Weekend Reel Reads: On Sontag, Video Games and the Death of Ramon Novarro

Features
by Steve Greene
May 27, 2012 3:37 PM
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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.

The Hustlers and the Movie Star:

William van Meter’s Out Magazine longform recounting of the murder of silent film star Roman Novarro is chilling in its detail and unflinching approach to the crime. The grisly depiction of Novarro’s death is not light reading, but the access to the killers’ backstories makes for a compelling and well-crafted portrait. Most of the piece concentrates on the subsequent fates of the accused murderers, but it also serves as both a reminder of Novarro’s place in the pantheon of pre-talkie actors and the senselessness of his death.

"Paul, 66, is wearing all gray—hospital-scrub pants and a tee over a long-sleeved shirt. His graying hair is slicked back in the Rockabilly style of his youth, but the back is grown out and touches his shoulders. Two teeth are missing and, as he speaks, he dips a ham sandwich from the vending machine into a cup of hot chocolate, just to taste something different. The monotonous food is his biggest complaint about prison—that, and missing horses. He maintains his strong build doing 200 push-ups every other day (despite the fact that he’s had five heart attacks and sleeps with an oxygen mask on)...Paul is a practicing Buddhist and does yoga each morning. He is also a convicted murderer responsible for one of the biggest scandals Hollywood has ever seen."

Susan Sontag on Movies: For Interpretation:

Earlier this week, the New Yorker ran an online piece by Richard Brody in which he reflects on the essayist Susan Sontag’s relationship with movies, culled from recent published excerpts of Sontag’s personal journal. As a Godard devotee, Brody was initially struck by Sontag’s willingness to relegate some of the "Breathless" director’s Hollywood influences to a seemingly inferior level of filmmaking. Brody’s analysis is an overview of Sontag’s approach to film criticism that builds on the continuous struggle between the merits of the arthouse and those of the mainstream.

"Sontag’s critical credo, from 'Against Interpretation'—'the function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means'—reveals why she missed out on the essence of the art of the great American directors—and of their greatest acolytes, those of the New Wave, and, in particular, Godard. By contrast, the criticism that Godard wrote in the fifties, like that of his friends and comrades at Cahiers du Cinéma, was uninhibited by the strictures of aesthetic prejudice; it was open, ecstatic, enthusiastic, vituperative, anarchic, and personal. In discovering the inner worlds of such directors as Hawks and Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann and Douglas Sirk, his writing foreshadowed in tone and substance, in insolence and depth, in rapture and creative fury—and in interpretive freedom—the movies he would make. It brought the full range of his knowledge, experience, and passion to bear on movies; and it didn’t leave out the character and the personae of the auteurs themselves. To interpret is to write freely."

28 Videogame Cameos in the Movies:

Remember the arcade game in the original "The Thing?" If not, it’s a testament to how the presence of videogames in film has progressed over the decades. From Pac-Man in "Tron" to the playful Wii Boxing bout in last year’s "Another Earth," Ryan Lambie’s list at Den of Geek is a lot of fun to look at and watch while reading. Many of the selections aren’t obvious ones, showing that this is not a list made by a casual fan.

"Burger Time/Jaws: Back To The Future II (1989)

Here’s a tiny yet important cameo from a couple of NES games in the marvellous Back To The Future II. When Marty McFly travels forward in time to 2015, he stumbles upon an antiques shop stuffed full of late-80s curios. Marty’s more interested in the Gray’s Sports Almanac sitting prominently at the front of the display, but for our purposes, take a look at the other items laid out in the shop window: there’s a cheeky little grey Mac Performa peeking out, and most pertinently, copies of Jaws, Jaws II and Burger Time for the Nintendo Entertainment System. These apparently random items have more significance than is initially apparent; Jaws and its sequel were programmed by a studio called LJN, who made the tie-in video games for Back To The Future II and its sequel, as well as another Robert Zemeckis hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Cultural significance: Possibly the first time a movie has suggested that old games and computers may one day become collector’s items – which they now are, of course."

The 'Invisible Art': A Woman's Touch Behind the Scenes:

Even though the split of female editors to their male counterparts isn’t exactly half and half, the profession is one significant industry post that has close-to-equitable representation. John Anderson’s New York Times look at notable women working in the editing field features some of the better-known editors working today and those with Oscar-filled resumes who preceded them.

"Long before Final Cut Pro and before the now-archaic Steenbeck editing table (a riot of spindles and rollers), the work was primitive and unappreciated. That helps explain how women got in the door. But it doesn’t explain their success, relative though it may be. Available statistics can be misleading; not everyone practicing a film craft is a member of a professional organization. But according to the Motion Picture Editors Guild, 1,500 of its 7,300 active members (or 21 percent) are women. And a spokeswoman for American Cinema Editors, which will host its annual educational convention, Editfest, in the coming months (New York, June 8 and 9; Los Angeles, Aug. 3 and 4), said a third of its 650 members are women, as are 6 of the 14 members of its board of directors."

