Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

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westegg

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Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 5:56 am

What with the latest GATSBY version on the horizon, I'll be interested to see how authentically it evokes its times--in this case with loads of CGI and Baz showmanship--but will it feel like the '20s? Of course, not being a first person eyewitness (though I can make some mystical claims, but that's another topic), I can't say how accurate it all seems based on memory--it's just a matter of palpably sensing that a movie is doing a very convincing job of its ambiance. I think of 1973's PAPER MOON--the black & white photography helps, but damn, it sure feels like the film crew actually traveled back to the 1930s to film it.

This topic might center on films that cover Nitrateville's favorite decades, but other centuries can be included. I think of Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON as a majorly convincing whiff of the 18th century somehow bottled in 1975. Same with 1999's TOPSY-TURVY conveying a magnificent aura of circa 1880 London.

Back to the early 20th century, I think CABARET (1972) gave a really tangible impression of you-are-there of circa 1933 Berlin. For all the glories of THE STING though, to me it falls a bit short because it never rises above a glossy studio-bound look despite a few location shots.

What with CGI being able to replicate everything in a visual way, the key is somehow taking it to a more elusive realm--the atmospheric creation of a bygone era in an unusually magical, emotional way.
Last edited by westegg on Thu May 31, 2012 6:08 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:03 am

I think the British are the best at doing period pictures - they usually get just about everything right. On television recently we have had the brilliant "Downton Abbey" which has brought us back to Edwardian England and sent us through the Great War into the early 1920's.

As to feature films - I can't remember the names of all of them, but those that I have enjoyed and can remember the names of are "Howard's End", "Ladies in Lavender" and "Mrs. Henderson Presents". I am sure there are many, many more I could go on about if I sat down and got my brain to work properly.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:27 am

There's always Buster Keaton's historical comedies. The trains in both Our Hospitality and The General were authentic to their periods, and so were the clothes, weapons, etc.

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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:31 am

And having recently watched both In Cold Blood and Capote, the former did an excellent job of capturing the 1959-1964 period, although there wasn't really much scope to display it; while the latter was pretty good at replicating the same period. Some of the clothes didn't seem quite right, and there was one scene which I can't remember right now that struck an out-of-tune note.

On the other hand, Gods and Monsters just never seemed to convey a proper sense of time. It looked as much as if it were set in the 1970s as the 1950s.

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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 7:10 am

Accuracy is not the same as verisimilitude.

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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 7:43 am

I thought "King of the Hill" (1993) did a good job of conveying what life was like during the Great Depression. I thought the movie was excellent.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 7:46 am

VERISIMILITUDE! I knew I was lacking a certain word. Yes, it's somehow recapturing the mood and flavor of a bygone time period. The next best thing to a time machine. RAGTIME (1981) did a respectable shot at it. The same year's REDS was also excellent. The trick is somehow subtracting present day's so-called sensibilities (sifting out inaccuracies of speech, props, attitude etc.) and, even harder, creating that sense of displaced time from our own so that it feels like an earlier time. Wow. Neat trick. For all of the praise given HUGO, I didn't really have a feeling of the era the same way Scorsese did in evoking the '60s timeframe in, say, GOODFELLAS. Then too HUGO is a quasi-fantasy world, and the elaborate, rather soul-less CGI Paris settings can't compare in texture if it was done in a far grittier street way of evoking '30s Paris (I wish it was done this way, a la the Italy of BICYCLE THIEF, but I digress).
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 8:36 am

Donald Binks wrote:I think the British are the best at doing period pictures - they usually get just about everything right. On television recently we have had the brilliant "Downton Abbey" which has brought us back to Edwardian England and sent us through the Great War into the early 1920's.


Usually...in fact, almost always. Downton Abbey, however, all the glorious costumes & beautiful details of furnishings notwithstanding, is an exception, because the producers saw fit to contemporize it (& degrade it) with 21st C. attitudes of social equality, sexual liberation, & the like; not by any means verisimilitude, not Edwardian England...& therfore, hugely popular. But Downton Abbey is the exception...incomparable productions like All the King's Men & My Boy Jack are the rule.

Very recently I obtained two pictures from Netflix that illustrate the (usual) difference between English & American period productions: A Handful of Dust, '88, & The Age of Innocence, '93. The latter was such a travesty of the novel (Scorsese--how could I have expected otherwise?), that half an hour was the most I could endure, while the former was so marvelous it haunted me for days thereafter.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 9:28 am

"we have had the brilliant "Downton Abbey"...."

It has been something of a winter sport here for persons to point out the historic inaccuracies, or the use of inappropriate language for the period in Downton. An enjoyable enough show but not period accurate.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 9:31 am

Funny you mention Ragtime and Reds. I remember an interview long ago with designer Richard Sylbert talking about his work on Reds where he insisted Ragtime's baby blues and so on were totally wrong for the period-- not just wrong but grotesquely loud. Don't know if that's true or not (you sure see green a lot in old places, if not baby blue).

on verisimilitude vs. strict accuracy...

One thing I've always admired about The Godfather is that the house is so small.

You have to make movie houses bigger than normal houses to shoot in; a realistic house looks cramped. Don Corleone must have a huge house because he's a powerful man, right?

But Coppola and Puzo knew that life in an Italian family happens in the kitchen and the dining table, and if you make it big enough for aristocrats, you lose the intimacy of Italian family life. So he has a big compound, big enough for Connie's wedding on its grounds, big enough to apparently whack people at without calling attention to it... but a house of cramped hallways and everybody thrown together at the dinner table, because that's, I'm sure, how both Puzo and Coppola grew up.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 10:04 am

Jim Roots wrote:On the other hand, Gods and Monsters just never seemed to convey a proper sense of time.

Jim


The Adventures of Robin Hood doesn't, either. It is joyously, spectacularly, wondrously inaccurate, inaccurate about everything.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 10:45 am

[i]on verisimilitude vs. strict accuracy...

One thing I've always admired about The Godfather is that the house is so small.

You have to make movie houses bigger than normal houses to shoot in; a realistic house looks cramped. Don Corleone must have a huge house because he's a powerful man, right?

But Coppola and Puzo knew that life in an Italian family happens in the kitchen and the dining table, and if you make it big enough for aristocrats, you lose the intimacy of Italian family life. So he has a big compound, big enough for Connie's wedding on its grounds, big enough to apparently whack people at without calling attention to it... but a house of cramped hallways and everybody thrown together at the dinner table, because that's, I'm sure, how both Puzo and Coppola grew up./i]


I was just thinking of the first two GODFATHERS as another example of perfect evocation of time and place. Quite believable.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 10:49 am

A couple of fairly obscure British films have pretty believable period recreations, as I recall -- WINSTANLEY (1975) by Kevin Brownlow, for the Cromwell era around 1649, and COMRADES (1986) by Bill Douglas for 1830s England and Australia. Both are on region-free Blu-rays from the BFI.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 11:28 am

westegg wrote:VERISIMILITUDE! I knew I was lacking a certain word. Yes, it's somehow recapturing the mood and flavor of a bygone time period. The next best thing to a time machine. RAGTIME (1981) did a respectable shot at it. The same year's REDS was also excellent. The trick is somehow subtracting present day's so-called sensibilities (sifting out inaccuracies of speech, props, attitude etc.) and, even harder, creating that sense of displaced time from our own so that it feels like an earlier time. Wow. Neat trick. For all of the praise given HUGO, I didn't really have a feeling of the era the same way Scorsese did in evoking the '60s timeframe in, say, GOODFELLAS. Then too HUGO is a quasi-fantasy world, and the elaborate, rather soul-less CGI Paris settings can't compare in texture if it was done in a far grittier street way of evoking '30s Paris (I wish it was done this way, a la the Italy of BICYCLE THIEF, but I digress).



HUGO did look to me like a Jeunet film without the trash.

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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 11:36 am

Christopher Jacobs wrote:A couple of fairly obscure British films have pretty believable period recreations, as I recall -- WINSTANLEY (1975) by Kevin Brownlow, for the Cromwell era around 1649, and COMRADES (1986) by Bill Douglas for 1830s England and Australia. Both are on region-free Blu-rays from the BFI.


That is an interesting difference, between "believability" and "accuracy," they are not the same thing. There are no accurate period films when it comes to costuming and makeup, no one gets that right--they deliberately don't get it right.

BTW, we have not yet defined what a period film is, so far we seem to be limiting the definition to films that take place within the 20th century, or fin de siècle 19th/20th. Westerns are period films, DeMille's extravangazas are period films, the Hercules films are period films, Gainsborough's wartime costumers are period films, most of Errol Flynn's high-flying adventures are period films. So what's the difference between those films and the "period" films under discussion?
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 11:53 am

Christopher Jacobs wrote:A couple of fairly obscure British films have pretty believable period recreations, as I recall -- WINSTANLEY (1975) by Kevin Brownlow, for the Cromwell era around 1649


This I'd take the trouble to seek out, if I could believe it didn't take as many liberties with the facts as did Cromwell of 1970--an impressive-looking & superficially "convincing" picture...until one reads a bit of background history. The English Civil War fascinates me, but the only other dramatization of it I've seen was a PBS/BBC series in the '80s, good but not great as I recall, the title of which I've forgotten.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 12:23 pm

Frederica wrote: There are no accurate period films when it comes to costuming and makeup, no one gets that right--they deliberately don't get it right.


True, probably, most of the time, but in the case of Marie Antoinette, about which I've just been reading in Gavin Lambert's Shearer bio, MGM evidently spent a vast amount trying, to the extent of their knowledge of the period, to get right details of costume & decor; how well they succeeded would be a different issue.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 1:12 pm

Frederica wrote:
Christopher Jacobs wrote:A couple of fairly obscure British films have pretty believable period recreations, as I recall -- WINSTANLEY (1975) by Kevin Brownlow, for the Cromwell era around 1649, and COMRADES (1986) by Bill Douglas for 1830s England and Australia. Both are on region-free Blu-rays from the BFI.


That is an interesting difference, between "believability" and "accuracy," they are not the same thing. There are no accurate period films when it comes to costuming and makeup, no one gets that right--they deliberately don't get it right.

BTW, we have not yet defined what a period film is, so far we seem to be limiting the definition to films that take place within the 20th century, or fin de siècle 19th/20th. Westerns are period films, DeMille's extravangazas are period films, the Hercules films are period films, Gainsborough's wartime costumers are period films, most of Errol Flynn's high-flying adventures are period films. So what's the difference between those films and the "period" films under discussion?


For this topic it's pretty broad; let's say pre-1965, going back to ancient times. But I tend to analyze films that take place circa 1900 to 1950 since I kind of relate to those times more. I don't get too excited about colonial authenticity or ambience for instance, save for the musical 1776.

:wink:
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 2:07 pm

westegg wrote:
BTW, we have not yet defined what a period film is, so far we seem to be limiting the definition to films that take place within the 20th century, or fin de siècle 19th/20th. Westerns are period films, DeMille's extravangazas are period films, the Hercules films are period films, Gainsborough's wartime costumers are period films, most of Errol Flynn's high-flying adventures are period films. So what's the difference between those films and the "period" films under discussion?


For this topic it's pretty broad; let's say pre-1965, going back to ancient times. But I tend to analyze films that take place circa 1900 to 1950 since I kind of relate to those times more. I don't get too excited about colonial authenticity or ambience for instance, save for the musical 1776.

