Review: ‘American Cinema’

"The Hollywood Style"

“The Hollywood Style”

Producer, Molly Ornati; director, Pitkethly; “The Star”

Producer, Danielle Gardner; director, Pitkethly; editor, Shaff; narrator, Kathleen Turner.

Series “Romantic Comedy”

Producer/director, Ornati; editor, Gini Reticker; narrator, Katy Selverstone.

“The Studio System”

Producer/director, Chris Rodley; editor, Anne Sopel; narrator, Peter Coyote.

“The Western”

Producers, Sasha Alpert, Lesley Karsten; director, Alpert; editors, Rick Smigielski, Peter Hammer, Jon Wing Lum; narrator, Eli Wallach.

“The Combat Film”

Producer, Gardner; director, Pitkethly; editors, Chris Jenner, Christopher Tellefson; narrator, Matthew Modine.

“Film in the Television Age”

Producer, Elizabeth Foster; director, Alain Klarer; editor, Smigielski; narrator, Cliff Robertson.

“Film Noir”

Producer, Alpert; director, Jeffrey Schon; editors, Alan Berliner, Joelle Schon; narrator, Richard Widmark.

“The Film School Generation”

Producer, John Wyver; director, Steve Jenkins; editor, Patrick McDonnell; narrator, Mark Heenahan.

“The Edge of Hollywood”

Producer, Shana Swanson; director, Saskia Baron; editors, Stephanie Palewski, Melissa Hacker; narrator, Frances McDormand.

After several million dollars and several thousand person-hours, PBS’ 10-part docu “American Cinema” should be a major TV event. The end result, unfortunately , is unlikely to please film scholars, who’ll find it generally sketchy and predictable, or generalists, who will be confused by the attempt to squeeze 100 years of history into 10 one-hour sections. By trying to cover too much ground, and failing in too many instances to shine a fresh light on the terrain it’s exploring, the series often misses the beauty and power of its inarguably rich subject.

With clips from more than 200 pix and interviews with film industry talents from Budd Boetticher to Julia Roberts, including a wide array of critical voices and industry pros, the series tries hard to tag all the historical bases. The individual segments, though, vary widely in quality and effectiveness.

Success or failure depends on the freshness and power of the film clips and the liveliness of the interviews, and in too many cases the choices make for less than scintillating fare.

The segments all contain roughly the same mix of largely contemporary interview spots with archival clips and docu footage of stars and figures from the past. The segs focusing on American genres, however, sometimes step more firmly into an academic approach, as in the “Film Noir” show’s use of cinematographer John Bailey as a guide through the principles and history of noir lighting.

Academics won’t be thrilled, though, by the exclusion of most American filmmaking that wasn’t generated in Hollywood, and the decision to expend so much time in conversation with filmmakers who seem to be included more on the basis of availability than impact on the art form. More time in the world of U.S. docus, experimental pix, emerging technologies, regional film artists, etc. , could have easily supplanted much of the time spent on U.S. commercial-filmmaking marginalia.

Series kicks off with “The Hollywood Style,” one of the least successful of the segments because it amplifies all the weaknesses of the entire menu. Attempting to define something called a “Hollywood” style of filmmaking, the hour goes all over the map and fails to support its thesis.

Like much of the series, the more the show attempts to define American filmmaking, the more one misses some placement in the context of international cinema. There are references to European influences on Hollywood, but those points are lost in too many revisits to “Casablanca” and too many forgettable moments in conversations with secondary figures in U.S. film history.

“The Star” works better because its goal is more attainable: Who were the American film stars, and what made them stars? John Waters chatting about stardom is easier going than most of the talking heads in the next section, “Romantic Comedy,” which fares poorly because of its reliance on interviews with contemporary filmmakers like Susan Seidelman, Garry Marshall, Amy Heckerling and Nora Ephron. Their views on the towering achievements of filmmakers like George Cukor and Preston Sturges are only slightly more compelling than their own contributions to the history of the form.

Whatever the merits of their films, it’s hard to imagine a novice film buff getting a clear picture of this genre when major recent filmmakers like Woody Allen are all but omitted to make room for repetitive clips from second-stringers.

“The Studio System” does a much better job of illuminating its subject, both because it integrates Hollywood’s approach into the bigger picture of world cinema and because it chooses to narrow its focus to Paramount Pictures and use that as the model.

“The Western” falls into the trap of lauding John Ford at the expense of nearly every other major Western maker. Seg sometimes wanders into the absurd, as when its coverage of Western innovator Sam Peckinpah is reduced to the fact that he made a film about Billy the Kid and skips over the cultural/historical impact of his “The Wild Bunch.” Based on this seg, the viewer comes away believing John Sturges altered the form more than Peckinpah, Hawks, Mann, Boetticher, etc.

As arguably the most American of genres, this could have been a series itself. Again, the thinness and arbitrariness of the examination is telling.

“The Combat Film” works best when it focuses on Hollywood talents like Samuel Fuller, who spent time in the trenches, but the time spent on an overblown epic like “The Longest Day” is mystifyingly extensive.

“Film in the Television Age” may be the one segment that will work for both scholars and newcomers to the subject. Interview subjects including Arthur Penn, Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer provide a strong mix of views on the formation of new cinematic styles. Clips from TV’s legendary Golden Age and films like “Marty” and “The Manchurian Candidate” retain the power and thoughtfulness they showed when Hollywood faced a major turn in the road as TV threatened its hold on the public. You would hardly know that something called McCarthyism existed during the period, but that’s no surprise given the time constraints.

“Film Noir” tries hard to open up the fabled genre. It will work better for those who have never heard the term, rather than those who can recite the dialogue from “Double Indemnity” by heart. There’s no denying, however, the power of the great film moments, and the bank robbery from Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy” is a bullet-proof piece of filmmaking that would work no matter what the context.

“The Film School Generation” is a fairly plodding affair, giving another retelling of the familiar myth of the ’70s student-turned-player boy wonders like Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, De Palma and Coppola.

Series wraps with a particularly unfortunate section called “The Edge of Hollywood,” which feels like electronic press kits from the indie scene three or four years ago. Virtually all of the interviews were conducted on sets of films that have come and gone, like Steven Soderbergh’s “Kafka,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train,” the Coen Brothers’ “The Hudsucker Proxy,” Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”

After devoting the first section to Lee, who made all his films after his debut for majors, segment inexplicably cuts back incessantly to talks with producer Joel Silver. One’s feeling about his placement and prominence in a discussion about “the edge” will probably determine the extent to which one will be pleasantly amused, entertained or informed by the entire series.

American Cinema

(Mon. (23, 30, Feb. 13, 20, 27), 9-11 p.m., PBS)


Filmed by the New York Center for Visual History, KCET Los Angeles and the BBC. Executive producer, Lawrence Pitkethly; senior producers, Greg Martinelli, Rita Mate, Molly Ornati.


Editor, Corey Shaff; narrator, Joe Morton.


Host: John Lithgow.
Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 0

Leave a Reply

No Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

More TV News from Variety