Sunday Random Roundup, August 25, 2013

Welcome back, dear readers, to another edition of the Random Roundup. I’m super-duper excited about the first item up, so without further ado…

“Be Natural”

The shamefully loooong-overdue documentary about

Alice Guy Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché in Gaumont's "Madame a des envies"

Alice Guy-Blaché in a film she probably directed while at Gaumont “Madame a des envies” (1907)

If you’re interested in silent film, there’s a chance you’ve heard of Alice Guy Blaché. Otherwise, you almost certainly haven’t…even though she is, as far as anyone knows, the FIRST woman filmmaker and one of the first people anywhere to have made a narrative film, “Le Fée aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”), in 1896.


Most films in 1896 were “actualities”–films like the Lumière brothers’ “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“A train arrives at the La Ciotat station”), the Edison-produced “The Kiss,” a 47-second long film of two actors reenacting a kiss from the end of a stage play, and “The Boxing Kangaroo.” (Yes, it’s a kangaroo, boxing.) Georges Méliès–whom you may remember as a character from Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, in which he is played by Sir Ben Kingsley–was the only other major filmmaker creating narratives this early on. And the only Méliès narrative extant from this early is his “Le manoir du diable.” (The only other narrative from 1896 that we know about is a series of pantomimes of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. These were shot in 1896 and put together into a film by Edison’s colleague William K. Dickson in 1903.) Various sources claim that Guy’s “Le Fée aux Choux” was made months before Méliès’ first fiction film. It is also sixty seconds long, making it perhaps the first film with a running time of at least a minute.

Whether Guy or Méliès got there first doesn’t matter much to me, but that she was there, making some of the earliest fiction films at all, seems pretty fucking important. Not only that, she opened a production company, Solax, in the US with her husband; it was the largest pre-Hollywood studio, and Guy was in charge.

Finally, two Los Angeles-based filmmakers, Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs, bless them, are working on a documentary about Guy and hoping to put her back into history. They are trying to raise $200K on Kickstarter by Alice-GuyTuesday, August 27, 2:59AM EDT. If they don’t, all the donations are returned and the world won’t get to hear Alice Guy’s story until who-knows-when.

Please visit the filmmakers’ Kickstarter page, which includes a neat video about their project and a trailer for the film. It’s entitled “Be Natural,” after Guy’s advice to her actors, which was posted on a sign at Solax.

There’s a very brief interview here with three contemporary women filmmakers, none of whom had ever heard of Alice until Pamela Green got in touch to interview them. Netflix has three collections of Alice Guy’s films available on DVD, but there are plenty available at YouTube.

Gilbert Taylor

The British cinematographer Gilbert Taylor died Friday at the admirable age of 99. Taylor was famous in particular for his work on Star Wars (1977), Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

What sort of movie is it? An expensive one.

From the Locarno Film Festival: At a Q & A directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Tokyo Sonata) and Shinji Aoyama (The Backwater) are bemused when asked if they make independent or commercial films. The situation is so different in Japan in part because the market is smaller and because, as Aoyama points out, “The budget of a commercial film in Japan is the budget of an independent film in Hollywood.” Hollywood spends so much money on the budget and the PR for its “tentpole” films (big summer blockbusters, for example) that those films have to rake in money hand over fist just to break even–a huge gamble that doesn’t always pay off and, because it must appeal to the greatest number of likely moviegoers, including international audiences, it certainly doesn’t encourage quality filmmaking. This has become business-as-usual to the extent that the industry can’t get its collective head around the idea of a smaller film that wouldn’t need to be so aggressively marketed because it didn’t cost that much to begin with.

One of the benefits of the old studio system, whose golden age was in the 1930s and 40s, was that more movies were churned out and not all of them were meant to be “A-list” gold mines. A tentpole film is like an A-list on steroids. Both have big-name actors and/or directors and big budgets, but whereas an A-list production might be an adaptation of classic literature or recreate a historical event or person (A-listers were sometimes known as “prestige” pictures), a tentpole production can’t stop to think–it’s moving too fast and there are too many explosions to keep track of. Obviously, not all movies have to be filled with gravitas to be worthwhile (and, heaven knows, plenty of films with “gravitas” are not), and there are tentpole films that are smart and fun and full of explosions–The Avengers, for example. But the situation is such that when an interesting or subversive tentpole comes along–say, The Long Ranger–no one knows what to do with it. Audiences went in expecting the Lone Ranger to be Superman and the film to be the cowboy equivalent of Batman (or worse, Transformers). But The Lone Ranger wasn’t that movie. It was a much more interesting and thoughtful–and fun–movie. Is it that the bulk of audiences who go to action movies (males in their teens and 20s, apparently) just don’t get irony? Is this the result of the appalling education system in this country? I ask only half in jest.

If a studio’s B-list movie made a lot of money, great. Lots of Hollywood careers took off that way. Without B-pictures, which screened as the bottom half of a double bill, and “programmers,” a sort of B+/A-, intermediate picture there would likely be no film noir or many of the great early horror films, for example. But if a B-list picture didn’t go on to become a hit, nobody was upset because neither the studio heads nor the filmmakers had bet their careers on it. In fact, while B-list pictures were not expected to be “hits,” they were guaranteed to do better than lots of independent movies now, because the studios had a monopoly in the distribution system. The cheaper films were simply guaranteed a wider distribution than almost all independent films nowadays can hope for, because the studios owned or were able to strong-arm theaters into screening whatever the studios offered them. (This was called block-booking–in order to get the “good” picture that theaters knew audiences wanted to see, they had to agree, often without having seen it, to show the B picture being offered as well.)

Another benefit of this system was that these films were not just in more theaters, they were in theaters for longer stretches, so that the pictures could benefit from good word-of-mouth. These days, if you’re not on top of new independent releases, by the time you’ve heard about a new indie film from a friend or read a review, it’s no longer in a theater…or it was never coming to the multiplex in your town anyway (like A Hijacking, for instance). And of course studios didn’t spend a lot on B-pictures in the first place. They didn’t usually have stars, they weren’t directed by big names, the production values–the money they spent on how the movie looked–were lower, and the films were shot faster and ran shorter than A-listers. I’m not suggesting we should attempt to recreate the old studio system or that what the world needs is another monopoly, but it did undeniably have some advantages in terms of the quality–and quantity–of the pictures that got made, and how many moviegoers got to see them.

And, so we don’t end on a sour note…

The awesomeness that is Wong Kar Wai

grandmaster posterRejoice! The new Wong Kar Wai film, The Grandmaster, starring the amazing and delicious Tony Leung and Ziyi Zhang, opened in the US this weekend. I will write more about Wong Kar Wai–he’s one of my favorite directors–but in case you’ve somehow not heard of him, he directed In the Mood for Love (2000), which might be the most beautiful movie ever made. The wonderful Chungking Express (1994), starring Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung, was his breakthrough film. The Grandmaster is about Ip Man, a 20th-century kung fu master who, among other things, trained Bruce Lee. And as if Wong Kar Wai and Tony Leung weren’t enough, legendary action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping has directed the kung fu. Truly, an embarrassment of riches. Unsurprisingly, Ip Man is a popular subject in Chinese and Hong Kong films. Action star Donnie Yen has starred in two fine Ip Man films (dir. Wilson Yip, 2008 and 2010) and Hong Kong great Anthony Wong (Exiled, Infernal Affairs–which Scorsese remade as The Departed) is in this year’s Ip Man: The Final Fight (dir. Herman Yau), which I would dearly love to see.

Smoldering and yummy: Tony Leung in "Hero" (2002).

Smoldering and yummy: Tony Leung in “Hero” (2002).

The Hollywood Reporter has a featurette about Ip Man and Manohla Dargis has a nice review of the film in the New York Times. Go forth, find a theater showing The Grandmaster, and enjoy!grandmaster still

Sunday Random Roundup for August 18, 2013

Welcome back, dear readers, for this week’s edition of the Sunday Random Roundup.

Big Films in Other Places

Remember last week’s rant about the state of film distribution in the U.S.? Well, here’s some potentially good news: Local films seem to be outdoing Hollywood “blockbusters” elsewhere in the world. The Hollywood Reporter has a nifty little slideshow with seven examples, from India (not surprising) to South Korea to Mexico.

