Friday, 27 November 2020

Cinema/anticinema

A Swedish radio program about economics recently did an episode about the pandemic's threat to cinemas. With them either being closed, or only allowed to take a small number of visitors, and with hardly any new big releases, they are in danger of going out of business permanently, both small independent cinemas and large international chains. The issue was approached from several angles but, inevitably, towards the end of the program the show's host asked the head of the Swedish Film Institute: "Are cinemas necessary? Can we not just see this as a change regarding the spaces where we consume films. Instead of going to the cinema we just stay at home."

This is not a question any other art form would have to deal with. "Are museums necessary? People can watch any art they want on the internet after all." is not something a journalist would ask, or "Are theatres necessary? People can watch plays on streaming services at home after all." Or, for that matter, "Are churches, mosques and temples necessary? People can still worship in their homes after all." Or "Are restaurants necessary? People can still eat food at home after all."

The obvious answers are that doing it together with strangers in a communal setting is a different experience from doing it at home alone, and would you want to live in a world where cities were empty of people, there was no place to go for fun or experiences, and everybody was just at home? That would be like living in a permanent state of quarantine, and the way society is evolving, it seems many would not mind. "Well, it is just so convenient to do it at home." they say, without giving any thoughts to what it might mean for society at large if we all did it.

This is partly a question about democracy. A healthy democracy needs responsible citizens who mingle and meet each other, friends and strangers, in common activities, whether sports, art, religion, festivals, or whatever it might be, and a democracy in which we all stay at home may not remain a democracy for very long. This does not mean that we should abandon the current lockdowns in the name of "freedom" or whatever; the pandemic is a mortal threat. I am talking about a longer time frame.

Talking specifically about films and cinemas, how and where you watch something has an important influence over the experience. It is not just the story of the film that matters. Watching a film at home, or at a small cinema, or a large IMAX screen, or on a plane, or projected on the wall of a countryside barn, or in a drive-in; all these various experiences will be qualitatively different from each other and will to some extent determine your relationship with the film you are watching.

Another aspect is that if a film is made with the explicit intention of being shown at the cinema, this will usually influence how it is made: how it is shot, staged, blocked, edited, paced, and designed, even acted. If you do not watch it in a cinema, you will not get the intended experience. That is just an unavoidable aspect of the art form. And if something is made with the intention of it being shown on TV screens or tablets, this too will influence how it is made, and the experience of watching it will yet again be different. The argument is not that one thing is better or worse, but that it is different, and that it is to misunderstand cinema itself to think that it does not matter where and how you watch something. (Common ideas of what it means that something is "cinematic" remains unsatisfying and flawed.)

But unlike the situation with the cinemas, many still seem to be conscious of the downsides when other kinds of public venues are closed down. That is why the suggested questions I provided above are hardly ever asked. But cinema is different. I have written about this before, the strange fact that the cinema, and cinemas, are being held in such low regard by so many, including those who claim to like it and enjoy it. There seems to be something inherent in the art form itself which puts it in the position where it is not considered proper art. The widespread belief that a film adapted from a book is always, by default, inferior is part of this disregard of cinema as art. A book and a film are two distinct things and not easy to compare unless you only consider the script; judging the film on how much its story departs from its source material, which is somewhat like judging Picasso as a painter based on how closely his paintings resemble the objects he has depicted. But how would you compare the acting or the camera movements in a film with the novel the film is based on? It is also the case that a large number of films, maybe even the majority, are adaptations of novels and short stories, yet most of these novels and short stories are long forgotten because they were not particularly good, whereas the films based upon them often are. It is safe to assume that those who think that the book is always better than the film have not given the issue much thought, but only think so because they for some reason believe that literature is self-evidently superior to cinema.

***

These days companies, journalists, critics, scholars, and ordinary viewers, refer to films and series as "content" and those who watch it as "consumers". It was perhaps inevitable, as this mindset has been with us for decades without necessarily expressed so bluntly and by so many. If you refer to something as "content" you are degrading and diminishing it, and, by extension, you are also doing the same to those who watch it, including yourself. When the accountants at Disney refer to whatever they offer as "content to satisfy consumer demand" they are no different from McDonald's. If you are fine with the monolithic position Disney has over moving images, it suggests that you would also be fine if McDonald's had a similar dominating position within the world of food; that if you went out to eat on the town, 90% of all available restaurants served only Big Macs and McFeasts. But if that thought scares you, then you should also be scared of the reality that is Disney's current hold over the world of films.

I am worried about the future of cinemas, and of cinema itself. The threat is threefold: the immediate risks of cinemas all over the world going under; the dominance of Disney; and the disregard for cinema as an art form that so many of its producers have, as do much of the audience, including critics and academics. But I will continue to defend it, and to delight in it.

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich 1971)

 
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The radio show host I quoted in the lede also suggested that "younger generations" do not have any "nostalgic" relationship of going to the cinema and therefore do not have any reason for doing so, as if that was the only reason why anyone would go there. (Tell that to all the kids who have been filling up cinemas to watch the Avengers saving the universe.) I sometimes get the impression that for a lot of people, doing anything that could also be done before 2010 is somehow suspect and can only be explained by nostalgia.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Discarding a term

At work the other day I read a new book, Postfeminist Whiteness - Problematising Melancholic Burden in Contemporary Hollywood by Kendra Marston, and it reminded me of a common but odd phenomenon within film studies. The last chapter was about Sofia Coppola, and the chapter began with an overview of the history of the "auteur" for a couple of pages, mentioning all the usual suspects from Truffaut and Barthes to Sarris and Kael. How come people still feel the need to do this? Everybody in the field knows this story. If Marston felt a need to call Coppola an auteur she could just do it, there is no need to explain the term, provide its history, and mention the criticism that has been made against it. No other term of this kind is treated in this way. (Imagine if each use of the term "genre" was accompanied with a long review of what has been said for and against it, beginning with Aristotle.)

Another peculiar thing about the term is that many books/articles about this or that director often begins with the writer dismissing the concept of the auteur, and enthusiastically claiming that "we know from the writings of Roland Barthes that the idea of an author should be buried" or something similar, yet the rest of the book/article is the conventional kind of auteur study that you would think, given what they wrote in the introduction, they do not believe is valid or relevant.

I think the reason for this is that they are scared of being seen as old-fashioned, with "romantic ideas of authorship," so they want to pretend that they are not like that, that they are wise and knowledgeable. But it is untenable, as all efforts to eat your cake and have it are. If you do not believe in authorships and oeuvres, you should not write a book or article about the style, themes and concerns about a certain filmmaker, discussing their career as a whole. But if you want to do that, you need to accept the fact that this is what you do, and not hedge your writings by showing you have heard of Barthes and Foucault. (That a short, provocative text for a conceptual multimedia art magazine (Aspen), which is what Barthes's "The Death of the Author" initially was, and which he would quickly move away from in different ways, still seems to be regarded as containing some essential truths about art and writers, which we must always refer to, is quite absurd.)

It is all so pointless though. It is not romantic and starry-eyed to believe that human beings have personal agency and ideas, thoughts and visions, and that, when they make an artwork, these ideas, thoughts and visions can be expressed in that artwork. That is just common sense, and all this hedging and throat clearing is tiresome and annoying, a sign of insecurities. None of it would be needed if the word auteur was just dropped. This is what I mean by the title of this post, "Discarding a term".

It is also common that you will read sentences like "Federico Fellini was an auteur in the true sense of the word, he wrote and directed his own films and had complete control over them." But this is not the true sense of the word auteur. Many directors, such as John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock (to name just five), do not write all of their scripts, yet are usually considered auteurs in the 1950s sense, which logically should be regarded as the "true sense". And it is almost impossible for any individual to have "complete control" over a film. Sufficient control is enough. Another issue is that people today often claim that auteur films are the opposite of genre films, even though the French critics of the 1950s, as well as Andrew Sarris, emphasised that many of those they considered auteurs worked within traditional genres.

These are examples of the fact that few know exactly what the term means, even though they know its conventional history. And this is another reason why we are better off giving up on using it. I do not think it serves a purpose.

For the first, say, 60 years of filmmaking the word auteur was not in use, yet the common view of films and filmmaking was not that different from what it is now. Films were advertised with their stars, and/or directors, and/or studios, critics wrote about the styles and themes of directors, and in general it was the director who was considered the most prominent person in the filmmaking process (with plenty of variations and nuances, just like today). It is a mistake to think that the views of directors changed in the 1950s. In this regard, the conventional history is a distortion.

When I began writing my PhD thesis ten years ago I wrestled with this. How should I approach Hasse Ekman? Should I do the historical overview of views on authorship? Should I call him an auteur? I did not think calling him an auteur was particularly meaningful as most directors can be called that, and since Ekman often directed, wrote, produced, and also played the lead, it was self-evident that he too would be. I tried to give it some more nuance by distinguishing between "internal" and "external" auteurs, with internals being filmmakers, like him, whose presence are embodied in their films because they are being autobiographical or because they appear in them. Other directors with no such presence would be external auteurs. But this was already a fuzzy distinction when I came up with it, and not one I have pursued. I did do a historical overview, but not the conventional one, as in Postfeminist Whiteness, but one that showed how the director traditionally, or at least since the 1910s, has usually been regarded in much the same way as today.

Given how the term, whenever I come across it, is either unnecessary or presented in an ahistorical way, I have become more and more alienated from it. It has been a long time since I referred to a director as an auteur. There is no need. Calling a director a director is enough, regardless of whether they write their scripts or not. Critics and others were doing fine in earlier decades without using the term auteur, and so would we today. But if you do feel compelled to call somebody an auteur, just do it, and do not spend pages of contextualisation and disclaimers.

 

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For an earlier piece by me about auteurs and academia, you can read this: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2018/09/abstract-and-tactile.html

This article about Andrew Sarris is also related: https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2020/05/andrew-sarris-and-american-cinema.html

Although I singled out Postfeminist Whiteness, this has nothing to do with this particular book, it was just a new example among hundreds of others. I think it is quite possible that it was not Marston but an overzealous supervisor or editor who demanded that historical overview.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

W.S. Van Dyke and Myrna Loy

I told Mr. Griffith I had come to talk to him about Woody Van Dyke. "Van Dyke?" he said. "He was an adventurer: everything that man did he made into an adventure. Why, just to know him was an adventure in itself."

Some weeks ago I happened to read "Filmens frågetecken," an article from 1942 by Artur Lundkvist, a prominent Swedish writer and critic, about the then current state of international cinema. The article is also a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of cinema as an art form, given its expensive and collaborative nature, and Lundkvist emphasises that the best films are those where the director is able to push through his artistic vision. He writes about Soviet montage, he misses Weimar cinema, celebrates Poetic Realism, and names these Hollywood directors as the best, the artists: Ford, Vidor, Capra, Dieterle, Mamoulian, Van Dyke, von Sternberg, Lang. He is also excited about Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), which had just been released in Sweden.

In short, what Lundkvist had to say is not different from how most film history books and film history courses today are discussing the cinema leading up to 1942. It is the same countries, movements, films and directors. But three names stand out, two names for not being mentioned, and one for being mentioned. Those that are missing are Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch, who were then, and are today, considered among the most important of filmmakers of that time. But considering how many Lundkvist did mention, he might have forgotten them in the spur of the moment. What is more interesting is the inclusion of W.S. Van Dyke as one of the masters, as he is somebody who has been almost completely forgotten and is usually not mentioned more than in a footnote at best. But in the 1930s he was a star director, one of the most successful, and one of the most highly paid in Hollywood. He was twice nominated for an Oscar for best director, and several of his films from the 1930s were among the five biggest box office hits of their years of release. When I did my survey of 1930s cinema last year, Van Dyke was one of those that I did not have time to explore at depth, but being reminded of him by Lundkvist's article, I finally went through with it now. I was helped by several books, listed at the end, and in particular a breezy book about Van Dyke's life and career published already in 1948, Van Dyke and the Mythical City by Robert C. Cannom. The page references below is from that book, as is the quote on top. (p. 24-25)

His full name is striking: Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II. It sounds like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It is usually shortened to W.S. Van Dyke, but he was called Woody, and in the film business he was also known as One-Take Woody, because of his way of filmmaking. He was born in 1889, and had different sorts of adventurous jobs before he settled on the movie business, working in various capacities on the set with D.W. Griffith on both The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). (On his first day, Van Dyke walked up to a man on a bench outside the studio and said: "Van Dyke's my name." The other man replied "Mine's Erich von Stroheim. Have a seat." (p. 51))

The following year he began directing himself. For ten years he made serials and cheap westerns, often working under the supervision of David O. Selznick, before Selznick became the mythological producer of the late 1930s. But Van Dyke craved to become a big, respected director, one of the "inner circle" instead of a maker of lowbrow fare. His chance came with the production of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). It was initially a project for Robert Flaherty, produced by MGM, but it turned into a series of battles between Selznick (who wanted to do it with Van Dyke) and Hunt Stromberg (who was producing it for Flaherty) and their boss Irving Thalberg, who first supported Flaherty, then fired him, then brought him back, then fired him again. The office politics behind the film is a thesis in its own right, and I am not sure I have got the facts right. To add to the confusion, William Randolph Hearst's film company Cosmopolitan Productions was also involved. But eventually Van Dyke took over and made it his film, while incorporating footage filmed by Flaherty.

White Shadows in the South Seas was a great success and it elevated Van Dyke to the position he aspired too. It also fitted in with his taste for adventure, and desire for independence. He knew what he wanted, and he did not want people to interfere with him. For several years he made films across the world, including The Pagan (1929) in Tahiti, Eskimo (1933) in northern Canada, and the biggest success of them all, Trader Horn (1931), in eastern and central Africa. These were films shot on location, with documentary aspirations, and using the people who actually lived there in the cast, and he wanted them to speak their own language. Some of them, like White Shadows in the South Seas, were films about an unspoiled world where child-like "natives" live in harmony with nature, and beautiful girls swim around naked. They were inevitably a white man's films, paternalistic, even if they treated the people with love and tenderness. Trader Horn was different, more of an adventure story about hidden secrets and finding "the White Goddess of Paganism" in the jungle. Van Dyke also did a lot of hunting, especially in Africa, filling his home in California with trophies.

These films gave him prestige, were successful at the box office, and Trader Horn became a milestone. They were also exhausting, massive productions with huge responsibilities. Allegedly Van Dyke was the inspiration for Carl Denham, the filmmaker played by Robert Armstrong, who wants to make a film about the big gorilla in King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack 1933). But the material Van Dyke shot, especially for Trader Horn, was so rich that he, and MGM, could make use of it in later films as well, such as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).

The special effects, matte paintings, and back projections in Tarzan the Ape Man are outstanding, together with the central African location footage. The sequence that the image above comes from looks so authentic it is enough to pinch yourself. (I think the technique used is the Dunning Process.) Tarzan is not a particularly good film however, neither dialogue nor acting runs smoothly, and it is cringeworthy in many ways. Like Trader Horn, its depiction of black Africans is demeaning, and its use of animals exploitative. But it has a certain kind of primitive purity. It is a mad film, of getting lost in the wilderness and discarding the modern world and all its evils, of re-entering a lost world. The film also introduced Johnny Weissmuller to cinema, and a long line of sequels followed, none directed by Van Dyke. But however successful and influential his "African" films were, they are not films I would recommend now.

What happened next was that Van Dyke began a close collaboration with Myrna Loy. She had been acting for many years and had gotten good reviews for her performances in, for example, Transatlantic (William K. Howard 1931) and The Animal Kingdom (Edward H. Griffith 1932), and praise from the cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greatest of camera artists, for her technical awareness. But although she played Becky Sharp in the low-budget Vanity Fair (Chester M. Franklin 1932), she rarely played any leading parts, was frequently cast as a seductive or tragic "Oriental" woman, and she hardly ever did comedy. Van Dyke felt that she had not been given the roles and the direction she deserved, and he took it upon himself to change that. He was perhaps the person who made Loy the towering star that she became, which she often credited him for. In her first audition for him, she began her performance but after a few minutes, he stopped her and said: "Ah, that's a lot of nonsense, Myrna. You don't have to act!" (p. 278) He wanted her to be herself, and that was the key to her success. It was also how he worked as a director, favouring spontaneity, immediacy, personality. He was one of those who cut in camera, shooting only exactly what he needed, and often using the first take to capture that spontaneity and immediacy; the reason why he was called One-Take Woody. He even had his own camera equipment created to be able to be fast and flexible, nimble, and do a shot in one take.

The first film he made with Loy is Penthouse (1933). She plays a night club singer/call girl and Warner Baxter plays a lawyer/detective, in this sexy, snappy film. It is of no particular genre, being part gangster movie, part screwball movie, part detective movie, part musical. It is delightful, and Loy is radiant. Here is a funny scene, which feels as Wodehouse-esque as Van Dyke's full name. In its timing it is magnificent, the way the dialogue moves with their body movements, how the absurdities steadily escalate, beat for beat, and how the butler turns towards the mirror when he says he went home with the big blonde, and as the camera captures the mirror, Baxter's hangover lawyer gags on his coffee, which we see in the reflection that just appeared.

Loy and Van Dyke then made The Prizefighter and the Lady. It was to be made by Howard Hawks, for MGM, but neither Hawks nor MGM was satisfied with it. It seems the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, called Van Dyke, who was Mayer's favourite director, and asked if he could help. Van Dyke said yes, took the roll of films Hawks had shot, threw them in the trash, and said: "I told you I'd fix it!" Then he re-shot the whole film himself. (p. 279) The result is a good, lively, but traditional boxing film in which plenty of famous boxers appear as themselves. It ends with a long, impressive fight sequence at Madison Square Garden, for the title of heavyweight championship. Max Baer, the actual heavyweight champion of 1934, plays the lead, and Loy plays his girlfriend. They meet by chance and he invites her to a fight, which she somewhat reluctantly goes to. But when she seems him in the ring, appreciating his body and his movements (the female gaze is alive and well in this film) she leaves her nightclub owner boyfriend for him. That boyfriend is played by Otto Kruger, and as he is a gangster of sorts, you always expect him to become violent and threatening, but he does not. He remains loyal and kind, despite being hurt and sad when she breaks up with him, and this is one of the strengths of the film. It also stars Walter Huston as the manager, and he and Loy have several sweet scenes together. There is one fine scene in particular where they have an argument, and she suddenly and spontaneously starts to mimic his behaviour.

After Van Dyke made Manhattan Melodrama (1933), with Loy and William Powell, he became so enthusiastic about the pairing of Loy and Powell that he wanted to do something fun about married life with the two of them. He settled for Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man, and after some persistent arguments, MGM agreed to let him do it. It was the quintessential Van Dyke film, more or less made up as they went along, with Van Dyke sometimes not even telling the cast he was filming them when he asked them to act out a scene, and many scenes were improvised on the spot. (There are similarities between Van Dyke and Leo McCarey.) It was a tremendous hit, earned Van Dyke his first Oscar nomination for best director, lead to several sequels, some directed by Van Dyke, and has remained a classic, and Van Dyke's most famous film, even though many probably do not know who directed it.

From 1934, Van Dyke was working with Hunt Stromberg as producer instead of Selznick, and by now he was exceptionally productive, some years he directed up to five films, which is possible when you are the fastest working director in Hollywood. He primarily worked for MGM, where he was popular and had a level of independence. It may have helped that he was married to Ruth Mannix, the niece of Eddie Mannix, one of MGM's most powerful executives. He continued to make huge hits, including San Francisco (1936), which has spectacular special effects, about the devastating earthquake of 1906, and Marie Antoinette (1938), co-directed with Julien Duvivier. The latter, 150 minutes of French court intrigues, is not Van Dyke's natural habitat, and it is somewhat dull. He tries to inject some mischief and banter here and there, but its real quality is the way it looks; a triumph of MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons and his teams, and the cinematographer William H. Daniels (Garbo's favourite). Decor and design-wise, it is among Hollywood's greatest achievement of the 1930s. But I prefer the war film/gangster film They Gave Him a Gun (1937), which looks more like a Warner Bros. film than an MGM production, and is so strikingly shot and edited at times that it might have impressed Eisenstein. (MGM and Eisenstein is not an obvious fit, but such is the complexities of the real world, as opposed to the taught world.)

Spencer Tracy in They Gave Him a Gun

But mainly Van Dyke made comedies and musicals (several with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Unfortunately, by now it seems as if Van Dyke had lost something. In films like Hide-Out (1934), Love on the Run (1936), It's a Wonderful World (1939) despite having both Mankiewiczs (Herman and Joseph) involved, and Ben Hecht, and despite the latter films starring Crawford/Gable and Colbert/Stewart, and despite Van Dyke's presence being felt, something is missing. They do not just lack Myrna Loy; they lack something else too. The comedy feels laboured and awkward, the earlier energy and quick wit are missing. It is possible that Van Dyke could not get his own style across when the censorship and the Hays code tightened, or maybe he got worn down by the MGM machinery. At the beginning of the 1930s he had been a trendsetter; towards the end of it he instead directed late instalments in long-running film series such as Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare.

I do not think Van Dyke can be regarded as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood of the 1930s. He is far below the level of Lubitsch, or Ford, or Hawks, or Cukor, or Hathaway, or Lang, or Borzage, or von Sternberg, and others. Maybe Van Dyke's greatest gift to film history is that he saw something in Myrna Loy, and together they made the best of that. She is effortlessly irresistible in their films together, which are his best. However, they are not necessarily her best.

In the early 1940s, Van Dyke got sick with cancer. When he made his last film, the stiff but decent Journey with Margaret (1942), with Margaret O'Brien as a traumatised orphan in England, he was ill and the next year it seems he killed himself (this has been disputed), probably because he was being overwhelmed by the cancer. It was a tragic, premature end to an intense life. I shall leave it to him to finish this article, with the words from a poem he once wrote: 

So carry on, and when you're dead,
For epitaph may this be said:
'He had his boots on when he fell,
And made adventure out of Hell.'

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I had initially written that Cosmopolitan Production was Howard Hughes's company, but it was William Randolph Hearst's. I made some other clarifications too. Apologies. (2020-10-31)

Van Dyke was not alone in making films set and shot in the South Seas at that time. Other prominent examples include Moana (Robert Flaherty 1926), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, Flaherty 1931) and Bird of Paradise (King Vidor 1932). They share many images, themes and ideas. I suspect the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead was partly responsible for this. Her famous book Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928, and she had been working in the area since 1925.

Bibliography:

Van Dyke and the Mythical City (1948) by Robert C. Cannom

The Genius of the System (1989) by Thomas Schatz

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (2005) by Scott Eyman

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (2011) by Emily W. Leider

Friday, 16 October 2020

What is the point of what we do?

The question that forms the title of this post is something I have often asked myself, for example when I am wasting my time listening to some pointless presentation at a conference, or reading an article that has nothing to say and spends 10 000 words on whatever it is that it has nothing to say about. But it is not just the lament of a fatigued film scholar. It is a fundamental question of everything we do, whether at home, or at work, or out exercising, or engaging in politics, or scrolling through the Twitter feed. Not as a criticism of whatever it is we do in the given situation, as a variation on "Is this not really pointless?" but as a genuine wonder. "Why am I doing this? What do I hope to achieve by doing it?" We often do things just from habit, without thinking about it, and often not even necessarily taking much pleasure out of doing it, and in such situations asking ourselves that question might be a good way of breaking those habits that, even if they are not bad, might be a waste of time; time which might instead be spent on doing something that would actually give us pleasure. But asking ourselves that question when doing something that does give us pleasure might also be worthwhile, for example by making us more aware of how much pleasure it does give us, or, if we do it with a specific goal in mind, come up with ways of reaching that goal more efficiently. There is another aspect of the question too, in certain circumstances. Is what I am doing contributing to the greater good of society, to the world at large? More specifically, given the growing climate crisis, or climate emergency, am I doing what I can to minimise my role in the unfolding disaster? I think we in general need to consider, and re-consider, all that we do.

***

The other week I was reading an article by a well-known critic, in a well-known online publication, about a well-known classic film. The article had nothing new to say about the film, which is not surprising since it has been written about thousands of times over the last 60 years. What was the point of writing this new article? And what was the point of me reading it? I felt cheated.

The other day I read another article, by another writer, for another publication, about westerns, which had the exact same problems as the article about the classic. It had nothing new to say, and, like the above article, it merely enforced the conventional wisdom, regardless of whether that conventional wisdom was accurate or not. And I think it is safe to say that this is the case for much of what is being published. It is the perpetual reinvention of the wheel.

If you have absolutely nothing to add to the conversation, is it perhaps not better to not say anything? The counterargument might be that the writers got paid for it, and that this is the point of the articles. (Content created solely for monetary gain.) But if that is the only point to them, why were they commissioned? Somebody must have thought it interesting enough to pay money for it, however difficult it is to understand why.

Two obvious reasons for why there are so many pointless, or bad, or exploitative, articles published online is that the space for them is seemingly unlimited and people need money, and I think that this is a problem. Likewise in academia where you have to publish regularly, regardless of whether you have anything to say, because if you do not publish you will not get a raise, or a promotion, or maybe not even keep your job. The goal is to publish for the sake of publishing, not because you have anything to add to the sum of human knowledge or any other similar goal. Hence, we are saturated with bad and/or unnecessary writing, which is not only a drain on our reading capacity, but also part of the degradation of public life, and, as the internet is a major source of CO2 emissions, it is also bad for the environment.

I am myself guilty of this. While I try to write about things others do not write about, and to add something new to whatever I write, even if it is on overwritten subjects like Bergman and Hitchcock, I do not always succeed (my post from 2018 about Bergman's films from the 1940s was a failure in that regard). I am also debating with myself how often I should publish something on the blog. There were two reasons why I cut back from posting every week (as I did for many years) to every second week. One was that by posing less frequently it became easier to choose subjects more carefully, and the second reason was that until server centres are powered with green energy, they are bad for the environment, and each new post adds to the CO2 emissions. Maybe I should publish something only once a month?

But why do I write the blog at all? What is the point? It is because I have an insatiable desire to write, and I have had it since my pre-teen years. Since film is my main interest, and what I work with for a living, it follows that if I also write about film, I combine my two biggest interests, i.e. writing and film history. When it comes to writing, I am like Boris Lermontov and Victoria Page in The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger 1948):
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Page: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why... But I must.
Page: That's my answer too.

But it is a concern that the writing, the use of a computer, the streaming of films, and so on, is a strain on the environment. (On that subject, here is an article in Nature, here is one in Quartz, and here one from BBC.) Which leads to another situation when it is good to ask what the point is: while watching something on a streaming service.

Some time ago I was watching one of those reality shows on Netflix about homes, houses, interior design and whatnot, and suddenly I felt a combination of bewilderment, disgust, and frustration. There was no point in watching it. It was not strictly speaking bad; it was just nothing. There were so many things I could have done instead of watching that unnecessary series, and most of them would be better for me, and give me more pleasure. Even cleaning the kitchen would be a better use of my time. By watching that series on Netflix, I was belittling myself, and in a way showing my subordination to something that I should not give in to. Much of the output on Netflix, and many other of these streaming services, are like that. Netflix, and not least Disney, have projected a disingenuous idea of themselves as providing convenience, relatability, and progressive values, and made it seem hip, politically correct, and self-evidently obvious, that you should be home and watch yet another episode of Young Wallander or The Mandalorian.

If you take great pleasure in watching whichever series you are watching, it is not a problem. Carry on watching. But if you struggle with giving a satisfying answer to the question "What is the point of watching this?" then I would suggest you do something else. Unless physically unable to, a long walk would for example be a good thing to do instead. And even if you do enjoy the series, taking a long walk is probably still the right thing to do.

You may also ponder whether a company that thinks like this is to be trusted as an owner and gatekeeper of contemporary cinema:

“Given the incredible success of Disney+ and our plans to accelerate our direct-to-consumer business, we are strategically positioning our company to more effectively support our growth strategy and increase shareholder value,” Mr. Chapek, who succeeded Robert A. Iger as chief executive in February, said in a statement. “Managing content creation distinct from distribution will allow us to be more effective and nimble in making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it.”

***

Contemporary life is politically precarious and ugly, and we are living through a climate disaster. We are also living our lives surrounded by the superfluous, constantly bombarded by it, force-fed it by way of our phones, tablets and computers, but also at conferences, meetings, team-building exercises, and all kinds of events to have come to be a regular part of daily life. I think these three things (the politics, the climate disaster, the superfluous) are connected, and that they are mutually reinforcing each other.

Since some months, I do no longer use my mobile phone for anything other than calling, texting, and checking vital things like time tables or two-factor authentication. I have been cutting back drastically on my usage of Facebook. I have cleansed my Twitter feed. I have unsubscribed to almost every newsletter I ever signed up for (and some I have no recollection of having signed up for). I have stopped watching mindless Netflix shows. All from the perspective of the question "What is the point of this?" I do not any longer want to waste my time on the superfluous.

Whereas we may feel helpless against the onslaught of racism and fascism, and the disappearance of the rainforest, the coral reefs, the bees, the polar ice caps, we can still take some control of our own private lives, cut back on the superfluous, and use that time to instead do some good in this world. And if not in order to save the world, then at least to feel better about ourselves.

Friday, 2 October 2020

Felicity (1979)

The liberalisation of views, ideas, and laws, regarding sex and nudity in the 1960s and the 1970s affected different countries in different ways, and their responses and reactions varied. Given that it took place during at least two decades, it was not so much a revolution as evolution, but there was a global shift. This went from the benign, such as more relaxed views on public nudity or the availability of birth control, to more unsettling things such as discussions about whether to legalise paedophilia. What could be shown on film, and what was shown, also evolved. Swedish films like I am Curious Yellow (Jag är nyfiken gul, Vilgot Sjöman 1967), blended art, politics and explicit nudity in exhilarating ways, whereas the French made the box office phenomenon Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin 1974), which led to several sequels. These were (initially) soft-core erotic films where attractive people had sex in attractive locations, with plenty of nudity. Another French variation of the new possibilities of sex and nudity is to be found in the more surreal films of Walerian Borowczyk, such as The Beast (La bête 1975)before he too made a film in the Emmanuelle series, the fifth to be precise. In Denmark there was a famous type of films called gladporr, with titles such as Bedtime Mazurka (Mazurka på sengekanten, John Hilbard 1970). These had no artistic aspirations, nor had they got glossy cinematography and exotic locations. They are more farce-like. There are also the artistically advanced films, such as In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, Nagisa Oshima 1976). The films mentioned in this paragraph do not have anything in common other than showing explicit sex and nudity, but that is the point. They are examples of how, over a few years, what could be shown in mainstream cinemas had changed dramatically.

Australia also made its contributions to the era of soft-core erotic films, which are considerably less known. In my declared ambition to write more about the cinema of Australia, I felt compelled to investigate this genre too. The most famous Australian example, to the extent that "famous" is appropriate, is Felicity (John D. Lamond 1979). Lamond had previously made two sex-related documentaries, Australia After Dark (1975) and The ABC of Love and Sex (1978), but Felicity is a fiction feature film, inspired by Emmanuelle. Felicity is a young woman who leaves Australia and her Catholic boarding school, watched over by nuns, for a time of sexual discovery in Hong Kong. (Lamond claims he was inspired by Richard Quine's The World of Suzie Wong (1960), a rather different film.) She befriends a local woman, Jenny, who takes Felicity to all the sexual hot spots in Hong Kong, including the bar Bottoms Up, which also features in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton 1974). Felicity and Jenny naturally, in a film like this, also enjoy each other's bodies. Then one day Felicity meets a young Australian man, and falls in love with him, while still enjoying sex with others, including Jenny, when the mood strikes her.

Felicity meets Emmanuelle

It is in all aspects a very generic story, and without any particular qualities in terms of style or acting. The Canadian Glory Annen, as Felicity, is unable to muster much conviction, and does not speak with an Australian accent. The film has racist undertones of the alluring "Orient," and when Felicity falls in love it is not with a local man but with a white boy from her home country, after he saves her from some mean-looking Chinese men. In short, the film has little to recommend it. But that is also what makes it interesting. Few films are as much of their time as these 1970s soft-core erotic films. They could never have been made earlier, and they would never be made later for a mainstream audience, yet for a few years they were plentiful and very successful at the box office. That success was hardly because of the quality of the films, so the attraction must have been the full-frontal female nudity and sex scenes. In Felicity there is also briefly some male frontal nudity, when Felicity and her boyfriend go skinny-dipping, but whereas the women are showing it all in the sex scenes, any erect penises are out of bounds. I do not know if this was due to local censorship rules, or part of the general reluctance to show male genitalia. This is a general issue in cinema, the absent penis, and a topic in its own right. It sometimes seems as if the difference between a soft-core film and a hard-core film is whether it involves a visibly aroused male or not. There seems to be a general fear of the penis, especially in its erect form, outside regular pornography, which has not subsided. (Harvey Keitel is a rare exception. Jason Segel a brave exception.)

It is curious to think that Felicity and similar films were what people of the 1970s flocked to the cinemas to watch. It is a far cry from the polished virginal wholesomeness of Captain America that is dominating the cinemas these days, but I think Felicity has something else going for it. It is a film told from a woman's point of view, with her own voice-over narration, showing her discovery of her own body and embracing her sexuality, without guilt, pain (except when losing her virginity), remorse, or fear. The film is an unapologetic embrace of Erica Jong's "zipless fuck," who appropriately is name-checked in the film.

However, what is missing in the film is a sensual appreciation of the male body. Felicity likes to watch others, and she herself is sometimes watched by others. But whereas she looks at women or couples, never just at a naked man, she is on occasions observed by a man. She is aware, and returns the look, but the men who look at her are dressed and she is not. That is perhaps the most obvious gender imbalance in the film. Given her character, you would expect her to take great pleasure in just looking at a naked man, but in the film she is not given this opportunity, whereas men are frequently given the opportunity to look at her naked body. While she is given her own gaze, it is more restricted than the men's are. A reminder that sexual liberation does not automatically mean sexual equality.