Fragment #37: Jack Conway on Romance and Illusion

In case you thought complaining about how special effects are just not as exciting or authentic as real stunts, spectacle and peril was a new thing, here is an article from a 1933 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, in which film director Jack Conway worries that the spread of camera trickery might be depleting the excitement of film. One problem he notes, is that audiences have just become too wise to the illusions, and just aren’t fooled any more. Conway Hollywood Reporter[I found this article using Lantern, the amazing new search tool for the Media History Digital Library. It’s a great way to search for film and media articles from public domain journals. Read David Bordwell’s appreciation here.]

Fragment #36: Suing Spielberg

Twister Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton

In 1998, writer Stephen Kessler sued the makers of Twister (Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Warner Bros and Universal studios), claiming that they had plagiarised his script “Catch the Wind”. At the same time, Dreamworks was being sued by Barbara Chase- Riboud who accused them of borrowing extensively from her novel Echo of Lions in the production of Amistad. Kessler alleged that he sent his script to Spielberg’s agency in 1989, and later found out that it had been adapted by Michael Crichton (who denied ever hearing about Kessler or Catch the Wind) to make Twister. The case went to a US District Court, but Kessler ultimately failed to win any compensation. At one point, Spielberg himself was cross examined, and the text below is extracted from the court transcripts. I wonder if he would still stand by his ruthlessly “pragmatic” assessment of the value of a script to the success of a film. Screenwriters, cinematographers, and composers may want to look away… Continue reading

Fragment #35: Rudolf Arnheim on Lotte Reiniger

It is not easy to make fairy tales come alive for the eye as well as the ear, because the magic power with which children imagine what is told them is too easily paralysed by every image they see. Even the witchcraft of the film hardly ever matches the superior buoyancy of youthful imagination; in the pretty fairy tale films by Starewicz, the artistically constructed animals have something frighteningly robotic about them: they are uncanny, sleepwalking little machines. Lotte Reiniger utilises the ideal technique, the silhouette film. The silhouette is not as close to reality as a three-dimensional thing, no matter how imaginatively it may be thought out. It thus spares the viewer, particularly the child viewer, the fear that sets in when the fairy tale passes a certain point of vividness and becomes tangible reality. The moveable silhouette charmingly maintains the right balance between the product of art and life; we believe it enough to be enthralled, and we do not believe it enough to get the goose bumps we get when experiencing the supernatural.

Lotte Reiniger films Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, developing an incredibly expressive outline as she goes. The swinging link chain that forms a tall Negro prince, the little velvet ball that rolls across the screen as Doctor Dolittle or his lazy piglet, the grotesque disproportionateness of a giraffe’s body and the slender elegance of a sparrow – the plucky scissors cut lively curves in the black paper, and living beings arise in pleasingly rounded, elegant forms. Everything is caricatured, but with so much sensitivity to the real nature of each creature that the accentuation never becomes a distortion.

When we keep in mind that the artist never sees one movement during the shooting, but moves limb for limb millimetre by millimetre on her animating table, and that every gesture must be pieced together from a hundred individual little pictures in one long process, it is almost unbelievable to behold how, when the work of months of patience flies by in seconds on-screen, every figure acts just right. The apes swing from the branches, the duck waddles, hurried and plump, the lion, a pompous heraldic animal, proudly sways his behind, the wave sprays, and the snow falls softly to the ground. It must be a very happy feeling for Lotte Reiniger, similar to when a musician hears his mute-born child for the first time, to see the unwieldy piece of carton – laboriously patched together with wires, and without the guidance of a human hand – dancing lively, amazing dances up on the screen, full of life as nature itself, and yet bound by the gracious style of her most charming personal designs.

Rudolf Arnheim (1928) Film Essays and Criticism. p.141-2.

Fragment #34: A Scene from Novvy Gulliver

For your amusement and amazement, I present a sequence from Aleksandr Ptushko’s excellent Novyy Gulliver (“The New Gulliver”, 1935), which retells Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century satire for its contemporary Soviet audience. During a break from sailing lessons young Petya Gulliver falls asleep while reading Gulliver’s Travels, and dreams that he has been washed ashore in Lilliput. Armed with an array of rote-learned communist slogans, he eventually instigates a proletariat revolution to overthrow the pompous aristocrats who rule over the island. The Marxist speechifying seems rather blatant now, but the film’s main attractions lie in Ptushko‘s incredible animated sequences, often using hundreds of individual puppet figures for the Lilliputian crowd scenes (publicity at the time reported that he’d used three thousand miniature figures, but this may be a slight exaggeration). See, for example, this clip from Gulliver’s arrival in Lilliput, a well-known scene made even more striking with a long tracking shot that incorporates fluid movement through space and efficiently establishes the hierarchical communities attending the scene.

