Paul Newman (1925-2008)

I was profoundly saddened this morning to hear about the death of Paul Newman. Monica and I had been following the reports about his battle with cancer, but somehow thought he’d overcome it. Of course, we didn’t know Paul Newman, but like so many others we respected his activism and greatly admired his outspoken beliefs in social issues and his fifty-year marriage to Joanne Woodward. Much of the news coverage today has focused on the notion that he was one of the last great screen icons, and one of the few Hollywood personalities to have exuded such sincerity both on and off the screen. In so many films he projected an air of confidence that was both commanding and self-effacing.

Do yourself a favor this weekend and check out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When Sundance (Robert Redford) tells Butch that he can’t swim, Butch reacts with an infectious laugh that I’ve never forgotten. One of those little moments that can define a film and an entire career.

We’ve lost one of the good guys.

In the Mix with TIFF

As a resident of Toronto I would be remiss not to comment about the recent Toronto International Film Festival, otherwise known as TIFF. My wife and I took in a small dose of five films this year, focusing on fare that would not otherwise find a large release in North American multiplexes. Having spent the last five years in cultural isolation, we weren’t sure we could handle many more — though my wife’s previous Festival record is twenty-two. We were initially baffled that we received all five of our “top five” picks despite being one of the last boxes in the festival lottery.

When it comes to TIFF, we are certainly not cinemaniacs, willing to endure three or four films a day. We’ll read up on many of the films in advance in order to gauge some level of interest, and we tend to avoid certain categories such as Wavelengths, which is devoted to experimental shorts and features. We also avoid more mainstream picks that tend to find theatrical releases within weeks of the Festival. Our logic: Why see the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading when we can avoid the lines and inflated ticket prices and see it next week? We were disappointed to learn that festival organizers have even separated certain acclaimed films from the regular lottery system, thereby allowing higher prices on selected works. In the past it was common for Gala premieres to be excluded, but now even the second and third screenings are off limits to standard buyers, unless you’ve paid extra.

Nevertheless, it is still possible to see a great many films at TIFF even without a press pass or an industry connection. This remains one of the joys of the Festival, in that it is open to anyone, no matter what the Canadian press says about the corporate takeover of the fest. Despite such hyperbole, it was obvious that festival turnout was very strong among cinephiles and cinemaniacs, as this lineup demonstrates.

The Movies

Among our favorite categories at TIFF include the Real to Reel documentaries, the world cinema picks, and the Midnight Madness selections. The first two are self explanatory, but the third remains one of the real gems of the entire Festival, a category devoted to midnight screenings of internationally marginalized or cult genre films. Here, enthusiastic crowds embrace the transgeneric as if they were works of high art. In past years there have been Japanese yakuza flicks, zombie horrors, rockumentaries, Borat, sexy killers, and other brands of the weird and crazy.

This year the best film we saw at TIFF came on the first night of the Madness screenings. In fact it was hard to top this pick, which slowly generated buzz among festival goers until its premiere. This was evidenced by the winding rush ticket line that was longer than the ticket holders line. The film was JCVD, which by now many people know as that “surprisingly good Jean Claude Van Damme” movie. I hate to sound like one of those surprised audience members, but yes…Van Damme can act. He gives what is probably his most personal and riskiest performance, playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself.

The self-reflexive nature of the film is the least interesting aspect of JCVD, since it has become a relatively common narrative device in film and television comedy. For example, Larry David does it on Curb Your Enthusiasm. JCVD is an accomplished work because it does not rely on this device to deliver the film’s key punchlines and narrative arc. We are instead invited to follow Van Damme as he deals with two overlapping crises: a personal meltdown due to a bitter divorce and child custody case, and a robbery in which he finds himself a hostage. After returning to Belgium to escape his personal turmoil in LA, Van Damme is the victim of bad timing when he walks in on a robbery of a small-town post office. The authorities, however, believe Van Damme to be the criminal, since he is forced by his captors to communicate with the lead investigator by telephone. While Van Damme is highly revered by the townspeople, he is also known to be rather unstable, which explains their willingness to believe that he would hold up a post office.

The film itself is highly stylized without becoming a distraction. What was most impressive was the degree to which the director, Mabrouk El Mechri, relies on complex long takes over rapid cutting and extreme close ups. El Mechri demonstrates that tension and speed can be conveyed through spacious framing and longer shot lenghts. The opening title sequence virtually sets up this stylistic thematic that will govern the rest of the film. Over the titles, we observe Van Damme acting out a complex action sequence that takes him to various areas of a rainy soundstage, where he punches and kicks his way through an army of goons. And it’s all done in one seamless take (unless, of course, there have been some CG transitions). By the end of the take, Van Damme completes the action and retires to his make-shift trailer and stares longingly into space. He’s older, slower, and the desire to be an action star has faded along with his popularity.

El Mechri balances the action set pieces with wit and irony that play well together, even as the film wants it both ways. We want to see Van Damme kick ass, but we’re forced to recognize that even if this is not the “real world,” Van Damme is only a guy in a post office, a recovering drug addict and worn Hollywood star. This synthesis reaches a climax during the film’s most profound and touching segments, a soliloquy from Van Damme who literally rises above the set to address the audience. Over an orchestra of mulling strings, he confesses to his drug addiction, his pursuit of fame, his dream of Hollywood stardom, his humble beginnings, his family meltdown, and his love of martial arts.

None of it may be true, but Van Damme convinces us with a heartfelt appeal. It’s one of those moments where you’re caught off guard by such a decision that initially leaves you wondering if it worked. In retrospect I believe it does work, not because El Mechri twists the genre to be provocative, but because it feels genuine and it grows organically from the rest of the film. Yes, Van Damme can act, but more importantly he is sincere. Which is something that most films lack.

Runners up

There were others…including The Real Shaolin, about the lives of four students of traditional kung fu in China. Worth a look if it is ever released. There’s nothing groundbreaking about its style or structure, but it fuses four very different stories with compassion and honesty.

Not Quite Hollywood, which documents the rise and fall of Australian “exploitation” films, had a lot of potential to tap into the social and cultural nuances of the Australian film industry in the 1970s, but it ended up being a rather benign love letter comprised of lengthy clips from some classic Ozploitation flicks such as Mad Max and Patrick and some forgotten gems such as Razerback and Roadgames. While the film gave me a shopping list of new films to search out, I don’t know if I learned anything about the state of the Australian industry or why these films were so popular at that time. Quentin Tarantino’s running commentary added a necessary dose of context, but like the filmmakers seemed to be on hand more as a fan than an expert.

There was also Restless, an Israeli co-production about a strained father-son relationship, that we found uneven but still engaging, even though it relied too heavily on extreme close ups that disrupted the spatial dynamics of several scenes. While emotion is often conveyed in the eyes of an actor, there’s no need to emphasize this with entire dialog sequences shot so tightly. The women seated behind me were also confused, since they kept asking each other which character was which. Never a good sign. However, these were also the same women who, at the sight of guns or blood, reacted as if they had never seen either before in a movie.

And finally there was The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, a disappointing documentary about…you guessed it: the biggest Chinese restaurant in the world.

Close Encounters

Of course, with TIFF comes the ubiquitous star gazing in Yorkville, Toronto’s posh mini-neighborhood where Hollywood celebrities are more common than Starbucks locations. This year, prior to an afternoon screening, I was sitting in Starbucks and watched Brian De Palma walk in, order a coffee and sit at the window with what appeared to be his assistant. My wife and I passed Mark Ruffalo, who was having a conversation out front of Roots, and we nearly bumped into Ivan Reitman who was walking and talking on his phone about seeing Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

At Festival time Yorkville also swarms with paparazzi. They’re pretty obvious to spot: slouchy types with backpacks and digital cameras with long lenses hanging out in front of various mid-town hotels. With a chunky D-SLR camera around my neck I’ve even gotten some stares from people who might assume I’m hoping to sell some photos to TMZ.

So, another year at TIFF comes to a close. We missed several notable films that we’ll be sure to catch later this fall including Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which was one of the films that had incredible word-of-mouth buzz, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which received the People’s Choice Award. For us, the Festival belonged to Jean Claude Van Damme and next year we’ll double our efforts and try for ten films.

