Friday, 23 June 2017

Ideology

Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important social developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figures in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. (Adorno 1991: 57)
In Jason Mittell's brand new book Narrative Theory and Adaptation. (sic) there is a section discussing ideological film criticism. He had this to say:
In brief, theories of ideology strive to understand how cultural forms like popular cinema work to maintain dominant power relations, ranging from economic inequality to norms of race and gender. The crucial insight of ideology theory is that popular culture works to normalize the status quo and make the dominant systems of power invisible and unquestioned, integrated into a viewer's common sense and outlook on the world. Film scholars have explored how conventions of filmmaking, from industry structure to norms of narrative and style, work to reinforce dominant ideology in both overt and subtle ways. (p. 124)
That reminded me of this prominent part of film theory/criticism and how peculiar it is, in different ways. To some extent ideological readings of art works is as old as art itself, but the kind which has been the dominant one the last century is based on Marxism. There have been different strains of Marxist theory in the west during the 20th century, some of it interesting and productive, some of it embarrassingly inadequate and unrealistic, and quite a lot unpleasant because of its intimacy (and celebration of) the homicidal totalitarianism of, especially, Stalin and Mao. But at the heart of much of these theories was a question that might be expressed like this: "Marx promised us a revolution but it did not come. Why is that?" Instead of blaming flaws in Marx's writings many of these thinkers and critics instead blamed popular culture, not least films, which allegedly kept the masses down; pacified them and lured them into not overturning their governments. It is sometimes difficult to say where the Marxist theory ends and a conspiracy theory begins, and sometimes they overlap. (Not surprising perhaps considering Marx himself was a conspiracy theorist rather similar to Joseph McCarthy (including seeing Russian spies everywhere) as Jonathan Sperber discusses at some length in his impressive Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life.) This is of course not to say that all Marxist critics and scholars are like this. The variety of Marxist thinking is large and some of the best critics of cinema have also been Marxists, with a much more positive view of humanity and the potential and value of mass culture. But there is a long tradition of the negative kind and it became especially prolific in the 1970s, not least due to the influential writings of Louis Althusser.


Cinema is "the ventriloquist of ideology" Daniel Dayan proclaimed in 1974 and for him and similarly thinking scholars/critics there are aspects of the very basic structure of films that are part of the problem, and is helping to "maintain the status quo" to the benefit of our rulers. Continuity editing is one such a dubious aspect. Endings is another, were a film is preferably to have an open ending because "an open ending doesn't confirm or reassure existing ideology; it questions ideology and demystifies it" as Eran Preis put it in an article in Journal of Film and Video. That too is a view shared by many, so let's pause there for a moment.

Is it just with regards to films that not having an open ending means you are supporting the status quo? Let's say I tell a story about how a man fell in love with a woman who was engaged to somebody else, and then they split up and shortly thereafter the man and she began dating and yesterday they were happily married. Am I supporting the status quo by telling this story? And if not, why am I doing so if I write down the same story and make a film of it? If I were to tell the same story but instead of having it end with saying they were happily married yesterday I end it with saying that he will now propose to her, and then leave the audience in the dark as to how it will go, the story will have an open ending. Am I then by default opposing ("mystifying") the status quo?

One might also wonder exactly what that "status quo" is referring to. Is it even possible to talk about such a thing with regards to something as complex as a society, or the world at large? (It is perhaps peculiar for Marxists to complain about the status quo when Marx's dream, communism, is the very definition of a status quo. After capitalism and then the state has whittled away, a new era of an eternal status quo is to emerge.) I suppose it is meant to refer to the larger economic system, capitalism, (or "late capitalism" as it is often called) which is how much of the western world as well as East Asia is arranged, but the particulars vary quite a lot. Should we assume that an American film without an open ending is supporting the lack of universal health care (as it is now) whereas a British film without an open ending is supporting the continuation of the NHS (which is the British health care system)? If a British film had an open ending, would that mean it was questioning the status quo of having free, universal health care? Alas, such particulars are never discussed when the "status quo" is mentioned. Or perhaps the status quo is the system of representative democracy, and any film without closure questions the persistence of democracy and is perhaps advocating for the overturning of that system in favour of, what? A revolution? Is that necessarily something worth pursuing? There are quite a lot of possible scenarios (from Nazis taking power to all out global war) that are a lot worse than what we have now. On the other hand, films with open endings would be impossible in, say, Cuba and Soviet Union, because that would mean that they were opposed to the status quo of communism.

There is another issue too. What exactly is an open ending? Are the endings of The Searchers (John Ford 1956) or Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942) open? What about The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957) or L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni 1960)? Where are we with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958)? One definition is that when a film has closure it does not have an open ending but that just leads to other obvious questions such as What is closure? and Closure for whom? In Se7en (David Fincher 1995) the crime story has closure but not the emotional story, so is it a tie then? Does it have half-closure? Supporting one half of the status quo, whatever that is? You might say that the ending of Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick 1963) is as closed as it gets, the antithesis of an open ending, but what is the status quo that it then supposedly supports? The balance of terror or MAD (mutually assured destruction) is hardly what Kubrick wanted to preserve.

Another popular word when discussing ideology and film (and other art forms, not least theatre) is Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt and his "epic theatre". The idea is that a realistic telling of a story, one that relies on creating an illusion of it really happening and making the audience forget it is watching something fictional, partly through identification with the characters, makes said audience passive and unable to question the truth about the world. If instead the story is told in a way that has its artificiality exposed (by for example having actors directly address the audience or having obviously fake sets, and so on) the audience will be awakened and can begin to question and criticise that status quo. So it is once again the very structure that is being addressed and blamed, and an alternative, the distancing effect, is put forward as the solution.
Haneke's opposition to Hollywood's cinema of manipulation can thus be seen as a call for alienation in the Brechtian sense of Verfremdung: as an attempt to tear the realities shown on the screen from the shadow of their 'being-so' into the light of their 'having-been-made-so.'" (Metelmann 2010: 168)
But this idea of the importance, even supremacy, of form strikes me as misguided and completely inadequate. For one thing, form and content must surely work together for there to be a given result. A Nazi propaganda film that uses distancing effects will not have the positive effect that Brecht and others had in mind. When people talk about the Verfremdungseffekt they will usually mention some film by Godard (especially Tout va bien (1972)) or Michael Haneke as examples, but if these films in themselves did not directly attack certain political and social issues in the society in which they were made, the distancing devices would not really matter. (Or Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter 1942) would have caused more riots and revolutions than any other film.) The opposite of this kind of film is usually said to be mainstream Hollywood, but there are untold examples of distancing effects there too (direct address, dream sequences, shock cuts, artificial sets) which are not called out as such. On the other hand films like Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake (2016) or The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica 1948) aim for realism, of making the audience feel they are watching the real world, without any alienating effects. If the Brechtians are to be believed these films do not make the audience aware of society's injustices, and do not make them question the way the world works. It is safe to assume though that the films actually do just that, and that alienating effects would have made them less successful.

The problem is that while it might be appropriate to say about one particular film that the structure or the ending "enforce the status quo," however one might define that, it is not at all the case that what is true for one film is true for all films, or even all films of a certain kind. With this focus on the structure, it, at some point, becomes unimportant whether a film has a clear communist, liberal or Nazi theme and message, because if they have the same structure they are all supposedly in support of the same ideology, at which point ideology because a word with no meaning. A buzz-word among many others.

***

In the years before the Second World War there were three German Marxists who became especially influential: Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, all associated with the Frankfurt School and what came to be known as Critical Theory, trying in various ways to expand and elaborate on Marx's thinking. I will leave Benjamin for a later post and focus on Adorno here. He did not write about film per se but he (and Horkheimer) wrote a lot about popular culture (they used "the culture industry" as their term to describe the phenomenon they were concerned with), and how popular culture enslaved ordinary people, keeping them hooked for the consumption of more and more mindless culture, for which the primary purpose was to keep them docile and unthreatening for those in power.

