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Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski)
2. The Player (Altman)
3. The Comedy (Alverson)
4. Band of Outsiders (Godard)
5. Memories of Murder (Bong)
6. Family Plot (Hitchcock)
7. Prometheus (Scott)
8. Topaz (Hitchcock)
9. Torn Curtain (Hitchcock)
10. Another Year (Leigh)

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The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Mr. Flip

Sexual harassment 1909-style

The earliest extant film by Chicago’s Essanay Studios following the company’s debut short An Awful Skate from 1907 (a print of which can still be viewed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York) is probably their 1909 production of Mr. Flip. Directed by Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Mr. Flip is an important and influential slapstick comedy (it is the earliest such film included in Kino Video’s 2002 Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD box set) and also a good showcase for the comedic acting chops of Ben Turpin. Turpin, who had come a long way as a performer since his film debut in An Awful Skate (which merely saw him crashing into other people on roller skates), plays the title character as a lascivious cad who repeatedly pops up in various establishments to sexually harass the female employees. In each instance, the women turn the tables on “Mr. Flip” by inflicting physical pain on and/or humiliating him, causing him to flee.

The film is similar to An Awful Skate in that almost every scene features a gag that plays out in a single unedited shot before cutting to a new location and also a new shot. The difference is that in Mr. Flip each location features an elaborate, impressively designed set; Mr. Flip is shown attempting to caress or kiss the cheeks of various women (a female bartender, a seamstress, a telephone operator, a barber, etc.) in each of their places of work. In succession, he finds himself unceremoniously escorted out of the bar by a bouncer with a dolly cart, stabbed in the rear with a pair of scissors, smothered with shaving cream, sprayed with seltzer water, etc. Aside from the intriguing way the plot opens itself to a feminist reading, the film is probably most noteworthy today for its final scene, where a woman working behind the counter of a diner responds to Mr. Flip’s advances by smashing a pie in his face. This is believed to be the first time the famous “pie in the face” gag was depicted in a film comedy.

In 1909, the language of cinema had not yet evolved to the point where directors were routinely cutting to close-ups of actors’ faces during the emotional high points of a scene. D.W. Griffith’s innovative use of extensive close-ups in The Lonedale Operator was still two years away. The one close-up in Mr. Flip is an insert shot of a woman sticking a tiny pair of scissors through the bottom of a wicker chair, a detail that would have gone unnoticed in the wider shots that otherwise characterize the movie. Still, in spite of the dearth of close-ups, which make it impossible to clearly see Ben Turpin’s famously crossed eyes, the comedian’s performance nonetheless manages to be effective. Though the film is lighthearted, Mr. Flip’s nervous, jittery energy and his inability to keep his hands off of the female characters make him truly annoying and thus fully deserving of the comeuppance he receives at the end of every scene. It is also worth noting that Mr. Flip’s costume contains elements that would become part of the iconic looks of future screen comedians; his thick, obviously fake mustache predates Groucho Marx’s famous greasepaint mustache by many years (though both mustaches can be said to have a common root in vaudeville), and his flat-top straw hat is uncannily similar to the one that would become forever identified with Buster Keaton beginning in the 1920s.

Mr. Flip can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube:


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bound By Flesh (Zemeckis)
2. The Deep Blue Sea (Davies)
3. The Bride with White Hair (Yu)
4. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
5. Looper (Johnson)
6. Marnie (Hitchcock)
7. The Long Goodbye (Altman)
8. Frenzy (Hitchcock)
9. The Birds (Hitchcock)
10. Vertigo (Hitchcock)


Happy Turkey Day from White City Cinema!

(I’ve actually been a vegetarian for the past five years but, tragically, there isn’t a great film producing-nation named Tofurkey.)


Adventures in IMAX

Disclaimer: Everwhere, LLC provided me with compensation for this post. However, all thoughts and opinions expressed herein are my own.

A few weeks ago, Michael Cieply wrote an article for the New York Times titled “Movies Try to Escape Cultural Irrelevance.” It was only the latest in a series of high-profile articles that have recently appeared in print and online (the most prominent of which is probably Andrew O’Hehir’s notorious piece for Salon in September) pondering if “film culture” is dying or dead. Cieply, like O’Hehir and most recent commentators, explicitly contrasts what he sees as the decay of cinephilia with what he perceives as the concurrent rise in the artistic quality of shows on cable television – you know, smart, well-written fare targeted at adults like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which have allegedly usurped the movies as a buzz-worthy topic of conversation at those mythical cocktail parties where people only seem to talk about buzz-worthy things. Cieply’s article quotes George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute, who blames the supposed decline in the cultural importance of movies on the industry’s “steady push” towards making them available to view on phones, tablets and other tiny electronic devices. Stevens has a point; when Norma Desmond spoke of the pictures getting smaller in Sunset Boulevard, she meant it figuratively. In the 21st century, that reduction in grandeur has become literally true. Yet, while the motion picture industry is undoubtedly undergoing radical change, is there validity to the latest round of doom and gloom cries from the cognoscenti? And, if so, can new technology be used to lure viewers back to the big screen in order to restore the medium’s importance?

As someone with a vested interested in film culture (not just the movies themselves but how they are distributed, exhibited and disseminated), I recently jumped at the chance to see a couple of films at Chicago’s Navy Pier IMAX theater for the preparation of this article. Building on earlier innovations like Cinerama and Cinemiracle, IMAX auditoriums exhibit large-format films that promise an “immersive” experience due to the unprecedented clarity and size of their images, which are projected onto a giant, curved screen, as well as their pioneering use of “surround sound” audio. Prior to my recent adventures in IMAX, my only experience with the format was a single documentary short from 1994 titled Into the Deep, made in an IMAX 3-D process very different from the one they use today (and which I saw, to borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris, under the influence of something stronger than oregano). My recent experience with IMAX included seeing two films that utilized very different technology in how they were produced as well as exhibited – The Dark Knight Rises, which was mostly shot on 35mm film (with a little over an hour being shot on IMAX’s 70mm cameras) and projected on film, and Skyfall, which was shot and projected digitally, but with image and sound that have been reconfigured specially for IMAX theaters. The difference in technical quality between the films offers instructive lessons in what specific changes the industry is presently undergoing and what this might mean for film culture in the future.

IMAX’s 70mm film cameras differ from the once-common 35mm motion picture cameras (not to mention the now ubiquitous digital cameras) in that the large size of the IMAX 70mm film itself renders images of exceptional detail and depth. IMAX 70mm even differs from traditional 70mm film (which made something of a welcome and unexpected comeback in the past year with the releases of The Master and Samsara) in significant ways. Traditional 70mm has five perforations per film frame and is literally twice the size of standard 35mm film. It runs through cameras and projectors vertically but at a faster rate than 35mm, yielding a super-sharp image that is typically in a widescreen aspect ratio (i.e., one where the image is much wider than it is long). IMAX 70mm film has 15 perforations per frame and runs through cameras and projectors horizontally and at a faster rate still, yielding images of almost supernatural clarity. The IMAX film is also presented in what is closer to a square aspect ratio that consumes a viewer’s entire field of vision when seen in an IMAX theater. Because The Dark Knight Rises was shot in multiple formats (the noise generated by IMAX’s 70mm cameras makes shooting an entire feature in that format difficult, much as the loudness of 35mm cameras in the days of early talkies did), to watch the film in IMAX is to witness the jarring spectacle of a film with an aspect ratio that continually changes throughout its presentation – from 1.43:1 to 2.4:1 and back again. Unsurprisingly, director Christopher Nolan used the IMAX 70mm cameras mostly for action scenes and landscape shots and resorted to 35mm for the dialogue scenes that take up the bulk of the film. Still, however unwieldy, IMAX is truly the way this movie was “meant to be seen.”

Fortunately, the scenes in The Dark Knight Rises shot in IMAX 70mm are also the most impressive in the film and, if you’re a fan of the Nolan franchise, they justify seeking it out in that format. For me, the best moments were the breathtaking aerial shots of Gotham City, which seemed almost three-dimensional in their depth. During several such shots, Nolan and D.P. Wally Pfister’s use of deep-focus cinematography had a vertigo-inducing effect that made me feel as though I might somehow fall into the screen. The action set pieces, such as the one on the plane that opens the film as well as the two fistfights between Batman and Bane, also pack a wallop. This is in part due to the sense that they have been edited in a more spatially coherent manner than the previous Nolan Batman movies but also due to the eardrum-bursting sound design, which is even more responsible than the curved IMAX screen in making viewers feel immersed in the action. The Dark Knight Rises is an exceptionally loud movie and, in IMAX, that sound is dispersed throughout the theater via a 6-channel digital sound system. There are speakers placed directly behind the screen, which is perforated with millions of tiny holes, as well as in strategic places around the theater, including a “top center” speaker that corresponds to the screen’s enormous height. IMAX’s sound mix engineers, working with Christopher Nolan’s production team, are able to literally place viewers in the middle of the action as far as the sound is concerned. This means that, in the action scenes, every punch lands with a bone-crunching immediacy and, in the dialogue scenes, every word is crystal clear. While Bane’s mask may have unfortunately inhibited the expressiveness of Tom Hardy’s performance as an actor, I had no problem understanding the character’s dialogue (as was the complaint of many viewers who saw the film in regular theaters).

Skyfall was shot digitally in 2K resolution on the Arri Alexa camera and then “up-resed” to 4K for IMAX projection. The resulting image is of a lower resolution than the 70mm sections of The Dark Knight Rises and therefore not as impressive in terms of clarity. In fact, Skyfall should not look much different in IMAX than how it looks at a regular theater equipped with 4K digital projection. The primary difference between seeing Skyfall in a regular theater versus seeing it in IMAX lies in IMAX’s patented “DMR” digital remastering process. This involved IMAX engineers working with director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins in post-production to “optimize” Skyfall‘s aspect ratio for IMAX screens. The result is that viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are seeing it in a 1:9 aspect ratio, not nearly as “high” of an image as the 1.43:1 ratio of The Dark Knight Rises but considerably higher than the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in which Skyfall appears at regular theaters. In other words, viewers who see Skyfall in IMAX are literally seeing more visual information (26% more to be exact) in the top and bottom portions of the frame. This, however, begs the question: how much of that information is valuable or even necessary? Roger Deakins is a great cinematographer but he surely knew when shooting the movie that the vast majority of the people who see it in theaters are going to see it in the 2.35:1 ratio (i.e., not in IMAX theaters). Therefore, 2.35:1 should probably be seen as the true aspect ratio in which Deakins framed his compositions. While watching Skyfall in IMAX, I noticed how impressively high the image stretched across the giant IMAX screen but I couldn’t also help but notice a lot of “dead air” in the top and bottom portions of the frame.

Still, while Skyfall may not be as impressive as The Dark Knight Rises as an “IMAX experience” because of the technology used in its creation and exhibition, I must also admit that I found it to be a more satisfying one overall simply because I enjoyed it more as a movie – regardless of how it may have been shot or projected. In other words, technical quality is not synonymous with artistic quality; I believe that Roger Deakins is a greater artist with a camera than Wally Pfister, and there was nothing in The Dark Knight Rises that thrilled me as much as what Deakins did with the neon lights, primary colors and reflective surfaces (not to mention a Modigliani painting) in the Shanghai sections of Skyfall – even if the latter was shot in a lower image resolution. Then there is the matter of Skyfall‘s astonishing Macao casino scene, which bears an uncanny and startling resemblance to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (right down to Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s “dragon lady” make-up), but I digress. More importantly, while both films are franchise entries centered on iconic action heroes, Skyfall is the one that offers a more refreshingly original spin on its formulaic story material. For these reasons, I would have preferred Skyfall to The Dark Knight Rises even if the Bond film had been shot on VHS tape.

There will always be something magical to me about seeing movies on the big screen, whether they are projected digitally or on film, and I don’t think the big screen experience will ever die. I am grateful to IMAX for pioneering technology that has made such theater-going experiences special in the 21st century and I also believe that they will continue to make improvements that should make their digital projection superior to that of regular theaters. However, to truly inspire the kind of movie love that the likes of Michael Cieply worry is evaporating, I think IMAX would benefit from offering more diversity in terms of the kinds of films it exhibits. While PG-13 rated action movies aimed at teenage boys serve a purpose, is there not something disheartening about the possibility of living in a world where they are our primary option? The breakout hit of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival was Holy Motors, a truly wild movie whose tone unpredictably and exhilaratingly shifts from the jubilant to the elegiac and back again. It is an unmitigated masterpiece that rocked both the festival’s jury (it took the prizes for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director) and the lucky sold out audiences who saw it. While Holy Motors fortunately returned to Chicago recently for a regular run at the Music Box Theatre, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to experience such a movie with IMAX-quality image and sound. Though even ardent admirers of Holy Motors are likely to see that film’s non-narrative elements as a hard sell for the kind of “general audiences” that tend to populate IMAX theaters, I’m not so sure; if audiences can be conditioned to see something as overstuffed and curiously mirthless as The Dark Knight Rises as “popcorn entertainment,” I see no reason why they couldn’t also be wowed by something as undeniably joyous as Holy Motors‘ accordion jam entr’acte on a screen six-stories high and in glorious surround sound audio.

You can learn more about IMAX on the web at:

www.imax.com
www.facebook.com/IMAX
www.twitter.com/IMAX

Holy Motors Rating: 10
Skyfall Rating: 6.5
The Dark Knight Rises Rating: 5.3


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Before Sunset (Linklater)
2. Badlands (Malick)
3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (Hitchcock)
4. The Trouble with Harry (Hitchcock)
5. Chungking Express (Wong)
6. Days of Heaven (Malick)
7. The Color Wheel (Perry)
8. Skyfall (Mendes)
9. Holy Motors (Carax)
10. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Chopra)


Getting Screwed

The screwball comedy is a beloved comedy subgenre that flourished in Hollywood from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s. The word “screwball” literally means crazy and therefore perfectly captures the spirit of fast-paced, zany mayhem that typifies many of the best comedies of that era. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is widely credited with kickstarting the genre by establishing its core conventions, the influence of which can still be found on Hollywood comedies today. Since the humor in screwball comedy is dependent upon language as much if not more so than sight gags, it is entirely logical that this genre would peak in the early sound era when sound recording technology was still relatively new.

The conventions of screwball comedy are:

– A battle-of-the-sexes love story (there is frequently a healthy sense of competition to go along with the courtship of the male and female leads)

– Rapid-fire, machine-gun paced dialogue (it is sometimes impossible to understand the characters, which doesn’t really matter as the sound and speed of their voices can be more important than what they’re actually saying)

– Female protagonists who are independent, strong-willed and free-spirited

– Situations that become increasingly ridiculous as the protagonists pursue their goals.

These conventions are all beautifully exemplified by three of my favorite screwball comedies, all of which I frequently show in film history classes: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).

When Leo McCarey won a Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth in 1938 he noted in his acceptance speech that he had won the award for the wrong movie, a reference to his superb work on the tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, which he had directed the same year. Contemporary critics and viewers seem to have taken McCarey at his word; the reputation of Tomorrow has soared in recent years as that film has received deluxe home video releases in both America (The Criterion Collection) and the U.K. (a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray). It’s a shame though that the reputation of The Awful Truth, which is only available in a mediocre quality DVD released almost a decade ago, has been seemingly downgraded at the expense of Make Way for Tomorrow because the movie that actually won him the Oscar is one of the best and funniest screwball comedies ever made.

The Awful Truth tells the story of a married couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (the unbeatable pair of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), who get divorced due to mutual suspicions concerning infidelity and then promptly proceed to sabotage one another’s new romantic relationships. The film is based on a stage play and yet, as was customary for McCarey, the final script evolved out of improvisations with the actors, resulting in a feeling of uncommon spontaneity. While a sense of carefully structured chaos characterizes McCarey’s very best comedies (he also directed the immortal and anarchic Marx Brothers romp Duck Soup), he lends the film’s two part structure a formal elegance and sense of harmony through a delightfully symbolic use of doors: characters are constantly hiding behind them or trying to knock them down, and scenes frequently begin and end with characters barging through them. The door symbology reaches its apex in the final shot of the film where a male figurine follows its female counterpart through the tiny door of a cuckoo-style clock, one of the cleverest instances of sexual innuendo in Hollywood’s studio system era.

The chemistry between Grant and Dunne is amazing. They make the viewer feel that, even though their characters seem to be at odds with one another, they each really want the same thing deep down inside, causing us to root for them into getting back together. A good example is the climactic scene where Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s drunken floozy of a sister in order to undermine his new engagement to a prim socialite. Jerry’s reaction to Lucy’s antics is a mixture of annoyance and barely concealed glee that lets us know he actually appreciates the cleverness of her performance. This makes us feel that these characters were meant to be together. If, as has been said, all screwball comedies are about either the construction or the re-construction of a couple, The Awful Truth is the best example of the latter that I have ever seen.

Bringing Up Baby, on the other hand, is a superb example of how the screwball comedy can chart the construction of a couple, which should not be surprising considering that screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde fell in love while writing it. They, along with director Howard Hawks, clearly used The Awful Truth as their model. Bringing Up Baby, made just one year after McCarey’s film, carries over both Grant and Skippy (AKA Asta) the dog, as well as a reference to Grant’s character having the ridiculous nickname of “Jerry the Nipper.”

Bringing Up Baby concerns the misadventures of David Huxley (Grant, playing the straight man), a deadly serious paleontologist whose life is turned upside down by the madcap heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). After meeting cute on a golf course, Susan does everything she can to prevent David’s impending wedding to a frigid woman named Alice Swallow. This includes convincing David to help her escort a pet leopard (the “Baby” of the title) from her luxurious New York City apartment to her aunt’s house in the Connecticut countryside. The scenes become increasingly ridiculous as Susan, determined to prevent David from returning to New York, sends his clothes out to the dry cleaners while he’s taking a shower. This forces him to don a frilly, feminine-looking bathrobe, the only available clothing item in the house. When confronted by Susan’s aunt regarding his strange attire, the only explanation David can offer is that he “just went gay all of a sudden!” This line, which doesn’t appear in any known version of the screenplay, was apparently ad libbed by Grant and, due to the rapid-fire nature of the delivery, snuck past the censors of the time. It is now believed to be the first time the word “gay” was used in a Hollywood film to connote homosexuality, and the line always gets a big laugh from my students when I screen the film in class today.

In another memorable line of dialogue, David tells Susan that he’s strangely drawn to her in quiet moments . . . although there haven’t been any quiet moments. As McCarey did in The Awful Truth, Howard Hawks spins comic gold out of a scenario where Grant is tricked into going along with the harebrained scheme of a wacky female. Crucially, the success of this scenario in Baby stems from the audience’s belief that David has recognized that Susan, his opposite number, is somehow good for him and thus he has actually half-allowed himself to be virtually kidnapped.

While the battles-of-the-sexes on display in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby prove that the women are at least equal to the men in terms of intelligence and cleverness, the balance shifts decisively in favor of the fairer sex in Preston Sturges’ 1941 film The Lady Eve. Sturges’ masterpiece concerns both the construction and reconstruction of the same couple. This is possible because the male lead, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, sensational in his only comedic role), is so dumb that he never realizes the two different women he has fallen in love with, Jean Harrington and the Lady Eve Sidwich, are in fact the same person (Barbara Stanwyck in her prime). As the kids like to say, boo-yah!

The Lady Eve begins with Pike returning to “civilization” after spending a year up the Amazon studying snakes. (The snake imagery allows Sturges to sneak in a wealth of both biblical and sexual references.) While aboard a luxury liner that will take him back to America, Pike meets and falls in love with the con artist Jean. Although it is her initial plan to fleece the “tall, backward boy,” she unexpectedly falls in love with him. After Pike learns of her original intention, he unceremoniously dumps her, which causes Jean to create a new identity in an attempt to even the score. Preston Sturges was the first significant Hollywood director of the sound era to write his own screenplays and, elsewhere on this blog, I have compared him to Mark Twain for, among other things, his brilliant ear for satirical dialogue. Here is a small sampling from The Lady Eve to prove my point:

“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

“Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.”
“I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year.”

“You ought to put handles on that skull. Maybe you could grow geraniums in it.”

“If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you’d die of old maidenhood. That’s why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me. And then I, I fell in love with you, which wasn’t in the cards.”

“I positively swill in their ale.”

“What I am trying to say is: I’m not a poet, I’m an ophiologist.”

And the memorable last line: “Positively the same dame!”

The specter of screwball still rears its head in the never-ending permutation of rom-coms today that, for many years running, all seem to star some combination of Kate Hudson/Gerard Butler/Jennifer Aniston/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl and blur together into one generic and forgettable movie. Sadly, Hollywood no longer produces comedic screenplays with dialogue like the kind cited above (which is not to say that such dialogue is no longer being written) and, for a variety of reasons, can’t seem to make movies that are nearly as funny today. But, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of the still uproarious screwball comedy.


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