Category Archives: Technique

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film Enthusiasm

Bohemian Rhapsody, A Thousand Clowns, and the Dangers of Film EnthusiasmI visited my sister over the weekend and we went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. It wasn’t a thrilling idea for several reasons. I don’t like biopics. I rarely like big-budget Hollywood films. I’ve never been a huge Queen fan. But going to lame films is something I have always done for my family. (They have learned not to reciprocate because of long — For Them — painful experience.)

The film turned out to be far worse than I had expected. The main reason biopics usually suck is because they are redemption stories. Admittedly, redemption stories can be fantastic; for example, Ikiru is one of my favorite films ever.

But in Bohemian Rhapsody it is the total cliche: artist finds success; artist goes on tilt; artist finds redemption by not going on tilt. For anyone who cares, there is an episode of Behind the Music about Queen. And it has the major advantage of ruining only 45-minutes of your life. Bohemian Rhapsody is well over 2 hours long. And it feels much longer. (Dunbar in Catch-22 would have loved it!)

But the main thing that struck me while watching the film was not that it was bad. Not that there wasn’t much badness to strike me. Although I once admired director Bryan Singer, it has been many years. He is now a typical Hollywood hack. Things might have been better if Peter Morgan had been kept as screenwriter, but instead, Anthony McCarten was brought on board — likely to pacify the remaining members of Queen who seem to have been determined the movie be as inoffensive and boring as possible. The whole thing is typical Hollywood nonsense, so I can hardly complain that my experience of the film was alternating boredom and outrage.

Noticing Technique

The main thing that bugged me was how technically I watched Bohemian Rhapsody. I was constantly taken out of the film by this or that directorial flourish. And I have always hated that! Any time some critic or other film enthusiast makes a big deal about the technical side of a film, I know that they are not worth listening to.

And this is what Hollywood is all about. The studios are convinced that people come to their movies to see the spectacle. This is not my experience at all. I can’t speak for teens, but adults want to see a good story well told.

There was one very impressive shot toward the end of the film. Queen is playing at Live Aid. The camera starts under Freddy Mercury’s piano. It is then pushed forward between his legs and over to Brian May. Finally, it tilts up to a shot of May’s guitar. It took me a good minute to figure out two ways to recreate what I will admit was a very pleasing shot.

The Thousand Clowns Paradox

If anything, the shots like this ruin the rest of the film. (Or would have done so if the rest of the film had been good.) I call it the Thousand Clowns Paradox. After the first cut of the film, the screenwriter Herb Gardner was horrified. He had first written it as a play. When he wrote the screenplay, Gardner tried to expand it for the screen, but ultimately, A Thousand Clowns looks like a play on film.

So Gardner worked with editor Ralph Rosenblum (both were also co-producers) to create more cinematic scenes using stock footage and music. And they are sublime! But in the context of the film, they only serve to highlight just how boring the other scenes are.

Without those scenes, the viewer isn’t unsettled. They are able to appreciate the exceptional story.

Technique Isn’t Storytelling

So it bothers me to be reminded that I’m watching a film. It bothers me even more that I do appreciate technique. But I fear that is something I’m just going to have to live with given how much of a film geek I am. And it will only get worse.

This is not what film-viewing and filmmaking should be. There is a common saying about editing a picture: you have to kill your darlings. The idea is that because of the filmmakers’ love of a scene, it stays in the edit, even though it is creating problem for the film as a whole. Usually, this is a matter of pacing. But I think this is also because of the Thousand Clowns Paradox. Sadly, fewer and fewer filmmakers hold to this.

Big-budget movies are made by huge egos. And that results in over-long movies filled with beautiful but worthless shots. It explains why I would rather watch any Howard Hawks or Russ Meyer film than almost anything at the local multiplex.

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong

What Is an Exploitation Film? Most People Are Wrong - Sweetback Eats a Lizard

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song launched the genre known as blaxploitation (can anyone explain that term to me?), which brought a slew of heroic black enforcers and sexy black women to the screen for the mass consumption of a large, previously ignored black audience.Marilyn Ferdinand

I can! But first we have to discuss what an exploitation film is.

I feel silly even discussing this issue because it seems so obvious to me. But based on many conversations with normal people (that is: people who aren’t psychotronic freaks like me), I know that most people think exploitation films are films that take advantage (exploit) the people in them.

What an Exploitation Film Is Not

It isn’t surprising they would think that given the years of nudie cuties and their followers that seemed mostly thin pretenses at showing off naked women. But even that is absurd. Do these people think the naked actors were kidnapped and made to perform in the films?

As I mentioned in Troma and Economic Inequality, the star of the film made half as much money as his female co-star because she did a number of topless scenes. That was true then too. I’m all in favor of trading in our capitalist system for something more humane, but the system is what it is. Don’t blame the people who have no choice but to live under it.

What an Exploitation Film Is

So what is an exploitation film? It’s a low-budget film where the filmmakers exploit whatever they can to make their film’s successful (often to get them made at all). It’s like Babes in Arms, “My pa’s got a barn; let’s put on a show!” The filmmakers are exploiting, as Herschell Gordon Lewis put, “Something the studios couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”

So if you have a thick forest in your backyard and friend who owns a gorilla suit, you might be able to make something like Bride of the Gorilla (which is a really good film). Or if you’re in a biker club (I don’t think they call them gangs anymore), you could make a biker film. Or whatever.

The Best Thing to Exploit

But the best thing to exploit is your own creativity. Certainly that’s what Lewis and David Friedman exploited in Blood Feast. It wasn’t the gore that made that film half almost a 20,000 percent return on investment in its initial run. It was that no one had seen anything like that before.

And that’s what brings us to Ms Ferdinand’s question about blaxploitation.

What Were the Blaxploitation Films Exploiting

Perhaps no other form of exploitation filmmaking has as bad a rap as blaxploitation. This goes back to the bare chested women in the nudie cuties. People tend to think that black people were being abused.

Quite the opposite was happening. In the late sixties filmmakers started thinking that just as sex and gore appealed to people in the southern drive-in circuit, films that focused on black heroes just might appeal to urban blacks. And they were right.

Blaxploitation Never Ended, It Went Mainstream

It’s funny that people talk about blaxploitation films ending by the mid-1970s. That really isn’t true. They were simply taken over by Hollywood, which began making movies targeted directly at blacks. True, those films have no political resonance, but then the Black Panthers are long gone and Black Power is more quaint than threatening. (That’s not to say that whites aren’t still terrified of blacks; just look at the hyperbolic denunciations of Black Lives Matter.)

Another Idiot “Critic” Doesn’t Know What “Exploitation” Means

Interestingly, Roger Ebert wrote that Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song wasn’t an exploitation film. As people who have read me a long time know: I hate film “critics.” They’re idiots who watch a film once and then presume to judge the work that was the result of at least dozens of people and months of work (more likely hundreds of people and years of work).

But Ebert was always held up as somehow a good critic because, I don’t know, he wrote a middling screenplay for Russ Meyer and read a book on film history? His claim that Sweetback isn’t an exploitation film is betrayed by almost every sentence in the article (it’s a “review” of Baadasssss!). He had a 13-year-old son he could use for a sex scene (that I think could have been a lot shorter — it is disturbing), so he did. He had black friends so his crew could be all black, so he did.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song Was Exploitation Filmmaking

The truth is that Sweetback simply as cinema is an art film. (It has almost no transitions; little plot; and is mostly interested in experimenting with the interaction between music and visuals. It is also brilliantly edited, but in a way that will confuse and annoy most viewers.) But it is an exploitation film because of the way it was made, why it was made that way, and how that affected the audience.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, Sweetback was not the first blaxploitation film. But to my mind, it is the most true blaxploitation film: a film by blacks, for blacks. Many blaxploitation films were made by whites. But white, black, or green, these filmmakers were exploiting the fact that a significant part of the country had been largely ignored by the film industry, because the Big Brains in Hollywood were too stupid or bigoted to realize that blacks might like to see movies that reflected their lives and dreams.

Exploitation Is a Good Word In Film

Exploitation films are made by people who are smart, creative, and driven. I’ll pick an exploitation film over a Hollywood film any day. That’s a big part of what this site is about. Hollywood has the money to buy all the professionals they need to make a film. Independents have to live by their wits. Hollywood just makes what it’s made before. And it depends upon the exploitation filmmakers to add some new DNA to their commodities — by stealing it.

So to answer the original question simply: “blaxploitation” is a genre of film featuring black heroes, made explicitly for black audiences, who had been ignored by the studios.

James Cameron: No Actor’s Director

The TerminatorI have had various connections to Hollywood in my life. And I’ve come to see it as an awful place. It is offensive that “normal” (non-Hollywood) people get so excited about celebrities. I was once a minor celebrity, so I saw it from the inside. And it was pathetic. These people thought I was super cool, but I was just the same loner nerd I had always been.

So I thought that people in Hollywood would be lackadaisical about stars and directors and such. No. It’s the opposite. They are even worse than people outside that dysfunctional environment. If David Foster Wallace can be believed, the porn industry is much more mature. And most successful stars and directors (and studio heads and on and on) are very much in agreement. They’re great!

Normal People vs Hollywood “People”

But I never got that from Herschell Gordon Lewis or David F Friedman, men who actually changed the way films were made. They have a humility that’s, well, human. Maybe those people who believe in alien lizards living inside human “suits” are right. If they are, all those alien lizards live in Hollywood.

There are so many examples I could use, but today I want to talk about James Cameron because it really shows off not just his horribleness but also his conviction that he is never at fault. He’s like God, if it’s good, he gets credit. If it’s bad, it’s on someone else — maybe all of us.

It Came From a Commentary Track

I am something on a connoisseur of commentaries on films. Of course, most are quite awful because they are done by directors who are surprisingly ignorant of how movies are made (at least big-budget Hollywood directors). Generally, I would rather listen to a writer or a historian discuss an film. But when it is a director, you often get to see what jerks they are.

(I recently listened to John Carpenter do a commentary on the great In the Mouth of Madness with cinematographer Gary B Kibbe, and Carpenter was so nice about including Kibbe, it was charming. But then, Carpenter isn’t a Hollywood kind of guy. I also listened to Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F Friedman comment on Blood Feast and they were such regular guys, you would never know they invented the splatter film. Again: not Hollywood. 100 percent pure human!)

Enter James Cameron

Many years ago, I listened to the commentary for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It includes Cameron and screenwriter William Wisher. And during it, Cameron really shows the dick of Hollywood legend that he is. It is amazing to listen to Wisher play omega to Cameron’s alpha. I know they are friends. But that makes it even more sad, because Wisher is as much a professional in his field as Cameron.

I felt sorry for Wisher but mostly it just made me think that James Cameron was an awful person.

Cameron Blames Bad Actors

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. So he blames the actors.

One moment in the commentary really stood out.

Cameron mentioned that there was a deleted scene at the end of The Terminator where two guys from Cyberdyne Systems pick up a chip from the remains of the terminator.

He said (more or less) that the scene was deleted, “Frankly, because the acting was terrible.” My first reaction was (and I’ve had this with many directors), “Doesn’t he fear that the actors he’s talking about will hear about this and feel bad?” In Cameron’s case, of course not! Who in the world matters but James Cameron?

My second reaction was: I’ve got to see that deleted scene. I had to see what God James Cameron thought of as terrible acting.

The Bad Acting Cameron Had No Control Over

Well, here it is, all 33 seconds worth:

He’s right: the acting is weak. But it isn’t bad. And I certainly don’t present it as, “Hey: look at the bad acting!”

Acting on film depends upon a whole lot more than just the actors. And most actors get it wrong a lot more than they get it right.

How the Acting Could Be Improved

This scene strikes me as awkward more than anything else. Certainly a few more takes and, you know, some direction, and a perfectly acceptable performance could have been squeezed out of these actors.

Notice something else about the scene: the blocking is terrible. The whole scene, in addition to everything else, is boring.

I think the problem is that James Cameron didn’t care about the scene and didn’t really try. The fact that he wants to blame the actors makes him a terrible person and it really makes me question him as a director. I get the idea he depends a lot on other professionals (especially editors) to make his films work (when they do).

Afterword

A similar dynamic is going on in a deleted scene from Remains of the Day. But James Ivory is enough of a man to place the blame on himself. He admits that he didn’t want to shoot the scene and only did it because Anthony Hopkins insisted. As I recall, he said, “I didn’t really try.”