"In so far as a film only recounts the fate of an individual, even if maintaining the most extreme critical awareness, it already succumbs to ideology." (Adorno 1991: 57)

Once at a university seminar (when studying the history of ideas) we were discussing two articles from the 1920s, one written by an American celebrating individualism and freedom and one written by a Russian celebrating the collective and the state. One guy in our group laughed at the American article and said that it was pathetic how that guy was so blind to the fact that he was just speaking from within his ideology, that he was not thinking for himself, whereas he said that the Russian writer told the truth and spoke freely, independent of any ideology. Well. For one thing nobody writing in Russia in the 1920s would have been in a position to publish anything else, unless they wanted to be shot by Stalin. In the United States writers actually had the ability to write freely, independently from the government's ideology, as opposed to how it was in Soviet Union. There were many in the United States in the 1920s who were Communists and wrote about it without inhibition, so both articles could have been written there, in the same street (or even office) in New York, whereas only one could have been written in Russia. Adorno makes the same mistake in the quote above. When he says that by making a film about an individual the filmmaker succumbs to ideology he is also saying that somehow a film which does not have the focus on an individual is outside of ideology. But how can that be? Surely that film is just within some other ideology, only one which Adorno happens to sympathise with. The idea that ideology is something that only others are slaves to is common enough.
Nevertheless, the favourite argument of the whole- and half-hearted apologists, that culture industry is the art of the consumer, is untrue; it is the ideology of ideology. /.../ By reproducing the latter (consciousness) with hypocritical subservience, the culture industry changes this reified consciousness all the more, that is, for its own purposes: it actually prevents that consciousness from changing on its own, as it secretly and, deep down, unadmittedly desires. The consumers are made to remain what they are: consumers. That is why the culture industry is not the art of the consumer but rather the projection of the will of those in control onto their victims. The automatic self-reproduction of the status quo in its established forms is itself an expression of domination. (Adorno 1991: 159-160)
This is a common idea, and one that Adorno frequently made. Mainstream culture keeps people from protesting and organising rebellions against the current regime. High art on the other hand helps cultivate a more critical view on society. I find this very dubious. The first implication is that if only people paid more attention to the kind of art which Adorno liked they would bring about the fall of "late capitalism," and that this is what everybody would really want if only they would come to their senses. But I think it is fair to suggest that were you to ask the people who actually are out protesting and rebelling you would find that they are much more likely to listen to pop music than to Arnold Schönberg, watch the films of Ridley Scott rather than the films of Straub/Huillet and read J.K Rowling rather than Samuel Beckett. It is also the case that it is quite common for people, not least younger people, to be out on the streets protesting, and not just during the summer of 1968. And sometimes they even force governments to resign and dictators to fall. But I do not think we can assume that this is because they stop listen to jazz and embrace Bach instead. And most people would probably not like to tear down the present system, regardless of what kind of culture they engage with.

At the same time Adorno had a rather conservative view of films, as suggested by this quote:
Film technology has developed a series of techniques which work against the realism inherent in the photographic process. Among these are soft-focus shots - a long outdated arty custom in photography - superimpositions, and also, frequently, flashbacks. It is about time to recognize the ludicrousness of such effects and get rid of them because these techniques are not grounded in the necessities of individual works but in mere convention; they inform the viewer as to what is being signified or what needs to be added in order to comprehend whatever escapes basic cinematic realism. (Adorno 1991: 159)
He was also rather relentless in his contempt for ordinary people, here with reference to those who listen to popular music (and Adorno's particular pet peeve, jazz):
There is actually a neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening too; the arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar is its sure sign. Regressive listerners behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served. (Adorno 1991: 44-45)
A lot of Adorno's thinking around art and popular culture suggests a lack of imagination. The quote at the top, about cinema's alleged inability to represent the merger of two industrial concerns, is just wrong. There is no reason to assume this cannot be done. There is a general unwillingness to actually engage with cinema, and mainstream culture at large, and instead he settles for high-minded contempt.

But then cinema was not a focus of Adorno's writings. Even his last, posthumously published, book Aesthetic Theory (1970) mentions films only very briefly. But his complete body of work is complex and vast, and he has been very influential, so these few quotes are not meant to undermine his life's work, they are only meant to be examples of what ideological critique of the art form might look like, and how that critique might be of limited value.

How it can completely derail is suggested by this quote, from the entry on Adorno at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "The Nazi death camps are not an aberration, nor are mindless studio movies innocent entertainment. Both indicate that something fundamental has gone wrong in the modern West.”

from Hellzapoppin'
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Print sources:

Daniel Dayan, "The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema" in Film Quarterly (1974) 
Eran Preis, "Not Such a Happy Ending: The Ideology of the Open Ending" in Journal of Film and Video (1990)
Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (1991)
Jason Mittell, Narrative Theory and Adaptation. (2017)
Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013)
Jörg Metelmann, "Fighting the Melodramatic Condition" in A Companion to Michael Haneke (2010)

An early post of mine on film criticism and ideology is about Robert Warshow.

