Friday, 15 July 2016

William A. Wellman

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

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

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

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

Anne Baxter in Yellow Sky (1948).

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

Eccentric staging in Nothing Sacred.

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


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

Friday, 1 July 2016

German cinema after the war

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

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

Murderers Among Us

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

Clift, Ivan Jandl and Zinnemann

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

The Devil Strikes at Night

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


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

The end of Berlin Express


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

Friday, 17 June 2016

Growing old with Ozu and Hawks

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

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

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

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

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

Hawks, Grant and Rita Hayworth in 1939.

Wayne in Red River (1948).

Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959).

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

Late Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

Ozu himself

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

Friday, 3 June 2016

To see someone like yourself on the screen

Belle (Amma Asante 2013) is a conventional British period piece set in the 1780s, among rich people in a stately mansion. Conventional except for one thing. The main character is black.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido in Belle

At first I was annoyed by how conventional it was but after a while I changed my mind and felt that this was actually a good thing, as this underlines the message that it is the black character that stands out here, not the form, and that there is no reason why a conventional period piece could not have a black actor as its lead. This is what I meant by the title of this post, to see someone like yourself on screen might be a liberating and fulfilling thing if you are not used to that, or not used to doing that in such a setting or in such a character. That Belle is based on a true story and the people in it are actual historic figures made it easier to make it perhaps but it does not have to be based on a true story. Casting might be colour-blind as it is sometimes called. Kenneth Branagh cast Denzel Washington in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1993) for example and especially in a Shakespeare adaptation anything should be possible. Although, and here the trouble with colour-blind casting appears, having a white actor play Othello, even if not in blackface as was the case in earlier films, would not really wash. Or maybe it would if for example that was the only part played by a white actor.

Robert Sean Leonard, Washington and Richard Briers

When I saw 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen 2013) I was impressed by the first part, when Solomon Northup lived a good life as a happily married man in 19th century New York. I had never seen a period piece from that time before in which black characters were portrayed in such a joyful and prosperous situation. I had on the other hand seen several films in which they played slaves. I do wonder whether it would not be a good thing if there were some films that also captured that kind of good life, as it too is a historical fact. It would be the unexpected and bring more visual reference points, and it would be a step forward in terms of equality. I can understand if some would consider it wrong. That since slavery was (still is) such a monstrous thing it should always be the focus, and by showing black characters who are actually enjoying life in 19th century America we might de-centre the institution of slavery, similar to how Stanley Kubrick allegedly disliked Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg 1993) because it was a film about the few Jews that survived the Holocaust. I seems unclear if and when Kubrick actually said that, and in any event it is unfair because Spielberg were not denying the extent of how many were killed, he only chose on particular story among many others, and the story of Oscar Schindler deserves to be told. By the same token you might criticise 12 Years a Slave because it is about a slave who survived and it has a happy ending. But that is obviously not my view.

These are important discussions to have, to think about representation and portrayal of various groups and minorities in our films. But sometimes calls for equality of representation seem to not have been thought through. For example, word is spreading that James Bond should be played by a woman. I find this something of a paradox. Either the woman plays James Bond, a male character, which would be highly unusual and probably not be taken seriously. Or she would play a female character, perhaps called Jane Bond. But then she would not, in fact, play James Bond, but a different character. Therein lies the paradox. So it is difficult to know whether those who are advocating that a woman should play Bond mean what they say or are just having some fun. The symbolic meaning of having a woman at the centre of this lengthy, immensely successful and trendsetting series is however considerable so it is worth considering, and an obvious alternative, which would not be a paradox of any kind, would be to upgrade Miss Moneypenny to a 00. She showed her capabilities in the field in Skyfall (Sam Mendes 2012) and M had probably meant for her to be a field agent had things not taken a bad turn. But as Bond (and Daniel Craig) seemed to be wanting to retire after Spectre (Sam Mendes 2015) and Miss Moneypenny clearly unhappy behind her desk, there is no reason why she could not be put into training again and eventually given the license. Everything else in up-coming films could remain as it has been for so long, only M would be sending Miss Moneypenny on missions instead of Bond. She could just take over the franchise, and Naomie Harris could stay on to play the part for a few years. That would be really exciting.

Harris as Moneypenny in Skyfall

Sometimes discussions about representation become ungratifying. I was once interviewed on radio on that topic and the approach they had was angry and ignorant. "Why are there no films about people with disabilities or queer characters?" was basically their question. There are of course a lot of such films and I mentioned perhaps 20 to 30 different films. Their response was usually "Oh, I had never heard about that film." to which I resisted to urge to reply "Well, whose fault is that?" If they actually were so concerned about it they might at least have googled "films about people in wheelchairs" and other similar questions, instead of assuming that:

a) if I do not know about it, it must be because it does not exist 
b) nobody has thought about this before, I am the first. 

That is just narcissism masquerading as progressiveness, and I have often encountered this, I have even heard people burst out "Why are there no female directors?" even though there are hundreds of female directors. This has puzzled me before but that radio interview explained something. When questions about queer films came up Rainer Werner Fassbinder was mentioned and the reaction was "Oh please, who wants to see old German films?" The problem for them was not so much that there were no such films, the problem was that there were no such films that they could be bothered to watch. If it was not a Hollywood action film then no thanks. So the beef is not necessarily "Why are there no films with queer characters?" The beef is "Why are there no films with queer characters shown at my nearest cinema and which have a lot of explosions and people fighting robots?" These two questions are not the same, and alas the people who are asking the first question but are really asking the second question often come across as narrow-minded and lazy, rather than enlightened and progressive. It is like when people ask "Why are there so few films with other than white actors in the leads?" The answer to that question is that in fact the overwhelming majority of films being made any given year do not have white actors in the leads because most films are made in Africa and South and South-East Asia. The question is actually Eurocentric (or westcentric).

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire (Deepa Mehta 1996)

But. This does not mean that there is not a legitimate case to make against mainstream Hollywood concerning, for example, whitewashing, as when films based on true stories change the ethnicity of the characters so even though they might have been Hispanics or Asian-Americans in real life, in the film they are white, or for the lack of original parts for other than white actors, or for the lack of LGBT characters and so on. Since mainstream Hollywood films have such a global reach it is fair to highlight their deficiencies. But these are not easy questions. What is a fair representation? Should each group of people in the United State, such as African-Americans, Native Americans, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, gay, lesbians, transgender, senior citizens, people with disabilities and so on, all be represented by the same percentage as their prevalence in society at large, including, say, clammers or morticians? I suppose not. But even though most would agree that things are not good enough now there will never be a time when everybody are satisfied. There will always be some who feel left out or forgotten or under-represented. This is not a problem to be solved, this is a perpetual struggle, as it must be, since people change all the time and our demands and expectations also change all the time.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (John Sayles 1992)

At the same time, it is also important not to forget that we are talking about art, and art is not real life. It is not the business of art to satisfy each and every one or to follow some official guidelines when it comes to representation. Art must also be cut some slack, otherwise we would never have had any art to begin with. We should not be complaisant, we should call out racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and such when it appears, but we cannot demand of art that it be better than us humans who make it. And we should always be mindful that our own interpretation is not the only one to make, not the "correct" one. What one feminist thinks is trash another feminist might feel is empowering and liberating. Some find this ambiguity scary and it makes them uncomfortable, but such people are frequently afraid of art as such and should not necessarily be trusted. 

Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung in Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai 1997)

A recent article in New York Times about Asian-American actors taking a united stand against whitewashing. 

Representation is not only about issues with the body (skin colour, gender, illnesses), it can also be about class for example, but I limited myself in this post, it is already long enough. 

By saying that art must be cut some slack and not be ruled by official guidelines regarding representations some might suggest that this is just me showing off my privileges, as a white male and all, but that is not really an argument. It is also a reminder that prejudices come in all shapes and forms. Sometimes person A will lambaste the alleged privileges (white, male cis-person and whatnot) of person B, oblivious to the fact that person B is actually a woman, or black, or gay. The thinking there is that "Since you have that opinion you must be a white male." which is, well, a prejudice. Engage with the argument, not the sexuality or skin colour of the person making it.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Misfortunes and malfunctions instead of Charles Walters

During his years as dancer, choreographer and director Charles Walters was highly regarded, and well-paid. He began working on Broadway in the 1930s and directed his first film in 1947, Good News. He was then part of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM and was nominated for an Academy Award for directing Lili (1954). He did choreography both on the films he himself directed as well as on other films, including Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minnelli 1944) and Gigi (Vincente Minnelli 1958), sometimes having sole responsibility, including for the camera movements, for those scenes he choreographed. Walters was also, unusually at the time, an openly gay man, living with his partner John Darrow. He made his last film in 1966, Walk, Don't Run, after which he worked for television for ten more years. He died in 1982.

I had planned for this week's post to be about Walters and his films alas, due to a remarkable number of technical difficulties and lost books, that will not happen. It will have to wait for another day. And as I had nothing else planned, this is pretty much all you are going to get this time.

Well, and this scene from High Society (1956), with music by Cole Porter. I love it.