Just a Shot Away: Reflections on Gimme Shelter (1970)

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Gimme Shelter (1970) is frequently labeled the greatest “rockumentary” ever made. The term gives the film a currency so that young bloggers can include it on their “best of” lists, or marketers can sell it alongside recent music documentaries. Yet, the Maysles Brothers’ vérité cinematography remains fresh and compelling, surpassing recent rockumentaries in style and technique.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut

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The 38th Denver Film Festival calls it a wrap today. When it began in 1978 it featured the works of such diverse directors as Woody Allen, Wes Craven, and Louise Malle. This year #DFF38 was held November 4 – 15 and it had an equally varied lineup that covered a wild gamut of genres from all around the world. Of specific interest to TCM viewers would be a documentary by Kent Jones that screened last night at the DFF titled Hitchcock/Truffaut. It uses a legendary 27-hour interview between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock conducted in 1962 as its starting point. The results provide an excellent launch pad for cinephiles looking to rekindle a discussion for what Hitchcock referred to as “the greatest known mass medium in the world.”  [...MORE]

Still Not Safe To Go Back In the Water: ‘Jaws’ Returns to the Big Screen

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“TCM Presents: Jaws 40th Anniversary” swims its way to select theaters on Sunday, June 21, and Wednesday, June 24. The program, which is presented in conjunction with Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, includes the movie plus a filmed introduction by Ben Mankiewicz.

Jaws has long-since been a staple of the home-viewing industry—cable-TV, video, DVD, and expanded anniversary editions. The film has also been the subject of many books, articles, TV specials, and documentaries, mostly focusing on its troubled production. Over and over, director Steven Spielberg has recounted the problems with the mechanical shark, which was nicknamed Bruce, and the delays in production, which angered the studio. The behind-the-scenes stories and jokes about the shark are now part of movie folklore.

Jaws has been seen by most of the movie-going public; it’s a film that has become a part of the collective cultural consciousness. So, why watch it again? Because the best film experiences are often the ones in which a familiar movie is re-viewed under different circumstances.

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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.

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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.

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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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