Friday, 8 December 2017

Mexico, Buñuel and Illusion Travels by Streetcar

One of the countries and eras I am most interested in exploring further is Mexican cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, often referred to as the "golden age" of Mexican cinema, when several hundreds of films were made. So far I have seen very few of them, and the few I have seen have almost all been directed by Luis Buñuel. I have probably seen more films from the U.S. from that time which were shot entirely in Mexico, such as John Ford's The Fugitive (1947), than I have seen actual Mexican films, and that is clearly my loss. In particular I would like to explore the films of Emilio Fernández, of whom I have only seen The Pearl (1947), and possibly all films shot by Gabriel Figueroa. (They both participated on The Fugitive, which Figueroa shot.) Until the day comes when the films become readily available Buñuel will have to do, and it is not a bad start. He is no particular favourite of mine but if I had to choose a part of his career it would be the Mexican one. Many disagree, including Buñuel himself, but films such as Los olvidados (1950) and Simon of the Desert (1965) are among his very best, and Exterminating Angel (1962) could be seen as the apotheosis of his career. Maybe his late work, in France and Spain, has been overemphasised by the same reason that it used to be argued that directors like Fritz Lang or Max Ophüls, or even Hitchcock, did their best work in Europe; Eurocentric snobbery unrelated to the actual value and meaning of the films themselves.

When Buñuel is discussed it is often as a surrealist and as a heckler of the bourgeoisie and the Catholic Church. But that is incomplete. During his long and varied career he made all sorts of films (21 of which are Mexican productions) and they are not all surreal, and Buñuel's targets are not just the bourgeoisie and the clergy. Few are beyond his ridicule and criticism; it is hypocrisy, selfishness and vanity in general he is after, regardless of who is guilty of it: peasants or priests. What the films all, almost, have in common though is their precise, pointed style. Not a scene, shot or spoken word is out of place or unnecessary, everything carefully judged to maximise the impact as quickly as possible and, despite the dreams and the surreal touches, it is for the most part an unobtrusive and discrete style.

One I have a particularly fondness for is the 1954 film Illusion Travels by Streetcar. It was a studio film, produced by CLASA, and written by Luis Alcoriza. He wrote or co-wrote most of Buñuel's Mexican films and might be said to be the equivalent of Jean-Claude Carrière from Buñuel's (second) European phase. The film is about two employees at the streetcar company who after a party, when they are drunk, borrow a streetcar that is to be decommissioned, number 303, and go for a ride in it. The next day they are unfortunately unable to take it back unnoticed because they are constantly interrupted by people believing it is in service and wanting to use it, or believe it is the one they have chartered for a school trip. There is a similarity here with the dinner guest unable to leave the room in which they have dined in Exterminating Angel or the way the six characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) are interrupted every time they try to have a meal.


But Illusion Travels by Streetcar is not about the bourgeoisie but primarily about the poor and the working class, although it provides a cross section of the people of Mexico City. There is no overt surrealism, but there are certainly Buñuelian motifs sprinkled throughout the film. It also has a gentle humour and a fine sense of the spaces of the city. (The cinematographer was not Figueroa but Raúl Martínez Solares.) There is also a long section of the film which is a stage performance of a religious play, a form called pastorela, based on the Bible, which is performed at the party in which the two men get drunk and decide to take that one last drive in their beloved 303. The play is sincere but rather absurd whereas the film itself is rather sweet and playful, and with a pointed political message.

Of the handful of Buñuel's Mexican films I have not yet seen there is one in particular I am curious about: Mexican Bus Ride (aka Ascent to Heaven 1952), made with the same female lead, Lilia Prado, as Illusion Travels by Streetcar but with a different crew. But I am curious of so much of Mexican cinema in general of that time. There is always so much more to explore.


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It would be interesting to research other nomadic directors with South American connections, comparable to Buñuel, such as the Argentinian Hugo Fregonese, who made films in Argentina, the U.S. and Europe, or the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti who began making avant garde-films in continental Europe in the 1920s and then moved to Britain, joined the GPO film unit and then became a part of the Ealing team before returning to Brazil in the 1950s. See an earlier post by me about GPO here.

For unknown reasons it is sometimes claimed that Buñuel was the first to use a freeze frame, in Los olvidados. That is of course not true at all. Earlier the same year Joseph L. Mankiewicz used it to great effect in All About Eve for one thing, but it had appeared on occasion for many years. Another prominent example is in It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra 1946).

Buñuel, seated in the middle, with friends.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Henry Koster

As I have mentioned before when writing about Henry Hathaway and Henry King at 20th Century Fox, there was also a third Henry there, Henry Koster. As they were known as "the three Henrys" I feel I should write something about Koster too, as part of my on-going focus on Fox.

***
Henry Koster made close to 50 films but the overwhelming majority of them are more or less forgotten and unknown today. But some of them were very important in their own time and a few of them have become loved classics, albeit not for a general audience perhaps, and they are not necessarily known and remembered as "his" films. The Inspector General (1949) is known for being a Danny Kaye-film, and Harvey (1950) is known for being the film with James Stewart and a giant, invisible rabbit. But they are also indicative of the kind of films that Koster primarily made; slightly whimsical fairy-tales and musicals, often with a religious theme. I say primarily for a few of them, such as No Highway (1951, aka No Highway in the Sky), My Cousin Rachel (1952), The Robe (1953), D-Day the Sixth of June (1956), strike a very different tone.

Koster was born in Berlin in 1905, as Hermann Kosterlitz. His mother was very musical and loved the opera so young Hermann grew up with music. His father, a travelling salesman in lingerie, was however not a music lover and Koster suggested in an interview that this might have been one reason why his parents separated in 1910. His mother wanted him to become a musician but Koster was more interested in painting and drawing and he did cartoons and illustrated children's stories. But he did have an interest in films too. He worked as a newsreel cameraman and an editor, and wrote some film criticism. He adored Ernst Lubitsch and was a close friend to both Billy Wilder and Joe May. (The artistic crowd used to hang out at Romanisches Café, and that included various filmmakers. Even Lubitsch might drop by from time to time.) When Koster was 19 he began writing film scripts and his career as a filmmaker got started. His first acknowledged credit was for Die große Gelegenheit (1925), directed by Lorand von Kabdebo, and he would then write several films a year. One, Eins + Eins = Drei, he wrote together with Béla Balázs, and it was directed by Felix Basch in 1927. But he most frequently wrote for Kurt Bernhardt (later known as Curtis Bernhardt). These were mostly dramas or more serious work and Koster felt closer to light comedy so in 1928 he began working with the writer Hans Wilhelm, in that genre. In 1932 he helped Erich Engel with the direction of Fünf von der Jazzband and soon he was directing on his own. The most important thing to mention though is that the producer of Fünf von der Jazzband, Joe Pasternak, became impressed with Koster's work on the film, and would remember him. They were to become great friends and also the saviours of Universal Pictures in Hollywood. But that was still in the future.

A more immediate concern was the rise of the Nazis. Life in Germany had been ugly for some time and when the Nazis came to power Koster, as a Jew, had to flee. That was in 1933 and he went to Paris, to where Kurt Bernhardt had already moved and they made some films together. Then Pasternak got in touch in 1934. He was a producer for Universal Pictures's European productions and was at the time based in Budapest, Hungary. He wanted Koster to come and work for him and he did, writing and directing a number of films around Europe that Pasternak produced, until Carl Laemmle, the boss of Universal, wanted Pasternak to come to Hollywood. He said he would be happy to if Koster could come with him. Reluctantly Laemmle said yes, and later that year Koster was having drinks at the Algonquin Hotel in New York with his wife.

But in Hollywood there were no jobs. Although Koster had a contract with Universal they were not willing to let him do anything, so he just went to the studio every day, sat under a big tree and read the newspapers. Universal, which during the beginning of the 1930s had had great successes with their horror films, were now on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy and they were at a loss as what to do. Fortunately for them they finally asked Pasternak and Koster what they would do if they were to make a film. Koster told them an idea he had, and the studio went along with it. Then the casting began and Koster and Pasternak found an actress called Edna Mae Durbin, who had never acted in a feature before but had done some radio performances. They fell for her and Koster began coaching her privately to prepare her for her proper film debut. The film, Three Smart Girls (1936), became a huge hit and Durbin too, as Deanna Durbin. That is what saved Universal from financial ruin and Pasternak, Koster and Durbin made several more films together, all light comedies with lots of music. He frequently worked with the cinematographer Joseph A. Valentine, and the films can be said to be made under the spell of Lubitsch, without being nowhere near as good. (Lubitsch did give his approval after having seen a preview of Three Smart Girls.) Beside the films with Durbin, Koster and Valentine also made The Rage of Paris (1938) which was Danielle Darrieux first film in Hollywood. She is good but the film is not.

Darrieux in the sofa, with Helen Broderick and Mischa Auer.

Even though Pasternak and Koster had initiated the Deanna Durbin film series, Universal felt that Koster worked too slow and in 1938 he was replaced as director and Norman Taurog took his place. The "Durbin unit" as it was called was a collective approach in which only Durbin was irreplaceable. Although Koster was soon brought back. In 1944 Pasternak and Koster left Universal for MGM, which Koster did not like as it was less free and more impersonal than Universal, and he and Pasternak had a falling out. Soon Koster left MGM too. In 1947 he was hired by Samuel Goldwyn to make one film, The Bishop's Wife, which happens to be one of Koster's best films. He then signed with 20th Century Fox where he stayed almost 20 years until he got fed up with filmmaking in 1965 and retired. He went back to his original artistic interest, painting.

***

There are several reasons for why The Bishop's Wife stands out, and it is mainly due to the team Goldwyn had assembled. Gregg Toland was cinematographer, Robert E. Sherwood was the credited writer and Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett did uncredited writing too. The cast is lovely, with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven in a peculiar love triangle. Niven plays a bishop, Young his wife and Grant an angel sent to earth to give spiritual guidance to the bishop, who has lost his ways and is jeopardising his career, his integrity and his marriage. But Grant and Young fall in love, even though he is not of this world, and the bishop gets increasingly jealous of the flirtatious relationship between his wife and "his" angel. It does have all of Koster's typical hallmarks, including some choir singing. But, as is also a hallmark, something is still missing. It does not rise above the good. There is no greatness in Koster's work, however amicable or sweet the films might be, and The Bishop's Wife is not as sharp, stylish or emotional as it could have been, given the circumstances.

At Fox he was not among the top tier. He is not as good or important as Henry King of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, or Hathaway. And he does not seem to have been all that happy with his position. He got along well with Darryl F. Zanuck, who was the boss, but Zanuck was not the producer on Koster's films and that meant that Zanuck did not consider Koster or his work as important as his favourites, such as the other Henry's, or John Ford who did some films there occasionally. While there is no reason to question Zanuck's priorities, they were better filmmakers and greater artists, one might get the feeling that Koster felt neglected. ("[Zanuck] had a way of keeping other producers and directors a little down so his picture could stand out at the end of the year." Koster said.)

But he still did some good films other than The Bishop's Wife, including two of his most famous: Harvey and The Robe. The first was not made at Fox but he was making it for Universal, although not with the same crew as in the 1930s. It was a stage play originally, but it is a typical Koster, with a wonderful performance by James Stewart as the man with the rabbit friend only he can see. It is a weird concept but it works quite well in the film, my only complaint is the slightly hysteric acting of some of the supporting cast. But when it is just Stewart, it can be rather spellbinding. He had also played the part on stage before the film.



The Robe is a biblical epic about a Roman military tribune, played by Richard Burton, during the time of Christ. But it is more famous for being the first film shot in CinemaScope. Koster had also directed Burton's first American film, My Cousin Rachel, the moody 19th century-set drama based on Daphne du Maurier's novel and written and produced by Nunnally Johnson.

But I wonder if No Highway is not the film of Koster I like best of those I have seen. It was made in England and about an airplane designer who is convinced that there is a weakness in one particular model and is desperately trying to stop it from being used. Part of the film takes place on board one such plane and there he tries to convince the crew and one of the passengers, a famous actress played by Marlene Dietrich, about the danger. He is played by James Stewart, who gives a typically lovely performance, and it is beautifully shot by Georges Périnal, and it is quite emotional and suspenseful. Stewart's engineer is a widower and single parent and a lot of the film's emotional undercurrent comes from this fact and his relationship with his daughter, played by Janette Scott.


When Koster was asked about his own work, there are two quotes that are revealing. Once when asked about whether he tried to "put [his] signature on the films" he said "I tried to. I couldn't always penetrate, I couldn't get through, but I tried to reflect my personality, which today [1980] would probably be too gentle and too sentimental and too coy." In another interview he said: "I like to have that family feeling. I have never been too much involved in love stories of young men and women, but always with parents and children, or friends. I don't know. It must be in me, something that I feel very strong about family, and about religion. These are things I believe in, in my own life, too"

To claim Henry Koster as a forgotten master or anything like that is not a particularly fruitful exercise. He may be disappointed in not having had the ability to develop his own ideas but there is no reason to assume that he would have been greater if he had. One of the later films he himself really liked, Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955), is to me close to insufferable. But film history is not just about the masters and most filmmakers are more like Henry Koster than John Ford, and knowing them and their place in that history is relevant too.

Deanna Durbin and Koster on the set of Spring Parade (1940).

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Print sources:
Easy the Hard Way (1956), by Joe Pasternak
Henry Koster (1987), interviewed by Irene Kahn Atkins.
The Genius of the System (1996 [1988]) by Thomas Schatz.
Just Making Movies: Company Directors in the Studio System (2005) by Ronald L. Davis.

Links to my writings on 20th Century Fox: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/search/label/20th%20Century%20Fox

2017-12-03 I amended the part about the making about Three Smart Girls to clarify how Deanna Durbin made her appearance. I also added that Harvey was originally a play and that Stewart had played the same part on stage before.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Soviet cinema during Khrushchev

Joseph Stalin was dictator during the handful of years in the 1920s when Soviet revolutionary cinema flourished but as he became convinced that what Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov and the others were doing was bourgeoisie and potentially counter-revolutionary he also put a stop to its flourishing. Instead, for close to three decades "socialist realism" was the only kind of cinema that was allowed, from which very little is considered of any value. ”[T]he basic criterion for evaluating the art qualities of a film is the requirement that it be presented in a form which can be understood by the millions” was the stated policy and as conflict was considered counter-revolutionary the films were devoid of that. An additional consequent of Stalin's film policy was that fewer and fewer films were made.

But after Stalin's death in 1953 things eased up. Not just for Soviet cinema but for the Soviet Union at large. The horrible years of Stalin's show trials, mass killings, famine and forced starvation (millions of people were killed often for no other reason than that their deaths pleased Stalin) was replaced with the, comparatively speaking, lighter touch of Nikita Khrushchev. Especially after Khrushchev's speech in 1956 denouncing the homicidal madness of Stalin's year. The so-called Thaw appeared, and Soviet cinema was given a chance to expand somewhat. It was still under strict rules, political control and censorship, but it was freer than under Stalin. The Thaw lasted roughly until 1964, when Khrushchev was disposed of and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev.

