Friday 27 March 2020

Nostalgia and scarcity

When I was a teenager, I was in love with the second and the third of the Indiana Jones films. But I had never seen the first, Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg 1981). Then one day when I was checking the new TV-guide for which films would be shown on Swedish television over Christmas (I have forgotten which year this was), I saw that Raiders... was to be shown on Boxing Day, i.e. December 26. Imagine my excitement. When I wrote the list of what I wanted for Christmas, I topped it by writing I wanted us to be home on the evening of the 26th so I could watch it.

Today when the whole world is practising social distancing and staying at home, one of the things people are doing is enjoying all the streaming services that are sending films and series to our computers and TV sets. I do it too, although somewhat unexpectedly I am mainly watching Jay Leno's Garage on YouTube. But this abundance of moving images delivered in our homes reminded me of that Christmas memory, when things were not just available at the click of a button. These last two weeks when I have been spending most days almost entirely in my apartment, I have been unusually nostalgic about my teenage film watching habits.


I often wonder to what extent this constant abundance makes films and series less powerful, meaningful, and special for "content consumers" of today. Nobody has to write on their Christmas present wish list that they want to be home a particular time because it will be their only chance of watching a particular film, and I think that this is a valuable and special aspect of the appreciation of art, of our relationship to it, that might have going missing. Even though it is a myth, frequently repeated, that all is available all the time (it really is not, so please stop saying that), it is true that what is available is incomparably easier to get access to today than before. Netflix has less variety of good things than a good video store had in the 1990s, but I had to go to the video store to get my hands on the films; they did not come to my apartment by themselves.

But that effort, and the fact that you had to wait for things, that things were not instantly available, and might not be available for weeks or months or even years, was also part of the experience. And it added to that experience. If you have to travel to a specific place to get the thing you want, it will have a meaning and a value that will be missing in something that is just automatically there, without any effort. The previous way of watching TV, of each Monday at 20:00 watch the new episode of your favourite TV-series, and only then, was an important part of the experience. The current ritual of bingeing on the whole series during one weekend is something completely different. It might be convenient and fun, but I am not at all convinced that this is a good thing. It satisfies our impatient appetites, but it makes us greedy and jaded. The widespread issue of piracy, of watching films (or series, or reading books and magazines and so on) without paying for it is the most extreme example of this. Lots of people think that they are entitled to anything they want, whenever, and without paying for it. But nobody has such a right. Even though some talk about pirated films as if it was Samizdat literature, demanding that any given film is available to you just this minute is not subversive but spoiled and egocentric. It is another example of how unsustainable our current world is, its fractured and fragile social and financial structures. Everything at once at low or no cost is something people in the richer parts of the world have come to expect and demand, and that is not a good thing, because it devalues everything. It also adds to the increased strain on the environment; it accelerates the commodification of private (personal) information; and it undermines the global economy by making jobs less stable and a few internet companies overbearingly powerful and corrupt.


It is often said that nostalgia is inherently conservative or reactionary. I do not agree. A refugee from a civil war who is feeling nostalgic for her life before war broke out is not reactionary, and, on a very different scale, me feeling nostalgic over a particular aspect of my childhood is not reactionary either. It does not mean that I think the world was better then, or that I was happier. It just means that I fondly remember one small thing, regardless of the world at large. Nostalgia is not good or bad, in support of one -ism or another, or by default a wish to return to a mythical past. It completely depends on what you do with it, and what you are nostalgic about. Nostalgia can be reactionary, but it can also be a progressive catalyst for necessary change.

This belief that nostalgia is inherently reactionary is probably based on an idea of constant progress, but it is clearly not the case that everything is getting consistently better. Some things get better, some things get worse, and it is always difficult in the moment to know in which direction things are moving on a more general plane.


It might seem peculiar to feel nostalgic over scarcity, over a time when films were less immediately accessible, but since it ties in with so many other things that are wrong with the world as it is today, my memory of putting a desire to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on my Christmas wish-list suddenly became a powerful metaphor for me.

