Faces of BC Film – Michael van den Bos, film history teacher, film critic and classic movie host

Cherished for 40 years: Michael van den Bos holds the book "The Art of Walt Disney" by Christopher Finch, which was given to him in 1973.

Cherished for 40 years: Michael van den Bos holds the book “The Art of Walt Disney” by Christopher Finch, which was given to him in 1973. Photo: Katja De Bock

***update – in 2015, Michael van den Bos is hosting the Cinematheque Cinema Sunday series “THE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE,” a yearlong celebration of adventure movies for all ages to enjoy.
On Saturday, Jan. 31, Michael will host a panel (and intro the film) about Back to The Future, in honour of the film’s 30th anniversary at the SPARK FWD 2015 Conference.
Michael will also be hosting more ‘Dancing in the Dark’ compilations at the Vancity Theatre. This show is “an exhilarating waltz through the history of movie musicals, celebrating the interplay between choreography and camera moves by such deft directors of dance delirium as Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, Bob Fosse, Herbert Ross and Baz Lurhmann.” Enjoy! ***

When Rosemarie and Klaas van den Bos gave their young son Michael The Art of Walt Disney on Christmas Eve in 1973, little did they know the book would not only inspire him to a lifelong love and study of film history, but ultimately delight and educate thousands of Vancouver moviegoers and film students.

If you live in Vancouver and love seeing classic movies on the big screen, you will most likely have experienced Michael van den Bos’ film introductions at the Cinematheque’s Cinema Sundays or pre-concert talks at the Orpheum or the Stanley Theatre

“Get me up on the stage with a microphone and I can be up there forever, much to the chagrin of the audience I’m sure,” he says, coyly.

Michael van den Bos is one of Vancouver’s most enthusiastic classic film connoisseurs, able to condense a film or filmmaker’s history while ensuring the audience is entertained as well as educated.

“That was a wonderful talk about Chaplin and City Lights!” Vancouver’s iconic big band leader Dal Richards once told van den Bos, a compliment he deeply cherishes. On that same event, an audience member came to the stage and said “Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher.”

Van den Bos teaches film theory at Vancouver Film School and the history of character animation at Capilano University. He has also taught film and 20th century pop music history at the Pacific Audio Visual Institute.

From Stardust to the International Rocketship

Raised in North Vancouver, van den Bos’ interest in classic movies was supported by his mother, a manager of hair salons. She would allow him to stay up late during school nights to watch Citizen Kane and other classics.

Young Michael would soon look forward to the TV Guide in the mail and with a pen circle what he wanted to see, most likely the weekly broadcasts of classic movie programs like Stardust Theatre on CBC or any of the Tarzan, Shirley Temple and Science Fiction Theatres he’d see on KSTW from Tacoma, Washington.

Watch a 1985 CBC Stardust Theatre bumper here:

“One of the highlights for me was when Gone with the Wind first came on television in 1976,” says van den Bos. “It was huge, because there was no other way to see it, unless it was released again in the cinemas by MGM. Because of commercials and such, it was aired over two nights.” It would then air once a year on CBS, as did The Wizard of Oz.

Today, van den Bos can think of only one television channel which can match that feeling of joy.

Turner Classic Movies, which for me is the greatest television network in the history of recorded entertainment, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, uninterrupted, uncut classic movies with great documentaries,” says van den Bos, excitedly. “It’s the only TV network that I know of anyway where there is an avid following of passionate people that love the network, love what they do, because they love classic films.”

Several years later, young Michael would regularly rent a VHS recorder, which was a big deal around 1980. The first movie he ever bought was Woody Allen’s Manhattan on VHS.

“I got into Woody Allen at an odd age,” says van den Bos. “My first Woody Allen movie in a movie theatre was Annie Hall, in 1977, the same year when Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was released. I was 15 years old, at the perfect age for Star Wars, and loved it, but I also went to see Annie Hall at the Fine Arts Cinema on Georgia Street, which doesn’t exist anymore. For some reason, I connected with Woody Allen’s movie, too.”

As a young man, van den Bos started working for Marv Newland’s International Rocketship animation company, first as a PA and later as a producer. Newland made theatrical short animation films, television commercials and specials, such as the award-winning Gary Larson’s Tale from the Far Side and was instrumental in van den Bos’ further education of film history. He is of the “old school” of animation and van den Bos learned all about classical hand drawn cartoons, hand inked and painted on animation cels, transparent sheets of acetate. The cels were placed over hand painted backgrounds, positioned underneath a 35mm motion picture camera and photographed one frame at a time.

After working for two decades in the animation industry, van den Bos focused more on teaching the history of film, animation and popular music. All movies he ever saw impacted him and he shows a lot of film excerpts in his classes.

