This summer I will be teaching a session at Facets Multimedia’s Summer Film Institute, a unique and intensive week-long film camp for teachers. The topic of my day long seminar is “Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom: How to Teach Classic Hollywood Movies”. (This subject is near and dear to my heart as it has become one of my missions in life to turn young people on to classic film.) During the day-long session I will be screening Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as well as clips from various other movies from Hollywood’s golden age and discussing what exactly makes them “classics”. The Film Institute is aimed at high school teachers and affords the opportunity to earn 30 CPDUs although anyone is welcome to attend. My session will occur on Friday, July 29th. More information can be found here.
Monthly Archives: May 2011
Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.
The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:
Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)
Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.
Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)
Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.
Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)
Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.
Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)
The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.
Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)
Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.
The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)
The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.
Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)
Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.
Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)
You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.
The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)
Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)
Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.
The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)
The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.
It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)
Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.
Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)
The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.
To be continued . . .
1. Moolaade (Sembene)
2. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
3. Chungking Express (Wong)
4. The Tiger of Eschnapur (Lang)
5. Don’t Look Back (Pennebaker)
6. Chungking Express (Wong)
7. Let’s See Copia Conforme (Bufo)
8. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
9. A Double Tour (Chabrol)
10. Une Chambre en Ville (Demy)
Dziga Vertov is currently the subject of an extensive retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This includes a symposium on the great Russian director’s work, featuring scholars, artists and filmmakers like William Kentridge, Peter Kubelka, Guy Maddin and Michael Nyman. It also boasts the U.S. premiere of a new, supposedly definitive restoration of Vertov’s revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera from 1929, which has long been my favorite Soviet film of its era; it is the movie I show most frequently in classes to illustrate the principles of montage editing and one can only hope this version will turn up in Chicago theaters soon.
The Soviet Montage movement, which produced some of the most groundbreaking and influential films of all time, began in Russia in the early 1920s and lasted for roughly a decade before government pressure brought an unfortunately abrupt end to a cycle of movies known for their adventurous formal and intellectual qualities. Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, originally released in 1929, provides both a shining example of Montage filmmaking and a good reason why the movement had to come to a premature end.
Vertov’s contemporary Sergei Eisenstein offered a widely accepted definition of montage when he wrote that “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots.” In other words, the true meaning of a film sequence should lie in the way that it is edited, arising not just from what happens within individual shots but from the juxtaposition of these images against one another. The major Soviet directors of this era (Eisenstein, Vertov, Vsevelod Pudovkin and the Ukrainian Alexander Dovzhenko) might have had different ideas about how montage should be employed but they all agreed on its central importance as the basis for creating and understanding movies.
“Dziga Vertov,” a Russian phrase that literally translates as “spinning top,” was the pseudonym of director David Kaufman, a fitting name for the wild man of the Soviet Montage movement. Man with the Movie Camera is Vertov’s best known work and it is typical of his artistry in that it is difficult to classify; it is part documentary and part experimental movie – with a few elements of narrative continuity filmmaking sprinkled in for good measure. Before the film proper begins, a title informs us that we are about to witness “an experiment in the language of pure cinema.” As this would indicate, Vertov was obsessed with the mechanics of filmmaking, especially cinematography and editing, to the point where they ultimately became the subject of his work. It’s as if he wanted to use the film medium to explicitly call attention to the tools of his trade by inviting viewers to share in his wonder and amazement at how those tools could record and transform reality.
Vertov was in particular fascinated by the camera lens, which he repeatedly and cleverly compared to a “cinema eye” recording daily life. His philosophy can be summed up in his 1923 manifesto Kinoks: A Revolution: “I am kino-eye. I am builder. I have placed you, whom I’ve created today, in an extraordinary room which did not exist until just now when I also created it. In this room there are twelve walls shot by me in various parts of the world. In bringing together shots of walls and details, I’ve managed to arrange them in an order that is pleasing and to construct with intervals, correctly, a film-phrase which is the room.”
Although Man with the Movie Camera does not feature a narrative in any conventional sense, it can be said that there are two “stars” in the movie. One is the Russian people en masse. This is the respect in which the film fits into the “city symphony” mold – a genre encompassing abstract studies of major cities around the world that attempt to show off the uniqueness of each city’s architecture and people through musical editing rhythms. (A Propos de Nice, Manhatta and Berlin: Symphony of a Great City are all notable examples.) One of the central ideas behind the city symphony films is that the people who live in each particular city form a kind of collective hero for the movie. Interestingly, Man with the Movie Camera was mostly shot in Moscow but, in an analog to Vertov’s “room with twelve walls,” it is ultimately a composite city that also contains footage of Odessa and Kiev.
The other “star” of the movie is what really sets Man with the Movie Camera apart from the other city symphony films: Mikhail Kaufman, the film’s cinematographer as well as its title character. Throughout the film we see Kaufman at work, filming with his camera and, in a meta-device decades ahead of its time, we also see the footage that he’s shooting elsewhere in the movie! For Kaufman and Vertov, brothers in real life, the act of filmmaking was clearly a joyous, adventurous, athletic activity. Watching the two of them prove that a camera can be positioned virtually anywhere, from the depths of a coal mine to the handlebars of a speeding motorcycle, is an exhilarating, head-spinning experience. (The shots of Kaufman at work were taken by a second cinematographer, Gleb Troyanski.) But the production of Man with the Movie Camera was a family affair in more ways than one: Vertov’s wife Yelizaveta Svilova was the film’s editor. Characteristically, Vertov included shots of her editing the movie within the movie – a fitting tribute to a woman with a Herculean task to perform.
Incredibly, Man with the Movie Camera has an average shot length of less than 2 and a half seconds, an astonishingly fast pace for a film from the silent era. (The pacing is comparable to contemporary Hollywood action films such as the Bourne franchise.) And yet whenever I show the film in class, I’ve noticed some students invariably grow restless and bored. I think this is because, although some of them find it gratifying purely as a piece of kaleidoscopic eye candy, the absence of a traditional narrative to pull the audience through the experience means that viewers must be unusually active in parsing Vertov’s montage sequences in order to make sense of his underlying ideas. And because of the rapid pace, which allows Vertov to throw out more ideas per minute than you can shake a stick at, each viewer is likely to come away with his or her own interpretation of “what it all means.”
For me personally, the film resonates as a humane portrait of a teeming metropolis, the diversity of which is signaled by a series of contrasting images: rich and poor, work and play, marriage and divorce, life and death. These images don’t conflict with each other as they do in the more propagandistic films of Eisenstein. Rather, through their synthesis, they reveal something profoundly true about the lives of ordinary men and women who live in the city; the Russian people captured by the brothers Kaufman and their movie camera over eighty years ago are not so different than the Chicagoans I see and interact with every day. This radical brand of self-reflexive humanism may not be for all tastes but that was the case even in 1929. Vertov’s film, made during the regime of Joseph Stalin, was accused of being formalist and esoteric, leading to a government mandated policy that Soviet films should adhere to the principles of “social realism” and be simple enough to be understood by all audiences. Yet Man with the Movie Camera is still able to speak across nations and time to people of different political persuasion today. I suspect it will continue to do so for as long as movies are shown.
There are several versions of Man with the Movie Camera available on DVD. My favorite is the one released by Image Entertainment featuring a score by the Alloy Orchestra based on musical instructions written by Dziga Vertov himself.
My short film At Last, Okemah! has won two awards at the 12th Annual Bare Bones Film Festival in Muskogee, Oklahoma: Best Musical Picture and Audience Choice Award for Favorite Short. Congratulations to the cast and crew – especially Kevin Viol for performing the traditional music in the film and Adam Selzer for penning the original song “Doorbell Ditching at the Pearly Gates.” You can listen to Kevin perform the song in this YouTube video: