Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Listen Here! 21 Hours Of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater On The Air

Seasoned theatrical and radio impresario Orson Welles, aged 23

As a teenaged stage actor in the '30s, Orson Welles helped pay the bills by lending his mellifluous baritone voice to scores of radio programs in New York. Before too long was a genuine radio star, making over $1500 a week in Depression dollars.

In 1935 he joined the newly created Federal Theater Project, a division of FDR's Works Progress Administration. The Federal Theater Project was designed to put skilled people to work staging plays. Performances were open to the public and often took place in areas that had been deprived of any kind of theater, let alone great theater. Welles first production was Macbeth, performed in Harlem with an all African-American cast. Not only did it draw audiences, it became a bona fide break-out success, and toured the country. Welles continued to work in radio and used his earnings to supplement the show's budget. President Roosevelt, according to Welles, called him "the only operator in history who ever illegally siphoned money into a Washington project."

After two years of success, the Federal Theater Project ran into political objections in Washington, ironically for criticism of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and was defunded. Welles and his favorite collaborators defected and created the Mercury Theater in 1937. The Mercury Theater now benefited from Welles' years of experience staging and directing plays, and of course his genius. The productions were modern, innovative and breathtaking.

The Mercury became so famous and esteemed that radio, Welles' constant source of funding during these creative years, came calling and Welles and company were engaged to create a 13 week series of literary adaptations called "The Mercury Theater On The Air." One of the most famous broadcasts in history was a Mercury episode, the famous and brilliant "War Of The Worlds" adaptation that many listeners believed to be real.

The series ran for 22 episodes before creative differences impelled Welles to pull the plug on it.

Here, on archive.org, are most of the episodes of the series, in mp3 form.

These make great listening for long drives, by the way. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Watch This: New Short Doc About the Genius Animator Behind JURASSIC PARK, STAR WARS, etc.

"I took LSD when I was working on RETURN OF THE JEDI. I could communicate with my cat Brian and Brian took me on a journey... I crawled into this cupboard with Brian the cat and we went to the center of the earth for like three billion years."

Friend of AFS Evan Husney has made a great new short doc for Vice Films about the man who created, either alone or in tandem with others, some of the most impressive movie special effects of all time. It's always been a little baffling how so many modern CGI effects look so terrible when clearly the technology was there to make the JURASSIC PARK dinosaurs look realistic decades ago.

In the doc, Tippett takes us into his workshop, shows us his models and shares his process and, maybe more interestingly, his philosophy.

It's a great watch. Here it is.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Happy 78th Birthday to the Great Jane Fonda

New Yorker Film Critic Pauline Kael, so often prescient in her evaluation of talent and so precise in writing about performers, wrote in 1969 of Jane Fonda in THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?
"Fortunately, Gloria, who is the raw nerve of the movie, is played by Jane Fonda, who has been a charming, witty nudie cutie in recent years and now gets a chance at an archetypal character. Sharp-tongued Gloria, the hard, defiantly masochistic girl who expects nothing and gets it, the girl who thinks the worst of everybody and makes everybody act it out, the girl who can't ask anybody for anything except death, is the strongest role an American actress has had on the screen this year. Jane Fonda goes all the way with it, as screen actresses rarely do once they become stars. She doesn't try to save some ladylike part of herself, the way even a good actress like Audrey Hepburn does, peeping at us from behind "vulgar" roles to assure us she's not really like that. Jane Fonda gives herself totally to the embodiment of this isolated, morbid girl who is determined to be on her own, who can't let go and trust anybody, who is so afraid of being gullible that she can't live. 
"Jane Fonda makes one understand the self-destructive courage of a certain kind of loner, and because she has the true star's gift of drawing one to her emotionally even when the character she plays is repellent, her Gloria, like Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs, is one of those complex creations who live on as part of our shared experience. Jane Fonda stands a good chance of personifying American tensions and dominating our movies in the seventies as Bette Davis did in the thirties; if so, Gloria will be but one in a gallery of brilliant American characters."
Later, Kael wrote in her 1971 KLUTE review:
"Jane Fonda's motor runs a little fast. As an actress, she has a special kind of smartness that takes the form of speed; she's always a little ahead of everybody, and this quicker beat--this quicker responsiveness--makes her more exciting to watch. This quality works to great advantage in her full-scale, definitive portrait of a call girl in Klute. It's a good, big role for her, and she disappears into Bree, the call girl, so totally that her performance is very pure--unadorned by "acting." As with her defiantly self-destructive Gloria inThey Shoot Horses, Don't They?, she never stands outside Bree, she gives herself over to the role, and yet she isn't lost in it--she's fully in control, and her means are extraordinarily economical. She has somehow got to a plane of acting at which even the closest closeup never reveals a false thought and, seen on the movie streets a block away, she's Bree, not Jane Fonda, walking toward us.
"... I wish Jane Fonda could divide herself in two, so we could have new movies with that naughty-innocent comedienne as well as with this brilliant, no-nonsense dramatic actress. Her Gloria invited comparison with Bette Davis in her great days, but the character of Gloria lacked softer tones, shading, variety. Her Bree transcends the comparison; there isn't another young dramatic actress in American films who can touch her...."
These quotes help to provide a road map to appreciating Fonda's special talent. In addition to her onscreen work, of course she has also been an icon of style, fitness guru and flashpoint in the culture wars. She's a giant in her field and at 78 she's almost as famous now as ever.

This will be the first and last link to anything Oprah Winfrey related on these pages, but the story she tells here of meeting Greta Garbo tell us something about Fonda's strength of character and philosophy of life. I love it. Hope you enjoy it too:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

January's Essential Cinema: Blake Edwards & Julie Andrews - Read All About It

Hot off the presses, here are the programming notes for this January's much-anticipated Essential Cinema screening series. Screenings are open to the public. Click on links below for more information.

Blake Edwards’ name is synonymous with the kind of sophisticated yet physical comedy he mastered as a writer and director. The urbane and the profane coexist in the Edwards universe, and frequently prove to be opposite sides of the same coin.

Born in Tulsa but raised in Hollywood, young Blake Edwards knew the studio back lots like the palm of his hand. As soon as he was old enough to work he became a messenger, delivering script pages and dailies to the various studio offices. Soon he became a bit part actor, then a writer and director of B-movies, radio and television. The success of his television series PETER GUNN and subsequent early films like OPERATION PETTICOAT and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S made him a sought-after comedy director, and then the first two installments of his PINK PANTHER series, featuring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, carried him to the top of the heap.

THE GREAT RACE followed, a (for its time) massively budgeted comedy. It turned a profit but was critically unpopular. His next few films did not satisfy critics or audiences much. Edwards had come to a turning point by the end of the sixties. His next film, DARLING LILI, encountered a number of costly shooting delays and, making matters worse, studio management changed before the release and the new brass did not much care about making DARLING LILI a success. The movie was released, with cuts made by the studio, and underperformed at the box office. Seen today in Edwards’ preferred cut, it’s a minor masterpiece. Julie Andrews, making her first appearance in one of her husband’s films, is remarkable, demonstrating her acting, singing and even sex appeal. This last attribute was very controversial at the time, and the studio management’s discomfort with Andrews’ sexual side will come up again in S.O.B.

Subsequent Clouseau-free projects proved unsuccessful as well and Edwards found himself at the cusp of the ‘80s without a studio and without many prospects. Outside of the dependable PANTHER films, which were becoming a little worn at the edges, Edwards had presided over a string of flops, and his latest script, about a man having a midlife crisis, seemed like another box-office depth charge. The small production unit Orion Pictures took a gamble on Edwards’ talent (and his not inconsiderable anchor star and wife Andrews). 10 became a massive box office sensation, raking in $75 million dollars, the equivalent of a quarter of a billion dollars today. New discovery Bo Derek became ubiquitous in the national media after this film’s success and Ravel’s Bolero became one of the best selling classical compositions of all time.

Thursday, January 7, 7:30pm
Directed by Blake Edwards, USA, 1979, 122 min
Written by Edwards. Starring Dudley Moore, Julie Andrews, Bo Derek, Robert Webber, Dee Wallace, Brian Dennehy

Dudley Moore plays a successful songwriter, blessed with a loving partner (Julie Andrews), who spies beautiful young bride Bo Derek at a wedding and loses his mind. Unbeknownst to her, he follows her and her husband on their Mexican honeymoon trip. Between awkward encounters and many, many strong drinks he finds where his true happiness lies.

Rather than rest on his laurels or begin a new, profitable franchise, Edwards went his own way yet again, featuring Andrews in the acidic, brilliant and completely uncommercial satire S.O.B., which, unsurprisingly, was dumped by the studio and lost money but which today seems ripe for rediscovery. The central character, a director played by Richard Mulligan, is very much based on Edwards and the plot events reflect the aftermath of the DARLING LILI debacle.

Thursday, January 14, 7:30pm
Directed by Blake Edwards, USA, 1981, 122 min
Written by Edwards. Starring Julie Andrews, Richard Mulligan, William Holden, Robert Preston, Marisa Berenson, Larry Hagman

After a long and remunerative career in Hollywood, director Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) is at the end of his rope. His latest film, a musical called NIGHT WIND, is a flop, his personal life falls apart and he finds he has few friends. Then Farmer has the insane idea to recall NIGHT WIND, add pornographic sequences starring his wife, a goody-goody Julie Andrews type (played by Julie Andrews, of course), and rerelease it. It’s an act of madness, of course, but then all of Hollywood is mad, unscrupulous and desperate in Blake Edwards’ deeply bitter, dark farce.

The Edwards/Andrews team followed this with sizeable hit and critical success VICTOR VICTORIA, which brought old-fashioned big-movie craftsmanship and talent back to the top of the box office charts again. It’s an extraordinary showcase for Julie Andrews and Robert Preston. This is top of the line stuff, as proficient an example of grown-up entertainment as Hollywood had ever managed.

Thursday, January 21, 7:30pm
Directed by Blake Edwards, USA, 1982, 132 min
Written by Blake Edwards from a story by Hans Hoemburg and Reinhold Schünzel. Starring Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, James Garner, Lesley Ann Warren, Alex Karras

In Paris between the wars, a British singer - an operatic soprano - (Julie Andrews) slogs from dive to dive looking for work. She becomes friends with gay cabaret pianist Toddy (Robert Preston) who comes up with the idea of having her impersonate a man who in turn performs onstage in female “drag.” The act is a sensation and the gender reversal causes a lot of personal turmoil for smitten American gangster King Marchand (James Garner) and his retinue.

VICTOR VICTORIA was a pinnacle of sorts for Edwards. His next projects must have been pretty dispiriting - one Pink Panther movie largely constructed of deleted scenes from other films in the series, a necessity created by the premature death of star Peter Sellers; and another Pink Panther movie starring Ted Wass as the lead investigator. Edwards’ next film betrays some of the ennui he felt during this period.

Thursday, January 28, 7:30pm
Directed by Blake Edwards, USA, 1983, 110 min
Written by Blake Edwards, Milton Wexler and Geoffrey Edwards. Suggested by a film written by François Truffaut, Michel Fermaud and Suzanne Schiffman. Starring Burt Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Marilu Henner, Cynthia Sikes, Jennifer Edwards, Sela Ward

A psychoanalyst played by Julie Andrews relates in flashback the tale of one of her most interesting patients, a wealthy sculptor who is obsessed by beautiful women and who pursues them even when it places his life in jeopardy. The film is told in a series of vignettes.

THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN is an Americanization of François Truffaut’s 1977 film, released stateside under the same title. Though he was a box office star, Burt Reynolds is not ideal casting. In fact Blake Edwards wanted Warren Beatty or Dustin Hoffman. Reynolds does his best though and the rest of the cast does very well at times, especially Andrews and Kim Basinger. This is a minor Edwards film, and chiefly interesting as the film that closes this cycle, but taken with the right attitude it is a lot of fun, it is well shot by the great Haskell Wexler, and there are several classic sequences.

The series has been programmed with author Bryan Connolly (DESTROY ALL  MOVIES!!!).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Carol Burnett's 70's Comedy Variety Show was a Film Buff's Dream

It was announced today that Texas native and comedy legend Carol Burnett will inducted into the Texas Film Hall Of Fame at the Texas Film Awards on March 10. Her film credits are excellent in themselves, with great performances in PETE 'N' TILLIE (1972), THE FRONT PAGE (1974), Robert Altman's underrated THE WEDDING (1978), Alan Alda's THE FOUR SEASONS (1981) and. of course, John Huston's adaptation of ANNIE (1982); but it is her TV work that made Carol Burnett a household name.

Her best known television show was THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW which ran from 1967 through 1978. Along with her unparalleled stock company: Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway, and special guest stars, the show kept musical variety alive and kicking on television and brought Burnett's extraordinary talent for comic characterization into American homes for years. Though filmed for telecast, it maintained a live energy reminiscent of the early days of live TV.

Many of the show's sketches were about movies, both current releases and classics. It was assumed that the audience was conversant in the Hollywood cinema of the '30s, '40s and '50s. There were impossible-to-forget impressions of Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BOULEVARD and Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE among many, many others.

Here is one of the best, a parody of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, featuring Burnett in the Stanwyck role and singer Steve Lawrence as the doomed insurance agent who falls under her spell. This is the Burnett magic at its best.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Critic/Historian Wheeler Winston Dixon on the Lost Art of Black & White

Here's a great interview with critic Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of the new book "Black & White Cinema: A Short History" on the pleasures, challenges and meaning of monochrome cinematography.

Here are some excerpts:
"If you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs. There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump."
Dixon goes on to make other good points. Black and white cinematographers has much more freedom for instance.
"Remember that often working in color limited you in ways that black-and-white did not. Technicolor had a lock on the color processes until Eastmancolor came along in the early 1950s. So Technicolor controlled the cameras, the cameramen, the labs — everything had to be done through them. There were only 11 or so Technicolor cameras in Hollywood, so when you worked with Technicolor you also got Natalie Kalmus, the ‘color coordinator,’ and director of photography Ray Rennahan who was their in-house photographer, usually, and they typically wanted the colors to pop off the screen."
He also makes the point that black and white films are fundamentally different from color films.
"To me black and white is more sensuous. It’s such a transformative act to make a black-and-white film. You are entering an entirely different world, right from the start. It’s so much more of a leap into another universe. 
Color films and particularly color 3-D films attempt to mimic some sort of spectacular reality, whereas black-and-white films are really a meditation on the image."
 H/T Manohla Dargis

Thursday, December 10, 2015

AFS Viewfinders Podcast: Author Bryan Connolly on Blake Edwards

The new AFS Viewfinders podcast is up. You can find it on iTunes or click here to listen.

Our guest is Bryan Connolly, author and viral media celebrity. Bryan is joining us as co-programmer and co-host of our January Essential Cinema series, Love Is A Two Way Street: Films Of Blake Edwards & Julie Andrews. The series includes 10 (1979), S.O.B. (1981), VICTOR VICTORIA (1982) and THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN (1983). These films are masterful examples of Edwards' ability to work with a diverse palette, from social satire to keen interpersonal observation to, of course, slapstick physical comedy.

Connolly and I talk about Edwards' amazing career trajectory that took him to every level of Hollywood from the laundry room to the penthouse. We also talk about the social reasons for the widespread disparagement of physical comedy and the remarkable talent of Julie Andrews, Edwards' wife and, perhaps, greatest star.*

*Apologies to Peter Sellers

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Born On This Date: Cinema's Greatest Magician George Méliès

George Méliès, born on this date in 1861, brought dreams and magic to the cinema, where they have remained ever since in varying quantities. A stage magician by trade who owned his own theater and obsessively tinkered with his illusions, Méliès immediately saw the advantages that the young medium of moving pictures offered. He built a camera and projector and equipped his theater for exhibition. Soon he was making his own short films, often built around magic tricks. He was an obsessive tinkerer who took great joy in developing optical illusions. Most film special effects that followed owe something to Méliès' methods and his films still have the capacity to entertain and delight.

Here is Méliès' MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN, still an impressive compendium of all kinds of special effects and starring Méliès himself as Mephistopheles, naturally.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Watch This: John Belushi Walks on His SNL Co-stars' Graves in Tom Schiller's Short

Tom Schiller will join AFS for a screening of SCHILLER'S REELS, his best short films, and his feature NOTHING LASTS FOREVER on Monday December 21. The show will be cohosted by author and Schiller superfan Zack Carlson.

From the earliest days of Saturday Night Live, short films were a part of the show. Albert Brooks and Penelope Spheeris were among the many who made short films for the show, but writer/filmmaker Tom Schiller made the most abiding of all the SNL shorts of the first 15 years of the show's run.

Today the shorts are as funny as ever, and have new layers of meaning and sometimes pathos. John Belushi is hilarious in old man makeup, walking on the graves of his erstwhile cast members, but there's more to the gag now. Schiller's reels never pounce on the easy laugh. There is wit and sophistication about them, such as in LA DOLCE GILDA, which places Gilda Radner in the decadent Roman milieu of Federico Fellini. Schiller also loves distending and displacing time periods, as in his feature NOTHING LASTS FOREVER which glides between a 1930s Capra reality, a 1950's television consumer frenzy and an '80s New Wave future.

Here's that Belushi short: DON'T LOOK BACK IN ANGER, one of many shorts that will be featured at our December 21 screening.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Happy 85th Birthday Godard; Huppert & Karina Recount Their First Meetings with J-L.G.

Today is the 85th birthday of a filmmaker who has lived a life of rebellion against the status quo, against safety, against security, against his own "success." A filmmaker who has angered, alienated and bored many, and also made beautiful films which helped to create a new way of interacting with the moving image. Whether we love him or hate him we can agree that he's one of a kind.

Thanks to Criterion we can hear from Isabelle Huppert, star of his 1980 "comeback" movie EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF, tell of her first meeting as they prepared for the film.

And here Anna Karina, perhaps Godard's most iconic '60s female star, recalls her first meeting with Godard, whom she married in 1961 and was divorced from four years later.