Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Ford. Show all posts

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford is one of those filmmakers that I write about repeatedly, since I consider him to be one of the great artists of the 20th century. There are many aspects that make up his artistry, such as his themes and his conception of time, his work with the actors, his creation of distinctly Fordian characters. But it is perhaps above all else the poetic images, with many typical compositions recurring all the way through his career. Some of his films must be regarded as the most beautiful, visually, that has ever been made. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is one of them. It is not Ford's best but it is still very impressive, and quite wonderful. Here are some stills:


In his correspondence with Lindsay Anderson for Anderson's book About John Ford, the scriptwriter for The Grapes of Wrath, Nunnally Johnson, boldly claimed that whatever quality is to be found in Ford's films came from the scripts Johnson had written, and the films Ford had made with other writers were just bad. As claims go it is depressingly weak. These images alone contradict Johnson because the images are Ford's, not Johnson's (nor John Steinbeck's). The cinematographer on the film was Gregg Toland, famous for his work with William Wyler and especially with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), but there is nothing in either Wyler's or Welles's films that are like the images to be found in the films of Ford for the obvious reason that their films were not directed by Ford. Of course, Toland was important for the look of the film, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a great, and close, interest in the production (Ford was more independent on other films), but the look and feel of the film is still Ford's. "Let's take a chance and do something different." he said to Toland when they were preparing it, and he later added "It worked out all right."

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.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Racism and the American cinema

This post is primarily about films before the 1960s and the civil rights movements.

Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges 1942) is a fine film, not least thanks to its hilarious characters and wit. However there is one disturbing thing about it, a bartender of sorts who is presented in a stereotypically uncomfortable way. His voice, behaviour and gestures all have the characteristics of the "funny black guy", but it is not funny in the least. (He was played by Fred Toones, known for his nickname Snowflake, who made over 200 films, often playing porters or shoeshine boys.)

Fred Toones

And Palm Beach Story is not alone in presenting such a racial stereotype; they are to be found in many American films. The 1910s and 1920s were perhaps the worst, with some improvement in the 1930s, but stereotypes like "the mammy" and comic clowns remained. It is hardly surprising that American films have these characters since overt racism was in effect a governing principle, at least in the South, until the 1960s, and on the whole films with black characters in them suffer from this. It is not only blacks, but for example Chinese, Hispanics and American Indians (henceforth referred to as Indians) are also often treated in a similar racist, stereotypical way. In the 1940s things began to change, for several reasons. One reason was the impact the atrocities from Nazi Germany had, another reason was a meeting held in 1942, instigated by NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), against racial stereotypes and for better roles for black actors. A few years later the Supreme Court also began to take an active stand against racism and segregation, with the verdict in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, against the segregation of schools, as a milestone. But some stereotypes remained, albeit muted. See for example the character Jonah Williams, in Sergeants 3 (John Sturges 1962), played by Sammy Davis Jr. It is a sad spectacle.

There is a paradox at the heart of racism, i.e. the fact that there is only one race, the human race, and any difference between whites, blacks, Asians or whatever is never more than the surface, primarily the skin colour. We do not consider people with blond hair, brown hair and red hair to be three different races yet to do so is not more illogical than to consider whites and blacks differently. (Of course, we also, consciously or unconsciously, see blondes and brunettes differently. Think of all "dumb blonde" jokes). The word "racism" is anachronistic, from a time when people actually believed that there were different races and that they were different from each other (for example in terms of IQ), and should perhaps be replaced by another word.

But to get back to film. It would be a mistake, a mistake often made, to dismiss all Hollywood films as being equally racist, and it is also a mistake to judge the films exclusively from our time in history. Everything needs to be contextualised in order to be properly understood. For example, a distinction needs to be made between films that were considered racist at the time and those considered progressive, even if they today appear stereotypical as well. D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) is hardly an enlightened paragon of anti-racism seen from today but in its tender portrayal of a tragic love affair between a white woman (Lillian Gish) and a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) it is the opposite of the virulent racism of Griffith's earlier The Birth of a Nation (1915), and made at a time when there was a lot of talk of "the yellow peril", and there was a fear in American society about it being overtaken by East Asians. A film like Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), although artistically rather advanced, panders to this fear in a way Broken Blossoms does not. Although, as was often the case, the Chinese man was not played by a Chinese actor, but a white man made up to look Chinese. The Japanese man in The Cheat however was played by Sessue Hayakawa, a big star at the time.

Barthelmess and Gish

After the Second World War a number of films were made that more explicitly dealt with racism, such as Pinky (Elia Kazan 1949) and No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950), and anti-semitism, such as Gentlemen's Agreement (Elia Kazan 1947) and Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk 1947). Unfortunately they are sometimes compromised by either being patronizing, or meant to make the white, gentile audience feel good about themselves. That is also a problem with the much celebrated film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan 1962). One film from the 1940s that goes beyond that, and is really brave and forceful, is Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown 1949) with Juano Hernández, of which I have written more about here. Another good film is Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise 1959) with Harry Belafonte. An interesting twist is to be found in The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish 1959), where the cavalry consists only of black soldiers, so-called buffalo soldiers. Their sergeant is played by former baseball player Satchel Paige and there is a remarkable sequence where a stagecoach, driven by Apache Indians, is being engaged by the black soldiers. What also happened in the 1950s was that black film stars appeared, not least the magnificent Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Worth mentioning is also the TV series I Spy from the mid-60s, the first series with a black actor in the lead, Bill Cosby. He plays one of the two agents the series is about, the other being played by Robert Culp.

Dorothy Dandridge

* * *

In an article last year after the release of The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski 2013), Jan-Christopher Horak wrote about westerns and Indians, proclaiming that "[o]bviously, virtually all of Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians narratives were equally racist". It is not an uncommon view but I do not see it that way. A film that is being sympathetic to Indians, and show how they suffer from the appearance of the white soldiers and settlers, is clearly not as racist as a film in which Indians are considered something that should be killed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Both those kinds of films exists, and even if the former kind might often be considered condescending, it is wrong not to distinguish it from other, genocidal, films. So-called pro-Indian films have a long history; even though Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves 1950) is often considered the first it goes much further back than that and Broken Arrow was not even the first film on that subject in 1950. In Raoul Walsh's epic The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne's character is asked by some kids if he has killed many Indians. He says no, because "the Indians are my friends." Likewise when Walsh made They Died With Their Boots On (1942), he managed to make a film that takes the side of the Indians ("the only real Americans here") despite it being about the battle of the Little Bighorn, where the 7th Cavalry, under General Custer, was more or less wiped out by Lakotas and Cheyennes in the Great Sioux War. But in the 1950s pro-Indian films became much more common. What distinguishes them is that they are either told from the Indians point of view or from somebody sympathetic to them, and that they criticise the deceitfulness, racism and violence of the white men, not least the military, and there is often a sadness over the way things have turned out. What many of them also have in common is the unfortunate fact that it is rarely Indians actors who play the parts of the Indians. But while that is an issue it does not invalidate them, it might be considered an acceptable compromise in order to get the films made at all, and it does not necessarily loosen to force of the films. Some of them, like Tomahawk (George Sherman 1951) or Reprisal! (Sherman 1956), can be surprisingly angry and sad. Some other notable examples are Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann 1950), Apache (Robert Aldrich 1954), They Rode West (Phil Karlson 1954), Chief Crazy Horse (Sherman 1955) and Run of the Arrow (Sam Fuller 1957). It was not just a few particular filmmakers who made these films, it was a more general tendency, although George Sherman made several of the best.

Van Heflin and Susan Cabot in Tomahawk

Consider also The Cimarron Kid (Budd Boetticher 1952). The main character, Bill Doolin aka The Cimarron Kid, played by Audie Murphy, has as his best friend Stacey Marshall, a black man played by Frank Silvera. In one scene the Kid is having dinner in the home of Marshall and his family. Such a scene would be more or less unthinkable in a film from that time with a contemporary setting, but the western setting gives it leeway. Likewise, in another of George Sherman's films, Comanche (1956), the main white character falls in love with a Mexican woman and the relationship is considered a good thing, and it leads to marriage.* That too would be almost unthinkable in a film from 1956 in a contemporary setting.

John Ford, whom Quentin Tarantino in a peculiar charge dismissed as a racist, shows quite clearly the complexity of the situation. In some of his early films Indians are just faceless threats, but in others, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) they are shown as subjects, dignified and suffering individuals. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon even has Indian actors. When it comes to black characters in Ford's films they can be problematic as in Judge Priest (1934), but later he made the rather outspoken anti-racist film Sergeant Rutledge (1960), by some seen as one of Ford's later efforts to make amends for earlier films.

Woody Strode as Sergeant Rutledge

In Judge Priest the main black character is played by Stepin Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry). This too is an example of the complexity of the issues. On the one hand, with his body language, drooling speech pattern and apparent dimwittedness, he can be regarded as the very essence of an abject racist stereotype, a type known as a "coon". But, Stepin Fetchit was also an actor and an artist who had carefully constructed this persona, and at the time he was a star and a hero for many blacks, who imitated his walk and his way of talking. He was also the first black actor to be given proper screen credit, and he was so popular that he became a millionaire. It can also be argued that the persona partly worked as a defence mechanism. In a later film by Ford, the complex and quite wonderful The Sun Shines Bright (1953), made in a more enlightened era, hints are given that under this facade lies a fear, the very real fear of being lynched if not acting according to the white men's idea of black behaviour.

Stepin Fetchit in The Sun Shines Bright


A blanket condemnation, saying that all old films are racist, is unsatisfactory because it is not true; there is a scale from the outright racist to the progressive and insightful. Consequently, for the very same reason, it is not satisfactory to excuse racism in older films because they are old and people "did not know any better". Because many did. The problem has not disappeared either, people are still racists today. On films and in the larger world. Lately schools have been even resegregated in the US, as courts have been stepping back from upholding the verdicts from the 1950s and 1960s. (Here is an article about the problem.) As an example from contemporary films look at how racial stereotypes are used as comic relief in Michael Bay's Transformers films. It says a lot about how problematic these characters are that nobody takes any responsibility for having created them, instead people blame each other. Notice also how few black characters there are in war films, or, in films in general, how rare interracial couples are.

One of the least appealing aspects of contemporary anti-racist manifestations is that they all too often become nauseating spectacles that combines othering (we, the good guys, versus them, the bad racists) and self-righteousness. It is not until each one of us has confronted our own racism that real progress will be had.


This post has only been about American films, but similar problems exist in films from all countries of course. And in European cinema Anti-semitism was once very common.

I have not mentioned films made by black filmmakers, such as Oscar Micheaux, but that is subject for a post later this year.

*2014-05-26 Originally I said that the man and the woman in Comanche had a child before they were married, but I take that back. I believe I misunderstood what she said in a key scene.

I have also amended the text by inserting a bit about The Cheat and Sessue Hayakawa that had gone missing.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Theory readings #1 - Robert Warshow and "The Gangster as Tragic Hero"

When theoretical texts are discussed or criticised it is usually through the use of another theory, on whether it contradicts or agrees with some other text. But for me it is when a text is criticised on its own terms, from within, that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Under the heading "Theory readings" I aim to engage with some theoretical writings (loosely defined) on their own terms, and see where that will take me.

The above paragraph, somewhat amended, is from an earlier post of mine called Theory readings - an introduction. This post is the first such engagement; about the writings of Robert Warshow and in particular the article "The Gangster as Tragic Hero".

Warshow was born in New York in 1917 and he died from a heart attack already in 1955, the same year as James Agee (who was eight years older than Warshow). Warshow was a code breaker during the Second World War and after the war he became a writer for the journals Commentary (where he was also an editor) and Partisan Review. He was then regarded as a member of the "New York Intellectuals", together with people like Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Hannah Arendt and Lionel Trilling. Warshow's father was from Russia and a member of the Socialist Party, and even run for Congress, but Warshow himself was more of a social democrat and very unfavourable towards communism, particularly because of Stalinism and the way too many communists often followed the dictates from Moscow rather than think for themselves. Warshow's particular interest as a writer was popular culture; the way it formed, and was formed by, society. He wrote about books, comics and theatre but the popular art form he was primarily focused on was film. Film, or movies as he always said, was for him "the most highly developed and most engrossing of the popular arts, and which seems to have an almost unlimited power to absorb and transform the discordant elements of our fragmented culture" he wrote in 1954. But unlike many others who wrote about film from the point of view of their impact on society he was not hostile towards the movies, or afraid of them. He loved films, and he disapproved of those critics who are concerned about "those elements he believes to be affecting or expressing 'the audience' rather than what he himself responds to". He wanted to take film seriously and "legitimise it". And he felt that he had "developed a kind of 'theory' of the movies, and would expect this theory to emerge" in his writing although he did not want to do any book that could be called "a theoretical work". These quotes above are from an application that he made for a Guggenheim Fellowship, with the aim to write a book about films. That book never came to be because of his early death, but in 1962 most of his writings were published in The Immediate Experience - Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture.


