BERGMAN IN JULY*

Magician

(* … or not. As an alert reader just pointed out, Bergman has been replaced with a tribute to James Garner. Still… I’ll leave this post for future reference, as I’m sure TCM will eventually bring some of these films back.)

I recently screened a 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s (1918 – 2007) The Magician (1958). His birthday was on Bastille Day (July 14th) and his day of death was July 30th. It is fitting that both his life and death should fall on the same month. The Swedish director is famous for artful portrayals of existential extremes that tackle the agonies of passion and life against a backdrop of inevitable mortality in ways that put them back-to-back. His most famously iconic scene from The Seventh Seal (1957) turns the game between life and death into something that is not even back-to-back; it’s face-to-face in a setup that is still referenced even today (ie: in The Colbert Report‘s “Cheating Death” segments). Which brings us back to the end of July… usually thought of as a summer moment made for back-pack adventures, trips to the water-park, and leisurely moments spent lounging around in air-conditioned spaces. But perhaps TCM programmers were hip to the idea that July is also Bergman’s month, because this Monday night they are showing six of his films back-to-back. Here are some crib notes for those ready to take the plunge.  [...MORE]

Columbia Crime: The Whistler

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The Whistler…was one of the most terrifying screenplays I’d ever read. A little after midnight, I called [Harry] Cohn at home. ‘It’s horrific, Mr. Cohn…. Exactly what I’ve been waiting for…it’ll scare the shit out of audiences.’ -William Castle

The Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into a den of sin over the past month, as it plays host to Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932 – 1957, an iniquitous series which runs through August 4th. Cheap mass market criminality was the economic backbone of Columbia Pictures in the first decades of its existence, and organizers Dave Kehr and Joshua Siegel trace the studio’s movement from Agatha Christie-style whodunits to the bleak films noirs of the ’40s and ’50s. One of Cohn’s cost-saving gambits was to invest in feature series, in which sets and actors can be reused for an entire decade. This produced profitable reels in titles like The Lone Wolf, The Crime Doctor, and Boston Blackie. “Lady in the Dark” features four films from The Whistler, an unusual anthology-style crime series adapted from a popular CBS radio series of the same name (you can listen to them here). The only recurring character is the eponymous Whistler, a shadowy, cynical narrator who walks by night, and thus knows “many strange tales”. At the center of most of the stories is fading star Richard Dix (Oscar nommed for Cimarron (1931)) who appears in all but one of the eight Whistler features, always as a different character. He’s both anxiety-ridden victim and psychopathic murderer, his body-swapping lending the films a supernatural veneer when viewed in succession. William Castle directed half of these grim mysteries near the outset of his career. There is none of his later ballyhoo here. His compositions are as spare as the sets, and as empty as Richard Dix’s characters, who are always either courting or inviting death. The three I viewed in the series, presented in pristine prints courtesy of Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures, were The Whistler (1944), The Power of the Whistler (1945), and The Secret of the Whistler (1946).

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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]

Summer Reading Suggestions

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Like many people, I tend to do a lot of reading when the weather warms up and with summer officially about to start on June 21st I thought it would be a good time to share some of the books I’ve been enjoying with my fellow film buffs. My own tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic but I hope readers of all types and stripes will find something that piques their interest when pursuing my list of Summer Reading Suggestions.

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What’s your favorite color?

Be careful who you marry.

Be careful who you marry.

Screening this week as part of the TCM Imports lineup is Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s (1941 – 1996) Three Colors trilogy. As a film exhibitor I have very fond memories of showcasing Kieslowski’s work. Both The Double Life of Veronique (1991) and the aforementioned operatic triptych made Kieslowski a huge arthouse hit who would pack the joint every time. Proof of this was to be found in The Decalogue (1988), a collection of 10 one-hour films made for Polish television. Nowadays when anyone can order up the package on a DVD box set it might not seem such a big deal, but back in the ’90s when I screened all of these on 35mm it was a rarity, and people came out in droves to watch them all. Let that sink in for a moment; a 500 seat auditorium was getting packed by people coming out to watch Polish television.  [...MORE]

John-Cassavetes
May 31, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Cassavetes vs. Ottinger – Arthouse Grudge Match

Several weeks ago, I posted an essay that claimed that the reason movies get made is to make money.  I stand by that claim, and have spent the many of the last several weeks trying to explore the edges of it, but I’d like to clarify that I’m not saying that everyone who works in film is motivated solely by greed.  I am saying that the people who work in film have bills to pay, mouths to feed, kids to put through college, etc.  I’m sure there are some lofty-minded artists who resist and reject all that, and are only motivated to realize their own personal visions—but even they are better served by enjoying a modicum of commercial success.  And that’s where we are this week—to see what happens to artists so determined to buck the system they end up compromising their own art worse than any studio hack could.

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KEYWORDS: John Cassavetes, Ulrike Ottinger
COMMENTS: 9
SUBMIT

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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Behind Bars: The Big House (1930)

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Any movie in which a hardened inmate slams his tin cup against a cafeteria table and agitates for revolt can trace its roots back to The Big House, the film that popularized the prison riot movie. A sensation in 1930, it paired slam-bang action with a social conscience to attract both audiences and Academy voters. The Oscar-winning script by Frances Marion (the first woman to win the “Writing” award), railed against overpopulation in the unnamed jail, which teems with resentments and untapped violence. Hit and run society boy Kent (Robert Montgomery) is thrown into a cell with machine gun murderer Butch (Wallace Beery) and prolific thief Morgan (Chester Morris). Butch is scheming an escape, Morgan is waiting for parole, and Kent is trying to stay alive, and might snitch on his roommates to insure it. It was up and coming director George W. Hill’s first sound feature, after the huge silent success of Tell it to the Marines (1926), and it features bold off-screen sonic experiments as well as awkwardly static scenes of dialogue exposition. It ends in an overwhelming fusillade of gunfire, an aural assault that might make Michael Mann blush, that netted it the Best Sound Recording Oscar.

The Warner Archive has released The Big House in a fascinating two-disc set, featuring Hill’s English language feature, as well as two foreign-language versions (French and Spanish) that were shot for international release (it was also made in German, but that variant is not included). In order to take advantage of the booming worldwide market, studios would hire completely different casts and crews to shoot the script in multiple languages, using the existing sets, and sometimes even the shot lists, of the English original. The director of the French version of The Big House was Paul Fejos, the restless Hungarian-American innovator who made the miraculous proto-neo-realist Lonesome (1928) at Universal, and who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the film business. He would eventually retire from movies and divert his interest in people to becoming the president for the Wenner-Grenn Foundation for Anthropological Research. Fejos’ Big House shows few of his visual gifts, as he was tasked with rushing through dialogue scenes, while the more elaborate tracking shots were simply imported from the English version. In many ways it’s even stuffier than George Hill’s Big House, a document of Fejos giving up on Hollywood. What charm the Fejos version does have derives from Charles Boyer, who plays Morgan in the French version, adding a smooth sophistication to the character whom Chester Morris plays as a simple street tough.

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fantasia2
May 10, 2014
David Kalat
Posted by:

Schroedinger’s movies

Last week, as a way of exploring the role of the commercial imperative in film, I presented a selection of filmmakers who remade their own, earlier (better) work in an effort to reclaim ownership of work that got away.   In the weeks to come I intend to (next week) look at an attempt to remake a notoriously unpopular work by one of the greatest masters of old Hollywood, remade with less controversy and less effect by a more marginalized director; and (the week thereafter) some excellent but especially difficult films by uncompromising artists determined not to conform to the commercial marketplace.

This week, though, it’s time to look at some major landmarks in pop culture that somehow manage to occupy both a position of personal, arthouse statement and that of commercial juggernaut, at the same time.  Consider these the Schroedinger’s cats of cinema.

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KEYWORDS: Blockbusters, Fantasia, George Lucas, Star Wars, Walt Disney
COMMENTS: 14
SUBMIT

I Am Not What I Am: Orson Welles’ Othello (1952)

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Othello (1952) marked the beginning of Orson Welles’ exile from Hollywood, its funding provided by an Italian businessman soon to go bankrupt. It was the first of endless financing troubles that would plague his prolific years abroad. After he made the budget-strapped studio bound Macbeth (1948) for Republic, he was eager to make a full dress Shakespeare adaptation with elaborate sets designed by Alexandre Trauner. When the cash disappeared, he improvised, with Trauner becoming a location scout while locals were hired to sew period-appropriate clothing. The itinerant production moved between in four towns in Morocco and five in Italy. Shot over the course of two years, as Welles took on acting jobs to raise money, the film is a dizzying patchwork. Welles adapts his style to the circumstances, mostly abandoning the long takes so admired by Andre Bazin, and turning to rapid, jarring edits to sew the disparate material together. It was the first time he had final cut since Citizen Kane, and the result is vertiginous and disorienting, both a reflection of Othello’s deteriorating psyche and the jury-rigged nature of the film’s production.

A new 2K scan of the controversial 1992 restoration is now touring the United States courtesy of Carlotta Films, and has began its run at Film Forum in NYC and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (see all the future venues here). The original score and sound effects were re-recorded, an attempt to bring a 1950s film up to 1990s technical standards that replaced the audio instead of preserving what Welles produced (read Jonathan Rosenbaum for more details). With that caveat stated, this strange and hypnotic movie has never looked better.

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