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Joan Micklin Silver: Maverick filmmaker helped shape American independent film scene and opened doors for women directors

October 10, 2010 1 comment

"Hester Street, New York City"

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Something I tend to harp on is the tendency for my home state, Nebraska, to neglect the significant figures from here who have made their mark in film.  One of my favorite Nebraskans in Film is Joan Micklin Silver.  The Omaha native became a maverick filmmaker who helped shape the American independent film scene in the 1970s and opened doors for women directors.  If her name and work are unfamiliar, then take the time to discover this artist.  The following article for the New Horizons is one of a few major pieces I have done on her over the years. You will find my other stories about her on this same blog site. In some ways she was born too early to enjoy the increased freedom and opportunity that today’s women filmmakers enjoy, not that they haven’t had to overcome barriers themselves because the film world is still very much a male-centric arena. Let’s just say though that Micklin Silver is someone who deserves more recognition and that her films merit more viewers.  Her feature film career lost steam in the mid 1990s, when she began directing movies for cable networks. More recently, she’s been developing some documentary projects.  She would still like to realize a long held dream of coming back to Nebraska to direct a film.  If she does, I will be there to cover it.

 

 

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver, Maverick filmmaker helped shape American independent film scene and opened doors for women directors

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

For a sparsely populated state far removed from Hollywood, Nebraska has produced an amazing array of movie greats. From the daredevil highjinks of Harold Lloyd to the graceful arabesques of Fred Astaire to the rugged heroism of Robert Taylor to the dignified stature of Henry Fonda to the demure charm of Dorothy McGuire to the brooding machismo of Marlon Brando to the laconic swagger of James Coburn to the bright spirit of Sandy Dennis to the volatile bravado of Nick Nolte, Nebraska-born stars have been as beguiling as the Sand Hills themselves.

Besides these bigger-than-life performers, Nebraska has yielded a bumper crop of storytellers and starmakers who have helped shaped the movies. Darryl Zanuck was a case in point. The Wahoo native catapulted himself from Warner Bros. screenwriter to 20th Century Fox movie mogul, overseeing many Oscar-winning classics (The Grapes of WrathTwelve O’clock High) during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Decades later, a new generation of Nebraska filmmakers emerged to put their dreams on celluloid. Take Alexander Payne, for example. The Omaha native is a writer-director of small, edgy, wickedly satiric feature films (Citizen Ruth and Election) that have earned critical praise if not box office success.

In between the old Hollywood of Zanuck and the brash new screen world of Payne came Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver (Hester StreetCrossing Delancey), who arrived on the scene in the 1970s to help spark the American independent film movement and gain a fresh foothold for women behind-the-camera.

Based in New York, where she has lived the past three decades with her husband Ray Silver, she has made an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. Born in Omaha in 1935, she is the eldest daughter of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, Russian-Jewish immigrants who came separately to America in the wake of the Russian Revolution and met and married here. Her father later founded Micklin Lumber Co.

Micklin Silver’s deep love for the movies was first nurtured in pre-television Omaha. “I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid,” she said by phone from her New York home. Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays.

The stories told by her family of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation — held her enthralled from a young age.     Micklin Silver said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So, when I began making movies, I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.”

Her beguilement with those tales informed her acclaimed first feature, Hester Street, a 1975 film scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband. It takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.

The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.

Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met her future husband, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of mavericks like John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened when she struck up a friendship with Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company, and ended up writing and directing a series of short educational films. One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With her feature scripts lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west. When it became apparent she and the veteran Hollywood director (Mark Robson) assigned to it had a “very different take on” the material, she was replaced. Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.” She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’”

It took guts for a woman to try directing then because women were simply not taken seriously in the male-dominated film world. Chauvinism reigned supreme.

“When I started,” she said, “there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing.”

 

 

The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. When, despite great reviews at festivals, the film failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

She followed Hester Street with a string of features that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. Lately, she has directed television movies for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime (Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and her peers made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, Micklin Silver still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast, gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a troubled romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey, a 1988 film adapted from the Susan Sandler play, was picked-up by Warner Bros. While not a Jewish director per se, she often explores her heritage on film and with Crossing Delancey she revisited the Lower East Side, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions. In the mid-‘90s she directed the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Most recently, she directed the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies.

 

 

 

 

Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90Mine Enemies stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. The film marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller. Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”

Showing her versatility, she followed Crossing Delancey as the hired-gun  director of two decidedly non-ethnic, screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release).

Her career has also seen its share of unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”

Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.

“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas…and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue. Upcoming projects include directing a movie adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime this spring. She eventually hopes to make a long-held film noir script.

Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. Her visit included a drive across Nebraska that reignited her passion for the prairie.

“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.” A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.

If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.”

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Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

A distraught George Bailey (James Stewart) ple...

Image via Wikipedia

The first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life I was overwhelmed by the pathos and beauty and unmitigated emotion of this film classic.  I was just getting serious about film in my late teens and I was watching public television one night when I stumbled upon this picture, one I had never heard of up to then. Being vulnerable to its unexpected charms and powers, I was completely taken by it.  I mean, I was mesmerized and moved so thoroughly by what I experienced that it remains one of the most potent experiences of my life.  I had just started programming a college film series on my campus and I immediately set out to find out all I could about this film and to book a 16 millimeter print of it for next semester’s series.  I screened the picture almost every Christmas for as long as I was involved with the college film series, which ended up being something like eight years.  I was so into film then that my volunteer work for the film program took up more of my time and energy and interest than my studies, and my grades suffered as a result.  I continued with the program even after I graduated, calling myself a consultant.  When I worked in public relations at an art museum I made sure to find a way to screen It’s a Wonderful Life there.  Sometimes I think the picture gets too narrowly categorized as a holiday staple, which it certainly is, but it’s far more than that.  It is a film masterpiece that transcends any particular season or theme or period. Like all masterpieces, it is timeless.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival screening.  If you have somehow managed not to see the film, then by all means do so.

 

Movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” not just holiday season staple, but work of art for all time

© by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Even with Christmas movies a genre all their own anymore, one stands above all the rest for its stand-the-test-of-time story about a desperate man who finds out that though poor in funds he’s rich in friends. That film is It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1946 drama starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Beulah Bondi, Henry Travers, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell and Lionel Barrymore.

The Frank Capra chestnut stands as one of the most beloved, chronicled and screened pictures in cinema history. Viewing this certified classic has become a staple of the holiday season for countless folks. It can be found on several television channels from late November through early January. Many movie buffs have a videotape or DVD copy of It’s a Wonderful Life in their home film library.

Seeing a film on TV is one thing. Seeing it on the big screen is another. Unless you saw the picture when it came out 61 years ago chances are you’ve never viewed it in a theater. Beginning in the ‘70s, the movie’s enjoyed a popular second life at revival houses, yet it’s seldom been run in these parts. One of those rare opportunities to catch It’s a Wonderful Life on the silver screen comes Saturday, Dec. 22 at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford has booked a pristine 35 millimeter print for a one night only showing as a benefit for the Dobleman Head and Neck Cancer Institute in Omaha.

As a homage to the film the Joslyn Fountain Court will be transformed into a set piece from the story’s mythical Bedford Falls, complete with a local dance troupe, Jitterbrats, doing the Charleston in vintage costumes. Memorabilia related to the film and to co-star Donna Reed will be on display courtesy of the Donna Reed Film Festival, an annual event in the late actress’s hometown of Denison, Iowa.

The screening is the highlight of an event-filled night, starting at 7 p.m., that will include comments from Crawford and special guest Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress who played the adorable Zuzu in the film.

Grimes was 6 when she made the Liberty Films project and RKO Radio Pictures release. The film came near the beginning of a short-lived career that saw Grimes appear in a handful of classics with Hollywood royalty. Besides It’s a Wonderful Life, she earned credits in: Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell; Blue Skies with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven; John Ford’s Rio Grande with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara; and Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye. She also worked with icons Cecil B. DeMille, Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard (Unconquered), Fred MacMurray (Pardon My Past), Randolph Scott (Albuquerque) and Glenn Ford (Lust for Gold).

Grimes, who left the business at 12, went on to raise a family and work as a medical technician. She lives in the Seattle, Wash. area and travels the country as an “unofficial ambassador” for the film at screenings, festivals, conventions, et cetera.

Over the years the film’s become the subject of books, DVDs, documentaries, even a board game, as it’s attained pop culture, touchstone status.

All the fuss over it now is ironic. Even though considered a quality A title upon its release and one that enjoyed moderate box office and critical success — capped by Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor — the film was not the phenomenon it is today. But as years went by film historians noted it as a distinctive example of Golden Age Hollywood studio production. Once rediscovered on TV, the movie developed an ardent following that’s grown over time.

Like Casablanca, it took a generation for the true enduring value and popularity of It’s a Wonderful Life to be appreciated. It’s gone from forgotten gem to being named one of the 100 greatest movies of all time in a ranking by the American Film Institute. The film also topped the AFI’s list of the most inspirational pics in history.

Everyman protagonist George Bailey’s wistful dream to escape the confines of his small town for the big city is one that reverberates with many of us. His realization that what’s most important — family and friends — is right before him also resonates. The revelation that the lives of others would be poorer without him only comes with the help of some divine intervention — in the form of Clarence the Angel. What could have been pure hokum in the hands of lesser artists becomes a rich, multi-layered tapestry of deep psychological insights in the hands of director Frank Capra, screenwriter Jo Swerling and star Jimmy Stewart.

This was the first feature made after the Second World War by veterans Capra and Stewart, who were forever changed by their wartime experiences. The movie reflects the dark, cynical themes that began creeping into post-war Hollywood fare. George Bailey and Bedford Falls are microcosms of America from the Roaring 20s through the Depression era and on through the war. It is a journey from light to dark to light again. Hope and faith may be shaken but never fade away.

The film is a reminder that each of us impacts others and that we should be grateful for the chance at life we’ve been given. The gift of life is wonderful.

Dissecting Jesse James

October 10, 2010 1 comment

Jesse James, famous American outlaw.

Image via Wikipedia

If you are like me and you admire the film adaptation of Ron Hansen‘s masterful novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, then welcome to a decided minority.  I know why most folks have problems with the movie.  It’s unusually long, slow, and deliberate.  Its two main characters are enigmatic, inscrutable, unlikable figures. There is a sinister pall of death around all the proceedings.  The work is uncompromising in taking its meandering, even indulgent path to the end, one that the very title of the film signals.  And while I would not choose this film among the few I want with me on a desert island, I do believe it is as masterful in its own medium as Hansen’s novel is in literature.  I think the film’s reputation will grow over time.  Of course, you may be among the vast majority who haven’t seen the film, as it was an abysmal box office failure.  I definitely recommend it.  The following article for The Reader (www.thereader,com) appeared in advance of a screening of the film that concluded with a Q & A with Hansen, who closely consulted the film’s writer-director, Andrew Dominik.  Hansen loved how faithful Dominik was to his novel and the author was invited to be on the set for much of the shoot.  You can find more pieces by me about Hansen on this blog.  If you haven’t read his James novel, do so, because it is a superb piece of literature that, unlike the film, moves quickly.  In fact, I recommend anything by Hansen, who is one of America’s finest writers.

Dissecting Jesse James

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so faithful to the Ron Hansen novel the author might well have adapted it himself. Filmmaker Andrew Dominick generously included the Omaha native in the process. Hansen read script drafts, offered notes, observed scenes and answered dialogue questions from stars Brad Pitt (James) and Casey Affleck (Ford).

Dominick’s fidelity to Hansen’s work resulted in as literal a translation of a full-length novel as film constraints allow. Hansen feels deep ownership in the movie. On August 23 he will take questions from Omaha novelist Timothy Schaffert and audience members following a 1 p.m. screening of James at Film Streams. The program previews the Sept. 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest Schaffert directs.

The cinematic quality of Hansen’s novels has long attracted filmmakers. James marked the third and most successful screen adaptation of his work. As “a visual writer more concerned with scene than voice,” he said, “the images come first,” not the words. “I try to make it as tangible as possible for the reader, and that’s why I employ simile and metaphor. If you just rely on the sentences to take care of themselves, it becomes kind of an amorphous, abstract kind of writing.”

“As I developed my interest in film I saw how close-ups and strange angles could actually create interest for the reader,” he said, “so I think there’s more variation of focal length and angle in my writing now than there used to be. For example, two characters in a room just staring at each other and talking is not as interesting as if the camera is on one of their lips and then sees the glint in the other one’s eye. I think that actually gives energy to the fiction writing.

