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Nitrate Film Makes A Comeback

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

A scene from the film Cinema Paradiso, which celebrated the beauty of cellulose nitrate 35mm film.

As Turner Classic Movies has just announced, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is being retro-fitted with 35mm nitrate projection, an absolute rarity in today’s world, thus giving contemporary audiences a direct view of the shimmering beauty that only nitrate film can provide for viewers.

As the press release notesThe Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), and Turner Classic Movies (TCM), in conjunction with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive, today announced a partnership to ensure that the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood has the capability to screen 35mm nitrate film prints.  This powerhouse collaboration to retrofit the projection booth will make the Egyptian Theatre one of the few public venues in the country with the ability to project these rare and fragile prints.

‘When I was told that one of the most beautiful movie theaters in the country could be retrofitted for nitrate projection, I was overjoyed, moved, and excited by the potential,’ said Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation. ‘I hope that this is the beginning of a trend. The art of cinema developed with nitrate from its beginnings to the early ‘50s, and the silver content gave us a luminosity and a richness that was never quite matched by the safer stocks that followed or their digital reproductions.

I’d like to thank all the partners that came together with The Film Foundation—the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Turner Classic Movies, the Academy Film Archive and the American Cinematheque itself—to make this happen. Needless to say, I’m eager for the completion of the necessary work so that I can see those glorious images projected in that one-of-a-kind theater.’

‘As actual film disappears from most of the world’s eyes, we should be screening our existing nitrate prints as much as we safely can,’ said Alexander Payne, director and board member of The Film Foundation. ‘Nothing in theaters or on television today matches the thrill of seeing films on nitrate, and we should take full advantage of our being, sadly, among the last humans able to screen them.”

‘The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has long been a supporter of preserving the integrity and history of the art of filmmaking for generations to come,’ said HFPA President Lorenzo Soria. ‘We are proud to partner with organizations whose values are in line with those of the HFPA, and together we will bring to the historic Egyptian Theatre film the way it was intended to be experienced.’

Cellulose nitrate was the standard film stock in commercial use from the earliest days of cinema until it was discontinued in 1951. Widely agreed to possess a uniquely beautiful image quality, the stock is highly flammable and was replaced by cellulose acetate ’safety film.’ Nitrate prints, some nearly a century old, still survive in carefully controlled vault environments, but are rarely seen because only a handful of theaters are equipped to screen them.

‘Film preservation and the ability to share and celebrate all aspects of film history are central to the mission of TCM,’ said Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of partnerships and brand activation, TCM. ‘We’re thrilled to be part of this partnership in order to bring film fans a truly unique opportunity to experience nitrate films.’

American Cinematheque chairman Rick Nicita says, ‘This exciting project will truly make it possible for the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre to show every film format possible. A state-of-the-art digital projector will sit side-by-side with our 35mm/70mm machines – representing the rich history of cinema, as well as the future of the art form.’

As someone who has experienced first-hand the intensity and beauty of 35mm nitrate projection – during a visit to the British Film Institute in the late 1990s – I absolutely applaud this decision. Projecting nitrate is certainly not without risk – it’s highly flammable, and needs to be treated with the greatest care during projection and preservation – but for more more than half a century it was the dominant medium for film production, and for quality of image, it simply is in a class by itself.

Sometimes a return to the past is a good thing – this is excellent news!

The Memory of the World

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

As this report from The United Nations makes clear, libraries are in jeopardy.

As the report notes, “every year, precious fragments, if not whole chunks of the world documentary heritage, disappear through ‘natural’ causes: acidified paper that crumbles to dust, leather, parchment, film and magnetic tape attacked by light, heat, humidity or dust.

As well as natural causes, accidents regularly afflict libraries and archives. Floods, fires, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes . . .the list goes on of disasters which are difficult to guard against except by taking preventive measures. Every year, treasures are destroyed by fire and other extreme weather conditions such as cyclones, monsoons.

It would take a very long time to compile a list of all the libraries and archives destroyed or seriously damaged by acts of war, bombardment and fire, whether deliberate or accidental. No list has yet been drawn up of the holdings or collections already lost or endangered.

The Library of Alexandria is probably the most famous historical example, but how many other known and unknown treasures have vanished in Constantinople, Warsaw, Florence, or more recently in Bucharest, Saint Petersburg and Sarajevo? Sadly the list cannot be closed. There are so many more, not to mention holdings dispersed following the accidental or deliberate displacement of archives and libraries.

The present document, prepared within the framework of the ‘Memory of the World’ Program, under contract with ICA and IFLA, by J. van Albada and H. van der Hoeven, is an attempt to list major disasters that have destroyed or caused irreparable damage during [the 20th] century to libraries and archives, whether written or audiovisual.

The most endangered carriers are not necessarily the oldest. In the audio domain substantial numbers of acetate discs and tapes are lost each year. The world of film was the first to become aware of the decay of the polymers used to record sounds and images.

War, in particular the two world wars, caused considerable losses, numerous libraries and archives have been destroyed or badly damaged in the course of fighting, notably in France, Germany, Italy and Poland. War has also been the source of untold destruction to libraries and archives in the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Shelling by gunners of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina started a fire that burned down the building and destroyed most of the collections. Many books in the library had been salvaged from collections in libraries that were damaged during World War II.

This document is not meant to be a sort of funerary monument, but is intended to alert public opinion and sensitize the professional community and local and national authorities to the disappearance of archival and library treasures of inestimable value and to draw attention to the urgent need to safeguard endangered documentary heritage all over the world.

Librarians and archivists work hard to anticipate and prevent disasters affecting their holdings. Yet, even as [we enter the 21st century], it appears that documentary heritage housed in the world’s libraries and archives always remain at risk. Let us move into the 21st century with renewed commitment to protecting the ‘Memory of the World’ through disaster planning, through vigilance and through the pursuit of world peace.”

Sobering reading; this report was completed in 1996, but is even more relevant now.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) – 1952

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s I Vinti (The Vanquished) is a forgotten masterpiece of the postwar Italian cinema.

In his early years as a filmmaker, emerging out of the shadow of Mussolini’s Cinecitta, working for the Italian Fascists during World War II – unwillingly, but nevertheless involved – Michelangelo Antonioni created a number of controversial and deeply ambitious projects, beginning with his first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), and then moving on to the even more accomplished I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952) – both of which initially received a hostile reception from critics and the general public. While Story of A Love Affair has been available on DVD for quite some time, I Vinti is only recently receiving the DVD release it so richly deserves, from Raro Video. But looking at I Vinti from nearly any angle, it’s amazing that Antonioni even got this project off the ground.

Opening with a ferocious collage of newsreel footage with a relentless voiceover track decrying postwar youth’s lust for instant fame at any price, the film goes on to tell three stories, in three languages; in France, a group of rich, bored teens decide to kill one of their group for the money he claims to have, only to find after the murder that the cash is counterfeit; in Italy, a well-off young man caught up in the cigarette smuggling racket kills a Customs Agent trying to escape after a raid, and dies in his parents’ home as the police close in; and in England, a young ne’er do well “poet” kills a middle aged prostitute in order to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper, and achieve instant “fame” of a sort as a thrill killer.

Grim, to say the least. Even more amazingly, all of the incidents in the film were taken from actual crimes committed around that time, each in their respective country; the French story of bored teen killers was a national scandal; the Italian story – which was censored for the film, and actually involved a young political radical blowing up a munitions factory as a form of protest – was also a matter of record; and the British story concerned the case of teenager Herbert Leonard Mills, who in 1951 murdered a woman simply for the notoriety that it would bring him, and then tried to sell the story to a newspaper.

The Italian story was shot first, and seems the most like later Antonioni, especially L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Franco Interlenghi, then a popular matinee idol of the period in Italian cinema, plays Claudio, whose political “idealism” ends in tragedy, when the factory he blows up results in numerous casualties among the workers. This storyline was much too strong for the Italian censors, and Antonioni was forced to reshoot almost two-thirds of the episode to shift Claudio’s criminal activities to smuggling. Astoundingly, the original version of this section of the film survives, and is included on the disc as an extra, and makes for essential viewing, to say the least.

The British story was shot next, and eerily prefigures Antonioni’s later film Blowup (1966), in which a bored and narcissistic fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) accidentally witnesses and photographs a murder in a park, and then can’t make up his mind whether or not to tell the police about the crime. In I Vinti, Peter Reynolds stars as Aubrey, the dissolute layabout and would-be poet who commits a murder simply for the notoriety it will bring him. Reynolds’ performance is brilliantly self-absorbed and loathsome; indeed, I Vinti effectively typecast him for life in a series of roles as as a decadent, dishonest aristocrat, before his tragically early death at the age of 49.

