Friday, 14 April 2017

DeMille vs. Mankiewicz, October 22, 1950

Today is Good Friday, and in the olden days this used to be a closed day in Sweden, at least until the 1990s. No shops were open, no newspapers came out and TV and radio broadcasts were solemn and/or religious. Swedish Television would show a film with a biblical theme, such as Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy 1951) or Ben-Hur (William Wyler 1959). Another film that would have been shown is Cecil B DeMille 's The Ten Commandments (1956), so I thought I would keep that thought. It was DeMille last film, and not a very good one. At the end of the 1910s and the 1920s he was one of the best of filmmakers, making elegant, witty and intelligent films such as Old Wives for New (1918), Don't Change Your Husbands (1919) and Why Change Your Wife (1920). But his films of the 1930s and onwards are less than great. He was really the star behind his films too, the filmmaker not only as auteur but Moses or even God (judging by the promotional material for The Ten Commandments).

Here is his introduction to The Ten Commandments:



So he was a celebrity and he also appeared as himself in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950), with Gloria Swanson who was his leading lady in the silent era.


That year, 1950, was an interesting one for DeMille and for Hollywood in general because of the intense political intrigue being played out at SDG, the Screen Directors Guild (which later became DGA, the Directors Guild of America), where most directors were members. That is the subject of today's Easter post.

***

The late 1940s and 1950s were filled with fears and paranoia about Communists, the Red Scare, which infected all parts of the United States. The most famous examples are from Congress where in the House of Representatives there was HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and in the Senate there was Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. DeMille was an anti-Communist crusader, a friend of McCarthy, and an influential member of the board of the SDG. He had been working during the 1940s to fill the board with like-minded people, like Albert S. Rogell, George Marshall and Sam Wood, as the board held the real power in the Guild. After Congress, against the veto of president Truman, had enforced that all federal employees signed a loyalty oath (in effect declaring that the signed was not a Communist) DeMille wanted every member of the SDG to sign one too. This is when he and fellow filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz became enemies.

Mankiewicz was at the time at the height of his powers, fresh from the remarkable success of A Letter to Three Wives (1949), possibly his best film. In 1950 he made two other distinguished films, No Way Out and All About Eve, the latter for which he would win Oscars for best writing and best directing, just as he had for A Letter to Three Wives. His films were the opposite of DeMille's, sophisticated and intelligent dramas and comedies. But DeMille had recommended that he take over the position as president of the SDG, after George Stevens, and this is what happened. DeMille probably thought that Mankiewicz would be malleable to his wants, but this turned out to not be the case.

The conflict was not so much about an oath per se, most members of SDG, including Mankiewicz, were in favour of signing such a thing. In August of 1950, when Mankiewicz was on a ship sailing from France to the US, DeMille and his board had sent out a ballot to all the members of SDG where they could vote yes or no to such an oath. 547 voted yes, 14 voted no, and 57 did not vote at all. (Whether those who voted yes all did so because they really believed in it or because they were afraid of ending up on a blacklist is a valid question.) But DeMille and his faction argued that the oath should be mandatory, for all members, and official, so that anybody could see who had signed. The result would be that whomever refused to sign would more or less end up on a blacklist. The board had already voted against this, but DeMille and his faction were not satisfied with that no-vote. So this is the situation that faced Mankiewicz when he came back from his trip, on August 23. When DeMille understood that Mankiewicz would not budge in his resistance to a mandatory oath, he and his closest associates tried to get Mankiewicz kicked out. On October 11, DeMille called a secret board meeting and only invited those he knew agreed with him (which meant that for example George Stevens got his invite to the meeting after it had already begun) and they decided to send out a new ballot to members of the SDG for a recall of Mankiewicz, with no motivation and without official SDG approval. The ballot was then sent out by motorcycle dispatches during the late evening and night of October 12, to most members of the SDG, with the exception of 55 members considered too loyal to Mankiewicz.

