Friday, 5 October 2018

Orson Welles - Part 1

As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
(from Coriolanus, Act V)

When Kane and Susan Alexander go on a picnic towards the end of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), a band is playing "It Can't Be Love" (aka "In the Mizz", sung by Alton Redd) to entertain the guests while in a tent Kane and Alexander are having a fight. The sound we hear through the scene is that song in the background and their angry voices. After a while Kane says that whatever he did it was because he loved her but she replies that he did not really love her. He did it so that she would love him she says, that this is the only thing he ever cared about; to be loved. When she says that, clearly a soft spot, he slaps her face. She barely blinks and just looks back at him. "Don't tell me you're sorry." she says coldly and he replies "I'm not sorry." An ordinary scene. But right after he slapped her the sound of "It Can't Be Love" in the background disappears and instead we hear a woman screaming. The people outside cannot have seen or heard what was happening in the tent so it is unrelated, and it is obviously not Alexander that is screaming because we see that she does not. Is it perhaps in Kane's imagination that Alexander screams? Or is she screaming on the inside so we hear how she feels, even though she hides it from Kane? Is the sound diegetic or non-diegetic? It is one of those touches that Citizen Kane is filled with and that makes it such a rich and fabulous film.

Citizen Kane is also a film about which at least half of what is considered conventional wisdom is more or less myths. The two-hour long documentary that accompanied the DVD I happen to have begins by stating that Welles's contract with RKO gave him creative freedom of a kind nobody had ever had in Hollywood before, which is a clear exaggeration since Welles did not get unlimited control and many other filmmakers had done films before with similar autonomy (and it seems there were three contracts between Welles and RKO, not just one). It was also said that Citizen Kane was the peak of Welles's career and nothing he made after that can compare to it. The latter is of course a subjective opinion so I cannot say it is not true. I would say though that such an opinion is rarely based on an actual comparison between it and Welles's later films, and is instead taken for granted for no particular reason.

There is no denying that Citizen Kane is important; a landmark, a benchmark, and a very good film. But it is often spoken about in ways that are not helpful; not for it, for its place within Hollywood or for Welles's career in general. Many still seems not to recognise that it did not invent deep focus (it has been in use as a creative component since at least the 1910s), or that many of the alleged deep focus shots were created in post-production by the use of an optical printer. This of course does not diminish the film or the cinematography, it just slightly adjusts the focus from the cinematographer Gregg Toland to Vernon L. Walker, RKO's head of special effects, and Linwood G. Dunn from the special effects team who were responsible for the creation of many of the shots and tricks in the film. Dunn had invented the optical printer, and incidentally he is the man responsible for creating the illusion of Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and the leopard appearing together in Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks 1938). (A filmmaker who had had the same creative freedom as Welles.)

Speaking subjectively, I do not think Citizen Kane is Welles's best film. His second one, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), is just as good, despite being only available in an 85 minutes long version of what was originally 130 minutes. (Although the 130 minutes version was not finished either, it was still a work in process and should not by default be called the real version, or a director's cut.) It is a melancholic and leisurely film about the fall of a wealthy family and the passing of time into modernity; filled with love and life, and lingering moments, and in many ways very different from Citizen Kane. That feels like the work of an ambitious young man, eager to show off, while The Magnificent Ambersons feels like the work of a wise old man with nothing to prove. Yet it is still dazzling. The ball sequence is incredible for example.


Welles's other films of the 1940s I am less keen on. The Stranger (1946), about a suspected Nazi hiding in plain sight in a small American town, has a good performance by Edward G. Robinson but that's about it. It is not a bad film, but the script by Anthony Veiller and John Huston, and Welles, feels like it would have suited Alfred Hitchcock better. The Lady from Shanghai (1948), an erotic thriller of sorts, is rather awkward. It is too wayward, awkwardly paced, I feel very little emotional engagement with anything going on, and it has a rather embarrassing performance from Welles himself as the Irish, or "Irish", Michael O'Hara. This is not all the fault of Welles as it was taken out of his hands and cut down and truncated (as was The Stranger to a lesser extent), so issues with the pacing and such things might better be blamed on Harry Cohn, the boss of the studio that produced it, Columbia. But while The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film despite being cut down, The Lady from Shanghai is, I think, not a great film, and Welles's performance is not Cohn's fault. But the film is audacious and fascinating, and the fun house mirror sequence towards the end however is spectacular and mesmerising, almost better than anything in Citizen Kane. In his fine book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore calls The Lady from Shanghai "the radicalization of style" and the film certainly has a radical style.

Welles's next film Macbeth (1948), an interesting mixture of theatricality and cinematic inventiveness, is fine but not Welles's best Shakespeare adaptation. As an example of how to make good use of a cheap production and abandoned sets it is rather impressive however.

There were two films in 1943 to which Welles contributed a lot, uncredited. On Jane Eyre, in which Welles played Rochester, he was heavily involved in the production, including set design, writing and editing and with a say in casting. The film has great photography by George Barnes and its look is the best thing about it. Pure English gothic. It seems Robert Stevenson still was principally in charge of direction, and it had been a pet project for him. It was the first film where Welles was directed by somebody else, unless you count the voice-over narration he did for Swiss Family Robinson (Edward Ludwig 1940).

The other one from 1943, Journey Into Fear, the Eric Ambler adaptation, has multiple authors and both Welles and Norman Foster directed parts of it. But it is rarely counted among Welles's films even though it certainly does have its Wellesian moments. Just look at this scene with a magician:


Magicians are a recurring presence in Welles's films, and he sometimes did magic himself. That is an essential part of his artistic project, tricks and games, the auteur as a magician. And he liked to pull the rug from under the feet of his audience.

Despite their originalities and personal quirks however, the films Welles made in Hollywood in the 1940s are not better than many other films made there at the same time, and many films from his contemporary peers (such as Ophuls, Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Preminger and Hitchcock) are considerably better. No, I think it was in the 1950s and onwards that Welles really reached a new level and from which it is more relevant to speak of him as a unique filmmaker, perhaps a filmmaker of genius.

***

One of the things that make Welles's films so special was there from the beginning: himself. Not necessarily his general acting abilities but his persona and his voice. He does a truly wonderful voice-over in The Magnificent Ambersons and he kept doing so for several of his, and others', films. It is a rich, colourful, deep voice, a mixture of wistfulness, wit and wisdom, and sometimes an amused weariness, which can be intoxicating. (Many of his early radio performances are available on Spotify.)

By his persona I mean that his films are so thoroughly immersed in his personality and his own life. He is one of the "internal auteurs" I have previously (as in my book) called them, filmmakers who not only make the films but embody them, appear in them and are often the subject of them. Hasse Ekman is another. Charlie Chaplin obviously. Chantal Akerman and Ingmar Bergman. Alfred Hitchcock. For all his films Welles drew from himself: his history, his beliefs, fears, passions and obsessions. They are often about the decay and fall of great men, men with a tragic grandeur despite often being bad, sometimes bordering on evil. And Welles himself played them, with obvious relish. This is true also when he acted for others, such as his great performances in two films from 1949, Carol Reed's The Third Man and Henry King's Prince of Foxes. (King once said he thought Welles was a better actor than director.)

This is clearly a kind of man that Welles is fascinated by, and feel affinities with, without himself being bad or evil. (He shows considerably less interest in women characters however.) His love for Shakespeare is also related to this, and he made many adaptations for stage and for film, including the films of MacbethOthello (1951/1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965). His 1937 adaptation of Julius Caesar (only called Caesar) with the Mercury Theatre in New York was a sensational production according to the critics of the time. And the ghost of Shakespeare appears elsewhere too. The Magnificent Ambersons is inspired by Hamlet for example. Booth Tarkington who wrote the source novel even acknowledges it in the book.

Ambersons was also rewritten to Wellesify it. One of the reasons it ended up in the shortened version is that Welles was never satisfied with it and rewrote it even after it had ostensibly been finished. Robert L. Carringer (in The Magnificent Ambersons - A Reconstruction) has suggested that part of the problem was that it got too close to Welles's own life and that this made him uncomfortable. It is by the way interesting to note that while the young man Kane is the centre of Citizen Kane, and is seen with ambivalence, the young man of The Magnificent Ambersons, George Amberson Minafer, is not as central as a character and he is judged much more harshly. Maybe if George had been played by Welles as originally intended he too would have been a more central and a more ambivalent character. But it could not have been only due to autobiographical angst that Welles had problems with AmbersonsCitizen Kane also had moments close to Welles's own life, even though its script was originally written by Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles rewrote it, adding scenes and removing many others (a simple fact that in itself negates Pauline Kael's old argument that the script was almost entirely Mankiewicz's) and some of the scenes he rewrote or added can be seen as dealing with his own upbringing and earlier life, in direct or allegorical ways. And he played the part of Kane himself, doing a much better job than Tim Holt did in The Magnificent Ambersons.

***

As I said above, I think Welles's most interesting phase began in the 1950s. While this article was primarily about early Welles, the next one will be about the latter films, the post-Hollywood Welles. Most of the themes and stylistic ideas he had already introduced would continue, but in an even more adventurous way. Sometimes frustrating, often disjointed, always fascinating and sometimes magnificent.

Prince of Foxes

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It is not unusual that people say that Welles must have directed parts of The Third Man and Prince of Foxes but there is no reason to assume that he did and neither of the men, Reed, King and Welles, have made such a claim. (Welles did once suggest to André Bazin that maybe he did do something, kind of, but he then took it back.) But if you still persist you need to point at what it is with the direction of these two films that is different from Reed's and King's previous films, to actually compare them with the previous films. Obviously, this is not something those making that claim has done and there is nothing in either film that is new or untoward to what you would at that time expect from a film by either Reed or King.

Eric Ambler was popular to adopt in the 1940s. Besides Journey Into Fear, there is for example Raoul Walsh's disappointing Background to Danger (1943) and Jean Negulesco's excellent The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). A later adaptation, which is truly delightful, is Topkapi (Jules Dassin 1964). All of these are set in Turkey, partly or entirely.

Some books I have used but did not mention above:
Henry King, Director: From Silents to Scope (edited by Frank Thompson, 1995)
Simon Callow's Hello Americans (2006)
Jonathan Rosenbaum's Discovering Orson Welles (2007)
Alberto Anile's Orson Welles in Italy (2013)
Patrick McGilligan's Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane (2015)
Harlan Lebo's Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey (2016)

One of Dunn's optical printer shots from Citizen Kane.

Friday, 21 September 2018

On ambiance

When we watch films there are different things, different aspects of them, that we react to and to which we attach importance. It can be a performance, the music, the message, the set design. Although what it really is we react to, and why, is often unclear. Afterwards we usually try to make a coherent argument to describe our instinctual response, which is often subconscious, and we may or may not be successful in this rationalisation of our feelings. But there are many things that influence us that we might not realise or that we are unable to articulate. One such thing is a film's ambiance.

I do not know to what an extent this term is used within film criticism or academia, if at all, but for me it might be the most important part of the film, even though it is difficult to capture and analyse. I have been reluctant to use it in my writings because it is sometimes seen as a vacuous word in itself, something used my ad-men to describe a restaurant or hotel lobby, but since the word and the meaning I attach to it matters to me, and not in a glib way but as something very real and fundamental, I have used it on two occasions this year, as a way of sneaking it into the conversation. First in the article about Death of a Cyclist (Juan Antonio Bardem 1955) and then in the long article about Ingmar Bergman in the 1940s. (Although the first time I used it was actually already in 2013 when I wrote about Krzysztof Kieslowski.) This is what I wrote concerning Bergman, about Thirst (1949): "In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time."

On the one hand it is rather straightforward what the word means, almost. Here is Oxford English Dictionary: "The character and atmosphere of a place." and also "Quality or character given to a sound recording by the space in which the sound occurs." Here is Cambridge Dictionary: "the character of a place or the quality it seems to have" The definitions are not exactly alike. Fowler's Modern English Usage, a fabulous book, is somewhat sceptical of the word: "It has now become a prime favourite of journalists and critics, usually as a pretentious synonym for surroundings, environment, milieu, atmosphere, and the like." ("Now" does not refer to 2018, my copy is the second edition from 1965.)

With regards to film I use ambiance to describe the overall feeling the film gives me, but not to say that the film was sad, or cheerful, or angry, but the combined effect of every single detail of the film. How editing, lighting, sound, line-readings, costumes, shot-length, camera angles, blocking, visual clarity, camera movements, colours, grading, actor personality, and other aspects work together to create this ambiance. The ambiance is unique for each film and it is not in the script but always the surprising end-result of the filmmaking process, something that grows out of the cumulative decisions taken during the making of it, from casting and onwards. This is where the magic can happen, something never taught but which happen through chance. Of course, the filmmakers make decisions that are more or less informed, intelligent, sensible or sensitive (some will be better than others) but as there are so many imponderables and moving parts you can never be certain how it will all come together in the end.

There is something mysterious with all art forms, with our engagement with it. But not just with art, it is the same with people. We may say that we like a certain person because she is kind, or generous, or has a good sense of humour, but we do not like everybody with those qualities equally much. Some we simply like more than others, and some we deeply love, and why it is this person and not that person is beyond us to truly comprehend because we would have to go down on such infinitesimal details to separate them, even subconscious reactions. Like-wise, Edward Hopper's paintings are very similar in technique, brush strokes, colours, motifs and so on but there are some I like considerably more than others. Their difference in ambiance is the reason.

Automat (1927)

Ambiance works on many levels. For example, there is a certain ambiance to be found in French cinema in general, but it will also change over time, so that one film from the 1930s has a different ambiance from one from the 1960s, and there can of course be more than one at the same time too. But this ambiance does not just come out of the place in which it is made. Allan Dwan's 1932 film While Paris Sleeps is set in France but it is not shot there and the dialogue is in English, as it is an American production. Yet its ambiance is strikingly French and not necessarily that of a typical Hollywood production of 1932. The same year Dwan made a film in Britain, Her First Affaire, and this has all the ambiance of a British production. So here the film is inflicted with the ambiance of its place of making whereas in While Paris Sleeps the ambiance comes from its setting, and probably from Dwan having watched French films for inspiration. Dwan is a highly gifted filmmaker but as of yet I have not felt a distinctly Dwanian ambiance, unless a chameleon-like (or Zelig-like) ambiance is his own unique quality. Although perhaps his later films like Silver Lode (1954), Tennessee's Partner (1955) and Slightly Scarlet (1956) exemplify a more consistent ambiance. (Now that is a great trio which is far from getting its due.)

While Paris Sleeps

But in general most filmmakers have their own ambiance, which could be seen as the one particular thing that really separate one from the other. There is in general talk of style and theme, but they can often overlap between filmmakers and many times they can be more in line with studios, genres, eras or movements. But the ambiance is different. Henry Hathaway and Henry King were both long-time employees at Twentieth Century-Fox under Darryl F. Zanuck and their films overlap in many ways. But they feel different. King is religious and Hathaway is not, which is partly a reason. King has in general a more opulent mise-en-scéne, stronger colours and more elaborate lighting patterns, and Hathaway has a more stringent and less gaudy style, and this also contribute to this difference. But it is also a question of movement, blocking, gesture, acting, attitude, humour and emphasis, all those things that are often not in the script but directorial decision made on the spot, from instinct as well as from personal theories about how it should be done. And every director will have their own ideas of how it should be done and therefore all directors are different, just as all other contributors to a film have their own ideas about how their particular contribution should be done. This is one reason why it is so interesting and enlightening to compare two filmmakers as superficially alike as Hathaway and King. Anybody can see that Claire Denis and Nora Ephron are different so there is not much excitement to be had from talking about that (as opposed to discussing their similarities), just as it is obvious how a film by Chantal Akerman is very different from a generic Hollywood film. But so what?

I said in my article about Ingmar Bergman's films of the 1940s that they felt different from one another. How his first film, Crisis (1946), felt closer to an American melodrama whereas his second film, It Rains on Our Love (1946), felt much closer to a generic Swedish film (with a touch of French poetic realism) and this is also a question of ambiance. It is partly about non-specificity, i.e. there is not much that you would have had to change if the script for Crisis were to have been shot by Universal in Hollywood instead of SF in Råsunda, but also partly about the less tangible things which are hard to describe but are just there, which is what ambiance is.

It can also change within films. To take a recent example, the opening sequence of Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard et. al. 2018) was really bad. It was tonally off, the dialogue did not work and there was no chemistry. But after the opening was over (where young Solo and the female lead Qi'ra are introduced) and the main story begins, after a sign saying "Three years later", it was like a completely different film. The ambiance had changed from one cut to the next, and what had been a bad film turned into a reasonably good film. I do not know if this was because of the chaotic production or what happened there, but it was interesting.

But ambiance is difficult because it takes a lot of hard work and effort to locate it and recognise it, and you have to watch a lot of films. This is not something that you can learn by readings books, it can only be picked up by watching films. If I watch one film from a country from where I have seen no other films, by a director of whom I have seen no other films, I can tell whether I like it or not but I have no idea where its ambiance comes from. I will be at a disadvantage. (This is something I find annoying when people write about Bergman's films of the 1940s and 1950s without having seen any other Swedish films of that time, yet do not take this fact into consideration in their analysis.) Yet, as I said above, ambiance is a central aspect of any film, and of any filmmaker's oeuvre; it should be at the heart of any auteur study.

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami 1994)

But there is no right answer as to what a given film's ambiance is. That is part of the process of engaging with art (of whatever kind). I prefer to see our experience of, or engagement with, art as a process, or dialogue, between us and the art work, which tends to be unstable in what meaning we take from it. Ambiance is part of that meaning, might even be its meaning as art, distinct from whatever political or philosophical meaning we might see in the work. So I will just end this essay by suggesting that it is in a film's ambiance that the art of the medium is to be found. The ambiance is the art.

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Avant-garde films or installations are often pure ambiance, as they have no story, narration or actors.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Abstract and tactile

The other week I read Earning the Rockies, the latest book by Robert D. Kaplan who is an interesting thinker on geopolitics. That book is about how the geography of the United States has been the basis for its political place (or dominance) in the world. Kaplan is a deeply read scholar with impeccable credentials, and can discuss the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Romanian urbanity and 5th century Chinese warfare in the same chapter. But, and this is why I mention him here, while deeply embedded in political and historical theory he is also critical of a certain strain of academic writing/thinking for its detachment from the real world. He is the kind of writer who goes to the places he writes about, a traveller as much as a thinker.

In many different fields and disciplines there is a difference between what can roughly be called abstract theory and tactile theory. (Theory loosely defined.) It is not only in political science that this is a distinction worth making. It is equally applicable on film studies.

Within film studies I would define the tactile approach is being interested in the work itself and how it is done, being interested in the art of film and the physical object. It is also interested in the filmmakers and the audience as actual people, as individual human beings. The former, abstract theory, is by my definition interested in theory in itself, and in books about films rather than actual films. It looks at politics and ideology, and deals primarily in generalisations. It can often show an indifference to actual films, film history, filmmakers and audiences.

It is not an either/or thing, few are pure tactile or pure abstraction (Kaplan mentioned above is both as much and the star of much of contemporary cinema studies, Gilles Deleuze, could be said to be as well) and one is not automatically better than the other; it is partly a question of what you yourself are interested in. But it is not just a matter of preferences. It is a question of whether the thoughts and ideas that are presented come from research and genuine engagement with and knowledge of the material about which one writes. While I am more partial to the tactile approach myself it often happens when I read about a certain film or filmmaker that the object of study is not contextualised and therefore not properly understood and the value and uniqueness of the film or filmmaker is overestimated due to this lack of context and wider historic awareness. But abstract theory is on average worse. It can even be offensive in its lack of interest in the subject it is allegedly concerned with, i.e. film. (On occasion at conferences I have been tempted to ask "Have you actually seen a film?" after a paper has been presented, but as yet I have constrained myself.) It is a peculiar thing how it seems that many people within film studies who are researching and writing about it seem to regard film as uninteresting and even worthy of disdain. It is particularly dispiriting that many of those who give that impression, through their writing and conference papers, actually teach film studies. Imagine playing football (or soccer) and the coach is completely uninterested in the actual playing of football and instead only talks about, say, the politics of grass-cutting among Chilean peasants in "the post-political". A potentially worthy subject, but not if you are a football coach and is supposed to teach children how to play.

I have often pointed out that much of what is being taught and written about concerning film history is a collection of myths and mistakes. One strong reason for this is that so many do not bother to watch the films, even the films that they themselves write about, and this combined with the general disinterested approach to the subject means that it is rather rare for academic writing to go deeper than a random Wikipedia-entry when it comes to actual film history or practice. The book or article might be insightful and knowledgeable about whatever political theory is being discussed but not about films, either in themselves or about film history. Instead one myth or distortion after another is repeated and taught. In the rest of this post I will focus on one such area, writings about auteurs, since I have recently read several recent articles and new books in which "auteur theory" have been discussed.

Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Ernst Lubitsch

Of all these books and articles, not a single one of them gave an accurate description of it. Rather the opposite. It was not a case of simplifying for expediency but getting the basic facts backwards. Most said that "auteur theory" argued that auteurs were filmmakers who wrote their own scripts and did not make genre or mainstream films but unique and personal films. This might be how the writer in question defines an auteur now but, as I said, this is almost the opposite of what Truffaut, Godard, Sarris and others argued. What they said was that auteurs could be found anywhere, not least among mainstream genre filmmakers, and that even when they did not write their own scripts their personalities came across in their films. If you pretend to provide a history of thinking about auteurs then at least study the issue first. It is not a difficult subject, not quantum physics. Or, accept that you do not care enough to actually research it and say nothing more about it.

As an example, in Sonatas, Screams, and Silence by Alexis Luko (which I previously singled out as the most interesting of a recent bunch of Bergman books) there is one page (p. xxv) about the history of auteurism, which she claims begins with Truffaut's 1954 article A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema and that Truffaut "called for a revolution" in that article. He did not. He was praising some filmmakers whom he liked, such as Bresson, Ophuls, Tati and Becker. He then added "it so happens — by a curious coincidence — that they are auteurs who often write their own dialogue and in some cases think up the stories they direct" and he compared their films favourably to the films written by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (and a few others). He was not suggesting a new kind of cinema, but was praising a certain kind of cinema that already existed. That is completely different. (Truffaut's article is one of those that are referenced by many but understood (or even read) by few.) There is no recognition in Luko's summary that this view of filmmakers far pre-dates Truffaut's article. The summary is so perfunctory it would have been better not making it at all.

In the recent edited collection The Global Auteur (eds. Jeremi Szaniawski and Seung-hoon Jeong) there is also an effort to give a summary of the history of auteurs. "As is well known, the 1950s Cahiers du cinèma critics initiated the political positioning of filmmakers' authenticity as equivalent to artists' authorship in other media." it says in the introduction (p. 2). That statement is not true. That discussion was initiated much earlier than the 1950s, it was there already in the late 1910s, in various countries and by various critics. It continued to be debated among French film critics in the 1920s, American film critics on the 1930s, British and Swedish film critics in the 1940s. There was nothing new in that respect with the Cahiers group. The Introduction later argues that "today's auteurs are philosophical thinkers who are also politically attuned observers and apt craftsmen or artists." (p. 9) which on the one hand is a bold statement from those who a few pages earlier had criticised the "semi-religious myth of independent creativity" (p. 4) and on the other hand confusing for it would suggest that earlier auteurs were not those things but if they were not then what were they and why and when did this shift from one stage to another take place?

The various chapters of The Global Auteur have their strength and weaknesses (I particularly liked William Brown's chapter about Michael Winterbottom), and for reasons known only to the editors no women are among the included auteurs, but now I want to continue focusing on the Introduction by the book's editors, partly as an example of abstract theory. The piece contains no thinking about film at all, it is only jargon and clichés, but more to the point was that there was so little connection (if any) between actual filmmakers and the theoretical constructions about them. They ask why it is relevant to talk about auteurs today and give this answer: "Because its agency is a causative force to activate an engagement that subjectively concretizes a certain universality of this global matrix of film discourse." (p. 5)

Later they argue that "Methodologically, their mapping can be not just a synchronic arrangement of various auteuristic positions, but also a diachronic narrativization of their agendas and motifs, pathologies and impasses, failures and potentials in the dialectic process of raising questions and seeking answers from the critic's perspective." (p. 7) They further say that "This yields a cognitive mapping of the political matrix that could reveal an unconscious ideology or paradigm and its cinematically virtualized reality through an aesthetic imaginary, as well as its political potential or deadlock when confronted with actual reality." (p. 9) This discussion throughout the Introduction is only interested in theoretical constructions about auteurs, and the actual filmmakers barely figures in that discussion.

***

There is nothing really new to say about filmmakers in general; it has always been, and will probably always be, the case that film is a collaborative art form but that frequently one person is the central figure, whose vision and techniques dominate the finished film, and this person is usually the director (whether or not they also have screen writing credits). This view of it has also been common among critics and others since at least the days of Lubitsch, Ince, Griffith and Chaplin. (Not about all films and all filmmakers, but about many of them, which still remains they case today.) Everything beyond that, whether you call it "auteur theory" or "auteur-structuralism" or "transnational auteurs" or "global auteurs" or "neo-auteurs" or "post-auteurs" or "third wave auteurs" or "vulgar auteurs" or whatever are theoretical games which does not change, or relate to, the actual making of the films, to what happens during pre-production, production and post-production. Filmmakers working today do not differ on average from filmmakers working in earlier eras, and there is no need for any random book about filmmakers to make an excuse for how things are different now and why we need new ways of theorising the auteur or to argue that something is more relevant than ever. (But there can be new and different ways of looking at individual filmmakers of course, from the tactile approach.)

The arguments are rarely new or different either, it is mainly just a new vocabulary. At any given time in academia, as elsewhere, there are certain fashionable words that are used, over and over again, until they lose their appeal and are exchanged for other words. You probably noticed some of them in the quotes above, such as "mapping," a current buzz word. "Re-imaging" and "re-thinking" are also popular, which usually refer to taking a perfectly good and useful term or phrase and give it a new meaning for no apparent reason. And by doing so watering it out until it becomes devoid of actual meaning, and needs to be "re-imagined" again.

***

Considering what I do professionally, I naturally spend a lot of time reading about films. It rarely gives me any pleasure though. I am much happier when reading about geopolitics and evolutionary cognition. It is a peculiar thing. All of this bothers me both on a professional level, not least with regards to the students who have to endure the teaching and the required readings of so much poor stuff, and on a personal level. I take films, and the studying of them, seriously and get offended by those within film studies who do not.

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That quote from Truffaut above is slightly misleading. It is a fairly recent translation (I do not know the exact year) but made long after "auteur theory" became a thing. Obviously when Truffaut wrote it "auteur theory" was not a thing. The original text says "ce sont pourtant des cinéastes français et il se trouve - curieuse coïncidence - que ce sont des auteurs qui écrivent souvent leur dialogue et quelques-uns inventent eux-mêmes les histoires qu'ils mettent en scène" and nobody at the time would keep the word "auteurs" as it stands but translate it to "writers" most likely, or possibly "authors". So reading that translation gives the impression that Truffaut is coining a term, when he is actually only saying that some of these directors were also writers. This is a larger issue, which I might explore on a later date.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Victor Saville and Dark Journey (1937)

British cinema of the 1930s is naturally completely overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock, but there is more to it than that. There were hundreds of films made, in various genres and various stages of professionalism. Both Michael Powell and Carol Reed were making their first efforts. But there were several others too, much less known, who should be subjects for further research. Previously I have written about Anthony Asquith. Two other filmmakers that interest me are Robert Stevenson and Victor Saville. They have in common that they were both prolific in various genres in the 1930s and then went to Hollywood when the war came. There Stevenson ended up working for Walt Disney and directing some of the biggest box office hits of all time. He will get a post later on.

Saville was born in 1895 I think, there is conflicted information on this. On BFI's profile it says both 1897 and 1896 and on IMDb and Wikipedia it says 1895. Early on he met Michael Balcon and produced a film with him in 1923, Woman to Woman, directed by Graham Cutts. (It was co-written by Hitchcock, who was also the art director and assistant director. Alma Reville was editor.) They then went their separate ways as producers during the 1920s but joined forces again in the early 1930s when Saville began directing films at Gaumont-British where Balcon was head of production. Later in the decade Saville became an independent producer/director (with a deal with Alexander Korda) and that is when he made Dark Journey (1937).

Saville claimed that he did not consider himself a great director and was more interested in producing, and this is what he primarily did when he moved to the US, where he became a producer first at MGM, and with a high profile. The transition from British to American films began with him producing two of MGM's British productions, The Citadel (King Vidor 1938) and Goodbye Mr. Chips (Sam Wood 1939). He then moved to the US where he first produced the great The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage 1940), which, together with Mervyn LeRoy's Escape from the same year, angered the Germans enough for them to ban all MGM's films. It also upset some people in Washington who called Saville in for a congressional hearing. (Borzage and the cast were also angry because Saville more or less argued he directed most of the film. A weird story which I do not understand.) He would then alternate between producing and directing (both for MGM and Columbia) until he returned to Britain in the late 1950s. His penultimate film as director was Paul Newman's first film, The Silver Chalice (1954), a film Newman famously hated. Saville had also required the rights to the books by Mickey Spillane so he was involved in the production of Robert Aldrich's incredible Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The last film on which he had a director's credit (as Phil Victor) was for the Spillane-based My Gun is Quick (1957), also directed by George White, otherwise an editor.


But those films are a far cry from the films he made in the 1930s, several with the musical actress Jessie Matthews. Musicals like Evergreen (1934), with music by Rodgers and Hart, and Evensong (1934), The Good Companions (1933) after J.B. Priestley's novel, an adaption of the German cross-dressing comedy Viktor und Viktoria (Reinhold Schünzel 1933) called First a Girl (1935), spy thrillers like I Was a Spy (1933) and Dark Journey and the drama about council politics, South Riding (1937). One thing they and many others of Saville's films have in common is that they have a strong female character in the lead. (His 1950 adaptation of Kipling's Indian spy adventure Kim is an exception.)

Dark Journey is set in Stockholm of 1918 (the Swedish title was Spioncentral Stockholm) and Vivien Leigh, exceptionally stylish and glamorous, plays the lead as a French spy posing as a Swiss owner of a fashionable clothes store in Stockholm while also posing as a German spy. She has two gentlemen callers, a British spy played by Anthony Bushell and a German spy played by Conrad Veidt, the latter of which is a more complicated love interest as he, being German, is an enemy. But the story in itself is not particularly interesting. More impressive is the production itself, an expensive one with impressive sets. The set designer for several of Saville's films was Alfred Junge, otherwise known for his work with Powell and Pressburger, but not here. Instead the sets were designed by Ferdinand Bellan and Andrej Andrejew, and there were three cinematographers working with Saville, Georges Périnal, Harry Stradling and Jack Cardiff (still only as camera operator). There is plenty of talent involved and it shows.


The film on the whole is rather luxurious and sometimes witty and could at times be mistaken for a Paramount production. The screenplay is by Lajos Biró, an Hungarian who wrote the scripts for a lot of exotic British films of the 1930s, as well as the play on which Mauritz Stiller's Hotel Imperial (1927) and Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) are based. He also wrote the story for Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command (1928). It may or may not be a coincidence that all those three films were produced by Paramount. But while being impressive looking and with an attractive mood Dark Journey still falls short, and this is due to Saville I would suggest. The actors could have been better directed, to be made livelier and more passionate. They are a bit too reticent for my taste. In addition, the staging of individual scenes is often rather unimaginative or too plain.


Despite those concerns Dark Journey is still an accomplished film, and one that need not be cast aside. There are other films by Saville of interest too, such as South Riding, which is peculiar but I like it, or Evergreen or the drama Friday the Thirteenth (1933), showing a day in the life of a cross-section of English society. (The acting in them is not as reticent as in Dark Journey.) Even if Saville was not a great director he had an interesting career with many different stages and above all he was a key player in British cinema, leading up to the glorious 1940s when British cinema was at the height of what the art form can do.

The Mortal Storm. One decent couple in a room full of Nazis.
A link to my earlier article about Borzage.

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)