Archive for the ‘Movie Industry’ Category

Gravity

October 15, 2013

Gravity_Poster

Alfonso Cuarón’s Outer Space adventure film, Gravity, is thoroughly entertaining and the best Hollywood movie I’ve seen since Looper.

One of the reasons this movie succeeds so well is its simplicity. It’s basically about Sandra Bullock falling out of the sky. The problem with many Hollywood movies nowadays is that they end up getting lost in their own needlessly convoluted stories. One of the things I hated about The Dark Knight Rises (and there were many things I hated about this movie) was the fact that it was filled with all sorts of pointless subplots. There is, for example, a seemingly interminable sequence in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to rescue an orphanage. I remember thinking, “Why the hell do I have to watch this when all I really want to see is Anne Hathaway in her Catwoman outfit?” The best of the Terminator films is the first one, which is basically just Arnold Schwarzenegger destroying things. In the later films we get Arnold doing dialogue. Not fun.

Gravity deals with the theme of an individual struggling to survive in a relentlessly hostile environment, a theme that has been dealt with by writers such as Coleridge, Poe, Melville, and London. It is a theme that touches the very core of our existence.

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Hangmen Also Die

March 9, 2013

Hangmen_Also_Die_1943_poster

Hangmen Also Die is an entirely fictionalized account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leaders of Nazi Germany. This 1943 film was directed by Fritz Lang, from a screenplay by John Wexley, based on a story by Bertolt Brecht and Lang. This was the only Hollywood film that Brecht worked on for which he received an on-screen credit. Lang had originally intended to have Brecht write the screenplay, but he apparently changed his mind due to aesthetic, political, and personal differences between himself and Brecht that made it increasingly difficult for them to work together.

The film is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) has just assassinated Heydrich, and he is fleeing down a street. Mascha (Anna Lee) sees him. When the Gestapo ask her where he went, she points them in the opposite direction. Svoboda, who is hiding nearby, observes this. Desperate for a place to hide, he follows her to her home, where he manages to persuade her to take him in, even though he knows that by doing so, he is placing her and her family in danger of retaliation by the Gestapo.

Lang and Brecht did not get along well when they were working on the story for Hangmen Also Die. Brecht thought some of Lang’s story ideas were unbelievable. He complained, for example, of one scene in which Lang had the leader of the Czech resistance evade the Gestapo by hiding behind a curtain. (I found this hard to believe myself.) Yet Lang was right to reject Brecht’s idea that the mistakes of the underground “are corrected by the broad mass of the people”. Brecht’s, influence, however, can perhaps be seen in the fact that one of the film’s chief villains is a Czech collaborator who is also the wealthy owner of a beer brewery. And there is some dark Brechtian humor in the moment when, in the midst of interrogating someone, a Gestapo officer pauses to squeeze a pimple on his face. (That’s something you don”t often see in Hollywood movies.)

John Wexley and Hanns Eisler (who composed the music) were both later blacklisted. Eisler was eventually deported because of his left-wing political views. Brecht left the country after being questioned by the HUAC.

Despite its contrived and melodramatic moments, Hangmen Also Die does touch upon some complex moral and political questions, such as whether terror tactics, like assassinations, are ever a good idea. In the film, the Gestapo begin carrying out random executions in retaliation for the assassination. What happened in real life was even worse. The Nazis destroyed the Czech city of Lidice, killing most of its inhabitants or sending them to concentration camps.

Although it is not one of Lang’s best films, Hangmen Also Die is nonetheless one of the more interesting films to come out of World War II.

2013 Academy Awards

February 26, 2013

85th Annual Academy Awards - Show

The Academy Awards has become an annual ritual second only to the Super Bowl in its importance. Of equal significance is the wave of complaints that follow each telecast. There is always a great gnashing of teeth over the tacky dance numbers, the inept hosts, the comedy bits that fell flat, the overlong acceptance speeches, and the corny “tributes”. Yet every year the complainers watch. Perhaps it’s because the show speaks to our deeply ambivalent feelings towards the entertainment-industrial complex. (It must also be admitted that there is more than a bit of jealousy and envy in all this carping.)

This year’s show provided plenty of fuel for its critics, beginning with the Academy’s bizarre decision to make Seth MacFarlane the host. The director of Ted has been rightly criticized for his juvenile sense of humor, but I feel that I should point out that MacFarlane didn’t invent bad taste. I remember the 1987 Oscars – excuse me, I mean the 59th Academy Awards. They showed a clip from Platoon, in which American soldiers are shown clearing out a Vietnamese village. This immediately segued into a musical number with Bernadette Peters. This was perhaps the most tasteless ting I have ever seen on television.

This brings up a question: why even bother with musical numbers? Why not just hand out the awards? I guess because the awards are not so much about excellence as they are about hype. The movie industry must be to made to seem more important than it is, and the awards must be made to seem to have more meaning than they do. So the organizers of this year’s awards must have been so pleased with themselves when they persuaded Michelle Obama to announce the winner of the Best Picture award. A further step in the merger of Hollywood and the government, which began with the election of Ronald Reagan (Barack Obama’s hero) to the White House. And it was very fitting, too, considering that the picture that won it is an exercise in historical falsification that glorifies the C.I.A.

The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb

October 24, 2012


These can perhaps be regarded as typical of German movie poster art of the 1950’s.


It was left to the Italians to show them how to do it right.

By the late 1950’s, Fritz Lang’s Hollywood movie career had come to end. There were no more studio executives left for him to piss off. It was at this time that the German film producer, Artur Brauner, approached Lang and suggested he do a remake of his silent film The Indian Tomb, (which had been completed without Lang’s supervision). Lang agreed, and the resulting work was released as two films: The Tiger of Eschnapu and The Indian Tomb. They were two of the last three films that Lang made before he retired due to failing eyesight.

Lang regarded film as a visual art form rather than as a form of literature, so he had no reservations about using “genre” subject matter: science fiction, detective stories or, in the case of these two films, Orientalist fantasy. In this respect, he is similar to such contemporary directors as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Unlike them, however, Lang’s films are never coy or campy. He always treats his subject matter seriously and with respect. For that reason, I consider Lang’s work to be artistically superior to that of these other directors.

From the moment one begins watching The Tiger of Eschnapur, one can see right away that this is an example of what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”. More than once some character mentions that Europeans can never really understand India. (It doesn’t help that most of the Indian roles are played by Europeans in brown face.) This “Mysterious Orient” nonsense was, of course, used to justify Western imperialism. (The “clash of civilizations” is a more sophisticated, contemporary version of this argument.) This film is based on a 1918 novel written by Lang’s former wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the silly story for Metropolis and who later joined the Nazi party (although, interestingly, she secretly married an Indian man). One can, however, enjoy these films on their own terms without worrying about the politics of it. It is simply a remnant from a defunct way of looking at the world.

Harold Barger (Paul Hubschmid) is a German architect who has been hired by Chandra (Walter Reyer), the maharajah of Eschnapur, to design public buildings for his kingdom. On his way to Chandra’s palace, Harold meets Seetha (Debra Paget), a temple dancer with whom the maharajah has fallen in love. The carry out a secret affair, which Chandra eventually discovers. Chandra throws Harold into a pit with a man-eating tiger, but Harold manages to kill it. (The tiger is obviously fake. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of this film.) Chandra then tells Harold that he has until sunrise to leave Eschnapur. Harold, however, has an assignation with Seetha in a temple, and the two of them flee into the desert. There, they are overcome by the heat and dust. Harold deliriously shoots at the sun just before he collapses. A message then flashes across the screen promising that we can see the miraculous rescue of the lovers in the sequel, which will be “more grandiose” than the first film.

The Indian Tomb is, indeed, more grandiose. Seetha and Harold are rescued by a caravan. Shortly afterwards, however, they are captured by Chandra’s soldiers. True love eventually wins out, though not without a lot of people getting killed in the process.

These are not among Lang’s best films, but they are nonetheless entertaining movies to watch. Lang directed them in a beautiful manner, although he clearly had to deal with a limited budget. Some of the sets and costumes are not quite convincing. And some of the special effects are embarrassing, such as the fakest looking cobra you will ever see. On the other hand, Debra Paget gives not one, but two, erotic dances. Paget, an American, was, like Lang, a refugee from Hollywood. She had refused to abide by the rules of the studio system, so she was blacklisted. She had to go to Europe to find work. I’m told that in her later years Paget became a born-again Christian, and she had her own religiously themed TV show. I wonder if she ever discussed temple dancing on her show.

Random Thoughts on the Current Troubles

September 15, 2012

The growing inter-connectedness of the world does not always redound to our advantage. Case in point: a cheesy movie made in a strip mall in Monrovia, California, causes riots and the deaths of four people on the other side of the world. We are living in the Global Village, and just as Marshall McLuhan warned, it is filled with “panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.” Fear increasingly becomes people’s normal state of existence, because they are increasingly bombarded with ideas and facts that they don’t understand or only partially understand.

Reading the comments on threads on other sites, I am struck by how many people have no desire to try to understand what is happening. We have an amazing informational tool in the form of the Internet, yet some people would prefer to use it for spewing hate and parading their ignorance. Sad.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, alias “Sam Bacile” is the auteur responsible for that blood and sand epic, Desert Warrior Innocence of Muslims. Nakoula is a Coptic Christian from Egypt, yet he told the Wall Street Journal that he is an Israeli and that the film was funded by Jewish donors. The kindest thing one cam assume here is that Nakoula wanted to prevent any blame for the film being placed on Egypt’s Coptic community, yet there is something sinister about the fact that Nakoula invented a story about non-existent Jewish donors. One has to question what game Nakoula is really trying to play.

The cast and crew of the film say they were duped, and I believe them. The 14-minuste clip on Youtube is heavily (and badly) dubbed. These people will be haunted by this for the rest of their lives. They were used by Nakoula, Steve Klein, Terry Jones and other right-wing Christians to advance their twisted political agenda.

John Carter

April 9, 2012

When I was a kid, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) novels. The first few, anyway. I don’t remember much about them, except that the characters struck me as a bit slow. It would take them a long time to figure out things that were immediately obvious to me. So I stopped reading them. However, I’m told that some people have fond memories of these books. One of these is the director, Andrew Stanton, who in John Carter, based on the first novel of the series, A Princess of Mars, has recreated in loving detail Burroughs’s fantasy vision of Mars. I’m starting to think that perhaps I was too hard on the books, for I found this film entertaining, a pleasant way to pass two hours. No one does anything really dumb, except for John Carter, who throws away a medallion that enables him to travel between Earth and Mars. (This turns out to be a big mistake.) One thing that did bother me is that there are a lot of sword fights in this film. I’ve never understood why they have sword fights in science fantasy movies. Why would people who have the technology to make guns use swords? (This is one of the problems I’ve always had with the Star Wars films.)

John Carter cost an enormous amount of money to make, and it is widely believed that it will end up losing money. I think that is a shame, for – dare I say it? – this is actually a better film than Martin Scorceses’s Hugo or Stephen Speilberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. The action scenes all advance the story, and the characters are believable (within the logic of their fantasy world, that is). And there are none of those annoying slow-motion shots that mar Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

John Carter is played by an actor with the perhaps unfortunate name of Taylor Kitsch. I must say he acquits himself reasonably well in the role. His love interest, Princess Dejah Thoris, is played by Lynn Collins, who is extremely good (think of a sort of an American version of Noomi Rapace).

In perhaps the ultimate nerd touch, we are told that this film is dedicated to Steve Jobs, who, we are told, “inspired us all”. Really? By making overpriced gadgets and exploiting cheap labor in China? Would John Carter have approved of that?

The Ambassador Hotel

September 17, 2009

As I was writing my recent post on the Kennedys, I was reminded of an experience I once had involving the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. This historic structure in Los Angeles was torn down in 2005, to make room for new schools. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I know that the schools in L.A. are badly overcrowded (and they will be even more so when Schwarzenegger’s budget cuts come into effect). On the other hand, the Ambassador was a striking example of a Spanish/Art Deco style of architecture that I have only ever seen in Southern California. (Union Station near downtown Los Angeles, is a good example of this type of building. If you’re ever planning to visit the Big Orange, I recommend checking this place out.)

The Ambassador was built in 1921. Over the years many famous people stayed there, including Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, Anna May Wong, and Frank Sinatra. (The wikipedia article gives a lengthy list of names.) You can find pictures of the place here.

The Ambassador Hotel was closed to guests in 1989. However, during the 1990’s, it was frequently used as a location for film shoots. This is where my story begins. I spent a brief period of my life working as a movie extra. (The politically correct term is “background artist”. This was a weird experience that I will have to write about in more detail in a future post.) My agent instructed me to go to the Ambassador Hotel in the late afternoon to work on a night-time shoot. Now, the building and its grounds occupied a sprawling expanse off Wilshire Boulevard. (I must have driven past there a hundred times previously, without even being aware of the place.) I wandered around for a while, not quite sure that I was even supposed to be there, since the property was surrounded by a chain-link fence with KEEP OUT signs on it. I eventually stumbled across a film crew shooting a movie. I thought this must be the place I was supposed to be. I stood around for a while, with people busily brushing past me, until I managed to get the attention of a production assistant. This woman was unusually polite for a PA. When I told her the instructions that my agent gave me, she told me I was at the wrong shoot, that the one I was supposed to be at was right around the corner of the building. I was a bit incredulous at this, but I followed her directions, walking a path lined by overgrown trellises. Sure enough, right around the corner there was a film crew shooting another movie. I think this experience gave me some idea of what Hollywood must have been like during the 1920’s, when film crews were shooting all over the place, sometimes side by side.

They were making a cop film starring Burt Reynolds. I can’t remember the name of it (I’m not sure anyone bothered to tell it to me), but it probably wasn’t very good if it had BR in it. We were shooting a scene right in front of the main entrance to the hotel, and it was possible to walk into the building when the PA’s weren’t looking. It was dark inside, but there was enough light coming in through the windows that one could make out details. There was an an enormous carpeted hallway that sloped upward. To the left, a large doorway led into what had clearly been a bar. I felt a strong urge to go exploring. However, the PA’s sternly warned me and the other extras – um, I mean background artists – not to go wandering around in the place. They said the structure was in disrepair and therefore possibly dangerous. I figured this was probably true. More importantly, I was afraid of getting fired. (I needed the money.) Nevertheless, I still sometimes feel a twinge of regret that I didn’t give in to my impulse for adventure. To explore the rooms of a huge, dark, abandoned building; what could be more fun? Who knows, I might have been in a room that Marlene Dietrich once stayed in. Oh, well.

One other thing I remember is that there were dozens of feral cats roaming around on the grounds. I wonder what happened to them.

This brings me to the Bobby Kennedy connection. There was a story going around among the extras – er, I mean background artists – that there was a pool of water on the exact spot where Kennedy was shot. I remember people saying this to one another in hushed tones, as if it had some profound significance to it. Since the kitchen where Kennedy was shot was off limits to us, it was impossible to confirm or deny this story. (And who the hell would have have known the exact spot where he was shot?) Supposing this story was true, wouldn’t it have just indicated that the place had leaky pipes?

Myths, legends, folktales, superstitions, etc. have always fascinated me. There seems to be some fundamental human impulse to make these things up. It’s not clear to me why. Perhaps it all starts with somebody bullshitting other people. Once I had a friend who liked to pull other people’s legs. One day he decided, just for the hell of it, that he was going to make people believe that he took part in the invasion of Grenada. He invented this elaborately detailed story. (“There was a body on the ground in front of me. I stepped over it and kept on moving forward…”) I remember hearing him telling this story at parties. Finally, he admitted to me that he had made the whole thing up. For years afterwards, whenever I mentioned his name to people, they would say, “You mean the guy who was in Grenada?”