Oregon Movies, A to Z

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James Ivory Kicks Off Mid Century Oregon Genius @ Hollywood Theatre, Oct. 10 & 11, 2014/Jan. 16 & 17, 2015

September 25th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · James Blue, James Ivory, News, Oregon director, Oregon film, Oregon filmmaker, Oregon writer

James Ivory listens to screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in New Dehli (above)/James Blue listens to Italian director Roberto Rossellini in Houston (below)

On Oct. 10 at 7:00 PM, three time Oscar nominee James Ivory comes to Portland to introduce MAURICE (1987), starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves. Handpicked by Ivory for the Hollywood event, MAURICE is on the short list of films for which he served as both screenwriter (with Kit Hesketh-Harvey) and director.

James Ivory grew up in Klamath Falls and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1951.  Famously well traveled, he lives in New York and London, and does not often visit Portland. He’s coming this time to see an extremely rare film, and to help celebrate the life and career of its director, James Blue, who was Oregon’s first Oscar nominated director, and Ivory’s UO classmate.

On Oct. 11 at 1:00 PM, Richard Blue, the brother of James Blue, will introduce James Blue’s THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, winner of the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1962.

James Blue grew up in Portland and graduated from the University of Oregon in 1953. James Ivory remembers working with him building sets for a college drama production. Did they have any idea they would become Oregon’s first Oscar nominated directors?

And that they both would launch careers from outside this country?

I learned about James Blue directly from James Ivory in 2009. Since that time, it has become easier for Oregonians to learn about this forgotten Oregon artist. Thanks to the James and Richard Blue Foundation, James Blue’s papers have joined James Ivory’s as part of the University of Oregon’s Special Collections in the Knight Library.

But who was James Blue?

On Oct. 11 at 2:30 PM, following the screening of THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, there will be a panel discussion titled James Blue, a life in conversation.

Using archival photos from the Blue Collection to structure the narrative, three panelists will retrace his life from Tulsa to Portland to Eugene to Paris, then on to his professional breakthrough in Algiers, where he made THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, his subsequent embrace of documentary, and his dual identity as filmmaker and educator.

The panelists are:

Richard Blue, the brother of James Blue

James Dormeyer, Blue’s classmate at L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques in Paris and a close friend

Gill Dennis, the screenwriter of Blue’s 1969 Oscar nominated doc, A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM, and a close friend.

Earlier on Oct. 11, at 11:00 AM at the Hollywood, we will screen James Ivory’s AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS (1977), starring Madhur Jaffrey and James Mason. Ivory chose AUTOBIOGRAPHY specifically to complement THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE, which shares its theme of post colonial identity crisis.

Tickets can be purchased online at hollywoodtheatre.org.

The Mid Century Oregon Genius screening of THE OLIVE TREES OF JUSTICE is co-sponsored by The James and Richard Blue Foundation.

Here’s more information about the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series.

Fiscally sponsored by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, the Mid Century Oregon Genius screening series is funded by grants from Kinsman Foundation and Miller Foundation.

More information about the parallel career tracks of these two Oscar nominated directors can be found here.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

April 24th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · Uncategorized

I took Oregon Movies, A to Z down today.

Yesterday I attended the mini-ceremony welcoming James Blue’s papers and films to the University of Oregon’s Knight Library.

When I started Oregon Movies, A to Z,  I was alarmed that no one was paying attention to Oregon’s film history. I no longer have that feeling. James Fox, the head of Special Collections at Knight Library, has collected the papers of three Oregonians who made significant contributions to American  film history:  James Ivory, Ken Kesey and James Blue. The Cinema Studies department faculty were present and fully engaged in celebrating the acquisition of James Blue’s papers and films.

I am very pleased to see the progress I sought take place. Oregon Movies, A to Z is no longer needed.

I will continue advocating for support for Oregon film history scholarship.  I want to see one of the Oregon University System schools choose to develop a specialty in animation studies, including animation history, and for that school to begin a scholarly collection of books on that subject. It is not possible today to research Oregon’s animation history with the teachers and the library resources we currently possess. I am interested in changing this.

If we have world class artists, we should have world class scholars.

Speaking of which, thank you to the people who wrote in with information which helped deepen my understanding of Oregon film history!

AR

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Toni & Candace, Portland & Portlandia, and the cultural legacy of Robert Johnston’s radical middle class

February 12th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · Oregon as inspiration

How deep are the Portland roots of Portlandia?

Recognizing that the question deserves a book length examination, I took the first step elsewhere on the internet.

Here’s a excerpt, about Toni and Candace:

Who needs books? They have each other. They are Adam and Eve. Laurel and Hardy. Akbar and Jeff.

