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Filmism.net Dispatch October 3, 2022

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First off, a quick recap of the last Filmism.net Dispatch, in which I asked what the actual rules about diversity and inclusion were in entertainment when they seem to change all the time.

Unbeknown to me, Bill Maher, who I always find a bit of a voice of reason, asked the very same question only a month or so earlier using many of the same examples. For a much more erudite (and funnier) perspective about the issue, I urge you to check it out.

But to today's topic; what makes you an expert in a field? Education for sure, but beyond that maybe formal training, practice alongside other accepted experts, a mentorship by an accepted expert or just general experience in your industry.

What about in movies? Not necessarily making them, which follows the above professional structures (albeit a lot less formalized), but knowing all about them? When we (other generation Xes like me) were kids and fell so in love with movies, most of us never imagined we shape our professional lives around them.

Plenty of successful directors share sentiments along those lines to this day, about how they couldn't even conceive of getting a job in show business because they didn't know such jobs existed, short of some inchoate knowledge that movies were made by people.

And there's a whole other group of people who've instead do what I've done and become professional film journalists (albeit very underemployed nowadays).

But some of those have taken it a step further. Not content to just interview actors and directors for magazine or websites, they've gone on to write and contribute to books and DVD releases about movies, given very special access to the creative principals, signing contracts with real publishers (the golden ticket to any writer) and moving their careers to a whole new level.

I know (and know of) a few of those people, and a particular phenomenon about the work they do has made me realise something pretty amazing lately, and it's this. Just having a strong enough interest in something can turn you into an accepted authority.

Take James Cameron as an example. He was already filmmaking authority by the late 90s, sure. But it was his remote controlled trips to the resting place of the Titanic, his ability to get hold of all the documentation and stories he could about the ship and his faithful recreation of it for his movie about it that's made him the world's most well informed fan, and ultimately the most accepted expert, of all things Titanic.

Among us humble journalists who aren't billion dollar grossing directors there's an English guy I know and often saw around the traps of junkets and film events in LA named James, who's carved out a very respectable niche (ie I'm sick with jealousy of him) doing books about the making of Chris Nolan's movies. His success prompted this line of thought.

But it was bought particularly into focus when I came across a guy named Ray Morton. He's written a bunch of books about James Bond, The Beatles' Hard Days' Night, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and plenty more, but it was his work with the King Kong franchise that got my attention.

He wrote the definitive account of the entire evolution of Kong, from the 1933 stop motion original to Peter Jackson's 2005 CGI epic. But it was his knowledge about the one that has my enduring love, John Guillermin's 1976 remake, that made me so impressed with him.

And it's more than just the book. He moderated a panel on stage at LA's Aero theatre with some of the surviving creative heads and at least one of the actors. Because of his knowledge of the making of the film he was asked by the distributor of a new Blu-ray release to do a commentary on the movie.

So he's not just an expert on King Kong , it can be argued that he's the expert on King Kong, the officially designated authority, in a field where no representative body has the power to assign such authority but where it comes about through evolution and osmosis.

Being such a lifelong fan and a journalist (which gives me not just the impetus to find out everything I can about how films were made but the excuse and knowhow to chase down the answers and stories), I thought what I didn't know about the genesis, production and release of Kong 76 wasn't worth knowing.

But Morton's insider knowledge put me to shame. I was so impressed with his work and knowledge I emailed him through his website to congratulate him on the book and his inclusion on the DVD and he very kindly replied. We emailed back and forth a few times and I busted out my most obscure Kong tidbits to try and impress him.

No chance.

The first was on-set publicist Bruce Bahrenburg's surprisingly frank 1976 book from Star Publishing (part of W H Allen, later acquired by Virgin Publishing and now part of Penguin Random House) about the making of the film.

I'd read it and loved in high school and told my good lady wife about it decades later, but despite how long it had been out of print and how few copies still existed she managed to track it down in the UK and buy it for my birthday this year.

I tried to impress Morton that I had it and...crickets. He was very gracious about it, but he not only had multiple copies (including several of the international editions), he was in possession of Bahrenburg's original notes in a shooting script.

The other was an article that detailed the travels of the 40 foot animatronic Kong built for the film throughout South America after the film had come out. He not only knew all about it, he knew what had subsequently become of it in after the period the article covered.

Morton is a little bit lucky in one respect because he got to talk to the main participants while they were still around. Being such an old movie few of them are still around.

Director John Guillermin, writer Lorenzo Semple Jr, producer Dino di Laurentiis, composer John Barry and plenty of the actors are long gone. Even John Berkey, who did the four very recognisable Kong artworks to accompany the marketing, died in 2008.

In fact, as I look at the framed copy of the iconic one sheet poster art above my desk, stars Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange are the only above the line talent still with us.

And most of those left are, while Kong-sized presences in the movie firmament, nonetheless very old. During the Aero Q&A, cinematographer Dick Kline and costar Jack O'Halloran (who played Petrox Explorer engineer Joe Perko) look like they're ready to fall asleep at a moment's notice. Make-up maestro Rick Baker is talkative and animated but he's now retired.

And even if the film's most vociferous champion and salesman (di Laurentiis) was still with us he'd be a movie maker with a product to shill and a corporate party line to stick to. He'd want you to know the stories that were full of mystique and magic.

He probably wouldn't want to talk about the number of times Baker quit or was fired in frustration at the slipshod way they tried to make him work with creature designer Carlo Rambaldi. Or the way the extras playing the Skull Island natives kept sneaking off the Culver studios set of the walled village to party and take drugs. Or the way the local residents called the cops because the Dwan sacrifice scenes were too loud and there was a local ordnance around shooting quietly after midnight.

All of which leaves Morton as custodian of the surviving (good) information about the making of the film. And he got that way not after going through some educational standard, following an accepted curriculum of study or proving himself with quantifiable economic or performance milestones. He just loved King Kong harder and longer than anyone else, and it's made him the go-to guy if you want to know anything about it.

I think being the scholarly authority on a movie to such a degree the movie industry itself calls on you if it needs information for something like a book or a DVD release simply because you were the world's most dedicated fan of that movie is the coolest thing ever.

On screens now, Baz Luhrmann's Elvis could have gone either way. One thing it was never going to be was tight, and we all know how movies that aren't tightly scripted or staged means a lot more can go wrong. Luhrmann is as freewheeling with his visuals, running time and camera style as he's always been (in fact, he ramps it up here in keeping with the chaotic glossy facade of Elvis' mythology), but it somehow all works well.

I also urge you to give David Michod's The Rover a go. If you saw the quality in his globestopping debut feature Animal Kingdom but were underwhelmed by the story like I was, the plot in his dystopian noir is a lot more straight arrow. But it's the charactersations by stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson that make it as kind of beautiful as it is grimy and gritty.

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