Friday, 14 June 2019

Poetic realism and Howard Hawks

France in the 1930s was a particularly fertile ground for filmmaking. It is probably true that more great films were made in France just by men called Jean (Grémillon, Renoir, Vigo) than most other countries were able to produce in total. There were all kinds of films made, in many different genres, but the term most people associate with this glorious French decade is "poetic realism".

But poetic realism is one of those terms that are both specific and vague, and where it seems each person who use it defines it slightly different. Sometimes the term is used so broadly it becomes another way of saying "French films from the 1930s" and sometimes it is just about only the handful of films written by Jacques Prévert in the 1930s and early 1940s that are included, most of which were directed by Marcel Carné. This is unsatisfying because if we want to use a term it should mean something concrete, otherwise it becomes meaningless. And for it to mean something concrete it is not enough to define it, your examples of it must also fit that definition. When you use it to include everything from La Kermesse héroïque / Carnival in Flanders (Jacques Feyder 1935) to Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier 1937) to Port of Shadows (Marcel Carné 1938) to The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir 1939) it has no meaning as those films have nothing in common (whether style, tone or settings or themes) other than being French films of the 1930s. You can of course call them all examples of poetic realism if you wish but then your definition of poetic realism needs to be able to include such disparate art works. If the definition cannot do that, do not call them all examples of it.

Port of Shadows

While poetic realism is the term overwhelmingly in use today, others have been used before to talk about some of the same films, such as "populist melodrama" or "fantastique social" and that is relevant as it shows how ill-defined the concept is. Many critics and historians (including Ginette Vincendeau and Rémi Fourier Lanzoni) argue that central to poetic realism is a depiction of the lives of the working class, but while it is true that Jean Gabin's character in Daybreak / Le jour se lève (Marcel Carné 1939) works in a factory, I would not say that the films most commonly included under the banner of poetic realism (such as the four above) are on average about the working class in any particular way. An urban setting, particularly Paris, is also often considered a key aspect but this is by no means generally true. Many of the films that are frequently referenced as poetic realism are set in rural areas or in French colonies. I would not include La Kermesse héroïque among poetic realism but many do, even though it is set in 17th century Flanders.

One problem in the discussion is that during the 1930s over hundreds of films where made each year in France (some years up to 160 films were made), and the ones that are being discussed are such a very small portion of that. This small sample pack might give the appearance that poetic realism was a prevalent style but that is probably not true at all. Although until you have seen the roughly 1200 films made during the decade, you cannot say how many that can reasonably be called poetic realism.

But while there is a lot of confusion and incoherence, there is something we could refer to as poetic realism, but it should be used with more specificity, and your examples should fit your definition. That Port of Shadows is a prime example of poetic realism seems uncontested, one of the few films that everybody agrees upon. What it has is a sense of melancholia and fatalism, of people hiding out from the world as existential fugitives with a troubled past and no real hope of a tomorrow. It is shot with a beautiful combination of sets and the real world and in a black and white that is leaning towards grey, and with an infrequent mist adding texture. The narrative is often loose, and the focus is on the characters and their interactions rather than the story at large. A film must not have all of these features to qualify, some aspect might be missing, but it should be close enough, an outlook on life and a particular view of character. This to me is poetic realism. My definition is perhaps too narrow for some tastes but I think it must be if it is to be meaningful. Even if it is not an exact science, it should still be coherent. At the same time I do not think it is unique for France, as is almost always said. We can talk of it as a more global trend.

In Mists of Regret (1995), Dudley Andrew's rich book about poetic realism, he suggests Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) as an early example of poetic realism or, as he puts it, "arguably the first major film explicitly intoning the poetic realist appeal." (p. 36) But that is an outlier, and Andrew does not pursue an American poetic realism (see my first footnote). One could instead consider some films of Josef von Sternberg, from the late 1920s and early 1930s (such as Morocco (1930)), as other contenders. Frank Borzage's adaptation of A Farewell to Arms, made in 1932, comes close to adhering to my definition, as do Allan Dwan's While Paris Sleeps (1932). And then there is Howard Hawks.

In 1939, the same year as Carné made Daybreak, Hawks made Only Angels Have Wings. It has all the traits and attributes of poetic realism, the men and women huddled together away from the world at large, living in the moment since the past is best to be forgotten and the future is bleak. The narrative has a meandering quality and despite a story filled with drama and tension, it is leisurely told with primary attention given to character interactions and relationships. Visually, Only Angels Have Wings is also within a style of poetic realism, both cinematography and set design.

Only Angels Have Wings

There are other films by Hawks that can be discussed as poetic realism, such as The Road to Glory (1936) that was inspired by the French film Les Croix de bois (Raymond Bernard 1931). The last example of Hawksian poetic realism is To Have and Have Not (1944). Like with Only Angels Have Wings, it is easy to imagine that Jean Gabin's character Jean from Port of Shadows will just walk in one day and join the group.

Both Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not were co-written by Jules Furthman, who also participated on the scripts of some other films by Hawks and some early films by Josef von Sternberg. Furthman is undoubtedly an important figure within American poetic realism.

My argument is not that Hawks was explicitly influenced by the French, the argument is that the style and mood was more universal than French. In the 1940s Swedish filmmakers like Hasse Ekman and Ingmar Bergman were clearly influenced by certain aspects of French 1930s cinema, but that is something different. The usual argument is that French cinema of the 1930s was an antidote or an alternative to Hollywood, but that is a monolithic view. With thousands of films made in each country, the output is too rich and varied for such neat dichotomies. When you compare one specific masterpiece like Stormy Waters / Remorques (Jean Grémillon 1941) with a generic, unspecified Hollywood production then of course the French film will be different and superior. If you compare one Hollywood masterpiece, such as Holiday (George Cukor 1938), against a generic, unspecified French film it will be the Hollywood masterpiece that is different and superior. But either comparison is weak and will not tell you anything of value.

Another argument I make is that it is wrong to treat all Hollywood films as following the same narrative structure, in contrast with other countries. There are plenty of variations of narrative within classical Hollywood, as I have argued elsewhere. Hawks is an example of that, and looking at it from the perspective of poetic realism can yield interesting insights.

The Road to Glory

Despite his claim for Broken Blossoms, I do not think Dudley Andrew would agree with these American examples. A large part of the introduction to Mists of Regret is focused on "proving" that Hôtel du Nord (Marcel Carné 1938) is by default better than anything made in the US in the 1930s. A peculiar argument to make about a decade that saw Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, George Cukor, Henry King, Henry Hathaway, John M. Stahl and others do wonderful things. Andrew's book is beautifully written but it has its faults.

Besides directors, perhaps the most important contributors to French cinema of the 1930s were the art directors and set designers, like Alexandre Trauner and Jacques Krauss. Another one was Lazare Meerson. He was indisputably a master, as can, for example, be seen in his work for Feyder and René Clair. But by the time poetic realism really got going Meerson had moved to Britain (in 1935) and he died suddenly in 1938 from meningitis. On his last film, The Citadel (King Vidor 1938), Meerson was replaced after his death by Alfred Junge, who would later be a key collaborator with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Had Meerson not died so young he might have been that key collaborator instead.

Here is something I wrote about Spawn of the North (1938), a film directed by Hathaway and written by Jules Furthman:

I discuss different kinds of narratives in Hollywood cinema in my chapter in the book ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher (2017).

 A Farewell to Arms

Friday, 31 May 2019

Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Writing about The Nun's Story (Fred Zinnemann 1959) recently reminded me of Laura Mulvey's article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" and how incompatible the two are, the film and the article. Mulvey's article denies the possibility of such a film, so I decided to return to Mulvey's piece and discuss it here. Her article is important as it is probably the most read and cited article in the history of film studies. In the big anthologies about film theory, Mulvey's text is one of the very few that appears in all I have seen. Likewise, it is the only one that has been mandatory reading for all film students at all the universities with which I have been associated in some form.

This is perplexing because it is not a good text and its flaws are obvious. While it has been criticised from a few angles ever since it was published, usually from within a psychoanalytic frame-work (such as Joan Copjec, Gaylyn Studlar, Carol J. Clover, Richard Allen and Todd McGowan) or from philosophers like Noël Carroll, it is still treated as a serious and important work of film theory even though there is nothing in the text that can justify this. Mulvey herself has moved beyond it and has on occasions expressed her ambivalence about its canonical place within film studies. In 1989, in the introduction to the book Visual and Other Pleasures, she wrote this about her article: "Written in 1973, polemically and without regard for context and nuances of argument, published in 1975, after many references and quotations in the following year, it has acquired a balloon-like, free-floating quality." and that is one of several times she has commented on it in similar ways. Mulvey is more critical of her own article than many other scholars who believe it is a great piece of scholarly insight into how films and humans function. It is not, and it was never Mulvey's intention for it to be, so while I will be using expressions like "Mulvey says" or "Mulvey's argument" it is not to criticise her per se today, as she has moved beyond the article, but just the article when it was written. But let me go through it step by step, and point out what I consider are its major flaws.


Particularly important for Mulvey is Jacques Lacan and his "mirror stage" or "mirror phase". Lacan's belief (which he had taken from the psychologist Henri Wallon) is usually summarised something like this: children's perception of themselves as individuals is formed when, somewhere between the age of six and 18 months, they for the first time see themselves in the mirror, but that what they see is an idealised version of themselves. This is how Mulvey portrays it but when her article was published, Lacan had reconsidered the theory. It was not specifically a mirror that had to be involved and he was emphasising that it was not a decisive moment, not a formulation of an ego, but part of a process. So Mulvey's version of Lacan is not exactly right, or at least incomplete. This is perhaps understandable as Lacanians have argued for decades over the exact meaning of the mirror phase, and brief summaries of it are usually different from one another in some significant way. What she primarily takes from the idea of the mirror stage is the concept of identification with an ideal. She argues that when the audience see a film they identify with the male main character and see him as an idealised version of themselves. But her basic argument is a giant leap of faith. Lacan claims (according to her) that all children have a mirror experience and therefore, Mulvey claims, the members of the audience identify with the male lead and through his actions overcome their own castration anxiety. Even if Lacan's original theory had been correct though there is nothing similar between a mirror image of yourself and a film. As an example, the point of the mirror stage in Mulvey's telling is that the child does recognise the image as itself. This is not what we do when watching a film; we do not think "That is me." when we see the face of Tom Cruise on the screen as we do when we see the face of ourselves in the mirror. Further, there is no reason to assume that every audience member would react the same way. Mulvey's assumption that all audience members identify with the same character in a given film is one of the things that many have criticised her for.

Another obvious flaw is that the theory, although she speaks of Hollywood as a whole, only works when there is a male lead. Sometimes there is none, sometimes there are more than one. Do we identify with each lead equally much or subconsciously choose one, so some identify with Laurel and others with Hardy? In many thrillers the male lead is a criminal or murderer or in one way or another a bad character, and the female lead is a victim of his aggressions. The purpose of such films is for the audience to be scared and concerned for the health and well-being of the woman, but if we all identified with the man we would not be worried about the woman. If we, according to Mulvey's argument, identified with the man we would presumably hope that he (us) managed to kill the woman. But we do not. A small minority might, but not the average person.

milk glass in Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock 1941)

Another question is what in the first place it means to identify with a character and to what extent we do that. When I watch a James Bond film I do not identify with Bond, partly because we have nothing in common. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks 1940) is one of my favourite films but I do not identify with any of the characters there, and I would say that this is true for most films. When I identify with anything it is primarily with specific feelings or reactions in specific situations, regardless of the gender of the character (or even species, such as the terrified dog in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1949)). I do not think I am alone in this.

mirrors in The Little Foxes (William Wyler 1941)

Mulvey writes about Freudian ideas such as penis envy (according to Mulvey, women have a "desire to possess a penis"), castration complex and other related concepts, but those concepts are dubious at best, are impossible to prove, have been criticised ever since Freud first wrote about them and are rarely taken seriously today. Freud's theory, which Mulvey seems to agree with, was that these concepts were common to all humans at all times throughout history, even though Freud's empirical material consisted of a few people in fin de siècle Vienna and not a representative sample of humanity as a whole.

Mulvey combines her psychoanalysis with apparatus theory, based around the idea that the way we watch films and the way films are made, make the audience especially susceptible to their sexist and ideological message. We, the claim is, sit in the dark, cut off from the real world and instead come to believe that the world of the film is the real world, due to the film's use of realism and invisible editing ("conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world"). This is as unsatisfying and peculiar as the psychoanalysis. For one thing, most people do not experience film by watching it in a dark movie theatre. They watch films at home. This was true in the 1970s and remains true today. We also watch films outdoors or on the in-flight entertainment system. Even when people go to the cinema it is to experience the film in a variety of ways. The quiet and dark movie theatre setting on which apparatus theory is based is just one way of many of watching a film in the cinema, from the habit of having the audience come and go at will, and not see a film from beginning to end, to singalong experiences of musicals. Cinema-going habits vary between different eras and between different cultures, and Mulvey and apparatus theory in general ignore this. This alone makes the theory unsustainable.

If invisible editing and the pretence of realism are inherently suspect you would expect neorealism and the films of Ken Loach to be among the main targets of apparatus theory rather than Hollywood at large, since a lot of Hollywood cinema is extravagant escapism and adventures which do not aim for realism. Two other popular kinds of films from the era Mulvey is primarily focused on are musicals and film noir and they frequently foreground stylistic achievements and artificiality. The idea that Hollywood films as a rule rely on invisible editing is also contradicted by the evidence. Some films try to keep the editing smooth and unnoticeable (even though almost any given film have cuts and edits that are highly visible) and others do not. Alfred Hitchcock, one of Mulvey's examples, is fond of shock editing and artificiality, although on a different level than Mulvey's other main example, Josef von Sternberg, whose films are all about form; the antithesis to the realism Mulvey claims is an essential part of the problem with Hollywood. This is an example of the incoherence of her arguments.


While Mulvey's article is theory-dense, she did not have to spend so much time on Freud and Lacan. Pointing out sexism in cinema is perfectly possible without invoking castration anxiety or a mirror stage. The sexism is real and obvious (just look at Bus Stop (Joshua Logan 1956)), and in need of no theory to highlight. Yet her arguments about the way men and women are depicted in films are weak too, whatever your views are of Freud and Lacan.

She makes several general statements about the differences between men and women on films, and key is how the man has the look and the woman is being looked at, how the man controls the gaze, and how the woman is always sexualised. She quotes Budd Boetticher saying that in herself, the woman has not meaning for the film, only as an instigator. This might be true for some of Boetticher's own films which are about a man avenging the death of his wife, but it is not a general truth for cinema at large. It never has been. Having women as central characters that drive the narrative has been a constant factor since the early days of cinema. That is what I meant when I said that The Nun's Story and Mulvey's article are incompatible. It is probably more common to have male characters as the ones driving the narrative, rather than women, but far from always. Screwball comedies usually have one man and one woman in the lead, equally driving the narrative. Musicals, such as Meet Me in St Louis (Vincente Minnelli 1944), often have women as leading characters, and the men play second fiddle. But it is not only specific genres. A crime thriller like Appointment with Danger (Lewis Allen 1951) has a nun and a postal inspector as the crime-fighting team. (Films with nuns as central characters should present a problem for Mulvey.) The films of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. The films of Doris Day, or Lucille Ball. But I will not go on any further, the list is long enough. You might counter that Mulvey is perhaps not talking about all of Hollywood cinema, that she is merely pointing at a certain kind of sexist cinema. But since she is using Lacan and apparatus theory, all-encompassing theories, and speaks of Hollywood cinema in singular, she does not leave any room for alternatives or minority cases. She is talking of the whole of Hollywood cinema "and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence" by which she seems to mean "the narrative fiction film."


At one point Mulvey says that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification." This is not true. Just think of singers such as Elvis Presley or Tom Jones. Cinema is filled with scenes of men looking at other men and women looking at men in a sexualised way. When male film stars were referred to as hunks and beefcakes, it was because they were objectified and the beauty of their bodies underlined. That is self-evident and Mulvey's apparently belief is belied by film history and audiences. I am sure that she was aware of women looking at William Holden or Burt Lancaster with lust in their eyes. Some genres were particularly good at providing eye candy for those who like to look at the male body, such as biblical epics and sword-and-sandals films. There is a delicious moment in Esther and the King (Raoul Walsh 1960), when Esther (played by Joan Collins) and some ladies come across the king, dressed only in little more than a loincloth, and they gasp with delight at the sight of his strong, sweaty body. But it is not genre-specific. In The More the Merrier (George Stevens 1944) Joel McCrea's character is a young and good-looking man in New York when most young and good-looking men are away overseas fighting the war, so the women stare at him and undress him with their eyes. In one scene he undresses himself and goes sunbathing in a pair of shorts. In Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen 1935), another romantic comedy, Fred MacMurray, the male lead, is half-naked most of the film unlike Carole Lombard, the female lead, who is properly dressed.

William Holden in Picnic (Joshua Logan 1955)

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann 1953)

We can accept Mulvey's argument and settle for the idea that when the audience see Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach, all of them look at Kerr and nobody look at Lancaster. Or we can question whether this is plausible. I think it is not, and that her general arguments about men and women on films, and how they are viewed, are inaccurate. (There is also a Queer subtext in From Here to Eternity, which sometimes moves from subtext to text; yet another complication in Hollywood cinema that Mulvey cannot acknowledge.)

Burt Reynolds in Cosmopolitan, 1972

What about when she speaks of specific films? There too she is sometimes objectively wrong and sometimes interpret what is happening in a peculiar way. She mentions eight films by name in her article: Morocco (Josef von Sternberg 1930), Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg 1931), Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks 1939), To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks 1944), Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock 1954), The River of No Return (Otto Preminger 1954), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock 1958). Of those she claims that in the two films by Hawks, the woman is initially a show girl, "isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised", but as the film progresses she becomes the property of the man and stops appearing in front of others. This is not what happens in the films. Bonnie in Only Angels Have Wings performs once, in the beginning, but this is a group performance with most of the main characters including the male lead, Geoff, and through this performance she is initiated into the group. She and Geoff become a couple (sort of) in the end of the film, but she does not change in appearance or become de-glamourized. She was never put on display or sexualised in the first place, and she never becomes his property. (An offensive idea.) But the most important thing is that in the film Bonnie is the audience's surrogate. She arrives at Barranca in the opening sequence, a stranger to this place where all the others know each other, and we follow her. The other characters spend the beginning of the film explaining to her (and us) who is who and what they do and why. If the audience identify with anyone in the film it is probably with her. Mulvey's argumentation has very little to do with what happens in the film.

Slim in To Have and Have Not does not change in appearance or character either during the film and it is after she has fallen in love with Steve that she starts to perform, so the opposite of what Mulvey claims. It is also more a case of her chasing him, being the active one and he more passive. This matters because if what Mulvey claims is happening in Hawks's two films is meant to prove her theory, such as it is, then it suggests that if the opposite happens it would disprove her theory, and it is the opposite that happens.

To Have and Have Not

About Rear Window, Mulvey says that Lisa has "an obsessive interest in dress and style," is "a passive image of visual perfection" and that she is saved in the end by Jeff. It is puzzling that she would call Lisa "a passive image" because she clearly is not. She is the most active character in the film, and supremely confident and driven. She works in fashion but is, among other things, organising photo sessions, doing fund-raising and having meetings. So neither professionally or privately can you reasonably describe Lisa is passive, and while it is possible that Jeff thinks her interest in dress and style is obsessive, there is no indication that Hitchcock, or the film, takes this view. According to Mulvey, it is when Jeff sees Lisa being threatened by another man that his desire for her is aroused. But this is getting things backwards. Jeff is dismissive of Lisa at first, when he considers her just as "a passive image of visual perfection" as Mulvey claims she is. But it is when he understands that she is intelligent, brave and resourceful that his love for her grows and takes charge of him. This is one of the major themes of the film, that Jeff is taught a lesson, he realises that he had the wrong idea of her. He is wrong about most women. He might have a male gaze but he has at first little understanding of what he sees.

Concerning Vertigo, Marnie and the Sternberg films, it is not entirely clear whether Mulvey's discussions of them strengthen or weaken her general argument. About von Sternberg's films she makes this observation: "the most important absence is that of the controlling male gaze" and this is confusing considering her article is primarily famous for its introduction of the concept of the male gaze and its ubiquitousness within Hollywood cinema. But in one of her two prime case studies it does not appear. Does she think that von Sternberg's films are the only exception to the rule, and should not this have been emphasised if they were?

What Mulvey says about Vertigo is not much more than a plot summary, so she is not uncovering something hidden beneath but only follows Hitchcock, who is upfront with what he is doing and what the film is about. Hitchcock might be said to make arguments that are similar to Mulvey's, which is perhaps why she is not criticising the film but merely describing it. She is not actually doing any kind of analysis. But she is calling James Stewart's character "a hero" and I do not think many would agree with her about that. Mulvey says about the end that "His curiosity wins through and she is punished." but that is incomplete. To call him "curious" is questionable and he too is punished. It would be a rare audience to come away from the film thinking that Stewart is a hero who has won. And here, like in Rear Window, he might have the gaze but he does not understand what he sees. In Rear Window he is also punished, but the woman, Lisa, is not. In the end it is she who gets what she wanted.

It is worth asking why, in an article which partly aims to expose the male gaze, Mulvey has chosen to focus on von Sternberg and Hitchcock of all filmmakers since within von Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich there is no such gaze while the Hitchcock's films she brings up are explicitly about that gaze, from a critical perspective. You do not need psychoanalytic theory to "discover" something that the characters are already explicitly discussing in the films. It is not even the subtext. It should be added that there is more than one woman in both Vertigo and Rear Window, but their presence go unacknowledged by Mulvey despite their importance for the films and their narratives. They too look. You could argue that the male gaze in these films is exposed by Hitchcock, shown to be incomplete and untrustworthy, and that it is women who see more clearly.

Stella and Jeff gazing in Rear Window

Mulvey ends the article with a call for a new cinema, one that is against giving pleasure, but it is unclear to what end. Why make films at all? Will her new counter-cinema make the older films disappear? Would it not be better, for example, to make narrative feature films which give women as much pleasure as films previously, according to Mulvey, could only give the men? And what about already existing alternatives to Hollywood. If there was a need for a whole new kind of cinema it would seem to suggest that Chantal Akerman was not good enough for Mulvey, nor were Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden or Mai Zetterling to mention some of her contemporaries. In any event, the form in which a film is made is not what decides whether it is sexist or not. Avant-garde and art cinema are frequently sexist, regardless of how much they break the fourth wall or draw attention to themselves as constructs, just as there are many mainstream Hollywood films from the classical era that are not sexist. And quite a lot of them draw attention to their form, and break the fourth wall.


Does "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" have no value at all? It does, as an example of a historical moment in film theory. But that is all. Almost all her examples are muddled and frequently disprove her arguments. As a theory about films and about humans the article is too flawed, incoherent and factually wrong, to be of any use. The best way of looking at it is as a statement within the movement of which she was a part, cinephiles with an auteurist emphasis and with a connection with Edinburgh International Film Festival and the British Film Institute. This probably explains why her examples are not contemporary with the time of writing, but much older. The films she is talking about are the films that were particularly popular among her friends and associates, and her piece was aimed at that crowd, many of whom would, like Mulvey, be writing in Screen. It was not aimed to be on the mandatory reading lists for students across the world in 2019. I think treating it like something other than what it is, is doing a disservice to students and to Mulvey.

For two examples of later pieces by Mulvey that are related to "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" but much better are "Thoughts on the Young Modern Woman of the 1920s and Feminist Film Theory" from 2009, to be found in the second edition of Visual and Other Pleasures, and "Pandora's Box: Topographies of Curiosity," to be found in Fetishism and Curiosity from 2006, where she talks about the woman's gaze in for example Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960).

A Ngram search on Google books for the frequency of the term "castration anxiety" results in a bell curve, which says something about how Mulvey's article really was of the moment.

Mulvey's article is sometimes called the first example of feminist film theory and criticism but it was not. Naomi Wise "The Hawksian Woman" (1971), Claire Johnston's "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema (1973) and Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape (1974) are three contemporary examples.

Some of the anthologies I referred to above: 
Movies and Methods Volume II (1985), edited by Bill Nichols
Film and Theory: An Anthology (2000), edited by Robert Stam and Toby Miller
Film Theory and Criticism - Introductory Readings (2009, 7th Edition), edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen
Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (2011), edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, with Meta Mazaj

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell 2006)

Friday, 17 May 2019

Women who wrote Westerns

It is a well-known fact that few women have become directors, that it has overwhelmingly been something for men, that for decades the number of directors who were women could be counted almost on the fingers of your hand. That began to change in the 1970s, and while there are still more men than women on average, things are nowhere near as bad as it was in the 1930s to the 1960s. However, there were many women directors (and even more writers) in the early days of cinema, the early silent period. The two most well-known are Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché, and there were many others beside them, in Hollywood and across the world. But the focus for this article is Hollywood. There, Universal Pictures, to name just one studio, had up to nine women under contract as directors in the 1910s. Weber was one of them before she started her own studio. Some were actresses who either also began directing, or had such control over their films that whoever was the director had less say than the star. But then they all disappeared when sound came, with the exception of Dorothy Arzner. That disappearance is an important story. But just because women disappeared as directors does not mean that women disappeared from filmmaking.

Those who follow my writing and my research knows that two American filmmaker I have paid particular attention to are George Sherman and Henry Hathaway. There are many reasons for this, besides me liking their films, and one is that few others have paid much attention to them, especially not to Sherman, so whatever I found out about them I had to do on my own. One thing I noticed was that several of their Westerns were written by women. I did not go any further with it at the time, as my focus was on the directors, but it was obvious that I needed to come back to that. Now I have. Amazingly, hundreds of Westerns during the decades in which they reigned (1930s to the 1960s) were written by women. Women such as Elizabeth Beecher, Adele Buffington, Elizabeth Burbridge, Olive Cooper, Karen DeWolf, Frances Guihan, Patricia Harper, Lillie Hayward, Frances Kavanaugh, Doris Schroeder, Luci Ward, Marguerite Roberts and Leigh Brackett. Almost all these women are unknown today, and they were unknown beyond their peers when they were active too. In this they are like most men who were "only" writers and never became directors. Film history is much like marketing in that respect, almost all attention is given to stars and to directors, with some notable exceptions. This is not unreasonable, directors and stars may be considered the most influential people on set and are the people most likely to shape films and filmmaking, and also those that are most visible for the audience at large. But they are not alone on set and among these other creative individuals you can find many women. Even in Westerns.

Scholars, critics and historians usually try to describe any given genre in a precise way, with definitions that are said to be true for the genre as a whole, but invariably it never is. Most, maybe all, genres are too large and unruly, contain too many films and too many variations for you to be able to say anything about them in general other than the most vague and general statements, something tautologous such as "musicals are films with musical numbers in them". This is certainly the case with Westerns too, of which thousands have been made for over a hundred years, many of which are not even set in the West. Westerns are traditionally considered the height of masculinity, the most male-focused genre, and for this reason alone it is of interest that so many of those who wrote them were women. But it is also worth pointing out that histories and theories about the Western are focused on a small sample-pack, and one that primarily consists of the known masterpieces and classics. They vary a lot among themselves, but they are also in the minority among the large number of Westerns that were made each year. Most of these have never entered the canon and are rarely discussed or acknowledged. But for the average viewer in the 1930s and possible in the 1940s too, these now forgotten films were most likely the kind of Western they would watch, and these would often be written by one or several women. Many of these Westerns were part of series, such as films about the Three Mesquiteers, or the Rough Riders, or Gene Autry's Singing Cowboy, which has also helped ensure that they are almost invisible for critics and historians today.

With so many writers and so many films it will of course not be possible to say more than the bare minimum in a piece such as this one, a book is needed to cover the subject. I know that Luci Ward co-wrote Black Bart, Highwayman (George Sherman 1948) and Karen DeWolf wrote Silver Lode (Allan Dwan 1954) and both films are very interesting, and very good, and on their merits alone I would like to know more about Ward and DeWolf. Leigh Brackett is the most famous one, especially for her partnership with Howard Hawks, writing several of his best films, alone or in collaboration. She is also famous for writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner 1980). Here is some information about a few of the less famous ones:

Yvonne De Carlo as Lola Montez in Black Bart

Adele Buffington was probably the most influential of them since she was one of the founders of the Screen Writers Guild and later an anti-communist hunter as aggressive as senator Joe McCarthy. Between 1919 and 1958 she wrote around 150 different films, sometimes under pseudonyms like Jesse Bowers and Colt Remington. She was born in 1900 and worked as an usher for a while before selling her first script in 1919. She was then discovered by Thomas H. Ince, one of the most highly regarded filmmakers at the time, and wrote for him. She was not just writing Westerns, West of Singapore (1933) for example (co-written with Elizabeth Meehan) is set on a ship sailing the waters of where you would expect from the title, and The Keeper of the Bees (1935) is about a soldier returning from the trenches of World War 1, suffering from what is today known as PTSD. But mainly her films were stand-alone Westerns or series such as the films about the U.S. Marshal Nevada Jack McKenzie.

Betty Burbridge was equally prolific and also primarily a Western writer. She wrote some of the films about the Three Mesquiteers and she also wrote many of Gene Autry's films. Her career in film began as an actor, under her full name Elizabeth Burbridge, and in 1917 she began writing scripts. She also had a newspaper column under the pen-name Prudence Penny Jr. When TV had its major breakthrough in the 1950s she transitioned, with Gene Autry, to that format, writing for a handful of Western shows before she retired.

Gene Autry, with whom Burbridge was associated, was one the of the biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s, and his films among the most popular each year. The audience for their films is said to be evenly balanced between men and women, and women did play important parts in them as self-sufficient characters. I am curious about films such as Colorado Sunset (George Sherman 1939), written by Burbridge, Luci Ward and two men, in which the women of the town seem to be in control of things.

Frances Kavanaugh was sometimes referred to as "Cowgirl of the Typewriter". She was born in Texas and lived her early life on the ranch. She wrote many films for Monogram Pictures, and she also helped create the popular hero Cheyenne Davis, aka "Lash" LaRue, dressed in black and carrying a bullwhip. (He was an inspiration for Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford was allegedly trained by Alfred LaRue). She wrote some 35 scripts, and almost all the films she wrote were directed by Robert Emmet Tansey.

Lillie Hayward did, unlike the three mentioned above, combined writing B-Westerns with writing more prestigious films, or at least A-films, including the great noir Western Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise 1948), one of Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films, My Friend Flicka (Harold D. Schuster 1943), and a fine Western directed by Michael Curtiz, The Proud Rebel (1958). At the end of her career she wrote for Disney. She wrote some 80 scripts.

Marguerite Roberts was also a writer of more prestigious films. She was also something of the antithesis to Buffington, as Roberts was a victim of the anti-communism scandal and became one of the blacklisted. She had joined her husband in the American communist party in 1949, when the party was Stalinist, but it seems Roberts was not a revolutionary herself. But she had a progressive touch and wrote Escape (Mervyn LeRoy 1940), one of the few anti-Nazi films made before 1941. She also wrote several Westerns, such as Henry Hathaway's three last ones: 5 Card Stud (1968), True Grit (1969) and Shoot Out (1971). She wrote some 35 scripts.

The argument here is not that women only wrote Westerns; the argument is that it is an interesting fact that so many Westerns were written by women. I wonder if this was the only genre where such a large proportion were written by women. Another argument, which I frequently make, is that even with Hollywood filmmaking, the most heavily researched area of film history, we have still so much to learn and explore. These women and these films do by themselves undermine a lot of conventional history about Hollywood, genres and gender.

A final caveat. Credits for screenwriting are often unreliable. Take The Proud Rebel for example. It was based on a story by James Edward Grant, and written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. But to whom should we credit the film? All of them? None of them, in case Curtiz was primarily responsible for the script as well as the direction. Maybe Petracca wrote more or less all of it, and Hayward is credited because Curtiz brought her along as a script doctor (they had worked together before). Or maybe Hayward wrote most of it. I have no idea.

When I said "Darryl F. Zanuck's horse films" above I meant it. He produced or initiated several similar films, such as My Friend Flicka, partly inspired by his love of horses. One fine example is Home in Indiana (Henry Hathaway 1944).

There should be a blu-ray double-feature of Ophüls's Lola Montès (1955) and Black Bart.

While I have found no books about the topic of this article, here are related ones that were useful:

Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood by Lizzie Francke

The Silent Feminists: America's First Women Directors by Anthony Slide

Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight

Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, edited by Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson

And Columbia University's website Women Film Pioneers Project:

Friday, 3 May 2019

The Nun's Story (1959)

In an earlier post about late style and last films I mentioned Fred Zinnemann and The Nun’s Story (1959). Since it is such an exceptional film I want to discuss it more.

It is about Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian woman who in 1930 decides to enter a convent and to try to become a nun. The process of being introduced into the life of the convent, of becoming a nun, is the focus of the first section of the film. The film begins with her saying goodbye to her siblings and then her father drives her to the convent. After they too have said goodbye she, together with several other young women, are taken through a door which is then locked behind them. They have now moved from a secular space to a religious space, a space which is almost treated as if it was a prison. From the closing of that door, which happens eleven minutes into the film, follows 35 minutes of all the procedures that a woman has to go through in order to become a nun. First they change clothes, then there is an introductory prayer and then the schooling begins. Learning how to be silent and use specific signs in order to communicate, learning obedience to the bell, how to write down imperfections, learning how to achieve complete detachment from their former life, learning how to walk, getting the hair cut, and moving from one set of clothes to another, as the women go from postulate to novice and from novice to nun. Finally, after several years, Gabrielle van der Mal has moved through all of these stages and is welcomed into the congregation and given her name as a nun, Sister Luke. Then the Reverend Mother tells her that ‘Tomorrow you will leave for the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp.’ and by that scene the first part of the film is over, around one third of the length of the film. (The second part is about her life as a nun, first in Belgium and then in the Congo, filmed on location and those locations include an actual leper colony.)

This first part, which is concentrated on procedure, is also to a large extent silent. There is hardly any dialogue, and the music come only in a few brief spurts. It is not completely impersonal; on a few occasions it is shown how Gabrielle fails to follow the rules. She might be late, or walk too fast, or being unwilling to leave a patient when the bell tolls, even though she must. So the interior struggle which is at core of the film is there from the start. But in this first part it is not the focus, it is the rituals themselves that are in focus.

This is also true for the very last sequence of the film, in which Sister Luke returns to being Gabrielle van der Mal. She has asked to be allowed to quit and permission has been granted. In the end she walks into a room with Reverend Mother and a representative from the Archbishop. She is asked to sign a document (three copies of it) and then she is to walk into an empty room where her old clothes are. She changes clothes, removes her religious symbols and insignia and the she rings on a bell. A door opens and she walks out of the door and away. There is no music and the camera dispassionately observes as she walks further and further away from the door, moving from the religious space back into the secular. She eventually turns right, after a slight hesitation, and the words ‘The End’ appears. It is a sequence, and ending, of rare perfection; emotionally and artistically.


To return to the first part of the film; it was not in the book the film is based on, written by Kathryn Hulme and based on the experiences of a friend of hers (Robert Anderson wrote the fine script), and neither is it something that enhances the telling of the story (which on a basic level is about a woman who becomes a nun and then finds it is too difficult and quits). Yet it is exactly this section, and later, similar ones, that makes the film what it is, and is what specifically signals that it is a film directed by Zinnemann. Gabrielle van der Mal has to make a profound decision, whether to be true to her conscience or to remain where she is and not cause any trouble, so that recurring theme of Zinnemann is present, but it is the style of which the film is told that is most explicitly Zinnemannian. The long sequence on the procedure by which one becomes a nun, before Sister Luke’s interior battle begins, is not for the sake of storytelling but for the sake of an investigation into the heart of the convent, and the rituals that the nuns perform. This is a key aspect of Zinnemann's art, wanting to know, and wanting to show, how something is done. It forms a link to his early documentaries. But the film could also be discussed as transcendental, in Paul Schrader's sense.

The Nun’s Story is the first film that is made in Zinnemann’s late style, in which the narrative moves slowly and is interspersed with contemplative images of trees, statues, clouds and such. That is a change from the more brisk and efficient style of storytelling that Zinnemann used earlier, but which had begun to loosen up over time. The Nun’s Story is 150 minutes, longer than any of his earlier films except Oklahoma! (1955), a musical which do not really count here as it is so different in many ways. These later films are longer and slower but not because they contain more information or events but because they are told in a different style, more contemplative; a style which from now on would be his usual one. This stage in Zinnemann's oeuvre is rarely discussed but it is one of the great treasures of world cinema.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Easter break and future plans

I decided to allow myself an Easter break, partly to have some vacation and partly to think ahead of what I might want to do here on the blog.

The primary focus for now is Anatole Litvak, whom I am exploring and researching. There will also be some attention later on to Ida Lupino and Muriel Box; and Hollywood financial and box office developments in the 1970s.

These are all topics that have been brewing for a while and now I want to take them further, and see what I end up with. I will hopefully do something on the unmade films of Hasse Ekman as well, but whether that finds its way to the blog remains to be seen. And I have promised Self-Styled Siren to write something about Mauritz Stiller without Garbo. When I do it will definitely end up here.

I would also like to do something on Australian films prior to its New Wave in the 1970s, maybe in connection with the late films of Michael Powell. Check in here two weeks from now and see what I will begin with!

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Pillow Book (1996)

As a fresh, young cinephile in the early 1990s I was convinced that Peter Greenaway was where the art of cinema peaked. The late 1980s/early 1990s was a special time in British cinema, with Derek Jarman, Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Mike Leigh, James Ivory, Gillies MacKinnon, Greenaway and others doing steady work. Bruce Robinson's Withnail and I (1987) and Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983) should also be mentioned, and Sally Potter's Orlando (1992). Into that I grew up, calm in my peculiar understanding of Greenaway's pre-eminence. What I based this understanding on is unclear because I had not seen any of his films, that came later and then I was somewhat underwhelmed by them. But one I really liked, The Pillow Book (1996), and I decided to return to it this week. I find is as dazzling and marvellous now as when I first saw it. (I also really like Nightwatching (2007), Greenaway's film about Rembrandt.)

The arc of Greenaway's career moves from being an art student to making documentaries for Central Office of Information (COI), a part of the British government, and then in 1980 to make his first feature film, the massive undertaking The Falls. While he has the very distinct appearance and voice of an Englishman his filmmaking has since then usually been global in outlook and theme, and there is a strong Dutch connection. The Pillow Book is set in Japan and Hong Kong and inspired by a 10th century book called The Pillow Book, a collection of essays, poems, thoughts and impressions by Sei Shōnagon, who was a court lady in Kyoto. The film though is set mainly in 1997 (so it is set in the future with regard to when it was made).

The main character in the film is Nagiko, played by Vivian Wu. She is a woman addicted to calligraphy, especially calligraphy written on her own body, and is in search of someone who will be as good a calligrapher as a lover. Such a person is hard to find, and she looks both in Japan and Hong Kong, where she gets a job at a fashion house. She befriends an English guy, Jerome, played by Ewan McGregor, who works for a book publisher. He is also the publisher's lover but Nagiko and Jerome become lovers just the same, and writers on each other's skin, before jealousy tear them apart.

As usual with Greenaway, it is not the story that is the important part of the film. It is about ideas and about art, about looking and creating, about texture, about desire of various kinds, about sex and death and the naked body. In an interview when the film was released, Greenaway said "French intellectuals have criticized the film, saying The Pillow Book is not a film, it is a CD-Rom. I could think of no higher compliment." and this refers to the style of the film. There are layers of texts, screens, quotes and calligraphy; the dialogue involves at least four different languages (Japanese, Chinese, English and French); it changes from colour to black and white and back again; the frame changes in size and scope from one scene to another; still images and moving images appear simultaneously in the frame; and music, words and images complement or contradict each other all the time, creating something that aims to be uniquely cinematic, at least as Greenaway conceives of it. He is usually dismissive of conventional filmmaking as being insufficiently cinematic, and has named Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961) as a rare example of what he wants to see in film, something completely abstract and removed from written text. The cinematographer of Marienbad, Sacha Vierny, also shot Pillow Book and several of Greenaway's other films. We do not have to accept Greenaway's narrow idea of what is good or what is cinematic, but instead take great pleasure in experiencing how he puts all of his ideas into this film and creates an incredibly rich, provocative and beautiful conceptual work, a sort of narrative collage. It is a film to be experienced rather than talked about.

Greenaway however does like to talk, and the quote above is from an interesting interview he did for BOMB Magazine. You can read it all here.


Greenaway's filmmaking career has been interspersed with art installations, paintings, operas and other kinds of art works and in some ways it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of him together with artists like David Hockney or Lucian Freud than with other filmmakers. But we need not create these boundaries between the arts. The Pillow Book is a film which breaks down all boundaries between arts, cultures, texts, images, times, languages and bodies, and that should be an inspiration. In a way, as the world today seems to be increasingly about walls, barriers, tribalism and intolerance, there is something refreshingly politically radical in Greenaway's project here.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Screenwriting manuals and three-act structures

When it comes to screenwriting manuals the rule "if you've read one, you've read them all" is close to being true, especially since 1979 when Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting was first published. (And later revised and updated regularly until 1995.) There had been manuals before Field but he opened the floodgates, as it coincided with general changes in filmmaking praxis in Hollywood (to which most of these manuals are aimed) that made it easier for outsiders to sell their scripts. Almost all screenwriting manuals that have been published after Field are saying more or less the same as Field does in his book. This includes such books as David Trottier's The Screenwriter's Bible: a Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting and Selling Your Script (1994, last edition 2014); Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1998); Neill D. Hicks's Screenwriting 101: The Essential Craft of Feature Film Writing (1999); Michael Tierno's Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters (2002); David Howard's How to Build a Great Screenplay (2004) and Writing Movies: a Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing School (2008). Some are better and some are worse than Field in terms of how they say what they say, but they are close to interchangeable with regards to what they say. The films discussed are the same, the advice given is the same, the terminology likewise and almost all adhere to the basic three-act structure. All name-check Aristotle and Joseph Campbell.

Field is often criticised for the three-act structure which he popularised and made almost ubiquitous. It is sometimes claimed he invented it but that is not the case, it had been around for decades, if not centuries. William Archer discussed it in his book Play-Writing (1912) for what might be the first time in the modern era. (See end note.) Some think the three-act structure might be relevant for mainstream blockbusters but not other kinds of films, or that the structure is even the opposite of art, which is supposedly free from all rules and structures. But this is not Field's view.

Field describes the three acts for a two-hour film like this: act 1 should be the first 30 minutes and end with a turning point, act 2 is the following 60 minutes and also ends with a turning point and act 3 is the last 30 minutes. According to him, this is the basis (or, in his word, "paradigm") for all forms of storytelling, not just mainstream blockbusters. In his book he speaks of how Jean Renoir mentored him, he speaks of his friendship with Sam Peckinpah, and how they both inspired him, and he is as happy using the films of Michelangelo Antonioni as examples for how to create characters and story as he is of using Rocky (John G. Avildsen 1976) or The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer 1995). Field further claims that even our lives follow this structure. Unfortunately, he is unconvincing. "Birth? Life? Death? Isn't that a beginning, middle, and end?" he says (p. 29). It is, but how is this comparable to a film, unless he had been arguing that the three acts of a film are the opening shot, the film and the last shot (or end credits)? A more accurate comparison with life would be childhood, adulthood, and retirement, or something like that. But best would be not to place the three-act structure on life at all. Field then says "Spring, summer, fall, and winter - isn't that a beginning, middle, and end?" No, it is not. It is a circular event, with no end and no beginning. And it is four acts, not three. "Morning, afternoon, and evening. It's always the same, but different." He seems to have forgotten night. I will say more on three-act structures further down but suffice to say now that Field's book is surprisingly underwhelming in its structure and arguments, considering its fame, and a good editor would have removed the many repetitions and redundancies that fill the book. He has his moments but there are other manuals that are better, both in terms of the writing and of the richness of the examples.


As I said, the advice these books give are more or less the same. Writing Movies for example has this to say: 
Once you know the most important conflict of a scene, you can apply a key screenwriting technique: Enter a scene late and leave it early. Start the scene not when the conflict is brewing on the horizon, but - bam! - right when it's staring us in the face, maybe even when it has already reached fever pitch. End the scene as soon as that conflict has been resolved, and not a moment later. (p. 165, italics in original)
Trottier and others (including William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)) say the exact same thing and it can be good advice. But not as a rule. Only when it improves a scene. Sometimes it is the build-up in the scene that makes the scene. This is one of the things that is frustrating with these books, the certainty with which things are said. "This is how you must do." or "In all films this is how it is done." But they are usually wrong in their firm proclamations. McKee is especially keen on nailing down opinions. He says for example that every scene should change something for the characters or, to quote, and with his italics, "No scene that doesn't turn. This is our ideal." (p. 36) This is not how scenes or films work. There are many kinds of scenes, some involve changes for the characters and some do not. There are comic interludes, there are pauses after something dramatic has happened, there are scenes of characters relaxing, scenes when vital information for the audience is given but without changing anything for the characters, and so on. Such scenes "do not turn" and nor should they.

One common criticism against books like these is that they are only relevant for mainstream commercialism and are unrelated to art, but anybody can benefit from a good manual and even non-commercial "high-art" films often follow some basic structure like the ones discussed in many of these books. Unless you are a wunderkind it is good to start with a solid foundation instead of being all over the place; to follow a certain structure so you have something to lean on. But the better the writer you are, the better you are of knowing when a rule is good or when it is diminishing your scene. In general, any book that says "This is how you must do it." is not as good or helpful as a book that says, as one of the writers in Writing Movies does, "In the final analysis, it's not fidelity to the 'rules' that makes a film great. Greatness comes when a film finds its true path." (p. 63) Personally I think this quote from Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City is good advice: "Why is it that putting a tie around a man's neck is sometimes even sexier than taking it off?" The point is that sometimes doing it one way is the best thing to do, sometimes doing the opposite is the best thing to do.

Another fundamental mistake almost all manuals make is that they mentioned some very successful films, describe the scripts of these films, and then argue that a script with such a structure and character development and story arcs and such is what will become a box office success. But that is not true. If you look at very unsuccessful films you will find they can have the same structure and character development and arcs but since those films had bad direction, or were miscast, or were released at an unfortunate time, or had terrible dialogue, or dodgy special effects, or ludicrous twists or some other things, they failed miserably. The script in itself is never ever enough for a film to be a hit, or even good, however slavishly it follows a template, and it is irresponsible to make such a claim. It is doing a disservice to the aspiring writers too. Well-written films are not necessarily successful at the box office, which these books often claim that you will be after having read them. Neither the Transformers films nor the superhero films that are drawing the masses to the cinema would be taught in these classes as examples of great writing. But since that is where the cash is, students might be better off engaging in bad writing to get ahead in life. I do not mean to be cynical, I only want to point out that these books pretend that great writing equals success even though there is no obvious correlation between great writing and great box office success. It was for example not Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950) or All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950) that were the most successful films of 1950. The big hit of the year was Samson and Delilah (Cecil B. DeMille 1949), which had more to do with biblical mayhem and Hedy Lamarr in tight, revealing outfits than great writing.


Almost all manuals are pretty insistent on the importance of the three-act structure, David Howard in How to Build a Great Screenplay says that "a story must have three parts, three acts." (p. 255) and adds for emphasis: "the story must, by definition, still adhere to a three-act underpinning." (p. 256) I find this incomprehensible. Sure, all films have a beginning, middle and end, but if that is all that is meant by three-act structure it is so banal and obvious there is no need to say it and it has no effect on the actual telling of the story. All individual sentences have a beginning, middle and end, so by that definition even this sentence has a three-act structure. But you do not teach school kids how to write by drilling into them that all sentences have a three-act structure because it would not be helpful for them.

But even though it is sometimes simplified as "beginning, middle and end," three-act structure means something else, and when you say that each act has a specific dramatic and narrative function, and that the beginning, middle and end must have certain specified lengths, then it stops being a basic rule and instead becomes something subjective and arbitrary and not something that is "by definition" true. Those who are keen on the three-act structure often divides the second act in two halves, which seems to me to turn it into two acts and the three-act structure becomes a four-act structure. If you pay attention you will also notice that the books are not in agreement on what those acts consists of and how long they are. Field's paradigm which I described above is the most well-known:

Act 1: the first 30 minutes
Act 2: the following 60 minutes
Act 3: the last 30 minutes

McKee has this setup:

Inciting Incident after 1 min
Act 1: climax after 30 min
Act 2: climax after 100 min
Act 3: climax after 118 min
Fade Out: the last two min.

That is ridiculously precise. But at the same time McKee says that different films are divided into varying numbers of acts. As an example, he says that Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell 1994) has five acts.

How is this helpful for screenwriters? What are they supposed to do with these acts when they are so arbitrary and negotiable? It is such a loose concept that I am not at all certain it serves a purpose.

I re-watched Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg 1993) and by writing down the time whenever something shifted in the film, for us and the characters, I came down with what can be called three acts, like this:

Act 1: first 22 minutes, introducing the main characters.
Act 2: the next 38 minutes, introducing the dinosaurs and beginning the tour, everything still calm.
Act 3: the following 60 minutes, from the moment the T-Rex attacks the humans in the two cars and until the moment the T-Rex attacks again but this time saves the humans. That is 60 minutes of perpetual motion and basic survival.
Coda: the last two minutes of calm.

You can find a three-act structure there yes, but not at all in the way any of the manuals would tell you to arrange it. This is not a flaw in the film, it is a flaw in the manuals.

We can compare it to Bergman's Persona (1966), which is usually regarded as the antithesis of a conventional narrative film. It is 80 minutes long and, after the prologue, the first act is at the hospital. After 20 minutes they leave for the beach house and Act II begins. In the middle of the film, 41 minutes, the nurse Alma reads the letter from Elisabet and the dynamics of the film change, so that would be the plot point that divides the second act into two halves. After 57 minutes Elisabet watch a haunting photo from Nazi Germany and there is a fade-out to black. Then Act III begins, when Alma and Elisabet blend into one, and after 80 minutes Alma leaves and the film ends. That is three acts in accordance with Field's paradigm: the first act 1/4 of the film, the second act 2/4 (in two neat halves), and the third one the last 1/4. From this perspective, Persona has a more conventional structure than Jurassic Park but I doubt whether something meaningful is learned from this.

In short, you can look for three acts if you wish but do not confuse an arbitrary structure with objective rules and, while there is nothing wrong with having three acts, you do not need them.

One exception to the three-act structure consensus is John Truby in The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (2007). He claims the three-act structure ruins films and is responsible for why many films are badly written. But all the films he talks about in his book as examples of great writings are the same films that all three-act structure guys also celebrate as great writing. Truby might be disagreeing about the terminology but he still says the same things about the same films as all the others. However, instead of the three-act structure he is suggesting a different approach, and this approach is related to the title of the book. 22 steps. Considering how important you would think that they are it is somewhat surprising that they do not appear until page 268 but in any case, here they are:

1) Self-revelation, need, and desire
2) Ghost and story world
3) Weakness and need
4) Inciting incident
5) Desire
6) Ally or allies
7) Opponent and/or mystery
8) Fake-ally opponent
9) First revelation and decision: changed desire and motive
10) Plan
11) Opponent's plan and main counterattack
12) Drive
13) Attack by ally
14) Apparent defeat
15) Second revelation and decision: obsessive drive, changed desire and motive
16) Audience revelation
17) Third revelation and decision
18) Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
19) Battle
20) Self-revelation
21) Moral decision
22) New equilibrium

If you are wondering if it is true that all stories have these arbitrary steps, Truby says no. Some stories have as few as seven and some as many as 60 steps. Again, how is this helpful? That list is also a good example of how macho and gung-ho many of these books are. Those 22 steps look more like a PowerPoint presentation at Pentagon than a sensible guide for writing a romantic comedy. There is a strain of thinking within some of these manuals and among these "gurus" that has an unpleasant vibe to it, combined by all the talk of "the hero's journey", "the avenging angel" and other mythical stuff, which inevitably excite fanboys and online and offline extremists.

While Truby is vague about those 22 steps (the title of his book is rather misleading) he is unequivocal about these seven:

1 Weakness and need
2 Desire
3 Opponent
4 Plan
5 Battle
6 Self-revelation
7 New equilibrium

All good stories have them he claims. But this is not the case. Not at all. He just made them up, and since nobody knows about them unless they have read his book and since he has not exactly studied all stories ever told, it would be a miracle if he was right. It is not even clear whether the few films he uses in his book as examples have these seven steps that allegedly all good stories (and therefore all good films) have. Take the first and, for Truby, most important one, "Weakness and need". This is how he defines it, on pages 40-41:
From the very beginning of the story, your hero has one or more great weaknesses that are holding him back. Something is missing within him that is so profound, it is ruining his life. /.../ The need is what the hero must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weaknesses and changing, or growing, in some way.
This need is something the hero must be unaware of until the end of the film. ("If he is already cognizant of what he needs, the story is over.") One of the most well-known and successful heroes in contemporary culture is James Bond. What is his weakness and what is his need? Martinis? How about Indiana Jones? Sure, Indy is afraid of snakes, but this is not ruining his life and he is aware of this weakness from the beginning. Truby provides Clarice Sterling in Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme 1991) as an example. But what weakness has she got that is ruining her life, and what need does she discover in the very end? She has her bad memories from childhood, the screaming lambs, but they are not a weakness ruining her life and she is aware of them long before the end. Some heroes, if by hero we simply mean main character, have such a weakness as Truby defines it, but whether they do or not have nothing to do with the quality of the writing but with the aims and needs of the individual script. It is not an essential aspect of storytelling.


These screenwriting manuals are like self-help books, or books about losing weight, and about as helpful. I do not think they have ruined cinema but I do not think they have done any good either. Sure, some who have read these books, or attended a "guru's" masterclass, have written some successful films afterwards but that is not proof of anything. Thousands of people have engaged with these theories and it is probably a statistical certainty that a few of these readers/students will become successful, regardless of the quality of the books and classes.

There is a scene in Paris When It Sizzles (Richard Quine 1964) which parodies cliched Hollywood screenwriting. These screenwriting manuals remind me of that scene, only they are not meant to be parodies. They take themselves seriously. Quine had better sense.

I have taught film writing and script development and I am not saying you cannot teach it. There are good and helpful things of a more general kind for a teacher to say and do. Usually though it is when working together with the students as they are writing a script that teaching is helpful, not by nailing down rules on the blackboard.

If you want to write a script you should write a compelling story with interesting characters. If you cannot do that I am not sure any manual can help you because they are not able to give you talent or imagination. They can only, at best, help you get started and, should you be stuck, help with some inspiration in the moment. They will not make you able to write a good or successful script, whatever they might claim on the back cover. The feeling I get after having read so many manuals over the years is that many are written by hucksters who cannot write themselves but are eager to earn a quick buck by fooling aspiring writers into buying their books and/or signing up for their workshops. The worst of them is Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! (2005), which I have discussed in an earlier article here. It is bewildering and absurd. But a few might be useful and the best I have read is David Howard's How to Build a Great Screenplay. It is by no means perfect but it is the most well-written and he covers more areas and is clearer and more vivid and helpful than any of the others I know. It is not a quick read, not a collection of bullet points, but 400 pages and you have to read it thoroughly and take notes. But if you are not prepared to do the necessary work then maybe you are not prepared to be a screenwriter.

In Play-Writing, Archer wrote: "Taken in its simplicity, this principle would indicate the three-act division as the ideal scheme for a play. As a matter of fact, many of the best modern plays in all languages fall into three acts /.../ many old plays which are nominally in five acts really fall into a triple rhythm and might better have been divided into three." (p. 106)

The most popular films to discuss in these manuals are Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972), Chinatown (Roman Polanski 1974), Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott 1991) and American Beauty (Sam Mendes 1999). Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) and The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont 1994) are also popular.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Stanley Donen (1924-2019)

The last film Stanley Donen made for a cinema release was Blame It on Rio (1984) and in one sequence Michael Caine (who plays the male lead) is looking out the window of the airplane he is a passenger on. What he sees is Rio de Janeiro, but then the scenery changes from colour to black and white and instead of the present-day Rio it is a clip from the film Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland 1933), with women dancing on top of airplanes flying over Rio.

This is a moving reference to the very film which made a then 9-year-old Donen want to get into the dance and film world after he saw the extravagant musical in the cinema. As soon as he was old enough, he got himself immersed in that world. At first he was primarily a choreographer but he also directed scenes, and two exceptionally fine examples of his art, with Gene Kelly, are from Cover Girl (Charles Vidor 1944) and Anchors Aweigh (George Sidney 1945). He conceived of them and choreographed them with Kelly and then directed them and did the post-production too.

A few years later he became director of whole movies and not just individual scenes. It was a very uneven career, with perhaps more failures than successes. Some consider him the greatest maker of musicals, even better than his rival Vincente Minnelli, but for me Minnelli is far superior both in individual films and as an artist, and with a much richer oeuvre. It is however interesting to compare them, as they are so different in style, vision, temperament and ideas.

Here are some favourite sequences:

Royal Wedding (1951)

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

It's Always Fair Weather (1955)

Funny Face (1957)

Charade (1963)

Charade is uncommonly delightful and an excellent blend of light comedy and thriller. Two for the Road (1967) is also good, and for a change Audrey Hepburn is there playing against a man younger than her, Albert Finney. It also has one of Henry Mancini's most beautiful scores.

For a comparison between Donen and Minnelli this clip from Minnelli's The Pirate (1948) is a good starting point, as it is more or less the same song as Donald O'Connor does in Singin' in the Rain, seen above. Cole Porter wrote the original, Be a Clown.

I shall not show any clips from Blame it on Rio because I cannot stand it. But here is the scene from Flying Down to Rio.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Arne Mattsson

The career of Arne Mattsson is rather remarkable, not just for a Swedish filmmaker but for any filmmaker. Once he was at the top, making films that were global successes at the box office and critical successes at home, and then he found himself making cheap thrillers in Yugoslavia or Britain with the likes of David Carradine and Franco Nero, and some gruesome sexploitation too. In one sense a mighty fall from making good European post-war art cinema to appalling euro-trash. Yet the early and the late films are still possible to discuss as part of his unique vision and style. Many of his films can only be described as bad, and many of the rest of them are peculiar and a required taste (he made few great films) but this does not negate the fact that he is a fascinating case study. It is absurd that nobody has seen fit to properly engage with his films and career as a whole, not even in Sweden. Not just as an auteur study but as a study in Swedish and European genre cinema (always a neglected field) and as a study of broader shifts and movements within European cinema from the 1940s until the 1980s. As an important precursor for the current wave of Nordic Noir/Scandi Noir he is a relevant starting point for much of research on that as well, and this year is the centenary of his birth to boot. In short, Arne Mattsson is a subject for further research for anybody interested in what I have outlined and what I will now explain more thoroughly. But given his long career and the lack of writings on him, it will only be a rough sketch, the aim of which is to entice others to carry on the research.


Mattsson's most famous film and greatest hit came early in his career: One Summer of Happiness (Hon dansade en sommar 1951). It is made in the tradition of the Swedish summer film, a popular kind of film at the time and of which Bergman made several contributions, such as Summer with Monika (1953). The subject matter is usually a brief and passionate love affair that takes place during the summer, out in the country, and which then comes to an abrupt end when the summer is over. The dichotomy between the city (portrayed as a bad place) and the countryside, or archipelago, (a good place) is a key aspect of these films. Mattsson's film, which has Folke Sundquist and Ulla Jacobsson as the young, doomed, couple, was seen by almost half of all Swedes old enough to watch it and was successful across the world. It also won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 1952 and competed in Cannes, where the score by Sven Sköld won an award. The score has a flute chord that bears an uncanny similarity to Ennio Morricone's music for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone 1966). Whether this is a coincident or if Morricone saw Mattsson's film and borrowed from it I do not know, but since it was a success in Italy too it is not inconceivable that he did.

Sundquist and Jacobsson

This is one of Mattsson's really good films, and another is Kärlekens bröd (The Bread of Love 1953). It also has Folke Sundquist in the lead and is an existential drama about a handful of Swedish soldiers fighting in Finland during the Winter War (when Soviet, then allied to Nazi Germany, attacked Finland). The story is powerful but it is especially the style of the film that is magnificent, with one striking composition after another, lit by the cinematographer Sven Thermænius. It too competed in Cannes, and should really be resurrected by Criterion or some other distinguished distributor.

After One Summer of Happiness had been such an overwhelming success the production company Nordisk Tonefilm had given Mattsson carte blanche and Kärlekens bröd is what he chose to do. While an artistic success it was not popular among the audience, which was clearly more keen on watching lovemaking in the moonlight than watching people freeze to death in agony.

Those two films, made at the peak of Mattsson's career, show how he could excel in different kinds of films, that he was ambitious and that he had a distinct and forceful visual style, and he had a good few years at Nordisk Tonefilm. Beside those two mentioned above he made such fine films as the children's film Kastrullresan (The saucepan trip, 1950), the drama För min heta ungdoms skull (Because of My Hot Youth 1952), an adaptation of the Nobel Prize winner Halldór Laxness's Salka Valka (1954) and an uneven adaptation of August Strindberg's Hemsöborna (The People of Hemsö 1955). But then he left Nordisk Tonefilm for Sandrews, after an interlude in Argentina where he made Primavera de la vida (Livets vår 1957), and at Sandrews he switched to thrillers, entering a new phase of his career. He went from a maker of serious art films to becoming "Sweden's Hitchcock" as the critics said at the time, beginning with Damen i svart (The Lady in Black 1958) with Sven Nykvist as cinematographer. Hitchcock was himself aware of Mattsson's work and once allegedly gave him two cigars as a sign of appreciation. Although calling Mattsson "Sweden's Hitchcock" is a superficial comparison. They are not in the same league.

Thrillers with a touch of the macabre came naturally for Mattsson, this was where he most easily could express his view of humans as cruel and deceitful, driven by greed, hatred and jealously, and this is where his visual experimentation was at its most extreme. He worked with some of Sweden's most prominent thriller writers such as Stieg Trenter, Dagmar Lange (writing under the pseudonym Maria Lang), Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and made his first pure thriller already in 1947, Det kom en gäst (There Came a Guest), written by Trenter. Unfortunately, it is a film that fails on every level except for being mercifully short, 68 minutes, apparently cut down by the studio, Svensk Filmindustri. His next film Farlig vår (Dangerous Spring 1948) is excellent and among his best; both a thriller and a vivid depiction of student life in Uppsala. After his years at Nordisk Tonefilm, Mattsson would from 1958 onwards do almost only thrillers (often starring Anita Björk and Karl-Arne Holmsten) and he quickly expanded on his own style with long, tracking camera movements, subjective shots, extreme close-ups, cramped compositions, staging in great depth and abrupt and unconventional editing patterns. The films also became more and more strange, or estranged. A film like När mörkret faller (When Darkness Falls 1960) is so stylised and the acting a sort of expressionless affect that the distancing effect resembles something like early Fassbinder. It is difficult to know, or understand, how to approach these films. Is it a satire of detective films? Is it a deliberate attempt to do just what they appear as, a Brechtian art thriller? Or is it a failed effort to create something genuinely engaging and thrilling? Another intriguing one is Nightmare (Nattmara 1965), which ends with a long closeup of the face of the killer looking directly at the audience while a voice-over reads a police statement warning the public to stay clear of him. Critics at the time compared Nightmare to Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Clouzot's Diabolique (1955) and assorted Hitchcock films, although those comparisons will only go so far. Mattsson said himself it was Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase (1946) who inspired him but that is not apparent.

Some of these thrillers are bad, including Ryttare i blått (Rider in Blue 1959) and Vita frun (White Lady 1962), sometimes they are mystifying as some of those mentioned above, and some rather good such as The Doll (Vaxdockan 1962), a provocative drama about a lonely friendless man who brings home a mannequin doll whom he treats as a live, human being. But from the mid-1960s most of his films are in various ways abysmal. This is also when Mattsson began looking for funding abroad and when his career becomes interesting on another level.


I mentioned above the similarity between the music of One Summer of Happiness and The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. Another link to Leone/Morricone is that the killer in Nightmare plays a harmonica, much like Charles Bronson's character in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). But the Italian connection most people have made is between Mattsson's 1958 fashion house thriller Mannekäng i rött (Mannequin in Red), shot in garish colour by cinematographer Hilding Bladh, and Italian giallo films, not least Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (6 donne per l'assassino, 1964). It might also be a coincident but either way it points to the interconnections and modes that guides and influences films across borders. It also suggests how Mattsson was doing his own thing in Swedish cinema. Even though thrillers were popular then, both domestic thrillers and cold war thrillers (such as Mattsson's weird Den gula bilen (The Yellow Car 1963) or Rolf Husberg's Främlingen från skyn (Stranger from the Sky 1956)), Mattsson's contributions are unlike all others and had more in common with other European genre traditions. It is therefore not a surprise that he eventually began making films abroad.

Mannekäng i rött

In 1964 Mattsson made the musical Sailors (Blåjackor)which was a Swedish/Yugoslavian co-production. It is horrible. It was followed by the even worse Här kommer bärsärkarna that might be described as a farcical Viking epic, and also a Yugoslavian co-production. Bamse (1968) was a Swedish/Danish production, which had a lurid poster but was still a respectable relationship drama, which some compared to the films of Claude Lelouch. Ann and Eve (Ann och Eve - de erotiska 1970) on the other hand, another Swedish/Yugoslavian production, is ugly and nasty. While a tale of two young women on holiday, having plenty of consensual and non-consensual sex (including a gang rape), it is also an attack on film critics and shows how bitter Mattsson had become on the way his films were treated by Swedish critics. I would not say that the critics were unreasonable; they liked several of his films and Mattsson himself admitted at the time that some of his films were indefensible. But he felt that the criticism of both the thriller Mördaren - en helt vanligt människa (The Murderer 1967) and Bamse were unfair, and the failure of both films drove him to such despair he almost committed suicide he said at the time. So, fairly or not, he felt that he was being tormented by the critical establishment and Ann and Eve was a result of this, as well as being a sexploitation film.

Another Swedish/Yugoslav production is the political thriller/sexploitation film Black Sun (Mannen i skuggan/Crno sunce 1978), set in Spain, while the next film, Sometime, Somewhere (1983) was apparently produced in Monaco. (I know little about the film and have not seen it.) Mask of Murder (1985) was an English/Swedish production with Rod Taylor and Christopher Lee, shot in Sweden but set in Canada for unknown reasons. It is what was once referred to as a straight-to-video film, of little quality. The Girl (1987) was a British production with Franco Nero in the lead, as well as Christopher Lee again. Sleep Well, My Love (1987) was another British production but without known stars. And then finally The Mad Bunch (1989), a Swedish production in English with David Carradine in the lead and co-directed by Mats Helge Olsson, a hardworking filmmaker who in the 1980s and 1990s made a series of absurd and incredibly bad and cheesy action films with little money but a lot of enthusiasm. Mattsson and Olsson also directed The Hired Gun the same year, which might be Mattsson's last film.

From the mid-60s only one of Mattsson's films is of any real value, but it is on the other hand one of his best: Yngsjömordet (The Yngsjö Murder 1966). It is based on a real murder that took place in 1889 and written by the actress Eva Dahlbeck. It has a bold narrative structure, is much more restrained than his other films around this time, and well-acted. An achievement.

Ingrid Thulin in Yngsjömordet

While Mattsson's career and oeuvre is remarkably uneven and sprawling it should be of great interest for those studying European genre cinema, or Nordic Noir, or are working with psychoanalytical feminist film theory, or transnational cinema. As an auteur study it too is of considerable interest as his career is, as the liner notes for a Mattsson DVD-box says, "as if Bergman went from Summer with Monika to directing Dolph Lundgren". The comparison is apt.

There is little to read about Mattsson in English but in Swedish Cinema and the Sexual Revolution: Critical Essays (2016), edited by Elisabet Björklund and Mariah Larsson, there is at least an essay about him, written by Bengt Bengtsson.

For those who know Swedish, here is Leif Furhammar's famous review in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet of Mattsson's Mördaren - en helt vanlig person: "Per Wahlöö och Maj Sjöwall har skrivit filmen, Arne Mattsson har regisserat den. Och den som sen minns 'Pensionat Paradiset' (1937) som den svenska filmbotten, han följer helt enkelt inte med sin tid."

More for those fluent in Swedish: there is an interview with Mattsson, Furhammar and a few others in the film journal Chaplin; the third issue of 1991. There is also a candidate thesis about Mattsson written in 1986 at Stockholm University by Bengt Bengtsson which is pretty good. But that is about it.

Both The Mad Bunch and The Hired Gun are available on YouTube so knock yourself out. Or not.