Friday, November 5, 2010

The Preservation of Film, A Reel Challenge

What would Christmas be if Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life had been left to rot away into oblivion? How well documented would our history be if we let the original Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Footage just be used as road fill? Imagine if Citizen Kane was on a list of lost films, and Orson Welles’ vision was only something we read about in books. The good news is that (along with over 500 other titles) these films have been chosen by the National Film Registry to be preserved. Though some of the most important films have been given shelter from decomposition, there are lots of films that are not so lucky. For every 500 hundred films saved, there are thousands that are lost forever. Considering the historical, artistic, and cultural significance of films, one would only expect society to preserve its heritage. With ever-changing technologies, films can be saved easier and cheaper than ever before, yet the situation is far from optimistic. With only a limited amount of archival facilities worldwide, a handful of schools offering restoration training, scarce funding, and a dismal job market in the field, many more films are doomed to be lost in the future. However, the recent release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with an extra 25 minutes of newly restored footage, provides a glimmer of hope on the horizon of film preservation.

Film decay is inevitable; most films made in the silent era have crumbled to pieces, and early Kodak and Eastman color are turning orange and brown. The preservation of film is an uphill battle. Early nitrate film has to be stored in regulated temperature, while acetate film can get “vinegar syndrome” from a similar temperature. Most early silent films have disappeared by the movie companies themselves who destroyed nitrate film to clear space in their vaults. Nitrate film is also extremely flammable, and sometimes the vaults would combust, causing a fire and destroying more film in its wake. Sometimes these early films were just stored improperly, and the films withered away into dust. Films suffer many different obstacles in their cycle of life, including: splicing, tearing, scratching and warping. Preserving film from a monster projector is no easy task.

An interest in film archiving has been around since the 1930s, though it is only in the last 20 to 30 years that a greater emphasis has been placed on preservation. The Museum of Modern Art was one of the first to consider popular films as an art form that was worth preserving in a museum; acquisitions since 1935 have included more than just the expected art-house “avant-garde” fare associated with the museum’s identity. MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr made a point to include popular films of the time, and this tradition has continued with the recent Tim Burton exhibition, as well as new acquisitions of mainstream directors such as Kathryn Bigelow’s complete filmography on 35MM. According to Jori Finkel, Alfred Barr was, “fueled by a vision of cinema as the most modern of modern arts; he tapped critic Iris Barry to build the library.” (Finkel)

The National Film Preservation Foundation has preserved more than 1,650 films for various organizations, and it is one of the leading saviors of classic films. Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation has also been preserving films for over 20 years. (Graser) The American Film Institute (AFI) and the George Eastman House, however, are the leaders in California and New York as they train students in the preservation of film. In fact, both the head of MoMA’s film department, Katie Trainor, and Queens College professor, Amy Herzog, interned with the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

The American Film Institute, founded in 1967, is the leading campus in advanced film studies. AFI trains students on film preservation, while using the newest technology. Also, AFI offers various job opportunities, including: librarian, production coordinator, and web application programmer. Located in Los Angeles, AFI also has the distinction of many renowned directors and actors as members or trustees.

In North America, some of the biggest repositories for archiving films include the previously mentioned Museum of Modern Art, as well as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which built a preservation facility in Valencia, CA; the Library of Congress, however, holds the biggest collection of all. David Packard (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard) gave $160 million to help start up the Library of Congress facility, and the Library requires $30 million each year to pay for its overhead. Every year, film titles are chosen by the United States Film Preservation Board to be archived by the Library of Congress. The National Film Registry began in 1988, and chooses films that are historically significant. According to Marc Graser’s article, Hollywood or dust! Progress is huge, but so are hurdles, “The Library of Congress has accomplished the most. The world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of movies, TV programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings have been acquired, preserved and made available to the public through the library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio Visual- Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, VA.” (Graser)

The process of film archiving has changed through the years. In the past when organizations cleaned and stored films, the lifespan of a film (especially nitrate and negatives) would usually last for about 20 to 30 years (even under the best of conditions). The extinction of certain films from our history can be blamed on the materials on which they were recorded. An archivist’s biggest enemy is that of the passing of time. There are many films that exist but cannot be viewed without crumbling to pieces in the projector. Old films make for new obstacles in film preservation and restoration. According to UNESCO, “Today, more than three-quarters of the perishable and highly flammable nitrocellulose-based films made prior to the 1950s are lost forever, while some 60 per cent of the cellulose-acetate films made after 1950 are threatened by a process of deterioration known as the ‘vinegar syndrome,’ which bleaches the image if the film is not properly conserved.” (UNESCO)

Any archiving facility must be aware of the handling and dangers of nitrate and negative prints that were made before 1950. Print film made after the 1950s also must use a storage facility that can prevent “vinegar syndrome” from ruining the film. Once a film has “vinegar syndrome,” there is little chance of saving it, yet temperature-controlled vaults can help increase the film’s lifespan. Films can last for up to 100 years with temperature-controlled vaults and holographic storage. According to Marian, “Turner Entertainment Networks has its lenses focused on holographic storage for storing and retrieving its growing library of movies, cartoons and commercial spots because of its speed and portability.” (Mearian) The holographic disk is an inexpensive route when considering the storage of f1.6TB for merely a hundred dollar price tag. InPhase Technologies Inc. has a version called Tapestry.

The Museum of Modern Art once again proved to be a pioneer in film preservation when it meticulously constructed The Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin Pennsylvania. Established in 1996, Celeste Bartos Film Preservation houses MoMA’s (as well as Martin Scorsese’s) entire film collection. According to the facility’s manager, Arthur Wehrhahn, MoMA carefully considered conditions when constructing its archiving headquarters. There are two main buildings on the property; one building stores regular print film, and the other stores negatives and nitrate. The first building (the main one) houses the bulk of the 14,000 films, as well as thousands of posters, forty million stills, and a massive lobby card collection. The print films have to be stored in vaults at a temperature of 45° F (30% relative humidity), and if a print is requested to be viewed, it is then moved (for at least two days) to a conditioning room that is at a temperature of 55° F (40% relative humidity). This is to ensure that condensation does not build up on the print when the film is handled at a standard room temperature.

The nitrate building is a bit colder, the safety precautions are even more complicated, and the structure, itself, is actually two constructions in one. Inside the vaults, the nitrate film tins are stored in carefully measured shelving that prohibits the nitrate from spontaneous combustion because the tin casings cannot pop open. Nitrate can actually combust if temperatures go beyond 100° F, so it is extremely important to maintain a cold environment at a temperature of 35° F (with 30% relative humidity). When they performed tests with various explosives and the burning of actual nitrate films, they found that when the nitrate catches fire, it shoots out from the can; consequently, they considered these dangerous factors when they designed the facility’s shelving. If a fire were to break out, a specifically designed sprinkler system would extinguish it in moments. If the fire became out of control, the roof has an emergency pop off release to allow for extinguishing. In addition, the outer shell of the building is actually another building that protects and insulates the nitrate vaults.

Protecting film from deterioration is just one aspect of preservation; restoration is often needed to repair a film before it can be presented to the public or stored for posterity. The process of film restoration is complicated one. According to Paul Read and Mark-Paul Meyer’s book Restoration of Motion Picture Film, the eight steps on how to restore films are as follows:

Step 1: A film needs to be repaired and cleaned for printing.
Step 2: Grading: The grader estimates the printer cues and printer lights needed for each scene.
Step 3: Printing: Duplication is done in a printing machine, from a negative a positive and from a positive a negative.
Step 4: Processing: The newly made duplicate negative needs to be processed, which is a chemical procedure of development of the latent image to produce a visible image and its subsequent stabilization.
Step 5: Grading: Grading of duplicate negative, which a new positive print is to be made.
Step 6: Printing: The positive film stock will be exposed in the printing machine.
Step 7: Processing: The exposed positive print needs to be processed.
Step 8: Quality check of the final positive print. (Read & Meyer, 4)

Beyond its chemical complexities, restoring films is both a time-consuming and a financially draining process. Consequently, the silent films are the films that are prioritized by archivists. Yet, many early color classics like Rear Window and Vertigo have been restored, as well as seminal 70s favorites like The Godfather and Superman.

There is a form of film archiving that is happening in our current digital age that is much cheaper than financing an archiving facility. The moving image landscape has been shifting for a time, but the general population has been viewing archived material without visiting a museum or library at all. The Internet population archives regularly on video sharing sites, like Youtube and Google Video. The way one views archived material has shifted in quality, from a warm analog to a pixilated digital image. Generations after generations have come to expect this new kind of quality, of streaming, digital break-up, stalled interrupted playability. Past film archivists, in turn, have to learn newer technologies to keep up with the digital medium. For instance, Karen F. Gracy, author of Film Preservation: Competing Definitions of Value, Use and Practice, wrote, “In the digital age, moving image preservation continues to evolve beyond its origins in the care of analog motion picture and video media. As more and more images are created, distributed, and maintained in digital form, moving image archives will no longer match the stereotypical image many of us have of stacks of rusty cans and boxes filled with quickly decomposing films and videos in need of salvation. Instead, the moving image archivist of the twenty-first century will have the even greater challenge of managing enormous collections of digital files, containing dozens of formats (most of them obsolete) and residing in networks maintained far from the archivist’s actual location.” (Gracy)

As media changes, so does the format, and what was once was film, next could be digital. One questions the uncertain future of film due to the costliness to buy it, develop it, and preserve it. With roughly 80 archiving sites worldwide, the future job market for such an occupation is anemic at best. Though if one does not mind traveling into remote areas of California and New York, and wishes to further his/ her education in film studies, then the American Film Institute and The George Eastman House offer the best follow-up to a Bachelor of Arts Degree. With the rising competition for work in Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art requires the majority of its employees to have a Masters or a PHD in their field of work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Although archivists earn a variety of undergraduate degrees, a graduate degree in history or library science with courses in archival science is preferred by most employers. Many colleges and universities offer courses or practical training in archival techniques as part of their history, library science, or other curriculum. A few institutions offer master's degrees in archival studies.” (BLS)

The need to preserve films will always continue, though the job description will inevitably change with technology. Many classic films have been saved through proper archiving and restoration. As restored masterpieces, like Metropolis, continue to inspire cinema fanatics, other lost gems may appear in the restoration horizon. Organizations like MoMA, AFI, Library of Congress and the George Eastman House have all been leaders in preserving our cinematic and cultural heritage. As technological advancements occur, the means to store our cinema history will improve. The process of film restoration takes many steps and is expensive, though digital archiving is offers an easier and cheaper means. The occupational world in the film medium is an uncertain path, yet an exciting one with many possibilities. The preservation of film, allows future generations to peer into the past to put into perspective the future, yet it is a reel challenge.

References with Citations and Internet URL

Bureau of Labor Statistics Site

Finkel, Jori. "MoMA dearest: donations by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Harvey Weinstein have helped the Museum of Modern Art become a powerhouse of film collecting." Variety 397.3 (2004): S46. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Gracy, Karen F. "Moving image preservation and cultural capital." Library Trends 56.1 (2007): 183+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Graser, Marc. "Hollywood or dust! Progress is huge, but so are hurdles." Variety 419.11 (2010): 1+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Mearian, Lucas. "Turner Entertainment taps holographic storage: technology will replace tape- and disk-based systems." Computerworld 39.47 (2005): 8. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Meyer, Mark, Paul Read. Restoration of Motion Picture Film. Butterworth-Heinemann: Series in Conservation and Museology, (2000)

"Saving the cinematic heritage." UNESCO Courier July-Aug. 1995: 84+. General Reference Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2010.

Wehrhahn, Arthur. Personal interview. 20 October 2010.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Advertisements with a Licence To Kill

The first James Bond was Sean Connery who was a smoker in film and in advertisement, this Chesterfield King ad insinuates that smokers make good bicyclists. He must have come in last.

Though slightly off topic, Sean Connery's connection to Jim Beam's advertisement is just another notch in the hard boiled lifestyle of a spy. The Bond image has always been attached to vice and was thus sold to the public with an international playboy lifestyle.

Sean Connery must have been Jim Beam's top model throughout the sixties.

George Lazenby also dipped into selling alcohol with this Kronenbourg advertisement, which also encourages a smoke as form of relaxing.

George Lazenby became the European Marlboro Man for a short period in the late 60s early 70s.

Sir Roger Moore smokes Lark cigarettes for one of their commercials. Though he claims Tony Curtis persuaded him to quit around '71 or '72,Yet Moore can be seen smoking cigarettes in Gold (1974), Sunday Lovers (1980) and during an archival interview of For Your Eyes Only (1981).

Throughout the years Moore seems to have transferred to mostly smoking cigars, but I suspect he fell back to cigarettes in the early 80s.

Keeping up Bondian tradition, Timothy Dalton also made a Lark commercial that featured him performing Bond like action inspired by Octopussy (1983). It's kind of cool to see just a little more James Bond action from an actor who only performed in two films. Timothy Dalton made a real point to make his Bond a smoker on the big screen (a tradition put to rest after his departure).

Pierce Brosnon made his James Bond a non smoker, though he himself didn't object to modeling for a Lark cigarette ad. Like Moore, Pierce seems to have adopted cigars throughout the years.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Salaam Bombay (1988) & Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A Comparison

Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire are two films that share a similar narrative structure, are set in the same Indian location of Bombay (or the newly named Mumbai), and concern young male protagonists growing up in poverty. Both the male leads earn our sympathy as one misfortune follows another, and their need to save the object of their desire from a life of prostitution is met with difficulty of impossible odds. Despite these similarities, Nair’s and Boyle’s visions are quite different.

Salaam Bombay focuses on Krishna, a boy whose family has banished him until he can earn enough money to repay his brother for an object he destroyed. Krishna’s journey leads him to Bombay where he takes on a job delivering tea to the many dubious characters who have an ability to scheme and swindle Krishna out of money. Even Krishna’s divine name is robbed from him and replaced with Chai-pau, an identity that focuses on his position of a menial laborer or tea boy. Krishna soon meets and idolizes a young virginal girl who is being groomed as a future prostitute by pimp, Baba. Along the way, Krishna also befriends a drug addict, a young girl, and her prostitute mother. Krishna’s interactions with these helpless characters and constant financial set backs foreshadow his inability to transcend his obstacles and leave Bombay. The film’s gritty realism depicts a harsh reality for the impoverished youth of Bombay, offering little in terms of hope.

Slumdog Millionaire centers around Jamal, a boy who’s poverty-stricken lifestyle aids him in the knowledge that can possibly win him millions on a game show. Though he, too, must endure Bombay’s brutal realities, it is foreshadowed that Jamal’s story will be trace his journey from rags to riches. From the moment the “human feces-covered” Jamal gets the treasured autograph of famous Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, the audience is aware that this boy has luck on his side. This fantasy vision presented by an outsider such as Boyle, creates an “anything is possible” scenario. Jamal, like Krishna, has a need to save a young girl, though through Boyle’s humor and optimism the audience suspects a happy ending.

In addition, the style of filmmaking is very different between the two films. Salaam Bombay has a grittier veneer that seems based in neo-realism, where Slumdog Millionaire uses flashy colors and at times resembles Bollywood-style musicals. The editing of Salaam Bombay is workman like, with each edit a means to propel the narrative, yet Slumdog Millionaire uses M.T.V. style editing that juxtaposes current modern pop music like M.I.A. to excite the audience and propel the action. At times, Salaam Bombay resembled early Satyajit Ray films or even Francois Truffaut (the ending especially is reminiscent of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). Slumdog Millionaire seems like Danny Boyle took his grimy, flashy, pop culture referencing Trainspotting and moved it from Scotland to India. In the end, Salaam Bombay succeeds in creating a more realistic, hard-hitting, and harrowing film.

Though both Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire share similar themes, the director’s different visions are apparent. The flash and glittering images of “Slumdog Millionaire” acts a sugarcoated buffer for audience approval. When one compares its joyful, celebrative conclusion with that of “Salaam Bombay’s” downbeat uncertainty, one gets the impression of being duped by Slumdog Millionaire. Though the film is wonderfully crafted, Mira Nair’s vision comes across much more honest.

Film About A Woman Who…

Yvonne Rainer’s “Film About A Woman Who…” seems to deal mostly with a woman’s emotional and sexual dissatisfaction within her morose marriage. The placement of identity within the structure of an American marriage seems challenged through Rainer’s vision. Not only are the structures of marriage disjointed, but cinematic conventions are challenged as well. Rainer’s cinematic stylization seems to be influenced by American Structuralist cinema, as well as the French New Wave (especially director Jean Luc Godard). In addition, there appear to be non-cinematic influences such as Merce Cunningham’s modern dance, the Minimalist Art movement, and possibly feminist theorist Gumaini Grur, as well. Reiner intentionally uses a minimalist cinematic form to emphasize the lifeless marriage that the protagonists inhabit.

The characters from “Film About A Woman Who…” seem lifeless and in a zombie-like state. Affection, communication, and sexuality have been frozen as Rainer delves into the mental psychology of this frustrated housewife. In the exposition of the film, the husband and wife appear like statues as they pose for pictures. Through the process of taking photographs and the harmony that pictures suggest, Rainer is already criticizing the fa├žade of martial happiness; the pictures sell us the idea of unity and connection, yet the ending seems to dispel any such notion.

The modern dance piece that concludes the film is comprised of frozen, statue-like movements that seem to symbolize marital paralysis. The harmonious interaction that is usually found between a couple in dance is broken into singular autonomous movements, suggesting isolated forms. However, the dancers are not the central protagonists, so whether or not they mirror the main couple or if they express a universal marital theory is unclear. One thing is for certain though, to understand this climactic ending is to grasp the full meaning of Rainer’s film.

Perhaps, it is this aspect of Reiner’s minimalist cinema that seems to work against the story. As she pushes further and further into the direction of minimalism, it becomes less and less accessible to the audience. The film seems to shift its identity from one form to another, from the narration and the forty-two statements, to an almost apologetic love note for her husband (which is pasted all over her face), and concluding with the modern dance resolution. Furthermore, the film is presented in stagnant shots that are lacking in sync sound and filled with monotonous narration. The deconstruction of cinematic structures (i.e.; sync sound, camera movement, etc.) reminds one of Godard’s attempts at rebuilding cinema through the breaking of conventions. In Godard’s film, “Le Gai Savoir” (aka: “The Joy of Knowledge”), two characters inhabit a theater and attempt to rebuild cinematic expression for the entire length of the film, reminding me a bit of Rainer’s experimental narrative structure. Although Godard’s and Reiner’s films are strong examples of experimental cinema from the 60s and 70s, both efforts may leave one feeling frustrated and puzzled. It seems that director Frank Perry’s attempt to showcase the frustrations of marriage and sexuality for women is stronger realized in the more conventional and accessible “Diary Of A Mad Housewife.”

Although Reiner’s experimental cinematic style may work in conjunction with its unconventional narrative structure, its lack of a cohesive focus challenges the viewer. We are left with not much to hold onto outside of the vague outlines of a broken marriage, or a discontent wife. Unfortunately, the form that I feel this film suffers from the most is minimalism. Though I don’t know to what degree this film follows the form of minimalism or if it is rather through budget constraints. Though the film requires a certain amount of audience patience, this is still a unique film that fits perfectly in a historical timeline of burgeoning feminism and artistic experimentalism of the 70s, while simultaneously opening another door for women directors.


Since the early 70s the vigilante/ revenge genre films have emerged dealing with characters brandishing a personal form of justice. Magnum Force (1973) maybe one of the earliest of films where a group of police rookies join a vigilante group that goes after criminals who have gotten off from a crooked judicial system. The 1974, Charles Bronson film Death Wish though, really started the vigilante/ revenge genre. Soon there was Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), and Ms. 45 (1981). Yet it is director William Lustig’s and writer Richard Vetere’s Vigilante (1983) that wraps up the genre, while summing up its nihilistic message.

