George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey

February 7, 2020

georgestevens2Documentaries about artists are not unusual; it is one of the mot exalted (and most effective) ways we can pay tribute to the creators around us. But how often has a son paid tribute to an artist father – in the very medium in which the father distinguished himself?

This has happened in lovely fashion in George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a tribute by George Stevens Jr. to his director-producer father. Stevens Jr. has already carved out an important place for himself as a custodian of film history; he was one of the founders of the American Film Institute, the organization devoted to saving and preserving old films, which also honors the giants of the industry with its annual Life Achievement Award. But his new film about his father should stand as his most honorable – and warmest – accomplishment.

A Filmmaker’s Journey takes us through the career of George Stevens via generous film clips, interviews with contemporaries (among them Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Frank Capra), and old impromptu footage by (and with) Stevens.

Stevens, who died in 1975, was one of the most respected directors of his day. He cut his teeth as a cameraman and gag writer for the Hal Roach studios, where he worked on many Laurel and Hardy comedies. By the mid-1930s , he was directing his own features, and his films of that time – Alice Adams, Swing Time, Woman of the Year, The More the Merrier  – established him as one of the most intelligent people in films.

There’s some extraordinary footage, shot with color 16mm film, taken by Stevens during production of Gunga Din. Anyone who loves that film (merely one of the most enjoyable movies ever made) will delight in the off-the-cuff shots seen here – although it’s strange to see costumes, sets and actors from that black-and-white classic in color.

It’s also strange, but in a much more somber way, to see Stevens’ color footage of his wartime experience (the only color footage of the European war, according to the film). Stevens, like a number of his Hollywood compatriots, enlisted and served as a filmmaker in a special Army unit. He captured some exhilarating shots – the liberation of Paris – and also much disturbing footage, including the discovery of the concentration camps. The documentary makes a persuasive case that Stevens’ outlook darkened considerably during the war; he made no more comedies, but did turn out such serious classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant.

A Filmmaker’s Journey is a valuable contribution to film history, and it should improve Stevens’ flagging critical reputation, which has been in decline since the 1960s.

But the film may be most fascinating as familial tribute. Throughout, especially in the clips, there is an emphasis on embraces and partings; and the end is taken from the last sequence of Shane, where the little boy calls the surrogate father to come back.

The emphasis is clear, and quite moving. You come away knowing that this Filmmaker’s Journey has been not merely a journey of the famous father’s, but of the son’s as well.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1985

A great movie-history documentary, and moving for the reasons described. Has Stevens’ reputation rebounded? This is the film with Warren Beatty’s unforgettable story about how the sound of pistol shots from Shane inspired him to do the same effect with Bonnie and Clyde, an effect ruined by a meddling projectionist.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

October 17, 2019

declinewesterncivPenelope Spheeris is a quirky and talented director whose films include The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. Her feature filmmaking career really started with a 1979 documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization.

Aside from being a potent look at punk music and something of an almost-underground classic, that film set Spheeris up for a sequel that would have an even funnier title. That sequel is here, and it is called The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.

Needless to say, the ore of the title is mined from the term “heavy metal,” the head-banging, hard­rocking music that stakes out rock’s noisiest territory and frightens the bejeepers out of parents everywhere. As in her earlier movie, Spheeris mixes performance footage and interviews.

She talks to some of the heavyweights in the metal world, such as Alice Cooper, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. But she also pays attention to some of the up-and-­coming young metal groups in the Los Angeles scene.

Spheeris is a savvy filmmaker, and the result is a lively and wittily made slice of hard-rock life. Her visual sense is strong, both in the busy movement of the film and in the interview set-ups (Gene Simmons comments from the showroom of a lingerie store, while Alice Cooper speaks lucidly as he perches next to one of the blood-spattered mannequins from his stage show).

