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August 2008
Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British B Film Online
by Steve Chibnall
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1927, the British film industry was in crisis, thanks to Hollywood’s domination of U.K. theaters. In an effort to reverse the trend and protect and promote British economic interests, the government passed the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, a law requiring that a certain percentage of movies be produced in England with British personnel.
The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide Online
by Anthony Q. Artis
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

As one might guess from the emphatic title of his book, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide author Anthony Q. Artis is more than just a filmmaker, teacher and writer — he’s a sort of DV evangelist, a man on a mission to educate everyone about the benefits of digital production and postproduction.
X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker Online
by Alex Cox
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

At a time when many young filmmakers view Sundance and independent production as a means to an end (the end being, ideally, a big-budget studio franchise), director Alex Cox is somewhat of an anomaly. A politically committed rebel whose debut feature, Repo Man, was financed and distributed by a major studio, and whose most recent work, Searchers 2.0, is a digital guerrilla production, Cox has taken the opposite trajectory of the inheritors of his indie tradition. 

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Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British B Film
by Steve Chibnall
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

In 1927, the British film industry was in crisis, thanks to Hollywood’s domination of U.K. theaters. In an effort to reverse the trend and protect and promote British economic interests, the government passed the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, a law requiring that a certain percentage of movies be produced in England with British personnel. The result was the “quota quickie,” a low-budget feature, generally designed to fill out the bottom half of a double bill, that was often financed by an American studio but made by English filmmakers. This served to easily fulfill the new government regulation without hurting the A-list Hollywood product. Hundreds of these movies were made between 1928 and 1939, though they were dismissed by serious commentators (as well as by many of the men who made them) as inferior product that forever tarnished the reputation of British cinema.

This point of view has been largely accepted and repeated by subsequent generations of film buffs, in spite of the fact that any correlation between low budgets and low quality is hardly borne out by fact. It seems odd, for example, that quota quickies have been so roundly ignored when shelves are filled with celebratory books on American Poverty Row studios such as Monogram and Republic — places where artists no less distinguished than Orson Welles and Phil Karlson practiced their craft. Given that Americans on Poverty Row (not to mention Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and others at Roger Corman’s company in the 1970s) were able to achieve personal expression within limited budgets, doesn’t it stand to reason that at least some enterprising British filmmakers were able to do the same within the infrastructure provided by quota quickies?

The answer, based on Steve Chibnall’s ‘Quota Quickies’: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film, is a resounding yes. While Chibnall is more than willing to point out the flaws in the more slipshod quota quickies, he’s also intent on challenging the conventional wisdom that they were universally mediocre. Combining detailed production and cultural history with astute critical inquiry, his book (the first in a planned two-volume study) is a treasure trove of new information and commentary on a vital filmmaking movement that launched the careers of David Lean, Laurence Olivier and James Mason, among others.
Chibnall begins by describing the social and political conditions that spawned the quota act, conditions as much cultural (British politicians feared the corrupting influence of Hollywood movies, particularly on young women) as economic. He then goes on to provide a narrative of the independent production companies that sprang up to produce and sell quota quickies to distributors — most of whom were Hollywood studios who saw a way to generate additional revenue by pairing quota quickies with their own productions.

Chibnall strikes a perfect balance between scholarly and anecdotal writing in this section, peppering a detailed and well-documented historical timeline with humor and wry commentary on the movies and their creators. In addition to explanations of the quota quickie system and biographies of its most important practitioners, Chibnall supplies descriptions of the films themselves, and these capsule summaries are extremely helpful given the relative obscurity of most of the titles.

Chibnall supplements his plot synopses and critical analyses with quotes from the filmmakers themselves, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny as the directors share some of the cost-cutting measures they were forced to implement. For example, Ronald Neame, who would eventually graduate from quota quickies to big-budget Hollywood spectacles, describes a situation in which his rationale for moving a prop 15 feet one way was to limit the use of film so the actor could walk to it quicker. The British B-film’s budget was not determined by the content of the screenplay, but by the minimum expenditure required by law; as director Michael Powell — perhaps the most accomplished of the quota quickies alumni and the subject of an entire chapter in this book — once explained, his films cost one pound per feet of film, regardless of the subject matter.

Such conditions obviously led to a lot of mediocre product (and Chibnall includes many examples of the harsh contemporary criticism that thrashed the quota quickies without mercy), but they also provided a training ground for such future legends as Errol Flynn and Vivien Leigh, and many first-rate writers (such as frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett) worked on quota quickies in between more prestigious gigs. The quota act also generated several films that were noteworthy in their own right, and Chibnall’s book does a wonderful excavation job by sifting through hundreds of movies to find the ones with artistic or cultural merit.

In Chibnall’s eyes, one of the limitations of the quota quickies — the limited production and costume design dictated by the budgets — became a strength in many of the pictures, forcing the filmmakers to rely more on social reality than constructed artifice. The upshot was that in the hands of thoughtful filmmakers such as director John Baxter and screenwriter Herbert Ayres, the British B-film became a vehicle by which to explore the ordinary lives of the country’s working class. Baxter, Ayres, Powell and others addressed social issues such as class, race and sex by smuggling their ideas into quota formulas and then transcending them, a feat especially impressive given the sanitizing censorship of the period.

‘Quota Quickies’: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film gives these filmmakers and others their due, while countering many of the misconceptions surrounding the era. Meticulous in his research, Chibnall packs his book with documentation that dispels many commonly held beliefs, such as the myth that distributors only showed the quickies early in the morning (something that was mostly done in London, not in England as a whole), or that none of them were ever distributed beyond British shores. Most importantly, Chibnall puts to rest the perception that quota quickies were an insignificant part of British film history; to the contrary, he argues that on every level — economic, cultural, aesthetic — these films were vital, transformative and deserving of more serious consideration than they have been given. By the end of Chibnall’s rigorous and entertaining study, it’s difficult to imagine that any reader would disagree with him.

British Film Institute
$102 hardcover, $28.95 paperback

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The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide
by Anthony Q. Artis
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

As one might guess from the emphatic title of his book, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide author Anthony Q. Artis is more than just a filmmaker, teacher and writer — he’s a sort of DV evangelist, a man on a mission to educate everyone about the benefits of digital production and postproduction. A producer, cinematographer and former gaffer who now manages the Film and TV Production Center at NYU, Artis has logged countless hours on independent film sets and witnessed firsthand the common mistakes made by beginning documentarians and students (mistakes that, he amusingly reminds the reader several times, he has made himself). With his entertaining new book, Artis puts his years of experience at the service of readers eager to utilize (relatively) inexpensive and accessible DV and hi-def technology, and the results are both informative and inspiring.

The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide is elegant and simple in its layout, as Artis takes the reader through preproduction, shooting and post with a series of brief, colorfully illustrated chapters. The author’s sense of humor permeates many of the passages, making ordinarily dry topics unusually compelling. Artis’ time working with film students has given him a well-honed knack for combining fundamental information on lenses, lighting and cutting with personal anecdotes that exemplify theory put into practice, and his self-effacing method of narration serves two purposes: It makes the book infinitely more readable than most similar volumes; and it puts documentary filmmaking within the reader’s grasp as Artis demystifies the process. His chapters are organized into concise, clearly labeled sections that make it easy for the reader to find information on particular topics, and he’s as attentive to the subjective, intangible aspects of filmmaking (such as working with crews and interview subjects) as he is to the objective, technical ones.

Throughout the book, Artis provides supplemental essays by and interviews with a wide range of filmmakers. Veterans such as Albert Maysles and Sam Pollard offer thoughtful advice and commentary, while younger producers and directors such as Susan Buice and Arin Crumley give up-to-the-minute perspectives on practical issues relating to festivals and Internet promotion. As one might expect, the strength of the book is its abundance of guerilla filmmaking tips — Artis and his contributors have a lot of experience coming up with low-cost solutions to production problems, and readers have the invaluable opportunity to learn from their ingenuity.

The key to Artis’ style is his instant accessibility. He strives to give daunting, complicated technical and aesthetic concepts total and immediate clarity, and for the most part he succeeds. He also casts a wide net, eschewing specialized jargon and minutiae in favor of material that will be useful to readers working on a broad range of projects.

The downside of this approach is that it occasionally leaves out details that would be helpful to beginning filmmakers. The author continually stresses the necessity for procuring production insurance, for example, and says that it is vital unless absolutely prohibited by the budget. Yet he doesn’t give a sense of exactly how insurance does affect the budget; there are no figures or amounts, not even ballpark ones, to indicate how much a documentary filmmaker would have to pay for such insurance. In fact, budgeting in general is the book’s weak point. If the author’s aim is really to give a beginner the tools he or she needs to run out and start shooting, he ought to provide precise details as well as generalizations.

Thankfully, such omissions are minimal and The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide does include a great deal of specific information about different types of DV and HDV cameras and formats, cables and connectors, and light kits and sound gear, among many other topics. When dealing with comparisons between different tools and formats, Artis provides well-illustrated and clearly organized charts that lay out the pros, cons and uses of various types of equipment. Most of this information is as applicable to fiction filmmakers as documentarians, making Artis’ book a handy guide for a wide range of beginning independent directors and cameramen.

