Friday, 15 September 2017

Personal and public politics and prejudices

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

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

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

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

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

La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 September 2017

Richard Quine detour

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

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

The World of Suzie Wong (1960) 

The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)

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

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

Friday, 18 August 2017

A Bell for Adano (1945)

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

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


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

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

Dalio between Hodiak and Bendix.

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

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

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

Tierney and Hodiak.


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

My earlier article about Henry King is here.

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

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

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Budd Boetticher

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

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

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

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

Seven Men from Now

The Killer is Loose

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

Friday, 21 July 2017

Summer break

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

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki 1966)

Friday, 7 July 2017

Irving Lerner

In 1943 Irving Lerner directed two short documentaries, both pretty good: Swedes in America (aka Ingrid Bergman Answers) and The Autobiography of a "Jeep". At the time he was working for OWI, the United States Office for War Information and this should not come as a surprise because during his career Lerner did so many different things in movies that it beggars belief. He made anthropological films for Columbia University. He was unofficial editor on Spartacus (Anthony Mann/Stanley Kubrick 1960) and he was assistant to Mann on two other films, Men at War (1957) and God's Little Acre (1958). He acted in a few films and he worked in different capacities with such famous documentary filmmakers as Willard Van Dyke and Robert Flaherty, sometimes as co-director. The last film on which Lerner worked was Scorsese's New York, New York (1977), as an editor. He died during the making of the film and Scorsese dedicated it to him. Lerner was also a man of strong left-wing beliefs and in 1944 he was even accused of spying for the Soviet Union. (His point man was Arthur Adams who, despite the name, was a Russian agent working in the US. Adams was actually born in Sweden, in the town of Eskilstuna, to a Swedish father and a Russian mother.)

Lerner himself

From 1948 to 1952 Lerner had been a teaching film at the University of Southern California, and then he apparently felt the time was right the start making his own feature-length films. He directed at least seven fiction films and some also list him as uncredited director on A Town Called Bastard (aka A Town Called Hell 1971), for which only Robert Parrish received credit, but I do not know what the deal is what that. I have seen only three of them, Murder by Contract (1958), City of Fear (1959) and Cry of Battle (1963), but I have read enough about the other four, Man Crazy (1953), Edge of Fury (1958, co-directed with Robert Gurney Jr.), Studs Lonigan (1960) and The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), to be interested in them too. His first feature, Man Crazy, was written and produced by Philip Yordan, as was Studs Lonigan and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Yordan was also the credited writer on both Men at War and God's Little Acre, although on the first of them he was just the front for the blacklisted Ben Maddow. Maddow also was an uncredited writer on Murder by Contract. So there was a fairly tight little group. Lerner was also a close friend of Fritz Lang, to the extent that Lerner's wife allegedly wondered exactly how close they were.

Murder by Contract

But it would not matter that Lerner is an interesting person if the films were bad, but they are not. At least not those I have seen. The most famous (comparatively speaking) is Murder by Contract, a low-budget film shot during one week and starring Vince Edwards. He plays Claude, who, unsatisfied with his regular job and impatient to fulfil his dream of buying his own house in Ohio, decides to become a hired killer. As he sees it, it is just another job, a business like any other. It is a quite remarkable film (Scorsese was of course a huge fan) and it is easy to imagine Godard watching it repeatedly. It is very tense and hardboiled, filled with eccentric details, unusual editing, handheld camera work and suggestive pans. The characters are also colourful, not just Claude but also the other people he meets. Especially the two men who are his guides when he comes to Los Angeles to do a job. (He is not particularly eager to get going. First, he wants to see the sights, gaze at the Pacific Ocean and go swimming.) In one scene Claude walks around in a gun store and is amazed by it all. What is it with all these guns? And he wonders (self-servingly) why it is that if you kill one man you are a murderer but if you drop bombs on cities, killing thousands of people, you are a hero. The film is also interesting for Claude's weird relationship to women, and it is what is to become his undoing. Murder by Contract is on the one hand pretty typical for its kind but it manages to put so much interesting stuff into its 75 minutes and is shot, by Lucien Ballard, in such an inspiring style that it is close to irresistible. The unusual score by Perry Botkin is another strength.

City of Fear is also a low-budget film shot in a week, it also stars Vince Edwards and is again shot by Lucien Ballard. The excellent jazz score is by Jerry Goldsmith. But despite all this the film is less special and more conventional than Murder by Contract. This time Edwards plays an escaped convict who has by mistake brought with him a metal canister with Cobalt-60, a highly toxic radioactive substance. (He thinks it is heroin in the canister, which he is unable to open.) The police are desperately trying to find him before he opens the canister and inadvertently contaminates the city, while he is getting sicker and sicker by being so close to the canister all day. He is coughing, sweating, gets covered in rashes and starts to bleed through his nose. It is a good thriller, playing on the fear of nuclear power and radiation, yet more ordinary and less visually imaginative than Murder by Contract.

City of Fear

Best of the three I have seen though is Cry of Battle (aka To Be a Man). It is very different from the other two as it was shot in the Philippines and set during the second world war, and it has three big stars, Van Heflin, James MacArthur and Rita Moreno. The rest of the cast consists of Philippine actors, some of them famous locally. The cinematographer is also from the Philippines, Felipe Sacdalan (read a profile here). It tells a rather unusual story, and deals with male chauvinism and racism. The main character is David, a young American, played by MacArthur, whose father owns a plantation and who has lived a sheltered life. But when the Japanese attack the Philippines all of his old life is gone at the blink of an eye. The film begins in 1941, right after the Japanese assault, when David is attacked with some marauding soldiers. He is rescued by a Philippine resistance fighter (played by Leopoldo Salcedo) and is brought to a hut where he stays for a time with an old man and a young woman (played by Marilou Muñoz). They do not speak English, only Tagalog, so David has to learn it in order to communicate with them. But then another American appears, Joe, played by Heflin, and again David's sheltered life is shattered. Joe is deeply unpleasant, he hates the Philippine people and treat women with contempt and sexual aggression. After Joe rapes the young woman they both have to flee, and eventually get caught up in the resistance against the Japanese. But the real conflict is between Joe and David, the ugly American versus to naive and, if you will, quiet American. (The script was based on a book by Benjamin Appel and written by the former blacklisted Bernard Gordon.)

There are several startling scenes in the film, despite many lyrical passages and moments of beauty. One of the resistance fighters that they met is a woman, Sisa, played by Rita Moreno. (Moreno was from Puerto Rico, but in the film she plays a Filipina.) David falls in love with her but Joe, obviously, treats her like a sex object, and she is accustomed to have to play along with the men to stay alive. In one scene a jealous David screams "You're a whore!" to her. She is silent for a moment and then she strikes back. He knows nothing about the world, and what it takes to survives, she points out. He is just ignorant about the evils she has to face. And what is he, Sisa asks. Considering how he survives, is he not a whore himself, if she is one? He does not know how to respond to that, unable to handle her justified combination of weariness and anger.

I will not give away the ending, but that too is pretty powerful. Cry of Battle, with its strange lyrical visual style, harsh subject matter and interesting politics, can stand alone but it is also an interesting companion piece to John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), which is also set in and around the Philippines. But in Ford's film the focus is only on the American soldiers, not on the people who actually live there. Ford's film is artistically superior but Cry of Battle is rather special too.

My earlier piece on They Were Expendable is here.

Lerner's close personal friend Lang also made a film about the war in the Philippines, with the clunky title American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950). I will have to write about it too, one day. Especially since it was made for 20th Century Fox.

Here is a film Lerner made with Joseph Strick in 1948, a nine minutes long film called Muscle Beach. I do not know how to define it.

City of Fear

Friday, 23 June 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

from Hellzapoppin'
Print sources:

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

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

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

Friday, 9 June 2017

Lydia Bailey (1952)

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

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

Ida Lupino and Dane Clark in Deep Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 May 2017

Cinema and the environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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."

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.