The French episode also ran into trouble from the censors, as well it might, dealing with the notorious “Affaire J3,” in which a young man was killed by his companions during a picnic outside of Paris. As with the other sections of the film, the truth was too close to the film’s scenario for comfort, so after combined protests from the British, Italian and French authorities and numerous recuts, the film was finally premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, but only out of competition. Then, since the film was a commercial failure, it was was consigned to the vaults, and given the deeply troubling nature of the film, for a long time it seemed that I Vinti would never see the light of day again.

But in 2013, The Museum of Modern Art brought the film out of oblivion, so to speak, and screened it in their To Save and Project series. But for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to attend that screening, the Raro DVD is a real find. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2011, “with the opening monologue of his second feature, the three-part film I Vinti (The Vanquished), Michelangelo Antonioni polemically affirms the theme that would dominate his entire career: the erosion of reason and morality throughout society, due to the onslaught of mass media and the dominion of the bourgeoisie who both produce it and fall under its sway.”

The Raro DVD contains the complete film, immaculately restored, as well as a host of extras, including the original version of the Italian Episode; an interview with the film’s producer, the late Turi Vasile (in his 80s, his memory was entirely intact, and he effortlessly quotes Marx, Hegel and Kierkegaard from memory in his account of the film’s genesis – name one Hollywood producer who can do that!); an interview with Franco Interlenghi, now deceased, who played Claudio in the Italian episode; as well as a short film by Antonioni, Tentato Suicidio, one episode of the 1953 multi-director feature L’Amore in Citta’/Love in the City, as well as a superbly detailed essay on the film by Stefania Parigi. All in all, it’s a stunning viewing experience.

So there you are – a masterpiece. Can you afford to pass it up? No.

The Academy Finally Starts To Get The Message

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

While it’s far from solving the problem, it seems that AMPAS is finally getting the memo on diversity – at last.

As April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite notes, writing in The Guardian, “on 29 June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released its list of film-makers, artists and executives invited to join its ranks, and eventually play a part in who walks away with an Oscar. The Academy invited 683 potential members, its largest and most diverse class ever. While this was an important move toward the inclusion of more marginalized communities within the Academy, it is merely one step on a longer journey.

While reviewing the list of invitees, I was struck by the names of individuals that I believe should have been Academy members long ago. Melvin van Peebles, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Euzhan Palcy and others have amassed such a significant body of work through the years that the 2016 list of invitees was clearly, in part, righting a wrong.

These and other omissions speak to one of the concerns I voiced when discussing #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag I created: the way in which individuals are nominated to the Academy must be reviewed and revamped so that deserving potential members are not overlooked due to overly stringent rules.

I applaud the effort of the Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s president, to diversify its ranks. With 283 invitees from 59 countries, the Academy demonstrates its recognition of amazing talent outside of our borders that should be welcomed. Misan Sangay, Trinh T Minh-ha, and Souleymane Cissé are all examples of international film-makers who have been invited to join the Academy.

It is important to note that not just the acting categories have been diversified. Importantly, casting directors, producers, and directors, those who have significant influence over who works on a film, both in front of and behind the camera, have also seen their ranks become more inclusive.

Overall, the numbers look impressive: this is the largest and most diverse invitation class ever. Of the invitees, 46% are women and 41% are people of color. But when one does a deeper analysis, the results leave something to be desired. More than 300 of the invited members are women. But even if they all accept, the percentage of women in the Academy increases by just 2%, from 25% to 27%.

This is significantly less than the overall representation of women in this country. Similarly, 280 people of color were invited to join the Academy, but their acceptance will only increase the ranks by 3%, to 11% from 8%. This is in stark contrast to recent US census numbers indicating that people of color are 37% of the United States population, and growing.”

In short, this is a good start. But let’s see how many of these people are employed to direct a major blockbuster, or helm an entire series, or, in short, get work as an actor, director or writer on a regular basis – enough to really have full-time employment. Hollywood seems to be making duller films than ever, while the interesting new material, as always, comes from the margins – these people could help to start that process.

Will they be given a chance to do so?

New Article: “Rockin’ the Boat’s a Drag. You Gotta Sink the Boat!”: Robert Downey Sr.’s Anarchist Cinema

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

I have a new article on the life and films of Robert Downey Sr. in the July, 2016 issue of Senses of Cinema.

