It is a clear blue-sky afternoon on Thursday, April 12 at the Lone Pine Film History Museum. Surrounded by vintage local-film posters and movie memorabilia, Inyo Film Commissioner Chris Langley settles into the comfortable, well-worn lobby couch to discuss his eclectic career in and passion for film, history, education, writing movie-musings and the Museum.
In addition to serving as film commissioner for almost 10 years, Langley is the executive director of the Museum, a board member and past director of the Lone Pine Film Festival, retired educator and current member of the Inyo County Board of Education, founding member of the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group published author and he recently helped spearhead the first annual Lone Pine Short Film Festival – concluding tomorrow, April 29.
For about the past 10 years, he’s written the popular Inyo Film Journal column for The Inyo Register, chronicling major film shoots on location in the Eastern Sierra or providing thoughtful analysis of the finished products.
The Inyo Register sat down with Langley to talk shop and pick his brain on films and film history.
IR: Before you became the Inyo County film commissioner in 2006, how long did you do it unofficially?
CL: For a couple of years I was semi-official … If you’re going to have a film commissioner you need a film commission so we set that up through the California Film Commission. Film commissions in Ridgecrest and in Mammoth (have always been) enormously supportive.
My job is to make a filmmaker successful; I try to match what they need and what they want to the real thing. So if I don’t have it, I’ll (refer them to) Mammoth or Ridgecrest.
The budget is about $40,000 (annually). Last year we brought in about 10-and-a half million. And then basically, a dollar will roll over about five times before it leaves the county. It creates economic activity (and) an impact of maybe 40 or 50 million. So it’s a good deal.
(And if the shoot) is done well it doesn’t leave any marks or degradation of the resource. In other words, we work hard to make the Alabama Hills area look like it did before and if it doesn’t (the film companies) have to pay to have it fixed.
IR: Are shoots starting to go green?
CL: They definitely do that here because financially it makes sense; it’s good for the earth and good for the locations where they are working. So there is a big effort, not always successful, to recycle and to cut down on waste.
(Movies are) a business so it’s a bottom line thing, really. When people hear “movies”, they think … they give away money but (productions) have to be concerned about the bottom line.
IR: What is your earliest memory of film?
CL: “The Wizard of Oz” … I would have been about 5 years old, near 1950. I remember the cyclone at the beginning, and the witch, vividly. I remember hiding under the (theater seat). And I’ve always been scared of tornados after that, so I was traumatized at an early age (wryly). And the witch scared me, too, I remember the witch being green … They say it took her six weeks to get the green pigment out of her skin after they stopped filming.
IR: Do you have any formal education in film?
CL: Not really … a couple of Saturday-Sunday film classes. I was a member of the film society at Dartmouth … where I saw a lot of the classic films like “Freaks” and all kinds of ’30s and ’40s iconic films. That was my education pretty much.
IR: Did any of the regular curriculum lend itself to your love of film later?
CL: Yes, I was an English major and a history minor. I do a lot of historic research now … finding information about obscure historic facts. I’ve always enjoyed writing, too; that was a help and the typical English major stuff, classic literature.
IR: When did you start reviewing films?
CL: I don’t ever really review films. I talk about the context in which they were made, what happens in them and just the ideas I get from them …. more of a reaction to the film. A lot of the films I write about are not particularly high quality in the sense that they were not nominated for Oscars so I don’t approach them in a critical sense (but rather) in terms of cultural history, ideas and philosophy, how they structure the stories in films.
IR: Do you find film reviews helpful? If so, are there any reviewers in particular whom you admire and/or respect?
CL: I do on occasion read short reviews before I see a movie. I have a couple of people who I know enough about to extrapolate their bias or values to personalize the review for me. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times is my favorite. He came to a Festival and came back for an evening. He wrote a chapter on our film festival for his book on festivals. I also think he is a terrific writer. So when I read his reviews, I have a good sense of where he is coming from.
I often read longer reviews after I have seen the movie. Like the two reviewers for The New Yorker, David Denby and Anthony Lane, for instance. Sometimes I look at Entertainment Weekly to see the sum total of the grades given, to find out if there is a movie getting high marks that I am unaware of. Remember I, too, am a retired teacher, so letter grades make sense to me.
IR: Do you have a favorite film genre?
CL: Well, God planted me where a lot of Westerns had been made, but my favorite genres are science fiction and horror – horror less so – and fantasy.
IR: What is the appeal of sci-fi?