Studio Logos by Association

A recent Variety article investigated the changing nature of studio logos in the context of their growing running times. The author, Peter Debruge, suggests that not only are studio logos increasingly reliant on splashy animated sequences which can run half-a-minute in length, modern feature films can also suffer from pre-credit logo overload. With the proliferation of co-financing deals between production companies, the majors aren’t the only ones anymore with logo flair. As Debruge highlights, “Everyone from Tom Hanks to Mel Gibson to Ben Stiller has a company these days, and they all want placement.” I would argue that one of the key reasons behind such cramped pre-credit sequences is the decline of main credit sequences (discussed here). It seems likely that production companies want recognition up front before the end credit surge.

While there do not seem to be any rules governing the placement or length of production logos, Debruge does suggest that major distributors prefer to go first, and no one likes to be outdone by longer sequences, which is why most cap at sixteen seconds. A quick visit to YouTube seems to confirm this point. However, the article raised a few more questions in my mind about the nature of studio logos. While Debruge discusses the visual panache of some logo designs, he does not mention one key effect of the studio logo sequence: its associative effects.

Thinking about studio logos, I remember their iconic resonance on my childhood. As a budding cinephile I took note of studio logo designs in different eras of Hollywood history. As a teenager I wondered if there was such a thing as “house style” in contemporary movies as there seemed to be in the classical era. Some authors have pointed to a distinct house style in the 1930s (see Thomas Schatz and Paul Grainge), when MGM’s Leo the Lion symbolized the opulence and grandeur of musicals (The Brodway Melody of 1938) and epics (Mutiny on the Bounty); Warner Bros. distributed “gritty,” social dramas and gangster films; Universal produced low-budget horror films (Dracula); and Paramount’s distinctly “European” flavor, employing emigree directors such as Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch.

It might be harder to observe definable house styles today as the modern studio is little more than a distribution channel for smaller production companies. There are certainly trends in studio output, in that audiences can discern the type of film from a particular distributor. In recent years, the art-house crowd would be remiss not to trust the Miramax brand for its attention to European and Asian filmmakers and imports, intimate dramas, and award season prestige pictures. In the 1980s and 1990s New Line Cinema established a unique brand by releasing Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series alongside John Waters’ Serial Mom and other horror and fantasy films. Perhaps now New Line is most often associated with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, the majors have avoided this type of catalogue branding, if only because they risk missing on specific markets by remaining loyal to particular genres or styles. In many ways, the contemporary major studio — like in the past — specializes in a range of genres, franchises, and styles. We should remember that Warners is not only home to Harry Potter, Superman, and Batman, but has remained a home to Clint Eastwood and was also the permanent home of Stanley Kubrick.

Instead of looking for particular groupings or inherent “house styles” among the modern majors, I offer an alternative criterion by which to assess the impact of studio style by way of the logo sequence. In less than twenty seconds the logo sequence must convey a message in image and sound that defines an identity to the audience. If a studio was not interested in conveying a brand identity, then why advertise itself so verbosely before every film?

I am suggesting that these unique logo sequences offer associational frameworks by which audiences identify studio output. These associations are by no means homogeneous, since we all have different cinematic experiences. But it is likely that we have associations with studio sequences that have shaped our understanding of specific genres, filmmakers, and (most obviously) studio style.

For me, the associational nature of pre-credit sequences can have a Pavlovian effect. Let me explain. I’m flipping channels one afternoon and I happen upon the “zooming globe” Universal Pictures logo. Based on the animated design, I am immediately attuned to the era of the logo (the 1970s and early 1980s); I listen for any musical clues that might identify the forthcoming film. The presentational value of the logo extends to my own personal history with the logo and the films associated with it. Thus, I identify the Universal globe with a particular era of studio filmmaking, one with which I have always been fascinated.

The associational value of the pre-credit sequence is very much rooted in my adolescence, when I discovered new things about cinema every day. To put it not so romantically, I watched a lot of movies and over time some of them actually stuck with me. What also stuck with me were those iconic emblems of Hollywood studios. And, more often than not, the emblems symbolized not studio style but a particular film experience.

I have already mentioned the Universal zooming globe, which gave way in 1990 to a more three-dimensional animated sequence that paid tribute to all previous Universal pre-credit sequences. You can see it here. This sequence, which signaled the studio’s 75th anniversary, was supported with music by James Horner and premiered with Back to the Future III and later reverted to a shorter intro minus the montage. This serene sequence was replaced in 1997 (attached to Jurassic Park: The Lost World) with the current “shimmering” Universal globe, which carries a Jerry Goldsmith fanfare.

Watching the 1990 incarnation of the logo, I am instantly reminded of my trip to the theater to see Back to the Future III. The 1970s logo carries memories of the original Back to the Future, Jaws, and American Graffiti. You could make the argument that the films I have mentioned belong to a certain filmmaking or stylistic category, which could constitute a certain house style. In the 80s it was not uncommon to refer to Universal at the studio that Steven Spielberg revitalized. Indeed, the studio’s top grossing films of the late 70s and early 80s are Spielberg productions: Jaws, E.T., and the Back to the Future series (which he co-produced). However, this does not explain MacArthur, Animal House, the surge of John Hughes comedies in the 1980s, Field of Dreams, and Born on the Fourth of July to name just a few deviations from the Spielberg “style”.

In much the same way, I associate the DreamWorks sequence with Steven Spielberg, even though not every DreamWorks film is connected with the bearded one. But there are several subtle textures that point to a Spielberg style: the use of music by longtime composer John Williams, the moon and child imagery, and the little fact that he co-founded the studio. As a side-note, I never understood why Spielberg’s Amblin logo sequence never preceded films, but always appeared after the end credits.

Warner Bros. constitutes another fascinating example of associative logic. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, Warners did away with the traditional WB shield logo in the early 1970s and replaced it with a far more abstract design pictured below. This design reeks of the 1970s — even though it was used well into the 1980s — since I associate it with one of Warner’s premiere franchises: Superman. No matter what film proceeded it, the abstract “W” logo meant Superman: The Movie. For my wife, Monica, the traditional Warners shield is strongly associated with the Harry Potter series. In each film, the shield is desaturated, surrounded by varying cloudscapes, and seems to move past the screen as a 3-D image.

I would be taken to task if I did not mention what is perhaps the most famous associative connection in modern studio logos: the transition from the 20th Century Fox fanfare (composed by Alfred Newman) to the Star Wars main title (composed by John Williams). The two musical statements have worn well together, leading some to think that they were composed together. Newman’s original Fox fanfare premiered in 1935, which was later extended in 1953 to include a logo for Fox’s CinemaScope widescreen process. The extended fanfare appears over the Lucasfilm Ltd. credit.

As a trend in franchise pictures or prestige films, more and more studios are altering their current logo sequence to support particular films. I first noticed minor changes in the 1990s with films like The ‘burbs, The Flintstones (both of which played with the Universal globe), and Gladiator (which simply used a sepia-toned Universal and DreamWorks logo to convey the color scheme of the film). There are many other examples, but some perennial favorites include David Fincher’s use of “vintage” Warners and Paramount logos for Zodiac and, of course, Spielberg’s Paramount dissolves from the Indiana Jones series. The decision to use the Columbia logo from the 1970s for Superbad — complete with a VHS stutter — is an interesting statement, but I was left wondering if the humor was ironic or if the filmmakers had a genuine connection to a particular 70s aesthetic.

As more studios are lending their logos to the narrative/stylistic patterns of particular films, the associational logic of film-to-studio seems appropriate. However, studios have little control over an audience’s association with an untouched logo. Why, for instance, do I consistently think of Friday the 13th and the Star Trek films whenever I see the vintage Paramount logo sequence that dissolves into a sky-blue relief of itself? Some may think of Robert Evans and his tenure at Paramount in the 1970s, but for me it’s the lousy VHS dubs of Star Trek I-IV and even lousier copies of the Friday series.

Then there are those abstract sequences that simply transport me back to my childhood. The Tri-Star sequence (seen here) which has been parodied by Joe Swanson on Family Guy. And the Touchstone logo (seen here) which I never quite got, even though I saw it enough growing up with fare like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Studio logo sequences have always fascinated me, but I’ve never been able to explain why. The mini narratives and advancing animation keeps me interested in new concepts and revisions of old formulas, but there is something much more intangible to my interest in pre-credit designs. Perhaps they work on a nostalgic level, as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull demonstrated earlier this summer. Perhaps they are symbols of larger cinematic histories, specifically the history of cinema-going. Or, perhaps they work on a much more associative level, whereby the familiarity of logo sequences are rooted in the experience of a particular film.

Nevertheless, the unspooling of a classic or contemporary pre-credit sequence is an exciting moment, filled with possibility and the knowledge of what has come before.

What are your own memories of studio logo sequences?