Monthly Archives: July 2012

Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 2

Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s essay concerning Edwin S. Porter’s landmark 1903 production of The Great Train Robbery and the subsequent career of its star “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

The Great Train Robbery had its world premiere at Huber’s Museum in New York City on December 1, 1903, where it played at the end of a vaudeville show. Legend has it that the audience was so enthusiastic they demanded the film be run again . . . and again before they would leave the theater. The following week, it opened in eleven theaters in the greater New York City area. It is impossible to know the exact box office figures but, by all accounts, the movie was a commercial phenomenon. After watching the film with one of these early audiences and noting their rousing reception, Gilbert Anderson said to himself, “That’s it. It’s going to be the picture business for me. The future had no end.” (Brownlow) The Edison Manufacturing Company likewise quickly realized that they had something special on their hands as this description from a 1904 catalogue indicates:

“This sensational and highly tragic subject will certainly make a decided ‘hit’ whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made. It has been posed and acted in faithful duplication of the genuine ‘Hold Ups’ made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West, and only recently the East has been shocked by several crimes of the frontier order, which fact will increase the popular interest in this great Headline Attraction.” (EDISON FILMS CATALOGUE, NO. 200)

One of the side effects of the film’s popularity was that other filmmakers immediately began to copy its techniques (one even remaking it shot for shot) as well as individual moments: train robberies, fights on top of trains, and scenes of men being made to dance by having their feet shot at soon became standard conventions of the genre. Another side effect was that everyone associated with the film found themselves in demand for future motion picture productions. Although The Great Train Robbery, like all movies of its era, does not feature credits, a movie star was nonetheless born: Anderson, who played three different roles in the film (a robber, a train passenger who dies a spectacularly melodramatic death and the aforementioned man who is “made to dance”), would change his moniker again, this time to “Broncho Billy” Anderson, and become the cinema’s first true cowboy star.

Anderson’s “spectacularly melodramatic” death in The Great Train Robbery:

Historian Kalton C. Lahue notes that it was both ironic and fitting, given the “make believe” nature of the movies, that its first western star was born with the “unlikely” (and, though Lahue doesn’t say it, Jewish) name of Aronson and that, at the time The Great Train Robbery was made, he couldn’t ride a horse and had never travelled “west” of Chicago. This irony is precisely what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he directed and starred in the poignant and highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy, the fictional story of a New Jersey shoe salesman who decides to become the headliner of a modern day “Wild West show.” In an age of mechanical reproduction, long after the west had actually been settled, the story of the real Broncho Billy must have resonated with most of the “authentic” cowboy stars that followed in his footsteps.

Following The Great Train Robbery, Anderson starred in three more Edison westerns in 1904 and 1905 (Western Stage Coach Hold Up, A Brush Between Cowboys and Indians and Train Wreckers), all of which provided variations on the basic formula of their first big hit. But Anderson had his own ideas about what constituted “western authenticity” and wanted more creative control. In 1905 he left Biograph to work for their chief competitor Vitagraph. It was there that Anderson directed his first film, Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman.

The financial success of Anderson’s directorial debut led to an offer the following year by Colonel William Selig, who was willing to allow Anderson to both direct and star in his own movies. After making a few Chicago-shot shorts, Anderson convinced Selig to allow him to shoot a series of westerns and “stunt comedies” on location in Colorado. All of these were released in the spring and summer of 1907 and boosted Selig Polyscope’s profits considerably. (Of these, His First Ride and The Bandit King still exist today as fragments).

Anderson and Selig, however, were not a good fit. Anderson thought his brief but successful run at Selig Polyscope meant that he deserved more money but Selig thought differently. Anderson quit. Upon returning to Chicago, Anderson met George Spoor, whose Magniscope projector had made the inventor a fortune. In a 1915 interview with Motion Picture Magazine, Anderson recalled convincing Spoor to start a Chicago-based studio that would rival the Selig Polyscope Company. According to Anderson, the agreement was that Spoor would put up the cash and Anderson would do “the work.” In the summer of 1907, they incorporated as The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, setting up headquarters at 496 N. Wells Street (1300 N. Wells in modern numbering).

