When receiving an invitation from our gracious hostess, Paula, to indulge in a favored pasttime and add to many and varied perspectives of Cinematic History, I would be remiss if I didn’t break out a fresh set of coveralls, miner’s cap, and excavation tools to dig deep and rummage about neglected corners of massive archives, tales, anecdotes and personal experience regarding a visionary and trailblazer of cinema from the late 20th Century to the present. Though, not in an arena most would expect. So, allow me a few moments to align, refine and define…
Roger Corman: Rebel, Pioneer. The Guy With The Arrows In His Back!
One may ask where a transplanted Michigander, graduate of Beverly Hills High and Stanford University, with a degree in Industrial Engineering in hand, got his start and first taste of 1947 Hollywood and “The Film Business”? Why, in the Mail Room at Twentieth Century Fox, of course!
This past weekend, our theater Cinema Detroit was a venue for the fourth annual Cinetopia International Film Festival, which brings “the best films from the world’s best festivals” to Detroit and Ann Arbor every June. It was our second year as a Cinetopia venue and while all the films on our slate were worthwhile, I’m highlighting five of my favorites. Keep an eye out for these if you haven’t seen them already.
I didn’t plan on writing this post, it just sort of happened. I was more emotional about Mad Men ending than I thought I would be, and pretty soon there was this list…in no particular order of preference, just chronology. As I look back through the list, it’s pretty clear it’s really the The Don and Peggy Show, at least to me, though I must ask you to pretend that most of Roger’s one-liners and every scene involving Rachel Menken is on this list (she was Don’s best mistress). Also, one of the greatest and most memorable things about Mad Men didn’t happen on TV…Lane Pryce’s funeral. Episode numbers and titles from Basket of Kisses.
A New Year brings many things. Cold weather. Occasional snow. The Super Bowl. Worries about taxes. And that selection of works from the previous year’s effort in regard to cinematic entertainment known as the Academy Awards. The celebration of the “be all and end all” that is the magic of Tinseltown.
With the toils of 1975 fuzzily reflected in the tastes and perspectives of what felt like the final year of pulling up from the nosedive, ennui and la cafard created by Vietnam. Comedies in abundance. Woody Allen flexing his intellectual muscles with Love And Death on one side. To an off-the-wall New Wave import, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, adapted from the massively popular “audience participation” stage play. Dramas would also score high with Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, and Antonioni’s The Passenger. Making room for conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor by Sidney Pollack. And science fiction taking a roller coaster ride with Bryan Forbes adapting Ira Levin’s high-end The Stepford Wives. To David Cronenberg’s creepy They Came From Within. And the no-budget take on Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic narrative, A Boy And His Dog, filling those more base tastes.
An eclectic year to say the least, with proven masters doing things their own way, while making room for just-starting-out talent, who would be household names in later years, going against established convention. Not an easy year for Academy voters, with a plethora of personal tales, and a noted lack of established musicals and other hugely-budgeted studio “epics” to be whittled down to an easily manageable number.
The offerings of 1975 would also have a Wild Card, a change to the long-standing paradigm, ramrodded by a young upstart named Stephen Spielberg. Released during the summer and added to the deck of contenders by tremendous reviews and popular demand. An intentionally made and executed “Blockbuster” by the name of Jaws.
Having perused, assembled and critiqued the films brought to the forefront during 1975. I’ve decided to lay out my offering very much as I had done for our hostess Paula a couple of years ago, and present for your approval:
The 48th Academy Awards: Old vs. New. With A Twist!
Our Third Annual 31 Days of Oscars Blogathon wraps up today (Monday, Feb. 23) and tomorrow (Tuesday, Feb. 24) with Pictures and Directors. Another great week of fabulous posts, NEW ADDITIONS AT THE END OF THE LIST:
To paraphrase a common saying, writing about cinematography can be like dancing to architecture. But I’m going to give a shot, because it’s a travesty that Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE has been nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar a whopping TWELVE times, and has yet to win.
With his nomination this year for his work on Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Deakins is on a three-year streak, having also gotten the nod for Skyfall in 2013 and Prisoners in 2014. He’s been nominated for Academy Awards in two consecutive years THREE times (1997/1998, 2001/2002, 2008/2009), was once nominated twice in the same year (2008), and he’s won numerous other awards, including BAFTAs and ASC and BSC awards.
Deakins is known for his simple, naturalistic set-ups and his devotion to story over all other considerations. He likes silhouettes, fire at night, and high angles, but his shots almost never draw attention to themselves, which may be part of the reason it’s never been his year with the Academy.
