Friday, October 24, 2014


I am currently researching and writing a book about one of the premier writers of dark fantasy today, Peter Straub (Ghost Story, Shadowland, Houses without Doors, Koko, A Dark Matters, etc.). I first met and talked with Straub in 1990 in Providence, Rhode Island, when his first story collection, Houses without Doors was published. Since then, we have met sporadically—crossing paths at fantasy conventions, talking occasionally on the telephone, appearing together on my radio show in Kansas City, and enjoying several extended interviews. Our last meeting transpired two years ago at his five-story townhouse on West 85th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on the occasion of the release of his then-new novel, A Dark Matter. Soon, I will visit him again in NYC for more conversations and to research his personal archive at New York University.

Peter Straub combines the popular appeal of his longtime friend and collaborator, Stephen King, with the prestige and “literary” standing of fantasists like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Straub. In his “breakthrough” novel, Ghost Story (l979), which was adapted into a film in 1981, he took the elements of fantasy and horror that had been present in his earlier work and developed them into the full-throated Gothic expression that has marked all of his subsequent writing. His works include a short-story collection, Houses without Doors (1991), and the novels Shadowland (l982), Floating Dragon (1982), The Talisman (l984)—co-written with Stephen King, perhaps his only competitor in the American popular horror fiction market—Koko (l988), Mystery (l989), and, more recently, Black House (2001, a re-teaming with Stephen King), The Lost Boy (2003), In the Night Room (2004), A Dark Matter (2010), A Special Place (2010), and a short-story collection, Magic Terror (2000). Straub has edited the Library of America volume of H.P. Lovecraft (2005), and he has confirmed that he and Stephen King are preparing another collaboration. He has won the British Fantasy Award, the August Derleth Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the World Fantasy Award.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


My expectations run high for Mike Leigh’s new film, Mr. Turner, a dramatization of the last few years in the life of the great British landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). During the first half of the 19th century, Turner attacked his canvases with a brutal and revolutionary zeal that virtually launched Modernism as we have come to know it. If Leigh’s other biopic, the masterful Topsy-Turvy (1991), about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece, The Mikado, is any indication of his gift for the historical/biographical recreation of 19th century England, then Mr. Turner should be something special indeed.

Meanwhile, mindful of Graham Greene’s dictum that the lives of artists are the most difficult of subjects, my thoughts turn to some of my favorite films that have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to dramatize the lives and works of famous painters. I am particularly fond of the Alexander Korda-Charles Laughton Rembrandt (1936), with its vivid dramatization of the controversy attending the unveiling of “The Night Watch” and, best of all, Laughton’s moving soliloquy on the virtues of his beloved Saskia.

Artemisia (1997), Agnes Merlet’s recreation of a scandalous episode in the life and works of the early 16th century artist Artimesia Gentileschi (Valentina Cervi), is a stunning meditation on the lamentable status of women in this patriarchal world—as well as a convincing recreation of the details and processes of contemporary fresco painting.

Albert Lewin’s The Moon and Sixpence (1942), is a respectable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel about a fictionalized Paul Gauguin (George Sanders), and if nothing else, it pulls no punches in conveying the boorish, unrelenting self-centered aspects of this particular genius. And there is Martin Provost’s magnificent Seraphine (2008), about Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), an illiterate, middle-aged housekeeper whose paintings propel her to unexpected fame, while her descent into madness leads to her demise in a lunatic asylum. Here, the blazing images of flowers, fruits, and trees, transcend her stark, grubby surroundings and lifestyle.

Not everybody shares my abiding interest in biopics of artists. For example, years ago, back in during an interview in 1991 with the late Roger Ebert, I broached the subject. Now, Roger knew a thing or two about painters and painting, was an amateur collector of British watercolors, and even wrote about it in A Perfect London Walk (1985). Hence, I was eager for his opinion. “Well, the problem is,” he said, “movies like this are almost always based on potted Freudianism, where two or three childhood, or adolescent, episodes are trotted out to explain the artist’s work. I think great art is kind of inexplicable. What the movies do is cater to kind of a vulgar impulse in all of us to know or to want to understand how an artist is great and why. And so if we can find out that his mother didn’t love him or he was abandoned by a cruel girlfriend or he didn’t perform very well in the Army or something, then we can nod and say, ‘Oh, that’s why he was so good!’ Nobody would be satisfied, I think, with an artist’s biography that told the truth, which is that apart from any human attributes of this person, he simply happened to be able to do what he did as well as he did.”

Yes, that sort of tin-can psychology all too frequently mars biopics of every description. Yet, Ebert went on to admit that two films he had just seen, Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo (1990) and Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991), had succeeded in conveying not so much a biographical but a dramatic, even artistic truth—the action of the creative process itself.

