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In 2000 Daniel Raim earned an Oscar nomination for his documentary The Man on Lincoln's Nose, a lively look at the function of production design in Hollywood films. This new feature effort Something's Gonna Live: Conversations with Six Great Hollywood Cinema Artists on Film Classics expands the subject matter to include a couple of top cinematographers, using the longer format to present endearing portraits of its key subjects.
Old friends Robert F. Boyle, Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki get together for a retiree's revisit of Paramount Pictures, commenting on parts of the studio that are just as they were back in the late 1930s. All three men began as pals in Paramount's art department, soon working their way into positions of more importance. Boyle and Bumstead were architecture graduates unable to find work in the depths of the depression; working in film was not their original intention. Joined by Japanese-American Albert Nozaki, they thrived in the constant flow of creative assignments in a positive working atmosphere. Later on we spend time with Harold Michelson, who served as an art director but preferred the job of turning out storyboards for film sequences. As the storyboards 'called the shots' and the compositions, Michelson felt as if he were pre-directing the film. And we see how art direction and production design is enhanced by creative cinematography, when the film takes time to visit with the legendary cameramen Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall.
Production designer Robert F. Boyle gets the most screen time. We see him at home among his memorabilia before Something's Gonna Live reviews his fairly amazing career. His big break was with Alfred Hitchcock during the war, and he continued on several major collaborations with the director, But Boyle also designed Universal monster movies and films for directors Norman Jewison, Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher, Phil Karlson, Jack Arnold, Sam Fuller, J. Lee Thompson, David Swift and Richard Brooks. Through film clips, production stills and storyboard art, we're given a full rundown on titles like Saboteur and especially The Birds . Drawn to imaginative subjects, Boyle was particularly good at imagining fantastic effects, such as a struggle atop the Statue of Liberty, or the sight of an enormous domed spaceship buried in a smoking crater.
The grand old art director and production designer Henry Bumstead's major credits started a little later, but he's associated with a wider range of glamorous design assignments. He also worked on Alfred Hitchcock shows, including the sublime Vertigo. Bumstead's name graces the entire gamut of Paramount releases, and then shifts partly to Universal. We think more of the big stars involved in Bumstead's major titles: Martin and Lewis, Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden, Grace Kelly, James Stewart. Whereas Boyle's career ended around 1990, Bumstead's last production designer credit was in 2006. His remarks about the Paramount lot reveal a lot of affection -- he has special memories of practically every corner. He also misses the old days when studios were staffed by permanent, skilled craftsmen that worked as a team to create interesting sets. Bumstead talks about the difficulty today of finding painters that know how to "age" walls and doors to make houses look lived-in.
Albert Nozaki is perhaps best known among film fans as the key designer of George Pal's The War of the Worlds. Something's Gonna Live fully details his design of the Martian war machine from that film. Nozaki also worked on Jerry Lewis pictures, and has good credits in film noir as well as an art director credit on De Mille's The Ten Commandments. His is a fascinating story. In 1941, not more than a day or so after Pearl Harbor, Nozaki was escorted from Paramount, fired out of hand. Weeks later, he was interned in Manzanar with thousands of Japanese-Americans. Boyle and Bumstead certainly felt the injustice of this, and by 1948 Nozaki was back and had his first art director's credit on a big Paramount picture, The Big Clock. Much later, when his sight failed, Paramount kept him on for several years as an executive supervisor. The old studio system could be as ruthless as today's corporate film companies, but Albert Nozaki at least got a couple of good breaks along the way.
We spend less time with personable Harold Michelson, who expresses his love of drawing in no uncertain terms. We see him prep a storybook page by using a stencil to mark out the film-frame panels. Michelson and Boyle worked on Hitchcock's The Birds, a macabre fantasy that had to be imagined and designed as one long special effect. In Something's Gonna Live's best sequence these gentlemen revisit the Bodega Bay location for The Birds, examining the still-standing schoolhouse, and walking the few feet further up the hill where the Suzanne Pleshette character lived. The blend of stills and film clips, along with Michelson's evocative storyboards, gives us a full appreciation for what these men accomplished. The topper is the "God's POV" shot of birds descending on the burning Bodega Bay main street, a complex composite where only a small area in a parking lot is "real" and the rest of the frame is an almost perfect matte painting. The birds had to be rotoscoped and added individually, while smoke was added to disguise the fact that the black billows from the burning gas station crossed the matte line.
The feature gives Bumstead and especially Boyle time to ruminate on the meaning of retirement and the nearing end of life. They openly admit that they feel like "old farts" sitting on the Bodega Bay dock to talk about how things used to be.
The film then brings in more video interviews with the camera artists Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. Wexler's reflections on the definition of film art and what makes a movie worthwhile blend nicely with Boyle's own observations. We see how Wexler was committed to productions that he felt were about important subject matter; he makes a good case against movies that promote violence just by positing a world where violence solves problems. He hates pictures in which a man becomes a hero by committing villainous acts against the villain. This blends nicely with Conrad Hall and Robert Boyle's memories of Richard Brooks' anti-capital punishment film In Cold Blood. Hall remembers Boyle's recreation of an execution chamber, an ugly space normally used for storing things like chicken wire. We see a scene from In Cold Blood in which one of the killers pauses by a window during a rainstorm. The shadow of the rain on the glass shines on his face, making it look as if the unemotional prisoner is crying. Brooks reasons that this photographic effect imposes sympathy for the character that, if imposed through dialogue, would be inappropriate.
At the reunion gathering, "Bummy" Bumstead helps to guide the sightless but happy Albert. The trio exchanges the usual talk about who is older, and marvels at their longevity. Not like survivors of a disaster that has taken many friends, but as witnesses to an era that is fading fast. The conclusion of Something's Gonna Live shows us that all of these gentlemen save Haskell Wexler have passed away, Robert Boyle as recently as 2010. He was indeed a frequenter of special screenings -- I saw him at a showing of Invaders from Mars in 2008 or 2009. We're accustomed to film docus about actors and directors of renown, who merely have to jump from triumph to triumph to recount the highlights of their careers. It's gratifying to see such a spirit for filmmaking still alive in these men that contributed so much to our favorite entertainments. The films, of course, will continue to live. 1
Docuramafilms/NewVideo's DVD of Something's Gonna Live is a very good encoding of this fine documentary. "Tech quality" is quite good throughout, especially in the use of film clips. A couple of shorter interviews appear to have been shot on a home camcorder, but the conversations captured are too good for us to complain.
The disc is packed with extras, including director Daniel Raim's entire The Man on Lincoln's Nose film. In addition to some deleted scenes, excerpts are included from lectures and seminars with Robert Boyle, Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. A trailer and text bios are also on the disc; a DVD-Rom extra features Robert Boyle's Original Production Design Checklist, a fill-in chart to for designing the surroundings of a specific character.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Something's Gonna Live rates:
1. Something's Gonna Live has another surprise for habitual Los Angeles filmgoers. After a screening of In Cold Blood Conrad Hall and Robert Boyle talk for a bit outside the New Beverly Theater -- and in the box office window we can see our beloved friend Sherman Torgan, who ran the theater for almost thirty years. Sherman passed away unexpectedly in 2007.
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T'was Ever Thus.