“Like in Mariette in Ecstasy (the author’s 1992 novel), there’s one moment where a young nun is caring for Mariette after her first trance-like stigmatic experience, and I point out what her lips look like. When she puts Mariette’s hand into the water I describe how the blood kind of twists out of her wound into the water and pinks the water. Those things are essentially close-ups. I talk about the sound of her breathing so intricately you understand the camera’s very close to her mouth to hear that. A lot of times I do an overall picture of the landscape but then hone in, on, say, a mosquito landing on some water and its tiny ripple marks. That’s an example of going from deep focus to an extreme close-up.”

Schaffert admires how Hansen’s work “is so poetic for prose. The attention he gives each word, each sentence, each expression of the characters is just so expert and masterful. You definitely become spirited away by his imagination. There’s a marriage between the images and the language so that it’s not just vivid description but images that come from the words themselves.”

In the 4 p.m. Q & A Schaffert plans asking Hansen “what it means to write something with an image in mind and then to see someone else make that image happen. As a writer myself the idea of taking an image, bringing it into words, working it into narrative and then communicating that into someone else’s mind is just rife with failed possibility.”

Hansen’s precise prose in James amounted to cutting in the camera.

“Most of the time the prose was so clear about what the actions were they could only have happened in a limited number of ways,” he said. “Now, there’s always going to be changes in camera movements and so forth. For example, before Bob Ford goes in to kill Jesse James he’s out in the backyard washing his face from a pump. I just had the water sloshing down his temple, but Andrew had the camera go way above to look down at the water in a bowl or bucket, with Bob’s face reflected in that water. I would not have considered that, but it’s of a piece of how films are made — taking a scene from lots of different angles.”

Hansen wishes he could avail himself of filmmakers’ resources when writing a novel.

“I really envy the information they have access to. Art director Patricia Norris knew exactly what kind of clothes people would wear. I was laboring in a total vacuum in that regard. In my bit part as a journalist they had me wear a suit from the 19th century. That is so useful to know exactly what those pieces of clothing feel like, and novelists never have that. When they dressed the set for the train robbery they had a railroad car from that period. For interior scenes there were real antiques. I didn’t have access to that stuff, so in terms of scene setting it was really remarkable. That kind of attention to detail was all the way through the film. That’s what a novelist relishes.”

Critics knocked the film’s slow takes but Hansen likes that it disrupts our rapid-cut expectations “by setting a more 19th century mood.” He likes the music underscoring the film. He feels Pitt and Affleck hit all the right notes in their roles.

Schaffert hopes his work gets the same filmic treatment one day.

 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

October 10, 2010 2 comments

Count me among those who adore the film classic Casablanca. For my taste, it is the perfect Hollywood film from that Golden Era when the studios operated as dream factories and churned out picture after picture, most of them forgettable, but when they worked, oh my, how they made magic.  This most iconic of American films from that era has so much to admire about it that one doesn’t quite know where to start.  Suffice to say that every element in the film is masterfully rendered, which of course is what makes a film great.  Every line of dialogue, every glance, gesture, action, camera angle and movement, every plot point, every musical note, et cetera, is honed to its finest, most nuanced possibility.  The film is like a gem that has been polished to its maximum effect, yet it never feels packaged or manipulated.  It all comes off naturally, capturing you from the opening shot through the closing shot, your sense of disbelief thoroughly suspended in the drama’s grip. The following article I wrote about Casablanca for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed a special screening of it.  If by some strange fate you’ve still never seen this movie, make sure you do.  It will capture you, too.

 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Casablanca. The very name drips nostalgia. The 1942 Warner Brothers film classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman still enthralls viewers with its story of star-crossed, wartime lovers. An emblem of intrigue and romance, it’s one of those rare movies whose popularity only increases with time. Perhaps more than any other film, it embodies the textured chiaroscuro look and feel of Old Hollywood studio-bound productions. It really sets mood, time and place. Notice too the fluid camera work that brilliantly utilizes closeups to reveal character and relationships. Add bigger than life personalities, a conflict drawn in both human and political terms, a witty yet pungent script, mix well, and you have a masterpiece.

In recognition of this ageless treasure Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is screening Casablanca on Saturday, October 21 in Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall as a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. The 7 p.m. program will include remarks by special guest Stephen Bogart, the only son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart was 8 when his famous father died of cancer. He’s the author of a 1995 memoir, Bogart: In Search of My Father, that describes the struggle of being the legend of an icon-father he barely knew.

To help set the Cafe Americain mood, local jazz pianist Orville Johnson and his vocalist wife Servalia will perform “As Time Goes By” and other standards.

A sure sign of the movie’s enduring appeal is the honored place it holds in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” polls voted on, as AFI puts it, “by a blue-ribbon panel of leaders from across the film community.” The picture has been selected number one among Love Stories and number two among the “Greatest” American Films ever made. Also, no fewer than six lines from Casablanca, more than from any other film, made AFI’s Best Movie Quotes ranking.

Memorable line after memorable line grace the Oscar-winning script by Howard Koch and twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “We’ll always have Paris.” “Round up the usual suspects.” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Bogart, perfectly cast as the world-weary but noble Rick Blaine, fittingly has most of the best dialogue.

Any discussion of Casablanca, released in special edition videos and the subject of documentaries in recent years, must touch on how this masterpiece came together as if by fate or luck. The Hal Wallis produced pic was adapted by a team of writers from an obscure play called Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. Then, as now, Hollywood looked for material anywhere it could be found. In this case, an unstaged play.

America was at war and the play’s basic narrative of refugees caught in a no-man’s land where humanity is cheap and courage in short supply, remains unchanged on screen. The story contained everything studios-audiences want, namely, a topical story, suspense, sex appeal, a tragic hero and a redemptive ending. The film would have surely ended up routine, even forgettable, had the original casting discussed for it come to pass: Ronald Reagan as Victor Laszlo, the selfless freedom fighter Paul Henreid ended up playing with just the right note of defiance and naivete; and Ann Sheridan as Ilsa, the former lover of Rick, now the wife of Laszlo, and a part Ingrid Bergman made her own. Her wan yet radiant Ilsa is the epitome of desire. For such a melancholy film it’s remarkably engaging.

Bogart was always the first choice for Rick. His presence alone would have made Casablanca a must-see. But the elusive chemistry he has with Bergman, Claude Raines (Louie), Sydney Greenstreet (Senor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Carl) and Maj. Strasser (Conrad Veidt), is a magic something peculiar to him and them. It only stands to reason director Michael Curtiz, co-writer Howard Koch, who was on the set, and crew were inspired by the spark between Bogie, Bergman and Co.

As the story goes, the cameras began rolling with an unfinished script, leaving the actors unsure of the end. Would Rick reclaim Ilsa? Or let her go off with Laszlo? That doubt lingers over every frame and helps explain why the film transfixes us so. It all worked to create a film that’s as potent today as when it first came out.

“It’s a great example of serendipity, where everything just fell into place and all the stars aligned just right,” Crawford said. “This is the one film above all others that film snobs and average Joes both love. That’s very rare. It has a universal appeal. It and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably the two most popular black and white movies of all time; so deeply loved they almost transcend their own medium.”

“The film is very entertaining but also very haunting,” he said. “For anyone who’s ever been in love it touches a real emotional nerve, and that’s part of its timeless appeal. It’s completely of its era but it doesn’t date. How can a story so set in its time still seem so fresh now? I don’t know how to explain that. I think it’s got to be that love triangle. Ricks give Ilsa up and does the right thing.”

Of its time, yet timeless. Ah, yes, love and loss and desire never go out of style.

“The Searchers,” a John Ford-John Wayne masterwork

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This image is a screenshot from a public domai...

Image via Wikipedia

In keeping with my passion for classic cinema, here is an article I wrote in advance of a special screening of the great John Ford-John Wayne Western, The Searchers. Early in my cinephile life I have to admit I was not familiar with this film except for reading references to it in various history books and seeing an occasional clip from it in documentaries. These teases definitely whet my appetite to see the movie, but growing up Omaha , Neb. offered limited opportunities at best to see classic films in theaters and I do believe The Searchers was unavailable for television screenings for a long while due to rights issues, or even if it was available it would have not have been shown in letterbox format, and thus the film’s impact would have been severely diluted.  I seem to recall that a friend of mine, Gary Anderson, whom I worked for on a few occasions, first turned me onto the fact this was a film essential I absolutely had to see.  If memory serves, Gary named his first born son Ethan after the character Wayne plays in the picture.  I finally did see The Searchers in my 20s or 30s, and I was immediately struck by the sweep of its epic storytelling and the power of its uncompromising themes.  I have seen it several times since, always finding it a richly rewarding experience, and like the best Ford films, always discovering ever deeper currents in the images and the performances, in the music and the settings.  This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in advance of a revival showing at the Indian Hills Theatre, which was one of the few remaining Cinerama theaters in the nation.  Watching The Searchers on the big screen, from the balcony, has to rank as one of my all-time filmgoing experiences.  As it turned out, it was one of the last films shown at the theater, which was torn down to make way for a parking lot.

NOTE:  This blog also contains my take on Ford’s and Wayne’s other late masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in a story I called, “Through a Lens Darkly.”  I also have many other film entries on the blog, including pieces on such other classic films as Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life and on filmmakers as diverse as John Landis, Joan Micklin Silver, John Jost, and Alexander Payne.

 

“The Searchers,” a John Ford-John Wayne masterwork

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

Legendary Hollywood director John Ford, that great visual poet of American cinema, cut his teeth on two-reeler horse operas in the silent era.  Bigger-than-life actor John Wayne, that symbol of virle patriotism, learned his craft toiling in cheap cowboy flicks.  Ford helped give Wayne his on-screen start when he hired the charming young prop man as a bit player in his 1929 picture Salute.

By the early 1930s their careers were heading in opposite directions.  Ford, already a top-flight director at Twentieth-Century Fox, achieved great acclaim outside Westerns while Wayne, who got a break starring in Raoul Walsh’s epic The Big Trail, discovered Hollywood fickleness when, after that pic failed, he was banished to quota-quickie shoot-em-ups.

The Duke despaired his second chance might never come.  Then, in 1939, Ford instinctively cast Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a landmark film artfully shot in Monument Valley and dynamically edited for peak dramatic effect.  The smash hit proved the Western could be both a box office and aesthetic success and made Wayne a bankable screen presence.

In the post-war years Ford made a cycle of classic Westerns that ensured his status as the great populist interpreter of the American West while Wayne reigned as both a perennial superstar and American icon.  When Ford consistently chose Wayne to embody the hero in his films, the men were forever linked in cinema history.

Long into their fabled collaboration, the pair teamed-up for The Searchers, a 1956 Warner Bros. wide-screen Technicolor Western far darker in tone than Stagecoach yet every bit as riveting.  A favorite of film buffs, The Searchers displays Ford at the height of his creative powers and stars Wayne in one of his deepest performances.

On September 23, area film fans will join celebrities and surprise guests for a  special one-night only salute to John Wayne and The Searchers at Carmike Cinemas’ Indian Hills 4 Theater in Omaha.  The program, a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska, begins at 7:30 p.m. with a pre-show, followed by The Searchers projected on the theater’s 70-foot wide Cinerama screen, one of a handful still in existence.

The presentation is the latest event from Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford, who has organized classic movie programs since 1991. In typical Crawford fashion he is pulling-out all the stops for The Searchers.  He has secured a restored vault print from the Warner studio archives.  And in his usual showman-like way he has planned a gala evening complete with searchlights, paparazzi, red carpets, limos, Western reenactors and balladeers and a theater lobby display of Wayne memorabilia on loan from The Birthplace of John Wayne museum in Winterset, Iowa, where The Duke was born and raised.

Why all this fuss about an old Western?

The Searchers has long been rated by film historians and aficionados among the Top 100 films of all time.  I think it and Stagecoach are the only Westerns in that select company,” said Crawford, a film historian.  “The Searchers is also a favorite among many of today’s leading filmmakers.  Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg all cite it as a major influence and have borrowed from it for films as diverse as Taxi Driver, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  Indeed, the film’s anti-heroic themes resonated with the rebellious cinema and culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s  As Crawford said, “The picture is not so much about the West as it is about obsession.  It’s more of a psychological portrait and character study.  It just happens to take place in the West.”

To double for the Texas setting of The Searchers Ford selected evocative Monument Valley in Arizona, where he returned again and again for his Westerns, and this time captured its sweeping beauty in VistaVision, a wide-screen photographic process.

