The Clunky Classic

I put on 'It's a Wonderful Life' the other night, a film that I enjoy immensely. It is a clever take on the classic Scrooge story and, unlike many other holiday classics, reaches into the darker parts of life. The theme of broken dreams is an easy concept for most people to gravitate to as life rarely makes a path for us to achieve what we want and often when it does it doesn't necessarily make us any happier. 'It's a Wonderful Life' explores these ideas (and more) with a degree of depth not seen in average Christmas fare.

All this said, it has to be one of the clunkiest classics ever made. The film suffers from an odd story structure and some of the worst editing I've ever seen in a studio picture. In terms of the edits, I'm not sure that I would blame the picture editor. The editor is given the footage that the director and cameraman have captured and it is really the directors job to make sure that the film will cut. It would be a fair assessment to say that it was Capra's technical direction that is responsible for the poor edits. Take these two images for example:

The cut is odd as the change in framing is too subtle making it feel like a small jump cut. The secondary character is starting to walk behind Jimmy Stewart before the cut and is unmoving beside him at the head of the next shot. Normally cutting on action (or a match cut) is one of the nicest and smoothest methods to hide the cut. Here, it highlights the jump cut and is a bit jarring for the audience. Although the audience wouldn't notice the technical aspects of the flaw, they do have a subconscious knowledge of spatial relationships.
Here is another example:

Again, the change in framing is too subtle and in this particular cut Uncle Billy's expression changes from laughingly playful to straight. The continuity of emotion is broken and it highlights the poor visual cut. The film is littered with these kinds of poor edits.

The story structure is quite unusual as well. It starts with a conversation of spirits who inform us that they need to send an angel to help poor George Bailey. They decide to give the angel (and us) some back story as to who George Bailey is and the film starts in flashback. What is odd about this structure is that we end up spending eighty minutes on the back story! By the time we get to the part where George is in trouble, we've practically forgot that there were angels in the story at all. Thus, the second act starts about an hour and a half into the movie. I can't help but wonder how much this story structure affected the poor reviews the film recieved when it first came out. The films revival came from public broadcasters showing the film every year as it had fallen out of copyright and was free for public use. The familiarity that we built with it's odd structure by showing it yearly may have had a good counter effect (just a thought)...

Despite these seemingly major flaws, 'It's a Wonderful Life' is a classic and deserving of its status. Why? The film has such a wonderful energy and drive that it transcends its technical problems. I used to tell my students that story was the most important thing and should always trump whatever lighting or continuity problems you're having. If the poor cut will tell the story better than using a bad take then go with the break in continuity. The audience doesn't go to the movies to see good technical film making, they go to see characters who are having the biggest crisis of their lives. 'It's a Wonderful Life' can be a bit sentimental and melodramatic at times but it also features a character who is selfish and unhappy. He can't see the good that he adds to other peoples lives as he's too self absorbed and bitter that he hasn't been able to chase those unattainable dreams. This is where Capra has done his finest work, creating a film that is exuberant and unashamed of its earnestness.


The Conformist

As an update to a previous post - 'The Conformist' is finally being released to dvd December 5th (Christmas is early). I previously wrote that it was a glaring omission from the catalogue of great movies. As one of Bernardo Bertolucci's finest films and one of the richest films ever made, 'The Conformist' is one of the most visually stunning films ever photographed as well as a profound character study.

The film takes place in fascist Italy as the protagonist (Marcello) is sent to Paris to assassinate his former professor and enemy of the state. I won't reveal any details of how it unfolds but I will say that what evolves is a fascinating mixture of sex, politics and violence. For me, 'The Conformist' defines the great art house film - intelligent, intriguing, challenging, complex and beautiful. I can't wait to get my copy.



My stomach is still a bit sore from seeing 'Borat' last night. If you don't know 'Borat', he is one of the personas from 'Da Ali G Show'. Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator of the character of Borat, teamed up with a crack team of comedy writers and director Larry Charles (Seinfeld writer) to film one of the funniest films I've ever seen. Going into the film I'd heard those words uttered - "funniest film ever" - and thought that maybe it was just studio spin. It was hardly an exaggeration. I don't remember ever laughing so hard and for so long. That's the thing about comedies in general. They make you laugh for an act or two and then peter out trying to finish telling the story. It's a symptom of the three act structure. Most comedies use up their best material setting up the story then find that about an hour (or so) in that they have to resolve the 'plot'. This means that the gags and funny business are replaced by an earnest effort to satisfy the story. Some comedies, like 'Bullets Over Broadway', skirt this problem by setting up a funny plot. This way it isn't actually dependent on gags to be funny - the story is funny in and of itself. 'Borat' solves the problem by creating the thinnest plot and refuses to make the comedy dependant on it. The thin plot creates a reason for Borat to travel the American countryside but never demands that he go from A to B in any formal manner.

The result? Brilliant! 'Borat' is one of those rare comedies that fuses toilet humour with sophisticated satire. The gags are intellectual one minute then bawdy the next. Some have found the film extremely offensive and it's easy to see why. 'Borat' amplifies racial and sexual stereotypes but places them in the realm of farce. Borat seeks to find the parts of our society that validate these attitudes thus shining a light on ourselves. We are not cleansed of hatred and bigotry and 'Borat' for all it's hilarity gives us a mirror to hold our society up against. It's smart. It's dirty. It's bawdy and it's hilarious.

As a footnote, 'Borat' was sold out and the audience laughed so hard that subsequent jokes were missed. Like 'Little Miss Sunshine', 'Borat' is another example of how good films bring people out to the movie theatres in droves. And unlike the hundred million dollar flops, 'Borat' makes its fortune and success on talent.


Two Trips to the Toronto Film Festival

I managed to see 'So Goes the Nation' and 'When the Levee's Broke' last week. Both films were excellent as well as important social and historical documents.

'So Goes the Nation' examined the 2004 Presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry. The focus of the film is both macro and micro as it deals volunteers on the ground in Ohio, which turned out to be a swing state and an important campaign battleground, as well as interviews with the chief strategists from the Bush and Kerry camps. It is the balanced view that gives this documentary it's interesting point of view. Far from Michael Moore and Al Franken, the film tries very hard to be non partisan and show the election from both the Republican and Democratic side. The election was an easy target for a soap box documentary where you could expose the dirty tactics used againt John Kerry but they don't follow the easy target. Instead, you get a unique view into the strategy of the opponents. This deconstruction of the party battle plans doesn't diminish it's human appeal as a lot of time is spent with the volunteers on the ground and their emotional investments in the outcome of the election. It is a wonderful balance of people with political strategy and free of any apparent partisan manipulation. You can't help but marvel at how an election campaign is constructed and won, or in Kerry's case, lost.

'When the Levee's Broke' is Spike Lee's documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans. In a four hour running time, the film is a comprehensive view of the storm and its social and political aftermath. Some might expect the outspoken Lee to have a hayday with this material which undeniably exposes America's flaws in both race and poverty. Yet Spike Lee, like 'So Goes the Nation', doesn't go the easy direction. Instead he focuses his camera on the people and allows the material speak for itself. 'When the Levee's Broke' becomes an important document of the storm and the views of the people who were abandoned by the beauracracy of the government. The issues of race and poverty are apparent in the film but Lee allows it to come to the surface naturally. His main agenda in this film is to humanize the events, to show you how a great city and a unique people are shamefully swept away in the richest and most powerful country in the world. The film is an angry, funny, sad, painful and spirited look at the United States biggest catastrophe. If you watch the news often, you might find that the film doesn't offer much new information but it doesn't matter - it offers empathy and humanity. It shares the horror of being black and poor in America as well as the horror of Katrina itself. It is a humbling documentary and one well worth seeing.


Lady in the Lake

Robert Montgomery's 1947 film noir 'Lady in the Lake' is an interesting film that uses the technique of POV (point of view) to tell the story. Montgomery directed this film as well as starred in the leading role of Philip Marlowe. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Marlowe is hired to find a publishers missing wife.

The film is an interesting but ultimately failed experiment in film technique. Orson Welles proposed to do an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' when he was first hired to make a film for RKO. Welles had planned to do the film in the point of view of Marlow (odd that it's the same name) but for a variety of reasons Welles abandoned 'Heart of Darkness' for 'Citizen Kane'. It was a smart move for Welles as the technique limits the filmmaker. For this reason 'Lady in the Lake' lumbers along, chained to the point of view of Marlowe and never giving the audience the opportunity to see how Marlowe reacts or feels. For Montgomery the point of view allowed the audience to participate in the film as if they were Marlowe. This fails as we are not Marlowe and although we are carried along by the dialogue and plot we never really participate in the film. Film is a window into the characters lives and just because we share their visual point of view, it doesn't mean that we share in the characters thoughts or feelings.

