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.

Friday, 14 April 2017

DeMille vs. Mankiewicz, October 22, 1950

Today is Good Friday, and in the olden days this used to be a closed day in Sweden, at least until the 1990s. No shops were open, no newspapers came out and TV and radio broadcasts were solemn and/or religious. Swedish Television would show a film with a biblical theme, such as Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy 1951) or Ben-Hur (William Wyler 1959). Another film that would have been shown is Cecil B DeMille 's The Ten Commandments (1956), so I thought I would keep that thought. It was DeMille last film, and not a very good one. At the end of the 1910s and the 1920s he was one of the best of filmmakers, making elegant, witty and intelligent films such as Old Wives for New (1918), Don't Change Your Husbands (1919) and Why Change Your Wife (1920). But his films of the 1930s and onwards are less than great. He was really the star behind his films too, the filmmaker not only as auteur but Moses or even God (judging by the promotional material for The Ten Commandments).

Here is his introduction to The Ten Commandments:



So he was a celebrity and he also appeared as himself in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950), with Gloria Swanson who was his leading lady in the silent era.


That year, 1950, was an interesting one for DeMille and for Hollywood in general because of the intense political intrigue being played out at SDG, the Screen Directors Guild (which later became DGA, the Directors Guild of America), where most directors were members. That is the subject of today's Easter post.

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The late 1940s and 1950s were filled with fears and paranoia about Communists, the Red Scare, which infected all parts of the United States. The most famous examples are from Congress where in the House of Representatives there was HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and in the Senate there was Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. DeMille was an anti-Communist crusader, a friend of McCarthy, and an influential member of the board of the SDG. He had been working during the 1940s to fill the board with like-minded people, like Albert S. Rogell, George Marshall and Sam Wood, as the board held the real power in the Guild. After Congress, against the veto of president Truman, had enforced that all federal employees signed a loyalty oath (in effect declaring that the signed was not a Communist) DeMille wanted every member of the SDG to sign one too. This is when he and fellow filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz became enemies.

Mankiewicz was at the time at the height of his powers, fresh from the remarkable success of A Letter to Three Wives (1949), possibly his best film. In 1950 he made two other distinguished films, No Way Out and All About Eve, the latter for which he would win Oscars for best writing and best directing, just as he had for A Letter to Three Wives. His films were the opposite of DeMille's, sophisticated and intelligent dramas and comedies. But DeMille had recommended that he take over the position as president of the SDG, after George Stevens, and this is what happened. DeMille probably thought that Mankiewicz would be malleable to his wants, but this turned out to not be the case.

The conflict was not so much about an oath per se, most members of SDG, including Mankiewicz, were in favour of signing such a thing. In August of 1950, when Mankiewicz was on a ship sailing from France to the US, DeMille and his board had sent out a ballot to all the members of SDG where they could vote yes or no to such an oath. 547 voted yes, 14 voted no, and 57 did not vote at all. (Whether those who voted yes all did so because they really believed in it or because they were afraid of ending up on a blacklist is a valid question.) But DeMille and his faction argued that the oath should be mandatory, for all members, and official, so that anybody could see who had signed. The result would be that whomever refused to sign would more or less end up on a blacklist. The board had already voted against this, but DeMille and his faction were not satisfied with that no-vote. So this is the situation that faced Mankiewicz when he came back from his trip, on August 23. When DeMille understood that Mankiewicz would not budge in his resistance to a mandatory oath, he and his closest associates tried to get Mankiewicz kicked out. On October 11, DeMille called a secret board meeting and only invited those he knew agreed with him (which meant that for example George Stevens got his invite to the meeting after it had already begun) and they decided to send out a new ballot to members of the SDG for a recall of Mankiewicz, with no motivation and without official SDG approval. The ballot was then sent out by motorcycle dispatches during the late evening and night of October 12, to most members of the SDG, with the exception of 55 members considered too loyal to Mankiewicz.

Obviously, Mankiewicz and his friends were to be kept in the dark but apparently Mankiewicz's brother, Herman, got word of it and called him up saying he was being impeached. Mankiewicz quickly set up a secret meeting of his own to counter DeMille's attack, on the evening of October 13. He had a lawyer, Martin Gang, take out an injunction against DeMille's ballot and got hold of 25 supporters among the SDG members who could sign on to a request for a general meeting for the SDG. (25 signatures were needed for that.) In the nick of time he managed to secure them and a meeting was called. It was held on the evening of October 22, beginning at 8:00 pm, and chaired by Mankiewicz. There were three things on his agenda: to clear his name and save his presidency, to dismiss the idea of a general, mandatory and public oath, and to restrain the power of the board (and DeMille) and give it back to the members.

So far, most things had gone DeMille's way but he was so arrogant and offensive at the meeting that he managed to turn almost everybody against him, including some of his ideological partners. It is usually said that it was John Ford who decisively turn things around so that Mankiewicz prevailed, and DeMille lost, but when Ford intervened the game was pretty much already over. First the members were appalled when DeMille seemed to suggest that Mankiewicz's 25 supporters were in one way or another closeted Communists. Among those who ventured their anger were John Cromwell, George Seaton, William Wellman, Delmer Daves, John Huston and William Wyler. Then they became even angrier when told of DeMille's deceitful attempt to force out Mankiewicz, revealed by George Stevens who had spent the week conducting a thorough investigation into DeMille's shenanigans and now presented his result. (Stevens also announced his resignation from the board out of sheer disgust.) And, finally, Ford intervened and suggested that the whole board (of which he too was a member) resigned, including DeMille. That is how the meeting ended, after over six hours of heated discussions. The board resigned and it was decided to put together a committee of five members to investigate the whole affair. DeMille picked up his papers and walked away, a defeated man.

