Monday 30 April 2012

Robert Rossen

Robert Rossen was one of the more radical of American filmmakers (at least politically, if not aesthetically) and a New Yorker, so it cannot have been all that easy for him to settle down in Hollywood. But if there was one studio he could logically be a part of it would be Warner Bros, and during the 1930s and early 1940s he was part of their script writing elite. Among the films he wrote are They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937), three films directed by Lewis Milestone, Edge of Darkness (1943), A Walk in the Sun (1945) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz 1941). In an interview he said that in the 1930s "I was writing films already very close to the neo-realism that I did not yet know". Then, after the war, he became independent and made his first film as writer and director, Johnny O'Clock (1947). It is his second film though which is where he really hit it off, Body and Soul (1947), co-written by Abraham Polonsky and with John Garfield in the lead. They were also radicals and part of a group of politically dedicated people around Rossen. Unfortunately he had to struggle a great deal as a filmmaker, partly because of his communist leanings (even though he had left the party in 1949) and partly because of his need for independence. He directed only 10 films, but at least half of them are remarkable.

His films are usually about people that are driven by passions, of a singular cause. Be they gangsters, boxers, pool sharks or politicians, they are caught up in their own need to prove themselves, and to conquer the world, and in doing so they are a threat to themselves and to their surroundings. If they succeed, it has been because they have been stepping over friends and foes alike, if they fail it is their own fault. But they are not necessarily aware of either, they suffer from tunnel vision. It is not far-fetched to think that Rossen himself felt close to these characters, and he had himself been both a boxer and a pool shark before he began making films. The populist politician Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford) in the All the Kings Men (1949) is the scariest example of this, in what is one of Rossen's most unsettling and powerful films. All the Kings Men was also the first film on which Rossen was director, writer as well as producer.

Stylistically Rossen was uneven. He claims to have been influenced by Roberto Rossellini but he feels more like a poor version of William Wyler in his staging of dialogue scenes and such. There is often a theatrical feel to scenes when people are interacting, as if Rossen was not sure how to direct his actors and actresses. The influence of Rossellini is perhaps more seen in Rossen's angry engagement with the real world. In his later films he also let narrative take a backseat, and focused on characters, feelings and fleeting movements instead.

But what is Rossen's real strength is the locker room poetry of his films. He clearly knew his characters and the milieus in which they moved, and how they moved in them. The boxing sequences in Body and Soul and the pool hall sequences in The Hustler (1961) are simmering with atmosphere and rather brilliant. In fact, Body and Soul feels like two films, one that is concerned with boxing and which is a masterpiece, and one that deals with the private life of the boxer and his family and which is rather mediocre. The last two minutes of Body and Soul are also really bad, and completely unnecessary.* But a film like Mambo (1955) is also rich with passion and atmosphere, despite the contrived storyline of a woman torn between two men, while wanting to become a dancer. Rossen made Mambo in Italy when he had become an exile from the US due to his politics. He had on two occasions been asked to testify about his communist sympathies and both times he refused to cooperate. After the second time, in 1951, he was banned from making film, which is how he ended up doing a film in Italy. But he took the ban hard and in 1953 he asked to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and this time he cooperated and named other people who were members of the communist party. Now the ban was lifted.

When he came back to the US he made Alexander the Great (1956), with Richard Burton as Alexander. But the end of the 50s were lesser years for Rossen. The Hustler was when he was back too form, and not only back, but better than ever. Then there is Lilith (1964), Rossen's last film which is one of the lesser known sublimities of American cinema. It was made when he was sick, and in a way it is a desperate film made by a desperate man, about love and insanity, and set in a mental institution. Jean Seberg and Warren Beatty are playing the central couple and like all of Rossen's best films, it is filled with passion and atmosphere. It is also very moving, and uncomfortable. Rossen never regained his strength and died some 15 months after it was released.

The unevenness in Rossen's career makes me reluctant to say that he was a great filmmaker. It is telling to compare The Roaring Twenties (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh, to Rossen's early films as a writer/director. That film was written by Rossen (together with Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, based an a story by Mark Hellinger) but unlike Rossen, Walsh was a natural when it came to directing and the film, as Walsh's films generally are, is wonderfully fluent and integrated. But Rossen's last two films, The Hustler and Lilith, are magnificent and unique, and two of his earlier films, Body and Soul and All the Kings Men, have more greatness than most films. Maybe if he had been left alone, and been more sure of himself as a director, he might have been the best filmmaker there ever was. Now, we will just have to contend ourselves with the fact that he made some truly great films.

*Polonsky and Rossen were in disagreement about the ending of Body and Soul, with Polonsky winning the argument. The fault is that after Charely Davis has saved is soul, it should have been left more ambiguous as to whether he would manage to save his body. In short, it should have ended in the boxing ring. If you have seen the film you know what I mean (if you agree with me is a different matter).

