[originally presented as a program note for the 1983 University of Washington film series “The Epic Tradition in World Cinema”]
“Those who are wretched are nearer to God.” A peasant woman speaks that line early in The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by way of chiding two of her numerous children for giggling at the simpleminded vagrant whose peregrinations intersect the course of the film from time to time. Taken in isolation, the line is open to dispute: are the random peasant types at the beginning of Mizoguchi’s SanshotheBailiff, for instance, imaginably nearer to God than the self-sacrificing governor who places himself (and his family, as it turns out) in jeopardy in their behalf? By reverse token, the line might be invoked as the keynote of any number of kneejerk-liberal tracts, at once patronizing and self-congratulatory, that propose or presume the moral and spiritual superiority of the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Or it might be put in the mouth of a suffering peasant type for the purpose of irony—to nudge us toward an awareness of how religion can serve as “the opiate of the proletariat,” a formula of self-consolation that defangs the spirit of revolution and reform, and thus helps sustain corrupt sociopolitical systems.
Originally published in Linguaculture, Volume 8, Number 2, 2017
Orson Welles, a boy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, was one of the most audacious Shakespearians who ever lived. He recited soliloquies as a child, wrote a book on the plays as a teenager, and at age 17 roamed across Ireland before brazenly (and successfully) presenting himself at the Abbey Theatre as a distinguished American actor. Welles also created three of the most ambitious Shakespeare films. As an American pretender, a colonial presuming to re-interpret the greatest British writer, Welles approached Shakespeare with a mix of bravado and insecurity. This paper explores how Welles’ American nature informs these roles and, especially, his final Shakespeare film, Chimes at Midnight (1965). In this production, Welles plays Falstaff and is understandably identified with the role, but it could be argued that he speaks more directly through Prince Hal, whose anxiety about inheriting the throne might be reflected in the way an American Shakespearian seeks to be accepted by the British keepers of the text. The words of Hal’s father, Henry IV— Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —might apply to Welles’ American-inflected depictions of kings and princes who do not entirely believe in their own royal agency. The tension between Welles‘ brashness and his fretfulness created some of the most memorable Shakespeare in the cinema.
Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?
Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.
The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.
In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it’s such a rarity—there’s a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason.
“I think these things matter.”—David Patrick Lowery, Some Analog Lines, 2006
The first thing that strikes you is the frame.
The classic 4:3 ratio, but with rounded corners, looking for all the world like shape of the old family-vacation slide shows of two generations ago.
In fact, we’ve seen this before. Movies sometimes start with that slide-show effect to evoke a series of memory captures, perhaps filling us in on a past that will become important to us when the movie slips into a more conventional, more contemporary frame to give us the film-proper.
But this is no prologue. This is the film, and the frame ration stays for the full running time, rounded corners and all.
The last film I remember that immediately confronted me with an unexpected frame and then defiantly kept to it—celebrated it—for its entire running time was Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s overhaul of the western, with which David Lowery’s A Ghost Storyshares a relentless sense of being lost rather than destined.
A Ghost Story is, among other things, a meditation on the frame and its possibilities. The frame is an apt metaphor for the condition of Lowery’s ghost, stuck in space but free in time, like, perhaps, a note painted into a crack in the grain of a wooden wall-frame, or a message hidden under a rock to be discovered—or not—by some yet unimagined other.
Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite tearjerker, I answer Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy – and its mostly faithful offspring. In all of its screen incarnations, it’s an epic tale of thwarted romance that unfolds over a period of several years.
If the original six-hour French-language trilogy—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936)—sounds unfamiliar, you might remember it in the form of Joshua Logan’s condensed American remake, Fanny, which played for many weeks in the summer of 1961 and earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Charles Boyer), cinematography and music. In this most famous version, Leslie Caron and Horst Buchholz play the frustrated lovers whose lives are irrevocably altered by one crucial decision that drives the narrative and accounts for most of the heartbreak.
The films tell essentially the same story of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny, who have grown up on the Marseilles waterfront and are clearly meant for each other. But he’s driven by the desire to find adventure at sea, and after one night of passion she helps him escape on a ship that’s not likely to return soon. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy merchant, Panisse, who has never been able to have children and is happy to have a “seven-month baby.” After the child is born, Marius returns and nearly restarts their affair. But Marius’ father, Cesar, stops them, and the story’s real heartache kicks in.
Although the Pagnol films have been available for some time on DVD, the 1961 Fanny only recently made its disc debut. The extras include the first CD release of the original soundtrack album, based on the melodies of Harold Rome, who captures the unrequitable longing of the central characters.
