Thursday, October 29, 2009

Maybe Richard Heene wasn't so bad

In defense of Balloon Boy's father

And why shouldn't a man pretend that his son was carried away in a balloon? Think of the boon it would have been to his family if it had worked. He's a freelance construction worker who can't be doing well these days. He was out to get a TV reality series. This was his chance.

It's a case of "moral luck", where our judgment of a person's actions is based on things beyond his control.

Think of what our judgment of Heene would be if two of the helicopters chasing the balloon had collided. Then crashed into a hospital.

On the other hand, if he had succeeded, gotten his TV show, become a beloved celebrity, provided his family with a lifetime of financial stability, and only then, years later, revealed that it all started with his Balloon Boy hoax....

Look at William Friedkin. He filmed the chase scene in The French Connection by speeding through a busy street with a small light on the roof of the car.

As the New York Times reported in an article about the releasing of a new DVD of the movie:

“We took off, with Billy telling Bill Hickman, ‘Give it to me, come on, you can do it, show me!’ ” Mr. Jurgensen said in an interview. “We had a police siren on top that people could hear, so that those who were able to get out of the way, could.”

There were no permits and no planning — just sheer nerve. “After 26 blocks, from Bay 50th to Bay 24th Street, I ran out of film, but I knew I had enough,” Mr. Friedkin said. “The fact that we never hurt anybody in the chase run, the way it was poised for disaster, this was a gift from the Movie God. Everything happened on the fly. We would never do this again. Nor should it ever be attempted in that way again.”

At that point in his career, Friedkin had directed a couple of documentaries and an episode of Sonny and Cher. How would we judge this scumbag if he had killed somebody?

Friedkin went on to direct The Exorcist which left a 12-year-old girl with a broken back and lifelong medical problems. Ellen Burstyn was also injured. There's a very brief shot in the movie where we see her falling on a hard wood floor. That shot cost her back problems ever since.

Thomas Nagel's 1979 article on "Moral Luck"

In 1979, Thomas Nagel wrote an article entitled "Moral Luck". It written as a response to Bernard William's paper on the same subject. They are a response to the Kantian view that morality is immune from luck.

But Nagel argued there are four kinds of luck that affect moral judgment:

Resultant luck, which I just talked about.

Circumstantial luck, which, I think, Frank Rich seemed to be talking about in his recent column defending Balloon Boy's dad. Heene just happened to live in a time when there are news helicopters and news networks that want to cover this type of thing, an age of reality TV shows, an age when, other than winning the lottery, a reality TV show is a construction worker with a high school diploma's only hope of escape.

Constitutive luck, where genetic or personality traits you have no control over affect your conduct. Balloon Boy's father was a narcissist with an intense interest in what he called "science".

And Balloon Boy's mother was Japanese. I don't know how much that means, but Balloon Boy's father thought it was why she went along with all his nonsense. That and the fact that she had a domineering father.

Causal luck, which I guess is just the sequence of events. The Wife Swap appearance, plus the negotiations for the reality show. I don't know.

In conclusion

I think we can all agree that Richard Heene was a completely innocent victim.

Well, maybe not. But, for God's sake, would-be filmmakers ought to show some of his spunk!

When Victor Mature came to Hollywood, he slept in a pup tent and lived on candy bars. He didn't have to---he could have stayed with friends. But he stayed in the pup tent and got publicity and a movie career out of it.

Here's an exercise:

Think of five harebrained schemes that could be your ticket to quick success!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


All you had to do was read your cue cards as fast as you can.

When you watch old episodes of Dragnet and see those actors standing there reading their teleprompters as fast as they can, you feel like maybe YOU could be an actor, too!

The show went from radio to television in the 1950s. Unlike most shows that made this switch, it kept the same cast.

On the radio, actors don't memorize lines. They stand in front of the microphone reading their script. Webb preferred this, so when the show went to television, pretty much all the dialog was on cue cards and teleprompters. Actors rarely had to remember lines.

If you watch the show, at least the color episodes, you can see that all the dialog scenes are shot in a studio. There is an establishing shot with a voice over narration, then the dialog is done in a studio in front of a rear screen projection. It worked pretty well most of the time. Could be done fairly easily now in front of a green screen.

It seems like it would be a good approach. You could get better performances both from stage actors who tend to over do it, and non-actors who usually talk very, very slow.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Some people call me 'One Shot'..."

McMillan & Wife director Alex March speaks through a character

I watched an episode of McMillan & Wife last night. Not a bad show.

I heard that Rock Hudson thought a TV show was beneath his dignity as a movie star. He was rather stodgy. Thought Susan Saint James was a hippie.

In one scene, McMillan and the sergeant talk to a crime lab technician played by John Fielder. The technician had a large print of a picture taken with a hidden camera.

They asked why he only made one print from all the pictures they took.

"I chose the best shot. It saves time. It saves money. Some people call me 'One Shot Simpson'."

Why aspiring film makers should look to television

Watching TV shows, you not only get to see the work of directors dealing with low budgets and tight schedules. You also get to see how easy it is to have something not come out nearly as well as you expected. Every episode of Barnaby Jones built to a big dramatic conclusion which never, ever worked. Ever.

When you watch a show that just seems bad, where you can't identify anything they did that was terribly wrong, where you can't see what you would have done better, you realize that your project could easily end up the exact same way.

Turn on any soap opera! Are you sure you could do better?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

B movies vs. television

I watched a couple of Edgar Ulmer movies. One was one of his better works, The Man From Planet X, the other was his directoral debut, Damaged Lives made in 1933, an exploitation film about venereal disease in the days before antibiotics.

Neither was very good. I'm a little disappointed after hearing the French gushing over Ulmer.

I still say TV shows are the new B movies. It made sense for the French New Wave to look to B movies of the '30s and '40s, but for independent filmmakers today, it's TV of the '60s and '70s.

I was watching an episode of Charlies Angels. One of the Angels goes undercover in a women's prison. The scene where she's brought into prison for the first time seemed to have been filmed in the waiting room of a dentist's office. A scene in the prison yard was filmed at a public swimming pool----swimming pools have fences with barbed wire, so it looks sort of like a prison. Except for the swimming pool.

The show stunk. But such economy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Coming Home, Afghanistan

Okay, Coming Home was a pretty good anti-Vietnam War movie.

But what if it had been made ten years earlier, in 1968 instead of 1978?

I've heard it both ways. Some have said that it could only have been made once the war was over; others say that it would have been a truly great movie if it had been made while the war was going on, when it might have influenced events.

It's unlikely they could have gotten the money to make it in '68. If they made it then, they would have to have done it very cheaply.

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas wanted to go to Vietnam and film Apocalypse Now in 16mm while the war was going on. I can't remember---I think they alarmed Roger Corman with that idea.

So----should you hurry and make a movie about the war in Afghanistan now, or wait until it's been over a few years? If you oppose the war, you'll be smeared either way.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Edgar Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen

The French consider him a genius

I was watching the documentary, Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, about the B movie director. Some in the French New Wave--Luc Moullet for one--considered him an auteur.

The story was that Ulmer directed an excellent B list movie for Universal studios, a movie called The Black Cat. It should have been his ticket to keep working for the major studios, but he was sleeping with the wife of the nephew of the president of the studio and he was blackballed.

Ulmer went to work for PRC, Producers Releasing Corporation, the most impoverished of the Poverty Row studios. Ulmer claimed that they shot all their movies there in 6 days and that he was given just enough filmstock to shoot on a 2:1 ratio. He was best known for directing the noir film Detour.

The documentary seemed to see Ulmer as a sad case because he didn't get to direct big budget movies and was stuck on Poverty Row. But it's patronizing to feel sorry for someone in his position. Directing 60 low budget movies wasn't good enough? The world isn't full of would-be filmmakers who wouldn't love to live his life?

They interviewed Ulmer's daughter, Arianne, plus Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Wim Wenders, and Joe Dante.

Dante shared some advice Roger Corman gave him. When making your shooting schedule, figure out how much time you need to make the movie really great. Then figure out how long to make it okay. Then how long just to get it on film. And go with the third one.

Here's my advice: Imagine your movie the way it would look if you had unlimited time and money. Then imagine an extended skit on The Carol Burnett Show or Saturday Night Live, or Mad TV, based on your movie. Then make a movie that looks like the skit.

One of Ulmer's movies, The Island of Forgotten Sins

There was also one of Ulmer's B movies on the DVD, something called The Island of Forgotten Sins.

It wasn't very good.

Throughout the documentary, they told us that directors today could learn a thing or two from Ulmer----they should look at his work before complaining about low budgets and tight schedules. But The Island of Forgotten Sins wasn't much of an inspiration.

It's understandable that the French New Wave looked to American B movies for inspiration. They had a morbid fascination with Hollywood. They wanted to direct movies themselves, and they knew if they were ever going to do so, it would be on very small budgets. But does it make sense for independent filmmakers today to look to these terrible movies from the '30s and '40s?

Instead of B movies, look to American TV shows. Not the new ones---they cost too much. Look at old episodes of Bonanza, The Rifleman, Quincy, McMillan and Wife. T.J. Hooker. Charley's Angels.

