Group genius & American Zoetrope

– Carlito’s Way is on Spike. I was just thinking about this movie. About how good it is. It’s a Brian DePalma movie, and in general I really love his movies. Even the ones that are flops are interesting to watch.

– DePalma is part of a group of people who were all friends in southern California in the 60’s all in film school or in the culture around the same time, late 60’s … Scorsese, George Lucas, Coppola, Walter Murch, others … I learned a lot more about the earlier years of these guys when they tried starting American Zoetrope and it’s an even more interesting story than I realized.

– I saw the documentary as a part of the new special release on DVD of THX 1138. I’d never seen the movie, even though I’d read about it since I was a kid. I’m glad I waited to see this version instead of some crummy faded video pan and scan version. It’s arresting to see Lucas’ vision as a sort of counterpoint to the Star Wars movies.

– Elements they have in common visually prick my head into wondering what other stuff they have in common, and there are similar themes. Star Wars just interleaves the dystopian THX doom with a heroic swashbuckler-in-space story, folded into a heaping helping of WWII dogfight-movie and 1940’s serials (to which homage is paid in THX with a clip of a trailer for an old Buck Rogers episode).

– Anyway, Zoetrope is sort of a big-bang for post-1970 culture. It kicked off a lot of careers, even though the original American Zoetrope met a sort of demise … it resurrected, but not in the same utopian form. (Coppola’s lovely movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a sort of paean to the passionate visionary ground under the wheels of small-minded power-mongering big-business — and reads a lot like the story Coppola lived with his first incarnation of AZ..)

– George Lucas himself turns out to be a lot cooler and more interesting than 30 years of pop cultural snarkage would lead one to believe. The cover story in this month’s Wired, Life after Darth, reveals the guy who made THX and American Graffiti more than the guy responsible for Yoda bubble bath.

– The Wired issue also traces the incredible impact Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic and other ventures have made on film and pop culture in general (especially the technologies involved).

– In fact, American Zoetrope could be seen as a kind of grandparent to what ILM spawned. But AZ had some amazing people whose names don’t usually get talked about as much as the more famous alums. LIke Carroll Ballard, whose few movies are universally regarded some of the most gorgeous put to film.

– Also, his frequent collaborator Caleb Deschanel who photographed some of the movies that have likely stuck in your head more than most for their photography (like The Black Stallion, The Natural, Fly Away Home, Being There, The Right Stuff, The Patriot, and The Passion for that matter … my own opinion is that a lot of the kudos for direction given to Mel Gibson really belong to this guy). Also, quick bit of fun trivia, his lovely daughter Zooey is the perfectly cast Trillian in the new Hitchhiker’s movie.

– One thing that fascinates me about this whole history of this single crowd of people is how it parallels so many other movements or coteries of artists that have formed influential “schools” or all become famous in their own right. It confounds the whole “lone genius” myth and reinforces the idea that real genius happens in nurturing environments among mutually talented peers. (The Beat movement, the New York school of art, the Dada and Surrealist movements are just a few examples of this. Hell, even the “Founding Fathers” of the US were a sort of coterie of peers, and our whole way of life and government is a result of their society. Even people we think of as lone geniuses turn out, upon further examination, to be connected to communities in vital ways even if it’s at a clinical remove — like Kubrick, who was great friends with Spielberg, but mostly communicated via a secret fax machine in Spielberg’s closet.) In the THX 1138 documentary, Lucas admits (and others confirm) that he probably wouldn’t have taken later risks that led to his success and the phenomena he created (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc) if it hadn’t been for his exposure to Coppola’s mercurial personality, for example. Groups promote cross-pollination of not just ideas but personal traits, elements of character. I wonder if there’s anything written about this… has to be somewhere.

– Whoa. Sean Penn just got his brains blown out and Al Pacino is wearing the coolest leather jacket I’ve ever seen. The escalator scene is coming up… time to sign off.

Author: Andrew Hinton

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