Where it All Began…

With technology every day becoming more and more a part of our lives, and with that technology bringing along new and fantastic evolution of Hollywood special effects and sound design, it is not a surprise that Silent Films have become virtually ignored. Not surprising, but sad.

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It took a long time for me to watch a silent movie, it must have been a Charlie Chaplin film. Back in the early to mid-’90’s there were a series of re-releases on VHS of some of his classic films including “The Gold Rush”, “City Lights”, and “Modern Times.” I remember falling in love with the films. Although the humor was out-dated (it is hard for something to stay funny for 60-70 years) but I really loved the heart of the movies and also the character of the Little Tramp. Chaplin had a wonderful gift of blending humor with sentimentality. He never asked for sympathy for his character, yet we felt some always.

Around that time I discovered a series of books that were going to document the entire history of film, starting with the short film experiments of the late 19th century. The series, “History of the American Cinema” was an exhaustive, but fascinating, account of how film started until it formed into what we know of as the Silent Era and then the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was through this series that I discovered filmmakers like Georges Melies, Edwin S. Porter, and, of course, D.W. Griffith.

Reading about the early pioneers I felt a certain pang. I had wished that I had been born a hundred years earlier so that I could have moved to California and worked on these short films, experiments really. These pioneers helped develop the language of cinema as we know it today. The close-up, the tracking shot, the wide shot, these are all things that were created by these filmmakers and these were techniques that, at the time, were shocking to the audience of the day. Griffith is the filmmaker most credited with these revolutionary techniques. These all culminated in the release of his epic film “The Birth of a Nation.”

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Before “The Birth of a Nation”, most films were well under an hour in length, most of them were still one or two reelers at about 10-15 minutes a reel. When Griffith’s epic was released it was over 2 and a half hours. When it was released it became a sensation, though at the same time, it became, and still is, the most controversial film ever made. For those unfamiliar with this film, Griffith,  a descendant of Confederate soldiers, made the film from the viewpoint of the South before, during, and after the Civil War. By taking on this point-of-view, the film showed the formation of the Klu Klux Klan as a heroic device to help protect the poor white Southerners from the evils of the Northern carpet baggers and the evil black race.

While one can’t forgive the film these ideas (ideas that many still carry to this day) it was a monumental achievement in film history. A film of epic length with multiple story lines and dozens of characters was rare in those days. Not only that, Griffith used editing as a way to cut from one scene of action to another to dramatic and exciting effect. The audiences of 1915 were not used to seeing editing or film-making like this. It’s no surprise that this film was a huge sensation.

After Griffith came the more recognizable of the Silent Era filmmakers: Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, and countless others. The European styles created by the German filmmakers would later influence Hollywood Film Noir films from the ’40’s and ’50’s, films that were shot with shadows, weird camera angles, and stylistic set designs. The pioneers of the 1900’s and ’10’s were inspiring the legends of the ’20’s. Soon, though, this would be over.

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Metropolis, 1927. Director Fritz Lang

With the advent of sound films in the late 20’s, no one wanted to see silent movies anymore. Talkies were the rage and audiences wanted to hear their favorite stars and listen to singing and music. Several silent film actors never worked in films again as their voices lacked something to be desired. Charles Chaplin, slow to change to the times, released 2 nearly silent films in the ’30’s, as a way to protest the new technology.

Although I love where sound design is in film today, with the surround sound and the loud explosions and musical scores, I still enjoy watching films from the Silent Era. It’s the closest thing we have to a time machine. Watching the actors silently perform their roles while orchestral music plays seems so much simpler. However we may feel when looking back at these films we need to understand, and respect, the work that these early pioneers put into film. Everything in film today owes a debt to these early, silent films.


Director Profile: Martin Scorsese

Elsewhere on this blog I made a little slideshow that went through the highlights in the film career of director Martin Scorsese. His birthday was a few days ago and I wasn’t able to write about him on that day so I will go ahead and write about what a huge influence his films had on me and how he was the reason I wanted to make films growing up and will, hopefully, one day make one myself.

When our family first got our VCR in 1985 my brother and I rented every movie we could get (except for Musicals, Westerns, and boring Dramas). As I got more into film I began to buy Video Movie review books. It was at this point that I discovered Roger Ebert who was a major influence as well in making me aware of movies I had not known of and who made me want to see movies I never would have wanted to see.

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One time I rented “The Color of Money.” I was interested in seeing it because I liked Tom Cruise after seeing him in films like “Legend” and “Top Gun.” I remember not really understanding what was going on in the film (I was 10 when I saw it) but I remember really liking it for some reason. In those days, the movie I rented the most often was “The Goonies.” “The Color of Money” soon became a close second.

After watching it several times I began to realize that I didn’t like it so much because it was good (it is one of Scorsese’s weaker films) but because of how it was filmed. I loved the camerawork, how the camera would pan rapidly or zoom in on a closeup. I also loved how Scorsese used music to set the tone and also used it, along with the editing (the magnificent Thelma Schoonmaker) to make pool interesting and almost balletic.

I then began to watch Scorsese’s earlier films and after that I never looked back. I’ve since seen all of his feature films, except “Silence” which I will be watching soon.

Without spending too much time going into Scorsese’s entire film catalog, I will select the 3 (aside from “The Color of Money”) that made the most impact on me.

“Raging Bull” When I was a kid, there were 2 movies my parents forbade me from watching: “Scarface” and “Raging Bull.” When I finally saw “Raging Bull” I didn’t know why this was on my do-not-watch list. At that time I was allowed to watch horror and slasher films. Again, I first saw this movie when I was very young so I didn’t really understand the adult subject matter. One thing that really left an impression on me was the black and white cinematography. Somehow, this made the violence more shocking and the blood-splatter more violent. At the time, years before MTV-style editing became commonplace in films, the editing of the boxing scenes was revolutionary. It’s amazing to think that the boxing scenes make up only about 10% of the movie, yet it is these moments that stay with me the most.

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“Goodfellas” When I finished watching “Goodfellas” for the first time I was in shock. I thought at the time that I had just finished watching the greatest movie ever made. From it’s shocking, gut-punching violence, to it’s hilariously inappropriate humor, this film struck me like a bolt of lightning. The amazing one-shot scene of Henry Hill taking Karen into the Copa through the back entrance, while “And Then He Kissed Me” played in the background; the scene where Robert DeNiro stares at Morty while smoking his cigarette and the camera slowly goes in for a close-up while “Sunshine of Your Love” is booming on the soundtrack; Joe Pesci’s sudden and shocking death. This film was simply perfect.

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“The Aviator” Of all the Scorsese-DiCaprio collaborations this remains my favorite. I didn’t know much about Howard Hughes going into this movie, except that he had produced some scandalous films in the early days of Hollywood and that he ended his days in Las Vegas as a “crazy” old recluse. This film not only opened the door on who Hughes was, and his impact on aviation, but it was an old-school Hollywood movie made with today’s budget and CGI effects. At nearly 3 hours, there was at no time that I was bored or not interested. Aside from “The Revenant”, this was the best performance DiCaprio has delivered.

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If you haven’t seen a Martin Scorsese movie I would highly recommend that you do. His influence on later filmmakers is practically everywhere you look (Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Lee are just some of the filmmakers influenced by him). Perhaps his techniques have been so copied that, by now, his films won’t be as exciting as they were when first shown. If you are able to watch the films in the context of history and what other filmmakers were doing at the time, you will still be able to see just how revolutionary Martin Scorsese was, and, still is.


Do People Really Care What Critics Think?

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“Justice League” opens in theaters today. The Rotten Tomatoes score is less than stellar. There was some talk earlier this week about the fact that the Rotten Tomatoes score was going to be held until the day before it was released. Most films release the scores about a week, or sometimes earlier, before a film is released. The common consensus is that the later the film waits to reveal the score the worse the score for that film is. While the rating for “Justice League” isn’t horrible, it is certainly not something that most films want to advertise.

But do people really care what critics think? For years, average film goers have been disdainful of what critics say. To them, critics hate the movies they like and love the movies they don’t want to see. Critics are the ones who love foreign films, low-budget films, and depressing  movies. They hate slap-stick comedies, horror films, and big-budget extravaganzas. Yet, that has not always been the case. The films of Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan are just some examples of critics who, overall, love the films they make and these same films usually make quite a bit of money at the box-office. Even without the love of critics, films such as “Independence Day”, the “Transformers” movies, and practically everything starring Adam Sandler, has been a smash and have legions of devoted fans.

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In the last year or so, film advertising has included Rotten Tomato scores as a way to get people interested in seeing a movie. This isn’t new, of course. Film commercials and posters have always included blurbs from critics. Who can forget the Siskel & Ebert “Two Thumbs Up!” seal of approval? Now, however, having a “fresh” score is somehow meant to be akin to a papal blessing on a film. In some cases, I can see how this is. Films like “It” and “Wonder Woman” certainly benefited from the high scores, though of course a lot could be said for word-of-mouth feedback from friends, family, and co-workers.

When I first started getting into film, Roger Ebert was the biggest inspiration for me. Reading his essays and reviews made me want to see films I hadn’t thought of seeing before and also opened up my eyes to documentaries, foreign films, and obscure low-budget films that didn’t have the benefit of big-name stars and large studio presentations. Now while I loved Roger Ebert and miss him sorely, I still had my guilty pleasures. I loved the early Tim Burton films and David Lynch films, 2 directors that Ebert did not care for very much. I also enjoyed big-budge spectacles and sequels, most of which he gave 2 stars or less.

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While critical acclaim can certainly help a film’s performance, I think that the Rotten Tomato score, no matter how high or low, will not keep people away who really want to see a film. If that was the case, why are they still churning out horror movies and sequels and prequels to these same movies? Why is Michael Bay still allowed to direct? If these scores were the final answer in a film’s success, why don’t people flock to see the small, independent films from Europe? People will see what they want to see. The Rotten Tomato score can help nudge people who aren’t too sure about a movie, true, but the true test of a film’s success is, and has always been, word of mouth. Not necessarily the word of critics.


Laserdiscs: A Format for True Film Lovers

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When I first began watching films obsessively I was watching them on the format most people in the 80’s and most of the 90’s were watching them in: VHS. I remember hearing about Laserdiscs and wanting to get a Laserdisc player very badly. The primary reason for that is because most of the films were letterboxed. In those days, widescreen aspect ratio films were panned and scanned to fit the frame of your TV. What that meant is that you were essentially missing the sides of each frame of film. With most films that wasn’t too big a deal, but for epic films like “Lawrence of Arabia” or the “Star Wars” Trilogy, you were missing nearly half of the frame.

When I finally got a Laserdisc player, around 1992, I began collecting films in earnest. I was always trying to collect the best films, the films from my favorite directors, or guilty pleasure films. I was always seeking the widescreen titles so that I could see the full frames of these films I grew up watching and seeing what I missed. Steven Spielberg, in particular, usually shot his films in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio which gives you a large screen and watching his early films like “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was like watching them again for the first time. There was so much happening on the sides that added to the richness and depth of the shots I couldn’t believe that I had watched these films in any other fashion before.

The sound and video quality on Laserdiscs versus VHS was no competition. The images were clean and crisp and never got warped over time like your favorite VHS tapes did. The sound on Laserdiscs were created to go hand-in-hand with a home entertainment system. Later, movies were being released with THX sound, Dolby Digital, and DTS surround sound which gave your living room a theater-like experience.

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Another thing I liked about Laserdiscs was that they were so big and the special edition collections were huge. I remember when I bought the original Star Wars Trilogy Box Set it was as big as a suitcase. A lot of the special edition versions contained books, scripts, CD’s, and all the special features we take for granted now. VHS rarely had special features on their films and for a film nut like me, the documentaries and commentaries were priceless.

Unfortunately, Laserdiscs were not priceless. The average film ranged between $30-$40. A special edition version ranged between $100-$250. A few years after I got a Laserdisc player I was working at the old Tower Records in Bellevue. Most of my paycheck went towards those movies and I had collected a lot of the special edition versions. One of the things that made Laserdiscs so expensive was the number of discs. There were 2 different versions. A CLV version allowed for up to an hour of playing time per side. A CAV version was up to 30 minutes. The CAV versions were collector’s items because you could slow-motion in that format, whereas in the CLV you couldn’t. My “Star Wars” collection was about 12 discs, most of them just to contain the films in the CAV format. Laserdiscs involved a lot of getting-up and flipping the disc over.