The most significant film of those years was also the film that signalled to the world that a new era had begun, The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov 1957), which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1958. It was a film about the Second World War, as was almost all of the famous films from those years, including Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai 1959), Fate of a Man (Sergei Bondarchuk 1959), Ivan's Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky 1962) and Father of a Soldier (Revaz Chkheidze 1964). They combine emotionally powerful stories with a poetic sensibility, visually, and are a far cry from the stiffness and stuffiness of Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), the previous Soviet war film of note. Although, despite what Bordwell and Thompson refer to as "mammoth battle sequences" in their Film History: An Introduction, they contain very little actual warfare. They are more concerned with what happens away from the front.

Fate of a Man

The Cranes are Flying is about a happy young couple who are separated when he unexpected enlists and goes off to the front where he is killed. But focus is on her life at home, unwillingly marrying the cousin of her fiancé and living with her in-laws until she finally breaks free. Ballad of a Soldier is about a young radio operator who, after having almost by accident destroyed two German tanks, is given a leave to go home to see his mother. On his way home he meets a young girl and falls in love, as does she, but they have precious little time together. Fate of a Man, perhaps the best of them, is a story of a man's tragic story during the war and in a German prison camp until he adopts a little boy after the armistice. Ivan's Childhood is undoubtedly the most famous one today, because of Tarkovsky, and is about a young boy being used to spy on the Germans and his present situation is peppered with dreams and flashbacks to a happier time before the war. Father of a Soldier finally is about an old man searching for his son and always arriving too late. The son was wounded and hospitalised and that is where the father went first, but the son had been discharged and returned to his unite so the father eventually becomes a soldier at the frontline himself, killing Germans whilst looking for the son.

Ivan's Childhood

The films are rather similar in tone and feelings. While not exactly propaganda for the Communist government and the state they are about men who sign up and are killed with a firm belief in the righteousness of the cause and the wisdom of their leaders. There is none of the anger, cynicism or criticism of their American war films such as Attack! (Robert Aldrich 1956) or Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel 1962). What there is though is a sadness and world-weariness. Where they differ most from one another is in the visual style. The Cranes are Flying, shot by Sergey Urusevskiy, has an impressionistic look and editing technique. It is somewhat reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda's Polish films of the 1950s and the coming French New Wave. Ballad of a Soldier, shot by Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva, looks more like earlier work of Alexander Dovzhenko, with a touch of John Ford. Fate of a Man, shot by Vladimir Monakhov, is full of tricks, some of which are more successful than others, but is on the whole rather dynamic and visually exciting. Father of a Soldier, shot by Archil Pilipashvili and Lev Sukhov, has some extraordinary images but is the least distinguished. Ivan's Childhood, shot by Vadim Yusov, is more sombre and has shots that linger longer than in the other films. It is on every level a more calm and relaxed film whereas the others are more edgy and nervous. It is sometimes unclear whether their editing patterns and abrupt tonal shifts are deliberate or amateurish. All of them have rather ambitious goals in terms of style and capturing larger truths about humanity, but Tarkovsky here seems to be the one most at ease with the scope of the undertaking. The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier and Father of a Soldier are filled with contrived situations and coincidences created primarily to make the audience cry, which is why I prefer Tarkovsky's and Bondarchuk's two films, which also happens to be the first features of either director. The characters in their films are also more complex. Ballad of a Soldier in particular has such immaculate main characters it borders on the ridiculous although the chaste love between two apple-cheeked teenagers is quite sweet. (Pauline Kael was not impressed by The Cranes are Flying or Ballad of a Soldier, calling them "good examples of nineteenth-century patriotism and nineteenth-century family values" when "authority was good, only people without principles thought about sex, and it was the highest honor to fight and die for your country." in her essay "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience".)


There were not only films about the Second World War that were being made of course. There were adaptations of Shakespeare and Cervantes. There was the musical comedy Carnival Night (1956). (It was produced by Mosfilm, which also produced The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Fate of a Man and Ivan's Childhood. Father of a Soldier was produced by Grusia Film and Qartuli Pilmi, it is a Georgian production.) The Rumyantsev Case (Iosif Kheifits 1956) was a crime story, Lesson of Life (Yuli Raizman 1955) was about a married couple and their everyday concerns, Amphibian Man (Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky 1962) was a science fiction story and the most successful domestic film in Soviet of 1962 (although less popular than The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges 1960)). Elem Klimov, who is today famous for the brutal war film Come and See (1985), began his career making satirical comedies, such as his first feature Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964). But that was towards the very end of the Thaw and things started to become ever more constricted and laborious. Two of the most unique filmmakers who just about managed to get started until the Thaw was over, Andrei Konchalovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, both saw several of their films cut, be censured or banned. But their careers are largely outside the scope of this article. Sergei Bondarchuk and Andrei Tarkovsky continued to do impressive work, including Bondarchuk's epic series based on Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace, but filmmaking would not be the same after 1965.

Filmmaking in a time and place of dictatorship is never easy, and making films that did not satisfy the Politburo or the commissariat was not possible in Soviet, not before, after or during the Thaw. Any film made in Soviet needs to be considered with that in mind. But even if there was plenty of restrictions and plenty of propaganda during the years of the Thaw too there was just a little less of it, and it was possible to create something both beautiful and meaningful.

The Cranes are Flying

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A link to my earlier article about Andrei Tarkovsky: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/2012/04/andrei-tarkovsky.html

Friday, 27 October 2017

Recent readings

Finally, my article about Richard Quine has gone live so you can read it now over at La Furia Umana:

http://www.lafuriaumana.it/?id=706
The two best scenes in It Happened to Jane are set in the kitchen of her home. Her house is not shown in its entirety, only the living room and the kitchen, which is below the living room, but they inhabit these spaces with a wonderful ease and spontaneity. In the first scene Jane and George have a sweet conversation, and it becomes clear that he loves her but feels intimidated by her late husband. In the second they have an unpleasant conversation, and a turning point in George’s life. Having looked after her children and cooked for them for two days, his housewife moment in the apron, while she is in New York wining and dining with an attractive journalist, he now snaps, which unfortunately leads him, because of his frustration and jealousy, to stop just one word short of calling her a slut or whore. She asks him to leave, not so much upset as sad that he has sunk so low.
The last two weeks I have read several books and articles and instead of writing something new I will restrict myself for now to recommend some things others have written.

First the essay collection Durgnat on Film (1976), which consist of selected parts of Raymond Durgnat's previous books Films and Feelings (1967) and The Crazy Mirror (1969). The topics covered are many, such as style, realism, authorship, adaptations and discussions of specific films, filmmakers and comedians. It is very good, combining intelligent writing and a wide-ranging taste, with engaging criticism of the ideas of other critics and academics.
Suppose a film ends with the camera tracking back from the lovers embracing alone on the beach. This may mean 'how tiny and unprotected they are' or 'how frail and futile their love' or 'the whole wide world is theirs' or 'this is the moment of their destiny' (for plan views can suggest a 'God's-eye-view') or 'Good-bye, good-bye,' depending on which emotions are floating about in the spectator's mind as a result of the rest of the film. Hence style is essentially a matter of intuition. There is no possibility whatsoever of an 'objective', 'scientific' analysis of film style - or of 'film' content. It is worse than useless to attempt to watch a film with one's intellect alone, trying to explain its effects in terms of one or two points of style. Few films yield any worthwhile meaning unless watched with a genuine interest in the range of feelings and meanings it suggests. (p. 27)
To over-simplify, perhaps, Ophuls' camera movements suggest a mellow 'fatalism'. Everything ends where it begins. The world is a maze of ironies, of impermanence, of nostalgias. If Ophuls' camera moves, it is à la recherche du temps perdu. But it isn't possible to separate the camera movements from the décor through which it moves, and which it shows to us, or the dramatic context in which it occurs. (p. 55)
We do not agree on Howard Hawks though, whom he do not seem to get. He says for example of "pain, or waste" that it is something "which Hawks, more sentimentally ignores" (p. 80) but I do not agree with that at all. Pain is almost always there in Hawks, sometimes acute physical pain and often equally acute psychological pain, from the death of a loved friend or from some other loss, or from having to experience the downfall of a friend.

Durgnat has written several books and I can also recommend King Vidor: American, co-written with Scott Simmon. A good recent collection is The Essential Raymond Durgnat, edited by Henry K. Miller (which to some extent overlaps with Durgnat on Film).

Jennifer Jones in Vidor's incredible Ruby Gentry (1952)

A great contemporary film writer/video essayist who is strongly influenced by Durgnat is Adrian Martin and his collected work is to be found here: http://www.filmcritic.com.au/index.html (Well, eventually it will all be there, it is updated regularly.)

The next recommendation is a long article from earlier this year in The Paris Review. It is by Noah Gallagher Shannon and about Roger Deakins:

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/05/09/master-light/
A strange but beautiful thing you will hear cinematographers say is that they conceive of each frame as, at first, completely black. The creative act lies in what to light and how—where to send viewers’ eyes, using each beam like a stroke or word. And Deakins thinks about this canvas of blackness not unlike the way blues guitarists—I’m thinking of the Keith Richards quote here—do the beats between notes: “The lighting of a film makes the pauses speak as eloquently as the words.”
Then two pieces from Bordwell and Thompson's extensive blog, both a few years old but which I read last week. One is about the style of Sidney Lumet, covering his whole career:

http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2011/04/21/endurance-survival-lessons-from-lumet/

The mid-1970s was the Great Barrier Reef of American cinema. Virtually no members of Hollywood’s accumulated older generations, from Hitchcock and Hawks through the 1940s debutantes (Wilder, Dmytryk, Fuller, Siegel) and the 1950s tough guys (Aldrich, Brooks) to the TV émigrés, made it through to 1980. Many careers just petered out. The future belonged to the youngsters, the so-called Movie Brats. In this unfriendly milieu, Lumet fared better than most. He tried a semifarcical heist film (The Anderson Tapes, 1971) that mocked the rise of the surveillance society, with everybody wiretapping and taping and videoing everybody else. He mounted a classic mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), a musical (The Wiz, 1978), and a free-love romance (Lovin’ Molly, 1974). Of the items I’ve seen from these years, the most daring is The Offence (1972). This study of a sadistic British police inspector’s vendetta against a child molester offers a sort of seedy expressionism. In another gesture toward psychodrama, long conversations with the perpetrator reveal that the copper is a bit of a perv himself.
The other piece is about journalistic reportage from film sets, whether for an article or a book, and the many problems with them. From Lillian Ross's famous tale of the making of The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston 1951) to an article about the making of Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan 2006).

http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/hearing.php
Still, you have to wonder what a book laying bare decision-making at Microsoft or Enron or the Oval Office would look and sound like. Would you meet epitomes of mature, moral, thoughtful behavior? Would you witness activity bereft of any hubris or self-regard? It’s doubtful, but anyhow we’ll never find out. No executives or politicians in their right minds would let an outsider into the suites when the deals are done. They know that uncontrolled publicity is bad publicity. By comparison, our moviemakers’ egotism seems touchingly naïve. Confronted with the opportunity to have a name journalist track a production, they must think: If people could only understand the process, they’d really appreciate what we do. Anyhow, how could the publicity hurt? (Answer: See previous paragraphs.) Insiders regularly forget that middlebrow journalism will always highlight every act of show-business venality it can find. Peter Biskind has made a career out of treating contemporary American cinema as a circus of lunacy and petty spite.
And last, a very fine article I read some time ago and now re-visited. It is by Sarah Berry and about the films of Jean Negulesco, with a particular focus on gender and women characters:

https://contrappassomag.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/writers-at-the-movies-sarah-berry-on-jean-negulesco/
Negulesco’s characterization of marriage is interesting in three ways, however. Firstly, he retains a Depression-era sympathy for women’s economic struggles and the practical necessity of marriage in a world of very limited options. Secondly, he presents women’s desire for a companionate marriage of equals in an entirely sympathetic light. Thirdly, women’s sexual desires are never condemned or presented as whorish by contrast with a virginal ideal (one could claim that Sophia Loren’s breasts are the star of Boy on a Dolphin, but she is also a three-dimensional character fighting for her impoverished village, as she points out to her “rich American” love interest).
That should keep you occupied for quite some time!


Friday, 13 October 2017

Torgny Anderberg

In 1976 Torgny Anderberg played the part of a hapless chief of police when Stockholm is terrorised by a lone gunman, in Bo Widerberg's The Man on the Roof / Mannen på taket. That is just one aspect of his long and diversified career, one that in some respects was similar to the nowadays more well-remembered Arne Sucksdorff, yet also strikingly different. The similarity is that they both made successful documentaries about the larger world, not least Brazil, with a deep love and understanding for the various countries and people they documented. A difference is that Sucksdorff hardly ever made any other kinds of films, whereas Anderberg also had a prolific career at home as a maker of light comedies and was much more embedded in Swedish film culture. Another difference is their approach to their documentaries. Sucksdorff never inserted himself or the crew in the films, but very carefully designed, edited and structured the films. In Anderberg's films the crew is usually part of the whole thing, and are seen going about their business. Anderberg himself appears in front of the camera. But the films are less pre-structured and much less stylish, they instead feel as if Anderberg and his team just went out with the camera to see what might come up. One might say that in Sucksdorff's films the filmmaker is not present in front of the camera but very much apparent behind the camera, whereas in Anderberg's films it is the exact opposite. It is tempting to borrow Victor Perkins's comparison between Hitchcock and Preminger, with Hitchcock for Sucksdorff and Preminger for Anderberg: "Hitchcock tells stories as if he knows how they end, Preminger gives the impression of witnessing them as they unfold."


Anderberg's first film as a director was a feature-length documentary called Anaconda (1954) about a research expedition through the Andes and then up the Amazon river. It is a fine film, shot in black and white. There is a sequence towards the end with a man out in a canoe alone in the night, hunting a caiman in the river, and with its nocturnal light and almost complete silence it is quite spectacular.

Jangada (1958), this time in colour and AgaScope, has a very loose narrative. The first part is an exploration up a river and meetings with indigenous people, another part is about Rio de Janeiro. There is a part about the opera house in Manaus, (famous from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982)), and finally a sequence about fishermen in Portaleza. While telling stories about then-contemporary life in Brazil, it also deals with the colonialism and the hardships and abuses from those days.

Anderberg also made several short films from Brazil, including one about its capital Brasília, and one about Pelé, often referred to as the world's greatest football player (although Maradona might take exception to that opinion). Esmeraldas - den gröna smaragden (1957) is about a town in Ecuador.

Most of these films, including Anaconda and Jangada, were produced by the production company Nordisk Tonefilm. It is easy to be impressed by, and perhaps nostalgic for, the expansive ambitions of the production companies at the time, financing expeditions to faraway parts of the world. Today such things would not happen unless a large number of various organisations, companies and institutions got together after years of efforts. But the reason why this was happening then was that there was no competition from television. When TV arrived, film companies stopped being interested in such documentaries and Jangada was among the last of its kind being made in Sweden. From then on it would be Swedish television that would make such documentaries, or international co-productions between specialised companies.

Anaconda had been an international success, but Anderberg also directed some very successful fiction films in the 1950s. The first was Lille Fridolf och jag (1956), one of the most successful films, commercially, ever released in Sweden; a domestic comedy written by Rune Moberg about an older couple coming to terms with their daughter's approaching wedding. The film had three sequels, two of which was directed by Anderberg, but each with diminishing returns.


Villervalle i Söderhavet (1963) was a series made for Swedish television about a Swedish family living in the South Pacific, and shot on location. It was a humongous flop, especially among critics, and it is almost without redeeming qualities, except for the fine locations around Tahiti. After that almost all of Anderberg's films are shorts, whether documentaries, commercials or commissioned works. In the 1980s he did several shorts about Peru, and the famine there in 1981-1983. He also made a few features such as Djungeläventyret Campa, Campa / Jungle Adventure Campa Campa (1976), a work of fiction about a missionary in Peru who kidnaps two children. Tåg till himlen / Train to Heaven (1990) is another work of fiction, about orphans in Ecuador. Anderberg's last film, co-directed with Helgi Felixson, was the documentary Kondormannen (2002) from Peru. It began as his film but he died during the making of it and Felixson instead finished it, making it a film about Anderberg. It was released two years after his death.

Anderberg was not a great artist, and little he made after the 1950s are of any particular interest. But his compassion for people around the world, not least indigenous people of South America, was genuine and never left him, and in the 1950s he was an important presence in Swedish cinema. At least two of his films, Anaconda and Jangada, deserve to be remembered. Swedish cinema of the 1950s is today almost only remembered for the films of Ingmar Bergman and of late also, to a much lesser extent, for the films of Hasse Ekman. But there was more going on back then, including films with global ambitions, and Anderberg is an example of that. Other directors who appeared then, or had their major breakthroughs, are Göran Gentele, Lars-Eric Kjellgren, Arne Mattsson and Lars-Magnus Lindgren. Compared to Anderberg they were more interesting artistically and deserve their own posts later on.

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That older couple in Lille Fridolf och jag, Selma and Fridolf, was the centrepiece of a huge franchise with both comic strips and a radio show. Those predate the films and continued, at least as a comic strip, until the 1990s. In the radio show and in the films the couple was played by Hjördis Petterson and Douglas Håge, who had played a couple for the first time in Bergman's It Rains on Our Love / Det regnar på vår kärlek (1946), and later the same year in Ekman's While the Door was Locked / Medan porten var stängd.

My previous article about Sucksdorff here.

The Perkins-quote is from Film as Film.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Arne Sucksdorff

When André Bazin compared Arne Sucksdorff with Luchino Visconti's film La Terra Trema (1948) it was something of an exaggeration (and perhaps Roberto Rossellini would have been a more apt comparison). But it should be said that Sucksdorff was one of Sweden's great filmmakers, and also a filmmaker of some influence on Brazilian cinema and Cinema Novo. Born in 1917, he first made a series of lyrical and suggestive short films shot across Scandinavia during the 1940s and then he expanded, both length-wise and location-wise; making two short films in India and three long features (in Sweden, India and Brazil) that combined narrative storytelling and documentary. He also made one allegorical fiction film in 1961, Pojken i trädet / The Boy in the Tree, shot in Sweden. It is Sucksdorff's combination of beauty and symbolism that makes him one of the great visual poets in film history. In his documentaries he was not content with just recording the natural world, instead he used and shaped it according to his ideas or needs. Much depends on trick photography and props, and his films are often so scripted and directed that it is debatable whether they are documentaries or fiction. But this should not be taken as criticism. Sucksdorff was an artist who, as he put it, was looking for the balance between poetic truth and documentary truth. (Although that is probably true for most documentaries.) As time went by his narrative imagery became self-sufficient to the extent that in some films not a single word is spoken. Some of his short films are shot as if they were horror movies, but more typical are his images of hazy sunlight through blades of grass, mist over water and raindrops on asphalt.


The 14 short films he made in Scandinavia between 1940 and 1950 can be divided into four groups. Films made on commission for organisations or government agencies (in all five films and also his first Indian film), films made about minorities in Sweden (three films), impressionistic, light films about wildlife (four films), and expressionistic, dark films about wildlife (two films). By far the best one in the first category is Människor i stad / Rhythm of a City (1947 aka Symphony of a City), a city symphony about Stockholm that won an Academy Award for best short film in 1949, the first time a Swedish film won an Oscar. The three shorts about minorities, two about the Sami people and a rather questionable one (for its latent exoticism) about Roma people, are not among his best work. From the third category two stand out: En sommarsaga (A Summer's Tale) from 1941, about a fox, which can be seen as a precursor to his first feature-length film Det stora äventyret / The Great Adventure (1953), and Gryning (Dawn) from 1944, his first with no dialogue or voice-over, about a hunter who is unable to pull the trigger and lets the deer live. Skuggor över snön (Shadows over the snow) from 1944 is something of a hybrid, part dark tale of death and part light tale of surviving. The two dark, expressionistic shorts are Trut! / Gull! (1944), a tale of some peaceful birds terrorised by a bigger bird which some have interpreted as an allegory about the Nazis, and En kluven värld / A Divided World (1948). The last one is one of Sucksdorff's best, more a film noir, a nightmare by Fritz Lang, than a documentary. It is almost entirely staged and shot with models and fake sets, about a white stoat, a fox and an owl in a cruel tale of survival. Some of the shots are incredible in their use of depth, shadows and mist. It is close to a masterpiece.


Then Sucksdorff when to India for two films. The 25-minute-long Indisk by / Indian Village (1951), which is the commissioned one, a conventional documentary about a small village and the digging of a well, and Vinden och floden / The Wind and the River (1953). It is a ten-minute-long impressionistic, wordless, depiction of Kashmir, shot with long takes with a moving camera, creating the impression of it floating down the river and quietly observing what goes on along its banks. Some, including Sucksdorff himself, thinks this is his best short. At least it shares that honour with Rhythm of a City and A Divided World.

These films show Sucksdorff skills as an editor and cinematographer (he usually wrote, shot and edited his own films) and they also show his primary interest in the natural world and animals, with a pantheistic view of that nature. Even if he shows the brutality it can hold, it is still a beautiful and awe-inspiring space. The use of editing, not least the recurring shot/countershots of birds (preferably owls) watching over the world and all its animals (including humans) as if they were judging the behaviour of those they observe, is often extraordinary. All of these aspects continue in the 85-minutes-long films that would now follow. He had made most of his short films with funding from Svensk Filmindustri (SF), but now SF's boss Carl Anders Dymling for some reason was not interested anymore so Sucksdorff turned to Sandrews instead, and they helped fund his first two features The Great Adventure and En djungelsaga / The Flute and the Arrow (1957). The first was shot in Sweden and the second in India, but they are somewhat similar. The great adventure the title refers to is life itself, and it shows a year in the life of a fox, an otter and two young brothers. Initially there is a whole fox family but all but one are killed (there is a POV-shot of the last 30 seconds or so of a dying fox), and there are two otters to begin with but one is also killed. The brothers thus come face to face with both the cruelty of life, and the cruelty of humans. One strong scene is with the baby fox screaming beside its dead mother, killed by a human, and trying to wake her up before he gives up. In another sequence Sucksdorff cuts back and forth between humans in a church during Sunday mass and the two otters playing in a river in which a human has laid a trap, which kills one of the otters. (It is not shown, only alluded to.) Since the audience knows the trap is there the sequence is rather suspenseful, like some eco-thriller. While the humans are singing a hymn the animals are in mortal danger because of those very humans. Erik Barnouw has suggested that Sucksdorff makes a distinction between the killings by humans and the killings by other animals: "Both men and animals kill, but animals do so for survival. Only men kill for other reasons and camouflage their reasons, always regarding themselves as instruments of morality and justice." But it is not a simple dichotomy between good animals and bad humans. The one surviving otter becomes best friend with the two brothers, and they spend half of the film together. The surviving fox also comes and play with the otter. And there is also another dark force in the landscape, beside the human hunters. A lynx. The lynx is like an evil spirit, a disturbance in the force, and a threat to everyone else. But in the end it walks away, leaving the area, and harmony is restored.

The Flute and the Arrow is also focused on children, and their interactions with animals, and around the Indian village there too is a dark force, but here it is not a lynx but a leopard. They have a similar function in the two films, but the leopard plays a larger role than the lynx, and is deadlier. The Flute and the Arrow, which took three years to make, is set (and shot) in the region Bastar in central India and is about life in a Muria village. Their lives and rituals, and the coming of age of the boy in the picture below, Chendru. It was Sucksdorff's only film in colour and it is shot in AgaScope, a Swedish version of CinemaScope. It looks spectacular, and has a fine score by Ravi Shankar. It has a stronger, more focused narrative than The Great Adventure and is more about the humans than the animals. It also pushes the boundaries for how far a documentary might go towards pre-planned staging until it stops being a documentary. Whereas the first half is more traditionally like an anthropological documentary it then takes a turn towards fiction, albeit inspired by real events.


The Great Adventure had been a major success, both financially and with the critics, but The Flute and the Arrow was only a hit with the critics. It was also very expensive. Sucksdorff's next film would be his only work of pure fiction, The Boy in the Tree, which is about a teenage boy who prefers the animal world to the human world but gets mixed up with some juvenile delinquents during a few days one summer. It does not stray very far from Sucksdorff's other films, besides the fact that it has regular actors and stars and a jazz score especially written for the film by Quincy Jones. But the film did not do particular well and Sucksdorff would never again make a film in Sweden. Instead he moved to Sardinia, and then to Brazil, where he remained for some 20 years. In Brazil he taught at a film school connected with Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Modern Art, and this is where his connection with Cinema Novo appears because some filmmakers associated with that group had Sucksdorff as their teacher. Among them was Antonio Carlos da Fontoura, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Eduardo Escorel. The latter became a distinguished editor during the 1960s and in the 1970s began directing as well. (Nelson Pereira dos Santos's film Vidas Secas (1963) was edited on Sucksdorff's equipment.) Sucksdorff also made a documentary in Rio de Janeiro, his fourth feature-length film Mitt hem är Copacabana / My Home Is Copacabana (1965). It is a very moving, and uncomfortable, film about orphans living on the streets. The focus is on two of them, Jorginho and Rico, and their efforts to find food, earn some money and just stay alive. The most horrid sequence in the film is when Rico has a bad toothache. First he welcomes the ache. "It makes me forget how hungry I am." he says. But then the pain becomes so unbearable that a friend pulls out the tooth with pliers borrowed from a construction worker, while Rico screams and screams. The film, which might be Sucksdorff's best, did cause some upset since it did not portray Brazil or Rio in a flattering light. But it did get made and was shown around the world. It won several awards, although it got a mixed reception at the Cannes film festival.

Sucksdorff had won in Cannes before though. Skuggor över snön won for best documentary short in 1946, as did Rhythm of a City in 1947. An Indian Village won the Prix special de jury in 1952 and The Great Adventure won Cannes's International prize in 1954, as well as an honorary diploma. It also won the Silver Award in Berlin. He has also won several awards at the Venice film festival and other places. For a period of some 20 years he was one of the most celebrated of documentary filmmakers, comparable to Robert Flaherty. But still, after My Home is Copacabana he never made a film again. His style and some themes instead lived on in the films of Jan Troell and Stefan Jarl.

Sucksdorff instead got involved in local environmental issues, especially the struggle to save the Amazon rain forests, and he made a four-part television series for Swedish television which aired in 1972. (It seems most Swedes watched it.) For his environmental activism he was awarded a medal by the Brazilian government after the fall of the military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. During the previous years Sucksdorff had not only fought for the protection of the Brazilian wildlife, he also lived in it for several years, in the wetland Pantanal in Mato Grosso. That is also where he made the TV-series, På jordens baksida (On the far side of the world). It is not particularly good or educational, but it does have a certain appeal. The first two parts are mainly about him and his third wife, the Brazilian Maria Graça de Jesus, and their day-to-day life in the wild. The appeal of the episodes comes from the joy that stems from the fact that Sucksdorff has so clearly found his own paradise, living and working among the animals, and interacting with them as if they were all one big, happy family. To see him and his wife swim around with an otter (apparently a favourite animal for the Sucksdorff family) or a tapir, or feeding a baby jaguar whose mother was killed by a hunter, is immensely moving and satisfying, as it is a depiction of a man who has found his dream fulfilled.


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It was in his review of La Terra Trema that Bazin mentioned Sucksdorff. It had "a profoundly original style of image, unequaled anywhere (as far as I know) but in the short films which are being made in Sweden by Arne Sucksdorff." The review is reprinted both in What is Cinema 2 and André Bazin and Italian Neorealism.

The quote from Barnouw is from the 1993 edition of his book Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, page 189. Barnouw thinks The Great Adventure is a masterpiece, and is in general appreciative of Sucksdorff's films.

Sucksdorff was also involved in one additional film, a British from 1971 called Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (aka Cry of the Penguins). It seems Sucksdorff was only responsible for the penguins. Alfred Viola and Roy Boulting took care of Mr Forbush. John Hurt played him and Hurt claimed the penguins were "a real pain in the arse."

While Sucksdorff spent decades in Brazil, he did return to Sweden late in life and he died in Stockholm in 2001. But the longest Wikipedia entrance for him is the one in Portuguese.

Contemporaneous with Sucksdorff was another Swedish filmmaker with a particular interest in Brazil: Torgny Anderberg. He might appear in a later post.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Personal and public politics and prejudices

In Senses of Cinema recently there were several interesting interviews with distinguished film scholars from around the world and one of them was Dana Polan. Towards the end he spoke about the special relevance of teaching Howard Hawks in the age of Trump. This got me thinking about one of the most convoluted aspects of artistic appreciation: to what extent an artist's political beliefs, or private thoughts and behaviour in general, influence our response to their work, and how much it should influence us, if at all. That is a loaded question. When a fellow film blogger and critic wondered on Twitter whether Jean-Luc Godard had ever shown any remorse for his support of Mao Zedong, quite a few people got upset and wondered why the question was even asked, and there were musings about alleged political correctness running amok (incidentally one of the most clichéd and tired reactions in contemporary culture). But it was a perfectly legitimate question and there was no judgement of Godard's films stated or implied, yet people got anxious. One might get the sense that some prefer not to think about such matters, as if acknowledging, say, Godard's Maoism, would contaminate them.

There are those who demand purity on the part of the artist, and then there are those who believe that whatever an artist does in her own time is her own business and should not be considered at all when discussing the artwork. But I do not think anybody really hold firm to either approach. There are just too many variables involved. Imagine for example that you have always loved the books or the films of a given person, and then you learn that this person was racist in some form, even though there is no trace of this in the artworks. It seems pretty drastic to completely throw away that body of work which you have enjoyed and which have been such an important part of your life. Yet with some people it sounds as if they would never engage with an artwork before thoroughly vetting the artist. There is something unsettling with these kinds of purity demands, and it almost inevitably leads to defeat because few people are beyond reproach. It is just a question of where you yourself draw the line. And, the further back in history you go the more likely it is that writers and artists will have beliefs that are unpalatable for most people today. This also means that people in the future will find us to have pretty unpalatable beliefs, however conventional they may seem now.

At the same time though there comes a point when a person is found out to be so utterly horrible that it becomes impossible to ignore that part, usually when it comes to actions and deeds, rather than just beliefs. Take for example V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, whose brutal behaviour towards people around him, not least his wife, was shockingly revealed some years ago. It is almost impossible to shrug off when reading something he has written. Likewise, many people are understandably concerned about the allegations against Woody Allen, even though they are as yet unsubstantiated.

There is also a different, although somewhat rarer attitude, exemplified with Leni Riefenstahl. She is often said to be a really great filmmaker, maybe one of the best, not least by people who are also clear about her making Nazi films. But she is not really that good, and it often feels like people get a kick out of saying "Yes, she made Nazi propaganda but she was still a great artist." as if revelling in their own broad-mindedness. With Riefenstahl it is also the case that her politics are obvious in the films she made. This is also true for Russian cinema of the 1920s (like Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein) where most films were more or less propaganda for the Stalin regime. There is a double standard here because the politics and the mass killings during Stalin's reign were as awful and indefensible as those of Hitler, yet Stalinist propaganda is not treated the same way, and can often be found, and celebrated, without the kind of critical contextualisation that usually follows Riefenstahl's films, or Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Such contextualisation is always useful. Consider the 1930s, when antisemitism was widespread and depressingly common, and across the political spectrum from the far left through the middle to the far right. It is highly likely that some, perhaps even a majority, of the filmmakers we know from that time also were antisemitic, in the mainstream fashion of the day, in Sweden, France, the U.S. and elsewhere as well. Jean Renoir is sometimes mentioned for example, and Preston Sturges and Hawks too. (Whether they actually were antisemitic, even by the standards of the time, remains unclear, and books about them still grapple with it.) If the antisemitism is visible in the films it should be a concern but if it is not, and if it is not even clear as to whether the people behind it were guilty of it, then we should be able to enjoy and appreciate the films in their own rights.

La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937)

But let's return to Polan and his thoughts on Hawks. Here is the full quote:
I've tried to avoid this in the Hawks course because I don't want to make it just about relevance, but there are many things in Hawks. For instance, his fascination for masculinity. He has a libertarian side. His biographers guessed that he was probably Republican, he was certainly anti-New Deal. I don't want to make out as if he leads up to Trump. You don't want to falsely make things relevant. But you want to make the connections. America has a history which is now a shameful history, and it's going to be worth unpacking how we got there. And movies are part of how we got there.
There are a lot of confusing statements here. Many filmmakers can be said to have a "fascination for masculinity", but what does it actually mean and what has it got to do with Trump? In Hawks's films there are frequent gags to undermine that masculinity, which is not something you would associate with Trump. What does it mean to have a libertarian side? To the extent that libertarianism is about personal freedom I certainly have a libertarian side, but that puts me in opposition to Trump who is in favour of corporate freedom, not personal freedom, nor does it mean I would support the Libertarian Party. (Which, by the way, is not associated with Trump. Their presidential candidate of 2016 was the hapless Gary Johnson.) It is quite possible that Hawks was a Republican (although he seems to have been apolitical and did perhaps not even vote) but so was Eisenhower and Lincoln, so should they also be taught as a way of explaining how the U.S. ended up with Trump? Is there in fact anything, at all, in Hawks's films that could be meaningful for "unpacking how we got there"? Something like Robert Rossen's fine adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) does a good job of showing that there is a long tradition, which has always been shameful, of dangerous demagogues in American politics, and there are many other films that are useful for exemplifying that. My major point though is that there is a strong element of guesswork and irrelevant focus on Hawks's personal political beliefs, so you would be teaching that, not the films. And then you might just as well teach anybody.


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I am much less lenient when it comes to philosophers who support dictators and brutal regimes or devious causes. Whether it is Heidegger and the Nazis or the long line of French and American philosophers celebrating Stalin and Mao and others, it seems to me to be impossible to disentangle that from their general thinking. Alain Badiou's philosophy does feel like an elaborate effort to mathematically prove that the Chinese Cultural Revolution, organised by Mao, in which over a million innocent Chinese were randomly killed was the greatest thing (or event) in human history.

Todd McCarthy addresses the issue of Hawks and antisemitism in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, in connection with Lauren Bacall, who was Jewish and Hawks's protégé. The evidence is inconclusive.

Renoir seems to have been against antisemitism, so the opposite of his father, although sometimes a stereotype slips by. As an example of writing on it, Maureen Turim looks at Renoir and antisemitism in her chapter in A Companion to Jean Renoir.

It seems that Budd Schulberg accused Preston Sturges of being antisemitic, which is interesting as it was also a similar accusation by Schulberg that was behind that recent, disgraceful book The Collaboration - Hollywood's Pact with Hitler. Even the title is disgraceful since there was no collaboration and no pact. But that is another story.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Richard Quine detour

This week I have been working on an article about Richard Quine for another publication so there will be no new writing here today, alas. But I can provide some Quine material. See you in two weeks. [Here is a link to my now published article, in La furia umana.]

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)


The World of Suzie Wong (1960) 

The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)



If you want to read more about some of Quine's films you can do so here:



And in print only: Film Comment's May/June issue of 2016 where Glenn Kenny wrote about Strangers When We Meet (1960).

Friday, 18 August 2017

A Bell for Adano (1945)

In my on-going series of articles about war films made in 1945 the first three films were of actual combat, Ford's They Were Expendable (in the Philippines), Walsh's Objective, Burma! and William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (in Italy). This post is about a film set behind the front line, Henry King's adaptation of A Bell for Adano, originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Hersey. That way the post combines three of my major research focuses of late: war films from 1945, 20th Century Fox and Henry King.


Hersey was a war correspondence for the magazines Time and Life and in 1944 he was in Sicily where he visited the small town of Licata. After the Allied invasion of Italy the previous year the fascists mayors were removed from power and replaced by officers from Britain or the US. In Licata, an U.S. Army Major called F.E. Toscani was put in charge and one of his first tasks was to replace a 700 years old bell that the fascists had taken and melted down to make weapons. It was not Toscani's own priority to replace it but it was what the villagers wanted, not least as a symbol that the years of war and dictatorship were over. Later Hershey wrote a book about it, but a fictionalised version, renaming the town Adano and calling the major Joppolo instead of Toscani. (As indicated by the names both the real major and the fictional one were of Italian ancestry. The parents were born there and had come to the U.S. as economic refugees.)

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The film opens with a shot with the camera up in the town looking down at a car driving through the countryside. It continues up a hill, past the harbour and through the town until it stops on the main square. It is done in one excellently timed long take and immediately creates a strong sense of place. In the car are Joppolo, played by John Hodiak, and his sergeant, played by William Bendix, and while they seem to be the only people around, soon they will have their hands full with people coming at them from all directions, primarily asked for food and water. In the beginning the Americans, and in particular the captain in charge of the MPs, are rather contemptuous towards the Italians. But Joppolo, despite being overwhelmed by his assignment, does not succumb to such feelings. He remains committed to fairness and justice. This is what eventually leads to his downfall.

