Monday, February 28, 2011

The Return of Elwy Yost

I've been hoping TV Ontario would put some of its old material online, and they recently created a site to do just that, a "Public Archive" with selected episodes of some of its older shows. In particular, they cleared the rights to some of the 16 mm filmed interviews conducted by Elwy Yost, host of "Talking Film" and "Saturday Night at the Movies," who built up one of North America's biggest libraries of interviews with actors, directors, writers and technicians from old Hollywood.

And most of the interviews were incorporated into the show in very large, long chunks without too much editing; it's a style that will be familiar to viewers of public television from the '70s and '80s (when a lot of these interviews were shot) but which I like better than the way such interviews are usually done nowadays -- either interspersed with a lot of clips and stills, so that we can't see the interviewee think before he or she talks, or cut up into really small snippets.

So for example, in this half-hour compilation of interviews about the (then) modern British film industry, the interview with Ken Adam, starting at around 11:30, goes on for more than 10 minutes. It's edited down, but it's edited down less than you'd get almost anywhere else.

Here for another example is the show with Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; they don't say much that's new, but hearing the contours of their speech and seeing their expressions while they speak is the interesting part.

And for one final example, here's one of the videotaped in-studio interviews TVO periodically did, this one with John Huston. They have a couple of other in-studio segments, including a two-parter with the New Deal documentarian Pare Lorentz.

One of the in-studio interviews I most remember from Saturday Night at the Movies, though it's not on the site, is the one where Eddie Bracken claimed to have directed a scene from The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek while Preston Sturges was unavailable for the day. It was the scene where Trudy meets Norval again after her big night, and Bracken claimed that he panned down to the "JUST MARRIED" sign in imitation of Sturges' love for doing things in one shot. Was the story true? I have no idea; probably not. But I loved that someone could come into a studio in Canada and make that claim. There are all kinds of interviews I saw where people said things I may not have agreed with but were interesting; for example, writer Nat Perrin, who worked on Duck Soup, arguing at length that the movie didn't work. That's just something you won't see on most making-of documentaries.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Response, Over Five Years Too Late

I was reading over Stephen Rowley's blog and came across a fine 2005 post that I remembered reading before (when his blog was "Cinephobia") but hadn't really thought to respond to: "Better Than Ever," a response to critics who pine for the good old days of movies. Rowley argues that recent movies have an advantage: the larger range of techniques available due to the innovators that came before it. So an older work might be notable due to the technique that it invented or developed, but a newer work can take that and build on it. He's not saying that older films (or older anything) are obsolete, just that each innovation adds to a medium and the works that follow are richer for having a greater range of options open to them:

Look at this way: cinema is a young medium. It’s barely over one hundred years old, and cinema with sound is less than eighty. Many of the film classics we know are developmental works, famous because they were the first to utilise a particular technique. The technical capabilities of cinema continue to expand, and as they do so the artistic boundaries expand concurrently. Filmmakers are still exploring the limits of the medium, which is part of what makes filmgoing so fun. This means that more recent films are at least potentially able to draw on a richer heritage of filmmaking experience. Think of it like a language: as the language matures, the vocabulary available to its speakers increases.

Which is not to say that any older film is inferior to a more recent film: few films (old or new) make use of the full possibilities the medium presents, and the form was mature enough by about the forties that good filmmakers could achieve results that still look exceptional today. (Citizen Kane, for example, is still astonishing as both a technical and artistic achievement). Yet if you believe that something was added to cinema by the French New Wave, or the “New Hollywood” of the seventies, or the Hong Kong Cinema of the eighties and nineties, or any of the other important filmmaking movements of the last fifty years, then don’t you have to believe that the artistic possibilities open to a filmmaker today are richer?

I think it's a good argument, and a true one in some cases. I don't quite see eye-to-eye with it, as you might expect from someone who started a blog to write mostly about old stuff and who is constantly arguing for the validity of older works, older styles. While I think new works can be richer for the range of options available to them, I don't think they always are.

The easiest example to use here is not movies but music, because its new techniques are based on almost scientific principles (and therefore it's sort of possible to quantify innovations in music). As the history of Western music progresses, you can see that pattern of artistic development, at least broadly. Orchestras get bigger, there are more instruments and more sounds, harmonies get more complicated, and composers become open to more influences from around the world. There's no question that the history of music has benefited from all this.

But does that mean that the language of music matured or even got richer at any particular time? It depends on what you mean by richer. Sometimes Western music would become more advanced in one area, like harmony, while getting simpler and squarer in another area, like rhythm. Early music has a spikier sound than Romantic music that sometimes makes it sound more "advanced" in certain respects. Pop music is the same way, sometimes becoming simpler than what came before it and limiting, rather than expanding, the range of choices available to it. It's not about getting better or worse -- but while there's always a style that can be identified as contemporary and current, it's not always possible to say that it embraces all the historical possibilities of the form, or that it builds upon its predecessors to be more technically advanced in every area.

The same applies to movies. There are a lot of choices open to filmmakers thanks to the longer history of the medium -- in theory. In practice, most movies at a given time tend to share a common basic grammar, which means that certain choices will usually be made and others not made, almost instinctively. As I've said in the past, the two-shot, with two characters interacting and communicating in the same frame, was one of the basic units of film from the silent era and for decades after. Now putting two characters in the frame together without cutting between them is almost a special effect; it's still done, but it cuts against modern filmmaking instinct.

