Friday, 25 March 2011

Paris!

(Thanks to Anna-Lisa who inspired me to write this post!)

There is no other city, and possibly no other place in the world, I love more than Paris, France. I go there every year, and every time I'm just as enchanted, bewitched, swept off my feet. The reasons for my love are many and complex, and we need not analyse them here. Instead I'll just post a handful of sequences that also are in love with Paris.

The first one is the opening sequence of Bob le flambeur (1956), the first of Jean-Pierre Melville's gangster films, and one of his best. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons why Melville is one of my favourite filmmakers is because he is a Parisian. This sequence is basically just Bob going home across Montmartre an early morning, saying hello to the few people that are up, the hookers, the police, the street sweepers. It's the kind of sequence that makes you wonder what all the fuss about the coming French New Wave was all about.


The next one is the opening sequence of Love Me Tonight (1932), the wonderful musical with Maurice Chevalier. It's directed by Rouben Mamoulian in typically gracefully and fluent manner.


This next sequence is not actually set in Paris, but it is about Paris, and so lovely. From Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954). The issue here is that Sabrina is in love with the younger brother of Linus (Bogart).


À bout de souffle (1960) deserves to be included. Here's Jean Seberg selling New York Herald Tribune.


Here we have some colour, and again Audrey Hepburn. Funny Face (1957).


This is not a sequence but a trailer, for Cédric Klapisch's Paris (2008). The title is self-explanatory.


Here we have a hybrid, What Time Is It Over There (Ni na bian ji dian, 2001). It's made by Tsai Ming-Liang and it moves back and forth between Paris and Taipei. It's a bit more meditative than the earlier sequences, and its relationship to Paris is also somewhat complicated. There's perhaps more loneliness than love.


That'll be all. Almost. There's just this link, which is the Paris sequence in Casablanca (1942) re-edited with music from Inception (2010). Two films that also love Paris.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

RIP Elizabeth Taylor





But the next one is probably the best of her films, at least to me, but then I'm a Minnelloholic.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Saul Bass

Saul Bass made posters and title sequences and might even have choreographed the shower sequence in Psycho (1960). He probably is most famous for his work together with Hitchcock, but his collaboration with Otto Preminger is equally remarkable. And when Walk on the Wild Side (1962) came out, it was suggested that the only good thing about it was Bass's title sequence. In short, he was a master of his game and I'd like to do a little tribute. Here are some of his title sequences.

This is Carmen Jones (1954), his first screen credit and the first time he worked with Preminger:


Here's The Man With the Golden Arm (1955):


Here's Saint Joan (1957):


And the last Preminger shown here will be Bunny Lake is Missing (1965):


Here's The Big Knife (1955):


Bass and Scorsese made many films together. Here's The Age of Innocence (1993):


Then there's Storm Center (1956), which is an interesting film because it is one of the first that was an overt attack on McCarthyism. It is also the only film that screen writer Daniel Taradash also directed.


And here, last but not least, Walk on the Wild Side:


That'll be all for now, but there are plenty of others. Go look for yourselves!


Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Thoughts on cinema and radiation and the disasters in Japan

Our fear of nuclear power seems to go deep. Or rather, our fear of radiation. It is sometimes irrational, and often based on misconceptions and misunderstandings. But it is there, and even though there has been only one horrible accident, Chernobyl, the fear of another like it is often on people's minds when nuclear power is discussed. The shock of Chernobyl has perhaps forever altered our perception of nuclear power in general, at least among those that were old enough at the time to see the news flashes. (For a recent assessment of Chernobyl, see the website of UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) here.)

Films have long been expressing our fears of both the bomb and nuclear power. New York Times had an article yesterday about the Japanese films about the monster Godzilla, and the message of those films. The first of those films, Godzilla (Gojira) came out 1954, and dealt both with the atomic bomb released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the nuclear tests at the Bikini atoll that the Americans made in the 1940s and 1950s (that's where the name of the bathing costume comes from). It's a surprisingly powerful film, and much different from the American version from 1998. But all over the world, films were made about this fear. Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) has sometimes been seen as an allegory about the fear of the bomb. More directly outspoken is his later film Winter Light (Nattvardsgasterna 1962). In France, Alain Renais made Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. In the US all sorts of films, but primarily horror films and film noirs, were made with an atomic subtext. Even before Godzilla came out, Gordon Douglas directed the low key and eerie horror film Them!, about ants that had been exposed to the fallout of a nuclear test in New Mexico, and grown extraordinary large. What's remarkable about it is how realistic it is, in its settings and tone, and that it has a Foucault-like view of those that society lock up as criminals and mentally unsound (or crazy).

