This Week in Film History: David Cronenberg, and More!
91 years ago, the Capitol Theatre opened its doors at 820 Granville St. in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Capitol was a huge movie palace that sat 2,500.
In what is thought to be one of the first stunt promotions, Famous Players (the company that owned the Capitol) brought in one of the biggest silent movie stars of the day, Wallace Reid – an actor often referred to as “the screen’s most perfect lover.” As Reid’s image was being projected on a paper screen, the charismatic star burst through that screen and appeared live onstage to the audiences delight. Reid proceeded to entertain the crowd by getting into a gag fight with Vancouver mayor Robert Gale, over smoking a cigarette, which was not allowed in the theatre.
Following the performance, the Capitol Symphony Orchestra started up and Reid’s movie, The Love Special, in which Reid plays a locomotive engineer seeking the love of co-star Agnes Ayres, began. In 1977, the Capitol Theatre was gutted to become a six-screen multiplex before closing for good in 2005 to be replaced by condos.
As Cineplex celebrates 100 years of movie memories over the next twelve months, we’ll take a look back at some key moments, classic stars and technological milestones from each week in cinematic history, ones that helped shape and define the modern film industry into the memory-making marvel we view it as today.
March 13, 1996: Polish cinema liberationist, Krzysztof Kieślowski dies
From 1974-1980, Polish cinema played a crucial role informing public consciousness about the need for liberalization. Films were both artistic and social commentaries striving to depict reality as it was and not as the Communists maintained. The Poles created what they called kino moralnego niepokoju – a cinema of moral anxiety – whose central theme was isolation in a corrupt society. Filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski was instrumental in this movement and his films were often directly confrontational in their social criticism and contempt for state-controlled media. They became closely identified with the nation’s desire for greater political and social freedom.
While Kieślowski started off making documentaries with political agendas, he soon turned to stories about people’s internal lives, believing that films should elevate the spirit, help us understand ourselves and the world around us, and give people the feeling they are not alone. As a young man, Kieślowski fell in love with the theatre turned to directing. He starved himself and faked psychological instability to avoid military service while attempting entrance to Lódz Film School, a school initially founded for Stalinist propaganda, but soon developing a reputation for its liberal curriculum, which included screenings of international films and courses in film theory and production. The school also launched the career of filmmaker Roman Polanski. He graduated in 1968, during a time of heated political dissent and began his film career making politically-charged documentaries such as Workers ‘71 (1971), The Bricklayer (1973), and Hospital (1976). The Scar (1976) was Kieślowski’s first theatrical release, a socio-realist view of management problems in a large industrial factory. His notoriety came with Camera Buff (1979), a commentary on the film industry and censorship. Because his feature films evolved from documentaries, he continued to use documentary techniques to enhance realism to his fiction films.
Kieślowski is best known for his Three Colours trilogy, representing the colours and themes he perceived in the French flag: Blue (1993, liberty), White (1994, equality) and Red (1994, fraternity). He began work on a new trilogy based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, when he suddenly suffered a heart attack and died during open heart surgery. Heaven (2002), the first in the trilogy, was completed with Tom Tykwer at the helm and Cate Blanchett in the starring role.
March 14, 1951: Val Lewton, the father or modern horror, dies
Val Lewton produced a handful of low-budget horror movies in the 1940s that had a revolutionary impact on the genre. From 1942-1946, he ran RKO’s horror department, employing a method that has now become a staple of contemporary horror films. Lewton preferred psychological terror over monsters and gore. His films were a mix of mood and atmosphere, fueled by shadowy camera work, moral anxiety, tight pacing, and the suggestion of fear over shock value.
Born in Yalta, Ukraine as Vladimir Ivan Leverton, he became Val Lewton after immigrating to the US in 1909. A journalism student at Columbia, Lewton often confused fiction and non-fiction, a practice that would cost him jobs at newspapers for fictionalizing stories. Lewton worked as a writer for MGM’s publicity office, providing novelizations of popular movies for serialization in magazines. An early 1926 novel he wrote entitled The Cossack Sword caught the attention of film producer David O. Selznick, who hired Lewton as his protégé. His first screen credit was “revolutionary sequences arranged by” in Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935), followed by uncredited writing in Gone with the Wind (1939).
In 1932, his novel No Bed of Her Own was adapted into a film for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, entitled No Man of Her Own. A promising screenwriter, he was eventually tapped to take over the horror unit at RKO Pictures. Lewton was given creative freedom, as long as each film came in under $150,000, ran 75 minutes, and was created from predetermined titles. His first film for RKO was Cat People (1942). The film cost only $134,000 and pulled in over $4 million. The success of Cat People enabled Lewton to make his next films with relatively little studio interference. What followed was I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946).
Being raised by his mother and aunt, Lewton’s films all had strong, three-dimensional female characters. He discovered a number of directors who would become major players later on, including Robert Wise (The Sound Of Music, 1965), Mark Robson (Valley of the Dolls, 1967) and Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, 1947). Finally, he saved Boris Karloff’s career from being typecast as a silent monster.
Pushed to do more A-list films, Lewton never re-created the same magic he once did in B-movies. He died five years after leaving RKO. A number of books and documentaries on Lewton have been produced, including, Martin Scorsese Presents: Val Lewton – The Man in the Shadows (2007). Scorsese cites Lewton as the major influence on his film Shutter Island (2010).
March 15, 1943: Canadian icon David Cronenberg is born in Toronto
David Cronenberg is one of Canada’s most celebrated and internationally renowned filmmakers. His contributions to the Canadian film industry have been monumental. He has avoided being labeled a certain type of genre director and has built a reputation as an artist whose films provoke the anxieties underlying middle-class values. He’s also one of the principal originators of the body horror genre, a genre that explores fears of infection, disease, and mutilation.
Cronenberg is the son of a freelance journalist and a piano teacher. As a boy, he wrote several creepy short stories, most based in science. Science was heavily promoted in the Cronenberg household and it was the subject that he chose as his major at the University of Toronto. After becoming disenchanted with science, he switched to the literature program.
Cronenberg’s interest turned to avant-garde cinema and he began making short films. Although disillusioned with science, he was still fascinated with it and his earliest short films, Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967), demonstrated that. In these films, he explored the physical and moral consequences of scientific and technological advancements, a recurring theme throughout his film career.
Inspired by the underground film scene in New York, he founded the Toronto Film Co-op with Iain Ewing and Ivan Reitman. After making the avant-garde sci-fi flick Stereo (1969), Cronenberg became one of the first recipients of the CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation), which funded his follow-up film, Crimes of the Future (1969). Working in a strictly experimental venue was proving to be a dead end, so Cronenberg sought to broaden his range. With Reitman as producer, Cronenberg made his feature debut, the low-budget horror flick Shivers (1975).
His next film with producer Reitman was the film Rabid (1977) a film that inadvertently tapped into the fears of the AIDS outbreak. Reitman cast ex-porn star Marylin Chambers as a cost effective way of drawing more audiences to the box office. Cronenberg's breakthrough film Scanners (1981), was a commercial hit featuring the infamous exploding head scene. Two years later, he followed this up with Videodrome (1983). Cronenberg has become known for films where the psychological is intertwined with the physical. He has put Canadian films on the map with titles like The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), A History of Violence (2005), Eastern Promises (2007), A Dangerous Method (2011) and the soon-to-be-released Cosmopolis (2012).
March 15, 1972: The Godfather makes audiences an offer they can’t refuse
Francis Ford Coppola’s epic mob film was adapted from the best-selling book by Mario Puzo and opened this day in 1972. Several directors were offered the film, including Sergio Leone and Costa Gavras, but ultimately the gig went to relatively unknown Francis Ford Coppola, who was only 31 years old at the time. The film’s producer, Robert Evans, was adamant on having an Italian-American direct the film as previous films about the Mafia directed by non-Italians had performed poorly at the box office. Coppola initially refused to direct the film because he feared it would glorify the Mafia and violence and thus reflect poorly on his heritage. When good friend George Lucas, whose film THX 1138 (1971) Coppola had produced, convinced Coppola to make The Godfather a metaphor for American capitalism, the director agreed to take the helm.
Paramount's original idea was to make this a low-budget gangster film set in the present rather than a period piece. Coppola rejected Puzo's original script based on this idea and worked with the writer on a more authentic representation of the culture and the relationships of the Corleone family. He then persuaded Paramount to increase the budget of the film, which was only $2.5 million.
Controversy surrounded the film immediately. Soon after Paramount Pictures announced its production, Mafia crime boss Joe Colombo and his organization The Italian-American Civil Rights League started a campaign to stop the film from being made, claiming it was a slur against Italian-Americans. The uproar only increased publicity for the movie. Coppola and Puzo fought to cast Marlon Brando in the role of Vito Corleone. At the time, Brando’s career had been in decline. Brando lobbied for the role and, once cast, was the obvious choice. Dissatisfied with the early rushes, Paramount considered replacing Coppola with Elia Kazan. Brando, dismayed with Kazan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, threatened to quit the film if Coppola was fired. The studio backed down.
Brando’s star power propelled the film to record-breaking box-office success, as well as three Academy Awards, for Best Actor (which he declined to accept), Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. The early buzz on the film was so positive that a sequel was planned before the film was finished filming. The Godfather has remained on the majority of critics’ top film list and is generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Real-life gangsters responded well to the film, citing its accuracy. Coppola’s portrayal of the Mafia as characters of considerable depth was groundbreaking for the genre and opened the doors for films like Goodfellas (1990) and TV series like “The Sopranos” (1999).
March 16, 1960: The world is Breathless over Godard’s debut
Jean-Luc Godard's directorial debut, Breathless, was the first New Wave film to put the movement on the global map and marked the arrival of one of cinema's most influential directors.
The term French New Wave (la nouvelle vague) came from the influential Paris film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, founded in 1951 by André Bazin. Bazin, along with a fellow critics and eventual directors, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol, verbally skewered the most artistically respected French filmmakers of the day. New Wave was a self-reflexive rejection of traditional structure. These films often lacked goal-oriented protagonists, typically ended ambiguously, and had a very casual, naturally-lit, hand-held look to them.
The shooting script for Breathless was only four pages long. As stated by Godard, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” This served as the basis for his film, which derived its inspiration from American film noir and pulp fiction magazines. Godard would write dialogue for scenes the night before shooting them, to ensure the film was fresh and spontaneous. He would begin each day going through the new dialogue with stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg.
Breathless, a postmodern crime thriller that mixed philosophy, religion and sex, created a new language formed by its use of handheld camerawork, location shooting, and jump cut editing. Jump cuts, while hardly shocking now, were groundbreaking at the time. The jump cutting for the film was conceived in editing, when Godard and editor Cécile Decugis hit on the idea that they could be used to cover flaws in the lighting and long tedious moments of dialogue. They began to use it as a device in the film and it soon became the method.
Breathless wowed audiences and critics when it was released. It was so revolutionary, it influenced a new style of moviemaking from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), to Easy Rider (1969) and more recently Quentin Tarantino’s work, especially Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), which both featured chatty gangsters. Tarantino’s script for True Romance (1993) is an homage to Godard’s masterpiece.
March 17, 1972: Midnight madness and moral depravity – Pink Flamingos opens
Variety called Pink Flamingos “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” The film is an outrageous sequence of shocking acts, each more offensive than the one before. Made for the jaded hippie audiences of 1972 (the year pornography became legal), Pink Flamingos was about a battle to determine the filthiest people alive. It poked fun at censorship laws and pushed the boundaries of conventional decency. When it comes to the depiction of taboo subject matter, John Waters' Pink Flamingos is a veritable treasure trove. In some theatres, patrons were given a “Pink Phlegm-ingo Barf Bag.”
When Bob Shaye, founder of New Line Cinema (a then small independent company that had picked up the film), first saw Pink Flamingos, he kept stopping the projector and rewinding to make sure he’d actually seen what he thought he saw.
Perhaps somewhat serendipitously, the time was ripe for Pink Flamingos. Midnight screenings, a term rooted in the 1950s when local television stations in the US would air low-budget genre films as late-night programming, started to emerge in 1970s cinemas in urban centres and eventually spreading across the country. This was aimed at building a cult film audience, encouraging repeat viewing, and social interaction in a countercultural environment. New Line’s first acquisition, Reefer Madness (originally 1936, but rediscovered in 1970), had found a midnight audience, as well as El Topo (1970). Thanks to word of mouth, Pink Flamingos sold out its showings, becoming one of the best known cult movies ever made and paved the way for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) a few years later.
Filmed on weekends in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, Pink Flamingos was also crucial in inspiring the growth of the independent film movement. The film was successful enough that Waters was able to pay back his backer, his father. He even had enough left over to make his next film, Female Trouble (1974). To this day, Waters’ parents have never seen Pink Flamingos.
Waters wrote a sequel entitled Flamingos Forever. It takes place 15 years after the original film. Troma Films offered to finance the picture for $600,000 but it was never made because of the death of Edith Massey, and later that of Divine, whose roles were integral to the plot.
March 17, 1977: A dream of dark and troubling things – Eraserhead debuts
David Lynch moved to California in 1970 to study at the American Film Institute. He originally submitted an idea for a short film called Gardenback, which he described as “a story about adultery, gardens and insects.” The AFI wasn’t exactly keen on the idea and didn’t understand what he wanted to do, so Lynch ultimately abandoned it, producing, in its place, Eraserhead.
Eraserhead is Lynch’s surrealist feature film debut. He wrote, produced, directed, was the production designer and did special effects on the film, which is largely dependent on its non-narrative elements, particularly eccentric characters and dark imagery.
Lynch had a lot of trouble getting financial assistance because the script was only 20 pages long. He received a grant from the AFI and filming began in the abandoned AFI stables, located at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Filming took place between 1AM and dawn every night. Lynch and his small, dedicated crew of five or six people had built all the sets themselves.
After about 3 years of production, Lynch ran out of money. As a result, he ended up living on the sets that he constantly had to disassemble and reassemble, while working intermittently on Eraserhead for the next few years, using money from family and friends and odd jobs such as a paper route.
During the film's production, Lynch began experimenting with an audio technique where lines were spoken phonetically backwards and then played in reverse. Although the technique was abandoned for Eraserhead, Lynch later used it for his 1990 television series "Twin Peaks."
Eraserhead opened in 1977 to midnight showings and eventually became a hit on the horror circuit. The movie's weirdness developed a cult following, eventually becoming one of the most successful American avant-garde films, establishing a precedent for other independents. A number of Hollywood A-list directors saw the film and were impressed by it. Stanley Kubrick named Eraserhead as his favourite movie and screened it for his cast and crew before production began on The Shining (1980) to get them in the right frame of mind. Mel Brooks saw it and offered Lynch the chance to direct The Elephant Man (1980), Lynch’s second feature film. George Lucas asked Lynch to direct Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983). Lynch turned it down in favour of the sci-fi epic Dune (1984).
Lynch has gone on to become one of the most bizarre and eclectic filmmakers, consistently flying under the radar of mainstream attention with films like Blue Velvet (1986), Wild At Heart (1990), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006).