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Archive for the 'Film' Category

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Emanuel Levy on the Politics of Gay Films

Gay Directors, Gay Films?

“All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities.”—Emanuel Levy

In the following excerpt from the conclusion of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Emanuel Levy examines the political aspects of the directors’ work and their influences:

All five filmmakers have spoken against reductionism—namely, the reduction of gay artists (and gay screen characters) to sexuality as the single, or most prominent, aspect that defines their personalities. They have also refused to reproduce dominant stereotypes of homo­sexuals, such as the Sissy, the Suicidal Youth, the Gay Psychopath, the Seductive Androgyne, and the Bisexual. Instead, they have tried to present “more real” or “realistic” gay men and lesbians. They real­ize, as Anneke Smelik has suggested, that for straight viewers, using old, negative stereotypes confirms prejudice and that for gay specta­tors, their use might encourage fear, self-hatred, and anger. On the other hand, these directors also realize that presenting only positive images is not the solution and that images of gays and lesbians can­not be seen as simply “true” or “false.” Gay Directors, Gay Films? has focused on the social contexts and the conditions under which vari­ous entertainment institutions have created, maintained, and per­petuated ideological and cinematic stereotypes that gay directors have set out to challenge and abolish.

Aiming to establish connections between gays and other marginal­ized minorities, Haynes destabilizes the division between dominant and subordinate individuals by disturbing the usual space allotted to “others” in society’s broader structure. Like Almodóvar, he avoids any form of labeling because labeling permits those in power to feel secure and to perpetuate the status quo by drawing boundaries that separate those who have from those who have not. Moreover, to label is to judge, and to judge is to limit the range of possibilities of his characters and the range of interpretations of his viewers. No char­acter in his films can be adequately understood or fully contained through sexual labeling; in most cases, socioeconomic status is more important as a defining criterion. He empowers his disenfranchised individuals in fantasy worlds, which they create apart from their oppressors. In Poison, nothing that the jail’s wardens do can prevent the prisoners from engaging in imaginative sexual intercourse (a plot device that served as a climax in Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama, Bent). In Velvet Goldmine, Arthur rehearses in his imagination the bold declaration of his sexuality to his parents.


Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on John Waters, Camp, and Pink Flamingos

John Waters, Divine

“From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force.”—Emanuel Levy

The following is an excerpt from Emanuel Levy’s chapter on John Waters from his new book: Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters. In it, Levy explores Waters’s notion of camp and his cult classic Pink Flamingos Also, at the bottom of the post is a recent photo of Levy and Waters!

The brand of camp that prevails in Waters’s output is what the scholar Barbara Klinger has called mass camp. Media products qualify for camp enjoyment because they exhibit exaggerated exotica in their historical outdatedness. Mass camp depends on a thorough knowledge of pop culture and a familiarity with the conventions of established genres (e.g., Mae West comedies, Busby Berkeley musicals). Mass camp sensibility does not necessarily result in a coherent rereading of a film—it’s more of a hit-or-miss sensibility. The viewers’ interaction with a particular text always bears some effects, but the effects may be temporary—that is, discernible only in the short run. Thematic and visual pleasures come in a sporadic manner as viewers dip in and out of a particular text, selecting specific moments: witty dialogue, quotable lines, lavish musical numbers, and physical appearances and costumes.

Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) the hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décor, fashion, and cross-dressing. In verbal terms, it’s reflected in quotations, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their very cultural existence, and often their superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show.

From the start, Waters politicized camp, using it as a deliberate assault on mainstream culture. He employed gay camp as a counter-cultural means, as an oppositional standpoint and active force. For him, camp attacks acceptable values, normal physical appearances, and conventional modes of behavior. It could be either a mild or a
radical rejection of essential tenets of traditional aesthetics. Waters’s brand of camp thrives on exaggeration, theatricality, and travesty, as is evident in the glorification of the characters in his texts and the particular actors who play them. The elements of his aesthetics are deemed cheap, sleazy, vulgar, and crude because the plots of his features transgress the bourgeois sense of decency and morality. Instead, they loudly extol bizarre and grotesque sexuality that’s considered appalling by standards of middle-class taste.


Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Emanuel Levy on Todd Haynes’s “Carol”

In the following essay, Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, discusses Carol, Todd Haynes forthcoming film:

Carol, Todd Haynes’s sixth feature, is his most fully realized film to date. Now this is a bold statement to make about a director who has only made thematically and artistically interesting films, even if they didn’t always find appreciative audiences. The movie adds a striking panel to a small (only six features in twenty-five years) but distinguished oeuvre.

