Friday, 25 July 2014

A few words about superheroes

On a flight from Bristol I sat next to a boy with severe cat allergies and when he heard, between his sneezes, that I was a film scholar he wanted to talk about superheroes and the recent Batman films. That conversation brought me back to my childhood interest in superheroes, although it was in the form of comics, not films, then. I liked The Phantom best, created by Lee Falk in 1937, but then I forgot all about it until they suddenly reappeared in cinemas on what seems to be a monthly basis since the beginning of this century. (Although it is not necessarily the case that there are more superhero films now, only that there are more good ones, or at least more noticeable.)

The concept of superheroes could be said to go back to ancient days, with Egyptian, Greek and Norse gods as predecessors, but the contemporary ones primarily appeared in the 1930s in the US. Many of them were created by young Jews, such as Lee Falk, partly as a reaction to the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazis in Europe, who seemed to be unstoppable. Falk also created Mandrake, in 1934, who can be considered the first modern hero with supernatural powers. The most famous though was Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. (In their first project from 1933 Superman was the villain of the story, aiming for world domination.) There are different kinds of superheroes, for example there are those that come from some place else, aliens like Superman; there are ordinary humans who, often through an accident, are given special powers, such as Spider-Man; and then there are those who have no superpowers but have created a myth around them, making it appear as if they are more than human, such as Batman or The Phantom. One of the earliest examples of this is Zorro, who did not originate in the world of comics but in so-called pulp fiction, and was created by Johnston McCully in 1919. The following year The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo 1920) was made, with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, which helped make the character more widely known. The similarities between Zorro and Batman, created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, are obvious. They are both rich men pretending to be superficial and vain, Don Diego de la Vega and Bruce Wayne, who are also masked crime-fighters, bearing a personal grudge and fighting for justice and vengeance. Both Zorro and Batman were probably influenced by the tales of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a rich nobleman who under disguise works to save people from the guillotine in the bloody aftermath of the French revolution. He first appeared in a play in 1903 written by Emma Orczy that became a success and she wrote a number of books as sequels. In 1934 Leslie Howard played the lead in the film version, The Scarlet Pimpernel, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Harold Young.

Tyrone Power as Zorro in Rouben Mamoulian's exquisite The Mark of Zorro (1940).

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s it was more common for superheroes to appear in TV-series than in films, such as Adventures of Superman that ran through the 1950s, with George Reeves as Superman, preceded by a low-budget feature film, Superman and the Mole Men (Lee Sholem 1951). In the 1970s there was a series with Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter. Then in 1978 the first "proper" feature film about Superman was made, directed by Richard Donner, and followed by three sequels in 1980, 1983 and 1987. The first one has its moments, but seems unsure as to whether it should be serious or ridiculous, and go off in different directions, and unfortunately Christopher Reeve is not particularly charismatic.

Superman (1978), the best part is the Malick-esque section of Clark Kent's childhood.

For the second film Richard Lester replaced Donner as director and it moved more firmly in the ridiculous direction, as did the others. In 2006 Warner Bros (who had successfully re-launched Batman, played by Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton, in 1989) tried to reboot Superman with Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, but it did not lead anywhere and personally I felt it was overtly dull and self-conscious. But now Superman appears to be back with a vengeance after Man of Steel (Zack Snyder 2013), which might be the most successful Superman film to date, although for some reason all of the films about Superman have been disappointing. The best thing so far is probably this trailer for Man of Steel...

The films about Batman, both Burton's earlier ones and those made by Christopher Nolan in the last decade, have been much better and more interesting. Perhaps because Bruce Wayne/Batman is a more interesting character than Superman/Clark Kent, and because Burton and Nolan are better filmmakers.

The origins of the superheroes are often lost today, situated as they were in the fraught times of the 1930s, and it is a pity that this background is rarely acknowledged. It is also amusing that although it today is an American, all-male world, it began in the modern era with tales set in France after the French revolution and written by a Hungarian woman, exiled in Britain. The lack of female superheroes is often mentioned and it is disappointing that there are so few given their own movies, even though there are plenty of female characters to choose from. At the very least there should be a renewed effort to bring Modesty Blaise to the screen. Perhaps played by a dark-haired Keira Knightley?

There have been frequent attempts to analyse superheroes and their popularity, and why they are so popular "now". All of these efforts have by and large failed, partly because superheroes have been with us for over hundred years, so they do not necessarily illuminate our present condition, such as it is. And why should they not be popular? They are about heroes who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that those in danger can live and prosper. But whether the individual superhero film is successful or not primarily depends on the quality of it. There are as many failures as there are successes, but it is usually only the successful ones that are remembered and analysed.

Then of course there is this analysis provided by Bill in Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino 2004). 

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

On running

I have developed something of a passion for running; for the exercise and for the satisfaction of accomplishing something with my body, and also because it is a time of concentration, no stress or concerns, just the running. And I try to challenge myself, with running longer or faster, depending on the mood. Sometimes I get inspiration from others, like my friend Ellen who runs like a champ, or from reading books like What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, one of his non-fiction books. Both he and Ellen run marathons but I am hesitant to do so myself because that would make running organised and objectified. I want it to be just me and my running, preferably on empty roads in the early mornings. It is a special sense of freedom and self-sufficiency.

Although there is a lot of running in films, there are not that many films on the very theme of running. As an alumni of the University of St Andrews I should probably mention Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson 1981), but I want to emphasis three other films in this post. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson 1962), The Jericho Mile (Michael Mann 1979) and Gallipoli (Peter Weir 1981).

Richardson's film is an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's short novel (which is as good as the film), and Tom Courtenay plays Colin Smith, the lonely runner. He is sent to a prison school in the English countryside where the Governor, played by Michael Redgrave, is very eager for the school to win a long distance race against another school and Colin, an angry young man, is his best hope. Running is Colin's passion, an escape from the bleak, unpromising life he lives. Each running session becomes a stream-of-consciousness where he can direct his anger and resentment towards something that gives him satisfaction. But it also gives him some self-esteem because he is so good at running that he has the power to decide whether to win or lose a race. Without that he would be a broken man, but now he has got something to hold on to.

In Gallipoli the running is less of a necessity but more a game, at least initially. As the title suggests it is set during World War 1 and about two Australian boys, the fastest runners in Western Australia, who sign up for fighting against the Germans in Europe. As so many others they see it as an adventure, and something that will soon be over. For Australians the battle at Gallipoli, Turkey, is still today something of a historical trauma, but also an event that has formed Australia as a modern state. It is a trauma because the battle was a catastrophe, a military blunder that ended in a massive slaughter of soldiers. (Every year, April 25, is Anzac Day in memory of that battle. Anzac is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the significance for Gallipoli in New Zealand is similar to what it is in Australia, as is Anzac Day.)

The two men, played by Mark Lee and Mel Gibson, first meet when competing against each other and then they walk together across the desert to Perth in order to enlist. They stop in Cairo on the way, racing towards the Sphinx, and then come to the front line which is where the fun stops and terror takes over. The film has a weakness in its portrayal of those who are not Australians, such as the Egyptians and the British, and the New Zealanders are not even mentioned; it is very much an Australian film and it feeds the myth about Gallipoli. But it is still a good film, partly because of its imagery and especially because of the final half hour or so in the trenches. The last sequence is extraordinary powerful, with the agony, tension and unbearable human cost of the war all coming together in the last shot, of a runner shot down in midstream. Here running will not save you, strong legs are no match against machine guns.

