DIRK’S FILM SCHOOL: FEATURE FILM (Part One)

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SEMINAR NOTES

The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of a human bladder

– Alfred Hitchcock

It was the development of the ‘Latham Loop’ that allowed cinema to make the leap from 10 minute one-reelers to longer films. It was a  device that prevented projectors shredding reels that were longer than 100 feet. The influence on longer narrative films came from Europe, films such as George Méliés TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) and the Italian spectacle QUO VADIS (1913) were the inspiration for film-makers like D.W. Griffith who moved into features with JUDITH OF BETHULIA (1913).

The rise of the feature was also linked to the change in the method of distribution. Adolph Zukor changed the market from the ‘sale’ of films to the ‘rent’ of film reels to exhibitors. The result of this change lead to the change in the interest in film, away from the Nickelodeons and the side-show origins of the form, and towards the ‘Dream Palaces’ of cinema houses that attracted a more educated, therefore more wealthy, clientele.

The rise of the feature film as a narrative form was driven by the rise of Hollywood as a big business and was has established its hegemony across the globe.

The development of the Feature Film defined the roles within the industry, most significantly the creation of the screenplay. Short-films were largely improvised. Budgets began to rise as the number of people employed in the process of creating movies began to grow. As profits grew, so did the amount of autonomy offered to directors so that they would develop more ‘artistic’ choices to create their productions. Studios retained strict control over the running time, so that the film could be screened several times a day to maximise its earnings. Therefore films such as Erich Von Stroheim’s GREED (1924) was slashed by MGM from 42 reels to 10.

The primary studio product was the feature film and it accounted for 90% of Hollywood investment in 1939. It remind a high cost, high risk and (potentially) high-returns format.

In the sound era, there was a drive to reduce the running times to make cinema-going more attractive by having a double-bill; features would average at 90 minutes while B movies were an hour.

In the multiplex era the length of films have increased as the need to address the declining audience – never mind the quality, feel the length!

MAIN FEATURE: Gone With The Wind (Fleming, US, 1939)

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Prof-Dom-Dirk was alarmed that I’d not seen this film before. It is one of Barry Pickles‘ greatest hits, so how have I managed to avoid it for so long?

In a sense, I have been trying to ignore it, as it has such a great deal of baggage attached to it that it’s suffocating. When it was originally released it was presented as a ‘Roadshow’ where there was an increased admission price and reserved seating to replicate the theatre-going experience in a bid to attract declining audiences. The production of the film was troubled, as it was independently financed by producer David O’Selznick who had a singular vision for the film and was willing to risk everything to ensure that Clark Gable was cast as Rhett Butler, but the presentation of the movie was a triumph. With adjustments for inflation it remains one of the biggest box-office earners of all-time.

Selznick went on to sell the film to MGM who managed to milk the re-releases during the forties, fifties and sixties (when it was eclipsed by the release of THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) as the highest grossing film of all time). In the seventies the film attracted a massive television audience when it was broadcast as part of a Super Bowl package. In the nineties, I remember a deluxe VHS box-set that was released and a friend of mine was challenging me to watch it instead of the deluxe RESERVOIR DOGS presentation box that I’d just bought. Now I have my own deluxe blu-ray copy with all its commentaries and additional material.

The weight of the whole thing has put me off for so long that it took a great deal of effort to sit down and watch it for the first time last week.

Its an epic romance (in all senses of the word) of the deep South and about the nostalgia for a the declining influence of the South in the 19th Century. Scarlet O’Hara, played by Vivien Liegh, is the daughter of an Irish, plantation owner who has instilled in her an appreciation of the importance of land-ownership. On the face of it, the main thrust of the narrative is her unrequited love of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is married to her boring cousin, but the her real concern is the preservation of her family estate ‘Tara’ for which she is willing to sacrifice everything.

There are some fabulous set-pieces as Rhett Butler drives his horse through burning buildings as the cross-fire of the American Civil War intensifies. There’s a breath-taking, tracking-shot as Scarlet walks through the aftermath of the battle of Atlanta, with bodies strewn across a huge, screen-bursting vista.

This was one of the first films to fully embrace techincolor – at the time it gave the film an unprecedented authenticity – now it seem incredibly romantic, especially as Scarlet declares her love of Tara (before the intermission) and of her love of Rhett (at the end of the film) where she is dramatically silhouetted with orange hues.

Max Steiner’s score is a little intrusive to modern ears as is the tone of hostility in Liegh’s performance (which borders on the irritating) but overall I think the film stand up well as an example of story-telling as you can’t help feeling for these characters. It presents the white, land-owning perspective of the Civil War in an exciting and entertaining manner.

I’ve not watched any of the special features on the disk (there are not enough hours in the day!), but I’m glad that I’ve finally burst my Film Buff cherry.

Part Two features a very special Prof Dom-Dirk recommends.

The next instalment of Dirk’s Film School is the Tracking Shot. The Main Feature is A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) which is a film selected by Derek Malcolm and one of my all-time favourite films.

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