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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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Cinéma Vérité: The Movement of Truth

The birth of documentary filmmaking is the birth of cinema. The very first films were documents of people, places, and events, whether scientific studies or the moving picture’s answer to the still life painting. And ever since, documentary has always struggled with the challenge to present “truth” on film.

But of course there is no direct pipeline to truth and no film portrait is unmediated. From the beginning, the very choice of what to shoot, where to point the camera, which action to follow, and when to cut, not to mention the decisions that go into the editing process and sound mixing, imposes a vision on a film no matter what the intention.

Cinéma vérité (“truthful cinema”) was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, developed independently in multiple countries as a response to the conventions of the documentary tradition. In France, where the term cinéma vérité was born, it developed amidst the energy and experimentation of the French New Wave (“nouvelle vague”) from the likes of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch. In the U.S., it was called Direct Cinema, a movement led by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert and David Maysles. And in Britain, Lindsay Anderson (see more on him in UK TV feature below), Karel Reisz, and Tony Richardson spearheaded the Free Cinema movement.

All of these filmmakers reacted against the traditional approaches of non-fiction filmmaking — the formal structure, the talking heads interviews, the omniscient narrator framing the information, the dry, dull quality of so many documentaries — and encouraged a more direct engagement between filmmaker and subject. Technological advances produced lighter 16mm cameras and portable sound recording equipment, which gave filmmakers greater freedom and independence. It also allowed for greater flexibility and spontaneity on location and a more intimate connection with the subjects.

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A Note on Style

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Although he has gone on to make such films as Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for Out of the Past (based on his own novel) and The Phenix City Story likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in Out of the Past the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; Phenix City Story, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in Out of the Past Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.

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Imitation of Life: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

American officials and the American public began to believe that the Soviet Union was bent on building a Communist empire and that it would halt its expansion only when forced to do so.
With this conviction, the American government took steps to block further Soviet expansion. From then on, relations between the two powers bordered on a state of war….
The Red Scare after World War II … had roots not only in the cold war but in long-buried currents of anti-intellectualism and in the rapid social changes attendant on the shift from depression to prosperity. …
Much of what was widely believed during the scare was nonsense. There was a notion, for example, that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the American government. … There was another notion that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the news media, the motion picture industry, and the clergy, so that news, movies and sermons had gulled the public into approving pro-Communist policies. These beliefs rested on the fantasy that the United States, if it chose, could shape the world to its will, and that, whenever anything went wrong, the fault had to lie at home.

—Ernest May, Anxiety and Affluence, 1945-1965

The wave of anti-intellectualism crested with McCarthy and washed over much of the remainder of the decade. Blacklisting had become such a threat that many filmmakers consciously made openly anti-Communist films, to preserve their reputations and obtain favors. Red Paranoia was so widespread that many more filmmakers reflected the fear of subversion and infiltration in their movies, even unconsciously. In either case, the monster movies of the Fifties in general reflect an intense fear of infiltration and dehumanization by a subversive, colonizing power (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Brain Eaters) or by a communal society bent on destructive expansionism (Them!, War of the Worlds). Creeping Communism became one of the main themes of monster movies in 1954, and the monster movies themselves became one of the main proponents of the battle against Communist ideology (or what was generally understood to be such). Its metaphors were monsters, from outer space, from under the earth or on it, bent on conquering the human race (always starting with the United States of America), and often determined to create a mindless Utopia devoid of feelings and individuality.

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Early Silent Documentaries: Real-life Adventure Cinema

Since the dawn of cinema, cameras have been taken around the world to capture unique and exotic sights previously available to audiences only in still photographs.

Motion picture pioneers the Lumiere brothers sent their cameras to get scenic shots of foreign landscapes and cultures, and rivals (such as Britain’s Mitchell and Kenyon) followed suit, creating programs that took audiences to faraway places. Mitchell and Kenyon narrated their presentations, turning the shows into events, while on the lecture circuit, explorers started using movie cameras to supplement their slide shows with moving picture footage.

These pre-documentary forays inspired filmmakers and explorers to take their cameras into more remote and inhospitable locations.

‘The Epic of Everest’

Herbert Ponting accompanied Captain Robert Scott on his 1911 expedition to the Antarctic with two moving picture cameras. Frank Hurley, the official photographer of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, also brought a movie camera. Captain John Noel, gripped by fascination with the Himalayas, documented the third British ascent of Everest in 1924. Photographer and anthropologist Edward S. Curtis went to the coast of British Columbia to recreate the lost culture of the Pacific Northwest tribes. Robert Flaherty, still celebrated as the father of documentary filmmaking, took his cameras to the Arctic to capture the culture of the Inuit, and to Samoa to document South Seas life. And before they made King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack hauled their cameras through the mountains and plains of Iraq and the jungles of Thailand to explore the rigors of life in worlds far from our own.

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emigrants & immigrants

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Quite early in Jan Troell’s The New Land one realizes one is watching not a sequel, not the conclusion of a two-part magnum opus, but a second film. While The New Land represents a narrative extension of the events of The Emigrants, it also embodies a thematic and stylistic counterattack on the first film.

From the first shot of The Emigrants—the camera’s long, slow crawl over the rocky landscape of a 19th-century Swedish farm—we are aware we are watching something special; and with Troell’s hand in control of screenplay, camera, direction, and editing, we have reason to expect a one-man show, a rare level of unity and integrity in form, style, and content. In the first half-hour of the film, Troell introduces his principal characters to us through a carefully edited series of moments in their lives, selected from the passage of some five years’ narrative time. He edits not only to depict the passage of time, but also to systematically separate and dissociate his characters from their milieu: both story and style place the characters at war with their social, historical, and environmental circumstances. Karl Oskar Nilsson (Max von Sydow) is frustrated by his family’s inability to improve their lot, and by his own vulnerability to the whims of nature and a God he cannot accept. His wife, Kristina (Liv Ullmann), has a firmer faith, but is troubled by doubts and plagued with guilt because her physical love for her husband keeps saddling them with new children she fears they cannot feed. Karl Oskar’s brother Robert (Eddie Axberg) is a fledgling intellectual, disinclined to the manual labor to which he was born. Robert’s friend Arvid (Pierre Lindstedt) is the opposite, a true man of the earth, but one who is excluded from human companionship because of his simpleminded innocence. Daniel (Atlan Edwall) is a religious visionary whose ideas earn him the scorn of the Christian establishment and a price on his head. His principal follower, a former prostitute named Ulrika (Monica Zetterlund), is a social outcast with no regrets, whose efforts to find her own meaning are thwarted at every turn by social and religious persecution.

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Hotpsots: Scandinavia in its Golden Age

‘The Outlaw and his Wife’

For a brief period between 1913 and 1924, the most sophisticated, mature and visually majestic films were coming from the Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular, a trend that impressed Hollywood so much that the studios started importing artists from the Scandinavian film industries: Victor Sjöström (who became Seastrom in Hollywood), Mauritz Stiller, Benjamin Christensen, Lars Hanson and of course Greta Garbo. One of the unique qualities of this regional cinema was the embrace of the landscape as an essential part of the stories. Where Hollywood filmmakers of the 1910s generally scouted locations near the studios (when they didn’t try to construct their own worlds on studio stages), Sjöstrom, Stiller, and others took their cameras deep into the wilderness and the mountains to find majestic views and epic vistas unseen in other national cinemas, a fitting backdrop for characters driven by powerful psychological and emotional forces. The roots of Ingmar Bergman, whose natural landscapes are much more intimate yet just as expressive and evocative of his themes, can be traced back to the silent era; he cited Sjöström as one of his most important inspirations and influences and paid tribute to his legacy by casting him as the old professor in Wild Strawberries.

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Lunch at Bad Aussee

[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.

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Films and Feminism

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Jan Haag is forever associated with my first conscious commitment to film and feminism. A decade or so ago, she and I spent much good time arguing passionately about The Pumpkin Eater and The Golden Notebook, the world of movies and the lives of women, with enough heat to permanently temper the directions we would take in the future. Jan was one of those multi-talented women—artist, actress, filmmaker, writer—who seemed permanently trapped and limited by the role of faculty wife, the interesting, but necessarily dilettantish, adjunct to her husband’s real profession. Fortunately, for herself and other women, Jan managed finally to “come out,” to emerge from that safe, and therefore stifling, cocoon into her own real professional world. It’s redundant to say it wasn’t an easy or even very direct route, but she eventually found where she wanted to be and what she wanted to do. After serving as an American Film Institute intern during the filming of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, she was appointed head of the Internship Program, and later became director of the AFI’s Independent Filmmaker Program.

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Telluride: the gold nugget of film festivals (1982)

[Originally published in The Weekly, October 13, 1982]

The distance from Denver had been grievously underestimated by the travel agency, so we made the last part of the long day’s journey to Telluride in moonlight. Around and above the blind valley in which the Old West ghost town nestles, the Colorado Rockies bulked darkly, only their horizon clearly traceable. In the morning we would wake to find them slashed by strata of Technicolor-red rock and bisected, a mile beyond the end of Main Street, by a thread of waterfall called Bridal Veil. For now, ahead of us where the town must be, there appeared a mountain several thousand feet higher than the Rockies’ local average altitude of 13,000 feet—a Lovecraftian mass glowing with a light of its own, and no less well-defined and solid-seeming for being a cloud. Any cinephile could have read the sign: Werner Herzog and Fitzcarraldo had to be waiting under that celestial special-effect. And as it turned out, this vision was also our first testimony that the experience of the Telluride Film Festival is much bigger than the sum of films available on its four separate screens.

By design and thoroughly persuasive execution, the Telluride Film Festival is like no other. For the past nine years, from Friday evening of Labor Day weekend through the following Monday, movie buffs from all over the globe have made their way to this isolated resort area in the southwest corner of Colorado. Here they catch the most provocative films of the coming season, make belated acquaintance with recently unearthed treasures of the past, and press the cinematic flesh of distinguished directors and stars. (The reconstructed Napoléon was first projected in the festival’s Open Air Cinema in 1980, with the 90-year-old Abel Gance in attendance. Last year, My Dinner with Andre, Wally, and Andre were all on hand.)

