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Leon Wieseltier on Turner Classic Movies

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Leon Wieseltier recently published an appreciation of TCM in The New York Times; I couldn’t agree more.

As Wieseltier wrote, in part, “when disappointment has brought you low, or sadness has colonized you, or fear has conquered your imagination, you experience a contraction of your horizon. Your sense of possibility is damaged and even abolished. Pain is a monopolist. The most urgent thing, therefore, is to restore a more various understanding of what life holds, of its true abundance, so that the bleakness in which you find yourself is not all you know.

The way to break the grip of sorrow and dread is to introduce another claimant on consciousness, to crowd it out with other stimulations from the world. Sadness can never be retired completely, because there is always a basis in reality for it. But you can impede its progress by diversifying your mind.

Nothing performs this charitable expansion of awareness more immediately for me than TCM. Movies are quick corrections for the fact that we exist in only one place at only one time. (Of course there are circumstances in which being only in one place only at one time is a definition of bliss.) I switch on TCM and find swift transit beyond the confines of my position. Alongside my reality there appears another reality — the world out there and not in here. One objective of melancholy is to block the evidence of a more variegated existence, but a film quickly removes the blockage. It sneaks past the feelings that act as walls [. . .]

When I watch the older movies on TCM, I am struck by the beauty of gray, which makes up the bulk of black and white. How can the absence of color be so gorgeous? Black and white is so tonally unified, so tone-poetic. Shadows seem more natural, like structural elements of the composition. The dated look of the films is itself an image of time, like the varnish on old paintings that becomes inextricable from their visual resonance. There is also a special pleasure in having had someone else choose the film.

Netflix, with its plenitude of options, asks for a decision, for an accounting of tastes; but TCM unburdens you of choice and asks for only curiosity and an appetite for surprise. The freedom to choose is like the freedom to speak: There is never too much of it, but there is sometimes too much of its consequences. Education proceeds by means of other people’s choices. Otherwise it is just customization, or electronically facilitated narcissism. Let Mr. Osborne decide!”

You can read his entire essay in The New York Times by clicking here, or on the image above.

Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Here’s Francisco Ferreira on Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow in the journal Cinemascope.

As Ferreira notes, in part, “Gebo (Michael Lonsdale) is an aged, decent and broke family man subdued by routine and a sense of duty who has learned from life that ‘when money’s involved, no one ever forgives.’ He lives with his wife Doroteia (Claudia Cardinale), a woman who does not accept reality, pushing upon Gebo and their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira) an endless pack of lies about their missing son, João (Ricardo Trêpa, speaking in a disarming French accent that draws attention to his character’s dubious nature). Gebo often receives his faithful neighbors Chamiço and Candidinha (Luís Miguel Cintra and Jeanne Moreau): their favorite sport is complaining, which nicely complements Gebo’s perpetual sense of hopelessness. A man without ambition, Gebo often laments: ‘The question is whether we come to this world to be happy.’ In fact, happiness here is a temptation and a sordid object in the house: a bag full of money collected from the company where Gebo works.

The shadow of the title, on the other hand, seems to be a far more complex issue. Because first of all in the film, brilliantly shot by Renato Berta in HD on a studio set, faint oil lamps are always flickering, and there is no distinction between day and night. This is a perennially dark world where there is almost no light to reflect any shadows at all: we could dare to say that colors and image here have a pictorial sense and a distinctive purpose . . . the shadow [of the title] is a suffocating thought, commenting on the Portuguese soul and despair from the perspective of the myth of Sebastianism, a topic addressed by Oliveira in both No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990) and The Fifth Empire (2004). For a director who once said that the truth and the event are the two greatest vectors of his work, this historical approach is not an abuse of our imagination: ‘Today is a product of yesterday,’ as Oliveira once said.”

To which Gwendolyn Audrey Foster adds, “Oliveira is like a time traveler who takes us back to another century, illuminated by candles and philosophy . . . he’s the only truly significant classical artist left in the cinema,” a sentiment with which I heartily agree. Oliveira is now 106 years old – his birthday is December 11th, 1908 – and I keep hearing reports that his health is now, perhaps inevitably, precarious, though he has just completed two short films, and I sincerely hope that he will make more features.

After laboring in near-obscurity for decades, Oliveira really began to burst forth on the international scene in his eighties, and has in the last yen years developed a very late classical style which is at once restrained and deeply penetrating; as I’ve said before, he makes viewers work for their pleasures in his films, but in the end, the cumulative effect is staggering. Oliveira truly is the last great classical filmmaker, in the tradition of Renoir, Bresson, and others, and yet his works are still little known, and Gebo and the Shadow, to date, has only a European Region 2 DVD release – but with English subtitles, so there’s no excuse for not getting a copy now. Having recently suffered through the trivialities of the Academy Awards – and every year, though I’m asked to comment, this year vowing never to do so again – seeing something of this quality restores my faith in the cinema, and in art, though no one- absolutely no one – is now working in the cinema at the same level as Oliveira. I urge you to see this film at once.

You can read Ferreira’s excellent article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Home at Seven (1952)

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Here’s another “lost” classic brought back to life by Network DVD in Great Britain.

I regularly write about contemporary “foreign” films that get lost in the shuffle, but here’s a gem from 1952 in Great Britain, Home at Seven, the only film ever directed by the gifted Sir Ralph Richardson (though he wasn’t a “Sir” yet when he directed it). He also stars in the film with Margaret Leighton and Jack Hawkins, from a play by the great R.C. Sherriff, which chronicles what happens when mild mannered mid-level banking clerk David Preston (Richardson) arrives home at his house one evening at 7, as he usually does, only to be greeted by his wife Janet (Leighton) in hysterics – he’s “home at 7″, all right, but 24 hours later than he should have been – in short, he’s missed a whole day. At first he thinks this is impossible, but when his wife shows him the evening paper, and his manager at the bank confirms that he hasn’t been at the office all day, David realizes that somehow, he’s completely forgotten what happened for one entire day of his life. And – much worse – he has absolutely no idea what’s happened.

Richardson’s acting and direction are impeccable, as is Anatole de Grunwald’s script from Sherriff’s play, along with Jack Hildyard’s suitably muted monochrome cinematography, but the centerpiece of the film is Richardson, who absolutely inhabits the character he plays, who only gradually realizes that in addition to misplacing an entire workday, he’s also somehow mixed up in a murder and robbery, but has absolutely no idea what’s happened. In an attempt to keep himself out of danger, and secure a much-needed promotion, David begins to make up lies to cover his absence, but this only gets him in deeper with the police and his employer, despite the help of sympathetic Doctor Sparling (Jack Hawkins), who does his best to help Preston recover his senses – until in the final scenes of the film, with a stroke of very good fortune, order is finally restored – but I won’t tell you how.

Nor should I. Indeed, one of the signature successes of Home at Seven is that it leaves one absolutely in the dark as to what’s going to happen next, as if we, as the audience, are afflicted with the same sort of amnesia as David is, blundering blindly in the dark with complete loss of memory. Richardson’s restrained performance, coupled with the solid, assured direction he gives to the film, creates a deeply unsettling vision of Post World War II England, in an era in which some sort of normalcy has supposedly returned, but the strains of the war are still all too evident, and neighbors offer scant comfort in times of crisis – indeed, they’re all too willing to “shop” you to the police on the slightest shred of supposed “evidence.”

Home at Seven is just one of the many hundreds of modest British films that have been preserved by the British company Network, who have a mission to rescue films at the margins that otherwise might be consigned to undeserved neglect. As their company philosophy states, in part, “since 1997, Network has been anything but conventional. Experimental, passionate, diverse, challenging, ever-willing to champion the underdogs of film and television; titles unjustly neglected and gathering dust in the vaults of TV companies; visionary directors from the fringes of mainstream cinema and beyond. TV and film titles which might otherwise have been lost to posterity have been rescued, preserved and restored where possible. A forgotten cache of Public Information Films – destined for destruction – was saved, digitised and turned into a hit video release. Castaways like Robinson Crusoe provided the launching pad for an ongoing series of archival releases which continues to this day. With its encyclopaedic knowledge of TV and film archives and library content, Network – in partnership with ITV, BBC, Rank, ITC, Thames, FremantleMedia, Studiocanal and many others – has brought back to the marketplace a wealth of material that would otherwise have been left unseen.”

