Blog Directory CineVerse: December 2016

January-February 2017 CineVerse schedule is now posted

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Admit it--you're dying to know what's scheduled for January through February at CineVerse. Well, your wait is over. The next two-month calendar is now live and ready for viewing/downloading at http://tinyurl.com/janfeb17cineverse.

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Introducing Cineversary

Friday, December 30, 2016

Erik Martin, CineVerse moderator, is partnering with the Oak Lawn Public Library to present a new film discussion group separate from but similar to CineVerse. It's called Cineversary, and you can learn all the details by reading an article about it published by the Chicago Tribune at  http://tinyurl.com/cineversarytrib.

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No CineVerse meeting on December 28

Sunday, December 25, 2016

CineVerse will not meet on December 28 due to the New Year's holiday (the Oak View Center building will be closed). Enjoy your merrymaking with family and friends and plan to reconvene at CineVerse on Wednesday, January 4. Happy holidays!

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It's a Wonderful Life continues to delight new generations

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Before his passing in 1991, if you had the opportunity to ask "It's a Wonderful Life" director Frank Capra to sum up the secret to his film's success, he might have given you this answer:

"It's a movie about a small town guy who thinks he is a failure and wishes he had never been born," Capra once said. "He's supposed to learn that he was not a failure, that he fitted into the scheme of life...I think that a lot of people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character and will perhaps feel a lot better for having known him. People are seeking spiritual guidance and moral reassurance..and if the movies can't supply this, they will be serving no worthwhile purpose."

Ingredients for a winning recipe

Then again, maybe the magic behind the movie is its wistfulness, its power to invoke hometown nostalgia, its sense of close-knit community and simple human values--all of which are becoming ignored concepts today in our ultra-urbanized societies (ask yourself: could a Bedford Falls' ever exist again on earth?).

Or possibly it's the element of quality in the film's production. It is, after all, a superbly crafted picture in its method of acting, direction and technical innovation. Perhaps it is Stewart himself who commands the picture, with his unique behavioral acting style. His charming mannerisms, tripping speech patterns, articulated facial expressions and innocent, lanky-frame create an unforgettable image of an irreplaceable George Bailey. The romantic tension he builds while "falling in love" with Donna Reed's character is spellbinding, and I think it remains an eternal source of wonder for new and old audiences alike.

As for the kindling that helped it combust anew into a fiery film fan movement in the 1970s, there is also, one could argue, a correlation between some of "It's a Wonderful Life's" (IAWL) thematic values to popular movies in the late '70s. IAWL in itself is a basic parable, pitting a force for good (George) against a force for evil (Potter)--the classic confrontation. George loses in the end, yet wins a personal victory.

This was a dominant ideology of movies at this time: "Rocky" (1976), "Coming Home" (1978), and "Breaking Away" (1979) reflect personal triumphs in the midst of failures, while blockbusters like "Star Wars" (1977), and "Superman" (1978) intimated themes of good versus evil. These programmed values in '70s films could have very well made IAWL more digestible to the public, helping advance its success.


An annual tradition

And what about today? What sustains the film's longevity in fact, I believe, is the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now. For the rest of us who tune in or press play faithfully every Yuletide season, it has become sheer necessity: we need to feel those goosebumps all over again when Capra brings the house down with his pass-the-kleenex climax. Stewart and Capra, who in 1946 knew it was the best picture they'd done or probably ever would do, couldn't be happier. "It's part of the annual ritual now," said Stewart, a few years back. "That means a great deal to me, and I know it means an awful lot to Capra, because he says it's his favorite, too."

Yet, the film's amazing rejuvenation over the past 30-plus years has been both a blessing and a curse. In 1986, IAWL fell victim to the colorization process, via Hal Roach Studios, a move that has drawn the ire of critics, purists and filmlovers everywhere. As a further exploitation of the movie, composers have been trying to turn IALW into a musical for decades. Finally, old-fashioned greed has put the clamps on Capra’s classic, perhaps for good. Republic Pictures was able to reassert exclusive rights to IAWL in 1994, and made a long-term deal with NBC, which now has exclusive broadcast reigns on the film. Paramount acquired the home video rights a few years ago, and currently offers DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the movie, each featuring the original black-and-white version as well as a colorized version of the film.


Thanks to its continued popularity on television and home video, "It's a Wonderful Life" fans will always be free as an angel to relish their favorite movie whenever want. Thanks for the wings, George!

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Want to know why It's a Wonderful Life rings so many bells? Read on...

Don't make the mistake of relegating "It's a Wonderful Life" to the Christmastime-only corner and chalking it up as just another disposable film fairy tale churned out by the Hollywood factory during its golden era. IAWL offers an embarrassment of riches just waiting to be discovered--and chances are you have yet to identify many of these facets, despite viewing the movie countless times. Here's a guardian angel of a guide that can help you navigate through a film that is much more complex and worthy of deep examination than you might have thought:

