Did The First Movie You Ever See Haunt You For The Rest Of Your Life?

In 1947 MGM released High Barbaree, a film based on the 1945 novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  The book is long out of print,  mostly forgotten, and memorable because its authors wrote Mutiny on the Bounty.  For decades the movie rarely showed up on TV.  TCM eventually started showing it now and then.  And finally, after 67 years I can own a copy on DVD.  It’s also playing on Warner Archive, the great streaming alternative to TCM.   One reviewer at Amazon.com said they had been looking for this movie for thirty years – well, I’ve been searching for it for over fifty years, ever since I saw it as a very young kid, the first movie I ever remember seeing.

high-barbaree-movie

Most movie buffs will not know about this film, and would probably only consider it a slight piece of nostalgic fluff.  For me, it’s burned into my deepest memories, one of the few important remembrances  I have of my father, but it also has heavy psychological history for me, and I would eventually learn for James Normal Hall  as well, who did all the writing for the novel.  High Barbaree is important to me because when and how I saw it, and not because of the film itself, although there were events in the film that resonate with my own life.   The film featured Van Johnson and June Allyson, and was one of six pictures they acted in together the 1940s and 1950s, all of them slight and mostly forgotten, except for folks like me, where the film got stuck in our memories of growing up.  High Barbaree the book is about dying and aging memories of youth, especially last memories.

High Barbaree is a recursive art form for me, because it’s a story about memories that I use to think about remembering.

High Barbaree

Can you remember the very first movie you ever seen?  I think I can, but I’m not sure.  Memory is a funny thing, especially when you remember something on the edge of that time between when you were too young to remember anything, and the time when you first start becoming a person.  I have some vague memories when I think I was three, and quite a few more memories when I was four and five.  When I first saw High Barbaree I must have been around four, but I can’t pinpoint my age for sure.  We were living in South Carolina for the first time, out in the country.  One night I got up in the middle of the night and walked out into the living room.  My dad was up watching the all-night movies.  He let me stay up with him, and I caught High Barbaree for the first time.  That’s the earliest movie I remember ever seeing.  I’m pretty sure as an even younger kid I must have sat with my parents watching movies on TV, but I don’t remember any of them.

I don’t remember much from when I saw High Barbaree the first time.  I believe I remember four vivid scenes or images, but I can’t be sure because I confuse my first memories of seeing the movie with my second time seeing it, about 7-8 years later, when I was around 12.  The four scenes that stuck in my mind were two small kids climbing an old wooden water tower, of the boy saying good-bye to the girl who is in the back of a truck driving away, a PBY amphibian plane floating on the water, and the old South Sea islander welcoming the grown up boy to the island.   From seeing it the first time in 1955, I certainly didn’t learn the actors names, or even that it was about WWII.  The story was about life-long friends, Alec and Nancy, who grew up as kids in Iowa, but were separated when Nancy’s parents moved the family to Montana.  I’m sure I didn’t understand that at age four.  Even at that young age I had moved enough to know the loss of friends, so that movie touched me emotionally even though my mind was extremely immature.  

Around the summer of 1963 I caught the film again, also in the middle of the night.  My sister and I loved old movies and in the summer time my mother would let us stay up all night watching them.  It meant we slept during the day and didn’t drive her crazy.  This is where I first memorized the actors and plot of the show.  I probably don’t have any real film memories from 1955 other than the deep psychological impressions.  In fact, I didn’t know I had seen the film before until we got to the scenes of the kids climbing the water tower.  I also remember the scenes of the kids departing, the PB-Y floating on the ocean and the sequence with the island. 

At my second viewing of High Barbaree I knew I had seen this film before and that it was from a powerful memory.  It stuck with me and over the years as I grew up I ached to see the film again.  My father died when I was 18, and I have very few memories of him, especially ones of us doing something together.  He usually worked two or three jobs and was seldom home.  Often he was stationed away from home.  This memory of him letting me sit up with him and watch High Barbaree in the middle of the night is a special memory.

I didn’t catch High Barbaree again until I was in my late twenties or early thirties, after I had gotten married, and Susan and I caught it on cable TV, sometime before TCM.  I was working at library then, and it was then that it first occurred to me that the movie might be based on a book.  Indeed it was.  This was back in the early 1980s, before we had a VCR.  I would have loved to have owned a copy of the film, but couldn’t.  So I went searching for the book.  No luck.  Years later, in the 1990s, I caught High Barbaree again on TV, on TCM this time, and I thought about finding the book again.  This time I had the internet, and I was able to buy a copy through ABE Books.

Reading the book gave me a completely different spin on the story.  James Norman Hall was nearing the end of his life – he would die in 1951, the year I was born.  Even though High Barbaree was about a young Navy flier, it was autobiographical, about Hall’s own life growing up in Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, remembering his mother and father, and his home town.  I learned that after I discovered In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr., a biography of Nordhoff and Hall.

You might not want to read the next sentence because it contains a spoiler for both the movie and the book.  In the movie Alec is rescued and lives, and his story is only a dream, but in the book, Alec dies, and his story is his dying thoughts.  Hall had lived through two world worlds and was old enough to be thinking about death himself.  He had a daughter named Nancy he knew he’d loose when he passed on, and I assumed that fear was the basis for his novel.  High Barbaree is his fantasy of a mystical island where he might meet her again.  The movie makers took his somber little tale with thoughts of dying and made it into a romantic war adventure with a happy ending.

As a four-year-old kid I picked up on the story of separation and dying, and the mysticism and hope of fantasies.  I don’t know if High Barbaree caused this, but for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by stories of people stranded on islands or lost at sea.  Years later when I caught Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable on the all-night movies I loved it.  I also loved the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson versions too.

In 1971 I started studying computer programming and I’ve often thought about how our brains are programmed by pop culture influences.  I’ve seen High Barbaree six times over almost six decades.  Each time I saw it, I saw something else because I was a different age and person, but the impact of seeing it at age four made some kind of life-long impression, some kind of deep programming sub-routine in my brain.  I’ve seen thousands of movies, most of which I’ve completely forgotten.  If anyone reading this finds a copy of High Barbaree to watch they will probably not find much in it.  When I saw it again the other night it seemed very slight.  However, it did trigger emotional waves deep within my own memories, and from my knowledge of James Norman Hall and why he wrote in the book, that I can see that the filmmakers meant it to be much more than what it became.  I think the filmmakers also had an emotional response to the book and hoped to convey that in the movie. 

I’m not sure the emotions are there unless you can bring your own deep experiences to the film.  I wish I could see High Barbaree without all my psychological baggage that comes with me to know if there’s a deserved reason why the film has been forgotten.  I wonder how many young kids happens to catch High Barbaree back in the 1950s and now feel nostalgic for it after all these years.

This makes me wonder if any film can truly stand alone, or requires the fertile minds of the audience to make them succeed?

JWH – 7/15/14

Movies for Old Men

I can only remember my father going to one movie, in 1958 when I was six, when the whole family went to see Snowfire.  My wife’s father always bragged the last theater movie he saw was Fiddler on the Roof in 1971.  A neighbor who is one year older than me, claims the last movie he saw at the theater was Animal House in 1978.  My two closest male friends quit going to movies long ago, but I don’t know when.  The only reason I still go out to the movies is because of lady friends.  I do know some males my age that still love getting out to see a movie, but not many.  Yesterday I went with my friend Janis to see Godzilla – her pick – and I was bored the whole time, even though the young people seated around me were cheering.  The most fun I had was looking at all the odd names as the credits rolled by.

banner-belle-film 

Many of my lady friends love action blockbuster flicks, the kind I used to think were targeted to teenage boys.  The whole world seems to love superhero movies based on comic books.  Maybe I’ve morphed into a curmudgeon, because those movies seem downright stupid to me, with grown men pretending to fight each other with choreographed violence that’s as realistic as a Three Stooges slap fest while wearing embarrassing costumes that only a seven year old kid would wear in real life, and then only on Halloween.  And don’t get me started on the psychological appeal of flicks like The Expendables series.  Our society has gone gonzo for guns.  And it’s not that I’m anti-gun.  My favorite movie genre is the western—a Colt .44 and a Winchester is all the firepower I think anyone should need.  But I get the feeling everyone is scared and paranoid and feed off action pictures because they feel powerless and wish they had super powers, bulging muscles and very large caliber machine guns to protect themselves.

Janis and I also went to see Chef this weekend.  Now that was a good movie for an old man.  It was a touching story about a divorced dad getting to know his young son that he’d been neglecting because of work.  Jon Favreau plays a creative chef, Carl Casper, stuck in job cooking the same menu for ten years.  Carl gets in a internet feud with Oliver Platt, who plays Ramsey Michel, a vicious food critic blogger.  Carl bonds with his son Percy, played by Emjay Anthony, who teaches his dad about Twitter.  Then Carl inspires Percy to learn to cook.  Slowly the film becomes emotional rewarding, and a film worth watching by an old guy.  The theater I saw Chef at was small, but most the seats were filled with older people, and some of them even clapped at the end.  I’m not sure young people would have liked this film, but I doubt we’ll know, because it’s not the kind they’ll go see.  No guns, no car chases, no buff bods, no Wile E. Coyote violence.

This afternoon I plan to go see Belle with three lady friends.  Even if I wasn’t hanging out with women, I’d want to see this one.  As an old guy, a well done historical film is actually a type of movie that makes me want to go out to the movies.  The older I get the more I like realism.  I prefer documentaries, or very accurate historical dramas.  You’d think it would be the other way around.  That young people would crave realistic movies to learn about life, and old people would want escapist fantasies.  Maybe I’ve given up on escapist fantasies because the older I get the less reason I believe that they will ever come true.  Even if I owned a whole arsenal of weapons and an elegant collection of spandex attire, and even had real bulging muscles to stretch out my costumes, I could never be a superhero.  It’s about as realistic as trying to fantasize that beautiful young women would want to have sex with my ugly old body. 

But I can relate to a clueless dad learning to Twitter from a ten year old.

JWH 5/26/14

Transcendence–Why Is This Film Only Getting 19% at Rotten Tomatoes?

I went to Transcendence thinking I’d hate this film because of all the bad reviews it’s getting, but to my surprised I ended up enjoying it way more than I imagined.  I went with two friends – Laurie walked out, and Ann said she liked it so much she wanted to see it again.  I thought Transcendence had some big problems, but overall it was a nice exploration of the idea of brain uploading.  Coincidentally, I’m listening to Accelerando by Charles Stross this week, and the science fictional ideas in the book overlapped nicely with those of the film.  Maybe I enjoyed the film merely because it was more fuel for the ideas I’m entertaining at the moment.

If you read the reviews I do concur that the film is lackluster in action, that most of the acting was subdued, and the plotting is clunky, but it just didn’t seem that bad, not a 19% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  If you compare Transcendence to the dazzling Her, another movie about evolving computer intelligence, yes, this film is slight, but is it that bad?   I’ve seen films I thought were much worse get much higher scores at RT.

I have a hypothesis to test.  Does the acceptance or rejection of science fictional ideas in movies prejudice critics and fans opinions of a science fiction movie?  So if a movie explores an idea you hate, you reject the whole movie?

I wondered, if Transcendence presents ideas that people don’t like?  To talk about those ideas, I’m probably going to reveal some plot points, but many of these are in the previews.  The movie is about three AI scientists, one of which, the husband of the couple played by Johnny Depp, is shot by anti-AI terrorists and his wife saves him by uploading his mind into a computer.  Uploading also happens in Accelerando, and like that book, they also cover super technology brought about by post-human minds.  The book covers vast stretches of time, but in the film, all the advance technology comes out in two years.  This scares the regular folk in the flick, who feel they must destroy the Frankenstein AI.

Are movie goers tired of films about sentient computers?  Do they find post-human life offensive?  Are the networked humans too much like zombies to them?  Is nanotechnology just too scary to think about?  Or, was the ideas in the story fine, and they just didn’t like the writing, presentation, acting or settings?

TRANSCENDENCE

Science fiction books and movies have a long heritage of tales about intelligent computers.  Sometimes they are evil (Colossus), and sometimes they are fun (Short Circuit).  In Transcendence, it’s ambiguous.  Is that the problem?  Uploading minds is not as common, but there’s plenty of precedent (The Matrix).

I’m a little tired of science fiction being about saving the world.  Why does science fiction always have to involve a big threat to all of humanity?  There was no need to involve guns or violence in this story.  Gattaca was the perfect science fiction movie to me.  It was a personal story.  Ditto for Her and Robot and Frank.  Can’t we have a story about a super intelligent being without involve armies and terrorists?  Or maybe critics and audiences didn’t like this movie because there wasn’t enough action and explosions.

Or was the film disliked because it suggests that ordinary people will be obsolete?  What’s weird is movie goers love mutants in superhero comic book stories, but they don’t seem to like post-humans.  A human that can fly is fine, but one that makes us look past our due date is not?

Audiences are more forgiving than the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience response at RT was 47% for Transcendence.   That’s pretty low for audiences.  Maybe I should just accept that this film was a dog, and maybe I liked it because it was about some of my pet topics.  That does fit in with my hypothesis – I liked it for its ideas, and others hated it for the same ideas.   I really hated Marvel’s The Avengers, which got a 92% critics/91% audience rating at RT, and I disliked the movie intensely because of its ideas.

I wonder if movie makers could save a lot of money on special effects if they merely created science fiction movies with extremely popular science fictional ideas?

JWH – 4/22/14

Google Chromecast–Practically Useless

When I saw the ads on TV for the Chromecast I got the impression that anything you could see on your smartphone, tablet or laptop could be sent to your big screen TV.  Cool.  Well, it doesn’t work that way.  I ordered a Chromecast from Amazon for one purpose only, to see Watch TCM from one of my tablets to my big screen TV.  My wife works out of town, and since she loves TV far more than I do, I let her have the cable TV.  However, she’s let me have the streaming apps for HBOGO and Watch TCMHBOGO however has a Roku channel, so I watch it through my Roku.  I love TCM, but watching TV on an iPad is no fun for me, so I didn’t watch TCM.  Then I saw the Chromecast and thought, wow, I can now watch TCM! Quick review:  No such luck.

chromecast

It turns out the Chromecast is designed to work with only a handful of optimized apps.   Of the twelve apps listed, I only like three, and all three are available on my Roku.  So the Chromecast ends up being useless for me.  I went on the net to see if I could hack it for some other fun use, and discovered some people casting from the Chrome browser – but evidently that’s only from laptops.  I can’t cast from Chrome on my iPad or Nexus 7.

From Googling around I discovered other people trying to do the same thing I’m doing, buying a Chromecast in hopes of seeing TCM on their TV from their laptop.  Through this research I discovered Watch TCM is online and I can now watch TCM on my big screen TV via the computer that’s attached.  So I really don’t need to Chromecast at all.  However, since I don’t like sending things back I started looking around for other fun things to do with a Chromecast.  I hoped there might be a way to put Android on my TV using the Chromecast, but couldn’t find anyone that had done that.  About the only thing I found even slightly useful was to play YouTube on an older flat screen TV that doesn’t have a Roku.  And even this works very flaky. 

I started a one hour lecture on speeding up Python, but I couldn’t shut it off.  Once the film began it appears the Chromecast might not be getting the film from the iPad, but off the net.  I haven’t tested this thoroughly, but closing the YouTube app doesn’t stop the film.  Neither did shutting off the iPad screen.  I didn’t try shutting off the iPad.  I did shut off the TV.  Then turned it back on and the film was still playing.  I then started the iPad back up, launched YouTube app, and found I could then shut off the film.

The Chromecast is a nicely made product, that comes in packaging that reminds me of something from Apple.  The trouble is, Chromecast is so limited in what it can do, especially if you have a smart TV or Roku, that it’s practically useless.  My guess is its useful to people that have a TV with a HDMI port, but no other connected devices or smarts.  If Chromecast had merely mirrored my Nexus 5 or iPad screen to my TV it would have been wonderful to me.  And such a feature might be forthcoming in future updates.  So I don’t know if I should keep the Chromecast or send it back.  I was hugely disappointed.

Evidently, there’s a lot of us old baby boomers that love old movies that don’t want to buy a zillion cable channels we don’t want to watch.  Our alternatives to TCM are improving.

Note #1.  To TCM:  Put Watch TCM on the Roku and charge $7.99 a month like Netflix and Hulu Plus.  TCM is the gold standard for old movie watching, but not worth buying cable just to watch old movies.

Note #2.  For you old movie fans, try Warner Archive Instant on the Roku.  At first it looks like it has a very limited selection, but poke around.  Plus new films are cycled in each month.  I find plenty to watch, except that in the past few weeks net traffic keeps it from working during prime time hours.  Warner Archive focuses on the 1920s through the 1980s. 

Note #3.  If you live in one of these cities, Sony is now broadcasting old movies over the air for something called getTV that appears to be capitalizing on the TCM craze for old movies.

Note #4.  Try Classic Flix.  It’s a disc rental service like Netflix, but focuses on old movies.  Unfortunately, it has only one mailing location – California, so it takes 3-4 days for me to send back a movie.  I get about 4 movies watched a month for $10.99.

[Translation.  By old movies I mean movies from the 1920s to the 1950s.  I keep meeting young people that translate old movies to mean movies from the 1980s and 1990s.]

JWH – 3/23/14

How Academy Award Winning Films From 1927-1950 Are Remembered Today

As the years roll by, and older generations pass on, what they created and loved, disappears too.  Below are the films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture before I was born.  Unless you are a movie buff, or love to watch Turner Classic Movies, it’s not likely you’ve seen many of these films.  Some have become so legendary that even some young people have watched them, but many are being forgotten.

I thought I’d check various kinds of lists and remembrances to see how these old movies are being retained in our public mind. 

First, I’m going to check The National Film Registry to see if they’ve been recognized there.  Of the 23 films below, 14 are on the NFR, and three (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives) were in the first year’s selection.  The NFR began in 1989, so films closest to that date are among the most popular in people’s memories.  The NFR selects up to 25 additional films each year, so given enough time probably all of these films will be added to the registry, but maybe not.  Films selected from 1989-1993 are essentially the Top 100.  1994-1998 brings in roughly films 100-200.

Entertainment Weekly recently published what they remember as the Top 100 films of all time.  Their number one film of all time is Citizen Kane from 1941 which didn’t even win the Academy Award that year – it lost to How Green Was My Valley.  The editors at EW do honor films all the way back to the silent movie era, so it’s a good list to work from when you’re disappointed that you can’t find a movie to watch.  Comparing the EW list and the Academy Awards from 1927-1950 shows the limitation of the Oscars of actually picking the best film of the year.

EW also picked 23 films from this same time period, but the two lists of 23 only have five films that overlap, It Happened One Night, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Best Years of Our Lives and All About Eve.

The American Film Institute (AFI) has their 10th Anniversary edition of 100 Years … 100 Movies.  Strangely, or not so strangely, AFI only picked five of these 23 films too, and the same five as EW.  AFI picked 25 movies from 1927-1950.

Over at American Movie Classics (AMC) they have a public poll with their Top 100 films.  Such a poll reflects the collective memory of people on the street, rather than the film buff editors of the other two lists.  This list can change, so I’m using the results of 1/3/14.  Besides reinforcing the recommendations of the EW and AFI picks, the AMC actually picks two movies that haven’t been picked before, All Quiet on the Western Front and Rebecca.  This leads me to believe that the voters in the AMC poll are quite savvy about old movies.  48 of their 100 movies were from 1927-1950.  AMC viewers love their old movies.

Another site  is Rotten Tomatoes (RT) and their Top 100 Movies of All Time.  RT has a completely different way of remember movies, by counting movie review ratings.  All these films received 100% positive ratings, and were reviewed by 31-162 reviewers.  This list gives Rebecca it’s second listing, and All About Eve it’s fifth.  21 of RT’s 100 films were from 1927-1950. 

So far this consistently shows this time period is remembered, but RT like EW and AFI seem to consistently pick other films.  This shows the Academy isn’t very good at picking the films that will be remembered best.

Looking at IMDB’s Top 100 films from the Top 250 list finalized for 2013, we see another public voting system, with another list where Citizen Kane comes in at #1.  But their #2 is Tokyo Story (1953) a film I don’t even remember ever hearing about.  This is a much more diverse list than the others, and that might be because IMDB is world famous.  Like the other lists it endorsed Gone With the Wind and Casablanca, but IMDB’s fans also agreed with AMC’s fans to pick All Quiet on the Western Front. That’s extra interesting because I just watched a Blu-ray copy the other night that I got from Classic Flicks.  IMDB picked 27 out of 100 films from the 1927-1950 period.  Staying consistent here.  I wish I could do some major data mining to actual measure how soon the general population forgets pop culture artifacts from the past.

There are plenty of sites on the Internet like Life Hack, where they list 30 Best Movies of All Time, and not only do they not pick any of these 23 movies, they don’t even get close to picking any movie from that time period.  Their oldest movie is 1974 – Young Frankenstein

There are zillions of people making movie lists.  But at Lists of Bests, I found Movie Definitive Lists.  I wish I was some kind of master hacker where I could write a program to collect these 4,679 lists, but them into a database and create a single list which lists which movies had been on the most lists.  Well, a project for when I get an infinite amount of free time.  Unfortunately, many of these lists do not pick just 100 movies, and rank them in order, which is what I need to compare consistently with my other lists.

It’s sad to see many of these films aren’t remembered at all, and it’s pretty obvious which ones are widely remembered.  One of my all time favorite movies, Grand Hotel is one of the forgotten films.  The three most remembered Academy Award Best Picture movies from this time period, 1927-1950 are Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and All About Eve. If you read the other lists via the links, you’ll see many movies from this time period remembered better.  For instance, I think fans prefer The Maltese Falcon as their favorite Bogie movie.  And who could forget The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Double Indemnity, The Philadelphia Story, Sullivan’s Travels, Duck Soup, Top Hat, The Adventures of Robin Hood,  Trouble in Paradise, 42nd Street, The Lady Eve, The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, and so many, many other movies that the other lists do remember.

1927/28
1927-Wings
  • NFR-1997
1928/29
1928-broadway_melody
1929/30
1929-allquiet
  • NFR-1990
  • AMC-#58
  • IMDB-#73
1930/31
1930-cimarron_xlg
1931/32
1931-grand_hotel
  • NFR-2007
1932/33
1932-cavalcade
1934
1934-It Happened One Night
  • NFR-1993
  • EW-#48
  • AFI-#46
  • AMC-#54
1935
1935-mutiny_of_the_bounty
1936
1936-great_ziegfeld
1937
1937-the-life-of-emile-zola
  • NFR-2000
1938
1938-you-cant-take-it-with-you
1939
1939-Gone_With_The_Wind
  • NFR-1989
  • EW-#10
  • AFI-#6
  • AMC-#8
  • IMDB-#72
1940
1940-Rebecca
  • AMC-#19
  • RT-#44
1941
1941-how-green-was-my-valley
  • NFR-1990
1942
1942-Mrs-Miniver
  • NFR-2009
1943
1943-Casablanca
  • NFR-1989
  • EW-#3
  • AFI-#3
  • AMC-#8
  • IMDB-#19
1944
1944-going-my-way
  • NFR-2004
1945
1945-lost_weekend
  • NFR-2011
1946
1945-the-best-years-of-our-lives
  • NFR-1989
  • EW-#64
  • AFI-#37
  • AMC-#57
1947
1947-gentlemans-agreement
1948
1948-hamlet
1949
1949-all-the-kings-men
  • NFR-2001
1950
1950-all-about-eve
  • NFR-1990
  • EW-#86
  • AFI-#28
  • AMC-#30
  • RT-#22

JWH – 1/3/14

Gravity–Riveting Story Set In Space

[Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen Gravity.  But when you have, because you should, come back here and let’s talk.]

Television watchers are experiencing a renaissance in storytelling.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, The Newsroom, have taken the art of storytelling to new heights.  By carefully focusing on character, writers have developed new techniques to create highly addictive forms of fiction.  This has revolutionized television.  Character driven storytelling has always been preeminent in novels, and prominent in movies, but television was always seen as a vast wasteland of lowbrow entertainment.  Now I like television better than movies, or even books.

So what is television doing that movies aren’t?  Movies often seem like a vast wasteland of teenage schlock.  CGI unreality, over the top action, Three Stooges type violence, and silly premises that should insult grade school kids.   But most of all, the characters are unbelievable.  Movies aren’t about things I could actually experience.  I don’t relate to their stories.  Maybe kids can love superhero characters because they haven’t yet learned there aren’t any superheroes.

A week ago when watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I wondered what I would have to watch next Sunday.  I remember mentally wishing I could find something that surpassed Breaking Bad in storytelling intensity.  Well, I got my wish, because on Sunday night I saw Gravity, the new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.   The previews brought me to the theater with great expectations, but I wasn’t prepared by how blown away I would be by the film.  While the credits were rolling I thought how Gravity set a new standard for science fiction movies.

This space story seem real.  The characters felt like they could be real people.  The special effects were wonderful, but not the story.  This movie had the attributes of what make the current great television so much better than the movies.  But what are those attributes? For one thing, there’s not a superhero in sight.  Nobody is saving the world.  Even though the characters are involved with extraordinary situations, they are ordinary people.  Maybe we aren’t rooting for the little guy, but we are resonating with characters that are closer to ourselves.

GRAVITY

Don’t get me wrong, Gravity isn’t literary or deep.  And although Bullock and Clooney give amazing performances, their characters were almost clichés.  How Gravity amazes is through simply gripping storytelling.  It is a story of survival, beating tremendous odds in a harsh environment.  And although Gravity wasn’t very scientific, Gravity felt very realistic.  Gravity was brilliantly science fiction in the same way Gattaca had been years ago, it was about a individual overcoming tremendous adversity in a science related setting.

Although in the last couple of decades we have had more and more female action heroes, I felt while watching Sandra Bullock that Gravity represented a paradigm shift, transforming story hero from male to female.  It didn’t feel like a gimmick that Ryan was a woman.

For the first hundred years of of filmmaking Ryan Stone would have been played by a male actor.  Ripley set the precedent, but when Ryan pulls herself out of the muck and stands, with the camera angle from the ground looking up at her towering figure, it felt that women had finally surpassed men at their own game.    It was much like Vincent beating the genetically enhanced humans when he took off into space at the end of Gattaca.

George Clooney plays the ultra-cocky space jock to a tee.  Matt Kowalski is perfectly at home in a vacuum.  Kowalski has the science down cold.  But more than that, he is mature way beyond his boyish antics.  He is an alpha male passing the baton to a female saying with total confidence, you can do this.  I know most viewers won’t see this film as a feminist statement.  Most girls won’t think twice about Sandra Bullock being the lead character.  But in real life and in movie life, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, but not nearly enough.

The message is clear, women can fly the fighters, drive the tanks, pilot the spacecraft, command the ships, shoot the M-16s, control the telescopes, construct the skyscrapers, etc., but it’s sad that so many women have MTV ambitions, like Miley Cyrus, to wear skimpy outfits and twerk.  Movies and television, the most heavy-duty of pop cultural social programming, sends the message that women can now do anything.  But will they?  And will we accept it?

If you think I’m making a pointless issue, then think about this.  What if our two actors were cast against type.  Would you have liked Sandra Bullock as the veteran space jock, and George Clooney as the mission specialist rookie?  We’re still brainwashed to think George Clooney should have played Matt.

Yes, we have made women into action heroes that can shoot and kill, but action heroes aren’t believable characters, they are cartoon characters.  How often are complex male roles given to female actors?  Would you have believed Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalski?

Let’s put it another way.  I work at a university and the majority of the engineering and computer science students are male, and the majority of the teacher education and nursing students are female.

The role of Ryan Stone calls for a rookie, and most rookie astronauts are still male.  Picking a female to play Ryan is an intentional decision to make the character to appear more helpless because we’re still conditioned to think of women as helpless, or of needing help.  Gravity shows us we’re wrong. But being helpless is good in this movie, because good storytelling is about getting the audience to identify with the main character, and we’d all be essentially helpless in space.

Picking the name Ryan is an intentional choice too – Sandra Bullock is to stand in for a man.  I think that was a perfect choice by the writers of Gravity.  We’re cheering the stand-in for everyman who also happens to be everywoman.  Not only that, we’re all identifying with her, guys and gals.  While watching the movie I totally identified with Ryan Stone and not Matt Kowalski.  I never had the Right Stuff, but I might could have been Ryan Stone.

Maybe next time when they make a film like Gravity, the veteran space jock will be a woman, and it will be as natural as our need for air, but for now Sandra Bullock was perfect in this role.  Whatever is the magic formula for modern storytelling, Breaking Bad and Gravity have it down as well as Walter White cooks meth.

- – -

By the way, many people are nitpicking Gravity for scientific issues.  That’s cool.  But don’t let it keep you from seeing and enjoying an amazing film.  I was really disappointed with Neil DeGrasse Tyson because his complaints were rather lame compared to the problem of orbital mechanics.  Here are some things to read, but don’t get too hung up about them.  Gravity is a triumph of storytelling.  Like preconceived gender roles, we still want fiction with far more excitement than actual reality.  It’s hard to embrace perfect realism.

I expect gender roles to continue to evolve, and I expect incorporating realism into popular fiction to evolve too.  Breaking Bad was far more realistic than such a show would have been ten years ago, but in ten years, writers who will surpass the talents of the Breaking Bad team, will create a series about cooking meth that is far more realistic.  Gravity could have been just as exciting if it had been 100% scientifically accurate.  And I’m not dinging it for its scientific faults.  I’m just pointing out that we’re moving towards a kind of absolute realism in fiction, and that includes gender roles too.

Fact Checking Gravity

JWH  – 10/11/13

Pre-Code Hollywood – Wikipedia v. Journalists v. Bloggers v. Friends

If you hear a new phrase, where do you go to learn its definition?  I think most people absorb concepts in context from conversations with friends, or maybe from watching television.  A few might look it up in a book.  But after that most people head to Google.  For billions of people, when they want to know something today, they Google their question.  How good is the knowledge we get from Google?  Does it have true educational value?  Does it enlighten?  How authoritative is it?

When you go to Google and search on a topic the results often brings back a Wikipedia article, articles from newspapers and magazines, maybe some book reviews, and finally articles from bloggers.  Which ones are you most likely to read first?  Wikipedia is the hive mind option, journalists are the paid professional option and bloggers are the work for free option.

I’m going to use “Pre-Code Hollywood” as my test case because several times in the past month I’ve used that phrase and then had to explain it.  Pre-Code Hollywood is a category of old movies that takes some explaining to define.  Most movie goers don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about.  Pre-Code Hollywood refers to a time period in the early thirties, when some movies pushed the boundaries of social norms and were usually censored by one or more state censors, before national censorship took hold in the second half of 1934.  This censorship held until the 1960s.  That shaped how movies were made for a very long time.  Young people growing up in our anything goes era have no idea how movies, books, comics and television shows were sanitized for mass consumption.  Pre-Code Hollywood films are from a brief period in the early 1930s that told stories about characters breaking out of accepted norms that shocked conventional society.  Pre-Code Hollywood generally refers to the years, but to the film buffs, it’s only certain movies that push the envelope.

Dorothy-Mackaill-in-Safe-In-Hell-1931

Whether Hollywood told these stories to sell tickets, or because storytellers wanted to free the minds of their audience is debatable.  The reality was many Americans were already breaking free of 19th century morality and Hollywood was just reporting new trends.  Conservatives wanted to keep the genie in the bottle, while liberals wanted to let it all hang out.

Short of reading a book devoted to the subject, and there are such books, this essay at Wikipedia is an excellent introduction to Pre-Code Hollywood films.  If you search Google, Wikipedia is the #1 return.  #2 is images from Google, and for many people, Pre-Code Hollywood images are the story.  The returns give two books from Amazon, one of which is Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.  The New York Times presents the first chapter.  Doherty opens with a description of the censorship period.

On or about July 1934 American cinema changed. During that month, the Production Code Administration, popularly known as the Hays Office, began to regulate, systematically and scrupulously, the content of Hollywood motion pictures. For the next thirty years, cinematic space was a patrolled landscape with secure perimeters and well-defined borders. Adopted under duress at the urging of priests and politicians, Hollywood’s in-house policy of self-censorship set the boundaries for what could be seen, heard, even implied on screen. Not until the mid-1950s did cracks appear in the structure and not until 1968, when the motion picture industry adopted its alphabet ratings system, did the Code edifice finally come crumbling down.

Later on Doherty give a quick overview of the kinds of films made before the censorship period:

    In a sense pre-Code Hollywood is from another universe. It lays bare what Hollywood under the Code did its best to cover up and push off screen. Sexual liaisons unsanctified by the laws of God or man in Unashamed (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), and She Done Him Wrong (1933); marriage ridiculed and redefined in Madame Satan(1930), The Common Law (1931), and Old Morals for New (1932); ethnic lines crossed and racial barriers ignored in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), The Emperor Jones (1933), and Massacre(1934); economic injustice exposed and political corruption assumed in Wild Boys of the Road (1933), This Day and Age (1933), andGabriel Over the White House (1933); vice unpunished and virtue unrewarded in Red Headed Woman (1932), Call Her Savage (1932), and Baby Face (1933)—in sum, pretty much the raw stuff of American culture, unvarnished and unveiled.

Robert Gottlieb reviews both books at The New York Times.  The other book is Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood by Mark A. Vieira, a book I own and recommend.  Gottlieb says about it,

Mark A. Vieira’s ”Sin in Soft Focus” naturally covers much of the same ground, but the two books complement rather than detract from each other. ”Sin in Soft Focus” is less analytical; it lingers more lovingly on the pre-code films themselves. Its chief advantage lies in its illustration — this is an oversize book with hundreds of beautifully chosen images laid out for maximum impact; one can forgive the fact that often they’re chosen for their own sake, not to illustrate a point. But this is far from being just another pretty collection of stills. We get many detailed stories that convey exactly what was going on — for one, the battle over Garbo’s first sound film, ”Anna Christie.” Could she be allowed to inveigh against ”all men, God damn them”? (She couldn’t; the offending words were spliced out in favor of ”I hate them! I hate them!”) We also hear of von Stroheim’s elegant solution for getting one of his actors to laugh: put a string down his pants and tie it to his privates, then pull — ”and that made the guy laugh.” Now, that’s directing!

Wikipedia, The New York Times and the books give readers a comprehensive history of the era, but except for Vieira book, I’m not sure if these writers convey the love of the films.  Unless you’re a hard core Turner Classic Movie (TCM) fan, or willing to buy DVDs like the Forbidden Hollywood series, it’s not likely you’ll ever see these films.  And I have to admit, when I show these films to my friends, damn few of them enjoy them.  These films are old and quaint to eyes used to R rated Hollywood flicks.  Contemporary PG rated films show more graphic sex, violence and deviation from social norms than Pre-Code Hollywood even dreamed of filming – so were these 1930s films the Inconvenient Truth of their times that forecast things to come, or were they only a keyhole peak at what was already going on?

Loving old black and white movies from the 1930s is an acquired taste. I picked up the habit back in the 1950s watching all night movies on television.  Most of my friends, even friends my age, are put off by the acting style of the times, but I find what they call bad acting, stylish and beautiful.  It’s the difference between Benny Goodman and Lady Gaga.

There is no typical Pre-Code Hollywood film, and other than watching several of these films, it’s doubtful reading about them will convey their real essence.  There are some bloggers that go to great lengths to document and analyze these films.  Just read this extensive analysis of Ladies of Leisure (1930) by Danny at Pre-Cod.com.

Here are two clips from Jewel Robbery (1932), one of my favorites not because of the risqué dialog, but because of its 1930s Hollywood glamor style.

 

William Powell plays an suave holdup man who ends up running off with Kay Francis who is married to an older rich man.  After censorship these two characters couldn’t end up with their 1932 happy ending because censors believed criminals and adulterers couldn’t get away with their crimes after July 1, 1934.  Jewel Robbery can be found on Forbidden Hollywood Volume 4 and regularly shows up on TCM.  I love this film because I think Kay Francis is beautiful in a way modern starlets are not.  Pre-Code fans love their era partly for the daring stories, but mostly for the style of a bygone time.

kay-frances

Reading reviews by bloggers is where you find the enthusiasm of fans.  Some take a lot of time with their projects and publish photos and film clips, like here at Pre-Code.com.  Others are like at Laurasmiscmussing, who states her personal reactions to watching Jewell Robbery.  Laura didn’t like the marijuana scene.  Like me, Laura is a fan of Kay Francis.  Over at Cinema Enthusiast we get more commentary on the film with some very good stills.  Catherine has a nice comment:

Another reason the film could only have been made in 1932 is the studio system. The studio system dealt heavily in fantasy, but in a different kind of fantasy than today’s films. Today, fantasy takes the form of mystic worlds, ordinary people being pulled into unrealities beyond their wildest dreams. The studio system dealt in fantasy that fit seamlessly into a real-life setting. Fantasy rooted in glamour.

Jewel Robbery is an example of this. We are shown a world where our protagonist doesn’t have to lift a finger for herself, where jewels shine extra bright, where people appear extra soft, and where frivolity is the goal of the day. Today, we would ask ourselves, ‘why should we care about someone like Teri’. In the studio system, these characters were par for the course and we still accept them into our hearts without blinking twice. William Powell commits the most non-threatening robbery ever seen in film. Sure, he has a gun and many crooks beside him, but the atmosphere is airy as can be. His priority and pride comes from making a robbery as comfortable for the victims as possible. Robber as society guru. This kind of light comedic tone would be extremely difficult to execute in modern-day film and furthermore, it’s just not the sort of film being made today in America.

Reading blog reviews like this connects me with people like myself who do love the old movies.  Art lives by its fans, as long as the fans love a work of art, it will live on.  When an artwork loses all its fans, it dies.  Bloggers keep obscure works of art alive.  Just creating the designation of “Pre-Code Hollywood” has brought a dying era back to life.  William Powell and Myrna Loy films are quite famous, but how many people remember the seven William Powell and Kay Francis films?

Some bloggers like Cliff Aliperti love old movies far more than I do, and have the patience to write scene by scene reviews.  If I had more time, I ‘d love to blog about old movies like Cliff does.

Jewel Robbery was not a great movie, nor is it typical of Pre-Code films.  It’s on the silly side, but it was stylish for the time.  Eighty plus years later, how much of that style remains?  How many people can still resonate with its charm?  Being a fan of a forgotten art form both defines me and separates me from the herd.  I doubt when I watch Pre-Code Hollywood films that I’m attaining some kind of oneness with the people of the 1930s.  Neither is it nostalgia, since nostalgic is based on wanting to go home, and I never lived in those times.  Maybe everyone has an era in the past they are fascinated with and the early 1930s is mine.  My wife loves watching television shows from the 1960s on Sundays.  I also love 1950s westerns, 1960s comedies and 2010s television shows.  It’s hard to jive my love of 1930s movies with my love of Breaking Bad.

With modern technology of cable TV, DVDs, internet streaming services, we can all pick art and eras to love and specialize on.  I have a new friend that specializes in Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra movies.  The web allows me to find other Pre-Code Hollywood film fans like Emma, Julie, Louie, FlickChick, Classic Movie Blog Association, Fritzi, Monty, and many more.

I don’t know when the designation “Pre-Code Hollywood” was coined, but I don’t think it’s all that old.  I believe the creation of that label has defibrillate an art form whose heart had stopped.  Reading about Pre-Code Hollywood here, or at Wikipedia or even at The New York Times won’t even give you the experience of what we’re talking about.  For that you’ll need to see some of the films.  Watch TCM or Netflix and look for:

JWH – 7/3/13

On the Road (2012)–1920, 1922, 1947, 1951, 1957, 1969, 1970, 1971, 2013

The new 2012 film version of On the Road, based on the classic 1957 novel gets only 44% positive rating with critics on Rotten Tomatoes.  Fans like it even less, with just 40% approval.  And I know why and understand their reasons, but it’s not the movie.

I loved the movie, but I’m haunted by the Beats.

I think director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, did an excellent job capturing Jack Kerouac’s novel.  But see, that’s problematic, since the book itself is hard to like, even though it’s considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century by many literary historians, and yes, hated by just as many.  However, On the Road is more than a novel, it’s a legend.  The characters are based on real people.  These people were so fascinating they became characters in many other novels by various Beat writers.  Countless biographies have been written about their beat lives, and over the years films and documentaries have been made trying to capture this very tiny subculture.  We’re not reviewing a movie, we’re reviewing mythology.

The encounter of two men, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac generated a whole literary movement, the Beat Generation.

jack-kerouac-and-neal-cassady

On the Road, came out in 1957, but was about Kerouac’s real life of 1947-1949.  It was essentially written by 1951, the year I was born, but tinkered with, and not published until 1957.  That’s a long time ago to most young movie goers today.  If Kerouac had lived he’d be over ninety.  So the 2012 film On the Road, is really a historical flick.  It’s about a bunch of unhappy crazy people who did a lot of drugs and rushed back and forth across the continent several times trying to find happiness, kicks, or just escape from their inner demons, obligations and boredom.

When I first read On the Road in 1969, it felt contemporary because the beats were a whole lot like the hippies, at least superficially.  It took me a while to realize that On the Road was about my father’s generation.  My dad was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922.  Kerouac died at 47, in October of 1969, and my dad died at 49, in May of 1970.  They both died miserable drunks.  They both smoked a lot of unfiltered Camels.  They both travelled back and forth across America in a restless attempt to find themselves.  They both were failures at marriage and raising kids.  I use Kerouac to understand my uncommunicative father.

When you’re a kid and read On the Road for the first time it’s tremendously exciting.  It’s adventurous.  It’s about hitch-hiking.  It’s about sex and drugs.  It’s about jazz.  Yes, it’s that old, before rock and roll.  After doing a lot of drugs and hitch-hiking trips myself, I saw the book in a different light by 1971.  I reread On the Road every few years, and the older I get, the more I understand the suffering behind the story.

I wonder if the 60% of movie fans, and 56% of critics who watched On the Road are savvy enough to immediately realize that this story is about misery and not glamor?  To be on the road that much, to drink that much, to take that many drugs, to fuck that many people, requires a tortured soul driven by restless, existential pain.

Maybe I love this film because I read the pain in every character on the screen.  This is a great film when you realize it’s not a fun film.  Sure, they quote Kerouac’s famous lines twice in the film

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!”

Kerouac rewrote his life to make it better, to romanticize it, to make it more meaningful, more exciting, but if you read the many biographies about Jack, you know he failed to fool himself.  He knew they were all beat characters.  When he discovered Zen, he hoped to put a spiritual spin on things, and hoped he could find enlightenment in his life, or at least write an enlightened view of it.  He failed.  Alcoholism consumed Kerouac, just like my dad, my dad’s brothers, and their father.  I come from two beat generations.

Everyone is initially seduced by Kerouac romantic spin on his life.  Everyone loves Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty because he’s so wild and bangs all the chicks, but they forget that ole Dean will abandon you in a Mexico City flophouse when you’re out of your mind with dysentery and have no money, or run off and leave his wife and children to get his kicks making some other woman equally miserable.  Neal was a petty criminal, street hustler, con man and user of people, but all too often people loved him.  And Kerouac knew that.

Whether Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) or Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) are convincing in their roles depends on your image of Jack and Neal.  I loved that the movie didn’t romanticize these two.  I don’t think Kerouac did either in his book if you read it closely, but too many would-be beats and hippies have.  I am reminded of the contrast between the 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and their trip across 1964 American in an old bus named Further, and the recent documentary Magic Trip that used actual film the Pranksters took on the trip.  History and nonfiction don’t match up.   For On the Road, history and fiction don’t match either.  A good writer can make real life a whole lot more glamorous than it is.  I believe Kerouac wanted to chronicle his life without the glamor.

Which brings us back to modern American movie goers, they are incurable romantics.  They hate realism.  They embrace a comic book view of reality.  That’s why I think 60% of them turned their thumbs down for On the Road.  That’s why the film played only one week in my city, and why there was only one other person in the theater when I went.  That’s why they didn’t like a realistic story about a struggling young writer who loves a low-life hustler and makes him the center of his novel, his life, even though time and again, the bastard left him high and dry, and crushed his soul.  Kerouac wrote a lot of books, but only the ones that have Neal in them still matter.  Jack returned to Neal time and again, in life and in books, but without Neal, Jack never could get his life together.  Success didn’t help, and only made it worse.

Neal Cassady was the bus driver for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and Cassady brought the King of the Hippies to meet the King of the Beats.  It was a disaster for the old friends.   Jack and Neal are now legendary mythic characters.  Trying to understand the realism of their friendship requires reading book and after book, and now watching movie after movie.

I think if you’re among the people trying to understand the story of Jack and Neal, you must see this film.  Everyone else should be warned.  If you didn’t like it, then you’re lucky, you don’t have a beat soul.  If you love it, you’re among the haunted by the myths of the Beats.

4/4/13

The Visual Limitations of Novels

This week I read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles first published in 1949, and then I watched the 1990 film version by Bernardo Bertolucci with Debra Winger and John Malkovich.  I found the novel a stunning example of writing, and the movie a stunning example of cinematography, which only made it obvious that novels are severely limited in evoking the visual world.  Reading the novel, the world of Port and Kit Moresby felt claustrophobic and small,  but seeing the same couple on screen, showed them living in a vast panoramic vista.

sheltering-sky

In mind, I knew Kit and Port were traveling across Algeria in the late 1940s, after WWII, so the sky should have been getting bigger and brighter as they got closer to the Sahara, but instead it got darker.  That’s because the story was getting psychologically darker.  In fact, their world as I imagined it, was often dark, with few people and buildings.  The book so reminded me of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, that I thought Bowles must have used it as a model.  In the film version of The Sheltering Sky, the streets were crowded with people, and the cities and villages were sprawling with buildings with narrow maze like streets, and everything was bright, colorful and beautiful.  The gorgeous visuals overwhelmed the dark brooding characters.

It was jarring to watch the film right after reading the book because it looked nothing like what I imagined, but obviously the film looked like the world Bowles wrote about and lived in.

Reading The Sheltering Sky and then watching its film version made me see the difference in the two art forms.  And it’s not because Bowles didn’t give me the information to visualize.

When she was hungry, she rose, picked up her bag, and walked among the rocks along a path of sorts, probably made by goats, which ran parallel to the walls of the town. The sun had risen; already she felt its heat on the back of her neck. She raised the hood of her haïk. In the distance were the sounds of the town: voices crying out and dogs barking. Presently she passed beneath one of the flat-arched gates and was again in the city. No one noticed her. The market was full of black women in white robes. She went up to one of the women and took a jar of buttermilk out of her hand. When she had drunk it, the woman stood waiting to be paid. Kit frowned and stooped to open her bag. A few other women, some carrying babies at their backs, stopped to watch. She pulled a thousand-franc note out of the pile and offered it. But the woman stared at the paper and made a gesture of refusal. Kit still held it forth. Once the other had understood that no different money was to be given her, she set up a great cry and began to call for the police. The laughing women crowded in eagerly, and some of them took the proffered note, examining it with curiosity, and finally handing it back to Kit. Their language was soft and unfamiliar. A white horse trotted past; astride it sat a tall Negro in a khaki uniform, his face decorated with deep cicatrizations like a carved wooden mask. Kit broke away from the women and raised her arms toward him, expecting him to lift her up, but he looked at her askance and rode off. Several men joined the group of onlookers, and stood somewhat apart from the women, grinning. One of them, spotting the bill in her hand, stepped nearer and began to examine her and the valise with increasing interest. Like the others, he was tall, thin and very black, and he wore a ragged burnous slung across his shoulders, but his costume included a pair of dirty white European trousers instead of the long native undergarment. Approaching her, he tapped her on the arm and said something to her in Arabic; she did not understand. Then he said: “Toi parles français?” She did not move; she did not know what to do. “Oui,” she replied at length.

There is much visual detail in this passage, but I never saw it in my mind’s eye.  I never “saw” Algeria like I saw it in the film.  Now that I’m reading passages from the book after seeing the movie, I’m “reading” it differently, and seeing it differently in my mind.  This might be a clue to always see the movie first.  I find the Harry Potter movies fantastic illustrations of the books, but poor substitutes for them.

Just look at this film clip and then imagine how to describe in it words.  Does the words camel, caravan and desert even come close to evoking what we see?

While watching the movie I felt the soul of the novel had disappeared.  The experience of reading and viewing beautifully illustrated the difference between the visual medium of film, and the world of black and white letters that are decoded inside our head.  The novel is rich in details I can’t see, and can’t be filmed.  Or can they? 

Movies seldom have narrative commentary.  One example I can think of is the theatrical release of Blade Runner, where Harrison Ford provided a film noir detective voice over.  I’ve always preferred the theatrical release over Ridley Scott’s director’s cut.  I wish movie makers would experiment with unseen narrators to see if they could get closer to filming classic books.  There is an aspect to books that is neither dialog or description, that is always left out of movies.

I also read Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear this week and it begs for a movie treatment, or at least a graphic novel adaption.  Bear describes a world that is as visually bizarre as Oz, and a spaceship with three hulls.  I have no way of visualizing this story.  And the novel, Hull Zero Three is written like an action film, so it feels like the soul of a novel is left out.

I wonder what my reading experience of The Sheltering Sky would have been like if Paul Bowles had included National Geographic like photographs of all the locations Port and Kit visited on their trip?  I know of one book that did this, Time and Again by Jack Finney, a time travel novel about 19th century New York City.  The book included 19th century photographs of the city.  It made a huge difference to the story.  I wonder how I would have experienced Hull Zero Three differently if Bear had commissioned illustrations for his book?

I assume writers expect readers to do all the mental cinematography themselves, but I don’t think it would hurt if they provided a few seed images.  I’ve talked to many readers who claim to hate movies of their favorite stories because it ruins their own mental images they have created.  I think my problem is I don’t visualize books as I read them, and illustrations and photographs would be helpful crutches for people like me.

I recommend creating your own experiments to test the visual powers of novels.  Would the monster hit TV show Downton Abbey be as popular if it was just a novel, without all the beautiful visuals?  And think about all the many visual interpretations of Sherlock Holmes?  There are many film versions of classic books Little Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Try reading the books before or after seeing the movies and see for yourself the visual limitations of novels.

JWH – 3/23/13

The Big Trail (1930)

Yesterday I got in a Blu-ray copy of The Big Trail, an early widescreen movie from 1930.  The Big Trail has quite a fascinating history behind it.  Starting in the late 1920s Hollywood began experimenting with widescreen and Technicolor, but the depression killed off interest in these technologies, especially widescreen because it required special theaters, screens and projectors.   The Big Trail was filmed from April to August in 1930 in black and white using both 70mm and 35mm cameras, creating two unique versions from different camera angles.  The whole production was also shot in five languages using different lineup of actors for each language.

Epic production doesn’t begin to describe the making of The Big Trail.  Seven different states were used for film locations, covering 4,300 miles, traveling in 123 baggage cars, with 93 principle actors, 2,000 extras at all the locations, 725 Indians from five tribes, 12 Indian guides, 22 cameramen, 1,800 cattle, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalo, 185 wagons and a production staff of 200.  And they had the wagon train do everything wagon trains did back in those pioneering days, cross rivers, get lowered down cliffs, blaze trails through timbered lands, cross deserts, climb mountains, survive snow storms.  All other wagon train movies since have been puny in scale.  The Big Trail was a very gigantic production, but it’s not as famous as Gone With the Wind from 1939.  That’s too bad, it should be better remembered.

I had to watch The Big Trail alone last night because none of my movie friends like old black and white films and I couldn’t convince them to give The Big Trail a try.  What a loss for them.  It’s a shame because as soon as I started up The Big Trail I was stunned by it’s beauty.  Old movies are in a square format and seeing this movie in widescreen format on my 56” HDTV made my heart ache.  If only this 70mm widescreen format had caught on in 1930.  All my favorite old films from the 1930s and 1940s would have been so much more grandeur looking.  And that’s what Fox called their experimental format, the “Fox Grandeur” process.  What if Grand Hotel had been widescreen, or The Maltese Falcon, or The Wizard of Oz, just imagine how more magnificent they would have been.

The-Big-Trail-screenshot

[This screenshot is from Blu-ray.com – click for full size version]

Modern movie goers are used to high tech visual productions and when they see old movies, especially silent films and films from the 1930s, they think of them as primitive and crude, and often assume people of those days saw what we see today.  Their technology was older and less sophisticated, but the prints we have are old and in bad shape compared to the original pristine prints audiences viewed in their day.  Silent movie film goers didn’t see jerky prints with faded splotches and lines running through them.  They were sharp and vivid with wonderful contrast and the motion was as natural as modern films.  Sure the acting style is strange to us, but the acting style was normal to them.  It was great acting by the way they judged acting.

Old movies are being restored all the time now, especially for the Turner Classic Movie crowd and Blu-ray movie fans.  The restoration of The Big Trail is far from perfect, but I found it impressive to watch visually.  I expect someday that digital processing will clean up even more of these film defects, and created a print closer to the 1930 original.  For the most part the defects weren’t distracting.  A couple of times I thought it was raining because of the tiny scratches.

The Big Trail was an experiment in many ways, not only for the widescreen filming.  It was an early epic western about settlers crossing the country in a huge wagon train.  The Big Trail was the first starring role for John Wayne, but many of the actors were from Broadway, because it was an early talky and they needed actors that could project their voices to outdoor microphones.  Much of the dialog is stagey, and the cinematography is reminiscent of great silent films.  Yet, the sets and costumes look very realistic.  It would take another 60 years before citizens of the pioneering west looked so realistically dirty and grungy.  Plus the Indians were real.  Often the wagons were drawn by oxen and cattle rather than horses.

The-Big-Trail-normal

The-Big-Trail-wide

[Click for full size versions.  From Blu-Ray.com]

Westerns weren’t this good for a long time, not until Stagecoach, ten years later.  Most westerns of that era were B movies, shot full of action, produced from very small budgets.  As I watched The Big Trail, I wondered how many people living in 1930 had once traveled across the country in a wagon train.  The heyday of the wagon train was from the 1840 to the 1860s, when the continental railroad was built.  It was possible that some of these pioneers were still alive to verify the realism of the film.  I wonder if any of them wrote about it?

Westerns today, 80 years later, often work hard to appear realistic and historical.  It seems like every decade has a different view on how the old west looked.  Just compare the two versions of True Grit.  There’s also a difference in how violence was portrayed.  In The Big Trail, John Wayne only kills one of the bad guys, and with a knife.  And the bad guys were on the hesitant and cowardly side, only willing to kill when no one was looking.  Nobody was a great shot either.  Today’s westerns have heroes that kill as many people as a mass murderer.

The Big Trail was an innocent portrayal of pioneers.  At one point the John Wayne character was telling a bunch of boys what all he learned from living with the Indians and one of the kids asked, “Did they teach you were papooses come from?”  That’s about as risqué as this movie got.  But it was realistic enough to show a woman nursing a baby.  And I thought the love conflict was reasonably sophisticated for a movie of its time.  The plot of The Big Trail was gentile and slow.  I’m not sure people only used to modern films would like it.  Modern audiences are addicted to fast action, fast dialog, and lots of plot twists.  I’ve seen The Big Trail three times now and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.  It’s a classic western, and a classic 1930s film, my two favorite genres.

JWH – 12/29/12

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