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David Coursen

John Ford Reprints the Legend

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

John Ford was probably more conscious of the meaning of history than any other American director; in a sense, the evolution of his historical vision is the measure of his growth as an artist. This evident fact is often commented on but, surprisingly, almost invariably in only the most general terms. A natural, useful way of defining this evolution more precisely is to compare closely related films Ford made at different stages of his career. An ideal subject for such a study, a pair of films sharing a common setting, literary source and group of recurring characters, is Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright. So closely, in fact, are the two related that it has become popular to describe the second film as a “remake” of the first. While such terminology is not exactly accurate, it does suggest that a comparative study of the two films should make it possible to analyze the evolution of Ford’s historical perspective in precise, concrete terms.

One way to measure the extent of this evolution is to compare the respective endings of the two films. Each conclusion revolves around a parade, but their tones are as different as their times, as day and night. Judge Priest ends with a sunlit parade; the final shot is of Confederate war veterans marching forward past both sides of the camera. In fact the parade literally surrounds the camera, as if to engulf the audience in the celebration taking place on screen (and the shot itself makes the ending uniquely processional in the work of a director whose final images are almost invariably recessive). In addition, the entire parade sequence is organic; everyone connected with it could be encompassed by a single longshot. Even the purely personal moments (such as a final feat of tobacco-juice-spitting marksmanship) are visually presented within their larger context, shown on a screen teeming with people.

‘The Sun Shines Bright’

The final image of The Sun Shines Bright is of Jeff Poindexter (Stepin’ Fetchit) sitting alone on a porch in the evening, lazily playing his harmonica. The music is audible, but otherwise there is scarcely a sign of life on the screen; the shot could almost be a still photograph. The final image of a solitary figure suggests an individual isolation consistent with the visual fragmentation of the entire final sequence. Each character or group, all the (surviving) members of cast and community who have been important in the film, are given recognition time here (as in Judge Priest and countless other Ford films), but in this case the reintroduction is accomplished without any unifying group shots; we see each pan of the community but never the entire social organism. For example, while the title character in Judge Priest last appears on the screen as one (not particularly important) part of the veterans’ parade, in The Sun Shines Bright he is last shown walking away from the camera into his house alone. As he passes through a doorway, a room, and another doorway beyond the realm of natural lighting, we are watching an individual receding into legend rather than a social group advancing into a dynamic future.

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Missing the Point: A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis and the Pleasures of “Difficult” Cinema

"Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"

The June 19 New York Times Entertainment Section ran a dialogue following up on a previous article in the May 1 Times Magazine by Dan Kois whose flavor, I suspect, is captured by the introduction the June 19 story suggesting that the article equated watching Solaris with eating “cultural vegetables;” something Krois has been told must be good for him but that he doesn’t find much fun. There is also a digression into the pros and cons of “slow cinema,” aka Ozu, Kelly Reichardt, Antonioni, Tarr, and Akerman. Leaving aside that Ozu is the greatest artist the medium has produced, and the others occupy less exalted status, the digression ignores the point that the “slow” approach has won the day. While “fast cinema” may rule the roost in Hollywood and its orbit, “slow cinema” has totally encompassed nearly all the most interesting work done outside the Hollywood axis for at least the last quarter of a century; its primacy if not quite running from A to Z at least extends from Angelopoulos through Hou Hsiao-hsien and Kiarostami all the way to, well, Wenders. Although the films, with their slow pacing and commitment to contemplation, may tax Krois’ attention span, the trend is unmistakable and the works speak for themselves.

But the larger colloquy in the article almost completely misses two key points. First, if someone who styles himself a reasonably dedicated cineaste has been working to educate his palate, not to achieve initiation into the realm of “high culture” but to optimize the ability to appreciate the varied rewards cinema has to offer, there shouldn’t be a wide gap, much less a chasm, between what he enjoys and appreciates. No one with a brain would suggest that the fact that a self-styled jazz enthusiast doesn’t “enjoy” Charlie Parker (or most of John Coltrane) says something about their art being too rarefied; the “enthusiast” is at best a boor, more likely a cretin, and not someone with whom I would want to have a serious—or any—discussion.

