Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Fort Lee, 1935

Over on YouTube, the Huntley Film Archives channel has posted a series of three videos, containing amateur film footage of the remains of film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, taken in 1935. The descriptions for the individual videos contain more information about each one. Though not credited, this appears to be the 16mm footage shot by filmmaker and historian Theodore Huff, who grew up near Fort Lee in the heyday of that town's time as the center of film production, and documented what remained of the studios in his 1935 film, GHOST TOWN: THE STORY OF FORT LEE (some of the footage was used later used in BEFORE HOLLYWOOD, THERE WAS FORT LEE, NEW JERSEY).

This fascinating footage is of great historical value, as it captures for posterity the remains of the studios which have now been entirely torn down (the last one standing, the Champion Studio, was demolished in 2013). There is something quite poignant about seeing the dilapidated remains of the studios in which the American film industry was born. These images come to us now like ghosts from the past.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2014)

I had been following the work of Anthony Powell since coming across his great videos of Antarctica (including, intriguingly, some that he made as part of the Antarctica 48 hour film festival) on his YouTube channel several years ago. Recently, I was delighted to learn that his feature-length documentary, Antarctica: A Year on Ice -- which I had read about with anticipation -- had been released and was available for viewing on Netflix.

It has been a long time since I've seen a film of such stunning visual beauty. Powell takes the approach of documenting the winter season in Antarctica, when a dedicated team comes together to work at the McMurdo Station. Once the last plane leaves for the season at the end of the summer, the team is committed to the six month duration of their stay, to work and help contribute to operations at the base. Interspersed between the interviews with different team members, which give us fascinating glimpses of how the individuals live and work and deal with the conditions, he presents breathtaking time-lapse views of the sky and snow, of the vast white landscapes that make up the continent. It is in these shots, capturing the power and beauty of nature, that the film is at its strongest.

Powell does a remarkable job capturing both the sweeping landscapes as well as the small details of life in Antarctica. His documentary is a valuable record of an experience that most people will never have for themselves, and presents both the challenges and highlights of what are clearly strenuous and extreme working conditions, and the personal friendships and rewards that come from the shared experience. Powell's photographic skill and eye for poetic images raise the film above the level of the kind of documentary you might see on a cable TV network -- Antarctica: A Year on Ice is a stunning and personal work of art.

Antarctica: A Year On Ice International Trailer from Anthony Powell on Vimeo.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I have only recently -- admittedly, belatedly -- come to really appreciate what a remarkable set of circumstances was made possible by BBS Productions in the late '60s and early '70s, and certainly what a remarkable group of films was produced by the company during that time. While I had always appreciated and admired the significance of Easy Rider, the company's breakout success, it was really the comparatively low-key, painfully honest and still-relevant Five Easy Pieces, which impressed me most deeply and made me pay close attention to the films produced by the company.

The King of Marvin Gardens re-unites director Bob Rafelson with star Jack Nicholson, though it is not merely a follow-up to Five Easy Pieces. Set against the backdrop of a decaying Atlantic City, Nicholson plays David Staebler, an intellectual late-night talk radio host, who comes to the boardwalk to help out his brother Jason (Bruce Dern), recently released from jail and trying to get his latest property development venture off the ground while dealing with difficult relationships with the women in his life (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson) and the local crime racket with whom he is involved. Nicholson's David is a quiet but sharp observer, fiercely loyal to his brother despite his misguided efforts. He seems to view himself as somewhat aloof, perhaps using his role as radio host to distance himself from the situations and people around him, but he nevertheless proves himself willing to step up and take action when circumstances call for it.

Nicholson's performance is a revelation -- restrained and burning with a quiet intensity, working in perfect synergy with the similarly restrained but intense style that Rafelson brings to the film. Rafelson brilliantly uses the decaying boardwalk, once a symbol for opportunity and wealth, and now run-down with corruption, as a metaphor for America.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Shooting on Film Again

Perhaps in keeping with the idea that "What's old is new again", it certainly seems that there is a good deal of excitement among film enthusiasts toward shooting on film again. Following the intense hype surrounding Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, shot - and released, albeit in limited engagements - in the 70mm format, Kodak came out with an intriguing announcement, regarding the company's revival of the Super 8 format.

The announcement comes at an interesting time for "analog" formats, given the resurgence in popularity of vinyl records in recent years. As someone who recently began shooting on film again myself (I purchased a 16mm Bolex this past summer), I will be especially interested to see how other filmmakers react to this development, and whether or not the Super 8 format does indeed see a revival as a result.

Ultimately, I think it will come down to a question of what individual filmmakers hope to accomplish by shooting in the format. As a learning tool, it could prove to be highly valuable to a generation of filmmakers trained on digital formats. At the same time, the greater cost and cumbersome nature of the technology may well stymie many of these same filmmakers in their tracks. Shooting on film rewards patience and meticulous attention to detail, qualities that digital tends to work against with its ability to obtain good results with less work (and I say that not to denigrate those artists and craftsmen who approach working on digital with the same care and quality as they would film; but the format does make it easier for the lazy and sloppy to achieve passable results).

Whether or not Kodak's planned revival of Super 8 leads to wider embrace of the format, or whether it remains largely marketing hype, it has certainly sparked some strong interest and contributed to the ongoing discussion about the relative merits of film and digital. The following statement from Steven Spielberg, quoted in Kodak's announcement, sums up my feelings on the subject:
"Paintings done on a computer and paintings done on canvas require an artist to make us feel something. To be the curser or the brush, that is the question and certainly both can produce remarkable results. But doesn't the same hold true for the cinematic arts? Digital or celluloid? Vive la difference! Shouldn't both be made available for an artist to choose?"

Friday, January 01, 2016

The Birds (1963)

Sometimes regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's last true masterpiece, The Birds is a frustrating and at times maddening film, constantly flirting with and skirting around answers and solutions to the unexplained bird attacks that descend upon the Northern California coastal town of Bodega Bay. It is also a brilliant and deceptively complex film for the same reason, with Hitchcock playing on the human need to make sense of horrible things in order to understand how they happened and to assuage our fears in the process. In The Birds, he robs of us that relief, presenting a horror for which there is no explanation -- it just is, and that is the most frightening thing of all. By making that horror a natural one -- in this case, the birds with which we associate peace and harmony -- Hitchcock also reminds us of man's utter helplessness in the face of nature, should nature ever decide to turn on him.

In no other Hitchcock film is there such a constant feeling of dread lurking throughout. Take the opening scene, in which society girl Tippi Hedren and lawyer Rod Taylor "meet cute" in a bird shop. There is a moment when one of the small birds escapes from its cage and flits around the ceiling a bit before being captured and returned. Normally, this little bit of business would be humorous and played for laughs (which it seemingly is here, at first), but there is something about the bird's escape, and the brief pandemonium that it causes while flying about the shop, that creates a feeling of tension and unease in its unpredictability and the way that the bird upsets the order of things. The scene ends, leaving you feeling a bit uneasy, but you can't quite be sure just why.

The best example of what Hitchcock is up to here is the scene in which Tippi Hedren, for no apparent reason, wanders up to a top-floor room of the house, which has just been devastated by a bird attack. She slowly creeps up the dark stairs, flashlight in hand, as Hitchcock pulls out all the tricks in the books to make the audience anticipate something awful about to happen. When she enters the room, she spots a gaping hole in the ceiling, through which a hundred birds immediately come rushing in, mercilessly pecking and attacking her in a way that suggests a rape. Why, we wonder, did she ever go up to the room in the first place? Why do the birds attack? Is it meant to suggest a metaphor for sexual assault? And if so, why? Hitchcock is careful -- methodically so -- to avoid anything that could be construed as an explanation for any of it.

Perhaps the best way to think of The Birds is as a colossal joke on the academics and critics who were beginning to take Hitchcock's work very seriously around this time. It's as if the Master, with characteristically sly humor, offered them a film that seemed to be packed with layers of symbolism to be dissected for its meaning, but which ultimately mean nothing, like a puzzle that cannot be solved.

If so, Hitchcock had the last laugh.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Independent Filmmaking circa 1959

Occasionally on this blog, I like to let readers know about particularly interesting articles, video essays, or other external links that I think will be of interest.

This is an excellent Filmmaker Magazine article from 2013, by Allen Baron, the writer, director and star behind the 1961 independent film noir classic, BLAST OF SILENCE (also one of the best Christmas movies ever made). In the article, Baron talks about the resources that were required to make an independent film around the time he made BLAST OF SILENCE in 1959, and the experience of shooting on location in New York guerrilla style. The article also gives a good sense of the opportunities available to independent filmmakers at the time. As Baron notes, the higher number of independent productions today makes it more difficult for films to be discovered by potential distributors (BLAST OF SILENCE was distributed by Universal and led to a studio contract for Baron), but the advent of digital video has also made it much easier to get your independent film made, and there are more festivals in which to showcase them.

Here is the link to the article. It is a fascinating (and inspiring) read by an absolutely brilliant filmmaker.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blast of Silence (1961)

Now this is an unconventional Christmas movie!

This low-budget noir stars Allen Baron (who also wrote and directed) as a small-time Cleveland hit man who comes to New York around Christmastime to bump off a mobster, but gets in over his head when he lets slip that he wants this to be his last job. Much of the film consists of shots of the hit man walking the streets of New York, alone with his thoughts (narrated by Lionel Stander). It is ultimately a tragic tale, though never one tainted by cheap sentiment or unearned, misguided calls for sympathy. It is hard-edged, brutal, and terrifyingly honest in many ways.

The locations of NYC play such an integral part in the film, heightening the hit man's sense of loneliness and alienation amid the crowds. Without exaggeration, the location photography here is some of the finest, and certainly most effective, that I have yet seen. A climactic sequence taking place in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is particularly striking for its stark, bleak imagery (clearly filmed during a brutal windstorm) as a backdrop in which the violent final shoot-out takes place. The haunting, lyrical shots of raindrops falling in the water, the reeds blowing in the wind, and the contrast between the marshes and the busy highway visible in the background, achieve a real poetry.

I really have no idea how I never saw this one before, but it's certainly one of those movies that I instantly connected with after just one viewing. This is a special film, to be sure.