Friday, 10 August 2018

The 500 000

A few days ago the stats showed that I had reached 500 000 visitors on the blog. That seemed like a good excuse to rest on my laurels (primarily because it is a fun thing to say). And it is still summer and the heatwave continues, even though I have tentatively began working again, reading student essays (no one's idea of fun) and such. But the next post, on Friday in two weeks, will be a regular kind. So see you then!

But before you go, a clip with Robert Redford, who announced his retirement this week.

A mountain man in Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack 1972)

Incredibly preppy in Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks 1967), with Jane Fonda

With Brad Pitt in Spy Game (Tony Scott 2001)

Friday, 27 July 2018

Aston Martin

Already in my pre-teens I had developed an interest in British cars and the first thing I ever wrote for myself (i.e. not school-related or postcards to grandparents) was about Jaguar, one of Britain's most distinguished car makers. I wrote it on this typewriter which is still with me, although these days as a fashion statement rather than as a tool for writing.

While Jaguar is a fine car, a favourite is a green XK 120 from 1948, I still always favoured Aston Martin, and as it is the car that plays such a prominent part in the Bond films I have an excuse to write about it here. They became a pair in 1964 when Goldfinger came out and Q assigned an Aston Martin DB5 to Bond, with assorted extras such as bullet proof windows, machine guns and, famously, an ejector seat. ("Ejector seat? You're joking!" "I never joke about my work 007.") He got one in Fleming's novel Goldfinger too, but a DB Mark III as the novel came out in 1959 and Aston Martin began making the DB5 in 1963. DB is part of a tradition of Aston Martins, and stands for David Brown who was Aston Martin's owner from 1947 to 1972. When he was forced to sell the company, Aston Martin stopped using those letters until the DB7 appeared in 1994, when the company had new owners again. Ford was the new owner and they had also bought Jaguar, and in a way DB7 was a modified and Aston Martin-fied Jaguar. A brief but necessary glitch.

Today when the cast and crew of a new Bond film is revealed to the public the Aston Martin chosen for the film is also revealed, as if it too was a member of the cast. And it has almost always been a close collaboration between the car company and Eon Productions, the UK company that produces the films. Sometimes Eon has approached Aston Martin and asked what they have got to offer and sometimes Aston Martin has approached Eon and asked whether they might be interested in a certain car. But Roger Moore's Bond never drove an Aston Martin, for various reasons, and it is something that also exemplifies how the company was in a really bad shape for many years after David Brown had to sell it. The appearance of the V8 Volante (or variations thereof) in The Living Daylights (1987) was a conscious effort to help bring Aston Martin back to life. The company has often been in financial troubles, and this is still the case. It has lost money most every year for the last decade or so, but there are many individuals and firms (though no longer Ford) who are more than willing to provide financial support. I hope they manage to keep going. (Obviously Brexit will not be helpful.)


Aston Martin is a well-chosen brand because it is arch-British just like Bond and it is not an ordinary car. Few have even seen one in real life and even fewer have owned one or been in one, and so it is a fitting car for a character such as Bond. They are similar in style, origin and perhaps even decadence. Before Aston Martin, Bond drove a Bentley in the first two films, as he had in the books, but it is not as good a match because Bond is fast, irreverent and sexy, words that are a better fit for Aston Martin than Bentley. It was true for the DB5 as well as consecutive models which have appeared in the films, such as the DBS in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) or the V8 Volante in The Living Daylights. In the latest film, Spectre (2015), it was a DB10, which was made (handbuilt as usual) in only 10 units and exclusively for the film, one of which can be seen in this photo:

Given this it is absurd to consider that in three of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films he drove a BMW. Of course, Bond has driven all kinds of cars before, of many different marques, but the BMW's were not just ones he had to use because they were the only ones available; they were the official Bond cars. That was wrong on multiple levels. It was not a British car but a German one, and it was not a unique, somewhat otherworldly car but a car most people have seen, and many have owned themselves, if not new then as second hand. BMW might not be like a Toyota Corolla, but it is still a mainstream brand. A good year for Aston Martin is at best a couple of thousand cars sold. A good year for BMW is several million cars sold. And, even worse, one of those BMW's was a four-door sedan (750iL), not a sports car. An example of corporate sponsorship that goes against the concept of both film and character. Fortunately, for Brosnan's fourth Bond film Die Another Day (2002) Aston Martin was back, the V12 Vanquish. (It is still not a particularly good film though.) And Daniel Craig's Bond has always driven an Aston Martin, in all four films so far.

In Craig's first, Casino Royale (2006), a new Aston Martin (DBS V12) appeared as well as the old DB5. The new car meets a rather brutal end after being driven off the road and flipping over several times. I had long assumed that it was CGI at work but no, it was an actual car and driven by the stuntman Adam Kirley. What you see in the film (or clip below) is real. Aston Martin was meant to destroy the car afterwards, as is standard procedure, but they had developed an attachment to it so it is still with us. I have seen it in London and it looks surprisingly well, all things considered. It is a very impressive car.

The passionate interest I once had for cars, not just British ones but cars in general, is long gone and I do not spend my free time reading car magazines in three different languages as I did in the days of yore. But Aston Martin has maintained its hold on me. We have a long history together, and I therefore felt that it would be fun to write something about it here. I also think that one reason I am still interested in Aston Martin is that it means I keep something of my childhood intact, there is a connection there to my own past which is gratifying. The more so the older I get. Maybe when I retire I should even buy one.

Sean Connery in Goldfinger

Often people seem to think that it was with Star Wars that merchandise based on a film first appeared but this was well-established much earlier than 1977. The Bond series is an example, and one of the key items for sale have been models of the various Aston Martin cars Bond has used, beginning in 1964 with a toy model of the DB5.

Another famous film with a noticeable Aston Martin is Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), where the car owned by Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren's character) is a DB2/4 Mk I Drophead coupé. It is featured throughout the film, and was especially required from Aston Martin.

While Roger Moore never drove an Aston Martin as Bond, he drove a DBS in the series The Persuaders! (1971-1972), as it was the car of his character Brett Sinclair. The most famous car associated with Moore is otherwise, with the possible exception of the Lotus in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the Volvo P1800 which his character Simon Templar drove in The Saint (1962-1969). A time when Volvo was considered cool and stylish and before it came to be used by only two kinds of characters in films: the wannabe bohemians or the boring fuddy-duddies.

The first Aston Martin, from 1914, called Coal Scuttle

Saturday, 14 July 2018

100 years of Ingmar Bergman

Today is not only Bastille Day but also the centenary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, so he will (again) be the theme of this post. I was at a Bergman conference last month in Lund in the south of Sweden, the town towards which they travel in Wild Strawberries (1957), so he has had an unusually active presence of late. During and after the conference I read a lot of books about Bergman, some old ones I had read before and some new ones. Robin Wood's book really is one of the best, and as it has been updated and re-issued in 2013 (the version I read) it is both old and new. I was not particularly impressed by any of the entirely new books (you are better of just watching the films) but if I were to recommend one of those available in English it would be Alexis Luko's Sonatas, Screams and Silence (2016).

The Magician (Ansiktet 1958)

When I say I was not impressed by them I mean that I did not learn anything new about Bergman, so if you have not spent as much time with his film and his archives as I have you might find them more interesting, but I do think there are too many books about him. Despite there being many important topics that have not really been explored so far the books so often are about the same old things, or they use Bergman as an excuse to talk about other, unrelated things. Regardless of how important and good he was, the majority of filmmakers are vastly under-researched and among them there are many that are as interesting, or might be as interesting, as Bergman. Consider F.W. Murnau. How can it be that there has not been a single book in English about his life and work since Lotte Eisner's Murnau, originally from 1964, and then revised a bit in 1973? It is now out of print, and she did not say all there is to say about Murnau. The only Murnau book now in print is, I believe, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Ein Melancholiker des Films, published by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2003. And where are the books on, say, George Sherman and Márta Mészáros? (Catherine Portuges's book about Mészáros from 1993 seems to be out of print too.)

Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna 1963)

One reason why so many write about Bergman, as well as Hitchcock, is that they have not just made the films but also willingly talked about them and about themselves, and have had a strong public persona, carefully crafted. They are famous among people at large, not just among those interested in film, and fame obviously appeals to film scholars as much as to the next guy. It has become something of an industry, a self-perpetuating Bergman-Hitchcock-complex (and a handful of other directors), so there will be more books about them, and hopefully some might add something new.

But that apparent openness of Bergman to talk about himself and his films is also a problem because he is such a performance artist. Everything he does is an act, which is why you should never take anything he says as being true in any conventional way. He invents things, embellishes things or twists them around and adjusts them to his daily mood. Many of the stories he tells about his own life and his childhood are invented and often have little to do with what actually happened, whether it was something good or bad. Yet many critics and scholars use Bergman's own sayings and writings in an uncritical way as if he was telling it like it is (or was). He is not, and they should restrain themselves from relying on it. That is a topic I will have to explore further another day.

But here are some topics I have already explored because I too have written about Bergman of course. I do like his work after all, whether books, TV-productions, films or stage adaptations (his version of Yukio Mishima's play Madame de Sade was amazing), and because I have had so much to do with this work, professionally.

Friday, 29 June 2018

A summer break

Admittedly there is a lot to write about, from apparatus theory to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I think I deserve a break so this is all you are going to get today. It is summer after all. But in two weeks there will be more. Well, two weeks and a day.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Summing up Hathaway

It was watching Diplomatic Courier (1952) that started my Henry Hathaway project. I saw it in 2011 and I thought it was so good that I immediately watched another Hathaway, and then another, and then my first post about Hathaway was published here that same year. Now I have come to the end of the project.

When I wrote the first post I had only watched about half of Hathaway's oeuvre but I wanted to watch everything he had ever directed because those I had seen were almost all good (even though Prince Valiant (1954) was disappointing) and it seemed plausible that the rest would also be good. If you discount aborted projects and those films he directed only parts of, like Airport (George Seaton 1970), he made 62 films. The first ten are short B-films (around 55 minutes long) and usually Westerns made from novels by Zane Grey. Of those ten I have now managed to see five, including his very first film, Heritage of the Desert (1932), and they are all surprisingly accomplished and confident, and prove that Hathaway was a natural. He did not have to grow in to being a good director, he was one from scratch. But the dialogue can be corny and the acting rather wooden at times, but Randolph Scott, who acted in most of them, is fine. Below he is with Sally Blane in Heritage of the Desert, and she is also good. (Judging by the film it seems Hathaway was quite smitten with her.)

From Now and Forever (1934) he only made full-length features and mostly with stars and big budgets. I have seen all of them now except his last, the blaxploitation film Hangup aka Super Dude (1974) which seems impossible to find. The last I got hold of was The Last Safari (1967), which seems to never have been released on DVD but of which I managed to get a version transferred from (I think) a VHS tape to a disc. I was correct in thinking that the rest of the films would be good too, they really are. A few were disappointing, like the aforementioned Prince Valiant or The Black Rose (1950) or Woman Obsessed (1960), but even those have redeeming factors and none is a complete failure.

He is an interesting guy, Hathaway. A traveller, adventurer and artist, a self-taught historian and art collector. In 1930 he travelled through India and apparently met everyone, including Gandhi, and this had a profound effect on his life. He was hardworking and a temperamental, mean sonofabitch on set, and he made films about friendship, honour and revenge, often quests in harsh environments. The films and his characters were almost always like him: tough, rough and straightforward. Having spent so much time with him, through the films and interviews and books about him or books in which he appears, I feel like I know him now. Obviously I do not, but it does something to you, spending so much time with an artist. It becomes difficult not to watch the films without a sense of personal connection, and a sense of belonging. When watching the films of Hathaway, even the poor ones, you do feel his presence. In the framing, in the sentiments, in the dialogue (which improved after the first years), in the overall decoupage, in the issues being discussed, in the general scope and trajectory of the stories.

A key concern in many of his films is ethics. One fine scene in You're in the Navy Now (1951) shows how a high-ranking officer is visiting a navy ship and as he is angry with the ship's performance he starts criticising a sailor on board. When the ship's captain hears what is going on he confronts the higher-ranking officer and says that if he is to shout at anybody it should be at him, the captain. The men on the boat are not responsible for its performance, it is he alone who has the responsibility, so attacking a sailor is wrong. Even if the sailor did something wrong it is still the responsibility of the captain. This is a powerful lesson in the ethics of leadership, an enactment of Harry Truman's "the buck stops here" if you will, on taking on the burden of responsibility. It is easy to read this as Hathaway's own belief.

Sometimes the ethical contests are between a human and another animal. Two fine examples:

In From Hell to Texas the main character reluctantly kills a man in self-defence. When he is about to leave he notices that the dead man's horse is looking at him. He returns the look, and they stand like that for a while, facing each other. Then the man unsaddles his own horse and puts his saddle on the dead man's horse and mounts it, as if trying to atone for having killed its owner by taking the dead man's place himself. (I have discussed this at greater length in my separate article about From Hell to Texas.)

The other example is The Last Safari, which is about a "great white hunter" who is searching for the elephant who killed his friend. He wants to kill the elephant in return. (Hathaway saw it as a version of Moby-Dick.) But in the end of the film, when the hunter finds the elephant, the two just stand there, face to face, looking at each other. Finally the man fires his gun in the air, the spell is broken and man and elephant go their separate ways.

In both films the other animal has the moral authority, and is staring down the human, forcing him to do right. I find this very moving.

Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith

I have come across many stories about Hathaway, some of him being so hard on set that people ran away in tears or promised never to work with him again. But also of his generosity, work ethic and compassion. One story I particularly like is from the making of Nevada Smith (1966). It stars Steve McQueen, and he looked up to Hathaway as a father-figure. Hathaway was usually on set before anybody else but McQueen made it his mission to be there before him, as a sign of respect, and when Hathaway showed up McQueen would already be there, saying "Where have you been, sir?" I find this, too, very moving.


It often happens that two filmmakers are put together, to compare and contrast. The one filmmaker to which it feels natural to compare Hathaway is John Huston, and not just for both of them being cigar-smoking, temperamental adventurers. They have things in common too as filmmakers, such as subject matters and the kind of people that interested them (like gangsters, adventurers and gamblers), and they did not make comedies and very rarely domestic dramas. Historically speaking, Huston is held in much greater regard yet personally I prefer Hathaway. Judging from film to film I think Hathaway is the stronger one. This might be difficult to explain but it feels like Huston has more of an analytic interest in his characters whereas Hathaway has a personal interest in them, as if he is one with them and not just observing them. I also think that Hathaway has a more coherent visual concept whereas Huston often seems to be trying things out just to try them out. One is not better than the other here, neither with regards to character or visual style, I just mention it as two ways in which they are different. But another difference is, I believe, a flaw in Huston. Hathaway is less explicit about the themes and messages of the individual film. A character in a film by Huston is much more likely to quite literally explain to the audience what the film is about than anybody in a film by Hathaway. The latter seems to either be more relaxed in his art or more trusting of the audience. If so, that trust is, or should be, reciprocated.

Rod Steiger and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves (1960)

Here are 15 films that I think are Hathaway's best (at least as of writing):

Souls at Sea (1937)
The Real Glory (1939)
Johnny Apollo (1940)
The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)
Home in Indiana (1944)
The Dark Corner (1946)
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
Rawhide (1951)
Fourteen Hours (1951)
Diplomatic Courier (1952)
Niagara (1953)
From Hell to Texas (1958)
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Nevada Smith (1966)

That is a good spread, year-wise, and narrowing it down to 15 means many good ones are left out. But it is a place to start for those who have seen nothing yet.

All links to my previous posts on Hathaway:

The story about McQueen, Hathaway and Nevada Smith has been told in several biographies, and the "Where have you been, sir"-quote is from My Husband, My Friend: A Memoir written by Neile McQueen Toffel.