What I guess I'm saying is that, in a medium with any current popularity, the creator makes a lot of stylistic choices, but others are almost made for him or her, unconsciously. That's why the music or literature of a particular period tends to share certain stylistic traits in common, even as the great artists add their own voice to the prevailing style. Same with movies. Like the structure and sound of a popular song, the style of a movie is defined partly by the filmmaker but partly by the time period.

Which means that the range of choices open to the filmmaker is never quite as broad as it might seem, no matter how much history comes before it. A Coen Bros. movie is a Coen Bros. movie, but it's also a '80s or '90s or '00s or '10s movie, and if you break it down beat by beat and shot by shot you'll see a lot of choices that are similar to other movies of the time, just as even Citizen Kane has plenty of moments that mark it as an RKO movie from 1941.

And this is as it should be, because a) art has a large instinctive component, and instinct is shaped by the time one lives in, and b) an artist who actually wants to put his or her work before the public usually has to create something the public will recognize as contemporary. Most movies exclude certain choices that would be seen as belonging to the past. Unless it's a crazy stunt like The Good German, and even that has a ton of contemporary visual style in it. But anyway, many things an older film, even a recent older film might have done, can't really be done today. They belong to another time when a combination of instinct and intellect made those particular techniques possible.

Which is why I don't think we really build on the past to a great extent. We do sometimes, but so much of what artists do is set in stone by the prevailing style that a look back to the past seems instantly anachronistic -- like Mozart dipping into the Baroque style and quoting the "Hallelujah Chorus" in his Great Mass in C minor, or Altman in The Player parodying (or paying homage to, but mostly parodying, I think) the heavy-footed camera moves of Touch of Evil.

Artistic boundaries expand, but they also contract, and perhaps with the exception of the occasional visionary, particularly the Charles Ives or Emily Dickinson who doesn't feel a need to put his or her work in front of a broad public, any artist is a prisoner of his or her era. That's fine, but it means the choices aren't really broader except in an almost mechanical sense: quicker and smoother camera moves, less obvious rear projection. And even the mechanical improvements arguably have their disadvantages -- or at least you can't say that an earlier film, which found a perfect way to use the equipment available, would have done better if it had had the later equipment. It would have done the shot differently, not always better.

It means, as I see it, that we can't usually look at an older work and say that a later work is more advanced, even in raw technical terms. For it to be more advanced, the later work would have to do the same thing the earlier one does, only better or more complex. And the later work can never do that, just by virtue of belonging to a different time. The early work is not "better" in technical terms (unless we're comparing a great work to a not-great one), but it is precious because it can never truly be surpassed. The game has changed.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Mulling Over a Change

It's not a secret that I haven't posted here very often lately. (And I'm not exactly the first blogger who can make that claim.) That said, I don't want to stop posting. I was wondering if it would make sense to re-post some earlier material from the blog, perhaps revised a bit and outfitted with things like illustrative clips that weren't available when I started the blog in 2004. The nature of this blog is that almost none of the material is topical, so a post about an older movie, play or show isn't really dated unless I've changed my mind in the interim -- and if I have, maybe I can comment on why I changed my mind since then.

I don't know if that's what I'll do; I'm just thinking aloud here, and trying to figure out a good way to do some new(ish) posts.

Meanwhile, here's something I was thinking of incorporating into one of my earlier Archie-comics posts but didn't get around to using: when I wrote about Frank Doyle's writing, I was planning to do this little structural analysis of a five-page story I've always liked since childhood. It's not really a complete post, but I thought I'd put it here anyway.

Someday I'd like to do a fuller explanation of the structural strength of these stories compared to all the competitors -- even the best of them, like some of Stan Lee's humor titles. Lots of "teen" comics had simple or minimal plotting, but few of them did it with a feeling that the story was actually going somewhere, no matter how little was happening. Also, just the fact that lame jokes are acknowledged in-story as lame jokes gives this kind of story a slight sophistication boost over its competitors.

Art: Harry Lucey
Script: Frank Doyle
Inks: Terry Szenics
From Archie # 124

This is a surprisingly well-constructed story despite an almost total lack of plot (in common with many Frank Doyle scripts). It's based on a very simple premise, but in only five pages the premise is fully worked through and put through several variations:

Page 1: Doyle makes sure, as usual, to have the first joke on the first page, and not waste panel time as many humor comics writers do.

Page 2: The premise, introduced briefly on page 1, is fully elaborated on and even leads to a punchline (she was calling him just so he could pull that stupid joke on him). Note also the trademark Lucey reaction -- the circles of surprise coming out of the head. Then she leaves, and Jughead arrives, setting up the next variation.

Page 3: The variation is that whereas Betty was trying to set Archie up for the stupid joke, Jughead gets the idea right then and there. Then he goes on, doing his own verbose version of the reply. Then we get a bit of violence.

Page 4: Variation # 3: the old lady who doesn't even seem to be replying this way as a joke, but genuinely thinks he was calling her.

Page 5: Archie is finally driven 'round the bend by the rule of threes, leading to opportunities for the artist to draw running and hiding poses, so it's not just a static story. And then, in the last two panels, as always, we get the little twist ending and a great facial expression from Lucey.

(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)

So it's a really basic and simple story but a lot of craftsmanship went into it, and that's the difference between the Archie comics of this era and their many failed competitors -- there is a really solid comedy foundation to the scripts and drawing, which even the best competitors (like Stan Lee's team on Millie the Model) often lacked.

Most importantly, the story is constructed to maximize the visual possibilities. Even though it's just people talking about not much, there are all kinds of chances for the artist to do different types of reactions, gestures, physical actions. Good comics writing is done with a view toward telling the story in pictures.