He is most often associated with the Coen brothers, with whom he has worked on eleven pictures (not all Oscar-nominated). Their work has benefited greatly from his fluency with different lighting styles.
I was overwhelmed by the thought of analyzing the circumstances that have kept Deakins from the podium in the past, so I’ve chosen to spotlight briefly just a few of his amazing Oscar-nominated works. You know them, even if you’ve never heard his name. For instance…
Hollywood of the Rockies: Colorado, the West and America’s Film Pioneers by Michael J. Spencer covers the twenty years that the Centennial State functioned as a movie production center, 1895 through 1915. Spencer thoughtfully begins the book with a brief recap of the “little tragedies and comedies” of America’s nascent film industry. This overview gives welcome context for the more specific history to follow.
Spencer has an engaging, conversational style, and while there is some repetition, he tells the story in a compulsively readable way. His analogies between our time and a hundred years ago make the book an even more relevant read. For instance, he compares the pre-commercial era of film to the early days of YouTube. Just as with YouTube, there were early adopters. In Colorado’s case, its temporary status as a movie capital was essentially the work of two such individuals, “Colonel” William Selig and Harry “Buck” Buckwalter, who managed to sell folks back East on the desirability of authentic Western scenery for films.
Selig had invented his own projector and in the ’00s, acted as producer and distributor for Buckwalter’s numerous Colorado travelogues. Many of these involved product placement deals, innovative at the time, with railroad companies. Buckwalter’s facility with trains led to his hiring as a consultant on The Great Train Robbery in 1903. This was a “Western” epic, but it was filmed at Thomas Edison’s New Jersey studio. Buckwalter naturally thought that he and Selig could make some bank by providing genuine Western scenery — but they would have to get beyond travelogues.
Their first narrative, Tracked by Bloodhounds, or A Lynching at Cripple Creek, featuring Colorado’s bluffs, valleys, and mountain ridges, was gritty and violent — and, Spencer writes, “a tremendous success….Moviegoers would never accept an East Coast backdrop for a Western again.” Much as today’s audiences can spot sketchy CGI in a few seconds, audiences over a hundred years ago could detect bogus scenery. This led to terms like “Eastern Western,” used to describe a film set in the West but obviously shot in the East, by those who had never been east of Pennsylvania.
Spencer also gives the cultural context for the immense popularity of the Western in general. In the U.S., the genre was an archetypal multimedia phenomenon, exemplified by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West live shows. And overseas, by the teens of the 20th century, the West itself as a valuable export. Via motion pictures, its scenery and inhabitants became the dominant representation of America around the world.
Thus Buckwalter, the Coloradan on-location producer and director, and Selig, the Chicago-based distributor and projector salesman, were uniquely positioned to capitalize on the Western craze, but they soon had competition. Gilbert Anderson, later known as “Broncho Billy,” and George Spoor, Selig’s projector rival, formed Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1907, and Anderson began producing and directing in Colorado as well. This competition had a personal angle to it: Anderson had briefly worked for Selig and been refused a partnership. Selig and Essanay spurred each other to new heights of production, and by 1912, Selig was churning out five films per week, to answer the high demand of store-front nickelodeons. (Anderson eventually became a huge star in front of the camera, but was supplanted by Selig star Tom Mix.)
That year was the height of Colorado-based film production. A variety of concurrent factors — the rise of movie palaces, the advent of feature-length films, and World War I among them — conspired to concentrate the movie industry in Hollywood, so that very soon, “In the same way that there wasn’t much…automobile manufacturing outside of Detroit, movie production was becoming a scarce commodity outside Southern California.”
Though Colorado’s movie-making heyday was over, Spencer gives a fascinating account of those who persisted, and helpfully wraps up the book’s first section with an entertaining “Where Are They Now” section, recounting the fates of the major players. The second section of the book is equally valuable. “Before, During and After” details the cultural environment from which cinema emerged in the first place, and serves as one of the most clear and economical summaries of cinematic history I’ve ever read. The third section details where readers may be able to find the films mentioned in the book and gives a suggested reading list.
Hollywood of the Rockies is an informative and fun read about Colorado’s largely unknown chapter of film history. I’d never heard of most of the people involved, and by telling their story in the context of the overall field, Spencer sheds new light on movie-making in general. Highly recommended for the film fan or history buff on your Christmas list, the book is available online here.
Brusque and grouchy, Ned Sparks’ lovable curmudgeons can usually be found as the still center of a storm of dizzy dancers, temperamental producers, and gangsters in crisis. His onscreen persona was so deadpan that he was reportedly insured with Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 against any photographs taken of him actually smiling. Yet there’s more to this primo supporting player than just a grouchy face…he got his start in show biz as a singer during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and was blacklisted on Broadway for his role in starting the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).
Edward Arthur Sparkman was born this day in 1883 in clean, friendly, and polite Canada, specifically Guelph, Ontario. He left home at 16 to try gold prospecting in Alaska. When that failed, he joined a musical company in Dawson Creek, and per The New York Times, “knocked around in tent theatricals, medicine shows, and carnivals.” Wouldn’t this be a great movie? Can’t you just hear him complaining? But wait…it gets better… Back in Canada by age 19, he attended a seminary. Briefly. But still. He also worked on a railroad before finally landing in a Toronto theater. By 1907, he was appearing on Broadway, and the Ned Sparks persona we all now know and love made its first appearance as a “cynical desk clerk” in a play called Little Miss Brown. His stage success earned him a six-picture deal with Louis B. Mayer, and, in his screen debut, a re-make of the play in 1915, he played this same role.
Thus the mid-teens saw Sparks working in both New York and Hollywood. Around this time, he was involved with organizing AEA, which sought to protect stage actors. At the time, producers set working conditions and pay scale; could fire anyone, at any time, for any reason; and there was no compensation for the unlimited rehearsal time. In the late teens, Equity went on strike, which led to improved working conditions. However, many members were blacklisted, and as Sparks was one of the founding members, his Broadway career seems to have been severely curtailed. After working pretty much continuously from his arrival in New York through 1918, he didn’t work onstage again until 1920, appearing in his final production in 1921.
He was still working in silent films though, three or four a year, until his first talkie in 1928, The Big Noise. I won’t lie and tell you I’ve seen any of Sparks’ silents. I’m sure he was good. But his monotone foghorn of a voice and his irritable attitude are so instantly recognizable, and add so much to any picture he’s in, that I can’t imagine he could have affected the audience as much without them. Sound proved a godsend to Sparks’ career, and to us as classic movie fans.
I recommend anything he’s in, but my favorite Sparks year is 1933, and here are three from that year you shouldn’t miss.
Lady for a Day
Gold Diggers of 1933
In 1936, Sparks admitted that the $100K Lloyd’s of London insurance policy story was a publicity stunt. He was “only” insured against smiling for $10,000. Though his personal life included a messy divorce and he lost touch with many of his friends after his retirement, his voice and unflappable cantankerousness pretty much guaranteed his immortality, not only in his films, but as a frequently-caricatured figure in the cartoons we can still enjoy.
It is once again my pleasure to post a What A Character! entry on behalf of guest blogger Jack Deth. Be sure to check out his other posts here and over at Flix Chatter.
Greetings all and sundry!
Several months have passed and it’s time to accept another gracious invitation from Paula to break out my miner’s cap and excavation tools. And add my perspective to the ever growing and exceptional list of hard-working, though often unknown, professionals who fill an essential niche in the fine art of story telling.
Those who work their way from the background of crowds and scene fillers. To the realms of comic relief. Or sidekick, best friend and selfless uniformed partner. Their numbers are legion. And are rarely recognized at first glance. It take a few moments of noticing how they move about a set or location. The furrow of a brow. A smile. Until it all comes together with the addition of spoken words. Often not loud. Sometimes conspiratorial. Often friendly. And the light bulb of recognition glows brightly. Rarely giving up a name. But subtly revealing the presence of a Character Actor!
And into the deep end of the diving well we shall plunge. Reveling in the decades long work of one such master craftsman. Who started out on stage. Became a “discovery” of John Sayles and his film, Matewan. Went on to Perform yeoman’s work on many episodic television series (‘Miami Vice, ‘The Equalizer’) of the later 1980s. Before filling the character of Kansas sheriff, July Johnson in ‘Lonesome Dove’ and ‘Return To Lonesome Dove’. Opposite Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Danny Glover. Where a sun-baked, deeply-lined face and a dust-dry, rasping voice gave presence and added immensely to a long riding, vengeance seeking lawman.
Supplying the confidence and wherewithal to take the lead in another small John Sayles project that put beaucoup talent on the map. So, allow me a few moments of your time. To wax poetic and meticulously into the inner workings of…
What A Character! Chris Cooper Easily Reaching Beyond His Grasp
People’s Exhibit 1: Lone Star (1996)
From 1996. Its director is proven past master of creating and executing vast, yet intensely intimate independent tales for fractions of what larger major players would spend on a day’s catering, John Sayles.
And this offering has those virtues writ large! Focusing on a once strong and prosperous town and county of Rio. Southwest of Laredo and close to Mexican border. One-time recipient of many military contracts and training bases that have had funding pulled. While the community strives to hold onto its identity opposite the rising tide of Mexicans. Who staked their claim decades ago. Have prospered and wish to make names for themselves. As developers swoop in and wish to cash in on Uncle Sam’s abandoned tracts of land. Trading money for influence.
In other words, an American Melting Pot. With all its attendant rivalries and small-scale deals and conspiracies just under the surface. Seen and acknowledged by Mr. Cooper as Sheriff Sam Deeds, son of the town’s beloved Deputy, afterwards Sheriff, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey in a surprisingly quiet, humane, mature role). Who had spent his years keeping Rio’s racist, bigoted and flatout scary law-unto-himself, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson portraying evil incarnate. And rarely better!) in check through the 1960s.
There’s an election coming up. Sam’s a law & order kind of guy, and the townfolk like him. but he isn’t his father. And some in town keep reminding him of that, as there is a dedication of a county court house coming up in Buddy’s name. Creating the need to go out amongst the people and perform between pressing flesh and keeping interlopers busy. If not in check. And crossing the path of a long-lost and recently widowed high school sweetheart, Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña), whose mother, Mercedes (Maria Colon) is a rather affluent and influential pillar of the community.
Into this slice of Southern Texas Americana arrives Colonel Delmore Payne (Sayles stalwart Joe Morton), who is the estranged son of after-hours club owner and town historian, Otis “Big O” Payne (Ron Canada). The Colonel has the unwanted duty of going over the inventory, Table of Operations and Equipment (TO&E), of a closing Army base before housing contractors break ground. Creating a small, delaying hiccup when the excavation of one of its rifle ranges reveals skeletal remains, a Masonic ring… and a Rio County Sheriff’s badge.
Sending Sam to ask questions of the town’s elders. Otis and Hollis Pogue (Clifton James). Who would rather have sleeping dogs lie than go digging around bad history and childhood nightmares. Some answers are revealed as the badge is traced back to Charley Wade. And Sam starts exploring the legend of Sheriff Wade and his mysterious disappearance after being beaten and run out of town at the hands of dear old dad, Buddy Deeds, decades before.
Since there is statute of limitation for murder, Sam settles into his Gary Cooper niche of asking the right questions and being an extremely adept listener. As forensic evidence unearths a large caliber bullet from what could be his dad Buddy’s revolver. Or an Army .45 ACP.
Which sends the film into sublimely scarily edited flashback into the many sins of Charley Wade, who despised Mexicans, and went out of his way to torment, harass, shake down and brutalize them whenever the opportunity presented itself. The deeper Sam digs, the more is revealed about his father’s womanizing ways. And how they will intersect and insert themselves toward the tale’s denouement. Which I won’t reveal, for these details are the succulent meat upon which most of the tale hangs. As Sam takes in small morsels for deeper investigation. Letting his still, lined face speak volumes as clues are fleshed out. And dots are silently, sometimes tragically connected during a final sit down with the town elders.
I’ll leave it right here, for spoilers’ sake.
Now. What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To His Role?
The dust, dry grit and sweat-stained perseverance to work the case. No matter where the evidence and clues lead. Hesitantly at first. As the tossed net is expanded. And tales are told to expand the quest even further. Even if they initially point in the wrong direction. As the twists and turns of lies and legend slowly straighten out and lead back to past sins of the fathers.
And Mr. Kristofferson and McConaughey excel in their respective characters, with Kristofferson blatantly, frighteningly going over the top at times. While Mr. Conaughey sits in the background. Taking it all in and patiently waiting for the proper moment. Unaware that their actions will swing back decades later.
Adding to the weight Mr. Cooper bears as old wounds are reopened. Amidst the busy and slowly expanding town. And sprawling outback near the border as Sam explores past windfalls and re-establishes his relationship with schoolteacher and administrator Pilar. Creating a solid foundation for an expansive tale that travels at its own speed. In a wide and neatly tucked in tale written, directed, edited and produced by Mr. Sayles. Backed by superb cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. And a rustic, suspenseful soundtrack by Mason Darling. Creating the definition of a critically acclaimed and later, criminally forgotten personal project.
Which clears the decks for a small, compact and very worthwhile family tale and period piece, focusing on the world-changing events of 1959. Russia’s launching of Sputnik and its orbiting above post war U.S. soil. Witnessed by a young Homer Hickam as the gauntlet of what would be known as the “Space Race” was thrown down.
Peoples’ Exhibit 2: October Sky (1999)
The place: Coalwood, West Virginia. Coal Country USA, in the waning years of the Eisenhower administration. One of dozens of “company towns” throughout the state. Owned and operated by a large industrial corporation, profits of which provide the housing, police, fire department, schools and church. Producing a meager living for the families, whose men work in the mines.
A township in the valley of two mountain ridges. And a place where most would like to leave. Though the only way out for those young men coming of age is a sports scholarship. Not a great list of options for teenager, Homer (surprisingly good Jake Gyllenhaal), whose older brother, Jim (Scott Miles), has just won a football scholarship out of town.
Overshadowed by the launch, very early in the Cold War, of the first orbital satellite, Sputnik, property of the Russians, the ENEMY. And its ability to be seen in the night sky by Homer and other townspeople. Sending Homer to seek out his friends, math geek Quentin Williams (Chris Owens), inspired machinist Ray Lee Cook (William Lee Scott), and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lundberg) to take the pulpy science fiction novels and illustrations they love to the drawing board and their next steps. First as a hit-and-miss hobby, as early launches blow up before launching from Homer’s front yard, to a later attempt that launches beautifully, then crashes miles away and sets fire to distant acres of forest.
And through it all, Mr. Cooper’s John Hickam watches from a discreet distance. Not sure what to make of his son’s latest fascination. As small accidents in the mines slow extraction and production. Going the extra mile to keep the workers together as the first whiffs of interest from Unions make themselves known. Uncovering and dealing with small, sometimes innocuous, acts of sabotage.
One that may have caused a small cave-in. And sent John to the hospital after rescuing several men deep in the main mine. Looking toward a bleak future while trying to avoid arguments between his wife, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), who wants the best possible future for Homer. And Homer, who has the grades and the backing of his teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). Who knows the ins and outs of academics and its scholarships. And supplies Homer with several books on advanced mathematics and aerodynamic design.
The books come in handy in helping Homer prove that his and his friends’ earlier rocket did not cause he forest fire. Calculating the exact location of the rocket in a stream miles from the disaster. Getting the town folk behind the team. While garnering a very positive story in the local paper. And beyond in the process.
The winning of a Science Fair propel Homer and his friends to new heights. And a much more sophisticated venue in Indianapolis, Indiana. Where their model’s thrust nozzle is stolen. And a new one is machined and delivered early the next morning after a tense all night refinement session. I’ll leave it right here. Lest I tip my hand on one of the better no-frills family films of the 1990s!
What Does Mr. Cooper Bring To This Role?
One of the most complete and fully fleshed-out Dads of the 1950s. Hard-working and -loving. Though acutely aware of his family’s situations. And its slim odds of something, anything better, who goes to the mines every morning to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. Though, while convalescing after a cave-in, not really sold on the idea of his youngest taking up the baton and riding the cage down.
Pulled in several directions at once. Amidst anger from fellow miners, The disruption of life long friendships over a tragic mistake. And its following retribution. Mr. Cooper does what he does best! Adds depth, shadow and presence to a roughly sketched character. Embodies it with his worn, lined visage and slow, never hurried gait. And makes it his own.
Creating a believable foundation for Mr. Gyllenhaal to lash out with teen angst in discovering he is good at and enjoys its pursuit, no matter how harebrained to may seem to his Dad. Also notable for how reined in and respectful Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Homer is in this regard. Explaining a future he and his father cannot fully comprehend. And how he wants to fit into it.
Very high marks for Joe Johnston for fluidly juggling the main story. Which is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s to carry. As well as so many subplots that swirl about. And reel themselves in so nicely long before the final credits. A capability that will pay off so well in later films, Hidalgo and Captain America: The First Avenger. Aided by cinematography by Fred Murphy. Editing by Robert Dalva. Superb hardscrabble and dirty art direction by Tony Fanning, making parts of Eastern Kentucky look so much like the smoky hills of West Virginia. Aided by a memorable, period-tinged soundtrack by Mark Isham.