Read the rest …

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Sometimes A Great Mini Series: Notes On The Dream Cast Which Would Bring Ken Kesey’s Greatest Novel Into The Golden Age Of Television

February 9th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · Oregon dream projects

Irene Bedard, as Indian Jenny

Who was it that said a movie only needs three good scenes?

Paul Newman experimented with that formula in 1970 by making a film with only one. In Sometimes A Great Notion, Richard Jaeckel played the trusting, loyal Joe Ben who drowns as his cousin Hank tries and fails to keep him alive. Jaeckel was Oscar nominated for a performance which culminates in that one scene, but what happened to the rest of Kesey’s masterful epic?

Where are the other two good scenes?

I am guessing they landed on the cutting room floor when actor-producer-director Paul Newman jettisoned the novel’s main plot. A second try at adapting Kesey’s sprawling masterpiece, using the multi episode format available in the television mini series, could restore the “since you slept with my mother, I am going to sleep with your wife” plot line which is central to the book.

So invested am I in the belief that Sometimes A Great Notion would make an excellent mini series that I have gone to the trouble of assembling a dream cast.

Joaquin Phoenix, as Hank Stamper

It is clear that Hank Stamper would best be played by Joaquin Phoenix.  Joaquin matches Kesey’s description of Hank, down to the curly hair, muscular build and flashing green eyes. Hank has a high intelligence, a volatile temper and a secret which he keeps from everyone, including his wife, and including himself.

Greta Gerwig, as Myra Stamper

Myra, Henry  Stamper’s second wife, seduced her stepson Hank on his sixteenth birthday, and slept with him throughout his high school years. She treats Hank as her lover even after she returns to the East Coast to raise Lee, Hank’s half brother, in privilege. When Myra, isolated by her transgression, commits suicide, Lee drops out of graduate school to take revenge. He goes West to seduce Hank’s wife, and ruin his life. However when he meets Viv Stamper, he falls instantly, genuinely, in love. But he still makes sure Hank witnesses him in bed with Viv just as he, Lee, as a child, had witnessed Hank in bed with Myra. Viv leaves Hank, but Lee remains behind. Alone in the bus station, waiting to get out of town, Viv sees a photo of young Myra, who she closely resembles. Viv understands for the first time that she was always, to Hank, only a substitute.

That’s the plot of Sometimes A Great Notion. There’s logging, the union, bar fights, prostitutes, and death. But the real story is three generations of sexual obsession.

The Stamper family is driven by ghosts. They are possessed by them, in bondage to them. Monstrous in their strength, their hatred and their self definition, they are shadow people in thrall to the past. The community, not incorrectly, perceives them as a threat. Lee, who was raised elsewhere, returns intending to destroy his family but instead joins them. Viv, who married into the family,  and had no idea of leaving, escapes. There is no room for women in the world of the Stamper family. Kesey knew this about Viv, and described her in his notes as  “just an ordinary girl, caught up in a family plot”.

Greta Gerwig, as Viv Stamper

Greta Gerwig has the range to play the dual roles of exotic, neurotic, sex abusing Myra Stamper, and the normal, ‘ordinary girl’ Viv Stamper. She has the power to play both. As Kesey wrote: “Viv is a pawn in a game, a long ago game”.

Then there’s Lee.

In Kesey’s notes for the novel he writes:  “Hank the fighter, the winner. Lee the pacifist, the loser.

When Kesey wrote Sometimes A Great Notion, jocks were winners. Much of the plot concerns the courage the lanky, underdeveloped Lee must summon to continue seducing the wife of his violent, physically powerful half brother. The better Lee knows Hank, the more he realizes how dangerous his plan is.

How to cast this role?

The most important qualities Lee must have are a physical resemblance to Hank Stamper/Joaquin Phoenix, and the ability to transform from child to adult. He must be, as all Stampers are, convincingly, and passionately self deluded.

Nicholas Hoult, as Lee Stamper

When Lee chooses to remain behind with Hank, the brother he both loves and hates, we understand he has chosen death.  He had his chance at life. Viv=vitality=life. As Viv watches the two men struggle to bring the logs down the river from the window of her Greyhound bus out of town, she is Ishmael escaping the unholy vortex of Moby Dick. Kesey’s understanding of Viv as a whole person, not a plot device, is entirely, but entirely, absent from the 1970 film adaptation of Sometimes A Great Notion.

So many other wonderful character parts! Ancient patriarch Henry Stamper should be played by an actor who is old, old, old enough to be a grinning defiant skeleton. Death in a hardhat. Terrifying! That’s the way Kesey wrote him. Then there’s obsequious undertaker Boney Stokes, apoplectic union man Floyd Evenwrite, ice cold bureaucrat Jonathan Draeger, and hard living, mud flat dwelling, fortune telling Indian Jenny, who spends her entire life in love with her memory of the handsome green-eyed logger, Henry Stamper, who alone among all his peers refused to patronize her services. Kesey wrote an entire world.

