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Books

On the History of Film Style pdf online

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

Video

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

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics Oct.2018

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

Articles

Book Reports

Observations on film art

Pickford times two

Sunday | December 9, 2018

Kristin here:

Flicker Alley has once again made a great contribution to the recovery of silent cinema by releasing two restorations of films starring Mary Pickford.

Pickford was an extraordinarily successful figure of the era. Her enormous popularity as a star lasted from her days acting in Griffith Biograph films into the early sound period. She was one of the four founding artists of United Artists. Indeed, she was the new distribution company’s mainstay for a time, as her co-founders, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith (seen above watching her sign the contract) worked off their commitments to other distributors or made films that were less than successful (notably Chaplin’s 1923 A Woman of Paris). After retiring from acting, Pickford strove to retain prints of all the films she had been in, hoping to guarantee their ultimate survival.

One of Flicker Alley’s two films, Little Annie Rooney (1925, dir. William Beaudine) was restored from a nitrate print in her collection, held at the Library of Congress. The other, Fanchon the Cricket (1915, dir. James Kirkwood), she and everyone else feared was lost. In 2012, however, the Mary Pickford Foundation discovered that the Cinémathèque française had a nitrate copy of Fanchon, and, with contributions from an incomplete nitrate print at the British Film Institute, a restoration was achieved at l’Immagine Ritrovata labs in Bologna. Both films come in a dual edition of DVD and Blu-ray, accompanied by new scores and program booklets. Both are region-free. The visual qualify of both restorations is excellent.

The two films are dramatically different from each other. Fanchon is set in 19th Century rural France, while Little Annie Rooney takes place in contemporary New York. Still, in each Pickford plays a wild young woman–young meaning almost child-like in her innocence and aggressive behavior–and yet one ready to step abruptly into romance and marriage.

 

Fanchon the Cricket

The origin of the film dates back to Georges Sand’s 1849 novel, La petite Fadette, written in collaboration with François le Champi. (“Fadette” apparently refers to a girl with fairy-like powers.) Set in the 19th Century French countryside, it marked Sand’s return to a focus on the rural poor. The novel was translated into English immediately and republished repeatedly with various titles in later translations, most recently in 2017.

In 1861, an English-language adaptation as a play, Fanchon the Cricket, by August Waldauer premiered in New Orleans to great success. (“Fanchon” roughly means someone who is free.) Its star, Maggie Mitchell, apparently the Pickford of her day, continued to tour in the role for over thirty years, still playing the teenage heroine into her 50s. She died in 1918 at aged 85 and thus may have seen Pickford play the role on the screen. (Numerous actresses had also starred as Fanchon in the popular play. There was a 1912 film version from IMP.)

Fanchon tells a remarkably unclassical story for 1915, a year in which the classical Hollywood style was well on its way to maturity. There is relatively little plot. The action takes place in an unspecified rural area of France in the 19th Century. Landry, the son of a rich local family, has become engaged to Madelon. During the celebrations, we are introduced to Fanchon, a waif living in the forest with her grandmother, who has a reputation as a witch. Fanchon is torn between her desire for friendship and her mischievous antagonism with the young people of the area, who fear her.

These young people seem perpetually to be celebrating the engagement or local saints’ days, venturing out into the forest for picnics and dances, despite the fact that they seem unreasonably frightened by Fanchon’s presence there. Repeatedly they encounter her, who  deliberately tries to scare them, then awkwardly dresses up in her mother’s outmoded clothes and tries aggressively to join their frolics.

Despite Landry’s engagement, he is reluctantly drawn to her, especially when she saves him from drowning in a lake. Only late in the plot do we discover key premises. First, Fanchon’s grandmother had been forbidden to marry Landry’s uncle, her true love, which led her to her current hermit-like existence. Second, Fanchon, who has been actively luring Landry away from his fiancée, would never marry him without his father’s consent. These are things that a classically constructed plot would set up much earlier, creating tension that is singularly lacking in this film. Still, all ends well.

The film is almost entirely shot outdoors, in the fields, forests, and lakes of Pennsylvania, with resulting beautiful compositions (see bottom).

   

Pickford fans probably know that Fanchon the Cricket is the only film in which all three Pickfords played. Lottie is Madelon (above left), the petulant betrothed of the hero, Landry, and Jack plays a young bully whom Fanchon fights when she sees him tormenting Landry’s “half-wit brother” (above right).

 

Little Annie Rooney

The films begins with an expository title: “Up town a gang calls itself ‘Society’–down town a gang calls itself a ‘Gang’ and lets it go at that. –Let’s go down town!” The opening scene then shows two groups of kids caught up in a street fight. The whole thing is comic, if pretty intense, and its only female participant is Annie Rooney, apparently a youngish child, played by Pickford. Her allies are an ethnically diverse bunch, including Abie Levy (above, played by Spec O’Donnell, who played so many mischievous-son roles in Max Davidson’s Jewish comic shorts of the 1920s). Pickford called her young cast a “mini League of Nations.” These youngsters are more than background decoration, with some of them having roles to play in the action, as when Abie’s family comforts Annie after her father is shot.

Although the opening part of the film is typical Pickford comedy, there are grown-up gangs in the plot as well, with Annie’s brother drawn into bad company, despite their widowed father being an Irish cop. Indeed, the narrative shifts into what is nearly a Von Sternberg film. There’s an atmospheric scene in a dance-hall where the father is gunned down by a lurking thug and Annie’s love interest (turns out she’s not as young as her behavior would suggest) gets blamed because he happens to be standing by Rooney at the time.

   

The lighting in these and other shots is impressive–not surprisingly, given that Pickford was very particular about the photography for her films. Her regular cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was one of the tops in the field during the silent era. Hal Mohr assisted, and the results beautifully employ the three-point lighting system developed during the late 1910s and 1920s.

    

Little Annie Rooney was a success, showing that Pickford could lure in the audience with her accustomed youthful comedy and then transition into a more serious plot that showed off her dramatic abilities as well.

 

Flicker Alley’s press announcement states that these two releases are the “first of a planned series of Mary Pickford films that showcase the breadth and depth of her talents as well as that of the finest behind-the-camera craftspeople of the time.” Given Pickford’s prolific output, one can only hope that this series goes on and on.

Fanchon the Cricket

Christopher Nolan: Back into the labyrinth

Monday | December 3, 2018

Interstellar (2014).

DB here:

A new edition of our e-book Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages has just gone into production at the hands of our web tsarina Meg Hamel. It updates our discussion of Nolan’s career by including a brand-new chapter on Interstellar and one on Dunkirk that revises and expands our blog entries on the film (here and here).

The book also includes a new chapter surveying Nolan’s approach to filmic storytelling, along with more links and frame enlargements. I wrote the bulk of this second edition, with Kristin contributing portions on exposition in Inception and Dunkirk.

As in the first edition, I try to respond to the objections that some viewers have about Nolan’s work. I grant some problems with his films, chiefly at the level of visual style. But I also try to make a case that Nolan has been exploring film narrative in ways that are significant for film history. I argue that his achievement contributes to storytelling trends of his moment (from the 1990s on) and in art and literature more generally. His work is shaped by what I call a “formal project,” akin to that we find in Alain Resnais and Hong Sangsoo.

Nolan’s detractors are likely to counter that those directors are better than Nolan. But they work in different circumstances. In the context of mass-audience Hollywood cinema, I think Nolan’s work repays scrutiny.

I’m mostly offering analysis, not evaluation. I have to admit, though, that in reworking the book and rewatching the films, I’ve come to extend my admiration for certain projects (The Prestige, Dunkirk) to others, especially Interstellar. Still, even if you don’t share my regard for the films, I think that it’s worth discussing what Nolan’s accomplishment shows about trends in modern cinema and the broader possibilities of filmic storytelling.

Which is to say, yet again, that Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages 2.0 is primarily a venture in film poetics.

We hope to make the new edition available this month or in January. It would be priced higher than the current edition, at $3.99 (i.e., the cost of a Tall Caramel Frappucino). This pays for a new design for the book, one exploiting the horizontal format for widescreen frame enlargements. We won’t be embedding video extracts in the text, as we did last time, but we may set up the clips as online links.

To the hundreds of you who bought copies over the years, thank you. We appreciate your support, and we hope that the new edition will also be worth the attention of the readers who visit this site.


Just to be clear, we’ve also welcomed the narrative explorations of Resnais and Hong Sangsoo on our website, and in our research more generally.

Interstellar (2o14).

Lovelorn LYDIA: A new installment on the Criterion Channel

Sunday | November 18, 2018

DB here:

In the fading days of FilmStruck, Kristin and Jeff and I are looking forward to continuing our Observations on Film Art series on the new version of the Criterion Channel in the spring. (If you’re in the areas served, US and Canada, you can sign up here. I did already. Quick and easy.)

In the meantime, our final entry on the FilmStruck platform is going live on Monday, 19 November. There I consider Julien Duvivier’s Lydia (1941) as an example of the power of flashback storytelling.

I talked about the film in Reinventing Hollywood as part of the massive 1940s revival of this technique. Critics’ long-standing emphasis on film noir has led us to think that that trend epitomized flashback construction, but actually the technique is almost completely general. In the book, I consider several “women’s pictures” that employ it: Kitty Foyle (1940), The Affairs of Susan (1945), The Locket (1946; also discussed here), and Lydia. The Criterion series allows me to illustrate more concretely how Duvivier and his colleagues tell the story of a woman captured by passion and moving into old age almost (but not completely) disillusioned.

Working on the book and the entry made me better appreciate a director I’d neglected. Like everybody else, I had had a high regard for La Belle Équipe (1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937), and I had seen and liked his Simenon adaptation Panique (1946). A special favorite of mine is his cross-border comedy about switchboard romances, Allo Berlin? Ici Paris! with clever sound work quite advanced for 1931. Beyond Lydia, other Hollywood efforts of his proved important for Reinventing Hollywood. Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Flesh and Fantasy (1943) are adroit instances of the episode film, that format using what I called “block construction.”

Duvivier was sometimes disdained by the younger generation as an old-guard academic, but I’ve come to see him as a rather interesting experimentalist. He tried out a day-in-the-life network narrative (Sous le ciel de Paris, 1951), a charming what-if comedy about screenwriting (La Fête à Henriette, 1952), and a solid Gabin polar (Voici les temps des assassins, 1954). His suspense drama Marie-Octobre  (1959), might seem overly theatrical because it has a Rope-like confinement to a single evening, an anniversary dinner for survivors of the Resistance, but it’s actually based on a novel and gains tension from its almost real-time duration. It showcases a range of major stars (Darrieux, Blier, Reggiani, Ventura) and boasts one of the most dazzling parlor sets I’ve seen in a long while.

Among his thrillers adapted from English authors there’s the curious Chabrolian exercise, La Chambre ardente (1962), based on a John Dickson Carr novel, and the seedy Chair de poule (aka Highway Pickup, 1963, below) from James Hadley Chase.

I’m sure there are clunkers and potboilers among his dozens of titles, but it’s a pretty distinguished career, running back to the silent cinema and his early classic Poil de carotte (1925). His department-store drama, Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), exemplifies bravura silent-film style at its height. He even remade The Golem (1936).

