Friday 27 December 2013

King Vidor

King Vidor's penultimate film is called Truth or Illusion: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1964), which does show quite clearly that Vidor was not like other filmmakers. He was a philosopher who used moving images instead of books to explain his ideas and his vision (although he did write some book too) and he made films with a remarkable combination of naiveté, conviction, optimism and passion. The characters that his films are about are also a combination of naiveté, conviction, optimism and passion. The films often have a pointed social critique, sometimes even anger, and this is combined with very strong, raw feelings. The emotions and the visuals are often startling. There will be a lot more about Vidor in the next issue of La Furia Umana, but I felt like letting the last blog post of 2013 be of his words and his images. First an image from War and Peace (1956):

Here he is talking about cinema and consciousness:
Something about the lens is very akin to the human consciousness which looks out at the universe. "I am a camera" - we are all cameras. We are recording eyes, you know, we look out and record and we use our consciousness to do this. The motion picture camera is the [tool closest] to the human sense of observation and sense of the universe. When the men land on the moon, I land on the moon - because I am conscious of it, and I take it into myself, and I am landing on the moon. This is what happens with a motion-picture camera. It approximates the consciousness that everyone has. /.../ And the motion-picture camera is the really solipsistic instrument for awareness and realization.
There is a moral dimension to it. Once you have seen something you are aware of it, and being conscious of it you can no longer avoid it or deny it. Vidor mentions the war in Vietnam as an example ("You can't just say, 'that war over there' - way off in Asia. You can't say that any more.") With awareness comes responsibility. The heroes of Vidor's films are those who take responsibility, and who create, be it a farm, an industry or a work of art. To live is to create.

Duel in the Sun (1946)
The Fountainhead (1949)
Natasha (Audrey Hepburn) sinking into darkness after being told her beloved Andrei is dying. War and Peace.
Filming John Gilbert and Renée Adorée. The Big Parade (1925).

The quotes are from Richard Schickel's interview with Vidor, published in The Men Who Made the Movies.
He had an extraordinary long career. He made his first short films in 1913 and his last in 1980. The oldest film of him I have seen is Wild Oranges (1924), which is unknown but very good.

Friday 20 December 2013

Philomena and Catholicism(s)

Barack Obama was widely celebrated all over the world in 2008, including by the Nobel peace prize committee, and to a large extent this was because he was not George Bush. Rather he was seen as the antithesis of Bush. Something similar seems to be the case with the new Pope, Francis, who is today almost as globally celebrated as Obama once was. Part of that is of course because of who he is, but part of it is also who he is not, i.e. the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. As it happens the new film by Stephen Frears, Philomena, does in some ways capture the difference between the two popes, and two different ways in which you can practise your Catholicism. I am not a religious person, and I belong to no church, but these are still questions that interest me.

Philomena is about an English ex-journalist, Martin, who gets word of a story about an Irish woman who had a child when she was young and unmarried and who after giving birth at a convent was forced to work for the nuns and her child was given away (or rather sold) for adoption. Now 50 years later she wants to find out what became of her child, the son she has not seen in decades. She is a religious person, a Catholic, secure in her belief in God, and she has nothing against the Catholic Church, she just wants to find out what happened. The journalist was once a Catholic but now he has lost his faith and become an atheist. He is also filled with anger towards the Church (and a lot of other things as well). In the film they are played by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who also wrote the script) and it is based on a true story. Martin Sixsmith, the journalist, told the story a few years ago in the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee on which the film is based.

The film has been condemned in some quarters for being anti-Catholic. It is clearly not. Another criticism it has received concerns Sister Hildegard, who in the film becomes the embodiment of cruel, pitiless catechism. In reality she died many years ago and cannot be held responsible for what happens towards the end of the story. But by making Hildegard out to be the villain the filmmakers does shift the burden of blame. Instead of arguing that it was the Church as a whole that was in the wrong the film could be said to argue that it was a question of a few rotten apples. It also makes for a very emotional scene towards the end of the film, which is fictional, but which is where the potential symbolism of the two popes appears.

Philomena Lee and Sister Hildegard are both devout Catholics, but one is kind and forgiving whereas the other is stern, stubborn and judgemental. They are each other's opposites, and that is what makes the film such an interesting theological statement. What is the true Christian spirit, to judge or to forgive? Which of the two does a better job of upholding the teachings of Jesus Christ? The film has its answer. This is not to say that Hildegard is less of a Christian, it is just that she emphasises different aspects of Christianity, and is perhaps more Old Testament than New Testament.

The new Pope has since he was elected in March 2013 been doing a remarkable job in improving the reputation of the Holy See and the Catholic Church. He has done this through words and actions. He has shown himself to be a man of the people, of being a man with simple tastes, a person who will embrace anyone. He has also instigated a number of reforms in the Vatican. But it is also in his choice of words and emphasis. The most famous instance was perhaps when, asked about homosexuals, he answered "Who am I to judge?" That could also be Philomena Lee's position. Francis is clearly a Pope for her, a Pope she deserves. And he is also the opposite of the previous Pope, Benedict. Benedict was in favour of lavishness and he was concerned with righteousness and dogma. It is much easier to imagine him saying "I am the Pope, therefore I can judge you." rather than say "Who am I to judge?" In this way Benedict is more like Sister Hildegard (even though she is materially as humble as Pope Francis), and it is timely that Philomena comes out the same year that Francis has replaced Benedict, openness has replaced judgement, dialogue has replaced submission.

In 1962 Pope John XXIII initiated the Second Vatican Council in order to reform the Catholic Church and bring it more in line with the modern world. In this it had some success, but there have been backlashes and it was not popular among more conservative Catholics. Maybe Francis will manage to make the Catholic Church a more inclusive and loving church. It is not only a concern for Catholics for what the Pope says and does is (regrettably) important far beyond the Catholic world.

Many headlines have been made concerning Pope Francis's views on capitalism, poverty and inequality but this is actually one aspect of his papacy that is not different from his predecessors (but rather a sign of the short memory of journalists and commentators). Pope Benedict had this to say about a year ago: "The world is sadly marked by hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism." And his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, argued that "[v]ast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. /…/ Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces."

Monday 16 December 2013

Peter O'Toole

I was surprised by how affected I was by the death of Peter O'Toole yesterday. But then he has been an important actor for me ever since I first saw The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci 1987) the year it came out. I was also delighted by his performance in King Ralph (David S. Ward 1991). I cannot vouch for the quality of that film today, but I can vouch for the quality of Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962). Its quality and its importance to me. I watch it regularly, I quote from it often and once I even wrote a short story that, although set in the presence, intertwined the film and T.E. Lawrence with the main character in my story. I am always mesmerised by his eyes, voice, and steely presence. (I also think that it is not only a portrait of Lawrence but of David Lean as well.)

There is also the filmatisation of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (Richard Brooks 1965), The Stunt Man (Richard Rush 1980), two appearances as Henry II (Becket (Peter Glenville 1964) and The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey 1968)), the enchanting How to Steal a Million (William Wyler 1965), with Audrey Hepburn, and much else, often playing kings, bishops and men of authority, but sometimes only being a voice and often letting himself go in silly farce.

Here he is in The Stuntman:

Here is a scene with Vanessa Redgrave from Venus (2006):

By above and beyond all else there is Lawrence. Where would I be today with him?

Actors never die, they just exit the stage.

Joan Fontaine

"Last year I dreamt I went to Manderley again" are the first words spoken in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), in one of the more enigmatic opening sequences in film history. The words are spoken in voice-over by a woman whose name will never be known in the film, even though she is the leading character. But the name of the woman who plays that character is well-known. Joan Fontaine, or, originally Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. She was born in Japan to English parents and she died yesterday in California, and in her sleep, 96 years old. She is one of the greatest of actresses, particularly in a number of haunting films of the 1940s where she combined fragility and stubbornness. Hitchcock's first films made in Hollywood are to some extent still British, Rebecca and Suspicion (1941), and Fontaine stars in both of them, wonderful and distressed. She was also in Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson 1943) and the excellent Ivy (Sam Wood 1947), both also set in England. But great as they were, it is Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) that is the sublime high point of her career, one of the best films ever made, a perfect art work with director Max Ophüls and Fontaine a match made in heaven. (I wrote about it here.)

