Friday, 21 October 2016

Politics in the year 2016

The other day I watched the delightful It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine 1959), which is billed as a romantic comedy but is more accurately described as a perky lesson in civic participation and local democracy, set in a small town in Maine (although shot in Chester, Connecticut). It made me nostalgic for a time of civility and when people had not yet begun to go bowling alone (to use Robert Putnam's phrase). But I suppose people in the 1950s were also nostalgic about the good old days, so that is not getting me very far. However, I wonder if it was not the case that, despite the fear of nuclear war, the 1950s were a time of far greater hope for the future, and hope for the possibility of improvements. Today, well, I am not so sure. In any event, the state of the world made me want to write something about politics again, as I do on occasion.

Reporters and columnists are fond of referencing Aaron Sorkin when writing about politics and elections, not least in the US. Obviously The West Wing but also The American President (Rob Reiner 1995) and even, as Lexington did in The Economist the other week, A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner 1992). Lexington compared Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, with Donald Trump, complaining that as the film was a courtroom drama it was less likely that things would end for Trump as they did for Jessup.

The one Sorkin quote on politics that is most popular to use is from The American President, when the president's assistant Lewis says:
People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
What is less frequently mentioned is the response the president gives, namely this:
Lewis, we've had Presidents who were beloved who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty. They drink the sand 'cause they don't know the difference.
The reason the response is less popular than the first quote is, I would think, that the second one is darker, and partially blame the voters. That is not necessarily seen as a good thing; voters, the will of the people, must not be criticised. If things go bad it is because of the politicians, as if they were not reflecting the will of those voters but were somehow disconnected. Although how and why people vote as they do can sometimes be confusing or weird, it seems strange to assume that they do not vote for what they think they want, or for what they think is good for the country. You frequently get the politicians you deserve, at least in a democracy.

The last couple of years the world seems to have taken one nasty turn after another, with ignorance, anger and hatred, not to mention antisemitism, increasing in one country after country, and extremism of all sorts becoming more and more mainstream. Donald Trump is of course the most obvious example, but it is a global phenomenon and at the moment the arc of history seems to be bending towards injustice and intolerance. In some places it is in power, and forms the government, such as across eastern Europe, the Philippines, Venezuela. In other countries they are not yet in power but are growing, and are frequently in parliament or in local governments. We can see this in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere. (Not to mention the steadily increasing belligerence of Russia and China, threatening their neighbours and others.) At the moment it would seem almost everything is going the wrong way; the global society is frighteningly fragile at the moment. The nonsensical Brexit is yet another example of this.

The causes for this are many. The financial crash of 2007-2008, the ongoing war in Syria, extreme weather (partially due to climate change), widespread unemployment among the young and those without a university education, severe cutbacks at newspapers and in journalism in general (which leads to people being less well-informed and politicians not held to account as much as they need to be). Among the consequences is a growing number of "politiphobes" (as Jonathan Rauch calls them in an excellent article in The Atlantic) i.e. people who basically believe that politicians are corrupt and self-interested and that all problems have easy, obvious solutions if only an outsider would come and take charge. This feeling is spread across the political spectrum, as these knights that will supposedly save us are sometimes considered left-wing and sometimes right-wing, although many are just wingnuts.

All of these things then feed on each other, contributing to making everything worse. Sure, it looks highly likely that Clinton will defeat Trump, which will in itself be a good thing, but the damage Trump has already done to the social climate and the health and well-being of democracy in the US is remarkable, with him and his base of voters whipping each other into a frenzy of toxic anger.

There has to come a point when things turn around, and people come to their senses. But when? How low will we sink first? "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" W.B. Yeats's wrote in his poem The Second Coming, reflecting on World War 1 and its aftermath, but we are not there yet, far from it, even if it sometimes feels like we are heading in that direction. It would be a good thing for starters if people calmed down, and treated each other with some basic respect and decency, including those with whom they disagree, and including on social media. There are limits, a few people are beyond the pale, but not even those should be met with scorn or hatred. We should not act or talk in a way that only makes us feel better about ourselves, that is narcissism rather than progressiveness. (Screaming "You're a fucking racist!" to somebody might feel satisfying but it will not make that person less of a racist, or encourage him to become a better person.) We should act and talk in ways that make the world a better and more decent place, and acknowledge that everything matters. A grand gesture of a prime minister or the small gesture of an individual on the bus, and everything in between, a tweet, an article, a blog post, a union meeting; everything that is going on in public contributes to the general atmosphere. And as we are all contributing to that atmosphere, we are all responsible, whether we want to or not, or whether we are aware of it or not, for that atmosphere, its tone and temperature. The trick however is to do it with proper humility. It is easy to feel as an oppressed victim and lash out accordingly, while using the sense of victimhood as a shield against criticism.

So basic civility is a starting point, beyond the more complicated questions such as how to speed up the decrease of carbon emissions, end the war in Syria, finance quality journalism, combat unemployment, safeguard pensions, successfully integrate refugees and so on and so forth. The important thing is to turn things around, before it is too late. Some people might not know the difference, but most do.

Here is Edward Murrow as a reminder that the 1950s also had its threats against respect, democracy and decency, such as senator Joseph McCarthy.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Georg af Klercker (1877-1951)

Defining this and that period as a "golden age" tend to get rather monotonous, as it is so common. But possibly the first period called a golden age is Swedish cinema in the late 1910s and early 1920s. On this there is some consensus. There is however no consensus about which years should be covered by it. There are at least two contenders: 1913-1924 or 1917-1924. Unfortunately, 1917-1924 seems to have the upper hand; unfortunately for Georg af Klercker.

When Swedish silent cinema is discussed it is usually about Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and films such as Terje Vigen (Sjöström 1917), Thomas Graal's Best Film (Stiller 1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (Sjöström 1918), The Treasure of Arne (Stiller 1919), Erotikon (Stiller 1920), The Phantom Carriage (Sjöström 1921) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (Stiller 1924). But there was a third man, frequently forgotten, and that was Georg af Klercker. One of the reasons he is not mentioned is that he had his best years 1915-1918, and then retired (sort of), and consequently he is not seen as part of the "golden age". And whereas Stiller and Sjöström were both in Stockholm at Charles Magnusson's vertically integrated company Svenska Bio, af Klercker made most of his films in Göteborg, at Hasselblad Fotografiska AB. But these are unfair reasons to keep him out of sight. If we instead keep to the wider span, 1913-1924, perhaps beginning with Sjöström's marvellous Ingeborg Holm (1913), af Klercker's oeuvre will be a natural part of that golden age. It is also a fact that initially Magnusson in 1912 hired all three of them, Stiller, Sjöström and af Klercker. They worked side by side for a few years before af Klercker left. Maybe if he had stayed on things would have been different.

He was born in Kristianstad, in the south of Sweden, in 1877 in a wealthy and aristocratic family. He enrolled in the military and became a lieutenant. and was consequently referred to as "lieutenant af Klercker" for the rest of his life, including by film critics. But he had artistic ambitions rather than military. More specifically, he had theatre ambitions, and began acting across Sweden and Finland. In 1911 af Klercker was employed by Dramaten (the Royal Dramatic Theatre) in Stockholm. It was from there that Magnusson lured him to his new studio on Lidingö, and made him head of production.

The first film af Klercker directed was as part of Magnusson and Svenska Bio's partnership with the Swedish arm of French company Pathé. Två bröder it was called and it was immediately banned by the Swedish film censorship board. His next film was The Last Performance/Dödsritten under cirkuskupolen (1912), which was released around the world and quite successfully so. It is partly lost, but what remains is not bad, and can be seen here:

He made several films in 1913 but then he became a part-time victim of the falling out between Svenska Bio and Pathé, as af Klercker was directing För fäderneslandet. It was finished in late 1913 but did not open until spring 1914, at which point af Klercker had left Svenska Bio for Pathé. He worked for them for a year and then he went to Hasselblad, where he was to get sole responsibility for the direction of their films. Hasselblad is today primarily known as a company that makes cutting edge cameras and photo equipment (popular at NASA, including on their lunar exhibitions) but it was not until 1941 they begun to manufacture by themselves. Before that they sold cameras, and for a while they also went into film production after they had began a cooperation with the distribution company Biograf AB Victoria. They called themselves Victorias Filmbyrå, and there af Klercker made almost 30 films, during a period of three years (half of them in 1916).

