Friday, 10 November 2017

Soviet cinema during Khrushchev

Joseph Stalin was dictator during the handful of years in the 1920s when Soviet revolutionary cinema flourished but as he became convinced that what Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov and the others were doing was bourgeoisie and potentially counter-revolutionary he also put a stop to its flourishing. Instead, for close to three decades "socialist realism" was the only kind of cinema that was allowed, from which very little is considered of any value. ”[T]he basic criterion for evaluating the art qualities of a film is the requirement that it be presented in a form which can be understood by the millions” was the stated policy and as conflict was considered counter-revolutionary the films were devoid of that. An additional consequent of Stalin's film policy was that fewer and fewer films were made.

But after Stalin's death in 1953 things eased up. Not just for Soviet cinema but for the Soviet Union at large. The horrible years of Stalin's show trials, mass killings, famine and forced starvation (millions of people were killed often for no other reason than that their deaths pleased Stalin) was replaced with the, comparatively speaking, lighter touch of Nikita Khrushchev. Especially after Khrushchev's speech in 1956 denouncing the homicidal madness of Stalin's year. The so-called Thaw appeared, and Soviet cinema was given a chance to expand somewhat. It was still under strict rules, political control and censorship, but it was freer than under Stalin. The Thaw lasted roughly until 1964, when Khrushchev was disposed of and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev.

The most significant film of those years was also the film that signalled to the world that a new era had begun, The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov 1957), which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 1958. It was a film about the Second World War, as was almost all of the famous films from those years, including Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai 1959), Fate of a Man (Sergei Bondarchuk 1959), Ivan's Childhood (Andrei Tarkovsky 1962) and Father of a Soldier (Revaz Chkheidze 1964). They combine emotionally powerful stories with a poetic sensibility, visually, and are a far cry from the stiffness and stuffiness of Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), the previous Soviet war film of note. Although, despite what Bordwell and Thompson refer to as "mammoth battle sequences" in their Film History: An Introduction, they contain very little actual warfare. They are more concerned with what happens away from the front.

Fate of a Man

The Cranes are Flying is about a happy young couple who are separated when he unexpected enlists and goes off to the front where he is killed. But focus is on her life at home, unwillingly marrying the cousin of her fiancé and living with her in-laws until she finally breaks free. Ballad of a Soldier is about a young radio operator who, after having almost by accident destroyed two German tanks, is given a leave to go home to see his mother. On his way home he meets a young girl and falls in love, as does she, but they have precious little time together. Fate of a Man, perhaps the best of them, is a story of a man's tragic story during the war and in a German prison camp until he adopts a little boy after the armistice. Ivan's Childhood is undoubtedly the most famous one today, because of Tarkovsky, and is about a young boy being used to spy on the Germans and his present situation is peppered with dreams and flashbacks to a happier time before the war. Father of a Soldier finally is about an old man searching for his son and always arriving too late. The son was wounded and hospitalised and that is where the father went first, but the son had been discharged and returned to his unite so the father eventually becomes a soldier at the frontline himself, killing Germans whilst looking for the son.

Ivan's Childhood

The films are rather similar in tone and feelings. While not exactly propaganda for the Communist government and the state they are about men who sign up and are killed with a firm belief in the righteousness of the cause and the wisdom of their leaders. There is none of the anger, cynicism or criticism of their American war films such as Attack! (Robert Aldrich 1956) or Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel 1962). What there is though is a sadness and world-weariness. Where they differ most from one another is in the visual style. The Cranes are Flying, shot by Sergey Urusevskiy, has an impressionistic look and editing technique. It is somewhat reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda's Polish films of the 1950s and the coming French New Wave. Ballad of a Soldier, shot by Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva, looks more like earlier work of Alexander Dovzhenko, with a touch of John Ford. Fate of a Man, shot by Vladimir Monakhov, is full of tricks, some of which are more successful than others, but is on the whole rather dynamic and visually exciting. Father of a Soldier, shot by Archil Pilipashvili and Lev Sukhov, has some extraordinary images but is the least distinguished. Ivan's Childhood, shot by Vadim Yusov, is more sombre and has shots that linger longer than in the other films. It is on every level a more calm and relaxed film whereas the others are more edgy and nervous. It is sometimes unclear whether their editing patterns and abrupt tonal shifts are deliberate or amateurish. All of them have rather ambitious goals in terms of style and capturing larger truths about humanity, but Tarkovsky here seems to be the one most at ease with the scope of the undertaking. The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier and Father of a Soldier are filled with contrived situations and coincidences created primarily to make the audience cry, which is why I prefer Tarkovsky's and Bondarchuk's two films, which also happens to be the first features of either director. The characters in their films are also more complex. Ballad of a Soldier in particular has such immaculate main characters it borders on the ridiculous although the chaste love between two apple-cheeked teenagers is quite sweet. (Pauline Kael was not impressed by The Cranes are Flying or Ballad of a Soldier, calling them "good examples of nineteenth-century patriotism and nineteenth-century family values" when "authority was good, only people without principles thought about sex, and it was the highest honor to fight and die for your country." in her essay "Fantasies of the Art-House Audience".)

There were not only films about the Second World War that were being made of course. There were adaptations of Shakespeare and Cervantes. There was the musical comedy Carnival Night (1956). (It was produced by Mosfilm, which also produced The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, Fate of a Man and Ivan's Childhood. Father of a Soldier was produced by Grusia Film and Qartuli Pilmi, it is a Georgian production.) The Rumyantsev Case (Iosif Kheifits 1956) was a crime story, Lesson of Life (Yuli Raizman 1955) was about a married couple and their everyday concerns, Amphibian Man (Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadi Kazansky 1962) was a science fiction story and the most successful domestic film in Soviet of 1962 (although less popular than The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges 1960)). Elem Klimov, who is today famous for the brutal war film Come and See (1985), began his career making satirical comedies, such as his first feature Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964). But that was towards the very end of the Thaw and things started to become ever more constricted and laborious. Two of the most unique filmmakers who just about managed to get started until the Thaw was over, Andrei Konchalovsky and Sergei Paradjanov, both saw several of their films cut, be censured or banned. But their careers are largely outside the scope of this article. Sergei Bondarchuk and Andrei Tarkovsky continued to do impressive work, including Bondarchuk's epic series based on Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace, but filmmaking would not be the same after 1965.

Filmmaking in a time and place of dictatorship is never easy, and making films that did not satisfy the Politburo or the commissariat was not possible in Soviet, not before, after or during the Thaw. Any film made in Soviet needs to be considered with that in mind. But even if there was plenty of restrictions and plenty of propaganda during the years of the Thaw too there was just a little less of it, and it was possible to create something both beautiful and meaningful.

The Cranes are Flying

A link to my earlier article about Andrei Tarkovsky:

Friday, 27 October 2017

Recent readings

Finally, my article about Richard Quine has gone live so you can read it now over at La Furia Umana:
The two best scenes in It Happened to Jane are set in the kitchen of her home. Her house is not shown in its entirety, only the living room and the kitchen, which is below the living room, but they inhabit these spaces with a wonderful ease and spontaneity. In the first scene Jane and George have a sweet conversation, and it becomes clear that he loves her but feels intimidated by her late husband. In the second they have an unpleasant conversation, and a turning point in George’s life. Having looked after her children and cooked for them for two days, his housewife moment in the apron, while she is in New York wining and dining with an attractive journalist, he now snaps, which unfortunately leads him, because of his frustration and jealousy, to stop just one word short of calling her a slut or whore. She asks him to leave, not so much upset as sad that he has sunk so low.
The last two weeks I have read several books and articles and instead of writing something new I will restrict myself for now to recommend some things others have written.

First the essay collection Durgnat on Film (1976), which consist of selected parts of Raymond Durgnat's previous books Films and Feelings (1967) and The Crazy Mirror (1969). The topics covered are many, such as style, realism, authorship, adaptations and discussions of specific films, filmmakers and comedians. It is very good, combining intelligent writing and a wide-ranging taste, with engaging criticism of the ideas of other critics and academics.
Suppose a film ends with the camera tracking back from the lovers embracing alone on the beach. This may mean 'how tiny and unprotected they are' or 'how frail and futile their love' or 'the whole wide world is theirs' or 'this is the moment of their destiny' (for plan views can suggest a 'God's-eye-view') or 'Good-bye, good-bye,' depending on which emotions are floating about in the spectator's mind as a result of the rest of the film. Hence style is essentially a matter of intuition. There is no possibility whatsoever of an 'objective', 'scientific' analysis of film style - or of 'film' content. It is worse than useless to attempt to watch a film with one's intellect alone, trying to explain its effects in terms of one or two points of style. Few films yield any worthwhile meaning unless watched with a genuine interest in the range of feelings and meanings it suggests. (p. 27)
To over-simplify, perhaps, Ophuls' camera movements suggest a mellow 'fatalism'. Everything ends where it begins. The world is a maze of ironies, of impermanence, of nostalgias. If Ophuls' camera moves, it is à la recherche du temps perdu. But it isn't possible to separate the camera movements from the décor through which it moves, and which it shows to us, or the dramatic context in which it occurs. (p. 55)
We do not agree on Howard Hawks though, whom he do not seem to get. He says for example of "pain, or waste" that it is something "which Hawks, more sentimentally ignores" (p. 80) but I do not agree with that at all. Pain is almost always there in Hawks, sometimes acute physical pain and often equally acute psychological pain, from the death of a loved friend or from some other loss, or from having to experience the downfall of a friend.

Durgnat has written several books and I can also recommend King Vidor: American, co-written with Scott Simmon. A good recent collection is The Essential Raymond Durgnat, edited by Henry K. Miller (which to some extent overlaps with Durgnat on Film).

Jennifer Jones in Vidor's incredible Ruby Gentry (1952)

A great contemporary film writer/video essayist who is strongly influenced by Durgnat is Adrian Martin and his collected work is to be found here: (Well, eventually it will all be there, it is updated regularly.)

The next recommendation is a long article from earlier this year in The Paris Review. It is by Noah Gallagher Shannon and about Roger Deakins:
A strange but beautiful thing you will hear cinematographers say is that they conceive of each frame as, at first, completely black. The creative act lies in what to light and how—where to send viewers’ eyes, using each beam like a stroke or word. And Deakins thinks about this canvas of blackness not unlike the way blues guitarists—I’m thinking of the Keith Richards quote here—do the beats between notes: “The lighting of a film makes the pauses speak as eloquently as the words.”
Then two pieces from Bordwell and Thompson's extensive blog, both a few years old but which I read last week. One is about the style of Sidney Lumet, covering his whole career:

The mid-1970s was the Great Barrier Reef of American cinema. Virtually no members of Hollywood’s accumulated older generations, from Hitchcock and Hawks through the 1940s debutantes (Wilder, Dmytryk, Fuller, Siegel) and the 1950s tough guys (Aldrich, Brooks) to the TV émigrés, made it through to 1980. Many careers just petered out. The future belonged to the youngsters, the so-called Movie Brats. In this unfriendly milieu, Lumet fared better than most. He tried a semifarcical heist film (The Anderson Tapes, 1971) that mocked the rise of the surveillance society, with everybody wiretapping and taping and videoing everybody else. He mounted a classic mystery (Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), a musical (The Wiz, 1978), and a free-love romance (Lovin’ Molly, 1974). Of the items I’ve seen from these years, the most daring is The Offence (1972). This study of a sadistic British police inspector’s vendetta against a child molester offers a sort of seedy expressionism. In another gesture toward psychodrama, long conversations with the perpetrator reveal that the copper is a bit of a perv himself.
The other piece is about journalistic reportage from film sets, whether for an article or a book, and the many problems with them. From Lillian Ross's famous tale of the making of The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston 1951) to an article about the making of Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan 2006).
Still, you have to wonder what a book laying bare decision-making at Microsoft or Enron or the Oval Office would look and sound like. Would you meet epitomes of mature, moral, thoughtful behavior? Would you witness activity bereft of any hubris or self-regard? It’s doubtful, but anyhow we’ll never find out. No executives or politicians in their right minds would let an outsider into the suites when the deals are done. They know that uncontrolled publicity is bad publicity. By comparison, our moviemakers’ egotism seems touchingly naïve. Confronted with the opportunity to have a name journalist track a production, they must think: If people could only understand the process, they’d really appreciate what we do. Anyhow, how could the publicity hurt? (Answer: See previous paragraphs.) Insiders regularly forget that middlebrow journalism will always highlight every act of show-business venality it can find. Peter Biskind has made a career out of treating contemporary American cinema as a circus of lunacy and petty spite.
And last, a very fine article I read some time ago and now re-visited. It is by Sarah Berry and about the films of Jean Negulesco, with a particular focus on gender and women characters:
Negulesco’s characterization of marriage is interesting in three ways, however. Firstly, he retains a Depression-era sympathy for women’s economic struggles and the practical necessity of marriage in a world of very limited options. Secondly, he presents women’s desire for a companionate marriage of equals in an entirely sympathetic light. Thirdly, women’s sexual desires are never condemned or presented as whorish by contrast with a virginal ideal (one could claim that Sophia Loren’s breasts are the star of Boy on a Dolphin, but she is also a three-dimensional character fighting for her impoverished village, as she points out to her “rich American” love interest).
That should keep you occupied for quite some time!

Friday, 13 October 2017

Torgny Anderberg

In 1976 Torgny Anderberg played the part of a hapless chief of police when Stockholm is terrorised by a lone gunman, in Bo Widerberg's The Man on the Roof / Mannen på taket. That is just one aspect of his long and diversified career, one that in some respects was similar to the nowadays more well-remembered Arne Sucksdorff, yet also strikingly different. The similarity is that they both made successful documentaries about the larger world, not least Brazil, with a deep love and understanding for the various countries and people they documented. A difference is that Sucksdorff hardly ever made any other kinds of films, whereas Anderberg also had a prolific career at home as a maker of light comedies and was much more embedded in Swedish film culture. Another difference is their approach to their documentaries. Sucksdorff never inserted himself or the crew in the films, but very carefully designed, edited and structured the films. In Anderberg's films the crew is usually part of the whole thing, and are seen going about their business. Anderberg himself appears in front of the camera. But the films are less pre-structured and much less stylish, they instead feel as if Anderberg and his team just went out with the camera to see what might come up. One might say that in Sucksdorff's films the filmmaker is not present in front of the camera but very much apparent behind the camera, whereas in Anderberg's films it is the exact opposite. It is tempting to borrow Victor Perkins's comparison between Hitchcock and Preminger, with Hitchcock for Sucksdorff and Preminger for Anderberg: "Hitchcock tells stories as if he knows how they end, Preminger gives the impression of witnessing them as they unfold."

Anderberg's first film as a director was a feature-length documentary called Anaconda (1954) about a research expedition through the Andes and then up the Amazon river. It is a fine film, shot in black and white. There is a sequence towards the end with a man out in a canoe alone in the night, hunting a caiman in the river, and with its nocturnal light and almost complete silence it is quite spectacular.

Jangada (1958), this time in colour and AgaScope, has a very loose narrative. The first part is an exploration up a river and meetings with indigenous people, another part is about Rio de Janeiro. There is a part about the opera house in Manaus, (famous from Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982)), and finally a sequence about fishermen in Portaleza. While telling stories about then-contemporary life in Brazil, it also deals with the colonialism and the hardships and abuses from those days.

Anderberg also made several short films from Brazil, including one about its capital Brasília, and one about Pelé, often referred to as the world's greatest football player (although Maradona might take exception to that opinion). Esmeraldas - den gröna smaragden (1957) is about a town in Ecuador.

Most of these films, including Anaconda and Jangada, were produced by the production company Nordisk Tonefilm. It is easy to be impressed by, and perhaps nostalgic for, the expansive ambitions of the production companies at the time, financing expeditions to faraway parts of the world. Today such things would not happen unless a large number of various organisations, companies and institutions got together after years of efforts. But the reason why this was happening then was that there was no competition from television. When TV arrived, film companies stopped being interested in such documentaries and Jangada was among the last of its kind being made in Sweden. From then on it would be Swedish television that would make such documentaries, or international co-productions between specialised companies.

Anaconda had been an international success, but Anderberg also directed some very successful fiction films in the 1950s. The first was Lille Fridolf och jag (1956), one of the most successful films, commercially, ever released in Sweden; a domestic comedy written by Rune Moberg about an older couple coming to terms with their daughter's approaching wedding. The film had three sequels, two of which was directed by Anderberg, but each with diminishing returns.

Villervalle i Söderhavet (1963) was a series made for Swedish television about a Swedish family living in the South Pacific, and shot on location. It was a humongous flop, especially among critics, and it is almost without redeeming qualities, except for the fine locations around Tahiti. After that almost all of Anderberg's films are shorts, whether documentaries, commercials or commissioned works. In the 1980s he did several shorts about Peru, and the famine there in 1981-1983. He also made a few features such as Djungeläventyret Campa, Campa / Jungle Adventure Campa Campa (1976), a work of fiction about a missionary in Peru who kidnaps two children. Tåg till himlen / Train to Heaven (1990) is another work of fiction, about orphans in Ecuador. Anderberg's last film, co-directed with Helgi Felixson, was the documentary Kondormannen (2002) from Peru. It began as his film but he died during the making of it and Felixson instead finished it, making it a film about Anderberg. It was released two years after his death.

Anderberg was not a great artist, and little he made after the 1950s are of any particular interest. But his compassion for people around the world, not least indigenous people of South America, was genuine and never left him, and in the 1950s he was an important presence in Swedish cinema. At least two of his films, Anaconda and Jangada, deserve to be remembered. Swedish cinema of the 1950s is today almost only remembered for the films of Ingmar Bergman and of late also, to a much lesser extent, for the films of Hasse Ekman. But there was more going on back then, including films with global ambitions, and Anderberg is an example of that. Other directors who appeared then, or had their major breakthroughs, are Göran Gentele, Lars-Eric Kjellgren, Arne Mattsson and Lars-Magnus Lindgren. Compared to Anderberg they were more interesting artistically and deserve their own posts later on.

That older couple in Lille Fridolf och jag, Selma and Fridolf, was the centrepiece of a huge franchise with both comic strips and a radio show. Those predate the films and continued, at least as a comic strip, until the 1990s. In the radio show and in the films the couple was played by Hjördis Petterson and Douglas Håge, who had played a couple for the first time in Bergman's It Rains on Our Love / Det regnar på vår kärlek (1946), and later the same year in Ekman's While the Door was Locked / Medan porten var stängd.

My previous article about Sucksdorff here.

The Perkins-quote is from Film as Film.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Arne Sucksdorff

When André Bazin compared Arne Sucksdorff with Luchino Visconti's film La Terra Trema (1948) it was something of an exaggeration (and perhaps Roberto Rossellini would have been a more apt comparison). But it should be said that Sucksdorff was one of Sweden's great filmmakers, and also a filmmaker of some influence on Brazilian cinema and Cinema Novo. Born in 1917, he first made a series of lyrical and suggestive short films shot across Scandinavia during the 1940s and then he expanded, both length-wise and location-wise; making two short films in India and three long features (in Sweden, India and Brazil) that combined narrative storytelling and documentary. He also made one allegorical fiction film in 1961, Pojken i trädet / The Boy in the Tree, shot in Sweden. It is Sucksdorff's combination of beauty and symbolism that makes him one of the great visual poets in film history. In his documentaries he was not content with just recording the natural world, instead he used and shaped it according to his ideas or needs. Much depends on trick photography and props, and his films are often so scripted and directed that it is debatable whether they are documentaries or fiction. But this should not be taken as criticism. Sucksdorff was an artist who, as he put it, was looking for the balance between poetic truth and documentary truth. (Although that is probably true for most documentaries.) As time went by his narrative imagery became self-sufficient to the extent that in some films not a single word is spoken. Some of his short films are shot as if they were horror movies, but more typical are his images of hazy sunlight through blades of grass, mist over water and raindrops on asphalt.

The 14 short films he made in Scandinavia between 1940 and 1950 can be divided into four groups. Films made on commission for organisations or government agencies (in all five films and also his first Indian film), films made about minorities in Sweden (three films), impressionistic, light films about wildlife (four films), and expressionistic, dark films about wildlife (two films). By far the best one in the first category is Människor i stad / Rhythm of a City (1947 aka Symphony of a City), a city symphony about Stockholm that won an Academy Award for best short film in 1949, the first time a Swedish film won an Oscar. The three shorts about minorities, two about the Sami people and a rather questionable one (for its latent exoticism) about Roma people, are not among his best work. From the third category two stand out: En sommarsaga (A Summer's Tale) from 1941, about a fox, which can be seen as a precursor to his first feature-length film Det stora äventyret / The Great Adventure (1953), and Gryning (Dawn) from 1944, his first with no dialogue or voice-over, about a hunter who is unable to pull the trigger and lets the deer live. Skuggor över snön (Shadows over the snow) from 1944 is something of a hybrid, part dark tale of death and part light tale of surviving. The two dark, expressionistic shorts are Trut! / Gull! (1944), a tale of some peaceful birds terrorised by a bigger bird which some have interpreted as an allegory about the Nazis, and En kluven värld / A Divided World (1948). The last one is one of Sucksdorff's best, more a film noir, a nightmare by Fritz Lang, than a documentary. It is almost entirely staged and shot with models and fake sets, about a white stoat, a fox and an owl in a cruel tale of survival. Some of the shots are incredible in their use of depth, shadows and mist. It is close to a masterpiece.

Then Sucksdorff when to India for two films. The 25-minute-long Indisk by / Indian Village (1951), which is the commissioned one, a conventional documentary about a small village and the digging of a well, and Vinden och floden / The Wind and the River (1953). It is a ten-minute-long impressionistic, wordless, depiction of Kashmir, shot with long takes with a moving camera, creating the impression of it floating down the river and quietly observing what goes on along its banks. Some, including Sucksdorff himself, thinks this is his best short. At least it shares that honour with Rhythm of a City and A Divided World.

These films show Sucksdorff skills as an editor and cinematographer (he usually wrote, shot and edited his own films) and they also show his primary interest in the natural world and animals, with a pantheistic view of that nature. Even if he shows the brutality it can hold, it is still a beautiful and awe-inspiring space. The use of editing, not least the recurring shot/countershots of birds (preferably owls) watching over the world and all its animals (including humans) as if they were judging the behaviour of those they observe, is often extraordinary. All of these aspects continue in the 85-minutes-long films that would now follow. He had made most of his short films with funding from Svensk Filmindustri (SF), but now SF's boss Carl Anders Dymling for some reason was not interested anymore so Sucksdorff turned to Sandrews instead, and they helped fund his first two features The Great Adventure and En djungelsaga / The Flute and the Arrow (1957). The first was shot in Sweden and the second in India, but they are somewhat similar. The great adventure the title refers to is life itself, and it shows a year in the life of a fox, an otter and two young brothers. Initially there is a whole fox family but all but one are killed (there is a POV-shot of the last 30 seconds or so of a dying fox), and there are two otters to begin with but one is also killed. The brothers thus come face to face with both the cruelty of life, and the cruelty of humans. One strong scene is with the baby fox screaming beside its dead mother, killed by a human, and trying to wake her up before he gives up. In another sequence Sucksdorff cuts back and forth between humans in a church during Sunday mass and the two otters playing in a river in which a human has laid a trap, which kills one of the otters. (It is not shown, only alluded to.) Since the audience knows the trap is there the sequence is rather suspenseful, like some eco-thriller. While the humans are singing a hymn the animals are in mortal danger because of those very humans. Erik Barnouw has suggested that Sucksdorff makes a distinction between the killings by humans and the killings by other animals: "Both men and animals kill, but animals do so for survival. Only men kill for other reasons and camouflage their reasons, always regarding themselves as instruments of morality and justice." But it is not a simple dichotomy between good animals and bad humans. The one surviving otter becomes best friend with the two brothers, and they spend half of the film together. The surviving fox also comes and play with the otter. And there is also another dark force in the landscape, beside the human hunters. A lynx. The lynx is like an evil spirit, a disturbance in the force, and a threat to everyone else. But in the end it walks away, leaving the area, and harmony is restored.

The Flute and the Arrow is also focused on children, and their interactions with animals, and around the Indian village there too is a dark force, but here it is not a lynx but a leopard. They have a similar function in the two films, but the leopard plays a larger role than the lynx, and is deadlier. The Flute and the Arrow, which took three years to make, is set (and shot) in the region Bastar in central India and is about life in a Muria village. Their lives and rituals, and the coming of age of the boy in the picture below, Chendru. It was Sucksdorff's only film in colour and it is shot in AgaScope, a Swedish version of CinemaScope. It looks spectacular, and has a fine score by Ravi Shankar. It has a stronger, more focused narrative than The Great Adventure and is more about the humans than the animals. It also pushes the boundaries for how far a documentary might go towards pre-planned staging until it stops being a documentary. Whereas the first half is more traditionally like an anthropological documentary it then takes a turn towards fiction, albeit inspired by real events.

The Great Adventure had been a major success, both financially and with the critics, but The Flute and the Arrow was only a hit with the critics. It was also very expensive. Sucksdorff's next film would be his only work of pure fiction, The Boy in the Tree, which is about a teenage boy who prefers the animal world to the human world but gets mixed up with some juvenile delinquents during a few days one summer. It does not stray very far from Sucksdorff's other films, besides the fact that it has regular actors and stars and a jazz score especially written for the film by Quincy Jones. But the film did not do particular well and Sucksdorff would never again make a film in Sweden. Instead he moved to Sardinia, and then to Brazil, where he remained for some 20 years. In Brazil he taught at a film school connected with Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Modern Art, and this is where his connection with Cinema Novo appears because some filmmakers associated with that group had Sucksdorff as their teacher. Among them was Antonio Carlos da Fontoura, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Eduardo Escorel. The latter became a distinguished editor during the 1960s and in the 1970s began directing as well. (Nelson Pereira dos Santos's film Vidas Secas (1963) was edited on Sucksdorff's equipment.) Sucksdorff also made a documentary in Rio de Janeiro, his fourth feature-length film Mitt hem är Copacabana / My Home Is Copacabana (1965). It is a very moving, and uncomfortable, film about orphans living on the streets. The focus is on two of them, Jorginho and Rico, and their efforts to find food, earn some money and just stay alive. The most horrid sequence in the film is when Rico has a bad toothache. First he welcomes the ache. "It makes me forget how hungry I am." he says. But then the pain becomes so unbearable that a friend pulls out the tooth with pliers borrowed from a construction worker, while Rico screams and screams. The film, which might be Sucksdorff's best, did cause some upset since it did not portray Brazil or Rio in a flattering light. But it did get made and was shown around the world. It won several awards, although it got a mixed reception at the Cannes film festival.

Sucksdorff had won in Cannes before though. Skuggor över snön won for best documentary short in 1946, as did Rhythm of a City in 1947. An Indian Village won the Prix special de jury in 1952 and The Great Adventure won Cannes's International prize in 1954, as well as an honorary diploma. It also won the Silver Award in Berlin. He has also won several awards at the Venice film festival and other places. For a period of some 20 years he was one of the most celebrated of documentary filmmakers, comparable to Robert Flaherty. But still, after My Home is Copacabana he never made a film again. His style and some themes instead lived on in the films of Jan Troell and Stefan Jarl.

Sucksdorff instead got involved in local environmental issues, especially the struggle to save the Amazon rain forests, and he made a four-part television series for Swedish television which aired in 1972. (It seems most Swedes watched it.) For his environmental activism he was awarded a medal by the Brazilian government after the fall of the military dictatorship in the mid-1980s. During the previous years Sucksdorff had not only fought for the protection of the Brazilian wildlife, he also lived in it for several years, in the wetland Pantanal in Mato Grosso. That is also where he made the TV-series, På jordens baksida (On the far side of the world). It is not particularly good or educational, but it does have a certain appeal. The first two parts are mainly about him and his third wife, the Brazilian Maria Graça de Jesus, and their day-to-day life in the wild. The appeal of the episodes comes from the joy that stems from the fact that Sucksdorff has so clearly found his own paradise, living and working among the animals, and interacting with them as if they were all one big, happy family. To see him and his wife swim around with an otter (apparently a favourite animal for the Sucksdorff family) or a tapir, or feeding a baby jaguar whose mother was killed by a hunter, is immensely moving and satisfying, as it is a depiction of a man who has found his dream fulfilled.

It was in his review of La Terra Trema that Bazin mentioned Sucksdorff. It had "a profoundly original style of image, unequaled anywhere (as far as I know) but in the short films which are being made in Sweden by Arne Sucksdorff." The review is reprinted both in What is Cinema 2 and André Bazin and Italian Neorealism.

The quote from Barnouw is from the 1993 edition of his book Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, page 189. Barnouw thinks The Great Adventure is a masterpiece, and is in general appreciative of Sucksdorff's films.

Sucksdorff was also involved in one additional film, a British from 1971 called Mr. Forbush and the Penguins (aka Cry of the Penguins). It seems Sucksdorff was only responsible for the penguins. Alfred Viola and Roy Boulting took care of Mr Forbush. John Hurt played him and Hurt claimed the penguins were "a real pain in the arse."

While Sucksdorff spent decades in Brazil, he did return to Sweden late in life and he died in Stockholm in 2001. But the longest Wikipedia entrance for him is the one in Portuguese.

Contemporaneous with Sucksdorff was another Swedish filmmaker with a particular interest in Brazil: Torgny Anderberg. He might appear in a later post.

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.