Movies

 

All of the following quotes, unless otherwise referenced, are from the book, MOVIE-MADE AMERICA by Robert Sklar (N.Y.: Random House, 1994).  This book is used by various university film courses including at MTSU the Journalism and RATV 3000 course entitled "Introduction to Motion Pictures".

 

"…motion pictures in their largest sense (are) a mass medium of cultural communication" (p. ix).

 

"…the nature of their content and control helps to shape the character and direction of American culture as a whole" (p. x).

 

Therefore, if you want to influence your culture, you need to influence the movies that help shape it.

 

"In the case of movies, the ability to exercise cultural power was shaped not only by the possession of economic, social or political power but also by such factors as national origin or religious affiliation, not to speak of far more elusive elements, such as celebrity or personal magnetism.  The movies were the first medium of entertainment and cultural information to be controlled by men who did not share the ethnic or religious backgrounds of the traditional cultural elites: that fact has dominated their entire history, engaging them in struggles on many fronts, and sometimes negating the apparent advantage enjoyed by men who otherwise adhered faithfully to the proper capitalist values and conservative political beliefs" (p. x).

 

"As a business, and as a social phenomenon, the motion pictures came to life in the United States when they made contact with working-class needs and desires" (p. 16).

 

"In the early movies, wit and satire could be used as means not of preserving but of subverting authority and social control.  Cops, schools, marriage, middle-class manners, all the fundamental institutions of the social order, were made to look as foolish and inane as the lowlife characters.  No wonder working-class audiences found movies so much to their liking---among all the other good reasons, movies gave palpable expression to their feelings of hostility and resentment against those who brought misery into their lives.  Order was invariably restored, of course, but not before authority and respectability had had their pretenses unmasked" (p. 105).

 

"As the Progressive movement began to take form early in the century, it drew much of its energy from the middle classes' discovery that they had lost control over---and even knowledge of---the behavior and values of the lower orders; and the movies became prime targets of their efforts to reformulate and reassert their power" (p. 18).

 

"If the traditional elites were really concerned about the general welfare rather than about preserving their social and economic status, there were other aspects of industrial civilization more harmful to health and happiness than the movies, as Horace M. Kallen pointed out.  'The fact is,' he wrote, 'that crowded slums, machine labor, subway transportation, barren lives, starved emotions, and unreasoning minds are far more dangerous to morals, property and life than any art, any science or any gospel---certainly than any motion picture'" (p. 124).

 

"…workingmen and immigrants had found their own source of entertainment and information---a source unsupervised and unapproved by the churches and schools, the critics and professors who served as caretakers and disseminators of the official American culture" (pp. 18-19).  Keep in mind that this was in the early days of the movies when they were silent films and therefore the audience did not have to understand English in order to understand the films.  Also, when English words came on the screen, their English-speaking friends could translate for them, which would enhance their ability to learn the new language of English.

 

Over time this changed as the movie moguls wanted to expand their audiences into the middle class and built fancy theaters and toned down the social messages in their movies.  "Moviemakers not unnaturally sought the subjects and treatments that pleased the most and alienated the fewest" (p. 91). 

 

An example of just how supportive of the status quo the movie moguls became is in the area of politics.  "The most blatant instance of overt political action by the producers came in 1934 and may have convinced movie workers to adopt their own political stance, since they were otherwise open to political as well as career manipulation by their bosses.  In the California Democratic primary for governor, Upton Sinclair scored a stunning upset victory with his proposal for a quasi-socialist recovery program for the state, EPIC (End Poverty in California).  Sinclair had few friends in the party hierarchy; President Roosevelt himself was less than lukewarm about the possibility of Sinclair as California's governor challenging the New Deal with his radical schemes.  The movie tycoons shared the President's antipathy: Sinclair's program included high taxes on upper income brackets and on studio profits.

 

"They responded with an astonishing act of political propaganda.  Under the direction of Irving Thalberg, MGM film crews prepared phony newsreels purportedly showing average people being interviewed about the election.  A white-haired woman says she will vote for Sinclair's opponent 'because I want to save my little home'; a bearded man states his preference for Sinclair because  'his system worked vell in Russia, vy can't it work here?'  These were distributed free to theaters.  Studio employees earning more than $100 a week were  'asked' to give a days pay to the Republican candidate's campaign, with veiled threats of reprisal to those who refused.  Sinclair was soundly defeated, and the studio heads took credit for a job well done (though the Hearst press in California was even more virulent in its attacks on Sinclair, and there is no evidence to indicate which medium had the greater impact)" (p. 244).

 

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY

 

In 1903, Edwin S. Porter created "the first classic American work of the new medium, The Great Train Robbery" (p.  24).    This movie "used 20 separate shots, not counting the close-up of a bandit firing at the camera (sometimes used at the beginning, sometimes at the end, and often at both.).  The story unfolded over nearly a dozen different locations, indoors, in or on the train, beside the train and in hilly, wooded terrain.  No movie before it contained such a variety of scene or such swift movement from place to place.  For the first time, a motion picture demonstrated the speed and spaciousness required of a storytelling medium" (p. 27). 

 

"In the years of his greatest success, 1903 to 1905, Porter's principal legacy to his fellow filmmakers came from the combination of suspense and movement.  Will firemen get to the burning building in time to save mother and child?  Will the posse capture the bandits before they get away?  Rescue movies…were races against time.  But in Porter's Western film there were two groups racing, one against the other---or more precisely, one with a head start and the other trying to catch up, a chase.  Chases provide at least twice as much opportunity for more shots, locations and movement…" (pp. 27 & 29).

 

"The growing notoriety of nickelodeons brought movies to the attention of the middle-class men and women who served the institutions of social control---the churches, reform groups, some segments of the press, and ultimately the police.  When they investigated they found that the producers of the new entertainment were people with backgrounds and tastes similar to their own, as opposed to theater managers, who, like their customers, were often recently arrived immigrants.  Although they wanted to exert their authority over the producers, it was clear that the exhibitors were both a more vulnerable and a more acceptable target for attack.

 

"Police raids, padlocks and confiscated property were vital signs of moral endeavor to those who were outraged by the immoral potentialities of motion pictures, far more satisfying than quiet efforts to influence producers in private.  Moreover, to close a theater or seize a film cut off revenue for all segments of the movie trade, from theater owners to producers.  A campaign against theaters for showing movies considered disreputable would get the message to producers without the difficulty of confronting them directly.

 

"Suppression began erratically with seizures in some cities and police censorship in others.  It reached an early culmination in New York City, the center of motion-picture production and the largest market, when every movie theater in the city was suddenly ordered closed during Christmas week 1908" (p. 30.)

 

The producers got the message and developed a "regulatory body of their own choice" (p. 31).

 

Those who wanted to control the content of movies were more willing to directly attack the producers when the center of production moved to California and the producers were more likely to be Jewish.

 

D.W. Griffith

 

David Wark Griffith is considered by many to be the greatest and the most notorious name in film history.   At the early stage of his development "He was an overworked employee of a company engaged in illegal restraint of trade, for whom he produced an average of nearly two films a week over a five-year period" (p. 49).  I call attention to the volume of his early and insignificant work because it is often by doing, doing, and more doing that you begin to develop the basic skills which then make it possible for you to release your creative genius.  "Griffith…came to movies as another failed playwright and actor, looking for a job" (p. 50).  Although his early films were not great, they still were unique.  He moved the camera so close to the actors that "For the first time viewers could see facial expressions throughout the film" (p. 51).

He also "told two parallel stories, switching from the wife to the marooned husband" (p. 51).

 

Griffith started out trying to be a writer and turned to acting to make a living.  "He had been an actor for twelve years with little to show for it when he entered movies…In 1906, age thirty-one, newly married to an actress and settled in New York, he suddenly began to succeed: he sold a play for $1,000, had a poem published…and a short story accepted…But the play…closed" (p. 51).  "The movie studios were looking for actors and stories…He became known as an actor with ideas, and when Biograph's regular director became ill and his replacement proved unsatisfactory, the company managers accepted an employee's suggestion to try Griffith" (p. 52).   "He knew very little about movies.  He had not even been a particularly satisfactory film actor…" (p. 52).  "A film director had one…task…which had no precise counterpart in literature or drama: he had to provide the film with continuity" (p. 52).

 

CONTINUITY

 

"At the basic level, continuity meant telling a story without confusing the audience.  In the early years of motion pictures there was persistent concern about how much audiences could understand and how much they had to be shown or told about changes in time or location or the mere movement of characters from room to room.  Theatergoers could find this information in the program, in the division of a play into acts and scenes.  Readers of novels had chapter breaks.  Directors of the early silents came more and more to use printed titles for such stage directions---'They Return Home' or 'Five Years Later.'  But continuity also had a deeper meaning: it signified the form of motion-picture narrative, the complex of stylistic devices used in telling a screen story.  Continuity encompassed the entire craft of filmmaking---the choice of setting and lighting, the placement of camera and actors, the intercutting of shots and the timing of scenes, the pace and interest of the plot.  Continuity was not merely keeping audiences clear about what was happening, it was holding their attention, perhaps making them excited, captivated, enthralled" (p. 52).

 

"Thanks to the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection, nearly all of Griffith's more than four hundred and fifty Biograph films have been recovered and restored for viewing.  Not all of them, of course, contributed to the growth of his style: he worked too quickly for that.  But if one looks at his Biograph output, week by week and month by month over the years from 1908 to 1913, his development becomes strikingly clear.  Gradually he moved the camera closer and closer to the players, so that by 1912, indoors or outdoors, he shot primarily in medium closeups, completely eliminating any feeling of a theatrical stage.  Gradually he increased the number of shots…Gradually he increased the complexity and variety of movements within his frame…Year after year he gave more detailed attention to natural and artificial lighting, using side lighting for the effect of firelight, backlighting with faces and focused lighting on individuals.  By 1912 he had become a master of the effects of chiaroscuro, of light and dark shading, in a motion-picture frame.  He improved his skill as a director of actors, slowing down the movements of his players, creating a quieter yet more intense acting style commensurate with a close camera and a larger figure on the screen.  Each year he found new ways to increase the tempo and build the tension of his dramatic chase and rescue films: he mounted a camera on the back of a car to shoot another car speeding behind it, and another time shot a racing train from a moving car; from parallel action he moved to multiple crosscut action, using three separate story lines instead of two.  He developed a rudimentary rhythm in his suspense sequences with shorter and shorter shots and cuts not only from action to action---from the pursued to the pursuer to the rescuer---but also from medium shots to long panorama shots to close-ups" (p. 54).  Griffith's two most famous films are Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  These films proved his greatness and also proved to be his downfall. 

 

"Griffith was the first artist of the moving image, the first to reproduce on the screen a complete world, the likes of which no one had seen before" (p. 56).

Follow the Money

 

"Before World War I, with few exceptions, expansion of the motion-picture industry was financed through resources generated internally, from profits of production, distribution and exhibition, from investments in theaters, exchanges and studios.  From the war to the onset of the Great Depression, however, continued development required the assistance and intervention of outside capital: from investment bankers, commercial banks and corporations in the period of rapid growth, consolidation and vertical integration of the industry's three branches between 1917 and the early 1920s, and from the communications, electronic and radio industries at the time of the changeover from silent to talking pictures in the mid- and late-1920s.

 

"Dependence on outside funding meant dependence on stockholders, creditors and financial experts, whose sense of economic order sometimes clashed with methods in the motion-picture world" (p. 141).

 

UNITED ARTISTS…how to be in control

 

"Four of the most famous names in motion pictures, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, were…persuaded to pool their independent productions and create their own distributing firm, United Artists" (p. 148).   This is a very important historical lesson about controlling your destiny.  But how do you apply it to current conditions?

 

Selznick gives us a part of the answer: "When Selznick left MGM to found his own company he wrote his treasurer: 'There are only two kinds of merchandise that can be made profitably in this business---either the very cheap pictures or the expensive pictures'" (p. 191).  If you want control, you most likely are going to have to create cheap pictures.  Remember, you lose control when you go and borrow money.

 

Another part of the answer about control lies in the tasks you do.  "Writing was an individual art, movie writing at best a collaboration, at worst an alien, uncreative act.  'The fact that the producer can change and destroy and disregard his work,' Raymond Chandler said of the screen writer, 'can only operate to diminish that work in its conception and to make it mechanical and indifferent in execution.'  Even among the most successful screen writers there was a yearning to move from the bottom nearer to the top of the collaborative hierarchy. ..From the 1930s corps of top-flight writers, Preston Sturges, John Huston, Billy Wilder and Joseph L.  Mankiewicz moved on to become prominent as directors.  And some writers even joined the ranks of their adversaries, the producers" (p. 241).  So, if you want to be in control, you often have to develop skills in more than one area of the business.

 

BLACKLISTING AND THE COMMUNISTS

 

One of the most infamous eras of Hollywood oppression was related to the blacklisting of anyone who the system labeled as a communist or communist sympathizer.  Writers, actors, musicians, anyone that was visible was vulnerable.  "The period of anti-Communist madness in American life was a time when accusations without proof were immediately granted the status of truth; when guilt was assumed, and innocence had to be documented" (p. 266).

 

The impact on the film industry was very tragic.  "For the first half-century of American movies the industry had had a fascinating and curious relationship with the American public.  It had always stood slightly aslant the mainstream of American cultural values and expressions, seeking to hold its working-class audience while making movies attractive to middle-class tastes, and therefore never quite in step with other forms of cultural communication.  Movies were always less courageous than some organs of information and entertainment, but they were more iconoclastic than most, offering a version of American behavior and values more risque, violent, comic and fantastic than the standard interpretation of traditional cultural elites.  It was this trait that gave movies their popularity and their mythmaking power.  And it was this trait that their anti-Communist crusade destroyed.  Creative work at its best could indeed not be carried on in an atmosphere of fear, and Hollywood was suffused with fear.  It dared not make any movie that might arouse the ire of anyone…the studios tried to avoid making movies that would offend any vocal minority.  As a result they lost touch both with their own past styles and with the changes and movements in the dominant culture at large." (p. 267-8).

 

Might not this "fear" also create a niche?  Is this what the independents should focus their attention upon?

 

HOW TO DISTRIBUTE THE PICTURE

 

"After most of the major motion picture companies suffered severe financial losses in 1969 and 1970, one thing was clear: the old ways of film marketing and distribution no longer worked to their advantage.  These involved what was known as 'platform' distribution---opening a film in a small number of big-city theaters and then over months expanding its release to smaller cities, suburbs, and towns, as reviews and promotion gradually spread word about the movie into the hinterland.

 

"By 1970, the drawbacks to this method were apparent.  Television had shaped a more national entertainment culture, with a shorter attention span and faster obsolescence for cultural products. (Emphasis added).

 

"There was less of a hinterland, as small-town and neighborhood theaters had closed by the thousands, and fewer films were being made to service the theaters that remained.   Finally, in the Vietnam War era interest rates rose sharply, making it imperative for film companies to realize income more quickly so as to pay off their loans and not see their profits disappear as interest.

 

"All these factors made speed of distribution a high priority.  'Saturation' booking was an alternative approach that had been used in the past as a kind of dumping strategy.  The idea was to get the most out of a weak film by releasing it to a large number of theaters simultaneously, without the expense of a lengthy advertising campaign.  Adapting this method to major films was risky.  It would involve substantially higher prerelease expenditures on advertising and promotion, amounting to sums that equaled or exceeded the costs of production.  It seemed an all-or-nothing gamble: a flop meant total failure, a loss of millions and no second chance.  The potential overrode the risk"  (pp. 323-4).

 

How can a small independent compete in such an environment?  Well, you can develop your picture, get it accepted at Sundance, have a major studio pick it up and then they pay for all these distribution and promotion costs.  However, other alternatives exist.

 

"Cassavetes's powerful A Woman Under the Influence gained honors and profits, though he broke with the system and distributed the film himself (pp. 324-5).

 

Are you willing to develop films for a smaller market?  One that has not been so corrupted by television's influence that the audience is able to appreciate a quality film that requires a longer attention span than the action flick that is dependent on one explosive special effects scene after another?  Can we return to our roots and begin to make more socially conscious films?