Missing Reels: A Novel of Silent Movie Love

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Repertory cinema regulars can be off-putting types. They log their screenings like kids with baseball cards, reducing art to a collectible. This is the stereotype, at least, of shut-in cinephile obsessives. And these people exist – head to any Friday night screening at MoMA, where the rustle of plastic bags replaces human interaction. One might say this is not a promising milieu for a novel, but then they might not have the effervescent prose of Farran Smith Nehme’s Missing Reels. Smith Nehme is better known as the Self-Styled Siren, classic film blogger extraordinaire, undoubtedly familiar to readers of this site. A contagiously enthusiastic writer, she also has the rare talent of focusing in on performances – from the elaboration of star personas down to the minutest detail of their fashion choices. Missing Reels is her first novel, and it faithfully recreates the repertory movie scene in late 1980s NYC, focusing specifically on the silent movie nut crowd. It begins as a bittersweet screwball romance about being young and poor in the city, and develops into a shaggy dog mystery involving a lost silent feature that may yet be found.

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Chuck Workman Finds the Magic in Orson Welles

magicianposterMovie lovers will recognize Chuck Workman as the filmmaker responsible for Precious Images, the original name given to the short documentary that encapsulates the history of American film in eight minutes. Originally commissioned by the Directors Guild, the film is a compilation documentary consisting of brief shots from 470 classic movies. Precious Memories won an Oscar for Live Action Short and is listed on the National Registry of Films. Workman is also responsible for The First 100 Years, a similar compilation documentary produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of projected motion pictures. Workman’s montage style in which he makes visual and thematic connections through clever editing is more complex than the pleasing surface of Precious Images suggests. The approach harkens back to the theories and practice of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Workman’s latest documentary on director Orson Welles also involves film history but in a different way.

At Sarasota’s Cine-World Film Festival, which closed last week, I caught Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. The great director makes for a timely topic considering next year is Welles’s 100th birthday. Given Workman’s skill and background in assembling clips, it is not surprising that the film contains well-organized snippets from archived interviews with Welles and some of his associates long since dead. There are also new interviews with former classmates, associates, and romantic companions.

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The Real Thing

Since the movies began, special effects have been a part of their existence. Georges Méliès was one of the early geniuses of special effects cinema and using matte paintings, time-lapse photography, overlapping multiple exposures, and more, he created worlds never before seen in the realm of theater.  Characters would disappear in a puff of smoke or rocket across the sky.  As the technology progressed, so did the effects.  From miniatures and matte paintings to green screen and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), special effects became more realistic while becoming, at the same time, as fantastical as the mind could imagine.  And yet, sometimes, I’m a hell of a lot more impressed by a guy making an omelet in real time in an uncut scene (more on that later).  The movies market make-believe and rely on the viewers to suspend their disbelief but sometimes, simply showing something real is all a movie needs to do to hold our rapt attention.

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November 22, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

When Harry Met Ollie

Undoubtedly one of the strangest and most interesting bad movies ever made, Zenobia is a jumble of bad creative decisions so inscrutable as to be almost indefensible.

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KEYWORDS: hal roach, Harry Langdon, laurel and hardy, Oliver Hardy, Zenobia
COMMENTS: 7
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This Week on TCM Underground: THE CAT O’NINE TAILS (1971)

 

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A journalist and a blind man join forces to stop a serial killer in Rome.

Cast: Karl Malden (Franco Arno), James Franciscus (Carlo Giordani), Catherine Spaak (Anna Terzi), Pier Paolo Capponi (Superintendent Spini), Horst Frank (Dr. Braun), Rada Rassimov (Bianca Merusi), Tino Carraro (Dr. Terzi), Cinzia de Carolis (Lori), Aldo Reggiani (Dr. Casoni), Carlo Alighiero (Dr. Calabresi), Ugo Fangareggi (Gigi the Loser). Directed by Dario Argento. Written by Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti, Luigi Collo. Produced by Salvatore Argento. Music by Ennio Morricone. Cinematography by Enrico Menczer.

Italian title: IL GATTO A NOVE CODE. Showtime: Saturday 11/22 @ 11:00pm PST/2:00am EST

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Rod Taylor

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I’ve always liked Rod Taylor. The broad shouldered, barrel-chested actor with a booming voice is intimidating on screen but there’s a warmth in his smile that’s undeniably inviting. He was universally good in every film genre he took part in and made the challenging transition from serious drama to action movies, thrillers and romantic comedies seem effortless. He was at home in military fatigues or a three piece suit and that breadth and depth of character makes him extremely fun to watch. Tonight TCM viewers can tune in and catch Taylor in a few of his best films including THE BIRDS (1963), THE TIME MACHINE (1960), DARK OF THE SUN (1968), SUNDAY IN NEW YORK (1963) and HOTEL (1967) so it seemed like a good time to share some of the interesting facts I recently discovered about him after reading Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood. Stephen Vagg’s 2010 book is typical of most movie star biographies and provides a general overview of Taylor’s career as well as his personal life. I didn’t know much about the Australian born actor beforehand so it was an eye-opening read that gave me a new appreciation for Taylor as well as the film’s he appeared in.

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The Mysterious Intruder, Serials, and Richard Dix

Later tonight on TCM, Mysterious Intruder (article by yours truly here) airs, an installment in the Whistler series of the forties.   As I write in my article, the Whistler serial was a proto-anthology series, along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, because they tell a different story each time, with different characters, narrated by the same person each time, the Whistler.  The voice of the Whistler was provided by Otto Forest, who remains unseen throughout.  Unlike Hitchcock and Rod Serling, the Whistler’s voice is heard while the viewer sees his shadow against the buildings and sidewalks he passes.  He tells the viewer what’s about to happen, much like Hitch and Serling, always intoning that something dark will soon happen that will change the life of one of the characters forever.  The Whistler sees all, even as none of the characters ever see him.

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The Perils of Colleen: Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good?

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Through serendipity, skill and plain dumb luck, the last two silent films featuring comedic firecracker Colleen Moore have been restored through the work of The Vitaphone Project and Warner Brothers. Presumed lost, Synthetic Sin (1929) and Why Be Good(1929) were sitting in a Bologna archive, waiting for money and TLC to set them free. They received their restoration premieres at Film Forum in NYC, and both are risque flapper comedies in which Mrs. Moore’s high-spirited subversive tests the boundaries of accepted female behavior. Why Be Good? was just released by Warner Archive on DVD with its full Vitaphone audio (which adds synchronized sound effects and a jazzy score). Each was directed by William A. Seiter, an inventive gag man as well as a sensitive shaper of star personas, from the Dadaist antics of Wheeler and Woolsey through the stubborn independence of Ginger Rogers. One of his earlier star-whisperer jobs was for child actor Baby Peggy, in The Family Secret (1924). A preserved Library of Congress print screened at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation last month. Though Baby Peggy and Colleen Moore are after different things (chocolate and men, respectively) they each destabilize the society around them by daring to be independent.

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Thank Heaven for Little Film Festivals

accidentsposterAs Hollywood continues its love affair with 12-year-old boys, who make up the desired demographic, real movie lovers seek alternatives to the noisy blockbusters that are long on CGI and short on story. Film festivals of all types and sizes have proliferated in the last fifteen years to fill the void created by Hollywood for well-crafted films with an engaging story and three-dimensional characters. I recently attended the Cine-World Film Festival in my adopted hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and I was impressed with the selection of foreign, indie, and documentary films.

Though a small, low-key fest, Cine-World has been a Sarasota fixture for 25 years. Opening day included Mike Leigh’s latest feature Mr. Turner, a biopic of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, while the fest closed with Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard, who redeems herself after slumming in Anchorman 2. Film festivals prove that Hollywood no longer has the lock on feature filmmaking; indeed, studio blockbusters seem like lumbering behemoths compared to the stripped-down indie dramas that do so much with so little. Sadly, a lack of distribution to medium and small markets continues to keep these films from audiences who would doubtless appreciate them.

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On the Road with Hackman and Pacino

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Having spent most of my life in Colorado, I take note of films that bother to put us on the map. I’m also a sucker for humanist studies of working class drifters or other misfits who seek salvation outside of the traditional institutions of marriage and family. Small surprise, then, that I’d be a fan of Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973). I first saw the film at the Telluride Film Festival a few years ago, but last year it received a wider revival thanks to a digital restoration commemorating its 40th year anniversary. Gene Hackman (who worked opposite of Al Pacino on the film) has cited it as his favorite role, because it was the only film that he ever made that allowed him to work in absolute continuity that allowed him “to take all kinds of chances and really build my character.” Odd to think now that this buddy film was originally intended for Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon, and who is to say what kind of film that would have been? All I can say in retrospect is that Hackman and Pacino shine in a way that makes it hard to picture anyone else in the title roles of, respectively, Max Millan and Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi.

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