[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Normand F. Lareau, a longtime friend of Movietone News, is a resident of New York City, a confirmed addict of the cinema (especially the films of François Truffaut), a vendor of movie stills, a filmmaker, and a kindhearted connoisseur of cats and people. He is currently engaged in a yearlong bike trek around Europe. —Ed.
A friend in New York gave me the name of a dialogue coach working for an Italian film company and said, “Look her up. She’s fun; she’ll show you a good time.” It seemed that the company was doing location work in Bad Aussee, Austria, and if I hurried I could maybe watch them filming. As it happened, the day I arrived in tiny Bad Aussee the crew had been up until 3 a.m. in hellish weather shooting the climactic rain-and-fire sequence of the film; it couldn’t be done “day for night” and everyone had to be there whether or not they were needed.
[Note: The UCLA kindly let me view the entire available copies of Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the episodes. Therefore, this article will not have pictures from the program. I could not view one episode called Dog’s Eye View, because the kinescope negative was never developed. Additionally, it is unclear whether the final episode of the series, Mrs. Kinsley’s Report was ever filmed.]
There is nothing wrong with Oboler Comedy Theatre (1949), except that it is rarely funny and is almost unwatchable. Oboler basically films some of his comic radio plays without any eye towards adapting them to a visual medium, directing with a visual style so static that he makes Herschel Gordon Lewis look like Max Ophüls. Without competent visual collaborators, Oboler is lost at sea. The only reason to watch these shows is to see Oboler’s radio troupe make rare appearances in a visual medium.
Oboler did not direct a film between 1947 and 1951; his last film for a studio was the MGM-produced The Arnelo Affair (1947). In interviews, Oboler stated that he was tired of directing filmed adaptations of his radio plays, yet the majority of the episodes of Oboler Comedy Theatreare adapted from his own radio plays. In 1948, Oboler toured Africa for eight months to gather sound for the Frederick W. Ziv radio company, recordings that later aired on NBC’s documentary radio program Monitor. Oboler was also finding it increasingly difficult to work with collaborators. He penned only three radio shows for The James and Pamela Mason Show (1949) before leaving the program. By the time he made Oboler Comedy Theatre, which was independently produced and aired over ABC, Oboler was an independent artist.
At first, Oboler was excited about the new medium of television, yet despite several attempts over a fifteen year period, Oboler never found the success that he sought in TV. Oboler’s failure may have prompted him to make the anti-television satire The Twonky (1953). The Twonky is much more interesting than Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, for the most part, the film demonstrates Oboler’s inability to handle comedy.
In his two films for MGM—Bewitched (1945) and The Arnelo Affair—Oboler brought his trademark stream-of-consciousness style to moviemaking. These films are stunningly photographed by Charles Salerno, and Bewitched, especially, has some impressive camera work; particularly, a crane shot, which starts at a window and tracks all the way down to an alley. Oboler did not use the stream-of-consciousness style in his comic radio plays, and that style is also absent from Oboler Comedy Theatre.
Even in radio, Oboler’s was rarely adept at comedy. His fortes were suspense, fantasy, and horror. From the get-go, these TV plays fail to elicit laughs. Oboler introduces the episodes by dubbing an attractive woman with his voice. He explains this odd choice in the following way: “even as the world needs laughter, what it needs more is pretty faces.” The four episodes that I discuss in this article are Ostrich in Bed; Love, Love, Love; Triple Feature; and Mr. Dydee.
I don’t worry about Google searches, but if the NSA profiles people by what they rent at Scarecrow Video, I’m on a few watch lists.
On a recent two-for-one Wednesday, I’ve got a Nazisploitation flick, a couple of? ’60s Eurospy Bond knockoffs, and a spaghetti Western. Plus early-’70s Satanic-possession and women’s-prison movies on VHS that’ve never been on DVD.
“Stack o’ trash,” I say sheepishly at the counter. The clerk doesn’t judge me. She’s seen the particularly vile horror title in the stack. (Martyrs. You’re warned.) She recommends something similar for next time.