The point is of course not that we should all stop streaming and instead sit around waiting for our favourite film to magically appear. That streamship has sailed, to muddle the metaphors. But what we should at least do is pay for what we watch, and pay for what we read, and acknowledge the people who work hard to provide these films, series, books, newspapers and journals. If a person is not willing to sacrifice something (money, time, or effort) for the thing they watch or read, it must mean that the thing has no value for them. And if it has no value, why watch it?

The original definition of nostalgia has nowadays been more or less forgotten. But it used to refer to feelings of homesickness so powerful it could make you physically ill.

Samizdat refers to the way citizens in East European communist dictatorships were secretly circulating books that were banned by the state.

Some forms of piracy are valid. For example, medical professionals who lack the financial muscles to subscribe to the good journals might illicitly download an article or paper they need to better treat patients. But that is obviously not comparable to a wish to instantly watch a new film for free.

A few words about Jay Leno's Garage might be in order. I found the show by accident the other day, but it is tailor-made for me (except for Leno's tiresome references to wives allegedly being anti-car) since Leno loves the same kind of cars I love, and the cheerful enthusiasm of the show is right now very appealing to me. While I watched an episode focused on a new Aston Martin, I have been mainly drawn to the episodes that looks at older cars, such as Volvo P1800, Saab 93, Jaguar XK120, Jaguar XKSS and Chevrolet Corvette 1957. A kind of nostalgia too in a way, for a kind of older design and craft that I love.

I used to have several model cars on display, but now I have only one. This type of Jaguar, but green.

Friday 20 March 2020

The Rains Came (1939)

The general level of craft, of the abilities of the technicians, set designers, cinematographers, and such, in Hollywood in the late 1930s is something that continues to amaze me. Not just the big, famous legendary films, but in general. Many films hardly remembered and even less watched can have the most spectacular designs, lighting and special effects. (Check out Lloyd's of London (Henry King 1936) for an example of an unknown film.) I was reminded of this yet again when I re-watched The Rains Came (Clarence Brown 1939).

I have read the book by Louis Bromfield, maybe 20 years ago. I do not remember the plot in detail but I remember the feeling of the book, and how I wrote down some paragraphs because I liked them so much. That I bought the book was inevitable once I saw it in a second hand book store because it combined two passions I had then: novels set in British India, and novels published by Penguin in a particular design. (This naturally means I also have plenty of novels by John Masters.)

But the film and the book are two different things and I am not interested in comparing them. This is about the film, adapted by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson. It is set in (fictional) Ranchipur in India in 1938. The main characters are Tom Ransome, a cynical British/American painter, brandy-drinker and womaniser, primarily rotting away; Major Rama Safti, an Indian doctor who is the protégé of the Maharajah, and a close friend of Ransome; and Edwina Esketh, a rich, spoiled, married American woman. She suddenly appears with her husband, and while she is married, she tries to re-enact her previous affair with Ransome, until she falls in love with Safti. There are several other characters: a young woman who falls in love with Ransome; the Maharajah and the Maharani; Edwina Esketh's boorish husband and his man servant; a friendly married couple who live close to Ransome. But Ransome, Esketh and Safti is the main trio. And it is a great cast. George Brent plays Ransome, Myrna Loy plays Esketh, Tyrone Power plays Safti. The latter is of course a sensitive issue, as Power is not Indian but is wearing makeup to look like he is. But it is a fine, dignified performance and the character is unequivocally the hero of the story. Brent is perfect as Ransome, a man with a constant bemused detachment towards everything and everybody, and Loy is exquisite and strangely believable. Here she does romance, wise-cracks, anomie, and spiritual awakening with equal conviction.

Among the side characters, Nigel Bruce plays Edwina's husband, Jane Darwell and Henry Travers play the friendly neighbours (that is a lovely pair) and Maria Ouspenskaya plays the Maharani, in a magnificent performance. She is wise, witty, penetrating, old, tired and ruthless, and all this in an old, tiny, frail body.

The film at first seems to be about the social lives of the spoiled classes. But halfway through comes the disaster. The rain season begins, which everybody has been waiting for, but then an earthquake ruins the city and makes a huge dam collapse. Ranchipur is completely flooded and the rains are no longer welcome. The flooding leads to a cholera outbreak, an epidemic. This is when a major theme of the story suddenly emerges: how flawed characters can be redeemed in times of absolute crisis and despair. In this catastrophe there are no villains and cowards, but two kinds of characters. Those that die and those that step up and shoulder the new responsibilities. There is something particularly poignant about that message in our current moment of crisis and despair.

Besides the cast, the main attraction of the film is the way it looks, which is absolutely spectacular. The cinematography by Arthur Miller is filled with so much texture, patterns and beauty. Sometimes it feels like every drop of water has been lit individually. The set design is equally remarkable. The houses, the gardens, the city, the dam, the palace, all of it meticulous and imaginative. This is a piece of India that looks simultaneously completely fake and completely authentic. Few films of the Hollywood studio era look as exceptional as The Rains Came.

Safti and the Maharani

The weak part of the film is Brenda Joyce as Fern Simon, the young woman who falls in love with Ransome. Both the character and her acting are close to intolerable. The other weak spot is that there are several scenes when a character holds a monologue, which almost feels like a sermon. Several of the main characters have such scenes, but it is only the Maharani, or Maria Ouspenskaya, who makes if feel natural and genuine. Once when Ransome gives such a sermon, Lady Esketh makes fun of him, and I wish Clarence Brown had been as sceptical about those moment as she was.

And where is Brown, the director, in all of this? The technical accomplishments are not his responsibilities, and Arthur Miller is one of the best cinematographers; capable of greatness and a particular look regardless of who was the director. The editor Barbara McLean should also be mentioned. And The Rains Came is in many ways a quintessential Darryl F. Zanuck production, including the expensive production qualities. But the acting, the inventiveness of scenes of romance (the first, long, sequence with Ransome and Lady Esketh is wonderful and perfect) and death, and the fluid camera movements, are among the things we can attribute to Brown. This theme of pride and sacrifice, of noble deaths and a spiritual take on suffering, and a strong emphasis on local atmosphere, are things that recur in his oeuvre. But I need to watch more of his work before I say anything more. (Of what I have seen, Intruder in the Dust (1949) is the best, and I wrote about it here before.)

What remains the most memorable thing in the film though is the introduction of Myrna Loy and her character. She has her back towards us, and then Brown has her turn her head into a closeup of her face. And what a turn and what a closeup it is.

Before their world collapsed

Conventionally, this post would be up next Friday but these are not conventional times. In times of lock-down and social distancing I might as well write and post as the mood strikes me.

Saturday 14 March 2020

Fellini and/or Lean

In my early twenties my favourite filmmaker was David Lean, and I felt bad about this at times because Lean was not someone you were supposed to like. The critics and writers whom I treasured all seemed to dislike him. At the same time, I did not like Fellini's films. I felt bad about this too, because it seemed he was somebody I should like, if I knew what was good for me. At one point, I mentioned this to my brother, how I could clearly see how Fellini's films were personal expressions of his unique individuality but I did not like them whereas I loved all of Lean's films yet did not see the same unique individuality, and in my understanding of the art of cinema, it was the Fellini's one should love. My brother had no understanding of this problem, and asked whether Lean's films were not as personal as Fellini's. I said yes and he replied. "Well, then." Indeed. Well, then.

Doctor Zhivago (David Lean 1965)

It is probably still the case that Lean is my favourite filmmaker, but Fellini has grown on me, even though there are not many of his films I consider great. This however is not the point, but the point is that it is so easy to be influenced by the views of others. Thinking now about my struggles concerning Lean vs. Fellini, I feel almost ashamed and sympathise with my brother's dismissal of my concerns. And yet, I cannot completely shake free of such thoughts. Not about Lean and Fellini but in other circumstances. I did not like either Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino 2019) or Little Women (Greta Gerwig 2019) all that much, and this puzzled me because they had got such overwhelmingly great reviews by many critics I like and trust. Maybe I had not really understood their greatness? I watched Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood again, a few weeks later, but felt the same thing. There are many things I dislike, especially how many scenes are too emphatic and on the nose, and how it is structured, and how it is weird that Tarantino seems to dismiss and make fun of the films Rick Dalton makes, even though Tarantino loves such films, including 1970s Italian genre cinema. With Little Women it was mainly the awful, unbearable music score by Alexandre Desplat that ruined the film for me. I was also put off by the acting style, which felt incoherent and, as with Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, too emphatic. Both films felt over-directed. But I have not read any thoughtful negative criticism of either film, and this makes me feel, still, that I am missing something. (I added the word "thoughtful" because I have of course read negative criticism of them both, but written from a position of either wilful ignorance or arrogance.)

I do not think I will be persuaded; my feelings are what they are and I trust my judgement, but I still want to know more about reasons of others. I always do. It might be that they for example agree with me on some of my criticism, but either do not mind or thinks it is part of the strength of the film. It can sometimes be that two people agree about a certain aspect of a film, like the acting being over the top, but for one it is part of what is good about the film whereas the other cannot stand it.


To get back to being swayed, or deeply influenced by others. Something I find annoying, or sometimes disturbing, is when people seemingly base their own judgement of films or filmmakers on what their favourite critics think. I have for example experienced this many times with fervent readers of Andrew Sarris. When I have mentioned a certain film or filmmaker, they have responded by saying variations of "Well, Andrew Sarris did not like him." as if this meant that the case was closed and I had been proven wrong. They did not speak out of personal experience of said filmmaker, they based their beliefs on Sarris. This often happens with film scholars too. I say something or ask someone what they believe, and they reply by quoting maybe Bazin or Deleuze or Mulvey or Gunning or Bordwell, or, heaven forbid, Althusser, as if this was the final word or the truth of the matter. "We now know, thanks to Barthes and Foucault..." No, we do not know, other than what they believed, and I did not ask what they thought, I asked what you thought.

There is a certain kind of filmmaker, the likes of Fred Zinnemann, Carol Reed, William Wyler and George Stevens, whom a lot of people diminish and dismiss. They are said to be among the makers of "white elephant art", as Manny Farber phrased it; boring, self-righteous and unimaginative. They are among those of whom people might say "Well, Sarris did not like him." Neither did David Thomson. Those today who do not like them will often also invoke that alleged purveyor of middle-brow taste, Bosley Crowther at The New York Times, because if he liked their films, this, in a case of reverse engineering, proves that they are not any good. My point here is not to do with the merits of these filmmakers, although I happen to love three of those four mentioned here (the one I do not love is Stevens, although I am not denying his intelligence, imagination and personal style). My point is that it is from a personal investigation into the work itself that you should base your preferences and form your opinions, not based on what others think. You may like or dislike Zinnemann or Buñuel, or Lean or Fellini, as much as you wish, but if it is not coming from arguments from the films, but from what others have said about them, you are doing them a disfavour.

Besides, critics change their minds, and they often have more complex views to begin with than they are given credit for. The most embarrassing people are those who have neither engaged with the films in question nor with the critic they are using as alleged proof of their own sound opinions. I often wonder how they deal with filmmakers who are not in Sarris's book The American Cinema, like Edward Dmytryk. How will they know if he is good or not when Sarris has not written about him?

Tom misunderstanding Trilling on Austen when talking to Audrey
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman 1990)
George Stevens, while he is today often bunched together with Wyler and Zinnemann, was not included in the categories "Less than meets the eye" or "Strained seriousness" in Sarris's book. Stevens was instead in "The far side of paradise", the prestigious category where you also find Samuel Fuller, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Vincente Minnelli and King Vidor, and others. That might surprise some, considering Stevens's reputation today.

Among the films Farber calls "white termite art" in his essay "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" is Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960). This makes no sense to me, not even on the terms he provides.