Monday 17 December 2012

Film as a window to the past

One of the many reasons why I like the films of Raoul Walsh so much is his journalistic style. It is not that he makes documentaries but that he is so conscious of space. The images are composed to emphasise the milieus in which his characters find themselves, and to make sure that all parts of the image is in equally sharp focus, or at least as sharp as technology permits. Even if he films a dialogue sequence set inside a wagon the audience can still see what is going on outside, glinted through openings in the canvas. This has two effects. First it makes the outside world matter and underlines the fact that the story we are told is just one of many possible stories and that there is an indifferent (because unaware) population going about their own business. The second effect is what is the concern of this article, namely that it gives the audience an idea of what things looked like, what life could have been like, either when the film was made (if it is set in the present), or further back (if it is set in the past). The combination of Walsh's preference for real locations and the open-ended and clear images in his films often make for mesmerising experiences, such as the hauling of wagons down a cliff in The Big Trail (1930) or the exquisitely detailed and vivid exteriors and interiors of Silver River (1948). In Objective, Burma! (1945) the jungle is so palpable you can almost smell it.

Films that are shot on location (or even in a studio if they have replicated a real place in detail) can serve as a visual memory of something long gone, such as the vegetable market on Covent Garden where most of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) is set. An aspect of cinema that gives films a new meaning after they have been made, unintentionally so. It is also, incidentally, where film has an advantage over novels. Reading about a vegetable market is not the same as actually seeing it, and listen to it. This way films can be said to be an essential part of our collective memory. Not only for the stories they tell but for the places they bring back, fully visualised.

Filmmakers are not only storytellers and image makers, they can also be witnesses, witnesses of the past. Some filmmakers have dedicated their careers to dealing with history, such as Andrzej Wajda and to some extent Roberto Rossellini. Theo Angelopoulos was mainly concern with the history of Greece. Others can, due to their style and subject matter, be said to be witnesses to the present (at least their own present), such as Yasujiro Ozu in his way or Sidney Lumet in another way. In the 1930s Warner Bros. studio made a number of films that were "ripped from the headlines", a few of which were directed by Walsh. (There are actually many similarities between these WB films and Italian neorealism.) Claire Denis is a filmmaker concerned with witnessing both the past (particularly the colonial past) and the present.

Wajda has said that he wanted to capture the truth about his native Poland, and from his very first film (A Generation, 1955) he has followed Poland, from Second World War, through the Communist dictatorship and until the present day (with a few excursion, such as to France after the French Revolution in Danton (1983)). Over time there has been a slight shift in emphasis, from a specific anti-Nazism to a more general anti-totalitarian stance and besides being a historian he is also a moral filmmaker. The one might very easily become the other, especially if the motivation for looking at history is to try to prevent the mistakes and horrors of the past from being repeated.

To use films when teaching history is for some an abomination, since the films are not real ("That isn't how it really happened!"). But there are numerous ways in which using fiction films for teaching and explaining history is not only valid but important, as long as one is aware of what one is doing. It will not do to just put on a film and then leave it at that, the film obviously needs to be discussed, contextualised and analysed. But it can give a completely new understanding of a subject. Showing The Battle of Algiers (1966) in a class on French 20th century history or on Algerian independence would only be natural, and perhaps together with The Day of the Jackal (1973). London during the Blitz? Use Hope and Glory (1987). The war in the Pacific? Try They Were Expendable (1945). The Allies push back of the Germans in World War II? The Big Red One (1980). Italian unification? The Leopard (1963). The American "war on drugs"? Traffic (2000). These were examples of war (and a "war") but there is no end to the historic events or periods that have appear in films, of varying quality. They can either show what something was like, or as an example of how a particular representation of something in the past is more or less a lie, a distortion. Even a complete fabrication can have a value, as long as it is properly discussed. And of course any film becomes a historic film as soon as it is finished. A film made last year set in its present is today showing us the past, so any film can be used for teaching history, in does not have to be a "historic" film.

But regardless of historic accuracy or lack thereof, when I watch films the images of the past matters almost as much to me as story, style and acting.

Sunday 9 December 2012

The Bechdel Test

It has been around since 1985, the so-called Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel who mentioned it when making a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. (Although Liz Wallace is the person who came up with it.) It is about the representation of women in cinema or other forms of narrative art, and consists of three criteria, or questions:

1) Are there at least two female characters in the film? (Sometimes they have to be named, sometimes not.)
2) Do they talk to each other?
3) Do they talk about something other than men?

If all three are answered Yes then the film has passed the test. The argument is that many (perhaps most) films do not pass the test.

It is a quick and relaxed way of analysing a film and it is mentioned every now and then, the other day in a long article in the New York Times. I am however somewhat puzzled by the attention it has received, on blogs, in mainstream media and in Academia. I am puzzled because the test has so many problems.

The first, less important, point is the vagueness of the third question. What does it mean to talk about a man? If two lesbian women discuss their adult son, does that qualify as talking about a man, or if two sisters talk about their dying father? If two female physicists discuss Albert Einstein, is that disqualifying?

A second point is that it is based on memory, which is unreliable, and consequently a lot of films are disqualified even though they have named female characters talking about something besides men. Unless you are actually writing down exactly who says what to whom, you will not remember it all. On the website 3550 films are listed (2012-12-09), and for each film it is specified how they score, from 0 to 3. To take one example, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) got a 0, despite having female characters (named) who speak to each other about other things then men, and hence should have a 3. According to the wikipedia-entry for the test, the TV-series Sex and the City  fails the test. How is that possible? During the six seasons the women talk about pretty much every thing known to woman. The only way SATC fails is if the rule stipulate that women are not allowed to talk about men at all, at no time, but that is not the case.

But the important point is that the test is completely devoid of context. The test on its own says almost nothing about the film. Let's say that we have on the one hand a film called Anal Sluts Tour America which begins with Chrystal and Tiffany discussing their breasts, and then they spend the rest of the film fulfilling the promise of the title. This film would pass the Bechdel Test without a glitch. Then let's say we had a film called Silent Suffering, about domestic violence. It is set in an apartment over a weekend, with a man tormenting his wife, until she manages to escape. In the last scene we see her going to a police station. This film would completely fail the test, and get a 0.

The importance of the three points depends upon the individual film. If it is a romcom and the male characters only talk about females, then it would not matter if the females only spoke about men. On the other hand, f it was a political drama where the men spoke about law, affirmative action and filibusters, but the females only spoke about their boyfriends' annoying habits, then it would be an issue and a problem. Another problem is that since the rules are so vague, a lot of films pass even without real merit. As an example, a female characters might buy a latte at a Starbucks from a female barista and they talk about coffee, and so get a 3, regardless of what happens in the rest of the film.

But there is something else that is a bit puzzling. It is almost always said that so shockingly few films pass the test (as A.O. Scott says in the above linked-to article). But is that the case? Surprisingly enough, on the bechdeltest-website most films actually pass the test. 54% of the films listed pass the test completely, and another 11% get 2 out of 3. But, as the case of Stagecoach shows, these figures are not trustworthy and it is more likely that films are "better" than it seems. (The number of films that pass the test is even higher, about 70%, if only films made the last two decades are counted.)

And finally, what is the goal? Let's say that the figures are correct, that 70% of all films get a 3. Is that good or bad? How many should get a 3 for us to be able to relax. After all it cannot be the rule that all films should get a 3. Even films that get a 0 are perfectly legitimate. If I wanted to make a film about two gay men who going sailing together I would get a 0, but that would be perfectly fine. Or films about monks, or soldiers in World War 2, or cellmates.

Some have argued that it is because it is so crude and simplistic that it is valuable, since it shows how despite the crudeness so few films actually pass. But I cannot agree with that. Partly because, as I said, it would depend on the film whether the score was meaningful or not, and partly because so many films actually do pass.

Misogynistic films are a real problem, and the lack of female filmmakers and good roles for females is shameful (particularly for older women). But the Bechdel Test will not help solve those problems, neither will it help finding those films that are problematic. It is not how a film is rated according to some test, it is how it deals with characters and events that is meaningful. No random numbers can tell you that. In the end, the problem with the Bechdel Test might perhaps be that so many films actually pass it.

2013-12-10 (Slightly amended to include more recent percentages of films that pass.)

Monday 19 November 2012

A few words on clichés

There is a scene in the Argentinian film The Puzzle (2009) where a couple is seen in bed at night, husband and wife lying side by side, apparently sleeping. I thought to myself "She will open her eyes ... now." And she did. It is such a well-established convention that I might have been tempted to make a bet, had I watched it with someone.