I began gorging each week when I recently considered leaving Seattle. I’d previously written for The Seattle Times that Scarecrow was the Alexandria library of video stores, and I wanted to take advantage while I could. (Disclosure: The store contributes surplus DVDs to my podcast.)
Recently I’d seen a couple of their jaw-dropping rare-clip compilations at the nearby Grand Illusion. A new espresso bar has a screening area with tables. Beer is even served during the free screenings—currently including Monday-night servings of the 1994 Showtime series Rebel Highway; the reggae documentary True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, who’ll attend the 6 p.m. Friday event; a crazy VHS compilation at 8 p.m. Saturday; and Sunday’s All About Eve (1 p.m.) and three TV episodes of Saved by the Bell (5 p.m.).
In addition to a powerful, searchable website, Scarecrow even has a podcast. It would appear that the iconic store—a perennial winner in our Best of Seattle® readers poll—is flourishing.
“What you’re seeing there is us trying new things to try to keep the store open,” owner Carl Tostevin tells me. “I would say we are struggling to the point that I just don’t know how long we are going to last.”
Richard Linklater’s cinema is made of moments. This is not to say that his films are valuable only in pieces, or that the parts are greater than the whole, but rather, that Linklater’s films find deepest insights through small gestures and hushed glances. For all of the hyper-articulate dialogue spouted by Linklater’s characters, it is the quiet moments that slowly build to flashes of revelation and human connection. They come on subtly, taking both the characters and the viewer by surprise. Fleeting and impermanent as these revelations are, Linklater cannot help but recognize their sublimity; these moments are magic.
That Linklater elevates mundane occurrences with a distinctly unfussy style makes them all the more remarkable. Perhaps the most powerful example of one such moment occurs partway through Before Sunset, Linklater’s middle-aged sequel to his youthful romance Before Sunrise. Nine years after Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (Ethan Hawke) 24-hour affair, spent wandering around nocturnal Vienna, they are reunited in Paris. As in the previous film, they have a short time before they must part; Jesse has a plane to catch. But before he leaves, they meander through the streets and gardens of the city. After some initial awkwardness, it becomes clear that neither their deep affection nor their penchant for intelligent conversation have dimmed in the intervening years.
Their roaming conversation covers politics, love, and that night in Vienna. Linklater shoots their exchanges in real-time, via a series of unassuming long-takes. This choice forces the viewer to feel time as it progresses in the film, underscoring the transient nature of Celine and Jesse’s reunion. It gives Before Sunset uncommon urgency and emotional heft. The long-takes also compress the space between Celine and Jesse; they are consistently framed together in medium shots. This visual pattern culminates in one brief gesture, lasting a mere three seconds, framed in a typically unpretentious two-shot.
In the back of a taxicab, Celine finally lets down her emotional shield. Their banter can no longer mask her heartache and sense of loss. She tells him that their reunion has stirred up emotions she hoped to ignore. In an outburst of confused rage, Celine tells Jesse to leave the cab. Suddenly, Jesse, who has feigned the romantic optimism of his youthful self, reveals that he too has been wounded by the disappointments and compromises of growing older. His marriage is in shambles; he can’t remember the last time he was happy.
After cutting back and forth between close-ups of Jesse and Celine, Linklater cuts back to a two-shot. Jesse, on the left of the frame, briefly looks out the car window, holding back tears. On the right side of the frame, Celine’s face expresses her embarrassment and recognition of shared pain. The negative space of the back windshield splits the frame, emphasizing the gulf between them. But in a stunning moment of empathy, Celine hesitatingly reaches her hand towards the back of Jesse’s head, her hand crossing the divide of the windshield. Her hand hovers for two seconds. Before she can fully reach out to him, Jesse turns his head back and she quickly pulls it out of sight. Linklater cuts back to a close-up of Jesse, isolating these characters in their respective spaces once again.
