Saturday, 14 July 2018

100 years of Ingmar Bergman

Today is not only Bastille Day but also the centenary of the birth of Ingmar Bergman, so he will (again) be the theme of this post. I was at a Bergman conference last month in Lund in the south of Sweden, the town towards which they travel in Wild Strawberries (1957), so he has had an unusually active presence of late. During and after the conference I read a lot of books about Bergman, some old ones I had read before and some new ones. Robin Wood's book really is one of the best, and as it has been updated and re-issued in 2013 (the version I read) it is both old and new. I was not particularly impressed by any of the entirely new books (you are better of just watching the films) but if I were to recommend one of those available in English it would be Alexis Luko's Sonatas, Screams and Silence (2016).

The Magician (Ansiktet 1958)

When I say I was not impressed by them I mean that I did not learn anything new about Bergman, so if you have not spent as much time with his film and his archives as I have you might find them more interesting, but I do think there are too many books about him. Despite there being many important topics that have not really been explored so far the books so often are about the same old things, or they use Bergman as an excuse to talk about other, unrelated things. Regardless of how important and good he was, the majority of filmmakers are vastly under-researched and among them there are many that are as interesting, or might be as interesting, as Bergman. Consider F.W. Murnau. How can it be that there has not been a single book in English about his life and work since Lotte Eisner's Murnau, originally from 1964, and then revised a bit in 1973? It is now out of print, and she did not say all there is to say about Murnau. The only Murnau book now in print is, I believe, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Ein Melancholiker des Films, published by Deutsche Kinemathek in 2003. And where are the books on, say, George Sherman and Márta Mészáros? (Catherine Portuges's book about Mészáros from 1993 seems to be out of print too.)

Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna 1963)

One reason why so many write about Bergman, as well as Hitchcock, is that they have not just made the films but also willingly talked about them and about themselves, and have had a strong public persona, carefully crafted. They are famous among people at large, not just among those interested in film, and fame obviously appeals to film scholars as much as to the next guy. It has become something of an industry, a self-perpetuating Bergman-Hitchcock-complex (and a handful of other directors), so there will be more books about them, and hopefully some might add something new.

But that apparent openness of Bergman to talk about himself and his films is also a problem because he is such a performance artist. Everything he does is an act, which is why you should never take anything he says as being true in any conventional way. He invents things, embellishes things or twists them around and adjusts them to his daily mood. Many of the stories he tells about his own life and his childhood are invented and often have little to do with what actually happened, whether it was something good or bad. Yet many critics and scholars use Bergman's own sayings and writings in an uncritical way as if he was telling it like it is (or was). He is not, and they should restrain themselves from relying on it. That is a topic I will have to explore further another day.

But here are some topics I have already explored because I too have written about Bergman of course. I do like his work after all, whether books, TV-productions, films or stage adaptations (his version of Yukio Mishima's play Madame de Sade was amazing), and because I have had so much to do with this work, professionally.

Friday, 29 June 2018

A summer break

Admittedly there is a lot to write about, from apparatus theory to the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I think I deserve a break so this is all you are going to get today. It is summer after all. But in two weeks there will be more. Well, two weeks and a day.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Summing up Hathaway

It was watching Diplomatic Courier (1952) that started my Henry Hathaway project. I saw it in 2011 and I thought it was so good that I immediately watched another Hathaway, and then another, and then my first post about Hathaway was published here that same year. Now I have come to the end of the project.

When I wrote the first post I had only watched about half of Hathaway's oeuvre but I wanted to watch everything he had ever directed because those I had seen were almost all good (even though Prince Valiant (1954) was disappointing) and it seemed plausible that the rest would also be good. If you discount aborted projects and those films he directed only parts of, like Airport (George Seaton 1970), he made 62 films. The first ten are short B-films (around 55 minutes long) and usually Westerns made from novels by Zane Grey. Of those ten I have now managed to see five, including his very first film, Heritage of the Desert (1932), and they are all surprisingly accomplished and confident, and prove that Hathaway was a natural. He did not have to grow in to being a good director, he was one from scratch. But the dialogue can be corny and the acting rather wooden at times, but Randolph Scott, who acted in most of them, is fine. Below he is with Sally Blane in Heritage of the Desert, and she is also good. (Judging by the film it seems Hathaway was quite smitten with her.)

From Now and Forever (1934) he only made full-length features and mostly with stars and big budgets. I have seen all of them now except his last, the blaxploitation film Hangup aka Super Dude (1974) which seems impossible to find. The last I got hold of was The Last Safari (1967), which seems to never have been released on DVD but of which I managed to get a version transferred from (I think) a VHS tape to a disc. I was correct in thinking that the rest of the films would be good too, they really are. A few were disappointing, like the aforementioned Prince Valiant or The Black Rose (1950) or Woman Obsessed (1960), but even those have redeeming factors and none is a complete failure.

He is an interesting guy, Hathaway. A traveller, adventurer and artist, a self-taught historian and art collector. In 1930 he travelled through India and apparently met everyone, including Gandhi, and this had a profound effect on his life. He was hardworking and a temperamental, mean sonofabitch on set, and he made films about friendship, honour and revenge, often quests in harsh environments. The films and his characters were almost always like him: tough, rough and straightforward. Having spent so much time with him, through the films and interviews and books about him or books in which he appears, I feel like I know him now. Obviously I do not, but it does something to you, spending so much time with an artist. It becomes difficult not to watch the films without a sense of personal connection, and a sense of belonging. When watching the films of Hathaway, even the poor ones, you do feel his presence. In the framing, in the sentiments, in the dialogue (which improved after the first years), in the overall decoupage, in the issues being discussed, in the general scope and trajectory of the stories.

A key concern in many of his films is ethics. One fine scene in You're in the Navy Now (1951) shows how a high-ranking officer is visiting a navy ship and as he is angry with the ship's performance he starts criticising a sailor on board. When the ship's captain hears what is going on he confronts the higher-ranking officer and says that if he is to shout at anybody it should be at him, the captain. The men on the boat are not responsible for its performance, it is he alone who has the responsibility, so attacking a sailor is wrong. Even if the sailor did something wrong it is still the responsibility of the captain. This is a powerful lesson in the ethics of leadership, an enactment of Harry Truman's "the buck stops here" if you will, on taking on the burden of responsibility. It is easy to read this as Hathaway's own belief.

Sometimes the ethical contests are between a human and another animal. Two fine examples:

In From Hell to Texas the main character reluctantly kills a man in self-defence. When he is about to leave he notices that the dead man's horse is looking at him. He returns the look, and they stand like that for a while, facing each other. Then the man unsaddles his own horse and puts his saddle on the dead man's horse and mounts it, as if trying to atone for having killed its owner by taking the dead man's place himself. (I have discussed this at greater length in my separate article about From Hell to Texas.)

The other example is The Last Safari, which is about a "great white hunter" who is searching for the elephant who killed his friend. He wants to kill the elephant in return. (Hathaway saw it as a version of Moby-Dick.) But in the end of the film, when the hunter finds the elephant, the two just stand there, face to face, looking at each other. Finally the man fires his gun in the air, the spell is broken and man and elephant go their separate ways.

In both films the other animal has the moral authority, and is staring down the human, forcing him to do right. I find this very moving.

Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith

I have come across many stories about Hathaway, some of him being so hard on set that people ran away in tears or promised never to work with him again. But also of his generosity, work ethic and compassion. One story I particularly like is from the making of Nevada Smith (1966). It stars Steve McQueen, and he looked up to Hathaway as a father-figure. Hathaway was usually on set before anybody else but McQueen made it his mission to be there before him, as a sign of respect, and when Hathaway showed up McQueen would already be there, saying "Where have you been, sir?" I find this, too, very moving.


It often happens that two filmmakers are put together, to compare and contrast. The one filmmaker to which it feels natural to compare Hathaway is John Huston, and not just for both of them being cigar-smoking, temperamental adventurers. They have things in common too as filmmakers, such as subject matters and the kind of people that interested them (like gangsters, adventurers and gamblers), and they did not make comedies and very rarely domestic dramas. Historically speaking, Huston is held in much greater regard yet personally I prefer Hathaway. Judging from film to film I think Hathaway is the stronger one. This might be difficult to explain but it feels like Huston has more of an analytic interest in his characters whereas Hathaway has a personal interest in them, as if he is one with them and not just observing them. I also think that Hathaway has a more coherent visual concept whereas Huston often seems to be trying things out just to try them out. One is not better than the other here, neither with regards to character or visual style, I just mention it as two ways in which they are different. But another difference is, I believe, a flaw in Huston. Hathaway is less explicit about the themes and messages of the individual film. A character in a film by Huston is much more likely to quite literally explain to the audience what the film is about than anybody in a film by Hathaway. The latter seems to either be more relaxed in his art or more trusting of the audience. If so, that trust is, or should be, reciprocated.

