Film History


Recording this week’s Oscar Podcast, we touched briefly on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. We speculated about the jury that year, 2004. Craig Kennedy found the the jurors on a list online and named them: Quentin Tarantino, (President), Kathleen Turner, Tsui Hark, Peter Von Bagh, among others, and Tilda Swinton. This morning trying to decide how to approach Only Lovers Left Alive, I stumbled upon a treasure. I learned that Tilda Swinton delivered the State of Cinema address at the San Francisco Internatuonal Film Festival in 2006. Hoping to find it on youtube, I was only able to locate a 5-minute clip. But the transcript exists at several sites so I’d like to share it.

Tilda Swinton has two twin sons, now aged 16 — sons who would’ve been nearly 9 years old in 2006. Her address to the SFIFF takes the form of an imagined letter to Xavier, one of those sons.

A Letter to a Boy from his Mother
By Tilda Swinton

Boy, my darling,

You asked me the other day, just as you were dropping off, what people’s dreams were like before the cinema was invented. You who talk blabberish and chase rabbits in your sleep, hurrumphing like a dog… you who never watch television…

I’ve been thinking of your question ever since.

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film history

Fast forward through 135 years of film history in 3 minutes.


Steven Spielberg and George Lucas describe dire developments at the unveiling of USC’s School Of Cinematic Arts (SCA) Complex (photo via Zimbio)

No need for me to editorialize. Whether I agree or disagree, these ominous remarks deserve more than an offhand reaction. I will say it’s interesting to see the two men often credited with formulating the modern blockbuster template for the high concept franchise mentality with Jaws, Close Encounters, Star Wars and Indiana Jones are now joining the clarion call of resistance tinged with a fair measure of despair.

(THR) Steven Spielberg on Wednesday predicted an “implosion” in the film industry is inevitable, whereby a half dozen or so $250 million movies flop at the box office and alter the industry forever. What comes next — or even before then — will be price variances at movie theaters, where “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.” He also said that Lincoln came “this close” to being an HBO movie instead of a theatrical release.

George Lucas agreed that massive changes are afoot, including film exhibition morphing somewhat into a Broadway play model, whereby fewer movies are released, they stay in theaters for a year and ticket prices are much higher. His prediction prompted Spielberg to recall that his 1982 film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial stayed in theaters for a year and four months.

The two legendary filmmakers, along with CNBC anchor Julia Boorstin and Microsoft president of interactive entertainment business Don Mattrick, were speaking at the University of Southern California as part of the festivities surrounding the official opening of the Interactive Media Building, three stories high and part of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

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Is there anything worthwhile left to say in movies? More and more it feels like the end of something beloved and the beginning of something else. So much has changed so quickly. Doors have closed and new ones opened. Some will embrace the change – adapt or die. Some will reject it, turn away from the new and lament the changing times, dreaming the impossible dream that things will return to “normal.”

What has changed? Oh, everything. The internet happened. Fanboy culture happened. The blockbuster happened. Movie studios do what they’ve always done – make movies they think will make money, whether they turn out to be right or not. Since their marketing strategies work so well they aren’t obligated to make “better” movies. Audiences have been branded and conditioned to the point where no one really notices nor cares about how many movies come out now that are sequels and remakes. And so it goes.

Two prominent filmmakers have conveyed different messages about the state of movies recently. First, Steven Soderbergh gave a speech at the Kabuki Cinemas wherein no video camera or recording devices could be used, thus, we have only 3rd person accounts to rely upon. This bit of his speech comes from Hollywood-Elsewhere:
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As we fumble towards some kind of symbolic permanence in our lives we sometimes land where we shouldn’t, in places that have long since belonged to someone else. We call those places ours but they aren’t really; they are rooted sometimes in darkness, inhabited by ghosts, or corpses, or bad memories.

The dark side of our American past is juxtaposed with our endless reach for the dream — but our past remains in our architecture — the limbs of who we were, and maybe who we’ll always be. Three directors puncture that dream of belonging somewhere, and their films often caution us that being tied to a place turns into a claustrophobic nightmare.

