Friday 31 January 2014

Sturges vs. Sturges

When people talk about a filmmaker called Sturges it can automatically be assumed that they refer to Preston Sturges. Conventional wisdom has it that Preston Sturges is the important one and John Sturges is "the other Sturges". However, I think the differences between the Sturges' are interesting and is about something essential in cinema, and what we value in the art form. What is valued in Preston Sturges is dialogue, humour, satire, characters and plotting, more of literary qualities. His films are extraordinarily quotable, his characters are rich and vivid, down to the smallest part (a thesis could be written about his bartenders), he tells ingenious, convoluted stories, and his satire can be both brave and dark. Nobody is safe from his sharp tongue and raised eyebrow and for at least eight years, from The Great McGinty (1940) to Unfaithfully Yours (1948), he was a one-man show in Hollywood, a writer-director-producer who made films that were very much his films.

But he has not made a film that is better than John Sturges's best films; Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, image above), a tense drama attacking racism and the treatment of Japanese Americans, and Hour of the Gun (1967, image below), a bitter and wise film with extraordinary music by Jerry Goldsmith. John Sturges had a strong visual sense and when he had the right script and a good cast he could do great things. His compositions are often striking, many of his films have shots and images that are far beyond anything found in Preston's films, and few have such a firm command of the widescreen image. There is real beauty in the geometrical precision with which he can stage and frame a shot. In addition, the ensemble acting in many of his films is remarkable, how the group becomes one. There is also, often, a peculiar mood to the films; as I have said earlier he is good at being uplifting and downbeat at the same time. Besides the two high points already mentioned other fine films of his are The Capture (1950, an independent production from his early, pre-widescreen, days), Backlash (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963).

So neither of the Sturges' is ideal, but both have great strengths; for one it is the written word, for the other the visuals. There is room for both.

Preston Sturges is not really like anybody else, but it is tempting to put John Sturges together with Richard Fleischer (whom I wrote about four years ago here). A topic for another day. Andrew Sarris put both in the "Strained Seriousness" category but they are more than that.

Backlash, with its story (by Borden Chase) of a man hunting the man he believes is responsible for the death of his father, only to find out in the end that it is the other way around, that his father is a killer, is very good but it makes you wonder what Anthony Mann might have done with it. Mann is a much greater artist than any of those mentioned in this post.

Friday 24 January 2014

The films of 2013

I saw some 80 new films last year; most on general release, some on festivals and some at home on DVD. Some have said that 2013 was an unusually good film year but judging by the films I have seen it does not strike me as being outstanding. Although I saw only three that were terrible (Now You See Me, Elysium and the Swedish Monica Z), the majority of the films were middling at best. Not offensively bad but not great either. But there were a few really great ones too. A little under half of the films I saw were American and the other half was from all continents. But Australia made it only since The Great Gatsby was made in Sydney by an Australian director. But why are hardly any films made down there that might be distributed overseas? I hope I will at least be able to see The Railway Man sometime soon. What I would prefer not to see again is a new film by J.J. Abrams. He is a remarkably untalented filmmaker for being so famous as, well, a filmmaker. He should perhaps more accurately be considered a photocopier with the ink running low, as Star Trek: Into Darkness suggests.

Something important that happened was that the transfer from analog to digital has become almost complete now. And the latest news is that Paramount Studios has decided not to release any more films on 35mm prints but to go 100% digital. Other studios are bound to follow.

It is customary to write something about what the films of the year "were about", as if that was possible to sum up. In New York alone over 900 films from all over the world opened last year and it stands to reason that they cannot be reduced to a handful of themes and ideas. It has been said that 2013 was a breakthrough year for films about racism and the concerns of black people in America. This is a questionable assumption, not least because there have been previous years when several important films were made (for example, in 1992 Spike Lee made Malcolm X, Ernest R. Dickerson made Juice and Reginald Hudlin made Boomerang, a trio comparable to 2013's 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and The Best Man Holiday) and whether the films this year will be more successful in making a profound shift remains to be see. One can but hope. I will return to the subject of race in American cinema in a later post.

A real breakthrough on the other hand happened in Saudi Arabia, where Wadjda became the first film ever made on Saudi soil, and it was a feminist film directed by a woman, Haifaa al Mansour. I wrote about it here earlier last year.

As somebody who has been following Iranian cinema since the 1990s I am pleased that I have been able to see at least three Iranian films this year, Darvag by Abolfazl Jalili, Ziba by Bani Khosnoudi and Manuscripts Don’t Burn by Mohammad Rasoulof. They were all different and all good, although Ziba, about an alienated housewife, went on for far too long. Best was Manuscripts, a brilliant film about surveillance and oppression, very powerful and moving. The development in Iran has otherwise been interesting, with the election being won by the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani and the diplomatic openings and deals that quickly followed. Iranian cinema flourished during an earlier moderate president, Mohammad Khatami (in office 1997-2005), and foundered under the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, one can but hope that things will ease up now and that the many political prisoners, some of whom are important filmmakers, are released.

I saw three films from China, American Dreams in China by Peter hu-sen Chan, So Young by Vicki Zhao and The Grandmaster by Wong Kar-Wai. Chan is not a very good filmmaker, which he proved again, but Wong is one of my favourites although The Grandmaster was not all that successful. Sometimes incredible but often infuriating. The most interesting of the three is So Young, and not only because I am an old Suede fan. It was one of the biggest successes in China last year and is about a couple of first year students at a university in the early 90s. It lost its way completely in the last part which was set in the present day, but before that it was affectionate and sincere. China has had a major impact on global cinema these last years, in many ways, some for the better and some for the worse (such as self-censorship among filmmakers abroad who are afraid of losing out on the Chinese market). China is also a subject suitable for later blog posts.

Soon the Oscars will be handed out, and the Razzies. They are both annoying in many ways, but particularly so the Razzies because they are making no real effort to award really bad films, but seem to be more concerned with big budget films that have been unsuccessful at the box office. It is very unlikely that they would give a Razzie to the next film by Michael Haneke. This year The Lone Ranger is nominated as worst film of the year and Gore Verbinski as worst director. How do they decide? I was more impressed and dazzled by The Lone Ranger than most films of last year, even though it did not make my top ten, or even top 20.

Another maligned film that I liked very much (much more than The Lone Ranger) is the collaboration between Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy: The Counselor. It was somewhat unhinged but shot and told with confidence and precision, and wonderfully acted. The scene when the title character (played by Michael Fassbender) visits a diamond dealer in Amsterdam (the dealer is played by Bruno Ganz) is one of the highlights of the year. What I also liked was the unrelentlessness and professionalism by the drug cartels. It is a well-oiled machinery and the poor fools who are human enough to think they can deal with them all go under. The cartels are incorruptible; it is us who are weak. But that is what makes us human, and them something else, something truly disturbing.

Some potentially great films have yet to reach me, such as Inside Llewyn Davis, but if I should chose six films that for me were the true wonders of 2013 it would be the following: The Iranian Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Francis Ha, Sangsoo Hong's Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux and, above and beyond them all, Nicole Holofcener's triumphant, warm, tender and marvellously alive Enough Said. I have not loved a film this much in ages.

I wrote a few blog posts about new films when they came out. Here are the links:
About Wadjda, Oblivion, The Great Gatsby, Elysium, Gravity, Philomena and Wolf of Wall Street. And here is my summary of 2012.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

One of the joys of watching a film by Martin Scorsese is the confidence, even swagger, with which he tells his stories. There is an exuberance to the narratives that can be just as intoxicating as the drugs used by his characters. To some extent his power as a filmmaker is similar to the power Jordan Belfort, the main character in The Wolf of Wall Street, has when he is trying to sell things, anything, to a group of people. In that respect Scorsese might be the perfect director for this film. It might also be a reason why so many take issue with the film. had an excellent pace and rhythm with one of the best uses of voice-over/direct address in modern cinema, and several set pieces were fantastic, none more so than when Belfort and Donnie Azoff are experiencing the delayed effects of a powerful drug, severely inhibiting their control over their bodies and their ability to talk. There is a magic touch to the film, such as when a Ferrari suddenly changes colour whilst in motion. (Belfort is not necessarily a trustworthy narrator.) There was also a lot of good acting, especially Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. (By the way, they released two trailers for the film: the first was excellent, the second much less so. What happened there? Why did they feel the need to make a new one?)

In some ways The Wolf of Wall Street, much like The Big Bang Theory, can be seen as Revenge of the Nerds writ large. The characters in WoWS, with the exception of Belfort, are not exactly the brightest kids in the room and they might very well have been picked last at gym sessions in school. But now it is payback time, and they aim to skin the fat cats and fuck as much, and as many, as humanly possible. They are not bankers, and they are not really on Wall Street either (that is just where Jordan Belfort works for a few days in the beginning). They are basically con men, so in a way the film is as related to The Sting (George Roy Hill 1973, which is a good film) as it is to Wall Street (Oliver Stone 1987, which is not). The victims at first are poorer middle class but that is presented as more of a moral problem, partly articulated by Belfort's then wife Teresa Petrillo. After that talk Belfort and his friends decide to go after those who are already rich and have lots of money to spend. Those who have criticised the film for not showing the victims of Belfort's frauds have to some extent showed themselves to be surprisingly concerned for the lives of the rich. Although, here the film is somewhat hazy because some of Stratton Oakmont's victims were not that rich.

The most persisted complaint against the film is that it is not critical, but glamourises these people and their behaviour. Yet the film opens with the people at Stratton Oakmont's office throwing a dwarf and then there is a freeze frame just as the head of the dwarf is about to hit the target. Is that not enough to make the point that this is a film about characters that are appalling in all ways? The film does not leave it at that though, there are several such scenes (a female employee's head is shaved in one scene, and she is clearly most uncomfortable with it) leading up to the end where there is a scene in which Belfort almost kills his daughter. Why would Scorsese have such scenes in the film if it was not to condemn these people and their behaviour? It seems to me to be clear that Scorsese wanted to show how it was possible for Belfort to get away with what he did; to show his shallow charm and persuasiveness while at the same time showing how he was a person who ruined everybody he came into contact with, including himself.

"Stratton Oakmont is America" Belfort says in one pep talk, and the film seems to be saying that yes, America is like Stratton Oakmont and that is a very bad thing. The film, much like Pain and Gain (Michael Bay 2013), is about the "American Dream" where the dream is presented as a shortcut to an abyss. But it is not just the stock brokers, the guys at Stratton Oakmont would not have succeed if ordinary people had not been so pathetically eager to beat the odds and get rich(er) fast. And it is not only an American thing of course, it is universal. In the last image of the film we see the awed faces of ordinary kiwis (the scene is set in Auckland, New Zealand) trying to learn from Belfort how to get rich quickly. We have met the enemy and he is us, as Pogo said.

A number of other Swedish bloggers has also written about the film. Here are links. The first blog is in English, the others in Swedish: The Velvet Café, Fripps, Rörliga bilder och ord, Jojjenito, FiffiHar du inte sett den, Movies-Noir, Except FearFilmparadiset.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Trains and the cinema

The latest challenge from Filmspanarna was trains, meaning I am supposed to write something about trains and films. This post is my contribution.

Towards the end of the 19th century a number of important inventions that changed human's perception of both time and space had been firmly established, with cinema being the last of them (or maybe radio). Railways were one such invention, or rather the combination of several inventions developed over a longer time. The steam locomotive came upon in the very beginning of the 19th century, but the first public railway opened in Britain in 1825 and in 1869 the First Transcontinental Railroad opened in the US. The train made it possible to travel fast and cover long distances, which made the world smaller and more manageable. Trains also meant that time needed to be standardised as it would not be possible to have a comprehensible time schedule if every other town and village had their own time. (Standardised time was even called railway time.) The electrical telegraph, the system of transmitting messages on wires over vast distances very quickly, developed more or less simultaneously, and the telegraph lines often went up along the railway networks. The telephone, which made it possible to even speak in person to somebody far away, made its first appearance in the 1870.*

So trains and cinema are connected. Just consider how several key films in the development of cinema are train-related, such as L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter 1903) or The Lonedale Operator (D.W. Griffith 1911). The last two of them also combined trains and the telegraph, neatly summing up the modern world.

A common theme in films about American 19th century history is the disruptive effects trains had, both positive and negative. In Matrix (The Wachowskis 1999) there is a scene where agent Smith is trying to kill Neo by pushing him in front of an oncoming train. When the approaching train is heard Smith says "That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death." and that is how many felt when the railway was being built across farmlands and such. While the railroad is often seen as a positive thing, bringing progress and prosperity, other times it is seen as a bad thing, bringing death and corruption. Last year's The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski 2013) is a current example of this. John Ford's breakthrough The Iron Horse (1924) is an early example where the railroad is seen in a positive light. Duel in the Sun (King Vidor 1946) shows both sides of the conflict, with the father and one son being against the railroad and the other son in favour of it. The pro-train son is the one who ultimately prevails. But there are hundreds of films around this theme. (What is less often acknowledged is that the railways across the US were to a large extent built by poorly paid Chinese workers.) Fewer films have been made about building the telegraph network, but there is at least Fritz Lang's Western Union (1941). It suggests that the telegraph caused disruptions too.

Trains are not only important in American films of course; it is a universal theme, albeit perhaps less connected to a national mythology in other countries. But in Satyajit Ray's first film Pather Panchali (1955) there is a sequence when young Apu and his sister, living in poverty in a small village, runs across the countryside to catch a glimpse of a train. The train here, too, as a symbol of progress and change.

Many filmmakers have showed themselves being drawn to trains, and it is a very cinematic thing. They are not only symbolic but also alive and moving, Unstoppable, at least according to the title of Tony Scott's last film (2010). An especially forceful depiction of a train is to be found in Runaway Train (1985), directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and based on a script originally written by Akira Kurosawa. Yet they are also recurring images in the much more still and quiet films of Yasujiro Ozu. But the one filmmaker for whom trains is especially important is of course David Lean. It is not only Brief Encounter (1945) and The Bridge of the River Kwai (1957) that are based around trains, they are an essential part of Lean's films, almost all of them. Summer Madness (1955, aka Summertime), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), A Passage to India (1984), even a film which is primarily set on a ship, In Which We Serve (1942), has important scenes set on a train. Cinema and trains become one in his films: the greatest of filmmakers is also a great train lover. It was perhaps inevitable.

*Less relevant but still important was the development of mail order services, which really took off in the 1860s when Pryce Pryce-Jones in Wales began sending catalogues of his goods to the whole of Britain so that anybody could order from his shop and he would send it to them. (20 years later Sears in the US became the Amazon of its age the same way.)

John Frankenheimer's The Train (1964) is one of his best film and consequently one of the best films of the 1960s.

Here are links to the other contributors in the train challenge. They are all in Swedish with one exception - the first link. The Velvet Café, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ordExcept fear, Moving Landscapes, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Movies-Noir, Fiffis filmtajm, FilmitchHar du inte sett den.

Buster Keaton's The General (1926)

Monday 6 January 2014

Henry Hathaway in Paris

This week a major retrospective of Henry Hathaway's films begins at Cinémathèque Française in Paris. It runs from January 8 to February 24 and it is of course very exciting, especially for me who has written quite a lot about his films. In this post I have collected links to my writings for those who want to read more, and perhaps get an idea of which films to especially look out for.

Niagara (1953) 

My first, long article about his whole career is here.
A brief follow-up to the first post is here.
My piece about Spawn of the North (1938) is here.
My most recent post, about Souls at Sea (1937), is here.,559.html

Garden of Evil (1954).

Call Northside 777 (1948)