For me, Lydia encapsulates the ambitions typical of Duvivier and 1940s Hollywood. The film could count as a rewrite of Carnet du bal (1937), his story of a woman who revisits the men who danced with her one night in her youth. That plot might seem to demand a string of flashbacks, but instead it’s all played in the present. Her confrontation with what the dashing young men have become leads to a string of extraordinary encounters enacted by top players of the day (Rosay, Bauer, Fernandel, Raimu, Jouvet, Sylvie). The melancholy tone, involving a mournful devotion to impossible love, is reminiscent of Dreyer’s Gertrud.

Lydia takes the alternative option of actually dramatizing the memories of the heroine and her three lovers as they reflect on the old days. The flashbacks are daringly introduced with straight cuts and curt sound bridges; a couple of scenes use slow-motion for the past, a very unusual choice for the period. The soundtrack is unusually lush, with the brilliant Miklós Rózsa supplying lilting waltzes and even some early electronic effects. For a bold montage merging Lydia’s passion with that of the raging sea, he came up with a fierce piano concerto.

The film plays on the disparities of time and memory in a rather modern way. Flashbacks contradict one another, and what we see doesn’t always match what the voice-over tells us. Lydia in the present seems to whisper advice to the girl we see in the past, as if she’s watching the film along with us. The climax is quietly devastating: the twist was demanded by censorship, but producer Alexander Korda claimed, rightly, that it improved the film. We’re left wondering how much to trust Lydia’s memory of her idealized affair.

One thing that didn’t make it into our entry: Discussion of the peculiar cottage where Lydia and her lover Richard share their passionate idyll. It seems to be built out of the bodies of big naked people. So I share one image with you, below.

Apart from that, I hope you get to play my installment, in the waning days of FilmStruck, or maybe cached on the new Criterion Channel in the spring. You can sign up for that streaming service here, and the sooner you do it, the easier it will be to launch.


We’re grateful as usual to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, and the whole Criterion team, and to Erik Gunneson of the UW Department of Communication Arts. Special thanks to Daniel Reis, editor of most of our installments, whose adroit cutting strengthened them enormously. (The Lydia entry masterfully stitches together disparate sequences using Lydia’s dialogue as a voice-over.) Other entries were cut by the equally gifted Clyde Folley. Thanks as well to Kelley Conway and Phillip Lopate for conversations about Duvivier.

Criterion has served Duvivier well, offering several of his works on DVD.

A list of our Observations installments to date is here.

Lydia (1941): A house embellished with ships’ figureheads becomes the lovers’ sanctuary.

The Criterion Channel is coming back!

Friday | November 16, 2018

Breaking news!  Last month ATT’s acquisition of Time Warner led to the announcement that FilmStruck, and the Criterion Channel thereon, would be discontinued. (Today I got my refund for the rest of my annual subscription.) But many film fans and filmmakers have kicked up a fine fuss. One especially robust bloc wrote directly to Warner Pictures head honcho Toby Emmerich. A second, equally strong letter followed.

Now we learn from Peter Becker of Criterion that the Channel is restarting in spring of 2019.

The Criterion Channel will be picking up where the old service left off, programming director spotlights and actor retrospectives featuring major Hollywood and international classics and hard-to-find discoveries from around the world, complete with special features like commentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, and original documentaries. We will continue with our guest programmer series, Adventures in Moviegoing. Our regular series like Art-House America, Split Screen, and Meet the Filmmakers, and our Ten Minutes or Less section will all live on, along with Tuesday’s Short + Feature and the Friday Night Double Feature, and of course our monthly fifteen-minute film school, Observations on Film Art.

Our library will also be available through WarnerMedia’s new consumer platform when it launches late next year, so once both services are live, Criterion fans will have even more ways to find the films they love.

We will be starting from scratch, with no subscribers, so we will need all the help we can get. The most valuable thing you can do to help now is go to Criterion.com/channel and sign up to be a Charter Subscriber, then tell your friends to sign up too. We need everyone who was a FilmStruck subscriber or who’s been tweeting and signing petitions and writing letters to come out and to sign up for the new service. We can’t do it without you!

David Bordwell
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