Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Season greetings

Yes it is true, Christmas is back, and the blog will take a two week vacation. Well deserved if you ask me, which I am sure you do.

Here is a suitable film from the GPO Film Unit (which I wrote about the other week).

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Brothers in Arms

For some reason one of the most read blog posts here is the one about the cooperation between Derek Jarman and Pet Shop Boys (found here). I thought I continue along the music track but instead of British electronica it will be British rock this time, in the form of Dire Straits. I am not a huge fan, nothing there like my deep love for Pet Shop Boys, but some of their songs are great, and Brothers in Arms (from 1985) in particular. It is a long, majestic, melancholic piece of music, and it has been used many times in film and TV to accentuate the mood, often when something important and/or sad is about to happen. Here are some examples:

The first is from the second season of The West Wing, the episode Two Cathedrals, one of the best of the series. It is when president Bartlett (Martin Sheen) has to decide whether to run for re-election or not, whether he is a quitter or a fighter.



The next clip is less amazing, but it is still good, and I happen to have a weakness for Spy Game (Tony Scott 2001) in general, so any excuse to include it. Nathan (Robert Redford) tells the story of how he recruited (or tricked rather) Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) into working for the CIA.



But my favourite might be from Miami Vice, the original TV-series, the episode Out Where the Buses Don't Run from the second season. Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) are given a tip and drive of in the black Ferrari through the deserted streets of Miami, street lights flashing. Unfortunately I cannot embed it, but click on the link and you are there

The clip ends with the words "Executive producer Michael Mann" which reminds me that I have yet to write a blog post about Mann, despite him being my favourite filmmaker for the last decades. That love affair began in the late 80s with Miami Vice.

But to end today, here is Dire Straits's own video.

Monday, 5 December 2011

GPO Film Unit

The other day I was watching De hombre a hombre (1949) an early film by Hugo Fregonese, a nomadic filmmaker originally from Argentina. It got me thinking of another South American-born filmmaker who had a nomadic career, the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti. He came to Britain in the 1930s and began working at the GPO Film Unit. GPO stands for General Post Office and the films produce by this remarkable unit were more often than not extraordinary (I still remember how dazzled I was when I first saw Night Mail (1936) in my late teens) so today's blog post will be a celebration of the GPO Film Unit.

GPO, which began its operations in England in 1660, was a government run agency responsible for the mail, and later also telephone and telegrams, in Britain and across the British Empire. The Film Unit was established in 1933, with the initial aim of explaining to the public what the GPO was all about. John Grierson was put in charge of it, which was a very apt choice. Grierson was a film theorist, a filmmaker, a critic and a progressive intellectual who was concerned about the fate of democracy. He felt that films should be grounded in real life, "the creative treatment of actuality" and that they could and should be used to educate the citizens about the world, and to install a democratic sensibility in them. In the GPO Film Unit his ideas would be realised.

The Film Unit was not an original invention, it was an offspring of the EMB Film Unit (Empire Marketing Board), but it brought something new to British cinema. Grierson had hired an impressive selection of filmmakers, writers and artists (including Norman McLaren, who had always had a special bond with Grierson). Among the more prominent filmmakers on the Unit were Humphrey Jennings, Harry Watt, Basil Wright, Len Lye and the above mentioned Cavalcanti. In addition, the poet W.H. Auden wrote commentary and Benjamin Britten wrote music for several of the films. The writer J.B. Priestley was also involved, writing commentary and also performing in front of the camera.

The films made promoted modernity, community and communication. Although they wanted to create a sense of Britain, many of the films can be said to be engaged in some kind of nation-building, there was also a message of internationalism. Sometimes this was made explicit as in We Live in Two Worlds (1937), celebrating a borderless world where trains, planes, letters and telephones would united all the countries and there people. While many of the films were part of integrating the empire into Britain, there was also a Marxist bent to the films, the internationalism is part of that, and some of the practitioners on the Unit were socialists. The films are celebrations of the workers and the farmers, the coal miners and the clerks. There were also many stylistic influences from the Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. But also from the US, especially the films of Robert Flaherty, who would also make films for the Film Unit.

But the films made at the GPO Film Unit were much more than educational films and conventional documentaries. The filmmakers were experimenting with sound, images and editing to create something more artistic, in some cases pure avant-garde films, with the GPO logo more as an after-thought. Norman McLaren and Len Lye in particular perhaps, but the German animation artist Lotte Reiniger was also making films for the Unit that were decidedly not traditional or documentary. The reason for this breath and the combination of realism and avant-garde was probably due to the two figureheads, Grierson and Cavalcanti. Whereas Grierson was about social truths, politics and progress, Cavalcanti was interested in art and experimentations, and had even a fourteen point program of how best to make films, which emphasised the combination of "the social, the poetic and the technical" and said that "without experimentation, the documentary ceases to exist".

The GPO Film Unit was active until the war but in 1940 it was abolished and replaced by the Crown Film Unit. The creativity and imagination that was let loose during those six years is pretty astonishing. I wonder if there has ever been anything like it.

Some day I will write more about Humphrey Jennings, one of the giants in British cinema, but now it is time for some film clips:

First comes a film about coalminers, called Coal Face (1935), made by Cavalcanti. It makes for a natural companion piece to feature films such as The Stars Look Down (Carol Reed 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (John Ford 1941). Pay particular attention to the sound and the sound design:



Next comes the surreal N or NW (1938), by Len Lye:



Here is another one by Len Lye, in colour, which he hand-painted directly on the film strip. It is call A Colour Box (1935/1937):



Night Mail (1936) is perhaps the greatest film that was made, and Watt, Wright, Auden, Britten and Cavalcanti were all involved in the making of it. It is both beautiful and expressionistic, and the second half in particular is amazing.



Song of Ceylon (1934) is a very different film. It is an impressionistic account of life on Ceylon (Sri Lanka), co-produced by the Ceylon Tea Board. But the artists kept a critical distance from the imperial project and in subtle ways might be said to critic the politics while celebrating the people and nature of Ceylon. It can perhaps be said to be a Buddhist film.



Those were just a handful of the many films made, but they show the range and scope. Those who want to watch the rest, or the above films in better prints, then BFI have released three DVD-boxes called  Addressing the Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1, We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2 and If War Should Come: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 3. (They can be found on playamazon or BFI Filmstore.)

For more on films and the British Empire, both critic and contextualisations, have a look at the website for the excellent Colonial Film project: http://colonialfilm.org.uk/

For those interested in John Grierson, here is the link to the Grierson archives at University of Stirling: http://www.is.stir.ac.uk/libraries/collections/spcoll/media/grierson/index.php

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hollywood and fascism

In friday's Guardian there was a piece by Rick Moody about Frank Miller, 300 (2006) and what Moody considered is the strong presence of "crypto-fascism" in present Hollywood cinema. The starting point for the article was apparently Frank Miller's attack on the Occupy Wall Street-movement. Moody is supportive of that movement, and Miller's attack was provocative, not to say offensive. So Moody is legitimately upset. However, instead of just answering Miller he goes on to attack Hollywood, republicans, globalisation and comics, in a sense proclaiming that it is all fascism. Most of Moody's comments about individual films (such as 300, Gladiator and Avatar) are confusing but I will not waste time on that, instead I want to put the article in a larger frame.

The first noticeable thing about the article is that it is written as if nobody before has suggested that 300 is fascist, or that nobody has ever used the word "fascist" in connection with Hollywood action films. Moody seems to think that he has invented the wheel, although he does say "Perhaps you have thought this before.". Yes, indeed, many have thought it before, myself included. 300 and fascism was connected by many critics. Rogert Ebert in his review said "They celebrate a fascist ideal.". The Guardian's own reviewer Peter Bradshaw, in his critical review, said "Pundits might be pretty quick to invoke Leni Riefenstahl in connection with this movie" (although it took Moody five years to connect the dots). If the film was indeed "crypto-fascist" it failed at the crypto-part. And leaving 300 aside, the claim that Hollywood action films are fascist is at least 40 years old. Pauline Kael wrote in her review of Dirty Harry (1971) that "The action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it surfaces in this movie."  but similar arguments have been made since the beginning of the 20th century. So Moody is part of a long tradition, even though he might not know it. In a sense, what he says about Hollywood has nothing to do with the present era or the films made today. These arguments have always been made, but the arguments are often-times weak and narrow-minded. (Many films that are to today considered masterpieces and classics have at one point or another been called fascist, be they American, Swedish (such as films by Bergman), Italian (Antonioni), Japanese (Kurosawa) and others.)

