The Cinematic Table of Elements

Later on tonight, TCM airs the 1966 Oscar winner,  A Man for All Seasons, a movie that, on the whole, I’m not too wild about.  But I like plenty of its separate elements.  I love the performances, for instance, by Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller, and Robert Shaw, especially.  I love the music more than a bit and often pull it up online to listen to when I’m in a pensive mood.  I also love a lot of the scenery and locations.  So it seems silly to not recommend it just because, on the whole, I don’t like it.  Why not recommend it just for the parts I love in the hopes that the person taking the recommendation will love those parts as well?  Now, the movie itself was well loved by many (and the play it was based on) so it got plenty of accolades and notice.  But you could fill a stadium with all the great elements of cinema that never got the recognition they deserved simply because they weren’t in a high profile or critically acclaimed movie.  It shouldn’t be that way.  We should all appreciate the entire cinematic table of elements.

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How many great musical scores haven’t been nominated for an Oscar just because the movie wasn’t a big enough deal?  How many performances?  How many great editing jobs, makeup jobs, sound effects jobs, photography jobs, etc?  How many times has quality work been ignored or forgotten just because it happens to be in a movie that isn’t remembered for much else?  Well, I’ve got a few elements I’d like to mention because no one saw fit to give them the recognition they deserved the first time around.

Now, for this little piece, I’m not going to go through a long list of elements because, one, I hate doing lists and, two, I’d rather think of them in the comment section as we introduce more and more.  In fact, that’s the point, in a way: to remember, to jog our memories, about the great work in forgotten films.  I’ve got one movie that I’d like to use as exhibit A: Raise the Titanic.

Raise the Titanic was built around high expectations (the Clive Cussler novel it was based on had been a huge hit) and an even higher budget.  When it was finally released it was savaged by the critics and audiences made the call to stay home and watch A Night to Remember instead.  And, okay, fine.  It’s not a very good movie.  But… but… its special effects work is tremendous with a model Titanic, sufficiently rusted and weathered (and in one piece – hey, it was 1980, they didn’t know yet), rising up from the ocean depths.  That these effects weren’t even given a nomination by the Oscars is amazing (for goodness sakes, Moonraker got nominated the year before and the shuttle space laser battle is pretty awful looking) but, you know, bad movie with no box office.  See, Moonraker had the good sense to at least make money.  Raise the Titanic, on the other hand, had nothing but stunning model work and an amazing score by John Barry.  Of course, that got ignored, too.  Why nominate a great score from a mediocre movie that didn’t make money?  What, because the score is good?  You’re kidding, right?  How under the radar (or should I say sonar?) is this movie now?  How forgotten?  Well, I recently looked at a list of the best model work done before CGI and this was nowhere to be found because the people making the list, all in their thirties and twenties, probably didn’t even know it existed.

Here’s another example from around the same time period:  The King Kong remake in 1976.  Now some people actually like that remake (I’m not among them) and some don’t (that’s me).  I think it’s mediocre than awful, actually.  But I’ll tell you this:  Charles Grodin is hilarious in the role of Fred Wilson, the shameless exec from Petrox Oil, and in my humble opinion, is the best thing in the movie.  Well, that and the Kong mask, created by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker.  Now, this is a little different.  The special effects here did win the Oscar but CGI has rendered this kind of work obsolete and the movie itself has kind of disappeared.  There’s now either the original or the Peter Jackson remake (that one I hated) and nothing in between.  Well, for Grodin and Rambaldi and Baker’s work alone, it should be remembered.  Oh, and once again, I love the John Barry score.

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And how about editors?  How many people even know what in the hell an editor does?  They can change the whole outcome of a scene or change the nature of a character.  If you’ve ever seen Modern Romance (and if you haven’t, do, it’s terrific and every element is good), the editing scene in it gives a really good idea of how important an editor is.   One of the best editors out there is Thelma Schoonmaker and one of her best efforts ever was After Hours.  It was one of the few times she wasn’t nominated.  See, the movie didn’t make a lot of money and got no big press upon release.  But, really, it’s a movie whose editing tells the story.  Martin Scorsese shot the action but, like American Graffiti, it’s how the action is cut together that relates everything to the viewer and provides the film with its perfect tempo.  Like all my examples, I’m not a huge fan of this one though I think it’s light years ahead of the previous two examples.  But I still like watching it for the tempo and rhythms provided by Schoonmaker’s cuts.  It’s great work but since it was in the “wrong” movie, it didn’t get honored.

As always, I run out of space before I really get going but I hope more examples will be provided of specific elements that are great or highly effective while the rest of the movie might not be.  It’s important to remember that a movie is made by dozens of people doing multiple jobs.  They’re writing, acting, filming, making models, crafting makeup, editing, and so on, and even if 99 percent of everybody on a given production fails, there might be one artist that succeeds.  They deserve to be remembered for playing their part in adding to the ever impressive cinematic table of elements.

10 Responses The Cinematic Table of Elements
Posted By Bill : May 29, 2015 2:13 pm

Speaking of Grodin, he starred in and adapted the thriller 11 Harrowhouse. Must’ve had a disastrous test screening, cuz he added his own critical,in character narration to the film. A precursor to a dvd commentary, almost.If you can consider a post-prod voiceover as a desirable element. Btw, Rick Baker just announced his retirement.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 29, 2015 4:58 pm

I don’t think that I have ever agreed with another movie critic in this space more than what you wrote in “The Cinematic Table of Elements”! I mean it really is terrible, that how well a movie does at the Box Office dictates if it is given any awards or not. Yeah ya can’t get around the strength of the “Almighty Dollar” in the movie business pathetically enough!

Posted By tdraicer : May 29, 2015 7:05 pm

In my teens and 20s I disliked A Man For All Seasons, for reasons now obscure. Now I love it. Wolf Hall might be better history, but Bolt was using Moore to make a bigger point about being true to oneself. In fact, I love pretty much everything Bolt ever did (but I have yet to see Lady Caroline Lamb).

So I can’t buy into this example, but I agree with the larger point: you can be good in something that isn’t (or merely fails at the box office) and quality deserves recognition regardless.

You can also fail to get recognition because of the genre. To pick my favorite example, I love almost everything about Attack of the Crab Monsters (the script, music, acting-particularly Leslie Bradley) but it is a very-low budget monster movie and low-budget monster movies are never going to win awards.

Posted By Qalice : May 29, 2015 10:36 pm

Also, After Hours is a comedy and the Academy doesn’t respect comedy. One of many, many reasons not to take Oscars seriously.

Posted By george : May 29, 2015 11:47 pm

I’m always glad to see AFTER HOURS get some hype. (If it had been a box-office hit, we might have seen more Scorsese comedies.) But I can’t agree that the editing “tells the story.” The editing was brilliant, but so was the acting, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, and Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography.

Posted By Lulu : May 30, 2015 6:18 am

I hope viewers are not under any illusion that this film has any resemblance to real history. Having enjoyed the film, I did a little research on Thomas More. How startled and disappointed I was to discover that Thomas More tortured “heretics”(at least several that he actually admitted to) and promoted burnings at the stake. He may be a “saint” but he was no angel.

Posted By kingrat : May 30, 2015 6:11 pm

Great idea for a column, Greg. Here a few other examples:

How can you give an outstanding dramatic performance in a mostly laughable movie? Claire Bloom managed this in THE CHAPMAN REPORT.

A LIFE OF HER OWN isn’t the best George Cukor movie, or Lana Turner movie, but the bittersweet score by Bronislau Kaper is simply marvelous.

DEADFALL is one of Bryan Forbes’ weakest films, and not one of the most memorable Michael Caine films, but the guitar concerto by John Barry is outstanding.

Posted By Steve Burrus : May 30, 2015 6:51 pm

“kingrat” on my birtjhday today I might say that John Barry’s music that made up the opening theme to the James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice”, sung by Nancy Sinatra, is absolutely outstanding as some movie music!

Posted By Tom Webb : June 1, 2015 4:01 am

“Another Dawn,” Warners, 1937, is usually regarded as a lesser early Errol Flynn movie. It is in fact more of a Kay Francis melo, with Flynn as romantic partner for her. There are a few standard action scenes, but it is mostly romantic goings-on at a British army post in North Africa, with Kay looking stunning, as usual, in a wide variety of Hollywood outfits. Errol looks handsome and romantic, and Ian Hunter stoic and reliable. What makes this film noteworthy, IMHO, is the outstanding score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is incredibly beautiful, like angel music, as good, I think, as his scores for more famous films, such as “Robin Hood” and other Flynn swashbucklers. Just an amazing score. While the film has good direction by William Dieterle, and evocative photography, it is the score that takes your breath away. The film is enjoyable, Flynn and Francis make a good team, but that score, wow! Definitely way better than the film, and often overlooked for that reason, I think.

I think that’s true of the scores for later Universal horror films, as well. Starting with “Son of Frankenstein,” and moving on into the 1940s, Frank Skinner, Charles Previn, Hans Salter and others wrote beautiful scores for films that are great in many ways– acting, sets, direction, photography–but were still mostly considered as supporting features at that time. The scores are “A” class, even if the films were regarded as “B”s. It’s one of the reasons those films have held up so well, I
think. And now those films are treasured, beloved by many.

Posted By Steve Burrus : June 1, 2015 4:02 pm

Yeah I have generally liked all of the movie music of Korngold’s bu t I absolutely LOVE his nice violin concerto! Incidentally we celebrated his birthday the other day, him being in 1897.

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