Million Dollar Mermaid

February 10, 2010

**1/2—Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide

The picture transfer is somewhat disappointing. The program looks quite colorful, but the colors tend to oversaturate, spoiling their effect. During the movie’s first half, the center of the image has a slightly different hue than the edges. Regardless of what we said about the story, picture quality is critical to enjoying the film, especially during the wild Busby Berkeley numbers, and the image just isn’t sharp enough to delivery them effectively.—The 199 Laser Video Disc Companion

It wasn’t a planned viewing, but with 20 inches of snow on the ground—and counting—my wife suggested that we answer our daughters’ repeated plea, “Can we watch a movie?” by putting on our laserdisc of Mervyn Leroy’s Million Dollar Mermaid.

I had bought the disc, at Sarah’s prompting, in the waning days of the laserdisc format. One of the big laserdisc retailers was closing out several titles, Million Dollar Mermaid among them, and for $10—a steal in the days when laserdiscs cost $45 for a single movie—I figured it couldn’t hurt to add an Esther Williams film to my collection.

If we watched it after buying it those many years ago, I don’t recall doing so. I had hopes that the film would be enjoyable. It has its moments, but it’s short on the magic that characterizes so many classic MGM films.

Worse, the quality of the disc is mediocre at best. Watching it on a new HDTV, I wondered if years of DVD-watching had skewed my perception of the video image. When my choices were either VHS or laserdisc, it was easy to be an image snob. But the intervening years of DVD and the advent of high-definition video left me behind. Excellent video quality became the status quo, and that was before the advent of Blu-ray. Laserdiscs no longer looked as sharp as they once did, but did they really look this soft? The colors appeared to bleed on the disc, and the transfer was lacking.

Million Dollar Mermaid is “inspired by a true story,” the life of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, but it’s pure Hollywood formula biopic, albeit a bit messy. Kellerman is a crippled child who overcomes her handicap in the film’s first 10 minutes. That aspect of her triumph is barely touched on for 90 minutes, then raised in the film’s closing moments, when Kellerman addresses a young girl whose legs are in braces, just as Kellerman’s once were. Between those moments we get the story of a promoter, James Sullivan (Victor Mature), who manages Kellerman, turning her into a star through a publicity stunt and a water ballet show that draws hordes who watch Kellerman and her cast (the performance numbers were choreographed by Busby Berkeley).

More off-putting is Kellerman’s romance with Sullivan, a fast-talking promoter who gives Kellerman a break when she and her father have no other prospects. Kellerman falls for Sullivan, but circumstances beyond their control eventually separate them, leaving Kellerman to be wooed by a new love interest, the unfailingly decent Alfred Harper (David Brian). He treats her with respect, provides for her in every way and wants to marry her. Sullivan’s reappearance in Kellerman’s life is a reminder of how poorly he fares in comparison to Harper—Kellerman should see how good she has it with Harper, and how close she came to making a mistake with Sullivan. But the film wants us to find Sullivan charming and irresistible. It would be easier if Harper were a Ralph Bellamy bumpkin, but he’s not. Nor is he bland or boring. Still, the rules of these films insist that Williams end up with Mature, not the second banana—distant memories of my own painful second-banana status in the lives of certain women notwithstanding. I thought marriage had softened me to these genre tropes, but apparently they still have the power to rile me in select instances.

Needless to say, my sympathies were not with Mature’s character, which made Harper’s chivalrous acceptance of Kellerman’s love for him all the more galling. Whether any of this is true to Kellerman’s real-life story I can’t say, but as a work of Hollywood matchmaking, I found it to be one of the less convincing entries from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

It’s part romance, part overcoming-the-odds story, but it’s also part feminist tract, as Kellerman—thanks, ironically, to Sullivan’s machinations—popularizes the one-piece bathing suit in America. If that sounds sexy, or revolutionary, trust me, it’s neither, although it does give the film a few moments of humor, and a contemporary relevance, without turning the film into a sermon.

The only thing I’ll remember about Million Dollar Mermaid are the Berkeley-choreographed scenes. It was worth the purchase price, but I don’t think I’ll be watching it again anytime soon. Unless my girls want to watch it again. They enjoyed it more than I did.


Why I Voted for Inglourious Basterds as Best Film of the Year

December 10, 2009

The Washington Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), of which I have been a member the past three years, last week announced the winners of its 2009 year-end voting. Up in the Air took Best Film. It’s a good film, maybe better than I give it credit for, but it stirred not one ounce of passion within me as I watched it. It’s very well performed, often breezy in tone despite its sober subject matter (a corporate downsizer flies from city to city, laying off employees at firms that hire him to deliver the bad news to their employees), and doesn’t provide a pat happy ending. For that, I appreciate the film and don’t resent its victories in the Best Picture, Best Actor (for George Clooney) and Best Adapted Screenplay categories.

Still, I could’t help but feel a sense of deflation in seeing the film score its big wins. I saw two foreign-language films—Summer Hours and Lorna’s Silence—that top my personal Best of 2009 list, but never expected either of those films to receive enough votes during the nomination process in the Best Picture category to qualify as one of the five finalists. I also saw, shortly before the voting deadline and via screener DVD, Spike Lee’s wonderful Passing Strange, but in talking with fellow Washington Area Film Critics Association members, realized that not enough people had viewed the screener to garner the film any momentum going into the voting. I counted Passing Strange a regrettable lost cause when it came to our vote.

That was OK, because the best English-language film I saw in 2009, Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man, had been championed by some of these same critics, and I was confident it would nab one of the five Best Picture slots.

It didn’t make the cut. WAFCA’s five Best Picture finalists were:

The Hurt Locker | Summit Entertainment
Inglourious Basterds | Weinstein Company
Precious | Lionsgate
Up | Walt Disney
Up in the Air | Paramount

There’s a problem with these choices. Each has its strengths, but, unlike A Serious Man, each has pronounced weaknesses. Did a ny of the five films deserve Best Picture? Even The Hurt Locker, much acclaimed upon its release, too often felt like a series of expertly staged set pieces—well choreographed action scenes, full of tension, but missing something at its emotional core. It’s a fine, even award-worthy film, very well directed, but in no way a lock for Best Picture of the year.