In the beginning of the first Bond film with Daniel Craig, Casino Royale (2006), Bond has had a fight with a man in a public toilet, and apparently killed him. But as he catches his breath after the fight the "dead" guy suddenly wakes up and reaches for his gun. This is a well-established cliché, although it may or may not be used so I would not have made a bet, unless I was a gambler.

Complaints about clichés in films is almost as old as the medium itself. Yet even though most would in all likelihood say that clichés were a bad thing more or less all films are filled with them, and it could not be any other way. Our lives and our speech are based on clichés, and consequently so is art. The trick is to learn to separate the invisible and necessary clichés from the bad and annoying ones. Or, as has been suggested, separate the clichés from the conventions, where clichés are just bad conventions. But I am not sure that all clichés are bad.

If I say "You broke my arm!" to someone, that is not a clichéd thing to say. If however I say "You broke my heart." that is a cliché. This is partly because "You broke my arm!" is literally true, the person did in fact break my arm. But the person who betrayed my love did not literally break my heart, my heart is pumping away oblivious of any emotional agony I might have. It is a metaphor, one that is used over and over again, and thus a cliché. However, few would get upset and say "Oh please, must you be so clichéd?" to the person who used that metaphor. It is acceptable. Similarly, to say "I fell in love with you." is not clichéd, to say "You stole my heart." is, but again perfectly acceptable.

I recently went to a photography exhibition and according to the curators the exhibition challenged and changed our conceptions of what a photo exhibition is. Obviously the exhibition did nothing of the sort. Also, I am not sure that those who went to see it had strong prejudices as to what a photo exhibition is anyway, besides it being an exhibition containing photographs. What the curators had done was writing down an art gallery cliché, and of the kind which is used regardless of its relation to the actual exhibition. (I suppose the only kind of photography exhibition that would be really challenging would be one without any photographs at all.)

But in order for a person to notice this that person must have been to many exhibitions and frequently come across that expression (such as I have). Repeated exposure is an essential aspect of clichés. That is why we are much more likely to condemn Hollywood films for being clichéd than films from most other countries, whereas a indigenous audience, or an expert on a particular national cinema, might find it just as clichéd as Hollywood cinema. Only different clichés. (Personally I feel that modern Danish cinema and so-called American independent cinema are about as clichéd as cinema gets.) You are in a much better position to judge the number of clichés in Swedish or Hungarian or Thai cinema if you are really familiar with their cinema and culture. What somebody might feel is a fresh approach is to another a boring cliché.

Often-times clichés are used because it is convenient. If instead of saying "She broke my heart!" I said "She strangled my ankles!" nobody would understand, even though both statements are equally nonsensical on a basic level. Many clichés pass by without being judged, or even noticed. But some stand out, and often annoy. I think one thing that is needed for a cliché to become annoying is if it is meaningless exactly because it is a cliché. That is the case with the killer who appears dead but is not really, as in Casino Royale. Something unexpected becomes expected after it has become a cliché. And they are so easy to avoid. It is the same as when some unexpected family secret is suddenly revealed by some drunk member at a wedding (which seems to happen in most, if not all, Danish films for example). What would be unexpected is if the wedding was an event of pure joy with not a single misstep or embarrassment.

Clichés come in all shapes and forms. A style of acting can be clichéd, a type of lighting can be clichéd, a twist in the plot, a setting, a title, an ending. In all kinds of films these different kinds of clichés are being used, even in much of avant garde cinema. And that is as it must be. A common mistake is to deliberately be anti-cliché, something which is often even more annoying than the original cliché because it is obviously made to be anti-clichéd, which is a bit of a cliché in itself. But, if it is good, and works, it can only be used once, or else it just turns into a new cliché. In North By Northwest (1959) Hitchcock wanted Thornhill (Cary Grant) to be attacked in the most unlikely and unclichéd of places so he sent him out in the countryside in broad daylight, to an immense flat field on which corn is grown. There, completely alone, he was attacked by  assassins. But that scene can not be repeated, because it would immediately be considered a copy or at best an homage to Hitchcock. It is too much of an anti-cliché as to be unusable thereafter. But there will always be scenes where people are attacked in dark alleys in the city.

A collection of essays and criticism by Martin Amis is called The War Against Cliché, but I do not think it is possible to avoid clichés, at least not if we want to make ourselves understood. What we should do is avoid the clichés that only draw attention to themselves as clichés.

Monday 5 November 2012

Hill Street Blues

"When does it stop Francis?"
"I wish I knew that."

When I grew up my favourite television series was Hill Street Blues, about a police precinct in a non-specified town in the U.S. It was an MTM production which ran from 1981 to 1987 and I do not know what it was like in other countries but in Sweden it was a huge hit. The actors became rather famous, especially Michael Warren (I still remember how excited the media was when he visited Stockholm). Steven Bochco, who created it and wrote it together with Michael Kozoll, also became rather well-known, much like Michael Mann became known after Miami Vice. (Anthony Yerkovich, who was a major force behind Miami Vice, was also part of the creative team of Hill Street Blues for a few years, as was David Milch, now famous for Deadwood, among other series.)

As I have written before, Hill Street Blues was a key development in the history of television, and its impact of subsequent TV and cinema has been substantial. TV critics in general have remarkably short memories, but still occasionally Hill Street Blues is mentioned in passing. My own memory is rather long, but I decided to look at it today and see what I would think of it. It is hard to come by but I have been able to watch all of season 1 and a substantial part of season 2 (there are seven seasons), and it is just as good as I remembered it to be.

The Wire (2002-2008) is usually held up as being about as good as television gets, and there is no denying the power and quality of it. It is often said that it is like a snapshot of society, an anthropological study. This is exactly what Hill Street Blues feels like, and this is one of the things that make it so good, and so fascinating. It is as if the creators wanted to capture the conflicts in the underbelly of an unjust society, some kind of Marxist exposé of Reagan's America. It is not a pretty picture that is painted here, where the role of the police is not necessarily to combat crime but rather to control the lid on a pressure cooker, just making sure that too much steam is not let out at once. The police force is not pretty either, riddled with abuse, racism, sexism, corruption, alcoholism and violence. But it is not all bleak (it would not be as interesting if it was), there are also good men and women trying to do the best they can, even if it means negotiating a truce with a gang rather than locking them up for whatever crimes they have committed.

One remarkable thing about Hill Street Blues is that there are hardly any beginnings or endings. Things happen constantly, but nothing ever settles or comes to rest. Each episode is filled with a number of stories, some which lasts a whole season, some that lasts for a few minutes, but often they are somewhat opaque, and unpredictable. Things that seem unimportant suddenly escalate, things that were important suddenly fizzles out. A sequence might be funny but ends with an unexpected and tragic death, or a scene that begins dramatic ends with black humour. And you never know who might get shot. There is a real sense of urgency and desperation in the episodes, which is sometimes close to unbearable.

Hill Street Blues is filled with vignettes that can be quite powerful. In one episode a detective, Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano), helps a woman carrying her grocery shopping up a flight of stairs. When he is about to leave, she starts to cry. She is living alone with her mother (after the mother had a stroke), her husband left a year ago, and nobody has hold her since then. So she asks for a hug. Such moving snapshots of broken lives contribute to create a broad canvas of a whole society. The quote that opens this post (said after a pointless shooting) is also an illustration of the tone of the series. Sometimes despair is the only possible feeling.

The style of shooting is connected with the content. It has a rough edge, with jittery and "ugly" camera work, keeping close to the characters but constantly moving, as if trying to capture everything at once. It often misses the action though, as some things seem to happen just before the camera gets there. It has that quality which is often called "documentary", with people and things blocking the camera, dialogue hard to hear, and what we do hear is often just fractions of what is said, as people pass the camera. Sometimes the camera follows characters A and B, and then suddenly starts to follow character C and D instead. Important information is often mentioned in passing, and might not even be taken up by the spectator if she is not paying attention. It is a fair assumption to make that the makers have been influenced by Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet (Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) for example).

Race places an important part of the series, and is a constant source of tension, between white, blacks and Latinos in particular, but East Asians too. The police force itself also consists of a number of different ethnicities. However, it is partly here that the show shows its age, particularly the somewhat shrill acting among some of the Latino gang members.

As I said above, Hill Street Blues does not tell a conventional story and neither do the individual episodes stand on their own. There is hardly ever any kind of closure, and there is a constant sense of confusion and lack of payoff. Yet stories are told. One example in season 1 is the decline and fall of one of the plain clothes policemen, J.D. LaRue (played by Kiel Martin). In the beginning of the first episode he is confident, good-looking and something of a ladies' man. At the end of the season he has become a drunk who gets humiliated and thrown out of bars. This fall from grace is handled very subtle, so that there are small changes from one episode to another, until his unshaven face becomes so pronounced as to be unmissable. Just by watching one episode you will not get it, it comes from watching the whole season. No particular reason is given for his decline; it is a combination of bad habits and stress. Then in the last episode of season 1 he attends an AA meeting, sent there by captain Furillo (the police chief). 

That AA meeting is also an example of what is so good with Hill Street Blues. Because at that meeting is also Furillo. This is good because it is a complete surprise yet makes perfect sense. There has not been any mentioning of the fact that Furillo was a former alcoholic, but there has been scenes sprinkled through the season that now takes on a new meaning (such as a lunch when Furillo had orange juice instead of beer). These scenes though have probably been forgotten by those that saw it on TV, one episode each week. By watching a whole season over a weekend on DVD or online, all these hints, suggestions and connections will be remembered and they add to the impact of the series. It is important to pay attention to all that is going on since you do not know when something happens whether it will be come back in a later episode.

Speaking of Furillo, he is one of the best things about the series, and Daniel J. Travanti's performance. He is soft-spoken, like Lt. Castillo (Edward James Olmos) in Miami Vice, but fearless and filled with integrity. Whereas the rest of the police force is somewhat unruly and frequently do the wrong thing, or even illegal things, Furillo can be seen as the voice of reason and moderation. But the integrity can be a two-edged sword. He is the true hero of the series but his integrity sometimes works against his better interests, or even against the interests of the community. Sometimes he can come across as naive, yet he is also sometimes seen filled with rage (a rage he does his outmost to control). And, of course, he is a recovering alcoholic.

Furillo is not alone, he is having a relationship with a public defender, Joyce Davenport (played by Veronica Hamel) and due to a potential conflict of interests they keep their relationship a secret. But their relationship is a highlight of the series, because it feels real. It has the right combination of tenderness and resentfulness, since it is hard to have a relationship when you are always on call, and when you cannot show your affection in public. Some of the best writing and acting in Hill Street Blues is to be found in their intimate scenes together.

Davenport is a powerful and successful female character, but also is the only major character who is a female, although I think one of the female cops (played by Betty Thomas) develops into a major character as well, at least that seems to be happening in season 2. There is also to ex-wife of Furillo, Fay (played by Barbara Bosson) but she is more of a comic relief, at least in the beginning. Eventually she becomes more forceful.

So Hill Street Blues is a major series of considerable importance and need to be included when the history and development of TV is discussed. I hope all seasons will be released on DVD or online in pristine versions soon. As it is now, the title sequence, with Mike Post's great theme, is perhaps more known than what happens after. But the gloomy weather, the melancholic music and the decidedly unglamorous milieus is a great introduction to the world as it is presented in Hill Street Blues.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Robert Bresson posters

When I was in Paris the other week I came across the poster for Robert Bresson's brilliant A Man Escaped (1956). That made me want to look around for posters of his other films, and here are some examples. They are all  French and quite wonderful!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Anthony Asquith

A critic once called Anthony Asquith the most underrated British filmmaker of all time (although considering how underrated British cinema in general is many filmmakers can plausibly claim that dubious honour). The one thing that Asquith's name brings to mind is of course theatre adaptations, from Oscar Wilde to Samuel Beckett, and in particularly plays by Terrence Rattigan and George Bernard Shaw. He did three adaptations on Shaw's plays, with the version of Pygmalion from 1938 the most famous. But it was with Rattigan he worked most closely. Together they made 10 films, and they are among Asquith's best, especially The Browning Version (1951) with its heartbreaking performance by Michael Redgrave. However, there is a lot more to Asquith than adaptations. When I began looking at his films one thing I felt was that they had a musical sensibility, that music was important to them, and it did not come as a surprise when I later read that he was passionate about music, and apparently had an encyclopedic knowledge about composers. He also played the piano and would perhaps have become a musician if a teacher had not told him he lacked the necessary skills to become great. So instead he discovered the cinema. He has said that during his time in Oxford, as a student, he went to the movies constantly, learning the technique and trying to come up with his own ways of telling stories. He also went to Hollywood to closely study how the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch worked (there is a similarity there between him and Hasse Ekman).

Asquith's career had its ups and downs. He began in the late 1920s very successfully with four silent films, including Underground (1928) and the expressionistic A Cottage at Dartmoor (1929), Then in the 1930s he was less successful, although some of the films are of interest, with Pygmalion being both a great success and a great film. This is a multi-authored film, with Asquith, Shaw, Leslie Howard and David Lean, who was editor, and others all contributing with their own ideas and talents to the finished film. This too is a remarkably expressionistic film, in editing, framing and lighting, and what is so impressive, besides Wendy Hiller’s performance, is that it does not fall apart but actually holds itself together as a sustained piece of bravura filmmaking. It is a testament to Asquith’s skills and boldness, as well as his patience and kindness,  that it all comes together in the end. A film made during the war, Cottage to Let (1941 aka Bombsight Stolen), is also something of a marvel. It is a film that is part comedy, part thriller, part romance, and yet it too works surprisingly well, including John Mills performance as a Nazi agent posing as a RAF pilot. It also has rather stylish visuals. This film, and others, shows Asquith’s love for the medium and his eagerness to try out new things, visually as well as narratively. However, for the next phase of his career, he changed style. Now his films becomes more restrained, even austere, and this phase holds most of his great films. One brilliant example is The Way to the Stars, (1945), one of the films he made with Rattigan. It is exquisitely shot, framed and edited, and tells the story of the life and frequent deaths of pilots, British and American, on an airbase somewhere in England. It is told in flashbacks, beginning with tracking shots across the now empty airfield, where only the ghosts and the memories of the pilots and the crew remains. Other films to mention from this phase are The Winslow Boy (1948), The Browning Version and Carrington V.C. (1954). Then in the late 1950s Asquith somewhat changed track again and the films become more glossy and “international”, where before they had been distinctly English, both in themes and in setting.

It is tempting to see Asquith as a British equivalent of George Cukor. Although Cukor shows more coherence, not least in terms of style, and is the better director, there are strong similarities. The focus on acting and adaptations is the most obvious link. But like Cukor Asquith, at least from the 1940s and onwards, does not try to “open up” the adaptations but instead use the source material as a strength, and with exquisite sensitivity in his handling of the movement of the actors and the camera on the set, or the lack of movement when called for, make the films cinematic without being flamboyant. (Our notions of what is cinematic and what is not are often still rather crude.) Take a film like The Importance of Being Earnest (1954). It begins with an audience settling down at a theatre to watch a stage performance of the very play the film is based on. Here Asquith has foregrounded the film's theatre roots, and the film is done as if it takes place on a stage. At the end it returns to the theatre in the beginning, with the curtain coming down. By deliberately staying so close to the theatre the film makes for an interesting case-study when discussing stage adaptations and notions of what and what is not cinematic. The use of editing and close-ups are techniques that the theatre has not got. Something else that differs between cinema and theatre is the use of framing. It is not that the theatre does not use framing devices, but the cinema can use framing in different ways, and this is something the skillful director can work wonders with, and in so doing distinguishing the filmed version of a play from a stage version of the same play. The Browning Version is an example of how a director’s precision in framing can add layers of meaning to the words and the performance, and make a film cinematic without having to include opaque camera movements or outdoor scenery.

Among the noticeable things in Asquith’s films are the uses of mirrors. Asquith puts them in his images to add frames to the larger frame, to give a sense of larger world, or for startling effects, visual or psychological. The ending of Cottage to Let even takes place in a hall of mirrors. The films are also full of wit and irony, which sometimes has a slight subversive effect. The effective and morale-boosting film We Dive at Dawn (1943), about the crew on the submarine Sea Tiger, has several hilarious scenes, but the most surprising thing is the last line of dialogue. Some officers are watching the submarine come and go in the bay, and an admiral says “It's like I'm running a bloody bus service.” This kind of wit effectively counterpoints the often heavy subjects Asquith deals with.

His passion for innovation, of taking every film as an opportunity to try out new ideas and approaches also means that they are almost all of them interesting in some ways. This is very much the case with The Woman in Question (1950 aka Five Angels on Murder). It is on the one hand a not very exciting detective story about the search for the murder of a woman called Astra, played by Jean Kent. But the way it is told is remarkable. The detective, played by Jon Linnane, interviews several people about the woman and what happened the night she was murdered. Each flashback is narrated by the witness that is being interviewed, and they all have a completely different take on Astra, and what kind of woman she was, and why she was killed. What she says, how she says it, what she wears, and how she behaves in the various flashbacks are all different and when the film is over we will have to guess ourselves which of the many versions of Astra’s personality was the closest to the truth. It is the same idea as Akira Kurosawa would explore later in Rashomon (1951), letting an event being told from each interested party’s own subjective view.

