When Stock Footage Roamed the Earth

“Why, if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!” exclaims Johnny Depp as the title character in the 1994 film Ed Wood as he examines film clips of explosions, military maneuvers, and stampeding buffalo.  Although Wood never went quite that far, later filmmakers would take up that challenge, and the scene illustrates just how much movies in the black-and-white era depended on footage of stunts, special effects, and locations culled from other sources in the studios’ extensive libraries to cut costs.  (Even into the 1970s and ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon for low-budget directors to build films and TV episodes around footage of car crashes and stunts, matching the actors’ clothes to the pre-existing clips.) As a kid in the 1980s, I was indirectly exposed to a great deal of older movies and television by the flood of repurposed stock footage on TV at that time.

Certainly it was more common to find old movies, shorts, and black-and-white shows on television as part of cheap daytime syndication packages (I watched Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Little Rascals after school—can you imagine that today?) and the “late late show.”  Sunday afternoon was reserved for the “Creature Feature,” a phrase that in my naiveté I thought the local station managers had come up with themselves.  Creative editing into new formats such as music videos, commercials, and interstitials was just the next step for this material, much of which, before the explosion of cable channels and the revival of TV shows on DVD, was considered nearly worthless.

An appetite for old film clips excerpted from their context began to develop in the 1970s with the emergence of full-length “docutainment.”  The pioneer of the nostalgic clip movie was That’s Entertainment!, a celebratory look at movie musicals made in 1974 to commemorate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fiftieth anniversary.  In addition to editing together highlights from both classic and obscure MGM musicals, That’s Entertainment! brought together a large number of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to talk about their experiences filming such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and reminisce about the good old days.  (A recurring theme of both the film and its marketing was that this would be the last time so many stars would be gathered in one place—although there would be two sequels—and even the trailer emphasizes its escapist quality in the Watergate era, ending its ballyhoo with a hilariously downbeat “That’s Entertainment! Boy! Do we need it now.” Ah, the 1970s.)

That’s Entertainment! is a film that I’ve returned to several times over the years, but 1982’s It Came from Hollywood was more my speed at the time: comics Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong introduced clips from dozens of science fiction, horror, and cult movies, ranging from cheap B movies and serials to the monster classics of the 1950s and focusing on such niche categories as drug panic, juvenile delinquency, and even musicals.  In addition to the skits setting up each category (which also included “Monsters,” “Gorillas,” “The Brain,” and “Aliens,” among others), they offered a running commentary, often razzing the cheapness or tastelessness of the films in a manner that echoed the audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the mockery of The Golden Turkey Awards (in fact, Golden Turkey winner Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the subject of his own segment in It Came from Hollywood, the only filmmaker so “honored”) and anticipated the format of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It Came from Hollywood is doubly nostalgic for me now, hearkening back both to an era of drive-in double features and Saturday matinees I only experienced second-hand, and to the early 1980s heyday of the hip comedians (younger at the time of filming than I am now, and two of them sadly since passed away: seriously, did anyone in 1982 think that of all these comedians, Cheech Marin would have the strongest career in 2014?) I considered the height of cool back then.  Unlike That’s Entertainment!, It Came from Hollywood didn’t bother to name most of the films it excerpted (except in a long list during the end credits), lending a dissociative, dream-like quality to the proceedings (and often leaving me unable to place a particular image for years, until the internet made it easier to find such information, not to mention the films themselves).

Another film that must have had a considerable influence on me was 1977’s Gizmo!, produced and directed by Howard Smith, which, unlike my two previous examples, drew most of its footage from films that purported to be true (or were at least staged for publicity: mostly Depression-era newsreels, from the look of it).  Many of the clips are of gadgets and contraptions made to solve the petty problems of life—a dog-powered washing machine, a self-rocking cradle, and a spaghetti fork mounted on a hand-held drill so as to twirl automatically—in the truest Rube Goldberg spirit.  Gizmo! casts a wide net, however, including many examples of “self-invention” as well, people with strange talents or driven by obsession: human flies and high wire walkers, a “human camel” drinking gallons of water and washing it down with kerosene, feats of strength and endurance.

Obsession and invention come together in the numerous doomed-to-fail flying machines, each presentation inevitably preceded by the delusional inventor’s proclamation that “what we are about to see will change the world.”  The succession of disastrous ornithopters, “triphibians,” rocket planes, and bat-winged flying costumes fizzling, burning out, or simply tumbling off the ends of their take-off ramps was probably the inspiration for a similar passage in Airplane! (1980) in which former pilot Ted Striker suffers the most pathetically hilarious flashback in all of film.


In fact, the Airplane! sequence is just one of many examples of footage that was insinuated into public consciousness through its reuse: while it may not have been the first film to revive them, Gizmo! contains many images that have become iconic, such as performer Frank “Cannonball” Richards being shot in the belly point blank by a cannon.  If they didn’t see Gizmo!, viewers in the 1980s might have seen this image in numerous other contexts such as commercials or music videos; it was ubiquitous enough that when The Simpsons parodied it in “Homerpalooza” they could assume that the majority of their audience would get the reference.


As it happens, I did see Gizmo! several times: in addition to appearing on HBO (like both of the other films I’ve mentioned), it was a favorite of my middle school shop teacher, good old Mr. Lundquist (who would often joke that he couldn’t use a typewriter because he had lost his “typing finger” in a bandsaw accident—he was truly a shop teacher of the old school).  Whenever we had an inactive day (for whatever reason), Mr. Lundquist would pop Gizmo! into the VCR for us to watch, on the pretense that we might glean some insight into mechanical engineering from it: I must have seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times in school.

Although now mostly forgotten, Gizmo! (along with other docutainments) led to such programs as That’s Incredible! and Real People with their mix of weird talents, record-breaking attempts, and magazine-like pieces on strange subjects, kicking off a brief “reality TV” craze twenty years before Survivor.  In a more serious vein, the obsessed oddballs of Gizmo! are the forefathers of Errol Morris’ subjects in the similarly anthology-like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

It was on basic cable that stock footage became almost a medium in itself, continually reshaped and recombined by editors, filling in the cracks in programming and propping up commercial messages like the media equivalent of duct tape.  Rick Prelinger, collector and curator of countless educational and industrial films, was one source, financing his more serious preservation projects by supplying film clips to cable channels and other buyers.  Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel frequently ran old shorts in the late 1980s when their own programming was thin on the ground. And it’s a cliché by now to complain that MTV no longer runs music videos, but what I really miss are the incredible variety of cult films and the kind of sponsored films that Prelinger specialized in: safety, hygiene, and civil defense films from the 1950s and ‘60s, presented uncut but ironically juxtaposed with the rest of the channel’s programming.

Black-and-white footage was especially felicitous for film collage: just as the low-budget filmmakers of the time had reused stunts to cut costs, counting on the consistency of the film stock to hide discrepancies, modern editors could draw on a vast body of film to assemble an original world from spare parts: in It Came from Hollywood, the invaders of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers could share the screen with the alien masterminds of Mars Needs Women and the ape-like Robot Monster could trade places with the gorilla from The Perils of Nyoka, making the visuals as archetypal and interchangeable as the storylines.  Later filmmakers could, and would, go much farther in assembling collages (the work of Craig Baldwin, for example, deserves a write-up of its own, to follow at a later time); the uniformity of black-and-white film bears comparison to the Victorian engravings that Max Ernst turned into the surreal graphic novel La Femme 100 Têtes, the consistency of the illustration style allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief than more typically disjunct visual collage.*


In fact, my memory of the 1980s is so colored by the reuse of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines, death-defying stunts, and proto-steampunk flying machines set to new soundtracks, that they largely run together in my mind.  For example, I had completely forgotten that Gizmo! has a voiceover, yet the announcer talks over the clips almost continuously.  I wonder, too, how much effect this had on other members of my generation: I was beguiled by these hints of an older world, touched by both history and fantasy, and I eventually had the opportunity to dig deeper, to watch complete films.  But the emphasis on dippy inventions and quaint habits of the past might have equally fueled the perception that old movies (and even the world they represented) were uniformly corny, boring, and dumb—an attitude that can be hard to overcome.

Similarly, the use of editing to present only the highlights—a pattern that is already evident in That’s Entertainment!, but which would accelerate with each passing year—both artificially juices the excitement level and misrepresents the more leisurely pacing that was the norm in old films.  (That’s not to say that editors of the 1930s and ‘40s never used quick cutting—they did—but over the length of a feature intense and exciting passages were generally balanced with slower sequences.) From a modern perspective, one of the most interesting sequences in That’s Entertainment! edits together the numerous examples of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the so-called “Backyard Musicals” series, saying “Let’s put on a show!” (or a dance band, or a rodeo) in rapid succession, a predecessor of the supercuts that now thrive on YouTube.

Perhaps like any fad, the use of stock footage on television began to fade; by 1994, Turner Classic Movies was on the air, providing a more respectable home for both feature films and ephemeral short features that could be presented original and uncut.  Likewise, many of the original sources from which features like Gizmo! drew are available online now and can be easily seen; it isn’t as necessary for them to be edited together for general viewers.  What is needed is context, and curators like TCM or Criterion are able to provide that.  With the availability of this footage has come easy-to-use editing software, so that anyone can create the kind of collage that was once trendy on television.  As for the low-budget producers, they are now more likely to lean on the crutch of CGI for their features, which may not be any more believable than stock car crashes or explosions, but can be quickly produced and can be tailored to their specific needs.  And MTV?  Well, everyone knows they don’t show videos any more, anyway.

* In this connection, the most intriguing example of this from the 1980s is Tom Schiller’s 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, a black-and-white homage to Golden Age Hollywood that uses stock footage to lend authenticity to the trippy journey of a young would-be artist.  More popular was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir parody in which Steve Martin played the detective, interacting with characters from classic movies through the magic of intercutting.


Last week, Philip J. Reed of Noiseless Chatter invited me to write a little about my contribution to The Lost Worlds of Power during the lead-up to publication, and it’s available to read now. While avoiding spoilers for the story itself, I zeroed in on the relation of fan fiction to the descriptive manuals that often accompanied video games in the early days, and the ways in which the illustrations could suggest a more detailed setting than the graphics of the time allowed.  (That wasn’t as much of a problem by the time my selection, Legendary Wings, was released–it’s graphically quite impressive–but I guess it was on my mind, and I can never resist the opportunity to travel down memory lane.)

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don't they?

Those hi-def screens reveal a lot of detail, don’t they?

Check it out, and consider following Noiseless Chatter while you’re there, won’t you? Updates on The Lost Worlds of Power appear there regularly, although the release date hasn’t been finalized as of this writing.


Community Season Five in review

A few months ago, I looked back at my feelings about Community before its fifth season began.  I discussed how intense my infatuation with the show was in the first couple of seasons, and how betrayed I felt when creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired before the fourth season, which I ultimately bailed on due to its awfulness.  With Harmon back in the driver’s seat, I thought it was worth checking it out again.

I did stick with the fifth season, and now that it’s over I have a few thoughts.  For the most part, it was pretty good: it had the wry mixture of sweetness and cynicism that was a distinct part of Harmon’s voice, and while the story twists and “gimmick” episodes were as implausible as ever, they mostly felt like things that the characters might actually do or take part in instead of a writer lazily spitballing, “How about an episode that does (insert popular property ripe for parody)?”  And the show was still reliably funny; while there was nothing as hilarious or mind-blowing as Season Two’s fake clip show “Paradigms of Human Memory” (although parts of this season’s “G. I. Jeff” came close), I usually got a good laugh out of at least one or two things even in this season’s weakest episodes.  As I had hoped before the season began, it was mostly just fun to hang out with these familiar characters again.

The season was notably shorter, of course, only thirteen episodes instead of twenty-four, and while I’d always rather have more of something I enjoy, on balance I don’t think it was bad for the show.  In the past, Community’s seasons have followed the pattern of the school year, so a truncated season meant no holiday episodes.  However, considering how bad last season’s Halloween and Thanksgiving episodes were, and how much the writers have had to stretch to come up with new ideas for the holidays, I don’t consider that a great loss.  It was probably better to let them concentrate on a smaller number of episodes as well so that their ideas (and budget) weren’t spread too thin.

On the downside, two members of the core ensemble left the show under different circumstances: Chevy Chase, long known to be dissatisfied with the direction of the show and his character (wealthy non-traditional student Pierce Hawthorne), and after repeated feuding with Harmon, quit the show and didn’t return for this season.  Although Chase was an essential part of the show in the first couple of seasons (as both a would-be mentor to Joel McHale’s Jeff Winger and as a foil to play off the younger characters), behind-the-scenes rancor increasingly crept into his performance and storylines.  The writers didn’t know what to do with him, and his character became nastier and more intractable.  It’s sad, really: although I’d heard Chase had a large (even for Hollywood) ego, I’d enjoyed him in films like National Lampoon’s Vacation since I was a kid, and it was great to see him make a comeback after years in the wilderness. Community was the best project Chase had been involved with in years, and while he was committed to making it work he was great in it.  But apparently he wasn’t satisfied with being part of a terrific ensemble instead of the star, and he reportedly didn’t “get” Harmon’s style of humor, demanding more input on his scenes.  The break was probably inevitable, and with Pierce Hawthorne’s offscreen death early in the season, it appears permanent.

