Monthly Archives: May 2013

On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part Two, by Kyle Kontour

[Ramaeker here: First off, a big welcome to my first Third Meaning guest blogger, Kyle Kontour. Dr. Kontour, ladies and gentlemen. Now then: over to him.]

There is an interesting constellation of meanings Boyle evokes in using the term “Pixarfication.”  He is not suggesting that Pixar films and their ilk are not good films—indeed, he indicates an appreciation for what he thinks they do well—but that such films are most certainly not “adult”.  But if the trend has been away from adult films and toward family friendly fare, then what has this meant for childrens’ films?  Before I delve into this issue, both “Pixarfication” and “adult” require some unpacking here.  Let’s tackle the latter first.

In my reading of Boyle’s comments, “adult” would indicate content that deals with things such as sex, war, ambiguity, complex emotional and psychological states, complicated musings on the state of society, and so on.  I think it also includes a more sophisticated cinematic aesthetic, as well:  films that are “grown up” in that they take some effort (and maybe time) for the audience to read, possibly even breaking with many of the standard formal conventions of the Hollywood film.  “Adult” is something embodied by films like Annie Hall (1977), as opposed to, say, A Bug’s Life (1998).

So what is “Pixarfication”?  I hope I do not take too many liberties with Boyle’s comments and implied sentiments, but I interpret this to be speaking mostly to the trend of a form of moviemaking that is aimed at the whole family, and which is deliberately produced and marketed to be a cash cow—expected to gross over $200 million at the domestic box office and providing essentially endless merchandising opportunities.  What Boyle is emphasizing, beyond the critique of the blockbuster political economy, is a kind of “flattening” of content:  that the only way to make that kind of money is to ensure that such films are bereft of “adult” content.  What Boyle seems to be implying, furthermore, is that we can essentially draw a straight line from Star Wars to Pixar in terms of the profitability and proliferation of kid-friendly, unsophisticated entertainment.  Also, most kids‘ films are unabashed cartoons (albeit now almost exclusively CGI), in which Pixar is merely the most prolific and famous of several studios (DreamWorks Animation Studios, Illumination Entertainment, et al) that make family friendly animated films, each of which we can now expect to be among the top twenty grossing films of any given year.  Whether Boyle intends to or not, he implies that “un-adult” means “kiddie fare,” and that such fare has taken over.  I think that framing things this way, however, is too dismissive of what I think is a far more impactful aspect of “Pixarfication”:  the extent to which kids’ movies have become more adult.

Where Paul has pointed out that the 1970s were not as artsy and daring as some nostalgiacs make them out to be, we must also look with fresh eyes at kids’ movies of 1970s and 1980s.  (I include here films from the 1980s not only because they pre-date Pixar, but also because of their contemporaneity to Star Wars.)  Put simply, films aimed squarely at children were often made cheaply and crudely (whether animated or live action), had very simplistic plots, and were unsophisticated in their depiction of morals, emotions, and the workings of society.

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn

Examples include low-quality adaptations of fantasy novels (The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, The NeverEnding Story), hackneyed, fantastical romps (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Herbie movies, etc.), saccharine toy line promotions (The Care Bears Movie, My Little Pony: The Movie), and Disney animated fare that remains infamous for its relatively poor quality (The Aristocats, The Rescuers, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron).  If the 1970s was the height of Hollywood adult cinema, then the ’70s and ’80s were almost certainly the nadir of kids’ films (brighter spots such as the Jim Henson films and E.T. The Extraterrestrial being the exceptions that prove the rule).

To be sure, today’s kids’ films can for the most part slot in easily with such movies in terms of broad themes and story structure, although we can also say with some degree of assurance that the overall quality of craft is greatly improved (starting in 1989 with the so-called “Disney Renaissance” in hand-drawn animation beginning with The Little Mermaid, and accelerated with the subsequent boom in CGI animation ushered in by Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995).  If such films are not as artistically sophisticated as what Boyle might consider an adult film, they are nonetheless a marked improvement when compared to earlier kids’ films, almost across the board:  cinematography, mise en scene, editing, camera movement, staging, etc. However, a number of so-called kids’ films are also remarkably more sophisticated than their forebears when it comes to what Boyle might well consider to be “adult” content.

We can begin with Pixar, which has produced many films over the years that I would argue contain adult elements.  [SPOILERS, HO!]  In Toy Story 2, we bear witness to “Jessie’s Song”, a montage which depicts the process of growing out of childhood, from the point of view of a discarded toy (which children may be able to understand, but with which only adults can empathize).  Finding Nemo opens with the violent death of a parent/spouse, its plot is motivated by what is essentially a kidnapping, and in the process both father and son must overcome their own fears and limitations (both physical and psychological) in order to be reunited.  The Incredibles deals with how to work through marital ennui, while including a scene in which the superhero mother tells her children, “Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren’t like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you if they get the chance.”  Toy Story 3 is arguably one of the most “adult” films ever to receive a G rating:  it includes depictions of torture, living under dictatorship, moving on from the loss of loved ones, and an incredibly moving scene in which the main characters, when faced with what appears to be inevitable doom (being burned alive in a trash incinerator), quietly hold hands and await their fate together.  The film is entirely centered around the loss of childhood:  Andy (the toys’ owner) grows up and moves on (but retains his sentimental attachment to his toys), Andy’s mother is visibly shaken by her son’s vacant room as he leaves for college, the film’s villain, Lotso, is twisted in anguish and rage over childhood abandonment, and so on.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Such sophistication is arguably best rendered by Pixar, but can be found in other such films: DreamWorks Animation Studio’s Antz neatly satirizes social class; Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Wreck-It-Ralph is a poignant treatment of heroism and self-sacrifice; Illumination Studio’s The Lorax, based on the Dr. Seuss book, fills out its run time by adding some clever satire of consumer culture and a critique of disaster capitalism, and so on.  I think it is also worth noting that even the most crowd-pleasing and least complicated films tend on the whole to at least be more comedically sophisticated (compare the Emperor’s New Groove, for example, to the slapstick in Aristocats).  Perhaps the best example of all is Pixar’s Up, which spends the first ten minutes of the film establishing the relationship between the protagonist, Carl, and his wife Ellie—a series of scenes (capped with a four and a half minute montage that spans several decades) which follows them from the day they meet as children, to their wedding, through such trials as financial difficulties and their inability to have children, and culminating in Carl somberly walking back into his house from Ellie’s funeral (if there is any doubt as to the deftness and poignancy with which this is depicted and the emotional impact it leaves, read through the comments anywhere on Youtube that this clip is posted).  The film’s plot is motivated by Carl’s desire to make good on his promise to his dead wife to get to Paradise Falls (we must assume it is initially his intent to die there or die trying), but ultimately turns on Carl striking up a paternal relationship with a neglected boy scout—it is a film that tackles the meaning of life and death with the sort of maturity and subtlety that would have been totally inconceivable in a so-called kids’ film prior to Pixar.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

To be sure, this is not to say that such movies are anywhere near as “adult” as Dog Day Afternoon or Chinatown or The French Connection.  My point is that overall they are considerably more sophisticated, in terms of both filmmaking craft as well as themes and issues, than kids’ films in years past.  What Pixar has ushered in is not merely the family friendly blockbuster.  “Pixarfication” is the bar being set so much higher for family entertainment.  While I sympathize with Boyle’s lament about an era in which truly adult films are no longer important to Hollywood, he should celebrate the fact that the Pixar generation of children has been immersed in films of considerably greater cinematic quality than would have been the case of children growing up in the 1970s and ’80s—and that the adults who go to the movies with them are seeing films that are not, in fact, utterly bereft of adult content.  Where adults may have had to suffer through kids’ films in the past, these films are now ones that adults look forward to seeing and that the whole family can enjoy (and discuss) together.  Pixarfication presents a world of joy, verve, and color about which we may very well by cynical; but it also depicts a world that is complicated, filled with genuine and relatable dangers and sorrows, and in which fortitude and resolve (and not deus ex machina such as enchanted suits of armor) are what you must have to get out of a difficult situation.

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On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part One

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

On 6 May, 2013, a video clip made by French site Vodkaster.com started making the rounds. The clip features British director Danny Boyle doing press for his new film Trance. In it, Boyle testifies to what he thinks is wrong with cinema today, specifically mainstream Hollywood cinema. He calls it a “Pixarification of movies,” to pick the line that the blogosphere jumped on and used as the headline. Cinema of the 1970s was consecrated to serious artists making challenging films for mature adults. Cinema now is given over to craftspeople, often very skilled, making safe, predictable, simplistic fare for children- and, implicitly, adults treated like children; hence “Pixarification.”

In this post, I will say a few things about Boyle’s version of recent Hollywood history: how what Boyle says here is the standard story, and an expression of nostalgia for a period that wasn’t quite the paradise of artistic freedom and restless innovation it’s remembered as (not all studio output of those years is as museum-ready as some remember it being); how “adult filmmaking” (noting, as Boyle is keen to stress, we aren’t talking about porn here) survives in Hollywood today; and how we have to think more carefully about what hasn’t but also what really has changed since the 1970s if we are to understand the state of Hollywood.

Next time, my good friend Kyle Kontour will talk a little bit about another of Boyle’s claims, and how it stands as a claim about recent Hollywood: what does it mean to invoke Pixar in the context of a “dumbing down” of cinema, and an appeal to children instead of adults?