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That was an effort to do a fair summary but over the years there have been conflicting stories about it, and who did or said want to whom has often been misleading. Mankiewicz's real position regarding the oath has also been confusing, even his own telling of the story, and the oath remained in one form or another until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1966.

As an example of the confusion, here is first a quote from Scott Eyman's book The Life and Times of John Ford (1999):
It was around this point that DeMille read out the names of the [25] men who had signed the petition to call the meeting, emphasizing, in many cases, their foreign origins - "Villiam Vyler," etc. Although this moment is not preserved in the transcripts, everybody still alive who was there says that DeMille did in fact do it, alienating all those in the middle of the argument.
Eyman then quotes Richard Fleischer as saying (in an interview) "When DeMille took over on the stage, he read the names of the people that had signed the petition to hold the meeting. Myself, Bob Wise, Mark Robson, among others. He read the names, and emphasized their foreignness, the Jewishness of the names, ridiculing them. And then he implied that they were all Communists. It was an outrageous thing to say." Eyman also quotes, apparently from the transcript, other directors' reactions, such as Delmer Daves "I resent beyond belief the things that you said as you summarized the 25 men. ... I think it was disgraceful." (p. 381-382)

But here is Scott Eyman again, some years later, in his book Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010):
It was around this time that many who were present would, in later years, claim that DeMille read out the names of the men who had signed the petition to call the meeting, emphasizing, in many cases, their foreign origins - "Villiam Vyler," "Joseph Mankievitch," etc. The implication of a Jewish cabal behind Mankiewicz has been Exhibit A in the case against DeMille as an anti-Semite. But the transcript of the meeting contains no such occurrence, nor does anybody else in the meeting refer to such a moment. In fact, at one point DeMille explicitly states that he has named no names, named only the dubious (in his mind) associations of some of the petitioners, which is confirmed by a statement Vincent Sherman made later in the meeting. In all the extensive literature devoted to the meeting, nobody ever claimed DeMille had done such thing until 1984, when Fred Zinnemann published his memoirs - and Fred Zinnemann was not at the meeting. It's only after 1984 that Mankiewicz and other men who were there take up the story. (p. 406)
Eyman suggests that DeMille's arguments at the meeting "was converted by time and the trick of memory into an actual speech that strongly implied anti-Semitism." (p. 407) Eyman is probably overstating his case, and he does not mention his own participation in this. It is also worth noting that Eyman is wrong, because Fred Zinnemann did not publish any memoirs in 1984. They were published in 1992, Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, and make not such reference to DeMille. Zinnemann only says that DeMille was the lead member of the board. (p. 97)

The rumours about that alleged anti-Semitism, and the counter-arguments against it, have taken a life of their own. When for example was this first reported? It was not in Zinnemann's autobiography, so much is certain. Another charge has been that it was Billy Wilder who first made the accusation, referenced in Ed Sikov's book On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1998). But there Wilder is quoted as saying, in 1972, that DeMille mocked him, and others, for being foreigners (p. 332), not explicitly for being Jewish (although the two were often linked). In Hollywood Divided (2016), Kevin Brianton suggests that it was Mankiewicz who started the rumour, but much later, in the 1980s. So possibly DeMille never did say those things. But he does not exactly come out well from this affair anyway, even without the possible anti-Semitism.

This whole thing has become something of a mythical event and filmmakers are still judged according to how they behaved during this affair, even though it is often difficult to comprehend what exactly happened and why. But that it was an important event is obvious. A defining moment in the history of Hollywood, although what it defines is foggy.

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Somebody who is never mentioned, even though he is one of the most important directors, is Alfred Hitchcock. I do not know whether he was unable to attend, he was shooting Strangers on a Train (1951) around New York and Washington at that time, far from Los Angeles, or if he did not want to be involved. According to Patrick McGilligan, in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003), Hitch did not like DeMille, he "offended Hitchcock's mild brand of socialism." (p. 257)

The film Mankiewicz made after this affair, People Will Talk (1951), was clearly influenced by his experience. Its hero, played by Cary Grant, is being investigated and threatened by a bitter colleague played by Hume Cronyn. But that is only one of the many themes and plot points in this remarkable film. DeMille's next film was The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), which is clearly a labour of love and which won two Oscars, including Best Picture, but I find it unbearably tedious.

My primary sources:
Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1978) by Kenneth L. Geist.
Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography (1992) by Fred Zinnemann (and Alexander Walker).
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder (1998) by Ed Sikov.
The Life and Times of John Ford (1999) by Scott Eyman.
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) by Patrick McGilligan.
Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010) by Scott Eyman.
Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist (2016) by Kevin Brianton.


Friday, 31 March 2017

Wandering with the Moon (1945)

You may or you may not have bought my book about Hasse Ekman, The Man from the Third Row, but either way I thought I should post something to give you a taste of it. What follows is copied from the book with a few changes, partly to remove references to other parts of the book so it can stand on its own. It is about what might be my favourite Ekman film.

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Hasse Ekman made three films in 1945 and the best of them is Wandering with the Moon (Vandring med månen), his second collaboration with the writer Walter Ljungquist. This time Ekman was for the first time not working with the production company Terra and producer Lorens Marmstedt but for the rival studio, SF. The reason he was working for SF instead of Terra was that SF owned the rights to Ljungquist’s novel Vandring med månen, and the new head of production at SF wanted Ekman to make it into a film. Ekman agreed to do it on condition that he could give a part to the actress Eva Henning and work together with Ljungquist on the script, to which SF agreed.