The big problem I have with the article is the irresponsible way it uses the term fascist. Among the things mentioned in the article as part of the same thing is Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarenegger, George W. Bush, Frank Miller, globalisation, comics, The Dark Knight (2008) and Spider-Man (2002). These are allegedly all example of fascism or crypto-fascism. But our personal politics are hardly ever as straightforward as Moody seems to think, and films are invariably more complex than to be able to be summed up in one word. Eastwood's politics might better be described as humanist conservatism, or potentially even liberal. Schwarzenegger's politics are also much more progressive then people seem to think, even if he did support Bush's re-election. But even if you happen to be a US republican, you are not by default a "crypto-fascist". (Of course it is entirely possible that Moody has his very own definition of what constitutes a fascist, and that everybody who does not share the same beliefs as Moody is in fact a fascist.)

As for the films, it is stretching it very far to suggest that practically all of Hollywood is "a mindless, propagandistic (or "crypto-fascist") storytelling medium to distract our citizenry." This complaint is also almost as old as the medium itself, but not even in small-sized dictatorships have it been possible to have such a control over the film medium. In any event, what does it mean for a film to be fascist? Are they films with a fascist message, if so what is a fascist message? Are they films using fascist aesthetics, if so what is that, and is it not possible to use fascist aesthetics without having a fascist message? Or do they just have fascist characters, and if so, are they treated critically or celebratory? Which character is the one the filmmakers identifies with? Is the hero a hero or an anti-hero? Which scene in the film is the key scene in terms of any political message? There are many such questions that must be asked, and they might not even be answerable after multiple viewings. It is naive, possibly romantic, to think that a film always has one, clearly defined and indisputable message.

So Moody comes across as ill-informed and confusing. This includes his condemnation of all comics as "made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and post-pubescent boys. At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously". This is just plain wrong, and it is also safe to assume that many members of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy movements read comics, and love them and are even inspired by them (as can be seen in the popular usage of masks and symbols from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta). Many of the occupy-ers do also in all likelihood like the films Moody is condemning, which would suggest that if they are crypto-fascist the propaganda does not work on the audience, or that the Occupy movement is in fact crypto-fascist too, or possibly that the films are actually not crypto-fascist. Either way Moody's alarm seems unwarranted.

But the biggest problem is that if we call Eastwood or Schwarzenegger fascists, even though they clearly are not, what shall we call those that are really fascists? We live in a time with rising ultra right-wing parties and ideas. Racial intolerance and xenophobia seems to be spreading. Neo-nazi cells are discovered in Germany. Anti-immigrants and anti-Muslim parties are winning elections. But with this lazy and irresponsible use of loaded terms such as fascism the words become meaningless and useless when actual fascism is involved. If Eastwood is a fascist, then what was Mussolini? What shall we call Anders Behring Breivik? If anybody is a fascist, regardless of their actual beliefs and actions, then nobody is a fascist.

It is a sign of how impoverished the intellectual and political debate is when Obama is said to be a communist or a nazi, when Sarkozy is called a neoliberal and anything to the right of you is fascism. I believe such lazy thinking, such an a-historical approach, is a bigger threat to democracy than Hollywood action films.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Maya Deren

Once in younger days me and a friend were making up mottos and one was "Even the avant-garde has its conventions!". That was in some kind of protest against the cult of the avant-garde we sometimes felt was running amok in the art world. This blog have been almost exclusively concerned with full-length narrative feature films, with the occasional post on music videos or TV. It just comes more natural for me. But it does not mean that I do not like avant-garde films, whatever that might be. For somebody like me, who in some ways are more interested in the style and the feel of the film than the story, avant-garde cinema is a natural ally. That might be why I could enjoy Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) so much. I saw it as a procession of short installations, or avant-garde films, instead of a functional narrative film, and thought that it was quite spectacular.

I was recently discussing avant-garde films with my friend Paul Taberham at University of Kent. He is doing research on avant-garde cinema, including the patience of spectators. I will be writing more on the subject later on but since I promised Paul a piece on Maya Deren, that is what I will post today. It is not an original piece, but a translated version of a post I wrote for my Swedish film blog back in 2008. It has been amended and updated:

Maya Deren

A woman is lying on a beach with the waves rolling back and forth. She looks at the sea gulls and then begins climbing a dead tree. Suddenly she is on a long dining table, around which well-dressed people sit, smoking, talking and laughing. She crawls along the table, but nobody takes any notice of her. At the other end of the table a man is playing chess, but when the woman reaches the chess board the pieces start moving around by themselves until one of them falls off the board and down through the dead tree and into the water. The woman follows it. Somewhat later she is in a house where the furniture is covered with white sheets. She walks around, opening one door after another, and suddenly she is no longer in the house but on a rock. She  slides down and walks around on a beach filled with stones. She picks up a stone and then another until she reaches the shoreline, where two women dressed in black are playing chess. At the end the woman runs away from everything, possibly terrified, while images we have already seen are shown again.

That, sort of, is the "plot" of Maya Deren's silent short At Land (1944), an important milestone in avant-garde cinema. Deren said that films functions on two levels, the horizontal, which is the narrative level, the story, the characters, and a vertical level, which is the poetic level, moods, tone, rhythm. She was much more interested in the vertical level, and she is, in many ways, one of the most important names within the art form she was working in.

Deren was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1917 as Elenora Derenkowsky. Partly due to the anti-Semitism in her home country the family moved to the US in 1922. There they changed their family name to (the less overtly Jewish) Deren. Her first name she herself changed from Elenora to Maya in the 1940s. (Maya is a Buddhist term meaning that reality is an illusion. It also means mother in Sanskrit.) Between 1930 and 1933 she studied in Geneva, Switzerland, and when she came back to the US she studied, among other things, English literature. By this stage she had been interested in dancing and joined forces with Catherine Dunham, choreographer and dancer. Together they toured America. Deren also met her next husband, Alexander Hammid (born Hackenschmied), and they married in 1942. This is when Deren began making films, perhaps because her husband was a filmmaker, and they worked together.

Their first film was Meshes in the Afternoon (1943). A woman returns home on a sunny day and sits down in an armchair by the window. She falls asleep and soon is dreaming strange dreams. She pulls keys out of her mouth, she runs on staircases that swings from side to side, knives appears out of nowhere and a mysterious creature dressed in black appears, with a mirror instead of a face. Everything is happening several times, although we small changes each time, and she is confronted by her own double. The film, as Deren's own later work such as At Land, problematized the self, and concepts of time and space. Hammid and Deren moved beyond conventional logic and continuity and they criticised bourgeois conventions and the "invisiblicing" of women. This was done with stylish and ambitious camera work.

Deren was very prolific. She wrote, photographed, filmed, danced, sew and initiated the Creative Film Foundation. The aim of the foundation was to support and promote art films. In her circles moved Arthur Miller, Sara Kathryn Arledge, Dylan Thomas, Shirley Clarke, John Cage and Stan Brakhage. She also did screenings of her own films, at the home of critics like James Agee and Manny Farber, and at Provincetown Playhouse. This was a very successful endeavour and led to the creation of Cinema 16, a film society which showed experimental films, as well as documentaries, and which had about 7000 members at most. (Agee was not overwhelmed by the films, but he thought that there was no one that was "paying any more attention to that great universe of movie possibilities" than Deren.)

In the late 1940s Deren had become interested in Haiti, especially the Vodou culture and ritual dancing, and this occupied a large part of her final years before she died of a brain hemorrhage in 1961, only 44 years old. In an evocative gesture worthy of her life and career her then husband, composer Teiji Ito, spread her ashes over Mount Fuji in Japan.

Besides making art, Deren was also writing and thinking about it, and its rules and obligations. She was of the opinion that film was a medium of its own and that it should use its opportunities to break open time and space. In a film a person can open a door and move from one room to a completely different space or time, and this way of going against the restrictions of reality was central in Deren's work. In her unfinished dance film A Study in Choreography (1945) a man is dancing in the woods, then through a cut he is suddenly in a studio, only to be dancing at a museum next, among statues and busts, before he is back in the woods again. Another example is the very beautiful The Very Eye of Night (1958) where students from the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School have been filmed and then the negative has been superimposed over the star-clad sky, making it look like they are dancing on the Milky Way.

It is natural enough to make the connection to surrealism, but Deren did not like that connection. Surrealism for her was something narcissistic and narrow-minded. She advocated an active and all-encompassing art, where the artist and each individual were part of a larger whole. She wrote: "He becomes part of a dynamic whole which, like all such creative relationships, in turn, endow its parts with a measure of its larger meaning." Deren was an active socialist, a Trotskyist, and her thoughts on the individuals place in a larger collective ties in with her socialist ideas. But she was critical of the situation in the Soviet Union, which she called a "feudal industrialism". She felt that an artist had a responsibility to act ethically, and that aesthetics and ethics are intertwined. When you express yourself aesthetically  you are also making an ethical statement, or should do so at least. It is the artist's responsibility to be aware of the larger world, its problems and conflicts, and deal with this in their art. For Deren this was a moral imperative.

In 1960 Deren wrote an essay called Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, which can been read as her cinematic manifesto. It ends with the following words:

"If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instruments as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the casual logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earthbound, step-by-step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of the filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural modes, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province."

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The quote from Deren about the "dynamic whole" is from her essay An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film. The quote from Agee is from a review in The Nation in 1946 and is reprinted in Agee on Film.

The Maya Deren archives are at Boston University.

Here writings on cinema and art are collected in Essential Deren: Collected Writings on Film.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

National, transnational and a-national cinema

Czech New Wave, French New Wave, New Australian Cinema. To use the nation as an organising principle when talking about films and film history is to some extent straightforward and uncomplicated. Writing a book about the film history of Chile is a perfectly legitimate subject. Nations and nationality clearly matters. But how and when is not always clear and it is easy to become lazy.

The nation is an external definition we use when discussing films, it does not come from the films in themselves, such as colour or camera movements. Sometimes we are not even aware of a film's nationality. But we run the risk of being essentialistic, when the nation is deemed to be the cause and effect of the style, theme and character of a given film. Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto1968) is like it is because it is a Czech film. Or Bergman's films are said to be like they are because they are Swedish, or Scandinavian. But could not similar films have been made in any other national context? Does the perceived bleakness and austerity of Bergman's films make them more Swedish than films that are lightweight and colourful? If the answer is yes to the first question and no to the second, than how central is Bergman's alleged Swedishness? To be precise, is there anything other than the political borders that make us talk of national cinemas. Does a nation have a specific soul that comes across in the films made in that nation? It is very common to hear people say "Well, that film doesn't capture the true Sweden (or Scotland, or Senegal, or South Korea and so on)." as if there was such a truth to be captured. I do not believe there is, and even if there was such a truth, who would to decide what it is? A governmental committee? A vote among the readers of a popular tabloid?

An additional question is which nation we are talking about. When (self-defined) Algerians make films in France about Algerians subjects, or Greeks in Australia, should they be discussed as part of French and Australian cinema, or Algerian and Greek, or both, or neither? There are no obvious answers to these questions, but as long as the reason for one view being used over the other is clearly spelt out then that problem can be contained. Also, when a state has several nations within its borders, placing all films made in that state under one nation-heading becomes politically (in-)sensitive. My previous post about Peter Weir mentioned Green Card (1990). It is often called an American film but it is actually a French/Australian co-production, with an Australian crew, set in New York, with a French leading actor and an American leading actress. If discussing it in a national context, which context should we choose? But there is another form of nationalism, the now so popular term transnationalism, which is more suitable when discussing Green Card, especially since the theme of that film concerns migration, immigration and different nationalities.  Even though it has become popular in academic circles to talk about transnational cinema the word in itself does not signify anything important, it is just a tool. Possibly most films are transnational, in that they have cast members from different countries, crew members from different countries, are co-productions, are bilingual, are shot in different countries, and so on. Whether or not the transnational aspect is interesting or relevant depends on the specific case. In the 1940s and 1950s a number of Swedish/Norwegian co-productions were made, shot in two versions, one in Swedish and one in Norwegian. Here it would be interesting to analyse the twin-productions and see to what extent the different versions were tweaked to become more Swedish and Norwegian, or if they were identical besides the language spoken.

Another interesting topic is the transnational-ness of Hollywood blockbusters, and how they, in order to be marketable all over the world, in different ways try to engage with the world outside the US. That could involve shooting on location in China and/or having a multi-ethnic cast and/or downplaying differences between the US and other countries. The examples I gave above, of films by Algerians in France and Greeks in Australia, could be discussed as transnational rather than national. In my thesis on Hasse Ekman I also write about Ernst Lubitsch. Both as an inspiration for Ekman but also as an interesting transnational filmmaker. Lubitsch was born in Germany, this is where he made his first films, and then in the early 1920s he moved to Hollywood. But only in person. Most of his films were still set in Europe, sprinkled across the continent and Britain, and sometimes they take place in some kind of Mitteleuropa fantasy. These films are often based on plays and stories of European origins. To establish whether the themes and messages of these films are American, German, Polish, French, British and/or Hungarian would require some deep studies of nationhood and nationality and would still probably only lead to reductiveness and simplifications without having made us any the wiser. In the end, maybe their nationality is primarily Lubitschland. As Dilys Powell pointed out in the early 1940s, questions of authorship and nationality are intimately linked, but so is authorship and transnationalism. Weir, Phillip Noyce, Ang Lee, Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien are some current filmmakers where transnationalism becomes a central part of their authorship.  

But transnationalism does not automatically mean that the national aspects disappeas. It is often a case of competing national stories in the films, rather than a genuine blending of them, or disappearance of them. However, when nationality ceases to matter, I would like to use the term a-national cinemaFilms in which the national setting is of no importance, films where the story might have taken place anywhere, or possibly nowhere. Many films might be said to fit this category. The fact that they are made in a particular country is of course unquestionable, but if that country does not matter, neither story-wise nor theme-wise or otherwise, then I would suggest they are a-national. In my thesis I am arguing that many of Hasse Ekman's films can be called a-national. That is also connected with his distinct (positive) urbanity, which makes him somewhat unusual in Swedish cinema. There are no hymns to the Swedish countryside or the Stockholm archipelago, which otherwise tends to be a central feature of a majority of Swedish films, including several of Bergman's films. But that is a discussion for a later post.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Tintin

The early Tintin albums were inspired by silent cinema, and they in turn inspired cinema. But all of Hergé's 23 proper Tintin albums, are should they be called graphic novels?, are very cinematic yet there have been few film versions. I myself have seen only one, the non-animated Tintin and the Blue Oranges (Tintin et les oranges bleues 1964), which is not based on any of the albums. I have also seen a TV-version, which was actually pretty good.

But I have never felt the need for any film adaptations. For me the albums have been enough, and I have been a Tintin fan since I was a young boy. I have read them in Swedish, English and French, and I even have an album in Japanese at home. I know them all very well, and I adore them. Especially the style, Hergé's ligne claire, which has become a very influential and easily recognisable style. Another thing about them is how they grew over time, developed in many different ways. Hergé changed when the world changed, both the global world and his own personal world, and the albums changed with him. First they were imaginative but rather crude, and in the case of Tintin in the Congo (Tintin au Congo 1931, re-edited colour version 1946) embarrassingly racist. Then came the middle period of such work as the anti-fascist King Ottokar's Sceptre (Le Sceptre d'Ottokar 1938, re-edited colour version 1947) and then the late masterpieces with the emotionally complex and beautifully illustrated Tintin in Tibet (Tintin au Tibet 1960) as the high point. That album, I think, is one of the greatest drawn art work of the 20th century. Other highlights are Blue Lotus (Le Lotus bleu 1936, re-edited colour version 1946), the album with which Hergé stopped being "just" a cartoonist and became an artist and storyteller, and the double feature The Seven Crystal Balls (Les 7 boules de cristal 1948) and Prisoners of the Sun (Le Temple du soleil 1949).
Now Steven Spielberg's film The Adventures of Tintin is here, and I saw it yesterday. Spielberg has been a fan of Tintin for several decades and got the rights from Hergé's, or to use his proper name Georges Remi's, wife in 1983, after Remi had died. Remi liked Spielberg's films and was happy for him to have the rights. But it has taken a long time before anything came of it.

I liked the film. For one thing it looks great, it is witty and it got a very strong drive. But somehow what is good about the film is also a problem. Spielberg has such a strong personality as a filmmaker, his style is easily recognisable and forceful and it all but negates Hergé's presence. What I mean is that although based on two albums there is very little left of the feel, texture and style of Tintin, whereas almost every shot clearly signals Spielberg's presence. It is not so much an adaptation as an appropriation. These means that there is a strong sense of wonder, and dazzling displays of visual imaginations, Spielberg at the top of his game. But there is also a certain breathlessness to the film, which I feel is a bit inappropriate. Hergé's albums are not breathless, they are more measured. Also, I did not like John Williams music, and there was too much of it at that. One thing that has got lost altogether is the subconscious level. Hergé filled his albums with hallucinations, dreams and nightmares, elements which he sometimes took from his own dark secrets. But the film is all surface.

