Thursday, February 23, 2017

It is Official: "Cinema is Dead"

It is now official. The era of real cinematic film-making is at a close. So says film director Martin Scorsese in a recent interview last month. 

Martin Scorsese
“Cinema is gone. The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making is gone. The theatre will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he questioned. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968. The experience of seeing Vertigo and The Searchers in VistaVision.”

Well, we all agree that as technology evolves over the years, so will the craft of story-telling. Big blockbusters involve special effects, invasions from outer space, superheroes battling costumed villains and explosions that are so far fetched they could never happen in real life. There are few filmmakers today that know how to truly direct a motion-picture: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalon, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. These men respect the classic movies of the 1930s through the 1950s and, inspired by the way movies were directed during the height of Hollywood's Golden Years, often mimic the proper use of telling a story through the lens. Sadly, most of today's directors come from an era of video tape which means liberal use a hand-held camera and quick cuts during editing. Someone needs to remind today's film students that a using a hand-held camera is not direction. In fact, if the camera moves about too much I get motion sickness and I know I am not the only person who suffers from this.

To me, there is something special to watching a Hopalong Cassidy Western on Saturday morning or a Mary Pickford silent on a snowy winter evening. Of course my wife and I still watch the latest movies that appeal to our inner preference, but last year's motion-pictures featured more duds than hits. Oddly, 2015 gave the appearance that Hollywood finally figured out the recipe for making an entertaining movie. In 2016, Hollywood did the exact opposite. Ghost Busters, for example, was poorly edited and a disaster from the viewpoint of Screenwriting 101. But when the movie came out on DVD with scenes not seen in the theatrical release, the entire film worked perfectly. (Why they did not release the DVD version in the theaters I will not know.) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad also suffered from bad editing. Regrettably, the DVD releases of those movies did not do them justice.

Jungle Book and The Legend of Tarzan were surprisingly better than I expected and neither featured ghosts, monsters, demigods, exploding buildings, car wrecks or costumed characters. Let's be frank: it's all about demographics these days. The majority of ticket buyers in this country are under the age of 30. Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the over-reliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” Scorsese says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”

Which brings me to the social commentary of the week. Last month I met a man much older than myself who lodged a complaint: "They don't make good movies these days. It's all about superheroes and zombies and car chases. Even the superheroes are looking younger with each movie. Hollywood isn't what it used to be." 

So I asked him what was the last movie he saw in the theaters. His response? "Oh, I haven't been to the theaters in twenty years."

And that is why they don't make the kind of movies he wishes they would make.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Sitting on the Fence with La La Land

Next weekend the Motion Picture Academy will present their Oscar awards and many are predicting the big winner to be La La Land, the story of an aspiring actress and an aspiring jazz musician who meet, fall in love and perform musical dance numbers in a world of semi-fantasy. Is La La Land the best movie of the year, worthy of the "Best Picture" Oscar? I do not believe so. But there is brilliance sprinkled through a film that, given a mediocre budget and moments of amateur filmmaking, not to mention flawless performances by the two leads, that puts me on the fence. My complaint is that all of the brilliance does not exceed or assist the story in any way. I could spot visual references to Hedy Lamarr, Singing' in the Rain (1952), Casablanca (1942), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and other tips of the hat to screen legends. It is a known fact that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. Some of the best are Sunset Boulevard (1950), Sullivan's Travels (1941) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1998). And that may be the sole reason why La La Land may be the big winner at this year's Oscars.

I am not a fan of musicals but I did enjoy The Sound of Music (1964), Singing' in the Rain (1952), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Chicago (2002) are those films were deserving of what awards they received. But a good musical, such as the movies I just referenced, requires the musical sequences to tell the story. You can tell a bad musical when you remove all the musical numbers and the story can still be told without the music. La La Land is a hybrid of the two. Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, whose love for jazz is established by three separate musical numbers. Mia, the aspiring actress who is repeatedly rejected following one screen test after another, has no purpose for breaking out in song and dance -- her musical numbers are practically wasted during the movie.

