Friday 25 December 2020

Christmas break with Jacques Tourneur

There will not be a proper article today as it is Christmas and us Swedes take that very seriously, even in a time of a pandemic. The next regular piece will be in two weeks, in 2021, on January 8.

Since I am on my Christmas break I have some free time and so far I have used it to watch a couple of the few films by Jacques Tourneur I have not seen before. A rewarding exercise and judging by the reactions on Twitter to my comments, he has many passionate supporters like myself. That too was a rewarding experience. I now have only his films from the 1930s and the two from the 1960s left to watch, and eventually I will do that too. Tourneur is a wondrous filmmaker, at least in the 1940s and 1950s. So in that spirit, here are some nice images from three of his lesser-known films.

Experiment Perilous (1944)

Easy Living (1949)
 Nightfall (1956)

I have written about Tourneur before and here are two links:

Friday 11 December 2020

Video supplement

In my private archive I have an especially treasured object, a Swedish newspaper supplement from 25 January 1987 entirely focused on home video viewing. During the 1980s, the number of households that had a VCR went from a few to a majority in many countries, so in 1987 it was possible to have such a supplement. The video, both as a way of watching and as a cultural phenomenon, was at its peak. As followers of this blog probably know, this is a subject that brings out my feelings of nostalgia like no other.

The supplement is not the oldest item I have saved, I think an issue of something called Filmjournalen from 1985, when I was ten, is the oldest piece. But this one is more fun.

The reason I saved it, it is safe to assume, is because several pages were about James Bond, with short reviews of every film, and personal anecdotes from various journalists, especially about Sean Connery. As this was a time of my life when watching Bond films was one of my most common activities, it had to be saved for prosperity. Now the Bond material is no longer what interests me most but the whole paper itself, as a snapshot of what was hot and what was not in 1987. To give you an idea, I felt like it would be fun to tell you what they wrote about. A niche interest for sure, but it is my blog after all.

There are articles on a large variety of topics, and it begins with one about the worst films ever made, as suggested by the turkey on the cover. The chosen ones are Barbarella (Roger Vadim 1968), The Food of the Gods (Bert I. Gordon 1976), The Incredible Melting Man (William Sachs 1977), Tentacles/Tentacoli (Ovidio G. Assonitis 1977), Exorcist II: The Heretic (John Boorman 1977), Empire of the Ants (Bert I. Gordon 1977), Orca (Michael Anderson 1977), The Swarm (Irwin Allen 1978), Gold of the Amazon Women (Mark L. Lester 1979), and Bolero (John Derek 1984, which the trailer claims is a masterpiece). Considering that half of them are from 1977, and three others from the year before and after 1977, it does not seem like they put much time and effort into their selection. Even so, it might be a fun DVD box to have, or will Netflix step up?

Other articles look at the statistics about the most popular films in Sweden for home viewing, both over time and specifically in January 1987. Those lists are interesting as the most popular films are to a large extent the same films that are mentioned today when the 1980s are discussed. These are not forgotten ones, but titles such as Midnight Express (Alan Parker 1978), Tootsie (Sydney Pollack 1982), Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman 1984), Amadeus (Milos Forman 1984), Indiana Jones, James Bond, and plenty of films with Eddie Murphy.

Another article wants to highlight films that have been neglected but are, allegedly, good and should be better known. Ten are mentioned, and many of these are now famous while some I have never heard of: All That Jazz (Bob Fosse 1979), Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix 1981), My Favourite Year (Richard Benjamin 1982), The Man Who Loved Women (Blake Edwards 1983), Hundra (Matt Cimber 1983, which, by the looks of it, might just as well have ended up in the "worst films of all times" article), Under Fire (Roger Spootiswoode 1983), Utu (Geoff Murphy 1983, from New Zealand), Never Cry Wolf (Carroll Ballard 1983), Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky 1984), Hrafninn flýgur (Hrafn Gunnlaugsson 1984, it has different titles in English, including When the Raven Flies and Revenge of the Barbarians, but the first is the more appropriate one), Racing With the Moon* (Richard Benjamin 1984), Sixteen Candles (John Hughes 1984), and One Crazy Summer (Savage Steve Holland 1986).

Another article is about the then-hot topic of censorship, and others look at the films of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, concert films, the economics of rental, and some foreign correspondents' reports from video stores around the world, including Video Shack in New York. There is also an interview with Harrison Ford. "I am aware that I am not handsome," he says, which is an odd thing to say when you look like Harrison Ford.

A recurring item on several pages is a famous Swedish film person's list of his (yes, only men have been asked) favourite films. These are the ones Lasse Hallström picked: C'eravamo tanto amati (Ettore Scola 1977, We All Loved Each Other So Much is the most known English title, and I should add that while Scola is not that well-known internationally, he was exceptionally popular in Sweden), Eye of the Needle (Richard Marquand 1981), Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton 1979), Amarcord (Federico Fellini 1973), Postřižiny (Jiří Menzel 1981, sometimes called Cutting it Short, and sometimes Shortcuts), Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman 1965), Heaven Can Wait (Warren Beatty 1978), Annie Hall (Woody Allen 1977), The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen 1985), and Den enfaldige mördaren (Hans Alfredson 1982, a famous Swedish film that was also one of Ingmar Bergman's favourites.) These films might not mean much if you are only aware of what Hallström has made in Hollywood, but they do tie in quite well with what he did in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s, except for Eye of the Needle.

That was most of what was offered. In short, it leaves nothing to be desired. The complete supplement. I now feel compelled to watch all of the films I have not seen, and sometimes never heard of anywhere else. Maybe you got some ideas too. Most films are forgotten by time, and by revisiting magazines, newspapers, diaries and such you will be reminded of what has been forgotten, and will often get a more accurate idea of the past than from a film history book written today.


An earlier article about video nostalgia:

 *I got the title wrong initially.

Friday 27 November 2020


A Swedish radio program about economics recently did an episode about the pandemic's threat to cinemas. With them either being closed, or only allowed to take a small number of visitors, and with hardly any new big releases, they are in danger of going out of business permanently, both small independent cinemas and large international chains. The issue was approached from several angles but, inevitably, towards the end of the program the show's host asked the head of the Swedish Film Institute: "Are cinemas necessary? Can we not just see this as a change regarding the spaces where we consume films. Instead of going to the cinema we just stay at home."

This is not a question any other art form would have to deal with. "Are museums necessary? People can watch any art they want on the internet after all." is not something a journalist would ask, or "Are theatres necessary? People can watch plays on streaming services at home after all." Or, for that matter, "Are churches, mosques and temples necessary? People can still worship in their homes after all." Or "Are restaurants necessary? People can still eat food at home after all."

The obvious answers are that doing it together with strangers in a communal setting is a different experience from doing it at home alone, and would you want to live in a world where cities were empty of people, there was no place to go for fun or experiences, and everybody was just at home? That would be like living in a permanent state of quarantine, and the way society is evolving, it seems many would not mind. "Well, it is just so convenient to do it at home." they say, without giving any thoughts to what it might mean for society at large if we all did it.

This is partly a question about democracy. A healthy democracy needs responsible citizens who mingle and meet each other, friends and strangers, in common activities, whether sports, art, religion, festivals, or whatever it might be, and a democracy in which we all stay at home may not remain a democracy for very long. This does not mean that we should abandon the current lockdowns in the name of "freedom" or whatever; the pandemic is a mortal threat. I am talking about a longer time frame.

Talking specifically about films and cinemas, how and where you watch something has an important influence over the experience. It is not just the story of the film that matters. Watching a film at home, or at a small cinema, or a large IMAX screen, or on a plane, or projected on the wall of a countryside barn, or in a drive-in; all these various experiences will be qualitatively different from each other and will to some extent determine your relationship with the film you are watching.

Another aspect is that if a film is made with the explicit intention of being shown at the cinema, this will usually influence how it is made: how it is shot, staged, blocked, edited, paced, and designed, even acted. If you do not watch it in a cinema, you will not get the intended experience. That is just an unavoidable aspect of the art form. And if something is made with the intention of it being shown on TV screens or tablets, this too will influence how it is made, and the experience of watching it will yet again be different. The argument is not that one thing is better or worse, but that it is different, and that it is to misunderstand cinema itself to think that it does not matter where and how you watch something. (Common ideas of what it means that something is "cinematic" remains unsatisfying and flawed.)

But unlike the situation with the cinemas, many still seem to be conscious of the downsides when other kinds of public venues are closed down. That is why the suggested questions I provided above are hardly ever asked. But cinema is different. I have written about this before, the strange fact that the cinema, and cinemas, are being held in such low regard by so many, including those who claim to like it and enjoy it. There seems to be something inherent in the art form itself which puts it in the position where it is not considered proper art. The widespread belief that a film adapted from a book is always, by default, inferior is part of this disregard of cinema as art. A book and a film are two distinct things and not easy to compare unless you only consider the script; judging the film on how much its story departs from its source material, which is somewhat like judging Picasso as a painter based on how closely his paintings resemble the objects he has depicted. But how would you compare the acting or the camera movements in a film with the novel the film is based on? It is also the case that a large number of films, maybe even the majority, are adaptations of novels and short stories, yet most of these novels and short stories are long forgotten because they were not particularly good, whereas the films based upon them often are. It is safe to assume that those who think that the book is always better than the film have not given the issue much thought, but only think so because they for some reason believe that literature is self-evidently superior to cinema.


These days companies, journalists, critics, scholars, and ordinary viewers, refer to films and series as "content" and those who watch it as "consumers". It was perhaps inevitable, as this mindset has been with us for decades without necessarily expressed so bluntly and by so many. If you refer to something as "content" you are degrading and diminishing it, and, by extension, you are also doing the same to those who watch it, including yourself. When the accountants at Disney refer to whatever they offer as "content to satisfy consumer demand" they are no different from McDonald's. If you are fine with the monolithic position Disney has over moving images, it suggests that you would also be fine if McDonald's had a similar dominating position within the world of food; that if you went out to eat on the town, 90% of all available restaurants served only Big Macs and McFeasts. But if that thought scares you, then you should also be scared of the reality that is Disney's current hold over the world of films.

I am worried about the future of cinemas, and of cinema itself. The threat is threefold: the immediate risks of cinemas all over the world going under; the dominance of Disney; and the disregard for cinema as an art form that so many of its producers have, as do much of the audience, including critics and academics. But I will continue to defend it, and to delight in it.

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich 1971)

The radio show host I quoted in the lede also suggested that "younger generations" do not have any "nostalgic" relationship of going to the cinema and therefore do not have any reason for doing so, as if that was the only reason why anyone would go there. (Tell that to all the kids who have been filling up cinemas to watch the Avengers saving the universe.) I sometimes get the impression that for a lot of people, doing anything that could also be done before 2010 is somehow suspect and can only be explained by nostalgia.

Friday 13 November 2020

Discarding a term

At work the other day I read a new book, Postfeminist Whiteness - Problematising Melancholic Burden in Contemporary Hollywood by Kendra Marston, and it reminded me of a common but odd phenomenon within film studies. The last chapter was about Sofia Coppola, and the chapter began with an overview of the history of the "auteur" for a couple of pages, mentioning all the usual suspects from Truffaut and Barthes to Sarris and Kael. How come people still feel the need to do this? Everybody in the field knows this story. If Marston felt a need to call Coppola an auteur she could just do it, there is no need to explain the term, provide its history, and mention the criticism that has been made against it. No other term of this kind is treated in this way. (Imagine if each use of the term "genre" was accompanied with a long review of what has been said for and against it, beginning with Aristotle.)

Another peculiar thing about the term is that many books/articles about this or that director often begins with the writer dismissing the concept of the auteur, and enthusiastically claiming that "we know from the writings of Roland Barthes that the idea of an author should be buried" or something similar, yet the rest of the book/article is the conventional kind of auteur study that you would think, given what they wrote in the introduction, they do not believe is valid or relevant.

I think the reason for this is that they are scared of being seen as old-fashioned, with "romantic ideas of authorship," so they want to pretend that they are not like that, that they are wise and knowledgeable. But it is untenable, as all efforts to eat your cake and have it are. If you do not believe in authorships and oeuvres, you should not write a book or article about the style, themes and concerns about a certain filmmaker, discussing their career as a whole. But if you want to do that, you need to accept the fact that this is what you do, and not hedge your writings by showing you have heard of Barthes and Foucault. (That a short, provocative text for a conceptual multimedia art magazine (Aspen), which is what Barthes's "The Death of the Author" initially was, and which he would quickly move away from in different ways, still seems to be regarded as containing some essential truths about art and writers, which we must always refer to, is quite absurd.)

It is all so pointless though. It is not romantic and starry-eyed to believe that human beings have personal agency and ideas, thoughts and visions, and that, when they make an artwork, these ideas, thoughts and visions can be expressed in that artwork. That is just common sense, and all this hedging and throat clearing is tiresome and annoying, a sign of insecurities. None of it would be needed if the word auteur was just dropped. This is what I mean by the title of this post, "Discarding a term".

It is also common that you will read sentences like "Federico Fellini was an auteur in the true sense of the word, he wrote and directed his own films and had complete control over them." But this is not the true sense of the word auteur. Many directors, such as John Ford, Vincente Minnelli, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock (to name just five), do not write all of their scripts, yet are usually considered auteurs in the 1950s sense, which logically should be regarded as the "true sense". And it is almost impossible for any individual to have "complete control" over a film. Sufficient control is enough. Another issue is that people today often claim that auteur films are the opposite of genre films, even though the French critics of the 1950s, as well as Andrew Sarris, emphasised that many of those they considered auteurs worked within traditional genres.

These are examples of the fact that few know exactly what the term means, even though they know its conventional history. And this is another reason why we are better off giving up on using it. I do not think it serves a purpose.

For the first, say, 60 years of filmmaking the word auteur was not in use, yet the common view of films and filmmaking was not that different from what it is now. Films were advertised with their stars, and/or directors, and/or studios, critics wrote about the styles and themes of directors, and in general it was the director who was considered the most prominent person in the filmmaking process (with plenty of variations and nuances, just like today). It is a mistake to think that the views of directors changed in the 1950s. In this regard, the conventional history is a distortion.

When I began writing my PhD thesis ten years ago I wrestled with this. How should I approach Hasse Ekman? Should I do the historical overview of views on authorship? Should I call him an auteur? I did not think calling him an auteur was particularly meaningful as most directors can be called that, and since Ekman often directed, wrote, produced, and also played the lead, it was self-evident that he too would be. I tried to give it some more nuance by distinguishing between "internal" and "external" auteurs, with internals being filmmakers, like him, whose presence are embodied in their films because they are being autobiographical or because they appear in them. Other directors with no such presence would be external auteurs. But this was already a fuzzy distinction when I came up with it, and not one I have pursued. I did do a historical overview, but not the conventional one, as in Postfeminist Whiteness, but one that showed how the director traditionally, or at least since the 1910s, has usually been regarded in much the same way as today.

Given how the term, whenever I come across it, is either unnecessary or presented in an ahistorical way, I have become more and more alienated from it. It has been a long time since I referred to a director as an auteur. There is no need. Calling a director a director is enough, regardless of whether they write their scripts or not. Critics and others were doing fine in earlier decades without using the term auteur, and so would we today. But if you do feel compelled to call somebody an auteur, just do it, and do not spend pages of contextualisation and disclaimers.



For an earlier piece by me about auteurs and academia, you can read this:

This article about Andrew Sarris is also related:

Although I singled out Postfeminist Whiteness, this has nothing to do with this particular book, it was just a new example among hundreds of others. I think it is quite possible that it was not Marston but an overzealous supervisor or editor who demanded that historical overview.

Saturday 31 October 2020

W.S. Van Dyke and Myrna Loy

I told Mr. Griffith I had come to talk to him about Woody Van Dyke. "Van Dyke?" he said. "He was an adventurer: everything that man did he made into an adventure. Why, just to know him was an adventure in itself."

Some weeks ago I happened to read "Filmens frågetecken," an article from 1942 by Artur Lundkvist, a prominent Swedish writer and critic, about the then current state of international cinema. The article is also a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of cinema as an art form, given its expensive and collaborative nature, and Lundkvist emphasises that the best films are those where the director is able to push through his artistic vision. He writes about Soviet montage, he misses Weimar cinema, celebrates Poetic Realism, and names these Hollywood directors as the best, the artists: Ford, Vidor, Capra, Dieterle, Mamoulian, Van Dyke, von Sternberg, Lang. He is also excited about Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941), which had just been released in Sweden.

In short, what Lundkvist had to say is not different from how most film history books and film history courses today are discussing the cinema leading up to 1942. It is the same countries, movements, films and directors. But three names stand out, two names for not being mentioned, and one for being mentioned. Those that are missing are Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch, who were then, and are today, considered among the most important of filmmakers of that time. But considering how many Lundkvist did mention, he might have forgotten them in the spur of the moment. What is more interesting is the inclusion of W.S. Van Dyke as one of the masters, as he is somebody who has been almost completely forgotten and is usually not mentioned more than in a footnote at best. But in the 1930s he was a star director, one of the most successful, and one of the most highly paid in Hollywood. He was twice nominated for an Oscar for best director, and several of his films from the 1930s were among the five biggest box office hits of their years of release. When I did my survey of 1930s cinema last year, Van Dyke was one of those that I did not have time to explore at depth, but being reminded of him by Lundkvist's article, I finally went through with it now. I was helped by several books, listed at the end, and in particular a breezy book about Van Dyke's life and career published already in 1948, Van Dyke and the Mythical City by Robert C. Cannom. The page references below is from that book, as is the quote on top. (p. 24-25)

His full name is striking: Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke II. It sounds like a character from a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It is usually shortened to W.S. Van Dyke, but he was called Woody, and in the film business he was also known as One-Take Woody, because of his way of filmmaking. He was born in 1889, and had different sorts of adventurous jobs before he settled on the movie business, working in various capacities on the set with D.W. Griffith on both The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). (On his first day, Van Dyke walked up to a man on a bench outside the studio and said: "Van Dyke's my name." The other man replied "Mine's Erich von Stroheim. Have a seat." (p. 51))

The following year he began directing himself. For ten years he made serials and cheap westerns, often working under the supervision of David O. Selznick, before Selznick became the mythological producer of the late 1930s. But Van Dyke craved to become a big, respected director, one of the "inner circle" instead of a maker of lowbrow fare. His chance came with the production of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). It was initially a project for Robert Flaherty, produced by MGM, but it turned into a series of battles between Selznick (who wanted to do it with Van Dyke) and Hunt Stromberg (who was producing it for Flaherty) and their boss Irving Thalberg, who first supported Flaherty, then fired him, then brought him back, then fired him again. The office politics behind the film is a thesis in its own right, and I am not sure I have got the facts right. To add to the confusion, William Randolph Hearst's film company Cosmopolitan Productions was also involved. But eventually Van Dyke took over and made it his film, while incorporating footage filmed by Flaherty.

White Shadows in the South Seas was a great success and it elevated Van Dyke to the position he aspired too. It also fitted in with his taste for adventure, and desire for independence. He knew what he wanted, and he did not want people to interfere with him. For several years he made films across the world, including The Pagan (1929) in Tahiti, Eskimo (1933) in northern Canada, and the biggest success of them all, Trader Horn (1931), in eastern and central Africa. These were films shot on location, with documentary aspirations, and using the people who actually lived there in the cast, and he wanted them to speak their own language. Some of them, like White Shadows in the South Seas, were films about an unspoiled world where child-like "natives" live in harmony with nature, and beautiful girls swim around naked. They were inevitably a white man's films, paternalistic, even if they treated the people with love and tenderness. Trader Horn was different, more of an adventure story about hidden secrets and finding "the White Goddess of Paganism" in the jungle. Van Dyke also did a lot of hunting, especially in Africa, filling his home in California with trophies.

These films gave him prestige, were successful at the box office, and Trader Horn became a milestone. They were also exhausting, massive productions with huge responsibilities. Allegedly Van Dyke was the inspiration for Carl Denham, the filmmaker played by Robert Armstrong, who wants to make a film about the big gorilla in King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack 1933). But the material Van Dyke shot, especially for Trader Horn, was so rich that he, and MGM, could make use of it in later films as well, such as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).

The special effects, matte paintings, and back projections in Tarzan the Ape Man are outstanding, together with the central African location footage. The sequence that the image above comes from looks so authentic it is enough to pinch yourself. (I think the technique used is the Dunning Process.) Tarzan is not a particularly good film however, neither dialogue nor acting runs smoothly, and it is cringeworthy in many ways. Like Trader Horn, its depiction of black Africans is demeaning, and its use of animals exploitative. But it has a certain kind of primitive purity. It is a mad film, of getting lost in the wilderness and discarding the modern world and all its evils, of re-entering a lost world. The film also introduced Johnny Weissmuller to cinema, and a long line of sequels followed, none directed by Van Dyke. But however successful and influential his "African" films were, they are not films I would recommend now.

What happened next was that Van Dyke began a close collaboration with Myrna Loy. She had been acting for many years and had gotten good reviews for her performances in, for example, Transatlantic (William K. Howard 1931) and The Animal Kingdom (Edward H. Griffith 1932), and praise from the cinematographer James Wong Howe, one of the greatest of camera artists, for her technical awareness. But although she played Becky Sharp in the low-budget Vanity Fair (Chester M. Franklin 1932), she rarely played any leading parts, was frequently cast as a seductive or tragic "Oriental" woman, and she hardly ever did comedy. Van Dyke felt that she had not been given the roles and the direction she deserved, and he took it upon himself to change that. He was perhaps the person who made Loy the towering star that she became, which she often credited him for. In her first audition for him, she began her performance but after a few minutes, he stopped her and said: "Ah, that's a lot of nonsense, Myrna. You don't have to act!" (p. 278) He wanted her to be herself, and that was the key to her success. It was also how he worked as a director, favouring spontaneity, immediacy, personality. He was one of those who cut in camera, shooting only exactly what he needed, and often using the first take to capture that spontaneity and immediacy; the reason why he was called One-Take Woody. He even had his own camera equipment created to be able to be fast and flexible, nimble, and do a shot in one take.

The first film he made with Loy is Penthouse (1933). She plays a night club singer/call girl and Warner Baxter plays a lawyer/detective, in this sexy, snappy film. It is of no particular genre, being part gangster movie, part screwball movie, part detective movie, part musical. It is delightful, and Loy is radiant. Here is a funny scene, which feels as Wodehouse-esque as Van Dyke's full name. In its timing it is magnificent, the way the dialogue moves with their body movements, how the absurdities steadily escalate, beat for beat, and how the butler turns towards the mirror when he says he went home with the big blonde, and as the camera captures the mirror, Baxter's hangover lawyer gags on his coffee, which we see in the reflection that just appeared.

