Tuesday, March 31, 2015

In India, national cinema preservation is in the balance

We post about film preservation frequently on this blog, and for the most part, contemporary film preservation effort in our neck of the woods are excellent. Between the National Film Registry and the continued investment in restoring older masterpieces, we've come a long way from losing all our silent films. But such an infrastructure doesn't exist elsewhere in the world, and many countries continue to struggle to save their works.

For an example of the ongoing fight to save film history, look no further than India. The Jakarta Post reports that, in recognition of the country's National Film Day, Indian film critics have called more a concerted effort to preserve national cinema. The country's national film archives are apparently decaying, with even some films from the 90s already degrading in quality. Many solvable problems are cited, especially budgetary constraints and more mindful collection (and copyright) management.

There's a strong interest and thirst for historical Indian film, and even though individuals and smaller organizations have made strides in saving national cinema, a greater national effort is only a good thing – both for India and film enthusiasts worldwide.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Move over, Fitzcarraldo. Newly rediscovered Roar had the most disastrous film production ever

Many films have ascended to legendary status for their troubled productions. Apocalypse Now, Heaven's Gate, and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote all famously far exceeded their budget and production scope. Thanks to the sleuthing and restoration efforts of Alamo Drafthouse, we can add one more name to that pile of terrifying disasters: 1981 safari film Roar.

Roar embodies the old maxim never to work on a production with animals. The film was intended to showcase lions and tigers living alongside humans and raise awareness for their conservation, but nearly a decade of production (including living alongside the animals to acclimate them) left the entire cast and crew horrifically injured. Everyone was gored in some fashion; Noel Marshall developed gangrene from his wounds, and cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped. Crew dropped like flies, and producers pulled financing. Even during the injury-free parts, the filmmakers had to wait for the animals to "act" appropriately for each shot, prolonging the filming. It's a miracle that the film was ever finished, even if the process is more interesting than the product.

You can read all about the chaotic production of Roar from Alamo Drafthouse as well as from crew member Randolph Sellars. Alamo Drafthouse has led the effort to raise awareness for this film in anticipation of its theatrical re-release next month, but they almost didn't need to do any work. The tumultuous, violent, terrible production speaks for itself.

We don't have this one available in the library, but we look forward to the Blu-ray release "this summer."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

See these 100 streaming documentaries before you graduate

AU students get access to our streaming video collection, which includes thousands of hours of great documentaries. We realize that there's quite a bit to sort through, so finding the best of them (or even knowing to look for them) might be a challenge.

To help you navigate the highlights of our collection, we've assembled a list of the 100 Streaming Documentaries to See Before You Graduate. Everyone on the full-time Media Services staff helped put this list together, and we think it represents the best of the best online video content that you can get through American University.

You might recognize a few big names like the Ken Burns Prohibition series and environmental classic King Corn, but we found something for most every subject and interest. Literature students might be interested in an hour-long Bill Moyers interview with George Lucas about creating the mythology of Star Wars. And for political science majors, you can't miss Street Fight, an unprecedented look at the ground game for now-Senator Cory Booker's campaign for mayor.

Take advantage of these resources and watch these documentaries while you can! For those of you graduating in May, you've got a little over a month to binge all of them.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Vanity Fair celebrates one century of vanity credits

gif via listal

Earlier this week, we acknowledged the 100th anniversary of Birth of a Nation and the blockbuster style of filmmaking that create. But as Vanity Fair points out, Birth of a Nation also marked the start of directors declaring authorship for movies. D. W. Griffith was the first director to have a possessive credit for his film ("Griffith's The Birth of a Nation"), and increasingly, many directors are opting for a similarly authorial style. Many recent Oscar winning movies, for instance, describe themselves as  "A film by" rather than "Directed by."

It's a minor difference but one that asserts the auteur role of directors in a big way. Many screenwriters and other contributors (including their respective guilds) take issue with this type of credit, as it downplays the work of the rest of the crew. As Vanity Fair explains, this has become a contentious issue in film promotion; the Writers Guild of America even lobbied to remove "A Christopher Nolan film" from some screening copies of The Dark Knight.

The article is a great read for anyone looking for a glimpse into how minutia in Hollywood can change careers. You'll probably have trouble reading movie posters the same way again.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

New supercut celebrates the symmetry of bookending shots

Over the course of two hours, most films show growth and change. It's reasonable to suggest that the characters you meet at the start of the movie are not the same ones you see off at the end. Filmmakers understand that and frequently look for visual ways to tie their beginnings and endings together.

Jacob Swinney took this concept to its logical conclusion and created this montage of the very first and very last shots of a few dozen famous films. Not every movie he picked works, but it's fascinating to see how the best ones match their opening and closing scenes with color, composition, and so forth. Some pairings show character growth; others are cyclical. A few examples even repeat their opening shots verbatim. (The music selection also deserves credit for making the whole package work.)

Many of these films had very satisfying endings, and this is a great example of how to achieve that. We probably don't even notice this deliberate symmetry most of the time, but it works on an extremely effective, subconscious level.

(And that last literal "match" shot? Excellent.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Did you ever catch the Citizen Kane pterodactyls?

There are dinosaurs in Citizen Kane.

No, seriously, hear us out on this. This is one of the greatest bits of film trivia we've heard in a while.

Before the advent of greenscreen technology, many films in the 30s and 40s used "rear projection" for complicated scenery. Pre-recorded footage of a background was projected onto a screen behind the main scene, creating the appearance of a larger and more bustling setting. Filmmakers used this extensively to put views outside car windows, but it could also simulate filming in an environment that couldn't otherwise be practically used.

RKO Pictures used rear projection for jungle scenes in 1933's The Son of Kong. As part of the pre-recorded jungle scenery, effects artists added silhouettes of flying pterodactyls to the background. This was a King Kong movie after all. Perhaps in a cost-cutting measure, Orson Welles chose to re-use Son of Kong's rear projection footage for a swampy picnic scene in Citizen Kane. He did not remove the pterodactyls. If you pay very close attention during the scene (embedded above), you can see them flying around in the background.

So yes: there are dinosaurs in Citizen Kane. It's unknown if anyone caught this during production, but we wouldn't put it past Orson Welles to leave them in intentionally. Of course, if you want a little more context, you can always watch the full movie (available in our collection, HU DVD 434).

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Caught up with The Jinx? Watch these investigative crime documentaries

HBO's true-crime documentary series The Jinx ended in shock this week when the show's subject, real estate magnate Robert Durst, confessed to multiple murders over an open microphone and was subsequently arrested. No spoiler warning on this one: Durst's arrest made international headlines. After all, how often does a documentary change the course of the legal system?

As it turns out, The Jinx is only the latest documentary that resulted in arrests, appeals, and settlements. The true-crime genre is having its moment with the success of podcasts like Serial, but filmmakers have long been fascinated by controversial legal battles to the point of essentially intervening in the cases. If you enjoyed The Jinx – or if you just find the Durst story compelling – consider watching these four documentaries in our collection that famously jumpstarted the legal process.
Ken Burns investigated the story of a racially polarized rape case from 1989 in which five black and Hispanic minors were convicted on various assault-related charges despite a lack of evidence. Burns towards a damning eye towards the racist testimony and media coverage that propelled the case, as well as the accused party's struggle to find closure after their convictions were overturned. Shortly after the release of this documentary, the city of New York awarded $41 million to the Central Park Five for emotional distress.
In 1994, three teenagers in Arkansas were convicted for the murder of three children in a supposedly Satanic ritualistic murder. The filmmakers of Paradise Lost were not satisfied with the trial, which used no physical evidence, and spent nearly twenty years investigating the murders and lobbying for the West Memphis Three's innocence. Arkansas courts took notice, re-examined the case, and released the three convicted men after DNA evidence proved inconclusive.
Was the death of North Carolina woman Kathleen Peterson a stair-related accident or murder? This eight-part documentary series looks into the ongoing murder trial of Kathleen's husband Michael and tries to find the answer. The filmmakers were given "unusual access" to the Peterson family and lawyers to produce this documentary. Michael Peterson remains in legal limbo, and this documentary is responsible for the increased scrutiny afforded to the case.
Randall Dale Adams was wrongly sentenced to death for the murder of a Texas police officer in 1976. Now-legendary documentarian Errol Morris poked holes through Adams's trial in The Thin Blue Line, using a combination of reenactments and interviews to build the case for his defense. Within a year of the film's 1988 release, Adams was a free man.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why are film production deaths on the rise?

Last year, the death of camera assistant Sarah Jones during the filming of Midnight Rider brought attention to issues of film and television production safety. Many people risk their lives while filming large productions; beyond pyrotechnics and stunt performers and so forth, production assistants and crew members find themselves in dangerous or risky situations where safety concerns are secondary. Evidently, these incidents are on the rise. Los Angeles Times's Richard Verrier reveals that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics deaths on television and film productions have doubled in the past five years despite a general decline in workplace fatalities.

So why is that rate increasing? Verrier says that many productions simply do not value safety over getting a good shot faster and cheaper. He cites repeated examples of films and television shows that sidelined safety personnel and risk assessment in the interest of getting the job done, including equipment malfunction during set deconstruction for one of the G. I. Joe films and the famous incident in which a helicopter crash killed actor Vic Morrow on the set of the Twilight Zone movie.

Worse still, no one is held accountable for these incidents, encouraging future risk-taking. OSHA does fine productions that don't comply with regulations, but almost no one has ever been convicted of negligence for a production-related death. Safety is ignored, responsibility is defused, and the producers get their results.

We certainly hope that studios would consider investing more in safety precautions and training as the frequency of these tragedies continues to grow. No one's life is worth losing for a good shot.

Monday, March 09, 2015

New Acquisitions - March 2015

Now that all the students are away, it's time to roll out the new DVDs!

We've been steadily adding new titles all semester, the usual mix of academic titles, popular films, television shows, and other interesting and noteworthy titles. We got the blockbusters Guardians of the Galaxy and Divergent, and we're picked up Oscar nominees starting with Boyhood and Birdman. We grabbed a wide range of television shows, from Roxanne to The Americans. And if you want to learn film history, we have What is Cinema? and a documentary about early motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Lots to go over this month. Hit the jump for a full list.

Monday, March 02, 2015

See the next documentary from the director of Miss Representation TOMORROW!

Miss Representation was one of the most impactful and successful documentaries from 2011, and its examination of the portrayal of women in media is extremely relevant to larger cultural conversations that have started in the last few years. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's newest film is The Mask You Live In, looks at another component of the gendered media landscape, specifically harmful notions of masculinity.

The Mask You Live In premiered at Sundance in January and likely won't find itself in theaters or on DVD for a while. But we're lucky enough to be hosting a screening?

The American University Library is co-sponsoring a screening of The Mask You Live In tomorrow at 7pm in the McKinley Theater. The discussion of the film will follow. RSVP for this screening is not required, but since attendance is already expected at over 100 people, you might want to get there early.

This is a very exciting event that we're proud to be involved with. Please note that the event will take place in the McKinley Theater, not in the SIS Founders Room as originally planned.

See you there!