Friday, 16 September 2022

The mysteries of Howard Hawks

The headline is probably promising more than this post will deliver because the mysteries are not about Hawks but about two of his films: Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Big Sleep (1946). The mysteries are whether the first one was a box office failure and the other is the question of who killed Sternwood's chauffeur, Owen Taylor.

Let me take the second one first. Any writings on The Big Sleep are likely to say that the plot is hard to follow, and that the death of Owen Taylor is unexplained. You can also easily find online discussions about "Who killed Taylor?" on Reddit, Twitter, and other places. The plot is said to be so difficult to follow that at one point Hawks sent a telegram to Raymond Chandler, who wrote the source novel, asking him who killed Taylor. Chandler is supposed to have answered that he did not know. (Some question whether this actually happened but in a letter Chandler wrote to Jamie Hamilton in 1949 he mentions getting that telegram so it probably happened.)

Yet in the novel it is not a mystery. Taylor was driving away from Geiger's house when he was stopped by Joe Brody, who hit Taylor, still in the car, on the head. Somehow Taylor managed to drive off, but he did not get very far before he drove into the river and drowned. In the book, the police, the D.A., and Marlowe, think that Taylor probably was disoriented, or became unconscious, due to the head injury and that the death was accidental, or maybe, although that is less likely, it was suicide. There is nothing in the film to suggest any other explanation. There is no mystery, and there is no forgotten or unknown killer. It is rather straightforward, including a confirmation from Brody that he did hit Taylor on the head before Taylor managed to drive off.

The case of Bringing Up Baby is less straightforward. It has become conventional wisdom that it was a flop and that it led to Katherine Hepburn being called "box office poison." I have dealt with the issue of box office poison in an earlier post so suffice to say here that it is a dubious and unfair accusation from an organisation for cinema theatres and not something that should be taken seriously.

If you read about Bringing Up Baby you will usually see the figure of $365,000 mentioned, the amount it allegedly lost. That is the figure mentioned in Scott Eyman's book about Cary Grant, in Barbara Leaming's book about Hepburn, and in Todd McCarthy's book about Hawks. William J. Mann, in his book about Hepburn, mentions the figure of $300 000. In neither of these four books is there a source for that figure, but the $365,000 seems to come from Richard B. Jewell's article "How Howard Hawks Brought Baby Up: An Apologia for the Studio System" published in Journal of Popular Film and Television in the autumn of 1984. (An un-sourced sentence reads " The final RKO loss on Baby amounted to $365,000.") He repeats that figure in an article ten years later in Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television.

But what does this figure mean? The first thing to consider is that the film was not a flop in terms of expected audience attendance. Since it cost so much to make (primarily due to Hawks's expensive contract and slow filming process), in order for it to turn a profit it would have to be seen by a lot more people than the production company RKO considered possible for such a film, yet it exceeded that estimate. If you read the box office reports in the trade papers at the time there was no cause for concern. It was for example doing good business in Los Angeles, Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Denver, Pittsburgh, and had a strong opening in San Francisco. When Boxoffice magazine evaluated its performance about a year after its premiere they said it was doing above average. When The Hollywood Reporter in December 1938 summarised Hollywood's achievements of that year, it included Bringing Up Baby among RKO's "top grossers." The only noticeable upset was that it failed at Radio City Music Hall in New York where it closed after one week only, replaced by Jezebel (1938) which opened one week earlier than planned.

When Gerald Mast in 1988 investigated the box office figures for Bringing Up Baby, his findings suggested it made a "modest profit" on its initial run: $12,000. It made $1,096,796 against a budget cost of $1,109,000. Then it made an additional $150,000 when it was re-released in 1940, so in total a profit of $162,000. (Peter Swaab in his book on Bringing Up Baby from 2010 uses Mast's figures.) But are these figures accurate? Do they include the cost of marketing and such? I do not know.

As I have written before, historic box office figures are both unpredictable and unreliable. I do not feel confident in calling Bringing Up Baby either a success or a flop. There are too many parameters and too much uncertainty concerning the figures that any film historian would be wise to be cautious. I think we should put to rest though the widespread belief that it was a confirmed flop. That Hawks complained about it in interviews is proof of nothing, and might only mean that it did not make enough of a profit for him to get a bonus on top of his already high fee.

