#0051 - THE GREAT MIDDLE "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak is also a member of the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank, and he had nothing nice to say about Hollywood in a speech he made in Hillsdale MI recently. Hollywood - the industry, and not just the Los Angeles neighbourhood - "has an exaggerated view of its significance", according to Sajak, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland when not shooting episodes of his hit game show. Everything about success in the entertainment industry is geared to rewarding behaviour that would be considered destructive and ugly in the real world: "Drugs? Adultery? Alcoholism? Deviant behaviour? Don't worry - you go on Oprah - you cry - people call you heroic for being so open - and your career soars to new heights."
Sajak is exaggerating slightly. The teary public confessional on Oprah or it's hipper corrollary - a jokey but respectful spot on Rosie or later at night with Jay or Conan - doesn't always ennoble a celebrity's mistakes, but just as often hastens their charter membership into the global village idiot club that has Michael Jackson as its president-for-life. Celebrities that slip into this category - Hugh Grant, Billy Bob Thornton and his estranged wife Angelina Jolie, Melanie Griffith; the list is long - might end up making even more money, but only by becoming a walking punchline. Sajak thinks that more of them should be relegated to this status, inasmuch as we - or at least the entertainment industry and the media that serves it - take people like Rosie, Rob Reiner and Alec Baldwin - intellectuals, by Hollywood standards - far too seriously.
The problem, Sajak thinks, is that people in the business fool themselves that they live in a world of diversity, while ignoring the fact that there's no diversity of political or religious opinion in that world. It's the complaing about liberal bias that Bernard Goldberg makes in his book Bias, which Sajak mentions in his speech, along with a famous Pauline Kael anecdote, where the revered New Yorker movie critic expressed disbelief when Richard Nixon swept the 1972 election, noting that she didn't know anybody who voted for him. "I don't think she was dealing in hyperbole," Sajak recalls. "She simple had never met those people. She couldn't believe they really existed."
It's easy to dismiss Sajak's speech as a blatant finesse of the suspicions and prejudices of a miswestern crowd, especially in a passage like this:
"You see, they are - for the most part - clueless. Clueless about this country and its people. Clueless about you. And they are afraid. They are afraid of the new technologies - afraid of the dwindling numbers of viewers or readers or listeners ... afraid for their very existence. So, don't you see, they have to do what it takes to survive. They just survive. They are important. Who do you people out there - the ones they fly over on their way to the other Coast for meeting - who do you think you are?"
It's tempting to imagine that Sajak is contemplating a run for public office, or a switch from game show host to a more "serious" role in the entertainment media, and to see this as a dry run for his stump speech, but it's not as if he isn't making valid points along the way. These days, more than any other time I can recall, Hollywood films - and even "independent" productions made on its fringes - seem to spring from the same ideological place. Too often, I've been frustrated by the way that Hollywood films prefer half-baked conspiracy theories to serious attempts at depicting politics, a syndrome that made a crackpot like Oliver Stone the equivalent of I.F. Stone in the voting districts around the San Andreas Fault.
Religion has never been handled with anything like real depth in Hollywood, but at least there was once an acknowledgement that movie audiences were, like the population of the country itself, more religious than not. If the high ground in religious moviemaking - such as it is - has been abandoned to fringe phenomenon like Left Behind: The Movie, it's because the flakiness that ruined spiritual thought in the 60s and 70s is still very much alive in Hollywood, where a witless flirtation with the Kabbala, self-righteous crusades for Tibetan Buddhism, or outright frauds like Scientology are able to command more respect than mere Christianity or Judaism or any other conventional, quotidian expression of faith.
(posted 11:11am EST | 08.01.02)
#0050 - EVERYTHING OLD - Movieblog readers in the L.A. area are well advised to get themselves to the UCLA Festival of Preservation that began last week and continues till the 24th. Highlights include a series of Vitaphone shorts (screening Aug. 3rd) that include a 1926 Al Jolson short subject thought to have been destroyed years ago, according to this preview piece in the LA Times. Made a year before The Jazz Singer, it has Jolson deliver his trademark "You ain't see nothin' yet" line, and probably for that reason alone it was withdrawn and disappeared into Vitaphone's archives before being found again in a mislabelled can in the Library of Congress. The soundtrack, recorded on a separate disc, was discovered broken in four pieces and badly glued back together. A UCLA sound restorer spent months dissolving the old glue and reassembling the record before transferring it on a tilted turntable with "strategic blowing on the tone arm."
Also featured in the festival (on Aug. 10th) is a presentation of outtakes from Charles Laughton's gothic masterpiece Night of the Hunter, piece together from discarded reels of film that sat forgotten Elsa Lanchester's garage after Laughton's death until she donated them to the American Film Institute, where students cut them up to use as leader. I can only imagine the deluxe DVD reissue that's waiting to be made from this material - a vast improvement on the rather stingy disc MGM issued a few years ago .
The UCLA festival has been a kind of ground zero for the kind of film restoration that DVD reissues thrive on, and the Times piece mentions a past screening of and alternate version of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, a film famous for the way that the chemistry of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall managed to propel the film through some glaring plot holes. Eighteen minutes of exposition - originally cut to beef up the Bogie/Bacall relationship - were restored by UCLA and render Hawks' film coherent again after over almost sixty years. The original and the released versions of The Big Sleep are both on the Warners DVD reissue, along with a mini-documentary on the missing footage, making it a real bargain among low-priced "golden age" DVD packages.
The same issue of the Times featured two more pieces on film preservation. A piece on notable DVD reissues makes for a decent shopping list, with the inevitable roll call of stellar Criterion Collection reissues of films like Rashomon, Children of Paradise, Rebecca and Grand Illusion. (I'm still waiting - impatiently, I have to admit - for Rules of the Game to get the Criterion treatment.) Another article details Hugh Hefner's expensive hobby; it's not what you'd think - he's been paying for the UCLA restoration of favorite childhood films, mostly b-movie classics: six Sherlock Holmes films, a dozen or so detective films and musicals, and three installments in Paramount's hoary Fu Manchu series. Hef has, so far, spent almost a million dollars on preserving nineteen films that would otherwise have been overlooked. It would be nice to imagine a few less monster homes being built in Aspen or Montana, and a few more classics getting saved from their inevitable decay into film cans full of vinegary-smelling coils of faded celluloid. (The complete schedule for the UCLA Festival of Preservation is here.)
(posted 10:33pm EST | 07.31.02)
#0049 - THE LADY VANISHES - There's a piece in this week's Guardian Weekly on the "celluloid ceiling" in Hollywood, inspired by statistics showing that the number of women directors - never considerable, let's be honest - dropped from eleven to just six percent between 2000 and 2001. Female scriptwriters fell from twelve to ten percent in the same period, and among the top 100 grossing films, only one film had a female cinematographer.
Far from being a precipitous drop, it's really just a return to the status quo, since a comparison with 1987 statistics shows seven of the top 100 films being written by women fifteen years ago, and only eight last year. What makes it ironic is that, unlike 1987, women have made their way into senior positions in the movie business outside of production roles - three women (Sherry Lansing at Paramount, Stacey Snider at Universal and Amy Pascal at Columbia) are now studio chiefs, Martha Coolidge is the new president of the Director's Guild of America, Vicki Raskin is president of the Writers Guild of America West, and Melissa Gilbert is president of the Screen Actors Guild.
"I used to believe that this was an awareness problem," says Martha Lauzen, professor of communication at San Diego State University. "I am coming to believe that the studios are simply not interested in changing the status quo." Professor Lauzen blames the current situation on a "fear factor" that's overtaken executives while the industry suffers economically: "When people are frightened they fall back on established patterns."
It's not as if film sets are devoid of women, either. SAG statistics say that 38% percent of roles are taken by women (okay, still a bit skewed, but it's not as bad as eight or even one percent), and a visit to any film set will reveal a co-ed atmosphere not unlike the average college campus, which is to say sometimes even skewed in favor of women. You'll see female production managers and assistant directors, and the "below the line" crew will be full of women camera assistants, set decorators, continuity people and production assistants. Needless to say, the costume and set departments are, as always, filled with women. It's just that small, lucrative, "above the line" area of talent - writer, director, cinematographer - that suddenly turns exclusively male.
Rachel Abramowitz, author of the recently-published Is That A Gun In Your Pocket?: Women's Experience of Power in Hollywood, finds the situation "totally perplexing", as the film schools have women enrolled at near-parity with men, which would explain the surplus of highly-qualified women working on film sets - everywhere, in fact, except in the canvas chairs grouped around the camera. I frankly can't help but compare it to my own world of magazines and newspapers, where I've found myself working under women for years - as copy editors and proofreaders, as section editors, art directors and photo editors, everywhere, in fact, but in the top editorial positions on newspapers or in the publisher's office at magazines. In the desperate, far-from-lucrative world of freelance writing, men tend to dominate, and among movie critics men are in a clear majority. Men still make up the majority of the ranks of newspaper and magazine photograhers. Salaried, mid-level jobs are hardly closed to women - in fact, there seems to be a preference in hiring women there - while the so-called "creative" roles and the prestigious executive spots on either side are dominated by men.
Economically, you can be cynical and say that there aren't any grounds for complaint. The "creative", prestigious jobs where women are scarce are also highly insecure, whereas the mid-level positions offer steady salaries and day-to-day responsibility, if not a lot of glory. It's the difference between a short career with sporadic pay-offs, and a longer one with a steady source of income. The complaint that there still isn't a female Steven Spielberg is mitigated by the fact that there aren't a lot of Steven Spielbergs - only one at the moment, in fact. It would have been nice to have heard something from Sherry Lansing or Martha Coolidge in the Guardian Weekly piece, but they're merely held up as markers, not sources. It seems to lose steam once the relevant facts have been recited and Ms. Abramowitz and Prof. Lautens have expressed their perplexity.
The likelihood that comparatively few women try to climb up the ladder into the director's chair once they've spent a few years in the industry isn't explored. Unspoken - the Guardian is a good liberal paper, after all - is the possibility that powerful women in the industry are ill-disposed to help other women, for a variety of reason hard to quantify in a 1000-word feature. This seems to hint at a treacherous, near-Jacobean world out of "Women Beware Women", full of the "male-identified" females that women's magazines warn us about, and which we may have met from time to time. Once again - hard to quantify, and harder still to discuss in polite company.
I find it easier to imagine that ambitious women in Hollywood, like ambitious people everywhere, find the path of least resistance to the top. That path does not lead through the clubhouse door of the American Society of Cinematographers, not just yet, but it does weave through the executive offices at the studios, packed with MBAs who, for all of their other faults, are remarkably gender-blind. A few years living on the fringes of the industry as a struggling scriptwriter might convince a sensible women - any sensible person, in fact - that it might be more sane to find a job in a script department, or at an agency. The rent, at least, would get paid, even if you'd probably never get your shot at making an Oscar acceptance speech.
(posted 11:45pm EST | 07.31.02)
#0048 - OH NO, THERE GOES TOKYO - The Taro Okamoto Museum in Kawasaki has been getting a thousand visitors a day this summer for its exhibit "Since Godzilla", a retrospective devoted to the irradiated lizard/man in a rubber suit with the metallic roar and the napalm breath. This Christian Science Monitor piece gives a nice feeling for the affection the Japanese have for the beast that, since his Toho Films screen debut in 1954, and in a film a year since he was revived in 1984, has become a national institution. "I see every movie," says a 36-year old computer systems engineer. "It is one of those annual events, like the cherry-blossom-viewing parties. I am a bit of a maniac about it."
Godzilla's various screen incarnations are understood - widely, and not merely as academic film theory - as a reaction to whatever historical crisis or national mood dominates Japanese society. Like The Blob, martian invaders, alien body snatchers, and the various mutant insects that attacked America from within and without at the height of the Cold War, Godzilla and his various nemeses - Ghidra, Mothra, Hedora the Smog Monster and others - acted out the anxieties of the Japanese over the course of the country's physical and economic reconstruction. Godzilla films were also a way to subtly vent anti-American feelings, according to the Monitor piece, taking on King Kong, and making a point of flattening the Tokyo department store that housed the US Army PX during the occupation.
So it's not surprising that the execrable 1998 American-made Godzilla wasn't a hit in Japan. To quote a visitor to the exhibit: "The American Godzilla is just a large T-Rex. There is nothing we like about him. We like a monster who is played by a human in a rubber suit."
(posted 09:32pm EST | 07.29.02)
#0047 - THE KINDEST CUT - Robert Evans, never a man known to be stingy with a great quote, turned to Francis Ford Coppola after screening a rough cut of The Godfather and said, with that voice "like oil rolling through a barrel": "You shot a saga, pal, but you turned in a trailer." It remains one of the most concise bits of criticism I've ever read about Coppola's film, a masterpiece by any standards, but a film drawn with such broad strokes that it feels, especially in its most memorable sequences, like a really good movie trailer, and I say that from the position of someone who adores a good movie trailer.
This week's Sunday NY Times Magazine features one of the best articles on the modern movie trailer I've ever read. It concentrates on one trailer house - L.A.'s Ant Farm - and their work on the trailer for one film - M. Night Shyamalan's Mel Gibson vehicle Signs, coming out this week. Everyone loves trailers - the proof is in the chorus of grumbles and moans in a theatre when the screen lurches right to the "feature presentation" lead-in and the THX logo from the seemingly endless and much-less-loved advertisements. Trailers are added value, and a good trailer feels like the film distilled to a perfect two-minute jolt. There are bad trailers of course - in my experience, those made for foreign films or romantic dramas tend to be the worst - and the irony is that you can make a really fantastic trailer from a really bad comedy or action film, mostly because of the freedom to cull the best moments, edit them for maximum effect (it's obvious that timing is literally everything in a trailer) and discard the dross.
Even more ironic is the dismal realization that a trailer can be too good. I have a suspicion that the thrilling, balls-to-the-wall trailer for XXX, the upcoming Vin Diesel extreme-spy film, is probably much better than the film itself, and it's an article of faith among movie audiences nowadays that trailers for comedies contain all the best gags, making actually seeing the film somewhat redundant, even ill-advised. The Times article recalls two recent trailer controversies, the first being the preview of What Lies Beneath that leaked a crucial plot twist - Harrison Ford as the villain. The trailer for Snow Dogs gave audiences the impression that it was a vital new addition to the burgeoning "talking animal" genre, when in fact the film's titular dogs only cracked wise to each other in a dream sequence. No matter, the misrepresentation made the film a hit, and the sequel will apparently feature more talking pooches, a clear case of the tail wagging that particular dog.
There have been trailers before movies since 1912, but the art of the modern trailer - an often artful, carefully crafted by-product of the film it advertises - goes back to a Young & Rubicam ad exec named Stephen O. Frankfurt, who was hired by Paramount to produce the chilling, minimalist trailer for a Mia Farrow thriller the studio was unsure about, and which featured little more than a baby carriage in silhouette, an infant crying, and the tagline "Pray for Rosemary's Baby". Frankfurt also made the famous "In space, no one can hear you scream" preview of Alien, but he despairs for the modern trailer: "Trailers today give it all away. If the thing tells you too much, it eliminates your involvement, which is the first step to persuasion." It's a classic summation of the clinical but creative mindset of the golden age of advertising that Frankfurt represents, right down to the use of the totemic word "persuasion".
A trailer editor not only has to work under the time restrictions and the restraints of the ratings code of the M.P.A.A., but with the inevitable marketing formulas that second-guess everything a studio does. The Times piece talks about "the quadrant", a marketing taxonomy that divides audiences into four potential segments - men and women, young and older - and the reductive but apparently foolproof stereotype that "men like conflict and women like cuddliness ... In their 150-second ontology, there's little space for ruminations of the complexity of gender roles."
As most of us suspected, a really superb trailer editor, such as Ant Farm's Art Mondrala, is a creature apart, possessed by an almost autistic mode of viewing films:
"Mondrala doesn't watch movies the way most humans do. In order to distill a feature film into a demographically targeted, two-and-a-half minute montage, his job is to become obsessed, myopic, perhaps even a little mad. To him, movies aren't sustained narratives that build to a climax. 'I watch purely from the standpoint of single moments,' he says. 'Someone turning his head quickly, a fast camera sweep, lines with compressed emotion. In my work, I live in fractions of a second; one second is an eternity. It's like being a hairdresser and cutting one hair at a time.'"
(posted 11:35pm EST | 07.29.02)
#0046 - WILL WORK FOR RESIDUALS - In my post about the dire straits endured by the rank and file of the Screen Actors Guild, I overlooked this London Times piece about the latest statistics on working actors in Hollywood. It isn't pretty - between 2000 and 2001 there was a 9.3% drop in movie and television roles. Roles for ethnic minorites dropped from 22.9 to 22.1 percent, but roles for Native Americans went up, from 0.2 to 0.37, an increase (however negligible) that has been attributed to one production alone - John Woo's Windtalkers. The Times piece is hardly hopeful:
"The big question is, why? Are special effects replacing the need for human beings in movies? have a great many actors been driven underground to act in illicit, non-guild productions? Are Hollywood's superficial habits just getting worse, under-representing ethnic minorities, older women and any other creed of thespian who doesn't conform to box-office? The answer is probably yes to all."
In the end, though, the piece blames a trend now past it's crest - reality television, which seems a bit of a cop-out. Better to have stuck to the convictions of the paragraph above, and noted, as I have, the strangely underpopulated films I've been seeing lately, set in eerie cities with few passersby (Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Minority Report's Washington DC more full of nifty cars than people) and worlds where the cities have been emptied (Reign of Fire and Resident Evil, with its climactic pull-back shot on a devastated city that happens to be the intersection of Adelaide and Victoria streets here in Toronto). That would have been a disquieting thesis worth pursuing.
(posted 10:21pm EST | 07.28.02)
#0045 - MY NAME IS MICHAEL CAINE - Goldmember co-star and eastender-made-good Michael Caine in the NY Times, on why he left Hollywood to be an Englishman again:
"I got homesick. I missed the country. I'm a gardener and a cook. (Laughs) I sound like a little old lady. But it was fun in Hollywood. Now everything there is too big, especially the parties. I won't go to a party unless there's a chair with my name on it. I like a proper dinner. Who want to lean on the end of a buffet trying to eat custard with a fork? That's what most Hollywood parties are like."
What a sensible man.
(posted 09:55pm EST | 07.28.02)