Fine Artist / Con Artist

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TCM airs one of Orson Welles most challenging films, F for Fake, this Friday, May 22, at 1:30am. The film is so unique that it is difficult to determine its mode or genre, or even to summarize what it is about. When Welles was editing the film in Paris, critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum asked him if it was a documentary, and the great director responded, “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film.” That is probably the most accurate description of F for Fake.

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The Reality Principle: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.

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The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.

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An Evening in the Company of Legends

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I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.

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15 Favorite Films From 2014

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I know what you’re thinking. Another list?! Forgive me my trespass but as a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to compile a list of my favorite films each year and I wanted to share some of my viewing highlights with you. These are the films that have been occupying my thoughts in recent weeks and many of them haven’t gotten the critical attention that I think they deserve. What follows is an alphabetical list of my 15 Favorite Films from 2014 along with some comments. I had hoped to write more about them all and why I find them worth recommending but I managed to sprain my hand last week, which has limited my typing abilities so some films only get a sentence or two. That said, I hope you’ll find some of my viewing suggestions worth investigating further.

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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 VERTIGO OF TIME

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Unlike Chris Marker (1921 – 2012), I am not an editor, poet, videographer, novelist, digital multimedia artist, or filmmaker. Even on a strictly personal level we are worlds apart, him having been a Salinger-like enigma who famously avoided interviews and photographs, me being a “nothing close to Salinger-like on any level” kind of guy who just last week photo-bombed his own shot of John Waters in a manner that would make even the paparazzi cringe. And yet, despite our many differences, there is something about Chris Marker that always elicits in me a feeling of deep kinship – and not just because we both love cats. The answer, I think, lies in one word: Vertigo. [...MORE]

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

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If you missed A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) when it screened at the recent TCM Film Fest, you’ll get another shot tomorrow when it airs as part of an evening celebrating the British Invasion. A Hard Day’s Night marks the Fab Four‘s debut in front of the cameras for a feature film and is credited with breaking away from the previous template for musical pictures of a boy-meets-girl story interspersed with musical numbers. This is not to say our four boys don’t meet girls, as there are throngs of screaming women, many random encounters, and George Harrison would even meet his future wife, Pattie Boyd, on the shoot (she’s one of the women the Beatles run past in the train – and was also responsible for grooming his hair during the film shoot). But what really fuels the film is an anarchic energy inspired by The Goon Show radio program of the ’50s that also influenced the lads in Monty Python. To be more specific: one of the people talking into the microphone for the Goon Show was Peter Sellers, before he was a film star, and Sellers would later co-direct with Lester The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), which was an 11 minute short that the Beatles quite liked and which led to Lester being hired for A Hard Day’s Night (and a year later also Help!). [...MORE]

A Forgotten Film to Remember: The People Versus Paul Crump

crumpcoverOne of the last projects that I worked on at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media before moving on to another phase of my life was the restoration and DVD release of William Friedkin’s The People Versus Paul Crump. While I was unable to see it through to fruition, my capable colleague Brian Elza did the heavy lifting to complete the mission. Only two known 16mm prints of The People Versus Paul Crump had survived. Four or five years ago, I discovered the worst print, which was in terrible shape, but Brian tracked down a better print after I left. He then steered the project through the high-definition transfer that was created from the second print. Thousands of scratches, splices, and pieces of dirt were removed to produce a clean digital version of a historically significant documentary that could have been lost forever. I am thrilled that the DVD streets tomorrow, May 27.

Most people know William Friedkin as the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist. Recently, he has received long-overdue acclaim for his under-rated action thriller Sorcerer, now available on Blu-Ray. However, few know that his first film was The People Versus Paul Crump, a 1962 documentary about a convicted murderer on death row. Originally shot for television though never aired, the documentary may seem like a relic from another era on initial viewing, but a deeper consideration reveals much more. It is a snapshot of the criminal justice system from another era and the calling card of a talented young director.  And, it played a role in saving a man’s life—for better or worse.

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Doc Holiday: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all.  Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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Six Degrees of Elvis Presley

elvissammyFor the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.

Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.

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