Mary Pickford Technicolor test for The Black Pirate, 1926, 35 mm, color, 5 minutes. Print courtesy George Eastman House; image courtesy Deutsche Kinemathek.
LET’S TAKE FOR GRANTED the received wisdom which says that the “average moviegoer” can’t tell the difference between a 35-mm print and a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) projection. The conclusion we should draw from this isn’t that there is no difference between these formats, but that the arbiters of film culture, including critics, curators, and absolutely everyone else, have failed entirely to educate a wider public as to what this difference is, and how to talk about it. Cinema is usually a narrative art, but it is always a visual art. Nevertheless, the discussion of the former aspect has traditionally eclipsed the latter, save for within specialized circles, and when visuals are mentioned at all, it’s usually so that they can be dispensed with in a hat-tip namecheck of the cinematographer and a few shopworn, well-tested adjectives (“crisp,” “brilliant,” and other usual suspects).
A brief history of DCP changeover: In March 2002 the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) was created through a joint venture by the six major movie studios, with the stated purpose of setting the standards for digital projection systems in anticipation of an eventual no-hitch conversion. Their connivance bore fruit in the year 2009, coinciding with the release of Avatar. Theaters that wanted to play James Cameron’s awful new movie in 3D would need digital projection to do so. Those who could afford to—that is to say, those with corporate backing behind them—made the change en masse, while many independent, neighborhood, and seasonal theaters without the benefit of outside support were left behind, and those that didn’t close outright were gradually starved of product in the years that followed.
Today, DCP has supplanted 35 mm in virtually all first-run venues, and though some holdouts—most prominent among them celebrity auteurs Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino—are keeping analog celluloid alive as a distribution option, it seems very unlikely that the digital genie will be going back into the bottle. At the same time the repertory film circuit, the institutions with a vested interest in film history, and the archives that service them have carried on an ongoing debate about the merits of DCP versus original format (that is, in any feature film made before the mid-to-late aughts, usually celluloid). In early 2012, Film Forum offered a program called “This Is DCP,” inviting their audience to compare digital restorations of canonical items like The Searchers (1956) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) to 35-mm prints of the same films, with the implicit intention of helping their customers stop worrying and love digital. (Press releases without fail refer to 4K DCP restorations as “stunning” or some variation thereof, which falls under the category of “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”) Some New York rep houses, including Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Museum of Modern Art have remained, for the most part, staunch in their dedication to presenting films on original format, though in this venues are often at the mercy of the lending policies of archives, some of which will only loan out titles in DCP.
Film Forum’s “This Is DCP” was a reference to This Is Cinerama (1952), a showcase for the (ultimately flash-in-the-pan) widescreen process. Anthology Film Archives’s “This Is Celluloid” is, then, a response to the Film Forum program—as well as a challenge, part of a groundswell of efforts to increase the lay viewer’s understanding of what, precisely, they’re looking at when they go to a movie.
Never before has there been such a glut of programming designed to highlight and increase awareness of format. AFA’s three-week program is the first leg of what will eventually be a tripartite series, with subsequent sections highlighting 16-mm and 8-mm prints. In early May, the George Eastman House in Rochester presented their first Nitrate Picture Show festival, a showcase for the particular qualities of nitrocellulose—“nitrate” to its friends—the highly-combustible, silver-rich stock which was the industry standard until 1951, while BAMcinématek, beginning around the same time, surveyed the best and worst of “3D in the 21st Century.” A week after the 35-mm section of “This is Celluloid” begins, MoMA will commence their tribute to “Glorious Technicolor,” celebrating the centenary of the color process. This follows a similar program at Eastman House, from whom many of the prints are on loan, while, beginning in mid-June, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lighthouse has their own “Dreaming in Technicolor” program. (Happily, all of these print-based series have resuscitated the near-dead practice of the press screening.)