Obviously, Mankiewicz and his friends were to be kept in the dark but apparently Mankiewicz's brother, Herman, got word of it and called him up saying he was being impeached. Mankiewicz quickly set up a secret meeting of his own to counter DeMille's attack, on the evening of October 13. He had a lawyer, Martin Gang, take out an injunction against DeMille's ballot and got hold of 25 supporters among the SDG members who could sign on to a request for a general meeting for the SDG. (25 signatures were needed for that.) In the nick of time he managed to secure them and a meeting was called. It was held on the evening of October 22, beginning at 8:00 pm, and chaired by Mankiewicz. There were three things on his agenda: to clear his name and save his presidency, to dismiss the idea of a general, mandatory and public oath, and to restrain the power of the board (and DeMille) and give it back to the members.

So far, most things had gone DeMille's way but he was so arrogant and offensive at the meeting that he managed to turn almost everybody against him, including some of his ideological partners. It is usually said that it was John Ford who decisively turn things around so that Mankiewicz prevailed, and DeMille lost, but when Ford intervened the game was pretty much already over. First the members were appalled when DeMille seemed to suggest that Mankiewicz's 25 supporters were in one way or another closeted Communists. Among those who ventured their anger were John Cromwell, George Seaton, William Wellman, Delmer Daves, John Huston and William Wyler. Then they became even angrier when told of DeMille's deceitful attempt to force out Mankiewicz, revealed by George Stevens who had spent the week conducting a thorough investigation into DeMille's shenanigans and now presented his result. (Stevens also announced his resignation from the board out of sheer disgust.) And, finally, Ford intervened and suggested that the whole board (of which he too was a member) resigned, including DeMille. That is how the meeting ended, after over six hours of heated discussions. The board resigned and it was decided to put together a committee of five members to investigate the whole affair. DeMille picked up his papers and walked away, a defeated man.

***

That was an effort to do a fair summary but over the years there have been conflicting stories about it, and who did or said want to whom has often been misleading. Mankiewicz's real position regarding the oath has also been confusing, even his own telling of the story, and the oath remained in one form or another until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1966.

As an example of the confusion, here is first a quote from Scott Eyman's book The Life and Times of John Ford (1999):
It was around this point that DeMille read out the names of the [25] men who had signed the petition to call the meeting, emphasizing, in many cases, their foreign origins - "Villiam Vyler," etc. Although this moment is not preserved in the transcripts, everybody still alive who was there says that DeMille did in fact do it, alienating all those in the middle of the argument.
Eyman then quotes Richard Fleischer as saying (in an interview) "When DeMille took over on the stage, he read the names of the people that had signed the petition to hold the meeting. Myself, Bob Wise, Mark Robson, among others. He read the names, and emphasized their foreignness, the Jewishness of the names, ridiculing them. And then he implied that they were all Communists. It was an outrageous thing to say." Eyman also quotes, apparently from the transcript, other directors' reactions, such as Delmer Daves "I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the 25 men. ... I think it was disgraceful." (p. 381-382)

But here is Scott Eyman again, some years later, in his book Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010):
It was around this time that many who were present would, in later years, claim that DeMille read out the names of the men who had signed the petition to call the meeting, emphasizing, in many cases, their foreign origins - "Villiam Vyler," "Joseph Mankievitch," etc. The implication of a Jewish cabal behind Mankiewicz has been Exhibit A in the case against DeMille as an anti-Semite. But the transcript of the meeting contains no such occurrence, nor does anybody else in the meeting refer to such a moment. In fact, at one point DeMille explicitly states that he has named no names, named only the dubious (in his mind) associations of some of the petitioners, which is confirmed by a statement Vincent Sherman made later in the meeting. In all the extensive literature devoted to the meeting, nobody ever claimed DeMille had done such thing until 1984, when Fred Zinnemann published his memoirs - and Fred Zinnemann was not at the meeting. It's only after 1984 that Mankiewicz and other men who were there take up the story. (p. 406)
Eyman suggests that DeMille's arguments at the meeting "was converted by time and the trick of memory into an actual speech that strongly implied anti-Semitism." (p. 407) Eyman is probably overstating his case, and he does not mention his own participation in this. It is also worth noting that Eyman is wrong, because Fred Zinnemann did not publish any memoirs in 1984. They were published in 1992, Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, and make not such reference to DeMille. Zinnemann only says that DeMille was the lead member of the board. (p. 97)