I have seen less of her later work, which was mostly on TV from the 1950s and onwards. Among the films I have seen are The Bigamist (Ida Lupino 1953), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang 1956) and Until They Sail (Robert Wise 1957), this time playing a New Zealand woman, one of four sisters during World War 2. The films are all good, but of these three I have a particularly weak spot for Until They Sail.

Here are two clips, the first is from Letter From an Unknown Woman, the second from Suspicion, although admittedly it has more of Hitchcock than Fontaine in it. She did win an Oscar for that part though, the only time anybody won an acting award from being directed by Hitch.

And here is the whole of The Bigamist:

(Hitchcock's first really American film is the odd one out in his career, Mr and Mrs Smith (1942), the not very good screwball comedy.)

Monday 9 December 2013

The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape is a number of things. It is a POW-film, it is a war film, it is a buddy film while also an ensemble piece, and a film about resilience and the urge for freedom. And based on a true story, although, as is usually the case, the true story has been altered for various reasons. Some changes have been made for efficiency, some for drama, some on requests from the real people involved, and some out of convenience I suppose. But the basic facts are the same, hundreds of allied prisoners worked together to escape from a German prison camp in 1944. 76 managed to escape before the guards sounded the alarm.

The real escape project took about a year, making the film took about four months and the film is three hours long, and it is never dull. It takes its time, being methodological and patient, but it gives time for the characters to grow and learn, to befriend each other and interact, and share moments of both joy and terror. In that respect it is a very humane film, where even the German commander of the camp (played by Hannes Messemer) is a human being, trying to be kind and just and often appalled by the horrors and loss of life that is part of war. That the characters are almost all played by big stars, British and American, does not matter for with the exception of Steve McQueen they all become their parts and disappear into the group. Among them are James Garner, James Donald, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn.

The force behind the film is John Sturges, who produced and directed it at the height of his career, riding on the success of Magnificent Seven (1960), and he was intimately involved in all aspects of the film. To some extent it was his baby, and the decision to shoot it in Germany instead of in Hollywood is undoubtedly a big factor in the film's appeal. It was a very complex project, logistically (for example they built a whole prison camp outside Munich) and personally, with a lot of issues and difficulties among the cast. It is not Sturges's best film but it shows his skills and his particular concerns (like how the film manages to be uplifting and downbeat at the same time).

Sturges had problems with Steve McQueen who apparently was very insecure, and testy, on set. But that does not come off in the film as he is one of the best things about it, if not the best thing. He stands out because his character Hilts is a loner, who spends most of his time in "the cooler", an isolation cell, where he sits for days on end throwing his baseball. (Hence he was called "the cooler king" in the film, which may have led to McQueen being called "the king of cool".) The story was changed to a large degree to accommodate McQueen and the sequence with him on a motorcycle was invented, almost on set, and a good thing too because that sequence is a highlight of the film. The whole film is, as I said, about resilience and the urge for freedom, and nothing captures this like Hilts stealing a Triumph from a German soldier and heading for the Swiss border. There are several things here that work together. The fact that it is real, no digital effects or studios, but McQueen on a motorcycle in Germany (the actual jump through barbed wire was done by Bud Ekins for insurance reasons) is one thing. Another is the way the landscape and the motorcycle work together. Sturges keeps the camera far from the action and pans left and right to show how small the men and their vehicles are compared to the mountains and the hills. And then there is the sense of freedom, in two ways. Hilts alone on his bike, instead of in an isolation cell, is one aspect of freedom, physical freedom. The other is more spiritual. He does not make it, he gets caught in the barbed wire and is captured by the Germans, but in the moment of defeat he smiles. The Germans may have captured his person but his spirit is not caught or broken. He has not given up. He will live on, to fight and to escape again.

An earlier post about Steve McQueen is here. For another post about human resilience see the one about Gravity. There will be more about John Sturges in a post next year.

This post is part of a join venture for Filmspanarna, a collection of film bloggers from Sweden. Here are links to the other participants posts on The Great Escape. The first is in English, the others in Swedish.
The Velvet Café, Jojjenito, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, Movies-Noir, Moving Landscape, Fiffi.We saw the film at Cinemateket in Stockholm so we could experience it on a very big screen.

Wednesday 4 December 2013


A couple of months ago the spacecraft Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the first time anything made by humans left our solar system. It took Voyager 1 36 years to reach that far (or rather 35 because it took about a year until NASA got the data) and it is still going further and further away from home. The news of this breakthrough was unexpectedly moving to me, who first took a passionate interest in astronomy when I was about nine years old. As such I was enthusiastic about watching Gravity as soon as it came out. It too moved me. It is a film of great beauty and powerful emotions, and watching it again increased the feeling of awe. The one thing that I would have preferred was if there had been more silence and less music. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) at one point says that what she likes best about space is the silence, and it is a shame Alfonso Cuarón does not share that feeling but put music to most scenes. (Beware, this post gives away important plot points, including the ending.)

It is occasionally said that the only thing that would unite all of humanity would be an attack from outer space, making us forget our national borders. One nice thing about Gravity is that there are no borders up there. Dr Stone moves from a US space shuttle to the primarily Russian ISS to the Chinese space station Tiangong (which at present is much smaller than in the film), and Earth as seen from space is a unified planet, where it is impossible to see where one country begins and another ends. It is even impossible to see that there are countries. But even though space is without borders, language is still an issue. Dr Stone has difficulties since she cannot read Russian or Chinese.

But the main thrust of the film is concerned with survival and life itself. Perhaps even the meaning of life. There is very little story in the film other than one person's frantic effort to stay alive, and the same person's acceptance that she will die. I do not believe that there is some larger meaning to our lives, or that there need to be one. But Gravity does suggest one, that the meaning of life is to live, to survive. And I like that.

When watching it the second time I thought, strangely perhaps, of Max Ophüls's very great The Reckless Moment (1949). There a housewife fights a relentless battle to keep her daughter and herself out of harm's way, in the form of a blackmailer. It was the simplicity and straightforwardness of the stories, one person's epic battle against an increasing amount of obstacles combined with elaborate camera work - very long takes with a moving camera with plenty of activity going on in the background and where the environment itself is an enemy, that I suppose made me think of them both. But there is a key difference. In The Reckless Moment it is specifically a woman's fight, in Gravity it is a human, rather than a woman, who is taking up the fight. In Swedish we have a gender-neutral word, neither han (he) nor hon (she) but hen (I wish there was an English word) and it is suitable here, not least since Ryan Stone is a woman with a male name. Dr Stone is fighting the fight as a representative of humanity, all alone. And Sandra Bullock's performance is superb.

Despite being something of a disaster movie the film is actually uplifting and affirmative. While I thought there was too much music in the film as a whole, in the final minutes the music was perfect, signalling the triumph of the human spirit and the exhilaration of being alive. When Dr Stone lands it is on Earth, no particular place but Earth itself, almost like an alien life form, or the first mammal coming out of the sea. Humanity is reborn. The film is a celebration of the will to live, and of the human capacity to survive. It is also a testament to the human capacity to create both art and technology. The same capacity that also managed to build a spacecraft that can travel beyond our solar system. Why build it? Because we can. Why live? Because we can.

Cuarón has a response to my complaint about the music. "I knew we needed music to convey a certain energy, and while I’m sure there would be five people that would love nothingness, I want the film to be enjoyed by the entire audience." he said in an interview in Wired.

There has of course been a lot written about the ways Gravity is unrealistic. Personally I was annoyed by the way Kowalsky (George Clooney) was killed off. There was no force dragging him away from the ISS, even though he disconnected the wire he would have remained where he was. But it does not really matter. Narrative expedience is sometimes more important than complete adherence to the laws of physics.

Wednesday 27 November 2013


I have been challenged to do a post on nightmares and film. Naturally that made me think of Hitchcock and Vincente Minnelli and I wanted to show the nightmare scene from Minnelli's The Father of the Bride (1950), but I was not able to find it. Here is a still image though:

A good thing about dream sequences is that they give the filmmakers the space and ability to let go of their inhibitions. John Frankenheimer, when he was at his best in the 1960s, letting his paranoia run loose, made for example The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966) where the borders between nightmares and reality become blurred. Roman Polanski is another nightmare master. Akira Kurosawa has made some impressive ones too. Hasse Ekman did some great nightmare scenes in The White Cat (Den vita katten 1950). The most famous dream sequences of Hitchcock are from Spellbound (1945) and Vertigo (1958). Here is Vertigo:

And here is Spellbound, where Salvador Dalí designed the dream. There was to have been ants involved, crawling on Ingrid Bergman, but that was considered too much (you can see Dali's ants in Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel and Dalí 1928) instead):

Nightmare sequences were common in 1940s postwar cinema, not least in Hollywood where Sigmund Freud was popular. In this clip from another film by the ever self-conscious Hitchcock, Marnie (1964), they even talk about that. It is not a dream sequence but a post-dream sequence, with Marnie and Mark discussing her nightmares and fears:

Ingmar Bergman was also keen on dreams and nightmares, with some films being almost entirely nightmarish like Hour of the Wolf (1968). But my favourite dream sequence of his is from Wild Strawberries (1957):

The final clip today is from the British horror film Dead of Night (co-directed by Cavalcanti, Dearden, Hamer and Crichton 1945). If you see the entire film you will never be able to relax in a room with a doll.

A number of Swedish film blogs are also involved in the nightmare challenge. Links to their contributions below. The first one in English, the others are in Swedish:

Common mistake, I had written a superfluous "The" for the title of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf. It is gone now.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Souls at Sea (Henry Hathaway 1937)

I have written several posts about Henry Hathaway (links are below) and this is another contribution, about Souls at Sea (1937):

There is a scene in Souls at Sea where Michael Taylor (played by Gary Cooper) is looking for his best friend Powdah (played by George Raft) in a number of bars. They are seamen and Taylor is just about to embark but wants to say goodbye first. He cannot find him though so he borrows pen and paper from a bartender and writes a note. He first writes "Dear Powdah", then looks up, feeling embarrassed, and erases "Dear". It is a scene that sweetly captures the tone of the film, a film which is one of the high points of both the 1930s and Hathaway's career.

It is set in the 1840s and is about these two friends who work on slave ships. Taylor, called Nuggin, is actually trying to free slaves by working undercover inside the slave trade while Powdah is his partner and not necessarily in on the undercover scheme, he just does whatever Nuggin does, or tells him to do. It is a film about freedom, about rebellion, and of the fight against slavery. (In one powerful sequence a ship filled with slaves rebel, the slaves rising up against the ship's crew, turning the whips on them.) Eventually Nuggin is recruited by British intelligence to help them put a stop to the slave trade in a more official capacity.

The film is to a large extent set on a ship called William Brown (in the film "played" by a ship called Star of Finland). William Brown did exist in reality and the story of the film is based on real events. The historic ship sank after hitting an iceberg, but in the film it instead is a fire that brings it down. Since the ship is a commercial passenger ship from the UK to the US, and several of the passengers are presented and given parts in the film, Souls at Sea is also a sort of early disaster film.

But the action or the politics are not the focus of the film; this is a love story between two men caught up in the political upheavals of the mid-19th century. What matters are the emotions and the extraordinary images with which Hathaway tells the stories. As I have argued elsewhere Hathaway is one of the greatest visualists in American cinema and this might be the most visually impressive of his black and white films (with Niagara (1953) probably the most impressive of those in colour). The cinematography is by Charles Lang, who Hathaway worked with on several occasions in the 1930s, and also Merritt Gerstad, and it shows several of Hathaway's typical traits such as have closed spaces with multiple frames within frames, and use of great depth and canted angles. Whether it is a clandestine meeting in a dark room between Nuggin and a British intelligence officer, images of the ship at sea, a dance in the ship's mess, the images are equally striking, with various expressive touches.

In this particular shot the far back is not in clear focus though.

The literary script, filled with allusions to Shakespeare, poetry and songs, is by Hathaway's favourite writer Grover Jones, and he also made several films with Cary Cooper, so in many ways this is a quintessential Hathaway achievement.

Besides the obvious technical, visual accomplishments it is the scenes about the feelings of the characters, and Nuggin's and Powdah's relationship, which make the film so rich, and signal how Hathaway, here as elsewhere, is not really interested in a conventional narrative but the movements of feelings. In one scene Nuggin comes into his cabin with a flower in his hand, which he has got from a woman. He is very pleased with it, he smells it, he puts it into a glass of water, and sits down looking at it. Then he notice that Powdah is also in the cabin, and he immediately hides the flower. Perhaps because he is embarrassed by his strong feelings (like in the scene mentioned above when he writes "Dear" and then erases it). In another scene the two men sit together and sing, a song it seems they make up as they sing it. While Powdah comes across as less in touch with his own feelings, towards the end of the film he is bewildered when he falls in love with a woman for the first time. He does not really understand what is happening, but he blindly follows his feelings. She is on William Brown when it sinks, as is he (and Nuggin), and when she drowns Powdah stays with her, and drowns with her, because having found love and then lost it, there is no reason for him to go on living. There is a romantic, poetic sensibility to the film, visually as well as emotionally.

Hathaway did many very fine films in the 1930s but Souls at Sea is by far the best of them. It is tempting to speculate that had it been made in France it would be considered an important classic of "poetic realism". As a Hollywood film it disappeared in the crowd, just another tree in the forest.

Powdah and Nuggin.
My earlier posts on Hathaway:
General introduction here.
After-thoughts here.
Collection of additional online material here.
About Spawn of the North (1938)

Monday 18 November 2013

Reading Bazin (#4)

For some reason many film historians have settled on Francois Truffaut's 1954 article "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema" as the birthplace of the idea that the director is (or should be) considered the author and artist behind a film. But as I have written earlier, that idea is much older than Truffaut's article and has been around since at least the 1910s. If the focus is on criticism in post-war France there is also an earlier and better article to start with than Truffaut's piece; a report that André Bazin wrote  in 1946 from the film festival in Cannes, which was published in Le courrier du l'etudiant October 30 - November 13, 1946. This, the fourth post in the series "Reading Bazin", is about that report. The translation is by Stanley Hochmann, and published in the collection French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance - The Birth of a Critical Esthetic (1981). Links to previous instalments in "Reading Bazin" are at the bottom of the post.

Bazin begins by expressing his disappointment with the festival because he felt there were more good films to be seen at the cinemas in Paris than at the festival, especially films from the US. The Westerner (William Wyler 1940), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), The Little Foxes (William Wyler 1941), How Green Was My Valley (John Ford 1941), Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder 1944) and The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang 1944) are the films he mentions that are shown in Paris. The only American film in Cannes Bazin feels is equal to those is The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder 1945). It is worth pointing out that it was exactly this wave of extraordinary American films coming to France all at once, when the Second World War was over, that had such an immense influence on the next generation of French filmmakers and film critics, such as Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol. It was also these films that led some French critics to use the term film noir to describe these, for them, new films. (Film noir meant something slightly different then than now).

There were good films from other parts of the world though and Bazin mentions some French, Italian, Russian and British films such as La bataille du rail (René Clément 1946), Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945) and Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945). But on the whole he claims it was a "barren year" because there was no "Wyler, nor Capra, nor John Ford, nor Preston Sturges, nor Carné, nor Renoir, nor Eisenstein." But the beauty of Cannes for Bazin is not so much the quality of the films but the diversity of them. The festival is almost the only chance to see so many films from so many countries at once, and be able to compare them. He notes that the theme of many films that year is resistance, and that the foreign films "are all dramas, practically documentaries". He thinks the foreign films are braver, more honest in their depiction of violence and torture, than the French films, and he wonders if the scenes of war and destruction, and images from the concentrations camps, "would have been possible in literature without falling into turgidity and sadism. And yet how much stronger the cinematic image is. But cinema is the art of reality." An idea that is central in much of Bazin's writings. He then differentiates the European films' depiction of death with the American films, and finds the Americans wanting. With the exception of The Lost Weekend Bazin finds them less urgent, less real. "The world in which the characters struggle is separated from us by a glass that their blood does not penetrate." And he blames this on "the disastrous influence of the Hays-Johnson office" which "prevents a subject from ever being treated in depth and in all its consequences." He also blames a kind of self-censorship on behalf of too many filmmakers, for commercial reasons. But there is one thing about Hollywood cinema that almost makes up of for this. It is that Hollywood cinema "seems to have finally achieved the degree of perfection which frees the artist from technical concerns." This has given the director the ability to think "in cinema with a variety and precision of syntax and vocabulary that are equal to that of writing. As a result we see a multiplication of the names of directors whose presence in the credits signifies something."

In Bazin's view, if previously there were five or six American filmmakers of distinction, now there are at least 20 that are important and whose styles are "certainly as different as those of a half dozen novels by strong personalities". Of those filmmakers he mentions Welles, Sturges, Wilder, Hitchcock, Preminger, Ford, Capra, Wyler and "even a Robert Siodmak or a George Stevens, who seemed to be devoted to mass production." Bazin also says that "we are forced to the conclusion that cinema is in the sociological and esthetic situation of producing for the screen the equivalent of books" and that Hollywood "is able to furnish the exact cinematic equivalent of a paragraph by Faulkner, by Hemingway, by Caldwell."

Then he ends by again complaining about the Hays code and the censorship which keeps the American films from being as bold and frank as its literature, saying that only Welles, Wyler, Sturges and Clifford Odets* are able to combine style and theme to reach cinema's full potential.

Many of the key themes in Bazin's writing appear in this article. Thoughts about cinema and death, cinema's relationship with reality, the importance of style (he writes that it is "wrong to believe that it is the scenario that distinguishes escapist cinema from realist cinema", instead he thinks it is the style of the film that matter), and the centrality of the director. And the filmmakers that will continue to be his favourites are highlighted here such as Renoir, Welles, Wyler and Sturges. Bazin's argument that the director can be regarded as a writer, with a style that is uniquely his, and that enables the filmmaker to rise above the material is exactly what the critics at Cahiers du cinéma later in the 1950s, and then Andrew Sarris in the US, would argue. So it is a rich and interesting text and could be regarded as a valuable contribution to an understanding of how Bazin and the future French film critics thought about cinema. It would not be out of place on a list of mandatory readings for film students.

Reading Bazin (#1) is here.
Reading Bazin (#2) is here.
Reading Bazin (#3) is here.
Reading Bazin (#5) is here.
*Odets had actually directed only one film, None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and would direct one more in 1959, The Story on Page One. But Odets was primarily a writer.

Monday 11 November 2013

Beyond Bechdel

In a recent AP article about a new Swedish film initiative based on the Bechdel test was the following section:
"The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, all Star Wars movies, The Social Network, Pulp Fiction and all but one of the Harry Potter movies fail this test," said Ellen Tejle, the director of Bio Rio, an art-house cinema in Stockholm's trendy Södermalm district. 
Bio Rio is one of four Swedish cinemas that launched the new rating last month to draw attention to how few movies pass the Bechdel test. Most filmgoers have reacted positively to the initiative. "For some people it has been an eye-opener," said Tejle. 
Beliefs about women's roles in society are influenced by the fact that movie watchers rarely see "a female superhero or a female professor or person who makes it through exciting challenges and masters them", Tejle said, noting that the rating doesn't say anything about the quality of the film. "The goal is to see more female stories and perspectives on cinema screens," he added.
Actually Pulp Fiction and all of the Harry Potter films pass the Bechdel test, and the test is not related to whether a film has female superheroes or tell "female stories" or not. Ellen Telje (who is a she, not a he) might have said, more honestly, "a number a key feminist films fail this test." but she does not, presumably because that would have complicated the sales pitch.

In a follow-up article, Guardian's chief arts writer Charlotte Higgins writes that "an alarming number of films showing in cinemas fail to reach it" and adds that "[o]ddly enough, Thor (in which Chris Hemsworth plays the Nordic god, come to save us all from Christopher Ecclestone) does pass, since it features a scene in which Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings discuss nuclear physics."

Higgins's claim that it is alarming how few films pass the test is very common and yet the vast majority of the thousands of films listed on the website (primarily popular mainstream films) do pass it, between 65% and 70% of the films released over the last two decades. If 70% is alarmingly few, how many are needed for it to be acceptable? Or maybe Higgins has her own statistics. But it is not in the least bit odd, if you understand the test, and films, that Thor passes the test. Any film can pass or fail, regardless of genre, country, year or feminist intentions.

Although the test has some uses it says nothing about the way a given film represents gender, or whether the film is progressive, reactionary, feminist or misogynistic. The test demands that a film has scenes with named female characters talking about something other than a man, but whether the lack of such scenes is an issue or not depends on the film. If a film for example has only two characters, a man and a woman, the test is pointless, and if there are several characters it is still not in itself sexist if the women only speak of men. That becomes an issue if the dialogue between the women is different from the dialogue between the men. If in a romcom or a drama about a failing marriage, with all the men talking about women, it does not matter if the women talk only about men. Context and content matters but the test ignores all that. Using it on all films regardless of their content is like a test that rates vehicles with wheels on whether they have catalytic converters, which diminishes the pollution from internal combustion engines, and where it is then considered shocking that so many vehicles lack the converters (even though the majority of those vehicles are bicycles that have no need for them).

But if tests are wanted, may I suggest a different one, maybe something like this: In the film under consideration, do the women characters have sufficient agency and are they in charge of their own well-being and if not, why? (I say sufficient because we are all more or less constrained by our surroundings and circumstances.) If they are dependent upon the men and lack the capacity to take their own initiative the film would fail the test, unless there is a perfectly good reason for this dependency such as being hospitalised after a car accident and taken care of by a male doctor. Let's call it "the agency test". Unlike the Bechdel test it means that you have to intellectually engage with the film, but that surely is a good thing.

Thursday 31 October 2013

The deep focus conundrum

I have posted several times about conventional film history and the many issues I have with it (links are at the end of this post). One such issue concerns deep focus and its history.

At a lecture about Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) at Stockholm University in the 1990s the lecturer was talking, among other things, about Renoir's "revolutionary" use of deep focus. The lecturer was bad, confused deep focus with deep space, and the central argument was very weak. Yet as I soon discovered this is how historians and scholars in general view deep focus, or depth of field. Here is typical quote taken from a standard textbook, David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film (4th edition, 2004): "Renoir was the first major director of the sound film to compose his shots in depth." (p. 322)

Today almost all writing on deep focus is about Orson Welles, the cinematographer Gregg Toland and their work on Citizen Kane (1941). Here are some more quotes from textbooks that are often required readings for university students:

In the third edition of The Cinema Book (2007) it says: "Deep-focus cinematography, in which objects in several planes of depth are kept in equally sharp focus, is commonly associated with certain Hollywood films of the 1940s. Patrick Ogle dates its emergence at around 1941." (p. 149. Although the phrasing in the quote make it sound ambiguous there is no effort to question that association or Ogle.)

The above quoted Cook also writes that "the creative genius of Orson Welles and Gregg Toland, restored the cinema's physical capacity for deep focus". (p. 322)

In The Story of Film (2004, the book from which the series springs), Mark Cousins writes that in the 1940s "[t]he visual ideas of Welles and Toland started to influence John Huston and William Wyler" (p. 179).

Understanding Film Theory (2011) add this caveat to the section about deep focus in Citizen Kane: "This technique was not new and had been practised in France by Jean Renoir." (p. 47)

These quotes are just a few examples. A person who is reading a book or essay that mentions deep focus would almost certainly conclude that it was something that appeared in the 1930s in the films of Jean Renoir and then became common in the 1940s thanks to the innovations in Citizen Kane. What is puzzling is that this is transparently wrong. Despite these claims many major filmmakers such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Frank Borzage, Howard Hawks, Sadao Yamanaka, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry Hathaway, William Wyler and John Ford used deep focus all through the 1930s, and earlier. Another key player was cinematographer James Wong Howe. Contra Cousins's statement it should be said that Wyler's films in the 1940s look rather like the films he made in the 1930s, deep focus and all, but not really like Welles's films. Generally Welles is more baroque and expressionistic whereas Wyler is more calm and naturalistic. An exception perhaps is Wyler's Dead End (1937), which Toland shot, and which is rather expressionistic, both in its use of depth and lighting, more so than usual for Wyler. But that was of course several years before Citizen Kane. If anybody influenced anybody it was Wyler who influenced Welles.

Dead End

But it is not just certain major directors that were using deep focus, all kinds of films by all kinds of filmmakers from all over the world used deep focus, from random B-movies to the Art Deco glory of Fred and Ginger musicals. It should further be noted that deep focus did not appear suddenly in the 1930s either, it was always there. To take one magnificent example among many; in Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjöström 1913) there is a sequence where a man (husband and father) is dying in the bedroom, succumbing to an illness, while in the next room, in the back, his children are playing and through the doorway we see them, oblivious of their father's death struggle. Instead of cutting back and forth, Sjöström shows both rooms at the same time, in the same shot, and this requires depth.

This is just after the wife has discovered that he has died.

F.W. Murnau was another master of deep focus compositions. Here is an example from The Last Laugh (1924).

So there is nothing new or special about Renoir's and Welles's use of deep focus. Actually, in itself deep focus is not particularly special at all. It is how you use it that matters, not that you use it. Here is an image from Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937), with a lot of depth, but the depth has a different meaning than in the examples above. Here it is to emphasis her solitude, like if she was modelling for an Edward Hopper painting.

On the right in the frame there is a poster for another film from 1937, Souls at Sea, by Henry Hathaway. That is a film that has a more expressionistic visual style, and often dazzling use of depth, and perhaps an influence, among many others, for Welles and Toland when they made Citizen Kane, not least its use of cramped sets with visible inner ceilings and canted angles. Another master of deep focus was Raoul Walsh, all through his career, from 1915 and onwards. His use of it is a visual expression of his ideas, and remarkable both in its depth and in its meanings. One day, hopefully, it will seem as strange to write about deep focus without mentioning Walsh, and James Wong Howe, as it would be to write about post-war Swedish cinema without mentioning Ingmar Bergman.

Where these mistaken ideas come from is not clear, possibly with André Bazin's writings on deep focus in the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example the essay "The evolution of the language of cinema". It seems film scholars are more keen on reading books than watching films, and since most books write the same things the mistakes and errors continues. But by looking at films from the 1920s and 1930s it is easy to see how prevalent deep focus was, and in how many different ways it was being used. A film like Ford's Stagecoach (1939), that used expressive deep focus before Citizen Kane, is usually described as a rare precursor. Instead it should be seen as a good example of a rather common form of filmmaking. Often when film history gets distorted it is in order to simplify but that is not the case with the history of deep focus. It is not less simple to rightfully say "Deep focus has been a tool used by many filmmakers since the dawn of cinema." instead of wrongfully claim "Deep focus tentatively appeared in the 1930s and then became common after 1941."

Here, finally, is another marvellous Wyler shot. This is from Dodsworth (1936):

Another thing to keep in mind is that what appears to be deep focus is sometimes an illusion, through matte paintings, set design or trick filming (such as splicing two different shots together through an optical printer), and not technically deep focus at all. This is the case with some of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane. Special effects has been used ever since the dawn of cinema, and that includes faking deep focus.

The eagerness to equate deep focus with Gregg Toland becomes comical in The Film Experience - An Introduction (2009). There his work on Wyler's The Heiress (1949) is mentioned (p. 102) which is peculiar because it was made after Toland's death. Leo Tover was its cinematographer.

Three earlier posts on problems with conventional film history:

Tuesday 22 October 2013

David Attenborough

I have written before about my debt to filmmakers like Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Hawks, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ekman and others for making me first a film enthusiast and then a film scholar. But David Attenborough also deserves to be mentioned among them because he has had an equally large impact upon me since at least 1984, when The Living Planet came out both as a TV-series and a book. I was actually using him even as an inspiration for the structure of my thesis. For its narrative drive to be more specific. Many filmmakers could learn a thing or two from him about structure and pacing, and so could scholars. This is not something I was conscious of back then as a precocious pre-teen, when it was the images and the fun of learning new things about animals and plants and Earth itself that were the reasons I was hooked. They contain enough thrills, sadness, humour and beauty to last a lifetime, and they are more satisfying than much of fictive narrative art. But later on, when re-watching for example Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet as an adult, I was struck by how carefully and skilfully they were told. The individual episodes in themselves and also how all of the episodes together form a whole, that they are not freestanding but intricately linked. The episodes tell a story that has a beginning and an end, and the sum total of each series becomes bigger than the individual episodes. So I had that in the back of my head when writing the thesis. (I should probably have mentioned him on the acknowledgement page.) Watching several series in a row is also a special experience, not least to see how the things one can do, both ethically and technically, change rapidly over the years.

Attenborough was (still is) a major player at BBC not least since he combined an academic and scientific foundation with a background as network controller and manager at BBC. He more or less created BBC Two, and among other things he brought colour, snooker and Monty Python's Flying Circus to British television. But as important as all of that was, it is in bringing the wildlife and the science of it into the homes and offices of people all over the world that is his unique importance in the history of television. Of course Attenborough was not alone in making these films and series; there were producers, directors and camera men, as well as the BBC. You need to distinguish between the series which he just narrated and the ones that were his own projects. Those are the ones that really matters, the Life series. All of those series mentioned in this post are part of that major undertaking, which has now been going on for some 35 years. 

The series teach the viewers many things, such as how evolution works, the mating habits of crickets or the survival tactics of a giant bush in the desert. They also teach us how fragile the world is, how humans are threatening it through poaching, waste-dumping, deforestation and simply be becoming more and more plentiful for every year. They also remind us that we are one species among many, just another animal. We should not sentimentalize other animals, humans are not alone in our capacity for warfare and cruelty, but neither are we alone in being capable of feelings such as sorrow, affection, curiosity and joy. That is not a question of anthropomorphism, I would rather suggest that it is arrogant to assume that such feelings are uniquely human. But that is another discussion.

Attenborough is now 87 years old but he is still hard at work, and I am looking forward to his next series. Here are some clips from earlier years. The first one is from The Trials of Life (1990).

Here are some sea cows, from The Life of Mammals (2002):

And this extraordinary sequence with Attenborough and mountain gorillas from Life on Earth (1979):

These scenes emphasis the everyday life of animals, and Attenborough himself. The many wordless sequences of astonishing beauty and awe (or horror) you will have to find for yourself. 

Thursday 17 October 2013

Favourite films #2 (2013 version)

Last year Sight & Sound published their decennial list of "the best films" ever made. I published my top ten too. Since it was a pain to choose ten films I have now allowed myself to make a new list with films that might as well have ended up on last year's list. Here they are, in chronological order. I still enforce the rule that any director gets only one film. 15 films was the target this time but I failed...

Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton 1924, US)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927, US)
La grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937, France)
The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch 1940, US)
They Were Expendable (John Ford 1945, US)
Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls 1948, US)
The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger 1948, UK)
Casque d'or (Jacques Becker 1952, France)
A Star is Born (George Cukor 1954, US)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks 1959, US)
The Apartment (Billy Wilder 1960, US)
Le doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville 1962, France)
Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962, UK)
The Leopard (Luchino Visconti 1963, Italy)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976, US)
After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda 1998, Japan)

Here are the ten films that were on the previous list:

Holiday (George Cukor 1938, US)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir 1939, France)
Laura (Otto Preminger 1944, US)
A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946, UK)
My Darling Clementine (John Ford 1946, US)
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks 1946, US)
Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky 1948, US)
Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, Roberto Rossellini 1954, Italy)
Le samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville 1967, France)
The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinnemann 1973, UK/France)

Sunday 29 September 2013

Delmer Daves writes a letter

One of the finest scenes in American cinema is in 3.10 to Yuma (1957), when the outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) comes to a saloon and, instead of playing the tough macho role, becomes very tender and sweet when he meets the bar maid (Felicia Farr). The long, quiet scene ends with them disappearing into the back room.

She says "Funny, some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they're with you for the rest of your life." in a sequence that is a reminder that Delmer Daves, before he began making his own films, was one of the writers on the script for Love Affair (1939), the last of Leo McCarey's trio of emotional masterpieces.* 3.10 to Yuma is Daves's most famous film, and possibly his best. It is very well acted, both tense and moving and it looks beautiful, not to say spectacular, with a unique view of the West. But he did several fine films. They are often emotionally complex, show a willingness to discuss social issues and have impressive visuals, not least his crane shots that have the capacity to add meaning and emotions when they appear, sometimes even introducing a sense of some larger force watching over the characters. Besides 3.10 to Yuma, Jubal (1956) and The Hanging Tree (1959) are two of his very best. More famous is Broken Arrow (1950), which I am not that keen on. It is a bit stiff and the dialogue is too explicit, but it has some moments of greatness. (The claim that it was the first western that showed Native Americans in a positive light is of course wrong, that had been done before, many times and sometimes with more subtlety.) Before Daves turned to the West he did different kinds of films, such as the two he made in 1947, Dark Passage and The Red House. Dark Passage is a thriller, a slightly off-beat experiment that is sometimes genuinely unsettling, and Daves uses the San Francisco setting to wonderful effect, even though Bogart and Bacall in the leads lack the sparkle that they had under Howard Hawks's direction in To Have and Have Not (1945) and The Big Sleep (1946). The Red House is less accomplished but also unsettling, a tale of family secrets and Freudian complexes in a lyrical summer setting. At the end of his career Daves made a series of romances, starting with A Summer Place (1959), that I have not seen unfortunately. But I have heard good things about them. I would be curious to see if he brought the same sense of alienation to the teen romance that he did to many of his other films. "You know, what we have in common is that we're both lonely." says a man to a woman he just met at a bus station in the end of Dark Passage, and they are not the only characters in Daves's oeuvre that feel this way.

I am not an expert on Daves so I will not write any more. Instead I will let Daves speak for himself. The archives at the library at the Swedish Film Institute (where I work) hold a lot of fascinating documents and here is a letter from Daves where he writes about himself and his films, invoking Jean-Paul Sartre, Greek tragedy and his childhood. He wrote in response to a retrospective of western films that the Film Institute's Cinematheque was organising in 1968. It is a great read.

*Leo McCarey's two other films in that trio are The Awful Truth and Make Way For Tomorrow, both made in 1937. 

Here is Glenn Kenny's celebration of one of Daves's last films, Youngblood Hawke (1964).

Sunday 22 September 2013

Alexander Dovzhenko

To criticise or dismiss classical Hollywood because of censorship or constrictions placed on the filmmakers by producers, or for its alleged propagandistic purposes, is common enough. The very same people who take that approach towards Hollywood are however often in favour of Soviet cinema of the 1920s. It should be clear then that their issue with Hollywood is not censorship, constrictions or propaganda but that they just do not like the films or the politics they feel that those films project, but prefer to phrase their dislike in more "objective" language. After all, if they were so alarmed by restrictions and propaganda in general they should abhor Soviet cinema since it is quite obvious that making a film under, say, Darryl F. Zanuck was a walk in the park compared to making a film under Josef Stalin (Zanuck might at worst yell at you, Stalin might have you shot) and it was not possible to make a film which did not glorify the revolution and the dictatorship in Moscow. But, just like in Hollywood, the filmmakers still managed to make spectacular films of great force and beauty, regardless of their questionable politics. The most famous of the Soviet filmmakers is of course Sergei Eisenstein, with Dziga Vertov a close second. But it is Alexander Dovzhenko who is the focus of this post.

He was from the Ukraine, born in 1894, and his most famous films, Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929) and Earth (1930) are all hymns to the people and landscape of Ukraine, as well as to the Bolsheviks. That is his unique contribution to Soviet cinema of the 1920s. Those three films also constitute the bulk of his achievements. Some also hold Aerograd (1935) in high regard, even though it is a bit of a mess. That one is not about the Ukraine but other later films are also set there, like the biopic Shors (or Shchors, 1939).

Above is an image from the beginning of Earth, and shows Dovzhenko's eye for poetic compositions and juxtapositions of humans and nature. That is one of his strengths, and a reason why his films can be appreciated without subtitles. Even though they are communist propaganda they have a certain religious sentiment, or spiritual theme, which is not to be found in the films of Dovzhenko's Soviet contemporaries. Maybe pantheism is a word that describes his films. They could also be called portentous due to his habit of having his characters staring into space and say deep and meaningful things about life, death, the soil, or the revolution. But that is balanced by scenes like one in Earth when a man suddenly starts to dance when walking on a country road and then dance his way forward rather than continue walking, just being thrilled by being alive and at peace with his surroundings. Another strength of Dovzhenko is montage, which is of course what is to be expected from a Soviet filmmaker of the 1920s. This railway crash in Arsenal is an example.

So there are powerful emotions and great beauty in Dovzhenko's best films. But there are also nauseating scenes like the end of Aerograd when the war machine of the Soviet Union is glorified and an officer with a beaming face and immaculate white uniform says: “Long live Aerograd city which we Bolsheviks are establishing today on the shore of the Great Ocean.” The man is shining like he himself was the sun. There is sometimes a very thin line between communist and fascist propaganda, which should be acknowledged.

Dovzhenko did not do all that well after Aerograd, cinematically, and during the war he served at the front, as a journalist. He died of a heart attack in 1956. His reputation is no longer what it was, and his films are not automatically listed among the best ever made as was once the case, but he is worth the trouble to investigate, at least the films of the period 1928-1932.

Monday 9 September 2013

On Yasujiro Ozu and "Japaneseness"

My previous post was about Yasujiro Ozu's most celebrated film Tokyo Story (1953). The post included a few puzzling quotes and here is another one, from the book Japanese Films by Beverley Bare Buehrer (1990):
While Ozu's characters are undergoing difficult times personally, they rarely vocalize their feelings. That is one of Ozu's stylistic strengths. An audience doesn't need to be told of a character's sadness, for they have lived with him. The last scene of Tokyo Story tells it all. Shukichi sits alone in a room in his empty house thinking about a life now filled with loneliness but also accepting it with a calm serenity. (p. 79)
A quote which suggests that Buehrer watched the film without sound and without subtitles because the feelings are overtly "vocalized", many times. But there is another issue with much writing about Ozu that is more problematic than these misrepresentations. It is comments regarding Ozu's nationality. For a representative example, here is a quote from Cinema East - A Critical Study of Major Japanese Films by Keiko I. McDonald (1983):
This emphasis on story rather than plot is easy for Japanese audiences to understand. Ozu's films show everyday Japanese life as it is lived. Thus, a viewer in Japan might well say: "I understand that old man's feelings. He is just like me." Another would say: "I feel for the daughter. I was once in the same situation." (p. 202)
But in what sense would only a Japanese viewer understand "that old man's feelings". Do not Brazilians, Indians or Italians mourn when their loved ones die or feel sad and upset when their children have no time for them? If the film only spoke to an audience who could feel that the characters are "just like me", then how come it is so loved all over the world? Is it not rather the case that the film speaks to universal themes and feelings about parenthood, ageing and such. Of course the film is Japanese and there are certain conventions and traditions that are specifically Japanese, but the feelings and sentiments are not uniquely Japanese. (You might also ask whether Ozu is really showing "Japanese life as it is lived" or an idealised version of something that did never really exist.)

Something that it seems to be more or less mandatory to add when writing about Ozu is that he is "the most Japanese" of Japanese filmmakers. Yet, it is seldom said without the quotation marks. So when for example Donald Richie writes about Ozu in his A Hundred Years of Japanese Film (2005) he will not say up-front that Ozu is the most Japanese of filmmakers, he will remove himself somewhat from the statement and phrase it this way: "makes him, as is so often said, 'the most Japanese of directors.'" (p. 124) as if Richie dare not say such a thing himself yet he likes the claim enough to want to mention it. But how does that work? How is one Japanese filmmaker more Japanese than the next Japanese filmmaker? Is there a scale from 1 to 10 of Japaneseness, where Ozu is a 10 whereas Kon Ichikawa is an 8? Where is Kenji Mizoguchi? The ease with which critics use his nationality as the key to his artistry is a little unsettling. (And it forgets the considerable influence for example Ernst Lubitsch had on Ozu.) And is a similar ranking being done within other national contexts? Does someone consider Werner Herzog "the most German of German filmmakers." Or is it Fritz Lang who is the most German? Does it matter? Does it make any sense?

You might think that this is a Western thing, and call it Orientalism. But that would be to simplify the situation. Many in Japan have similar ideas about Ozu for one thing and it often happens that filmmakers, as well as others, are surprised that their films are understood or liked by spectators from a country or culture different from their own. Once when interviewing the Greek filmmaker Pantelis Voulgaris I said I really liked his film It's a Long Road (1998). His wife, who was the interpreter, looked at me with bewilderment and said "But why? You're not Greek!?" 

All of this is dispiriting because it suggests that for some it is strange that one culture can understand another, as if the audience lacks imagination, being unable to understand or enjoy stories that were not about people exactly like themselves. But is not one of the reasons we watch films or read books that we want to engage with stories about people unlike ourselves? I would like to think so.

There is a lot to say about identification, sympathy, empathy and such but that is for another post.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

A few words about: Tokyo Story (1953)

Since it is the 60th anniversary of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story I have re-watched it yet again. It is on many levels a very good film. The formal elegance and precision is wonderful, and it is filled with warmth and humanity, and it is very moving. But there is one thing that I have a problem with, and that is its superfluous, or overtly explicit, dialogue. In the beginning there is a sequence where the old couple the film is about is seen packing for their trip to Tokyo. A neighbour stops by and they talk about them going to Tokyo to see the children and the neighbour says that it must be lovely and wonderful and the children must be looking forward to it so much, and so on. This is the first instance of this recurring feature in the film, that at regular intervals a character will say something that is meaningful for the plot, which is then repeated by another character. Towards the end of the film the couple's youngest daughter says "Isn't life disappointing." while looking earnest and thoughtful, and the couple's daughter-in-law answers "Yes, nothing but disappointments." The worst example though is at the very end, when the old man is sitting alone in his living room. Suddenly the neighbour from the opening scene appears again and says "You must be feeling lonely with them gone." He answers "Yes." and he adds that he will be lonely now and the neighbour concurs "Absolutely, you'll feel lonely." The scene had the potential to be beautiful but it is ruined for me by this repetitive dialogue.

This need to explain to us what is happening and treat the audience as if it had been taking naps during the film irritates me, and makes me hesitant to agree with the general consensus that Tokyo Story is a really great film, one of the very best. Another thing about Tokyo Story is how transparent it is that the mother will soon succumb to some unspecified illness. It is there from the beginning and clearly sign-posted repeatedly. Its alleged inspiration, Leo McCarey's remarkable Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), is actually more subtle, and for me the better film.

Yet when critics write about Tokyo Story they see it differently. Here is for example Roger Ebert, who says that one of Ozu's strength is his way of "removing the machinery of effects and editing and choosing to touch us with human feeling, not workshop storytelling technique." But is not the opposite the case, and is not Tokyo Story actually very much an example of "workshop storytelling technique" by Ozu and his longtime co-writer Kogo Noda? This is not to deny that there are also many examples of subtlety. For example, in the opening scene when the couple is packing they have an argument about an air cushion. That says a lot about their relationship, without in anyway being explicit. As with my earlier comments about The Searchers (1956), I would not mind these issues I have with Tokyo Story if the film was not so good. But now they get in the way.

By the way, in his review Ebert quotes Donald Richie, who says that "The reason for the low camera position /.../ is that it eliminates depth and makes a two-dimensional space." This is puzzling and I do not understand why a low camera position would eliminate depth. But more to the point, Tokyo Story has great depth, using both deep space and deep focus to telling effect. Perhaps especially in order to create a sense of the larger world, since the lives of their neighbours are often seen through windows in the background, but most of the shots, even those showing street scenes and nature, are carefully staged and framed to create depth.

Finally, I have seen some 15 of Ozu's films and although it is hard to choose between them, if I had to pick one as my favourite, it would be I Was Born, But (1932). It is close to sublime.

In an earlier post I wrote about the common but bad habit of comparing everything to Hollywood, and this tendency is something that is a consistent problem when it comes to Yasujiro Ozu as well. When critics and historians discuss him it is almost always focussed on how he had a unique style that was "the complete opposite of Hollywood" (as if all Hollywood films were in the same style), but it is much rarer to see comparisons between Ozu and for example Mikio Naruse or Sadao Yamanaka, even though that would be more apt.

Wednesday 21 August 2013


It is easy to like Matt Damon. It is not easy to like Elysium. At least not for me. It is however easy to exemplify what I dislike about the film. With regular intervals there are shots in slow motion of children laughing and running from the camera, while glancing back towards it. This is a sentimental trick that I have always found cheap and cheesy and the fact that Elysium is filled with these shots is a sign of the big problem I had with it. Nothing in it felt sincere or genuine, but like somebody had used a computer program to construct a science fiction film, and then left it to the software to direct it. It showed desperately little evidence of craft and artistry. At one point during a fight sequence there was an overhead shot, showing the ground from a high altitude, that was so short that it was not possible to see what it was meant to show, and neither was in sync with the general editing patterns of that sequence, when the heroes attack the villain Carlyle after they have shot down his space craft. It was just completely random and pointless, like so many other shots and ideas in the film.

Towards the end of Elysium Matt Damon's character Max, his childhood friend Frey, her daughter and three evil men are all in a space craft together flying to Elysium (a "paradise" in space) to which they all want to go, albeit for different reasons. Just as they are about to land they all start to fight, a hand grenade goes off and they violently crash (although nobody is killed). What was the purpose of this? Nobody in the space craft had anything to gain from such a fight or from a crash, so why would they start this fight? And what narrative purpose did it serve? It had no effect on the story. The most evil of the men, Krüger, had his face completely disfigured, well, destroyed, but he was soon resurrected by the healing machines that are common on Elysium. It is not a question of "plot holes" but of bad filmmaking, or laziness, an example of the sense of drift and randomness to the film. This is particularly a problem in a film like Elysium, that clearly aims to be political and serious and consequently should be made with more care. It matters less in a film like Pacific Rim, which is considerably more playful and fun and which I thought was more profound with its idea of "the drift", a wonderful version of love.

