1918 - 2002
#0027 - REQUIEM FOR A SHUTTERBUG - Photographer Sid Avery died last week, at 83, after a career as a Hollywood portraitist and commercial director, and finally as the head of Motion Picture and Television Photo Archives, devoted to preserving the work of Hollywood photographers like himself.
Audrey Hepburn takes her dog for a ride.
Avery's career as a Hollywood photographer began in the aftermath of the studio system, and his work was part of a move - reflected in the work of peers like Bert Stern - away from the carefully posed, meticulously-lit work of studio era portraitists like George Hurrell. Avery provided the imagery for magazines like Photoplay and the Saturday Evening Post, depicting movie stars as just folks, like the shot of Audrey Hepburn above, looking almost like any pretty young girl with her dog in her bicycle basket, or his equally famous photo of the Bogarts in their living room, playing with the kids, a successful older man and his lovely younger wife who might as well be a successful wholesaler or stockbroker except that he's Bogie and she's Bacall and you weren't too likely to find them in the lineup for a campsite at Yellowstone or wrestling with paper bags full of groceries by their woody station wagon at the Safeway.
It was a comforting lie in that brief era when America was its middle class and its middle class wanted to see itself and its values onscreen, a period of history a lot more interesting than it's been depicted by the baby boomers who grew up safe in its uneasy shelter. It was the era of Gregory Peck as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Tom Ewell's inept, half-hearted attempt at philandering in The Seven Year Itch. It's interesting that, before it was quite over, Avery left the business to direct commercials, returning only after over two decades had passed to oversee his legacy and that of other photographers. There's a story there, and I'd love to hear it told. (Personal experience suggests that the money was better in advertising, and that he was fed up with dealing with publicists.)
In addition to preserving photos, it would be nice if someone would collect the reminiscences of portrait photographers. In a year-old piece about Marilyn Monroe as photographic object in the Australia's The Age, Avery shared an anecdote about the star that somehow humanizes her, a technical detail that nonetheless leaves her mystique untouched: "She had a very fine layer of facial hair that you couldn't really see, but which, when she was well lit, gave her skin a kind of glow." (posted 10:32pm EST | 07.08.02)
#0026 - KARMA - The August issue of Vanity Fair - not yet on the stands here in Labbatslavia as I write this - contains an interview with onetime Hollywood 500-lb. gorilla Michael Ovitz where, overcome by what smells like paranoia and a will to self-destruction, he blames his spectacular fall from the top on a "velvet mafia" spearheaded by David Geffen. In the L.A. Times, Rachel Abramowitz reports that Ovitz' hissy fit is the talk of the town, mostly because the studios, restaurants, mansions and office complexes are filled with people who Ovitz crapped over on his way up. "I think people are just fascinated by this incredible fall from grace, that no matter how powerful you are it can all be gone in a blink of an eye," said one source described as a "top player", "It's also the reminder that maybe karma really does matter."
Which means that producers, stars, agents and studio executives all over Los Angeles are taking it easy on their assistants and underlings, thinking twice before asking them to pick up their laundry or firing them for getting the lunch order wrong. Right. And accountants everywhere, the spectre of Bernie Ebbers looming over them, are sneaking the staplers and copier paper they stole back into the office. It sure is a wonderful world. (posted 09:46pm EST | 07.08.02)
#0025 - INSIDE LOOKING OUT - Sylvia Plachy's photographs from the inside of on-the-verge-of-stardom Adrien Brody's limo at Cannes in the Sunday NY Times Magazine are frightening and priceless. The kind of thing you want to show to anyone lining the red carpet outside premieres or award shows: Do you really want to look this awestruck and hopeless? Does it make sense that any human being who you don't know personally can elicit this kind of reaction? How much of this is a fantasy of being on the other side of the glass? (posted 09:13pm EST | 07.08.02)
#0024 - POLITICIANS, UGLY BUILDINGS AND WHORES - Since Men in Black II is proving to be the summer's great critical joybang, it looks like Minority Report has become the designated blockbuster fodder for deep newsprint analysis. Tim Appelo ponders Spielberg's assertion that his latest movie is a film noir in Slate, and does a nice job of pinpointing just a few of Spielberg's elusive but nonetheless great weaknesses.
"I looked at all the mysteries that I remembered as a young film student loving," Spielberg said at a round table interview in Seattle, and discovered that "a lot of them actually don't work, (they're) so confusing you never find out who did it..." And so he made a noir that ended with (almost) everything tied up in tidy bows, no doubt feeling like he'd somehow improved on the genre, forty years after its heyday.
Which would be missing the whole point, according to Appelo, who invokes Edmund Wilson's "malaise" to describe just what's so evocative and appealing about a film like, say, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep, where narrative holes the size of Packards haven't done a thing to dim the film's appeal. Whodunnit wasn't nearly as interesting as General Sternwood's comely daughters, or the pretty bookstore clerk that Bogart whiles away a rainy stakeout with, a pleasant midafternoon's coitus hinted at by the winking fade to black as she shuts up the shop.
The sleazy little world of pornographers, pimps and blackmailers that Carmen and Vivian Sternwood get themselves trapped in is a premonition of the Los Angeles that Kenneth Anger and James Ellroy would explore years later. Sid Hickox' thick, chunky black and white cinematography isn't nearly as meticulously distressed as Janusz Kaminsky's work in Minority Report, but Appelo perfectly nails it when he writes that "Minority Report has virtuoso grit, but it wipes off with one swipe, like waxy buildup in a commercial." A good film noir - and there were quite a few - should leave you feeling a bit confused, and perhaps more than a bit aroused, drawn to the sickly sweet thrill of urban life that White might have included in his malaise. It's a feeling that Spielberg somehow overlooked.
In the NY Times, Elvis Mitchell traces the influence of "Cops", the groundbreaking if unsavory reality show, on movies, starting with the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence buddy comedy/action film Bad Boys, through Paul Thomas Andrson's Magnolia, and up to Minority Report, where the central chase sequence includes a scene that relies on the notion that "Cops" is still going strong in 2054: "The 'Cops' theme song - the puffed-chest reggae strut 'Bad Boys' - is heard on the soundtrack, and the audience I saw the movie with burst into applause."
Another Times article, by James R. Oestreich, finds the author startled to find out that John Williams, Spielberg's soundtrack composer of record, had nothing to do with choosing the incidental bits of classical music that play adjacent to his own in Minority Report: "To anyone not immersed in film lore, this must come as an astounding revelation in itself: that not even so canny and consummate a master of his craft as Mr. Williams is not consulted in the choice of music that will butt against his."
The prose gives you some idea of the tone of Mr. Oestreich's piece, a sense that the writer lives in awe of composers, even a middling pasticheur like Williams and, moreover, that he's quite unaware of the subordinate role almost everyone except the producers, director and stars play in the making of a Hollywood movie. It's an article in search of a trend and it comes up emptyhanded; movies have often popularized classical music, but Spielberg's film doesn't make room for music - any music, whether it's Williams or Bach or Schubert - to really enhance any particular scene: "Nor, I suspect, is there any significant payoff here for classical music. It may be that hearing a stray lick of Schubert in an anomalous setting like Minority Report will steer an unwary X Games enthusiast toward classical music; it is, after all, a great lick." (posted 10:16pm EST | 06.04.02)
#0023 - JUST BEAUTIFUL - The poster art for the Toronto International Film Festival has been braining itself with the ugly stick for years now, and this year's edition is a seamless part of that gruesome continuity:
Now, they haven't always been this bad, and for awhile you wondered whether the decline had something to do with budgets or some kind of sweetheart deal between someone and his brother-in-law, but it seems like they actually choose to go with this kind of hokey, overconceptualized eye-candy. Check out this bit of prose from Barry Avrich, president and COO of Echo Advertising and Marketing Inc., the official perpetrators of this year's eruption of creativity:
"As one of the greatest art forms of the 20th century, film is a celebration of the moving image. Each frame reflects a vision and alchemy of movement, magic and humanity. The keyart for the 2002 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival personifies the very personal and human imprimatur that originates within every film that brilliantly reaches across the globe to enrapture a new audience every time it's exposed."
I've been staring at this overcooked puffery for an hour, and I still can't connect a photo of a naked androgyne pretending to be a clapper board with that "very personal and human inprimatur". Naked sylph = untrammeled bloody creativity probably has to be the stalest living middlebrow cartoon shorthand for the intangible effing machinery of art still in circulation, and it gives you some idea of the tone of the purple-knobbed p.r. rhetoric that gets inflicted on Toronto in these lead-up weeks to the TIFF. (posted 09:43pm EST | 07.03.02)
#0022 - GOD IS MY CO-PRODUCER - An interesting piece in the L.A. Times on the struggling Christian film industry (courtesy Kathy Shaidle at relapsedcatholic.com) makes at least one very good point:
"Historically, Christians have had a really strong bias against films and Hollywood. And when they have tried to make movies, these have been more like evangelistic tracts than the kinds of things people want to spend their money to go see."
The point being that Christian films like Left Behind, even when they're based on best-selling books and should, theoretically, have a built-in audience, don't end up making much of a cultural impression on the mainstream because, among other reasons, "they have all been terrible."
It's not really hard to figure out the problem when you read about the films, currently in production, that aim to break out of the Christian film ghetto. Hangman's Curse (no IMDB listing, which somehow says something right from the start) stars David Keith, who's probably a step up from Left Behind's Kirk Cameron, while director Rafael Zelinsky's resume includes timeless work like Screwballs, Loose Screws (aka Screwballs II), and Screwball Hotel. In other words, a who's who of Hollywood's b-list, c-list and z-list talent, being made for a US$2 million budget, which would be a fortune up here in Canada, but which barely pays for your 3-D cardboard lobby displays in the real world.
But it wasn't always like this. The prestige studio schedules once featured epic biblical bloaters like The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah and The Greatest Story Ever Told, as well as livid but loosely accurate technicolor biblical melodramas like The Robe, Ben Hur and Barrabas. Very few of these films are any good - even devout Catholics wince at the thought of them today - but they cast a very long shadow over cinema history, and have remained in print almost constantly, besides being staples of television programming over Easter and Christmas.
These films aside, there's Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's, Boys Town and Angels With Dirty Faces, incredibly popular films where Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien played sympathetic Catholic priests, doing more to combat Orange and Klan anti-Catholic bigotry than a dozen Al Smiths or Kennedys. Then there are films like Fred Zinneman's The Nun's Story and The Shoes of the Fisherman, "prestige films" made in the post-studio era, films that I remember Catholics of my parents' generation embracing, whether they really liked them or not, and which made me believe that there was a sort of "Catholic Craze" going on parallel to the swinging 60s. I'm still not sure if I was just imagining things.
The long, nearly wordless sequence where Audrey Hepburn ends her novitiate and becomes Sister Luke is still one of the most frightening sequences I've ever seen in a movie, the solemn wedding of a "bride of Christ" that manages to be both uplifting and distressing. The ritual of sacrifice and self-abnegation being enacted is profound, and not just because it's gamine little Audrey Hepburn being shorn and veiled. The same sense of quiet torment is there in Anthony Quinn's performance as a Russian cardinal who becomes Pope, in the first film that portrayed the ritual and drama of a new Pope's election as the earth-shattering event that Catholics viewed it as - despite the fact that Michael Anderson's film is really rather boring.
I don't see how you can talk about Christian films without mentioning Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew or Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, despite the fact that the former is the harshest antidote to studio bible epics imaginable, the Holy Land as the Third World, the latter basically outright heresy (and, probably just coincidentally, among Scorsese's worst pictures.)
I've written this little overview off the top of my head, so I think it's obvious that Christian filmmaking isn't a recent, fringe phenomenon, trapped just below the mainstream and waiting to break out. What's unspoken in the L.A. Times piece is that evangelical, sometimes millenarian protestant filmmaking hasn't yet made a dent on movie culture. It's a tradition that obviously excludes contemporary figures like Kevin Smith, Neil LaBute and John Woo, and which will probably remain a kind of devout b-movie ghetto as long as it's stuck with a straight-to-video aesthetic. (posted 11:10pm EST | 07.02.02)