Friday, 30 December 2016

A Home in the Meadow

I decided to restrain myself from writing a full post today, what with the holidays and New Year's Eve and whatnot. But in memory of the death this week of both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (mother and daughter), here is Reynolds in a sequence from How the West Was Won (John Ford, George Marshall, Henry Hathaway 1962). It is not her best film by any means, but she is the best thing about it, and this song is beautiful.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Billy Wilder - a reassessment

Billy Wilder, writer, director and producer, has been a major part of my life in film, from my late teens. The Apartment (1960) is one of my most treasured films, and has always been included in the top ten, however else that list might have twisted and turned. I have seen almost all of his films many times, and now I have done yet another retrospective. And this time I also, finally, watched the two American films he directed that, for one reason or another, I had never seen before: The Emperor Waltz (1948) and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957).

Up until this session I had had the idea that there were two phases to Wilder's career. One harsh and haunted, when he was co-writing with Charles Brackett, and one more mellow and romantic, and that the second phase coincided with his partnership with I.A.L. Diamond. I now think this is a mistake. His most romantic film, Sabrina (1954), came several years before he and Diamond become a duo. A Foreign Affair (1948), which is both mellow and romantic, came during his Brackett phase, between two of his darkest and most tragic, The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). One reason why The Apartment is my favourite is perhaps because the bitter and the sweet are most perfectly blended there. (Which reminds me of Wilder once quoting Samuel Goldwyn in an award speech, "You got to take the bitter with the sour.")

Gloria Swanson and Cecil B. DeMille in Sunset Boulevard.

In my earlier days I was a bigger fan of Wilder than I am today. There are more films that are flawed than there should be and where the blame cannot be put elsewhere, such as studio interference, but on Wilder. For example, the only good thing about Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is Charles Laughton's performance, otherwise it is a staid and unimaginative work. The first half of One, Two, Three (1961) is surprisingly dull and obvious, although the second half is on the other hand thrilling and relentless. Irma la Douce (1963) has fine moments but it looks awkward, colourwise, and the plot is too contrived. And neither of these films breathe. Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) is often unpleasant and feels forced, slightly desperate, and the casting does not feel right. The Seven Year Itch (1955) feels more theatrical than I imagine the actual play it is based on might have felt. And most of Wilder's films have the problem that too many scenes feel written rather than directed, there is a lack of fluency and ease in the visual storytelling, or things feel a bit too neat, and we are told things, things are spelled out to us, that might have been shown instead, and thus become more elegant, and even more moving. I cannot give an exact example now, I would have had to take down notes while watching, but I get this feeling often.

But that is not to belittle the writing, which is frequently very good, of course. That includes such things as structure, pacing and dialogue. There are also several recurring things he does which I like, such as have a word or a line of dialogue used several times in the same film, but with slight alterations, so that they accumulate meaning each time they are used, and either becomes more funny or becomes more poignant. A person might often repeat something he or she has heard before, making the words sound as if they were theirs, only we know that they do not really mean them, they were at a loss of what to say and therefore just repeated what first came to mind. The wide-ranging uses of pocket mirrors is another thing I like, and especially so in The Apartment.

"It makes me look the way I feel."

The frequent self-referencing (like Hawks, Wilder sometimes have his characters, or props, refer back to earlier films he has made or other films with the same actors), and aligning his fictional characters to real persons, like with Dino, played by Dean Martin in Kiss Me Stupid, or Sunset Boulevard, are two other things I like.

But what is less noticed perhaps, and a correction to my complaint of the "writtenness" of his films, is the rich texture of his interiors. The apartments in his films, whether Dietrichson's in Double Indemnity (1944), Don Birnam's in The Lost Weekend, C.C. Baxter's in The Apartment, Harry Hinkle's in The Fortune Cookie (1966), Irma's in Irma la Douce, Spooner's in Kiss Me, Stupid feel real, they breathe (unlike some of the films), you can almost smell them, and after having watched the films you might be able to do a drawing of their apartments. Norma Desmond's house in Sunset Boulevard is a bigger example. The opening sequence in Kiss Me, Stupid, with Dean Martin in Las Vegas, looks spectacular. (But unfortunately when the film comes to Climax, Nevada, it looks cheap and unconvincing, outside of Spooner's apartment.) 


After Germany had been defeated in 1945 and the concentration camps liberated Wilder was assigned to supervise footage from the camps, which led to the documentary Death Mills (Die Todesmühlen). This was obviously a horrendous experience (and he lost family members, including his mother, in the camps). When he came back to the US he did not want to make another dark and depressing film like his previous ones but instead do a colourful fantasy with songs, and set in the Vienna of the past, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which Wilder was born, long before Nazism descended upon it. That film would be The Emperor Waltz. It is an unusual film in Wilder's oeuvre, and it is rarely talked about or seen. But it is not a bad film. It has many good jokes and fine scenes, and some scenes have a special poignancy. There is even a scene where a veterinarian takes three newborn puppies and attempt to kill them by drowning because they are not pure poodles but mongrels. They are saved in the nick of time, but it is a peculiar scene to have in such a film, a moment of sheer horror and a suggestion of what kind of film Wilder might have made had he not tried to suppress it. It would take a few years before he went really dark again, especially with Ace in the Hole (1951) and Stalag 17 (1953).

In the barrack in Stalag 17

Another interesting thing about The Emperor Waltz is the way it looks. It is set in the Austrian alps but shot in Jasper National Park in Canada. The landscape is fine as it is, quite spectacular, but Wilder was unhappy, and so particular about the look of the film, that he demanded new pine trees to be planted, an island built in a middle of a lake, a country road painted and thousands of flowers too. His eagerness to improve on nature and the mounting costs (the film went way over budget) led Herman J. Mankiewicz to quip "It only goes to show you what God could do if he had the money." It was Wilder's first film in colour, something he otherwise disliked, and is not necessarily good at using. But here it works, perhaps because it rhymes well with the film as a whole. But it would not be until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) that a colour film of his would look good again, and there the colours are very different from The Emperor Waltz. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is one of the visually most satisfying of Wilder's films, shot by Christopher Challis.

Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine on Wilder's man-made island.

The Spirit of St. Louis, about Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, is not bad either, although it is compromised, and parts of it were shot, or re-shot, by John Sturges. But it has a fine structure and individual scenes can sometimes be quite impressive. It was not a successful film either, it flopped, but it was a film Wilder had been eager to do, and he and Lindbergh were friends of sorts, despite Lindbergh's Nazi leanings during the war. Their relationship might have made for a more interesting film. 


Of Wilder's films there is one that towers over all the rest of them, and that is, as mentioned, The Apartment: it is where everything comes together at their finest, casting, writing, direction and sentiment. Stalag 17 is the one that comes second. After them there are a number of really good ones, primarily Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset BoulevardLove in the Afternoon (1957), The Fortune CookieAvanti! (1972) and Fedora (1978). Films about hypocrisy, sleaze, venality, hustling, filmmaking, business, role-playing and sex, and ever so often genuine sweetness. (Like the scene with the rose in the fridge in Love in the Afternoon.) So that is plenty of fine films, and for the weaker ones, well, nobody's perfect.

The temporary morgue in Avanti! One of Wilder's finest scenes.

Monday, 5 December 2016

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Many years ago a friend said, after I had insisted that he watch A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946), that it had a different perspective from how to view the world, and that it consequently made the spectators view the world from a new perspective too. I have always felt it was a good way of describing the film, and the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. There is always more to the world than meets the eye they seem to be saying, something I have discussed before regarding their film A Canterbury Tale (1944). Now I have had my students watch A Matter of Life and Death, and afterwards they spent two hours talking about it freely. It was great fun.

The film begins with a British pilot flying towards home, the only remaining crew member on a Lancaster bomber returning from a raid over Germany, and right before he has to jump out without a parachute he talks on the radio to an American woman working on a British airfield; spending his last moments alive with her. What happens in the rest of the film is not as easy to describe. Due to a mistake from higher authorities he does not die, instead he finds himself on a beach (where he has a strange encounter with a young, naked, shepherd) and then he meets the woman whom he spoke to on the radio. When, belatedly, he is summoned to the next world he refuses to go. He was ready to die then but not now, and since they made a mistake he argues that he should be allowed to remain on earth.

This is the literal interpretation of the film. There are other possibilities, such as him having a brain injury which causes these hallucinations of another world, or that he actually died in the beginning and this is his afterlife fantasy. The film does leave it open as to what happens.

In A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger effortlessly breaks through such conventional boundaries as death, time and space, making them seem irrelevant and transparent. Several people die in this film, death is a key subject, but when they die they are not really gone, they just move, move to another world which is a kind of secular heaven open for everyone regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. But they can move in our world too, at least some of them. Moving between this world and the next is here comparatively easy, there is a huge, potentially endless, escalator between the two sides, the monochrome world (which is the other world) and the Technicolor world (which is ours). But is it literally happening, or is it just in the mind of a dying man? Well, it might not matter. Who is to say what is real anyway? Not Powell and Pressburger. This is the world, or worlds, they are presenting to us and it is up to us to accept or reject them, depending upon our fears, beliefs and prejudices. This is a deeply philosophical film, as their films usually are, speculating in various ways about mind, matter, space, time, love, history and nationality. What these concepts are, what they mean, how they affect us, how they conspire to make us what we are, how they are the bedrock of humanity itself. That might sound like a lot to deal with, and Powell and Pressburger are not timid filmmakers.

Besides love and death, time is also a central aspect here. In the other world, time does not exist. Time ends when you die, and becomes separated from space. "We are talking in space, not time." as one of the agents of the other world says. He also adds "After all, what is time? A mere tyranny." When he is on earth, time stops, or rather it pauses for the people who are alive whereas it continues (since it does not exist) for those who are dead. After you die you are forever exactly as you were at the moment of death, living in a constant now.

But A Matter of Life and Death is also about England, England at war (although war was over by the time the film opened). In one spectacular sequence in the beginning a main character, a doctor called Frank Reeves, is observing the small village in which he lives through a camera obscura. With it he can see everything that is going on in the village from a room in his house. In one sense he is spying, or being the eye of God, but there is nothing malevolent about it. He is not like Peeping Tom, from Powell's later film, a disturbed and homicidal man. Reeves does it out of joy and love, even though that does not prevent it from being slightly unsettling. What he is observing is Powell's England, a brief love letter to the place of his childhood, to some extent a rural fantasy (like A Canterbury Tale). This is what is contrasted with the celestial fantasy of the other world. England is also contrasted with America, of two different cultures fighting the same war. (England's colonial crimes are also brought to light, albeit briefly.)

Powell and Pressburger and their team at the Archers, such as cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth and editor Reginald Mills (the composer Brian Easedale had not joined them yet, he came along with the next film, Black Narcissus (1947)), have always been pushing the medium, all aspects of it, to go further and be bolder, than what might be considered possible or practical. There is such an unrestrained imagination at work here that it is thrilling just to watch and see what they are up to, how far they are willing to push things, and A Matter of Life and Death is perhaps their most audacious film. In that respect re-watching their films will always be a slightly lesser experience from one angle, because the aesthetic surprises constantly coming at you will now already have been experienced. But that does of course not mean that their films should be seen only once. The craft, the ideas, and the powerful emotions remain from one viewing to the next, in this world and in any other that might exist.

Judging by the two-hour discussion I had with the 60 students, they seemed quite taken by it, and approached it from all possible angles. The use of colour, the concept of time, the acting, ideas on nationality and heritage, narrative structure, ethics and philosophical viewpoints. I had provided them with some keywords before but they went beyond them, and everything was meticulously analysed. They also pointed out that when the "conductor," the man sent to collect the dead, first meets the pilot a game of chess is suggested, ten years before Bergman picked up the same subject. 

A Matter of Life and Death was a huge hit when it came out, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in interviews Powell often said it was his favourite among his own films. It is comforting to know that it still enthuses new generations.

Friday, 2 December 2016


For research purposes I need to postpone today's real post until Monday. Apologies to all! Here is an image from Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1947) to keep you company over the weekend. It is not unrelated to the next post.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The book launch

My book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row - Hasse Ekman, Swedish Cinema and the Long Shadow of Ingmar Bergman (Berghahn Books), has been released today and is now available in stores and online, around the world. That is pretty fabulous!

Now I feel inclined to rest on my laurels for a little while, so I am taking a November break from writing. But I will be back here soon, on Friday, 2 December. Then anything's possible.

For those keen to read more on the subject of Swedish film history, here are some links to stuff I have written before:

On this blog:

About Ekman and Bergman.

About Sweden's first sitcom Niklasons, made by Hasse Ekman.

About Gunnar Fischer, the cinematographer who worked with both Ekman and Bergman.

About Georg af Klercker (filmmaker in the 1910s).

About Schamyl Bauman (filmmaker in the 1930s and 1940s).

About Mai Zetterling (actress and filmmaker from the 1940s to the 1990s).


About Ekman's Vi tre debutera (1953) - in Swedish only.

"Hasse Ekman at MoMA" in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema #3 2015.


"Ekman and Bergman - the antagonistic masters of Swedish post-war cinema" in La Furia Umana #7

Friday, 21 October 2016

Politics in the year 2016

The other day I watched the delightful It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine 1959), which is billed as a romantic comedy but is more accurately described as a perky lesson in civic participation and local democracy, set in a small town in Maine (although shot in Chester, Connecticut). It made me nostalgic for a time of civility and when people had not yet begun to go bowling alone (to use Robert Putnam's phrase). But I suppose people in the 1950s were also nostalgic about the good old days, so that is not getting me very far. However, I wonder if it was not the case that, despite the fear of nuclear war, the 1950s were a time of far greater hope for the future, and hope for the possibility of improvements. Today, well, I am not so sure. In any event, the state of the world made me want to write something about politics again, as I do on occasion.