As I write, in part, “long, long, long ago and very far away, in Manhattan in the 1960s, I knew Robert Downey Sr. as a friend and colleague, and we are still in touch today. At the time, we were all part of what was then euphemistically called the ‘Underground Cinema’, a loose conglomeration of filmmakers and artists who centered around The Filmmakers’ Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque, which moved from location to location, continually offering screenings of decidedly outré films, for something like $2 a show. We were part of a group of 100 filmmakers – tops.

All of us were cinematic anarchists, spearheaded by the aggressively confrontational filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas, whose long running column ‘Movie Journal’ in The Village Voice encouraged everyone to make as many films as possible, in as many ways as possible, with as few materials as possible, and to not listen to anyone’s criticism – just their own artistic inner voice.

Robert Sr. was one of those people who really took up the banner of experimental film and ran with it, remaining as controversial as possible, and eager to offend as many people as possible, but with a disarming, almost ingratiatingly cheerful air.” I’m very happy to have done this piece, as I respect Bob’s work enormously; he’s the foremost American social satirist of the 1960s and 70s, and remains as active today as ever.

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

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster on Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (1964)

Monday, July 4th, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a new essay out on the classic Japanese supernatural film Kwaidan.

As Foster writes, in part, in the latest issue of Senses of Cinema, “along with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō, 1957), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) – aka Kaidan, or ‘ghost stories’ – is one of the peaks of the Japanese cinema during its golden era, and one of the most superbly atmospheric supernatural films ever produced in any country. It’s also a terrific example of how a portmanteau film can work successfully, harking back to Ealing Studios’ multi-director Dead of Night (1945), and gesturing towards the multi-story films of Amicus in the 1960s.

Kobayashi’s filmography as a director isn’t extensive, with only 21 feature films to his credit throughout his entire career, yet each of his projects has an individual stamp that makes them deeply personal. His earlier films are both gritty and introspective, and seem nothing at all like Kwaidan: one of Kobayashi’s most compelling early films is the brutal baseball noir drama I Will Buy You (Anata kaimasu, 1956), in which a young player rises to the top of Japanese professional baseball, revealed to be little more than a racket.

Kobayashi’s other major works include the epic trilogy The Human Condition (1959 – 1961), which clocks in at an astonishing 9 hours and 47 minutes in its entirety, and Harakiri (Seppuku, 1962), a suitably violent and nihilistic samurai film. Most of Kobayashi’s work is in black and white, but in Kwaidan he evokes a world of heavily stylized colour, and creates one of the most sensual and strangely evocative supernatural films ever made. It remains one-of-a-kind not only for Kobayashi, but also for what has been loosely called ‘the horror film’: Kwaidan doesn’t deal in shock imagery, but rather in an ever-mounting sense of psychological dread.

Based on Lafcadio Hearn’s anthology of Japanese tales of the supernatural, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), the film is structured in four parts. ‘The Black Hair’ follows a warrior who leaves his first wife for a second marriage to gain greater status, only to find the promise of a ‘better life’ is an empty one indeed. ‘The Woman of the Snow’ is a tale of supernatural vengeance in which a woodcutter falls in love with a Yuki-onna, or ’snow woman’ – a spirit who wanders the woods – with unexpected results.

‘Hoichi the Earless’ deals with a blind musician who discovers that he has been unwittingly singing for a family of ghosts, resulting in dire consequences. The last section (which the spectator is invited to complete in their own mind) is ‘In a Cup of Tea,’ the philosophically deepest and most challenging of the tales, in which a writer is continually disturbed by the unexpected sight of a face in – as the title suggests – his cup of tea.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film the same year, Kwaidan is one of the most sumptuously mounted horror films ever made, shot in moody, otherworldly colour that would be evoked again in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), in true TohoScope ratio 2.35:1 by the gifted cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima, with stunning art direction by Shigemasa Toda.”

You read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above – enjoy!

Glenn Erickson on Cy Endfield’s Try And Get Me!

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

Cy Endfield’s noir classic Try and Get Me! (aka The Sound of Fury) finally gets a DVD release.

As Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant writes in a guest post on Steve Eifert’s excellent site Noir of The Week, “1950’s Try and Get Me! has never been an easy film to see. Its only home video release [was] a Republic Home Video VHS from 1990. [Thankfully, the film has just now been released in a superb transfer by Olive Films, which makes a business of rescuing lost classics before it's too late - so check it out.]

It’s both a socially conscious tract against lynching, and one of the most pessimistic, frightening films noir from the classic period. It encourages examination from several angles. Its director was blacklisted. It was released as The Sound of Fury late in 1950, and underwent a title change while in its initial run. No official reason is given, but the title might have been uncomfortably similar to MGM’s 1936 film Fury, which is loosely based on the same factual incident.

Not unlike Jules Dassin of Night and the City, versatile director Cyril (Cy) Endfield was just getting his career in motion when the blacklist made him unemployable in Hollywood. Endfield would later achieve success in England directing, writing or producing tough minded pictures like Hell Drivers, Zulu, Sands of the Kalahari and Zulu Dawn. Try and Get Me! was filmed on location in the Phoenix area. Unemployed Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) already has one young boy. His wife Judy (Kathleen Ryan) is anxious that he finds a job soon so she can see a doctor to deliver her second child.

Demoralized by the bleak job prospects, Howard falls in with Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a narcissistic braggart who lures him with promises of easy money: ‘Getting any other offers lately?’ Howard drives the getaway car for a series of robberies; he tells his wife that he’s found a job and begins to drink heavily. Then Jerry bullies his reluctant partner into helping kidnap the son of a wealthy local. The unstable Jerry murders the kidnapped man.

Torn by guilt and self-loathing, Howard continues to drink. He accompanies Jerry on a nightclub holiday with the loose Velma (Adele Jergens) and her mousy friend Hazel Weatherwax (Katherine Locke). Unable to keep silent, Howard breaks down in Katherine’s apartment. The secret gets out and the police close in. Howard is locked up with the now-deranged Jerry. Stirred up by alarmist newspaper headlines, a huge mob converges on the city jail. The sheriff (Cliff Clark, in one of his finest roles) can’t hold them back.

A social horror movie for depressed times, Try and Get Me! is not recommended for everybody — its emotions run high even before the crime and kidnap story gets in gear. Howard Tyler’s unemployment experience is sheer misery and humiliation, death in small doses. It hurts when his kid asks for money to go to a ball game. He can’t possibly tell his wife how hopeless things have become. The neighbors’ new television is just more evidence of Howard’s failure.

Author-screenwriter Jo Pagano indicts American society as aloof to the needs of working class citizens in economic straits — the Land of Riches doesn’t give a damn if Howard’s family goes homeless or starves. A bartender sees nothing wrong with charging Howard extra for a grade of beer he didn’t order. The situation is emasculating, especially with the preening, suppressed homoerotic Jerry showing off his muscles and asserting his superiority. The film’s key image shows Howard unable to sleep, standing in the dark staring out the window. He’s a criminal; he knows that he’ll be caught sooner or later.”

You can read the rest of this excellent essay by clicking here, or on the image above – it’s must see viewing!

New Article – Kelly Reichardt: Working Against The Grain

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

I have a new article on the films of Kelly Reichardt in Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

As I write in the article on her film River of Grass, ”like so many of Reichardt’s protagonists, Cozy and Lee want to leave the lives they’re drifting through behind, but they have no clear idea – indeed no idea at all, what to do about it. They have no money, no real aim, in life, but they’re not so much hopeless as they are bereft of imagination. There’s a world out there beyond Florida, but somehow, home is home, and that’s where they seem to be stuck, in a state of permanent stasis.

And, of course, the film has many stylistic and thematic debts, which Reichardt is all too willing to acknowledge. As she told Iain Blair, in River of Grass ‘I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.’ The film was recently restored as part of a Kickstarter campaign by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and released as an extra on Oscilloscope’s DVD of Reichardt’s ultra-realistic, almost existential Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010). It’s a solid first effort, and certainly offers an early clue to the direction her career was heading in.

Reichardt followed this up with two shorter films, Ode (1999), clocking in at 48 minutes, which is a sort of riff on the plot of the 1960s pop song hit Ode to Billy Joe, and then two very short films: Then A Year (2001), dealing with the consequences of a ‘crime of passion,’ and Travis (2004), centering on the human cost of Iraq war. But at the same time, Reichardt’s enthusiasm for making films had dwindled; these newer films were shorter, less ambitious, and she was clearly backpedaling in her career – indeed, she wondered if she had any real future as a filmmaker in any realistic sense, even working at the margins of the industry.

River of Grass has made something of a splash on the festival circuit, being nominated for Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Debut Performance (Lisa Bowman), as well as the rather enigmatically named Someone to Watch Award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards, as well as being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, and for Best Feature Film at the Torino International Festival of Young Cinema – but none of those nominations translated into a win, and gradually, the ‘heat’ surrounding Reichardt began to wear off.