A logical follow-up to his former movies, Carol may also signal a new point of departure. For starters, Haynes didn’t originate this project, which has been around for a decade. At one point, John Crowly was to direct with Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska. For another, it is the first film in which he wasn’t involved as writer or co-writer (he had collaborated with Oren Moverman). World premiering at the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, his second appearance there after Velvet Goldmine in 1998, the film was eagerly anticipated. Adapted to the screen by Phyllis Nagy, it’s based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, featuring two great actresses, Blanchett, fresh off from Oscar-winning turn in Blue Jasmine, and Rooney Mara, best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Though he didn’t write its script, Carol continues to explore ideas and characters that have preoccupied him over the past three decades. Like other indie directors—Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, all roughly his age—Haynes is an auteur in the thematic rather than stylistic sense of this concept, as formulated by the great critic Andrew Sarris. Carol belongs to Haynes’ provocative films about deviance, all astringent explorations in theoretically infused feminist and queer cinema. Like most of his oeuvre, it deconstructs sexual politics, centering on role of the housewife. The 1995 critically acclaimed Safe offers a perceptive portrait of a San Fernando Valley housewife who’s a product of stifling suburban existence and rigid patriarchy. As a screen character, in class and emotional malaise, Carol, an elegant upper-middle class femme, is closer to the leisurely heroine of Far From Heaven than the protagonist of Mildred Pierce (Haynes’s HBO series).


Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

An Interview with Emanuel Levy, author of “Gay Directors, Gay Films?”

Gay Directors? Gay Films?

The following is an interview with Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters

Question: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Emanuel Levy: The notion that a distinctly gay gaze and a distinctly gay sensibility are reflected in the work of openly gay directors has not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema studies. Gay Directors, Gay Films? deals with one central issue: the effects of sexual orientation on the career, film output, and sensibility of five homosexual directors: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. I wanted to show that these directors have perceived their sexual identities as outsiders in complex and varied ways, that the impact of sexual orientation may differ from one director to another and from one phase to another within the career of the same director.

Q: Please explain the book’s title and the question mark at the end?

EL: The book centers on five openly gay directors and their work, from the first film to the present. It raises a series of interesting, not easily answerable questions. Is there a distinctly gay mode of looking—gay gaze as it were—at social reality, at sexual politics? Do gay directors make specifically gay-themed films that are targeted at mostly gay audiences? How do we define a film as gay? By its explicit contents (text) and/or by its implicit meanings (subtext)? If a film contains one gay character, surrounded by straight figures, and does not deal with the standard issue of coming out (very popular in films of the 1980s and 1990s). These are some of the intriguing questions, which are theoretically-infused an and have pragmatic implications, that have guided me in this book, and are still at the center of film, feminist, and gay and queer studies.

Q: What was the perspective guiding your research and writing?

EL: I chose a comparative socio-cultural perspective, namely, placing these directors, their films, and their careers in the sociopolitical, ideological, and economic settings in which they have lived and worked. The five directors share two things in common, sexual orientation (they are all openly gay) and biological age, all five directors were born after World War II and thus belong to the same age cohort. At 69, Davies is the oldest, and Haynes, 53, is the youngest. In between, there are Van Sant, 62; Almodóvar, 65; and Waters, 68.

Q: Why did you choose these, and not other, directors?

EL: I wanted to examine the impact of national identity and indigenous culture on the film oeuvre of these directors, three of whom are American (Waters, Van Sant, and Haynes) and two European (Almodóvar (Spanish) and Davies(British)). Originally, the book proposal also included the gifted French director, Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women), but the scope of the research and space consideration (the book’s length) have presented some constraints.


Monday, August 31st, 2015

Book Giveway! Gay Directors, Gay Films?

This week our featured book is Gay Directors, Gay Films?
Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters
by Emanuel Levy.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Gay Directors, Gay Films? to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 4 at 1:00 pm.

Molly Haskell writes, “An impressively informative treatment of five prominent gay directors who represent a wide range of differences within the gay spectrum. Emanuel Levy’s background in gay cinema, independent cinema, and traditional Hollywood cinema make him the ideal author for this significant and original study.”

