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.

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All links to my previous posts on Hathaway:
https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/08/henry-hathaway.html

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2011/08/henry-hathaway-afterthoughts.html

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2012/06/spawn-of-north-henry-hathaway-1938.html

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2013/11/souls-at-sea-henry-hathaway-1937.html

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2014/11/from-hell-to-texas-1958-on-hathaway-and.html

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.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Hawks and Foucault

This Wednesday, May 30, was the birthday of Howard Hawks (1896), who I regard as the greatest of all filmmakers. That is as good a reason as any to post this, something I wrote several years ago as part of a longer academic essay for a Hawks-project. Nothing came of it but now you get to read this part at least.

 Utopia and Heterotopia 

In Howard Hawks’s films there is usually very little sense of the larger world. There are exceptions. Contemporary politics is a part of His Girl Friday (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) has an element of social critic, or at least satire. In Rio Bravo (1959) the main character is the sheriff in the town. But in general the world is kept at bay. (In El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), the other two films of the trilogy in which Rio Bravo is the first, the characters are not driven by any kind of duty to society.) It could be said that one aspect of Hawks’s films is escape. His characters are usually running away from society, their escape is both from the bourgeois world and from themselves, from their own pasts, and this is true for the men as well as many of the women. The groups that his films so often are centred around can be seen as being made up of drifters who have built their own communities, with their own rules and ethics. Rio Bravo for example is about four men who are more or less confined to the jail in their small town, since they are threatened by gunmen, but there is a sense that they are not just hiding in the jail because of the gunmen but that they are hiding from the world in general, and that Nathan Burdette (the leader of the gang) is just a symptom of this world. But it is not just the groups. The films which do not have these self-contained groups instead have individuals who are trying to escape, individuals who also tend to be self-contained, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

So what they are escaping from can be summarised as the conventions and restrictions of ordinary life, and that includes marriage and family life. It is easy to imagine that Hawks’s characters would succumb to existential boredom if they were not in their self-contained worlds. They could not live in a safe and controlled environment; they must live with the elements, putting themselves at risk. In this self-created world they are working together, being dependent on one another, and are fearless in the face of danger.

Related to this need for escape and self-sufficiency is a utopian element, in that the spaces created by these “escaped” men and women are successful havens, where they are among equals. Hatari! (1962) in particular has this feeling of a perfect world, where people from all over the world come together. It is like a United Nations camp, with people from France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the US (including a Native American) working in Tanzania. Hatari! is also unusually happy, since the dangers of the outside world do not intrude at all, whereas in most other films by Hawks it might at any moment disturb, restrain or even kill you. One reason why Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is in many ways the quintessential Hawks film is because it has all of these things in such a pure form.

Hatari!

It is tempting to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia when talking about Hawks’s films. Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” He calls them heterotopias because, unlike utopias, they do exist. He talks about various kinds of spaces that might be called heterotopias such as cemeteries, gardens and libraries, but also certain colonies. Foucault also suggests that a role of the heterotopia “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” And this can also be seen in many of Hawks’s films.

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See also my article about Hawks and Fred Zinnemann:
https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2018/05/zinnemann-and-hawks.html

And my article about Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu:
https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2016/06/growing-old-with-ozu-and-hawks.html

Foucault discussed heterotopia in a lecture in 1967 which was then published as an article in 1984 called "Des Espace Autres" or "Of Other Spaces".

When Hawks made Hatari! Pier Paolo Pasolini came to visit as he was a friend of Elsa Martinelli, who acted in the film. I have always wondered how Hawks and Pasolini got along.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Tully (2018)

On occasion I write about a new film together with a group of Swedish film bloggers. We watch the film together in the cinema and then write about it the following Wednesday. Today is such an occasion, hence a post on a Wednesday and not a Friday. Try not to get too upset.

***

The five films by Jason Reitman I have seen are all interesting but flawed except one, Up in the Air (2009), which I find flawless. It is actually a film I would put on at least a top 100 list, if I was asked to provide such a list. Now every time I watch a new Reitman I hope it will be another Up in the Air. So far no such luck.

The new one, Tully, is the third collaboration between Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, and their second film with Charlize Theron, and of the three of them it is Theron I am most happy with this time. I remember back in 2000 a girl I liked told me that Theron was her favourite actress and I was completely bewildered by this (the fact that this is one of the few things I remember about this girl proves how shocking I found her statement to be) but either me or Theron has come a long way since then because now I would not be shocked by such a statement, and she seems fearless in her choice of parts to play. In Tully she plays Marlo, a mother of two kids and one soon to be born, and it is a handful; she is in a constant state of complete exhaustion. The husband/father is kind and does the homework with the kids but he mostly works or plays video games in bed with his headphones on. Of the two children, the girl is functioning just fine but the son has some kind of problem and is very demanding. When the third child appears the stress and sleep-deprivation become even worse of course. The film does not sugar-coat motherhood, and Theron is admirably non-glamorous and it is a fine and honest performance. There is for example one scene where she cannot keep it together after a talk with the school's headmaster about her difficult son, followed by her just screaming in the parking lot, which was very powerful. The title character of the film is the night nanny Marlo finally hires to get some sleep and they soon form a strong bond.

Cody's script has several great ideas and a neat structural cleverness. If you pay attention to the dialogue in the first half you will notice that things happen in the second part which is a reaction to or comment on what was said then, even the odd joke. A lot of craft has gone in to it. A scene with a brush in the beginning and again in the end is quite lovely, and there are other more subtle things I will not mention due to the current spoiler-phobia. But simultaneous with this good writing there are also deep problems with jokes, other lines of dialogue and whole scenes that are awkward, over-emphatic or just wrong. Stuff that probably sounded good in Cody's head when she wrote the script but when it appears on film feels too much like it was meant for us, the audience, and not something that is natural in the scene, in the moment or as something somebody would actually say. One example: Violet, a former roommate of Marlo, has a chance encounter with Marlo at a café and Marlo says she has two kids and one more on the way. The former friend recoils and says "I better go before my coffee gets black and cold like my womb." The line just hangs there in the air, hovering as if in a speech bubble in a cartoon, and spoken without any conviction or timing. You may think that the line, when read in this post, sounds hilarious but that is beside the point. The point is how it sounds when actually spoken in the film. It is not necessarily bad writing, but bad acting and direction.

The Violet character is interesting because that short scene is her only appearance yet her presence lingers on in the film. In one through-away line Marlo says, almost as if talking to herself, that she was in love with Violet. Since you love friends and family but you are not in love with them, that is for lovers and partners, is it that the line should be read literary, that Marlo, although frequently having sex with men and eventually marrying one, would actually have wanted to be in a proper relationship with Violet but did not have the guts to go through with it, and that this is one reason why she is having such a miserable life now? Or was it nothing at all like that; they were just friends and Violet's lingering presence is only there to remind us and Marlo of the life she used to have before marriage, career and children totally boxed her in and drained her of all energy? That this is unclear is not a criticism of the film but one of the good things about it. It is something to play around with and discuss afterwards.

One thing that did bother me was the son Jonah and his problems. The only word used to describe him is "quirky" but that is obviously not appropriate. Marlo says that the doctors' have been unable to diagnose him but he seems to me to have some form of ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, and it does not seem plausible that they would all be in the dark as to what his problems are and what might be done to help out. The school more or less kicks him out. That might be read as a critique of the American school system but it felt so underdeveloped and in fact Jonah's illness or whatever it was did not feel genuine but some vague construction for quick plot points and as such belittling the issue.

So there are some good things and some bad things. The film felt rushed, as if it needed at least one more round in the development stage to whip it all into better shape. But mainly it felt like Theron and Cody were let down by Reitman's direction, there is something about it that feels slightly off, like it is almost there but not quite yet. But, as always with Reitman, the music is impeccable and creatively used. There is for example a Cyndi Lauper medley (from her first album She's So Unusual which Marlo listens to during a drive to Brooklyn) and a beautiful cover version of You Only Live Twice, originally sung by Nancy Sinatra but here by Beulahbelle. So yes, sometimes Tully is very good.



The film Cindy Lauper is watching in the beginning of the video is The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski 1936) one of the very first three-strip Technicolor films (and the first one from David O. Selznick's company). An unbearably stiff and peculiar film, although it looks spectacular.

Here are the other blog texts (in Swedish only):
http://www.fiffisfilmtajm.se/tully/
https://bilderord.wordpress.com/2018/05/23/tully-2018/
https://jojjenito.wordpress.com/2018/05/23/tully-2018/
http://harduintesettden.se/recensioner/tully/
https://thenerdbird.se/2018/05/23/tully-2018/

Friday, 18 May 2018

Zinnemann and Hawks

Been working on a long piece about Fred Zinnemann. Below is an excerpt where I am comparing him with Howard Hawks. It is somewhat abrupt, and a work in progress, but still intelligible I hope. 

***
Zinnemann is sometimes compared and contrasted with Howard Hawks, as them being the antithesis of each other, and the fact that Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) was to some extent made as a response to Zinnemann’s High Noon [1952] is often invoked. Yet the two filmmakers are more alike than this would suggest. As filmmakers they were independent, and they made films about people who did not accept the conventional rules and hierarchies of society but lived by their own personal moral codes. Hawks has always focused on professionalism and it could be argued that Zinnemann has shown a similar interest in professionalism. Both Hawks’s and Zinnemann’s characters are men and women completely dedicated to their tasks, and loyal to their beliefs and responsibilities. Finally, while their styles are different from one another, their relation to space is quite similar. That is, they do not have an interest in pictorialism or scenery; they are not landscape filmmakers like John Ford or Anthony Mann. Neither does the space in their film take on a metaphysical meaning as in the films of Michael Powell or David Lean. It does not come alive as it does in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Instead they can seem rather indifferent to the surroundings. What matters to them both are the actors and the characters that these actors embody and space has no meaning in its own right, it is just the place in which the characters happen to be. In a telling quote, Zinnemann once said to cinematographer Ted Moore, when making A Man For all Seasons [1966], that it is ‘[n]ot important where people are’. Instead space is only where the characters happen to be and it is their inner struggle that matters. (Five Days One Summer (1982) is an interesting exception however, a film in which the landscape is unusually important and almost becomes the central character.) But, like with Hawks, the space can often be seen as claustrophobic, as if the characters are trapped. In Hawks it is the world at large that is hostile (and the characters have sometimes created their own private space) whereas in Zinnemann it is the institutions, which the main character is a part of, that are keeping them down and contained (and there is no private space). 

In Zinnemann’s case the view of space is linked to his overarching interests in ethical dilemmas and procedures. He is, again like Hawks, almost exclusively interested in people under pressure and how they deal with that pressure, whether it is as a drug addict in A Hatful of Rain (1957), a refugee from a concentration camp in The Seventh Cross (1944), a marshal in High Noon, a chancellor in A Man for All Seasons, to name a few examples. His focus on characters and their interiors is emphasised by his extensive use of close-ups. Sometimes characters seem to be cut off from their surroundings, floating in an unspecified space, especially with the close-ups of heads and faces. In High Noon there are a few “floating heads” shot, which means that the camera is focused so tightly on the heads of the actors that not much else is seen so they appear to be floating in space. In A Man for All Seasons cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles) sometimes seems to consist of a head only, and his red dress is absorbed by the red walls. (Although the film begins with a close-up of first his medallion and then his hands, his face is not shown.) 
/.../ 
[But there are obvious differences between them too and Zinnemann's focus on individuals is where] he differs the most from Hawks. Hawks’s films almost always focus on a group, and the characters are seen as being together. Being alone is not a condition a character in a film by Hawks finds himself in, whereas in Zinnemann’s films the opposite is true. The quintessential image from a film by Hawks is of a group, in complete harmony, but in Zinnemann’s films it is of a lone individual estranged from his surroundings, strikingly emphasised for example in the opening shot of From Here to Eternity [1953] where Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift), a lone man, is walking vertically through the shot while a long line of men are walking horizontally in the foreground. 


The marshal in High Noon, abandoned by everyone.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Current cinema culture

Earlier this year, after reading a column in one of our leading global newspapers, I felt compelled to write on Facebook about contemporary film criticism (if that is what it is). Some month later, after watching Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), I again felt compelled to comment on Facebook about larger issues about current cinema. It occurred to me that these two Facebook posts are connected so I decided to add them together and post them here, with a few necessary edits, as one piece:

***

Watched Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. It is not a particularly noteworthy film, one among many of its kind, a short, unpretentious, focused, straightforward Western in colour and CinemaScope, although with the aesthetic feel of a TV-movie. (The style of the film, every aspect of it, makes it feel like it was directed by its main character, Earp, rather than Tourneur.) However, during its 80 minutes it intelligently tackles almost every political issue (except race and gender) that is still today engulfing the US. Democracy, ethics, courage, corruption, gun rights (Earp's first action after becoming marshal is to ban handguns in Wichita), pride, professionalism, freedom of the press, crime and punishment.

A film with these kinds of themes today would be rare, be at least 150 minutes long, and probably highlight its own importance and marvel at its own cleverness and boldness. It would be considered an art film, or Oscar-bait if American, and it would be the focus of hundreds of columns and hot takes and takedowns and whatnots. There would be debates about alleged backlashes, and discussions as to whether it critiqued or celebrated toxic masculinity. More people would read about it, and be outraged by it, than watch it.

The point here is not that Wichita is some forgotten masterpiece or even a great film. The point is its very unremarkableness. In the 1950s many films like it were made every year, and nobody at the time would take much notice of them. But seen from the perspective of contemporary cinema, it is just so obvious what the art form has lost. The kind of film Wichita is, short and unpretentious yet with a dedicated political and philosophical agenda, has become completely extinct. And there is nothing that has replaced it.


The reception I imagined a film like Wichita would get today stems from my experience of the kind of reception new films actually do get. As an example, consider this article I read about a new film, published in a major publication. [It is not important which publication, film or writer since this is not about them but about current larger trends.] It was not the publication's review of this film but an additional piece. The article contained not a single original thought. It is questionable as to whether it contained any kind of thought. It was written in the style that the majority of articles about popular culture use as default, from sentence structure to choice of words. The article criticised the film but not after having actually engaged with it; instead what was said might have been said by anyone who had read the film's Wikipedia entry and seen the trailer perhaps. Much were generalisations that could be used for any new film and its director, as if the writer used a pre-set form with just a few empty boxes which he had to fill in with the names of this particular film and these particular actors.

That article, which is completely unnecessary and without any merit, will generate some comments. It will be linked, tweeted and liked. But nobody will care much for it, not even those who enthusiastically tweet "This is so great! You must read this piece!" They and everyone else will have forgotten it a few hours later.

Every day hundreds of articles just like it, many of them probably about the same film, are published. But to what end? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they please? Do those who write them take any pride in them? They will get paid I assume, and maybe being a writer is all they ever wanted to be, and the only thing they can do. But they cannot get much money? And how does it profit the publications to have generic space-fillers of no value? I suppose it must be the case that whatever ad revenues they take in on that article are greater than whatever they paid the writer, but only if he was paid very little, and then the question returns to what was in it for him.

An article with no meaning written by someone who does not care what he writes, written for people who do not care what they read. This is what contemporary cultural criticism consists of.

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If you want to watch a film by Tourneur and with Joel McCrea that does also discuss racial issues I recommend Stars in my Crown (1950). That really is a great film, one of Tourneur's best. Juano Hernandez also stars in it, and it has that supernatural aspect which is so often found in Tourneur's films, although not in Wichita.