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by Alan Williams

It can’t happen there: film (non)publications in the land of the frogs

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

Please forgive me if I begin with a rather farcical personal story, which will hopefully illustrate a point. A little over a year ago a friend and teacher of mine, the French critic Raymond Bellour, asked me to redo a piece (on a Howard Hawks film) which I had once written for him for a book on the American cinema he was to edit. It was to be an anthology on American film with a special section on close analysis of representative films, generally from a semiotic point of view. (I must apologize again; textual analysis of film is more or less my specialty—I have no excuse for this except that I find it rather interesting.) After much trauma and typing I produced a version of my text which, with a final set of revisions, was ready for the book—then almost a year behind schedule due to a particular disease known well among writers, procrastination. Most of the other people to contribute (the rest of them writing directly in French, hence burdened with fewer problems than I) were in various stages of work on their pieces when we all received a cheery little photocopied note from the publisher: due to economic difficulties the book would not, after all, come into being.

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In Black and White: The World of Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT. By Hugh Fordin. Doubleday. 566 pages. $15.00.

By packaging and presentation, Hugh Fordin’s book is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The serious student of film might easily pass it by, seeing only the pseudo-MGM logo and the boldly lettered subtitle: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST MUSICALS. You have to look closer to see the real subject, in a smaller italic: The Freed Unit at MGM. I begin with this caveat emptor in an attempt to convince even people who hate film musicals that Fordin’s chronicle of MGM in its glory and subsequent decline is important reading for us all.

A while back a friend suggested “Arthur Freed as auteur” as a potential book or thesis title. The comment was somewhat facetious, but it underlined a curious fact: not only are most film-lovers unaware of Freed’s huge influence on Band Wagon, Silk Stockings, Singinin the Rain, and the 40-odd other films produced by his unit, but the very roles of producer and production unit have been little studied by film historians, much less commented on by theorists and critics. A producer is only a producer, one might say, but a good director is an auteur.

The World of Entertainment benefits greatly from this seemingly unglamorous nature of its subject. Since Freed and others like him are decidedly non-mythic figures—and even more so their “stables” of writers, musicians, and so on—Fordin has not felt obligated to delve too deeply into biography or motivation. He gives us a narrative of film production itself as a process, as evolved in Freed’s “royal family of Hollywood.”

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Out of the Past: ‘Pather Panchali’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

The camera looks up at a rooftop and balcony where we see an Indian woman, clearly upper-class from her dress, intently examining a piece of pottery. She calls out, “Who’s there?” and then looks up, off screen right. Cut to a longer shot, tracking backwards right to follow her as she walks toward something that is not within the image. “Look at her!” the woman exclaims, and addresses a long tirade on theft to another woman on the roof.

The important thing about this opening minute-or-so of Pather Panchali is that it is not like the openings of most Western narrative films. The subject of the woman’s monologue turns out to be a little girl who steals guavas from the orchard (unseen) near the house. About four minutes into the film we see (without knowing their relationship) the girl’s mother in a totally silent, forest shot. The mother’s position is in turn elucidated during a shot which introduces yet another unnamed but later-to-be-significant character: the mother’s best friend. After about 20 minutes of film, we have the complete explanation of the information conveyed in the film’s first two shots, central to which is the fact that the little girl’s family used to own the orchard. The film takes that long to answer fully its first verbal message: “Who’s there?”

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On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

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