Saturday, September 10, 2011

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

The tide of popular culture turns amazingly fast. The rise of one myth flows in over the ebb of another, wiping out all traces of the receding myth, until that myth returns to lap even farther up the beach than before. So it goes with pop culture versions of the fall of man. They keep coming back.

In the Fifties, the French writer Romain Gary raised the issue of mankind's survival in The Roots of Heaven.  Gary's protagonist is Morel, an ordinary French dentist who goes over to the elephants in French Equatorial Africa. Morel is a misanthrope, but Gary, it turns out, is not. The ending of the novel is a tribute to the human spirit. The Fifties were the time of the beat generation, of cool, of jazz, grass, the Korean War, the rise and fall of McCarthy, the presidency of Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the poetry of Patchen and Ginsberg, the death of Robert Capa, the fall of Dien Bien Phu and Brown v. Board of Education.

Just seven years later, Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel, Planet of the Apes, contemplated the extinction of mankind and the rise of the ape as the torchbearer of civilization throughout the universe. The Sixties were the time of the hippies, the Cold War ascendent, the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, the Civil Rights movement, acid and acid rock, the Vietnam War, the fall of Lyndon Johnson and the rise of Nixon. Alan Ginsberg lived to see Chicago cops riot against the sons and daughters of America's middle class who had tuned in, turned on, dropped out and come back swinging against the war and the draft. I was just back from Germany where I had put in my two years as a medic at an Army hospital, getting high and shooting up Thorazine to improve my tan, so I passed on Chicago myself, but I did show my younger brother how to curl up into a ball to protect his nuts when the cops started beating him. I sent him off to Chicago with a bright red bandana to cover his nose and mouth when the tear gas began to fly.

Boulle's Planet of the Apes didn't speculate about the causes of the rise of the apes as the dominant species in the far reaches of the galaxy, or about the extinction of man and the rise of the apes on our own planet. Boulle simply presented the success of ape culture and the failure of mankind as a fact. For some unknown reason, man was just not good enough.

When Twentieth Century Fox produced the film version of Boulle's book, they apparently thought they owed the viewer an explanation. The plot of Planet of the Apes (1968) hangs on a malfunctioning starship that plunges back to Earth instead of landing on a planet at the far end of the galaxy, and on a nuclear war that wipes out the human race, letting apes take over the planet while the starship and its astronauts are gone.

In Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the human race is wiped out -- probably -- by a virus. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nobody takes seriously the idea that man will be wiped out in a nuclear holocaust.  And we're not worried about rogue computers turning on the human race anymore.  The peril now is biological.  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a virus that makes apes smart enough to talk and to break out of an ape jail in San Francisco is deadly to humans and highly contagious to boot. Good thing for the apes, of course, since, without the intervention of the virus they would have had one good day of beating up on the cops before the bombs started to fall.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox

The idea that apes can beat up cops is as silly as the notion that hippies can beat up cops. It's just more Hollywood eyewash in the style of the Na'vi beating down the guns and machines of corporate America to liberate Pandora in Fox's Avatar (2009). But there is a strong odor of misanthropy and self-hatred about the idea that resonates with establishement critics like David Denby of The New Yorker.

Here's Denby, waxing poetic over scenes of apes, invading a research facility. "When the apes, like water bursting through a dam, pour through the building's glass walls at different levels," Denby exults, "the image is a pop epiphany of freedom."

Something like ice breaking up and cascading down a raging river as a metaphor for revolution, I suppose.

The high water mark is definitely creeping up the sand.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Toadsuck Ferry



My friend, Ron Weiss, got a job in Arkansas, helping the Arkansas Educational TV station in Conway set up a news and documentary unit. He split his salary with me so we could make some films together. We helped the station pick the equipment and we were supposed to teach a couple of local people how to make documentaries. I don't remember if we got around to that or not.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Noir



I woke up early and went down to the Corner Bakery for a cup of coffee. I sat at the window, next to a table of Russians. I couldn't understand a word they were saying.

I was watching the raindrops race each other down the window, the big ones gobbling up the little ones that got in their way, and thinking about Raymond Chandler and The Long Goodbye, a Chandler book I'd been reading the night before, when it hit me that The Long Goodbye is Chandler's most personal and autobiographical novel.