------------------------

Referenced books:

Chandler, Raymond (1939) The Big Sleep

Eyman, Scott (2020) Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

Glancy, Mark (2020) Cary Grant - The Making of a Hollywood Career

Leaming, Barbara (1995) Katharine Hepburn

McCarthy, Todd (1997) Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood

Mann, William J. (2006) Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn

Mast, Gerald (1988) Bringing Up Baby: Howard Hawks, Director

Swaab, Peter (2011) Bringing Up Baby

The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (2000)

Articles:

Boxoffice Feb 1, 1939.

Jewell, Richard B. "How Howard Hawks Brought Baby Up: An Apologia for the Studio System" in Journal of Popular Film and Television Volume 11, 198, Issue 4.

Jewell, Richard B. "RKO Film Grosses, 1929-1951: The C.F. Tevlin Ledger" in Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television March 1994, Vol. 14.

The Hollywood Reporter March 8, 1938.

The Hollywood Reporter Dec 31, 1938.

Variety March 9, 1938.

My previous related blog posts:

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2022/02/the-actors-who-were-called-box-office.html

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.com/2021/09/on-dealing-with-box-office-figures-and.html

Friday, 19 August 2022

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

In 1999, when The Wind Will Carry Us came out, I was writing for an online film journal and I reviewed it for them. I was particularly pleased with that review so it is a great shame that the journal abruptly went out of business and everything on the website was removed, never to be seen again. It was not just my review I felt was good, it seemed to me at the time that there were a lot of unusually good reviews of this film. I wondered if it was perhaps the case that the film had special qualities that brought something new and different from us reviewers and critics. I wonder if that is true in general, that the quality of a review or critical essay is to some extent contingent upon the film(s) being written about. Probably not, but it is an idea.

I loved The Wind Will Carry Us then, and I still do. I have just rewatched it and thought I should write about it again, some 22 years later. What has stayed with me all those years is above all else the beauty of the landscape of the area where the film takes place, in and around a Kurdish village in a mountainous area, far from anything else, somewhere between Baghdad, Iraq, and Tehran. The census of 2006 showed that it has 48 inhabitants. I wonder how many live there today, and how many of them were appearing in the film. The older ones might have died by now, and the children might have moved elsewhere.

The main character is Behzad, a man from Tehran who has come to this remote village with a small crew to film a burial ceremony. Unfortunately for him, the old woman who is to be buried refuses to die, and he has to spend day after day, week after week, in the tiny village. His travails and struggles give the film a comic, absurd, quality, but this is tempered by the fact that the man is not particularly pleasant. He is demanding, insensitive, even rude. But his prolonged stay in the village does seem to change him, maybe making him a better man.

Described in such a way it sounds somewhat conventional, even cliched. There are countless films in which city slickers find themselves trapped in some rural area and either change for the better, or, if it is a horror film, get killed or at best traumatised for life. But Abbas Kiarostami is neither conventional nor cliched. He is, or sadly was, one of the greatest artists the modern world has known. And among other things he wanted to teach us to see the world in all its splendour.

The landscape, and how Kiarostami and his cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari films it, is astonishing, and when I watch the film at home I ache because it deserves the biggest of screens. IMAX at the very least. But in this breathtaking scenery is a story of drinking tea, milking a cow, shaving (there is in particular one long scene where Behzad is shaving, facing the camera as if it was the mirror), digging, going to school, eating an apple, reciting poetry. It is a profound study of/in humanity, where all these things are simultaneously mundane and exquisitely essential and moving. Kiarostami focuses on them, instead of spelling out exactly what is going on, including basic things such as how long Behzad is actually there. We have to guess, infer, and imagine. Kiarostami is also having a lot of fun it seems. Whenever Behzad leaves town in his car to get up on a peak to get a mobile phone signal, the camera stays behind in the village and watches him drive off, and then some sheep and cows walk past the camera, as if mocking him. The first time there is even some reproductive behaviour between two of the animals, and this I find very amusing. Another amusing thing is that the crew that Behzad has brought is never seen. They seem to be asleep most of the time, although we hear their voices at times.

Many of these scenes are not just funny but also examples of the breakdown of the distinction between documentary and fiction. Much of what we see could be from any documentary about rural Iran. The animals are of course not acting, but what about the human inhabitants of the village? Are they all playing, or just being themselves? There is for example an older woman who has a cafe in the village, or at least serves tea. Is this what she does in real life? Are the words she speaks written by Kiarostami or is she being herself, saying what she has on her mind? In any event, she is one of those to whom Behzad tries to be superior and he is told off for it.

There are many such scenes, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that almost the entire film, as is so often the case with Kiarostami, is like that, raising the question of how we as viewers should position ourselves in relation to it. I find this a key part of what makes it exhilarating, this ambiguity about the real world and the deliberately written and staged world. In some other Iranian films this is taken to even greater lengths, and it can make the viewing experience uncomfortable, as in scenes where children are in emotional distress. (I defy anyone to watch the sequence in Jafar Panahi's The Circle (2000) where a mother is trying to abandon her small child outside a restaurant without experiencing an avalanche of conflicting emotions.) Kiarostami is not that extreme, and in The Wind Will Carry Us he is in a more playful mood despite the depths he is trying to reach.

Part of the depth comes from his use of poetry, and not any poetry but from the female modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad, which also serves as an unacknowledged connection with Iranian film history as she in 1963 made the famous film The House is Black, a poetic meditation about a visit to a leper colony in northern Iran. It is from a poem by her that the title of this film comes, although different translations of the poem phrase it differently. In another version it is for example The Wind Will Take Us Away. Her poetry is referenced several times in the film, and she has a sort of a non-visible presence in it. (You can read more about her here.) It is not just her poetry though. The equally famous Omar Khayyam is also quoted. But the spoken poetry is more than matched by the poetry of Kiarostami's vision and images. 

What has always puzzled me about this film is not just how it always stays with me, a constant presence in my life after I first saw it, but how it makes me feel. It makes me feel like a better person, it elevates my mood and my view of the world. It has enriched my life like few other films have.

Friday, 22 July 2022

Vacation

It has been a hectic year for me but now I am on my vacation, and I refuse to work. According to the schedule of the blog today there would be a new post, but this is all you are going to get. I see you again in August. Watch some good films until then.

Friday, 24 June 2022

The Guest Writer #3: Barry Putterman returns - One Has My Name

Some years ago I invited guest writers to the blog, and published two pieces, one by Sofia Åkerberg and one by Barry Putterman. Now Barry is back with a new piece, about music, music videos, cartoons, and childhood memories, mixing it all together. Barry, who lives in New York, has previously written the book On Television and Comedy: Essays on Style, Theme, Performer, and Writer (1995), essays about Peter Bogdanovich and George Roy Hill to be found in American Directors (1983, edited by the late Jean-Pierre Coursodon), and earlier this year he published Pack Up Your Troubles: Some American Films from 1932, a massive three-volume project about Hollywood cinema in the year of 1932. His piece for me is less massive, and more autobiographical, so let's get on with it. I have decided to leave it as he wrote it so you will get the full Putterman experience, not conformed to my own style guide, such as it is.

One Has My Name – Scopitone

Recently, after finally getting a respectable computer, I decided to take the plunge and begin exploring the haphazard encyclopedia of movies and music known as YouTube. And the experience soon turned into a stream of consciousness exercise where one stray thought search led to the computer suggesting similar variations that in turn triggered related thoughts that ultimately expanded into the kind of endless parade of free associational connections that illustrates the way that the sights and sounds of movies and music become poetically attached in the psyche to two other m words, memory and mystery. There is no telling where the links in these chains will lead you since, as Bernstein tells Thompson in CITIZEN KANE just before recounting the image of a mystery woman he saw for one second on a ferry boat, a fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he wound, and they tend to reach the surface of your mind through unpredictable stimuli.