Replacing Chase as the “old man” of the group, Professor Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks) proved to be an inspired addition.  The element of generational conflict remained present, but Hickey was quite a different character from Pierce: whereas Pierce wanted to be seen as a wise elder, Hickey was more of a stubborn old coot, a former police officer who now taught criminology (his addition to the group was the most obvious way in which Jeff’s elevation to teacher and the transformation of the study group into the “Save Greendale” committee provided opportunities to tell new stories about the college).

On the other hand, the departure of Troy Barnes (Donald Glover) was left open-ended.  Glover, whose star is rising as both actor and rapper, left to make time for other projects, and his character was given an emotional (and hopefully temporary) farewell, sailing around the world on the yacht Pierce bequeathed to him.  Troy’s last episode, “Geothermal Escapism,” began like the sort of thing Community has done many times, with Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) putting the school through a campus-wide game of “hot lava” as a way of avoiding the pain of being separated from his best friend.  The “break from reality” has been a common plot device for the show (and would also be used in this season’s “G. I. Jeff”), but “Geothermal Escapism” reached a surprisingly affecting climax as Troy and Abed found an “in-story” way of both explaining and accepting Troy’s departure.  Although Glover was missed, breaking up the pairing of Troy and Abed allowed both Abed and the show to grow and do something different.

Each season finale since at least the third has been in the odd position of providing an ending definitive enough to conclude the series but with enough loose ends that it could plausibly continue, a reflection of Community’s always-uncertain fortunes.  Season Five’s finale, “Basic Sandwich,” was even more meta than usual, with Abed referring to the school’s and characters’ fates in terms of spin-offs and cancellation.  Community has changed in some drastic ways since the first season: Greendale itself has changed, even as it moved to the foreground as the real star of the show.  It’s not the same as it used to be, but it’s still a fun place to visit.

I don’t know if Community will make it to the proverbial “six seasons and a movie,” but if it does I’ll probably continue to watch.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll know it’s because an asteroid has destroyed all human civilization.  Like Abed, I appreciate narrative closure.


Which sounds better: Ukulelepalooza or Ukulelepocalypse?

A last-minute Facebook alert led me to check out the Wichita Ukulele Society’s appearance at The Donut Whole this evening, a combination concert, jam session and singalong.  Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my interest in groups of like instruments, so you just know that I couldn’t resist hearing a band of about a dozen (give or take a few members of the audience playing along) ukulele enthusiasts.  The repertoire included expected songs like “Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (complete with falsetto, and on Tiny Tim’s birthday, no less!), as well as surprises like “Y.M.C.A.,” “Paint it Black,”  and “Margaritaville.”

The donuts were just an added bonus.



Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Music of Vaughan Williams and Beethoven

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125

It’s fitting that during the first Wichita Symphony concert I reviewed for the Eagle last fall, a piece was delayed by a ringing cell phone, and at the last Classics concert of the season, the ending of another piece was interrupted by the same intrusion.  This time I felt the need to mention it in the published article; it’s not usually my practice to review the audience, unless their reaction provides insight into the performance.  In this case, however, it was too obvious to ignore, and a spoiled moment remains spoiled whether it’s the fault of the performers or something external.

I’m also not much interested in the ritual of public shaming that inevitably accompanies this sort of transgression: it could happen to anyone through a moment of forgetfulness, and the individual was (I hope) mortified enough by the experience to avoid it in the future.  I report it as a reminder for future concerts: come on, people.

I should add that I wouldn’t demand total silence during a performance, even if it were within my power.  The occasional burst of applause, the movement of bodies, even the coughing that sometimes comes unbidden during the softest passage: these are human sounds, and they have been with us since the first public concerts.  They are reminders that concertgoing is a communal experience.

Critic Alex Ross has written about the rule of silence, and the transformation of the rowdy public concerts of the eighteenth century into the solemn “Temple of Music” we have now. Of particular interest is his research into the “no applause” rule, under which the audience is expected to remain silent between movements and only show their appreciation at the end (a practice that has taken root only since the early twentieth century; many first-hand reports indicate that composers such as Mozart experienced, and even counted on, applause between–or within!–movements that could be truly described as “crowd-pleasing”). Ross writes:

As a listener, I don’t need total silence to help me to understand the music, even less to register its emotional impact. To the contrary, I find this ponderous silence forced, unsettling, and in places absolutely anti-musical, as after the big movements of concertos. It’s crazy for three thousand people to sit in Carnegie Hall contemplating Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto as if it were some Buddhist monument, rather than a rousing, passionate entertainment.

As it happens, the enthusiasm of Saturday’s audience was such that there was vigorous applause after not only the first, but also the second movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  That is a sound that no musician would mind hearing during a performance.