Sunday 20 February 2011

John Alton and Anthony Mann

Of all the many artistic partnerships in film history, the one between John Alton and Anthony Mann must rank among the very best. Anthony Mann is one of the greatest image-maker film history has ever seen, both in depth and in width, and John Alton is one of the greatest cinematographer of all times. Together they made a serious of noirs, and since this is still film noir-week, I'll just share a selection of scenes.

First from T-Men (1947):

Here's a scene from Raw Deal (1948):

They also did He Walked By Night (1948), Border Incident (1949) and Devil's Doorway (1950) together, bit I couldn't find any good clips from those films. Mann didn't get any screen credit for He Walked By Night but he directed most of it, and Alton's cinematography is at its finest, especially towards the sewer sequence in the end, which in all likelihood influenced Carol Reed and Robert Krasker when they made The Third Man (1949). Devil's Doorway is an example of Mann's move away from the city to the western frontier (he did three westerns in 1950), and Border Incident is probably Mann's finest film from the 1940s, but that is a blog post for a later day.

Saturday 19 February 2011

For the love of film (noir)

I was going to write about Max Weber, but then I remembered the blogathon on film noir, so Weber will just have to wait. Since film noir is an old favourite topic of mine, the temptation to write something is overpowering. But have you heard about the blogathon? It has even made it to the editorial pages of the gray lady. The initiative comes from the Film Noir Foundation with the aim of raising money to help locate and restore prints of film noir that are endangered. Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren are actively running the thing, so you can click yourself over there and learn more.

At Stockholm University I've once wrote a dissertation about film noir, covering some 50 films, and the choice was natural since I've been a fan since my mid-teens, and some of my favourite films can be classified as film noir, although some because they are film noir, and some regardless of being film noir.

Film noir is often called a genre but I would disagree with that because noir is too transgressive. You can have gangster noir, science fiction noir, western noir, detective noir and so on. If a film cannot be called a noir because it is set in space or in the wild west, than does this mean that a noir has to be set in the city? Clearly not since several noirs are set in the countryside. No, it can't be space-specific either.

And it's not a style, because if it was, plenty of films by Michael Curtiz would qualify, despite being far from noir, whereas The Big Sleep (1946) would not necessarily be called a noir, with its lack of shadows and spiderwebs. Neither has it got a flashback structure or a voice-over. It, and many other noirs, lack a lot of the stylistic and narrative devices that are often associated with noir, indeed seen as essential to it. In some ways The Big Sleep does look even less as a noir than other films directed by Howard Hawks.

It does however have a certain sensibility, which it doesn't share with other films by Hawks, a sense of dread and doom, of life hanging in the balance. And for me this is one key to film noir. This sensibility, a combination of the above and a certain detached cynicism about the ways of the world. It's an existentialism the comes out of the city and has then spread out, a sentiment saying that the end is near, nobody is innocent and nothing really matters, accept perhaps a man's honour. That is why Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang are such great makers of noir, because for them it comes naturally, those themes and sensibilities were there with them even before there was such a thing as film noir. And since it is this sensibility that makes film noir what it is, you can have film noirs set in space or at a ranch, or at a battle field. There should be some sense of a compatible visual style, compatible with the themes, but that is a given since most films try to have such compatibility any way. A question is whether film noir works in colour, and arguably it does, in such a late example as Chinatown (1974).

But although I've mentioned Siodmak and Lang, film noir isn't about authorship, it is about a time and a place in history, primarily the 1940s and early 1950s, with some distinct examples both before and after. Of course the scources are from earlier years, the hardboiled detective novels from the 1920s and 1930s, by the likes of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Horace McCoy, and British writers such as Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.

Because it's a question of sensibilities and general atmosphere, a film is either noir or it isn't, it can't be partly noir. If a few scenes have a noir-ish look, in the conventional sense of stark contrasts between light and dark, and elaborate plays with shadows, that's not enough, or if some scenes are sinister and fatalistic, that's not enough either. For it to be a proper noir, the above mentioned ingredients must be ever present, from beginning to end. When we watch a film noir we are entering a special mindset, with its own rules (not narrative rules, but behaviour rules), and there is no escaping them. Even those noirs that end happily, can only be happy in the fleeting moment.

Film noir is not an entirely American affair, there's a whole bunch of British noirs, and some sprinkled out in other countries as well. Bergman's High Tension aka This Can't Happen Here (Sånt händer inte här) is definitely on noir territory.

But definitions are tricky, and although I took a line of dialogue from The Maltese Falcon and put it on the front page of my dissertation, I'm not 100% sure it is a noir, although arguing that it isn't will only complicate things, since it was one of the first films singled out by the French in the post-war era as being an example of the new style of American filmmaking that they had detected. But on the other hand they did also include Lost Weekend (1945), another great film, but one I would say with much more confidence that it is not a proper noir, even though the cinematography by John F. Seitz is spectacularly expressionistic. But more quintessential examples are Double Indemnity (1944) and D.O.A. (1950). Out of the Past (1947) is another strong example. It has a companion piece in The Big Steal (1949), with the same duo, Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, in the lead, and the same scriptwriter, Daniel Mainwaring, but that is arguably not a noir, in that it is too playful and bright. That might be partly due to the different sensibilities of the directors, with Jacques Tourneur being a somber shadowmaker, whereas Don Siegel is more of an individualist and free-wheeling anarchist to really accept the sense of inevitability in proper noir. (Daniel Mainwaring on the other hand is a key noir-player, with several important screen writing credits, sometimes under the name Geoffrey Homes.)

In the end there will always be film noirs to argue over, as to whether they are or not, and it isn't important. What's important are the films, and there are plenty of them to go around. Perhaps the best definition of film noir comes towards the end of Chinatown. In the film, Chinatown is not so much a place as a state of mind, and when Jake Gittes (the main character, played by Jack Nicholson) is bewildered, angry and sad his partner says "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown". You could easily exchange "Chinatown" with the words "film noir".

Monday 14 February 2011

Frank Borzage

In order to appreciate the films of Frank Borzage (pronounced Bore-zay-ghee), you might have to take a leap of faith. A faith in the director's ability to raise the most risible material to the level of the sublime. But also to succumb to the filmmaker's own faith in the power of love to transcend and transgress everything, including poverty, war, tyranny and even death. And such are Frank Borzage's gifts, and passions, that he more often than not rewards this leap of faith with films of extraordinary beauty and magic.

Andrew Sarris once said that just by looking at the titles for Robert Aldrich's films one might get an idea of what was on his mind. Some of Borzage's films also have great titles, such as 7th Heaven (1927), History Is Made at Night (1937) and Moonrise (1948) which hints at Borzage's romanticism, among other things. (It also suggests that he's considerably less cynical and nihilistic than Aldrich, who sports titles like Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959).)

There's a strong Borzage cult among cinephiles around the world but I wonder how many ordinary film scholars and/or film enthusiasts there are that are familiar with his work. Even a fan such as myself have seen precious few of the many films he has directed. But it's not like he's an outcast or anything like that, in his days he was both popular and celebrated, and he was the first person to win an Academy Award for best direction, for 7th Heaven, and he won again for Bad Girl (1931). In 1961, the Director's Guild of America gave him an Lifetime Achievement Award. But now there's much silence.

He began as an actor, and it was said in 1915 that he had "better control of facial expression than any other screen artist before the public today". When he began directing, he transferred his own command of the face to the actors he directed, with his camera watching them intently, to see what they were feeling. Because that's what his cinema is all about, feelings, and he found ever new ways of expressing those feelings visually. He could be both bold and experimental, and when he's not lingering on a face (or on feet), he sometimes moves his camera in the most remarkable ways, tracking, panning and dollying, up and down, left and right, or round in circles. And it's the combination of the deadly serious passion with which he and his actors tackle the powerful emotions the characters feel, and the elaborate and expressionistic cinematography with which they are shot that makes his films, at their best, so strong and unforgettable. The share exuberance of the camera work makes even a somewhat silly comedy like His Butler's Sister (1943), with Franchot Tone and Deanna Durbin, just dazzling. But one flaw with His Butler's Sister is that there isn't much at stake in it, as far as the lovers are concerned. Borzage's best films are those when the cruel and hateful world is constantly threatening to destroy both the love and the lovers, whether it is poverty or war or sickness or fascism. Borzage is not turning away from the world, he knows that it isn't pretty, but all the more reason to have faith in love. It's a strange thing that the most romantic scene in History Is Made at Night is towards the end when the two lovers have come to terms with the fact that they are going to die and sit together in the dark, looking at each other and whispering about the life they never had together. The last ten minutes of that film are about as moving as a film will ever get.

One thing about Borzage's style is that the camera is seldom detached or neutral. It often takes on a symbolic presence. It can become one of the characters, or the ghost of someone who has died, or some kind of ethereal being. In 7th Heaven there's even a point-of-view shot from the perspective of God. But as Borzage's is a cinema of images transcending words and scripts, I find it more suitable to show a couple of clips, rather than write much more.

The first one is from 7th Heaven, made in 1927, when most filmmakers wanted to be F.W. Murnau (Murnau is without doubt one of the, say, five most important filmmakers of all time). In this scene, the man takes the woman to show her his apartment, which is on the top floor.

Arguably the last great film Borzage made was Moonrise, a delirious and almost surreal nightmare of a film. Here's its most celebrated scene, on the ferris wheel:

As a humanist and romanticism, Borzage was early on attacking fascism and nazism. It is often said that before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, only Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) had dared to deal with Germany and nazism. That is of course an ignorant statement, and besides the likes of Lubitsch and Hitchcock, Borzage was another filmmaker dealing with the situation in Europe at the time. They attacked it from various angles, each using his own brand of filmmaking, with Chaplin through slapstick, Lubitsch through his patented combination of suave wit and satire and with Hitchcock making a shocking thriller. Borzage of course focused on love and friendship, how fascism is the opposite of love. The most oblique example is the horrifying and utterly sad The Mortal Storm (1940). This clip show how the two lovers, played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, are caught in a forest of arms raised to salute the Führer (the film is set in Germany) including people who were their friends and loved ones. The sequence is also one of many examples of Borzage's use of low ceilings to create an oppressive atmosphere. Unfortunately I can't embed the clip here, but you can watch it by clicking here: (According to Kent Jones, rumours that Victor Saville, it's producer, directed most of it are not true.)

Film history is so extraordinary rich and surprising, and there's always more to watch and learn, and yet most people stay on the well-trodden pathways, seldom venturing far from the, often randomly, established centre of canonical films (which is perhaps a reason why so much of taught film history is just plain wrong) . But on a day such as this, Valentine's day, the cinema of Frank Borzage is perhaps the most appropriate to discover, or re-discover.

Monday 7 February 2011

The cult of the new

The above title could be for any number of topics, because the "new-ness" of something (a film, a movement, a genre) is more often than not either exaggerated by critics and historians or invented, because apparently if something isn't new it isn't all that interesting. While at the same time, some things that are new are not understood or appreciated. It's a strange phenomenon.

What I wanted to discuss today though is "New Hollywood" or "New American Cinema" (or whatever the pop-term for it is) since I've recently re-read Peter Biskind's silly book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. When it came out in 1997 I took a slight dislike to it, and didn't even read all of it since it seemed unnecessary to do so. For those that haven't read it it's a book about American cinema in the years 1967-1980, based on interviews with many of those that were involved at the time; actors, producers, directors and writers. The argument Biskind has is that a new generation of filmmakers saved Hollywood from impending doom, because they were young and could connect with the audience and the cultural context, whereas "old" Hollywood had lost it's touch. But, at the height of their success, the new filmmakers either succumbed to drugs and booze or suffered from hybris and made colossal failures that ruined them, and that a new era of blockbusters was ushered in, with mind-dumbing effects and reactionary politics aimed to sell as many tickets and as much popcorn as possible.

As a snapshot of a time and a place it has some validity, but the book is so oversimplified and un-historic that it is sometimes laughable. It's written in what might be called magazinese, a special kind of language for glossy magazines, and there is anecdote after anecdote about who slept with whom, who's girlfriend never wore underwear and who through up at who's party. It's actually not at all interesting, and more in line with a British tabloid than a book. But the main problem with the book can be summed up thus: when Biskind writes about Steven Spielberg and the making of Jaws (1975), he first says that Spielberg was more interested in trade journals than art, and that he had no wish to be an auteur, a Fellini or a Godard, but a couple of pages later Biskind writes that Spielberg wanted to be an artist, an auteur like Antonioni. What's it gonna be? Did he or did he not want to be an auteur? Does Biskind know? Does he care? This is but one of many example of blatant contradictions and it sums up the main problem with the book because it gives the impression that Biskind doesn't know what he's doing, and writes whatever suits him at the particular moment of writing it, without contemplating of whether it makes sense or is even true.

But why get worked up about it now, almost 15 years later? Because people still talk about it and write about it and consider it a good book (some critics have called it the best film book ever written), and you will find it on reading lists and you will see it quoted here and there. This all begs the question if these people also believe that Perez Hilton has the best film blog today.

The thing is that as film history, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is pretty bad, bordering on useless. Besides making contradictory claims, it's too narrow and has no concept of what came before 1967. Something though that isn't really unique for Biskind's book, but true for many articles and books about American cinema. The reason to start with 1967 is that Bonnie and Clyde came out that year, and it is often seen as the beginning of "New Hollywood", influenced by European cinema and la nouvelle vague. But choosing 1967 or Bonnie and Clyde seems to me somewhat arbitrary. It's not like there had been just musicals and Doris Day/Rock Hudson-films up until then. A year like 1964 saw films such as Lilith, The Pawnbroker and Mickey One, films arguably as "new" and "European" as Bonnie and Clyde. The beginning of the 1960s also saw John Frankenheimer visualizing his paranoia in films such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), 7 Days in May (1964) and Seconds (1966). Mike Nichols had made Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, Don Siegel made a number of films, such as the frank and disturbing The Killers (1964), as had Sam Fuller, with Shock Corridor (1963) and Naked Kiss (1964), audacious and thrilling films, albeit outside mainstream Hollywood. A case can perhaps be made that Bonnie and Clyde was important in that it was such a huge success, but it wasn't the biggest hit in 1967, The Graduate had a larger audience, so maybe it should be seen as the definitive film of 1967. (1967 was also the year John Boorman made the very odd and unsettling Point Blank.) Additionally, it could be argued that Bonnie and Clyde was a belated off-spring of the wave of gangster bio-pics that became popular in the late 50s, beginning (I think) with Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson in 1957 (which I actually prefer to Bonnie and Clyde).

It is also said that "old" Hollywood had lost its way, and the films they made were not any good anymore. But Hitchcock made Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), all good as well as all modernist and experimental. Wilder made The Apartment (1960), Kiss Me Stupid (1964) and The Fortune Cookie (1966) and a few more, Ford made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Minnelli made one of his very best films, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963). Preminger made Advise and Consent (1962) and The Cardinal (1963), and, well, I needn't go on. The 60s was a very interesting time in American cinema, and there were enough great films made to question both the assumption that Hollywood needed to be saved, and that there was something new and especially exciting happening towards the end of the decade. There was an explosion in, not violence, but blood in the last years of the decade, as in the end of Bonnie and Clyde, but is that enough to get carried away? However, I would argue that (the bloodless) Five Easy Pieces (1970) has a fresh and new style, one that I like very much.

Something that has been attributed to Bonnie and Clyde is that it took the part of the outlaws, the criminals, and that this was new and fresh. I don't understand that at all, especially not since it had a long line of predecessors, such as You Only Live Once (1937), They Live By Night (1948) and that fantastic masterpiece Gun Grazy (1950).

I'm not saying that this wasn't a difficult times for the film studios, they were going through a lot of agony and anxiety, due to huge shifts in demographics, hobbies and ideologies, as well as a crumbling business arrangement. But still a massive amount of rich, strange, unsettling and magnificent films were being made in the 1960s, as well as in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Even if there was a corporate crisis, there wasn't a creative, artistic crisis before Bonnie and Clyde.

And the new guys that came along, towards the end of the 60s and early 70s, they were not exactly young. Many of the "new" directors were over 40 and some had been making films and/or TV since the 1950s.

Another flaw with Biskind's book and one of his main argument, is about the decline and fall of this era and the men who participated in it. Films like Sorcerer (1977) by William Friedkin, Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Coppola and Heaven's Gate (1980) by Michael Cimino are used as examples of how things got out of hand and horribly wrong. But these are all great films, and Sorcerer and Apocalypse Now are arguably the best film their respective director made. It's true that they went way over budget and that Heaven's Gate more or less ruined United Artists, and at least Cimino's career as a major filmmaker came to an abrupt end (even though Year of the Dragon (1985) has its defenders) but many others continued to flourish, Spielberg and Scorsese for example, and in the 80s a new generation appeared, so the drama is perhaps overstated.

All I want is a more a more nuanced and complex approach or view of film history, and how it works, because who benefits from this constant simplification and sillification of film history, indeed any history?

But enough already. Now I'll leave you with the trailer for Sorcerer: