Another Day in Black Rock

badposterIn most film history books, the advent of CinemaScope and other widescreen processes is attributed to the studios’ attempts to counter the rising popularity of television.  Making the big screen bigger was one strategy to increase the level of spectacle in the movies, thereby luring audiences back to the theaters, along with color, stereo sound, and gimmicks like 3-D. Early films exploited widescreen by including casts of thousands, as in The Robe, or by shooting in beautiful, foreign locations, as in Three Coins in the Fountain.

Despite the spectacle of casts of thousands in period costume, historical eras recreated via huge sets, or postcard views of exotic locales, some directors had difficulties with widescreen. The academy format had been perfect for composing in depth, but widescreen was not. Also, close-ups, which are so important in drawing audiences into the emotion of a character or scene, could look clunky in widescreen. It took some directors and producers a few years to get the hang of it.

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Understanding Visual Storytelling with Steven Fierberg

Fierberg-8113Over the years, I have listened to many cinematographers speak about film. Whether describing their role in the making of a specific movie or talking about classics from previous eras, I have never been disappointed. Cinematographers are the best source for explaining how a film imparts meaning through its visual language.

Last week cinematographer Steven Fierberg (Love and Other Drugs; Secretary; Entourage) visited Ringling College of Art and Design to offer his insight and expertise to students. Part of his visit included a presentation to Ringling students and faculty on the art of visual storytelling. My History of Film students attended, and several wrote about the positive impression that Fierberg made on them for a class assignment. Instead of lecturing, Fierberg offered his ideas through a series of clips from well-known films, which made for a dynamic demonstration. I learned so much from his presentation that I wanted to share some of his comments and insights.  The films that Fierberg used as examples should be familiar to most TCM viewers; looking at them again from a different perspective reveals their craftsmanship and artistry.

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The Human Splice

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring competing claims on the creation of movies.  The Lumière brothers hold a sizeable claim, for having pioneered the exhibition model that became the norm–and even if modern trends are moving back towards the Edison-style intimacy of one-movie-one-viewer, the bulk of film history belongs to the Lumière tradition.  I’ve also given props to Louis LePrince for his role in innovating the technology by which movies are recorded, even if he doesn’t get the credit for that.

But if we talk about the creation of movies as being all about the technology of cinema, or the business models of exhibition and distribution, we leave out the heart of the matter–it is the content of movies that enthralls audiences and creates shared dreams.  And if we want to talk about who pioneered what movies ought to be about, then it’s time to talk about George Méliès.

Melies fat head

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Louis LePrince Takes a Fall

The inventor steps aboard the train, and loads the packing crates that contain his most wondrous device.  It will revolutionize the world.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the very birth of the modern age.  The inventor takes his seat—it will be a few hours from Leeds to Paris, his old homeland.  Although the inventor has been living and working in England, he is French in his blood, and it is in France that he must tie up some last loose ends.

The competition has been fierce.  He has not been alone in working on such a device.  His is still embryonic and needs improvement—and the idiots at the patent office have fundamentally misunderstood his creation.  Sorting out that mess will take time and tact, he thinks to himself.  But he can content himself with the knowledge that he is first.  He will be rich and famous.  The future belongs to him.

But he never gets off the train.

Instead, it arrives in Paris without him, and he will never be seen again.  The authorities will search high and low for clues, but the mystery will never be solved.  And in the confusion following his disappearance, much of his equipment will also disappear.  His legacy will go to others, with more money and power, and his name will fade from the history books altogether.

 It is the kind of sensational tragedy that filmmakers like Louis Feuillade will make their names depicting.  Pulp films for generations hereafter would find inventors, bankers, and other keepers of valuable prizes attacked on trains.  Why, this will be the bread and butter of the nascent film industry in just a couple of decades.  But not yet.  We are only in 1890 at this point, five years before the first public screening of a motion picture show—the movies don’t yet really exist, and Feuillade is just a pimply teenager.  What we have just seen is no fiction, because whatever it is that happened to Louis Le Prince actually happened.  Ironically, his invention… well, it was the movies.

Movies

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Resolve Nothing, Roll Credits

Occasionally, I hear people (very foolish people indeed) complain that a movie doesn’t have an ending.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Unless the film in question has an infinite running time, it has an ending.  When the credits are done and the lights go up, trust me, the movie is over.  Nevertheless, just a few short years ago, when No Country for Old Men (2007) was released, many of the same complaints were heard again, even if they were easily dismissed by anyone actually watching the movie with open eyes.   You can even find websites with “Movies with No Endings” lists (though I won’t link to such garbage here) that find such movies troubling.  In the end, literally, it’s a matter of how the viewer wants it to end, on the tonic, so to speak, but not every movie goes down that path.   Now, I’m not here to provide a list of every movie like that but there are three movies I saw several times growing up that defined the non-traditional ending for me, and if I ever get around to making a feature film, all three of these will play a definite role in how I end it.

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THE TRAILERS THAT MADE MY BRAIN

I spent this morning watching a compilation DVD that was sent to me by filmmaker/artist/musician Cory McAbee. It was titled “TnT” (which stands for Titles and Trailers), and it was the focus of a presentation he did a few months ago for the UnionDocs Collaborative in Brooklyn in conjunction with Rooftop Films (whose byline is: “Underground Movies Outdoors”). Their program notes that short films have now become a predominant form of entertainment, thanks in part to the growing popularity of video-sharing websites. But long before everyone was glued to YouTube or their cell phone, we were (and are still) watching short films on the big screen in the form of trailers and credit sequences – both being made, for the most part, by “outside parties (who) were hired to create a short interpretation from the film itself or from unused elements.” Cory’s TnT collection were specific “short films” that had influenced his own work in meaningful ways. While I can’t think of title-sequences that have influenced my life, I can certainly think of more than a few trailers that had a big impact on who I am now.  [...MORE]

Making of is hard to do

When I am asked what got me into movies in the first place, the simple answer (and the wrong one) is STAR WARS.  In 1977 I was seven, an impressionable age.  STAR WARS showed me that movies could be an immersive experience encompassing all forms of artistic expression.  Because, let’s face it—STAR WARS was not a hit movie because it told a terrific story.  Its story was certainly effective—rooted as it was in mythologies that have thrilled humankind as far back as we have records.  About the script, though, Carrie Fisher once quipped that “you can type this stuff but can’t say it.”  If what you want out of movies are just solid stories and good acting, STAR WARS will never satisfy—because its pleasures lie in the tactile and the sonic, the visual and the entrancing.  On those occasions that I claim that STAR WARS was the film that set me on my own personal journey to becoming a film geek, that’s the kind of argument I put forth.

But here, just between you and me, let me let you in on the secret real reason I became a film geek.  It wasn’t STAR WARS itself, but something associated with it.

The Art of Star Wars

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Elvis on Tour: Split Screen Fit for a King

Elvis Week begins tomorrow in Memphis, and fans and tourists are descending on the King’s city to mark the 33rd anniversary of his death with a week of concerts, movies, Graceland tours, and informal get-togethers. This year would have been Elvis’s 75th birthday, adding a special note to Elvis Week. To honor—and exploit—both occasions, Fathom Cinema Events presented a special showing of the concert documentary Elvis on Tour on July 29. At 7:00pm in select theaters around the country for one showing only, Elvis on Tour graced the big screens for the first time since 1972. Having seen the film several times and written about it in various books, I thought I knew everything there was to know about this documentary, but seeing it on a huge screen in a theater made it a new experience. In addition, the film was preceded by a new introduction that provided enlightening details about the production, the filmmakers, and Elvis’s response to their approach.

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Secret Messages

It has been called “a virtual social H-bomb,” and it detonated at a press conference in New York on September 12, 1957.  Advertising researcher James M. Vicary announced that he had successfully tested a device that could implant subliminal messages in the minds of moviegoers.  Vicary, Rene Bras, and Francis C. Thayer were partners in Subliminal Projection Company, Inc.  Their “Trinity Site” had been the Fort Lee Theatre in New Jersey.  There, a special projector known as a tachistoscope (capable of flashing an image at 1/3,000th of a second) conveyed secret messages to the audience, one every five seconds, during the run of the movie Picnic (1955).

There were two messages:  “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola.”  Vicary boasted that, during the six-week test, sales of popcorn increased 57.5% and Coke 18.1%.

Life Magazine ran this simulated image of what they imagined the subliminal projections must have looked like.

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Moonrise (1948): Frank Borzage Goes Dark

Moonrise (1948), which has its TCM premiere this evening, Feb. 3rd, at 10pm EST, is a film that is as hard to categorize neatly as the rest of the movies in director Frank Borzage’s long career. Despite the fact that many movie buffs might associate Borzage with a gauzy, passé sentimentality in classic silent films such as Street Angel (1928), this movie begins with a dramatic sequence that tells the tragic background of the leading character Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) in one of the most powerful opening sequences I’ve seen. I don’t normally tell people to watch something only from the beginning, but with this movie, you would be missing a dynamic part of the movie as well as an introduction to the compelling dreamlike atmosphere of this most modern of Frank Borzage’s movies.If spoilers are not something you want to know before seeing a movie, you may want to stop reading now.

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