Friday, February 28, 2014

THE BIG SCREEN

This morning I finished reading THE BIG SCREEN: THE STORY OF THE MOVIES by British film critic/historian David Thomson. Let me state upfront that this is hands down not only one of the best film books I've ever read, it's one of the best books (fiction or non-fiction) that I've read in years. Yes, it's that good.

Thomson provides a history of film here but it's not a strictly chronological narrative of what happened and when. He digresses often and leavens the history with opinions. He leaves out a lot of films and filmmakers, gives a handful of paragraphs to some films, their directors and stars while other films and artists receive multiple pages of coverage. And it's not just film history that Thomson writes about. He makes space for "Muybridge, I Love Lucy, television as a whole, the money and the deals, pornography and video games, the cell phone, streaming, and all the things that make up the shapes on our screens."

That sentence is a guide to understanding Thomson's grand thesis that operates throughout the book. He's as much concerned with the types of screens on which we perceive these images, this interplay of light and shadows as he on the films themselves. Thomson's chief thematic concern is how we watch movies and what that watching does to us.

THE BIG SCREEN is beautifully written and there's not a boring passage to be found anywhere in the 525 pages of text. Thomson's prose is always elegant, engaging and compelling. You can agree or disagree with him about certain films and directors but you can't deny his deep seated passion for film. Thomson made me reconsider films I've seen many times, casting a new light and a fresh perspective on them which makes me want to revisit some of these works with new eyes, understanding and appreciation. He also made me want to see many films that I've never seen (witness my recent posting on Godard's BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)). In short, reading THE BIG SCREEN was like attending a two-month (that's how long it took me to read the book) seminar on film history with a very erudite and entertaining scholar presenting the material.

It's been almost  forty years since I took my first film class in the spring of 1975 during my freshman year at the University of Texas. The textbooks we had for that class were dry, pedantic and dull but the films we saw were terrific. Once a week we were required to attend at least one film screening for class. I often attended other screenings of other non-required films if my schedule permitted it. The films we saw were rented 16mm prints, projected on the screen of Jester Auditorium on the UT campus. There was no such thing as home video in any format and the idea of downloading or streaming a film onto a computer or tablet was quite simply the stuff of science fiction.

Reading Thomson's book brought back to me those heady days of adventure and exploration when almost every film I saw was new to my eyes. I was learning both the history of the medium and how to watch a film. The movies, textbooks and lectures back then were of enormous benefit to me. I was a young and eager cinephile and I was falling deeply in love with movies. That love has waxed and waned over the years but it's still there. Reading THE BIG SCREEN recharged my cinematic batteries and rekindled the passion for movies that I've always had. As such, it served as a sort of new textbook for me proving that there's always something new to be learned about the subjects we care most about. I don't know that THE BIG SCREEN will ever be adopted into the curriculum of film schools as a canonical text but it should be. It's that good.

If you love movies, you must read THE BIG SCREEN.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

THE WATCHER

Yul Brynner would have brought the perfect, exotic, other-worldly air to



The Watcher!

THE IMPOSSIBLE MAN

Jerry Lewis is the obvious choice to play this guy:



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

BAND OF OUTSIDERS

Normally I'd cross against the light to avoid seeing any film that came out of the French New Wave movement of the 1960s. Why? Because I really didn't like the few New Wave films I have seen. I found them to be boring, slow moving, tedious, almost entirely devoid of plot and just not my cup of cinematic tea. But a recent event has given me pause to reflect and reconsider.

That event is my reading since the first of this year THE BIG SCREEN by British film historian David Thomson. I haven't finished the 500+ page tome yet but when I do, I'll post a full review here. Suffice to say that thus far, my reading of Thomson has done two key things. First, it's made me think about films I've seen over the years in a new light and has made me want to see them again with this fresh perspective. Second, it's made me realize that although I've seen a lot of movies in my life, there are still many, many films that I have yet to see, among them, the majority of the films of the French New Wave and a lot of other foreign films. Maybe, just maybe, I'm missing something. Maybe, just maybe, these films are at least worth seeing once (or again, in a few instances). After all, my first exposure to these films came in the Film 101 class I took during my freshman year in college. That was in 1975. A lot has changed since then. So, armed with new information and a willingness to keep an open mind, I've decided to dip just the very tip of my toe into the vast ocean of world cinema.