One attraction of the movie is, obviously, the fact that its characters look like refugees from This is Spinal Tap, but without intending to be funny. There are any number of hilariously boneheaded sentiments, among them the beer-soaked members of the group Odin opining that they expect to be remembered for generations.

But Spheeris clearly likes music and young people and rebelliousness too much to ridicule the scene. Some of the people in the movie are quite endearing, including a straightened­-out Ozzy Osbourne (who no longer bites off the heads of doves, but is shown preparing a suburban plate of bacon and eggs). Some of the more disturbing aspects of the music are also on display, such as the rampant contempt for women and the abuse of drugs.

Decline obviously has a limited audience, but it’s a very well-made movie. Remember, as someone in the film says: “If your parents don’t like it, it’s good.” They surely won’t.

First published in the Herald, 1988

Spheeris is one of those filmmakers – you wonder what kind of projects she didn’t get to make along the way, and what those might have been like. Odd career. I interviewed her once, I think for The Boys Next Door, and she was a cool character. Now where might that interview be?

Let’s Get Lost

January 23, 2013

letsgetlostAs sad and romantic as its evocative title, Let’s Get Lost is a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988 was the final step in a lifelong dance of self-destruction. Much of the movie was shot in 1987, when Baker was clearly near the end of his long, painful road.

Let’s Get Lost is no straightforward documentary. Filmmaker Bruce Weber, a longtime fan of Baker, has created a dreamlike, black-and-white collage of interviews, music, old photographs, film clips, and new footage. It tells Baker’s history, but also conjures the feeling of a long, mournful jazz wail.

In the 1950s, young Chet Baker was a great white hope of jazz, a key figure in West Coast cool jazz, a beautiful trumpet player and a wispy, romantic vocalist. He also looked like James Dean, and Hollywood was grooming him for stardom.

He had talent, he had charm, he had…something ineffable. William Claxton, whose famous photographs of Baker in the ’50s are featured prominently in the film, says that photographing Baker gave him his first indication of what photogenic meant.

These early glimpses of the young Baker are interspersed with the wreck Weber interviewed in 1987. Baker, not yet 60, looks like an angel of death, his face heavily lined and toothless, his spirit shredded by constant drug use. Interviews with his wives, girlfriends and children create a portrait of a master manipulator, a totally unreliable friend and father.

Some will see this film and dismiss Baker as a self-destructive jerk. Fine. But that doesn’t explain the music, which is as graceful and fugitive as a trail of smoke. Baker seems to have been a person so racked with pain and hurt that he was simply unable to function in the world, except to express himself through music.

Bruce Weber is a fashion photographer whose Calvin Klein campaign set the tone for advertising in this decade. As a filmmaker, he’s still drunk on images: the story in Baker’s face, the glamour of the jazz set in the 1950s. (This movie is unimaginable in color.) Weber may be mostly concerned with surfaces; he can’t explain Chet Baker. But he can fashion Baker’s dream state, his lost world.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Slightly surprised this isn’t considered more of a classic documentary, but maybe it doesn’t fit the mold; also, it was out of circulation for a long time. The treatment fits the subject, for sure.


December 31, 2012

shoahThe late Simone de Beauvoir, upon seeing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, remarked that, “Despite all previous knowledge, the ghastly experience remained outside of ourselves. Now, for the first time, we experience it in our heads, hearts, and flesh.”

The ghastly experience is the Holocaust, the systematic destruction of 6 million European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. (Shoah is Hebrew for “annihilation.”) The key word in de Beauvoir’s phrase is “flesh.” We may have understood the Holocaust intellectually and emotionally before. But never has it been described as in Shoah, which locates the experience so exactly—in fields, trains, buildings, or flesh.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann spent 10 years making Shoah; his film is 9 ½ hours long. The movie contains not a single frame of film ever seen before—not the piles of corpses at concentration camps, not the emaciated survivors, not the speeches by Hitler. It consists entirely of memories—descriptions by camp survivors, Nazi officials, and bystanders.

As these people tell their stories, Lanzmann’s camera often roams across the places where the atrocities happened; especially Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Chelmno—the extermination camps, which existed for the sole purpose of eliminating people, with horrifying efficiency.

Lanzmann sometimes visits the sites with survivors. Here, he reveals his purpose: to construct a film that remembers the Holocaust in concrete detail. He has said, “My aim was to make a topographical, geographic, archaeological work.”

Thus, when he walks through Treblinka (now a brown-green, grassy plain), where thousands of Jews were herded off the trains to the waiting gas chambers, he is inquisitive and exacting: Where were the walls, he asks, where was the ramp? What kind of day was it?

In this way, Lanzmann locks us into the terrible reality of the experience. It is especially hard-hitting because we have just heard the survivors describe the same landscape, in the awful detail of the past.

There are no words to describe the power of these witnesses, except their own. Abraham Bomba survived because of his trade: a barber, he was chosen to cut the victims’ hair immediately before they entered the gas chambers (they were told they were entering a shower for de-lousing). Simon Srebnik was spared because his young singing voice was found pleasing by the Germans; his voice is remembered years later by the local Poles who lived and worked right next to the camps, and who matter-of-factly recall the awful screams that came from inside.

There are the remembrances of Nazi officials (filmed by Lanzmann with a concealed camera in his briefcase), who are bland and unremorseful. In a weird way, some of the most appalling moments in the film come with historian Raul Hilberg’s recounting of the methods of transporting the doomed: on regular German railroads through the bureaucratic channels of the travel department.

The Jews’ confiscated goods were used to pay for their passage to the camps; it was the “self-financing principle,” as Hilberg notes, and they received half-fare prices on the way to their death—the group rate. Rarely has the term “banality of evil” been give such exact incarnation.

From this description, and despite the many examples of courage, it is obvious that Shoah is not an easy film to watch. While previewing it, I sometimes had to look away from the screen, during those unspeakably inhuman passages when you can feel a part of your soul wither. But looking away from the subject is exactly what Lanzmann is trying to fight. He says that if we look away, we forget; and the existence of Shoah makes sure we will not forget.

First published in the Herald, May 1, 1986

The press screening of this movie was like no other: A TV set up in the very old-school lobby of the Harvard Exit theater, and a handful of us sitting there in the afternoon (it must have been two consecutive days—I don’t think they’d do the thing in a single sitting). The film is a remarkable experience, and the longer it goes on the more you realize the brilliance of Lanzmann’s decision to not use archival footage.

That’s Dancing!

December 13, 2012

thatsdancingThat’s Dancing! isn’t much of a movie—but then it doesn’t have to be. It provides plenty of entertainment by helping itself to large portions of other movies, many of which are very good indeed.

It’s the approach taken by the That’s Entertainment! movies (they’ve even kept the exclamation point), but in this case the musical numbers consist only of dancing—no extraneous material. The dance numbers from the history of the movies are introduced and narrated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ray Bolger, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gene Kelly. Kelly also served as executive producer.

Kelly and Jack Haley, Jr. (who also was responsible for the That’s Entertainment! films), start the film—after a gratingly splashy opening number—with a chronological history of dance in film. Early nickel flickers and silent extravaganzas are glimpsed.

Then that mad choreographer-director, Busby Berkeley, is showcased, with wild clips from some of Berkeley’s 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. Some of this stuff, which really makes you wonder what kind of medication Berkeley was taking, is reason enough to stay up for late-night TV and catch these films in their entirety.

Fred Astaire is duly honored, of course, including his solo to the ironic strains of “I Won’t Dance.” We also get to see a dance from The Wizard of Oz that was trimmed from the final release version.

It’s an extension of the Scarecrow’s “If I Only Had a Brain” dance, and it’s perfectly delightful—nothing great, mind you, but with Ray Bolger bouncing between rubbery fence posts and flying over the corn fields, it certainly qualifies as a wonderful almost-lost nugget of Hollywood history.

A section on classical ballet in movies follows, and this is the point at which That’s Dancing! goes astray. A bit too much time is spent paying tribute to classical greats, many of whom had little to do with dance in movies.

This is also the point at which the film abandons its chronological movement, becoming instead a tribute to the key stars of the genre. Thus the movie seems directionless, although it’s hard to care much when the clips are this good.

There’s a sensational duet of one-upmanship by the Nicholas Brothers, from Down Argentine Way; a hilarious bit from It’s Always Fair Weather with Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd hoofing it up with the handicap of a garbage can lid attached to each foot; and the sizzling “Cool” from West Side Story.

The narrators take pains to tell us who the principal dancers are, and even the directors and choreographers. For some reason, and this is unfortunately common in compilation films such as this, there is no written identification of each clip. It’s always nice when a title is flashed at the bottom of the screen when a scene comes on, but maybe they thought it would be too complicated for the audience. Hmm.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1985

Yes, for some reason this one didn’t catch the giddy magic of the first couple of compilation films under this banner. In the 1970s the first two That’s Entertainment! movies were big box-office hits; but they’re all museum stuff now.


November 7, 2012

On a crisp Colorado night in September of 1982, I was walking along the main street of Telluride, where the annual film festival was in full swing. As I approached the outdoor theater—not a theater, really, just a grassy space with a screen hung across the starry night—I heard some incredible music and stopped to look at the movie being projected there.

What I saw was an amazing, mad rush of images: time-lapse photography of clouds scudding across a city skyline, speeded-up shots of escalators vomiting people through a shopping mall, fast-motion images of cars racing over strips of highway like ripples on a snake’s back.

What I was seeing was Koyaanisqatsi, a remarkable film by a man named Godfrey Reggio. Reggio’s non-narrative movie is composed entirely of arresting images and the rhythmic, trance-inducing music of Philip Glass. Koyaanisqatsi—the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning “Life out of balance”—quickly became many things to many people.

It was a touchstone to other filmmakers, including Francis Coppola, whose Rumble Fish was markedly influenced by it. It was the ultimate MTV movie. It was a head trip. It was a New Age lullaby.

Reggio himself simply went out and made the next installment of what he plans as a trilogy, Powaqqatsi, and it is in the same manner as the first film. But in Powaqqatsi Reggio ranges much farther through the world to find his images.

This time more of the movie focuses on the Third World (filming took place in Kenya, India, Egypt, Nepal, Peru, and elsewhere), and Reggio opts for many slow-motion sequences. The most bravura sequence is the opening, as Reggio surveys the slowed-down, dreamlike efforts of workers to haul stones and mud from a quarry (Glass’s music is particularly forceful here).

Again like the first movie, Reggio uses the progression of images to suggest the soullessness of mechanization, as opposed to the simplicity of primitive life. In the Hopi language, Powaqqatsi translates as the sorcerer who lives by consuming other ways of life. Reggio makes his point, but you have to wonder how aware he is of the irony of using ultra-sophisticated film stock and helicopter shots as he glorifies the peasant grinding corn with a rock. And in some ways, Reggio’s films seem to encourage a mindless sensory experience rather than political awareness.

The interesting thing about Reggio’s two movies is that they are larger experiences than either his social concerns or my critical quibbles. Quite simply, Reggio finds ways of looking at things that no one else has seen in exactly this way before: a pink tree alone in a terraced yellow-and-green flower garden, a man lugging a fish as large as he is to market, a child ferociously driving a horse-drawn cart through a street, a Nepalese house perched on what appears to be the top of the world. The mandate of the artist is to show us things anew; at this, Reggio succeeds.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

This one, which never quite matches its opening, was considered a dropping-off from the K-movie. But it looks good next to Reggio’s 2002 film Naqoyqasti, which crossed the line into hectoring.

Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.