Archive for February, 2012

Iconic image of Robert Redford in “The Candidate”

Here is an excellent discussion between Bill Moyers and Neal Gabler (with fine choices of clips from the undervalued classic The Candidate along with George Clooney’s The Ides of March).  Gabler and Moyers discuss many issues that will be featured themes of this blog and work especially well with issues raised in Chapters 5 and 6 of Moving Images: the influence of movies on politics; news literacy; advertising culture and democracy; the struggle between depth and superficiality in moving images, media narratives, acting, creative expression, and independent thought.  This interview is exceptionally informative, thought provoking, and useful for debate and further inquiry; it is simply a treasure trove for studies of media literacy and contemporary culture — political and otherwise.  Highly recommended!

I will be back soon with discussion of the Oscars and useful links regarding the movies that got the nods from the Academy voters.   And here’s another interesting link: Neal Gabler’s choices for Ten Great Political Films.

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On this standard Toth Black Canary comic page one can see a distinctively cinematic story board

Alex Toth was certainly one of the most compelling and dedicated visual storytellers working in comics and television animation during the second half of the 20th century.  His stylistic and narrative prowess was formidable, and a study of his artistic development during the 1950’s and 1960’s provides some of the most inspiring and informative lessons that anyone working in visual communications can hope to encounter.  Genius, Isolated, the first volume of a comprehensive biographical trilogy on Toth by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell, came out last year, and the next book – Genius, Illustratedis due out in a few months.

Space Ghost by Alex Toth

Having worked in a wide variety of comic genres in the 1950’s, during the 60’s Toth shifted to working mostly in the medium of television animation, and he created some of the most strongly designed cartoons ever to hit the airwaves, including Space Ghost, Birdman, The Galaxy Trio, and The Herculoids, and he contributed to Doug Wildey’s influential Jonny Quest.  Throughout his life, Toth loved movies, and he consistently talked about the impact of cinematic storytelling on his work and approach to layouts, pacing, and character design.

Toth model sheet for animated Three Musketeers

A few years ago, Hanna-Barbera released some of the Toth cartoon series on DVD, and a highlight of those discs was the inclusion of some excellent documentaries on Toth’s life and complicated personality, artistic impact, and working methods.  One moment that stuck out for me among those biographical pieces was a reference to a series of “How-To” comics that Toth produced during the 70’s when he was working on the popular Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon.  I was overjoyed recently to see on the Toth website, run by his family, that they had posted these pages among their archives.  They are stunning and engrossing to anyone interested in animation history, professional draftsmanship, and television production traditions and techniques.  I certainly hope they are going to appear among the pages of the second and third installments of the “Genius” books chronicling the dramatic life and vibrant artistry of Alex Toth.

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Music & Image in "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius

This year, Oscar talk is abuzz with the notion that a silent film – The Artist – could win the best picture award, which would mark the first time for a non-dialogue motion picture to win the award since 1927, when Wings, directed by William Wellman, won Best Picture (and Frank Borzage won for Best Dramatic Director).  Here is an interview with The Artist‘s director Michel Hazanavicius.  Not only that, but Martin Scorsese’s movie Hugo, a heartfelt homage to the work of silent film pioneer Georges Méliès, is one of The Artist‘s strongest competitors.  (I will return to Hugo in an upcoming blog; Scorsese’s movie is rich with personal significance for me and ties in magnificently with the themes of Moving Images.)  

One of the most interesting and surprising observations I have made during the years I have been teaching media literacy and production is the consistency with which students have been drawn to or challenged by certain assignments.  Year after year, without exception, the most eager response I have had from students is to the central project of Chapter 2 (Inventions and Origins) – a non-dialogue movie.  Yes, a silent film!  And the one that students typically struggle with the most, virtually without fail, is the project for Chapter 6 – a documentary (more on that in an upcoming entry).  This year was no exception, and a number of the finest projects from the class during this semester were made for the Inventions and Origins unit.

Expressing complex narrative and emotions through visuals in "Wall-E"

I think there are a number of reasons for this attraction.  One is the challenge.  Actually, as part of the assignment, students are allowed to have a small number of dialogue lines.  I had decided to do this because I did not want to force the students to mime lines or to corner them into stilted performances.  However, they virtually never put in any lines – they nearly always make it a completely silent movie!  They want to focus on the strength of the visuals to tell the story – along with music and sound effects, which they explore to varying success (usually linked to the amount of preparation and effort that went into their choices and work, of course).  I also think that stories of invention are inspiring for creators working in any medium, and this is one of the primary reasons for the existence of this unit and for its impact.  One can see evidence of it in the reactions to this year’s Oscars, and it was seen a few years ago with a movie that won an Oscar and appears on the list of movies one can study with Chapter 2: Wall-E.  The opening act of Wall-E is one of the most lyrical and brilliant examples of cinematic storytelling one could hope to find.  By the way, The Artist and Hugo will also be appearing on the list of movies that can be studied with Chapter 2 – the news is official right here!

Just as I was writing the last sentence, I got an e-mail telling me that my order for the DVD/CD combo of Le Voyage dans la Lune had shipped.  Pretty funny timing!  This is a new soundtrack by the French group Air for Georges Méliès’s seminal short science-fiction movie based on Jules Verne’s Trip to the Moon, and featured in Figure 2-17 of Moving Images.   A hand colored version of this silent classic was found in 1993, then painstakingly restored, and finally premiered at the 2011 Cannes festival with the score by Air.

There will be other posts on silent film to come this month: a discussion of the work of pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, notes on Hugo, and more.

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