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Perhaps it was inevitable that some new technology would come around to dethrone the mighty Laserdisc. DVDs came out around 1997. Offering the same clear visuals, dynamic surround sound, and special features all on one disc and for a fraction of the cost, DVDs soon became the favorite formula and Laserdiscs passed away into obscurity. The last Laserdisc I bought was for “Titanic”. Around 1999 the last discs were released.

DVDs are fantastic and, until Blu Ray came along, it was my favorite format. I still miss Laserdiscs though, with their fantastic, beautiful, big box sets. I even miss flipping the discs. For me, Laserdiscs were a quantum leap from VHS. I have never forgotten how amazing my old favorite films looked and sounded on that format. For a true film lover, the Laserdisc was the top of the mountain.


The Mouse has Teeth

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It is no secret that the Walt Disney company has become a behemoth. Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm and Marvel, Disney films make up a large percentage of big-budget and large-grossing entertainment. Every year now there are a slew of Disney animated films, Marvel Comics movies, and a Star Wars film. While the child in me loves the fact that there are new Star Wars films and I am, generally, a fan of most of the comic book films, Disney has begun to show itself as the mindless, money-machine that it is.

There has been talk of a lot of directors clashing with the producers on several of the Disney projects, from the reported issues behind Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” to the upcoming “Solo” movie. Though of course Whedon has publicly taken responsibility for the criticism of his film and it is nothing new that a film’s producers would wrest control of a film from a young director, it does seem like a disturbing chain of events that continue to escalate.

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Just recently, it was reported that Disney has made a number of demands to theater owners who wish to showcase their latest Star Wars film next month. Not only are they demanding 65% of ticket sale revenues, they are also demanding that the film be played in their largest auditorium for a minimum of 4 weeks. If you ever wonder why your popcorn and soda costs so much, this is why. Movie theaters pay to show the movies at their auditoriums. They are not lent the movies by generous studios who simply want their films to be available to view by the general public. The only way that movie theaters make money, to pay their employees and to be able to rent more movies, is through concessions and whatever they are allowed to keep from the initial ticket sales. Although it can be argued that this is fair since Disney made the movie, the fact that this is a demand and not a suggestion is in the same vein as a Godfather-type negotiation. Of course, with a franchise like Star Wars, how can a movie theater refuse?

On top of this, another disturbing incident occurred. Disney had banned the L.A. Times from all of their film screenings because they took exception to articles written in the paper about their business practices. This didn’t last long as several critic associations and other newspapers, in turn announced their support of the L.A. Times. Four large critic organizations, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics, all joined together in announcing that they would not consider Disney films in any award consideration at years end.

It didn’t take long for the pressure and backlash to mount before Disney rescinded the ban of the L.A. Times. Although this didn’t last long, repercussions are enormous. This is akin to the Trump campaign’s assertion that anything negative about Trump or his administration stems from “fake news.” When an film studio publicly bans a periodical from reviewing their films because they were not happy with their articles, what’s the next step? Of course, along with the almighty dollar, film studios thrive with good publicity. Without goodwill, people will be less willing to fork over their hard-earned money for a $50-$60 evening out at the movies.

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Disney is not the only studio that plays these tricks. However, because of the fact that Disney controls some of the biggest franchises, and is in fact looking to buy 20th Century Fox as well, it will soon be nearly impossible to see a Disney film. While this isn’t completely bad, the near-monopoly of films that will be available at our multiplex will feel overwhelming. When the time comes that Disney demands ticket sales go up to $30 or even $50 for the privilege of seeing the next Star Wars film, will people be as willing then? Or will they seek out smaller and a more affordable movie-going experience? Perhaps staying home with Netflix?


Distancing Ourselves from the Artists

In the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandal it seems that Hollywood is finally airing out it’s dirty laundry. The decades of sexual abuse and harassment, something that most in the industry either knew about or guessed about, is finally become recognized as more than just rumor. Rose McGowan, who has claimed for decades she had been raped by a powerful producer, was treated with as much respect as Chicken Little crying out that the sky was falling. Now, McGowan, along with dozens of other actresses, are being taken at their word.

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Kevin Spacey

It seems like almost every day a new celebrity (usually male) is being accused of some past transgression. Most recently, Brett Ratner and Dustin Hoffman, have been added to this long list of offenders. Has every man in Hollywood raped or harassed someone? At the rate these accusations are flying that seems plausible, if not probable. When it was Bill Cosby and Stephen Collins, the public was quick to condemn the two and, by extension, cease all interest in their work.

This begs the question: Can we distance ourselves from the artists? Can we watch, say, “Seven” and enjoy this fantastic movie without cringing when Kevin Spacey appears? Or how about when his character in “L.A. Confidential” tries to save the life of a young actor who is being forced to have sex with a lawyer so that the lawyer can be blackmailed? Can we enjoy another Miramax film knowing that Harvey Weinstein was involved? What about with the next artist? Can we watch “Rain Man” or “Kramer Vs. Kramer” without thinking about Dustin Hoffman and the stories that have begun to surface?

Outside of film, I felt the same feelings when listening to Richard Wagner. I love his music and consider him my favorite composer. However, his anti-Semitiscm was well-know, as was the adoration that Adolph Hitler had for his work, especially with the “Ride of the Valkyries.” For me, I listen to the music and appreciate it for what it is. I have found a way to distance the artist from the work.

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Dustin Hoffman (Credit: Getty/Jamie McCarthy)

With filmmakers, especially actors, it is much harder to separate one’s knowledge of their crimes and enjoy the film and the performance. Most people stopped watching “The Cosby Show” and “Seventh Heaven” after hearing the allegations against the stars. No one seems to have a problem with Michael Jackson, no matter how many accusations were leveled against him. Nor with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.

Everyone has a dark side. Most people are able to control these urges and artists, in particular, express these dark sides in their art. If we were to learn the dark truth about every artist out there I feel that there would be little to read, watch, or listen to that wasn’t somehow tainted. Perhaps we need to learn to separate the artist from the work and simply appreciate the art. I’ve managed to do that with Wagner. We are all made up of good and bad, light and shadows, saints and sinners. We have managed to get along with our family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors even though we sometimes hear things or have seen things about them that we don’t agree with or are offended by. We somehow manage to see the good in people. As a lover of film, I dread the next revelation. It will be hard to see these films and shows again now that the rock has been lifted and the dark things are scurrying into the light.

Are the Movies an Escape Anymore?

When movies first began in the late 19th and early 20th century, they were little more than short entertainments, almost like an amusing science experiment. Later, around the 1910’s, films began to be longer and to tell bigger stories. Then, like now, most movies were adaptations of novels and well-known stories. While the films immediately became popular entertainment, there was no doubt that movie goers went to the movies to escape, especially when the Depression in the 20’s and 30’s struck the country. Seeing stories of rich characters and their drama among the opulence of mansions and palaces, love stories, slapstick comedies, ghoulish monsters, and musical extravaganzas, were a much-needed escape from the misery of reality.

Today, it seems that people flock to the movies to see stories of misery, pain, and suffering; though it is not always in stories that tell of true-life atrocities and tragedies. More and more in our popular entertainment, we are seeing beloved characters killed or worse. Our effects blockbusters celebrate the destruction of large skyscrapers while ignoring the thousands, or millions, of casualties inside and around these buildings (ironically, the effects have become more realistic thanks to the 9/11 attacks).

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The Avengers

The villains in movies, particularly in Super Hero and Sci-fi extravaganzas, are more recognizable today than, say, the original James Bond villains like Dr. No and Goldfinger. Their plans were larger-than-life: world control and/or domination. Today’s villains are almost mirror images of people we hear about in the news. Billionaires and tyrants (sometimes the same) whose greed and lust for power crush the people beneath them. People who have such little regard for anyone but themselves that the life of anyone “beneath” them means little more than an ant to a child. Think Lex Luthor in “Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” or Dylan in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Their “values” are not larger-than-life. Greed is recognizable, even in those who have nothing. We always want more than what we have. The movies have always known that these are the best type of villains. Nowadays, however, they are made into legitimate characters, the CEO’s of large businesses. On the surface, they are philanthropists, beneath the surface, they want nothing less than total power.

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Man of Steel

Films also regularly have some type of sacrifice. Usually it is a throwaway character, like a best friend or co-worker. The character is simply there to be introduced in a scene, charm the audience, and then be brutally murdered/tortured. Horror films are rife with these type of characters (though as each year progresses they seem to be less sympathetic) but the idea of the sacrificial character is what drove “John Wick”, it’s what motivates Daniel Craig’s Bond in “Quantum of Solace.” Without these characters there would be no “Taken” movies.  Though revenge and coming-of-age stories are built on the foundation of someone’s death, today’s films seem to wallow in death and misery, even if it’s not done graphically (witness the countless deaths in any major blockbuster since “Twister”).

Film was, and still is, entertainment. When real-world atrocities and violence enter our entertainment, does it cease to be terrible? Is the price of being realistic, and trying to make every thing more relate-able, that we have stopped seeking an escape from the real-life horrors, but that we want to see these things as some sort of therapy? It certainly can’t be because we enjoy watching this, not on the surface at least. Perhaps sharing these images and stories with strangers, and feeling the same sadness, disgust, and outrage, is healthy.

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When we watch the news, and hear about parents killing children, the homeless, refugees, starvation, and injustice, we rarely, if ever, shed a tear. The news is presented to us by people wearing as much makeup as a runway model and the bad news is always couched between commercials and cute stories about animals or corny stories. We don’t have time to feel what we have just heard. If we had, would we keep watching?

In a film, we are there to feel. The music, the cinematography, the performances, and editing, are all brought together to elicit emotions from us. Only here, can we weep when something tragic happens. Here, it is OK to feel anger at injustice and rejoice when the good win. The ugly truths of the real world are always resolved on-screen with a smile and/or a kiss. Maybe, in that sense, we are escaping. After 2 hours or more of death and misery, we are rewarded with a joke and a kiss. Our entertainment not only reflects the world around us but how we feel about the world. If we compare the tone of today’s film from those of a hundred years ago, we clearly see that we see very little hope for humanity.



Beautiful Black & White

When I was first starting to explore the world of film, back around 1985-86, I realized that there was one type of movie I did not want to watch: Black & White movies. Being a child born into the world of colored films and TV shows, B&W movies to me seemed very boring. There were some exceptions of course. Movies like “King Kong” (1933), “The Thing (From Another World)”, “Psycho”, and “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, just to name a few, overall if I had a choice I would stay away from B&W films.

One of the things that changed my opinion on B&W was reading the work of film critic Roger Ebert. I had begun collecting his fantastic video review companions and each volume included essays about film, actors, and filmmakers. One of the volumes I had included a list of Ebert’s favorite B&W movies. The way he described the beauty of these films really got to me. I decided that I would begin to explore more of the classic films and stop denying myself the opportunity to see such fantastic films from legendary directors like John Ford, Federico Fellini, and Howard Hawks, just to name a few.

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“My Darling Clementine” directed by John Ford

B&W cinematography has a quite, clean beauty. Landscapes, close-ups, scenes of violence, scenes of dancing, all seemed to have more feeling, more elegance. B&W film stock also didn’t fade as bad as the color film stock from early Hollywood. Ironically, the era of B&W films were seemingly over, but the color film were in danger of disappearing forever. Nevertheless I discovered countless movies I would not have ever seen had I stayed to my “color only” prerogative.

Now, as a much older man, I am always disappointed, but not surprised, when I hear that people younger than me refuse to watch classic movies, especially the B&W ones. Although I felt the same way at their age, I feel frustrated that most young people stay away from anything older than they are. While color is more “realistic”, movies weren’t invented to be real. They were invented to bring dreams and nightmares to life.

Since B&W films were semi-officially put to rest around the mid to late 1960’s, there have been few films released by major studios that have been made in this format for the same reason: people didn’t want to see B&W films anymore. Movies were now showing nudity, sex, graphic violence, profanity: Color was the true palette in which to tell raw and “realistic” stories.

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“Raging Bull” directed by Martin Scorsese

In 1980, 2 of the 5 films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards were in B&W: “Raging Bull” and “The Elephant Man”. With “Bull”, there have been several stories about why it was filmed in this format, the most popular theory being that if it had been shot in color it would have been Rated X due to all of the blood from the boxing scene carnage. B&W was a creative decision for Scorsese and Lynch though it may have cost them at the box office.

In 1993, Steven Spielberg released his first R-Rated film, a 3-hour plus film about the Holocaust shot in B&W. Although B&W was dead and buried for the most part by this time, this did not stop people from flocking to see this epic and for the Academy to finally give Spielberg his long-deserved Oscar for Best Director.

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“Schindler’s List” directed by Steven Spielberg

There have been more examples of directors deciding to shoot their films in B&W, usually because it captures a time and place (Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” is a fantastic example of this). What is wonderful about this is that when popular filmmakers and actors decide to star in a B&W film, it allows the younger generation to experience how beautiful B&W cinematography can be. Sure it’s not “realistic”, but that doesn’t stop people from packing cinema houses to see CGI extravaganzas of things that do not exist.

If I ever have children, I think the first films I will expose them to are the classics, the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton, the early works of Hitchock, Ford, and Hawks, the classic horror/sci-fi films like “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” I believe that embracing these films, and this format, will help our young embrace history in general. Given the current political climate, it is more important than ever to embrace and remember our past.


Super Hero Overload?

When I was a kid I LOVED comic books. Next to toys, they were my favorite thing to collect. In those days I didn’t care if my favorites were part of DC or Marvel, or any of the other obscure comic book houses. I generally fell in love with a character and would grab whichever comic books had that hero on the cover. My favorites growing up where Spider-Man and Batman. As I got older I began to wonder if the reason I loved those two the most wasn’t so much their cool costumes, but because they were both characters I loved on TV.

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Growing up in the 80’s the pickings were slim for comic book characters on TV and film. One of my earliest theatrical experiences was seeing “Superman II”. I loved the Christopher Reeve films (I still think the first 2 are some of the best comic book films ever made). On TV, I was a huge fan of “The Incredible Hulk”, the Spider-Man TV movies that featured Nicholas Hammond, and, of course, the re-runs of the Batman show with Adam West and Burt Ward.

In 1989, the sensation that was Tim Burton’s “Batman” hit the screen. This was the first time we had seen a more grown-up comic book character. The film was a sensational success and it spawned another Burton film (which I thought was better than the original) that was even darker than the first.

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While DC/Warner Bros. was slowly destroying the Batman franchise (thank you Joel Schumacher) the Marvel universe was relatively quiet. Years of legal battles were ensuing over who owed the rights to which character and this seemed to leave the possibility of big-budget Marvel movies forever within reach but never on the big screen.

Then, in 2002, Marvel hit it big with Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” Like “Batman” before it, this was a huge success that spawned 2 more sequels from the same team (Part 2 is on my list for one of the best comic book movies ever).

2005 saw the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and what would begin what is, arguably, the best comic book movie trilogy so far. The same year that Nolan released the brilliant “The Dark Knight” (not only the best comic book movie ever but one of the best movies, period) Marvel began their Cinematic Universe with “Iron Man”. Both films were a smash (“The Dark Knight” ended up at the top of the box office, only below “Titanic”).

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At this point the Marvel films began churning out their films and are releasing them to this day (at the time of this writing, “Thor:Ragnarok is a week away). After Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy ended, DC released “Man of Steel” which was tentatively set up as their first film into their own universe. Though DC has stumbled for the most part, I loved “Wonder Woman” (another smash) and am looking forward to “Justice League” (I just purchased my tickets for the 70mm presentation at the Cinerama about an hour ago).

I love comic books and I love seeing my childhood heroes brought to life. However, is it time to pull back a little bit? It seems like half of all of the actors in the Screen Actors Guild have been in a Marvel or DC movie and there seems to be no end in sight. They make money and children love them. But with each new comic book movie it is getting harder and harder to make something fresh or original. They all follow the same heroic story that Joseph Campbell wrote about. The villains (aside from the phenomenal Heath Ledger) are often very forgetful and don’t seem like they pose much of a threat. It seems that, rather than making the next films more unique by making more memorable villains or interesting character dynamics, they are making the films louder and with more special effects.

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As I said I am looking forward to watching “Justice League” (and “Avengers 4” and “Aquaman”) but I think that most of the films being released under these 2 franchises are forgetful and lack a lot of originality. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen Batman and Spider-Man’s origin stories so many times before. Or maybe it’s because the filmmakers are so eager to follow the same path of the films that have come before it because it worked in such and such movie and look how much money THAT movie made!

Although I think audiences will eventually get tired of these movies I’m not sure it’s going to be anytime soon. While the people of my generation, and the Millennials after me, will draw away from these films and watch others, there will always be a generation of children who live for these films. Super heroes are a way for children to feel like they have a place in this world and that they can be brave and make a difference. It’s no surprise that most comic characters are considered “freaks” or have lost their parents tragically. These stories are made for children because they speak to them. So long as children grow up feeling weird and ugly and different and unwanted, we may never reach that state of super hero overload.

Perhaps, after all, that is not a bad thing.

Oh, the Horror

My family first got cable TV in the early 80’s. For what seemed like most of my early childhood, we would watch everything that Showtime, and later HBO, had to offer. Of all the films that my family and I grew up watching that we enjoyed the most (except for my father) was horror films. My mother, in particular, was a huge horror and murder-mystery fan. Every time there was a commercial for a horror film, no matter how awful it looked, she would always remark:  “That looks good.”

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The first films I remember watching on Showtime were “Friday the 13th” and “Friday the 13th Part 2”. We watched all the Friday the 13th movies, all the Halloween movies, all of the Chainsaw Massacre movies and, of course, all of the Elm Street movies.

It wasn’t just the horror franchises that we would watch. We watched movies like “The Thing”, “The Exorcist”, “The Shining”, “The Evil Dead”, “Fright Night”, “Child’s Play”, and all the George Romero zombie movies. It wasn’t just movies, either. “Tales from the Crypt” was a favorite show of ours as well.

In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a good idea that my parents allowed me to watch such films at such a young age. True, my mother would have me close my eyes as soon as a woman began to undress, but it was ok to watch all the stabbings and gory effects; there was some type of parental guidance here!

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Later, when we got our VCR around 1985-86, the first movies we would rent were horror films. Every time my brother and I went to a video store, that was the section we went to first. We literally rented about 90% of the horror films at each store. We discovered some unknown gems but also a lot of truly horrible films.

Although I do enjoy all kinds of movies, horror movies have a special place in my heart. Perhaps it is because of all the childhood memories these films are associated with in my head, or perhaps it is because my mother, gone 12 years now, loved them so much. Of course, it could also be because I love the special effects, the gore, the creatures, and the adrenaline rush that such films (the good ones at least) provide.

I have written a couple of short stories, and whenever I try to write something dramatic or funny, it generally turns into some type of horror and/or supernatural story. Horror, to me, is a genre that allows artists to present human beings tested to the very limit of their endurance. Horror film characters are always portrayed in the role of likely victim, but it also shows us who the heroes are and how strong they must be to overcome whatever it is that is trying to kill them.

Horror films nowadays are all about torture. The “Saw” and “Hostel” films have proven that there is an audience for these movies, but it really doesn’t push the envelope when it comes to making horror films more challenging, intelligent, and terrifying. The horror films have become just another version of “Fear Factor”, the eating-bugs section replaced with how long and graphic a torture scene can be.

Although horror films do usually show us ugly things we know that what we are seeing is fake. Like riding a rollercoaster, there is the tease, the possibility, of a violent death, yet we still eagerly get our tickets and wait in line. Horror films are a way to remind us that we are alive and, the best horror films, leave us feeling lucky to be alive.