"Grab a book, and keep watching movies," is van den Bos' main advice to aspiring film experts. Photo: Katja De Bock

“Grab a book, and keep watching movies,” is van den Bos’ main advice to aspiring film experts. Photo: Katja De Bock

Though he adores great dialogue writers like Woody Allen and Billy Wilder, van den Bos is a huge Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford fan, because for them the image takes precedence.

“You got to be able to tell the story with the camera, with dialogue augmenting the imagery,” he says. “It’s all about keeping an open mind about the possibilities of film and film making and the visual grammar and how to tell a story.”

In his lectures, van den Bos shows a video in which Steven Spielberg, who famously directed the black and white holocaust drama Schindler’s List, speaks about introducing his children to black and white films.

Watch the brief Spielberg clip here:

A position he agrees with. “What’s the worst that can happen? Your eyes aren’t going to melt if you see black and white,” says van den Bos passionately. “You might suddenly think ‘Oh my gosh, this does not look dated,’ because black and white doesn’t date!”

Should film animation students of the digital age know about the beginnings of filmmaking?

“That’s a no-brainer,” says van den Bos, referring to Martin Scorsese. “He said ‘Think of it as if you were an artist or a painter. Of course you’re going to study the masters, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Matisse, da Vinci. Because what you do by looking at the great classic movies of the past is you broaden your canvas, you extend your palette.’ What I add for my students is ‘You have more tools to draw from, and at the very least, you know who you are stealing from. And if you’re going to steal, steal from the best.’

Animation artists don’t make digital effects in a vacuum. Take, for example Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator of King Kong, who inspired Ray Harryhausen, who influenced George Lucas and James Cameron, he says.

“How did they use that technology and what did they bring in as a human being?”

Don Perro, Animation Educator at Capilano University is happy to have appointed van den Bos as an instructor. “Michael loves what he does and is completely dedicated to doing the best job that he can. He has tons of experience in the animation industry and as an animation historian, really knows his stuff,” says Perro. “Michael’s enthusiasm and passion for animation rubs off on the students so that they love animation history as well.”

The Cinematheque to present family musicals in 2014

As a hands-on dad of a lovely 2½-year-old daughter, Lena and a devoted husband to his very patient wife, Lisa Phypers, an IT expert at UBC Faculty of Medicine, he juggles a busy schedule of continuing film history research, writing, teaching, guest speaker duties and, of course, watching a lot of great movies.

For a 20-minute introduction, van den Bos often refreshes half a dozen films while reading several books about the filmmaker. Not only Turner Classic Movies and the Cinematheque are good sources. “I’ve rediscovered the Vancouver Public Library system which has an amazing collection of movies on DVD,” he says.

Van den Bos is currently collaborating with The Cinematheque’s Education Department on the programming of film titles for their 2014 Cinema Sunday series.  “We’re going all musicals!”

Liz Schulze, Education Manager at the Cinematheque, is excited to confirm that Singin’ in the Rain, van den Bos’ favourite musical, will kick off the family musical series on Sunday, January 19, 2014. A new Digital Cinema Package (DCP) copy will be one of the first films to play on the then brand new installed DCP projector, which was partly financed through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Van den Bos and Schulze are hoping they can convince the Disney company to license the right to screen Mary Poppins, as the film’s 50th anniversary falls in 2014. They try to find a balance between family-oriented films and the sophistication of a cinematic perspective, says Schulze. The Cinema Sunday audience is indeed a mix of families with children and youth, as well as adults who are nostalgic about the films they saw decades ago.

The way van den Bos speaks about musicals is contagious, says Schulze, even for those who are not well acquainted with the genre. “It’s hard to not mention his incredible passion for film,” she says. “It takes enthusiasm to another level.” But Schulze also praises his knowledge and experience as a public speaker, which is appreciated by the audience, who reportedly say they love his intros.

“One of the greatest sequences I’ve seen in any movie is in the great MGM musical The Band Wagon, directed by Vincente Minnelli 1953 with Fred Astaire and the beautiful Cyd Charrise, dancing in Central Park,” van den Bos says. “It’s one of the most beautiful, perfect moments in all of filmmaking. It’s pure elegance and perfection and it’s about how these two characters finally bond. A metaphor for how they first make love. It thrills me.”

Watch the dance sequence to the tunes of Dancing in the Dark by by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz here:

And his own stardust dreams?

“Maybe direct a movie, it’s a long time since I’ve made some shorts,” he says. “Either that or my own TV show about classic movies.”

We know he would be the perfect guy for the job.

Reported by Katja De Bock

More about Michael van den Bos:
-visit his film blog Movie Mad.

If you are interested in subscribing to his monthly e-newsletter, Michael of the Movies, which details his upcoming classic film talks and screenings, send an email to vandenbos@shaw.ca.



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