His films are a varied bunch, although thrillers and melodramas are the most common ones, and most of them have a very rich and evocative mise en scène and an imaginative use of deep focus. There is often an elaborate dynamic interplay between one level of action in the foreground and another level of action towards the back. (This was not unique for af Klercker but had become a recurring stylistic device at least since the early 1910s.) Working at Hasselblad gave him access to the most sophisticated cameras of the day, and he and his different cinematographers took advantage of the possibilities. But he was also good at directing actors, and with an eye for psychological realism. He also made the only Swedish film which seems to have been directly influenced by Louis Feuillade, Mysteriet natten till den 25:e (1917). It too was banned by the censors. Other highlights are Kärleken segrar (1916), I mörkrets bojor (1917) and Nattliga toner (1918).

1918 the film production unit at Hasselblad was sold off, and it merged with several other film companies. This new company was called Filmindustri AB Skandia, and it would the following year merge with Svenska Bio, becoming AB Svensk Filmindustri (SF), under the management of Nils Bouveng and Magnusson. So af Klercker might have been back working for him again, an idea which probably did not appeal to him. So instead he left filmmaking, briefly worked in the hotel business and then returned to the theatre. He left partly because he was tired of filmmaking, partly because his kind of films and filmmaking was considered old-fashioned, and it had become more difficult to sell them abroad, and to some extent because he was a victim of that era's perpetual mergers and acquisitions. But for a few years he was an equal to Sjöström and Stiller.

In 1986 at the silent film festival at Pordenone there was a major af Klercker retrospective, and it did serve as a reminder to critics and scholars of his importance. There is also a book-length study of his films by Astrid Söderbergh Widding: Stumfilm i brytningstid - Stil och berättande i Georg af Klerckers filmer (1998).

Ingmar Bergman was a huge admirer of af Klercker and in 1995 he made a TV-film about him and Charles Magnusson, called Sista skriket/The Last Gasp. It is very good. Here is a page from the manuscript.

Two of his films that I have not seen but that look particularly intriguing are Nattens barn (1916) and Mellan liv och död (1917).

Friday, 23 September 2016

Objective, Burma! (1945)

There were at least four major American war films released in 1945, two of which I have written about here before: The Story of G.I. Joe, directed by William Wellman, and John Ford's They Were Expendable (by far the best of them). Now the time has come to consider Raoul Walsh's Objective, Burma! (The fourth is A Walk in the Sun, directed by Lewis Milestone.)

It is about an Allied raid into Burma, occupied by the Japanese, to destroy a radar outpost and it is inspired by actual events, which had just taken place. The film also begins like a newsreel and occasionally newsreel footage appear throughout the film. As such it is in keeping with Walsh's journalistic impulses, which appear from time to time in his oeuvre.

But the film is of course not a completely accurate depiction of what happened. When it came out it was lambasted by the British who complained that it made it look as if the Americans won the war by themselves, with the role of the British ignored. Churchill himself was apparently outraged and the film was removed from cinemas after a week. However, this criticism is unfair because the film is not about the war at large; it is only about one small, specific mission, a commando raid. In addition, the briefing for the mission in the beginning is made by a British major, and two Gurkha soldiers and a Chinese soldier are part of the group, and they are more prominent than most of the G.I.s.

Another kind of criticism against the film has been about racism, and the depiction of the Japanese. But this criticism can also be countered. The Japanese are not depicted any differently from Nazi Germans in the war films set in Europe, and they are shown to be smart and sophisticated. But they are rarely seen at all, they are primarily shadows, striking without warning. There is one scene which is usually mentioned as example of the film's racism, and it is when one American character screams "Wipe them out, I say! Wipe them off the face of the earth." He does this after the soldiers have found some of their comrades killed after having been horribly tortured (something that did happen) and at such a time the reaction does not seem implausible. It is worth noticing that the person who says it is a tired old man, a journalist who is following the soldiers as a correspondent, and who is on the verge of a mental breakdown. His line is not cheered on by anyone, nobody seems to agree with him. And, right after the old man has said the line Walsh cuts to the face of an allied Chinese soldier, looking askance. So the film is more complex that the critics give it credit for.

The leader of the group, captain Nelson, is played by Errol Flynn (seen above) but it is a far cry from his usual heroics and good fun. Here he is subdued, already in the first scene, and he grows increasingly weary as the film progresses. He has every reason for doing so. While at first everything is going well and they easily succeed in their mission, destroying the radar facility deep in the jungle, getting back home is a lot harder. They were able to take the Japanese by surprise at first but once they have been found out the mission descends into horror. They starve, get sick, get bitten by bugs, get stabbed, get shot, get tortured and grow increasingly restless and desperate, and it is always unbearably hot and humid. When Nelson finally is back at headquarters a senior officer congratulates him on his successful mission, which to Nelson is something of a slap in the face. In his hand he holds the dog tags from all the men he has lost (the majority of those who participated in the raid) and he says "This is what it cost." 

Objective, Burma! is a Warner Bros. film, produced and co-scripted by Jerry Wald, from an original script by Alvah Bessie, but it is also one of Walsh's map movies (as Dave Kehr has called them), where a group of people have to travel from point A to B, with constant references to their maps, and where everything is focused on forward motion. The visual style is also very much Walsh's, with his impressive use of deep focus and deep space. There is always a lot of things going on in any particular shot, especially scenes at base camp in the beginning, with constant movement and action in the background of every shot. The cinematographer was James Wong Howe, one of the very best, although he and Walsh fought a lot on set, even physically. (I am not sure exactly what the creative differences were about.) Later, when the film is focused on the jungle mission the camera is always on the move, tracking left and right, back and forth, sometimes feeling like it was controlled by Sam Fuller. These aggressive tracking shots are interspersed with many long shots of soldiers in nature, sometimes barely seen at all; the humans completely engulfed by nature, like the velociraptors in the tall grass in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1997). Often the only sound heard is jungle sounds, without music, and this is especially effective in several battle scenes. And as is typical for Walsh, the film ends with the men high up, on a hilltop.

Objective, Burma! is not the best of the war films of 1945, and it is not the best of Walsh's films, but then the competition is hard. It is a fine film, and even James Agee liked it, which was unusual for him when it came to American war movies. His major problem was with the actors whom he felt did not seem genuine enough, but otherwise he was impressed.

The film feels like it was made after the war ended, as a way of taking stock, but it is worth pointing out that it was made in the summer of 1944, when the war still had one year to go. This is what is most striking about it, besides Walsh's powerful visuals. How bleak and terrifying it is. In combination with the East Asian jungle setting, this is what makes it a precursor to many films about the war in Vietnam.

Links to my earlier posts about They Were Expendable and The Story of G.I. Joe.
There are no women in Objective, Burma! but otherwise Walsh frequently had women in leading roles. Here are some of them.

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Face of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh

The title of this post is inspired by the article "The Place of Woman in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh," published in 1974 by Claire Johnston and Pam Cook. I read it first long ago at university and had an idea of using it for my "Theory readings" series. But re-reading it now I realised that there is not much to say about it, it is not particularly interesting, other than to suggest that the title of it is rather misleading. A more accurate title would be "A Marxist/structuralist/Lacanian reading of The Revolt of Mamie Stover" and it is filled with juicy sentences like this one: "The Other, as the locus of the Law (e.g., the law of the prohibition of incest), as the Word (i.e., the signifier as unit of the code) is the 'Name-of-the-Father' around which the Symbolic order is constructed."

So instead I just want to celebrate a few of the women from Walsh's films.

 Virginia Mayo (with Joel McCrea) in Colorado Territory (1949).

 Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (1941).

 Jayne Mansfield in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958).

Jane Russell and Agnes Moorehead in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).

Olivia de Havilland in They Died With Their Boots On (1941).

Shelley Winters in Saskatchewan (1954), here with Alan Ladd and Jay Silverheels.

Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night (1940).

Friday, 26 August 2016

The autumn semester - on teaching, thinking and the utility of it

Next week I begin teaching again, after the summer break. (A summer break from teaching, not a summer break from work. The work-free phase was considerably shorter than the summer.) At the moment that means I am engaged with planning lectures and preparing clips and readings. It also means that this is the period in which I am required to read awful text books. The book I read this week, which will remain unnamed, should never have been put in front of a student, and my students will definitely be spared. I sometimes think I should start a journal devoted only to reviewing text books for film studies. Is the book accurate? Is it coherent? Is it relevant? Is it written in a language understandable by the students? Does the book have a comprehensive index? You would be amazed how many book fail these simple tests.

Anyway, I am looking forward to actually teach. Being in a classroom with a group of students eager to learn is always slightly intoxicating. Sometimes of course you find yourself with a group of students who are only thinking about what excuse they can come up with in order to leave and do something fun instead, but that is rather rare.

I will be teaching film history, except for Hollywood cinema, key concepts and a course on theoretical traditions. It will be a busy time, for me and for the students alike. Actually, I wonder for whom it will be worse, but probably for some of the students. I will keep that in mind.

Teaching for me is not just about telling the students about things they did not know about before or making them see things in a new light. It is also about learning myself, from interacting with them. Not about films, but about teaching. What works and what does not work? What are the most effective ways in getting their attention or getting them to learn, and enjoy learning? Reading those textbooks will frequently be a strain on them, but the lectures should never be. If they see them as a chore then I have failed. They should look forward to them, but not because they are easy but because they will be meaningful, as well as fun. I do not go easy on them. I can be rather demanding, and if they say things that are wrong, peculiar or incomprehensible I will tell them so and insist that they think again and try again. Here too there is a learning process in that each student is unique and treating them all the same way is not a good thing. Some need coaching, with others you need to be strict and with others the best thing is to make a joke and let them relax. Teaching is an art form, as well as a process.

But the hardest thing is to make them speak freely, and not just repeat what they have read or heard. If I show a clip their response to it will be very different if I introduced it then if I just showed it without saying anything in advance. If I tell them to look for something they will afterwards claim to have found it, but if I tell them nothing in advance and then ask afterwards what they saw I will get more independent answers. I can to a large extent control how they will watch and experience a given clip and sometimes that is a good thing and sometimes it is not. When teaching neorealism, I once showed a clip from Dirty Harry (Don Siegel 1971) and asked them beforehand to look at it from the point of view of neorealism and then afterwards analyse it as such, which went very well. One of the best seminars I have had was when I unannounced showed a clip from All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk 1955) and then afterwards asked them what they were thinking about as they were watching it. That was rather amazing actually. I especially remember the student who began talking about her complicated relationship with her mother.

Jane Wyman in All That Heaven Allows.

What might the point be of that some might wonder. Where is the utility? Well, for one thing there is simple human bonding. These students from all corners of the world, sharing a moment together watching this clip and then expressing their feelings about it. They also learned that contrary to what many textbooks might claim, the experience of watching a film is not the same for everyone. It is a unique meeting between the individual and the film. In addition, I would like to add that sometimes something magic can happen in that meeting.

I also want them to think for themselves, and not succumb to clichés. Much thinking that we do is primarily in clichés, so not actual thinking at all, and most of our opinions are clichés as well. This might sound like I have overdosed on Hannah Arendt but it is fairly obvious and natural. It is also partly related to some things Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking, Fast and Slow. One of the most difficult questions to answer is the question why. Why do you think that? Why do you believe this? Why do you feel this way? Frequently people get upset when you ask them that, especially if you do so when you are having an argument, and they get angry, I think, because they have no answer. As I have argued elsewhere we often cannot explain why we think or feel a certain way, and whatever reasons we give are constructions after the fact, often inconsistent and much too simplistic. But it is not impossible, and if we actually start to think about the issues and our feelings, then breakthroughs become possible. (As a side note, when academics claim to have been "thinking things through", they rarely have.)

As you can see teaching film history and theory is for me not just about teaching film history and theory. It is also about improving my abilities as a teacher and, whenever appropriate, encourage my students to think freely and to question what they watch and what they read, and even what I tell them. This is not "critical theory" (as that concept is just an euphemism for "a certain Marxist-inspired way of thinking" i.e. substituting one set of prejudices and clichés with another) but to look at a given text, film, theory or argument and analyse/criticise it on its own terms. Is it coherent? Is it relevant? When it talks about specifics or facts, is it accurate? If it works, does it do so in general or just in specific cases? Those are some of questions (similar to the once mentioned above) that should always be asked when confronted with, for example, a specific film theory. It is also worth pointing out that unthinkingly rejecting something is as wrong as unthinkingly accepting something.

So the utility of film studies is obvious. To learn about one of the most important art forms in contemporary society, to learn about history and techniques, to learn to read and watch with open eyes and open minds, to learn how to formulate an opinion and to defend and understand it, and to learn to think freely.

At least that is the ideal scenario. Obviously I often fail in my efforts to teach but let's not dwell on that right now.

A Serious Man (Joel Coen 2009).