Thursday, 31 December 2015

Happy New Year!

It is only Thursday but it is also the last day of the year and let us end it in style, Vincente Minnelli style. I am grateful for all of you who have visited my blog in 2015, and I hope you will all come back in 2016. The next regular post will be up in two weeks, on a Friday as usual. See you then!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Bergman on Hitchcock

In March of 1949, Ingmar Bergman's new film Prison / Fängelse had its premiere and he wrote about one inspiration he had, Hitchcock's Rope (1948), in an article in the newspaper Stockholms-Tidningen. This is what he had to say, in my translation.
Hitchcock has made a weighty contribution when it comes to revolutionising film technology towards a rational and more compressed process. For my part I think that his performance in this area will eventually be recognised by film theorists and they will rank him as being among the greatest of pioneers, which he rightfully deserves.
   Thus has he recently finished a movie called Rope that of itself concentrates the sum of a long time of patiently doing technical experimentations. (Which those who are interested can see develop from film to film.)
   The procedure does not sound so remarkable in itself: He does long takes. But: He does long takes where the length is not noticeable.
(Bergman's language is somewhat ornate but I did my best to stay true to his rhythm yet make it comprehensible.)

There are times when I think this is my favourite Hitchcock.

Friday, 4 December 2015

They Were Expendable (1945)

They Were Expendable (John Ford 1945) is an unique achievement, but also a quintessential Ford film. It is a war film, but slow, meandering, understated, mellow and open-ended, and is structured around various social events and special moments as is typical for Ford's kind of narration. (Ford usually structures his films this way rather than have a strong forward drive and a focused story. He is very different from Raoul Walsh.) In a post last year, about Robert Warshow, I wrote:
If you watched They Were Expendable (1945), Ford's film about the war in the Pacific and possibly his greatest achievement, and did not know who won the war, you would probably think that the US lost it. Such is the mood of the film. In Peter Bogdanovich book-length interview with John Ford (from 1967) he suggested that Ford's films are about "the glory of defeat" but you could also say that they are about the desolation of victory. 
This is one of the many things that make it both so moving and so exceptional. There is true beauty in They Were Expendable, or several different kinds of beauty.

It tells about a squadron of PT boats in the Pacific stationed outside Manila, on the Philippines, when Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese in 1941. The high command do not think much of these boats and the men who serve on them, they are treated off-handedly and given degrading tasks. The war is not going well either, the Japanese are beating the Americans and taking over one island after another, so the PT boats and their men have to keep moving, evacuating, hiding, escaping. One boat after another is lost, until none remains, and the men are killed off, by bullets or by bombs. But the Japanese themselves are never seen, they are always out of sight, and there is no hostility towards them, not racist talk, even though their ships and their planes bring death and destruction.

Robert Montgomery plays the lead, John Brickley, and John Wayne plays Rusty Ryan. Both are based on two actual sailors, lieutenants John D. Bulkeley and Robert Kelly. There is also Sandy, played by Donna Reed. She is a nurse, and after treating Ryan, suffering from a bullet in the hand and blood poisoning, they become romantically involved, as much as you can in wartime and do not know where you will go next or when you will be killed. But they do manage to go to a dance, and have a dinner, and the occasional phone call, until the inevitable.

Among many outstanding sequences there is a particular one at a hospital during an air raid with the off-screen sound of the bombs the only thing heard. The camera is focused on Sandy's face during an operation, and it captures the fear, the anxiety and the perseverance of the moment, and a claustrophobic counterpoint to the sequences on the open seas. But there are not many of those, they are mostly on land or in the makeshift harbours.

It is not just death and disappointments though; whenever a chance to have a laugh or a drink arises it is taken, however briefly. But the overall mood is downcast.

The setting is various tropical islands in the Pacific, and it looks like it was shot on location, but it was actually shot closer to home, in south Florida, which looked similar enough but was considerably safer. It feels real though, genuine. Robert Montgomery, who plays the lead, had himself been in the navy during the war, and been given a Bronze Star, and he had at one point been on a PT boat with Bulkeley (the man his character is based on) so he knew what he was doing on set. Bulkeley himself did not want to be involved in the making of the film as he disliked jingoism and heroics, but the film has none of that and when he actually saw the film he was pleasantly surprised, feeling that it was "very authentic". Frank Wead, who wrote the script, had also been in the Pacific with the navy during the war (until 1944). Ford himself had spent the war making documentaries in the Pacific, including one about Pearl Harbor and one about the battle of Midway. Joseph H. August, the cinematographer, was a friend of Ford's and they had worked together for a long time, including on the documentary about Midway, so the film was made by people who had, in various ways, been involved themselves in this part of the war. This might account for the powerful feeling of accuracy. Ford obviously meant it as his tribute to these underdog soldiers, and he put all of his considerable skills and idiosyncrasies to make it both true to these men and true to his own poetic sensibility. Whether it is the narrative structure, the use of music, the general mood, the character-behaviour and interactions, it is unmistakeably "a film by John Ford", and one of his very best, on that perennial theme of his: of the forward march of time and history, and of the ordinary people swept away by these forces over which they have little control

Ford directing in the water.

In the end of the film all boats are gone and the remaining sailors are scattered around the islands, some transferred to the infantry. A few manage to get on the last plane out, but those that remain will in all likelihood be killed by the Japanese. We do not know what will happen to them, or to any of the other characters we have met, some briefly, some for a long time. It is war, and you know very little. What will your next assignment be? When will you get food the next time? What happened to your friend, did he survive and will show up later or was he killed? Will you ever see your loved ones again? It is a hard life, so we cry, we bury our dead, and then we move on. What else is there?

The essence of Ford.

The film was based on a non-fiction book about Bulkeley, also called They Were Expendable, and written by W.L. White.
The Bulkeley quote above about finding the film "very authentic" is from Joseph McBride's book Searching for John Ford.

I have seen They Were Expendable many times, like most of Ford's films, and I have written about several of them before. I could easily write about them all.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Reading Bazin (#5) Bazin as TV critic

"Just as we stand equal before death, all men are equal before television."

This week I have read Dudley Andrew's new collection of articles by Bazin, André Bazin's New Media (2014), about TV, radio and recent (i.e. early 1950s) technical developments within cinema. It is as always very inspiring material and here are some brief observations about Bazin's thoughts on TV, the fifth instalment in my "Reading Bazin" series.


Bazin looks at TV from several different angles. He talks about technical issues, ethical problems, artistic innovations, censorship and medium specificity. But mostly he writes about French television, as this is primarily what he was able to watch. And he seems to like it. Except for serials, especially those aimed for children.