The bill-of-fare of MoMA’s “Glorious Technicolor” spans from the silent era to the end of the 1950s and covers every conceivable genre. I was privileged to see a VistaVision print of Martin and Lewis comedy Artists and Models (1955), the first of Jerry Lewis’s eight collaborations with former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin, and a vivid bohemian burlesque incorporating aspects of Abstract Expressionism (spilled paint buckets), Pop art (billboard graphics and Jerry’s Bat Girl comic books), and Op art (a gag involving distorted faces seen through a water cooler) into the fracas—the last before it had even been named. Like “Glorious Technicolor,” Anthology’s “This Is Celluloid” doesn’t have a unifying artistic, thematic, or cultural throughline. It has been organized according to one principle and one principle only: The beauty of the materials shown. AFA screened what their program bills as an “IMMACULATE PRINT!” of Dreadnaught (1981), a deliriously entertaining Hong Kong kung fu movie directed by Yuen Woo-ping, later to become the most acclaimed fight choreographer in all of cinema, with credits including the Matrix and Kill Bill movies and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). Dreadnaught—a festive, brazenly artificial riot of reds, yellows, and oranges with a mugging, Lewis-esque lead performance by Yuen Biao—blows away several of Yuen’s later, more high-profile projects for sheer exhilarating ingenuity. It can be seen at AFA alongside an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum item like Joseph Losey’s 1951 Hollywood remake of Fritz Lang’s M, which applies high-contrast black-and-white photography to the grubby streets of downtown Los Angeles. (Far from softening the original material, Losey goes even deeper into documentary-style lower-depths verisimilitude, while Lang is represented at AFA by his sublime 1955 Moonfleet, set in a studio-confabulated coastal Georgian England.)
Some of these prints are passing through AFA’s projectors for not the first time. I saw what is presumably the same print of Raoul Walsh’s knockabout Technicolor adventure The World in His Arms (1952) in 2009 at their “One-Eyed Auteurs” series, and was happy to encounter it looking every bit as dashing six years later—evidence that the attrition of “the usual wear-and-tear” is greatly exaggerated, and usually attributable to careless projection. (Less a concern, one hopes, as 35-mm exhibition becomes an increasingly specialized undertaking.) The World in His Arms is part of a big showing for historical yarns, including Moonfleet; Roger Corman’s color-coded The Masque of the Red Death (1964); Delmer Daves’s CinemaScope Western The Last Wagon (1956); John Boorman’s mist-draped jewel-box Excalibur (1981); and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Douglas Sirk’s second collaboration with Rock Hudson, in which the man who would go on to direct Imitation of Life (1959) evinces the same interest in American racial pathology that marks that later film, and shows himself as a crackerjack director of outdoor action to boot. The most recent work in the series is Vincent Gallo’s 1998 Buffalo ’66, distinctively shot on color reversal stock; along with Mark Romanek/Harris Savides’s 1997 video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” it deserves much of the credit and blame for popularizing the flashbulb-lit, Polaroid-porn look that would become ubiquitous through the twenty-first century thus far. Anthology’s program has been assembled through a combination of institutional memory and archival crowdsourcing. In cases of prints that have not recently screened at AFA, archives have been asked to put their best holdings forward. (Due praise for “This Is Celluloid” should be shared with all the lenders, including The Library of Congress [M], Academy Film Archive [Taza], and the American Genre Film Archive [Dreadnaught].)
The DCP changeover, in both first-run and repertory exhibition, came so swiftly—and with the backing of such a powerful consortium of interests—that its unconditional victory seemed assured before the conversation had even begun in earnest. Belatedly—perhaps too late—the issue of DCP versus original format is now having its moment in the court of public opinion. “This Is Celluloid” and “Glorious Technicolor” make explicit what is implicit in any repertory series that prioritizes original format exhibition: There’s more to what you’re watching than just a title. If nothing else, it’s another chance to see what you might soon be missing.
“This Is Celluloid” runs Friday, May 29–Sunday, June 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” runs Friday, June 5–Wednesday, August 5 at the Museum of Modern Art.
NEARLY ALL THE PRESS COVERAGE of Mark Rydell’s The Rose, the 1979 Bette Midler juggernaut, started off by mentioning that the film, about a self-destructive, monstrously talented rocker, was inspired by the too-short life of Janis Joplin—a comparison that Midler was compelled to either acknowledge or disavow when doing the publicity rounds for her debut screen performance. (Prior to Rydell’s project, she’d had a few uncredited movie roles and played the Virgin Mary in a 1971 underground film.) Yet watching The Rose for the first time, thirty-six years after its release, I was perplexed—though quite pleasantly so—to discover that the star trajectory being dramatized wasn’t so much that of the singer known as Pearl (which The Rose, in its first incarnation, was titled) but of the woman who once went by the sobriquet Bathhouse Betty.
Midler, born in 1945 in Honolulu, moved to New York in 1965, landing parts both off-off-Broadway and on it. By 1970, she was headlining at the Continental Baths, the legendary gay sauna housed in the basement of Ansonia Hotel. Her pianist at the Continental, Barry Manilow, would later serve as one of the producers of her first album, 1972’s The Divine Miss M., which reached Billboard’s Top 10, as did its follow-up, Bette Midler (1973). By the time Rydell began shooting The Rose, in the spring of 1978, Midler had released two more albums, had won a Tony and an Emmy, and had become one of Johnny Carson’s most beloved guests. In a feature on the performer that ran in the New York Times shortly after The Rose’s November 7 premiere, Midler said she had turned down roles in, among others, Nashville and Rocky. She chose The Rose—which Rydell insisted he would do only with Midler—“because it was a big film, with music, sound and lights, not an everyday picture. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a part like that again. I hope I do.”
The Rose isn’t big but enormous—a battalion of peerless shooters, including Haskell Wexler and László Kovács, aided cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond with the film’s many vast concert scenes—and made Midler even bigger. As for overlap with the Texas-born Joplin, the movie’s title character, née Mary Rose Foster, also hails from a southern state, Florida, though Midler’s accent wildly roams above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Midler’s tragic heroine abuses the same substances as the real woman who dazzled at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and shares her same-sexing past: Rose awkwardly snogs with an ex–lady lover who shows up unannounced backstage before Huston (Frederic Forrest), the singer’s boyfriend, walks in on them and shouts, “Why? Why?” (Midler, not sure where to put her hands or lips on scene partner Sandra McCabe, appears to be wondering the same thing.)
However much these moments line up with Joplin’s own biography, they are essentially generic flameout back story. But elevating The Rose beyond dead-icon clichés are the scenes that appear to be lifted directly from Midler’s résumé. Specifically, references to her first (and still enduring) core audience, gay men, appear throughout the film. On the night Rose meets Huston, she takes him to a club in the Meatpacking District, where a trio of drag queens—including one played by Sylvester—are headlining. After a fight, the bluesy belter chases her guy into the Luxor Baths, Midler gleefully racing past the pools and popping into the steam rooms of the one-time Theater District redoubt. Crucially, Midler’s actual fans populate the concert scenes: According to the Paula Meija essay that accompanies Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD release of The Rose, the spectators for these performances, shot live at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach, were Bathhouse Betty’s most ardent admirers. And it is during these segments that the film’s disregard for its time frame is most glaringly, and touchingly, obvious. Rydell’s movie is set in 1969, though Rose resembles an amalgam of ’70s pop icons: Her mass of strawberry-blond curls recalls Peter Frampton’s, her flowing chiffon raiment Stevie Nicks’s. But the men—and they are almost all men—chanting “Rose! Rose! Rose!” from the bleachers are decked out not like era-appropriate hippies but Castro clones. In The Rose, it’s not just a star—whether Joplin or Midler—who’s made immortal, but an audience.
The Rose is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.
Jonas Mekas, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, 1972, 16 mm, color, sound, 88 minutes.
THOUGH THE TITLE of the upcoming program at BAMcinématek might seem a bit grandiose for the relatively modest group of works being shown, it’s a unique opportunity to catch rarely screened films and videos from a nearly ignored era and source. “Artists, Amateurs, Alternative Spaces: Experimental Cinema in Eastern Europe, 1960–1990” includes two features and forty-two shorts from twelve Eastern European countries, many of them products of film schools in Poland (Łódź) and Hungary (the Béla Balász Studio), made over an extended period of political and economic upheaval. Several of the shorts directly reflect these circumstances; a few seem aligned to American student protests against the Vietnam War and rock music of the 1960s. In Clapper (1971), Polish director Wojciech Bruszewski edits found footage of bombings, mob violence, and police action to the bracing edginess of Janis Joplin’s “Summertime.” Others are more visually abstract or conceptual exercises. One such, The Square (Zbigniew Rybcznski, 1972), foreshadows digital technology as it animates geometric cubes moving about, interchanging, converging, or floating over the screen into configurations before morphing almost indiscernibly into naturalistic images.
