The Crank: ‘Crime and Punishment’ Program Notes (4/11/13 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

Following the box office disappointment of The Scarlett Empress (1934) and the political controversy of The Devil is a Woman (1935), director Josef von Sternberg parted ways not only with Paramount but also with his frequent collaborator and muse, Marlene Dietrich. According to von Sternberg, he was “liquidated by Lubitsch,” an ironic musing since the latter did little to interfere as production manager on the film except change the title.

Luckily, Ben Schulberg, who had just signed a production deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia, enlisted von Sternberg after his ousting at Paramount, offering him a two-picture deal and a fresh start. Soon von Sternberg’s fortunes became tied with another European émigré signed with the studio, the Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre. Known primarily for his theater work in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Lorre had left his mark as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and had just starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1935) in London. Eager to establish himself in Hollywood, Lorre presented Cohn with the idea of adapting Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a vehicle for him to star in as its conflicted and murderous criminology student, Roderick Raskolnikov. As Hollywood legend has it, Lorre had his secretary type a monosyllabic synopsis to prove to Cohn that translating Dostoyevsky’s novel from page to screen was possible. Allegedly, Cohn, who was enraptured with the idea, only had one question for Lorre: “Tell me—has this book got a publisher?” Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Crime and Punishment’ Program Notes (4/11/13 Screening)” »

The Mediascape Q&A: Stephen Mamber, Professor, Cinema and Media Studies

The Mediascape Q&A is a series of interviews designed to explore the work of UCLA faculty and graduate students beyond the classroom.

Dr. Stephen Mamber

Matthias Stork: Could you tell us about your academic background? Where did you go to school and what first drew you to studying media, specifically film?

Stephen Mamber: I was an undergraduate at Berkley, where I had a double major in Math and Drama because there wasn’t a film program there yet, but I took a class from Ernest Callenbach, who was the editor of Film Quarterly at the time, and that really affected me greatly. And it occurred to me somewhere in my junior year that film might be something to actually be able to study. I came down here to Los Angeles that summer and took a couple of classes from Howard Suber, and that really struck a chord with me. And from then on I knew I wanted to study film. My timing was good, I guess. This was the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I came down here for my master’s degree and fell in with some interesting people. One of my best friends while I was a graduate student was Paul Schrader, who was a year ahead of me. We went to the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies. He was in the first-year group of fellows. It was a different kind of place back then. It was at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills and they took 10 people every year. In the second year, partly through his encouragement, I applied and got in. So I was in the group that included Terry Malick and David Lynch and various other people who turned out to be very talented filmmakers. It was an amazing experience then too because they were bringing in every great filmmaker you could imagine. One week it would be Rossellini and the next week it would be Jack Benny, the week after it’d be Alfred Hitchcock, it was like every major name. So I just thought this was heaven and this was what I wanted to do. Continue reading “The Mediascape Q&A: Stephen Mamber, Professor, Cinema and Media Studies” »

The Crank: ‘Caught’ Program Notes (11/1/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

In 1946 Max Ophuls was brought on to direct Vendetta (1950) after the film’s director, Preston Sturges, left to focus on another project. The film would have been the German-born director’s first American feature, but he was replaced after one week. Accounts of the event vary: Sturges claims that producer Howard Hughes did not want to employ a “foreigner,” while others claim Hughes was frustrated by Ophuls’s slow shooting schedule. The experience left Ophuls with a rather poor opinion of Hughes, and three years later Ophuls directed Caught (1949), a film inspired, at least in part, by the brief time he spent working for Hughes.

Caught was the last film made by the independent company Enterprise Productions. Enterprise had the rights to the book Wild Calendar, which Ophuls was slated to direct. Originally meant as a Ginger Rogers vehicle, the story was changed quite dramatically under Ophuls’s supervision. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents recalls meeting with the director about the script: “When I met with Ophuls, he said, ‘I don’t want to do that story, I want to do the Howard Hughes story.’ I asked why. He said, ‘Because I hate Hughes.’” The feeling was likely mutual, as Hughes frequently referred to the director simply as “the oaf.” Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Caught’ Program Notes (11/1/12 Screening)” »

Sight & Sound and the (Arguably) Ossified Canon

Image 1: Sight & Sound

Editors’ note: Once per decade since 1952, Sight & Sound—the monthly publication of the British Film Institute—has conducted a worldwide poll of critics and filmmakers to determine the 10 greatest films of all time. The 2012 list is set to be unveiled on August 1 via Twitter (those interested can follow the BFI @SightSoundmag or #sightsoundpoll). On the eve of the announcement, Cliff Galiher considers the poll’s impact and importance.

(Note: This post focuses on the Critics’ List in the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, separate from the Directors’ List, except where noted. The lists referenced are available on the BFI’s website.)

David Bordwell, writing on the recent passing of Andrew Sarris,1 noted the great auteurist’s significant role in transforming the orthodox view of film history. With The American Cinema (1968), Sarris helped to move the film canon away from a hierarchical model of technological and stylistic progress (the “pyramid fallacy,” as Sarris termed it), replacing it with a vast landscape of individual artistic visions linked together by mutual influences and thematic concerns. Auteurism, in Bordwell’s words, creates a “decentralized and dispersed conception of film history—not a tree with a solid trunk and clear-cut branches, but a bristling, tangled bush.”

The Sight & Sound poll, preceding Sarris by several years, springs squarely from the old model. With its insistence on ranking films in order of greatness and its conservative slant toward time-honored classics, the poll represents a top-down view of cinema that seems entirely at odds with the revolution that Sarris helped engineer. Half a century later, Sarris and his fellow auteurists’ impact on film aesthetics reverberates throughout the poll—not just in the elevation of Ford, Hitchcock & Co. to the level of Eisenstein and Renoir in subsequent editions, but also in a fundamental shift in the reception of new cinema. If auteurism is a policy of advocacy, then part of its legacy is necessarily the fragmentation of film tastes along personal lines.

Whereas voters had anointed the four-year-old Bicycle Thieves as the Greatest Film of All Time in 1952, put the two-year-old L’avventura in the #2 spot in 1962, and placed the six-year-old Persona at #5 in 1972, fewer and fewer films have garnered less and less consensus ever since. Continue reading “Sight & Sound and the (Arguably) Ossified Canon” »