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Thread: Musings on Cinema

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    Musings on Cinema

    A number of made-for-television features and series over the past decades have matched the quality of the best cinema. Many filmmakers have done excellent work for the small screen, particularly in Europe and North America. It is typically, at least for me, more difficult to figure out what to seek out on TV than at the movies, perhaps because there is more interest in writing about cinema online than television. I write this tentatively since perhaps I don't know where to find good commentary about TV programs whereas I am very familiar with film criticism in all its facets and outlets. Anyway, I need to get to the point because this thread is intended to include posts that are fairly brief; random thoughts on various subjects related to cinema's past and present which I hope elicits some response, at least some of the time.

    The most recent made-for-TV that made my list of favorites was Todd Haynes' awesome Mildred Pierce, the HBO mini-series starring Kate Winslet. Perhaps my highest hope of something of that level of excellence released on TV since then was Jane Campion's Top of the Lake with Elisabeth Moss, Peter Mullan, and Holly Hunt. Campion (The Piano) is responsible for one of the best made-for-TV series ever: An Angel at My Table (1990), which was released as a theatrical feature after being shown on Australian television and is now available in a great Criterion package. So I had my hopes up for Top of the Lake (set in New Zealand like "angel") and found myself engaged and entertained by this tale of evil in the countryside but ultimately underwhelmed by the results, especially in relation to the almost six hours I invested watching it. Below you'll find the more favorable capsule review from Variety's Justin Chang.

    "The disappearance of a pregnant preteen exposes the raw wounds at the heart of an isolated southern New Zealand community in the absorbing and richly atmospheric “Top of the Lake.” Centered around Elisabeth Moss’ excellent performance as a detective for whom the case uncovers disturbing echoes of her own troubled history, this multistranded crime saga from writer-director Jane Campion and co-creator Gerard Lee is satisfyingly novelistic in scope and dense in detail. Yet it also boasts something more, a singular and provocative strangeness that lingers like a chill after the questions of who-dun-what have been laid to rest."

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    Looking forward to more "musings" Oscar!
    I'm not the best judge of television like you. Nor do I like you know where to find good writing about TV series or made-for-tv movies.
    The first made-for-tv movie I remember was THE BURNING BED. My mother raved about that one to everyone she knew. I still haven't seen it.
    Personally, some TV shows that impressed me greatly over the years are Oz, Rome, Deadwood and Twin Peaks.

    In relation: my sister and her husband are TV fans, they watched the entire Sopranos on DVD (no commercials) over a 2 month period and loved it.
    They also saw every episode of Breaking Bad and my sister says it's the best show she's ever seen and that Bryan Cranston was the best actor on television. I've only seen one episode and I didn't really know what the context was. But I take her at her word.

    Game of Thrones has a rabid fanbase too these days, but that doesn't mean it's good. But I haven't heard too much vile criticism of it.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Thanks, more to come.
    I watched most of Twin Peaks and The Sopranos, and three seasons of Mad Men. You're so right re:Game of Thrones. Talk about a rabid fan base for this well-reviewed series! I have also heard great things about Breaking Bad, and a series titled Justified which is based on Elmore Leonard's novels.

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    It makes little sense to talk about THE SOPRANOS in the same breath with TWIN PEAKS or MAD MEN with BREAKING BAD. All they have in common is they're TV series. If they were movies we wouldn't do this. Everyone has their favorites and they come and go. I'm glad to see OZ mentioned but have people forgotten THE WIRE? If so, it's a relief to me. I couldn't follow it and found it depressing as hell, especially since it was set in my home town, Baltimore. (I might have chosen another home town if I could, but I did mostly grow up there.) TV shows are great. The only trouble with them, especially the American ones (I'm thinking of the US QUEER AS FOLK vs. the lighter faster shorter UK original), is that they go on and on and on and on and on. They don't know when to stop.

    And that's also what is great about them, because if you like the characters and the setups you don't want them to end. Dickens was published serially, and others; it dragged out the pleasure. But TV shows become shapeless and wear out their welcome. And then there are the reruns. They become like a nightmare from which one can never escape. An unhealthy obsession. The Netlix-collection TV show orgies are a worse result. Movies end -- and therefore have a shape and a structure that is artistic. Long miniseries adaptations of novels or novel-series are, however, obviously a potentially very good thing, if they're well done, because they can present the books in more detail. The miniseries is now an essential art form. The British ones have been sometimes superb. A friend just told me a lot of Masterpiece Theatre ones are assembled together now on Netflix. A lot of them still hold up from decades ago, the old UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS perhaps. Definitely the original UK TRAFFIK and the original 11-hour 1981 BRIDESHEAD REVISITED were and remain two of the best things ever done for TV. Also, the spy trilogy written by Alan Bennett with A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION, directed by John Schlesinger. That ain't no made-for-TV movie: it's a classic film. Unfortunately it and some others are not readily available in this country. The John Le Carré series with Alec Guinness as Smiley is another. The Brits have provided a great wealth of mysteries made for TV. They already did, when there was only print.

    I often read Emily Nussbaum's TV column in THE NEW YORKER. Well, not often; sometimes. But the number of her columns I've read is beginning to mount up. I still wonder why anyone as smart as she is would bother to write about TV (doesn't she have a better way to spend her time?) but of course NEW YORKER writers are well paid. Her pieces are well informed and informative. I'd rather read about TV shows than watch them. It's faster. Besides which, I don't have TV. I did once, but it stopped working, and I don't want to pay for cable. I only watch TV series via Netflix (there are other non-tube ways too).

    As for made-for-TV movies, I don't pay much attention to them. What difference does it make for what purpose they were made? Just like any other movies, they may be lousy, but they are often quite good, especially some of the French ones. It's sometimes surprising to learn a certain French film was made for television.

    But I'd rather follow the Cannes 2014 festival second hand than talk about TV.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-22-2014 at 10:31 PM.

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    Thanks Chris. I think the long duration, the serial nature, and the smaller size of screens on which the TV programs discussed above are intended to be watched are important considerations and the basis for comparisons despite differences in content or genre. It's sometimes difficult to gauge to what extent TV series are worth the time invested in watching them. Indeed, the fact that "they go on and on" can be a blessing or a curse. It is different than comedies, in which each episode is intended to stand alone and work well without familiarity with previous ones. I'm glad you're writing about Cannes instead of TV. Forthcoming posts on this thread will be all about cinema (unless I watch something on TV as great as Mildred Pierce and the series you mentioned.

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    Writing about Silents

    Writing about the silent era can be difficult because of several reasons, especially the high percentage of films that have been lost forever and the variable state of prints available (it's practically impossible to say anything conclusive about Asian and Latin American cinema before sound because almost all the films are extinct). There is a great deal of misinformation about the silent era in books, essays, and DVD liner notes. There are still film studies instructors who teach, for instance, that Griffith "invented the grammar of cinema" or that Soviet directors like Pudovkin and Eisenstein came up with "rhythmic cutting" (cutting shots in a sequence according to rhythmic patterns of various kinds, especially musical ones). The history of silent cinema requires constant revision based on films (and segments of films) that are being discovered, restored, and made available for viewing. I am not keen on being critical of writings on film that become obsolete or rendered inaccurate as new "evidence" emerges. However, there is a lot of misinformation out there as a result of sheer laziness and carelessness.

    Case in point: according to the liner notes of Avant-Garde 3: Experimental Cinema 1922-1954 (the third of four invaluable sets released by Kino International), Laurel and Hardy’s two-reeler Wrong Again (1929, directed by Leo McCarey) is a spoof of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, which actually premiered in Paris four months after the release of Wrong Again. The scribe made this flippant statement as a major example to support the claim that avant garde/experimental cinema influenced commercial/mainstream films. I get the distinct impression that he did not bother to even watch the widely available comedic short but instead simply borrowed this piece of misinformation from IMdb.

