As many longtime readers of this blog know, I have spent the past four 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 today we signed a contract with Wallflower Press, the esteemed London-based film studies imprint of Columbia University Press. Titled Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, this book tells 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 strove to write an account that we hope is 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. Publication is scheduled for March 2015. More info concerning Flickering Empire will appear on this blog in the near future — so stay tuned!
You can visit Wallflower Press on the web and browse their wonderful catalog of titles here.
You can read pertinent posts on “Chicago movies” on this blog here.
1. The House of the Devil (West)
2. The Wise Kids (Cone)
3. Avalon (Oshii)
4. Once (Carney)
5. Lola (Demy)
6. Curse of Chucky (Mancini)
7. The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami)
8. The Final Member (Math/Bekhor)
9. Dead Man (Jarmusch)
10. Pickpocket (Bresson)
dir: Richard Linklater, USA, 2014
“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river”
— Jorge Luis Borges
Now playing in Chicago and around the U.S in limited release is Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s much ballyhooed “12-years-in-the-making” intimate epic about one family’s life in 21st century Texas. The film’s formally groundbreaking nature has already been much commented upon by critics since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. No one, after all, has ever before attempted to make a fictional narrative feature by shooting the same group of actors over such a long period of time (roughly three days a year for a dozen consecutive years). Linklater’s strategy allows him to show the progression of his protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, a natural actor at every age), from the first grade through his senior year of high school, but he also devotes considerable time to the other members of Mason’s immediate family: his divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an award-worthy performance) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke at his rakish best), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, also terrific).
Fortunately, there is much more going on here than the mere novelty value of watching a group of actors rapidly age before our eyes. From Slacker (1991) to the Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013), time has always been Linklater’s great subject. Because of the intelligent, daring and sometimes surprising ways that he explores the concept here, Linklater’s latest achieves the status of a magnum opus. Like The Searchers was for John Ford, Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career. Last year, I wrote that Before Midnight established Linklater as the best director of his generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyhood establishes him as America’s finest working filmmaker period.
After only two viewings, I am also tempted to say that Boyhood is the single film that best defines American life in the early 21st century. What is especially impressive about the achievement is that, on a narrative level at least, Linklater does not seem to be striving for virtuosity. There is a surprising lack of drama in the storyline; no one dies, no one gets seriously ill, there are no tragic accidents. It is as if the director knew that his mere concept was dramatic enough and that by focusing on the smaller, more intimate details of growing up (first beer, first heartbreak, etc.), they would cumulatively add up to something momentous. In this sense, Boyhood is similar to — but vastly superior to — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I thought there was a great movie inside of The Tree of Life that was dying to get out, an autobiographical one involving a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. Certain moments of that film rang so true concerning suburban American childhood that they unexpectedly caused tears of remembrance to well up in my eyes (e.g., children playing kick the can in the street at dusk before being called home for dinner by their mothers).
Unfortunately, Terrence Malick did not trust that The Tree of Life‘s simple domestic scenes would be sufficiently interesting to sustain an entire feature film and so he couched them in pretentious sequences involving digital dinosaurs and voice-over narration cloaked in cosmic-spiritual hokum. Linklater, on the other hand, confidently constructs his entire movie out of such fleeting moments: in one early scene, young Mason looks at a dead bird on the ground. Later, he and a group of friends walk down the street and pass a mentally ill young man who uncontrollably blurts out obscenities. Linklater rarely indicates what Mason is thinking about such things. He merely observes the character observing, and the film, like time itself, marches inexorably on. Later still, when Mason becomes a teenager, he does begin to question things in his own quiet, introspective and thoughtful way. The total effect of watching this gradual, unforced transformation of his character is to bear witness to nothing less than the birth of an individual consciousness.