Many of these shows were made using B movie techniques, and shows in the '50s and '60s were often directed by former B directors. Joseph Lewis directed episodes The Rifleman. William Beaudine directed episodes of Lassie and Spin & Marty on the old Mickey Mouse Club. Ida Lupino directed episodes of Gilligan's Island.

They worked on extremely tight schedules and low budgets. And they were pretty good shows. Think of what you could do using the same form but different content.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chuck Norris vs. Jacques Tati

Tati wins, obviously

It was the 1980s. Things were different in those days. Some friends and I rented the movie Delta Force, starring Chuck Norris, with Joey Bishop and...some other people. I don't remember. Was Lee Marvin in it? I don't know what possessed us to rent the stinking thing. At least we didn't see it in a theater.

But that was the '80s. In those days, in every commercial movie made, the camera moved constantly and for no reason. Every shot was a tracking shot. Sometimes the camera would slowly drift, other times it would zip about. But it was always moving.

Delta Force's Zionist director Menahem Golan pioneered a money-saving technique I hadn't seen before or since. He would just roll the camera back and forth on a short length of track in each scene. The camera was constantly moving but he only needed to lay half as much track.

Poor Chuck Norris. Seeing him now at age---how old is he? An elderly crackpot professing a belief in intelligent design, campaigning for Mike Huckabee, acting as commencement speaker at Liberty University. (No offense to Huckabee supporters, intelligent design proponents, or Liberty University alumni.)

Makes you wonder where Bruce Lee would be if he had lived.

The '80s were grim years. When you read anything about independent filmmaking, they were always talking about improvised dollies, tracks, cranes. Wheelchairs were the big thing, of course.

It was refreshing to see a Jacques Tati movie, shot entirely in static camera long shot. Look for Mr Hulot's Holiday, Mon Oncle, and Trafic. And Playtime is interesting, with English dialog by Art Buchwald.

Pirates of the 20th Century

There was a Soviet action movie, Pirates of the 20th Century, a huge hit in its day. Made in the 1970s. The director saw some Chinese kung fu movies that were shown in the USSR and thought he could do better than that. It had some Soviet karate guys in it.

A Soviet ship transporting pharmaceutical opium from Asia is hijacked. The pirates attempt to kill everyone on board and sink the ship, but some of the Soviet sailors survive and reach an island which they discover is the pirates' base.

The movie is available on DVD. There wasn't as much karate as I expected. The violence wasn't terribly graphic, but it seemed worse than in American movies, somehow. For some reason, I found the crew of the ship being murdered much more disturbing than similar scenes in American movies.

The DVD had an interview with the director. Soviet filmmakers had pretty much the same problems as those in Hollywood. The head of the studio, when he saw it, asked the director how much he thought it would gross.

There was a scene in the movie----one of the women was been captured by the pirates. They torture her. She refuses to talk. Then there is an implied threat to rape her. According to the director, they had to tone down the rape threat so they could get the Soviet equivalent of a PG rating.

Good thing, too. The movie made a fortune from teenage boys who went back to see it again and again.

During the filming there had been some debate whether they should show a Soviet man kick a pirate in the groin. They decided to go ahead. The director knew he made the right choice when he sat in a movie theater and heard an old man say, "Finally our men know how to hit!"

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Poor Balloon Boy

Well. Dr Drew Pinsky discovered---or confirmed what many assumed---that celebrities are hopeless narcissists. And the most narcissistic of the narcissists, he found, were on reality TV.

Directing doesn't have to be difficult

Young Ron Howard's adventure with Lassie

Maybe directing isn't so hard after all.

When Ron Howard was 15 or 16, he appeared in a three-part episode of Lassie. He talked about it on an episode of David Letterman.

It was 1970. It turns out that they didn't shoot re-takes on Lassie. They would set the camera up, film the scene in one shot; the director would yell "Cut!" and they'd rush to the next scene.

I saw the episode. It was on The Animal Channel in the middle of the night. I slept through most of it. But that's how it was done---like a Jim Jarmusch movie. Like Stranger Than Paradise. One scene, one shot. In this case filmed in one take.

But poor Ronny (as he was then known) Howard. He had a close-up at the end of the episode. He was supposed to cry, but he couldn't work up the tears. He knew he didn't pull it off, but the director yelled "Cut!" and, to Ronny's horror, moved on to the next shot---a close-up of Lassie with Ronny's hand resting on her shoulder.

Ronny thought he could salvage his dignity with some hand acting. He tried to express the depth of his emotion through his hand on Lassie's mane.

The director yelled "Cut!" He stormed over and shouted, "DON'T YOU EVER FUCK WITH LASSIE'S CLOSE-UP!"

You can't accuse the director of not caring about his art.

