Friday 30 May 2014

Of sad men in raincoats

Jean-Pierre Melville is one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, one of the very few who have made two films worthy of being included on an all-time top ten list. This post is a celebration of his films. If you are concerned about spoilers be aware that the ending of Le Samouraï (1967) is mentioned.


If there is one quintessential image from the extraordinary films of Jean-Pierre Melville it is of a man in a raincoat, looking weary or sad, apparently feeling abandoned by life and wondering what the point is, and why even bother going on.

Serge Reggiani in Le Doulos (1962). 

They are not ordinary men but gamblers, gangsters, policemen or French resistance fighters, although there is not much difference between them. They are the offspring of Philip Raven, played by Alan Ladd, in This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle 1942). Like Melville's men Raven suffers from insomnia and is suicidal at times, and he walks through life with a pained face. 

Melville's men are also related to those that appear in Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise 1959), a major influence on Melville. Wise's men though are much angrier than Melville's.

Robert Ryan

It is more or less inevitable that they will die in the end, by their own hand or by somebody else's, and they do not necessarily mind, at least as long as they can die with honour. 

Bob le flambeur (1956)

The raincoat is worn regardless of the weather. It can even be worn when playing a spontaneous game of pool.

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

It is primarily a fatalist fashion statement and nobody looked better in it than Alain Delon.

Le Samouraï

Jean-Paul Belmondo, Richard Crenna and Lino Ventura (the saddest of them all) can also be seen, walking the windswept streets, wondering when it is all going to end and who it will be that betrays them. There is an existential disquietude in Melville's films and often it is fate that betrays his characters.

Le Deuxieme souffle (1966)

There are not just the men, there are women as well, and the world is as tough on them.

Emmanuelle Riva in Léon Morin, prêtre (1961).

Simone Signoret in L'armée des ombres (1969).

Cathy Rosier in Le Samouraï.

In the end of Le Samouraï, when it looks as if Jef (played by Delon) is about to shot Valérie (played by Rosier), she just says "Why Jef?" The action speaks for itself. He is not trying to kill her, it is himself he is trying to kill. "Why Jef?" A possible answer might be "Why not?"

Friday 23 May 2014

Racism and the American cinema

This post is primarily about films before the 1960s and the civil rights movements.

Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges 1942) is a fine film, not least thanks to its hilarious characters and wit. However there is one disturbing thing about it, a bartender of sorts who is presented in a stereotypically uncomfortable way. His voice, behaviour and gestures all have the characteristics of the "funny black guy", but it is not funny in the least. (He was played by Fred Toones, known for his nickname Snowflake, who made over 200 films, often playing porters or shoeshine boys.)

Fred Toones

And Palm Beach Story is not alone in presenting such a racial stereotype; they are to be found in many American films. The 1910s and 1920s were perhaps the worst, with some improvement in the 1930s, but stereotypes like "the mammy" and comic clowns remained. It is hardly surprising that American films have these characters since overt racism was in effect a governing principle, at least in the South, until the 1960s, and on the whole films with black characters in them suffer from this. It is not only blacks, but for example Chinese, Hispanics and American Indians (henceforth referred to as Indians) are also often treated in a similar racist, stereotypical way. In the 1940s things began to change, for several reasons. One reason was the impact the atrocities from Nazi Germany had, another reason was a meeting held in 1942, instigated by NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), against racial stereotypes and for better roles for black actors. A few years later the Supreme Court also began to take an active stand against racism and segregation, with the verdict in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, against the segregation of schools, as a milestone. But some stereotypes remained, albeit muted. See for example the character Jonah Williams, in Sergeants 3 (John Sturges 1962), played by Sammy Davis Jr. It is a sad spectacle.

There is a paradox at the heart of racism, i.e. the fact that there is only one race, the human race, and any difference between whites, blacks, Asians or whatever is never more than the surface, primarily the skin colour. We do not consider people with blond hair, brown hair and red hair to be three different races yet to do so is not more illogical than to consider whites and blacks differently. (Of course, we also, consciously or unconsciously, see blondes and brunettes differently. Think of all "dumb blonde" jokes). The word "racism" is anachronistic, from a time when people actually believed that there were different races and that they were different from each other (for example in terms of IQ), and should perhaps be replaced by another word.

But to get back to film. It would be a mistake, a mistake often made, to dismiss all Hollywood films as being equally racist, and it is also a mistake to judge the films exclusively from our time in history. Everything needs to be contextualised in order to be properly understood. For example, a distinction needs to be made between films that were considered racist at the time and those considered progressive, even if they today appear stereotypical as well. D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) is hardly an enlightened paragon of anti-racism seen from today but in its tender portrayal of a tragic love affair between a white woman (Lillian Gish) and a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) it is the opposite of the virulent racism of Griffith's earlier The Birth of a Nation (1915), and made at a time when there was a lot of talk of "the yellow peril", and there was a fear in American society about it being overtaken by East Asians. A film like Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), although artistically rather advanced, panders to this fear in a way Broken Blossoms does not. Although, as was often the case, the Chinese man was not played by a Chinese actor, but a white man made up to look Chinese. The Japanese man in The Cheat however was played by Sessue Hayakawa, a big star at the time.

Barthelmess and Gish

After the Second World War a number of films were made that more explicitly dealt with racism, such as Pinky (Elia Kazan 1949) and No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950), and anti-semitism, such as Gentlemen's Agreement (Elia Kazan 1947) and Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk 1947). Unfortunately they are sometimes compromised by either being patronizing, or meant to make the white, gentile audience feel good about themselves. That is also a problem with the much celebrated film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan 1962). One film from the 1940s that goes beyond that, and is really brave and forceful, is Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown 1949) with Juano Hernández, of which I have written more about here. Another good film is Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise 1959) with Harry Belafonte. An interesting twist is to be found in The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish 1959), where the cavalry consists only of black soldiers, so-called buffalo soldiers. Their sergeant is played by former baseball player Satchel Paige and there is a remarkable sequence where a stagecoach, driven by Apache Indians, is being engaged by the black soldiers. What also happened in the 1950s was that black film stars appeared, not least the magnificent Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Worth mentioning is also the TV series I Spy from the mid-60s, the first series with a black actor in the lead, Bill Cosby. He plays one of the two agents the series is about, the other being played by Robert Culp.

Dorothy Dandridge

* * *

In an article last year after the release of The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski 2013), Jan-Christopher Horak wrote about westerns and Indians, proclaiming that "[o]bviously, virtually all of Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians narratives were equally racist". It is not an uncommon view but I do not see it that way. A film that is being sympathetic to Indians, and show how they suffer from the appearance of the white soldiers and settlers, is clearly not as racist as a film in which Indians are considered something that should be killed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Both those kinds of films exists, and even if the former kind might often be considered condescending, it is wrong not to distinguish it from other, genocidal, films. So-called pro-Indian films have a long history; even though Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves 1950) is often considered the first it goes much further back than that and Broken Arrow was not even the first film on that subject in 1950. In Raoul Walsh's epic The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne's character is asked by some kids if he has killed many Indians. He says no, because "the Indians are my friends." Likewise when Walsh made They Died With Their Boots On (1942), he managed to make a film that takes the side of the Indians ("the only real Americans here") despite it being about the battle of the Little Bighorn, where the 7th Cavalry, under General Custer, was more or less wiped out by Lakotas and Cheyennes in the Great Sioux War. But in the 1950s pro-Indian films became much more common. What distinguishes them is that they are either told from the Indians point of view or from somebody sympathetic to them, and that they criticise the deceitfulness, racism and violence of the white men, not least the military, and there is often a sadness over the way things have turned out. What many of them also have in common is the unfortunate fact that it is rarely Indians actors who play the parts of the Indians. But while that is an issue it does not invalidate them, it might be considered an acceptable compromise in order to get the films made at all, and it does not necessarily loosen to force of the films. Some of them, like Tomahawk (George Sherman 1951) or Reprisal! (Sherman 1956), can be surprisingly angry and sad. Some other notable examples are Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann 1950), Apache (Robert Aldrich 1954), They Rode West (Phil Karlson 1954), Chief Crazy Horse (Sherman 1955) and Run of the Arrow (Sam Fuller 1957). It was not just a few particular filmmakers who made these films, it was a more general tendency, although George Sherman made several of the best.

Van Heflin and Susan Cabot in Tomahawk

Consider also The Cimarron Kid (Budd Boetticher 1952). The main character, Bill Doolin aka The Cimarron Kid, played by Audie Murphy, has as his best friend Stacey Marshall, a black man played by Frank Silvera. In one scene the Kid is having dinner in the home of Marshall and his family. Such a scene would be more or less unthinkable in a film from that time with a contemporary setting, but the western setting gives it leeway. Likewise, in another of George Sherman's films, Comanche (1956), the main white character falls in love with a Mexican woman and the relationship is considered a good thing, and it leads to marriage.* That too would be almost unthinkable in a film from 1956 in a contemporary setting.

John Ford, whom Quentin Tarantino in a peculiar charge dismissed as a racist, shows quite clearly the complexity of the situation. In some of his early films Indians are just faceless threats, but in others, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) they are shown as subjects, dignified and suffering individuals. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon even has Indian actors. When it comes to black characters in Ford's films they can be problematic as in Judge Priest (1934), but later he made the rather outspoken anti-racist film Sergeant Rutledge (1960), by some seen as one of Ford's later efforts to make amends for earlier films.

Woody Strode as Sergeant Rutledge

In Judge Priest the main black character is played by Stepin Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry). This too is an example of the complexity of the issues. On the one hand, with his body language, drooling speech pattern and apparent dimwittedness, he can be regarded as the very essence of an abject racist stereotype, a type known as a "coon". But, Stepin Fetchit was also an actor and an artist who had carefully constructed this persona, and at the time he was a star and a hero for many blacks, who imitated his walk and his way of talking. He was also the first black actor to be given proper screen credit, and he was so popular that he became a millionaire. It can also be argued that the persona partly worked as a defence mechanism. In a later film by Ford, the complex and quite wonderful The Sun Shines Bright (1953), made in a more enlightened era, hints are given that under this facade lies a fear, the very real fear of being lynched if not acting according to the white men's idea of black behaviour.

Stepin Fetchit in The Sun Shines Bright


A blanket condemnation, saying that all old films are racist, is unsatisfactory because it is not true; there is a scale from the outright racist to the progressive and insightful. Consequently, for the very same reason, it is not satisfactory to excuse racism in older films because they are old and people "did not know any better". Because many did. The problem has not disappeared either, people are still racists today. On films and in the larger world. Lately schools have been even resegregated in the US, as courts have been stepping back from upholding the verdicts from the 1950s and 1960s. (Here is an article about the problem.) As an example from contemporary films look at how racial stereotypes are used as comic relief in Michael Bay's Transformers films. It says a lot about how problematic these characters are that nobody takes any responsibility for having created them, instead people blame each other. Notice also how few black characters there are in war films, or, in films in general, how rare interracial couples are.

One of the least appealing aspects of contemporary anti-racist manifestations is that they all too often become nauseating spectacles that combines othering (we, the good guys, versus them, the bad racists) and self-righteousness. It is not until each one of us has confronted our own racism that real progress will be had.


This post has only been about American films, but similar problems exist in films from all countries of course. And in European cinema Anti-semitism was once very common.

I have not mentioned films made by black filmmakers, such as Oscar Micheaux, but that is subject for a post later this year.

*2014-05-26 Originally I said that the man and the woman in Comanche had a child before they were married, but I take that back. I believe I misunderstood what she said in a key scene.

I have also amended the text by inserting a bit about The Cheat and Sessue Hayakawa that had gone missing.

Monday 19 May 2014

Gordon Willis (1931-2014)

I just heard that Gordon Willis has died. Since he was one of the most brilliant of cinematographers and has constantly dazzled me, he deserves respect and celebrations. He is particularly famous for his work with Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola but he also worked on several films directed by Alan J. Pakula, and would have been a natural creative partner for John Frankenheimer, although they never worked together. He made films between 1970 and 1997, and most of them are very good, some even better. He is known primarily for his interiors and Conrad Hall (another great cinematographer) called him "the Prince of Darkness". (He was not the only cinematographer with that nickname, Bruce Surtees was also called that for one, and John Alton might as well have been.) But it is not difficult to understand why. He was a master. R.I.P.

Klute (Alan J. Pakula 1971) In the background they are building World Trade Center.

Bad Company (Robert Benton 1972)

The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula 1974)

Interiors (Woody Allen 1978)

Manhattan (Woody Allen 1979)


A scene from All the President's Men (Alan J. Pakula 1976).

Friday 16 May 2014

On wonderment in cinema

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Max Weber has appeared on this blog before, the previous time regarding his ideas about ideal types. This post is related to another idea of his; that in the modern era society, through rationalisations and secularisations, are experiencing a loss of enchantment, of the mystical, the irrational. The term he used to describe this modern phenomenon was Entzauberung (a term previously used by Friedrich Schiller), meaning disenchantment or demystification. In a speech from 1917, "Science as a Vocation", Weber explained it as that the modern person believes "that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted."

I would like to borrow this idea and apply it to cinema, or rather; I would like to suggest that we can talk about a kind of cinema, from a number of filmmakers, that have kept this sense of the magical, the irrational. Note that "enchantment" is not referring to something necessarily joyful, but something mysterious or spiritual or strange, so calling it a cinema of enchantment might give the wrong impression. Better perhaps to call it a cinema of strangeness, or wonderment. In his book The Art and Politics of Film (from 2000) John Orr suggests that Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, Aleksandr Sokurov and others working under communist dictatorships brought in a new style of filmmaking, which used religious symbolism to undermine social realism ("a fusion of the marvellous and the tragic") and Orr calls this "a cinema of wonder" (he also includes Theo Angelopoulos and a few others). That is not what I am talking about though, my scope here is much larger.

One example is Jacques Tourneur, a filmmaker I have written about before, and who made films where there is generally found a sense of the otherworldly, of ghosts and monsters, and also uncertainties and ambiguities about what is real and what is imagined. A contemporary example is the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, in whose films ghosts, apparitions and spirits mingled freely with ordinary mortals.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Hayao Miyazaki is another filmmaker who likes to show gods, monsters and fantasy-figures go about their daily business.

Spirited Away (2001)

It can be found, of course, in surrealist films or magic realism, or a cinema of abstractions. But it can also appear in films that are ostensibly realistic. Films in which there are no embodiments of magic or wonders but that have what might be called a pantheistic view of nature and the world. Terrence Malick is a contemporary example of this, as in The Thin Red Line (1998). He has even made a film with the title To the Wonder (2012), although in Malick's case that sense of wonder can occasionally feel overbearing. Another example is the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in which nature seems to be imbued with a life-force of its own, and where every place has a sense of magic and wonder. In their films the spaces in which the characters find themselves deeply affect them in ways they do not understand. See for example A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) or Gone to Earth (1950).

I Know Where I'm Going

Black Narcissus

One common way of letting the audience share the characters' sense of wonder is by close-ups of their faces. In the case of Steven Spielberg's films (which are generally built around a sense of awe and wonderment) it has given birth to the expression "the Spielberg face", zooming in on the face of a person looking up at something wondrous, scary, or both, which happens more or less in all of Spielberg's films.

François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Filmmakers who might otherwise be seen as more materialistic, like Michael Mann, can also include such moments of wonder. With Mann it is often related to animals (as I have written about before here). This clip show such a moment, an encounter with two coyotes in downtown Los Angeles. After this neither man is the same any more.

Ordinary, daily life might sometimes feel dull and filled with inordinate amounts of concrete, and one of the joys of art is to bring forward other dimensions, to enchant the world, or re-enchant it, to suggest that we are not all there is. It can also be subversive, as magical realism often is. It is not a religious thing, although for some it undoubtedly is, and neither is it about a belief in aliens or ghosts, just that there is something beyond the logical and the rational, something that is undefinable, but intuitive and emotional. We do not always understand what is happening to us and why.

The strange encounter with a wolf in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

Friday 9 May 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel and fascism, then and now

"In the end he was shot."

The line, spoken towards the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel, sums up almost everything the film stands for, and wants to put across; that there are people who are kind, helpful and vivacious yet they are shot and killed by those who are neither, the fascists, the Nazis, the violent and hateful of this world. Those who, unfortunately, often have both the power and the means to shoot and kill, and to get away with it. Death has always been a part of Wes Anderson's films, think of the dog in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the alleged son, played by Owen Wilson, in The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou (2004), the rat in The Amazing Mr Fox (2009), the child who drowns in Darjeeling Limited (2007), and life is generally presented as being a series of disappointments, disappointments that begin to accumulate at an early age. But in The Grand Budapest Hotel those aspects are heightened and darkened. There is a palpable dread here that is new.

But it is not surprising, because the world in general is filled with dread. The 1930s might seem very distant but it is only a couple of weeks since Russia annexed Crimea, a part of the Ukraine, and six years after Russia went to war with Georgia. It could be called the latest fallout from the end of the cold war (15 years after the wars in Yugoslavia ended), and now a full scale civil war, and potentially a real war between Russia and the Ukraine, is a very real fear, in the middle of Europe, close to the fictional country Zubrowka in which The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place. That is not something Anderson was aware of when he made the film of course, it was finished before the Ukraine erupted. But Europe is filled with enough problems of economic hardship, isolationism and rising intolerance against immigrants (wherever they are from), Jews and Muslims, and others. In many countries political violence, whether from fascists, regular Nazis (the third largest party in Greece is the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn) or various assorted left-wing extremists, is not only a regular occurrence but increasing as well. In some countries, especially Hungary and Turkey, democracy is even threatened or disregarded by the government itself. Many of these groups, and many politicians as well, also look favourably upon Putin, the Russian president, as a strong leader who "get things done" and is standing up against "the gay agenda" (homophobia is something that unites many of these groups and parties, but not all of them) or whatever devious things they feel that Europe is about. That is peculiar because Putin is not really getting much done domestically, other than overseeing widespread corruption, violence and harassment. Of course, if being "a strong leader" means "bullying and invading weak neighbouring states that cannot defend themselves" then yes, Putin is a strong leader. But it is not exactly the kind of behaviour that is worthy of admiration.

So there have for several years been a lot of worrying, scary and appalling things going on in Europe, and Anderson's film, while set primarily in the early 1930s, speaks to that, and does it very well. He does it with a combination of terror and laughter, neatly combined in a scene towards the end in which a number of Nazis start shooting at each other in a hotel, without any sense or order, without knowing at what they are shooting or why.

Space is always important for Anderson, a space created from scratch, unique for each film but at the same time consistently Andersonian, and here Anderson has not only created a particular space but a particular time as well, a Mitteleuropa not seen since the days of Ernst Lubitsch, and it is lovingly recreated with his customary zeal. But it is also a world that is destroyed. This is a fantasy world, and it cannot continue. Anderson does not have any illusions about the reality of the situation, or of it being a fantasy. In the end it is said about the film's main character Gustave H. that "To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it - but, I will say: he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace!" and that is something Anderson is aware of. It could also be Anderson commenting upon Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer that was an inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and who wrote the magnificent The World of Yesterday just before he killed himself in 1942.

But if that world is an illusion, the threat is not, it is very real. And so it is in Europe of today. Once in the beginning of the film and once towards the end Gustave H. and Zero Moustafa travel on a train that suddenly comes to an unexpected stop. "Why are we stopping in the middle of a barley field?" Gustave asks the first time. The second time Moustafa asks the same question. The answer is that the people of violence and hate can strike whenever, wherever. Even in the middle of a barley field; then and now.

Friday 2 May 2014

Lucrecia Martel

It has been six years since Lucrecia Martel last made a film but it seems a new one might be on the way. Her three first features came relatively quickly, but then just a number of shorts. The first feature, La Ciénaga (2001), is a very impressive and intense family drama about injured bodies and restless souls in the sweltering heat at a country house in Salta, a province in the north of Argentina. With its motifs of water, hair and animals, and bourgeois alienation, it is very much a Martel film, they are present in all of her features (the other two being The Holy Girl (La niña santa, 2004) and The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza 2008), a film that is astonishingly accomplished.), and some of her shorts as well. The old theme of the wickedness of the bourgeoisie is not particularly interesting but her style is, a combination of edgy, disjointed close-ups and elaborate soundscapes, and her work with the actors is remarkable. The new project is titled Zama and until it arrives here are some links for those who want to know more about her and her films.

Here are two good interviews with her from 2008:

Here is an article about her films by James Guida, published in Lola:

Here is a word about her next film, which she is hopefully working on now:

And here is her latest short, Muta (2011).