Monday, September 10, 2018

Why the films of the 1970s were even greater, stranger, livelier than we thought

Janis Joplin, left, with Dick Cavett and Gloria Swanson. 
This is the first in a two part series. 

By Lars Trodson

On Aug. 3, 1970, Dick Cavett hosted the following guests on his nighttime talk show: Janis Joplin, Gloria Swanson, Margot Kidder, and football player Dave Meggyesy, who had just published an exposée on the sport.

Joplin had been making music since 1962, and had become a star in 1966. Kidder had done some television in her native Canada, had acted in only two American films at that time, but would become famous for playing Lois Lane in the “Superman” franchise that launched in 1978. (It was the 1970s, after all, that brought comic book heroes back to the big screen in a big-budgeted, special-effects way.) Meggyesy's career had started in 1963, but by the time of the broadcast he had quit due to what he felt was the violent nature of the game.

Gloria Swanson, of course, was one of the great, glamorous stars of the silent era, born in the final moments of the 19th century. By 1916, almost 55 years prior to this broadcast, she had become a charter member of the club that became known as The Hollywood Movie Star.

These guests on the Cavett show are emblematic of the decade in movies that was about to play out, an unprecedented mix of emerging talent who worked alongside artists that started as far back as the silent era. This generational mixing, with its differing sensibilities and styles, their competing approach to technologies, and tentative (at first) embrace of the new freedoms, provided movie-going audiences in the 1970s with a gorgeous array of pictures unlike anything that had been seen before.

The 1970s, in movies, is in fact far more exciting when looked at holistically, rather than just the era of Coppola, Peckinpah, Lucas, Spielberg, DePalma, Scorsese, and Cassavetes. It was also the era of Huston, Welles, Zinneman, Hitchcock, and Wilder. It was not just the time of Nicholson, Hoffman, Jane Fonda, Streisand, and Dunaway, but also of Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Robert Mitchum.

It was the 70s, and when they were over, the movies slowly, inexorably, began their journey to what movies are today: special effects-laden spectacles that are deliberately detached from the hard life realities and emotions that movie-makers had spent decades trying to explore on screen.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jerry Maren: The broken filament to a darkening past

Part of the appeal of “The Wizard of Oz,” at least for those of us who are a certain age, is that it was available to watch just once a year, sometime in the spring, I believe, and like the Charlie Brown Christmas special and the annual airing of “The Ten Commandments” at Easter, once the movie ended that was it for another year. It was a situation one accepted with some melancholy; there was nothing to be done about it, after all, at that time. But it made you watch the movie. You wanted to fully absorb it, because it was going to be a long time before it came around again.

The annual viewings allowed more attentive viewers the opportunity to anticipate when the first commercial would come up (I remember it being just as the tornado was about to arrive, and Prof. Marvel says of Dorothy, “Poor little girl, I hope she gets home all right.”) and to wait with great anticipation for one's favorite lines and scenes.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The most profound, most prophetic moment in “2001: A Space Odyssey"

By Lars Trodson
There is just one scene in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" that truly, profoundly prophesied how technology would impact human behavior in the 21st century.
It comes during the “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later” sequence: 
Two men, sitting two feet from each other, simultaneously watch the same BBC broadcast, on two different screens.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Oskar Fischinger and the animation revolution that never was

Oskar Fischinger's short film, "An Optical Poem," was released by MGM in February of 1938, and that was that. Or not.

By Lars Trodson

There was no studio with more prestige or box office power in the late 1930s than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but it was lagging in two crucial lucrative markets: short films and cartoons. Stung by the continuing success, and innovations, coming out of the Walt Disney Studios, MGM wanted to get in those spaces.

In the busy year of 1937, MGM launched an in-house magazine called "MGM Short Stories" to promote its renewed commitment to these genres. This glossy was distributed to Loews theater owners and theater managers each month in order to provide background on the short films and cartoons MGM would be releasing, as well as recommendations on how these films could be promoted to boost their box office potential.

The studio had also hired two men, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, to lead a reinvigorated short film department. Fred Quimby was overseeing the animation unit.

The October/November 1938 issue of “MGM Short Story” included a profile of Harman and Ising titled “Harman and Ising Is Their Name.” The unsigned piece announced the studio’s intentions and aspirations.

Cartoons... offer a medium which has infinite opportunity for expressing things to vast film audiences which heretofore could never have been told. The gift of the human characteristics of thought, speech and action, to birds, animals and imaginative beings is only one of the possibilities of this plastic medium, which permits movement and rhythm of form and line with sound and color. It is a form of graphic and audible art, such an art as the Michelangelos and Chopins of the past might have envisioned,” the article states. 

“Continuing in this vein, Harman and Ising express the conviction that animated drawings offer, in many cases, the same superiority that the painting or illustration has over the photograph, delineating truer and more expressive illusion. It offers a freedom and flexibility that can achieve almost miraculous results in the hands of those sufficiently adept in its technique. It furnishes the means of creating character and apparent life where before no life existed; the means of exaggerating beyond the wildest reality. It is an instrument to play upon all the emotions from the humble funny-bone to the ecstasy aroused by an immortal symphony.”