Friday 27 March 2015

Henry King

When I first saw The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Henry King 1952) a couple of years ago I was so bewitched, so enchanted, by a scene at a jazz club in Paris where Harry Street (played by Gregory Peck) and Cynthia Green (played by Ava Gardner) meet for the first time that I had to stop the film and watch the scene again, immediately. It is so wonderful; soft, tender, slow, musical, attentive to atmosphere and nuance, carefully staged and artistically lit; the room, the space is as vivid and as important as the characters in it. That is where King’s greatest strength as a filmmaker lied.

In an interview with King in Focus on Film (#26 - 1977) Scott Eyman complains that while "such obviously marginal talents as Douglas Sirk and Budd Boetticher" are being celebrated by the critics, Henry King is not. To call Sirk and Boetticher "obviously marginal" is perhaps petty rather than accurate, but Sirk and King do have something in common; the incredibly rich and meticulous mise en scène; where sets, props, scale, colours, actor movements, combined with sound, music and camera movements, are done with the out-most care and artistry. It is also something that is frequently mentioned in reviews of King's films (in her review of The Gunfighter (1950), in the Observer, C. A. Lejeune spent a lot of time describing the mise en scène - without using that word - because it has impressed her so much), and despite what Eyman may have felt, King seems to been treated rather well by the critics, and he does not seem to have had any enemies. In the 1920s he was even regarded by many as one of the best filmmakers overall, on the strength of, among others, Tol'able David (1921) and Stella Dallas (1925). They are both fine films, and Tol'able David in particular is interesting because it is close to King's own childhood. But a lot of King's silent films have been lost, and I have seen very few. Of the over 100 films King made I have about 20, and they are primarily from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and it is especially the period from 1943 to 1958 that is extraordinary. That is when he made, among others,  others, The Song of Bernadette (1943), Margie (1946), Twelve O'Clock High (1949), The Gunfighter, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Bravados (1958), all powerful, emotional and warm, made with total conviction. These are films that take their time, and the shots can go on for minutes and minutes, without very much, or even anything, happening on a surface level. King seems more interested in the inner lives of his characters, their spiritual lives, than what they do. And the mise en scène, as mentioned above, is there and the cinematography (frequently by Leon Shamroy) also glows; embedding the characters in both light and darkness, creating sophisticated depth and texture. King favoured medium shots; he wanted the whole space to be part of the images, that the background of a shot was as important as the characters. He once said that "a camera must talk", he wanted to convey the themes and the feelings visually and use everything within the frame for that purpose (so naturally he began using deep focus and low visible ceilings early in his career). This sentence from Bosley Crowther's review of The Snows of Kilimanjaro is also a rather apt summary of much of King's work "the overall production in wonderful color is full of brilliant detail and surprise and the mood of nostalgia and wistful sadness that is built up in the story has its spell". Even a completely unknown film such as Lloyd's of London (1936) has extraordinary richness, depth and tracking shots.

So the mise en scène is one central aspect of his films. Two other aspects are history and religion. All of the films mentioned so far, except Stella Dallas, are set in the past, and that is true for most of his sound films. He was perhaps a man most comfortable in the past, even though he was an aviator who flew his own plane well into his 70s. About religion he once said that "I have often explored religious themes in my pictures but I’ve never tried to be preachy or holier-than-thou." although the last part is debatable, especially in a film like I'd Climb the Highest Mountain (1951), about a priest in a countryside parish. It is a lovely and humane film but, well, preachy at times. Much better is The Song of Bernadette, a film of uncommon power and strength, with Jennifer Jones as the young French girl who believes she has seen the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a sickly daughter in a poor family (there is a shocking scene in which her father has to dispose of contagious, bloody rags from the hospital as it is the only job he can find, the kind of job nobody else would take), and neither the authorities not the church approve of her stories and her visions. It is a sometimes cruel film. I am not religious but this film moved me, all 150 minutes of it, more than I would like to admit, and seeing it again did not diminish it. It has all of King's strengths discussed above.

Someone else who liked The Song of Bernadette was James Agee. After qualifying his appreciation by mentioning the limits on artistry he felt Hollywood provided, he had this to say in his review in The Nation:
I have seldom seen so tender and exact an attention to mood, to over-all tone, to cutting, to the edging of emotion, and to giving vitality, sometimes radiance, in terms of the image and the sound more than of the character, the story, the line, the music. Jennifer Jones especially, as Bernadette, whether through Henry King's direction or her own ability, impossibly combines the waxen circumspections of a convent school with abrupt salients of emotion of which Dostoevski himself need not have been ashamed.
King worked at 20th Century Fox for the last 30 years of his career, from the mid-1930s, under stuido boss Darryl F. Zanuck, and they seemed to have got along well. King was supposedly Zanuck’s favourite director at Fox, perhaps because they were so in sync, even though Zanuck was sometimes concerned about the slow pacing of the films and wanted to make them snappier, not least The Gunfighter. A Deleuzian might say that it was a battle between King's time-images and Zanuck's movement-images. But as a rule, King was pleased. "He'll watch the rushes every day and give you his opinion. If he respects you, that's all he'll give you. No dictatorial judgement. Generally he deferred to my judgement." One thing they argued about was the moustache Gregory Peck has in The Gunfighter. It was not good for box office according to Zanuck, but as you can see the moustache stayed. King wanted the film to be realistic, and he wanted it to be a low-key film about alienation and sorrow, and in that he succeeded. (King was less pleased with David O. Selznick, whose interferences destroyed King's last film Tender is the Night (1962), a film which he did not get to cut the way he wanted to.)

King would go off to a secluded location and work on the scripts, even when they had been assigned to him, and he worked on the film all the way through post-production. He was keen on the editing process to, and worked with the same editor, Barbara McLean, on some 30 films. He deeply cared for his films, and his characters, and this is of course partly why they are so good. But Zanuck was also sometimes deeply involved, not least on Wilson (1944), from the beginning to the end. Disentangling what was Zanuck and what was King is not always easy, even though it was King who was master on the set. But my research into King is still a work in progress, and there is much more to say. Suffice to say now that in 1968 Andrew Sarris put him in the category "Subject for further research" and I believe he probably deserves to be in "Far side of paradise".

I will end with a scene from King of the Khyber Rifles (1953). The film is not one of King's best but good enough and on occasion wonderful. It is a tale of adventures in British India, and as such rather colonial, but the main character, played by Tyrone Power, is an outcast among the British. Although his father was English, his mother was an Indian, and a Muslim, and so he does not have it easy. In this scene he is not welcome to participate in the celebrations with the other soldiers, and is sitting by himself, when a woman calls on him. The scene has all the quiet emotions and beauty that King excelled at, and notice the expressive sound of the wind; how there are people moving about in the background, and up in the watchtower, and how the camera keeps its distance from the couple on the porch. "[T]he meditative contemplation of humanity from the middle distance" is how Walter Coppedge described King's style and that is a nice way of putting it.

The quotes from Henry King are from two sources:
Henry King Director From Silents to 'Scope, edited by Frank Thompson (1995)
Scott Eyman's interview in Focus on Film (#26 - 1977)
The quote from Walter Coppedge is from his book Henry King's America (1986)

The best book about King was published by the San Sebastian International Film Festival in 2007, when they did a retrospective of King's films. Among those who contributed to it were Peter Von Bagh, Carlos Losilla and Miguel Marías.

Farran Nehme has a fine article about Margie in Film Comment here.

Both King and Henry Hathaway, whom I have written about earlier on several occasions, were at 20th Century Fox and Zanuck, but they are rather different. For one thing Hathaway frequently made films about violent men seeking revenge, and was often hard and cynical. King was the opposite of that, and disliked revenge. He was more interested in redemption. A character in a Hathaway film is much more likely to punch somebody out than in a film by King. Visually King was less showy, more subdued, whereas Hathaway was more striking and geometrical, using frames within frames for example, and sometimes flirting with surrealism. There was also a third Henry at Fox, Koster (they were known as the three Henry). I suppose I will have to write about him too some day.

Friday 20 March 2015

Mise en scène

The world is filled with film terms that are vague, ambiguous and over-used and mise en scène is most certainly such a term. Since it is a vague term, and is used differently in different contexts, it will never be definitively defined, and certainly not by me. Of course many have written about it, including some of the sharpest critics writing now such as Glenn Kenny and Adrian Martin. Kenny, when writing about Horizons West (Budd Boetticher 1952) in this post, focuses on the "clarity and momentum and the necessary information placed in the correct space with little sense of fuss or strain. Which could, in a sense, be mise-en-scene." Martin has written a whole new book on the subject, Mise en Scène and Film Style (2014). He there highlights the fact that mise en scène means different things to different people in different countries at different times, and he distinguishes between two aspects.
"There is mise en scène as the global history - still to be fully, comprehensible written - of how film-makers made their films, what structures and effects of style they created in their work; this could be called a history of forms in cinema. Then there is mise en scène as the history (again, global) of what critics, theorists and commentators have said, written and thought in their quest to define and use tools to understand the films they see, study, analyse and transmit to others." (Martin 2014: xviii)
The term comes from the theatre and it is not obvious that it should be something to argue about since it would seem to refer to whatever is within the frame (including the angle of the frame), and nothing else. So the actors, lighting, set, décor, depth of field and so on. But since it is a theatre term there is friction when applied to the cinema. Two obvious things is that 1) you have editing in films but not in the theatre and 2) in the theatre the stage is fixed and space is restricted whereas in film space is limitless, and the camera can move. When what is in the frame is constantly changing, the camera moving from one location to another, what becomes of mise en scène? When a film is shot outdoors is it still relevant to use the term? Is it Manhattan which is the mise en scène in the opening sequence of Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979)? Some argue that it is. In The Film Experience: An Introduction, Patricia White and Timothy Corrigan talks about the desert in Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean 1962) as mise en scène. They also argue that "architecture of a town might be described as a public mise-en-scène" (2012: 64), but now we are getting to the point where everything is mise en scène...

In Film Art: An Introduction, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell provide four elements of mise en scène, setting, costumes and make-up, lighting and staging, and among their many examples they use a scene from Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) as an example, a lightning storm over the prairie. Likewise, in "Afterword: the Auteur Theory Revisited" (to be found in later editions of The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968), Andrew Sarris defines mise en scène as "all the means available to a director to express his attitude towards his subject. This takes in cutting, camera movement, pacing, the direction of players and their placement in the decor, the angle and distance of the camera, an even the content of a shot". But I find all this unsatisfying, and too broad. If mise en scène is simply what is seen in a film, what distinguish it from cinematography? Jacques Rivette had another answer. “Here's a good definition of mise en scène - it's what's lacking in the films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz.” (Incidentally, I think Laura Mulvey claimed that melodrama was “the genre of mise en scène”.)

If mise en scène is to be used I feel it should be used to refer to something more specific; something deliberately, artificially created, staged, for the purpose of the shooting of a scene, to return the term to its theatrical roots. But I would also include sound and colour grading as being part of it. What is required is unity, coherence and spatial awareness (space being integrated in the scene, with the actors and their movements). Some seem to connect it especially with "classical cinema", and some conflate it with long takes and elaborate camera movements, but I see no reason to do that. Editing can be a part of it when it is done within the context of the specific scene, such as from a medium shot to a close-up, or from a high angle shot to a low angle shot. But a tracking shot through a real city street would not count as mise en scène whereas this shot from Henry Hathaway's Niagara (1953) would.

But outdoor tracking shots are not excluded wholesale of course. In Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard does a very long tracking shot alongside a country road which is filled with cars, people, animals and various activities and set-pieces, staged by Godard for the film, and that might very well be regarded as a striking example of mise en scène. Instead of forcing the term into the straitjacket of a definition, I will leave it somewhat open, but I still want it to refer to something specific, the coherent, spatially aware scene I mentioned above. Its occurrences are all around us, in films, in video games, in art installations, in paintings. Diego Velázquez's Las Meninas, from 1656, is an excellent example.

In films the term is for me especially connected to F.W. Murnau, Henry King and Douglas Sirk, because their mise en scène is frequently so striking, meticulous, sometimes overwhelming, and complete (or integrated), it is where they put the most emphasise and tenderly cared for. But this is more of a personal hang-up; there is no objective reason for emphasising those three and not, say, David Lean, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar-Wai, or Carol Reed, among many others. Unlike Rivette in his comment quoted above, for me mise en scène is not related to quality, it is a neutral element of a film, and it might be good or bad. Whereas somebody like V.F. Perkins prefers unity and coherence and compare it unfavourably to fragmentation and disparity, I do not favour one over the other. It is not a contest but different ways of filmmaking, and to each his own.

Chinese Roulette (Fassbinder 1976)

The scene below, from Michael Bay's second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), is a favourite of mine, especially the part when all the marbles (tiny transformers) fall down the ventilation shaft and then come together to form a much bigger transformer, a large copy of all the small individual ones. It is both ingenious and beautiful, in its idea as well as in its execution. But Bay pays almost no attention to space here, or the surroundings, so this is not what I would characterise as great mise en scène. Or is it perhaps after all in line with my own view of mise en scène, narrow and vague as it is? But it does not matter for in any event the sequence is excellent.

For those who want to read more about Adrian Martin's thoughts on mise en scène but have neither the time nor the money to invest in his book, try this piece. In his book he also suggests that should we want "a decent English translation for mise en scène, staging is not bad". (2014: 15) Yet he seems to think that there is a lot more to it than that.

Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman 1975)

Friday 13 March 2015

Accuracy and politics

As long as there has been art there have been those who are critical of it, or downright hostile towards it. And there have always been those who have been, shall we say concerned. Plato is one of the first who expressed this sentiment (at least in preserved writing), as he worried, for example in The Republic, about the effects art might have on people, that it might confused them and dull their senses. That has since become a long, apparently endless, tradition and it naturally embraced film as well when it appeared some 120 years ago. Today it can be experienced everywhere. 

One kind concerns accuracy and was discussed recently by Nick Pinkerton in his excellent Film Comment column Bombast, where he wrote about "the “expert” op-ed, in which the facts as given (or elided) by the movie are scrupulously compared to the known historical facts, and as often as not found wanting." i.e. he was criticising those who cannot accept that films based on historic events are not 100% accurate with regard to the particular historic event. It is after all an impossible demand to make of a film that everything in it should be exactly as it was in real life. This can be a tricky subject, as sometimes filmmakers take too many liberties and it is a subject for a later blog post, but for now it will suffice to say that it should not be demanded of art that it only deals with the unambiguous facts. Art is different from facts, there are other criteria involved, and critics of all people should understand this. A film, even when based on a true story, is a work of fiction, and should be treated as such. But, as I said, there are complications. What is more straightforward are films not based on true stories. Yet they too are often criticised for not being real enough. A typical example is headlines like "What X gets wrong about Y", which are produced on a daily basis. They are hardly ever meaningful because the purpose of film X is not to get Y right, whether Y is sheep farming, space travels, university studies, open heart surgery or bowling. X wants to tell a story, and what matters is the interior logic of that story, or that world, not whether it gives an accurate description of our own, non-fictional world. They are not the same. For another example take Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli 1954), set in Scotland. It has often been criticised for not giving an accurate view of Scotland. But it is a fantasy musical; of course it does not give an accurate view of Scotland. Why should it? Also, what would an accurate view of Scotland be? Is there even such a thing?

If you go to a conference, or attend a dissertation discussion in a university seminar, you will soon notice that the most common question is "Why did you not talk/write about something else instead?" Of course the question is rarely put as bluntly as that, but the sentiment of it is that, and only that. (The answer is of course always "Because I wanted to talk/write about what I talked /wrote about." but, like the question, the answers are rarely as blunt.) It is also a question that is frequently raised towards filmmakers as well, not least if a film is set in the past. "Why did you make a film about the Second World War when there are wars happening today?" or "Why make a film about Martin Luther King when racism is still with us today?" (An article in The Guardian asked that very question.) Underneath the question is often an accusation that the filmmaker is a coward, trying to hide from the "real" problems by making a film set in the past. Sometimes the same question is raised when somebody makes a film set in a country other than the filmmaker's own country, again with the same undertone "By making a film about problems in country X, are you not implying that your own country is flawless?" But these are again unreasonable demands, similar to asking a history teacher "Why are you talking about the past? We have problems today you know." As a filmmaker you are under no obligations, you must be free to make films about whatever you want, and making a film about the past might in any event be a way of contextualising something that is still with us today, using the past to illuminate the present. Neither is it the case that the film in question is the only film being made. So another answer might be "Well, I chose to set my film in the past/in another country because many other films deal with that which interests you." Assorted conservatives and right-wing economists do occasionally ask about the education system why it is wasting time and money on teaching arts, philosophy or history, instead of something “useful and productive” but when it comes to art such questions are more commonly asked by those leaning left. Many on the left seem to feel that art, not least films, should have an obvious, concrete, social utility such as raising awareness of oppression or righting some wrong. "What is the point of art which does not criticise individualism?" an art critic wrote fairly recently, and well. quite a lot is the answer to that one. In the 1960s Ingmar Bergman was criticised by the young left on similar grounds, and for being a bourgeois filmmaker, allegedly uninterested and unconcerned by the problems at the time. (When he made Shame (1968), dealing with war and the disintegration of society, he was criticised for that too, for having the wrong view of these matters.) But, to quote from Lionel Trilling's defence of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the essay Reality in America, "If what Hawthorne did was certainly nothing to build a party on, we ought perhaps to forgive him when we remember that he was only one man and that the future of mankind did not depend upon him alone."

It has been a growing tendency the last few years to criticise films without having seen them first. There were for example a number of articles about American Sniper (Clint Eastwood 2014), and all its supposed flaws, written by people who had not seen the film, and were not shy about admitting as much. It is clear though that these people had no real interest in either films or politics, their interest was to get published, and that is something they probably have in common with most of the people making these impossible demands on films. A spot in the limelight is worth more than coherency and integrity, especially if the spotlight is a fronted article in the Guardian, Slate or Huffington Post, and we all have to make a living. But let’s not pretend that we are doing it for art’s sake. To like some films, or some kind of films, and dislike others, that is one thing but as soon as you start making demands on films, on art, that it must do this or be about that, you are in the wrong. Art must be free, unconstrained, or it risks becoming tendentious and self-righteous.

Related to this is the Bechdel test, and I have earlier written about my dislike for it, here and here for example. See also my earlier post about Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow 2012), here.

I had originally included other examples of problematic attitudes towards art, such as those who are afraid of spoilers and those who hunt plot holes, real or imaginary; I save that for another post because while they can be troublesome and sometimes endanger a healthy discussion about cinema, they are of a different kind. And I have written about the anti-spoiler culture before.

Friday 6 March 2015

But is it art?

As a teenager I began taking photographs, and when doing so I wondered whether what I was doing was art. I came up with my own distinction after I had been standing at a street corner waiting for a bus to drive by so that the photo I was taking would juxtapose the bus with the houses around it. This I thought, the waiting and the deliberate juxtaposition, is what made it art rather than just a documentation of what happened to be in front of the camera. But, of course, nobody else but me would be able to make that distinction (about this particular photo) because they would not be aware of the thought-process involved. This is one reason why I am usually weary of discussions about whether something is art or not. I am weary because the answer depends on different variables, and you do not necessarily know about the particulars. The old saying "I know it when I see it." is not relevant when it comes to defining art, because you also need to "see" the process that brought something about.

A work of art is a combination of an idea and the technique used to make that idea be visualised, and the quality of an artwork, for me, is based on both those two things. All technique and no idea often make for bad art and all idea and bad technique can make for bad art as well. But I also think that context also matters. A photograph, say, might become art by being placed in a particular context, regardless of the idea or technique behind that particular photograph, and regardless of what we know or do not know about its conception. Here it is the idea and technique behind that context that matters, and not the individual photograph. Even a small stone can be art in the right context.

It is also like this when it comes to film. Let's take auteurs as an example. For some critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, it was important that the director also wrote the scripts. Jacques Rivette once said "that's why in Cahiers we've chosen to defend directors like Hitchcock rather than Wyler, and Mann rather than Zinnemann, because they are directors who actually work on their scenarios." There are two curious things about this. One is the word "chosen". It might be a bad translation, or did Rivette mean that they had a meeting one day to decide which filmmaker they should like, rather than just go to the screenings with an open mind and decided afterwards what they liked and did not like? The other curious thing is a direct example of what I said above about the thought process behind my photographs. Whatever Rivette thought, both Wyler and Zinnemann worked on their scripts, more on some films than others, yes, but they always worked on them. There is no obvious reason to choose Hitchcock and Mann over Wyler and Zinnemann in that respect. There were credited writer/directors such as John Huston, Russell Rouse, Billy Wilder, Sam Fuller, Ida Lupino and Preston Sturges, but even when uncredited most directors in Hollywood worked on their scripts, or at least the majority. William Wyler was one of those directors who had the most control over their productions, including the scripts, and this would mean two things: working side by side with the credited writers or getting script papers and either rewriting them or sending them back demanding this and that to be changed.

Typical beginning of a Fuller film. This one is Forty Guns (1957).

When Henry Hathaway was making Home in Indiana (1944) there was one scene by a lake, and Hathaway wanted the sun's reflection on the water to be just right. So he held up the production for several days until he was happy with the light and the reflection. But when watching the film you would not know this, as you would not know how long I waited before taking the photograph with the bus. Hathaway, unknown to the audience, showed himself to be an artist.

For some it is not art if they do not like it, and for others art equals complexity and difference. But that is depressingly narrow, and unhelpful. The idea might be simple and the technique complex, or vice versa, and in any event it is not obvious what is complex and what is simple (if those are opposites). How do we compare a poem by E.E. Cummings or Emily Dickinson with a painting by Edward Hopper or Helene Schjerfbeck in terms of complexity and simplicity? In films there is the expression "art cinema", which is very dubious and seems to spring from the nervousness among critics and scholars that films are not really serious enough, or that others look down upon it, and therefore we must add the word "art" to make it clearer that it is indeed that, art. But cinema as a whole is an art form, and calling something "art cinema" is as daft as calling something "art painting" or "art poetry". There are good and bad films, but art has no relation to quality, art is what it is, regardless of whether we like it or not. "Art cinema" usually refer to the non-linear, the character-driven, the unconventional, but why should these things be the markings and boundaries of art, and, in any event, whether something is character-driven or not, or unconventional or not, is not obvious. These are just terms that are in use without much thought given to them (and there are many such terms out there). When I was younger I struggled with the duo of Federico Fellini and David Lean. I was embarrassed because I liked the films of Lean much more than the films of Fellini, yet I was convinced that Fellini was an artist and Lean was not. Then one day I realised that this was both wrong and stupid. They were both artists, to the same excessive degree, and whether I preferred the films of one to the other was just a matter of personality. It is still the case that I prefer Lean's films, what has changed is that I am not embarrassed today and I would not say that one is more of an artist than the other.

Drug Store, a favourite among Hopper's paintings.

Art is frequently put in contrast to commercialism, but that is unhelpful too. A scholar once criticised Merchant Ivory by saying that when they understood that Howards End (1992) was a success they immediately made Remains of the Day (1993) "and smack, that's just commercialism". But Merchant Ivory had been making such films at least since The Europeans (1979), their earlier Indian films were different, and should they stop making them only because something finally happened to be a great success? It is a ludicrous proposition. But it might perhaps depend on your definition of commercialism. Many artists, from Michelangelo through Shakespeare and Mozart to Bergman and John Ford made their living from their art, from being artists. If that is commercialism, then commercialism is not a problem. But if commercialism means you make something that you do not believe in, and you do it only because you want to make money, then commercialism might be a problem, although, again, how would you know as the observer what motivated the person making the work you had just experienced? The work in itself is not enough, the motivation behind it is also needed, and we are rarely aware of that motivation.

If I once thought that the question "Is it art?" was an interesting one, then I have changed my mind. Art can be anything, and anything can be art, it all depends. And here, as is so often the case, I prefer to be open-minded and generous.

Orson Welles reciting (the first stanza of) Kipling's poem "The Conundrum of the Workshops", in a scene from perhaps the greatest film Welles ever made, F for Fake (1973).

I should add that the Rivette quote can be found in Jim Hillier's edited collection of writings from Cahiers du Cinéma. The first volume, called The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (1985), p. 38.