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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

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Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

Essays

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema

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Observations on film art

Wisconsin Film Festival: Confined to quarters

Thursday | April 19, 2018

12 Days (2017).

DB here:

I try to watch any film at two levels. First, I want to engage with it, opening myself up to the experience it offers. Second, I try to think about how the film is made, why it’s made this way, and what those practices and principles can teach me about the possibilities of the medium. That second level of response, not easy to sustain in the thick of projection, comes from my research interests, something spelled out as the “poetics of cinema.”

Most critics, particularly those reviewing films on a daily basis, don’t have the time or inclination to reflect on that second level. I’m lucky to have the leisure to mull over what this or that film can suggest about film in general. When a new release points me toward something I think is intriguing, I’ll go back and watch it again. I saw Zama three times last year, and Dunkirk five times. After three viewings and getting the Blu-ray, I think I’m ready to write about Phantom Thread fairly soon.

Several films at the festival set me thinking. Vanishing Point (1971), which I hadn’t seen in a long time, confirmed my idea in Reinventing Hollywood that 1940s narrative strategies resurfaced in the 1970s. (Whew.) We get a crisis structure motivating a flashback, which itself embeds further flashbacks, everything tricked out with plenty of road rage.

Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day (L’Amant d’un jour, 2017) reminded me of how important coincidence is in narrative, particularly the accidental discovery of an important item of narrative information. You know, like coming home just as somebody’s about to commit suicide. Or discovering on your way to the WC that your lover’s having sex with someone else. I began to wonder if the episodic nature of art films, which are built more on routines than on sharply articulated goals, gets away with such handy accidents by suggesting that with so many characters drifting around, they’re bound to intersect occasionally. Realism once more becomes an alibi for artifice.

And I was happy to see American Animals (2018), an amateur-heist movie that uses my friend the flashback in a way that cunningly misleads us. I will say no more, except to refer you to other reflections on caper movies, and to express my hope that Ocean’s 8 will offer some fresh twists too.

All of these films employ what we might call omniscient point of view. The film’s narration shifts us among many characters in many places and times. Herewith, though, some thoughts on two films that tie us down.

 

Elbow room

The Guilty (2018).

One of cinema’s great powers is its ability to shift locales in the blink of an eye. Unlike proscenium theatre, bound to drawing rooms or perspective streets, a film can carry us from place to place instantly. Novels can do this too, of course, and so can certain theatre traditions, such as Shakespeare’s wooden O. But cinematic crosscutting swiftly from one line of action to another and back again is such a powerful tool that many theorists identified it as part of the inherent language of cinema. The medium seemed wired for camera ubiquity.

At certain periods, though, filmmakers kept to single spaces. Early cinema’s one-shot films locked us to a single view, and in the 1910s, long scenes would play out in salons and parlors. Even after the arrival of crosscutting and other editing strategies, some filmmakers embraced the kammerspiel, or “chamber play” aesthetic popularized in Germany. Lupu Pick’s Sylvester (1924), Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925), and other silent films built drama out of micro-actions in tight spaces. Later Hitchcock took this premise to an extreme in Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and to some extent in Dial M for Murder (1954). Rossellini’s Human Voice (1948) is another instance which, like Rope and Dial M, was based on a play.

The confined-space option reemerges every few years. Put aside Warhol’s psychodramas, so well analyzed by J. J. Murphy in his book The Black Hole of the Camera. Most of Tape (2001), Panic Room (2002), Phone Booth (2002), Locke (2013), and Room (2015) follow this formal option. Two striking films from our festival show that this strategy still holds a fascination for directors. They know that spatial concentration can shape the audience’s experience in unique ways.

In The Guilty director Director Gustav Möller ties us to Asger, a Danish policeman assigned to answering calls on an emergency line. A woman caller tells him she’s been kidnapped, and he tries to locate her while also giving her advice on how to protect herself. In the meantime, he summons police units to track the car she’s in and to investigate the household she’s left behind. In the course of this, we come to understand that he’s grappling with his own problems. He’s about to go before a judge for an action he committed on duty, and his partner is going to testify about it. The whole action takes place in more or less real duration, in eighty-some minutes of one night.