I started by buying a used copy of BAND OF OUTSIDERS at Half Price Books. It was the Criterion Collection DVD of Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 film so I knew that I would be seeing a very sharp transfer of the film along with the first rate supplemental materials that Criterion is known and admired for.

I watched the film the other day and to my surprise, I didn't hate it. I didn't love it either but I did admire what Godard accomplished and came away from the viewing experience with a dose of respect for the film and the director. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

BAND OF OUTSIDERS is loosely based on an American crime novel, FOOLS' GOLD by Dolores Hitchens and even though there is a robbery in the film, BAND is far removed from the typical caper crime film. Godard constantly subverted my expectations and either ignored or gave a new spin to the conventions of the genre. To call BAND OF OUTSIDERS a crime film is not entirely accurate. It can also be described as a drama, a romance, a comedy and a musical. In short, it's everything and anything that Godard wants it to be.

Two young ne'er do wells, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) entice a beautiful young woman, Odile (Anna Karina) into helping them commit a robbery in the house where she lives. That's the basic premise but instead of ratcheting up the suspense and showing us the painstaking planning and execution of the crime, Godard instead meanders down several different cinematic paths and takes his time getting to the crime. Among these digressions are the development of a romantic triangle between the three leads, a minute of silence (actually 36 seconds) in which all sound stops (no voices, no music, no ambient noise) because the characters decide to "have a minute of silence" and the film literally obeys their command, a foot race through the Louvre that takes nine minutes and forty-three seconds (a new world record, we're told) and the marvelous "Madison" scene in which all three characters perform a mesmerizing dance routine in one long, uninterrupted take. Oh, and there's an omniscient narrator (Godard) who makes comments about the action and provides background information but what he says doesn't always match what we're seeing on the screen.

Filmed entirely on location on the streets of Paris by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, BAND OF OUTSIDERS has the look and feel of a documentary. Coutard used hand held cameras in many of the scenes and he had to hang lights from the ceilings of interior rooms so as not to reveal light stands when his camera tracked continuously around in long, unbroken takes.The Parisian landscape is bleak, wintry and stark and odd off screen sounds and noises are frequently heard throughout the film. The robbery is finally committed and of course, as in almost all stories of this type, things go wrong. But Godard gives two of the characters a happy ending and promises that their adventures will continue in a forthcoming wide screen, full color film (which was never made).

But watching just the film was only part of my experience. I waded into all of the supplemental materials on the DVD and was extremely glad that I did. There's a visual glossary that enumerates all of the many film references, wordplay and in-jokes that Godard uses throughout the film (most of which I would have never got on my own). There's interviews with Godard, Karina and Coutard that recount both the making of the film and Godard's career in general. All of this information was of enormous benefit to me and I felt like I'd just attended a screening of the film with a very good film scholar on hand to expand and elaborate on what I'd seen.

BAND OF OUTSIDERS is one of Godard's best loved films by reason of it's accessibility. It's easy to watch and has some moments of genuine fun and cinematic dazzle. I wasn't blown away by it and I don't know that I'll ever watch it again but I did come away from the film with a healthy amount of respect and admiration for it and I can certainly recommend it to anyone looking to expand their cinematic horizons.


Monday, February 24, 2014

HIM!

After a film career in which played the mythic demi-god Hercules several times, muscle man, body builder and actor Steve Reeves would have been everyone's first choice to portray:



Him! First introduced in the pages of FANTASTIC FOUR, Him would later become Adam Warlock. 

KURRGO, MASTER OF PLANET X

Small in stature but large in talent, Michael ("Dr. Loveless" on THE WILD, WILD WEST television series)  Dunn would have been right at home portraying this guy:





Kurrgo, Master of Planet X

DIABLO!

Legendary horror film actor Vincent Price would have been great as this guy:

Saturday, February 22, 2014