CL: It’s very stimulating in terms of imagination. It’s fun to escape the every-day world; it makes you think about the future and what is possible. Science fiction is always about human nature – human nature versus machines, human nature versus aliens and human nature versus ecological disaster … I’m very psychologically-oriented. I like to see how people react. My latest thing is zombie apocalypse. What would the world be like after the apocalypse when most of the world is trying to eat the few remaining.
IR: Like “The Road”?
CL: Yes. It’s hard to compare to other genres but it’s a very thoughtful kind of filmmaking where there’s really no control over ideas. Anything is possible.
IR: What are some of your favorite sci-fi movies or TV shows?
CL: The classic ones like “Forbidden Planet,” “War of the Worlds.” As kids, we used to act out a lot of those movies and work through what happens in them. Another one was “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” a Disney film. Films always strike us more powerfully when we are young because we have all sorts of guards (as adults) – not confusing the reality in a movies with the reality outside of a movie. When you’re a kid you can’t differentiate, which is scary when kids are allowed to see violent or really explicit movies because they experience it as their own experience as opposed to (reality). That is what was so powerful about “The Wizard of Oz.” I was there in the tornado as the witch blew by.
But now that I’ve worked with a lot of movies, it’s hard for me to lose myself in a movie because I’m constantly looking at how they did that, where they are working, what angle did they use, what about lighting. That kind of ruins it because I see the artifice of how a movie is put together … Last night my film intern and I were watching “True Romance,” a Quentin Tarantino script and of course, typical of Tarantino, it’s quite violent – graphic – and my mind always (went to) “How did they do that?” It removes me from the experience itself. And that’s sad in one sense but it’s really fun in another if you really like to take movies apart ad see how they were made.
IR: Are there some movies that are so affecting that you forget the technical and are still really moved?
CL: Yes, I think it happened with “The King’s Speech” … I have to mentally prepare myself to get lost in a movie so that there’s no surface to the screen; I’m just in that world. Some day, we’ll have movies like that where you’re actually immersed in the movie probably.
My favorite movie last year was “127 Hours” about Aron Ralston. I’m on the county school board … (involved with) this Community Reads Program so I had dinner with him. We spent a long time talking about how that movie compared to his experience. He was amazed how much time (director) Danny Boyle spent developing the film and listening to what he had to say. He said (Boyle) was just fabulous, the experience of the movie was as close to his experience as a movie can get.
(At the Film Museum) we showed the movie, then we showed a movie with Tom Brokaw going to the site six months after that accident – a very different kind of movie experience, a documentary approach. That was interesting … to turn that kind of experience, which is very unfilmic, into an affecting film was brilliant, I think.
IR: Do you have any favorite directors?
CL: Well, Tarantino, who I didn’t think was a favorite. After working with him (while he was filming “Django Unchained” in Inyo County), getting to know him, watching how he works and having reviewed all of his movies again, I have to say he’s brilliant. His movie style isn’t my favorite but it is so effective, so visual that I just admire what he does and his writing is so wonderful that I really respect him.
(And) how could you not like Spielberg? Let’s see, who else? John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, you know, people who were inventing after the initial push was finished.
IR: What is it that makes you admire a director? And what do directors actually do?
CL: I love an answer I was given by Ron Underwood who directed “Tremors.” He came to the festival panel where I interviewed him. I (had) to ask what happened to the “Adventures of Pluto Nash” … it was a $100 million budget that made $1 million, a total failure … because he had proven himself a very effective director. He said, “The director’s job is to get everyone to have the vision the director has, and I was unable to do that … (the actors and crew) were making a different movie than I was directing.” So it’s like conducting a symphony.
IR: What did you think of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”?
CL: I liked it a lot. And I liked “Pulp Fiction.” I didn’t think I would enjoy some of the other films but I really did. It’s fun to watch them on the big screen here. I just lock the doors and turn on the movie and it’s like going to a regular theater. The quality is that good. It really pays to watch them on the big screen. I’ve watched our Lone Pine movies on television and then on the big screen and it’s a different experience. You see a lot of the stuff that you missed. Movies are really meant to be seen on the big screen.
IR: How do you choose the films screened at the museum? Are there criteria you go by?
CL: We just show Lone Pine movies and I typically use criteria such as: are they in public domain and are they very difficult to see? Most of them are movies you have never seen nor will ever be able to see on the big screen except here and during the (fall) film festival.
IR: And why is that?
