Tuesday, August 31, 2004

What are Dogme Films?

In 1995, a group Danish film directors, led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vintenberg, formed a collective to inspire filmmakers to throw off “certain tendencies” prevalent in contemporary—mainly Hollywood—films. Called DOGME 95, the group’s fiery manifesto asserts that films have been “cosmeticised to death”, or to put it plainly, films have become all image and no substance. They write: “The ‘supreme’ task of the decadent filmmaker is to fool the audience…Is that what the ‘100 years’ [of cinema] have brought us?…As never before, the superficial action and superficial movie are receiving all the praise.”

To counteract this superficiality, Dogme filmmakers must swear to follow a set of rules, called the “Vow of Chastity”, that requires, among other things: that films be shot only on location (no sets), that the camera must be hand-held, and use of camera filters and other kinds of “optical work” are forbidden. Furthermore, the director must “refrain from personal taste”, with his or her only desire being to “force the truth out of characters and settings.” The Dogme director does not sign his or her name to a film. Films made under “the Vow” receive certification that they are true Dogme films.

Approximately 35 films from 12 different countries, including the United States, have been certified as Dogme films. In June 2002, however, the “Dogmesecretariat” overseeing the manifesto closed. In making this decision, the group writes: “The manifesto…has almost grown into a genre formula, which was never the intention. As a consequence, we will stop our part of mediation and interpretation on how to make Dogme films…In case you do desire to make a Dogme film, you are free to do so…the Vow of Chastity is an artistic way of expressing a certain cinematic point of view—it is meant to inspire filmmakers all over the world.”

To read the manifesto and its Vow of Chastity, to see a list of certified Dogme films, and to learn more about the movement, check out their official website. If you think Dogme 95 sounds dry and humorless, just check out their highly irreverent logo!

I will review the Dogme film ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (2000) in my next Weekly Film Rentals post.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Found Photo: Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Grauman's Chinese Theatre, circa 1940s Posted by Hello

This is a 1940s snapshot photo of Grauman's Chinese Theatre that I recently found in a local antique shop. The Hollywood movie palace, built by showman Sid Grauman, opened in 1927 and is still in operation today. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the theatre is its outer forecourt, where hundreds of movie stars have left their foot and hand prints in cement tiles. If you look closely, you can see World War II sailors and other tourists in front, checking out the tiles.

If you have an interest in found photos, please check out my friend's photo blog Snapatorium.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Stella Adler and Method Acting

In recent obituaries and retrospectives for Marlon Brando, much is made of the fact that he was a “Method” actor. I do not know much about the subject, so I recently read the book STELLA ADLER: THE ART OF ACTING (ed. Howard Kissel). Adler was one of America’s foremost acting teachers—Brando was her student.

THE ART OF ACTING presents the grande dame in her own voice. Using audio tapes, transcripts and her personal notebooks, editor Howard Kissel brings Adler’s acting classes to life on the page. Adler was a fierce believer in the transformative powers of the theater, and she is at turns passionate, imperious, dynamic, and eviscerating with her students. You really had to have a tough skin if you were in her class. Adler says, “I’m very aware that this class is antagonistic to your time. It challenges the suppositions of your time. But you want to be a professional, and this is a 2,000 year-old profession.” Adler was a force of nature, which comes through clearly in the book.

Stella Adler was the daughter of a prominent stage family and took to acting at a very young age. She was later part of the prestigious GROUP THEATRE in Depression-era New York, performing works by such greats as Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets. It was during this time that she traveled to Paris and met Konstantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor that created the original “Method”. She was to be the only American acting instructor that studied with him.

There really is no easy way to describe the Method. The rise of the modern theater in the late 1800s, featuring works by such playwrights as Strindberg and Ibsen, brought new challenges to actors. Stanislavski was one of the first to recognize these new challenges, and he developed techniques to help actors discover the essence of the characters and play and to transmit this knowledge to the audience. For Adler, acting exercises using intelligence and imagination lead the actor to the mind of the character. This is in great contrast to another great American Method acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who believes the re-creation of experienced emotions was at the heart of the actor’s task. Put in the most simplest terms: for Adler, acting was doing something, for Strasberg, it was feeling something, and they both had their own techniques to reach those goals. Both Adler and Strasberg had fierce debates with one another over the interpretation of Stanislavski’s Method. Adler was always proud to point out that she was the only one to study with him.