Just as Spoor and Anderson were getting their new company underway, Thomas Edison was implementing a “licensing system” that would maximize the profits from the many motion picture camera and projector patents he owned. Soon, Selig, Spoor and Anderson and most of the nation’s other major studios (Kalem, Pathe Freres and Vitagraph) joined forces with Edison to form The Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as the MPPC or Edison Trust) in something of a Faustian bargain. This trust would control the industry for a decade by suing any motion picture producers who used cameras that allegedly violated Edison’s patents – but it also inadvertently opened the door to new innovations in filmmaking and became one of the reasons why southern California would ultimately become America’s filmmaking capital.

Anderson and Spoor recruited their cross-eyed janitor, Ben Turpin, to star in their first movie, the Anderson-directed stunt-comedy An Awful Skate; or, The Hobo on Rollers. The scenario, reminiscent of His First Ride, features Turpin crashing into things while roller-skating down Wells Street. The scenes may have been staged, but there was little acting involved – Turpin had no idea how to skate.

Ben Turpin, cross-eyed janitor-turned-movie star:

Ironically, the same sort of piracy that Spoor engaged in as an exhibitor became a problem for him immediately as a producer, as independent distributors began duping and circulating their own prints of An Awful Skate. Newspaper ads for the first Peerless movie were run with the following disclaimer: “P.S. ‘An Awful Skate’ has been copied by a rival concern who employed spies to follow our camera. Our picture is the original and best value for your money. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Produced for only a couple hundred dollars, it has been estimated that An Awful Skate made between five and ten thousand dollars in profits in spite of the “bootleg situation.” The new influx of cash saw the studio change its name and move into a much larger complex of buildings on the city’s far north side. Rechristened Essanay Studios (a phonetic spelling of the first letters of the names of Spoor and Anderson – “S an’ A”), the studio opened for business in earnest in early 1908 at the address of 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood (St. Augustine’s College today). The rivalry between Selig Polyscope and Essanay was on – but that will be the subject of another post.

The Great Train Robbery is available on Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin Vol. 1 DVD. It can also be viewed on YouTube here: 

Works Cited

1. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.

2. Lahue, Kalton C. Winners of the West: the Sagebrush Heroes of the Silent Screen,. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1971. Print.


Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 1

Today’s post is the first part of a lengthy two part essay in which I analyze one of the most significant early films, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, as well as tell the story of its making. The second part will be published next week.

In the silent film era, trains and movies were a match made in heaven. Nothing symbolized movement in the industrial age like the locomotive, and the early filmmakers knew that movement is what excited audiences the most. Therefore, from the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) in 1896, which legendarily caused early audiences to flee in terror as a train progressed towards the camera (and therefore, by extension, the viewer) through the simple panoramic films dubbed “phantom rides,” which saw cameras being placed aboard trains to create a “you are there” effect, to the incredible locomotive imagery in late silent masterpieces like Buster Keaton’s The General and Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, no other single image is more closely associated with silent cinema than that of the high speed train.

In 1896, there were at least six theatrical plays being produced in different parts of the United States that involved trotting out elaborate puffing locomotives onstage. Thomas Edison, who had dabbled in the development of electric trains before turning his attention to motion pictures, saw one such play in New York City, Scott Marble’s four-act melodrama The Great Train Robbery. Impressed by both the play’s narrative as well as its pull-out-the-stops special effects, Edison filed it away as a potential subject for a future motion picture. Seven years later, he would realize this ambition. (Bianculi)

In the late 1890s, movies had slowly transitioned away from one-shot actualities into more complex multi-shot narratives. In the first years of the twentieth century, copies of imported European “story films,” duped (not always legally) by Edison, George Spoor and others, were widely distributed in the United States and had become massively popular with American audiences. This was especially true of science-fiction/fantasy movies showcasing trick photography and special effects such as Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) and crime films involving exciting chases between police officers and criminals such as Frank S. Mottershaw’s A Daring Daylight Burglary.