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Two Early Chicago Films Heading to Blu-Ray

The following post is by Michael Smith, co-author with Adam Selzer of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

In the introduction to Flickering Empire, Adam Selzer and I quote film scholar Susan Doll who said that it is Chicago’s “best kept secret” that it served as the nation’s filmmaking capital prior to the rise of Hollywood. That the vast majority of the films made in Chicago prior to 1920 have been either lost, destroyed or are otherwise difficult to see partly accounts for Chicago’s neglected status in the official film histories. Fortunately, the two most important Chicago-made silent films discussed in our book have both been recently restored and will receive re-releases on home video in HD in the next year. These releases will hopefully go some way towards giving Chicago the credit it deserves for the important role it played in our nation’s film history. The two films in question are:

His New Job—The one and only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago is this delightful 20-minute comedy short, the first he made for Essanay Studios (before fulfilling the rest of his contract at the company’s California branch). The plot sees Chaplin’s familiar “Little Tramp” character showing up to audition for a part in a movie at “Lodestone Studios.” The interior stages at Essanay in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood essentially play themselves as Lodestone and the movie thus becomes a fascinating peak into the process of silent moviemaking, at times achieving a near-documentary quality. The Tramp gets a job first as Production Assistant, then as a carpenter and finally as an extra in what appears to be a prestigious “period” film set in 19th century Russia. Of course, he wreaks havoc on the set and the entire production soon devolves into a state of slapstick anarchy. His New Job will be released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in Summer 2015. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Within Our Gates—The earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American is this incendiary drama by the legendary Oscar Micheaux. Evelyn Preer plays Sylvia Landry, a young black woman from Chicago who tries to raise money to save a school for black children in the rural south. Micheaux’s story alternates between scenes taking place in the north and south as well as the past and the present in order to generate a suspenseful climax — a lengthy flashback to the events that led to Sylvia’s adoptive parents being lynched by an angry mob. This lynching scene is intercut with an equally horrifying scene where a villainous middle-aged white man attempts to rape the young Sylvia before recognizing a scar on her chest that identifies her as his own illegitimate daughter. The clever intercutting of this climax intentionally unpacks the racist ideology of the climax of D.W. Griffith’s similarly constructed The Birth of a Nation. Within Our Gates will be released on Blu-ray by Kino/Lorber in February 2016. In the meantime, you can watch an unrestored version of the film here:

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Interview with Michael Glover Smith, Co-Author of “Flickering Empire (Part 2)

Flickering Empire, Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The following is the second part of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. (You can read part 1 here.)

Question: Oscar Micheaux also was part of Chicago’s film history. In what ways was Chicago important for the development of African-American or “race” movies?

Michael Glover Smith: A lot of the early films dealing with race offer “comical” racial stereotypes that are offensive. Even the first Essanay film, An Awful Skate, features a white actor in blackface makeup. William Foster, an enterprising African-American theater manager, founded the first black-owned film production company in 1910. Foster has been quoted as saying, “Nothing has been done so much to awaken race consciousness of the colored man in the nation as the motion picture. It has made him hungry to see himself.” In addition to the earliest shorts by the Foster Photoplay Company, Chicago was home to many other early “race films,” including Peter P. Jones’s The Slacker in 1917 and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in 1919. The latter, which we discuss at length in our book’s post-script, is the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American. It’s not only a great film, it’s a rare and invaluable document of black American culture from that era.

Q: As you mention in the book, Chicago played a role in the censorship of films. What was the legacy of Major M.L.C. Funkhouser in determining what Americans saw at the movies?

MGS: Learning about the role of Chicago’s censorship board in doing research for the book was really eye-opening. The local censorship board, under the auspices of Funkhouser, was actually stricter than the national censorship board. There are a lot of fascinating and funny stories about the board and so that ended up becoming an entire chapter in our book. Funkhouser was reactionary in harshly censoring sex, violence and political content deemed inflammatory but he was also a politically corrupt hypocrite who would throw parties and screen the naughty bits that he had ordered cut from the films. He also allowed the Chicago Tribune to print descriptions of scenes that had been censored, which resulted in him getting favorable publicity from that particular paper. He was quite a character.

Q: So, what happened? What explains the decline of the Chicago film industry?

MGS: There were a complex combination of factors that resulted in the decline of Chicago’s film empire. But, basically, it can be reduced to: 1) the two major Chicago studios were part of the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (or MPPC), a trust that Edison had established in an attempt to monopolize the industry; this trust was sued and forced to disband by the U.S. Justice Department in 1913, 2) most of the independent (i.e., non-MPPC) filmmakers had fled to southern California in order to make movies as far away from Edison and his patent-enforcing “Goon Squad” as possible and 3) the weather and geography of southern California were ultimately deemed more conducive to year-round shooting than Chicago.


Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of “Flickering Empire”

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of

“A lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of ‘famous firsts’ for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a ‘pie-in-the-face-gag….’”—Michael Glover Smith

The following is part 1 of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

Question: Why does Chicago get left out of the history of early cinema in America?

