Among Hollywood Studio storytellers of the last half century, I can’t think of anyone better than Rob Reiner. I’m talking about straightforward storytelling done well which is something remarkably hard to come by in recent times. Reiner is a better director than Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg.
But it has been years since he gave us a good picture. Well that is until last year’s Flipped, which is such a return to form for the director, it feels like the last fifteen year slump never happened. Reiner made a cameo appearance in Albert Brooks’ Hollywood satire The Muse, where he plays one of the many Hollywood professionals who get a creative jump start from modern-muse Sharon Stone, and my Cinema Station partner in crime Gus Edwards likes to joke that maybe Reiner really did see a Muse. After watching Flipped, I wouldn’t be surprised.
There’s no flash to it. Nothing extraordinary other than extraordinary characters. The boy and girl that center the movie behave like kids, not Hollywood constructed cute balls. The adults are well-rounded: human, sometimes lovable, often nasty and selfish. The movie has no grand arch or dramatic constructs; it’s a small story.
It echoes the work of the younger Reiner who made some of Hollywood’s best. I’m thinking of Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, Misery, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, and The American President. What a gallery of solid pictures and what an exploration of genres.
Gus first alerted me to Reiner’s genre-jumping, saying that in the 80’s and 90’s he couldn’t wait for the director to tackle a Western, a Musical, or even a Film Noir. I agree and a big part of me hopes he still will. He has the smarts of a Studio Professional who knows story well enough to actually give us a good Western. His chameleon efforts are far under appreciated when you consider the fantasy world of Princess Bride with the boyish adventure of Stand by Me and the utter shock and horror of Misery.
But after The American President, a great film, somehow Reiner drifted away from this pattern of top-notch storytelling. I’ll admit to not having seen many of the movies he made in the late 90’s and early 2000’s (North, The Story of Us, Alex & Emma, and Rumor has It) but even from afar I can tell they lack the charm and wit of his previous work.
What astounds me is that he still had at least one good picture in him. As directors age, it seems almost impossible for most of them to either evolve in more challenging and interesting ways or to at least be able to make movies as good and creative as they had. Take Martin Scorsese for instance, who I doubt may have another great picture in him, as great as Raging Bull. The few filmmakers that stayed vibrant to the end of their careers (I’m thinking Stanley Kubrick and the still working Werner Herzog) exist on the fringes of cinema, stretching the medium in new ways. As for Hollywood professionals at the end of their careers, even my favorite director Howard Hawks couldn’t produce a movie as sharp as Rio Bravo in the last four or five he directed.
So Reiner’s career as a good storyteller is not over. He may have more movies in him like Flipped. I’m sure that this blog is out of earshot for him but nevertheless let me say this in case he can hear.
Rob, some of your movies mean a great deal to me. They stick with me through the years and I sometimes feel uncontrollable urges to revisit them. I wasn’t paying attention to your work for a while but I am now. Make movies with the heart of Flipped. Give us some good stories. We need them. We need them like we need food and water. I’m in your corner, man, and I’ll look forward to the next one.
These are excerpts from the book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes. They are the director’s own words.
We really aren’t ourselves, and the impression we make on people is often the direct opposite of the one intended
If somebody says to you, “Ah, I don’t know, this picture’s not going to make money,” or “That play’s never gonna make it,” you’ve got to attack them. You’ve got to attack them!
I couldn’t wait for the next day to come so I could get involved with some new girl and promise to marry her and then stop seeing her. In those days, I promised to marry just about every girl I took out. I felt if that’s what they wanted to hear, that’s what I’d tell them.
I’m not part of anything. I never joined anything. I could work anywhere. Some of the greatest pictures I’ve ever seen came from the studio system. I have nothing against it at all. I’m an individual. Intellectual bullshit doesn’t interest me.
I’m only interested in working with people who like to work and find out about something that they don’t already know.
It didn’t matter to me whether or not Shadows would be any good; it just became a way of life where you got close to people and where you could hear ideas that weren’t full of shit.
Not one actor was paid for his services, nor were the technicians given anything. What kept us going was enthusiasm. We were working for the fun of doing something we wanted to do.
Some really weird girl came in off the street; she had a mustache and hair on her legs and the hair on her head was matted with dirt and she wore a filthy polka-dot dress; she was really bad… Anyway, she became our sound editor and straightened out her life.
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Desert Island movie #10
For my final Desert Island Movie in this list I’m going with one of my favorite high adventure films. Its advertised title was; Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone. This is interesting because it represents a rare case where the screenwriter, not the director (J. Lee Thompson) or even the author (Alistair MacLean) of the bestselling novel from which it was adapted, is identified as the primary creator. That didn’t and doesn’t happen often so it’s worth noting. I suspect this was because Foreman was the film’s producer as well as its scriptwriter.
Anyway The Guns of Navarone is one of those “mission impossible “stories set during World War Two where a motley group of men are assigned to go into German occupied Greek territory and destroy the fictional guns of the title. And of course no one really believes it can be done. “The operation is insane.” Says Mallory the man assigned to the mission. “The mission is our last hope.” he is told by his commanding officer. “If those guns remain in place 2000 men will die in Kheros.” So there’s no question about it, they have to take on the challenge. And this is par for the course in movies like this. If it was “mission possible” then there would be no suspense. So once again the thrill (for us in the audience) is in the details, the individuality of the characters carrying out the mission and the twists and turns of the plot. In other words the execution. And also, this being a big budgeted Hollywood Studio (Columbia Pictures) film a large part of the fun has to be in the big name cast they gathered to play the roles…Well they did themselves proud. It is headed up by Hollywood’s classic mold leading man Gregory Peck to whom a commemorative US Postal was issued on April 28, 2011. He plays Mallory, a mountain climber who hasn’t climbed in years, but assigned to do just that and lead his men over a mountain to the guns. Anthony Quinn does a colorful turn as a Greek resistance colonel. David Niven is a slightly rebellious cynic. Teen pop idol of the moment actor/singer James Darren (Goodbye Cruel World) is a fiery rebel. England’s Stanley Baker is on board as a character called “The butcher of Barcelona”. In smaller parts are future director/writer Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and a young Richard Harris delivering a nifty monologue anchored by the word “bloody”. Character actor James Robertson Justice lends his authoritative presence as the man who assigns the men to this impossible task. On the distaff side Greek actress Irene Papas and English born Italian beauty Gia Scala provide passion, sex and duplicity to the proceedings as resistance volunteers.
The whole idea is for the men to get through a German stronghold and blow up the guns. But truthfully, the guns here serve as what Hitchcock called “The MacGuffin” which is the thing the characters care about and the audience accepts only because it’s so important to them. But our real focus is on the characters, their personality traits and their differences. They spice up the action and keep us interested in the outcome. And there are a number of interesting sub plots in the story as well. For instance Quinn’s character promises to kill Peck’s Mallory after the mission if they live through it. Another subplot suggests that there might be a spy in their midst. And so it churns. Or as the saying goes; “And the hits just keep on coming”.
There are some wonderful action set pieces that are thrillingly staged. And there’s a storm at sea sequence that is among the best I’ve ever seen. Dimitri (High Noon) Tiomkin, who during those days seem to be the composer of nearly every major film coming out of Hollywood, contributes a stirring score that keeps a sense of action boiling even in the quiet scenes. This was director J. Lee Thompson’s first big budgeted Hollywood motion picture and he acquitted himself splendidly. The film was expensive for its time (6 million) but it went on to become the highest grossing film of that year. Not that I particularly care about things like that but it indicates how popular the picture was.
Today, like so many other good films that are not designated as classics The Guns of Navarone is pretty much forgotten. Still each time I watch it I get the same sense of excitement that I did when I first saw it at the Murray Hill Theatre in New York City all those years ago. So if you’re in the mood for high gloss adventure entertainment where the story seems authentic and all the plot turns are plausible this film is for you. Over the years I’ve recommended to many friends and I have yet have one come back and tell me that he/she didn’t like it. The old phrase; “They don’t make them like that anymore” is particularly apt in this case.
And that completes my ten. On a future date I’ll probably select another ten just for the fun of it. But right now for this series I’ll stamp the file; mission accomplished.
Conrad L. Hall: Cinematographer Extraordinaire
(In his own words)
We live in the era where the director is generally lionized as the superstar of the cinematic event. So much so that we sometimes forget the contributions of that most vital individual of a film’s creative team, the cinematographer. It is one of those invisible jobs behind the camera that too often goes unnoticed unless it’s done badly. So here at Cinema Station from time to time we will be looking at the work of some extra ordinary cinematographers, acknowledging their excellence and investigating their process.
Our first cinematographer is Conrad L. Hall (1926 – 2003) winner of three Academy Awards for cinematography and generally viewed as one of the ten most influential cinematographers in the history of the medium. In his career he shot more than thirty films and scores of television films as well as commercials. His best known titles include: Harper (1966), The Professionals (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), In Cold Blood (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969),Day of the Locust (1975), Marathon Man (1976), Tequila Sunrise (1988), American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002). His Academy Awards were for Butch Cassidy etc, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. Among the films he shot of his favorite films were; Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Fat City (1972) and Electra Glide in Blue (1973).
Conrad L. Hall was the son of writer James Norman Hall co author of the Bounty trilogy of novels that includes: Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Men Against the Sea (1934) and Pitcairn’s Island (1943).He was born in Papeete, Tahiti in French Polynesia, was educated at USC and began his career around 1949 in TV and working on documentaries. His third Academy Award was accepted posthumously by his son Conrad W. Hall who is a cinematographer like his father.
The following are some quotes by Mr. Hall on his profession.
– Early on I found that telling stories with words was not my cup of tea. …I discovered that there is great power in telling stories through pictures.
– I don’t have any mental checklist of things to look for) when lighting a scene, but I do have a frame. And in that frame is a subject to deal with involving the story.
– In really good photography you light just a few things…whatever is important and that’s it.
– I don’t have any vision about any film I shoot. That’s the director’s bailiwick. My job is to create his or her vision.
– The visual language is an undulation language. Like music it has to have its peaks and valleys. Those rhythms are really important.
– Beauty comes from contrast. I love contrast, either the lack of it or the abundance of it.
– I’ve generally found that reality should not be involved in the creative process. You should know the reality, but then go ahead and use whatever dramatic storytelling is necessary to best represent it.
– I love to work with symbolism because it’s very strong visually.
– Happy accidents are occurring all the time. I practically live by them. As a cinematographer you have to be well versed in your craft and aware of what your story is in order to make use of them.
– I read the script and get to know it very, very well. And then I listen to the director talking to the actors. When they rehearse I watch what is going on very carefully, and from that I get ideas about mood and light. Then I create the kind of mood I feel the scene deserves.
– I like actors. The more talented they are, the better I like them.
– I keep my crew motivated by including them in the creative process.
– I’m an old man but I’ve got the energy and spirit of a student. I like hands- on approach to photography.
– Filmmaking is about finding things out, it’s about examining, it’s about discovering. You should approach your work the same way that a child discovers new aspects of the world.
– I keep learning by going to the edge of my knowledge of cinema and trying something different and new.
There’s not much more that one can say about Conrad L. Hall. His words and his works speak eloquently for themselves.