A Trip to the Moon:

American movie studios soon found it incumbent upon themselves to imitate both the form and content of their European counterparts in order to compete. Consequently, as the Americans imitated the Europeans and the Europeans returned the favor, the language of cinema began to develop at a very rapid pace, becoming extremely sophisticated by the end of the decade. In 1903, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an outfit headed by Edison’s former employee W.K.L. Dickson, ramped up its commitment to using motion pictures as a vehicle for telling stories. In September, they began producing the first “westerns,” a genre that combined the narratives of the English crime films of the day with the purely American iconography of the popular dime novels and stage shows about cowboys and Indians and the “settling” of the west. But it would be Edison himself who would produce the blockbuster movie that effectively inaugurated the new genre and established its conventions.

In 1899, former projectionist Edwin S. Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company as a camera operator and director. By the time he made The Great Train Robbery at the end of 1903, Porter had already directed forty-five short films and served as cinematographer on many more. In this astonishing and prolific run of movies, Porter proved himself a true pioneer (if not quite the “father of the story film” that some histories have claimed) who was responsible for popularizing many of the rules of film grammar that turn-of-the-20th century audiences were experiencing for the very first time. A case in point is Life of an American Fireman from early 1903, a “rescue film” that renders space cinematically (as opposed to theatrically) by showing the same event from multiple perspectives in consecutive scenes.

In the fall of ’03, Porter teamed up with Gilbert M. Anderson, the stage name of a theatrical actor born Maxwell H. Aronson, who would eventually co-found Essanay Studios with George Spoor and become one of the most significant figures in Chicago’s nascent movie scene. Tall, handsome and only in his early twenties at the time, Anderson was a natural in front of the camera but he also worked behind the scenes as a “gag man,” helping Porter to brainstorm story ideas. The two collaborated on multiple film projects for the remainder of the year, culminating in their final 1903 production, The Great Train Robbery, which was shot in November and released one month later. This game-changing movie would ultimately alter the destinies of both men forever. (Musser)

Color tinted publicity photo of “Broncho Billy” Anderson:

Although set in a nameless frontier region of the American west, The Great Train Robbery was filmed entirely in New York and New Jersey on both studio sets as well as actual locations. The film tells the story of a group of bandits who rob a telegraph office/train station, then board the train, where they proceed to rob both the safe and its passengers before making a daring getaway. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator enters a saloon and rounds up a posse to go after the robbers in an attempt to recover the stolen loot.

Among the innovative techniques employed by Porter are parallel editing (cutting back and forth between the bandits and the telegraph operator to suggest simultaneous action), double exposure composite editing (an early “special effect” that allowed multiple shots to be combined in a single frame), camera movement (tilt, pan and tracking shots are all utilized), as well as a primitive but delightful use of color tinting on some prints – since each frame was tinted by hand this was an extremely painstaking process.

One of the most unusual aspects of the film is its famous ending: after a shootout in the woods in which all of the bandits have been killed, Porter unexpectedly cuts to a close-up (the only one in the movie) for his final shot; one of the dead bandits has mysteriously reappeared to point his gun directly at the camera and “shoot” into the audience. The End. It should be noted that a now-famous letter sent by Edison Manufacturing to projectionists across America gave them the option of projecting this shot at either the end or the beginning of the movie. All versions of the film on home video place it at the end – where its impact is undoubtedly more effective.

