indieWIRE's Bookshelf: Mutants, Nazis, and Harvey Weinstein
by Brandon Judell
One of the biggest dilemmas facing indie directors today is how to make the transition from creating tiny gems of emotional angst to transfiguring a superhero into someone you care about. Will Aronofsky survive? Is Todd Haynes next? And if so, whom can they turn to for advice?
Well, "The Art of X2: The Making of the Blockbuster Movie" (Newmarket Press; $19.95) is a good starting point. It was even created like a big time movie: no author. Instead, this tome was "designed and edited" by Timothy Shaner.
Now, as we all know, Bryan Singer has done it right. Unlike the vacuous "Matrix" series, the maladroit "Star Wars" enterprise, or the miscalculated "Hulk," "X-Men" combines the spectacular and the discerning, the sexy and the shrewd, plus the intellectual and the balmy. This book illustrates how this success was achieved.
First of all, Singer, at a comic book convention, after insisting all the attendees are his core audience, avows, "Some people have followed this ["X-Men"] universe for 40 years -- to not make a film that inspires them or to not take them seriously, what would be the point? Then what are you making the movie for? Money? I have never made a picture to make money." He should have warned the producers of "Apt Pupil" about that.
Anyway, in addition to learning about Singer's philosophy, there's the hair dye. We get to see him go blond and back in various photos taken during the "X2" filming. We're then told that much of the sequel was shot in Vancouver as opposed to Toronto because it was closer to Los Angeles; production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas once worked on Discmans for Sony; the White House scenes include a new carpet design overseen by First Lady Bush; and Singer's relationship to his actors paralleled Professor Charles Xavier's to his mutants. Also of importance, Singer's dad was credit manager for the Maidenform bra company, and that while the director had worked security at a black-tie event in Hollywood years ago, he had nervously introduced himself to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg later sponsored Singer's membership into the Directors Guild of America.
If all this, and the 375 illustrations, don't help Aronofsky with "Lone Wolf," the beautifully detailed story boarding of several action scenes certainly will.
Moving onward, or backward as you will, Antje Ascheid takes us into the cinemas of darkest Berlin in "Hitler's Heroines: Stardom and Womanhood in Nazi Germany" (Temple University Press; $64.50 hardcover/$19.95 paperback).
It appears the Nazis, especially Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, felt a nation's cinema could shape its society. In fact, a Nazi women's mag, NS-Frauenwarte, in 1938 insisted, "Whoever has recently monitored a number of periodicals might have noticed with great surprise certain tendencies that seem Jewish, all too Jewish, to us. What is presented here, in films and in variety shows, as 'woman' is precisely that demi-monde-type hostile to marriage and family, who is the living embodiment of the sterility that was a marker of the previous epoch of decay...A beautiful girl certainly wasn't made to be a nun, but, and this is the difference between yesterday and today, she also wasn't made to be a coquette."
So what did Goebbels and pals do to remake the film industry besides ridding it of Jewish and left-leaning actors, directors, and writers? All screenplays were reviewed by a state official. "The so-called Reich's film dramatist also oversaw the actual execution of movie production and was in charge of supervising everything from casting practices to stylistic aesthetics." Goebbels also took on "art criticism" which was renamed "film contemplation." Even audience behavior was manipulated.
When it was discovered movie attendees were coming late to avoid viewing mandatory propaganda newsreels that preceded feature films, Goebbels prohibited spectators from entering movie houses after the newsreels had begun.
Ascheid here also investigates how Nazi Germany tried to shape womanhood through a close examination of three of its biggest film stars of that era: Kristina Söderbaum, Lilian Harvey, and Zarah Leander. Never less than slightly fascinating, the book is slowed down early on by academic verbiage. You know something's wrong when everything a writer is quoting is more gripping than what she's writing herself. But once Ascheid starts tackling the stars themselves, everything falls into place.
An added significance of "Hitler's Heroines" is that it makes the reader question what our current cinema and TV programs are shaping us for? Besides pushing us to be top-notch consumers, are they responsible for making George Bush palatable? And what is the significance of Carrot Top? Ben Affleck? Spike Lee?
An especially shocking quote in the book, one coming from Nazi propagandists, is an attack against the star system: "Not the single person -- whose egotism is elevated to the level of delusional grandiosity -- can, may, should, and will be the hero of the future, but only the genuine and honest artist, who integrates himself into the community and becomes a useful member of the ensemble, of its collective labor. Maybe some members of the public will mourn when one of their favorites will disappear. But the majority will surely join our desire to end the star disease in film: the star must die, so that film can live!" Sounds like an indie manifesto.
But what does it mean to be an "indie" film nowadays? Is the term definable? Is it even relevant? According to Vincent LoBrutto, an editing, production design, and cinema studies instructor for the School of Visual Arts, it definitely is. Why else would he have put together "The Encyclopedia of American Independent Filmmaking" (Greenwood Press; $74.95)?
"The purpose of this reference volume," LoBrutto notes, "is to provide information, perspective and insight into historical, technical, aesthetic, practical, fiscal, and critical aspects of independent filmmaking over the course of the twentieth century and into the new millennium." Try doing that in 465 pages.
Just when I was about to praise this book, I thought I should look up Harvey Weinstein. He doesn't have his own entry. So I go to the index. It says turn to pages 369-370. No Harvey. Only entries for Tom Savini and Nancy Savoca. For Harvey, you have to go to page 301 for a paragraph on Miramax: "The most profitable, powerful, and successful indie company of the last 20 years, Miramax is named after the parents of the brothers who built their power base by distributing foreign and domestic art films that brought substantial financial awards." A small paragraph follows that includes an attack on the company: "...critic Jonathan Rosenbaum whose investigation into Miramax's methods has alleged disturbing practices of reediting a director's work and getting behind fashionable projects (like those starring Gwyneth Paltrow) and letting others die quickly with little support. The old adage power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely may apply here, but if an indie company can't survive in the mainstream market, it folds."
Well, the book is certainly feisty.
The Encyclopedia also includes definitions of "limited partnership," "guerrilla filmmaking," and "deferred payments." As for personalities, check out entries on Betty Page, Peter Fonda, Richard (Ricky) Leacock, the great Tom Noonan who receives a bigger entry than Miramax, Mark Rappaport, Bette Gordon, Wayne Wang, Jim McBride, and the always astonishing Kuchar Brothers.
As a controversial bonus, there's a list at the end of the volume of "100 Significant Independent Films." Included are "Buffalo '66," "Carnival of Souls," "The Crazy-Quilt," "Gimme Shelter," "Greetings," "Gun Crazy", "Putney Swope," "The Savage Eye," "The Shooting," "Zebrahead," "Working Girls," and "Word is Out."
Who says you can't define indies?
Also out there and worth noting is "Lars von Trier: Interviews," edited by Jan Lumholdt (University of Mississippi Press; $46.00 (hard cover)/$18.00 paperback); Erin Cressida Wilson's screenplay for "Secretary" with a foreword by Molly Haskell (Soft Skull Press; $15.00); and Sherman Alexie's "The Business of Fancydancing: The Screenplay" (Hanging Loose Press; $16.00) which is hopefully more entertaining than "The Business of Fancydancing: The Movie."
As for oldies but goodies, search out 2001's highly thought-provoking and beguiling "Car Crash Culture" by Mikita Brottman (Palgrave; $19.95). This delicious anthology has Kenneth Anger harping on "Kar Krash Karma" and Brottman and Christopher Sharrett on "The End of the Road: David Cronenberg's 'Crash' and the Fading of the West." That's just for starters. The book then thoroughly explores America's fascination with car wrecks both on and off the screen. So when doesn't a good crushed Ford Pinto make good bedtime reading?