WHY DOES THIS FILM CONTINUE TO BE BELOVED, WATCHED AND APPRECIATED TODAY, 70 YEARS AFTER ITS INTIIAL RELEASE?
Ingrained repetition: What sustains the film's longevity could be the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now and to have seen at least some of it on television over the holidays. Consider that this is one of only a handful of classic films still shown annually on network (non-cable) television—the only others are the Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, and the Sound of Music.
Maybe what draws contemporary audiences most to IAWL is its power to invoke hometown nostalgia, its sense of close-knit community and simple human values--all of which are becoming ignored concepts today in our ultra-urbanized societies (ask yourself: could a Bedford Falls' ever exist again on earth?).
IAWL functions as a fine drama, comedy, romance, and even film and psychological thriller—offering something for every viewer.
Despite some dated elements, its ideas and themes are refreshingly modern: George Bailey may have a wonderful life thanks to his family, friends, and good-hearted nature, but he’s also been shown how dark and seedy the world can be and he’s tasted the bitterness of an unfulfilled dream (sacrificing his dream of becoming an architect and travelling the world.
o In fact, according to Salon.com writer Rich Cohen: ““It’s a Wonderful Life”…is really the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made.” “If you were to cut “It’s a Wonderful Life” by 20 minutes, its true subject would be revealed: In this shortened version, George Bailey, played by a Jimmy Stewart forever on the edge of hysteria, after being betrayed by nearly everyone in his life, after being broken on the wheel of capitalism, flees to the outskirts of town, Bedford Falls, N.Y., where he leaps off a bridge with thoughts of suicide. That’s the movie: The good man driven insane.” “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. I don’t think he’s seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he’s seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it. Because he was seeing the world through his eyes — not as it was, but as he was: honest and fair. But on “The Night Journey,” George is nothing and nobody. When the angel took him out of his life, he took him out of his consciousness, out from behind his eyes. It was only then that he saw America. Bedford Falls was the fantasy. Pottersville is where we live.”
o Film Spectrum blogger Jason Fraley also posited: “The internal struggle of America is right there in George Bailey’s angst. Should we engage in overseas adventurism, or turn inward toward the domestic? Should we focus on the rugged individualism of the private sector, or the social safety nets of a compassionate public sector? And should we chase the notion of exceptionalism, or be an important piece of a larger whole? Capra seems to say that America works best when both parts are in their proper proportions. In a world of bank bailouts and home foreclosures, It’s a Wonderful Life is just as relevant today as it was in 1946.”
I believe a lot more of us can relate to the George Bailey who remains in Bedford Falls than the would-be George who went off and “conquered the world,” as Potter put it—the destiny achieved by someone like Sam Wainright who made a fortune selling plastics. George has had to acquiesce, compromise his original vision, and assume the legacy of his father—also a good man. But this path can lead to frustration and resentment. Fortunately, George has a strong social network of family and friends and a grounded morality that keeps him from getting too down on himself.
Other relevant themes and messages still apply, too: 
o the struggle of the little guy to get ahead in a rigged system run by oligarchs; 
o the depths of personal depression, based on negative personal circumstances, that can drive a person to despondency and surrender; 
o the profound butterfly effect that each individual human being can have upon his fellow man and environment; 
o the dark underbelly that can exist beneath our glass-half-full outlook on the world; and more.
Also, this movie is timelessly epic and intrinsically American; according to Fraley, “It’s a Wonderful Life may very well be the most American film ever made, spanning the most consequential period of American history. George Bailey brings us through the first half of the 20th century like Forrest Gump brings us through the second.” IAWL covers the post-World War I era, Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, World War II, and post-WWII America as only the cinema can, through the power of montage, flashback, vignettes, voiceover, and other techniques. 

WHAT SYMBOLS, MOTIFS AND CINEMATIC TECHNIQUES DOES CAPRA USE TO TELL HIS STORY AND IMBUE IT WITH MEANING?
Every major character has symbols and motifs associated with them:
o George is linked to broken down machinery or makeshift technology—his old jalopy of a car, the snow shovel he uses as a sled, the ramshackle house he moves into, the broken railing cap, the fence door that won’t open, the second-hand luggage he accepts as a gift, and the “shabby little office” he works in. This imagery contrasts nicely with the perfect machinery that eludes him—the train waiting to take him out of town, the nicer cars he admires, and the rich man’s office he covets. The words “broken down” are often used by George or in reference to George, as well; and remember that George is denied military service due to his bad ear.
o Mary and her children are correlated with flowers—the corsages she wears in many scenes, the hydrangea bushes she hides in, the floral garden in front of her mother’s house, the floral wallpaper in that same house, and Zuzu’s flower petals and bedroom furniture featuring floral designs.
o Interestingly, there’s a dichotomous geometric pattern at work in this film: Mary is associated with rounded objects (the moon she wants George to lasso, phonograph records, her mother’s round-shaped phone receiver, Christmas tree ornaments, the ice cream scoop, rocks used to break windows, flowers, and a loaf of French bread), while George is paired with straight lines and sharp angles (the homes and buildings he didn’t get to build but which he’s lending out money for, office doors and counters, dollar bills, a tree trunk, the bridge, cage bars, travel brochures and posters, the clothesline, picture frames, the lasso rope, and his draftsman table and tools). These patterns coalesce when we see Mary and George in the pregnancy reveal scene: the headboard of their bed features rounded corners surrounding straight bars.
o Uncle Billy is associated with sympathetic, simple-minded, stray animals—the squirrel and raven.
o Clarence is named “Odbody” for a reason: he’s a walking oddity who likes old books, antiquated clothing, and old-fashioned libations.
o The color black is assigned to Mr. Potter, who sports a predominantly black wardrobe that includes black ties and hats (contrasting with Uncle Billy’s white hat), dark and ornately carved furniture, and an eerie black skull and black globe lamp that adorn his desk. 
o Harry exemplifies balance (remember him acrobatically carrying three pies?), dexterity and natural skill (for which he becomes a decorated war hero), good luck (he survives his wartime missions and marries a beautiful woman), and front page popularity—in contrast to George’s older and “broken down” body and spirit.
Symbolic commentary via clever misc-en-scene: consider the changing walls of the Bailey home—Mary wallpapers the walls with pastoral prints, but later we see an anchor pattern on the wall adjacent to George after he returns home tired and angry from a tussle with potter; the anchor reminds us of his dream of travelling and also suggests he’s tied down. Think, too, of the butterfly framings/paintings on the walls of George’s parents’ home and Mary and George’s house, suggesting the elusive freedom that George cannot grasp. Also, recall the clothesline that spatially and symbolically separates George and Clarence within the bridge operator’s room—suggesting that Clarence is on a higher ethereal level than George.
Foreshadowing:  that same clothesline image, shown in the same titled angle, is echoed earlier in the bedroom scene where Mary reveals she is pregnant—it’s off in the corner, a strange portent of things to come. In the same scene, consider the odd placement of the pull-string with a loop at the end that comes between George and Mary lying in bed—visually insinuating a noose (that foreboding symbol of suicide/doom). Vertical bars and shadows are also prevalent as foreshadowing devices—remember how, in that same bedroom scene, we see the shadows of vertical lines, like prison bars, behind George; earlier, George is separated from the building & loan throng by a steel gate that looks like a prison door; and Uncle Billy peers through the vertical bars on the front gate at the bank, another forewarning that bad things are imminent.
Misc-en-scene depth: we see richly detailed foreground, middle ground and background in many settings, especially Potter’s office, the Building & Loan office, the druggist’s back room, and even George’s living room. Everything we see has been carefully chosen to give us texture, backstory and characterization.
Leitmotifs (repeated musical cues): Buffalo Gals is repeated throughout the film to remind us of the loving bond between George and Mary; we hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” again and again as a kind of theme for Clarence; and “Hark the Herald” is played in connotation with kith and kin.
Long, uninterrupted takes: best evidenced in the famous romantically charged single shot where George and Mary, in close up, talk on the phone and fall in love; also, when George learns from Harry’s new wife at the train depot that Harry won’t be relieving him of his work duties; and when Gower the druggist first berates then embraces young George. Leaving important shots like these unbroken give these shots much more power and allow the actors to maintain a consistent emotional power and characterization that can be diluted when a scene is broken up into too many shots and counterpoints.
The famous freeze frame on George’s face when he accepts Gower’s suitcase gift; film scholars insist this may be the earliest example of a freeze frame in a feature film—preceding the ones used in “All About Eve” and “The 400 Blows” years later.
The “breaking of the fourth wall” that occurs when George turns his head and eventually faces the camera and us upon running away from his mother’s boarding house; this was very unusual for a non-comedy Hollywood film.

WHAT ARE SOME COMMON THEMES THAT RUN THROUGH MOST CAPRA MOVIES?
Populist values
The struggle of the everyday common man against the machine of politics, commerce, and corruption
Man conflicted by alternating realities (consider George Bailey: he has a lust for Violet, a need for Mary; he desires fame and success and to escape the confines of social responsibilities, yet he’s compelled to stay in Bedford Falls, mortgage his dreams to keep a positive cash flow)
Strong, charismatic female leads: other examples include Jean Arthur in Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, You Can’t Take it With You; Stanwyck in John Doe, Colbert in It Happened One Night
The masses are like sheep and democracy can be dangerous: consider how easily manipulated people are in this film, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc.

WHAT FILMS COME TO MIND AFTER VIEWING IAWL?
A Christmas Carol
Meet John Doe, featuring another Capra character who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve
The Best Years of Our Lives
Back to the Future Part II—in which another character sees a negative alternate reality version of his hometown
Groundhog Day
The Majestic

OTHER CAPRA FILMS OF NOTE
It Happened One Night
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Lost Horizon
You Can’t Take it With You
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Meet John Doe

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Tracing the amazing resurgence of "It's a Wonderful Life" over the last 40 years

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

After decades of, for the most part, audience indifference and lack of recognition, "It's a Wonderful Life" (IAWL) came back into the public consciousness with a vengeance. Capra became slowly aware of this phenomenon throughout the fifties and sixties, when more and more grateful letters from fans began pouring in.

Soon thousands of people were writing him on a variety of subjects--some inquiring about inconsistencies in the film (like Potter not being punished at the end for keeping the $8,000), some interpreting what the film meant to them, and even more expressing extreme heartfelt appreciation for so inspirational and transcendent a movie. He tried to respond personally to all their letters at first, but eventually found it impossible due to the overwhelming amount of messages he would receive, whereby Capra decided to simply store away his IAWL letters in a huge file.

A new life on the small screen

However, by 1974 the mild renewed success of IAWL had bottomed out, and it appeared that the movie was headed for occasional late-late show runs among other "B" fare forgotten pictures, thanks to its new public domain status. But becoming a non-property--although it spelled the end of TV royalties for Capra (almost) forever--did not detract in any way from its identity. Instead, it freed IAWL from the confines of economic exploitation by its previous owners and make possible another more positive kind of economic utilization--free use by television stations--which led to mass public exposure.

Now IAWL was earning its deserved audience via free (and soon cable) TV. The nationwide marketing of the film by commercial stations had its greedy financial motivations, of course, but the picture was quickly garnering cultural identification with its newfound audience, who were beginning to grow accustomed to it as an annual holiday offering. Indeed, IAWL was making everybody happy: the TV stations were making money off its ratings, Frank Capra--though robbed of any profit capacity--was starting to feel proud all over again, and the public had found itself a favorite--one good enough to be ranked among other perennial American classics like "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Sound of Music."

The resurgence was underway, and what had begun as a cult-following in the mid-seventies escalated into a widespread cultural phenomenon by 1980. Millions of Americans were cherishing IAWL and countless others were discovering it for the first time. It had become by far the best-loved Christmas movie, topping all other major holiday standards like "White Christmas", "Miracle on 34th Street," and any of the five adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" in ratings and popularity polls (although the former two, along with IAWL, are the three Christmas films most often aired on TV, according to a survey of national TV logs taken in the '80s).

The rejuvenation of Capra's movie inspired an ABC TV remake in 1977 called "It Happened One Christmas", starring Orson Welles and Marlo Thomas, surprisingly, in the George Bailey role. This color recreation with a feminist tone was a weak attempt, trying to evoke the emotional impact of the original amidst a contemporary setting, but never living up to the spirit of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the TV clone generated further interest in the original, and seemed to bestow a subtle reverence and respect onto IAWL--paying it a sort of broadcast "homage" in an updated form.