“The wide-open terrain becomes as much a character as any of the actors because it’s so beautifully photographed in 70 millimeter,” Crawford said. Set against this grand backdrop is the struggle of a nomadic figure (Ethan Edwards) battling the harsh elements as well as his own fierce nature.  According to Crawford, Ethan Edwards is another in a long string of “non-conformists” populating Ford’s work.  “Ford established very clearly, particularly in his Westerns, the rugged individualist. How one man alone can make a difference.”

It is said John Wayne regarded his role in The Searchers as his favorite, which is surprising given how morally ambiguous the character is compared to the late actor’s typical screen persona as a rough-hewn but fair-minded man of action.

The Searchers came along at a time when the Western genre was starting to reflect the anxious new realities of the Cold War era and, with it, directors like Ford were taking a more mature, even revisionist view of the Old West, which had been depicted in overly simplistic and blatantly biased terms.  In keeping with these changes, Wayne interprets Ethan Edwards as an obsessed man with an almost psychotic racial hatred.  The character is more troubled than any previous Wayne screen incarnation (with the possible exception of the driven cowhand-turned-ruthless cattle baron he played in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River).

As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is a man adrift — a Confederate veteran estranged from society.  It is a demanding role and Wayne delivers the goods under Ford’s direction.  Ford liked using a core company of actors and Wayne became the marquee member of the stock players Ford repeatedly drew on for his films.  By the time the cameras started rolling on The Searchers, Ford and Wayne were as closely identified with each other as any director-actor combo before or since.  In Crawford’s view, Ford knew Wayne could project the very qualities his protagonists embodied and utilized Wayne’s “strong silent charisma” like no one else.

The Searchers memorably opens with a lone rider approaching the homestead of Aaron Edwards, wife Martha and daughters Lucy and Debbie.  The rider is framed in the doorway of the house amid the vast expanse of the desert.  As the rider approaches, a ballad about a man’s lonely wandering plays on the soundtrack:   “What makes a man to wander?  What makes a man to roam?   What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home?  Ride away, ride away, ride away.”

Ethan Edwards is returning to the frontier Texas wilderness and the only family he knows after a separation of many years.  There is a tragic quality about Ethan, who during his long sojourn has lost his former sweetheart, Martha, to his brother.  Harboring a deep hatred for Indians, he cannot accept the part-Cherokee teen, Martin Pawley (whom Aaron and Martha adopted after Ethan rescued him during an Indian raid in which the boy’s parents were killed), as his nephew.

After living a nomadic bordering-on-outlaw life since the war, Ethan clearly longs for the domestication his kin enjoy, but events prevent his reintegration into civilization.  When an Indian raiding party, led by the Comanchee renegade Scar, attacks neighboring homesteads, Ethan and Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) join Texas Rangers in pursuit of the marauders.  In Ethan’s absence, the raiders attack Aaron’s place, killing Aaron and Martha and kidnapping Lucy and Debbie (Natalie Wood).

The killings and abductions set Ethan, Marty and others off on an epic avenging search across the desert.  It is a quest fueled more by Ethan’s blind rage than justice.  After Lucy is found dead and violated, Ethan leaves no doubt he means to kill both Scar and Debbie, whose virtue he deems irretrievable.

While Ethan is unrelenting in his pursuit, Marty, who abhors Ethan’s plan, is just as unbending in his will to prevent any harm coming to Debbie.  When, months later, the decimated search party is no closer to finding her, only Ethan and Marty remain to carry-on.  Beyond all reason, their search stretches over a decade, with Ethan growing more callous each year.

In the end, Scar is finally dealt with and, after chasing his niece into the mouth of a cave, Ethan spares her, uttering the famous line, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”  By sparing her, he reclaims part of himself.  The final scene, Debbie’s homecoming, is perhaps the most poignant ending in movie history.  As Debbie and Marty are embraced by the family he is marrying into everyone sweeps inside the house to celebrate except for Ethan, who stands awkwardly in the doorway — poised between redemption inside and oblivion outside.  It is the same framing device used for Ethan’s arrival at the film’s start. As the door closes behind him, he is cast adrift amid the wilderness.  An eternal wanderer searching for a home to call his own.

The ballad heard at the opening reprises the haunting lament of the wandering man:  “A man will search his heart and soul, go searchin’ way out there, his peace of mind he knows he’ll find, but where, O Lord, oh where?   Ride away, ride away.”

The ending is rife with resonance.  First, it is a suiting elegy for the dying-breed of Westerner Ethan epitomized: he must move on because his job is done and his time has passed.  The end is also a requiem for the Western itself, which was fast dying out due to changing cultural tastes and the glut of TV Western series.  Finally, the ending is a tribute to Harry Carey, Sr., one of the first great Hollywood Western stars.  When Wayne stands astride the doorway, he reenacts a trademark pose of Carey’s — clutching his right hand to his left elbow — before trekking off alone.

There was a strong connection between Carey and The Searchers’ director and leading man.  John Ford helmed many of Carey’s silent Westerns and John Wayne admired Carey as a kind of role model.  Additionally, Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr., has a supporting role in the film and was a regular stock player in Ford pics.

The Celluloid West

October 10, 2010 Leave a comment

The searchers Ford Trailer screenshot (1)

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My love of film and writing about film finds me looking for opportunities to wax poetic, or my clumsy approximation of such, about cinema. An example is this story from a few years ago about a Turner Classic Movies Western film festival.  I am a big fan of the Western.  When I was a film programmer I organized two major Western film fests, and so when I caught wind of the TCM series, I finagled an assignment from my editor at The Reader (www.thereader.com) to write this preview piece.  Although the TCM fest long ago aired, the channel regularly screens many of the great Westerns I mention in the article.

This blog also contains articles about two of the best John Ford-John Wayne collaborations, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The blog also contains dozens of other stories about cinema classics, stars, and filmmakers.  Check them out.

The Celluloid West

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

On select nights in November Turner Classic Movies pays tribute to the Western with a lineup TCM bills as “ALL the greatest Westerns ever made, except for Shane,” — the omission of the George Stevens’ classic probably owing to a rights issue.

At first glance, the Western may seem a rather dry form, but to this film buff’s thinking, anyway, it may just be the richest of all genres. The best Westerns, like the best dramas, speak to universal passions. They explore the human quest for power, freedom, independence and wealth and they examine the conflicts that arise when these desires collide with the equally strong needs for home, family, community and civilization. They reveal the struggle of men and women at odds with not only the natural elements but their own human nature as well. Because of all that it encompasses — from the settling of the West to empire building to the genocide of native peoples — the Western covers a landscape that is at once epic, mythic, historical, political, sociological, psychological and geographic.

If there is one Western that is the nexus of the genre, it is John Ford’s cinematic tone poem, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a memory saga about how what is known about the past is a function of what is told us and what we wish to believe. Near the end of the film a sardonic newspaperman, upon hearing how a celebrated taming of the West episode came down very differently from the way stories purported it to be, utters an aphorism — “This is the West, sir — when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” — that neatly explains how the mechanisms of popular culture make even outlandish lore the gospel truth.

In this same way, Hollywood Westerns through the mid-1950s were like dime novels in their avoidance of historical accuracy for heroic depictions of a fabulous frontier where hard men delivered justice, vengeance and temperance. All the conventions of the Western were in place by the end of the silent era and the first three decades of the talkies only served to reinforce its constructs: the lone rider finding trouble in some town; the corrupt cattle baron protecting his interests with hired guns; the golden-hearted “saloon girl” aiding the Westerner; and Indians laying siege to homesteads and army outposts.

For most of us, our mental picture of the Old West is derived from the images Hollywood has provided of its epochal events — range wars, cattle drives, wagon trains, cavalry campaigns — and its infamous legends — Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Judge Roy Bean, Billy the Kid. All most of us know about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is what the movies tell us.

Early Westerns were simplistic, but occasionally a picture surfaced, like Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, that both defined and transcended the genre or, as in the case of William Wyler’s 1940The Westerner, that took delight in sending it up. Some Westerns, including Howard Hawks’ Red River and Ford’s The Searchers (1956), are practically Shakespearean in the scale and scope of their conflict and intrigue.

The Western milieu often has been used as a forum for examining social issues, from William Wellman’s 1943 The Oxbow Incident, which condemned intolerance with its attack on lynching, to the Fred Zinneman directed and Carl Foreman scripted High Noon (1951), which championed integrity in a thinly veiled reference to the ‘50s’ witch hunts, blacklists and informants. Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar are a carnival of Freudian symbols writ large. Anthony Mann’s The Furies is a Greek Tragedy on the prairie.

By the time Ford, the great interpreter of the Western, completed his early cavalry cycle (Rio GrandeFort ApacheShe Wore A Yellow Ribbon) and got around to The Searchers, filmmakers were reinterpreting their vision of the West. In The Searchers the Western protagonist — John Wayne as Confederate veteran and Indian killer Ethan Edwards — is presented as an anti–hero whose society-building impulses have been usurped by baser instincts and blinded by racist feelings.

In Wayne, Ford found the icon for the latter-day Westerner. Estranged from society, but not averse to aiding it — for a price — he is a stabilizing force who adheres to a personal code of conduct that allows him to straddle either side of the law when it suits him. At the end of the trail, the Westerner dies or rides off alone, unwilling or unable to bend to community strictures. He is the original American rebel.

This same anti-heroic thread runs through two key series of Westerns in the ‘50s, each pairing an inspired director with a perfectly matched star. Much like Alfred Hitchcock did in his suspense films with Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Mann explored the darker more cynical side of Stewart in Winchester 73Bend of the RiverThe Naked SpurThe Far Country and The Man from Laramie.

Similarly, Budd Boetticher found, in Randolph Scott, the embodiment of the laconic drifter in The Tall TBuchanan Rides AloneRide Lonesome and Comanche Station. By the 1960s, the Westerner was forever recast as an enigmatic, alienated and even anachronistic figure — a man of fierce independence and great competence whose temper and skill have been forged by years as a mercenary in the service of top dollar.

Not surprisingly, the Westerner is the precursor of today’s action hero — a rough-hewn rogue possessing extraordinary skills of horsemanship, gunplay and physical combat. He is strong, smart, brave and over-the-edge. The Westerns of Howard Hawks made a great point of portraying the Westerner as a professional called on by ordinary citizens to help rid them of some menace. The role of the professional is the theme of his late trilogy — Rio BravoEl Dorado and Rio Lobo. Taking this theme even farther was director John Sturges, who transposed the samurai warrior philosophy to the professional gunslinger code by drawing on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai as the inspiration for his hugely popular Western The Magnificent Seven.

The great purveyors of the newer, harsher, de-romanticized Western were neoclassical filmmakers Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High CountryMajor DundeeThe Wild BunchThe Ballad of Cable Hogue and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Sergio Leone (A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars MoreThe Good the Bad and the UglyOnce Upon a Time in the West).

Peckinpah, who despite the later violence in his films was a storyteller from the old school, seemed to invest the anxiety, anger and alienation of the ‘60s into his work. He developed a lyrical, folkloric, yet ironic approach that subverted many old conventions and exposed the hypocritical forces operating in the West. Leone was also a visual poet, but on a grander, more stylized scale. He staged the Western as if it were an opera, building elaborate sets, scenes and sequences that heightened the Western motifs and then undercut those very same motifs through such obvious but gorgeous artifice that his gaze on the Western landscape became at once reverential and winking.

Leone gave birth to a character, The Man with No Name, and to the actor who portrayed him, Clint Eastwood, that became identified with the revisionist Westerns of the late ‘60s through today. Eastwood’s Westerner is a remote and bitter figure who casts a jaundiced eye on everyone and everything around him. In much the same way John Wayne’s later characterizations were informed by his five-decade body of work and revealed the nuances of an older, grizzled, embittered and, finally in The Shootist, dying gunman unable to escape his past, Eastwood draws on his cinema legacy to create, in Unforgiven, a figure haunted by his violent legacy.

To fully appreciate the richness of the Western, one must be steeped in a wide range of examples of the genre from different eras. For what it’s worth, here is one film buff’s partial must-see inventory, listed roughly chronologically, of  essential Westerns:

Stagecoach (Ford’s 1939 version, not the dreadful 1966 remake); The Oxbow IncidentMy Darling ClementineRed RiverThe GunfighterHigh NoonShe Wore a Yellow Ribbon;WagonmasterWinchester 73The Naked SpurShaneThe SearchersForty GunsThe Tin StarThe Unforgiven (the 1960 John Huston classic, not the Eastwood film); Rio BravoThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceLonely are the BraveRide the High Country; One-Eyed JacksThe Wild BunchButch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThe Ballad of Cable HogueWill PennyThe Cheyenne Social ClubThe Stalking MoonMcCabe and Mrs MillerUlzana’s RaidThe CowboysThe ShootistBarbarosa; and The Grey Fox.

Enjoy ‘em, pardners.

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: New works by Rick Dooling

October 10, 2010 5 comments

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/slaying-dragons-rick-dooling/

 

The best writing challenges our preconceptions of the world, and Rick Dooling is an author who consistently does that in his essays, long form nonfiction, and novels.  He’s also a screenwriter.  If you know his work, then you know how his language and ideas stretch your mind.  If you don’t know his work, then consider this a kind of book club recommendation.  I promise, you won’t be disappointed.  The following piece I did on Dooling appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) a couple years ago upon the release of his book, Rapture for the Geeks, When AI Outsmarts IQ.  The work reads like a cross between a love ballad to the wonders of computer technology and a cautionary tale of that same technology one day overtaking humans’ capacity to control it.  Around this same time, a suspenseful, supernatural film Dooling wrote the screenplay for from a Stephen King short story, Dolan’s Cadillac,  finished shooting. Dooling previously collaborated with King on the television miniseries, Kingdom Hospital.  Dooling is currently working on a TV pilot.

You can find more pieces by me on Rick Dooling, most efficiently in the category with his name, but also in several other categores, including Authors/Literature and Nebraskans in Film.

 

 

 

 

Beware the Singularity, singing the retribution blues: new works by Rick Dooling

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It’s been awhile since Omaha writer Rick Dooling, author of the novels White Man’s Grave and Brainstorm, enjoyed this kind of traction. Fall 2008 saw published his cautionary riff Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ (Harmony Books). His screen adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Dolan’s Cadillac, will soon be released as an indie feature. Dooling, collaborator with King on the network television series Kingdom Hospital, was flattered the master of horror himself asked him to tackle Dolan, a classic revenge story with supernatural undertones.

Dooling’s no stranger to movie-movie land. His novel Critical Care was adapted into a Sidney Lumet film. The author was preparing to adapt Brainstorm for Alan J. Pakula when the director died in a freak accident. Then there was the creative partnership with King. But writing books is his stock-in-trade, and even though Dolan could change that, Rapture’s what comes to mind in any appreciation of Dooling.

Like much of his socially conscious work Rapture’s a smart, funny, disturbing, essay-like take on a central conflict in this modern age, one that, depending on your point of view, is either rushing toward a critical tipping point or is much ado about nothing. He fixes on the uncomfortable interface between the cold, hard parameters of computer technology’s increasing sophistication and meta-presence in our lives with existential notions of what it means to be human.

High tech’s ever more integrated in our lives. We rely on it for so many things. Its systems grow faster, more powerful. Dooling considers nothing less than humankind nearing an uneasy threshold when the artificial intelligence we’ve engineered surpasses our own. He lays out how the ongoing exponential growth of super processing capabilities is a phenomenon unlike any other in recorded history. The implications of the singularity, as geeks and intellectuals call this moment when interconnected cyber systems outstrip human functioning, range from nobody-knows-what-happens-next to dark Terminator-Matrix scenarios.

A fundamental question he raises is, Can the creators of AI really be supplanted by their creation? If possible, as the book suggests it is, then what does that do to our concept of being endowed with a soul by a divinity in whose image we’re made? Is synthetic intelligence’s superiority a misstep in our endeavors to conquer the universe or an inevitable consequence of the evolutionary scheme?

“Well, we all know what evolution is. We’ve read about it, we understand it, it’s just that we always have this humancentric, anthropocentric viewpoint,” Dooling said. “Wouldn’t it make perfect sense there would be another species that would come after us if evolution continued? Why would we be the last one?”

Is AI outsmarting IQ part of a grand design? Where does that leave humanity? Are we to enter a hybrid stage in our development in which nanotechnology and human physiology merge? Or are we to be replaced, even enslaved by the machines?

The real trouble comes if AI gains self-knowledge and asserts control. That’s the formula for a rise-of-the-machines prescience that ushers in the end of homo sapien dominance. Or has mastery of the universe always been an illusion of our conceit? Is the new machine age our comeuppance? Have we outsmarted ourselves into our own decline or demise? Can human ingenuity prevent a cyber coup?

Arrogantly, we cling to the belief we’ll always be in control of technology. “Do you believe that?” Dooling asked. “It is kind of the mechanical equivalent of finding life on other planets.” In other words, could we reasonably assume we’d be able to control alien intelligent life? Why should we think any differently about AI?

Pondering “what man hath wrought” is an age-old question. We long ago devised the means to end our own species with nuclear/biological weapons and pollutants. Nature’s ability to kill us off en masse with virus outbreaks, ice cap melts or meteor strikes is well known. What’s new here is the insidious nature of digital oblivion. It may already be too late to reverse our absorption into the grid or matrix. Most of us are still blissfully unaware. The wary may reach a Strangelove point of How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Microchip.

It’s intriguing, scary stuff. Not content with simply offering dire predictions, Dooling examines the accelerating cyber hold from different perspectives, presenting alternate interpretations of what it may mean — good, bad, indifferent. This kaleidoscopic prism for looking at complex themes is characteristic of him.

Extremities lend themselves to the satire he’s so adept at. He finds much to skewer here but isn’t so much interested in puncturing holes in theories as in probing the big ideas and questions the coming singularity, if you ascribe to it, inspires. His drawing on scientific, religious, literary thinkers on the subject confirms his firm grasp and thorough research of it.

The project was a labor of love for Dooling, a self-described geek whose fascination with computers and their content management, data base applications began long before the digital revolution hit main street. We’re talking early 1980s. “Not many writers were drawn to computers that early,” he said, “but of course now you can’t write without a computer most people would say.”

 

Richard Dooling's photo.

 

Richard Dooling

 

 

He designs web sites, he builds computers and because “I knew I wanted to write about this,” he said, “I knew I was going to get no respect until I could at least write code and do programming.” Deep into html he goes.

The pithy, portentous quotations sprinkled throughout the book come from the vast files of sayings and passages he’s collected and stored for just such use.

Aptly, he became a blog star in this high-tech information age after an op-ed he wrote that drew heavily from Rapture appeared in The New York Times. His piece responded to oracle Warren Buffett’s warning, “Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” following the stock market crash. Dooling enjoys Web exchanges with readers.
“I’m telling you every blog from here to Australia quoted this op-ed, with extended commentary. I’ve never seen anything like that happen with my work before. It took me completely by surprise. It makes you realize how powerful the Internet is.”

