Friday, 22 August 2014

The Guest Writer #2: Sofia Åkerberg on The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road

The blog has a new feature, the occasional guest writer, somebody who is given complete freedom to write about whatever he or she wants, and in whatever way they choose, with my job only to proofread it (and perhaps add an image, or a fact or a figure for clarity). The previous guest was Barry Putterman. This time it is Sofia Åkerberg.

Sofia, who lives in Arboga, Sweden, writes one of Sweden's best film blogs, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, which covers not only film but also literature, with a particular emphasis on fantasy and science fiction writing. The blog is in Swedish only but here she of course writes in English.

***

The Petrifying Suburbia by Sofia Åkerberg

What does Bette Davis and Kate Winslet have in common, apart from the fact that they were both born on a Sunday, both on the fifth (April and October) and are both two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon (via Mary Steenburgen and Eli Wallach, respectively)?

Quite a lot as it turns out. To be specific, these two fine actresses have both played the character Gabrielle Maple in The Petrified Forest. The American playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote this piece in 1935 and only a year later it was made into a movie, directed by Archie Mayo. Here, Davis was flanked by not only Leslie Howard but also a swarthy and intense actor in the beginning of his career by the name of Humphrey Bogart (both of Howard and Bogart were repeating their performances from the stage).

At the beginning of Revolutionary Road, both the book from 1961 by Richard Yates and the movie from 2008 by Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet's April Wheeler is also playing Gabrielle in a production of The Petrified Forest staged by the community theatre group the Laurel Players. But the connections between The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road run deeper than a mere enactment of the same play.

Gabrielle Maple is the daughter of a dirt poor owner of a service station in the middle of nowhere, i.e. the Arizona desert. Despite the uplifting sign announcing “Last Chance!” this place offers absolutely no chances for Gabrielle. While the college football player and hired hand Boze tries to pick her up (to no avail), Gabrielle reads François Villon and dreams about a real life, an exciting life, in France (where her war-bride mother is residing).

Enter hitchhiker Alan Squires, a penniless and failed writer whose only goal at the moment seems to be to traverse the North American continent. It turns out that he and Gabrielle have a lot in common, or at least that Gabrielle wants them to have a lot in common. He talks about ambitions, life and death in a way that the young woman has never heard before. His eloquent self-hatred, cultural refinement (nice going with that T.S. Eliot quote, Alan) and lugubrious disposition represents an irresistible appeal to her.


 When Revolutionary Road premiered there was a lot of talk about how Frank and April Wheeler were the sad continuation of the characters played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. What if, instead of one of them drowning in icy waters, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson had had the opportunity to survive together in suburban Connecticut? I would like to think that a more apt question that Revolutionary Road tries to answer is: what if Alan and Gabrielle had managed to create a life together?

After an enchanting romance in New York, Frank and April Wheeler does everything by the book when it turns out that a baby is on the way. They buy that adorable house in western Connecticut which naturally is close enough to the big Apple so that Frank can commute each day to the same company that employed his father.

Frank and April might do everything by the book but the important thing to them is that they do not live by the book. They see suburbia for the sham that it is, its hopeless emptiness, and Frank acquired his boring job at Knox Business Machines as a joke more than anything else. In order to maintain his identity he does not want to have a job that might be even remotely interesting while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life.

But four years on the same page and the joke is wearing pretty thin. Frank still tries to maintain that he and April are different, more aware, better, that their neighbours while April has realised that they are exactly like them. And unlike her husband, she decides to take action.

Like Alan and Gabrielle, Frank manages to woo April with self-deprecating wit and beautiful words, making her think that he is “the most interesting person I've ever met”. But unlike Gabrielle, April gets an opportunity to realise that there is nothing behind the sarcastic façade. Alan and Frank are two men lost in a rational world, without a definite purpose apart from a vague desire to do something that will make their mark.

Since Yates (and, thereby, Mendes) gives Frank more time to unveil his character than Sherwood gives Alan, we are able to realise that the man is somewhat of a smug jerk. As soon as he is opposed, be it by his wife, a temporary guest or the roommate of his mistress, he lashes out. The fights between him and April are truly vitriolic and we even understand that he is no stranger to throw a punch or two. April tries to secure Frank’s humanity by offering him an opportunity to find out what he wants to do with his life, but in reality, her determination emasculates him. He is no more fit to be a kept man by a capable woman than was Alan (who was supported by his publisher's wife for a while).

The Petrified Forest starts with a discussion on the miserable state of the republic (the great depression and dust bowl doing their bit) while a sign behind the bar claims that “Tipping is un-American”. However, this is not the kind of revolution that goes on inside the house at Revolutionary Road. A revolution is in its essence a fundamental change of power and during the time we get to follow Frank and April the power surges from Frank to April, back to Frank, only to pass over to his wife yet again. But regardless where the power lies, Frank is never truly satisfied.

When April has control he tries to take it back. But as soon as he has got his trophy he does not know what to do with it. The same goes for his wooing of April – winning her was a great achievement but he does not know how to handle the prize once he got it. In this way, Frank's mistress Maureen becomes a new Gabrielle who is as easily impressed as April was the first time they met. She makes him feel like a man again, enabling him to conjure up images of lions and eagles.

Despite how the story turns out, The Petrified Forest ends on a more positive note. Perhaps some would call it delusional. But we are still left with the impression that Alan does more good for Gabrielle when dead than alive, although she might not see it right there and then. She is alive and still able to pursue her dreams which is more than can be said for either April or Frank when we take leave of them. Maybe the complacent 1950s in reality was more demoralising than the great depression.

Friday, 15 August 2014

George Sherman #2 Some links

Earlier this year I wrote about George Sherman, the great yet completely unknown director. This brief post will provide some links to what others have written about Sherman (I have not included short reviews of a single film). I have not found much, and if you know of anything more, please let me know.

The only thing I know about Sherman, other than his films, is that he was not a tall man. Here is a photograph from the set of The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955), one of many films Sherman made in Mexico.

Gilbert Roland, Sherman, Shelley Winters and producer Edmund Grainger.

Some links then. First to an article by R. Emmet Sweeney about a couple of Sherman's films. Second is an article by Dave Kehr about Sherman's earliest work, on the series of films figuring the Three Mesquiteers. Here is an article by Julie L. Mellby at Princeton University about Sherman and Leon Trotsky. This is an amusing short post about a tree that appears in Sherman's Reprisal! (1956) and here is Mike Grost's collection of references from and thoughts about Sherman's films.

Those who want to do in-depth research on Sherman, his papers are at the Margaret Herrick Library.

The scene in War Arrow (1953) when Elaine Corwin (played by Maureen O'Hara) suddenly appears in a glowing white dress in the otherwise grey and dusty surroundings. 

More posts about Sherman are forthcoming, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

The cover that made Nancy Keith, Howard Hawks's wife, suggest he cast Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944).

Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, while Bacall and Bogart glance at each other across the room, in To Have and Have Not. Howard and Nancy called each other Steve and Slim, which is why Bogart and Bacall call each other that in the film.



The atmosphere is just amazing in the film, as a mood piece it might be Hawks's most successful, although it is not his best film.

Bacall, Bogart and Hawks then worked their magic again in The Big Sleep (1946). As so often with Hawks the plot is treated as unimportant; the chemistry and the interactions between humans are what matters.



Ten years later, after several films, she appeared in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk 1956), one of Sirk's most distinguished films. Here is a short scene with Dorothy Malone, they play sisters-in-law.



Yet another 10 years later she was with Paul Newman in Harper (aka The Moving Target Jack Smight 1966), a film that is self-consciously aware of its predecessors, such as The Big Sleep (which was also highly self-conscious, but in a different way).



This clip is from The Walker (Paul Schrader 2007), one of her last films, in which she played against Woody Harrelson.



As a bonus, click on this link and you can see Edward Murrow interviewing Bogie and Betty in their home, in 1954. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/archive-lauren-bacall-and-humphrey-bogart-speak-to-edward-r-murrow/

Now she has died, a few weeks before her 90th birthday. She was wonderful, and never more so as when she sang with Hoagy Carmichael in her very first film. So here is another scene from To Have and Have Not.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A film from every year

People always ask me about my favourite films, sometimes in general and sometimes with specifications (best Japanese film, best film with Myrna Loy) and I answer as best as I can. I also like to make lists, as many do. Some frown upon lists, finding them demeaning and distortionous.* And they can be, if done badly or taken too seriously. But as a service to anybody who wonders about my favourites and as an excuse to make lists, they will be a more regular feature on Fredrik on Film from now on. Different kinds of lists, with different aims.

Today's list is chronological, featuring my favourite feature fiction films from (almost) every year since 1913. Before 1913 films were rarely of any great length, and the few that exists I have not seen. Neither have I seen any from 1914, as far as I can recall. (Unfortunately I have seen very few films from the 1910s in general, but those I have seen have in general been good, not least those by Cecil B. DeMille, who is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of that decade. Perhaps the best, together with Victor Sjöström.) But here is the list in full. I have tried to choose only one for every year but accept my apologies for those years when it was impossible to do so. It was especially hard in those magical years after World War 2.**

1913 Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström)
1914 ?
1915 Regeneration (Raoul Walsh)
1916 Intolerance (D.W. Griffith)
1917 Thomas Graal’s Best Film (Mauritz Stiller)
1918 Old Wives for New (Cecil B. DeMille)
1919 Don’t Change Your Husband (Cecil B. DeMille)
1920 Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller)
1921 Tol’able David (Henry King)
1922 Phantom (F.W. Murnau) Nosferatu (Murnau)
1923 A Woman in Paris (Charlie Chaplin)
1924 Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton)
1925 Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau)
1926 Faust (F.W. Murnau)
1927 Sunrise (F.W. Murnau)
1928 The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg) A Girl in Every Port (Howard Hawks)
1929 Asphalt (Joe May)
1930 The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
1931 M (Fritz Lang)
1932 Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg)
1933 Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch)
1934 Twentieth Century (Howard Hawks)
1935 Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen) Toni (Jean Renoir)
1936 Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir)
1937 The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey) La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir)
1938 Holiday (George Cukor)
1939 Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
1940 His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
1941 Stormy Waters aka Remorques (Jean Grémillon)
1942 In Which We Serve (David Lean) Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
1943 Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock) Changing Trains (Hasse Ekman)
1944 Laura (Otto Preminger)
1945 Brief Encounter (David Lean)
1946 My Darling Clementine (John Ford) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
1947 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger)
1948 The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed) Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls) Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky) The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)

The Fallen Idol, with a for Reed typical angle.

1949 The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls) Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis) The Third Man (Carol Reed) Border Incident (Anthony Mann)
1950 All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
1951 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli) Bullfighter and the Lady (Budd Boetticher) Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock) The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith)
1952 Casque d’Or (Jacques Becker)
1953 Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
1954 A Star is Born (George Cukor)
1955 The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis)
1956 A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
1957 Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick) Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa)
1958 Man of the West (Anthony Mann) Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk)
1959 Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks) The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
1960 Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
1961 The Hustler (Robert Rossen)
1962 Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
1963 The Leopard (Luchino Visconti)
1964 Lilith (Robert Rossen) The Train (John Frankenheimer)
1965 Bunny Lake is Missing (Otto Preminger)
1966 Persona (Ingmar Bergman) Nayak (Satyajit Ray)
1967 Le samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville)
1968 Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)
1969 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah)
1970 The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci) Wild Child (François Truffaut) The Adversary (Satyajit Ray)
1971 A Touch of Zen (Hu King)
1972 Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah)
1973 The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann)
1974 Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette)
1975 Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
1976 Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
1977 Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
1978 Tree of Wooden Clogs (Ermanno Olmi) Fedora (Billy Wilder)
1979 Alien (Ridley Scott) Manhattan (Woody Allen)
1980 Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme) Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
1981 Southern Comfort (Walter Hill) Thief (Michael Mann) Blind Chance (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

Blind Chance

1982 The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
1983 The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan) Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)
1984 A Passage to India (David Lean)
1985 A Room With a View (James Ivory)
1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)
1987 Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
1988 Chocolat (Claire Denis)
1989 The Unbelievable Truth (Hal Hartley)
1990 Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami) Trust (Hal Hartley)
1991 La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette) The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
1992 Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood) In the Soup (Alexandre Rockwell)
1993 Remains of the Day (James Ivory)
1994 Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai) Quiz Show (Robert Redford)
1995 Heat (Michael Mann)
1996 Nénette et Boni (Claire Denis) Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
1997 Paper Airplanes (Farhad Mehranfar)
1998 After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda)
1999 Three Kings (David O. Russell)
2000 In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
2001 Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili) Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2002 10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
2003 Café Lumière (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
2004 Collateral (Michael Mann)
2005 Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)
2006 Still Life (Jia Zhangke) I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Park Chan-wook)
2007 Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov)
2008 The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi)
2009 A Serious Man (Ethan & Joel Coen)
2010 Last Night (Massy Tadjedin)

It is perhaps worth pointing out that all films on the list are not equally good. There are many films not listed that are much better than some of those above, that is inevitable. And consequently some directors, such as Raoul Walsh and Wes Anderson, are not represented with the films I think are their best. And before you start writing an angry comment accusing me of dimwitted philistinism because your favourite film is missing, please remember that it is possible I have not seen it, or that it stands as a very close second on its year.

A final note: Murnau's reign in the 1920s is remarkable. He was some artist.

Faust

---------------------------------------------
*Why is not distortionous a word?
** This was harder than I thought. I got a few films attached to the wrong year and has made adjustments, and some films have been replaced. On some films I have noticed that my sources give different years, such as Gun Crazy (1949 and 1950), Journey to Italy (1953 and 1954) and The Adversary (1970 and 1972). I do not know why that is, but I have had to choose which year to use. Blind Chance was made in 1981 but the Polish censors kept it from being released until 1987.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Kanchenjungha (1962)

A remarkable number of important Indian filmmakers were born in the first half of the 1920s, such as Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), Raj Kapoor (1924-1988), Tapan Sinha (1924-2009), Guru Dutt (1925-1964, his real name was Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone), Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) and Mrinal Sen (born 1923 and still alive, 91 years old). Alas, of these only Ray could be considered well-known outside of India these days, and even he is somewhat invisible. He is known as the maker of the Apu trilogy, a "neorealist master", but that is unfortunate because that was just the beginning. He then grew as a filmmaker, becoming better and more interesting, and moving far beyond being a "neorealist", whatever that might mean. In the 1960s he made extraordinary films such as The Big City (1963) and Charulata (1964) but it could be argued that the 1970s was Ray's best decade, when he did films such as The Adversary (1970), Company Limited (1972) Distant Thunder (1973) and The Middleman (1976). In time I will write a long essay about Ray, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, but for now just a few words about Kanchenjungha (1962). It was his first in colour and the first he wrote by himself, not based on something else. Besides writing and directed it he was also the producer, and he wrote the music, as he often did. He usually designed the posters for his films as well, but I do not know if that was the case here.

The film is set on a hill in Darjeeling, overlooking the mountain Kanchenjunga (it is spelled differently from the film), to which a family has gone on holiday. Unfortunately the mountain itself has been hidden behind mist and clouds all the time they have been there so they have not seen it yet. (I had a similar experience once when I stayed in a small town at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan.) The family consists of the old couple, their daughters and the older daughter's husband and their child. Present is also a suitor to the younger daughter, as well as a bird-loving uncle. Little happens during the cause of the film, the characters walk around on the paths on the hill, discussing their relationships and problems they have. The centre drama concerns the younger daughter. The suitor has been pre-approved by the father; it is to be an arranged marriage, although the father is the only one in favour of it. He does not know this though because nobody has said anything against it, or protested. It is a film in which hardly anybody is happy, maybe just the bird-loving uncle, but eventually they all reach a point where they cannot take it any more. But there are no big emotional eruptions, this is a quiet film.


It is also a wonderful film, filled with Ray's warmth and compassion, and the structure, with repetitions, detours and circular movements (there is a recurring image of a girl on a bicycle for example), is both subtle and complex. There is also a lot of humour, and the camera work by Ray's regular DP, Subrata Mitra, captures the mist and the texture of the place very well. Everything works together beautifully.

There are many themes addressed in the film, with the issue of arranged marriages being just one of them. Class, gender, the ghosts of British India (it was made 14 years after India became independent); it is all there, although in such a way that it does not feel preachy or obvious. It is just the scenes between the older daughter and her husband, quarrelling over an affair she has had, that are a bit clumsy, perhaps because the actors lack conviction.

Ray was from Bengal, a successor of the Bengali renaissance to which, among others, his mentor and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore belonged. From Tagore's writings Ray would make several adaptations and although this is not one of them, Tagore's book The Home and the World is woven into the dialogue. It might not be Ray's best film, and rather unknown and unseen, but it is still an essential film.

-------------------------------
While we are on the subject on Indian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the team Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, together with the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, are known for their English dramas, such as A Room With a View (1985), Howard's End (1991) and Remains of the Day (1993), but they began in India where they made several fine films, and on four of their films Subrata Mitra was cinematographer, including The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare-Wallah (1965). I would also like to recommend their TV-films Autobiography of a Princess (1975) with James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey and Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978) with Aparna Sen (as Bonnie), Victor Banerjee (as Georgie), Saeed Jaffrey and Peggy Ashcroft.