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The rise of the film critic filmmaker

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The line between film critic and film maker has always been a blurry one. “Battleship Potemkin” director Sergei Eisenstein wrote essays and books about the language of motion pictures that continue to be studied by film students to this day. Many of the biggest figures of the French New Wave, from Jean-Luc Godard to Francois Truffaut, were first writers for the magazine “Cahiers du Cinema.” The same was true of the leaders of the New Hollywood era, where Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader crossed over from writer to critic. Even the great critic Pauline Kael took a job as an executive at Paramount Pictures for a short time.

Through all of that, though, there was still a bit of a divide. You could write a piece of film criticism, or you could make a film, but it was very difficult to do both. Now, that seems to be changing. We’re witnessing the rise of the film critic filmmaker.

Arguably the most famous film critic filmmaker, and certainly the spiritual father to this new marriage between film commentary and film production is still almost entirely anonymous. In 2001, this faceless, nameless editor took George Lucas‘ cut of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” — which, in an interesting bit of timing, is coming back to theaters this Friday in a new, 3D print — and excised almost twenty minutes from the film, removing most of the scenes featuring characters like Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker that fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy hated. He called it “Episode 1.1 – The Phantom Edit,” and he was so scared of reprisals from Lucasfilm that he credited himself only as “The Phantom Editor.” This all took place so long ago that the project was initially considered by many to be nothing more than an urban legend. Those who saw it, at least at first, did so on dubbed VHS tapes. Just a decade later, it’s astonishing how much has changed.

The Phantom Editor did eventually out himself as Mike J. Nichols, a Hollywood film cutter who’s worked on movies like the Billy Joel concert documentary “The Last Play at Shea.” But that came much later. Nowadays, film critic filmmakers don’t need to hide behind assumed identities. A few are even gaining recognition from sources outside the echo chamber of the Internet. One of the most well-received films at last month’s Sundance Film Festival was “Room 237,” a feature length examination of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The documentary, by director Rodney Ascher (not, say, “Mr. Redrum”), explores the myriad interpretations of Kubrick’s work and features film (or conspiracy) theorists explaining how “The Shining” might actually be a story about the genocide of Native Americans or an admission of guilt on the part of the director for getting involved in the “fake” Apollo 11 moon landing. Though Ascher interviewed all these people, he illustrates their arguments and comments with footage from “The Shining” and other Kubrick films. For that reason alone, the film will almost certainly be impossible to release in a typical, commercial way. But the fact that a film that a decade ago would almost certainly have been met with skepticism or fast and dirty lawsuits played at Sundance at all is an important marker of the progress of film critic filmmakers on the road to artistic legitimacy.

A similarly audacious project was launched last week on the Indiewire blog Press Play by film critic filmmaker Peet Gelderblom. His “Raising Cain Re-cut” is a “Phantom Edit”-style revision of Brian De Palma’s 1992 film “Raising Cain.” As Gelderblom explains in an essay that accompanies his “Re-cut,” De Palma was never fully satisfied with the structure of his film and, exasperated in the editing room, he radically revised his initial conception of the picture during post-production. Gelderblom decided to take the theatrical version of “Raising Cain” and restore it to something closer to the director’s original vision. At least for now, you can watch the entire “Raising Cain Re-cut” in this embedded video.

Raising Cain Re-cut from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

To get the full effect of Gelderblom’s work, I rewatched De Palma’s “Raising Cain” over the weekend and then dove immediately into the “Re-Cut” version. In my (non-filmmaker) film critic opinion, he’s done as good a job as seems possible with the material he had to work with. In interviews, De Palma stressed that his reason for making “Cain” was not (SPOILER ALERT) to tell the story of a crazy dude with multiple personalities, but really to delve into a romantic melodrama involving the crazy dude’s wife, who cheats on her husband in a surreal swirl of dreams and nightmares. In the theatrical version, John Lithgow’s Carter is established first — and established as a nutjob — before we ever meet his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Gelderblom’s biggest adjustment is to start with Jenny, and to keep Carter as a background character through the first twenty minutes of the film. Right after Jenny has succumbed to a series of fantasies (or perhaps true adulterous encounters) Carter surprises her by strangling her, seemingly to death.

There’s one major downside to Gelderblom’s version, namely that this protagonist fake-out makes “Raising Cain” look even more like a “Psycho” knock-off than it already did. But otherwise, his conceit works, and makes a certain amount of sense, too. Davidovich’s character is having a hard time telling the difference between dream and reality and all of a sudden her husband tries to kill her; which, at first, seems like another possible layer of dream. The “Re-cut”‘s biggest problem is that Gelderblom only has the original theatrical cut to play with — and his version could use at least a few more scenes of seeming domestic bliss between Jenny and Carter to really sell the big reveal, as well a a clearer transition between Carter’s attempted murder of Jenny and the flashback to the beginning of his wicked deeds.

All in all, though, it’s a very interesting effort. And while he hasn’t spoken publicly about it, I imagine De Palma would approve, if not with the execution then at least with the conception. After all, De Palma was, on some level, a sort of prehistoric ancestor to the modern film critic filmmaker. Few directors know more about the movies than De Palma, and few deploy that knowledge more explicitly in their work. His movies were sort of remixes before the rise of remix culture. “Blow Out” combines elements of “Blow Up” and “The Conversation” with the conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination (not to mention Chappaquiddick). “Body Double” is a bit of “Vertigo” and a bit of “Rear Window” with a dash of some Hitchcockian Wrong Man thrillers as well. And “Raising Cain,” of course, with its cross-dressing, multiple-personality-afflicted protagonist, owes a fair share to “Psycho.” You wonder whether De Palma sees these film critic filmmakers and imagines what his own career would look like if he’d come of age today. It might be enough to drive a man crazy.

What do you think of the rise of film critic filmmakers? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jurassic Park Cast

Park Rules

5 Lessons Modern Blockbusters Could Learn From Jurassic Park

Catch the Jurassic Park movies this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Jurassic Park wasn’t the first blockbuster that set out to appeal to everyone, but it is arguably the most successful of its kind. Adults, kids, boys, girls, nerds, jocks, and lawyers love it. (Okay, maybe not lawyers). With a script from David Koepp, direction by Steven Spielberg (who also had the Oscar winning Schindler’s List the same year) and groundbreaking special effects that still thrill modern CGI-addled viewers, Jurassic Park was the most ambitious film project of its time. And as we see with dreadful early-’90s megaflops like Waterworld and Showgirls, the bigger they were, the harder they were apt to fall.

Jurassic Park faced the impossible scenario of having to appeal to everyone, and the end result is one of the very few examples that actually succeeded. So what lessons can we take from the shining beacon of both mass appeal and being smarter than the competition?

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Source Material

Nedry

An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hit novel, Jurassic Park changes a lot from page to screen, but the most significant changes are in the characters, in that they actually exist. Crichton’s primary interests were scientific morals and philosophy, not character and story, so the characters end up more as vessels for the action and ideas rather than, well, characters. Adding dimension to the characters changed a great deal of the material, since the material flowed more organically not just from ideas and philosophy, but character action.

Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the well-meaning, impassioned lover of science and possibilities, is a much more compelling character in the film than the corporate, grandchild-hating jerk who is poetically eaten by dinos in the book. Nedry (Wayne Knight) isn’t just in the story for some corporate espionage — there’s a genuine “daddy issue” undercurrent in his relationship with Hammond, and his desire to subvert his father figure goes horribly awry.

Tim and Lex (played by Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) aren’t just whiny nuisances who are kids for kids’ sake, but are given interests and agencies that pay off later in the film — Lex with her computer skills, and Tim with his basic dinosaur knowledge. The movie gives Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) a character arc by getting him to connect with children, whom initially make him uncomfortable, which helps solidify his relationship to Ellie Satler (Laura Dern).


2. Avoid useless characters.

Jurassic World

Often in movies we see half-baked young characters (kids, teenagers) who get jammed into the film for no other reason than to appeal to a wider demographic. For example, the child characters in Independence Day are borderline comical both in their narrative non-purpose and how much they don’t act like children.

Last summer’s mega-blockbuster/franchise extender Jurassic World was guilty of this, too. Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) have no skill, except for (apparently) some world experience from That One Time They Fixed A Car, a skill which was not set up nor ever referred to again. After the kids are rescued, they’re basically fleshy backpacks for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard to foist around for the rest of the movie.

Lex and Tim not only aid in Grant’s growth, but also use their skills to further the plot. Sure, it’s a little goofy how Lex uses her knowledge to save the day, but this was 1993. Nowadays people know a bit more about UNIX systems (and, let’s face it, most people learned about UNIX systems from other people joking about how Jurassic Park got it oh-so-wrong).


3. You can include complex concepts…but keep it simple.

Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum

Part of the brilliance of Jurassic Park isn’t that it involves complex philosophical concepts, but all of the different ways it disseminates complex information. It’s like a sampler platter of ways to both world-build and sew in theme.

Jurassic Park grazes over complex concepts like Chaos Theory, but that is not to say that it only pays them lip service, and moreover, the characters don’t just stop the action to explain things to the audience in an inorganic way. As a writer of prose, Crichton is guilty of this. These ideas are present in the original novel, but in the film, they are distilled, focused and sharpened to a fine point. The theme of chaos in an unpredictable environment is shown both implicitly (after Nedry’s meddling throws the trip into chaos) and explicitly, where Malcolm exposits repeatedly, betwixt a uniquely suave mix of “ums” and “uhs” and other Goldblum-isms.

The overarching theme of the movie is not so much that man should not play God (as Malcolm argues), but that man cannot, with perfect accuracy, predict all outcomes. That is a much more complex and satisfying conclusion to come to than simply “man play God, man go too far!”. The “don’t play God” aspect is certainly there, but it doesn’t end there. There is a genius simplicity in Jurassic Park‘s complexity.


4. Exposition should be actually motivated!

Jurassic Park Chaos

Since all of our main characters are experts in different fields, talking to each other about their respective fields is a great and easy way to let the audience in on things the characters already know in a natural way. Some of the scientific concepts are imparted by way of a cartoon in the Jurassic Park visitor center, because it is a theme park, and it is an educational “ride,” as Hammond says.

My favorite example of this is the scene where Malcolm gives Ellie a primer on Chaos Theory in a discussion which could’ve be really pretentious and boring. He gives the elevator pitch in the form of trying to describe the Butterfly Effect, but she doesn’t get it, leading to a more practical (and flirtatious) lesson that she can actually follow. Whereas in old sci-fi B-movies of yore it would have been just a bunch of guys standing in labs, explaining things to each other, here it is motivated.

Ellie and Malcolm didn’t have any kind of a “thing” in the book, but adding this now famous moment to the film not only gives us a little philosophical discussion, it allows for integral character development as well — Ellie egging on Alan by being receptive to Ian’s flirting, and Alan showing his difficulty committing to her by not engaging. It’s subtle, but all of these character traits come in and are built upon later.

Finally, if you learn nothing else from Jurassic Park, remember:


5. Dinosaurs Eat Man, Woman Inherits the Earth.

Jurassic Park Women Inherit

Just sayin’.

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Weird Al Hidden America

Keep America Weird

Watch “Weird Al” in the Trailer for Hidden America With Jonah Ray

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: SeeSo

Jonah Ray, Nerdist podcaster and future resident of the Satellite of Love on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, is motoring across the country as part of a new travel parody show on SeeSo. And “Weird Al” is coming along for the journey.

Hidden America with Jonah Ray takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to tourism travel logs as the comedian visits and fumbles through cities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Austin. Along the way, Ray will meet up with Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic, Randall Park, David Koechner, and more.

Check out the trailer below. For more “Weird Al,” be sure to catch the premiere of Comedy Bang! Bang! season five on June 3rd at 11P.

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Back to the Future Jaws Parody

Swimming with Sharks

10 Hilarious Jaws Spoofs

Catch the Jaws movies during IFC's Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

How much is Jaws a part of our culture? Over 40 years after its release, it’s still prompting parodies that get laughs. To get you ready for IFC’s Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon, check out our favorite spoofs of Jaws from across pop culture. Want more? You’re gonna need a bigger list…

1. “Mr. Jaws,” Dickie Goodman

Released just a few months after the movie’s debut on June 20th, 1975, this novelty record spent ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #4. In one of the earliest examples of sampling, comedian Dickie Goodman spliced in snippets of pop songs to answer interview questions with the Great White himself.


2. Jaws II (Land Shark), Saturday Night Live

It took only the fourth episode ever of SNL to establish one of its iconic recurring bits and play into the hysterical fear of sharks that Jaws prompted. A big punchline of this sketch: A sequel to Jaws! Who in 1975 could imagine such a thing??


3. “Jowls,” The Carol Burnett Show

Exactly one week after SNL spoofed Jaws, Carol Burnett and company did their take. Looking back now, what’s most amazing is that network TV allowed a sketch to go on for eleven minutes.


4. Mad Magazine

Mad Magazine Jaws
Mad Magazine/DC Comics

Even Jaws wouldn’t want to take a bite of Alfred E. Neuman in this issue from 1976. The comic inside spoofed the movie with a musical version -– an idea that took off over 30 years later.


5. 1941

How many times has this happened to you? You make a legendary movie, you see people parody it, and you want in! That’s the unlikely scenario that led to Jaws director Steven Spielberg making his own spoof as part of his 1979 war comedy 1941. How authentic did Spielberg get? Yes, that’s Susan Backlinie, the original lady in the water from Jaws, meeting up with trouble in the moonlight yet again.


6. Airplane!

One of the greatest disaster comedies of all time sets the tone for hilarity with its opening sequence. Even before the title appears, you know you’re in for a movie that winks at its place in film history.


7. Back to the Future Part II

1989 brought us this blockbuster sequel making fun of blockbuster sequels, as Marty McFly finds himself in a futuristic 2015 showing Jaws 19. While the actual 2015 came and went with Jaws only having three sequels, Universal treated fans of both movies to a trailer for the film that might have been…


8. Clerks

Kevin Smith was one of a generation of filmmakers influenced by Jaws. Many of his films contain references to his love of the original film, but only Clerks has the salsa shark.


9. Giant Killer Shark: The Musical

Mad Magazine Jaws

Why should live theater be without a spoof of Jaws? Just because of the risk of a massive lawsuit over intellectual property infringement? That may help explain the please-don’t-sue-us title of Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, which debuted in 2006. Just to drive the point home: the action takes place on and around Copyright-Protected Island. Scary!


10. Bill Murray’s Jaws Love Theme, SNL 40

The star-studded SNL 40th anniversary special marked four decades since the debut of SNL and of Jaws. It featured not one but two references to the movie, with Bill Murray as lounge singer Nick Ocean singing the love theme from Jaws we never knew we were missing. (He reprised the song at the event above.) Later, the Land Shark himself appeared on “Weekend Update.” Jaws: The gift that keeps on giving laughs.

Spend Memorial Day with IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Marathon featuring “fin facts” from “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander!

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