Michael Glover Smith: The story of American film production begins in New York and New Jersey (where Thomas Edison was headquartered) in the late 19th century. Hollywood didn’t really become the nation’s film-producing capital until about 1915. All official histories are somewhat reductive and I think it’s been convenient for scholars and historians to just skip over the story of Chicago’s contributions to film history, which mainly occurred in in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Even though the contributions of Chicago filmmakers were enormous by any objective standard, it was a fairly narrow window of time when the film industry in Chicago was at its peak and, also, the vast majority of Chicago-made films of that era no longer exist. They’ve been destroyed or lost and it’s never been fashionable to write about films that people can’t see.

Q: How does Chicago’s role in the development change the way we think about the history of movies in America?

MGS: I think a lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of “famous firsts” for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a “pie-in-the-face-gag,” the first films made by African-American directors, etc. We give a rundown in the introduction to the book. It’s entirely possible that movies as we now know them would look very different if not for the contributions of studios like Essanay and Selig-Polyscope and also the independent filmmakers (especially the aforementioned black directors).

Q: What was the role of the 1893 Columbia Exhibit in popularizing film in Chicago and the rest of the country?

MGS: The World’s Fair of 1893 had an enormous influence on the developing film industry. There were several important prototypical movie-exhibition devices that premiered there—including Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Otto Anschutz’s Tachyscope. A lot of the early Chicago filmmakers went to the Fair and were inspired to start making films based on what they saw.


Monday, March 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Flickering Empire”

This week our featured book is Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Flickering Empire to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 27th at 1:00 pm.

Flickering Empire tells the fascinating yet little-known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of American film production in the years before the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). Flickering Empire illustrates the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures, including Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux, and Orson Welles, are major players in the narrative—in addition to important though forgotten industry titans, such as “Colonel” William Selig, George Spoor, and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.


Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Read Excerpts from the Diaries of Hollywood Legend Charles Brackett

It's the Pictures That Got Small

The following are some excerpt from Charles Brackett’s diaries, portions of which have been published in It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. Charles Brackett was the longtime writing partner of Billy Wilder. In the following passages he recounts working with Wilder and interactions with a variety of Hollywood notables.

August 18, 1936: Worked with Billy Wilder, who paces constantly, has over-extravagant ideas, but is stimulating. He has the blasé quality I have missed sadly in dear Frank Partos. He has humor—a kind of humor that sparks with mine.

[At this point, Charles Brackett adds the following note to the typed tran­scription of his diary.]

(It’s time to examine him as he was then: 32 years old, a slim young fellow with a merry face, particularly the upper half of it, the lower half of his face had other implications. But from his brisk nose up it was the face of a naughty cupid. Born some place in Poland [“half-an-hour from Vienna,” he used to say, “by telegraph.”] he has been brought up in Vienna and schooled there, the Lycée—which means he had just about the education of a bright American college graduate. He’d gone to Berlin, worked at various things, among others he’d been a dancer for hire at fashionable restaurants. And he’d written an article about his experiences in that capacity. He’d then become a successful screenwriter: Emil und die Detective [1931] was a delightful and successful picture he wrote.

Because he was Jewish and had an acute instinct for things that were going to happen, he had slipped out of Germany as Hitler began to rise.

In Paris he had written and directed a picture in which Danielle Darrieux played the lead. One great advantage was his: he had cut the teeth of his mind on motion pictures. He knew the great ones as he knew the classic books. He’d been brought to Hollywood by a German producer and set to work on Music in the Air. Music in the Air was a real abortion. After it ap­peared, other writing assignments were not easy to come by.

There was a time when, due to the protective affection of a woman who ran a conservative apartment house on Sunset Boulevard, he was allowed to sleep in the ladies’ room, provided he was out by the time the tenants began to appear.

Discouraged and just about to go back to New York, he called his agent to an­nounce his departure. His agent had been trying to get hold of him for days: he’d sold three stories.

This all sounds improbable, but it was the kind of improbability that was built into Billy Wilder. Before we were joined in collaboration, I’d known him as a jaunty young foreigner who worked on the fourth floor at Paramount, where I worked. He had been a collaborator of Don Hartman’s. Only one anecdote about him at that period sticks in my mind:

I’d gone to meet somebody with whom I was to have dinner in the Holly­wood Brown Derby. While I waited, Billy came in and I asked him to join me for a drink. As we sat together, the swing door was opened on the wintry evening to admit a luminous figure. “Look who’s coming in!” I breathed.

Billy gave a cursory glance over his shoulder. “Marlene!” he snorted. “That excites you?” I admitted that it did. “She’s old hat for us,” he said. “Let me tell you if the waiter were to wheel over a big covered dish with her in it stark naked, I’d say, ‘Not interested,’ and have him wheel her away.”

I was enormously impressed with this world-weary man. It wasn’t for years that I came to know that Marlene had been an idol of his, worshipped since he first saw her.)


Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

What Charles Brackett Tells Us About the Films of Billy Wilder — Anthony Slide

The following essay is by Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. (To save 30% on this book use the discount code SLIITS):

On Sunday, January 11, I introduced a tribute to Charles Brackett, held most appropriately at the Billy Wilder Theatre, located at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The two films screened that night were The Lost Weekend and Five Graves to Cairo, one very well known and and an Academy Award-winner and the other less so.

It was fascinating to watch these films again with the knowledge of what Brackett had to say about them in his diaries. I strongly recommend that anyone reading the diaries should try to revisit the Brackett/Wilder films. Certainly, one views them in a different light. For example, the first shot in The Lost Weekend is an exterior of Don Birnam’s New York apartment, and thanks to Brackett’s diary entry, we know that the apartment is actually a set built on the roof of Hahn’s Warehouse. Or, every time Doris Dowling, who plays Gloria in film, opens her mouth, one can’t help but think of Brackett’s description of her performance as “amateurish.”

The programming staff at the Billy Wilder Theatre had selected the evening’s films as two that had not been screened recently in Los Angeles. Would my choice have been different? Probably yes. One Brackett and Wilder film that is difficult to see on the big screen in 35mm is The Emperor Waltz, their only Technicolor production and their only musical. It is, in reality, not one of their greatest achievements, but if I saw it again—thanks to the diaries—I would have wondered at the couple’s original casting notion: Greta Garbo opposite Bing Crosby. When I suggested this to the audience at the Billy Wilder Theatre, there was laughter, but would it have been such a bad idea? Garbo was actually enthusiastic, claiming admiration for Crosby, but she was too frightened to face the camera again, and so the role went to Joan Fontaine.

It is now 75 years since Brackett and Wilder made Sunset Blvd., their most famous film, and one that is screened too often in the Los Angeles area for it to make it into the Charles Brackett Tribute. If anything makes the Brackett diaries worthy of publication, it is what he writes about Sunset Blvd. There is so much original documentation here. It is fascinating to read of Wilder and his telling of the movie’s plot to Mary Pickford and jointly deciding as they make their pitch that they just don’t want her for Norma Desmond. How incredible it is that the day before shooting the famous “waxworks” scene of the group of silent stars playing bridge, the second female role had not been cast. Both Theda Bara and Jetta Goudal had been in consideration. Both ladies said no, and, having known Miss Goudal, I can well imagine, as Brackett writes, that she spent half-an-hour on the telephone rejecting his casting call. Ultimately, the afternoon before the scene was shot, Brackett thought of Anna Q. Nilsson, a blonde star of the silent era who was working by then as an extra, and she was a perfect match for the role — her sweetness and waning prettiness at odds with the artificiality of Swanson’s aging, heavily made-up beauty.

Regardless, the two films presented that evening went over well, and emphasized that Brackett and Wilder were a team who naturally complemented each other, regardless of their very different backgrounds and often simmering hostility. I would like to believe that they always maintained a healthy respect for each other, long after they parted company. I know that Brackett never criticized Wilder in public, and I was interested to learn from Larry Mirisch, who was in the audience that night, and whose father, Walter, produced more than a dozen of Wilder’s later films, that Billy never said one word about Brackett.

The diaries speak for themselves—and really they speak for both men.

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

An Interview with Anthony Slide, editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”

The following is an interview with Anthony Slide, the editor of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age. (You can save 30% on “It’s the Pictures That Got Small” by using the coupon code SLIITS when you order from our site.)

“The two were as different as it is possible to be. Brackett was older and wiser. Wilder was young and brash. Wilder was a liberal. Brackett was a conservative—a staunch Republican—American and Episcopalian. Wilder was European and Jewish. And yet they complemented each other so well.” —Anthony Slide

Question: Who Was Charles Brackett?

Anthony Slide: Charles Brackett’s background is both patrician and literary. He came from a wealthy New England family, and in the 1920s he wrote short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, served as drama critic for The New Yorker, and was a member of the Algonquin Round Table. In 1932, Charley (as I like to call him after working with him posthumously on his diaries for so many years) came to Hollywood, and at Paramount he had a lengthy relationship, as co-writer and producer, with legendary writer-director Billy Wilder.

Q: Why are his diaries important?

AS: Charley’s diaries, as currently published, cover the years 1932-1949. (There are additional diaries for the period 1950-1962, when he was working at 20th Century-Fox, and I hope one day that they also will be published.) The diaries are unique in film history in that they are the only daily record from the period not only of the social life of a major Hollywood figure, but also the daily working of a major Hollywood studio, Paramount. I like to say that just as Samuel Pepys recorded life in seventeenth-century London, so does Charles Brackett record life in twentieth-century Hollywood.

Q: How did you find the diaries?

AS: In 2007, Jim Moore, who is Brackett’s grandson, donated the diaries, along with many of his grandfather’s papers, to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fortuitously, Jim had heard of my reputation in the field and approached me, initially to place a financial value on the collection. I didn’t have time back then to read all the diaries, but even so it was obvious to me, just from a sampling, that they had tremendous historical importance, and that they deserved to be read by a much wider audience than the few scholars and students who might come across them at the Academy.

Luckily, Jim was more than happy to agree to my editing the diaries, and my only regret is that it has taken an incredible eight years to complete the editing process, find a suitable publisher, and get the finished product into the bookstores. I might add that when I first started, I was scrupulously annotating almost every name and subject, but then I realized that my annotations reduced the amount of space available for Charley’s actual diary entries. I decided, perhaps with a certain amount of regret, that it was better to cut back on the annotations—after all, surely any reader of a book such as this does not need to be told who is Claudette Colbert or Gary Cooper?


Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “‘It’s the Pictures That Got Small’: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age

This week our featured book is “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age edited by Anthony Slide.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of “It’s the Pictures That Got Small to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, January 23 at 1:00 pm.

“Reading Brackett’s diary entries is like stepping into a time machine. It provides a vivid and valuable account of day-to-day life in the heyday of Hollywood’s studio system–and a bittersweet chronicle of his volatile relationship with Billy Wilder. I couldn’t put the book down.”—Leonard Maltin”

Read Anthony Slide’s introduction to “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

An interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of “Film Worlds”

Film Worlds

The following is an interview with Daniel Yacavone, author of Film Worlds: A Philosophical Aesthetics of Cinema:

Q: How would you situate Film Worlds within film theory and the expanding field of film and philosophy?

A: Over the past few decades there has been a notable turn towards philosophy in disciplinary film studies. One example is the influence of Gilles Deleuze’s writings on cinema (indebted to Henri Bergson and C.S. Peirce), which film theorists have found productive to engage with; another is the widespread interest in phenomenology – particularly Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s version of it – in relation to perceptual, affective, and ‘embodied’ aspects of films and film viewing. More or less simultaneously, within Anglophone academic philosophy there has been a renewed interest in how some films dramatize philosophical issues and problems, in the question of whether cinema can serve as a medium for philosophical thought and argument, and the relation between films and their experience and issues in the philosophy of perception, cognition, and emotion (as overlapping with cognitive film theory).

In relation to all of the above it is important to distinguish between philosophy in film and the philosophy of film. My interests have been mainly in the latter, and it is here that the long and fascinating tradition of aesthetics and the philosophy of art can be fruitfully brought to bear on certain topics in modern and contemporary film theory. Curiously, in the midst of the aforementioned philosophical turn in film theory and the growing ‘film-philosophy’ movement this is a tradition that many theorists and philosophers alike have tended to bypass, even when discussing cinematic representation, expression, authorship, and other issues that it may illuminate (there are of course notable exceptions). In its exploration of the world-like nature of films and their experience, Film Worlds attempts to show the continued relevance of insights drawn from general aesthetics and the philosophy of art to cinema and to contemporary film theory and the philosophy of film. (more…)

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov

In the following video, Jeremi Szaniawski talks with Dominique Nasta (ULB) about his book The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox:

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Richard Suchenski on the Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hou Hsiao-hsien, Richard SuchenskiOn Friday, September 12, 2014, the Museum of the Moving Image will launch a retrospective of the films by Taiwan’s celebrated director Hou Hsiao-hsien.

In conjunction with the retrospective, Richard Suchenski, editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien will join Columbia film scholar Richard Peña and acclaimed writer and academic Ian Buruma in a public discussion hosted at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute about Hou’s films on Friday, September 12, 2014, from 3:00 PM – 4:30 PM in Kent Hall 403 on the Columbia University campus.

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Richard Suchenski that originally appeared on the Weatherhead East Asian Institute site.

Q: What makes Hou Hsiao-hsien’s filmmaking distinctive?

Richard Suchenski: Salient features of Hou’s cinema include elegantly staged long takes, the precise delineation of quotidian life, and a radically, even vertiginously, elliptical mode of storytelling. His films place unusual demands on the viewer, but their sophistication is understated and their formal innovations are irreducibly bound up with the sympathetic observation of everyday experience. In the book, I argue that by combining multiple forms of tradition with a unique approach to space and time, Hou has created a body of work that, through its stylistic originality and historical gravity, opens up new possibilities for the medium and redefines the relationship between realism and modernism.

One often has the peculiar sensation when watching Hou’s films of looking backwards and forwards simultaneously, continually refining an understanding of preceding scenes even when immersed in the unfolding present. He goes furthest in this direction with The Puppetmaster (1993), but there are already extraordinary examples in his breakthrough film The Boys from Fengkuei (1983).

Q: What inspired you to study Hou’s films?

RS: For a cinephile of my generation, Hou is a key reference point and the new Taiwanese cinema that began in the 1980s has a special status as a cinema that was (and is) in the midst of introducing an innovative sensibility and a fresh perspective. Hou is the most important Taiwanese filmmaker and his sensuous, richly nuanced work is at the heart of everything that is vigorous and genuine in contemporary film culture. This made him an ideal subject for the first integrated book and retrospective project coordinated through the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA).


Friday, May 16th, 2014

Iris Barry, the Askew Salon, and The Museum of Modern Art

Iris Barry

We conclude our week-long feature on Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film with an excerpt from the book.

Iris Barry had made her mark in England as a film critic for The Spectator in the 1920s. She co-founded the innovative London Film Society in 1925 and in the next year published a book, Let’s Go to the Pictures, explaining why film is an art form. Nonetheless, she struggled in New York from her arrival in 1930 until she achieved some measure of stability as the first Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. This reversal of fortune came through meetings at the Askew salon, where she was introduced to the young director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr.

Iris Barry’s connection with Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr came through the Askews. Kirk Askew was a Harvard graduate who worked for the New York office of Durlacher Brothers, a major European art dealership. His wife Constance was much admired as a hostess and became Iris’ life-long friend. The Askew salon comprised a petrie dish of modernism, in which movers and doers in all the arts met to exchange ideas. In his Memoir of an Art Gallery, art dealer Julien Levy recalls that “the best and most culturally fertile salon I was to know in the thirties grew from little Sunday gatherings at Kirk and Constance Askew’s, where many of my Harvard and New York friends gathered. Kirk’s system of invisible manipulation kept the evening both sparkling and under control [and] combined the hidden rigidity of as carefully combed a guest list as any straight and proper social arbiter might arrange, with the frothy addition of the uninhibited of Upper Bohemia, plus, one at a time, to avoid jealousy and sulks, a single real lion. Two were asked together only if they expressed a desire to meet or already knew and liked each other and admired each other’s work. There developed and was maintained a colorful variety of conversations, many fruitful contacts, some light flirting, some sex, and a little matchmaking, with an occasional feud for spice. A small group of regulars came every week and provided the dependably witty core of the parties, so that on rainy or otherwise off nights there still would be no risk of boredom….”

Despite the fact that many members of the Askew salon were homosexual, the rules of conduct of the period discouraged overt activity. As Steven Watson, author of Strange Bedfellows, a study of the sexuality of modernist culture put it, “once a man made a pass at another man, the butler brought him his coat. The rule was, we do not camp in public.”

A second salon Iris sometimes attended, hosted by Muriel Draper, took on a more political tone and had rules of conduct more permissive than the Askews. Muriel Draper had entertained artists in a well-known London salon between 1911 and 1915, and since her return to New York carried on a successful interior design business among the well-to-do. Her leftist leanings later got her into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite her association with left-wing organizations in the 1930s, however, she was apparently not a Communist Party member. Esther Murphy, Paul and Jane Bowles and others in the Draper salon flirted with Communism, but political or, for that matter, sexual orientation made no difference at the Drapers. Virgil Thomson, a frequenter of both salons, referred to the group as “the Little People”, since many there, like Thomson himself, were of short stature. Of the two salons, even the Bowleses preferred the Askew’s. Paul Bowles’ biographer, Gena Dagel Caponi, noted that “despite living separately, Jane and Paul were very much a couple when they socialized. They regularly attended gatherings at the [Askews], who held what Paul called ‘the only regular salon in New York worthy of the name.’ There Paul played the piano and sang his own songs, while Jane visited, sitting first on one man’s lap and then in another’s. omposers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, and Marc Blitzstein could be counted on to be there, as could Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine and their dancers. Several connected with the Museum of Modern Art attended….Poet E.E. Cummings and John Houseman were often there as well. As Europe headed towards war, artists immigrated to New York and to the Askew salon. Among them were surrealists – Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dali — who dominated the intellectual tone of the Askew salon from 1940 on; Paul felt at home with them, but Jane did not.”