The rumours about that alleged anti-Semitism, and the counter-arguments against it, have taken a life of their own. When for example was this first reported? It was not in Zinnemann's autobiography, so much is certain. Another charge has been that it was Billy Wilder who first made the accusation, referenced in Ed Sikov's book On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1998). But there Wilder is quoted as saying, in 1972, that DeMille mocked him, and others, for being foreigners (p. 332), not explicitly for being Jewish (although the two were often linked). In Hollywood Divided (2016), Kevin Brianton suggests that it was Mankiewicz who started the rumour, but much later, in the 1980s. So possibly DeMille never did say those things. But he does not exactly come out well from this affair anyway, even without the possible anti-Semitism.

This whole thing has become something of a mythical event and filmmakers are still judged according to how they behaved during this affair, even though it is often difficult to comprehend what exactly happened and why. But that it was an important event is obvious. A defining moment in the history of Hollywood, although what it defines is foggy.

------------------------------------------
Somebody who is never mentioned, even though he is one of the most important directors, is Alfred Hitchcock. I do not know whether he was unable to attend, he was shooting Strangers on a Train (1951) around New York and Washington at that time, far from Los Angeles, or if he did not want to be involved. According to Patrick McGilligan, in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003), Hitch did not like DeMille, he "offended Hitchcock's mild brand of socialism." (p. 257)

The film Mankiewicz made after this affair, People Will Talk (1951), was clearly influenced by his experience. Its hero, played by Cary Grant, is being investigated and threatened by a bitter colleague played by Hume Cronyn. But that is only one of the many themes and plot points in this remarkable film. DeMille's next film was The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which is clearly a labour of love and which won two Oscars, including Best Picture, but I find it unbearably tedious.

My primary sources:
Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1978) by Kenneth L. Geist.
Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography (1992) by Fred Zinnemann (and Alexander Walker).
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1998) by Ed Sikov.
The Life and Times of John Ford (1999) by Scott Eyman.
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan.
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010) by Scott Eyman.
Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist (2016) by Kevin Brianton.


Friday, 31 March 2017

Wandering with the Moon (1945)

You may or you may not have bought my book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row, but either way I thought I should post something to give you a taste of it. What follows is copied from the book with a few changes, partly to remove references to other parts of the book so it can stand on its own. It is about what might be my favourite Ekman film.

***

Hasse Ekman made three films in 1945 and the best of them is Wandering with the Moon (Vandring med månen), his second collaboration with the writer Walter Ljungquist. This time Ekman was for the first time not working with the production company Terra and producer Lorens Marmstedt but for the rival studio, SF. The reason he was working for SF instead of Terra was that SF owned the rights to Ljungquist’s novel Vandring med månen, and the new head of production at SF wanted Ekman to make it into a film. Ekman agreed to do it on condition that he could give a part to the actress Eva Henning and work together with Ljungquist on the script, to which SF agreed.