They have taken the album The Secret of the Unicorn (Le Secret de la Licorne 1943) and blended it with The Crab With the Golden Claws (Le Crabe aux pinces d'or 1941, 1943). They are not related, but since they have taken so very little from The Crab..., I suppose they just wanted that album's first meeting of Tintin and Haddock . But when I saw the film and the traitorous first mate Allan appeared I thought, almost angrily, "Hey, he's not supposed to be in this adventure!" Then I realised what they had done and calmed down. It also says something about the quality of the film that I immediately recognised Allan, even though I was not expecting him to be there.

Of the new things that has been added to the film (but which are not in any album) a car chase, involving a hawk, a tank and a collapsing damn, was particularly breathtaking, even though they took place in a stereotypical fantasy of a Middle East kingdom. But the best part of the film was the opening, after the title sequence. It takes place on a square where there is a market, and a man is drawing a picture of somebody else. But we do not see the faces of either man. When the faces are revealed we see that it is Georges Remi drawing Tintin. I thought it was a nice gesture.

So there it is. A meeting between two of the most successful makers of popular art in the 20th century, Hergé and Spielberg (and Peter Jackson on the side), has resulted in a film which is both a dazzling piece of film, and a disappointment. It actually ties in well with what I wrote not long ago about adaptations. It is also fun to consider which other filmmaker's would have been suitable. A version of The Castafiore Emerald (Les Bijoux de la Castafiore 1963) by Ernst Lubitsch or perhaps even by Eric Rohmer would have been something. A Michael Mann version of The Calculus Affair (L'Affaire Tournesol 1956) would be interesting as well. But the beauty of the albums is still unsurpassed.

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There is a very good documentary about Tintin and Hergé called Tintin et Moi (Anders Ostergaard, 2003). Not sure of its availability but look for it, it is worth the effort.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Peter Weir

It is time for a new celebration, this time of one of my first favourites among filmmakers, Peter Weir. I mean first in the sense that when I came of age as a film enthusiast Weir was one of the first I liked for his body of work. The thing about Weir also is that I discovered him on my own. Other first favourites such as Hitchcock, Ford and Kurosawa were not people I had to discover, they were already there, in my face so to speak. But since my interest in Australia came about simultaneously with my interest in cinema I naturally wanted to see what Australian films I could find. And among the best were Weir's.

His is an eclectic cinema, with different types of films made in different locations, spread around the world. But they share several traits. One is spirituality, that the world is a somewhat magic place, for good or bad. Another is the milieu's importance on the individual, how we are affected by, perhaps even become, the world we suddenly inhabit. The word suddenly is key here because most of his films are about people who find themselves in a new milieu with which they are unfamiliar and which does not easily agree with them. This world, especially the outside world, is captured in powerful and haunting images (he has two trusted partners in cinematographers Russell Boyd or John Seale). Weir works with music, silences and images more than words and his films are full of scenes that are powerful enough to become unforgettable. There is also a moral seriousness to his films, even though they can be playful. His first film is a very weird one called The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) but it was the eerie Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) that made him a leading example of the New Australian Cinema of the late 1970s and 1980s. He has continued to make remarkable films all along, in Australia, the US and Europe, and hardly ever compromising on his vision. That unfortunately means that he has not made as many films as one would have liked...

Let's start with a clip from Picnic at Hanging Rock, the opening sequence:



Here is a scene from Gallipoli (1981), a strange encounter in the desert:



This is a scene from The Year of Living Dangerously (1984), about an Australian journalist in Indonesia during the last days of Sukarno.



His first film in America was Witness (1985). It is set among the Amish, where Harrison Ford's character is hiding from three killers from the city.



Fun to compare this scene with the trailer:



Looks like two completely different films, although they are both representative. It is a great film on many levels, not least the way much of the beginning is told through the eyes of the boy.

Now, a clip from his film with Jeff Bridges, Fearless (1993). It is about survivors of a plane crash, and the effect surviving has on them:



Then there is the sweet and sad Green Card (1990) a French/Australian comedy set in New York, with Gerard Depardieu upsetting the ordered lives of some New Yorkers:



And I will round this off with the trailer for The Truman Show (1999). I think the film is astonishingly good and I love the trailer as well:



Weir has said that when he works on the scripts he always listens to music, as varied a collection as possible, and you can tell already from these clips the importance of the music in his films, and how all kinds of music are used. Music and moving images. It is a fantastic combination.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Carole Lombard

Since it is Carole Lombard's birthday I'll take the opportunity to post some clips. She was one of the greatest of comediennes, even though she could do drama as well. She had a very interesting voice, and a slightly otherworldly allure. She was made for screwball comedy, perhaps because she was a bit of a screwball herself. It is a sad thing that she died as young as 33 (in a plane crash in the winter of 1942), but she had at least eight good years, when she became the highest paid female star in Hollywood. Her big break came in 1934 when she starred in the milestone masterpiece Twentieth Century. It was Howard Hawks's first screwball comedy (and one of my top ten favourite films), and it is pure anarchy from start to finish.

One of her more peculiar films is Swing High, Swing Low (1937). In it she plays a girl on a cruise ship who meets a man in Panama and stays there with him. So far it is a musical comedy, with the man (played by Fred MacMurray) being a trumpet player. When he gets a job in New York the tone of the film shifts dramatically. She gets more and more lonely in Panama while he is living a grand life in the big city, and forgets to write to her. Finally she follows him there, and telegraphs for him to meet her in the harbour. He isn't there. She goes to a hotel, and tries to locate him but nobody knows where he is. She gets the number to a woman whom he performs with and calls her. He answers, but doesn't recognise her voice. So she stands in the dark in the hotel room and whispers, panic stricken, to herself "What shall I do now?" It is a heartbreaking scene, beautifully shot and acted, as in a film by Max Ophüls, and it captures the full range of her talents.

That one was directed by Mitchell Leisen, and he also directed Lombard and MacMurray in Hands Across the Table (1935), another great film, and a tender love story. It might be Leisen's best. Great is also the biting satire Nothing Sacred (1937), scripted, like Twentieth Century, by Ben Hecht, and directed by William Wellman. Her greatest hit was perhaps My Man Godfrey (1936). She also did a comedy with Alfred Hitchcock, Mr and Mrs' Smith (1941), but I've never warmed to it for some reason. Then she made her final film, which was released after her death, To Be or Not To Be, Ernst Lubitsch's brave and magnificent satire of Nazism. It shows her in all her glory and, as in Twentieth Century, she plays a headstrong actress.

But now let's look at some clips. It was as usual tricky to find my favourite parts, so there's considerably less than I had hoped...

The first one is from To Be or Not To Be, an illicit scene between Lombard and Robert Stack. This one I love.



Here's a dance number between her and George Raft, from Bolero (1934). (The dance begins after about a minute.)



And here's the whole of Nothing Sacred, if you've got 80 minutes to spare.



And here's another one from To Be or Not To Be, a film in which nothing is what it seems to be.



2011-10-08 I noticed a few misplaced words and a missing title so I've updated it just a bit.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Virginia Mayo

One of the advantages of having your own blog is that you are free to write exactly what you want. At the moment I'm thinking about national cinema and its more recent cousin, transnational cinema (no, I don't understand what it means either) and my own contribution, a-national cinema. But that is all work-related, even though I will soon post something about that. But today I will be posting film clips with Virginia Mayo. She is one of my favourites, and I wish I had seen more of her films, but I have only so much time at hand. She was especially good when she was a bit rough, because she had a kind of raw sexuality and a fierce temper, and when the two are combined there's a lot of energy let loose. I think I especially like her when she was working with Raoul Walsh, as in Colorado Territory (1949) and White Heat (1949).

Let's begin with a clip from White Heat. James Cagney and Edmond O'Brien are the two men, and it is the last 20 seconds that is the highlight of the sequence.



Here's the trailer for Colorado Territory. Raoul Walsh is here remaking his earlier High Sierra (1941). That one had Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino and is set in the present day, a cross between film noir, gangster film and melodrama. Colorado Territory has all of that too, and a western setting. Joel McCrea and Mayo are playing the parts instead of Bogart and Lupino. It is actually interesting that she works so well with McCrea because they're each others opposites. He's calm and laidback, more comforting than sexy, but maybe that's why they're such a good pair.



She often did musicals even though she didn't sing. Her voice was always dubbed, which makes me reluctant to include a singing sequence, but this number is so good I have to show it. It is from A Song is Born (1948), which besides Mayo and Danny Kaye has a large number of great jazz musicians. Jeri Sullavan is the voice to Mayo's lips.



(It might be one of Hawks's lesser films, but then his benchmark is rather high.)

I'll end with something different, a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Mayo plays the wife of a returning soldier, played by Dana Andrews. The war has led to the two of them no longer understanding each other, and the love has died, if it ever existed. We are beginning to see that in this clip (you'll have to click on the link yourselves). This is a film of frequent brilliance, and this sequence is not necessarily the most brilliant, but it'll do for now.

You've probably noticed that the clips I've shown are from a very short timespan. She was active from the early 40s and she did her last film as late as 1997 (The Man Next Door it was called and I haven't seen it and nor have I any particular wish to do so...) but already from the late 1950s she did mostly small parts in TV-series, including Santa Barbara and Remington Steele. Yes, those were the days when TV was often a retirement home for old actors/actresses.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Books, films and adaptations

I think that despite a century of practice we still get confused with discussing books and films, and comparing them, and in this post I've pointed out of some of that confusion.

The first question might be what an adaptation is. You could perhaps say that all films are adaptations of the scripts they are based on, but let's for now concern ourselves only with films that are adaptations of books or other self-sufficient written sources (like comics, short stories and plays). One thing to remark upon is that adaptations are almost always only discussed as such when it is adaptations of either classic masterpieces, primarily novels of the 19th century, be it Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy, or modern bestsellers. When did you last read an analysis of Rear Window (1954) as an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's It Had to be Murder or Rashomon (1950) discussed as an adaptation of two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa?

Another thing is that when discussing a film that is an adaptation you need to differentiate between the film in itself and the film as an adaptation. It might be a great film but a bad adaptation, in the sense that perhaps most of the book has been removed and the sentiments and/or morals have been altered. Or it might be a good, faithful adaptation but a terrible film, because the acting is all wrong, the direction hysteric and the cinematography unintentionally ugly. Since the film is the film, and not the book, it seems to me that it is the quality of the film, not the quality of the adaptation, that should matter, unless for scholarly purposes.

How faithful an adaptation should be is an open question, it all depends. Being too faithful might ruin the film, even though it might work for a TV-series where there is more time available. It is a common mistake among filmmakers that they try to get as much from the novel as possible into the film. Maybe it would help if we stopped using the word "adaptation" and instead used the word "interpretation".

Even though adaptations are so very common, and popular, one of the oldest comments in film criticism, scholarly and popular, is "the book was better", sometimes generalised into "the book is always better than the film". Even more generalised is the argument "books are better than films". Two common reasons given for this is that a) books allow more freedom for the reader to interpret and/or imagine what is happening on the pages than a film does and b) books have more depth and complexity. To me these arguments are often flawed.  Films can be as complex and deep as books, although what constitutes complexity and depth are debatable points and in any event neither complexity nor depth are essential for great art works. Obviously it is one thing to like a particular book better than the film made from it, there is nothing strange or flawed about that, but to take it further than that I think is unsatisfactory.

The argument that the book is always better than the film is flawed partly because it only takes into consideration adaptations of great books. But hundreds and hundreds of films are based on bad books, which do not stop those films from being good. And why could not a terrible book be transformed into a great film? Because the art form is by necessity deformed in same way?

Another flaw in the argument is that it compares two things that are not necessarily comparable. Apocalypse Now (1979) is based on Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, but which one is best, the book or the film? Yes, you could on an individual level prefer one over the other, but that is not enough to make it into some general principle. Besides, it is two different art forms and should be judged on different grounds. This is why it is a mistake to say that books are better than films. It is a bit like saying that apples are better than oranges. Why? Because you think so? That is not a valid point. How do you compare a long take in deep focus in the film with the description on the page in the book? How is one better than the other? Is Shakespeare's King Lear automatically better than Kurosawa's version of it, Ran (1985)?

When you see a film it is true that you often see everything (but not always, violence might sometimes be suggested or hidden, as are often monsters in horror films) whereas in a book you must make the images yourself. But on the other hand in a book the only thing you get is exactly what the writer has put there. There is nothing else. When you watch a film there are always a lot of things which are just there, even if nobody put them there especially for you. A street scene in a film will be filled with people, buildings, the clouds on the sky, birds flying and so on, and you can choose to look at that instead of the main characters arguing in the centre of the image. When you read the book you do not have the luxury to choose which words to read, you must read them all. Well, you could of course choose to ignore some pages, or the whole second half of the book if you find it boring, but that is not the same. I am not saying one is better than the other; my point is only that you do not necessarily have more freedom when reading a book than when watching a film.

Maybe the bottom line is that we should not forget that they are two different art forms which cannot easily be compared. And that, here and everywhere, we should not use our own personal preferences as if they were general truths about art.

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I was partly inspired for this post by my friend Paisley Livingston's recent research on the subject of adaptations. See an example here: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/berghahn/proj/2010/00000004/00000002/art00007

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Some recommended readings (1)

The autumn semester has begun (or will soon begin, depending on where you are in the world) so this might be a good opportunity to suggest some film books that are well worth reading, and even to own, for students as well as anybody else. The five books I've chosen today are in different ways introductory overviews of cinema, history as well as theory, but they're more than that. They are inquisitive, informative and intelligent, in short, indispensable.

The World in a Frame by Leo Braudy
Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell
The Story of Film by Mark Cousins
Film as Film by V.F. Perkins
Cinemas of the Mind by Nicolas Tredell

Then I'd like to recommend a book which isn't about cinema but is in keeping with the previous post on westerns and the West. A poignant, funny and sincere book: Sacagawea's Nickname - Essays on the American West by Larry McMurtry

Here's are also links to three good essays about various aspects of cinema. 

Stephen Prince's early attempt to formulate a theory about digital cinema:

http://fdm.ucsc.edu/~landrews/film178w09/Film_178_THE_RECONSTRUCTED_IMAGE_files/True%20Lies-%20Perceptual%20Realism.pdf

Luc Moullet's critic of Gilles Deleuze's Cinema Book 1 and 2:


David Kalat about Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946):


Happy readings!



Monday, 12 September 2011

The western and the West

You seldom hear somebody say about a film that it is "really" a musical (unless that person is insightfully talking about Powell & Pressburger's The Elusive Pimpernel (1950, aka The Fighting Pimpernel)), or that something is "really" an action film. But it is often said that a particular film is "really" a western. What they mean when they say that is that a film which is not set in the American Old West still exhibits thematic genre traits found in the western films. And a popular definition of westerns is the one found on the American Film Institute's website, that it is "a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier".

But this won't do. Many American films considered westerns are not set in the West (commonly defined as west of the Mississippi). There are for example the "Pennsylvania westerns", which are set in, well, Pennsylvania. There are westerns that take place in Indiana, like Rage at Dawn (1955) and in Canada even, like Saskatchewan (1954).

So maybe it isn't a question about the West per se, but a time and a landscape that is like the West. (Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that "The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area." in the 1896 essay The Problem of the West.) What connects these films are storylines and the time in which they are set (usually the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th). But that wouldn't explain why a lot of films set in the present day or in space are said to be really westerns. That means that we must disregard the temporal setting as well, it is only the storyline that matters. The first implication if the term "western" is just shorthand for a set of specific storylines is that films that does actually take place in the Old West aren't necessarily westerns. It would be ontologically bewildering if all films set in the American Old West, even comedies, melodramas and thrillers, were considered westerns only because of the shared setting, if films not set in the Old West are also westerns, only because they share certain themes. But if somebody said that The Stars in My Crown (1950) or Rawhide (1950) or The Shepherd of the Hills (1940) aren't westerns I would go along with that. Or that Fort Apache (1948) is a war movie, not a western. And instead of saying about a film set in the present that it is "really" a western, we could just as well say that a film set in the Old American West with the same story is actually not a western. To be more specific, instead of saying that, say, Attack on Precinct 13 (1976) is really a western we could say that Rio Bravo (1959) is really not a western.

But this is still unsatisfying. Let's say that we have established that what constitutes a western isn't the time and place where the story takes place, but the actually story that is told. What would those stories be? Usually there would be stories about settlers, trekkers, Native Americans, lone gunmen, the cavalry, the frontier and such well-known western motifs. But why should we regard them as typically "westerns"? What is for example the difference, besides ethnicity, between a story about some British troops battling Indians on the North-West Frontier and a story about an American cavalry outfit battling the Sioux or the Cheyenne? Should we call the British India story a western? There doesn't seem to be much logic in that, and if anything it might suggest that we have some kind of America-centric bias in our view of both culture and history.  If when we look at Australian history, with its expansionist policies, bushrangers, gold-diggers and wars with the Aboriginals, the stories told are not so different from the American ones, but it would be in a way condescending to call the Australian stories "westerns". Because they're Australian stories (and could perhaps be called "outbacks"). New Zeeland, Argentina and Brazil are other countries with a history in many ways similar to the one about the US. As an example the American cowboy has an Argentine equivalent in the gaucho. And even if Japan isn't a former colony, are there not strong similarities between a lone rõnin in Japan and a lone gunslinger in the US, even though a rõnin is usually somebody who has lost his master, whereas the lone gunman was usually always alone?

Maybe it is the case that by calling stories that aren't set in America "westerns" we are ahistorical and also insensitive to national stories and legends and by making the claim that those stories the pass as western stories are specifically American we make the US out to be more unique than it really is, unless we specify that western stories are western stories exactly because they take place in the American Old West. Just because that West has such a strong hold on the imagination of not only Americans but people in most countries we are easily blinded to other stories and traditions, some that are older than the American versions. (As a side-note, when I went to school in Sweden we learned a lot more about Native Americans than we did about the Sámi people, the indigenous people in the north of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia.)

Westerns are said to be about the frontier, which is also why films set in space lend themselves so easily to be called westerns, as space is seen as "the final frontier" (ipso facto, the Bond film Moonraker (1979) could be classified as a western, with its space colony and everything, but to what purpose?). But it should be noted that the frontier, in its proper historical form as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, plays a rather secondary role in western films, because most films take place far from it. I was about to say far east of it, but the frontier wasn't a straight line from north to south, it was all over the place. Already in 1820 there were settlers at the Pacific coast, in Oregon, and they were in a way surrounded by the frontier, not just west of it. Then in 1890 the Census Bureau stopped talking about the frontier, it didn't make any sense any more since so much of the continent was inhabited by non-natives. If however we consider the frontier as a metaphorical place, as being everywhere between the wilderness and civilisation, then yes, the frontier is an important part of westerns, but not only of westerns. Besides, a considerable number of established westerns, including several of the most well-known, take place in towns with no frontier issues involved, metaphorical or otherwise.

Equally important to note is that the western genre is very elastic, contrary to popular perceptions of it, and we cannot point at a western and say that it by default has a particular set of beliefs, codes or morals. For example a western can be pro-settlers or pro-herders, it might be indifferent to the mass killings of Native Americans or condemning the same killings, it might be for or against capital punishment. A western might be comic or tragic, it might be an epic or a chamber play. Sometimes they're celebrating a lonely individualistic lifestyle, but more frequently they are about the community, and the sacrifices needed to keep the community together. These are not changes that happen due to any natural evolution. Rather all of the above themes and ideas can be found in any decade, and in different films made the same year.

Then there's the thin line between many war films and many westerns, in some ways this exemplifies the deeper problems with genres (a problem I will be coming back to later). I did suggest above that Fort Apache was a war film rather than a western, despite its historic setting. But maybe we can call it a war film in a western setting, or a western with the themes and motifs of a war film.

So where does this leave us? What exactly is a western, at least academically speaking? It seems to me we can define westerns according to three different parameters:
a) all films and only those films that are set in the American Old West (broadly defined)
b) all films that share certain kinds of themes and motifs, regardless of the setting
c) films that share both a specific setting and a set of specific themes and motifs
I'm personally arguing for "c" in this post. With regard to the setting, I would suggest first that we limit ourselves to films that are actually set in North America, but not necessarily in the West, and I would also suggest that we limit ourselves to films that take place some time after Lewis and Clark's expedition (i.e. after 1806) but before the First World War. About themes and motifs I would suggest that we limit ourselves to stories that have some kind of expansionist elements, or involves new settlers, or conflicts that spring from the actual move west. That is, stories that take place precisely because they are set in that time and place. If a story could as well have been set in the present day, or further in the past, or in the future, then maybe it shouldn't be called a western story. This is why I said that The Shepherd of the HillsThe Stars in My Crown and Rawhide are not necessarily westerns, despite their settings, but rather that The Shepherd... is a rural melodrama, The Stars... is a small-town drama (similar to How Green Was My Valley 1941) and Rawhide is a thriller (it is actually a remake of a gangster film). The nationality of the film is not relevant however, it can be made in Russia, Spain or France or wherever, and westerns, according to my definition, have been made in many countries from an early age. Incidentally, that I don't think these films mentioned above are westerns is a neutral statement. Whether they should be called westerns or not is immaterial when evaluating them.

When standing in the video store or when checking out Lovefilm's website, the finer points about westerns needn't trouble us, but when they are discussed by scholars and critics precision and clarity is needed. You needn't agree with my definitions, but anybody discussing westerns in an academic situation should decide upon a definition beforehand, otherwise the term "western" risks becoming meaningless.

2011-09-13 Just to clarify, what I'm looking for is not a final definition of the western, because such a thing is not possible. Definitions are subjective, and changing all the time. That is part of the nature of genres, such as they are.
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I have used the words "story" and "stories" instead of "film" and "films" because these stories began before the birth of cinema, in novels, short stories, articles, paintings and music.

A related blog post to this is my earlier Max Weber goes to the movies.

For those wanting to read some classic studies of the western and judge for yourself whether they succeed or not in defining it, some famous examples are:
Sixguns and Society by Will Wright
Horizons West by Jim Kitses (which is more an auteur study of a couple of filmmakers who happened to make westerns)
The Six-Gun Mystique by John Cawelti
Rick Altman has also written on the subject, as has Edward Buscombe, Robert Warshow, Andre Bazin, John Saunders, Philip French and many others. A good starting point for those wanting to read more is the anthology The Western Reader, edited by Kitses and Gregg Rickman.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Screenplays and screenwriters

I've written short stories, poems, a theatre play and I've been working on film scripts, not least together with Lisa James Larsson, so I know that scripts are important and meaningful. But I'm still sceptical about the primacy often given to the script. It is sometimes said, not least by writers, that it is impossible to make a good film without a good script, but I'd like to challenge that. For one thing how do you compare, say, the script and the casting? The quality of the acting has nothing to do with the script and theatre actors have been known to move the audience to tears just by reading from the phone book. (For what it is worth I have publicly read bus timetables as poetry.)

A more interesting question though is what constitutes a good script. Is it enough that it has a witty dialogue or does it have to have rich and complex characters and a multi-layered story to be considered a good script? And what is the script? On many films some of the great scenes, and great lines of dialogue, were improvised on the set. Should that be retroactively considered part of the script?

But even if we could agree upon a definition of a good script, are they still essential to make a good film? To take a specific example we can look at Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps (1935). The script by Charles Bennett, which is based on the novel by John Buchan (from which it is rather different), can easily be regarded as nothing more than sketches of various set-pieces and there's not much plausibility, nuance or complexity. But I think it is a great film, and so do a lot of other people, as it is sometimes voted as among the best British films ever made. To me it is a great film because it is amusing and inventive and much of this comes from the actors, the editing and the visual style. How much of that is in the script? 

A modern example could be The Tree of Life (2011). It has admittedly confused and bored many, and they may find that what the film lacks is a good script. But those that do like it, perhaps even think it is great, isn't that primarily for the way Malick visually expresses ideas, age-old ideas, more than the actual words and the story (which would be the script)? I don't know.

This is not meant to belittle the work of the writers, it is merely to point out that a film is different from the script, and it is not possible to single out one thing as being generally the most important part. To quote Nicholas Ray: "But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?". Sometimes it is the script that is most important, sometimes it is not. And it should also be said that many great scripts have been damaged or destroyed by bad direction and/or bad acting. I think that Mike Leigh and Sam Mendes are two directors who almost always manhandles their scripts, even though in Leigh's case he writes the scripts as well. The King's Speech (2010) is another example when I feel inappropriate direction (by Tom Hooper) diminishes a script (by David Seidler), as I explained here

With those words as an introduction, I'd like to add a translated, and slightly amended, version of a blog post I wrote a few years ago in Swedish about scriptwriters (the Swedish original is here http://film-forum.blogspot.com/2005/07/manus-och-manusfrfattare.html):

Sometimes you hear disgruntled scriptwriters, and critics, blame French film critics in the 1950s for starting the trend of claiming the director as a film's true creator, leading to a disrespectful approach to writers and to directors getting uppity. But blaming the French for this is not really fair. To take one example: when Billy Wilder came to the US in the 1930s he quickly established himself as a sought-after scriptwriter, working  with Charles Brackett, but he became frustrated by how the directors changed and, to his eyes, made his script worse. He was perhaps particularly upset with Mitchell Leisen. So Wilder began directing his own scripts, to get more control over the process. (It could be argued though that his greatest strengths are as writer rather than director.)

