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.