Last night I watched the last in the series of Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2. I actually watched it on TV! You can watch it here on iPlayer:
I really enjoyed it and will be trying to see the first two episodes somehow. This episode chronicled the death of silent cinema, which Merton shows to be at the height of its creative powers when the technology for talkies arrived. Silent films starred ingenious performers, and were shot in inventive, imaginative and inspiring ways. They could afford to make classic escapism for the masses as well as experimental pictures, which also more often than not turned into hits by capturing the public’s lust for the cinema in new ways.
Talkies, Merton argues, brought the quality and the standards crashing back to basic levels. Yes audiences could hear the tinny voices of their beloved stars but they lost much of the magic of cinema when it was silent. They lost the live musical performances accompanying the pictures in theatres. They lost the moving camera angles, zooming in and out to visually dazzle and excite. They lost the cults of intoxicating mystery that grew up around actors, as soon as they heard their ordinary or often foreign accented voices. Instead there was wooden dialogue in front of static cameras. Imaginations were stifled and limited.
It’s impossible not to compare the arrival of the talkies with that of 3D films in the 21st century. In my view it’s obvious that the shift is not so dramatic. Sound is a far bigger leap forward than three dimensions. This seems an odd thing to say; when in theory 3D should mean the action literally happening in front of you. But we know the reality of 3D is mostly gimmicky after seeing the offers of studios in cinemas.
This might suggest that greater efforts are needed to improve the technology, so it’s truly as transformative an experience as listening to sound for the first time in a movie theatre. However Merton’s documentary focuses on the ability of good storytellers to adapt. Irving Thalberg, who died in his 30s, was the extraordinary man at the centre of last night’s episode.
A German immigrant, Thalberg grew up in New York, after being born with a weak heart. He spent long periods of his childhood mollycoddled and stuck in bed through illness. During this time he read classic literature, plays and autobiographies. And followed the fortunes of the film business.
Then he got his big break and headed to Hollywood as a secretary to the head of Universal Studios. He was unexpectedly promoted to Head of Production, because of the qualities he showed his employer, where he established a reputation in his early twenties, before moving to MGM in the same role. His influence transformed MGM‘s studios into a vast dream factory with all manner of storytelling resources on site. He handpicked films for suitable directors, mixing traditional stories with bolder projects. He ensured that before release all his films were screened to members of the public, which led to scenes being re-shot frequently. A modest man, his name never appeared on any posters.
Thalberg’s MGM was at the top of its game when talkies arrived, courtesy of rivals Warner Brothers. But before his death Thalberg oversaw a successful transition to sound, with that same focus on good storytelling. As a producer he called the shots, made decisions in the company’s financial interests, but never compromised a good story.
3D audiences have been declining and champions of the technology pin their hopes on Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon. In press previews the 3D is said to be cutting edge, mind blowing and the best yet. But as this Guardian writer, Ben Child, points out, Bay’s films are so loud and bombastic that they simply become tedious. And the only real hope for 3D is that someone, a great individual of Thalberg’s ilk, can steer a truly great and inventive film project to fruition. One that makes the best of 3D‘s unique assets but one that, above all, tells an unbelievably good story.
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It’s a familiar theme in the news and it only needs the slightest of sparks to get going. If there’s a murder it means that the killer has been honing his skills on Xbox Live, amassing headshots of spotty American teens on Call of Duty. If there’s a horrifically tragic car crash then the kid’s obviously been getting ideas from the mindless traffic weaving, crude language and pedestrian skittles of Grand Theft Auto and the like. If a young girl is sexually harassed by a young guy, he’s been spending too much time working through the levels of Teach that Girl a Lesson: The Titillating Adventures of Spankatron Part II, or something.
What’s even more infuriating than the casual asides of blame in news stories though, is the supposedly in-depth and professional advice columns on the sort of parenting that can banish the evils of the games console. This type of thing is inevitable written by Dr Terri Praisebut Dontsmother or Professor Lilia Mollycuddleova of the Belgrade Child Tantrum Institute. These Gods of infant psychology will proceed to patronisingly explain the dos and don’ts of video gaming, which will ultimately turn out to be common sense.
Rather than appeal to such things as maternal instinct or the law of the bleeding obvious, these articles will be stuffed with lots of studies about the effects of gaming. Profound insights will stem from their findings, such as the fact that gaming immediately before bed might make it difficult for your child to sleep and that too much button bashing might cause inflammation and conditions like RSI in their hands.
Of course the really contentious question is: do games cause aggression? Our helpful Agony Aunt will usually start by admitting what a hotly debated topic this is, before laying out briefly the two views in the debate. The anti-games view will normally be presented with greater weight of evidence and any postives will be qualified, with phrases like “limited evidence shows that they can improve children’s willingness to co-operate”. Wrapped up somewhere in the waffle, will be the admission that the effect of games depends on the child’s environment, i.e. they don’t do any harm in a healthy and stable home, and it’s the badly behaving parents doing the damage in the poor environments, not video games.
Once in a while a reasonably interesting point will arise from one of the numerous studies being quoted. For example, that playing football based games increases appetite. However rather than seeking any positives in this, like, I don’t know, interest in playing ACTUAL football and getting regular exercise, a new evil shall be swiftly created. Football games = fat kids. So no shooting because that makes murderers and no scoring because that makes gobblers.
Some studies will just be frankly ethically dubious. They’ll casually mention that a group of children failed to do as many sit-ups as they once could. Who is making our primary school kids do sit-ups? Who is callously tracking their progress, as if we were breeding an army? I didn’t do any sit-ups in primary school, at least I won’t have thought of them as sit-ups. Forcing painful and sweaty exercise on our young, as if we were training race horses, sounds a lot worse than letting them dabble with escapism that isn’t The X-Factor or In The Night Garden, now and then.
It should be obvious that video games, like anything else that came before it like TV or comics, should be used in moderation. By anyone, not just kids. It should also be said more often that the greater immersion of video games has its developmental benefits as well as drawbacks. Increasingly experimental and quality narratives and technology, like that in LA: Noire, is simply an advancement in storytelling, not an untameable, corrupting beast to be feared.
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