With Room 237 opening, it seems we will never be able to fully let go of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With Bate’s Motel being a surprisingly good update to Hitchcock’s Pscyho we are also compelled to keep Norman Bates alive. And in David Fincher’s Panic Room, even without the lurid subtext that probably has kept Psycho alive, and the semi-comical but nonetheless fascinating lead as realized by Jack Nicholson in the Shining, it nevertheless comes down to the same thing Psycho and The Shining are really about: the director and his camera.

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This week the Supreme Court is hearing arguments on two historic cases that seek to expand the scope and definition of equal rights in America to include gay people. In honor of The Supreme’s two rulings that most of us hope will declare Prop 8 and DOMA to be unconstitutional in a few months, it might be interesting to look at how far the depiction of LGBT characters in film has come in the last century. A couple of years ago we had a poll to let readers rank your favorite gay films of the past 30 years. That poll was deliberately restricted with a cutoff date of 1970 because frankly I didn’t see many films pre-1970 that didn’t make gays look evil, ridiculous or pathetic. I didn’t want to offer straight people an opportunity to say their favorite gay movie was the self-loathing pity-party on display in The Boys in the Band. After 1970 we finally began to see the emergence of New Queer Cinema — movies about gay people made by gay people or made by straight filmmakers more sympathetic to gay characters. The poll was intended to cover movies with gay characters that gay people could be proud to watch as role models, so movies like Compulsion and Rope didn’t qualify.

But the list I came up with last night is less about gay pride and more about actual gay history as reflected in film. The reality of perception about gay life and its portrayal in mainstream movies hasn’t always been pretty but I think it’s important to acknowledge. The evolution of that perception is a fascinating even when its repellant.

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Soon after completing Lolita in 1962, Stanley Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern took a straight-laced Cold War thriller novel published in 1958 as Red Alert, renamed all the characters for maximum absurdity, and created the satiric masterpiece Dr. Strangelove.  But Kubrick needed a subtitle to give the movie a mockumentary sting.

By the 1960s, the formula for non-fiction subtitles was well-entrenched.  Among the biggest self-help bestsellers in mid-century American bookstores were Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living; Betty Crocker: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

Endpaper has a page from one of Kubrick’s diaries that dates back to the early-60′s as he groped toward a mash-up that made the catchiest combination of those stock phrases.

This is fascinating for a number of reasons – the opportunity to look at a genius’ brainstorming process, the chance to imagine the classic film existing with any of these alternate titles – but it’s probably most interesting because this page ultimately led to what is arguably one of the greatest names for a movie of all time: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

It can now be revealed how close we came to Dr Strangelove’s Secret Uses of Uranus.  After the cut are a list of some of the other titles Kubrick came up with:

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Nick James’ introduction to the Sight & Sound poll results gives us some insight into their methodology:

As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, “We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.”  Each entry on each list counts as one vote for the film in question, so personal rankings within the top tens don’t matter.

The Playlist and others have been poring over the S&S Poll issue now on newstands and have culled some of the more interesting Top Ten lists compiled by the filmmakers themselves.  Whether you like to think of these as the top 10 favorite movies of your favorite directors, or the top 10 greatest films according to our greatest directors, either way I’m glad to see they’re all over the map.

Woody Allen
“Bicycle Thieves” (1948, dir. Vittorio De Sica)
“The Seventh Seal” (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)
“Citizen Kane” (1941, dir. Orson Welles
“Amarcord” (1973, dir. Federico Fellini
“8 1/2″ (1963, dir. Federico Fellini)
“The 400 Blows” (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut)
“Rashomon” (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
“La Grande Illusion” (1937, dir. Jean Renoir)
“The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie” (1972, dir. Luis Bunuel)
“Paths Of Glory” (1957, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

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Indiewire’s Criticwire addressed today this question from a reader:

“I mentor a 14-year-old from Harlem and nothing would make me happier then to have her enjoy ‘art house’ movies.  She goes to Hollywood movies in chain theaters, and doesn’t particularly like what she sees.  Of course, the fact that she’s African-American makes it even harder for me to find movies that I think would speak to her. She is sophisticated and would probably not mind some subtitles and nontraditional narratives. Help!”

Various critics rang in with some really great suggestions.   The truth is, I don’t know how you grow a cinephile. Attempting to influence anyone’s tastes or beliefs can be an exercise in futility, but if a curious teenager is open to exploration we can help by pointing in the right direction. As a parent, you can try.  My daughter knows the lines from a few films I’ve shown her, like A Fish Called Wanda, Burn After Reading, The Social Network, No Country for Old Men.  Does this mean she’s learned to love a better class of movies? I don’t know.  She has her own interests and passions that have to do with how she was raised, the world she grew up in and what exactly she’s trying to escape from.  Many movies, you see, are designed for escape, and the system makes movies one of the easiest escapes to access when we’re young. They were for me.

As an upcoming cinephile who’s African-American, finding great films and film directors who map your own experience can be especially hard.  So the inclination would be to look for those filmmakers who reflect the culture.   The most important African-American film director, to my mind, is Spike Lee who carved out a new narrative for what kinds of stories were being told.  But he never played the Hollywood game right and before long, Lee was mostly written off.  Still, he inspired many directors — and continues to do so.  Other black filmmakers of note — Robert Townsend, Lee Daniels, and Denzel Washington.  It’s harder to navigate in those currents so maybe it’s easier just to talk about movies.

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Discovered this on Behind the Scenes via David Hayes’ Trigger Street Labs Qute a treasure. The video quality is about as bad as it can be without being crushed to globs of mush, but Kubrick’s images hold up incredibly well, even with the worst presentation, don’t they?

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(via IndieWIRE)

Check out the background essay at The Playlist Jose Gallegos wrote to accompany his affectionate video tribute to French film of the 1960s. What a great phrase: “la naissance de l’auteur.” The noise at the beginning and end of the montage is a wonderful touch — that tangible buzz of anticipation on the soundtrack as a reel of film threads through a projector. With today’s restored and cleaned-up audio on digital disc, had almost forgotten what excitement that raw hum of pops and crackles always promised.

(clip at Take one, take two, take three…

…and take four: “Thank you very much, Miss Fontaine. Very difficult for me to express myself… Hattie McDaniel made this look so fucking easy last year!”

(thanks to Rhett Barlett at dialMforMovies)

If you like the uneasy feeling of ambiguity surrounding the final identity The Thing, then don’t watch this fairly convincing investigation of the visual clues John Carpenter planted to tip us off. (by Rob Anger at Collative Learning, via Badass Digest)

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After the cut, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch talk about the scene Scorsese’s mother improvised in Goodfellas. (via and OpenCulture)

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All of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in less than 4 minutes.

New York / New York from Reverse Shot on Vimeo.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center inaugurates the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center with an opening night conversation between Joel and Ethan Coen and Noah Baumbach as they talk about the opening sequences of several of their films.

Lawrence Olivier as Don Corleone? It almost happened. Open Culture explains:

During casting, Paramount executives originally pushed for Laurence Olivier. But when he couldn’t take the film, and when the director, Francis Ford Coppola, asked them to consider Brando, they initially responded: “Marlon Brando will never appear in this motion picture.” Below, Coppola and co-star James Caan explain how the execs were eventually cajoled into changing their minds, and how film history fell into place. As you watch this, also keep in mind that Paramount originally asked two other directors to make The Godfather before approaching Coppola, and they later wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone. But Coppola, who threatened to quit production, eventually got his way and put the relatively unknown Al Pacino into the film.

Lawrence Olivier was many magnificent things, but his stabs at tackling accents could be as dangerously helter-skelter as asking Norman Bates to scrub your back in the shower.

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