The story is about a man named Eddie Marino whose wife has been beaten by a gang and his son has been murdered. Though Eddie is friends with Nick, Burke and some other guys he is hesitant about joining their vigilante group. He believes that the judicial system and law is the only way to keep order, otherwise they would be no different from any other criminal. Yet Eddie’s journey through the judicial system to get the gang who murdered his son is anything but ideal. His bitchy lawyer makes the judge mad and then sentences the gang leader Rico to two years in prison. When Eddie reacts he is contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison as well. While Eddie is in prison, Nick and the group are still cleaning up the city. A drug dealer that is selling to kids is beaten after a lengthy chase through Williamsburg’s McCaren Park and Pool. In jail Eddie is being harassed in the shower by fellow inmates, yet a guy named Rake helps to fend off his tormentors. Meanwhile, Nick is following his own lead from Horace a pimp to the leader of the drug racket Thomas “Mr. T” Stokes.

In two years Eddie is released from jail and he immediately joins the vigilante group and kills Rico who he thought killed his son. Before Rico dies he tells Eddie that Prago killed his son. Before the Vigilante group leaves one of the group members is shot by Rico’s girlfriend, who is then shot by Nick. Eddie visits his wife but she no longer wants to see him and blames him for not being there during the attack. Gang retaliates and machine-guns a car of police officers. Eddie eventually finds Prago and gives chase first on foot, then by car and climbing up a tower where the final confrontation ends with Eddie pushing Prago to fall to his death. Just when you think it is the end, Eddie blows up the judge’s car with him in it, eliminating the law he once believed in.

Like Lustig’s previous film Maniac (1980), Vigilante is a down and dirty look at New York City in the early 80s. Yet where Maniac deals with a psycho serial killer on the loose in the city, Vigilante ups the stakes and has psycho victims terrorizing the criminals. William Lustig’s film is a study of random gang violence that happens in urban cities. From the opening a man named Nick is talking to a group of people about taking the city back from the gangs and punks. But right after the credits a woman is raped at knife-point by a thug. Though an old woman saw the thug leave, it’s the same old routine and no one is talking and the police can’t do a thing. Yet in the next scene a group of Vigilantes go and get the thug, proving how ineffectual the police really are. Lustig’s direction never slows as the film’s brisk pace moves from one scene to the next, while Vetere’s crisp dialog ignites some great performances.

Vigilante might be Fred Williamson’s best and most unhinged performance as Nick. From the wild look in his eyes to his sarcastic grin, Williamson just embodies an inner city cynicism. Though it is Robert Forster’s brooding Eddie with his internal performance that really brings out the voice of the writer Vetere. Robert Forster always looked like he could be Charles Bronson’s younger brother, so it’s fitting that he should play the archetype that Bronson created. Though Robert Forster is a softer and deeper actor, and is able to pull sympathy from the viewer. By the time Forster realizes the tragedy that has befallen on his family we are in shock like him. It was nice to see a reduced part for Joe Spinell as the scum lawyer who defends Rico. After Maniac the last thing anyone wants is an entire movie of Joe Spinell, yet in a bit part he can be priceless There is great acting support from Woody Strode and Carol Lynley as Eddie’s tough lawyer as well.

Vigilante is a genre film that really depicts a different time in American cinema. The city of New York that we see in 1983 is a grimy drug and prostitution infested war zone. This film looks like it could be a precursor to the world John Carpenter created in Escape From New York (1981). In Escape To New York, the city has become a walled off war zone of criminals in a lawless world, a world Vigilante is in the process of making. The gang that terrorizes Eddie’s family looks like a mixture of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), and as cold hearted as the gangs in George Miller’s Mad Max (1979). Jay Chattaway’s music for Vigilante is also similar to John Carpenter’s scores, using early 80s synth. Lustig being the big fan of cinema that he is, was probably influenced by some of the films mentioned. Interestingly the Peter Hyams’ film The Star Chamber (1983) released the same year, has similar plot points as Vigilante but on a broader more political level.

Vigilante is great thriller that concludes an interesting genre of vigilante revenge films made popular in the 70s, in a time when 42nd Street played edgy politically incorrect films to all types of vagabonds at all hours. The film resides in a time of depressed economy, when many had fears of cities and urbanization, untrustworthy presidents, and corrupt law. The belief is that the police are useless and no one is going to protect or save you but yourself. Vigilante plays on those fears and turns a man’s life into a hellish nightmare. By the time Eddie has blown up the judge and exterminated the law, what can be next but apocalyptic chaos in this new life he has created. The ending does indeed have a dark ring of humor though. Lustig would carry on with his cinematic tradition in his next film Maniac Cop (1988), which seemed to mix Maniac and Vigilante together in yet another study in American criminal corruption and its judicial process.

The Champions (TV show)

Lew Grade and the British television company ITC (Independent Television Commission) produced some of the greatest cult spy TV shows in the 60s and 70s. From massive 60s hits like Secret Agent Man to The Saint, or cult favorites like The Prisoner or The Persuaders, ITC made a name exporting strange television shows to America that are today looked upon as being classics. One show, however, that stood apart from the others thematically and spiritually was The Champions. The Champions was a flop in America when released in 1968, dumped in mid-season, and was never to be rerun again, yet the show was a massive hit in 60 other countries. Unlike some of the other ITC shows of that era, The Champions had no recognizable star power to appeal to American audiences, and the premise of the show was perhaps too inaccessible. There were only 30 shows produced, for it only lasted one season; still, after forty years, the show has amassed a cult following that increases every year.

The Champions was about three secret agents working for Nemesis: a Geneva-based, top-secret international agency dedicated to law, order, and justice. These agents usually fought villains that were would-be world conquerors, traitorous scientists or some kind of Fascist/ Nazi revivalists. The twist of the show was that these three agents had super powers, including: heightened senses, improved strength or memory, ESP, and telepathy. They were like Mod superheroes with powers that only the three of them knew about. The agents’ names were Craig Sterling, Richard Barrett, and Sharon Macready, and they took their orders from Commander W.L. Tremayne. There was nothing episodically chronological about the show outside of the pilot episode that explains their origin; each episode’s storyline stood on its own.

The Champions was conceived by producer Monty Berman and writer Dennis Spooner who decided to mix the spy genre with science fiction and added a dash of Tibetan philosophy to spice things up a bit. The production value of the show echoed other ITC shows of the time, with exterior shots from around Europe and interior shots in England. The use of rear projection and stock footage was also commonly found in the show. Limited by a lower budget than most typical American shows at the time, The Champions managed to carry on with a certain charm despite its use of paper-mache props and phony model planes. The show’s British cult film directors like Roy Ward Baker, Cyril Frankel and Robert Asher always managed to inject a touch of the bizarre into each episode, creating memorable moments throughout the series.