The Slender Thread (1965) similarly includes longish stretches confined to a suicide-hotline agency, but it supplies flashbacks that take us into the caller’s past. Here, we stay in place with Asger. By confining us to what he hears, and what little he sees on his GPS screen, the narration obliges us to make inferences that seem reasonable but that turn out to be invalid. I can’t say more without giving away the twists, but it’s worth mentioning how keeping major action offscreen enables the film to summon up the Big Three: curiosity (about the past), suspense (about the future), and surprise (about our mistaken assumptions).

The Guilty is a sturdy thriller, and it certainly works on its own terms. While restricting us to a character, it doesn’t plunge–as many films would have been tempted to do–into his mind, by means of flashbacks or fantasies. These would have “opened out” the film, but lost the laconic objectivity of the action we get.

The film coaxed me to reflect on how the reliance on the conversational situation allowed for a certain looseness at the level of pictorial style. Once we’re tethered to Asger at his workstation, not a lot hangs on choices about camera placement or shot scale. As long as his face, gestures, and body behavior are apparent, niceties of framing count for less. His reaction can be signaled adequately from many angles. He’s so stone-faced that even a 3/4 view from the rear suffices.

               

In other words, I can’t see that the situation is submitted to a stylistic pattern that would add another dose of rigor to the filmic texture. The style, I think, works to adjust our attention in the moment, in the manner of what I’ve called “intensified continuity,” rather than building longer arcs of pictorial interest. While the plot constraints are strict, the visual style seems less so.

What would be a way to make pictorial style more active? Well, the obvious cases are Hitchcock’s long takes in Rope and optical point-of-view in Rear Window. (And, I’d suggest, his use of 3D in Dial M.) Dreyer did something similar in The Master of the House, in which editing patterns activate a range of props and bits of setting. Films like these benefit from including several characters onscreen, providing details of setting and building up spatial “rules” that channel our vision. Or think of Kiarostami’s auto trips (I almost said “car-merspiel”), which limit camera setups pretty stringently. Ditto Panahi’s ways of stretching the notion of “house arrest” in This Is Not a Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), and Taxi (2015)–films that tantalize us with the possibility of glimpsing the world outside.

Möller chose, with good reason, to rivet our attention on two basic elements: the calls and Asger’s responses. The cop’s interactions with others in the office are minimal, and there’s almost no play with props or setting, apart from a moment when Asger decisively snaps down the windowblinds. Our attachment breaks off only at the end, at the conventional moment when the protagonist turns from the camera and walks away.

The tight concentration enhances both plot action and character revelation, and we’re obliged to listen more closely than we do in most movies. Along the way, blinks and eye-shifts and finger-tapping become major events. Still, The Guilty reminded me that every choice cuts off others, forces new choices, sets up constraints–and new opportunities. Film art is full of trade-offs.

 

12 Day wonder

12 Days (2017).

A more “dialectical” approach to confined space is on display in Raymond Depardon’s documentary 12 Days (2017), probably the most emotionally wrenching film I saw at our fest. The situation is a similar to that in his Délits flagrants (1994), which recorded police interrogations of suspects. The official procedure captured here is a hearing, mandated within twelve days of a patient’s being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. A judge reviews the case to determine whether the patient should be set free.

Sessions with ten patients take us along a spectrum of disturbance, from a woman believing herself persecuted in her office to a man whose inner voices commanded him to stab a stranger. The last petitioner, a woman sufficiently aware of her illness to admit that she can’t care for her baby, makes a lucid case for being allowed to visit the child occasionally.

All these encounters are shot in a simple but strict fashion. In three reverse-shot setups, we see the petitioner, the judge, and a wider view of the petitioner and the lawyer who states the case.

          

This neutral approach, far less free-ranging and nerve-wracking than the shots in The Guilty, doesn’t try to amp up the suspense with cut-ins or zooms or pans. It throws all the emphasis on the interchange. Call it Premingerian, if you must.

Sandwiched in between these inquiries are shots of the hospital itself. We’re still confined, in that we never leave the grounds, but these let us breathe a little. Sometimes these interludes are simply quiet tracking shots down empty corridors; sometimes we hear wails and cries behind locked doors; sometimes we see the patients in a rest area, smoking or pacing or simply staring.

By respectfully observing the surroundings, Depardon lets us into a bit of the texture of the patients’ lives and makes us understand that this hospital, while apparently not very oppressive, is still far away from freedom.

Confronting 12 Days we on the outside are forced to balance compassion with prudence. Should a calm, polite man who believes he beatified his father by killing him be allowed free access to our world? Most of the patients we see are remanded for further treatment, but one leaves the judge ambivalent, to the point that we aren’t told of the final decision. We’re left to reflect that to become wholly human, we must confront madness in our midst. As the opening quotation from Foucault has it: “The path from man to true man passes through the madman.”


Thanks as usual to our Wisconsin Film Festival programmers: Ben Reiser, Jim Healy, Mike King, Matt St John, and Ella Quainton. Thanks as well to Tim Hunter for giving us access to Vanishing Point. In all, it was a swell event. See you there next year?

12 Days reminded me that one of the less-known examples of early Direct Cinema was Mario Rispoli’s Regard sur la folie (1962), which presents afflicted patients and their caregivers with a surprising lack of sensationalism.

We’ve written a fair amount about site-specific narratives. I discuss the crystallization of the trend in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, and I consider its recent revival in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. On the blog, we’ve discussed Panic Room, Dial M for Murder, The Master of the House, This Is Not a FilmClosed Curtainand the Kammerspielfilm. And on coincidence, you can drop by here.

12 Days.

Wisconsin Film Festival: Footage fetishism

Friday | April 13, 2018

The Green Fog (2017).

DB here:

Kristin and I have been unusually busy during this year’s fest, its twentieth, so I got to see only ten of the vast array of offerings. Herewith a first report on what our intrepid team–Ben Reiser, Jim Healy, Mike King, Matt St John, and Ella Quainton–programmed and put before adoring crowds. Today we look at movies about movies.

 

JLG par Not JLG

The title of Michel Hazanavicius’s Le redoubtable has been Francoanglicized as Godard mon amour, not a bad way of signaling it’s a French movie. (The same tactic turned Nikita into La Femme Nikita.)  The title also lets us know it centered on the most important living director. And the possessive pronoun correctly puts us in the place of the heroine, the late Anne Wiazemsky, whose memoir-novel chronicled her few years with Godard. How could the film not take her side? On my limited exposure to the man, “difficult” doesn’t begin to describe his temperament.

The film omits Anne’s role in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthasar, which Godard admired extravagantly, and takes us briefly through the shooting of La Chinoise (1967). Soon we’re plunged into ’68 debates about making commercial films, making political films, and “making films politically.” We’re firmly attached to Anne, to the point that Godard’s activities at the Cannes festival are kept obstinately offscreen while we see her sunbathing at a villa. There are unattributed voice-overs from an older male, but mostly we’re in Anne’s consciousness as she struggles to live with the torn, cruel, more or less ridiculous man who brought her into the film industry.

As a satire, the film goes for straightforward targets, such as the moments when people come up to our filmmaker and ask why he doesn’t make movies like Contempt any more. That seems to be Hazanavicius’s question as well. He makes no effort to match his film’s style to Godard’s work in the years when the story takes place. It would have been bold, though probably off-putting, to mimic La Chinoise or Le Gai Savoir (1969), one of his most daring experiments, a sort of Child’s Garden of Semiology. Instead we get snatches of pre-1967 scores, chapter titles, compositions, and iconography, with special emphasis on Une Femme mariée (1964), perhaps a sly reference to Anne’s role.

     

While pastiching the early work, Hazavanicius softens its edges. One of Godard’s minor innovations, for instance, was inserting a chapter title partway through a new section, rather than planting at the outset. That not only blurs the boundary between segments and usefully jars the viewer, but it also lets the title give a sharper commentary on the images around it. Tarantino embraced this technique, but Hazanavicius is tidier in his chaptering. Similarly, his shoutouts to planimetric framing don’t really exploit their disruptive possibilities.

His film reminds us that Early Godard has become virtually a period style. Hence, perhaps, Godard’s own flight from it over the last forty years, in the process making films of exceptional beauty and abrasiveness. Still, we tend to forget how unsettling the early films remain. (At the Venice International Film Festival last year, Kristin attended the packed 400-seat screening of the restored Two or Three Things I Know about Her and reported that perhaps a third of the audience had walked out by the end.) Despite all his influence, the original Godard will never become “normalized,” just as Schoenberg will never become elevator music.

Godard mon amour goes down easy and doesn’t, to my way of thinking, have a brain in its pretty head. Godard emerges as a wacky celebrity, politically confused and emotionally bullying. There’s no attempt to show how his personality surfaces in his art, or even why his art is important. Still, Godard mon amour usefully calls attention to a director who, in his 88th year, has another feature coming to Cannes. It’s called Livre de l’image, and it promises to be in five chapters, like the fingers of a hand.

 

Fog over Frisco

Made on commission from the San Francisco International Film Festival, The Green Fog is a collage exercise in associational mode, with echoes of Craig Baldwin’s work. In their own gonzo filmfreak way, Guy Maddin and Evan and Galen Johnson have created an homage to the city and its ultimate film, Vertigo.

It can please on many levels. First, there’s the spot-the-clip quiz in the manner of Marclay’s The Clock. Some bits I found fairly easy to identify, but others are drawn from obscure film and TV programs. All showcase San Francisco. Second, there’s the looping and twisting motifs of male-female tension, surveillance (films projected, phone lines tapped), and class identity: we’re forced to notice how tony restaurants set the stage for 80s big-hair melodrama.

Then there’s the pleasure of watching how cutting can suggest expanding narrative trajectories through eyelines. The Green Fog is an extended exercise in the Kuleshov effect. Sometimes the whole process gets embedded: people watch screens showing people watching people. Or they’re watching a scene from another movie: McMillan, without wife, sees a tree that was 68 years old when Jesus was born.

     

These linkages are accentuated by the habit of omitting lines of dialogue, so that characters seldom speak but, in shots plagued by visual hiccups, emphatically react to one another, sometimes just by smacking their lips or gulping.

Not least, The Green Fog is a free fantasia on incidents and images from Vertigo. Although only one Vertigo shot is shown, the canonical moments are evoked by their mates in films both earlier and later: people scrambling up buildings and plummeting, couples embracing in horse stables, men pulling women out of the bay, and–thanks to the invading green miasma–a woman stepping out of a doorway to confront her lover. Scotty’s vision of Judy’s aura is made into a city-wide contagion of obsessive love.

The film takes our memories of bits of Hitchcock’s film and spirals out from them, creating a hallucinatory whirlpool of variations on clichés. Going beyond Vertigo, the film evokes its own vertigo, a media phantasmagoria. I was reminded of Geoffrey O’Brien’s book The Phantom Empire.

How did you wander into this maze, anyway, and how would you get out? Do you in fact want to, or do you prefer to sink deeper into it, savoring its manifold ramifications and outlying distortions?

The teeming image-clusters of The Green Fog, made even more eerie and lyrical by Jacob Garchik’s score, capture the delirium of cinephilia, reminding us of how much a masterpiece owes to anonymous, banal visions pulsing through popular culture.

 

Right here in River City

William Brinton and his wife Indiana were a colorful couple. They were nudists and kept a mummy in their living room. More to our point, around 1900 they ran an Iowa theatre and traveled throughout the midwest showing films and lantern slides. Brinton died in 1919, Indiana in 1955, and the executor of her estate in 1981.

The Brinton collection passed to Michael Zahs–junior-high history teacher and confessed “saver” of things. Three truckloads of boxes came to Zahs labeled “Brinton crap.” They contained over 130 films, 700 magic-lantern slides, many sound recordings, and a host of vintage equipment.

Zahs was told to bury the nitrate materials and dispose of the rest. Instead he hung on to everything, and eventually the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress selected several reels for preservation. Since 1997 16mm copies of Brinton titles have been shown in festivities at the Graham Opera House in Washington, Iowa–a site recently declared by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the world’s oldest surviving film venue. The University of Iowa Library has committed to keeping safety copies of the entire collection.

This fascinating story is brought to light by Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbourne of Northland Films. Saving Brinton is, like Bill Morrison’s Dalton City: Frozen Time (reviewed by Kristin here), a heroic tale of cinema lost and refound. Morrison’s film centers on 1910s and early 1920s features, but the Brinton legacy takes us back to earlier times. There are “actualities” (newsreels) and gag reels and even–watch Serge Bromberg’s eyes light up–a lost Méliès. Many items are in superb condition, with well-preserved hand-coloring. There are films from Lumière, Edison, and other major companies. In one, a powerful panning shot shows Teddy Roosevelt parading down Market Street in San Francisco (without green fog) just before the earthquake. And then there are the projectors and paper, including a Pathé catalogue.

Saving Brinton is as much a portrait documentary as an account of film rescue. The Brintons stand out, not least for William’s fascination with airships, but the star of the present-day show is Michael Zahs. With his Darwinian beard and jovial presence, he comes across as one of those impresarios who knows a lot about everything, from chemistry to grave marker symbolism. For four years the filmmakers followed his efforts to preserve and show the Brinton legacy, while also tracing his personal life. We get scenes of  his devotion to his ailing mother, who died during filming, and interplay with his wife, a smiling woman who doesn’t mind sharing her household with combustible materials. At the same time, this packed documentary evokes the community that welcomed Zahs’ cheerful obsession. As a graduate of the University of Iowa, I had to beam at the sheer niceness radiating from these people and their town and the earth they steward.

On 23 April the University Library in Iowa City will be screening the whole collection, with seven projectors running the films on loops. You can sample them online, in pretty copies. And Saving Brinton will continue to tour festivals; you can track its progress here. This charming documentary is a must-see for everybody who loves old movies, not to mention flyover Americana.


My quotation from Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century (New York: Norton, 1993) comes from p. 28.

The Saving Brinton website gives more information on the film. Diana Nollen’s story in The Gazette supplies helpful background. Watch the trailer and glimpse our old friend Rick Altman, emeritus at the University of Iowa.

The Language of Flowers (n.d.).

What a difference a day makes: CHUNGKING EXPRESS comes to the Criterion Channel

Tuesday | March 27, 2018

Chungking Express (1994).

DB here:

Chungking Express is nearly twenty-five years old, and it remains as jittery and sparkling as it was in 1994. I saw it on laserdisc in the fall of that year and immediately cottoned to it–more keenly than to its mate, Ashes of Time (which I came to admire eventually). I saw it on the screen in spring of 1995 during my first visit to the Hong Kong International Film Festival. (It’s unspooling, as Variety would say, as we speak, although I’m not there dammit.) That was also when I met Wong Kar-wai for the first and only time. I was asked to present him the Hong Kong Film Critics Society award for Ashes of Time. During the same visit, I was at the Hong Kong Film Awards when Chungking Express won for best picture, best director, best actor (Tony Leung Chu-wai), and best editing (William Chang Che-wi).

The trip was a turning point in my life. Thanks to that visit and later ones, I met Li Cheuk-to, Ho Wai-ling, Jacob Wong, Stephen Teo, Athena Tsui, Law Kar, Bede Chang, Shu Kei, Michael Campi, Ross Chen, Yvonne Teh (of Webs of Significance), Chuck Stephens, Stefan Hammond, Grace Ng, Shelley Kraicer, Lau Sing-hon, Joanna Lee, Ken Smith, Lisa from Toronto, Ding Yuin Shan, To Kei-chi, Yau Nai-hoi, Johnnie To, Sam Ho, Fu Poshek, Peter Chan, Ann Hui, Dora Mak (from UW), Bérénice Reynaud, Wong Ain-ling, Frederic Ambroisine, King Wei-chu, Chris Berry, Bob Davis, and many more people who became good friends. In later visits I got back in touch with old friends turned expats–Patricia Erens, Mike and Melissa Curtin, Darrell Davis, Yueh Yu-yeh, Nat Olson (from UW, of Hong Kong Hustle), Mette Hjort, Paisley Livingston–and longer-term comrades like Tony Rayns, Mike Walsh, Gary Bettinson, and Peter Rist. The Fragrant Harbour, a crossroads of Chinese culture, became a central node in the only social network that matters to me: the non-virtual one. Not Facebook but Face-to-Face.

I think of Hong Kong often; I regret not being able to attend the festival in recent years; and I’m saddened when I reflect that Ain-ling and Wai-ling are no longer with us. Twenty-four years went by too fast.

Chungking Express was made during a gap in the filming of Ashes and proved that for once Wong could turn out a quickie. Andrew Lau started as cinematographer for the first story, but when he left to make his own film, Chris Doyle picked it up. Both made good use of that loose “free camera” style that now seems to be everywhere. I usually find it annoying, but here the ambiance and the players and the sheer look of the city win me over. There’s also some peekaboo slit-staging.

    

    

The movie benefits from an ingratiating and eclectic score, drowsy voice-overs, and people who like to eat and talk about romance.

Chungking Express typifies everything that I love about Hong Kong and its people and its cinema. When I see that jet and that clothesline, I remember looking out the window of such a plane and wondering about the people I saw on the rooftops, scarily close. Staying at the Salisbury YMCA, I was a short walk from the Bottoms Up bar and Chungking Mansions. And when I finally stopped by the Midnight Express and realized that the California Café was just across the street, I realized how tricky Wong had been with cinematic geography. (I didn’t get to the Midlevels escalator until later.) Chungking Express captures the careenng energy of this city, while warming it with a preposterous lyricism. Faye treats her salad squirters like marimbas, and those guys have to be the least tough cops in the territory.

I wound up talking about the film a lot. I taught it in courses and lectured on it elsewhere. It got a chapter in Planet Hong Kong and an analysis in Film Art: An Introduction.

Now it’s the subject of an installment on our Criterion Channel series on FilmStruck. There I try to show how its narrative construction welds together bits that might otherwise seem disconnected. Seeing it a couple more times to prepare that commentary, I found still more to admire. In the Mood for Love is totally fine, and I’m a big fan of As Tears Go By and The Grandmaster, but Chungking Express is the one I’ll watch any time, any place, anywhere. I like pineapple. I like bittersweet chocolate too.

Later this semester I get to meet a class to talk with them about this charming movie. For 75 minutes, I’ll once more be in touch with a city, only partly imaginary, that for all its harsh edges is filled with flirtations, dead-end love affairs, good humor, and expired canned goods.

I hope you like it too. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? You can play a clip from the installment on the Criterion website. With the original DVD release now out of print and pricey, FilmStruck is your best chance to see it on video.


Thanks as ever to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, and Grant Delin of Criterion for the fun of making this installment. Our entire Criterion series is here.

For more on Hong Kong film, check this tag.

P.S. 28 March 2018: Midnight Express had a makeover after the film made it famous, as you see below, but it’s now a 7-11. Nate Olson’s Hong Kong Hustle site shows the result. Thanks to Miklos Kiss and Dan Balogh for updating us.

You must remember this, even though I sort of didn’t

Tuesday | March 13, 2018

Casablanca (1943).

DB here:

How could I have written a longish book on 1940s Hollywood and have devoted so little space to Casablanca?

This question was brought home to me when Pauline Lampert, mastermind of Flixwise, asked me to be a guest on her podcast….and to talk about Casablanca. You can listen to our conversation here. Yes, Joan Crawford is involved.

Reinventing Hollywood mentions Casablanca in a few places, but it doesn’t discuss it in the depth it devotes to, say, A Letter to Three Wives or Cover Girl or Five Graves to Cairo or Unfaithfully Yours, let alone Swell Guy or Repeat Performance or The Guilt of Janet Ames. I suppose it’s partly because many of those movies are less famous and more peculiar.

In addition, I confess that I’ve never been a big fan of Casablanca. I admire it as a solid piece of work, but it hasn’t aroused my passion. I’m much more emotionally attached to How Green Was My Valley, The Magnificent Ambersons, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Meet Me in St. Louis, Mildred Pierce, The Little Foxes, On the Town, and many other movies of its time.

Admittedly, my book doesn’t dwell on most of these either, although I’ve written about most of them elsewhere (including on this site). Basically, I suppose I neglected Warners’ evergreen classic because its canonical status made it unnecessary for me to talk about it. It’s a typical 40s film that everybody knows well, and I guess I trusted that interested readers would apply to it the ideas I float in the book. And another factor may have blocked my considering Casablanca.

 

Learning from a classic

When historians want to explain changes in film artistry, they have some options. One possibility is to focus on the influential individual, the great artist who inspires successors. Charles Rosen makes this case in The Classical Style, which concentrates on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as prime innovators. Traditional film historians have singled out Griffith for this role; I’d add Ozu and Antonioni, in their respective contexts, as significant influencers.

A second option is to zero in on an individual work that became a prototype for other works. The Birth of a Nation, Potemkin, Citizen Kane, and The Bicycle Thieves have played this role in film histories.

A third possibility is to explain change through patterns of collective practice. Creative choices, disclosed in several (perhaps minor) works, propagate through a community and eventually establish norms. This seems to have been what happened with tableau staging and the system of continuity editing. They emerged in bits and pieces, as ad hoc practices that were forged into firm craft practice.

Without denying that some individuals, like Welles and Hitchcock, matter, and without denying that there are powerful models, such as Kane, my book was mostly committed to showing how narrative norms, pressured by competition and other factors, mutate across the 40s ecosystem. This emphasis on norms is one aspect of my research program.

So in re-watching Casablanca for my meeting with Lady P.’s podcast, I noticed some norm-abiding and norm-tweaking things I could have written about.

Classical plot construction (of course). Despite the legend of last-minute screenplay fixes, this is a tightly organized plot. Kristin’ s four-part structural template is in force. After shrewdly distributed exposition, Laszlo and Ilsa stroll into Rick’s at the 25-minute point. At the midpoint (about 50:00), Rick calls Ilsa a whore and she departs to meet Renault. The climax, I’d say, starts around 80:00, when Rick and Ilsa reconcile and he hatches his plan to rescue her and Laszlo.

The parallels are also well-carpentered. Rick is compared to both Laszlo (both have been activists) and Renault: both are in-between men, apolitical cynics who will convert to the cause. Ilsa is paralleled to Rick’s high-strung paramour Yvonne, as well as the Bulgarian woman who has concealed from her husband the fact that she traded her body for safe passage out of Casablanca.

Ticking the 40s boxes: Voice-over narration to open the thing? Check. Crisis structure that launches an explanatory flashback? Check.

Franker sexuality and Parker Tyler’s Morality of the Single Instance? Check-plus. When Ilsa comes to Rick’s apartment, they obviously do the thing. He later says they “got Paris back last night.”

And of course it’s a feast of 40s character actors, including Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet (in a silly fez), Veidt, Kinskey, Dalio, and Sakall (aka Cuddles).

     

Even John Qualen shows up. Casablanca is as much an oddball hangout as Casablanca is.

Domesticating deep focus: Part of the influence of Citizen Kane stemmed from its flaunting of big-foreground depth. A head or an object would be pasted in the front plane, and other figures would stretch out in the distance.

     

Kane wasn’t the first film to use this strategy, but Welles and Gregg Toland made it vivid by playing out these shots in very long takes. After Kane, 1941 became the Year of the Big Head, apparent in The Little Foxes and, surprisingly, Ball of Fire. Toland shot these.

     

But these films didn’t treat such compositions in long takes. Wyler and Hawks integrated the wide-angle shots into a standard analytical editing breakdown, using the big foregrounds for orthodox shot/ reverse shot. We see the trend as well in tighter-than-usual over-the-shoulder shots like these from The Maltese Falcon, also 1941.

     

Curtiz wasn’t as flamboyant a stylist as Welles, but he often added pictorial zest to his shots. He too integrates the wide-angled foreground into standardized setups and editing patterns. Interestingly, his cinematographer was Arthur Edeson, who shot Falcon.

     

     

In this respect, Casablanca exemplifies how a new norm was diffused as a toned-down version of a more self-conscious technique.

Smooth visual and verbal narration: This time around I admired the opening passage, with rapid exposition based on adjacency. We start at street level, as the police capture suspected agents of the Free French. One is gunned down, in a moderate deep-space composition. And everything is explained by a chatty pickpocket.

     

The Bulgarian couple is planted in a panning shot that follows the secret agent and settles on them. (Again, the wide angle accentuates foreground action.)

               

We get continuity by contiguity. A neat touch: Major Strasser’s plane arriving is glimpsed in conjunction with Rick’s sign, setting up that location well before we visit it. (See still up top.) At the airport, Renault closes the loop, explaining to Strasser that everybody comes to Rick’s. That initiates a dialogue hook to the café, where we’ll spend the next thirty minutes of screen time. And the arrival of Strasser’s plane rhymes neatly with the departure of the one carrying Ilsa and Laszlo at the end.

Motifs, motifs: In a movie where every scene has a famous tagline, I was struck this time by one tweak. Meeting Strasser, Renault says that he’ll round up “twice the usual number of suspects.” In the epilogue, that phrase becomes the nonchalant one everybody remembers, “Round up the usual suspects.” It’s a reminder of corrupt policing, a guarantee that Rick will not be charged, a sign of Renault’s new loyalties, and a contrast to Renault’s initial obedience to the man Rick has just killed.

Seeing eye to eye: I’ve written elsewhere (here and here and here) about the importance of eye behavior in storytelling cinema. In Casablanca, I noticed how Edeson’s cinematography made the women’s eyes glisten. This is standard female lighting for the period, but Ingrid Bergman often gets an extra princess sparkle.

     

As for Bogart, often a blinker, he lowers his eyes ambiguously when he says that Renault has always kept his word.

When the Bulgarian woman asks about a woman who keeps secret something to save her husband, he manages to shift into a stricken stare for eleven seconds: “Nobody ever loved me that much.”

          

Actually, Bergman beats him when Sam plays “As Time Goes By.” Ilsa stares, slightly shifting her head but with a largely blank expression, though her mouth opens slightly.

     

She doesn’t blink for twenty-four seconds. Nearly all the action is in those eyes, as a glint of light jumps from her right eye to her left.

     

A 1940s movie, over-solemn as it can sometimes be, has this virtue: it can show people thinking.

 

When you try to study filmmaking norms, often you find that the individual film becomes a “tutor text,” as the French Structuralists used to call it. The movie shows you things about movies. His Girl Friday, I’ve argued, is such a film for me. Maybe Casablanca should be. In any event, we can learn a lot from it, and in the process still enjoy its drama of love sacrificed to political commitment.


Thanks to Pauline for having me on Flixwise. Kristin’s analysis of four-part plotting, first floated in Storytelling in the New Hollywood, has been applied and expanded in my The Way Hollywood Tells It and many of our site entries, as here and here. I discuss Parker Tyler’s Morality of the Single Instance in The Rhapsodes. My deep-focus arguments can be found in Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema and developed at greater length in On the History of Film Style, soon to be available in an updated version on this site. See also this entry and this one and this one.

Casablanca.

David Bordwell
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