Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Cinema: 2013

By Frank Beaver
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By now it’s been widely broadcast that Cinema 2013’s box-office revenue was dominated by franchise movies – film sequels, known in the industry as “reboots,” which arrive in theaters as part of an ongoing series of licensed dramatic properties.

Iron Man 3, last year’s franchise king, grossed $1.26 billion worldwide (and still counting). That’s nearly twice the combined take of some of my 2013 favorites: The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, Lee Daniels’  The Butler, Before Midnight, Quartet. The total for these five films reached approximately $640 million.

The statistics speak for themselves: Big-budget franchise spectacles continue to be the bread-and-butter of the American motion picture industry.

Six franchise films appear in the 2013 top-ten box-office gross listings. And to be honest, I have to admit it’s fun to see franchise spectacles and discover just where today’s marvelous special effects technology is capable of taking us. Think Man Of Steel, Warner Bros.’ 2013 recasting of DC Comics’ Superman. Its plot centers on the potential destruction of Earth, averted, of course, by the protagonist’s “super” heroics.  Ann Arbor native David Goyers wrote the screenplay.

That said, there were enough domestic and international fiction films to prove again that cinema — the great popular media art form — offers a healthy alternative to mainstream comic-book-type fare. In addition to the five favorites cited above, others come to mind: 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis, Captain Phillips, and Nebraska.

Michigan connection

I should also mention two highly praised indie films (not yet in general release) directed by Michigan filmmakers: Detroit Unleaded and The Citizen.

Rola Nashef, Lebanese-born and Michigan-raised, directed Detroit Unleaded, a romantic comedy that develops in the bullet-proof glass cage of a Detroit service station/convenience store run by young operator Sami, whose father was killed in a robbery. Sami is smitten when the beautiful Najlah appears, peddling cheap international phone cards. In his New York Times review Neil Genzlinger wrote, “Nashef has created a surprisingly affecting examination of one aspect of the Arab-American experience: the dissonance between American hookup culture and home-country traditions . . . (Sami and Najlah’s) chaste courtship is beautifully etched.” (Nov. 21, 2013). Several U-M alums worked on the Detroit Unleaded film crew.

 
Sam Kadi’s The Citizen was screened twice in November at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater, and luckily I caught one of the showings. Its potent story followsArab-Lebanese immigrant, Ibrahim, who arrives in New York on Sept. 10, 2001, carrying a green card lottery letter that promises a new life in America. The 9/11 terrorist attack the following day not only shatters his dream but also threatens his freedom when charges of complicity arise.

The Citizen’s plot is powerful in its revelations about the challenges newly arrived immigrants face in America — here rawly exposed within the context of a national crisis. Syrian-born Kadi, currently a Michigan resident, co-authored the screenplay. Both Detroit Unleaded and The Citizen are special 2013 films that deserve to be seen.

The plot thickens

One of the biggest, and mostly overlooked, stories of 2013 was the dramatic surge in documentary filmmaking. Consider these statistics: A record 151 feature-length documentaries qualified for the 2013 Oscar competition, and of the 133 feature-length films with release dates this past November-December, 88 were fiction films and a startling 45 were documentaries. That’s one-third of the total.

It’s true that many of the 2013 documentaries won’t make their way into movie theaters across the country and most that do will have limited screenings. Eventually many will be broadcast on television. Still, the phenomenon of a documentary upsurge is revealing in several ways.

First, the availability of digital technology has stimulated production and reduced budgets. Here are some comparative numbers: Using a $400 SSD recording card (or a similar digital card), a filmmaker can record up to 100 minutes of material. Even better? The digital recording card is reusable. To get that same amount of footage on celluloid, the cost of film stock and processing alone would exceed $3,000 — figured at $300-per-10-minutes of processed film. In addition, digital media procedures reduce the number of man hours involved in post-production stages, further trimming costs.

Good news for documentary fans

A really interesting and telling piece of information can be extracted from the list of 2013 documentaries, and that has to do with the longevity and productivity of some of our best documentarists.

If one looks back at the early history of the documentary, production output for many of the filmmakers was often quite limited due to lack of distribution venues and funding. Robert Flaherty, a Michigander from Iron Mountain, gave the documentary genre a big push with Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic study of nomadic natives living and struggling to survive in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. In the next 26 years Flaherty made only five more feature-length documentaries.

That record stands in sharp contrast with those of Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, and Errol Morris, each a renowned, long-standing American documentarist with new works in 2013. The sustainability of their documentary careers is impressive. Wiseman’s 45-year career began in 1967 with Titicut Follies, a shocking expose of daily life in a Massachusetts mental hospital. Since then Wiseman has remained entirely committed to using the documentary genre for observing the inner workings and vagaries of American institutions. His titles telegraph his subjects: High School (1968), Hospital (1970), Boxing Gym (2010).

At Berkeley

Wiseman’s latest and 44th film is titled At Berkeley. The observational work (without narration) zeroes in on administrators, faculty, and students at the University of California, Berkeley, a renowned institution mired in massive state budget cuts and subsequent tuition increases. As for cost, Wiseman boasts that he brought in At Berkeley for somewhere between $400,000-500,000. That’s quite a budgetary coup for a film that runs just over four hours.

Running from Crazy

Barbara Kopple has enjoyed a diversified documentary career. Her 1976 film Harlan County, USA (1976), grittily recounts a violence-prone coal miners’ strike in Eastern Kentucky, and it earned Kopple an Oscar, as did American Dream (1991), another strike film that took place at Hormel Foods in Minnesota. Also interested in the personal story documentary, e.g. A Conversation With Gregory Peck (1999), Kopple focused her latest and 24th documentary Running from Crazy on actor Mariel Hemingway. The personal profile examines Hemingway’s efforts — public and private — to escape the mental illnesses and addictions that destroyed family members, notably grandfather Ernest Hemingway, and sister, Margaux, who both committed suicide.

The Unknown Known

Errol Morris made his name with The Thin Blue Line in 1988, a film that reinvestigated the 1976 murder trial and conviction of teenager Randall Dale Evans in Dallas, Texas. Incorporating controversial scene reenactments with newsreel and interview footage, the powerful film helped Adams win a new trial in which his conviction was overturned. He was set free after 12 years in prison.

Morris exploited his signature penchant for long-take interview techniques with great effect in the 2003 Oscar-winning The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara. (The dramatized scene reenactments, now common in documentary filmmaking, had disqualified The Thin Blue Line for Oscar consideration). McNamara’s life as a national public figure was a long and often controversial one, especially his tenure as U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. Morris’ unrelenting and extended closeups reveal a sense of introspective angst on McNamara’s part as he’s interviewed. (See “Talking About Movies: Combat docs old and new.” )

This long-take strategy is also employed as the primary conceptual form of Morris’ 13th documentary, The Unknown Known (2013). Its subject is Donald Rumsfeld, another former Secretary of Defense who, following 50 years of public service, left behind a massive archive of memos, including those that helped lead the country into war with Iraq. The memos were obtained by Morris and serve as his means of confronting Rumsfeld on decisions and judgments made as a government official. Could the strategy lead to “lessons” and introspection from Rumsfeld as it had with the Robert McNamara interviews in The Fog of War? The answer to that question is clearly “known” when one sits through The Unknown Known.

 
The diversified careers of Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, and Errol Morris provide encouraging proof that, along with the exciting proliferation of nonfiction film effort, it’s now possible for documentarists to log production output matching that of some fiction directors. Quite a turnaround from the days of Robert Flaherty.

Frank Beaver

Frank Beaver

FRANK BEAVER is a film historian and critic, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Emeritus of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

COMMENTS

  • Andrea Meister - 1978

    You were a superb teacher back in the 70s when I was in your Intro to Film class and you still are! Thank you, Frank Beaver!

    Reply

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