Wandering with the Moon tells the story of a young man, Dan (played by Alf Kjellin), who has a fraught relationship with his father and after a heated argument in which Dan says “I can't stand you. I can't stand myself, and I can't stand my office”, he decides to leave home and go abroad. He is walking along a deserted country road, talking to the moon, when a bus with a travelling theatre group comes along and the driver asks for directions. One of the actresses, Pia, jumps of the bus and asks Dan if she may walk with him and, hesitantly, he says yes. For the rest of the film we follow them, walking, talking and meeting various characters on the way over the course of a few days. It is not a film with a clear linear structure but rather an episodic, lyrical narrative. It is also a film about innocence and innocence lost; and, which often goes hand in hand with this, virginity and sexual inexperience. The first night Pia says to Dan: “Do you want to be my lover? I've never been with another man.” He cannot deal with this revelation; the thought of her and possibly himself as sexual beings makes him uncomfortable and even disgusted. But at the end of the film she finally makes him succumb, and they are both in a sense liberated. Their walk together in the beginning is done in one long take and then the sequence is repeated in the last scene of the film - yet another example of how Ekman in his films often links the beginning and the end together, here with Dan walking on a country road, talking to the moon. The difference is that whereas he was alone in the first scene, in the last scene he is with Pia.


Dan and Pia meet many different characters along the way and it is illuminating to look more closely at some of them. On his own Dan first meets a vagabond, played by Stig Järrel. The vagabond has an ironic and open-minded approach to life and misery. A poet and a philosopher, he takes things as they come and argues that nothing is important; that he himself is an insignificant being, one “whose name is written in running water,” as he puts it. However, he praises the youth and is anxious for the couple to get a head start, before they too become cynical. This is the one thing that connects the various characters Dan and Pia encounter: the wish to protect and/or pity the young for the experienced know that the idealism and hope of the young will inevitably give way to the cynicism and disappointment of adulthood and maturity.

They meet a careworn old woman (played by Hjördis Pettersson) who is the keeper of an inn where they spend the night, and she tells them that only those who gamble in life will really live. They also meet a priest (Hilding Gavle) who, when Dan confesses that he is an atheist, says: “Well, I prefer an honest atheist to a dishonest Christian.” But another piece of advice that everyone they meet gives is that in order to get ahead in life, they need to learn to use masks, to hide their true identities, because, as a man played by Ekman says: “Everybody walks around with a mask.” The woman at the inn says that in order to remain sane and be able to function in the world “[y]ou must always try and be something other than you really are” and use irony as an escape mechanism. At one point when Dan is exasperated with all the hopelessness and cynicism he encounters, he demands to know if there is no belief in goodness, to be told: yes, there is goodness, but it is so desperately fragile. Yet despite these sometimes uncomfortable truths, most of the people they meet see something hopeful in the love and idealism that Dan and Pia radiate. It is as if these people become spokespersons for different ideas, for Ekman's view of life, as they speak of the need to hide behind masks, of the apparent inevitability of cynicism and boredom, how experience and conformity stifle life. At the same time there is also hope: the hope of breaking free from conventions and traditions, for example by devoting oneself to the arts, in particular the theatre. These themes, together with the loose narrative and the poetic imagery, are also what make this film a good example of the similarities between Ekman and Jean Renoir, and their shared sensibility.

The poetry of the film remains one of its main strengths and part of that is due to the episodic structure and the lyrical images of the countryside. The cinematographer this time was Gösta Roosling, who hardly ever worked on feature films. His expertise was in newsreels and documentaries of people and nature. It is possible that Ekman chose him for this purpose.

***

That was from chapter 4, and the book is available at online book stores and assorted libraries and such. I might add that Jean Renoir is a frequent reference point in the book.

Friday, 24 March 2017

20 years and 250 000 visitors

Spring of 1997 was a pivotal time for me in several respects. I moved out for the first time, leaving my parents to move in with some friends instead. I went on my first trip abroad by myself (to Rome) and found it so simulating I often wish I did nothing else. I sent my very first email. And, more relevant for this blog, this was also the year I had my first film article published, in the Swedish film journal Filmrutan. The article was about Alexander Mackendrick, and I have been writing for Filmrutan ever since. So I have been writing about film professionally, more or less, for 20 years as of now. I felt this was cause for a self-celebratory post. In addition, I just had my 250 000th visitor at this particular blog, and although these statistics are not exactly foolproof (how many of these visitors are bots or web crawlers?) they still mean something. So I figured I could celebrate that too.