Maybe Argentina's "Foosball" and South Korea's "Cold Eyes" will come play in your town—especially if that town is Los Angeles or New York.Cold_Eyes_South_Korea_a_l

Maybe Argentina’s “Foosball” and South Korea’s “Cold Eyes” will come play in your town—especially if that town is Los Angeles or New York.

A Light on Film History 

For the film history nerds among us, there is tbdovehe spectacular news that my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has made over 8,000 pages of film, broadcasting, and sound history publicly available at the Lantern web site. This co-production of the Media History Digital Library and UW’s Department of Communication Arts means you can browse through issues of Photoplay (1914 – 1945), the atmospherically-named Shadowland (1919 – 1923), or Picturegoer (1915 – 1925) magazines. Even if you’re not interested in the old news, the photographs, illustrations, and advertisements are a kick in the pants.

Professor emeritus David Bordwell has a nice, short post on what you might find once you start looking.



images< Yep, that was a film magazine.

Garbo Photoplay

Say What?

David Lynch is now selling coffee at Whole Foods. Will it make “a damn fine cup of coffee”? Will there be pie fixins’ next to the display? Will drinking it be like taking a hit of LSD?


The 2013 Locarno Film Festival is wrapping up. Its top prize, the Golden Leopard, went to a Catalan-language film, Alberto Serra’s “Historia de la Meva Mort (Story of My Death),” an “eerie” and off-kilter imagining of Giacomo Casanova, according the Hollywood Reporter. HR gave it kind of a stinky review, but it is the first Spanish film ever to win Locarno’s top prize. And apparently Dracula has a cameo. IndieWire were more kindly disposed to the “bizarrely fascinating” film and described it as an “irreverent revenge story.”

The Reporter was much kinder to an adaptation of the Scandinavian crime novel “The Keeper of Lost Causes,” by Jussi Adler Olsen. The world seems much in the mood for Scandinavian crime–a much better judgment call than most things that become as wildly popular as Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. You can tell the film is a Scandinavian crime story from the title alone. It evokes what seems to be a culturally-specific resignation to the seemingly endless violence and cruelty of human beings that is simultaneously angry and wistful. This is a world where the lines “My wife left me. My colleague’s dead, and my best friend’s a cripple” do not sum up the plot but are rather casual workplace chitchat. In any case, “Keeper of Lost Causes” is, for better or worse, far more likely to get some kind of distribution than a dreamy and plodding psycho-sexual 18th-century reverie.


Speaking of Scandinavian crime stories, last night I watched the first film helmed by Danish writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, “Flickering Lights” (2000). My husband and I were hooked after our first ATJ film, “Adam’s Apples” (2005) which we saw at the 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival in the beautiful Orpheum theater on State Street. “Flickering Lights” is a slightly less-nuanced version of “Adam’s Apples,” less nuanced only in the sense that it seems like an earlier version of “Adam’s Apples'” themes and its dark sense of humor that is somehow steeped in a desire for kindness and joy. The title apparently comes from an Emily (“Mily”) Dickinson poem, the title of which is translated as “Flickering Lanterns.” (I couldn’t find the poem working backwards from the translation, and my Emily Dickinson is, like most of my books, currently in storage.) “Flickering Lights” includes several of ATJ’s usual suspects, including Mads Mikkelsen (Arne), who is riveting, as usual. Ulrich Thomsen (Peter) is another regular and a wonderful actor, as is Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Stefan)…who stars in “The Keeper of Lost Causes,” along with “Flickering Lights’s” protagonist, Søren Pilmark (Torkild). “Flickering Lights” is available streaming on Amazon Prime for free and well worth watching, and the brilliant “Adam’s Apples” is streaming on Netflix.


A little bonus

An essay by Martin Scorsese at the New York Review of Books’ site

Sunday Random Weekly Roundup

Welcome back, dear readers–all five or so of you. 😉

I’ve got another three items for you this Sunday, so maybe that will be the gold standard. We’ll see. First up is the news from The Hollywood Reporter that folks who crowdfund films will soon (Sept. 23) be able to have a stake–beyond a psychological one–in the films they help fund. This is great news for filmmakers from Spike Lee to, as someone put it, “the little guy” (or girl) because it will provide filmmakers with access to more money, and encourage investing.

More filmmakers making more films is great. My question is…will anybody get to see them? The biggest problem with the film industry right now is the distribution system. There are already tons of movies that 99% of the people who go to movies not only can’t see, they don’t even know they exist. According to Film Journal, there were 1,299 films made in the EU in 2012. (And this includes projects like Taken 2, which isn’t exactly showing audiences something they haven’t seen before.) How many of those films made it to any screen in the U.S.? (I actually couldn’t find an answer to that question–if anyone knows where to look, please let me know!)

The Intouchables, the highest-grossing movie in a language other than English, with $281 million worldwide (at least in 2012), had a total release of 194 screens. There were NINE films that played on 4K+ screens. Nine. Those nine were produced by five companies playing it safe and drowning the public in marketing for those films. Of those nine films there was only one–Pixar’s Brave–that was not part of a series. (And, honestly, a Pixar movie is something of a series, given that there’s a built-in audience for pretty much anything they do. While we’re on the subject–Planes, really?) Of the remaining eight, The Hunger Games was the only one that was not a sequel. *sigh* This is not to bash on sequels or series. I loved The Avengers and I loved Skyfall, and I’m glad I got to see them in movie theaters. But surely there’s a way to get more films to more theaters.

Roughly 19% of the films released in the US were on 2k+ screens; roughly 68% were on fewer than 500, and most of those were on under 100. Presumably, if the big production companies stopped sinking so much of their money into so few films (and their military campaign-like publicity), things might improve. The reason Spike Lee is crowdfunding his new film is at least as much the result of his films not being distributed widely enough to make enough money to make a studio invest in his next project, as it is with the quality or (potential) popularity of the film itself.

Director Steven Soderbergh gave a wonderful(ly depressing) “State of Cinema” talk at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival that addresses just this issue, which you can read at the above link.

Okay. Rant over.

Moving on…

Something I’m excited about in a good way is George Clooney’s Monuments Men, scheduled for release in December.


The film is an adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. (The title makes it sound like Edsel–or his publishers–knew it would make a great film. “In a world…”) Clooney co-adapted the screenplay, and the trailer looks sort of like Ocean’s Eleven have parachuted in to rescue Europe’s great works of art. Which is obviously a fantastic idea for a film. You can barely see that Bill Murray’s in the trailer, but you can’t miss the mercurial Cate Blanchett, whom I could watch reading a phone book–silently, to herself. And, chouette! Jean Dujardin is in there somewhere as well.

This also gives me the opportunity to mention a similar, but much less fun film released in 2006: the documentary The Rape of Europa, based on the eponymous book by Lynn Nicholas. It covers the same topic, the Nazi looting of Europe’s art, more broadly than Monuments Men, including some discussion of the Führer’s taste (or lack thereof) in art. The film quite riveting, actually–see, the Toronto Star says so right there–and it’s streaming on Netflix. (And apparently on YouTube: )


I saw The Rape of Europa at the 2007 Wisconsin Film Festival. According to, the film played a number of festivals (a few others are listed on the film’s site), and it had a theatrical release in New York. And that was it. My sense is that right now–and for the last decade or so–film festivals are the only places to see a real variety of films, domestic or international. Fortunately, there are now more film festivals than ever. (There are a few listed to the right, under the Blogroll.)

And finally…

I’m going to make this short…in fact, I’m only going to mention it, since this post is already longer than usual. It deserves its own post, in any case. That is actually the issue–whether Wonder Woman can have her own superhero movie. Browsing the internet instead of doing something productive, I came across this:

10 Superheroes Who Really Don’t Need Their Own Movie

Naturally, I clicked on it. Wonder Woman is number three. The title of the slide show, it turns out, is misleading. The writers make the argument that Warner’s is incapable of doing a good job, and the implication is that that’s because they can’t get it together to deal with a female superhero. Here’s what the writers of the article (two guys and one person with a gender-ambiguous name, in case you’re wondering) conclude:

“We don’t think it’s impossible to make a good Wonder Woman movie, but if Warner is uncomfortable with everything that defines who she is and where she came from, then it’s better they not make one at all than make one that redefines her so completely that she’s no longer really Wonder Woman.”