CL: Well, there’s just not much interest in cowboy movies. The young audience doesn’t get into them at all so there’s no financial drive to get (the films) restored and saved – so we try to do that to the best of our ability … We try to always show movies that were made here, in Death Valley or in the Eastern Sierra. And I pick themes and assemble the movies around the themes.
(The current Thursday night series theme, through fall, is) Cowboy Heroes and Their Horses – Gene Autry and Champion and Roy Rogers and Trigger and Rex Allen and Coco. Soon, we start a Friday series called Monsters, Rockets and Saucers … There are quite a few science fiction films that have been shot here over the years.
IR: Back to favorites. Do you have any cinematographers whose work you see and you say, “Yes”?
CL: Recently, I really like Robert Richardson. He’s a cinematographer that works with Tarantino a lot; he was just here. He went down to get the Oscar for “Hugo.”
IR: Are there any particular actors, male or female that really send you?
CL: Yes, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, but particularly Brad Pitt … he has enormous diversity. He can act all different kinds of roles. Let’s see, who else have I seen lately. Let me think about that one for a minute.
I was really surprised at Robert Downey, Jr. when he was here for “Iron Man” … He has an enormous gift and can play lot of different roles. He plays very broadly sometimes but he can also focus on a dramatic situation …
Robert De Niro is brilliant, too. In his best stuff you forget he’s Robert De Niro, he’s just the (character).
IR: You said that as a child, the “Wizard of Oz” was your favorite film. Are there any other films that stand out for you?
CL: There are a lot of silent films that I think are really brilliant – “Phantom of the Opera” or “Metropolis” – that I think are very powerful. “Citizen Kane” is obviously a very interesting movie.
My wife claims that I like anything that flickers on the screen so there is that quality and probably working here has helped destroy my critical acumen because if it has Lone Pine rocks in it then I consider it a good movie – that’s probably not a good judge of quality. “Bad Day at Black Rock” is a really fine movie, I think.
And I really liked … “Tree of Life,” that actually shot here, Shoshone (in Death Valley), but Brad Pitt wasn’t there. I loved that it was such a wonderfully epic way of doing a film and the story was just amazing. That was one I had to see on the big screen as well to get a sense of what it was all about. A lot of people were frustrated with it but I thought it was innovative, a kind of filmmaking of the future. So I really liked that.
IR: I was frustrated by it, too, although I was stunned by the nebulae and so forth. But I didn’t get it until I read reviews. One was by Dargis?
CL: Manohla Dargis, yes … I don’t think that’s cheating. But, I do think you have to let it get inside you first without worrying so much about what it’s about – and then figure it out later. Sometimes you can’t figure it out in a rational way. This film goes beyond reason and into images and graphic kinds of communication.
IR: Do you want to talk a little bit more about film going beyond reason?
CL: Well, reason is sequential usually and widely structured. But films, because they are creating another world and the images only exist as images, they don’t really exist out here. In other words, the audience participates in bringing the movie to life. A movie doesn’t exist until it’s flickering on the screen and an audience is watching it.
And then of course, it has that connection to the outside world. But we know that we can never go back and find exactly what it was showing of the outside world because it only exists in that moment.
Time is totally destroyed by a movie, the way we think of time as being sequential. Movies aren’t that way … a year can take three minutes on a screen. Or, they can take three minutes and blow it up to three hours. So time is not that important in a film.
What’s more important is place. There are people who reason that modernism is focused on time and post-modernism is focused on space, place and landscape. And that’s where a lot of my work with film is. (Film companies) come here to use the landscape. I really started to look at landscape as a major source of film art. The relationship between film and real landscape is very significant. That’s … a post-modern way of looking at film.
IR: Would you care to explain post-modernism versus modernism?
CL: Well, they are just historic periods … Post-modernism is just coming into being. If you take a Quentin Tarantino film, you know it is derivative of films. (In other words), most of the films he’s making are in response to films he’s seen. They aren’t a copy exactly, but a reflection.… His world is a copy of a world that didn’t exist, which is a copy of a world that did exist. So they are once-removed.
There’s a word for that, I think, simulacrum, a copy of something that no longer exists. So his movies are derivative of a movie, which was derived from some kind of real experience. Way back somewhere in some filmmakers imagination and life … We live in a world of copies now a days. Everything is repeated and repeated in (the media) and movies are played over and over again and so there’s not necessarily just one art piece. Artists are constantly copying things and repeating them and they are being mass-produced so we are surrounded by them. It’s really interesting.
IR: An instructor of a screenwriting class once said there are only 13 basic plots, repeated over and over. Is it just the amazing imagination of human beings and talented storytellers to use reuse the same 13 plots over and over or … ?
CL: I don’t know if there are 13 plots; I’ve never counted them. But I think that there are basic stories which reflect on the nature of human life, things that we always are concerned with: parents and children, good and bad … basic kinds of things. The same stories that Shakespeare told, we retell in different ways. But those questions are always with us. Things that are ethical; you see those things being played out all the time, basic ideas … How people respond to them in art can be multiple, many thousands of different responses, if that makes sense.
IR: In an interview, Sean Penn said that film is too precious a media for frivolous entertainment. But Mike Myers, on “Inside the Actors Studio,” said that silly is an art form. Do you have an opinion about these divergent viewpoints?
CL: I’m glad I’m not Sean Penn because I would be embarrassed by that quote today. It sounds over-blown, sort of. I don’t think there’s much difference between a comedy and a drama. Comedies can do the same thing – take on serious issues. There are good comedies and bad comedies and bad dramas and good dramas. But I don’t think you can tell by how many tickets are sold. It’s not a great way of evaluating films.
But a movie is an artifact of its time; in other words, prevalent attitudes, what the world looked like then and what we think of the world as it was, all those issues are frozen in a film. Five years from now we will have moved on and the artifacts will look different; we have a better perspective on (the movie) and it grows or shrinks in value according to how well it confronted the times that it was made in.
IR: For example, in the ’50s, the good guy wore a white hat and the bad guy wore a black hat. It was very clear … Now, the lines are very blurry. We have movies where everybody is basically a bad guy. … Yet we can identify with them, we see their humanity. It’s not as cut and dry as it used to be. Is that because audiences are more sophisticated, or people enjoy sensationalism more, or … ?
CL: Yes, I think it’s all those things. Because we are bombarded with so much media – the Internet and things like that – we need more stimulation to be awakened and enjoy something. Which is kind of sad in a way. You know 40 years ago, a scene would have six shots maybe and now they use 30 in the same amount of time. And things like music videos and MTV changed how we see things.
I see things that I have trouble really taking in …someone in high school has no trouble at all absorbing it. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. That just seems to be the way it is. I think they are processing visual information much more effectively than we used to. We can also be overwhelmed because there is so much of it.
Think about someone one or two hundred years ago and think about what we can do now. I always think of that in terms of music. (During his time), very few people ever heard Vivaldi being played and it had to be a live performance. Now we’re driving down the highway in our air-conditioned bubble, listening to Vivaldi and it’s no big deal. We are very spoiled; we get very snarky if we are deprived our media input. What that’s doing to our neural system, I don’t know. It may not be good, and then again, it may be taking us to another level of information processing.
IR: An Internet guru interviewed by Charlie Rose, I think, said paper publications are on their way out … he said we don’t need 90-minute films to tell stories – that’s too long. Young people want them in five or 10 minutes. Do you see that happening or are short videos just an additional art form?
CL: So attention spans are shrinking, is what you’re saying? I’m not sure how much it’s age or attention span and how we’ve been inundated with media but I do think that kids are more difficult to engage on a lot of topics that we would have found more interesting. They have changed quite a bit so you really have to engage younger people’s minds and get them curious.
But I don’t know that they are different than us, either. They love and hate and have heartbreaks just the way that we do. But they are certainly different than we are in certain ways. And the kinds of questions that engage them don’t engage us as much and vice versa. I’ve sat through a lot of movies with young adults, high school kids and they don’t seem to get distracted. But then I’ve seen them, when we’re showing challenging documentaries and they get up and leave and come back. Part of that is that they can do that at home. They can watch part of it, then go (do other things) and then watch the next part. They are not as dependent on beginning, middle and end – and that has changed.
I think that time has changed enormously in the media, too. That’s the death of the modern age and the beginning of the post-modern age where we have really begun to devalue time in a lot of ways. But I haven’t talked to any adult lately who hasn’t said they aren’t very busy, which I find fascinating. People are really busy. I don’t know if they have time to stop and think about stuff and, you know, smell the flowers, things like that …
You mentioned paper. Everybody said that in the computer-age, paper wouldn’t be that important any longer yet now we print out stuff constantly; we’re using more paper. I don’t know if we are mistrustful of digital memory or what it is, but we still want to see it and hold it in our hands. We’re very tactile that way.
(See Tuesday’s edition for more insight and opinion from Chris Langley on film, filming and the future of cinema.)