The other day, as I was writing my regular DVD-column (for the Swedish film magazine Filmrutan), I did some research on the cinematographer Joseph Biroc. As it turned out, he was the link between several films that's been on my mind lately. I knew he shot Emperor of the North Pole(1973), which was my starting point, but as it turned out, he also shot Airplane! which celebrates its 30th birthday this year and which I tweeted about the other day. He also shot, much earlier, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), together with Frank Capra's regular DP Joseph Walker (I always confuse the trio Joseph H. August, Joseph A. Valentine and Joseph Walker) and a whole range of films in between. He did some 12 films with Robert Aldrich, including Emperor of the North Pole, and also several films together with Samuel Fuller. It would seem that most of his films were along that line, tough and violent. Or, as in the case of Airplane! and Blazing Saddles (1973), absurd comedies of the more hilarious type.
So what is my point exactly? Well, two things actually. One is that I sometimes associate a particular cinematographer with a particular style, even though they may have worked in many different styles. Mention the name Joseph MacDonald (yet another Joseph...) and I immediately think about the exquisite beauty of My Darling Clementine (1946), crisp shots of open skies and empty streets. And yet he also shot one of the most beautiful of noirs, Call Northside 777(1948), responsible for the heartbreaking shot of a little woman scrubbing a seemingly endless floor. Mention Gunnar Fischer*, and I think about the shot of a happy girl in a row boat in Summer Interlude(Sommarlek 1951). Vittorio Storaro equals The Conformist(Il conformista 1970). And so on and so forth. But sometimes it might actually be correct in associating a particular cinematographer with a particular style, a particular type of film.
My other point is that studying a cinematographer over a long career could be a fun and instructive way of looking at how films and the look of them has changed over the years, and how the technical equipment has changed as well. It could be a way of structuring the historical research.
I don't know much about Biroc, but I know that he was with the Signal Corps during World War 2, and filmed the liberation of Paris, and that he won the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. He also lived to be 93 years old, which is not bad at all.
At long last Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971) is soon available on DVD. At least in Sweden. UK, US and France apparently have to wait a little longer.
There's reason to cheer this because during the 1960s in the Czech Republic (which was called Czecoslovakia in those days) and the US in the 1970s and 1980s he was one of the very best of filmmakers. Poignant, funny and serious. I've seen all but two of his films and only once was I disappointed, Goya's Ghost (2006) was dreadful. But I'll write more on Forman at some later point. Today I just wanted to celebrate the good DVD news, and show a clip from Taking Off, which might actually be my favourite of all of Forman's films. But I will show two clips, one from Taking Off, the other from Forman's first film, called Auditionor Konkurs, which was released in 1964. Spot the similarities...
I'm intrigued by CSI: Miami(2002 - ). I'm not pretending to be any kind of expert on it, but I've seen episodes here and there, and also of the other two versions, CSI: Las Vegas (2000 - ) and CSI: NY (2004 - ). Why intrigued? Because it's so breathtakingly effortless. There's no acting, there's no writing and there's no direction. It's got the most elementary story possible, and the various mysteries the teams have to solve are neither clever nor mysterious. There's no thought involved on the part of the crew members, all they have to do is spray, scratch, look in the microscope, run the DNA found on the crime scene on the computer and there's your suspect. And with so little effort from the makers of the series, there's no effort involved on the part of the audience either. No complexities and no anxieties.
At first I thought that the main appeal for its large audience, well, the only appeal, was the scientific approach. That what the audience wanted to see, and which the makers knew that the audience wanted to see and so provided, was the technical wizardry involved. That this was the very essence of a "cinema of attractions". And that is probably a large part of its broader appeal. But after doing some research, and looking at online CSI-forums, I've realised that a large group of people do have an emotional investment in the show, and its characters. They argue about them, the root for them and they pity them. So for them this show is something it could never be for me, the casual observers. It's like a family member, which you go and visit frequently.
What I've also noticed in the series is a rather harsh and conservative attitude to the criminals. This is not a TV-series of forgiveness and repentance. Here the criminals all deserve to die, and are not showing any remorse (and apparently no suspect in this world of CSI has any rights, or needs to be told that they have a right to remain silent and such legal niceties). This almost biblical morality stands in contrast with the very modern and very scientific approach to the actual solving of the crimes. The crew members quotes Newton, calculate with elaborate mathematical equations and use the latest technological equipment. It's a far cry from the poor policemen in The Wire (2002 - 2008) who makes do with just typewriters.
For me though, the greatest appeal, perhaps the only appeal, of CSI: Miami is the visual style. It's all glass and transparency, fluctuating lights and fancy camera movements. It's close to intoxicating, especially all the glass and see-through materials.
I've long been a fan of Patricia Neal (when I wrote a review, over a decade ago, of Cookie's Fortune (1999), it was very much about her and very little about anything else), so the news are sad of course. But according to some press information before she died she said "I've had a lovely time." And so have I, all those hours I've spent watching her doing wonders on the screen.
Here's a scene from The Breaking Point(1950), with John Garfield. Possibly Michael Curtiz's best film, and with a final scene so heartbreaking it'll haunt you forever. And she's magnificent, as she usually was.
When I was young I watched conspicuous amounts of TV. It's fair to say my life was organised around my school schedule and the TV schedule. But at some point, in my late teens, I just stopped. My interest in cinema took over, and if I watched anything on TV it was movies. Also I didn't really feel that TV was dignified enough for someone such as myself. Weirdly enough all that changed in the summer of 1997, because the movie Fools Rush In(1997) opened, and as its male star it had Matthew Perry. When I saw the trailer with a friend she said "Oh, it's the guy from Friends!" I had no idea what she was talking about and suddenly I felt left out, even though it was a movie we were talking about. So I decided that I had to watch TV again. This was at a time when sitcoms ruled the roost, the likes of Friends* (1994-2004), Spin City(1996-2002), Frasier(1993-2004), Dharma and Greg (1997-2002) and important series such as ER(1994-2009) and Ally McBeal(1997-2004). And in 1998 Sex and the City(1998-2004) appeared, followed the next year by The West Wing(1999-2006) and The Sopranos(1999-2007) and many other series. It could be argued that in 1998 we entered a whole new era, the age of HBO (even though HBO had already been around for some time).
But the development of modern TV is to be a subject for further blog posts. The point now is that TV suddenly became culturally acceptable, not only for me but in general, in a way it hadn't really been before. Part of the reason for this is probably that TV got better, in the sense that a lot more complex and intelligent TV-series than was the norm appeared. And another reason is probably a generational thing.
One example of this is that when Friends began no "real" stars wanted to to be seen in it, but in later seasons stars were lining up to appear, either playing themselves or just doing bit parts.
If you want to study cinema properly, you need to study TV as well. They crossbreed and influence one another, and actors, writers and directors move from one media to another. It used to be that directors began doing TV and once they left it for the cinema they didn't move back, or that movie stars ended their careers doing TV-shows. It's not like that any more. Of course, TV has always had a huge influence on TV, not least in the sense that in the 1950s, when TV had its big breakthrough, it took away large parts of the audience from the cinema, and cinema had to develop new technical novelties in order to compete, such as CinemaScope, Cinerama, 3D and Smell-O-Vision (which admittedly never really caught on). TV also lead to changes in narrative patterns and the use of colour. (It also coincided with the "birth" of the teenager, but that's another story.) And cinema has of course influenced TV as well over the years, but I would still say that things are different today. And if you want to understand what's going on in the world of moving images, and perhaps also to understand what's going on in the world in general, studying TV is vital.
However, when people today are writing and talking about TV, they often talk as if good TV was born at the beginning of this century. That's of course bonkers. One of the most important TV-series ever is Hill Street Blues(1981-1987), created by Steven Bochco, who in the 1980s had a standing similar to HBO's today, as a source of brilliance. And there are a number of other great and ground breaking shows and series, and of course not only from the US. Britain for example also has a long tradition of doing good, solid and challenging TV. Z-Cars(1962-1978) is an example of a cop show, and there's also the many adapted books, such as Brideshead Revisited(1981) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy(1979). And of course the magnificent Fawlty Towers(1975-1979). Other countries with which I'm less familiar probably did good work as well.
But, as I said, the development of TV history will be discussed later, this post was only meant as a rallying cry for giving the study of TV and TV-history an equal footing with cinema studies in the academic world, and as a starting point for writing about TV here, at Fredrik on Film.
*It's debatable whether Friends qualifies as a sitcom, or if it should be regarded as something else, a cross between a soap and a sitcom, a soapcom perhaps. But now, enjoy this classic scene from Fawlty Towers.
I don't want to get all Harold Bloom on you, but thoughts about canon appears every now and then and I'm fascinated by it. Usually they give birth to fierce discussions, and questions are raised such as, what are they for? who decides what's in them? do we really want this kind of elitism? since there are no objective truths in art, are not canons by definition bad?
But a canon, i.e. a selection of works deemed to be of special value, is in itself neutral, and can be whatever you want it to be. If we just keep to the art form at hand, hundreds of thousands of films have been made over the years, and it's simply impossible to see them all, or even keep track of them, and the older they are, the more anonymous they become. For me, that's when a canon can be an invaluable help, as a starting point, for the budding student of film history, or the young eager film enthusiast who wants to get ahead in the game and watch some seminal films on a rainy day.
And canons, just like any other lists, are almost always stimulating and thought-provoking. But if they don't come with a clear definition and an argument, they can easy become pointless, and the debates they bring about equally pointless. Like when Woody Allen mentioned his six favourite films last month. We only knew what films, not why and how they were selected, and then we're none the wiser.
When I was teaching last semester, we ended the course with discussing canon, and my students was wondering which films I would myself put on a list. I thought about it for a while and came up with the following list. It should, as I said, be seen only as a starting point for exploring film history, but with these films I believe that you get both a very good idea of all the possibilities that narrative feature films have to offer, as well as a bunch of brilliant films. (But if you asked for a list of my favourite films, it would be a rather different selection.) Among the films here you get early cinema and modern cinema, colour and black and white, polyester and digital, English and Iranian, fast and slow, short and long, conventional and modernist, comic and tragic, complex and simply, but all of them artful and essential.
Ingeborg Holm, Victor Sjostrom 1913, Sweden
Sherlock Jr, Buster Keaton 1924, USA
Ten Days That Shook the World / Oktyabr, Sergei Eisenstein 1928, Soviet Union (Russia)
Our Daily Bread, King Vidor 1934, USA
The Great Illusion / La grande illusion, Jean Renoir 1937, France You Only Live Once, Fritz Lang 1937, USA Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks 1939, USA Meet Me in St Louis, Vincente Minnelli 1944, USA A Matter of Life and Death, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1946 UK Summer Interlude / Sommarlek, Ingmar Bergman 1951, Sweden
Ugestu Monotagari, Kenji Mizoguchi 1953, Japan
Illusion Travels By Streetcar/ La ilusion viaja an travia, Luis Bunuel 1954, Mexico Flowing / Nagareru, Mikio Naruse 1956, Japan The Searchers, John Ford 1956, USA L'eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni 1962, Italy
The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri, Gillio Pontecorvo 1966, France/Italy The Spider's Stratagem / Strategia del ragno, Bernardo Bertolucci 1970, Italy The Adversary / Pratitwandi, Satyajit Ray 1972, India
Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Sam Peckinpah 1973, USA Je, tu, il, elle, Chantal Akerman 1974, Belgium La belle noiseuse, Jacques Rivette 1991, France
In the Soup, Alexandre Rockwell 1992, USA The Truman Show, Peter Weir 1998, USA The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami 1999, Iran
Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999 Frankrike
Delbaran, Abolfazl Jalili 2001, Iran
Prize of Forgiveness / Ndeysaan, Mansour Sora Wade 2001, Senegal Lovely and Amazing. Nicole Holofcener 2001, USA