Archive for the 'Directors: Bergman' Category
Hollywood screenwriters at work, according to Boy Meets Girl (1938).
It’s not every conference that opens a morning session by asking the men in the audience to take off their underwear.
But I anticipate.
Last weekend I was a guest of the Screenwriting Resource Network’s fourth annual Screenwriting Research Conference in Brussels. I think that a hell of a time was had by all, and I learned quite a bit, including some reasons why people are interested in screenplays.
Schmucks with Underwoods
Catherine Turney script for No Man of Her Own (1950).
In my youth, there seemed to be a solemn pact among my peers that we would never study certain areas: censorship, audiences, adaptation (novels into film, particularly), and screenwriting. An earlier generation had, through patient labor, shown decisively that these subjects were dead boring. We, on the other hand, were fired by notions of the director as auteur, and indifferent to what were called “literary” and “sociological” approaches to film. So we triumphantly turned toward The Text—that is, the finished movie.
Things have changed since then. Yet there are still tempting reasons to consider the study of screenwriting a nonstarter if you’re interested in cinema as an art. If you think of the finished film as the achieved artwork, then study of screenplay drafts risks seeming irrelevant. Whatever the screenwriter(s) intended seems irrelevant to the result. So what if six or more screenwriters labored over Tootsie? The movie stands or falls by what we see onscreen.
This was the view presented in Jean-Claude Carrière’s three talks to our group. He suggested that the screenplay is destined to become landfill, and rightly so. It’s like the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly. Once the film has been made, the script has no intrinsic value.
Someone might say, “Wait! We study a painter’s sketches, a novelist’s drafts, or a composer’s early scores. These materials can contribute to understanding the finished work, and sometimes they have an artistic value of their own.” The problem is that in these arts, the preparatory materials are in the same medium as the result. But a script can’t count as a version of the film because prose can’t adequately specify the audiovisual texture of a movie. It’s commonly thought, plausibly, that giving the same script to two directors would result in significantly different films. So the script is at best a series of suggestions for filming, not a sketchy version of the movie. Why not discard it when the film is done?
The study of screenwriting has probably also lain in the shadows because of the proliferation of screenwriting gurus and how-to manuals. Every American over the age of eighteen seems to be writing a screenplay; the Cable Guy who visited me last week was working on two. So all the seminars and advice books have arguably put thinking about screenplays rather close to the amateur-script racket.
Moreover, screenplay studies seem to be part of a broader, paradoxical development in academic film studies. Today scholars have more access to films than ever before, thanks to video, festivals, archives, and the internet. Yet many researchers prefer to talk about everything but the film. More and more scholars want to study just those subjects that my cohort considered dull or irrelevant: censorship and regulation, audiences (composition, demographics, critical reception, fandom), and preproduction factors (storyboards, scripts). In addition, many academics have turned to bigger thematic ideas like film and architecture, film and the city, film and modernity. These trends of research usually make only glancing reference to actual movies, mostly mining them for quick illustrative examples.
In sum, many academics have abandoned the study of film as an artistic medium that finds its embodiment in important works. To get to know particular films more intimately, you increasingly have to go to the Net, to writers like Jim Emerson, Adrian Martin, and other sensitive analytical critics. Talking about screenwriting can seem to be another way of avoiding coming to grips with the intrinsic power of movies.
You can probably tell that one side of me shares some of the biases I’ve listed. But when I remind myself that what people should study aren’t topics but questions, I cheer up quite a bit. For there are, I think, worthwhile questions to be asked about all these areas, screenwriting included. The Brussels event gave some good instances of resourceful, occasionally exciting research into them.
Based on my short acquaintance, most of the research questions seem trained on one of two broad areas: Screenwriting and The Screenplay.
In the trenches
Kinky & Cosy
Screenwriting can be thought of as a practice, a creative activity with both personal and social aspects. How, we might ask, do screenwriters or directors express themselves in the script? How does a media industry recruit, sustain, and reward screenwriters? What are the conventions and constraints at work in a particular screenwriting community?