A strange feeling came over me as I watched this leisurely paced two-hour-and-46-minute movie (the same length, incidentally, as Transformers: Age of Extinction): at some point I realized that I was actively trying to remember what the characters had looked, sounded and felt like in the earlier portions of the film — when they were literally years younger. This is not something I can recall doing with any other movie, nor any work of art in any medium (aside perhaps from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the ultimate narrative exploration of time and memory). Boyhood‘s astonishing power to incite viewers to meditate on the nature of memory, and no doubt on their own lives as well, while still in the process of watching it is probably a direct result of Linklater’s smart refusal, in any obvious way, to signal shifts in time. There are no title cards reading “One year later” nor are there any blatant cues within the dialogue. I often found myself questioning if a scene was taking place, chronologically speaking, immediately after the one that had preceded it or if the story had jumped ahead a year — and often found the answer only by noticing whether the actors had similar or different haircuts.
By the time Boyhood reaches its sublime conclusion, viewers have traveled through time with the characters on a journey that more than one commentator has likened to a “period piece set in the present”: from the last days of film stock to the dawn of digital (though the film itself was shot entirely on 35mm to achieve a uniform look), from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of Barack Obama (an occasion for two of the film’s funniest moments, presented back-to-back) not to mention the rise of social media (and, eventually, a growing disillusionment with it). Jean Cocteau, another cinematic poet of time, famously said that a movie camera “filmed death at work” (i.e., because a movie literally shows its performers aging, they are closer to their funerals at the end of shooting than they were at the beginning). Yet by speeding this process up, and condensing 12 years into a single feature, Linklater proves that the reverse is also true: to watch Mason and Samantha transition from children into beautiful young adults is like watching flowers bloom in water — Boyhood shows us life at work better than any film I know.
Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Richard Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit. In spite of creating a name for himself by making zeitgeist-capturing comedies about specific subcultures (e.g.,Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Linklater has always thankfully avoided adopting an attitude of condescension to his characters, not to mention resisted the kind of David Foster Wallace-esque hipster irony that has frequently passed for humor in America in recent decades. In this respect, I’m particularly grateful for the realistic — and unfashionably warmhearted — way in which he presents Mason Sr.’s conservative and religious in-laws; they bestow their grandson on his 15th birthday with gifts of a bible and a shotgun, respectively, presents that the budding young artist is happy to accept.
While all of the principal characters in Boyhood are flawed, Linklater also wisely refuses to judge them: Olivia may repeat the mistake of engaging in relationships with hard-drinking and abusive men, and Mason Sr. may be a perennial fuck-up (even after he transitions from GTO-driving “cool dad” to responsible family man, he still offers Olivia money while knowing that his wallet is empty and hoping that she’ll turn him down) — yet there is always the sense that these characters are just fumbling through life like we all do, improvising as they go, trying to do the best they can. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia’s second husband, who becomes an increasingly scary control freak, scene by scene, as his alcoholism worsens. But Linklater extends sympathy even to this character by granting him a moment of horrifying self-awareness. “You don’t like me much, do you, Mason?” Bill asks of his new stepson during a particularly tense dinner scene. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” Like all of Linklater’s best work, including much of the rest of this film, it is a moment that feels almost impossibly human.
Note:Boyhood is rated R by the MPAA for “sexual references, drug use and profanity” but I do not think parents should hesitate to take teenage children (even young teens) to see it. They are, after all, the ones most likely to identify with the film’s protagonist — as well as the ones most likely to benefit from observing what Linklater shows as the various paths laying ahead of them.
You can check out the trailer for Boyhood via YouTube below:
dir: Bong Joon-ho, S. Korea, 2013
Now playing as an exclusive engagement at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and elsewhere around the country in limited release, is Snowpiercer, a formidable dystopian sci-fi action movie from the prodigiously talented South Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiercer is an international co-production designed to have broad-based global appeal: the script was adapted by Bong and American playwright Kelly Masterson from the acclaimed French graphic novel by Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, and the cast boasts an impressively motley crew of movie stars from Europe, Asia and North America (headed by none other than “Captain America” himself, Chris Evans). This being a Bong Joon-ho film, there is also a sly, undeniably Marxist slant. Bong, a member of the Democratic Labor Party (the most progressive in South Korea), is no stranger to subtly incorporating political messages into traditional genre fare. Memories of Murder (2003) was a slam-bang police procedural that also painted a trenchant portrait of life under a military dictatorship while The Host (2006) used the monster-movie format as the framework for an eye-opening anti-global-capitalist screed.
Snowpiercer continues Bong’s admirable trend of using Hollywood genre tropes to say some very un-Hollywood things by telling the story of how the few remaining survivors of an apocalyptic event are engaged in class warfare on a train that must continually circle the earth. The film’s “revenge of the 99%” plot, however, is staged first and foremost as a series of thrilling action set-pieces, which, along with the charismatic star turns and state-of-the-art CGI effects, should have been more than enough to appeal to the “Transformers crowd.” Unfortunately, stateside distributor the Weinstein Company appears to have seriously miscalculated Snowpiercer‘s commercial prospects. After a protracted and notorious battle with Bong over final cut (Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein wanted to elide 20 minutes and add an explanatory voice-over), the Weinstein Company ultimately decided to treat it as an arthouse specialty item rather than the mass entertainment it so obviously is. When I belatedly caught up with it on its 14th day of screening at the Music Box, the show I attended was sold out and scores of people were being turned away at the door.
The most impressive aspect of Snowpiercer is its dazzling production design. Bong has always made meticulous looking, image-driven movies and, now that he has the biggest budget he has ever been allowed to work with, he really lets it fly. The CGI landscapes of the earth as it might look plunged into a new ice age are nifty, but the interior design of the train cars is even more eye-popping. The film begins with images that are appropriately grimy, desaturated and drab as Bong focuses on the rear of the train; this is where the working-class characters (under the leadership of John Hurt’s Gilliam — no doubt a reference to the creator of Brazil) have been ghettoized. The visual style then becomes increasingly colorful and ornate as the back-of-the-train’s pointedly multi-racial coalition (which includes characters played by Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Song Kang-ho) mount a revolt and work their way towards the front of the train where the “one-percenters” are living in the lap of luxury. This dichotomy is not unlike the above/below-ground schism of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: both films comment on the present day by imagining a future where the gulf between rich and poor is taken to a logical but disturbing extreme.
The best scene of all takes place in a train compartment that functions as an elementary school where children are being force-fed propaganda about Wilford (Ed Harris), the mysterious great white father who invented the train and lives in its engine. While the film ultimately belongs to Tilda Swinton — hilarious as Mason, Wilford’s second-in-command and a cartoonish villain buried beneath almost as much prosthetics and make-up as she wore in The Grand Budapest Hotel — she is herself momentarily upstaged in this scene; the talented young Canadian actress Alison Pill amazes as a schoolteacher leading the children through maniacally gleeful sing-alongs (“What happens if the engine stops? / We all freeze and die!”). While nothing in the film’s too-protracted climax can match the invention of this delightfully candy-colored sequence (nor an earlier, elaborately choreographed battle scene between the torch-wielding poor and the hooded, axe-wielding security guards of the rich), Snowpiercer is still far and away the best bet for anyone looking for a “summer popcorn movie.” Bong Joon-ho reminds us of something that Hollywood seems to have depressingly forgotten: that art and entertainment need not be seen as mutually exclusive concepts.
You can check out the trailer for Snowpiercer via YouTube below:
1. The Dead (Huston)
2. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
3. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
4. Breathless (Godard)
5. Sans Soleil (Marker)
6. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Sholder)
8. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
9. Touch of Evil (Welles)
10. L’avventura (Antonioni)
Still from A Kiss in the Tunnel: Director/star George Albert Smith, the most important of the “Brighton School” filmmakers, with his wife and lead actress Laura Bayley.
A lot of my favorite early silent movies were made by the pioneering British director George Albert Smith (no relation to yours truly). Along with Let Me Dream Again and As Seen Through a Telescope, both of which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, one of his most important works is the 1899 comedy A Kiss in the Tunnel. The film is a good example of early continuity editing and consists of three short, cleverly edited shots. In the first shot, a train enters a dark tunnel, which the audience sees from the point-of-view of the front of the train. (Such “train P.O.V.” films, popularly known as “phantom rides,” were common around the turn of the 20th century; the point was to create a thrilling “you-are-there” effect.) The second shot features a man and a woman in Victorian garb, played by Smith and his wife Laura Bayley, sitting opposite one another inside of a train car and reading. The man stands up, doffs his top hat and leans in to kiss the woman three times in quick succession, twice on the lips and once on the cheek. She looks embarrassed after the first kiss, holding her book in front of her face, but is much more participatory in the second, after which she can be seen smiling broadly. After the third and final kiss, the man and the woman abruptly return to reading. Smith then cuts to the third and final shot, another P.O.V. shot from the front of the train as it leaves the tunnel.
According to film historian Charles Musser, George Albert Smith felt that phantom ride films had become “overly familiar” by 1899 and he conceived of A Kiss in the Tunnel as a means of reviving interest in the genre: “The Warwick Trading company catalog instructed exhibitors to buy this studio-made shot of a couple kissing in a railway car and cut it into a phantom ride at a point in which the locomotive is in the darkened tunnel (as shown in this print).” What’s open to debate is whether the point of showing the train entering the tunnel merely provided a convenient cover of darkness for the man to steal his kisses or whether such a shot had more deliberate Freudian undertones. Shots of trains entering tunnels would, after all, eventually become the crudest and most obvious sexual metaphor in all of cinema (as seen in The Lady Eve, North By Northwest, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear and countless other movies). Watch the film via the YouTube clip I’ve embedded below and decide for yourself. I also highly recommend scrolling through and reading all of the YouTube user comments beneath it, many of which express mock-outrage at this scandalous work of Victorian proto-pornography. Many of them are, quite frankly, hilarious:
1. Musser, Charles. A Kiss in the Tunnel. The Movies Begin Vol. 2 Text. Kino DVD, 2002.
1. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
2. Umberto D. (De Sica)
3. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
4. Double Indemnity (Wilder)
5. Undead (Spierig/Spierig)
6. Citizen Kane (Welles)
7. Citizen Kane (Welles)
8. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati)
9. My Man Godfrey (La Cava)
10. Me and Orson Welles (Linklater)
Citizen Kane is the movie I have seen more than any other. I have shown it well over 30 times in the past 5 years that I have been teaching film studies classes at the college level, and this is in addition to the dozens of times I watched it previously — in every conceivable format — going back to when I saw it for the first time on VHS at the age of 12. I would estimate I’ve now seen it more than 60 times, a number that will only increase exponentially as I continue to teach it over time. (I once tried teaching an “Intro to Film” class without screening it and it didn’t feel right; it was like teaching a class on the history of rock and roll and not discussing Elvis.)
Anyway, after watching a movie so many times, you begin to notice all kinds of funny things. Small things. Things that nobody would notice after only a few viewings. There are certain tiny details in the movie that you grow to appreciate and look forward to seeing with each successive viewing. Conversely, there are also certain aspects of the movie that you grow to dislike. This post is nothing but a collection of random and, I hope, amusing observations about Citizen Kane from a man who has, by any objective standard, viewed it too many times.
1. Agnes Moorehead, who plays Mrs. Kane (Charlie’s mother) only appears in three shots in the entire movie. I’ve always noticed how the shots in which she appears are “long takes” but I never bothered to actually count them until recently. I was astonished to find that her scene consists of so few shots because her character is so important and makes such a big impression that it seems like she’s in many more shots than she is — and that her screen time is greater than it is.
2. Agnes Moorehead gives my favorite performance in the film. Like most of the rest of the cast, she was a theatrical actress making her motion-picture debut and, while one tends to think of theatrical acting as “broad” (since stage performers have to play to the proverbial “cheap seats”), her performance is the most naturalistic in the film. The best moment is when she says, in close-up, “I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now.” Her face betrays no emotion when she says this. Her line reading is almost entirely flat and neutral, and yet her voice becomes breathy and just the tiniest bit higher-pitched on the words “week now,” which indicates that her character is heartbroken at having to send her son away.
3. My least favorite line of dialogue, by a wide margin, is: “I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.” Charles Foster Kane says this to his colleagues Bernstein and Leland after staying up all night preparing his first edition of the newspaper as its editor. He concludes the line by turning off the gaslight. This annoys me to no end because it’s the kind of “period dialogue” that nobody would ever actually say. Kane might as well have added, “It sure is great owning a newspaper in the 1890s!”
4. One of the funniest moments in the film is one I didn’t notice at all until I had seen it many times. When Kane gives his “Declaration of Principles” to Solly, the copy boy, and asks him to run it on the front page, Solly is smiling and seems bemused at having to “remake” the front page again at Kane’s insistence. Then, when Leland asks Solly to bring him the declaration after he’s done with it (because Leland feels it will become an historically important document), Solly turns to leave and visibly rolls his eyes. The implication is that Solly likes Kane but not Leland. Ever since noticing it for the first time, it’s a moment that never fails to make me laugh.
5. My favorite bit of acting from Orson Welles comes during his gubernatorial campaign speech, specifically the line, “I would make my promises now . . . if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them!” The way Welles leans into the crowd, ingratiatingly smiling and nodding, as he delivers the “punchline” after the pregnant pause absolutely nails a very specific kind of obnoxious self-satisfaction and entitlement.
6. There is one line in the film that is awkwardly dubbed, I suspect for censorship reasons. “Boss” Jim Gettys summons Kane and his wife to the home of Kane’s mistress, Susan Alexander, in the hopes of blackmailing his rival into quitting his gubernatorial campaign. At one point in the middle of a lengthy shot, Gettys says, “We got evidence that’ll look bad in the headlines. Do you want me to give you the evidence, Mr. Kane?” The first of these sentences was clearly overdubbed by Ray Collins, the actor playing Gettys, in post-production and it is obvious that the line he spoke on set was something completely different. If anyone knows what he originally said, and why the line was changed, please let me know!
7. Joseph Cotten is terrific as the young and middle-aged Jedediah Leland but not so good as the elderly Leland. I’m really not sure if this is a problem with Cotten’s acting or with the way his scenes were written and/or directed but the continuity of his character makes no sense to me. I understand that time slows some people down but how does the urbane and sophisticated Leland end up in a nursing home speaking with an exaggerated southern drawl? I’ve entertained the thought that perhaps Leland is putting on an “act” for Thompson, the reporter interviewing him: he does, after all, pretend to forget the name of Xanadu, Kane’s palatial estate. But Roger Ebert notes on the Blu-ray/DVD commentary track that Cotten was unhappy with his old-age makeup, which he felt had been rushed (is that why he’s wearing a visor?). I think it’s more likely that Cotten’s dissatisfaction with his make-up is somehow responsible for his less-than-stellar performance in the scene.
8. A great bit of non-verbal acting in this same scene: when Leland asks Thompson to bring him cigars wrapped up to “look like toothpaste or something,” the nurse who’s closest to Leland turns and shoots a knowing look at the other nurse present. Assuming Thompson does arrange for a delivery of cigars, there’s no way his package is making it past the hospital’s front desk.
9. Everything that Fortunio Bonanova (the actor who plays Matiste, the singing coach) says and does is hilarious.
10. Towards the end of the film, Susan is working on a jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a cavernous room in Xanadu. She asks Kane what time it is. He responds “Half past eleven.” She clarifies, “I mean in New York?” He responds, “Half past eleven.” Does this grown woman really not know that Florida and New York are in the same time zone?
Bonus track: Ever since becoming a teacher, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the notorious, screeching “eyeless” cockatoo. It never fails to wake up sleeping students: