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Weekend Reel Reads: Looking at the Originals on the Page, Screen and Battlefield

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Criticwire November 25, 2012 at 9:07AM

Sifting through the '80s basis for a recent remake, the history of war films, and a multitude of screenwriting manuals: the various inspirations for some of the top film-related stories around the web from the past week.
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

'Red Dawn' Wasn't About the Cold War, It Was About Shooting People

Whenever a classic film gets remade (regardless of the reason behind the motivation for designating the original a "classic"), there's a tendency to romanticize what came before. But Alan Zilberman's piece for The Atlantic takes a measured look at the John Milius "Red Dawn" and the violence at its forefront. Outlining the ways that the now-released remake can reinvent the '80s version, Zilberman makes the point that the true enemy in the original might not have come from Russia after all.

"In the original Red Dawn, the Wolverines' strategy was simple: Shoot, shoot some more, and if that didn't work, use a rocket-powered grenade. Milius never offered his guerrillas a specific objective. They battled the Reds out of blind hatred, seemingly without a goal of victory. There is so much gunfire in Red Dawn, in fact, that it once held the Guinness World Record for the most-violent movie ever made (according to The National Coalition on Television Violence, there were 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute). Left-leaning critics took issue with the excessive gunfire in part because of Milius's political leanings. '[A] former NRA board member, Milius is a military zealot, infatuated with the warrior code,' writes David Plotz in Slate. 'Red Dawn is really a fetish movie, an ode to guns and blood.' Hopefully, in the remake, the Wolverines will at least indulge that fetish with greater purpose."

The Early History of Faking War on Film

The first war to be captured by cameras was not World War I, nor was it the Spanish-American War. Mike Dash, writing for the Past Imperfect blog at Smithsonian.com, details the wartime exploits of Frederic Villiers, a British reporter who shot footage three years before the turn of the 20th century. As Villiers was capturing images directly from the battlefield, newly-rediscovered early filmmaking legend George Méliès was experimenting with recreating that fighting on cilivian property. Dash's account shows that the practice of making war films is nearly as old as the medium itself.

"Méliès had, like Villiers, been inspired by the commercial potential of a real war in Europe. Unlike Villiers, he had traveled no closer to the front than his back yard in Paris—but, with his showman’s instinct, the Frenchman triumphed nonetheless over his rival on the spot, even shooting some elaborate footage that purported to show close ups of a dramatic naval battle. The latter scenes, recovered a few years ago by the film historian John Barnes, are especially notable for the innovation of an 'articulated set'—a pivoted section of deck designed to make it appear that Méliès’s ship was being tossed about in a rough sea, and which is still in use, barely modified, on film sets today."

A Three Act Journey in the Land of Screenwriting Gurus

"Aspiring screenwriter" is can sometimes be a redundant phrase. One such writer working to knock the first word off that designation is Jonathan Zimmerman, whose continued attempts at selling a script has meant digesting a number of books on screenwriting tips. His piece for the LA Review of Books is a personal one, but for anyone who's never tried to look for literary help on their screenplay pursuits, Zimmerman gives a handy overview of some standby guru phrases.

"The tremendous unlikelihood of actually succeeding serves as one major theme of the screenwriting book sub-genre. The guru typically lays this message out in the introduction, justifying the book’s existence and establishing his own bona fides, which need be no greater than, 'I am screenwriter, and if you are reading this preface, then probably you are not.'"

The Other Shooter: The Saddest and Most Expensive 26 Seconds of Amateur Film Ever Made

The Zapruder film is iconic in both name and product. In the wake of the 49th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, Alex Pasternack wrote a history of the short 8mm film for Vice's Motherboard. Pasternack's post is a fascinating overview of the chronology surrounding the video immediately after it was captured. From anecdotes featuring a rookie reporter Dan Rather to the incredible Errol Morris documentary short about the mysterious "Umbrella Man," it's a multimedia look at a traumatic sequence of events.

"The film’s ambiguous impact was felt first and foremost inside the Zapruder home. The night after the assassination, he claimed to have had a nightmare in which he saw a booth in Times Square declaring, 'See the President’s head explode!' After his nightmare, Zapruder decided that one frame would never appear in print. Fearing the public’s reaction to the gruesome fatal shot that killed JFK, and perhaps some karmic retribution, Zapruder insisted that frame 313 be withheld from publication. He also chose to give the first $25,000 of his Life payment to the widow of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, who had been killed confronting Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination."

Building Sounds for "Killing Them Softly"

The upcoming Andrew Dominik film (which has a "B" Criticwire average, by the way) has, to be expected, a number of moving parts. The New York Times' Mekado Murphy helps dissect one key scene through the perspective of sound. A print version appears in the Sunday edition of the Times, but an interactive guide to the scene can be accessed here.

"Mr. Dominik and Mr. Shatz experimented with several techniques while developing the punching sounds in the scene. 'You always try to make a punch that feels right,' Mr. Dominik said, 'because if your punches are too big, they don’t seem real. But if they’re too small, they don’t feel violent.' In some of the hits they used the sound of flash bulbs, which provide a kind of tingly aftereffect. They also occasionally muted all the other sound at moments of fist impact and mixed the dialogue into multiple channels, with discrete sounds coming from different directions, forcing the moviegoer to experience the moment more intimately. Also Mr. Shatz drew on an unlikely source: Norman Mailer. When Mailer directed the 1987 film version of his novel 'Tough Guys Don’t Dance,' he was unhappy with the way punches sounded in movies. So he suggested that Mr. Shatz record Mailer hitting himself. Those self-inflicted punches, in a recycled and modified form, became part of the punch audio for this scene."

"Never mess about with a dead body -- you may be one..."

Last week, we featured a conversation between Roger Ebert and a noted director, but in light of the release of "Hitchcock," the legendary film critic posted another conversation with Hitch himself. Originally published in December of 1969, it reads like a seldom-interrupted monologue from a cinematic master. Ebert wisely stays out of Hitchcock's way as the director unleashes his ruminations on murder, his colleagues, composite shots and Dorothy Parker.

"Hitchcock pursed his lips. ‘Reminds me,’ he said, ‘of the case reported in the British papers about a one-armed woman who sued a woman with no legs for the alienation of her husband's affections. Of course, as it turned out, the poor man had a proclivity for maimed women. His wife had no recourse, really, except perhaps to cut off her other arm . . .’ Hitchcock smiled, and it was a warm and benign smile. You had the feeling he would helpfully have assisted the woman with her saw."

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Finally, even though the piece is over five months old, Harry Hurt III's piece for Texas Monthly on the life and career of Larry Hagman is a fitting tribute after the actor's passing late last week.

This article is related to: Reel Reads, Red Dawn, John Milius, Killing Them Softly, Roger Ebert Fellowship , Alfred Hitchcock


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