The cast is a combination of American, Italians, Italian-Americans and the French actor Marcel Dalio, also playing an Italian. The Czech-born Hugo Haas plays a priest. Henry Morgan plays the MP who is, in a way, the villain in the film. Gene Tierney plays Tina Tomasino, an Italian woman with whom Joppolo has some sort of a relationship although he is married and she is engaged. His wife is home in America and her boyfriend is missing, perhaps dead or in a prison camp, so they are united in their loneliness. It is a sweet section of the film but Tierney does not feel right. Tina wants to be different from the other women in town, and she dyed her hair to become a blonde to stand out from all the others with black hair, but there is something stiff about Tierney's performance. Many of the Italians are otherwise portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated manner, which gets tiresome on occasion.

Dalio between Hodiak and Bendix.

While not shot on location on Sicily but at Brent's Crag in California (the same place where a few years earlier Ford had made How Green Was My Valley (1941), also for 20th Century Fox) King and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle try to do what they can to create a feeling of realism. Unusually for a film by King the mise en scène looks somewhat haphazard and improvised, and the lighting is sometimes rather dull, but this might be deliberate in order to make it look less staged. There are also several very powerful sequences, such as one when the men of the town, who had been imprisoned by the Allied, one day returns home. First we see the women leaving their houses, sisters, wives and mothers, and then we see the men walking, tired but happy, towards them. Then there is a sudden cut from street-level to a camera placed high above the square where all the men and women meet in one big frenzy of tears and hugs. When seen from a distance all the combined emotions from all these people becomes very moving. The recurring use of the 1944 romantic song Lili Marleen also contributes to the feeling of the film.

A Bell for Adano is peculiar for the angle from which the story is told. This honourable man, Joppolo, is doing the best he can but he is hamstrung by the bureaucracy and pettiness of the U.S. Army. Considering the war was still going on when the film was shot it is remarkable how it sides with the Italians, ostensibly the enemy, against the army and the thinly disguised general Patton. I do not think there are any similar films set in Germany or Japan; that came later. But it does perhaps relate to one of King's recurrent themes, which is forgiveness and acceptance. (Here that the Italians and the Americans should aim for this together, and to move forward together.) This does not mean that the Italian fascists are forgotten. Many of the Italians in the film are shown to have supported the fascists, with different levels of sincerity, and the former major, an unrepentant fascist, is publicly humiliated before the townspeople. But the film's sympathy lies with the poor and hungry civilians. By siding with the townspeople and going against his own people Joppolo wins the locals' trust but at the same time it raises his superiors' suspicions and disappointment. The film ends with Joppolo being dismissed and relocated, at the very day the locals have thrown him a big party. His sergeant cannot bring himself to tell him the news and instead gets drunk and then collapse in tears, so Joppolo is able to enjoy the party without knowing it will be the last time he will ever see these people. The beautiful last shot shows Joppolo, in the early morning mist, get into a jeep and drive away through the empty streets.

The ending is typical for the war films of 1945, it is not triumphant but melancholic. While A Bell for Adano is not the best of them, or the best of Henry King, it is both interesting and moving.

Tierney and Hodiak.

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A Bell for Adano was edited by Barbara McLean, one of King's most important partners. They made close to 30 films together.

My earlier article about Henry King is here.

Here are the articles about They Were Expendable, Objective, Burma! and The Story of G.I. Joe.

After the book and film came out there was some friction between the real major, Toscani, his wife and John Hersey due to the part about the woman whom Toscani allegedly had an affair with.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Budd Boetticher

Whoever is thinking about making a film should first watch a couple of films made by Budd Boetticher. Not just because so many of them are great works of art, but because he manages to capture so much in them despite them usually being around 70 minutes long and despite them usually having a slow pace. The precise judgement behind what is shown, what is said and what is left out is about as close to perfection you might reach in cinema. Then there is the moral clarity, which is put forward with the same precision and judgement. There is no need for lengthy discussions, all it takes is two words. "Do we?" It is a recurrent response from the main character, especially when played by Randolph Scott, whenever another character says, for example "We think alike you and I." or "Then we understand one another." Behind that "Do we?" lies a whole moral system, an ethics of how to live and how to behave towards others from which the main characters never flinch. In Seven Men from Now (1956) a cavalry officer is talking about killing Indians and looks nervously at Scott's character for confirmation. What he gets instead as one of those "Do we?" and the officer understands the implicit contempt and condemnation in the words and the tone of voice.

There are many other things in Boetticher's work that is special, such as their depictions of deep friendships and the visual style. Some of my favourite shots of all time are to be found in his work, and nothing beats this one from Ride Lonesome (1959):


Their force come not just from the beauty of them but also from the emotional undercurrent that they express, or crystallise. The films are often tragedies, and the images express that too. Comanche Station (1960) is a film about a man who has spent the last ten years mourning the loss of his wife while still searching for her in the mad hope that she might still be out there, somewhere. The film ends like it begins, with him alone on his horse, still searching.

Earlier this year an edited collection called ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher was published by Edinburgh University Press and I contributed a chapter to it. What follows is a part from the introduction to my chapter. First I raise some questions about the concept of the "classical Hollywood style" of filmmaking and wondering whether there is such a thing and how it is to be defined. My suggestion is "a linear narrative, unambiguous cause and effect, an unobtrusive visual style and unironic tone" (which obviously leaves out quite a lot of Hollywood films that use other styles of filmmaking) and then I turn to Boetticher:
Where does this leave Budd Boetticher? One the one hand his films do have a linear narrative, unambiguous cause and effect, an unobtrusive visual style and they are not obviously ironic, so in that respect it could be argued that he is a director who actually do make films in the style of authentic “classical” American cinema. But at the same time he is one of the most austere filmmakers of those who worked in Hollywood. His precise, economical style is sometimes more reminiscent of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu or Robert Bresson than any of his American contemporaries. There is rarely any stylistic excess or flamboyance, the actors underplay and are often expressionless and there is nothing that could be described as showing off. To some this might be regarded as a consequence of his films’ comparatively small budgets although there is actually no obvious correlation between a small budget and an austere style. Filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis and Samuel Fuller made films on equally small, or even smaller budgets, than Boetticher yet their style of filming was very different from his, and much more expressionistic and flamboyant. So Boetticher’s style of filmmaking should be regarded as a conscious choice; that he prefers this straightforward and low key style, and it is after all a style that is congenial with the themes of his films. The thing that really matters in his best films is the behavior of the characters, their moral code and grace under pressure, and these characters do not talk much and do not try to show off, nor do they become overtly emotional. (Those that try to show off are usually punished.) With his recurring theme of stoicism and grace it should not come as a surprise that Boetticher had a keen interest in bullfighting, and that he made several films on the subject. The first of these is Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a key development in Boetticher’s career, the first full-length A-film that he made, as well as his first film about bullfighting. This chapter will argue that Bullfighter and the Lady is an important film, and show how several of Boetticher’s themes and motifs, and his style of filmmaking, are fully formed here. It will also argue that there are links to both the transcendental style of filmmaking that Paul Schrader writes about, and to Taoism, the Chinese philosophical system, or way of life. 
While Boetticher is today remembered for his Westerns he made many other films that are also often as good and Bullfighter and the Lady is one example of that, as is the thriller The Killer is Loose (1956). Seek them out.

Seven Men from Now

The Killer is Loose

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2017-08-18 I am aware that Edgar is Ulmer's first name, not Edward, so I have corrected that now, and I added a few words in the fourth paragraph.