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September 20-November 29, 2004

Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

It’s often said that in today’s Hollywood, the studio brass doesn’t care about movies; it cares about money. This is one of the reasons the Hollywood studios have been floundering without identities for forty years…not for lack of trying. In these major studio films, selected from the syllabus of Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, we see the studios trying to outfox their enemies, and we see their enemies looking to take them over from within. It helps that each of these movies was remarkably successful. If Hollywood is a place where success breeds imitators, we might wonder what happens when the studios attempt to imitate one another’s search for identity.

Program notes by J.D. Connor, Assistant Professor of English and American Literature and Language and Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University.


September 20 (Monday) 7 pm

Psycho

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
US, 1960, b/w, 109 min.
With Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin

Psycho is movie of splits: broken credits, a bifurcated narrative, slashed faces. Long after you’ve dissected the shower sequence, the remarkably supple performance by Tony Perkins enthralls. Hitchcock used his TV crew as an experiment—to save money, to anger his bosses at Paramount, and to stay close to his new home at Universal. The multiple camera setups gave Perkins much more room to breathe than Hitch’s usual storyboarded, “cutting in the camera” approach. One final split: Psycho essentially ended continuous exhibition in America. “Here’s where I came in” got replaced by “No one, but no one, will be admitted to Psycho after it has begun…”

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September 27 (Monday) 7 pm

Easy Rider

Directed by Dennis Hopper
US, 1969, color, 94 min.
With Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson

This now-classic road movie turned the B-movie youthquake into an international art cinema. Easy Rider tells the story of Captain America and Billy the Kid as they go looking for America and, as Columbia’s original poster put it, “can’t find it anywhere.” From its legendary compilation score to its echt-60’s lens flares and culminating LSD trip, Easy Rider feels disconcertingly familiar, a model of what Tom Frank calls “the conquest of cool.” As they motor along to their inevitably tragic end, our heroes do drugs, have their rights violated, meet some interestingly allegorical groups of folks, and find themselves framed by László Kovács’s gorgeous cinematography.

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October 4 (Monday) 7 pm

Shaft

Directed by Gordon Parks
US, 1971, color, 100 min.
With Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Charles Cioffi

No one could ignore the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, certainly not MGM, which was eager to capitalize on alt-art cinema when it could—leading to such unusual collaborations as a three-picture deal with Michelangelo Antonioni. It was easy enough to turn Ernest Tidyman’s John Shaft into “the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.” And while Shaft may have turned revolutionary “baadasssss” cinema into blaxploitation, it also looked ahead to some of the great innovations and reestimations of genre cinema in the seventies: Tidyman wrote screenplays for The French Connection and High Plains Drifter and Isaac Hayes won an Oscar for his score. Along the way director Gordon Parks not only makes a cameo, but strategically places copies of Essence magazine in the film (Parks had co-founded it).

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Jaws

Directed by Steven Spielberg
US, 1975, color, 124 min.
With Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

 

Hitchcock’s Vertigo effect, Wellesian deep focus (including a diopter shot), some Kovacsian zoom work on the beach—all the resources of Hollywood at his command, and still Spielberg’s film was almost sunk by what he called “the great white turd”—a shark that never seemed to work. Two things saved him, according to Peter Biskind: Verna Fields’ editing, which saved the shark’s big entrance for minute 81, and the production delays, which gave Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss time to bond (and gave Robert Gottleib time to rewrite the script). Throw in the saturation booking and the first national TV ad campaign and the modern summer blockbuster was born.

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October 25 (Monday) 7 pm

Tootsie

Directed by Sydney Pollack
US, 1982, color, 119 min.
With Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Bill Murray

Dustin Hoffman is Michael Dorsey, the actor’s actor who can’t get a job until a drag transformation lands him a leading role on a daytime soap opera. “No one will hire you” his on-screen CAA agent (and off-screen director) Sydney Pollack tells him. Behind the scenes, though, it was the co-chair of CAA Mike Ovitz, who just happened to be Hoffman, Pollack and Bill Murray’s agent, who was trying to convince Pollack to hire himself to play the agent on screen. Hoffman’s legendary transvestism isn’t the only instance in the film, naturally enough. When it came time to shoot the sequences in the (nonexistent) CAA New York offices, the crew simply redressed Columbia’s own suite. CAA had practically taken the place over already.

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November 1 (Monday) 7 pm

Top Gun

Directed by Tony Scott
US, 1986, color, 110 min.
With Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer

Tanned, muscled bodies glistening in the locker room and on the volleyball court give way to tight jeans, white pocket t-shirts, and leather jackets in the fading seaside light. In Paramount’s Top Gun, director Tony Scott, production designer John DeCuir, Jr., and costumer Bobbie Read (of Flashdance fame) have put a Herb Ritts photo spread into motion. The high concept shell is so glossy that it’s hard to take the film seriously as therapy for the Vietnam Syndrome. Still, the soundscape is pure Reaganism: layered effects of jet engines and weapons engagement trade off with a Giorgio Moroder-produced soundtrack with all the trimmings: classic rock (The Righteous Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis), pseudo-energetic pop (Kenny Loggins) and an Oscar-winning power ballad (Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”).

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November 8 (Monday) 7 pm

Batman

Directed by Tim Burton
US, 1989, color, 126 min.
With Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger

These days, it seems like every studio has entrusted its mega-franchises to directors with an “indie” edge. But before there were Bryan Singer, Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, there was Tim Burton. Fresh off Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton blended his own torqued sensibility with Anton Furst’s remarkable production design. The results were wildly popular, and strangely powerful. The Saturday after Batman opened, Warner CEO Steve Ross told producer Mark Canton “You may be responsible for making the merger happen.” “The merger” of course, was with Time, Inc., which makes its own cameo appearance in the film as Vicky Vale’s employer. As the Joker says when looks at her pictures of the Corto Maltese massacre, “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.”

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November 15 (Monday) 7 pm

Boyz N the Hood

Directed by John Singleton
US, 1991, color, 107 min.
With Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr.

Singleton’s debut film, with its remarkable cast, brought New Jack Cinema into line with grander traditions of urban class melodrama—an Angels with Dirty Faces for South Central (and Compton). Worried about “glorifying” gang violence, or inciting it in the theaters, as Dennis Hopper’s Colors had in 1988, Columbia muted the gang references. No Crips, no Bloods, just blue and red. Still, when the film premiered, there was sporadic violence and Singleton was forced to “defend” his didactic film. That wasn’t the end of the censorship, though. Worried that Fishburne’s grand set-piece speech that linked black-on-black violence to gentrification would contribute to growing anti-Japanese sentiment, the studio (recently purchased by Sony) made Singleton change the name of the real estate company. His new version? Seoul to Seoul.

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November 22 (Monday) 7 pm

Beauty and the Beast

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
US, 1991, color, 84 min.

Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature nominated for Best Picture (it lost to The Silence of the Lambs). The film wove together campy Broadwayisms—Gaston rhymes of “decorating” and “expectorating” during his mock marriage—and self-conscious nostalgia—Mrs. Potts’ “Tale as old as time”—to make Beauty the most multi-generationally watchable of the new wave of Disney animated musicals. Along the way, they slip an extended CG sequence into the ballroom dance (elaborate camera moves are almost always CG). It’s not so much a revolution in Disney animation as some much-needed renovations—renovations the castle itself undergoes at the end.

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November 29 (Monday) 7 pm

Titanic

Directed by James Cameron
US, 1997, color, 194 min.
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Gloria Stuart

Wildly over budget, beyond studio control, with bad publicity pouring over the bulkheads, Titanic was destined to be the worst flop in film history. Until it wasn’t. Instead, it made Leo a one-name celeb, made Cameron “king of the world,” and made more than a billion dollars—still the record. The critical headscratching began: what made it bigger, if not better, than anything that had come before? Was it, as Vivian Sobchack argues, the bathos of the bathysphere in the frame story or was it the pasticherie of James Horner’s score? Could Celine Dion be responsible? In the end, no doubt, DiCaprio’s unthreatening class insouciance and bluffing sexual forthrightness could have encouraged many folks besides Kate Winslet to disrobe. Still, that scene has a certain pathos once we know that it is James Cameron himself drawing Winslet’s portrait.

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