In a sense, the title of the opening feature, Innocence Unprotected (Dusan Makavejev, 1968), speaks for the spirit of the entire series, which was organized by Joanna Raczynska and Ksenya Gurshtein at the National Gallery of Art. More charming, if bizarre, on its initial release, Makavejev’s film seems the reverse today. The director prefaces his work as “a new production of a good old film,” alluding to an earlier movie of the same title produced in German-occupied Belgrade in 1941 and intended for release after the war. But because it was the first Serbian talkie—written by and starring Dragoljub Aleksic, a celebrated acrobat—its producers, wishing to capitalize on its novelty, released it during the war, where it played in glorious black-and-white at a theater adjacent to one showing a German film in vainglorious color. Soon banned by the Nazis as propaganda, this original Innocence Unprotected went underground—literally—according to one of the actors, who says he buried it in the earth and exhumed it in 1946.
Makavejev incorporates large sections of the original, deliberately over-the-top melodrama, juxtaposing them in seemingly arbitrary ways with newsreel footage of bombed cities and German invasion as well as with the actors from the original, twenty-eight years later, speaking of what was apparently a highlight of their lives. While this concoction still amuses, something of its original bite has been lost over time; the extended attention given the melodrama’s plot and the risky stunts of its athletic folk hero (seen years later still flexing his muscles), seems excessive. It’s hard to imagine what threat the film posed to the Nazis, or later to the Communists who also banned it. Did they see through the stereotypes of plot and characters—a mean old woman selling her orphan “daughter” to a lecherous, presumably rich older man—to the possible allegory within, replete with the native folk hero flying in Superman fashion to save the orphan state? Or was Makavejev’s crosscutting of the original with newsreels of bombed-out ruins and German occupiers no more than a reminder of what those very censors were doing on their day jobs? For evidence of what real propaganda looks like, see Felix Moeller’s current documentary Forbidden Films: the Legacy of Nazi Cinema, which is just completing a run at Film Forum in New York.
Less ideologically driven, the almost perversely effective Latvian short by Herz Frank, 10 Minutes Older (1978), might be accused not only of failing to protect the innocent but also of exploiting the results. For the length of its running time, the camera focuses on a young boy (age five or so) reacting to what the program notes tell us is a puppet show off screen, but which, judging from the flickering light, could easily be a movie. No words could match the involuntary, startling reflexes of the child’s eyes, mouth, and body language as they register joy, fear, and horror. The boy’s inability to look away is compounded by the adult viewer’s far less innocent indulgence in the spectacle.
Many shorts leave similar indelible impressions. It’s hard to think of an image more telling of the social and political frustration of the period in these countries than the repeated shot of a man running up to and throwing himself against a wall in Pawel Kwiek’s Polish short 1. 2. 3… Operator’s Exercise (1972). And in Sándor Sára’s Gypsies, vivid black-and-white images of the titular group living in huts, their children desperate for medical help, not only render narration or subtitles irrelevant but defy any official text to explain what we see.
Gypsies was made at Hungary’s Balász studio, a key member of which was Bódy Gábor, whose short Four Bagatelles (1975), shown here, is a lively example of this ingenious filmmaker’s fusion of experimental form, semiotic theory, and folklore. In a lovely blend of all three, the first of the bagatelles shows several men and women performing traditional dances individually and together while their movements are framed, measured, and segmented by shifting horizontal and vertical bars mediating the camera’s lens—blurring the line, so to speak, between the naturalistic and the mechanical. One of the luminaries of Hungary’s avant-garde (he also made theatrical features and television films), Bódy died in 1985 under mysterious circumstances, a fate emblematic of what others at odds with hostile regimes encountered.
Although much of it was shot in Lithuania, Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), the only other feature in the series, is essentially an American film, Mekas having long before become a luminary of New York’s avant-garde film scene. The film’s center section, titled “100 Glimpses of Lithuania,” records a visit to his homeland, with emphasis on wonderful shots of his mother. It is preceded by Mekas and friends in parts of New York and followed by a final section, shot in Hamburg and Vienna, where the filmmaker meets up with fellow celebrants of avant-garde film of the time—Annette Michelson, Peter Kubelka, and Ken Jacobs. Like his images, Mekas’s voiceover is sparse, succinct, and utterly free of faux sentimentality. Even when he recalls his months in a labor camp (in 1944, following an attempt to escape Lithuania—then under Nazi rule—with his brother Adolfas), his tone remains poignant and true. More than forty years later, the film is as fresh and vibrant as ever, its inimitable blend of lyrical and documentary realism still the hallmarks of Mekas’s mastery of the diary film. There are few filmmakers in the history of the American avant-garde whose sensibility and personality can be palpably felt through every pulse of his shooting and in-camera editing style—a synchronization of the filmmaker’s body and the camera’s via that primary digital tool—the finger.
“Artists, Amateurs, Alternative Spaces: Experimental Cinema in Eastern Europe, 1960–1990” runs May 19–28 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
Nicholas Ray, Johnny Guitar, 1954, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.
IN A BUSINESS that exerts an irresistible pull to hustlers, fabulists, and frauds, the screenwriter Philip Yordan (1914–2003) was in a class by himself. He was famous for his last-minute punch-ups, the so-called “Yordan touch,” as well as his extraordinary prolificacy, turning out more material in short order than any one man could possibly be capable of producing—more, in point of fact, than one man was capable of producing.
The scare quotes on the title of Anthology Film Archives’s “ ‘Written’ By Philip Yordan” series refer to the fact that, more even than was usual of scripts created in the workshops of Golden Age Hollywood, the process of attribution in the case of anything signed by Yordan is a very dicey prospect. Yordan was purported to work using something like the Renaissance atelier model, sketching outlines and adding accents, while leaving the nuts-and-bolts work to a workshop of underlings. AFA’s Yordan retro, loosely connected to their ongoing “Screenwriters and the Blacklist” series, concentrates on a particular period of Yordan’s career—the years of the Red Scare, during which he functioned as a front for blackballed screenwriters, putting his name on their work in exchange for a paycheck. This would appear to have been less a matter of political conviction than exigency, however, for all evidence suggests that Yordan never so much as read a newspaper, and his use of authorial surrogates preceded and continued after the House Committee of Un-American Activities had had their West Coast hunt—one story even has it that, back home in Chicago, Yordan paid a substitute “Philip Yordan” to go through law school under his name while he tended to his own business enterprises.
Yordan’s most famous “collaboration” was with Ben Maddow, the in-demand screenwriter of Clarence Brown’s Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust (1949) and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) who was deemed untouchable through the 1950s for his leftist affiliations, until an eleventh hour recantation and naming of names. Maddow has a claim on at least part of Yordan’s contribution to the filmography of Anthony Mann, for whom Yordan is credited as having written seven films. Of these, Maddow is generally confirmed as the actual author of two, God’s Little Acre (1958) and Men in War (1957), both starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray. In the Korean War–set Men in War, Ray and Ryan lead a lost patrol across a booby-trapped landscape toward rendezvous on “Hill 465.” Ryan is the conscience of the group; Ray, a gruff, unshaven, overgrown toddler; “They're dead pigeons,” he gloats over fresh kills. “Any money you can find, you can keep—any cigarettes or candy’s mine. Can I drive the Jeep now?” Men in War will play AFA along with the same year’s No Down Payment, directed by Martin Ritt, a work whose genesis muddies the waters of authorship attribution even further. The film, concerning goings-on among a quartet of young couples in the spanking-new California subdivision of Sunrise Hills during one exceptionally eventful week, is officially based on a novel by one John McPartland, a LIFE magazine contributor who Yordan claimed to have hired to write the book from which the screenplay was derived.
Maddow has also claimed credit for Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), in which a great many viewers have descried a Blacklist parable, though the writer Patrick McGilligan, after having spoken with both men on the subject, saw sufficient reason to question Maddow’s proprietorship. (It should be added that Ray was himself a great tinkerer with scripts.) Yordan, for his part, credited Maddow (and others) with “filling in” dialogue on script outlines which he himself had provided, but bridled at ceding credit: “I’m not saying that they didn’t deliver, but they couldn’t write with my speed and they couldn’t write in my style. If you’ve ever seen anything Ben’s written, Ben hates the establishment, hates everything, it’s all negative. Ben could not write a hero. He could never have written the hero of Man of the West. He could write the heavy, but not the hero. Because he didn't believe in a Gary Cooper.”
Actually, Yordan didn’t have his name on the screenplay for Anthony Mann’s Cooper-starring Man of the West (1958) either—I’m sure it was hard to keep the credits straight after a while—only the novel it was based on, which he conceded was written by Maddow, who stated that Yordan had “never written more than a sentence in his life.” It’s all rather complicated! Anyways, you can catch Cooper at AFA, starring opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Anthony Quinn in Blowing Wild (1953), a tale of tangled love, fractured friendships, and brutal banditos set against the backdrop of Mexico’s oilfields, handled with aplomb by the Argentine-born Hugo Fregonese, who Hollywood turned to when they needed south-of-the-border atmospherics.
Even if we discount the extenuating circumstances, trying to define a Yordan “style” without a research-heavy deep-dig is a fool’s errand. Yordan’s IMDB entry lists sixty-nine credits as writer; the earliest is Syncopation (1942), the latest, Too Bad About Jack (1994). (Always the businessman/artist, he also has twenty producer credits, including Studs Lonigan .) What we can see, looking at this ten-film series, are a number of works that, while produced in the midst of postwar prosperity and contentment, offer a skeptical view of life in the triumphal Republic. Edge of Doom (1950), directed by Mark Robson, formerly of Val Lewton’s horror-movie unit at RKO, is steeped in another sort of quotidian horror—the almost-entirely nocturnal film is populated with the beat-down denizens of an exhausted urban landscape. Farley Granger, in his brief heyday as a noir protagonist, is an all-American Raskolnikov whose only friend is Dana Andrews’s tough downtown priest, in a film that evokes a time when the parish was still the primary social safety net. In No Down Payment, the Eisenhower-era cure-all of clean air and suburban living is shown to come with its own ailments. Fairly overstuffed with topicality, among its hot-button subjects is the disenfranchisement of the skilled blue-collar worker and the emergence of the salaried company man, while Tony Randall’s sloshed used-car salesman essentially predicts the subprime mortgage crisis: “What this country needs is easy credit. No man should have to pay cash for anything. No money down is the secret to prosperity… From now on the customer I concentrate on is the man who is flat broke, because to him money don’t mean nothing”
Yordan’s authorial personality was also, of course, beholden to the demands of the market. He had his first big break with Monogram Pictures’s Dillinger (1945), which earned him an Academy Award nomination, and continued working in the gangster/noir idioms with films like Edge of Doom and Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). When the Western was the thing—every TV set in No Down Payment can be seen piping an interchangeable horse opera into the living room—he wrote Westerns. (Or had them written for him, at least.) In addition to Yordan & Co.’s idiosyncratic oaters for Ray and Mann, there was Henry King’s The Bravados (1958) and Day of the Outlaw (1959), André de Toth’s last feature shot wholly in America, a bleak, snow-bound showdown between Robert Ryan’s rage-drunk cattleman and a gang of cutthroats led by Burl Ives, set in the valley settlement of Bitters, Wyoming. (De Toth’s signature camera move here is the circling pan, which serves to reinforce the feeling of nowhere-to-run enclosure.) We may never be able to confirm or deny the existence of Philip Yordan the writer, but it’s a plain fact that his name is attached to some of the finest films from De Toth, Ray, Mann, Ritt, Robson, and Lewis. In his shadowy presence and intangible contribution, he epitomizes the particular pseudo-authorship of the screenwriter under the studio system.
A LUDIC EARLY-1990s time capsule, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L for Leisure pays tribute to egghead volubility and good-vibes indolence. Set during 1992 and ’93, the film, lustrously shot on 16 mm, tracks a group of US graduate students during academic-year downtime in idyllic spots around the globe. Though these achronological episodes bear the hallmarks of Whit Stillman’s and Eric Rohmer’s movies, L for Leisure abounds with a buoyant goofiness those forebears lack. Similarly, the details deployed in this Gen-X chronicle—Crystal Pepsi, Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument, the flyers for the campus “AIDS dance”—are precise yet never fussy, a looseness that may be attributed to the fact that the directors, both born in 1982, were only prepubescents during the years covered.
Most of the cast of L for Leisure is made up of non- or semi-professional actors, including filmmaker Benjamin Crotty, playing one of two characters named Joel. (Crotty’s Fort Buchanan, a military-spouses melodrama whose script was sourced from various Lifetime shows, was a highlight of the most recent edition of New Directors/New Films; also shot on 16 mm, Crotty’s first feature suggests, in its humor and singular sensibility, an easy kinship with Kalman and Horn’s project.) Most lines are delivered affectlessly, making the pleasingly absurd dialogue sound even more so, as when Andie (Libby Gery), who’s writing her dissertation on tree spirits, explains her research plan to her friends: “I’m working with mediums and shamans. I’m also learning how to water ski.” That seeming non sequitur then segues to several minutes of Andie and her pals practicing the sport on various lakes, their recreation set to John Atkinson’s mellow EDM.