2015-04-25 I changed the last sentence of the main text.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky, who would have been 80 this year had he still been alive, was not necessarily a cerebral filmmaker.  He said once that "All art, of course, is intellectual, but for me, all the art and cinema even more so, must above all be emotional, and act upon the heart." Images, feelings, dreams and memories, the one effortlessly melting in to the other, was more his way of making films and they have a logic of their own, and with recurring visual motifs such as horses and people apparently being weightless, floating in the air, reaching for the sky, or the ceiling,

I am not convinced that he was a great filmmaker, and all of his films are flawed, to varying degrees. But he was also a fiercely passionate and personal artist, a poet who was more interested in putting his visions on the screen, in a pure state, than mind about rhythm, editing, framing or timing. The one film which is perhaps in this sense different is The Sacrifice (Offret 1986), since it is unusually controlled and rigid. This though is not to the film's advantage. The green parts of the film (i.e. the beginning and the end) are very good, but that which is in-between I find tedious and faintly ridiculous. Somebody once suggested that it was meant as a parody of a Bergman film but I do not think that, I think Tarkovsky was sincere.

I do like Ivan's Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo 1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). They are powerful and especially Andrei Rublev is inspirational. The sequence when the boy is casting a bell is a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking, beautiful and transcendental. They are both filled with images of great beauty, and a certain kind of lyricism. But they are also different. Ivan's Childhood feels more similar to other Russian films of the time. Andrei Rublev on the other  hand feels more personal, and at the same time it resembles the films of Akira Kurosawa, albeit not with the same mastery and calm confidence. Tarkovsky has himself said that he was influenced by Kenji Mizoguchi. I also feel that there is something of Sam Fuller in both these films, especially since the camera work has a similar kind of restlessness, and a restless camera is after all something of Fuller's trademark. (Tarkovsky's adaptation of Hemingway's The Killers (as Ubiytsy 1956), which he co-directed with Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, shows that he was not antithetical to hard-boiled American fiction, and this short film is actually rather good.)

Then there was a remarkable change of pace and style, because the next film he made was Solaris (Solyaris 1972), which feels neither Russian nor Japanese, nor like Fuller. This is more European alienation in space, and I have to admit I find the film annoyingly boring and meaningless. There is a tendency to overrate slowness, as if the very fact that something is slow makes it more artistic or profound. This is not so, sometimes slowness is just slowness, and I do not think that the themes or ideas expressed here is weighty or interesting enough to warrant all the boredom. But then, in his defence, Tarkovsky was not so much interested in meaning, but feeling. "If you look for a meaning, you'll miss everything that happens. Thinking during a film interferes with your experience of it." But if the film arouse no feelings, then what is left? Especially when Solaris looks somewhat pedestrian, as if Tarkovsky had been influenced by William Friedkin rather than Kenji Mizoguchi. If in his earlier films Tarkovsky had been a natural, now he felt like somebody desperately trying to make "art", and the resulting film is creaking under its own self-importance. I much prefer his next film The Mirror (Zerkalo 1975), which is weird but haunting, and again beautiful. A film with little narrative but a lot of poetry.

People, when discussing Tarkovsky, invariably focus on his themes and ideas, about man, art, religion, existentialism and the suffering of humanity, but for me I cannot look at these things independently of the actual films. The question, as Anthony Asquith put it, is whether it "comes off". With Tarkovsky I feel that often it does not. So yes, I am torn when it comes to Tarkovsky, but there is enough passion and beauty in his films to warrant much of the love and affection he has received from critics and artists over the decades.

Another thing that can be held against Tarkovsky is women. They are not prominent in his films, and when they are there is is often in some kind of metaphorical or submissive part. He also had old-fashioned views of women in general, which ties in with his conservatism and religious beliefs perhaps. He once said that "For me there is nothing more unpleasant than a woman with a big career." and while this in itself has no relation to his films, and stills suggest that he had limitations. But then, in a lot of so called European "art cinema" of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there was a lot of conservative views of women, and Tarkovsky is not unusual in that respect.

All the Tarkovsky quotes are to be found in the collection Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews

Monday 9 April 2012

Reading Bazin (#2)

My first post under the title Reading Bazin was about his article "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry". Today I will focus on an essay he wrote in the mid-1950s called "Cabiria: The Voyage to the End of Neorealism" (which is translated by Hugh Gray and reprinted in What is Cinema Volume II).