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Detour: Closing Down the Open Road

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Detour is a masterpiece of wry perversity, a film virtually constructed on irony and paradox: an incredibly claustrophobic film about hitchhiking on the “open road”; the bleakest of films noirs, with the bulk of the action taking place during the day and away from the city. But perhaps the supreme ironies relate to the film itself. Despite acting that ranges from incompetent to bizarre, a storyline bordering on the absurd—alternately trashy and fanciful—and a minimum of sets or characters, Detour somehow speaks directly and compellingly to the dark side of several pervasive American myths, forcefully expresses a coherent vision of the way the world operates.

But if Detour can reward the receptive filmgoer, it does, by its very nature, demand a little more than the ordinary film. After all, there is no denying that a film shot in a very short time (rumored to have been four days, more likely five or six), on a budget of—it almost seems—something in the neighborhood of 45 cents, may lack some of the slickness and polish we ordinarily expect. But if we focus on what the film offers rather than what it lacks, we can begin to appreciate what is, on reflection, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.

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Alice in the Cites

[Originally published in the Oregon Daily Emerald on December 1, 1977]

After a striking opening shot—partially reversed at the end of the film—Alice In The Cities (1974) introduces a solitary figure, forlornly sitting on sand, his back against a post, self-descriptively singing, “under the boardwalk, down by the sea, on a blanket with my baby, that’s where I wanna be.” The upbeat lyrics ironically counterpoint the grim image, and the German-speaking character has slightly garbled the great Drifters’ song line, which actually ends “on a blanket with my baby, is where I’ll be.”

Alice in the Cities
Yella Rotlander and Rudiger Volger: “Alice in the Cities”

This sequence is one of many, here and throughout Wenders, that use the artifacts of popular culture in the films as atmospheric details and comments—often wry—on the action. Thus, the mournful character in Alice listens to a radio play the song lyrics “I feel depressed I feel so bad,” and sees a German newspaper reporting the death of John Ford. Even the television ad line, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” becomes both a piece of cultural garbage and an ironic call to action that the character answers by breaking the television screen. (In The American Friend (1977) a character played by Dennis Hopper introduces the cultural artifact, simultaneously evoking his character’s dislocation and the actor’s iconic significance and erratic career trajectory by shuffling across a grey Hamburg balcony, singing, from the Ballad of Easy Rider: “The river flows, it flows to the sea, and wherever that river flows God knows that’s where I wanna be.”)

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Peckinpah Doesn’t Sing Along

Sam Peckinpah
Sam Peckinpah

Sam Peckinpah, arguably the foremost American director to emerge during the sixties, developed—not to say cultivated—a persona that made his name virtually synonymous with “excessive screen violence.” While the accent was often placed on the noun, the first adjective also fit: Peckinpah was a man of appetites—the Randolph Scott character in Ride The High Country (1962) humorously cites “Appetite” as a book of the Bible—and excess was something that, when Peckinpah thought it called for, he embraced. He was capable of subtlety and emotional precision (as in the lyrically evocative Ballad Of Cable Hogue, 1970) and his excesses were purposeful; his blue-nosed detractors showed how badly they were missing the point when they claimed his violence was gratuitous. Still, from both choice and instinct, the place we now call over the top was one he often visited. Altogether an ornery cuss: combative and so confrontational the highfalutin term “transgressive” might almost fit if it didn’t sound so self-conscious and his sensibility hadn’t been, at bottom, so old school. And he willfully, almost wantonly worked without a net, and not always in a good way: given the chance recently, I couldn’t bring myself to revisit Straw Dogs (1971), which I recall all too vividly as having little to sustain the gothically creepy violence beyond pretentiously half-baked—and more than half-daft—pop anthropology, leavened with misogyny.