They did a re-take of Lassie's close-up. The only re-take in the entire three-part episode.

But that seems pretty easy. Set the camera up. Turn it on for three minutes. Turn it off. Go to the next scene.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Heckler: A documentary by Jamie Kennedy. About hecklers.

Comedians are more sensitive that you might imagine

I went to see Lewis Black. He performed at the Hult Center in Eugene, Oregon. A huge crowd was there.

There was an opening act--another comedian. I don't remember his name. Sorry. But his main job seemed to be to draw out the hecklers and smack them down so Lewis Black wouldn't have to do it himself.

These were nice hecklers. They weren't shouting abuse. They were greeting him----they were just so happy to be there. He said it was nice to be in Eugene, and they yelled "GO DUCKS!" Then someone explained why they shouted "Go Ducks".

He did smack them down. Their jokes were bad. Their name wasn't on the marquis. People didn't come to hear them. He climbed down and sat in the audience and yelled something to show that heckling was bad.


Lewis Black came out. He was on stage for about 30 seconds when someone in back yelled as loud as he could, "YOU SUCK, BLACK! YOU'RE A DEGENERATE!"

I didn't make out what else he said. My impression was that it was politically motivated.

Lewis Black waited with a look of disgust on his face. Security hustled the idiot out.

So. Someone paid at least $24 to get in, just to yell briefly at Lewis Black and get thrown out. Maybe he thought they'd let him stay. Like it was a town hall meeting. I assumed the guy was very proud of himself and would rush home to brag about it on the internet. But when I searched Google, I found nothing about it.

But I did stumble upon something else. The movie Heckler, a documentary by someone called Jamie Kennedy. I got it from Netflix. It was interesting.

It started out with hecklers in comedy clubs. Some trying to be funny. Some trying to be mean. How comedians cut them down and shut them up.

"You're bald!" a woman shouted at a bald comedian.

"You have a bull dyke hair cut. I didn't say anything about that."

The documentary quickly moved on to talk about movie critics, especially those on the internet. Lewis Black referred to them as "Mr Fatty Fuck sitting in his basement".

Some critics did, indeed, say terribly unkind things about Jamie Kennedy.

Kennedy interviewed a few of them. He seemed hurt and sullen. Sulked his way through the interviews. The critics seemed to enjoy the attention.

One critic didn't understand what the problem was. His review had called for Kennedy to be "stopped". Another was completely obnoxious.

Now, here's the thing. I never heard of Jamie Kennedy. Watching this movie, I got the idea that he was a struggling comedian. That he was doing okay at stand-up and had managed to get some movie roles, but he was struggling against all odds. I imagined him and his friends setting out with little more than a camcorder to make this documentary.

When Kennedy talked to the critics and hecklers, he would say, "Don't you want me to improve?" Couldn't they give him constructive criticism? It made it sound like he was a beginner who needed advice from hecklers.

Then I look at Kennedy has a long list of producer and acting credits.

The thing about comedians is that they always talk very tough. I guess it comes from dealing with hecklers. They're foul-mouthed and verbally aggressive. But Carrot Top is the only one with the muscle to back it up.

The real shocker from this documentary is that wealthy celebrities actually read blogs.

In defense of hecklers, sort of

Look at Borat. Sacha Baron Cohen. Or Baron Sacha Cohen. Whatever his name is.

Much was made of a scene in Borat where he gets on stage in some place and sings an anti-Semitic song he claims comes from Kazakhstan. Something about throwing Jews down a well. Cohen claimed he had thus exposed the audience's shocking anti-Semitism.

Now, Cohen had gone into this place with a camera crew. In the unlikely event that anyone there was actually fooled into thinking he really was from Kazakhstan, they made everyone sign a release form which spelled out the fact that he wasn't. They knew they were in a movie, they knew it was a joke, and when he started in with the Jewish stuff, it was obvious that Cohen was himself Jewish. So they were polite and played along. And to thank them, Cohen smeared them all as anti-Semites because they didn't shout him down.

And in defense of the critics

Now it turns out that not even Jamie Kennedy could stand Son of the Mask. That's the movie critics attacked him for. He admitted it was no good. It won the Golden Raspberry Award for worst sequel or remake. It cost $84 million and grossed $17 million domestically. By all accounts, it was a terrible movie and, by all accounts, Jamie Kennedy did a lousy job starring in it.

Okay, the movie was on TV, I saw part of it. Jamie Kennedy was horrible! Absolutely terrible! He SHOULD be stopped! He was absolutely the worst actor I've ever seen. Ever. No one could possibly see this movie and conclude that Jamie Kennedy is anything but the worst actor in the world. Bad beyond the bounds of credibility.