The Jericho Mile is more similar to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner as it is about a prisoner, Murphy, at Folsom, who spends most of the time on his own, focusing on his running. In the opening sequence everybody else is seen talking, hanging out, goofing around, but not Murphy. He is running all by himself, shutting out the outside world, escaping into himself. It is Michael Mann's first film, made for TV, and it is a powerful film because of the story and of Mann's command of space and editing and because the film is almost as focused on Murphy's running as he is. Initially he runs for himself only, as in the first sequence, but over time his running becomes a protest against the system, his way of sticking it to the man if you like, and he becomes a hero to his fellow inmates. In a prison with a clear hierarchy and racial intolerance he unites them all in an almost utopian way. Here running is a liberating force, even something transcendent. This scene says it all:

There are many scenes in this film where the emotional undercurrent is enough to make anybody cry. Its weakness is the acting, or rather Mann's direction of the actors. They come across as forced, and the timing is often off. Thief (1981), Mann's next film, is his first work of greatness but The Jericho Mile still deserves a DVD/Blu-ray launch.

There are of course also women who run, just think of Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer 1998), but this post is part of a challenge to write something about "running men". Here are the other contributors in the challenge. In English: The Velvet Café. In Swedish: Bilder och ord, Jojjenito, Fiffi, Filmitch, Fripps filmrevyer, Except fear, The Nerd Bird, Har du inte sett den?.

Here finally is a shot from Ford's Drums Across the Mohawk (1939). It is not about running but it does have a beautiful sequence of a man (played by Henry Fonda) running across open land to get help.

Monday, 23 June 2014

The images of Abbas Kiarostami

The blog will take a short break, for holidays and such, and will be back in mid-July. Until then, enjoy these images from some films of Abbas Kiarostami, one of contemporary cinema's greatest visual poets.

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Like Someone in Love (2012)

Close-Up (1990) 
This scene is several minutes long, with the camera just looking at an empty can rolling down the road. That is a special kind of beauty.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Tracks (2013)

After I had been out walking for maybe two hours I came to a road and there was a bus standing. "Get in, I'll take you back to Kalgoorlie." the driver said. "No, I want to walk." I replied but he would have none of that. "No, I'm not leaving you out here, it's too dangerous." So I got on the bus and sat down. There was no charge. A good thing that driver was not around when I went for a much longer walk in Western Australia, north of Perth, just me, my hat and my water bottles, because I was out for almost the entire day (with a rest stop at a farmhouse) and that was probably even more dangerous. But that is one thing I like about it, the extremeness of it, the air so hot you can almost feel its texture. I have also been for long walks in the centre of Australia, past both Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (aka Mount Olga), sleeping on the ground and under the sky, sometimes awakened by humungous insects crawling down my back, and at one point walking barefoot through the desert after an unexpected rainfall.

Kata Tjuta

But none of my experiences, amazing as they were, can compare to Robyn Davidson's walk through the desert from Alice Springs due west to the Indian Ocean. It took nine months and she did most of it in the company of only her dog Diggity and four camels, and for one section of her trip she was guided by Mr. Eddie. Her walk took place in 1977 and it has since been told in various ways, including by herself in an article in National Geographic and then in a book. Now there is also a film, directed by John Curran and with Mia Wasikowska in the lead. A film I like a lot. Wasikowska is very good in her part and the film captures the Australian landscape and the desert beautifully; the cinematographer is Mandy Walker. The soundtrack could have been more imaginative, now it is mostly just an average score, and the brief flashbacks to Davidson's childhood were unnecessary I felt, but other than that I have no complaints. I like that they have not tried to make her out to be a saint, or hero or something, but a relatively normal person with sometimes poor people skills. 

In interviews made now Davidson has expressed her surprise and even hostility towards people asking her why she did it. "That's only because I'm a woman. Nobody would ask a man that." she claims, which is the kind of reply that might sound enlightened and true but is neither. As her endeavour is rather extreme it is a perfectly reasonable question, and many men doing such things have been asked why. Of course they have. Men who climb high mountains for example, and they usually have a default answer. "Because it's there." Davidson might have had her own personal reasons for going, reasons she wants to keep for herself, or she might not necessarily know why she did it, but it does not matter. Deserts are known to have a strange appeal to certain people. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most famous examples. Wilfred Thesiger is another. There are also many unfamous examples, such as myself. Maybe Davidson is one of us, or someone who could answer the question "Why?" with "Because it's there."