One appreciative reader: We have here all you could ever want to know about felling trees, bear hunting, the life and language of a small-town bar, juvenile delinquents in small-town America, music of the 50s and 60s, shamans, Indians, evangelists, Captain Marvel, small-town justice, union organizing, revenge, old age, dying, death.

Irene Bedard, as Indian Jenny

Restoring Indian Jenny to the plot would make an honest miniseries out of a Sometimes A Great Notion, and communicate both the novel’s social and psychological complexity, and its epic sweep. I propose Irene Bedard to play the beautiful small town prostitute who falls in love with the young logger Henry Stamper, and whose thwarted union with him provides the narrative engine for the rest of the plot.

It is because of Henry’s unexpressed love for Indian Jenny that he marries socialite Myra, who has Indian Jenny’s long black hair. It is because of Henry’s son Hank’s incompletely expressed, semi-incestuous love for Myra that he marries Viv, who has Myra’s face. I calculate it would take five to six one hour episodes to do justice to this multi generational chain of human frailty masquerading as strength.

I have done the casting.

Who will make Sometimes A Great Notion: The Mini Series?

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BPA Film Collection: Volume One, 1939-1954

January 17th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, Oregon as inspiration, Oregon film, Oregon film archivist, Oregon film old definition

Members of the BPA chapter of the Elmer Buehler Fan Club, Libby Burke in the center.

This 2 DVD set was made for you and me!

The Friday Film Festival held by Bonneville Power Administration in March 2013 was so successful the curator of the series, research librarian Libby Burke, decided to release the films on DVD. She selected six, spanning 1939 to 1954. The first, Hydro (1939) was directed by Gunther V. Fritsch, (you know, the guy who went on to direct The Curse of the Cat People  in 1945). The second, The Columbia (1949), features songs written for it by Woody Guthrie. The third,  Highline (1950) focuses on long distance transmission of electricity. All three were produced by Stephen B. Kahn.

Stephen B. Kahn boasted that he discovered Woody Guthrie. He made the hire, at the recommendation of Alan Lomax, before Woody was famous. It was 1941. Kahn hired Woody to come to Portland for one month to write songs. He was assigned a driver, BPA employee Elmer Buehler, and with Woody in the back seat strumming his guitar, Elmer drove up and down the “Power Stream” as Stephen Kahn liked to call the mighty Columbia River. Woody wrote a song a day during that month. He was paid $266.

One song was Pastures of Plenty. Another was Roll On, Columbia. Both were first recorded here in Portland, at the BPA office.

During the McCarthy era, when political winds had changed, Elmer Buehler, the patron saint of Oregon film archivists, was ordered to destroy all BPA’s prints of  Hydro and The Columbia. He refused to do it, and sequestered one print of each in his basement.

Elmer Buehler (1911 – 2010)

I propose we hold an annual Elmer Buehler Film Festival of rescued films in his honor. In the meantime, you can hear Woody Guthrie perform the songs he wrote in the back seat of Elmer’s car on The Columbia, the second film on the first DVD.

The second DVD has Power Builds Ships (1942), showcasing PNW ship building as part of the war effort. 25,000 Volts Under The Sea (1951) documents the rural electrification of the San Juan Islands. Look To The River (1954), about the construction of the McNary Dam and the Hungry Horse Dam, features a score by Ernest Gold, who hadn’t yet won his Oscar.

Taken together, the series forms a composite portrait of the river, a forceful, magnetic, photogenic presence, and of the people who spent their lives attempting to tame it. Libby Burke’s introductions provide an inside track on the personalities behind the films. These films were made during a comparatively fallow period, when it comes to indigenous Oregon filmmaking, so the interface between BPA and Hollywood is especially fascinating.

From the BPA website:

And the BPA Library is offering the newly released set to the general public, particularly to teachers, schools, libraries, Northwest electric utilities and other public institutions. To receive a copy, contact BPA’s Public Information Center at the agency’s headquarters in Portland at 503-230-4636 (toll-free: 800-622-4520) or pic@bpa.gov. In addition, all six films are available to view and share on BPA’s YouTube channel.

I hereby claim all the films included in the  BPA Film Collection: Volume One, 1939 – 1954, as Oregon films, based on the location of the producer, Bonneville Power Administration, in Portland.

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Oregon Film History Initiative Celebrates 20 Fabulous Years/A Trip Ahead In A Time Machine

November 15th, 2013 by Anne Richardson · News

Not all Oregon film historians are women, but this first group was. Left to right: Heather Petrocelli,  Anne Richardson, Ellen Thomas, Rose Bond. Not pictured: Michele Kribs, unavailable because she was out riding her motorcycle.

Dateline: 2033, 20 years from now.

The Oregon Film History Initiative celebrated its 20th birthday today by blowing out candles on 20 virtual cakes scattered throughout the state.

Founded in 2013 by a group of librarians and historians, OFHI’s original mission was to ensure that key documents and artifacts essential to a full understanding Oregon’s unique film history were successfully archived within the state.

The Initiative began unofficially with the acquisition of James Ivory’s papers at the U of O.  A trickle of film scholarship triggered by Richard Herskowitz’s 2013 James Blue Tribute turned into a steady stream. Portland’s silent film industry, Oregon’s McCarthy era Westerns,  Godard’s trip through the Pacific Northwest with Jon Jost in 1972 – books on these subjects transformed public understanding of the intersection between Oregon film history and American film history.

Few can remember the time before a full length biography of Portland musician Melvin Jerome Blank, aka Mel Blanc, radically re-positioned pre-Portlandia Jazz Age Portland as an engine of American pop culture, and launched a new cultural tourism industry.

Oregon Film History Initiative brought together a truly diverse set of stakeholders. While UO collected papers of Oregon filmmakers, Oregon Cartoon Institute opened up a storefront catering to tourists. Oregon Heritage Commission, in cooperation with Travel Oregon and Oregon Cultural Trust, supported the restoration of downtown theaters in rural Oregon towns.

NWFC continued their trademark events. OSU began a media literacy summer school for teachers. PSU, working in cooperation with Oregon Cartoon Institute and Northwest Animation Festival, began hosting a biennial animation studies conference.  OHS secured a digital humanities grant to tell the story of Lew Cook, Homer Groening, and Frank Hood, three WWII vets whose passion for 16mm filmmaking would re-ignite Portland’s independent film scene.

Meanwhile, the Initiative’s popular annual fundraisers provide homesick Oregon film artists in LA and NY an annual reason to fly home for a visit.

Virtual candles for the 20th birthday celebration were blown out  in Salem, Astoria, Eugene, Pendleton, Cottage Grove, Joseph, Grants Pass, Bend, Baker, Klamath Falls, Jacksonville, Oregon City, McMinnville, Sandy, Brownsville, Corvallis, and all four quadrants of the city of Portland.

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Scorecard: 1960's trade balance

July 4th, 2013 by Anne Richardson · 1960's, Scorecard series

When James Blue adapted Jean Pelegri’s novel to make The Olive Trees Of Justice (1962), he cast Pelegri himself (above, left) as one of the leads.

Oregon’s independent film scene sprang to life after Will Vinton won an Oscar in 1975, right?

Yes….and no.

There’s no question that Will Vinton changed Oregon film history. But Oregonians made independent films before 1975. They just didn’t make them in Oregon.

Here’s a look at our history during the decade preceding Vinton’s game changing win.

In 1962, James Blue made the The Olive Trees Of Justice, his first feature, in Algeria. It was the first American film to win the Critic’s Prize at Cannes. Blue grew up in Portland. He graduated from Jefferson High School and from University of Oregon.

In 1963, one year later, James Ivory (Klamath Falls), made his first feature, The Householder, in India.

The “imports vs exports” scorecard below compares 1960s films which were made in Oregon with 1960s films which feature contributions by Oregon film artists, but which were made elsewhere.

A third list is of films made in Oregon by Oregonians. The 1960s is the first decade since the silent era that this category of Oregon film begins to show signs of life. These films have been traditionally claimed as Oregon films because they were shot within the state border.

I propose that all films made by Oregonians, whether made within state boundaries or far, far outside them, be included in Oregon film history, and added to the long standing “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Animal House, The Goonies” list of Oregon films.

Turning to the actual films:

I’ll point out that the films we traditionally embrace as “Oregon films”, because they were shot here,  are far less interesting than the films made by Oregonians (whether inside or outside the state).

Especially notice that Oregon artists show no interest in the Western, a genre which dominates the “imports”. By  ignoring/excluding the films made by Oregonians outside the state, we have drastically limited our understanding of the size of Oregon’s role in American film history. We have done much more than supply backdrops for Hollywood Westerns.

The third category of films, of films made in Oregon by Oregonians, contains a news documentary written by television journalist Tom McCall,  a stop motion short made by Derek Muirden & George Hood (foretelling a future Oregon specialty), an experimental short by Portland ad man, Homer Groening, and an experimental short by a young filmmaker in Eugene, Ron Finne. The diversity of this list bodes well for the following decade, the 1970s, when Oregon indigenous filmmaking begins to progress at full throttle.

N.B. These lists are not comprehensive. Far from it!

Imports:

All The Young Men 1960 (Sidney Poitier, Alan Ladd) Mt. Hood

Ring Of Fire 1961 (David Janssen, Frank Gorshin) Vernonia

Shenandoah 1965 (Jimmy Stewart, Andrew McLaglen) Eugene

The Way West 1967 (Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum) Central Oregon

Paint Your Wagon 1969 (Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin) Baker

Mackenna’s Gold 1969 (Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif) Eastern Oregon

Exports:

Nude On The Moon 1961 (Doc Severinsen) LA

Heaven & Earth Magic 1961 (Harry Smith) NY

101 Dalmations 1961 (George Bruns, Marc Davis) LA

The Olive Trees Of Justice 1962 (James Blue) Algeria

Hud 1963 (Harriet Frank, Jr.) LA

The Sword and the Stone 1963 (George Bruns) LA

The Householder 1963 (James Ivory) India

The March, 1963 (James Blue) Washington DC

Kissin’ Cousins 1964 (Gene Nelson, Ellis Carter) LA

Shakespeare Wallah 1965 (James Ivory) India

Gentle Giant 1967 (Walt Morey) Florida

The Jungle Book 1967 (Ralph Wright, George Bruns) LA

The Mother Of All Demos 1968 (Douglas Engelbart) Menlo Park

Dual Diagnosis:

Pollution In Paradise 1962 (Tom McCall) Portland

Little Plastic Hearts 1965 (Derek Muirden & George Hood) Portland

A Study In Wet 1966 (Homer Groening) Portland

How Old Is The Water 1968 (Ron Finne) Eugene

Scorecard:

Huge budget Hollywood: 3

Low budget Hollywood: 2

No/low budget indies: 9

Written by a future governor of the state: 1

Stop motion animation: 2

Made by Oregon writer-directors, our regional specialty: 7

Made in other countries: 3

Academy Award nomination: 1 ( George Bruns, for the score for  Sword And The Stone )

=====================================

Trace the evolution of Oregon’s regional specialty of producing talented film artists:

Scorecard: 1950s trade balance

Scorecard: 1940s trade balance

Scorecard: 1930s trade balance

Scorecard: 1920s trade balance

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13 Ways Of Looking At Blackface: In Tribute To White Bird’s West Coast Premiere Of Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RanCE @ Lincoln Hall on Dec. 6-8, 2012

December 30th, 2012 by Anne Richardson · News

Oregon Movies, A to Z is still thinking about Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE, performed by Camille A. Brown Company in Portland earlier this month. I will be writing more fully about Mr. TOL E. RAncE in the future. My essay below, written in 2005, addresses the American performance tradition which Brown examines, critiques, celebrates, discards and transcends. What an amazing work!

Thirteen Ways Of Looking At Blackface: Or, How Watching Movies Tells You What Didn’t Know About Your Own Country

Acting on the principle that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, many books of American theater history either make no mention of blackface minstrelsy, or include a brief discussion focusing mostly on how deeply horrified the author is by the information he/she is about to convey.

If this policy was intended to help blackface go away, it didn’t work. It never would work. Blackface, and the influence of blackface, is everywhere. With a tip of the hat to Wallace Stevens, here are thirteen ways to view the long, vexing, love affair our country has with cross racial impersonation.

1. Blackface is Evil

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Bill Robinson compares notes on Emancipation with Shirley Temple in THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935).

“What does that mean – “free the slaves”?“ Shirley Temple asks Bill Robinson, a wise old man who happens to be her personal property. “I don’t know what it means myself.” he replies. The clues that the South these two inhabit exists solely  in the minds of white Northern show business professionals are all over THE LITTLEST REBEL: from the blackface Shirley puts on, to the banjo Robinson plays while Shirley sings Polly Wolly Doodle, to the tune Robinson dances to as he entertains Shirley’s birthday party guests.

Zip Coon was introduced by pioneering solo blackface entertainer George Washington Dixon in 1829. A tsunami sized hit whose popularity presaged the minstrel craze yet to come, we know it today as Turkey In The Straw.

2. Blackface is Benign

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Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed sing Buffalo Gals in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

Blackface first gained popularity among young drunk working class men in the Ohio River Valley. The song Jimmy Stewart sings with Donna Reed on the way home from a high school dance, just before she accidentally loses her robe and jumps into a Bedford Falls rosebush, was originally intended to both express and lampoon the powerful allure of Buffalo, New York prostitutes to the men who worked the Erie Canal.

Buffalo Gals was copyrighted to Cool White, one the first minstrel superstars. Some of its many variants (Bowery Gals, Alabama Gals, Darktown Gals, etc.) testify to an alternate reading of “buffalo” as a coded reference to “African American”, as seen in the term “buffalo soldiers”. Nothing is left of its minstrel past in the sanitized lyrics we now know.

3. Blackface is Essential

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Judy Garland sings Under The Bamboo Tree with Margaret O’Brien in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

Written by three of the most talented, disciplined, and ambitious Americans ever to turn their attention to the creation of a pop song, Under The Bamboo Tree was the product of Bob Cole, the writer-director-producer-star of the first all black musical;  J. Rosamond Johnson, the composer of Lift Every Voice & Sing, the black national anthem; and James Weldon Johnson, the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. They deliberately constructed Under The Bamboo Tree to cater to the American appetite for dialect songs, while steering clear of negative racial cliches. The commercial and artistic successes they enjoyed as a team helped pave the way for both Tin Pan Alley and the Harlem Renaisssance.

Hollywood didn’t make a musical which included an actual turn-of-the-century coon song. However, in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, which is set in 1904, Judy Garland sings a period authentic hit three geniuses wrote in response to that craze.

4. Blackface is Pathetic

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Fred Astaire brings Dixie to Paris with Kay Thompson in FUNNY FACE (1957)

Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson are spiritually, if not actually, blacked up when they sing Clap Yo Hands in a Parisian salon filled with bored intellectuals. Minstrelsy is the flag they wave to set themselves apart from the Old World ennui which envelopes everyone else in the room. In their hands “Why does a chicken cross the road?”, the oldest of minstrel show jokes, is an act of patriotism. But the Parisians were right to yawn. Even two show business pros can’t revive this corpse.

What you learn from FUNNY FACE is that beatniks had their own link to minstrelsy – the tambourine. And that Michael Jackson definitely stole his look, especially his socks, from Astaire’s wardrobe in this film.

5. Blackface is Angry

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Ossie Davis directs Mabel Thompson as the militant, strip teasing Topsy in COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970)

She comes onto the stage, doubled over, wearing rags, with a bandanna on her head. By the end of the song she is triumphantly naked, except for a few strategically placed balls of cotton. The mood of Mabel Thompson’s dance is defiant. She is defeating slavery, defeating cotton, defeating history.

The crowd roars in delight when she takes off her bandanna to reveal a multi-braided Topsy hairdo, and roars again in approval when she lifts off the Topsy wig to reveal her own natural hair.

6. Blackface is Haunted

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Gary Cooper sings Sweet Genevieve with his six bachelor housemates in BALL OF FIRE (1941)

Not all minstrelsy was clowning. You went to cry as much as to laugh. Woodman, Spare That Tree kept minstrel show audiences weeping for decades, as did Silver Threads Among The Gold. Victorian Americans may have kept their emotions under control elsewhere, but once they were inside the minstrel hall, they cried their eyes out. They cried for Old Black Joe when he was in slavery, they cried for him during the war, and they cried for him after the war. When they got tired of crying over Joe, they pined for long ago girlfriends (Sweet Genevieve) or dead ones (Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair).

In this scene, Cooper’s posse of aging bookworms toasts love with a wine addled sing along. Minstrelsy was born amidst beer, so it is appropriate that these nutty professors would be boozing it while they close harmonize a wistful old minstrel tune.

7. Blackface is Political

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Brian De Palma turns the tables in the Be Black, Baby sequence in HI MOM (1970).

In HI MOM, Robert De Niro brilliantly interrogates a mop. “What’s that? Make love, not war? I make love very well, thank you very much!” he screams. He is auditioning for an acting job, and he gets it. He plays a white cop in Be Black, Baby, an Off Off Broadway play in which black actors in whiteface invite white playgoers to share the black experience by having their wallets taken, their women sexually violated, and then undergoing wrongful arrest. They also get blacked up.

If you think you fully understand the power politics behind cross racial impersonation, and do not think you could possibly be shocked by anything De Palma has to say, see HI MOM.

8. Blackface is Over


Duke Ellington passes Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll by in CHECK & DOUBLE CHECK (1930)

Dapper Duke Ellington gives a quizzical look to two shabbily dressed white men wearing blackface  as he heads past them into a brightly lit mansion where he and his band have been hired to play a sumptuous party. This moment marks an historic changing of the guard, when African American entertainers sans blackface left white blackface entertainers in the dust.

CHECK & DOUBLE CHECK is the first and last film in which you can see Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the white actors who created AMOS ‘N’ ANDY. Duke Ellington would go on to appear in eight Hollywood films, never in blackface, always as himself.

9. Blackface is Current

Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell cruise for cupcakes in LAZY SUNDAY (2005)

The best possible proof that cross racial impersonation is still with us as a national obsession is the instant success of Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s rap parody, LAZY SUNDAY. Downloaded by millions and sent around the world minutes after airing on Saturday Night Live, LAZY SUNDAY inspired a string of online homage parodies, the best of which ends with two nice Jewish boys bringing home a menorah.

10. Blackface is Sublime

Tim Moore in a tutu smoking a cigar in BOY WHAT A GIRL (1947).

There is no blackface in BOY WHAT A GIRL. However there is cross dressing, and cross gender impersonation was second only to cross racial impersonation on the list of transgressive thrills offered the Victorian audiences of the minstrel show. The incomparable Tim Moore carries on this performance tradition in BOY WHAT A GIRL, as have, more recently, both Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry.

11. Blackface is Cheerfully Tasteless


Ben Stiller blacks up in ZOOLANDER (2001)

With an Irish mom (in show business) and a Jewish dad (in show business), Stiller’s credentials are impeccable for blacking up. Irish performers dominated the minstrel industry for most of the nineteenth century, Jewish ones brought it into the the twentieth. George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolsen all practiced “white out of black”, just as does Ben Stiller in ZOOLANDER.

12. Blackface is Enigmatic

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Cliff Edwards sings When You Wish Upon A Star in PINOCCHIO (1940)

Minstrel shows no longer drew crowds when Cliff Edwards began his career in the 1920’s, but blackface still secured individual performers license to be more emotional, more theatrical, more unpredictable than they could be without it. Edwards made his name playing the ukelele and singing in blackface. By the time he supplied the voice for Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket (uncredited), blackface was no longer part of his public persona.

13. Blackface is Our Inheritance


Bert Williams plays cards in NATURAL BORN GAMBLER (1916); Eddie Cantor runs away from Ethel Shutta in WHOOPEE (1930); Mae West checks George Raft’s hat in NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (1932)

NATURAL BORN GAMBLER provides film record of Bert Williams’ blackface. WHOOPEE does the same for his Ziegfield Follies protégée, Eddie Cantor. But Mae West left no film record of the blackface she wore while doing Bert Williams imitations at the beginning of her career in New York. It was gone by the time she went Hollywood.

Should we try to erase blackface? If you did a thorough job, all of these performers would have to go. You would have to go without both Spike Lee, who made a movie about blackface, and D. W. Griffith, who made a movie with blackface. You end up without Jimmy Rogers, Bob Wills and Hank Williams, all of whom began their careers by blacking up. No George C. Wolfe. No Irving Berlin. And that would be just the start. After you finished your purge of history, and gotten rid of your thousands, you would turn around and see all around you, still growing, a popular culture which was formed by cross racial impersonation, and is still being so formed.

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Will Vinton Talks: How He Broke In

December 5th, 2012 by Anne Richardson · Interviews

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Will Vinton, David Altschul, William Fiesterman and Marilyn Zornado at a 25th anniversary screening of The Adventures Of Mark Twain at the Whitsell Auditorium.
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Will Vinton and Bob Gardiner won Oregon’s first Oscar in 1975 for their stop motion tour de force, CLOSED MONDAYS. Will grew up in McMinnville and began making films as an architecture student at Berkeley (where he happened to hear lectures given by Sheldon Renan!). The list of award winning animators trained at Will Vinton Studio includes Craig Bartlett, Barry Bruce, Joan Gratz, Brad Schiff (PARANORMAN), Travis Knight (CORALINE, PARANORMAN) and Mark Gustafson (THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX). Will continues to teach stop motion animation at Northwest Film Center.
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Anne Richardson: Will, when you arrived here after Berkeley and were starting to make CLOSED MONDAYS, you were able to support yourself with day jobs working as a filmmaker. What was your very first job?
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Will Vinton: I was initially hired by Dan Biggs, who was working for Northwestern, Inc. doing industrial documentaries. They had a recording studio and a nice little sound stage. This was in the days when Tektronix was big. Companies like that spent alot of money on media. Georgia Pacific was one of Dan’s big clients.
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Anne Richardson: This is training films? Sales films?
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Will Vinton: Training, sales, those were the main things. We did corporate image films. Maybe one third of the work was commercials. I was hired to do editing. Maybe about a year into working at Northwestern, Dan wanted to split off and service the Georgia Pacific accounts himself. So we decided to found Odyssey Productions. Bill DeWeese, the industrialist at Esco, had been a client in the past, so they worked out some terms, and he came on board. Reagan Ramsay, myself, Dan Biggs were the worker bees. Bill DeWeese was the president. Dan put together a terrific board of directors: Patty Kaplan, who was head of Evans Products Co.; Tom Moyers, Sr., Moyers Theaters; Bob Farrell, Farrell’s Ice Cream. The idea was to create a base of really good, strong, big clients – Evans, Tektronix, Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific – and to base a company around doing commercials and industrials, but with the intention of growing to do entertainment.
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Anne Richardson: Homer Groening set up his own advertising agency in 1958. Were you aware of him?
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Will Vinton: Oh yeah. In fact I edited one of his productions. During the time I was freelancing for Northwestern, I did one for Homer which (laughs) I’ve always thought of as a cross between e. e. cummings and Benny Hill.
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Anne Richardson: You told me once about finding help when you had to build special equipment to shoot claymation.
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Will Vinton:  When I was just starting out, I didn’t have a synchronizer, couldn’t afford one. Somebody told me about Walt Dimick whose father was a machinist and kind of a wild mechanical guy. I went to talk to him, and he felt sorry for me, and gave me a bunch of  sprockets and hardware necessary to build a synchronizing part which allowed me to hold my film in place.
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Anne Richardson: Did you have that same kind of mentor relationship with Homer Groening?
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Will Vinton: No. I was just hired to do a freelance job. But it was important to me because it was one of my first jobs in Portland.
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Anne Richardson: Did you feel inspired by Homer’s career?
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Will Vinton: Well, you have to consider the films! Neither the e. e. cummings part or the Benny Hill part seemed to be exactly what I wanted to do. (laughs) What I did like about Homer COMPLETELY was the kind of wild freedom. That anything’s possible, and someone will pay you to do it.
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Anne Richardson: Thank you, Will.
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A crash course on Will Vinton’s place in Portland film history can be found here.
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Sheldon Renan Talks: How He Broke In

December 5th, 2012 by Anne Richardson · Interviews

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When National Endowment of the Arts put Sheldon Renan on a funding panel in 1970, he wasted no time persuading them to fund a network of four regional film centers. 40 years later, all four – including Northwest Film Center – are still going strong. After a lifetime of reading, writing, producing, directing, watching and just plain loving film, he currently writes and consults about the importance of connectivity. Sheldon Renan grew up in Oregon City and graduated from Cleveland High School in 1957.
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Anne Richardson: When you went off to Yale, did you have any glimmer of a glimpse that you would become a filmmaker?
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Sheldon Renan: No. I grew up on a turkey farm. My senior year we moved from Oregon City into Portland and I was three blocks from Reed College. I had a jazz program on the radio station, but the most important thing was every Friday night there were foreign film showings in the chapel.
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Anne Richardson: You said you wrote An Introduction To The American Underground Film because you had seen all the movies. You were inspired by the lack of a guide, because one didn’t exist?
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Sheldon Renan: It was a combination of things. I’d seen alot of the movies. Andy Warhol had asked me to write a book about him. It was just a sense that there needed to be a book. I got into the Junior Council at the Museum of Modern Art just when they were doing an exhibition of underground film, their first one. Willard Van Dyke was taking over as director and I think I claimed I was doing a history of and introduction to underground film. It just popped out of my mouth. What often happens is that I tell a lie, and then it sounds like a good idea. So I go ahead and do it.
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Anne Richardson: And it changed everything.
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Sheldon Renan: In 1968, I was in New York to meet Henri Langlois, and there was a knock on the door one morning, and a butler was standing there, holding a plate with a top on it. He said “Is Sheldon Renan here?” He lifts the top off the plate, and it was an invitation to have lunch at a mansion across the street. So I go to the lunch and there’s Jean DeMenil (CEO of Schlumberger, an international oil fields equipment company), Henri Langlois, Simone Swan, and, to my amazement, Francois Truffaut and Fritz Lang. I was so upset I popped a button off my suspenders. Literally in front of Truffaut and Lang, I had to have my button sewed back on. So I asked Fritz if he would come out (to Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives) and do a film series. I was trying to write my first script at the time and Fritz kinda became my coach.
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Anne Richardson: So your primary identity is as a writer.
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Sheldon Renan: Yes. Its too complicated to explain that I sometimes produce and sometimes direct. I never know what I am doing until the phone rings.
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Anne Richardson: When you were at the NEA, your main input was “I don’t think it (federal funding for film) should all go to American Film Institute.”
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Sheldon Renan: I wanted to create something for everybody because if it wasn’t for everybody I would be excluded. I’m doing what I do about film and filmmaking so that people won’t have a hard time finding their way into the kitchen the way I had.
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Anne Richardson: Thank you, Sheldon.
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More about Sheldon Renan:
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His first film
His most recent film
His book
What keeps his interest these days
His place in Portland film history
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