As a child I was devoted to the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” television cartoon series and faithfully watched the episodes in rerun for as long as they remained on the air to the result that even now I can recite long passages of dialogue from the stories using the same inflections that were used by the voice actors. Through the years, experience has given me a deeper understanding of the cultural allusions embedded in the jokes and the storylines but there were always a few free-floating tidbits that while continuing to be funny remained inexplicable. For instance, there was the singing competition for the affections of the 6-foot Metal Munching Moon Mice between Bullwinkle and Boris Badenov that had Boris singing excruciatingly awful parodies of rock and roll while Bullwinkle answered with what sounded like ridiculously antiquated lyrics from actual songs. He only sang two-line snatches of the lyrics, but they were strange and they stuck in my memory even though I had no context in which to understand them on a broader level. But on YouTube it only took a short stroll through connecting sites to reveal original 1915 recordings of “Auntie Skinner’s Chicken Dinner” and “There Must Be Little Cupids in the Briny.” Still, while the mystery within the memory is inevitable when connected to history that precedes your birth, it can also be retained from events you experienced in real time.

In 1965 a record called “One Has My Name (the Other Has My Heart)” by Barry Young hit the Top 40 radio station I listened to. Young was a completely unknown singer who had one distinguishing characteristic, he sounded almost exactly like Dean Martin. The song was a country and western tune that had been a big hit for Jimmy Wakely in 1948 and told a typical C&W tale of a person tragically trapped in an emotional cul-de-sac, this time a man who is married to one woman but in love with another. The Wakely record had a straightforward vocal set to the traditional fiddle and steel guitar backing of its genre. But Dot Records, a company that specialized in mainstream cover versions, accompanied Young’s vocal with a strings and chorus backing in an arrangement that imitated Martin’s then current run of hits resulting in a record that sounded as if it was Dino’s most recent release.

The ploy worked. “One Has My Name” became a big hit. But the suspicion that this was a Dean Martin record in disguise never quite left the popular imagination. There were pictures of Barry Young on record covers so the theory that this was a hoax along the lines of The Four Seasons releasing a version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” as The Wonder Who was discarded. But Young never appeared on any of the major popular music television shows to perform and, sadly, he died of a brain abscess in December of 1966 and so never established an identity beyond somebody whose voice sounded like Dean Martin’s.

The mystery of Barry Young remained with me until I stumbled over a YouTube site called Vintage Video Clips that advertised a performance by Young of the song, so I quickly clicked on it in eager anticipation. But I was entirely unprepared for what I was about to see.

As the opening strains of the record fill the soundtrack, we immediately understand that this isn’t going to be a visual document of a live performance but rather a narrative film dramatization as we see what amounts to an establishing shot of the song’s story. In the foreground Young is seated on a park bench between two women. The woman to his right is chicly dressed, exudes the sophisticated hauteur of a fashion model, and has a small dog on her lap. The woman to his right is more primly attired, is scrunching up her face in concentration on her knitting and is indicated as Young’s wife by a literal ball and chain to which they are both attached at the ankle. Indeed, the elaborated insistence on this metaphor is sledgehammered home by the additional layer of irony of having the words “Ball and Chain” printed on the ball.


The comic overdetermination of the plot in the foreground is then set against a painted backdrop in the rear and the clashing spaces of foreground clutter and background artifice shot with such flat compression that it all but shouts to the viewer that there is nothing in the off-screen space besides empty sound stage.

As Young begins lip-synching to the record he faces directly into the camera performing for the viewing audience, pausing only once to flirtatiously glance at the other woman during the first two lines of the lyrics. Then, in a close shot of him, Young’s face takes on a look of childish disgust as he turns toward his wife while telling us that she has brown eyes, which leads to two intense closeups almost worthy of Sergio Leone as the wife’s eyes are contrasted with the blue eyes of the other woman. A return to the master shot has Young and the wife both glancing down at the ball and chain as he sings that he is tied to her which is followed by a repetition of his flirtatious glance with accompanying tie straightening gesture as he sings that he is true to the other woman.

Without transition, the scene shift’s to Young’s home. He is still seated and singing directly into the camera but is now at his kitchen table and is dressed in a casual sweater rather than a jacket and tie. The wife is standing, indeed dancing behind him in a bright housecoat and with a few curlers attached to her short hair in a half-hearted attempt to denote drabness as she angrily slams a coffee cup, a coffee pot and a box of Wheaties down on the table and Young winces as they land although the only sound that the audience hears continues to be that of the record that he is lip-synching for us. As the wife sits down at the table with an expression of mopey resignation, Young finally rises and the camera follows him as he moves from his seat at the center of the table to the left-hand corner of the kitchen setting. He is finishing up the first verse of the song by reiterating his dilemma in reverse order, now saying that one has his heart while the other has his name. And as his voice mentions the other woman, we suddenly see her dancing around in an unestablished location only to have it succeeded by a return to the wife in the kitchen with Young no longer present as she whirls about, setting the table for a different meal. These two shots at first seem only to correspond to the mentioning of the women in the lyrics but it then turns out that they are flash forwards into the next sequence.

As the chorus takes up the opening lines of the second, and almost identical verse, we see that the other woman had been dancing in her plush apartment, a stage setting once again accompanied by a painted backdrop, this time of a city at night. Young is also in the apartment, seated on the couch next to the small dog, now in formal attire but still facing forward toward the camera waiting for the chorus to end the first two lines of lyrics where he will pick up the singing of the story. The wife is not in the apartment but remains in the shot as the apartment setting takes up only about two thirds of the frame where it is cut off by a wall on the other side of which is the wife in the kitchen, thus artificially creating the illusion of a split screen.

 

The wife is wearing a different dress and as she sets the table, checks her non-existent wristwatch and mimes distress regarding the non-appearance of her husband as Young resumes singing while stealing glances at his alluring companion as she abets her mating dance by spraying the couch with perfume from an atomizer while in the kitchen the wife is spraying the table with air freshener. The apartment then takes up the entire screen in a tighter shot as the woman approaches Young, picks up and hands him the dog, suggestively parts the long slit in her dress exposing her undergarment and then slinks down next to him where the dog had been, revealing her bare leg which the camera slowly pans in response to Young’s gaze.

But as quickly as that movement finishes, the scene returns to the kitchen and Young is back sitting at the table while still singing to us, this time wearing a different colored sweater (all three characters seem to alternate bright reds and blues in their apparel). The wife is now standing in front of the table ironing a shirt at an ironing board while wearing an embroidered dress that accents her perky rather than sensual personality. Alarmed at the results of her ironing, she dances over to Young who again rises as she places the shirt against his chest and looks to the audience with an expression of comic chagrin.

Finally, as he reaches the final two lines of the lyrics, the only revision from the first verse, where he states that if he could do it over again he would also be married to the woman he loves, Young is now seen on the balcony of the other woman’s apartment. They are facing each other and he is still in the same formal attire but she is in a less suggestive dress as they return inside to a candlelit dinner, blowing out the candles to simulate a fade to black as the music on the soundtrack ends.

While retrieving my jaw from underneath the desk I ventured to reassemble my wits and make sense of what I had just witnessed. Watching a narrative version of a popular song made in the mid-1960s was astonishing enough, but a film that illustrated emotional conditions with such strenuously literalized metaphors was practically unheard of outside of animated cartoons. But ultimately, the most radical departure was that within a culture that insists on advertising aspirational ambitions as visionary dreams and an aesthetic that comfortingly telegraphs representations of dreams via distorted focus, oblique camera angles and slow motion, ONE HAS MY NAME bluntly documents with slam-bang compression the continuously disorienting shifts in time and space and the disquieting sense of simultaneously existing inside and outside of narrative events that characterize an actual dream state. (You can watch it here.)

So now the mystery changed from the nature of the performer to the conditions of the performance. Who made this film, under what circumstances and for what audience? Vintage Video Clips provided no context but there was evidence of a title card at the front of the film that, despite an attempt at erasure, still flashed for a fraction of a second. And a search for an alternative posting of the film on YouTube provided the one-word answer, Scopitone.

Scopitone, it turns out, was the 1960s iteration of the 1940s Soundies. That is, visual presentations of popular recordings made to be seen on video jukeboxes. There were individual gems among the Soundies but they generally suffered from not only World War II material shortages but also a paucity of filmic heritage on which to build. Beyond localized stage performance, musical acts were primarily known to the general public through the exclusively aural mediums of recordings and radio, and while the then most popular dance bands and singers were shoehorned into both short films and features, they were primarily looked upon by the film industry as annoying intrusions into the narrative structure and presented without much attention to discovering the visual dynamics suggested within the music.

By the early 1960s however, Scopitone had the benefit of more than a decade of interior staging of musical acts for television cameras, the spatial expansion of narrative film location shooting for musical numbers first popularized by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s ON THE TOWN and the more recent experimentations in discontinuous editing techniques.

The 1960s version of the jukeboxes were invented in France and the entertainment industry there seems to have gotten behind the project with full cultural force. As listed in Bob Orlowsky’s Scopitone Archive, well over four hundred French films were made for the jukeboxes with the participation of many of the leading figures in the country’s popular music industry. And, based on the tiny fraction of those films that I have been able to see, they appear to have taken full advantage of the stylistic advances, ranging from the embryonic use of dynamic pools of space and light that would soon become the signature look of the American rock and roll TV show SHINDIG in Sylvie Vartan’s version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” to Francoise Hardy’s singing of a song whose title translates into English as “All the Boys and Girls” set amid outdoor amusement park rides.

When the machines came to the U.S. the commitment seemed to become more ambivalent. Fewer than two hundred films were made and the producers seemed to be trying to straddle the generation gap whereby some of them featuring firmly established pre-rock television and nightclub singers like Vic Damone and Jane Morgan while others starred artists who had multiple Top 40 hits but never quite reached the front rank of pop music stardom such as Dick & Dee Dee and Bobby Vee. The indecision regarding the target audience may have had something to do with the venues since most of the jukeboxes were placed in bars and nightclubs which led to what appears to be a very conscious decision that a visual strategy of aggressive audacity was the only means of holding a viewer’s attention in such an environment.

According to Orlowsky, the creative force behind many of the American films was Harold Belfer, a choreographer with a string of undistinguished credits at Universal-International in the 1950s but for whom the particular limitations and opportunities of the Scopitone films seemed to have stimulated heretofore unexplored contours within his id. Most often this led to a vaguely unsettling sense of witnessing a well-oiled machine that has slipped a few gears, sort of like viewing the results of Russ Meyer’s day as substitute director on a beach party movie. But when the outlandish imagery was more directly tethered to the song lyric’s narrative, the wackiness could spin off in more dangerous directions.

The borderline berserk rendering of Jody Miller’s “Queen of the House” comes immediately to mind in that regard but the closest approximation to the dream state condition of “One Has My Name” that I’ve seen is the film of singer/songwriter Gale Garnett’s “Where Do You Go to Go Away?” The imagery here is more overtly abstract to harmonize with the more internalized mindset of the protagonist and Garnett, who was also an experienced actress, adds facial expressions and body gestures to her performance that projects a sense of consciously creating her dream in contrast to the more passive stasis that seems to carry Young through his. But the film ends on the same kind of literalized metaphor that opens “One Has My Name” adding the extra layer of ironic detachment that serves as mitigating deflection from the somber mood embedded in both lyrics.

The most comprehensive introduction to Scopitone on the web is “Scopitone A Go Go,” a seventy-five-minute compilation of French and American films that includes all the artists and titles mentioned above. Those still standing can then move on to the other clusters and individual examples available on the internet with the Scopitone Archive serving as your search engine.

One of the bonus features of watching Scopitones on YouTube is that many of the films offer viewer comments underneath the screening box. You get the expected run of gushy fan mail and self-satisfied stabs at snark but also the slightly befuddled responses of people who are objectively trying to reconcile their experience with their expectations, such as Stephen Smith who wrote in reaction to the Nino Tempo & April Stevens version of “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “kind of weird at different levels.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Friday, 27 May 2022

Another essay concerning film criticism

Since my last post there has been an unexpected development. I have been elected chairman of the Swedish Film Critics' Association. Given this honour, I thought I should write something about my views on criticism, a topic I have addressed before in connection with the publication of A.O. Scott's book Better Living Through Criticism.

Criticism of the arts is as old as art itself, and that is proof enough of its importance and relevance. It is part of human culture, a key aspect of the perennial conversations we humans have with each other, and it could not be otherwise. As soon as something exists, people will have opinions about it and want to air those opinions, and discuss it, whether a sports game, a film, a building, a politician, a food diet, a car brand, and so on. I think most people tend to feel that sharing one's thoughts about an experience, whether good or bad, is a joyful, even necessary, part of the experience, and to a large extent that is what criticism is. Another way of defining it is that it is to relate to a work of art as a whole, including its aesthetic qualities, from a personal perspective, and express that perspective to others. The criticism can be done in different media: a long essay in a print journal, a video essay, a TikTok video, a concise, well-argued Facebook post (Joe McElhaney is a master of that), or a newspaper column.

Another important role it plays is to help draw attention to what is happening within a given field of the arts, or culture at large, such as films. When I was young I read film criticism on a daily basis and this was essential for me. Reading it was educational and inspiring, it taught me what was happening in the world of film both close to where I lived and far away. This also had the added benefit of making me feel part of that larger world. I used to cut out reviews, long and short, from the newspapers I had access to, and saved them in ring binders. I still have that collection, and I will never part with it voluntarily.

There are different kinds of criticism, which serve different purposes. The brief reviews of recent releases that are mainly a plot description and a few sentences about whether the reviewer liked it or not is rarely considered prestigious, but it can be invaluable. There are more films to watch than the average viewer has time for, but if you can find a critic whose judgement you can trust and whose taste seems to be similar to yours, then choosing what to watch from the week's premieres based on the recommendations of that reviewer is practical. Some form a kind of relationship with "their" reviewer and might communicate with them in assorted ways to let them know when they were in agreement and when they were not.

But such reviews do not have much afterlife; with few exceptions they are quickly forgotten. They are reviews as consumer advice. 

A different kind is the long, deep criticism that aims to contextualise the film in question, to analyse form and content, an aesthetic and intellectual engagement with the film that ideally requires more than one viewing of it, although it is not always necessary. Noël Carroll suggests, in his recent book Philosophy and the Moving Image, that films can be judged on two premises: what is the purpose of the film and how well does the film succeed in achieving that purpose; are the style and the method that the filmmakers have chosen the most suitable for realising the purpose of the film.

The challenges for the critic are to be able to write well, to finish before deadline (which can be agonisingly tight), and, not least, to do the film justice. Is the criticism fair? Have you understood the film on its own terms? Are you seeing the film as it is and not how you imagine it to be? These can be difficult questions, and it is always worthwhile to ask yourself them from time to time. Some humility is necessary. Any interpretation of a film is just that, an interpretation. Although we often tend to treat our interpretation of a film, or of any artwork, as the truth about it, it rarely is.

Another challenge for the critic is not to be corrupted. There are different reasons for how this can happen, such as for ideological reasons or because of money. It has been interesting of late to notice how big companies like Netflix and not least Disney have learned to use and play on the forces that exist in the digital sphere today, and encourage their fans to attack and question those who criticise the companies' films and series, which has led to a situation where people voluntarily turn themselves into unpaid PR people for some of the largest media corporations of our time, partly because these corporations understand how to use representation as a marketing ploy. A lot of what passes for film criticism today is either directly produced by media corporations or made by fans eager to please. The result can often be cringeworthy.

But there is also good film criticism being done today that takes the art of cinema seriously, and engages with it with style and knowledge. As long as we have art I expect that to continue to be the case.

Friday, 29 April 2022

Wings (1966)

In a previous post I briefly mentioned Ukrainian cinema. I had seen very little of it, and knew even less. But I have been educating myself, and I have also watched several films now. The favourite so far is Larisa Shepitko's Wings from 1966. Maya Bulgakova plays Nadezhda Petrukhina, called Nadia, a former fighter pilot who was part of the Soviet air force during World War II, and now she works as a principal at a high school. The film combines impressionistic vignettes of her current life with flashbacks to her time as a pilot. The film opens with a scene of her at the tailor, getting fitted for some new clothes, and then in the next scene her excited students, at least the girls are excited, the boys are more blasé, watch her receive some kind of award or diploma. Next she intervenes after a male student has slapped a female student, and this intervention will have repercussions throughout the film. Here, after a few minutes of these vignettes, several themes of the film have been established, such as her alienation, the violence and discrimination against women, and the clashes between generations. Another example of this is her estrangement from her adopted daughter. Nadia's life has become stale and dull. Once, when she has decided that she cannot eat all her meals at home but needs to get out and eat at restaurants, she is denied a table as single women are not welcomed. 

Nadia is often passive, pushed around by men, whether male students or adults. At the tailor's in the opening scene she is hardly moving and she is not speaking, the tailor is the active one. Despite her official status as a war hero, all of that seems to have drained from her now, for various reasons which are revealed and explored throughout the film.

Wings is a quiet, sad, and beautifully shot film, which feels spontaneous and improvised but is not. Bulgakova, who plays the lead, and Shepitko rehearsed for a month together before filming even began. It is set and shot in Sevastopol, Crimea, which at the time was part of Ukraine (it was forcibly taken over by Russia in 2014) and there are some scenes in the film in which Nadia wanders around the city, looking at things. In one particularly fine scene she goes to an exhibition about World War 2, and there she discovers that she is herself part of that exhibition, as one of the heroic pilots of the war. It is as if both society at large, and she herself, has made her a being with only a past, not much of a present or a future existence. The Ukrainian-born Maya Bulgakova is wonderful in her performance, expressive despite being withdrawn, and it feels like she and Shepitko are completely in sync with one another, and with the character. The film's visual style, editing and use of music feels of its time. When watching it one might at times think of Miloš Forman's Czech films and sometimes Agnès Varda, not least in the way the characters are presented and the attitude of the filmmaker towards them.

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It has been surprisingly difficult to find exact information about Shepitko. Even the year of her birth has there been some confusion about, but it seems she was born in 1938 in Bakhmut, present-day Ukraine, although when she was born the city was called Artyomovsk. When she was still just a teenager she went to Moscow, and there she eventually graduated from VGIK, Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. She was the only female student at the time (I think), and she had Alexander Dovzhenko as her tutor, until his death in 1956. She graduated in 1963, with the feature film Znoy. Before that she had made some fine short films, of which I have seen Zhivaya voda, a poetic evocation of life around a river (or is it a sea?) running through a city.

She made few films. After Wings came The Homeland of Electricity, an austere, yet remarkable, episode in the portmanteau film Beginnings of an Unknown Era (1967), which was banned at the time. In the Thirteenth Hour of the Night or 13PM (1969) is some kind of fantasy musical made for Soviet TV. You and Me (1971) is a drama which I have unfortunately not been able to watch. The Ascent (1977) is a cruel tale about soldiers suffering in deep snow during World War II. It seems to be her most famous film, and it is impressive, although I prefer Wings. Tragically, it would be the last film she finished, as she died in a car accident, together with some team members, while she was making Farewell, in 1979. Her husband Elem Klimov, also a prominent filmmaker, finished the film in 1981, and it was released in 1983. Considering her remarkable talents and vision, her early death, barely 40 years old, was a terrible loss for cinema.

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Three other filmmakers from the Soviet era with Ukrainian credentials:

Alexander Dovzhenko, or Oleksandr Dovzhenko with Ukrainian spelling, was born in Ukraine and made his films there. I wrote about him here.

Grigory Chukhray, famous for writing and directing The Ballad of a Soldier (1959), was from Ukraine. I wrote about it here.

Kira Muratova was born in present-day Moldova but lived and worked in Ukraine. I am curious about her films, but have not seen any of them yet.

A good recent podcast about Ukrainian cinema: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/the-film-comment-podcast-ukrainian-cinema

A link to the film archive in Kyiv: https://dovzhenkocentre.org/ The centre did a survey among Ukrainian critics, curators, and others about the best Ukrainian films of all time, and this is their top five:

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

Earth (1930)

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

The Tribe (2014)

The Stone Cross (1968)