His two main essays on film and society are "The Gangster as Tragic Hero", first published in Partisan Review in 1948 and "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner", also first published in Partisan Review but in 1954. Another good but lesser known essay is called "The Movie Camera and the American", first published in Commentary in 1952. In "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" Warshow makes the argument that in USA happiness and cheerfulness is more or less a nationally prescribed state of mind (with " an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful" as he puts it) and he argues that in the US, and in Russia as well, it is considered dubious, perhaps even unpatriotic, to be unhappy in public so feelings of unhappiness must be kept hidden from view. But the happiness is constantly reinforced by popular culture. "Nobody seriously questions the principle that it is the function of mass culture to maintain public morale, and certainly nobody in the mass audience objects to having his morale maintained." And he feels that even "sad" films serve this purpose, when "death and suffering" are used as "incidents in the service of a higher optimism." However, unlike many others who discussed the impact of mass culture on the people, he did feel that there were pockets of resistance. Among the examples he gives that do not participate in this upbeat cheerfulness are jazz, soap operas (on radio, not TV, since this is 1948), certain comedies, such as the anarchy found in the films with the Marx brothers, and, above all, the gangster films. The gangster film, he claims, "has been a consistent and astonishingly complete presentation of the modern sense of tragedy." The force, and the subversiveness, of the gangster movie comes from the fact that they are about men who pull themselves up from the gutter and reach fame and glory, i.e. they are the embodiments of the American dream, but this then ends in isolation, paranoia and death. The American dream is shown to be a nightmare, and through the common "experience of art" the audience can live vicariously this American dream that seem unattainable to them, and then they can enjoy the gangster's demise at the end, the punishment of success. The gangster "is what we want to be and what we are afraid we might become."

Tony Camonte, aka Scarface, in Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932)

Warshow also discussed the character of the gangster, and his relationship to the city. "The gangster is a man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring, carrying his life in his hands like a placard, like a club./.../ for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it" but it is not the real city for "[t]he real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster" and he likens them to the tragic heroes of Shakespeare. "Even to himself, he is a creature of the imagination." he says of the gangster and as an example he mentions Rico Bandello in Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy 1931), who speaks about himself in third person. (His famous last words are "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?")

In the end, when the gangster lies dead, shot by the police or another gangster, the audience can take comfort in the fact that although they, like the gangster, also strive for success theirs is unattainable. This "dilemma is solved because it is his death, not ours. We are safe; for the moment, we can acquiesce in our failure, we can choose to fail." (Warshow does not say so but in a way it could be said that the gangster dies for the audience's sins.)

The ending of The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939). 

It could be said that Warshow overstates the case for mass culture optimism. During the 1930s there were many gloomy films about the depression, beyond the gangster films, and after the war cynicism and despair where more or less mandatory in American cinema and literature, not least in the films that are now often called "film noir." That is not a term Warshow uses himself because he was of course not aware of the fact that some decades later this would be invented as a catch-all term. So some of the films he talks about, such as Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway 1947) was for him gangster movies but are called film noir today. It is also worth mentioning John Ford, whose post-war films are filled with a general feeling of sadness and regret. Even when his films end in success they are emphasising the loss that comes from the sad fact that a battle was even needed. If you watched They Were Expendable (1945), Ford's film about the war in the Pacific and possibly his greatest achievement, and did not know who won the war, you would probably think that the US lost it. Such is the mood of the film. In Peter Bogdanovich book-length interview with John Ford (from 1967) he suggested that Ford's films are about "the glory of defeat" but you could also say that they are about the desolation of victory. (Warshow was not particularly fond of Ford though; he thought he was aiming towards seriousness and visual beauty in a way that distracted from the stories. An artist rather than a storyteller.)

Another point against Warshow is whether it really is "the function of mass culture to maintain public morale". For one thing that depends a lot on how you define "function", "mass culture", "maintain" and "public morale". Does "maintain public morale" mean "keep people happy and content"? If that is so, how come mass culture is so often criticised for making people violent, discontent and predatory, rather the opposite of happy and content? And if mass culture has this function "to maintain" how come so much of it, even according to Warshow, does not maintain this morale? And how is "mass culture" different from "high culture"? If one thinks that mass culture maintains public morale, whatever that is, cannot it equally be said that high culture, for example Henry James and Johann Sebastian Bach, also do this? Wherein lies the difference? Or do The Heiress (William Wyler 1949) "maintain public morale" among those who watch it but if they were to read the novel Washington Square by Henry James instead (on which The Heiress is based) they would not be maintained? How would this function work? No, this is not Warshow's strongest argument.

The later article "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner" continues Warshow's discussion about the gangster (he is "the 'no' to that great American 'yes' which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives.") and then compares the gangster to The Westerner, who Warshow sees as in many ways the opposite of a gangster, even though they both carry guns. It is sometimes said that this article is about the Western as a genre but that is not really correct. It is more accurate to say that it is about a certain recurring character in many Western films. It is a very good article, but it will be dealt with in a later post.

For those who want to compare with other, similar writings, one obvious place to start is the work of Siegfried Kracauer, who however can be rather elitist and patronising at times, not least when he writes about "little shopgirls".

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A few words on The Searchers

None of John Ford's films is like The Searchers (1956). I have seen it six or seven times over the years and it is the only one of his films which I have to struggle with. The Searchers is very good, and therefore it is a struggle since some aspects of it gets in the way. Ford made some bad films but there is no need to struggle with them, they are just not that good, but that is not the case here.

What is part annoying, part thrilling, is that The Searchers feels like it is bursting at its seams, that Ford has problem with keeping the film contained, that it sometimes feels like two films. There is the dark tragedy and there are the almost parodic scenes, like those involving the young cavalry lieutenant towards the end. For every close-up of the hardened and mournful Ethan Edwards there are scenes of misplaced comedy. It is not that there should be no humour, only that I feel the balance is off. The scene when Martin kicks Look, his Indian "wife", out of bed is an example of a jarring scene which is played for humour but is not funny at all. What is more, sometimes Ford's attention to a scene seems to be missing, which adds to the feeling that there are two films going on simultaneously. The scene when Revered Captain Clayton sees Martha lovingly caress Ethan's coat is beautiful and perfect, Ford is really there. But some scene feels much less assured. Particularly so the scene towards the end when Ethan lifts up his niece and says "Let's go home Debbie!" It feels like a let-down. Not because of what happens in it but because of the casual way it is shot, almost like a throwaway scene, when it should be a key scene in the film. Ford's heart does not seem to be in it.

Another problem I have are with some of the actors. More specific, the younger actors. Jeffrey Hunter does not in the least feel like he belongs in the West, he looks too much like a contemporary teenage heartthrob, and his acting leaves something to be desired. He has his good moments, but they are not consistent. The girls Pippa Scott, Lana Wood and Natalie Wood are not good here either, they look and sound too much like they had just walked off the set of a Ross Hunter-produced melodrama. Here too much suspension of disbelief is required for me to fully be swept away by the film. On the other hand, John Wayne is extraordinary powerful.

I find its weaknesses so annoying because the film is often brilliant, and pushes deeper than many films, and the flaws that it has need not be there, because Ford is better than this. All of his best films are marvellously sustained and contained, and there is nothing that aggravates me in, say, They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946) or the cavalry trilogy, except that politically Rio Grande (1950) is a step in the wrong direction after its more progressive precursors.

There are scenes and individual shots in The Searchers that are among the best in Ford's oeuvre, which is another way of saying that they are among the best in cinema history. You might say that those should be enough, and I should just not let the other things get to me. But I want perfection, and Ford should have been able to deliver it. He has proven many times he has the capacity.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Henry Hathaway

There is a certain snobbishness in some auteurial circles, where certain directors are almost by default deemed unworthy, and there is also a tendency among the rank and file to consider Andrew Sarris's rankings in American Cinema: Directors and Directions as gospel. This can lead to unfair dismissals of highly competent and interesting filmmakers, dismissals that are doubly unfair when they are made even before their films have been watched and analysed. Another problem with auteurism is that films can be lost or forgotten because they're not made by an "established" auteur, despite being of some brilliance. Which brings us to Henry Hathaway. I have to say that I'm surprise by the lack of material about him. I said in an earlier post that Frank Borzage was not getting enough attention, but he has still received a fair share of comments and essays. Hathaway on the other hand hasn't even an entry at Senses of Cinema. No, he has not received much critical attention at all. He was (unfairly) dismissed by David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, and Sarris put him in the rather boring category "Lightly Likeable". James Agee once wrote that he didn't believe Hathaway was "better than thoroughly competent". And today he is often overlooked and I don't know of any monograph about him, while his name or his films (with a few exceptions) are seldom included in film history books. He does figure in the book series Hollywood Professionals, in the first volume no less, and there is the very excellent Henry Hathaway, a sort of "Hathaway on Hathaway"-book consisting of interviews the late Polly Platt made with him, and which covers his career up until the 1950s (so it ends well before he stopped making films). But that is not much and after having watched a large part of his films I've come to the conclusion that he deserves more, that he is a director of force and consistence, with considerable skills (a feeling that I've had since I was a teenager and watched Call Northside 777 (1948) and Kiss of Death (1948)). This blog post is an introduction, a starting point for further research if you like.

He was born in 1898 and died of a heart attack in 1985 and he directed his first films in the early 1930s, cheap Westerns based on novels by Zane Grey. Before that he worked as an assistant to the likes of Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg, and for one of the very few female directors of the time, Lois Weber, whom Hathaway rated highly. He had his major breakthrough, both commercially and artistically, in 1935 when he made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (a character study about British colonial officers in India) and Peter Ibbetson (a strange, eerie love story which was much praised by André Breton and the French surrealists) and he had two major phases in his career: the post-war semi-documentary thrillers, beginning with The House on 92nd Street (1945), and the late Westerns in the 1960s including The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), the amusingly strange 5 Card Stud (1968) and the first version of True Grit (1969). On the whole he did almost 70 films.

Hathaway was a wealthy man, perhaps you could say he was financially independent, but unlike most major Hollywood filmmakers he didn't become his own man, neither did he start his own company nor did he produce his own films. He was a company man, first at Paramount and then, most famously, at Fox (or 20th Century Fox). But this seemed to suit him just fine. Being a company director meant that you in most cases were given a script by the studio and asked to film it, and you had to make the best of it. However, after you had been given the assignment, you would have considerable freedom to go about it as you sajw fit, at least if you were somebody like Hathaway. At Fox he worked for producer Darryl F. Zanuck, a committed cinephile (yes, cinephiles were not invented by the French New Waveers), and according to Hathaway, Zanuck: "had a half dozen directors that he trusted, Joe Mankiewicz had a completely free hand, I had a free hand, Henry King had a free hand. Zanuck never bothered people that he had faith in."

The fact that he didn't chose his own material or wrote his own script might be a reason why people have had problems finding thematic consistencies in his films (maybe there aren't any). I'm not yet in a position to say something final about this, that takes more time than I've yet spent with his films. However two things are worth pointing out and that is a recurring theme of revenge, and, especially, an interest in deep and unusual friendships (both these themes comes together in True Grit, to name one example). It can be friendship between an American news photographer and Burmese orphan, as in China Girl (1943), a friendship between a naive country girl and a wise old man from the city, as in The Shepherd on the Hills (1940, which also has the revenge theme), a friendship between a lost young man and a dangerous hoodlum, as in Johnny Apollo (1940). What is also noteworthy are the strong passions involved. When Hathaway made The Lives of a Bengal Lancer he wanted it to be a love story between two men (played by Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone), but this passion can be between men and women as well as between men. These interests in friendship and love is I would argue a major reason why so many of his films that are on the surface action films become more like intimate character studies. It should also be said that he worked a lot on the scripts he was given, changing and tweaking them, and felt his way through, to make the best of the material. To this should be added that he had a very good feeling for tempo and pacing. (Pacing is something that I feel is a neglected area of discussion, but for me it is a key aspect of a film and can be the difference between a film being great or just good, or even bad.)

