Friday, January 18, 2008

Camera Obscura - The Film School On Your TV

Back in the mid-1980s media mogul Ted Turner was rightly roasted and grilled for unleashing a horde of classic movies which had been "colorized", an ugly act which truly defaced the movies and ruined their legacy. I was one of those who roasted and grilled him for such things. But now I come to praise him, not bury him in criticism.


Because of Turner Classic Movies, a bona fide treasure house of the art of cinema and the history of filmmaking.

For many years now this cable channel has been the most watched channel in my house. No colorization will be found as movies from the silent era to the modern are show uncut and commercial free 24/7. Long gone are the abusive marketing tactics of the past. TCM instead is simply the best movie channel to be found.

It's no exaggeration to say the channel is a master classroom both on filmmaking and film history. Viewers are offered a constant array of carefully preserved films, long and short, silent and sound, made in the U.S. and made abroad. In addition, there are documentaries old and new detailing the history and legacies of film directors, actors, actresses, writers, producers, studios, and the many technical innovators who have made movies what they are today.

Their recent documentary on director Val Lewton, produced by Martin Scorsese John is a good example of how the channel provides not just history but basic education on what goes into the creation of a movie. Other recent features on the channel include a selection of movies made prior to the Hayes Code censorship - movies which they also saw released onto DVD, and a series hosted by Pixar'sLassiter which featured the anime films of Hayao Miyazaki. And upcoming this month, on January 22nd, filmmaker John Sayles will host an evening of films he found greatly influential, from Sam Fuller's "Park Row" to Rossellini's "Paisan".

And once again, they offer viewers a chance to see films which have never been given much distribution by honoring the work of Charles Burnett on Monday, Jan. 21st. Burnett's most well-known movie is "To Sleep With Anger" starring Danny Glover. Burnett's movies are among the select few given the honor of being part of the National Film Registry as well.

One of his movies, which has just been released nationwide, will also air called "Killer of Sheep" from 1977 - a movie hailed not only as being great, but one of the greatest films ever made. He created the movie for his thesis at UCLA's film school, but some disputes over the music used in the movie effectively stopped it's release until 2007 when it arrived in theaters and DVD, long after it was named to the National Registry of Film. Burnett has also created a web site devoted to his first feature, which tells the story of a small family living and working in Watts in the early 1970s.

Roger Ebert writes in his review of Killer of Sheep:
You have to be prepared to see a film like this, or able to relax and allow it to unfold. It doesn't come, as most films do, with built-in instructions about how to view it. One scene follows another with no apparent pattern, reflecting how the lives of its family combine endless routine with the interruptions of random events. The day they all pile into a car to go to the races, for example, a lesser film would have had them winning or losing. In this film, they have a flat tire, and no spare. Thus does poverty become your companion on every journey.

The lives of the adults are intercut with shots of the children at play. One brilliant sequence shows a kid's head darting out from behind a plywood shield -- once, twice, six times. The camera pulls back to show that two groups of kids are playing at war in a rubbish-strewn wasteland, throwing rocks at one another from behind barriers. A boy gets hit and bleeds and cries. The others forget war and gather around. He's not too badly hurt, and so they idly drift over to railroad tracks and throw rocks at a passing train. All of the scenes of children at play were unrehearsed; Burnett just filmed them.

They have few toys. One child puts on a grotesque rubber Halloween mask and wears it all day, and gets roughed up because, somehow, the mask obscures the fact that a child is inside it. At home, Stan works on projects, complains to a friend he cannot sleep, projects deep discouragement. Sitting at the kitchen table, he presses a tea cup against his face and says it reminds him of a feeling just after sex. That kind of tender thought has little place in his world.

I'm eager to see this on Monday night.

And far from harming the legacy and the art of filmmaking, Ted Turner's movie channel celebrates cinema as art and as entertainment in ways no other media mogul has ever done. Three cheers, four stars, and thumbs way up for TCM.

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