Friday, 20 November 2015

Reading Bazin (#5) Bazin as TV critic

"Just as we stand equal before death, all men are equal before television."

This week I have read Dudley Andrew's new collection of articles by Bazin, André Bazin's New Media (2014), about TV, radio and recent (i.e. early 1950s) technical developments within cinema. It is as always very inspiring material and here are some brief observations about Bazin's thoughts on TV, the fifth instalment in my "Reading Bazin" series.


Bazin looks at TV from several different angles. He talks about technical issues, ethical problems, artistic innovations, censorship and medium specificity. But mostly he writes about French television, as this is primarily what he was able to watch. And he seems to like it. Except for serials, especially those aimed for children.

"TV poses a problem of household psychology, indeed of psychology period. Most serious is not so much the serial in itself as the fact that it is addressed foremost to children, just by the choice of films shown." he says. "They confuse the spirit of childhood with sociological cretinism." (p. 134)

But on the whole he is positive, even if a bit backhanded. "We shouldn't expect only marvels from [TV]. In fact, the amount of rubbish will have to be proportionally greater than in commercial cinema, but the sheer quantity of production ought to allow for a good number of successes." (p. 181)

What he likes is primarily the immediacy and intimacy of TV, and how it brings ordinary people into focus. He writes a lot about a program in which farmers are interviewed about their lives for example. ("The cinema will never film a biography of my concierge or my grocer, but on my TV set they can be admirable and astounding." (p. 46)). TVs approach to live drama is something he finds interesting too and here he thinks that TV has something to teach cinema.
Television reminds cinema of something it has long forgotten: the advantages of semi-improvisation, of working off the cuff. Between television and cinema there can be more than mere collaboration; there can be genuine symbiosis. In not selfishly trying to take any more from cinema than may be useful to it, television could inject new lifeblood back into cinema. (p. 173) 
He wrote that in 1951, and he felt the same way in 1958: "With TV, cinema can be rejuvenated."(p. 178), although, since this was seven years after his first such proclamation you might have expected this rejuvenation to have happened so that he could write that cinema "is being rejuvenated" rather than "can be rejuvenated". I think though that he was right, and that especially in the 1960s this is what had happened.

At one point he brings the theatre into the equation. "We have often opposed cinema to theater on the notion of the physical and temporal presence of the actor. But television is the presence of theater with the ubiquity of cinema." (p. 80) For Bazin, films like Marty (Delbert Mann 1955), 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet 1957) and The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann 1957), are examples of how TV has enriched cinema, although he finds Marty to be too sentimental. The Bachelor Party on the other hand he think is "extremely rich" and "brilliantly directed". (p. 169) Both Marty and The Bachelor Party were written by Paddy Chayefsky and first done live on TV, in 1953 and 1954, and 12 Angry Men as well, written by Reginald Rose. (An earlier example of the same kind of "new social realism" which Bazin might have mentioned is Come Back, Little Sheba (Daniel Mann 1952), which was based on William Inge's play although not done for TV.)

Bazin also talks about directors and directing, and there is a long interview with Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, two of Bazin's favourites who were then both directing for TV. ("[I]f you and I, Roberto, are turning toward television, it is because television is in a technically primitive state that may restore to artists that fighting spirit of the early cinema, when everything that was made was good." Renoir says at the end of the discussion. (p. 203)). Bazin also writes about Hitchcock's TV productions and he wonders why so many American filmmakers are making films for TV whereas hardly any French directors are doing it. Why John Ford and Leo McCarey but not Marcel Carné and Jacques Becker?

So what interests Bazin in cinema is also what interests him in TV, and reading this collection with his more famous work, such as the two collections of What is Cinema?, is to be recommended.

This was my fifth post about Bazin. The earlier ones are here:
This intimacy can even become troubling, to the point of implying reciprocity. As for me, each time I meet one of the presenters of the TV news or even a TV actor in the street, I have to suppress a spontaneous urge to shake their hand, as though they knew me from having seen me daily in front of my screen. (p. 40)

Saturday, 14 November 2015


Stay strong and do not succumb to fear and hatred.

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli 1951)
Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville 1956)
Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-Hsien 2007)
Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné 1938)
Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch 1939)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian 1932)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati 1958)
Before Sunset (Richard Linklater 2004)
Inception (Christopher Nolan 2010)

Friday, 6 November 2015

Lonely are the queer

This is a paper I presented a couple of years ago in St Andrews. I thought I post it here, more or less unedited (so the language is not all that it could be). Also, I mention important plot points for several films, Girl With Hyacinths, These Three, Tea and Sympathy and The Browning Version, just so you know.


Lonely Are the Brave is a beautiful film from 1961 about a man who was born in the wrong century. In the opening scene he is seen resting on the prairie with his horse, and then a jet plane flies over him, moving us quickly from what we thought was a scene from the century of the steam engine to a scene in the century of the jet engine. However, that is not what this talk is about, I just wanted to explain where the title came from. The talk is rather about the theme of loneliness and how it is connected to queerness.

The history of gay and lesbian characters in cinema has still to be written, or rather it is constantly being re-written. One thing though is that they are much more common than they are given credit for. They are there, more or less hiding. Much has been made about how These Three from 1936, the first film version of Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour removed the lesbian aspect from the play. Instead of love between one woman towards another, it became love between one woman and the boyfriend of another woman. But These Three smuggle these queer things into the film. The boyfriend is called Joe, so the woman who was lesbian in the original still get to say to the girlfriend to the boy she fancies “I love Joe/you”. When a truer version was made in 1963 now called The Children's Hour, by the same director William Wyler, it was more modernist and outspoken, but it had not the same emotional punch. Such hidden suggestions and innuendos are common within cinema, not least Westerns.

One thing that has always stood out for me when watching Hasse Ekman's Girl With Hyacinths is how lonely the main character is. This theme of loneliness runs through his films, in his last great film Stöten The Heist there is towards the end a shot of a young woman standing alone in a pool of darkness, surrounded by policemen, asked to give up her boyfriend. But nobody is as lonely as Dagmar Brink in Girl With Hyacinths. This loneliness is a mystery, and it is what intrigues the men in the film, as well as the audience I would suggest. Why is she so lonely? Because she is a lesbian in a time when that was not allowed or, when it was not allowed, was not talked about, or acknowledged.

Recently I watched Vincente Minnelli's fantastic Tea and Sympathy from 1956 and there again was a lonely person, well two actually, but one that is the point here, and that is the main character. I will show you the opening sequence to exemplify.

[In this scene we see the main character, Tom, walk around at a college reunion, where everybody are talking to each other and discussing the past and the future. But not Tom, he speaks with nobody.)

One of the key elements of Minnelli's mise en scène is the multidimensional staging, that there are several things going on at once. Sometimes two simultaneous scenes will take place at the same time in the same long shot. We can see that here.

The film is about a boy who when he was in high school was bullied and ridiculed for being "girlie". The woman in whose house he's staying, the wife of one of the teachers, takes him under her wings and tries to protect him. It doesn't go very well. He was, is, and remains lonely.

So I had both these films fresh in my mind when I watched a British film, the highpoint of director Anthony Asquith and playwright Terrence Rattigan's cooperation, The Browning Version from 1951. This is also a film about a lonely person, in this case a Latin teacher, played by Michael Redgrave in an astonishing performance. I did not think of it at once but at the end of the film I thought “but of course!”.

I would argue that the hidden assumption is that Redgrave's teacher is gay. That this is why he is lonely, that this is why he does not mind that his wife has had an affair.

All these examples are from the 1950s, which was coincidental, although since it is such a golden age of cinema, at least in the US and Japan, it is perhaps not that coincidental. But the thing that connects these three films is the explicit loneliness of the main character and his or her queerness, in different levels of explicitness. There is a lot more of queer subtexts in cinema before the 1960s than is acknowledged. And even when it is fairly obvious, like in Tea and Sympathy it is not seen. Geoff Brown wrote that “the combined forces of censorship and CinemaScope the tendencies threatened to disappear completely”  But he misses the point. It has been criticised for the fact that in the end the boy is “saved” and he gets married. But that is just mentioned in passing. We never see the alleged wife, he is still alone. In the first shot as well as in the last. There is nothing to “reassure” as, there are no heteronormative shots (such as of him with his wife, kissing, or some such).

But actually, the most interesting character in Tea and Sympathy is the sports teacher, the husband. He is clearly a closet gay man, and the most tragic character in the film. The boy is not in denial, but the husband is. In the end his wife leaves him and he now, too, is alone. So even if the boy would get married, what hope is there for that marriage? Marriage is just a blindfold, it will not cure anything, only hide it.

The love that dare not speak its name it was called, and the argument I'm making, an argument that needs to be backed up with plenty of more examples, is that in a time when it could not be pronounced, looking for the lonely characters might help us detect the ever present gay, or queer, characters. I would be interested in investigating this further. One obvious contender is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), to look at the real rebel, Sal Mineo's character, the boy who loves James Dean's character, and with whom he enters a weird relationship, in hiding building up a nuclear family which must end, like all family affairs in Nicholas Ray's world, in catastrophe.

In 1961, in Victim, Dirk Bogarde's character is confronted by his wife about a young man who has committed suicide. The wife wants to know why; is it because her husband and the young man were getting too close? Were they having an affair? He says that the man killed himself because he was blackmailed. She then asks why he was blackmailed; because he was a homosexual? Yes, because he was a homosexual. But who was the other man. Was it you? she asks. He finally succumbs. “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him, do you understand, I wanted him!” Now it was suddenly being explicit. In The Apartment made in 1960, C C Baxter (Lemmon's character) when he asks Fran (Shirley MacLaine's) out on a date she says that she already has an appointment. “With a girl?” he shyly asks. “No, with a man.” she says to which he replies “Well, some of the guys at the office had been talking...” “Well, you tell them every now and then. Just because a girl doesn't..”

Unfortunately this “coming out” led to decades of camp and burlesque, and seldom respect and ordinariness. But what happened to the loneliness? When the cat was out of the bag, the elephant in the room a conversation piece, did the loneliness of the queer character go away? It remains to be investigated.

I'd like to end this talk with my favourite scene from The Browning Version, which shows a rare moment of kindness towards the Latin teacher and its heartbreaking effect.


Such was the talk. In From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann 1953) Montgomery Clift's character says “Nobody ever lies about being lonely.” That is definitely a film to include in this investigation. I will write more on the subject soon.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Carol Reed

It is tempting to compare Carol Reed with Vittorio De Sica. They had both been making films for some time until they, right after the end of World War 2, made a number of influential and famous films that captured the moment and defined the time in which they were made, and in which children played an important part. Then they disappeared again from the limelight, making allegedly lesser films. These days though Reed is given a considerably shorter shrift than De Sica, even though I think Reed's films are the better ones, showing more dexterity, imagination, power and boldness.

Alec Guinness and Burl Ives in Our Man in Havana

It is sometimes claimed that The Third Man (1949) is so good because of its writer, Graham Greene, and the presence of Orson Welles. Some remain convinced that Welles directed parts of it (which he did not, he was barely present at all) or that the film at least is clearly influenced by Welles. Yet The Third Man is very similar to the films Reed made before and after, in terms of style, themes and direction of actors. There is no reason to belittle Reed. His body of work, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, is enough proof of his exceptional abilities and artistry.

Berlin in The Man Between (1953)

The canted camera angles is Reed's most obvious stylistic trademark, which began to appear already in the 1930s and with The Fallen Idol (1948) had become well integrated. An eccentric editing pattern had also become apparent in the middle of the 1940s, which helps create a nervous tension in the narrative. A recurring example is where a scene begins almost in mid-sentence, where the cut from one space to another is slightly disconnected; somebody is already talking in the new scene, perhaps turning away from the camera, or turning towards it. An opulent mise en scéne, with shadows, staircases and densely decorated rooms, is also part of his style. Space is on the whole of immense importance and often takes on subjective, psychological dimension (emphasised by the canted angles). Reed is interested in the environment, which is usually urban and hostile, and the space in which the film takes place is vividly brought to life, and with it the people who live in it, watching the strangers who are intruding in their mist. His main characters are usually doomed, both because of historical and political forces over which they have no control, but also because of personal weaknesses. In the context in which they find themselves even kindness can be such a weakness, This is partly what gives Reed's films their sense of melancholy, which is remarkably strong in The Stars Look Down (1940), Odd Man Out (1947), The Third Man, The Man Between, and is also there in Our Man in Havana (1959), Reed's last really great film.

This sequence from The Man Between, which takes place in Berlin before the building of the wall, has all of these things. A British woman, a German man, and a boy, are thrown together because of politics over which they have little control. Here they gave taken refuge on a roof. I consider it to be one of Reed's very best films, not least because of the music.


All these films are also political films, dealing either with internal British tensions or cold war politics. Another fine film of his is The Young Mr. Pitt (1942), a lesser known (and less distinctly Reedian) historical biopic about the 18th century British prime minister, played by Robert Donat. The Way Ahead (1944), co-written with Eric Ambler and Peter Ustinov, is a lovely, even gentle, film about a group of ordinary Englishmen, played by an impressive cast including William Hartnell, Stanley Holloway, David Niven, John Laurie and James Donald, who are reluctantly conscripted into the infantry in 1941 and after a long period of training are sent to Africa to fight against the Germans, although things do not go according to plan. This is not a war film, there is at most ten minutes of fighting. Instead it is about these men having to adjust to a new kind of life, far from modern conveniences and from their families.

Then there are the children. The ambassador's son in The Fallen Idol, the supervisor's son in The Third Man, the orphan (seen above) in The Man Between, the young daughter and an orphan river boy in Outcast of the Islands (1951), the main character in A Kid For Two Farthings (1955). They are innocent and loyal, but this too can be dangerous, and in both Fallen Idol and The Man Between the loyalty of a child becomes a threat.

