisy Requiem is not an easy film to sit through, especially considering the duration, and its also one that will surely leave a viewer cold after first viewing. The character of Makoto alone would put off a viewer; his numerous vicious acts makes him one of most perverse and psychotic characters ever captured on celluloid. But Makoto is only one of the many crows that populate the dark belly of Osaka. Matsui also introduces us to incestuous siblings, unhappy dwarf orphans running a small business, and a unintelligible vagrant who wonders the streets with a stump that resembles something rather suggestive. While we watch each of these characters engage in questionable, and in some cases unbearable, acts, we are reminded that these were once white pigeons that hungered for grain that was out of reach.

The Noisy Requiem

Requiem is less a narrative, and more a portrait of these characters. Makato engages in ruthless acts of violence but also is shown making love to his mannequin; the dwarf woman is shown humiliated almost everywhere she goes, bottling in her anger; the incestuous couple walk the streets together, sometimes stopping to play hopscotch and so on. Yet Matsui never portrays these characters with a sense of ironic humor or even as disgusting creatures; Most of them are presented as sympathetic. Maybe its because Matsui, as well as we, know that these characters have little chance for assimilation with society and their fate is all but sealed. His freaks are as tragic as those of Brownings’, yet shown under the affectionate light that Waters often reserved for his social misfits as they took pleasure in trumping each other in crude behavior.

The Noisy Requiem

Matsui’s film is one about the socially neglected; Each character pushed so far from society to the point of criminal and perverse activity. Some have already reached their extreme (Makato) while others (the incestuous couple and dwarfs) we watch slowly transform into what society expects from them. But to Matsui, these are are just wounded souls in search for love and acceptance. In the film’s finest moments, we watch these characters try to achieve this. In a beautiful sequence, we see the murderous Makato dancing with his lover/mannequin. Its here we see the last bit of humanity left in him and in a way it’s oddly touching. In an interview for Midnight Eye, Matsui explained how he saw a type of beauty and purity in some of his character’s perverse acts because they came from a longing that society doesn’t understand nor would ever come to accept. And while it may seem morbid, a viewer can see that. The idea can be viewed as a grim allegory for any individual who feels alienated from society.

Having worked on the film for five years, Noisy Requiem is nothing if not Yoshihiko Matsui’s magnum opus. Having worked with major names like the late avant-garde filmmaker Shuji Terayama and influential punk filmmaker Sogo Ishii, Matsui was no stranger to the Japanese Underground Cinema. But nothing could have ever prepared anyone for something like Noisy Requiem. Equivalent to something like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Requiem is a work both controversial and infamous in Japan. Sadly the work remains rather obscure to the west. This film could have been a two and a half hour freak show or a cheap exploitation film; but in Matsui’s hands, we are given a savage and thought provoking work of art.

Posted in Essays, Film, Filmmaking, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An interview with Charles Burnett

The following interview with director Charles Burnett took place June 28, 2001 in Richmond, Virginia during the shooting of the PBS documentary, Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. The two-hour feature investigates the 1831 slave revolt that resulted in the violent deaths of slave owning families and the executions of Nat Turner and his co-conspirators. The script is multi perspective, Burnett explained, offering not only varied insights via diaries and interviews, but including six different Nat Turners, as perceived by historians and novelists over the years. The shoot was tight – ten days in Southampton, Hanover, and Albemarle Counties, Virginia — and is tentatively scheduled for a 2002 telecast.

Mr. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1973, released in 1977) was a cornerstone of the eighties independent film explosion and was adopted in 1991 by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry. 1989’s To Sleep with Anger, with Danny Glover, was released to critical raves and in 1995 he directed Nightjohn, with Carl Lumley and Beau Bridges, for The Disney Channel. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

During the interview Burnett was relaxed – things were going well and he was enjoying working with producers Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg. Over breakfast and iced tea, he reflected on Hollywood, Nat Turner and the South, independent film and his days at UCLA.

MJ: Charles, you moved at an early age from Mississippi to Los Angeles. Do you have any recollections about growing up in the segregated South?

CB: Well, not much, because you see we moved when I was so small. But everyone in my community was from the South. There was this southern environment in Los Angeles, California.

MJ: That reminds me of the neighborhood in To Sleep with Anger

CB: Well, somewhat. I think it talked about those things that are disappearing, sort of a cultural vacuum. Like there’s not really a community anymore, everyone’s kind of moving toward these materialistic values. And I wanted to talk about folklore and the old ways as having a strong influence once.

MJ: Things like the father in the family carrying tobeys and raising chickens…

CB: (nods his head) Now people don’t even know what it’s about. But I think it’s something they need – as a history or foundation.

MJ: You mentioned electrical engineering as an early career choice; how did you get your hands on your first camera?

CB: I must have been about fifteen or so, and I’d always wanted to do something with photography, but never had the opportunity. Well, a friend of mine had this camera, an 8 mm, and since I lived near the LA airport, the first thing I shot was an airplane flying overhead. It wasn’t until my twenties that I decided that it was what I’d like to do. Actually, I remember going to the movies a lot and noticing the camera work and thinking maybe this was something I’d like to do. But at the time it was very hard to break into Hollywood since there were unions and to get in you had to be a relative of someone’s. If I’d known more about it, what it took to make a living, I doubt I would have gone into it like I did. But I was so naïve, thinking that was it. Now you know, it’s strange because you realize it wasn’t what you expected. You have to be really passionate about it, and hope that at one point you can make a living at it, which is very rare. There’s just so much politics and frustration, you have to really want to say something. But now with the new technologies, things should get easier. So if you have something to say, that’s really the way to go. Because Hollywood’s not really about that.

MJ: When did you realize it was not about “that”?

CB: I think with To Sleep with Anger. I was very lucky to have Edward R. Pressman and Cotty Chubb — who are these very independent-friendly producers. But the problem there was budgetary. The problem inherent in making films commercially is that once you start production, you’re in a rat race. And it’s steamrolling, it’s behind you and it’s on your heels all the time. Your object is to stay ahead – it’s the art of compromise, quite simply. You learn to shoot quickly if you want to survive. Yet you have a vision of things that’s compromised by time and money.

For example, you have two or three locations you really want to use that have to be shot on the same day. But if they’re all not in a certain proximity or usable for more than that just one scene, you might have to abandon that. You have to find a location that serves several scenes and that sort of sacrifices the original look you had in your head.

And within these limitations you’re supposed to do creative work. If you could take the time to go here and shoot, and then there, and the next one, but it’s very costly to have that luxury. Anytime you’re using someone else’s money, time becomes an issue – and you become obligated, to some extent, to their needs. That is, they have to get some kind of financial return. But if you’re doing your own movie and got the budget from friends or grants, you can really do whatever you want.

 

Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep."

 

MJ: I wanted to ask you about two historically important African-American productions, Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree (’69) and Melvin van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song (’71). Did they have any influence in making Killer of Sheep?

CB: No, I’d already decided what film I was going to make before then. I had shot it but kept it in the can, because I was trying to make another film which didn’t happen. It seemed to me that the whole idea was that what you made was a response to Hollywood.

MJ: You mean, in response to the “blaxploitation” flicks of the seventies?

CB: No, even before that; I’m thinking of Poitier and people like him. It was a way that the black image was put on screen that just wasn’t very representative. And that’s some of what we were facing. When I went to film school later, at UCLA, there were very few black filmmakers. But the instructor, Elyseo Taylor, founded a school within a school of African, Hispanic and Asian American students; I remember I was a teaching assistant. Anyway, in that class were student filmmakers predisposed to the issues of race, politics and Hollywood. Out of that came a discussion of what was representative of blacks, Muslims, Hispanics and Asians on screen. So when … Sweetback… came out, well, not so much … Sweetback … but with Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree, it didn’t go far enough. Which was a shame because it was a very positive film. But it was the sixties, we were shaped by a revolutionary type of thing.

MJ: Did Parks’ film strike you as being naïve?

CB: Very tame, especially at a time when students were calling for militant action. But …Sweetback … was a problem. A lot of us looked at movies as an art form as well, and even though van Peebles had this character we could identify with to some extent, he was certainly a different kind of character. He was a survivor of course, but it seemed we were sort of caught between things.

MJ: Well, … Sweetback … had some definite “ploitation” elements.

CB: It did. At that time the whole “blaxploitation” thing was starting to dominate the black screens – Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, and Jim Brown was part of that as well. These sort of gangsterish films… they shared a sort of sameness.

MJ: Charles, you know that you are one of the few black directors that was never a performer first, that is, on the other side of the camera as actor, singer, stand-up or athlete. Poitier starred in many films before he directed. I always thought he was so popular with white audiences because he was always so civil, so refined.

CB: Strangely enough , looking back at Poitier’s work there’s nothing embarrassing. The roles he portrayed are very positive and oddly enough more representative than most of the films made today. Mostly because of this fixation on violence. It all seems kind of narcissistic…more a reflection of the filmmaker and the producers, you know how they want to be perceived. I’m not being very clear… but it’s not about trying to tell a story…about something significant, about life. Instead, it’s about them.

MJ: Self-indulgent perhaps?

CB: Yes, they’re just like kids with a toy. Their films don’t say anything except to themselves, because it’s such an extension of them. They say nothing about reality except how that relates to their fantasy.

MJ: Well, that critique could certainly be applied to … Sweetback …

CB: Sure, in a way, but I’m thinking of the more recent, violent films. Who cares about making films about humanity? Because that’s the hard part.

MJ: Thinking back through the nineties, how about John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991), I thought that was quite positive.

CB: Well, somewhat, but it was a very dangerous film in a way.

MJ: How so?

CB: Mainly because of its lengthy generalization on the responsible, absentee father and because it simplified things to a large degree. Governor Pete Wilson of California saw it and said that every black man should see it. The reason why? Because black fathers have abandoned their kids? Single-parent families are not the single cause of the problems of the black community.

MJ: Well it’s certainly symptomatic, don’t you think?

CB: Of course, parents should take more responsibility, but you have to go back and examine the institutions of slavery and segregation; so it’s that, coupled with this and a whole bunch of other issues. That’s the problem – it’s not so simple.

MJ: What you just said reminds me of your films. They’re hard to pinpoint, because a lot can happen, a lot of it just under the surface. Your films also have a warm, personal touch but are still somewhat detached.

CB: It’s about trying not to impose your values. I try to depict, in a matter-of-fact way, what exists in the black community. Kind of a slice-of-life.

MJ: How hard is it to write without being preachy or didactic?

CB: It’s not hard. I think you have to be aware of your limitations, making you more concerned about the characters as real people. They have to tell the story and their background and choices are different. It’s a little like, I think I may have mentioned this before, a book I admire a lot – James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He traveled the South with Walker Evans, documenting, constantly talking about his involvement. Even his observations become part of the scene, and he’s aware of that. The whole idea is to observe something without manipulating it. At the same time, you’re trying to find this area to hang on to and tell a story, while trying to keep that distance.

MJ: That’s one of the beautiful things I find in Killer of Sheep – managing to keep your distance although the material is obviously very close, very heartfelt. Why did it take so long to get a screening and how did it finally happen?

CB: It first showed at a conference, and then through word-of-mouth was included as part of a black independent film package, organized by Oliver Franklin and Phil Bowser. It sat in the can awhile, and then it took me a while to edit. The whole idea behind it was to make a film about how some people in the black community really lived without imposing my values on it. And when the film was made, I thought, well, that’s it. Because we didn’t have the distribution venues they have today. It wasn’t until the eighties that the European festivals and press started showing and writing about black film, and then they began to show here. The only distributors in the early seventies was Churchill or Janus; the only art house in LA was The Los Feliz . Outside of that, there were no means to distribute your film. It wasn’t until later when the theatres were hurting and began showing pornography and other stuff did some of these independent films find a screen.

MJ: Killer of Sheep has been compared to the Italian neo-realist films. You’d seen Rossellini and de Sica in film school – were they an influence?

CB: I had, but I didn’t really set out to make a film like the Italians. It was just a need to try to get at the truth. As I mentioned earlier, that whole issue of Hollywood and the misrepresentation of black people in film — with Gone with the Wind and Stepin Fetchit — well, the idea was to get at the truth of the representation. In that respect, it was neo-realist.