I have seen this technique used well in the BBC comedy 'Peep Show'. What separates 'Peep Show' from 'Lady in the Lake' is that 'Peep Show' shifts the POV shots between the characters. This allows you to see a character react visually to the events of the story. It gives you the window into their thoughts and feelings. 'Peep Show' takes it a step further by giving the characters internal monologues where we hear their private thoughts.

'Lady in the Lake' was interesting to watch as it highlights the strengths of traditional and classic film technique. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope was a similar exercise in making a film that seemingly employed no cuts. 'Rope' was made to preserve total continuity and look like it was made in a single take. Hitchock reflected on this experiment with Francois Truffaut:

"When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story...as an experiment Rope may be forgiven, but it was definitely a mistake when I insisted on applying the same techniques to Under Capricorn."

Montgomery's 'Lady in the Lake' can also be forgiven as an experiment in technique. It is no wonder that we don't use the technique as 'Lady in the Lake' highlighted the flaws in using extensive POV for storytelling. 'Rope' was a more successful experiment and remains an entertaining film today. This is probably due to Hitchock's acknowledgement that although there were no cuts in the film, he staged the film in a way that it was 'precut'. Although the film had no physical cuts, he blocked it in such a way that he was still able to follow simple film grammar of establishing shots, medium shots and close ups. He just used a dynamic and moving camera as opposed to cutting.


Steve Irwin 1962-2006

I was saddened today by the news that Steve Irwin, aka 'The Crocodile Hunter', died unexpectantly. I remember watching the 'Crocodile Hunter' on discovery channel when it came out and couldn't tell initially if Irwin was sincere or a put on. I came to enjoy the program as I realized that this was indeed a sincere, funny, warm, dedicated and nutty guy. His passion for the conservation of dangerous animals was genuine and heartfelt and it shone through in his documentaries.

What happened today seemed to be sadly inevitable being that he spent so much of his time around vicious and powerful adversaries. It reminds me in a small way of Werner Herzog's documentary 'Grizzly Man' about Timothy Treadwell who spent years living amongst Grizzly Bears in Alaska. As much as you can criticize these men, you have to respect their courage and conviction in their need to try to protect these dangerous species.

Steve Irwin was a charismatic, energetic and enthusiastic personality and I can't help but feel the world has lost someone special.


Yesterday Sylvia and I went to the theatre to see the wonderfully dysfunctional 'Little Miss Sunshine' and it was one of the best theatre experiences I've had in a long while and one that gave me some optimism for the future of projected films.

I decided not to write a review of the film so I'll just say that it was charming, funny, playful, well cast, well written and well directed. In other words, it's a delightful film.

As the theatre filled up I couldn't help but think of all the recent news of movie studios, fearful of the modern age of digital distribution and shrinking audiences. Despite these fears ticket sales are up seven percent from last year. We got to 'Little Miss Sunshine' about a half an hour early and proceeded to watch the theatre fill up. When the previews started people were struggling to find empty seats (other than those horrible seats at the bottom of the auditorium). Young and old came to see this little film (budget of 8 million according to imdb)and they weren't disappointed. It was one of the rare films I've been to where the audience clapped at the end!

As a casual observer it seems to me that people are just hungry for a great theatre experience. This means first and foremost, a great movie. The film opens with the big Dolby Digital logo, signaling the audio experience of the theatre, then follows with the theatre chains promo of 'Go Big', showing off the size of the screen. I love the 'Go Big' campaign as it is right on the edge of an anti-campaign. They won't finish the statement of 'Go Big or Go Home' - home is the last place they want you to go so they leave it off. You can advertise the theatre experience of big picture and big sound all you want but in the end it means nothing if the next hour and a half is a dud.

What a terrific experience it was with no cell phones ringing and nobody chatting. This is what a good film can do. It brings you into the story and holds your attention and engages you. We just need more of them - you shouldn't need a business degree to figure that out.


Not with a bang but a whimper

In my eternal effort to keep the film industry afloat, I picked up the new dvd of Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now'. I must confess to having bought this film a few times now and will admit that I am a sucker. As for the dvd, it's a gem and worth every penny. For me 'Apocalypse Now' is one of the greatest films ever made. It is rich in both theme and idea and it transcends cinema and comes closer to literature. And if I might confess again, I do think that literature transcends cinema most of the time.

Why then do I love the cinema?

The answer is easy, films like 'Apocalypse Now' are the reason I love the cinema. It represents the potential of what cinema can be. Film is much more of a poetic medium than it is literal. We combine images with sound and, often with a narrative structure, search for feeling and emotion. Film doesn't express complex ideas terribly well but it expresses emotions and feelings better than any other medium. I find that when a film becomes sublime is when it works on both an emotional level and an intellectual level. This is what makes Apocalypse Now so great - it's a film that walks the line between philosophy and emotion.

Having listened to Francis Coppola's commentary track (the reason for buying the umpteenth edition), I must admit that I'm inspired. What was so inspirational is the fact that Coppola says the film was a product of creative process. The film you see isn't the film he intended to make. While going on the journey to make the film he realized that his original ending was not appropriate. The film itself began to suggest it's own structure and style. It's fascinating as a writer when you start to write a story and no matter what you thought it should become, the piece starts to shape itself and dictate to you what direction it should take. This is the creative process. Despite our appetite to finish things, it is the process that makes the journey so interesting.

For Coppola, Apocalypse Now was a harrowing experience but the journey is what seems to have made this film so great. There was no cinematic manipulation or clever turn of story that could have saved him. He had to face the story that he began telling and let it lead him to it's own conclusion.

I truly admire Francis Coppola as a filmmaker and I think that any student of film can learn so much from his films and his DVD commentaries. He doesn't approach films in the same way as many other filmmakers. He doesn't rhyme off influences and superficial elements, he talks about the story and the process of creating the story. For Coppola, it's about the film and the ideas behind the film as opposed to the style. Style, as he says in the 'Apocalypse Now' commentary, was dictated by the story, it was something that came to him as opposed to him imposing it on the film. This is how filmmakers should approach storytelling - let the process dictate to you.



There is an interesting article on Wikipedia on BBCNews today. If you don't know Wikipedia, it's one of those great things that have come out of the internet and the evolution of information. It's a free encyclopedia that allows users to publish articles and information on any topic.

The BBC article is about the proposed changes to the way that users can publish information on the site. Instead of allowing registered users to edit and publish articles, the site has proposed that each new article and user edits will have to be approved.

Wikipedia is such an interesting site and represents the democratization of information in the modern day. We are not limited to what elite scholars or publishers hold as truth or important. We are allowed to participate in the scholarship that has been inaccessible in the past. It is also what makes blogging a powerful and rich tool as it allows regular people to publish ideas and information, free from editors or publishers with social or political agendas.

Wikipedia doesn't come without it's share of problems and as pointed out in the article, is a target for pranksters and vulnerable to misinformation. The problem with a source like Wikipedia is that 'truth' may be distorted and must be used with a degree of caution. I don't find this to be an argument against this exercise in free information just as I will not watch the nightly news and believe the stories to be 'true'. All information even if it is from the hand of a respected scholar or journalist must be held up and examined. Every good historian knows that you must cross reference every piece of information you present as 'fact'. Wikipedia simply demands the same care and attention and requires it's readers not to take everything at face value. Like all scholarship, it is dynamic, changing all the time as new information comes to light.

I found it a bit amusing how some people reacted to the news that Pluto was being removed from the list of planets and reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'. Some people don't want change and changing the classification of Pluto seemed to challenge what they held as truth all their lives. For me it confirms the idea that the world is dynamic just as we are dynamic. I quote Emerson again:

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think today in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today."


Missing DVD

The move from VHS to DVD has been a true blessing for movie fans. Every movie company has reached into their vaults and have released so many of their treasures. Topping it off is the quality of the prints - the new telecines of old prints have given us a chance to see films in such high quality.

I make a regular trip to amazon and look up some films that are missing. One missing film is Bernardo Bertolucci's spectacular 'The Conformist'. If you don't know it, the story is set in facist Italy where the protagonist, Marcello Clerici takes on an assignment with the secret police to murder a political dissident in France. 'The Confomist' is one of those rare films that blends a unique visual style with a depth of themes and ideas. Storaro's brilliant cinematography uses colour and contrast of shadow and light to lift up and support the stories themes. Clerici is a shell, a man of no courage or conviction, a true conformist. The characterization is quite profound and interesting and Bertolucci explores it through politics and sexuality. Anthony Minghella's 'The Talented Mr. Ripley' is another great film that explores similar themes and ideas. The theme was encapsulated in that great line 'I'd rather be a fake somebody, then a real nobody'.

