Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Silent Cinema

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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Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor

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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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays, Film Festivals

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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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

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.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: by Peter Hogue, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: by David Willingham, Contributors, Essays

Tristana

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

The camera trucks slowly left, unobtrusively, almost cautiously, as if to move out of Tristana’s way as she and Saturna approach the group of boys. It cranes above the soccer skirmish to view the scene from a dominating remove, observing the ritual conflict—a game like any other, designed to formalize the release of aggressions. Handheld, the camera mingles abruptly with running feet, tangles with the action. Then it isolates the spontaneous but intentional violation of the rules and its unregenerate perpetrator. And finally, the camera seeks out and frames Tristana and Saturno as they share a wordless but evocative moment of mutual appreciation.

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