Friday 24 February 2017

Video nostalgia

The VHS tape became a popular way by which to watch films around the same time I was old enough to watch films for grownups, even though my parents refused to let a VCR darken our apartment. But my friends had the means to play the tapes so I spent many hours in their homes (sometimes when I was supposed to do other things such as taking flute lessons) watching acknowledged classics like Miami Supercops, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, or the Australian nuclear waste thriller The Chain Reaction from 1980. Although mostly we would be watching James Bond, constantly and excessively. When I had trouble falling asleep at night I did not count sheep, instead I quoted dialogue from Bond films. The one I knew best was Live and Let Die, where I could all lines up until "A genuine Felix lighter. Illuminating." which would be the first 30 minutes of the movie perhaps.

At that time I was not able to explore film history, and none of my friends shared my burgeoning cinephilia. For older films, or films not in English or Swedish, I had to make do with whatever was shown on Swedish television, on one of our two channels. On odd occasions I would rent a moviebox and then I could watch a film of my own choosing, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. To clarify, a moviebox was a portable VCR without the ability to record and you rented it along with the films and returned them simultaneously. But I would say that it was always a gamble as to whether those movieboxes would actually work. They were not of sturdy quality. But eventually I got my own room and my own VCR, and things began to brighten up.

There were two video stores in the suburb where I lived; a big one, part of a chain, called Videobutiken Premiär and a small one, owned by an older woman and her 30-something son, in the basement of a high-rise. There were six of those high-rises, the video store was in the one next to the tube station and I lived in the third of them, so it was very close. I would not say I was there every day, but not far from it. I would sit at home and go through the video guides such as Leonard Maltin, VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever and whatever else I could get my hands on, and then search for the titles in the aisles. For a long time I was only interested in renting, but finally I bought two, Ice Station Zebra and Vertigo. I do not recall which I bought first, but those two were the only ones I had for some time. Later, in the early 90s, I discovered the Time Out Film Guide, which is where I came to know the criticism of Geoff Andrew and Tom Milne, both of considerable importance for me. Alas many of the films they championed were not necessarily to be found in my video stores, especially not old, black and white films. When I went to London for the first time however... I could barely contain myself. Although neither Andrew nor Milne would have been impressed by the first VHS I bought there, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Then one day London came to Stockholm, in the form of Velvet Video on Birkagatan in the centre of Stockholm (so not walking distance from home). They had VHS you could either rent or buy, and all were directly imported from England. I was their most loyal and consistent customer, working my way through their stock. My first day there I rented Ford's Rio Grande. That was a good day.

But what is the nostalgia about? Well, it is not about the quality of the images. VHS is nothing compared to any streaming service available now. It is about other things, such as the personal touch. When you went to a video store you would meet other people, you would get personal recommendations, and not only deal with an algorithm. For someone like myself, who did not know anybody with a similar interest, the staff in the video stores became like secondary friends. It would have been a lonely life having only Netflix and iTunes to engage with. It was part of a community instead of a solitary home activity. To some extent it is part of a healthy democracy and society, to engage with others and interact face to face, rather than only through a computer. And besides, going out and leaving your apartment is in itself a good thing. A video store might also, as opposed to a streaming service, give you a job.

In 2003 the guy who once was running Velvet Video called me up and asked if I wanted to work with him in his new video store at the Swedish Film Institute. I obviously said yes immediately. It was stressful work at times but also a lot of fun, and many celebrities paid it a visit, like Jan Troell, Bibi Andersson, Josef Fares, Nina Persson and Thommy Berggren (who told me the story about how he was supposed to have played the part of Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America but for some reason I have now forgotten it eventually landed in Robert De Niro's lap instead). Eventually I became the manager of the store after the guy from Velvet Video lost all interest and turn to professional poker instead.

When I was working there the death and decline of the video store was already taking place and there were only two great video stores left in Stockholm besides mine, Casablanca and No 1. Video. One day I answered the phone in my video store and there was a man asking about a particular film. I said that we did not have it but he might try Casablanca. "Do you know where it is?" He answered "Yes. I'm actually calling from them. They didn't have it and suggested I call you." As I said, it was like a community.

But I too lost interest in managing a video store. I quit at the end of 2006 and began working at the Ingmar Bergman Archives, which in a way is when the present phase of my life began. Today my video store is no more, and neither is Casablanca nor No 1. Video. I miss them all.

The note on the window says "Thanks"

One reason to miss the stores is the wide selection they would have. Not just the latest blockbusters but also things like French New Wave, Italian Giallo, Akira Kurosawa and American independent cinema. In the late 1990s for example I was bingeing on indie films like the collected work of Tom DiCillo, Alexandre Rockwell's astonishing In the Soup or Gas, Food Lodging by Allison Anders, and such lesser fare like Pie in the Sky. Most importantly, this is how I discovered Nicole Holofcener, who continues to go from strength to strength. I am not saying that such films are not available today, but not all in the same place, you have to look for them and might have to take up a subscription or there might be rights issues that prevent them from being streamed in your country, or they might suddenly disappear. The video store was more stable and dependable. And more adventurous.

Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Holofcener's Walking and Talking

In the bigger of the two video stores in Farsta, my suburb, one of the staff members was a stern woman with curly hair. After the store in Farsta closed she too disappeared from my life. Until last year. The last proper video store in central Stockholm, called Buylando, was closing down and on its very last day I went in, primarily for old time's sake but also to see if there were any good deals on DVDs. I found the whole Back to the Future trilogy for a negligible price and went to the cashier to pay for it. Behind the counter was the woman with the curly hair. It was like my whole life flashed before my eyes; she was potentially the first person to serve me in a video store and she would also be the last person to do so. She did not smile this time either.

I felt inspired to write this post after listening to a Film Comment podcast about New York video stores, and after reading Tom Roston's I Lost it at the Video Store, reviewed by Glenn Kenny here. They are about the past, as is my post. For an investigation of the present and the future, The Economist have eight articles to read:

Among the many films in which video stores play an important part (including some of the above mentioned) I would like to recommend Bleeder, a great early film by Nicolas Winding Refn where Mads Mikkelsen plays a video store clerk. I also have a soft spot for Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, although I know I am rather alone on this one.

Friday 17 February 2017

Joseph MacDonald

Joseph MacDonald was usually called Joe and he was born in Mexico City in 1906. He studied mining engineering at University of Southern California, and began working as an assistant cameraman in 1921 for First National. Eventually he got a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation as Director of Photography and he worked there from 1935, the same year that Twentieth Century Pictures merged with Fox.

His first two films were part of Fox's Spanish-speaking productions, Rosa de Francia (José López Rubio and Gordon Wiles 1935) and Te quiero con locura (John Bolan 1935), and then he spent several years shooting more or less B-movies and serials, like Charlie Chan in Rio (Harry Lachman 1941). In 1943 he was DoP on Wintertime, directed by John Brahm and starring the Norwegian ice skating champion turned actress Sonja Heine, which might have been the first film when he was credited as Joe rather than Joseph. The mid-1940s is also when he began making more prestigious films, and when he became one of the greatest cinematographers in film history.

In 1944 he shot Otto Preminger's In the Meantime, Darling. While made shortly before Laura and so before Preminger became Preminger it is still a major film (by major I do not mean that it is a great film, it is sweet but forgettable, but a proper feature with box office potential). But his first peak year was 1946 when he shot Henry Hathaway's The Dark Corner and, especially, John Ford's sublime My Darling Clementine. The latter is one of the greatest films ever made and that is partly due to the beauty of the cinematography. Have there ever been skies as the ones in My Darling Clementine? The film has depth, character, humanity and sadness, all of the usual Fordian elements, but the look of it is even by Ford's standards exceptional.

But The Dark Corner is more typical of the type of films MacDonald made for the next 10 years or so, when he would primarily shoot films that were a mixture of urban realism and film noir, like The Street with No Name (William Keighley 1948) and another by Hathaway, Call Northside 777.

James Stewart in Call Northside 777

Mark Stevens in The Street with No Name

He did a fine Western with William Wellman, Yellow Sky (1948), with a very graphic depiction of the salt desert, and three films directed by Elia Kazan, where the images is the best thing about them: Pinky (1949), in the deep South, filled with Cypress trees, Panic in the Streets (1950), shot in New Orleans, and Viva Zapata! (1952), shot in Colorado and New Mexico. The usual beauty of MacDonald's images is there, combined with a very rich texture.

In the 1950s he turned to colour, at which he was equally brilliant. One of the most magical of Technicolor films, Hathaway's Niagara (1953), was shot by him with an almost surreal touch, both indoors and outdoors. Just look at this shot, from inside a bell tower:

The same year he did the very first CinemaScope film, Jean Negulesco's How to Marry a Millionaire and, in a style more associated with his films from the late 1940s, Pickup on South Street, one of Samuel Fuller's best films. Fuller and MacDonald also did a couple of CinemaScope films, Hell and High Water (1954) and House of Bamboo (1955). The second one is shot in Japan, and had MacDonald experiment with Japanese influences.

He seems to have taken to the look because two years later he shot Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as if it too was set in Japan. Look at the office here, it would have made Yasujiro Ozu proud:

Tony Randall lights a pipe

Nicholas Ray also worked with MacDonald on two films, one of which is among Ray's absolute best, Bigger Than Life (1956). The other is the weaker The True Story of Jesse James (1957).

James Mason in Bigger Than Life

The films he shot in the 1960s are a varied bunch, for different studios. A famous, or infamous, title is Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk 1962), one of at least eight films he did with Dmytryk. There are also some less than successful spectacles directed by J. Lee Thompson. Their weaknesses though were not the images, the splendour of which almost deserves their own post. MacDonald also shot John Huston's eccentric thriller The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and a very fine film by Robert Wise, The Sand Pebbles (1966), an allegory of the war in Vietnam set in 1920s China. His last film, released after his death, was Mackenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson 1969).


Films are often selected by who acts in them or who directed them, but in some cases who photographed them can also be a reliable sign. And few cinematographers are as reliable as Joe MacDonald. From 1944 onwards the majority of the films he made are worth watching, and a remarkably large number of them are exceptional. He is not as famous as John Alton, Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe, and he does not seem to have patented any innovations as many other cinematographers have (John F. Seitz for example held 17 patents). He never won an Academy Award (but was nominated thrice) nor was he ever elected president of the American Society of Cinematographers. At Fox he worked in the shadow of the great Leon Shamroy. But maybe he was satisfied with that, confident in his own capabilities? 

Yellow Sky

The Robe (Henry Koster 1953), shot by Leon Shamroy, was the first CinemaScope film that got a release, but How to Marry a Millionaire was made simultaneously and finished earlier. Since The Robe was considered more prestigious it was released first.

I said that In the Meantime, Darling was made before Preminger became Preminger, but it is still the case that it breaks with a taboo (by showing a man and woman in bed together), has typical long takes, and has a prominent role for an African American character, played by Clarence Muse. So while not prime Preminger there are still admirably things to be found in it. It is also Jeanne Crain's first leading role, the woman with the softest voice in Hollywood.

For the rest of his time at Fox, Preminger worked primarily with another Joseph, LaShelle, as his cinematographer.

In case you are wondering about Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl 1945), it was not shot by MacDonald but by Shamroy. 

Friday 3 February 2017

Wild River (1960)

While produced and directed by Elia Kazan, Wild River (1960) in many ways feels like the opposite of a Kazan film. It is quiet, restrained, meandering and with a poetic touch in the use of the landscape. The river in question is the Tennessee river and the film is set right after the Roosevelt administration created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 to deal with the problems caused by the constant flooding along the rivers in the area and its costs in terms of lost land, buildings and lives. It was also part of the New Deal, to help against poverty and unemployment. One thing TVA did was to build dams to control to flow of the rivers and provide electricity to areas which had never had any. Wild River is about all that. It is also about the legacy of slavery in the South, and the continuation of abject racism in the 1930s.

It might sound like a documentary but it is a work of fiction, although it opens with documentary footage of a severe flood and a man telling a reporter how he lost his children in the river. Then the film switches to colour and to the main character, the TVA man Chuck Glover, played by Montgomery Clift. He arrives in this backward place, to which progress has not yet come, by air plane; kind, well-meaning and modern. He is not at all equipped for this old world, or so it seems at first. His primary task is to get an old woman to leave her house on a small island that will be submerged when the dam is ready. She was born in that house and on that island, and she intends to be buried on it too, like her parents and husband. She is also running the place like her own fiefdom, with a large number of African-Americans living and working there and over which she rules. So she refuses to leave. It becomes a battle of wits between Chuck and the old woman, Ella Garth, played by Jo Van Fleet.

There is also another woman, Ella Garth's granddaughter Carol Baldwin, played by Lee Remick. She is a widow since three years and now lives with her two little children and her grandmother, but she is lonely and has not been with a man for a long time. When Chuck arrives on their little island, a handsome and sophisticated man, Carol almost immediately reaches out to him and he responds in kind. Her children, a boy and a girl, also reach out to him in one of the many moving aspects of the film. They too have obviously been unhappy and missing something, without understanding it, so now when a father figure turns up they cling to him.

There are many strengths to the film, beyond the moving emotional undercurrents. One is the complexities of the story. In the beginning Ella Garth and Chuck Glover are each other's opposites but as the film progresses Glover is slowly becoming more of a friend, who really understands her and can sympathise with her (in that way he symbolises Kazan's own changing perspective on the story). He even has to defend her against her own family as she is eventually abandon by everybody except an old farmhand called Sam, played by Robert Earl Jones.

Sam and Chuck

The location shooting is another of the film's strengths, it has a natural, earth-like texture. The cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks has done wonders, both with interiors and exteriors. Wild River has sometimes been called Fordian, and it is understandable. The ambience and look of the film does resemble John Ford, which is another way of saying it is different from Kazan's other films. But that is not to say that Kazan is completely invisible.

The use of mist and smoke has been a hallmark of Kazan's visual style since his early filmmaking days in the 1940s. A later striking example is Blanche DuBois appearing out of the smoke at the train station in the beginning of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Another prominent example is on the square in front of the church in On the Waterfront (1954) were Terry Malloy has his first meeting with Edie Doyle, and later an important talk with Father Barry. It is always covered by white smoke. Wild River also uses it to great effect, like in the image below, around the raft that takes people to and from the island.

Another key element of Kazan's aesthetics is the expressive use of natural sounds, and often of subjective sound, the characters hearing things that are not there but only in their heads, and here too Wild River shines. And Kazan of course almost always addresses social and political issues, as he does her, only he is rarely as subtle as in Wild River. While a few local rednecks are clearly bad guys, everybody else operate in a more grey area. While it is inevitable that Ella Garth must leave, it is still a tragedy that it is inevitable. Tradition, progress, environmental issues, racism, politics, sex, corruption and violence; there are many subjects that appear in this film and yet it is so delicate, so relaxed and so exquisite, it is barely noticeable.

But what is noticeable is the acting, which is wonderful. Especially Jo Van Fleet. It is one of my favourite performances of all time, remarkably rich, deep and nuanced. She was 45 when she played the role, although Ella most be around 80, and she has such quiet authority and strength. But the others, like Clift and Remick, are also superb. Those two are simultaneously vulnerable and bewildered, needy and forceful.

So Wild River is a special film. It has always been the one Kazan with which I find no flaws, perhaps his only great film. It was not a success when it came out, which Kazan blamed on the poor marketing. But then it might also have been a hard film to market. But box office returns do not tell the truth about a film. Watch it and you will see.

Wild River makes for a good companion piece to Still Life (Jia Zhangke 2006).

For all of Kazan's fame for his way with the actors, in a film like Pinky (1949) it is the atmosphere and the use of sound that are the only good aspects of it. In Viva Zapata! (1952) it is Joe MacDonald's cinematography and John Steinbeck's script that makes the film, and the acting is more a weakness than an asset. Even Marlon Brando feels like an odd fit in that one.