In this moment, a flash of revelation occurs. But it is not Celine’s, nor Jesse’s. The revelation is ours. Unexpectedly, we recall words Celine spoke to Jesse nine years earlier:
“I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Jesse and Celine may have forgotten these words, but we have not. Nine years and two movies have built to this seemingly simple moment of attempted human connection. Linklater is too wise to suggest that the heartache of lost time can be healed in one gesture. But Celine’s words echo in our minds, and give us hope; something sacred exists in that flickering space between her hand and his head. In this single, humble shot Linklater reminds us that there is a kind of magic in this world. For a moment, it’s right there up on the screen.
[Note: The television production of Night of the Auk is not available on home video in any format. The UCLA film library kindly let me view a video cassette of the production. However, I was not allowed to take any photos; nonetheless, there are pre-existing photos of the TV production, on the Internet, that are included here. Unfortunately, the quality is somewhat poor. Additionally, there are low fidelity video clips available at the links below.]
On May 2, 1960, William Shatner took his maiden voyage on a spaceship in a television production of Arch Oboler’s ill fated Broadway play Night of the Auk. Shatner plays Lewis Rohnen, the megalomaniacal leader of mankind’s first expedition to the moon, which at the start of the play, is making its return to Earth. Auk is written entirely in a Walt Whitmanesque poetic form and watching Shatner declaim his lines in blank verse is immensely entertaining, akin to the pleasure of watching him speak Esperanto in Incubus.
William Shatner, as Lewis Rohnen, is the heavy of this five act tragedy. Rohnen is a spoiled billionaire who has privately funded the expedition. In order for Rohnen to receive the prize money for his venture, the expedition must both land on the moon and one of its crew must walk on its surface. However, upon landing on the moon, Rohnen discovers that its surface is radioactive. Undeterred, Rohnen gets one of the crew members drunk and encourages him to walk on its surface. However, before the ill fated crew-member returns, Rohnen’s expedition accidentally blasts off for home. To make matters even worse, Rohnen touches off a nuclear war when, during a radio broadcast to Earth, he claims the moon for the United States. William Shatner turns in a compelling performance as a neurotic egomaniac and even his occasional overacting seems to befit the role of a larger than life schmuck whose actions cause the end of the world as we know it. Shatner is supported by an able cast including Warner Anderson (Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair) as a hardened military General and James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) as a wide-eyed communications expert.
It is unclear how much of a hand Oboler had in the production. But, given the presence of Warner Anderson, and of Oboler favorite Raymond Edward Johnson as the narrator, it appears that he had some involvement.
The piece is directed by the Broadway maestro Nikos Psacharapoulis. Despite the fact that Oboler’s play is cut by nearly a third, Psacharapoulis remains true to Oboler’s vision. Nothing of Oboler’s play feels lost, and its pacing may, in fact, be improved. Psacharapoulis seems to have cut some of Oboler’s more confusing language—his director’s script is filled with question marks. Given the limited set and space, Psacharapoulis does a surprisingly good job of using an active camera, with tracking shots, overhead shots, and few close-ups. The piece is shot entirely on black and white video.
The set is very minimal and somewhat amusing. It looks like a multi-platformed conversation pit, with filing cabinets, levers, a ticker-tape machine, and an airlock in the rear wall. The props are similarly minimal and somewhat comical. For example, the actors use absurdly long binoculars to see Earth from the ship. The majority of the cast wears jumpsuits with pocket protectors, which makes them look like big interstellar nerds. But for some reason, the ship’s scientist, Dr. Bruner wears a button down sweater.
Overall, Night of the Auk is worth watching and is genuinely compelling entertainment despite its limited visual appeal.
Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.
But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.
The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.
Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.
In Notorious, love is a weapon more corrosive than a heaping pile of uranium ore. And it has a longer half-life. This Nazi spy story slowly reveals the bruised, battered, but still beating heart pumping beneath its surface. As it does, it emerges as the Hitchcock love story par excellence, a bewitched romance wrapped—like Alicia herself—in shimmering black velvet. If Hitchcock’s films are often accused of coldness, Notorious proves a useful corrective. In Hitchcock’s world, love burns.