Rod Steiger and Joan Collins in Seven Thieves (1960)

Here are 15 films that I think are Hathaway's best (at least as of writing):

Souls at Sea (1937)
The Real Glory (1939)
Johnny Apollo (1940)
The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)
Home in Indiana (1944)
The Dark Corner (1946)
Call Northside 777 (1948)
Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
Rawhide (1951)
Fourteen Hours (1951)
Diplomatic Courier (1952)
Niagara (1953)
From Hell to Texas (1958)
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
Nevada Smith (1966)

That is a good spread, year-wise, and narrowing it down to 15 means many good ones are left out. But it is a place to start for those who have seen nothing yet.

All links to my previous posts on Hathaway:

The story about McQueen, Hathaway and Nevada Smith has been told in several biographies, and the "Where have you been, sir"-quote is from My Husband, My Friend: A Memoir written by Neile McQueen Toffel.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Hawks and Foucault

This Wednesday, May 30, was the birthday of Howard Hawks (1896), who I regard as the greatest of all filmmakers. That is as good a reason as any to post this, something I wrote several years ago as part of a longer academic essay for a Hawks-project. Nothing came of it but now you get to read this part at least.

 Utopia and Heterotopia 

In Howard Hawks’s films there is usually very little sense of the larger world. There are exceptions. Contemporary politics is a part of His Girl Friday (1940) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949) has an element of social critic, or at least satire. In Rio Bravo (1959) the main character is the sheriff in the town. But in general the world is kept at bay. (In El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), the other two films of the trilogy in which Rio Bravo is the first, the characters are not driven by any kind of duty to society.) It could be said that one aspect of Hawks’s films is escape. His characters are usually running away from society, their escape is both from the bourgeois world and from themselves, from their own pasts, and this is true for the men as well as many of the women. The groups that his films so often are centred around can be seen as being made up of drifters who have built their own communities, with their own rules and ethics. Rio Bravo for example is about four men who are more or less confined to the jail in their small town, since they are threatened by gunmen, but there is a sense that they are not just hiding in the jail because of the gunmen but that they are hiding from the world in general, and that Nathan Burdette (the leader of the gang) is just a symptom of this world. But it is not just the groups. The films which do not have these self-contained groups instead have individuals who are trying to escape, individuals who also tend to be self-contained, such as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946).

Dorothy Malone and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep

So what they are escaping from can be summarised as the conventions and restrictions of ordinary life, and that includes marriage and family life. It is easy to imagine that Hawks’s characters would succumb to existential boredom if they were not in their self-contained worlds. They could not live in a safe and controlled environment; they must live with the elements, putting themselves at risk. In this self-created world they are working together, being dependent on one another, and are fearless in the face of danger.

Related to this need for escape and self-sufficiency is a utopian element, in that the spaces created by these “escaped” men and women are successful havens, where they are among equals. Hatari! (1962) in particular has this feeling of a perfect world, where people from all over the world come together. It is like a United Nations camp, with people from France, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the US (including a Native American) working in Tanzania. Hatari! is also unusually happy, since the dangers of the outside world do not intrude at all, whereas in most other films by Hawks it might at any moment disturb, restrain or even kill you. One reason why Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is in many ways the quintessential Hawks film is because it has all of these things in such a pure form.


It is tempting to apply Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia when talking about Hawks’s films. Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” He calls them heterotopias because, unlike utopias, they do exist. He talks about various kinds of spaces that might be called heterotopias such as cemeteries, gardens and libraries, but also certain colonies. Foucault also suggests that a role of the heterotopia “is to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” And this can also be seen in many of Hawks’s films.

See also my article about Hawks and Fred Zinnemann:

And my article about Hawks and Yasujiro Ozu:

Foucault discussed heterotopia in a lecture in 1967 which was then published as an article in 1984 called "Des Espace Autres" or "Of Other Spaces".

When Hawks made Hatari! Pier Paolo Pasolini came to visit as he was a friend of Elsa Martinelli, who acted in the film. I have always wondered how Hawks and Pasolini got along.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Tully (2018)

On occasion I write about a new film together with a group of Swedish film bloggers. We watch the film together in the cinema and then write about it the following Wednesday. Today is such an occasion, hence a post on a Wednesday and not a Friday. Try not to get too upset.


The five films by Jason Reitman I have seen are all interesting but flawed except one, Up in the Air (2009), which I find flawless. It is actually a film I would put on at least a top 100 list, if I was asked to provide such a list. Now every time I watch a new Reitman I hope it will be another Up in the Air. So far no such luck.

The new one, Tully, is the third collaboration between Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, and their second film with Charlize Theron, and of the three of them it is Theron I am most happy with this time. I remember back in 2000 a girl I liked told me that Theron was her favourite actress and I was completely bewildered by this (the fact that this is one of the few things I remember about this girl proves how shocking I found her statement to be) but either me or Theron has come a long way since then because now I would not be shocked by such a statement, and she seems fearless in her choice of parts to play. In Tully she plays Marlo, a mother of two kids and one soon to be born, and it is a handful; she is in a constant state of complete exhaustion. The husband/father is kind and does the homework with the kids but he mostly works or plays video games in bed with his headphones on. Of the two children, the girl is functioning just fine but the son has some kind of problem and is very demanding. When the third child appears the stress and sleep-deprivation become even worse of course. The film does not sugar-coat motherhood, and Theron is admirably non-glamorous and it is a fine and honest performance. There is for example one scene where she cannot keep it together after a talk with the school's headmaster about her difficult son, followed by her just screaming in the parking lot, which was very powerful. The title character of the film is the night nanny Marlo finally hires to get some sleep and they soon form a strong bond.

Cody's script has several great ideas and a neat structural cleverness. If you pay attention to the dialogue in the first half you will notice that things happen in the second part which is a reaction to or comment on what was said then, even the odd joke. A lot of craft has gone in to it. A scene with a brush in the beginning and again in the end is quite lovely, and there are other more subtle things I will not mention due to the current spoiler-phobia. But simultaneous with this good writing there are also deep problems with jokes, other lines of dialogue and whole scenes that are awkward, over-emphatic or just wrong. Stuff that probably sounded good in Cody's head when she wrote the script but when it appears on film feels too much like it was meant for us, the audience, and not something that is natural in the scene, in the moment or as something somebody would actually say. One example: Violet, a former roommate of Marlo, has a chance encounter with Marlo at a café and Marlo says she has two kids and one more on the way. The former friend recoils and says "I better go before my coffee gets black and cold like my womb." The line just hangs there in the air, hovering as if in a speech bubble in a cartoon, and spoken without any conviction or timing. You may think that the line, when read in this post, sounds hilarious but that is beside the point. The point is how it sounds when actually spoken in the film. It is not necessarily bad writing, but bad acting and direction.

The Violet character is interesting because that short scene is her only appearance yet her presence lingers on in the film. In one through-away line Marlo says, almost as if talking to herself, that she was in love with Violet. Since you love friends and family but you are not in love with them, that is for lovers and partners, is it that the line should be read literary, that Marlo, although frequently having sex with men and eventually marrying one, would actually have wanted to be in a proper relationship with Violet but did not have the guts to go through with it, and that this is one reason why she is having such a miserable life now? Or was it nothing at all like that; they were just friends and Violet's lingering presence is only there to remind us and Marlo of the life she used to have before marriage, career and children totally boxed her in and drained her of all energy? That this is unclear is not a criticism of the film but one of the good things about it. It is something to play around with and discuss afterwards.

One thing that did bother me was the son Jonah and his problems. The only word used to describe him is "quirky" but that is obviously not appropriate. Marlo says that the doctors' have been unable to diagnose him but he seems to me to have some form of ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, and it does not seem plausible that they would all be in the dark as to what his problems are and what might be done to help out. The school more or less kicks him out. That might be read as a critique of the American school system but it felt so underdeveloped and in fact Jonah's illness or whatever it was did not feel genuine but some vague construction for quick plot points and as such belittling the issue.

So there are some good things and some bad things. The film felt rushed, as if it needed at least one more round in the development stage to whip it all into better shape. But mainly it felt like Theron and Cody were let down by Reitman's direction, there is something about it that feels slightly off, like it is almost there but not quite yet. But, as always with Reitman, the music is impeccable and creatively used. There is for example a Cyndi Lauper medley (from her first album She's So Unusual which Marlo listens to during a drive to Brooklyn) and a beautiful cover version of You Only Live Twice, originally sung by Nancy Sinatra but here by Beulahbelle. So yes, sometimes Tully is very good.

The film Cindy Lauper is watching in the beginning of the video is The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski 1936) one of the very first three-strip Technicolor films (and the first one from David O. Selznick's company). An unbearably stiff and peculiar film, although it looks spectacular.

Here are the other blog texts (in Swedish only):

Friday, 18 May 2018

Zinnemann and Hawks

Been working on a long piece about Fred Zinnemann. Below is an excerpt where I am comparing him with Howard Hawks. It is somewhat abrupt, and a work in progress, but still intelligible I hope. 

Zinnemann is sometimes compared and contrasted with Howard Hawks, as them being the antithesis of each other, and the fact that Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) was to some extent made as a response to Zinnemann’s High Noon [1952] is often invoked. Yet the two filmmakers are more alike than this would suggest. As filmmakers they were independent, and they made films about people who did not accept the conventional rules and hierarchies of society but lived by their own personal moral codes. Hawks has always focused on professionalism and it could be argued that Zinnemann has shown a similar interest in professionalism. Both Hawks’s and Zinnemann’s characters are men and women completely dedicated to their tasks, and loyal to their beliefs and responsibilities. Finally, while their styles are different from one another, their relation to space is quite similar. That is, they do not have an interest in pictorialism or scenery; they are not landscape filmmakers like John Ford or Anthony Mann. Neither does the space in their film take on a metaphysical meaning as in the films of Michael Powell or David Lean. It does not come alive as it does in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Instead they can seem rather indifferent to the surroundings. What matters to them both are the actors and the characters that these actors embody and space has no meaning in its own right, it is just the place in which the characters happen to be. In a telling quote, Zinnemann once said to cinematographer Ted Moore, when making A Man For all Seasons [1966], that it is ‘[n]ot important where people are’. Instead space is only where the characters happen to be and it is their inner struggle that matters. (Five Days One Summer (1982) is an interesting exception however, a film in which the landscape is unusually important and almost becomes the central character.) But, like with Hawks, the space can often be seen as claustrophobic, as if the characters are trapped. In Hawks it is the world at large that is hostile (and the characters have sometimes created their own private space) whereas in Zinnemann it is the institutions, which the main character is a part of, that are keeping them down and contained (and there is no private space). 

In Zinnemann’s case the view of space is linked to his overarching interests in ethical dilemmas and procedures. He is, again like Hawks, almost exclusively interested in people under pressure and how they deal with that pressure, whether it is as a drug addict in A Hatful of Rain (1957), a refugee from a concentration camp in The Seventh Cross (1944), a marshal in High Noon, a chancellor in A Man for All Seasons, to name a few examples. His focus on characters and their interiors is emphasised by his extensive use of close-ups. Sometimes characters seem to be cut off from their surroundings, floating in an unspecified space, especially with the close-ups of heads and faces. In High Noon there are a few “floating heads” shot, which means that the camera is focused so tightly on the heads of the actors that not much else is seen so they appear to be floating in space. In A Man for All Seasons cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles) sometimes seems to consist of a head only, and his red dress is absorbed by the red walls. (Although the film begins with a close-up of first his medallion and then his hands, his face is not shown.) 
[But there are obvious differences between them too and Zinnemann's focus on individuals is where] he differs the most from Hawks. Hawks’s films almost always focus on a group, and the characters are seen as being together. Being alone is not a condition a character in a film by Hawks finds himself in, whereas in Zinnemann’s films the opposite is true. The quintessential image from a film by Hawks is of a group, in complete harmony, but in Zinnemann’s films it is of a lone individual estranged from his surroundings, strikingly emphasised for example in the opening shot of From Here to Eternity [1953] where Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift), a lone man, is walking vertically through the shot while a long line of men are walking horizontally in the foreground. 

The marshal in High Noon, abandoned by everyone.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Current cinema culture

Earlier this year, after reading a column in one of our leading global newspapers, I felt compelled to write on Facebook about contemporary film criticism (if that is what it is). Some month later, after watching Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), I again felt compelled to comment on Facebook about larger issues about current cinema. It occurred to me that these two Facebook posts are connected so I decided to add them together and post them here, with a few necessary edits, as one piece:


Watched Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. It is not a particularly noteworthy film, one among many of its kind, a short, unpretentious, focused, straightforward Western in colour and CinemaScope, although with the aesthetic feel of a TV-movie. (The style of the film, every aspect of it, makes it feel like it was directed by its main character, Earp, rather than Tourneur.) However, during its 80 minutes it intelligently tackles almost every political issue (except race and gender) that is still today engulfing the US. Democracy, ethics, courage, corruption, gun rights (Earp's first action after becoming marshal is to ban handguns in Wichita), pride, professionalism, freedom of the press, crime and punishment.

A film with these kinds of themes today would be rare, be at least 150 minutes long, and probably highlight its own importance and marvel at its own cleverness and boldness. It would be considered an art film, or Oscar-bait if American, and it would be the focus of hundreds of columns and hot takes and takedowns and whatnots. There would be debates about alleged backlashes, and discussions as to whether it critiqued or celebrated toxic masculinity. More people would read about it, and be outraged by it, than watch it.

The point here is not that Wichita is some forgotten masterpiece or even a great film. The point is its very unremarkableness. In the 1950s many films like it were made every year, and nobody at the time would take much notice of them. But seen from the perspective of contemporary cinema, it is just so obvious what the art form has lost. The kind of film Wichita is, short and unpretentious yet with a dedicated political and philosophical agenda, has become completely extinct. And there is nothing that has replaced it.

The reception I imagined a film like Wichita would get today stems from my experience of the kind of reception new films actually do get. As an example, consider this article I read about a new film, published in a major publication. [It is not important which publication, film or writer since this is not about them but about current larger trends.] It was not the publication's review of this film but an additional piece. The article contained not a single original thought. It is questionable as to whether it contained any kind of thought. It was written in the style that the majority of articles about popular culture use as default, from sentence structure to choice of words. The article criticised the film but not after having actually engaged with it; instead what was said might have been said by anyone who had read the film's Wikipedia entry and seen the trailer perhaps. Much were generalisations that could be used for any new film and its director, as if the writer used a pre-set form with just a few empty boxes which he had to fill in with the names of this particular film and these particular actors.

That article, which is completely unnecessary and without any merit, will generate some comments. It will be linked, tweeted and liked. But nobody will care much for it, not even those who enthusiastically tweet "This is so great! You must read this piece!" They and everyone else will have forgotten it a few hours later.

Every day hundreds of articles just like it, many of them probably about the same film, are published. But to what end? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they please? Do those who write them take any pride in them? They will get paid I assume, and maybe being a writer is all they ever wanted to be, and the only thing they can do. But they cannot get much money? And how does it profit the publications to have generic space-fillers of no value? I suppose it must be the case that whatever ad revenues they take in on that article are greater than whatever they paid the writer, but only if he was paid very little, and then the question returns to what was in it for him.

An article with no meaning written by someone who does not care what he writes, written for people who do not care what they read. This is what contemporary cultural criticism consists of.

If you want to watch a film by Tourneur and with Joel McCrea that does also discuss racial issues I recommend Stars in my Crown (1950). That really is a great film, one of Tourneur's best. Juano Hernandez also stars in it, and it has that supernatural aspect which is so often found in Tourneur's films, although not in Wichita.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Bergman's films of the 1940s

In 1944 SF, Svensk Filmindustri, bought a play by the Danish writer Leck Fisher. SF did have different people in mind for directing it but since Ingmar Bergman was an employee and since he had had a great success with his script for Frenzy aka Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), and since Bergman was eager enough to direct that, he claimed, he would have been happy to make an adaptation of the phone book, SF gave it to him. He began shooting on July 4, 1945. Thus began the directing career of Ingmar Bergman.

Part of the film, to be called Crisis, was shot at SF's studio complex Filmstaden in Råsunda (just outside Stockholm) and part of it was shot on location in the small town of Hedemora in Dalarna County. The shooting ended on the last of August. The production was an unhappy one, with the nervous and insecure Bergman fighting with most everyone. He did not get along at all with the cinematographer Gösta Roosling but he did get along well with the editor Oscar Rosander, who taught him a lot about filmmaking and who would be one of his closest cooperators for 15 years until Rosander retired in 1961.