In his afterward to THE ART OF ACTING, editor Howard Kissel likened the Method to ancient religious texts that have been disseminated and transformed by followers with varying interpretations. Adler herself says, “The Method is something you’ll find through me. I am one of the two million people who have been inspired by it. But my particular contribution will be to make you independent of the Method. You will then have the strength to refine it and go your own way.” THE ART OF ACTING is not a how-to book, it is truly a philosophy book, and one that stretches far beyond the realm of acting. I am not an actor, nor have any great aspirations to be one, yet I found this book to be quite inspirational. I think anyone trying to lead a creative-based life will gain by reading the ideas of this great woman of American theater.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 8/16/04

Continuing with last week’s 1970s theme, this week’s rentals focus on the other 1970s—the New Wave and Punk scenes of New York and London from the beginnings through the early 1980s. Here is what I watched:

BLANK GENERATION (1976) and DANCIN’ BAREFOOT (1995): This two-documentary dvd takes a look at the great New York underground bands. Only 55 minutes in length, Blank Generation is a grainy black & white super-8 film of bands performing inside of the famed club CBGBs circa 1975. Shot by Ivan Kral, bassist of the Patti Smith Group, the film shows the early performances of Blondie, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, Johnny Thunders and other great groups of the era. The film was shot without sound, so the filmmakers used later live performances as a soundtrack, resulting in out of sync sound and imagery that takes some getting used to. The film is raw and jerky, yet overall aesthetically matching the punk/new wave era it’s documenting. Dancin’ Barefoot is an hour long documentary produced by Czech television on Ivan Kral, a Czech exile, noted bassist of the Patti Smith Group and a filmmaker of Blank Generation. Along with scenes of the aforementioned film are great archival footage of Patti Smith and other great bands, along with contemporary interviews with Kral, Smith, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, and others.

SID AND NANCY (1986): This classic biopic stars Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as doomed lovers Sid Vicious, bassist of the Sex Pistols, and groupie Nancy Spungen. The film follows the drug-dazed pair from their initial hook up in London, through the Sex Pistols disastrous U.S. tour, to Spungen’s bloody end in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Excellent acting by Oldman and Webb, with a story at turns darkly humorous, poignant, and lurid.

DOWNTOWN 81 a.k.a. NEW YORK BEAT MOVIE (2001): This film featuring artist Jean Michel Basquiat was shot in 1981, yet was considered lost until its rediscovery and release in 2000/2001. The film follows the 19 year-old Basquiat—who at this time was going by the name SAMO and doing graffiti throughout the city—as he wanders around the streets of New York after getting kicked out of his apartment. As he drifts around the city, Basquiat does his graffiti and encounters mysterious strangers and friends, along with some great new wave bands of the era, including Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Tuxedomoon, DNA, and James White and the Blacks. This film is an incredible time capsule of early 80s New York.

I have a special, personal memory of Downtown 81. In 2001, the film was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (my former employer) as a fundraiser. The film’s writer Glen O’Brien and Debbie Harry (who has a small role in the film) came as guests of the screening. Debbie was as cool as ever, still rocking the punk fashions and two-toned hair. She signed the jacket cover of my 45 rpm of RAPTURE that I bought back in elementary school. At that time, you were really cool if you could rap along with Debbie on the playground. “Fab Five Freddy tell me everybody’s fly/ D.J.’s spin makes me say “My! My!” It was a great night.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Cruising into a Town Near You

HoustonChronicle.com - Cinema on wheels displays Mexican films, heritage

Granted they are trying to sell you tortilla chips, this is a very novel way to bring classic Mexican films to U.S. audiences.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Watching Silent Films, Japanese Style

The other day, I was digging through a box and found a research paper on filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that I had written back in my grad school days. Within the paper was this brief discussion on Japanese silent film:

The Japanese fashioned a unique way of viewing [silent] films. The western way of viewing involved projecting images followed by text on the screen, with organ accompaniment to enhance the drama. The Japanese, however, used benshi, or silent film narrators. As Kurosawa describes them, the benshi, “not only recounted the plot of the films, they enhanced the emotional content by performing the voices and sound effects and providing evocative descriptions of the events and images on the screen.” In time, the benshi became stars in their own right, and they—not the films—would often be the main attractions for the audience. One of these star narrators was Heigo Kurosawa, the older brother of Akira.

The benshi wielded considerable power in their heyday. They often pressured the studios to make movies with longer shots, so they could talk as much as they wanted. In 1918, a reform movement was underway within the [Japanese film] industry, one of their goals being to replace the benshi with subtitles on the screen. After a lengthy battle, both sides agreed upon the use of one benshi per film, whereas previously up to four narrators worked on a single film. When sound films were introduced, the benshi held strikes and protests, yet to no avail. Heigo Kurosawa was one of the leaders of the failed strikes. Despondent over his situation, Heigo eventually committed suicide.

Information from: Akira Kurosawa, SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, translated by Audie E. Bock (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), and Tadao Sato, CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA, translated by Gregory Barrett (Kodansha International Ltd., 1982).