The first American adaptation of Pagnol’s films, MGM’s underrated Port of Seven Seas (1938), was an all-star event behind and in front of the cameras. Written by Preston Sturges, it was directed by James Whale, scored by Franz Waxman and photographed by Karl Freund; the actors included Wallace Beery as Cesar, Maureen O’Sullivan as Fanny (renamed Madelon) and Frank Morgan as Panisse. Although it’s in legal limbo and won’t likely turn up soon anywhere, it was revived several years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental and unnecessarily swift (it runs only 81 minutes), it’s a more-than-reasonable adaptation, with an especially poignant turn by Morgan, just before he transformed himself into the wizard of Oz.
There’s also a mid-1950s musical stage version, called Fanny, which is the source of the Rome music. The songs, which were turned into background music in the 1961 film, include Marius’ hymn to impatience, “Restless Heart,” and Panisse’s late-bloomer anthem, “Never Too Late for Love.”
There is no shortage of documentaries on war. The subject fascinates us as history, as sociology, and as drama. Some documentaries chronicle history in great detail, some grapple with the issues and forces behind the conflicts, and some flat-out propagandize. But very few of those documentaries actually engage with the human experience. So for Memorial Day we look at films about the diverse group of men (and in some cases the women) in war—not just why they fight but what they saw, heard, and endured, and how it changed them.
The Battle of Midway (1942)
American director John Ford (The Quiet Man, The Searchers) served his country by offering his talents as a filmmaker to the Armed Services. His first assignment was to photograph what turned out to be the first major American victory in the war against Japan. “Yes, this really happened,” informs one of the film’s four narrators during the combat section of the film, but audiences didn’t need to be reminded. The authenticity was evident. One bomb landed so close to the camera that it knocked both Ford and his camera assistant off their feet.
When America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood was also drafted into the effort — not just to support the cause but also to beat the drums of patriotism and duty. America was going to war and with it, so did the entire country. The men enlisted, the women took jobs in the factories, families tightened their belts and pitched in on civil defense and scrap drives, and the studios were expected not just to reflect the new paradigm, but to set the tone.
It was a sudden, dramatic shift. Before the war, studios were wary of merely hinting at politics in its films, let alone being blatantly partisan. Germany was a major market for American movies and, disgust for Hitler’s European aggression and nationalistic bigotry aside, business was business. Only Warner Bros. defied Hitler, giving up the German market to publicly support the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
After 12 years and 245 episodes, Bones is coming to an end. I know that will come as news to some of you. I mean, that’s the show with Zooey Deschanel’s older sister and the guy who played the brooding vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right? It’s really still on?
Ever since it debuted on 2005 as yet another CSI lite, the series has flown under the radar of TV critics and the cultural conversation alike. It’s a breezy procedural most likely to be stumbled across while channel surfing daytime cable TV (where it seems to be in endless rotation on TNT), which means it gets no respect. And that’s a shame. Behind the technology geek-out, the horror effects played for gross-out humor, and investigations through quirky social subcultures, Bones quietly and slyly spun one of the most interesting love stories on TV.
[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
In film criticism, as in any form of arts criticism, the Biographical Fallacy is to be scrupulously avoided. But in the case of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the Master of Suspense has himself given us precedence for a biographical interpretation of the themes and images which permeate the body of his work that seems far from fallacious.
In interviews, most notably those conducted by Chabrol, Truffaut, and—much later—Dick Cavett, Hitchcock has repeatedly explained how a shot or a story idea arose from something he himself thought, saw, read or experienced. Already legendary is his fear of the police, manifest in nearly all his films, which began (he frequently explains) when as a boy he was jailed by the police at his father’s request, as a preventive disciplinary measure.
But Hitchcock is probably too close to himself to have recognized another biographical origin of the themes and images which recur throughout his oeuvre: his own physical size and shape. After seeing some twenty Hitchcock films in a comparatively short period of time recently, I found myself asking questions like, Why is there always a staircase? Why the repeated use of heights and falling? Why the frequent and deliberate juxtaposition of food images with the discussion or occurrence of violent death? It finally occurred to me that all these images reflect experiences that are more intense in the lives of fat persons than they are to the person of average build. And Alfred Hitchcock is a fat person.
We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.
Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)
In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]
[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
JOHN FORD 1895-1973
Can I believe my friends all gone,
when their voices are still a glory in my ears?
No, and I will stand to say no, and no again.
For they remain a living truth within my mind.