As she admitted to Iain Blair, ‘making [River of Grass] was a real eye-opener, and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business. There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.

The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating. I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.

It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on Poison, and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes. And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for Old Joy (2006) – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature.’”

In short, it’s a tough world out there, but Kelly Reichardt keeps working, which is the only way to get anything to happen, no matter what your chosen field. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but you can gain access through Love Library Reference, if you’re interested, and in the meantime, check out some of Reichardt’s superb films – she’s one of the most truly original directors working in America today.

That’s Kelly Reichardt – working against the grain.

And Speaking of Killer Computers . . .

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Herman Hoffman’s 1957 film The Invisible Boy is a forgotten look at a possible AI future.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Invisible Boy is a 1957 American science fiction film from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, produced by Nicholas Nayfack, directed by Herman Hoffman, and starring Richard Eyer and Philip Abbott. It is the second film appearance of Robby the Robot, the science fiction character in Forbidden Planet (1956), also released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Invisible Boy is a mixture of lighthearted playfulness and menacing evil. As it begins, ten-year-old Timmie Merinoe (Eyer) seems only to want a playmate. After he is mysteriously invested with superior intelligence, he reassembles a robot that his father and other scientists had been ready to discard as unrepairable junk. No one pays much attention to the robot, named Robby, after Timmie gets it operating again, until Timmie’s mother becomes angry when her son is taken aloft by a huge powered kite that Robby has built at Timmie’s urging.

When Timmie expresses a wish to be able to play without being observed by his parents, Robby, with the aid of a supercomputer, makes him invisible. At first Timmie uses his invisibility to play simple pranks on his parents and others, but the mood soon changes, when it becomes clear that the supercomputer is evil and intends to take over the world using a military satellite.”

It sounds rather bizarre, and it is; cheaply produced on a budget of less than $400,000, the film grossed almost a million dollars at the box-office, a respectable return for a film of the late 1950s. Unlike Forbidden Planet, which was lavishly produced, this is clearly a “cash in” project, designed primarily to exploit the pop culture popularity of Robby the Robot. But surprisingly, Robby takes a back seat in film’s narrative to the omniscient and dictatorial computer pictured above, which hopes to gain world domination using the robot as its tool.

It’s not a successful film by any means, and only sporadically comes alive, particularly in the scenes between the robot and the computer, which clandestinely programs the robot to obey its commands. Still, the moody, atmospheric black and white cinematography, no doubt dictated by budgetary concerns, nevertheless works to make the film a sort of sci-fi noir, once the requisite “humor” of the first half of the film is thankfully abandoned.

As Bruce Eder wrote of the film, “it’s very difficult to say whether The Invisible Boy is a good movie or not — mostly because it’s such a strange picture, weirdly (and, at times, self-consciously) campy, and yet amazingly knowing, sophisticated, and even compelling in some of its scientific conceits, especially for a 1957 movie.

What can one say, in any reasonably coherent review, about a movie that is a space fiction and time-travel story, but also a kids’ adventure story; a yarn about a mischief-making boy, and a meditation on the dangers of science (and, especially, artificial intellegence) outstripping man’s ability to control or understand it . . .

On the one hand, [The Invisible Boy] is about a super-computer planning to take over the world — on the other, it’s about a 10-year-old who keeps getting spanked for misbehaving and wants to make himself invisible so he can have more unsupervised fun; sort of Booth Tarkington meets Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke (with a little bit of Robert A. Heinlein thrown in).

In all, it’s not a great, or even a very good movie — the black-and-white production often looks cheap, and this was very obviously filmed in a hurry, as it looks like a lot of first takes were used. But in its own low-budget way, it is a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time. And it is a lot of fun, just as a notion for a science fiction/adventure film, with a very dark side to the serious component of the plot.”

In short, The Invisible Boy is a deeply odd film that’s certainly worth a look; you can get it on DVD as an extra with the deluxe “box” version of Forbidden Planet (it has yet to be released as a stand-alone project); and you can view the trailer for the film by clicking here, or on the image above. But you should definitely give it a look as, as Eder puts it, “a fascinating pop-culture artifact of its time.” It’s certainly that – and much more.

Another cinematic oddity that holds a claim on the memory of those who have seen it – it’s your turn now.

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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