Friday 30 September 2011

Virginia Mayo

One of the advantages of having your own blog is that you are free to write exactly what you want. At the moment I'm thinking about national cinema and its more recent cousin, transnational cinema (no, I don't understand what it means either) and my own contribution, a-national cinema. But that is all work-related, even though I will soon post something about that. But today I will be posting film clips with Virginia Mayo. She is one of my favourites, and I wish I had seen more of her films, but I have only so much time at hand. She was especially good when she was a bit rough, because she had a kind of raw sexuality and a fierce temper, and when the two are combined there's a lot of energy let loose. I think I especially like her when she was working with Raoul Walsh, as in Colorado Territory (1949) and White Heat (1949).

Let's begin with a clip from White Heat. James Cagney and Edmond O'Brien are the two men, and it is the last 20 seconds that is the highlight of the sequence.

Here's the trailer for Colorado Territory. Raoul Walsh is here remaking his earlier High Sierra (1941). That one had Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino and is set in the present day, a cross between film noir, gangster film and melodrama. Colorado Territory has all of that too, and a western setting. Joel McCrea and Mayo are playing the parts instead of Bogart and Lupino. It is actually interesting that she works so well with McCrea because they're each others opposites. He's calm and laidback, more comforting than sexy, but maybe that's why they're such a good pair.

She often did musicals even though she didn't sing. Her voice was always dubbed, which makes me reluctant to include a singing sequence, but this number is so good I have to show it. It is from A Song is Born (1948), which besides Mayo and Danny Kaye has a large number of great jazz musicians. Jeri Sullavan is the voice to Mayo's lips.

(It might be one of Hawks's lesser films, but then his benchmark is rather high.)

I'll end with something different, a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Mayo plays the wife of a returning soldier, played by Dana Andrews. The war has led to the two of them no longer understanding each other, and the love has died, if it ever existed. We are beginning to see that in this clip (you'll have to click on the link yourselves). This is a film of frequent brilliance, and this sequence is not necessarily the most brilliant, but it'll do for now.

You've probably noticed that the clips I've shown are from a very short timespan. She was active from the early 40s and she did her last film as late as 1997 (The Man Next Door it was called and I haven't seen it and nor have I any particular wish to do so...) but already from the late 1950s she did mostly small parts in TV-series, including Santa Barbara and Remington Steele. Yes, those were the days when TV was often a retirement home for old actors/actresses.

Friday 23 September 2011

Books, films and adaptations

I think that despite a century of practice we still get confused with discussing books and films, and comparing them, and in this post I've pointed out of some of that confusion.

The first question might be what an adaptation is. You could perhaps say that all films are adaptations of the scripts they are based on, but let's for now concern ourselves only with films that are adaptations of books or other self-sufficient written sources (like comics, short stories and plays). One thing to remark upon is that adaptations are almost always only discussed as such when it is adaptations of either classic masterpieces, primarily novels of the 19th century, be it Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy, or modern bestsellers. When did you last read an analysis of Rear Window (1954) as an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's It Had to be Murder or Rashomon (1950) discussed as an adaptation of two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa?

Another thing is that when discussing a film that is an adaptation you need to differentiate between the film in itself and the film as an adaptation. It might be a great film but a bad adaptation, in the sense that perhaps most of the book has been removed and the sentiments and/or morals have been altered. Or it might be a good, faithful adaptation but a terrible film, because the acting is all wrong, the direction hysteric and the cinematography unintentionally ugly. Since the film is the film, and not the book, it seems to me that it is the quality of the film, not the quality of the adaptation, that should matter, unless for scholarly purposes.

How faithful an adaptation should be is an open question, it all depends. Being too faithful might ruin the film, even though it might work for a TV-series where there is more time available. It is a common mistake among filmmakers that they try to get as much from the novel as possible into the film. Maybe it would help if we stopped using the word "adaptation" and instead used the word "interpretation".

Even though adaptations are so very common, and popular, one of the oldest comments in film criticism, scholarly and popular, is "the book was better", sometimes generalised into "the book is always better than the film". Even more generalised is the argument "books are better than films". Two common reasons given for this is that a) books allow more freedom for the reader to interpret and/or imagine what is happening on the pages than a film does and b) books have more depth and complexity. To me these arguments are often flawed.  Films can be as complex and deep as books, although what constitutes complexity and depth are debatable points and in any event neither complexity nor depth are essential for great art works. Obviously it is one thing to like a particular book better than the film made from it, there is nothing strange or flawed about that, but to take it further than that I think is unsatisfactory.

The argument that the book is always better than the film is flawed partly because it only takes into consideration adaptations of great books. But hundreds and hundreds of films are based on bad books, which do not stop those films from being good. And why could not a terrible book be transformed into a great film? Because the art form is by necessity deformed in same way?

Another flaw in the argument is that it compares two things that are not necessarily comparable. Apocalypse Now (1979) is based on Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, but which one is best, the book or the film? Yes, you could on an individual level prefer one over the other, but that is not enough to make it into some general principle. Besides, it is two different art forms and should be judged on different grounds. This is why it is a mistake to say that books are better than films. It is a bit like saying that apples are better than oranges. Why? Because you think so? That is not a valid point. How do you compare a long take in deep focus in the film with the description on the page in the book? How is one better than the other? Is Shakespeare's King Lear automatically better than Kurosawa's version of it, Ran (1985)?

When you see a film it is true that you often see everything (but not always, violence might sometimes be suggested or hidden, as are often monsters in horror films) whereas in a book you must make the images yourself. But on the other hand in a book the only thing you get is exactly what the writer has put there. There is nothing else. When you watch a film there are always a lot of things which are just there, even if nobody put them there especially for you. A street scene in a film will be filled with people, buildings, the clouds on the sky, birds flying and so on, and you can choose to look at that instead of the main characters arguing in the centre of the image. When you read the book you do not have the luxury to choose which words to read, you must read them all. Well, you could of course choose to ignore some pages, or the whole second half of the book if you find it boring, but that is not the same. I am not saying one is better than the other; my point is only that you do not necessarily have more freedom when reading a book than when watching a film.

Maybe the bottom line is that we should not forget that they are two different art forms which cannot easily be compared. And that, here and everywhere, we should not use our own personal preferences as if they were general truths about art.

I was partly inspired for this post by my friend Paisley Livingston's recent research on the subject of adaptations. See an example here:

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Some recommended readings (1)

The autumn semester has begun (or will soon begin, depending on where you are in the world) so this might be a good opportunity to suggest some film books that are well worth reading, and even to own, for students as well as anybody else. The five books I've chosen today are in different ways introductory overviews of cinema, history as well as theory, but they're more than that. They are inquisitive, informative and intelligent, in short, indispensable.

The World in a Frame by Leo Braudy
Poetics of Cinema by David Bordwell
The Story of Film by Mark Cousins
Film as Film by V.F. Perkins
Cinemas of the Mind by Nicolas Tredell

Then I'd like to recommend a book which isn't about cinema but is in keeping with the previous post on westerns and the West. A poignant, funny and sincere book: Sacagawea's Nickname - Essays on the American West by Larry McMurtry

Here's are also links to three good essays about various aspects of cinema. 

Stephen Prince's early attempt to formulate a theory about digital cinema:

Luc Moullet's critic of Gilles Deleuze's Cinema Book 1 and 2:

David Kalat about Ernst Lubitsch's Cluny Brown (1946):

Happy readings!

Monday 12 September 2011

The western and the West

You seldom hear somebody say about a film that it is "really" a musical (unless that person is insightfully talking about Powell & Pressburger's The Elusive Pimpernel (1950, aka The Fighting Pimpernel)), or that something is "really" an action film. But it is often said that a particular film is "really" a western. What they mean when they say that is that a film which is not set in the American Old West still exhibits thematic genre traits found in the western films. And a popular definition of westerns is the one found on the American Film Institute's website, that it is "a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier".

But this won't do. Many American films considered westerns are not set in the West (commonly defined as west of the Mississippi). There are for example the "Pennsylvania westerns", which are set in, well, Pennsylvania. There are westerns that take place in Indiana, like Rage at Dawn (1955) and in Canada even, like Saskatchewan (1954).

So maybe it isn't a question about the West per se, but a time and a landscape that is like the West. (Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that "The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area." in the 1896 essay The Problem of the West.) What connects these films are storylines and the time in which they are set (usually the mid 19th century to the beginning of the 20th). But that wouldn't explain why a lot of films set in the present day or in space are said to be really westerns. That means that we must disregard the temporal setting as well, it is only the storyline that matters. The first implication if the term "western" is just shorthand for a set of specific storylines is that films that does actually take place in the Old West aren't necessarily westerns. It would be ontologically bewildering if all films set in the American Old West, even comedies, melodramas and thrillers, were considered westerns only because of the shared setting, if films not set in the Old West are also westerns, only because they share certain themes. But if somebody said that The Stars in My Crown (1950) or Rawhide (1950) or The Shepherd of the Hills (1940) aren't westerns I would go along with that. Or that Fort Apache (1948) is a war movie, not a western. And instead of saying about a film set in the present that it is "really" a western, we could just as well say that a film set in the Old American West with the same story is actually not a western. To be more specific, instead of saying that, say, Attack on Precinct 13 (1976) is really a western we could say that Rio Bravo (1959) is really not a western.

But this is still unsatisfying. Let's say that we have established that what constitutes a western isn't the time and place where the story takes place, but the actually story that is told. What would those stories be? Usually there would be stories about settlers, trekkers, Native Americans, lone gunmen, the cavalry, the frontier and such well-known western motifs. But why should we regard them as typically "westerns"? What is for example the difference, besides ethnicity, between a story about some British troops battling Indians on the North-West Frontier and a story about an American cavalry outfit battling the Sioux or the Cheyenne? Should we call the British India story a western? There doesn't seem to be much logic in that, and if anything it might suggest that we have some kind of America-centric bias in our view of both culture and history.  If when we look at Australian history, with its expansionist policies, bushrangers, gold-diggers and wars with the Aboriginals, the stories told are not so different from the American ones, but it would be in a way condescending to call the Australian stories "westerns". Because they're Australian stories (and could perhaps be called "outbacks"). New Zeeland, Argentina and Brazil are other countries with a history in many ways similar to the one about the US. As an example the American cowboy has an Argentine equivalent in the gaucho. And even if Japan isn't a former colony, are there not strong similarities between a lone rõnin in Japan and a lone gunslinger in the US, even though a rõnin is usually somebody who has lost his master, whereas the lone gunman was usually always alone?

Maybe it is the case that by calling stories that aren't set in America "westerns" we are ahistorical and also insensitive to national stories and legends and by making the claim that those stories the pass as western stories are specifically American we make the US out to be more unique than it really is, unless we specify that western stories are western stories exactly because they take place in the American Old West. Just because that West has such a strong hold on the imagination of not only Americans but people in most countries we are easily blinded to other stories and traditions, some that are older than the American versions. (As a side-note, when I went to school in Sweden we learned a lot more about Native Americans than we did about the Sámi people, the indigenous people in the north of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia.)

Westerns are said to be about the frontier, which is also why films set in space lend themselves so easily to be called westerns, as space is seen as "the final frontier" (ipso facto, the Bond film Moonraker (1979) could be classified as a western, with its space colony and everything, but to what purpose?). But it should be noted that the frontier, in its proper historical form as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, plays a rather secondary role in western films, because most films take place far from it. I was about to say far east of it, but the frontier wasn't a straight line from north to south, it was all over the place. Already in 1820 there were settlers at the Pacific coast, in Oregon, and they were in a way surrounded by the frontier, not just west of it. Then in 1890 the Census Bureau stopped talking about the frontier, it didn't make any sense any more since so much of the continent was inhabited by non-natives. If however we consider the frontier as a metaphorical place, as being everywhere between the wilderness and civilisation, then yes, the frontier is an important part of westerns, but not only of westerns. Besides, a considerable number of established westerns, including several of the most well-known, take place in towns with no frontier issues involved, metaphorical or otherwise.

Equally important to note is that the western genre is very elastic, contrary to popular perceptions of it, and we cannot point at a western and say that it by default has a particular set of beliefs, codes or morals. For example a western can be pro-settlers or pro-herders, it might be indifferent to the mass killings of Native Americans or condemning the same killings, it might be for or against capital punishment. A western might be comic or tragic, it might be an epic or a chamber play. Sometimes they're celebrating a lonely individualistic lifestyle, but more frequently they are about the community, and the sacrifices needed to keep the community together. These are not changes that happen due to any natural evolution. Rather all of the above themes and ideas can be found in any decade, and in different films made the same year.

Then there's the thin line between many war films and many westerns, in some ways this exemplifies the deeper problems with genres (a problem I will be coming back to later). I did suggest above that Fort Apache was a war film rather than a western, despite its historic setting. But maybe we can call it a war film in a western setting, or a western with the themes and motifs of a war film.

So where does this leave us? What exactly is a western, at least academically speaking? It seems to me we can define westerns according to three different parameters:
a) all films and only those films that are set in the American Old West (broadly defined)
b) all films that share certain kinds of themes and motifs, regardless of the setting
c) films that share both a specific setting and a set of specific themes and motifs
I'm personally arguing for "c" in this post. With regard to the setting, I would suggest first that we limit ourselves to films that are actually set in North America, but not necessarily in the West, and I would also suggest that we limit ourselves to films that take place some time after Lewis and Clark's expedition (i.e. after 1806) but before the First World War. About themes and motifs I would suggest that we limit ourselves to stories that have some kind of expansionist elements, or involves new settlers, or conflicts that spring from the actual move west. That is, stories that take place precisely because they are set in that time and place. If a story could as well have been set in the present day, or further in the past, or in the future, then maybe it shouldn't be called a western story. This is why I said that The Shepherd of the HillsThe Stars in My Crown and Rawhide are not necessarily westerns, despite their settings, but rather that The Shepherd... is a rural melodrama, The Stars... is a small-town drama (similar to How Green Was My Valley 1941) and Rawhide is a thriller (it is actually a remake of a gangster film). The nationality of the film is not relevant however, it can be made in Russia, Spain or France or wherever, and westerns, according to my definition, have been made in many countries from an early age. Incidentally, that I don't think these films mentioned above are westerns is a neutral statement. Whether they should be called westerns or not is immaterial when evaluating them.

When standing in the video store or when checking out Lovefilm's website, the finer points about westerns needn't trouble us, but when they are discussed by scholars and critics precision and clarity is needed. You needn't agree with my definitions, but anybody discussing westerns in an academic situation should decide upon a definition beforehand, otherwise the term "western" risks becoming meaningless.

2011-09-13 Just to clarify, what I'm looking for is not a final definition of the western, because such a thing is not possible. Definitions are subjective, and changing all the time. That is part of the nature of genres, such as they are.
I have used the words "story" and "stories" instead of "film" and "films" because these stories began before the birth of cinema, in novels, short stories, articles, paintings and music.

A related blog post to this is my earlier Max Weber goes to the movies.

For those wanting to read some classic studies of the western and judge for yourself whether they succeed or not in defining it, some famous examples are:
Sixguns and Society by Will Wright
Horizons West by Jim Kitses (which is more an auteur study of a couple of filmmakers who happened to make westerns)
The Six-Gun Mystique by John Cawelti
Rick Altman has also written on the subject, as has Edward Buscombe, Robert Warshow, Andre Bazin, John Saunders, Philip French and many others. A good starting point for those wanting to read more is the anthology The Western Reader, edited by Kitses and Gregg Rickman.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Screenplays and screenwriters

I've written short stories, poems, a theatre play and I've been working on film scripts, not least together with Lisa James Larsson, so I know that scripts are important and meaningful. But I'm still sceptical about the primacy often given to the script. It is sometimes said, not least by writers, that it is impossible to make a good film without a good script, but I'd like to challenge that. For one thing how do you compare, say, the script and the casting? The quality of the acting has nothing to do with the script and theatre actors have been known to move the audience to tears just by reading from the phone book. (For what it is worth I have publicly read bus timetables as poetry.)

A more interesting question though is what constitutes a good script. Is it enough that it has a witty dialogue or does it have to have rich and complex characters and a multi-layered story to be considered a good script? And what is the script? On many films some of the great scenes, and great lines of dialogue, were improvised on the set. Should that be retroactively considered part of the script?

But even if we could agree upon a definition of a good script, are they still essential to make a good film? To take a specific example we can look at Hitchcock's version of The 39 Steps (1935). The script by Charles Bennett, which is based on the novel by John Buchan (from which it is rather different), can easily be regarded as nothing more than sketches of various set-pieces and there's not much plausibility, nuance or complexity. But I think it is a great film, and so do a lot of other people, as it is sometimes voted as among the best British films ever made. To me it is a great film because it is amusing and inventive and much of this comes from the actors, the editing and the visual style. How much of that is in the script? 

A modern example could be The Tree of Life (2011). It has admittedly confused and bored many, and they may find that what the film lacks is a good script. But those that do like it, perhaps even think it is great, isn't that primarily for the way Malick visually expresses ideas, age-old ideas, more than the actual words and the story (which would be the script)? I don't know.

This is not meant to belittle the work of the writers, it is merely to point out that a film is different from the script, and it is not possible to single out one thing as being generally the most important part. To quote Nicholas Ray: "But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?". Sometimes it is the script that is most important, sometimes it is not. And it should also be said that many great scripts have been damaged or destroyed by bad direction and/or bad acting. I think that Mike Leigh and Sam Mendes are two directors who almost always manhandles their scripts, even though in Leigh's case he writes the scripts as well. The King's Speech (2010) is another example when I feel inappropriate direction (by Tom Hooper) diminishes a script (by David Seidler), as I explained here

With those words as an introduction, I'd like to add a translated, and slightly amended, version of a blog post I wrote a few years ago in Swedish about scriptwriters (the Swedish original is here

Sometimes you hear disgruntled scriptwriters, and critics, blame French film critics in the 1950s for starting the trend of claiming the director as a film's true creator, leading to a disrespectful approach to writers and to directors getting uppity. But blaming the French for this is not really fair. To take one example: when Billy Wilder came to the US in the 1930s he quickly established himself as a sought-after scriptwriter, working  with Charles Brackett, but he became frustrated by how the directors changed and, to his eyes, made his script worse. He was perhaps particularly upset with Mitchell Leisen. So Wilder began directing his own scripts, to get more control over the process. (It could be argued though that his greatest strengths are as writer rather than director.)

Film is a collective artform, that is inevitable. But the director has, pretty much since the beginning of cinema, been given the most elevated position, by ad men and critics alike. Usually out of convenience, or because you are of the opinion that the director really is the true auteur of the film. But it is not only convenient but often also proper to highlight the director. Obviously so if the director is also the scriptwriter and/or the producer, as the above mentioned Wilder, alone or with Charles Brackett or I.A.L. Diamond. But sometimes a film can have five, six screenwriters while hardly ever has it got more than one director. Sergio Leone's films for example usually have a staggering number of screenwriters but that doesn't make them any less Leone's films, perhaps the opposite.

When I wrote about Ernest Lehman [I'll perhaps published a translated version of that article soon] I said that North by Northwest (1959) feels very Hitchcock-esque, you might even say that it is a copy of The 39 Steps, just 30 minutes longer without anything new added. Before he wrote it, and during the writing process, Lehman watched most of Hitchcock's best films to be able to capture the right Hitchcock mood, and before Lehman wrote it Hitchcock gave him specific ideas of what he wanted, such as the sequence with the crop dusting plane. As Dan Auiler put it once: "It is Hitchcock's sequence - but it is his sequence as realized by Lehman and Huebner [the storyboard illustrator]."

But having said all that, when talking about films it is only proper to consider the scriptwriters, if for no other reason than respect. When people criticise Hollywood they usual say that directors are being controlled and hampered and that the producers and studios call all the shots, but that has always been ahistorical, and the reality was always more nuanced and complex. Andrew Sarris for one has argued that it was actually the writers that suffered the most in the studio system, not the directors. Thelma and Louise (1991) is directed by Ridley Scott, but it is Callie Khouri's script, and she work long and hard on it, not only when writing but during the shooting of the film as well. It is therefore most unfair that Scott got all the praise and glory, whereas Khouri was forgotten almost instantly. That might partly be because of gender discrimination, Scott being a man and Khouri a woman, but even male scriptwriters are diminished or forgotten. Bend of the River (1952) is a typical Anthony Mann film, and Red River (1948) a typical Howard Hawks, and the respective filmmaker's themes and styles are easy to see, and keeps the film apart. But they have the same writer, Borden Chase, and the two films share many things such as structure, character development and even lines of dialogue. Some of Mann's other films were written by Philip Yordan and it is therefore worthwhile to compare those to Bend of the River and also to other films Yordan has written but that have not been directed by Mann, for a deeper understanding of the complex authorial situation, without there being any need to question those films as being the very essence of Mann's art. Or take Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, how important were they for the films of Akira Kurosawa? Or Kogo Noda's scripts for Yasujiro Ozu's films?

A more modern example is the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They've been writing together since the 1970s, and have both a theme and a style, without getting much attention. The feel of the films, and the quality of them, changes depending upon who directed them, but you can still feel the Ganz/Mandel touch. Some good examples are Splash (1984), Parenthood (1989) and Multiplicity (1996) and a few others.

Some screenwriters become famous. Garson Kanin in the 1950s for example and Charlie Kaufman is a modern example, as is Aaron Sorkin. But more of them deserve a place in the sun. (A quick test, Theodore Dreiser wrote the novel A Place in the Sun (1951) is based on, a film George Stevens directed, but who wrote the script?)

Mitchell Leisen directed three scripts from the writing team Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett: Midnight (1939), Arise My Love (1940) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). They're great, as are many others of Mitchell's films, written by less known writers.

Babaloo is surely the coolest name in show business. Unfortunately not his birth name but a name borrowed from Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint. Incidentally, the only film Ernest Lehman directed, in 1972, was based on that novel.