The main actors of the show were: Stuart Damon as Craig, William Gaunt as Richard, and Alexandra Bastedo as Sharon. Stuart Damon was the tall and athletic leader of the group, while William Gaunt was the brains and the conversationalist. The gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo was the obvious dash of glamour and sex appeal that the show needed, and she is a primary reason why the show has such a following. Alexandra Bastedo brought a certain style to the proceedings, and the episodes that have little of her tend to be the weaker ones. At times the acting can feel a little stiff or stilted, but it is in keeping with the premise of the show. These three agents, with their super human powers, have an almost alien quality that sets them apart from normal human beings, and one can sense them internally analyzing their newly found powers with trance-like movements. Though none of the actors went on to too much fame, Stuart Damon did manage to carve out a thirty-year career as an actor on General Hospital.

The first episode of The Champions is called “The Beginning” and explores the origins of the agents’ super powers. The three agents are returning from a mission near the Chinese/ Tibetan border when their plane crash-lands in the Himalayas. They are rescued from death by the mysterious inhabitants of a forgotten civilization, who treat them with a kind of medical care that results in their special powers. Under surreal psychedelic lights and a soundtrack made up of the ringing of monastic bells and the ethereal tremor of a Theremin, the agents undergo a spiritual surgery that awakens strength, telepathy, and memory. (This soundtrack will occasionally reappear in later episodes whenever the agents access their telepathic abilities.) An elderly lama explains the powers to Richard, and Richard promises to keep the secret between the three of them. The episode ends with the three agents battling against the Red Chinese army that shot their plane down. Though the first episode is more concerned with the origins of “The Champions” than the actual mission at hand, it sets up the premise of the series and foreshadows the way in which the agents will extricate themselves from future quagmires.

The Champions’ mixture of comic book and spiritual influences compliments its 1960’s aesthetics. Although this show is inspired by comic book super hero mythology, it also breaks from these conventions by not presenting the heroes in colorful disguises with capes and masks. As a matter of fact, these agents are constantly in “Clark Kent mode” without ever changing into Superman. Their powers are always hidden, and they must carry themselves as ordinary people; their Commander doesn’t even know the existence of their powers (or if he does, he specifically turns a blind eye because they get the job done). With its kitsch interiors, small gadgets, sharp suits and espionage plots, this show is really more at home with its spy contemporaries than its comic book roots.

Though the show is relatively obscure in America, the recent DVD release of the series has increased its popularity. Because of its comic book roots, spiritual philosophy, and fashionable aesthetic, The Champions sets itself apart from other 60s spy TV shows. With newer TV shows like Heroes or films like The Watchmen, challenging comic book conventions has become more and more popular. Writers and producers have taken paper-thin characters and gone much deeper with their psychology and emotions, asking what it means to be a hero with special powers. Not only is The Champions a time capsule on popular, counter and spiritual cultures of the 1960s, but it has also proven to be a forerunner in the character development of modern comic book heroes.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Rock Music in the Narrative Film

Since the mid 50s, rock music has been making its way onto the soundtracks of many films, especially those associated with the youth market. As audiences have seen in such films as Rock Around the Clock (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), cinematic promotion of this new musical genre helped to recreate the identity of the classic Hollywood musical. Yet the incorporation of rock informing or supporting narrative was actually a rather new technique that was first used in Kenneth Anger’s underground film Scorpio Rising (1964). Despite its groundbreaking use of rock music mixed with abstract images, the film was hardly seen outside the art-house crowd; The Beatles’ film Hard Day’s Night (1964), however, had a far greater impact on the new rock-narrative cinema.

Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night mixes aspects of the French new wave (jump-cuts) with rock music to present a comedic look at the mass hysteria surrounding The Beatles. Its documentary approach is used in satirical episodic moments, creating one of the first mockumentary experiments in cinema. For example, in his article “Scorpio Descending: In Search of Rock Cinema,” Howard Hampton writes, “The movie epitomized an irreverent new style that collapsed the distance between pop and avant-garde, but also profoundly anomalous.” The film also works as commentary on media presentations of teen sensations. The Beatles are continuously interviewed about their ideology; when asked if he is a “mod or a rocker,” Ringo Starr responds that he is a “mocker” (which furthers the point that this film can be considered a mockumentary.) The character of Paul McCartney’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), who goes so far as to forge signatures on promo photos of the band, satirizes the greed associated with teen sensations. Despite its documentary approach, the film makes no attempt to present chronological or narrative accuracy. The film shifts time and space, where in one instant the band-mates are inside the train, the next instant they’re outside the train, and then finally they’re back on the train while carrying a member through the corridor. All sense of linear time is replaced by abstract montage images, where the music glides upon the narrative and expresses the joie de vive of Beatle-mania. For instance, in Jon Savage’s article “Snapshots of the Sixties,” he writes, “In fact, it becomes clear that the media distort time: expanding it, fragmenting it, until the distinction between mediated and actual ceases to exist.” The Beatles and Hard Day’s Night’s self-conscious approach to media examination can be seen as an influence on both the creation and execution of the TV show and band The Monkees.

Created and produced by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, with musical direction from Don Kirshner, The Monkees (1966-1968) TV show appropriately aped (pun intended) The Beatles’ popularity while mimicking their musical style. The TV show’s theme pronounces the band’s ideology within the lyrics, “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees! People say we monkey around, but we’re too busy singing to put anybody down.” This lyrical statement is in actuality true, for the band did sing, yet did not play the instruments on their album (a claim they do not make). The show adapts Hard Day’s Night’s abstract and episodic attitude, but adds a laugh track that presents a self-awareness of its television roots. Laura Goostree furthers this point in her article “The Monkees and the Deconstruction of Television Realism” when she writes, “The deconstruction of normative television realism in The Monkees leads to the construction of peculiar television reality that I call ‘Monkees-reality,’ which is both television and criticism of television.” The Monkees continued their critique of television with their film Head (1968), which presents images of the band walking on and off studio sets. The film deliberately exposes The Monkees as an imaginary band that started as a prefabricated TV construction. Yet, in reality, The Monkees were beginning to claim artistic integrity by actually writing and playing most of the music in the film. In some ways, The Monkees’ career can be seen as foreshadowing the current MTV ideology that mixes commercialization, reality television, pop-sensationalism and then edits it into an abstract form. If these rock abstractions are to take their root from a specific film, then Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising can be seen as the blueprint.

Scorpio Rising uses music to project narrative meaning through shots of motorcycle leather boys getting ready for a party. Anger uses homoerotic, fetishistic, Nazi, religious, motorcycle, and comic strip imagery to convey pop-culture’s need to follow iconic leaders. As images of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Adolph Hitler, and Jesus Christ flash before the screen, the audience’s ability to separate the hero from the villain is blurred. Viewers must meditate and question their choices for leaders, iconic or political. The use of pop/ rock music heightens the sense of reality, placing the film in a specific space and time. The lyrics deconstruct the images into musical metaphors that can be read in many ways. For example, Hampton writes, “This was the first film to truly integrate rock into its narrative, transforming Kenneth Anger’s iconographic abstractions into a new form of heightened, pop-operatic naturalism.” The upcoming years of American cinema would experiment more fully with this rock to narrative integration.

Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, rock music became closely linked to student/ hippie counterculture movies such as The Graduate (1967), Easy Rider (1969), The Strawberry Statement (1970), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), Zabriskie Point (1970) and Getting Straight (1970). Yet Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets radically altered the culture that rock music represented. He does not focus on hippie dropouts, politically active students, or 60’s misfits; instead, Scorsese presents a new kind of rebel, that of the Hollywood gangster. Scorsese’s film is not totally unlike Anger’s film in its use of music as a narrative language and religious imagery as interior meaning. However, Mean Streets has a cohesive plotline that is less abstract in its presentation. Scorsese’s film updates the rebel figure in the form of Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) who is the misfit in the gang. He acts impulsively, gambles, owes money, and sabotages relations with everyone in the group. Yet Johnny Boy’s stylish demeanor (“I’m sick about my hat!”) and hipster leather jacket connect to past iconic figures, like Johnny from The Wild One (1953). If Anger uses the iconic leather jacket to insinuate rebel mythology in Scorpio Rising, then Johnny Boy reinforces a similar iconic cool with his street wear. The music in Mean Streets works a similar angle of reinforcing connections between character and meaning. For example, Hampton explains, “It’s an infinitely seductive vision of a world where human and musical passions are one, the soundtrack elaborating and intensifying the movie’s meaning.” When Mean Streets opens with “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes, the story’s passion is pounded through the speakers, like a gunshot that shatters the fourth wall. This is the cinematic moment that would influence future rock incorporation into the narrative film.

As the traditional Hollywood musical began to fade, the rock film satiated audience’s thirst for musical exposure. As the lyrical content began to work as a narrative device, performance numbers shifted from dance sequences to iconographic depictions; after all, the kids would rather see Marlon Brando on a motorcycle than Gene Kelly perform a dance. Yet with films like Hard Day’s Night and TV shows like The Monkees, teens had a chance to see their musical heroes legitimize their perspective. Equally as important, films like Scorpio Rising and Mean Streets helped to establish popular music as a narrative tool in cinema. Unlike the classic Hollywood musical, it looks like rock music is here to stay, as it is firmly planted into the narrative structure of film.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Rockumentary as the New Hollywood Musical

Barry K. Grant’s article “The Classic Hollywood Musical and the Problem of Rock ‘n’ Roll” examines the rise of the rock film as a substitute to the classic Hollywood musical. Though the films Monterey Pop (1967), Woodstock (1970), Gimme Shelter (1970), and The Last Waltz (1970) couldn’t be further from the classic Hollywood musical mode, some similarities can be found. If the rock film posed a “problem” to the classic musical genre, it is through (as Grant describes) “dealing with issues of sexuality.” Where the musical attempted to contain sexual desire, rock cinema chooses to unleash it. Yet sexuality is just one aspect of the rock ‘n’ roll expression, as is drug use, political awareness, and fashion styles. When examining the four films mentioned, one can see the adoption of the musical form as well as its reinvention. The new rock film can be seen as a natural progression of the classic Hollywood musical, while adopting newer cinematic (documentary, cinema verite, and realism) and musical (rock, soul, folk, jazz, and psychedelia) styles.

Monterey Pop was one of the earliest films to showcase the various rock genres that were explored in the 60s and present them all on one stage with diverse artists. From west coast harmonies, rhythm & blues, and psychedelic guitar solos to Indian sitar ragas, Monterey Pop offered a collage of musical styles that define a generation’s youth culture. Like prior musicals, the new rock film showcased musical entertainment for all tastes, providing a sampler for the masses. Yet unlike the classic musical, the narrative story takes a backseat to the performances. Still, if a narrative is to be found, it is through the lyrical content that the story is told. The story becomes a much more existential description of youth psychology, pertaining to the song selection. For example, both “San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie and “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and The Papas provide a sense of location to the film; “My Generation” by The Who signals the transition from mod to hippie culture; “High Flyin’ Bird” by Jefferson Airplane and “Wild Thing” by Jimi Hendrix depict a countercultural drug sentiment, while “Bajabula Bonke (Healing Song)” by Hugh Masekela and “Raga Bhimpalasi” by Ravi Shankar offer meditations to global seekers of spirituality. Each performance acts a narrative description of 1960’s youth ideology, while suggesting communal harmonization. Monterey Pop doesn’t destroy the Hollywood musical genre; it simply reboots it.

Both Woodstock and Gimme Shelter provide a continuation of Monterey Pop’s themes, yet suggests a stronger emphasis on narrative construction. Woodstock utilizes similar lyrical-narrative storytelling but adds an even closer examination of youth ideology. Through interviews, many of the young audience members voice their parents’ reactions to the countercultural movement. Stories of communal life, drug usage, and sexual freedoms are explored in ways that the Hollywood musical was incapable of expressing. Yet similar to the musical, the film contains show-stopping numbers that leave the audience in awe of the various musical talents. The beginning of the film spends nearly a half an hour depicting the process of creating a concert of such magnitude and explores the various concerns of audience safety (the brown acid scare, food/ drink needs, and restroom facilities). These worries are juxtaposed with images of the famous musical artists who themselves have become the victims of counterculture living. One need only witness a drugged-out Tim Hardin, who wanders aimlessly with his guitar, to see that once prolific songwriters were succumbing to the pitfalls of the rock-star lifestyle. If a story is to be found in Woodstock, it is a cautionary tale concerning hippie youth culture. When John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) sings “Younger Generation,” he describes the hypocrisy of adulthood and the betrayal of one’s youthful ideology. Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher” offers a grim celebration of future issues and worries concerning addiction. The latent fears associated with Woodstock become crystal clear when followed up with Gimme Shelter, an even darker journey through the 1960’s youth culture.

Gimme Shelter depicts the tragic Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert, using the technique of a “film within a film.” Grant writes, “One of the essential satisfactions provided by the musical then, is that it seems to celebrate the exuberant expression of sexuality (metaphorically in the production numbers) while at the same time maintaining social stability (in the narrative).” Gimme Shelter, however, eliminates this narrative safety by using sexuality as a metaphor of social instability. Tina Turner’s overtly sexual performance of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” acts as a dark precursor to the violence that would ensue. Similar to the documentary and thriller genre, Gimme Shelter presents the concert like a murder investigation using a non-linear chronology to reveal its crime. These narrative tools are mixed with the classic musical, creating an amalgamation of genre styles. If drugs were a worry for Woodstock, then Gimme Shelter offers the realization of these fears into reality. As we witness an audience member’s drug-induced meltdown on stage (right next to the band), we are reminded of the connectivity of the performer and spectator relationship. If the 60s gave birth to a communal relationship between artist and fan, then the 70s made sure to separate it.

The Last Waltz utilizes aspects of the classic Hollywood musical more than the previous films of the rockumentary genre. Director Martin Scorsese used advanced camera equipment and technicians, shot on 35 mm film, and created distance between artist and audience. Where prior rock films strove to provide a cinematic experience of the “real” rock concert, The Last Waltz chooses stylization over authenticity. Scorsese uses beautiful pans, warm colors, an all-star cast of performers, and staged recreations of musical guests who were not in the original concert. Scorsese’s The Last Waltz can be seen as a post neo-musical, compared to his earlier homage New York, New York (1977). Though presented in a rockumentary fashion with interviews of The Band, the film uses documentary storytelling as a means for narrative construction. If drugs are responsible for the many rock casualties of the 60s, The Last Waltz recapitulates this issue with guitarist Robbie Robertson’s recollections of various rock fatalities. Through certain elements of the Hollywood musical style, The Last Waltz attempts to offer a summation of the previous decade’s trappings.

Though rock and roll posed some problems to the classic musical mold, it also posed a problem within itself. For example, Grant states that rock “…was a new musical form that naturally appealed to a sexually awakening population of adolescents growing up in a generally repressive decade.” With rock culture’s drug and sexual hedonism came its complications. The four films examined can be seen as continuous narrative that transcribes the 1960’s ideology and its shortcomings, while updating the musical genre form. Just as the French Nouvelle Vague attempted to mix different genres (ie: Film Noir, Italian Neo-Realism, German Expressionism, etc) to create a fresh cinematic expression, so did the new wave of rock musicals. Where the classic Hollywood musical had reached a zenith point of expression, the rock film can be seen as a natural progression of changing styles, ideology, and sounds.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Last Waltz

The Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz (1978) is split between being both a rock concert and a documentary on the 60s to mid 70s group The Band. Both Stephen E. Severn and Barry W. Sarchett have written compelling articles on The Last Waltz, each offering different takes on the film’s interior meaning. Where Severn’s article “Robbie Robertson’s Big Break: A Reevaluation of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz” focuses on producer and group guitarist Robbie Robertson, Sarchett’s “Rocumentary- As Metadocumentary: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz” examines the end of an era concerning 60s rock music. Though hardly opposing thematically, each article brings to light the complexities in the way The Last Waltz can be seen as symbolically meaning. Severn’s article is by far the most honest examination, where Sarchett’s feels loftier and pretentious trying to link its artistic merits to early Russian cinema. Severen continually hits the mark with his comparison of The Last Waltz to later Scorsese films such as The King Of Comedy (1982), The Color Of Money (1986), and Casino (1995). Severn makes a strong argument connecting these films through the theme “image may be manipulated as a means for eliminating risk.” Though stylistically I find The Last Waltz to be similar to other Scorsese films like Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990).

If Sarchett sees The Last Waltz as merely an exercise in nostalgia, then the films Mean Streets and Goodfellas work in similar ways. The music found in both films are based in 60s nostalgia. Each offers music that relate to a span of time, which defines the character’s generation. When Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) dances to “Mickey’s Monkey” by The Miracles, he’s relating to Charlie (Harvey Keitel) a youthful connection created through popular music. All the members of The Band aesthetically look like characters from Mean Streets as well. Each one plays pool, lives in debauchery, and expresses a sense of world-weariness.

Severn makes a great point of Scorsese’s obvious worship of Robbie Robertson, and the films attempt to showcase his insight and talent. In defense to Robbie Robertson, the one problem The Band faced in their career was a certain amount of invisibility. A band that backs the legendary Bob Dylan and offers a generic name will always have identity issues. Robbie Robertson is obviously the best looking and most articulating member, who happen to also be the lead guitarist. If The Band was to have a spokesman or leader than Robertson is to The Band, what Mick Jagger is to The Rolling Stones. Despite Levon Helm’s bitterness (and as talented as he may be) it is hard to make the leader someone who is hiding behind a drum kit. The identity insecurity is furthered by the concerts inclusion of continuous guests as lead singer.

Gimme Shelter

The Maysles Brothers’ film Gimme Shelter (1970) is a very curious and macabre 60s concert film. During a free concert performed by Rolling Stones in 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in California, four audience members are reported to have died. One death in particular was a murder caused by a member of the Hell’s Angels (who happened to be working as security), which was caught on film by the filmmakers. The documentary is a film within a film, as the filmmaker presents the edited footage to members of The Rolling Stones, as the audience tries to gain some perspective or insight in the reaction of Mick Jagger and company. As the director’s camera probes for a human reaction of Mick Jagger, we are left feeling we just witnessed (yet) another performance by Mick. The documentary is a strange experience, because if one knows the fatal result of this ill-conceived free concert, it is truly hard to enjoy the performances of the show. The film builds with warning after warning, and like a mystery or thriller, the film presents foreshadowing moments that will lead to tragedy. The announcer of the concert gives warning to audience members that are hanging on the rafters or loitering on the stage, shots of drugged out audience members streak nakedly through the crowd or have meltdowns on the very stage next to the band, as managers and promoters haggle over the many issues of the free concert. The filmmakers pick and choose the images that build to the climactic chilling moment, which is delivered in an Antonioni (Blow-Up) like manner of instant replay. Yet during this replay, we witness a faked reaction by Mick Jagger, leaving us to wonder if he is capable of real human emotion, or if he is incapable of revealing his true self.

William F. Van Wert’s article “The Hamlet Complex” believes we are watching “lie” or an “artifice as opposed to the truth.” Yet, some blame must be pointed at the filmmakers, who have exploited the tragedy into insight. Up to the point where Mick Jagger is confronted of the murder, the filmmakers have been quite content on presenting Mick as your typical rock star up to that point. Little has been required of Mick outside of his typical performer self, and during the concert Mick does try and calm the audience with threats of not playing. Whether Mick is responsible for the manic level of hysteria is hard to gauge. But the filmmakers take every opportunity to present the uncanny side of the show, where a member of Jefferson Airplane is attacked (reasons are unclear as to why) and the Tina Turner’s performance has got to be one of the strangest sexualized performances in recent memory. When examining the entire film, one has to wonder if the Maysles even wanted a real reaction from Mick, or if they preferred to keep the film cloaked in darkness. When Mick views the film footage, there are moments when he sees himself and smirks at his performance as if he realizes his own projected artifice. Mick’s reaction to the murder is understandably unreal, because he is protecting an image and a personality. Strange that the film he made at the same time was titled Performance (1970), because it is actually more insightful of the real Mick Jagger than Gimme Shelter.

