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).

Friday, 12 August 2016

Taking a break

I felt like not writing a post in August and instead enjoy summer a bit more. So nothing to see here. I will be back in two weeks.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Theory readings #3 - Film as Film by Victor Perkins

The first piece in the series "Theory readings" was a general introduction and the second one was about Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". The next was about "The Death of the Author." Those were about articles but in this post a book is covered, due to the recent death of its writer Victor Perkins, critic and film scholar at the University of Warwick.


Fabulous cover design on the second edition.

Victor Perkins began writing Film as Film in the late 1960s and it was first published in 1972. Before that he had been an editorial member of the influential journal Movie and written film criticism in various other journals and newspapers, and Penguin Books invited him to write a whole book.

In the first chapter Perkins criticises early (1920s and 1930s) film theory for often being too focused on one single aspect of cinema, such as obsessing over "pure cinema" or editing, and the suspicion of reality; that real art was that which was far remove from the ordinary or realistic. "As a result, the theory is most emphatic where it should be most cautious, in imposing obligations on the artist; it is least helpful where it should be most relevant, in developing the disciplines of criticism." (pp. 26-27)

He then follows with a chapter on André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, pointing out how they too suffer from the same problem: too much emphasis on one aspect, although now it is the opposite of the earlier theorists. The new generation celebrates the long take as opposed to editing, and thinks great art is that which is as close to reality as possible.
Both theories discriminate in favor of certain kinds of cinematic effects, in other words certain kinds of attitudes given cinematic form. The image dogma would assess quality in terms of the artist's imposition of order on the chaotic and meaningless surface of reality. Object dogma would derive its verdict from his discovery of significance and order in reality. Each of these positions presupposes a philosophy, a temperament, a vision - terrain which the theorist should leave open for the film-maker to explore and present. (p. 39, italics in original)
Perkins instead wants to emphasis the complexity of the medium of film, and that it should not be narrowed down to be about one thing in particular. He is against analysing and evaluating a film from a priori positions, instead the art work should be engaged with from a neutral position and discussed on its own terms. The film is apparently trying to do X but how does the filmmaker go about getting X across and is the filmmaker successful in this endeavour? That is the kind of approach Perkins argued for. "The critical problem is to arrive at descriptions which are both specific and comprehensive enough to be useful. The critic cannot require a movie to fit his definitions; it's his task to find the description which best fits the movie." (p. 62) Instead he emphasises the fact that film is a hybrid medium: part reality, part magic or, if you will, part Lumière, part Méliès. He criticises the charge that films are only about escapism and he is also against the distinction between art films and commercial films. "In its crudest form it amounts to the belief that the quality of a film is inversely proportional to the size of its audience." (p. 162)

But even though Perkins says that he is against preconceived ideas about how a film should be, he still has his own idea. He favours coherence and unity, and an organic aesthetic in which everything works together to form that unity. Synthesis is another word he uses. "I believe a synthetic theory, a theory of balance, coherence and complexity, does carry us towards this goal" (p. 189), the goal being a successful way of discussion subtlety.

Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry

One key aspect of the successful film for Perkins is one in which meaning and symbolism grow naturally out of the sequence or the imagery. He for example talks about Richard Brooks's use of colour in Elmer Gantry (1960), and compare it favourably with Michelangelo Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert (1964). In both cases it is highly symbolic but in Elmer Gantry it is all done organically with what is already in the shot, clothes, wall paper and such, whereas in Red Desert the symbolic colours are added afterwards, they do not naturally appear in the actual shot. For Perkins, using what is a natural part of the film is a more impressive achievement than adding stuff that has no place in the shot for no other reason than that the filmmaker wanted it to be there. This is not subtlety, as we cannot fail to see it, whereas in Elmer Gantry we may or we may not notice the symbolism. Another example he uses is the rising stone lions in Battleship Potemkin (1925), in the famous sequence at the Odessa steps. The symbolism is just in Eisenstein's head, when seen in the film they could mean anything. It is, as Perkins put it, "an extreme imprecision of effect." (p. 104)

Another way of expressing this coherence and unity that is so important for Perkins is to talk about connections, that "significance, emotional and intellectual, arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves." (pp. 106-107), thus the failure of the lions in Potemkin. He stresses that the value of a film comes from the skills with which it is put together, not from the moral of the story or from any intellectual references to "the philosophy of Hegel or the poetry of Goethe." (p. 118)

Although perhaps not an auteurist like Andrew Sarris, the key figure for Perkins is still the director. She or he is the person responsible for the whole film, its very unity and coherence that is so important. Even when the director has not written the script, what matters is still the way a written scene is shot and the meaning that comes from acting, setting, decor and camera angles. There is a long description of a kitchen scene in Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), how it is the setting and the props such as chairs and the cutlery that give meaning and pathos to the scene. He also makes this point when taking about the films that Harold Pinter wrote and Joseph Losey directed, such as The Servant (1963), which is "dominated by the tensions between two creative minds, two styles, two personalities and two attitudes. But it is Losey's version of the Pinter script; and if we are concerned with film as film it is the realization that must claim our interest and judgement." (p. 178, italics in original). Among Perkins's favourites are Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, and he discusses the way in which they are fundamentally different, such as this: "The contrast between their methods is further reflected in narrative style. Hitchcock tells stories as if he knows how they end, Preminger gives the impression of witnessing them as they unfold." (p. 130)

Courtship of Eddie's Father

Perkins demands from his own and others' writings on cinema what he demands of the films. Coherence and clarity. "We have a duty to ourselves to ensure that our standards are as clear and consistent, as perceptively applied, as we can make them." (p. 192), and in this he succeeded. His writing is so good that it is a source of pleasure in itself, regardless of what he is writing about. But this does not mean that he is free from weaknesses or contradictions. For example, through the book he talks about various films from Hollywood and from around Europe, comparing and contrasting them, such as Elmer Gantry and Red Desert. Then suddenly he says at the very end, on page 190, that Godard's Les Carabiniers (1963) should not be analysed in the same way or by using the same approach as for example Rope (Alfred Hitchcock 1948) or Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray 1954). But why not, if Red Desert and Battleship Potemkin should be. What is the difference there? When he is criticising Antonioni's use of colour in Red Desert it would have been good if he had something to say about Hitchcock's use of colour in, say, Marnie (1964). Does he disapprove of it, even though he otherwise holds Hitchcock as being one of the best, or is it somehow different from the Red Desert. To remain with Hitchcock; Perkins has a discussion about the difference between the characters played by James Stewart (dark and ambiguous) and those played by Cary Grant (light and playful), but in this discussion he conveniently leaves out Notorious (1946), starring Grant, presumably since it would undermine his distinction between the two actors. I also happen to disagree with his interpretation of The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean 1957). "War was said to be futile and experienced as glorious, victory was said to be empty and felt to be magnificent." (p. 149) Perkins says but as I see it there is no victory in the film, only various degrees of failure and futility. I do not see the alleged contradictions Perkins dislikes. (Perkins described it as a friction between the script by Carl Foreman and the direction of Lean, but Foreman had only written an early draft and the actual script was by Lean himself and Michael Wilson.)

But Perkins liked other films, Lean was not for him. This is how he describes his favourites:
The great film approaches an intensity of cohesion such that its elements do not operate solely to maintain or further the reality of the fictional world, nor solely to decorative, affective or rhetorical effect. Of course this is a counsel of perfection, even though it is derived from existing movies. Exodus, Johnny Guitar, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Psycho, La Règle du jeu, Rio Bravo, Wild River: these are the films which I recall as approaching this condition most closely. (p. 131)

During my years as a student in cinema studies I never actually came across Perkins or Film as Film in class or on reading lists. He is one of the many I had to discover on my own. I do not remember exactly when, but I was immediately impressed and delighted, and his writing has been a companion for many years. When he died last week it therefore gave me great pleasure to see the amount of love and affection for him and his life's work that flooded my Twitter and Facebook accounts. If you want to experience more of his work, and tributes to him, please visit the tribute page on Katie Grant's Film Studies for Free:

If you want to read just one article by him I can recommend "Moments of Choice" from 1981, republished on Rouge.

As a side note, or final note, I love The Courtship of Eddie's Father. It is close to perfection, and incredibly moving at times. I think of the goldfish scene at least once every week.