Reporters and columnists are fond of referencing Aaron Sorkin when writing about politics and elections, not least in the US. Obviously The West Wing but also The American President (Rob Reiner 1995) and even, as Lexington did in The Economist the other week, A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner 1992). Lexington compared Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, with Donald Trump, complaining that as the film was a courtroom drama it was less likely that things would end for Trump as they did for Jessup.

The one Sorkin quote on politics that is most popular to use is from The American President, when the president's assistant Lewis says:
People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
What is less frequently mentioned is the response the president gives, namely this:
Lewis, we've had Presidents who were beloved who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty. They drink the sand 'cause they don't know the difference.
The reason the response is less popular than the first quote is, I would think, that the second one is darker, and partially blame the voters. That is not necessarily seen as a good thing; voters, the will of the people, must not be criticised. If things go bad it is because of the politicians, as if they were not reflecting the will of those voters but were somehow disconnected. Although how and why people vote as they do can sometimes be confusing or weird, it seems strange to assume that they do not vote for what they think they want, or for what they think is good for the country. You frequently get the politicians you deserve, at least in a democracy.

The last couple of years the world seems to have taken one nasty turn after another, with ignorance, anger and hatred, not to mention antisemitism, increasing in one country after country, and extremism of all sorts becoming more and more mainstream. Donald Trump is of course the most obvious example, but it is a global phenomenon and at the moment the arc of history seems to be bending towards injustice and intolerance. In some places it is in power, and forms the government, such as across eastern Europe, the Philippines, Venezuela. In other countries they are not yet in power but are growing, and are frequently in parliament or in local governments. We can see this in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere. (Not to mention the steadily increasing belligerence of Russia and China, threatening their neighbours and others.) At the moment it would seem almost everything is going the wrong way; the global society is frighteningly fragile at the moment. The nonsensical Brexit is yet another example of this.

The causes for this are many. The financial crash of 2007-2008, the ongoing war in Syria, extreme weather (partially due to climate change), widespread unemployment among the young and those without a university education, severe cutbacks at newspapers and in journalism in general (which leads to people being less well-informed and politicians not held to account as much as they need to be). Among the consequences is a growing number of "politiphobes" (as Jonathan Rauch calls them in an excellent article in The Atlantic) i.e. people who basically believe that politicians are corrupt and self-interested and that all problems have easy, obvious solutions if only an outsider would come and take charge. This feeling is spread across the political spectrum, as these knights that will supposedly save us are sometimes considered left-wing and sometimes right-wing, although many are just wingnuts.

All of these things then feed on each other, contributing to making everything worse. Sure, it looks highly likely that Clinton will defeat Trump, which will in itself be a good thing, but the damage Trump has already done to the social climate and the health and well-being of democracy in the US is remarkable, with him and his base of voters whipping each other into a frenzy of toxic anger.

There has to come a point when things turn around, and people come to their senses. But when? How low will we sink first? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" W.B. Yeats's wrote in his poem The Second Coming, reflecting on World War 1 and its aftermath, but we are not there yet, far from it, even if it sometimes feels like we are heading in that direction. It would be a good thing for starters if people calmed down, and treated each other with some basic respect and decency, including those with whom they disagree, and including on social media. There are limits, a few people are beyond the pale, but not even those should be met with scorn or hatred. We should not act or talk in a way that only makes us feel better about ourselves, that is narcissism rather than progressiveness. (Screaming "You're a fucking racist!" to somebody might feel satisfying but it will not make that person less of a racist, or encourage him to become a better person.) We should act and talk in ways that make the world a better and more decent place, and acknowledge that everything matters. A grand gesture of a prime minister or the small gesture of an individual on the bus, and everything in between, a tweet, an article, a blog post, a union meeting; everything that is going on in public contributes to the general atmosphere. And as we are all contributing to that atmosphere, we are all responsible, whether we want to or not, or whether we are aware of it or not, for that atmosphere, its tone and temperature. The trick however is to do it with proper humility. It is easy to feel as an oppressed victim and lash out accordingly, while using the sense of victimhood as a shield against criticism.

So basic civility is a starting point, beyond the more complicated questions such as how to speed up the decrease of carbon emissions, end the war in Syria, finance quality journalism, combat unemployment, safeguard pensions, successfully integrate refugees and so on and so forth. The important thing is to turn things around, before it is too late. Some people might not know the difference, but most do.

Here is Edward Murrow as a reminder that the 1950s also had its threats against respect, democracy and decency, such as senator Joseph McCarthy.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Georg af Klercker (1877-1951)

Defining this and that period as a "golden age" tend to get rather monotonous, as it is so common. But possibly the first period called a golden age is Swedish cinema in the late 1910s and early 1920s. On this there is some consensus. There is however no consensus about which years should be covered by it. There are at least two contenders: 1913-1924 or 1917-1924. Unfortunately, 1917-1924 seems to have the upper hand; unfortunately for Georg af Klercker.

When Swedish silent cinema is discussed it is usually about Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and films such as Terje Vigen (Sjöström 1917), Thomas Graal's Best Film (Stiller 1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (Sjöström 1918), The Treasure of Arne (Stiller 1919), Erotikon (Stiller 1920), The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström 1921) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (Stiller 1924). But there was a third man, frequently forgotten, and that was Georg af Klercker. One of the reasons he is not mentioned is that he had his best years 1915-1918, and then retired (sort of), and consequently he is not seen as part of the "golden age". And whereas Stiller and Sjöström were both in Stockholm at Charles Magnusson's vertically integrated company Svenska Bio, af Klercker made most of his films in Göteborg, at Hasselblad Fotografiska AB. But these are unfair reasons to keep him out of sight. If we instead keep to the wider span, 1913-1924, perhaps beginning with Sjöström's marvellous Ingeborg Holm (1913), af Klercker's oeuvre will be a natural part of that golden age. It is also a fact that initially Magnusson in 1912 hired all three of them, Stiller, Sjöström and af Klercker. They worked side by side for a few years before af Klercker left. Maybe if he had stayed on things would have been different.

He was born in Kristianstad, in the south of Sweden, in 1877 in a wealthy and aristocratic family. He enrolled in the military and became a lieutenant. and was consequently referred to as "lieutenant af Klercker" for the rest of his life, including by film critics. But he had artistic ambitions rather than military. More specifically, he had theatre ambitions, and began acting across Sweden and Finland. In 1911 af Klercker was employed by Dramaten (the Royal Dramatic Theatre) in Stockholm. It was from there that Magnusson lured him to his new studio on Lidingö, and made him head of production.

The first film af Klercker directed was as part of Magnusson and Svenska Bio's partnership with the Swedish arm of French company Pathé. Två bröder it was called and it was immediately banned by the Swedish film censorship board. His next film was The Last Performance/Dödsritten under cirkuskupolen (1912), which was released around the world and quite successfully so. It is partly lost, but what remains is not bad, and can be seen here:

He made several films in 1913 but then he became a part-time victim of the falling out between Svenska Bio and Pathé, as af Klercker was directing För fäderneslandet. It was finished in late 1913 but did not open until spring 1914, at which point af Klercker had left Svenska Bio for Pathé. He worked for them for a year and then he went to Hasselblad, where he was to get sole responsibility for the direction of their films. Hasselblad is today primarily known as a company that makes cutting edge cameras and photo equipment (popular at NASA, including on their lunar exhibitions) but it was not until 1941 they begun to manufacture by themselves. Before that they sold cameras, and for a while they also went into film production after they had began a cooperation with the distribution company Biograf AB Victoria. They called themselves Victorias Filmbyrå, and there af Klercker made almost 30 films, during a period of three years (half of them in 1916).

His films are a varied bunch, although thrillers and melodramas are the most common ones, and most of them have a very rich and evocative mise en scène and an imaginative use of deep focus. There is often an elaborate dynamic interplay between one level of action in the foreground and another level of action towards the back. (This was not unique for af Klercker but had become a recurring stylistic device at least since the early 1910s.) Working at Hasselblad gave him access to the most sophisticated cameras of the day, and he and his different cinematographers took advantage of the possibilities. But he was also good at directing actors, and with an eye for psychological realism. He also made the only Swedish film which seems to have been directly influenced by Louis Feuillade, Mysteriet natten till den 25:e (1917). It too was banned by the censors. Other highlights are Kärleken segrar (1916), I mörkrets bojor (1917) and Nattliga toner (1918).

1918 the film production unit at Hasselblad was sold off, and it merged with several other film companies. This new company was called Filmindustri AB Skandia, and it would the following year merge with Svenska Bio, becoming AB Svensk Filmindustri (SF), under the management of Nils Bouveng and Magnusson. So af Klercker might have been back working for him again, an idea which probably did not appeal to him. So instead he left filmmaking, briefly worked in the hotel business and then returned to the theatre. He left partly because he was tired of filmmaking, partly because his kind of films and filmmaking was considered old-fashioned, and it had become more difficult to sell them abroad, and to some extent because he was a victim of that era's perpetual mergers and acquisitions. But for a few years he was an equal to Sjöström and Stiller.

In 1986 at the silent film festival at Pordenone there was a major af Klercker retrospective, and it did serve as a reminder to critics and scholars of his importance. There is also a book-length study of his films by Astrid Söderbergh Widding: Stumfilm i brytningstid - Stil och berättande i Georg af Klerckers filmer (1998).

Ingmar Bergman was a huge admirer of af Klercker and in 1995 he made a TV-film about him and Charles Magnusson, called Sista skriket/The Last Gasp. It is very good. Here is a page from the manuscript.

Two of his films that I have not seen but that look particularly intriguing are Nattens barn (1916) and Mellan liv och död (1917).

Friday, 23 September 2016

Objective, Burma! (1945)

There were at least four major American war films released in 1945, two of which I have written about here before: The Story of G.I. Joe, directed by William Wellman, and John Ford's They Were Expendable (by far the best of them). Now the time has come to consider Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (The fourth is A Walk in the Sun, directed by Lewis Milestone.)

It is about an Allied raid into Burma, occupied by the Japanese, to destroy a radar outpost and it is inspired by actual events, which had just taken place. The film also begins like a newsreel and occasionally newsreel footage appear throughout the film. As such it is in keeping with Walsh's journalistic impulses, which appear from time to time in his oeuvre.

But the film is of course not a completely accurate depiction of what happened. When it came out it was lambasted by the British who complained that it made it look as if the Americans won the war by themselves, with the role of the British ignored. Churchill himself was apparently outraged and the film was removed from cinemas after a week. However, this criticism is unfair because the film is not about the war at large; it is only about one small, specific mission, a commando raid. In addition, the briefing for the mission in the beginning is made by a British major, and two Gurkha soldiers and a Chinese soldier are part of the group, and they are more prominent than most of the G.I.s.

Another kind of criticism against the film has been about racism, and the depiction of the Japanese. But this criticism can also be countered. The Japanese are not depicted any differently from Nazi Germans in the war films set in Europe, and they are shown to be smart and sophisticated. But they are rarely seen at all, they are primarily shadows, striking without warning. There is one scene which is usually mentioned as example of the film's racism, and it is when one American character screams "Wipe them out, I say! Wipe them off the face of the earth." He does this after the soldiers have found some of their comrades killed after having been horribly tortured (something that did happen) and at such a time the reaction does not seem implausible. It is worth noticing that the person who says it is a tired old man, a journalist who is following the soldiers as a correspondent, and who is on the verge of a mental breakdown. His line is not cheered on by anyone, nobody seems to agree with him. And, right after the old man has said the line Walsh cuts to the face of an allied Chinese soldier, looking askance. So the film is more complex that the critics give it credit for.

The leader of the group, captain Nelson, is played by Errol Flynn (seen above) but it is a far cry from his usual heroics and good fun. Here he is subdued, already in the first scene, and he grows increasingly weary as the film progresses. He has every reason for doing so. While at first everything is going well and they easily succeed in their mission, destroying the radar facility deep in the jungle, getting back home is a lot harder. They were able to take the Japanese by surprise at first but once they have been found out the mission descends into horror. They starve, get sick, get bitten by bugs, get stabbed, get shot, get tortured and grow increasingly restless and desperate, and it is always unbearably hot and humid. When Nelson finally is back at headquarters a senior officer congratulates him on his successful mission, which to Nelson is something of a slap in the face. In his hand he holds the dog tags from all the men he has lost (the majority of those who participated in the raid) and he says "This is what it cost." 

Objective, Burma! is a Warner Bros. film, produced and co-scripted by Jerry Wald, from an original script by Alvah Bessie, but it is also one of Walsh's map movies (as Dave Kehr has called them), where a group of people have to travel from point A to B, with constant references to their maps, and where everything is focused on forward motion. The visual style is also very much Walsh's, with his impressive use of deep focus and deep space. There is always a lot of things going on in any particular shot, especially scenes at base camp in the beginning, with constant movement and action in the background of every shot. The cinematographer was James Wong Howe, one of the very best, although he and Walsh fought a lot on set, even physically. (I am not sure exactly what the creative differences were about.) Later, when the film is focused on the jungle mission the camera is always on the move, tracking left and right, back and forth, sometimes feeling like it was controlled by Sam Fuller. These aggressive tracking shots are interspersed with many long shots of soldiers in nature, sometimes barely seen at all; the humans completely engulfed by nature, like the velociraptors in the tall grass in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1997). Often the only sound heard is jungle sounds, without music, and this is especially effective in several battle scenes. And as is typical for Walsh, the film ends with the men high up, on a hilltop.

Objective, Burma! is not the best of the war films of 1945, and it is not the best of Walsh's films, but then the competition is hard. It is a fine film, and even James Agee liked it, which was unusual for him when it came to American war movies. His major problem was with the actors whom he felt did not seem genuine enough, but otherwise he was impressed.

The film feels like it was made after the war ended, as a way of taking stock, but it is worth pointing out that it was made in the summer of 1944, when the war still had one year to go. This is what is most striking about it, besides Walsh's powerful visuals. How bleak and terrifying it is. In combination with the East Asian jungle setting, this is what makes it a precursor to many films about the war in Vietnam.

Links to my earlier posts about They Were Expendable and The Story of G.I. Joe.
There are no women in Objective, Burma! but otherwise Walsh frequently had women in leading roles. Here are some of them.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Face of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh

The title of this post is inspired by the article "The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh," published in 1974 by Claire Johnston and Pam Cook. I read it first long ago at university and had an idea of using it for my "Theory readings" series. But re-reading it now I realised that there is not much to say about it, it is not particularly interesting, other than to suggest that the title of it is rather misleading. A more accurate title would be "A Marxist/structuralist/Lacanian reading of The Revolt of Mamie Stover" and it is filled with juicy sentences like this one: "The Other, as the locus of the Law (e.g., the law of the prohibition of incest), as the Word (i.e., the signifier as unit of the code) is the 'Name-of-the-Father' around which the Symbolic order is constructed."

So instead I just want to celebrate a few of the women from Walsh's films.

 Virginia Mayo (with Joel McCrea) in Colorado Territory (1949).

 Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (1941).

 Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958).

Jane Russell and Agnes Moorehead in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).

Olivia de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On (1941).

Shelley Winters in Saskatchewan (1954), here with Alan Ladd and Jay Silverheels.

Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night (1940).

Friday, 26 August 2016

The autumn semester - on teaching, thinking and the utility of it

Next week I begin teaching again, after the summer break. (A summer break from teaching, not a summer break from work. The work-free phase was considerably shorter than the summer.) At the moment that means I am engaged with planning lectures and preparing clips and readings. It also means that this is the period in which I am required to read awful text books. The book I read this week, which will remain unnamed, should never have been put in front of a student, and my students will definitely be spared. I sometimes think I should start a journal devoted only to reviewing text books for film studies. Is the book accurate? Is it coherent? Is it relevant? Is it written in a language understandable by the students? Does the book have a comprehensive index? You would be amazed how many book fail these simple tests.

Anyway, I am looking forward to actually teach. Being in a classroom with a group of students eager to learn is always slightly intoxicating. Sometimes of course you find yourself with a group of students who are only thinking about what excuse they can come up with in order to leave and do something fun instead, but that is rather rare.

I will be teaching film history, except for Hollywood cinema, key concepts and a course on theoretical traditions. It will be a busy time, for me and for the students alike. Actually, I wonder for whom it will be worse, but probably for some of the students. I will keep that in mind.

Teaching for me is not just about telling the students about things they did not know about before or making them see things in a new light. It is also about learning myself, from interacting with them. Not about films, but about teaching. What works and what does not work? What are the most effective ways in getting their attention or getting them to learn, and enjoy learning? Reading those textbooks will frequently be a strain on them, but the lectures should never be. If they see them as a chore then I have failed. They should look forward to them, but not because they are easy but because they will be meaningful, as well as fun. I do not go easy on them. I can be rather demanding, and if they say things that are wrong, peculiar or incomprehensible I will tell them so and insist that they think again and try again. Here too there is a learning process in that each student is unique and treating them all the same way is not a good thing. Some need coaching, with others you need to be strict and with others the best thing is to make a joke and let them relax. Teaching is an art form, as well as a process.

But the hardest thing is to make them speak freely, and not just repeat what they have read or heard. If I show a clip their response to it will be very different if I introduced it then if I just showed it without saying anything in advance. If I tell them to look for something they will afterwards claim to have found it, but if I tell them nothing in advance and then ask afterwards what they saw I will get more independent answers. I can to a large extent control how they will watch and experience a given clip and sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes it is not. When teaching neorealism, I once showed a clip from Dirty Harry (Don Siegel 1971) and asked them beforehand to look at it from the point of view of neorealism and then afterwards analyse it as such, which went very well. One of the best seminars I have had was when I unannounced showed a clip from All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk 1955) and then afterwards asked them what they were thinking about as they were watching it. That was rather amazing actually. I especially remember the student who began talking about her complicated relationship with her mother.

Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows.

What might the point be of that some might wonder. Where is the utility? Well, for one thing there is simple human bonding. These students from all corners of the world, sharing a moment together watching this clip and then expressing their feelings about it. They also learned that contrary to what many textbooks might claim, the experience of watching a film is not the same for everyone. It is a unique meeting between the individual and the film. In addition, I would like to add that sometimes something magic can happen in that meeting.

I also want them to think for themselves, and not succumb to clichés. Much thinking that we do is primarily in clichés, so not actual thinking at all, and most of our opinions are clichés as well. This might sound like I have overdosed on Hannah Arendt but it is fairly obvious and natural. It is also partly related to some things Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking, Fast and Slow. One of the most difficult questions to answer is the question why. Why do you think that? Why do you believe this? Why do you feel this way? Frequently people get upset when you ask them that, especially if you do so when you are having an argument, and they get angry, I think, because they have no answer. As I have argued elsewhere we often cannot explain why we think or feel a certain way, and whatever reasons we give are constructions after the fact, often inconsistent and much too simplistic. But it is not impossible, and if we actually start to think about the issues and our feelings, then breakthroughs become possible. (As a side note, when academics claim to have been "thinking things through", they rarely have.)

As you can see teaching film history and theory is for me not just about teaching film history and theory. It is also about improving my abilities as a teacher and, whenever appropriate, encourage my students to think freely and to question what they watch and what they read, and even what I tell them. This is not "critical theory" (as that concept is just an euphemism for "a certain Marxist-inspired way of thinking" i.e. substituting one set of prejudices and clichés with another) but to look at a given text, film, theory or argument and analyse/criticise it on its own terms. Is it coherent? Is it relevant? When it talks about specifics or facts, is it accurate? If it works, does it do so in general or just in specific cases? Those are some of questions (similar to the once mentioned above) that should always be asked when confronted with, for example, a specific film theory. It is also worth pointing out that unthinkingly rejecting something is as wrong as unthinkingly accepting something.

So the utility of film studies is obvious. To learn about one of the most important art forms in contemporary society, to learn about history and techniques, to learn to read and watch with open eyes and open minds, to learn how to formulate an opinion and to defend and understand it, and to learn to think freely.

At least that is the ideal scenario. Obviously I often fail in my efforts to teach but let's not dwell on that right now.

A Serious Man (Joel Coen 2009).

Friday, 12 August 2016

Taking a break

I felt like not writing a post in August and instead enjoy summer a bit more. So nothing to see here. I will be back in two weeks.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Theory readings #3 - Film as Film by Victor Perkins

The first piece in the series "Theory readings" was a general introduction and the second one was about Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". The next was about "The Death of the Author." Those were about articles but in this post a book is covered, due to the recent death of its writer Victor Perkins, critic and film scholar at the University of Warwick.


Fabulous cover design on the second edition.

Victor Perkins began writing Film as Film in the late 1960s and it was first published in 1972. Before that he had been an editorial member of the influential journal Movie and written film criticism in various other journals and newspapers, and Penguin Books invited him to write a whole book.

In the first chapter Perkins criticises early (1920s and 1930s) film theory for often being too focused on one single aspect of cinema, such as obsessing over "pure cinema" or editing, and the suspicion of reality; that real art was that which was far remove from the ordinary or realistic. "As a result, the theory is most emphatic where it should be most cautious, in imposing obligations on the artist; it is least helpful where it should be most relevant, in developing the disciplines of criticism." (pp. 26-27)

He then follows with a chapter on André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, pointing out how they too suffer from the same problem: too much emphasis on one aspect, although now it is the opposite of the earlier theorists. The new generation celebrates the long take as opposed to editing, and thinks great art is that which is as close to reality as possible.
Both theories discriminate in favor of certain kinds of cinematic effects, in other words certain kinds of attitudes given cinematic form. The image dogma would assess quality in terms of the artist's imposition of order on the chaotic and meaningless surface of reality. Object dogma would derive its verdict from his discovery of significance and order in reality. Each of these positions presupposes a philosophy, a temperament, a vision - terrain which the theorist should leave open for the film-maker to explore and present. (p. 39, italics in original)
Perkins instead wants to emphasis the complexity of the medium of film, and that it should not be narrowed down to be about one thing in particular. He is against analysing and evaluating a film from a priori positions, instead the art work should be engaged with from a neutral position and discussed on its own terms. The film is apparently trying to do X but how does the filmmaker go about getting X across and is the filmmaker successful in this endeavour? That is the kind of approach Perkins argued for. "The critical problem is to arrive at descriptions which are both specific and comprehensive enough to be useful. The critic cannot require a movie to fit his definitions; it's his task to find the description which best fits the movie." (p. 62) Instead he emphasises the fact that film is a hybrid medium: part reality, part magic or, if you will, part Lumière, part Méliès. He criticises the charge that films are only about escapism and he is also against the distinction between art films and commercial films. "In its crudest form it amounts to the belief that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to the size of its audience." (p. 162)

But even though Perkins says that he is against preconceived ideas about how a film should be, he still has his own idea. He favours coherence and unity, and an organic aesthetic in which everything works together to form that unity. Synthesis is another word he uses. "I believe a synthetic theory, a theory of balance, coherence and complexity, does carry us towards this goal" (p. 189), the goal being a successful way of discussion subtlety.

Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry

One key aspect of the successful film for Perkins is one in which meaning and symbolism grow naturally out of the sequence or the imagery. He for example talks about Richard Brooks's use of colour in Elmer Gantry (1960), and compare it favourably with Michelangelo Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert (1964). In both cases it is highly symbolic but in Elmer Gantry it is all done organically with what is already in the shot, clothes, wall paper and such, whereas in Red Desert the symbolic colours are added afterwards, they do not naturally appear in the actual shot. For Perkins, using what is a natural part of the film is a more impressive achievement than adding stuff that has no place in the shot for no other reason than that the filmmaker wanted it to be there. This is not subtlety, as we cannot fail to see it, whereas in Elmer Gantry we may or we may not notice the symbolism. Another example he uses is the rising stone lions in Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous sequence at the Odessa steps. The symbolism is just in Eisenstein's head, when seen in the film they could mean anything. It is, as Perkins put it, "an extreme imprecision of effect." (p. 104)

Another way of expressing this coherence and unity that is so important for Perkins is to talk about connections, that "significance, emotional and intellectual, arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves." (pp. 106-107), thus the failure of the lions in Potemkin. He stresses that the value of a film comes from the skills with which it is put together, not from the moral of the story or from any intellectual references to "the philosophy of Hegel or the poetry of Goethe." (p. 118)

Although perhaps not an auteurist like Andrew Sarris, the key figure for Perkins is still the director. She or he is the person responsible for the whole film, its very unity and coherence that is so important. Even when the director has not written the script, what matters is still the way a written scene is shot and the meaning that comes from acting, setting, decor and camera angles. There is a long description of a kitchen scene in Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), how it is the setting and the props such as chairs and the cutlery that give meaning and pathos to the scene. He also makes this point when taking about the films that Harold Pinter wrote and Joseph Losey directed, such as The Servant (1963), which is "dominated by the tensions between two creative minds, two styles, two personalities and two attitudes. But it is Losey's version of the Pinter script; and if we are concerned with film as film it is the realization that must claim our interest and judgement." (p. 178, italics in original). Among Perkins's favourites are Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, and he discusses the way in which they are fundamentally different, such as this: "The contrast between their methods is further reflected in narrative style. Hitchcock tells stories as if he knows how they end, Preminger gives the impression of witnessing them as they unfold." (p. 130)

Courtship of Eddie's Father

Perkins demands from his own and others' writings on cinema what he demands of the films. Coherence and clarity. "We have a duty to ourselves to ensure that our standards are as clear and consistent, as perceptively applied, as we can make them." (p. 192), and in this he succeeded. His writing is so good that it is a source of pleasure in itself, regardless of what he is writing about. But this does not mean that he is free from weaknesses or contradictions. For example, through the book he talks about various films from Hollywood and from around Europe, comparing and contrasting them, such as Elmer Gantry and Red Desert. Then suddenly he says at the very end, on page 190, that Godard's Les Carabiniers (1963) should not be analysed in the same way or by using the same approach as for example Rope (Alfred Hitchcock 1948) or Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray 1954). But why not, if Red Desert and Battleship Potemkin should be. What is the difference there? When he is criticising Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert it would have been good if he had something to say about Hitchcock's use of colour in, say, Marnie (1964). Does he disapprove of it, even though he otherwise holds Hitchcock as being one of the best, or is it somehow different from the Red Desert. To remain with Hitchcock; Perkins has a discussion about the difference between the characters played by James Stewart (dark and ambiguous) and those played by Cary Grant (light and playful), but in this discussion he conveniently leaves out Notorious (1946), starring Grant, presumably since it would undermine his distinction between the two actors. I also happen to disagree with his interpretation of The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean 1957). "War was said to be futile and experienced as glorious, victory was said to be empty and felt to be magnificent." (p. 149) Perkins says but as I see it there is no victory in the film, only various degrees of failure and futility. I do not see the alleged contradictions Perkins dislikes. (Perkins described it as a friction between the script by Carl Foreman and the direction of Lean, but Foreman had only written an early draft and the actual script was by Lean himself and Michael Wilson.)

But Perkins liked other films, Lean was not for him. This is how he describes his favourites:
The great film approaches an intensity of cohesion such that its elements do not operate solely to maintain or further the reality of the fictional world, nor solely to decorative, affective or rhetorical effect. Of course this is a counsel of perfection, even though it is derived from existing movies. Exodus, Johnny Guitar, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Psycho, La Règle du jeu, Rio Bravo, Wild River: these are the films which I recall as approaching this condition most closely. (p. 131)

During my years as a student in cinema studies I never actually came across Perkins or Film as Film in class or on reading lists. He is one of the many I had to discover on my own. I do not remember exactly when, but I was immediately impressed and delighted, and his writing has been a companion for many years. When he died last week it therefore gave me great pleasure to see the amount of love and affection for him and his life's work that flooded my Twitter and Facebook accounts. If you want to experience more of his work, and tributes to him, please visit the tribute page on Katie Grant's Film Studies for Free:

If you want to read just one article by him I can recommend "Moments of Choice" from 1981, republished on Rouge.

As a side note, or final note, I love The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It is close to perfection, and incredibly moving at times. I think of the goldfish scene at least once every week.

Friday, 15 July 2016

William A. Wellman

One of the highlights of American cinema is William A. Wellman's close-ups of tired and unshaved men under stress.

Henry Fonda and Henry Morgan in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

When me and my brother were growing up there were two films our dad often mentioned, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Men Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). They must have made a big impression on him, but although he did not explain why, they are both rather similar. Black and white, tragic and claustrophobic, about the dirty politics of the taming of the West. Wellman made the first and John Ford the other, and they are among each filmmaker's best. But they also show the difference between them, and Ford is by far the greater artist. Just consider a traditional song, used by both, The Red River Valley. It appears in the beginning and end of The Ox-Bow Incident but with no connection to anything, it is not grounded, it might have been added as an after-thought. It is not like that when Ford uses it, as he frequently does. The song is an organic part of the world of the individual film while it at the same time also links a given Ford film with the others in which the song also appears. The song is part of both the characters' world and Ford's whole cinematic universe.

But there are other things that links Wellman's films with each other, such as those men. The workers, flyers and soldiers; dirty, smelly and thirsty, often desperate and frequently dying. I have written before about another of those films, The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), here is the link. But there are not only men, he made several films about women too, such as Ladies of the Mob (1928), Night Nurse (1931), Lady of Burlesque (1943) and Westward the Women (1951). They too had to be tough and resourceful since life is no picnic. Remember what Kitty got for breakfast in Public Enemy (1931).

Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky (1948).

Wellman had been a pilot in World War 1 and he made several films about flyers, in the air force or civilian. I am particularly fond of Island in the Sky (1953) about a DC-3 that crashes in the Canadian wilderness, and while the crew slowly freeze to death a slow-moving rescue operation is trying to find them. The film is pretty harsh, and a feeling that they might all be dead before they are found just grows stronger. But he made all kinds of films, even if they were always sympathetic to those who had very little or were facing unbearable odds, whether they were Beggars of Life (1928) or Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and the cruelty and violence is often quite shocking. He also made a few comedies, and one, Nothing Sacred (1937) is an absolute must. Fredric March and Carole Lombard are having a field day with Ben Hecht's cynical script, and any film in which a small child bites Fredric March in the leg is fine by me.

Eccentric staging in Nothing Sacred.

Wellman made close to 80 films and many might have been uninspired, and if a message is to be put across it is done so in much too explicit language, but there is a legacy there, and many fine films where a particular way of looking at the world and a particular way of filming it; those weary men and women captured in a slightly off-beat and stylised way, including the hallucinatory Track of the Cat (1954). I will end with a fine, and typical, scene from Battleground (1949):


There is a religious dimension to Wellman's films, but that will be an investigation for a later day.

Friday, 1 July 2016

German cinema after the war

When it comes to German cinema the years between The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1933) and, say, 1966, when both Young Törless by Volker Schlöndorff and Yesterday Girl by Alexander Kluge came out, are definitely unknown territory, except maybe for the publication of the Oberhausen Manifesto in 1962 by a number of young, radical filmmakers. The reasons for this empty void after the glorious Weimar years are of course the horrific Nazi regime, the Second World War and the complete physical and moral destruction of Germany that followed from that. The only well-known films from those years are either Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda films or other anti-Semitic films. (Although the majority of the around 1000 German films made during Hitler's rule were not overtly propagandistic but rather conventional mainstream films.) What came after the war is usually described in an uncomplimentary fashion, if it is mentioned at all.

I am sure there is more to it than that though, and a subject worthy of further research. The few films I have seen from those years, such as Murderers Among Us aka The Murderers Are Among Us (Wolfgang Staudte 1946), The Lost One (Peter Lorre 1951), The Devil Strikes at Night (Robert Siodmak 1957), The Bridge (Bernhard Wicki 1959) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1960) have all been striking, with the exception of The Bridge, which is strained, obvious and has one of the least convincing death scenes I have ever seen. The Bridge is also light on the question of guilt and complicity. One might get the feeling that the Germans should be pitied, being betrayed by a few evil Nazis.

Murderers Among Us

It was of course not easy to make films in Germany after the war, and filmmaking was strictly supervised by the occupying forces for a while. And the country split in half, creating two different film cultures. Of the films mentioned above Murderers Among Us was the first German film made after the war and it was produced by DEFA in the eastern half (although it had not been officially divided into an East and a West Germany yet, that happened in 1949). The others mentioned were made on the western side. Murderers Among Us is what is called a Trümmerfilm, "rubble film," as it takes place in the ruins of postwar Germany. It was its own genre almost, primarily between 1946 and 1949, and not just German-produced films. Roberto Rossellini made one contribution as well, Germany Year Zero (1948). Fred Zinnemann's fine, Swiss-produced, The Search (1948) could also be included, with Montgomery Clift in his first role (or second, depending on how you count), as a G.I. taking care of a traumatised boy, a Czech survivor of a concentration camp. Clift also starred in The Big Lift (George Seaton 1950), which was entirely shot in Berlin. Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), with Marlene Dietrich, and Jacques Tourneur's occasionally magnificent Berlin Express (1948) were also shot in Germany, although not entirely. (Carol Reed's The Man Between (1953), while shot in Berlin, is different, and an example of a new kind of film, the Cold War thriller.)

Clift, Ivan Jandl and Zinnemann

All of the films mentioned here, except Lang's, deal with the war and its aftermath, in various ways. Siodmak's The Devil Strikes at Night is a murder history set during the war, when the police detective in charge of the investigation has to deal not only with finding the murderer but also with the Nazis, who have their own ideas of what would be politically expedient. Lorre's film The Lost One, the only film he directed, is about a doctor who is working for the Nazis during the war, and commits murder, but after the war his sense of guilt catches up with him and makes life unbearable. Murderers Among Us, which has the look and feel of Carol Reed, takes place in 1945 and is about two soldiers who meet again after the war, one consumed by guilt, the other not so much. These films were part of the national Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the effort to deal with the past.

The Devil Strikes at Night

But these are only a small portion of the films made. The German public were not immediately that interested in seeing German films but in the 1950s over 100 films a year were made in West Germany alone, and several film stars emerged then, such as Hildegard Knef, Horst Buchholz, Romy Schneider and Maximilian Schell. Many of the films made were Heimatfilme, sentimental films of the lives of ordinary, often rural, Germans. In total some 300 of them were made in the west, and two early successes were The Black Forest Girl (Hans Deppe 1950) and The Heath is Green (Hans Deppe 1951). Their engagements with Vergangenheitsbewältigung were very different than that of the other films mentioned in this post, often a case of forgetting the past rather than confronting it. But with so many as over 300 Heimatfilme there a bound to be many variations and different directions. (And the genre lives on to this day, although it did get more sour and complex along the way.) And, of course, there is more to cinema than dealing with a nation's past crimes. But I know nothing of these films artistic values, if they have any. Of other films, I am particularly eager to watch Toxi (Robert Stemmle 1952), about the racism directed towards children who have a white German mother and a black American father, and I am told the director Helmut Käutner is of significance. (He also wrote The Lost One which Peter Lorre directed.)


In 1948, when the Soviets instigated the blockade of Berlin (which is what The Big Lift is about) and the communists took power in a coup in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Cold War can be said to have begun. In the end of Berlin Express the concern that former allies will now turn on each other is a lingering sentiment, and it would go downhill from there. And for German cinema fame and influence were still some years off. But, and this is my point, German cinema between 1946 and 1966 should not be forgotten or brushed off. Maybe there is a book to be written, From Knef to Merkel.

The end of Berlin Express


The Oberhausen Manifesto boldly stated that the old German cinema was dead and needed to be replaced by a new, politically engaged cinema, free from commerce and conservatism (although the focus in the manifesto was on short films). "Papas Kino ist tot" was a rallying cry. In that respect Germany was not different from any other country as such manifestos were written around the world with some regularity since at least the days of Cesare Zavattini in 1940s Italy.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Growing old with Ozu and Hawks

"I am also inclined to overuse the word 'old,' which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say 'old Boughton,' I say 'this shabby old town,' and I mean that they are very near my heart." (From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson)
The late films in a filmmaker's career are often dismissed, forgotten or treated offhandedly. Whether it is Billy Wilder, Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Hasse Ekman or somebody else, that tendency is strong. But this is almost always unfair and frequently based on critics and scholars inability to accept change and growth. The films might be different and that in itself is taken as proof of decline.

For me, one of the rewards of following a filmmaker, and also of seeing their films in order, is to experience the arrow of time, see how technologies, context, sentiments and ideas change and evolve and affect the films. But there is something else as well, something more personal and human, and that is to see the filmmakers (or feel them) age, grow old. Especially when their leading actors remain the same and grow old with the filmmaker. Two especially poignant examples of this are Howard Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu.

David Bordwell wrote in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema that Ozu "lives along with his audience" but he also lived with his cast in a way, and so did Hawks, including in their shooting processes. Uniquely so with Ozu (born 1903) who worked with Chishû Ryû (born 1904) already in the late 1920s and all the way until his last film An Autumn Afternoon (1962).

Ryû in Ozu's There Was a Father (1942).

Hawks did not have the same lifelong commitment to one particular actor but he did have a particular affection for a certain age group, just slightly younger than him (born in 1896) and especially Cary Grant (born 1904) and John Wayne (born 1907), so that by using them in film after film the main characters in Hawks's films age with him. (The presence of Walter Brennan (born 1894) in Hawks's films, from Barbary Coast (1935) and onward, somehow always as an old man, is a different, but amusing, story.)

Hawks, Grant and Rita Hayworth in 1939.

Wayne in Red River (1948).

Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959).

With Hawks it is primarily the main character who grows old, the other male actors in the films may or may not be of the same age as him, and the women do not necessarily age. But the role of the women change, they become less of romantic companions and instead friends. In Rio Lobo (1970), Wayne's character is treated like a comfortable old man by the women, somebody to hide behind when the young, attractive men get too fresh. With Ozu both men and women grow old, In Late Autumn (1960), Setsuko Hara (born 1920), while not particularly old, plays a widow trying to get her daughter to marry. Hara and Ozu had worked together since Late Spring (1949), in which she played the daughter and Ryu her father, trying to get her to marry, 

Late Autumn

In Hawks penultimate film El Dorado (1966), Cole Thornton (Wayne) and J.P Harrah (Robert Mitchum, born 1917) are both showing their age, and their bodies fail them in various ways. Not necessarily due to old age but it is there anyway. There is a woman whom Cole is vaguely linked to, Maudie (played by Charlene Holt, born 1928), but she seems to be there just as a friend. As Hawks himself has said, El Dorado is a love story between two men, and in the final scene it is Cole and J.P. walking, or limping, side by side, not Cole and Maudie.

Ozu, with his more melancholy disposition, ends his last film, An Autumn Afternoon with this shot of a lonely old man, played by Ryû, in the kitchen.

It is a very moving shot, and a very moving film. But El Dorado is also moving, especially due to the frequent look of pain on Cole's (Wayne's) face. Not just when he is in physical pain but because he has lived a long, hard life, which includes having accidentally killed a young man and having experienced the Civil War and its aftermath with widespread poverty. But there is also the look of pain on his face seeing J.P. (Mitchum) come home, dirty, dishevelled and humiliated, after having been laugh out of a bar, as a no-good drunk.

But it is not all pain and suffering. Here is a delightful scene when J.P takes a bath, attended to by Cole.

Films are alive, made by humans, with humans, and through them we can experience life, see it being lived in front of our eyes. That is one of the wonders of the art form.

Ozu himself

Ozu and Hawks are not alone in this regard. Ingmar Bergman is another good example of someone whose characters and actors grow old with him.