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.