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 men, 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.

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.

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.

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:

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.