Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mary and I hope to see "The Artist" tomorrow if the weather cooperates. It's interesting to see how people react to the idea of a silent film in 2012 – not just silent, but black and white as well.

I realize there is considerable apprehension for many people to see a film that is so radically different than those they normally see. I ran into those feelings each and every film class I taught at Western New England University when I was an adjunct instructor there.

The more brazen – or stupid – students would whine,"Please Mr. Dobbs, when are we going to see something with sound and color?"

It's now easy to see many of the films people call classics thanks to the video revolution, but what was the point of a college class if it did not expose students to things new to them and challenge their own ideas?

Many of them also had a prejudice against foreign films because it meant having to read subtitles.

"We can't watch the movie and read at the same time, Mr. Dobbs!"

(As an aside, I must note my feelings of actually wanting to torture the student with something obscure when he or she – can't remember which – asked if the class could see "Gone With the Wind." I responded it was easy to see that film, but more difficult to see the material I was going to show them.)

I'm sure the attitudes of many of the students reflected the general public: give us something that doesn't really makes us work.

That's why sub-titled foreign films get scant theatrical distribution in this country and are far less available on DVD than they should. No Red Box is going to stock films such as those.

Perhaps "The Artist's" critical reception will be enough to push people into going to it. Perhaps it could spur a revival of interest in silent film.

Now for you who haven't seen a silent film, let me just say the experience is far different than what you are used to with today's films. Silent films force you to pay attention – the information of the narrative is carried by the image and the musical accompaniment. The lack of dialogue requires keener involvement.

With IMAX and 3-D, people think the movie experience today is all enveloping. Sorry, but silent films create that same kind of involvement, but it wasn't about mechanics, it's about the suspension of disbelief. No annoying glasses are necessary.

I realize that those people who think they don't like silent films are those who have never watched a silent film or they've seen some blurry clip from something that was projected at the wrong speed.

In an effort, probably vain, I've posted some clips to show the depth of the silent film.

In my experience you're either a Buster Keaton fan or a Charlie Chaplin fans. I'm Keaton all the way and this is the film I would show my class that almost always worked. "Sherlock Junior" is fast-moving, funny and inventive.

Want high drama? "The Last Laugh" is a fascinating film.

For years, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" was only available in a mutilated form. Now the complete film is available and it's one of my favorites – a combination of science fiction and social commentary.

Tearjerker? F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," which was released with a soundtrack but no dialogue, is a beautiful film.

Silent cinema created iconic moments that have inspired contemporary filmmakers. Here is one of them from "Phantom of the Opera."

You want gritty social observation? Erich Von Stroheim's castrated masterpiece packs a punch even though the film was cut from nine hours to less than two.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I've got to make more room for more stuff – actually for the stuff that isn't properly stored.

I blame both my environment and my DNA. Both of my parents wore the pack rat badge proudly. Perhaps it was their Depression upbringing that compelled them not to throw out certain items. My dad always keep things like any spare piece of hardware. My mom still has pieces of cloth she bought when I was a kid that she meant to make as various articles of clothing.

Somehow copies of "The National Geographic" also became sacred objects. When my folks moved from Granby, Mass. to Virginia in 1987, they left dozens and dozens of issues that they just could't manage to pack.

I go into periods during which I try hard to get rid of DVDs, books, and other objects of my affection, simply because I have to and this is one of those times.

Some times I get very industrious and put items onto eBay, but I'm not as disciplined as I should be about that. If I don't have success I don't always immediately re-list as I should.

So, in an effort to try to get rid of the growing pile of past interests, I'm going to have some sort of sale. I don't know when, but probably in the spring. In the mean time, I'm going to list some of the bargains here. If any of our interest to the readers of this blog, drop me a line and we can arrange something.

$5 for this great interview issue of the legendary movie magazine.

I've got a whole slew of the early issues of another legendary movie magazine. I used to be a contributor, but that was a long time ago. Issue Number One is $10, and every issue after that is $5.

Picked this wacky pop culture 'zone up in Glasgow in 2006. $3 and it's yours.

I've got a whole bunch of DVDs and this is only one of them. Make it your's for $3. Want the complete boxed set of Darren McGavin's Mike Hammer series ? Take it away for $15. How about the first season of the new TV show "Happy Endings?" Give me $5. The Indonesian horror film "Birth of a Vampire?" $5. "Lemura: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural" is also yours for $5.

