Took the dog to the vet for his heartworm test and vaccination. As I watched him walk up the ramp, I thought of all the trips we’d taken over the years, how well he bore the indignities, how happy he was to leave, and how this . . . this was probably the last trip.

That’s what I thought two years ago, anyway. And last year. Who knows. The vet said he’s in better shape in many ways than dogs five years younger - heart is still strong. He’s lost muscle mass in his back legs, and that's inevitable. Would be worse were it not for the walks, too. But she did some reflex tests, and said he can still tell his paws are turned backwards; many dogs at an advanced age can’t tell, or don’t care. Oh, he cares.

But still. Still a noble beast.



Note: this is not about an old movie you haven't seen, and probably never will. So don't worry.

I ripped a batch of latter Harold Lloyd talkies, and was reminded why I didn’t finish them before: they’re dated and stilted. Lloyd’s star waned gradually. By ’34 he was still playing naive honest all-American types, and even though he could carry them off, the persona must have felt a bit tired to audiences who’d become used to hard-boiled wisecracking Depression-era styles. The Film Daily ad doesn’t tell you much:


Everything new but these, the trademark glasses. Wasn’t enough. The movie recouped its cost, but it wasn’t much of a hit. It lacked the usual comedic set-pieces. It was a cynical tale of electoral corruption, for one thing. People wanted to see Harold hang from buildings. When he spoke and sounded milk-toasty and simple, it was contrary to the can-do, step-right-up-and-call-me-Speedy persona.

Anyway. Here’s what I found interesting, in a sorta-kinda-something-to-blog-abut way: the scenes set on a street.



It looks like a set, doesn't it? But the street's too clean. The lighting is too even. The hustle & bustle is convincing, until you realize that everyone's well-dressed. No bum with a cigar, no laborers, no Blacks. So then you notice this:



If it's all a fake - for a scene that doesn't last more than a few minutes - then you wonder why they added this, because it's not as if the absence would make anyone think "hey, this is a set." But I've never heard of Silk's Supreme Spanish Rice, and even if it was a real brand, unless it had national distribution no one would think it was real. Unless everyone was accustomed to seeing unknown brands as local brands, which is possible. In any case, it was a common advertising medium of the day: drive around town with an ad in the back. It hasn’t died out entirely, but it’s rare.

Anyway, it's all a set, obviously. I mean, look at this:



Oh, sure, Rio Grande gas. Well, yes, sure:



So there was a real Rio Grande gas. "The Emergency Fuel" seems like an odd slogan; fine, I'll use it when I have an emergency. Until then, I'll stick with Signal. I'll bet it means that it delivered Extra Power when you needed it, like when you were trying to overtake a bus on a windinng two-lane and saw someone heading your way in the lane you used to pass.

It was purchased by Sinclair in the early 30s, but they kept the name for a few years. So was it a set, or a real LA street? Did anyone wonder at the time? When you think about it, these backlot streets were the equivalent of CGI.

Re the failure of "John Carter," described here, Mark Styen wrote:

Yeah, but what else you got? Sherlock Holmes? Narnia? Middle Earth? Hollywood’s business model is to take a story that cost two shillings and thruppence-ha’penny and spend a fifth of a billion making it lousier. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way the industry’s living off Model T fumes. Hollywood could use its own Edgar Rice Burroughs, but instead it’s a business full of guys who can’t even adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs for less than 300 mil — and then blow it.

. . . . These days, whatever the source material, movies are mostly about other movies. And not even old movies, like Spielberg when he did the Indiana Jones stuff, but movies that you saw last week. You’d almost get the impression that that’s all these fellows know. So all you see is the formula, which the critics dignify as allusion and hommage rather than a shrinking myopia as constricting as the most convention-bound kabuki.

This seems excessive. I’ve been watching a lot of small movies lately, and they’re not about other movies at all. “John Carter” seems to be partly a failure of marketing, but even if they’d made the trailers look thrilling, there’s a general public suspicion that Mars movies are dry and dusty. I don’t know why that might be.

Hollywood is always making movies about the last movie that made a lot of money. Nearly everything I see in the old Film Daily magazines is a cliche - an oater, a wrestling picture, a Woman of Honor in a dishonorable situation, a French Foreign Legion picture, a sea yarn.

It’s not that the movies are about other movies; you could say that about “Prometheus,” and I had to turn off the trailer for fear I would spoil a single moment of what I expect will be a harrowing little reprise of Alienesque terror. It’s the fact that the big expensive movies have no soul. They’re machines - loud, noisy machines that hit you over the head and show no recognition of Disbelief, and the effort it takes to suspend it.

“Batman Begins” was a remake of something recently remade, and it was excellent for the genre. The big famous flops of all time, on the other hand, didn’t founder because they were examples of insular, self-referential movie-making culture: they just sucked, period. Noisy and witless. “Cutthroat Island” flopped because it was an empty vanity project. “Pirates of the Caribbean” made a billion zillion dollars because it had wit, charisma, and took itself juuuuust seriously enough; it never retreated into full-on comedy or genre parody, and its serious side didn’t just trot out the basics of the genre, they inhabited them. (The second one forgot these lessons entirely.)

If I’ve another gripe: big-studio movies with contemporary settings don’t seem to take place in a recognizable world anymore. The offices. The homes. The cities themselves. When you watch a movie from the 40s or 50s, the settings look reasonably accurate, as if the filmmakers understood that people need a reference point to feel some kinship. That’s one of the things I loved about Super8: the houses where the kids lived. Reminded me of the movies of the late 70s and 80s, where homes had the cluttered, comfortable feel of an inhabited environment; this was the way people lived, and the sensibility behind the lens wasn’t trying to tell you something bad about these people. It liked these people. It got them.

Last point in this rambling, lethargic objection: I wasn’t crazy about “Narnia,” but Sherlock Holmes did well enough in the first movie I saw. The television version - movies, more or less, on a smaller scale - was exceptional. The “Lord of the Rings” series was a peerless work of fantasy filmmaking.

Good cameras are cheap. Editing software comes free with new computers. The distribution networks are changing in a way that makes the break-up of the studio control over the chains look like a minor reshuffling of names on the leases. The introduction of computer-generated imagery is about where sound was in 1939, ten years after its full adoption. It’s full-surround Dolby / THX now; imagine a commensurate leap in computer graphics 25 years hence. We’re just at the start of something, and yes, there will be dreck. There was always dreck. Sit through a few Poverty Row programmers or rote B-movie second-features or 50s / 60s quickie exploitation flix and tell me it was always gold then, and it’s always dross now.

When I go to the Redbox tomorrow there will be one big noisy blockbuster, a few modestly-budgeted studio films, and a handful of small interesting movies made by someone who loves the form, and convinced some guys with idle money to roll the dice. That’s just in a machine in the entryway of a grocery store, offering a film for a buck a throw. I always find something I like. I gave up giving up on movies, I’m afraid. Marvels large and small are en route, and I don’t want to miss them.

Never did see “Avatar,” though. Never will.











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