Sunday, October 14, 2018

Legacy of the Living Dead

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the themes and legacy of George A. Romero's landmark zombie films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). What follows is one of a series of commentaries featured on the program, with this one looking back at the legacy of Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels and imitators.

Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential films in the horror genre and in American cinema. George Romero and company did not invent the zombie. These creatures had featured in movies before 1968 such as White Zombie and Voodoo Island. But in most of those films the zombies were mindless slaves controlled by a villain. Night of the Living Dead set the zombies loose and the movie created the template for a whole genre of films.

Romero would continue to follow up Night of the Living Dead throughout his career, starting with Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and then Day of the Dead in 1985. He returned to the genre in 2004 with Land of the Dead and followed it with Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Romero’s later films failed to recapture the impact of his earlier work but Day of the Dead has enjoyed a reappraisal in recent years.

Night of the Living Dead producers John A. Russo and Russell Streiner also continued to work in the zombie genre, writing the story for 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. Directed by Dan O’Bannon, this film was a comic take on the zombie genre and has its own devoted fan following. Return of the Living Dead inspired four sequels.

John Russo also spearheaded one of the most unusual artifacts in the Living Dead pantheon. To coincide with Night of the Living Dead’s thirtieth anniversary, Russo oversaw a special edition of the film that included fifteen minutes of newly shot footage and a new music score. This version was—rightly—disparaged by the fans and has all but disappeared.

Night of the Living Dead was lauded for its black and white cinematography but the movie has had several colorized editions and a 3-D conversion. The movie has also been remade twice, both in color. The 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead was produced by George Romero and directed by Romero’s frequent special effects collaborator Tom Savini. It was a noble effort that both revisited and updated the material. A 3D remake of Night of the Living Dead starring Sid Haig was released in 2006.

Night of the Living Dead inspired a couple of animated projects as well. 2009’s Night of the Living Dead: Re-Animated is a mixed media remake that uses the audio from the 1968 film and recreates the visuals through various styles of animation. 2015’s Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn was a sort-of remake of the original story told through computer animation and featuring the voice talents of Tony Todd and Bill Moseley.

Aside from direct sequels, remakes, and spin-offs, Night of the Living Dead inspired a whole genre of zombie films whose entries are too numerous to count. Films such as the Resident Evil series, [REC], Night of the Creeps, Zombie, World War Z, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and the television show The Walking Dead all trace back to the 1968 film. The influence isn’t limited to the shuffling, undead cannibals. Night of the Living Dead created a boilerplate that filmmakers have followed for the past fifty years and most zombie films adhere to the siege formula originated in the 1968 movie. Night of the Living Dead also established a political framework and a set of socio-economic themes that have formed a baseline for most of the zombie films of the past half-a-century.

There are some signs that the zombie genre might finally move beyond Night of the Living Dead. The past few years have seen the release of some innovative titles. The Girl with All the Gifts and ParaNorman and Cargo and It Stains the Sands Red made a deliberate effort to move the zombie genre into new and interesting places. But whatever the future of this genre might be, the zombie film is inexorably tied to the efforts of  George A. Romero and his crew and the little horror movie they made in between beer commercials in rural Pennsylvania.

For more on Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, click here

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Haunted House Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month-long Halloween theme with a look at haunted house pictures. What follows are the movies discussed on today’s show as well as some additional titles.

The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror was based on the supposedly true story of a haunting experienced by the Lutz family in their Long Island home. The facts in the case have been a matter of dispute but that controversy only added to the mystery of the Amityville haunting. The 1979 movie was enormously successful and inspired a series of sequels although the follow ups had little to do with the original material. A remake of The Amityville Horror was released in 2005.

The Beyond (1983)
Lucio Fulci is one of the legendary directors in the horror genre. His movies were mostly known for their gore but he mounted ambitious productions on small budgets. Many of Fulci’s fans consider 1983’s The Beyond (also known as The Seven Doors of Death) to be the director’s masterpiece. The movie concerns a hotel constructed over a gateway to hell. At the time of its release, The Beyond was subject to censorship and like most of Fulci’s films it was critically derided but it has since achieved a modest reputation as a work of surrealist horror.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
The Cabin in the Woods was a high concept metafiction about the clichés and subgenres of horror. It was a witty and generally smart picture that was also a bit cynical about the attraction of horror for the audience. 

The Changeling (1980)
A man mourning the death of his wife and child rents an isolated mansion and is accosted by the spirit of a murdered child. Martin Scorsese named The Changeling one of his favorite horror films.

The Devil’s Candy (2017)
The Devil’s Candy is an exceptional example of domestic horror. The family relationships are the strongest element in the film. The father and daughter, played by Ethan Embry and Kiara Glasco, share a love of heavy metal music and the soundtrack includes songs by Pantera and Metallica. This complements the film’s visual style which channels the demonic imagery of heavy metal album cover art. 

Hellraiser (1987)
The Hellraiser franchise is now synonymous with the character of Pinhead but the original movie is really a haunted house picture. A married couple move into the husband’s childhood home but the reanimated corpse of the husband’s older brother is living in the attic and he seduces the wife into bringing him victims so that he can regenerate the rest of his body. Hellraiser was one of the best horror pictures of the 1980s and it’s one of the best debut features by a director in the genre.

House (1986)
A troubled novelist moves into the home of his recently deceased aunt in order to complete his next book. The movie isn’t a horror comedy but some of the visuals are a bit silly in a way that makes the movie campy fun. Interestingly, House was produced by Sean Cunningham, director of Friday the 13th, directed by Steve Miner, who helmed Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3, and features a music score by Harry Manfredini, who scored Fridays 1 – 6.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price, The House on Haunted Hill tells the story of a millionaire who offers ten thousand dollars to five people who agree to be locked in a spooky house overnight.

Monster House (2006)
Monster House is a good example of a family movie that respects the intelligence of both kids and their parents. This is an animated film but it gets pretty intense and is thematically heavy while managing to be appropriate for the family audience.

The Orphanage (2007)
A couple renovates an orphanage into a home for handicapped children and their son plays with imaginary friends who might be ghosts. The Orphanage is a thoughtful haunted house picture. It may not deliver the shocks of a mainstream horror film but it does tap into something that is mysterious about childhood. The Orphanage was directed by J.A. Bayona who also directed this year’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

The Others (2001)
Written and directed by Alejandro Amenábar, The Others is a very effective haunted house movie. The story concerns a mother and her two children who have an allergic reaction to sunlight. The mother maintains strict control over the household but her grip is disrupted by supernatural phenomena.

The People Under the Stairs (1991)
In the late 1980s and early 90s, Wes Craven wrote and directed a series of horror films for Universal Pictures. Among them was 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. The movie is fundamentally a haunted house picture but not in a supernatural sense. The story involved a young boy who breaks into his landlord’s house and discovers a terrible secret hidden in the walls. It’s one of Craven’s wildest and most entertaining pictures.

The Shining (1980)
Based on the book by Stephen King, The Shining has been adapted twice. The more popular version is the 1980 motion picture directed by Stanley Kubrick. This film starred Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a married couple who spend the winter as caretakers of an isolated hotel and the husband gradually goes insane. King was unhappy with Kubrick’s film, as it diverged greatly from the novel, and he produced a made-for-television remake that aired on ABC in 1997.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was a very intense and quite successful haunted house picture in which a family’s youngest daughter is abducted by ghosts. Released in 1982, the movie was rated PG but it is more intense than that rating suggests. Poltergeist inspired two sequels and a television series. A remake of the original film was released in 2015.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2018

It’s October and that means it is time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 7: Haunted House Movies
Sounds of Cinema will kick off October with a look at haunted house movies including The Beyond, The Amityville Horror, and The Devil’s Candy. The show will also feature reviews of The House with a Clock in its Walls and Hell Fest.

October 14: Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead and the fortieth anniversary of its sequel Dawn of the Dead. This show will take a look back at the two films and how their legacy continues to shape horror and the zombie genre.

October 21: Literary Horror Films
2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the novel Frankenstein. This episode of Sounds of Cinema will take a look at some of the film adaptions of Mary Shelley’s book as well as other esteemed horror literature adapted to the silver screen. Listeners of 89.7 KMSU FM will hear the pledge drive edition of Sounds of Cinema.

October 28: Halloween Series Retrospective
This episode will survey the Halloween series from John Carpenter’s 1978 classic through its many sequels and reboots. The show will also include a review of the newest installment in the series.

October 30: Halloween Special
The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music. The show is anticipated to air the evening of Tuesday, October 30th. Exact air times are yet to be determined.

Sounds of Cinema’s regular broadcast can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:
  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Look at Recession Cinema

This September marks the tenth anniversary of the 2008 economic crisis that begat the Great Recession. According to the Brookings Institute, this event was the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that job losses were unprecedented. The causes of the 2008 collapse are somewhat complicated but the crisis was rooted in the home mortgage market. Banks loaned money to customers who could not afford to pay it back and then repackaged those home loans as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that financed other parts of the economy like pensions and retirement savings. When enough home owners defaulted on their mortgages, the whole system came crashing down, taking some of the largest investment banks in the world with it and destroying American wealth. Forbes reports that the median family net worth dropped 40% between 2007 and 2010 with the brunt of the loss felt by the middle class. 

In the ten years since the start of the Great Recession, filmmakers responded with stories about economics, power, and capitalism. What follows is a brief look at some of the notable titles in the genre I call recession cinema.

Documentary Films
Documentary filmmakers were the primary cinematic responders to the economic crisis. The recession was decades in the making, with its origins reaching back to the Reagan and Clinton administrations, but for most people—including the political and economic elite and the journalists covering Wall Street—the events of 2008 seemed to come out of nowhere. The financial press corps in particular failed to understand and report what was happening until it was too late. In the aftermath, documentary filmmakers stepped up to explain the crisis and untangle a convoluted web of confusing financial jargon and political corruption.

One of the first recession documentaries was I.O.U.S.A. This film exposed the extent to which the American economy was propped up on unsustainable credit and it was released in August 2008, about a month before the economic collapse metastasized into a national and global crisis.

Filmmaker Michael Moore also got in on recession cinema with 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story. Like a lot of Moore’s movies it was entertaining and rabblerousing but it was also a little unfocused. In fact, Capitalism: A Love Story might capture Moore’s best and worst tendencies more severely than any of his other films. But Capitalism: A Love Story is notable for the extent to which it was in touch with the struggles of everyday Americans. Very few filmmakers put the stories of middle and working class people on the screen but Moore’s movie did that in some heartbreaking sequences of people being evicted from their homes. At the time of its release, Moore teased that Capitalism: A Love Story might be his final movie but he has continued to produce and direct since then, most recently this year’s Fahrenheit 11/9.

Also notable among recession documentaries is The Queen of Versailles. Lauren Greenfield’s film documents the lives of David and Jackie Siegel of Westgate Resorts who owned one of the most elaborate homes in the United States. The filmmakers captured the way their lavish lifestyle hit the skids during the recession. But the portrait of the Siegels was not flattering and David Siegel filed a defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers but ultimately lost.

Any survey of recession cinema must include Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job. In less than two hours this film broke down exactly what happened and explained it in a way that was accessible to general audiences but also put the crisis in a larger context. Inside Job explained the relationships between Wall Street bankers, Washington bureaucrats, private and government regulators, and celebrity intelligentsia who unwittingly conspired to create an economic house of cards. Inside Job remains the definitive documentary about the 2008 crash and it is mandatory viewing for anyone trying to grasp what happened.

To the extent that they could, documentary filmmakers filled in a gap left by the popular press. There can be no denying that business journalists missed the biggest financial story of the last thirty years. But documentary features, which can take years to make, are no substitute for everyday coverage provided by regular publications. Cinema simply cannot get into the details the way that a book or a series of exposés can. And documentaries are also easier for the public to ignore than a consistent stream of news from local and national outlets. That’s especially true in a polarized media environment where the documentary genre has become increasingly politicized.

Feature Films
The economic collapse of 2008 filtered through different filmmaking genres and made an impression on movies that might not otherwise have taken notice of economics. For instance, Bridesmaids is an unusual romantic comedy precisely because the economic instability of the lead character is such an important part of the story. A lot of romantic comedies are about wealthy and glamorous people or proletariats who become bourgeois by falling in love with a wealthy person. Although it doesn’t dwell on the matter, economic anxiety is a key part of Bridesmaids and shapes the internal and external conflict of the main character.

Also notable was The Dark Knight Rises. Economic resentment underlines the way in which supervillain Bane recruits an army of disillusioned Gotham citizens to turn the city into a miniature failed state. It was surprising to see such an overt political theme in a studio tentpole film and The Dark Knight Rises remains unique in that respect. None of the superhero films since have taken on such ideas.

Filmmaker Uwe Boll made a point of exploiting recession anxiety. The filmmaker, who is generally derided but has nevertheless carved a niche for himself in the industry, directed a number of revenge fantasies in which a heavily armed assailant opens fire on the political and economic ruling class. Among these was 2013’s Assault on Wall Street which is exactly what it sounds like.

One of the most interesting titles in recession cinema, and one that has been underappreciated, was Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 picture The Girlfriend Experience. The film is about a high class escort, played by Sasha Grey, who caters to wealthy Wall Street clients. The film is cerebral but it also makes a pointed analogy between this woman’s occupation and what her clients do for a living. More generally, The Girlfriend Experience explores the commoditization of our personhood, a theme Soderbergh would revisit in his Magic Mike movies. The Girlfriend Experience has since been adapted into a television series.

Aside from slipping into the subtext of a lot of features, the recession also provided filmmakers with narratives about people directly affected by the collapse. A few productions attempted to tell stories about average folks starting over, such as Larry Crowne and Everything Must Go, but these films weren’t very good. Much more popular and more successful were dramas about people working in the banking industry. Margin Call is among the most impressive of these. The film dramatizes a twenty-four hour period in which the staff of an investment bank realizes their firm is on the brink of collapse. Margin Call does the job of drama with the characters working through complex moral and ethical problems. It is also an incisive portrait of cutthroat capitalist survival and the final monologue delivered by Jeremy Irons puts the collapse in a larger historical context.

Based on the nonfiction book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the HBO feature Too Big to Fail dramatizes the 2008 financial collapse by focusing on Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his inner circle as they attempt to stave off an economic collapse while negotiating with the United States Congress and the major investment banks. Too Big to Fail neatly summarizes what happened in the fall of 2008  and how the response to the crisis was compromised by free market ideologies and the power structure of Washington and Wall Street.

Similar to Margin Call and Too Big to Fail but with a very different tone was 2015’s The Big Short. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short dramatized the true story of investors who identified the mortgage bubble for what it was and positioned themselves to make a great deal of money when the bubble burst. The Big Short was very funny except when it wasn’t and the film subversively questioned the ways we measure success.

Other notable banking dramas included Arbitrage, starring Richard Gere as a compromised hedge fund manager, and 99 Homes about the eviction of homeowners by unscrupulous mortgage lenders.

One of the unusual banking films in recession cinema was Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to the 1987 film. Michael Douglas returned as Gordon Gecko and the film focused on how he rebuilds his brand. The 2008 collapse is actually a set piece in the Wall Street sequel and Gordon Gecko’s return is a metaphor of the power and resilience of the banking system.

Hollywood’s Cognitive Capture
Hollywood’s failure to tell stories about the average working class citizen and its emphasis on the economic elite reveals the industry’s own biases and blind spots. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, many of us wondered how the business press and the regulatory agencies failed to see it coming. The answer was cognitive capture; the journalists and regulators were so close to the people and institutions they were supposed to monitor that they saw the world and the economy the same way the bankers did. The observers didn’t have the critical distance to think outside of the box. Hollywood is just as susceptible to this kind of thinking and it shows in their movies.

Hollywood’s cognitive capture is evidenced by two titles. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was based on the life and crimes of Jordan Belfort. The film does not evade Belfort’s misdeeds but it does certainly glamorize them and his debauched lifestyle. In this film, Belfort was an antihero but he was still nevertheless characterized as a hero. Even though he’s punished in the end he’s never really remorseful. The penultimate scene of Belfort in a minimum security prison is a wink and nod to the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street tapped into the American taste for excess and the movie was among the biggest box office successes of Scorsese’s career.

Another example is the 2015 remake of Poltergeist. The movie demonstrated a dim aware of the housing crisis. A family has purchased a new house after suffering an economic hit and losing their previous home. The new house is large and spacious and well-kept but Poltergeist includes a bizarre dialogue exchange between the parents and their upscale friends. While hosting a house warming party, one of the guests makes a clumsy remark about how the family is now living in a bad neighborhood. It sounds as though the family is living on skid row but in fact it is the kind of home many Americans only dream of owning. The faux economic hardship of Poltergeist comes across as a wealthy Hollywood producer’s idea of what poverty looks like.

American cinema’s focus on Wall Street and forsaking of Main Street is an inevitable outgrowth of the industry’s focus on spectacle. Hollywood—and by this I mean American cinema as a whole, not just major studios—is a dream factory. They are in the business of manufacturing fantasies. In feature films we see people who are better looking than we are but also more courageous and more successful. The titans of Wall Street embody that fantasy. As much as Americans might claim to identify with the simple tastes of blue collar heroes, the fact is that many successful Hollywood films give us just the opposite and the audience eats it up. This brings to mind Ronald Wright’s famous observation that average Americans “see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hollywood plays to that delusion. They also reinforce it.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Summer 2018 in Review

Labor Day represents the end of the summer movie season so here is a look back at the past few months. The industry rolls out its prestige pictures in the fall and winter but the summer is all about entertainment and box office. The summer most clearly demonstrates Hollywood’s priorities and the season allows insight into what the production and exhibition industries are doing right and doing wrong.

The Box Office Returns  .  . . Sort Of
The summer of 2017 was dominated by headlines about the depressed box office which was the worst in twenty-five years. Less attention was paid to the box office of 2018. According to The Hollywood Reporter, revenue was up by fourteen percent and this summer is projected to be the fifth best season on record. However, the attendance figures—the actual number of tickets sold—was the second worst since 1992. That means fewer people were going to the theater and paying more money to do so. Even though both attendance and revenue were up over last year, the overall trend is not a healthy one for theaters.

Where Are the Family Films?
Something that’s been missed in the reporting of the summer box office was the dearth of family films. By this I mean movies that are rated G or PG and are intended for parents and small children. (PG-13 action films don’t count.) Over the last twenty years Hollywood has mostly given up on this field. Admittedly, some G and PG hits of earlier decades like Planet of the Apes, Jaws, and Top Gun would probably get a PG-13 rating today but a PG title like E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial just isn’t fashionable right now and isn’t a part of Hollywood’s release slate. Aside from animation houses like Pixar, no one is turning out truly family oriented movies and the only notable animated releases of summer 2018 were Incredibles 2 and Hotel Transylvania 3. This lack of family films may help explain the overall lack of ticket sales. Where a title for older audiences may attract single or double ticket buyers, a family film will attract parents and their kids who purchase three to five tickets at a time.

Still More Sequels
One of the ironies of the 2018 summer box office recovery is its reliance on sequels. The dominant narrative of the 2017 season was that audiences were staying away because of “franchise fatigue.” However, eleven of the top twenty films of summer 2017 were franchise titles. In 2018, franchise releases accounted for fourteen of the top twenty summer films. Clearly, “franchise fatigue” wasn’t the answer. What was different was quality. Summer 2017 was dragged down by such lousy films as The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Transformers: The Last Knight. The summer of 2018 had its own disappointments like The Meg (which was lousy but nevertheless an international box office hit) and Mile 22 but the major releases were generally of high quality and the box office reflects this.

What to Make of Solo?
The popular understanding about Solo: A Star Wars Story is that the movie was a financial disappointment. But the numbers indicate something a little more complicated. Solo earned $213 million domestically and $392 million worldwide, putting Solo among the top ten grossing movies of the year so far and among the top five titles of the summer. But there are two variables here. The first is cost. Variety reports the production budget of Solo to be about $250 million with another $150 million spent on promotions. And since studios and theaters split the ticket revenues, Solo would have to make about $800 million just to break even. The second issue is expectations. This is the first Star Wars title under the Disney regime to make less than one billion dollars worldwide and it is the lowest grossing live action Star Wars feature film (unadjusted for inflation). Solo’s failure has bigger implications for the summer box office and for the industry as a whole. If a movie can be among the year’s top earners and still be a financial disappointment that indicates studios are spending too much money and have unrealistic box office expectations. That’s not sustainable and it could very easily blow up in Hollywood’s face.

Smart and Subversive Films
The summer box office is synonymous with popcorn entertainment and 2018 certainly provided that with titles like Avengers: Infinity War, Crazy Rich Asians, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But there was a surge of smart and subversive movies, many of them by filmmakers of color, that provided an alternative summer movie experience. BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The First Purge, and Blindspotting were in touch with the political zeitgeist and offered stories that were innovative and challenging as well as entertaining. Although prestige titles are usually released in the fall, a few summer releases will likely be candidates for best of the year lists including Eighth Grade and First Reformed. Documentaries also did very well including the Ruth Bader Ginsberg profile RBG and the Mr. Rogers biography Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The latter became the highest grossing biographical documentary. These films are encouraging. They represent an artistic bedrock underneath Hollywood’s decadent extravagance and these titles point a way forward when the event film paradigm eventually crumbles.

In Summary
The Best of Summer 2018:
  • Avengers: Infinity War
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Blindspotting
  • Crazy Rich Asians
  • Eighth Grade
  • First Reformed
  • Hereditary
  • Incredibles 2
  • Mission: Impossible – Fallout
  • Sorry to Bother You
  • Tag
The Worst of Summer 2018:
  • Bad Samaritan
  • The Book Club
  • Life of the Party
  • The Meg
  • Mile 22
  • Super Troopers 2

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Brief History of Sharksploitation

Yesterday’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a review of The Meg, the big budget killer shark film adapted from the novel by Steve Alten. The Meg is bad but not in a way that is any fun and that makes it a disappointing exception in the killer shark film genre. This niche of movies is quite prolific and it has generated a lot of titles that achieve a sublime schlockiness that is undeniably entertaining.

Jaws remains the de facto shark film. This movie wasn’t entirely original—monster movies had long been a staple of Hollywood—but Jaws was executed in a way that elevated the material into a perfect combination of populist entertainment and cinematic craft. But Jaws was—at its heart—the kind of monster picture that would have played at a drive-in a few decades ago and one of the attractions of monster movies in general and the killer shark genre in particular is their unapologetically low brow thrills. The iconic Jaws poster art captured this appeal.

Jaws ushered in a wave of killer shark movies such as Up from the Depths, Devil Fish, and Tintorera as well as other animal attack pictures like Grizzly and Orca. The 1981 Italian film Great White [also known as The Last Shark] followed the formula a little too closely. The picture was so similar to Jaws that Universal successfully sued to keep it out of US theaters.  The shark movie genre has never really gotten past Jaws and films as diverse as Open Water and Deep Blue Sea and Shark Tale continue making deliberate references to it.

The Jaws series quickly descended into studio financed versions of the low budget sharksploitation churned out by independent filmmakers. Following the respectable Jaws 2, Universal embraced the B-movie nature of the genre with 1983’s Jaws 3-D. A reworking of Revenge of the Creature, the film plays like a comic book version of a shark movie as a giant great white goes on a rampage inside of a fantastical reimagining of Sea World. Jaws 3-D was released just as stereoscopy was going through a resurgence (one that would end shortly after the movie’s release). The 3-D format required a particular lighting and photography style and this combined with the sci-fi-like setting, the odd special effects, cornball dialogue, and the colorful 1980s production design resulted in a motion picture that is one of the most satisfying pieces of killer shark shlock.

Most of the shark films released from the late 1970s through the 80s were low budget affairs that tried to replicate the Jaws formula. Like the 1975 film, these stories revolved around a large man-eating shark that arrives at a tourist destination just in time for the resort’s grand opening. The hero is usually a blue collar type who fights the shark as well as a corrupt politician or business owner who is willing to put people in harm’s way for the sake of dollars. The films typically conclude with a fishing expedition in which the shark is spectacularly destroyed.

The Jaws formula triangulates conflicts between the individual, nature and society. These stories are primarily about our primal fears but secondarily about social anxieties. In these pictures, mankind engages in a struggle to survive with one of nature’s greatest predators but the protagonist also participates in a moral contest with the community. The endings of these films tentatively reaffirm man’s dominion over the earth while also questioning civilization’s priorities.

Other shark movies made at this time deviated from the Jaws formula. One of the popular alternative approaches combined shark action with crime stories and undersea treasure hunts such as 1975’s Shark’s Treasure and 1979’s The Shark Hunter and 1988’s Night of the Sharks. These films strayed from the primal thrills of the Jaws-formula with scenarios that were cynical and often brutal. One of the unfortunate qualities of these films was the routine killing of actual sharks. Many animals, especially tiger sharks, were often abused by the production and killed on camera.

After 1987’s Jaws the Revenge ended Universal’s high profile killer shark series the genre faded out until the late 1990s. One of the major titles kicking off this new wave was 1999’s Shark Attack. This film and its contemporaries adhered to the Jaws formula but instead of relying upon clumsy mechanical sharks or enlisting real ones to be killed on camera, the movies of the Shark Attack-era used documentary footage (even if it didn’t necessarily fit into the continuity of the action). Shark Attack heralded a new era of killer shark movies that included Red Water and Blue Demon and Shark Zone as well as sequels to Shark Attack.

In between the post-Jaws fad and the debut of Shark Attack, the Discovery Channel had massive success with its annual Shark Week programming. There was always a tension in Shark Week between the Discovery Channel’s stated goal of providing educational programming and commercial-driven sensationalism. This played out in Shark Week’s mixed messages as fear mongering shark attack documentaries were intercut with calls for shark conservation. Over three decades, Discovery’s Shark Week programming has gradually gotten dumber and in recent years the channel has become one of the biggest purveyors of shark shlock. In 2013 and 2014 the channel featured pseudo-documentaries that deliberately misled the audience. While Discovery has since reigned in the fictionalizations, the link between Shark Week and sharksploitation films is evident in the cross promotion with features like The Shallows and The Meg.

The era of shark films that started with Shark Attack were also distinguished by a particular focus on the Carcharocles megalodon, an ancestor of the great white shark that was the size of a city bus. An entire subgenre of shark movies about the megalodon has emerged including 2001’s Shark Hunter and 2002’s Megalodon and 2018’s The Meg. Probably the most popular megaladon film among killer shark aficionados is 2003’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. The movie is such an extraordinary cinematic train wreck that it has to be seen by lovers of shlock cinema. (And it is far more entertaining than The Meg.)

The megalodon films were made possible by advancements in digital technology that made giant sharks accessible to low budget filmmakers. These digital tools were seized upon by The Asylum, an independent production company whose films frequently play on the SyFy Channel. The Asylum styled itself as Roger Corman’s American International Pictures for the digital age with throwbacks to the drive-in B pictures of an earlier era. Sharks are the cornerstone of Asylum’s oeuvre. The company’s output shifted the sharksplotation genre into a new phase with deliberately silly titles like Mega-Shark Versus Giant Octopus, 2-Headed Shark Attack, and Planet of the Sharks. But The Asylum’s greatest success was the Sharknado series. With six installments in all, Sharknado is one of the unlikeliest cinematic successes of this decade. The first film was released in 2013 and became a sensation. It premiered on the SyFy Channel but Sharknado was given some limited theatrical showings that played to sold out crowds. A sequel followed every year since with D-list celebrities vying for cameo appearances. (Donald Trump angled to play the President of the United States in 2015’s Sharknado 3 but when that fell through he had to settle for being the actual President.)

The past three years have seen sharks return to theaters. 2016’s The Shallows, 2017’s 47 Meters Down, and 2018’s The Meg were well received by audiences. The movies befitted from high production values, competent filmmakers, and a strong cast but they were also rooted in the primal thrills of classic sharksploitation.

Given the ratings bonanza of the Sharknado series and the box office success of The Meg it is unlikely that sharksploitation will ebb anytime soon. The genre has proven remarkably flexible and its evolution has mirrored the changes in filmmaking over the past four decades. While real sharks are in danger of extinction, killer shark movies are here to stay.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Controversial Films 2018

Independence Day brings with it Sounds of Cinema's annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that are of interest. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year's episode.

Peeping Tom (1960)
Dir. Michael Powell

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie Peeping Tom was a horror picture about a disturbed photographer who is obsessed with the look of women in a state of fear and records himself killing his victims with a spike that protracts from his camera tripod. If ever a movie was ahead of its time, Peeping Tom was it. The killer is a scopophiliac—he has an erotic obsession with visual images—and the movie dealt frankly and with some degree of sophistication regarding the relationship between lust and looking and the way cinema can objectify and commoditize its subject, especially women’s bodies. The use of first person camera work set an important precedent that would come to fruition decades later with the advent of the found footage genre. Peeping Tom also offered a sympathetic portrait of a serial killer, with actor Carl Boehm playing the part as a tragic monster whose murderous obsessions were the result of childhood abuse.

Upon its release in 1960, Peeping Tom was deemed in poor taste and the film was slammed by critics and ignored by the public. With a career that included Stairway to Heaven, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, director Michael Powell had been considered an esteemed filmmaker but the violently negative reaction to Peeping Tom virtually destroyed his career. In the late 1970s Michael Powell’s work enjoyed renewed interest by filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In an interview with film critic Mark Kermode, Scorsese said that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s collectively said everything there was to say about filmmaking. At one point Scorsese even considered mounting a remake of Peeping Tom but after screening it he concluded there was no way to top Powell’s film. Although it’s not as widely seen as it should be, Peeping Tom is now regarded as a masterpiece.

Irreversible (2002)
Dir. Gasper Noe

Irreversible was one of the early films of provocateur filmmaker Gasper Noe. The story occurs in a single evening. A woman, her boyfriend, and another male companion go out for a night on the town. She goes off on her own and gets sexually assaulted by a random criminal. When the men learned what’s happened they track down the assailant and beat him to death. The story of Irreversible is a run of the mill rape-revenge plot but the movie is distinguished by its style and brutality. Irreversible uses innovative camera movement and dramatic lighting and features an electronic soundtrack that is at times deliberately nauseating. The story is told in reverse, starting with the act of revenge, and then moving backwards from the assault through the events preceding it. The violence of Irreversible is extreme especially the sexual assault sequence which plays out in a single sustained shot that lasts for about nine minutes.

Irreversible received severely deviating opinions. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, about 250 viewers walked out, mostly during the rape scene. Those who remained to the end of the screening gave the film a five minute standing ovation. Critics were rarely ambivalent about the movie. Those who hated it accused Irrevesible of being gratuitous, misogynistic, and homophobic, often pointing to the strange choice of making the rapist a gay man.  David Edelstein suggested that “Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made” and called the violence pornographic. Those who praised Irreversible pointed to its technical accomplishments but also to its unconventional narrative structure. Roger Ebert wrote that “ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved.”

Irreversible was initially banned in New Zealand. The ban was later overturned to allow theatrical screenings although not without some protest from New Zealanders who thought the film should remain unavailable. Irreversible remained banned on home video in that country.

Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958)
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most important filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema. He created several works that were important to the Bolshevik Revolution, namely 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. His work was revolutionary in its politics but also in its style and Eisenstein was a master of using camera angles and editing in a way that stirred the viewer’s emotions and communicated ideas without spelling them out on the screen. Russian leader Joseph Stalin commissioned Eisenstein to make a biopic of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin likened himself to Ivan and envisioned the Tsar as a national hero would inspire unity among Russian citizens.

Eisenstein set about making his film as a three-part epic. Although the script was subject to Soviet approval and certain sequences were required to be cut, Eisenstein mostly completed the first part as he intended. Ivan the Terrible Part I dramatized the sixteenth century Tsar’s rise to power and it portrayed Ivan as a strong, decisive, and cunning leader. When it was released in 1945, Ivan the Terrible Part I was a hit with Stalin and Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin prize, the highest honor an artist could receive in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein set about making the next episode. Ivan the Terrible Part II was quite different from the first installment. It culminated with Ivan as a mad and unscrupulous leader who destroyed anyone and anything that got in his way. Stalin was livid and Ivan the Terrible Part II was banned in Russia until 1958. Production of the third film was never completed. 

Eisenstein participated in the Bolshevik Revolution that had deposed the Russian monarchy and transformed the country into the Soviet Union. He volunteered for the Red Army and later used his filmmaking skills to create important pieces of communist propaganda. But by the time the revolution was over and Stalin had assumed control of the country, Eisenstein was disillusioned. Instead of an egalitarian utopia, Soviet Russia under Stalin was a totalitarian nightmare in which the communist leaders were just as exploitative as their predecessors. Ivan the Terrible reflects this. The story begins as a tale of national pride and degrades into the story of a man willing to destroy everything to hold onto power. At a time when political dissenters, or those suspected of dissent, were routinely executed by the state, Eisenstein’s decision to make Ivan the Terrible the way that he did was extraordinarily bold. Shortly after completing Part II, Eisenstein died of a heart attack.

The Death of Stalin (2018)
Dir. Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin is a 2018 British satire taking place in the Soviet Union after the death of leader Joseph Stalin. The movie comically dramatizes the power struggle following the Russian leader’s death. The Death of Stalin achieved nearly universal acclaim from critics but it was not so well received in Russia. The Ministry of Culture initially granted The Death of Stalin a screening license but the license was revoked two days before the film was to open, effectively banning the movie. Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of the Ministry of Culture’s advisory council, called The Death of Stalin “blasphemous” and said it was “insulting our national symbols.” Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said the revocation of the film’s screening license was not censorship but an attempt to draw “moral boundaries.” Director Armando Iannucci surmised that the ban may have been motivated by the Russian elections which would occur shortly after the film’s planned release date. Despite the ban, some Russian cinema owners screened The Death of Stalin anyway and it played to packed auditoriums. Those theaters were raided by authorities.

The revocation of The Death of Stalin’s screening license was the first event of its kind in Russia since the fall of communism. The Russian constitution technically bans the state from censorship. However, the Russian government has a virtual monopoly on most media outlets in the country and observers feared that The Death of Stalin controversy was a sign of increasing government control over the cinema.

Strangely, the ban on The Death of Stalin may be linked to controversy over the Russian release of Paddington 2 earlier in 2018. Many of Russia’s domestic films are funded by the government, especially patriotic stories about Russian history and culture, and Paddington 2 was scheduled to open the same weekend as the Russian productions Scythian and Going Vertical. At the last minute, the Russian Ministry of Culture postponed the release Paddington 2. This caused an uproar among cinema owners and moviegoers who were looking forward to seeing the family-friendly movie. Buckling to pressure, the ministry restored Paddington 2’s release date. The cancelation of The Death of Stalin may have been an attempt to appease Russian leaders in Moscow and to avoid any more embarrassment for the ministry.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi invented the “mondo” or shockumentary genre with 1962’s Mondo Cane. The movie was an international travelogue that showcased the exotic, weird, scandalous, and violent aspects of nature and world culture. The movie was a hit but it was plagued by charges of exploitation and dishonesty. Throughout the 1960s, Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to make mondo films with each project more scandalous than the last. The filmmakers took umbrage at accusations of racism following the release of 1966’s Africa Addio. In an effort to disprove that they were racist, Jacopetti and Prosperi next created 1971’s Goodbye Uncle Tom. The movie combined documentary and feature filmmaking in a recreation of the slave trade of the pre-Civil War American south.

Jacopetti and Prosperi stated that the intent of Goodbye Uncle Tom was to lay bare the reality of racism and they may have been earnest about that. But even giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to imagine a picture more tone deaf than this. Shot in Haiti under the hospitality of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Goodbye Uncle Tom was a lurid and often sleazy film that appeared to take relish in recreating the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. Film critic Roger Ebert called Goodbye Uncle Tom “the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary” and observed that “most of the blacks in the film are apparently Africans forced by poverty and need to do these things for a few days' pitiful wages.” In the documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, Jacopetti and Prosperi defend the film but concede that they didn’t contextualize the images.

The ending of Goodbye Uncle Tom leaps forward through time to 1970s America. In this sequence a Black Nationalist reads William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and then murders a white family. The scenes were considered too incendiary for audiences of 1971, who were still reeling from race riots and other civil unrest, and the footage was cut from the American release. The full version of Goodbye Uncle Tom was recently shown at some film festivals and as Jan Yamato points out “In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement . . . [the film] feels not so much dated and incendiary, but provocatively current.”

The New York Ripper (1982)
Dir. Lucio Fulci

In the United Kingdom film distribution is managed by the British Board of Film Classification and movies have to be certified by the board in order to play in British cinemas. The BBFC may require cuts to remove material that is considered obscene or harmful and the board has the power to reject a movie outright. The advent of home video in the early 1980s subverted the BBFC and allowed filmmakers to get their work to the public in its original form. Reports by some unscrupulous journalists linking these unregulated movies to violent crimes as well as the petitions of moral watchdog groups coalesced into a moral panic known as the “Video Nasties” scare. The Director of Public Prosecutions' office compiled a list of movies that were to be seized and distributors could be fined or imprisoned for peddling obscene material.

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci was known for making shocking horror films and several of his titles were named to the Video Nasties list. In 1982 Fulci released The New York Ripper, a serial killer picture that was among Fulci’s most brutal films. The picture was considered all the more scandalous in the UK because of the recent conviction of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, popularly known as “The Yorkshire Ripper.” When The New York Ripper was submitted for classification, the screeners were split as to whether it should be granted a license or not. BBFC director James Furman was concerned that if the board approved the film and law enforcement subsequently named The New York Ripper to the Video Nasties list the BBFC would be seen as aiding and abetting an obscene work. In the interest of protecting the BBFC, Furman shipped their copy of The New York Ripper back to the original copyright holder in Italy and advised the British distributor to do the same. Over time this developed into an urban legend that The New York Ripper was so offensive that the BBFC had every print of the movie deported from the country under the escort of an armed guard. This of course made for great advertising copy to promote the film.

The New York Ripper was finally released in the UK in 2001 with 22 seconds of footage removed. The movie was recut for different territories and so different editions of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray have different versions.

An Open Secret (2015)
Dir Amy Berg

In recent years there have been several documentaries dealing with sexual abuse and institutional corruption. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God documented sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, The Hunting Ground covered rape culture on college campuses, and The Invisible War dealt with the issue in the United States’ military. One of the most contentious of these abuse documentaries was An Open Secret. The film dealt with sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and claimed to expose a pedophilia ring that reached the highest levels of Hollywood power.

An Open Secret had a difficult time finding an audience. The movie was directed by Amy Berg, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2007 documentary Deliver Us from Evil which dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Despite being helmed by an esteemed documentarian working in a familiar subject, most major film festivals rejected An Open Secret and distributors refused to buy it. The film’s executive producer Matthew Valentinas said that festival curators would usually be very interested in booking the documentary “but then someone on the business side would step in, and all of a sudden there was no longer interest.”

The reluctance to associate with An Open Secret may have been rooted in concerns of upsetting the Hollywood power structure but matters weren’t helped by a scandal involving one of the film’s interviewees. Among the several victims profiled in An Open Secret was Michael Egan who had filed a lawsuit accusing director Bryan Singer and others of sexually abusing underage boys. Egan’s lawsuit was withdrawn and his attorneys admitted that the sex abuse claims were “untrue and provably false” and paid a seven-figure settlement. Egan was subsequently sentenced to a two-year prison term for an unrelated fraud case. Even though the stories of the other sexual assault victims in An Open Secret are supported by evidence and criminal convictions, the film’s affiliation with Michael Egan may have been enough to frighten off any distributors.

When An Open Secret was finally seen it was well reviewed by critics but the film had a much harder time generating interest. When it opened in theaters in 2015, An Open Secret died at the box office. The movie never had a commercial video-on-demand release nor has it appeared on disc. Two years after its theatrical debut, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, An Open Secret was posted on the video website Vimeo where the movie can be viewed in full, legally, for free.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Last Tango in Paris tells the story of a torrid affair between a young woman and an older man played by Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. For its time—and even now—the movie was remarkably raw and explicit. Last Tango in Paris was released when the MPAA’s ratings system was relatively new and at that time the X rating did not have a pornographic stigma attached to it; the rating simply described movies that were intended for adult audiences. Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream films to get an X rating and go out to U.S. theaters intact rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. The movie was also banned for a time in Nova Scotia, Portugal, and South Korea. Last Tango in Paris was also banned in Italy and director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity. Despite the controversy, Last Tango in Paris was generally considered a respectable work of art house cinema and Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Academy Awards.

In recent years, Last Tango in Paris found itself back in the news. The movie contains an infamous sex sequence popularly referred to as the “butter scene.” Maria Schneider said in a 2007 interview that fellow actor Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci worked out what would happen in the scene behind her back. They then sprung the moment on Schneider and the actress said, “I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Schneider’s comments went mostly unremarked upon until 2016 when an archival interview with Bertolucci resurfaced in which the director confirmed that he and Brando had come up with the idea to use butter in the scene and deliberately did not tell Schneider so that she would feel humiliated and provide a genuine reaction. News of the behind the scenes skullduggery caused outrage. A number of high profile actors and filmmakers weighed in on the revelations including director Ava DuVernay who Tweeted “As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.” The revelations have led some critics to question the status of Last Tango in Paris as a classic.

The Message (1977)
Dir. Moustapha Akkad

The Message tells the story of the rise of Islam, culminating with the Prophet Mohammad and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. The movie was made with admirable intentions. Filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who was a Muslim, said that he saw the movie as an opportunity to build understanding between the West and the Islamic world. However, telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because some interpretations of Islam forbid visual depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. In addition, the script was revised to meet the approval of Islamic religious scholars.

Despite the attempt to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that The Message was going to depict Mohammad on screen and commit other offenses against the religion. The scholars who had initially backed The Message turned on it and called the movie sacrilege. The Message began filming in Morocco but shooting had to be relocated several times due to threats and protests. Eventually The Message was sponsored by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Libyan soldiers were used as extras in the film.

At the time of its original release, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries because religious leaders didn't like the idea of the story of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad as a motion picture. And in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded that The Message be banned. Although The Message was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas. The Message was the first Arabic feature to be shown in the country following a 4K restoration of the film overseen by Moustapha Akkad's son Malek. The screening was timed to coincide with the religious holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr. Following its Saudi Arabian debut, The Message is planned to screen throughout the Arabic region.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Dir. J. Lee Thompson

The Planet of the Apes series was known for its political subtext. All of the pictures in the original series deal with race and class issues and over the course of the films the visibility of that subtext waxes and wanes. In the fourth picture, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the racial metaphors took a bolder and more violent turn. The story takes place in an authoritarian future in which humans have turned apes into slaves. Caesar, a chimpanzee who has acquired the power of speech, leads his fellow simians in a violent revolt. The riot scenes were staged and shot to deliberately recall news footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the original cut of Conquest featured a lot of blood and gore. The film is climaxed by Caesar making a triumphant victory speech and in the original version the film ends on a militant call for revolution. When executives at 20th Century Fox screened the film they demanded changes so that it would secure a PG rating and retain the lucrative family audience. Among the changes, Caesar’s final speech was altered in post-production with actor Roddy McDowall recording some additional dialogue that ended the film on a more pacifistic note. The original version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was restored for the Blu-ray edition.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Dir. Trey Parker

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The program was groundbreaking, in part because of its vulgarity, but the crassness of the show was matched by intelligence and a sardonic take on pop culture and current events. All of that was carried over to the theatrical feature but South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took advantage of the greater latitude afforded by cinema. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the South Park feature film contains 399 swear words, 128 offensive gestures, and 221 acts of violence inside of its 81-minute running time. It’s also a self-reflexive movie. The parents of the town are upset when their children see a raunchy comedy film and their efforts to censor it culminate with the United States going to war with Canada. The South Park film was released in 1999, the end of a decade in which the culture did a lot of handwringing about the effects of media on children, and the movie distilled that anxiety into a violent and vulgar and hysterical farce.

Stone and Parker had an adversarial relationship with the MPAA and, according to Entertainment Weekly, their fight for South Park's R-rating exposed the capricious nature of the ratings process. According to the filmmakers, South Park was original subtitled All Hell Breaks Loose. The MPAA objected to the use of the word “hell” even though there are plenty of other films with that word in the title. The filmmakers replaced the subtitle with Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The MPAA initially gave the title a pass but later recognized the double entendre and requested that the filmmakers change the subtitle again. However, Paramount had already printed the first reel of the movie and so the title remained. (The MPAA denies that this took place.) The movie itself went through several rounds of edits. The filmmakers submitted South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to the MPAA and received an NC-17. Instead of cutting out offensive footage, Parker and Stone swapped out objectionable scenes with even lewder material and then resubmitted the movie. The ratings board again gave South Park an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth and after six screenings the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.

  • Eisenstein and Stalin: When Art and Politics Clash. Films Media Group, 1999. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
  • Behind the Planet of the Apes. Dir. Kevin Burns and  David Comtois. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1998. DVD.
  • The Godfathers of Mondo. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003. DVD. 
  • “The History of Ivan.” Featurette on the Ivan the Terrible Criterion Collection DVD.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
  • “A Very British Psycho.” Featurette on the Peeping Tom Criterion Collection DVD.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Great Movies with Chaotic Productions

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at great movies with disastrous productions. In most cases, chaos behind the scenes does not bode well for the resulting motion picture but in some cases it is cause for innovation or the filmmaking challenges present their own creative opportunities. What follows are the films discussed on today’s show as well as a few additional titles.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dir. Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz was an ambitious production in its day and the project was a complicated undertaking made even more so due to changes in the cast and crew. Some of the changes were due to norms of the film industry at that time. In 1939, directors were not stars or auteurs. They were employees of the studio who were hired to execute the studio’s vision and could be reassigned at any time. But even allowing for that, The Wizard of Oz had a chaotic shoot. Filming began with Richard Maplethorp but the director was replaced by George Cukor who didn’t actually shoot anything but did reconfigure the look and style of the film. Directorial duties on The Wizard of Oz then passed to Victor Fleming who oversaw the bulk of principal photography and is credited on the film. Fleming left The Wizard of Oz to work on Gone with the Wind, which was having its own problems, and the Kansas scenes were directed by King Vidor. There were change ups in the cast as well. Buddy Epsen was cast as the Tin Man but had to leave the project when he had an allergic reaction to the makeup meaning that Epsen’s scenes had to be reshot. Margaret Hamilton was severely burned by fire on the set during her smoky exit from Munchkinland and her stand in was later injured while filming the flight scenes. For its time, The Wizard of Oz was extremely expensive and did not recoup its budget in its original release. It was only after The Wizard of Oz was shown on television and in later revival screenings that it became the beloved film that it is today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low budget horror film that became a seminal title in American cinema. But while it was being made many of the people involved never thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would ever see the light of day. The production suffered financial problems and it was made by a mostly inexperienced cast and crew in the grueling heat of the Texas summer. The production problems came to a head in the climactic dinner scene which was the product of a now legendary twenty-six hour shoot. The house did not have air conditioning and temperatures on the set rose to over 100 degrees. The set was decorated with actual meat and dead animals acquired from a shelter and they started to spoil under the hot production lights. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, had only one set of his costume and so it was never cleaned for fear of losing it. According to Hansen, he smelled so badly that it made other people sick to be around him. But the difficulty of the shoot came through on screen and made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as visceral and intense as it is. The making of the film is well catalogued in the documentary Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and in Hansen’s memoir Texas Chainsaw Confidential.

Jaws (1975)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Jaws is one of many films to have production go awry due to filming on the ocean. The challenges of shooting at sea include dealing with weather and shifting tides as well as coping with sea sickness and civilian boaters passing through the background. All of that was exacerbated by the mechanical shark which barely worked. Jaws had been rushed into production and the shark was never tested in salt water before it was shipped across the country for filming on Martha’s Vineyard. The salt water caused the shark’s skin to disintegrate and the volatility of the ocean brutalized the mechanics. The production schedule on Jaws tripled as did the budget and director Steven Spielberg feared he would be fired off the movie. But when Jaws opened it became the biggest box office success of its day and Jaws is now regarded as one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. The making of Jaws was documented in Carl Gottlieb's book The Jaws Log.

Star Wars (1977)
Since passing to Disney, Star Wars has had a rocky relationship with its directors. Lucasfilm parted ways with two filmmakers before production of their movies even got underway. Colin Trevorrow was originally announced as the director of Episode IX but was let go after the critical excoriation of The Book of Henry and Josh Trank was fired from an unnamed Star Wars spinoff after the release of his disastrous Fantastic Four reboot. The first spinoff title, Rogue One, was essentially taken away from Gareth Edwards and significantly reshot and reshaped in post-production by Tony Gilroy. And then there is Solo. This film was actually in the middle of shooting when co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired off the movie and replaced by Ron Howard.

Chaos behind the scenes is not that unusual on a Star Wars film. The classic trilogy was very difficult to make and the original Star Wars had an especially tumultuous production. At that time, science fiction and fantasy films were not a big box office draw and some executives at 20th Century Fox opposed the making of the movie. Star Wars was budgeted at about $8 million but delays and overruns put the final cost at $11 million. Special effects company Industrial Light and Magic had trouble achieving the realistic look that Lucas wanted and blew through half of their budget without producing a single usable shot. The movie went through massive bouts of reediting with Lucas firing the original editor and replacing him with Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew his then-wife Marcia Lucas. Star Wars was originally scheduled for release in December 1976 but the lagging production resulted in delaying the opening until May 1977.

Sorcerer (1977)
Dir. William Friedkin

William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer was a remake of The Wages of Fear and told the story of Americans living abroad who are recruited to transport trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. The movie was shot on location in the Dominican Republic and the combination of Friedkin’s exacting filmmaking style and the challenges of the geography made the shoot a nightmare. Shortly into the film’s production, the original cinematographer was fired because Friedkin was unsatisfied with the rushes. In his memoir, Friedkin says that half the crew went to the hospital and or had to be sent home because of food poisoning, gangrene, or malaria. The major set piece of Sorcerer involved trucks crossing a suspension bridge over a river. The first bridge was built, taking three months and costing a million dollars, but the river dried up and a new million dollar bridge had to be built elsewhere only to have the second river evaporate as well. The crew improvised with wind machines and hoses and the result was a stunning sequence. Friedkin has called Sorcerer his favorite film. Unfortunately, reviewers at the time didn’t see it that way. Sorcerer was released to cinemas the same month as Star Wars and it died at the box office. Friedkin’s career never fully recovered. But in the years since, Sorcerer has been reevaluated and it is now regarded as one of the director’s best movies.

Superman: The Movie/Superman II (1978/1980/2006)
Dir. Richard Donner/Richard Lester

Superman: The Movie was the first great superhero movie. The original plan for Superman will sound familiar to today’s audiences. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind envisioned a two part movie with the first half ending on a cliffhanger and both Superman movies were shot simultaneously under the direction of Richard Donner. But the project proved very complicated and the film went over schedule and over budget. As the production ran further behind, the decision was made to concentrate on completing the first film. The story was restructured and the first film came to a closed conclusion by using the ending intended for Superman II. The first film was released to rave reviews and huge box office but relations between the producers and the director soured and Richard Donner was fired from Superman II. Richard Lester was brought in to complete the sequel and he reshot a lot of footage in order to get the director credit. Twenty-six years later, Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and editor Michael Thau collaborated on a restoration of Donner’s version of Superman II

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now was a war film set during America’s occupation of Vietnam. At the time the conflict was still a sensitive subject and studios were leery of sinking money into a film about it. Frances Ford Coppola, who was fresh off the success of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, took on the project with his usual bombast and financed Apocalypse Now with his own money. But principal photography proved more difficult than anyone imagined and the planned sixteen week shoot more than doubled as the production was besieged by inclement weather, creative challenges, personality conflicts, and budgetary problems. Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the lead role but he was let go and replaced by Martin Sheen who then suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. The helicopters on loan from the Filipino government were periodically called away, sometimes in the middle of a shot, to fight the rebellion growing in another part of the country. Actor Marlon Brando showed up to the set overweight and without having read Heart of Darkness or memorizing any of his lines. After principal photography was finished, Coppola spent years editing the footage. Apocalypse Now was finally released in 1979 and it is now considered one of the great movies. The making of Apocalypse Now is featured in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Brazil (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam

Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. Controversy erupted between director Terry Gilliam and then head of Universal Pictures Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam completed the film, running 132 minutes, but Sheinberg deemed it too long and too confusing for audiences and blocked the picture from being released. When Gilliam refused to make changes, Universal attempted to take Brazil away from the director and created its own ninety-four minute cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. In an attempt to keep control of his film, Gilliam made the dispute public by taking out a full page ad in Variety magazine asking Sheinberg to release the film. Gilliam also set up clandestine screenings of Brazil on college campuses and the film was eventually screened for members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who later gave Brazil the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut Brazil and released Gilliam’s version.More information can be found in Jack Mathews' book The Battle of Brazil.

The Crow (1994)
Dir. Alex Proyas

The production of the 1994 comic book movie The Crow was beset by problems. Several crew members were injured including a carpenter who was electrocuted and burned by a scissor lift and a stuntman who fell through a roof. At one point a grip truck caught fire and a hurricane destroyed several of the sets. All this preceded the death of star Brandon Lee. With just a couple of weeks of principal photography remaining, a fragment of a blank round was left in the barrel of a gun and when it was fired Lee was killed. After the production went through a shutdown period, the filmmakers finished The Crow through a combination of body doubles and what was then cutting edge technology in which existing footage of Lee was composited into other shots. The Crow prefigured the dark and gritty comic book films that came later and it is now considered a cult classic.

Titanic (1997)
Dir. James Cameron

Titanic was another aquatic film with a difficult production. It was the most expensive film in Hollywood history to that point at a cost of over $200 million in 1997. Part of the film’s enormous cost was dedicated to a full scale replica of the RMS Titanic. Construction of the sets ran behind, delaying the film. Shooting in the water presented its own challenges and some of the crew and cast got ill due to spending long periods of time in cold water. James Cameron is known for his demanding directorial style. As tensions increased on the set, someone laced lobster chowder with PCP and sent more than fifty people to the hospital. Titanic was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 1997 but the special effects were not complete and caused the release to be delayed until December. Reports of endless production and escalating costs resulted in a lot of negative press and both critics and studio executives braced for disaster. But when Titanic finally opened it was the biggest hit of all time, staying at number one at the box office for fifteen weeks and then continued to play in theaters for months. It was also a critical success and won eleven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

American History X (1998)
Dir. Tony Kaye

American History X was the story of a reformed white supremacist starring Edward Norton in one of his early roles and directed by Tony Kaye who at that time was an up and coming filmmaker. Norton and Kaye had different views of what American History X ought to be and Norton’s performance was not to Kaye’s liking. The relationship between Norton, Kaye and New Line Cinema broke down during post production. Norton and the studio executives gave Kaye notes on how to alter the film. Kaye would have none of it and New Line took American History X away from the director and banned him from the editing process. Kaye responded by filing a lawsuit against New Line Cinema and when that didn’t work he attempted to take his name off the picture but was unable to do so. Kaye then began trash talking American History X to anyone who would listen including journalists and advertisers and film festivals. In the end, the studio released its version of American History X and the movie was a hit with critics and audiences. Edward Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Kaye’s campaign against Norton and New Line Cinema all but destroyed his career and in 2002 Kaye wrote a lengthy mea culpa in which he expressed regret for his behavior.