Tag Archives: Film History

The Hollywood War Machine

Top Gun: Maverick performed some “best of the best” box office maneuvers when it opened Memorial Day weekend and continues to do well. The original film proved to be as much a recruitment commercial as popcorn movie… and this sequel’s premiere aboard an aircraft carrier, Midway (now a museum ship), hints that this newest film will perform similarly.

Over 30 years later, he still feels the need for speed.

As a cinemaniac who’s seen more than a few military-themed movies over the decades, Hollywood’s connection to the U.S. military is not a surprise, nor is the nuance. That’s one of the reasons I appreciated the nuance in this article by Alissa Wilkinson for Vox, exploring the past, present, and future of how the military works with filmmakers.

One of the aspects I appreciate about the article is how it goes through some of the filmmaking choices of working, or not working, with the military and how it’s not a good or bad thing: it’s really about what story you’re trying to tell.

And, as many film historians naturally know, Hollywood has close ties to the American military and has sought to seek to tell both the story of American service men and women, but more broadly, Why We Fight. The book and Netflix series, Five Came Back are well worth checking out.

Spare an Obol for Charon as you Shed Tears in the Rain: RIP, Vangelis

The ferryman guided a special soul across the river earlier this week. Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, known to professionally as Vangelis, died this past Tuesday at the age of 79.

“… close our eyes and remember those few young men with hope in our hearts and wings on our heels.”

You can read remembrances, appreciations, and obituaries from:

Many a cinephile will know Vangelis immediately, but for many of us, we came of age and found our love for both film and film music right when Vangelis gifted us with what are arguably his two most iconic film scores: Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. He released an impressive number of studio albums and did other work (his theme for the original Cosmos is a personal favorite), but for many of us, our connection will remain his film scores.

Many friends are thinking of his scoring for Rutger Hauer’s “Tears in the Rain” monologue near the end of the film, which is exceptional. But I find myself coming back to the expansive opening sequence where the music completely transports you into another Los Angeles:

I can’t think of a score of his that didn’t move me: not a single one did not make the film it supported exponentially better. His music was “just right” in so many film genres and periods, it’s timeless in a way that doesn’t make sense. But you listen and you watch and you know.

Thank you for contributing to so many moments of pure cinema. R.I.P.

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An Instrument Which, By Definition, Is a Blast to Play

Okay, I was going to post something else today, but then thanks to Andrew M. Edwards of Blue Police Box Music, you’re getting a short, but so, so sweet video.

There was an online discussion of the upcoming ultra-HD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and conversation, quite naturally, turned to the iconic score by composer Jerry Goldsmith. Now, Goldsmith loved “esoteric instruments” as this article points out — and for the noise of V’Ger, he came up with a bizarre 18-foot long stringed instrument that has a bass dynamic range that just feels otherworldly.

I couldn’t remember the name of the instrument, but Mr. Edwards, as both a lover and producer of film scores, knew it: The Blaster Beam.

Not only that. This singular instrument has been used recently for another score.

Behold!

Film Genre Popularity Over the Decades

Bo McCready has done every cinephile a solid by taking film genre data (as tagged on IMDb) and creating this visualization via Tableau.

Now, considering that this is over 100 years’ worth of films… and thousands and thousands of films, this is quite interesting. However, if you look at the visualization above, you’ll see a given genre waxing and waning in relation to its maximum percentage of the overall number of films released that year — and for several genres, that percentage never cracks 10%. So to get an idea of how genres rise and fall in comparison to their fellow genres, take a look at this chart:

If you’re like me, you’re kinda bummed sci-fi and fantasy remain so low for the duration. However, it does go to show how the growth of documentaries is quite impressive.

Additionally, I kind of knew about the cycles of musicals and westerns, but it was interesting to see that both crime and romance have been pretty steady for a pretty long time. And, of course, comedy is gold that stays.

It also struck me that “Popularity” in this context is something of a lagging indicator, because the film studios are going to chase trends and push some of the movement in genres going up and down. It usually takes a couple years for a feature film to go from idea to script to production to finished product, though studios do their best to react as quickly as possible and indie filmmakers –the start-up entrepreneurs in this model– are ever ready to try and risk something faster, cheaper, and –quite often– out of control.

Alas, a good way to get some of that “chasing trends” energy would be to track subgenres and certain elements in movies. So, for instance, examples of “Found Footage” horror films can be cited back over 50 years, but one could venture that that subgenre took off more so after The Blair Witch Project in 1999. Similarly, there have presumably been female cellist characters in films throughout cinema history, but there was a preponderance of female cellists in films across genres in the 1980s. Since such information is coded in the IMDb records, we’re not able to visualize the data.

In any case, enjoy, and perhaps check out a few films this weekend.

Historical Gold from the Silver Screen

As I’ve mentioned various times, my dad made sure we saw many of the classic and not so classic films from bygone ages. I mean, I’ve seen pre-Russian Revolution films using stop-action animation of insects for crying out loud!

To date, it is my favorite World War I allegory using stop-action animation and insects.

Now, besides such curiosities and rattling good stories, these films provided de facto period pieces: they were recording the here and now of an era long past –in human terms– with details quite unknown to me.

So this article, by Fritzi Kramer, for Smithsonian magazine, was a good reminder that nowadays, early cinema represents some useful historical documents. Something to consider the next time you find yourself in an ancient attic. Just be careful with nitrate film.

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TCM Remembers, 2021

Once again, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) does an artful job of honoring the film artists lost in the past year. When you’re ready to be wistful, or perhaps outright verklempt, give it a watch.

For those interested, here are the editions for 2020, 2019, and 2018.

Let’s Go Over the Bonus Situation: Remembering Yaphet Kotto

An actor whose magnetic presence matched or exceeded his six foot, four frame, Yaphet Kotto has died at the age of 81.

Parker in the classic sci-fi film Alien is one of his best known roles

Remembrances can be found across the internet, including:

While it’s almost certain I first saw Kotto in Alien, the performance that will always stick with me was seeing him on stage as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences.

A publicity still from the 1990 London production of Fences (couldn’t find the DC one)

Through all the power, fragility, strength, and weakness in that character was a presence that just couldn’t be faked. As an actor and as a casting director, I obsess about actors “inhabiting” their characters to the right degree — and Kotto always did so. Amazingly so.

And I should point out he could inhabit all sorts of characters in a variety of genres. For Midnight Run, his turn as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely is a perfectly realized straight man in an action-comedy whose plot was anything but straightforward. His gravitas weathers all the shenanigans and manages to ground the film in the stakes, especially at the end.

His moment at the end is pure acting gold.
This man has seen things you recent Starfleet grads wouldn’t believe…

Although he turned down an opportunity to be Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, evidently in part to avoid being typed in “space” films, he did come awfully close to being in another venerable sci-fi franchise.

Yes, apparently he was close to being Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. That would have been a very different Picard, but man would I like to see the stories from that timeline.

Time and again, the appearance of Yaphet Kotto has meant you’re getting a damn fine performance. I’m overdue to revisit his turn as Lt. Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Street, a series I should check out again anyway.

You want to talk about the bonus situation? The bonus situation was whenever Yaphet Kotto showed up. May his memory be a blessing.

And give the man his badge back (still from Midnight Run)

“Every [film] has to come to an end, sometime.”

I think L. Frank Baum (the source of the amended quotation above) would understand. Like books, songs, and many other an enjoyable thing: all things come to an end.

Thanks to one of my siblings, I have a glorious poster of assorted iconic film endings hanging in my house.

The sharp-eyed among you will note the cunningly-placed “author watermark.”

Who doesn’t love a really solid ending to a film? Whether it’s funny, poignant, thought-provoking, or applause-inducing, a satisfying ending is what so often makes a good movie great.

So I had to give Vulture’s recent roundup of “The 101 Greatest Endings in Movies History.”

Do I agree with them all? No more than many of you probably agree with my 50 Favorite Films. But just as I take that exercise seriously (well, as seriously as one should), the team over at Vulture has clearly put a lot of thought into the piece — and their love of film from all over the globe and from all decades is on display.

It should go without saying that this list is chock full of spoilers. At least 101 of them and possibly more depending on your familiarity of the films on this list. And here’s the thing: there will be films on this list that you have not seen. I have seen literally over 10,000 films in my lifetime and there are films on this list that I have never checked out. Odds are you’re in the same boat.

If that’s the case, heed the words of Roy Scheider: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Go forth and enjoy some films with great endings.

Bringing the Real and the Imagined Alive: Remembering Michael Apted

Apted at the Peabody Awards in 2013 (Photo: Anders Krusberg)

When you talk with your filmmaking peers, it comes as no surprise they have always have a few filmmakers they follow closely, perhaps someone who isn’t necessarily a household name… or even necessarily an art house movie theater name.

Michael Apted was one of those filmmakers for me. He died at the age of 79, earlier in January (I’m just getting to writing this post now). You can read obituaries and remembrances from the BBC, the Guardian, Variety, and NPR among others.

One part of his career you see mentioned again and again is the Up series, documentaries made at seven-year intervals looking at a particular set of Britons starting in 1964. It has become –as I recall one reviewer putting it– “a time-lapse film of human lives.” It’s simple, straightforward, and extraordinary.

Apted continued to make fiction and non-fiction films for the rest of his career… and the fiction films included a James Bond spy film and an installment of the Chronicles of Narnia. His filmography is rightly described as “eclectic.” And with a background in both anthropology and theater, with a love of films and history, you can perhaps begin to see why he was one of the filmmakers I followed.

For those of you who have seen my biennial Favorite Films sort, none of his fiction films ever make it into my top 50 and –by virtue of me wanting each feature to stand on its own– that eliminates the Up series from competition (its heft comes from the whole package after all). But I would be hard pressed not to find something interesting an energizing about every single one of his movies. In part, I think it’s because he always finds ways to bring forward truth in the fiction.

Nowhere is this more on display for me than the natural double-feature of Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart. The former is a thought-provoking documentary about shootings and subsequent trials at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. The latter is Hollywood mystery thriller with Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Greene, among others, oh so clearly inspired by the real events, but distinctly different.

There are always bits worthy of note in all of his films. For instance, in 2001’s Enigma, you get a good breakdown of how codebreaking actually works versus the typical “hack the Internets” silliness sometimes on display in films.

Still from 2001’s Enigma (cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey)

So while my biggest disappointment is how the Up series will continue or end (something several people are now wondering), there are plenty of other films, big and small, I was hoping might pop up there.

Time to revisit some films…

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On-Screen Death: Championship Round

As some friends and fellow filmmakers know, I have offered to be the DC-area Sean Bean –the National Capital Area “kirareyaku,” so to speak– is he really the man (or woman) we’ve see die the most on screen?

Find out the answer in this video where film spoilers abound: