[ed. note: Director Ramin Bahrani arrives in Seattle to conduct a “Master Class” workshop for Northwest Film Forum on Tuesday, April 28. On Wednesday, April 29, Bahrani will introduce a special screening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, with a Q&A to follow, also at NWFF. To mark the occasion, Jim Emerson has allowed us to reprint 2007 piece he wrote on Bahrani and his earlier films. Thank you, Jim.]
Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, you know you’re in good hands. I’ve written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani’s debut feature, Man Push Cart, from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and Chop Shop is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere — California, Texas, Mexico, South America — but the first thing you sense is that it’s not: it’s this particular place, even if we don’t know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, “I don’t need you today” — and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.
[Part One of Matthew Rovner’s overview of Arch Oboler’s films career ran on Parallax View here. Part Two covers Oboler’s efforts as a pioneer in 3D cinema.]
SYMPATHY FOR BWANA DEVIL
While in Kenya, Oboler became fascinated with The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), written by adventurer and Zionist J.H. Patterson. The story was based on a real incident in which two lions hunted and killed, in tandem, builders of the Uganda Railway in Tsavo, Kenya. Hooked on this story, Oboler determined to make a film version called The Lions of Gulu. He explained this idea to his cameraman in Africa, William D. Snyder. Synder had worked in Hollywood on the 3D MGM shorts called Audioscopiks. He suggested to Oboler that he make The Lions of Gulu entirely in 3D. Oboler was intrigued and finally seized the opportunity when The Twonky‘s cinematographer Joe Biroc, introduced him to Friend Baker who had invented an improved system for 3D filmmaking. He invented the process for eminent ophthalmologist Dr. Julian Gunzburg, who was experimenting with polarized images to cure “lazy eye.” Dr. Gunzburgâ€™s brother, Milton was a Hollywood screenwriter and the brothers owned the pending patent rights to Bakerâ€™s invention. Biroc shot the test footage for this 3D system. At the time, the major film studios were suffering major financial losses because audiences were migrating to television. Nonetheless, the studios turned down Baker and the Gunzburgsâ€™ 3D system because executives had no faith that 3D would lure audiences back to the movies. After these rejections, the Gunzburgs approached Oboler with their demonstration reel and he liked what he saw: “Natural Vision.” Later in life, Oboler and his producer, Sidney Pink, accounted differently for how the deal was struck, but the upshot is that Obolerâ€™s production company was supposed to have exclusive rights to “Natural Vision” for the first and second films, while the Gunzburgsâ€™ Natural Vision company would tie up the market for the Polaroid glasses that were needed to view the 3D.The sheer novelty of the process attracted some name acting talent.
Newly freed from his contract with Universal, Robert Stack was enthusiastic about starring in Hollywoodâ€™s first color 3D feature film. Nigel Bruce, who suffered from alcoholism, begged to be in the film and did the entire picture sober. Sadly, it was his last film. Bwana Devil was shot at the Paramount ranch standing in for Kenya, although the rear projection shots were from footage taken by Snyder in Africa. Standing in as Masai warriors were extras from Watts, Los Angeles. For the soundtrack, Oboler used a combination of traditional music from the Acholi of Northern Uganda and a score by his Strange Holiday composer Gordon Jenkins. Robert Stackâ€™s mother provided much of the financing for the film, but Pink ran into problems with another major financer who had a questionable reputation. This problem created a major rift in Oboler and Pinkâ€™s relationship, which deteriorated from there. When I spoke with Pink in 2000, he referred to Oboler as “that miserable bastard.” However, Pinkâ€™s contribution to promoting the film was substantial. It was Pink who came up with Bwana Devilâ€™s legendary tag-line: “A Lion In Your Lap, a Lover In Your Arms.” Audiences flocked to the film to experience 3D, which, when projected properly, was impressive. They were undeterred by the critics, who savaged almost every aspect of Obolerâ€™s movie, from the script to its low budget shortcomings to Birocâ€™s cinematography.
[Arch Oboler’s Five makes its home video debut on Tuesday, February 3. To mark the occasion, Oboler expert Matthew Rovner has contributed a brief history his film career. Part One covers his earliest films. ]
Arch Oboler came to Hollywood out of the radio tube, but he never showed the visual flair of Orson Welles. His name still reverberates from the Lights Out radio series I heard in my childhood. Hence, he is included if only as a reminder of the vanished mystique of radio in the motion picture industry.
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
As a filmmaker he was certainly no Orson Welles, but Oboler deserves better than oblivion.In the 1940s, Oboler was one of the highest paid writers in the world and the most successful radio playwright in America. Radio, prior to the advent of television, was the most powerful and influential mass communication medium on the planet. Oboler stood shoulder to shoulder with the two other giants of American radio, Norman Corwin and Orson Welles. Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, has even noted that “…Welles’s radio work possessed none of the riddling originality of Arch Oboler.” Oboler was to radio what Rod Serling became to television; Serling’s ironic and socially conscious “weird tales” for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery were influenced by Oboler’s plays for the radio program Lights Out. As Andrew Sarris suggests, Lights Out is the radio series for which Oboler is best remembered.
But Oboler was more than a mere fright master; he was also a writer with a political conscience and a relentless desire to elevate radio writing to an art form. His books of published radio plays have introductions from eminent writers such as Irving Stone and Thomas Mann. Oboler was NBC’s “boy genius” and their answer to rival network CBS’s formidable roster of talented writers including Corwin, Welles, and Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish. NBC, America’s most powerful network gave Oboler his very own radio series with complete creative control and his name in the title: Arch Oboler’s Plays. It was an almost unheard of honor. On radio, Oboler was a tireless and original innovator.He wrote most of his plays from the first person perspective, concentrating on the thoughts, memories and imaginings of his protagonists.Particularly memorable is his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with James Cagney as Joe Bonham, a World War I casualty without eyes, ears, tongue, or limbs. Oboler was also a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when the spoken word could better create an image in the mind of his listeners. Nonetheless, the sound effects that he did use are remembered for their audaciousness and creativity such as the eerie vibration of bed springs, which Joe Bonham learns to recognize as the movement of people entering and exiting his hospital room.
What Oboler brought to film from radio was an innovative use of multi-layered sound tracks and his trademark stream-of-consciousness technique.He also brought to film his pioneering and independent spirit, which influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. That same maverick passion nearly bankrupted him when he became obsessed with creating the perfect 3D film system. Oboler made only nine feature films, but each of them is a cult classic due to both his eccentric vision and even his limitations as a filmmaker: Bewitched (1945), Strange Holiday (1945), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Five (1951), Bwana Devil (1952), The Twonky (1953), 1+1 (1961), The Bubble (1966), and Domo Arigato (1972). At times, he has been compared most unfairly to Ed Wood Jr.; however, in style and theme””if not artistic consistency””he was a mix of Sam Fuller, Stanley Kramer, and Val Lewton. Oboler’s life and work are full of the unexpected, including this surprise: even before he was making radio he was making movies.