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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMSbpeb2d6Y&w=420&h=315]

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

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