‘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

Wong Kar Wai on Using Film for The Grandmaster

Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster comes out Friday, August 23rd.  It’s Wong’s first new film since My Blueberry Nights in 2007, and his first set in Asia since 2004′s 2046.  Starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, The Grandmaster is about Ip Man, a revered martial artist who helped popularize wing chun in Hong Kong. Wong worked for six years on The Grandmaster, and ended up shooting for almost three years.  In an interview in Manhattan, he explained why he made The Grandmaster on Fuji film: We decided to shoot on it on film, because three years ago a lot of people were still shooting on film. But at the end of production I realized we are almost the only … More

Film/Digital Countdown: Summer Blockbusters

As more bad news swirls around Kodak, there’s still time to point out that film remains an important medium for motion pictures. Six of last year’s nine Best Picture nominees, for example, were shot on film. But in this industry, as in all others, money talks, and digital has been judged cheaper than celluloid. Studios and exhibitors are dismantling the businesses that make and show film, replacing them with technologies whose flaws and drawbacks may not be immediately apparent. The digital juggernaut gains momentum every day, whether it’s new streaming deals that send hundreds of film titles to limbo or Adobe abandoning software sales for a cloud-based subscription model. Speaking of money, May marks the start of Hollywood’s blockbuster season, … More

Accidentally Preserved: Ben Model Helps Save Rare Films

Pianist Ben Model has been accompanying silent films for almost thirty years, including a few of my National Film Registry screenings. Along with film historian Bruce Lawton, he launched the Silent Clowns Film Series in 1997, which this spring will focus on features and shorts by Harold Lloyd in screenings at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at New York’s Library for the Performing Arts. Model has helped bring back to the public several long-neglected comedians. He’s also uncovered films so obscure that no one even knew they were lost. In a new DVD, Accidentally Preserved, Model is making some of these films available again. Here are the titles: The Water Plug with Billy Franey (1920) Cheer Up with Cliff Bowes (1924) … More

National Film Registry 2012 Selections

The Library of Congress announced the addition of 25 more movies to the National Film Registry, bringing the total up to 600 titles. This year’s additions include home movies, actualities, documentaries, industrials, a fight film, and experimental titles along with the usual mix of Hollywood features old and new. New to the Registry: itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker, who enlisted local children into shorts that have been collected under the umbrella The Kidnappers Foil; Bob Clark, who wrote and directed the holiday perennial A Christmas Story based on Jean Shepherd’s reminiscences; Delmer Daves, who directed the Elmore Leonard-based 3:10 to Yuma; and Penny Marshall, the former television star who directed A League of Their Own. Returnees to the Registry include Don … More

Tracking the Decline of Film

My latest piece for The Atlantic, “With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?”, describes the problems repertory theaters are facing in trying to schedule film prints—not digital versions—of classic movies. I’ve been reporting on the transition from film to digital for over a year now. The pros and cons of the formats have become moot as film slides faster and faster into a niche category. But as someone who has worked in and around movies for thirty years, I am astonished at how quickly the movie industry has shifted. Last December I talked to director Alexander Payne about competing formats in “Thinking About the End of Film.” “Flicker is better than glow,” was his conclusion, … More

Hitchcock or Not, Why You Should Watch The White Shadow

Betty Compson in The White Shadow. Courtesy NFPF.

From now through January 25, the National Film Preservation Foundation is offering you the opportunity to stream, for free, what survives from The White Shadow (1924). Directed by Graham Cutts and starring Betty Compson and Clive Brook, this moody, convoluted melodrama is also the earliest extant credit for Alfred Hitchcock. Twenty-four-years old, he was credited as art director and assistant director. More important, he wrote the screenplay and edited the film. I wrote about the rediscovery of The White Shadow earlier in “Behind the Lost Hitchcock Film.” But although the surviving elements—about forty minutes, roughly the first half of the story—have been preserved, the film itself has not been easy to see. Now, thanks to the NFPF, Fandor, and the … More

Shorts from the National Film Registry at Cinema Arts

Next Wednesday, October 24, I will be hosting a program of six short films selected from the National Film Registry at the Cinema Arts Centre at Huntington, Long Island. This program indicates some of the breadth of the National Film Registry. The six shorts we will be showing span the years 1906–1996, and include an actuality, two animated shorts, a documentary, an amateur film, and an experimental film. The shorts are both silent and sound, B&W and color, and were filmed on 35mm and 16mm. We’re very lucky to have Ben Model, who will accompany two of the silent films on piano. A Trip Down Market Street (12 min) 1906 – 35mm In the first years of cinema, filmmakers traveled … More