Curtis and Lancaster, directed by Mackendrick in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

For the first couple of years Filmrutan was the only place for which I wrote, but then I began writing for a now defunct journal called Cinema, published by Stockholm International Film Festival. That was around 1999-2001, and it was great fun. I wrote reviews, both long ones and capsules, did some more journalistic assignments and also several interviews with interesting filmmakers, for some reason primarily from the eastern parts of Europe, such as Jiří Menzel, Jasmin Dizdar, János Szász, Milcho Manchevski and Pantelis Voulgaris from Greece.

Now I write, and have written, for several different outlets, published a book, and contributed chapters to edited collections (the latest one is about Budd Boetticher). To keep track of it, both for myself and for anybody who might like to read stuff I have published outside this blog, I have made a page with a list of everything I can remember, and with links to those pieces that are available online. The page is to be found at the right, upper corner of the blog, above Rue du cinéma, and here is a link too:

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/p/journals-and-books-and-other-writing-by.html

My statistics also tell me which of my posts here are the most popular ones. This is the top ten (or 11) as of writing:

1) About Robert Warshow
2) About Tokyo Story
3) About Henry Hathaway
4) About trains in paintings (a very short post)
5) About deep focus
6) About growing old in the films of Ozu and Hawks
7) About teaching
8) About Bergman's favourite films
9) About André Bazin as a TV critic
10) About W.G. Sebald and Franz Kafka
10) About Maya Deren

As you can see that is a very disparate collection. I have been blogging since 2005 (first a Swedish film blog and then this one from 2009 when I moved to Scotland) so that is 12 years of almost uninterrupted blogging, yet I never know what will turn out to be popular and what will not, and I am usually surprised.

I wonder if I will still be writing 12 years from now. But first I must think of something to write for next week. This post does not really count.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Objectivity and elitism

Having written film criticism for some 20 years I can remember many conversations over the years with people about just that, film criticism. Often with guys persistently arguing that “the critics” are just elitist snobs who have no idea what real people like. Sometimes I try to counter these thoughts by using simple facts and statistics only to be met by angry outbursts about it being arrogant of me to use my knowledge against them. Sometimes they talk as if they believed that stopping a random person on the street and ask which film to watch is better than listen to a film critic.

I often think of these discussions because such views have, coming both from a right angle and a left angle, become fairly mainstream, and not just about film criticism. Such views are also common among Brexit and Trump supporters, and other similar people, parties and movements around Europe and the US. I felt then, as I feel now, that these unsettling positions and outbursts, the apparent belief that actually knowing something about whatever it is you speak is a flaw, proof of elitism and arrogance, come from a sense of low self-esteem and also, to some extent, from an awareness of them being wrong but rather than accepting that, lashing out at the person who they know is right. (What I am talking about is not differences of opinions but first the anti-fact attitude and then the habit of, instead of engaging in conversation or arguing for a position, just lash out and attack.)

To be called elitist these days does not take much effort. You only have to have an opinion which is either different from somebody else's, or to think for yourself and not accept whatever corporations proclaim. Even to assign value to things often infuriate people. Disliking The Avengers is considered elitist. If, for example, you complain about wrong aspect ratios on Netflix there will always be people who scream "Elitist!" even though it does not make any sense. If a big corporation is showing a film in such a way that part of the image is hidden, or the image is distorted, and you are elitist if you point this out, the only logical interpretation is that the people who scream elitist believe that the corporations are always right and we should unquestioningly accept whatever it is they provide, no matter in what way they provide it. It is in the same manner that Trump or Brexit supporters are saying that people should just shut up and accept whatever is happening. Aspect ratios are not as politically calamitous of course but everything that happens in a society, whether a local or global one, matters, and feed into everything else that happens. Screaming "elitist" is usually a sign of weakness, not awareness.