But Hathaway was primarily a visual artist. When he is interviewed he speaks more about the images, and when he mentions influences it is Vermeer, Rembrandt and Brueghul (not sure which one) that comes up, not writers. He also said at one point that one of the first things he did when preparing a film was to "choose a cameraman to go with the style I want to set for the film". And he was very particular about what he wanted. He would sometimes wait, and hold up the production for days, until the light was exactly right for a particular shot, dismissing angry calls from the producers. He worked with a few trusted cinematographers, at Paramount with the great Charles Lang Jr. and at Fox several times with the equally great Joseph MacDonald. He also did several films with Lucien Ballard, so it is clear that he only worked with the best. He also worked his crew hard. One technician said that "Hathaway seems to be everywhere at once, and does not recognize that the impossible exists, or that there are 120 degrees of sunshine. He drives on, possessed with a fury of direction." And Hathaway himself said that "I'd say my greatest directional strength is my stubbornness: I know what I want and I go after it."

His style is very dynamic, I'm almost tempted to say organic, and his style has been rather consistent from the 1930s and onwards. (But he isn't immune to his surroundings. His films before the second world war has a different texture than those after the war, which is partly explained by the fact that he left Paramount and Charles Lang Jr. and went to Fox.) He works with a lot of depth of field, little camera movements, and very rich, dense images. Often the camera will be at a low angle, capturing the whole of the room, including the ceiling. There is always something in the foreground that gives the shot a 3D-like effect, and he loves shadows and frames within the frame. He preferred location shooting to the studio, and he was always interested in documentaries. That he should be a central part of Louis de Rochemont's efforts of making films directly from the news headlines and from the files of FBI and other government agencies is not surprising. And they're very good, especially 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and Call Northside 777, but arguably the best is Diplomatic Courier (1952), mostly set in Trieste, Italy, and with Patricia Neal in a great role. (For that one Hathaway himself did not go to Trieste, the locations were shot by a second unit and then skilfully integrated with the rest, which is ironic since Hathaway usual shot his own second unit stuff...) And his interest in locations and documentary also means that the scenes are taking place in this world, where passers-by, bystanders and ordinary persons can be seen going about their own business behind, besides or even in front of the main characters. If a set has a window you can always see what gojes on outside that window. Bazin suggested that film is like a window, but sometimes the window also has a window, and this is one example of how Hathaway works with frames within the frame.

This style of his is so good that it makes a minor film like Rawhide (1951) almost a masterpiece, just because of the precision of each shot. It is set in a little stagecoach station in the middle of nowhere, and it had a good chance of being stale and theatrical but it is nothing of the sort. The staging, compositions and framing make the picture come alive, and it is yet another example of effective use of frames within the frame. There are three mirrors on one wall and these mirrors are used on several occasions to make the shots more interesting and exciting. So Hathaway's greatest strength lies in the indoor compositions, but he is very good with the exteriors as well. His chosen technique is to create a "room", even if it is in the middle of the prairie, and make an outdoor shot as dynamic and forceful as indoors. (Allegedly Orson Welles complained that Hathaway was more interested in creating striking images than telling a story.)

Rawhide does also work as an example of another consistency in Hathaway's work and that is violence and terror. There's a lot of that in his films, and you can never be sure that characters will survive. In fact after having seen a few of his films you always expect the worst. It is a tense world that is being portrayed, often populated with duplicitous and/or sadistic people, like Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), kicking an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase, in Kiss of Death. (Spoilers ahead) It is telling that when Hathaway made Fourteen Hours (1951), a film about a guy who threatens to commit suicide by jumping from a tall building, Hathaway wanted to end the film with the guy killing himself. But the head of the studio said no because his daughter had just committed suicide that way.

When Hathaway made True Grit, a film that was important to him, he wanted to give it a fairytale flavour, in style, diction and acting, and despite his fondness for realism and documentaries, Hathaway also had an otherworldly side to him. Peter Ibbetson is the obvious example, but there are many films which have elements of this, often by the use of colour like in Niagara (1953). That fantastic film is shot in a dreamy haze and sometimes with an abstraction as if it was an avant-garde film. It might prove Welles right, that Hathaway was more interested in images than story, or perhaps that when given material that was below par he tried to ignore it, instead experimenting with lights and colour and angles, letting his visuals become the story in a sense.

I haven't spend much time discussing individual films, but there's enough to say about them for a whole book, so I'll leave that to another day. I just want to highlight one particular sequence, which is from The Shepherd on the Hills, one of Hathaway's best and most unusual films. It is a rural drama (I suppose the genre would be "western" but that is not very helpful) and in it an old man comes to a tense village, to return to his old home he left many years ago. After he has got the keys he walks to the house, through the forest and over a field, and then he enters it. He walks around, he looks in drawers and boxes, he plays a little tune on the piano, re-entering his past in a way. The sequence has no dialogue, just a little music and it is very long, and it is very beautiful. Hathaway is mostly discussed as an action director, and he did magnificent action sequences, but this sequence is actually more typical of him. Despite his reputation for being a mean and angry man, he made films that were tender and sincerely felt, and this, together with his mastery of compositions, makes him a great filmmaker and what I call an "external auteur". I'm elaborating this concept in my thesis but if you don't care to wait until it is published I'll just say that I make a distinction between external auteurs and internal auteurs. An external auteur is somebody who makes films with quality and consistency but has no personal presence in the film, while an internal auteur is almost always within the film, as a voice, as an actor, as a character, or as an autobiographical ghost. Bergman, Ekman, Welles, Fassbinder and Eastwood are among my examples of internal ones.

There have been some appreciations of Hathaway's work. Here for example is the British writer, critic and filmmaker Basil Wright, who wrote like this about Hathaway in the late 1930s: "Note first the verisimilitude of the settings, second, the modest but unerring rightness of all his camera angles, and third, the sense of ebb and flow of passion between two tough but inarticulate humans." Wright was only talking about the film Spawn of the North (1938) which I haven't seen, but that quote is true about most of Hathaway's films. And he did appreciate his own worth. He himself once said: "There's no reason except me for The Sons of Katie Elder to be as good a picture it was."

So where would I place Hathaway among American filmmakers? He is not exceptional like, say, Anthony Mann or Vincente Minnelli, but for me he compares favourably to directors like Frank Capra, John Huston, George Stevens or Elia Kazan. It would be interesting to do a detailed comparison between Hathaway and another Fox company man, Henry King. For now I'd suggest that King is more nostalgic and more ambitious than Hathaway, for good and bad. Hathaway has himself said that he was influenced by Marshall Neilan and Victor Fleming, and the combination of von Sternberg and Fleming (and script writer Jules Furthman) in Hathaway's early days means that he was moving in the same circles as Howard Hawks, but they're much different. Hawks is a more distinct and obviously idiosyncratic filmmaker, and more interested in characters and dialogue than Hathaway. Hathaway and John Ford also makes for an interesting compare and contrast. It could reasonably be argued that when Hathaway is at his best he resembles Ford, but is not at all as good. With Ford you get a whole world, with Hathaway you only get great films.

2011-08-30 Read some afterthoughts here:

2013-08-04 I removed a random comment about Claude Chabrol. Here are links to two more pieces I've written about Hathaway:
2013-11-26, a new piece, about Souls at Sea.
A few clips, first one from Peter Ibbetson:

If ever there was a visual expression of injustice it is this haunting image from Call Northside 777 of a tiny immigrant woman scrubbing a massive floor, and speaking with a combination of pride, anger and sadness:

And here's John Wayne in True Grit:

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Shall we gather by the river

I love rivers. There's something both calm and mysterious about them, and whenever I see one I want to either dive in to it, or get on a boat to travel upon it. You never know what is behind the next bend.

I'm not alone in liking rivers, and here are some great river-related film clips.

First out is John Ford's Rio Grande (1950).

Two filmmakers who often use the river both as a setting and as a metaphor are Jean Renoir and John Boorman. Here's Renoir's sublime film Partie de campagne (1936):

Here's Boorman's Deliverance (1972), a dark and disturbing film:

Although a very different film Deliverance shares with Still Life (2006, Sanxia haoren) an ecological message, and shows the threat that "progress" can be to both nature and humans. Here's the opening sequence of Zhang Ke Jia's brilliant film:

Then there's of course L'atalante (1934), the only feature film Jean Vigo made before his early death:

One might add A River Runs Through It (1992), Wild River (1960), The River (1951), also by Jean Renoir, Bend of the River (1952) or The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and so on and so forth but this'll do for now. But for one film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), perhaps Peckinpah's best film. You'll have to click on the link since it won't embed.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Some thoughts on Gilles Deleuze

Some time in the late 1990s I flicked through the two cinema books by Gilles Deleuze, since he had become famous enough to reach my ears. I did however put the books back on their shelf not feeling they were useful for me. Now that I'm in St Andrews I'm reminded of him almost on a daily basis so I might as well write down some thoughts. Although I'm not a Deleuzian we do have some mutual interests.

Deleuze's writings are famously opaque, and he (and Felix Guattari) have an annoying tendency to use words that already exist but give them a new meaning, and therefore confuse the reader even more. It is tempting to ask why. Why not come up with a new word instead, or at least use a word closer to the actual meaning they are aiming for. It could of course be part of the philosophical project to re-distribute meaning (becoming-bewildered?), but it's still annoying. But since this is a film blog I will not critically engage with his politics or philosophy, tempted that I am, but concern myself with some aspects of his writings on cinema. I make no claim to say anything original though.

When people try to sum up the ideas of cinema, they usually say that Deleuze divides cinema into two categories, "movement-image" and "time-image", and that before second world war there was only the movement-image. Movement-image means films with a clear cause and effect structure, with time subservient to action and/or space. After the war the time-image came about, which less (or no) causality and where time in itself could become a subject, or at least that scenes or whole films were showing time unaltered, letting time flow at its own pace. Some, in order to simplify, say that movement-image equals mainstream cinema in general and classical Hollywood cinema in particular and time-image equals European art cinema. This is not how Deleuze saw it. Movement-image was not just Hollywood but also for example French impressionism, Soviet montage, German expressionism and the films of Carl Th. Dreyer. This is actually part of what makes him distinguished.

This is also one instance where Deleuze's construction of the history of cinema becomes puzzling. He argues that there was a crisis in the movement-image, partly due to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and that Italian neorealism brought about the birth of the time-image. This was due to the destruction of Italian cities during the war, and also because the idea of the American dream was shattered, and, argues Deleuzian scholar D.N. Rodowick, a lack of trust in democracy. This feels somewhat roundabout and unsatisfactory. If Hitchcock was a cause, wouldn't the time-image have emerged in the US rather than Italy? Also, since Rear Window (1954) is used as a prime example of the crisis in the movement-image it would seem that this crisis came upon after the birth of the time-image, and consequently could not be the cause. About politics, why would the dream of America be shattered? They had just won the war and was arguably at the height of their global status, or does Deleuze mean that the Italians were dreaming of America during the war, and then stopped in the clear light of peace? Since Italy hadn't had democracy for some 25 years (and only partially before that) it does sound strange to say that neorealism came about because of a new lack of trust in democracy. What they lacked was not trust, what they lacked was democracy, which now came about after the war. Might it not be said that neorealism came about because of democracy and the American dream, rather than because of a disentanglement from it?

