Wednesday, May 23, 2018

BEYOND THE INFINITE: STANLEY KUBRICK'S 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY RETURNS IN 70mm



People always say it, and I often do myself: “Seeing (Movie X) on the big screen again was like seeing it for the first time!” This was emphatically not true for me last night when I took my daughter  to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. (It was her first experience with the movie in a theater, however—more on that in a bit.)

I first saw 2001 about a year after it was released—this was the amount of time it usually took big new releases to make it out to our patch of sticks in the small Oregon where I grew up. That would put me at about the ripe ol’ age of nine years old when I took my first trip with Stanley Kubrick to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite. The presentation was what it always was at the Alger Theater when I was a kid—images were projected on a screen, sound came from speakers behind the screen, and I was damn grateful for that. I had no idea of the point in technological breakthrough—70mm, Cinerama, stereo sound— where 2001 resided when it was shown elsewhere, and in 1969 I didn’t much care. I had read Arthur C. Clarke’s book and immersed myself in anything I could get my hands on about it in anticipation of actually seeing it for myself, but of course no amount of prep could have done the job. Regardless of how state-of-the-art the theater in which moviegoers saw it in 1968 might or might not have been, one thing was certainly true— this movie bore no resemblance to the bland musicals, stodgy adult dramas and bloated spectacles which had clogged American movie screens over the previous decade.

For my own part, I can’t say I knew exactly what I’d seen when I emerged from the dark onto the main street of my hometown (though at the time I probably thought I did). But I knew I loved it, and everything— movies, the world, everything— looked different afterward. Since that night in 1969 I’ve seen the movie many times in theaters much nicer than the Alger, including the Cinerama Dome, as well as in just about every adequate and inadequate format available on home video—laserdisc, Betamax, VHS, and commercial-riddled network TV.

But seeing 
2001: A Space Odyssey last night, in the “unrestored” 70mm print now circulating in cities around the US, a print which duplicates from the original negative the way the film was seen and heard in the best theaters upon its premiere, with no 2018-style enhancements, was a genuine eye-and-ear-opening experience. It seemed nothing like the way I saw it the first time, and in some really pronounced ways it felt as if I was seeing this movie, so familiar from countless exposures to it over the ensuing 49 years, for the first time.

And it was a thrill to take my daughter along for the ride. I spent some time beforehand trying to contextualize the state of American movies for her, and what audiences might have been inclined to expect before they sat in their seats and proceeded to make Kubrick’s cerebral consideration of the origins and evolution of civilization one of, if not the most unlikely hit in cinema history. (It was the #1 movie in terms of American box-office receipts among all releases in 1968, and of course it was re-released seemingly endlessly throughout the ‘70s, marketed to a user-friendly generation as “The Ultimate Trip.”) So I tried to put that thought into my daughter’s  head: pretend that you haven’t spent your entire life watching movies and TV shows and anime episodes which wouldn’t exist, at least in their current form, without the direct influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and instead try to see it not only the way you will see it, but also with a nod toward the way those people who had no idea what was coming once did.

Mission accomplished. In the dazed walk back to our car afterward, together we parsed out our theories of what 2001 was up to—the dawn of man, of consciousness, of utility; the appearance (and re-appearance) of some mysterious and influential semblance of the spiritual, and its influence on yet another iteration of human evolution as it assimilates into, expands and directs the function of human-generated artificial intelligence; and the emergence of some altogether new life-form, perhaps the first visitation of humanoid extra-terrestrial life, and the eruption of changes which it will inevitably set in motion. None of this seemed terribly perplexing to a young woman who, like many of the more thoughtful members of her generation, has been weaned on oblique genre-blasting, narrative-shattering approaches to storytelling. She welcomed the movie’s deliberately mysterious tenor, its disorienting spatial perspectives, and the grandeur of old-world civilization (Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian) imposed on decidedly new world technology which had been employed to seek out and discover equally old, yet strange and unfamiliar worlds. And we had a great time talking about all the newfangled techno-concepts which seemed far-out in 1968 (space stations, picture phones, electronically enhanced food preparation, to name but a few), but which are now, 17 years past the actual year 2001, part of our everyday reality.


What surprised me most seeing it last night was the degree to which the 70mm presentation of 2001:  A Space Odyssey enhanced the movie’s reputation as an overwhelming sensory experience. I have always had an admiration for the way the movie adheres to its matter-of-fact tone re space travel—zero gravity, the absence of sound, and even the tedium of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles through a star-spangled vacuum. All of these elements give 2001 a specific quality of detachment, the rendering of a giant leap for mankind as something on the order of the routine, which, given Stanley Kubrick’s overall aesthetic, would hardly be unexpected. But the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) from Jupiter to Beyond the Infinite, in perhaps the movie’s most famously disorienting (“trippy,” if you must) sequence, enhanced by blinding rushes of light and ear-shattering  atonal chorales supplied by composer György Ligeti, is genuinely frightening and overwhelming, especially in this 70mm incarnation. My desensitized eardrums had no trouble with the overload—in fact, they welcomed it. But my dear daughter and her much healthier auditory system, despite earlier exposure to the movie’s intense use of amplified sound—for screeching extraterrestrial radio transmissions as well as the thunderous performances of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz”—was not, could not­ have been prepared for what the movie was, in this sequence, about to immerse her in. As a result, she came out the other side of it almost as rattled (though not as aged) as poor, haunted Bowman, himself put through a lifetime of aging in mere minutes. 

To those who have encountered 2001:  A Space Odyssey in 70mm before (and if you live in a metropolitan area you may have had many opportunities over the past 50 years since its initial release), all this “Ultimate Trip”-style talk might sound like old news. But even if you have seen it in 70mm before, chances are that the print you saw may have displayed some slight or even more significant wear-and-tear. Not so the newly minted print, which under the aegis of director Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. This is what Kubrick’s movie looked like on Opening Day 1968 in the biggest, spiffiest venues possible, light-years ahead of the little rundown movie house in Southeastern Oregon where I first saw it. For folks like me, who to this point, no matter how times we may have seen it, still really haven’t seen or heard it at its most spectacular, 2001:  A Space Odyssey in this new 70mm print retains the power to make a viewer look at this world, and those beyond, with eyes that feel new, shaking, challenging, altering sensibilities in a way with which no other movie has since been able to compare, even the ones Kubrick himself created within the long shadow of his pioneering monolith. The movie continues in Los Angeles and other cities for at least another week, through May 31 and perhaps beyond, though not into the Infinite. Make this ultimate trip while you can, before both time and space run out.

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Friday, May 18, 2018

SHAMPOO (1975)



 
 

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Monday, May 07, 2018

TEN THINGS I LEARNED AT TCMFF 2018



Yet another TCM Classic Film Festival is in the bank—the ninth out of nine I’ve been privileged to attend. For those who have a mind to, my extended coverage of the festival—not a blow-by-blow of everything I did, but a look at some of the highlights—is available at Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door, the venue that has sponsored my TCMFF attendance for all of those nine years. As I have said many times, my classic movie education would be considerably less rich without the support  of my editor at Slant, Ed Gonzalez, and I would be remiss if he ever had a moment in which the truth of this statement was not perfectly clear in his mind. And as if by way of proving my gain, every year, in addition to the Slant piece, I like to look back on the things I now know that I didn’t know a week ago last Thursday. So, without any further delay, please feel free to peruse ten things I learned while attending TCMFF 2018.



RUTHIE TOMPSON IS ONE OF THE UNSUNG HEROES OF AMERICAN MOVIES  Ruthie Tompson was born in 1910 and, as a young girl, used to hang around outside the Disney Bros. studio on Kingswell Avenue in Los Angeles, where Roy Disney filmed her and some friends, footage she suspects was used for modeling the animation of the studio’s early Alice comedies. When she was 18, Walt Disney offered her a job in the ink-and-paint department where she helped complete the first full-length animated feature in movie history, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  It wasn’t long before she was promoted to final checker, a job which gave her the responsibility of reviewing animated cels before they were photographed on film, and then on to animation checking and scene planning, where her skill with guiding camera movements for animated films was noted and led in 1952 to Tompson being the first woman ever invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE. Tompson, now 108 years old and wheelchair-bound, was but one of many distinguished guests who graced author Mindy Johnson’s extensive tribute “An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women in Animation,” which contextualized the mostly unsung (or at least considerably less-sung) contributions of women throughout the history of this vital tributary of American and international film. TCMFF attendees are constantly in the presence of an awe-inspiring collection of history, but to witness it in the personage of a single person like Ruthie Tompson is to consider anew everything that she and others, with no agenda other than their desire to participate, create, express through their art, did to expand and illuminate their craft for everyone who came after, including lauded filmmakers like Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Linda Cook (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron)who were also part of Johnson’s panel.



2) FEW THINGS ARE NEATER THAN A HOLLYWOOD PROFESSIONAL WITH A STYLISTIC SURPRISE UP HIS SLEEVE In 1948 I doubt anyone would have suspected Clarence Brown, MGM signature director responsible for the lush and very popular family-friendly dramas National Velvet (1946) and The Yearling (1948), as well as the early Great Garbo vehicles Anna Christie (1930) and Anna Karenina (1935) and a career in silent films dating back to 1920, might have a strong sense of social conscience in him. But that’s just what was on display when TCMFF featured Brown’s late-period feature, Intruder in the Dust (1948) on Friday morning. The film is a neorealist-influenced adaptation of William Faulkner's novel from the previous year, about a dominant and unquestioned white (Southern) social structure and mob psychology in the face of a murder, apparently perpetrated by a black man, who refuses to give away his dignity even in the face of his own imminent and unjustified death. Faulkner himself had to concede that Intruder in the Dust was indeed “a pretty good movie.” With all due respect, it's considerably more than that and deserves a much higher profile in film history than it currently occupies. I certainly think my own first exposure to it here was as profound a revelation as I've ever had at TCMFF, and much of that has to do with being able to see unexpected shading in the career of Clarence Brown.



3) THERE IS NO WALKING OUT ON PRESTON STURGES As the lights began to go down for the TCMFF screening of Preston Sturges’ manic, deftly sentimental, production code-defying corkscrew classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I turned to my friend and whispered to him that since I’d seen the movie a million times (perhaps an exaggeration) I was probably going duck out about ten minutes or so early, all to ensure that I got a good spot in line for the next attraction, which was scheduled tight against Miracle in the festival’s smallest venue. But as the movie barreled its way toward its conclusion, trading its concern over the location of Ignatz Ratzkywatzky for that of the fates of star-crossed and multiply-blessed lovers Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) and Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), I stayed right where I was. As the credits began to roll, my friend turned to me and said, “You couldn’t do it, could you?” “Nope,” I replied sheepishly, admitting the futility of my original plan. “There is just no walking out on Preston Sturges,” I added as I waved good-bye and bolted out toward the next queue. By the way, I got into the next screening with no problem.



4) THIS YEAR’S PATRON SAINTS: BRUCE GOLDSTEIN AND JOHN SAYLES Each year it seems like there’s one person who shows up once, maybe twice, to introduce screenings which end up being among the richest experiences of the festival—for me, it’s usually writer-producer-director-historian-preservationists Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the screening of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, my first big-screen experience with the Frank Tashlin comedy. (More on that one in a second). But this year’s TCMFF featured two personal patron saints who made impressions during four separate screenings. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, who I saw last year heading up an informative discussion on subtitling, brought his effusive and encyclopedic acumen to bear on tracing the history of Roy Del Ruth’s Blessed Event (1932), as well as its multitudinous film-and-stage connections to The Front Page and other rapid-fire comedies of the era. He also made a great case for the geographic veracity of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), to say nothing of its immense entertainment value, as a foundation for proclaiming it the greatest New York City movie ever made, a claim none in the packed house at the Egyptian were prepared to argue with. And writer-director-novelist-humanitarian John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan) was on hand to eloquently introduce and expand upon my two favorite experiences at this year’s festival, Sam Fuller’s pugnacious and still-relevant Park Row (1952) and a transcendent screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), on the giant Chinese Theater screen as majestic and emotionally overwhelming as any movie ever made. Each of the four films would have stood on their own as wonderful experiences, but the presence of these two guiding lights brought dimensions to each screening which accentuated just how illuminating seeing a classic movie can be when sprinkled with just the right mixture of erudition, wit and sincere movie love.