“Assaulting the audience”:

Whereas the Lumiere brothers had scared audiences unintentionally with their train film, there was no doubt as to the frenzy Edwin S. Porter intended to incite with his more calculated assault on the audience. This shot would become one of the most iconic images of the early silent cinema, right alongside of the rocket ship hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye in A Trip to the Moon, and would serve as an inspiration for the opening of the James Bond movies as well as the ending of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

In an interview in the late 1950s, Anderson recalled Porter’s rapid pace of production: “We made it all in two days. Then it was finished and taken to the reviewing room. After it was reviewed, they all looked up and they were dubious whether it would go or not. And Porter said, ‘Well, the only way we can find out is to try it out in a theater.’” (Brownlow)

To be continued . . .

Works Cited

1. Bianculli, Anthony J. Iron Rails in the Garden State: Tales of New Jersey Railroading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008. Print.

2. Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.

3. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
2. Days of Heaven (Malick)
3. Le Boucher (Chabrol)
4. Naked (Leigh)
5. Breathless (Godard)
6. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy)
7. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman)
8. Remote Control (Jonasson)
9. The Girl in the Cafe (Yates)
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin)

Book Publication News

As many longtime readers of this blog know, I have spent the past two years quietly but steadily working with my good buddy Adam Selzer on a non-fiction book about the history of early film production in Chicago. I am pleased to announce that yesterday we signed a contract with the Chicago and London-based company KWS Publishers, Inc. who will put the book out next year. Tentatively titled Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, this book will tell the fascinating but too little known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of film production in America in the decade prior to the rise of Hollywood. We are striving to write an account that we hope will be as entertaining as it is informative, and one that will straddle the worlds of academia and popular non-fiction alike. Colorful, larger than life historical figures like Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux and Orson Welles are major players in this story – in addition to important but forgotten industry giants like “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. More info concerning Flickering Empire will appear on this blog in the near future – so stay tuned!

You can visit KWS on the web here:

You can read pertinent posts on “Chicago movies” on this blog here:

A Glorious Feeling

Me and my Intro to Film class before a theatrical screening of Singin’ in the Rain. We went out for overpriced smoothies afterwards. It was all very civilized!

A new 4k digital restoration of Singin’ in the Rain played in movie theaters across the U.S. last Thursday night as a one-time only event sponsored by Turner Classic Movies, which also served as an advance preview of this version’s imminent release on Blu-ray. As part of my never-ending quest to promote the big screen experience, I took my Intro to Film class from Oakton Community College on a field trip to the Century 12 theater in Evanston to take in a screening. Unlike the sparsely attended “Classic Series” showing of The Searchers at the same theater just a couple of weeks ago (to which I had taken another class), I was happy to see that the joint was positively jammed for Singin’ in the Rain, a testament, no doubt, to TCM’s marketing muscle. Unfortunately, the screening was marred by a technical glitch that excised the first several minutes from the climactic “Broadway Melody” number, an error that nonetheless happily resulted in all attendees receiving a free pass to attend a future show at the Century 12. (And is it just me or do these digital “satellite feed” screenings tend to present more technical problems than traditional 35mm?) That minor glitch aside, however, it was indeed a glorious feeling to see Singin’ in the Rain, the most beloved of all Hollywood musicals, on the big screen with beautifully restored sound and color.

While Singin’ in the Rain is not my personal favorite musical (I’m a Vincente Minnelli man, myself), I do completely understand the case that can be made for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s masterpiece as the very pinnacle of the genre. For one thing, as one of my students noted afterwards, there is an incredible amount of diversity in terms of the different kinds of dancing on display throughout the film: “You Were Meant for Me” is a graceful, deeply romantic, almost balletic number between stars Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, “Moses Supposes” features furious, old-fashioned hoofing between Kelly and Donald O’Connor, while O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” solo number functions more as a series of outrageously comedic physical stunts than “dancing” in any traditional sense. And this is to say nothing of Kelly’s dancing during the title song, the most famous production number in any movie musical and a brilliant showcase for the co-director/choreographer/star’s unique genius for interacting with sets and props.

Mirroring this diversity in the choreography is the way Singin’ also functions as a perfect hybrid of the musical, comedy and romance genres. Indeed, out of all the musicals from Hollywood’s golden age, it is the one that probably works best as a comedy. (One of my other students told me he didn’t much care about the singing or dancing in the movie but found it nonetheless thoroughly entertaining purely because of its humor.) The comedy comes primarily from Donald O’Connor, as the eternal comedic sidekick who is given a boatload of genuinely hilarious asides, as well as Jean Hagen as an archetypal dumb blonde whose shrill speaking voice has made a number of Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s lines of dialogue justifiably famous (e.g., “I can’t stan’ ‘im!”). If Kelly, then, exemplifies the film’s musical side, and O’Connor and Hagen bring the comedy, it is Debbie Reynolds, looking almost impossibly young at 18 years old, who provides the romance. While Reynolds, with her patented virginal cuteness, does not, as they say, “do it for me” (I would’ve preferred it had the lead female role gone to the more mature, and leggier, Cyd Charisse, who turns up for a delightful extended cameo), there is no denying the potent romantic chemistry between Reynolds and Kelly.

The most important aspect of Singin’ in the Rain that cements its pantheon status though is probably how it serves as a nostalgic valentine to the cinema itself. The film takes place in Hollywood in 1927, a tumultuous era when the movie industry was decisively transitioning away from the production of silent films to that of “talking pictures” for good. The logistical problems that the early sound filmmakers faced are recreated with exaggerated comic panache (e.g., talking into a bush where a microphone is obviously hidden, a microphone picking up a heartbeat, tripping over cables, etc.), prompting Douglas Fowley’s director character (wearing, of course, a beret and “riding pants”) to exclaim, “We’ll have to think of something else!” While these scenes are played for laughs, they also illustrate the very real technical problems with which the industry had to contend, and that indeed had to be solved by creatively thinking of “something else.”

When The Artist was released last year, I was incredulous to see some critics claim that it more accurately captured the magic of silent movies than Singin’ in the Rain (its most obvious influence), because the earlier film allegedly made the silents look “worse” than they really are. I would argue that the opposite is true: while the acting in the silent film scenes within Singin’ in the Rain may indeed be more exaggerated than silent film acting was in actuality, it is crucially no more exaggerated than the acting found anywhere else in Singin’ in the Rain, the tone of which is consistently pitched at the delightfully broad level of vaudeville comedy. I would argue that it is The Artist that tries to point up the supposedly egregious differences between the acting in silent movies (i.e., the movie scenes within The Artist) and “modern day” film acting (all of the other scenes). This is one of the reasons why, although The Artist has its moments as a charming comedy, its attempts to achieve genuine tragedy ultimately make the film feel strained and uneven. In any case, I doubt that The Artist will be rereleased theatrically for its 60th anniversary; by that time it will probably be long forgotten, like most of the other recent Oscar winners, while Singin’ in the Rain will undoubtedly continue to look just as fresh and old-fashioned as ever.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly)
2. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
3. Contempt (Godard)
4. Breathless (Godard)
5. Directed by John Ford (Bogdanovich)
6. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
7. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
8. Nightbreed (Barker)
9. Dark Horse (Solondz)
10. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa)

And . . . Action! Kathryn Bigelow as Heir Apparent to Raoul Walsh or: Why the Contemporary Hollywood Action Movie Sucks

“I know what eats a man who has endured the tension of war for years. It’s like a drug. A man can’t live without it.”
They Died with Their Boots On

“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
The Hurt Locker

Even though I thought highly of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker when it was first released in Chicago in 2009, it has only continued to rise in my esteem over the last three years. Prior to its Best Picture Oscar win, I found myself relentlessly championing it to skeptical friends, mostly by comparing it to classic Hollywood movies by John Ford and Howard Hawks. It does, after all, examine group dynamics and the theme of “professionalism” a la Hawks. And, in its unforgettable lead character of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), it also arguably provides contemporary audiences with a 21st century equivalent of The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards: a tragic hero whose “virtues” are ironically what prevent him from becoming a productive member of the very society that he is ostensibly helping to save and thus allowing to perpetuate. (I firmly believe that the film’s controversial and ambiguous ending is an illustration that James will never be a good husband or father.) Now, after going on a binge of watching movies by the great Raoul Walsh, I realize that my analogy was a little off; it is Walsh that Bigelow resembles more closely than his contemporaries Ford or Hawks.

Andrew Sarris (RIP!) aptly, and famously, summed up the heroes of Raoul Walsh by contrasting them with the heroes of Ford and Hawks: “If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks by professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling of adventure. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, never too sure what he will find there.” In other words, Walsh’s heroes, like Walsh himself, were “adrenaline junkies,” a phrase that has also been used to describe Bigelow’s characters. The adventurousness of Walsh’s heroes, whether they are gangsters, cavalrymen, prizefighters or western outlaws, was explicitly mirrored by Walsh himself, who captured their stories through an adventurous brand of filmmaking – usually by shooting on location in exotic locales and favoring sequences involving elaborately choreographed action over dialogue-based scenes. It is precisely this “feeling of adventure,” filmmaking as athleticism, that binds Bigelow and Walsh and that makes the Hurt Locker helmer the old master’s true heir apparent.

The question then arises: why has The Hurt Locker been treated like an “art film” instead of the Walshian action film that it is? This can only be answered by looking at how the action genre has evolved over the last century. It is a sad reality that the American action movie has suffered more than any other single genre since the decline of the old studio system. The very phrase “action film,” as utilized by a great critic like Manny Farber, used to be synonymous with a movie that was made cheaply, quickly and on a small scale. (It now seems incredible but Farber used the phrase “underground film” to essentially mean action movie.) No more. While good unpretentious action films are still churned out on a regular basis by various Asian filmmakers (Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Na Hong-jin, etc.), Hollywood has all but doomed the genre by consigning it to the fate of the bloated, CGI-laden spectacle. The contemporary Hollywood action movie, as exemplified by Michael Bay and his alarming number of imitators, typically clocks in at over two and a half hours, does not exceed the PG-13 rating and has a budget of over 100 million dollars (traits that are all, depressingly, interrelated). What does it say that a film like the original Die Hard, a Hollywood action juggernaut that still probably stands as the finest of the 1980s, now looks both relatively modest and adult by comparison?

I hasten to add that the real problem with Bay and his ilk has nothing to do with money spent nor technology used. The biggest problem is that the filmmaking is simply inept (e.g., the axis-of-action rule is mindlessly disregarded, hyperkinetic editing is employed less to complement the action than to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual agitation, etc.). Money and technology do not automatically have to take the place of craftsmanship, as David Fincher’s ingenious and seamless use of CGI proves, and yet the best technology and the worst art frequently do go hand in hand. My first thought upon seeing the relatively lo-fi Hurt Locker (it was shot partly on 16mm and partly on digital), after getting over its initial heart-stopping, visceral impact, was to marvel at just how damn well made it is. I’ll never forget watching, for the first time, the firefight scene with the mercenaries in the desert and having this strange feeling come over me; it seemed almost novel to be watching a new American film involving characters shooting at each other over a long distance where the spatial and temporal relationships between them made perfect sense. More than anything else, I believe it was respect for Bigelow’s craftsmanship that lay at the heart of The Hurt Locker‘s critical love. Sadly, while Raoul Walsh used to direct action set pieces better than anyone, he has still not gotten his critical due and was never even nominated for an Oscar. In the golden age of Hollywood, his basic skills as a director weren’t considered unusual.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Blue Velvet (Lynch)
2. Dune (Lynch)
3. Groundhog Day (Ramis)
4. Ravenous (Bird)
5. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
6. The Serpent and the Rainbow (Craven)
7. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson)
8. To Rome with Love (Allen)
9. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
10. A Screaming Man (Haroun)

He Said/She Said Review: Turn Me On, Dammit!

Turn Me On, Dammit!
dir: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen (Norway, 2011)
MGS rating: 7.2
JM rating: 9.0

This “dialogue review” of Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit!, a new Norwegian teen-sex comedy, is a joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. Funny and refreshingly honest, Turn Me On, Dammit! centers on Alma, a sex-obsessed teenage girl who becomes a pariah in her town after she claims that Artur, a popular boy at her high school, poked her with his dick at a party. The film opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

JM: This film was written and directed by two separate women. Given that you are a writer and director, what is your take on a female voice/female voices?

MGS: This is a provocative and complex question. I have to say that most of the time I don’t think about such things but when I was watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I certainly did. For instance, I thought it was totally bizarre that a fifteen year old girl would call a phone sex line. My first reaction was “There’s no way a fifteen year old girl would do that!” But then I remembered that the film was written and directed by a woman and based on a novel by another woman and then thought “Aw, hell, I guess they would know better than me.” I also thought that the scene where we see Alma masturbating was interesting. I’m sure you agree that there was nothing titillating about the scene. It was just there to establish her character and yet . . . if we watched the exact same scene believing it had been directed by a man, it would have been disturbing, no? On the other hand, I suppose one could argue that the reason why Helene Bergsholm gave such a convincing performance as Alma is because she felt more comfortable being directed by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen than she would’ve had she been directed by a man. Also, it’s possible that only female writers/directors would feel that confident portraying a girl that young as a sexual being. What do you think?

JM: What puts my answer into perspective is that I have no idea what is involved in a young man’s coming-of-age life. The concept of what a guy goes through when he becomes a man eludes me, and I think that only someone who has walked in those shoes knows the answer. Alternately, a man cannot know what a young girl goes through, even if he has daughters or sisters, though that would give him a little more insight than if he hadn’t. A man knows a man’s body, and a woman knows a woman’s body. She can remember her own experiences and tap into that firsthand knowledge.

To answer your question concerning a man’s take on the masturbation scene, I can only imagine it failing miserably. In sex scenes, or even nude scenes, where women are directed by a man, I feel that the vast majority of them are from what a man desires, or what he thinks a woman wants or needs, which pretty much always leaves me shaking my head because they are so opposite of what I find to be even somewhat believable. To illuminate my point further, during the filming of your second movie, At Last, Okemah!, you were filming a fight between the main character and his girlfriend. The girlfriend was supposed to act frustrated because she wasn’t getting the attention that she believed she deserved, and you were having some trouble getting her to react appropriately. One of the male crew members blurted out, “act like you haven’t had sex in months and you really want to get laid.” It took about every fiber of my being to keep from saying, “man, you don’t know anything about women.”

Going back to your station as a male director, do you feel that you have a particularly male perspective when writing and/or directing?

MGS: I’m sure that I do but I don’t think it plays that big of a role. I mean, I’m sure I also bring to my work a white male perspective and an American perspective and a thirty-something perspective and so and and so forth. I try not to think about those things when I’m working because that kind of thinking can be crippling for an artist. I think it’s best to operate more instinctively and not think about how your background might be manifesting itself when writing and directing. Same thing for writing a blog post, actually.

I think that you, Jillian, probably bring a more explicitly gendered perspective to your blog because of your women’s studies background and also because “teasing out feminisms” is the theme of your blog. Or would you disagree?

JM: My background definitely shapes what I think and put out on the page and I write from all those points of view. I agree that we are all a conglomeration of different selves: gay; lesbian; mother; father; high school education; etc., and I do pull from my own given the occasion, just as the writer and director of Turn Me On, Dammit! pulled from different areas of their past lives, such as being a teenage girl, being a girl growing up in a small town, et al. I can also say that I don’t write for a particular audience but for myself, what interests me and is on my mind, as opposed to writing for a particular audience in mind.

