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.

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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)
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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: https://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.se/2016/07/for-all-to-see-and-to-see-sense-of-in.html

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):



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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.)

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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

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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.