I read on IMDB that Paramount no longer holds the rights to 'The Conformist' so the release is up in limbo. I believe that Orson Welles 'Chimes at Midnight' is in the same holding pattern. It's a shame as these great films should be able to find a new audience. Maybe the Criterion Collection will be able to broker a deal as they did with Orson Welles 'Mr. Arkadin' and 'F for Fake'. Criterion has done a wonderful job with both of those films.


Inspired Casting

Vince responded to my post about miscasting and proposed the opposite question of some examples of inspired casting.

Peter O'Toole came to mind as the star of David Lean's classic 'Lawrence of Arabia'. O'Toole was a relatively unknown at the time and one would think that it was a bit of a chance casting him in such a huge role.

Fred MacMurray was perfectly cast against type in Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity'. MacMurray played an insurance salesman who falls in love with a femme fatale and conspires to murder her husband and run off with her and the insurance money. MacMurray also appears in Wilder's 'The Apartment' and plays Jack Lemmon's boss, Sheldrake. Sheldrake uses Lemmon's apartment for romantic rendevous with his lover (not wife) played by Shirley MacLaine. Both roles play against the squeaky clean image that he later developed in 'My Three Sons' and Disney films like 'The Shaggy Dog'.

Casting is a funny thing as it's very hard to be able to imagine a finished film without its final cast. Imagine Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones (his audition is on the dvd). I'm sure 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' would have been just as entertaining but it certainly would have felt different. Imagine Harvey Keitel as Willard in 'Apocalypse Now', or 'Jaws' without Richard Dreyfuss. Apparently Francis Coppola had to fight for both Al Pacino and Marlon Brando for 'The Godfather', a move that seems like a no-brainer today.

Film is a collaborative medium and it is important to step back and look at how every decision you make can have a profound effect on the final picture. Choosing talent is that intangible element that can make or break a picture. This means the director, cinematographer, editor, costume designer, production designer, art director, writer etc... Each piece of the puzzle effects the final picture. There is enough ego in the industry that people want to believe in the theory of the 'Auteur' but I think you can't separate the director from the talent. A great director moulds the film but also knows to use the assets of talent.



In the age where everything is possible using digital special effects it's pure magic watching a film like Fitzcarraldo. It's magic is that there are no special effects and what you are seeing is real, pure and simple.

If you don't know the film, it's story involves a failed entrepreneur (Klaus Kinski) who comes up with a brilliant idea on how to tap into an unused rubber tree forest. There are two rivers and only one is accessible, the other river has impassable rapids. Kinski's character, Fitzcarraldo, sees a point on the map where the two rivers are very close together so he schemes to take a boat to that point, drag the boat over the mountain and then be able to run a river boat above the dangerous rapids. He would take the untapped rubber trees up to the same point, take the trees over the mountain and down the safe river.

Exasperating his problems, the point at which the rivers meet is in the land of a tribe of natives known for headhunting. Fitzcarraldo ends up using the tribe for labour but isn't sure of the reasons behind their assistance. It is a great source of tension throughout the film.

Behind all of this ambition is Fitzcarraldo's love of the opera. His real dream is to make enough money to build an opera house deep in the Amazon.

The film is one of those great movies that, despite it being too long and meandering, transcends it's flaws. Part of this is from Herzog's insistence that he puts reality before the camera. No special effects allowed. Having seen it and knowing what you were seeing was real has a profound effect. Herzog even strips his style down where it often feels like a documentary. It doesn't take much imagination to see how difficult it would be to pull a river boat over a mountain and to top it all off, the river boat ends up running down the other river and through the rapids. This sequence was simply riveting as Herzog had cameras in the boat as it ran violently down the river.

It's easy to forget in the modern day just how exhilarating real images are. I think back to those huge films of the past where armies of people gathered to make a film. I think of Lawrence of Arabia where thousands of men clash in immense battle sequences. Or the Jungle exploding in Apocalypse Now and even the intimate scenes of the drunken Martin Sheen breaking down. Herzog is quite right in attempting to capture a large degree of reality as reality is powerful.

Fitzcarraldo's story is about dreams and one's own obsessions. It is a classic example of man vs man, man vs nature and most of all, man vs himself. How do we overcome our own obsessions? How do we accept our own failures and limitations? It's hard to know if Fitzcarraldo is mad at the beginning of the film or if he's going mad on the journey. He's an eccentric and maybe Herzog's point would be that we are mad for not chasing down our own dreams, for not allowing our own passions to consume us.



I was just thinking about the previous post and thought of Demme's remake of 'Charade' as 'The Truth about Charlie'. Mark Wahlberg was cast in the role that a mature Cary Grant had played in the previous film. Again, there was a maturity and worldliness about the character in the story that was missing from the youthful Wahlberg.

Anybody else have some examples of miscasting?

Red Dragon

I brought up 'Silence of the Lambs' in my post about the effects of sound on film. Tonight I caught 'Red Dragon', the prequel to 'Silence of the Lambs' and began to notice the difference between a great film and an 'ok' film. I think Jonathan Demme's 'Silence of the Lamb's' is a textbook example of filmmaking. Everything came together perfectly for the film - writing, casting, sound, cinematography, art direction, wardrobe and music, all under the superb direction of Jonathan Demme.

Red Dragon sees the return of the writer Ted Tally and actor Anthony Hopkins who played Hannibal Lector in 'Silence of the Lambs'. These two talents are not enough to elevate this picture to the original.

The first thing that stands out is the miscast of Edward Norton. Norton is a terrific actor but the lead role demanded an older and more experienced FBI agent and Norton looks younger than Jodi Foster did when she played the 'student' in the original. Sometimes you can get away with this reversal but it works against this film. They really needed to get a more mature actor to play the role.

The second thing is the films soundtrack. Where 'Silence of the Lambs' was textured and creepy, 'Red Dragon' is overstated and bombastic. That subtle tension that wouldn't let up in 'Silence of the Lambs' is replaced by a more obvious horror soundtrack that sacrifices the creepy for overwrought jolts.

Great films tend to have a great mixture of all elements - they are not made in a vacuum. Casting isn't something that is talked about much but it is something that can push a film into becoming a classic. The original 'Red Dragon' was made by Michael Mann as 'Manhunter'. Lector was played by Brian Cox and he did an admirable job but Hopkins brought the role to an entirely new level. Sure, 'Silence of the Lambs' had some hokey bits but overall the film is a masterpiece of macabre fiction.

For me, it goes to show you how important the crew is to the director and how important the director is to the crew. Demme benefits from a great crew and exquisite casting and the film benefits from his abilities to use those people.


I Am Trying to Break your Heart

I just finished watching a documentary about the making of a record by the band 'Wilco'. The film was made during Wilco's recording of the album 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'. I've been a fan of Wilco for a few years and have listened to this terrific album many times. Little did I know that the story behind the album was quite fascinating and telling of the entertainment industry.

The basic story behind the album is that Wilco was given the green light to make an album of their choosing. There would be no interference by the record company and they were to deliver the album by a certain date. Up to this point the band had made a few albums, all of which were seemingly leading the group to a commercial success. Their music walks the line of pop, rock and country and the band has written many good pop songs.

Wilco enters the studio and, un-hindered, proceed to experiment with their music and push themselves into all sorts of interesting places creatively. After months spent at their loft they mix the record and get it ready for the record company, Warner Music. They send it in but get no response. Eventually a response trickles down and the record company isn't happy, they want changes. The band refuses and Warner eventually drops them from their roster. However, the band has a following both critical and fan-based and pressure is on Warner not to bury the record. Warner washes their hands of it and allows the band to walk away with the album with no strings attached.

The album is shopped around and, nine months after the original release date, the album is bought by a new record company. The irony is that the new record company is a subsidiary of Time Warner who happens to own the original backer, Warner Music. The corporation pays for the album twice!

I have to say that it was great timing for the filmmaker as he was able to capture both the creative process in the making of the music but also the frustrations of dealing with big business and the 'bottom line'. It also highlights the conflicts within the entertainment industry. Warner Music had it's interests focused so much on the bottom line that they missed the opportunity to contribute to the musical culture by releasing this terrific album. Often the people who run the business aren't the people who appreciate or get behind great and interesting music. 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot', we are told by the music executive, was too difficult for the marketing department. They didn't understand it and they couldn't see a way to sell it. The odd thing is that the music is quite original but also quite accessible. It's not bizarre experimental music. It might not have been the hit record that Warner was looking for but it's a terrific album. And that is the nature of the 'business' of art... It doesn't always wear it's packaging the way you thought it might.

The film ends with a title card that states that Time Warner has spent three times their original investment on the album. One might say that bureaucracy and incompetence kills the bottom line...


I'm Agnostic.... really. And a liberal (disappointed or otherwise).

