Last night at the Kennedy Center concert hall, Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese delivered the 2013 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture. He spoke of the importance of preserving film and lamented the studios' fixation with box office grosses. The end of celluloid saddened him, but he reminded us that there were exciting new developments in film technology we shouldn't overlook. But mostly Scorsese focused on protecting the old movies—90 percent of silent films are now gone. It's an important subject, don't get me wrong, but couldn't he have talked about Goodfellas or Casino a little bit? I mean, c'mon!
It was quite a curious crowd in attendance. There were congressmen like Henry Waxman and Jim Moran. Kennedy Center-types (very old people) whom I heard asking, "Have you seen many of his pictures?" and making astute observations like, "This guy is one of the Hollywood heavyweights." And then there were the film hipsters who were here to glimpse their idol—guys and girls who have actually seen Boxcar Bertha and New York, New York. I haven't, but I've seen a majority of the Scorsese oeuvre. Plus I've watched Goodfellas at least 100 times. So it was with great disappointment that I sat through the Q&A with the director and critic Kent Jones, who failed to ask that most vital question: When Jimmy told Karen to go down the block and pick up some Dior dresses, was he planning on having her wacked, or was she simply paranoid?
In all seriousness, the lecture was enthralling. Scorsese has a passion for film that began when he first saw The Magic Box (1951). And his breadth of knowledge is staggering. For those of us who did not take film class in college, it was a treat to learn about the origin of movies, from the time of Edison and on through Lumière, Méliès, and Friese-Greene. Concepts like the cut, and inference, we now take for granted. On a screen behind the director we watched clips of D.W Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley, essentially the first gangster movie, and newly restored classics like The Red Shoes and Vertigo. (The problem with older films was the material—nitrocellulose, which could start a fire. And many of these old movies ended up being melted and turned into guitar picks and heels for shoes.)
Scorsese pointed out that oftentimes what we consider a classic today was not always so—Moby Dick wasn't a classic until the 1920s, he said. And the critics hated 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out. (I still hate it.) But the reasons, he told Kent Jones, were quite funny: The opening of 2001 looked similar to the opening of Ice Station Zebra, which had just come out. The 45 minutes of apes reminded critics of the recently released Planet of the Apes. More Apes? Citizen Kane hadn't been widely praised until much later, and now some consider Vertigo to be even better. (I don't, but perhaps the next generation will finally realize the greatest film of all time is The Godfather: Part 2.)
And yes, the current Hollywood scene depresses Scorsese because of the all-consuming box office. That's what studios want. Twenty years ago, he was told that the movie he directed was on its way to grossing $60 million but the studio wanted $160 million. He wouldn't say which movie, but I'll guess Cape Fear, which finished around $80 million, domestic. That, he said, is when he knew "it was lost," although he mentioned a few recent exceptions, including Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and The Master.
Finally, he spoke about how kids today don't make films the way he and his generation did. Because of technology, they see things differently. They edit differently. And yet: One of the oldest clips Scorsese showed us was a flickering image from 1894 produced by Thomas Edison using a kinetograph. It starred two cats boxing. "I guess this is what they were doing in Jersey at the time," he joked. But go to YouTube and type in "cats" or go to lolcats.com. Yes, the technology is radically different. Us? Maybe not so much.
In testimony on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought up the movie Argo last month to help explain the terror attack against Americans in Benghazi, Libya. And now, with the Oscars tonight, the new secretary of state, John Kerry, is again plugging the film.
Actor Jackie Chan has committed to visiting the rogue Iranian regime, according to a report from the Iranian outlet ISNA. The story is headlined, "Jackie Chan: I will definitely come to Iran."
"International action superstar, Jackie Chan said he would definitely visit Iran," the report reads. "In his short interview with Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reporter in Malaysia, Jackie Chan said he had tried so many times to come to Iran in past years."
In response to a report that classified information had been leaked to the makers of the Hollywood movie Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, says he's concerned.
In brief remarks about the movie theater shooting, President Obama led the audience in prayer and a moment of silence.
"I would like us to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy, for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day. so if everybody can just take a moment," said President Obama, and then solemnly put his down.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters this morning on Air Force One that, in regards to the Colorado movie theater shooting last night, "We do not believe at this point there was an apparent nexis to terrorism."
Every year, there is a movie that becomes an unexpected hit because it finds an audience among people the Hollywood studios resolutely ignore: the over-50 crowd. Last year, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris struck a chord loud enough among those who still dream of arrondisement-hopping with Gertrude Stein to earn $149 million worldwide. In 2010, regular guys with AARP cards got to compare notes on retirement with CIA assassins Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren in Red ($199 million).
A mysterious mailer appeared in our mail boxes this week. It reads, "President Robert Mugabe and the Ministry of Education, Sport, Art and Culture invite you to the Premiere of The Dictator." The event's location? The "Presidential Residence" in Harare, Zimbabwe:
There may be an overtly political reason that moviegoers will be seeing the story of the Osama bin Laden raid just before they vote for president. Sony Pictures, the company distributing next year's film, hosted a fundraiser for Barack Obama on their studio's premises in California last April. So far, Sony is the only major studio to hold a political fundraiser this cycle. According to Deadline Hollywood, Sony will release the bin Laden movie, directed by Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, on October 12, 2012--less than a month before the presidential election.