As is becoming customary with many of Focal Press’ production manuals, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide features additional resources on a DVD that’s included with the book. In this case, the disc is essentially a stripped-down version of Artis’ “Down and Dirty DV” instructional series that it sold on his Web site; it contains further interviews with Maysles and others, PDF forms and checklists, and a 15-minute tutorial on audio recording. Both the DVD and the book itself are as fun as they are useful and offer the beginning filmmaker a solid primer on the rewards and pitfalls of digital production.

Focal Press
$34.95 paperback


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X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker
by Alex Cox
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

At a time when many young filmmakers view Sundance and independent production as a means to an end (the end being, ideally, a big-budget studio franchise), director Alex Cox is somewhat of an anomaly. A politically committed rebel whose debut feature, Repo Man, was financed and distributed by a major studio, and whose most recent work, Searchers 2.0, is a digital guerrilla production, Cox has taken the opposite trajectory of the inheritors of his indie tradition. Whereas Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski brothers have leapt as quickly as possible from their low-budget roots to the world of corporate filmmaking, Cox has developed a truly independent body of work similar to that of Orson Welles, another iconoclast who started in the studio system and ended up politically and aesthetically opposed to it.

As anyone who has read his Film Comment pieces or listened to his DVD commentaries can attest, Cox is a witty raconteur and an articulate advocate for movies as art, not commerce. It comes as no surprise then that his new autobiography, X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, is one of the best books ever written by a film director, a revealing and passionate celebration of a life in the cinema. It’s reminiscent of Michael Powell’s Million Dollar Movie or Samuel Fuller’s A Third Face in terms of pure entertainment value, but Cox’s book has something additional to offer: In its detailed descriptions of various filmmaking problems and how Cox and his crew solved (or failed to solve) them, it’s as useful as it is fun — particularly for anyone who has struggled with the tension between making films that challenge the establishment and relying on that establishment for funding.   

The “X” in the title refers to, among other things, 10 of the films Cox has directed, which form the structure of the book. There is a brief introduction and also a postscript, but X-Films is basically divided into 10 chapters, each focusing on one specific film in the author’s career. The format remains the same throughout the book, with chapters split into sections on preproduction, production, postproduction and release. It’s a straightforward and extremely effective approach, and the result is a volume that serves as both an amusing professional memoir and a practical guide to independent filmmaking.

Cox begins with Edge City, a film he made while still a student at UCLA, and ends with Searchers 2.0, a satiric riff on John Ford shot for Roger Corman on a $180,000 budget. In between are chapters on Repo Man, Sid & Nancy and lesser known but more ambitious works such as Death and the Compass and Revengers Tragedy. There’s also a terrific chapter on Walker, Cox’s most underrated film (though a recent Criterion DVD release has begun amending its reputation) and a turning point in his cinematic evolution. Fans will undoubtedly get more out of the production histories than newcomers to Cox’s work, but familiarity with his oeuvre isn’t a prerequisite. He provides brief but clear synopses of each movie, and the passages on technique and logistics contain valuable insights for all filmmakers, regardless of their level of interest in Cox’s movies.

Like the director’s films, his book is characterized by honesty above all else; Cox isn’t afraid to point out the many times he has been wrong, both on set and when dealing with the business end of filmmaking, and one of the gifts that X-Films gives its readers is the chance to learn from Cox’s mistakes. His candor also makes the book downright hilarious at times, especially in the many anecdotes about his financiers’ and collaborators’ eccentricities and his attempts to deal with them.

Yet the overall tone is more celebratory than sardonic, and Cox provides illuminating portraits of his fruitful collaborations with some of the best cinematographers in the business, including Robby Müller, BVK, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, and Steven Fierberg, ASC. A fervent promoter of long takes and camera movement over editing, Cox goes into great detail regarding his plano secuencia style and how his cameramen achieved their elaborate effects in his various films.

Cox enthusiasts might be a bit disappointed at some of the book’s omissions (he barely addresses The Winner, which he dismisses as an impersonal job for hire, and doesn’t mention several other projects at all), but what does appear on the page is so entertaining and accurate that it would be churlish to complain. The fact that movies such as Juno and The Savages (both financed and distributed by Fox) are considered to be “independent” films by the press and the industry alike makes a true maverick like Cox more valuable and necessary than ever — and more of an inspiration to those trying to carve out their own individualistic niche in the cinema. X-Films is the best combination of filmmaking manual and manifesto to come along since John Sayles’ Thinking in Pictures was published 20 years ago; Cox has created essential reading for anyone passionate or crazy enough to want to make independent movies.

Soft Skull Press
$17.95 paperback


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