For Sarah: Sept. 22, 1986–Feb. 20, 2014

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There is a magic bubble of invulnerability that can seem to enclose a movie crew filming out on the streets, more so than on the artifice of a stage set. For just a few moments, as the cameras turn over, there exists a kind of parallel reality that lives inside that bubble. It burst on February 20 above a 100 year old, single-track railroad trestle over the Altamaha River near Doctortown, Georgia. The fallout injured half a dozen crew members of a feature film on its first day of shooting; it also killed the 27-year-old camera assistant, Sarah Jones.

No more details are needed here; we already know them. The ongoing revelations about this totally preventable incident have swept social media and trade press on an international scale—a cry of support to Sarah’s memory, but also a cri de coeur, a recognition by frontline filmmakers around the world, of our shared vulnerability— this, ironically, at a time when cutting edge digital artists are creating ever more spectacular visual effects and stunts, not in the streets, but in darkened rooms on computer work stations far removed from the hazards of physical production.

The struggle to create a cinematic illusion of reality, side by side with the all too real world, with the chaos of people living their lives indifferent or even hostile to the presence of the film crew, can create a sensory experience that is schizophrenic. Controlling that illusory reality out to the very edges of the frame constitutes a brief triumph of movie artifice. During the course of a day’s production, filmmakers move in an out of that artifice/reality bubble dozens of times. The sheer volume of the filmmaking equipment employed, the often very vocal demarcation of the shooting space by a harried assistant director or PA, easily creates a sense of magical, even mandarin-like power. “WTF, get that guy out of there. Doesn’t he know we’re trying to make a movie,” blares out of a bullhorn as some hapless gent stumbles out of a bar or a soccer mom exits a Starbucks juggling her soy latte. Continue reading ‘For Sarah: Sept. 22, 1986–Feb. 20, 2014′

Nick Brandt’s Journey ‘Across the Ravaged Land’

Elephant Footprints, Amboseli, 2012 (final image of Brandt's photo trilogy).

Elephant Footprints, Amboseli, 2012 (final image of Brandt’s photo trilogy).

It’s an unlikely starting point for Nick Brandt’s nature photography and trilogy of books on the endangered wildlife of East Africa: directing a 1995 Michael Jackson music video “Earth Song.” A plangent cry against a human and environmental apocalypse set against the still haunting images of the then recent Bosnian war—the video prompted the director/photographer to begin a more than decade long mission to record the quickly vanishing animals inhabiting the immense game parks of Kenya—especially the greatest pachyderms, elephants, whose ivory tusks are the lucrative cash crop for high tech international poachers.

Brandt’s three books, the last one published in September of 2013, document a looming tragedy—that these great beasts of the African wilderness could soon be found only in zoos and private reserves. Continue reading ‘Nick Brandt’s Journey ‘Across the Ravaged Land’’

Shintaro Katsu and the Return of Zatoichi

 

Shintaro Katsu

Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi

In the mid 1960s, with the support of a large ethnic community, several of the major Japanese film studios sponsored flagship cinema screens in Los Angeles. Pre-eminent among them was the powerhouse Toho Co. home to the marauding, cinematic money machine, that supreme of all the DaikaijuGodzilla. Toho was also the studio of the films of Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Red Beard, and High and Low, all starring Toshiro Mifune — a relationship of director to studio reaching back to his debut, Sanshiro Sugata, in 1943. Toho’s Los Angeles movie house (now a Korean church) on La Brea Blvd. below Wilshire was a necessary weekly stop for a generation of film students from USC and UCLA. The Toho La Brea films were projected on an enormous screen, mostly in the studio’s proprietary anamorphic format, Tohoscope. Even the non-subtitled Japanese newsreels that preceded the evening’s feature were shot in anamorphic aspect ratio in a proto shaky-cam mode. Continue reading ‘Shintaro Katsu and the Return of Zatoichi’

The AMPAS Foreign Film Short List

Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for "No Man's Land," 2001.

Danis Tanovic, flanked by John Travolta and Sharon Stone with his Oscar for “No Man’s Land,” 2001.

From mid-October to mid-December a committee of several hundred members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences views feature film entries for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film. Most of the entries are fictional features, but animation and documentaries are also eligible, and  in 2013 there were submissions in all three categories. The number of countries submitting varies from year to year but is on an upward arc. Last year 76 countries entered; one film was deemed ineligible.  Two countries, Saudi Arabia and Moldava entered for the first time.

The general screening committee breaks down into three groups: red, blue, and white. Members register for one of the groups,  seeing at least 16 of their group’s entries to be eligible to vote. They also receive credit on a 2 for 3 basis for films seen outside their chosen group. Members are encouraged to see as many films as possible. Some see over 50; many view more than 30. Double bill screenings are held on most weeknights and Saturday mornings. Continue reading ‘The AMPAS Foreign Film Short List’

The Spinning Top and the Parvo: MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA

DeBrie Parvo, 1927 (camera featured in "Man with a Camera").

DeBrie Parvo, 1927 (camera featured in “Man with a Movie Camera”).

Born David Kaufman, he changed it to Denis when his family moved to Russia during WWI, finally settling on the moniker by which cinema historians know him today: “Dziga Vertov.” There’s disagreement about the best translation from his native Ukrainian of this nom de cinéma, but it is often cited as “spinning top,” a reference to the unleashed momentum of the child’s toy, and to his own boundless energy. It’s also an accurate description for his 1929 documentary about the 24-hour life of a major Soviet Russia city: an industrial amalgam of Moscow, Odessa and Kiev.

The Parvo "over the city."

The Parvo “over the city.”

Dziga Vertov was the eldest of three cinema brothers born in such quick succession in Bialystok, Poland in the last years of the 19th century that, were it not for their Jewish and Polish origins, it would be fair to call them “Irish Triplets.” Denis quickly rose to prominence after the war as a theorist for the burgeoning Soviet film industry, and in the early 20s brought his theories of “Kino Pravda” (Movie Truth) into screen reality with a series of agitprop documentaries.

Denis Kaufman, aka Dziga Vertov.

Denis Kaufman, aka Dziga Vertov.

His work achieved full flowering in the “life in the city” documentary Man with a Movie Camera, a film in the tradition of other 20s examples of urban cinema sociology like Strand and Sheeler’s shorter Manhatta, Continue reading ‘The Spinning Top and the Parvo: MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA’

Dallaporta’s Deadly Devices: Antipersonnel

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They have been called “the perfect soldier.” They neither eat nor sleep, are always vigilant, are rarely seen. Their forms are myriad, from the merely prosaic to the distinctly aesthetic, but their function is always the same— mainly to maim, not kill, to not only render their victims immobile, but to take others out of the fray, those who must deal with the carnage. Designated by the acronym, AP for “anti-personnel,” they are known by most of us simply as landmines.

More than 50 countries have manufactured over 350 types, though their numbers have decreased since the late 1990s. Human Rights Watch recently reports that:

A total of 161 nations are party to the Mine Ban Treaty, which was opened for signature in December 1997 and entered into force on March 1, 1999. The treaty comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel landmines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims. Members include all European Union countries, all NATO members except the US, all nations in sub-Saharan Africa, all countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba and the US, many countries in Asia-Pacific, and several nations from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Like the US, nearly all of the other 34 countries that have not signed the treaty follow its key provisions. Continue reading ‘Dallaporta’s Deadly Devices: Antipersonnel’

Carl Sagan and the Pale Blue Dot

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You can’t see it in this wide-angle, sun-flared photograph of 640,000 pixels—but somewhere in there is planet earth—at .12 pixels. The image is posted on the “Photojournal” site of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Photojournal link

The text gives technical details of how the photograph was taken.

This color image of the sun, Earth and Venus was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft Feb. 14, 1990, when it was approximately 32 degrees above the plane of the ecliptic and at a slant-range distance of approximately 4 billion miles. It is the first—and may be the only—time that we will ever see our solar system from such a vantage point. The image is a portion of a wide-angle image containing the sun and the region of space where the Earth and Venus were at the time with two narrow-angle pictures centered on each planet. The wide-angle was taken with the camera’s darkest filter (a methane absorption band), and the shortest possible exposure (5 thousandths of a second) to avoid saturating the camera’s vidicon tube with scattered sunlight.

A closer look reveals the position of earth recorded by Voyager’s camera as it retreated at 40,000 miles per hour, 12 years after its launch on September 5, 1977. When the Voyager 1 spacecraft sped beyond Saturn in 1981, its primary mission was considered completed. However, Carl Sagan proposed that the camera be turned back toward earth to record our home. There were advocates for doing this— but there was also broad based concern among some scientists that the sun’s brightness would damage the Voyager’s delicate vidicon tube. According to a Wikipedia entry, it was then NASA administrator Richard Tully who intervened and made the decision to take the photograph.

Sagan knew that any resulting image would serve absolutely no scientific purpose, as the distance from earth was well beyond the camera’s resolution—but the poet/philosopher embedded in the scientist Sagan also suspected that this image could afford humanity a profoundly new and modest metaphoric perspective of our place in the cosmos. And indeed it did—as a closer view of the image shows.

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In the photo above, earth is seen slightly below center in the most defined (on the frame’s right side) of the vertical striations. It looks to be nothing more than a dead pixel in a digital sensor.

In 1994, Sagan published his sequel to Cosmos. This book, Pale Blue Dot, is both a history and a report on the state of scientific knowledge of the universe and his ruminations of “a vision of the human future in space.”