The piece is one which clearly shows the importance of Bazin on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, and it is also a pre-emptive defence of Nights of Cabiria (Le notti di Cabiria, Federico Fellini 1957), a film Bazin feared would be disliked by the critics. He anticipated that they would find it too well-made, too clever, and so in a sense betraying the neorealist movement. But even though Bazin agreed that the film was a professional piece of work, he also said that rather than betraying or abandoning neorealism, Fellini was still true to the movement, and simply pushed its aims and ambitions further than they had been pushed before. But it depends on ones definition of neorealism and Bazin says here that, "it is to be defined not in terms in ends but in means", that it is 'a "phenomenological" realism which never "adjust" reality to meet the need imposed by psychology of drama".

The key for Bazin, and something he talks about at great length, is the film's (and Fellini's) relationship to time and plot. He begins by making a distinction between what he calls "verticality", which is the theme of the author, and "horizontality" which are "the requirements of narrative". In Nights of Cabiria Bazin thinks that these two are in perfect harmony but events happen not because of any "horizontal" necessity but because of "vertical" gravity, and in the films of Fellini it is "impossible for time ever to serve as an abstract or dynamic support - as an a priori framework for narrative structure". Bazin then adds that "the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time" (and he argues that this is different from Henri Bergson's idea of time, since it involves too much psychologism).

This argument about time and characters is central to both what Bazin sees as an essential part of Fellini's work and to what he perceives as something new in cinema. On the one hand, characters are here not defined by their actions but by their appearances, movements and interactions with their environment. On the other hand, Fellini's narrative is not bound by cause-and-effects and conventions. The filmmaker does not make 'the choice in reference to some pre-existing dramatic organization. In this new perspective, the important sequence can just as well be the long scene that "serves no purposes" by traditional screenplay standards.'

So this is a reason for Bazin why Fellini is still true to his neorealist roots. But Fellini also takes it further by including elements of the "supernatural". (Bazin is not sure which word is the best one, so he also suggests "poetry", "surrealism" and "magic".) One such element is the recurring motif of angels, real and metaphorical, in several of Fellini's films, but Fellini still "achieves it [realism] surpassingly in a poetic reordering of the world".

Bazin then ends his essay with some thoughts about the last scene in the film, when Cabiria (played by Giulietta Masina), after being devastated and close to despair, comes across a group of friendly people walking on a road, playing music and singing. She follows them and eventually she starts to smile, still with tear-filled eyes. What for Bazin makes this scene so moving and profound is not that though, but that she glances at the camera. According to him she never looks directly at it, just seemingly by accident glances at it, but I think she does look directly at it (us) at one point. But the importance for Bazin is the way we, the audience, become part of the story, that it "remove us quite finally from our role of spectator".

I am not sure about that though, the very fact that we are unable to intervene or interact still makes us spectators, and when she is looking at us it is with the understanding that we are spectators. In Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock 1954) Margot Wendice (played by Grace Kelly) is being assaulted in her home, and when she struggles with her attacker she raises her arm towards the audience, as with a desperate urge to get help from us, to make us stop being spectators and instead act (Hitchcock does on several occasions make such demands on the audience) but Cabiria looks at us not for help or support but to share this moment with us, as spectators.

Bazin also says that Chaplin is probably the only other filmmaker who repeatedly has his characters look at the camera "which the books about filmmaking are unanimous in condemning". I would suggest that Raoul Walsh is the one who does this best in the "classical" era. In several of his films, be they comedies, dramas or war films, there are characters who are looking at the camera, in order to share a moment with us. Sometimes because something is funny, but also, as in They Drive By Night (1940) to show defiance. Lana Carlsen (Ida Lupino) looks at us just as she has decided to kill her husband, and then again after the deed is done, as if to say "you can say what you want, I wanted him dead" or perhaps "try and stop me if you can".

What for Bazin is so important (and something that is also essential for Deleuze), the way characters are presented and treated, and how the narrative stops for insignificant things and events, is definitely there in Fellini's films, but I would argue that this is true for many of cinema's great artists, since the early silent days. In for example the films of John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean Renoir, F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage you will find such moments, and some of the best sequences in the films of Henry Hathaway are when "nothing" happens other than people just being. It has always been central in comedies as well, whether made by great artists (like Buster Keaton or Leo McCarey) or studio hacks. So this is part of cinema, it is not anything invented by Fellini or Italian post-war cinema. Bazin writes that Fellini's characters do not reveal themselves by "doing something" but rather "by their endless milling around". This is comparable to what David Thomson once wrote about Howard Hawks, how Hawks knew that men are more expressive when rolling a cigarette than when saving the world. Hawks would gladly include scenes that "added nothing" and was not needed for any narrative structure. Scenes that, like with the guys in I vitelloni (Fellini 1953), were just people hanging out, talking and having fun.

The aspect of time in films, which is so important for Bazin and Deleuze, is something I will write more about in a later blog post. There will also be more posts on Bazin of course, all in due time.

My other posts on Bazin are here: #1, #3, #4, #5.