There is a lot more to discover about Asquith himself too, and his films. This has only been an introduction. He is ripe for retrospectives and critical discussions of his career. Suffice to say for now that he was much loved by his cast and crew, and that he left a body of work which is emotionally rich and filled with both great acting and creative boldness.
2013-07-11 I've changed two words that were incorrect. I'd also like to add that it is interesting to look at Asquith's films (at least some of them, such as The Browning Version) from a queer perspective. 

Friday 5 October 2012

Reading Bazin (#3)

It is time for the third post in my series Reading Bazin. Today's post is about Death Every Afternoon, a perhaps lesser known piece. It is not included in the translated What is Cinema books (although it was in the French original) but is to be found for example in the anthology Rites of Realism: Essays in Corporeal Cinema, translated by Mark A. Cohen. (The title of Bazin's text is of course a reference to Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.)

Death Every Afternoon is about a French documentary called The Bullfight (La course de taureaux 1951). The piece is not very long but it is of interest for two reasons. First because it is a celebration of the art of editing, relevant since Bazin is often thought of as being against editing, and second because it is a formulation of Bazin’s ideas about death’s relationship with cinema.

The review begins with an appreciation of Myriam Borsoutsky’s skills as an editor. Among the films on which she worked Bazin mentions another documentary, Paris 1900 (1947) and The Story of a Cheat (Sacha Guitry 1936). She also worked on a number of other films by Guitry. After emphasising the brilliance of the editing, Bazin declares that “[w]hen it is good, the art of the editor goes well beyond its usual function – it is an essential element in the film’s creation”, but he makes the distinction between the Russian form of montage and his own preference for découpage. Whereas montage is based on the idea of symbolism and, as Bazin puts it, “the collision of images”, in The Bullfight the aim of the editing is realism and to “fulfil both the physical verisimilitude of the découpage and its logical malleability.” Here it is not a case of contrasting images to create new effects out of the very collision but instead of having complementary editing, where one image grows naturally out of its predecessor and in turn grows naturally into its successor, and the technique is based on “precision and clarity”.

As is only to be expected from Bazin, what he praises here is the way realism is heightened by way of editing. Although he has primarily written about the long take and deep focus, seamless editing is also shown to be able to serve the same master, the much vaunted realism. It is worth pointing out that Bazin's heroes, such as Wyler, Renoir, Welles and Fellini, cut more frequently than you might think, or that Bazin seems to remember. While he is right to argue that editing is "an essential element in the film’s creation" I think he is wrong in suggesting that it is only when it is particularly good. Editing is always an essential part, good or bad.

Bazin then goes on to discuss death and its relation with cinema, even its profound centrality in the medium’s being. He suggests that death “is surely one of those rare events that justifies the term /…/ cinematic specificity.” This is partly because cinema is the “[a]rt of time”, and not only “aesthetic time” but “lived time”, and he refers to Henri Bergson’s concept of la durée. The point he wants to make is that on film, death, unlike in the real world, is not a unique, once-in-a-life-time event. As soon as a death is captured on film, in moving images, it can be repeated over and over again. For Bazin, death, and sex, is something unique and special, and something which can never be represented, only experienced. With cinema having the capacity to show death, and then also resurrect the dead, as well as show the same person dying again and again, our treatment of death, and perhaps relationship to it, has changed because “nowadays we can desecrate and show at will the only one of our possessions that is temporally inalienable: dead without a requiem, the eternal dead-again of the cinema!”

And of course, it is only natural that such a discussion should arise from a film about bullfighting, where not only bulls but matadors are killed, and death, perhaps the art of death, is what the game is about. Bazin ends the article with the following statement: “On the screen, the toreador dies every afternoon.”

Reading Bazin #1 is here.
Reading Bazin #2 is here.
Reading Bazin #4 is here.
Reading Bazin #5 is here.

A companion piece to Bazin's article is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Observations of the Long Take from 1967.

Henri Decaë, who would later be cinematographer on several of the most important films if the French New Wave was also cinematographer on The Bullfight, together with Jimmy Berliet.

The exact meaning of the word découpage has been elusive, and frequently misunderstood, but it can be said to mean the organic relationship of all shots, how they all contribute to the overall effect, which should be the "physical verisimilitude". Hence to equate découpage with editing, as has often been done, is missing the larger picture (literally). Découpage can exist already in the filmmaker's head prior to shooting, and can be written into the script.

Monday 24 September 2012

From Fanfaren to St Andrews

Last week I had my Viva/defence of my thesis and it made me somewhat nostalgic over my life in film. So this blog post is more personal than usual.

I grew up in a suburb in the south of Stockholm called Farsta, and it had a cinema called Fanfaren (the Fanfare) and that is were I began my life is a cineasté, as soon as I was young enough to go alone. Because that is what I did, even in my pre-teens. While my friends wanted to go to the cinema because they wanted to do something fun together, I went to the cinema on my own because I wanted to see the films. Among the first that I saw by myself were English film versions of Enid Blyton's books about The Famous Five and, of course, Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), which I adored and discussed in some depth with my father when I came home. Not the fact that there was a mischievous cool boy of my own age in the film, instead I wanted to talk about the visual aspects of the film, and how the movie made me feel, and made me feel like I was in Mexico. (I have written about this before, here.)

Then later the "moviebox" entered my life. We did not have a VCR but at video stores you could borrow a moviebox, a VCR without the ability to record, it could only play recorded tapes, the ones you would borrow in the store. And in the afternoons and on lunch breaks I would go home to a friend and watch James Bond films because his parents had a VCR. Eventually we got one too. Then I immediately became a fixture at the two local video stores. There was one big and one small, and I probably knew where everything was in the smaller one better than those actually who worked there. As I mentioned in my recent blog post about Tony Scott, Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) had a big impact on me, and I vividly remember the sense of intoxication with the images, the rhythmic editing and the expressive use of colours. I saw it many times.

Then there was a major shift in my life. Due to rights issues five of Hitchcock's films had been unavailable for many years, until they were suddenly released in the mid-1980s, in the cinemas, on VHS, and on TV. In the autumn of 1989 Swedish Television did a retrospective of these five films. Rope (1948) was first, but I missed that one. The second one, the week after, was Rear Window (1954) and I did not miss that one. I wonder where I would have been today had I missed it because watching it immediately changed my life. It did not take long for me to realise that this was the best thing I had ever seen. Nothing came even remotely close. I was swept away, hypnotised, and in awe. It was witty, thrilling, sexy, had a marvellous soundtrack and felt like it was otherworldly. After having seen it I could not let it go. I had to write down some thoughts, and I was thinking "Who is this Hitchcock? I need to know more about him." The next day I went to the local library and investigated their selection of film books. They were very few, but among the handful was François Truffaut's interview book with Hitch. I borrowed it on the spot and read it from cover to cover. (I read all the other books on film they had as well, but they did me no favours.)

The next week's Hitchcock was The Trouble With Harry (1955), which, like Rear Window, did not feel like an ordinary film, and I loved it too. Particularly Shirley MacLaine and the extraordinary autumn leaves lovingly captured by Robert Burks's camera. The next film was The Man Who Knew too Much (1956), which I liked almost as much as Rear Window, even though it felt like a more ordinary film. But then it became complicated because the last film in the five week retro was Vertigo (1958). I did not like it at all. I was just puzzled and unsettled. My mother came in while I was watching and asked whether I liked this one too. "No. I don't understand what is happening." I said without shame. (A few years later me and my brother was watching Marnie (1964) on VCR and again my mother came into the room. It was during the flashback at the end went Marnie is re-living her childhood trauma, a brutal and bloody scene, and my mother got upset. "What ARE you watching!? Is all this violence really suitable for you?" But we were allowed to watch the rest of the film.)

After these four films everything was settled. I began exploring the classics. There was not much available, but John Ford's The Searchers (1956) was, and a few films by Akira Kurosawa, and Richard Brooks's version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). The one I liked best of those was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to the extent that I asked if I could buy it from the store. Alas, that was not allowed. I also read all film books I could get my hands on. An invaluable resource was TV3, a Swedish TV channel based in the UK which during a period in the early 1990s showed a British film from the 1940s and 1950s every weekday afternoon. I watched as many as I could, and loved almost all of them (an experience almost equal in importance to the Hitchcock retrospective in 1989). I stayed up late one night to watch Samba Traoré (1992) by Idrissa Ouedraogo, because I had never seen a film from Africa, and was eager to do so. I started going to film festivals, and I decided that when it was time to go to university I would study film history. (I was delayed one year in my plans, for complicated reasons. Suffice to say that in my first year at university I studied Czech language and literature.) I had toyed with the idea of becoming an architect, but now a career in film took over. I began working at a cinema whilst studying at university, and I also began writing for journals and such. The first piece that got published was 15 years ago in the Swedish film journal Filmrutan. The article was about Alexander Mackendrick, and I have been writing for Filmrutan ever since. And over the last decade I have worked as a film journalist, in a DVD store, at the Bergman Archives, as Bergman co-ordinator at the Swedish Institute, as tutor, as editor, as essayist, and last year also as an actor (in a Swedish film which opens for general release in January 2013). And now I have written a thesis.