But it isn’t love that dominates most of the picture. Sex—at its most venal and transactional—is the driving force that moves the film along. Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia drowns her moral agony in equal parts cocktails and coitus, a tonic perfectly suited for the job her government offers. But it’s not the government that shows up at her home; Cary Grant’s smoothly handsome Devlin crashes her party. Alicia and Devlin’s initial encounter encapsulates their relationship in a single image. Devlin—an almost too perfect name—sits silently in the corner of the frame, back to the camera, shrouded entirely in shadow. Alicia’s drunken come-ons appear to do nothing; he remains an unmovable black monolith. But as the partygoers leave or pass out, the world closes in on Dev and Alicia. Hitchcock swooningly swings his camera around from behind Devlin’s head to frame both of them in the shot. It’s a brief gesture, but it hints at Devlin’s depths. He is already falling in love.
But Devlin has a job to do. Even Alicia’s tender embrace cannot break down his stoic resistance. Much has been made about the famous kissing scene, and Hitchcock’s clever circumvention of the censors. And yes, there is a playfulness to its kiss-dialogue-kiss structure. But that structure also has a thematic purpose. The scene, as Robin Wood notes, poses a “desperate sensuality, [which] betrays the underlying instability” of their relationship. Devlin continually pulls away from her; it is he who won’t utter the word love. He won’t—or can’t—give her the love they both want. And when duty calls, he runs to his boss and gives her up begrudgingly. Grant plays this scene out subtly, seething at his superiors beneath a cool surface. He leaves the room to sell Alicia’s body, but the brief shot of Devlin’s forgotten champagne bottle breaks your heart. It’s the cinema’s most succinct image of love abandoned.
No coincidence, then, that wine bottles come up again. Sebastian’s house is overrun with them—an image that becomes more profoundly sad when connected to Dev’s forgotten bottle. Years of heartbreak cellared away en masse. But these bottles aren’t filled with heartbreak, they’re stuffed with radioactive bomb material; it’s as disturbing an image of obsessed, curdled love as anything in Hitchcock’s filmography.
When Devlin returns to rescue Alicia from Sebastian’s jealous poisoning, finally revealing his love to her, she emerges like Sleeping Beauty from her slumber. Prince Charming has returned to claim his bride. But this is no fairytale ending. There is real pain in Sebastian’s loss. He has shown Alicia deep kindness and gained nothing in return. In love and in Hitchcock, obsession is a one-way street.
More than any other film—with the possible exception of Vertigo—Notorious most potently distills Hitchcock’s singular vision of love. But whereas Vertigo posits love as an ever-ascending staircase of obsession, Notorious inverses that image: love brings us back down to earth, away from notoriousness and Nazis, and envelops us in the warm pleasure of a lover finally returning our embrace. But Notorious’s final shot leaves Sebastian out in the cold. As he walks back up his own staircase towards certain death, we realize which weapon has truly killed him. Love burns, indeed.
Matthew Rovner follows up his career overview of radio pioneer and film director Arch Oboler, published in 2009 on Parallax View, with this study of his 1945 film Bewitched.
By Matthew Rovner
Arch Oboler’s intriguing noir, Bewitched(1945), is a dark thriller about a woman with multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder (DID). Oboler adapted his film from one of his most popular and critically acclaimed radio dramas, “Alter Ego,” which was in turn inspired by the true story of Christine Beauchamp, one of the first persons diagnosed with DID. Briefly, Bewitcheddetails the plight of mild-mannered Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter) as she is besieged by the voice of her evil alternate personality, Karen (the voice of Audrey Totter), and driven to murder. This article examines how Oboler adapted both the Beauchamp case and his own radio play “Alter Ego” into Bewitched.
Christine Beauchamp was treated by American neurologist Morton Prince, who wrote about her in his book The Dissociation of a Personality: A Biographical Study In Abnormal Psychology. The following passage from Dr. Prince’s book may have inspired Oboler’s imagination:
Miss Beauchamp is an example in actual life of the imaginative creation of [Robert Louis] Stevenson, only, I am happy to say, the allegorical representation of the evil side of human nature finds no counterpart in her makeup. The splitting of personality is along intellectual and temperamental, not along ethical lines of cleavage… Each personality is incapable of doing evil to others.
By contrast, in both Oboler’s radio play and film, Joan Ellis’s alternate personality is capable of evil, specifically murder.
Oboler’s “Alter Ego” is a considerably darker work than Bewitched. In “Alter Ego,” Joan Ellis willingly goes to the gallows in order to kill off her evil personality (named Carmen in the radio adaptation). In Bewitched, Joan is cured by kindly psychiatrist Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn). In what critics considered one of the film’s more contrived scenes, Dr. Bergson cures Joan through hypnosis, separating out her evil personality and shaming it into oblivion. In this scene, Oboler shows us a visual representation of this separation [through the use of multiple exposures, we see the good Joan and the evil Karen emerge from Joan’s hypnotized body]. In real life, Dr. Morton Prince cured Christine Beauchamp through hypnosis by reconciling her disparate personalities with her original personality. Oboler’s idea is not as hokey as it may appear.
[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
In The Tenant Roman Polanski explores again the psychic terrain of guilt, dread, paranoia, fears of sexual inadequacy and hysteria he made so familiar in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, and Chinatown. Much of The Tenant bears residual traces of Repulsion‘s treatment of insanity and the creaky Gothic nightscape of Rosemary’s Baby. The film is chockfull of the attic-thumpings and disembodied sounds Polanski is so fond of rendering. A bit of lace drifting in the breeze becomes an omen of dread; sidelong glances from normal faces acquire an insidious grotesqueness. Is there in fact a conspiracy against M. Trelkovsky (Tchaikovsky? Porchovsky?—everyone seems to pronounce it differently), the new young tenant who takes over the apartment of Mlle. Schoul, the victim of a suicide leap from her window? Are the other tenants in league to drive T. into jumping as well? What about the burglary of his apartment? The human tooth he finds hidden in a hole in the wall plugged by cotton? The Egyptian postcard? The hieroglyphics in the toilet? Are they all elements of a vast conspiracy to drive him mad?
One of the great pleasures of SIFF 2004 was the opportunity to see Thom Andersen’s 169- minute video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Utilizing hundreds of unauthorized clips of obscure and well-known films [you will never see this on DVD] Andersen poses the question:why is the most filmed city in the world rarely faithfully portrayed in movies? Surveying a filmography from A Muddy Romance to The Million Dollar Hotel, Andersen explores the way Los Angeles has been used as a location, as a metaphor and as a subject in motion pictures. He questions the ‘histories’ presented by Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as well as the future depicted in Blade Runner. He critiques the use of architecture, examines the evolving portrayal of the police and appreciates the aesthetic of L.A. Rebellion directors Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima and Billy Woodberry. After three hours, you will know more about Los Angeles and film than you did before.
Beginning March 26th, the NWFF will be showing most of Andersen’s work. In Addition to Los Angeles Plays Itself there will be screenings of Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer and Red Hollywood, a documentary on the blacklist featuring interviews with the late Paul Jarrico, Abraham Polonsky and Ring Lardner Jr. (Click here for the complete calendar and information on showtimes and tickets.)
A native-born Chicagoan, Andersen studied film at USC in the early 60’s. During that decade he made several short films, three of which will be screened. — —–, an 11-minute montage of the music scene in downtown Los Angeles, intersperses shots of bands groovin’ at The Trip, Pandora’s Box and the Whisky A Go Go with the manufacturing of records and juke boxes; Olivia’s Place captures the long-defunct Santa Monica diner and Melting has something to do with a strawberry sundae.
Andersen has been a programmer at the LA Filmforum and currently teaches film theory and history at CalArts. His most recent film, Get Out of The Car will be shown on the 29th. A 30-minute tableaux of billboards, murals and the ghosts of vanished landmarks, it will be followed by a lecture from the director. Indeed, Andersen will be in attendance at every screening. In addition, he’ll be presenting Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles on the 27th,followed by a discussion of the film.