5) I HAVE A BIT OF A THING FOR FRANCES DEE Based solely upon the screening of Finishing School (1936), which kicked off this year’s festival for me, I have a newborn big thing for Frances Dee. A strange thing to contemplate, I suppose, considering her grandson, Wyatt McCrea, introduced the screening—Dee’s husband of 57 years, until his death in 1990, was Joel McCrea. (“Sir, your grandmother was, um, really cute.”) A quick sweep through her credits reveals that the only other film of Dee’s I’ve ever seen is, no surprise, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). So, in response to this revelation, I have self-imposed the sort of homework assignment an ignorant film geek should live for.



6) ALICIA MALONE AND THE THRONE OF BLOOD-GODZILLA CONNECTION I still haven’t fully acclimated to Alicia Malone as a TCM host—she’s an appealing presence, and a definite improvement upon Tiffany Vasquez, who still seems a bit uncomfortable reading from a teleprompter. But she was an engaging extemporaneous presence in her enthusiastic comments before Thursday night’s screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), and she struck the perfect balance between esoteric appreciation and fangirl glee over Toshiro Mifune and his director’s brilliant reduction and reimagining of Macbeth. As far as the film goes, Shakespeare is in Kurosawa’s every move here, even if the Bard’s language is, by necessity or design, not, and despite a less-than-sparkling print the movie retains as much eerie, sustained power as it ever had. I also had a bit of a jolt in recognizing a connection between Kurosawa’s movie (and not just this one) and his country’s greatest kaiju representative. Of course, Takashi Shimura, who plays Noriyasu Odagura, Kurosawa’s equivalent of Macduff, is a veteran not only of Kurosawa’s other classics, Seven Samurai and Ikiru, but also of the original 1954 version of Godzilla. But in previous viewings I somehow missed that the actor who plays Yoshiteru Miki, who occupies Shakespeare’s universe as Fleance, the son of Macbeth’s betrayed Banquo, is none other than Akira Kubo, veteran of not only Sanjuro (1962) and Chushingura (1962), but much more importantly, Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters! (1968), and my all-time favorite, Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). Kurosawa or kaiju, Kubo is definitely a klassic.



7) THE SQUEALING OF JAYNE MANSFIELD IS CAPABLE OF SPLITTING THE UNSUSPECTING EARDRUM I’d never seen Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? on a big, wide screen before last weekend, yet another first for which I must lay my thanks at the feet of Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the showing with his customary smarts. It was loads of fun watching director Frank Tashlin unpack his visual wit with this satire of American consumerism. But I have to admit I was unprepared for the devastating effect Jayne Mansfield, would have on my hearing. As the post-Marilyn Monroe starlet Rita Marlowe, Mansfield wields an ear-splitting affected squeal of delight that, thanks to the movie’s spiffy digital restoration, rang through the auditorium like cosmic fingernails on God’s chalkboard. I love Mansfield in this movie, but I have to admit that as the movie neared its end I’d come to dread her every appearance because I was nervous she’d let loose another of those atmosphere-rending audio lightning bolts. And she did. To appropriate the catch-phrase of an entirely different horror, in TCMFF Auditorium #6 no one could hear me scream (because I was holding it in). But at home I can at least turn down the volume.



8) IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE GILL MAN IN 3D, PERHAPS YOU SHOULD I’ve always loved Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), even though I only saw it projected in 3D (in 16mm) once, back in my college days. But the 3D DCP on display last weekend at TCMFF was a real beauty—crisp and clear, it put all the scares back in their proper place, despite the attempt of some audience members to turn the screening into a post-Medvedian hootfest. Where the underwater sequences in some movies tend to bog down the action (I’m looking at you, Thunderball), the sequences in Arnold’s movie are eerie and to the point, and the 3D really works to heighten the anticipatory dread over the creature’s inevitable appearance. Here we’re worlds separated from the murky, smeary effects that decades later crippled Jaws 3D before audiences even had a chance to tumble to that movie’s baseline stupidity. In Creature, the Gill Man’s every underwater move is rendered with absolute clarity, and when his scary, webbed claw reaches out to the camera from above the surface there can be no doubt the viewer is witnessing a true stereovision wonder.