Loy and Van Dyke then made The Prizefighter and the Lady. It was to be made by Howard Hawks, for MGM, but neither Hawks nor MGM was satisfied with it. It seems the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, called Van Dyke, who was Mayer's favourite director, and asked if he could help. Van Dyke said yes, took the roll of films Hawks had shot, threw them in the trash, and said: "I told you I'd fix it!" Then he re-shot the whole film himself. (p. 279) The result is a good, lively, but traditional boxing film in which plenty of famous boxers appear as themselves. It ends with a long, impressive fight sequence at Madison Square Garden, for the title of heavyweight championship. Max Baer, the actual heavyweight champion of 1934, plays the lead, and Loy plays his girlfriend. They meet by chance and he invites her to a fight, which she somewhat reluctantly goes to. But when she seems him in the ring, appreciating his body and his movements (the female gaze is alive and well in this film) she leaves her nightclub owner boyfriend for him. That boyfriend is played by Otto Kruger, and as he is a gangster of sorts, you always expect him to become violent and threatening, but he does not. He remains loyal and kind, despite being hurt and sad when she breaks up with him, and this is one of the strengths of the film. It also stars Walter Huston as the manager, and he and Loy have several sweet scenes together. There is one fine scene in particular where they have an argument, and she suddenly and spontaneously starts to mimic his behaviour.

After Van Dyke made Manhattan Melodrama (1933), with Loy and William Powell, he became so enthusiastic about the pairing of Loy and Powell that he wanted to do something fun about married life with the two of them. He settled for Dashiell Hammett's novel The Thin Man, and after some persistent arguments, MGM agreed to let him do it. It was the quintessential Van Dyke film, more or less made up as they went along, with Van Dyke sometimes not even telling the cast he was filming them when he asked them to act out a scene, and many scenes were improvised on the spot. (There are similarities between Van Dyke and Leo McCarey.) It was a tremendous hit, earned Van Dyke his first Oscar nomination for best director, lead to several sequels, some directed by Van Dyke, and has remained a classic, and Van Dyke's most famous film, even though many probably do not know who directed it.

From 1934, Van Dyke was working with Hunt Stromberg as producer instead of Selznick, and by now he was exceptionally productive, some years he directed up to five films, which is possible when you are the fastest working director in Hollywood. He primarily worked for MGM, where he was popular and had a level of independence. It may have helped that he was married to Ruth Mannix, the niece of Eddie Mannix, one of MGM's most powerful executives. He continued to make huge hits, including San Francisco (1936), which has spectacular special effects, about the devastating earthquake of 1906, and Marie Antoinette (1938), co-directed with Julien Duvivier. The latter, 150 minutes of French court intrigues, is not Van Dyke's natural habitat, and it is somewhat dull. He tries to inject some mischief and banter here and there, but its real quality is the way it looks; a triumph of MGM's art director Cedric Gibbons and his teams, and the cinematographer William H. Daniels (Garbo's favourite). Decor and design-wise, it is among Hollywood's greatest achievement of the 1930s. But I prefer the war film/gangster film They Gave Him a Gun (1937), which looks more like a Warner Bros. film than an MGM production, and is so strikingly shot and edited at times that it might have impressed Eisenstein. (MGM and Eisenstein is not an obvious fit, but such is the complexities of the real world, as opposed to the taught world.)

Spencer Tracy in They Gave Him a Gun

But mainly Van Dyke made comedies and musicals (several with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Unfortunately, by now it seems as if Van Dyke had lost something. In films like Hide-Out (1934), Love on the Run (1936), It's a Wonderful World (1939) despite having both Mankiewiczs (Herman and Joseph) involved, and Ben Hecht, and despite the latter films starring Crawford/Gable and Colbert/Stewart, and despite Van Dyke's presence being felt, something is missing. They do not just lack Myrna Loy; they lack something else too. The comedy feels laboured and awkward, the earlier energy and quick wit are missing. It is possible that Van Dyke could not get his own style across when the censorship and the Hays code tightened, or maybe he got worn down by the MGM machinery. At the beginning of the 1930s he had been a trendsetter; towards the end of it he instead directed late instalments in long-running film series such as Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare.

I do not think Van Dyke can be regarded as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood of the 1930s. He is far below the level of Lubitsch, or Ford, or Hawks, or Cukor, or Hathaway, or Lang, or Borzage, or von Sternberg, and others. Maybe Van Dyke's greatest gift to film history is that he saw something in Myrna Loy, and together they made the best of that. She is effortlessly irresistible in their films together, which are his best. However, they are not necessarily her best.

In the early 1940s, Van Dyke got sick with cancer. When he made his last film, the stiff but decent Journey with Margaret (1942), with Margaret O'Brien as a traumatised orphan in England, he was ill and the next year it seems he killed himself (this has been disputed), probably because he was being overwhelmed by the cancer. It was a tragic, premature end to an intense life. I shall leave it to him to finish this article, with the words from a poem he once wrote: 

So carry on, and when you're dead,
For epitaph may this be said:
'He had his boots on when he fell,
And made adventure out of Hell.'


I had initially written that Cosmopolitan Production was Howard Hughes's company, but it was William Randolph Hearst's. I made some other clarifications too. Apologies. (2020-10-31)

Van Dyke was not alone in making films set and shot in the South Seas at that time. Other prominent examples include Moana (Robert Flaherty 1926), Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau, Flaherty 1931) and Bird of Paradise (King Vidor 1932). They share many images, themes and ideas. I suspect the writings of anthropologist Margaret Mead was partly responsible for this. Her famous book Coming of Age in Samoa was published in 1928, and she had been working in the area since 1925.


Van Dyke and the Mythical City (1948) by Robert C. Cannom

The Genius of the System (1989) by Thomas Schatz

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (2005) by Scott Eyman

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (2011) by Emily W. Leider

Friday 16 October 2020

What is the point of what we do?

The question that forms the title of this post is something I have often asked myself, for example when I am wasting my time listening to some pointless presentation at a conference, or reading an article that has nothing to say and spends 10 000 words on whatever it is that it has nothing to say about. But it is not just the lament of a fatigued film scholar. It is a fundamental question of everything we do, whether at home, or at work, or out exercising, or engaging in politics, or scrolling through the Twitter feed. Not as a criticism of whatever it is we do in the given situation, as a variation on "Is this not really pointless?" but as a genuine wonder. "Why am I doing this? What do I hope to achieve by doing it?" We often do things just from habit, without thinking about it, and often not even necessarily taking much pleasure out of doing it, and in such situations asking ourselves that question might be a good way of breaking those habits that, even if they are not bad, might be a waste of time; time which might instead be spent on doing something that would actually give us pleasure. But asking ourselves that question when doing something that does give us pleasure might also be worthwhile, for example by making us more aware of how much pleasure it does give us, or, if we do it with a specific goal in mind, come up with ways of reaching that goal more efficiently. There is another aspect of the question too, in certain circumstances. Is what I am doing contributing to the greater good of society, to the world at large? More specifically, given the growing climate crisis, or climate emergency, am I doing what I can to minimise my role in the unfolding disaster? I think we in general need to consider, and re-consider, all that we do.


The other week I was reading an article by a well-known critic, in a well-known online publication, about a well-known classic film. The article had nothing new to say about the film, which is not surprising since it has been written about thousands of times over the last 60 years. What was the point of writing this new article? And what was the point of me reading it? I felt cheated.

The other day I read another article, by another writer, for another publication, about westerns, which had the exact same problems as the article about the classic. It had nothing new to say, and, like the above article, it merely enforced the conventional wisdom, regardless of whether that conventional wisdom was accurate or not. And I think it is safe to say that this is the case for much of what is being published. It is the perpetual reinvention of the wheel.

If you have absolutely nothing to add to the conversation, is it perhaps not better to not say anything? The counterargument might be that the writers got paid for it, and that this is the point of the articles. (Content created solely for monetary gain.) But if that is the only point to them, why were they commissioned? Somebody must have thought it interesting enough to pay money for it, however difficult it is to understand why.

Two obvious reasons for why there are so many pointless, or bad, or exploitative, articles published online is that the space for them is seemingly unlimited and people need money, and I think that this is a problem. Likewise in academia where you have to publish regularly, regardless of whether you have anything to say, because if you do not publish you will not get a raise, or a promotion, or maybe not even keep your job. The goal is to publish for the sake of publishing, not because you have anything to add to the sum of human knowledge or any other similar goal. Hence, we are saturated with bad and/or unnecessary writing, which is not only a drain on our reading capacity, but also part of the degradation of public life, and, as the internet is a major source of CO2 emissions, it is also bad for the environment.

