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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

American Pantheon Filmmakers

One of the most interesting books on filmmakers from the 1960s was released the year that I graduated from college. It became my indispensable desk reference for quick research about the production output of American directors and precisely where the writer placed them in his ranking system.

36 years later Andrew Sarris' tome, The American Cinema - Directors and Directions - 1929 - 1968 still rings true; the author's judgment still accurate, although I still differ with his judgment of David Lean.

I thought of Mr. Sarris' work recently when Paramount announced that they were about to release two DVDs - one a new release of a new production, the other an example of the filmmaker's early work. I was thrilled by the announcement.

To use Mr. Sarris' verbiage, the filmmaker in question fits firmly within what I would consider the 2004 version of his Pantheon Directors.

In 1968 the list was as follows:

Charles Chaplin, Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg and Orson Welles. While I would have added David Lean to this list, I can't quibble with the others present.

Any list of this sort if obviously a personal thing, based upon how one relates to the various films as one sees them.

That said, my current list of American Pantheon filmmakers would be a short one.

In alphabetical order:

Francis Coppola
Philip Kaufman
Martin Scorsese
Steven Spielberg

Short and sweet.

But while everyone on the planet at all attuned to film is aware of three of these gentleman, the fourth may come as a surprise.

Philip Kaufman, at 67, has directed twelve films. As a writer he was responsible for several more inclusive of The Outlaw Josey Wales*, the story for a Steven Spielberg film, Raiders of the Lost Ark* as well as the creator of the characters for Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade*.

As a director he gave us The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, The White Dawn* (just released by Paramount), the re-make of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers*, The Wanderers, The Right Stuff*, The Unbearable Lightness of Being*, Henry & June*, Rising Sun*, Quills* and Twisted*.

His production of The Right Stuff* placed him firmly in my Pantheon. I was lucky enough to catch The Right Stuff* in a 70mm 6 track stereo print, beautifully projected at the Plitt in Century City. His name was held there by Unbearable Lightness* and Henry & June*.

His latest, Twisted*, the other new DVD from Paramount, is a terrific thriller that enabled him to work on his home turf, San Francisco. It's a fine film made by someone with a feel and passion for the city.

I hadn't seen The White Dawn* in decades, and had actually mis-remembered much of it. The film is an interesting cross between Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Endurance and Robert Gardiner's ethnographic documentary, Dead Birds. It tells the story of a small group of whalers who are separated from their ship, and saved from a frigid death by a tribe of Eskimos.

No car chases; no special effects; just a wonderful film, beautifully photographed and produced under less than studio conditions. It would be unfair to discuss it further, but I'll simply place it in my highly recommended category, along with Twisted*.

Those of you who may be unfamiliar with Mr. Kaufman's work have some catching up to do. With the exception of his earliest work and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, all are available on DVD.

And if anyone is unfamiliar with The Right Stuff*, get a copy, turn up your volume and enjoy one of the great films of the second half of the twentieth century.

Fox Studio Classics

Fox has released the 22ndc and 23rd (or 24th if one counts Sunrise) DVD in their continuing superb Studio Classics series.

A 1938 production, Alexander's Ragtime Band*, was one of the earlier Fox musicals to have a historical background. It featured a 23 year old Alice Faye, already a Fox staple, and Tyrone Power, two years her senior, as Alexander.

While Ms. Faye chose to leave the screen after a casting dispute in 1945, she had chalked up a string of 31 appearances in only 11 years. She returned to the screen in 1962 with a role in State Fair, and made several appearances thereafter.

Mr. Power, who began as a child actor billed as Tyrone Power, Jr., worked his way into more mature roles by the mid-1930s and stayed popular as a leading man until his premature death in 1958 at the age of 45, during the production of Solomon and Sheba. He was replaced in that film by Yul Brunner. Mr. Power had major or starring roles in almost fifty motion pictures during his career which spanned 33 years.

I've seen Alexander's Ragtime Band over the years, and have never seen it look as it does on this DVD, which is up to the standards set by Fox for the series. The one slight hiccup in the entire series has lyrics missing to the title song in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie*.

Number 24 in the series is Nunnally Johnson's Three Faces of Eve*, an important and beautiful black and white CinemaScope production, photographed by Stanley Cortez, one of the masters of black and white cinematography, responsible for The Magnificent Ambersons.

A further examination of the credits reveals that the film was edited by Marjorie Fowler, who was Nunnally Johnson's daughter. Ms. Fowler was editor on productions such as Stopover Tokyo, Separate Tables, Elmer Gantry and the 70mm production, Dr. Doolittle. She was married to editor Gene Fowler, jr., who cut films such as The Woman in the Window, Hangmen Also Die and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Their late daughter Kim, carried on the tradition as a Foley artist.

Another recent release of Fox is the new anamorphic special edition of Predator*. To my eye (as a proponent of film grain) Predator* looks as it should and comes recommended.

New from Miramax & Disney

In my last column I questioned the quality of the latest Miramax releases via Disney. Cold Mountain especially became the poster child for the discussion.

A continuing on-line discussion at HTF brought to light some additional interesting facts. We were joined by a representative of the post house responsible for the work, who seemed to join the group with an interest in finding the reasons behind the problems, once they were acknowledged. I'm still hopeful that he'll return with a report and an assessment of how to raise the quality of future releases. Lately there has been only silence.

After the last column went up, I had a chance to view Disney's new special edition of The Princess Diaries*, a sweet, enjoyable film for all ages, and with a superior transfer and release. This would seem to point to Disney not being the center of the problems earlier discussed.

Most recently I sampled Disney's new DVD of Aladdin*, to which HTF's David Boulet attached a glowing review.

