• Film Immersion: I just finished a book by Scott MacDonald called “American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary”, and it’s more than the title that’s a mouthful. There are a number of nuances as to what constitutes “enthographic” work in film and the varying types that exist depending, in part, on how much the ethnographer enters the picture. Without getting into the countless minutia of it all, ethnography is a way to represent cultural phenomena. In terms of film, what we’ve seen lately is a type of extreme immersion into a subject or type of lifestyle. The latest “major” ethnographic work was Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Leviathan” (2013), a film that takes the viewer into the treacherous world of commercial fishing. Don’t think of this as another version of “Deadliest Catch”.
Their is no narration, no plot to tell of, nothing phony to be seen here. It’s not for everyone. There are scenes that are often so dark, all you see is black and the sound of crashing waves against the vessel. Often the camera submerges into the water, acting as metaphor for what modern ethnographic film is. It’s all wet, cold nights, hard-working days, eager gulls, and fish guts. Personally, I enjoyed Castaing-Taylor’s “Sweetgrass” (following around modern-day cowboys leading a flock of sheep in Montana) more, as well as the sad and tragic work of J.P. Sniadecki and Verena Paravel, “Foreign Parts”, about the forgotten and largely-ignored New York neighborhood of Willets Point, that’s filled with scrapyards and auto salvage shops. You get to see how the folks there live without much intrusion from the filmmakers. It’s heartbreaking, inspiring, engaging and honest. It’s about a struggle to survive. There’s even love in this grimy alcove. A woman sleeps in a van, fearing rape. Hawkers try to get customers to spend measly money to eek out a living.
So, having seen many of these types of films, the book seemed like a natural purchase for me. It’s a great summation of the style, and will give readers a number of cinematic avenues to venture down, but the book’s major fault is that it focuses too much on the academic genesis of ethnographic film at places like MIT and Harvard. And that’s a shame. It seems like such a boring take on an exciting trend. So, take the book for what it is and read the parts describing the works of pioneers like John Marshall and Timothy Asch, but try to skip the boring academic back-patting.
• Criterion: Hard at Work: All of us serious film connoisseurs have come to know the Criterion Collection as the world’s best film-distribution company, revitalizing old and new films, often adding a giant range of supplements worthy of a 101 course on the film itself. So, how does Criterion begin cleaning up a film? Well, take a look, thanks to Gizmodo, who provide a behind-the-scenes video of the CC bunch restoring Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), which the company is releasing in dual-format Tuesday.
• Releases | Weepy Stanwyck: There are a couple of releases worth noting. One seems to have come and gone without the fanfare it deserved, while the other is an upcoming release. The former is the weepy King Vidor women’s picture vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck, “Stella Dallas” (1937), a film about just how much a mother is willing to give up for the happiness of her daughter. The film was re-released in December of last year by Warner Home Video, and is a steal now that it’s back in print. The film appears to be restored from the original MGM DVD release, and features the 1925 original silent version starring Ronald Colman as a supplement. Note it’s sadly without musical accompaniment. This Tuesday, Fox Archives is releasing “Five Fingers” starring James Mason. It’s a spy film based on the true story of Elyesa Bazna, and was nominated for two Academy Awards.
• Books | The Beauty of Hurrell: So many books about old film stars and movies have been released over the past year, including the monstrously-sized biography “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940” (1,056 pages), which is only the first half of writer Victoria Wilson’s work on the actress, and Christina Rice’s “Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel”, a book I was scheduled to review, but never received a copy of from The University Press of Kentucky. Oh, well — at least re-watching every available Dvorak film available bolstered my own appreciation of the actress. (Be sure to read a piece written by Jeanine Basinger for the New York Review of Books on the Stanwyck bio.) Then there was “Hollywood and Hitler: 1933-1939” by Thomas Doherty, “Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee Stung Lips” by Michael G. Ankerich, “Lee Marvin: Point Blank” by Dwayne Epstein, “Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait” by Kendra Bean and “John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars” by Eve Golden. But the diamond of the past few months had to be the release of Mark A. Vieira’s (“Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood”) “George Hurrell’s Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992”, a book collecting many previously unseen photos by the famous photographer. The book is more than an extension and revisiting of Vieira’s previous Hurrell book. What’s marvelous about this book is not only do you get a huge pictorial of 400 pages of Hurrell’s work, but Vieira gets into the nuts-and-bolts descriptions of cameras and techniques Hurrell used to create his effects. And that’s great for film-lovers, star-gazers, photographers, and book collectors.