If we return to the neorealist films it doesn't get clearer because what Deleuze describes as the time-image in them is not really there. Take two early neorealist films, Rome Open City (Roma, città aparta 1945) and Shoeshine (Sciuscià 1946). They tell fast, straightforward, conventional stories (movement-image), with Shoeshine in particular similar in style to a lot of Warner Bros. films of the 1930s. That their relationship to time would differ from earlier mainstream cinema is at best dubious. A central neorealist film such as Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette 1948) also follows a clear, linear storyline, with straightforward cause and effect. It's a slightly melodramatic story using simple cinematic devices to guide to viewer through it, and uses music for emphasis. Man gets a job, man needs bicycle to keep job, bicycle gets stolen, man looks for bicycle with son, man finds thief, thief escapes, man and son becomes estranged from each other, man tries to steal bicycle, man gets caught trying to steal bicycle, man and son re-connect. It is again not clear what is new in relation to time, even though the film is slower and a bit more meandering than a film like Dead End (1937), or Rome, Open City for that matter. I'm not saying that Bicycle Thieves isn't different from a lot of Hollywood films, because it is, but that is not particularly interesting. If it was different from all films that came before, from all countries, then that would be interesting. Alas, I don't see it.

At one point Deleuze says about the crisis in the movement-image that: "[t]hese are the five characteristics of the new image: the dispersive situation, the deliberately weak links, the voyage form, the consciousness of clichés, the condemnation of the plot." and then he adds that "It was Italian neo-realism which forged the five preceding characteristics." But that is actually a pretty definitive description of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), with the exception of the dispersive situation, rather than neorealism. Besides, some films made in classical Hollywood, such as Portrait of Jennie (1948), have a much more radical relationship to time than most, if not all, neorealist films.

One of Deleuze's favourite examples of the time-image is Last Year in Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad 1961) and here the differences between it and classical cinema are clear. There is no question about it having a totally different relationship to time, space and causality then, say His Girl Friday (1940). But again, what exactly is the significance of this fact? Can we say something about society in general based on this difference, or about cinema? The Bicycle Thieves and Last Year in Marienbad are also equally different from each other. If Bicycle Thieves is time-image, it would be tempting to describe Last Year in Marienbad as anti-time-image, since it almost obliterates time. It has so completely broken down the concepts of past, present and future that it might be said to take place out of time.

Deleuze also suggests that this new cinema of the time-image consists of "seers", people who do not act or react but just observe. This to is debatable. In the neorealist films mentioned above the characters are active, both taking charge and/or reacting constructively (more or less) to what is happening. Deleuze also uses as an example the boy in Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero 1948). While it is true that the boy walks around a lot, just watching, he finally acts upon that which he has seen, killing first his father and then himself, and this has been clearly signalled all the way from the first scene (where two women talk about suicide), and enhanced by the dramatic music. In a sense he's not that different from many a hapless detective in film noir, or Ole in The Killers (1946). Besides, don't films in general often have a combination of "seers" and doers"? Like The Searchers (1956), where Ethan Edwards is an active agent, a "doer" and Martin Pawley a "seer", who also reports back, in letters to his adoptive family, what he has seen. In The Little Foxes (1941), Birdie is very much a "seer", or perhaps more correctly a "listener", whereas Regina Giddens is not (how could she be, when played by Bette Davis).

So it is in no way clear why neorealism would be a break with the past and an introduction of a time-image whereas all else before would be movement-image. Deleuze is not that dogmatic though, since Citizen Kane (1941) for him is time-image, despite being made in the US before they even entered the war. In general, Deleuze is a bit more flexible than his own writing suggests (and the way he's often interpreted). He does for example discuss the films of Vincente Minnelli as if they were time-image, despite him working in the US and having begun before the neorealists. And he discusses the films of Yasujiro Ozu as being time-image, even before the war.

But maybe it is actually a mistake to divide films into either movement-image or time-image. Deleuze divides movement-image into three sub-categories, one of which is affection-image, which is the close-up. Should we take this to mean that there are no close-ups in the time-image? In that case few films are time-image. But if time-images are about time, then having close-ups shouldn't matter. Of these three sub-categories Rodowick says that "every film combines these three sorts of images." This then would mean that all films are movement-image? On the other hand Deleuze says that the time-image was inherent in the movement-image from the beginning, occasionally peeking through but that "it could only realize that it had it in the course of its evolution, thanks to a crisis in the movement-image".

Deleuze at one point says that the time-image has become the "soul of cinema", whereas now only the mainstream, commercial films are movement-image. To speak of the "soul of cinema" is rather esoteric and unhelpful in the extreme, and besides, it would appear that most films still is movement-image. Maybe movement-image, since it dominated completely for the first 50 years and still continues to dominate is the true "soul of cinema". But of course neither image is the soul of anything.

Is it not possible that there never was a shift from movement-image to time-image but that different movements and different filmmakers, all over the world and all through film history, have had different ways of dealing with time and space, either out of social context, stylistic clichés or personal sensibilities? That there was always both the time-image and the movement-image, side by side, sometimes in the same film. Could you not say for example that in Don Siegel's best films movement-image and time-image merge. Or perhaps it would be easier to get rid of these confusing and contradictory terms all together.

But I still want to rescue one half of the idea of time-image, because there is something worthwhile in that concept. Not when it refers to Last Year in Marienbad but when it refers to the breaks in the narrative flow that Deleuze writes about. One example of a time-image sequence that he mentions, inspired by André Bazin, is the pregnant maid, alone in the kitchen, in Umberto D. (1952). It has been used by so many others for explaining the time-image that I'm sometimes tempted to ask if it is the only example. But that would be unfair because films are full of those scenes, and besides it is a lovely scene (although it is still embedded in the story, linked casually to what happened before). You can find them all the way from the beginnings of narrative feature film in the mid-1910s, scenes when the story, the narrative, stands still, takes a step back, just observes time, or the movement of bodies in unaltered time and space. They are plentiful in the films of John Ford, one of the foremost of "time-artists", in the films of Japanese directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Sadao Yamanaka, in films of Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Powell and Pressburger and Jean Renoir, to name some obvious examples from pre-second world war cinema. Possibly George Cukor as well. But these sequences don't need Deleuze to be acknowledged, in fact arguably Deleuze forgets about them in his eagerness to give a post-war birth to this time-image.

There are many terms, concepts and ideas in Deleuze's cinema books that I haven't mentioned, and I won't either, not this time. There are aspects of the "crystal-image" which I like, but I would use it in a different way from how he does it, and I might come back to that. Now I will just say that even though the cinema books might be useful for the study of the philosophy of Deleuze, or philosophies on time, it becomes a problem when he tries to force his theories about time and life in general on to the films, and his analysis and historical perspective suffers as a result.

Deleuze could of course easily argue that I'm wrong in all that I'm saying because, on a certain level, he invented these images. He decided that (almost) all films prior to 1945 were this movement-image. Then he decided that there was a crisis in this movement-image that he had invented, and then he came up with the time-image. Who am I to argue with this, these were his concepts and he should be allowed to use it as he sees fit. Since he has only explained the rules of his images in opaque terms, he has given himself some wiggle room.

I would also like to suggest that the cinema of Borzage is the love-image.

The quotes from D.N. Rodowick are from Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine.
The quotes from Deleuze are from Cinema 2: The Time-Image.

Monday, 13 December 2010


Since I have worked in an archive (the Ingmar Bergman Archives), it shouldn't come as a surprise that I feel very strongly about them. Many are badly looked after, and the space in which the material is being kept is not always suitable. But they should be nursed tenderly, because there are real treasures out there, waiting to be discovered.

Archival research hasn't always been considered really OK, not necessarily something film scholars should belittle themselves with. But there's something in archives for pretty much everybody. It's not only about the cult of the great artist, a comprehensive archive will have material of economic, cultural and industrial, as well as artistic, relevance. Letters between producers and financiers, between directors and censorship boards, between production companies and agents. Financial reports, salaries for actors and technicians, recording schedules, all of this things can help bring order and clarity to the history of cinema. It can also help answer many questions of authorship and influence, challenge some held notions and put a lot of conventional wisdom in perspective.

But there is no denying the fact that one of the biggest thrills in going through archives is the discovery of information about individuals, and their thoughts and comments, their behaviour and their struggles. Sometimes a particular letter might change your whole view of somebody. Background information might disappoint you, or it might enrich your experience of watching a particular film.

I cannot quote here from letters I've read, you'll just have to take my word for the potentials they possess. But students of film history and theory should at one point be introduced to the world of archives, and hopefully get the opportunity to visit one for a social call. In Scotland, there are for example the wonderful archives of Lindsay Anderson, John Grierson and Norman McLaren at University of Stirling. I was there last Thursday, having a wonderful time. I was mainly looking at the connections between Anderson and John Ford (since my love for Ford runs deep), but that was just the tip of the iceberg. I will go back soon. And there are many more archives out there, just waiting to be devoured.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Tobacco Road

I saw a documentary once about amateur Iranian filmmakers, and at one point somebody said that what he wanted was to make films like John Ford. At a film festival in São Paulo I once met a young filmmaker from Argentina whose great idol was John Ford. Once in Canterbury I met an undergraduate who was studying film history and she complained about the fact that today there was no longer any art in filmmaking, just business, complaining that there was no one like Ford any more. "I'm sorry, who?" I said, finding it hard to believe that a young girl in Britain would have John Ford as a role model as well. But she actually meant that Ford.

There's no denying the tremendous global influence and importance of Ford, and he is one of those filmmakers of which I feel I need to see every single thing they've made, because even the lesser films have moments of greatness in them, and by not seeing them all, I will miss out on something. As far as Ford's sound films, I've covered most of them, but I still have many of the silent ones left to watch.

Last week I saw Tobacco Road (1941) for the first time, which is definitely one of his lesser known sound films, and also one of his most idiosyncratic. It's not particularly good, mostly because some of the characters were so obnoxious I wanted them to be killed off as soon as they appeared. And it doesn't have an interesting plot either, although I suppose that was not the intention. This was just a mood piece, about a few days in the life of a desperately poor family in the countryside.

The thing though is that Ford had such a forceful personality, such a immediately recognisable style and tone of voice, and was basically just such a damn good filmmaker, that even a small, cheap, eccentric film such as Tobacco Road has some scenes that are extraordinary.

In one scene the husband (played by Charles Grapewin) is being told by the man from the bank that he will be evicted from his house if he doesn't pay rent, and since he hasn't any money he can't pay. The old man just stands there beside the car in which the bank man sits, and is pleading with him, while his wife (Elizabeth Patterson) is seen in the background, her hand clasped.

But it is a later scene, the last day before they are being evicted, that is the true highlight of the film. Since they have to leave, the woman is picking up some things in their ramshackle cabin, quietly, done with the camera at floor level, looking up at her, taking in the whole of the cabin, and the only sound is the song "Shall we gather by the river" playing softly in the background. Then her husband enters, looking at her. "I guess there isn't much to take with us." she says, while the husband is unable to speak. Then he just says "I'm sorry Ada." It's such a delicate, understated scene, it can bring tears to anybody's eyes. The combination of the music, the composition and the humbleness of it is both what makes it so beautiful and what makes it so essentially Fordian.

That scene with her in the cabin has the camera at floor level, looking up, with the inner ceiling clearly visible, which makes it the kind of shot Citizen Kane is celebrated for. Tobacco Road was released before Citizen Kane, so it's perhaps yet another example of the profound influence Ford had on Orson Welles. And it wasn't the first time Ford had used such a shot in his films. It must also be remembered that the cinematographer of Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland, had worked with Ford on two films the previous year, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath. In 1941 though, Ford worked with Arthur Miller, on this one and How Green Was My Valley.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Michael Bay, Manny Farber, James Agee and John Ford

On Dave Kehr's blog I've been debating the men in the title above. You can read for yourself at

What I've argued, in a nutshell, is that Michael Bay's films, though awful on many levels, sometimes reaches an abstraction and visual extravaganza which is exhilarating, a kind of cinéma pur.

I've also written about my love for the films of John Ford. Many reasons why I love them, among them the poetic storytelling, and the scenes where Ford stops, takes a step back, and just lingers on a scenery or a character. The voice of Ben Johnson and the legs of Henry Fonda have also been discussed. With thanks to Kent Jones.

Friday, 25 September 2009


To my mission statement the other day I'd like to add that I'm also interested in aesthetics, besides film history. I just realised that today actually. When asked by another student here which film was my favourite from an aesthetic point of view I was first flabbergasted, and said that I couldn't possibly answer that. But then I said Heat (1995). Then I corrected myself and said instead Great Expectations (1946). And then it dawned on me which the right answer to the question was. And now I do stand by that answer.

My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford at his most magically poetical. Pure perfection. Here's a scene (unfortunately it's not complete, there's a scene in the hotel lobby which is missing, but still...)