I had my own brief chat with Andersen, in which I asked a few questions about Los Angeles as a place and as a location.
E. Steven Fried: I think to the extent people think of Los Angeles they think of movies or the entertainment industry. And they think that’s all there is to the place. But when I read about the history I was surprised to discover that at one one time one of the main industries was oil production and there was a slew of industries that came and went through the region from the mid 19th century on.
Thom Andersen: Right.
What I find interesting is that it’s been a nexus of so many things that have played an important role in America. Not just entertainment, but defense, aerospace and manufacturing.
I guess the motion picture industry is what’s unique to Los Angeles. Other things have been equally or more important to the economy of Los Angeles. Motion pictures or entertainment… record companies started moving here in the 60’s. Television started moving here in the 50’s as well, from New York. But, of course, that is the way it looks from the outside. When you live here it’s different, I guess. You take that for granted. I guess there’s this idea in the United States that New York is a prototypical city. But New York is quite exceptional. There are not too many cities like New York, that are so vertical. Great cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, London, didn’t have that vertical growth. Didn’t have it till quite recently. So Los Angeles is more of the prototype of 20th century American cities.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Max Ophuls, the great European film director, once observed in conversation with a friend that different love relationships are expressed by different tokens: traditionally a man gives fresh-cut flowers to his mistress, but a potted plant to his wife.* Social rituals with their attendant images fascinated Ophuls. Of special interest to him were the conventional images surrounding romantic love: the sending of flowers, the exchange of jewelry, dancing as an erotic mating ritual, and the exchange of delicately scented, invariably tragic love notes. His films are full of these social rituals in various combinations. But Ophuls’ formulation of the flower ritual attests to more than a sharp eye for custom. In his expression of the rule about what kind of flowers to give to whom, Ophuls lays bare the social logic which underlies the custom of giving flowers. That social logic prescribes that the ephemeral loved one be presented with an ephemeral token; and, like for like, the more permanent loved one is to be presented with a token whose characteristics are stability, growth, and relative permanence. The flowers and the potted plant are not neutral images to which a social meaning has been added. Rather, the meanings of social rituals derive from characteristics inherent in the very objects which express the rituals. Ophuls’ genius, it seems to me, lies in his ability to reveal this logic on the screen, to show how a ritual, its object, and its meaning are related.
While cut flowers seem to be a widespread Western image, the significance and usage of the image differs slightly in each particular culture. Moreover, culture has other, more specific and local images which are not transferable, just as the nuances of language are sometimes untranslatable. When Max Ophuls left Europe for America, he surely encountered a culture with a different social imagery than he was accustomed to. His first two films here are cautious historical or period pieces, highly European in flavor. However, the two following films attempt to deal with a specific American milieu. The latter of theseâ€”and the last film Ophuls made in the United Statesâ€”TheRecklessMoment(1949) is complete in its mastery of the American idiom.
By American idiom I do not mean merely speech, although Ophuls’ ear flawlessly recreates a range of dialects from teenage slang to upper-middle-class English to the argot of the lower-class villains. Rather, I mean that Ophuls captures and analyzes American domestic life with the assurance of one who understands its unspoken rules. In a way uncanny for a non-native, he understands the parameters of American social beliefs and taboos. “Belief” may be too strong a word to use since it implies a conscious attitude. Ophuls is primarily concerned with the unconscious, half-articulated, vague notions which rule American domestic life.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
by Julie Ahrens
Seeing ants crawl from a hole in a man’s hand, we don’t need to ask, “Is it a dream or is it real?” It’s surreal. That one creepy, iconic image is the essence of surrealism.