Zorro press kit? $3.

"Memoirs of a Geisha" press kit $3.

Classy essays on horror films by big named writers, long out of print: $10

I've got copies of my books that can be personally inscribed: $20.

More bargains to follow. Price does not include postage.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Some of my favorite movie stills

I'd like to share with people a hobby of mine that started when I received my first issue of "Photon," the legendary fanzine that included a movie still in every issue. The stills were not original, needless to say, but great copies from a film featured in the issue.

I was instantly smitten with the idea that I could own something that represented a film. This was 1971 or so and the only way one could actually be a film collector was to buy 16mm prints of films. I had a handful of the 8mm and Super 8 cutdowns and I watched them over and over.

But those of us who were into such things knew the only way to go make that leap into 16mm and that was not possible for me.

You kids today – yes, you know who I'm shaking my ancient finger at – have no idea just how revolutionary VHS was for the study and enjoyment of moves. It was the great agent of democracy. Living in Granby, Mass., I could't see the movies film fans could in large cities, but home video changed all of that.

In any event, I discovered there was a place in New York City called Cinemabilia that sold movie stills. I bought from them through the mail and visited the store once.

I soon became a snob. I didn't want copies of stills. I wanted originals and I sought them out the best I could.

I bought stills of films I had seen and some from films I wanted to see. Years later I still look through piles of stills.

The still is now an artifact of the past, like lobby cards, inserts, three sheets, etc. Used to help sell movies, they have been replaced in press kits by a CD of digital images.

So from time to time I'll post some images for, hopefully, your enjoyment – and mine, too.

Here's a great shot from the Republic serial "Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc." with stuntman and actor David Sharpe doubling for star Ralph Byrd. Recognize the terrain? It was in a lot of Republic westerns and serials.

Clayton Moore was a boyhood hero of mine and I'm happy to say when I interviewed him in the mid-1980s, he was a great gentlemen. Here's Moore playing a highly fictionalized version of Buffalo Bill Cody.

The three Monogram Shadow films, supposedly based on the famed radio show, have little to do with either The Shadow of the pulps or the radio. Instead they are actually goofy little mysteries that owe more to Nick and Nora Charles. Kane Richmond was one of those actors who played character parts in A films and leads in B movies.

Okay, I've been lazy and haven't done the cross-checking on IMBD to deduce the name of this film, but I want to see it despite knowing that it probably is a cheap-jack little production. The cast includes Kane Richmond (third from right) Frankie Darro and David Sharpe. I want a DVD of this thing!

It's difficult to explain the appeal of the classic movies serials of the 1930 and '40s. They are low-budget, frequently poorly written, frequently poorly acted and frequently nonsensical movies. But I have a soft spot – in my head – for them. Here's actually a gem, "The Tiger Woman," starring Linda Stirling and Allan Lane.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Fleischer re-make

Today's movie industry is dominated by remakes, reboots and "re-imganings" – films that rely on previously filmed properties.

While this is too common an occurance today, it is by no means somethign that is just typical with today's cinema.

If a studio had developed a story it was not out of the realm of possibility to film several versions of it over time. One of the best examples is "The Maltese Falcon," which Warner Brothers brought to the screen three times, the last time in the form of the story we remember best.

Mark Newgarden, one of the Facebook friends, posted a link to a Koko the Clown cartoon I hadn't seen before and it's a gem. I wish there could be a comprehensive DVD set put on featuring these cartoons.

If you've not seen any of the Kokos, then you should know Max Fleischer took of the convention of the cartoonist interacting with his drawn creation – first developed in vaudeville lightening sketch acts and first seen in animation in Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" – and made it his own.

There were other silent cartoon series that mixed animation and live action – Walter Lantz did it and Walt Disney followed Max's lead – but it is my contention that Max's cartoons did it the best.

Max and his team set up a fun dynamic: Max was the paternalistic cartoonist and Koko was a very disobedient son. Max was not above putting Koko into some challenging situations and Koko wasn't afraid of taking his revenge.

The Fleischer staff used stop motion animation in a number of these shorts and Max, who by all accounts I've gathered was a low-key person, made an effective co-star for his animated lead. Max was also a pretty good sport as you will see in this cartoon, especially being dragged throught the set.

So watch the first one, made in 1924.


There are some notable things about this cartoon, one of which is the absence of Koko's dog Fitz, who is replaced by a rabbit! I particularily liked the moment when Koko rips out part of the background to form a parachute and then glides over the Max. A nice piece of animation that had a throwaway gag in it with Koko wearing horseshoes.

