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August 2012
Making Movies with Orson Welles Online
by Gary Graver with Andrew J. Rausch; Foreword by Joseph McBride
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

One of the great unsung heroes of American cinematography finally gets his due in the posthumously published memoir Making Movies with Orson Welles, a book that serves not only as a fitting tribute to its title character, but also to its late author, Gary Graver. Graver was an omnivorous movie fan and budding young director of photography when he tracked Welles down at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1970; he offered his services to the legendary filmmaker, and Welles, surprisingly, took him up on his proposal. The director of Othello, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil explained that only one cinematographer had approached him in this way before: Gregg Toland, ASC, with whom Welles collaborated on Citizen Kane. Therefore, accepting Graver’s proposition as a good sign, Welles took a chance on a young cameraman whose prior experience was largely relegated to exploitation films.
Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rise of Independent Film Online
by David Spaner
Reviewed by

David Spaner’s Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rise of the Independent Film is one of the more ambitious film books in recent memory, a study of independent film since the silent era that encompasses movements from Europe and Mexico to South Korea and North America. Yet it is also one of the most unjustifiably snobbish tomes readers are ever likely to come across, a volume that snidely dismisses significant films and directors with casual insults barely integrated into the overall narrative, let alone backed up by argument or evidence. 
Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless
by Joseph McBride
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Joseph McBride has long been a hero to cineastes, thanks to his series of critically astute, impeccably researched and highly entertaining studies of major directors, including John Ford, Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles. Yet before he became America’s preeminent film biographer, McBride was a screenwriter with credits ranging from the Roger Corman cult-classic Rock and Roll High School to television documentaries on the imposition of martial law in 1980s Poland. McBride’s latest work, Writing in Pictures, is a skillful synthesis of his parallel careers as film critic and filmmaker, a manual that introduces readers to the art, craft and business of screenwriting from a point of view that is simultaneously scholarly, passionate and utterly practical.

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Making Movies with Orson Welles
by Gary Graver with Andrew J. Rausch; Foreword by Joseph McBride
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

One of the great unsung heroes of American cinematography finally gets his due in the posthumously published memoir Making Movies with Orson Welles, a book that serves not only as a fitting tribute to its title character, but also to its late author, Gary Graver. Graver was an omnivorous movie fan and budding young director of photography when he tracked Welles down at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1970; he offered his services to the legendary filmmaker, and Welles, surprisingly, took him up on his proposal. The director of Othello, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil explained that only one cinematographer had approached him in this way before: Gregg Toland, ASC, with whom Welles collaborated on Citizen Kane. Therefore, accepting Graver’s proposition as a good sign, Welles took a chance on a young cameraman whose prior experience was largely relegated to exploitation films.

Thus began a journey Graver would remain on until the end of both Welles’ life and his own as he photographed Welles’ features, both finished (F for Fake) and incomplete (The Other Side of the Wind), and collaborated with the director on dozens of television programs, commercials and short subjects. Welles largely financed these projects, and Graver would work on them for little or no pay in between assignments on other films. In that capacity, he, as Joseph McBride notes in this book’s forward, did something very few people did, no matter how much they professed to love Welles: he made it possible for the director to make films. Graver and Welles worked together constantly, right up to Welles’ death in 1985, and Graver spent the next 20 years continuing to preserve the Welles legacy via documentaries (such as his lovely Working with Orson Welles) and efforts to complete or restore the filmmaker’s works.

Before he succumbed to cancer in 2006, Graver began working with film historian Andrew J. Rausch on a book about Welles; after Graver died, Rausch crafted a final draft of the memoir from his interviews. The result is Graver’s homage to Welles and Rausch’s homage to Graver, a dual biography that shines light on one of the most prolific and creatively fertile director-cinematographer partnerships in film history. While many readers might be shocked to read just how many hours of film Welles directed and Graver shot from 1970 to 1985, the truth is these two men barely ever stopped working. Many of their works were never released, or aired only once or twice on television, but as quickly becomes evident from reading Graver’s recollections, that lack of exposure ultimately did not matter to them as much as their sheer joy in the creative process.

After a foreword by Welles’ friend and expert Joseph McBride, whose own What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? is essential reading, and an introduction by Rausch, the bulk of Making Movies with Orson Welles consists of a narrative, in his own words, of the friendship between the cinematographer and the director. It is a delectable tale for Welles aficionados, especially because there are so many details about projects that have barely been screened since they were produced and because the sections on projects that are available, like F for Fake or Filming Othello, greatly enhance readers’ appreciation of those productions. Throughout the book, Graver recounts wild adventures in guerrilla filmmaking and proves he truly was willing to do whatever it took to get his shots — even when that meant standing in as a double during a nude scene! The anecdotes are funny, inspiring and illustrated by wonderful stills from Graver’s personal collection.       