In 1928 Luis Buñuel, the man with the razor, opened his viewers’ eyes to middle-class amorality, complacency and sexual frustration with his first film, Un Chien Andalou. This film, made at the height of the Surrealist movement in France with Salvador Dalí, is representative of surrealism in its overt use of dreamlike images – and ants – presented without rational order or meaning. Born out of 19th-century Romanticism and influenced by Freud’s investigations into subconscious mental processes, the images of surrealist art were intended to pass directly from the subconscious mind of the artist to that of the viewer with a minimum of logical reasoning. Un Chien Andalouconsists wholly of bizarre, unreal images, and the viewer is continually aware of being suspended in a dream landscape.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel’s 1972 attack on the inane privileged classes, does not appear as purely surrealistic as his first film. Here Buñuel divides the world into the “reality” of six friends’ attempt to have dinner together, and the twisted tales of dreams and dreams-within-dreams that interrupt and underlie their outward social niceties. Although we are not quite able to distinguish where it lies, we know there is a dividing line between the dream and the reality in The Discreet Charm. This barrier is crossed every time a character begins a story of a dream he has had, or is suddenly awakened to reveal that a preceding sequence was actually a dream. Buñuel punctuates the outwardly placid, yet inwardly violent, bourgeois aims with timeless shots of the group walking along a road. At first there seem to be clear divisions between fantasy and reality, yet it finally becomes apparent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two.
[ed. note: Director Ramin Bahrani arrives in Seattle to conduct a “Master Class” workshop for Northwest Film Forum on Tuesday, April 28. On Wednesday, April 29, Bahrani will introduce a special screening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, with a Q&A to follow, also at NWFF. To mark the occasion, Jim Emerson has allowed us to reprint 2007 piece he wrote on Bahrani and his earlier films. Thank you, Jim.]
Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, you know you’re in good hands. I’ve written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani’s debut feature, Man Push Cart, from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and Chop Shop is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere — California, Texas, Mexico, South America — but the first thing you sense is that it’s not: it’s this particular place, even if we don’t know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, “I don’t need you today” — and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.
[Part One of Matthew Rovner’s overview of Arch Oboler’s films career ran on Parallax View here. Part Two covers Oboler’s efforts as a pioneer in 3D cinema.]
SYMPATHY FOR BWANA DEVIL
While in Kenya, Oboler became fascinated with The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), written by adventurer and Zionist J.H. Patterson. The story was based on a real incident in which two lions hunted and killed, in tandem, builders of the Uganda Railway in Tsavo, Kenya. Hooked on this story, Oboler determined to make a film version called The Lions of Gulu. He explained this idea to his cameraman in Africa, William D. Snyder. Synder had worked in Hollywood on the 3D MGM shorts called Audioscopiks. He suggested to Oboler that he make The Lions of Gulu entirely in 3D. Oboler was intrigued and finally seized the opportunity when The Twonky‘s cinematographer Joe Biroc, introduced him to Friend Baker who had invented an improved system for 3D filmmaking. He invented the process for eminent ophthalmologist Dr. Julian Gunzburg, who was experimenting with polarized images to cure “lazy eye.” Dr. Gunzburgâ€™s brother, Milton was a Hollywood screenwriter and the brothers owned the pending patent rights to Bakerâ€™s invention. Biroc shot the test footage for this 3D system. At the time, the major film studios were suffering major financial losses because audiences were migrating to television. Nonetheless, the studios turned down Baker and the Gunzburgsâ€™ 3D system because executives had no faith that 3D would lure audiences back to the movies. After these rejections, the Gunzburgs approached Oboler with their demonstration reel and he liked what he saw: “Natural Vision.” Later in life, Oboler and his producer, Sidney Pink, accounted differently for how the deal was struck, but the upshot is that Obolerâ€™s production company was supposed to have exclusive rights to “Natural Vision” for the first and second films, while the Gunzburgsâ€™ Natural Vision company would tie up the market for the Polaroid glasses that were needed to view the 3D.The sheer novelty of the process attracted some name acting talent.