So now here the partial remake. Max is referenced here but does not make an on-camera appearance. His only sound cartoon was "Betty Boop's Rise to Fame" made in 1934.

The Fleischers eliminated the Out of the Inkwell series with the coming of sound and in a large way, the concept of interaction between the cartoonist and the creation as a standard part of the narrative. Although Koko appeared in a number of Betty Boop cartoons, the character was never the star. "Ha Ha Ha" is almost nostalgic in its use of the characters coming out of the inkwell. It's a favorite of mine.

© 2012 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

My blogging manifesto 2012

I started blogging in 2005 because my buddy Steve Bissette started and I caved to peer pressure.

After all, I write for a living and express personal thoughts in a weekly column read, according to the circulation audit by about 120,000 people every week.

That should be enough for me, shouldn’t it?

Well, yes and no. As much as I work – generally 50 to 60 hours a week – I still want to write more. My late friend Myron Waldman taught me the importance of doing your own thing. As he directed and animated cartoons at the Fleischer Studio, he did his own paintings.

And as my friend Dick Gordon showed me, you do your own projects in order to own them, so you can hopefully get additional returns from your labor and investment.

That is why I frequently post, with some additions, material that I published in the newspapers. I have plans for many of my pieces.

Of course, I’m a journalist, which means I’m not an artist. The head of the journalism program at UMass once said that we were craftsmen. We could take pride in our work, it could feature our own style and embellishments, but every story had to fulfill the purpose of informing people.

I liken it to throwing pots in a factory. They can be pretty, but they still have to be pots. They must conform to the needs of the consumer, who expects, well, a pot.

I will readily, if not shame-facedly, admit some jealousy for those who work in the arts, especially the visual arts. Their work receives an immediate reaction and variations from reality are not seen as flaws, but rather as artistic visions.

So for me, this blog is where I try to do something different that reflects my interests and personality.

However the cost of working at a newspaper group, doing the work of two people for almost six years now has taken a toll. I don’t see as many movies as I would like. I don’t read as books as I would like. I don’t have the time. I don’t sleep well.

I run a household with my wife. I have a house and a back yard that will require months of work, thanks to tornado damage.

And I certainly don’t blog as much as I would like.

For this blog to develop a bigger readership I would have to do something almost everyday, pimp the hell out of it wherever I could and stick to one basic subject. Successful blogs sell a product or a brand.

For example, my pal Steve is his own brand. He’s a world famous cartoonist who people simply adore.

(I’m not picking on you Steve, honest. You’re one of my closest friends, but you’re also a good example. Interestingly enough, Steve is cutting back on his blogging in 2012. That’s a shame as his “MyRant” is almost always interesting and well written. )

I’m not a celebrated artist or novelist. I’m not a celebrity. I’m a journalist by trade in the 108th or so largest media market in the country.

I am a thrower of pots.

But then again, I do have a following. People do recognize me when I’m working. There are people who still remember me from my WREB days back in the 1980s. There are still people who have fond memories of Animato! and Animation Planet. I have interviewed many interesting people.

2012 has been a very poor year professionally and personally. The one big freelance gig that I thought was going to materialize died a lingering death. What made it worse was that I don’t own the work. It was work for hire. I can’t even post it here.

It shouldn’t be surprising that I have toying with the idea of junking this blog. Shouldn’t I use my time for other writing pursuits?

A blog, though, could help those projects. Within the next several weeks, the introduction for my book, “Fifteen Minutes With…” will make its debut here. A sample chapter will follow. Perhaps something might happen.

I’ve decided to instead work harder on “Out of the Inkwell” and establishing a publishing schedule that will hopefully entices people to return on a regular basis.

And I will spit in the face of convention by not producing a one-subject blog. I don’t do well with many conventions, I’m afraid.

A one-time friend, a writer of horror non-fiction and fiction, once told me my problem as a writer is that I don’t specialize enough. Well, he’s not writing and I still am.

He also suggested that I quit my job and allow my wife to support me while I follow my muse.

Yeah. Right.

I’ve decided to reassert my own little local brand, write things I can’t elsewhere. Some days may be a video. Some days may be a series of movie still from my collection. Animation, local politics, movies, media and pop culture will continue to be the subjects of this blog.

If people comment, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s okay, too.

So come back often. I will.