The best thing about the Altman, he explained, was that it did not attempt a psychological diagnosis. “We see Van Gogh [Tim Roth] at work, not because he wanted to but because he had to. There are no explanations. It explains nothing but feels everything.” Similarly, the Rivette, Ebert continued, a four-hour film about a fictitious painter (Michel Piccoli) painting a beautiful nude model (Emmanuel Beart), is essentially one long session at the easel: “There’s this extraordinary long, long sustained passage, where he’s simply drawing her. A lot of the time the camera is simply on the paper; and he goes through pen and ink and he goes through charcoal, he works with washes, he goes on to oil. The suspense involved in watching this process taking place is actually as exciting as a thriller, I’m telling you. It’s a really good film.”

Here, I should add, the hands of Actor Piccoli are convincingly “doubled” by those of painter Bernard Dufour. Too many times, however, in too many other films, we see an actor who obviously knows nothing about painting touching an obviously empty brush to an image that’s obviously already there. And think of Charlton Heston’s impotent brush flailing at the “pre-painted” frescoes in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). The effect is rather like watching an actor who is a non-musician pretending to play a piano—think of Cornell Wilde’s unconvincing miming of Jose Iturbi’s keyboard performances of Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945)—or Anthony Perkins’s clumsy attempts to play baseball in the Jimmy Piersall biopic, Fear Strikes Out (1957). Best to stick with the tight close-ups and prolonged shots in Peter Watkins’s Edward Munch (1967) of just the painter’s hands as they assault the canvas and the etching plate in an epic battle for supremacy, establishing a compelling graphic authenticity. A particularly wry and compelling example is found in one of the finest films of this year, Tim’s Vermeer. We watch spellbound as amateur painter Tim Jenison actually creates a Vermeer painting, “The Music Lesson”—not a copy, but an original work on its own, crafted by means of optical devices and an elaborately recreated 3-dimensional set. We gain not only an insight into how Vermeer worked, but are granted enticing hints into the life, times, and circumstances of this particular painting. As a dramatic experience, the film crosses the boundary lines dividing documentary from drama, the amateur painter from the venerable master.

Indeed, Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson” is the star performer of the show. Which brings to mind another star turn by Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” (2003), in Peter Webber’s film of that name. The conception and execution of the painting is positioned at the center of this beautifully realized milieu of 17th-century Amsterdam and the illiterate young servant girl (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for the painter (Colin Firth).

It’s amusing to think of other paintings as actors in their own movies. A slashed canvas is a mute “witness” to the identity of the murderer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Landscape Paintings and their real-life counterparts are counterposed in the “Van Gogh” sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Likewise, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s images of Lizzie Siddal share screen time with actress Judith Paris’s impersonation of her in Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno (1967). No single image in the succession of sketches by the titular late 17th-century painter (Anthony Higgins) in Peter Greenaway’s edgy The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) can reveal the mystery at the heart of the film; but taken together, like a succession of shots in a montage. . . they proclaim an awful truth—and lead to the demise of the hapless painter.

The colorful religious icons of the 15th century painter Andrei Rublev in Tarkovsky’s epic film (1971) are kept “offstage,” as it were, blazing forth only in a barrage of images in the final reel. Of course, not all paintings at the center of movies are A-list actors. The Technicolor portraits of Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jenny (1949) and Hurd Hatfield in Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) are strictly B-grade performers—the first a tepid Hollywood visualization of one of Thomas Dewings’s turn-of-the century vapid women; the second a schlock nightmare straight out of Hammer Films stock company.

Sometimes just a blank canvas can speak eloquently enough. In the aforementioned Rembrandt (1936), Charles Laughton’s titular hero sits at the easel as he grieves the loss of his beloved Saskia. “I have to paint her,” he whispers to the empty chair where lately she sat, “before her memory fades.”

So we wait impatiently for the holiday release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. It is the only biopic to date about England’s most celebrated painter. What, we wonder, will Leigh make of this prickly and decidedly eccentric loner, and of what Leigh describes as his “cinematic” paintings, such as the roiling “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and the furiously grim “The Slave Ship”?

“We Are Doing God’s Work!”

This comment is no mere whimsy. It reflects the attitudes of those dedicated and stalwart film and sound preservationists currently laboring in the trenches to bring “lost” and deteriorating materials back to the public’s eyes and ears. To quote preservationist Seth Berkowitzs of the Cineric Company, speaking in August 2014 at the annual Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), “I love all digital restoration tools; they are doing God’s work!”

Indeed, in the face of the imminent disappearance of celluloid film in the next decade or so, our primary access to our motion picture legacy will be through digital scanning devices, whether in theaters, mobile devices, or home viewing. The importance of the development and funding of these technologies, particularly the 4K High-Resolution processes, to extract all the significant data in a frame of film cannot be underestimated. What some are calling “The Future Is 4K” is nothing short of a “last-minute rescue” in the time-honored Hollywood tradition, perhaps the most significant technical transformation of movies since the coming of sound in the late 1920s. The last few years have literally seen and heard 4K digital restorations in theaters and on Blu Ray/DVD of such classic titles as THE WIZARD OF OZ, DR. NO, CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND, PINOCCHIO, THE GODFATHER and soon, for you film buffs and scholars out there, the CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, the classic all-black Fox musical, STORMY WEATHER, and the legendary APU TRILOGY of the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

This summer I attended AMIA’s three-day conference , THE REEL THING XXXIII, 21-23 August 2014, at the Mary Pickford Center in Hollywood. This annual event brings together archivists and preservation/restoration specialists from all over the world to discuss and present their latest findings in film and sound preservation. The entire conference was a revelation. Granted, at times, things got very technical as engineers and technicians talked about current developments in 4K digital scanning. But for the most part, each of the presentations had great relevance to students of film/media history, not to mention the public at large. For example, there were presentations/screenings on “Archiving 65mm Titles on Film,” “Audio Restoration in a 4K World,” the “Bing Crosby Project” (the restoration of Crosby’s Dictabelt Recordings), “The Speed of Cinema” (a history of pre-digital alternatives in frame rates and shutters for silent and sound film production and projection), “Recovery of the sound discs for Fairbanks’s The Iron Mask,” and “Stormy Weather: A Case Study in Sound Restoration.” Of special interest to me were programs on the 4K restorations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Spielberg’s Duel, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, and an early Hungarian silent film by Michael Curtiz, The Exile (1915). There was even a real-life “last-minute-rescue” in the best Hollywood tradition—“The Satyajit Ray Restoration Project” is an ongoing global initiative sponsored by the Academy Film Archives, Criterion, the L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, and the Indian Archives that is saving Ray’s original negatives from the ravages of a lab fire.

Among the participants in the conference were two Jayhawks, graduates of the Film and Media Studies Depart. MICHELLE WINN and BRIAN BARTELT. Michelle is working at Disney in the Restoration and Preservation Department. She is pictured here with the director of the department, Theo Gluck. She graduated with an FMS degree in 2003. Brian graduated in 2001 with a BGS degree in Film Studies and is working at Post Haste Sound, which is currently working on the Bing Crosby Sound Restoration Project . Brian participated in hosting FMS seniors as part of the @4hollywoodhawks 2014 ‪#‎CareerWeek. He is pictured here with the original Dictaphone equipment used by Bing Crosby.

The screenings throughout the three days brought us dazzling images and crystal-clear sounds that would have been otherwise lost forever. Projects like these are a testament to the vital importance of current digital restorations. To be sure, there are those who linger nostalgically over the good old days of pre-digital restoration processes, where image grain and sound blips were accepted and taken for granted. What the 4K restorations provide, by contrast, are sights and sounds so clean and clear they look better than what was originally shown in theater. The same die-hards who privilege vinyl records lament this sanitization. “When you do the 4K transfer and cleanup of my films,” says film director Jim Jarmusch, “please leave some of the blemishes so I can remember that I shot them on film!”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Despite the recent Criterion release of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the name Peter Weir seems not to be on very many lips these days. Yet, mention this film, along with The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander, and the man’s name comes up readily enough. It seems that Peter Weir has committed the unpardonable sin of taking too much time between films; worse, he has told me in a recent letter that he has no immediate projects in mind. Perhaps at age 68 he prefers to enjoy a well-deserved retirement... or just enjoy the luxury of taking his own sweet time before embarking on another project.

Only fourteen films in 38 years. Must we conclude that his four-year absence since The Way Back has engendered a kind of anonymity that renders him irrelevant to today’s film enthusiasts and scholars? Do we repeat the charge, “But what have you done for us lately???” Certainly it is true that my new book, Peter Weir: Interviews, published this year by Mississippi University Press, has garnered many enthusiastic readers so far, but has been ignored by critics. reviewers and journalists. Do we blame the book or the man? As David Thomson admits in his Foreword to the book, “He does not seem like a movie director... He has stayed away from the busy world of reputations while building the unquestioned status of one of the great directors at work.”

We might as well quench our interest and enthusiasm for other directors who have committed a worse sin, who have quit the public sphere because they, well, because they died. What use for yet another volume on Hitchcock and Hawks, Minnelli and Mann? Why another Life of Kubrick, who made far fewer films and took his own sweet time between them?

No, I must admit I am baffled at what seems these days a public neglect of the name Peter Weir. Add another riddle to the prevailing mystery that surrounds his best films.

Unless I deserve some of the blame. During my sojourn in Australia, while interviewing Weir, his cameraman Russell Boyd, and colleagues at the National Film and Sound Archives in Sydney, I discovered and attempted to reveal a man far more interesting in his own way than the riddles he propounds in Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and The Truman Show. I encountered a man behind his mysteries who is deeply humane, modest, and articulate about his life and work. His modesty is all too real: “I am only a jester with cap and bells,” he told me, “who goes from court to court.”

I repeat, must his recent inactivity consign his name to the dustbin of film history? Or can we hope, at the very least, that his work, like the grin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, will stay on after the rest of him has disappeared?