In the 1970s and 1980s academia was full of people who claimed that there was no such thing as knowledge or objective facts, and there are many who still claim to believe this. Such articles are still published, and such conference papers are presented. I have also met people under more informal circumstances making that same argument, that truth is a fantasy, or an elitist idea, and that all we have are subjective interpretations, even of such things as history. What is striking though is how rare it is for them to accept the consequences of their arguments, or to even actually be able to defend what they proclaim to believe. A Foucault-quoting scholar once tried to explain to me his position that there are no facts or truths by pointing to a candle and saying that if we were to describe it later we would not describe it the same way. I said that we would probably not but was it not an objective fact that there indeed was a candle on the table? And was not its molecular structure independent of our presence? He said that he had perhaps chosen a bad example. I did not point out that according to his line of thinking there could be no such thing as a bad example, as all arguments were supposedly equally valid. Instead I suggested he give another example. He took the American Civil War. Well, I said, was that not a conflict between one side led by Abraham Lincoln and another side led by Robert Lee.* He said that yes, this was true, and maybe this too was a bad example. Then he left. At least, unlike the Trump administration, he had some shame.

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford 1939)

Arguing that there are no facts or objective truths used to be a very fashionable thing among left-wing intellectuals, and now it has been appropriated by malignant right-wingers. But the problem with such positions was obvious long before Trump. It is also ideas like this that has turned schools in some places (not least in Sweden) into places were teachers are not supposed to teach but let the pupils teach themselves, and the important thing for a school is supposedly to make children creative and engage in critical thinking or some such. I have even heard people argue that teachers should not know more about the subject than the students because this would make them more equal. The ridiculous stupidity of such a position should be self-evident. What is even the purpose of teaching or schools if there is no actual teaching or transfer of knowledge? Behind this, again, lies the contempt for "elitism," against facts and figures, and instead an elevation of subjective feelings above all else. A student might take the lesson to heart and go looking for her own facts and by using her critical thinking decide that the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and 9/11 was an inside job, if it did indeed even happen. This is not how society prosper or move forward.

Those are extreme examples but another contemporary problem that is also about subjective feelings at the expense of facts and knowledge is the disappearance of nuance and complexity, in the public debate at large. If we keep to film, just look at the endless parade of think-pieces and hot takes in which a person has seen a film (or sometimes just the trailer) and then proclaim that there is only one way to understand that film, their way, and if that understanding is that this film is, say, terribly racist then anybody who disagrees is brandishing her privilege and is most likely racist too, or at least not woke enough. Many of these pieces are so bad that they become indistinguishable from parodies, for example since they are frequently so hyperbolic ("This is the most misogynistic film ever made!"), and so desperately lacking in historical context ("This is the first time ever that women have been allowed to be funny!").

The idea that such a complex object as a film or novel can only be understood or interpreted in one singular way, and anybody who sees it differently is a suspect character, is clearly wrong. Is the work racist, or is it about racist characters? Is it sincere or ironic? What was the context in which it was produced? Is it a well-meaning but perhaps failed work, or is it from beginning deliberately racist? These are some of the questions you need to wrestle with. Analysing films and books, art in general, is hard work unless you are arrogant. It takes time and knowledge to be attuned to all the nuances in a given work, and often you need to watch a film several times to understand it. But for many that is an elitist position; if a person feel something that is the end of it. Another reason has to do with economics; in this age of temp jobs and freelancing you might have to quickly write stupid columns or else you will starve. It is a Faustian bargain.

The position that there is only one correct interpretation is of course different from the "there is no truth, all is relative"-position. It is however related to Barthes's idea of the death of the author. According to him any meaning a text, such as a book, might have comes from the interpretation of the reader/viewer, and has nothing to do with any authorial intent, which does not exist. That too is a dubious position but the difference is that for Barthes any interpretation is potentially equally valid whereas the position in all of these pieces in assorted journals and websites is that there can be only one true interpretation. But there is no shortage of takes, or "correct" interpretations, however wildly inconsistent, as any given film is usually found to be problematic by someone. After all, Moonlight did not pass the Bechdel test.

The political climate in the world is increasingly fragile, and one might be forgiven for feeling that everything is getting worse by the hour. The constant updates, live feeds, the need to be first, to create new content, to keep one's brand sizzling, all conspire to make it very difficult for there to be a rational public conversation about anything. Instead we get pieces that proclaim that an Oscar win for the wrong film will be a disaster for us all. But fortunately that is not the whole picture. There are thoughtful, intelligent and knowledgeable people out there, participating in the discussion. There are still long-form essays, nuanced books and complex films. The problem is not that they are not there, the problem is that everybody seems to be so busy getting outraged that they do not have time to engage with these works, or to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Sometimes the proper, or even radical, thing to do is not to be outraged.

-------------------------------------

This piece is related to one I wrote two years ago. This one.

In a Twitter discussion I observed, but did not participate in, a film critic was accused of having said something racist. When the critic replied that he had never said that line he was accused of having said, the response was "Do not try to make this to be about facts."

2017-03-14
*To clarify, Lincoln and Lee were not equivalents. Lincoln was president, and Lee a commanding general. Lincoln's Southern equivalent was Jefferson Davis.

I also rewrote a few sentences in the second paragraph.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Video nostalgia

The VHS tape became a popular way by which to watch films around the same time I was old enough to watch films for grownups, even though my parents refused to let a VCR darken our apartment. But my friends had the means to play the tapes so I spent many hours in their homes (sometimes when I was supposed to do other things such as taking flute lessons) watching acknowledged classics like Miami Supercops, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, or the Australian nuclear waste thriller The Chain Reaction from 1980. Although mostly we would be watching James Bond, constantly and excessively. When I had trouble falling asleep at night I did not count sheep, instead I quoted dialogue from Bond films. The one I knew best was Live and Let Die, where I could all lines up until "A genuine Felix lighter. Illuminating." which would be the first 30 minutes of the movie perhaps.

At that time I was not able to explore film history, and none of my friends shared my burgeoning cinephilia. For older films, or films not in English or Swedish, I had to make do with whatever was shown on Swedish television, on one of our two channels. On odd occasions I would rent a moviebox and then I could watch a film of my own choosing, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. To clarify, a moviebox was a portable VCR without the ability to record and you rented it along with the films and returned them simultaneously. But I would say that it was always a gamble as to whether those movieboxes would actually work. They were not of sturdy quality. But eventually I got my own room and my own VCR, and things began to brighten up.


There were two video stores in the suburb where I lived; a big one, part of a chain, called Videobutiken Premiär and a small one, owned by an older woman and her 30-something son, in the basement of a high-rise. There were six of those high-rises, the video store was in the one next to the tube station and I lived in the third of them, so it was very close. I would not say I was there every day, but not far from it. I would sit at home and go through the video guides such as Leonard Maltin, VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever and whatever else I could get my hands on, and then search for the titles in the aisles. For a long time I was only interested in renting, but finally I bought two, Ice Station Zebra and Vertigo. I do not recall which I bought first, but those two were the only ones I had for some time. Later, in the early 90s, I discovered the Time Out Film Guide, which is where I came to know the criticism of Geoff Andrew and Tom Milne, both of considerable importance for me. Alas many of the films they championed were not necessarily to be found in my video stores, especially not old, black and white films. When I went to London for the first time however... I could barely contain myself. Although neither Andrew nor Milne would have been impressed by the first VHS I bought there, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Then one day London came to Stockholm, in the form of Velvet Video on Birkagatan in the centre of Stockholm (so not walking distance from home). They had VHS you could either rent or buy, and all were directly imported from England. I was their most loyal and consistent customer, working my way through their stock. My first day there I rented Ford's Rio Grande. That was a good day.


But what is the nostalgia about? Well, it is not about the quality of the images. VHS is nothing compared to any streaming service available now. It is about other things, such as the personal touch. When you went to a video store you would meet other people, you would get personal recommendations, and not only deal with an algorithm. For someone like myself, who did not know anybody with a similar interest, the staff in the video stores became like secondary friends. It would have been a lonely life having only Netflix and iTunes to engage with. It was part of a community instead of a solitary home activity. To some extent it is part of a healthy democracy and society, to engage with others and interact face to face, rather than only through a computer. And besides, going out and leaving your apartment is in itself a good thing. A video store might also, as opposed to a streaming service, give you a job.

In 2003 the guy who once was running Velvet Video called me up and asked if I wanted to work with him in his new video store at the Swedish Film Institute. I obviously said yes immediately. It was stressful work at times but also a lot of fun, and many celebrities paid it a visit, like Jan Troell, Bibi Andersson, Josef Fares, Nina Persson and Thommy Berggren (who told me the story about how he was supposed to have played the part of Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America but for some reason I have now forgotten it eventually landed in Robert De Niro's lap instead). Eventually I became the manager of the store after the guy from Velvet Video lost all interest and turn to professional poker instead.

When I was working there the death and decline of the video store was already taking place and there were only two great video stores left in Stockholm besides mine, Casablanca and No 1. Video. One day I answered the phone in my video store and there was a man asking about a particular film. I said that we did not have it but he might try Casablanca. "Do you know where it is?" He answered "Yes. I'm actually calling from them. They didn't have it and suggested I call you." As I said, it was like a community.

But I too lost interest in managing a video store. I quit at the end of 2006 and began working at the Ingmar Bergman Archives, which in a way is when the present phase of my life began. Today my video store is no more, and neither is Casablanca nor No 1. Video. I miss them all.

The note on the window says "Thanks"

One reason to miss the stores is the wide selection they would have. Not just the latest blockbusters but also things like French New Wave, Italian Giallo, Akira Kurosawa and American independent cinema. In the late 1990s for example I was bingeing on indie films like the collected work of Tom DiCillo, Alexandre Rockwell's astonishing In the Soup or Gas, Food Lodging by Allison Anders, and such lesser fare like Pie in the Sky. Most importantly, this is how I discovered Nicole Holofcener, who continues to go from strength to strength. I am not saying that such films are not available today, but not all in the same place, you have to look for them and might have to take up a subscription or there might be rights issues that prevent them from being streamed in your country, or they might suddenly disappear. The video store was more stable and dependable. And more adventurous.

Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Holofcener's Walking and Talking

In the bigger of the two video stores in Farsta, my suburb, one of the staff members was a stern woman with curly hair. After the store in Farsta closed she too disappeared from my life. Until last year. The last proper video store in central Stockholm, called Buylando, was closing down and on its very last day I went in, primarily for old time's sake but also to see if there were any good deals on DVDs. I found the whole Back to the Future trilogy for a negligible price and went to the cashier to pay for it. Behind the counter was the woman with the curly hair. It was like my whole life flashed before my eyes; she was potentially the first person to serve me in a video store and she would also be the last person to do so. She did not smile this time either.

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I felt inspired to write this post after listening to a Film Comment podcast about New York video stores, and after reading Tom Roston's I Lost it at the Video Store, reviewed by Glenn Kenny here. They are about the past, as is my post. For an investigation of the present and the future, The Economist have eight articles to read: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21716467-technology-has-given-billions-people-access-vast-range-entertainment-gady

Among the many films in which video stores play an important part (including some of the above mentioned) I would like to recommend Bleeder, a great early film by Nicolas Winding Refn where Mads Mikkelsen plays a video store clerk. I also have a soft spot for Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, although I know I am rather alone on this one.