Reasons for the rejuvenation
These were the obvious factors involved in IAWL's ascendancy--logical reasons accounting for its attainment as a seasonal, cultural institution. On the surface, it would appear that the film's newfound charisma and irrefutable power had simple economic explanations--television could show it forever without paying a penny, public familiarity, and fondness in turn, grew due to its broadcasted repetition. A more thorough analysis into ideological speculations reveals so much more, however. People had to identify with the film's explicit and implicit content and incorporate its meaning into their lives somehow, to accept the picture as readily as they did. The phenomenon is arguably more a product of the seventies viewer than the movie itself.

Consider: Unlike the post-war conditions of the forties when the economy boomed and an exhausted public sought to escape from their negative memory of the war by looking for entertainment that would make them laugh, the seventies were a time of distress and isolation. Society, in the midst of whopping inflation, political dishonesty and ever-changing lifestyles and artistic and cultural expressions, was constantly searching for meaning. With the country suffering from a recession and society becoming desensitized to basic human values through exposure to violence and dishonesty in the media and in television, the individual began to question his own self-worth. People needed to hold onto something, and with friction existing within the traditional family system, there seemed very little salvation out there.

A film like IAWL came along just at the right time, helping to inspire a great number of Americans, and challenging them to reevaluate their own self-worth. The film's message, after all, propagates this: George Bailey reconsiders his existence and recognizes its priceless personal value, for all its failures and simplicities. A meaning-starved public could incorporate this then and apply it to their everyday lives, reinvigorating an optimistic consciousness.


This is not to say that IAWL singlehandedly changed the lackadaisical spirit of recession-ridden, Vietnam-embittered America's. But it did offer its viewer a refreshing, alternative and novel philosophy in such value-deflated times. The story's moral was taken to heart not because it was an escapist alternative but because it was both a realistic and applicable human truth. IAWL teaches us that dreams don't always come true, but these unfulfilled dreams are better than the kind that turn into haunting nightmares. George never leaves Bedford Falls or travels to Europe, but he recognizes the important role he has played in other people's lives and thus comes appreciate his self-meaning. Perhaps its '70s audience could collectively acknowledge this message--at least better than the audience of the '40s.

Tomorrow: An American institution ages gracefully

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Why audiences were indifferent to "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1946

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Production for "It's a Wonderful Life" went smoothly for the most part, except for going over budget an extra $1.5 million (mostly due to Capra's insistence that the film be shot in sequence). The director felt confident, however, that IAWL would be the biggest box-office smash of 1947, as well as a complete critical success. The general release was set for January 30, 1947.


Suddenly, a serious problem arose. RKO, Liberty's official distributor, couldn't process Technicolor prints of their swashbuckler movie "Sinbad the Sailor" quickly enough for its scheduled Christmas release. Capra was informed that his film would have to be moved up for a Christmas Eve opening in 50 nationwide theaters to fill the gap. Labs worked round the clock to process prints of IAWL, barely finishing in time. But there were possible advantages to this move: it qualified IAWL for the 1946 Oscar races, as opposed to 1947; and it, being a Christmas movie at heart, would appeal to audiences as a seasonably-festive film.

A not so wonderful debut
However, several prominent factors surfaced that inhibited the movie's success. First, the film was marketed not as a Christmas picture, but rather as a romantic comedy, very similar to Capra's goofball comedies of the thirties. The lobby posters showcased Jimmy Stewart lifting up Donna Reed next to the captions, "It's a powerful love story", and "James Stewart..America's favorite feller.” There was no mention of the "man overcoming the odds" theme that the movie propagated, nor any serious or somber aspects whatsoever. Then there was the presence of a terrible snowstorm that chilled the eastern United States, plummeting ticket sales. The reviews of the film were mixed, although on the average positive, giving indications that most people liked the movie, some loved it, and others despised it. The latter critics struck IAWL a crippling blow, disheartening Capra's optimism.

Finally, and most importantly, the post-war audience of 1946 was simply not receptive to its implicit content. Americans, enjoying their holiday season in the first full year of peace, could have been disenchanted by the bleak, film noir-ish elements of IAWL. They simply were not ready for its theme depicting salvation preceded by a "dark night of the soul.” America's wanted escape pictures: westerns, intense realistic dramas, light comedies. Stewart recounts, "It took awhile for the country to sort of quiet down. Then we could start to think about family and community and responsibility.”


Capra's vision of the world had changed upon his return from the war to a more pessimistic, painful sensibility. He wanted to project some of these feelings onto the screen, and yet overcome these bleak themes with expressive optimism, humor and sentimentality--investing unlimited faith in the human spirit. The public, however, didn't seem to empathize with this antipodal struggle of the common man and his way of life. These were depression-era ideologies of reassurance to a beleaguered, individually-oriented public. But it was now post WWII, where group unity seemed to be the order of society and the economy was back on its feet. Depression-era consciousness where the individual questioned his own significance (as George Bailey does) was a thing of the past--better forgotten.


"Best" beats "Wonderful"
On the other hand, having been through an atrocious war, the public and critics alike craved a degree of credibility in Hollywood pictures--to put a name on it, realism. Probably for this reason was "The Best Years of Our Lives" IAWL's fiercest competitor, so overwhelmingly embraced by moviegoers and critics. True, it was in the same bleak vein as IAWL with its darker elements, but it was a film that didn't attempt to "rescue" the viewer from its pessimism with what might have been perceived as prudish optimism, or sappy sentimentality.
Not surprisingly, "Best Years" was one of ‘47's biggest box-office winners, and a shoe-in for the Academy Awards. It stole away every nominated category from IAWL, plunging Capra into the furthest pits of frustration over his much-toiled project. Indeed, "Best Years" seemed to swipe virtually everything away--it even beat IAWL's release by one month. Being a very controversial and thus talked-about movie, it commanded nearly all the attention (even gossip) that IAWL might have received. Ironically, it was a William Wyler film--Capra's partner at Liberty and one of his dearest friends (although it wasn't a Liberty film).

The final dagger came at the close of 1947 as the gross receipts were tallied: after a $2.7 million investment, IAWL lost more than $525,000. Liberty Films was liquidated as a result some two years later. Capra, formerly the proud papa of what he considered a landmark motion picture achievement, abandoned all admiration, conversation and loyalty he had previously invested in his brainchild. As far as he was concerned, he had shelved IAWL forever.

Assessing damage control

The initial failure of IAWL can reasonably be summed up by the master himself: "To stay in business...you have to make pictures with universal appeal,” Capra said. “Unless a picture has tremendous initial impact upon the public, it quickly passes from the first run to lesser homes and exhausts its money potential. If it starts out slowly, its run is taken off at the end of the week...that's one of the big troubles. Pictures aren't given a chance to find their audience.”


But not everything was gloom and doom, and IAWL was far from an all-out loser. Capra was awarded the Hollywood Foreign Correspondent Association's "Golden Globe" award for best director of 1947 and IAWL was voted one of the ten best films of the year by the National Board of Review. It was nominated for five prestigious Oscars, and it had received critical acclaim by the majority of its reviewers (In December of 1946, Time and Life magazines covered the movie extensively in pictures and positive words, and Newsweek even put the film on its cover).

Furthermore, by 1954, RKO (Liberty's repossessor) announced an accumulated profit of over $3 million for IAWL. It was finally making some money, as it would continue to do when marketed for commercial television in the fifties and sixties by its numerous future owners (RKO sold IAWL to Paramount, who later dished it off to M & A Alexander Productions).

The film even enjoyed a short-lived popular recovery around Christmas seasons in the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to annual viewings on television (it was, assumedly, probably shown only once on a single network each time of the year, thereby garnering only limited exposure).


Finally, in 1974, all passion for the film had fizzled out, and the economic market of TV could no longer be tapped. Republic Pictures didn't bother to renew its copyright on its critical 28th birthday (the year in which a work must be renewed, under the old 1909 law). IAWL entered the world of public domain, very unsure of itself and its future. Little did anyone know the incredible success this celluloid Lazarus would begin to enjoy after thirty years of relative public disregard. 


Tomorrow: A phoenix rises from the ashes 

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Why "It's a Wonderful Life" is a perennial classic

Monday, December 19, 2016

(Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote and published on this blog 7 years ago that is being repeated now in anticipation of our 70th anniversary celebration of "It's a Wonderful Life" on Dec. 21 at CineVerse. Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this article will post over the next 3 days.)

The first time I saw "It's a Wonderful Life" was in 1979, when it was played uninterrupted on local public television. I was just a 12-year old kid sprawled out in front of the living room TV, mesmerized--Christmas tree glistening off to the right and powderflake snow wafting down outside the front window as George Bailey stood grinning like a gingerbread man while his friends and family sang a heartwarming “Auld Ang Syne.”



Over 37 years later, I can easily say I’ve seen the movie nearly 50 times. The film has so touched my life that I even proposed to my then girlfriend (now wife) during a Christmastime viewing in 1993. (Needless to say, she accepted: After watching George and Mary fall in love in one of the silver screen’s classic romances, how could she say no, I reasoned.)

Today, 70 years after its original release, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is as rich and golden a viewer’s experience as it’s ever been. For all its would-be "sentimental hogwash,” the movie has captured a world audience unlike any other film to date. It's ever-increasing charisma is undeniable, its acting and production standards impeccable, and its reflection of wholesome, simple human values is timeless. 


Yet, amazingly, this unanimous cinematic classic experienced a rocky history, failing to enchant its audience upon its inception in 1946 and reaping miserable profits. Considering its dismal initial impact in the post-war 1940s, it is amazing to consider the incredible shared cultural phenomenon it has become today. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is truly the definitive film phoenix risen from the ashes.


Origins
What if Abraham Lincoln had never been born? Philip Van Doren Stern, an established author of the post WWI literary world, was shaving the morning of Lincoln's birthday, 1938, when that sudden thought struck him. He developed the concept, imagining what the world would be like for an ordinary man if we wished he'd never been born. Stern dismissed the idea for a while, but went back five years later, developing it into a story entitled, "The Greatest Gift", which he sent out to over 200 people as Christmas card substitutes in 1943.


The author's agent received a copy and was so impressed that he convinced Cary Grant's agent to purchase the story for $10,000. The property changed hands with over 10 different people (including Howard Hughes) until it finally came into the possession of Frank Capra--director extraordinaire of the '30s with already four academy awards to his name. Capra was so charmed by the story that he immediately decided to turn it into a full-length motion picture, under his production and direction. It would, in fact, be the first project attempted by his newly created company, Liberty Films, formed in collaboration with William Wyler, George Stevens and Samuel Briskin--three other celebrated directors of their time.

The ultra-perfectionist Capra, however, was not satisfied with the troublesome script for his movie, which was renamed "It's a Wonderful Life" (referred to as IAWL, henceforth), so he assigned famous husband and wife screenwriters Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich the job of entirely reworking the script--even penning a bit of it himself.

A filmmaker's unique vision
Capra re-envisioned his story not as a Christmas yarn, but as a story intended for any time of year. He wasn't intimidated by the tale's dark implications of suicide and despair. He saw the potential for transcendence and inspiration, and the depiction of abundant human emotion. Capra was already well-skilled in this art by virtue of his previous sentimental works like “Meet John Doe,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”


From the start, there was only one actor who could fill the "small town-everyman" shoes of George Bailey for Capra, and that was Jimmy Stewart. A proven winner for the director in the thirties, Stewart was more than eager to work with Capra on their first commercial post-war film for each of them. Tedious scrutiny went into the selection of the rest of the cast. Capra wanted, above all, colorful characters and recognizable personalities, so he picked a rich stock of excellent character actors. He wasn't afraid to cast actors against type, or to sign personable black actors, either.

Capra's work ethic was rigorous and gruelling. He engrossed himself entirely in IAWL only four months after returning from active duty in World War II as a filmmaker, compiling a top-notch crew and affixing a 90 day shooting schedule on a budget of over $2 million.
From the beginning, Capra conceived IAWL as his masterwork. "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made," Capra states in his autobiography. "It wasn't made for the oh-so bored critics or the oh-so jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.”

As an immigrant child, Capra was impressed by common, everyday people whose lives he so grew to appreciate that his ambition was to someday project them onto the screen. His greatest talent rested in his power to represent the ordinary man's strength to face apparently insurmountable evil, thereby benefitting his fellow man. Capra realized this power early in his career, when he decided to create films that would exhilarate the depressed spirits of the American public, inspired personally by his dramatic recovery from a serious illness.

"Improving the individual and bringing a more hopeful outlook on life to him is the only way you can improve the nation and ultimately the world,” thought Capra. It was 1946, and both he and his fellow Americans were numb to the events of the war. IAWL seemed like the perfect cinematic salve.

Tomorrow: Sizzle turns to fizzle at the box office

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Silver bells, silver bells...It's a Wonderful Life time in the city

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Contrary to popular belief, CineVerse will actually meet after all on Wednesday, Dec. 21 from 7-10 p.m. as normal, this time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the most beloved holiday film of all time: "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946; 131 minutes), directed by Frank Capra. Hope you can join us!

Note that, due to this film's long runtime, we will start promptly at 7 p.m.

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Read more about the films featured at CineVerse

Thursday, December 15, 2016

To prepare for every film we discuss weekly at CineVerse, moderator Erik Martin conducts careful research by scouring the Internet for pertinent articles, reviews, essays, and blog posts that shed light on that particular movie. These carefully curated writings are collected in full or in part by Erik and assembled into a CineVerse film literature document (complete with hyperlinks that link back to the original source), from which Erik crafts his weekly Q&A talking points that trigger our group discussions.

You can view and download any of the hundreds of film literature documents created over the years by visiting:


To most easily view and use this archive, follow the directions below:

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Tap into CineVerse podcasts

Missed a CineVerse meeting you really wanted to attend? Curious to learn what was talked about for a particular movie last week, last month, or last year? Dying to better understand that head scratcher of a film you saw? Explore the universe of cinema with your ears by checking out our CineVerse podcasts.

We've recorded nearly every group discussion held at CineVerse since mid 2007--amounting to nearly 500 audio files, each examining a different movie featured at CineVerse. Every podcast recording includes the post-screening initial thoughts shared by each member in attendance followed by a more extensive Q&A session with moderator Erik Martin and the group.

You can access the CineVerse group discussion podcast archive by visiting:


To most easily view and use this archive, follow the directions below.

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There's no place like Connecticut for the holidays

In the pantheon of treasured Yuletide cinema, "Christmas in Connecticut" is often relegated as the runt stocking off in the corner that's among the last to be filled by Santa--and among the last discs to be dusted off the shelf and rewatched by viewers during the holiday season. But it's got a late World War II period charm and classic Hollwyood assembly line sheen that can compete with the visions of sugarplums dancing in your head, if you let it. After a group unwrapping, here are our major CineVerse conclusions about this picture:

WHAT DID YOU FIND INTERESTING, ORIGINAL OR UNEXPECTED ABOUT THIS MOVIE?
It serves as more of a screwball comedy set at Christmastime than a holiday or Christmas film. Christmas is kind of incidental to the plot; it’s the MacGuffin that functions as a trigger for the plot, but it’s relatively unimportant.
It is imbued with many of the characteristic traits of the screwball comedy so popular in the 1930s and early to mid-1940s, including slapstick, a comical charade that involves playacting, fast-paced dialogue, social classes clashing, and a story that involves marriage and/or a suddenly complicated love triangle.
Considering that, at this time in America, when socioeconomics dictated that women typically stayed at home and dutifully served as cooks and housekeepers, this film is surprisingly sympathetic to the plight of the average American women: it depicts how difficult keeping up these appearances and performing to a woman’s expected duty is for Elizabeth. This functions as the source of comedy here, but the movie is also, subtextually perhaps, making a semi-feminist statement for 1945.
“Christmas in Connecticut” is also firmly anchored in its time period as a wartime film: we see Jefferson escaping a Naval battle and know what he’s endured and wished for, and the patriotic feelings of wartime viewers seeing this film in 1945 would have made it popular and relevant.
Interestingly, we see two stalwart character actors—Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall, who both appeared in “Casablanca”—appearing here not in a drama but a comedy; considering that Warner Brothers was not a studio known for its comedies, this is something of a rarity.
Against some expectations, it’s not a very deep film in terms of themes, emotional resonance, memorable plot, or celebrated performances. It has an emotional effect, certainly, but for a sentimental Christmastime favorite, it doesn’t stir the soul perhaps like It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, or Miracle on 34th Street does. It’s light and frothy escapist entertainment for the season.

OTHER FILMS THAT REMIND YOU OF “CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT”?
Screwball comedies like “It Happened One Night,” “The Lady Eve,” “Ball of Fire,” “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and others.
“Holiday Affair,” another Christmastime film that also depicts a woman torn between two men: one she’s engaged or steady with, another who suddenly enters her life.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner,” another Yuletide picture wherein a family is forced to house and entertain a fat man who imposes himself upon them.
“Remember the Night,” another film set at Christmastime starring Barbara Stanwyck
“Coming home from WWII” movies like “The Best Years of Our Lives”

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A Connecticut Christmas in King CineVerse's court

Sunday, December 11, 2016

For our annual Christmas season movie, CineVerse has slated “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945; 102 minutes) for December 14, directed by Peter Godfrey, chosen by Danealle Kueltzo. Plus: Stick around for a trailer reel preview of the January/February CineVerse schedule.

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Tie-ing up the loose ends on Hitchcock

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Over the past 12 months, CineVerse managed to view and discuss 13 of Alfred Hitchcock's 50-plus feature films, representing approximately 25% of the Master of Suspense's work. Not a bad sample size. Fittingly, we concluded our "Hitchcockronology" 2016 monthly series with "Frenzy," a film that echoes "The Lodger," the movie we kicked things off with back in January. Both are concerned with psychotic killers of women and innocent men wrongfully accused of the crime and on the run. "Frenzy," I forewarned our members, can be a disturbingly graphic meditation on violence and misogyny that, despite its 42-year vintage, still has the power to make you squirm in disgust. But such was Hitchcock's intention, now that he had the artistic license to visually depict an utterly deplorable crime without having to hint about it and tiptoe around the censors. "Frenzy" harkens back to Hitch pictures of old yet shows a fresh and different approach by the director, who would only proceed to make one final film thereafter before he died. Our major observations on "Frenzy" are as follows:

HOW IS THIS HTICHCOCK FILM SIMILAR TO AND DIFFERENT FROM PREVIOUS PICTURES BY THE DIRECTOR?
It employs some of the same themes, including the wrong man innocently accused and a psychotic killer, that were used in The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Lodger, and others.
It makes you identify with the psychotic killer—in this movie, Rusk—just like you are forced to identify/sympathize with Norman Bates in Psycho; consider the scene where Rusk has to retrieve the pin from a dead girl’s hand.
It employs ample black humor (such as the pin-retrieving scene) and mixes in mirthful bits of droll comedy (like the inspector suffering his wife’s cooking) with the darker elements, creating a nice tonal shift between dark and light—as Hitch had done in many previous movies.
However, this film was shot in Britain—his first film to do so in 22 years—not Hollywood.
Moreover, Hitch didn’t rely on fake-looking process shots in his backgrounds; here, he shoots on many scenes location in London’s famed Covent Garden, where the director’s father was a grocery merchant many decades earlier. 
o In this way, the setting and the hustle and bustle of native Londoners as extras makes the film feel fresher, livelier, more kinetic and more contemporary than many of his prior features. 
o Inspired by the French New Wave, Hitch opted to shoot on location and use non-professional actors in the background to foster a sense of verisimilitude. 
This was also the first movie by the Master of Suspense to feature nudity and graphic onscreen violence and get slapped with an R-rating.
Frenzy is also among the director’s pictures to not have arguably not have a MacGuffin, although you could make a case for the tie clip Rusk needs to retrieve being the MacGuffin.

WHAT THEMES ARE AT WORK IN FRENZY?
The innocent man wrongfully accused and on the run.
A psychotic killer capable of great violence but who may look innocent and harmless on the outside.
Characters expressing themselves through food, violence, or both: Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut he desired to make a film that would explore the life of a city completely through food. "I'd like to try to do an anthology on food, showing its arrival in the city, its distribution, the selling, how it's fixed up and absorbed. And gradually, the end of the film would show the sewers, and the garbage being dumped out into the ocean... Your theme might almost be the rottenness of humanity." Consider how Rusk, a violent killer, is preoccupied by food in many of his scenes—he’s also a fruit and vegetables dealer in the market.
Evil and violence is not restricted by social class: instead of a knife or gun, the killer here uses a necktie, a symbol of the upper/business class, refinery, and sophistication. Rusk’s lapel pin is also a symbol of urbane culture and elegance.
Violence and evil can occur anywhere—even in crowded urban areas teeming with life—and a murderer may be dwelling among us anywhere and everywhere, maybe even next door. Think about the famous uninterrupted shot where, after Rusk takes Babs upstairs to his apartment, the camera slowly retreats downstairs and out into the streets—suggesting that a horrible crime is being committed and goes unnoticed in the midst of a civilized metropolis. The way this scene is executed—shifting from silence to street bustle sounds—creates a sense of horrible irony and makes the viewer feel pessimistic and alone, knowing that evil is overlooked and unpunished in an unjust world.

OTHER MOVIES THAT FRENZY BRINGS TO MIND INCLUDE:
Psycho
The Lodger (which also begins with a murdered woman being fished out of a London river)
Peeping Tom
Dressed to Kill
Eye of The Beholder

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A rare rated R for Hitchcock

Sunday, December 4, 2016

On December 7, Hitchcockronology – A Sequential Study of the Master of Suspense – concludes with part 12: “Frenzy” (1972; 116 minutes), directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Plus: In the Master's Shadow: Hitchcock's Legacy (SD, 26 minutes). Note: Tonight we will start promptly at 7 PM and dismiss closer to 10:15 PM.

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2001: A film interpretation odyssey

Thursday, December 1, 2016

How does one begin to unravel the dense onion layers surrounding Stanley Kubrick's masterwork "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Why is the film so long and leisurely paced? If aliens planted those big black rectangles, where are the aliens? And how can we possibly make sense of that bewilderingly abstract fourth and final act? CineVerse attempted to answer all these queries last night and came away with these plentiful observations:

IN WHAT WAYS WAS THIS 1968 FILM GROUNDBREAKING, INNOVATIVE, SURPRISING, AND YET WELL-TIMED?
Its visuals and special effects are breathtaking – no science fiction film before it looked this realistic nor depicted actual space travel so accurately; the level of detail and the verisimilitude are stunning, even 48 years later.
Unlike previous sci-fi movies, the aliens suggested here are never shown, which is probably the right choice, considering no degree of special effects wizardry would have been able to improve upon your own imagination or sense of wonder over the mysterious sights we see through Dave the astronaut’s eyes.
It doesn’t follow a traditional narrative construction, and there is very little dialogue; instead, it relies on visual poetry and pure cinema – images married to sound without a reliance on words, narration or exposition – to tell its story. In many ways, this film plays like a silent movie.
The timing of its release was important: in 1968, America was enthralled with the NASA space program and Kennedy’s dream of landing on the moon, which would happen a year later; 1968 was also an extremely volatile and violent year, and some of the themes expressed in and emotions evoked by this film would have resonated with audiences; additionally, the stargate sequence near the end was trippy and psychedelic, which would have appealed to the youth culture of the late 1960s.
There is no proper soundtrack: instead of an original score, the filmmakers rely primarily on 2 classical pieces of music that are perfectly matched to the visuals – Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and The Blue Danube Waltz. The latter is an ideal choice because it, like the space station docking sequence it orchestrates, is purposely slow, majestic, and rhythmic. The former is an ideal choice because it conveys a sense of cold, austere wonder, shock, awe, discovery, and spiritual grandeur.
The film’s pacing, in general, is deliberately glacial, which many critics and film scholars credit making the picture more impactful. “When very little is happening overtly, even the slightest motions or actions assume much greater significance. The slowness of 2001 trains the viewer to watch hypervigilantly, in effect (creating) a new attention span for the viewer for the duration of the film,” wrote online writer B. Krusch.
There is not much of a plot, character development or, for that matter, main characters (Dave is introduced halfway into the film).
This also remains, especially in its fourth and final act, one of the most abstract, ambiguous and thought-provoking if not downright puzzling films ever made – forcing us to ask deep existential questions and ponder many mysteries. The film can be endlessly debated about what it means and how it should be deciphered.
Despite the fact that the events and technologies depicted did not occur by the year 2001, the movie remains powerfully relevant and timely in the deep questions it asks about man and his place in the universe and the technology he creates. A few of the gadgets and technologies, while trivial, look dated now, but the way space travel and life for astronauts is depicted hasn’t changed much.
Interestingly, this is a film that doesn’t try to emotionally manipulate you or telegraph suggested emotions; it’s possible to feel pessimistic or optimistic, happy or sad, excited or disgusted during and following the movie. Many express feeling an overwhelming sense of awe and astonishment after viewing the picture and often can’t explain why they feel what they feel. This plays into Kubrick’s ambition, which was to sidestep “intellectual verbalization” and tap into “the viewer’s subconscious.” “Movies present the opportunity to convey complex concepts and abstractions without the traditional reliance on words. I think that 2001, like music, succeeds in short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness to narrowly limited areas of experience and is able to cut directly through two areas of emotional comprehension," Kubrick said.
“2001” is also amazingly edited; it can boast of the most audacious jump cut ever used in cinema – the edit point between the bone thrown into the air followed by the unexpected shot of a ship moving through space.

WHAT THEMES ARE EXAMINED IN 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
The evolution of man: we see primitive apes that evolve into men, and futuristic human beings who have created technology to take them to the stars, and finally the birth of a starchild cosmic being following the death of the astronaut.
Man’s reliance on tools and the dangers this creates: consider that primitive man’s discovery of the bone as a tool leads to him using it to kill; later, we see the astronaut “killing” his own creation, HAL, with a simple screwdriver. At Kubrick2001.com, an interesting theory is proposed: Civilized man has lost control of his tools in space. He must learn to walk again, eat baby food, and be toilet trained. On earth, he’s a master, but he’s just a child in space. By the film’s third of four acts, it’s suggested that man has outlived his tools, and now his tools are seeking to overtake him (HAL). By destroying HAL, man ends his evolutionary alliance with the tool, but is now alone in space and helpless, reliance on the same supernatural/alien force that inspired and guided him (as embodied in the monolith) in his primitive ape form.
Divine intervention: the original story upon which this film is loosely based, written by Arthur C. Clarke, is called “The Sentinel.” The monoliths that appear have been deliberately placed there by an alien intelligence who presumably are trying to inspire life on earth to take the next step in evolution. Another monolith is placed on the moon and sends out a signal to a third monolith near Jupiter that is meant to point to a path man needs to take to evolve even further. There’s a suggestion here that man needs an extra push to progress to the next level of evolution.
Man’s place in the universe: who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going are all questions that the filmmakers attempt to ask.
The flawed nature of man: we keep making mistakes and/or using our intelligence for destructive purposes; consider that the bone is used to beat other ape-men to death, the supercomputer HAL we created has a programming flaw and an ability to overtake us; the astronauts on the moon touch the monolith in the same way that the ape-men touched the monolith, suggesting that we really haven’t evolved or learned much; man may have mastered his ability to live on planet Earth, but in space he has to learn how to walk, eat and go to the bathroom all over again like an infant.
Evolution versus de-evolution: Yes, we see man evolve from primitive animals to sophisticated, intelligent Homo Sapiens, but it’s ironic that HAL is shown as being the most human and emotive of all the characters in the film, in contrast to the two astronauts who appear bland and emotionless. The insinuation here is that man has become dehumanized by the technology he has created, and is in danger of being replaced by that artificial intelligence. Consequently, for man to further evolve, he has to have better command over his tools or, even better, progress beyond his tools by expanding his consciousness and intelligence.
The final evolution is transcendence over mortality: arguably, the film ends on a positive and optimistic note by showing that man, despite continuing to make mistakes (breaking the wine glass) and succumbing to decay and death, can be reborn into a greater, more advanced form. The pessimism here, however, is that man needs outside influence and extraterrestrial or divine help to get there; we are too imperfect, hostile, and over-reliant on our technologies and creations to get there ourselves.

WHAT FILMS WOULD’VE BEEN INFLUENCED BY 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?
The Andromeda Strain
THX 1138
Solaris
Zardoz
Star Wars
Contact
Enter the Void
Interstellar

OTHER MOVIES DIRECTED BY STANLEY KUBRICK
The Killing
Paths of Glory
Spartacus
Lolita
Dr. Strangelove
A Clockwork Orange
The Shining
Full Metal Jacket
Eyes Wide Shot

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