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Friday, 10 October 2008
"The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made"
Topic: Books

I just finished reading David Hughes' updated edition of "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made", which documents the historis of film projects that either never got made, or eventually got made in very different form than what they started as (the umpteen attempts to make "Dune", for example).

Upon finishing this book I found myself surprised by how glad I was that many of these projects didn't get made. While it's difficult to judge the potential merits of a script on the cursory summaries herein, many of the projects described—in the words of their own creators—come across as terrible and wrong and often rote repeats of expected norms (action beats every ten minutes, etc.).

If anything, the book is most illuminating in regards to how the system works with regards to how projects are pitched, developed, revised, put into turnaround—wash, rinse, spin, repeat—and how changes in studio management can turn a "go" into a "no" right before the production is to start, and how directors take on a project not because they want to make the script in question, but because they want to make a mainstream movie or a big paycheck or just to work with certain people, and immediately demand that a greenlighted script get rewritten to their tastes.

The book's got a handful of factual errors as well, which isn't surprising given the number of subjects and contradictory sources. Finally, a couple of the chapters felt really thin, where the author had an interesting film project to talk about, but clearly didn't have enough information tofill out a chapter. This is most noticeable in the chapter about Star Trek films that never were, as most of the chapterdescribes how the films that were made got made, and gives short shrift to the more interesting topics of those that didn't: notably Philip Kaufman's 1977 "Planet of the Titans" (which got as far as pre-production) and Harve Bennett's "Starfleet Academy".

Overall an interesting read, but one that makes you wonder why anyone wants to deal with the Hollywood system.

Posted by molyneaux at 3:33 PM PDT
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Thursday, 25 September 2008
"Complicated Women"
Topic: Books

As a fan of silent film I've more than a passing knowledge of the pre-code era and the portrayal of women before and after, so I was looking forward to reading Mick LaSalle's "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood" from the moment I saw it on sale at a vendor's table at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival".

In short, prior to July 1, 1934 there was no real regulation on the content of films produced and distributed in the United States. As the roaring 20s progressed, films got more and more daring with their subject matter, reflecting an age when traditional roles and ideas were being challenged and many times upended. As films got more daring, some audiences and critics grew more determined to stop it, and many states and counties took to censoring (editing) films to eliminate the things they thought immoral, offensive, or just plain not right. A threatened Catholic Boycott made Hollywood roll over and give into the idea of a sort of self-imposed and enforced Production Code that would keep moral critics at bay and prevent their films from being carved up or banned in some markets.

The trouble was, this strangled the content of many films, forcing men and women into stiff "traditional" roles, with women getting the shortest end of the stick. Right up til June 1934 women in films were getting bolder and more complex roles, with films questioning the state of marriage, women having as much freedom as men, and boldly contradicting the stereotype that equated virtue with virginity.

As the book rightly point out, compare the female stars from 1931 to early 1934 to those 5, 10, or 20 years later, and you see how this idea of making film "decent" reduced women's roles and diminished the portrayal of women themselves. Norma Shearer says things in "The Divorcee" that would be considered modern in the late 20th century, or even today, and yet ideas and statements such as those were wiped off motion picture screens for a quarter of a century.

LaSalle makes a number of cogent points in the book, notably how the women in film since the 20s seem very modern but for fashion and technology, and that those from before feel like a different world. His many examples make a good case on how the Code limited the roles and portrayals of women and made them from the biggest box office draws into later box office poisons after the Depression.

The writing is good. I literally laughed at loud in a few places, notably the witty way the author describes the Garbo vehicle "Conquest": "...sniff around it for ten minutes and it's like taxidermy. It has the shape and form of life, but don't be fooled by the upright posture. It's dead."

As a book on film, though, it's the kind of book that really requires you to know some of the films of the eras discussed, for while LaSalle is good at describing the differences, it's not the same thing as having seen examples. In fact, before reading this book, I'd suggest anyone not familiar with the subject should bone-up on some of the films discussed, especially the pre-code Norma Shearer films (fortunately, an appendix tells where/if each of the films discussed is available...many of which are shown on get those DVRs programmed).

Speaking of Shearer, LaSalle's love for her and her work is palpable, but he goes a little overboard in using her as an example, especially where there are other women who could serve equally well as examples in certian cases.

That said, the book did seem to focus too much on the sexual freedom these women portrayed and not enough on the other aspects that made them "complicated". That, to me, made the book feel a little less "complicated" than the title might suggest.


Posted by molyneaux at 7:02 PM PDT
Updated: Friday, 10 October 2008 4:28 PM PDT
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