Wandering with the Moon tells the story of a young man, Dan (played by Alf Kjellin), who has a fraught relationship with his father and after a heated argument in which Dan says “I can't stand you. I can't stand myself, and I can't stand my office”, he decides to leave home and go abroad. He is walking along a deserted country road, talking to the moon, when a bus with a travelling theatre group comes along and the driver asks for directions. One of the actresses, Pia, jumps of the bus and asks Dan if she may walk with him and, hesitantly, he says yes. For the rest of the film we follow them, walking, talking and meeting various characters on the way over the course of a few days. It is not a film with a clear linear structure but rather an episodic, lyrical narrative. It is also a film about innocence and innocence lost; and, which often goes hand in hand with this, virginity and sexual inexperience. The first night Pia says to Dan: “Do you want to be my lover? I've never been with another man.” He cannot deal with this revelation; the thought of her and possibly himself as sexual beings makes him uncomfortable and even disgusted. But at the end of the film she finally makes him succumb, and they are both in a sense liberated. Their walk together in the beginning is done in one long take and then the sequence is repeated in the last scene of the film - yet another example of how Ekman in his films often links the beginning and the end together, here with Dan walking on a country road, talking to the moon. The difference is that whereas he was alone in the first scene, in the last scene he is with Pia.


Dan and Pia meet many different characters along the way and it is illuminating to look more closely at some of them. On his own Dan first meets a vagabond, played by Stig Järrel. The vagabond has an ironic and open-minded approach to life and misery. A poet and a philosopher, he takes things as they come and argues that nothing is important; that he himself is an insignificant being, one “whose name is written in running water,” as he puts it. However, he praises the youth and is anxious for the couple to get a head start, before they too become cynical. This is the one thing that connects the various characters Dan and Pia encounter: the wish to protect and/or pity the young for the experienced know that the idealism and hope of the young will inevitably give way to the cynicism and disappointment of adulthood and maturity.

They meet a careworn old woman (played by Hjördis Pettersson) who is the keeper of an inn where they spend the night, and she tells them that only those who gamble in life will really live. They also meet a priest (Hilding Gavle) who, when Dan confesses that he is an atheist, says: “Well, I prefer an honest atheist to a dishonest Christian.” But another piece of advice that everyone they meet gives is that in order to get ahead in life, they need to learn to use masks, to hide their true identities, because, as a man played by Ekman says: “Everybody walks around with a mask.” The woman at the inn says that in order to remain sane and be able to function in the world “[y]ou must always try and be something other than you really are” and use irony as an escape mechanism. At one point when Dan is exasperated with all the hopelessness and cynicism he encounters, he demands to know if there is no belief in goodness, to be told: yes, there is goodness, but it is so desperately fragile. Yet despite these sometimes uncomfortable truths, most of the people they meet see something hopeful in the love and idealism that Dan and Pia radiate. It is as if these people become spokespersons for different ideas, for Ekman's view of life, as they speak of the need to hide behind masks, of the apparent inevitability of cynicism and boredom, how experience and conformity stifle life. At the same time there is also hope: the hope of breaking free from conventions and traditions, for example by devoting oneself to the arts, in particular the theatre. These themes, together with the loose narrative and the poetic imagery, are also what make this film a good example of the similarities between Ekman and Jean Renoir, and their shared sensibility.

The poetry of the film remains one of its main strengths and part of that is due to the episodic structure and the lyrical images of the countryside. The cinematographer this time was Gösta Roosling, who hardly ever worked on feature films. His expertise was in newsreels and documentaries of people and nature. It is possible that Ekman chose him for this purpose.

***

That was from chapter 4, and the book is available at online book stores and assorted libraries and such. I might add that Jean Renoir is a frequent reference point in the book.

Friday, 24 March 2017

20 years and 250 000 visitors

Spring of 1997 was a pivotal time for me in several respects. I moved out for the first time, leaving my parents to move in with some friends instead. I went on my first trip abroad by myself (to Rome) and found it so simulating I often wish I did nothing else. I sent my very first email. And, more relevant for this blog, this was also the year I had my first film article published, in the Swedish film journal Filmrutan. The article was about Alexander Mackendrick, and I have been writing for Filmrutan ever since. So I have been writing about film professionally, more or less, for 20 years as of now. I felt this was cause for a self-celebratory post. In addition, I just had my 250 000th visitor at this particular blog, and although these statistics are not exactly foolproof (how many of these visitors are bots or web crawlers?) they still mean something. So I figured I could celebrate that too.

Curtis and Lancaster, directed by Mackendrick in Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

For the first couple of years Filmrutan was the only place for which I wrote, but then I began writing for a now defunct journal called Cinema, published by Stockholm International Film Festival. That was around 1999-2001, and it was great fun. I wrote reviews, both long ones and capsules, did some more journalistic assignments and also several interviews with interesting filmmakers, for some reason primarily from the eastern parts of Europe, such as Jiří Menzel, Jasmin Dizdar, János Szász, Milcho Manchevski and Pantelis Voulgaris from Greece.

Now I write, and have written, for several different outlets, published a book, and contributed chapters to edited collections (the latest one is about Budd Boetticher). To keep track of it, both for myself and for anybody who might like to read stuff I have published outside this blog, I have made a page with a list of everything I can remember, and with links to those pieces that are available online. The page is to be found at the right, upper corner of the blog, above Rue du cinéma, and here is a link too:

https://fredrikonfilm.blogspot.se/p/journals-and-books-and-other-writing-by.html

My statistics also tell me which of my posts here are the most popular ones. This is the top ten (or 11) as of writing:

1) About Robert Warshow
2) About Tokyo Story
3) About Henry Hathaway
4) About trains in paintings (a very short post)
5) About deep focus
6) About growing old in the films of Ozu and Hawks
7) About teaching
8) About Bergman's favourite films
9) About André Bazin as a TV critic
10) About W.G. Sebald and Franz Kafka
10) About Maya Deren

As you can see that is a very disparate collection. I have been blogging since 2005 (first a Swedish film blog and then this one from 2009 when I moved to Scotland) so that is 12 years of almost uninterrupted blogging, yet I never know what will turn out to be popular and what will not, and I am usually surprised.

I wonder if I will still be writing 12 years from now. But first I must think of something to write for next week. This post does not really count.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Objectivity and elitism

Having written film criticism for some 20 years I can remember many conversations over the years with people about just that, film criticism. Often with guys persistently arguing that “the critics” are just elitist snobs who have no idea what real people like. Sometimes I try to counter these thoughts by using simple facts and statistics only to be met by angry outbursts about it being arrogant of me to use my knowledge against them. Sometimes they talk as if they believed that stopping a random person on the street and ask which film to watch is better than listen to a film critic.

I often think of these discussions because such views have, coming both from a right angle and a left angle, become fairly mainstream, and not just about film criticism. Such views are also common among Brexit and Trump supporters, and other similar people, parties and movements around Europe and the US. I felt then, as I feel now, that these unsettling positions and outbursts, the apparent belief that actually knowing something about whatever it is you speak is a flaw, proof of elitism and arrogance, come from a sense of low self-esteem and also, to some extent, from an awareness of them being wrong but rather than accepting that, lashing out at the person who they know is right. (What I am talking about is not differences of opinions but first the anti-fact attitude and then the habit of, instead of engaging in conversation or arguing for a position, just lash out and attack.)

To be called elitist these days does not take much effort. You only have to have an opinion which is either different from somebody else's, or to think for yourself and not accept whatever corporations proclaim. Even to assign value to things often infuriate people. Disliking The Avengers is considered elitist. If, for example, you complain about wrong aspect ratios on Netflix there will always be people who scream "Elitist!" even though it does not make any sense. If a big corporation is showing a film in such a way that part of the image is hidden, or the image is distorted, and you are elitist if you point this out, the only logical interpretation is that the people who scream elitist believe that the corporations are always right and we should unquestioningly accept whatever it is they provide, no matter in what way they provide it. It is in the same manner that Trump or Brexit supporters are saying that people should just shut up and accept whatever is happening. Aspect ratios are not as politically calamitous of course but everything that happens in a society, whether a local or global one, matters, and feed into everything else that happens. Screaming "elitist" is usually a sign of weakness, not awareness.

In the 1970s and 1980s academia was full of people who claimed that there was no such thing as knowledge or objective facts, and there are many who still claim to believe this. Such articles are still published, and such conference papers are presented. I have also met people under more informal circumstances making that same argument, that truth is a fantasy, or an elitist idea, and that all we have are subjective interpretations, even of such things as history. What is striking though is how rare it is for them to accept the consequences of their arguments, or to even actually be able to defend what they proclaim to believe. A Foucault-quoting scholar once tried to explain to me his position that there are no facts or truths by pointing to a candle and saying that if we were to describe it later we would not describe it the same way. I said that we would probably not but was it not an objective fact that there indeed was a candle on the table? And was not its molecular structure independent of our presence? He said that he had perhaps chosen a bad example. I did not point out that according to his line of thinking there could be no such thing as a bad example, as all arguments were supposedly equally valid. Instead I suggested he give another example. He took the American Civil War. Well, I said, was that not a conflict between one side led by Abraham Lincoln and another side led by Robert Lee.* He said that yes, this was true, and maybe this too was a bad example. Then he left. At least, unlike the Trump administration, he had some shame.

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford 1939)

Arguing that there are no facts or objective truths used to be a very fashionable thing among left-wing intellectuals, and now it has been appropriated by malignant right-wingers. But the problem with such positions was obvious long before Trump. It is also ideas like this that has turned schools in some places (not least in Sweden) into places were teachers are not supposed to teach but let the pupils teach themselves, and the important thing for a school is supposedly to make children creative and engage in critical thinking or some such. I have even heard people argue that teachers should not know more about the subject than the students because this would make them more equal. The ridiculous stupidity of such a position should be self-evident. What is even the purpose of teaching or schools if there is no actual teaching or transfer of knowledge? Behind this, again, lies the contempt for "elitism," against facts and figures, and instead an elevation of subjective feelings above all else. A student might take the lesson to heart and go looking for her own facts and by using her critical thinking decide that the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and 9/11 was an inside job, if it did indeed even happen. This is not how society prosper or move forward.

Those are extreme examples but another contemporary problem that is also about subjective feelings at the expense of facts and knowledge is the disappearance of nuance and complexity, in the public debate at large. If we keep to film, just look at the endless parade of think-pieces and hot takes in which a person has seen a film (or sometimes just the trailer) and then proclaim that there is only one way to understand that film, their way, and if that understanding is that this film is, say, terribly racist then anybody who disagrees is brandishing her privilege and is most likely racist too, or at least not woke enough. Many of these pieces are so bad that they become indistinguishable from parodies, for example since they are frequently so hyperbolic ("This is the most misogynistic film ever made!"), and so desperately lacking in historical context ("This is the first time ever that women have been allowed to be funny!").

The idea that such a complex object as a film or novel can only be understood or interpreted in one singular way, and anybody who sees it differently is a suspect character, is clearly wrong. Is the work racist, or is it about racist characters? Is it sincere or ironic? What was the context in which it was produced? Is it a well-meaning but perhaps failed work, or is it from beginning deliberately racist? These are some of the questions you need to wrestle with. Analysing films and books, art in general, is hard work unless you are arrogant. It takes time and knowledge to be attuned to all the nuances in a given work, and often you need to watch a film several times to understand it. But for many that is an elitist position; if a person feel something that is the end of it. Another reason has to do with economics; in this age of temp jobs and freelancing you might have to quickly write stupid columns or else you will starve. It is a Faustian bargain.