Outcast of the Islands is Reed's most eccentric film, based on Joseph Conrad's second novel and set somewhere between Singapore and Borneo during the years of European colonisation, and shot on Sri Lanka. It is so filled with longing, self-loathing and degradation is almost painful to watch; in one scene Almayer, the German head of a trading post, is tied up in a hammock and pushed back and forth over an open fire by his Dutch enemy, Willems, whilst Almayer's daughter screams "Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!" and laughs at him. There is also captain Lingard, who once adopted Willems and now has brought him to this place, a place which he considers to be his islands and the local people his people; carrying on like a self-appointed king. "Does the white man know what is best for us?" Babalatchi, the local leader, asks with controlled contempt. In the end everything and everyone are ruined. "Ah, life is foul." Lingard exclaims, "Foul like a tangled rigging on a dirty night."

It is not entirely successful, as it feels slightly rushed, but the acting, the complexity of the emotions that run through it, and the visuals (as well as Reed's documentarian eye for faces and spaces) still make it a fine film, ending with a rainstorm worthy of Akira Kurosawa.

Willems (Trevor Howard) and Aissa (Kerima)

So while The Third Man is Reed's best known film, it is not his best film. The Fallen Idol and Odd Man Out are its equals, with The Man Between and Our Man in Havana close behind. In Reed's considerably powerful oeuvre, those five are in a league of their own.

As I have said before, British cinema of the 1940s and early 1950s is exceptional. If ever there was a golden age of cinema, it was there and then. I wrote recently about David Lean, the other week about A Canterbury Tale (1944) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and a few years ago I wrote about Anthony Asquith and J. Lee Thompson. But there are so many more films, filmmakers and actors, many who are more or less unknown outside of Britain, including the very few women directors who were active those years, such as Muriel Box and Wendy Toye.

Friday, 9 October 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I spent two days in Canterbury a couple of years ago, partly because of my love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale (1944). The cathedral provided accommodation so I slept on the premises, and in the morning I walked into the actual cathedral before it was open to the public. I walked around in there all by myself; a very special thing to do. Then when it opened to the public I happened to be by the main entrance, and inadvertently greeted all those who walked in, including a group of school children. When they saw me standing there they said "Hello." or "Good morning.", and I responded in kind, even occasionally throwing in a "Welcome" as if I belonged there, as if it was my cathedral.


Even by the usual standards of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale (1944) is eccentric. Shot in Kent, in the area where Powell grew up, and made at the height of the war, when American soldiers had begun to arrive in Britain to help with the existential fight against the Germans, it is filled with a deep sense of England's history, the past and the present coming together in a perpetual now. In the opening sequence a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury in the 15th century looks up at a falcon in the sky, a falcon which suddenly becomes a fighter plane (a Spitfire or a Hurricane?) in the same part of the sky, 500 years later. This is then the time in which the rest of the film is set, but the past is still there, and can be felt, and heard. This is a film about time, and the importance of history. It is also a place about space, both the natural world and the man-made. The Kentish countryside; the forest, the hills, the farms, and the small town in which the film takes place, and Canterbury and its cathedral, where the film comes to its conclusion. Everything imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, almost pantheistic.

This is fairly typical of Powell and Pressburger, for them space is always of the outmost importance. It is not just there, it means something, it is alive and it influences the characters in the most profound ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. In A Canterbury Tale space is warm and benevolent, the natural world is protective, and we can hide in it, and seek comfort. An American soldier and an old English man form an immediate bond over their mutual love of trees and wood.

But there are also weird things going on, and there is a war. People are being killed, or have gone missing. Disappointments are to be had. But sometimes, miracles happen. Not due to otherworldly causes but because life is unpredictable and sends conflicting messages. Sometimes the worst happens but not always. Good things also happen, and happiness can be found, even if it takes roundabout ways.

John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price

A Canterbury Tale is a deeply moving experience. Partly because one can sense the urgency with which they made it. "This is where I was born and this is where I grew up." Powell seems to be saying. "We must protected this place and preserve it. This is worth fighting for." The fight here is not for freedom or democracy but for time and space itself. It is also moving due to the characters, the three main characters, the American soldier, a land girl from London and a British soldier who was a cinema organist before the war, who meet by chance and become friends during a couple of days in Kent. They all have reasons to be disappointed, even heartbroken, especially she. There is one especially fine scene when she finds the caravan, now covered in dust and cobweb, with which she once travelled around Kent with a boy, now shot down somewhere over Germany.

A Canterbury Tale is also peculiar in that it contains so many things: a detective story, sometimes shot like it was a film noir, a pastoral hymn, a fairytale, a propaganda film, a history lesson. But these things are not disconnected, they are woven tightly together, in a unique and spellbinding way. The films of Powell and Pressburger constantly ask of us to reconsider the way we look at things; time, space and characters, and this is true for A Canterbury Tale too. Nothing is to be taken for granted, there is magic everywhere, if you pay attention.


The year after A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger made I Know Where I'm Going, with which it is closely connected (and both are photographed by Erwin Hillier). It was shot in Scotland, on the isle of Mull. I have been there too, and the magic remains.