Saturday, January 9, 2010

Saved from the Dustbin of History

As I mentioned in the year-end wrap-up, The Library of Congress has picked twenty five films to include in the National Film Registry for preservation. As always, it's an eclectic blend of films deemed "classics," silent "orphans" in need of rescue, student films of notable directors of the film-school era, movies of historical record—last year a home-movie of Disneyland was included—and this year, a music video.

The Student films are interesting from a historical perspective for study—maybe we can glean from Martin Brest's student film why he made "Gigli"— and are sometimes experimental in nature. A director's first baby-steps but also those first experiments when there's no one to tell them "no." A lot of these I haven't seen, but some of them I have. Many times.

1) Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Not so much a great film, but a great idea for a film, with fine performances by Al Pacino, John Cazale and James Broderick (Matthew's dad), that is important as a marker for that time in history when crime became a spectator sport/media event and an arena for press manipulation, and "homosexuals" (although still treated like freaks in this film) began to be seen as people with motivations beside rampant sexuality. There was empathy here, maybe for the first time. Based on a true incident, directed by Sidney Lumet. "Attica! Attica!"

2) The Exiles (1961) Kent McKenzie's documentary of a group of young Native Americans who moved to L.A.'s Bunker Hill district in the '50's to find a better life off the rez.

3) Heroes All (1920) Produced by the Red Cross, this footage shows returning WWI vets being treated at Walter Reed. Historically significant, it could be a useful primer for the VA these days.

4) Hot Dogs for Gauguin (1972) Martin Brest's student film with Danny DeVito as a schnook-photographer determined to blow up the Statue of Liberty just to get the "ultimate" shot. It also stars Rhea Perlman.

5) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) Lyrical sci-fi exploitation film that turned the tables on the "atomic giants" sub-genre, to make radiation have an effect on us, or rather Grant Williams--turning the nuclear nightmare metaphor literal as atomic fall-out from a nuke test shrinks a man into a world that suddenly becomes much more threatening until the point where he becomes infinitesimal. With all the exciting action battling cats and spiders, you may not realize it's talking about man's role in the atomic age and the Universe. One of the classic sci-fi films of all time. Brilliant poetic work by both writer Richard Matheson and the undersung director Jack Arnold.

6) Jezebel (1938) One of two William Wyler films this year, this one with a knock-out performance by Bette Davis (for which she won her second Oscar) as a scheming Southern belle with a reckless spirit, trying to maintain her independence and her relationship with Henry Fonda.

7) The Jungle (1967) Gang life in Philadelphia as recorded by the gang-members themselves. Never theatrically released, but probably has been seen by many in school.

8) The Lead Shoes (1949) Phantasmagoric avant-garde film by Sidney Peterson that illustrates through many film techniques a mentally unstable view of the world.

9) Little Nemo (1911) One of the early experiments in animation by Winsor McKay (who also wrote and drew the comic strip that it's based on), McKay created the "first" cartoon, "Gertie the Dinosaur." Never mind how influential he was (on just...everybody), this is a landmark of cinema.

10) Mabel’s Blunder (1914) Mabel Normand was one of the great stars of the silent screen (and one of Mack Sennet's most popular comedians, as well) and had enough power that she could write, direct and star in her own pictures. This is one of the few that has survived. Historic? You bet. And probably funny as hell.

11) The Mark of Zorro (1940) The Tyrone Power-Basil Rathbone version directed by Rouben Mamoulian. A remake of the silent Douglas Fairbanks version, it is legendary as containing the greatest swordfight ever filmed.

12) Mrs. Miniver (1942) William Wyler's war film that popularized the German front for Americans as it dramatized life in Britain under siege by the Nazi's. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon brave the rationing and the nightly air-raids and try to keep their upper lips stiff. It won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress. I'll always remember Garson appearing on "Laugh-In," and Arte Johnson's diminutive Nazi ("Verrrry interesting") coming up behind her and saying "Sorry about the roses."

13) The Muppet Movie (1979) Charming movie by the Muppets creator and master-illusionist Jim Henson and James Frawley. The opening shot of Kermit the Frog singing "The Rainbow Connection" (sitting in a pool of real water--he's a puppet, remember) amused me, and should have amazed me. The shot of Kermit riding a bicycle a few shots later did that. A road movie in form with assorted cameo's (Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Richard Pryor, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), Bob Hope, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, and on and on), it also boasts some great songs by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. Kids love it and adults do, too.

14) Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) One of my favorite films of all time. If there's footage that's missing—Paramount severely cut it when it was released in the U.S.,—this might be a chance to retrieve it, if the DVD release wasn't enough impetus. Sergio Leone's epic about the creation of a desert town, "Sweetwater," (located in John Ford's Monument Valley) features Leone's first female hero (Claudia Cardinale), who is encircled by three desperate men (Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda) in a cross-fire. It starts out with a bizarre 15 minute, nearly wordless credit sequence and keeps breaking rules right up to its extended, almost reluctant, ending. Don't be surprised if it evokes gasps while watching it. I've known people who didn't know what it was, but couldn't take their eyes off it. Maybe the personal best score of Ennio Morricone. Bronson was never better nor as enigmatic. Cardinale is luminous in it. Fonda said it was one of his favorite roles. Everyone knew how to play.