For one night only!

What began as a six-installment script-reading series for the Los Angeles Community Museum of Art (LACMA) has grown into a bi-coastal phenomenon. Spearheaded by director Jason Reitman, the project has seen a versatile range of cast members literally retelling some of Hollywood’s most beloved stories (past installments have included "The Apartment" and "The Princess Bride"). Emily Stokes’ Financial Times piece delves into the origins of the series while discussing its growth with Reitman and some of the other figures who have been instrumental to its continued success (including critic and current LACMA director Elvis Mitchell).

"LA audiences, perhaps accustomed to a more pre-packaged kind of celebrity appearance, responded enthusiastically to the unrehearsed performances, particularly, says Elvis Mitchell, to the mishaps. He recalls fondly the moment when Sam Elliott, reading the part of 'The Stranger' in The Big Lebowski (a part that he had also played in the Coen brothers’ 1998 original), interrupted himself mid-sentence to say, 'I’m sorry, my eyes aren’t as good as they were, let’s start again' – or when Terrence Howard, playing Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs, spoke over Reitman to declare that he wasn’t ready to die yet."

The Unglamorous, Punishing Hours of Working on a Hollywood Set:

The most recent installment of Gavin Polone’s weekly article for Vulture gives a brief cross-section of the average day on set for "below the line" workers. Polone, a producer himself, argues that the notion of 16-18 hour days (with minimal time before having to return to work) may be common practice, but it shouldn’t be allowed to continue. His profile of a set is slanted toward television, but many of the production maxims transcend the film/TV divide. The members of various departments, ranging from makeup to transportation, all describe the toll that the average day takes on careers and, more importantly, marriages and lives.

"Nobody in production wants to go over twelve hours, if for no other reason than it is costly because of all the overtime. But it regularly happens when overly optimistic scheduling falls prey to bad luck, like cameras breaking, incompetence, and director egomania (though that is usually reserved for big-budget feature films). You may think, 'Well, as producer, can't you just shorten the days?' but the studio sets the budget and the schedule, and you can only meet that with these long hours. I have no power to pull the plug on a day unless the studio tells me to do so, and that has happened maybe three times that I can remember in my career. Really, the only way to keep hours in check would be a firm work rule, unlike anything currently in place. In 2004, esteemed cinematographer and documentarian Haskell Wexler started an organization with the purpose of advocating for a 'twelve and twelve rule': an inviolable twelve-hour maximum day with a mandated twelve-hour turnaround period for all industry workers. Wexler’s advocacy on this issue was catalyzed by the death in 1997 of cameraman Brent Hershman, who died when he fell asleep while driving home after a nineteen-hour day on the film Pleasantville."

The Magic of Realism:

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Mekong Hotel." Chaisiri Jiwarangsan
In light of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s "Mekong Hotel" currently playing at Cannes, Screen Daily’s Colin Brown examines the recent trend among documentary filmmakers of incorporating unconventional narrative devices into non-fiction films. Highlighting the many festival success stories from the last few years, Brown also looks at how style translates to box office returns and what these innovations may mean for the next wave of documentarians.

"Mekong Hotel is not the first documentary to blend in elements of magical realism. It is one of a growing wave of non-fiction films incorporating stylistic choices more typically associated with narrative movie-making than with the detachment of cinema vérité. Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, another Cannes selection four years ago, broke new ground by using animation to reconstruct recent history; other documentaries have gone on to use every audience engagement trick in the cinematic playbook, from 3D and gonzo film-making to the contrivances of mysteries and thrillers...Documentaries have been dressed up for public consumption in everything from traditional window treatments to simultaneous video-on-demand and theatrical releases and myriad digital-only distribution strategies. It is a mix-and-match business with few hard-and-fast rules except maybe one: theatrical exhibition still finds itself at the top of the pyramid."

Iron Sky doesn't stand out from the crowdsourcing:

When the Finnish Nazi/sci-fi parody "Iron Sky" played at Berlin earlier this year and gained subsequent distribution, its relative success could have become a jumping point for similarly crowdfunded ventures. However, the film’s one-day theatrical run in the UK might not have been a decision made solely on tepid critical response, but a subtle referendum on films financed by multiple, independent online backers. The Guardian’s Ben Child establishes the main difference between crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, while touching on the critical dilemma when approaching works made on limited budgets.

"Might the decision be linked to lukewarm early reviews for the film? And does the critical indifference which has greeted the project emanate from its crowdsourced origins? If so, the Iron Sky team are showing no sign of having got the message: their statement asks fans to email Revolver in protest at the short UK run. There's something to be admired, at the very least, in the producers' determination and audacious, barefaced belief in people power. Shouldn't critics take account of the film's meagre budget and reward its struggle in the face of adversity, rather than gloat over its failures?"

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