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.