Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Otto Preminger (a brief sketch)

You would have thought perhaps that in this day and age, the prejudices against "classical" Hollywood cinema would have been abolished, and that empty dichotomies between, say, Hollywood cinema and European cinema, or "old school" Hollywood and "modern" cinema or whatever, were no longer used with a straight face. But that's not the case, and persistent perceptions still lingers on. To these conservative mindsets, one appropriate question to raise is "So, what about Preminger?" A common response is "Preminger who?" Because of course, this condescending attitude to "classical" or "old school" Hollywood doesn't usually come from over-exposure but rather under-exposure to it.

At the end of Godard's Breathless (A bout de souffle 1960), much have been made of the fact that Jean Seberg looks directly into the camera, about the violation of the rule of not breaking the fourth wall, of Godard's audacity. But is it not possible that a reason why Godard had Seberg look directly at the camera, facing the audience, was that he wanted to pay homage to his hero Preminger. In the film Preminger made two years earlier with Seberg in Hollywood, Bonjour Tristesse (1958), he had her look into the camera, into the eyes of the spectators. Why is the one celebrated and not the other? 

But these things doesn't really matter, and Preminger was of course not the only filmmaker working in the US that was far removed from the clichés of what Hollywood cinema was, is, should be. What matters here are the films, and the man who made them. Preminger was a public figure, he nursed a public persona, and he was intimately involved in his films, them being the extension of his persona in a sense. Like Lubitsch before him, and like Hitchcock, he would appear in the trailers for his films, making sure that people knew that these were his films. And in the films, the way his presence is felt is through the camera, the way it moves and the length with which it operates unmolested by a cut. The longer a shot continues, the stronger Preminger's presence is felt. People enters and leaves the frames, conversations have begun before the characters arrive in the shot, or continues after they've left, or a conversation takes place in the middle of the shot, the beginning and end being silent, or about something else, and yet perhaps being the most important part of the shot.

Can films do philosophy it is sometimes asked. They can, and Preminger is one of cinema's philosopher. At the centre of his philosophy is the argument, sustained from film after film at least from Laura (1944), that the world is filled of doubt and compromise. Some would say he was a cynic, other that he was a realist. He was possibly neither, just a cold observer of the world around us. What makes Preminger such a great filmmaker, one of the best, is the way his camera becomes the tool with which he writes his philosophical tracts. It is partly his refusal to cut, to change the point of view, or, rather, the refusal to give anybody but him a preferred point of view, that makes his cinema so rich, so rewarding and so unsettling. It is typical, as well as bold to the point of arrogance, that after having let the audience spend almost two and a half hour in a courtroom (in Anatomy of a Murder 1959), Preminger doesn't tell us who is guilty and who his innocent, or what actually happened. He cannot tell us because he wasn't there at the scene of the crime and when the film ends we're none the wiser. Doubt prevails. In what is perhaps his last masterpiece, Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), we spend almost the entire film wondering what is happening. Is this a film about a crazy woman, protected by her husband, or is it her brother? Or is it a sane woman misunderstood and not trusted by the authorities? Or is it possible that she is both crazy and misunderstood? And what will happen after "the end"?

Preminger's choice of subject matters is also part of his philosophy. After the early great thrillers in the 40s with Dana Andrews and/or Gene Tierney, about compromised and flawed characters, Preminger in the 50s became independent and began to tackle even bigger subjects such as war, politics, law, religion, history, racism and statecraft, always with the same opaque style, the camera letting everybody have their say, but always making us feel that we're not being told everything, that the puzzle is incomplete. And that this is the state of things, this is the way of the world. Everybody has his or her agenda, and what that agenda is, and whether it'll work, remains in doubt. But in order to proceed we need to compromise. The world is an imperfect place, and it is this because we humans are imperfect. The most unsettling fact of Advise and Consent (1962) is that although Congress and its members are doing stupid and/or disturbing things, there's nobody really to blame. They've all got their reasons, and they're neither necessarily evil or corrupt, it's just that they are human and therefore flawed. Guilt, jealousy, pride, principles, even kindness, it all has the potential to trip people up, or be used against them. This, also, is part of Preminger's philosophy.

Preminger often seemed to be in a league of his own, but he was of course a part of the system as much as anybody. But he wasn't content with keeping it stable, instead constantly bending the rules, pushing things further, both in terms of subject matter or style. Not always successfully, but often enough.

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This is a sketch of a longer essay that will eventually see the light of day. With thanks to Catherine Grant who, by writing about Otto Preminger on her blog yesterday, inspired me to write this post today. A small detail: Joseph Welch, who famously stood up to senator McCarthy, saying "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?", plays the judge in Anatomy of a Murder. See also my earlier post on the title sequences of Saul Bass: http://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/03/saul-bass.html

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