More important was a documentary class I had in film school with Basil Wright. That was a turning point. I remember specifically a screening of Song of Ceylon (1934) produced by the rubber industry that was exploiting the people and situation he was there to film. And he had to deal with that. Because humanity is the object; it’s all about trying to explain the world.

MJ: His situation was similar to Robert Flaherty’s agreement with Standard Oil, for whom he made The Louisiana Story (1948). That’s probably good training for any filmmaker, learning to balance the creative with business.

CB: (smiles) Oh, yeah.

MJ: Charles, hasn’t distribution been the hurdle of independent makers historically?

CB: Sure, just as we discussed earlier, but things have changed. Then, you had some art houses and midnight shows but that was about it. When I started in film I knew then that it wasn’t going to be a lifetime career. I worked and relied on grants to support my films. Now, some filmmakers have even “four-walled” (leased) theatres for a run. That goes back to Oscar Micheaux …

MJ: He was part of my next question…

CB: He took his film under his arm from town to town. So there was a model for doing that. But you know it’s expensive and it’s another whole thing to have to deal with.

MJ: Another job in itself!

CB: A huge job. But you know it’s been done recently — Haile Gerima did it with Sankofa (in 1993). It was real four-walling, but it’s very time consuming, you have to have someone counting tickets and all that.

MJ: But the spirit and the hustle that you have to have as an independent, Micheaux had. For that reason I often teach him as the “Father of American independent film.”

CB: Yeah, here’s this guy in the in the Dakotas in the 1920s selling his novel (The Homesteader) door-to -door. He was a real entrepreneur – it’s really pretty remarkable if you think about it, for the times. Remember the brothers Johnson (of the Lincoln film company) wanted to do his book, but he wanted to do it himself . (Laughs) Anyway, here’s a person able to move very successfully from one medium to another. Making and distributing film, but also making films that were very relevant. He probably had some of the best subject matter – one can object to that whole color thing he was preoccupied with, you know light skin good and dark skin bad – yet these issues were very important to black audiences.

MJ: Interracial marriage took the commercial industry sixty years to deal with, if you think of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in what 1966 or ’67? Unfortunately, many of Micheaux’ titles have been lost over the years.

CB: Yeah, and the thing that’s very interesting is that his characters weren’t clowns or buffoons, that they were above all that. The University of Indiana in Bloomington has established a sort of black film archives, and it probably has some Oscar Micheaux and I know that UCLA’s archives is desperately trying to preserve any and every film it can get ahold of.

MJ: As far as the average viewer is concerned, there might be a copy of Micheaux’ 1924 Body and Soul, starring Paul Robeson, available, but that’s about it.

CB: You know who shows Micheaux’ films during Black History month? Ted Turner.

MJ: I wasn’t aware of that. Charles, in putting together To Sleep with Anger, how pivotal was Danny Glover’s presence?

CB: Well, we had part of the money before Danny. You know in order to get people interested, you often need a star, someone salable. It was more a matter of getting enough money without having to go to too many sources. But Danny’s presence certainly helped when it came to distribution.

MJ: Goldwyn was criticized for the way they handled the release. What do you remember about that?

CB: Well, number one, we talked to them about ways to involve the black community, but they didn’t listen. Number two, I don’t think they understood the film; they even mentioned changing the name. We had test screenings for black audiences and the responses were very positive – but they couldn’t take advantage of it. And their budget for marketing was tiny. I remember they claimed they spent all the money in Atlanta.

MJ: Is that where the film opened?

CB: Yeah. For some reason they wanted to open in Atlanta and then branch out. But that didn’t work so well, and then all the money was gone. Oh yeah, I remember they had these crazy ideas to generate press, you know, something conflictual, like me getting in a public argument with Spike Lee. We’d told them to target black audiences by advertising in church publications and things like that. Finally it played in theatres in other cities that weren’t so accessible for the black community.

MJ: I remember getting a two-week run out of Say Amen, Somebody (1982 documentary on gospel singing) at the Biograph Theatre in Richmond by sending dozens of flyers to black churches.

CB: You know Haile’s film and Julie Dash’s film (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) proved that if you advertise selectively and make people aware, they’ll show up.

MJ: When you attended the James River Film Festival here in 1999 you mentioned that you always had several projects in development. How important is it to be flexible, to be ready to go in this direction or that one?

CB: You have to be able to juggle a lot of things at once, and you spend a lot of time hustling. Remember that when I was here two years ago I was talking about the Nat Turner thing we’re doing now. We really only got part of the money we need, but we were lucky to get it, so we decided to go ahead and do the Virginia locations. You have projects start and stop, gates opening and closing. It’s easy sometimes to lose interest gradually in a project, but you have to keep that spark alive, cause something might happen. You have to get 5, 6, or 10 things out there. Kind of like fishing – throw out your net and you might catch something.

MJ: Charles, there’s been a lot of talk about democratization in the digital era – what’s your take on the changes we’ll be seeing?

CB: It’s gonna change – the new technology is affecting everybody. Anyone can make a movie and put it on his web site, so you can bypass conventional distribution channels. But it’s still going to take a story and some talent. Seems there’s a lot out there that just doesn’t hold people’s interest . But there’s also a lot of talented filmmakers who are thoroughly intimidated by the whole Hollywood thing — you know, the stress, the compromise – the fact that you have to get this actor and the story has to have a certain element in it that sells. You can shoot on DV and if it doesn’t come out right, shoot again. So the savings compared to shooting film are phenomenal. We’re shooting Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property on Hi-Def. All those processes involved with film in post-production are so much easier on digital. Just get yourself an inexpensive editing system like Final Cut Pro, it does almost everything an Avid can do. They have titles and music you can choose, so for less than $10,000 you can have a production house.

MJ: To get off the subject a bit, I’ve been meaning to ask if Hitchcock ever visited UCLA while you were there? I understand he was fond of screening his films for classes.

CB: Well, no, not Hitchcock but I remember Josef von Sternberg and King Vidor coming. I worked at an agency who handled Hitchcock and I would see him quite often; in fact, I used to pick up and deliver his films from storage. He was a guy who loved to talk about his movies. He could remember all of his set ups! I can’t recall any of mine. Once I actually went to his house for a deposition, to be a witness; he was involved in some kind of legal thing, and I saw his closet-the same black suits and white shirts without variation!

MJ: He often remarked that once a film was storyboarded, the movie was basically over for him. Do you feel similarly?

CB: No, it’s always a struggle – trying to get this right and that right, always compromising — you know, playing games really.

MJ: Of all your films, which do you consider to be the best realized, or the most satisfying?

CB: (pauses) Well, I had a lot of fun making a short, called When It Rains (1995). A bunch of us got in a VW bus with a camera and just shot stuff. It was real life, and we didn’t have to deal with all these other problems that commercially come before the aesthetic.

MJ: Was Nightjohn, done for the Disney Channel in 1996, your most comfortable budget?

CB: I think so. I admire Disney for doing the film, for depicting the practice of slavery realistically. But at the same time they free things up, they have all these oddball conditions. For instance, we couldn’t use a shot of an older slave’s hands holding down a younger’s as he was being whipped. And the rabbit — we could show a rabbit dead, roasting over the fire — but not being shot by the owner’s son. So the shot of the rabbit roasting on the slaves’ fire is out-of-context, since we couldn’t show how they acquired the rabbit. Things like that. But these are the compromises you make day-to-day. You just have to be prepared for it.

MJ: Charles, before we run out of time, let’s talk about Nat Turner, A Troublesome Property. As the leader of the only successful slave insurrection, Nat Turner has over the years, emerged as a hero for African-Americans. How will the film resolve that Nat Turner with the man responsible for the violent deaths of over sixty people, most of them women and children?

CB: That’s the problem. And it’s a very big problem, but the reasons are complex. You have to consider the institution of slavery, his frustration with his situation, and his separation from his family.

MJ: In William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, he was made out to be a religious mystic, and a celibate. I remember that angered many black historians and activists at the time.

CB: Of course it did. You have to realize that Styron took great liberties with history and that history was very important to black people. Ossie Davis told me that he heard stories of Nat Turner growing up as a child in Atlanta. Also many people don’t realize that Turner had a wife and was very loyal to her – Styron had him lusting after a slaveowner’s daughter.

MJ: In particular, robbing Turner (as an ascetic) of his sexuality angered the black intellectual community…

CB: Certainly. Many people don’t realize that it was James Baldwin who really urged Styron to write the book, and was in fact living in a cottage behind Styron’s house in Connecticut while he was writing it. You know, the whole thing is still very controversial. We thought about a location, there in Southhampton, near the Turner museum, but it took too long to get permission to shoot. There’s still this tension.

But we did get a descendant of Turner’s to shake hands with a descendant of one of the victim’s. And we’ve talked with Styron, he’s supportive of the project; in fact, he may watch us shoot. Maybe the film will help bring a sense of closure to everyone involved.

MJ: Quickly, Charles, who is your favorite actor or actress to work with?

CB: Well, they’re all good, all professional. When you do casting, you really find that there’s a lot of talent out there. I’d like to work with all of them.

MJ: We’re out of time. Charles, thanks so much.

CB: My pleasure.

Posted in Documentary, Film, Interviews | Leave a comment

Nagisa Ôshima’s Death By Hanging

Death by Hanging

Few film movements have gone as overlooked by the west as the Japanese New Wave; the radical and thought provoking generation of filmmakers who had the misfortune of following what many considered golden age of Japanese Cinema. While filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujirō Ozu remain the face of the country’s cinema, its easy to forget just how many great auteurs Japan has produced: Hiroshi Teshigahara, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, Seijun Suzuki, Yoshishige Yoshida, and Masaki Kobayashi to name a few.

Death by Hanging

The movement sought to produce more intellectual and rebellious works that not only questioned the country’s politics but the powerhouse directors produced before them. It also introduced some of the country’s finest directors. But when discussing the Japanese New Wave (which took place roughly around the same time as France’s New Wave), Nagisa Oshima often gets singled out. Referred to some as the Godard of the east (and not a comparison that’s far off), Ôshima was able to gain world wide recognition for works like his sexually explicit and controversial In the Realm of the Senses in 1976 and his intelligent anti-war film/David Bowie vehicle Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in 1983; but his most challenging works are rarely ever seen in the states. Death by Hanging, while having the luxury of being more widely seen than some of his other 60s films, nevertheless remains another one of his overlooked masterpieces.

Working with Brechtian logic, Ôshima’s film is able to find the perfect balance between satire and absurdity. A film that aim to tackle such a controversial and emotional subject yet woven into such an odd farce. The eight-minute-long opening sequence, which could almost be mistaken for documentary footage because of the way it’s filmed, is a perfect example of this. But the straight forward and serious tone of the sequence is merely Ôshima playing the audience, in the words of another great filmmaker, like a piano; setting up his audience expectations before shattering them in the fashion one might expect from Ôshima.

Death by Hanging

After the convict, a Japanese-born Korean man convicted of the rape and murder of two school girls referred to as R, is hanged, the officials present at the execution, consisting of a prison warden, an education officer, a priest, a doctor, and a few guards, notice the he is still breathing. It creates an odd situation for the officials who don’t have any protocol for such a scenario, and only worsens once R actually regains consciousness and without any memory of his past crimes. In Japanese law, the government cannot proceed with any type of punishment unless the convict is aware of his crime and the punishment that goes with it. So in essence, R’s amnesia saves him from death.

Its here where Ôshima’s film takes a fascinating and devilishly humorous turn: The officials must help R, who in many ways is a new person now, to remember the sins of his past and come in terms of his guilt just so they can execute him. It’s absurd yet nonetheless speaks volumes about most legal systems that exercise capital punishment. The role that ethics plays when justifying death on a government level. Its the type of subject that Bunuel might have made a film on because its perfect for ridicule. And Ôshima doesn’t hold back.

He stages the film in mostly one area so its very reminiscent to  an existential play. In many ways Death by Hanging does come off very theatrical, as if it were a work by Sartre or Beckett. But Ôshima’s film is a very much his own and self-conscious one at that, using title cards to separate events, surreal interactions, realty and memories colliding and at times. One of the most memorable moments in the film involves the education officer attempting to recreate parts of R’s life using newspapers to create props and having the other officials play out characters. In other words the education officer takes on the persona of director and everyone around him his actors. They act out different moments from R’s life, explaining the horrors of his ways and deeds; ironically making themselves look worse in the process.

Death by Hanging

These scenes offer some of the film’s funniest and most bizarre moments, including a segment where education officer directs the guards to role-play a rape. At one point, the education offer’s role-playing gets so out of hand, that the characters actually leave their environment and visit the scene of one of R’s crimes. The official loses control of reality and actually takes the life of an innocent girl in the process.

The film’s most iconic scenes occur when the body of the woman the education officer has killed comes back from the dead, revealing herself to everyone as R’s sister; though her actions sometimes suggest her to be someone or something else. Her role is to provide R a different version to his story, acting as a foil to the other officials. Through her, Ôshima explores one the film’s key issues; Japan’s unfair discrimination toward Koreans. the “sister” tries to convince R that his murders were justified, citing them as acts against the Japan in the name of Korean oppression. She plays the opposite extreme, trying to get R to embrace his Korean identity over any sympathy toward the enemy.

Ôshima’s film was initially conceived as a response to the infamous case of 22 year-old Chin’u Ri. Born in Japan but of Korean decent, the young man made headlines after being arrested for the rape and murder of a Japanese school girl, similar to the crimes of R. The case gained even more notoriety after the release of the book Crime, Death, and Love, which was written by Ri and journalist Bok Junan. Ôshima apparently thought highly of the individual after reading the book and while not condoning his actions, Ôshima viewed him as a victim of a discriminatory society. Ri’s eventual execution was enough reason for a film like Death by Hanging to exist. Yet rather than just filming Ri’s story, Ôshima made a much more original film whose scathing critique of capital punishment and prejudice remains timeless.

Death by Hanging is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Posted in Film, film studies, Filmmaking, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BLACK HOLE: Disney’s Strangely Entertaining Journey Into The Unknown

The Black Hole

The jaw-dropping critical and commercial success of the original Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope if you’re a purist, or George Lucas), a film that was being written off as a flop before its release even by the very studio that financed it, sounded a wake-up to the industry that could not be denied. Science-fiction cinema was no longer going to be treated as cheap, disposable schlock Hollywood execs ordered green-lit a few times a year to pad out their coffers.

Despite the existence of the rare genre feature that made a significant cultural impact, be it The Day the Earth Stood Still or MGM’s unbeatable two-fer of Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, sci-fi was seen as pure kids’ stuff. Execs at the major studios found them to be not exactly worth granting the kind of exorbitant budgets normally set aside for the splashy historical costume epics and grand-scale musicals that were still being made even though they have long been proven to be relics of a much different age. The moment Star Wars opened to record-obliterating box office and became an instant pop culture phenomenon in every corner of the globe, that all changed. It was a harsh lesson that Hollywood had a long time coming, but it would take them even longer to allow for the lesson to fully sink in.

The Black Hole

For fans of silver screen sci-fi, 1979 was quite a year. I was born on March 10 of that year (one day after actor Oscar Isaac), and two months later, Ridley Scott’s Alien premiered and blew the minds of audiences everywhere. I was too young to remember my first Christmas, but at the time it happened two of the splashiest space spectacles ever conceived by the major studios were screening to decidedly mixed receptions. Paramount’s mega-expensive (for its time), oft-delayed Star Trek: The Motion Picture went into theaters on December 7 (the 38th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, oddly enough), having practically completed post-production mere days earlier, and became the season’s reigning blockbuster.

Two weeks later, Walt Disney Pictures unveiled their own elaborate attempt to cash in on the post-Star Wars demand for effects-driven screen excitement, the $20 million extravaganza The Black Hole. At the time it was the studio’s most expensive release, one they backed up with a $6 advertising campaign that included a massive merchandising unheralded for a live-action Disney film. Toys were produced, lunchboxes manufactured, and even a few books made it into stores. The great Alan Dean Foster wrote the official novelization, and the legendary Jack Kirby provided the artwork for a comic adaptation. The studio even went the extra mile of striking some 70mm prints for special exhibitions to showcase the magisterial cinematography of the late Frank V. Phillips (Darker Than Amber) in what is perhaps the most impressive feature film he shot in his entire career.

The Black Hole

Though Disney initially approached the young FX wizards at Industrial Light and Magic about renting out some of the revolutionary technology that helped to realize Lucas’ vision of outer space dogfights and galactic bases the size of moons, the entire production was eventually created in-house. The effects were created through a combination of old school techniques and new methods developed for The Black Hole. Peter Ellenshaw, one of the studio’s finest FX artists (his credits include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Love Bug among many others), was brought out a decade-long retirement to create the miniature effects, while his son Harrison Ellenshaw (a veteran of the Star Wars crew who had also plied his chosen trade for several notable Disney productions) was tasked with the sumptuous and often unnerving matte paintings that have become one of the film’s visual hallmarks.

The Black Hole

Initially hired to direct was the respectable British filmmaker John Hough, who had achieved significant success at Disney with the Witch Mountain movies, but he bowed out due to a scheduling conflict and was replaced by Gary Nelson. A veteran of television directing with scant theatrical credits to his name, Nelson was well-admired by Disney execs thanks to the six episodes of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color he directed, not to mention the body switch farce Freaky Friday that featured a young Jodie Foster (the year after she broke through in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver) and was a pleasant little hit for the studio. Jeb Rosebrook, best known for his work on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, co-wrote the screenplay with longtime television scribe Gerry Day from a story Rosebrook concocted with Bob Barbash (another TV writing vet) and Richard H. Landau (The Quatermass Xperiment).