I concur. The presentation of Aladdin* is spectacular. The packaging is of interest as the folks at Disney have even printed the cloud motif on the inside of the sleeve containing the ultimate packaging which will be kept. A nice touch which will probably never be noticed by the millions adding this title to their libraries.

I have only one query in regard to the release.

Why, as the DVD packaging claims, would this film need to be "digitally restored?"

What is there to "restore?"

The original production was, as far as I know, digitally rendered.

Those digital files, which should still exist in some archived state, were used to create an SE (sequential exposure) negative. Whether a color negative or interpositive was also recorded out, I don't know.

But with these original elements still extant…

A Tale of Two Aspect Ratios…

Among a number of fine classics to come our way recently from Paramount was a 1954 production, The Country Girl*.

Based upon a play by Clifford Odets, this George Seaton directed drama stars Bing Crosby, William Holden and Grace Kelly in a drama of the interrelationships of an alcoholic actor (Crosby), hired for what might be his comeback by director (Holden). All three give performances more than worth the $10 price of admission.

The Country Girl* won Academy Awards for both Best Actress (Kelly) and Best Screenwriting (Seaton), in addition to other nominations.

What I found technically interesting about this film was that 1953-54 was the period during which projection of spherical 1.37:1 films were being projected at 1.66:1 or wider. I sampled a number of scenes at 1.37, and then at 1.78.

With the exception of a single shot, the film played perfectly at 1.78:1, zoomed to fit the 16:9 monitor, with the image quality holding well in spite of the enlargement.

For those who wonder how different aspect ratios might affect productions of this era, here is your chance to experiment with a superb film. Highly recommended.

New Noir from Warner

From Warner Bros. set of noir titles came Gun Crazy*, aka Deadly is the Female, a 1949 Joseph H. Lewis film released originally via United Artists.

Beautifully rendered in black and white, Gun Crazy* sets the stage for Bonnie and Clyde*, which would follow two decades later.

Along with Out of the Past*, The Set-up*, Murder, My Sweet* and The Asphalt Jungle, this set of discs makes a wonderful initial dent into the world of cinematic noir. Hopefully, there will be more to come.

In 70mm

Joseph Conrad wrote: " If you want to know the age of the earth look upon the sea in a storm."

Those words, spoken by Jack Hawkins in Richard Brooks' beautiful 1965 production of Lord Jim* serve as not only the introduction to the film, but as a reminder of the lead character's mindset, as played by Peter O'Toole. Photographed by Freddie Young in Super Panavision 70, Lord Jim* was one of the most literate of the large format road-show productions. Mr. Brooks was one of those filmmakers who would never speak down to his audience. Think of his work on In Cold Blood*.

The film has been released in its original 154 minute version inclusive of the stereo sound missing for many years. Another film which comes highly recommended.

Mr. Mamet

What is it about a David Mamet film which sets it apart from the rest of the pack?

Is it the dialogue? It certainly has a unique feel and sound to it.

Is it the interweaving plot elements?

The control of actors?

The reality is that it's most likely a bit of all of these things.

But whatever it is, make no mistake.

A David Mamet film is a unique animal.

Spartan* is no different.

It's a film which keeps your mind going, never allowing you to get ahead of the plot, or giving you all of the information that you need to really understand what's going on at any particular time. And then, like many other Mamet films, you find the rug pulled out from under you. If you've made assumptions, you do so at your own jeopardy.

For those of you who haven't yet visited the slightly "off" world of Mr. Mamet, I'll make several suggestions for getting your feet wet.

Working from the earlier forward try House of Games* (1987), The Spanish Prisoner* (1998), State and Main* (2000) and The Heist* (2001).

But please remember that you were warned before going in that they'll be different from most other films you've experienced.

More Moore…

A year ago in my comments regarding the DVD release of Bowling for Columbine*, I was less than complimentary about Michael Moore's treatment of Charlton Heston, during an interview for which Mr. Heston invited Moore to his home.

That said, it is undeniable that while the finest of our documentaries are being created for television by the prolific brothers Burns and the likes of Austin Hoyt for PBS, that the crown for the propaganda school of filmmaking is clearly held by Mr. Moore.

He proves his mettle once again with not only the extremely controversial Fahrenheit 9/11*, released via Columbia, but also with The Big One* from Miramax.

Everyone knows the subject matter of Fahrenheit*, and without getting political, it comes extremely highly recommended for what it is - a superb example of modern political propaganda filmmaking, in the style of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will* (Synapse) and any number of World War II films in the mode of Frank Capra's brilliantly conceived Why We Fight series.

The Big One*, which is also recommended, concerns major corporate executives who "downsize" (close) their American manufacturing facilities for strictly economic reasons to move them overseas.

The Ken Burns America Collection

Seven PBS productions originally distributed via Warner Home Video have now joined the Paramount fold and are being re-issued in a seven DVD boxed set. This will be joined by the complete output of the Burns company. The set contains a mélange of subjects from The Congress, Huey Long, Empire of the Air, Thomas Hart Benton, Brooklyn Bridge, The Shakers and Statue of Liberty. Each created in the signature Burns style, they represent some of the finest examples of modern documentary filmmaking. The best price that I've found on line is $78 for the set at Deep Discount. A portion of the income goes to PBS for future production.


In an earlier column I spent some time on the works of Merchant / Ivory. For both completists and fans of the duo, two of the missing productions have now been released by Home Vision. Jane Austen in Manhattan* and Roseland* are two films from the "middle" period of American production, and are representative of the feel, texture and quality of the Merchant / Ivory works. The availability of these two films almost gives total accessibility of their work to DVD lovers.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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