Friday, 17 September 2021

Introspection

For 16 years now I have been writing a regular film blog, first in Swedish (a link to the very first post in 2005) and from 2009 in English. That is a lot of writing. It happens at times that I begin to write a new post and after a while I start to have a nagging feeling of having written about that topic before, so I double-check and yes, I had done so, and now must come up with a new topic. I am sure I have unwittingly published stuff that I had already written about. At some point I should do an inventory and catalogue it all, so I know what is there. I should probably include the non-blog writing as well as my articles and reviews have been piling up since I was first published in 1997, at the tender age of 22. We have all passed a lot of water since then, as Samuel Goldwyn might have said.

Now I am feeling a need for changing things, and for asking myself some relevant questions. Not just about the blog but about life in general. The combination of aging (which I do not mind), the pandemic, and the climate emergency, make me want to consider what I do, what I focus on, or, to be as all-encompassing as possible, how I spend my time. We could all spend our time more wisely; the difficulty is finding out how. I do not mean better "time management" or engaging in "life hacks" as these are not just off-putting terms but are also usually based on misunderstandings of time as well as life. You cannot manage time, and the answer to your problems is not to take shortcuts in order to be more productive or efficient, but accepting that you cannot do all the things you want to, and settle for doing less instead. "Life is short" is a popular expression, but people often take this to mean that you need to be more efficient so you can do more things during that allegedly short lifespan. That might seem like luxury, unavailable for those who struggle to survive from day to day, but it also causes stress and anxieties for lots of people, and in the end it will probably make life feel even shorter. (Here is an article by Oliver Burkeman about some of these issues.) But maybe a better way is to do less, that the less you do, the longer life will feel, and the more content you will be.

Tempting though it might be, I have no intention of turning the blog into a self-help/lifestyle publication, so enough of those ruminations. But I will make some changes here. The most obvious and immediate one will be that I will switch from publishing twice a month to once a month, to write less often than I do now.

Another reason both for doing less in general and for writing less frequently has to do with the climate emergency. Most things we do affect the climate, and the digital world, partly due to the energy needed to power and cool all the servers of the world, is a big contributor to CO2 emissions, more than all air travels per year. (An article about that.) While there are big political decisions across the industrialized world that are needed to help deal with this global crisis, everybody has to take some individual responsibility too, however small. Whatever I do will have very small real-world effects, but we might all set an example. If we continue like before we only show that we are not taking the situation seriously.

About personal responsibilities one might argue at length. What is inarguable is that my next article here about film will appear a month from now, Friday, October 15.

Friday, 3 September 2021

On dealing with box office figures and a list of resources

This year I have frequently referred to box office figures on the blog, both old and new ones. The more I have used it though, the more obvious it has been how flawed the concept is, and how undependable the figures are. The website that is most frequently referenced when it comes to Hollywood box office figures seems to be Box Office Mojo (owned by IMDb, which is owned, not unexpectedly, by Amazon). I have used it myself for gathering statistics for earlier posts. But it has some weaknesses that illustrate the precarious nature of box office figures, especially those from earlier decades.

They have for example a "Top Lifetime Grosses" list, and it seems to be updated on a daily basis. The top ten Domestic list on 28 August, 2021, was as follows:

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avatar (2009)

Black Panther (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Titanic (1997)

Jurassic World (2015)

The Avengers (2012)

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)

Incredibles 2 (2018)

This tells us almost nothing of value, other than the presence of Titanic. It can only be of interest to the accountants, and it is unclear why these figures are reported in the news with such devotion. (That is about the change as streaming takes over from cinemas since streaming numbers are less available, less dependable, and barely useful.) As inflation means that ticket prices steadily increase, the more recent a film is, the more likely it is that it will end up on the top ten list, unless you adjust it for inflation. Although the list above claims to be an all-time list, you will not be able to draw any conclusions about the popularity of these films compared to films made in previous decades, you can only compare them with each other. This is why the presence of Titanic is interesting, because it is about twenty years older than the other films and therefore we can say with some certainty that it was a lot more popular than all the other films on the list, including the ones above it. At least if we know how much the tickets cost. As Titanic was 195 minutes long, the price of the tickets when it came out could be a lot higher than that for a regular ticket, so you need to be aware of that as well when calculating its popularity. [Amendment: A reader asked whether ticket prices for longer films, such as Titanic, really were higher in the US or if this is a European thing. It has happened in the US but I am not certain about Titanic, so that is a subject for further research. It only adds to the difficulties.]

If you manage to find out how to make the all-time list adjusted for inflation on Box Office Mojo, you will get the following top ten:

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

The Sound of Music (1965)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Titanic (1997)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Jaws (1975)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The Exorcist (1973)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As you can see this list is very different. There are no Marvel films on it for example, and the previous number one is not on there at all. Whereas in the first list, the oldest film was Titanic, from 1997, after adjustment to inflation Titanic is instead the most recent film on the top ten. If you want to get an idea of which films have been the most popular over time, this list is more useful whereas the earlier one was useless. Alas, this one is also unreliable, not least since box office figures of the past cannot be trusted. Films and figures can be wrong, or missing completely. On Box Office Mojo, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974) do not appear on any lists, despite being very popular. It seems that Box Office Mojo has no figures at all for them for their original releases. On another site, The Numbers, they have a list called "All Time Domestic Inflation Adjusted Box Office" but for some obscure reason that list only includes films released after 1977, so despite its name it is not an "All Time" list of any sort.

One of the most referenced books for these figures is The Hollywood Story, but it too has flaws and omissions. One example: on the list of most popular films from the period 1961 to 1970, My Fair Lady (1964) is missing, despite being one of the decade's biggest successes. Whoever wants to use these statistics, such as me, has a lot of hurdles to deal with, especially since you will only be aware of key films missing if you already knew that they should have been included.

To add to the confusion there are different ways of reporting these figures, which means that you cannot collect a figure here and a figure there without verifying what the figure represents. Is it domestic rentals? Is it international grosses? Is it for the year of release only, or are re-releases included? Sometimes this is not specified at all, in which case you might as well not use the figure, since you do not know what they mean.

In the past, different studios differed in the reliability of their numbers, or even whether they reported any at all. As I wrote about in an earlier post, MGM and Warner Bros. are for example more dependable than Paramount in this regard. But no list of the box office hits of any given year in the past, at least prior to the 1990s, can be taken at face value. They are almost certainly wrong, and alas that is also true for the top ten lists I have made and presented on the blog earlier in 2021. They are probably more accurate than many other lists you might find in books or online, such as those on Wikipedia, but that is not saying much. One of the most watched films of the 1940s was one called Mom and Dad (1945), but as it was a sensational "sex hygiene" film about the horrors of sex and unwanted pregnancies, you will hardly ever see it mentioned about box office hits, or even mentioned at all in film history books. It was not included on my list for 1945 although it probably should have been.

Talking about film history books, it is dispiriting that in most such books I have read, or biographies of actors and directors, in which box office figures are mentioned, the writers have hardly ever done any due diligence. They use one source for their numbers, such as Box Office Mojo, and accept it uncritically. This is a problem in itself, but when you also try to base some theoretical musings on these numbers you are almost doomed to failure.

But despite their unreliability they can still provide an idea of what was popular, if nothing more. I will not pursue that research any longer because the work is not sufficiently rewarding, but I can still use the material I have already gathered for the occasional article.

When I have been gathering the figures I have been using many different sources (as one must) and here are they, at least the ones I remember having used:

Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, Ultimate Movie Rankings, Worldwide Box Office, Box Office Madness

An article from The Argus Weekend in 1944.

Lots of articles and lists in Variety, such as this one and another one from October 15, 1990, which is not linkable.

Articles in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television about the box office figures for Warner Bros., RKO, and MGM.

Books such as Success in the Cinema - Money-Making Movies by John Howard Reid, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records by Cobbett Steinberg, The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler, The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: a Hollywood History by Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, and several biographies of studios, producers, actors, and directors.

Annual publications such as International Motion Picture Almanac.

Use them with caution.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Hell is a City (1960)

The British production company Hammer Films is primarily famous for its series of horror films, beginning in the 1950s and through the 1960s; what might be said to be one of two prevailing trends in British cinema of the time. The second trend would be kitchen sink realism, the films about "angry young men" in a working-class environment. But one of the best British films of that time is a cross between the two, namely Hell is a City (1960). Although produced by Hammer, and filmed in the widescreen format Hammerscope, it is not a horror film but a realistic police film, in a working-class environment, and there is plenty of anger. It was written and directed by Val Guest, one of the real workhorses of English film. Guest wrote and directed around 50 films, and he also produced some. He considered Hell is a City as one of his “top four” and although I have not seen that many of his films, I can believe that.

Hell is a City is set in Manchester and the lead role is played by Stanley Baker, who had his heyday during those years, when he often played rough men who grew up far from the high and mighty. A small gang robs a cash-in-transit, but the police is quickly on the trail, led by Baker’s police inspector Harry Martineau. The film has its share of some usual clichés, such as Martineau being so focussed on his work that he neglects his wife, but it is much more than that. The milieu, rarely seen in films, is vividly captured by the cinematographer Arthur Grant. There is no pretty scenery here, instead it is Manchester's industrial environment with a heavy scent of spilled beer, dirty clothes, and bulging chimneys. The pacing is excellent, and the film has a relentless energy, exhausting at times, which becomes an extension of Martineau’s personality. He cannot stay still for very long because then his anxieties and dark thoughts risk consuming him.

Harry's problem with his wife is not only that he prioritises his job, but that there is another woman. Not some young, casual, beautiful flirt, but an older woman who works at the pub he usually visits. Their relationship gives the film an unexpectedly sad dimension, along with Harry's disillusioned outlook on life. After the case is solved, Harry does not go home to his wife, nor does he celebrate with his colleagues. Instead, he embarks on a lonely, nocturnal walk on the gloomy streets of Manchester. The film's last line is "You do not have to be on your own to be alone."

Crime and punishment, and the policeman's everyday life, is what you would expect from such a film, but the forceful storytelling and direction, vivid characterizations, together with the tensions and general malaise, are what give Hell is a City its edge. The ending is more like the ending of something by Antonioni than just another police thriller.

I have seen Hell is a City several times, and each time I am shocked by its brutality and impressed by its style and confidence. It is a superior film. But I also want to watch more of Guest’s films, for example Expresso Bongo (1959), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Jigsaw (1962), and I should re-watch The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). But that is for another day.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Another summer break

It has been a hot and busy summer for me but now I shall have some free time again, and especially rewarding is the fact that I am now properly vaccinated with two shots. So no regular post today, the next one will be in two weeks. See you then!

Friday, 23 July 2021

Jan Troell 90 years today

One of the most celebrated of Swedish filmmakers is undoubtedly Jan Troell, who today turns 90. He is still active, re-cutting one of his films, Bang! (1977), for a re-release, and participating in exhibitions and retrospectives, at home and abroad, about his work and art.

His first feature-length film, after years of making short films, is Here is Your Life/Här har du ditt liv (1966). It is set in the far north of Sweden during the years of World War 1 and focuses on a young man, a boy at first, who leaves home to travel around the country looking for jobs, discovering sex and socialism, and finally getting a job as a projectionist at a cinema. There he eventually sees newsreel footage that the war is over, and he quits, finally buys that hat he has been wanting for so long, and leaves, potentially heading for Paris.

It was probably the longest Swedish film made up until that point, over 160 minutes, and it is certainly among the most beautiful. Troell's cinematography, primarily black and white but at times in colour, and with some sequences even animated, captures the far north like few, if any, other Swedish films, both the deep snow in winter and the short and ethereal summer. He mixes all kinds of techniques, as if thrilled by the amazing possibilities of the camera and the editing board, and not wanting to leave anything out. And every character is played to perfection by many of Sweden's best actors, often in small parts. I particularly like Ulf Palme as a foreman at a sawmill and Gunnar Björnstrand as the owner of the cinema. The film is an endless source of pleasure, including Eddie Axberg in the lead role.

Troell is his own editor and cinematographer (from the late 1990s together with Mischa Gavrjusjov), and his style is impressive. A combination of raw realism, lyrical interludes, and expressionistic touches, and where the natural world plays an important part; trees, grass, insects, water given as much attention as the characters. The narrative often consists of vignettes and sketch-like scenes, capturing a mood or a significant moment, without necessarily highlighting its importance. In that regard many scenes do not forward the story in a conventional sense but work together to create an impression, or impressions, of the main character. This main character, as so often in Troell's films, is a person who is a dreamer and seeker, who wants to unleash him- or herself from a quotidian existence, and they are often people from Swedish history, real historical figures. Because another theme of Troell is Sweden itself, its past and its present.

All of the above is present in Here Is Your Life, and they would remain central aspects of his later films, even though not necessarily all at once. Some other films by Troell to mention are the nightmarish Who Saw Him Die/Ole dole doff (1968), about a primary school teacher (as Troell had been); the epics The Emigrants/Utvandrarna (1971) and The New Land/Nybyggarna (1972), about Swedes emigrating to the U.S. in the mid-19th century; Flight of the Eagle/Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (1982), about a failed expedition by balloon to the North Pole in 1897; the documentary Land of Dreams/Sagolandet (1988), Hamsun (1996), about the Norwegian writer who during World War 2 embraced the Nazis; As White as in Snow/Så vit som en snö (2001), about the Swedish aviation pioneer Elsa Andersson; and Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (2008), about a hard-working woman with a brutal husband who finds solace in photography during the 1910s. The everlasting moments are the images that she captures with her camera, and in that she is a kindred spirit of Troell.

But this post is not meant to be a critical evaluation of Troell's oeuvre, in all its strengths and weaknesses, but a celebration of a remarkable filmmaker on his 90th birthday!