Newly freed from his contract with Universal, Robert Stack was enthusiastic about starring in Hollywoodâ€™s first color 3D feature film. Nigel Bruce, who suffered from alcoholism, begged to be in the film and did the entire picture sober. Sadly, it was his last film. Bwana Devil was shot at the Paramount ranch standing in for Kenya, although the rear projection shots were from footage taken by Snyder in Africa. Standing in as Masai warriors were extras from Watts, Los Angeles. For the soundtrack, Oboler used a combination of traditional music from the Acholi of Northern Uganda and a score by his Strange Holiday composer Gordon Jenkins. Robert Stackâ€™s mother provided much of the financing for the film, but Pink ran into problems with another major financer who had a questionable reputation. This problem created a major rift in Oboler and Pinkâ€™s relationship, which deteriorated from there. When I spoke with Pink in 2000, he referred to Oboler as “that miserable bastard.” However, Pinkâ€™s contribution to promoting the film was substantial. It was Pink who came up with Bwana Devilâ€™s legendary tag-line: “A Lion In Your Lap, a Lover In Your Arms.” Audiences flocked to the film to experience 3D, which, when projected properly, was impressive. They were undeterred by the critics, who savaged almost every aspect of Obolerâ€™s movie, from the script to its low budget shortcomings to Birocâ€™s cinematography.
[Arch Oboler’s Five makes its home video debut on Tuesday, February 3. To mark the occasion, Oboler expert Matthew Rovner has contributed a brief history his film career. Part One covers his earliest films. ]
Arch Oboler came to Hollywood out of the radio tube, but he never showed the visual flair of Orson Welles. His name still reverberates from the Lights Out radio series I heard in my childhood. Hence, he is included if only as a reminder of the vanished mystique of radio in the motion picture industry.
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
As a filmmaker he was certainly no Orson Welles, but Oboler deserves better than oblivion.In the 1940s, Oboler was one of the highest paid writers in the world and the most successful radio playwright in America. Radio, prior to the advent of television, was the most powerful and influential mass communication medium on the planet. Oboler stood shoulder to shoulder with the two other giants of American radio, Norman Corwin and Orson Welles. Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, has even noted that “…Welles’s radio work possessed none of the riddling originality of Arch Oboler.” Oboler was to radio what Rod Serling became to television; Serling’s ironic and socially conscious “weird tales” for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery were influenced by Oboler’s plays for the radio program Lights Out. As Andrew Sarris suggests, Lights Out is the radio series for which Oboler is best remembered.
But Oboler was more than a mere fright master; he was also a writer with a political conscience and a relentless desire to elevate radio writing to an art form. His books of published radio plays have introductions from eminent writers such as Irving Stone and Thomas Mann. Oboler was NBC’s “boy genius” and their answer to rival network CBS’s formidable roster of talented writers including Corwin, Welles, and Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish. NBC, America’s most powerful network gave Oboler his very own radio series with complete creative control and his name in the title: Arch Oboler’s Plays. It was an almost unheard of honor. On radio, Oboler was a tireless and original innovator.He wrote most of his plays from the first person perspective, concentrating on the thoughts, memories and imaginings of his protagonists.Particularly memorable is his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with James Cagney as Joe Bonham, a World War I casualty without eyes, ears, tongue, or limbs. Oboler was also a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when the spoken word could better create an image in the mind of his listeners. Nonetheless, the sound effects that he did use are remembered for their audaciousness and creativity such as the eerie vibration of bed springs, which Joe Bonham learns to recognize as the movement of people entering and exiting his hospital room.
What Oboler brought to film from radio was an innovative use of multi-layered sound tracks and his trademark stream-of-consciousness technique.He also brought to film his pioneering and independent spirit, which influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. That same maverick passion nearly bankrupted him when he became obsessed with creating the perfect 3D film system. Oboler made only nine feature films, but each of them is a cult classic due to both his eccentric vision and even his limitations as a filmmaker: Bewitched (1945), Strange Holiday (1945), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Five (1951), Bwana Devil (1952), The Twonky (1953), 1+1 (1961), The Bubble (1966), and Domo Arigato (1972). At times, he has been compared most unfairly to Ed Wood Jr.; however, in style and theme””if not artistic consistency””he was a mix of Sam Fuller, Stanley Kramer, and Val Lewton. Oboler’s life and work are full of the unexpected, including this surprise: even before he was making radio he was making movies.