6 Degrees: Friday Flix

 

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6 Degrees of Film

Greetings Film Fans! Hope your summer is going well. There are a few releases this week in the summer mix, but nothing that jumps off the page in terms of excitement. For those of you who are Armchair Film Followers– don’t forget to record Duck and Cover this weekend on Turner Classic Movies. If you have never seen it, it’s the short film made as a cartoon to inform the population about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. No, I’m not kidding. For those of you who saw the tweet this week of the man posting the kindergarten song “Twinkle, Twinkle little star” re-written with the words of “Lockdown, Lockdown, Lock the Door,” it’s a stark reminder that we haven’t come all that far from the fifties, folks!
Other films you might want to record this week include one of Doris Day’s best called Please Don’t eat the Daisies; a look at a silent comedy master, (one of my favorites)-Harold Lloyd. Some of Lloyd’s shorts are being shown on TCM throughout the month, so check the listings. I recommend Why Worry for Lloyd fans. And for millennials who have never seen Lucille Ball or Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy,” they are showing one of the few times they made a feature film together. It’s The Long, Long Trailer and it has some funny bits that make it worth a viewing.
Leslie Howard is the featured actor this month on Turner Classic. He was so much better as an actor than what is usually seen on screen with his nebbish portrayal of Ashley, the man who is Scarlett O’ Hara’s unrequited love interest in Gone with the Wind. Howard is featured this month in The Petrified Forest with Humphrey Bogart and in the original Pygmalion film version adapted from George Bernard Shaw. Howard was the original Henry Higgins, before Rex Harrison dominated the role on Broadway in My Fair Lady. And Leslie Howard also stars in the classic The Scarlet Pimpernel, which isn’t widely shown and is an interesting film as Howard portrays a rather foppish aristocrat who is secretly a spy. It was the original “origin” character before Zorro or Clark Kent and other super heroes adapted the idea of a dual character with a meek side that conceals their heroic natures.
From 6 Degrees Magazine, there are several interesting articles this week. There are two pieces on the debut of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood fame. Speaking of dual natures, the documentary reveals Rogers as much more than simply the kind hearted and dorky guy who donned a sweater in each episode. Rogers had a message and an agenda to convey, and he was a dynamic activist and advocate for children’s programming in his own right.
Ocean’s 8 premiers this week, and there are several reviews of a decidedly mixed nature on this female heist version of the long-running series. But the one stand-out article recommended is What if Star Wars never happened? Which is a great ‘what if’ for those of us who like to write or just to ponder these variables of life. The entire premise of my book- Six Degrees of Film- tells the story of Hollywood and the arc of the past quarter-century which has been dependent on Star Wars as the culture phenomenon that it was. Star Wars was a leader in CGI and for promotion of special effects in film-which had been a dying art before the first 1976 Star Wars, as well as the arbiter of all things Star Wars found in the known universe. It included the science-fiction realm and the Hollywood Blockbuster business model, complete with the concept of serial films and a plot that was simple enough to appeal to all ages. So that is an interesting concept: What if Star Wars never happened?

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Next week we will have more film recommendations to record classic films shown on TCM. And in the meantime, stay cool and see you at the movies!-ML

Friday Flix: Thoughts on Solo

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First my thoughts on my obligatory viewing of Solo: A Star Wars Story. In summary, the film left me with an overall feeling that the critics were largely correct. The film is fairly pedantic, with some interesting pieces of Han Solo’s life coming together and one appearance by a major Star Wars villain who was thought to be dead. (One Star Wars fan from 6 Degrees magazine was incensed at the spoiler listed in the title of an article which listed the name of the villain-so we’ll just leave it there!)
Overall, the film was like one of those old ‘movie of the week’ made for TV films. It was ok, but I can’t recommend it to anyone but the most devout Star Wars fans. And I know there are a lot of you out there. The thing is, Star Wars has become something of a cottage industry, with cartoons and books and a multi-verse of characters and sub-plots making their way under the umbrella of “Star Wars” stories. This Solo story features some major characters, Hans Solo and Lando Calrissian and Chewbacca, who were all major players in the original Star Wars cast. So that is why this film has any significance. I thought the last Star Wars feature, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, lacked a lot of depth in the overall story, too, by the way.
I suppose, not being someone who has simply leapt into the Star Wars universe enthusiastically, this is somewhat predictable in my critical eyes. I thought The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the Star Wars series, and also, that the other stand-out was the one that everyone tends to pan, the 1999 feature with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace. So who am I to judge the wrath of a Star Wars fan who is serious about their Star Wars connections?

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I do realize the significance of Star Wars in connection with our culture and the history of filmmaking in general. My book has an entire section devoted to George Lucas’ quest to establish CGI and his Industrial Light and Magic Studio. Here is the link to the excerpt for all Star Wars followers to see: From Star Wars to Sin City. There’s more on this later, but I urge everyone to read the link from all of Roger Ebert’s Star Wars reviews.
I also urge all of you to visit the 6 Degrees Magazine and follow the link to the Village Voice piece about some of the restoration work that has been done recently for Republic Studio pictures. Republic Studios was a significant player in the Golden Age of Film, with hits like The Quiet Man and cult films like Johnny Guitar among their credits.

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Also featured in 6 Degrees:

• Reviews of the films out this week. From the Ebert.com site; How to talk to Girls at Parties and Book Club have good reviews. It’s been a ho-hum launch to the Summer Film Season, so there are no standouts to tell you about. Mary Shelley and Adrift were not given great reviews, but you can read them for yourself in the magazine. Here’s the line-up featured in our Summer Film News:
• An interesting piece on rogerebert.com from a master cinematographer talks about the craft of shooting films. Edward Lachman talks of his start in the business looking at photos by Robert Frank. Lachman also spoke of the changes in film because of ‘digital cinematography’, in ways that change not only how the movie is shot, but how it is perceived. “They always say the digital world should look like film, but I never hear the film world should look digital.’ Keep an eye out as you look at modern films in the theatre after reading this. Lachman thinks that digital cameras make everything darker. According to Lachman, “if the whole film’ is in this darkness, your eye tires.” Something to look out for the next time you’re at the movies…
• There’s a video roundtable discussion of critics at Cannes: Ben Kenigsberg, Jason Gorber and Lisa Nesselson discuss movies. Check it out here

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In closing, there are a few interesting elements in the latest Solo film foray venturing forth into the Star Wars Universe. There’s always a promise of more to come, and the films all open with the same fairy tale of Once upon a time implicit in the crawl: “A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ which gives us leave right there to suspend all disbelief. We can be the judges of whether the films live up to our high expectations, and of course, they seldom do. But the idea is that the universe will continue.
I do like what I read from a New Yorker piece,  entitled “The Growing Emptiness of the Star Wars Universe”, that talks about the dilution of the brand. As it is with the idea of making a copy of a copy of a copy, the ‘simulacra’ is defined as a ‘diluted tincture’ and as with fashion and the example is the brand of Tommy Hilfiger. Of it, the writer says of Hilfiger: ‘it is impossible to be more derivative, more removed from the source, more devoid of soul.’ This, in application to the viewing of Solo: A Star Wars story does not augur well for the overall dilution of the brand. There is a disturbance in the force, as they say. And that ain’t good….Till next week, see you at the movies-ML

6 Degrees: Friday Flix

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6 Degrees of Film

Greetings movie buffs! We have an interesting line up of both old and new films in April In the list of films that turned fifty this year we find one of the most famous sci-fi movies of all time, pre-Star Wars, and it is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also turning fifty is the campy original classic The Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston. There’s some good articles on both of these films in 6 Degrees magazine this week.

At Cannes: The Penelope Cruz/Javier Bardem thriller: Everybody Knows will open Cannes film festival, And we are excited to hear that Ron Howard’s film, Solo: A Star Wars story, is going to premiere at Cannes..,stay tuned

The Superhero Watch: Wonder Woman was named the most ‘profitable’ superhero movie of 2017. That is news, because the film that has jumped to the top ten list of highest grossing films is Black Panther. This film has been phenomenally successful, and ‘has legs’ as they say in the buz. I update the highest grossing films list periodically, as it gives us a good window into what the public wants in terms of films, and in some ways, it shows us where we have been and where we are going in terms of culture:

As of 2018:

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Black Panther is Number Ten– Telling us Black Lives DO Matter (but it’s better in Wakanda!)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017- the latest film) is Number Nine
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -Part II (2011- the last one) is Number Eight
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) is Number Seven – hence…the latest entry is out soon!
(Fast and) Furious 7 (2015) is Number Six
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) is Number Five…We GET it!
Jurassic World (2015) is Number Four…The new one is also out this summer-see list
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is Number Three-much better than Number 9, by the way!
• Number Two: Hanging on for dear life…is TITANIC from 1997-which is ancient for this list!
Number One: Avatar from 2009, both Numbers 1 & 2 directed by James Cameron, both feature love stories, so perhaps with The Shape of Water winning Best Picture, we realize love may come in different forms, but romance is not dead at the movies!

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At the movies; Ready Player One, Spielberg’s offering based on the Video game, has garnered mixed reviews. The film depiction of Ted Kennedy’s tragic scandal Chappaquiddick is also in theatres now. Also set for re-release in theatres in July: The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine which I predict will do well in this era and climate of protests as well as the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

There’s a good review of the new Joaquin Phoenix thriller: You Were Never Really Here from Rolling Stone featured in 6 Degrees magazine this week. Isle of Dogs, from director Wes Anderson has also received good reviews. The film starring John Krasinski,  A Quiet Place has just opened to good reviews. The novelty in this one is the spider creatures who are attracted to sound, which means much of the movie is viewed in silence, which makes for an interesting premise…

Coming Soon: We will be out with the Summer Movie News in May, but to preview, some of the openers this summer include:

Avengers: Infinity War opening on April 27th
Life of the Party: May 11- a comedy with Melissa McCarthy
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens May 25th, and as stated above, directed by Ron Howard
Ocean’s 8- June 8th, is the female version of the franchise
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom opens June 22nd
Sicario: Day of Soldado opens June 29th
Mamma Mia! Here we go again is on July 20th…here we go again…
Mission: Impossible-Fallout on July 27th
Christopher Robin opens August 3th- and is a live action version of the well-known children’s story
• The Spy Who Dumped Me on August 3rd stars Mila Kunis in an ‘international espionage comedy’
The Meg on August 10th stars Jason Statham in an action version of “Jaws” with a megalodon monster that measures 70 feet
Slender Man is a horror flick debuting August 24th

So…lots of variety and a return to good solid storytelling and creative and inventive plots. Of course I’m kidding, this list is a short list with mostly sequels and standard Hollywood fare. Every now and then, there’s a standout like a Juno, or Her, or once in a blue moon you’ll see something wonderful like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even Planet of the Apes, in its original format, was cheesy but interesting enough to spawn a generation of sequels.

As for me, I want to see how Ron Howard handles the Star Wars mythology. And from this list, I have to admit there’s not a whole lot that looks exciting or different to choose from. However, there’s a part of me that loves to see something deliciously bad from time to time....Gidget Goes Hawaiian always makes the cut for me in terms of really bad movies we love to watch against our better judgement. I’m sure everyone has some films on that short list…

Gidget is playing this weekend on TCM, so we can indulge in the short term, and celebrate some of the classic masterpieces that don’t come around often, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. Check out 6 Degrees to read up on this classic film. Have fun and till next week, see you at the movies! ML

 

 

 

 

 

Some Spiritual Films to Watch & Record

On this Easter weekend, here is a previously compiled list I made of ten films suggested to watch with the spiritual aspects of the filmmakers in mind. Some are surprising (Harry Potter & Star Wars), and others come from traditional religious subjects and themes. But they all hammer home the message that the spiritual nature of our lives is found not only in churches and in religious settings, but in all aspects of our existence, and in all corners of the universe-even in galaxies “Far, Far Away”….! Happy Easter from Six Degrees!

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For some, modern films have less meaning and less deeply spiritual content than films of old. Although there are many recent films that do convey deeply meaningful messages, the great films of the past have the benefit of time to preserve their spiritual themes. But too often, these classics are seen as just old movies with little to say to milennials and they don’t connect with our lives today. As with great classic books, these messages are timeless and not to be over-looked, and the spiritual content of the films endures. Here is a list of ten films-some of them familiar to us, some that are shown on television frequently, some fairly recent, but all with some spiritual message that still speaks to us.

The 3 Godfather’s from 1948 – This John Wayne film is one of the most spiritual films he made.  John Wayne stars as one of three outlaws who are transformed through the act of love. They become Godfathers by accident, as they are charged with watching over an innocent baby whose dying mother pleads with the men to protect and care for her infant. The three men, against all odds, facing sure death and agonizing hardships as they cross a desert and battle outlaws, are changed by their unselfish love for the child.

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The Wizard of Oz from 1939 – This film is not at first seen as spiritual, but it remains notable for many of us from the moment the audience sees a transformed landscape as the door opens from a black & white cinematic shot of Kansas into a new color-filled world of Oz. The transformation is a kind of metaphor for the realization of a spiritual awakening as found in Christianity and in other religions. It’s a spiritual awakening we all take part in as our eyes are opened to a new life filled with the spirit and mindfulness of being. The message is carried throughout that what lies within each of us is the only true way to our salvation…and to discover it, we need to step outside of ourselves and look within, and be grateful for the lives we have been given

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The Sound of Music from 1965: We need to take note that this film was directed by Robert Wise, who was a noted Film Noir director from the forties and fifties. The back shots of the scenes in the abbey give a spiritual aspect to this film that has often been dismissed as light and fluffy family entertainment. As the Mother Superior sings one of the memorable songs, “Climb every Mountain”, it serves as a metaphor for the film.

We all must endure the mountains of want and hardship, of suffering and loneliness, and we must scale them to achieve our dream. For Christians, and for other religions,  it is an act of faith in life itself, and the promise of eternal Salvation. The Baroness is depicted as so materially grounded, and such an obvious contrast to Maria, who literally has to give up everything to climb a mountain in the end, that many may look at this portion of the film as a typical ‘cat fight’ between two women and just dismiss the purpose.  However, when the film is seen in its entirety, the cinematic grandeur of the backdrop, combined with the emotional impact behind the messaging which was based on true events-a family fleeing the Nazis-we see the film as a message meant for a generational message that carries deep emotional impact.. We can look back at the spiritual moments of this film and reflect that it does leave us uplifted and feeling there is a deeper meaning here.

LadyHawke from 1985: Matthew Broderick and his talks with God set this film apart. Broderick is introduced as a thief, and we see him as the Everyman and a flawed hero.  Although the film was marketed as a love story between two doomed characters, Broderick’s thief is the one we can most identify with in this story. The spiritual nature is shown when we see there are two parts to every man, portrayed as the wolf and the hawk in the characters of Michelle Pfeiffer as the “LadyHawke” and her wolf-lover, played by Rutger Hauer. The two combine to illustrate that we are both the sinner and the redeeming healers, and the two parts are found in each of us.

H Potter & Deathly Hallows

The Harry Potter series from 2001 through 2011:  Good vs Evil are often very obvious symbols in the battle between Harry Potter and the evil Voldemort. But the theme running through the story of Harry Potter-of nothing is as it seems-found in all of the books and films, is a deeply spiritual message. The message throughout is to be careful of things that seem too good to be true. And the films tell us that we must look beneath the surface to find the true treasure within. The treasure in Harry Potter ends up being the friendships forged and the magic of Love, and the final message that Love triumphs over Evil.

 

Groundhog Day from 1993:The theme is that the ultimate power of Redemption can change everything; it brings true love and meaning to our otherwise empty lives. We see this in the character of a broken and shallow man, portrayed in one of the best roles Bill Murray has ever brought to the screen, and the life that he must forge as he begins to awaken to this new way of living. He has lived as an invisible man, choosing a non- existence and he is forced to confront his life and transform it into a richer and more fulfilling path. It is a path where he must help others and find the meaning of true love. This is the ultimate Redemption film, and one with deep Spiritual overtones.

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Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back from 1980: Not only is the Star Wars mythology of all the films deeply embedded with the symbolism of Good vs Evil; but this particular film highlights the redeeming power that comes from within; when we reject our own dark side even at a great cost.
The message is that we will prevail and come out a better person, and perhaps a different one than we were-in Luke Skywalker’s case, he even has a new limb! The Dark Side is within us all; the power of evil and darkness is all around us, a powerful force throughout the universe, but love will prevail, even with great hardships that we endure

Risen from 2016:  with Joseph Fiennes starring as the Roman Soldier. Risen is more than just a “puff-piece” regarding the nature of the Resurrection. This film explores the idea that someone can witness a miracle such as the resurrected body of Jesus, returned in the flesh; and have a transformative experience of faith, and use that power to reject the glory and the material wealth of their lives to follow the true way.

The Nativity Story  from 2006:  This is the story of the birth of Christ shown warts and all, meaning it reveals the historic timeline that puts us into the scene of where Christ was born and the harsh reality of life for those under Roman rule. The beauty of the story is captured and the simple purity of the tale of the Holy Family comes through in this version.

Marvin’s Room from 1996: We see three great actors, Diane Keaton, Leonardo Di Caprio and Meryl Streep, combine to tell the story of our own lives. It shows us the selfish nature of our existence in the character of Meryl Streep; the capricious and angry emotions that we carry in DiCaprio’s role as a young and troubled teen son, and the burdens and the joys of love in its purest form found in Diane Keaton’s part of the caregiver who is faced with her own mortality.
We are witness to all of this with the themes of love and redemption. There is love for others, in the caregivers role that Keaton has taken on, and the love for family and the love that is willing to sacrifice all in the end. It comes full circle as Meryl Streep eventually redeems herself, from a self-centered sister, daughter, and mother, she gradually learns the meaning of true love and sacrifice for others.

There are many films that give us a glimpse into the human condition, which depict the parts that make up the whole of our humanity, and these films are just a small preview of the many other movies that help us discover our own spiritual selves as we watch and process these stories from some of our greatest filmmakers.
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From Star Wars to Sin City

 

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An excerpt from the 6 Degrees of Film: The future of film in the Global Village by Mary L Johnson:
“Star Wars is not a simple morality play; it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man,” wrote Joseph Campbell, one of George Lucas’s inspirations for the mythology used to create Star Wars.
Mark Dippe, a visual effects supervisor, said that the first thing he thought when he saw Star Wars in 1977 was, “Who the hell is this guy George Lucas? The film just stood apart; it still does. I think George Lucas’s films had a big influence on changing the process and vocabulary of filmmaking. The legacy of Star Wars is that at ILM [Industrial Light and Magic], we get a chance to work on creating things that haven’t been seen before.”
Over twenty-five years ago, George Lucas incorporated Industrial Light and Magic after he made Star Wars and extended his empire into the first decade of the twenty-first century. From approximately 1987 through 2012, major developments from ILM and other parts of the industry have made the film industry what it is today. The industry witnessed the end of an era in film and the beginning of a new age of moviemaking.
Industrial Light and Magic has definitely framed the era and defined it with their many breakthroughs in visual effects. The storyboarding that is critical to their vision is now a major part of most successful film series, and the comic genre that has emerged would not have been a reality without the effects of ILM.
The criticism that Lucas and Spielberg films have juvenilized the movies, to my mind, is unfair. These filmmakers have given the public what they want, and there never has been a dearth of creative talent in the film industry. On the contrary, there are many exciting new avenues for young and innovative minds to bring their creations to the screen, including Internet productions and independent venues. We are always seeing new ways for artistic talent to emerge as the next big thing.
Film is changing and evolving as it has from the beginning, and the medium as a mass-communication tool and an art form make this an exciting time to break into the market. The future of film may involve the type of images seen in Sin City and Waltzing with Bashir, where actors are not filmed in the traditional way but with a kind of brushstroke or cartoon quality that enables the plot to go in many different directions. There might be alternate endings and story lines to follow with endless variations. Online, the viewer can access alternative views from various characters’ perspectives.
The experience of going into a darkened theater to view a film is changing forever. As in the penny arcades and nickelodeons that began the first century of film, we now see the evolution and dawn of a new age and a new way of understanding the world through the medium of film.
George Lucas spoke of his ideas on the future path that might occur using film and some kind of drug to enhance the experience. His ideas regarding future films would make theatrical, narrative-driven movies, in his words, “as quaint as an old silent-reeler”:
I see true environments being created and combined with a lot of biotech things going on, in terms of manipulating people’s senses through drugs. This combination will have the most powerful effect on the kind of storytelling we’re doing today. It’s too far off for me to worry about, and I’m not interested in virtual reality at its current level, because it’s just too crude. But if you can program virtual reality or simulator rides with biotech, you will have a very interesting non-world. The first step would be to take the simulator ride part of an environment … where you can just implant the story in a pill and live it.
That’s not outside the realm of possibility. You’d take the pill and go to sleep. It’d be like a dream and you’d have an actual, real, physical experience of something completely imaginary. What that’ll mean for society, I have no idea, and how you’d get there from here is way beyond me, but I know enough to know it’s within the realm of possibility. Because they’re already going there, creating images without actually making them, just as you create them in a dream.

Industrial Light and Magic

Jim Morr, a former president of ILM, said, “When ILM started, there was no effects industry. Now there’s an industry beyond ILM. I’m sure there are people who feel ILM has become too corporate since the early Star Wars days. Well, we are working on major Hollywood motion pictures, so it’s certainly not a free-for-all. But we are still kind of funky when you compare us to a business like IBM or Xerox.”
Lucas said, “ILM is also a company where it has to make enough money to develop the state of the art. So everything has to be done extremely efficiently, and they have to generate enough money year after year to be able to buy new equipment. It’s a very capital-intensive business, so that means a huge amount of money is reinvested every year after year after year. And most companies can’t do that.”
The Roots of ILM
A Life magazine story from the 1960s summed up the crisis in visual effects in movies: “There were so many innovations occurring in film, but in the field of special effects, there was a dearth of ideas. The big studios couldn’t finance the large Technicolor spectacles that had been the signature entertainment for decades at studios like MGM and Paramount. By the sixties, the film industry had begun to resemble, a company town where the mine has closed.”
Demographics had changed, and audiences had changed. Even television had evolved, and the world was rapidly changing too. This meant that movies needed to evolve and adapt to the changing times. There was an opening for a big turnaround movie.
One appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At 2001’s release in 1969, Stanley Kubrick’s innovations were the cutting edge in technological advancement in films. But Kubrick’s innovations did not translate into other copy-cat films, and Kubrick remained something of a lone-wolf figure. For one thing, the film was made in England and was too big and too expensive to emulate. The film failed to revive the waning special-effects industry in Hollywood. But it did inspire a generation of young filmmakers who saw that it could be done.
George Lucas was one who acted on that inspiration. He said, “Almost from the moment film was invented, there was this idea that you could play tricks, make an audience believe they were seeing things that really weren’t there. But this was completely lost by the 1960s.”
Lucas labored for two years on his Star Wars script. The film’s goal was to create a universe. But beyond that, he was looking for a storyline that would serve as a staging ground for a new kind of mythology.
Lucas said, “I was struck [at the time] by the fact that the western was the last American myth and there’d been no mythology created since the mid-fifties. I thought space was the next environment where you could begin to develop that mythology.”

History of Industrial Light and Magic

George Lucas created ILM in 1975 to provide visual effects for Star Wars. How he did it is a story that in many ways parallels the innovations that Steve Jobs incorporated at Apple. A new approach to special effects was needed and a void to be filled. Lucas saw it and acted.
Most of the major studios had begun to dismantle and discard the trappings of the studio system. They had sold off their back lots, auctioning off props and equipment. Among the casualties of this corporate downsizing were the effects departments. The most talented of the artists either retired or scattered to find work. Consequently, cameras were consigned to the scrap heaps, put in storage, or sold cheap.
“Visual effects was, at the time, a dying art. A number of studios passed on the [Star Wars] script before [Fox] picked up the project.”
In forming ILM, Lucas sought to emulate the studio-effects departments that were now long gone in Hollywood. One of the first things ILM did was to look at the past and become resourceful in renovating the old equipment. They set out to locate an outdated camera known as a VistaVision.

The History of VistaVision

VistaVision, invented in the 1950s, is a film format used to create big-screen images such as those in The Ten Commandments. VistaVision also was used in the classics North by Northwest and White Christmas.
Although Paramount studios developed VistaVision, they soon abandoned it as too expensive. And theater owners had to retool theaters to show the films made in the format. Only about twenty theaters ever really retooled to show the movies to their full advantage.
Industrial Light and Magic wanted to achieve superior visual quality in their shots. They solved some of their problems by incorporating the old VistaVision cameras, acquiring them at bargain-basement prices. The two cameras built for use in The Empire Strikes Back were the first live-action VistaVision cameras built since the days of The Ten Commandments. For that reason, an old Ten Commandments poster hung above the printer in the optical department at ILM for many years.
ILM reimagined and retooled VistaVision equipment to become the VistaFlex camera. These cameras became one of the most significant (and also underrated) advances in camera technology after Star Wars. But unlike their predecessors, these cameras were lightweight and compact—the hot-rods of photographic equipment.
After Star Wars achieved its historic global box-office success, ILM became the permanent special-effects unit of Lucasfilm Ltd. Subsequently, a renaissance of VistaVision technology flourished at ILM. This innovative group also would go on to develop motion-control technology.

Motion Control

Motion control is the ability to control the movement of the camera, and the photographic subject in synchronization to the movement of the film through the camera. After the success of Star Wars, ILM had the opportunity to accelerate enormously the integration of electronics and filmmaking.
Motion control started in 1971 with Douglas Trumbull using it on the film Silent Running. John Dykstra, who worked at ILM and was a special photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars, had been a member of that team. Dykstra recalled, “We took archaic cameras, built before we were even born, and we created hybrids of them by bolting different parts together. Nobody else was inventing cameras to make films in 1975. We were there when a genre was being born and reborn.”
It is fair to say that George Lucas and his team rescued a dying part of their industry—the art of special effects—and transformed it into something wholly different, something extraordinarily special—even unique—to enhance the term special in the phrase.

The Dykstraflex System

Another breakthrough moment in the early history of ILM came with the Dykstraflex system, named for John Dykstra, the photographic effects supervisor for Star Wars.
The Dykstraflex system was built before the advent of personal computers. All of the interaction is between the motion-control system and the camera operator. The system was in operation for fifteen years, from 1976 to 1993.
Until the computer revolution hit with full force in the 1990s, the compositing process was in the hands of ILM’s optical department—the optical dogs—who were required to handle an incoming rush of film elements while ignoring the heat of deadline pressures. Little did they realize that by the spring of 1994, the old, photochemical optical process would be completely replaced by the electronics of digital computers, and the optical dogs would become obsolete.
So it went with a lot of the old optical equipment. It was either decommissioned and put on display or dismantled. The optical department itself was reduced to a small staff with two computerized motion-control printers. Talk was that celluloid film itself might soon become extinct.
In the anticipated future without physical film, the digital cameras would be used to record live-action or composite elements. Then the computer graphics would generate three-dimensional characters and sets, and compositing and editing would be accomplished in the digital realm. The final movie would be beamed directly to home viewers by satellite or through computer modem or electronically projected in the quaint, old-fashioned confines of a movie theater.
Metaphor for the End of an Era: Shattering the Glass
From 1990 through 1993, the industrial part of the ILM equation changed dramatically. ILM had a beautiful four-foot-tall and six-foot-wide glass painting of the gothic New York City building used in Ghostbusters II. But the glass had warped and shattered when ILM tried to have it framed. That was the end of glass paintings. The same could be said for the old-fashioned way that brush and oils were used for matte paintings on film. Within five years, the outmoded brush and oils were replaced by the digital medium.
The company was experimenting with the new Photoshop program on Macintosh (Mac) computers, and the head of the computer graphics department realized they could do matte paintings and composites on this simple little box. Ironically, Lucas himself is not a digital graphics guy at heart. He said,
I’ve never been that interested in computers … I’m interested in making movies and creating images and in doing it in the easiest way possible. When you start out making movies, you’re trying to get the largest vision with what amounts to a limited amount of resources. So it’s a constant struggle to add more colors to the palette, and the way you get more colors is to spend huge amounts of money. But at some level, there are colors you can’t get, because no amount of money will get you there.
With Star Wars we were basically off the color palette. The technology did not exist, but that’s what the story was. I wanted to tell this story, but the color only existed in theory. The only way you’ll get there is to create technology that will bring those colors into the realm of what’s achievable, and that’s basically what ILM was. So I had to get involved in computers and the high-tech area … And for a long time at ILM, the state of the art was using computers to manipulate hardware—the old-fashioned nineteenth century celluloid—through sprockets technology … In 1978–79, I put together a computer division because I wanted to get a digital printer.
A microcosm of the end of the studio system occurred with the computer age replacing the age of cameras and sprockets. George Lucas began by reorganizing the entire computer-graphics division at Industrial Light and Magic.
Lucas continues, “On T2 [Terminator 2] I realized that we didn’t need to think in three dimensions all the time, that the images for film are really two-dimensional and flat. Once I realized that we could paint on the individual film frames … I realized we could do anything.”
Through the use of computer graphics, Lucas transformed not only ILM, but the entire film industry within five years. By 1993, ILM had entered into a strategic business alliance with Silicon Graphics (SGI) that allowed for ongoing cooperation in developing high-powered workstations (computers).
At this point, the Mac Squad was formed. They utilized Macintosh computers and Photoshop software to combine the digital world with such traditional departments as optical, animation, and rotoscope. {Author’s Note: Rotoscoping is a technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, to use in live-action. The glowing light saber in all three original Star Wars films, was a product of rotoscoping.} As with the beginning years of film production, the processing power and the speed and memory of computers made the transition to digital occur many years earlier than some had believed to be possible. Computers were becoming faster, and memory capability was doubling at an incredible rate.

The Age of Industrial Light and Magic

The film age we now live in is the age of Industrial Light and Magic. In essence, today is the age of the computer and special effects. For many years, the special-effects personnel worked anonymously. But with Star Wars, that anonymity ended. And so it continues that movie audiences expect and demand to be thrilled and dazzled by the artistry onscreen.
Lucas, naturally, disagrees with critics who claim that special effects tend to overpower subtleties of plot and character at times. He said, “The people who saw Star Wars and said ‘spectacular special effects!’ just never understood it. The same thing with Indiana Jones … Some people look at those movies and they don’t see the intricacies of the character and story … You can see so many movies released in the wake of those two movies, just loaded with special effects and stunts, but they don’t make very interesting movies.”

Future Shock

Industrial Light and Magic’s retooling included the sweeping away of archaic trappings of the industrial age. By the spring of 1994, the property master was cataloguing and auctioning off many old props, industrial hardware, and memorabilia that ILM had acquired in the 1970s.
This new technowave was felt with brutal suddenness in the halls of ILM. The old matte-painting department was replaced with computer hardware and painting-software systems. The old motion-control camera was replaced by some twenty computer-graphic workstations. The optical printing department was virtually eliminated by a high-powered scanner.
Dennis Muren of ILM said, “We became professionals as a calling, not just a career choice … I feel like the world has changed around us with a suddenness that no one could have predicted—and right now, we’re experiencing future shock!”
Lucas has nostalgic reflections. After all, he was the one who resurrected the VistaVision equipment to make Star Wars. He said, “I don’t like technology much, so I have no emotional ties to the technology whatsoever … I care about the images on the screen, and I’m not really enamored with the process at all. As a matter of fact, technology mostly gets in the way, and therefore, you’re constantly trying to get a better tool … On the practical side, I don’t think anybody really likes to stand out in the snow at three o’clock in the morning when it’s forty degrees below zero.”

 

6 Degrees: Star Wars Capsule Review

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It seems that all the Star Wars films are scrutinized such that it creates a checklist they must adhere to in order to be dubbed “authentic” Star Wars films. Here are some Bullets for a very Star Wars type of film….

• Did it push all the buttons for the Star Wars space battles?…Check
• Did it contain some quirky and humorous characters, lovable and villainous? Check
• Did it contain some emotional moments where the characters talk about “the dark side”? Check
• Did it leave some questions unanswered just like the old school serials? Check
• Did it introduce some new characters and use as part of the main plot, the best actors? Nope

This was a very Star Wars-ian Star Wars movie. There was the quest, the villain, the conflict with the Dark Side, and even a “mini Death Star” for some reason. But there was about five minutes with the best actor in the film, Benecio del Toro, and there was Mark Hamill, who was always the lightweight in acting chops,  and who was asked to carry the heaviest load in terms of conflict and nuance. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Many parts of the plot don’t make a lot of sense. But in between, there is Star Wars. Literally, the war that takes place in space is fought throughout most of the film. And interspersed, there is young Rey, who is on a quest and is noble and earnest. She is also conflicted, and is in some kind of mind-meld through the Force that connects her with Kylo Ren, who we all know has gone over to the Dark Side. Or has he? Maybe….maybe not. But do we care? THAT may be the burning question.

The film doesn’t lead us to the point where we DO care a whole heck of a lot about the conflicted nature of the new and improved version of Darth Vader. And that may lead us down the rabbit holes where we wait to see what Ron Howard is going to do with the spin-off version of the Han Solo film. Or it may raise even more questions about the many other spin-offs and rabbit holes where we are led in this fable about a time “Long, long ago in a Galaxy Far, Far away…”

 

6 Degrees: Holiday Film News

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The latest from Hollywood still surrounds the scandals from Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and it continues as more men and women come forward to tell their stories. The impact is something that will be felt as we see some movies are on hold, some films with green lights will not be made, and we even saw Kevin Spacey stripped from his role in a major release this month.
The films that are released in the Holiday season have come to represent some of the cream of the crop, with studios holding back releases to compete in the Awards season that kicks off with the start of the new year.
The lists of best of the year also gives us some questionable picks in order to make the requisite 10 or 20 films that fill these end of year lists. It gives us a better window to step back and look at the films of the 21st Century, and the changes that have come in the way we see movies.
Even in the past ten years, we now have more people watching films on their devices, on the small screen, and even seeing films debut on Netflix, Amazon, and other cable companies. So, the change in the way we watch films and the way we respond is significant. The relationships and the way the characters are created and fleshed out, the way the writers use foreshadowing and the nuances of cinematography and the techniques they use to lend detail has changed so much in the 21st Century.
I have written about the industry’s overuse of CGI (Computer Generated Images), and the good and the bad associated with the Star Wars era of Lucasfilms and Industrial Light & Magic. For better or worse, it has dominated the industry in so many ways.  And this has also meant Hollywood now has the ability to bring to life so many elements of storytelling that were not possible or conceivable even twenty years ago. These things are all factors that have shaped the way we see movies today. But the real strength of films will always begin with the story. The element of style evolves; and when a good story is compelling, and told with creativity and passion, there is often a good film in the making.

Here are some of the Holiday films opening in theatres in December:

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The Shape of Water is coming December 8th : Set in the 1960’s, the film tells the story of a mute woman working as a janitor at a top secret government facility that houses a new kind of creature…

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The Last Jedi opens Dec 15Th: The cast of the last film returns to answer some of the questions that were left hanging. The character of Rey, and her connection with Luke Skywalker are some of the main drivers of the plot.

THe Post 2017

The Post opens Dec 22nd: Steven Spielberg directs, Tom Hanks stars as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee; Meryl Streep is the publisher Kay Graham The film deals with the imminent release of the Pentagon Papers. It’s based on the true story of events surrounding the paper’s editorial decisions and how they handled this momentous event in our nation’s history.
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Other Holiday Films to watch and to record:

Recommended Christmas films: In the past weeks, I’ve recommended viewing: The Nativity Story, It’s a Wonderful Life and Elf/ A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Carol….(Choose your favorite version of Scrooge!)
Other Spiritual films: There are films that are shown at Christmas with a definite holiday feel. Some of them are spiritual in nature, with religious overtones. And others are simply worth watching for the cathartic feeling or the good vibes that you may want to share with loved ones during the holidays. The Sound of Music is the obvious choice, but there are other films that have the desired impact. The films listed here are not “Feel-Good” Family films, but they have either religious or spiritual overtones that reflect the holiday spirit.
Lord Jim, a film from 1965 with Peter O’Toole, is from a novel by Joseph Conrad and tells the story of a man seeking redemption for a sin he had committed earlier in his life. The idea that we are all guilty of something that we would like to forget, and to overcome our fears and our past, makes this film memorable.
The Name of the Rose is by Umberto Eco and stars Sean Connery as the monk who travels to a monastery, and discovers a series of murders that he is determined to solve. The theme of the book speaks of the uncertainty and inability to solve life’s mysteries, using the murders from the monastery to emphasize the chaotic nature of life. Sean Connery is powerful as the masterful monk, filled with conviction and the determination. It’s this force of nature that is Connery’s performance that gives this film strength.
Arrival with Amy Adams is a sci-fi film that has many layers stretching beyond the usual boundaries of science and CGI. There are some impressive visuals, and great acting from both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, her partner in solving the mystery of the aliens. But the memorable moments are strictly earthbound ones, where we see the layers unveiled as Adams, working as a linguist, struggles to communicate with the alien species and discovers much about herself as the film progresses.
King Arthur with Clive Owen is yet another retelling of the Arthurian legend. This one is set in Britain, and the knights of the round table are a nomadic band with a leader who is dedicated to Christ. The best scenes in this are the ones that show the conviction and dedication of a life given over to helping others, and striving to overcome our own personal and moral failings.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a film mentioned many times for its spiritual depth and lingering themes dealing with love and redemption. The heroine is a young girl, Scout, and she narrates the action in past tense, in a faithful translation from the book. We see Scout’s small town and her father, Atticus Finch, through her eyes. Gregory Peck really “owns” this film, as his presence, and the courtroom drama that makes up much of the action in the second half are the highlights of the film. The message, that it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird, and the Christian themes of spiritual redemption and healing make this film one of the all-time favorites for those who are searching for some depth when watching a movie.

Other Recommended Holiday/Feel Good Films for Family Viewing:
Meet me in St Louis stars Judy Garland, and features Garland singing many of her hits, including “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Judy Garland was young when she made this movie, and it was directed by her future husband, Vincent Minelli, who worked to showcase her many talents as she sang and acted her way into our hearts.
Sleepless in Seattle was a huge hit when it was released, and if featured one of the most popular couples in recent decades: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I confess that this isn’t my favorite of the Hanks/Ryan pairings-I prefer You’ve Got Mail, which is also a good family film. But this film is one that has a popular appeal and also features the small boy who decides to match make for his father, played by Hanks, during the holidays.
National Velvet is adapted from a best-selling book and is also good family fare. Elizabeth Taylor is seen in one of her first roles, as the young Velvet, who is obsessed with horses.
In Emma, the “Jane-ites” are given a visual treat in this beautifully filmed adaptation from Jane Austen starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The film begins during the Christmas season, so it has a holiday look and feel to it. And even though the film is suitable for all ages, it’s generally classified as a “Chick Flick.” I dub it a Fem Flick, for women and that sub-set of men who actually like and “get” Jane Austen and her low-key but acerbic wit.