The fact Graver did not live to see the book published gives it an added layer of poignancy since it mirrors Welles’ own situation — though he was appreciated by some in his own time, he passed away before the popular reconstructions and restorations of Touch of Evil and It’s All True and the resurgence of Kane as the American Film Institute’s choice for the greatest film of all time. Because distribution for so many of Welles’ later projects was so poor, few people are aware of Graver’s massive contribution although anyone who has seen the clips from their collaboration in the 1995 documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band knows the cinematographer was capable of remarkably beautiful and audacious images. That fact makes it all the more maddening to consider Graver’s claim in this book that it would only take about $3.5 million to complete The Other Side of the Wind, the most ambitious of Welles’ later works.  

The book concludes with two valuable resources: an interview by journalist Lawrence French with Graver, together with Welles’ creative and romantic partner, Oja Kodar; and a “collaborative filmography” that lists Welles’ projects, both completed and works-in-progress, with which Graver was involved. To read the synopses of these films and TV programs is to desperately dream of seeing them. It is to be hoped the ongoing efforts of Rausch, McBride, Peter Bogdanovich and other Welles devotees to unearth and restore lost work will yield results in the near future. For now, though, the Graver and Rausch book is the next best thing — a fine testament to two great independent filmmakers. 

Online Online Exclusive
Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rise of Independent Film
by David Spaner
Reviewed by

David Spaner’s Shoot It!: Hollywood Inc. and the Rise of the Independent Film is one of the more ambitious film books in recent memory, a study of independent film since the silent era that encompasses movements from Europe and Mexico to South Korea and North America. Yet it is also one of the most unjustifiably snobbish tomes readers are ever likely to come across, a volume that snidely dismisses significant films and directors with casual insults barely integrated into the overall narrative, let alone backed up by argument or evidence. That Spaner’s point of view can be broad enough to celebrate Desperately Seeking Susan and the Romanian New Wave in one volume, yet narrow enough to traffic in stale clichés about the evils of the Hollywood studio system and its practitioners regardless of their artistic accomplishments is one of the more perplexing — though admittedly provocative — aspects of his book.

The book is extremely unwieldy in its focus. Although the title would indicate a relatively straightforward account of the history of independent film, the author really seems to be cataloguing his every opinion about movies. This, at times, is a good thing, as the author is clearly extremely well informed, particularly when it comes to international cinema. The first half of his book loosely tells the story of Hollywood studios in the 20th century, with particular focus on topics such as the Blacklist and the influence of different performance styles (the Method, John Cassavetes’ actor-driven cinema, etc.) on American film aesthetics. The second half of the book shifts gears to examine different international cinemas, with chapters devoted to France, Great Britain, South Korea, Mexico, Romania, Canada and America.

Both halves of the book combine Spaner’s historical research and critical opinions with interviews he has conducted with screenwriters, actors and directors. The interviews, which include Woody Allen, Catherine Breillat, John Sayles, Ken Loach and others, offer many valuable observations and essentially justify Spaner’s entire endeavor. As an interviewer, he is able to go beyond conventional wisdom and mundane sound bites to get some real insights. He goes into great detail about a number of key moments in indie-film history that have not been well covered, including New York filmmaking in the wake of Jim Jarmusch’s success, the rising and falling fortunes of national cinemas tied to quota systems, and Mexico’s rich cinematic heritage.

Spaner also does a nice job of paying tribute to key artists whose names are not as well known as those of Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. Jack Garfein, for example, has largely been forgotten by history in spite of his having directed two major method-driven movies: The Strange One (1957) and Something Wild (1961); here, he gets his due both in new interviews and in critical analysis from the author. It is in passages such as the one detailing Garfein’s work that Spaner is at his best: supportive, enlightening and precise in his research.

Unfortunately, the author is just as often sloppy and casually facile when it comes to movies and directors he does not like, a long list. Spaner is capable of dismissing entire decades in just one unsubstantiated sentence, as when he states that from the early 1950s until the late ’60s, American film “with a handful of exceptions, was rarely worth watching.” The author is entitled to his opinion, of course, but a claim that the years in which Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Billy Wilder and about 20 other Hollywood masters did some of their best work were worthless demands at least a little bit of evidence to back it up. Not that his is a surprising argument; Spaner makes it clear from the beginning he sees Hollywood studios as a creative vacuum in which very little good work can be done, and he contorts the evidence in fairly unconvincing ways to make his case. When it comes to filmmakers who have found a way to express their personal visions within the system, Spaner either trashes their output without elaboration, as he does when he introduces and dismisses Christopher Nolan in one sentence, or he simply pretends it does not exist — Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson are just a few of the directors whose current work is completely ignored.