Similarly, Up is wonderful in stretches, but its conventional aspects—quirky animal character, interminable chase scenes—place it in the middle of the Pixar pack. Precious is an astonishing film in many ways, and amidst the controversy over whether or not it’s a story of value for the African-American community or for any other segment of the population, it hasn’t received enough credit for its striking visuals. The film’s critics, however, have pointed out that the story of dysfunction, incest and buried potential is in some ways too familiar—we’ve seen these themes played out too many times before to justify the grimmer aspects of Precious. I’m not entirely on board with that reasoning, but I take the point. I count myself a fan of the film, but no more than I’m a fan of WAFCA’s other Best Picture selections.

One Choice Left

I was left with one choice for Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is flawed choice, a flawed film—A Serious Man bests it, as do several other films released this year. But those films weren’t nominated for Best Picture, and Inglourious Basterds was. I cast my vote for the film as Best Picture, and for Quentin Tarantino as Best Director.

 I never had any regrets about doing so, and in the days since casting the vote, have only hardened in my judgment that Inglourious Basterds deserved my vote. I wish it had won, and not just because it’s superior to the other four WAFCA Best Picture nominees.

 My rationale boils down a word mentioned in the lead of this piece: passion. I felt none for Up in the Air, or for The Hurt Locker. Precious and Up have their merits, too, but am I passionate about either one? No.

 You might be guessing that I’m about to announce my passion for Inglourious Basterds. The truth is, I greeted the film with decided ambivalence. Going into it, I expected to have a strong aversion to the film. The scars from having to endure last year’s Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still haven’t healed, and I wasn’t keen to see another film that might use the Holocaust to make some supposedly vital point that comes across as misguided. In this case, the point would be revenge, and I’ve simply tired of revenge as a central element of any story. It not only bores me; it offends me.

So I was surprised to find my reactions as I watched Basterds running the gamut from delight (loved those first 20 minutes) to distaste at the violence (which wasn’t quite as hard to stomach as I’d imagined, the final scene excepted) and frustration about the film’s formal aspects. I thought the framing, in particular, was disappointingly cluttered in spots, particularly in the tavern sequence (which goes on far too long, in my estimation, although the film’s fans think it’s spot on). Tarantino had Robert Richardson, a master, behind the camera, and this is what he came up with?

As a fan of camera movement, I felt a thrill when Tarantino’s camera finally circled the two principal characters. It was electrifying! I waited for the rest of the film to deliver on the aesthetic promise of that moment, but it was not to be. I like static shots as much as the next cinephile when they’re well composed, but with Tarantino I expect more razzle-dazzle camera movement. The fact that he doesn’t go this route may be a sign of maturity on his part, but it thwarted my expectations, which were in part fueled by Tarantino himself during the opening segment.

Still Not Settled

I expect to be able to re-evaluate these concerns on subsequent viewing of Tarantino’s film. I fully expected to receive a screener DVD that I could watch again ahead of awards voting—if ever there was a film that demanded a second viewing, it’s this one—but the Weinstein Co. decided not to send screeners to WAFCA members. So my thoughts on this film are based on a single viewing several months ago. Future viewings will help me figure out what works in Basterds, what doesn’t, and why. I hope the film’s fans who read this will cut me some slack: I’m more with you than against you.

It’s important to stress that my reasons for voting for Inglourious Basterds weren’t entirely negative. I didn’t think it was simply the least flawed of WAFCA’s five Best Picture nominees. Indeed, the film has something going for it that none of the others, with the exception of Precious, can approach: It has sparked the most stimulating — the most passionate — film writing of the year. The pleasure of reading the back-and-forth over the film’s merits, or lack thereof, was a highlight of the past 12 months. It certainly influenced my selection.

Since the film’s release, provocative, informative posts on the film have been written by:

Jeffrey Wells

Glenn Kenny

Dennis Cozzalio and Bill Ryan

Chris Stangl  

David Bordwell

and Steven Boone 

I appreciate that the film has its critics (see Jordana Horn and Steve Santos), but the best films often are the ones that stir the loudest debates, and on that score, nothing this year tops Inglourious Basterds. I was more than satisfied to vote for it as the year’s best picture. Maybe, one day, after subsequent viewings, I’ll actually believe it was.

Get Religion: Late-Period Walter Hill

September 19, 2009

Broken Trail, Wild Bill, Geronimo: An American Legend

I very purposely—more and more so every time I do a script—give characters no back story. The way you find out about these characters is by watching what they do, the way they react to stress, the way they react to situations and confrontations. In that way, character is revealed through drama rather than being explained through dialogue.Walter Hill, as quoted by David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

[In Hill’s Southern Comfort], there’s nothing underneath his characters’ macho masks. Each person is sketched in just a few bold strokes—just enough to give us a stake in what’s going on. … He aestheticizes action, with techniques adapted from Peckinpah and Arthur Penn and the early masters of the genre. Hill is himself a new master, but partly because there were so many good, shallow action films made in the studio period, a movie like Southern Comfort no longer seems enough.Pauline Kael on Hill’s Southern Comfort, in her collection, Taking It All In.

Hill admirers must look back on the nineties with regret. Wild Bill was a mess and disaster, yet it has the makings of a fine interplay of fact and legend.David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Before I knew anything about Sam Peckinpah, I knew about Walter Hill. Back in 1984, I’d seen—was this an early Betamax rental?—Streets of Fire, and my 12-year-old self had responded in a way that I couldn’t fully articulate at the time. Futuristic yet retro, the film’s use of freeze-frame and slow-motion taught me about Peckinpah long before I saw Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch in college. stars Diane Lane—the film is the genesis of an adolescent crush that went dormant for several years, resurfacing only when Lane’s career took off again with The Perfect Storm and Unfaithful—Willem Dafoe, and even Michael Pare, at the time hot off of Eddie and the Cruisers.

Pare and Lane, in my favorite Walter Hill film

Pare and Lane, in my favorite Walter Hill film

I remember the performers, I remember the style, and I remember the concert-scene culmination that included a performance of I Can Dream About You, a song that still can be heard on any Adult Contemporary radio station. The film’s now dated music-video imagery is straight out of the early-MTV-era film, now retro in a way Hill couldn’t have foreseen. Yet the film has persevered and now, I’m told, has a cult following, although I know of no one who will admit to seeing it, much less enjoying it. If my peers have seen any Walter Hill film, it’s 48 Hours, which they think of as an Eddie Murphy film.

48 Hours was a hit, but Streets of Fire was a more personal vision realized. Which type of film would characterize Hill’s future efforts? For a time, Hill made dull Hollywood action films like Red Heat, a 48 Hours sequel that no one much liked, then the better received Trespass.

