Saturday, September 15, 2012

Another half hour of Hitchcock

Saturday, August 18, 2012

With friends like these.. Peter Bogdanovich and Citizen Kane

I've been thinking about the latest Sight and Sound poll and the surprising rise of Vertigo from relatively minor Hitchcock* to the "greatest film of all time." But there's another side to the story. Since 1962, the top film on the once a decade poll was Citizen Kane. Kane's fall to the number two spot is certainly less dramatic than Vertigo's rise, but if Kane has slipped in critical estimation, I wonder if some of the blame rests with Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich certainly didn't set out to undermine Kane. Orson Welles was one of Bogdanovich's closest friends, a fact that the younger director routinely referred to (if asked "do you want paper or plastic?" there's a better than even chance that Bogdanovich's answer would involve Welles). But Bogdanovich, for reasons too complicated to go into now, has made downplaying the role of William Randolph Hearst an integral part of his defense of Kane. Here, in an interview about the Cat's Meow, is a representative quote.

He also felt his film "could get closer to Hearst" than Welles ever did, chiefly because he claims Citizen Kane was not entirely based on the newspaper magnate. "It's what people can't get through their heads! It was a combination of characters. It wasn't just about Hearst. That's a misconception everybody has that has come from the press and the mythology and people getting it wrong."

I've never seen an interviewer call Bogdanovich on this, which is unfortunate for two reasons: first because it's very much in dispute and second because taking Hearst out of the picture guts the film's political context and undermines many of its best moments.

Citizen Kane is, of course, a work of fiction, not a docudrama and Charles Foster Kane is not supposed to be William Randolph Hearst. (Kane is probably closer to Hearst than Richard III is to the protagonist of Shakespeare's play, but that's a topic for another day.)

But while there are aspects of Kane based on other press lords (making his 'mistress' a singer instead of an actress for example), all of the thematically important similarities and most of the highly recognizable ones were purely Hearst (many of the best remembered moments -- "I'll provide the war" "I'll have to close this place in... 60 years" -- were taken directly from Hearst's bio).

The makers of Citizen Kane play against the persona of Hearst in a similar fashion to the way Condon plays with McCarthy in the Manchurian Candidate. The result is politically rich and incredibly economical film making (for example, the shot of Kane and Hitler played on Hearst's complicated history with the dictator, a relationship that would have been fresh in the minds of everyone in the original audience -- it was a big deal at the time).

By obscuring the context of the work, Bogdanovich has done more damage to Citizen Kane than Hearst and company ever managed.

* Wikipedia: "In the 1950s, the French Cahiers du cinéma critics began re-evaluating Hitchcock as a serious artist rather than just a populist showman. However, even François Truffaut's important 1962 interviews with Hitchcock (not published in English until 1967) mentions Vertigo only in passing"

Arrested (cinematic) Development

From Roger Greenspun's 1969 review of Out of It:

Paul Williams's "Out of It" opened yesterday at the Festival Theater, but it was made in 1967, according to the distributor, and it looks and feels just a bit older—say 1963—even allowing for South Shore cultural lag.

I just caught some of Out of It on ThisTV (which has a knack for digging up these interesting, half-forgotten films), and Greenspun has it exactly right. If you had asked me to date the picture, I probably would have guessed '63 as well (Maltin's compares it to an Archie comic). I certainly wouldn't have said the late Sixties.

But reading the review, it struck me just how much things have changed, or more accurately, how much things have stopped changing. Can you imagine seeing a film today and saying to yourself "I know it was made in 2010 but stylistically it feels like 2006"?

For the first fifty years or so of the sound era, it really did make sense to talk about movies in half decade increments. You could have a meaningful conversation about the difference between the films of the early Forties and the late Forties.

Today we still have trends and fads that set apart the movies of today from those of five years ago, but in terms of distinct, evolving styles, things change more slowly these days. As for why that happened and whether or not it's a good thing, those are topics for longer posts.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Note to under-occupied filmmakers

Roger Zelazny's "Divine Madness" would make an excellent short film.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The lost (and found) episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents

NBC originally refused to air The Sorcerer's Apprentice because it was deemed too gruesome. Now its in the public domain and it's one of the most widely distributed episodes. From the pen of Robert Bloch:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Two anecdotes on how (and how not) to run a business

I'm going to be discussing both of these businesses in future posts but since my queue is pretty full at the moment I thought I'd get these two examples out while they were still current.

The first involves Weigel Broadcasting, probably the best run business you've never heard of. As with sports and politics, there's an aesthetic pleasure to watching business done well and under that criteria, Weigel is in Joe Montana territory.

Take the response to the death of Andy Griffith on their MeTV network. The network ran a slate of shows featuring Griffith including the Make Room for Daddy back door pilot. Nothing particularly surprising there. I'm sure they plan these in advance and have already laid out the shows they'll air when other notables like Dick Van Dyke or Mary Tyler Moore pass away.

What was notable was the timing. The tribute aired on the Fourth of July. It was an inspired choice -- no living performer was more associated with Americana than Griffith -- but what makes it notable was the fact that Andy Griffith died on July the third.

Let's run through the timeline:

1. Decide on the Fourth

2. Reschedule the day's shows

3. Record the promos

4. Put the promos into heavy rotation

5. Issue press releases.

I've seen simpler corporate processes stretch on for months. At Weigel, this took six hours on the outside. If we had better business journalists, you'd be hearing more about Weigel.

Now for something completely different...

I was checking Hulu last night when I noticed an item about the Dark Knight. I immediately assumed it was something about the shootings (keep in mind, the time you see at the bottom of the screen is West Coast time) but instead it was a jokey piece on fake spoilers. It was still there when I went to bed.

When you get a big, tragic story like this, smart nimble businesses immediately ask themselves if there's a negative PR aspect that they need look out for and if possible, avoid. This is particularly true for websites because

1. it's easy to make changes

2. screen captures are forever.

I suspect that someone at Hulu saw this and thought "we really ought to pull that" but the company wasn't set up for that kind of rapid response. This is also consistent with other things we've seen from Hulu, but that's a topic for other posts.

(also posted at Observational Epidemiology)

Saturday Afternoon Serials -- The Return of Chandu

Chapters 9 through 12

Monday, July 16, 2012

Spies like us

I've been seeing how many calories I can log on the exercise machines at the gym (I realize those numbers may not accurately measure what I'm burning but they make a good motivational metric). To keep myself distracted I've been digging up all the files I can for my cheap media player, including a number from the wonderful Internet Archive.

One of the shows on the playlist was Ziv Television's I Led Three Lives. I had never actually seen the show but I had heard about it and knew the basic premise -- a fictionalized account of a man who infiltrated the communist party for the FBI. It was a well done show (Ziv always knew how to get the most out of a limited budget and often hired some interesting talent like Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry), but what stood out was just how much a product of its time the show was and how difficult it would be to imagine the '53-'56 show ten years later.

We often talk about the Sixties as being the height of the Cold War but that certainly isn't the picture you get from pop culture. Light entertainment like Man from UNCLE and Hogan's Heroes as well as message films like the Russians are Coming featured sympathetic Russian communists. More serious fiction like the Harry Palmer and Matt Helm books (no, really) and most of all the novels of John LeCarre depicted counter-intelligence agents as morally compromised as their counterparts. Even the Bond films never used the Russians as primary villains.

The difference in attitudes is particularly sharp when the Bond movies are compared to the corresponding novels of a decade earlier. Other than the Blofeld arc at the end of the series (which also happened to be the Sixties books), the villains in Fleming's books were Russians and they were every bit as despicable (and somewhat more cartoonish) than the fifth columnists in I Led  Three Lives.

Of course it was possible to find evil Russian communists and (thanks to Stan Lee*) even rhe occasional fifth columnist, but the public mood had clearly changed. I would guess this was primarily a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis but I'm open to other suggestions.

*On a related note, Lee's famous break with the comics code was prompted by a request from the Nixon administration'

(From Wiki)

An early 1970s Spider-Man story led to the revision of the Comics Code. Previously, the Code forbade the depiction of the use of illegal drugs, even negatively. However, in 1970, the Nixon administration's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug message in one of Marvel's top-selling titles.[1]:239 Lee chose the top-selling The Amazing Spider-Man; issues #96–98 (May–July 1971) feature a story arcdepicting the negative effects of drug use. In the story, Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn becomes addicted to pills. When Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin (Norman Osborn, Harry's father), Spider-Man defeats the Green Goblin, by revealing Harry's drug addiction. While the story had a clear anti-drug message, the Comics Code Authority refused to issue its seal of approval. Marvel nevertheless published the three issues without the Comics Code Authority's approval or seal. The issues sold so well that the industry's self-censorship was undercut and the Code was subsequently revised.[1]:239 
Also posted at Observational Epidemiology

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Another reminder that the Sixties was the best decade for television actors

Not the best decade of television. There is no best decade. Each one had something it did best, but the Sixties saw a uniquely talented generation of young actors. Duvall, Coburn, Reynolds, Falk, Dern, Cassavetes, Landau, and dozens of others. Every generation has produced talented actors but never in such prolific numbers.

METV just aired a great example, the Twilight Zone episode "The Grave" written and directed by the gifted Montgomery Pittman and featuring Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef and the criminally underrated James Best. It's an old story, but beautifully told. The structure is tight and the characters are sharply drawn and everyone shines.

Of course, most Sixties television was several notches below the Twilight Zone, but even the weakest shows would often offer the unexpected pleasure of a Bruce Dern or a Rip Torn having infectious fun chewing through the scenery.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

That's This

When I turned off the television Saturday night, ThisTV was playing the profoundly silly martial arts movie Revenge of the Ninja. When I turned it back on Sunday morning the station was showing Ian McKellen's unforgettable turn as Richard III. If I had gotten up a couple of hours earlier I could have also watched David Lean's Great Expectations.

That's what ThisTV's all about. Interesting (and sometimes very good and hard to find) movies juxtaposed in cool and unexpected ways. It's like having access to Quentin Tarantino's DVD collection without having to listen to Quentin Tarantino.

Perhaps the best remembered noir premise of all time

DOA -- And perhaps the definitive example of starting with a great idea and not screwing it up.

Just press play.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jones sings Nilsson

It's easy to get distracted by the bad pop culture associations and forget that Davy Jones was a very talented man. (He'd earned a Tony nomination while still in his teens for playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver.)

As for the role he's best known for, some of his best moments came performing the songs of Lennon and McCartney's favorite songwriter, Harry Nilsson. The contrast between Jones' boyish innocence and Nilsson's dark and troubled lyrics gave the performances an extra resonance.

Pay particular attention to Cuddly Toy. If you listen to the lyrics you'll notice a certain creepiness. When you learn what inspired it, you'll realise you didn't know the half of it.