The smoking or imbibing of various substances—cannabis, nutmeg, an excess of Thanksgiving pies, red wine chased with Snapple—aids the academics-in-training in their semester-break sloth without dulling their loquacity or the movie’s freewheeling rhythm. Likewise, the brainy twenty-somethings’ carnal activities are marked by even more, often hilarious talk. Postapocalyptic-literature specialist Sierra (Marianna McClellan) proffers her definition of handsy; en route to a ski trip in Vermont, the two Joels and some male colleagues are entranced by a quartet of sexually assured—and inquisitive—teenage girls they meet at a fast-food drive-through (“Guys, what kind of kisser are you, and what kind of kissing do you like?”).
For all of its sun-dappled idleness, though, Kalman and Horn’s film still has hints of ominousness. Spanning the final months of the Bush I administration and the first year of Clinton’s, L for Leisure reminds us of some of the catastrophes that occurred during that sliver of time: the 1992 Los Angeles riots (two Ph.D. pursuers ramble on via voice-over about “the race war”), AIDS hysteria (emblazoned on those bulletins mentioned above are the queries “Can you get AIDS from sports?” and “Can you get AIDS from kissing?”). Other calamities are foretold; spending Christmas vacation in Selfoss, Iceland, Tristan (Kyle Williams) clutches Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance. At times it appears as if these unburdened scholars are committed to their own annihilation, blasting one another at a laser-tag arena called Future Warz. Kalman and Horn, in their own understated way, have updated the French actress Simone Signoret’s piquant remark that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be”: Their wry, nimble film points the way forward for others who might also wish to look back.
L for Leisure opens May 15 at Made in NY Media Center by IFP in Brooklyn.
Hiroshi Shimizu, A Woman Crying in Spring, 1933, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes. Den Obinata and
JAPAN CAME LATE to sound movies—it was, in the course of the twentieth century, one of the only times that the Japanese came late to anything that had to do with technology. While synchronized dialogue conquered the various Western cinemas with blitzkrieg speed after 1927, the conversion of the Japanese lingered on for well over a decade afterwards.
This “delay” didn’t come because the Japanese were waiting on the equipment to arrive. The first Japanese sound-on-film production made in Japan is often identified as a long-disappeared 1926 production called Remai (Dawn) by theater director Osanai Kaoru. It was believed to have been made using the De Forest Phonofilm process, the invention of Americans Theodore Case and Lee de Forest. A tribute to De Forest even appears preceding the print of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Home Town (1930) which kicks off the Museum of Modern Art’s series “Japan Speaks Out! Early Japanese Talkies”—a program offering proof that the abundant genius of the Japanese moviemaking system responded eagerly to the new possibilities of sound cinema whenever available.
Before talkies could become standardized, the companies that pioneered sound cinema in Japan, including Showa Kinema, Shochiku, Nikkatsu, and newcomers J.O. Studios, and Photo Chemical Laboratory (P.C.L.—they would merge with J.O., and eventually become Toho Studios), first had to break the organized benshi—live performers who animatedly narrated, acted out, and provided dialogue accompaniment for silent films from one side of the screen, many of whom were celebrities in their own right. As the 1930s moved on, synch sound movies gradually acquired a larger and larger share of the market—a process attested to by Movie Making in Japan: A Screen Snap-Shot, a 1934 short subject made at the behest of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which pays a visit to the J.O. Studios in Kyoto, “the Hollywood of Japan,” and boasts of all the modern conveniences available to the booming industry. (It also, for the sake of novelty, includes a passage from the 1933 RKO film Flying Devils dubbed into Japanese.)
An instance of benshi narration can be heard providing the soundtrack to Hiroshi Shimizu’s Shining Love (1931), a Goofus and Gallant story made by Shochiku for the Ministry of Education, which counterpoises the lives of a hardworking bucket-maker’s son and his snobbish friend from their grade school days to young adulthood, as they bypass one another while heading opposite directions on the ladder of success. This is not the only instance of the transition from silent to talkie rendering somewhat awkward results. Home Town, which features Japanese opera star Yoshie Fujiwara as a tenor who achieves fame in no small part thanks to the selfless love of a lower-class woman, is a hybrid silent/talkie, changing from synch-sound to intertitles from scene to scene, usually with a noticeable reduction in the mobility of the camera between the boldly stylized silent and comparatively sedate synch sequences.
