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.


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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.

Hemsöborna

Friday, 8 February 2019

The White Cat (1950)

I felt like posting an excerpt from my book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row. This excerpt is about his psychotic thriller The White Cat from 1950:


The White Cat is probably the darkest and cruellest film Ekman ever made, and it still has the potential to shock and disturb. The opening sequence, which is almost without dialogue, shows a man (Alf Kjellin) arriving by train at the central station in Stockholm. He just sits there, staring blankly in front of him, after the train has stopped and all the other passengers have got off. Eventually, he gets up and starts walking around the station, and at one point he tries to leave, but when he sees two policemen he returns and walks up to a café and sits down to have a coffee. He overhears two women reading a newspaper article about an escaped convict, a rapist, and the description seems to be his. The convict is said to have a scar on his face, and the man goes to a mirror to check whether he has one. He does not, and he returns to the café. (In [Jean] Anouilh’s play The Traveller without Luggage (...) there is a similar incident, except that the man finds out that he does have a scar when he looks in the mirror.)

This is Ekman’s most striking opening sequence, and it is shot by [cinematographer] Göran Strindberg in an impressive style with great depth of field and almost expressionistic lighting. Like Girl with Hyacinths [1950], the visual style of the film as a whole recalls aspects of film noir, but film noir spiked with surrealism. The White Cat has a distinct Freudian theme and is filled with dream imagery, nightmares of often violent and/or sexual content. The man, whose name remains a mystery throughout the film, has lost his memory and is haunted by those nightmares. Unusually for Ekman, the film has several extreme close-ups of faces, deep in fear and full of sweat. The themes of guilt and disorientation also recall American film noir – films such as The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946).

The waitress at the station café (Eva Henning) takes an interest in the man, and when her shift is over they walk together through town to her apartment. She wants them to work together to try to find the key to his mind, memory and identity. He is wary of discovering the truth, since whatever it is, it is not going to be pretty. Maybe his amnesia is ‘an escape from a reality that is unbearable’, as he says. Eventually, however, he gets to the bottom of his story. It turns out that he was once married but that he found out that his wife had an affair with a painter, and that they had both become drug addicts while he, the husband, was away on a journey. Due to circumstances that are never revealed, the wife dies in a fire, together with another man, who strangely enough is not the painter with whom she had the affair, and nor is he of course her husband. In many ways The White Cat can be seen as the usual Ekman story but inverted. In almost all of Ekman’s films there is a constant wish to escape the boredom of the mundane bourgeois life; to go abroad or become an artist or actor. That is also the case in The White Cat. However, this leads here to death and despair. In a confrontation between the husband, before he developed amnesia, and the painter, beautifully played by Sture Lagerwall, the painter says that he only wanted to be free, to be able to live life to its fullest potential, to be as creative as possible, and that he does not regret a thing. He then asks the husband if his life, the safe and secure one, was really worth living. The husband struggles to respond.

The film can be seen as taking place in the hidden corners, in the subconscious, of Ekman’s characteristic dreamer. It is a subconscious filled with violence, sexual repression and neurosis, with the white cat a recurring symbol of a torn psyche. In one striking shot a white cat is seen crucified and in another scene a white cat is shot dead. Or is it another cat? It might be the same, like some kind of mystical creature. It keeps coming back, prowling the alleys, basements and attics, and haunting the characters’ dreams. This is Ekman making a film in the style and with the ideas of [the group of Swedish writers called] ‘Generation 40’, which he had so many times criticised. This fact did not escape him. At one moment, the painter says to the husband that the situation he is describing is ‘even worse than Generation 40...’. It could be argued that this does not really fit Ekman, and he struggles with the ending, trying to smooth over what has happened, in a sense introducing a ray of light into the prevailing darkness. During the title sequence the white cat is seen approaching the camera in an alley, but in the last shot the cat is seen running away from the characters and the audience along the same alley. Yet again, this is an example of Ekman’s habit of beginning and ending the film in the same space, with an almost identical scene, but with a slight variation.

The critics were on the whole sceptical and felt that Ekman had failed to make a strong and coherent film, several critics suggesting that Ekman had tried to make a ‘Bergman film’ but since his heart was not really in it, and since he did not have the necessary depth, the end result suffered. There is a sense in which the critics were to some extent allowing their prejudice against Ekman to shape their responses, and [the prominent critic] Robin Hood felt the need to come to Ekman’s defence. He wrote in a column that it was wrong to say that Ekman was a lightweight maker of comedies who now had tried and failed to make a serious film: ‘He has within him more than just the spirited amiableness; he has also experienced life’s unpleasant and dark sides. This foundation is what he wants to set free through his films. Has he not been at his most serious, most truthful as an artist exactly in those tough scenes in The Banquet [1948], Girl with Hyacinths, The White Cat?’ (Hood 1951, trans.).

What Robin Hood suggests here is that there has been a misreading, a misperception that Ekman is primarily a maker of comedies. The irony, however, is that even if Hood in this instance tried to set the record straight, the year before, in 1950, Hood had himself said that: ‘Ekman began with light, shallow, graceful comedies, well made, and then changed his mind and became serious and realistic’ (Hood 1950, trans.). But as has been made clear here, Ekman had always had this serious side, evidenced as early as his second film. Where this idea that Ekman was primarily a maker of comedies stems from is something of a conundrum; and it is still prevalent today. It might be due to Ekman’s public appearances. Ekman was sometimes seen as a playboy, driving around in a yellow sports car and often seen with beautiful women, and maybe when critics thought about him as a filmmaker they had this image in their heads. This image might then have skewed their memories of his films towards the funny and cheerful, much like a playboy. When he was asked in an interview if he considered himself a playboy the answer was that he certainly did not: ‘No, I’m everything but a playboy. Work has taken up all my time. I wanted to work. Surely no playboy wants to do that?’ (Frankl 1967, trans.).

Henning and Kjellin

The above was from the book. I want to add that the question as to why people were convinced Ekman primarily made light comedies, and why many persist in believing this, is a curious one. A peer reviewer once faulted an article I wrote because I said Ekman primarily made dramas and the reviewer responded that this is not true and wanted me to change that. That reviewer was a fool but also part of a tradition.

Psychology rather than film history might provide the answers.

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I have written a lot about Ekman before on the blog. Here for example:

And the book is available from online book stores and assorted libraries and such.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Late work and last films

In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman argues that after Psycho (1960) Hitchcock lost his creative touch and began making bad film and that this was due to the lavish praise he had received during the 1950s, particularly by French critics, which had gone to his head. I do not buy this as all. It is true that his films in the late 1960s are not as good as before, but he had been highly praised already in the 1930s and should be used to it, and his two films after Psycho, The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964) are not the films of a director in decline. Whatever happened after Marnie is related to other things; personal issues, changes within the film industry, changing tastes and so on. And he did get back on his creative feet with Frenzy (1972). Besides, Hitchcock made only two films between Marnie and Frenzy: Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969), and they have their merits. They are not worse than some of his earlier films, like Stage Fright (1950).

This is about a topic that interests me a lot, that of late films, or a "late phase", in a filmmaker's career. These films are often dismissed or unacknowledged and in general it is earlier works that are the focus of peoples' and critics' attention. Sometimes, as with Satyajit Ray, it is only the very first films that are talked about at any length. I remember a discussion I once had with a student about Billy Wilder being a filmmaker who (the student claimed) lost it completely in his later stage, and the student is not alone in this belief. But Wilder in the late 1960s/early 1970s is to me as good and interesting as he was in the 1940s, there is no decline there.

The first thing to wonder about is at what stage in a career it becomes appropriate to talk about a late phase. When does it begin? How should it be measured? Obviously the career itself must be of some length, spanning a couple of decades at best. And what is meant by it? There has to be a distinct change in the films for there to be a point of talking about a late phase. With Hitchcock it seems possible to see Psycho as the beginning of such a late phase. With Howard Hawks I would like to suggest Rio Bravo (1959) as the first film of his late, and glorious, phase. It was made after a longer pause, and it and his later films are looser, more meandering and even less concerned with plot than before. While thematically consistent with his films of the 1930s and 1940s, they have a different tone, mood and pace.

What about John Ford? Is there a late phase beginning with Sergeant Rutledge (1960) maybe? When he, as is sometimes suggested, began make films that deliberately questions assumptions and ideas from earlier days. (Although he had already done that too, in the late 1940s for example.) Does Vincente Minnelli's late phase begin with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962)? David Lean's late phase, when he ventured abroad and made long epics, began with Bridge of the River Kwai (1957); a phase which, with the exception of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is also often disparaged. Michael Powell's late phase began after the thrashing Peeping Tom (1960) got by British critics. After The Queen's Guard (1961) he did some TV-work, two fine films in Australia and an adaptation of Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle.

Some filmmakers move around and this might make it easier to distinguish phases. Luis Buñuel's late phase might be said to begin when he began making films in France, with The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), or perhaps better to push it forward to 1967 and Belle de Jour. Jean Renoir, who also did a version of The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), could be said to having inaugurated his late phase when he left the US, first for The River (1951) in India, and then his last films in France. Max Ophüls is another filmmaker who moved around, and could be said to have three phases, first a European, then in the 1940s an American and then in the 1950s a French phase, although in his case the last phase is too similar to the earlier ones for it to be meaningful to talk about it as a distinct "late phase". This is also his most celebrated phase; much like Yasujiro Ozu, the later films are the ones most people talk about. Buñuel is a similar case. They are exceptions to an otherwise strong rule.

Vittorio De Sica and Ophüls on the set of The Earrings of Madame de... (1953).

But is there any value of talking about a late phase? Or argue about when it might have begun? I think there is, if you are interested in film as art, and in the artists who make them. The conventional response is to focus on the earlier work, or some alleged golden age, and then ignore or belittle the later work, but often only because the later films are in one way or another (or more ways) different from the earlier ones. Sometimes this can be put down to an inability among critics and people at large to appreciate change and development, and often it comes from an unwillingness to look beyond the usual classics and established "masterpieces". Another reason might be that a late phase is often not in tune with the prevailing styles and themes of the younger contemporary filmmakers' work, and is therefore not considered hip and trendy and consequently dismissed as old and conservative. This is often unfair though and leads to dismissals on shallow grounds. But these aspects are still interesting to discuss. To follow a filmmaker's long and winding career can be very rewarding, and lead to insights about not just personal developments and creativity but also to discussions about how filmmakers navigate changing societal and industrial contexts and circumstances, and also to discussions about how we evaluate films. Another aspect is to consider how artists deals with ageing and mortality, including their own, in their later years. Many filmmakers have done this, from Hawks to Ozu, and some not yet mentioned here such as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa.

Sometimes it is in their late phase that filmmakers really burrow deep, get personal and sometimes reach for the sublime. I think Fred Zinnemann began to blossom in his late phase, which began with The Nun's Story (1959).

***

Related to this, and particularly poignant to me, is a filmmaker's very last film, and even the very last image of them. I am not talking about the solution to the story but the very last thing we see, the final image. Here are five last images that have always struck me as being particularly suitable or poignant, from the last films of Buñuel, Lean, Hitchcock, Minnelli and Ozu.

Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) ends with a sudden and unexplained explosion, a fabulous end to an explosive and surreal style of filmmaking. Lean's A Passage to India (1984) ends with Judy Davis's main character turning away from a window, on which it is raining. A temperamental person trapped in a damp English apartment which is too small for her outreaching personality. Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976) ends with the main character, played by Barbara Harris, looking directly into the camera and wink to us, as if it has all been one big joke and Hitch wants to let us know. Minnelli's last film, the flawed but marvellous A Matter of Time (1976), ends with a freeze frame of the face of his daughter Liza Minnelli, who plays the lead. But most moving of all is the last shot of Ozu's last film An Autumn Afternoon (1962). Chishu Ryu who had played the male lead in Ozu's films ever since the 1930s, sits alone in a small room, now old and tired, looking away from the camera and us, faced with his own loneliness and approaching death. It is the end scene to end all end scenes.


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The meaning of a last image might change, or deepen, depending on whether you know if the filmmaker knew that this was the last film they would make. That is a topic worthy of a book...

And speaking about books, Goldman says a lot of dumb things in his book, but I shall have to come back to that another day.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Reading in films

A light start to the new year. Among the many things that intrigue me in films is what books characters are reading and what it might mean and what the books are like. Sometimes they can be real books that were popular at the time, sometimes they are self-referential, sometimes they are jokes and sometimes they are fake, just a title and a cover created for the film. I can also be fascinated by books being written by fictional characters that are authors. In Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant 2000), the character played by Sean Connery wrote one novel once upon a time, which was considered a masterpiece and won the Pulitzer Prize, but he has written nothing since. It is called Avalon Landing and I am desperate to read it, even though I know it does not exist outside the frame of the film. To add to its allure, the book is briefly shown in the film and it is in the same style as Penguin Books of the 1950s, a design I find irresistible. I even have a small collection of Penguin books from that series, such as this one (which was adapted into a film by George Cukor in 1956):


But back to books being read. Here are five examples that have always excited me for one reason or another:

Grace Kelly in Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock 1954)

Jayne Mansfield in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin 1957)

Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million (William Wyler 1966)

Claude Jade and Jean-Pierre Léaud in Bed & Board (François Truffaut 1970)

Chris Eigeman and Allison Parisi in Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1990)

That was just a small collection; a starting point for a conversation, for further research and for the year of 2019. Let's get going!