I really love Kurosawa’s films and will go into depth about the filmmaker and his work in later posts.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

R.I.P. Elmer Bernstein

The New York Times > Movies > Elmer Bernstein, Prolific Film Composer, Dies at 82

It seems like I've been doing a lot of these "R.I.P." posts lately. Elmer Bernstein was a prolific composer who could, "use a symphony orchestra as a handmaiden to cinema." He scored over 200 films, ranging from TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD and HUD to even NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE and AIRPLANE. Bernstein was also one of those blackballed for several years in the 1950s becuase he considered himself a communist. This obiturary from the NY Times provides an interesting overview of his life and work.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 8/9/04

It was the 1970s last week at my house—what’s new? LOL! Here is what I watched:

FOXY BROWN (1974). This vintage blaxploitation film starring the incomparable Pam Grier is a follow up to her successful film COFFY in 1973. Foxy has an almost identical storyline: Grier takes her revenge on drug lords who have killed her boyfriend, and must go through much tribulation before she gets her justice. I liked Coffy better, but this is fun to watch nonetheless. Antonio Fargas (Huggy Bear!) co-stars as her wayward brother involved with the drug lords.

FIVE EASY PIECES (1970). This film is rightly placed in the canon of great 1970s films. Jack Nicholson gives an Oscar-nominated performance as a Bobby Dupea, a highly talented and mercurial pianist who has rejected that world to work and carouse in western oil fields. Karen Black also gives a standout performance as his frowsy waitress girlfriend. The acting and writing in this film are superb. This is another one of those films that sneak up on you—you may think nothing much is going on as you watch it, only to find yourself savoring its nuances hours later.

BREEZY (1973). This romantic drama is Clint Eastwood’s third directorial effort after his auspicious debut with PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971). Kay Lenz is Breezy, a young free-spirited hippie who drifts into the life of William Holden, a middle-aged divorcé soured on love. The film follows the two as they tentatively fall in love. This is a nice film, and I think it would make an interesting double feature with another great May-December romance of the era, the darkly comic HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971).

Friday, August 13, 2004

Pre-Code Hollywood Films, An Overview

Pre-code Hollywood films are generally defined as those films made between the appearance of sound in 1929 and the strict enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code in 1934. In an earlier post, I discussed the rigid production code, a censorial document that dictated film content from mid-1934 to 1968. Now I want to give an overview of the types of films made “pre-code”—films that Depression-era audiences loved and drove the moralists crazy!

Gangster Films. The birth of the modern gangster film happed in this era. Probably the most famous group of films from this time are: LITTLE CAESAR (1930), where Edward G. Robinson defined the genre with his portrayal of his Al Capone-based character; THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), with James Cagney famously smashing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face; and the original SCARFACE (1932), which features Paul Muni as the insanely violent Tony Camonte, with a rather incestuous attachment to his sister.

Horror. Some of the well-known horror films made pre-code were FRANKENSTEIN (1931), the Bella Lugosi version of DRACULA (1931), and DR. JYKELL & MR. HYDE (1932). KING KONG (1933), too, was a pre-code film. Perhaps the most notorious of the bunch was director Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932), which features actual circus freaks who take revenge against a “normal” woman who does them wrong. I intend to devote an entire post to this film later on because there is way too much to discuss! Tod Browning was blackballed by the U.S. film industry after the film was released. Freaks was banned in some U.S. states, and in the entire United Kingdom for thirty years. According to the Internet Movie Database, it’s still banned in Sweden.

Vice Films. These films featuring moral laxity were very popular in their day. The titles alone were enough to titillate viewers: THE ROAD TO RUIN; MERRILY WE GO TO HELL; MADAM SATAN (great film!); FREE LOVE; SHE HAD TO SAY YES. A popular sub-genre was the “kept woman” film, which features young women who discover the perks and pitfalls of being well-compensated mistresses to usually-married men. A young Joan Crawford in POSSESSED (1931) is a prime example. Another popular type was the all-out “bad girl”, who will lie, cheat, and steal to make her way to the top. One of the most notorious of this category is BABY FACE (1933). A poor Barbara Stanwyck stands in front of a skyscraper and decides that she wants to go to the top—and she does just that by sleeping her way from office to office, floor to floor, until she snares the rich playboy that lives in the building’s penthouse.

Other standout examples of pre-code films include MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934), a musical with an over the top number devoted to marijuana; THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), a Cecil B. deMille epic ostensibly about Christian martyrs, yet seems to relish showing Roman orgies; and THE EMPEROR JONES (1933), featuring the legendary Paul Robeson who escapes the poverty of the segregated South to become a despotic dictator on a tiny Caribbean island (another film to be discussed at length in the future). The era also showcased the sophisticated sexual innuendo of Mae West and the Marx Brothers before they became de-fanged caricatures.
Some of these films are making their way to DVD, and many are available on VHS if you can find an independent rental outlet with a deep catalogue. Several pre-code films turn up from time to time on cable’s Turner Classic Movies channel. Later on, I will devote posts to specific films, actors, and other topics surrounding the pre-code era.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 8/2/04

The theme of this weeks rentals is recent comedies. Here is what I watched:

STARSKEY & HUTCH (2003). Finally, after a month of geeky preparation by watching season one of the old T.V. series, I watch the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson flick. What a letdown. The movie is somewhat cute, but it just seems like a series of gags other than having some sort of plot. I like Stiller and Wilson, and they make the movie viewable, but Snoop Dogg steals the show as Huggy Bear. Both the original Starskey & Hutch actors make a cameo, and my god, David Soul is unrecognizable! Time has not been kind to his fair-haired features. And where, pray tell, was Antonio Fargas? If you want cheesy fun, I would stick to the original series—and lord help me, they just releases season two on DVD.

BUBBA HO-TEP (2003). This tiny-budget independent film has one of the most wacked-out premises ever. An ageing (and very much alive) Elvis Presley and an elderly black man who thinks he’s President John F. Kennedy, battle a soul-sucking mummy that is plaguing their East Texas retirement home. This film defies definition. It is ostensibly a horror picture, yet has a lot of comedic moments and is packed full of poignancy and heart. This rare combination is what makes it so great. Bubba Ho-Tep is not a silly movie by any means—it is one of the most original, well-made films I have seen in a long time. With cult film-icon Bruce Campbell as Elvis and legendary Ossie Davis as a would-be JFK.

SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003). This cute movie stars Jack Black as a down and out musician who shapes up a group of ten year-old prep school students into a formidable rock ‘n’ roll band. This movie is predictable, but I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing: you know the hard-nosed school principal will melt, you know the uptight parents will loosen up, you know the savvy kids will triumph at the end of the day. The performances of Black and the kids raise the film above the level of banal. This is cinematic comfort food, and who doesn’t need that every once in a while?

Monday, August 09, 2004

R.I.P. Fay Wray

The New York Times > Movies > Fay Wray, Beauty to Kong's Beast, Dies at 96

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Found Photo: Film Crew, 1933

Film crew on location, 1933 Posted by Hello

Here is another recent find from a local antique shop. This is a snapshot photo of a film crew working on location. The caption on the back reads: Arger's Film Company filming on Bond Place, June 1933. I have looked through books and on the Internet, and I cannot find any sort of reference to an "Arger's Film Company". Perhaps another little company lost to history....

If you enjoy found photos, please check out my friend's blog, Snapatorium.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Great Performance: Mick Jagger in "The Man from Elysian Fields"

Over the years, Mick Jagger has built up a small resume of acting roles, from Australian outlaw NED KELLY (1970) to futuristic villain in FREE JACK (1992). In 2001, Jagger took a supporting role in the independent film THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS. Set aside any preconceptions you may have about the Rolling Stone’s front man, and you will see a great actor at work in this film.

Elysian Fields stars Andy Garcia as a down and out writer with a family to feed and no income in sight. Garcia happens upon Jagger’s Luther Fox, owner of a private escort business that services affluent women about town. Yes, Jagger is a pimp—yet oh so stately and elegant! A desperate Garcia joins Jagger’s coterie and starts down that familiar road to personal downfall. In a secondary storyline, Jagger carries on a “business relationship”—years in length—with a fun-loving Anjelica Huston. Convinced he has found true love, Jagger declares his feelings with disastrous results.

Jagger plays the role with such quiet power. Taking on the persona of a refined Englishman, Jagger creates a character whose seductive elegance masks the essential seediness of his livelihood. Jagger employs his distinctive face with such mastery, moving from a benign world-weariness to utter devastation at his lover’s cruel rejection. He truly loses himself in this role—you are not watching “Mick Jagger” (and all the baggage that goes with it) on screen—and that in itself is quite a feat. This is a great performance, and one that made me see Jagger in a new light.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Movie Rentals, Week of 7/26/04

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933) This strange German thriller by director Fritz Lang (METROPOLIS) features a demented Dr. Mabuse, who, while confined to an insane asylum, orders his minions to commit crimes to bring about world chaos. This film was later banned by the Nazi regime because the Mabuse character more than suggested Hitler writing MEIN KAMPF while in prison. Eerily enough, the film, viewed through today’s eyes, parallels the shadowy world of Al Qaeda. This film is just as relevant now as it was in the 1930s.

SIX FEET UNDER (2001), Season 2, discs 4 and 5. These discs wrap up season two of the HBO series. All in all, this season was a good one, with each character getting a compelling storyline and what seems like equal time on the show—unlike THE SOPRANOS, where main characters can get ignored for episodes at a time (oh well, just different ways of storytelling). Ultimately, the Fisher family is left in limbo, as is the viewer if they are cable deprived like myself! I wonder how long it will take HBO to release season 3? Why are they so far behind on this series?