Friday, March 18, 2011


Quick interruption of my list of movies all film students should study.

While I was looking over my John Ford collection, (Yes, his films are next on the list. Who were you expecting, Michael Bay? Wrong Blog kid.) I watched Stagecoach again (making this list is really just an excuse to watch these films. Leave me alone kids, Daddy's working!) and was reminded of an exercise I did in a few of my film classes.

I would ask my students to watch four films off this list that they had not seen before.

Dark Victory
Gone With The Wind
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Love Affair
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
Wuthering Heights
Dodge City
Another Thin Man
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Babes in Arms
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
Destry Rides Again
Drums Along the Mohawk
The Four Feathers
The Man in the Iron Mask
Mr. Wong in Chinatown
The Oklahoma Kid
The Roaring Twenties
Son of Frankenstein
The Three Musketeers
The Tower of London
Young Mr. Lincoln
Gunga Din

We would then spend a little time at the end of class discussing the films as they watched them. Sometimes these discussions would lead to a serious analysis of shot progression, composition, story structure, camera/lens choice, lighting, music, whatever. Sometimes we'd still be going over a film at 10 or 11 pm, really digging into not just how much fun and entertaining these films are, but how incredibly well made each of them is. We'd talk about how with the exception of motion control cameras, advancement in film stock, and digital effects there is nothing being done today technically better than it was in these films. As a matter of fact, the composition/photography of most modern movies don't hold up to what is in these films.

(Compare any frame of Adventures of Robin Hood to any frame of any animated film in the last five years. If you tell me they even compare, I'll smack you with a rolled up copy of Composing Pictures. Hell if you converted it, The Adventures of Robin Hood would be a better Stereoscopic film than anything that's come out of the big studios yet. Don't be fooled by hysterically moving camera work and fast cutting. You can swing a camera tied to a rope over your head and get the same effect as the camera work in a lot of recently animated films. Probably a better story too, but that's another topic.)

Near the end of the year I'd tell the students that the films on that list, all those brilliant, powerful, entertaining, mesmerizing, elegantly crafted films were released in the same year. 1939. One year. Americans in 1939 had art of that quality, passion, and fun handed to them by a relatively small group of artists, technicians and craftsmen. That much beauty, that much power, that much truth, - one year.

What did we give America last year?

And 1939 was 73 years ago. Long before the technical advances that make our jobs now a fraction as difficult as what those film makers had to go through. And most of those film makers went on to make dozens of other films, some even better than those listed.

Then I'd ask my film students (many of whom seemed to have put more time into their wardrobe and hair than their films that semester) to look back at the year they had just finished. To look hard at the work they had done. I'd ask them how they felt about the way they spent their time. I'd ask them if they felt worthy to stand next to films like those and call themselves filmmakers or artists.

Anyone who did, I failed.

Anyway, just a quick aside to share those films and that thought with you. Back to the list next time.

Oh, and do yourself a favor if you haven't seen Tower of London, Another Thin Man, or Gunga Din, go watch them.

Trust me. I have a blog.