Looking back over the years it is remarkable how consistent I have been in my approach to film. I have always been more interested in aesthetics than story, the how rather than the what, and I have always been on the lookout for new things, new films, new filmmakers, new countries. I have also always been amazed by the discrepancy between the large number of fascinating films and filmmakers that exist, and the much smaller number of films and filmmakers that actually get proper attention. It was not a coincidence that my first published article was about Sandy Mackendrick rather than Hitch or Kurosawa or Bergman, or that my thesis is about Hasse. Even though I owe Hitch almost everything I have never felt that he was by default superior or more interesting than any other filmmaker.

And now, what happens next? I do not know, but I do know that there is a wealth of unknown films and filmmakers to seek out. As Calvin says to Hobbes, "It's a magical world ol' buddy, let's go exploring!"

Thursday 13 September 2012

On film history, and the art of studying it

I recently said that there is a difference between taught film history and actual film history. By this I meant that film history as it is presented in books, essays and lectures is more often than not a romantic effort to simplify something that is very complex and often beyond our reach. Film is not that old as an art form, but it is old enough to hold more films, movements, people and happenings than is possible for us to remember and evaluate. Most of it is forgotten, as all the unwarranted claims that has been made about Citizen Kane (1941) makes perfectly clear. Any film history book or film history course should be based on this humbleness, and acknowledge that what we think we know is not enough, and neither is it necessarily correct.

I think this is partly the reason why so much of taught film history is either wrong or at least highly questionable. Even though it is often very difficult to say what is right, it is often rather clear what is wrong, and where taught film history is problematic and when films, people, movements and eras are misunderstood, misconstrued or decontextualised. It can be the French New Wave, the Hollywood studio system, Rashomon (1951), neorealism, Citizen KaneJaws (1975), Westerns, audience demographics and so on and so forth. I want to mention some concrete examples today.

Beside the lack of awareness of the full spectrum of actual film history there are also the persistent efforts to make film history consist of clear demarcations. It is often argued that "Film noir was a genre that lasted between 1941 and 1958." or "The first film of the French New Wave was Le Beau Serge (1958)" or "The first film of the French New Wave was The 400 Blows (1959)." As if. Film history is not that neat. It is a process, with no definitive firsts and no definitive lasts. We can talk about something called the French New Wave without having to claim that one film was "the first". (Beside the two mentioned above there is also Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958).) Taught film history is often exclusive (trying to exclude what is not considered part of a movement or a genre, often for spurious reasons), when it would be more accurate to be inclusive (to show how everything is interconnected). Nothing is gained by reducing film noir to films made from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Touch Of Evil (1958). I would not call it a genre either.

So that is one weakness of taught film history, the problematic and unnecessary habit of tidying up things, and compartmentalising it. This is linked to the widespread idea of film history as a series of revolutions. First came "cinema of attractions", then came Griffith, then came sound, then came deep focus, then came neorealism and so on and so forth, and one leading to another, the one being an improvement upon what came before. This is film history as if based on Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but this is not how cinema, or the arts, work. It is much more fluid, and simultaneous. Deep focus was almost always there, and neorealism was not new, it has been a tradition of filmmaking since the early days of cinema. There is very little that is new, and it does not matter whether something is new or not. The cult of the new, which I blogged about last year, has always seemed to me to be very shallow, as if something is not worthwhile if it is not new.

Sometimes the whole premise is wrong, or something has been simplified to such an extent that it stops having any bearing on anything real. One example would be a common argument which goes like this: "Ingmar Bergman was an auteur because he was his own man, whereas Hollywood filmmakers did work in a studio system." Only Bergman did also work in a studio system, with a producer breathing down his neck. He did not become independent until the late 1960s. Of course, he had a lot of freedom within the studio, at least after Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) won the Grand Prix in Cannes, but that is not what makes him different from Hollywood directors, it is what makes him similar to Hollywood directors, including the bit about becoming independent.

To some extent these errors are due to poor research, or complete lack of research. Instead much writing is based on myths, preconceptions and prejudices. In another earlier blog post I suggested that a concept made famous by the German sociologist Max Weber, Gedankenbilder or Ideal Types, is useful in understanding our perception of film history. In that previous post I explained Gedankenbilder as "an abstract model of something, say a phenomenon that we are studying, but a model which doesn't necessarily exist in reality, it is only a reference point." In our case a model of a genre, a filmmaker, an era, a movement or whatever it might be. This model, this ideal image, is then taken to be true, even though there might not be a single film that is actually like this image. When somebody thinks of a film noir, the film in their head probably has a voice-over narration and shadowy, expressionistic lightning, and while it is true that many film noirs have these traits, many do not, whereas many films not considered film noir do have these traits. The problem is not that there are ideal types, but that it seems to be so very hard to forget that it is only that, an ideal type. (I will discuss the special case of neorealism in a later post.)

Another reason is most likely the combination of ideology and romanticism that is often involved. Many scholars seem to have a romantic vision of neorealism or the various New Waves of the 1960s and 1970s that cloud their judgements, and so they sometimes attribute things to them which are not there, or is there but is not as revolutionary as they claim. A certain elitist view of cinema also plays a part, with American cinema bad and European cinema good (or vice-versa), even though many, if not most, of the differences are more perceptual than real. Sometimes the prejudices are against "old" cinema in general (and here old can mean anything from before World War Two to anything before Quentin Tarantino).

Of course sometimes things are deliberately exaggerated to simplify for argument's sake. But too often the exaggerations and simplifications distorts reality to the point that the argument becomes baseless and often it is also the case that the scholar does not know any better, partly because there are too many films that should be watched and too little time, but perhaps also due to a lack of interest in watching films. I often get the feeling that many scholars prefer to read books by other scholars instead of watching the actual films themselves, so if one person makes a mistake or says things that are not correct, then that gets repeated over and over again. The same phenomenon as when critics only quote from press releases, without acknowledging that they are quoting from a press release, and if there was a mistake in that press release it is repeated in every newspaper and magazine. This can be down to laziness or lack of time but the outcome is still the same.

In John Ford's sad and magnificent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) the famous quote is "This is the West sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That sadly, but not magnificently, is also the unspoken truth about too much of the world of cinema studies, whether in lecture halls, books or journals.

For those who would like to read a book which is a perfect example of all the things I have mentioned here as flawed and problematic, then this one will suffice.

There is apparently no consensus as how to write film noir in plural. Films noirs, film noirs and films noir have all been suggested.

Friday 31 August 2012

Tony Scott

The style of Tony Scott is one of the most consistent and striking in cinema of the last decades. His eye, his vision, has been a constant source of pleasure for me at least since I saw Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987) in my early teens, when I was immediately struck but the vibrant colours, rhythmic editing and smoke-filled interiors. It is actually possible that Beverly Hills Cop 2 was the first time I became conscious of style (not just story and actors) and possible the first time that I wanted to re-watch a film because of the way it was shot. Scott was my guide into the realm of aesthetics. So since then I have kept up with his work, and seen almost all of his films. He has his weaknesses for sure, and a lot of the early films are of dubious quality. But he did improve.

True Romance (1993) is often highlighted as Tony Scott's best film (he himself has said that it is his favourite) and although I like it a lot I still have some problems with it and the main one is its authorial schizophrenia. I am not sure that is an expression but what I mean is that it sounds like a film by Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the script) but looks like a film by Tony Scott. The characters and what they are talking about (such as Sonny Chiba kung fu movies) are Tarantinoesque, but the smoky, colourful, cluttered visuals are all Scott.

For me it was with Enemy of the State (1998) that Scott really came into his own as a major filmmaker. It is a thrilling ride, with a wonderful sense of pacing and great acting, whilst being both clever and focused. It also made screens, reflections and surveillance the central aspect of the story and the frame, and it remained so for the rest of Scott's career. He became more than just an image maker, he became an image-in-image maker. Here style and theme combine to make great films that also capture the moment, our moment in an era where reality-TV, cop shows, CCTV, NSA and social media makes everyday life a public spectacle and privacy a thing of the past. Surveillance is what Enemy of the State is about, and Déjà Vu (2006) too, but it is there in other films as well. (The influence of Tony Scott on the Bourne films is something worth pondering.).

Scott also often used live TV reporting as a way of telling his stories, very cleverly interweaving multiple modes of storytelling, which adds urgency and excitement but also is connected to the ideas of surveillance and loss of privacy, and loss of privilege. In Scott's last film Unstoppable (2010) this use of TV as an integrated part of the narrative is particularly pronounced. There is even a point when a railroad executive frustrated wonders why it is that he is getting all the information from TV and not from his crew.

"Scott's cinema in its current iteration is always one of perception and points of view.  All collide, overlap, coalesce and part; one of the challenges both inside the movies (for their heroes) and out (for us) is making a coherent sense of all these points of view." wrote Daniel Kasman on Mubi, and this is very true.

Another thing about Scott is his love of the real. This can be seen in two ways. One is his penchant for doing films "based on true stories" and for doing extensive research. Of course his films are not documentaries, but it was important for him that he had done the reading and before he made a film he wanted to talk to the men and women who had been there and done that. He was proud that parts of Man on Fire (2004) was shot in the houses were actual drug lords had previously lived.

The other way in which the wish of keeping in real can be seen is more relevant for the films, and that is Scott's disregard for CGI and the digital. When the ferry is blown up in the beginning of Déjà Vu it is not a digital trick, it is a real ferry and real explosives, captured by a set of cameras around the river. This visceral quality of Scott's films make them feel extra urgent and thrilling (and dangerous), and there is a dimension there that (as I have written about before) gets lost in the digital world.

Scott was also committed to his characters, and he seems to have had a big emotional investment in all the films that he made, at least the later ones, and this comes across in them. They are works of passion. Just look at Man on Fire for example. The first hour, slow and very moving, carefully builds the characters and their relationships, and then when the explosion of revenge and violence comes in the second half it has been carefully integrated, and made believable. But it is the ending that is the most impressive part of the film. Scott fought for that, because he felt it was the only honest ending, and it is good. All the rage has gone, and instead it is the happy acceptance of sacrifice, to give yourself up for what (who) you love. Denzel Washington is magnificent in the film, as he is in his other films with Scott. They were a great team.

The film has not many fans it would seem, and it has been criticised a lot for its theme of revenge and its portrait of Mexico City as a hell-hole, but I think it is unfair. There is no glory in the film, both Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken's characters are marked by death, they live in shame and, at least in the case of Washington, self-hatred. When Washington goes on his rampage he is like a robot. He does not come back to life until the very end, at which point he stops killing and instead chose sacrifice. He comes back to life in order for him to die in peace.

Another thing about Scott's films is how immersed in film history they are. They draw thematic and visual inspiration from earlier films, just think of the self-evident connections between Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Enemy of the State. Both Preminger's Laura (1944) and Vertigo comes to mind in Déjà Vu and in Crimson Tide (1995) they have discussions about submarine films. In Man on Fire you can feel both Hawks and Sam Peckinpah in the background, and likewise in Unstoppable. And Scott seems indebted to paranoid films of the 1960s and early 1970s, besides The Conversation. A filmmaker like John Frankenheimer looms large.

But above all the films all look great. It can be an autumn landscape, an interior shot on a submarine, or something as simple as Denzel Washington sitting in front of a blue wall in Man on Fire. Iit is obvious that Scott put a lot of effort in every shot. And using reflections in particular, of people looking at themselves while looking at others, to great effect. Style and theme in perfect harmony.

A final word on Unstoppable. It is a disarmingly unpretentious and single-minded film but man, it makes you feel alive! It does not feel like a film by a 66 year old man who has made films for decades, it feels like a film made by somebody who has just been told what you can do with film and now wants to play with it, and use it to its full potential. The force and enthusiasm, the powerful sense of the trains, of them being real, has me jumping up and down in my seat, like seeing a film for the first time. With digital cinema taking over almost completely and now with Tony Scott no longer with us, it is as if  a part of cinema history has come to an end. It began with the Lumière brothers showing a film of a train arriving at a station, it ended with Tony Scott making a film about a runaway train.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

"The Greatest Films of All Time"

I am back from my summer break and the first post of the season will be about last week's major list event, the release of Sight & Sound's decennial list of the "Greatest Films of All Time". It has generated a lot of blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and face to face debates the world over, so it has been a very successful launch. It has also been attacked and ridiculed. The purpose of it has been questioned, it has been called racist, sexist and boring (the last complain was I believe from me in my initial show of displeasure on twitter and facebook). However.

Calling the list racist and sexist (and/or calling the contributors racist and sexist) is unfair. The list is the sum of  846 top-ten-lists from people all over the world, and it is quite possible that these lists were filled by works made in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and films by women. But even if every list was, say, gender neutral (having as many men as women filmmakers represented), the final list might still not reflect that due to the way the process works.

I made a top ten list (which I posted here three months ago) Of the ten films I listed only two would have counted had my list been part of the 846. By this I mean that La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir 1939) and Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini 1954) were the only ones on my list that were mentioned on other lists as well, so they would have been the only ones that ended up on the final list. My other eight films would never have been heard of again. So even if they had been made by female African filmmakers, that would not have mattered in the least for the final list.

It was inevitable that the list would end up looking pretty much the way it did. Why? Because in order to get many votes a film would have to be known by a large number of people. I think it is safe to assume that everybody who contributed had seen Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) and it is no surprise that they come out on top. The Senegalese film The Price of Forgiveness (Mansour Sora Wade 2001) is a great film but since hardly anyone has seen it, it does not matter how good it is, it still could not win. The same is true for the magnificent Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka 1937). It is mainly due to statistics that these 50 films ended up on the list. Let's call it an example of the weak law of large numbers.

At film festivals it is often the case that they have an audience award. Everybody gets to vote on the films they have seen and the film that gets the most votes wins. Democratic and fair. Only it is not in the least fair. Film A might have been shown three times in a relatively small venue, perhaps seen by 250 people, whereas Film B was shown four times in large venues, perhaps seen by 2500 people. So even if 100% of those 250 who saw Film A voted it "the best", and only 11% of the 2500 voted Film B "the best" it would still get more votes, and that is not fair at all. There is something similar going on with this list.

So it is of course wrong to say that these are the 50 best films of all time. It is not even necessarily the case that the 846 contributors think that Vertigo is the best film ever made. It would still have ended up as the overall winner as long as enough people considered it good enough to be among the top ten. (It would be different if the contributors were asked to name just one film each.) But you could say perhaps that these are the most liked well-known films of all time. They are the films that are shown on most film history courses, they are the films most written about, they are the films that end up on these lists. It is a closed set, a self-perpetuating process. This is why I think this list is somewhat meaningless. It has been said that this is a cinephilic list, but it really is not. It should have been much more diverse for it to have been a cinephile's list. It has also been said that this list is great to use for newcomers, in order to explore cinema history. But again, it really is not. There is not much history there, too much is lacking. The only valuable purpose of it is to see what the lowest common denominators are among scholars and critics today, and its function as a water cooler subject at film journals and department of cinema studies.

What would be interesting is a list of all the 2045 films mentioned on the 846 individual lists. That list has the potential to be much more varied, interesting and historic.


This is not to deny that many of the 50 films on the list are very good. Some I find fantastic, and are on my top 50 too, namely these eight:
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927)
La règle du jeu
Journey to Italy
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954)
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard 1960)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai 2000)

Saturday 7 July 2012

Summer break and San Francisco

It is summer and I will take some time off blogging. The remaining weeks of July will be quiet, and then I am back in August. Until then you should read Frames (the new online film journal I have been co-editing).

For no apparent reason I will leave you with some clips set in San Francisco. The first is the intro to a TV series I used to watch when I was young. I do not remember a single episode, but the title sequence I know by heart.

Here is the title sequence for Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968).

Obviously, Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958).

Here is that scene from Dirty Harry (Don Siegel 1971).

And here we have Roger Moore and Christopher Walken fighting on the Golden Gate bridge in A View To a Kill (John Glen 1985).

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston 1941), D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté 1950), The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk 1952) and Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards 1962) are some great films that would also fit in this post,  and then there is Zodiac (David Fincher 2007), but I will end with a film written by Woody Allen, which unexpectedly is set in San Francisco. Play It Again, Sam (Herbert Ross 1972).

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Launching Frames Cinema Journal

Today I am proud to announce that a brand new online journal has been born. Frames Cinema Journal, published by the Film Department at the University of St Andrews. The first issue is co-edited by Dr Catherine Grant (of Film Studies For Free) and myself, and the topic is digital film studies. It has an impressive line-up of distinguished contributors and experts in the field, and I could not be more happy with the result!

Sunday 1 July 2012

Ekman - Bergman - Thesis

In 1952 Hasse Ekman was in Paris doing post-production work for his film The Fire-Bird (Eldfågeln 1952). The film was a colour experiment, shot in Gevacolor, and the centre piece of the film is a ballet sequence, based on Stravinsky's original work. Ekman had to do the post-production abroad since no laboratory in Sweden was properly equipped to handle it. Whilst he was in Paris his wife Eva Henning left him, which was a huge blow, personally as well as creatively. She was not only his wife but also the leading actress in most of his best films. When he came back home he wrote a play on the failure of the marriage, but it ends with them reunited (much as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977) writes a fictional version of the failed relationship between Alvy and Annie Hall). But in 1954 he wrote and directed a film, Gabrielle, about a marriage that collapses when the husband is in Paris. This is not a happy film, it is filled with remorse, anger and sadness, and it does not end well. Eva Henning plays the wife, Birger Malmsten plays the husband, and Hasse Ekman himself plays a man whom the husband believes the wife is having an affair with.

This is a typical example of how Ekman worked. A large number of his films are based on elements of his own life, and he used his art to engage with, and deal with, his personal problems and anxieties. It is also noteworthy that the character he plays himself is his fictional self's enemy, this is a film ripe for Freudian analysis if you are in to that sort of thing. It is also a very good film. Some think it is Ekman's last great work.

His was a personal cinema, a cinema often portraying loneliness and longingness, and escape. It is also a cinema of crazy humour and anarchy. There were two sides to his artistry, the serious, introspective filmmaker, and the comedian. He was always working, but he also found the time to be out on the town. He was once voted best-dressed man of the year and could be seen driving around in a yellow sports car (yellow because nobody else had one in that colour). He was an avid art collector, with a focus on contemporary modernist art. Many of these paintings appear in the films, as do painters, actors, directors, writers, all kinds of artists.

For 25 years he made films, 1940 to 1965, and then he moved to Spain, to a life in voluntary exile. He was only 50 years old when he left, and had 40 more years before he died, in 2004.

There were many reasons for why he stopped making films and leaving the country but one was that making films was not fun for him any more. He had been working too much, he was worn out, and he was getting bad press. And then there was Bergman. Ingmar Bergman.

Bergman made his first film in 1945, five years after Ekman's first film. It was called Crisis (Kris), and although not an immediate success Bergman quickly made a name for himself. And he and Ekman were locked in competition. Ekman had been considered "the best", now there were two who aspired to that position. Some critics preferred Bergman, some Ekman, and if Ekman's film was voted best of the year, Bergman's would come second, or vice versa. They were competing technically and artistically, and Bergman once complained that Ekman got all the beautiful women (and this from Bergman of all people). In 1949 Ekman made what he called an "anti-Bergman film", The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden). The competition came to a full stop in 1956. Ekman throw in the towel, and sent a telegram. "Just so you know, I give up." he wrote. He did not stop making films, but there was a change. The last films were witty, well-acted and successful, and some are very good, and most of them are as personal as they ever were, but he did not take as much pleasure in it any more and he would focus on being funny, with the occasional return to the serious and introspective. Bergman on the other hand became a global phenomenon. And eventually, while Bergman was winning Academy Awards and Palme d'Or's, Ekman was playing boules in Fuengirola.

In 1965 Ekman was interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, under the headline "Have you failed artistically Hasse Ekman?". A somewhat hostile question, but I think the answer is "No.". He had an astonishing career, being extraordinary creative. Beside the films he was also a theatre director, but unlike Bergman he always felt like he was cheating when he directed for the stage instead of the screen. In addition he wrote music and books, and made Sweden's first sitcom, Niklasons in 1965. Then, when he felt he had nothing more to offer, he retired and lived a quiet, and happy, life, far from his previous life, when he would be writing scripts in a state of creative frenzy in cocktail bars, sometimes scribbling down ideas on napkins.

All of the above is what I discuss in my thesis. I also discuss Swedish society, how Ekman dealt with it, and his ambivalent view of many of its key aspects. Another thing I discuss is Swedish cinema in the 1940s in general, and I suggest that it might be called a New Wave, with Ekman at the centre of it, together with Bergman, Alf Sjöberg, and a few others. But I leave that out of this blog post. You will just have to read the entire thesis. This is just a snapshot, or a teaser if you like. I will end with a quote. When asked about the new waves in the 1960s, Ekman said "They're trying to do what we did in the 40s."

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Nora Ephron

Usually when a filmmaker dies, it is long after they have retired, and long after they made their last film. Not so with Nora Ephron, who died yesterday after having been ill for a long time. She was 71, and could very well have made several more films, and written more books and articles. Now she will not. That is a great loss because she was great at what she was doing. She was one of my favourite filmmakers from the last decades.

My love for Ephron has sometimes been met with surprise or disbelief, but there really is not anything strange about it. She made films that were funny, humane, moving and often lovely to look at. She had a delicate touch, and she knew how to capture the finer details of emotions. She could also be very funny.

She has written her fair share of modern classics, either directed by herself, or by men like Rob Reiner or Mike Nichols. She has been autobiographical, and she has been drawing on film and TV history. She helped to keep that history alive.

Billy Wilder and William Wyler allegedly said to each other after Ernst Lubitsch's funeral. "No more Lubitsch." "Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films." Ephron was obviously inspired by Lubitsch, and alas, now there will be no more Ephron films. Or rather, no new Ephron films. The old ones still live. A recurring theme in her films was that the past, and the dead, never really went away but were still with us. We can see that for example in Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Michael (1996), You've Got Mail (1998) and Julie & Julia (2009). Now her films will make sure Nora never leaves us.

(She wrote the script for Heartburn (1986) based on her own marriage to Carl Bernstein. She is called Rachel Samstat in the film, and is played by Meryl Streep. Bernstein, as Mark Forman, is played by Jack Nicholson. It is not a great film, but this scene is.)

See me earlier posts about Ephron:

Thursday 21 June 2012

Andrew Sarris

The library in Farsta, the suburb of Stockholm where I grow up, did not have many film books. A dodgy one in Swedish and Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock was all there was. So I had to educate myself, as a (very young) cineaste. One day in a second hand book store in downtown Stockholm I found a well-read copy of Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, heavily annotated by an unknown former owner. I bought it on the spot, and I have yet to put it down.

When I found it I had already developed my own tastes in cinema, and I noticed that several of my favourite filmmakers were in his categories "Less Than Meets the Eye" and "Strained Seriousness". I was particularly confused as to why David Lean and Billy Wilder were less than met the eye. He did not like Fred Zinnemann either. But it did not matter, the point is that I did not use Sarris to tell me what was good and what was not, I already knew that. I used him as a way to sharpen my own views, to engage with his thoughts and to agree or disagree, whatever the case might be. I also read him for the luxury of being in the present of somebody who took film seriously, passionately and intelligently, and who also knew how to write seriously, passionately and intelligently. So even if he did not influence my opinions, he helped me become the historian and scholar that I am today. The first dissertation I wrote as a film student was a study of the films of David Lean (an awful piece, even though it has some good ideas). My Master dissertation was a study of the films of Howard Hawks (a piece that I actually can read without much embarrassment). My thesis, which I just sent of to be printed and bound, is a study of the films of Hasse Ekman. I did not quote Sarris in the first, but he does figure in the other two. Of course.

He is frequently misunderstood by his critics, not least by Pauline Kael. He did not disregard other contributors such as screen writers, neither did he disregard the context. His views on cinema were suitably complex and evolving (he later changed his mind about Wilder for example, and moved him up to the top of the pedestal), and about "auteur theory" he said that it was "not so much a theory as an attitude". I never really understood why it was even called a theory, unless for polemical reasons. And polemical he was.

When I heard the news I tweeted one of my favourite quotes from him:

"In cinema, as in all art, only those who risks the ridiculous have a real shot at the sublime."

Another favourite is:

"Anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr Jekyll, a film with a scenario so atrocious that it takes forty minutes to establish that the daughter of Dr Jekyll is indeed the daughter of Dr Jekyll."

He once said "People think I'm dead, but I've only moved to Los Angeles, which pretty much amounts to the same thing." Alas, now he really is dead, and the world of film criticism is the poorer for it. We all are poorer for it.

Friday 15 June 2012

Spawn of the North (Henry Hathaway 1938)

As part of my ongoing Henry Hathaway project (thus will be my fourth post on him) I have decided to write about Spawn of the North, a film of his from 1938.

There are many striking things about Spawn of the North but perhaps the most appealing thing is its leisurely pace, and attention to character and location. It is set in Alaska and is about a small fishing village, and the conflict between poachers and honest fishermen. But the actual story takes the back seat. The film begins with about five minutes of wildlife footage of fish, birds and bears, and then we are introduced to the main characters, Tyler Dawson (George Raft) and Jim Kimmerlee (Henry Fonda.) Dorothy Lamour, Akim Tamiroff and John Barrymore are also in the film. But even when they are introduced there is no story in particular. For the first half hour it is unclear what the film is supposed to be about. Then a particular plot starts to develop and the two friends are pitted against each other, as Jim wants to be an honest man whereas Tyler gets mixed up with poachers and even killers.

But the question "What is it really about?" is the wrong question to ask, because it is obvious from the beginning that it is about this place, at this time, and the people in it. It has a very authentic feel to it, it is hard to know whether it was shot on real locations, or on a purpose-built set (according to it was partly shot in Alaska) but it does not really matter, since what matters is that it feels genuine. The cinematography by Charles Lang, Hathaway's regular companion, is not as surreal or impressionistic as in some of there other films together, but it captures the beauty of the setting, and it is shot with great depth of field. The camera is also somewhat unstable, swaying with the waves, which adds even more to the genuine feel of the film. It is also a brutal and emotional film, for example a nightly ambush on the fishermen by some salmon thieves is surprisingly bloody and raw.

The film does not feel like if it was from 1938 and this is an important aspect of the film. It feels like if it should have been influenced by films of the 1940s, such as neorealism and Roberto Rossellini. But it is not. It is instead a typical Hathaway film, although far from the conventional idea of what a Hollywood film is (was) like. This is not to imply that Hathaway was unusually ahead of his time but rather that the idea, this ideal type, of Hollywood cinema so often is narrow-minded and faulty. Admittedly the set-up, with two friends ending up on opposite sides of the law and being torn apart by having to fight each other, when they really love each other, is common enough, but the film, as suggested, is not about the story, the narrative, but about character and place, and the film is taking full advantage of the setting.

For anybody interested in studies of authorship, Spawn of the North lends itself naturally. It is the kind of story and milieu that Raoul Walsh would have enjoyed working with but had he made it it would not be so slow and not as interested in community as this one is. The pacing and the community is typically for Hathaway. He has always shown more interest in character and in making beautiful compositions than in propelling a story, and Spawn of the North is no different. Hathaway is less focused on forward-motion than Walsh, instead Hathaway can spend ten minutes on "nothingness" or, better, stillness.

There is also a connection to another filmmaker more interested in characters than story, Howard Hawks, especially since the film is co-written by Jules Furthman and Talbot Jennings. Furthman worked with Hawks on about six films (it depends on how you count), some of which are Hawks's very best. But Spawn of the North would not be mistaken for a Hawks any more than a Walsh. The pictorial beauty is much more elaborate than in Hawks's own work, and the interactions between the characters are nothing like in a film by Hawks, nor is the world-view that is expressed.

To some extent Spawn of the North is a strange film. Who would be the intended audience? I could easily see how people would get bored since very little happens, until the very end. I would imagine that the general interest in the history of salmon fishing in Alaska was rather low. This is not a film I would necessarily recommend to everybody, even if it has plenty of humour, beauty and empathy, and the acting of Henry Fonda. Yet the very things that might make it uninteresting for some is also what makes it so interesting for a film scholar such as myself. It is a seminal film in Hathaway's career (and in his creative partnership with Charles Lang) and rather memorable. One wonders what André Bazin would have made of it.

My previous pieces on Hathaway:
General introduction here.
After-thoughts here.
Collection of additional online material here.
A new piece, about Souls at Sea.

Thursday 7 June 2012

The idea of criticism

The first time something written by me got published was in 1997 (an article about Alexander Mackendrick in the Swedish film journal Filmrutan), and ever since then I have written essays, articles, reviews, blog posts and done interviews, alternating a life as a critic with a life as a projectionist, administrator, festival organiser, archivist, actor, scholar and lecturer. I have done pretty much all one can do when it comes to film, including making short films on my own. I feel I have a pretty solid knowledge about all aspects of film, the how, the when, the what and the why.

And yet when I write about a film I am always very much aware of my inadequacies. Even after having seen a film three times there might still be things that I have missed, that have escape my attention. I might read things into a film which were never there, and most certainly were never intended by anyone to be there. I may also struggle to explain why I like a particular film and not another one which is very similar. There are so many small things that affect us when we watch a film and anything we might say about it is merely a construction after the facts, an effort of our part to intellectualise a feeling, which we may or may not be able to fully understand. We may for example say that we did not like film X because it was politically conservative, yet we do like film Y even though it is equally conservative. Or let's say that somebody has been watching a film with a long car chase. Afterwards she says "That was a boring film. I don't like car chases, don't see the point of them." But that very same person also happens to love Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968), even though that has a long car chase in it. So it was not the car chase in itself that was the problem, even though it might have felt like it. It was perhaps rather the way the car chase was edited, or the way the car chase was integrated in the film as a whole. But that is more complicated, and just by watching the film we might not easily comprehend what it was we liked or did not like. Not really, even if we think so. It might be "Like an itch you cannot scratch.", as Morpheus says in The Matrix (Lana (formerly known as Larry) and Andy Wachowski 1999). But the best thing a critic can do is to try and explain how she felt and why, with some humility.

I am writing this because of the recently broadcast discussion between A.O. Scott and David Carr at the New York Times (here), which has since been doing the rounds on the internet among the usual, and un-usual, suspects. In the episode Carr attacks the art and the concept of film criticism, with arguments such as "Who are you to criticise somebody's work?", "A critic is just one guy.", "Critics never like films that are popular at the box office.", "Critics are elitist." The only argument he does not use is "All critics are failed filmmakers." Now, it is not clear whether Carr is actually believing what he says, or if he is just teasing Scott. One would hope so because if not he is very clichéd. I have heard all of those things before, many times, and I just do not understand any of them.

We all criticise everything all the time. That is part of human nature, and it takes many forms. From saying "That's an awful hat that guy's wearing!" to voting in a general election (because by voting for this particular party I am criticising all the other parties). There is no reason why we should not write criticism in newspapers or any other outlet.

As A.O. Scott pointed out, most of the things people say about critics are just myths, based on straw men critics. I think it is safe to assume that few of those that attack critics have read all that much criticism, and could not be bothered with it, which is just fine. There are elitist critics (whatever that is) and there are "popular" critics who are mostly interested in the recent blockbusters, and then there are those that are equally excited about the latest superhero movie and the latest film by Béla Tarr.

The argument that critics are all failed filmmakers makes even less sense, because the implication is that the critics hate all films because they themselves failed at making any. But has there ever been a critic who hates all films? Is such a person even conceivable?  It would be interesting if practising filmmmakers were also writing film criticism, but there is no reason to think that they would be more relevant or insightful than film critics who never made a film. You hear the same argument made about music critics, and it is as dumb there, but I wonder how common an argument it is in other forms if criticism. Are food critics called failed chefs? Are car critics called failed car makers?

There is also the view from filmmakers that it is very hard to make a film and therefore not fair to critique it afterwards, since all involved did their best. But that is neither there nor here. If that was a relevant argument we would hardly ever be able to critique anything. "I'm sorry, this soufflé is not any good, it's too much salt in it. I'm sending it back." "Do you know how hard it is to make a soufflé? How dare you criticise it?" We can only judge the result, not how hard it was to make. But then you hardly see any critics say "This film was awful and I don't understand why. For crying out loud, how hard can it be to make a multimillion dollar action film in which aliens attack New York?"

Another argument is "Why do we need critics? Why not just let the man on the street do the criticism." It is not clear what the difference would be though. It would still be just one guy, and who is he to say what is good or what is bad, and who gave him the right to criticise somebody else's work? Anybody can be a critic, just as long as they are able to articulate how and what they feel. There is little point in criticism which only says "This film is good." unless perhaps it is from somebody that you know well, and have the exact same taste as.

But do we even need critics? Well, no, not in the sense that we need doctors and firemen. But we do not not need them either. Reading good criticism is just as rewarding as watching a good film or reading a good book, it is just another form of expression, and just as valid and legitimate as any other form of expression. Tom in Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1989) says "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism." which is pushing it a bit too far... But good criticism can help as make sense of the world, of our thoughts and our likes and dislikes. It can help us grow. Good criticism might make us appreciate a work of art (be it a painting, a novel or a film) that we had not understood or previously liked, or it might help us navigate among the overwhelming amount of books and plays and films and albums out there that we do not have the time to read or watch or listen to. If I am interested in punk music I might want to read punk criticism to find out what to look for, where I should begin, and then after getting my bearings I can further explore on my own.

Of course there is a lot of bad criticism out there, bad because being inconsistent, hypocritical, offensive, arrogant or a-historical. But we should not judge criticism by its worst practitioners.