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It is also a personal meditation on man’s grandeur as well as on man’s hubris. This historical dialectic of man and nature is the subject of countless documentaries. But the usual perspective of these films is centered on the reality of the shared fate of man and all other life on our increasingly beleaguered planet. The primacy of man as dominant animal with other species only there to serve us, or of man as the planet’s ultimate predator, is a definitively intramural affair. Sagan’s soliloquy on this speck of dust that we all inhabit is a lesson not only in metaphysics, but in humility. It should serve us well in the holiday season that, for most of us, is filled with the bright details of the celebration of daily life and its joys.

But it is  a time when we may consider as well the larger questions of our lives, of the very reason of our existence. There are numerous video renderings of Sagan’s meditation, most of which are  feel good celebrations, one, even, rife with Hollywood movie clip fantasies of life.

But there is one I found recently on YouTube, edited by Reid Gower, that while echoing other versions, achieves its own kind of transcendence: images chosen  not merely as a paean to the glories of daily life, but dramatic moments that offer us a cautionary lesson as balm— but also as antidote to the delusions of our self-importance—and a soliloquy on the message of our greatest religious leaders, a message that reminds us of our privileged but small place in the great chain of being.

May you have the most peaceful holiday season.

Next: Raphael Dallaporta’s Deadly Devices.

Orphan Films at the Dunn: Portrait of Jason

01_jason one sheet

Early in their Kickstarter fundraising video to restore director Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, the nearly lost 1967 talking head documentary about a black, gay Manhattan sex hustler, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, the husband/wife founder of Milestone Films, orient the white, female director within the canon of her cinema peers: John Cassavetes has 100 plus books or monographs written about his work, avant-gardist Stan Brackage also has 100 plus. Shirley Clarke has one.

Were this a barometer of her actual contribution to the independent film scene of the 60s and 70s, she today would be cited as nothing more than a footnote. But, since her death in 1997 at age 77 after teaching for years at UCLA, her reputation has bloomed like a dark, carnivorous flower. Continue reading ‘Orphan Films at the Dunn: Portrait of Jason’

The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One

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The end pages of the 1930 Cinematographic Annual published by the A.S.C. feature full page ads with headshots of society members, first generation pioneers of Hollywood motion pictures: Hal Mohr, John F. Seitz, Alvin Wyckoff, Victor Milner, John Arnold, Charles Clark, Guy Wilky, Charles Rosher, as well as “best wishes” ads from director Ernst Lubitsch and actors Joan Crawford and George O’Brien. The body of the volume contains several dozen articles, mostly on newly emerging movie sound systems and cameras, on lens filters, color and lab sensitometry, even make-up. The volume offers a window into new equipment and techniques at the cusp of film’s transition from silents to sound. An arresting, forty-page mid-section highlights photographs made by the society’s members. A few are dramatic, moody set stills such as aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer’s from the 1930 Hell’s Angels.

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Or Ned Van Buren’s personal desert nature studies. He gave up cinematography early in his career to work for Kodak Hollywood. Continue reading ‘The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One’

John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Three

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On Saturday evening, September 17, 1966 at 9 pm, CBS-TV aired the pilot for a series that was to become one of the most successful in television history. Over seven seasons, ending in 1973, its 171 episodes followed a set format yet, like a chess game, seemed to have infinite options. Each week the Mission Impossible crew were recruited for a cat and mouse skirmish against clandestine forces and dangerous criminals threatening the United States, a sobering reality in an era still boiling in the decade’s cauldron of confrontation called ironically, The Cold War.

In the pilot’s opening scene Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) exits a freight elevator, walks into a shop, and asks the young woman standing at a file cabinet about a specialty phonograph recording. The proprietor enters, dismisses her, and asks Briggs, “Exactly what recording were you looking for?” Briggs replies, “Pavanne in G by Ernest Vaughn and the Pan Symphonic Orchestra, 1963.” The man gives him a red parcel, then leaves, closing the door behind him. Briggs unwraps and places a vinyl disc on a nearby player. Music begins. He moves the tone arm toward the center, resets it and listens:

Good morning, Mr. Briggs. General Rio Dominguez, the dictator of Santa Costa, makes his headquarters in the Hotel Nacional. We’ve learned that two nuclear warheads furnished to Santa Costa by an enemy power are contained in the hotel vault. Their use is imminent. Mr. Briggs, your mission, should you decide to accept it, would be to remove both nuclear devices from Santa Costa. As always, you have carte blanche as to method and personnel, but of course, should you or any member of your IM Force be caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your action. As usual, this recording will decompose one minute after the breaking of the seal. I hope it’s “welcome back,” Dan. It’s been a while.

Continue reading ‘John Alton: Cinematography’s Outlier, Part Three’