At his best, he could examine the moral and dramatic dimensions of masculine codes of conduct, loyalty, and integrity in a shifting and shifty western landscape with enormous force and power, orchestrating them to a sublimely resonant and cathartic culmination in the baroquely apocalyptic final shootout in The Wild Bunch (1969). High Country has a final shootout, with some of its resonance flowing from the Joel McCrea character’s statement of the Peckinpah moral code circa 1962: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”

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Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

Eric Rohmer
Eric Rohmer

Watching an Eric Rohmer film was famously described by Harry Moseby, the Gene Hackman character in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, (1975) (in a line quoted in both Rohmer’s Wikipedia entry and his New York Times obituary), as “like watching paint dry.” It’s my favorite movie line about a film-maker, and—along with de Niro’s bounty-hunter in Midnight Run (1988) telling Charles Grodin’s garrulously thieving accountant “I got just two words to say to you: ‘shut the fuck up’”—one of my favorite post-Mitchum tough-guy movie lines. Part of the fun is that it’s so incongruous to have Rohmer’s name come out of the mouth of an American movie tough guy, played by an actor whose roots in the action cinema include parts in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and became a star portraying iconic cop and francophobe extraordinaire Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971). Crime fiction and its creatures were virtual touchstones for Rohmer’s fellow New Wavers: Godard (Breathless, 1959), Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), and Chabrol (from long before he adapted Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl, 1979); heck, even Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) has a murder mystery. But Rohmer, after a debut feature set on the down-and-out (if not quite mean) streets of Paris in The Sign of the Lion (1959), mostly placed his characters in a resolutely unthreatening world, for the most part in settings that are sunny, cheery, and comfortably bourgeois.

Making Rohmer’s world even less congenial to the laconic Hackman character is its pervasive logorrhea: Rohmer’s characters talk, and they talk, and they talk, long enough for several coats of paint to dry in all the rooms of all of their homes and vacation houses. It can be quite exasperating, particularly when the characters wallow in apparent self-absorption (not much leavened by self-awareness, something present in inverse proportion to verbosity). So it’s easy to sympathize with Harry (even before we learn his wife is doing some après-Rohmer extra-marital trysting). Even for the non-Harrys among us, Rohmer requires patience and a tolerance for slow spots if not quite a fondness for stasis. But when the best of his films reach their end, (that is, when the characters finish talking), the denouements often put things into new and surprising, sometimes exhilarating, perspectives amply rewarding the audience’s patience.

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Losing Focus: Three Herzog Shorts – The Dark Glow of the Mountains, The Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984), suffers from limitations imposed by its subject: the effort of two daredevil climbers to scale two difficult mountains back-to-back, without a break in between. They describe this as something never done before and much more dangerous than climbing one peak. The aesthetic problem, though, is that the available footage was evidently limited to what Herzog shot in conjunction with interviews, and there is no real visual evidence of danger or drama.

Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains
Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains

The interviews are colorful enough, in their way. One climber boasts that, thanks to frostbite on previous climbs, he is down to four toes; his colleague, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, admits to having all ten, but does note [hopefully?] that, with the difficult project they are undertaking, that could change. Aside from the unique and unprecedented nature of the stunt, and its danger, neither climber cites any particular reason for doing it. The more seasoned of the two—the one with four toes—concedes that he climbs compulsively, and gravitates toward doing new things; unless I’m missing something, that is another way of saying he does it to keep from getting bored. This is quite a jarring contrast to the ski jumping in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), which Herzog transformed into a mystical pursuit of the transcendent and the poetic. It seems odd to find Herzog, a decade later, celebrating the things mountain climbers do to ward off boredom. And without climbing footage, the film is inert; even the announcement that they have successfully climbed the second mountain registers as curiously flat, almost anti-climactic.

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Stroszek

Even when he made Stroszek (1978), Herzog’s work had reflected parallel interests in documentary and narrative fiction forms. The sublime Fata Morgana (1971) (despite Herzog’s preposterous claim that it is a sci-fi film about an intergalactic war) and the wonderfully perverse Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), almost as much as the explicitly documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and several documentary shorts, clearly came from the documentary tradition. Even ostensibly fiction films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had a kind of documentary feel (the wondrous shots of the natural world in Aguirre, the only-half-mocking “case history” conclusion of Kaspar).