First off, the clip of Boyle’s statement is right HERE.

Now, one response to this is to point out that Millions and Slumdog Millionaire are quite a long way from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now. It’s a fair point, if a cheap shot, but I’m less interested in Boyle than in the narrative he’s recounting.

The second thing to say, then, is that this is the standard story, pretty much. From Thomas Schatz to Peter Biskind to any number of movie critics and bloggers kvetching about the “death of cinema,” we get the same narrative: the 1970s was a Golden age for genuine cinematic art in the United States- one referred to as a Hollywood Renaissance even at the time- but with the monstrous success of Jaws and Star Wars, Hollywood went into an irreversible decline, dumbing down its storytelling to feed mindless spectacles to the masses.

Speaking from a British perspective lends Boyle’s statements a bit of novelty: he doesn’t name Hollywood as the villain of the piece, as the origin of the great films of his youth or the dumb flicks of today, but rather comes at it as a moviegoer, using what was on down the Odeon as his jumping off point. Not strictly talking about Hollywood allows him to cast his net just wide enough to include Nicolas Roeg, a great British filmmaker who, simply because British, hasn’t benefitted from the retrospective adulation of ‘70s cinema (Roeg’s prime era) devoted to Hollywood. But even if unspecified here, in the main what Boyle is really talking about is the decline of Hollywood cinema in particular (at a stretch, popular English-language cinema). Ultimately, the story Boyle is telling is the same as always. In their pursuit of children and teenagers with disposable income, and to offset the ever-rising costs of producing and marketing blockbusters, producers have dumbed down movies, carefully steering clear of all the risks, all the maturity and seriousness that made ‘70s movies so laudable; and leaving adult filmgoers stranded. At the same time as Boyle’s comments have gotten attention, so too has Steven Soderbergh’s speech to the 2013 San Francisco Film Festival, where he bemoans the economics that have pushed cinema (by which he means auteur cinema) out of the movies (by which he means entertainment product). Both directors are making the same argument about Hollywood today, more or less- homogenization and simplification, spectacle over story, escapism over art, etc- but Soderbergh avoids the sweeping historical generalizations that Boyle perpetuates.

From the first appearances of this story until now, there have been only two major revisions. The first is that now television, of all things, has eclipsed the movies as the Serious Art Form du jour (Boyle is right to specify writers going to television, as clearly the TV being canonized today tends to embody particular sets of literary values). The other is that as time has gone on, the moronification of Hollywood has gone from a coming storm to just the way things are. Decrying the influence of Star Wars has gone from “The End Is Nigh” to “And lo, this came to pass”; from paranoia to discontented resignation.

And so: nostalgia. Since at least the mid-1990s, there’s been a wave of nostalgia for Hollywood films of the 1970s. 1970s Hollywood has become the ultimate Good Object to posit against the Bad Object of whatever is going on in studio production at any given moment, and there has been a flood of writing along these lines. If you’re a filmmaker, 1970s Hollywood has become such an accepted shorthand that, if you want to distinguish your product from others in the marketplace, you can invoke it to show you’re doing something serious, and probably rather dark. Clearly, that’s what’s going on with Boyle in this clip: implicit is that Trance is meant to be a film that combines seriousness, artistry, and genre in such a way as to recall 1970s Hollywood. Not yet having seen Trance, I can’t say how apt this is.

For this to work, of course, the discursive keynote has to be “yearning for an unrecoverable past full of golden glories,” and this in turn depends on two assumptions:

1.     the quality of studio films in the 1970s was much higher than today, and tended to seriousness and innovation

2.     studio films today are aimed at children, and so tend to simplification and immaturity, spectacle over story or character

The problem with the first is that of selectivity. Looking back on the moment, rather than living through it, we remember our cherished objects and forget how much else was out there.  In this case, we remember The French Connection and forget McQ or Freebie and the Bean or Walking Tall. We remember and wax lyrical about the films of Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Hal Ashby, but forget Irwin Allen, Tom Laughlin and Joe Camp. Yes, we got The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Nashville, Night Moves, and Chinatown, but we also got Airport 1975 and Airport ‘77, Benji, The Towering Inferno, Oh God!, and Love Story. We got M*A*S*H, but also Whiffs and S*P*Y*S.

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Let’s look at the box office, for instance: there, in 1970, M*A*S*H, Woodstock, Little Big Man, and Catch-22 are stranded in a sea of Love Story, The Aristocats, Ryan’s Daughter, and Tora! Tora! Tora! In 1971, The French Connection came in #2, but Fiddler on the Roof was #1, and Diamonds Are Forever #3. For every Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, or Clockwork Orange, there’s a Summer of ’42 or Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The Godfather was the top in 1972, of course, but The Poseidon Adventure was #2 (albeit a distant second). And so it goes, year by year; in 1973, New Hollywood art-genre classics The Exorcist and American Graffiti sandwich the far more conventional The Sting. In 1974, the top 4 includes Towering Inferno and Earthquake as well as Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, with The Godfather Part II coming in at #5; it’s followed by Airport 1975, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, The Longest Yard, Benji, and Herbie Rides Again. 1975’s top 10 is topped by Jaws, natch. It includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, and Three Days of the Condor, but also The Return of the Pink Panther, Funny Lady, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. Etc. So in the midst of this supposed Golden Age of mature, ambitious art-genre syntheses are some of the worst films ever made in Hollywood, creaky and conservative products that the studios could have retched forth at any time in the 1950s or ‘60s. The art-genre films only thrived for a short while, too. By the time you get to the end of the decade, serious, adult films in the main have lost their box office pull. In 1978, the top 5 is made up of Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Which Way But Loose, and Heaven Can Wait, while The Deer Hunter squeaks in at #10, behind Halloween at #8 and Dawn of the Dead at #9. 1979 sees Kramer Vs. Kramer at #1 and Apocalypse Now at #4, but the only other critically notable film in the top 10 is Alien at #6.

OK, then, if the 1970s was not dominated by mature cinema for cosmopolitan adults, if it wasn’t quite the paradise of artistry that we might like to remember it being, perhaps the more crucial point is that Hollywood today doesn’t make the films for adults it clearly used to, let alone with an expectation of solid box office. It is true that in the 1970s, for a little while, serious films could do very well, encouraging producers to continue to make them until Star Wars proved a decisive influence on a return to more conservative, classical genre filmmaking oriented more to younger audiences than to adults. I’ll come back to some of the implications of that in a moment. But does it even make sense to talk at all about serious films coming out of Hollywood today, in the era of Transformers and Avengers?

Well, yes. Maybe not in the top 10, though of course I (an adult) loved The Avengers, I would happily make a case for adult themes in The Dark Knight Rises, and I think Skyfall can be thought of as adult filmmaking. But in 2012, studios also released Looper and Zero Dark Thirty (Sony); Argo, Magic Mike, and Cloud Atlas (WB); The Bourne Legacy and This Is 40 (Universal); Lincoln (Disney); and Flight and Jeff Who Lives at Home (Paramount). All of these were released under the corporate parent banner. But we also have to remember that in the 1990s, the studios started to invest in the “independent” market, forming boutique divisions to sell serious films to niche audiences. This is on the wane: WB shuttered Warner Independent Pictures, Disney no longer distributes via Miramax, etc. This has meant that indie distributors no longer compete with studios in the indie film market, but it’s also part and parcel of a trend in which the studios capture more and more of the total theatrical market with fewer films, while genuinely independent companies put out more films to compete for a piece of a smaller market share. But Universal still distributes Focus Features, which in 2012 released Moonrise Kingdom and Anna Karenina; CBS entered the game, again, with films including Seven Psychopaths; Sony Classics put out Amour, Rust and Bone, Searching for Sugar Man, Celeste and Jesse Forever, Damsels in Distress, and West of Memphis; and Fox Searchlight released Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ruby Sparks, and (not just “adult” but geriatric)The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In 2013, in fact, Fox Searchlight is distributing the new film by Danny Boyle. It’s called Trance. Surely all of these are serious films with adult concerns.

So perhaps the 1970s was not quite the era we like to remember it being, through the rosy lenses of nostalgia. Perhaps the ‘00s and ‘10s are not quite the vast wasteland that it sometimes feels like. This is not to defend Hollywood, exactly, nor even to defend Hollywood today as opposed to some mythical, prelapsarian (preLucasarian?) past. There’s no question that the ‘70s was an anomaly in terms of studio support for art cinema-inflected filmmaking. It is, rather, to question what has been lost, to achieve some specificity here. It’s not serious films, not exactly. But the fact that to look for serious films in Hollywood today takes us so quickly to their indie divisions, and away from anything coming anywhere near the box-office top 10, indicates a ghettoization of anything challenging or unconventional beyond certain set limits. You can still make your American art film with studio support, but your freedom will be dependent on keeping it within tight budgetary limits. What has been lost is any possibility of making an ambitious, art-cinematic film on a large-scale; the possibility of making a big, dark, realist epic, a film that has both ambition and breadth and scale.

