Sunday, November 8, 2009

Weekly Rant: The Black Stallion


It’s November, which means it’s time to start forecasting Academy Awards nominations. I’m not happy about it. In general, I could do without box office reports and awards season horserace analysis. Then again, I’d be lying if I suggested that critical hype hasn’t helped steer me to legitimately great films I might have otherwise overlooked while helping me avoid some bombs. Still, I find it all so uninteresting. I’ve long since outgrown the stage of my life when I got worked up over what is and isn’t nominated and awarded each year. Sure, I root for my favorites to win. Sure, every now and then the overhyping of a film will get under my skin. But the Oscars are a marketing exercise, I know. I try to embrace the good and ignore the bad.

That said, a few weeks ago when I got lost in the (occasional) scenic splendor of Where the Wild Things Are, I found myself thinking of another movie about a boy who washes up on an island and bonds with a friendly beast: The Black Stallion. And that got me thinking about what I consider to be one of the biggest Oscar crimes of the past 30 years: The Black Stallion was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1979, but none of them was Best Cinematography.

This defies explanation. It doesn’t matter whether one thinks Best Cinematography is an award recognizing excellence in cinematic storytelling or excellence in pretty filmmaking, because The Black Stallion, shot by Caleb Deschanel, is marvelous by either standard. The winner of Best Cinematography that year was Apocalypse Now, and that’s fair. But the other four nominees were All That Jazz, The Black Hole, Kramer vs. Kramer and 1941. Kramer vs. Kramer for Best Cinematography? Really?

I could hammer out a few hundred words about the magnificence of the cinematography in The Black Stallion, which goes almost entirely without dialogue for its first 45 minutes. But instead why don’t I just show you. What follows are screenshots from the two moments in which Alec (Kelly Reno) and “The Black” bond through feeding. The images alone tell the story here. And isn't that the point?















































20 comments:

Kevin J. Olson said...

God, Jason, these are just beautiful stills. I just recently re-watched this one on MGM HD and that opening 30 minuets or so on the island (essentially a silent film) is still one of the most beautifully photographed sequences in all of film.

You're right, too, that complaining about Oscar snubs is usually wasted breath, but when they get something this obvious so blatantly wrong, then it becomes a tad irksome; especially in a decade when Oscar hadn't become synonymous with being a joke.

Great job on compiling some beautiful stills.

Craig said...

A wonderful movie. If Caleb Deschanel's cinematography had been nominated, I'd have hated to choose between it and Vittorio Storaro's for Apocalypse Now. (Kudos also, Caleb, for giving us Emily and Zooey.) The Kramer vs. Kramer nom was probably another instance where the front-runner piles up all the categories whether it's deserved or not. Also probably didn't hurt that its DP, Nestor Almendros, won for Days of Heaven the year before.

Related to Oscar forecasts: anybody else fucking sick of Roger Ebert's obnoxious plugging of Precious? I admire Roger for many things, but his incessant itch to play kingmaker (or queenmaker) isn't one of them. It just makes me that much more adverse to seeing it.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Craig:

I'm with ya on Ebert's annual trumpeting of a particular movie that, quite honestly, doesn't need any more promotion (um, Oprah has already endorsed it, Ebert, so you're not needed here). I do like it when Ebert used to do this for smaller films that had no chance of getting an audience; but do we really think Precious is one of those films...especially with Oprah and Tyler Perry already lending their names to the project?

He did this a few years ago with Juno, too, a film that needed no pimping because the director is the son of an already established comedic filmmaker, it had a strong cast full of known entities, and he made Cody's script out to be something that was real.

I have nothing but respect for Ebert, too (bringing this back to The Black Stallion, when I was in college and kept Ebert's pocket sized movie book on me I remember seeing that The Black Stallion received four stars. I was intrigued, so I sought out a copy of the film and watched it...I owe the experience to his enthusiastic review), but honestly he has ceased as a premier film critic in my eyes (which, to be honest, his shitty luck with health has caused him to, perhaps, not be as on-the-ball as he once was). I can't even read his blog anymore.

Anyway...Craig you're not alone. I think the perfect amount of praise and enthusiasm for Precious was exhibited on At the Movies where Scott and Phillips claimed it was a great film, but didn't go on and on about how it's "the little film that could".

Anonymous said...

Never saw this, but very nice job compiling.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Since Craig brought up Ebert, here's some trivia:

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but Ebert named The Black Stallion his best film of 1980 over Raging Bull, which was his No. 2. (This is odd because the two films weren't in the same Oscar class.) That said, when Ebert made his list of the best films of the 1980s, Raging Bull topped the list and The Black Stallion was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he slipped out of it by moving Stallion back to the 70s, but it's always made me sad that after giving the film such high praise that he allowed it to fall into the abyss.

To be clear: I have no problem with him placing Raging Bull ahead of The Black Stallion in a later list, if that's what happened. All of us should continue to reconsider films, and by the end of the decade if your opinion is the same as it was 10 years previous then you're probably being too closed-minded. Still, I wish Stallion got lasting praise. It's not a film that should be forgotten.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I've always found with Ebert that he will praise a film to the heavens after having seen it, and then will never mention it again after he names it the best film of that year. I wouldn't be surprised to see something like Crash or Juno appear nowhere near his list for best films of the 2000's; yet he spent a lot of time and wrote a lot words about how they were the best films of their respective years.

Anyway, Jason, it's interesting you brought up that piece of trivia because I remember thinking that was weird, too.

Hokahey said...

There have been other Cinematography Award injustices as well: The Thin Red Line losing to Saving Private Ryan back in 1998.

As for The Black Stallion, the latter half of the film becomes standard horse-race drama, but the first half, as evidenced here, is spectacular. Beautiful job!

Although the sequel is silly, it includes a visually impressive horse race across the desert filmed in Morocco.

Craig said...

Jason:

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but Ebert named The Black Stallion his best film of 1980 over Raging Bull, which was his No. 2. (This is odd because the two films weren't in the same Oscar class.)

I think Ebert's rule used to be that he judged movies by the year in which he saw them, not the year they were technically "released." If The Black Stallion came out in late '79 to qualify for the Oscars but he didn't see it until early '80, that would explain it.

That said, Roger has freely admitted his tendency to tweak his lists. He has added a few new titles every time he submits the "10 Best Ever" list for Sight & Sound.

Kevin:

I do like it when Ebert used to do this for smaller films that had no chance of getting an audience; but do we really think Precious is one of those films

Absolutely. One False Move springs instantly to mind as a great movie nobody would have seen without Siskel and Ebert coming out for it. Precious, not so much. I try not to judge a movie sight unseen, but there's something overcalculating about the hype around this one. Even Slumdog Millionaire, for all its canny marketing, was still something of a surprise with the impact it made. It was a genuine crowd-pleaser -- one without stars or a familiar language -- and Danny Boyle, for all his razzle-dazzle, is a cockeyed romantic, and people responded to that. There's something sanctimonious and entitled and, well, precious about Precious that's already creeping into the awards hype, and it's only November yet.

There have been other Cinematography Award injustices as well: The Thin Red Line losing to Saving Private Ryan back in 1998.

My pick would be Children of Men losing to Pan's Labyrinth in '06. Don't get me wrong, Pan's Labyrinth is beautiful. But Emmanuel Lubezki did some truly radical things in Children, which prompted one blogger to say in effect: "Cinematographers vote for Best Cinemtography, which can mean only one reason why Children of Men lost: jealousy."

Jason Bellamy said...

On the Precious debate, I think it's important to keep this in mind: Movie fanatics (including bloggers) were going to see Previous no matter what. The 'average moviegoer' probably still doesn't know what Precious is. I've read that Oprah is backing it, but that's because I'm a movie fanatic. I haven't actually felt the ripple effect of Oprah's endorsement. So I guess what I'm saying is that I see your point that Ebert could probably take his foot off the pedal for a while, on the other hand, if he loves the movie, he loves the movie.

On Best Cinematography slights ...

Hokahey: I'm glad you brought up The Thin Red Line. I was seriously bummed at the time when that happened, but I was thinking about that very instance as I was posting this yesterday and came up with this thought: If Terrence Malick (much as I love his films) was so confident in his cinematography, he wouldn't fall back on voice-over all the time -- regularly planning to go without and then ultimately going back to it. As overall films, there's no doubt in my mind that TRL is superior to SPR and that it has more breathtaking imagery. But SPR does effectively tell its story with images; I can't deny that.

As for Children of Men: I have no idea when I'll get to it, but actually that movie -- and the praise for its cinematography -- will be the subject of an eventual rant. I need to watch the film again though before I write it. I'll shoot to do that one before the end of the year.

Craig said...

So I guess what I'm saying is that I see your point that Ebert could probably take his foot off the pedal for a while, on the other hand, if he loves the movie, he loves the movie.

I have no qualms with Rog loving the movie. Whatever floats his boat. But when he starts touting box office receipts as evidence of greatness (from one city's limited premiere showing, no less), it gets my dander up.

As for Children of Men: I have no idea when I'll get to it, but actually that movie -- and the praise for its cinematography -- will be the subject of an eventual rant.

Jason, listen to me carefully: keep your rants away from Children of Men. Think about what you're doing, Jason. Don't force me to bring out a tirade!

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, I see your point with the box office thing. Also, he's been VERY tweet-happy about it. (But then he's tweet-happy about almost anything of late. He's hooked.) I must admit that memories of recent Ebert favorites has me less than enthused about Precious.

As for Children of Men: I just bumped it to the top of my queue in the hope of getting to it before the end of the year. If my rant was met with your tirade, that would be awesome ... as Chris Farley would say.

Daniel Getahun said...

Wow, I haven't seen this movie in I don't know how many years - definitely not since I even knew what cinematography was. Interestingly, though, what I do remember from this movie is much more visual than emotional. I remember a lot about the kid and the horse on the boat.

And in terms of historical snubs, I'd have to agree that Children of Men's loss (at least it was nominated) goes far beyond The Black Stallion's, at least when comparing what they both lost to. Children of Men does not just feature radical camerawork, but literally revolutionary, industry-changing camerawork.

Jason Bellamy said...

Now that Craig and Daniel are united with Children of Men, help enlighten me:

Daniel: When you say it was "revolutionary" and "industry changing," you mean in technique, right? In other words, the film didn't do anything that couldn't have been done before, right? We're not talking about an effects shot or special new camera that never existed previously, are we?

I'm not trying to sound like I'm knocking the cinematography there (I'll save that for some other time). I'm making sure I'm not ignorant of some technical breakthrough.

I certainly don't deny that Children of Men's cinematography was influential and (sometimes) awesome.

Daniel Getahun said...

No, I meant never been done before. As far as I know the two-axis dolly rig created by DoggiCam systems was invented specifically for the car scene, and had never been used before in a film. If you go to the DoggiCam website you can check out the clip under Products and Two-Axis Dolly.

I remember being absolutely gobsmacked in the theater while watching that scene. I just couldn't make any sense of how it could have been filmed (in one take no less) without someone in the car.

That car scene in particular is what I meant by revolutionary, not necessarily the much heralded long take toward the end.

Kevin J. Olson said...

The cinematography in Children of Men (especially the car scene you mention, Daniel) is certainly noteworthy, but it's too showy...why does the camera need to move around that much for a simple moment of dialogue in a car? Much like tracking shot in Atonement, which is as aesthetically pleasing as it gets, what's the point?

I'm one of the few that thinks Children of Men is one of the most overrated movies of the decade. I look forward to your rant, Jason.

Craig said...

Daniel: When you say it was "revolutionary" and "industry changing," you mean in technique, right? In other words, the film didn't do anything that couldn't have been done before, right? We're not talking about an effects shot or special new camera that never existed previously, are we?

Why am I hearing Joe Pesci's voice saying these words?....

Daniel Getahun said...

I would agree with you, Kevin - if I considered that scene a simple moment of dialogue. To me it was the point at which the film jumped a level. Had it been used in a different scene where Owen and Caine are just chatting at home, yeah, that would definitely be unnecessary. But I didn't think it was in the car.

We're slowly drawn into the scene with the playful joking and flirting, then there is trouble ahead, then there is trouble all around, then it's just a nightmare from that point on. I believe Cuaron's DP originally suggested they shoot multiple takes and angles and digitally blend them, but he was insistent on doing it in one continuous take, leading to the "invention" of that camera set-up. I think the difference between that scene and the perhaps overrated long take at the end is that the latter becomes tiresome, definitely Atonement-ish (even though it directly inspired the Atonement scene, or so I suspect). I found the car scene gripping and not at all showy, and had it been filmed traditionally I don't think it would have been nearly absorbing. It was a creative gamble and it worked for me.

But then that's me, and I saw the movie once 3 years ago. And incidentally I'm disappointed by the bleak and altogether disappointing message of the film.

Great thoughts, will be interested to hear Jason weigh in. And Craig...help, Craig!

Craig said...

I'm one of the few that thinks Children of Men is one of the most overrated movies of the decade.

Oh, yeah?! Well....Kevin....that's just....I think....you cannot....furthermore....sez who?....not to mention....takes one to know one!....ahem.....(crickets chirping)

Jason Bellamy said...

Just as I planned: Post a bunch of screen captures from The Black Stallion and lure people into a debate about Children of Men. I'm brilliant.

But seriously ...

Daniel: Interesting stuff. I'm very appreciative for the insight. I haven't checked out those links yet, but "two axis dolly rig" sounds badass. If it isn't a revolutionary filmmaking device, the name could at least double as the title of a sexual position or a professional wrestler's finishing move.

I'm with Kevin that I think Children of Men is wildly overrated, and some of that is overpraise for the cinematography. That said, I stand by what I said earlier that some of the cinematography in Children of Men is outstanding, and my forthcoming post -- which now I just have to get done by the end of December -- will focus on that.

Don't want to cut off the debate on the subject now, but don't punch yourself out. We'll have a real throwdown in a few weeks.

Daniel Getahun said...

Duly noted - I'll look forward to it. Though again, it won't be much of a fair fight as I was generally disappointed by the emotional and philosophical bent of the film (haven't read the book), and the fact that it stars Julianne Moore, even if only for a time, puts it at major disadvantage for me from the get-go. I'm really hanging my hat on this car scene...

In the meantime, apologies for picking up on the bait and distracting (for the second time on this thread) from the beautiful horse and boy stills. I think you're bound to bring out rants from people on all subjects with these rants of your own = awesome.