Friday 30 November 2018

Talking about neorealism

At a podcast from earlier this year about Ingmar Bergman's early films the participants excitedly said that his first film Crisis (1946) clearly showed how he was influenced by neorealism. This is impossible. Crisis was filmed in early 1945, long before any neorealist films had been shown in Sweden, and before Rome - Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945) opened in Italy. Consequently, neorealism did not even properly exist in Italy when Bergman made his film. Besides, there is nothing in Crisis that particularly suggests neorealism, not style, subject matter or tone. As I wrote earlier this year it is rather reminiscent of a certain kind of American melodrama, like something by Douglas Sirk before Sirk had mastered his craft.

Another instant of neorealism confusion: Roberto Rossellini's films with Ingrid Bergman have all, with the exception of Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954), been called neorealist. But except Rossellini's first film with Bergman, Stromboli (1950), there is nothing particularly neorealist about them, whether Europe '51 (1952), Fear (1954) or Voyage to Italy (1954). The first is about a rich woman who decides to help society's downtrodden after the death of her son and the second is a thriller about a rich woman being blackmailed after having had an affair. The last, Voyage to Italy, is about a rich English couple on vacation in Italy as their marriage begins to fall apart. It is a beautiful film, one of the best ever made, but there is not much gained by calling it neorealist. (Even though André Bazin did call it that.)

Admittedly the neorealist films are different from one another. Open City and La terra trema (Luchino Visconti 1948) do not have that much in common. Bazin wrote in 1954 that "Rossellini's neorealism" could be seen as "very different from, if not the opposite of, De Sica's." We might not even talk of these films as being part of a group or cycle or movement if Cesare Zavattini and some others had not explicitly promoted their cause at the time, often in hyperbolic terms. They were often, not least Zavattini, claiming that their films were the opposite of Hollywood cinema. "In fact, the American position is the antithesis of our own" Zavattini said in 1952, in particular the neorealists' "hunger for reality", their "homage /.../ to other people." But there is no "American position." During the years of neorealism, that desire to capture reality and truths about people was not more common in Italy than in Hollywood. Clearly Gone with the Wind (1939) is very different from the neorealist films, but it is also very different from The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler 1946), which aims to do exactly what Zavattini says his films uniquely do. Shoeshine (Vittorio De Sica 1946), scripted by Zavattini, is rather close in tone and style to Warner Bros. films of the 1930s, to the extent that it might be seen as an homage to it. When thinking about Open City, it is of course very different from Anna and the King of Siam (John Cromwell 1946) but compare it instead to, say, The Story of G.I. Joe (William Wellman 1945). The neorealist films are not the opposite of such a film, and many of them are more conventional and more melodramatic than Wellman's film.

A very small percentage of Italian films from 1945 and to the early 1950s can in a meaningful way be called neorealist, on average maybe six or seven per year, among the close to 900 films that were made in Italy during those years. There are many ways of "capturing the truth" without the films being depictions of ordinary people in their daily environments but even if we, as I do here, restrict ourselves to such films, that still means that there were fewer neorealist films, like Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis 1949), any given year than comparable films, like Deep Waters (Henry King 1948), from Hollywood.

There are different paths this article can take now. The argument could be that many are confused about what neorealism is, but that is not what interests me. The more interesting path to explore is how neorealism has never been defined in a way that is coherent and is therefore a very malleable term. The confusion is already in the word itself, "neorealism". There is nothing that is new with the films called neorealist. Films that try to capture the life of ordinary working-class people in a setting that aims to be as close to their natural environment as possible is almost as old as film history itself, as is the mixture of actors and amateurs that most neorealist films have. Some have claimed that what is new is the relation to time that the films express, but that is not necessarily related to realism and was not new either.

Therefore it is strange to call this film or that (such as People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer 1930), Our Daily Bread (King Vidor 1934) or Toni (Jean Renoir 1935)) precursors to neorealism because then it just becomes a synonym for realist films. The style and themes of neorealism are not unique enough for it to be relevant to say that earlier realist films were "pre-neorealist".

Yet neorealism does exist. I have here talked about them as a body of work, against which other films can be compared. Even if I say they are not new or different from all else I still clearly consider them as definable. And that comes from the particular time in which they appeared. They are the films made by a small group of filmmakers at a particular time in Italian history and which aimed, with various degrees of rigor, to depict the lives of ordinary Italians right after the end of the war, with Rossellini's Open City and Paisan (1946) being exceptions as they are set before the end of the war and about soldiers and underground fighters. The neorealist films were also about restoring the dignity of the Italian people. I assume however that it is now common knowledge that the neorealist films were to a large extent shot in studios and, when not using actual actors and stars, had amateurs that were type-casted and usually dubbed by others so that the face might be that of the amateur but the voice that of a professional. The films narrative structures are also frequently a lot more classical than was once assumed.

Another way of defining neorealism is like this, from the website of BFI:
Neorealism was above all a reaction to the studio-bound, Hollywood-influenced productions of the Fascist years (the so-called ‘White Telephone films’). Its proponents – Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Giuseppe De Santis and Carlo Lizzani among others – were determined to take their cameras to the streets, to reflect the ‘real Italy’, which for years had been absent from Italian cinema screens.
But this was not new for post-war Italian cinema. The critic Leo Longanesi wrote in 1933 that Italian filmmakers should move out on the streets and capture the lives of ordinary Italians and during the years of fascism such films were made, although I do not know an exact number. Neither do I know exactly how many "White Telephone films" that were made, but they do not make up all the many hundreds of films made in Italy during the years of Fascist rule. That was just one genre among many others.

It is probably the case that a lot of the contemporary Italians' arguments about the break that neorealism allegedly constituted had to do with a wish to wash their hands of the Fascist years, even trying to hide their own part of it. Several of them had earlier made the kind of films they were now claiming to be revolting against, including Zavattini. Some, like Rossellini, had made films that were part of the comparatively few films that were Fascist propaganda. The neorealist approach is not in itself left-wing or right-wing, communist, fascist or conservative. Many causes can be served by trying to capture "the real Italy".

None of this diminishes the actual films that the neorealist cycle consists of; they are what they are, with their strengths and weaknesses, regardless of what we say about them. This brief article is only about the way they are talked about, and in particular the very word neorealism.

When Bergman's Crisis is referred to as neorealist it shows how the term has become detached from its specific meaning and instead refers to something considered realistic, diluting it of the meaning it might once have had. As soon as you use the term neorealist to talk about films not made in Italy just after the war, but about films made before and after and elsewhere in the world, the word loses its specific meaning and value. That seems unnecessary. Perhaps it is better to use the term to refer to that group of films as a whole, rather than to individual films; that the term's specific value comes from the combined force of the films and their unique context.

I said above that neorealism did not really exist in Italy before 1945 but I should add that the word "neorealist" was used by some Italian critics to describe Visconti's Ossessione when it came out in 1943.

The interview with Zavattini was re-printed in Sight and Sound 23:2 (October-December 1953), and that is from where my quote comes.

The Bazin quote about Rossellini and De Sica is from a chapter in the book Cinéma 53 à travers le monde (1954) and re-printed in André Bazin and Italian Neorealism (2011), p. 122.

In the same book, its editor Bert Cardullo celebrates De Sica's Umberto D. (1952) for its "strict avoidance of sentimentalism." (p. 28) Considering the relationship between the old man Umberto and his cute little dog, "strict avoidance" is not how I would define the film's relationship to sentimentalism...

I really like Deep Waters, a film about a small fishing community in Maine. The lobby card above has more drama in it than the actual film.

Friday 16 November 2018

On films being dated

Last week there was a column in a Swedish newspaper about the year 1968, in particular its music. The writer compared some albums released that year with films and claimed that most films "feel hopelessly dated" and have "aged without any dignity" and mentioned as examples 2001, Where Eagles Dare, Planet of the Apes, Bergman's Hour of the Wolf and a Swedish farce, Åsa-Nisse och den stora kalabaliken, as opposed to the music which, he claimed, in general had aged well and was still very good.

My first reaction was, obviously, that the man was a fool and hey, there were many good films made in 1968 (Bullitt, Once Upon a Time in the West, Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, Bergman's Shame)! An angry tweet was forming. But on second thought it occurred to me that he had not said that all films were bad and that he might like those very films. By mentioning some good films from 1968 I would not disprove him and my tweet was discarded before posting. And he was right in the sense that most films from 1968 are probably not any good (imdb has 21,566 titles just from that year). But that is not something unique for films but true for works of art in general. We remember a few masterpieces and classics but the overwhelming majority of what has been created is not very good, and never was in the first place. The foolishness of him was for thinking that music was different from film. Sturgeon's law ("ninety per cent of everything is crap") probably applies there too. But such an observation is not particularly interesting.

You may think I am over-thinking that irrelevant column, written with no thought, but there is something interesting here, something this column was a good example of. The real flaw with the piece is very common, something I frequently criticise my students for, and which can even be seen as a common flaw in humans' conception of history. What does it actually mean to say that something is dated?

When that columnist said that most films have aged without dignity he made several assumptions from the fact that he did not like these films. If something has aged badly it must have been the case that it was once considered good but not so anymore. It would be weird to say that Ed Wood's films, like Plan 9 From Other Space (1959), have aged badly because they were never considered anything else than bad.