I have been told that whoever has seen water on three occasions in Todd River, which runs through Alice Springs, is a local and by that definition I am a local, although I would not like to live there. (Melbourne though is a different thing...) But the desert and the camels have lost none of their appeal. If you have once scratched a camel behind its ear while it rested its nose in your armpit you would probably agree. Until the next time I will be able to do that, rewatching Tracks will be a second best thing. It is definitely a film for me. And it reminded me that Mia Wasikowska should do a film with Jane Campion.

Friday, 13 June 2014

George Sherman

In an earlier post about racism in American cinema I mentioned the director George Sherman a few times. As he is somebody most would be unfamiliar with I thought I should write something about him. A year ago I did not know anything about him but when I came across his name I got curious and watched a number of his films, about 20, and as they are very good the quality of his films is not the reason why he is unknown. He has just fallen through the cracks, and finding information about him is very difficult. Even images suitable to illustrate this post were sparse. But he deserves to become known and retrospectives are warranted.


It is fair to say that George Sherman, after an inauspicious beginning in the 1930s, should be regarded as one of the best directors in the post-war period, especially in the 1950s, even though he is completely unknown. The films are politically interesting, but it is the visuals (and sometimes the audials) that make them so exceptional. Some of them have images and scenes as good as those from any other filmmaker, whether it is a night raid at a British camp, to the sound of Christmas carols, in Sword in the Desert (1948) or epic battle formations in the end of Comanche (1956) that can be compared to Kurosawa's Ran (1985), or a crowded street suddenly emptied in a second, leaving only a man left behind who was about to be lynched by a mob, in Reprisal! (1955). Sherman had an eye for dramatic and dynamic compositions second to none, and he knew how to use sound, silences and music to remarkable effect, and such scenes can be found in almost all of the films I have seen, at least from the 1940s and onwards. In Comanche there is a scene when two scouts come across a slaughtered cavalry regiment, lying in the grass, barely visible. The two men walk among the dead, with the only sound heard that of the wind blowing across the grass, in a sequence that can only be described as haunting.

The sky often has a prominent place in Sherman's films, scenes often begin with a shot of it and then a pan down towards the ground and often shots of the sky serve as transitions between sequences. Sometimes it takes on thematic meanings as well, with characters seeing visions in the sky. And there are always shots from a very low camera angle, looking upwards, so that the humans almost become invisible under an impossibly large sky and in an endless landscape. It is typical of Sherman that in War Arrow (1953) there is a fort that has no walls, he is a filmmaker who portrays space as infinite (and as such is the opposite of Henry Hathaway, who likes restrictions and frames).

Sherman began making western series in the 1930s, the equivalent of making lowbrow TV-series today. In particular he made 20 instalments (from 1937 to 1940) of the The Three Mesquiteers-series, several of them starring John Wayne. They are not that bad, some are quite interesting and sometimes entertaining. He also did a number of films with "the singing cowboy" Gene Autry. (Series such as these are almost always left out when the history of American cinema is told which is a shame because they problematise and undermine a lot of common assumptions about films, TV, Hollywood and genre. A potential topic for a later post.)

In the 1940s Sherman moved on to hour-long B-movies, in the original meaning of the term. In 1942 he made X Marks the Spot, which is a quite good urban thriller and a change of setting from the earlier (sort of) westerns. He worked mainly for the studio Republic in the 1940s and in 1945 he made his first conventional full-length feature, The Lady and the Monster, aka The Lady and the Doctor, with Erich von Stroheim in the lead. They worked again in Storm Over Lisbon (1944). Now Sherman got better, and got bigger budgets. In 1946 he got a contract with Columbia Pictures and stayed there for two years until he moved to Universal. There he was until 1955, after which he moved around between studios, more of a freelance director, and in the 1960s he made several films in Europe. Sherman's last film was Big Jake (1971), although he later directed a few episodes for a couple of TV-series. He died in 1991.

