Friday, 12 November 2021

Cinema and cognition - our brain as an unreliable narrator

One of the most famous essays in contemporary philosophy is Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat" from 1974. It is about consciousness, what it is and how we can talk about it, and the question of the mind/body dichotomy. He used the example of trying to comprehend what it would be like to be a bat, something that is close to us (bats are also mammals) but at the same time very alien, to illustrate his point. But I think we might also say that it is difficult to properly know what it is like to be another person, any other person, than ourselves, and that this is relevant for our discussions about films as well.

Something that science tells us is that our brains present us with a subjective, skewed, version of the world. (Sources and links are at the end of the article.) It does not mean that there is no objective truth, there is, only it is often out of our reach. In short, what we perceive of the world is not to be entirely trusted, and is not the whole story. Our brains filter the world for us, and without us being conscious of it doing so it is emphasising some things and ignoring other things. But we are unaware of this, or in denial of it, as we like to think that we (our conscious selves) are in charge. 

A common example, easy to understand, of how our brains adapt our perception of the world for us is the fact that sometimes after you have bought a new car you suddenly discover a lot of other cars of the same model. If you buy a Peugeot 208, it might seem as if many just got the same idea because now you see Peugeot 208s "everywhere". But it is not that it is suddenly more common, it is that your brain has adjusted to the fact that you now own this model and is therefore automatically noticing others like it. This is sometimes referred to as the "frequency illusion" although I do not know whether that is a term used by cognitive scientists. Obviously, the kind of car also matters. You do not have to own a Volvo in dark or grey colours to notice plenty of them on the streets of Stockholm, and even if you buy a new Aston Martin, you are unlikely to see many others.

Another example is the famous one with the dancing gorilla. A short film of people playing basketball is shown and the viewers are asked to consider, for example, the colour of the players' clothes. After the film is over, the viewers are asked if they saw the dancing gorilla that suddenly appears in the middle of the film. Many have not noticed it at all, as our brains filter out information that is superfluous to the given task, such as the presence of a gorilla. Some have likened this to the brain having a spam filter, but like most spam filters it can filter out things we might need.

These things are obviously at work when it comes to experiencing films, and how we approach and remember film history.

When reading a review/article or listening to someone talk about a film, it is often easy to get the impression that they are talking about some other film, not the same one you just saw. And in a way you could say that it is a different film since our individual experiences are not the same. Not just in matters of taste, but in the way our brains engage with the film without us being aware of it. While our brains, for one reason or another, have chosen for us what is most in need of attention, something else might be as important that we will miss, because our brains filtered it out, and since each person's brain will do this in a unique way, each experience will be different.

Your mood also matters, and things like whether you are a pessimist or an optimist, or whether you have eaten, or maybe have eaten something that your stomach disagreed with. Several experiments have shown that we are unduly influenced in our judgements because of such external matters. For example, judges in criminal courts are not consistent in how they pass judgement. One famous investigation into this showed that criminals are more likely to be given parole if the judges have recently eaten. The more hungry or tired they are, the less lenient they become. There is no reason to suppose that it is not the same when we watch films. Whether something irrelevant to the film itself, such as the state of your stomach, influences the feelings towards the film is not something we have reason to dismiss. It probably does. As in, for example, being annoyed with something in the film that would not have annoyed you if you were not distracted by stress, pain, hunger, or something else.

Another way we are misled is by being tricked by prejudices. A colleague once complained about the "excessive use of music" in a film we were discussing (I have forgotten which film) even though the film hardly had any music at all. Before he saw the film, my colleague had convinced himself that it would have lots of music, and the lack of music in the film did not manage to sway his prejudice. This is quite common in how people respond to any new film they watch with a certain actor or by a certain director, or in a certain genre. If they have convinced themselves that films by that filmmaker will have certain traits, they will say that the latest film by that filmmaker had them, even if the traits were not present in this particular film, and this is especially true if these traits were something the person disliked. I have experienced many examples of this. The scientific term for this would probably be anchoring and adjustment heuristic (or bias). And as I have written before, how you present a film for your students or what you ask them to look for, before a screening, will influence how they watch the film, and how they respond to it, and this is something to consider as well. It will not affect all of them in the same way, but it will inevitably be there. Sometimes this is appropriate, but sometimes a more unprejudiced screening, without any introduction, might be more revealing.

Watching a film is difficult for our brains, as there is so much going on simultaneously, the sound, the images, the actors, the story, and these things can work together or be in contrast with each other, intentionally or unintentionally. This means that to grasp the whole of what is going on, you need to pay a lot of attention and probably watch it several times. Not all things attract our attention in the same way. Colours, movement, and text are for example especially good at attracting our attention, unconsciously. Our eyes are automatically drawn to them, on films as elsewhere. Good filmmakers use this to their advantage. But it also means that we are easily distracted by these things, if they happen beside the screen, or even on the screen. Subtitles will draw our eyes, even when we do not need them, and while they are often necessary they have an impact on our ability to take in the entirety of the image, so that it is incomplete in ways that may or may not be meaningful. (A woman once said that she disliked subtitles when watching films because they hid the shoes of the characters.) There are those who claim that focusing on the images and actors' faces and such is immaterial, that the only thing that matters is the story, but they are wrong. There are hardly any films in which vital information is not provided by sounds and images, and if you ignore those aspects you will also deny yourself the full experience and meaning of the film. This is not, despite what some claim, an elitist assumption but a basic acceptance of the way the medium works. It also means that Facebooking or scrolling through your Instagram feed while watching, or watching the film on the phone, will with certainty make you miss things, some of it possibly vital, and you should not assume that you have understood the whole of the film. (Despite what is often said, humans are in general not good at multitasking.)
 
Given all of this, we should always be somewhat suspicious of our reactions to things, including films. Did we get it? Can we with earned confidence say that we have given the film, all aspects of it, the necessary attention? Have we been misled by our prejudices or been distracted by things that are not in the film itself? These are not always easy questions to answer, but any honest discussion about cinema needs to bear them in mind. We cannot trust our brains to provide us with the whole picture.

***

Related to this is the fact that our memories are unreliable as well. What we remember are not necessarily how things were. Sometimes a memory is a composite of separate occasions, sometimes it is partial, and sometimes it is invented. Something we believe we distinctly remember can be something that never happened. The challenge is that unless we are able to verify our memories, we cannot know with certainty which ones are accurate and which ones are not, which ones are real and which ones are made up.

I usually say that either the Bond film Thunderball (1965) or Vertigo (1958) was the first film I bought on VHS tape. But I have no idea if this is true. It might have been some other film (Ice Station Zebra (1968) is a possible contender), but even though it might be wrong I still stay with that story because I like what it says about my teenage self. There is another connection between Thunderball and unreliable memory. I watched it, and all other Bond films, regularly as a teenager and in my early 20s but then there was a long gap when I did not pay much attention to them. In my thirties I decided to rewatch them all, and about Thunderball there was one scene in particular that I remembered, of a man being killed. I remembered the characters, their movements, and the space in which the scene took place. But when I rewatched the film, the scene was not in it. There was not even a scene like it. This scene I so vividly remembered did not exist. My brain had invented it. And, as soon as I discovered that, I forgot the scene. When I started writing this paragraph I first wanted to describe the scene in detail, but I soon discovered that I could not. The scene which was once real and tangible to me, despite not existing and me never having experienced it, is now almost completely forgotten. (I have previously written about a memory of going to see a particular film as a child, and then one day discovering that there never was such a film.)

In the recent documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (2018), David Edelstein mentions how she had seen the release of the re-edited version of Touch of Evil (1958) with him, and how he was amazed by how she remembered exactly what the previous version had been like and therefore could tell immediately what was new. But how would he know if she was right? Unless he wrote down what she said and then went home to watch the other version, comparing it to what she had said, he had no reason to assume that she remembered it correctly. And neither had she.

When people write or talk about films it is rarely with any awareness of these issues. People often talk about films they have not seen in years or decades as if they were fresh in their minds, but even if it feels like it, it may not be, and probably will not be, the case. Whenever I need to write about a film I have not seen recently, I always try to re-watch it or research it, or at the very least read the Wikipedia plot summary. It is often the case that I am surprised, and have to rewrite or, if I have not begun writing yet, re-think what I wanted to write. Sometimes I cannot write about some particular film I had in mind because what I thought was in it turned out to not be there, and hence it was no longer relevant for whatever argument I wanted to make.

Today it is easier to check and double-check the films than it was when film theory got going in earlier decades. Those writers had to rely on their memories to a large extent, as had critics and historians too, and this accounts for some of the many problems with film theory and film history. With our memories being unreliable, they were to some extent writing in the dark. And, as we humans tend to do, they could also inadvertently "choose" how to remember things so that what they remembered fit the theory they were putting forward. I am not saying that they deliberately invented or distorted things (although that happens too) but that our brains play tricks with us in all sorts of ways, and if we need something to be a certain way our brains can easily make sure that we remember it in such a way, whether it is true or not. That might be said to be a form of confirmation bias.

A popular research area in film studies today is to ask people about their memories of cinema-going habits of the past. What it was like for them to go to the movies when they were young for example. This is a minefield, for the reasons given above. Their memories will not necessarily tell you much of how it was like to go to the movies in the past, as their memories are unreliable. I have done such experiments with students, where they have asked their grandparents about what it was like going to the cinema when they were young, or what kind of films and stars they liked. The answers could be completely bananas. They were remembering seeing films when they were ten even though the films in question were released some ten years later. They were remembering going to cinemas that had either closed down by then or had not opened yet. Their memories of how much a ticket cost were make-believe, with the prices being a fraction of what it really was. It was more interesting as a research project into how memories work than as research into how it was to go to the cinema in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s. But that was not the intention.

***

The thing to keep in my mind is that we all, myself included, have fallen victim to all or most of these biases, fallacies, and unreliable memories; it is inevitable. We are humans, and these spring from evolution, and evolution of cognition. So is also the tendency for us to identify these problems more easily when they appear in others, and rarely acknowledge them in ourselves. The purpose of this article is not to blame people for this or that, only to point out that there are aspects to us, as humans, that can trip us up and mislead us, that our brains are unreliable narrators, that we should acknowledge this, and be more careful and diligent in our work.


-----------------------------------------------
I should mention the replication crisis, which has been rippling through the social sciences and psychology for some 15 years now. It refers to the fact that many studies, including some famous and influential ones, have been proved to be wrong, or have severe problems, or are impossible to replicate, i.e. when researchers do the experiment again, they do not get the same results as the first, famous, case. You can read more here and here. One of the more prominent psychologists working on these issues is Daniel Kahneman, famous for his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. You can read his concerns about the replication crisis here and here.

What I am talking about in this article is well-documented and has been replicated. About the gorilla test, you can read more here and here. I suspect though that this gorilla test has lost some of its capability as many have heard of it now. When I first saw it, I already knew about it, and therefore I immediately spotted the gorilla when it appeared, as that is what my brain was focused on. But now, scientists can instead play tricks with it, of people's awareness of it, and adding some other, new, weird thing happening that those who are waiting for the gorilla instead miss.

More about "frequency illusion" here.
 
About "confirmation bias" here, here and here.
 
Research papers about judges and their stomachs here and here.

Research paper on colour psychology here.
 
Some articles about our unreliable memories here, here, here, and here.
 
About the difficulties with multitasking here, here, and here.

Thomas Nagel is a philosopher who is particularly interested in the mind/body issue, and I sometimes wonder if the style/substance issue in film is not a relative of the mind/body issue.

Friday, 15 October 2021

The Wild Child (1970)

In 1964, François Truffaut wrote in a letter to his friend and business partner Helen Scott (who worked at the French Film Office in New York) that he had given the screenwriter Jean Gruault the assignment to prepare a script for a film about Victor of Aveyron. Victor was the famous "wild child" who had been seen in the woods in rural France around 1798/1799, living by himself in the wilderness. He was thought to be 10 or 12 years old, and in 1800 French authorities took him in and placed him in different orphanages and then finally at the national institute for the deaf and mute in Paris. (He could not speak and appeared deaf.) As he was a "wild child," and ideas about such children, and about the battle between nature and civilisation, was in fashion, as in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor became a global sensation. Newspapers wrote about him, scholars and doctors studied him, and he was discussed at the top of the French government, fresh from the turmoil of the revolution and right after Napoléon Bonaparte had taken charge of the country.

Most of what is known about Victor comes from a young physician, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, who took it upon himself to try to teach Victor everything. How to read, write, speak, dress, in short, he wanted to teach Victor how to be a civilised boy instead of a wild child. Victor came to live with Itard and his housekeeper madame Guérin, and some progress was made. But Victor never progressed as far as Itard hoped, or learned how to speak, and he lived with madame Guérin until his death at 40.

That Truffaut would be interested in such a story is not surprising. The health and well-being of children was a topic that was important for him and something he frequently returned to, in his films and in his public appearances. He tried to avoid politics, but not when it came to children's rights. When he began filming The Wild Child in 1969, the idea to make it had, as shown by the letter, been with him for several years. He shot it partly at the institute in Paris where Victor had been placed (the institute is still in use today) and partly in the rural area where Victor was found, Aveyron. This gives the film a powerful sense of authenticity, like a documentary, even though it was made 170 years after the facts. The whole construction of the film adds to that feeling, as it is based on Itard's reports and the voiceover is Itard's words about the case, as if it were him who was making the film about Victor. The film consists of short scenes, each of which show a specific development in Victor's progress. There are hardly any digressions or elaborations, everything is pared down to the essentials. All music in the film is by Antonio Vivaldi, and while he was not exactly contemporary with the events of the story, Vivaldi died in 1741, it still adds to this feeling of the film being made when it was set, however impossible that is.

It is shot in black and white, almost grey, by Néstor Almendros, his first of nine collaborations with Truffaut, and it looks quite beautiful in its simplicity. They took inspiration from silent film's use of irises to emphasize one small part of the image, instead of closeups. (A recurring thing for Truffaut.) Everything about the film looks backwards rather than to the present. But it does add one distinct novelty: Truffaut himself plays Itard and this was the first time he acted.

To be able to make it as he wanted, and in black and white, Truffaut had to find American sponsors because he could not get anyone interested in the project in France. Eventually, United Artists funded the film (a man named Ilya Lopert coughed up the money and he is a character in need of his own essay), and it was produced by Truffaut's own company Les Films du Carrosse. He saw it as continuing a focus on children that he had begun, not counting the short Les mistons (1957), with The 400 Blows (1959), and he dedicated The Wild Child to Jean-Pierre Léaud, who had played the alter ego of Truffaut in The 400 Blows. This time, Truffaut felt that by playing Itard he was playing a version of André Bazin, with young Victor resembling young Truffaut, even though Truffaut did grow up with a family in Paris. But Truffaut had, as a child, been institutionalised and then taken under the wings of Bazin, rescued by him, like Itard did for Victor. (There is an interesting continuation of the living arrangements from this film to The Green Room (1978), in which the character played by Truffaut lives with a housekeeper and a boy who cannot speak.)

The Wild Child was made with a small cast and crew, with crew members, and their children, playing some parts, including his long-time close associate and creative partner Suzanne Schiffman, who also did some assistant direction when Truffaut was performing. Victor is powerfully played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, who was not an actor and would not become one either. He did however become an accomplished musician. The housekeeper, madame Guérin, was played by Françoise Seigner.

One reason nobody in France wanted to fund it was that they did not think it would be of interest to any audience. United Artists did not think so either, but they put it together with Mississippi Mermaid (1969), Truffaut's earlier film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve, being convinced that that would be a hit, and thereby cover the expected losses on The Wild Child. The opposite happened. The Wild Child was a tremendous success in France, and around the world, and in the US too. It screened at the New York film festival, where Truffaut was treated like a star, including by the mayor John Lindsay. Truffaut would tour the world with the film, giving talks about it, about cinema and children.

***

I have seen all of Truffaut's films, most of them many times, and I like them all. Some of them are among my favourite films and have been so since I was a teenager. When I became hooked on cinema, in my mid-teens, Truffaut was one of three filmmakers that mattered the most to me, the other two being Hitchcock and David Lean. It was the beginning of a lifelong relationship between me and them, despite them not even being alive any longer. And although The Wild Child is not my absolute favourite, it remains special for me, as it was for Truffaut as well. Part of that comes from the power of the story and the images, but part of it comes from my sense of kinship with Truffaut.

Given the style and structure of the film, there is no place or space for sentimentality or depth of characterisations, yet the cumulative effect of all the short scenes of Victor's struggles becomes, at least to me, deeply moving. That it is Truffaut who plays Itard adds a layer to the film that makes it moving in a different way, and the combined effects can be quite exceptional at times. That is a level of artistic appreciation that some have been wanting to deny the existence of, or purpose of, for reasons of their own. Some because they claim to believe in "the death of the author" and others because they apparently believe that films made by corporate committees are the height of human endeavour. That to me will always be an impoverished way of looking at things in general, and art in particular.

***

Other fans of the film were the Hitchcocks. Hitchcock sent this telegram to Truffaut, or almost this telegram. He wrote it in awkward French, and this is a translation: "I saw The Wild Child which I think magnificent. Please send me the autograph of actor who plays the doctor. He is wonderful. I wish this autograph for Alma Hitchcock. Her eyes were bathed in tears. This film she says is the best of all those by Truffaut. Profound affection."

----------------

Primary sources:

François Truffaut by David Nicholls (1993).

François Truffaut: Letters (English translation by Gilbert Adair 1990).

Truffaut: A Biography by Serge Toubiana and Antoine de Baecque (English translation by Catherine Temerson 1999).

For more information about Victor, you can listen to this BBC radio programme from 2008: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00b7lrb

Friday, 17 September 2021

Introspection

For 16 years now I have been writing a regular film blog, first in Swedish (a link to the very first post in 2005) and from 2009 in English. That is a lot of writing. It happens at times that I begin to write a new post and after a while I start to have a nagging feeling of having written about that topic before, so I double-check and yes, I had done so, and now must come up with a new topic. I am sure I have unwittingly published stuff that I had already written about. At some point I should do an inventory and catalogue it all, so I know what is there. I should probably include the non-blog writing as well as my articles and reviews have been piling up since I was first published in 1997, at the tender age of 22. We have all passed a lot of water since then, as Samuel Goldwyn might have said.

Now I am feeling a need for changing things, and for asking myself some relevant questions. Not just about the blog but about life in general. The combination of aging (which I do not mind), the pandemic, and the climate emergency, make me want to consider what I do, what I focus on, or, to be as all-encompassing as possible, how I spend my time. We could all spend our time more wisely; the difficulty is finding out how. I do not mean better "time management" or engaging in "life hacks" as these are not just off-putting terms but are also usually based on misunderstandings of time as well as life. You cannot manage time, and the answer to your problems is not to take shortcuts in order to be more productive or efficient, but accepting that you cannot do all the things you want to, and settle for doing less instead. "Life is short" is a popular expression, but people often take this to mean that you need to be more efficient so you can do more things during that allegedly short lifespan. That might seem like luxury, unavailable for those who struggle to survive from day to day, but it also causes stress and anxieties for lots of people, and in the end it will probably make life feel even shorter. (Here is an article by Oliver Burkeman about some of these issues.) But maybe a better way is to do less, that the less you do, the longer life will feel, and the more content you will be.

Tempting though it might be, I have no intention of turning the blog into a self-help/lifestyle publication, so enough of those ruminations. But I will make some changes here. The most obvious and immediate one will be that I will switch from publishing twice a month to once a month, to write less often than I do now.

Another reason both for doing less in general and for writing less frequently has to do with the climate emergency. Most things we do affect the climate, and the digital world, partly due to the energy needed to power and cool all the servers of the world, is a big contributor to CO2 emissions, more than all air travels per year. (An article about that.) While there are big political decisions across the industrialized world that are needed to help deal with this global crisis, everybody has to take some individual responsibility too, however small. Whatever I do will have very small real-world effects, but we might all set an example. If we continue like before we only show that we are not taking the situation seriously.

About personal responsibilities one might argue at length. What is inarguable is that my next article here about film will appear a month from now, Friday, October 15.

Friday, 3 September 2021

On dealing with box office figures and a list of resources

This year I have frequently referred to box office figures on the blog, both old and new ones. The more I have used it though, the more obvious it has been how flawed the concept is, and how undependable the figures are. The website that is most frequently referenced when it comes to Hollywood box office figures seems to be Box Office Mojo (owned by IMDb, which is owned, not unexpectedly, by Amazon). I have used it myself for gathering statistics for earlier posts. But it has some weaknesses that illustrate the precarious nature of box office figures, especially those from earlier decades.

They have for example a "Top Lifetime Grosses" list, and it seems to be updated on a daily basis. The top ten Domestic list on 28 August, 2021, was as follows:

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avatar (2009)

Black Panther (2018)

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Titanic (1997)

Jurassic World (2015)

The Avengers (2012)

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)

Incredibles 2 (2018)

This tells us almost nothing of value, other than the presence of Titanic. It can only be of interest to the accountants, and it is unclear why these figures are reported in the news with such devotion. (That is about the change as streaming takes over from cinemas since streaming numbers are less available, less dependable, and barely useful.) As inflation means that ticket prices steadily increase, the more recent a film is, the more likely it is that it will end up on the top ten list, unless you adjust it for inflation. Although the list above claims to be an all-time list, you will not be able to draw any conclusions about the popularity of these films compared to films made in previous decades, you can only compare them with each other. This is why the presence of Titanic is interesting, because it is about twenty years older than the other films and therefore we can say with some certainty that it was a lot more popular than all the other films on the list, including the ones above it. At least if we know how much the tickets cost. As Titanic was 195 minutes long, the price of the tickets when it came out could be a lot higher than that for a regular ticket, so you need to be aware of that as well when calculating its popularity. [Amendment: A reader asked whether ticket prices for longer films, such as Titanic, really were higher in the US or if this is a European thing. It has happened in the US but I am not certain about Titanic, so that is a subject for further research. It only adds to the difficulties.]

If you manage to find out how to make the all-time list adjusted for inflation on Box Office Mojo, you will get the following top ten:

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

The Sound of Music (1965)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Titanic (1997)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Jaws (1975)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The Exorcist (1973)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

As you can see this list is very different. There are no Marvel films on it for example, and the previous number one is not on there at all. Whereas in the first list, the oldest film was Titanic, from 1997, after adjustment to inflation Titanic is instead the most recent film on the top ten. If you want to get an idea of which films have been the most popular over time, this list is more useful whereas the earlier one was useless. Alas, this one is also unreliable, not least since box office figures of the past cannot be trusted. Films and figures can be wrong, or missing completely. On Box Office Mojo, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), and The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1974) do not appear on any lists, despite being very popular. It seems that Box Office Mojo has no figures at all for them for their original releases. On another site, The Numbers, they have a list called "All Time Domestic Inflation Adjusted Box Office" but for some obscure reason that list only includes films released after 1977, so despite its name it is not an "All Time" list of any sort.

One of the most referenced books for these figures is The Hollywood Story, but it too has flaws and omissions. One example: on the list of most popular films from the period 1961 to 1970, My Fair Lady (1964) is missing, despite being one of the decade's biggest successes. Whoever wants to use these statistics, such as me, has a lot of hurdles to deal with, especially since you will only be aware of key films missing if you already knew that they should have been included.

To add to the confusion there are different ways of reporting these figures, which means that you cannot collect a figure here and a figure there without verifying what the figure represents. Is it domestic rentals? Is it international grosses? Is it for the year of release only, or are re-releases included? Sometimes this is not specified at all, in which case you might as well not use the figure, since you do not know what they mean.

In the past, different studios differed in the reliability of their numbers, or even whether they reported any at all. As I wrote about in an earlier post, MGM and Warner Bros. are for example more dependable than Paramount in this regard. But no list of the box office hits of any given year in the past, at least prior to the 1990s, can be taken at face value. They are almost certainly wrong, and alas that is also true for the top ten lists I have made and presented on the blog earlier in 2021. They are probably more accurate than many other lists you might find in books or online, such as those on Wikipedia, but that is not saying much. One of the most watched films of the 1940s was one called Mom and Dad (1945), but as it was a sensational "sex hygiene" film about the horrors of sex and unwanted pregnancies, you will hardly ever see it mentioned about box office hits, or even mentioned at all in film history books. It was not included on my list for 1945 although it probably should have been.

Talking about film history books, it is dispiriting that in most such books I have read, or biographies of actors and directors, in which box office figures are mentioned, the writers have hardly ever done any due diligence. They use one source for their numbers, such as Box Office Mojo, and accept it uncritically. This is a problem in itself, but when you also try to base some theoretical musings on these numbers you are almost doomed to failure.

But despite their unreliability they can still provide an idea of what was popular, if nothing more. I will not pursue that research any longer because the work is not sufficiently rewarding, but I can still use the material I have already gathered for the occasional article.

When I have been gathering the figures I have been using many different sources (as one must) and here are they, at least the ones I remember having used:

Box Office Mojo, The Numbers, Ultimate Movie Rankings, Worldwide Box Office, Box Office Madness

An article from The Argus Weekend in 1944.

Lots of articles and lists in Variety, such as this one and another one from October 15, 1990, which is not linkable.

Articles in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television about the box office figures for Warner Bros., RKO, and MGM.

Books such as Success in the Cinema - Money-Making Movies by John Howard Reid, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records by Cobbett Steinberg, The Hollywood Story by Joel W. Finler, The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett, Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: a Hollywood History by Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, and several biographies of studios, producers, actors, and directors.

Annual publications such as International Motion Picture Almanac.

Use them with caution.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Hell is a City (1960)

The British production company Hammer Films is primarily famous for its series of horror films, beginning in the 1950s and through the 1960s; what might be said to be one of two prevailing trends in British cinema of the time. The second trend would be kitchen sink realism, the films about "angry young men" in a working-class environment. But one of the best British films of that time is a cross between the two, namely Hell is a City (1960). Although produced by Hammer, and filmed in the widescreen format Hammerscope, it is not a horror film but a realistic police film, in a working-class environment, and there is plenty of anger. It was written and directed by Val Guest, one of the real workhorses of English film. Guest wrote and directed around 50 films, and he also produced some. He considered Hell is a City as one of his “top four” and although I have not seen that many of his films, I can believe that.

Hell is a City is set in Manchester and the lead role is played by Stanley Baker, who had his heyday during those years, when he often played rough men who grew up far from the high and mighty. A small gang robs a cash-in-transit, but the police is quickly on the trail, led by Baker’s police inspector Harry Martineau. The film has its share of some usual clichés, such as Martineau being so focussed on his work that he neglects his wife, but it is much more than that. The milieu, rarely seen in films, is vividly captured by the cinematographer Arthur Grant. There is no pretty scenery here, instead it is Manchester's industrial environment with a heavy scent of spilled beer, dirty clothes, and bulging chimneys. The pacing is excellent, and the film has a relentless energy, exhausting at times, which becomes an extension of Martineau’s personality. He cannot stay still for very long because then his anxieties and dark thoughts risk consuming him.

Harry's problem with his wife is not only that he prioritises his job, but that there is another woman. Not some young, casual, beautiful flirt, but an older woman who works at the pub he usually visits. Their relationship gives the film an unexpectedly sad dimension, along with Harry's disillusioned outlook on life. After the case is solved, Harry does not go home to his wife, nor does he celebrate with his colleagues. Instead, he embarks on a lonely, nocturnal walk on the gloomy streets of Manchester. The film's last line is "You do not have to be on your own to be alone."

Crime and punishment, and the policeman's everyday life, is what you would expect from such a film, but the forceful storytelling and direction, vivid characterizations, together with the tensions and general malaise, are what give Hell is a City its edge. The ending is more like the ending of something by Antonioni than just another police thriller.

I have seen Hell is a City several times, and each time I am shocked by its brutality and impressed by its style and confidence. It is a superior film. But I also want to watch more of Guest’s films, for example Expresso Bongo (1959), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Jigsaw (1962), and I should re-watch The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). But that is for another day.