Do you think that a mirror of this movie could have been made by a male writer/director about young, coming of age boys?

MGS: Absolutely. I think that kind of movie has been made many times in America (that’s how I’d describe a lot of contemporary teen-sex comedies, of which Superbad is a prominent recent example) but it has rarely, if ever, been done well. What’s great about Turn Me On, Dammit! is its frankness about teenage sexuality, but I don’t think that necessarily has anything to do with a male or female perspective. I think Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is the closest good male equivalent that is coming to my mind right now but, on the other hand, that movie does a lot of things aside from explore adolescence. For instance, even though Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are great, the scenes with Jeff Daniels as their novelist/professor father are probably the most interesting in the film. Turn Me On, Dammit!, by contrast, doesn’t show much interest in the adult word, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

JM: When watching Turn Me On, Dammit! I thought back to when I was in high school and I could definitely identify with a lot of what the girls, especially the main character, were going through. Specifically, life during high school and the “mean girls,” awareness of my own developing body, inflated and unrealistic ideas about love and sex, to name a few. Watching this movie as a man, did you feel any sense of alienation or could you identify with what these girls were going through?

MGS: I didn’t feel alienated at all. The film evokes a lot of emotions that I think cross gender lines – adolescent boredom, loneliness, sexual frustration, wanting approval from the cool kids, etc. Having said all that, no one ever poked me with his erect dick at a party! But there were moments where I could relate to Artur as well – like when he pretends not to be interested in Alma and lies to her about having another girlfriend. He was afraid of taking an emotional risk and I could relate to that.

JM: The girls in this film were born and bred in a small Norwegian town. Given that we both grew up in small towns up until after high school (me Villa Park, Illinois and you, Charlotte, North Carolina), do you see any parallels?

MGS: Well, Charlotte had a population of about half a million people when I was growing up there (and it’s gotten considerably larger since) so I think my experience was different than the characters in the film. They live in a truly rural area. However, I could relate to the desires the characters had about wanting to move away. I certainly never had the hostility towards Charlotte that they do towards their town. I wouldn’t flip off signs of my town like they did, but I did feel like I needed to get away and move to a bigger city and expand my horizons a bit. I guess I felt a bit like Saralou wanting to move to Texas. You’ve always stayed close to home though so I’m assuming your experience was different.

JM: It is true that I’ve always wanted to stay close to family, but suburbanites in Illinois are lucky enough to be able to move to Chicago, which is as different in many ways from Villa Park as you can get. It’s amazing, though they’re so close, how far to the right, politically speaking, towns can be right outside of larger cities. My own experience is almost identical to what Alma experiences as she takes a trip to a bigger city, and seems somewhat of a small town/big city universal.

MGS: I’d like to conclude by saying that even though Turn Me On, Dammit!‘s focus on sex is going to be the main thrust of every review written about it, I think it also does a few other things extremely well. It feels very real and evocative in its portrait of what it’s like to be a kid working a dead end job in a small town grocery store, to ride the same bus to school with the same kids every day, and to escape for a magical weekend to a big city to hang out with college kids who have their own apartment. Finally, in Saralou’s anti-capital punishment crusade, which is arguably the funniest part of the movie, Jacobsen absolutely nails the very specific way in which teenagers can get overzealous about something. I thought Turn Me On, Dammit! was a very pleasant surprise when we caught it last year at the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m glad that its getting a fairly wide release now, even if, absurdly, it was recently banned in Tuscaloosa. Any final thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: If you were ever to make a movie that was the male bookend to this, would you have had the same “poking” story as the young man in the movie? Let’s hope not…

MGS: My male bookend to this would involve a nice guy like me receiving the equivalent of a “female poking” from a feisty gal like you.

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