:wink:


Oh goodie, we're being both arbitrary and inconsistent! I'm fine with that, I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page. In that case, bring on Anne Baxter as Nefertari in peach chiffon! Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 60s pale pink lipstick! Errol Flynn as Robin Hood in sparkly green sequins! Gerard Butler's abs in 300! (yes please bring on Gerard Butler's abs.) Valentino as an Adrian-clad Russian in The Eagle! Kirk Douglas in a diaper as Spartacus! Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in costumes that are pretty much a drive-by of real Tudor clothing, but are simply fabulous anyway!

I think you can see where I'm going here. By their very nature films are not historically accurate (and we really wouldn't want them to be, I don't think I'd enjoy The Adventures of Robin Hood nearly as much if everyone was speaking Norman French). "Convincing" and "believable" are artificial constructs for us; we tolerate all sorts of inaccuracies in films but pick out other things to kvetch about. I get all snorty when people get Roman names wrong (in either books or films) so I'm not immune to it either. Although that hasn't stopped me from enjoying the peewadden out of a whole boatload of sword and sandal flicks.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 3:47 pm

Oh, to have arrived earlier, brandishing both Winstanley and It Happened Here as films where the filmmakers - Messrs Brownlow and Mollo - have gone waaaay beyond the normal to get the period details correct.
In the case of Winstanley; locations; only genuine standing buildings with intact interiors and genuine furnishings of the period. Landscape just a few miles from the historical locations. Clothing; all hand made, hand sewn, not a zip or pop fastener on the shoot. Military hardware - armour, guns - not just period looking but the real deal, borrowed from the Armoury of the Tower of London. Script; taken from the pamphlets and diaries of Winstanley preserved in the British Library. Make-up; what make-up. Animal extras; rare-breed cattle and pigs.
I won't go into the same boring detail for It Happened Here; but I will say that an Italian TV channel a few years ago announced a wonderful archive film find; a nazi-made propaganda film showing the invasion and subjugation of London, made in 1940. When they screened the footage......... :lol:
I could use some digital restoration myself...
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 4:14 pm

Westerns take place in such an unrealistic realm that it's hard to even talk about realism. Not just that so many cowboys have the haircuts and clothing styles of their own era, a la Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. But the whole mythology of the west creates roles and archetypes that barely existed in the reality of lowpaid blue collar work in a hardscrabble land.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

For me, the most fascinating western to look at historically remains the most maligned: Heaven's Gate. The people really do look like those uncomfortably stiff people in tintypes in their ill-matched clothes, and the use of locations such as the (really quite wonderful) Conrad mansion near Whitefish, MT gives it an American-Victorian look few westerns ever had. On the other hand, the story it's built on is not only falsified but kind of insane (there were not, to borrow Pauline Kael's phrase, great Dovzhenkian masses of Slavic proletariat in Wyoming, and the epic Romans vs. Boadicea-style battle is nothing like the reality). Such is historical accuracy.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 4:50 pm

Hester St(1975)

Gets the turn of the century atmosphere down very well:
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 5:00 pm

I should add that the first two series of Anne of Green Gables get the period details down flawlessly.

Downton Abbey looks beautiful and is great fun to watch, but the character motivations are filtered through a 21st Century sensibility. In real life Lady Mary's reputation probably would have been ruined after her night with Mr. Pamuk. The whole affair about the youngest daughter and the chauffeur is silly (and stereotypical) and in general Lord Grantham and his family are too familiar with the staff.Even for an old family retainer Grantham is remarkably free with his opinion.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 5:03 pm

I like it when movies present a stage show of a hundred years ago the way they must have really looked minus overblown cinematography or sets. GODFATHER II had a very interesting Little Italy theater scene that looked all the world like what the real thing might have been like.

Slightly off topic, but I know of a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator (yes, they exist) who, while speaking to a crowd at Sagamore Hill or elsewhere, always forgoes a microphone and bellows unamplified the way the real TR spoke to crowds. If auditoriums had decent acoustics it wasn't that much of a stretch.

I think some movies, like BARRY LYNDON, do go to inordinate lengths to be as you-are-there as possible. I can imagine how essentially impossible it is to be so thorough all the time, but then too this ain't about decor per se, it's the way moviemakers can create the time-travel illusion of recapturing a previous time as if really there. Not just superficially.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:12 pm

Since it's set in a time long ago and I like to be shocking, I'd say Star Wars. The first science fiction film where almost everything was beaten up (and sometimes barely worked) rather than sparkly and new.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, except for Warren Beatty's hairdo.

Days of Heaven. (Perhaps my real choice.)

Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York are pretty good as well.

One thing I have to say against British period films is that there's rarely bathrooms, dirt, sex, and stupid people and when there are, it's usually pointed and not very natural. Also, they do all have bad sound. But I do love a lot of them.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 6:54 pm

I love baseball movies, and "Eight Men Out" (1988), a small John Sayles masterpiece, pays attention to time and detail in telling the story of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox. Sayles, who directed, also plays Ring Lardner Sr., which is uncanny in his physical depiction and dour demeanor. The baseball scenes for the time period are extremely well done. The news of the game, play-by-play, are done by ticker tape as it was back then. Excellent job.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 8:08 pm

Frederica wrote:
westegg wrote:"Convincing" and "believable" are artificial constructs for us;


This is what it comes down to for me. I can say that a film closely reflects my own perceptions of an era, but without having been there, that's about all I can do. Period films often say more about the attitudes of the period in which they were filmed rather than which they portray, because hindsight and our own modern concerns make certain things more important to us than they were to the people of the time. This is why it's so enlightening to read original sources. For example, I've read many more articles from the early 1930s that express concern about Nazism as an anti-religious movement than about its opposition to Judaism specifically.

In regards to eras that are within the living memory, I'm reliably informed that 'Mad Men' gets it pretty much right - or, if anything, the casual sexism is toned down.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 8:19 pm

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, except for Warren Beatty's hairdo.


M&MM is obviously the film Heaven's Gate was inspired by visually, but I find Beatty too 1970s new-agey loosey-goosey for the time— odd because Altman was capable of making films with a strong sense of the past (both Thieves Like Us and Gosford Park do very well by their times and places; I seem to recall being impressed by that if little else in his Kansas City jazz film, too). But he wasn't dealing with first-rank stars there, I guess, whose personas escaped the period.

Someone mentioned King of the Hill. I thought it was great except for one thing that bugged the hell out of me. When he gets to an apartment building or complex at the end, the signage on it is very modern. This really surprised me because anyone in a major city can actually run across vintage 1920s-30s signage on apartment buildings as they walk around town, so to stick modern Century/Alternate Gothic signage on a building like you just bought vinyl letters at the hardware store seemed surprisingly maladroit. Here's what I mean, a shot from the film and a real example from the era:

Image

That's kind of fancy, but even blockier letters in white ceramic on black would have been truer to the period than this very modern-drab sign.

And don't get me started on the use of Helvetica (which didn't even exist then) instead of Gill Sans at the BBC in The King's Speech...
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 8:20 pm

Mad Men is frighteningly accurate as to the costuming- for a person of my age it's constantly "Mom/ Dad wore something just like that!"

Boardwalk Empire also has magnificently accurate costumes, at least for the women. The men's suits are sometimes very slightly exaggerated in cut, though given that most of the men are gangsters that's allowable.

I think that a good series tends to put more effort into the physical look of things because you are going to be looking at the sets and costumes over a period of months- or more.

Downton Abbey isn't cheap but like many UK period shows it's lexx expensive that it looks. The locations are easily available and many of the costumes are reused from other shows and movies. Some of those gowns have been on screen a dozen or more times.
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Re: Most Convincing Period Films: Not Just Decor

PostThu May 31, 2012 8:34 pm

milefilms wrote:One thing I have to say against British period films is that there's rarely bathrooms, dirt, sex, and stupid people


This deficiency, I don't regret. (But actually, some recent Dickens dramatizations have gone far overboard in depicting filth & squalor.)
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