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All About Gregory: Two by Gregory Ratoff

Akim Tamiroff and Orson Welles in ‘Black Magic’

Who was Gregory Ratoff and why isn’t he better known? A Hollywood fixture on screen, behind the camera, and in Los Angeles society for more than thirty years during the heyday of the Hollywood culture factory, this stocky, stout Russian émigré made his screen debut in the David O. Selznick production Symphony of Six Million (1932). He appeared in a handful of subsequent Selznick movies and soon became part of David O. Selznick’s inner circle as actor, director and gambling buddy. When he made the leap to directing, Selznick kept him busy turning out romantic comedies, action pictures, and other lightweight star vehicles.

As an actor, his Eastern European looks, squat nose and heavy accent made a natural at playing foreign villains, émigrés, and ethnic comic relief, and he embodied the cliché of the excitable, deal-making show biz impresario in films like What Price Hollywood? (1932), as the grammar-mangling studio producer trying to control the three ring circus of his film projects, and All About Eve (1950), as an anxious Broadway producer that you could almost see getting ulcers on the spot. As a director in his own right, his career is less distinctive—you won’t find grad students writing auteurist appreciations of his vision or see film retrospectives at the Lincoln Center—but he was prolific, making some thirty films in some twenty-five years all while he continued acting. He even tried his hand at producing.

Continue reading at Keyframe

Weddings, Etc., in Blood: ‘The Ceremony’

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

Maybe, against all available evidence, there really does exist a viable culture of young film heads here in Vancouver. But I doubt it. Subtract El Topo, Siddhartha, Zachariah, the Brothers Marx—big draws like that—and what’ve you got left? An empty auditorium, that’s what. When University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 schedules a Bogie series, it sells out, sure; what else is new? But suggest, as I did a couple of years ago to Cinema 16’s student coordinator, that future series include work by Oshima and you learn that Boy, recently screened, was not well liked, was in fact disliked: for its (sic!) “sentimentality.”

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Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

“Sometimes dreams are really…”

One way or another, all the really big guys make movies about themselves making movies. Luis Buñuel may be caught most conspicuously doing so at the beginning of his career, in Un Chien andalou, and at what must be temporarily accounted the end of his career, Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, until Le Fantôme de la Liberté gets here or until Buñuel really does stop making films, as he’s been threatening to do for about a decade now. Unlike most of its sophomoric contemporaries, Un Chien andalou operates as a most lucid disquisition on a kind of formal logic peculiarly available to the cinema. The recurrent patterns of diagonal design (the pattern in Buñuel’s tie, the lines on the lid of the cyclist’s box and the wrapping paper inside) and diagonal movement (the stropping of the razor, the woman’s arrangement of untenanted garments on the bed) attest to the possibility of formal integrity without reference to any conventional, mundane logic. The succession of visually similar forms (a hole in the hand, a tuft of underarm hair, a sea urchin, a head glimpsed in a god’s-eye-view iris-shot) provides its own poetic justification, and a sinister shot-pairing (clouds cut across moon, razor cuts across eye) testifies to the power of editorial progression! A woman “hears” and reacts to the approach of a cyclist whose only sensory signal has been to enter and pass out of a right-angle frame of a street scene disposed between two shots of her looking at a book in a room somewhere: shot juxtaposition creates its own acceptable narrative logic. And that room she sits in, having been established in a conventional full shot at the beginning, can be broken up by camera angling and restructured by montage so that its window looks down on both a city street and a desolate beach, and its door opens on a stairway, the seashore, or the mirror duplication of the selfsame room, depending on where the narrative chooses to go next. Truly, Buñuel opens not only the girl’s but also his and our eyes to a new kind of vision.

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Belle de jour

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Belle de jour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.

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Viridiana

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Buñuel doesn’t try very hard to allay suspicions that the visible fetishistic oddments so abundant in his films are simply the byproducts of any number of peculiar fantasies and “private” obsessions in which the director is indulging himself to the exclusion of almost everyone else. But however much he may be indulging his own peculiarities, his films tend to absorb this “private” imagery in ways which hint at the liberating power of obsession itself. Buñuel’s famous foot fetishism, abundantly evoked in Viridiana, is an unusually good example. To insist on seeing people in terms of their feet is rather like insisting on showing that they have sexual organs, yet without limiting the recognitions to the specific contexts of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction. A foot, as an image, is more neutral than a penis, yet it has the advantage of being the most completely terrestrial part of the body, and a part that has an odd (literally plodding) beauty of its own, unencumbered by any exalted artistic tradition. Most picture-takers concentrate on people’s heads; after all, that is the end of the body that “identifies” a person and contains his “intelligence.” The feet, by contrast, are mute, dumb, and anonymous. A very large part of human experience partakes of these same qualities—something Buñuel not only recognizes but pays tribute as well, by watching quietly and by directing us to watch too.

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