Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Watch This: A 1969 Kids' Film from Homer, Lisa, Maggie & Matt Groening

The real Homer. Homer Groening, that is.

Back in 1969, filmmaker Homer Groening enlisted his kids to star in a short film called THE STORY. It follows the children on a visit to the zoo, as the older brother Matt Groening (born on this date in 1954) tells a roundabout tale about the different animals to his younger sisters Lisa and Maggie.

You don't have to be a SIMPSONS fan to be enthralled by this, but it sure helps. Thanks to the great Skip Elsheimer of AV Geeks for saving and sharing this film.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Preview of this Month's 'Pioneers Of African-American Cinema' Screenings

Director Oscar Micheaux lines up a shot

Over the past few years, Kino Lorber, one of our favorite distribution houses, has coordinated a major restoration project called Pioneers Of African-American Cinema.  As part of this project, executive-produced by Paul D. Miller (also known as DJ Spooky) new restorations have been created from original elements that reside in a number of film archives including the Library Of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and, close to home, Southern Methodist University.

These, with some important exceptions, were films made for African American audiences, to be played exclusively in theaters which catered to a black clientele, as such these films provide a fascinating glimpse into a popular culture that was not visible by society at large, mostly until now.

We're honored to present two programs of selections from these materials, co-curated and hosted by Professor Mark Cunningham, Ph.D, of Austin Community Colleges Radio-Television-Film Department.

For the first installment, screening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum's Spirit Of Texas Theater on Sunday, February 19 at 4pm, we present the following program:
1) DARKTOWN REVIEW (1931, 18 min): From legendary African American director Oscar Micheaux, his most unusual, free-wheeling film, a recontextualisation of a traditional black-face minstrel show, in an attempt to reclaim the tradition from its racist purveyors. 
2) SCREEN SNAPSHOTS: (Micheaux Footage Excerpt) (1920, 1 min.): This extremely rare newsreel footage shows the director Oscar Micheaux at work on one of his early productions.
3) HOT BISKITS (1931, 10 minutes): Spencer Williams was as different a filmmaker from Oscar Micheaux as can be imagined, but still a very important pioneer. In this comedy short, we witness how a pair of bickering rivals settle their differences in a game of miniature golf. 
5) THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1939, 58 min.) Fascinating in its special way, this is a by-the-book singing cowboy B-Western with the important distinction that the entire cast, headed by the 'Bronze Buckaroo' himself, big-band singer Herb Jeffries, is African American. It is very instructive to see how the comic relief character in this film differs in tone and substance from his counterparts in films made for white audiences.
On Sunday, February 26, Professor Cunningham will return to screen the following program, also at the Bullock museum:
1) An excerpt of footage from Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina, May 1940 (15 min.) The great author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston documented a Gullah church service in the Sea Island community of South Carolina. This fascinating footage has been selected for the National Film Registry of the Library Of Congress. 
2) Rev Solomon Sir Jones Home Movies (1924-28, 16 min.) During the '20s the Reverend Solomon Sir Jones, using an amateur 16mm camera, documented African American church services throughout Oklahoma. These communities, a mere three generations removed from slavery, have been little depicted in any form of historical recollection, making these films all the more valuable. 
4) BLOOD OF JESUS (1941, 57 min.) This is one of the best-known "race" films and the first full-length feature made by actor/producer/director Spencer Williams. Because of the very low budgets of most of the films in this category - which after all, were expected to make their money back in very few locations - there was little room for stylization and experimentation, but in this extraordinary drama, Williams explores a spiritual motif in surprising and poetic ways.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Caution: Mimes Run Wild in the 1970 German Experimental Film MAMBO

The Internet Archive has become quite a helpful repository of bizarre moving images, from entire features to community television to television commercials to experimental 8mm films - and all points in between. Exploring the archive can be quite an adventure. One relatively recent addition to the collection is a sub-group of historic student films from The Art Academy M√ľnster.

As you can see from this film, German art students of 1970 were into some fairly odd head spaces. While we cannot fully condone the art of mime, we do appreciate the ability of mimes to make any weird situation even weirder and this film, entitled MAMBO, is about as weird as anything to be observed outside of the White House briefing room right now.

Enjoy, and if you have an explanation, please leave it in the comments field.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Watch This: Rip Torn & Norman Mailer's Berserk MAIDSTONE Fight

"You know this is what I had to do."

Novelist and journalist Norman Mailer was, in addition to being one of the finest writers of his era, a truly difficult man, who, among other things, exalted violence as a means of achieving existential purgation. He was a fascinating, contradictory person, writer, would-be politician, and even filmmaker.

For his third film, MAIDSTONE (1970), a loose and experimental political film, Mailer himself played a presidential candidate whose campaign is shadowed by a documentary crew. Mailer hired actor Rip Torn (born on this date in 1931 in Temple, Texas) to play his half-brother in the film. Torn, whose reputation as a fine actor is accompanied by an equally notorious reputation as a hell-raiser, did not disappoint on either count. The situation between Mailer and Torn became more and more tense as filming continued, and, on one beautiful day, as Mailer's family cavorted in Provincetown, Torn attacked. Literally. The whole thing is captured in the final film.

As cinematographer D.A. Pennebaker films in long shot, we see Torn hit Mailer with a hammer. They wrestle and tumble to the ground as Pennebaker closes in for a tight shot. True to his documentary roots, Pennebaker does not intervene in any way. This is rough, tough stuff, as Mailer bites Torn's ear, drawing blood and the two are locked in a death grip. Mailer's family and friends intervene and they have a tense stand-off. Mailer tells Torn he won't include the footage in the movie. Torn repeats, "Norman, you know this is what I had to do" several times. Then, as Mailer comforts his hysterical children, Mailer's wife Beverly, screams and threatens Torn. It's tense and violent stuff.

Watch the scene here. Warning, this real violence may be disturbing.

Many years later, in an interview, Mailer, who says that he and Rip Torn had made up in the years since, said of the footage:
When I saw it, I realized I had to put it in. It was just too damn good. I hated it, but I felt I had to put it in. Rip was right. I was making a movie about assassination. How could I not have an assassination in it?
Of Pennebaker's hands-off attitude, Mailer says:
I remember afterwards I was furious with him and I went up to him and said, “Well, would you photograph my last gasps?” He had a work ethic just as I did and we discovered that his work ethic and mine had nothing to do with one another. At that point my work ethic was, the film’s over, let’s congratulate the director. His work ethic is finding a scene so he stayed with the scene. On balance, he may have been right. I think he probably would of intervened at some point, but it would have been way down the road.
Rip Torn, a University of Texas alumnus, was inducted into the Texas Film Hall Of Fame in 2011.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Good News! Mark Harris' "Cinema '67 Revisited" in Film Comment

We'll take good news wherever we can find it nowadays. And the news that Mark Harris is beginning a regular column in Film Comment is some of the best news we've heard in ages. Harris has written one of the best film books ever, "Pictures At A Revolution," which examines Hollywood, America, and the world through the prism of the five Hollywood films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1968.

In Harris' new column in Film Comment, Cinema '67 Revisited, he returns to that fruitful period in a series of biweekly articles.

He begins, as might be expected, with Michelangelo Antonioni's ode to swinging London, paranoia and mimes, BLOW-UP.

He writes:
"With Blow-Up, however, it was clear: Antonioni had compromised nothing. The film starts as a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller about a London fashion photographer who witnesses the aftermath of a murder, but ends as something more metaphysical, environmental, and philosophical. “The English thought me mad,” he told Rex Reed, “But I thought them mad, with all their unions and rules . . . Now everyone talks of the wonderful grass and the wonderful trees, but I painted the grass with green paint and I painted the streets and the buildings with white paint. I even painted the tree trunks. Everything.”
This week, for his second installment, Harris tackles a wild card, the second-tier star-studded soaper, HOTEL.
Hotel is junk, but it is fascinating, revealing junk, heavy with an anxious, dawning knowledge that its era is about to end; the nominally opulent production values hang on the film like a slightly stale cologne that’s been slapped on to mask something worse. The sheen of flop sweat is palpable right from the poster, with the effortful, mostly incomprehensible slogan, “You straightened out the room in broad daylight…but some things still breathed and pulsed with what had happened the night before—“ (It ends like that, with a dash, because even it has no idea where it means to go from there.) The roster of actors—Rod Taylor, Catherine Spaak, Karl Malden, Richard Conte, “and Merle Oberon as ‘The Duchess’”—suggest not an all-star cast but the choices one would make after being turned down by an all-star cast.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Watch This: Behind the Scenes of THE LAST EMPEROR

A rare 35mm print of THE LAST EMPEROR will be presented by AFS at the Paramount Theater on Thursday, February 2. This screening will be hosted by AFS founder and Artistic Director Richard Linklater. Tickets are available.

THE LAST EMPEROR, which is 30 years ago this year, is a fascinating film. It is perhaps the last of the true international epics, in the mold of Davis Lean's works. It's a film that pays as much attention to small details of character as it does to mass movements of people. The film swept the Academy Awards, winning in every category in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Cinematography.

The following clip shows Bernardo Bertolucci directing a large scene with a lot of actors. Then we hear a bit from Peter O'Toole - no stranger to epic filmmaker, and finally we observe Bertolucci's approach to close detail work as he strategizes his closeups.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Gallery of the Work of Ruth Harriet Louise, Photographer & Hollywood Pioneer

Greta Garbo, photographed by Ruth Harriet Louise

Ruth Harriet Louise, born Ruth Goldstein on this date in 1903, came to Los Angeles at only age 22 and set up a portrait photography studio in the booming Hollywood district where, providentially, rising mogul Louis B. Mayer saw her work and hired her to make stills of his stars. During this era, and decades that followed, posed star photographs were almost as important a part of the Hollywood star apparatus as the films themselves. Movie magazines were devoured by the masses and stars, carefully arranged, dressed, made-up and retouched, were often introduced to audiences by means of these publications, or by movie theater window displays.

Louise helped to develop the stylistic playbook of what we now call the era of Hollywood glamour.

Here are some of her best shots:

Lillian Gish

Bessie Love

Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford posed as Hamlet

Norma Shearer


John Gilbert

Loretta Young

Buster Keaton (and Lon Chaney)

Anita Page

Anna May Wong

The photographer and her subject (Joan Crawford)