After the success of Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, Westerns were in vogue again, albeit briefly. Hill capitalized on the trend by making Geronimo, but fell on his face. A can’t-miss cast that includes Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Wes Studi, Matt Damon and Jason Patric was spread too thin, resulting in forgettable performances characterized by forgettable dialogue—with one exception.

Patric, not Duvall, or Hackman, gets the film's one memorable moment

Patric, not Duvall, or Hackman, gets the film's one memorable moment

Filming a story by John Milius, Geronimo: An American Legend, Hill tells the story of the last tribe to fight the reservation system in the United States. The attention to technical specs is outstanding: The film looks sensuous and sounds amazing: the sonic quality is a knockout—horses sound like they’re riding into one’s living room—but the film’s dialogue doesn’t come close to matching the impact of the film’s aural qualities. A dreadful voiceover narration by Damon’s character is a white flag from the screenwriters (or was it the studio’s call?) that they couldn’t move the narrative forward through competent screenwriting. Instead, we get longwinded exposition straight from the mouth of one of the movie’s characters.

However, there is one bit of dialogue that stands out, and elevates the film, all too briefly, near the end of its running time, long past the point where most viewers will have run out of patience. The dialogue is the closest thing we get to a “message” in the film, and it complements several images Hill uses earlier in the film. The subject is spirituality. Costner’s Dances With Wolves had touched on Native American spirituality, and Hill went a step further, including several scenes in Geronimo of a chanting shaman in full mystic lather. The script doesn’t endorse the Native American’s faith, nor does it condemn it. More interesting is Hill’s decision to offset the implicit condemnation of the Americans’ treatment of the Native Americans with an explicit endorsement of Christianity as a call to follow the Prince of Peace, rather than the easier route of condemning the Christian faith of the officers charged with rounding up and relegating Native Americans to a reservation.

Patric’s Lt. Gatewood, seeking a truce with Geronimo, who continues to wage war against the United States, offers him a crucifix and tells him, “My God is a God of peace. I off this [cross] because it has power for me. Our war must end here.”

It’s a brief moment that might be dismissed as a one-off mention that bears no further thought, but the religious element lingers as the film’s final credits role. Was this a Milius concern, or was the interplay of Native American and Christian religion something that Hill hoped to further explore?

Bridges gives one his best, most overlooked, performances in "Wild Bill."

Bridges gives one his best, most overlooked, performances in "Wild Bill."

The opening shot of Wild Bill, released two years later, suggests that Hill is still interested in matters of faith. A coffin and a funeral, and the singing of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. Once again, a dreaded voiceover kicks in—this time its John Hurt’s Charley Prince. W quickly learn of a man who wants to fight the “white eye” Bill because of “his religion.” Religion is an appropriate subject for an elegiac portrait of a man who lived in the shadow of death, but Wild Bill doesn’t linger on those early expressed sentiments, leapfrogging instead through Bill Hickok’s life. He becomes a lawman, shoots his own deputy, gets diagnosed with glaucoma and begins to lose his eyesight. Just as the film settles into a particular time frame, it flashes back to two years earlier, and then to Deadwood in 1878, a town that one character likens to “something out of the Bible—the part right before God gets angry.” (Hill would go on to direct some of the HBO series Deadwood several years later).

Hurt gets the Patric role in this Hill film, with his character recommending forgiveness as a solution to a simmering quarrel that takes up the film’s second half. His suggestion is met with a punch in the face. Bill meets his Maker, and Charley concludes, “Like a city in the Old Testament, Deadwood had become a city of prophecy and visions.” The credits roll as Leaning on the Everlasting Arms plays once more.

Eleven years later, Hill’s AMC miniseries Broken Trail told the story of two men who, on a cattle drive, rescue several Asian women being sold into prostitution by a loathsome businessman. Robert Duvall stars as Prentice, much more memorable here than in his Geronimo turn, but the miniseries is most notable for a strong performance from Thomas Haden Church as Tom. Broken Trail, a Western, is about the code men of that era lived by, and the effect of their choices on their personal happiness. Money and profit—not sex and feminine charms—are the enemy. “Never use money to measure wealth,” Prentice instructs Tom, who has learned the hard way that people aren’t commodities. The Asian women suffer rape and humiliation. “I entered the 18th hell long ago,” one victim says, devastated at her new status as a nonvirgin. Prentice, in an effort to save the despairing woman, implores Tom, “If you have any pull with the Almighty, you might want to speak up.” He sums up the lessons learned in saving the women as something that “just happened.” There’s a dignity in his remarks, but his chivalry leaves him lonely. Human and spiritual companionship appear alien to him, but that doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing when it comes to matters of the law. The heart and spirit are another matter.

I don’t know Hill’s religious convictions, but I appreciate the way he has chosen projects in recent years that include the issue of religious identity. Contra Hill’s quote atop this entry, I’d like more explanation of his characters’ faith, rather than strict observation, if only because the few moments where his characters have discussed their faith have proven to be more memorable than the rest of what they have to say.

Sarris 101: A Film Critic’s Politics

August 13, 2009
The title of this post is, perhaps, more ambitious than its content permits. Andrew Sarris’ career can’t be encapsulated in a few hundred words, and even if it could be, I’m not the guy to do so. I’m at the front end of “Sarris 101”—first day of class, one lesson in.

Back on July 12, Michael Powell wrote a nice tribute piece to Sarris’ longevity, and provided a well-timed primer for those of us who have wondered where to start when it comes to Sarris’ writings and thoughts. “A Survivor of Film Criticism’s Heroic Age” includes the perspective of Sarris himself on his career, and his career-defining battles, chiefly with Pauline Kael. “We all said some stupid things, but film seemed to matter so much,” he says. It still does, but as Sarris says, the battles reached a fever pitch back in the 1960s. The article provides more details.

Sarris and Lopate, marked with sticky notes

Sarris and Lopate, marked with sticky notes

It’s worth noting that American film criticism didn’t, of course, start with Sarris. That’s why I’m delving into Phillip Lopate’s wonderful collection, “American Film Critics: From the Silents Until Now,” while simultaneously venturing into Sarris’ “The American Cinema.” I picked up both books from the library, and marked them as I read (see picture), but I’ve subsequently ordered my own copy of “The American Cinema.” The Lopate collection is a keeper, too, once I can scrape the funds together (and other priorities aren’t pressing—although they always do press).

Those marked pages in the pictured Sarris book highlight multiple passages that surprised me in the early going of “The American Cinema.” Several times, Sarris refers, derisively, to “the Left.” I’d always figured Sarris for a left-of-center type; his New York Observer reviews in recent years have included sometimes morose, resigned statements about the effects of the George W. Bush presidency. Therefore, I had assumed Sarris, like most every other film critic I’ve heard express their political views, was no Republican.

So what was I to make of Sarris when he writes, in his chapter on John Ford: “The Left has always been puritanical, but never more so than in thirties when Hollywood’s boy-girl theology threatened to paralyze the class struggle.”

Or later, when he writes, “Ford can never become fashionable again for the rigid ideological critics of the Left.”

Or later still, In his chapter on D.W. Griffith, where Sarris writes about how D.W. Griffith is treated as an anachronism by “the liberal, technological, or Marxist historians who have embraced a theory of Progress in contradistinction to all other arts.”

I found Sarris’ comments unexpected in their general agreement with what might be today’s “conservative” view of Ford and Griffith. I imagine conservatives would nod their heads as Sarris attacks “the Left.” But I imagined Sarris would be mortified to hear me say as much. How had these definitions changed since Sarris wrote?

I guessed that at the time Sarris wrote “The American Cinema” (published in 1969, a year before I was born), there may have been intramural battles among those who were left of center, and that Sarris was therefore engaging in a debate among those who were on his side of the political aisle. Similar to the skepticism with which self-labeled “progressives” viewed other, DLC-type Democrats during the Clinton/Obama primary battles, maybe Sarris had a bone to pick with people to his left.

Or maybe, just maybe, he was a Republican.

Such a label is no scandal to me. I consider myself right-of-center—something that has put distance between me and other film lovers. But more on my politics in a future post.

I put the question about Sarris to two men whose insight into Sarris far exceeds my own: Stephen Prince, film professor at Virginia Tech (my alma mater) and author of several books on film; and Gerald Peary, director of “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism.”

And then I sent the question to Sarris himself. It was a long shot.

He got back to me through Molly Haskell, his wife and fellow film critic. Read on for the details.

First, here’s Prince, who didn’t mince words in laying out the playing field, and Sarris’ place on it. “To a large extent, Sarris is setting up straw figures (that he calls ‘The Left’) so he can knock them down,” Prince told me. ”He’d have three points of reference when writing in the late’60s and 1970s—the old American left of the 1930s (New Dealers, anti-fascists, trade unionists, communists), the New Left that coalesced around Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and the intellectual left as embodied in ’70s-era film theory/criticism and select filmmakers like Godard. Seeing himself as not an ideologue, Sarris disassociates himself from all these by taking the critical positions in the remarks you excerpted. I think he comes off sounding rather silly.”

Peary, whose film highlights the Sarris/Kael spats of several decades ago, referenced Sarris’ political philosophy as expounded in “For the Love of Movies.”

“There’s a little bit in my film in which Sarris explains how he and Kael were both ‘centrists’ politically,” Peary told me. “Sarris came from a working-class Greek family in Queens, and, coming into the city, he became a moderate liberal, quite a stretch from his background. But, in his view, the Village Voice in the late ’60s was filled with rich, spoiled, bratty, trust-fund babies who considered themselves holier-than-thou radicals and looked down on his views. And Molly Haskell was seen by some as a “bourgeois feminist” (that was the term), who didn’t connect middle-class women’s issues with the oppression of blacks, working-class, etc. It was a very incendiary time, and they both were bitter about it, a bit paranoid.”

Peary, who lived through that time, told me he considered himself “a leftish agitator” in those days. “The ‘Left’ of the ’60s was more visionary, cultural revolutionist , sex-drugs-rock’n’roll, far more socialist-anarchist than Communist,” he explained.

Having heard from Prince and Peary, and of Sarris’ own explanation of his background in “For the Love of Movies,” I sent the question to Sarris himself, hoping for confirmation or clarification of his politics. Who better to ask?

Haskell responded for Sarris, who had no access to a computer but communicated his thoughts to his wife. She told me that I was on to something in my distinction between factions among the Left, but that the issue was “complicated.” “He was brought up (parents Greek monarchists) on the right, then moved to the center. Most of the time battling far left critics,” Haskell wrote.

But Sarris “has become more liberal since college,” she wrote. “Best description: a liberal anti-communist.”

She concluded, “The Nouvelle Vague was considered apolitical, or even rght-wing by left critics. Godard considered almost a fascist before he was radicalized.”

There’s obviously much more to the story—more than I can figure out now. But Sarris has left a line of communication open to me, if and when I feel competent enough to follow up with him.

It was a thrill to hear from Sarris himself, as well as from Prince and Peary. I’m honored that they participated in this budding blog, and look forward to building on what they’ve told me as I pursue this project.

The Red Shoes

July 2, 2009

“The Red Shoes represents Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s commitment ot a total cinema at its most impassioned and fully achieved.”—Movie Classics

“They are all dead now. Not just Powell and Pressburger, and J. Arthur Rank, but Walbrook, Marius Goring and Moira Shearer, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina and Robert Helpmann. Hein Heckroth, who did the production design; Brian Easdale, who wrote the music; Sir Thomas Beecham, who conducted it. One person is left (March 2008): Jack Cardiff, who did the color photography.”—David Thomson, “Have You Seen…?”

Jack Cardiff died on April 22, 2009, shortly before the rapturous reception of a restored version of The Red Shoes at the Cannes Film Festival.

The one-two punch of Cardiff’s death and the re-release of a restored The Red Shoes, combined with my two daughters’ (ages 6 and 4) interest in ballet, led me to revisit the film. It was providential.

Criterion's "The Red Shoes" Jacket

Criterion's "The Red Shoes" Jacket

 As if Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterful story of the struggle between competing loves weren’t already near and dear enough to my heart, it now has the added distinction of being the laserdisc title that overcame my hesitancies and started me on this blogging project.

So much has been written about the film, but it’s the color that comes to mind first, always, when I think of The Red Shoes. There’s the word “red” in the title. There’s red all over the laserdisc jacket. But more than either of those, there’s the indelible cinematography of Cardiff, whose images across Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death are integral in those films’ status as masterpieces.

Foldout Jacket Essay

Foldout Jacket Essay

The laserdisc supplements include an audio track by Martin Scorcese, one of Powell’s biggest admirers and the man responsible for the re-release of The Red Shoes, as well as a key player in the earlier Criterion laserdisc releases of the Powell/Pressburger titles. I listened to the track years ago, and hoped to again before blogging. But tonight, my wife looked at me and said, “If you don’t start writing now, it’ll be September and you’ll wonder where the summer went.”

 She’s right, of course. She added that a blogger simply needs to blog—not study, ruminate, meditate and try to come up with a substantial post. “Just write,” she commanded.

Tri-Fold Jacket Image

Tri-Fold Jacket Image

So here it is. There’s so much more to say about The Red Shoes, but nothing more I can add at the moment. This will have to suffice. In the war between my wife and the little man who whispers in my ear, “Don’t rush it. Make it worth reading. It’s for you first, and others second,” my wife has won out, for now.

I’ve been reading some Sarris and Kael, and I’ll be posting about that reading as it goes (see my first post). But already the weeks have gotten away from me. The key thing is to post. Here’s to more frequent updates.

The Sources

June 7, 2009

As I embark on this project, I’ll be drawing heavily on these sources.

Movie Classics (Allan Hunter, ed.), 1995 Laser Video Disc Companion (Douglas Pratt), A History of Narrative Film (David Cook)
Movie Classics (Allan Hunter, ed.), 1995 Laser Video Disc Companion (Douglas Pratt), A History of Narrative Film (David Cook)

These are just a few of the texts I read during my college years, and as I built my laserdisc collection. Notice that they’re not primarily works of film criticism. I have a stack of film-criticism collections on my desk right now, checked out from the library, but many of them cover films from the 1980s forward, and those that dip into earlier films don’t touch on many of the titles I own on laserdisc.

It’s the critical sensibility I’m after. In reading those film-criticism collections, the critic’s voice will become more familiar, and his or her underlying approach will become more apparent.

The three titles pictured here are simply the titles I’ve returned to most often over the years. David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film was formative in my film education, although my Second Edition (a later edition is pictured, for reasons of conveniece; an image of the older edition is harder to locate, and is much less attractive) predates much of the most interesting areas of contemporary global cinema, but it’s invaluable in understanding much of the canon of great films and filmmakers.

Doug Pratt’s passion for laserdiscs made his Laserdisc Newsletter a monthly treat, always devoured within hours of receiving it. His Laser Video Disc Companion compiles most of his published reviews to that time, although some are abbreviated from the original versions that appeared in the newsletter. Again, I’ve pictured the wrong edition. I have the 1995 companion, but could not find the cover image online. (We’ve just purchased a digital camera, but I haven’t used it yet and therefore couldn’t post my own photo of the cover image.)

The suspect entry here is Movie Classics, from the Chambers Encyclopedic Guides. I picked this up in the PBS store at Tyson’s Corner Mall many years ago, almost an afterthought. But its collection of one-page entries covering several important films proved worthy of frequent reference. The editor, Allan Hunter, is not a familiar name to me, but his introduction to this volume sums up its appeal: “The aim of this book is to provide an easy reference for those seeking a sense of the landmarks of world cinema and an instant aide-memoire for all those who have looked back in languor on the memory of a film that moved, informed, delighted or entertained them.”

The Laserdisc Project Post #2: The List

June 2, 2009

Titles for the Laserdisc Project will be culled from the following collection. (The list is scanned in from a print document. Please excuse any typos and extraneous details.)

I’ve placed the titles in bold. For reasons I can no longer comprehend, the Chaplin titles and Looney Tunes collections come at the end of the list.  I’ve added a space between the titles beginning with a new letter. So all of the “A” titles are grouped together, then all the “B”, etc.

It’s surprising to see just how many movies I’ve accumulated over the years — and the growth of this collection halted years ago!

Without further ado:



The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

1989, 126 minutes, PG Director: Terry Gilliam Starring: John Neville, Oliver Reed


1992, 90 minutes, G


Director: Ron Clements, John Musker

Starring (voice): Robin Williams


1984, 158 minutes, PG Director: Milos Forman Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce


1974, 127 minutes


Director: Federico Fellini

American Graffiti

1973, 112 minutes, PG Director: George Lucas Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ronny Howard


1997, 155 minutes, R

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins

Andrei Roublev

1966, 185 minutes,


Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Apocalypse Now

1979, 155 minutes, R

Director: Francis Coppola

Starring: Marion Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen

The Apostle

1997, 134 minutes, PG-13

Director: Robert Duvall

Starring: Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett


1990, 126 minutes, PG

Director: Barry Levinson

Starring: Aidan Quinn, Joan Plowright



1992, 96 minutes, Director: Ron Fricke

Barton Fink

1991. 117 minutes, R

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: John Goodman, John Turturro

Batman Returns

1992. 126 minutes, PG-13

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer

Beauty and the Beast

1946, 92 minutes


Director: Jean Cocteau

The Birds

1963, 119 minutes Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor

Black Narcissus

1947, 101 minutes

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean Simmons

Blade Runner

1982, 117 minutes, R Director: Ridley Scott Starring: Harrison Ford, Scan Young

Blood Simple

1985, 96 minutes, R

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: John Getz, Frances McDormond

Blow Out

1981, 108 minutes, R

Director: Brian DePalma

Starring: John Travolta, Nancy Alien


1954, 108 minutes Director: Vincente Minnelli Starring: Gene Kelly

 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1957, 167 minutes, PG

Director: David Lean

Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness

Brother’s Keeper

1992, 105 minutes Documentaiy

Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson

1976, 123 minutes, PG

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman


Carlito’s Way

1993, 145 minutes, R Director: Brian De Palma Starring: Al Pacino, Sean Penn

Casualties of War

1989, 120 minutes, R Director: Brian De Palma Starring: Michael J. Fox, Sean Penn

Cinema Paradiso

1988, 123 minutes, PG


Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Citizen Kane

1941, 119 minutes

Director: Orson Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles

Cold Comfort Farm

1995, 105 minutes, PG

Director: John Schlesinger

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Rufus Sewell

Cries and Whispers

1972, 91 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman

Crimes and Misdemeanors

1989, 107 minutes, PG-13

Director: Woody Alien

Starring: Woody Alien, Mia Farrow

The Crucible

1996, 123 minutes, PG-13 Director: Nicholas Hytner Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder


Days of Heaven

1978, 95 minutes, PG

Director: Terrence Malick

Starring: Brooke Adams, Richard Gere

The Day the Earth Stood Still

1951, 92 minutes

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Patricia Neal, Michael Rennie

Dazed and Confused

1993, 103 minutes, R

Director: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jason Landon, Wiley Wiggins

Dead Man Walking

1995, 122 minutes, R Director: Tim Robbins Starring: Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon

Dead Presidents

1995, 119 minutes, R Director: The Hughes Brothers Starring: David Keith, Larenz Tate

Denise Calls Up

1995, 80 minutes, PG-13

Director: Hal Salwen

Starring: Tim Daly, Live Schreiber

Dick Tracy

1990, 105 minutes, PG Director: Warren Beatty Starring: Warren Beatty, Madonna

Do the Right Thing

1989, 120 minutes, R

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Spike Lee

Dressed to Kill

1980, 105 minutes, R

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson

Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

1964, 93 minutes

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott

Drums Along the Mohawk

1939, 104 minutes, NR

Director: John Ford

Starring: Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda


The Earrings of Madame de…

1953, 105 minutes French-Italian Director: Max Ophuls

Easter Parade

1948, 103 minutes

Director: Charles Walters

Starring: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland

Empire of the Sun

1987, 153 minutes, PG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich

Escape From New York

1981, 99 minutes, R Director: John Carpenter Starring: Kurt Russell

Everyone Says I Love You

1996, 101 minutes, R Director: Woody Alien Starring: Woody Alien, Julia Roberts



1997, 140 minutes, R

Director: John Woo

Starring: Nicholas Cage, John Travolta

Fairy Tale: A True Story

1997, 99 minutes, PG

Director: Charles Sturridge

Starring: Elizabeth Earl, Florence Hoath

Falling Down

1992, 113 minutes, R

Director: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall


1993, 122 minutes, R Director: Peter Weir Starring: Jeff Bridges

The Fisher King

1991, 137 minutes, R

Director: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams

A Fistful of Dynamite

1971, 154 minutes, R


Director: Sergio Leone

Starring: James Colburn, Rod Steiger

 Fly Away Home

1996, 107 minutes, PG

Director: Carroll Ballard

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Anna Paquin

Fool for Love

1985, 107 minutes, R

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Kim Basinger, Sam Shepard

The Freshman

1990, 102 minutes, PG-13 Director: Andrew Bergman Starring: Marion Brando, Mathew Broderick


The Game

1997, 128 minutes, R

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn

Geronimo: An American Legend

1993, 115 minutes, R

Director: Walter Hill

Starring: Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Jason Patrick

Get on the Bus

1996, 121 minutes, R

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Ossie Davis, Charles S. Dutton


1958, 117 minutes, G

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier

Glengarry Glen Ross

1992, 100 minutes, R Director: James Foley Starring: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino


1991, 122 minutes, R

Director: Edward Zwick

Starring: Mathew Broderick, Denzel Washington

The Golden Age of Television

Days of Wine & Roses, 1958, 78 minutes Marty, 1953, 50 minutes No Time for Sergeants, 1955, 50 minutes Requiem for a Heavyweight, 1956, 73 minutes

 The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

1966, 161 minutes, R Italian-Spanish Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Glint Eastwood


1990, 146 minutes, R

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta

The Gospel According to Saint Mathew

1966, 135 minutes


Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

The Graduate

1969, 105 minutes, R Director: Mike Nichols Starring: Dustin Hoffman

Grand Canyon

1991, 134 minutes, R Director: Lawrence Kasdan Starring: Danny Glover, Kevin Kline

The Grapes of Wrath

1940, 129 minutes Director: John Ford Starring: Heniy Fonda

The Gunfighter

1950, 84 minutes Director: Henry King Starring: Gregory Peck



1992, 126 minutes Hong Kong Director: John Woo Starring: Chow Yun Fat

The Hidden

1987, 96 minutes, R Director: Jack Sholder Starring: Michael Nouri

High Noon

1952, 111 minutes Director: Fred Zinnemann Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly

 The Hudsucker Proxy

1994, 111 minutes, PG

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins


I Know Where I’m Going

1945, 91 minutes

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Wendy Hiller

It’s Always Fair Weather

1950, 102 minutes

Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen

Starring: Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly

It’s a Wonderful Life

1946, 129 minutes

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: Donna Reed, James Stewart



1975, 124 minutes, PG Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Roy Scheider

The Jungle Book

1967, 78 minutes, G


Director: Wolfgang Reitleman


Kansas City

1966, 115 minutes, R

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Miranda Richardson

The Killer

1989, 110 minutes Hong Kong Director: John Woo Starring: Chow Yun Fat

King Kong

1933, 103 minutes Director: Merian C. Cooper Starring: Fay Wray

King of the Hill

1993, 103 minutes, PG-13

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe


Lady and the Tramp

1955, 75 minutes, G


Director: Hamilton Luske

Starring (voice): Peggy Lee

Lawrence of Arabia

1962, 216 minutes

Director: David Lean

Starring: Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole

The Leopard Son

1996, 84 minutes


Director: Hugo Van Lowick

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

1943, 163 minutes

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Deborah Kerr, Roger Livesey

The Lion King

1994, 58 minutes, G


Director: Roger Allers

Starring (voices): Mathew Broderick, James Earl Jones

Little Voice

1998, 96 minutes, R

Director: Mark Herman

Starring: Michael Caine, Jane Horrocks

Little Women

1996, 118 minutes, PG

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Starring: Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon


The Magician

1958, 102 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Max von Sydow

Malcolm X

1992, 201 minutes, R

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: Angela Bassett, Denzel Washington

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

1971, 112 minutes, R

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie

 Meet Me in St. Louis

1944, 113 minutes Director: Vincente Minnelli Starring: Judy Garland

Menace II Society

1993, 97 minutes, R Director: Hughes Brothers Starring: Larenz Tate, Tyrin Turner

Miller’s Crossing

1990, 115 minutes, R

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: Gabriel Byme, Albert Finney

Million Dollar Mermaid

1952, 115 minutes

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Victor Mature, Esther Williams

Mission: Impossible

1996, 110 minutes, PG-13 Director: Brian De Palma Starring: Tom Cruise, John Voight

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

1939, 129 minutes

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart



1995, 191 minutes, R Director: Oliver Stone Starring: Anthony Hopkins


1983, 126 minutes


Director: Andrei Tarkovsky


1946, 101 minutes Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Gary Grant, Ingrid Bergman


Of Mice and Men

1992, 110 minutes, PG-13

Director: Gary Sinise

Starring: John Malkovich, Gaiy Sinise

Once Were Warriors

1994, 103 minutes, R Director: Lee Tamahori Starring: Rena Owen

On the Town

1949, 98 minutes

Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen

Starring: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra

On the Waterfront

1954, 108 minutes

Director: Elia Kazan

Starring: Marion Brando, Karl Maiden



1940, 88 minutes, G


Director: Ben Sharpsteen

Starring (voice): Dickie Jones

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

1970, 125 minutes, PG Director: Billy Wilder Starring: Robert Stephens


1960, 109 minutes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins


Quiet Riot: Bang Thy Head

1986, 26 minutes

Quiz Show

1994, 130 minutes, PG-13

Director: Robert Redford

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow


Raging Bull

1980. 128 minutes, R

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty

Raiders of the Lost Ark

1981. 115 minutes, PG Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Karen Alien, Harrison Ford

Raising Arizona

1987, 92 minutes, PG-13

Director: Joel Coen

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter

Raising Cain

1992, 95 minutes, R

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Lolita Davidovich, John Lithgow


1985, 86 minutes, R

Director: Stuart Gordon

Starring: Bruce Abbott, Jeffrey Combs

Rear Window

1954, 112 minutes Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Grace Kelly, James Stewart

The Red Shoes

1948, 133 minutes

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Marius Goring, Anton Walbrook

Ride the High Country

1962, 94 minutes

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott


The Sacrifice

1986, 145 minutes


Director: Andrei Tarkovsky


1996, 110 minutes, R Director: Wes Craven Starring: Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell

The Searchers

1986, 119 minutes

Director: John Ford

Starring: Jeffrey Hunter, John Wayne


1966, 106 minutes

Director: John Frankenheimer

Starring: Rock Hudson

Secret Honor

1984, 90 minutes Director: Robert Altman Starring: Philip Baker Hall

Seven Samurai

1954, 203 minutes


Director: Akira Kurosawa

The Seventh Seal

1957, 96 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman

 Shadow of a Doubt

1954, 203 minutes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright

She’s So Lovely

1997, 97 minutes, R

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Starring: Scan Penn, Robin Wright Penn

Short Cuts

1993, 189 minutes, R

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Bruce Davison, Andie MacDowell

Show Boat

1929, 118 minutes

Director: Harry Pollard

Starring: Laura La Plante, Joseph Schildkraut

Show Boat

1936, 113 minutes Director: James Whale Starring: Irene Dunne

Show Boat

1951. 107 minutes

Director: George Sidney

Starring: Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel

Singin’ in the Rain

1952. 102 minutes

Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen

Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds

Sling Blade

1996, 134 minutes, R

Director: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam

Starring: Billie Bob Thornton

Smiles of a Summer Night

1955, 55 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman


1995, 112 minutes, R Director: Wayne Wong Starring: William Hurt, Harvey Keitel


1994, 94 minutes, R


Director: Takeshi Kitano

 Spitfire Grill

1996, 116 minutes, PG-13 Director: Lee David Zlotoff Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Alison Elliott


1968, 176 minutes

Director: Robert Wise

Starring: Julie Andrews, Richard Crenna

Strangers on a Train

1951, 101 minutes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Faiiey Granger, Robert Walker

Streets of Fire

1984, 93 minutes, PG

Director: Walter Hill

Starring: Diane Lane, Michael Pare

Substance of Fire

1996. 101 minutes, R

Director: Daniel Sullivan

Starring: Timothy Hutton, Ron Rifkin

The Sweet Hereafter

1997. 110 minutes, R Director: Atom Egoyam Starring: lan Holm, Sarah Policy


The Tales of Hoffman

1951,118 minutes

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Starring: Moria Shearer

The Tender Trap

1955, 111 minutes

Director: Charles Walters

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

1969, 121 minutes, PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Starring: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin

The Thief of Bagdad

1940, 106 minutes Director: Ludwig Berger Starring: Sabu, Conrad Veidt

Thieves Like Us

1974, 123 minutes, R

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall

The Thing

1982, 108 minutes, R Director: John Carpenter Starring: Kurt Russell

The Third Man

1946, 104 minutes

Director: Carol Reed

Starring: Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles

This is Spinal Tap

1984, 82 minutes, R Director: Rob Reiner Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean

Toy Story

1995. 81 minutes, G


Director: John Lasseter

Starring (voices): Tim Alien, Tom Hanks


1996. 94 minutes, R Director: Danny Boyle Starring: Ewan McGregor

The Trial

1962, 118 minutes

Director: Orson Welles

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Orson Wells


The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

1966, 91 minutes


Director: Jacque Demy

The Underneath

1994, 99 minutes, R

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Alison Elliott, Peter Gallagher

The Untouchables

1987, 119 minutes, R

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Scan Connery, Kevin Costner



1932, 73 minutes


Director: Carl Theodore Dreyer

Vanya on 42nd Street

1996, 120 minutes, PG

Director: Louis Malle

Starring: Julianne Moore, Shawn Wallace

Variety Lights

1950, 93 minutes


Director: Federico Fellini


1958, 128 minutes Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Kim Novak, James Stewart

The Virgin Spring

1960, 88 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Max von Sydow

Visions of Light

1993, 90 minutes

Director: Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy, Stuart Samuels


West Side Story

1961, 151 minutes

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Starring: Natalie Wood

When We Were Kings

1996, 92 minutes, PG

Director: Leon Cast

Starring: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

1988, 103 minutes, PG

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd

Wild Bill

1995, 97 minutes, R Director: Walter Hill Starring: Ellen Barkin, Jeff Bridges

The Wild Bunch

1969, 145 minutes, R

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine

Wild Strawberries

1957, 90 minutes


Director: Ingmar Bergman

The Wizard of Oz

1939, 101 minutes Director: Victor Fleming Starring: Judy Garland


1994, 122 minutes, R

Director: Mike Nichols

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfieffer

The Women

1939, 132 minutes

Director: George Cukor

Starring: Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer


You Can’t Take It With You

1938. 127 minutes

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: Jean Arthur, James Stewart

Young Mr. Lincoln

1939. 100 minutes Director: John Ford Starring: Heniy Fonda



1992, 114 minutes Danish-Swedish-French-German Director: Lars von Trier


Charlie Chaplin Films The Chaplin Mutuals

25 minutes each


The Adventurer, Behind the Screen, The Count, The Cure, Easy Street, The Fireman, The Floonvalker, The Immigrant, One A.M., The Pawn Shop, The Rink, The Vagabond

The Circus

1928, 72 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

City Lights

1931, 87 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

A First National Collection: Charlie Chaplin Set

Shoulder Arms, 1918, 45 minutes

Sunnyside, 1919, 34 minutes

A Day’s Pleasure, 1919, 21 minutes

Pay Day, 1922, 26 minutes

The Idle Class, 1921, 25 minutes

The Pilgrim, 1923, 97 minutes

The Gold Rush

1925, 82 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

The Great Dictator

1940 125 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

The Kid

1918, 35 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

A King in New York

1957, 109 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin


1952, 141 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

Modern Times

1936, 103 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin

A Woman of Years

1923, 91 minutes Starring: Charlie Chaplin


Looney Tunes Guffaw & Order: Looney Tunes Fight Crime

99 minutes

Looney Tunes Curtain Calls

92 minutes

Looney Tunes Wince Upon a Time

101 minutes

The Laserdisc Project: Post #1

May 30, 2009

The Laserdisc Project

Welcome to The Laserdisc Project, a blogging experiment designed to sharpen my critical focus on films and filmmakers.

I majored in film studies in college (I received a Bachelor of Arts in 1992), and film watching remains a major hobby and part-time vocation. I contribute freelance movie reviews to Salem Communications-owned, where I was once employed full-time as Arts & Culture editor several years ago. I also have a Master of Arts from a Reformed Theological Seminary and have spent several years trying to integrate my film writing with my religious studies.

The diminishing returns of that approach have led me to rethink my views on film criticism. The result: Rather than throw in the towel on film writing, I’ve decided to double-down and spend an indefinite amount of time revisiting my college notes from film classes, and reading up on different views of film criticism—views that never were made explicit in my earlier studies (which were, I can say with some confidence, auteurist in nature) but which I’ve absorbed for years through continued reading of film reviews and essays, both in print and online. I have no plans to abandon my religious views in my writing — I couldn’t even if I wanted to, and I don’t want to. Indeed, I’ll also be doubling down on my religion reading, thinking through how to incorporate my faith into film analysis. But I expect that, for the most part, my religious views will be implicit in my writing here, and only sometimes explicit, although I can’t say what the breakdown will be.

The questions I’ll be trying to answer are as simple as whether I’m part of the Sarris school or Kael school—or if that particular battle has been overtaken by other distinctions in the school of film criticism. After all, thanks to the Internet, anyone can be exposed to film writing from around the globe—and to films and filmmakers that go beyond the European/American distinctions that informed much of earlier criticism.

What other critical systems might have developed in recent decades? Perhaps the Sarris-Kael debate encompasses Taiwanese cinema, or Iranian cinema, but maybe the availability of more international films and more online film critics has made such a distinction a relic of an earlier age. I won’t know until I investigate this for myself.

I fully expect to make a fool of myself several times along the way, asking questions that have been hashed out and mulled for years, as if they were new—but they will be to me, at least in a way that forces me to think through the answers on my own, rather than nod in agreement anytime I read a pro or con argument for a particular approach, or a review of a film built on a certain critical approach that needs to be considered in that light.

How will I work through these issues? As the title of this post indicates, I’ll be rewatching a collection of movies acquired mostly in the five or six years that followed the completion of my undergraduate studies. I own a few hundred titles on a now obsolete format—laserdisc. Those films sit on my shelf, unwatched for years, although I have a working laserdisc player. What better way to make use of my collection than to revisit these titles in light of my reading and thinking about film criticism, measuring my current reactions to these titles against my earlier impressions of these films, and thinking through how my evolving views of these films affect, or have been affected by, my evolving views of film criticism?

The Laserdisc Project also gives me the impetus to dive into more regular blogging. I’m late to the blogging party—I have an infrequently updated blog at Crosswalk—and realize that social media already has moved on to Facebook and Twitter. But I’ll gladly stay a step or two behind the online revolution if it allows me the time to think about concepts and evaluate content without having to mull the latest methods to share such musings. Baby steps. That’s how I’ll progress.

And after all, what kind of technological prowess would you expect from someone starting a blogging project centered on his laserdisc collection?

I invite all readers to join me on my journey. Comments are open, although friends who blog have warned me that they had to abandon open comments as a way to prevent spam and flame wars. I may have to do the same.

For now, that’s the least of my concerns. I’d like to leave the comments open to film lovers to share their own journeys. How has your own critical engagement with films evolved over the years, and where are you today in terms of the different schools of film criticism? I have no doubt that I’ll learn more from people who follow this blog than I will from the books and resources I consult in my analysis of the laserdisc titles I watch.

About those sources: I’ll be pulling old textbooks off the shelf along with my old film-class notes, and I’ll be consulting numerous film-studies books and omnibus film-criticism collections available from my local library. (Several titles are sitting on my bedside table as I compose this post.) I hope to share informative excerpts from those writings along the way.

So, that’s the plan. As the project unfolds, I’ll try to incorporate more photos (we have a newly purchased digital camera) and make the blog more visually appealing. My apologies in advance for the rudimentary look of this site. It can only improve. But as much as I want to attract readers, I consider this blog a personal project first—a place to park my changing thoughts—and a graphically pleasing destination for visitors much farther down the list. If I were more savvy with computers and technology, I’m sure that equation would be different.

One more thing about posting frequency. I’d like to watch a laserdisc a week, but I won’t post on each title until I’ve taken time to absorb what I’ve seen, and read up on the film in question. I’ll try to be deliberate about this, but my time is limited to an hour or so a few evenings a week. Between preview screenings of films I’m reviewing for Crosswalk and family life here at home (I’m the very happy father of four children ages 6 and under), updates to this blog probably won’t happen as often as I’d like.

I realize infrequent updates are the kiss of death for blogs, but please don’t write me off. I’ll try to keep the posts coming, even when, as has so often been the case with my film reviews, the content isn’t close to what I hope it could be. But like my parents always told me, practice makes perfect. This blogging project is all practice—don’t expect perfection. If you’ll agree to those terms, I’ll do my best to feed the blog with posts worthy of the time you take to read them.

 Thanks for stopping by.