Born in 1900, Ptushko had begun working for Mosfilm in Moscow by 1927, making puppet models for other animators to use, but by the following year he was working on his own stop-mo films. He was developing his own craft, and testing the integration of puppets with live action. Novyy Gulliver was his first feature; he began production in 1933. Halfway through the production, Ptushko saw King Kong and, convinced that it was showing the way forward for stop-motion animation integrated with live-action, incorporated some of the same techniques. The film was a big success, and Mosfilm allowed Ptushko to set up his own stop-mo team, known as the Ptushko Collective, which made 14 shorts between 1936-8.

Fragment #32: Vertigo, A Sequel, by Laurence Goldstein

When Alfred Hitchcock traveled underground
And settled his famous bulk in Charon’s boat
(‘A star vehicle at last!’), and heard the sound
Of oars, and felt the deathship float,

He turned for one last framing glance
At the cool blondes, the shapely auburn-haired,
Whose shades whirled about him in a bawdy dance,
Lifting their crimson dresses, bosoms bared.

His fingers trembled toward Grace
Who modeled once more the postures of sin.
He read the brazen line on her painted face:
‘I don’t like cold things touching my skin.’

He would kill her, again, for saying that.
Strangle or stab, in living room and shower …
Hell swung into view like a Hollywood matte;
Kim and Tippi spun beyond his power.

At the helm, some likeness of their leading men
Directed his freight toward the paysage triste,
But their king-sized genius, scissors in hand,
Gazed backward till their movement ceased.

Laurence Goldstein, “Vertigo: A Sequel,” in Goldstein & Konigsberg (eds) The Movies: Texts, Receptions, Exposures. University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Fragment #31: Fay Wray to the King, by Judith Rechter

Dear Kong
Some have slurred our relationship
Some have called it unnatural;
Some have said I’m a tart;
Some have said you’re an ape.

Dear Kong
Rumor, and rumormongers, old farts.
It’s what you say that hurts.
It’s when you criticise your little Fay that hurts.
Not rumor, rumormongers, and good taste.
When you speak of splitting, instead of loving,
When you talk of hating, instead of copulating,
When you rant of not relating, instead of knowing,
That’s what hurts
Your little Fay,
Your own sweet flirt,
Your tiny Miss Wray..

They have been wrong –
As if miscegenetic pleasure was a freak of nature,
As if I was not easily satisfied or well supplied;
If only they could touch your hairy rump and tool –
They’d realise I wasn’t such a fool.

Dear Kong
You are my beast;
Devour my nice white body if you please;
Don’t act like a cowardly golliwog
Or use philosophical doublespeak;
Save me from the terrible pterodactyl;
I’m agog at your marvelous soul
And adore the hairs on your toes
And cylinder which towers above
The Empire State, though they say
You have torn four sexes to shreds
And had other women in bed..

Dear Kong

Save your adorable Fay;
Miss Wray who adores you
And loves you, is true to you.
Affectionately, YOUR QUEEN

Judith Rechter

Fragment #30: Marcia Landy on The Ministry of Silly Walks

The impetus toward comedy, as the Pythons acknowledged, came from such silent cinema figures as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose comedy relied heavily on facial and physical gestures. In the Flying Circus, even when the focus is on the stationary character of conventional “talk” television, the Pythons’ strategy of calling attention to its static qualities is through the introduction of gesture – contrasting background images, facial grimaces, body movement, and repetition of familiar, but in this context inappropriate, gesticulation. […] One of the most famous of the Python gestures is the “silly walk”. […] The choreographed and exaggerated and exaggerated movements ridicule the conformity that trickles down from the various government ministries, producing a generation of silly walkers. But the “silly walk” also visualises the Python concern with the captive body. The “silly walk” emphasises the rigidity of the back, the spastic character of each leg, one raised after the other, … suggestive of a loss of freedom of movement. The deserved popularity of this sketch relies in part on its spoofing of bureaucracy, but, more fundamentally, it evokes a world of madness through gestures that are similar to photos of patients in mental hospitals and indicative of the discipline and control of the gesture. The “silly walk” exaggerates the body’s imprisonment in gesture.

Marcia Landy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Fragment #29: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion

Still playing around with iMovie, which lets me make short videos, I made this quick piece that features a montage of Eadweard Muybridge‘s Animal Locomotion photographic series. The music is an excerpt from Philip Glass’s 1982 opera The Photographer, which took its libretto from documents and transcripts from Muybridge‘s life, and in particular the court proceedings from when he was on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. If you want to keep up with these videos, and hopefully watch me get better at making them, you can now subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Fragment #28: Bruno Latour on Avatar