While Home Town makes poignant use of the title track, it is not Japan’s premiere musical—that distinction belongs to Sotoji Kimura’s Tipsy Life (1933). The first P.C.L. film made entirely using their own facilities, Tipsy Life’s opening credits are overlaid onto boastful views of the company’s sound studio, exemplifying the Shōwa period's entrepreneurial, commercial spirit, which the film celebrates. A train station ice cream vendor, Tokukichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), courts a young woman, Emiko (Sachiko Chiba) who works at the same station selling cups of beer to salarymen, though unbeknownst to him, he has competition in the form of an aspiring songwriter, Asao (Heihachirô Ôkawa), who takes her for a wife after he writes a massive hit. Like Home Town, Tipsy Life is fascinated with the new mechanisms of mass culture, especially radio and all forms of advertising—in fact, the production was financed by Dai-Nippon Beer Company, whose Yebisu brew Emiko sells from the train platform. If we are parsing Tipsy Life for what it says about the culture that produced it, we might also take note of the fact that it ends with a sing-along in a Teutonic beer hall, replete with a verse sung in German, this some years before the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact.
Along with Mizoguchi’s Home Town, other works by name-brand directors are represented here—Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son (1936), and Mikio Naruse’s Five Men in the Circus, and Wife Be Like a Rose (both 1935), the latter, with rising P.C.L. starlet Sachiko Chiba, among the very first of Japanese films to be widely screened in the West. Those interested in what MoMA has been calling “Acteurism”—that is, film authorship by actors—can catch sight Mizoguchi’s frequent collaborator Kinuyo Tanaka in early performances like The Bride Talks in Her Sleep (1933—paired with a pseudo-sequel, also by Heinosuke Gosho, 1935’s The Groom Talks in His Sleep) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s audaciously-stylized Chushingura (1932), the first sound version of the story of The Forty-Seven Ronin, most famously filmed in 1941 by Mizoguchi, at the behest of the Japanese military. Of the major postwar directors, only Akira Kurosawa didn’t make the transition from the silents—he began his career in movies by serving an apprenticeship with P.C.L. which began in 1936, a few short years after his brother, Heigo, a newly out-of-work benshi, committed suicide.
Retrospectives of major auteurs can be counted on to come around again as long as some semblance of a film culture exists, so the viewer with limited time on their hands should direct themselves to some revelatory works in the series by directors less well-known in America. A Woman Crying in Spring (1933) is a far more sophisticated and affecting accomplishment from Shining Love director Shimizu, set in snow-blown Hokkaido, where it was partially shot on location. Shimizu’s film looks at the entangled affairs of the itinerant men brought to this country to work in the mines, and the itinerant women who follow along to play bar hostess and work the workers. Its considerable emotional power is augmented by the ingenious use of the soundtrack; in this underpopulated back-end-of-nowhere, romance is a spectator sport, and eavesdropped-on voices provide a chorus to the affairs of the heart. Shimizu’s habit of obscuring crucial action to let audio tell the story recalls his American contemporary William Wellman, while from the very beginning folk song sing-alongs play a prominent role in A Woman Crying…, several songs echoing throughout the film, assuming a new and deeper meaning with each repetition. Yasujiro Shimazu’s shomin-geki (lower middle-class drama) Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (1934), also made for Shochiku, is another clear stand-out, the story of two neighboring families—two young brothers on one side, two young sisters on another—so closely connected as to practically be conjoined, a simple, homely story filled with casual, naturalistic performances, with every emotional beat invested with fine-grain detail. (Though the coming of sound, replacing the easily translated silent, effectively toppled Babel, import-export flow wasn’t entirely halted—one of the film’s stars is flattered by being compared to Frederic March, and the kids watch a Max Fleischer cartoon on an urban outing.)
Both Shimizu and Shimazu’s films played at last year’s edition of the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, which has hosted a sidebar program called “Japan Speaks Out!” for the last three years—MoMA’s series draws from these programs, and is dedicated to the memory of Il Cinema Ritrovato director Peter von Bagh, who died last year. It is nothing less than a major work of reclamation, offering new access to a lesser-known period in one of the greatest of all national film traditions—Japanese cinema was slow to speak, but what came out is well worth pricking up your ears for.
“Japan Speaks Out! Early Japanese Talkies” runs through May 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.