Flights of Fancy
FAST FOOD FAST WOMEN | Directed by AMOS KOLLEK | Written by KOLLEKProduced by AVRAM LUDWIG and HENGAMEH PANAHI | Released by Lot 47 Films | At Laemmles Sunset 5, Playhouse 7
British filmmaker Ken Annakin is hardly five minutes into an interview about his nearly 60 years in the movie business -- from World War II documentaries, to directing some of Walt Disneys earliest live-action features, to thriving in the epics craze of the 1960s -- when the 86-year-old slips into a pitch. Nostalgias one thing; thats what his new autobiography, the engagingly anecdotal So You Wanna Be a Director?, is for. Annakins sights, though, are on the future. Im hoping to make the story of what really happened to Amelia Earhart, says the white-haired, blue-eyed director, his mellifluous gentlemans tone now carrying an excited bedtime-story vibe. She survived being shot down, was taken to Japan, came back under a covered identity and lived for 20 years in New Hampshire.
If Annakin sounds like Oliver Stone (he claims proof exists for his Earhart postulations), it isnt necessarily a sign that this veteran of traditional family entertainments like Swiss Family Robinson and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines has suddenly gone conspiracy-minded. Annakin, after all, has never been in the picture business to convert people, just to create thrilling two-hour diversions. It sounds far-fetched, he says of the movie he hopes will be his return to filmmaking after 10 years, but what if people went out in the end and said, Well, I dont really believe it, but its a damn good story!
If Annakins name -- rumored to be the namesake for Lukes Star Wars dad -- isnt a film-history staple, blame genre-jumping and one too many negligible efforts. But his is ultimately a prodigious output of damn good stories (49 films going on 50, he would insist) which, at their best, merge British pluck with an American spirit of adventure, surely informed by the globetrotting he did as a young man before learning film technique in England making war propaganda. Anybody who wants to make films should travel, says Annakin, who bemoans the narrow world-view of todays young filmmakers. Were relying on digital effects, blowing up things, but it isnt really about life. As for Annakin, once in features, he responded most to stories of ordinary people overcoming unimaginable situations, whether life-threatening, comic or poignant. His segment of 1949s Quartet, for example, about a housewife becoming an erotic poet, deftly mixes stiff-upper-lip humor and domestic pathos.
Being tapped by Disney in the early 50s to direct a couple of historical sagas -- The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and The Sword and the Rose -- gave Annakin the Hollywood recognition he sought while he got to stay on his side of the Atlantic and indulge his taste for adventure. On June 27, the American Cinematheque will honor the director, whos lived in Los Angeles since the mid-80s, with these two fleet-footed gems, richly shot in Technicolor, solidly acted and wittily scripted. (The 1959 Swiss Alps--set Third Man on the Mountain isnt on the schedule, but is as worthy. Walt Disneys personal favorite, it features vertigo-inducing mountain-climbing footage thanks to some stunning location shooting and breathtaking matte-work. Ever wonder why Disneyland has a Matterhorn ride?)
But were they Disneys vision or Annakins? Both, really. While Annakin eventually learned what Walt wanted, in the end they both wanted it: upbeat exoticism and audience happiness. Not that Annakin didnt sometimes forget the rule of not dismissing outright any of his iron-fisted employers ideas. Oppose him too hard, and the main conversation of the evening would be him proving that he was right, says Annakin, who once, when hashing out with Disney what animals to cast for Swiss Family Robinson, remarked too early in the discussion on the difficulty of using tigers. Walt immediately latched onto it, recalls Annakin, whod had firsthand experience directing big cats in the non-Disney Elephant Gun. It made him want more than ever to have tiger scenes. Hed say to the others, Kens afraid of a tig . . . It came up every day.
In the 60s Annakin worked under another impresario, Darryl Zanuck, on the D-day epic The Longest Day, but felt more personal success bringing the expensive early-days-of-aviation comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines to the screen. By then hed learned to defy producers who told him when he was finished: He went two weeks longer to get the shots he needed. Thered have been no picture at all, says Annakin, who recalls its completion as the happiest moment of his life. I was saving their lives! As it turns out, the good-sport quality to the films wacky international air race is an apt metaphor for Annakins cheery if spotty career: devoted to films ability to help us soar and amenable to its collaborative spirit, even at the risk of a few crash landings.
And he hasnt given up. Hearing Annakin discuss his planned assault on bookstores, its evident that he will approach publicity for his memoir as yet another crusade. Im going to go to Book Soup, Samuel French and Barnes & Noble, he says, his blue eyes turning fierce, and show them the bloody notices and get them to order it!
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