The first Star Wars managed to strike more than a few nerves on its release with a young audience that could tell when the old guard of cinema was pandering to their desires for a new kind of screen excitement while simultaneously employing tired storytelling tropes that had long been considered antiquated. Lucas’ film was brought to life through the skills of a cast and crew primarily comprised of people in their 20’s and early 30’s – as opposed to people born in the 20’s and early 30’s – and their youthful energy and enthusiasm gave Star Wars a refreshing vitality the likes of which were rarely seen in filmmaking. It was one of the defining celluloid statements of a decade that was birthed by the trailblazing breakthrough success of Easy Rider and the rise of the “New Hollywood” that gave the world some of the most important cinematic visionaries the art form had ever seen.

Features that followed including Two-Lane Blacktop, Mean Streets, The Exorcist, and Apocalypse Now were made by enterprising film school students who had been raised on the classic films of generations past. They had respect for the old way of doing things, but they also realized the film industry was about to experience a sea change not witnessed since the dawn of cinema. There was an untapped younger audience out there being summarily ignored by the current studio system that still insisted on cramming bloated, outdated westerns and musicals down their throats and then blaming those damn kids for their crushing failure at the box office when everyone pretty much knew that those movies were not being made to appeal to them, but to their parents.

The Black Hole

The Black Hole didn’t feel like the work of fringe outlaws wanting nothing more than to break down the rigidly conservative structure of the old Hollywood and usher in a dazzling new age of cinematic adventure. It was the product of that very system from the start, wanting to capture a sizable chunk of that young audience by giving them the colorful visual effects, robots, and spaceships they craved. They also wanted to cast veteran actors whose careers had been forged and kept alive by appearing in studio-funded features and saw the film as just another day at the office, a goofy diversion to put some money in the bank and keep food on their tables until something better came along.

There’s no question that Disney’s $20 million investment was well-spent; beginning with an opening credits sequence that incorporated the longest use of computer graphics seen to date on screen and was underscored by a soundtrack composed by John Barry that conveyed the film’s mystery and awe beautifully, it was clear that every dollar spent to make The Black Hole was going to be right there up on the wide theater screen in vibrant Technicolor supported by the aural majesty of Dolby Stereo. The studio didn’t skimp on the visual wonders. In this day and age where digital effects continue to dominate, the hand-crafted models, miniatures, and mattes created by the Ellenshaws and their beyond capable team remain stunning.

The Black Hole

While the technical craft on display may be expensive and state-of-the-art, the narrative recalls the pulp sci-fi potboilers that used to be pumped out by independent operators and the B-arms of the majors for a few hundred thousand dollars in the 50’s and 60’s. A spaceship crew on a long-term exploration journey commanded by the all-business Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and comprised of psychic-powered scientist Dr. Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux), her brusque colleague Dr. Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), grouchy journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine), and fresh-faced Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) comes across the long-lost advanced craft USS Cygnus hovering at the edge of a black hole. Upon boarding, the only human presence left on the ship is Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), the brilliant commander of the Cygnus whose reputation is known to Holland and every member of his crew, especially Durant, who appears a bit too enamored of Reinhardt and his work.

The Black Hole

The Cygnus used to have a full crew of human beings (among them, Kate’s father), but according to Reinhardt, they all took off for an unknown destination twenty years ago once their conditions began to grow unstable. The doctor has since replaced them with an army of servile androids, silent and imposing as wraiths with mirrored masks to conceal each visage. Eventually it becomes apparent to Holland and the others that Reinhardt has gone insane and is prepared to take his scientific research to the ultimate level by piloting his vessel into the black hole in a crazed attempt to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe. Only Durant is interested in coming along for the ride to end them all, while Holland, McCrae, and the rest of the crew do their best to get off the Cygnus before it gets sucked down the galaxy’s drain. Unfortunately for our intrepid heroes, they’re all about to share in Reinhardt’s obsession whether they like it or not.

The Black Hole

The Black Hole is the very definition of an effects-driven event film, one where the technical artistry can’t help but overwhelm the story and performances. This isn’t just because the effects and design work are first-rate, but rather because the other creative elements in front of the camera never once threaten to rise above a basic level of competence. The Rosebrook/Day script and acting from a well-chosen cast of old pros serve the visuals when it’s supposed to be the exact opposite. Whereas the original (and I use that term quite loosely) Star Wars was a loving mish-mash of Flash Gordon serials and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics, The Black Hole‘s narrative is obviously indebted to the aforementioned Forbidden Planet as well as the novels of Joseph Conrad, in particular Heart of Darkness. Reinhardt is the Kurtz figure without question; he journeyed upriver and lost every trace of the man he was along the way, except he traveled a river that goes on forever and rewards your devotion to unlock its secrets by devouring you completely.

That could have made for a modern classic of cinematic sci-fi, but the rest of the story is dominated by one-dimensional stereotypes jockeying for camera time while dealing with wheezing plot devices that fans of the genre have encountered countless times. Each character is defined by what they do, not who they are, and despite having talented actors at his disposal, director Nelson appears merely content to have them hit their marks, say their hackneyed dialogue, and move on to the next scene. That doesn’t mean The Black Hole is an entertaining movie, because it most certainly is, but with a little more care and imagination it could have stood for all time in the annals of speculative science fiction films.

The Black Hole

The thought-provoking aspects of the script are few and far between, and Nelson virtually drowns them in flashy laser battles and ear-shattering explosions. Though fun to watch, they add almost nothing to the story. The film sets us up for a voyage into uncharted regions of the universe and the human psyche and dispenses with those fascinating possibilities for one scene after another where Reinhardt’s robot army is blasted into scrap parts by our bland heroes.

What little personality exists in each character is provided by the actor playing them. Forster, the great B-movie tough guy who grew into a terrific character actor thanks to his role as the aging bail bondsman Max Cherry in 1997’s Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino’s finest film in my opinion), is on top form in a rare leading role in a big-budget studio feature. His Captain Holland is a stone-faced man who has the unquestioning respect of his crew and can see the horrors aboard the Cygnus coming from a mile away. Borgnine doesn’t understand what’s going on and chooses not to conceal it, and Perkins is perfectly unsettling. Schell is a good villain with a motivation far more complex than sci-fi baddies are typically afforded. Only Mimieux, with her flat line readings, and Bottoms, with his emotionless face and whiny demeanor, drag the rest of the cast down every time they’re onscreen.

It’s ironic then that’s the deepest and most heartfelt human relationship is between two robots. There’s V.I.N.C.E.N.T., the helpful little bot and unofficial mascot of Holland’s crew whose vocals are provided by Roddy McDowall, and an outdated but noble droid of the same model named B.O.B., voiced by Slim Pickens. Both actors went uncredited in the final film, but their voices are so unmistakable that not even some post-production tinkering could make them sound any different. Though McDowall and Pickens possibly recorded their dialogue separately long after the film wrapped, the humanity they bring to these robots who strike up a friendship in the midst of the adventure is oddly endearing. It’s somewhat magical and amusing how they were able to create a warm chemistry between V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B., but how they manage to do so is beyond me.

The Black Hole

Lloyd Ahern, future cinematographer for Walter Hill (Trespass, Undisputed, the pilot episode of Deadwood), worked on The Black Hole as a camera operator. His name immediately stuck out in the end credits for me. But the most interesting contributor to the film’s effects is Tom McLoughlin, who made use of his skills as a mime to coordinate the sentry robots of the Cygnus and even appeared in front of the camera as their leader Captain S.T.A.R. McLoughlin would go on to become a director working mostly in television, but horror fans know him best for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the sequel that introduced meta humor and fright flick in-jokes to the world of Jason Voorhees.

The Black Hole wants so badly to be a stylish and thrilling amalgamation of Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey that it’s willing to go completely weird in its final minutes. It’s that climatic sequence that has helped the film to build a modest cult following in the thirty-six years since it was released theatrically. This is also where some of the effects crew’s finest creations are presented to us in the form of a disorienting, yet astounding vision of what could very well be the absolute end of all things. For our heroes, it ends with a note of optimism as their adventure into the unknown could just be beginning (imagine where a sequel could have gone), but for Reinhardt, it results in the realization of his greatest desire in ways he never considered – or wanted. Much like the mind-blowing conclusion to 2001, the audience is left to ponder what exactly has happened instead of the filmmakers spelling everything out for them.

The Black Hole is currently streaming in gorgeous 1080p high-definition on Amazon Instant Video. I hope Disney has a Blu-ray in the works for this undeservedly overlooked cult classic.

Posted in Film, Filmmaking, History, Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

In Defense of Robert Altman’s Quintet

Quintet

This summer saw the return of George Miller’s post apocalyptic anti-hero Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road. It was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. That franchise started out as an Australian exploitation film in 1979. I ask you to go back to the year of the original Mad Max and dust off another post apocalyptic film from American auteur Robert Altman. That’s right, the same man that gave us such classics as M.A.S.H. and Nashville made a science fiction film based in an ice age in our future. The film starred Paul Newman and Bibi Andersson and was released to financial and critical failure. Sadly this film has been largely forgotten by the sands of time.

Quintet

Newman plays Essex, a man returning in search of his brother with his young wife, now pregnant. Essex has been away hunting in the south for nearly 12 years. In the opening scene of the film, which starts in a snowy whiteout, Essex and his wife spot a goose flying above them. Essex claims he hasn’t seen one in many years, setting the audience up for a harsh frozen landscape that envelopes the film from start to finish. Altman uniquely glazed the outer lens of the cameras that he shot with with petroleum jelly to give the look of frost surrounding the scene. The film was shot largely on location at Montreal’s Man and His World Expo on a refrigerated set. You can see the breath that each actor exhales in every scene. Altman instructed his crew to hose down the set every two hours to give a new glaze of ice and frost. Needless to say it was an uncomfortable shoot.

Several scenes had dead bodies being devoured by feral dogs in the background. It gave the audience the feel of hopelessness, that any given week or month you could fall ill and die in the environment. Essex is eventually reunited with his brother, but not for long. The town Essex and his wife return to is obsessed with a game called Quintet, a parlor game with deadly results. When Essex goes in search of wood for heat, a pipe bomb takes the life of his brother, wife and unborn baby during a game of Quintet. He is devastated and immediately investigates the town obsession with this game. That shapes the plot to the film in general but I argue that you have to look at what lies underneath. You can write this off as just a tale of revenge, but there is more.

Quintet

Critics dismissed Quintet as bleak and slow-paced. But what I saw was a classic film noir mystery tucked inside this frozen landscape. Essex takes the place of the detective as he combs the town for evidence of who is behind this deadly game. The only thing he is armed with is a list of names he recovers from the man responsible for bombing the parlor that killed his wife and brother. He pretends to be one of the names on the list and infiltrates the inner circle of the game. The film even has it’s femme fatale in Anderssons character, Ambrosia. Altman had already shot his version of a Phillip Marlowe story – 1973’s The Long Goodbye – a few years earlier starring Elliott Gould. Altman said that he had been working on the script for Quintet eight years before he shot the first frame. 20th Century Fox was curious what Altman was doing up there as he went over budget with his extravagant set.

Quintet

The game of Quintet itself had become a way for escape from the horror of the elements. Every time I watch Quintet I spot another detail. Like sculptures of dogs eating corpses in the town square as though it’s such a common occurrence that it’s recorded like a still life. The music score goes from ambient to bombastic to convey the dreamlike bleakness of the environment but gets interrupted by a act of brutality. Altman was really thinking outside the box on this one. Watching the DVD extras, he sounds proud of his achievement even though people didn’t quite get it. I believe if he had released the film four years earlier (pre-1977) it may have been received better. After ’77 when people thought science fiction they thought blockbuster style sci-fi like Star Wars, not something as bleak and cerebral as this .

Sadly Quintet hasn’t been remastered and released like it should be. I would like to see Criterion tackle that one. Perhaps it will in the future. With a shift in more cerebral science fiction in recent years perhaps people will want to take a second (or third) look at the Altman film.

– Jeff Roll

Posted in Essays, Film, Filmmaking, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CALVARY (2014): A Review by Ethan Dunlap

vlcsnap-2014-10-04-14h56m01s115

In a confessional, a sexually abused parishioner threatens to murder Father James, a good and kind-hearted priest. In the ensuing week, he must face the darkness seeping through the cracks of his quaint Irish village before ultimately confronting his very mortality.

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is best viewed in a near-empty art house theatre, as far off the beaten path as one can get while still remaining in civilized territory. The setting must be intimate, the kind of intimacy viewers will have to leave the safety of blockbusters and multiplexes to find. As the lights blacken and the shadows in the corners of the room spread out, the viewer will find the faintest traces of uncertainty lingering in the back of their mind. Uncertainty about what, exactly, the film actually is. Will it be a darkly comedic romp about a disgruntled old priest? Will it be a dour, serious look at the nature of spirituality and its place in the modern age? One hundred and one minutes later, once the closing credits began to roll, it will become clear that this vagueness is precisely what the film is.

Calvary, at its heart, is about uncertainty.

McDonagh’s cinematic approach to this story is unique, even for European cinema. The film is not divided into acts, rather it flows at a leisurely pace; subplots are not solved and wrapped up with neat little ribbons, rather they fade out into obscurity; the film in general is less so a film, and more so an average day put on a cinematic canvas. And, like most average days, there is little closure. The characters, and by extension the audience, are left with the same vague idea of what the future holds that they had in the opening of the film. As a result, the film takes on a cerebral quality, as if these characters are wandering aimlessly through a dream strange, hilarious, and, at times, terrible.

vlcsnap-2014-10-04-14h56m20s122

This meandering, this unknown, is what propels the major arc of Father James (played brilliantly by veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson). The good Father faces an existential crisis in seemingly every encounter throughout the course of the film. Why does he strive to be a good priest, when his fellow Bishop Montgomery (David McSavage) is almost comically daft in all aspects of godliness? Why does he strive to preach morality and spirituality in a town where, largely, religion is not taken seriously at best, and outright mocked at worst? Was being a good priest worth it if he is destined to be murdered for being precisely that? Is he even a good priest if he cannot get his parishioners to listen to him? And, most importantly, was joining the priesthood worth the strained relationship with his suicidal daughter? These nagging doubts are well concealed, hiding in the edges of things, and are slowly brought out with each subtle encounter Father James has with the ensemble supporting cast.

This is perhaps best illustrated in a scene towards the middle of the film, wherein the atheist Dr. Harte (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones fame) relays to the good Father an anecdote about a young boy who was rendered deaf, mute, blind, and paralyzed after botched anesthesia; the doctor explains that being unable to hear oneself scream is likely the inner turmoil that victims of sexual abuse are faced with in every waking moment of their lives. Father James grows rowdy, threatening the doctor before getting inebriated and assaulting the bartender. This scene is almost the climax of the Father’s disillusionment towards his own life path; he is not angry at the doctor’s morbid story, but rather frustrated by the fact that he strives to be a beacon of morality among an institution still haunted by the evils of sexual abuse. At that point in the film he had already lost so much, and all for the crime of being a good man surrounded by the unjust and cruel.

vlcsnap-2014-10-04-14h56m33s3

This lack of personal direction washes off from Father James and seeps onto the supporting characters, as well. The Father’s daughter, played by a severely underused Kelly Reilly, is introduced to the audience as having attempted suicide some time before the events of the film; while she goes through noticeable character development and seems to grow along with her father, her arc is still not neatly wrapped up by the last scene, leaving many aspects up in the air. There is a subplot concerning domestic abuse and polyamory laced throughout the first half of the film that, rather than acting like a traditional arc or plot, seems to be simply a part of the setting, and as such is not delved into the way a more mainstream film would do so. Arguably the best of the supporting cast, detached drunken millionaire Michael Fitzgerald (played to perfection by Black Books alum Dylan Moran), is given an arc with surprising nuance unexpected of what is essentially a comic relief character, who blind-sides the audience with an emotional revelation towards the end of the film which is largely left unresolved. In most films, this abundance of meandering subplots and character arcs that seem to fade out rather than resolve themselves would come across as poor writing, but what makes them work so well in Calvary is how deliberate they are. McDonagh is not using these elements to propel the plot, but rather to weave them into a sort of cinematic tapestry on which the film is imprinted. Because ambiguity seems to be the uniting theme of the film, each element is given a deliberately ambiguous ending.

Beyond the writing, the film is a marvel from a purely visual perspective. Larry Smith’s cinematography is crisp and atmospheric, lending the film a sense of underlying eeriness beneath the picturesque captures of the Irish countryside. Time setting is used to perfect visual effect, as well; many of the more quiet, serene moments occur at day time and are thus fittingly quaint and intimate; in contrast, much of the uglier, reprehensible moments occur at night, using shadows and high contrast to perfect effect. These night scenes, particularly a brilliant sequence involving destruction at the Father’s church, mesh so perfectly with Patrick Cassidy’s original score that the film’s distinct personality rings through; this is no doubt a very humorous film, but it is much darker tonally and thematically than McDonagh’s previous work. Above all else, the filmmakers grasped how integral atmosphere is in making an effective dark comedy, and subject matter can only carry that atmosphere so far. The visuals must provide the rest, and what Smith and McDonagh have given the audience is essentially a cinematic art gallery.

vlcsnap-2014-10-04-14h56m44s109

The major problem with Calvary is, unfortunately, a problem that has plagued McDonagh’s other works; he simply does not write women very well. While Kelly Reilly gives a fine performance, and while her character is given significantly more development than the women in McDonagh’s prior film The Guard, she still feels like a supplementary character, not meshing as well into the overall tapestry of the film the way the rest of the cast does. It does not help that she is the only substantial female character amongst a sea of men; the only other women in the film appear as almost an afterthought, and barely even interacts with Reilly. While the movie does avoid the overt sexism typical of a Hollywood feature and does not sexually objectify or condescend to the female characters, it simply falls into the trap of not giving them much to do.

Despite not faring well on the feminist front, Calvary is a triumph of art house cinema. It is the bizarre lovechild of dry humor and pure bleakness, of morality and immorality. It examines the place of religion and Catholicism in the modern world without condemning nor embracing either, leaving its overall message as uncertain as its characters. Because, in the end, we live in uncertain times, and cannot rely on others to know how our respective stories end. In real life, many stories do not end; they meander, they wander, and sometimes, they fade into the background.

Posted in Film, Filmmaking, Reviews | 1 Comment