We have the privilege every month of featuring an excerpt from Doug Pratt’s Newsletter.
However, this month is special.
I believe Mr. Pratt’s thoughts on a great movie, recently released on Home Video, is not only insightful and sublime but especially worth reading if you are a professional screenwriter/filmmaker. I’ll explain myself… but only after I mention three other movies reviewed by Mr. Pratt in his August Newsletter.
Kingsman THE SECRET SERVICE is directed by Matthew Vaughn. He’s also the screenwriter along with Jane Goldman (Screenplay); Mark Millar (Comic Book "The Secret Service"); Dave Gibbons (Comic Book "The Secret Service." Vaughn was the co-writer and director of the films, X-Men-First Class; Kick Ass; and the director/producer of the crime drama Layer Cake. All of these titles were not only top notch entertaining efforts but were arguably groundbreaking in their respective genres.
Once again, Vaughn demonstrates with his work in Kingsman THE SECRET SERVICE that he is a filmmaker clearly in touch with what is cool in cinema today (even if in this film, he’s taking “Classic” and showing how it can be retrofitted creatively to become… cool). I believe the movie showcases the promise of something even cooler down the line.
And just to be clear, I’m not talking about the film franchise, but the filmmaker.
Pratt tackles two films directed by legendary filmmaker Sam Peckinpah — CONVOY and The Osterman Weekend. Both movies were dismal failures at the box office, the last works by a famously cantankerous, and self-destructive creative artist who chose not to play along with the entertainment business. And now all we have is what Pratt clearly writes about – phoned in efforts by a Hollywood legend before his induction to the filmmaking hall of fame.
the Black Stallion is a masterpiece, and Mr. Pratt is well aware of the movie’s secure place in the film pantheon. And he tackles his latest viewing of the classic by suggesting important thoughts that all filmmakers (working today/or starting out) should consider.
I will mention only one here – how the three-act film structure inevitably is the foundation for any great story, but as Pratt points out, one may never know which of the three acts will end up becoming transcendent. And I have to admit the Black Stallion has long been in my mind as the rare example of the Second Act being the most memorable.
I saw the movie in 1979 during its original theatrical release, and then three more times; the last occasion just s a few years ago with one of my daughters. And even now, as I write these words, what I almost exclusively think about is the boy and the horse and how they bonded on the island. My obsessive memories are not meant as a rebuke, but a validation of what Pratt writes about regarding the film in his newsletter. Indeed, his insight about the movie’s three acts raises one of the many essential thought points on this masterwork –
Which act speaks to you as a movie lover?
Which act speaks to you as a filmmaker?
Which act do you believe would still resonate with a modern audience?
This is truly a treat for non-subscribers to Doug Pratt's Newsletter. I'm excerpting the entire review written by Mr. Pratt about the Criterion Blu-Ray release which features five short films director Carroll Ballard created prior to his beautiful work on the Black Stallion. I call this a "treat" because Mr. Pratt reviews the five short films as well. Think about it -- who else is watching these DVD supplements/Films and then using their long experience, keen knowledge, and refined taste to write so throughtfully about Movies / TV shows / Media, and the shorter works of great filmmakers?
Great movies are not rare.
Several seem to show up every year, at least most years.
But once in a while there will be a movie that is exceptional even among the great films, and such a movie is Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, which has been released as an equally exceptional Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection (UPC#715515151115, $40).
The 1979 feature has a very unusual structure, in that it has three separate and distinctive settings, so that while there is a straight narrative line through these settings, with the same two characters—a young boy and a horse—the movie really feels like three different films tacked together. Each setting is increasingly longer in the 117minute feature, as well, but ironically, it is the first and briefest setting that you remember the most vividly, while the second setting is memorable but with less specificity, and the final and longest part of the film is often not remembered at all. Until you’ve watched the movie a dozen times. It does take a while to come to terms with that final segment, not because the film’s artistry is in any way compromised, but because it initially seems like the narrative has been shortchanged. In the first segment, the boy (played with an outstanding and even unique offhandedness by Kelly Reno) is traveling on a steamship (in 1949) with his father, and the horse is on the ship, as well, being maltreated by its owner. There is a fire aboard the ship, which sinks, with only the boy and the horse surviving. The segment is initially captivating in its sense of
adventure, and then thrilling in its excitement, the action of the sequence reinforcing the intensity of the intrigue leading up to it. In the second segment, the boy and the horse bond on an otherwise unpopulated seashore. Taking place over the course of what one assumes is several weeks, the sequence is transportingly idyllic, while at the same time exploring how little difference there really is between people and the smarter animals. The final segment is set in America, the boy home safe and sound, with the horse, and the story there builds to a horserace at a big racetrack, in front of a sellout crowd, where the boy races his horse against the two fastest horses in the country. Sounds ridiculous, right?
But the film, based upon a fanciful children’s novel, never really compromises itself. Its quiet, limited dialog style is consistent, as is its attention to environmental detail. The outlandishness of the race is muted by the period setting, and then negated altogether by its actual staging. In almost all other horserace movies, the race is about winning or losing, but even though here you are shown who wins the race, it is actually about Reno’s character overcoming his PTSD. As soon as you realize this, that the cheering crowds are not hailing some magical sporting achievement, but are instead hailing the return of the boy’s emotional confidence and stability, then its fancifulness becomes entirely consistent with the fancifulness of the film’s other two sequences and, in fact, the farther away from the film’s period setting the movie becomes (i.e., the older the movie gets), the more quaint and alien the America segment will seem and, hence, the closer it will bond with what precedes it. Letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1, the picture is beautiful from start to finish. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is deliberately soft, which in the past has created on home video an instability in some of the stronger colors and other minor flaws, but on the BD, everything is perfect, and transporting. It is hard to believe the sound is monophonic, because it has such variety and power. Carmine Coppola’s musical score— certainly one of his best if not the best work he ever did—is an incredible mix of instrumentation, sometimes shifting wildly from single instruments to a full orchestra, but always in perfect union with what is happening on the screen, and always ideally suited for the images it is accompanying. There is a rich, deep bass, and precise background details. There are optional English subtitles if you can figure out how to activate them. Terri Garr plays the boy’s mother, and Mickey Rooney, giving a superb, low-key performance, is the horse trainer who helps him. Along with a trailer, there is an excellent 22-minute
interview with Deschanel, who goes ever each segment of the film and what challenges he faced. Much of the film’s ‘America’ piece was shot with a standard film crew, but the other parts were shot on location with a smaller crew, or at an Italian film studio, where the crew was used to directors kind of making things up as they went along. “There was a lot of choices that had to be made on the moment, because when you’re dealing with a horse and a boy, and it’s unpredictable, it’s not really well trained actors hitting their marks and ending up where you know what you’re going to get. It’s like, ‘Oh, the horse is going over there, now, do I follow him or do I follow the boy?’ So you’re constantly making those choices and those choices are where the story is and that’s where the emotion is.” He explains that his experience making documentaries had helped him, because he could spot the ‘tells’ that let him know when the actor or the horse was going to move or change. A nice 7-minute montage of production photos is accompanied by a voiceover talk by the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, who shares her memories about the shoot. Where did Ballard come from? The feature film was astonishing not just because of its beauty and unusual structure, but because it had seemed to pop up from nowhere, but Ballard had been making short films for more than a decade (including several that deliberately integrate an animal’s point of view), and Criterion presents five of them on the disc. The first is an 11minute color educational film from 1965 entitled Pigs!, which is about precisely that, a wordless look at pigs on a farm, relaxing and going about their business. The editing groups visual ideas together, so that there are a series of ears, for example, followed by a series of noses, and a series of tails, and a series of them eating, or scratching themselves, or digging in the mud, or of the youngsters play fighting, and so on. Both the pigs and the film are completely oblivious about the slaughterhouse, but it is a nice little movie that probably gave many elementary school teachers their own brief respite from the demanding piglets in their charge. A 1969 public service film from an ASPCA affiliate, The Perils of Priscilla is about a cat left on her own when her family goes on vacation, as she encounters a world full of hostility, from water sprinklers and dogs to automobiles and freight trains. The film is notable for how well and exhaustively the cat is directed. There are long shots and close ups, action scenes and breath catching pauses, and you not only see how the cat fits into the world, you also see the world through its eyes. Running 17 minutes, the color movie has an auspicious ending, which upset a friend that was watching the film with us, but is ideally suited for Ballard’s client, since it drives home the message the client wishes to impart with a firm but gentle emotional power. The magic of the Black Stallion remains, but it is less surprising after one sees what Ballard had done before. Ballard turns his focus at least partially toward humans in the 1969 color film, Rodeo, funded by Marlboro cigarettes (which a couple of riders are seen smoking in one shot). Running 20 minutes, the film is primarily a depiction of the bull riding competition, as Ballard pays an equal amount of attention to the anticipation and then the frenzy of the ride itself, from the perspective of the riders as well as the bulls. The film is not interested in who wins or loses the competition. Some of the riders make their 8 seconds, and most do not. But you get a good feel for the tension and the release, and how the individuals, both two legged and four legged, cope with it. As with Black Stallion, Ballard also makes extensive use of slow motion (basically at the same time that Sam Peckinpah started using it), which may be standard for televised rodeo competitions these days, but was still fairly innovative when Ballard employed it, and especially innovative in the way that he employed it, not so much to detail the minutia of the ride as to reveal the balletic beauty of the man and beast pas de deux. The longest and most significant, and spellbinding, short is a 47minute black-and-white program from 1971 entitled Seems Like Only Yesterday, which is entirely about humans. Ballard interviews elderly residents of Los Angeles, intercutting their oral histories with quick (and now, ironically, nostalgic) montages of Southern California life in the late Sixties, as well as rapid fire images from the media, including footage of an Apollo mission. Most of those being interviewed were alive when Los Angeles was hardly even an orange grove—and powered flight had yet to be invented—so the parallel of how rapidly the city became a metropolis and how technology itself underwent its own form of urban sprawl during the same time frame is deliberate. They also reminisce about everything from ostrich farms and shooting their own dinners, to life on the vaudeville circuit and the influx of Asian immigrants. The film is a wonderful treasure of memories and characters, and its preservation on Blu-ray seems particularly appropriate. The final piece in the collection, Crystallization, from 1974, may look like an animated film, but it is actually a montage of microscopic photography that shows patterns of crystals expanding and travelling until their development is arrested by other crystals. Set to a rhythmic musical score, the 11-minute color film is pretty, and encourages you to think about the hidden structures in the world around you, but it is fairly specific in its purpose and limited in its resonance. There are brief interviews with Ballard before each film, running a total of 11 minutes.
He explains why he made each one (usually because he was desperate for cash) and how each one was staged. On Crystallization: “I always thought of it as a light show, but it’s somehow kind of interesting that inanimate matter sort of coalesces like that out of nothing into these shapes and these forms.” His comments on Seems Like Only Yesterday, which included an interview with his own 102-year old grandfather, are both poignant and wide-eyed. The nostalgia of Black Stallion seems grounded in this same impulse. Ballard, who uses his hands quite a bit when he speaks (you can’t just listen to him, you have to watch him) also talks about Black Stallion itself, in a 47-minute interview from 2015. He describes his own background, and credits producer Francis Coppola with giving him the chance to direct the movie, when Coppola was swamped with his own projects and needed a quick score. He goes into many of the details of the shoot, and how various memorable moments were achieved, and he talks about the terrific cast. The only way the film could have been made was to keep it as far from Hollywood as possible, and while the crew was substantially larger than what he had been used to working with in his educational films, it was still small enough to eliminate the normal hierarchies and achieve the ‘guerrilla’ style mentality that can create classic movies. “If you can get ten people who are all trying and really working to make something happen, and they have an idea of what that’s going to go, you can do fantastic things.”