[In his 2010 essay ‘A Compositionist Manifesto’, theorist of science Bruno Latour outlines his proposal for a new epistemology of the relationship between nature, science and humanity. As an alternative to ‘critique’, the analytical approach that “ran out of steam because it was predicated on the discovery of a true world of realities lying behind a veil of appearances”, he proposes a compositionist approach that requires its exponents to build, slowly and cautiously, forward-looking modes of thought and action to deal with looming ecological catastrophe which existing systems of knowledge have not prepared us to prevent. Perhaps surprisingly, he introduces the manifesto with a prologue about James Cameron’s Avatar, situating the film’s hero, Jake Sully, as a hopeful representative of a new way of being, where continuing existence might require a complete overhaul of how we perceive our place in the universe. The finished essay was published in New Literary History 41.3 (Summer 2010): 471-490, but you can read a draft version at Latour’s website; see also Lucas Verburgt’s excellent analysis of Latour’s argument, and Levi R. Bryant’s discussion of it at Larval Subjects. You can find my own posts on Avatar here and here. The illustration at the start of this post is from a concept design for Pandora’s Hometree by artist Seth Engstrom.]

“If I had an agent, I am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope! Yes, Pandora is the name of the mythical humanoid figure whose box holds all the ills of humanity, but it is also the name of the heavenly body that humans from planet Earth (all members of the typically American military-industrial complex) are exploiting to death without any worry for the fate of its local inhabitants, the Navis, and their ecosystem, a superorganism and goddess called Eywa. I am under the impression that this film is the first popular description of what happens when modernist humans meet Gaia. And it’s not pretty.

The Revenge of Gaia, to draw on the title of a book by James Lovelock, results in a terrifying replay of Dunkirk 1940 or Saigon 1973: a retreat and a defeat. This time, the Cowboys lose to the Indians: they have to flee from their frontier and withdraw back home abandoning all their riches behind them. In trying to pry open the mysterious planet Pandora in search of a mineral—known as unobtanium, no less!—the Earthlings, just as in the classical myth, let loose all the ills of human- ity: not only do they ravage the planet, destroy the great tree of life, and kill the quasi-Amazonian Indians who had lived in edenic harmony with it, but they also become infected with their own macho ideology. Outward destruction breeds inward destruction. And again, as in the classical myth, hope is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box—I mean planet—because it lies deep in the forest, thoroughly hidden in the complex web of connections that the Navis nurture with their own Gaia, a biological and cultural network which only a small team of natural- ists and anthropologists are beginning to explore. It is left to Jake, an outcast, a marine with neither legs nor academic credentials, to finally “get it,” yet at a price: the betrayal of his fellow mercenaries, a rather conventional love affair with a native, and a magnificent transmigration of his original crippled body into his avatar, thereby inverting the relationship between the original and the copy and giving a whole new dimension to what it means to “go native.”

I take this film to be the first Hollywood script about the modernist clash with nature that doesn’t take ultimate catastrophe and destruction for granted—as so many have before—but opts for a much more inter- esting outcome: a new search for hope on condition that what it means to have a body, a mind, and a world is completely redefined. The lesson of the film, in my reading of it, is that modernized and modernizing humans are not physically, psychologically, scientifically, and emotionally equipped to survive on their planet. As in Michel Tournier’s inverted story of Robinson Crusoe, Friday, or, The Other Island, they have to relearn from beginning to end what it is to live on their island—and just like Tournier’s fable, Crusoe ultimately decides to stay in the now civilized and civilizing jungle instead of going back home to what for him has become just another wilderness. But what fifty years ago in Tournier’s romance was a fully individual experience has become today in Cameron’s film a collective adventure: there is no sustainable life for Earth-bound species on their planet island.”

Fragment #27: Mae West & Charlie McCarthy Redux

Last year, I posted a fragment (#4) featuring transcribed dialogue from a saucy exchange between Mae West and Charlie McCarthy. Now, thanks to my current penchant for messing about with iMovie’s editing software, I can give you the audio of their talk with some accompanying photographs, my first attempt at this kind of thing. This is a supplement to the short Bergen and McCarthy film, Nut Guilty, that I posted yesterday. Here’s the explanatory text from my earlier post:

On 12 December 1937, Mae West appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his monocled knee-pal (dummy), Charlie McCarthy. [You can hear the whole broadcast here.] Stars of stage and screen and airwaves, Bergen and McCarthy had a huge following, and West was keen to promote her latest film, Every Day’s a Holiday. She appeared in two sketches, including “The Garden of Eden” with Don Ameche, and a flirtatious banter with McCarthy. The announcer introduces the meeting as “the romantic battle of the century”, a contest of seduction which the dummy might just prove strong enough to resist. There follows a blistering back-and-forth, during which West describes Charlie as “all wood and a yard long”. This was too much for many listeners (though the studio audience found it hilarious), especially on a Sunday, and the Federal Communications Commission deemed it indecent. NBC banned West (you couldn’t even mention her name) from all their radio stations. She didn’t appear on radio until January 1950.