Another example is the nihilistic noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with an apocalyptic ending. Pay particular attention to the sound effects. The radiating light in the box sounds like a monster, it's definitely something that is alive:


On the Beach (1959), set in Australia, about a group of people waiting for the nuclear cloud that has killed the rest of the world, is another example. A later example, and more fitting for the present crisis, is The China Syndrome (1979) about an accident at a nuclear power station. Here Jack Lemmon is playing the manager of the station, desperately trying to control a potential meltdown. The strange thing about the film is that it was released just days before the real accident at Three Mile Island power station, near Harrisburg, until now the world's second most dangerous nuclear accident.

But to return to Japan. In 1989, Shohei Imamura made Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), about the after effects of the bombings of Hiroshima. The following year Akira Kurosawa wrestled with his own fears of radiation, and nuclear power. In one of his 'dreams' from his late film Dreams (Yume 1990), Mount Fuji turns red, after a nuclear accident. It's yet another apocalyptic imagining of the horrible effects:


With the increasing fears of a disaster in Japan, the ghost of accidents past are back to haunt the world. Although scientists assures us that it won't be as bad as Chernobyl, even in a worst-case scenario, that is not much of a consolation since even something half as bad would be unspeakable enough. What would that do to Japan? A headline in a newspaper the other day said "Japan is fighting for its life", and even though it first sounded very much exaggerated, now I'm not so sure anymore. Japan will eventually prevail, but at what cost? Whatever happens at Fukushima now, the combination of the earthquakes, the tsunami, and the complete breakdown of so many nuclear power plants is enough to make the most resilient country go down on its knees. I hope that all of those that I have met there are safe.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

James Stewart reads a poem

This is a special moment in TV-history, when James Stewart read a poem about his dog at Johnny Carson's talk show. It's so very moving. Part of that comes from the audience reactions. In the beginning you hear them laugh and applaud, but then they go silent, because the poem changes tone. Allegedly this was one of only three times that Johnny Carson showed any emotions in his show.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

No Strings Attached and target audience

Last week I really wanted to see a film on the big screen, at the cinema. St Andrews has only one cinema, and very few films to choose between, so I settled for No Strings Attached (2011), the romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. I wasn't expecting anything good, and I didn't get anything particular good either. However.

Besides me, almost all the others in the audience were females and either late teenagers or in their early 20s, which must be considered No Strings Attached's core audience. And unlike me, they really liked the film, right from the beginning. Whereas I saw the jokes coming a mile off, and felt that it was poorly written, directed and acted, the others in the audience apparently didn't feel like that. They all laughed at the right moments, sighed at the right moments and in general made all the right noices at the appropriate times. They also liked the sight of Mr Kutcher's bare buttocks. And as I sat there it occurred to me that as much as I might think that the film was rather bad, it clearly wasn't, because the audience reacted exactly as the filmmakers had anticipated, and afterwards I heard many of them say that they really liked it, that it was sooo sweet and funny. In short, the film did a beautiful job catering to its target audience. It cost around $25 000 000 to make, and so far it has made around $103 000 000, so it has already by far covered its costs. Considering that it is R rated, it could not hope to do all that well any way.

No Strings Attached is not the kind of film that would be considered a "good" film, a quality film, by critics, intellectuals, scholars, not even by adults in general. It will most likely not be written about in film history books or discussed at seminars. It is also the kind of film where I have to explain my decision to go and watch it. Had I gone to see that other Portman film, Black Swan (2010) nobody would have asked me "Why?". This is not because No Strings Attached is a romantic comedy, plenty of romantic comedies are well-liked and, well, accepted, and can be watched without explanations. No, it is because No Strings Attached is not a "good" film. And people would "know" this without having seen it.

But what exactly are the criteria for what constitutes a good film? That it is visually rich? Emotionally engaging? Socially conscious? Well, maybe, but what is that any way? What does it mean to be emotionally engaging? For whom? And why is that important? We're none the wiser. The girls at the screening of No Strings Attached were most certainly engaged in the story. No, the efforts to try and define what is a good film and what is a bad film, outside of our own personal hangups and feelings, will most likely remain fruitless. This is of course not particularly revolutionary, but most people, perhaps especially those that have, shall we say, educated tastes, talk and act like such definitions do exist, even if they in public would deny it.

However, there might be an objective criteria for what is a good film, but one that doesn't deal with any inherent qualities in the actual film, but rather the interaction between the film and the audience. That criteria would be that a good film is a film that is liked by its intended audience. That is a tough criteria to live up to, and the teenagers that watch No Strings Attached are just as harsh and demanding an audience as are the most highbrow critics. It is only that they demand different things. And judging by this criteria No Strings Attached is a pretty good film. Better perhaps than some films by, say, Bergman.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Max Weber goes to the movies

In A History of Narrative Film, David A. Cook writes that "On-location shooting, the use of nonprofessional actors, and the improvisation of script, which have all become a part (though not always a large part) of conventional filmmaking today, were techniques almost unknown to the narrative sound film before neorealism." This is hyperbole, both the implication that neorealism was all about this, and also that these things were unknown before neorealism. I won't go into the finer details here, but Jean Renoir, John Ford and King Vidor are three directors who knew a lot about improvisations and on-location. Hawks had a lackadaisical approach to scripts, as had Leo McCarey. Casablanca (1942) is famous for having been written while it was being shot, so that the actors didn't know what would happen. A lot of British cinema was in a realist mindset, with plenty of on-location. And quite a lot of westerns are shot on-location. When the wagons are hauled down over the steep cliffs in The Big Trail (1930) it's not done in a studio, and Monument Valley, extensively used by Ford, is in Utah, not Hollywood.

But this blog post isn't about neorealism, or on-location shooting, or even David A. Cook. And it isn't really about Max Weber either, despite the title. But it is about a concept he is famous for. Weber was a German sociologist, one of the founders of the discipline, together with such luminaries as fellow Germans Georg Simmel and Karl Mannheim and the French Émile Durkheim, around the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century.* The concept I'm thinking about today is Gedankenbilder, Ideal types. This concept can be understood as an abstract model of something, say a phenomenon, that we are studying, but a model which doesn't necessarily exist in reality, it is only a reference point. This is most often used when talking about economics or philosophy or, of course, sociology. But we need to acknowledge that we also use it, perhaps unknowingly, when we're talking about cinema. Art in general. Let's go back to neorealism. Everybody "knows" that neorealist films are shot on location, using nonprofessional actors, and without a strong script or a driven narrative. And yet most neorealist films are partly, sometimes even primarily, shot in studios, and they often use real actors, sometimes even stars, and some have very clear structures and a "classical" storyline. So "neorealism" becomes an ideal type, despite there being very few films that actually match this ideal type (note here that ideal doesn't mean ideal as in best, or perfect, but as in ideas, idealistic). Another example that springs to mind is German Expressionism. Last week I wrote about film noir, which is also a kind of film where people often confuse the ideal type with the actual films.

It is the same with many genres as well (maybe neorealism is a genre?). When I was marking exams recently there was one question where the students were supposed to compare Jim Jarmusch's western Dead Man (1995) with earlier westerns. Almost every student who answered compared it to some mythical, pure western (none in particular were mentioned) which had horses, cowboys and indians and where all cowboys were good and all indians were bad, and everything was black and white, and everything was shiny and pretty, whereas Dead Man was the opposite of that. And while it is true that Dead Man is the opposite of that kind of western, it is also true that very few westerners are so pure, in fact hardly any of the classic westerns are like that. No, these students compared Dead Man to an ideal type, and they didn't seem to be aware of the fact that this is what they were doing. It made Dead Man stand out as a completely new and unique kind of western, but it would only come across as such when compared to this ideal type.

This is not necessarily a problem. Using ideal types are often relevant in order to synthesise and simplify, and it can be a helpful approach. It is also, however, fraught with a lot of problems, because what often happens is that when we're not aware that we are in fact talking about an ideal type, we misunderstand, we get things wrong, and we make claims on behalf of genres, movements, filmmakers, even countries, that are not true, or at least exaggerated.

But couldn't we just say that neorealist films are films made in Italy after the second world war, that deal with the hardships facing the Italian people, most of all the workers and the farmers?That would not be as precise, and perhaps not as historically sexy, but it would be more accurate, and it would not be exaggerated. But at the same time, it will not be enough to say that, because there's something else going on here. Neorealist films were seen as doing all of these things that was being claimed for them, and they had an influence on others, filmmakers, movements and countries. So when speaking about it today, this needs to be acknowledged. (What also needs to be acknowledged is that influence is a muddled concept, but I will write more about that in a later post.)

One solution to this might be to keep two thoughts in mind at the same time. We might say that there are the actual films, and then there's the popular perception of them, and that these two things might not necessarily be the same. And the irony is that sometimes it is this ideal type that influence others, more than the actual films.

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*I had originally got the centuries mixed up but now they are correct.