What about the ending of Elysium? The world in the film is polluted and filthy, and society has collapsed. Those with the means to do so have escaped to the man-made paradise called Elysium. The rest has to stay on the toxic earth. But in the end everybody is made a legal citizen of Elysium thanks to the heroism of Max. But how is this going to change anything? They cannot all live up there, and earth is still a filthy and unhealthy place to live on. If anything this end result will only make things worse because everybody will try to get to Elysium and it will be ruined too. So nobody is better off. Is that what the filmmakers intended or do they think that they have given the film a happy ending? Our world, here and now, have innumerable problems and conflicts and Elysium might have wanted to address them in a meaningful or nuanced way but it failed on that level too. Up in Elysium they all spoke French. Is that because Americans think the French are all elitist snobs, what with their wine-drinking, love-making and philosophing? Tell that to those who live in the banlieues. And what is one to make of the fact that the leaders in the dystopian future is a woman and a South Asian man and that the world can only be saved by a burly, all-American, white man? Is that what we call progress these days?

I would not mind these things so much if the film had been made with some wit, charm and visual panache. Alas, there was nothing of that. So no, I did not like Elysium, not at all.

This post is written as part of a focus on Elysium among a number of Swedish film bloggers. Here are links to the others. One is in English, The Velvet Café. The others are in Swedish Rörliga bilder och ord, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Fiffis filmtajm, Movies - Noir.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Allan Dwan and Jean Grémillon

This year Allan Dwan and Jean Grémillon have been getting an unusually large amount of attention, at museums, film festivals and cinematheques. Since they are both filmmakers of considerable skills and artistry this is only right and proper, and long overdue. What is also satisfying about it is that it is further evidence of what I am always arguing, namely that film history is not set in stone but must be continuously updated, reinterpreted and expanded. Neither Dwan nor Grémillon are unknown (at least not among distinguished film historians) but they are not household names either, for no apparent reason. In the silent era Dwan was one of the most esteemed and prestigious filmmakers around, and he could be seen partying with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Grémillon was celebrated by André Bazin in the 1940s. But after the widespread attention they have received of late hopefully their films will be shown with more frequency.

Dwan made hundreds of films, from 1911 to 1961, with great energy and enthusiasm, and I have seen very few of them. Only six to be exact. Three of them, Driftwood (1947), Silver Lode (1954) and Tennessee's Partner (1955) are very good, particularly the last one. They were made quickly and inexpensively, but that did not get in the way of their quality. Powerful, emotional and with excellent precision in composition and with a use of depth and framing enough to put must other films to shame. I want to explore more of his films, not least the early silent phase when he was one of the great pioneers, to be mentioned alongside other important filmmakers from the pre-1920s, such as Thomas Ince, D.W. Griffith and Cecil B DeMille.

Jean Grémillon had a shorter career; lasting between 1923 and 1958, and many of his close to 50 films were shorts and documentaries. His fiction features though are exceptional. They are intense, dramatic and raw, imbued with a romanticism and spirituality. Some of them can lazily be called French poetic realism, a much overstretched term, and at least one of them, Stormy Waters (Remorques 1941) with a script partly written by Jacques Prévert, must be regarded as one of the most impressive and wonderful French films ever made. Other personal favourites are The Love of a Woman (L'amour d'une femme 1953), his last feature film, and L'étrange Monsieur Victor (1938).

                                          An image from Stormy Waters.

I do not know these filmmakers well enough to write much more than this but below are some valuable links for those who want to read more. I will end with a quote from Bazin: "Grémillon's art is worthy of long commentaries. /.../ He expresses himself in a visual prose of an honesty and transparency so perfect that we cease to be aware of technique. At this degree of skill, art completely disappears into its subject; we are no longer at the cinema but in life itself." (The quote, from 1944, can be found in the collection of early writings by Bazin called "French Cinema of the Occupation and Resistance".)

Grémillon links:
Farran Smith Nehme at Mubi.
Dave Kehr in New York Times.
An introduction from the Film Museum in Vienna.
Michael Koresky writing for Criterion.

Dwan links:
Richard Brody at the New Yorker.
The Allan Dwan Dossier.
R. Emmet Sweeney on Dwan, part 1.
R. Emmet Sweeney on Dwan, part 2.

Kevin Brownlow lecturing on Allan Dwan:
Lezione di Cinema - Alla Ricerca di Allan Dwan / Searching for Allan Dwan from Cineteca di Bologna on Vimeo.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The film as a thing in itself

I am frequently asked "What kinds of films do you like?" and my response is always the same. All kinds, as long as they are good. This often leads to protests from those who ask this question and an effort to disprove me, by way of mentioning different kinds of films that they think I could not possibly like. (Some have suggested spaghetti westerns, others Bollywood musicals, others action blockbusters.) But that is a game they cannot win because what I say is not just a line, it happens to be true. It also means something more important, and that is that I see every film as a unique entity or, as Kant might have said, a thing in itself. It appears that this is surprisingly rare.

There are many ways in which films are not judged on their own merits but in comparison with something else. One obvious example is adaptations. As I have written before, I have a problem with the way films that are adapted from other art forms are discussed and appreciated, as when the quality of a film based on a book is measured on how faithful the film is to its source. I have a problem with this because it says nothing about the film in itself; it only says something about the film's relationship with something else (such as a book). When I see a film based on a book, even if it is a book I love, I do not care about that book, I only care about the film. Its fidelity to its source is immaterial.

When you ask a person what they thought about a horror film they have just seen they might say "I didn't like it, it wasn't scary enough." But by this they do not mean that they only like films that are really scary, what they mean is that since this was supposed to be a horror film it was bad because it was not scary enough. To me that is going about it the wrong way. You might be disappointed because the film was not as scary as you thought it to be but that does not make it a bad film. If the film had great acting, great cinematography, a good story, fantastic music and so on, that should be enough. Whether it was scary enough is something else because it is not based on the actual film but the film's relationship to other films, and that is unfair. If you had approached it as "a film" instead of "a horror film" you might have really liked it.

In her review of Pacific Rim (2013) Deborah Ross wrote that "Pacific Rim is a giant monsters v. giant robots film and although written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who made Pan’s Labyrinth, which was sublime, it’s still just a giant monsters v. giant robots film, and now we have dealt with that". But there is no such thing as "just a giant monsters v. giant robots film". How were the visuals? How was the acting? Did the film stay true to its own inner logic? What did the film's politics look like? Any film can be discussed, analysed and appreciated, and they should be, especially by critics and reviewers. A related situation is when somebody says "It was good for being a horror film." (You can exchange horror film with Western, comedy, musical or, well, any kind of film.) What does that mean? Was it a bad film, because horror films are always bad, even though this one was better than the rest of them? Or was it actually a really good film? But if it was good, then why not just say that, instead of adding a caveat? And compared to which horror films? Was it good on the level of Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960) or Alien (1979)? Any genre has a wide spectrum of films, from the really bad to the really good.

So all films should be discussed, analysed and treated with respect, but preferably on their own terms and not in relation to something else. You can of course compare a film to others like it, or how it relates to other films by the same filmmaker or with the same actor or from the same country, but these comparisons should not be used as a way of passing judgement; but rather as a way of comparing. This is not to say that all films are good, it is just to say that any film has the potential to be good, regardless of style, genre, place of origin or source material, and the chances of you appreciating it increase if you regard it as a unique work, instead of comparing it to some matrix. That, as Kant might have said, should be a categorical imperative.