Epic scale in Heaven's Gate

Epic scale in Heaven’s Gate

Heavens+Gate+4large_heavens_gate_blu-ray_131

Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

Epic scale in Apocalypse Now

ApocalypseNow2

It’s on this level in particular that the 1970s can look like a heroic period, a period in which directors dreamed of making The Great American Film the way writers used to dream of writing The Great American Novel and now, we are told, people dream of creating The Great American Television Serial. The closest thing in 2012 to a film that felt like an art-cinematic epic was The Master. Made for $32 million, distributed by the Weinstein Company, The Master had an enormous intellectual fetch, but was essentially 3 people (and some extras) in a series of rooms. Apocalypse Now, by contrast, would cost over $100 million today, while Heaven’s Gate would cost between $100 and $200 million. When ambitious filmmakers must by necessity work on small canvasses or try to smuggle their concerns into a children’s adventure film (Scorsese’s Hugo) or a superhero franchise (Nolan’s Batman films) to be able to work on a large scale, clearly cinema has lost something.

Hugo

Hugo

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

Epic scale in The Dark Knight Rises

...and mythic conflict.

…and mythic conflict.

As a scholar who has read any number of condemnations of contemporary Hollywood over the years, I do give Boyle some credit for focusing his critique on films we all actually think quite highly of rather than the usual suspects- Pixar rather than Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay. This allows him to avoid some clichés. But what does it mean, this opposition of serious, sophisticated, complex storytelling with simplified “family-friendly” fare? Does it actually work to use Pixar as a shorthand for films made for children instead of adults? If there hasn’t been any full-fledged Pixarification of Hollywood movies in general, has there at least been one of children’s films? If so, what has it been?

MADE-ON-DEMAND ROUND-UP! #2: Crime Classics, Old Hollywood and New!

From Headquarters 1Los_desaparecidos-570764158-large

1. From Headquarters (Warner Archives; William Dieterle, 1933)

Bureau of Missing Persons (Warner Archives; Roy Del Ruth, 1933)

Films of the early 1930s- particularly those from Warner Brothers, it seems to me- are full of all manner of oddities and curiosities. These are two of them, films that represent an under-recognized phase in the development of the police procedural as a trans-media genre. (Whether they are unique or represent a genuine production trend is “a researchable question” as David Bordwell would put it.) They are films that anticipate not only the television police procedural, particularly the post-Hill Street Blues ensemble procedural, but even their literary antecedents, the postwar police procedural novels of Ed McBain and, later, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Like so many of those, Bureau of Missing Persons is focused on a single division in a then-modern police station. Here, though, it is one without the obvious glamor of a homicide or even robbery division. The filmmakers try to offset that seeming deficit in a couple of ways.

The first is to frame it as a social problem picture in that quasi-exploitative early WB way. The film begins with a crawl revealing that

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…and promising to show us the inside story of one police unit devoted to finding them. It then alternates among four major characters, each of them strictly hierarchized in terms of narrative importance and screentime. While most of those characters don’t pursue single story threads, the division of the film between them resembles the hierarchical structure of TV episodes, the alternation between detectives calling to mind contemporary television drama’s a/b/c/etc. plots.

The “d” character does have a “d” plot: an officer played by Hugh Herbert (in an uncharacteristically straight role, though it has a comic payoff) is obsessed by one particular case, ceaselessly searching for one Gwendolyn Harris; the “c” character, though, played by the great Allen Jenkins, is seen pursuing a few lines of activity, including aiding the “a” character; the “b” character is the father-figure bureau captain, played by professional father-figure Lewis Stone; and the “a” character is Butch Saunders, played by Pat O’Brien as an arrogant, roughneck robbery cop who comes to the Bureau of Missing Persons.

Pat O'Brien

Pat O’Brien

Lewis Stone

Lewis Stone

Allen Jenkins

Allen Jenkins

Hugh Herbert

Hugh Herbert

Being the star, O’Brien’s Butch must undergo a character arc, learning to be sensitive to the public and to use his brains and not his brawn. The interaction between Butch and Capt. Webb is critical to that arc, bringing Stone’s character center-stage, where he then proceeds to provide moral lessons to everyone who comes through his office in any capacity. Shortly, though, the balance is tipped in typical classical Hollywood fashion. Butch gets a love interest, a woman who is the focus of his major case. Bette Davis’ Norma Roberts is a woman who seems to be looking for her husband, but whose case proves far more complicated.

Initially, Bureau of Missing Persons seems to be presenting a look inside the operations of the bureau as a whole, giving equal time to all characters and bouncing from case to case. Eventually, in a paradigmatically classical maneuver, it settles on one main story: the search for Norma’s husband, the developing romance between Butch and Norma, and the complications that ensue when it turns out that Norma is a fugitive in a murder case. It becomes a vehicle for O’Brien and Davis, two important Warners stars.

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If finally Bureau of Missing Persons turns into a more standard Hollywood star-driven policier, to the last it periodically alternates among its characters and a succession of minor plots to maintain some sense of the ensemble drama, analogous to the likes of Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight as well to television procedurals. Roy Del Ruth directs with a characteristic briskness, and an emphasis on character and performance that suits the material: the vividness of O’Brien, Stone, Jenkins, and Herbert in the end trumps the plot in pushing the ensemble to the fore.

The same gradual tipping towards a male/female pairing happens in From Headquarters, but for me it’s a particularly unexpected film, and a particularly fascinating example of a genuine police procedural in 1930s Hollywood, one put together in ways that are more common today. Like Bureau of Missing Persons, on one level, yes, it is a star-driven mystery, inflected with a romance subplot involving the chief detective (George Brent) on the case and his chief suspect (Margaret Lindsay), a melodrama of the sort- vaguely scandalous behavior, at least one aristocrat, the presence of the inevitable George Brent- that was pretty routine in the “pre-Code” era. On that level, it’s passably entertaining, despite the fact that its basic mystery plot turns out to be as banal and obvious as, well, George Brent.

A melodramatic moment between George Brent and Margaret Lindsay.

A melodramatic moment between George Brent and Margaret Lindsay.

That it drifts into that mode at regular intervals from about a third of the way through the film seems a sop to the marketplace (and the poster image, as reproduced on the DVD cover, above) as well as a bow to classical norms. But the other film here- and, let me underline, even more markedly than in Bureau, these are two different films that co-exist and interweave in a typically Warners brisk 64 minutes (which partly excuses the obviousness of the mystery)- is a genuine curio, a long-forgotten ancestor of CSI, likewise obsessed with forensic technology and procedure. Moreover, its focus on one station rather than one division provides opportunities to become a surprisingly ambitious, “realistic” survey of  law enforcement practice.

In fact, the melodramatic romance subplot, centering on Brent as the Lt., and Margaret Lindsay as the suspect/love interest, is in certain ways cleared up by the halfway point; romantic misunderstandings are cleared up and doubts are dispelled, though Lindsay remains an official police suspect for much more of the running time. Since Brent is convinced she’s innocent, and since this is not a film noir, her innocence is never in much doubt after that point for the audience, and to some extent this drains the mystery of any real stakes, though, again, the film is fast enough that it doesn’t matter. Too, the lack of stakes in itself is not that unusual in movie mystery plots of this period and style, which are typically more invested in the glamor of the star detectives/romantic partners. But those weren’t procedurals, or ensemble dramas; indeed, those films are typically based on puzzle-oriented detective literature, and From Headquarters would be a spectacularly bad example of a puzzle. In fact, though it does share characteristics with early literary police procedurals, authors like Freeman Wills Crofts still emphasized the puzzle. Instead, From Headquarters anticipates by some decades the emphasis on procedure for realism’s sake (including its more banal aspects) in postwar crime fiction, and in television procedurals; it’s practically an anachronism.

Like so many of those later procedural narratives, it is very much pronouncedly an ensemble piece, in important ways more so than Bureau, in that the case is solved not by one detective (as Butch single-handedly solves the case there), but by the cooperation and collaboration of all. Of course, where even commercial television procedurals play it pretty straight except for the token weirdo, as with Bureau, the cast of Warners contract players give it that specific urban flavor the studio did so well. The cast includes a number of sharp players, including Eugene Pallette as the bullish sergeant (I think it’s safe to say every film Eugene Palette appeared in was improved by his presence, for his physicality as well as his comic timing), Edward Ellis as the crusty, murder-relishing forensics investigator (who to a substantial degree drives the actual crime-solving), and Hugh Herbert playing more to type here as the comic relief bail bondsman.

The incomparable Eugene Pallette

The incomparable Eugene Pallette

Edward Ellis (here as the title character in The Thin Man)

Edward Ellis (here as the title character in The Thin Man)

These characters fill out the mystery plot but also giving us a feel for the entire police station, almost as a living organism, from the switchboard, to fingerprinting, to the pressroom (and who doesn’t love a wisecracking newshound?), to the crime lab. In fact, the film never leaves the station except for flashbacks to the night of the murder during witness interrogation scenes (that in this way it recalls so many urban dramas and theater pieces of the era helps cushion the more unusual procedural aspects). This is one of the few films of this era that must be described in terms of the concept of encyclopedic narration, more in the sense that Bordwell uses in describing art cinema than in the sense used by Edward Mendelsohn in describing Thomas Pynchon novels (64 minutes compared to the 776 pages of my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow). It truly endeavors to provide a survey of life at a police station, from its opening scene of a group of men being processed, to its owlish attention to technology: firing a bullet into a crate of cotton to check ballistics, checking fingerprints, performing autopsies. Brent’s lieutenant, Pallett’s sergeant, Ellis’ examiner, and Henry O’Neill’s inspector solve the murder of a wealthy cad only by working together, doggedly pursuing their suspect through a combination of procedures, from forensic investigation to good old-fashioned interrogation.

From_Headquarters-DVD-Warner_Archive-04806

William Dieterle, an underrated director in general, captures the feel of the station with a flair for realism that counters his better-known reputation for the fantastic shown in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Portrait of Jennie, and, in the Warners-programmer style, at a cracking pace besides (noting that supposedly, Michael Curtiz did some uncredited work on it as well).

Having started as a point-of-view tracking shot, here the camera shifts to an objective view of a shadow on the wall to conceal what the character sees.

Having started as a point-of-view tracking shot, here the camera shifts to an objective view of a shadow on the wall to conceal what the character sees.

His Germanic sense of style is here, too: each flashback is done in a single shot, long takes with elaborate and bravura tracking movements that, reminiscent of Murnau, oscillate between point-of-view and objective views on the scene. All in all, From Headquarters is an odd and worthwhile little film that deserves a lot more recognition in the history of the police procedural than it gets.

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3. The Carey Treatment (Warner Bros. Archives; Blake Edwards, 1972)

Sure, I liked the Pink Panther movies growing up, like most kids in the ‘70s did. But since adulthood I have hated Blake Edwards. But I do like the first 2/3 or so of Experiment in Terror, a film that at least for a while manages to avoid the crude excesses, the grotesquerie and shameless mugging of Edwards’ lumbering attempts at comedy (I have a particular distaste for The Party; for many people, even non-Edwards fans, this film is defensible, I think because Edwards restrains himself a bit so as to mimic Jacques Tati- but I hate it because it makes me yearn all the more for the lightness of touch, the subtlety and playfulness, that Tati brings to similar material). So I took a chance on The Carey Treatment, another of Edwards straight thrillers.

I’ve been wanting to see it for quite a while, in fact; I love James Coburn, and (as this post itself would indicate) I always like a ‘solid whodunit’, as Leonard Maltin labels it.

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For a while, the medical mysteries (it’s based on an early novel by a pseudononymous Michael Crichton) are engaging enough, and for a scholar of that period there is much of interest here. Outside of comedy, Edwards has a chance to indulge in the kind of realist aesthetics so prevalent then, with lashings of handheld camerawork and the like.

But even in the first couple acts, Edwards never seems to get things into a groove. The pacing lurches from scene to scene, even within scenes; the film constantly pauses to allow Coburn to mack not only on the unbearably cutesy Jennifer O’Neill but also on a slutty nurse- moments after he’s been with O’Neill at a party he’s throwing. He returns to O’Neill (with paper plates of the chili he’s serving; acceptably manly fare for a party thrown by a guy) after the nurse turns him down, only to find her a little put-out by this, but he says, basically, Hey, don’t cramp my style, baby!, and Edwards seems to want us to like him for this.

Mack daddy Coburn and simp girlfriend O'Neill

Mack daddy Coburn and simp girlfriend O’Neill

He wants us to like Coburn’s Peter Carey rather a lot, in fact, given how narcissistic, aggressive, and self-righteous he is. In fact, this is one of Coburn’s more unbearable characters, and so it remains impossible to care much about the whodunit. Then, in the last act, as usual, Edwards goes right off the deep end, ending the film with a barrage of ludicrous plot twists, and hyper-violent action pitting Carey against a maniacal masseuse (!). By the time the film was over, then, I was left with little else than the cold comfort that I felt my anti-Edwards prejudices had been confirmed again.

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4. The Brink’s Job (Universal Vault Series; William Friedkin, 1978)

This is an interesting film for a couple of reasons. In itself, it’s a brisk, entertaining heist film, and if you are a fan of that subgenre, it’s a solid entry worthy of your attention, if not quite a must see. If you are a scholar of 1970s Hollywood, it exemplifies a rather perplexing trend in that decade towards a very specific kind of nostalgia, one begins in a nostalgia for the classical Hollywood of the period in which the film is set, but goes well beyond that. If you are a fan of William Friedkin, The Brink’s Job is a bit of an oddity, a film that comes after his major triumphs but still within his prime period, one that demonstrates both his strengths and his compromises with an industry in which his standing was beginning to falter.

The presumption in watching this film, in light not only of Friedkin’s 1970s films but the twists and turns of his career across that decade, is that he took it on under pressure. He had started the decade with two films back-to-back that were sizable commercial successes AND award-winning critical successes, The French Connection and The Exorcist. As with The Godfather, these were enormously popular, cultural phenomena even, while also boasting what was then a cutting-edge style drawing on art cinema techniques and strategies, notably in terms of objective realism. Taken together, these films went a long way toward demonstrating the commercial potential of a Hollywood art-genre cinema in that decade. Retrospectively, then, they are quintessential examples of the best, or at least most interesting, of what Hollywood was doing in that decade.  But after The Exorcist, he embarked what was by all accounts a nightmarish production, one that went way over-budget and over-schedule, and was at the end of all that a complete flop: the infamous Sorcerer. For those reasons, it is often seen as a landmark on the road to the end of the 1970s Hollywood auteur cinema. A remake of a French film (Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear), that is if anything artier and less commercial than the original, the commercial and critical failure of Sorcerer means it is a landmark in the historical decline of the art-genre cinema more generally. That it is a superb, masterfully crafted, idiosyncratically bleak film, on that could only have been made when and where it was, makes it ripe for a re-appraisal that is well overdue (and which it will hopefully receive after its theatrical re-release and blu-ray release later this year). After Sorcerer’s long gestation and eventual release in 1977, The Brink’s Job follows in 1978 surprisingly quickly, so quickly that it seems doubtful that Friedkin had any hand at all in initiating the project. It is, quite evidently, a work-for-hire assignment in bringing Walon Green’s script to the screen. While it doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful, it is nonetheless the case that Friedkin’s next film, Cruising (1980), was a project he was much more invested in, and on which he seems to have had a fair amount of creative freedom. When it not only bombed at the box-office but was one of the most widely reviled films of 1980, Friedkin’s career never recovered.

Compared to all the titles that immediately surround it in Friedkin’s filmography, The Brink’s Job is a distinct anomaly. The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer, and Cruising share a controlled craftsmanship; a cool, almost Langian detachmen; and, again like Lang, a pervasive bleakness at the hearts of the worldviews they embody (in the case of The Exorcist, for instance, there’s a tension between Blatty’s sense of redemption achieved through Karras’ self-sacrifice, and Friedkin’s sense of a yawning abyss just under the surface of the everyday). The Brink’s Job hints at that kind of pessimism in Warren Oates’ boastful but cowardly demolitions expert, but otherwise the film is dominated by a fond nostalgia for it’s vision of mid-century, ethnic urban life among the working-criminal classes. It isn’t sentimental exactly, but it is suspiciously warm and boisterous, at times a cooler version of what we would get in Woody Allen’s Radio Days or Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs than even something like The Sting. At other times, unfortunately, it even turns into a knockabout slapstick comedy.

Slapstick in "The Brink's Job"

Slapstick in “The Brink’s Job”

The Sting remains an obvious touchstone, though: in The Brink’s Job too there’s the realist period depiction of city life and crime (in this case based on an historical incident), the earth-tones dominating the sets and costumes, the diffuse cinematography (seen throughout period films of the era in a visual attempt to signify ‘past-ness’), the jaunty score influenced by old-timey jazz and pop.

Period flavor

Period flavor

This nostalgia for ‘20s-‘50s  lifestyles and culture can be seen as a deracinated alternative to, but in some respects continuation of, the much more ambivalent sense of that period in Bonnie and Clyde (and the many, many ripoffs of and responses to that film, from Robert Altman to Roger Corman). For all the differences in form between those films, whether Thieves Like Us or The Sting and The Brink’s Job, and expressions of nostalgia like those of George Lucas’ for his boyhood pleasures in Star Wars, or his teenage years in American Graffiti, or the 1970s nostalgia for 1950s teen-culture generally, which, beyond American Graffiti, also encompassed Sha Na Na and Happy Days, these are clearly related trends. If one was going to think more about this, one might well read my friend Dan Marcus’ book Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics; one might also look at The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Friedkin’s first stab at period pictures, and for all its manic energy a far more cynical take on its subject.

If Friedkin’s rendition of the period crime comedy-drama is weightless, it is also a lot more restrained and, therefore, agreeable than most. There’s not many grounds to compare The Brink’s Job to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but if you’ll indulge me, Friedkin is the David Fincher to Walon Green’s Eric Roth. Smack in the middle of this, though, is the robbery itself. Now, this is not one of the top ten heist sequences or anything, but a Francophile like Friedkin was never going to miss the chance to do his riff on Rififi. So no, this sequence isn’t as gimmicky/innovative as the famously silent robbery in Jules Dassin’s film, but Friedkin clearly enjoys the technical challenges of staging a cinematic heist, and seems far more at home doing it than he is at anything else here. The heist itself is anything but clockwork as it proceeds for our heroes, and Friedkin makes a taut sequence out of it, one that largely dispenses with character-based humor, and consequently has both the precision and the chilliness of his other ‘70s films. The movie’s mixture of its elements is uneasy and a little unsatisfying, but it’s good fun, and worth studying if you like Friedkin, or ‘70s crime pictures, especially if they are period-set.