Maureen O'Hara in Big Jake.

It is difficult to know exactly how much input Sherman gave and how much control he had, the only thing to go on are the films. But since they all share so many things yet have different producers, writers and cinematographers it is reasonable to assume that he had both visual and thematic ideas that he often managed to get across.

A number of the westerns especially work as a whole, like a chain, with scenes sometimes repeated, characters reappearing, even the landscape is the same, and they should be watched together. For example, the last shot of Tomahawk (1951) is repeated in the beginning of a film made the following year, The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). It is of a burning fort, but with the difference that the first time it is burned by the Sioux, the second time by the departing soldiers (going off to fight another war, against other whites.)

Sherman's films are usually hard-edged, sometimes surprisingly bleak and bitter. In Sword in the Desert the embittered captain (played by Dana Andrews), who has transported Jewish Holocaust survivors to what is to become Israel, is asked "You don't have much faith in mankind, do you?" He answers "Why should I, what has it ever done for me? Or them?" as he points to some of the survivors. That is a line that could be spoken in a number of Sherman's films, and often with American Indians in the place of Jewish refugees. There is a startling awareness of the suffering the Indians have had to endure, and how it was the white man who started everything. In the beginning of Chief Crazy Horse (aka Valley of Fury 1955) there is a shot of a settler's house, and the voiceover says. “You can’t tell anymore but this used to be the Lakota Sioux country” and then a dissolve changes the image from that of the homestead to that of an Indian village with tipis. It is a great visual symbol of how they were wiped out and what came instead. In Comanche there is a scene where the background story of terrible massacres committed by the Spanish against the Comanche is told, and the chief of the Comanche points out that “White man sent the first soldier, we the second.”  In The Battle of Apache Pass, the chief Cochise points out that the fight against his people began with the Conquistadors. In Tomahawk the white people's consistent betrayal of the Sioux is repeated throughout. But another message in the films is that a reason why the Indians were defeated was that they did not act together, but were split up, often fighting each other. There is also mentioning of how the diseases of the white people kill the Indians. A different take is in Reprisal!, which is about a man who is half white, half Indian, and although he wants to blend in among whites he is not welcome there. The one thing that mars these films' progressiveness is that the Indian characters are often, but not always, played by non-Indian actors, as was the norm in those days. But the films are on the side of the Indians, and some of them are told exclusively from their point of view. There is a rebelliousness to be found in the films too. Comanche Territory (1950) ends with a white woman (played by Maureen O'Hara) stealing guns and giving them to the Comanches so that they can defend themselves against the white conquerors.

Maureen O'Hara appears in several of Sherman's films and usually as a powerful woman, an entrepreneur who takes orders from no man, and even a pirate in Against All Flags (1952). In Sherman's last film, Big Jake, she and John Wayne returns to play the leads, as a married couple, and it is a rather moving testament to the career of all three of them.

But all of Sherman's films are not bleak, he did for example make two musical comedies with Donald O'Connor in the late 1940s, and they too are good. The first is a very delightful western spoof called Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948) and the other is about a young couple struggling with their 10 months old child. Both husband and wife are at college, he recently back from the war and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. He also wants to play football, and she wants to take evening classes, but the only way it will be possible is if the man help out as much in the home as the woman. And that he does, and he is fully capable too. So again there is a progressive message here, in showing that a man is just as capable of taking care of a baby and a home as a woman, and that he should do so. It would probably be considered ahead of its time even if it had been made today.

Perhaps Sherman's best films are The Last of the Fast Guns (1958), an existential drama in which a man dressed in black travels to Mexico to look for a man who disappeared many years before, and in the end finds redemption in the mountains, and Tomahawk, about a white man seeking revenge on the renegade soldiers who killed his Sioux wife. But they will be discussed at length in later posts. There is every reason to come back to Sherman.

Last of the Fast Guns