Browse Category

by James Monaco

The Realist Renaissance

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”

The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On the Waterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.

Keep Reading

Au milieu du monde: Alain Tanner and Swiss Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Alain Tanner, now 45, served a long apprenticeship before he was able to make his first feature film six years ago. Before he could become a Swiss filmmaker it was necessary to invent Swiss film. There had been some activity in the German-speaking part of the country during and just after the war. Exiles had provided Zurich with a modest film industry (and even a studio), and during the war years about ten to fifteen features per year were produced in Swiss-German dialect. Since the borders had been closed to imports, these films were extremely popular. But when the war ended, the exiles departed and the Zurich filmmakers retrenched, concentrating on documentaries and industrial films.

Meanwhile, in Romand Switzerland (the French-speaking Swiss comprise approximately one-sixth of Switzerland’s six million population) there had never been any native film culture to speak of while Tanner was growing up. “Switzerland exists much more for the German Swiss than for us,” Tanner explains. “They have a real identity while we don’t. There are some differences between the French and us, but we are much more of a French province than the German Swiss are a German province.” So, after having studied literature at the University of Geneva following the war, Tanner left the country, working first on cargo ships around the world, then doing a little journalism, waiting for “something to happen.” In the middle Fifties he settled in London (choosing that city, even though he knew nothing about England, because in Paris it was so difficult to get work). He met people like Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz who were just starting the Free Cinema movement; “we got to be quite good friends,” Tanner says, “and they managed to get us work with the Film Institute.” In 1957 he and fellow Swiss exile Claude Goretta (the two of them had known each other since university days and had, in fact, founded one of the first film societies in Switzerland then) made their first film, a short, Nice Timea study of Piccadilly Circus at night.

Keep Reading

The Richard Lester Sitting-Still Film: Interview by James Monaco

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Richard Lester is sitting in the study of his house in Surrey “looking out over a garden filled with rain and daffodils.” He was raised in Philadelphia but he has spent nearly half of his 42 years in England and he has no particular wish to return to the States. England has given him his career, his wife, his children and most of his friends, for all of which he is most grateful. In addition, he has a rather perverse fondness for English weather.

In the middle Sixties, Lester seemed unstoppable. He had made, consecutively and within the space of a few years, four highly profitable films for United Artists, films whose box-office clout was exceeded only by their glowing critical reception. He turned his attention then to a couple of projects which, although they were much more personal, seemed to him to have only slightly less popular potential. He was wrong. How I Won the War, Petulia, and The Bed-Sitting Room—all brilliant, unique films—failed miserably at the box office. From 1968 to 1973 Lester watched forlornly as a dozen potential projects fell through for one reason or another. He occupied himself in the long interim making television commercials for European producers. When the Salkind family troika approached him with the prospectus for a version of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, the drought broke.

Richard Lester

Two films were made from that book. The first, The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, was released in the spring of 1974 and did excellent business during the summer and fall; the second, The Four Musketeers, The Revenge of Milady, was scheduled for release the following spring—shortly after the ensuing interview—and promised to do as well. Hardly a month after he had finished post-production work on these, Lester was offered, and took, the job of directing Juggernaut—which was in release barely six months after he began work on it. Andrew Sarris, who was later to contradict many reviewers in preferring The Four Musketeers to The Three, wrote of Juggernaut that it “comes very, very close to being the best film I have seen all year under any auspices. It is a thriller, yes, but it is much, much more, besides.” Just .as Juggernaut was being released, Lester began work on a long-deferred project, Royal Flash.

Both Juggernaut and the Musketeers films were essentially commercial projects conceived by their producers rather than Lester, but he nevertheless managed to inject his own brand of irony and wit into them, making them considerably more interesting than they otherwise might have been. After all, Lester is an old hand at the battle of the genres, having wittily satirized the Donen-Minnelli musical with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, reconstructed the melodrama in Petulia, and destroyed for all time the war film in How I Won the War.

Keep Reading

New York CA 90028

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

Back in February, Marty Scorsese privately screened a rough cut of New York, New York that lasted four-and-a-half hours. The film as finally released is little more than half that length. We can assume that Scorsese knew he’d never get a four-hour movie released commercially. We can also assume that he knew what was happening while he was shooting and that he didn’t intentionally include failed material in the first rough cut. So how does it happen that half a movie winds up on the cutting-room floor?

The question is not just a matter of curiosity. New York, New York is a maddening, fascinating congeries of good and bad bits and angles, the sum of whose parts far exceeds the value of the whole, and that extraordinary difference between first rough cut and final cut may be the key to what went wrong.

Keep Reading