Tag: Studio

Day 998: Crossing Abbey Road

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This Friday marks the 45th anniversary of what I believe to be the greatest album of all time.

Before you flick lint in my beer or pelt me with wads of Big League Chew for not designating this title to Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates of Dawn or Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay, allow me to point out that there are many albums that are flawless – sometimes in spite of a number of actual flaws. Nary a wayward note blemishes Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, and Paul Simon’s Graceland is among the few utterly perfect slabs of 1980’s vinyl. For me, “the greatest” combines not only artistic and technical brilliance, but the subjective distinction of having served as the soundtrack to many of the most fantastic moments of my life. Your results may (and probably do) vary.

The story of Abbey Road is one of pure, primal mirth, flecked with auburn specks of encroaching melancholy. It is the last glorious and romantic trip to Maui for an otherwise doomed marriage. It marks the greatest rock band in history (an assertion I’ll stand by as wholly factual) producing one final brushstroke upon their legacy before heading their separate ways.

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This is not a happy group.

In January of 1969, the Beatles were moving in four different directions, and had been for over a year. Their plan was to return to the studio, record a back-to-their-roots album, perform their first concert since the summer of 1966 (the Pyramids in Egypt were a proposed locale, as was a barge adrift in the Atlantic), and film it all for posterity. This attempt to reconnect resulted in a cavalcade of arguments, the grandiose concert reduced to a noon-hour gig on the roof, and the temporary quitting of George Harrison. Read more…

Day 914: Retching At The Wretched – Worst Films Part 7

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There are certain cinephiles – and I’m proud to call myself one of them – who take pleasure in the savory low-hanging fruit known as bad movies. This is my seventh (and most likely final) installment in my Worst Movies series, and I believe it to be an opportune moment to discuss the semantic differences between a bad movie and a shitty movie. A bad movie invites an unintentioned hilarity. A bad movie accidentally reveals the fishing line holding up the rocket ship, spills an unlikely twelve gallons of blood from a victim’s abdomen or demonstrates an extraordinary aptitude for stilted, unnatural dialogue.

A shitty movie either sets out to be a shitty movie from the start, or else it has no pretentions whatsoever. Making a bad movie on purpose will inevitably result in a shitty movie. Take a gander at the insufferable (but sincere) madness of Manos: The Hands of Fate, an exercise in bungled horror, then sit through last year’s Sharknado. Yes, the latter is bad. But it knows it’s bad.

Sharknado, and indeed the bulk of films released by The Asylum, a film studio that specializes in ‘mockbusters’ and monster movies that pay an almost Mystery Science Theater-esque tribute to the monster flicks of the 50s and 60s, are shitty movies. It’s hard to find enjoyment in sitting with friends and making derisive jokes about these flicks when the creators, cast and crew of the films have probably already made the same jokes.

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The mockbusters genre began with movies that would almost certainly fit more snugly into the ‘bad’ category than the ‘shitty’ one. Unlike the modern direct-to-cable excursions into over-the-topsville, mockbusters were legitimate attempts to ride someone else’s box office coattails into a modest profit. When The Creature From The Black Lagoon became the go-to monster epic of 1954, a couple of contract employees at Universal – one of whom was Jack Kevan, the guy who had designed the aforementioned Creature’s costume – decided to produce a knock-off called The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Read more…

Day 908: It’s Hee-ere… This Article About Poltergeist

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Despite being physically nothing more than distortions of light and shadow on a few reels of tightly-wound celluloid, a movie can possess the power to frighten free the literal turds from viewers’ backsides. I was eleven or twelve when I first saw Poltergeist, and I remember clearly the electric squirms it blasted through my vertebrae.

I’ve since grown to find I’m more a fan of comedies, documentaries and films involving talking badgers than horror flicks, mostly because I find the tropes of the horror genre to be repetitive. Who dies, who lives – that’s the central question a typical slasher pic makes its audience ask, or in the case of the torture-porn subgenre (the Saw movies and their ilk), how grotesque can the human imagination become when there’s a multimillion-dollar budget at stake?

But some horror films are truly glorious in their ability to capture the human psyche and scare the ever-lovin’ bejeebus out of it. The Exorcist is one; The Ring is (for me) another. And I’ll drop Poltergeist into that column too, despite the fact that I can still only see the film through my eleven (or twelve)-year-old eyes. But there was a lot more to the weirdness of the movie than what we saw on the screen, which is why today it gets a kilograph of its own.

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For starters, we can’t even say for certain who directed this thing. Tobe Hooper (in the middle) gets the official credit, and if you ask him, he’ll swear it’s his picture. The guy had made his bones in the horror game, with the gore-fest Texas Chainsaw Massacre under his belt, as well as 1981’s The Funhouse. But if you compare the shot composition, the framing and the overall aesthetic of Poltergeist to those films, it just seems… different somehow. Read more…

Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

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If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

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Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout. Read more…

Day 873: The Movie-Money Juggling Game

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A spoiler for today’s article: it may shatter your innocence, lay waste to your humbling yet lavish optimism regarding the spirit of humanity, and rend into tatters your perceptions of Hollywood studio executives as upstanding, honest and forthright folk. If this won’t be a problem for you, read on.

The movie business is all about money, as evidenced by the fact that any film that coughs up some modest box office returns seems to get a sequel, or by the fact that Tyler Perry and Martin Scorcese technically have the same job. But beneath the big sparkly numbers earned by flicks like Avatar and Titanic lies an even more impressive act of CGI than those frolicking blue cats – they call it Hollywood Accounting.

Hollywood Accounting has nothing to do with the studios scamming the government to avoid paying taxes. I’m sure like any massive business they employ accountants to help them with that cause too, but specifically Hollywood Accounting is the insider method by which the movie studios can pilfer money from the very artists who concoct their revenue. It’s an ugly side of show business, but one that every aspiring actor, writer and director should be aware of.

To illustrate, let’s talk about this guy:

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That’s Art Buchwald, whom you might remember from his Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated Washington Post column, or, if you’re under 50 you might not. He was a brilliant wordsmith though, which is why it was strange that Paramount Studios was unable to transform his treatment into a full-blown feature. His concept – entitled “King For A Day” at this point – was about an arrogant and wealthy African potentate’s visit to the United States, ensuing in wacky hijinks and goofy hilarity. It would have been a perfect fit for Eddie Murphy, who was under contract with Paramount at the time. Read more…

Day 740: You Bring The Gags, Charley Will Bring The Laughs

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It was once so commonplace, so natural, so subconsciously integral to the very essence of comedy that we hardly noticed it. The laugh track came with the medium; it was swept in as part of the original package, like the wheels on the first car or the door on the first refrigerator. It was the oily black fingerprint of television comedy, first by tradition then by mandate. If you didn’t hear laughs, you weren’t meant to laugh. Bing Crosby’s team brought the technology to radio in the 40’s when they had to jazz up the flaccid responses to some flat jokes. It seeped into  the realm of TV with ease.

In the early 1990’s, the state of small-screen comedy began to transform, and with this came a subtle erosion of the dominance of the laugh track. Those shows with the broadest base appeal – by which I mean the ratings hogs that comedy connoisseurs and critics tend to loathe… yes, Two And A Half Men, I’m talking about you – still make use of laughter prompts. But for the most part, as an audience we’ve decided we don’t need them.

Good for us, not so much for the fleet of companies that made their mint by plopping requisite ha-has into prime time programming over the past half-century. Except there is no fleet. Most of the laughter beamed into our homes all those years ago came from the fingertips of one man.

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That’s Charley Douglass, who was a sound engineer in the nascent days of television at CBS. Back then, many comedies were broadcast live from the stage to the screen. Those that weren’t live were shot with a single camera, with scenes re-staged several times to capture different angles. Studio audiences were used, but they couldn’t be counted upon to deliver the chortles when the writers wanted them to, particularly on the third or fourth take. Charley came up with a process to ‘sweeten’ the laughter. It was brilliant and effective, and when Charley was ready to leave CBS in 1953, the network claimed it was their intellectual property. Read more…

Day 618: Immaculate Conceptions, Part 2 – The Independents

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In an effort to make this weekend’s topic of automobiles more relatable to a lifelong non-car-guy like myself, I’m going to draw a simplistic parallel to the world of movies. The majority of what the big auto-makers put out are akin to the majority of big-studio movies that populate our theatres. The boring sedan is the formula rom-com, the minivan is a cliché-ridden kids’ movie, the SUV is your typical political thriller, and the jacked-up pickup truck is the brawn-heavy, brains-light action flick. Oh and your Hummer? That’s a soulless Michael Bay CGI piece of crap.

But concept cars are the one-off studio epiphanies – the brilliant films unlike anything that had come before. These are the Inceptions, the Dr. Strangeloves of the auto world. The difference being that we can all experience those movies, while concept cars are out of reach to everyone, apart from inviting puddles of drool at auto shows. Hey, even a half-decent metaphor can only be stretched so far.

But I’m not interested in the big-studio one-offs; I wrote about those yesterday. A movie fan has to keep one eye on the independents, just as a car-lover should keep track of what folks outside the corporate sphere are cooking up. Today I’m throwing the spotlight on those innovative forward-thinkers who don’t have corporate backing fuelling their fingers.

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The Rinspeed Presto, which is really fun to say, emerged from Switzerland in 2002. With the push of a button, this two-seater stretches its innards (and its outards) and becomes a four-seater. It boots around like a roadster, but as with most concept vehicles from this century, the focus is on fuel efficiency. The Presto makes the most of this with an unusual 60/40 diesel / natural gas power system. Read more…

Day 583: The Monarch Of Hollywood

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In the vast history of advertising, very few brainchildren have endured. Nobody cuddles with a stuffed Energizer Bunny anymore, and I’d be surprised if there’s a soul remaining who still gets mileage from their California Raisins album. And for an advertising campaign to become a protected national landmark, that almost never happens.

The Hollywood Sign is perhaps iconic because it represents the place where people have pursued their dreams and chased their ambition, before landing in a defeated clump in some guy’s one-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando valley, shooting a soft-core porn that will never see the light of Cinemax. Hollywood is where the beautiful people drink their beautiful drinks at their beautiful parties, celebrating the fact that they spend all their days looking glamorous and glorious beneath the perpetual California sun.

And even though very little actual production takes place in Hollywood, and even though most movie stars prefer the quieter seclusion of Beverly Hills or Bel Air, that sign still tells the whole story in nine letters.

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Developer H.J. Whitley had made use of a bold sign to advertise his Whitley Heights development between Highland and Vine. His buddy, Harry Chandler, who ran the L.A. Times and was to Los Angeles real estate what Mr. Potter was to Bedford Falls, took Whitley’s suggestion to do the same for his new Hollywoodland development. Hollywoodland was to be a snazzy but affordable neighborhood in the hills just north of Chinatown. The sign was to be big, bold, and most of all, temporary. Read more…

Day 408: A Half-Century of Beatles Gold

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First off, I’d like to apologize in advance to all members of the baby boomer generation. This article may assist in making you feel old. That said, you’re going to have to get used to the fact that every significant cultural accomplishment of the 1960’s is going to turn 50 soon, and that begins today.

When the Beatles woke up in the morning of February 11, 1963, they had two British singles under their belt: “Love Me Do”, which had barely cracked the top 20, and “Please Please Me”, which was threatening to do the same. They reported to EMI Studios on Abbey Road around 10:00am, with a plan to devote the next thirteen hours to recording the entirety of their first album. It was the 60’s. They had too much to conquer; there was no time to waste.

They even wore suits, but no jackets. They were in a hurry.

They even wore suits, but no jackets. They were in a hurry.

British pop albums traditionally came bundled with 14 songs, because songs were generally less than three minutes long, and prog-rock/jam-band/one-song-a-side albums hadn’t been invented yet. The Beatles had two A-sides and two B-sides ready, but ten vacancies that needed to be filled. Read more…