Spaner’s myopia becomes downright maddening (especially if you happen to see Alexander Payne’s and Jason Reitman’s portraits of ambiguous characters as complex, not, as Spaner puts it, “avoiding anything remotely resembling a point of view”), This myopia nearly overshadows the very real value of his book. His celebration of maverick filmmakers from Mike Leigh to Julie Dash is admirable, as is his extensive knowledge of their work and its place in film history. In fact, that knowledge and his arguments in favor of the work of artists he admires are so convincing one wonders why he felt the need to double down by building those artists up at the expense of others — especially since he is on far shakier scholarly ground as a detractor than he is as a cheerleader. Again, there is nothing wrong with espousing unpopular views; in fact, that is one of the film critic’s most important functions, one often lost in the age of aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. If Spaner had applied the same amount of intellectual rigor to the movies he hates as those he loves, Shoot It! might have been a truly landmark work; as it is, it certainly provides plenty of material for thought and debate.    

Arsenal Pulp Press
$22.95 paperback

Online Online Exclusive
Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless
by Joseph McBride
Reviewed by Jim Hemphill

Joseph McBride has long been a hero to cineastes, thanks to his series of critically astute, impeccably researched and highly entertaining studies of major directors, including John Ford, Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles. Yet before he became America’s preeminent film biographer, McBride was a screenwriter with credits ranging from the Roger Corman cult-classic Rock and Roll High School to television documentaries on the imposition of martial law in 1980s Poland. McBride’s latest work, Writing in Pictures, is a skillful synthesis of his parallel careers as film critic and filmmaker, a manual that introduces readers to the art, craft and business of screenwriting from a point of view that is simultaneously scholarly, passionate and utterly practical.

McBride’s tome serves as a welcome corrective to the multitude of schematic screenwriting texts that have come to characterize the publishing world’s approach to the craft. Books by screenwriting “gurus” such as Syd Field and Robert McKee (whose publications and seminars were so effectively skewered in Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation) smother the art of writing in formulas that have done less to inspire great screenplays than they have to give development executives a series of “rules” by which to evaluate them — rules that, as McBride eloquently demonstrates throughout his book, have been broken by nearly every popular and critical success since Casablanca. Ignoring talk of “inciting incidents,” “beats” and “character arcs,” McBride exposes the harsh truth behind most screenwriting guides: that by erroneously claiming scripts can be broken down into formulas, they prey on people who are looking for an easy, fast ticket to screenwriting success but do nothing to help a reader create a script that someone would actually want to read or make.

Writing in Pictures offers no such false comfort to the aspiring screenwriter; its author stresses over and over again the enormous difficulties in both writing good scripts and making a living in the competitive world of Hollywood filmmaking. Yet the book offers something more valuable than phony assurances and formulas: genuine tools that can be used to develop the craft. McBride’s methodology, honed from years as a teacher at San Francisco State University, is unusual but effective: he focuses on the art of adaptation as a way to help teach screenwriting fundamentals. It is an ingenious approach given that it allows beginning screenwriters to practice structure, dialogue and action without the pressure of coming up with the central idea; by the time young writers have something genuinely original or meaningful to say, they will have developed a means of cinematic expression that will enable them to present their drama with total clarity.

The bulk of Writing in Pictures consists of tasks relating to the art of literary adaptation. Taking Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire” as source material, McBride walks the reader through each step of the screenwriting process, from the outline and character biographies to the treatment and key components of visual storytelling. The author’s lessons are clear and concise and have a wide range of applications — the principles he teaches are as relevant to 30-second TV commercials as they are to epic Westerns or farcical comedies. Yet there is nothing overly broad or vague about his approach; like the best screenwriting, Writing in Pictures is precise, specific and immediately accessible despite its depth and intelligence. The exercises McBride assigns the reader are equally effective, whether applied to the London story or to other source material of the reader’s own choosing.  

Throughout these exercises, McBride sprinkles observations from his own screenwriting career and those of his peers, quoting masters of the form such as Robert Towne (Chinatown), Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard) and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham). These stories from the trenches are invaluable and often demonstrate the truly silly nature of various commonly held assumptions about writing (such as the notion scripts need characters that are completely “likable”). McBride concludes his book with thoughts on the practical realities of making a living as a screenwriter, acknowledging that the very qualities of originality and substance to which one hopefully aspires after reading this book are ones which are difficult to sustain in the corporate system (ironically, partly because of the industry’s adherence to the misguided conventional wisdom of other, inferior screenwriting books). Of course, this is less an issue in the age of digital filmmaking and Internet distribution than it was in the days when beginning filmmakers needed the industrial apparatus to make and release films. As McBride accurately points out, the means of expression are now accessible to any filmmaker who has the desire to use them. In Writing in Pictures, the author has supplied such filmmakers with the raw materials necessary to execute their visions.          

Vintage
$15.00 paperback