"TV poses a problem of household psychology, indeed of psychology period. Most serious is not so much the serial in itself as the fact that it is addressed foremost to children, just by the choice of films shown." he says. "They confuse the spirit of childhood with sociological cretinism." (p. 134)

But on the whole he is positive, even if a bit backhanded. "We shouldn't expect only marvels from [TV]. In fact, the amount of rubbish will have to be proportionally greater than in commercial cinema, but the sheer quantity of production ought to allow for a good number of successes." (p. 181)

What he likes is primarily the immediacy and intimacy of TV, and how it brings ordinary people into focus. He writes a lot about a program in which farmers are interviewed about their lives for example. ("The cinema will never film a biography of my concierge or my grocer, but on my TV set they can be admirable and astounding." (p. 46)). TVs approach to live drama is something he finds interesting too and here he thinks that TV has something to teach cinema.
Television reminds cinema of something it has long forgotten: the advantages of semi-improvisation, of working off the cuff. Between television and cinema there can be more than mere collaboration; there can be genuine symbiosis. In not selfishly trying to take any more from cinema than may be useful to it, television could inject new lifeblood back into cinema. (p. 173) 
He wrote that in 1951, and he felt the same way in 1958: "With TV, cinema can be rejuvenated."(p. 178), although, since this was seven years after his first such proclamation you might have expected this rejuvenation to have happened so that he could write that cinema "is being rejuvenated" rather than "can be rejuvenated". I think though that he was right, and that especially in the 1960s this is what had happened.

At one point he brings the theatre into the equation. "We have often opposed cinema to theater on the notion of the physical and temporal presence of the actor. But television is the presence of theater with the ubiquity of cinema." (p. 80) For Bazin, films like Marty (Delbert Mann 1955), 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet 1957) and The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann 1957), are examples of how TV has enriched cinema, although he finds Marty to be too sentimental. The Bachelor Party on the other hand he think is "extremely rich" and "brilliantly directed". (p. 169) Both Marty and The Bachelor Party were written by Paddy Chayefsky and first done live on TV, in 1953 and 1954, and 12 Angry Men as well, written by Reginald Rose. (An earlier example of the same kind of "new social realism" which Bazin might have mentioned is Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann 1952), which was based on William Inge's play although not done for TV.)

Bazin also talks about directors and directing, and there is a long interview with Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, two of Bazin's favourites who were then both directing for TV. ("[I]f you and I, Roberto, are turning toward television, it is because television is in a technically primitive state that may restore to artists that fighting spirit of the early cinema, when everything that was made was good." Renoir says at the end of the discussion. (p. 203)). Bazin also writes about Hitchcock's TV productions and he wonders why so many American filmmakers are making films for TV whereas hardly any French directors are doing it. Why John Ford and Leo McCarey but not Marcel Carné and Jacques Becker?

So what interests Bazin in cinema is also what interests him in TV, and reading this collection with his more famous work, such as the two collections of What is Cinema?, is to be recommended.

This was my fifth post about Bazin. The earlier ones are here:
This intimacy can even become troubling, to the point of implying reciprocity. As for me, each time I meet one of the presenters of the TV news or even a TV actor in the street, I have to suppress a spontaneous urge to shake their hand, as though they knew me from having seen me daily in front of my screen. (p. 40)

Saturday, 14 November 2015


Stay strong and do not succumb to fear and hatred.

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli 1951)
Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville 1956)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien 2007)
Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné 1938)
Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch 1939)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian 1932)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati 1958)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater 2004)
Inception (Christopher Nolan 2010)

Friday, 6 November 2015

Lonely are the queer

This is a paper I presented a couple of years ago in St Andrews. I thought I post it here, more or less unedited (so the language is not all that it could be). Also, I mention important plot points for several films, Girl With Hyacinths, These Three, Tea and Sympathy and The Browning Version, just so you know.


Lonely Are the Brave is a beautiful film from 1961 about a man who was born in the wrong century. In the opening scene he is seen resting on the prairie with his horse, and then a jet plane flies over him, moving us quickly from what we thought was a scene from the century of the steam engine to a scene in the century of the jet engine. However, that is not what this talk is about, I just wanted to explain where the title came from. The talk is rather about the theme of loneliness and how it is connected to queerness.

The history of gay and lesbian characters in cinema has still to be written, or rather it is constantly being re-written. One thing though is that they are much more common than they are given credit for. They are there, more or less hiding. Much has been made about how These Three from 1936, the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour removed the lesbian aspect from the play. Instead of love between one woman towards another, it became love between one woman and the boyfriend of another woman. But These Three smuggle these queer things into the film. The boyfriend is called Joe, so the woman who was lesbian in the original still get to say to the girlfriend to the boy she fancies “I love Joe/you”. When a truer version was made in 1963 now called The Children's Hour, by the same director William Wyler, it was more modernist and outspoken, but it had not the same emotional punch. Such hidden suggestions and innuendos are common within cinema, not least Westerns.

One thing that has always stood out for me when watching Hasse Ekman's Girl With Hyacinths is how lonely the main character is. This theme of loneliness runs through his films, in his last great film Stöten The Heist there is towards the end a shot of a young woman standing alone in a pool of darkness, surrounded by policemen, asked to give up her boyfriend. But nobody is as lonely as Dagmar Brink in Girl With Hyacinths. This loneliness is a mystery, and it is what intrigues the men in the film, as well as the audience I would suggest. Why is she so lonely? Because she is a lesbian in a time when that was not allowed or, when it was not allowed, was not talked about, or acknowledged.

Recently I watched Vincente Minnelli's fantastic Tea and Sympathy from 1956 and there again was a lonely person, well two actually, but one that is the point here, and that is the main character. I will show you the opening sequence to exemplify.

[In this scene we see the main character, Tom, walk around at a college reunion, where everybody are talking to each other and discussing the past and the future. But not Tom, he speaks with nobody.)

One of the key elements of Minnelli's mise en scène is the multidimensional staging, that there are several things going on at once. Sometimes two simultaneous scenes will take place at the same time in the same long shot. We can see that here.

The film is about a boy who when he was in high school was bullied and ridiculed for being "girlie". The woman in whose house he's staying, the wife of one of the teachers, takes him under her wings and tries to protect him. It doesn't go very well. He was, is, and remains lonely.

So I had both these films fresh in my mind when I watched a British film, the highpoint of director Anthony Asquith and playwright Terrence Rattigan's cooperation, The Browning Version from 1951. This is also a film about a lonely person, in this case a Latin teacher, played by Michael Redgrave in an astonishing performance. I did not think of it at once but at the end of the film I thought “but of course!”.

I would argue that the hidden assumption is that Redgrave's teacher is gay. That this is why he is lonely, that this is why he does not mind that his wife has had an affair.

All these examples are from the 1950s, which was coincidental, although since it is such a golden age of cinema, at least in the US and Japan, it is perhaps not that coincidental. But the thing that connects these three films is the explicit loneliness of the main character and his or her queerness, in different levels of explicitness. There is a lot more of queer subtexts in cinema before the 1960s than is acknowledged. And even when it is fairly obvious, like in Tea and Sympathy it is not seen. Geoff Brown wrote that “the combined forces of censorship and CinemaScope the tendencies threatened to disappear completely”  But he misses the point. It has been criticised for the fact that in the end the boy is “saved” and he gets married. But that is just mentioned in passing. We never see the alleged wife, he is still alone. In the first shot as well as in the last. There is nothing to “reassure” as, there are no heteronormative shots (such as of him with his wife, kissing, or some such).

But actually, the most interesting character in Tea and Sympathy is the sports teacher, the husband. He is clearly a closet gay man, and the most tragic character in the film. The boy is not in denial, but the husband is. In the end his wife leaves him and he now, too, is alone. So even if the boy would get married, what hope is there for that marriage? Marriage is just a blindfold, it will not cure anything, only hide it.

The love that dare not speak its name it was called, and the argument I'm making, an argument that needs to be backed up with plenty of more examples, is that in a time when it could not be pronounced, looking for the lonely characters might help us detect the ever present gay, or queer, characters. I would be interested in investigating this further. One obvious contender is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), to look at the real rebel, Sal Mineo's character, the boy who loves James Dean's character, and with whom he enters a weird relationship, in hiding building up a nuclear family which must end, like all family affairs in Nicholas Ray's world, in catastrophe.

In 1961, in Victim, Dirk Bogarde's character is confronted by his wife about a young man who has committed suicide. The wife wants to know why; is it because her husband and the young man were getting too close? Were they having an affair? He says that the man killed himself because he was blackmailed. She then asks why he was blackmailed; because he was a homosexual? Yes, because he was a homosexual. But who was the other man. Was it you? she asks. He finally succumbs. “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him, do you understand, I wanted him!” Now it was suddenly being explicit. In The Apartment made in 1960, C C Baxter (Lemmon's character) when he asks Fran (Shirley MacLaine's) out on a date she says that she already has an appointment. “With a girl?” he shyly asks. “No, with a man.” she says to which he replies “Well, some of the guys at the office had been talking...” “Well, you tell them every now and then. Just because a girl doesn't..”

Unfortunately this “coming out” led to decades of camp and burlesque, and seldom respect and ordinariness. But what happened to the loneliness? When the cat was out of the bag, the elephant in the room a conversation piece, did the loneliness of the queer character go away? It remains to be investigated.

I'd like to end this talk with my favourite scene from The Browning Version, which shows a rare moment of kindness towards the Latin teacher and its heartbreaking effect.


Such was the talk. In From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann 1953) Montgomery Clift's character says “Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” That is definitely a film to include in this investigation. I will write more on the subject soon.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Carol Reed

It is tempting to compare Carol Reed with Vittorio De Sica. They had both been making films for some time until they, right after the end of World War 2, made a number of influential and famous films that captured the moment and defined the time in which they were made, and in which children played an important part. Then they disappeared again from the limelight, making allegedly lesser films. These days though Reed is given a considerably shorter shrift than De Sica, even though I think Reed's films are the better ones, showing more dexterity, imagination, power and boldness.

Alec Guinness and Burl Ives in Our Man in Havana

It is sometimes claimed that The Third Man (1949) is so good because of its writer, Graham Greene, and the presence of Orson Welles. Some remain convinced that Welles directed parts of it (which he did not, he was barely present at all) or that the film at least is clearly influenced by Welles. Yet The Third Man is very similar to the films Reed made before and after, in terms of style, themes and direction of actors. There is no reason to belittle Reed. His body of work, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, is enough proof of his exceptional abilities and artistry.

Berlin in The Man Between (1953)

The canted camera angles is Reed's most obvious stylistic trademark, which began to appear already in the 1930s and with The Fallen Idol (1948) had become well integrated. An eccentric editing pattern had also become apparent in the middle of the 1940s, which helps create a nervous tension in the narrative. A recurring example is where a scene begins almost in mid-sentence, where the cut from one space to another is slightly disconnected; somebody is already talking in the new scene, perhaps turning away from the camera, or turning towards it. An opulent mise en scéne, with shadows, staircases and densely decorated rooms, is also part of his style. Space is on the whole of immense importance and often takes on subjective, psychological dimension (emphasised by the canted angles). Reed is interested in the environment, which is usually urban and hostile, and the space in which the film takes place is vividly brought to life, and with it the people who live in it, watching the strangers who are intruding in their mist. His main characters are usually doomed, both because of historical and political forces over which they have no control, but also because of personal weaknesses. In the context in which they find themselves even kindness can be such a weakness, This is partly what gives Reed's films their sense of melancholy, which is remarkably strong in The Stars Look Down (1940), Odd Man Out (1947), The Third Man, The Man Between, and is also there in Our Man in Havana (1959), Reed's last really great film.

This sequence from The Man Between, which takes place in Berlin before the building of the wall, has all of these things. A British woman, a German man, and a boy, are thrown together because of politics over which they have little control. Here they gave taken refuge on a roof. I consider it to be one of Reed's very best films, not least because of the music.


All these films are also political films, dealing either with internal British tensions or cold war politics. Another fine film of his is The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), a lesser known (and less distinctly Reedian) historical biopic about the 18th century British prime minister, played by Robert Donat. The Way Ahead (1944), co-written with Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, is a lovely, even gentle, film about a group of ordinary Englishmen, played by an impressive cast including William Hartnell, Stanley Holloway, David Niven, John Laurie and James Donald, who are reluctantly conscripted into the infantry in 1941 and after a long period of training are sent to Africa to fight against the Germans, although things do not go according to plan. This is not a war film, there is at most ten minutes of fighting. Instead it is about these men having to adjust to a new kind of life, far from modern conveniences and from their families.

Then there are the children. The ambassador's son in The Fallen Idol, the supervisor's son in The Third Man, the orphan (seen above) in The Man Between, the young daughter and an orphan river boy in Outcast of the Islands (1951), the main character in A Kid For Two Farthings (1955). They are innocent and loyal, but this too can be dangerous, and in both Fallen Idol and The Man Between the loyalty of a child becomes a threat.

Outcast of the Islands is Reed's most eccentric film, based on Joseph Conrad's second novel and set somewhere between Singapore and Borneo during the years of European colonisation, and shot on Sri Lanka. It is so filled with longing, self-loathing and degradation is almost painful to watch; in one scene Almayer, the German head of a trading post, is tied up in a hammock and pushed back and forth over an open fire by his Dutch enemy, Willems, whilst Almayer's daughter screams "Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!" and laughs at him. There is also captain Lingard, who once adopted Willems and now has brought him to this place, a place which he considers to be his islands and the local people his people; carrying on like a self-appointed king. "Does the white man know what is best for us?" Babalatchi, the local leader, asks with controlled contempt. In the end everything and everyone are ruined. "Ah, life is foul." Lingard exclaims, "Foul like a tangled rigging on a dirty night."

It is not entirely successful, as it feels slightly rushed, but the acting, the complexity of the emotions that run through it, and the visuals (as well as Reed's documentarian eye for faces and spaces) still make it a fine film, ending with a rainstorm worthy of Akira Kurosawa.

Willems (Trevor Howard) and Aissa (Kerima)

So while The Third Man is Reed's best known film, it is not his best film. The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out are its equals, with The Man Between and Our Man in Havana close behind. In Reed's considerably powerful oeuvre, those five are in a league of their own.

As I have said before, British cinema of the 1940s and early 1950s is exceptional. If ever there was a golden age of cinema, it was there and then. I wrote recently about David Lean, the other week about A Canterbury Tale (1944) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and a few years ago I wrote about Anthony Asquith and J. Lee Thompson. But there are so many more films, filmmakers and actors, many who are more or less unknown outside of Britain, including the very few women directors who were active those years, such as Muriel Box and Wendy Toye.

Friday, 9 October 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I spent two days in Canterbury a couple of years ago, partly because of my love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale (1944). The cathedral provided accommodation so I slept on the premises, and in the morning I walked into the actual cathedral before it was open to the public. I walked around in there all by myself; a very special thing to do. Then when it opened to the public I happened to be by the main entrance, and inadvertently greeted all those who walked in, including a group of school children. When they saw me standing there they said "Hello." or "Good morning.", and I responded in kind, even occasionally throwing in a "Welcome" as if I belonged there, as if it was my cathedral.


Even by the usual standards of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale (1944) is eccentric. Shot in Kent, in the area where Powell grew up, and made at the height of the war, when American soldiers had begun to arrive in Britain to help with the existential fight against the Germans, it is filled with a deep sense of England's history, the past and the present coming together in a perpetual now. In the opening sequence a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury in the 15th century looks up at a falcon in the sky, a falcon which suddenly becomes a fighter plane (a Spitfire or a Hurricane?) in the same part of the sky, 500 years later. This is then the time in which the rest of the film is set, but the past is still there, and can be felt, and heard. This is a film about time, and the importance of history. It is also a place about space, both the natural world and the man-made. The Kentish countryside; the forest, the hills, the farms, and the small town in which the film takes place, and Canterbury and its cathedral, where the film comes to its conclusion. Everything imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, almost pantheistic.

This is fairly typical of Powell and Pressburger, for them space is always of the outmost importance. It is not just there, it means something, it is alive and it influences the characters in the most profound ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. In A Canterbury Tale space is warm and benevolent, the natural world is protective, and we can hide in it, and seek comfort. An American soldier and an old English man form an immediate bond over their mutual love of trees and wood.

But there are also weird things going on, and there is a war. People are being killed, or have gone missing. Disappointments are to be had. But sometimes, miracles happen. Not due to otherworldly causes but because life is unpredictable and sends conflicting messages. Sometimes the worst happens but not always. Good things also happen, and happiness can be found, even if it takes roundabout ways.

John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price

A Canterbury Tale is a deeply moving experience. Partly because one can sense the urgency with which they made it. "This is where I was born and this is where I grew up." Powell seems to be saying. "We must protected this place and preserve it. This is worth fighting for." The fight here is not for freedom or democracy but for time and space itself. It is also moving due to the characters, the three main characters, the American soldier, a land girl from London and a British soldier who was a cinema organist before the war, who meet by chance and become friends during a couple of days in Kent. They all have reasons to be disappointed, even heartbroken, especially she. There is one especially fine scene when she finds the caravan, now covered in dust and cobweb, with which she once travelled around Kent with a boy, now shot down somewhere over Germany.

A Canterbury Tale is also peculiar in that it contains so many things: a detective story, sometimes shot like it was a film noir, a pastoral hymn, a fairytale, a propaganda film, a history lesson. But these things are not disconnected, they are woven tightly together, in a unique and spellbinding way. The films of Powell and Pressburger constantly ask of us to reconsider the way we look at things; time, space and characters, and this is true for A Canterbury Tale too. Nothing is to be taken for granted, there is magic everywhere, if you pay attention.


The year after A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger made I Know Where I'm Going, with which it is closely connected (and both are photographed by Erwin Hillier). It was shot in Scotland, on the isle of Mull. I have been there too, and the magic remains.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Four aspects of Vincente Minnelli

The terror of darkness. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

A woman and her sexual fantasy. The Pirate (1948).

Film noir as ballet. The Band Wagon (1953).

The violent sadness of a child. Meet Me in St Louis (1944).

In the films of Minnelli reality is inherently unstable, life is filled with loneliness and pain, and we alternated between nightmares and dreams. There is nothing quite like it.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Feedback on Ekman

A special post today because the Hasse Ekman retrospective at MoMA is now over, and I am overwhelmed by the response it got. Sold-out screenings, lots of good articles about it (some links below), and an engaged and passionate audience. I had a lovely time in New York and I want to thank both MoMA (and Dave Kehr in particular) and all of those who came!

I would also like to get some feedback about the films. If anybody who reads this was at the MoMA screenings, or have seen the films some place else, you are more than welcome to write down your thoughts in the comment section below. I am thinking primarily of non-Swedes now, I have already had much engagement with Swedes about Ekman, but rarely with people from other countries because they would not have seen the films. But now some have, and others who were not at MoMA might have seen some films too, elsewhere, so bring it on.

Ekman was very prolific, and there are enough good films for another retrospective. The ten films shown at MoMA were not chosen because they are my ten favourite Ekman films; some of my favourites were not available. These are the ten films I think are the best:

Royal Rabble (Kungliga patrasket 1945), with Eva Henning
Wandering With the Moon (Vandring med månen 1945), with Eva Henning
While the Door Was Locked (Medan porten var stängd 1946)
The Banquet (Banketten 1948) with Eva Henning
The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden 1949), with Eva Henning
Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och hyacinter 1950), with Eva Henning
The White Cat (Den vita katten 1950), with Eva Henning
We Three Débutantes (Vi tre debutera 1953)
Gabrielle (1954), with Eva Henning
The Heist (aka Rififi in Stockholm) (Stöten 1961)

Of the four not shown at MoMA, While the Door Was Locked is one of Ekman's multiple-character narratives, this time about the various people who live in one apartment block and what happens there during one night. The White Cat is like a Freudian nightmare, visually very striking (Göran Strindberg was the DP), with the usual Ekman actors and characters, although unusually conflicted and disturbed. We Three Débutantes is about three young poets, two men and one woman and each from a different class, who try (and fail) at being friends. It is also a suitably poetic depiction of Stockholm, shot by Gunnar Fischer. The Heist, finally, is about two young criminals, adrift, alone and very unhappy.

As you can see the bulk of his great work was in the first half of his career. But the second half is good too, only not as good. Of the 41 feature films he made I would say that more than half are really good, and even those that are unsuccessful are often interesting.

Here is my earlier post about the ten films that were shown at MoMA.

And here are links to some of the articles about Ekman:
Farran Smith Nehme for
Kristin M. Jones for Wall Street Journal
Nick Pinkerton for Artforum

Friday, 11 September 2015

The other Vertigo - Sebald and Kafka

All the writings of W.G. Sebald are essential, and in particular the astonishing Austerlitz. Today however I will quote from Vertigo, first published in 1990. Its original German title is Schwindel. Gefühle and translated by Michael Hulse. The quotes below are from part III, "Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva", and concerns K, who is unhappy in Verona and consoles himself with a visit to the cinema:
Perhaps it was the bills, still posted throughout the city, announcing the spettacoli lirici all'Arena that August and the word AIDA displayed in large letters which persuaded him that the Veronese show of carefree togetherness had something of a theatrical performance about it, staged especially to bring home to him, Dr K., his solitary, eccentric condition - a thought he could not get out of his head and which he was only able to escape by seeking refuge in a cinema, probably the Cinema Pathé di San Sebastiano. In tears, so Dr K. recorded the following day in Desenzano, he sat in the surrounding darkness, observing the transformations into pictures of the minute particles of dust glinting in the beam of the projector.
Dr K. is Franz Kafka and the time is the 1913, when Kafka left Prague for a trip through Italy to Switzerland, for health reasons. In Switzerland he had an affair with a young woman, before returning home again.