Monterey Pop

When comparing D. A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop (1968) to that of the old classical Hollywood musicals, few similarities can be found. Rock and Roll changed the face of the Hollywood musicals back in 1956 with Rock Around The Clock, as it mixed youth delinquency B films with that of a new musical genre. Yet, as times were shifting the youth of the day became drawn to a more authentic vision of themselves. As we’ve seen in the Beach movie genre, the youth was presented in the form of actors like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, As the 60s progressed there must have been a need for a more legitimate representation of the youth, and nothing better illustrates this than the documentary form. Director D. A. Pennebaker was a filmmaker who had previously helmed the Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) and with Monterey Pop he creates one of the earliest authentic rock revue films. Gone were the glamorous actors, as the youth are finally given a real voice and face (pimples and all). Monterey Pop also rejects the notion of the delinquent youth, as all the mellow hippie children are well behaved to the point of sedateness (we even see a couple of peaceful Hell’s Angel members take seats in the audience). As Thomas Wiener points out; “It was laidback, mellow, and appreciatively cool, almost like the Newport audiences in Festival, but without any looks of intensity. Even when The Who smashed their guitars and set off smoke bombs, the Monterey audience seemed too spaced out to even be amazed.”

If Monterey Pop was to be one of the earliest films that started the rock revue concert genre of the late 60s and early 70s, films like Woodstock (1970) and Gimme Shelter (1970) slowly started to show the more worrisome aspects of the collected masses of hippies. Yet if one is to compare Monterey Pop to a classical musical, one has to eliminate the comparison of narrative. In the classic Hollywood musical lyrics often explained an emotional state of the characters in the film, progressing the narrative. In Monterey Pop the lyrics tell the story of the 60s narrative, with subjects as diverse as love, war, sex and drugs. Like the Hollywood musical, Monterey Pop builds the acts into dramatic presentations all trying to out do each other in terms presentation. As both The Who and Hendrix destroy their instruments, the film builds to an emotional crescendo with the show-stopping finale with Ravi Shankar. The film also presents a mixture of genres like the earlier rock musicals, with a little bit of jazz (Hugh Masekela), folk (Simon and Garfunkel), soul (Otis Redding), west coast pop (Mamas and Papas), rock (The Who/ Hendrix), and Indian (Ravi Shankar). Like the Hollywood musical there is a certain amount of stage production, yet the dance numbers are replaced with a psychedelic light show.

Beach Culture

I liked Gary Morris’ “Beyond The Beach” essay, which begins with a little history on American International Production, one of my favorite production and distribution companies through the 60s and 70s. As Morris’ points out, AIP began to view the American teenager as a commodity and began financing beach genre films. Most of these films starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and the first was Beach Party (1963). Beach Party was the first of many films to follow, though Morris’ believes that Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) is the best realized. The beach films follow a certain formula, which usually is some teenage romantic entanglement with outbursts of song and dancing. The beach films also follow much of the Hollywood musical genre in spirit, while using a teenage subculture slang and customs as its hook. Like the musical, there is a certain amount of “chaos” through the fantasy element (as Morris points out) that would be “intrusive” in a narrative film. The film’s teenagers were restricted solely to white suburban kids who had unlimited access to car, surfboard, property near a beach (or in their “backyard”). Usually there was a juxtaposition of good teenager and bad teenager, with the character Eric Von Zipper imitating a very silly Brando type leader of a motorcycle gang. Beach Party also has some strange adult characters like Robert Cummings who plays an anthropologist who is studying the surfer teenager and their mating rituals. It’s interesting that the director is clearly taking an etic approach in its projection. Cummings has always been an enjoyable lead (in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) and Dial M For Murder (1954)) and he kind of sold the movie for me, for Frankie Avalon is a bit limited in his acting ability. I also enjoyed Vincent Price and a beatnik Morey Amsterdam (from the Dick Van Dyke Show) in their cameos. AIP was sure to present surf music in the film, and Dick Dale and the Del Tones show their talent. I especially liked the Dick Dale’s playing of the bongos with one earring in his ear.

Johnny The Wild One and Jimmy of Quadrophenia

Laslo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953) and Franc Rodam’s Quadrophenia (1979) depict two very different characters who represent opposite youth subcultures from the 50s and 60s. Where one is a leader of a motorcycle gang who wears leather attire, the other is a parka wearing modernist who rides an Italian scooter. Both films present teens with similar afflictions to the society that surrounds them, yet both are also different in the way they express those issues.

Benedek’s protagonist is viewed in an etic manner, which presents his teen as a mumbling irrational non-conformist. Marlon Brando’s Johnny is an individual so guarded that he is incapable of letting any other character (or viewer) into his emotional state. Brando’s characterization of Johnny as rebellious and closed off is a means of exhibiting the youth of the day with all their complexities. Though the director chooses to sympathize with the town’s folk and their fears and bewilderment of the youth. The director is trying to articulate a subculture, which the protagonist is unable to do. The character Johnny doesn’t waiver or back down from his belief or desire’s; his refusal to deal with police sheriff, back down from a fight with Lee Marvin, or expressing his sexual desire for Mary Murphy (the sheriff’s daughter). Yet the audience is given little insight as to why. Johnny does mention when being punched by a local, that his father hit him harder, though that is about as much insight as we are going to get. Benedek creates a mysterious rebel that is at times cool and vulnerable, but emotionally vacant.

Rodam’s protagonist is viewed in an emic fashion, with his character being conveyed as an emotional open book. Phil Daniel’s Jimmy is filled with much confliction and it is mentioned that he has four personalities (each represented by the four members of the band The Who). As unpredictable as Jimmy may be, we are never unaware as to why. If Jimmy has problems with his friends, it is due to his over expressing his emotional state. Jimmy is at times charming, sarcastic, confident, insecure, suicidal, violent, sexual, crazy and yet emotionally unguarded. Rodam isn’t just documenting a youth culture with cinematic detachment; the director is trying to understand the confusion of this youth culture and their need to belong to it. If any character in Quadrophenia is closest to Marlon Brando’s Johnny, it would probably be Sting as Ace Face. Both characters are the detached leaders of their gang and both have the same contempt for the law.

Despite their differences, Johnny and Jimmy share some similarities. Both characters belong to a two-wheeled gang (motorcycle and scooter) and seem to feel most alive when roaming in their pack. Johnny and Jimmy come from a problematic home life with their family. The chosen subculture defines their personality and sets them apart from the unsatisfactory world they inhabit.