Saturday, April 5, 2008

Let's Play Two!

Meteorologically, today is the nicest day we have had in Chicago since a freakish 65-degree sunny day came and went in early January. The calendar says spring, but the Cubs played their first home game last Monday in a 45 degree mist. With the exception of today it still seems like spring is a ways off. However, today's nice weather got me thinking about baseball and more specifically baseball films.

Baseball pictures by and large stink. I like Field of Dreams and Bull Durham and a lot of The Natural. Eight Men Out is great, but that is more historical than anything else- plus who can resist John Sayles and our friend Studs Terkel as the writers Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton. But more often than not baseball films are garbage- especially if you are a baseball fan. William Bendix as Babe Ruth? Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig? The worst is Anthony Perkins as Jimmy Piersall in Fear Strikes Out. Trust me Perkins is scarier as a ball player than as a motel keeper in Psycho.

A problem I have with baseball films is that even the best baseball film is not better than the experience I have going to an average mid-season major league game. (Major League, the film is not a great movie, either.) And going to a minor league game is even better. It's just a blast and so much less commercial and more "joy of the game" than Big League ball-and way better than a bad baseball movie.

The best baseball film I have seen is a documentary HBO did years ago called When It Was a Game. They used home movies from fans from the 1930s- 1960s and voice over of real ball players to describe the experience. Some highlights include 16mm color film from the 1938 World Series between the Cubs and Yankees- color footage of Lou Gehrig. Take that Gary Cooper! Also, ball players like Enos Slaughter talk about how they played for the love of the game. They even had to bring their own sandwiches to eat between games of doubleheaders.

For you youngsters doubleheaders are what teams used to play on holidays and most Sundays so they could take the next day for travel. The owners wised up and realized they could maximize profits by playing 81 home dates, hence the opening days on in snowy March and a World Series that bumps into Halloween.

But of course you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.


p.s. I know that is a photo of Jackie Robinson and not Ernie Banks-the source of "Let's Play Two." Robinson is the most important player in baseball history- he is emblematic of the idea of when it was a game. His picture deserves to be here- just as it is a good thing that his number 42 has been retired by all major league teams.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Film Production 2

The Flashpoint Academy film students just finished production on their second films. This is a picture from the set one day last week.

Before they embarked on these films I sat in on a series of production meetings and was struck by how much the students have grown since their first productions last November. I would like to chalk it up to brilliant teaching on my part, but in fairness I think the students did most of the heavy lifting on this one. Of course they learned from their first films, but then in January and February they observed and worked with professionals on the set of The Intruder, our Production-in-Action film, and finally in the weeks leading up to this production they pulled it all together.

We had a group meeting before they set out where all the Film and Recording Arts came together and I told them how I was witnessing their transformation from film students into filmmakers. This transformation was evident all over the place; in their language- I have never heard as many people throw around the term "script lock" before and in their demeanor- they stood taller, they were more confident. They didn't assume anything, but sought out answers to problems. This attitude was a big difference from their last productions.

This week and for the next two the students are huddled around their Avids editing the films with delivery set for April 18. It's exciting to watch their progression, but at the same time I hope the students reflect on their own personal growth and development. They have come a long way in a very short time.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

David Lean

Perhaps my favorite part of the last Oscar telecast was when Jon Stewart pulled out an iphone and said he was watching Lawrence of Arabia. In that moment everything good about technology and bad about the film business came into focus. Funnier yet was when he turned the phone on its side and said you really have to see it in wide screen.

David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia's director, would have turned 100 on March 25. Lean is the person who comes to my mind when I think about directors who make BIG pictures. David Lean was the epic director.

David Lean began as a film editor. Michael Powell, another one of my favorite directors, said David Lean was the best editor he ever worked with. And Powell knows something about good editors- he was married to Thelma Schoonmaker who has won three Oscars for editing Martin Scorsese films.

In his early films as director Lean worked with Noel Coward- no slouch either. In Blithe's Spirit Lean actually makes the ghost a little scary, not something Coward probably had in mind. Lean then went on to direct perhaps the two best film versions of Dickens' novels- Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Those opening images of Great Expectations are beautiful and haunting- no mean feat as the opening pages of the book are about as good an start to a novel as you will find. Twist, too, is great despite Alec Guinness' over the top and perhaps anti-Semitic Fagin.

Powell, Coward, Dickens and Guinness are great for starters but come on dumb filmmaker get to the big films. OK. How's this for big films: Summertime (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai, (1957) Lawrence of Arabia, (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965). That's a pretty decent career in that one ten year stretch. If you haven't seen those films do yourself the favor- just not on an iphone.

To illustrate some of Lean's directorial genius I am going to share a couple of interesting (to me at least) attention to detail moments from Lawrence of Arabia. 1) In the famous scene in the desert when Ali appears- while it seems like all we see is sand- Lean's art department has put coal in the desert helping us draw our attention down the darker lines and towards the character. Lean was forcing us to see what he wanted us to see. 2) The costume designers put Peter O'Toole in more translucent robes as the film progressed to make Lawrence more Angelic.

Those are details that aren't taught in film schools, but perhaps should be. (Note to self, start teaching it!)

One more thing about David Lean. He made his last film when he was 76 years old- A Passage to India. For that film he was nominated for Oscars as Best Director, Editing and Adapted Screenplay. Has anyone ever been nominated for an Oscar for writing AND editing the same film? No bad for an old man. I hope to do that when I am 76.


Check out Anthony Lane's article on David Lean in the current New Yorker. Lane's piece was the inspiration for this post.