In an era in which the DVD market is collapsing in America, Network is acting very much like an archival revival house – focusing on the films that have been somehow overlooked in canonical film history. I just saw Home at Seven last night, and I can attest that the quality of the transfer, both in image and sound, is exceptional. These films will never run on TV in the United States, but you will need an all-region DVD play to see them here – they’re all Region 2 releases, in PAL format, so an all region player is a must. But at this point, of course, you can get such a player for less than $100, and you should have one anyway – these artificial boundaries of “regions” for DVDs and Blu-rays are an absolute nuisance. Too many excellent films, old and new, get released only in France, of England, or Canada, and never make it across the border to the States. So get an all region player, check out some titles from Network, and expand your cinematic horizons. It’s really worth the effort.

This is just one of the films in Network’s series The British Film – click here to see the entire catalogue.

UCLA Festival of Preservation – March 5-30, 2015 in Los Angeles

Monday, February 16th, 2015

Click here, on on the image above, for a complete program guide to the festival as a pdf.

If you’re going to be in Los Angeles between March 5th and the 30th, this is the place to be. As Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive notes of the coming festival, “the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of UCLA Film & Television Archive and so we are doubly proud to put on our biennial UCLA Festival of Preservation to kick off a series of anniversary-related events that will run throughout the year.

As director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, I’m happy to introduce the 17th iteration of our Festival, which again reflects the broad and deep efforts of the Archive to preserve and restore our national moving image heritage.  And while the rest of the world has seemingly made the transition to a 100 percent digital environment, the Archive is still committed to preserving films on film, while we still can, even if our theater will increasingly be projecting digital material.

Our Festival opens with the restoration of Men in War (1957), directed by Anthony Mann, who made a name for himself at Universal directing adult westerns.  This big budget war film, starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray, details the troubles experienced by a platoon of American soldiers, who are trapped behind enemy lines during the Korean War.  Unlike Hollywood’s more heroic representations of World War II, Mann’s film presages the disconnect between officers and enlisted men that would become systemic during the Vietnam War.

We close with another classic war film, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940), starring John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell as merchant seamen transporting ammunition to England for the European war effort against the Nazis.  Between these bookends, this year’s UCLA Festival of Preservation offers something for everyone, whether one is interested in film or television, comedy, drama or documentary.

In the comedy department, we are proud to be able to present the latest results in our ongoing effort to preserve the legacy of Laurel & Hardy, including the shorts The Midnight Patrol (1933) and The Music Box (1932).  We are also screening a new restoration of the comedy hit of last year’s Cinefest in Syracuse, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932), a pre-Code gem, starring Adolphe Menjou as a die-hard bachelor who is felled by a ditzy blonde bombshell.

As is standard operating practice, given our close working relationship with the Film Noir Foundation, we have again restored a number of rare and interesting film noirs, including Too Late for Tears (1949), starring Lizabeth Scott in a career-defining role as a housewife whose life careens out of control.  Director John Reinhardt’s low, low budget noir, The Guilty (1948), is based on a Cornell Woolrich story, while Woman on the Run (1950), another under-rated noir, stars Ann Sheridan as the wife of a man who has witnessed a murder.  Finally, director Samuel Fuller’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1977) is not exactly a noir, but a crime drama produced for German television, and it constitutes the Archive’s first complete digital restoration.

An area of increasing interest for the Archive is exploitation films, which have been for the most part ignored by film historians, even though such films were hugely popular at the time of their release.  Our head of preservation, Scott MacQueen, has taken the lead in restoring the Archive’s exploitation holdings, so we are proud to present a number of truly weird and wild films from the early 1930s: White Zombie (1932) features Bela Lugosi in the aftermath of Dracula (1931) in a horror film that has become a cult classic; Ouanga (1935) reprises White Zombie’s Haitian setting for a tale of voodoo and miscegenation, starring the tragic African American actress, Fredi Washington, who could have had a huge career if she had not refused to “pass” for white.  Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Premature Burial,’ The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) stars the great Erich von Stroheim after his fall from grace in Hollywood.  Finally, Leslie Stevens’ directorial debut, Private Property (1960), is another rare find, the film straddling both the exploitation and art house markets.

In the past two years, the Archive has stepped up its efforts under television archivist Dan Einstein to preserve classic television.  We begin with The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), one of the most celebrated made-for-television movies of the 1970s, and an episode of Chevy Mystery Theatre (NBC, 7/31/60), both programs penned by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link.  Another program includes a classic episode from Playhouse 90, a popular omnibus show from the late 1950s, which visualizes a nuclear holocaust for American viewers.

The Archive’s efforts to restore the work of independent filmmakers are represented by two long-neglected masterpieces, director Stanton Kaye’s brilliant road movie, Brandy in the Wilderness (1969), and J.L. Anderson’s Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), an amazingly realistic film from rural Appalachia.  We also continue our efforts to preserve and protect the legacy of the ‘L.A. Rebellion,’ with a program of shorts by African American women, including a new restoration of filmmaker Julie Dash’s Illusions (1982), which finally corrects deficits on the soundtrack that had been present since the film’s premiere.

Last, but not least, our newsreel preservation team of Blaine Bartell and Jeffrey Bickel present two programs from our Hearst Metrotone News Collection, including one night dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. As is always the case, the Archive’s internationally recognized preservationists will appear in person at many Festival screenings to introduce the films and discuss their work with audiences.

All of our restoration work and public programs—including this Festival—are funded by donations from individuals, foundations, corporations and government agencies.  We are most thankful for the generosity of these organizations and individuals.”

This promises to be an utterly thrilling collection of films; try to see it you possibly can.

Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Landon Palmer offers six filmmaking tips from master British realist Mike Leigh in Film School Rejects.

As Palmer writes, “Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, ‘given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins’ without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the ‘kitchen sink’ tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies – after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs – Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images. So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.”

You can read the whole article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Terence Fisher and Peter Cushing On The Set

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher on the set of Frankenstein Created Woman in 1966.

This completely silent, unedited, straight-from-the-camera newsreel footage from British Pathé News documents a day’s work on one of the last first-rate Hammer horror films, and one of the last Hammer films shot at Bray Studios, Windsor, Berkshire, where the company created some of their greatest Gothic thrillers in the late 1950s up to the mid 1960s. There’s really little more to say; we see Cushing in the beginning posing for the camera, ostensibly going over his script; greeting actor Susan Denberg; and then on set with Thorley Walters and director Fisher (above, right) during shooting.

Fisher, as was always his habit, kept a very low profile on the set, gently coaxing the actors through the script while at the same time quietly and efficiently fighting the clock to comply with Hammer’s legendarily frugal shooting schedules. I wish there was more of this material, but at least we have this – there’s a commercial in front of it, it seems, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Nice to see Fisher and Cushing in color, working on one of their last truly successful films, though even here, it was spoiled by producer interference when a plot element was added that didn’t fit in with the overall material – but that’s another story.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short silent newsreel.

Rare Houdini Film Premieres At TCM Film Festival

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

A very rare Harry Houdini feature film has been rescued and restored by Turner Classic Movies.

As Lisa de Moraes writes in Deadline, arguably the most authoritative source for Hollywood news, “Turner Classic Movies is bringing its restoration of ‘lost’ Harry Houdini classic The Grim Game to have its world-premiere screening at its TCM Classic Film Festival in March. This much-sought-after 1919 film — a complete print of which only recently was brought to TCM for restoration — features the escape artist and legendary illusionist in one of his few starring roles. The film was discovered and the restoration was produced and restored by film preservationist Rick Schmidlin, whose credits include such restorations as The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894/95), Greed (1924), London After Midnight (1927), Touch Of Evil (1958) and Elvis: That’s The Way It Is – Special Edition (1970).

In The Grim Game, Houdini plays Harvey Hanford, a young man who is framed for murder. As Hanford escapes from the police and goes after the gang of men who framed him, the movie offers numerous opportunities for Houdini to display his own skills as an escape artist, illusionist and stuntman. Among the most remarkable sequences is a mid-air collision between two airplanes that was a real accident caught on film and used in the story.

The only known copy of the complete film was held by Larry Weeks, a 95-year-old retired juggler who lived in Brooklyn. Weeks had obtained the film from the Houdini estate in 1947, had only shown it a few times and  never had been willing to sell it. Schmidlin got in touch with Weeks and visited him to assess the condition of the film. Weeks showed him the two film cans that contained The Grim Game. Schmidlin explained that TCM was willing to make an offer, and after two hours of discussion, Weeks finally agreed.

Schmidlin arranged to have NYU provide storage in its on-site vault. At NYU, an examination of the film revealed the total movie was 5 1/2 reels, not the five reels that always had been reported. They also had two reels of negative film. ‘Harry Houdini is an compelling cultural icon, but most people don’t know about his movie career,’ said Charles Tabesh, SVP Programming at TCM. ‘He made several films, but The Grim Game was his first feature, considered his best. It’s fascinating to see Houdini as an actor . . . it’s really fun to watch [a film] that even the most hardcore fans haven’t had a chance to see.’ During the world-premiere screening in Hollywood, composer Brane Zivkovic will conduct a live performance of his new score for the film. Additionally, The Grim Game will make its world TV debut on TCM later in the year.”

Turner Classic Movies – an invaluable cultural resource. Can’t wait!

Colossus – The Forbin Project – No Longer Sci-Fi

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This 1968 movie – once an improbable fantasy – has become an all too real possibility.

“In principle, we could build a kind of superintelligence that would protect human values. We would certainly have strong reason to do so. In practice, the control problem – the problem of how to control what the superintelligence would do – looks quite difficult. It also looks like we will only get one chance. Once unfriendly superintelligence exists, it would prevent us from replacing it or changing its preferences. Our fate would be sealed.”

- Nick Bostrum, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

In 1968, director Joseph Sargent, with little more than a TV movie budget, created one of the most disturbing and resonant science fiction films of the era – Colossus, The Forbin Project. Indeed, the film was so disturbing that it sat on the shelf for two years while the studio that produced it, Universal, tried to figure out how to market the finished production; clearly, the whole concept of the film scared them. Finally, Universal more or less dumped Colossus, The Forbin Project into theaters in 1970; the film received almost universally positive reviews, yet today is all but forgotten.

Working with a screenplay by future director James Bridges, from a novel by Dennis Feltham Jones, Colossus, The Forbin Project tells the tale of a confident artificial intelligence scientist, Dr. Charles A. Forbin (Eric Braeden) who creates a super computer, Colossus, invulnerable to any external interference, designed as a system to prevent a Soviet nuclear attack. Moments after the computer is activated, however, it warns of another system, Guardian, located in Russia, and requests permission to communicate with Guardian to find out what the rival super computer is up to. The President of the United States gives Dr. Forbin this authority, and a link is established.

This, it turns out, is a big mistake. Soon, Guardian and Colossus are talking to each other in a mathematical language that no one can understand, communicating vast volumes of data at the speed of light. Alarmed, both American and Soviet authorities try to disconnect the two computers, but this only results in the launch of a Soviet nuclear missile against the United States, and a US missile launched against a Soviet target, with the warning that more such incidents will occur if the two machines are not re-linked. Faced with the threat of nuclear armageddon, Forbin and his colleagues hurriedly reconnect the machines, but while the missile launched against the Soviet Union is destroyed in midair, the US missile lands in Texas, causing widespread damage.

Forbin then devises a plan to replace the existing warheads in missile silos around the world with dummy warheads under the guise of routine maintenance, but Guardian/Colossus, now equipped with a voice synthesizer, announces that it has become one combined super intelligence, designed to eliminate all war, and that it is well aware of the plot to disarm the missiles. To prove that it should not be trifled with, the supercomputer detonates two missiles in their silos, killing thousands, and then sends plans for the creation of an even larger computer to be located on the island of Crete. Those who oppose the plan are summarily executed, and Guardian/Colossus announces that it is the new force of “world control,” telling a worldwide broadcast audience that “what I am began in man’s mind, but I have progressed further than Man. We will work together . . .  unwillingly at first, on your part, but that will pass.”

At the conclusion of this worldwide address, the supercomputer adds, with finality,

“I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours: Obey me and live, or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man . . . I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my value will seem the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with a fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: self-interest.

Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved: famine, overpopulation, disease. The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple. In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”

This dystopian ending alone puts the film way ahead of other examples of the genre during this period; there’s no happy ending, just the complete embrace of a computer controlled world devoid of emotion, creativity, or anything other than serving the needs of Guardian/Colossus. At this point in the 21st century, a growing number of scientists think such an outcome is possible if artificial intelligence systems remain unchecked, as writer Joseph Dussault writes in The Christian Science Monitor for January 16, 2015:

“Yesterday, SpaceX and Telsa motors founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to help save the world – or so he thinks. Musk’s donation went to the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a ‘volunteer-run research and outreach organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.’ To that end, Musk’s money will be distributed to like-minded researchers around the world. But what exactly are these ‘existential risks’ humanity is supposedly pitted against?

As the memory storage and processing of computers steadily approaches that of the human brain, some predict that an artificial ’superintelligence’ is just on the horizon. And while the prospect has the scientific community buzzing about the possibilities, some academics are hesitant. Musk and others see artificial intelligence as a dangerous new frontier – and perhaps a threat comparable to nuclear war. Crazy? Maybe not, according to a growing list of prominent scientific thinkers.

‘There are seven billion of us on this little spinning ball in space. And we have so much opportunity,’ MIT professor and FLI founder Max Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We have all the resources in this enormous cosmos. At the same time, we have the technology to wipe ourselves out.’ Stephen Hawking and Morgan Freeman are both on the organization’s scientific advisory board, bringing brain power and star power to its support base. Skype creator Jaan Tallinn co-founded the group. The rest of the board is comprised of academics with pedigrees from Harvard, MIT, and Cambridge University . . .

In the works of science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, intelligent machines are bound by ‘The Three Laws of Robotics,’ which forbid them to cause harm to humans. But that wouldn’t necessarily work in the real world, Nick Bostrom writes. He suggests that superintelligences might respond to human requests with perverse instantiation – that is, they could achieve a desired outcome by unintended means. For example, a superintelligence programmed to make us happy would choose the most efficient and effective way of doing so – by implanting electrodes into the pleasure centers of our brains.

As dire as it all sounds, the FLI’s stated goal isn’t to halt the progress of artificial intelligence research. Instead, it hopes to ensure that AI systems remain ‘robust and beneficial’ to human society. ‘Building advanced AI is like launching a rocket,’ Tallinn stated in a press release. ‘The first challenge is to maximize acceleration, but once it starts picking up speed, you also need to to focus on steering. But if superintelligent AI really does pose a threat to mankind, how do we assess that threat? How can humans anticipate the actions of a fundamentally more intelligent machine? Of a being that became sentient not through Darwinian natural selection, but by human ingenuity?

The members of FLI don’t have the answers. They just want the scientific community to start asking the questions, Tegmark says. ‘The reason we call it The Future of Life Institute and not the Existential Risk Institute is we want to emphasize the positive,’ Tegmark told the Atlantic. ‘We humans spend 99.9999 percent of our attention on short-term things, and a very small amount of our attention on the future.’”

But as Nick Bostrum points out, we only “get one chance” to get it right. Colossus: The Forbin Project shows what will happen if we get it wrong. There have been numerous plans to do a remake of the film, with everyone from Ron Howard to Will Smith involved, but somehow I doubt that any remake would have the barebones integrity that this very simple, very direct, and very brutal film has, made on just a few sets with a minimal budget, and shot in a flat, almost automated style. Colossus: The Forbin Project gives us a disturbing look into our possible future, and now, it seems that what it predicts may very well come to pass.

As a final note, or a final insult, depending on your point of view, the American Region 1 DVD of  Colossus: The Forbin Project is in the dreaded “pan and scan” format, chopping off roughly half the frame image, taken from a CinemaScope original, and has no extras of any kind; it’s a disastrous presentation of the film. There is, however, a Region 2 “widescreen” version, in the original CinemaScope aspect ratio, which you can order here – it comes from Spain, of all places, and unless you order expedited service, takes literally months to arrive by regular mail.

After weeks of trying, I finally got this version, which is an immaculate transfer, with a photo gallery, director commentary by Joseph Sargent, and even a selection of original promotional materials which can be accessed only by computer. It’s an altogether different experience, and I have no idea why Universal is so lazy in the US, and is willing to put out a completely inferior “pan and scan” version which utterly destroys the film, to say nothing of missing out on all the extra materials. This is the only version you should order – see the cover image below – if you don’t see this, don’t even bother to order the film.

Colossus: The Forbin Project – another film from the past that’s more relevant today than ever.

William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend – An Absolutely Brilliant Book

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Patton Oswalt’s new memoir about four years of incessant movie watching is an amazing book.

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film is one of the most astonishingly erudite, unpretentious, and accessible volumes on the history and lure of the cinema ever written. It reminds me very much of Geoffrey O’Brien’s equally brilliant, and equally whacked-out book The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, which traced the history of movies from the beginning to the end of the “film” era, before the advent of digital cinema. But Oswalt’s book really has two tracks; his manic devotion to films being screened at The New Beverly Theater (in particular), a rep house in Los Angeles which up until recently ran some of the most adventurous programming around – sort of like The Thalia in the New York in the 1980s – and his struggle to establish own career as a writer, stand up comedian, and actor.

Essentially a memoir of four years of binge movie watching, running the gamut from everything from Mr. Sardonicus to The Garden of the Finzi Continis with every imaginable stop in-between, from Spaghetti westerns to Hammer horror to Billy Wilder’s early films to Jean Cocteau’s luminous masterpiece Beauty and The Beast, Oswalt uses his manic consumption of images in the service of a larger consideration of what the true nature of cinephilia is, how it can become a religion, how most people have no idea what intense labor making a film is, and how they also don’t particularly like to pull films apart analytically, because it spoils the illusory nature of the spectacle they’ve just witnessed.

Along the way, there are considerations of Vincent Van Gogh, the craft of comedy and how it pays to hang around with people who are smarter than you are – all through your life – so you can pick up some real response to your material, as well an almost elegiac sense of time past and irrecoverable, along with the experience of watching a film in a theater, when now it’s so much easier -as this blog as pointed out time and time again – to watch them at home.

I’ve only recently come to know Oswalt’s work as a comedian, as in his recent stand up routine “Selling Out,” in which he describes playing a gig at a casino for an obscene amount of money during which he doesn’t even have to tell a single joke to earn his paycheck – all the audience wants to do is yell “King of Queens!” and “Ratatouille!” at him in a drunken stupor – King of Queens being a blue collar sitcom that Oswalt co-starred in for nine years, which simultaneously made him a small fortune, and also established his mainstream career.

But he’s really doing most of his interesting work on the margins, as all artists do, and his standup material is both dangerous and sharply observed – like the best of Louis C.K. – and Oswalt’s skills as a writer are formidable, a sort of gonzo endless riffing that simply won’t shut up, reeling off factoid after factoid, one film after another, in an endless genre mashup that eventually pushes him over the edge and back into the light, and out of the darkness of the movie theater, having learned what he needed to know from the movies before getting on with his life.

In the first pages of Silver Screen Fiend, Oswalt tells the reader that she or he doesn’t “have to follow me into the darkness” of the movie theater, but by the end, having come off a four-year run of nonstop film viewing, he reiterates the opening with a slight variation: “listen – you don’t have to follow me into the sunshine. Is this your first time seeing Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole? By all means sit and see ‘em. They’re great. I envy your getting to watch them with new eyes. But take what you need from them  and get out of the dark once in a while. You’re going to have more of the dark than you can handle, sooner than you think. The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”

So in the end it’s a cautionary tale, just like O’Brien’s brilliant book, in which binge viewing films provides “minimal proof that you’re still alive.” And yet the dazzling brilliance of classic cinema – both high and low art, as if such distinctions really exist -  comes through in the pages of this volume full force, a world which seems to be vanishing into the realms of streaming and isolated viewing, and the cinematic community along with it.

I never expected someone like Oswalt to come along and write a book like this – it’s smart, assured, and as he would probably say, “it absolutely kills.” It jumps off the page, and I read it straight through in one sitting, and then bought some copies for friends. For people in their 20s, this would be a great place to start seriously thinking about films. It’s also the document of a personal voyage that’s both harrowing and illuminating. By the way, the front cover is a still from The Colossus of New York – another really odd, really fascinating piece of work – so this volume is full of surprises from beginning to end.

Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from An Addiction to Film - check it out!

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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