Film is a collective artform, that is inevitable. But the director has, pretty much since the beginning of cinema, been given the most elevated position, by ad men and critics alike. Usually out of convenience, or because you are of the opinion that the director really is the true auteur of the film. But it is not only convenient but often also proper to highlight the director. Obviously so if the director is also the scriptwriter and/or the producer, as the above mentioned Wilder, alone or with Charles Brackett or I.A.L. Diamond. But sometimes a film can have five, six screenwriters while hardly ever has it got more than one director. Sergio Leone's films for example usually have a staggering number of screenwriters but that doesn't make them any less Leone's films, perhaps the opposite.

When I wrote about Ernest Lehman [I'll perhaps published a translated version of that article soon] I said that North by Northwest (1959) feels very Hitchcock-esque, you might even say that it is a copy of The 39 Steps, just 30 minutes longer without anything new added. Before he wrote it, and during the writing process, Lehman watched most of Hitchcock's best films to be able to capture the right Hitchcock mood, and before Lehman wrote it Hitchcock gave him specific ideas of what he wanted, such as the sequence with the crop dusting plane. As Dan Auiler put it once: "It is Hitchcock's sequence - but it is his sequence as realized by Lehman and Huebner [the storyboard illustrator]."

But having said all that, when talking about films it is only proper to consider the scriptwriters, if for no other reason than respect. When people criticise Hollywood they usual say that directors are being controlled and hampered and that the producers and studios call all the shots, but that has always been ahistorical, and the reality was always more nuanced and complex. Andrew Sarris for one has argued that it was actually the writers that suffered the most in the studio system, not the directors. Thelma and Louise (1991) is directed by Ridley Scott, but it is Callie Khouri's script, and she work long and hard on it, not only when writing but during the shooting of the film as well. It is therefore most unfair that Scott got all the praise and glory, whereas Khouri was forgotten almost instantly. That might partly be because of gender discrimination, Scott being a man and Khouri a woman, but even male scriptwriters are diminished or forgotten. Bend of the River (1952) is a typical Anthony Mann film, and Red River (1948) a typical Howard Hawks, and the respective filmmaker's themes and styles are easy to see, and keeps the film apart. But they have the same writer, Borden Chase, and the two films share many things such as structure, character development and even lines of dialogue. Some of Mann's other films were written by Philip Yordan and it is therefore worthwhile to compare those to Bend of the River and also to other films Yordan has written but that have not been directed by Mann, for a deeper understanding of the complex authorial situation, without there being any need to question those films as being the very essence of Mann's art. Or take Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, how important were they for the films of Akira Kurosawa? Or Kogo Noda's scripts for Yasujiro Ozu's films?

A more modern example is the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They've been writing together since the 1970s, and have both a theme and a style, without getting much attention. The feel of the films, and the quality of them, changes depending upon who directed them, but you can still feel the Ganz/Mandel touch. Some good examples are Splash (1984), Parenthood (1989) and Multiplicity (1996) and a few others.

Some screenwriters become famous. Garson Kanin in the 1950s for example and Charlie Kaufman is a modern example, as is Aaron Sorkin. But more of them deserve a place in the sun. (A quick test, Theodore Dreiser wrote the novel A Place in the Sun (1951) is based on, a film George Stevens directed, but who wrote the script?)

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Mitchell Leisen directed three scripts from the writing team Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett: Midnight (1939), Arise My Love (1940) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). They're great, as are many others of Mitchell's films, written by less known writers.

Babaloo is surely the coolest name in show business. Unfortunately not his birth name but a name borrowed from Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint. Incidentally, the only film Ernest Lehman directed, in 1972, was based on that novel.



Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Henry Hathaway, afterthoughts

It just occurred to me that in my essay on Henry Hathaway I had almost completely forgotten to mention the actors and actresses Hathaway worked with, or the writers. Even though I regard him as primarily a visual artist, and that the importance of his films lies in the images, I shouldn't neglect the rest. He was for example particularly fond of the writer Grover Jones who, among others, wrote The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Shepherd of the Hills. And some of Hathaway's later westerns were written by Marguerite Roberts. But Hathaway didn't like dialogue, he wanted to keep it down. Although in some of his films there are some lengthy pieces of expository dialogue which damages the flow of both the individual scene and sometimes the film. Maybe that was when the writer was too strong so Hathaway couldn't ignore him or her.

As for actors he did many films with Gary Cooper, and many with Tyrone Power, and he was equally good with actresses, such as Susan Hayward and Gene Tierney. And, as Blake Lucas just pointed out, Harry Carey is fantastic in The Shepherd of the Hills.

There's a lot more to say, and I would like to engage with the theme of revenge that is so common in Hathaway's films. To see how he works with that and if and how it changes over time. In short, there's a lot of work still to do.

2013-08-04 Here are links to my other posts on Hathaway:
http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2011/08/henry-hathaway.html
http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/01/henry-hathaway-part-3.html
http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/06/spawn-of-north-henry-hathaway-1938.html
2013-11-26, a new piece, about Souls at Sea.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Henry Hathaway

There is a certain snobbishness in some auteurial circles, where certain directors are almost by default deemed unworthy, and there is also a tendency among the rank and file to consider Andrew Sarris's rankings in American Cinema: Directors and Directions as gospel. This can lead to unfair dismissals of highly competent and interesting filmmakers, dismissals that are doubly unfair when they are made even before their films have been watched and analysed. Another problem with auteurism is that films can be lost or forgotten because they're not made by an "established" auteur, despite being of some brilliance. Which brings us to Henry Hathaway. I have to say that I'm surprise by the lack of material about him. I said in an earlier post that Frank Borzage was not getting enough attention, but he has still received a fair share of comments and essays. Hathaway on the other hand hasn't even an entry at Senses of Cinema. No, he has not received much critical attention at all. He was (unfairly) dismissed by David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Sarris put him in the rather boring category "Lightly Likeable". James Agee once wrote that he didn't believe Hathaway was "better than thoroughly competent". And today he is often overlooked and I don't know of any monograph about him, while his name or his films (with a few exceptions) are seldom included in film history books. He does figure in the book series Hollywood Professionals, in the first volume no less, and there is the very excellent Henry Hathaway, a sort of "Hathaway on Hathaway"-book consisting of interviews the late Polly Platt made with him, and which covers his career up until the 1950s (so it ends well before he stopped making films). But that is not much and after having watched a large part of his films I've come to the conclusion that he deserves more, that he is a director of force and consistence, with considerable skills (a feeling that I've had since I was a teenager and watched Call Northside 777 (1948) and Kiss of Death (1948)). This blog post is an introduction, a starting point for further research if you like.

He was born in 1898 and died of a heart attack in 1985 and he directed his first films in the early 1930s, cheap Westerns based on novels by Zane Grey. Before that he worked as an assistant to the likes of Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg, and for one of the very few female directors of the time, Lois Weber, whom Hathaway rated highly. He had his major breakthrough, both commercially and artistically, in 1935 when he made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (a character study about British colonial officers in India) and Peter Ibbetson (a strange, eerie love story which was much praised by André Breton and the French surrealists) and he had two major phases in his career: the post-war semi-documentary thrillers, beginning with The House on 92nd Street (1945), and the late Westerns in the 1960s including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), the amusingly strange 5 Card Stud (1968) and the first version of True Grit (1969). On the whole he did almost 70 films.

Hathaway was a wealthy man, perhaps you could say he was financially independent, but unlike most major Hollywood filmmakers he didn't become his own man, neither did he start his own company nor did he produce his own films. He was a company man, first at Paramount and then, most famously, at Fox (or 20th Century Fox). But this seemed to suit him just fine. Being a company director meant that you in most cases were given a script by the studio and asked to film it, and you had to make the best of it. However, after you had been given the assignment, you would have considerable freedom to go about it as you sajw fit, at least if you were somebody like Hathaway. At Fox he worked for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, a committed cinephile (yes, cinephiles were not invented by the French New Waveers), and according to Hathaway, Zanuck: "had a half dozen directors that he trusted, Joe Mankiewicz had a completely free hand, I had a free hand, Henry King had a free hand. Zanuck never bothered people that he had faith in."