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    I've never seen THE WIRE. I know it was a successful show though.
    Oz is a great show. I like the humour and the edginess of it. I've watched various episodes of it over the years. I should sit down sometime and watch the seasons in sequence. I still like watching old Starsky & Hutch episodes too. Some TV shows definitely wear out their welcome, and some don't know how to wrap it up or know when to stop. .

    Oscar: re: silents. I've seen that Kino set for sale but I haven't bought it or seen it. I would guess that avant-garde films back then didn't get seen very much, I'm sure they didn't have wide audiences. That's why it may be suspect that they influenced mainstream films.
    If you're spoofing something you're mocking something, correct? Is it really a tribute or "influence"?
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    The original showing of UN CHIEN ANDALU was an historic event, but probably it was not actually seen by a wide audience. Perhaps the failure to update information on silent film is something film teachers like you must remedy with lectures and books, Oscar. Unfortunately most people just don't know much about silents, or see many. Even Lincoln Center and Pacific Film Archive don't show that many. I reported on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's showing of the BFI's reediting of all Hitchcock's silents. Th SFSFF and others like it can educate people but it's a bit of a cult thing.

    Before THE WIRE there was the even grimmer THE CORNER and before that HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, three notable and excellent TV series depicting Baltimore as a slum and den of crime. I'd prefer my home town seen as the home of John Waters' characters, the Cotillion, and crab cakes. I couldn't bear the grimness of THE CORNER and as I said couldn't follow THE WIRE and found it a bore.

    I have watched all of WEEDS twice (love it), all of MAD MEN, all of DOC MARTIN twice (very relaxing), all of JERICHO (highly recommended), most of THE SOPRANOS (I got tired of it) , some of SONS OF ANARCHY (recommended), part of OZ, which I found compulsive, but dropped. You can say you should sit down and watch all of these good series, but you can also throw your life away on them. Rather than OZ I'd rather watch Jacques Audiard's THE PROPHET and I am watching it with and without the director's, writer's, and star Tahar Rahim's commentaries. I've mentioned some of the miniseries I think classic. I value them more because they END.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2014 at 08:33 PM.

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    Thanks for your posts guys. Some thoughts:

    What I've done so far in my teaching is not to assign a textbook. I find it hard to fully embrace any one textbook. I supplement the material I present directly to the class for with carefully selected readings (essays, book chapters, reviews). I always strive to illustrate everything I say with clips. It's better to show what you mean than to tell it, but I do both.

    There were a few golden-age Hollywood directors, such as Nicholas Ray and King Vidor who were personally interested in avant-garde films. The Filmarte Theater in Hollywood (1228 N. Vine Street) was the best place to watch foreign films and avant-garde shorts from 1929 until 1956, when programming changed. However, NYC and San Francisco were the two cities in the US where experimental works were exhibited most frequently. Films were not only shown at their MOMAs but also in film societies, such as New York's Cinema 16, which were dedicated to showing films in 16mm gauge. Some colleges and universities also had film societies where such fare was enthusiastically received.

    There were some experimental shorts, including animated ones, which were incorporated into the programming at commercial theaters, often between a newsreel and the main feature. One curious case is Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1941), which was widely seen in UK and North American commercial theaters during WWII. Enjoy:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYdmk3GP3iM

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    So little chance to watch anything...

    I watched "The Normal Heart" last night on HBO (Premiere). Basically a film of the autobiographical play by author Larry Kramer. The story takes place in New York between the years 1981 to 1984 when the AIDS crisis began to rear its ugly head. The film stars a strong cast - Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts and Alfred Molina. I found the performances strong and compelling. Critics - not so much. Produced by Brad Pitt, the acting is superb in my book - better than "Beyond the Candelabra" but what do I know, a nobody from nowhere. Still, if cinema means anything to us, it is the what we experience when we watch. The cry of so many anguished and forgotten victims of this terrible crime against humanity demand to be heard. This film gives them voice.

    I have weekly meetings with my editor. My novel is under construction. No fluff self delivered project this time. I'm being "guided" toward a professional product. We shall see the nibblers come this fall. I think of you - especially you, Chris - often. Take care, Cinemabon.
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    Cinemabon, long time no see. Welcome back! Good luck with your novel and your work with the editor.

    I watched the Ryan Murphy HBO version of Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART today.

    I cried. Over the top, more emotional and gushy than the Woolf Theater revival at the Public Theater I saw in 2004. Apparently the 2011 B'way revival was good and warmer. However, Ryan Murphy's has truly dreamy dudes. Some (one IMDb comment of only 2 so far) think this version turns it into romantic schlock, but I checked out the original play text and though Kramer tweaks things all along, basically the main scenes are very close. I think he mainly just made changes to make it clearer to a mainstream audience, took out some little details about being Jewish, for instance, nothing in particular sticks out. Of the four main actors two are straight and two are gay. Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch straight, Matt Bonner and Jim Parsons are gay. Also Jonathan Groff is gay. Emily Nussbaum (whose TV column in the NYer this week is dedicated to this, and is very well informed and heartfult) doesn't like Julia Roberts and thought she was one-note; but I saw no problem with her. In the original play a lot of it is one-note. The play I saw seemed very historical and political and about organization. It was presented that way. It has a didactic, informational, Brechtian quality about it. However whatever seems warmer, more emotional, sweeter, or sexier in this HBO version, which was, note, written by Larry Kramer, is stuff that is added -- not stuff that is taken out that softens that in the HBO version. There is a lot of disco music, not in the play production I saw; of course it adds to the period feel, and takes off some of the edge. Just opening up the play for film makes it softer and warmer. This is very interesting to see. If anything, if you pay attention, and know the play, this version is richer and fuller, and given that Larry Kramer wrote this, any condemnation of it as turning events into a mere sad, sweet love story are totally wrong. The ending is in the play, word for word. If this subject interests you I highly recommend France's documentary film HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, about ACTUP and the fight to obtain meds. It is extremely well done and informative. You can watch it on Netflix Instant. It was in the NYFF 2 years ago. GMHC Gay Men's Health Crisis is still active.

    The speech about the loss of a generation of creativity in New York, a very large number of the best writers, playwrights, dancers, choreographers, actors, and artists lost, is true. Fran Lebowitz has I think this is in the PUBLIS SPEAKING Scorsese documentary, said it's all different now, that things are praised that simply wouldn't be if that generation had lived, because standards for the arts would be higher. That's something to think about. It was a plague. It wiped out the best and the brightest.

    I was not aware till you mentioned it that Brad Pitt was a producer. However more important to know is that Barbra Steisand owned the rights to the play and sat on them for years. There were differences between Kramer and her. According to him, she simply found gay sex distasteful, and he wanted to show it. She differs. Anyway, Ryan Murphy cared so much about this project that he put up his own money to buy the rights from Streisand to do the HBO version.


    The only time I ever went to Fire Island on that ferry was with G.J., briefly a great friend, who lost his mind and committed suicide. That opening part of Fire Island isn't in the play. I lived through this period in San Francisco, and for a while I picked up the two gay newspapers every week and perused the pages of obituaries of handsome and promising young gay men who had died. It was a terrible and a terrifying time. In the studio where I worked at least seven died of AIDS eventually.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-26-2014 at 09:02 PM.

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    On this day when so many are remembered for service to their country, it is important to note that many died who loved this country and would have proudly fought for it if given the chance. The sheer terror this virus brought to my life was one of dread and fear. Being a nurse and working in a hospital, I saw and cared for dozens of "gay cancer" victims in the early 1980's. I lived in Seattle and volunteered for the work that found few nurses who would. As one gay physician told me at the time from the very start, "They have more to fear from you than you do of them. Think of that every time you enter that room covered from head to toe." I never forgot that. In addition to Kaposi's Sarcoma (the brown spots that appeared on some men but not all), the biggest killer was pneumocystis pneumonia. More boys died of this killer than they did of skin lesions. It spread through the body so fast and knocked out their lungs. They had no defense. My cases lasted days instead of weeks or months as they did on the "cancer" ward where they treated patients with chemo. The special wing they created at Group Health had plastic taped floor to ceiling; we walked through basins of iodine; I had on every kind of covering possible. I held so many dying hands I lost count. I lost many friends, too.

