Friday, 18 September 2020

Alice et le mairie (2019)

The world is an exhaustive place, for far too many reasons to mention here, but you know them anyway. It often feels like the word that best describes our current situation is "unhinged" and ugly politics invade every sphere. Nuances are left behind and screaming at your opponent has for many become the honourable thing to do, even though it is dumb and unproductive. Films and film criticism are infected by it as well, and the Outraged Hot Take Industrial Complex (OHTIC) is mass-producing articles on the "problematics" of this or that film. There is a general hysteria about many films, certain titles that "everybody" is talking about, endlessly tweeting about, and the OHTIC is writing about, occasionally before the films have even premiered. All of this is exhausting and dispiriting, and rarely has much to do with the actual films in question.

Yet most films are hardly ever talked about at all, they are just there. This has nothing to do with quality or relevance, as they can be just as good or bad as the ones I mentioned above. But I still prefer them, because they are easier to experience and engage with on their own terms, without having been contaminated by tweeter feuds and headlines.

Such a film is Alice et le mairie (Nicolas Pariser 2019), which is unknown outside France, and excellent. It is also political, in a nuanced and measured way. (In France this type of film is called comédie politique.) It is about Alice Heimann (played by Anaïs Demoustier), a young, former teacher in philosophy at Oxford University who is lured back to France to work with Paul Théraneau, the mayor of Lyon, played by Fabrice Luchini. The mayor has been in politics for decades and has lost his passion and his sense of purpose, yawning his way through endless meetings about mundane topics. Politics has to a large extent been turned into marketing, and the mayoral office resembles a PR firm. Everything is either bureaucratic process (which is necessary) or shallow jargon and clichés (which are not). But he is hoping that Alice will bring new ideas and fresh perspectives as she is not a politician but an academic and a philosopher. (She protests though, insisting that she is not a philosopher, she teaches philosophy.) In this she succeeds, and she is steadily promoted, which makes the other members of the mayor's staff jealous, upset, unhappy, and angry.

That is the main thrust of the film, the smaller story is the office politics and the larger story is whether the mayor will regain his political passion. It is beautifully acted, filled with intelligent dialogue, and understated comedy. (After a political setback, one of the mayor's closest advisers says "I shall go and work on my CV. That always calms me down.") It is shot and acted in a naturalistic way, the kind that makes if feel at times like a documentary. 

Beyond that, there is an ongoing discussion in the film, either explicitly in the dialogue or implicitly in what is happening, about contemporary politics and especially the position of the moderate left (socialists in a French context). What do they want today? Which issues should they address? Which tone should they strike? How should they deal with the increasing extremism in either side, but especially on the far right? Are they obsolete in today's political situation? Maybe a green approach is one way of finding a new purpose?

One thing Alice manages to impress on the mayor is that all this jargon, these slick campaigns, sloganeering, and focus group-based thinking, is part of the problem. She is advocating a focus on modesty and sincerity, which is the opposite of what she experiences in City Hall. (An embarrassing Skype meeting with a hot entrepreneur called Patrick Brac is a highlight in the film.) Alice is instead using George Orwell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others to get her message across. Orwell's line "Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality." (from his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn") is one that resonates with Alice.

A character that emerges as a spokesperson for some of the ideas of the film is a book printer. He is running the last manual book printing press in Lyon, although it is financially difficult to keep it going. He applied for public funding but was told that the future is digital. He argues that this goes against the outspoken idea from city officials about preserving history. As he says, is about more than putting on a show for tourists, it is also about preserving things from the past and keeping traditions alive. The film is good at pointing out that we need to both remember, and sometimes preserve, the past, while also come up with new ideas and solutions for contemporary problems. And the book printer's thoughts are enough to make Alice to start dating him. But then he too disappoints. That is one of the problems in this world, that people are too absorbed in their own agendas and perspectives. Alice, as an academic who is also in politics, has to listen to her academic friends belittle politicians and her politician friends belittle academics.

Eventually the mayor and Alice have a chance to take their ideas to a larger scale than just Lyon, all the way to Palais de l'Élysée, but it does not quite happen. We are left with a question of why, and what the mayor is waiting for. Did he lose his nerve? Is that a metaphor for the European left? The film ends with Alice giving him a present, Melville's Bartleby, with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. That can be interpreted in various ways, and like the film, I leave you with that image.


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I also want to recommend something to read. A long essay by Oliver Burkeman about how politics and news exhaust us, and that it is a bad thing to try to keep yourself constantly updated about all that is going on: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/may/03/how-the-news-took-over-reality

Friday, 4 September 2020

Niagara (1953)

Niagara (Henry Hathaway 1953) never fails to dazzle me. What is remarkable about it is how extremely stylised it is, in every way, from how people walk and talk, to how it looks. It is an exercise in pure form, and it looks incredible, as if Edward Hopper, David Hockney and Salvador Dalí had a love child together. The fact that it is shot on location around the Niagara Falls does not add realism but instead adds to the sense of formalism and surrealism. Hathaway, and the cinematographer Joe MacDonald, clearly relished the chance to go all abstraction. A murder in the Rainbow Tower is one of the most visually audacious sequences in American cinema. (This is where Dalí comes in.) 

The fact that the story, a young happy couple on a delayed honeymoon at the Falls becoming entangled with the disturbed, homicidal couple in the next cabin, is both coherent and plausible within this hermetic world makes the film even more remarkable.

Marilyn Monroe and Jean Peters play the leads, with Joseph Cotten and Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) playing their husbands. Showalter plays a naive, childish character, almost a parody of the all-American boy-next-door with his career the only thing on his mind. His wife is more mature and the story is partly told through her eyes. The two marriages, one appealingly, if not annoyingly, cheerful and the other dark and sinister, built on resentment and jealousy, make a good contrast.

Hathaway wanted James Mason in the part now played by Cotten ("There's nothing erotic about Joe Cotten." he said) but, according to Hathaway, Mason's daughter did not want him to do yet another film where daddy died, so Mason declined the role. Working with Monroe was difficult, but Hathaway seemed to have got on well with her, and felt protective of her and alarmed by how lonely she was, and without professionals to support her. (Barbara Leaming, in her Monroe biography, says he "became a teddy bear" with her.) She was nervous and self-conscious, so on some occasions Hathaway filmed the rehearsals without telling her, because she was more relaxed then, and used that material in the film.

In Hathaway's oeuvre there is no other film like this one, but then there are few films quite like it in anyone's oeuvre. A feverish dream, where things are distilled into pure emotions and pure colours.







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Hathaway's thoughts come from Henry Hathaway, the interview book with Polly Platt from 2001, and Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director (2016) by Harold N. Pomainville. Barbara Leaming's Marilyn Monroe: A Biography is from 1998.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Genre

Genres are often perceived to be rigid, predictable, ideologically pernicious, and associated with commercial mainstream. "Put simply, genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations." is the opening phrase of Barry Keith Grant's book Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, and it is a good example of the conventional wisdom regarding genres.

Yet genres are in reality wonderfully fluid, malleable and flexible, and can contain everything from derivative mainstream sequels to great films at the height of what the art form is capable of. This gap between a perceived idea and the reality is apparent both among scholars and the ordinary viewer. 

The problems with much of genre theory, or discussions of genre in general, are the same as with much else within film studies/criticism: it is rarely based on that complicated reality but on ideal types, and often founded on a lack of awareness of the historical nuances, developments and complexities of the subject being studied. To borrow a quote from Jason Mittell, many "scholars seem content to take genres at face value, using the labels that are culturally commonplace without giving much consideration to the meanings or usefulness of those labels." In this article I want to point out some of the difficulties with genres, and why the ways they are frequently seen and discussed are unsatisfying.

***

The basic problem is that the common belief that we can easily define and specify genres is wrong. We can not, because, being made up by us, they are subjective. Therefore, there is no consensus about what constitutes a given genre, or which films should be counted as belonging to a given genre. To give a seemingly trivial example: once in a video store I overheard two teenage girls talking in front of the horror section, and one of them said, outraged, "Why is that film in the horror section?!?! It is not a horror film!" Her friend though it was. That is the reality of the situation. As soon as you try to define a genre it slips away, and the arbitrariness of it becomes apparent. Another example: is Fort Apache (John Ford 1948) a western or a war movie? Or does it not belong to a particular genre? Or is it a cavalry film, as a distinct genre that is neither a western nor a war movie. There is no correct answer to these questions, because it entirely depends upon how the person answering it has chosen to define either of those categories. Or compare She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford 1949) and The Gunfighter (Henry King 1950). They are both routinely referred to as westerns, and that is understandable, but do they have anything in common, whether in terms of narrative, aesthetics, themes, or characters? Is not the only thing they have in common, other than being non-animated, feature-length, fiction films, that they are set some time towards the end of the 19th century? You could make a film on the same script as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but change the setting to, say British India in the 1920s, or far in the future at some distant planet. It would tell the same story yet not be called a western then.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Thomas Schatz writes about the "deep structure, those rules and conventions which render this film a Western and that film a musical." but I do not believe that such rules and general conventions exist. The reason a musical is called a musical is because the characters sing in it in a context in which people would not sing in the real world. But that is neither a rule nor a convention (any less than being green is a rule or convention for a green apple) but a banal necessity needed for those films to be called musicals. While there are conventions in musicals, as there are in most things in life, there are no uniform conventions for all musicals. Different kinds of musicals have different kinds of conventions, just as musicals from different eras or decades have different conventions, and musicals from different studios have different conventions, musicals from different countries have different conventions, and musicals by different directors or choreographers or actors have different conventions. And there are no rules. Your musical can look, feel or move any which way. It can be upbeat or sad; it can be progressive or reactionary; it can be fast-paced or slow; it can be serious or playful; songs might be integrated or free-standing. Sometimes a film is made as a musical, but then released without the songs, as a non-musical; sometimes a film is written as a musical but the director ignores that, and refuses to do the song and dance numbers, so it ends up as a non-musical. But the only difference is that they have no songs.

Another difficulty is that there are so many films, most of which are forgotten, and for there to be a theory that explains or defines a genre, it must cover the genre in all its historic appearances, all of these forgotten films from past decades. Another complication is that a lot of older films do not belong to genres that we talk of today, or to genres that have been forgotten. If you look at the top-grossing Hollywood films of the 1930s, many of them cannot be categorised by using our contemporary genres. It instead happens that older films are today placed into genres that did not exist back then, when they were considered as part of some other genre, or not of any genre, but instead considered as part of a cycle for example, like the journalist films of the 1930s, or the same decade's prison films. What, by the way, is the difference between a genre and a cycle. Does a cycle become a genre when it has been going on long enough?

A famous conundrum is film noir. As is well-known, it was not something that existed in the 1940s when the films that today are considered film noirs were made, and they were then instead referred to as all kinds of different genres: detective stories, thrillers, melodramas, spy films, action films, and so on. While some French critics began writing about what they called "film noir" in the late 1940s, they were using it in a slightly different way then how it is being done now, and it was not until the early 1970s that all of these films suddenly became film noirs in the modern sense. A pioneer was Paul Schrader and his article "Notes on Film Noir" from 1972, in which he tried to explain what it was, and how it had evolved from 1941 to 1958. But whether there was an evolution of film noir was dependent upon which films he choose to refer to as such. Laura (Otto Preminger 1944) is clearly different from Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich 1955), but that might as well be because only one of them is a film noir, or neither is. One of the few things that are consistent regarding film noir is the fact that there is no consensus at all about which films qualify as noir. This is not strange though, but, as Steve Neale has pointed out, it is inevitable: "as a concept film noir seeks to homogenize a set of distinct and heterogeneous phenomena; this inevitably generates contradictions, exceptions and anomalies and is doomed, in the end, to incoherence."

What is interesting about film noir is that hundreds of films from the 1940s and 1950s are nowadays included under that term, yet it is not a genre, and few claim that it is. (Schrader emphasised that it is not.) This means that a large bulk of what is now remembered from Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s are without a proper genre, as they are defined and discussed today.

Given all of this, it is no surprise that almost all attempts to present a coherent theory of a genre or genres are flawed from the beginning. Whoever has developed a theory has chosen to include some films and exclude some others, either out of ignorance or deliberately in order for the theory to work. Many thousands of films have been made that are considered westerns, and you are inevitably going to have to narrow it down a lot, but the 10 or 20 films you have chosen to build your grand theory on are not enough. At best, your theory will be valid for those films, but not for westerns in general. (I say at best, because something like Will Wright's famous and influential Sixguns and Society (1975), does not even work for the small sample he has chosen to focus on.)

An obvious risk is that if the claim about a certain genre is that it is rigid and rule-bound, you can only include films that are rigid and rule-bound, and where does that take us? You may well define westerns as films that always exhibit traits A, B, C, and D, and then criticise westerns for being an inferior genre as it only relies on the traits A, B, C, and D, and make ideological hay out of that, but to what extent we have learned something by this is unclear. The flaw is not in the genre westerns, in all their manifold representations, but in your chosen definitions of it. 

This aspect of definitions is central to genre theory, yet it too often is the case that the person writing about a certain genre is not explaining how they define it but seemingly assumes that we all define things the same way, even though we do not. Some are loose and open in their definitions, and others are very strict and narrow. If your theory requires a narrow understanding of the subject for which you have developed the theory, considering it in some pure state in which it never existed, you are setting yourself up for tautology. 

***

So far I have only spoken of some genres in relation to Hollywood, which is the way it is usually done. But why is that? Brazilian, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Swedish, Italian cinema, and others, can also be discussed from generic perspectives if one wants to do so, in the same way Hollywood is discussed. That would also add some needed perspectives to the field, because it would give rise to questions like whether for example neorealism is a genre. It is not treated as such, yet it is easier to define and specify than most of the American genres, and the films have recurring tropes and traits. Considering the fact that many critics and historians have referred to various films from other countries than Italy as being neorealist, it would seem that they might be open to calling it a genre. Or is it merely a style? Another Italian kind of film is giallo. Is that a genre? Is it derivative of Hollywood genres or its own homegrown thing? (I need not take that discussion though because Alexia Kannas already has.)

Genre is often said to be the opposite of art, and to exist only in mainstream cinema, but that is to have a very narrow view of art, and also to believe that a lot of literature and music, including Shakespeare and Mozart, is not art. Some of the world's best filmmakers make/made genre films and many of the best films are genre films. It would be a strange art form of its greatest examples were not to be considered art. The claim that genre equals mainstream (as Grant does in the quote above) is also a dead end. To take two obvious example, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick worked within genres. You might disagree that they made genre films, but then you need to re-define for example war films and science fiction, so that when they make them they are no longer genre films, only when others make them. (Nancy Meyers's The Intern (2015) is a mainstream film yet less of a genre film than Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972).) Another example is Yasujiro Ozu. He is not considered mainstream yet he was working within established genres. Or is Ozu to be considered as an example of mainstream cinema, albeit within the Japanese context?

Considering the inevitability of such questions, I often wonder if we do not needlessly waste a considerable amount of ink and time because of our abstruse need to think of cinema, and most things in life, in crude binary terms, and mistake our subjective idealisations for some larger truth.

***

Genres exist, and they can be interesting to talk about, and production companies, filmmakers, scholars, and the regular viewer, refer to genres on a daily basis. But it is rare for those references to acknowledge the complexity and vagueness of the reality. Genres are hardly what we say they are. This does not matter much when choosing a film at the video store, but scholars and historians should thread more carefully, or else their work risk becoming pointless.


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Schrader's influential article about film noir was published in 1972, which, as it happens, was also the year Thomas Elsaesser's even more influential article "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama" was first published. Just as the contemporary understanding of film noir to a large extent comes from Schrader's article, so a contemporary understanding of melodrama in films comes from Elsaesser, even though he cautious the reader that "what I want to say should at this stage be taken to be provocative rather than proven."

Bibliography:

Elsaesser, Thomas, (1972) "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama" published in Monogram, No. 4, 1972.

Grant, Barry Keith, (2007) Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. (He must like the sentence I quoted because he has opened other books with it too.)

Kannas, Alexia, (2017) “All the colours of the dark: Film genre and the Italian giallo” published in Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, Vol. 5 Issue 2, March 2017.

Mittell, Jason, (2001) "A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory" published in Cinema Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring 2001.

Neale, Steve, (2000) Genre and Hollywood.

Schatz, Thomas, (1981) Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System.

Schrader, Paul, (1972) "Notes on Film Noir" published in Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1972.

Wright, Will, (1975) Sixguns and Society - A Structural Study of the Western.

Friday, 7 August 2020

The Intern (2015)

One of my favourite films of the last 10 years is The Intern (Nancy Meyers 2015). It is a film that gives me great pleasure, and that I find very moving. Nancy Meyers is to many something of a joke (and when praised, it is frequently for the spacious and luxurious apartments in her films) but I have seen all her films and I like them all, although I do not remember much of The Parent Trap (1998), which I have never re-watched. But The Intern is different, and much better than the others. There are several reasons for this, but let me first marvel at how unhip it is. There is no sex, no violence, no slapstick, no cynicism, no shock-value, no drama, no sign-posting of "important message". It is just a confident piece of mature filmmaking, made with love and tenderness. 

The story is that Ben Whittaker, a 70-something man, retired and a widower, finds it difficult to find meaning in his life, and when he sees an ad for a company seeking senior citizen interns, he applies, and he gets the position. The company is a new upstart that sells clothes online. It was started by Jules Ostin, a woman in her 30s, and she remains the boss. But the stress and strain of the work means she is on the edge of hitting the wall, and her marriage and family life are suffering. She has trouble sleeping and she does not eat enough. The dichotomy is clear. He is an old man, patient, calm, quiet, with set routines and very little to do; she is a young-ish woman, impatient, stressed, all over the place and with too much to do. They are played to perfection by Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.

That is the first reason for why I like the film so much, the acting. Delicate, nuanced, genuine, and perfectly believable. Hathaway is not unknown to play such a character, but to see De Niro is such a part, as a calm, stable, serious, genuinely good, non-threatening, person, is unusual. (I am not saying he never has played such a part, only that it is not a typical role.) 

Another reason is how good the film looks; it positively glows. The cinematographer is Stephen Goldblatt, an old hand at this. He has previously worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher and Mike Nichols, so this is comparatively mundane, stylistically, but he makes every space shine, to look warm and comforting, which is a central part of Meyers's general style. Feng shui cinema.

That was the craft of the film. But I also like what it is about and how it deals with the issues it has set up. 

Ben (De Niro) is old-school and out of date, he is celebrated but as something from the past, whereas Jules (Hathaway) is the present. Ben becomes a hero for the young people at the office, a mentor and father-figure. With his professionalism and unassuming manner, he brings stability and organisation to the company. But he could not run it as he is like a stranger in the modern world, unfamiliar with the internet and with computers. It is Jules's company, and it is her world now. But the argument in the film is that we need both past and present in order to make for a better future. Ben can be a celebrated and important person, even though he firmly remains of the past, and has to give way to younger generations, and part of the reason why he is heroic is precisely because he willingly gives way. He does not try to impose himself, and he does not feel any kind of resentment to being replaced by the young ones, or women.

This passing of the torch is underlined in one of the best scenes of the film, one of its most moving moments. Ben and Jules are working late, and she asks where he worked before he retired. He tells about his job, and eventually it becomes clear that the office he used to work in was located in the same building in which they are now. His former company made telephone books, and had the whole building. But telephone books are no longer needed, so the company is gone, and Jules's online shop has taken over the building. He then points to a spot in the building and he says that that is where his desk used to be, by the window. It is an understated, beautiful scene, which always makes me cry, and which also encapsulates a key theme in the film. Change is inevitable, time moves on, and we need to change and adapt with it.


One interesting aspect of the film is its lack of closure. The main conflict and arc in the film is whether Jules should let go of her role as the boss of her company, and hire a CEO. As mentioned above, she works too much and the stress is palpable. Yet she is reluctant to let someone else come in and take over. In the end, partly thanks to Ben's support, she decides against it and will carry on herself, like before. But this means that she is back where she was when the film began. The workload and strain remain the same. She has neither gained nor lost anything by the end of the film, regarding work. Ben on the other hand has gained a lot. New friends, a new purpose, and a new love interest (played by Rene Russo). But Jules wants to take that gamble. She made this company, and she needs to stay with it. What she has to do is to manage her time better, and delegate more. There is no clear suggestion in the end of the film that she will do so, but since she leaves the office in the last scene, and joins Ben in his tai chi class, it might be assumed that she will at least make an effort to calm down.

Meyers's other films are romantic comedies but this is not that. Instead it is a drama, and instead being about romantic couples, it is about a friendship across generations, moving and beautiful. Films about two people becoming friends are in general a rare thing, which is a shame, but The Intern shows how to do it. It is a meeting between two people who, even though they did not know it, needed each other, and who build their friendship out of a deep respect for the other person. This is a special kind of love. I mentioned above one specific scene that was the peak of the theme of time passing, and one generation taking over from another. There is also a scene that is the peak of their friendship, and that is when they go to San Francisco for a business meeting, and during the night they have a talk about their lives. She says that her one big fear in life is to die alone, and not being buried with someone else, and he says that she can be buried in the same grave as he and his wife. The wife is already there, but there is plenty of room. That scene too always makes me cry.

***

I love The Intern, as might be clear already, but it has some weaknesses. I let Manohla Dargis point them out:
The table [a place in the office which is messy and disorganised] is a silly, lazy screenwriting contrivance, and it says more about Ms. Meyers’s conflicted ideas about powerful women than it conveys anything interesting about Jules. A successful Hollywood director like Ms. Meyers, for starters, would never have gotten this far and with a number of hits to her name if she had been afraid of telling other people what to do. But Ms. Meyers has some distinct ideas about women, work and power, and so she piles on the issues: Jules is chronically late to meetings, among other sins, although that seems to be because she likes riding slowly through the office on her bicycle. The bike suggests that she’s a nonconformist, although the neat rows of her pretty, young, overwhelmingly white employees doing something in front of their computers suggest otherwise.
There are some other things in the writing that are questionable too (such as the character Becky, Jules's assistant), but these things do not matter all that much to me. 

The dominating kind of film of the last decade or so has been superhero films, which purports to be about heroism, leadership, and sacrifice. But none of them can compete with the quiet heroism and genuine leadership that is celebrated in The Intern; a hymn to ordinariness and basic human decency and kindness.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Returning to normal

During the spring I published a new post here every Friday, instead of every second Friday as has been the norm for years. I will now go back to the norm, even if our world in general is far from normal. So this post is just to say that the next regular post will be next week, Friday August 7, 10:00 CEST.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai 2000)