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Play It to the Bone 

"Michelangelo had the pope and da Vinci had the Medici and we got the studio system"

Wednesday, Feb 26 2003
Ron Shelton makes his movies with studio and foreign money, but his budgets are so tight -- notwithstanding successes like Bull Durham -- that he writes his scripts like an independent filmmaker, with one eye on the checkbook. "I'm always thinking, 'I can't afford that many extras' or 'That involves a set that I can't afford to build.' You try to make that a plus, and make your storytelling more inventive." In town for the day to promote his L.A. cop western, Dark Blue, he scans his Four Seasons accommodations with mild chagrin. "Where was the money for this suite when I was shooting the movie? I would have taken the $750 and bought, let's see, that's 20 more extras. That's how I would have done it."

It's always fun talking with a director who's unhappy with a studio, and Shelton is frustrated that MGM/United Artists kept the prosaic Dark Blue on the shelf for a year after it was finished. "Nobody wants to make it; you make it for cheap, [and] nobody has enough invested to distribute it. Then, if nobody goes [to the theater], they say, 'See?' I have no ideology about the system except Michelangelo had the pope and da Vinci had the Medici family and we got the studio system."

When I ask if there's an era in Hollywood history that he wishes he could have worked in, Shelton doesn't hesitate. "I think everybody looks to the '70s, when the studios were not yet taken over by multinational corporations. They were relatively small mom-and-pop operations, run by guys who were risk-takers and entrepreneurs and would roll the dice. They'd smoke a joint Monday morning and say, 'Anybody see a good script this weekend? Let's go make it.' You would never make a movie just to make money. Your goal was always to make good movies, and your belief was that good movies, on balance, would do well. That world is not with us anymore." Shelton's back on screen in June with a big-budget picture, Hollywood Homicide, starring Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett, so he realizes things could be a lot worse. "The truth is, directors are always going to complain," he admits with a wry smile. "I still get to tell stories for a living. I just don't get to tell them often enough."

Wavelength In a famous 1962 essay, the critic Manny Farber codified his long-standing loathing for masterpiece or "white elephant" art and his admiration for unpretentious "termite art." The latter, he wrote, is marked by two qualities: the "concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed" and "the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in different arrangement without ruin." He championed experimentation in movies and recoiled at grandiosity and self-satisfaction.

Farber, who began his writing career in 1942 at The New Republic, regales his fans with his acerbic observations when he visits the S.F. International Film Festival in April to receive the Mel Novikoff Award, presented each year to a curator, archivist, or critic. Farber is a cult figure, unknown to most moviegoers because he stopped writing in the mid-'70s -- one of his last outlets was Francis Ford Coppola's long-defunct City magazine -- to focus on painting and teaching in Southern California. The place to start exploring his work is his seminal 1971 collection, Negative Space, republished in 1998 in an expanded paperback edition.

On the Town Renowned director Bertrand Tavernier introduces his recent tour de force, Safe Conduct, at the Pacific Film Archive this Saturday, March 1. A gripping moral drama about French filmmaking during the Occupation, Safe Passage has had a ridiculously limited theatrical release in the United States. Find details at ... The Balboa Theater marks its 77th birthday this Thursday, Feb. 27, with The Son of the Sheik and other silent gems from 1926. Part the curtain at for particulars. ... Cinequest (aka the San Jose Film Festival) has assembled an enviable list of stars for this year's "Maverick Spirit" events, including director Stephen Frears (March 4) and actors James Woods (March 1), Lupe Ontiveros (March 5), William H. Macy (March 7), and Val Kilmer (March 9). Drop by for ticket info.

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Michael Fox


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