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LAWRENCE PITKETHLY: All About Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

PBS’ 10-part series “American Cinema,” kicking off Monday, focuses on the three M’s of the movies: the method, the meaning and the magic.

Produced by the New York Center for Visual Art, KCET and the BBC, “American Cinema” is not a typical clip anthology but a serious study of American filmmaking over the last 100 years. Each hour examines an aspect of American movies--from the style of filmmaking to the concept of the movie star to the rise and fall and rise of the studios to specific genres known as film noir , the Western, the combat film and the screwball comedy.

“American Cinema” also features a stellar array of interviews with leading directors, producers, industry executives, stars, film historians, screenwriters, editors and cinematographers. To drop a few names: Robert Altman, James L. Brooks, Clint Eastwood, Michael Eisner, Peter Falk, Harrison Ford, Samuel Fuller, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, George Lucas, Joseph Mankiewicz, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Julia Roberts, Gena Rowlands, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone. John Lithgow is the host.

The series is to serve as a fully accredited college course, which will include a textbook, “American Cinema/American Culture” by John Belton; a study guide by Edward K. Sikov, and three additional half-hour programs. A glossy companion book, “American Cinema--One Hundred Years of Filmmaking,” by Jeanine Basinger, was published last fall by Rizzoli.

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Lawrence Pitkethly is the executive producer of “American Cinema.” The Northern Ireland native is a writer, journalist, filmmaker and co-founder of the New York Center for Visual History. He previously conceived and developed “Voices & Visions,” the acclaimed 13-part documentary series on American poetry that aired on PBS in 1988.

Times Staff Writer Susan King discussed “American Cinema” with Pitkethly over the phone from his New York home.

“American Cinema” looks at film as an industry, an art form and a mirror of our culture. How did you arrive at the concept for the series?

The general public has a kind of love affair with movies, an obsession with movies. Not just in Los Angeles, but in every city in the United States. But there is actually very little on television for people who want to get a handle on a lot of things they are talking about. There is very little history. One of the strongest reasons for doing the series was to make a lot of information available in a general way.

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We are obviously coming up to the centenary of cinema (this year). So this was really a project looking to 100 years of film and saying this is a way to celebrate one of America’s greatest cultural achievements, the entertainment success story of all time.

There is a third (reason) that was really behind this thing. I think we have really reached an interesting moment in our society for retrieving the history of Hollywood. That is to say, you looked at old films in revival houses or you looked at old films on TV and then videocassettes came long. For the first time in American culture you could actually have the pleasure of seeing films for the first time or of seeing films that you hadn’t seen since you were a kid. This is a very interesting moment where I think people across America can surf between decades. It is an incredible opportunity for the culture at this point to get a handle on its history. What this TV series does, for the first time, is offer the public a way of getting a lot of handles on film and thinking about films in a way they probably haven’t thought of them before.

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“American Cinema” also makes a very strong case for film preservation.

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It was very important that we include ... some way of drawing attention to people that movies are not just popular entertainment; they are more than popcorn. They are an incredible artistic achievement, and if you convince people that ... then, of course, you make the preservation argument because you have to keep the heritage and preserve the culture.

It has been incredibly important to have all of the major studios back this project. It is a celebration of Hollywood. Everybody has gotten together and been very supportive. Bill Kobin, president of KCET, and Stephen Kulczycki, station manager, have been enormously helpful in arranging interviews in Los Angles and in putting the project together.

We have worked very closely with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and with Mary Lea Bandy, the director of the Department of Film. She, along with Jeanine Basinger, who is our senior consultant, and the late Ron Haver of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, became our ambassadors to the studios to really articulate our cause. I have just been very appreciative of that. So at the minimum, what we are doing is giving $100,000 for four years out of any proceeds that come in here to preserve a number of motion picture classics that MOMA designates.

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How would you define “American film”?

I was in a car cab going from Paris to Omaha Beach with director Sam Fuller. We were going to film a sequence on the beach about “The Big Red One.” I asked Sam between his cigars, “OK. Define America film for me.” He kind of looked at me and said, “American cinema is international emotion. The American cinema camera knows no flag.” What he was saying was very much what director Paul Schrader just said in a film discussion we taped weeks ago for a wraparound program for this series which will probably be seen on cable. Schrader said, “Listen. There is no such thing as American film. There is French film, Italian film and German film, but American flim is really international film.” That’s why the directors and other crafts people will flock to Hollywood. They want to work on something that people in their own culture understand. It is not just nationalistic.

I think what we wanted to do with this series is really explain, “Why do we love the cinema?” and, to be begin with, “What is American film?” The first three programs really look at style, the system and the star, which is what the American film is. I think that’s a very interesting, kind of radical way of going about it, which is to say there is such a thing as an American movie. You can recognize it. It’s a certain kind of product and it’s also a certain kind of art. It’s all recognizable--the style and the way stories are told. It’s a certain kind of storytelling and a certain way of using character. I think a lot of people out there never thought about this. I think it’s wonderful when you get very engaging directors who think about these things all the time, like Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack--people like that taking you into that world and how they think, not just in terms of their own films, but films they learned from and the tradition of Hollywood.

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“American Cinema” has a pretty stellar interview lineup. Was it difficult to get all of those people to commit to the series?

It’s very hard to get 170 (people from the) movie industry to sit down. It took a very long time to organize it. This is probably the most difficult and elusive group to get as you can possibly imagine. With Scorsese, he was making “The Age of Innocence” and we absolutely needed an interview with Scorsese. We had to wait six months and had to devise the program trying to imagine what Marty would say. And Clint Eastwood will do an interview, but when? You obviously had to wait for the interviews and you had to wait to get all of the studios on board to get all of the clip rights. It was a very complex series to orchestrate in that way, but what is amazing is that we got so many people, we got so many wonderful interviews.

I think what really happened was that a lot of people in Hollywood don’t get asked these kind of questions, yet these people feel deep in their hearts that this is an incredibly interesting history and a wonderful success story to be part of. When they are asked questions, “What makes you tick? Let’s get into your past and start telling me what got you into films and what made you make a certain kind of artistic decision,” it opens people up, whether you are talking to a Sydney Pollack or a Clint Eastwood or a Scorsese or a Julia Roberts.

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It also makes the series more personal.

This (series) is not academic even though it can be used in a classroom. It is connected to a college course, but it is not an academic approach. It is a very personal approach.

When Scorsese is talking about a film noir , he is talking about one he saw in a certain way when he was 9 years old. When Sydney Pollack is telling you about a certain film, it’s a film he saw at a certain time. Whoever the interview is, it’s all done at a very personable level to bring you in. Let’s face it, everybody has their own personal favorites (when it comes to movies). One of the things with this series is I’m not going to please all of America.

The selections really do come down to a lot of criteria--including best films, director’s favorite films or influential films--that talk about a specific story line that is being discussed. Like in the war films that are more personal, like John Ford’s “They Were Expendable,” versus films that are more ideological and studio-based, like “Bataan.” We can’t please everybody, but if the series really makes a lot of people have a lot of discussions, then it is doing its job.

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“American Cinema” airs Mondays at 8-10 p.m. and Tuesdays at midnight-2 a.m. on KPBS; Mondays at 8-10 p.m. on KVCR; Mondays at 9-11 p.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m.-midnight on KCET. The series will be preempted Feb 6.


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