Friday, 19 December 2014

Christmas in Tokyo

In the 1950s Akira Kurosawa was, even by his high standards, impressively inspired: just think of Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952) Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957). Scandal (1950) though is decidedly less impressive. It is a drama about press ethics and personal morality, and one of Kurosawa's weakest films, but, as it has a scene where Toshiro Mifune drives around town with a big Christmas tree on his motorcycle, it still has some merit. So in this, the last post of the year, that scene is what you will get.



The blog will return on January 9, 2015. See you then!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Five faces in Psycho






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Janet Leigh
Mort Mills
Martin Balsam

Anthony Perkins
Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

Friday, 5 December 2014

Bright Star (2009)

Exquisite is the word that best describes Bright Star (Jane Campion 2009), and that encompasses all aspects of the film. The dialogue, the music, the movements, the butterflies, the flowers, the cat, the tea, and above all the clothes that Fanny Brawne makes, and is so proud of.


She is the central character in the film, a strong-willed young woman who lives with her mother and her younger sister and brother. They are close to the poets John Keats and Charles Armitage Brown, who live and work together. Fanny Brawne and Keats are rather alike, passionate and headstrong, and they are also deeply in love, although nobody else approve of this, for different reasons. Financial reasons for some (Keats is poor, and has few prospects of becoming less so), whereas Charles Brown seems to be jealous of the love affair, as well as thinking it interferes with their writing.


But Bright Star is not a film of conflict, it is rather a film of beauty; delicate and sensuous. Although it too is sensuous, it is far from the blood, mud and sex found in Campion's The Piano (1993), not to mentioned In the Cut (2003). But the same fascination with the texture of fabrics and things, of close-ups of hair, needlework, cloth, body parts, is there, as it always is in Campion's films, and people looking at each other through fingers or curtains or something else which is not exactly seen (as it is so close to the camera) but rather just felt, as a thin veil between the person (or us) watching and whoever is being watched. And it also seems to be a conscious effort to visualise the poetry of Keats.


Campion had earlier made an adaptation of Henry James's novel The Portrait of a Lady (the film came out 1996) and although Bright Star is based on a true story, and the characters in it real, it sometimes feels like an adaptation of Jane Austen, because of its tone, setting and cast of characters. Fanny Brawne could easily be an Austen heroine. She is tempered and proud, and as she is also witty she uses her wit to hurt others. She knows what she wants and aims to get it. Although had this actually been a story by Austen it would probably have ended with her and Charles Brown getting married.

Instead it ends in tragedy, as John Keats died as a young man and Fanny Brawne desperately calls out to her mother for help, being unable to breathe when she is told about his death in Rome. It is a powerful scene and Abbie Cornish, who plays Fanny, is very good, there and elsewhere. She and the film are equally exquisite.

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Another good film with Abbie Cornish is Somersault (Cate Shortland 2004). Trailer here.

Friday, 28 November 2014

From Hell to Texas (1958) - on Hathaway and Levinas

"Wherever this man goes, somebody turns a hand to help him, and they don't even know him. Why?"

From Hell to Texas (Henry Hathaway 1958) begins with a man and his horse coming to a river where they rest for a while, and the man wash the legs of his horse. Suddenly they are attacked by a group of me, who force a herd of horses at them. In the ensuing chaos one of the attacking men is injured by the horses, but the lone man and his horse ride of. It turns out that the men were sent out by Boyd, a rich man who owns the land and the horses, to kill this lone man, Lohman (played by a fine Don Murray, soft-spoken and anguished.) He is to be killed because Boyd believes that Lohman killed one of Boyd's sons, and all through the film Lohman is pursued by Boyd and his men. Yet Lohman is innocent, Boyd's son fell on his own knife. Lohman is a kind and peaceful man who does not believe in killing, not even in self-defence. But his claims about his innocence does not help him.


That is the set-up for this remarkable film, which becomes an exploration of ethics and principles. Lohman does not want to stand and fight, so he keeps running, and when he meets strangers on his way they are both surprised and impatient with his reluctance to defend himself. They applaud his pacifism but they argue that sometimes that pacifism can become self-defeating. "There is a time and there is a place for such things" one of his helpers says, suggesting this is not such a time.

But it is not only those that are friendly towards Lohman who are puzzled by his behaviour. Boyd is too. It was he who asked the question quoted above. To him Lohman is nothing but a simple killer but everyone else embrace him, and help him out. Through his quest for revenge Boyd starts to feel uncomfortable and bewildered by this.

Lohman also struggles, and finally his anger makes him eager to confront Boyd and his men. What pushes Lohman over the edge is when they shoot down a friend of his, a kind older man. But even then he cannot bring himself to kill. Quite the contrary, in the conflagration that is the result of the final showdown he actually risks his own life to save the life of one of Boyd's sons. This is where Boyd resigns and the thirst for revenge is extinguished. He is a broken man, having lost two sons and almost a third, because of this senseless need for vengeance, and he has also lost his self-respect. In the very end of the film he says to Lohman:
Long after we're dead, you and me both, they'll be telling this story, they'll tell it in a thousand different kinds of ways. None of them will favour me. Maybe they shouldn't. Just one thing. I like to be remembered that I gave you your life cause you saved my last son. If you grant me that, I don't mind much going to hell for the rest of it.
Lohman answers "Yes, I'll grant you that."

The switch in power in that scene is very strong, how it has moved from Boyd to Lohman. But Boyd is not asking for forgiveness, what he wants is to maintain some self-respect, and only Lohman can give him that.

The last decade or so film-philosophy has become a popular subject, in which philosophers write about film, films are used to exemplify or problematise philosophical issues and there are also discussions about whether films can "do" philosophy themselves. This can be very interesting although unfortunately it is often about films in which philosophical issues are explicitly stated and dealt with, and argued about by the characters, and so it becomes a rather obvious exercise. (Films by Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Lars von Trier or Jean-Luc Godard are popular here, and individual films such as The Matrix (the Wachowskis 1999) or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry 2004) among others.) But as I have written before in Filosofisk tidskrift (on paper and in Swedish only) it seems to me that all films have the potential for philosophical discussions and investigations, or rather, film-philosophy is especially interesting when it is open to all kinds of films and not just the self-consciously philosophical ones. A film like From Hell to Texas is excellent for discussing ethics and other important issues, and it can for example be interesting to let the film mingle with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In Totality and Infinity Levinas's suggests that "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness." and that could be an apt summing up of what happens in Hathaway's film. Lohman is a decent and gentle man who succeeds by staying true to that side of him, and not succumbing to violence, and in so doing he also changes the man who is hunting him, shames him into defeat. To quote Levinas again "Justice consists in recognizing in the Other my master."

In From Hell to Texas the discussion of ethics also involves animals. The most obvious example is after the one time Lohman actually kills a man, despite his reluctance to use violence. A gunman ambushes him among some rocks and Lohman must defend himself. Afterwards he feels guilty, despite him being within his rights, and here something interesting happens. The gunman's horse stands looking at Lohman from a distance as if judging him for the killing, and Lohman tries to scare him off. The horse refuses to budge. After a while Lohman whistles, and the horse comes towards him, and joins Lohman and his horse. Lohman then removes the saddle on the other man's horse and puts his own saddle on it, and then mounts it. It is as if he tries to take the dead man's place in the life of the horse, even though Lohman already has a fine horse, perhaps in order to make amends for the killing he has done. Lohman takes on the responsibility not only of other people, but of horses as well.

There is also another aspect to the story. Lohman is not just running away from Boyd, he is also searching for his father who left home many years ago. Lohman had taken care of his mother but when she died he set out to find his father. The town where he will face Boyd is also the town where his search for his father comes to an end. Whereas Boyd wants revenge for his dead sons, Lohman wants answers to why his father left him.

From Hell to Texas is based on a book by Charles O. Locke called The Hell-Bent Kid which I have not read. The basic story is similar, Boyd wants to kill Lohman because of the death of Boyd's son, but how this develops and how it ends I do not know so what kind of changes have been made and how much of the dialogue is new is therefore unclear, as are the contributions from Hathaway himself and the two credited scriptwriters Wendell Mayes (who has written many fine films, not least for Otto Preminger) and Robert Buckner (who had previously worked a lot with Michael Curtiz). But, as I have said earlier, revenge is a recurring theme in Hathaway's body of work, and it is dealt with in many complex ways. The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) and True Grit (1969) are two examples. The film of his that is closest to From Hell to Texas is Nevada Smith (1966), about a man who seeks revenge on those that killed his parents, a quest that takes a long time and in which he travels through several states, growing and changing along the way. So it is in From Hell to Texas as well, but in a more profound way.

Also, the forceful compositions and overall dynamic visuals are Hathaway's, and he makes great use of the landscape and the Cinemascope frame. One particularly fine shot is of Lohman lying flat on his back, arms and legs spread wide, next to a river in a canyon. Steam is coming up from a hot spring in the background and even further back is a dramatic cloud hovering over a mountain peak. A brief moment of rest and tranquillity.

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I have written several posts before about Henry Hathaway.
The first, long article about his whole career is here.
A brief follow-up to the first post is here.
A piece about Spawn of the North (1938) is here.
A piece about Souls at Sea (1937) is here.

Among the books by Emmanuel Levinas are Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Time and the Other, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence and a dialogue between him and Philippe Nemo published as Ethics and Infinity. That is a good place to start, especially considering how difficult his writing can be. Five years ago the online journal Film-Philosophy had a special issue on Levinas. For those who want to read more on Levinas and cinema, Sam B. Girgus's book Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine might be of interest.

Friday, 21 November 2014

A scene from Girlhood (2014)

Girlhood (Bande de filles, Céline Sciamma 2014) takes place in the banlieues at the outskirts of Paris, among concrete and poverty. It is focused on the teenage girl Marieme who joins a little group of three other girls, much tougher than Marieme is, but she quickly becomes one of them, becomes like them, and even tougher in the end. In the process she takes on a new name, Vic. Their lives are hard, and it is a rough and uncompromising environment to grow up in, with bullying and street fights part of the routine.

At one point the four girls, with stolen money and stolen, pretty, clothes, check in to a nice hotel. They come to their room, play around on the big bed, and change into their new, nice clothes. They also put on make-up and make themselves as pretty as they can. Not for anyone else's benefit, but for their own sake. Then they start to sing and dance to a song by Rihanna, Diamonds. And the shot lasts the entire song.

This sequence is without a doubt the best I have seen all year, as energetic as it is immensely moving. It is so moving because even though their life is often shit, here, at this very minute, and with the help of Rihanna's song (which could be about them) everything is perfect and life is pure joy, a bubble of happiness, that is all theirs. The grading makes everything look blue, so in all aspects this scene stands out from the rest of the film.

Eye to eye, so alive
We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

The scene was more or less improvised, and the girls, who are not actors but ordinary girls living in these neighbourhoods, just did what came natural to them when they came into the room. Sciamma had only decided beforehand that they would be in a hotel room, and had also managed to get the rights to use Rihanna's song. And no matter what it might have cost, it was worth it. The power and the exuberance of the scene is not only deeply moving, but also intoxicating, and a perfect example of the power of music and how it helps people bond and connect. Music can set you free and sharing a song together is about as powerful as it gets, and screw the rest of the world.

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Marieme / Vic is played by Karidja Touré. The cinematographer of Girlhood is Crystel Fournier and it is Céline Sciamma's third film. The other two are Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres 2007), which is fine but somewhat conventional and hesitant, and Tomboy (2011), which is exceptional and the best of the three.

Here is an article about one such banlieue, Sevran, which you pass through if you take the train from Charles de Gaulle airport to get into Paris.

Friday, 14 November 2014

On time and Tavernier - A Sunday in the Country (1984)

One of the things I like best about A Sunday in the Country (Un Dimance à la campagne, Bertrand Tavernier 1984) is the way it deals with time. It is the kind of film where the past and the present seems to exist almost simultaneously, and occasionally even the future appears, as if it was now. Time here is not just relative but transcendent, and the past might be as real and materialised as the present.

The film is set in 1910 and focused on an old man, a painter who lives with a housekeeper in a big house outside Paris. His wife is dead and he feels lonely, but on the Sunday the film is set he is visited by his son (with family) and his daughter. They play, eat and quarrel, and go for a ride in the daughter's fancy car. But every now and then there will be a scene that is set in the past, when the wife was alive, or when the children were small; sometimes past and present are combined in the same shot. In addition to this the old man's son has premonitions of his father's death and the dialogue too moves effortlessly between past, present and future.

This is close to my own perception of time, with the past a constant presence in the present and things that has happened before, earlier, are not old or passé or even forgotten, it all exists and is the material of which the present is built, of which it/we exist. We are the sum of our memories and our genetic inheritance; the past flows in our veins. (This is similar to how I think about films. Not as new or old but just films, seen or not-yet-seen, each film building on those that came before it.)

Father and daughter

Bertrand Tavernier, who wrote and directed A Sunday in the Country, has made several films about time and memory, and how the past lives on, and this might be the one film of his I like best. It is as close to perfection as any film has come. The cinematography is sumptuous and fluent, Tavernier and the cinematographer Bruno de Keyzer use their colours to evoke the style in which the old painter might have painted, whilst keeping the camera moving and agile. The film is not trying to tell a story but to capture some truths about these people; their fears, grievances and joys. It is in turns funny and painful, and flawlessly acted by the cast, old, middle-aged and young, even the dog is perfect. The film is sensitive to everybody's needs and regrets, and Tavernier uses the very French type of voice-over, more of a literary device used frequently by Truffaut, of an unknown yet all-knowing voice occasionally explaining the characters' feelings. The son is hurt because his sister was always their father's favourite. The father is disappointed by how seldom his daughter comes to see him. But all of them have things hidden from the others, and they do their best to get along. It is a film of great beauty.

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Some 15 - 20 years ago, Tavernier was one of my favourite filmmakers and I tried to watch everything he made. Then I lost track of him and I have seen very little of his work after the magnificent It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd'hui, 1999). But revisiting A Sunday in the Country made me remember all the films by him I have seen, not least the exceptional The Clockmaker (L'Horloger de Saint-Paul 1974) and  Daddy Nostalgie (1990), with Jane Birkin and Dirk Bogarde, and eager to explore the later ones.

Other films in which the structure of time becomes a quality in itself are Two For the Road (Stanley Donen 1966), the films of Hong Sang-soo, Alain Resnais, Wong Kar-Wai and often Theo Angelopoulos. Joseph L. Mankiewicz is another time artist.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Ministers of Fear - on Lang and Hobbes

There are several filmmakers who have made conspiracy their particular niche, a kind of films I like to call "urban paranoia". Among the key directors are Alan J. Pakula and especially John Frankenheimer. But the most essential filmmaker here, and one of the definitive artists of the 20th century, is Fritz Lang. From the late 1910s until the early 1960s, in several countries and continents, he used his camera (with sharp, cool, clinical images) to tell us that the world was a crazy and scary place where we are all victims of the forces of evil. The threat can come from criminals, or the state, or the Nazis, or your friends and neighbours, but it does not really matter who they are; what matters is the existential fear. Thomas Hobbes had said in his book Leviathan from 1651 that we once lived in "worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.", and there is a feeling that Lang believed that this was still the case. Like Lang, Hobbes was no stranger to fear. He was born prematurely in 1588 because his mother got so scarred when she heard the Spanish Armada was gathering outside England's coast that she went into labour. "At that point my mother was filled with such fear that she bore twins, me and together with me fear." Hobbes later wrote in his autobiography.

The bleakness of Lang's vision is sometimes staggering, just look at the ending of Scarlet Street (1945), and repeatedly in his films the audience are being fooled and deceived. People we think are dead are really alive, people we think are alive are really dead, the person we thought was guilty turns out to be innocent and the innocent turns out to be guilty; frequently what we think we see happening is a lie, a fraud. Nobody can be trusted, least of all the filmmaker himself.


Occasionally people say that when Lang left Germany in the 1930s and went to the US he lost his touch, and the films faltered, but this is a peculiar view that is not at all backed up by the actual films. There are more things that unite than separate the German and the American Lang, just consider such films as Dr Mabuse Der Spieler (1922), M (1931), You Only Live Once (1937), The Big Heat (1953), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960). Regardless of what kind of films he made they are usually all as pessimistic.

The Big Heat

Although not his best film, Ministry of Fear (1944) has the best title and is perhaps the one where the rampant paranoia is given its most extraordinary expression. The first ten minutes or so in particular are like nothing else, almost incomprehensible, and sound and image are so controlled and so unsettling it is like a horror film by Samuel Beckett. It is set in England and based on Graham Greene's novel with the same title, a book Lang loved and really wanted to adapt. Unfortunately Lang and Seton I. Miller, who wrote the script and was also the producer, did not get along, and Lang hated the finished film. That is unfair, the only major weakness is the obvious fake last scene but that can easily be disregarded. Seton I. Miller should not be disregarded though, he was involved in writing many great films in the 1930s in particular and was once a writing partner of Howard Hawks. Ministry of Fear have not much in common with Hawks's films, but it is especially close to Lang's earlier Spies (1928).

Ministry of Fear is easy to find, and below is a fine celebration of it; a collection of scenes cut together without apparent coherence, which is exactly in keeping with the tone of the film itself. It is very good.



It should perhaps be mentioned that Lang's work was prefigured by serials such as those by Louis Feuillade, for example Les Vampires (1915) and Tih Minh (1918). It was a popular kind of film in early cinema, and Feuillade's work is almost as paranoid and haunted as Lang's films would be. But maybe paranoia is not the right word here. As Andrew Sarris wrote: "Lang might argue that in a century that has spawned Hitler and Hiroshima, no artist can be called paranoiac; he is being persecuted." or, as they say in Catch-22 (Mike Nichols 1970), "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

Joe Wilson in Fury (1936) was not paranoid, and this is what the town did to him:



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There are visual links between Lang and Michael Curtiz, whom I wrote about last week. Seton I. Miller is also a link. The links between Lang and Alfred Hitchcock are more important, and plentiful. In the 1920s and early 1930s Hitchcock aspired to be like Lang, but then the roles were switched. Lang was envious of Hitchcock and wanted to be more like him, and made some films with that in mind. Together they mapped the 20th century from a Freudian angle, bringing forward its neuroses and fears. But whereas Hitchcock was more interested in guilt Lang was more interested in punishment.

This post is yet another of those challenges among Swedish-based bloggers to write something around a set theme, the theme this time was "conspiracies". Here are the other contributors.

In English: The Velvet Café

In Swedish: Rörliga bilder och tryckta ordJojjenito, Fiffis filmtajm, The Nerd Bird, Mackans film, Har du inte sett den (pod), Filmitch, Fripps filmrevyer, Flmr filmblogg, Absurd Cinema.

M

Friday, 31 October 2014

The romantic expressionism of Michael Curtiz

A couple of years ago I was switching from one channel to another on the TV. On one channel there was a film showing. I did not recognise it, and since I had not seen it from the start I did not watch it for very long, only a few minutes. But I guessed that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, and to satisfy my vanity I had a look in a TV Guide later. It was indeed a film I had not seen and it was directed by Curtiz. I recognised his style almost immediately. Perhaps no filmmaker ever had such an infatuation with shadows, and few have been able to equal his expressive use of camera movement, mise-en-scène and lighting to make the images glow and dazzle. He had a remarkably dynamic style and I have always thought that Gunnar Fischer and Ingmar Bergman were visually influenced by Curtiz. Curtiz and Marcel Carné. It is not just the initials Curtiz and Carné have in common; Curtiz, like Carné (working with Jacques Prévert), was also something of a romantic, making his shadow play enhance the often doomed love affairs, or even the tentatively successful. James Agee once wrote that Curtiz "has always seemed like Franz Murnau under onions". I assume he meant F.W. Murnau, and I do not exactly understand "under onions" but although it is not perhaps a compliment he did notice Curtiz's expressionist style.

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

All of the films are not like this, he was too uneven and had many bad days but when he was inspired, which was often enough, he could make anything come alive and shine. His work in the late 30s and early 40s is usually singled out for praise, when he made films such as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942), but it was there before and it was still there in his last films, at least as late as 1958, when he made The Proud Rebel, in which almost every single interior shot is a masterpiece. The story is not much, but it looks better than practically any other film you might see, and might be the most visually stimulating colour film Curtiz ever made. It was shot by Ted McCord, who worked with Curtiz several times in the later years. Perhaps the finest film they made together is Breaking Point (1950), a film that also has one of the saddest and greatest ending I know.

Breaking Point

The Proud Rebel could very well be the title for most of Curtiz's best films, it was one of his favourite themes. But themes are not all that important with Curtiz, style is what matters here. The producers and writers often complained that he did not care for the story but was only interested in compositions, and actors complained that he was not interested in them either. But there are many great performances in his films, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, James Cagney and Claude Rains for example, and Olivia de Havilland is marvellous in The Proud Rebel, much older than she was in Captain Blood or Robin Hood, and a better actress. What is more is a general warmth that fill his best films, which also help make them rise above their often humdrum stories. While We're No Angels (1955) is rather uninspired visually, a rare failure in that respect, it too is rescued by its warmth and charm. A better film, also filled with warmth, is Life With Father (1947), so well-directed it should be mandatory at film schools. Beyond the acting and the lighting there are three things worth studying: the use of mirrors, the use of space (which parts of the house are used and for what purposes) and how people move in that space between scenes.

Life With Father. Who but Curtiz would shoot a discussion between husband and wife this way?

It is conventional wisdom to consider Casablanca a happy coincident yet it is really a typical Curtiz-film when he is inspired. The combination of wit, romance and cynicism is intoxicating and a lot of it comes from writers Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers, but after being attacked and expanded upon by Curtiz's forceful personality and camera it became something else. In addition, Curtiz was Hungarian (with a large but rather unknown European body of work), and he lost family members in the Holocaust, so the subject of the film was probably close to him.

Casablanca

Although not his best, the film in which his visual creativity reigned particularly free was The Unsuspected (1947), a convoluted story about greed, jealously and murder told with extraordinary boldness. It was also the first film produced by Curtiz's own (short-lived) company Michael Curtiz Productions. The cinematographer was Woody Bredell and Curtiz made it together with his wife Bess Meredyth, who worked on the script. She often did that but The Unsuspected is one of the few times she got a screen credit.




A useful compare and contrast study can be made between Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. In the 1930s Curtiz was one of the top directors at Warner Bros. (together with Mervyn LeRoy and Roy Del Ruth) and Walsh came to Warner in 1939. They made (superficially) similar films, and often with James Cagney, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, yet they were also very different, with Walsh being the more complete and more interesting filmmaker, and less uneven. They differ in style too, Walsh's visuals are nowhere near as expressionistic and energetic as Curtiz. Walsh had a more naturalistic style, with a few exceptions. A typical Curtiz image is claustrophobic but a typical Walsh image is open and boundless. But whereas Curtiz's style is more energetic than Walsh's, Walsh's characters are more energetic than Curtiz's, always on the move. Walsh also had a clearly defined and consistent outlook on life in his films. But even though Walsh is the greater artist, Curtiz is good enough.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

The Sea Hawk (1940)


Mildred Pierce (1945)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Context, conspiracies and subtext creep (part 2)

Some time ago I read an article about vampire movies and why they are so successful among teenagers now. The answer, according to the article, is that the vampire movies allow the teenagers to process their fear of terrorists, and that the vampire craze is a result of 9/11.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke to a film scholar friend who had had an article about recent developments in TV genres rejected because the article did not contextualise contemporary TV genres with references to 9/11 (or words to that effect). I remembered also when Down With Love (Peyton Reed 2003) came out and I was asked the question "Why is this coming now?" meaning, what does it say about contemporary gender roles that Down With Love is being released now. (My non-too serious reply was something about "feminism light")

That was three examples of the attempts to "explain" why something is popular and what something is "really" about that are so popular among film scholars and journalists. But these arguments are rarely substantiated by anything solid. It was not the case that teenagers who liked vampire movies had been interviewed about how they felt about terrorists. It was just taken for granted, as such things so often are. Teenagers might like vampire movies for any number of reasons, it might be because they are scary, or sexy, or thrilling, or whatever. You could just as well argue that the reason teenagers like any kind of films is because they are afraid of terrorists and the films provide an escape from this fear. But then again, are teenagers actually that concerned about terrorists at all?

9/11 is a very popular reference point, but it was 13 years ago now. A lot of things have happened since then. The horrific tsunamis that have taken place in Thailand, Indonesia and Japan, the financial mayhem of recent years, the rise of Putinism and European fascism, and so on and so forth. To take one event and use that as some kind of benchmark for discussing culture is more often than not just laziness.

Sometimes articles and books that try to explain why something is popular reminds me of conspiracy theories, with the thinking being that there has to be a large force that explains things, something must be blamed, I suppose in both cases it is an example of human's dislike of randomness and chance. It is not that I am against contextualisations as such, only against the often sloppy ways it is done. (X came after Y, therefore X can only be understood as a reflection of Y.) But, as they say, correlation is not causation.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, when people discuss science fiction films from the 1950s it is often with the understanding that they are "really" about the fear of communists. But why? For one thing there is not always a subtext; sometimes a film about an alien invasion is just a film about an alien invasion. I am a bit suspicious about subtext thinking in general (see an earlier post about it here) but even when there are subtexts in these films, it can be about a number of things other than communists. It can be about a fear of nuclear war, or nuclear waste. It can be about fears of diseases. It can be a critique of conformity and/or racism. Of course, some of these films are about the fear of communists, but there is a lot more to it than that and there are many possible interpretations. When H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds in the 1890s he was not afraid of the communists taking over so why assume that a film based on it must be about such a fear.

On the other hand there is Susan Sontag's argument that there is "absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films." A statement that is impossible to understand since it is so obviously wrong. (She wrote that in her 1967 essay The Imagination of Disaster.)

There is a film called Invasion U.S.A. (Alfred E. Green 1952) which tells the story about a Soviet attack on the USA. Maybe it is an allegory, and really about the fear of an invasion of aliens from outer space.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Westerner (1940)

A few weeks ago I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and John Ford. Its cinematographer was Gregg Toland, and he did another film that year, The Westerner, directed by William Wyler, the filmmaker Toland usually worked with. It is not typical of Wyler's work and it is an oddity in many ways. It begins with violence, then it becomes a two-man show about the growing friendship between two men, Judge Roy Bean (played by Walter Brennan) and Cole Harden (played by Gary Cooper), and then suddenly it turns to tragedy, before a brief ending, set a few years later than the rest of the film, which is at odds with almost everything that came before. It also has moments of unexpected dark humour. I am mentioning it today because the look of it, and how it sometimes corresponds with the look of some of Ford's films, including The Grapes of Wrath. Some images are breathtaking in their beauty and starkness.


The look of the film is its main asset. The other is the relationship between Roy Bean and Cole Harden. After the introduction there is an almost 40 minutes long sequence with the two of them in a bar, first as enemies and then they become friends, ending up sleeping together in the same bed. They talk and they drink and tell wild stories, and then they become partners, even if they sometimes fight. Roy Bean has a problem with his neck so every now and then Harden must set it right, it is a recurring thing in the film, and nicely handled.

But The Westerner is also somewhat confused, not sure what it wants to be about or where it wants to go. Wyler said it was "a comedy disguised as a melodrama" and within Wyler's oeuvre it does not really compare to any other film (I have written about Wyler here before), even though he began by making cheap westerns. It has at least four scriptwriters, Stuart N. Lake provided the basic story about Roy Bean, Jo Swerling and Dudley Nichols (uncredited) fleshed out the story and then finally Niven Busch was brought in and, among other things, he added the "love story" between Roy Bean and the stranger in town, Cole Harden. Wyler apparently wanted script changes on a daily basis and even though they have all written fine films, Niven Busch in particular is an interesting writer, still there is something missing here. Perhaps a number of compromises and committee decisions got in the way; one problem in particular is the part of Jane Ellen (played by Doris Davenport). As this is a film about two men and their affairs her part is rather superfluous and in that respect there are too many scenes with her, yet since she is in the film and is given some importance towards the end, more scenes with her earlier might have given the film a better balance. But any problems somehow pales when Bean and Harden share a drink, or one of Wyler and Toland's compositions pierce through the screen.

So while it is nobody's best work, it is still a good film and the real ending (i.e. the one before the last scene) is very moving.



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Judge Roy Bean is a historic figure, a justice of the peace in Texas ("the law west of the Pecos" as he called himself), although the film is not exactly a true story. Cole Harden is fictional. The actress that the judge idolises in the film, Lillie (or Lily) Langtry, is a real person, and Roy Bean's obsession with her was also real.

Toland and Ford made another film in 1940, The Long Voyage Home, which is also visually advanced. One of Ford's self-consciously artistic films, but it is far from his best.


Friday, 10 October 2014

Waiting for Happiness (2002)

The coastal town of Nouadhibou in the North-west corner of Mauritania is a place where ships go to die, the sea outside it filled with old, abandoned ships. It is also a place to which Africans go as a last stop before trying to reach Europe. And it is where Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako 2002) is set, taking in the refugees, the ships and the locals. I first saw the film ten years ago and it has stayed with me. Now I have watched it again. For its type it is fairly conventional, a lingering narrative, more concerned with observing people than telling a story, little dialogue and plenty of shots with people sitting, or sometimes standing, in silence whilst looking pensive. In a way it is as clichéd as a Hollywood romcom but since clichés are a more or less unavoidable aspect of art, it would be unfair to demand something more. (I have written about clichés here before.)


The man in the shot above is Abdallah (he did not stay very long in that unfortunate room) and he is one of the main characters in the film, in passing on his way to Europe. He does not speak the local language, Hassaniya, so he speaks French, and the local girls make fun of him. His mother lives here though, so that is a reason for him being here. He befriends a little boy, Khatra, who is hanging out with an old man, helping him install light bulbs and electricity in the small houses in which the people live. They are moderately successful, which is also a source for comedy. The light bulb is a recurring motif, representing both life and death, and modernity and its problems.

There are a number of prostitutes around too, and a Chinese man who sings karaoke about being exiled. It is a motley crew, and they all have interesting stories to tell and to share. There is also an undercurrent of tragedy. If you are waiting for happiness, it means it is not with you now, and tales of broken promises, deaths and bodies washed ashore are plentiful. And always the lure of Europe is there, as a hope as well as something fearful, and always out of reach. Even if you happen to make it over there. But there is hope in the film, which, as is so often the case, comes through the children. They have not become cynical yet and they can carry on the culture and the traditions of a vanishing world.


This was Sissako's first full-length film, unless you count the one hour long Life on Earth (1998). His next film was Bamako (2006), which is also good, and more ambitious than Waiting for Happiness. After that it took some time before he was able (or willing) to do a new feature film but this year Timbuktu (2014) opened at Cannes, and hopefully I will be able to see it soon. It is about the Islamists' take-over of Northern Mali 20012-2013 and the subsequent horrors, which ended after France intervened at the request of the Malian government.

Sissako, who was born in Mauritania and now moves between France, Mali and Mauritania, is a fine filmmaker and it is a shame that he has made so few films. He wants to share his part of the world with the rest of it, the rest of us, and it is worthwhile to take the time to be a part of it.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

100000+

Today my blog statistics informs me that I have had my 100000th visitor and although I do not completely trust these figures I still think it is something to celebrate! (Actually it is as of now 100062.) There were many scenes I thought of as appropriate for the occasion, something by Raoul Walsh perhaps, or Claire Denis, or maybe Hou Hsiao-hsien. Or the opening scene from Manhattan (Woody Allen 1979), or, well. Then I decided to combine Cary Grant and George Cukor so here, a brief scene from one of the best films I know. A heartfelt thank you to all of you who have come here to read me!



Holiday (George Cukor 1938).

Friday, 3 October 2014

A film is a personal thing

Films are personal, not only in the sense that a person might tell her own story on film but also because our reactions to films are so personal, unfathomable for others. One film I often watch is Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells 2003). The main reason for this is because it is set in a place (Tuscany, Italy) where I would like to live and about a person, a frustrated writer who haphazardly comes across a property there, far from home, and buys it on the spot, so she, Frances, is fulfilling a dream of mine. Until I am able to do that myself this film will continue to serve as an inspiration and a warm blanket to snuggle under when it is raining outside and I am bored or sad. This is what matters, not the acting, the music, the camera work. But it matters only to me, because of who I am. You might very well think the film is contrived and insufferable, and that is fine too. We are not the same person, and we are not really seeing the same film. (Although, if I had felt that the acting, the music and the camera work were atrocious I would probably not have been able to enjoy the film. Fortunately they are good enough.)


Since I love books, words and writing, films that are about those things, and films about writers, have a special appeal to me, they get a preferential treatment. This is unfair for all those films that have none of this, but there it is. The Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson 2000) is such a film and yet another film I could watch repeatedly. Not because it is special in the formal aspects or the acting, but because what it is about and the milieu which it depicts.

There is something called "guilty pleasures", but that is a term I disapprove of, wholeheartedly. You might think that it was used to refer to films that you like even though you think that they are offensive or the politics are appalling but instead it is used about films that people like but that they believe is not considered a quality film. But what kind of nonsense is this? To me it usually sounds like nervousness and insecurity to call something a guilty pleasure. It has also gotten to the point where it has been used about Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950), Annie Hall (Woody Allen 1977) and films by Ingmar Bergman. Apparently any film can these days be considered a guilty pleasure, adding to the meaninglessness of it. So that is not what I am talking about here. I am just talking about the personal aspect of viewing and appreciating films.

This is why it is difficult to recommend a film to a person you do not know. It is after all pointless to just tell them to watch the films you like since there is no reason to assume that what you like, they will also like. That is not how it works. All through my adult life (because of what I do and where I have worked) strangers have asked me to recommend films. What shall I see? Which film should I buy? This is a delicate matter, and I nowadays make suggestions after asking them a number of questions to get a feel for who they are and what they like. Sometimes that can of course mean that I recommend a film I myself do not like, because I am not them and our tastes are not the same. This is the challenge for film critics as well.

Since films are so personal it is not surprising that people can get very emotional and upset when somebody dislikes a film they themselves like, or vice-versa. It is not surprising but it is just the same unfortunate. I have been in rather uncomfortable situations when people have been very angry and intense only because they found out that I felt differently about a film they had strong feelings about. So while I can see how it could happen I do wish that people were less narcissistic and acknowledged the simple fact that we all have different tastes, and different experiences, and that this does not make other people bad or stupid. This can also happen when filmmakers are asked about which of their films they like best and people are disappointed by their answers. (See for example the peculiar case with Woody Allen a few years ago.)

So it is with films, and so it is with much else. I have a very emotional bond to Coldplay's first album Parachutes, not primarily because of the music but because of a particular girl and a particular place which is connected with that album. That is just me. Not you. And we all have such special relationships. It is something beyond all theorising and intellectualising and it is one of the true wonders of art.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Rain

Once when I saw Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951) in an auditorium some people arrived late, a few minutes into the film. I felt sorry for them because they must have been soaking wet considering there was such a heavy rainstorm. Then I remembered that it was a sunny day, and that the rain was only on the screen, commandeered by Kurosawa. But such was the intensity of the film, and my absorption in it, that its weather became the real weather. That is the cinema of Kurosawa; no other filmmaker has used nature and weather with such force, precision and impact, and not only rain.

 Seven Samurai (1954)

As with everything else that appears in films, rain can either just be there or it can mean something. In Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) it is what Travis Bickle hopes to become, something that washes away all the filth and garbage. In Lean's A Passage to India (1984), big, heavy raindrops start to fall on the dirty ceiling windows when Dr. Aziz is cleared from all charges of rape, washing away the lies and the rumours. In Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982) and Se7en (David Fincher 1995), the constant rain instead signifies the rotten and corrupt state of the nation (or perhaps mankind). It also sets the mood for when bad things happen. An assassination of a statesman in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), the killer disappearing in a flock of umbrellas, or another killing, barely visible in the pouring rain, that opens the thriller The Mob (Robert Parrish 1951). 


In Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger 1947) Mr. Dean says at the beginning that he will give the nuns until the rain comes and for sure, in the last scene, as the nuns abandon the convent, the rain starts to fall. As the title of Robert Mulligan's exquisitely photographed film (shot by Ernest Laszlo) has it, Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965). Exquisitely photographed is also Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes 2002), by Conrad Hall of course, and the rain pours there too.


When American cinematographers a decade or so ago voted for the best photographed film of all times another film shot by Conrad Hall won, In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks 1967), and the scene several mentioned was the one where one of the killers is standing by a window on which it rains and the water running down the window is reflected on his face, making it look like he is crying. Some ten years earlier Hasse Ekman, working with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, did something even more elaborate in Egen ingång (Private Entrance 1956) when the feverish main character, played by Maj-Britt Nilsson, is lying in bed and the water on the window makes it look as if she is drenched.

Rain can also be a joyous occasion. Gene Kelly, as Don Lockwood, sings in it, and Durga, Apu's sister, dances in it in Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray 1955). Sometimes it is the setting for a great kiss, as in Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards 1961). But that is less common. It is more likely to appear, as in For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone 1965), when a killer comes to town.

And, as it happens, the best of Joris Ivens's early short films is called Regen (1929), the Dutch word for rain. Here it is:


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The subject of rain was not randomly chosen by me but one of those challenges that I have done before from a group of Swedish film bloggers. Here are the others who wrote about rain:
The Velvet Café is in English, the rest in Swedish: Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, Fiffis filmtajm, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Har du inte sett den, Mackan.

One final treat, the trailer for Robert Hamer's excellent It Always Rains on Sunday (1947).

Friday, 26 September 2014

Out of the Past (1947)

I have written before about Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur 1947), a film I love more than most other films. Here are three more stills from this extraordinary work of art. (Which is now out on blu-ray by the way.)

Robert Mitchum

Jane Greer


Friday, 19 September 2014

Thoughts about acting

When I was a young boy I used to act in school. Not in plays necessarily but in comic sketches, and sometimes in what might be described as soap operas. Me and a classmate would come up with the idea and then ask a couple of other classmates if they wanted to participate, under our direction, such as it was. We put up a little show every Friday, or at least every second Friday, for years. The other year I was in a Swedish film, Ego (Lisa James-Larsson 2013) and I had two lines, as a travel agent, in a scene with the leading actress. It certainly was not method acting but I was pretending to be something I was not, or somebody other than myself. My question is this: was I acting then? Or does acting involve more, must for example emotions also be involved? There were emotions in my scene. I was laughing and my "character" took an interest in the well-being of the customer. I was pretending not only to be a travel agent but also a fictive person who cared about another fictive person. Is that want acting is all about? I often wonder about that, although rarely with reference to myself. But here are some other thoughts regarding acting which does not involve me.

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Sometimes after I have seen what I think is a marvellous performance I will see the actor again in an interview, or occasionally even on the tube, and being startled by the fact that they are exactly like they were in the film. What I thought was a great performance was only them being more or less themselves. This happens more frequently with local actors but one more famous example is Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979). This is part of what makes acting and actors so intriguing. We might assume that a particular thing the actor is doing adds nuance and depth to a part and congratulate the actor for it, not knowing that this is not part of the act but a natural habit that the actor does all the time, whether on set or alone in the car. They might not even be aware of it. So it is something that is always there, and not unique for this particular performance for this particular part. But if what they do is something that is part of their natural behaviour it feels peculiar to regard it as great acting.

It is different with people like Kevin Costner for example. When I have seen interviews with him he comes across as rather stiff and dull. But in films he is not like that at all, he can be very likeable, or very scary, even an action hero, which is very far from how he appears in those interviews. Whereas Clint Eastwood, who directed Costner, and acted against him, in what might be their finest achievement, A Perfect World (1993), does not differ all that much from how he appears to be in private from how he appears in films. That would suggest that Costner is a much better actor, because he can believably transform himself into somebody whom is very different from who Costner is in person.

But there is more to it than that, because you must also come across as alive, present, believable, even if you are not a great actor you have to blend in with the film. In Crossroads (Tamra Davis 2002) three young women go on a road trip and they are played by Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana and Taryn Manning. Neither of them do their parts well, they all stumbled on their lines and come across as uncertain and unfocused. Whereas Eastwood come across as natural in his films Spears, even though she is playing a person close to herself, does not. It might be a question of being comfortable in front of the camera, which none of the three women succeed in being.

Here is when direction becomes vital. A recent article by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian about Lauren Bacall and her performance in To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks 1944) did not once mention the name of the director. Bradshaw mentioned the studio, the writers and other actors but it was as if he thought that directors are irrelevant as for as actors and performances are concerned. This is not unique for Bradshaw but a more general tendency, to talk about direction and acting as distinct from each other. But they are of course the opposite of that; directing to a large extent specifically means working with the actors. In creating a good atmosphere, in getting the right performance and getting a good performance. If an actor performs badly the director is partly to blame. (I have seen episodes of Next Top Model where the young would-be models are criticised by the jury for their performance on a photo shot, but that is unfair because the models do not know anything, they only do exactly what the photographer tells them to, so if they do badly it is not their fault but the photographers.)

Another job for the director is to see to it that there is harmony between the various actors, that they do not go off in different directions. Some directors care more than others about such things. Some are content with letting the actors do their thing, others control and modulate them, just as they do with the design, the editing and the imagery. Ernst Lubitsch played all the parts himself beforehand to show his actors how they should do it. Two directors closely associated with MGM, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli, had very different ideas of what kind of acting they wanted. For example, in Minnelli's films the energy of the actors is directed outwards whereas in Cukor's films it is directed inwards. Likewise, Akira Kurosawa's preferred style of acting is different from Yasujiro Ozu's and Hasse Ekman's is different from Ingmar Bergman's. This is an important aspect when considering the director as auteur, and it brings nuance to the often simplistic idea of a "studio style".

Hepburn and Holliday in Adam's Rib (George Cukor 1949)

Then there are different kinds of actors. There are those just playing a type and there are character actors, a term often misunderstood or at least used in different ways. A character actor sometimes refers to somebody who does not play a particular type, but varies from film to film. Sometimes it refers to an actor who plays eccentric characters, distinct or flamboyant. Walter Brennan was a character actor. Takashi Shimura played a tough samurai, a natural leader, in Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954) but in his previous film for Kurosawa, Ikiru (1952), he played a meek old man, sick with cancer, and almost the antithesis of his part in Seven Samurai. But often it is not that easy to distinguish. Look at Toshiro Mifune or Al Pacino for example. They are often stylised and eccentric, but not always. They can be subdued too. Sometimes they play more generic roles, other times they create deep and rounded characters. But none of this necessarily mean that one is better than the other. Meryl Streep changes a lot from part to part, Judi Dench less so, but that does not mean Streep is automatically a better actress.

Al Pacino is by some regarded as the greatest actor for the last 40 years or so, other finds him too flamboyant and loud. Although there is no contradiction between the two of course, being loud and flamboyant does not mean that you are not a good actor. With Pacino, his low-key performances such as in Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell 1997) or Insomnia (Christopher Nolan 2002) are all the more impressive. And in Heat (Michael Mann 1995) where he alternates between low-key and overly expressive, depending upon the situation and what it requires (I mean what it requires of his character Vincent Hanna), he might have given his best performance. But it is hard to say what good acting is, other than perhaps to say "I know it when I see it." Sometimes when people say that they disliked a performance what they mean is that they dislike the actor, which is not the same thing. It is sometimes a question of what kind of acting style a person prefers. Some like extravagant actors like Jack Nicholson, others prefer the more low-key acting style of someone like Daniel Auteuil. But one might require as much skill and effort as the other. Acting is not just showing up, there is a lot of work and technique involved, regardless of acting style. There are of course also those who dislike actors and think that amateurs are much better, in some quest for as much realism as possible. But to consider realism as the main goal and purpose is to have a limited view of cinema, and art,

When I was growing up in Sweden, British TV was all the rage and people were saying "And the actors are so good!" It was an axiom that British TV series had the best actors. But it was rather peculiar because what was it actually based on? How were they better than actors in series from other countries? It was just something one said, rather than something one had actually experienced. And I feel that is often the case when the quality of acting and actors are discussed. It is hardly ever based on a real study and evaluation of the acting in question.

Two of my favourite performances happen to be British, Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945) and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith 1951), but I would have a hard time explaining why. Why in the sense "What makes them different from other performances, by themselves and by others". One reason though is the conflict between the reserve (and the stiff upper lip that is required) and their, Laura's in Brief Encounter and Andrew's in The Browning Version, struggle with it, and ultimate inability to adhere to it (they both have breakdowns, crying uncontrollably), It is great acting, but part of the power comes not from the actual acting but the societal context, which is not part of the performances but help make the performances what they are. Another favourite performance is Clu Gulager in The Killers (Don Siegel 1964). Siegel often encouraged his actors to be quirky and odd, or cool, and none succeeded more than Gulager. It is a rather mannered performance, and he is always fussing around with something, at one point doing push-ups during a scene. It is a great performance. But whether it is great acting is another question all together.

Friday, 12 September 2014

J. Lee Thompson

This year is the centenary of the birth of John Lee Thompson, the British director who appeared in-between the golden years of British cinema in the 1940s and the kitchen sink movement in the 1960s. This means that he, like others such as Basil Dearden, has been somewhat neglected when British cinema is discussed. He peaked commercially in 1961 when he made The Guns of Navarone and after that he went to the US to make his most famous film, Cape Fear (1962). But his subsequent American career, despite the occasional film of interest such as the dark comedy What a Way to Go! (1964), is not when he was at his best. It was in the 1950s, home in Britain, that he thrived and his British films are as good, and often better, than the later, more famous films made by Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the 1960s.

There are three things that distinguish his work: the razor sharp images (he often worked with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), the socially conscious themes, often involving a violent crime and its repercussions, and the acting. Yield to the Night (1956) is an unsettling drama about a woman, played by Diana Dors, who is sentenced to death. It was inspired by the case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain.


Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) is about the implosion of a family and centred around the desperation of the mother and wife (played by Yvonne Mitchell) to keep both herself and her family together. 


An earlier film, The Yellow Balloon (1952), is about poor kids in the bombed-out parts of London. One I have not seen yet is another prison drama, The Weak and the Wicked (1954), also with Diana Dors.


The two films I like best are Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tiger Bay (1959). The first one is set in the Sahara desert and is about two British soldiers and two nurses trying to make it to Alexandria during World War 2. They pick up a South African solider on the way, who might be a German spy. It is an incredibly tense film and filled with astonishing images of the desert, both in the piercing sunlight and the cold darkness of the night. It is also one of those films where the pain and suffering is so palpable that watching it is an ordeal, where every drop of sweat or any broken ribs are as vivid as if they were your own. The main actors, John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle, must have been exhausted after a day's shooting. The close-ups of their anguished faces and the stark compositions of cars, humans, mines, the sand and the sun are unforgettable.


Tiger Bay is set in Britain, and is about the unexpected bond between a Polish man, played by Horst Buchholz, and the little girl, played by Hayley Mills, he takes with him when he escapes from the police. The film cross-cuts between them and the police in pursuit and combines vivid characterisations with excellent cinematography. This time though it is not Gilbert Taylor but Eric Cross who is the cinematographer. It is possible that he got the job because he had previously shot the similar, and equally excellent, Hunted (Charles Crichton 1952). 


Although he also made a few comedies, Thompson was at his best when observing ordinary people, men as well as women, under extreme pressure and with a reluctance to judge their behaviour. He got great performances out of his actors and his visuals are almost always excellent, using depth and blocking to create tension while also capturing the beauty of the setting, regardless of where it is. It is a shame that he seemed to have lost his way after Cape Fear but he deserves retrospectives at any ambitious cinematheque. 

Irene Papas in the fine The Guns of Navarone

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford is one of those filmmakers that I write about repeatedly, since I consider him to be one of the great artists of the 20th century. There are many aspects that make up his artistry, such as his themes and his conception of time, his work with the actors, his creation of distinctly Fordian characters. But it is perhaps above all else the poetic images, with many typical compositions recurring all the way through his career. Some of his films must be regarded as the most beautiful, visually, that has ever been made. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is one of them. It is not Ford's best but it is still very impressive, and quite wonderful. Here are some stills:





 




In his correspondence with Lindsay Anderson for Anderson's book About John Ford, the scriptwriter for The Grapes of Wrath, Nunnally Johnson, boldly claimed that whatever quality is to be found in Ford's films came from the scripts Johnson had written, and the films Ford had made with other writers were just bad. As claims go it is depressingly weak. These images alone contradict Johnson because the images are Ford's, not Johnson's (nor John Steinbeck's). The cinematographer on the film was Gregg Toland, famous for his work with William Wyler and especially with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), but there is nothing in either Wyler's or Welles's films that are like the images to be found in the films of Ford for the obvious reason that their films were not directed by Ford. Of course, Toland was important for the look of the film, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a great, and close, interest in the production (Ford was more independent on other films), but the look and feel of the film is still Ford's. "Let's take a chance and do something different." he said to Toland when they were preparing it, and he later added "It worked out all right."