There is plenty of Marxist film criticism, and Marxist literary criticism, but where is the Schumpeterian film criticism, or the Keynesian literary criticism? Film criticism inspired by Hyman Minsky? Ohlinian criticism? History is filled with economists after all.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Lydia Bailey (1952)

Since I began writing about Henry Hathaway in 2011 there have been many posts about films and filmmakers from 20th Century Fox; no studio has gotten more attention even though this was not part of any plan. It just seemed that one post led to another, about Otto Preminger, Henry King, Elia Kazan, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Joseph MacDonald, who were all at Fox, as was John Ford for a while. There they worked for Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of the studio, who had a close relationship with them all and had a big influence on the shape of the films. Note though that these filmmakers also had their individual themes, tastes and ideas, about acting and style and so on, which developed over time. Those who already had had careers before they came to Fox would often arrive with their unique, personal style and themes already in place, whereas many of those who began their careers at Fox evolved over time, becoming more idiosyncratic. (Kazan did not really blossom until the 1950s when he was working away from Fox, mostly with Warner Bros.)

Another of Zanuck's directors was Jean Negulesco, (the two of them were keen croquet players and Negulesco apparently a sore loser). He was born in Romania; one of the many who came from Mitteleuropa and eventually ended up in Hollywood. Negulesco had spent his teenage years in Vienna and then moved to Paris to be an artist and designer, and was rather good at it. He went across the Atlantic in the mid-1920s for a New York exhibition of his paintings, and found his way to Hollywood. He first did a series of velvety noirs at Warner, such as The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), and later, in the 1950s, came to be known for his Technicolor and CinemaScope romances, such as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1954). Andrew Sarris memorably divided (in The American Cinema) Negulesco's career into two parts, B.C. and A.C. (i.e. Before CinemaScope and After CinemaScope). Sarris preferred the B.C. part and said the A.C. part was "completely worthless", but whether that is fair is debatable. Though The Mask of Dimitrios is probably Negulesco's best film, tied with Deep Valley (1947), there are merits in some of the later films too and Negulesco's known classics are mostly from the A.C. era, such as the two mentioned above. But Negulesco's career is mostly forgotten and unseen, and among the many unknown films there are many that are far more interesting than the famous ones.

Ida Lupino and Dane Clark in Deep Valley

After the second world war, Zanuck, who was a liberal of sorts, decided to embark on a project to highlight social issues, including racism. This resulted in films like Gentlemen's Agreement (Kazan 1947), Pinky (Kazan 1949) and No Way Out (Mankiewicz 1950). Negulesco's Lydia Bailey (1952) is also one of Zanuck's, shall we say, racially conscious films. But unlike the earlier ones, which are more restrained and in black and white, Lydia Bailey is very emotional and in aggressive Technicolor. The argument here is not that Lydia Bailey is a forgotten masterpiece; in terms of artistry and acting it is average to good, and not even Negulesco's best film. The argument is that it has interesting politics and that it fits in with other more famous films about racial issues made at the time.

It is set in 1802 in what is now called Haiti but was then Saint-Domingue; a French colony in which the slaves had rebelled in 1791, inspired by the French revolution, and partly led by Toussaint Louverture. In 1802 a new rebellion had broken out and in 1804, so after the end of the film's story, the French left and Haiti was declared an independent state. So there is a factual basis for the film, and Toussaint Louverture appears in the film (or rather a character by that name, spelled L'ouverture), as does Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon, but most of the main characters are fictional.

While most of Negulesco's films were focused on women, often with one or several as leading characters, that is not the case with Lydia Bailey, despite its title. The main character is instead an American lawyer, Albion Hamlin, He arrives in Saint-Domingue to get a signature on some papers to grant his impoverished government access to a large estate on mainland US, which will be a much-needed source of income. The reason he is sent to Saint-Domingue is because Lydia Bailey, the woman who can sign over the rights, are living there with a French aristocrat, Gabriel D'autremont, on a plantation. With the Americans evacuating the place and both the French and the Haitians suspicious of Hamlin's mission and loyalties he is immediately in danger. He is helped by King Dick, a Haitian and former slave, who is close to the leader of the resistance movement, i.e. Toussaint Louverture. Soon this American, Hamlin, who at first took no interest in the local politics, finds himself fighting side by side with King Dick against imperialism and oppression. Sympathising with the Haitians, Hamlin says that if he was one of them "I'd kill every white man I could lay my hands on." It is at times a cruel film, as it begins with the murder of a young boy and towards the end there is another killing of a child.