Bruno S
Bruno S

Stroszek marked a decisive, if temporary, move toward the narrative mainstream, a road movie no less (years later, in Rescue Dawn [2006], when Herzog had been largely focusing on documentaries, he returned to genre film-making, with a POW escape movie, producing decidedly conventional results). German ex-con Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S, the schizophrenic who had played Kaspar Hauser) joins with two friends and goes to Wisconsin to pursue the American dream. The group gradually disintegrates, Bruno’s piece of the American dream, his mobile home, is repossessed and he takes to the road.

Herzog uses the basic outline, of people on a common quest that goes sour, to explore, as ever, mankind confronting a universe that is indifferent or actively hostile to human aspirations. From its opening shot, of prison bars, to the final image of the cosmic stupidity of a dancing chicken, tightly framed by a window and bathed in the same orange light used in the early prison sequence, a sense of futility pervades the film.

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Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

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Land of Silence and Darkness: What it Means to be Human

Land of Silence and Darkness(1971) was Herzog’s first feature-length documentary (his previous feature, Fata Morgana [1971] begs to be classed as a metaphysical documentary, but by Herzog’s daffy description, is sci-fi). The subject matter, the struggle for human communication, is such a natural for Herzog that in some ways the film is quintessential early Herzog. It follows Fini Straubinger, a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany, through a life of constant activity, entertaining and visiting people without sight or hearing. But the narrator tells us that after she first lost her sight and hearing in a fall down stairs, she was bed-ridden for seventeen years. The tremendous drive and will that enabled her, finally, to rise from her bed is now channeled into the almost obsessive drive to communicate that is the implicit subject of the film, or at least its central mystery and driving force.

Land of Silence and Darkness
Land of Silence and Darkness

Herzog seems determined to share her point of view: the film’s opening shot, a distorted black and white image of clouds above a road anticipates her later account of a dream describing her memories from when she could see and hear. But the film’s ability to share her point of view is limited by a perverse tension inherent in trying to use film—a medium that communicates solely through the senses of sound and sight—to examine people who can neither see nor hear.

Lacking words, Fini communicates with others and perceives the external world through touch. The film describes a touch alphabet, in which different types of touches express verbal symbols. But the most telling communication in the film comes from touches that create a sensory sharing more immediate and less ordered than language.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small: Persistence and Futility

A singularly evocative setting for the action
A singularly evocative setting for the action

Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) stands out as one of his most singular films. It has virtually no story-line (“dwarfs raise hell” probably exhausts the subject) and its harsh tone seems to confront its audience, aggressively demanding some kind of response. Even the title seems a kind of challenge: why the word “even,” which seems to imply that somehow dwarfs would be the last, rather than the first people one would think of as having “started small?” And yet, despite its obscure “meaning,” Even Dwarfs Started Small is a perfectly appropriate title.

Herzog makes much of his instinctual approach to film-making and, indeed, his films often seem to have emerged almost directly from his unconscious. Of the camel that presides over the climax of Dwarfs Herzog has said, “I only know the camel has to be there.” And he added: “I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.” Whether or not one takes these pronouncements at face value, Dwarfs‘s images, inexplicable as they may be, provide a singularly evocative setting for the action.

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work.  Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God – Defying the Natural Order

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man inter­acting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are comple­mentary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.

This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “real­istic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.

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Jean Renoir’s River

Jean Renoir’s world-view, famously stated by a character the director played in The Rules of the Game (1939), is that “Everyone has his reasons.” Although Renoir recognized the corollary—that some reasons are better than others—he always understood the complex motivations that drive human actions. And that understanding, in turn, helped him to animate his characters—sympathetic or not—with a vibrancy that makes them compelling screen presences.

The River - ritual and culture
The River - ritual and culture

Renoir’s work of the thirties, including his “official” classics, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game, is often considered his finest work. And his deceptively simple work in Hollywood during the forties is often underrated. But perhaps his greatest sustained achievement came with the four color films of the fifties: The River (1951), The Golden Coach, (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956).

The River, Renoir’s first film in color and last in English, showcases the thematic richness and empathetic characterization that define the director’s best work. A film of astonishing physical beauty, The River is one of the richest explorations of man’s place in the natural world ever filmed. From the opening sequence, a series of shots of life along a river in India, the film explores man in nature, integrating human experience into a larger order encompassing all life.

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