9) THERE’S A PERFECT DRINK FOR TCMFF—IT’S THE OLD-FASHIONED, OF COURSE

Ingredients:  One sugar cube 
Two dashes Angostura bitter
Two ounces rye or bourbon
Orange twist

Preparation: Muddle the sugar cube and bitters with one bar spoon of water at the bottom of a chilled rocks glass. Add rye or bourbon. Stir.  Add one large ice cube, or three or four smaller cubes. Stir until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds. Slip orange twist on the side of the cube.
Enjoy with friends and immediately proceed to another old-fashioned movie at TCMFF. Thanks, Bob!



10) THERE’S NOTHING BETTER THAN WATCHING YOUR DAUGHTER WATCH YOU ON THE BIG SCREEN AT THE CHINESE THEATER After some epic waiting on their part in the standby line, I managed to get my daughter and my wife into the closing-night 40th anniversary cast reunion screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), which was shot on the campus of the University of Oregon during the fall of 1977. I was lucky enough to wrangle a gig as a long-term extra-- I was among the pool of Delta pledges called upon daily to fill in the background and foreground in and around Delta House and the Faber College campus, and I can be seen bopping around all over the first half of the movie. (My best scene is as one of the lucky initiates pledging my allegiance to the frat with liberty and justice for all— my very nervous 17-year-old self is second from the right in the blue plaid bathrobe.) My daughter had never seen the movie before, so I thought, what better first exposure could she have that seeing it with a thousand other fans laughing appreciatively just like it was 1978. And she loved it, of course. But the most fun she had was playing Spot Daddy, me in my yellow sweater and blue bathrobe, sharing screen time with the likes of John Belushi, Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst. It was a priceless thrill for both of us, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to say good-bye to this year’s festival. To Animal House and to TCMFF 2018 I can only say, thanks for the memories.

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Friday, May 04, 2018

A REPORT FROM THE FRONT (OF THE LINE): THE 2018 TCM CLASSIC MOVIE FESTIVAL




I’m back. The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival is in the rearview mirror, and I have emerged, awash in Visine and sated with the PB&J and deviled ham sandwiches (not together, of course) I packed for myself to avoid the high cost of eating at Hollywood & Highland over four days, with a report on some of what I saw. Here’s a morsel:

Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I've ever seen at TCMFF, as “Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.” You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.

The film then blasted out of the gate before its own opening credits with words meant to evoke the 120-point boldface type of the era's most grave, life-and-death headlines, imposed over a crawl of newspaper banners: “THESE ARE THE NAMES OF 1,772 DAILY NEWSPAPERS IN THE UNITED STATES. ONE OF THE IS THE PAPER YOU READ. ALL OF THEM ARE THE STARS OF THIS STORY.” Then a brief pause while the banners continued to roll, followed in even bigger typeface by a legend which crawled up along with the background to fill the frame: 


Fuller, of course, could have had no idea in 1952 the chill those words would deliver to audiences almost 70 years later, but their insistence, their implied defiance, along with Fuller's conviction and pulp power as a director, ensured that Park Row would emerge from a festival filled with delights and landmarks from the past as perhaps that festival's most urgent ambassador to the future. On the same Saturday night as Michelle Wolf's controversial appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where she was roundly criticized by multiple members of the D.C. press for speaking truth to power in a manner completely unfamiliar to them, I'm exceedingly glad that the director's wife, Christa Fuller, was in the TCMFF auditorium to see for herself just how well the movie was received by modern eyes and ears, how vital its undercurrent of journalistic vigilance remains.”

You can read the whole piece where it lives, at Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door, the excellent online arts collective that has, through the generosity of editor Ed Gonzalez, sponsored each of my visits to this terrific, and exhausting, film festival. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all nine TCMFFs so far, and I can’t wait to see what will be on tap for the 10th anniversary. Thanks, Ed and Slant for the significant upgrade in my classic movie education and for the honor of writing for your magazine.

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