I am myself guilty of this. While I try to write about things others do not write about, and to add something new to whatever I write, even if it is on overwritten subjects like Bergman and Hitchcock, I do not always succeed (my post from 2018 about Bergman's films from the 1940s was a failure in that regard). I am also debating with myself how often I should publish something on the blog. There were two reasons why I cut back from posting every week (as I did for many years) to every second week. One was that by posing less frequently it became easier to choose subjects more carefully, and the second reason was that until server centres are powered with green energy, they are bad for the environment, and each new post adds to the CO2 emissions. Maybe I should publish something only once a month?

But why do I write the blog at all? What is the point? It is because I have an insatiable desire to write, and I have had it since my pre-teen years. Since film is my main interest, and what I work with for a living, it follows that if I also write about film, I combine my two biggest interests, i.e. writing and film history. When it comes to writing, I am like Boris Lermontov and Victoria Page in The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger 1948):
Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Page: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why... But I must.
Page: That's my answer too.

But it is a concern that the writing, the use of a computer, the streaming of films, and so on, is a strain on the environment. (On that subject, here is an article in Nature, here is one in Quartz, and here one from BBC.) Which leads to another situation when it is good to ask what the point is: while watching something on a streaming service.

Some time ago I was watching one of those reality shows on Netflix about homes, houses, interior design and whatnot, and suddenly I felt a combination of bewilderment, disgust, and frustration. There was no point in watching it. It was not strictly speaking bad; it was just nothing. There were so many things I could have done instead of watching that unnecessary series, and most of them would be better for me, and give me more pleasure. Even cleaning the kitchen would be a better use of my time. By watching that series on Netflix, I was belittling myself, and in a way showing my subordination to something that I should not give in to. Much of the output on Netflix, and many other of these streaming services, are like that. Netflix, and not least Disney, have projected a disingenuous idea of themselves as providing convenience, relatability, and progressive values, and made it seem hip, politically correct, and self-evidently obvious, that you should be home and watch yet another episode of Young Wallander or The Mandalorian.

If you take great pleasure in watching whichever series you are watching, it is not a problem. Carry on watching. But if you struggle with giving a satisfying answer to the question "What is the point of watching this?" then I would suggest you do something else. Unless physically unable to, a long walk would for example be a good thing to do instead. And even if you do enjoy the series, taking a long walk is probably still the right thing to do.

You may also ponder whether a company that thinks like this is to be trusted as an owner and gatekeeper of contemporary cinema:

“Given the incredible success of Disney+ and our plans to accelerate our direct-to-consumer business, we are strategically positioning our company to more effectively support our growth strategy and increase shareholder value,” Mr. Chapek, who succeeded Robert A. Iger as chief executive in February, said in a statement. “Managing content creation distinct from distribution will allow us to be more effective and nimble in making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it.”


Contemporary life is politically precarious and ugly, and we are living through a climate disaster. We are also living our lives surrounded by the superfluous, constantly bombarded by it, force-fed it by way of our phones, tablets and computers, but also at conferences, meetings, team-building exercises, and all kinds of events to have come to be a regular part of daily life. I think these three things (the politics, the climate disaster, the superfluous) are connected, and that they are mutually reinforcing each other.

Since some months, I do no longer use my mobile phone for anything other than calling, texting, and checking vital things like time tables or two-factor authentication. I have been cutting back drastically on my usage of Facebook. I have cleansed my Twitter feed. I have unsubscribed to almost every newsletter I ever signed up for (and some I have no recollection of having signed up for). I have stopped watching mindless Netflix shows. All from the perspective of the question "What is the point of this?" I do not any longer want to waste my time on the superfluous.

Whereas we may feel helpless against the onslaught of racism and fascism, and the disappearance of the rainforest, the coral reefs, the bees, the polar ice caps, we can still take some control of our own private lives, cut back on the superfluous, and use that time to instead do some good in this world. And if not in order to save the world, then at least to feel better about ourselves.

Friday 2 October 2020

Felicity (1979)

The liberalisation of views, ideas, and laws, regarding sex and nudity in the 1960s and the 1970s affected different countries in different ways, and their responses and reactions varied. Given that it took place during at least two decades, it was not so much a revolution as evolution, but there was a global shift. This went from the benign, such as more relaxed views on public nudity or the availability of birth control, to more unsettling things such as discussions about whether to legalise paedophilia. What could be shown on film, and what was shown, also evolved. Swedish films like I am Curious Yellow (Jag är nyfiken gul, Vilgot Sjöman 1967), blended art, politics and explicit nudity in exhilarating ways, whereas the French made the box office phenomenon Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin 1974), which led to several sequels. These were (initially) soft-core erotic films where attractive people had sex in attractive locations, with plenty of nudity. Another French variation of the new possibilities of sex and nudity is to be found in the more surreal films of Walerian Borowczyk, such as The Beast (La bête 1975)before he too made a film in the Emmanuelle series, the fifth to be precise. In Denmark there was a famous type of films called gladporr, with titles such as Bedtime Mazurka (Mazurka på sengekanten, John Hilbard 1970). These had no artistic aspirations, nor had they got glossy cinematography and exotic locations. They are more farce-like. There are also the artistically advanced films, such as In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, Nagisa Oshima 1976). The films mentioned in this paragraph do not have anything in common other than showing explicit sex and nudity, but that is the point. They are examples of how, over a few years, what could be shown in mainstream cinemas had changed dramatically.

Australia also made its contributions to the era of soft-core erotic films, which are considerably less known. In my declared ambition to write more about the cinema of Australia, I felt compelled to investigate this genre too. The most famous Australian example, to the extent that "famous" is appropriate, is Felicity (John D. Lamond 1979). Lamond had previously made two sex-related documentaries, Australia After Dark (1975) and The ABC of Love and Sex (1978), but Felicity is a fiction feature film, inspired by Emmanuelle. Felicity is a young woman who leaves Australia and her Catholic boarding school, watched over by nuns, for a time of sexual discovery in Hong Kong. (Lamond claims he was inspired by Richard Quine's The World of Suzie Wong (1960), a rather different film.) She befriends a local woman, Jenny, who takes Felicity to all the sexual hot spots in Hong Kong, including the bar Bottoms Up, which also features in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton 1974). Felicity and Jenny naturally, in a film like this, also enjoy each other's bodies. Then one day Felicity meets a young Australian man, and falls in love with him, while still enjoying sex with others, including Jenny, when the mood strikes her.

Felicity meets Emmanuelle

It is in all aspects a very generic story, and without any particular qualities in terms of style or acting. The Canadian Glory Annen, as Felicity, is unable to muster much conviction, and does not speak with an Australian accent. The film has racist undertones of the alluring "Orient," and when Felicity falls in love it is not with a local man but with a white boy from her home country, after he saves her from some mean-looking Chinese men. In short, the film has little to recommend it. But that is also what makes it interesting. Few films are as much of their time as these 1970s soft-core erotic films. They could never have been made earlier, and they would never be made later for a mainstream audience, yet for a few years they were plentiful and very successful at the box office. That success was hardly because of the quality of the films, so the attraction must have been the full-frontal female nudity and sex scenes. In Felicity there is also briefly some male frontal nudity, when Felicity and her boyfriend go skinny-dipping, but whereas the women are showing it all in the sex scenes, any erect penises are out of bounds. I do not know if this was due to local censorship rules, or part of the general reluctance to show male genitalia. This is a general issue in cinema, the absent penis, and a topic in its own right. It sometimes seems as if the difference between a soft-core film and a hard-core film is whether it involves a visibly aroused male or not. There seems to be a general fear of the penis, especially in its erect form, outside regular pornography, which has not subsided. (Harvey Keitel is a rare exception. Jason Segel a brave exception.)

