After hearing of Andrew Sarris’ recent death and reading J. Hoberman’s remembrance of the important critic, I decided to get a copy of Sarris’ book The American Cinema. It is a comprehensive (as of 1968) list and dissection of American film and its directors, judged by the auteur theory to which Sarris was devoted. It’s a fun read for any movie goer as it provides plenty of opportunity to agree, disagree, and discover more about cinema. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the book:
“Ford had more in common with Welles than anyone realized at the time. Ford was forty-six when he made How Green was my Valley and Welles was only twenty-five when he made Citizen Kane, but both films are the works of old men, the beginnings of a cinema of memory.”
“Howard Hawks is good, clean, functional cinema, perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.”
“Hawks has stamped his distinctively bitter view of life on adventure, gangster and private-eye melodramas, Westerns, musicals, and screwball comedies, the kind of thing Americans do best and appreciate least.”
“The Fordian hero knows why he is doing something even if he doesn’t know how. The Hawksian hero knows how to do what he is doing even if he doesn’t know why. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the way. He is always plunging into the unknown, and he is never too sure what he will find there.”
“Welles is concerned with the ordinary feelings of extraordinary people and Hitchcock with the extraordinary feelings of ordinary people.”
“George Stevens was a minor director with major virtues before A Place in the Sun and a major director with minor virtues after.”
“Cecil B. De Mille may have been the last American director who enjoyed telling a story for its own sake.”
“Richard Brooks has a bad habit of saying what he means without showing what he feels.”
“Perhaps more than any other director, Michael Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system in Hollywood.”
“It is too early to establish any coherent pattern to Allan Dwan’s career, but it may very well be that Dwan will turn out to be the last of the old masters.”
When Gus and I are not blogging about movies, we are making our own movies. We started a company a couple years back called Running Wild Films and have since made close to twenty short films and two feature length movies. The first one is now available to download, a comedy-murder-mystery called The Big Something.
The film has received great press in Arizona, where we make local cinema, and continues to find an audience online.
“The Big Something is a laugh-out-loud, screwball comedy with a Raising Arizona-like charm.” -Chris Coffel, Trashwire
““The BIG Something” keeps the plot simple and the film entertaining. The characters are memorable and the locations are a hoot. Music is massive and all within the public domain. Zero budget, 10 day, wing and a prayer feature filmmaking has come to Arizona, as “The BIG Something” offers a tantalizing taste of the swelling wave of local, indie feature filmmaking.” Bill Pierce, Examiner
I was inspired to make the movie after years of working in record stores. Somehow a story of murder and comedy made its way into that world, as did many of the eccentric employees and customers from that environment. The work of Howard Hawks and Buster Keaton was also very influential on the tone and style of the film.
The soundtrack of the film has also been praised: a collection of public domain blues, tracks from the likes of Leadbelly, Fats Waller, and Sonny Terry. It is also available for download.
We are committed to online distribution and exhibition. The movie and the soundtrack are available on our website at this link: http://www.runningwildfilms.com/store/. You can pay whatever you want to download either. You decide the price.
I hope you enjoy the film we have made and keep coming back for more cinema from Running Wild and more cinema-obsession from Cinema Station.
Driving through the country with my grandfather the other day, I got to thinking about the ways that movies have changed over the course of my life. I’m only twenty-six but it is remarkable to look back at the way the work of great directors has grown up with me.
Take for instance, Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps the first director I ever paid close attention to. As a child, I was amazed by North by Northwest. What a wonderful adventure that film is, a boy’s movie. It is sensational, cinema at its most fun.
As a teenager, I paid more attention to Rear Window. I began to see the master behind the camera and this brilliant experiment enthralled me. Years later, breaching adulthood, I found affection and respect for the film that had alluded me: Vertigo. Now this movie was at the forefront of my mind. The mood, the themes suddenly made sense. The darkness was so alluring and had surpassed the lighter Hitchcock films.
It was less than a year ago that I revisited Notorious. This movie had also escaped my affection upon first (and second viewing). But at twenty-five years of age, I was ready for it. I never knew Hitchcock could be so romantic. Cary Grant’s character was the kind of hero I could now relate to: bitter, mean, daring, brave. Notorious now means Hitchcock to me.
I have grown up with other directors too. John Ford struck me first at the age of thirteen with How Green was my Valley. Still to this day, I attest to the wonder of this film and it’s place (regardless of its reputation for stealing the oscar from Citizen Kane) as one of the great masterpieces of cinema. But the Ford film that lingers with me at present is My Darling Clementine. When I first saw it, I shrugged at the simplicity that I now admire so much. There is so much in so little and I’m old enough to see it.
Woody Allen: from Love and Death to Crimes and Misdemeanors to The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Martin Scorsese: from Goodfellas to Raging Bull to After Hours
Stanley Kubrick: 2001 to Paths of Glory to Barry Lyndon
Even the child filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who once owned most of my affection, has retained at least one ultimate place in my cinema-loving heart: the one adventure to outlast all his others, Jaws.
It is fun to look back on the way that these film change with me over the years, one fading away and another coming into its place. This is one reason why I could never make a definitive list of favorite films. Once I had written it, the list already be different.
To the ever-evolving love of cinema,
We recently finished production on our first feature movie. You see, Gus Edwards and I (Travis Mills) moonlight as filmmakers when we’re not too busy writing about movies.
But it’s many of the movies we love ignited the spark in me to make The Big Something. The story (briefly) revolves around the death of a record store owner. The cops call it a suicide but his loyal-loser clerk Lewis doesn’t buy it. He navigates the eccentric world that surrounds the store and its customers. With a hipster femme fatale named April as his partner, he hunts down the killer and becomes a neighborhood amateur detective.
We shot for fourteen days in Phoenix, Arizona and had the time of our lives. Here is a brief teaser trailer to give you a taste of our movie.
Now, I’d like to tell you a little about the movies that inspired this story.
I have to begin with Howard Hawks: the Grey Fox, the man who vies with John Ford in many cinephile’s minds as the top director of all time, and my personal favorite. Hawks’ His Girl Friday hit me like a ton of bricks a couple years ago. For whatever reason Bringing up Baby never caught my interest but Friday turned me into an instant Hawks devotee, with his rapid-fire dialog, tough characters, and unstoppable pace. I’d argue that it’s more of an action movie than a comedy.
I recommended that every actor in my cast watch it. Some of them took more from it than others. I was surprised to hear a couple describe it as seeming like a “play”. Though it’s based on one, His Girl Friday is pure cinema for me. Perhaps most of the camerawork is wide (which seems quite refreshing compared to the current no-brainer attitude of cut-cut-shot-reverse-shot) and the story takes place mostly in the newspaper office, but Hawks’ movie is all movie (not a play, not even like a play).
I love the insensitivity of the characters, how quickly they rebound from tragedy (a mid-movie suicide) and this sort of toughness followed me into some of our “grief” scenes in The Big Something. The script was full of all this crying and moaning about the deceased record store owner; somehow not one bit of it felt right, and so I steered the cast away from it as much as I could. There is too much moaning and groaning in modern film.
I was thrilled to hear Quentin Tarantino admit in a recent interview that he has requires his actors to watch His Girl Friday as well. I don’t always enjoy his work, but Quentin is such a lover of cinema and a fellow devotee of Hawks, I can’t help but admire him.
Before I move on, there is another Hawks film I went to for inspiration: The Big Sleep. One in a whole line of Noirs with Big titles that inspired ours, Hawks’ Marlowe mystery is a great example of good mysteries are less about the answers and more about the journey to find them. As the story goes, the “solution” to the crime in this film didn’t make sense to director Hawks or writer William Faulkner. When they went to the original source (pulp author Raymond Chandler) for answers, even he could not explain the plot holes of his own construction. Hawks took note: the movie worked regardless of the holes, because it was fast and fun and the characters were good.