At the Askews Iris sized up Alfred Barr as “a kindred soul…a youngish Wellesley College art professor who was a simple, direct Harvard aesthete whose wanderings about the museums of Europe and the salons of Paris had led him to envision the Museum of Modern Art. If he was a visionary, he was so in the best sense of being an intensely practical one.” Possessed of influential friends, Barr “could think on his feet with the best of them and was, to boot, an elegant parlor orator, attributes which beautifully accompanied his deep and abiding sincerity.”

Iris found that she and Barr “entertained a similar outlook on the motion picture as falling within the Museum’s proper scope of activity.” She promoted herself to Barr as the one to head a film component of the Museum. “No time was lost in pointing out to him that the only noteworthy attempt to make the motion picture known as a living art rather than ephemeral entertainment had come from the Film Society in London,” which had been handicapped “by the lack of any central repository from which important films of the past could be booked at will. The inference was plain; the Museum, by its avowed purpose and very nature as an institution for the study of contemporary art, should logically become that central repository.


Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Griffith, Pickford Rockefeller, and Bunuel: The Life and Relationships of Iris Barry in Photos

The following photos and captions, provided by Robert Sitton, author Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, depict not only Iris Barry but the figures who played an important role in her life and career. From Wyndham Lewis and D. W. Griffith to Nelson Rockefeller and Luis Bunuel, Barry’s life and work as film curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) put her in contact with some of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century:

Iris Barry
Portrait of Iris Barry by Sasha — As a young writer, Iris Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound, who read some of her work in Poetry magazine. This resulted in an historic correspondence in which Pound set down many of his ideas about literature

Iris Barry
Wyndham Lewis — Pound’s fellow Vorticist, the novelist and painter became Iris’s lifelong love and the father of her children.

Iris Barry
Pickfair guests — Left to right: Frances Goldwyn, John Abbott, Samuel Goldwyn, Mary Pickford, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd, and Iris Barry on the evening in 1935 when Iris convinced the Hollywood moguls to donate their films to the Museum of Modern Art.

Iris Barry
Iris Barry and John Abbott — Examining film from their 1936 trip to European archives.

Iris Barry
Alfred Barr — the founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art, who hired Iris as the Museum’s first Curator of Film.

Iris Barry
D.W. Griffith — the American film director, subject of Iris’s major catalog and retrospective in 1940, and the source of some of Iris’s troubles at MoMA.


Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Iris Barry at the Movies

As part of our week-long feature Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film, we asked the book’s author to discuss A Color Box (dir. Len Lye) and The Last Laugh (dir. F. W. Murnau) some of the key films in Iris Barry’s career as a film curator:

The Last Laugh, directed by F. W. Murnau

Iris Barry appreciated that Emile Jannings was more of an actor than a movie star. As she once put it, “At no time does he play Emile Jannings.” She also viewed cinema as intrinsically realistic, in that the still photographs of which it is composed convey a correspondence with the subject filmed, however fantastic it might be. She nevertheless felt that movies were a form of collective reverie, and urged her audiences to “Ask for better dreams.”

In Murnau’s The Last Laugh she found one: a dream so human as to engage the Freudian principle that sanity is essentially a matter of balancing “love and work.” As a mighty hotel doorman reduced to the status of washroom attendant, Jannings conveys physically and wordlessly the effects of the loss of work on a person. In eleven minutes we watch him become aware of his fate, deny it, struggle against it, and finally succumb. Throughout, the camera participates in the action, and even brings in the hotel itself as a kind of character.

A Colour Box, directed by Len Lye:

In 1936 Iris and her husband, John Abbott traveled to Europe to find films for their nascent Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art. They visited archives in England, France, Sweden, Poland, and the Soviet Union, seeking to make exchanges facilitated by governmental approval that would exempt films from export duties and transport them as cheaply as possible. They already had the cooperation of American companies, due to their successful appearance at Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s house in Hollywood in 1935.

The prospect of exchanging films with an American archive appealed to the Europeans and their participation was forthcoming, resulting in a study collection that would later become iconic: Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Murnau’s Last Laugh, and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin among them. From England Barry and Abbott picked up Len Lye’s remarkable A Colour Box, a largely hand-made film skillfully coordinating abstract images with a Latin beat. It became one of the works animators worldwide revere as historically essential, as well as an example of how film can be engaging even when it does not tell a story.