But let's get back to that day in Verona, where Sebald wonders what it was that Dr K. saw:
Was it the Pathé newsreel, featuring the review of the cavalry in the presence of His Majesty Vittorio Emanuele III, and La Lezione dell'abisso, which, as I discovered in the Biblioteca Civica, were shown that day at the Pathé and which are both now untraceable? Or was it, as I initially supposed, a story that ran with some success in the cinemas of Austria in 1913, the story of the unfortunate Student of Prague, who cut himself off from love and life when, on the 13th of May, 1820, he sold his soul to a certain Scapinelli? The extraordinary exterior shots in this film, the silhouettes of his native city flickering across the screen, would doubtless have sufficed to move Dr K. deeply, most of all perhaps the fate of the eponymous hero, Balduin, since in him he would have recognised a kind of doppelgänger, just as Balduin recognises his other self in the dark-coated brother whom he could never and nowhere escape.
The German film The Student of Prague opened in late August of 1913 so it is a possibility. In any event Sebald describes the story of the film, up until its melodramatic ending with a bullet in the heart of Balduin, and speculates as to why it might appeal to Dr K.:
Final contortions of this kind, which regularly occur in opera when, as Dr K. once wrote, the dying voice aimlessly wanders through the music, did not by any means seem ridiculous to him; rather he believed them to be an expression of our, so to speak, natural misfortune, since after all, as he remarks elsewhere, we lie prostrate on the boards, dying, our whole lives long.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Hasse Ekman at MoMA

This year is the centennial of Hasse Ekman's birth and this made it possible for me to entice Museum of Modern Art in New York to do a retrospective of his films, the first in North America I believe, MoMA wanted ten films so I made a short list of some 15 films and of these some were not available due to either rights issues or damaged prints. The ten films that remained on the short list are those you will be able to see if you are in New York, 9 - 17 September. (Here is the program.)

Ekman had been an actor already as a boy in the 1920s, but he wrote and directed his first film in 1940. In all he made 41 feature films and one TV-series, Niklasons (1965), before he retired. He was at his best from 1943 to 1954 and the majority of the chosen films were made during those years. There are also two earlier films and one late film (which is also the only one in colour). I thought I say a few words about why I have chosen these ten in particular.

Första divisionen / The First Division (1941) was Ekman's second film, set on an air field in the north of Sweden and it is a tense drama with exhilarating flying sequences. It is not a war film, and no other countries are mentioned, instead it is focused on the lives of the pilots. I chose it partly because of the quality of the cinematography and partly for it is unusual for Ekman to make a film not set in downtown Stockholm. It shows the range of his talents. It is also well-acted.

Lågor i dunklet / Flames in the Dark (1942) is a psychological thriller about a cruel, sadistic Latin teacher, played by Stig Järrel, which makes it impossible not to compare it with Hets / Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), where Järrel plays almost the same character. While hardly Ekman's best film, it is a showcase for Järrel (who acted in most of Ekman's films during the 1940s) and it shows Ekman trying to find his style.

Ombyte av tåg / Changing Trains (1943) is the film I consider Ekman's artistic breakthrough. It is when most of what is typical of his work first came together, a theatre setting, a sombre mood, a subtle love story and with an autobiographical background. It is not a linear story but fragmented and open, moving between different characters and back and forth in time. It was also the first time he worked together with writer Walter Ljungquist. In addition, Göran Strindberg's cinematography shows the influence of French poetic realism.

Kungliga patrasket / Royal Rabble (1945) is based upon Ekman's own family and a life at the theatre. It was the first film of his in which Eva Henning played a role (although they had acted together the year before in Stopp! Tänk på något annat (Åke Ohberg 1944), a fine film too). The acting and the compassion with which all the various characters are portrayed is wonderful and while there is tragedy here, it is primarily a love letter to the theatre, and all those people who are part of it.

Vandring med månen / Wandering With the Moon (1945) might be my favourite of all of Ekman's films. Working closely with Walter Ljungquist, it is also the Ekman-film which most resembles the films of Jean Renoir; a lyrical tale of assorted people crossing paths during a few summer days. The spectre of Nazism is there, as a dark force in the shadows, but mostly it is a celebration of the loners and oddballs that live outside the mainstream of society, and Eva Henning plays a young actress exploring her sexuality with an immature young boy played by Alf Kjellin. Gösta Roosling's cinematography help bring out the film's lyrical aspect, with the sun and the moon glittering on the water or the leaves and the grass.

Banketten / The Banquet (1948) is one of Ekman's darkest films about a wealthy family slowly unravelling. The father is tired and frustrated with life, his wife is living in denial about the problems they face, the older son is a decadent drunk, the younger son a communist and the daughter (Eva Henning) is trapped in a wretched marriage (her husband is played by Ekman). With the imagery of a film noir, it is both a domestic horror film and a comment about a changing society after the war.

Flickan från tredje raden / The Girl From the Third Row (1949) is yet another of Ekman's loosely structured films about multiple characters who accidentally cross paths and with a theatre setting. It is also the film which Ekman called his "anti-Bergman film", a direct response to Bergman's Prison (1949), and intricately told. Henning plays the title role, and the film moves effortlessly from tragedy to comedy to nail-biting suspense. There really is no other film quite like it.

Flicka och hyacinter / Girl With Hyacinths (1950) is undoubtedly Ekman's most famous film, beautifully shot by Göran Strindberg and brilliantly acted by especially Eva Henning. A feminist film, a film with a complex narrative structure and dealing with a number of sensitive issues, including Sweden's ambivalent role during World War 2 and its appeasement of the Nazis. A very sad film, it was Ekman's own favourite, a film he could barely talk about without getting tears in his eyes.

Gabrielle (1954) is also a dark film, of a marriage falling apart due the jealousy of the husband. Told in flashbacks, both real and imaginary, it was made after Ekman and Henning's own marriage had ended in divorce. Henning plays the wife in the film, and Birger Malmsten the husband. The cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer.

Med glorian på sned / The Halo is Slipping (1957) is something rather different. It is in colour and Ekman's first film in widescreen and it is one of four comedies Ekman made in the late 1950s with Sickan Carlsson, whom could be called Sweden's Doris Day. The last of the four is dreadful but the other three are a lot of fun, and while Fröken Chic / Miss Chic (1959) is my favourite this one comes second. They are about stuck-up men and independent-minded women, the commercialisation of radio, TV and publishing, and they have glorious set-pieces, The Halo is Slipping even has some surreal dream sequences. It is a lot more cheerful than the others in this retrospective and quite charming.

So those were my ten. They are not his ten best, but most of his best films are among them and all ten are unmistakeably Ekmanesque. They show all aspects of his art; the style, the ear for dialogue, the love of the theatre, the view of life as a tragic comedy and the ability to draw out the best of his fellow actors.

Would I be able to do another Ekman retro at MoMA in the future I would especially want to show Eldfågeln / The Fire-Bird (1952), if it has been properly restored by then. It was Ekman's first film in colour, a ballet film and an experiment with colours too, shot by Göran Strindberg.

I initially wrote that Åke Dahlqvist was the DP on Wandering with the Moon, but that was of course wrong. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

This is an unscheduled post, part of a number of posts published today about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Links to the other posts to be found at the end. My next post will be Friday next week as usual.