—from Philip Dunne’s screenplay of How Green Was My Valley
“…What Ford had been evolving all through his career was a style flexible enough to establish priorities of expression. He could dispose of a plot quickly and efficiently when he had to, but he could always spare a shot or two for a mood that belonged to him and not to the plot.” —Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
• The aftermath of the shootout in Ford’s first feature: Harry Carey stands behind his horse looking offscreen at the man he killed and reflectively cleaning his hand on the horse’s tail—StraightShooting…
• Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) trying to smooth his awkward bulk and uncouth presence into the lineaments of innocence and communal grief at the wake of Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford)—The Informer…
• Ben Johnson’s glorious rides in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Cheyenne Autumn… • TheLost Patrol: Mackay and Cook (Brandon Hurst and Alan Hale) set off across the desert to bring help; in longshot they disappear, the sands seeming to ripple in the moonlight, until a shadow engulfs all….
• Dinner with Sandy (Donna Reed): a moment out of war in TheyWereExpendable…
• Drisc (Thomas Mitchell) pacing the deck and turning abruptly for a last look after the corpse of Yank (Ward Bond) has been buried at sea—The LongVoyageHome…
• Granville Thorndyke’s (Alan Mowbray) farewell to the old stationmaster (Francis Ford) before skipping out of Tombstone: “Good night, sweet prince!”—MyDarlingClementine…
• Barry Fitzgerald’s reverential observation of the broken honeymoon bed in TheQuietMan: “Impetuous! … Homeric!”… Keep Reading
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is inarguably one of the landmarks of American cinema. The distillation of the storytelling techniques, editing ideas, framing and visual composition, and nuanced approaches to performance that Griffith spent years exploring and experimenting with in short subjects and mid-length films, it was the longest and most ambitious American ever made when it was released in 1915 and it took American audiences, critics, and filmmakers by storm. It also features demeaning caricatures of African American characters (all played by whites in blackface) and grotesque distortions of the post-war Southern history and it portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the saviors of white culture in the face of emancipation. It is, in the words of journalist Jelani Cobb, “The most pure, honest, unfiltered distillation of white racist thought of that time.”
The Independent Lens film Birth of a Movement is a reminder that criticism of Nation‘s racist politics is not a recent phenomenon.
It took four seasons of Sherlock, the BBC’s re-imagining of the world’s greatest detective for the modern digital world, for creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to turn their “high-functioning sociopath” into a human being, not just a great man but a good one. But in the process they turned Arthur Conan Doyle’s well-ordered world of logic and deduction into a surreal universe of comic book supervillains and absurdly complex schemes in the realm of scriptwriter fantasy. As much fun as it is to watch Benedict Cumberbatch play the flamboyant misanthrope as a performance artist who holds his audience in contempt, this Holmes became a cartoon of Doyle’s consulting detective, only fitfully grounded by Martin Freeman’s warm, witty, and highly observant Dr. John Watson.
It’s wasn’t the first project to reimagine Holmes, and it won’t be the last, but it holds a complicated place among fans for its mix of ingenuity and excess, its wildly uneven track record, and the ultimately disappointing payoff of its promising early episodes. Even the most devoted Sherlock devotees confess that it went off the rails in the fourth season, a train-wreck of wild invention, shameless misrepresentation, and logical deduction that pushed the limits of Doyle’s motto: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
[This essay was originally published as the liner-notes booklet for the Rhino Records / Turner Classic Movies Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD to 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1996 by Turner Entertainment Company. Portions of the essay also later appeared in a souvenir booklet included in the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY COLLECTOR’S EDITION DVD released in 2001 by Warner Brothers Entertainment. Reprinted on Parallax View by author’s permission.]
When Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared on screens in spring 1968, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before. And, although the science and technology of motion picture special effects have made huge strides in the intervening years, there hasn’t been a film quite like it since. It isn’t just the spectacular – and the extraordinary believable – look of the model and special effects shots, which are as fresh and clean today as they were in 1968. It’s the courage and the audacity of the film and its maker to try something new, something provocative and challenging to the audience, something intensely intellectual yet expressed in almost completely visual terms. It had long been commonplace to regard moving pictures as a handmaiden (and poor cousin) to literature, to see language as the proper means of communicating ideas, and images as capable of expressing and arousing only feelings and sensations. 2001: A Space Odyssey dared to suggest that images might be capable of embodying and evoking real ideas about the nature and origin of human intelligence. In so doing, it revolutionized the movies and carved itself an unassailable niche in motion picture history.