    Yes, the film moved me... again. Seems every so often another film about how it started and how so little was done comes along, to help us not forget. I will never forget and it took me a long time to forgive. When I think of the great artists I knew, I can hardly bear it. So on this Memorial Day, I do think of my brother - a marine who died in Vietnam. But I also think of my best friend in high school, David Glynn... I think of Jimmy Witko, also from high school... I think of Rick Sanford, Rock Hudson, and so many others I knew in LA. I stopped crying years ago. But I will never forget and will make certain my son never forgets, too. In that regard, we both agree. It's better to fight for a cause than to hide from one. Take care, Chris.
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    You are right, and I thought of that too. Indeed pneumocystis pneumonia was "the biggest killer" as you say. Kaposi's Sarcoma was an early, perhaps the key early, sign of the unusual "gay cancer" but is a bit overused in Murphy's production, doubtless because it is an easily recognized visual clue to the presence of the disease. They should have down-pedaled it a bit. A sidelight is that my dermatologist at the time, Dr. Groundwater, was mentioned in Randy Shilts' AND THE BAND PLAYED ON as one of the first doctors who noted and called attention to the sudden unusual prevalence of KS, at the time an obscure disease.

    Ah cinemabon, you always have so many stories to tell. I did not know you were a nurse at this time. Though gay and even living in San Francisco I may have sidestepped the worst. No one I was very close to had it. My former Berkeley landlord M.R., a good friend, told me only later how his lover, who died of AIDS, had been rejected by Oakland hospitals, simply not allowed in. And in the Bay Area. And as you say of the cases in your care, he died very quickly, as the earliest cases did, within a month of clear infection. A doubly horrible way to die, of a terrible, unknown disease, and treated as a pariah. You were closer to AIDS in its early days than I. The difference might be that I was afraid I had it, and the AIDS test was a scary moment, and I in effect followed the advice of Dr. Brookner at which the young men surrounding Larry Kramer scoffed. I became frightened and began to avoid promiscuous sex after AIDS was identified, and stayed monogamous. Luckily, I was in love with someone, someone who did not get infected, which was even luckier, since he messed around more than I, or had done. But it hit some of the best and nicest people, didn't it? And of course still does; but for a while now the ravaging of the US white gay male communities of NYC, San Francisco, and other cities has been much reduced from what it was during the Eighties. This period covered in THE NORMAL HEART with so much passion by Larry Karmer is not just sad and angering, it's devastating and shocking and incomprehensible. On the public history of events and the struggle to get access to meds and a voice in and funding from government, again I can't recommend enough David France's HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, which focuses on the sturggle, events in NYC related to Kramer's topic, and the founding and actions of ACT-UP.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-27-2014 at 10:27 AM.

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    Informative and touching posts fellas. Thanks. Best wishes for your novel cinemabon. I got into substantial negotiations with the editor of a book series at a university press but it appears the project is going down the drain because it was deemed to be "not sufficiently profitable". I submitted a sample chapter. Anonymous readers liked it and praised my writing but the editor ultimately said that the potential audience for my book was too narrow. More musings forthcoming.

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    Thanks, Oscar. It's like trying to put out a movie by committee (now where have I heard that before???). We have to look at marketing perspectives. We have to look at demographics. We have to look at bell curves of potential buyers. And my editor keeps say things like, now make sure you put in enough in for the guys... (the protagonist is a 38 yo female CEO - who wants to read about her?). So I have to "butch" it up! We meet once a week (today) and I have 3x5 cards to fill out (for the story arc), diagrams on maps to show the emotional highs and lows, and re-writes - 46 in all (for this week alone) with over fifty revisions. That's just this week! (The sound of a whip lash here) Have a great summer. May go to see "Malificent" tomorrow because I love Jolie - a great humanitarian and good actress. Good old commercialism at work.
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