Friday, 15 September 2017

Personal and public politics and prejudices

In Senses of Cinema recently there were several interesting interviews with distinguished film scholars from around the world and one of them was Dana Polan. Towards the end he spoke about the special relevance of teaching Howard Hawks in the age of Trump. This got me thinking about one of the most convoluted aspects of artistic appreciation: to what extent an artist's political beliefs, or private thoughts and behaviour in general, influence our response to their work, and how much it should influence us, if at all. That is a loaded question. When a fellow film blogger and critic wondered on Twitter whether Jean-Luc Godard had ever shown any remorse for his support of Mao Zedong, quite a few people got upset and wondered why the question was even asked, and there were musings about alleged political correctness running amok (incidentally one of the most clichéd and tired reactions in contemporary culture). But it was a perfectly legitimate question and there was no judgement of Godard's films stated or implied, yet people got anxious. One might get the sense that some prefer not to think about such matters, as if acknowledging, say, Godard's Maoism, would contaminate them.

There are those who demand purity on the part of the artist, and then there are those who believe that whatever an artist does in her own time is her own business and should not be considered at all when discussing the artwork. But I do not think anybody really hold firm to either approach. There are just too many variables involved. Imagine for example that you have always loved the books or the films of a given person, and then you learn that this person was racist in some form, even though there is no trace of this in the artworks. It seems pretty drastic to completely throw away that body of work which you have enjoyed and which have been such an important part of your life. Yet with some people it sounds as if they would never engage with an artwork before thoroughly vetting the artist. There is something unsettling with these kinds of purity demands, and it almost inevitably leads to defeat because few people are beyond reproach. It is just a question of where you yourself draw the line. And, the further back in history you go the more likely it is that writers and artists will have beliefs that are unpalatable for most people today. This also means that people in the future will find us to have pretty unpalatable beliefs, however conventional they may seem now.

At the same time though there comes a point when a person is found out to be so utterly horrible that it becomes impossible to ignore that part, usually when it comes to actions and deeds, rather than just beliefs. Take for example V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, whose brutal behaviour towards people around him, not least his wife, was shockingly revealed some years ago. It is almost impossible to shrug off when reading something he has written. Likewise, many people are understandably concerned about the allegations against Woody Allen, even though they are as yet unsubstantiated.

There is also a different, although somewhat rarer attitude, exemplified with Leni Riefenstahl. She is often said to be a really great filmmaker, maybe one of the best, not least by people who are also clear about her making Nazi films. But she is not really that good, and it often feels like people get a kick out of saying "Yes, she made Nazi propaganda but she was still a great artist." as if revelling in their own broad-mindedness. With Riefenstahl it is also the case that her politics are obvious in the films she made. This is also true for Russian cinema of the 1920s (like Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein) where most films were more or less propaganda for the Stalin regime. There is a double standard here because the politics and the mass killings during Stalin's reign were as awful and indefensible as those of Hitler, yet Stalinist propaganda is not treated the same way, and can often be found, and celebrated, without the kind of critical contextualisation that usually follows Riefenstahl's films, or Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Such contextualisation is always useful. Consider the 1930s, when antisemitism was widespread and depressingly common, and across the political spectrum from the far left through the middle to the far right. It is highly likely that some, perhaps even a majority, of the filmmakers we know from that time also were antisemitic, in the mainstream fashion of the day, in Sweden, France, the U.S. and elsewhere as well. Jean Renoir is sometimes mentioned for example, and Preston Sturges and Hawks too. (Whether they actually were antisemitic, even by the standards of the time, remains unclear, and books about them still grapple with it.) If the antisemitism is visible in the films it should be a concern but if it is not, and if it is not even clear as to whether the people behind it were guilty of it, then we should be able to enjoy and appreciate the films in their own rights.

La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937)

But let's return to Polan and his thoughts on Hawks. Here is the full quote:
I've tried to avoid this in the Hawks course because I don't want to make it just about relevance, but there are many things in Hawks. For instance, his fascination for masculinity. He has a libertarian side. His biographers guessed that he was probably Republican, he was certainly anti-New Deal. I don't want to make out as if he leads up to Trump. You don't want to falsely make things relevant. But you want to make the connections. America has a history which is now a shameful history, and it's going to be worth unpacking how we got there. And movies are part of how we got there.
There are a lot of confusing statements here. Many filmmakers can be said to have a "fascination for masculinity", but what does it actually mean and what has it got to do with Trump? In Hawks's films there are frequent gags to undermine that masculinity, which is not something you would associate with Trump. What does it mean to have a libertarian side? To the extent that libertarianism is about personal freedom I certainly have a libertarian side, but that puts me in opposition to Trump who is in favour of corporate freedom, not personal freedom, nor does it mean I would support the Libertarian Party. (Which, by the way, is not associated with Trump. Their presidential candidate of 2016 was the hapless Gary Johnson.) It is quite possible that Hawks was a Republican (although he seems to have been apolitical and did perhaps not even vote) but so was Eisenhower and Lincoln, so should they also be taught as a way of explaining how the U.S. ended up with Trump? Is there in fact anything, at all, in Hawks's films that could be meaningful for "unpacking how we got there"? Something like Robert Rossen's fine adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) does a good job of showing that there is a long tradition, which has always been shameful, of dangerous demagogues in American politics, and there are many other films that are useful for exemplifying that. My major point though is that there is a strong element of guesswork and irrelevant focus on Hawks's personal political beliefs, so you would be teaching that, not the films. And then you might just as well teach anybody.

I am much less lenient when it comes to philosophers who support dictators and brutal regimes or devious causes. Whether it is Heidegger and the Nazis or the long line of French and American philosophers celebrating Stalin and Mao and others, it seems to me to be impossible to disentangle that from their general thinking. Alain Badiou's philosophy does feel like an elaborate effort to mathematically prove that the Chinese Cultural Revolution, organised by Mao, in which over a million innocent Chinese were randomly killed was the greatest thing (or event) in human history.

Todd McCarthy addresses the issue of Hawks and antisemitism in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, in connection with Lauren Bacall, who was Jewish and Hawks's protégé. The evidence is inconclusive.

Renoir seems to have been against antisemitism, so the opposite of his father, although sometimes a stereotype slips by. As an example of writing on it, Maureen Turim looks at Renoir and antisemitism in her chapter in A Companion to Jean Renoir.

It seems that Budd Schulberg accused Preston Sturges of being antisemitic, which is interesting as it was also a similar accusation by Schulberg that was behind that recent, disgraceful book The Collaboration - Hollywood's Pact with Hitler. Even the title is disgraceful since there was no collaboration and no pact. But that is another story.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Richard Quine detour

This week I have been working on an article about Richard Quine for another publication so there will be no new writing here today, alas. But I can provide some Quine material. See you in two weeks.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

The World of Suzie Wong (1960) 

The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)

If you want to read more about some of Quine's films you can do so here:

And in print only: Film Comment's May/June issue of 2016 where Glenn Kenny wrote about Strangers When We Meet (1960).

Friday, 18 August 2017

A Bell for Adano (1945)

In my on-going series of articles about war films made in 1945 the first three films were of actual combat, Ford's They Were Expendable (in the Philippines), Walsh's Objective, Burma! and William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (in Italy). This post is about a film set behind the front line, Henry King's adaptation of A Bell for Adano, originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Hersey. That way the post combines three of my major research focuses of late: war films from 1945, 20th Century Fox and Henry King.

Hersey was a war correspondence for the magazines Time and Life and in 1944 he was in Sicily where he visited the small town of Licata. After the Allied invasion of Italy the previous year the fascists mayors were removed from power and replaced by officers from Britain or the US. In Licata, an U.S. Army Major called F.E. Toscani was put in charge and one of his first tasks was to replace a 700 years old bell that the fascists had taken and melted down to make weapons. It was not Toscani's own priority to replace it but it was what the villagers wanted, not least as a symbol that the years of war and dictatorship were over. Later Hershey wrote a book about it, but a fictionalised version, renaming the town Adano and calling the major Joppolo instead of Toscani. (As indicated by the names both the real major and the fictional one were of Italian ancestry. The parents were born there and had come to the U.S. as economic refugees.)


The film opens with a shot with the camera up in the town looking down at a car driving through the countryside. It continues up a hill, past the harbour and through the town until it stops on the main square. It is done in one excellently timed long take and immediately creates a strong sense of place. In the car are Joppolo, played by John Hodiak, and his sergeant, played by William Bendix, and while they seem to be the only people around, soon they will have their hands full with people coming at them from all directions, primarily asked for food and water. In the beginning the Americans, and in particular the captain in charge of the MPs, are rather contemptuous towards the Italians. But Joppolo, despite being overwhelmed by his assignment, does not succumb to such feelings. He remains committed to fairness and justice. This is what eventually leads to his downfall.

The cast is a combination of American, Italians, Italian-Americans and the French actor Marcel Dalio, also playing an Italian. The Czech-born Hugo Haas plays a priest. Henry Morgan plays the MP who is, in a way, the villain in the film. Gene Tierney plays Tina Tomasino, an Italian woman with whom Joppolo has some sort of a relationship although he is married and she is engaged. His wife is home in America and her boyfriend is missing, perhaps dead or in a prison camp, so they are united in their loneliness. It is a sweet section of the film but Tierney does not feel right. Tina wants to be different from the other women in town, and she dyed her hair to become a blonde to stand out from all the others with black hair, but there is something stiff about Tierney's performance. Many of the Italians are otherwise portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated manner, which gets tiresome on occasion.

Dalio between Hodiak and Bendix.

While not shot on location on Sicily but at Brent's Crag in California (the same place where a few years earlier Ford had made How Green Was My Valley (1941), also for 20th Century Fox) King and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle try to do what they can to create a feeling of realism. Unusually for a film by King the mise en scène looks somewhat haphazard and improvised, and the lighting is sometimes rather dull, but this might be deliberate in order to make it look less staged. There are also several very powerful sequences, such as one when the men of the town, who had been imprisoned by the Allied, one day returns home. First we see the women leaving their houses, sisters, wives and mothers, and then we see the men walking, tired but happy, towards them. Then there is a sudden cut from street-level to a camera placed high above the square where all the men and women meet in one big frenzy of tears and hugs. When seen from a distance all the combined emotions from all these people becomes very moving. The recurring use of the 1944 romantic song Lili Marleen also contributes to the feeling of the film.

A Bell for Adano is peculiar for the angle from which the story is told. This honourable man, Joppolo, is doing the best he can but he is hamstrung by the bureaucracy and pettiness of the U.S. Army. Considering the war was still going on when the film was shot it is remarkable how it sides with the Italians, ostensibly the enemy, against the army and the thinly disguised general Patton. I do not think there are any similar films set in Germany or Japan; that came later. But it does perhaps relate to one of King's recurrent themes, which is forgiveness and acceptance. (Here that the Italians and the Americans should aim for this together, and to move forward together.) This does not mean that the Italian fascists are forgotten. Many of the Italians in the film are shown to have supported the fascists, with different levels of sincerity, and the former major, an unrepentant fascist, is publicly humiliated before the townspeople. But the film's sympathy lies with the poor and hungry civilians. By siding with the townspeople and going against his own people Joppolo wins the locals' trust but at the same time it raises his superiors' suspicions and disappointment. The film ends with Joppolo being dismissed and relocated, at the very day the locals have thrown him a big party. His sergeant cannot bring himself to tell him the news and instead gets drunk and then collapse in tears, so Joppolo is able to enjoy the party without knowing it will be the last time he will ever see these people. The beautiful last shot shows Joppolo, in the early morning mist, get into a jeep and drive away through the empty streets.

The ending is typical for the war films of 1945, it is not triumphant but melancholic. While A Bell for Adano is not the best of them, or the best of Henry King, it is both interesting and moving.

Tierney and Hodiak.


A Bell for Adano was edited by Barbara McLean, one of King's most important partners. They made close to 30 films together.

My earlier article about Henry King is here.

Here are the articles about They Were Expendable, Objective, Burma! and The Story of G.I. Joe.

After the book and film came out there was some friction between the real major, Toscani, his wife and John Hersey due to the part about the woman whom Toscani allegedly had an affair with.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Budd Boetticher

Whoever is thinking about making a film should first watch a couple of films made by Budd Boetticher. Not just because so many of them are great works of art, but because he manages to capture so much in them despite them usually being around 70 minutes long and despite them usually having a slow pace. The precise judgement behind what is shown, what is said and what is left out is about as close to perfection you might reach in cinema. Then there is the moral clarity, which is put forward with the same precision and judgement. There is no need for lengthy discussions, all it takes is two words. "Do we?" It is a recurrent response from the main character, especially when played by Randolph Scott, whenever another character says, for example "We think alike you and I." or "Then we understand one another." Behind that "Do we?" lies a whole moral system, an ethics of how to live and how to behave towards others from which the main characters never flinch. In Seven Men from Now (1956) a cavalry officer is talking about killing Indians and looks nervously at Scott's character for confirmation. What he gets instead as one of those "Do we?" and the officer understands the implicit contempt and condemnation in the words and the tone of voice.

There are many other things in Boetticher's work that is special, such as their depictions of deep friendships and the visual style. Some of my favourite shots of all time are to be found in his work, and nothing beats this one from Ride Lonesome (1959):

Their force come not just from the beauty of them but also from the emotional undercurrent that they express, or crystallise. The films are often tragedies, and the images express that too. Comanche Station (1960) is a film about a man who has spent the last ten years mourning the loss of his wife while still searching for her in the mad hope that she might still be out there, somewhere. The film ends like it begins, with him alone on his horse, still searching.

Earlier this year an edited collection called ReFocus: The Films of Budd Boetticher was published by Edinburgh University Press and I contributed a chapter to it. What follows is a part from the introduction to my chapter. First I raise some questions about the concept of the "classical Hollywood style" of filmmaking and wondering whether there is such a thing and how it is to be defined. My suggestion is "a linear narrative, unambiguous cause and effect, an unobtrusive visual style and unironic tone" (which obviously leaves out quite a lot of Hollywood films that use other styles of filmmaking) and then I turn to Boetticher:
Where does this leave Budd Boetticher? One the one hand his films do have a linear narrative, unambiguous cause and effect, an unobtrusive visual style and they are not obviously ironic, so in that respect it could be argued that he is a director who actually do make films in the style of authentic “classical” American cinema. But at the same time he is one of the most austere filmmakers of those who worked in Hollywood. His precise, economical style is sometimes more reminiscent of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu or Robert Bresson than any of his American contemporaries. There is rarely any stylistic excess or flamboyance, the actors underplay and are often expressionless and there is nothing that could be described as showing off. To some this might be regarded as a consequence of his films’ comparatively small budgets although there is actually no obvious correlation between a small budget and an austere style. Filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis and Samuel Fuller made films on equally small, or even smaller budgets, than Boetticher yet their style of filming was very different from his, and much more expressionistic and flamboyant. So Boetticher’s style of filmmaking should be regarded as a conscious choice; that he prefers this straightforward and low key style, and it is after all a style that is congenial with the themes of his films. The thing that really matters in his best films is the behavior of the characters, their moral code and grace under pressure, and these characters do not talk much and do not try to show off, nor do they become overtly emotional. (Those that try to show off are usually punished.) With his recurring theme of stoicism and grace it should not come as a surprise that Boetticher had a keen interest in bullfighting, and that he made several films on the subject. The first of these is Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a key development in Boetticher’s career, the first full-length A-film that he made, as well as his first film about bullfighting. This chapter will argue that Bullfighter and the Lady is an important film, and show how several of Boetticher’s themes and motifs, and his style of filmmaking, are fully formed here. It will also argue that there are links to both the transcendental style of filmmaking that Paul Schrader writes about, and to Taoism, the Chinese philosophical system, or way of life. 
While Boetticher is today remembered for his Westerns he made many other films that are also often as good and Bullfighter and the Lady is one example of that, as is the thriller The Killer is Loose (1956). Seek them out.

Seven Men from Now

The Killer is Loose

2017-08-18 I am aware that Edgar is Ulmer's first name, not Edward, so I have corrected that now, and I added a few words in the fourth paragraph.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Summer break

It is July, the weather is nice and I am taking a break from working and writing. So eat an ice cream and wait for August when I will be back, or why not read some of my previous articles here, like these three:

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki 1966)