I took that to heart with The Big Something. What did it matter if the story didn’t make sense, as long as the characters were good and true? And by true, I don’t mean real. I mean true: fun, rounded, full, and ripe for our imaginations. This flies in the face of our modern cinema, which makes realism its priority. Audiences and filmmakers are so focused on facts and inconsistencies, we’ve forgotten how to let us ourselves fall in love with fiction.
I specifically wanted Mina Mirkhah (who plays the female lead) to watch The Big Sleep for Lauren Bacall’s performance. Mina’s not a Hawks woman; I wouldn’t want her to be because only Hawks could find and shape those women. But she found that slight toughness with an underbelly of femininity. I believe she got a little help from Bacall.
Another enormous creative source for our film were the silents. I mean the great comedy geniuses: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Of the two, Keaton was our boy. I remember the day Michael Coleman (lead actor) and I sat down on the floor of my apartment and watched the opening of Sherlock Jr. I wanted to show Coleman how important Keaton’s whole body is to his performance, that every inch of him is either moving or still for a reason and it all contributes to a language of motion.
For some reason, acting seems to have become so much about reading the line in a sincere and natural manner. Our performers (except for a few, Nicolas Cage comes to mind) are so restricted and (the word surfaces once more) realistic. I favor the performances of old, sharp and funny, loud and expressive. I believe at least that both should be practiced. Mina Mirkhah commented at some point during our rehearsal process that my direction contradicted everything she’d been taught. My reaction: good.
There were times on set when an idea would occur to one of us. Doubt might set in for a moment. Michael Coleman would ask me, “Is this too much? Is this too ridiculous?” I would tell him that I’m the wrong person to ask. I am always in favor of trying something ridiculous, outlandish and downright out of the ordinary. If nothing else, I can say that I directed a movie by my instincts, cut from all intellectual self-consciousness and modern restriction. The ghosts of Hawks and Keaton were peering over my shoulder. I hope they had fun watching.
To learn more about The Big Something, please visit our blog: http://bigsomething.wordpress.com/
Movie Title Songs
For many, many years in my young movie going career title songs seemed to be a fixed part of the cinematic landscape. For me it started with the western High Noon(1952) with “Do not forsake me oh my darling” being intoned by Tex Ritter throughout the film almost as a sub textural commentary by Sherriff Will Kane played by Gary Cooper who won an Oscar for his role. It heightened the dramatic intensity of the drama and it wound up winning the Academy Award as Best Song for that year. But I know that movie title songs started way before that. One only has to think of Laura (1944) and the haunting title song that film inspired. But I guess I didn’t pay attention to them until High Noon. But after that it seem like every movie coming out of Hollywood had a title song to go with it.
The logic behind the title song was that it helped to commercially sell the film. A producer would hire a composer/lyricist team or sometimes one person who did both and contract them to write a song with the hopes that the song would become a hit and get a lot of radio airplay. And every time the song was played and the title was heard it could mean more dollars at the box office. Therefore one of the requisites of the contract was that the title of the movie had to be a central part of the song. This placed the burden more on the shoulders of lyricist than the composer who could write any melody within reason and it would be accepted. But the lyricist had to find a reasonable way to utilize the title as a lyric. What do you do with a title like “Magnificent Obsession” or “Last Train from Gun Hill” or “The Fast and the Furious”? The interesting thing is, if given the problem song writers usually came up with ways to work their way around it. Some were wonderful like the previously mentioned Laura while others were either strained or downright silly. “They call him the winner who takes all and he strikes like Thunderball .” From the James Bond movie.
The title songs that always ignited my interest were the ones written for dramatic films. Films like From Here to Eternity (1953), or Not As a Stranger (1955) or Dead Man Walking (1995) where there was nothing inherently musical in either the title or the content. With musicals it’s a given, comedies lend themselves to songs as well. And westerns always seemed to have some musical component built into the genre too. But take a gangster film like Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932) or (1983) what could a title song say? And Horror, was there ever a title song written for a film in that genre? Come to think of it Science Fiction isn’t a particularly musical genre either. Still I would guess if some producer wanted a title song for something like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 or 2008) some songwriter would take on the challenge, and who knows, might even bring if off well.