Ok. I'm back watching Vision Tv. As bizarre as the channel seems to be I find myself drawn to their programming. In the last week I'm watching 'Casablanca', 'War Games' and now the documentary 'The Corporation'. I hadn't seen the documentary so I thought I would check it out. Initially I thought the film was quite interesting but not groundbreaking. Then, as it went on, I felt that sinking feeling of propaganda. Now, instead of the fear of 'Nuclear War' as last night's film exposed, I'm treated to the liberal fear of the 'corporation'. The film seems to take the view that we are all automatons and are helpless to the influence of corporate greed and coercion.


Sure, it's rubbish with a lot of interesting points but it stands as propaganda and the advertising of fear. The film constantly vilifies MacDonalds, Starbucks, Nike etc, presenting the point that these corporations manufacture society's desire for their products. I take offence for every individual with a brain in their head. Sure, MacDonalds has it's own propaganda wing (aka advertising) and it tries to coerce the public into wanting a Big Mac or a McChicken sandwich. However, MacDonalds didn't become a behemoth of a corporation by making a crappy sandwich. The general public likes MacDonalds. So MacDonalds does what every corporation does, it advertises and tries to manipulate people into wanting to eat at their restaurant. Is this unethical? Do we try to protect our weak by denying them something that they've already made successful by their patronage? At what point do we allow the 'customer' to make a choice for themselves? It's an elitists view that we should protect them from themselves. Look at all of the companies that have failed over the years. Is it because they didn't advertise or manipulate as good as the others? Or is it that the public didn't like what they were selling?

Douglas Rushkoff wrote "Coercion', an interesting book that dealt with this topic. I've used the title word in my little rant here. Rushkoff is a media theorist (among other things) who wrote a great book called 'Media Virus'. Media Virus explored the idea that things are injected into the 'media space' and in an interesting phenomenon, would self replicate. The OJ Simpson trial and the Rodney King case are great examples of things that came to light in the media and, like a virus, self replicated until they invaded the public conscience. After the book was published, Rushkoff was approached by advertising and marketing people to help them find a way to create their own 'media virus'. What Rushkoff discovered was a deep network of corporations that meant to wield this device for it's own profits. He sat in and made notes and got payed gobs of money to 'consult' with them. In the end he wrote 'Coercion' and subverted this found knowledge to expose and explore these ideas.

Rushkoff is notorious for his optimism and it's something that I really like about him. Instead of reading it all as 'evil' or fear propaganda, he approaches the subject like a philosopher. He asked the most important question of them all... If we are to believe that 'they' (the corporation) are out to get us, who constitutes the 'they'? It's the fear of the unseen enemy. The fear of the 'rich'. It's all conspiracy but we can't identify the conspirator as 'they' or 'them' or 'he' or 'she'. The unseen enemy is easier to deal with than the complicated issue of supply and demand. No demand. No supply. I don't buy the public as absolute lemmings. Whether the elite like it or not, people like Walmart, MacDonalds, Nike, Tim Hortons, Best Buy, Gap etc.

I must counterpoint now as I'm sure you might be livid and possibly boiling with my semi-conservative rant. There are many good points brought up in the documentary about corporate abuses. What happened with Enron was simply evil. Greed, pure and simple. The issue with BP today highlights the abuse of the environment. Child labour and human exploitation is rampant. And we drive our SUV's and buy cheap goods made at the hands of the exploited. We. Not just the corporations who apparently brainwash us. We support it. We are guilty. I'm not a fan of left wing propagandists that treat adults as simpletons and act like they know best. Why hold the faceless corporations soley responsible when we support them? I know... they manipulate us and tell us lies. And 'we' are not responsible to check the facts. 'We' are just lemmings, mindlessly doing what we're told.

If the view is that 'we' are just a bunch of idiots following whatever guides us on the television then why not make a scathing documentary about that? Expose 'us' for what 'we' are...


'War Games'

I caught John Badham's 'War Games' on Vision Tv tonight (religious tv... their choices are interesting). One of the things I like about watching 'old films' is the glimpse you get into the fashion, trends, psychology, thoughts and ideas of the times. Normally I wouldn't have considered the 1983 'War Games' as old but it is fascinating to see the obsessions of the day. Fear is rampant. Fear of technology, fear of the Soviets, fear of one's own military and fear of nuclear war (a fear we will visit again). It is interesting as it is near the end of the cold war but highlights American uncertainty.

'War Games' isn't alone as the early eighties saw the release of 'Red Dawn' (1984), 'The Terminator' (1984) and 'The Day After' (1983). James Cameron also explored his nuclear holocaust fears in 'Terminator 2' and 'The Abyss' (more in the directors cut). These films don't stand alone as they follow in the footsteps of Sidney Lumet's 1964 'Fail Safe' and Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satire 'Dr. Strangelove'. What's interesting here is that these films are twenty years apart and all in the third or fourth year of the decade. There doesn't seem to be much made about the topic in the 1970's. What's also interesting is Cameron's shift of fear in the 1994 'True Lies'...

As an aside, 'Ally Sheedy', the co-star in 'War Games' apparently became an obsession of some of the hacker community in the early eighties. If you are interested in phone phreaking or hacking you should check out Jonathan Littman's non fiction novels 'Fugitive Game: Online with Kevin Mitnick' and 'Watchman', a book about the famous hacker 'Kevin Poulsen'. Both books make for entertaining and fascinating reading. The subjects of the those books do make claim that Littman's truths are flawed and I can understand their point. However, if Littman unwittingly combines truth with fiction or legend, it doesn't detract from the sheer enjoyment you get from reading the books.


For you Superman fans...

I was at the bookstore on the weekend and went over to the 'd' section to see if Tom De Haven had written anything new. Low and behold, he has gone and written a book on Superman! For those of you not familiar with De Haven's work he wrote a terrific trilogy that revolved around the evolution of the comics.

He started the series with 'Funny Papers' which takes place at the turn of the century. In this book a newspaper sketch artist hits it big time with the creation of the comic strip 'Pinfold and Fuzzy'. I still get a kick out of the bit where the ventriloquists dog hasn't said a word since the ventriloquists death...

The second book fast forwards to the nineteen thirties with 'Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies'. 'Pinfold and Fuzzy' have been transformed into Derby Dugan and the story revolves around the life of the comic's ghost writer. This book features one of the great curmudgeon characters of all time, Walter Geebus.

'Dugan Under Ground' is the third book and takes us to the modern day. Derby Dugan as it was known is no longer. However, it is being kept alive in subversive form by Roy Looby, a contemporary of the likes of Crumb.

One of De Haven's talents is the superior ability to conjure up the feeling and atmosphere of these time periods. He also seems to just roll along through the story, spending his time examining his characters. These books are not page turners, they settle in and move at a leisurely pace. Then, as it all starts to culminate to the finish, he hits you with some profound ideas and emotions.

The trade paperback of 'It's Superman' is out at the end of the month and I'll be picking it up for sure.


Film Sound

A few years ago I was asked to teach an introductory film course on sound. I am not somebody who enjoys teaching but what I do like about it is that you have to consolidate your own thinking and ideas in order to present them to students. I agreed to the course and what I discovered was that sound was an incredibly difficult course to teach. Of all the film disciplines it was often the hardest for the students to grasp. On a technical level students were often confused by all of the 'measuring' of sound. They had to learn to observe sound levels and often with everything that was going on during a shoot, it was the last thing that was on their mind. When it came to mixing they were often confused by all of the sliders and technical requirements of the equipment. Sound wasn't something you could see or grasp.

The other problem with sound was trying to describe how it affects people. Often when filmmakers make a film they use sound practically (ie sound effects) and then add music to fill in the emotion. This is where the topic becomes both difficult and interesting...

Walter Murch, the multi-talented film and sound editor once said that if the picture was the 'liminal' element of the film then the sound was the 'subliminal'. He felt that people watching a film are very critical of what they saw but would rarely tune into what they heard. The ears are not critical nor are they particularly discerning. The picture is obvious to the eye where the sound is a mixture of many sound elements all mixed together to help give the story feeling and drama.

This is where Murch has made part of his fame. Unafraid to experiment, he doesn't contain his sound ideas to what is practical or what is on the screen. He uses it to manipulate the audience. In the academy award winning 'The English Patient' Murch uses the sound to tell the story, to create transitions and memory. A sound echoes in the patients mind and transports us through the story. In 'Apocalypse Now' Murch creates both a war soundtrack, full of glory and violence and then folds the sound back to reveal a personal soundtrack, one of self doubt. In one of the most stark and famous examples Murch places the sound of a screeching train into the scene where Michael has to decide his fate in 'The Godfather'. This is the use of sound for emotion.

Another film I like to cite is 'Silence of the Lambs'. What struck me when I first saw the picture was the level of intensity of the film. It never lets up. The dread is thick and if you deconstruct the soundtrack of the film and it is easy to see why. The terrific score by Howard Shore is less about melody as it is about soundscape. The music serves the story. It is funny how unmemorable the film's music is as it is so deeply entrenched with the picture that you don't even notice it. Watch the scene where Jody Foster goes to see Lector for the first time. There are all sorts of sounds on the soundtrack that have no practical use. Nothing in the set seems to be making these noises. Instead, they are working on the 'subliminal' trying to unsettle the audience. As Foster walks down the hall towards Lector, Howard Shore is working on low level trying to keep that feeling of fear and dread. Ron Bochar, the sound designer describes it as this:

"Here's how Jonathan described Jodie Foster's first trip down to visit Lecter in the dungeon: "This is the bowels of the building. Let me hear howling and let me hear bowels.' So that's what you got. I can' t begin to list the material that went into all that. But there were animal screams and noises built into the ambience itself downstairs there. From a little movie I had made years ago called Little Monsters I took this lunatic kind of screaming that I had recorded; I took track, processed it, slowed it down, and played it in reverse. That became one of the ambiences in the room, too. It's the room tone, but the room tone has been made from some guy screaming in pain. Whenever you're down there with Lecter there's this element--it's a low tone that rises and then comes down again. It's very organic as opposed to something you can create electronically. I don't like taking sounds that start electronically; I like sounds that start organically. It' s a lot more fun."

In Ralph Rosenblum's autobiography "When the Shooting Stops..." he describes his experience editing Woody Allen's first film 'Take the Money and Run'. According to Rosenblum, he was hired to recut the picture as it was testing horribly and no one found it particularly funny. What Rosenblum discovered was that Allen had been working in the wrong 'tone' and that Allen was far to critical of himself and had removed many of his good jokes. In addition to reintroducing elements that had been cut and rearranging the film's sequences Rosenblum describes several instances when 'scenes could be salvaged by simply replacing the music'. In the orginal cut maudlin music was added in order to give the picture a 'chaplin' quality. A sense of drama. Rosenblum realized that it wasn't working and added music that would counterpoint the maudlin picture thus creating a very funny scene. He recognizes the soundtrack's ability to completely alter the tone and feel of a scene by simply changing the music. It's a powerful tool.

Sound and picture make for an exciting combination. There are many ways to accent the soundtrack whether it be musical or practical sound. It is an area that is often left unexplored as we are bombarded with the soundtrack instead of manipulated by it. It is also the element that is left for last. Everyone, often including the composer, is brought on as an after thought. They work to the finished picture and are not included enough in the development of it. It really is the least understood elements of filmmaking.

For a good primer and some great articles go to www.filmsound.org.


The Narrow Margin

I watched 'The Narrow Margin' for the first time last night. It's a Noir thriller that involves a police officer having to transport a key witness in a mob trial across the country by train. It begins with two cops escorting the woman out of her house when they are attacked and the partner is killed. The protagonist of the film (played by Charles McGraw) doesn't like the witness (played by a sultry Marie Windsor) who is testifying against her husband. Mob hit men follow them to the train and we are stuck in a claustrophobic game of cat and mouse. It's the kind of film where no one is who they seem and McGraw is left trying to do the right thing as they bully him and attempt to bribe him.

This enjoyable film was shot in 1952 and would be considered on the latter end of the film noir period. The photography is exquisite and the staging is more involved than many of the low budget thrillers that proceeded it. The director Richard Fleischer constructs a lean thriller full of surprises and like other Noir films, the language of the film is stylized and hardboiled.

There are plenty of flaws in the picture that keeps it from being in the same class as Billy Wilder's 'Double Indemnity' (my favourite) or Lang's 'Scarlett Street' but there is a lot to like about it. It's an interesting film as it does have a different feeling than the 40's films. I suspect it has to do with the change of society and attitudes towards sexuality and violence. This becomes much more apparent in Orson Welle's 1958 thriller 'Touch of Evil'. In 'Touch of Evil' sexuality and decay are much more obvious. There is a definite change in tone with suggestions of drugs and rape. Like the previous discussion about the differences between 'No Way Out' and 'The Big Clock', there is a sense in 'The Narrow Margin' that film and society had started to shift. By the end of the decade (1959) Otto Preminger releases 'Anatomy of a Murder' and it really feels like Hollywood is starting to loosen it's hold on tough topics and things that were only hinted at previously are starting to be stated.


Pirates of the Caribbean

I just came back from 'Pirates of the Caribbean 2' and I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the film. Before I start I have to confess that I love a great high sea adventure especially a pirate adventure. The year that the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' came out was a great year as it also saw the release of 'Master and Commander', the terrific Peter Weir film. If 'Master and Commander' was the entree, certainly 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was the dessert. The elegant but brutal 'Master and Commander' was contrasted nicely by the humourous and imaginative 'Pirates'.

Fast forward to this year and the Pirates are back - bigger and... well bigger. After a clumsy start trying to find it's tone again, Captain Sparrow and crew were off on their next adventure. There is a lot to like about the film with it's terrific visual effects, imaginative characters and playful script. Despite this I would have to say that the biggest flaw of the film was it's length. It was too long. I'm not sure if it's the director or writers at fault here although I'm sure it's a bit of both. Having said that, the director has final say and it felt to me that Verbinski spent too much time working on 'set pieces' as opposed to good and simple storytelling. I enjoy the choreography of these amazing action sequences but they do end up being technical exercises when they start to become the focus of the film. This is where the film strays; these action sequences are just that, sequences. At some point the director has to stand back and look at the flow of the story and begin to pare it down to make sure that the focus is on story and characters.

Pirate movies are fun and it feels like everyone involved are like kids in the candy store, they indulge every fantasy and try to pack in every drop of fun into the film. It just requires an editor. First the director as editor and then the editor as editor. I wonder what pressure there was on Verbinski when the production has spent unimaginable amounts of money on these 'set pieces'? I imagine it's very hard to drop millions of dollars onto the cutting room floor. Having said all this, I did like the film but I didn't love it. For my pirate loving tastes, it was a bit too much of a monster movie but I can't hold that against it - that's my taste. It is also shaping up as the second film in a trilogy. The only problem with this is that the first act (the first film) provides us with the characters but not with the story. It's all a bit of patchwork trying to tie in a film that existed on it's own. It's not terrible patchwork but it is a bit of patchwork nonetheless.

As a note: The films writers are Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot. This writing team is responsible for such films as 'Aladdin', 'Shrek' (1 & 2) as well as the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. They host a terrific site, Wordplay where they give advice to screenwriters and share their experiences. They even published their version of the 'Godzilla' script that wasn't fully used by the production.


Tigga & Togga

Just wanted to post a link to an episode of 'Tigga & Togga' which will be airing on TV Ontario in September. The concept of the show was to introduce preschoolers to music and musical ideas. We focused the show on creating a musical experience where the characters helped make the music using found items etc.


You can also check out the interactive website.



Annie Hall

I screened "Annie Hall" again on the weekend. Sylvia hadn't seen it before so I jumped at the opportunity to watch it again. It's the kind of film that has grown on me with every viewing.

Woody Allen films tend to exist in a strange universe belonging to himself and his characters. The characters in his films are usually questionable in their behaviour and morals. In 'Hannah and Her Sisters' one sister has an affair with the other sisters husband. In 'Manhattan' Woody Allen's character is dating a teenager and takes up with the woman his best friends been having an affair with. In 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' one character pays to have his hysterical lover murdered. 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is the most pointed of the previous examples in that it directly explores themes of religion and morality. By remaining in a sort of amoral universe Woody Allen allows himself to explore themes and ideas that other filmmakers rarely go to. Certainly mainstream Hollywood films tend to favour protagonists that are righteous and likeable. This is where Allen tends to split his audience. Some people give in to the fact that the characters are all 'flawed' while others need to connect with the characters and have trouble with the lack of morals and ethics. This is no more apparent than in 'Hannah and Her Sisters'. It's very hard to have empathy for someone who cheats on his wife with his wife's sister. And it's very hard to feel for a sister who cheats on her husband with the husband of her sister. At least it's very hard to feel for these people in a normal universe. In the worlds created by Allen these kinds of people can be met with some sympathy and understanding. But most of all, they exist so that we can look at the different facets of human nature and sexuality. Allen is the guide into areas that we don't need to go in our personal lives but can benefit from his insights and his humour. This is poignant escapism.

In terms of direction, Allen is distinct in American Cinema. There is never any doubt that you are watching a Woody Allen film. He uses terrific stage direction techniques and moulds them into cinematic techniques. Often he sets the camera up and allows his actors to flow though the spaces. 'Manhattan' is a terrific example of how he uses space as the camera is often a stationary voyeur. We become a fly on the wall in the drama. In Annie Hall he effortlessly plays with film form, creative editing and unconventional story techniques. He breaks out of conversations to address the audience directly. He cuts to flashbacks where he is present as both adult and child. He uses a split screen where the characters talk to one another through the split. Rarely do you see American films break time and space so freely. He hits the perfect tone and it doesn't ever feel contrived, or style for the sake of style. He pushes the boundaries even more a few years later with 'Stardust Memories' which seems to be heavily influenced by European filmmakers like Fellini. I stress the word 'influenced', not 'stolen'. Woody Allen is Woody Allen.

He has had a prolific career, that is for sure. There are only a few living filmmakers that come close to the amount of films Allen has made especially when you consider that he is writer and director and often the star. Some lament that his talents have waned over the past few years. Some question why he keeps going. I whole heartedly disagree with these detractors. Despite some misfires I respect his creative drive and can understand his desire to keep going. At some point he's not making films for us, he's making them for himself. And he should milk it as long as he can still get a budget.


I'd like to explore more 'time and space' ideas later but if you are interested in the technique you might check out Steven Soderbergh's 'The Limey' or Mike Nichol's 'The Graduate' for great examples. The dining room sequence in Citizen Kane is also a perfect example of breaking 'time'. Welles shoots an entire relationship from beginning to end in a single sitting at the dining room table! Brilliant.


California Video

I cut together this little video from a vacation Sylvia and I had in California in march. I shot the footage with my Nikon Coolpix stills camera (it does 15 frame per second, half resolution video with no sound). I love the 8mm effect from the lower frame speed, the stepping aperture and progressive capture. I also like the fact that if something can capture an image than you can make a film. I'm curious now to try to make a little film using only a digital stills camera...



The Thin Red Line

On the weekend I was catching up on some documentaries that I had pvr'd off the History Channel. They were World War I docs on the Sea Battle of Jutland, the Battle of Verdun and The Battle of Somme. It's surprising still the sheer numbers of human lives lost. Verdun alone numbered in the hundreds of thousands slaughtered and close to a million casualties. Afterwards I decided to view 'The Thin Red Line' again.

'The Thin Red Line' was the third film by Terrence Malick, a filmmaker known for his beautiful photography and lyrical drama. Almost all of the exteriors of his previous film 'Days of Heaven' were shot at magic hour. Magic hour is what happens to the light between sunset and when it gets dark. This happens for about a half an hour. To shoot all of your scenes at that pace is a cumbersome task to say the least. The end result, however, is an extraordinarily beautiful and lyrical visual.

'The Thin Red Line' stands out from most war films as it doesn't have that much interest in the war. Instead it focuses on the human condition and our place in nature and the world. It's a beautiful film and has a dream-like quality. Where 'Apocalypse Now' is psychedelic and trippy, 'The Thin Red Line' is lyrical and almost gentle. Nature is indifferent to the violence of war. Unlike the filth and destruction seen in 'Private Ryan' 'Thin Red Line' takes place in the tranquil beauty of the south pacific Island of Guadalcanal. In voice over the narrator speaks in philosophical tones. His questions are not about the nature of war but of the duality of man. Like 'Apocalypse Now' it sees that each of us are capable of great kindness and great darkness. There is always a struggle between darkness and light and it's in us as much as it's in nature.

"This great evil. Where's it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the Earth? Does it help the grass to grow or the sun to shine?

Is this darkness in you, too?"

The last line echoes in the ending of 'Apocalypse Now' where Willard has the choice to go between the light and darkness. In 'The Thin Red Line' no one seems to be given the choice. They are pushed forward to sacrifice their lives to gain ground for the glory of their power hungry Colonel (Nick Nolte).

This is the kind of film that drives some people nuts and makes others take notice. I find it extremely evocative as it raises philosophical ideas but doesn't ever pretend to have answers. The atmosphere and visuals are of such beauty that they are in stark contrast to the war itself. In a strange way I find it quite soothing and meditative.

I only wish I'd seen it in the theatre.


The Big Clock

I went back an screened 'The Big Clock' this afternoon to see the differences between it and 'No Way Out'. They are two different films and one of the big differences is the protagonist. Kevin Costners character is a single playboy out who falls for Sean Young. They become enthusiastic lovers while she is having a relationship with Gene Hackman (the antagonist). Hackman kills her and frames Costner. In the 1948 version Ray Milland is married and works himself to the bone. He is supposed to treat his wife to a honeymoon five years after their marriage. Milland can't get the time off so he quits. In his weaker moment, he ends up missing the plane with his wife and ends up spending the evening with Maureen O'Sullivan, the wife of his boss. The tyranical boss, played perfectly by Charles Laughton confronts her. She is cruel to him and degrades him by questioning his manly abilities and he turns to a rage and kills her (Laughton in the same role as Hackman). Milland's character is framed for the murder and he has to try to prove his innocence. Unlike pure Noir, both films absolve the protagonist of moral ambiguity. In 'The Big Clock' Milland plays a faithful husband who stays true to his wife despite a night out on the town. In 'No Way Out' Costner is a single playboy who falls in love with the victim. Both films ensure that the protagonist is sympathetic despite the fact that the theme of adultry (or something like it) is the root cause of the drama.

On another note, Charles Laughton whose performance in 'The Big Clock' is terrific, directed one film in his life. He wrote and directed 'The Night of the Hunter' starring Robert Mitchum. It is a real shame that this was the only foray into directing for Laughton who obviously had considerable talent. It's a thriller in the tradition of German Expressionism. Apparently a box office failure, 'The Night of the Hunter' is a visual tour de force. If you get a chance, check it out and, if I lent you my DVD, let me know because I'd love to see it again!

No Way Out

I screened 1987 film 'No Way Out' the other night. It turns out that it is derived from the 1946 book 'The Big Clock', a book that had been adapted for the screen previously in 1948. The film adaptation of the same name starred Ray Milland in a role that would have suited James Stewart just as well. Both films carry the same narrative where the protagonist is framed for murder and in a twist of fate, are responsible for investigating their own apparent crime. It is the kind of material that Alfred Hitchcock loved exploring.

Although both films are similar in plot there is a definite difference in tone. 'No Way Out' is modern in it's portrayal of sexuality. Sexuality was a staple of film noir but it's only hinted at and never explicitly explored. In the modern version it is spread out (forgive the pun) and exploited for full effect. In classic noir the femme fatale is usually pulling the strings but in 'The Big Clock' and 'No Way Out' she is the victim of her desire.

What stands out in 'No Way Out' is the terrible electronic score provided by Maurice Jarre. I was appalled at how bad the score was and had to go look up the other films that Jarre had worked on. What I found was an accomplished list of credits including Peter Wier's terrific film 'Witness' and the spectacular 'Lawrence of Arabia'. The midi soundtrack in 'No Way Out' was simply empty and void of emotion and atmosphere. It's interesting to see how a film like 'No Way Out' could have stood out better in time if only it had a proper film score attached to it. It's not a bad film despite a questionable performance by Sean Young (or questionable direction of Sean Young) and a silly cold war twist ending.

A films soundtrack is so important in the success of the picture that it is interesting when bad examples jump out at you. Think of the 'great' movies and it is very hard to find an example where the score and sound in the film isn't equal to the story and picture. I'm still divided on 'Blade Runner' and the Vangelis electronic soundtrack. Certainly it's better than 'No Way Out' but sometimes I don't mind it and sometimes I dislike it. I imagine I react against these midi scores as they are being used intellectually. Both 'No Way Out' and 'Blade Runner' are futuristic so it's an interesting choice to try to have a futuristic soundtrack. It seems misguided as the music is there to support the emotions of the characters (or counter point them) and there is no emotional resonance in the empty and clinical soundtrack.

If you are interested in film music you should check out the new version of Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Outsiders'. Coppola expanded the edit of the film to better reflect the entire work of the novel. The other thing he did was drop the original music his father had composed for the film and he rescored it using found music of the period. It was an incredible experience sitting and watching this film that simply 'felt' different from the other version. Dropping the melodramatic score improved the film greatly. Again, the original score seemed more of an intellectual exercise, trying to evoke the grandiose tones of Gone With the Wind while it didn't work for the characters and what they were going through.

Now I am curious to screen 'Witness' again...



I just had some dinner and turned on the television to see what's on. As usual, there are some slim pickings until I come across VisionTV which is screening 'Casablanca'. I won't ask how the film fits into the programming for that particular station but I'll take whatever stretch they come up with.

Either way, I was busy putting the laundry on and putting away the dishes and was listening to the opening of the film instead of watching it. What struck me was Max Steiner's use of the French National Anthem in the score. The story of the film is that is was meant to be a sort of B picture and was in production at the same time as it was being written. This is usually a recipe for disaster (brings to mind such gems as Cutthroat Island...). The opening of the film is narrated to give the audience the idea of how Casablanca was the last stop for people trying to flee Europe during the second world war. On a limited budget they needed to set up the big story and then set up the dangerous and romantic setting of French Morocco. Steiner in his score is being practical by repeating the French National Anthem several times in order to help set up the location and space of the film. In other words, Steiner is telling part of the story. The economy of the film was such that they couldn't afford to shoot in the real Morocco so they cheat it by using the soundtrack to set the location. Film music is usually used to punctuate emotion and set tone. I find it very interesting that it was being used in such an intellectual way.

Now to Cutthroat Island... It's an interesting film as it is a great example of marketing and film business. I could only imagine that Hollywood would have been convinced that nobody wanted to see a pirate film after Cutthroat Island tanked. It was a bad film but it's not that nobody wants to see a pirate film they just don't want to see a bad pirate film. Pirates of the Caribbean is on the mark of making big money. Why? Because the first film was very well done and although I haven't seen the next one, it seems that it too is very entertaining. How do you market a film first and foremost? Get behind a good film and don't be concerned over whether or not you think there is an audience for it. It's been proven over and over again that marketing studies and demographics mean very little (Forrest Gump anyone?). Has Miramax not taught us anything?


The More Things Change

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the fate of Television and Film. Ipod Video, MySpace, YouTube and others are gaining momentum and splitting our time away from traditional media. This has many pundits curious and others worried for the future of the entertainment business. I can't really enter the debate with any definitive prediction but I would have to say that I am optimistic. Change will happen, that is inevitable.

The end of film was projected over 50 years ago with the increasing popularity of the television. Others thought that television would be nothing more than a novelty. Both were wrong. Moderation of viewership didn't sway the ship either way. Television is different than projected films and the internet is different too. Going out for 'dinner and a movie' is a different activity than an evening watching television or a Saturday night DVD. Ipod Video, Internet or PSP tend to be much more individual in nature. It is hard to imagine the family sitting around the YouTube agreeing on what 30 second short they'll watch at any given time. How does this affect the industry? The feature film industry is getting nervous because attendance is down but why is it down? Is it because of the endless sequels and repackaged television shows? Is it because studios are afraid to get behind creative filmmakers? Some suggest that it's because lawyers and accountants have taken control of the content (which seems to make as much sense as writers and directors taking control of the books...). I can understand people wanting to be creative but at some point they'll have to see how they undermine their own profits. Maybe we need some new David O Selznicks...?

Feature films don't appear to have any trouble finding an audience if they are original and engaging. Last years Oscar films were very successful in terms of budget vs. return. A few years ago Lord of the Rings made over a billion dollars (and it'll make money for many years to come). It's hard to make a good film but maybe the more you trust the filmmakers to dictate the content, the more you'll get those gems. Betting on the safe sequel or the safe remake limits the audience potential. Hollywood needs vision and it needs to trust the visionaries. 'Heaven's Gate'? Sometimes. And sometimes you get The Godfather.

As for the future of television and film? Look into your own crystal ball because I don't know the answer. What I know is that whatever it is, people want good content. They want entertainment and they want to be moved. There will always be an ebb and flow, the industry is dynamic. Time will tell what is novelty and what is practical. The iPod is doing so well because it's the culmination of the portable cassette tape and cd walkman. It took portable audio to the next level. It's much more convenient as it's smaller and can hold your entire music collection. Audio lends itself to the portable. Will video flourish the same way? It's a novelty right now. It's the modern version of the cassette walkman... Time will tell.

Hell's Kitchen

I was doing some work tonight and got distracted by watching some "Hell's Kitchen". If you don't know it, it's a reality tv show where aspiring chefs compete with one another to win a restaurant. What's great about the show is the judge, Chef Ramsey. If you thought Simon Cowell was a tough guy, go home. Ramsey is a drill sargeant wrapped in a tyrant's apron. It's one of my favourite shows.

Ramsey had another show on Foodtv called 'Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares'. In this show he tries to revive struggling restaurants using his familiar tactics. Some find it way over the top. Others understand that this is the nature of the cooking business. Either way it's stressful to watch and wildly entertaining. I'll make it clear here that I would never want to work for someone like him. That goes without saying.

What I like about Ramsey is that his work philosophy speaks to a great life philosphy. He encourages effort and is brutally honest about talent. He pushes everyone to do their best and rewards them when they acheive it. He asks the tough question everyone should ask themselves: If you're not passionate about your work, what the hell are you doing with your life? Passion, desire, focus and commitment.

Add a dash of self reliance and you might find yourself.


"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till."

Whenever I'm looking for some inspiration I gravitate back to Ralph Waldo Emerson and his essay 'Self Reliance'. I was reminded of this essay last night while having a few pints with a friend. We were talking about music and art and how sometimes something echoes so clearly in our minds like it's innate knowledge. The story told is of the composition of the song Yesterday and how after writing it, Paul McCartney needed confirmation that he hadn't written something he'd heard before. There was such truth in it's simplicity that he felt it couldn't have been original. The story made me think of Emerson and his belief that there are universal truths and if you can trust yourself then you can find your way to them. "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

Is this a simplistic ideal or does it ring of truth? Outside of culture, race, religion and politics, do we share these inner truths? And what constitutes 'truth'? Maybe it's just something sewn into our genes and it echoes through generations.

What I like about Emerson is that he inspires courage in the face of self doubt. Our fear is so often tied to failure that we fall short of our potential and are far too timid in our careers and relationships. And I suppose it's a little ironic that I say that Emerson inpsires me as the point he's making is that I should be inspiring myself! Oh well.



Sylvia and I bought a house yesterday! We were toying with the idea and then dived in head first. Needless to say, it was a very exciting weekend.

Debt is a funny thing. One minute you are worried about ridding yourself of it then the next minute you are signing a significant part of your life away to it. It is all a part of the game of life I suppose. Nothing is permanent. We work so that we can be comfortable. Some people will scoff at this apparent truce that we play with life, comfort. Comfort isn't a bad thing but stagnation is. To stagnate or become 'set in your ways' is what is what we should fear.


Famous Last Words

Around 6 years ago I edited a television show called 'The Writing Life'. It was a fairly easy show as we shot footage of 13 authors speaking to a group of novices and packaged it. Each writer would read from some of their own works and share some insights into the life of the writer. One such episode featured the late great Timothy Findley who came with a prepared piece that he proceeded to read. He was the toughest author to edit as he basically read this essay that went over our allotted time of 26 minutes. I had to find something to remove in a piece that was tightly prepared without damaging the integrity of the content and meaning. Needless to say, I proceeded with the care of a surgeon and dissected some time out to make it conform.

This terrific speech involved his novel 'Famous Last Words' and his own internal struggle with the famous poet Ezra Pound. Findley's main character in the book is named Mauberley and references Pound's poem 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'. Pound's poem is said to be somewhat autobiographical. For Findley, Ezra Pound was capable of creating such brilliance in his work but was in stark contrast to Pound's own personality and politics. Pound was a supporter and propagandist for Benito Mussolini and the fascist movement as well as an anti-Semite. How could so much hate produce such wonderful work? How can you reconcile your admiration and enjoyment of this man's talents with your dislike for the man and what he stood for?

After World War II Pound gave himself up to the American Forces and was sent back to America to stand trial for treason. Pound was never convicted as he was considered unfit for trial due to insanity.

Timothy Findley read a passage from Famous Last Words that has stuck with me since. It was such a beautiful passage from the book and I was compelled to look it up and share it here.

"And out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something irresistible above my head, seen in the ebb and flow of the swinging light: the imprint of a human hand.

God only knew how long ago it had been put there. Maybe ten - and maybe twenty thousand years before. This is my mark, it said, My mark that I was here. All I can tell you of my self and of my time and of the world in which I lived is in this signature: this hand print; mine.

I saw these animals. I saw this grass. I saw these stars. We made these wars. And then the ice came.

Now the stars have disappeared. The grass is gone; the animals are calling to us out beyond this place - the frozen entrance to this cave.

In days or hours we will have died. We cannot breathe. The lanthorn flicks. All the air is gone. I leave you this: my hand as signature beside this images of what I knew. Look how my fingers spread to tell my name.

Some there are who never disappear. And I knew I was sitting at the heart of the human race - which is its will to say I am."

Findley spoke at my graduation ceremony when I graduated from my English Degree in 1995. He said that he felt that it was imagination that separated man from the animals. Our gift in life is our ability to 'imagine more' than ourselves. It's the age old question: would you rather be a fully contented pig or a half contented human? The answer is all yours. I'm sure Pound would have agreed with Findley... at least on that point.


Clash by Night

I've been a fan of Film Noir since I saw The Third Man in the early 90's and started to read and watch anything I could get my hands on. Although The Third Man isn't really considered an absulute Film Noir, it is recognized as having some of the qualities of Noir. I won't go in depth about it here but there are many intellectual disagreements over whether Film Noir is a style of film or whether it is an actual genre (or sub genre). Some argue that it was born out of post war America and the movement ended in the late 1950's with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Since there is no real definitive answer I won't delve into the middle of the debate as in the end it probably doesn't really matter.