The fact that he didn't chose his own material or wrote his own script might be a reason why people have had problems finding thematic consistencies in his films (maybe there aren't any). I'm not yet in a position to say something final about this, that takes more time than I've yet spent with his films. However two things are worth pointing out and that is a recurring theme of revenge, and, especially, an interest in deep and unusual friendships (both these themes comes together in True Grit, to name one example). It can be friendship between an American news photographer and Burmese orphan, as in China Girl (1943), a friendship between a naive country girl and a wise old man from the city, as in The Shepherd on the Hills (1940, which also has the revenge theme), a friendship between a lost young man and a dangerous hoodlum, as in Johnny Apollo (1940). What is also noteworthy are the strong passions involved. When Hathaway made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer he wanted it to be a love story between two men (played by Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone), but this passion can be between men and women as well as between men. These interests in friendship and love is I would argue a major reason why so many of his films that are on the surface action films become more like intimate character studies. It should also be said that he worked a lot on the scripts he was given, changing and tweaking them, and felt his way through, to make the best of the material. To this should be added that he had a very good feeling for tempo and pacing. (Pacing is something that I feel is a neglected area of discussion, but for me it is a key aspect of a film and can be the difference between a film being great or just good, or even bad.)

But Hathaway was primarily a visual artist. When he is interviewed he speaks more about the images, and when he mentions influences it is Vermeer, Rembrandt and Brueghul (not sure which one) that comes up, not writers. He also said at one point that one of the first things he did when preparing a film was to "choose a cameraman to go with the style I want to set for the film". And he was very particular about what he wanted. He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from the producers. He worked with a few trusted cinematographers, at Paramount with the great Charles Lang Jr. and at Fox several times with the equally great Joseph MacDonald. He also did several films with Lucien Ballard, so it is clear that he only worked with the best. He also worked his crew hard. One technician said that "Hathaway seems to be everywhere at once, and does not recognize that the impossible exists, or that there are 120 degrees of sunshine. He drives on, possessed with a fury of direction." And Hathaway himself said that "I'd say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness: I know what I want and I go after it."

His style is very dynamic, I'm almost tempted to say organic, and his style has been rather consistent from the 1930s and onwards. (But he isn't immune to his surroundings. His films before the second world war has a different texture than those after the war, which is partly explained by the fact that he left Paramount and Charles Lang Jr. and went to Fox.) He works with a lot of depth of field, little camera movements, and very rich, dense images. Often the camera will be at a low angle, capturing the whole of the room, including the ceiling. There is always something in the foreground that gives the shot a 3D-like effect, and he loves shadows and frames within the frame. He preferred location shooting to the studio, and he was always interested in documentaries. That he should be a central part of Louis de Rochemont's efforts of making films directly from the news headlines and from the files of FBI and other government agencies is not surprising. And they're very good, especially 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Call Northside 777, but arguably the best is Diplomatic Courier (1952), mostly set in Trieste, Italy, and with Patricia Neal in a great role. (For that one Hathaway himself did not go to Trieste, the locations were shot by a second unit and then skilfully integrated with the rest, which is ironic since Hathaway usual shot his own second unit stuff...) And his interest in locations and documentary also means that the scenes are taking place in this world, where passers-by, bystanders and ordinary persons can be seen going about their own business behind, besides or even in front of the main characters. If a set has a window you can always see what gojes on outside that window. Bazin suggested that film is like a window, but sometimes the window also has a window, and this is one example of how Hathaway works with frames within the frame.

This style of his is so good that it makes a minor film like Rawhide (1951) almost a masterpiece, just because of the precision of each shot. It is set in a little stagecoach station in the middle of nowhere, and it had a good chance of being stale and theatrical but it is nothing of the sort. The staging, compositions and framing make the picture come alive, and it is yet another example of effective use of frames within the frame. There are three mirrors on one wall and these mirrors are used on several occasions to make the shots more interesting and exciting. So Hathaway's greatest strength lies in the indoor compositions, but he is very good with the exteriors as well. His chosen technique is to create a "room", even if it is in the middle of the prairie, and make an outdoor shot as dynamic and forceful as indoors. (Allegedly Orson Welles complained that Hathaway was more interested in creating striking images than telling a story.)

Rawhide does also work as an example of another consistency in Hathaway's work and that is violence and terror. There's a lot of that in his films, and you can never be sure that characters will survive. In fact after having seen a few of his films you always expect the worst. It is a tense world that is being portrayed, often populated with duplicitous and/or sadistic people, like Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), kicking an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase, in Kiss of Death. (Spoilers ahead) It is telling that when Hathaway made Fourteen Hours (1951), a film about a guy who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from a tall building, Hathaway wanted to end the film with the guy killing himself. But the head of the studio said no because his daughter had just committed suicide that way.

When Hathaway made True Grit, a film that was important to him, he wanted to give it a fairytale flavour, in style, diction and acting, and despite his fondness for realism and documentaries, Hathaway also had an otherworldly side to him. Peter Ibbetson is the obvious example, but there are many films which have elements of this, often by the use of colour like in Niagara (1953). That fantastic film is shot in a dreamy haze and sometimes with an abstraction as if it was an avant-garde film. It might prove Welles right, that Hathaway was more interested in images than story, or perhaps that when given material that was below par he tried to ignore it, instead experimenting with lights and colour and angles, letting his visuals become the story in a sense.

I haven't spend much time discussing individual films, but there's enough to say about them for a whole book, so I'll leave that to another day. I just want to highlight one particular sequence, which is from The Shepherd on the Hills, one of Hathaway's best and most unusual films. It is a rural drama (I suppose the genre would be "western" but that is not very helpful) and in it an old man comes to a tense village, to return to his old home he left many years ago. After he has got the keys he walks to the house, through the forest and over a field, and then he enters it. He walks around, he looks in drawers and boxes, he plays a little tune on the piano, re-entering his past in a way. The sequence has no dialogue, just a little music and it is very long, and it is very beautiful. Hathaway is mostly discussed as an action director, and he did magnificent action sequences, but this sequence is actually more typical of him. Despite his reputation for being a mean and angry man, he made films that were tender and sincerely felt, and this, together with his mastery of compositions, makes him a great filmmaker and what I call an "external auteur". I'm elaborating this concept in my thesis but if you don't care to wait until it is published I'll just say that I make a distinction between external auteurs and internal auteurs. An external auteur is somebody who makes films with quality and consistency but has no personal presence in the film, while an internal auteur is almost always within the film, as a voice, as an actor, as a character, or as an autobiographical ghost. Bergman, Ekman, Welles, Fassbinder and Eastwood are among my examples of internal ones.

There have been some appreciations of Hathaway's work. Here for example is the British writer, critic and filmmaker Basil Wright, who wrote like this about Hathaway in the late 1930s: "Note first the verisimilitude of the settings, second, the modest but unerring rightness of all his camera angles, and third, the sense of ebb and flow of passion between two tough but inarticulate humans." Wright was only talking about the film Spawn of the North (1938) which I haven't seen, but that quote is true about most of Hathaway's films. And he did appreciate his own worth. He himself once said: "There's no reason except me for The Sons of Katie Elder to be as good a picture it was."

So where would I place Hathaway among American filmmakers? He is not exceptional like, say, Anthony Mann or Vincente Minnelli, but for me he compares favourably to directors like Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens or Elia Kazan. It would be interesting to do a detailed comparison between Hathaway and another Fox company man, Henry King. For now I'd suggest that King is more nostalgic and more ambitious than Hathaway, for good and bad. Hathaway has himself said that he was influenced by Marshall Neilan and Victor Fleming, and the combination of von Sternberg and Fleming (and script writer Jules Furthman) in Hathaway's early days means that he was moving in the same circles as Howard Hawks, but they're much different. Hawks is a more distinct and obviously idiosyncratic filmmaker, and more interested in characters and dialogue than Hathaway. Hathaway and John Ford also makes for an interesting compare and contrast. It could reasonably be argued that when Hathaway is at his best he resembles Ford, but is not at all as good. With Ford you get a whole world, with Hathaway you only get great films.

2011-08-30 Read some afterthoughts here: http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/08/henry-hathaway-afterthoughts.html

2013-08-04 I removed a random comment about Claude Chabrol. Here are links to two more pieces I've written about Hathaway:
http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/henry-hathaway-part-3.html
http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/06/spawn-of-north-henry-hathaway-1938.html
2013-11-26, a new piece, about Souls at Sea.
A few clips, first one from Peter Ibbetson:


If ever there was a visual expression of injustice it is this haunting image from Call Northside 777 of a tiny immigrant woman scrubbing a massive floor, and speaking with a combination of pride, anger and sadness: