Wednesday, June 14, 2023

A Micro-Genre: The "As Himself" Film


Oh, would some Power give us the gift

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,

And foolish notion:

What airs in dress and gait would leave us,

And even devotion!

"To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church

 -- Robert Burns, 1786 

Over the past century, we've become used to many tropes of filmmaking. One of the most pervasive, if easily overlooked casting habits, is getting celebrities to portray themselves on screen. 

There are three types of "As Himself" films: having a person recreate an event on film that originally made them famous; surprising the audience with a brief cameo; and creating a caricature of the celebrity's public persona. 

The first type is easy enough to recognize: Babe Ruth saying farewell to Lou Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees; Audie Murphy acting out his WWII exploits in To Hell and Back -- these are obvious roles. There are also odd crossover roles, where a celebrity acts as a narrator to explain a plot point. A great example of this is Margot Robbie in The Big Short, where she gives a quick lesson in subprime mortgages to the audience while taking a bubble bath. 

The second category, the celebrity cameo, is probably the most frequently seen "As Himself" outing in films. The cameo is a pop-up surprise for viewers, not expecting a real person playing themselves in a film (typically a comedy). The examples are numerous: Merv Griffin in The Man with Two Brains; Donald Trump in Home Alone 2; Marcel Marceau in Silent Movie; Keanu Reeves in Always be My Maybe; Stan Lee in Mallrats; Elton John in The Spice Girls Movie; Tom Jones in Mars Attacks!; Ed Sheeran in Yesterday - - all these films give the audience pause to say, "wait a minute - what are THEY doing in this movie?"

The third version is the meatiest use of a celebrity appearance in a film: the caricature role. Entire plotlines are structured around a fictional biography of a real person: John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich; Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent; Bruce Campbell in My Name is Bruce!; and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero.

My favorite caricature movie featuring an actor playing himself is W.C. Fields in Universal Pictures' 1941 feature, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Written by Fields himself (using the pen name Otis Criblecoblis), the story imagines a surreal series of events in the actor's efforts to write and star in a motion picture. 

Fields builds not-too-subtle barbs at Universal Pictures into the screenplay, making fun of a fictional producer, Franklin Pangborn. Pangborn can't stand the script Fields is pitching, which is acted out on-screen as Pangborn complains about the plot holes and ridiculous nature of the story. 

I really don't want to give away too many scenes in this film, as it's best experienced rather than described. Let's just say there are some silent-era car chases and mayhem typical of Fields' sense of humor. The banter between Fields and the curmudgeonly characters he interacts with throughout the film provides most of the comedy. It's a beautiful, rough-and-tumble slapstick script, and arguably one of Fields' most representative films of his comedic genius. 

Do you have a favorite "As Himself" film? Let me know in the comments. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Restorations vs Extrapolations

 The Library of Congress version of "Rendezvous in Space" has been digitized, and it's raised almost as many questions as it's answered. 

The print was in great shape, generally. I think that it was a silent version kept it from being screened frequently by LoC employees, so the print is relatively unscathed. There are some color fades and several vertical scrapes that can be repaired, but nothing too severe. 

Certainly, the biggest problem with the print is that it has quite a few differences from the original film, and it's missing key sections I had hoped to replace in the production print. The discussion between Danny Thomas and Sid Melton, talking about space stewardesses, isn't present in the LoC copy. 

There's even a complete replacement of the title card from one film to the other. 

Based on the fragmentary scenes in the LoC copy, I think this print was deposited to fulfill minimum copyright requirements, instead of being a posterity record. 

Unless I can find another print, I'm going to have to source from the three existing versions: the David Hammar 1998 VHS copy, the 35mm production print, and the Library of Congress fragments. I think the renovation schedule has just pushed off to the right - - the extreme right. 

I'm also going to have to make decisions about what constitutes a "restoration." I think my baseline is going to be the audio track from the VHS, and then choosing the best frames (even if that means the VHS video) for each element of the movie. 