The man who found a way to deal with those questions sometimes magnificently (Three Coins in the Fountain -1954) and sometimes absurdly (Oceans 11-1960) was Sammy Cahn(1913-1993), a facile lyricist who for the longest while was the go- to guy for title songs. He once said that if given the contract he could write a lyric for a film called “Eh!” He wrote things like The Tender Trap (1955), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Best of Everything (1959)The Long, Hot Summer (1958) Johnny Cool (1963) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). And for doing so he garnered 23 Academy Award nominations, this is the most by any lyricist in film history. He won 4 for Best Song. And today there is an annual award for the best movie song named in his honor; The Sammy Award. It is said that he wrote title songs for more than 100 movies but I couldn’t find any source to authoritatively verify that number. But the number is high. And most of the songs were lyrically of a high order.
The Bond films are the only ones that continue that tradition with any regularity today and their track record has been something of a mixed bag. But still they ought to be praised just for carrying it on. And I know that it is one of the things I wait for when a new James Bond movie is on the horizon. Who’s going to be singing the new Bond title song and what will it sound like. My absolute favorite is From Russia with Love (1963) which I find totally haunting, followed by You Only Live Twice (1967), Goldeneye (1995) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Many of the others are fine but those stand out for me. Now I’m not including the songs like All Time High from Octopussy (1983) or We Have all the time in the World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) because they weren’t title songs. And I guess one could stretch a point and include Nobody Does it Better because the lyric does include a line that says; “Like heavens above me the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” That gets in the film’s title in addition to the fact that it’s a lovely song as well.
Title songs do serve another purpose above and beyond adding to the box office take of the film. From an audience standpoint it serves as a reminder of the film and its pleasures, if we liked it, when we hear the songs being played years after the movie has disappeared. So songs like Charade (1984) or North to Alaska (1960) or even something as silly like Georgy Girl (1966) can bring back not only memories of a fun movie but also of charming Lynn Redgrave who sadly passed away this year.
So title songs whether silly or great have a place in our cinema world and may the tradition remain with motion pictures forever.
Some Great Moments in Miscasting
Every good director in either theatre or film when asked will tell you that 80 to 90% to successfully presenting a play or a film depends on the proper casting of its principal roles. If the actor is correctly cast it really doesn’t matter much if he/she misses a beat or two in their characterization because the properly cast actor (in the best cases) always brings additional colors, dimensions, nuances and tones to the work that more often than not, aren’t in the script or even the direction.( Bette Davis in The Letter -1940,Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek – 1964, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday– 1953,Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady – 1964 or Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca – 1942, the list goes on.) Inversely, a talented actor cast in a role for which he/she is not suited can labor mightily to little or sometimes disastrous effect. Successful actors hate the term “type casting” and will often go to great lengths to show their versatility in roles for which they are ill suited. Nevertheless they try attempting to prove that there is such a thing as a “universal actor”, the completely talented performer who can embody any character and present him/her with grace, conviction and authority. Unfortunately such a creature doesn’t exist. Yet actors, star name actors, often miscast themselves in search of proving that he is in fact alive and living somewhere inside them like the Loch Ness monster in the Scottish Highlands.
A few years back a magazine published an article on “Great Moments in Miscasting” and I wanted to add some additional names to their list. So here goes.
Sidney Poitier as the villainous Moor in The Long Ships (1964). Poitier had a successfully long career in films. His best roles (and there were many) had him portraying men of quiet passion and steely integrity because those were the qualities he projected best. But in The Long Ships he gets to flash his eyes and walk around with a swagger that more resembled Yul Brynner (in any role) than the Moor Chieftain. The result was highly amusing but for all the wrong reasons.
Barbara Streisand as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly (1969) Ms. Streisand was in her late 20s at the time portraying a character who was in her early to mid 40s looking for another chance at love and life. And due to the casting even the lyric for the title song (“Look at the old girl now”) doesn’t make much sense. Or for that matter neither does the entire song “Before the Parade Passes By”. Barbara Streisand in the right role was a gifted singer/actor but here due to this miscasting she was just absurd.
Laurence Olivier in The Betsy (1978). At the time Mr. Olivier was still coasting on his reputation as “The best actor in the world.” He had spent most of his considerable career on stage performing the classics but in his latter years decided to concentrate on movies accepting virtually any role that came along. One was this film adapted from a Harold Robbins bestseller. He might’ve been the right age for the part but everything else was wrong starting with his cringe inducing American accent. The film was bad but Olivier was worse. This was one time that “The world’s greatest actor” almost seemed more like the “world’s worst”.
Paul Newman in The Outrage (1964). Throughout his career Newman was among motion pictures finest actors. In his prime and also in his senior years he gave many landmark performances. He portrayed contemporary restlessness and angst better than just about anyone in films at that time. But he always seemed out of place in period pieces like Lady L. ((1965). The Outrage was a western version of the Japanese story Rashomon and in it Newman plays a Mexican bandit. Beyond a misdirected performance his accent is something from which parodies could be formed.
Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). It could be argued that Rooney was possibly the best and most versatile actor/performer to emerge out of the studio system. He could seemingly do everything from singing and dancing to straight dramatic acting. His talents even extended to songwriting. But in Breakfast at Tiffany’s he plays a Japanese photographer in makeup and with an accent that if taken seriously could’ve started another war between our two countries. This is the type of casting that makes ethnics cry “racism” at Hollywood and the makers of that film. But clearly it wasn’t meant to offend. It was just a bad, no… make that horrible case of casting the wrong actor in the wrong part.
And Marlon Brando shouldn’t be given a pass on this either. He also did a pretty embarrassing turn as the Japanese houseboy in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956).
Gregory Peck in The Boys from Brazil (1978). Mr. Peck had one of the longest star careers in Hollywood. It lasted for 56 years, a record that few could match. His was a very reassuring screen presence mixed with rugged good looks and was a very good actor when cast in the right role. Witness his Academy Award winning performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). And although he played cowboys and adventurers he was cast mostly as quiet men of integrity who always had a dogged persistence to “get the job done right”. Only twice in that long career was he ever cast as the villain. Once in the David O. Selznick horse opera Duel in the Sun (1946) where his “bad boy” performance is so outré that it approaches camp. And then in The Boys from Brazil where he plays the Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele it is just pure ham with a capital H due to Peck straining to indicate that he was properly cast in a role he was ill suited for.
Omar Sharif as the Jewish gangster in Funny Girl (1968) and then again briefly in Funny Lady (1975), we’ll count this as one. Then as the Cuban revolutionary Che Guvera in Che! (1964), and again that same year as the Mexican gunfighter Colorado in McKenna’s Gold. Some of this is not Sharif’s fault. Casting him this way went back to that old Hollywood practice of the “pan ethnic” wherein if the actor was somewhat exotic and spoke with an accent he was routinely cast as any nationality on earth whether or not he was suited for it. Prior to Sharif there was an Austrian actor of Turkish descent named Turhan Bey who was cast the same way and King and I (1956) star Yul Brynner as well.
Sharif came to international prominence with his sensational performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and after that he was cast as virtually every nationality from Russian to Greek and even the king of Armenia. Mostly he acquitted himself honorably in these roles but in the parts mentioned above he was so seriously miscast that there was not much he could do to make them plausible. And the results were both laughable and painful at the same time.
These are some cases of great miscasting that come quickly to mind, there will be more on a later date because the “beat goes on” and bad casting or miscasting will be with us as long as there are (to quote Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain– 1953) “stars in the cinema firmament” .