So we don’t get a Wonder Woman movie because it’s too difficult to get it right…instead we get the regular summer shower of shitty superhero movies: Green Lantern (2011), Cat Woman (2004), Fantastic Four (2005) and its mind-numbingly awful 2007 sequel, Superman Returns (2006), which managed to screw up even with Parker Posey and Kevin Spacey, and the Green Hornet (2011), which couldn’t get it together with Michel Gondry directing and Christoph Waltz as the villain. It’s certainly true that modern Hollywood does not have a great track record with female superheroes…or women generally (or minorities, of course). To wit: the aforementioned Cat Woman, Supergirl (1984) and Elecktra (2005). But the argument that a major studio is too sexist or stupid (or both) to get it right doesn’t seem like one you really want to get behind.

Turns out there’s been a slew of articles about the elusive WW film, so more on that soon. In the meantime, here’s the opening to the TV show, which ran for five seasons, and makes the point in the first lines of the theme song: All the world is waiting for you. Of course, that’s followed up by: In your satin tights/fighting for your rights. (But those boots are undeniably awesome.)


New series – A Random Weekly Roundup

I’m going to try a regular Sunday series: a weekly roundup of interesting movie tidbits–essays, posts, news, etcetera. I’ll keep it short this week, with three items.

First up, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, second time around.

Here’s the trailer for Ben Stiller’s new film, an adaptation of Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” It’s a beautiful-looking trailer, a bit Coen-esque.


And here’s a link to the classic short short story–well worth a read. Or a re-read.

Just for kicks, here’s the original 1947 trailer for the Danny Kaye version of Mitty.



Next, a much less-fun but fascinating read about the Nazi party’s influence in Hollywood: The Hollywood Reporter’s excerpt from the new book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler (Harvard University Press, on sale Sept. 9) by Ben Urwand. 27cover_lores

It’s worth noting that film scholar Thomas Doherty has published two books on the subject, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1999) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933 – 1939, published earlier this year. And that Doherty isn’t a fan of Urwand’s take: to wit, his responding essay in The Hollywood Reporter: “Does ‘The Collaboration Overstate Hollywood’s Cooperation with Hitler?” (Spoiler alert: Yes, it does.)

Be sure to check out the slide show accompanying Urwand’s excerpt, which includes links to relevant film clips, including one from 1942’s Once Upon a Honeymoon, starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers and directed by Leo McCarey. Why had I never heard of this?


Finally, a great entry in the conversation about women in film (in front of and behind the camera), a dispatch from the San Diego Comic Con:

Looking for FREE streaming films?

Check out Open Culture’s huge listings!


Here are some of the treats* awaiting you (chosen at Random, of course):

Spider Baby –  A black comedy horror film, written and directed by Jack Hill. Stars Lon Chaney Jr. (1968)

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse – Directed by Fritz Lang, this was the sequel to Lang’s nearly four-hour silent film Dr. Mabuse shot in 1922.  (1933)

Dry Summer – Turkish film restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. (1974)

Chimes at Midnight – Directed by Orson Welles, the film focuses on Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff and his relationship with another character Prince Hal. (1966)

Angel on My Shoulder – A gangster comedy starring Claude Rains and Paul Muni. (1946)

Becky Sharp – The first feature film to use three-strip Technicolor film, or, put differently, the first real color film. (1935).

M – Classic film directed by Fritz Lang, with Peter Lorre. About the search for a child murderer in Berlin, (1931)

Goodies from…

Plan 9 from Outer Space  – An Ed Wood classic. Considered one of the worst films ever made. (1959) [I had to remove the snarky quotation marks from classic.]


Solaris – Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative psychodrama occurring mostly aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. (1972) Parts 1 & 2.

…even some classic kung fu

The Chinese Connection (aka Fists of Fury) – Bruce Lee stars in his second, influential Hong Kong Martial arts film. (1972)

And those are just plucked from the first section. There are separate listings for Noir, Thriller, Horror and Hitchcock; Westerns & John Wayne; Silent Films; Documentaries; and Animation.

*Descriptions are all from Open Culture.