Pirates 101: Intro to Hollywood Buccaneers, Privateers, and Swashbucklers

pirateblackswanAvast, ye buckos and scallywags! Prepare to pillage and plunder with pirates and privateers as TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight offers 21 pirate pictures during the month of June.  One summer long ago, I read Treasure Island and saw The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner in the same month, which left me with a life-long obsession with pirates, exotic tropical locales, and buried treasure. As fate would have it, I suffer horribly from seasickness, which makes me a landlubber and prevents me from joining one of those crews that search for buried treasure and sunken pirate ships around Key West. Instead, I content myself with watching celluloid pirates and ruminating over the reasons for their periodic popularity in popular culture.

I have collected articles and notes on pirate stories and movies with a vague notion of writing a book or teaching the pirate subgenre in class. TCM’s “Pirate Pictures” fest on Friday nights has given me an opportunity to try out my ideas on TCM viewers and blog readers in a three-part series that I am christening Pirates 101. I promise to keep the pirate lingo to a minimum, though that will be a challenge for me.

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LIGHTERS OF THE LAMP

Al Pacino & Frank Serpico

Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month. [...MORE]

Snapshots of the Fall: Part II

In my last post I provided a look behind the curtain for the first five weeks of film programming for my fall film calendar. This week we look at the remaining 24 titles that round out the schedule. It features everything from classics such as Vertigo to the state premiere of the latest uncompromising and visually arresting film by Bruno Dumont, Outside Satan (a scene of which is pictured above). [...MORE]

Desecration

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”
― Stephen King, Pet Sematary

I have lived in Colorado most of my life. My home is a half-hour drive from the Century 16 theater in Aurora where so many people were recently murdered and maimed while watching a movie. Like most other non-psychopathic people, I felt immediate sadness, anguish, grief, and a myriad of other emotions as I read the unfolding news. In yesterday’s post by fellow Morlock, David Kalat, he says “I’ve lived most of my life in movie theaters,” and I feel the exact same way. I not only inhabit the film theater as a spectator, but as a film exhibitor and programmer I am also responsible for selecting the films that get shown in several venues. The films of Christopher Nolan that I’ve programmed are: Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and Inception (which, despite being a blockbuster, had enough intellectual cachet for the arthouse crowd). I stayed away from the Batman films, those being out of my bailiwick. However, I was very impressed with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight, in part because I’m a huge fan of the horror genre, a genre which is always, and predictably, rounded up and put up against the wall as one of the usual suspects when searching for scapegoats. Allow me to state the obvious: regardless of genre, movies can be joyous affairs that bring people together to share in the full range of emotions available to us. No matter how bleak their subject might be, they are ultimately collective acts of creation. What happened in Aurora is a senseless destruction and desecration of life, and my heart goes out to the victims and survivors. It was also a desecration of one of my favorite temples (the movie theater), and a desecration of one of my favorite art-forms (movies themselves). [...MORE]

Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!

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A Tribute to Theo Angelopoulos

Acclaimed Greek fimmaker Theodoros “Theo” Angelopoulos died last month. He was killed January 24th when he was hit by a motorcycle a few blocks from where he had been shooting his latest film, The Other Sea (L’altro mare, 2012) – it was to be the final installment of a trilogy on immigration. Suranjan Ganguly, a colleague of mine at the Film Studies Program here at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently organized a private screening of one of Angelopoulos’ films titled The Suspended Step of the Stork (To meteoro vima tou pelargou, 1991). In memory of Angelopoulos and his work, Ganguly kindly agreed to answer some questions about the Greek filmmaker. [...MORE]

The Spring Lineup

Before delving into some highlights for my upcoming calendar film program, which has everything from singing cannibals and Robby the Robot to sex addicts and Pam Grier (in-person!)… I’d like to back-track a little. In my last post I wrote that the venues where I screen films were akin to a leaky rowboat. While this statement remains essentially true, especially when we are compared to any state-of-the-art dedicated film theater, I would like to amend the metaphor a bit. In retrospect, I feel it would be more accurate to say that the film series I program is more like the Orca boat commandeered by Robert Shaw in Jaws. It’s big enough to chase large game, but you still can’t help wishing you had a bigger boat – especially when you get a clear glimpse of the challenge ahead. When I previously said that we do a lot with very little, the “we” in that statement referred to the small crew that has kept this particular boat from becoming an artificial coral reef on the ocean floor, and this despite staying afloat long past its expiration date.  [...MORE]

Politics, Protest & Progress in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT

Stuart Hagmann’s THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970) is often dismissed today as a dated relic of the early ‘70s. During its initial release it was singled out for being exploitive and failing to be a straightforward adaptation of the book it was based on. Many critics claimed that Stuart Hagmann’s direction was erratic and too creative for its own good, which supposedly diminished the film’s political message. When I recently set aside some time to watch THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT I prepared myself for the worst. I expected to see a confusing, opportunistic, dated and laughable Hollywood film made to cash in on the political zeitgeist of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But I came away from the movie with an entirely different opinion and immediately understood why it had been nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970 and walked away with a Jury Prize. Not only is THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT a much better film than I had anticipated but it’s particularly poignant considering the current political climate. Student protest, police brutality, free speech and social activism are still hot button issues today. Not a lot has changed in 40 years. We’re still fighting the same battles and wrestling with the same complex issues that have been plaguing the country for decades. Like other controversial films from the same period such as MEDIUM COOL (1969), ZABRISKI POINT (1970) and PUNISHMENT PARK (1971), THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT asked some important questions that still haven’t been answered.

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Paranoia Strikes Deep

In Hollywood during the 1930s, political movies dealt with corruption strictly on a small scale.  Whether it’s the corrupt politicians following the orders of their political bosses in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or a local joe, frustrated and angry with his luckless existence, signing up with a radical hate group in Black Legion,  Hollywood kept the corruption local, so to speak.  In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Senator Paine’s (Claude Rains) corrupt schemes affect the bank accounts of political bosses like Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) but don’t threaten or affect the world economy in any measurable way.  Likewise, in Black Legion,  Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) joins a hate group whose activities affect the lives of those in a small town, although it’s implied their plans are much larger (here’s the real group the movie group was based on).  When it came to far-reaching conspiracies, it was always some international group, and some other country, doing the dirty work (Foreign Correspondent, for instance).  But then, slowly, the net widened and, seemingly out of nowhere,  in a one/two punch of extraordinary power, director John Frankenheimer blew the whole thing wide open.

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