They say Chandler's agent was disappointed by The Long Goodbye. He thought the Phillip Marlowe character had gone soft. Personally, I think Marlowe comes across as more bitter and cynical than he is in Chandler's earlier work, and more political, more angry at the rich people who shaped the West Coast.

Some people say: When you dream, everything in the dream is you. I've never looked at novels and films that way, but maybe I should.

Chandler died in 1959. He developed pneumonia after a binge.

The chronology that accompanies The Library of America's Chandler (Stories and Early Novels), ends with: "1959 ... Returns alone to La Jolla where he intended to live. Drinks heavily, develops pneumonia, and is hospitalized on March 23. Dies in Scripps Clinic at 3:50 P.M. on March 26. Buried on March 30 at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego."

Robert Altman made a film version of The Long Goodbye in 1973. In a send-up of the detective genre, Altman cast Elliot Gould as a mumbling, bumbling Marlowe who talks to his cat.

The thing about noir in books and films is there is never enough rain for me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

mise-en-scènes: Most Of The Web's Are A Mess

We're all McLuhanistas now.

We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the world wide web, for example, is the media that preceded it. In the case of the world wide web, television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds make up a substantial part of its content.

The web started out where the media that preceded it ended up, as a mass distribution network. The content of the web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films. (Or, for that matter, the way film, created for televison, is made "episodic.")

There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the web will look like -- unless it is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the web and real life as, essentially, one and the same -- much less, what the "art" of that medium might be.

Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to cable television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage -- usually without adding value -- to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the world wide web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content --print, film, television and the other media -- to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the web is -- with a few notable exceptions  -- a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die.

The history of television is instructive.  Film has been kinder to books than television -- the medium the web resembles most -- has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended time of series like The Sopranos, Rome, and Angels in America have given audiences more time with the characters and mise-en-scènes of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène -- a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script -- takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mise-en-scènes of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes whose blocking and cinematography develop the illusion of depth on the screen and recreate the real world.

Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up -- along with made for TV movies -- feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television -- just as novels may end up as films -- but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.

The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases, designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.

The web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing.

Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the world wide web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. (Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense.)

The web has not found a way to adapt content -- to transform a subject -- without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event -- a favorite of muckraking sites and tabloids -- their mise-en-scènes are, frankly, a mess. They quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Madison Avenue

Madison Avenue hacks have been ripping off talented artists since the early days of advertising, but the rip offs seem to get worse every year.

The people producing ads these days don't have the art historical references to understand the work they're ripping off. Their knock offs aren't just unoriginal. They're bad.

The latest example is an AT&T rip off of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The producer probably saw an article about Christo and Jeanne-Claude somewhere -- though I doubt he or she ever actually saw a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project -- and figured it would be a good idea to make a visual pun on the word "cover" by showing buildings and other landmarks being draped in colored cloth.



This pretentious commercial, the latest in AT&T's ongoing "coverage" war with Verizon, is a good example of how mangled art turns up in advertising, and it could have some unintended consequences for AT&T. That's what they get. As every school child knows, you're not supposed to "touch the art." If AT&T rethinks anything, they should rethink this ad, before Verizon jumps on it with an ad that takes the wraps off.

I see people working in an office with big windows and a fantastic view. Some of them are talking on their cell phones. Suddenly, their windows are covered by falling drapes, the room gets dark and the cell phones stop working. We see AT&T covering buildings, cities, a beach. Everything stops until Verizon starts tearing down the drapes, uncovering buildings, rolling up the fabric covering the beach. The cell phones start working again.

Here's a real Christo and Jeanne-Claude project from the Sixties. A study for a wrapped beach in Australia.



If the ad person who produced the AT&T ad had actually experienced a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project, he or she might have realized that wrapping an object confines it, hides it, interferes with it, shuts it up and closes it in. Something wrapped is limited by the wrapping. It's the unwrapping that's the significant event.



Christo's Valley Curtain at Rifle Gap, Colorado. The size and shape of the "waves" are based on Coast Guard research and designed to evoke feelings of dread.

AT&T has had to remake their commercial and add a disclaimer, saying that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have nothing to do with AT&T. One more obnoxious commercial like this one and I'll join them.

Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling

Kathyrn Bigelow is about to become the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director.

Whether she deserves the Best Director prize -- and I happen to think she does -- is beside the point.  Ms. Bigelow will come away with the Oscar for Best Director as a consolation prize, because the Academy can't afford to admit that The Hurt Locker was the best picture of the year.

The Hurt Locker is up against Hollywood's real glass ceiling:  the industry's profit margin.

Can Hollywood acknowledge that a low-budget movie that has grossed less than $20 million is a better film than the box office event Avatar that has grossed over $1 billion and is on its way to becoming one of the most profitable films of all time?  Can the industry tell moviegoers:  Thanks for the bucks, but the 3D spectacle you blew your money on last Christmas wasn't a great movie after all?

The face-off between The Hurt Locker and Avatar has been billed as woman against man, ex-wife against ex-husband, blockbuster against art house breakout.  But, in the most basic sense, the confrontation looming at the Academy Awards is about whether movies can come to grips with the human condition instead of trying to escape from it.

Can we afford to make movies that synthesize real experience, to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists, or can we only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world?

Rejecting The Hurt Locker will be a clear statement that Hollywood doesn't have the heart to take on the real world.  In the head-to-head match-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, there is no question that The Hurt Locker is the better film.

Avatar is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry.

Unfortunately, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills. Worst of all, the film consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them.  In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves.  Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.

There is more real meaning in any single scene of The Hurt Locker than there is in all of Avatar.

Ms. Bigelow's film conveys both the incredible pressure American troops in Iraq have been under to make instant life-and-death decisions and the limits of high-tech to take the pressure off of them.  As she develops the film's premise that war is addictive, it doesn't take us long to discover it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted to war, it's America itself that's addicted as well.  In James' case, it's an addiction that craves the unmediated experience of danger.  He disarms bombs with his own hands.  But it's an addiction that's tempered by James' and his team's regard for human life.

Ms. Bigelow's GIs are reluctant killers who risk their own lives to save the lives of others.  Somehow, as we watch James' teammate, Specialist Eldridge, struggle to engage the enemy, Ms. Bigelow leads us to the realization that we are all Specialists now.

Critics of the Iraq occupation will find no cheap shots at America or the American military in The Hurt Locker.  Ms. Bigelow invites us to see the war from the point of view of our best kind of soldier -- one whose job is to save lives, not take them.

That one of them is unable to find his way home, that by the end of the film all he wants is another moonwalk down a deserted Baghdad street in search of another bomb,  says something important, though disturbing, about what it means to be a human being -- or a nation -- at war.


Nevertheless, Hollywood will split the Oscars between Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Cameron.  Ms. Bigelow will win the Best Director Oscar, but the Best Picture award will go to Avatar.  That's the bottom line.

The Hurt Locker May Have A Chance After All


(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Just when I thought Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker didn't have a chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the AP reports that some pesky Palestinians have decided to get into the act. Palestinian protesters at Bilin have painted themselves blue and posed as characters from Avatar.  Apparently, the demonstrators equate their fight at Bilin to the Na'vi's fight against intergalactic corporatism in Cameron's film.

With the Best Director Oscar already in the bag for Bigelow, Cameron now finds his Best Picture Oscar in jeopardy. Hollywood needs 3D, but do they need it enough to associate themselves with a film that's been picked up on by those controversial Palestinians?

Could be a sweep for Bigelow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Jonah Hex

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex, Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.



The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.



Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 
Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.



The real Jonah Hex

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fall Of 2007

The 83rd Academy Award nominations for documentary film were announced last week.  Collectively, this year's nominees documented the global financial meltdown, fracking for natural gas, edgy street art, dumpster diving on a massive scale, and war on the ground in Afghanistan. 

More than other genres, documentary films tend to be political and, sometimes, combative.  Their intent is to document something, and it's hard, if not impossible, to separate the importance of what they document from the skill with which they document it.  One suspects that Restrepo, an important film that's not particularly well made, is the odds on favorite this year, especially because the first living GI to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War fought in the combat operation Restrepo documents.  (I jotted down some thoughts about Restrepo earlier this year.)  But it's entirely possible that the Academy will decide that the global financial crisis or what natural gas producers are doing to the environment outweighs the war in Afghanistan, or even that the artistry of Waste Land or Exit Through The Gift Shop deserves the Best Documentary award.  The Academy often surprises me.  Last year, when I commented on Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling, I was convinced the Academy would hand Kathryn Bigelow the Best Director Oscar, but wouldn't -- couldn't afford to, really -- give the Best Picture award to The Hurt Locker in the face of Avatar's overwhelming box office and the massive build-out in 3D venues that was going on all over the world.  The Academy proved me wrong.  They showed me they did "have the heart to take on the real world."  (Unless, of course, it was those pesky Palestinians who did Avatar in by painting themselves blue in Bil'in -- a case of bad timing for James Cameron.)

Documentary films about current events and living people are very much about timing.  In the Sixties, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame ran an hour and was considered gutsy journalism.  Fifty years later, a CBS follow-up on migrant farm workers merited only 5 minutes of air time. 

The September Issue (2009), directed by R.J. Cutler and filmed by Robert Richman, is a documentary film that illustrates the importance of -- and the surreal nature of -- timing.  The film is a portrait of Anna Wintour, Vogue's U.S. editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, her creative director, shot in the context of the roll-out of Vogue's collossal September 2007 Fall fashion issue.

 Vogue Cover, September 2007                      
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                    

The September Issue is an examination of power and manipulation, and, especially, of power in the hands of a competent and confident woman.  Most film portraits of women executives show embattled women, under fire and hanging on by their fingernails.  In 2007, Anna Wintour was firmly entrenched and riding the wave of a booming economy and fashion industry.  The sub-text of The September Issue is an examination of a successful collaboration, of the way editors and artists work in the real world, and of the way auteurs like Wintour and Coddington make signature art out of the work of creative people.  And it is, finally, a comment on relevance, satisfaction, and the underlying insecurity that saps joy from even the most successful celebrities.

Formally, The September Issue is an example of cinema verité in its simplest, least challenging form. It mixes more or less coherent shots of live action with interviews. The problem with that approach is that it turns the film into a contest of sorts. The film maker tries to get at the truth, the subjects of the film try to hide it — or, at least, to slant the truth. Interviews are like testimony, the characters tell you what they want you to know.


Not surprisingly, the live action scenes tell us more about Anna Wintour than she tells us about herself. Her center stage seat at shows and the nervous fawning of the designers she visits deliver a convincing picture of her position atop the world of design in 2007.

The September Issue was filmed in 2007, just before the beginning of the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession.  If the world's business cycle were depicted as a giant rollercoaster, the lift sweeping up to dizzying heights, the first drop plunging down at the steepest angle the human body can tolerate without blacking out, Anna Wintour and Vogue were, in September of 2007, poised on the brink of the fall.  The September issue of Vogue, essentially an extravagantly produced catalog of designer clothes and accessories, ran 840 pages.  The issue has become a collector's item, selling on ebay for as much as $500 a copy.  In 2007, it was a celebration of the fashion industry, a self-congratulatory revel in wealth reminiscent of Versailles with one important difference:  the world of fashion and the incomes that sustain it have barely taken a hit from what has been, for the ordinary men and women who used to pick up Vogue on their way out of the supermarket, a devastating recession.  To be sure, Vogue's advertising revenues are down from 2007, when one of Vogue's advertisers, Burton Tansky of Neiman Marcus implored Anna Wintour to pressure the designers she had under her thumb to deliver their creations faster.  (If you want to see how a powerful man on the verge of a rant can be reined in by a beautiful woman, watch Wintour's pat on the hand settle Tansky down.)  But the drop in ad revenue may be more a reflection of a general feeling of discontent in an industry whose players were personally bilked by money managers than a reflection of specific worries about the global demand for designer clothes or the bang for the buck of advertising dollars.  After all, weren't most of those ads in the September issue a display of plumage, a demonstration of the wealth and importance of the advertiser?

Last night, ploughing through a copy of Vogue's September issue I brought home from my public library, I was struck by the fact that I had to wade through 313 pages of ads before I encountered the first snippet of text pretending not to be advertising.

Then, in a typical pop culture collision,  I found a Rebecca Johnson profile of Michelle Obama, complete with gorgeous photographs by Annie Leibovitz, sandwiched between Grace Coddington fashion spread and a charming essay about life at the top of the New York scene in a Greenwich Village townhouse whose decor, according to the article, was inspired by the Barbara Streisand remake of A Star Is Born.

Vogue    September 2007, pp 774,775                         
Photograph:  Michelle Obama by Annie Liebovitz 
 Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                 

Was Hillary Clinton just not fashionable enough for her party's elite?  Is Michelle Obama as perfect as the Vogue interview and Liebovitz photographs make her seem?    Or were the images of Michelle Obama manipulated like the images of the models in the Coddington photoshoots with their interchangeable heads, bodies and air-brushed skin, photoshopped to perfection?  Did Vogue prepare the small town Iowa battleground for an Obama victory?  Did a media empire help bring down Hillary Clinton because she was no longer chic, no longer the face of the future toward which fashion -- at least in the mind of Anna Wintour -- must incline.  I suppose that's a stretch, more the stuff of fiction than of some documentary that might have been made.  But I think it's self-evident that the Obamas' style is rather neatly tuned to the style of Conde Naste publications like Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired.

Of course, there are no scenes of the Michelle Obama interview in Cutler and Richman's documentary film.  Successful politicians learned as far back as the Kennedy era to keep documentary film makers at a distance.

The people who get scrutinized in The September Issue are Wintour and Coddington, and the element of suspense that holds the film together -- even documentaries require some kind of glue -- is Grace Coddington's struggle to get her art, intact, into the issue, even though it is often at odds with Wintour's vision.   In the end, Grace gets most of her work in -- at one point she observes that she nearly has the entire issue to herself -- because she can do what artists do:  synthesize experience.  Everything is grist for Coddington's mill and her imagination, even the documentary film makers themselves.  Before the film is over, she has Richman jumping -- if not through hoops -- at least up and down.

Coddington may be the resident genius at Vogue, but she doesn't get the cover.  For that job, Wintour brings in Italian photographer Mario Testino.  And, to my eye, it is Testino, not Coddington, who, in a homage to Fellini, manages to produce the only images that are distinguishable from and rise above the pages and pages of ads.

Vogue  September 2007  Photograph by Mario Testino
  Low Resolution Fair Use Image                                         
                                 
The real winner in The September Issue is, of course, Anna Wintour.  After living for four years with the rumor -- or the fact -- that she was the inspiration for the The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue gave Wintour an opportunity of create her own image.  She comes across as determined and opinionated, without seeming abusive, a far cry from the editor in The Devil Wears Prada.  If anything, Wintour manages, as improbable as it seems, to portray herself as quite vulnerable.  She appears to have gotten what she wanted from the film.


The September Issue  A&E IndieFilms and Actual Reality Pictures

Not that I'm completely surprised.

Maybe it was the faint scent of expensive perfume still lingering on the pages of my library copy of Vogue or maybe I overdosed on the images of beautiful women, but, watching The September Issue and Anna Wintour, I suddenly remembered filming an interview with Lady Bird Johnson -- a woman I had not thought of as particularly attractive -- at her television station in Austin.  After the interview, I rode down in an elevator with her, and I was shocked to find myself suddenly overwhelmed by her perfume, her dark red lipstick, perfect make-up and luxuriant fur coat, her obvious wealth and power.  Maybe it was pheromones.  I could barely breathe, and, when we got off of the elevator, my hands were shaking and I was feeling weak in the knees.

The September Issue is available from Amazon and Netflix.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Legacy Of Fred W. Friendly And Edward R. Murrow



In 1960, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow teamed up to make Harvest of Shame.  The film was Murrow's last television documentary before he left CBS to head up John F. Kennedy's United States Information Agency and the Voice of America.  Ironically, as a U.S.I.A bureaucrat, Murrow tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress a B.B.C. broadcast of Harvest of Shame.

Harvest of Shame documented the living conditions of American migrant farm workers, and recorded the prevailing attitude of big business, lobbiests and government officials toward the farm workers and their living conditions.

Edward R. Murrow has had many imitators, but none of them has managed to channel Murrow's combination of serious journalism and real concern for people who were unable to manage in any way the oppressive political and economic culture that impinged on their lives.

Harvest of Shame is one of television's most respected documentaries, not because it was especially effective, but because of its intention and style.

Harvest of Shame originally aired just after Thanksgiving Day in November 1960. A follow-up report by CBS last year -- a 5 minute segment, compared to the 50 minutes of the original -- found that the migrants' pauper wages were a little better and the workers were mostly poor Hispanics now instead of poor blacks and whites, but the working conditions and daily lives of migrant farm workers have not much changed.

Harvest of Shame gave a face to the faceless, advocated for the powerless, and created a lasting example of how television documentaries -- and journalism in general -- can engage important issues without bias or polemics, with compassion instead of passion, and with respect for its subjects.

The shots of workers, voicing their frustration about trying to make a living at the bottom of the American economy, and the shots of a corporate lobbiest, reducing and explaining away the tragedy of people permanently abandoned to poverty, could, in these times of massive, permanent unemployment and under-employment -- especially of the undereducated and people over 50 -- be filmed today. We only lack the film makers, journalists, and the subjects who -- like the migrant farm workers of the 60's -- convincingly demonstrate the flaws in American society, the disjunction between our basic values and the way we allow some of our fellow Americans to live.

Harvest of Shame, for the most part, let's the workers and bureaucrats speak for themselves, admittedly in the context of Murrow's narration. But the film manages to balance Murrow's narration with the true faces and voices of the workers, captured by David Lowe, in a way that never overpowers the workers and their story. Typically, Murrow closed the show with a comment that conveys his belief that words — and reason — matter, that it is possible to talk about occasions for anger, without histrionics and without acting anger out.



Are there real barriers to producing documentaries like Harvest of Shame these days? In many ways, they should be easier to do. The cost of video equipment is more affordable than it's ever been, and venues like YouTube let documentary film makers "self publish." The problem, if there is one, lies in finding subjects.

Harvest of Shame can be purchased on DVD at Amazon, or, with a leading commercial, be viewed for free at YouTube or CBS News.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

He had it all.  Biomimicry, a gas gun that made a wierd sound, a big, fast car, called the Black Beauty, an Asian sidekick and The Flight Of The Bumblebee.  I listened to The Hornet on the radio; read the comic books; watched the movie serial on Saturdays.  Van Williams played the Hornet and Bruce Lee played Kato on TV.  There's a great scene of Lee taking a Green Hornet set apart in the Bruce Lee bio-pic: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.  So, I had high expectations for The Green Hornet (2011), the Seth Rogen and Jay Chou movie directed by Michel Gondry that opened this weekend.

But, once you get past the twist that the movie is a comedy based on a premise that would have made a good Saturday Night Live skit, there's not much there, unless you think it's fun to play Name That Team and come up with interesting duos that Rogen and Chou remind you of.  I figure Aykroyd and Belushi or Aykroyd and Murray or Aykroyd and just about anyone. 

Rogen was one of the Hornet's writers, and he's probably a better writer than a comedian.  Some of the gags and one-liners in The Green Hornet are laugh-out-loud funny.  But be sure to see the 3D version.  I imagine the film would be incredibly boring in 2D, mainly because The Green Hornet lacks an interesting villian.  Making a fun, comic rendition of a comic book is at least as good an idea as making an exceptionally dark one, but comedy or no, comic book heroes and comic book movies need interesting villains, and The Green Hornet's Chudnofsky falls flat on his face. 

Cameron Diaz is adequate in the Girl Friday role.  Her face is the only image from The Green Hornet that sticks in my memory.  It's as if she's the first real person I've seen in 3D.  Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant turn as the Hornet's dad.

Hollywood badly needs to come up with a new superhero worthy of sequels and prequels, and some blockbuster films to fill the 3D bubble created by Avatar.  The Green Hornet doesn't seem likely to fill either bill.