The position that there is only one correct interpretation is of course different from the "there is no truth, all is relative"-position. It is however related to Barthes's idea of the death of the author. According to him any meaning a text, such as a book, might have comes from the interpretation of the reader/viewer, and has nothing to do with any authorial intent, which does not exist. That too is a dubious position but the difference is that for Barthes any interpretation is potentially equally valid whereas the position in all of these pieces in assorted journals and websites is that there can be only one true interpretation. But there is no shortage of takes, or "correct" interpretations, however wildly inconsistent, as any given film is usually found to be problematic by someone. After all, Moonlight did not pass the Bechdel test.

The political climate in the world is increasingly fragile, and one might be forgiven for feeling that everything is getting worse by the hour. The constant updates, live feeds, the need to be first, to create new content, to keep one's brand sizzling, all conspire to make it very difficult for there to be a rational public conversation about anything. Instead we get pieces that proclaim that an Oscar win for the wrong film will be a disaster for us all. But fortunately that is not the whole picture. There are thoughtful, intelligent and knowledgeable people out there, participating in the discussion. There are still long-form essays, nuanced books and complex films. The problem is not that they are not there, the problem is that everybody seems to be so busy getting outraged that they do not have time to engage with these works, or to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Sometimes the proper, or even radical, thing to do is not to be outraged.

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

This piece is related to one I wrote two years ago. This one.

In a Twitter discussion I observed, but did not participate in, a film critic was accused of having said something racist. When the critic replied that he had never said that line he was accused of having said, the response was "Do not try to make this to be about facts."

2017-03-14
*To clarify, Lincoln and Lee were not equivalents. Lincoln was president, and Lee a commanding general. Lincoln's Southern equivalent was Jefferson Davis.

I also rewrote a few sentences in the second paragraph.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Video nostalgia

The VHS tape became a popular way by which to watch films around the same time I was old enough to watch films for grownups, even though my parents refused to let a VCR darken our apartment. But my friends had the means to play the tapes so I spent many hours in their homes (sometimes when I was supposed to do other things such as taking flute lessons) watching acknowledged classics like Miami Supercops, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, or the Australian nuclear waste thriller The Chain Reaction from 1980. Although mostly we would be watching James Bond, constantly and excessively. When I had trouble falling asleep at night I did not count sheep, instead I quoted dialogue from Bond films. The one I knew best was Live and Let Die, where I could all lines up until "A genuine Felix lighter. Illuminating." which would be the first 30 minutes of the movie perhaps.

At that time I was not able to explore film history, and none of my friends shared my burgeoning cinephilia. For older films, or films not in English or Swedish, I had to make do with whatever was shown on Swedish television, on one of our two channels. On odd occasions I would rent a moviebox and then I could watch a film of my own choosing, such as Hannah and Her Sisters. To clarify, a moviebox was a portable VCR without the ability to record and you rented it along with the films and returned them simultaneously. But I would say that it was always a gamble as to whether those movieboxes would actually work. They were not of sturdy quality. But eventually I got my own room and my own VCR, and things began to brighten up.


There were two video stores in the suburb where I lived; a big one, part of a chain, called Videobutiken Premiär and a small one, owned by an older woman and her 30-something son, in the basement of a high-rise. There were six of those high-rises, the video store was in the one next to the tube station and I lived in the third of them, so it was very close. I would not say I was there every day, but not far from it. I would sit at home and go through the video guides such as Leonard Maltin, VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever and whatever else I could get my hands on, and then search for the titles in the aisles. For a long time I was only interested in renting, but finally I bought two, Ice Station Zebra and Vertigo. I do not recall which I bought first, but those two were the only ones I had for some time. Later, in the early 90s, I discovered the Time Out Film Guide, which is where I came to know the criticism of Geoff Andrew and Tom Milne, both of considerable importance for me. Alas many of the films they championed were not necessarily to be found in my video stores, especially not old, black and white films. When I went to London for the first time however... I could barely contain myself. Although neither Andrew nor Milne would have been impressed by the first VHS I bought there, Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai. Then one day London came to Stockholm, in the form of Velvet Video on Birkagatan in the centre of Stockholm (so not walking distance from home). They had VHS you could either rent or buy, and all were directly imported from England. I was their most loyal and consistent customer, working my way through their stock. My first day there I rented Ford's Rio Grande. That was a good day.


But what is the nostalgia about? Well, it is not about the quality of the images. VHS is nothing compared to any streaming service available now. It is about other things, such as the personal touch. When you went to a video store you would meet other people, you would get personal recommendations, and not only deal with an algorithm. For someone like myself, who did not know anybody with a similar interest, the staff in the video stores became like secondary friends. It would have been a lonely life having only Netflix and iTunes to engage with. It was part of a community instead of a solitary home activity. To some extent it is part of a healthy democracy and society, to engage with others and interact face to face, rather than only through a computer. And besides, going out and leaving your apartment is in itself a good thing. A video store might also, as opposed to a streaming service, give you a job.

In 2003 the guy who once was running Velvet Video called me up and asked if I wanted to work with him in his new video store at the Swedish Film Institute. I obviously said yes immediately. It was stressful work at times but also a lot of fun, and many celebrities paid it a visit, like Jan Troell, Bibi Andersson, Josef Fares, Nina Persson and Thommy Berggren (who told me the story about how he was supposed to have played the part of Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America but for some reason I have now forgotten it eventually landed in Robert De Niro's lap instead). Eventually I became the manager of the store after the guy from Velvet Video lost all interest and turn to professional poker instead.

When I was working there the death and decline of the video store was already taking place and there were only two great video stores left in Stockholm besides mine, Casablanca and No 1. Video. One day I answered the phone in my video store and there was a man asking about a particular film. I said that we did not have it but he might try Casablanca. "Do you know where it is?" He answered "Yes. I'm actually calling from them. They didn't have it and suggested I call you." As I said, it was like a community.

But I too lost interest in managing a video store. I quit at the end of 2006 and began working at the Ingmar Bergman Archives, which in a way is when the present phase of my life began. Today my video store is no more, and neither is Casablanca nor No 1. Video. I miss them all.

The note on the window says "Thanks"

One reason to miss the stores is the wide selection they would have. Not just the latest blockbusters but also things like French New Wave, Italian Giallo, Akira Kurosawa and American independent cinema. In the late 1990s for example I was bingeing on indie films like the collected work of Tom DiCillo, Alexandre Rockwell's astonishing In the Soup or Gas, Food Lodging by Allison Anders, and such lesser fare like Pie in the Sky. Most importantly, this is how I discovered Nicole Holofcener, who continues to go from strength to strength. I am not saying that such films are not available today, but not all in the same place, you have to look for them and might have to take up a subscription or there might be rights issues that prevent them from being streamed in your country, or they might suddenly disappear. The video store was more stable and dependable. And more adventurous.

Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in Holofcener's Walking and Talking

In the bigger of the two video stores in Farsta, my suburb, one of the staff members was a stern woman with curly hair. After the store in Farsta closed she too disappeared from my life. Until last year. The last proper video store in central Stockholm, called Buylando, was closing down and on its very last day I went in, primarily for old time's sake but also to see if there were any good deals on DVDs. I found the whole Back to the Future trilogy for a negligible price and went to the cashier to pay for it. Behind the counter was the woman with the curly hair. It was like my whole life flashed before my eyes; she was potentially the first person to serve me in a video store and she would also be the last person to do so. She did not smile this time either.

-----------------------------------
I felt inspired to write this post after listening to a Film Comment podcast about New York video stores, and after reading Tom Roston's I Lost it at the Video Store, reviewed by Glenn Kenny here. They are about the past, as is my post. For an investigation of the present and the future, The Economist have eight articles to read: http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21716467-technology-has-given-billions-people-access-vast-range-entertainment-gady

Among the many films in which video stores play an important part (including some of the above mentioned) I would like to recommend Bleeder, a great early film by Nicolas Winding Refn where Mads Mikkelsen plays a video store clerk. I also have a soft spot for Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl, although I know I am rather alone on this one.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Joseph MacDonald

Joseph MacDonald was usually called Joe and he was born in Mexico City in 1906. He studied mining engineering at University of Southern California, and began working as an assistant cameraman in 1921 for First National. Eventually he got a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation as Director of Photography and he worked there from 1935, the same year that Twentieth Century Pictures merged with Fox.


His first two films were part of Fox's Spanish-speaking productions, Rosa de Francia (José López Rubio and Gordon Wiles 1935) and Te quiero con locura (John Bolan 1935), and then he spent several years shooting more or less B-movies and serials, like Charlie Chan in Rio (Harry Lachman 1941). In 1943 he was DoP on Wintertime, directed by John Brahm and starring the Norwegian ice skating champion turned actress Sonja Heine, which might have been the first film when he was credited as Joe rather than Joseph. The mid-1940s is also when he began making more prestigious films, and when he became one of the greatest cinematographers in film history.

In 1944 he shot Otto Preminger's In the Meantime, Darling. While made shortly before Laura and so before Preminger became Preminger it is still a major film (by major I do not mean that it is a great film, it is sweet but forgettable, but a proper feature with box office potential). But his first peak year was 1946 when he shot Henry Hathaway's The Dark Corner and, especially, John Ford's sublime My Darling Clementine. The latter is one of the greatest films ever made and that is partly due to the beauty of the cinematography. Have there ever been skies as the ones in My Darling Clementine? The film has depth, character, humanity and sadness, all of the usual Fordian elements, but the look of it is even by Ford's standards exceptional.




But The Dark Corner is more typical of the type of films MacDonald made for the next 10 years or so, when he would primarily shoot films that were a mixture of urban realism and film noir, like The Street with No Name (William Keighley 1948) and another by Hathaway, Call Northside 777.

James Stewart in Call Northside 777

Mark Stevens in The Street with No Name

He did a fine Western with William Wellman, Yellow Sky (1948), with a very graphic depiction of the salt desert, and three films directed by Elia Kazan, where the images is the best thing about them: Pinky (1949), in the deep South, filled with Cypress trees, Panic in the Streets (1950), shot in New Orleans, and Viva Zapata! (1952), shot in Colorado and New Mexico. The usual beauty of MacDonald's images is there, combined with a very rich texture.


In the 1950s he turned to colour, at which he was equally brilliant. One of the most magical of Technicolor films, Hathaway's Niagara (1953), was shot by him with an almost surreal touch, both indoors and outdoors. Just look at this shot, from inside a bell tower:


The same year he did the very first CinemaScope film, Jean Negulesco's How to Marry a Millionaire and, in a style more associated with his films from the late 1940s, Pickup on South Street, one of Samuel Fuller's best films. Fuller and MacDonald also did a couple of CinemaScope films, Hell and High Water (1954) and House of Bamboo (1955). The second one is shot in Japan, and had MacDonald experiment with Japanese influences.


He seems to have taken to the look because two years later he shot Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? as if it too was set in Japan. Look at the office here, it would have made Yasujiro Ozu proud:

Tony Randall lights a pipe

Nicholas Ray also worked with MacDonald on two films, one of which is among Ray's absolute best, Bigger Than Life (1956). The other is the weaker The True Story of Jesse James (1957).

James Mason in Bigger Than Life

The films he shot in the 1960s are a varied bunch, for different studios. A famous, or infamous, title is Walk on the Wild Side (Edward Dmytryk 1962), one of at least eight films he did with Dmytryk. There are also some less than successful spectacles directed by J. Lee Thompson. Their weaknesses though were not the images, the splendour of which almost deserves their own post. MacDonald also shot John Huston's eccentric thriller The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and a very fine film by Robert Wise, The Sand Pebbles (1966), an allegory of the war in Vietnam set in 1920s China. His last film, released after his death, was Mackenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson 1969).

***

Films are often selected by who acts in them or who directed them, but in some cases who photographed them can also be a reliable sign. And few cinematographers are as reliable as Joe MacDonald. From 1944 onwards the majority of the films he made are worth watching, and a remarkably large number of them are exceptional. He is not as famous as John Alton, Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe, and he does not seem to have patented any innovations as many other cinematographers have (John F. Seitz for example held 17 patents). He never won an Academy Award (but was nominated thrice) nor was he ever elected president of the American Society of Cinematographers. At Fox he worked in the shadow of the great Leon Shamroy. But maybe he was satisfied with that, confident in his own capabilities? 

Yellow Sky

-----------------------------------
The Robe (Henry Koster 1953), shot by Leon Shamroy, was the first CinemaScope film that got a release, but How to Marry a Millionaire was made simultaneously and finished earlier. Since The Robe was considered more prestigious it was released first.


I said that In the Meantime, Darling was made before Preminger became Preminger, but it is still the case that it breaks with a taboo (by showing a man and woman in bed together), has typical long takes, and has a prominent role for an African American character, played by Clarence Muse. So while not prime Preminger there are still admirably things to be found in it. It is also Jeanne Crain's first leading role, the woman with the softest voice in Hollywood.

For the rest of his time at Fox, Preminger worked primarily with another Joseph, LaShelle, as his cinematographer.

In case you are wondering about Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl 1945), it was not shot by MacDonald but by Shamroy. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Wild River (1960)

While produced and directed by Elia Kazan, Wild River (1960) in many ways feels like the opposite of a Kazan film. It is quiet, restrained, meandering and with a poetic touch in the use of the landscape. The river in question is the Tennessee river and the film is set right after the Roosevelt administration created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 to deal with the problems caused by the constant flooding along the rivers in the area and its costs in terms of lost land, buildings and lives. It was also part of the New Deal, to help against poverty and unemployment. One thing TVA did was to build dams to control to flow of the rivers and provide electricity to areas which had never had any. Wild River is about all that. It is also about the legacy of slavery in the South, and the continuation of abject racism in the 1930s.


It might sound like a documentary but it is a work of fiction, although it opens with documentary footage of a severe flood and a man telling a reporter how he lost his children in the river. Then the film switches to colour and to the main character, the TVA man Chuck Glover, played by Montgomery Clift. He arrives in this backward place, to which progress has not yet come, by air plane; kind, well-meaning and modern. He is not at all equipped for this old world, or so it seems at first. His primary task is to get an old woman to leave her house on a small island that will be submerged when the dam is ready. She was born in that house and on that island, and she intends to be buried on it too, like her parents and husband. She is also running the place like her own fiefdom, with a large number of African-Americans living and working there and over which she rules. So she refuses to leave. It becomes a battle of wits between Chuck and the old woman, Ella Garth, played by Jo Van Fleet.


There is also another woman, Ella Garth's granddaughter Carol Baldwin, played by Lee Remick. She is a widow since three years and now lives with her two little children and her grandmother, but she is lonely and has not been with a man for a long time. When Chuck arrives on their little island, a handsome and sophisticated man, Carol almost immediately reaches out to him and he responds in kind. Her children, a boy and a girl, also reach out to him in one of the many moving aspects of the film. They too have obviously been unhappy and missing something, without understanding it, so now when a father figure turns up they cling to him.


There are many strengths to the film, beyond the moving emotional undercurrents. One is the complexities of the story. In the beginning Ella Garth and Chuck Glover are each other's opposites but as the film progresses Glover is slowly becoming more of a friend, who really understands her and can sympathise with her (in that way he symbolises Kazan's own changing perspective on the story). He even has to defend her against her own family as she is eventually abandon by everybody except an old farmhand called Sam, played by Robert Earl Jones.

Sam and Chuck

The location shooting is another of the film's strengths, it has a natural, earth-like texture. The cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks has done wonders, both with interiors and exteriors. Wild River has sometimes been called Fordian, and it is understandable. The ambience and look of the film does resemble John Ford, which is another way of saying it is different from Kazan's other films. But that is not to say that Kazan is completely invisible.

The use of mist and smoke has been a hallmark of Kazan's visual style since his early filmmaking days in the 1940s. A later striking example is Blanche DuBois appearing out of the smoke at the train station in the beginning of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Another prominent example is on the square in front of the church in On the Waterfront (1954) were Terry Malloy has his first meeting with Edie Doyle, and later an important talk with Father Barry. It is always covered by white smoke. Wild River also uses it to great effect, like in the image below, around the raft that takes people to and from the island.