The opening number, "Another Day of Sun," in which dozens of people trapped in traffic congestion get out of their vehicles and break out in sing and dance is cute and clever (especially when you observe the entire sequence was one long shot without a cut from the editor's knife). You could tell the entire sequence was dance-choreographed and more remarkable when you realize how the entire sequence was shot during an actual traffic jam on the Los Angeles freeway. But remove that musical number and you quickly realize the movie would not be better or worse without "Another Day of Sun." Clever means nothing if you do not live in Los Angeles and have had to fight with the Los Angeles Freeway. Clever means nothing if it has no reason to be in the movie.

Ryan Gosling certainly has charisma that benefits the camera. Here he proves he can play a piano, flip a hat as smooth as Frank Sinatra on the Santa Monica Pier, and sing as well as the professionals. But talent will only take an actor so far when they have no range -- Gosling is Gosling in every movie and La La Land is no exception. The standout performance is Emma Stone, playing the role of Mia, who delivers depth and range when performing in front of the cameras for multiple screen tests.

La La Land was nominated for a record-breaking 14 Oscars, tied with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997). Whether the movie will sweep the awards or face aggressive competition (the latter of has happened at recent Oscar awards) is anyone's guess. There are moments each year when I leave the movie theater and accurately predict whether the film won Best Musical Score or Best Cinematography. I find myself sitting on the fence with this one.

But La La Land gives the appearance the film was shot with low budget on location in California, directed by an amateur filmmaker. (It is as if the director watched dozens of vintage movies and said, "I want to film a sequence inspired by that movie" and filmed one scene after another with different costumes, color tints, and so on.) It is the editing and special effects that gave polish to the finished product much like an amateur writer who relies on the editor of a magazine to tweak his piece to provide the illusion of English Major 101. Even with bright color schemes and three superb songs that are worth adding to your YouTube Playlist, La La Land makes me wonder if this is one of those years when popularity gives rise to awards. 

Will La La Land bring about a resurgence of Hollywood musicals? I doubt it. But if La La Land is the latest motivation then we have to hope today's filmmakers look back at the days of when musicals actually told a story. La La Land is no prime real estate as an Oscar contender. Perhaps the movie stands out because the other contenders are so artsy that, as a friend of mine aptly put it the other day, "I never heard of them." 

Me? Give me Bette Davis in All About Eve any day of the week.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Preserving Jimmy Stewart's World War II Career

Towards the end of his life, Jimmy Stewart refused to discuss his experiences in World War II. He rarely spoke of his achievements or missions even to his family. And as expected most of the good folks who wrote books about Jimmy Stewart have always focused on his screen career, often dismissing or only briefly mentioning his career in service. Throughout World War II Stewart commanded numerous pilots, led death-defying bombing missions and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. Once in service, Stewart ducked the press at every opportunity and spent four years at air bases serving his country. His enlistment in service was a media frenzy (his fingerprints were taken multiple times for the benefit of the press) and this sparked the actor’s decision not to receive preferable treatment because of his California occupation. What Stewart accomplished “over there” he took with him to the grave.

Thankfully, author and historian Robert Matzen went to the trouble of tracking down many of Stewart’s copilots, Michael Bandler’s donated research at Brigham Young University, and dug through the Military Personnel Records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, to read the 600-page military personnel file covering Stewart’s career from induction in 1941 to retirement in 1968. And this was just the start of an exhausting task of compiling every shred of detail regarding Stewart’s career in service.