When Crisis opened the critics were torn. Some saw it as a great film, intelligent and realistic, and with very good acting. Others thought it was dreadful. But most seemed to find something of value in it, and that Bergman showed great promise. SF were not pleased though, and he was not asked to make another film for them for some time.

The story of Crisis is not very interesting. An 18-year-old girl who has lived with a foster mother in an idyllic small town is now brought to the big city and corrupted. Then in the end she returns back home to her foster home and to the man who was in love with her before she left, and still is. But there are other things about it beyond the story. The setting for example. Hedemora was not chosen by chance. Dalarna is where Bergman grow up to a large part, his maternal grandparents were buried in Hedemora, and Dalarna would continue to be important for him. Styggforsen, where he shot The Virgin Spring (1960), is some 100 kilometres northwest of Hedemora. Skattungbyn, where he shot Winter Light (1963), is just 30 kilometres northwest of Styggforsen. The town of Rättvik where Bergman was a frequent guest at the hotel Siljansborg, where he wrote many of his films, is some 20 kilometres southwest of Styggforsen. So this is Bergman country, much like Fårö.


During his first five years as a filmmaker, 1945-1949, Bergman was on an exploration. Each film was different, he was trying to find himself and his own style and voice. Some efforts are more successful than others but they are all of interest, Crisis too. They are above all interesting for those scenes, shots or actions that, even if surrounded by otherwise poor material, are really powerful, moving and stylish, those moments where you can see the Bergman to come, experience the first appearance of some quintessential Bergman shot, motif, line of dialogue or facial expression. On Crisis there is in particular a scene at a train station between the foster mother and a young man which is shot, edited and written in a typical Bergman fashion. Watching these early films back to back can be an overwhelming experience, to witness his steady progression from Crisis to Thirst (1949), which I would say is his first pure Bergman film. The earlier ones are more like other films, but with a Bergman touch. Thirst is all Bergman, although like the rest of his films of the 1940s it is not entirely successful. Summer Interlude (shot in 1950 but released in 1951) is his first complete film, the first unquestionably great one, and one of his very best.


Crisis could have been a Hollywood melodrama, something by Edmund Goulding, or perhaps remade by Douglas Sirk in 1953. Bergman's next film on the other hand, It Rains on Our Love (1946), feels very Swedish, a typical product of the exciting and vibrant Swedish cinema of the 1940s. This also means that you can sense the influence from French poetic realism, which had a major impact on Swedish 1940s cinema. It is about a young man and a young woman who meet at a train station, spend the night together, and then are reluctant to part. The one-night stand turns into a love affair and a relationship, but with little money and little support from society. They settle down in a small cottage on an allotment, and get by as best they can. Their attraction is a very strong physical one, and there is considerable frankness in subject matter, as well as partial nudity. Birger Malmsten and Barbro Kollberg play the couple, and they are very good. And the film is fine too, much better than Crisis. It has greater warmth and is less overbearing, it is even at times quite playful. But Bergman's fears and concerns are present. There is for example an almost dreamlike trial sequence towards the end where society is willing to condemn the couple for daring to live their own life.

Malmsten and Kollberg after a night of passion.

It Rains on Our Love was not made at SF but was produced by Lorens Marmstedt, one of very few famous Swedish producers, something like a Swedish version of Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. He had begun his career as a film critic, became a film director in 1932 and started his own distribution company, AB Terrafilm, in 1938, which soon also began producing its own films. Marmstedt was an entrepreneur and a cinephile who helped build the career of many Swedish filmmakers, especially Hasse Ekman, but also Bergman. After Crisis, he took Bergman in and gave him the chance to make It Rains on Our Love for the company Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. Marmstedt was perhaps not overly enthusiastic by the final result, and complained, Bergman claimed, that Bergman was certainly not a Marcel Carné and Malmsten was certainly not a Jean Gabin. But he still produced Bergman's next film A Ship to India aka A Ship Bound for India (1947), again for Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. It also shows the influence that Carné and French poetic realism had on Bergman at the time. Like Crisis and It Rains on Our Love, A Ship to India was based on a play, this time by Martin Söderhjelm, and like the earlier two films Bergman rewrote it substantially. It is about a young man who falls in love with his father's mistress, whom the father has invited to come and live with them (father, mother and son), a situation which obviously does not lead to happiness for anyone. It is again a very uneven film, but with several remarkable sequences, including one at an amusement park and a sequence towards the end where the father tries to kill his son and then barricades himself in an apartment. The film competed in Cannes, and won an honourable mention.

Gertrud Fridh and Malmsten in A Ship to India.

Bergman followed it with another film for Marmstedt, this time at TerrafilmMusic in Darkness (1948). It is based on a book by Dagmar Edqvist, the male lead was as usual played by Birger Malmsten and the female lead was Mai Zetterling. She had already left Sweden for an acting career in Britain but she was able to come to Sweden now and then to make a film. Unfortunately, this is quite possibly Bergman's worst film. Unconvincing and awkward, with little coherence or sensibility. But it has some finely lit shots and a spectacular nightmare sequence. The film, like Bergman's other films produced by Marmstedt, was shot by Göran Strindberg, one of Sweden's finest cinematographer at the time. He was responsible for the look of not just these films but several of Ekman's best films as well as Alf Sjöberg's Miss Julie (1951) and Arne Mattsson's One Summer of Happiness (1951). Another member of the team Marmstedt had at his disposal was architect and set designer P.A. Lundgren who would, beginning with It Rains on Our Love, become another one of Bergman's closest collaborators, all the way until The Touch (1971).


After Music in Darkness, Bergman was called back to SF and made Port of Call (1948). The story is typical for Bergman, couples who cannot stand each other yet remain together, and includes disillusionment, suicidal characters, infidelities and abortions and, typical for this part of Bergman's career, the struggles of a young, working-poor couple trying to survive in a society which has little time and patient with them. Other Bergman conventions have now also been well-established such as fog horns, aggressively ticking clocks (part of Bergman's particular soundscape) and there are flashbacks, violence and faces superimposed on other faces. What is new however is that this was the first time Bergman worked together with the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would from then on be his visual half until Sven Nykvist took Fischer's place in the early 1960s. (The Devil's Eye (1960) would be the last film Fischer and Bergman made together, just as it was the last film Bergman would make with the editor Rosander.)

If Bergman so far had made an American melodrama (Crisis), a distinctly Swedish film with a touch of French poetic realism (It Rains on Our Love) and another poetic realist work (A Ship to India), he now, with Port of Call, made his neorealist film. Much has been made of Bergman being influenced by Roberto Rossellini, not least by Bergman himself, with the emphasis on the on-location shooting. But it is not obvious that there is more on-location shooting in Port of Call than Bergman's earlier films. There are other things that are more relevant for making the Italian connection, and that is partly the way work and casual incidents are shown, and given ample screen time, at least before the melodramatics of the plot take over. In the beginning of the film there are lot of scenes in the harbour, with the actors working alongside genuine dock workers. 

Speaking of influences, Bergman was a committed cinephile too, like Marmstedt. There was no official film school but by watching films over and over Bergman did teach himself a lot. One particular favourite was Michael Curtiz, whose films he would watch night after night. (In an interview with John Simon in 1971 Bergman also said that George Cukor had influenced him "very much".) This influence on Bergman of 1940s Hollywood cinema is often overlooked, as critics and historians prefer to focus on his European peers. But it is an important part of his emergence, and of his style. Hollywood cinema of the 1940s was constantly experimenting with narration, like different layers of flashbacks and various forms of voice-overs, and Bergman does this too. Crisis has an all-knowing, dispassionate narrator, heard but not seen. It Always Rains on Our Love has a character, a benevolent father-figure, who acts as our guide in the story, appearing with regular intervals and sometimes talking directly into the camera. A Ship to India is one long flashback, first narrated by the main character directly to us, the audience. Port of Call has several flashbacks, and Thirst has one genuine flashback and several scenes that might appear to be flashbacks but are better described as parallel storylines. And Prison is so narratively complex, with so many layers, that it is not enough space here to disentangle it. Curtiz might have approved. In Bergman's films there also sometimes appear shots and light patterns similar to Curtiz's style, which may or may not be deliberate. 

Swedish films of the time had a rather relaxed sense of nudity and in, for example, Music in Darkness and Port of Call there are scenes with what you might called casual nudity, that is unrelated to sex or eroticism but just the way people dress, change clothes or wash up when they are home. Sweden would in the 1950s get a reputation for sex and nudity in films, but this earlier casual nudity instead gives the films added realism, as it is so mundane. (It was there already in the 1930s.) But since nudity is so extremely rare in films from this age, globally speaking, it is still somewhat startling to suddenly see, for example, a woman baring her breasts because she is putting on a new dress.


By now Bergman had established himself as a filmmaker, and there was even talk about an international career. David O. Selznick was interested, among others. There were meetings, proposals and scripts passed back and forth, but nothing came of it. After Port of Call Bergman would direct three more films before the decade was over and two of them would be released in 1949: Prison, produced by Marmstedt at Terrafilm, and Thirst, made by SF. (The third, To Joy, was released in 1950.) The first is a short (76 minutes) and cheap experimental work which is completely unlike anything Bergman did at the time, or until Persona (1966). It is an allegory about the devil's work and the absence of God, with elaborate dream sequences, tales within tales and a high level of reflexivity as it takes place on a film set. The credit sequence does not have text but a spoken narration by Hasse Ekman (not by Bergman, as some claim), and Ekman also plays a leading role as the film director in the film. This is the first time Ekman and Bergman work together, and much can be said about the way this creates yet another meta-level to the films. The two were rivals and both were considered "the best" by the Swedish critics, and they influenced one another, competed in various ways, and also, in various way, incorporated their relationship in their films. After Prison, Ekman wrote and directed The Girl from the Third Row (1949), calling it his "anti-Bergman film". Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was the last time Ekman acted in a Bergman film and that whole film can profitably be seen partly as an allegory about their rivalry and relationship. Sawdust and Tinsel is a fascinating, great film, but since it came out in 1953 it is outside the scope of this article. Prison on the other hand is not a great film (it is crude, sometimes too emphatic and didactic) but it is one of Bergman's most interesting, and among all the horror and despair it portrays there are also several really funny scenes. It is also the first time the "Bergman scream" and the "Bergman light" appears, both in scenes involving Birgitta Carolina, the young prostitute the film is centred around and who is played by Doris Svedlund. 

In one scene, after having been assaulted by a pimp, she screams with such a deep, agonising force that it is almost impossible to watch. Here the acting goes beyond just acting and reach some other level, some primal fear or terror or trauma, and moments like these appear on occasion in Bergman's films, creating a crack in the fabric of fiction.

In another scene, towards the end, she has committed suicide and after her death the light breaks through the window and embalms her, as if it has come to caress her and take her away. This light, as from a different dimension, like a religious manifestation, will also appear again and again in Bergman's films, disproving the idea of a godless universe.

Svedlund and Malmsten

That leaves Thirst, the first film in which, as argued above, Bergman finally feels ready. After all his experimenting and exploration, he has now found his voice, and there is a sense of self-confidence that had not necessarily been there before. The story in itself is not new, couples locked in mutual hatred yet unable to be apart, but the way it is shot and told is different. Scenes are longer without much happening externally but are instead about inner turmoil. Scenes are often silent and there is much less music. (This is the only film Bergman directed in the 1940s that Erland von Koch did not write the music for). In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time. Malmsten plays the male lead, now established as something of Bergman's alter ego, and Eva Henning plays the female lead. The film is based on some short stories by Birgit Tengroth, who also plays a major part, but although the stories do not successfully coalesce together, and some scenes have a certain histrionic tension, it is a fitting end of the decade; a filmmaker finally finding himself after having been searching for several years.

Ekman and Henning in Prison

Regarding Bergman's claim (in Images: My Life in Film) that Marmstedt criticised him for trying and failing to be Marcel Carné, and Malmsten for not being a Gabin, it is worth pointing out that Ekman earlier had said that Marmstedt had said the same thing to him after Ekman wrote and directed Changing Trains (1943), in which Ekman also played the male lead. Marmstedt might have said it to both Ekman and Bergman, but it is also possible that Bergman borrowed Ekman's anecdote, or appropriated it. Bergman has never been a reliable teller of his own story.

A few films written by Bergman but directed by others also came out in the 1940s but they will be discussed in a separate piece later.

A person not mentioned but of vital importance, as friend, mentor and cooperator, is Herbert Grevenius, theatre critic and writer. They co-wrote the scripts for several films, including It Rains on Our Love and Thirst.

During the period covered in this post Bergman was also contracted director at Göteborgs stadsteater (1946-1950). He got his first job as theatre manager through Grevenius, at Helsingborg stadsteater in 1944, but it was at Malmö stadsteater, beginning in 1952, that he really came into his own, and began building up his now famous stock company.

A few links to related pieces:
Schamyl Bauman
Mai Zetterling
Michael Curtiz

Friday, 6 April 2018

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

In Spain in the 1950s, although a dictatorship under Franco, there was something of a cinematic revival. An important event was in 1951 when the Institute of Italian Cultures organised a festival with new Italian films, which obviously included several neorealist films. The festival, or film week, took place in Madrid and in the audience were many students from IIEC (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias de Cinematografia), a recently opened (1947) film school. Among them were Juan Antonio Bardem, Luis García Berlanga and Carlos Saura, and Bardem and Berlanga also started a film journal, Objetivo. In 1953 the international film festival in San Sebastián opened (which was where Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) had its international premiere). In 1955 there was a conference in Salamanca for filmmakers and critics where they discussed the future of Spanish cinema. This was a time when the Franco regime was (comparatively) more open-minded, and even Luis Buñuel was invited back to his home country to make Viridiana (1961), produced by the closeted communist company UNINCI (founded in 1949), on which board J.A. Bardem now sat. Viridiana was Spain's contribution to the Cannes film festival (where it won the Palme d'or) but the Catholic Church disapproved of the film and Buñuel was not allowed to make any more films in Spain. But the more liberal period in Spanish cinema lasted for the rest of the 1960s and this later period is sometimes summed up with the acronym NCE, Nuevo Cine Español, or New Spanish Cinema, which was to some extent a reaction against the cinema of the 1950s too. (The 1960s was also a time when many big international co-productions were made in Spain, such as 55 Days in Peking (Nicholas Ray 1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann 1964), Doctor Zhivago (David Lean 1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone 1966).)

Berlanga's second film, from 1953.

Perhaps the most well-known film from the 1950s is J.A. Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (1955). It is sometimes called a Spanish neorealist film but it is unclear why since it is a tale of adultery, emotional blackmail and anomie among some well-to-do families. A man and a woman, both married, are having an affair and the film opens with them driving on a country road. By accident they hit a man on a bicycle and, afraid of being found out as lovers, they do not report it or call for an ambulance. When they read in the newspapers that the man died they are consumed by guilt, and act out in various ways, while an unpleasant acquaintance seems to know what they have done and is teasingly suggesting he will tell all and destroy their marriages.

Death of a Cyclist is quite brilliant. The storytelling and pacing is precise and smooth, the acting is magnificent and the visuals are powerful and often beautiful. The film is like a combination of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Michelangelo Antonioni. The milieu, ambiance, dialogue, storytelling and imagery create this interesting mixture of the two. The actress who plays the lead is Lucia Bosè, who also played the lead in Antonioni's excellent Story of a Love Affair (1950) and this obviously strengthens this connection. One aspect where it is different from Antonioni is the ending, which is a neat re-imagining of the opening and this makes the film circular rather than open-ended like Antonioni. This is closer to Mankiewicz.

Today Spanish cinema before Almodóvar is relatively underexplored, globally speaking. There are a few well-known films, like Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but there is a lot more to explore and treasure. (I am told that Berlanga's El Verdugo / The Executioner (1963) is especially good.) Death of a Cyclist is also a reminder of how strong and universal this kind of film style was at the time. There is a tendency to see Hollywood films as generic and European cinema as expressions of personal artistry but this has always been a mistake; most of European cinema is generic mainstream, like Hollywood, and there has always been a lot of personal artistry in Hollywood too. Death of a Cyclist is both typical for its time and place while also being artistically specific, and could be said to exemplify generic artistry.

Pauline Kael wrote an essay in 1963 with the title "The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Parties" in which she discussed (critically) then contemporary European cinema with a focus on Fellini, Resnais and Antonioni, and she might have included Death of the Cyclist in that sick-soul-of-Europe genre. (Although Death of a Cyclist is not mentioned in that article, Kael disliked it.) This is what I meant by the film being generic to some extent. But that is no contradiction to it being a brilliant film, one among the many highlights of the cinema of the 1950s.

There were two Palme d'or winners in 1961. Buñuel shared the award with the French film The Long Absence, directed by Henri Colpi.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Border Incident (1949) and Anthony Mann links

Even by the usual violent standards of Anthony Mann, his 1949 drama Border Incident about the smuggling of Mexicans over the border to California is rather gruesome. It is also a film which impact has not diminished over the years as its very subject matter continues to rouse emotions and hatred.

Border Incident was one of four films Mann made with writer John C. Higgins and cinematographer John Alton (Mann also worked with Higgins without Alton, and with Alton without Higgins). The earlier ones were produced by Eagle-Lion but this time the big, and glamorous, MGM bought both the script and Mann from Eagle-Lion. But it is not a film of luxury but one that stays close to the dirt, capturing the texture of barbed wire and the barren soil, and it is shot on locations on both sides of the border. It begins like a documentary, with a voice-over describing the area's irrigation system, the landscape and the agriculture economy, and how the farms in California depend on Mexican day wagers, or braceros. (In 1942 the United States and Mexico signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement which organised and legalised this system, partly because of a lack of domestic manpower after World War 2 broke out. The agreement lasted in various forms until 1964.) But while some come legally, other are smuggled across the border and it is this the film is focused on. The film emphasises that this is based on true stories, case-files from the Department of Justice, and that it is important that the people are told about this. (The trailer for the film calls it "The angry truth!")

The main character is Pablo Rodriguez, a Mexican policeman played by Ricardo Montalbán, who pretends to be a bracero in order to be smuggled across and this way expose one of these networks. Sig Ruman plays the German headman of the smugglers on the Mexican side and Howard Da Silva plays Owen Parkson, the boss for the whole outfit, with Charles McGraw playing his enforcer. They are all excellent in their parts but Da Silva is the one that stands out. He radiates understated menace.

There are a few scenes showing discussions between Mexican and US officials that come across as stiff and speechifying, advocating the importance for cooperation and friendship between the two "great republics", and however important the message might be these scenes almost seem to belong to another film. But the rest of the film is masterful, especially the cinematography, the silences and the constant tension. The framing and compositions are all quintessentially Mann, and the lighting quintessentially Alton. There is probably not a single shot in Border Incident that could not be taken out and exhibited at MoMA or Tate Modern. There is a shot in the beginning of lines of Mexican men with their faces pressed against barbed wire that has such force and desperation it becomes unforgettable. There are also many small scenes that deepens the characters, whether through acts of friendship or acts of violence. And the tension comes from the fact that life has so little value and death comes to almost all characters sooner or later. In one scene, on a truck filled with Mexicans being taken over the border, an old man dies, struggling for breath, and is quickly thrown on the ground and left behind. This is no country for either young or old.

Today, even though more people are moving from the United States to Mexico than the other way around, poor workers are still try to get across. The stories told in Border Incident are not just a thing of the past.


In an earlier post I said that Mann should be regarded as one of the best filmmakers of all time, in the same league as Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Kurosawa, Bergman and so on. Unfortunately Mann is not as well-known and well-researched as most of his peers but there has been some good writing about him. There are two important books, one by Jeanine Basinger called Anthony Mann, published in a "new and expanded edition" in 2007, and one by Max Alvarez called The Crime Films of Anthony Mann, published in 2013. In Horizons West (2nd edition 2007), Jim Kitses has a good chapter on Mann. For articles and essays here are some links and quotes:

Robin Wood wrote an article in CineAction #46, 1998, primarily about Man of the West (1958), but if you cannot get hold of a copy there is another piece primarily about The Furies (1950) here at Mubi.
Mann’s westerns, on the other hand, show little interest in history or in mythology; they are grounded in a fallen world of existential struggle in which the villains often become the heroes’ dark shadows. Typically, when he shoots down his enemy, the Mann hero experiences not triumph but exhaustion, almost prostration, as if he had forfeited a part of himself, his manhood.
Imogen Sara Smith wrote about Man of the West as a guest-writer at Shadowlands.
In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play.
Nick Pinkerton wrote about Mann's career for The Village Voice in 2010, to be found here.
Breaking down a flanking maneuver during the West‘s climactic ghost-town gunfight, Mann delineates space clearly through camera placement and cutting, an art as common today as fine lacemaking. In a Mann film, you understand who’s shooting, from where, the bullet’s path, where the ricochet goes—and the results. A new widower’s cry lingers after this gunfight—a reckoning moment like the quick-cut of the body dropping at the end of Winchester ’73, as the movie’s fever breaks. Even the “justified” violence of his ostensible heroes is a queasy triumph. His protagonists, he said, ended up not “exalted,” but “exhausted.”
In print only there is Paul Willemen's article "Anthony Mann: Looking at the Male" in Framework #14, 1980. It has also been re-published in The Western Reader (1998), which also has a fine interview with Mann. And finally, Jacques Rancière's essay "Some Things to Do: The Poetics of Anthony Mann" which is to be found in the collection Film Fables, published in English in 2006. He will get the final word: 
Before being a moralist or a craftsman, Mann is an artist, that is, he is first and foremost what Proust understood by an artist: a polite man who doesn't leave price tags on the gifts he gives.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Bergman connections #1: Nattens ljus (1957)

The voice of Gunnar Skoglund was ubiquitous in Sweden for decades. If you were watching a news reel or a documentary in the 1930s, -40s or -50s it would probably be him who narrated it. He acted in front of the camera too on occasion, directed many films and some theatre productions (including Strindberg and Thornton Wilder), but it is as the poetic voice of a benevolent father-figure he had the biggest impact.

In Nattens ljus (Night Light 1957), written and directed by Lars-Eric Kjellgren, the voice of Skoglund also appears, twice. First before the credit sequence, introducing the main character and her dreams, and then at the very end, telling us that all is well again. It is a suitable, self-conscious choice of Kjellgren, befitting this strange fairy-tale which is mixing adolescent romanticism with cinematic modernism (that word again). It takes place during one night in Stockholm, and the main character is a 16-year-old girl from the countryside who arrives at the central station in the big city because she is to start working with her aunt. But the aunt is not there to meet her, and instead she is swept up in a series of adventures, mishaps and happenings, with all sorts of characters and misfits. At one point she stumbles upon a film set and is given a part on the spot. She also meets a young man and the attraction between the two is instant. It seems everybody she meets is immediately smitten by her, although some are more predatory than kind. There are many creepy males in the film. But there are also three kind policemen who always turn up at the right moment.

The young girl is played by Marianne Bengtsson, who had a short and not very striking career. She was twenty at the time of the film and she does look a bit old for the part. Lars Ekborg plays the young man she meets, and although Ekborg is ten years older than Bengtsson he looks almost younger than her and his character definitely behaves as if he was. One of the recurring characters she meets is played by Gunnar Björnstrand, and there are a lot of familiar faces in smaller parts, including Birger Malmsten.

But that is not the only Ingmar Bergman connection; it is stronger than that. Kjellgren and Bergman were friends since at least the 1940s (they bonded over their love of Michael Curtiz) and had worked together at Svensk Filmindustri (SF) as script developers before they began their respective careers as writers/directors. On Bergman's first film as director, Crisis, Kjellgren was production manager, and again on Port of Call (1948). In 1950 they wrote, based on a novel by Per Anders Fogelström, While the City Sleeps (Medan staden sover), which Kjellgren directed. (Fogelström also wrote Summer with Monika (1953), which Bergman directed and which has Lars Ekborg as the male lead beside Harriet Andersson.) While the City Sleeps is a more conventional film about juvenile delinquents, but pretty good. On Nattens ljus Bergman received no screen credit but he and Kjellgren developed the script together.

The story of Nattens ljus is not particularly interesting, instead it is the style and the atmosphere which are its strengths. It has a peculiar rhythm, intense and dreamlike, with abrupt editing and sudden mood swings. The cinematography, by Åke Dahlqvist, really captures the texture of the neon lights of Stockholm and there are many expertly lit scenes and images. Dahlqvist is primarily known for his work together with Gustaf Molander but the carefully modulated images in Molander's melodramas are here substituted for something more edgy and baroque. At times it is reminiscent of James Wong Howe's images from Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick 1957). But Nattens ljus is a very different film. There is instead something of Fellini in its cast of characters and general ambience. The film within the film adds to this. (While Nattens ljus is in black and white, the film within the film is in colour.) The music by Lars-Erik Larsson is quite lovely too, and also self-consciously used, shifting between being diegetic and non-diegetic.

In 1957 Swedish cinema was about to enter its time of crisis. TV had made its appearance the year before and the renaissance of the 1940s was long gone. But 31 films were released in 1957, including two of Bergman's most famous, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. Arne Sucksdorff made his Indian docu-drama En djungelsaga or The Flute and the Arrow. Hasse Ekman made two films, the fine satirical comedy Med glorian på sned and one, less successful, drama, Sommarnöje sökes. Among these 32, Nattens ljus was selected to be Sweden's entry to the Venice film festival in 1958. It was in the competition but it did not win any awards. Today it is mostly forgotten, and that Bergman was involved in the making of it is hardly ever mentioned. And neither is Kjellgren, even though he made around 20 films. But now you are reminded of Nattens ljus, and of Kjellgren.


Bergman was involved with many different films besides those he directed. Hets aka Torment aka Frenzy, which he wrote and Alf Sjöberg directed in 1944, is the most famous. I will be writing about some of these films during the year, under the headline Bergman connections.

If you want to read more about Arne Sucksdorff, here is a link to my article about him.
More about Michael Curtiz? I wrote about him here.
And modernism I discussed here.
If you want to know more of Ekman in the 1950s, then my book will have to do.

When I posted this article I included Expedition Röda havet, a spectacular documentary by Bengt Börjeson about a deep-sea diving adventure in the Red Sea, as one of the films released in 1957. Actually it was released in late 1956 so I had removed it but I still want to name it as it is so good.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Muddled modernism

[t]he earliest example of modernist critical reflexivity is Bergman's first entirely independent work as scriptwriter and director, Prison (1948, released in March 1949), which introduced modern reflexivity into European cinema at least ten years before modernism proper and seven years before the critical conception of auteurship. 
"Modernism" is a word that it seems it is inevitable that most film scholars and critics will use at one point or another. And some devote their whole careers to writing about it. For some reason though many do so in a very confused and contradictory way and when they try to define it by using examples of films and filmmakers they feel are modernist it often becomes impossible to understand why they believe this one to qualify but not that one. There is also a need to date it, to say that it began this year and ended that year. Take the quote above from page 228 of Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980, by András Bálint Kovács, one of the most comprehensive attempts to investigate and specify modernism within cinema. By what possible definition could a film made as late as 1949 be regarded as the "earliest example of modernist critical reflexivity"? Bálint Kovács mentions two earlier reflexive films which he feels do not count as "critical self-reflexivity", Sherlock Jr. (Buster Keaton 1924) and The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov 1929), because the filmmakers are not critical of cinema itself and do not try to put themselves forward as auteurs. ("There is no room for auteurs in this system." p. 229) While I can agree with the first part, that the two films do not criticise the medium of film itself, I do not understand what the second part means. And what about all other films, from Mauritz Stiller's Thomas Graals bästa film (1917) and Die Puppe (Ernst Lubitsch 1919) to Marcel Blistène's Etoile Sans Lumiere (1946) that are reflexive? But even if it would actually be true that Prison was first, how would you know if you had not seen all films made before 1949? I am not denying that Prison can be seen as a good example of "modernist critical reflexivity" but if it is to be regarded as the first then you must prove how and why.

The next question the quote raise is why 1949 was ten years before "modernism proper" and "seven years before the critical conception of auteurship." What happened in 1956 and 1959? There was for one thing no specific point in time about which you can say "Here was the birth of auteurship." Already in the early 1920s critics wrote about auteurs and the importance of the director. Alexandre Astruc wrote his frequently mentioned article "La Camera stylo" in 1948. The article about "a certain tendency" by François Truffaut which is often mentioned as seminal (whether it was or nor) in the development of his generation's "politique des auteurs" was published in 1954.

Prison was produced by Lorens Marmstedt and his company Terrafilm, who also produced a few earlier films by Bergman, so it is questionable to call it "Bergman's first entirely independent work". It was the first film directed by Bergman that was based on an original screenplay by him but that is not the definition of independence. There is also an important dimension of Prison which is not addressed at all, and that is that the director in the film is played by Hasse Ekman, who in real life was Bergman's competitor as to who was Sweden's greatest filmmaker. Since this adds another layer of critical self-reflexivity it is strange that this is not discussed at all.


That modernist cinema flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s is a common argument, and not necessarily wrong in the sense that there was a very palpable outburst of creativity across Europe at the time. Another scholar focused on modernity, John Orr, argues in Cinema and Modernity and elsewhere that the years 1958 - 1978 were the true years of modernist cinema. Some, like Miriam Bratu Hansen, argues that cinema in itself is an example of modernist art, or, as she put it in her essay "The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism" from 1999, "classical Hollywood cinema could be imagined as a cultural practice on a par with the experience of modernity, as an industrially-produced, mass-based, vernacular modernism." But such a position is not as prevalent as the Bálint Kovács/Orr position. Another more popular take is that Italian neorealism of the late 1940s is where modernist cinema got going. This is, in a way, the position of Gilles Deleuze for example. Robert Kolker too takes that view, in A Cinema of Loneliness from 2011:
Post-World War II cinema modernism, which began with the Italian neorealists, flowered in the work of the French New Wave in the early sixties, and moved through Europe and America, defining a view of the world within the structures of cinema and revitalizing those structures in the process. Cinema modernism foregrounded form, celebrated the history of film by incorporating it into the work of the film itself, while at the same time resisting the conventions that bound filmmaking for decades. That movement ran its course by the eighties, even though Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick maintained strong ties to it and continued to experiment with the expressive potentials of the medium. There were few others. (p. xi)
(If modernism foregrounded form and incorporated film history, then neorealism is a peculiar place to begin since it did neither of those things.)

Even those, like the ones I have mentioned, who consider modernist cinema to have appeared after World War 2, still admit that the 1920s was also a strong decade for modernist cinema. Orr says that "one can really speak of two 'modern' cinemas, a silent cinema of Murnau, Dreyer, Lang, Buñuel, and Eisenstein and a sound cinema which crystallizes in the 1960s and early 1970s." (p. 2). Bálint Kovács says that there was a first round of modernism in the 1920s, exemplifying it with German Expressionism, "pure cinema" and French Impressionism (p. 17-19) and "Dreyer was obviously a great modernist auteur throughout his career, while Ozu and Mizoguchi are the only names in this list that do not fit this category." (p. 58)

Trends come and go, and different kinds of films are popular at different times. Westerns are not as popular now as they were from the 1940s to the 1970s. But Westerns have not disappeared. The way discussions about modernist cinema is framed it is like there were no modernist films in the 1930s and 1940s, and, depending on whom you ask, none in the 1950s either. And then they would disappear altogether in the late 1970s. But is that plausible? Could it be a question of which films are famous and which are forgotten? Or that the definitions of modernism are based on the films from a certain period rather than from a set of principles which are then applied to all films to see which correspond with these principles? It is not like scholars do a statistical investigation of each decade and list all films in either the modernist column or the non-modernist column. But if you did that then you could see the ratio of modernist films to non-modernist ones, and give some foundation to your argument. Who knows, maybe the 1940s was really when modernist cinema peaked.

Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen 1941)

Bálint Kovács and others are arguing that modernism was primarily a European thing. Kolker on the other hand believes there was some modernism in American cinema and that "it is Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) that marks the passage of American film from its classical to its modernist stage." (p. 18) John Orr has a similar idea although he puts it a bit earlier, in 1958 with Hitchcock's Vertigo and Welles's Touch of Evil. (p. 17). He then blames the alleged disappearance of modernist cinema in the late 1970s on European integration (p. 18) because apparently modernism is dependent on the individual nation.

But what is modernism then? Here is a suggestion: if you want to use the terms "classical" and "modernist" and put them against each other, then a classical film would be one that tells a story which is comprehensible, told in a style that is primarily interested in forwarding that story and not draw too much attention to itself, stays close to common ideas about realism and is not self-conscious. A modernist film would be one that does not follow these classical ideals but instead engage with them or questions them or abandons them. Prison is a good example. It has a complicated, layered narrative, it wrestles with itself and its own artform, it plays with concepts of narrative and narration and is stylistically explicit. This is how most people would define it, including Bálint Kovács, if asked to give the minimum requirements. Orr calls it "the reflexive nature of the modern film, its capacity for irony, for pastiche, for constant self-reflection" (p. 2) Kolker says that "[m]odernist works - Seven (1995) or JFK (1991), any film by Stanley Kubrick - create pleasure with care, with a sense of the fragility of narratives, either political or personal, that presume to represent the world as it is or was." (p. 266) Although, if all films by Kubrick are modernist then how can Psycho be the first American one, as Kolker also said? (Kolker's book is full of questionable and/or contradictory statements.)

But few films are so pure that they have nothing of the classical or nothing of the modernist in them. Therefore, whenever one film or filmmaker is called modernist and another not, it is tempting to ask "Why?" Bálint Kovács dismisses Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Ozu and Mizoguchi and almost all of American cinema as not being modernist at all. "The most Hollywood could tolerate of modernism in this period was the slightly neorealistic style of Paul Mazursky, John Schlesinger, John Cassavetes, or Bob Rafelson." (p. 60) he says but calling their films "slightly neorealistic" is not accurate and what about Lilith (Robert Rossen 1964), or The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet 1964) or Mickey One (Arthur Penn 1965) or Seconds (John Frankenheimer 1966) or Point Blank (John Boorman 1967)? Bergman of the 1950s or Roberto Rossellini do not count either. This is partly because Bálint Kovács makes a distinction between art cinema and modernist cinema. Explaining why Bergman was not a modernist filmmaker in the 1940s and 1950s he says:
He almost never quit this type of art-cinema form even during his modernist phase. What Bergman did in the beginning of the 1960s was that he modernized this form by adding stylistic and narrative features of modernism to it. He locates his stories in abstract time and space, as in Silence (1963), he made them open-ended, as in Winter Light (1962), he made them self-reflexive and ambiguous, as in Persona. When modernism became obsolete at the end of the 1970s, he just returned to his classical narrative form and to a classical style adapted to the trend of the 1970s and 1980s. (p. 63)
Ambiguity and open endings are usually two key features used to separate art cinema from classical cinema, so it is unusual to use them as something that modernist cinema has but not art cinema. I do not see how Winter Light and Silence are that different from all that was made in the 1950s, by Bergman or many others, to qualify them as being of a different kind of cinema. (Persona though is different.) It is the same with The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson 1962) and Raven's End (Bo Widerberg 1963), three films Bálint Kovács also considers modernist. This is not bringing any clarity to the issue, because what is it that makes them so radically different? It is not that he is too narrow or too wide in his definition but too bewildering. Imagine a book about musicals in which the writer said that 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon 1933) was the first musical and The Tender Trap (Charles Waters 1955) was the last and that while Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly 1952) was a musical An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli 1951) was not, and then not elaborated as to why. That is not different from these books. Two other things Bálint Kovács thinks are typical of modernism are genre parody and narrative ambiguity, arguing that "Genre became a focus for parodies only from the late 1950s on." (p. 115) But has there ever been a time when people were not making genre parodies? As for when ambiguity first appeared he has two opposing propositions: "Another main trend was informed by the problem of narrative ambiguity appearing for the first time in Kurosawa's Rashomon." (p. 271) but on page 60 narrative ambiguity "was introduced into modern cinema by Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet". But obviously, narrative ambiguity is also almost as old as narrative cinema itself. (Incidentally, the exact same concept in Rashomon was used in Anthony Asquith's The Woman in Question, also from 1950 but neither could have influenced the other.)

Another important aspect of many definitions of modernist cinema (and art cinema in general) is the idea of the auteur. To again quote Bálint Kovács: "It is with the idea that the film has an individual auteur who has his own personal relationship to reality and to the medium that critical reflection appears in the cinema." (p. 224) but it is peculiar that an idea from critics should matter here and not what the filmmakers themselves believed, and filmmakers from early on most definitely had this relationship and awareness. Buster Keaton, Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, Mauritz Stiller, Billy Wilder, Yasujiro Ozu and Howard Hawks are examples of filmmakers who signalled such self-awareness long before the late 1950s.

But what about the definition of modernist films I gave above? Does it make any sense? It depends on which specific films I would call modernist. The common argument that neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica 1948) or La terra trema (Luchino Visconti 1948) are modernist and that films such as Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961), Trans-Europ-Express (Alain Robbe-Grillet 1966) or India Song (Marguerite Duras 1975) are modernist too makes it a very expansive term because these films are very different from one another. The story and structure of Bicycle Thieves is conventional, straightforward and melodramatic and Last Year in Marienbad is nothing like it. Does one specific term such as modernism really capture all these films? I would be in favour of treating someone like Frank Tashlin as a modernist filmmaker rather than De Sica. A lot of films made in Hollywood, Japan and India during these decades are more modernist, by most definitions, than neorealism and various French New Wave films. But this does not mean others are wrong to claim Bicycle Thieves as a work of modernist cinema and disregard Tashlin. I do not have a monopoly on the proper definition of modernism. But what I mean is that it is reasonable to demand some semblance of coherence and logic.

This is not something unique for modernism or these books but a general problem. Or rather two problems. One is not having the film historic knowledge necessary for making the claims in question and the other is not being consistent in the argumentation. If you define X as an item having the properties A, B and C, then you cannot also later claim that an item which lacks A, B and C is still an X or say that an item with properties A, B and C is not an X, without carefully explaining way. If you do not it does suggest you are making it up as you go along.

Inevitably, politics is involved too. The common, generic assumption is that the classical is conservative and "in support of the status quo," that most vacuous of terms ("It is called entertainment, but it is in fact ideology reproducing itself." (p. 348) as Kolker puts it) whereas the modernist is radical and against the status quo. Again, the proper response is "Why?" and "How?" Bergman was a modernist artistically but politically close to the Social Democratic consensus of the time, and was criticised by the far left in the 1960s and 1970s. Resnais, Rivette and Rohmer (perhaps) were modernists but what were their politics and how did their films challenge the rule of de Gaulle? The themes and the messages of the works must also be considered when discussing politics and ideology, not just their form or their style, and there is no reason to assume that a film's style or form is indicative of a certain idea it might have. A classical film can be politically radical and a modernist film politically conservative. (Of course, sometimes being conservative can be quite radical depending upon the circumstances.)


For all that have been said about modernism the situation is still very muddled. Which is probably inevitable considering the complexity of the issue. In order to define modernism above I simplified by providing a binary situation, classical vs. modernist film. But these are of course not the only two kinds there are. I have elsewhere suggested that another distinction can be made; between classical and romantic, with the second a cinema of emotional and visual excess exemplified with, for example, Borzage, Minnelli, Powell/Pressburger, Ophüls. Modernism would be a third kind, distinct from both classical and romantic. (Ophüls's Lola Montès (1955) could be seen as bordering on both romantic and modernist cinema, a link between Minnelli and Rivette.) Bálint Kovács as we have seen wants to separate modernist films from art films, seeing modernist cinema as a reaction against art cinema. (p. 62) Some want to make a distinction between modernist cinema and avant garde cinema. ("Modernism, according to [Peter] Wollen, is characterised by reflexivity, semiotic reduction, foregrounding of the signifier and suppression or suspension of the signified, whereas the avant-garde rejects purism and ontological speculation in favour of semiotic expansion and a heterogeneity of signifiers and signified." Well then.) In Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) David Bordwell provides at least four different kinds of modes of narration (which makes for four different kinds of films): classical narration, art-cinema narration, Soviet historical-materialist narration, and parametric narration. He then asks whether any of them could be aligned with the term modernism, and if so, which one? His answer is that it depends, but that it is not that important. (p. 310)

In his most recent book, Reinventing Hollywood, Bordwell talks about "moderate modernism" by which he means various stylistic techniques used in Hollywood in the 1940s that go beyond the classical conventions. That appeals to me, considering what I said above how there are few films that are pure one thing or the other. Films exist along a continuum, making many of these definitions and distinctions difficult judgement calls. But if you have to make them, at least take care that what you argue is historically accurate and theoretically coherent.

Equinox Flower (Yasujiro Ozu 1958)


Books cited:
András Bálint Kovács Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950–1980 (2007)
David Bordwell Narration in Fiction Film (1985)
David Bordwell Reinventing Hollywood (2017)
John Orr Cinema and Modernity (1993)
Robert Kolker A Cinema of Loneliness (2011)

Miriam Bratu Hansen's article was first published in Modernism/Modernity Volume 6 #2 (1999).

The quote about Peter Wollen is by Alison Butler in a chapter in The Cinema Book (2nd Edition 1999) p. 117

A link to Alexandre Astruc's "Le camera stylo"

An earlier piece by me about ideology.

This quote from Screening Modernism is not related to the topic of this piece, but it is so strange that I wanted to share it anyway: "During at least the first sixty years of film history, one could not reasonable speak about a cinematic tradition whatsoever. Cinema as a cultural tradition was first invented by the auteurs of the French new wave." (p. 16) Is there any way of interpreting that in a way that makes it even remotely true?