It is curious to think that Felicity and similar films were what people of the 1970s flocked to the cinemas to watch. It is a far cry from the polished virginal wholesomeness of Captain America that is dominating the cinemas these days, but I think Felicity has something else going for it. It is a film told from a woman's point of view, with her own voice-over narration, showing her discovery of her own body and embracing her sexuality, without guilt, pain (except when losing her virginity), remorse, or fear. The film is an unapologetic embrace of Erica Jong's "zipless fuck," who appropriately is name-checked in the film.

However, what is missing in the film is a sensual appreciation of the male body. Felicity likes to watch others, and she herself is sometimes watched by others. But whereas she looks at women or couples, never just at a naked man, she is on occasions observed by a man. She is aware, and returns the look, but the men who look at her are dressed and she is not. That is perhaps the most obvious gender imbalance in the film. Given her character, you would expect her to take great pleasure in just looking at a naked man, but in the film she is not given this opportunity, whereas men are frequently given the opportunity to look at her naked body. While she is given her own gaze, it is more restricted than the men's are. A reminder that sexual liberation does not automatically mean sexual equality.

Friday 18 September 2020

Alice et le mairie (2019)

The world is an exhaustive place, for far too many reasons to mention here, but you know them anyway. It often feels like the word that best describes our current situation is "unhinged" and ugly politics invade every sphere. Nuances are left behind and screaming at your opponent has for many become the honourable thing to do, even though it is dumb and unproductive. Films and film criticism are infected by it as well, and the Outraged Hot Take Industrial Complex (OHTIC) is mass-producing articles on the "problematics" of this or that film. There is a general hysteria about many films, certain titles that "everybody" is talking about, endlessly tweeting about, and the OHTIC is writing about, occasionally before the films have even premiered. All of this is exhausting and dispiriting, and rarely has much to do with the actual films in question.

Yet most films are hardly ever talked about at all, they are just there. This has nothing to do with quality or relevance, as they can be just as good or bad as the ones I mentioned above. But I still prefer them, because they are easier to experience and engage with on their own terms, without having been contaminated by tweeter feuds and headlines.

Such a film is Alice et le mairie (Nicolas Pariser 2019), which is unknown outside France, and excellent. It is also political, in a nuanced and measured way. (In France this type of film is called comédie politique.) It is about Alice Heimann (played by Anaïs Demoustier), a young, former teacher in philosophy at Oxford University who is lured back to France to work with Paul Théraneau, the mayor of Lyon, played by Fabrice Luchini. The mayor has been in politics for decades and has lost his passion and his sense of purpose, yawning his way through endless meetings about mundane topics. Politics has to a large extent been turned into marketing, and the mayoral office resembles a PR firm. Everything is either bureaucratic process (which is necessary) or shallow jargon and clichés (which are not). But he is hoping that Alice will bring new ideas and fresh perspectives as she is not a politician but an academic and a philosopher. (She protests though, insisting that she is not a philosopher, she teaches philosophy.) In this she succeeds, and she is steadily promoted, which makes the other members of the mayor's staff jealous, upset, unhappy, and angry.

That is the main thrust of the film, the smaller story is the office politics and the larger story is whether the mayor will regain his political passion. It is beautifully acted, filled with intelligent dialogue, and understated comedy. (After a political setback, one of the mayor's closest advisers says "I shall go and work on my CV. That always calms me down.") It is shot and acted in a naturalistic way, the kind that makes if feel at times like a documentary. 

Beyond that, there is an ongoing discussion in the film, either explicitly in the dialogue or implicitly in what is happening, about contemporary politics and especially the position of the moderate left (socialists in a French context). What do they want today? Which issues should they address? Which tone should they strike? How should they deal with the increasing extremism in either side, but especially on the far right? Are they obsolete in today's political situation? Maybe a green approach is one way of finding a new purpose?

One thing Alice manages to impress on the mayor is that all this jargon, these slick campaigns, sloganeering, and focus group-based thinking, is part of the problem. She is advocating a focus on modesty and sincerity, which is the opposite of what she experiences in City Hall. (An embarrassing Skype meeting with a hot entrepreneur called Patrick Brac is a highlight in the film.) Alice is instead using George Orwell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others to get her message across. Orwell's line "Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality." (from his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn") is one that resonates with Alice.

A character that emerges as a spokesperson for some of the ideas of the film is a book printer. He is running the last manual book printing press in Lyon, although it is financially difficult to keep it going. He applied for public funding but was told that the future is digital. He argues that this goes against the outspoken idea from city officials about preserving history. As he says, is about more than putting on a show for tourists, it is also about preserving things from the past and keeping traditions alive. The film is good at pointing out that we need to both remember, and sometimes preserve, the past, while also come up with new ideas and solutions for contemporary problems. And the book printer's thoughts are enough to make Alice to start dating him. But then he too disappoints. That is one of the problems in this world, that people are too absorbed in their own agendas and perspectives. Alice, as an academic who is also in politics, has to listen to her academic friends belittle politicians and her politician friends belittle academics.

Eventually the mayor and Alice have a chance to take their ideas to a larger scale than just Lyon, all the way to Palais de l'Élysée, but it does not quite happen. We are left with a question of why, and what the mayor is waiting for. Did he lose his nerve? Is that a metaphor for the European left? The film ends with Alice giving him a present, Melville's Bartleby, with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. That can be interpreted in various ways, and like the film, I leave you with that image.

I also want to recommend something to read. A long essay by Oliver Burkeman about how politics and news exhaust us, and that it is a bad thing to try to keep yourself constantly updated about all that is going on:

Friday 4 September 2020

Niagara (1953)

Niagara (Henry Hathaway 1953) never fails to dazzle me. What is remarkable about it is how extremely stylised it is, in every way, from how people walk and talk, to how it looks. It is an exercise in pure form, and it looks incredible, as if Edward Hopper, David Hockney and Salvador Dalí had a love child together. The fact that it is shot on location around the Niagara Falls does not add realism but instead adds to the sense of formalism and surrealism. Hathaway, and the cinematographer Joe MacDonald, clearly relished the chance to go all abstraction. A murder in the Rainbow Tower is one of the most visually audacious sequences in American cinema. (This is where Dalí comes in.) 

The fact that the story, a young happy couple on a delayed honeymoon at the Falls becoming entangled with the disturbed, homicidal couple in the next cabin, is both coherent and plausible within this hermetic world makes the film even more remarkable.

Marilyn Monroe and Jean Peters play the leads, with Joseph Cotten and Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) playing their husbands. Showalter plays a naive, childish character, almost a parody of the all-American boy-next-door with his career the only thing on his mind. His wife is more mature and the story is partly told through her eyes. The two marriages, one appealingly, if not annoyingly, cheerful and the other dark and sinister, built on resentment and jealousy, make a good contrast.

Hathaway wanted James Mason in the part now played by Cotten ("There's nothing erotic about Joe Cotten." he said) but, according to Hathaway, Mason's daughter did not want him to do yet another film where daddy died, so Mason declined the role. Working with Monroe was difficult, but Hathaway seemed to have got on well with her, and felt protective of her and alarmed by how lonely she was, and without professionals to support her. (Barbara Leaming, in her Monroe biography, says he "became a teddy bear" with her.) She was nervous and self-conscious, so on some occasions Hathaway filmed the rehearsals without telling her, because she was more relaxed then, and used that material in the film.

In Hathaway's oeuvre there is no other film like this one, but then there are few films quite like it in anyone's oeuvre. A feverish dream, where things are distilled into pure emotions and pure colours.

Hathaway's thoughts come from Henry Hathaway, the interview book with Polly Platt from 2001, and Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director (2016) by Harold N. Pomainville. Barbara Leaming's Marilyn Monroe: A Biography is from 1998.

Friday 21 August 2020


Genres are often perceived to be rigid, predictable, ideologically pernicious, and associated with commercial mainstream. "Put simply, genre movies are those commercial feature films which, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations." is the opening phrase of Barry Keith Grant's book Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology, and it is a good example of the conventional wisdom regarding genres.

Yet genres are in reality wonderfully fluid, malleable and flexible, and can contain everything from derivative mainstream sequels to great films at the height of what the art form is capable of. This gap between a perceived idea and the reality is apparent both among scholars and the ordinary viewer. 

The problems with much of genre theory, or discussions of genre in general, are the same as with much else within film studies/criticism: it is rarely based on that complicated reality but on ideal types, and often founded on a lack of awareness of the historical nuances, developments and complexities of the subject being studied. To borrow a quote from Jason Mittell, many "scholars seem content to take genres at face value, using the labels that are culturally commonplace without giving much consideration to the meanings or usefulness of those labels." In this article I want to point out some of the difficulties with genres, and why the ways they are frequently seen and discussed are unsatisfying.


The basic problem is that the common belief that we can easily define and specify genres is wrong. We can not, because, being made up by us, they are subjective. Therefore, there is no consensus about what constitutes a given genre, or which films should be counted as belonging to a given genre. To give a seemingly trivial example: once in a video store I overheard two teenage girls talking in front of the horror section, and one of them said, outraged, "Why is that film in the horror section?!?! It is not a horror film!" Her friend though it was. That is the reality of the situation. As soon as you try to define a genre it slips away, and the arbitrariness of it becomes apparent. Another example: is Fort Apache (John Ford 1948) a western or a war movie? Or does it not belong to a particular genre? Or is it a cavalry film, as a distinct genre that is neither a western nor a war movie. There is no correct answer to these questions, because it entirely depends upon how the person answering it has chosen to define either of those categories. Or compare She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford 1949) and The Gunfighter (Henry King 1950). They are both routinely referred to as westerns, and that is understandable, but do they have anything in common, whether in terms of narrative, aesthetics, themes, or characters? Is not the only thing they have in common, other than being non-animated, feature-length, fiction films, that they are set some time towards the end of the 19th century? You could make a film on the same script as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but change the setting to, say British India in the 1920s, or far in the future at some distant planet. It would tell the same story yet not be called a western then.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Thomas Schatz writes about the "deep structure, those rules and conventions which render this film a Western and that film a musical." but I do not believe that such rules and general conventions exist. The reason a musical is called a musical is because the characters sing in it in a context in which people would not sing in the real world. But that is neither a rule nor a convention (any less than being green is a rule or convention for a green apple) but a banal necessity needed for those films to be called musicals. While there are conventions in musicals, as there are in most things in life, there are no uniform conventions for all musicals. Different kinds of musicals have different kinds of conventions, just as musicals from different eras or decades have different conventions, and musicals from different studios have different conventions, musicals from different countries have different conventions, and musicals by different directors or choreographers or actors have different conventions. And there are no rules. Your musical can look, feel or move any which way. It can be upbeat or sad; it can be progressive or reactionary; it can be fast-paced or slow; it can be serious or playful; songs might be integrated or free-standing. Sometimes a film is made as a musical, but then released without the songs, as a non-musical; sometimes a film is written as a musical but the director ignores that, and refuses to do the song and dance numbers, so it ends up as a non-musical. But the only difference is that they have no songs.

Another difficulty is that there are so many films, most of which are forgotten, and for there to be a theory that explains or defines a genre, it must cover the genre in all its historic appearances, all of these forgotten films from past decades. Another complication is that a lot of older films do not belong to genres that we talk of today, or to genres that have been forgotten. If you look at the top-grossing Hollywood films of the 1930s, many of them cannot be categorised by using our contemporary genres. It instead happens that older films are today placed into genres that did not exist back then, when they were considered as part of some other genre, or not of any genre, but instead considered as part of a cycle for example, like the journalist films of the 1930s, or the same decade's prison films. What, by the way, is the difference between a genre and a cycle. Does a cycle become a genre when it has been going on long enough?

A famous conundrum is film noir. As is well-known, it was not something that existed in the 1940s when the films that today are considered film noirs were made, and they were then instead referred to as all kinds of different genres: detective stories, thrillers, melodramas, spy films, action films, and so on. While some French critics began writing about what they called "film noir" in the late 1940s, they were using it in a slightly different way then how it is being done now, and it was not until the early 1970s that all of these films suddenly became film noirs in the modern sense. A pioneer was Paul Schrader and his article "Notes on Film Noir" from 1972, in which he tried to explain what it was, and how it had evolved from 1941 to 1958. But whether there was an evolution of film noir was dependent upon which films he choose to refer to as such. Laura (Otto Preminger 1944) is clearly different from Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich 1955), but that might as well be because only one of them is a film noir, or neither is. One of the few things that are consistent regarding film noir is the fact that there is no consensus at all about which films qualify as noir. This is not strange though, but, as Steve Neale has pointed out, it is inevitable: "as a concept film noir seeks to homogenize a set of distinct and heterogeneous phenomena; this inevitably generates contradictions, exceptions and anomalies and is doomed, in the end, to incoherence."

What is interesting about film noir is that hundreds of films from the 1940s and 1950s are nowadays included under that term, yet it is not a genre, and few claim that it is. (Schrader emphasised that it is not.) This means that a large bulk of what is now remembered from Hollywood of the 1940s and 1950s are without a proper genre, as they are defined and discussed today.

Given all of this, it is no surprise that almost all attempts to present a coherent theory of a genre or genres are flawed from the beginning. Whoever has developed a theory has chosen to include some films and exclude some others, either out of ignorance or deliberately in order for the theory to work. Many thousands of films have been made that are considered westerns, and you are inevitably going to have to narrow it down a lot, but the 10 or 20 films you have chosen to build your grand theory on are not enough. At best, your theory will be valid for those films, but not for westerns in general. (I say at best, because something like Will Wright's famous and influential Sixguns and Society (1975), does not even work for the small sample he has chosen to focus on.)

An obvious risk is that if the claim about a certain genre is that it is rigid and rule-bound, you can only include films that are rigid and rule-bound, and where does that take us? You may well define westerns as films that always exhibit traits A, B, C, and D, and then criticise westerns for being an inferior genre as it only relies on the traits A, B, C, and D, and make ideological hay out of that, but to what extent we have learned something by this is unclear. The flaw is not in the genre westerns, in all their manifold representations, but in your chosen definitions of it. 

This aspect of definitions is central to genre theory, yet it too often is the case that the person writing about a certain genre is not explaining how they define it but seemingly assumes that we all define things the same way, even though we do not. Some are loose and open in their definitions, and others are very strict and narrow. If your theory requires a narrow understanding of the subject for which you have developed the theory, considering it in some pure state in which it never existed, you are setting yourself up for tautology. 


So far I have only spoken of some genres in relation to Hollywood, which is the way it is usually done. But why is that? Brazilian, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Swedish, Italian cinema, and others, can also be discussed from generic perspectives if one wants to do so, in the same way Hollywood is discussed. That would also add some needed perspectives to the field, because it would give rise to questions like whether for example neorealism is a genre. It is not treated as such, yet it is easier to define and specify than most of the American genres, and the films have recurring tropes and traits. Considering the fact that many critics and historians have referred to various films from other countries than Italy as being neorealist, it would seem that they might be open to calling it a genre. Or is it merely a style? Another Italian kind of film is giallo. Is that a genre? Is it derivative of Hollywood genres or its own homegrown thing? (I need not take that discussion though because Alexia Kannas already has.)

Genre is often said to be the opposite of art, and to exist only in mainstream cinema, but that is to have a very narrow view of art, and also to believe that a lot of literature and music, including Shakespeare and Mozart, is not art. Some of the world's best filmmakers make/made genre films and many of the best films are genre films. It would be a strange art form of its greatest examples were not to be considered art. The claim that genre equals mainstream (as Grant does in the quote above) is also a dead end. To take two obvious example, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick worked within genres. You might disagree that they made genre films, but then you need to re-define for example war films and science fiction, so that when they make them they are no longer genre films, only when others make them. (Nancy Meyers's The Intern (2015) is a mainstream film yet less of a genre film than Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972).) Another example is Yasujiro Ozu. He is not considered mainstream yet he was working within established genres. Or is Ozu to be considered as an example of mainstream cinema, albeit within the Japanese context?

Considering the inevitability of such questions, I often wonder if we do not needlessly waste a considerable amount of ink and time because of our abstruse need to think of cinema, and most things in life, in crude binary terms, and mistake our subjective idealisations for some larger truth.


Genres exist, and they can be interesting to talk about, and production companies, filmmakers, scholars, and the regular viewer, refer to genres on a daily basis. But it is rare for those references to acknowledge the complexity and vagueness of the reality. Genres are hardly what we say they are. This does not matter much when choosing a film at the video store, but scholars and historians should thread more carefully, or else their work risk becoming pointless.


Schrader's influential article about film noir was published in 1972, which, as it happens, was also the year Thomas Elsaesser's even more influential article "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama" was first published. Just as the contemporary understanding of film noir to a large extent comes from Schrader's article, so a contemporary understanding of melodrama in films comes from Elsaesser, even though he cautious the reader that "what I want to say should at this stage be taken to be provocative rather than proven."


Elsaesser, Thomas, (1972) "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama" published in Monogram, No. 4, 1972.

Grant, Barry Keith, (2007) Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology. (He must like the sentence I quoted because he has opened other books with it too.)

Kannas, Alexia, (2017) “All the colours of the dark: Film genre and the Italian giallo” published in Journal of Italian Cinema & Media Studies, Vol. 5 Issue 2, March 2017.

Mittell, Jason, (2001) "A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory" published in Cinema Journal, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring 2001.

Neale, Steve, (2000) Genre and Hollywood.

Schatz, Thomas, (1981) Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System.

Schrader, Paul, (1972) "Notes on Film Noir" published in Film Comment, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1972.

Wright, Will, (1975) Sixguns and Society - A Structural Study of the Western.

Friday 7 August 2020

The Intern (2015)

One of my favourite films of the last 10 years is The Intern (Nancy Meyers 2015). It is a film that gives me great pleasure, and that I find very moving. Nancy Meyers is to many something of a joke (and when praised, it is frequently for the spacious and luxurious apartments in her films) but I have seen all her films and I like them all, although I do not remember much of The Parent Trap (1998), which I have never re-watched. But The Intern is different, and much better than the others. There are several reasons for this, but let me first marvel at how unhip it is. There is no sex, no violence, no slapstick, no cynicism, no shock-value, no drama, no sign-posting of "important message". It is just a confident piece of mature filmmaking, made with love and tenderness. 

The story is that Ben Whittaker, a 70-something man, retired and a widower, finds it difficult to find meaning in his life, and when he sees an ad for a company seeking senior citizen interns, he applies, and he gets the position. The company is a new upstart that sells clothes online. It was started by Jules Ostin, a woman in her 30s, and she remains the boss. But the stress and strain of the work means she is on the edge of hitting the wall, and her marriage and family life are suffering. She has trouble sleeping and she does not eat enough. The dichotomy is clear. He is an old man, patient, calm, quiet, with set routines and very little to do; she is a young-ish woman, impatient, stressed, all over the place and with too much to do. They are played to perfection by Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.

That is the first reason for why I like the film so much, the acting. Delicate, nuanced, genuine, and perfectly believable. Hathaway is not unknown to play such a character, but to see De Niro is such a part, as a calm, stable, serious, genuinely good, non-threatening, person, is unusual. (I am not saying he never has played such a part, only that it is not a typical role.) 

Another reason is how good the film looks; it positively glows. The cinematographer is Stephen Goldblatt, an old hand at this. He has previously worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher and Mike Nichols, so this is comparatively mundane, stylistically, but he makes every space shine, to look warm and comforting, which is a central part of Meyers's general style. Feng shui cinema.

That was the craft of the film. But I also like what it is about and how it deals with the issues it has set up. 

Ben (De Niro) is old-school and out of date, he is celebrated but as something from the past, whereas Jules (Hathaway) is the present. Ben becomes a hero for the young people at the office, a mentor and father-figure. With his professionalism and unassuming manner, he brings stability and organisation to the company. But he could not run it as he is like a stranger in the modern world, unfamiliar with the internet and with computers. It is Jules's company, and it is her world now. But the argument in the film is that we need both past and present in order to make for a better future. Ben can be a celebrated and important person, even though he firmly remains of the past, and has to give way to younger generations, and part of the reason why he is heroic is precisely because he willingly gives way. He does not try to impose himself, and he does not feel any kind of resentment to being replaced by the young ones, or women.

This passing of the torch is underlined in one of the best scenes of the film, one of its most moving moments. Ben and Jules are working late, and she asks where he worked before he retired. He tells about his job, and eventually it becomes clear that the office he used to work in was located in the same building in which they are now. His former company made telephone books, and had the whole building. But telephone books are no longer needed, so the company is gone, and Jules's online shop has taken over the building. He then points to a spot in the building and he says that that is where his desk used to be, by the window. It is an understated, beautiful scene, which always makes me cry, and which also encapsulates a key theme in the film. Change is inevitable, time moves on, and we need to change and adapt with it.

One interesting aspect of the film is its lack of closure. The main conflict and arc in the film is whether Jules should let go of her role as the boss of her company, and hire a CEO. As mentioned above, she works too much and the stress is palpable. Yet she is reluctant to let someone else come in and take over. In the end, partly thanks to Ben's support, she decides against it and will carry on herself, like before. But this means that she is back where she was when the film began. The workload and strain remain the same. She has neither gained nor lost anything by the end of the film, regarding work. Ben on the other hand has gained a lot. New friends, a new purpose, and a new love interest (played by Rene Russo). But Jules wants to take that gamble. She made this company, and she needs to stay with it. What she has to do is to manage her time better, and delegate more. There is no clear suggestion in the end of the film that she will do so, but since she leaves the office in the last scene, and joins Ben in his tai chi class, it might be assumed that she will at least make an effort to calm down.

Meyers's other films are romantic comedies but this is not that. Instead it is a drama, and instead being about romantic couples, it is about a friendship across generations, moving and beautiful. Films about two people becoming friends are in general a rare thing, which is a shame, but The Intern shows how to do it. It is a meeting between two people who, even though they did not know it, needed each other, and who build their friendship out of a deep respect for the other person. This is a special kind of love. I mentioned above one specific scene that was the peak of the theme of time passing, and one generation taking over from another. There is also a scene that is the peak of their friendship, and that is when they go to San Francisco for a business meeting, and during the night they have a talk about their lives. She says that her one big fear in life is to die alone, and not being buried with someone else, and he says that she can be buried in the same grave as he and his wife. The wife is already there, but there is plenty of room. That scene too always makes me cry.


I love The Intern, as might be clear already, but it has some weaknesses. I let Manohla Dargis point them out:
The table [a place in the office which is messy and disorganised] is a silly, lazy screenwriting contrivance, and it says more about Ms. Meyers’s conflicted ideas about powerful women than it conveys anything interesting about Jules. A successful Hollywood director like Ms. Meyers, for starters, would never have gotten this far and with a number of hits to her name if she had been afraid of telling other people what to do. But Ms. Meyers has some distinct ideas about women, work and power, and so she piles on the issues: Jules is chronically late to meetings, among other sins, although that seems to be because she likes riding slowly through the office on her bicycle. The bike suggests that she’s a nonconformist, although the neat rows of her pretty, young, overwhelmingly white employees doing something in front of their computers suggest otherwise.
There are some other things in the writing that are questionable too (such as the character Becky, Jules's assistant), but these things do not matter all that much to me. 

The dominating kind of film of the last decade or so has been superhero films, which purports to be about heroism, leadership, and sacrifice. But none of them can compete with the quiet heroism and genuine leadership that is celebrated in The Intern; a hymn to ordinariness and basic human decency and kindness.