If you doubt how ingrained our computer interactions are, Dooling said, think about this the next time you call Cox Communications with a technical issue:

“Your first few minutes of interaction are being handled by a chatterbot,” Dooling said, “and some people don’t even realize it. It’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a few questions first,’ and then it’ll go, ‘Hold on and I will connect you with one of our assistants’ or something like that. And when you’ve reached the point where the thing has gathered everything it can automatically gather now you need an intervention from someone in India to come on and actually take over and start doing the human interaction. Until then, that’s a piece of software talking to you.

“The chatterbots are getting very good. It’s taking longer and longer in a Turing Test type of situation” for people to determine they’re bandying back and forth with a machine not another person. He said that’s because advanced chatterbots can be programmed to exhibit qualities like humor or variations of it like sarcasm.

“I mean the very first one, Eliza, I talk about in there (Rapture), they fooled hundreds of people with in the beginning because people were naive back then. The designers did it just by turning every question around. They call the software a Rogerian Psychiatrist because you go, ‘I hate my brother,’ and it responds, ‘Why do you hate your brother?’ Or you say, ‘I feel terrible today, and it goes, ‘Why do you feel terrible today?’ My favorite one is, ‘My brother hates me’ and it asks, ‘Who else in your family hates you?’ Do you love it?”

For those who dismiss high-tech’s hold he points to our computer, iPod, cell phone, online fixations and prodigious digital activities as creating cyber imprints of our lives. Our identity, profile, personal data, preferences become bit/byte fodder.

“And it’s true, you know, because when you log onto something like dig or slash.com they’re showing you stuff based upon every time you’ve been there and what you clicked on,” he said. “And when you’re going on something like Wikipedia and contributing content the operating system is like, Oh, good, more content here. ‘Based on your contributions in the past, it appears you really enjoy the singularity, would you like to write an article about it?’

“At one point in there (Rapture) I think I quote George Johnson from The New York Times, who takes it to the next level by saying, Look, does it really matter what you believe about your dependence if Amazon’s picking your books and eHarmony’s picking your spouse and Net Flix is picking your movies? You’ve been absorbed, you’ve been to the operating system, they already own you.”

Skeptics counter that’s a far leap to actually losing our autonomy. “Yeah, but in exponential times a very far leap is no longer a very far leap,” said Dooling.

Virtual reality’s dark side also interests Dooling. “Well, it does make you think about things like technology or Internet addiction or any of those things,” he said. “I believe that’s very real and it’s just going to get worse. A lot of people don’t even realize they are addicted until they’re stuck somewhere without their iTouch or whatever. And then you see it in your kids. You know, what does that mean?”

He said at book club forums he does for Rapture “people have a sense technology is changing them but they are uncertain about its effects. They also sense the dramatic speed and exponential increases in power, but don’t know where that will all end up. Most people feel like computers are already smarter than them, so they are more curious about the possible dangers of a future where computers are literally in charge of the Internet or our financial welfare. We’ve seen just a sample with the computer-generated derivatives that began the latest crash. What about nanotechnology and the gray goo phenomenon? That is, the possibility a terrorist or ‘mad scientist’ could create something that replicates, exponentially of course, until it crushes everything…It goes on.”

Dooling doesn’t pretend to know what lies ahead. He’s only sure the techno landscape will grow ever larger, more complex and that America lags far behind countries like India and China in math, science, IT expertise, broad band penetration and high tech infrastructure. The good news is greater connectivity will continue flattening the world, opening up new opportunities.

“In the short term I think what you see is exponentially increased collaboration and intelligence sharing and data sharing,” he said. “But beyond that we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

The same can be said for Dolan’s Cadillac. At the start anyway. Obsession, Old Testament-style, is the theme of the Stephen King story Dooling adapted. More precisely, how far will someone go to exact revenge? King’s original appears in his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

In the script, which adheres closely to King’s story, Robinson (Wes Bentley) is bent on avenging his wife Elizabeth‘s murder. His target — big-time criminal Jimmy Dolan (Christian Slater), a human trafficker who makes the drive between Vegas and L.A. in his prized, heavily-armored Cadillac escorted by two bodyguards. The ruthless Dolan, who ordered the hit on Elizabeth, seems impervious. Robinson, a school teacher, appears outmatched. But with the visage of his dear-departed egging, nagging, cajoling him on, Robinson lays a diabolical trap for Dolan and his Caddy.

After King asked him to adapt it, Dooling read the tale and it hooked him. How could it not? It has a relentless, driven quality that captivates you from the jump and never lets up, with enough macabre twists to keep you off balance. From the first time we meet Robinson, half-out-of-his-mind laboring on a desolate stretch of U.S. 71 in the killing Nevada sun, we know we’re in for a ride. We have no idea what he’s doing out there. That’s what the rest of the film is about.

Dooling said he likes the story being “the revenge of a common man, not an ex-Navy Seal or ex-cop or whatever. He doesn’t care if he loses, because his life is over anyway, but he’d really rather make sure he gets Dolan first.”

Another writer took a crack at adapting Dolan. That left Dooling with a choice.

“In Hollywood you can either look at the first project and try and fix it or you can choose to start from scratch,” he said. “I decided to write it myself, which is riskier, because if you do it yourself there’s no one really to blame except you.”

He said King’s story is set-up as “the perfect second half of a movie,” which found Dooling filling-in “how did we get here.” That meant detailing the back story of how Elizabeth (Emmanuelle Vaugier) stumbled onto Dolan and crew to witness something she shouldn’t, her going to the feds and despite protection being killed. It also meant fleshing out Dolan’s lifestyle and business dealings and Robinson’s transformation into a single-minded vindicator.

The film shot largely in Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 2008, where Dooling was on set for weeks. He saw several cuts of the film, including the final. He’s pleased with the results. Among other things, he’s impressed by Bentley and Slater in the leads.

“Bentley’s quite bland to begin with, but once he begins stalking Dolan he makes himself into one intense, haunted creature,” said Dooling, adding Slater makes us “like Dolan every once in a while. Not many bad people are just plain bad. They usually have a story…and Slater is good at telling us that story.”

He admires the inventive ways director Jeff Beesley handled Elizabeth’s many ghostly appearances, both visually and with voiceover.

It was Dooling’s first experience with an indie project. “It was both scary and exciting because you’re kind of out there, up in Regina. It was great. Lots of fun.”

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