Tag Archives: Gripes

One Day in September and a Confounding Marketing Decision

In 1999, Kevin Mcdonald made the gripping (and Oscar-winning) documentary One Day in September. It’s about the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich when a Palestinian terrorist group held several Israeli atheletes hostage. The artwork for the poster and DVD (which I got at the time) highlights the most indelible image of that tragedy: one of the masked hostage takers on the balcony.

OK, now let’s leap to 2005 when Steven Spielberg’s Munich is released. Starring Eric Bana, it’s a narrative film about the Israeli govenrnment’s secret retaliation attacks after the massacre. I’m in a video store with a good friend, describing One Day in September, which functions as a kind of prequel to Spielberg’s film. I say, “Even the DVD cover is freakin’ chilling. Here, check it out.” I pick it up and do a double take. Y’see, logically, to capitalize on the imminent success of the Speilberg film, Sony Pictures gave a push to the documentary DVD, only for reasons I can’t comprehend, they made new artwork:

Say what? I’ve done some casual research and haven’t found any stills of the terrorists taken with optimum lighting by professional photographers, which leads me to believe it’s as fake as it looks. It’s terribly ridiculous and “Hollywood” when compared to the Real Deal.

In fact, since this unfrightening “re-enactment” still isn’t in the film at all, it’s definitely misleading to the consumer. But the most damaging effect of this new cover is that it’s no where near as chilling as the iconic image that graced the original. Am I on crazy pills or is everything that makes the real picture terrifying—the graininess, the imperfect mask, the inability to see the eyes—completely missing from the new artwork?

It’s becoming a recurring theme on my blog: it drives me nuts when bad things happen to great art, whether it’s a film like Jaws getting an emasculating remix or a fine documentary like this being marketed as something it’s not. I’m reminded of what Norman Bates said about his mother in Psycho: “I don’t hate her. I hate what she’s become.”

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Filed under Film, Posters

The Many Faces of Jaws

Thirty-four years ago, I saw Jaws for the first time. My grandmother took me for my birthday, and nothing’s been the same since. Actually, the impact began before I saw the film in ’76. It really started the summer before with the outrageous hype and this poster…

This legendary image actually began as the paperback’s cover, drawn by Roger Kastel, an artist under contract with Bantam Books. If you look closely—and you don’t even have to look that closely—you can see that the woman (“Chrissie” from the opening of the book/film) is pretty damned naked. Besides seeing the film for my seventh birthday, I got the soundtrack, too, and would listen to it under (big) headphones while staring endlessly at this cover. In fact, for my birthday party that year, I snuck several of my guy friends into the bathroom so I could clandestinely show them the naked woman on the cover—but then my mother busted in and broke us up. (How did she know?!)



As a kid who loved humor as much as movies, the inevitable Mad magazine cover was equally as important in my early years. (Hell, I knew their parody, Jaw’d, months before I saw the film.)





But there is other artwork for Jaws worth noting. First, the original 1974 Doubleday hardcover takes a little thunder away from the iconic movie poster. This is clearly more esoteric, but the basic notion is already in place. Also, it too has the fishhook “J.” Lastly, unlike Kastel’s painting, this one evokes a night attack, which adds an extra chill to it. (It’s a shame no artist is noted on the dustjacket.)




In 1978, Jaws 2 arrived, and so did this lame-o poster. This took a great thing and made it stupid. I mean, sure the original was hyperbole, but this one was just plain dumb. I knew it even at the age of nine.1




What was a real drag, however, was that Universal Pictures didn’t stick with their teaser campaign…

Not only did it have the best possible tagline (that film’s only legacy), but it had a new look: Evil was reapproaching and it was all red, red, red. I saw this in TV Guide a month before the film was released and it knocked the wind out of me. It’s a shame Universal chickened out and played it safe, poster-wise.

Of course, this notion of Universal selling the viewer short has continued. If you read my first post, you know the disdain I have for the re-mixed Jaws on DVD. But my anger covers more ground than that. Have you seen the DVD cover artwork? Check it out…

It’s shiny so it doesn’t scan so easily. Therefore, I’ll point out the discrepancies between this version and the original it’s based on. The differences between the sharks are silly and almost negligible. The new shark is much more robotic and less defined. It’s more like an arrowhead and less like a fish. The eyes, however, are more lifelike but they look like they’re crossed. Also, they added some teeth to his upper jaw; I guess he wasn’t menacing enough in the original poster.


But it’s Chrissie that gets the most damage:

Besides the fact that they changed the position of both her arms (why?), they also added enough foam to remove any hint of her naked body below the surface. I could go on about the ugliness of PC revisionism, but what’s the use? I can’t figure these people out. The poster in its original form was perfectly fine promotion for 30 years, for the paperback, the film, the soundtrack, the VHS tape, etc., so why change it?

I will say this: that little bit of tease in the poster, as slight as it might be, happens below the water’s surface, and I always thought that’s what draws the shark: It’s what he sees. (It’s worth noting that the tagline for the film was “She was his first.”) So if you obliterate that detail of her body, obscure it with foam, well, it removes a layer of horror, the psycho-sexual kind. And you may remember that Chrissie’s death in the film also has plenty of sexual overtones.

So all that new fancy packaging gets us is a shiny, cross-eyed robot-shark staring at a sexless, glowing foam-creature. Hmmm…It makes me think of a reaction from “Clod Hopper,” Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Mad magazine’s Jaw’d:

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BACK TO POST 1  For what it’s worth, I think the cover of the Marvel Comics tie-in with Jaws 2 hit the nail on the head.

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Great Annie Hall Gag Dumbed-Down to Near Extinction

Back in 1979, Woody Allen inadvertently helped invent the Home Theatre Experience when he insisted that his film Manhattan be transferred to VHS only in the letterboxed format.



So, instead of this aesthetically compromising pan-and-scan version…





                        …we got this:


And since there were no “rules” in place yet, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis settled on a neutral gray matte for the letterboxing.

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Ever since then, however, Woody Allen has been less concerned with how his body of work is preserved for the home market, which is sad since that’s where it will be seen most from now on.


The first thing I noticed is that when Manhattan went to DVD in 2000, the gray bars were gone:

This is hardly cause for alarm. Certainly, Woody’s allowed to change his mind, and I know some people thought the gray was a little twee. As for me, I’ve seen Manhattan with the gray bars dozens of times, so it’s disconcerting to see it otherwise. The sad truth is that I don’t think MGM (who released the DVD) asked Woody Allen for his opinion, and I don’t think he cared one way or another.

Still, that’s small potatoes compared to this…

Twenty-five minutes into Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, his character Alvy Singer and Annie have their first meeting. This extended sequence of memorable lines (“That’s OK. We can walk to the curb from here”) and 70s urban mating ritual culminates with the Balcony Scene, which plays more like a year of therapy than a scene in a comedy. In it, while Alvy and Annie try to impress each other with intellectual observations, we see their insecure thoughts as subtitles. For those who need a refresher, here’s the scene. For the rest, here’s a sample of how it once looked on film, TV and VHS:

And yet, now, when you watch the only version on DVD available in the US, here’s an idea of what you see…

HuhI? Someone at MGM really thinks I need to be told that the words on the screen aren’t the ones coming from Annie and Alvy’s mouths? If they think I’m that dumb, then why not do these subtitles as well…

Or…

Sadly, I can easily imagine a first time viewer of the film (and my generation has to accept the fact that not everybody has seen Annie Hall) being confused by the inclusion of “[thinking]” in the subtitles, assuming that that’s what Woody Allen had intended. (God, what a dreadful thought.)

I can accept and respect the fact that Woody doesn’t do commentaries or ‘making of’ docs (more in a later post on my feelings about that), but I hope he’d at least protect one of his most brilliant and enduring gags. (And I mean that, too; it might not be the funniest joke in Annie Hall, but, my God, does it stick with you.)

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And just for the Hell of it, what if Woody Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman decided to limit their insights to just Woody’s character (perhaps calling the film Alvy Singer). Then maybe the Balcony Scene would look a little something like this…

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When Audio Commentaries Stick in My Craw

Sidney Lumet: Dementia sufferer…Robert Altman: Stoner…Frank Sinatra, Jr: Numbskull.

What a lazy commentary producer might look like.

These aren’t things I want to think about when I listen to an audio commentary, however, before this post is done, you’ll understand why I almost did.

I’ve produced, engineered and/or edited several commentaries over the years, and one of the reasons I was hired is because I’m very a detail-oriented film geek. And since some of my subjects were people that hadn’t watched their films in years, I was there to help out, to make sure they had the names right or, at the very least, to give them printout of the credits from IMDB.

I always looked at my job as a responsibility to the filmmaker (or whoever is commenting). I want to show them in the best light possible; to protect them oversights that are a by-product of the ravages of time; and to capitalize on the fact that I have spent way too much time pondering their work.

I’d think—hope–I have a solid track record of producing factually accurate audio commentaries. And therefore when I’m listening to one I didn’t produce and there’s a glaring mistake, you can understand why it stokes my ire.

I have some examples, and you’re may think I’m a old grump that’s getting hung up on details. But that’s exactly what a producer should do: get hung up on details.

-In director Sidney Lumet’s great commentary for Dog Day Afternoon, he talks about the real life events that inspired the film and their relation to the gay rights movement that was blossoming in NYC: “[The robbery was] way in advance of the gay movement. Stonewall had not happened yet.” However, the robbery detailed in Dog Day Afternoon took place in August, 1972; the Stonewall Riots happened in June, 1969. Would it have killed the commentary producer to say, “Uh, Mr. Lumet, can we go back to this one section and take another shot at it. I think your timeline is a little off”? Or if that opportunity was missed, then the producer could say to the editor, “Ditch that section about Stonewall. Lumet’s got it backwards, and we don’t want this great man to look old and doddering.”

-It’s clearly noted in Nashville’s closing credits (and on the soundtrack) that the song “For the Sake of the Children” is written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg, yet during the commentary, director Robert Altman has an isolated moment where gives full credit to actor Henry Gibson. And when I say “isolated,” I mean isolated: it could have been easily removed with a keystroke. Instead it was left in there, and when I saw the songwriters’ names in the credits, I thought, “Oh, man. Some producer fell asleep at the wheel.”

-On Frank Sinatra Jr.’s commentary for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3, he makes this bold statement about the film’s director John Sturges: “Like his father before him, Preston Sturges, John just had a way with the movie camera.” Which is all the more daring when you realize that not only were Preston and John not father and son, but that Preston Sturges’s first born was hatched 31 years after John Sturges was born.

Rocky has a wonderful cast-and-crew audio commentary, including director John Avildsen, actors Talia Shire, Burt Young, Steadicam operator/inventor Garrett Brown and others. About 99% is great—and well edited—but this one spot really pissed me off. There’s a scene at Philly’s legendary Pat’s Steaks. Now I know this because I was raised in the suburbs of South Jersey and am therefore familiar with this establishment. Oh, and I also know because it’s incredibly clear in the scene’s establishing shot. That being said, why, oh, why did the commentary’s producer leave this in?

Did the person driving that ship even watch the film?

And it didn’t even need to be in there! Steadicam operator Garrett Brown says “Jim’s Steaks” apropos of nothing; it was purposely edited into the tapestry, in between Avildsen’s comments. Lame. (By the way, Stallone gets the name right on his commentary track, which was recorded a few years after this multi-person one.)

(I’ll take it a step further: As someone who grew in that area, I have news for Mr. Avildsen: Rocky did not put Pat’s Steaks [est. 1930] on the map—or Jim’s Steaks, for that matter. On any map. But that’s just me being a local boy, being all hair-trigger.)

Full disclosure: I’m partial to this scene because as the shot continues, Rocky crosses S. 9th St and we see the front of the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, which is where my grandmother was baptized in 1921.

Good thing Rocky put it on the map.

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Who’s the Bigger Jerk?

The guy who did this…

(That’s my car, by the way.)

…or the schmuck who did this?

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W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack

I don’t like to have humor spoon fed to me. I think humor is best when it’s smart—even if it’s lowbrow. The laughtrack is the easiest example of a tool of comedy that insults my intelligence. I know there are a handful of reasons for them in a show, and not all of them are evil, but I’ve always been able to laugh without being cued by the creators that something funny just happened. Turns out I’m a minority. My wife says it’s uncommon, and I’ve heard that from others over the years. Many times, late at night, I’ve woken her up with my gales of laughter, watching a film while next to her in bed.

This could be hereditary. My Pop once told me of drawing stares on a Philly subway in the 60s, as he laughed uncontrollably while reading a Jules Feiffer book. Last year, history repeated itself: while reading a Philip Roth book on a NY subway, I was convulsing with laughter and I could feel the same stares. As I got off the train, a woman walked over and said, “OK, I have to know what made you laugh so hard?” She was being nice, but it still makes me wonder: is laughter exclusively a group experience? Is there something inside that warns us that to laugh alone is a sign of marching to the beat of your own drummer?

But I digress. I mean to talk about mickey mousing, which is when music in a film is put in synch with the action, as a way of reinforcing its point. Obviously, the term derives its use from animation, where one can easily see it’s necessity: since there is no sound recorded with an action something has to be added, so why not music?

Mickey mousing’s derogatory meaning comes when music is used to directly steer a viewer to a punch line or emotion. I can’t remember if it was Mel Brooks or Billy Wilder, but one of them said he stayed clear of using music cues to tell the audience that a joke just happened. Likewise, Sidney Lumet said this on his audio commentary for The Verdict: “I believe the [score] should not be doing what the movie’s doing. It shouldn’t be (what we call) ‘mickey mousing’ what’s going on. It should provide something else.”

The focus here, however, is a specific kind of mickey mousing which is when a soundtrack was added to silent films as they were “updated” for the audiences of sound era. That was how I first noticed this technique: as a kid, I would watch silent films on PBS, and they’d always be spiced up with silly, fast music and an abundance of sound effects created by musical instruments. There were timpani booms, kazoos and penny whistles. Lots of penny whistles. I was too young to think they were insulting my intelligence, but I was definitely like WTF? Pretty soon I was watching these with the volume down.

In the mid-80s, I taped an early talkie onto VHS, the W.C. Fields short film The Dentist (1932). This may be the funniest film I’ve ever seen. Here’s a sample, when Fields goes is golfing…

Then, as now, I laughed so incredibly loud watching this alone late one night, I think I woke my mother on the floor above.

When Criterion put out W.C. Fields 6 Short Films, I was thrilled to retire my fifteen-year old VHS tape.  In typical Criterion fashion, it looks great, obviously created from the best possible archival elements. But the sound? Well, here’s the same scene from that DVD…

Really? Really?! Whoever added the music blows the joke and, in the process, makes the gag less about a completely out-of-left field and malicious sight gag to just a silly bit of business. There are a few more instances of this short, but you get the idea.

The DVD doesn’t come with any explanation for this though I feel pretty damn certain the music-less version (my VHS) is the original. There are notes on the DVD about the transfers, which contain some clues: “The Dentist was created from a 35mm composite duplicate picture negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack negative; two scenes excised from the film in accordance with the provisions of the Hays Code have been restored from a 16mm composite duplicate negative, along with original opening and closing credits.” That last fact—about the credits—means a lot: there was a prior version of the film that Criterion did not use for their source material. (How weird is it to write anything negative about Criterion.) And though it’s not clear, the scenes that were excised had been in the initial release of the film but were removed after 1934, when the code was enforced.

You can watch the two and judge for yourself—but to me it’s crystal clear. The proof comes from the people I laughed awake.

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Jaws: Before and After

Screw any introduction of myself (that will come later). I’m just going to leap into this blog thing. My first post is both praise for my favorite film and an indictment of a drop in standards.  When Jaws came out on DVD in 2000, I was understandably thrilled. Pretty quickly, however, I was appalled to see—hear—that the sound was quite different than I had remembered…

How did this happen? How did the sound of a three-ton shark crashing through the side of a boat go from sounding like a ’73 Buick Riviera driving into your living room to Zelda Rubenstein dropping a champagne glass in your kitchen? I can only speculate.

Y’see, Jaws was originally mixed in (glorious) mono, and, naturally, that doesn’t sit right with the present-day sound-crazed home-theater owners. So when it was time to make the DVD, Universal did what was necessary to make a 5.1 mix for the film, which included re-recording several sound effects. And whoever was hired to do that phoned it in. (The whole film is missing chunks of great sound FX.) And someone (Universal? Spielberg?) gave it a stamp of approval. And this new mix was the only soundtrack available on the DVD!

And so here I was, a sound editor buying his All-Time Favorite Film, cringing at a desecration and daydreaming of the day when the word “blog” would be invented. I should be clear that I wasn’t the only one to think the sound FX work for Jaws was amazing: this film won only three Oscars, and one of those was for its Sound.

Gratefully, when Universal did its money-grubbing 30th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2005, the mono track was included—though it defaults to the 5.1 mix, which I think (as I’ve made perfectly clear) sounds like shit. And as I note in the clip, if you’re lucky enough to see a new print of Jaws (which looks gorgeous, BTW) in a movie theater, it will have this less-than-thrilling soundtrack.

One of these days I’ll post more examples of the tremendous inadequacy of the new soundtrack. Laughable and sad.

And yes, I welcome—encourage—anyone who was responsible for the sound FX on the remixed Jaws to drop me a line. I’d love to hear what you have to say to a fellow sound editor.

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