On occasion I watched the TV-series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when I was a kid, as it was often broadcast at odd hours. I was never much of a fan, but it did have some appeal to me. I have at times tried to watch again, now, as an adult, with limited success. It has been hard to come by, not even YouTube is forthcoming. I think my main interest in it back then was that Ian Fleming was involved in its creation. But it was also a twist to see an American agent, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), and a Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), working together under the United Nation's flag (sort of) at the height of the cold war. (It is called The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of The Men from U.N.C.L.E. because originally it was only meant to be about Solo. But Kuryakin became so popular with the TV-audience that the part was expanded to become equal to Solo.)

The new film, directed, and co-produced and co-written, by Guy Ritchie has none of the topicality of the original series, and it is rather silly and shallow, but fortunately it also has oodles of laid-back wit and it is rather cool at times. There were some action sequences that had plenty of panache, but I especially enjoyed the scene in a fashionable clothes store where the two male agents have a debate about whether this particular belt go with that particular dress, and whether colours match on the outfits to be worn by the female agent. With the name dropping of fashion labels and the confidence with which they speak of such matters, they would not be out of place in a 1963 version of Sex and the City. Both Henry Cavill (as Solo) and Armie Hammer (as Kuryakin) seemed to have a good time, and they had chemistry. Hugh Grant was also a treat, in the part played by Leo G. Carroll in the series. Elizabeth Debicki as the master villain was also great. But for some reason Alicia Vikander did not seem to fit in. It was not that she was bad and she did manage to look as stylish as Audrey Hepburn at times, one especially fun scene was when she was dancing in pyjamas and sun classes, but while all the other worked well together, and had a connection, she seemed to be at a distance. Participating in the activities but not really being there, perhaps thinking about something else. Aloof.

The dynamic duo and Ms. Vikander.

So I did have fun will watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but I was also annoyed at times. For example the last car chase, on an island, was overblown and weird, with no sense of spatial awareness. The film varied from sequence to sequence, and from the delightful and inspired to the awkward and off-putting.

It is not immediately obvious why there is a film based on this particular series. Back then it had some impact but that was a long time ago, and unlike Mission Impossible, which first came out as a series around the same time as U.N.C.L.E., it has not left any well-known quotes or famous music behind. I suspect that the kids these days have not even heard of it. Perhaps this is why it has been kicked around for quite a while, with several different directors attached to it and then un-attached. One of them was Steven Soderbergh and I can see why he might have been attracted to it, and, actually, the finished film did remind me at times of Soderbergh. While Ritchie is nowhere near as good, or as important, as a filmmaker he is in some ways similar, but less nimble and intelligent. He is more draught beer and Soderbergh more vintage wine. (Soderbergh also has a more serious edge and capable of making films with a depth which Ritchie does not seem to have any interest in.) But with U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie comes closer to Soderbergh than before in the feel of the film. And like Soderbergh's Oceans 11, 12 and 13, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is primarily interested in digressions. It is not that they have lost the plot; there was never any interest in actually having a plot.

After Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), the only one of Ritchie's films I have really liked is Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows (2011). The U.N.C.L.E.-film made me wonder if he wants to make a Bond movie (Henry Cavill played Solo in a way that might have pleased Ian Fleming) but I hope he never does. Although I suppose he would not do a worse job than Lewis Gilbert did.

The other bloggers who have written (in Swedish only) about the film: Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, Fiffi, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Har du inte sett den?

Friday, 14 August 2015

George Cukor, Hasse Ekman, Jean Renoir and a subject for further research

Initially I had planned to write about George Cukor in my thesis on Hasse Ekman, as the two have several things in common (and knew each other); for example their view of actors/acting and life as a theatre stage. But in the end that darling had to be killed, a thesis cannot cover everything, although I do invoke Ernst Lubitsch and Jean Renoir in my analysis of Ekman. But Cukor was and remains a favourite, one of the very best of directors, with an exceptionally fine sense of staging and framing, which I wrote about a few years ago in La Furia Umana (#2). Cukor's style is like that of someone who is slightly amazed and intrigued by what is going on in front of the camera. He does not want to disturb, so the camera stays at a distance, he does not want to interfere, so there are few cuts, and he does not want to impose, so there are not so many close-ups. Sometimes a shot lasts for over five minutes, sometimes without the camera even moving. Here too there are parallels with Ekman's style of filmmaking.

Once when I sat and studied a Cukor film, a fellow scholar came by and I mentioned that I thought that Cukor was perhaps the master of framing. He replied that Renoir was his favourite. The other day I was reminded of this because Joe McElhaney, an uncommonly sharp scholar, said that he thought that Cukor was among the best when it came to framing, and likened him to Renoir. It seems that we have come full circle... Of course, for Jean Renoir acting, actors and the theatre were also of great importance, and the connections and similarities between Cukor/Ekman/Renoir are definitely a subject for further research, or for future essays.

It is important to remember that framing is something dynamic, it is not a question of one perfect shot, or formal beauty, but the balancing of space and emotions, set design and actor, and of creating nuance and meaning out of the combination of these aspects of the shot. Even a slight camera movement might completely alter the emotional tone of a scene, so still images do not necessarily do justice to the framing in a particular film.

In Cukor's Little Women (1933) there is a scene when a girl sneaks away at a party and talks to a boy among some flowers. It is nothing special about the scene in itself, but the framing of it, the distance of the camera from the actors, the leafs of the flowers getting between us and the actors, makes it something extra. Here are images from some of his best films.

A Star Is Born (1954)

Adam's Rib (1949)

Holiday (1938)

Born Yesterday (1950)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

It Should Happen to You (1954)

Les Girls (1957)

Here is a whole scene from A Star Is Born, when Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) is talking about her alcoholic husband, in the dressing room between takes. It is remarkably good.

In his book about Ingmar Bergman, Robin Wood compares Bergman to Cukor and says that "Bergman's handling of actresses in his more relaxed films is strikingly like Cukor's."

I should add that on both A Star Is Born and Les Girls, and a few more films in colour, Cukor worked closely with George Hoyningen-Huene, a fashion photographer who became Cukor's visual, and colour, consultant.

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The most famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford 1962) is undoubtedly "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It has gotten a life of its own, popping up on a number of different occasions. But there is another line, also spoken in the first few minutes of the film, which to me is of equal importance. The film begins with a US senator and his wife arriving with train to the (fictional) town called Shinbone, where they once lived, many years ago. As she goes on a tour of the place with an old friend, the former marshal, she says "The place sure has changed. Churches, high schools, shops." The marshal replies "Well, the railroad done that." I have earlier written about trains and their importance for films and for society at large, the blood stream of modernity (here and here), and Liberty Valance is one of the films which directly deals with this. The railroad changes everything. In a later scene the senator says to a couple of reporters that they are young, they do not remember the old days before the railroad. It is a reminder that John Ford's breakthrough was The Iron Horse (1924), a film about the building of the transcontinental railroad, from California to Iowa (where it connected with the railroad to the east coast). Both these films are also a reminder that one of Ford's main thematic concerns has always been the history of the United States. Some have called Ford the Shakespeare of the US, and he has also been compared to Balzac, but there is another Frenchman that could be invoked. Alexis de Tocqueville.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is told in one long flashback, with the senator, Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart), explaining to the reporters why he has come back to Shinbone after so many years. He and his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) have come because an old friend has died, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). But the story is not just one of these three people, it is also about democracy in America, hence the relevance of mentioning Tocqueville, and his major study of the US, Democracy in America (De la démocratie en Amérique) published in two parts 1835 and 1840. His analysis of, for example, the grassroot democracy in small towns, such as Shinbone; the habit of having elections for all positions (although de Tocqueville disapproves of having judges elected); his talk of "self-interest well understood" as the bedrock of American society; his emphasis on the importance of justice, including as a check on democracy itself. These are things which Liberty Valance and other films by Ford address. Combining Ford and Tocqueville has been done before (see for example Robert Pippin's essay "Tocqueville, the Problem of Equality, and John Ford's Stagecoach") but I wonder if not more can be done here. Most of Ford's films that are set in the past, at least those set in the American past, could be studied in tandem with Democracy in America. The fact that Ford's depiction of that past changed over time might make such a comparative study even more interesting.

Hallie, Pompey and in the back the Ericsons.

I have seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance many times, but it continues to grow on me. At first I did not like it, for much the same reasons that it was disliked when it came out in 1962 and was seen as cheap, stagey and old-fashioned, far from the powerful landscapes and rich colours of Ford's earlier films. But Ford had deliberately made it in such a style, bringing the look closer to a certain kind of silent westerns (not like the epic The Iron Horse) but the simple and contained ones. But there is nothing simple about Liberty Valance. It is complex and nuanced, and rich with bitterness. The young Ranse Stoddard is idealistic, excited and passionate, he believes in law and justice. The old Stoddard has become pompous, patrician and condescending. Whether he believes in anything anymore is a valid question. Tom Doniphon, who was once respected and loved by all, a pillar of society, has died alone and forgotten. Hallie Stoddard probably married the wrong man. And both Shinbone's success and Ranse Stoddard's political career are based on a lie. That is not the view of an old-fashioned film, even if Ford's style might be a deliberate homage to an earlier style of filmmaking. It is also Ford's way of addressing his own films. This is very much a Fordian film, even if the basic plot about Liberty Valance and his death comes from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, to which Ford had acquired the rights. The script was written by James Warner Bellah, on whose stories Ford's so-called cavalry trilogy were also based, and Willis Goldbeck. This was the second film they wrote together for Ford, the previous one was Sergeant Rutledge (1960) in which Woody Strode played the title role. (There is a prominent musical theme in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance which is the same as appears in Young Mr. Lincoln which Ford made in 1939.)

John Wayne's character Tom Doniphon is similar to Ethan Edwards, Wayne's character in Ford's earlier The Searchers (1956). They are both interstices between the past, which they represent, and the future, which they help bring about but are unable to join. They are also in-between violence and peace. Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) is the villain in this film, but there is not a neat line between him and the rest of town, it is a grey area. Doniphon is right in the middle. He is not psychotic and homicidal like Ethan Edwards, instead he descends into self-pity and resentment, but they still have the same role in society.

Liberty Valance is an ambivalent villain because, while he is often referred to as pure evil, he is insecure and bitter too. It sometimes seems as if he is violent and arrogant as a reaction against the town's hatred towards him. Sometimes he looks at Doniphon and Stoddard with a puzzled expression, sometimes with envy, sometimes with resentment. In the end, when he is shot, the doctor contemptuously rolls him over and says "He's dead." after which he is thrown on a wagon and driven out of town, his legs hanging down and the boots almost dragging in the sand. It is like as if the minute he is killed, he is forgotten.

I also said that Doniphon died alone and forgotten, but that is not quite true. His friend Pompey (Woody Strode) was with him until the end. Their friendship was of the "close personal" kind that might be given a queer reading, although it is not necessary. But Pompey is an important character, and there are a few pointed scenes with him, based around the fact that he is a black man. In one scene he is reciting the Declaration of Independence, standing beside a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, but is unable to remember the words "that all men are created equal". Perhaps he was unable to say them because he had never been treated as an equal. In a later scene, when he is denied service in a saloon, the audience is reminded of this.

The joy, hope and aspirations of the church building scene in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) are nowhere to be seen in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but it would be a mistake to see this is a sudden change in Ford's outlook. His films have rarely been cheerful and optimistic. There is great beauty in them, and sometimes love and kindness triumphs, but there is frequent darkness, tragedy, a mourning of something that has gone missing but was probably never there in the first place. In How Green Was My Valley (1941) the grown man remembers his childhood with affection and longing, yet that childhood is presented as being filled with poverty, death, prejudice and oppression. There is usually a double view of the past in Ford's films, and so it is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

"The place sure has changed. Churches, high schools, shops." Hallie said, and the marshal replied "Well, the railroad done that." Then he added, wistfully, "The desert's still the same."

This post does not walk alone, it has a partner. My friend and former guest blogger Sofia Åkerberg has also written about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance for today. Read her here.

The Iron Horse is not a great film, and maybe it would have been better if Raoul Walsh had directed it. But it is not a bad film either. There is especially a scene on a train filled with wounded men and women, among them an old man who is weeping inconsolably next to his dead friend, which is heartbreaking.

Three earlier post by me about Ford are here: The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road, The Searchers.

Friday, 24 July 2015

David Lean - a snapshot

Last weekend Adrian Martin initiated a spirited discussion about David Lean, and there were some requests that I should write about Lean here on my blog. I have been reluctant to write about Lean, even though he is second only to Hawks in my own pantheon of filmmakers, because I have felt that a blog post is much too short. That is still the case and I shall write a proper 6000 word-ish essay, but still, a post there will be. Consider it a preview of coming attractions. It is also off-schedule as you may have noticed, but next Friday the usual schedule will return (0900 CET every second Friday).

"But above all he really loves film, and to see him at work in the cutting room running it through his hands is like watching a master painter at work. The change which comes over David in the cutting room is quite remarkable." (John Mills about David Lean.)

Great Expectations (1946)

In Brief Encounter (1945), the main character Laura Jessop (Celia Johnson) is sitting on a train and looks out through the window, watching the dark landscape passing by. As she does so she suddenly imagines herself in glamorous surroundings, her mind taking her far away from the dreary ordinariness of her life and the space in which she lives, and she sees dreamlike images of these other spaces in which she would rather be. This is what makes her a quintessential Lean character, this desire to get away, to unleash oneself from England (or one's home space) and to follow the dreams and the hidden passions. This is what Laura wants, this is what Pip wants, this is what Madeleine wants, this is what Jane Hudson wants, this is what T.E. Lawrence wants, this is what Ms. Quested wants, and, of course, this is what Lean himself wanted. And what he did. Most of them act on their desires to strike out.

A Passage to India (1984)

But it is not easy. On the one hand they have little control over their feelings, the bewildering passions that consumed them, and on the other hand they have no control over space. In Lean's films space is destiny, the environment in which you found yourself has an incredible power over you, it changes you and it decides your outcome. There is an pantheistic touch to Lean's films, right from the start with In Which We Serve (1942); the trees, the moon, the canals, the desert, the jungle, the cliffs, even a train station, it all has some kind of force, some spirit in them which makes them come alive, to speak to the humans who are privileged enough to have the gift of communication. Communication on a spiritual level. Mrs Moore in A Passage to India might be the one who is most sensitive to this. Sometimes people just seem to disappear into the space in which they find themselves. In The Sound Barrier (1952) they literally do, the air planes barely visible high up among the clouds; a film sprung from Lean's love of those very air planes. In it Susan Garthwaite tries to explain her feelings of flying, why she loves it so much, and she says it is like being in a dream.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Lean communicated this aspect of the world, or his view of the world, by sound and vision. He was not one for dialogue (even though they talk a lot in the three films scripted by Noel Coward) and there are large parts of his films when nothing is said at all, because it is not necessary and in any case our language is not equipped with a vocabulary capable of speaking about these things, about the wind, and the flowers and the sunbeams streaking through the forest. The shadows of birds over the jungle foliage in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). There is great beauty to be found in Lean's films, a constant sense of awe and wonder, which is almost unparalleled in world cinema.

This world is presented subjectively, Lean's films are frequently shot from an individual's subjective perspective even though this is not emphasised. Both the images and the sound can be subjective, unreal but this subjective experience is presented as if it was an objective record of the world, so the audience has to infer for themselves what is real and what is not. Pip's run to the graveyard with stolen food is an obvious example, or when Howard Justin walks up to his wife's room, having found out about her unfaithfulness (in The Passionate Friends, 1949), or when Henry Hobson is hallucinating, but in other films it is less obvious that the space has been distorted or that people behave in slightly odd ways.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

There is also a kind of technical beauty. Lean was a master of all aspects of the filmmaking process; camera movement, editing, lighting, staging, colours and so on. It is rare for a filmmaker to have this maddening sense of control and power. (To take one example, Hawks is a much better filmmaker in general than Robert Wise but Wise's films are much better edited than Hawks's.) It is not just nature that is breathtaking but Lean's skills as well. Sometimes this has made critics somewhat concerned, like Dilys Powell on Oliver Twist (1948). "This is an extraordinarily careful film; careful in construction, timing, cutting, movement, lighting, and details of gesture and dress."

Things hardly end well for his characters; their passions usually get the better of them, they are not as careful or controlled as Lean. Even in Bridge on the River Kwai, which is sometimes referred to as a Boy's Own adventure but is rather a study of pride, obsession and folly, in which everybody dies in the end. It does not always end as bad as that but the characters often end up miserable or at least disappointed, even though for a while they managed to live more fully than they had ever done before. The overwhelmed main characters, strangers as they are, are also often at odds with those with more experience, those who have inhabited this space much longer. Jane Hudson is criticised by the Italians she meets for her romantic, unrealistic idea of Venice, much like Lawrence is criticised for his romantic and idealistic view of the desert. There is a certain madness to them, and Lean shared this madness. "I'm I mad? Can I make the audience share my thrill? I know I'm a sort of maniac." he wrote when making Lawrence of Arabia. In River Kwai the doctor in the prison camp frequently shakes his head in disbelief, and at one point says, about the British and the Japanese commanders, "Are they both mad, or is it me? Or is it the sun?" The truth is that they have been transformed by the space into which they have been dropped, and consumed by it. In Hawks's films the characters create their own space, in Lean's films space create the characters.

"You don't have to scratch very deep in any human being to get down to the animal. We pretend we don't but we do. It's very, very little way below the surface, the wild and darker side of our nature." Lean said at one point, and he has illustrated this point over and over again. And Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is the one film of his in which he pushes all of his themes and his style to the outmost extreme; it is a film like no other. To again quote Powell: "I think it is the first time for the cinema to communicate ecstasy."

Lawrence of Arabia

To get back to Brief Encounter, Laura is sitting in her living room, remembering her love affair and when the flashbacks appear they do so in a double exposure, so that we see Laura sitting there while the past is shown in front of her, as on a screen, as if her own past was a film she was watching at the cinema, the cinema to which she went once a week. Not even to Laura herself is her experience real, but like a mirage or a hallucination, much like Lean's oeuvre as a whole.

The quotes come from Gerald Pratley's The Cinema of David Lean, Kevin Brownlow's David Lean: A Biography and The Dilys Powell Film Reader.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Julie London

I have not had time to write anything elaborate for this week, with it being my summer vacation and all, but at least I will provide two numbers by Julie London. Her real name was Gayle Peck and she was a singer who also acted in a large number of TV-series in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Sometimes she appeared in films as well and some of them are exceptional, like Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958) and Robert Parrish's The Wonderful Country (1959). But here is London singing in two other films. First the title song for Saddle the Wind (1958), also directed by Parrish. It might be my favourite title sequence, at least my favourite title sequence song,

Next is her appearance as a figure of  Tom Miller's feverish imagination in Frank Tashlin's outrageous and magnificent The Girl Can't Help It (1956). She plays herself, and Tom Ewell plays Tom Miller.

She has a fine voice.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Emotional shocks

In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy 1967), a young man is looking all over town for the woman of his dreams. In one scene he is in a café when she approaches it, and it would seem that they will finally meet. But as she walks in through one door he walks out through another door. Once when I saw the film in a cinema somebody in the audience could be heard screaming "No!" when faced with the agonising fact that they were so close yet missed each other yet again. Such moments, when our emotional investment with the characters becomes so strong that we cannot control ourselves, is one of the most gratifying things with art, or storytelling. I am not talking about being afraid that a character might be eaten alive by a velociraptor, I am talking about shared feelings of pain, sadness or joy. This is not a necessary requirement for great films, there are many aspects of a film and this is but one of them, but it is an unusually profound one. Some filmmakers are better at creating such feelings than others. Three that I personally think are particularly good at this is William Wyler, Ingmar Bergman and Mikio Naruse; often when watching their films I need to restrain myself for not attacking the screen because my reaction to what happens is so strong. These Three (Wyler 1936), The Heiress (Wyler 1949), Mother (Naruse 1952), Yearning (Naruse 1964), Sawdust and Tinsel (Bergman 1953) and Scenes From a Marriage (Bergman 1976) are some examples of this. An exceptional film is David Lean's version of Brief Encounter (1945), which I have written about before.

Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson

But nothing has had the same impact on me as the episode of The West Wing when C.J. Cregg's partner Simon Donovan is killed. I do not really know why, but probably because, as a TV-series, I had been with these people for so long, and I was so absorbed in them and their lives (with "them" I mean all the characters in the series, not just C.J. and Simon). It is also the way it was written (Aaron Sorkin) and directed (Alex Graves) of course, from the sudden shock to the impressionistic aftermath, and the music (Jeff Buckley).

I said sudden shock, which it was, but it was not out of the blue. I felt rather certain that it would come, and, well, I could barely watch it, I was like a little kid watching some scary film for grown-ups. It is now several years since I saw it for the first time, but I remember it in detail and my reaction to it, and what I was doing and how I was feeling. I was watching it on DVD and I paused it, then continued to watch, and then went back and watched it again. It is frequently said that a whole generation of children was traumatised by the death of Bambi's mother (in 1942). This was my such moment, and I was not even a child but a grown man.

(Of course, not having been with them for the whole season lessens the impact considerably but I posted it anyway.)