But I think we can assume that 2001, Åsa-Nisse and Where Eagles Dare are overall regarded much the same way now as in 1968. Hour of the Wolf is so strange and particular that it becomes meaningless to say it has aged in any direction. It was as weird in 1968 as it is now. You could argue instead that these films have not aged at all and the same kind of people who liked them then probably likes them now. I was a huge fan of Where Eagles Dare as a teenager, and I have it on blu-ray, but I find it a bit boring now. Not because the film has aged but because I have.

Planet of the Apes is somewhat different and it probably does not have the same kind of audience now as then. But what might conceivably be said to have aged are costumes and makeup, although I would not say they have aged without dignity. Quite the contrary.

And regardless of what one might think of those films they remain watched and liked and they continue to be a part of our culture. For that reason too it is also peculiar to argue that they have dated badly.

Some years ago a distinguished Swedish film critic said that after having re-watched The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959) he realised it was very dated. He did not like it as much as he once did. The presumption here is that during that time the film had changed, or aged, and he had not. I think you might more plausibly argue that it was the other way around.

The connection to my students is that they frequently say that a film is dated when they do not like it and say it was ahead of its time when they do like it. In view of the fact that they have not seen more than a small handful of older films they are not really in a position to argue whether something was ahead of its time or not. They have no frame of reference and only their prejudices to go on.

What is underlining all thinking about something being dated is an idea of progress. If an older film presents an idea of gender or sexual relations that someone today thinks is conservative or old-fashioned, she might say the film is dated; that when the film came out this was how everybody viewed gender and sexuality whereas now we have progressed and are more enlightened or some such.

But whatever view of gender or sexuality you might find in an older film can also be found in films today, and in society at large. If something is prominent today, and can be found in contemporary art, what does it mean to say it is dated? To what an extent must a view on for example social issues be less common today than it once was for that view to be considered dated? There are quite a few things in contemporary society I disapprove of but in many cases I am often in a very small minority when disapproving. It would not make any sense for me to say that a film from, say, 1952 is dated just because it is positive to one of those things I disapprove of if people today in general are just as positive about it as people were in 1952, whether I approve or not.

The beliefs that once a given film might have been considered a masterpiece but now we see that it is dated due to themes and subject matter; that something was of its time or ahead of its time; that nowadays we are wiser and more progressive and enlightened, are usually based on a smug ignorance, which can at times be quite intolerable.

It is a similar case with style. It is for example common to say that older films are slow, and that this makes them dated. As if His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks 1940) is slower than The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr 2011). Most of the current superhero films and Michael Bay's Transformers are pretty slow in the sense that they are very long, take their time, are to a large extent pointless exposition and in the end there are seemingly endless fight scenes of little value. Almost any given film from Fritz Lang' sound period, or from Darryl F. Zanuck or 1930s Warner Bros. or early Kurosawa or Bergman and so on is like a Lamborghini in comparison. Some would perhaps counter that I find The Avengers films slow because I find them uninteresting and yes, that is true. This is the point. Whether something is slow or not is a matter of personal preferences and somewhat irrelevant as a statement on cinema in general. Unless your argument is that today people find films interesting (and therefore not slow) whereas in them olden days people thought films were uninteresting and therefore slow.

There are also those who say that a film is dated because of what people wear or what technology they use or do not use, for example when people do not have mobile phones. But that is clearly pretty dumb as it also means, for example, that all current period pieces are by default dated. Where does this argument take us?

There are times when it is relevant to say something is dated, but rarely in the way it is generally used. Acting style and ideas of realism are among things one might discuss as being dated for example, and I am all for having such discussions. But it should then mean something more than "because I did not like it".


Unrelated but fun: the expression "the hour of the wolf" or "vargtimmen" has become a saying because of the film. The phrase and concept was invented by Bergman and did not exist beforehand. Much like The Sarah Siddons Award was invented by Joseph L. Mankiewicz when he wrote the script for his film All About Eve (1950) and then two years later it became a real prize handed out for acting in the theatre, like it had been in the film. (This year it went to Betty Buckley.)

Friday 2 November 2018

Creative freedoms and final cuts

What is frequently mentioned whenever Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) is brought up is Welles's contract with RKO, which allegedly gave him previously unheard-of creative freedom.

While there is no denying that Welles's contract was unusual, especially in the way it said that Welles was to have four responsibilities (actor, writer, producer and director) and a right to final cut. But disregarding the comparatively unimportant part of him also acting, this was not unique or unprecedented. Consider for example F.W. Murnau's contract with Fox for making Sunrise (1927), which gave him almost unlimited freedom (for his next two films for Fox that freedom was severely curtailed), or Ernst Lubitsch's contract with Warner Bros. in the early 1920s. ("Lubitsch shall have the sole, complete and absolute charge of the production of each such photoplay /.../ there shall be no interference of any kind whatsoever from any source, with Lubitsch, with respect to any matter or thing connected with the production, cutting and final completion of such photoplays.") That shows the high esteem in which the two Germans were held but it was not just already established directors from abroad who could get good deals in Hollywood. Consider Preston Sturges at Paramount for example, or Frank Capra at Columbia, and many other directors including some that are more or less forgotten today. Mitchell Leisen said once that since he was a "top director at Paramount" he just "snapped" his fingers and got whatever he wanted. (I wonder how accurate that was though.)

But the contract itself is not all that matters. For two case-studies let's look at two films from 1938, the year before Welles signed with RKO, at the height of the power of the studio system and at two different studies: Bringing Up Baby, made by Howard Hawks for RKO, and Jezebel, made by William Wyler for Warner Bros.

Hawks had signed a deal with RKO to make up to three films. After much time was spent on coming up with ideas and concepts Hawks settled on a short story by Hagar Wilde he had read, and called in Dudley Nichols to help make it into a feature-length script, gathered a cast and began filming. In Wyler's case, Warner Bros. already had Jezebel in mind for a film, and Wyler had many years earlier spoken about wanting to make it, so he was hired for this one film.

Once the contracts were signed Hawks and Wyler were in charge. They made all decisions, got the writers they wanted, went way over budget and over schedule, yet the studios could do nothing. The two films were made on Hawks and Wyler's terms and on their own schedules. They were responsible for the shape and form of the scripts too, and called for help with it from those they felt were right for it, in Hawks's case Nichols and in Wyler's case John Huston. (Wyler did on several occasions sign Huston up for writing or polishing scripts.) All the studios could do was hope for the best and write exasperated memos, such as one at RKO which complained that "All the directors in Hollywood are developing producer-director complexes and Hawks is going to be particularly difficult."

You could argue that Warner Bros. had been expecting to get a Warner Bros. film but instead they got a William Wyler film. But they had reason to be pleased with the finished result though, as Jezebel was a huge hit whereas Bringing Up Baby was not. RKO did not have any particular film in mind when the contract was signed but were still disappointed that they got a Howard Hawks production. Despite Hawks's deal for potentially three films only this one was made and then RKO had had enough of him.

The following year, 1939, Hawks made a film for Columbia and Wyler returned to his old partnership with Sam Goldwyn. Now though Hawks was more fortunate than Wyler, as he made Only Angels Have Wings without interference, a film that is not only one of his best but also what might be called the purest expression of all his themes and then current style. Wyler on the other hand made Wuthering Heights, where he and Goldwyn had different ideas of how it should end. Wyler's version was final and tragic, an image of Heathcliff frozen to death in the snow (the film is not a particularly faithful adaptation). That was not something Goldwyn could stomach and as Wyler refused to do a new ending Goldwyn had H.C. Potter direct a brief coda to lighten the mood, and removed Wyler's last scene.


The point is not that Hawks, Welles, Wyler, Murnau, Lubitsch were unique but that quite a few filmmakers in Hollywood could make films with great creative freedom, and not necessarily with less of it than their peers among prestigious European and Japanese filmmakers. Another point is that one must differentiate between staff directors and freelancers. A third, central, point is that the actual, lived reality in which they and all other filmmakers work is complex, constantly changing from time to time, from film to film, and often unsuitable for general theories and generalisations. It is this complexity which makes studying film history so interesting and exciting.


Charles Vidor directed a couple of re-takes with Rita Hayworth for Only Angels Have Wings. I am not sure why, but in any event it does not effect the film.

Some sources and references:

Thomas Schatz's book The Genius of the System (1989)
Scott Eyman's book Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (1993)
Jan Herman's book A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler (1995)
Todd McCarthy's book Howard Hawks - The Grey Fox of Hollywood (1997)
Vanda Krefft's book The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox (2017)

Richard B. Jewell's article "How Howard Hawks Brought Baby Up: An Apologia for the Studio System" (1984)

Mitchell Leisen was interviewed by Leonard Maltin in 1970 but now I do not recall for which publication.

Speaking of lesser known filmmakers, I am curious about the contracts of someone like Mervyn LeRoy, perhaps the most successful and powerful person among the staff directors at Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Further research is definitely warranted, not just because he made such important and fine films as Little Caesar (1930), I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) or They Won't Forget (1937) but also because he and producers Hal B. Wallis and Darryl F. Zanuck can be said to have been particularly important in the creation of Warner Bros. particular style of filmmaking. And how did he compare to someone like Roy Del Ruth, even lesser known today yet Warner's highest paid director at the time? But having read whatever books and articles about LeRoy I could find (which was not much) I was not particularly more enlightened, other than that James Cagney was not at all a fan of him as a director or as a person.