Clash by Night is a Film Noir by the great German director Fritz Lang and stars Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan and a young Marilyn Monroe. The story begins with Barabara Stanwyck returning home to Monterey after a failed Marriage. She's a lost soul, a gold digger looking for that elusive thing that will bring her happiness. She moves back in with her brother and ends up being courted by her brothers boss Jerry, played by Paul Douglas. Jerry is a kind man who owns a fishing boat and lives with and takes care of his uncle and father. Stanwyck reluctantly gives in to Jerry hoping that his kindness and security will satisfy her. It doesn't. They have a child together but Mae (Stanwyck) is restless and ends up having an affair with the brash and indignant Earl played by Robert Ryan. He's an exciting but stormy character and he does his best to seduce Mae.

The film doesn't have much actual violence but it is brimming with the idea of violence. The young women are head strong yet vulnerable to the type A male. They are bullied and threatened and they can't help but fall in love. Jerry, the kindest and gentlest of the men, is cuckolded and ridiculed. Film Noir always finds it's way to these primal emotions. It combines sex and violence and watches as the weak stumble and fall from grace. Jerry doesn't deserve any of what he gets but it's not up to him. Stanwyck, like in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, is 'rotten' (a word used in both films) - a self serving femme fatale.

In some ways Clash by Night is reminiscent of another terrific Lang film, 'Scarlett Street' starring the great Edward G Robinson. In both films the mature and kind gentlemen are played for fools by the young women. The subtext of these films seem to suggest that young women are to be feared. Women in youth are in their prime and can use their sexuality as a weapon for self gain. Feminists would call this misogyny and a male excuse to keep women's sexuality repressed. I think they have a point. Regardless of the politics both of these films are supreme examples of Lang's ability to infuse his films with raw emotions.

I think I enjoy Noir so much partly because the stories are edgy and lacking of some of the theatrical melodrama that you find in other films of the period. I also like them because they start to stab at themes and ideas that suggest that we are all a little corrupt and given the opportunity, we too could fall from grace.

Of particular historical interest, Clash by Night starts off with documentary footage of Monterey and the fisheries. Lang sets up his story location with real shots of the birds, seals, boats and docks. He combines them with footage of his actors including Marilyn Monroe working in Cannery Row canning fish (even these images couldn't diminish her appeal). We see the waves crash against the coast of Monterey - a great foreshadowing of things to come.


The Right Stuff

I screened 'The Right Stuff' again last night and it confirmed for me its place as an American classic. It's a superior juggling act of a story that is told over years - from the 1940's test piloting and the breaking of the sound barrier to the 1960's Mercury missions where the pilots become Astronauts and orbit the earth. At three hours plus, the film is engaging in every step with a great balance of character, history and technology. It is the focus on the characters that makes it so memorable. It's even more impressive when you consider that you're forty plus minutes into the film before most of the main characters appear.

The beginning of the film concerns itself with Chuck Yeager and the constant progression of air technology. Yeager becomes the first man to break the sound barrier and, for a brief time, is 'the fastest man on earth'. For a brief time. The focus of the film shifts when the Russians unexpectedly launch Sputnick. America needs to get into the space race and at this point the film leaves Chuck Yeager behind (he doesn't try out to become an Astronaut) and we meet the seven would be astronauts John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quiad), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) as well as the four others. The film follows through each of the missions as well as Chuck Yeagers famous crash involving a F 104 Starfighter. The film says that Yeager didn't have permission to take the Starfighter but Yeager says that he did, he said that he didn't have permission to try to break the altitude record set by the Russians. Regardless, Yeager lost control of the Starfighter and it crashed to the ground.

In terms of direction, Philip Kaufman does a great job of working drama, action, comedy and realism. There are many playful moments including one where Alan Shepard is kept waiting for hours on the launch pad. He makes his need to urinate known. The scientists realize they hadn't thought of that as the flight was only supposed to be for 15 minutes and they fear that if he goes in his suit he'll short something out. Kaufman then has a little fun with the moment as he presents a liquid montage - people pouring coffee, bubbles at the water cooler, engineers drinking water etc. It finally comes to a head when Shepard is finally given permission to soil himself. Other directors may have made nothing of this event but Kaufman takes the opportunity to have some fun. It's with this kind of ease that he finds his way through the story.

It's funny how this film hasn't really be seen as the classic that it is. I don't know too many people who have seen it so I think it's appropriate that I recommend it here. Don't be scared of the three hour commitment as it is one of the best three hours you'll spend in the dark.

Watch for a couple of scenes that seem to have inspired Robert Zemekis' films Forrest Gump and Contact.

Anderson Cooper

I watched some of Anderson Cooper last night on CNN. He was doing a special on America's 10 most wanted and during the program they added an old film filter on their B-roll footage - adding flicker and scratches etc. Despite the fact that it's a bit of a cheesey filter, it puts the authenticity of the piece into question. I'm not saying that the news was incorrect, it simply puts into question CNN's seriousness as a news agency. I know this isn't new (or news for that matter) and that it's a seemingly nitpicky issue, I just think that it speaks to an overall problem. We have blurred the line between entertainment and news. Style IS content, it's not something you slap on because it 'looks cool'. What is the b-roll style saying about this particular story? It's not like they were recreating vintage footage from an era gone by. It added nothing to the piece.

I watched Sidney Lumet's 'Network' a few weeks ago with Sylvia and am curious how far news will go to get a share of the audience. Hopefully not an on-air assasination. The satire has become truth.


Prairie Home Companion

I thought I'd post a little note about Robert Altman's 'A Prairie Home Companion'. I've been a fan of the radio show the film is based on since I heard it on JazzFm in Toronto about 6 years ago. It's a Radio Variety show that features tidbits of scetches, local music (not always Country), and Garrison Keillor's evocative and humourous Lake Woebegon monologues. The film is a whimsical imagining of the backstage happenings on the show's last performance. The theatre's been sold and the purchasing corporation is trading in the Radio show for a more profitable parking lot. The film features Keillor and some of the regulars on the actual Radio show and adds in some fictional characters to flesh it out.

What's great about the film, outside of Keillor's dry and quirky script, is Altmans fluid direction. Like fellow great American filmmakers Orson Welles and Woody Allen, Altman allows the dialogue to flow, allows actors to step on each other's lines and allows for room to breath in the scenes. Film is about cutting, yes. It is also about staging and blocking. Often the limitations of the microphone get in the way of letting the actors 'play' the scene. It doesn't have to be a staccato cutting of lines. To let a scene play isn't to make it less cinematic. Watch Woody Allen's Manhattan or Annie Hall (or any other for that matter) as he lets the actors move through the scene allowing for greater freedom for performance. Welles, who was well known for his filmic bravado, would also make room for the actors. His later work became much more kinetic in terms of cutting but his use of sound and dialogue evokes the stage where people talk over one another. A Prairie Home Companion stands out in the current crop of films and reminds us that there still are unique voices in film. It's inspiring.


Three Days of Condor

I watched 'Three Days of Condor' the other night. If you haven't seen it, it's a 1970's thriller starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway and directed by Sydney Pollack. The film has renewed relevance as the plot revolves around a big oil conspiracy. Redford works as an academic for the CIA and stumbles onto an internal conspiracy without knowing it. The only weakness in the film, and this may just be a matter of taste, is the jazz score. I think it's fitting that film music has a relationship to opera as opera is full of emotion be it melodrama or not. Jazz doesn't work on the same level. This isn't to say that films shouldn't have a jazz score as many have worked wonderfully. It just didn't seem to fit the landscape of Three Days of Condor.

After Watergate there were a few great political thrillers including The Parallax View, Three Days of Condor and All the Presidents Men. In terms of tone you could add Marathon Man to the mix although it veers off the politics.

I thought that Syriana, also in that vein of the previous political thrillers, was one of the best films last year. It would have been my choice of best picture although it wasn't even nominated. It was an intelligent film that demanded the audience's attention and another example of George Clooney's and Matt Damon's abilities to attach themselves to interesting projects.

On the note of thrillers (outside of the political kind) I would have to recommend 'Ripley's Game' starring John Malkovich. I was a big fan of Anthony Minghella's 'Talented Mr. Ripley' and had avoided Ripley's Game after it failed to get a theatrical release (assuming it to be a dud). Roger Ebert has been singing it's praises so I went and rented it and was delighted. It has a different tone than Minghella's film but is just as engaging.

I would also recommend Alan Pakula's 'Presumed Innocent' with Harrison Ford. I rediscovered this film last year and enjoy it immensely. Pakula, who directed the Parallax View and All the Presidents Men, was a lean and well crafted filmmaker. Presumed Innocent works so well on every level.