One sad note is that I have scenes in the LoC copy that have no audio, and no place in the original film. I'm going to trust that they never appeared in the show reel, and omit them from the film. Maybe I'll air them during the credits? More things to ponder as this project progresses. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Reach for the Stars

 A decade ago, I tracked down many scattered threads of ephemera about the final film of Frank Capra, “Rendezvous in Space,” an industrial short commissioned by Martin‐Marietta Corporation in support of their Titan III missile and X‐24 lifting body sales. Shown at the New York World’s Fair of 1964‐1965 to an estimated audience of seven million visitors, there are only two known remaining prints of the film. One of the prints is at the Library of Congress. The other print, the one shown at the World's Fair and at the NY Hall of Science until 1971 is in my possession, courtesy of the kindness of my late friend David Hammar. 

For years, I worked on understanding whose copyright applied to this film: it was made by Frank Capra, but he was under contract to Martin-Marietta. Martin-Marietta donated the film to the NY Hall of Science, but didn't transfer the copyright to that organization. The NY Hall of Science disposed of the print in a dumpster in 1972, but it was rescued by a trash picker and went through several changes of hands until it wound up with David. 

On YouTube, there's a rough VHS copy of this print, made in extremely low resolution. It's difficult to make out what images are on screen at any given moment. As it stands, nobody's seen a clear version of this film in about a half-century. 

After getting clearance from Lockheed-Martin, I've begun work on restoring as much of this film as I can. The script is cheesy in a Capra-corn sense of the term, but the visuals are striking. Among the artists hired for the animated parts of the film is the cartooning pioneer T. Hee, who was responsible for the Dance of the Hours segment in Disney's Fantasia. There are Titan III missiles taking off, Chinese magicians discovering rocketry, astronauts microwaving steaks in zero gravity, and space stations floating in Earth orbit. 

My goal is to take the best frames from both of the remaining prints, marry them to a synchronized soundtrack, and rebuild the film as it was originally seen. It's going to be a long process - - I'm estimating 18 months for the project - - but I think this film deserves a proper restoration. 

More to come as the rebuild progresses. Watch this space for updates!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016: A View from the Past

I was listening to a lecture on YouTube by a fellow named Tony Seba, who talks about major disruptions in society, and what happens to the market of what the disruptions displace.

He showed a picture of Easter Sunday, 1900 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. There are dozens, even hundreds of horse-drawn carriages parading up and down the street -- and in the middle of all these equine-powered vehicles, there's a solitary gasoline fueled automobile.

NYC-Easter Sunday 1900

Fast-forward a dozen or so years. Same street, another Easter Sunday, but now it's 1913. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of gasoline-powered automobiles fill the street. There is exactly one horse in this photo.

NYC - Easter Sunday 1913

It's likely that none of the people in the 1900 picture would guess what the ratio of horses to cars would be in the following decade, but I think it would be safe to assume they'd never think horses would become rarities.

Yes, there are still horses more than a century later in Manhattan, but they're remanded to pulling a few tourist carts through Central Park. They're novelties, not relied-upon forms of transportation.

Here in the 21st Century, we're at another disruption point: the end of the internal combustion engine. From the vantage point of when the essay you're reading was written (late fall of 2016), mostly it seems impossible. Right now there are 253 million cars on the road in the United States. Less than a half million are electric vehicles, and most of them cost in excess of $60,000.

All that's about to change in 2017  with the arrival of two major fleets: the Chevy Bolt, and the Tesla Model 3. Within the first year of production, nearly one million new electric vehicles are expected to wind up in the garages of the non-rich and non-famous. This surge of new cars not powered by gasoline is the first wave of what will be a fundamental overthrow of the reign of internal combustion.

If you've not experienced driving an electric vehicle, this disruption may seem impossible. There's an entire culture of internal combustion, firmly established in gas stations, Jiffy Lubes, service centers, and transmission shops. All these businesses will soon be as outmoded as typewriter repair stores and Blockbuster video rental centers. The change will be so elemental that it's difficult to picture what the new landscape of transportation will look like.

Imagine never needing to visit a gas station again. The "gas station" is now your own home, where you'll plug your car in at night pretty much the same way you plug in your smartphone to its charger. There will be no more oil changes, spark plug tune-ups, broken alternators, radiator flushes, muffler shops, replacement fuel pumps, blown head gaskets, or worries about what kind of octane gas to use. You won't have to pay for emissions testing because your car won't emit anything. Every morning, your car will have a "full tank" thanks to an overnight charge.

Moore's Law, the computer marketing concept that the density of memory storage increases while the price of memory decreases will have a codicil in battery power. We are currently capable of a 100 kWh battery, but that density will increase to 130 kWh within a year's time. As battery density increases, batteries to cover the same distance will decrease in size, allowing for weight savings in a car and further increasing range. The idea of having a 400-mile single charge car battery by 2020 isn't a fantasy - - it's a conservative estimate of the future.

This may sound unlikely, but I believe electric vehicles will comprise more than 90% of the country's active vehicle fleet by 2023. As adoption of electric cars becomes a standard, the pace of replacement will become as rapid as the replacement of CRTs with flat screen TVs was just a decade ago. Over 98% of electric production is produced from domestic sources, and the demand for gasoline will fade as suddenly as the demand for cassette tapes did 20 years ago. We will look back on 2016 as the end of a strange era, when people carted tanks of flammable fluid around in their vehicles just to propel themselves on the highways. Babies born this year will look at pictures from 2016 and think how strange the whole concept of running gas engines on wheels directly in front of the passenger compartment was. Since I've test driven an electric car, I can grasp that idea clearly - - it's like seeing pictures of steam engines chuffing into train stations half a century ago.

My advice? Don't buy a new car with an internal combustion engine. You'll regret it within the next 1000 days. I'm serious. Gasoline engines are going the way of DOS, floppy disks, ditto machines, and slide rules.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Cardboard World

Sorry for the pause of more than a dozen months. Overtaken by events, and all that.

I got back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week. It's an annual ComicCon of whiz-bang equipment being hawked to the credulous masses every January. Thanks to a good friend, I became a temporary "Exhibitor" and wandered the merchandise tables for several days.

UHDTV seems to have reached the tipping point for home purchases. With 50" screens selling for under $500, I think this is the year they'll start appearing on people's living room walls. In about three years, this little essay will seem quaintly naive, but 4K television is quite an amazing advance for the movie-watching public. Sony has a 4K projector about the size of an old cassette tape that can beam an eight-foot-wide screen onto a wall. I think hardware TVs may be replaced by these little doodads, as it's much easier to ship and hang a fist-sized box on the ceiling than it is to mount a picture window-sized monitor on the wall.

My favorite two bits of hardware from the show, though, were involved with building Virtual Reality (VR) spaces.
Ricoh Theta S
One item was the Ricoh Theta, a slim plastic stick about as tall as an iPhone with two fisheye lens at opposing sides of the stick. The device records 360° still and video images and broadcasts same to nearby Bluetooth devices. The clarity is astounding. The accompanying software allows for editing and timelapse photography. Its ability to capture an entire sphere of any location in high-definition makes the Theta a game changer for tourist imagery. As it's a mere $346 list price, I think it's going to be a big seller in the coming year.

Way down the price pyramid, but just as much the game changer is the Google Cardboard viewer. Vendors were handing out version of the viewer for free as tschotskes, and the supported base of media available for the device is expanding exponentially by the day.

Briefly, Google Cardboard is a View-Master like device to see 3D images through a stereoscopic pair of lenses. The reason it's called "Cardboard" is that the viewer is typically a carefully folded cardboard box, with appropriate slots and pieces of Velcro used to hold the thing together. By dropping an iPhone or Android into one side of the box, the viewer can be used as a simple VR device. Google has quite a few example programs on their site, and many YouTube videos support the Google Cardboard VR standard.
Google Cardboard

The Cardboard viewer is ingenious and amazing - - I put one together in about three minutes, slipped my iPhone into the far end of the box, and had the device calibrated and ready to go in less than another minute. The iPhone's accelerometer passed axis changes on to the software, and the video screen updated my views immediately.

In one example tour, I walked by the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice. I hovered over a baby gorilla in a jungle, and even stood atop the Spirit rover on the surface of Mars.

The technology isn't quite ready for prime time but it's easy to see how ubiquitous this device and others of its kind will become. I want to learn more about VR technology, so I've ordered a Ricoh Theta to explore the matter in more detail. Expect many experiment posts shortly.


Ricoh Theta S

Google Cardboard

CES 2016

Friday, January 24, 2014

Clip Show

Most people know John Williams as the film composer - - the fellow who wrote the Star Wars theme and the Jurassic Park and the Harry Potter soundtracks.

Not too long before he wrote his Jaws soundtrack, Mr. Williams went by the professional name of "Johnny Williams," writer of TV themes. He worked on end credits music for shows like Alcoa Theater and the Bob Hope specials. Much of his work was incidental music, and went uncredited in quite a few series.

One of his most frequent gigs was to write for action/adventure shows produced by Irwin Allen. Although he didn't write the theme to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he penned many title tracks for Allen, in shows such as The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Land of the Giants.

Irwin Allen constantly tinkered with shows to maintain his ratings and dazzle his audiences (albeit with a limited budget). An unusual technique that Allen relied on to pep things up was to have Johnny Williams completely rewrite the theme music after a few seasons. One of the most obvious examples is Lost in Space, where Williams had originally crafted an eerie, ominous and echoing theme for the initial two seasons, filled with trumpets, cellos, and piccolos :

By the third season Irwin Allen figured he wanted to stress the action and adventure angle and downplay the alien-ness of outer space. So, he had Johnny dump the old theme and create a more driven,  French horn-stuffed roller coaster of a theme. The new opener threw audiences into the middle of a fast countdown every week, paced by ticking rimshots and  hyped-up trombone arpeggios. It was definitely a new look-and-feel for the established series.

Something I didn't realize until recently was that Allen used a similar approach with his 1968-70 series, Land of the Giants. In the show's initial outing, Williams built the theme to underline the ponderous size of the titled Giants on their home world, and the threat they posed to the puny Earth men who had crashed their ship on the Giants' planet.

By the second year of the show, the ratings were dropping, so Allen brought Johnny Williams back to the composing studio to crank out a peppier theme. The new opening would be at a much faster pace, with clashing French horns and bass guitars and syncopated glockenspiels.

The trick worked, and Giants continued for another two years. It's not easy to say that Johnny's new theme "saved" the show, but it certainly didn't hurt the ratings.

Looking back more than four decades at all the work Irwin Allen piled on John(ny) Williams's plate, it's amazing to think about how prolific Williams was beyond his epic movie soundtracks. I can't imagine any current TV theme writers jotting down so many disparate themes and variations for the same shows in the same time frame. Okay, maybe Michael Giacchino - - but is he still doing TV shows after LOST?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And at Last I See the Light

I promised myself that in 2014 I'd write a lot more about less "significant" things and focus more on simple things that flabbergast me. Of course, the flabbergasting began immediately.

Disney movies are eminently rewatchable. The songs, the characters, the settings, and the plot lines are usually compelling, and the animators typically hide details that are often overlooked, even after repeated viewings.

I was watching Disney's Tangled -- the Rapunzel story, last week, and spotted something I've never noticed before this thirty-eighth playback of the film. In the story, baby Princess Rapunzel is kidnapped from her castle by an evil sorceress. The sorceress hides Rapunzel in a tower for eighteen years. Over the ensuing years, Rapunzel's mother and father (the king and queen) hold a memorial service for Rapunzel by lighting floating lanterns in honor of their lost daughter. At age 18, Rapunzel escapes from the sorceress's tower and attends one of these ceremonies by sitting in a boat, watching the subjects of the kingdom launch the floating lanterns into the night sky on her birthday.

The memorial service begins with the King and Queen lifting a single decorated lantern up from the rooftop of their castle.

The townspeople follow by launching thousands of their own, undecorated lamps. Soon, the sky is full of the bobbing lanterns. 

Rapunzel sings her song about "seeing the light." While she's singing, her parents' decorated lantern swoops down to the surface of the bay. Rapunzel reaches out and lofts it back up into the sky.

Only the audience (if they're clever enough to spot it) knows Rapunzel touched the very same lantern her parents lit that night.

I swear I've watched this movie several dozen times and never noticed that tidbit until last week. Hopefully I'm not the only clueless member of the audience.