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.

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