If I Had Left It Up to You — Merle Haggard

The Toddle House was a small diner off the main drag in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a block or two either way from the train station and the bus terminal. Open all night, it was the only place within miles for coffee and cheeseburgers after all the fast-food joints had closed. It was not for kids, which made it all the more appealing to us kids making our first tentative steps to adulthood. Inside: harsh fluorescent lighting, white-tiled walls, a counter with swivel stools, a grille that sizzled and clanged. Plastic glasses, worn-out silverware, thick ceramic cups and plates. Soups, hamburgers, sandwiches, milk shakes, deserts, not much more. Smoke from the grille, but also from the customers and the waitress, clouds hanging … More

Bill Morrison on ‘Decasia’

For the past twenty years, Bill Morrison has been mining film archives, resurrecting decaying nitrate that would otherwise have been discarded and then editing it into new narratives. Released in 2002, Decasia helped Morrison reach a wide audience. Tied to a hypnotic score by Michael Gordon, the 67-minute feature explores many levels and meanings of decay, from the physical aspects of nitrate decomposition to the ruminations on nostalgia and memory. Decasia started out as a commission by the Europaischer Musikmonat for a symphony by composer Michael Gordon, a co-founder of Bang On A Can. Along with artistic director Bob McGrath and visual designer Laurie Olinder, Morrison was a member of Ridge Theatre, which had been staging Bang On A Can … More

CGI: Find another scapegoat

  Some writers love compiling lists about “Why movies are so terrible today”—as opposed to back when they were great, before digital or widescreen or color or sound or whatever other technological development. CGI, or computer-generated imagery, is the villain in two widely circulated posts. A month ago on the Cracked website David Christopher Bell gave 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy, which basically boiled down to how Bell liked movies better when they used a lot of animatronics. On Rocketstock, Michael James has 10 Reasons Why CGI is Getting Worse, Not Better. After bemoaning the death of 35mm, I’m as surprised as you are to find myself defending CGI. But both Bell and James are complaining about … More

Early Cartoon Masterpieces Screen in New York City

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues its five-part series on animation with The History of Silent and Early Sound New York Animation on Tuesday, May 19, at The Academy Theater on East 59th Street in Manhattan. Historian and collector Tommy Stathes, a specialist in early animation, hosts the program, which features cartoons from as early as 1900. The evening’s final film, 1928′s Steamboat Willie, introduced Mickey Mouse to the world. Movies like J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) were made in New York City because that’s where the motion picture industry was concentrated. A vaudeville performer, Blackton would go on to head Brooklyn’s Vitagraph Studios, one of the most successful of the early production … More

Tribeca Docs Fight for Justice

The Fourteenth Tribeca Film Festival ended April 26 after handing out awards for both narrative and documentary films.  Winning for Best Documentary Feature was Democrats, a step-by-step account of politicians in Zimbabwe trying to draft a constitution from Danish director Camilla Nielsson.  The audience award went to TransFatty Lives, Patrick O’Brien’s firsthand look at his struggles with ALS.   Other noteworthy documentaries included the intensely bizarre family study The Wolfpack, opening June 12 from Magnolia Pictures; Uncertain, set in a Texas border town and winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award for Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands; and Gored, discussed in depth here by FJI writer Rebecca Pahle. Tribeca also spotlighted strong examples of advocacy journalism, efforts by … More

Celebrating Animation from Its Beginnings

For the next five weeks the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be spotlighting animation in a series that stretches from the form’s early beginnings to one of this summer’s most eagerly awaited releases. An Animation Showcase: From Celluloid to CGI will take viewers from trick films made at the turn of the twentieth century by J. Stuart Blackton to a sneak-peek screening of Inside Out. “This celebration of animation is really just the beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing series on filmmaking crafts,” according to Patrick Harrison, the Academy’s Director of New York Programs and Membership. “The Academy gives out awards in 24 categories of filmmaking. We have an opportunity to educate both the … More

NY Times to Selma Filmmakers: Wait Your Turn

Media attention has shifted from Selma to American Sniper, largely because the former movie is struggling at the box office while the latter is breaking records. Selma and its director Ava DuVernay are still drawing attention, but not really for the movie itself. Opinions about the veracity of Selma have subsided into asides about Oscars snubs and DuVernay’s future plans. Scott Mendelson’s recent piece for Forbes — Why I’m Glad ‘Selma’ Director’s Next Film Is Not A Marvel Movie — is typical.  Mendelson writes about DuVernay’s Hurricane Katrina project with actor and producer David Oyelowo; cites two other pieces on the director; and weighs in on whether or not she should direct a Marvel superhero movie. In a sense the … More

‘Sniper’ Backlash

Selma is under attack for refusing to accept the status quo—that President Lyndon Johnson did all he could to advance a civil rights platform.  By depicting Johnson as preoccupied with other issues, even recalcitrant about black demonstrations, director Ava DuVernay has been criticized by everyone from Joseph Califano to Maureen Dowd. The impact has been real, both on the movie’s box office and on its Oscar nominations.  Selma is being punished for being too liberal. American Sniper, on the other hand, is drawing flak for being too conservative.  Originally scheduled for release in 2015, Warner Bros. pulled up its opening day to qualify for this year’s Oscars, a move that resulted in six nominations. Initial industry reviews for Sniper were … More

Decoding ‘Selma’ and ‘American Sniper’

  Obscuring the current Oscar race are trumped-up political controversies regarding Selma and American Sniper, proving that censorship and political correctness cut both ways. First detractors claimed that Selma did not portray President Lyndon Baines Johnson correctly, neglecting his role in the passage of civil rights legislation.  In a Washington Post op-ed, former Johnson aide Joseph Califano went so far as to accuse Selma director Ava DuVernay of “taking dramatic, trumped-up license” by showing Johnson “at odds with Martin Luther King, Jr.” Through poor writing, Califano implied that Johnson was responsible for the march in Selma, and bizarrely insisted that the “movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” Op-ed writers around the country jumped … More

Film Deadlines Approach

Two recent blog postings take impassioned stands on the film vs. digital debate. Kyle Westphal’s excellent roundup 2013 in Review: Whose Film Is It, Anyway? considers the consequences to artists and viewers when film is no longer available. Don’t Worry About the End of Film, argues Richard Brody in his New Yorker blog, The Front Row. Both writers agree that the era of theatrical projection of 35mm features has passed. (It was hard to ignore recent news articles announcing that Paramount has stopped distributing film prints.) But they reach different conclusions about what this means for moviegoers. Westphal points out that 35mm projection was supposed to continue in art houses, museums, and other niche theaters, but finds that digital has … More