Another key element of Kazan's aesthetics is the expressive use of natural sounds, and often of subjective sound, the characters hearing things that are not there but only in their heads, and here too Wild River shines. And Kazan of course almost always addresses social and political issues, as he does her, only he is rarely as subtle as in Wild River. While a few local rednecks are clearly bad guys, everybody else operate in a more grey area. While it is inevitable that Ella Garth must leave, it is still a tragedy that it is inevitable. Tradition, progress, environmental issues, racism, politics, sex, corruption and violence; there are many subjects that appear in this film and yet it is so delicate, so relaxed and so exquisite, it is barely noticeable.

But what is noticeable is the acting, which is wonderful. Especially Jo Van Fleet. It is one of my favourite performances of all time, remarkably rich, deep and nuanced. She was 45 when she played the role, although Ella most be around 80, and she has such quiet authority and strength. But the others, like Clift and Remick, are also superb. Those two are simultaneously vulnerable and bewildered, needy and forceful.

So Wild River is a special film. It has always been the one Kazan with which I find no flaws, perhaps his only great film. It was not a success when it came out, which Kazan blamed on the poor marketing. But then it might also have been a hard film to market. But box office returns do not tell the truth about a film. Watch it and you will see.


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Wild River makes for a good companion piece to Still Life (Jia Zhangke 2006).

For all of Kazan's fame for his way with the actors, in a film like Pinky (1949) it is the atmosphere and the use of sound that are the only good aspects of it. In Viva Zapata! (1952) it is Joe MacDonald's cinematography and John Steinbeck's script that makes the film, and the acting is more a weakness than an asset. Even Marlon Brando feels like an odd fit in that one.


Friday, 27 January 2017

Workload

The autumn semester lasts all the way into the middle of January and the last weeks are filled with deadlines for assorted tests and essays that the poor students have to write. I have done nothing but read student papers from morning to night for weeks on end. It is not all bad, some of the stuff has been good, but it has made it hard to write a new post here so instead of writing something lame and short for today I will just re-schedule and post something next Friday instead, and then carry on from there.

Mona Lisa's Smile (Mike Newell 2003)

Friday, 13 January 2017

Completism

Once in London in the late 1990s I had set the alarm for some ridiculous time in the middle of the night. 03:50 perhaps? The reason was that a TV channel was showing I Died a Thousand Times (1955), Stuart Heisler's remake of High Sierra (Raoul Walsh 1941). At the time I was exploring the films of Heisler and I had to take any opportunity when something was shown because they were hard to come by.

When I was at university, studying film earlier in the 1990s, I usually asked my teachers whether I could borrow films from them, much to their amusement. One, when I begged for Billy Wilder films, asked in a slightly condescending way if I was a completist and then talked dismissively of Wilder's late career, singling out "that awful film with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen" as being especially bad. (I suppose she must have referred to George Cukor's Rich and Famous (1981).) As you can see I remember that moment well because I felt uneasy about being regarded as a completist. Was that a cool thing to be? It did not sound like it. But that was then, I have a more relaxed view of it now, and instead feel like it can be both a challenge and an enriching experience. Nowadays it is of course much more easy to find things then back when I was exploring Stuart Heisler and slowly I have been trying to fill out the gaps when it comes to the oeuvres of my favourite filmmakers, as much as possible. Last year I focused partly on Yasujiro Ozu, where the ambition was to see all the sound films I had not yet seen. That is still a work in progress, The Munekata Sisters (1950) and The End of Summer (1961) I have not been able to watch. I was more successful, finally, with Billy Wilder, as an earlier post indicated.

Jack Palance in I Died a Thousand Times.

I have of course seen all of Ekman's films and all of Bergman's films, but that was after all work. This is more of a past-time project, although I suppose everything related to film is to some extent part of my work. And I have seen all films of many contemporary filmmakers but that is not so difficult because they do not make so many films, and those made are readily available. No, the challenge is the older, really prolific ones.

Among the silent films much is lost, so I will never be able to see all of the films Hawks or Ford (or Ozu) made. But all sound films they have made would be the goal. There is one of Hawks's sound films I have not yet seen, Today We Live (1933), and quite of few of Ford's films from the early 1930s. More embarrassing is that I have not yet seen the whole of David Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970). I watched the first half on TCM many years ago, and I liked it, but then I do not know what happened. Maybe it was too late in the evening, or maybe I was interrupted? There are also a handful of films by Vincente Minnelli which I have not seen yet; his last four films and the 1943 Red Skelton extravaganza I Dood It. And I have not seen The Skin Game (1931) or Waltzes from Vienna (1934) by Hitchcock, and there are one or two silent films of his I have not seen either. A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972) is the only Truffaut I have not seen, but there are several films by Michael Powell (all those 1930s quota quickies, or Honeymoon (1959), the one he made before Peeping Tom (1960) to explore, and the 1930s films by Carol Reed, and his last two. Several of Lubitsch's Germany films too. And I have maybe half of Satyajit Ray's films left. That I find particularly exciting.

This ambition is perhaps primarily for fun, but there is also an important aspect of it. It is too common that people, including committed scholars or critics, believe that the well-known films of a filmmaker are the only ones you need, and that they are the good ones. But that is not necessarily the case, there are many good films among the lesser-knowns, or unknowns, and if you are interested in the filmmaker as an artist, having seen them all really should be a goal, to get all the nuances and variations. Even failures are often illuminating.

I remember once talking to the Swedish film historian Leif Furhammar about Hitchcock and he said that the day he finally saw the last remaining film of Hitch he felt somehow empty inside, or unhappy. Before there had been the excitement of knowing that there was still at least one film by Hitchcock he had not yet seen. But now, what had he now got to look forward too? So maybe I should save a few. Maybe Hawks's Today We Live shall forever remain un-watched by me. Or maybe save it for my deathbed. Otherwise I might not be able to go silently into the night.