One might almost get the feeling that Lydia Bailey was based on some unknown historical novel by Graham Greene but the source material is a novel written by Kenneth Roberts, and adapted by Phillip Dunne and Michael Blankfort. The film is an anti-imperialist rallying call, where most of the heroes are black Haitians, and the white characters are either evil or, in the case of Hamlin and Lydia Bailey, naive and in need of an education to come around to the side of justice. King Dick, as part of this education, quotes Plato and says that "True courage is to follow a wise man." with himself obviously being that wise man. Hamlin says at the end that he now understands why the Haitians consider Toussaint Louverture as their George Washington. (Thomas Jefferson is also name-checked, as is Benjamin Franklin.)

While not shot on location it does have an atmospheric and vibrant style and Technicolor is used to vivid effect. There are many shots and images that are extraordinary in their use of colour. It could very well be Negulesco's most stylish colour film, with the help of cinematographer Harry Jackson. There is also a very fine close-up of Lydia Bailey as she is about to leave the plantation and her old life. She suddenly stops, and the camera lingers on her face for a long time while she seems to process everything that is going on, and then she collects herself and continue her escape.

She is played by Anne Francis and Dale Robertson plays Hamlin, but the real star is William Marshall as King Dick, in his first performance. He would later mainly play bit parts in TV-series and also the title role in Blacula (William Crain 1972). He had a very successful stage career however. Here he is easy-going, resourceful, resolute, witty, intelligent, compassionate and a natural leader. It is impossible not to be seduced by him, even though he is at times quite ruthless. In the end he waves goodbye to Hamlin and Bailey as they flee to an American gunboat. The last shot is of him standing in the harbour, one arm raised, with Cap-Français burning behind him, before he turns around to go back to continue his fight for a free Haiti.

It is easy to draw connections to the real world of 1952, when the film was made. At the time the French were fighting, and losing, a war in Indochina against the Vietnamese. In 1954 their time was up, after the battle of Dien Bien Phu. When the French left the Americans stepped in (and this time Graham Greene did write about it, The Quiet American), to well-known and disastrous results. But here, in Lydia Bailey, the American hero stands with the oppressed and the colonised.

The world premiere of the film took place in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, with the president Paul Magloire holding a reception. What the Haitians thought of the film I do not know.


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There were other films from 1949 about racial intolerance, Lost Boundaries (Alfred Werner) and Home of the Brave (Mark Robson), but they were not produced by Zanuck and Fox. Most of these late 1940s anti-racist films are compromised in various ways but it is worth pointing out that one stands out: Clarence Brown's Intruder in the Dust (1949). It is the best of them, and Brown managed to get financed by MGM. I wrote about it here.

My earlier piece about Henry King here. My earlier piece about Otto Preminger here. My earlier piece about Joseph MacDonald here. My earlier piece about Kazan's Wild River here.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Cinema and the environment

Made right after the end of the second world war, My Darling Clementine (John Ford 1946) is, among other things, about building a community and look fresh towards the future after a necessary exorcism of demons, internal as well as external. Part of that optimistic, forward-looking process is the building of a new church in Tombstone, and how the inauguration of that church, not even half-finished yet, is linked with the emotional development of Wyatt Earp, dancing with his lady fair, as the old-timer says. I have always been struck by how that scene corresponds to a scene in a film made 26 years later: Deliverance (John Boorman 1972). The scene is towards the end of that film where a graveyard is being evacuated because the whole area is being flooded after the building of a dam. These two films, put together, captures, by a huge ellipsis, the optimism and idealism of an early outpost, bringing civilisation to the wilderness (regardless of how loaded terms civilisation and wilderness are) and the appalling side effects of that optimism and idealism, leading to ecological destruction and desecration. The myth of the frontier comes to an end, and the American dream drowns in its own success.


Putting those two films together might not seem to be obvious but there are so many different ways in which to look at film, or study film history, and one such way is from an ecological, or environmental, perspective. My recent post about Wild River (Elia Kazan 1960) did not dwell that much about those aspects of it, but they are a central part of the film and it could easily have been discussed entirely from such an ecological angle. More films than one might think are actually in one way or another about ecological themes, explicitly or implicitly, and across genres. A science fiction film like Them! (Gordon Douglas 1954), one of those 1950s films that are routinely claimed to be about the fear of Communism, is actually about self-inflicted environmental disaster, a harbinger of things to come. Legal dramas such as A Civil Action (Steven Zaillian 1998) and Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh 2000) are about that. Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) too. One central theme in Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood 1985) is how large-scale mining destroys the environment and the livelihood of ordinary people. Still Life (Jia Zhangke 2006) is about the devastating consequences of the building of the Three Gorges Dam.


Films on these topics became more common in the late 1960s, in line with the growth of modern day environmental concerns and organisations. (I say modern movements because environmental concerns are much older, and became widespread at least in the late 19th century, which is also when the first modern environmental laws were enacted.) Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring came out in 1962 and was a key development in the current movement, and it also brought new awareness to earlier books on the subject such as Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, published in 1949. WWF was started, in Switzerland, in 1961, Greenpeace in 1971, in Canada. In the US Richard Nixon created EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. (The very same organisation the Trump administration, such as it is, wants to close down or at least de-fund.) In the early 1970s there were a series of science fiction films with an environmental horror story as their basis, like Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull 1972) and Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer 1973). The latter is interesting because it is an early example of a film that deals with the consequences of climate change and the greenhouse effect.

It is easy to get the feeling that climate change awareness is relatively new, for some beginning with the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim 2006). But that awareness, while not necessarily public knowledge, was established much earlier than that. Consider for example the report that climate scientists gave to president Lyndon Johnson in 1965, called "Restoring the Quality of our Environment," which Johnson made public due to the gravity of its content and conclusions, which are not that different from what the consensus is among climate scientists today. (Read the part about global warming here.) In the late 1990 scientists also presented the United Nations with a report, which later led to none other than Shell Oil to make a documentary, Climate of Concern (1991), to warn about climate change. It was never released because the conclusions of it were obviously not in alignment with Shell's business interests. (Watch it here.)

But fiction films about climate change are considerably rarer than films about environmental issues in general, and they are inevitably science fiction films. Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds 1995) A.I. (Steven Spielberg 2001), Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho 2013), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan 2014) and at least three by Roland Emmerich, the doomsday auteur. But there is no need for a film about climate change to be set in the future. Climate change is happening now, and it is happening faster and faster.

There is now a growing interest in academia about films and the environment, especially in relation to climate change. The other week I listened to a talk about that, focused on mountains, called "Filming the mountain: the moving image and deep time in the Anthropocene" by Anna Sofia Rossholm from Linneaeus University. She discussed various ways of looking at mountains, both now and in the past, but also about different contemporary approaches to theorising about film and climate change, and how films can capture climate change and also how the act of making films also contributes to climate change. (Although you can offset it by for example going carbon neutral.) Within film studies and other disciplines there is a field called ecocinema (and variations thereof), which focuses on these topics. Some issues that are discussed are: how does films and filmmakers address climate change; how might films depict our effect on and relationship with our environment; which ways are the most effective to influence people and increase awareness. Alas, for many it seems to be just another excuse to regurgitate the usual suspects such as Heidegger, Foucault and Deleuze.

As a film historian I am not particularly knowledgeable about current green cinema, especially not when it comes to documentaries, but I imagine fiction mostly focus on how it affects us humans while documentaries also look at how it affects nature and the earth itself. But an eco-perspective is interesting when looking at film history too, as one important way among many others of looking at films from the recent and distant past.


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At her talk, Rossholm mentioned the annoying habit of academics of constantly inventing new terms and then arguing about them rather than the actual reality of films (or the environment in this case). I am personally also not really on board with the term Anthropocene, as I feel it is too soon to baptise our present era. That should be for future scientists. But it is still better than other, more ideologically tendentious terms.

Here is a link to a recent article by Rossholm related to her talk (in Swedish only). Two edited collections on the subject: Ecocinema - Theory and Practice, edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt (2012) and Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film, edited by Paula Willoquet-Maricondi (2010).

It is not just at universities that film and the environment are highlighted of course, there are many film festivals around the world with such a focus. Some are linked through the Green Film Network.

Friday, 12 May 2017

On time

Our analogue watches are circular, as are sun dials, and we get our days and years because of the circular movement of the earth. Yet we do not actually consider time as something circular but as something linear, a straight arrow. But that might perhaps be because we rarely really think about it at all; who even has the time for that? But there were at least two films last year that played with circular time. Explicitly in Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve 2016) and implicitly in 20th Century Women (Mike Mills 2016). In Arrival the aliens, the heptapods, write and think in circles, and this is also how they experience time. Human beings will too, when they begin to understand them. Then the future has already happened and the past is in the future. They will remember the future as if it was the past, and it will be the past because past and future are the same. Ish. In 20th Century Women the main characters do voice-overs, in the now, talking about their pasts. But sometimes they also speak about their futures as if they had already happened, as if they, like the heptapods, were remembering their futures.

My own concept of time is muddled, and has changed over time (obviously). At one point I wondered whether it was like glass, i.e. slowly sliding downwards imperceptibly (glass may appear solid but it is constantly moving, a window is always thinner at the top and thicker at the bottom) but now I do not feel that way anymore. Now I do not know. But nobody really knows what time is, other than that it is something relative. Is it real or unreal? It is related to consciousness, but nobody knows what that is either. It is perhaps wrong to speak of time in singular, there are different kinds of time. There is physical time and psychological time. There is clock time and by the building of the railways and their time tables that time became standardised. Time as a fourth dimension. Then there is time in the sense of deterioration of matter, which is irrespective of the movements of both the earth and the dial. Everything decays (over time) and in this sense everything ages, even rocks. And just think of how weird it is that if you put one watch on a table and another on the floor, right beneath the watch on the table, the one on the floor, being closer to earth's gravity, will show a different time. Your wristwatch will not be sensitive enough to show the difference, but new atomic clocks will.

My favourite film by Tsai Ming-liang.

So time fascinates me, and I am always interested in how films and filmmakers use time, or play with it. In Tony Scott's Déjà Vu (2006) time bends in various ways as the film takes place in two parallel times, with the highlight being a car chase where the cars are in the same space but not at the same time. No, better to say that they are actually at the same time, but not in the same time. (You might have to watch it to understand.) Theo Angelopoulos sometimes has different times united in the same shot, past and present joined together within a long take with a moving camera. In Alf Sjöberg's Miss Julie (1951), in some scenes when Julie is remembering her past, that past is shown in the same frame as she is so as she is talking about herself as a little girl, with her dad, that girl, her younger self, is present in the scene together with her dad. Her present person and her past person are together in the same space but not in the same time. The wall of time though means that they cannot communicate. In the beautiful Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle 1948) that time-wall has crumbled as a woman from the past somehow comes to appear in the same space as a man in the present, and they fall in love across time.

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie

Sometimes the length of a film and the time of its story are the same as, famously, in The Set-Up (Robert Wise 1949) and High Noon (Fred Zinnemann 1952), more or less. But this has never in itself been particularly interesting to me. It is more fun with the opposite, like in a scene in The Red Shoes (1948) by Powell and Pressburger when during one take the words "45 minutes later" appear on the screen, so a great deal of time has passed but nothing has changed in the shot, only the time. In Miguel Gomes's Tabu (2012) in a single shot, of a woman sitting down by a pool, the Portuguese word for "September" appears and that is all we see of September. In the next shot it is October, that too just the one brief shot. Here time really flies.

Some filmmakers are known for their time games. Alain Resnais of course. Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) runs backwards, Inception (2010) runs on parallel time tracks and Interstellar (2014) is a cinematic depiction of Einsteinian time (as opposed to Newtonian time). Joseph L. Mankiewicz is the flashback auteur, the flashbacks being a deliberate way of expressing his own idea of time, as he has discussed in various interviews. Howard Hawks on the other hand is categorically against flashbacks, his concern is only the fleeting now. For Hawks, man is superior to time (and to space too). Their different ideas of time are key parts of their artistic projects, and not just for these four. Anyone studying authorship should look at the way the person being studied address and handles time.

In La jetée (Chris Marker 1962) time is both frozen and liquid, and so a man can remember being a witness in his childhood, in freeze frames, to how he in the future was killed. Here too time is circular and we have come full circle.

"It was only a moment for you, you took no notice."


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I am currently working on a research paper on the meanings of time and space in the films of Hawks, Ford and Walsh.

You may have noticed that I did not mention time travels, but that felt too obvious. Besides, there is a new, good, book about just that: Time Travel - A History by James Gleick. "Things change, and time is how we keep track."

Friday, 28 April 2017

Delbaran (2001)

Delbaran (Abolfazl Jalili 2001) is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Not just for the breathtaking images of the Iranian landscape (the north-eastern district of Pivey Zhan, close to the border to Afghanistan) but also for its storytelling and humour. It is one film when calling it poetic actually means something specific. There is hardly any story to speak of, there are just a series of images and events, loosely linked, that show the comings and goings of Kaim, a boy, 14 years old, during a diffuse period of time. Kaim is a refugee from Afghanistan, which he left after his house was bombed and his mother killed. His father remains, fighting against the Talibans, and his sister and grandma are also still there. But he has no wish to go back, none at all. Now he works here, on the Iranian side of the border, at a truck stop with an old man as his boss.


Abolfazl Jalili began by making TV-films and documentaries, but most of his films are in that borderline zone between documentary and fiction. Delbaran most definitely. The boy playing Kaim was a refugee himself, Kaim Alizadeh, whom Jalili happen to meet up there, and everything in the film (perhaps with the exception of a wedding ceremony taking place in a goat's pit) is a direct representation of the daily lives of the people at and around this truck stop. Are the few stray things about the film's Kaim's past that he mentions actual experiences of the real person Kaim Alizadeh, or are they not? That might be what decides whether this is a documentary or a work of fiction, but if we do not know it does not matter. The line between documentary and fiction, despite what some might think, is not a firm, unshakeable thing but inevitably flexible and fluid. Delbaran shows the arbitrariness of such a line. (Something it has in common with many other Iranian films that have become well-known abroad.)

Something else that is inevitable is that Delbaran has been likened to neorealism, even though it is plainly not at all like it. The neorealist films are fine as they are, but with their clearly defined characters, story arcs, frequent use of professional actors and tendency to be melodramatic, they are very different from Delbaran, which has neither of those things. What it has however is a wonderful sense of deadpan humour. There is for example an episode where a few men are, it seems like, hunting birds. One of them is running to catch the birds, but the way the sequence is edited it looks like he is just running back and forth in front of the hunters, trying to avoid getting shot. Sound is also used for comic effects at times. One scene shows the feet of the boy and an old, one-legged woman, walking across the courtyard in slow-motion while a French pop song is heard.

But this is no comedy, life is precarious and sometimes refugees are shot and killed. War and death is around the characters. Another way sound is used is exemplified by a series of three static shots of what looks like RPG's (rocket-propelled-grenades) mounted to the ground as if some kind of decoration, with each image accompanied with the sound of a non-diegetic explosion.


While sound is used to vivid effect there is very little dialogue. The camera is often at some distance from whatever is happening (alternated with still close-ups of objects). Perhaps the most common shot is of the camera panning either left or right, for a long time, following a car, a motorcycle or somebody running, usually the boy. The repetition of such scenes help give the film of feeling of hopelessness and perhaps a kind of surrealism. People are running but they do not seem to be getting anywhere, they are trapped in the here and now of their despair.

So the film is about a sleepy outpost in rural Iran, while also a drama about refugees, and as such always pertinent. Most refugees are after all to be found not in Sweden or Germany but in the countries closest to whatever people are fleeing from.


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The myths about neorealism are strong and persistent, and often bear little resemblance to actual films such as Open City (Roberto Rossellini 1945), Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica 1948), Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis 1949) or Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica 1952). For example, while some parts might be played by amateurs, such as the main male characters in Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., other parts are played by professionals, even stars, including in Umberto D. and Open City.

Over the years I have seen four films by Abolfazl Jalili at various film festivals. The first was Don (1998), Delbaran was the second (the first time I saw it was 2002) and then The First Letter (2003) and Darvag (2012). I have liked them all, although no one as much as Delbaran.