15) Pillow Talk (1959) Of historical interest because it's the model for the modern rom-com (but with a little sex in it) stars Rock Hudson as the quintessential American male and Doris Day as the original forty year old virgin 60's style, a cross somewhere between Betty Boop and Shirley Temple. Too bad. Day is a hell of a personality and a damned good actress (her performance in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" has one scene that just blows me away every time). The story of a man and a woman who share a party-line (look it up, kids) , it's a movie length all-American prurient tease, the film's burning question being "Will they "do" it, or won't they?" These days, the first meeting usually ends up in the sack. But if you want to see the Rosetta Stone for every Kate Hudson comedy, this is it. Technically notable for its well-coordinated split-screen effects.

Here's a scene from "Pillow Talk" where Hudson's male chauvinist pig tries to convince Day that the man she's dating (who is actually himself faking a "Giant" Texas accent) might be gay. Given what we know now, it's clear that Hudson was having a lot of fun with this scene. If he'd had a bit more imagination, he could have been the most dangerous man in Hollywood.

16) Precious Images (1986) Chuck Workman's flood of indelible movie images set to some of the more boisterous movie music of the last 30 years (Randy Newman's "The Natural," Mancini's "The Pink Panther Theme," Wendy Carlos' electronic version of "The William Tell Overture" from "A Clockwork Orange") was almost too much to take in, a nostalgic wealth that reminded me of the viewing of the "cut scenes" sequence that closed "Cinema Paradiso."

17) Quasi at the Quackadero (1975) Sally Cruikshank's bizarre 70's San Franciscan version of "Daffy in Wackyland." I hated it when I first saw it in theaters, but have come to appreciate its bizarre textures and ideas. To see more of her work, go to YouTube and find "laughingsal." Bless her heart.

18) The Red Book (1994) Director Janie Greiser's experiment with two and three-dimensional animation that is the inspiration for every technique giving depth to 2-D pictures. Really quite amazing that somebody would come up with that idea.

19) The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36) The Padila family of El Paso made this stitched together compilation of news footage and reenactments to tell the whole Villa story. Interesting from both a cultural and documentary stand-point.

20) Scratch and Crow (1995) The late Helen Hill's student film from CalArts.
21) Stark Love (1927) Karl Brown's film of a boy fighting against the strict prejudices of his family, filmed in the Appalachian mountains with amateur actors.

22) The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) William Wellman had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making this movie based on the WWII writings of Ernie Pyle, but it wasn't until Pyle himself made a personal appeal to him that Wellman signed on, determined to make a realistic, gritty film of the infantryman in combat. The little known Burgess Meredith got a reprieve to play Pyle in the picture, and a young up-and-comer named Robert Mitchum got one of his first major roles (and his only Oscar nomination) out of it. Pyle was killed in combat two weeks before its premiere. Dwight Eisenhower singled out "The Story of G.I. Joe" as the finest war film he'd ever seen.

23) A Study in Reds (1932) A dull lecture on Soviet politics put a woman's club to sleep and they dream of working for an all-woman collective. Directed by Miriam Bennett.

24) Michael Jackson's 'Thriller ' (1983) It's not just "Thriller." It's "Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.'" The self-proclaimed King of Pop's love letter to the horror genre, complete with "rap" by horror icon Vincent Price. Maybe its inclusion is a case of "survivor's guilt." Maybe it's because this one expanded the form to short-film and took the music-video (which I've always seen as, basically, a commercial until the music industry got left behind at the technological station) off MTV and into theaters. Plus, an A-list director—John Landis—made it. As I recall, "Thriller" was the first thing Landis worked on following his segment of the "Twilight Zone" movie, sullied by the helicopter accident that killed star Vic Morrow and two children he was carrying in his arms. That Landis included in the video a shot of one of Michael Jackson's dancing zombies searching its shoulders for its missing head (it starts the last shot at 13:18 on the video) after over-seeing the decapitation of three human beings on his watch, always struck me as not only defiantly arrogant but sadistically cruel. You have to pay me to see a Landis film without prejudice these days. And even then you won't get your money's worth.

25) Under Western Stars (1938) The movie (from low-budget Republic Pictures) that transformed Roy Rogers from the founder of "The Sons of the Pioneers" into a Western Star. Trigger, too.

And with that, we say "Happy Trails to You." Until the Library of Congress announces their next 25. Got a favorite movie? Go to this web-site and tell them. Who knows? Maybe it'll make next year's list.

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