Jimmy Stewart was a changed man when he returned to Hollywood in 1945. This book, for the benefit of the legions of Hollywood fans, also documents Stewart’s rehabilitation in the movie-making industry with Frank Capra’s post-war film, It’s A Wonderful Life, which helped Stewart get back into the grove of making movies.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe (2017, GoodKnight Books) was long overdue and I was thrilled to learn a year ago that Robert Matzen was finishing his research and was going to publish his findings. Considering the next few biographies about Jimmy Stewart will only briefly touch on the actor’s military career, Matzen has provided us with a chapter in the life of Jimmy Stewart that will fill in a much-needed gap. Matzen’s book may even be consulted by other historians writing future biographies about Jimmy Stewart (as if we really need another to add to the dozen already published), proving further how badly in need a book of this type was needed.

As an author myself I can attest that winning awards is pretty cool and lends itself to bragging rights but there can be no better award than receiving a letter from a family relative or historian for what your book accomplished beyond the printed page. Kelly Stewart, daughter of Jimmy Stewart, remarked: “As Jimmy Stewart’s children, we have always known that our father’s service during the war was the most significant event of his life, although he rarely spoke of it. This book gives us the best glimpse we will ever have of what that experience was like for him and the men he flew with.” Regardless of what awards Robert Matzen will receive from this book there can be no greater satisfaction that accompanies this treasured tome than an accolade like that.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Two Western Film Festivals Ride into the Sunset

It is with sad news that I report the closing of not one, but two Western Film Festivals this year.

Actor Johnny Crawford meets a fan.
The 21st annual Williamsburg Film Festival will be held at the Colonial Plaza Hotel, March 5 to 11, 2017. The 40th annual Western Film Fair of North Carolina will be held at the Hawthorne Inn this July. Convention promoters of both events have publicly announced they will be closing doors following their 2017 events. Dozens of people have speculated the reasons behind the closings: an aging fanbase, rising expenses... take your pick. Regardless of the reason, each event plans to go all-out for their final event.

Both events are cowboy-themed for a generation of baby boomers that grew up with heroes they could look up to: The Lone Ranger, Johnny Mack Brown, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry among others. The majority of the films screened in the movie room consist of screen legends who fought cattle rustlers, stagecoach robbers, branded steer and always took time to serenade the SeƱoritas. 

Author David Godwin and his book about Whip Wilson.
I have always said that a hobby consisting of pop culture is made up of a number of factions: the collectors, the fan clubs, publications, and of course conventions/film festivals. And with every film festival that closes doors a percentage of the hobby fades away. Most screen westerns concluded not with the hero riding off into the sunset, but with the hero embraced by the rancher's daughter who gained respect for the lawman. 

Attending these conventions over the past two decades was a lot of fun. It was here that I learned the difference between a marshal and a sheriff, that most cowboys never wore spurs because they respected their horse, and the two types of Westerns: One that took place in the latter half of the 1800s, and others that took place in modern times but with a Western setting.

Those who frequented the film festivals were not just die-hards of cowboy westerns. These good folks could tell you who directed specific episodes of TV westerns. They enjoyed retro television from Captain Midnight to Jungle Jim. They watched many of the old cliffhanger serials -- twice. And the best part was the social camaraderie -- it was like an annual family reunion where no one was related but all shared a common interest.

The lineup of celebrities who attended these conventions over the past few decades was a virtual who's who of Hollywood: Ann Rutherford, Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Jim Bannon, Eddie Dean, Frankie Thomas, Anne Jeffreys and many others!

After this year there will be two Western Film Festivals that remain: Lone Pine and the Memphis Film Festival. But if you live on the East Coast, the two closing doors this year will provide the least distance travel. If you have never attended a Western Film Festival before, I highly recommend you make the effort to attend one of these two shows this year. The links to their websites are provided below. The good folks who put these two shows on are the nicest people you could meet. They deserve your support.

And for a superb collection of biographical material focusing on cowboy westerns, along with photos from past conventions and exclusive photos from relatives of screen cowboys, visit the site listed below. WARNING: This website is extremely impressive and you'll have a difficult time leaving once you explore all that it offers. It's the first site I visit when I need to check on a specific title or factoids about a cowboy star.