Questions like this are somewhat familiar to me. When I wrote my first book, on Carl Dreyer, I had to examine his scripts (notably the unproduced Jesus of Nazareth), and that helped me understand his characteristic methods of researching and planning his films. Later, when I collaborated with Kristin and Janet Staiger on The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I recognized a more institutional side of things. We can see from the films of the 1910s that filmmakers were cutting up the space in fresh ways. But this wasn’t a matter of directors simply winging it on the set. Kristin used published manuals and Janet used original screenplays to show that shot breakdowns were planned to a considerable degree before shooting. This habit made production more efficient and controllable.
At the Brussels get-together, Steven Price offered further evidence of this sort, which displayed some of his research on early scenarios for Mack Sennett movies like Crooked to the End (1915). Interestingly, Steven found that sometimes the later version of a continuity script was more laconic than the initial one. Perhaps the gags, once spelled out in the first draft, could be left up to the actors. This is the sort of thing he identified as a “trace” of production practices.
A parallel of sorts emerged in Maria Belodubrovskaya’s paper on screenwriting under Stalin. The Soviets, admiring Hollywood efficiency, tried to come up with a similar system. But their efforts to produce films in bulk were blocked by a censorship apparatus bent on ideological correctness. No surprise there, I guess. But Masha showed convincingly that the very efforts to mimic Hollywood’s “assembly-line” system also discouraged authors from submitting scripts. The writers thought (like many of their LA counterparts) that such a setup denied them creative freedom. In addition, the prospect of story departments providing a stream of screenplays ran afoul of the tradition that gave the director control of the final draft. And the role of producer, as one who could steer the whole process, didn’t exist! So much for the Soviet Hollywood.
What about other media? Sara Zanatta traced out the process of creating Italian TV series. She reviewed some major formats (miniseries, original series, adaptations of foreign series) and then took us through the process of creating individual episodes. Interestingly, it seems that the Italian system, unlike US television, makes the director the boss of it all. Frédéric Zeimat explained how he gained entry to the local screenwriting community through his university education, including work in Luc Dardennes’ workshop at the Free University of Brussels. Eventually he came up with a script that won prizes. He is about to become a showrunner for a sitcom.
One of the most stimulating panels I heard considered the writing of graphic novels and animation. Richard Neupert explored how recent French animation sustained the tradition of individual authorship while still acceding to some international norms of moviemaking. The cartoonist Nix discussed how he faced new problems in transferring his three-panel comic strip Kinky & Cosy from print to television. TV demanded less written text, especially signs, so that the clips could be exported outside Belgium. More deeply, Nix had to rethink how to pace the action and leave a beat (say, two seconds) after the punchline.
Pascal Lefèvre, one of Europe’s leading experts on comic art, provided a brisk, packed account of the history and practices of scriptwriting for Eurocomics. He described patterns of collaboration, format, and creative choice, placing special emphasis on comics as a spatial art different from cinema. His example was a page from Regis Franc’s ulta-widescreen album Le Café de la plage. Here’s a portion in which two periods of Monroe Stress’s life coexist in a single space. He muses as an adult while his childish self gobbles up food under the guidance of Mom.
Comics space can also change abruptly, as when a window appears in second panel.
Other papers presented less institutionally fixed, more personal versions of screenwriting as a practice. Kelley Conway’s lecture on Agnes Varda exploited unique access to the filmmaker’s notebooks, scrapbooks, and databases. Kelley showed how Varda conceived three of her documentaries by means of strict categorical structures that were then frayed by digressions born out of the material she shot.
Anna Sofia Rossholm provided something similar for Bergman. Out of the vast Bergman archive she quarried sixty “workbooks,” typically one for each film. Whereas Varda’s books were filled with cutouts and images, Bergman was a word man, treating the books as diaries that recorded “this secret I.” Anna Sofia proposed that in his jottings and planning, Bergman not only communed with himself (calling himself an idiot on occasion) but also explored patterns of doubling akin to those we find in the films. The workbooks evidently held a special place for him: he included their pages in films like Hour of the Wolf and Saraband.
David Lean might be thought of as working in between the Hollywood system and the more personal European milieu. Ian Macdonald suggested that one of Lean’s unfilmed projects sheds light on what he calls screenplay poetics. Macdonald seeks, I think, a principled method for studying the creative process. He does this by tracing how a screen idea is transformed in a series of documents generated by the creative team. The process, he points out, is governed by the participants’ various conceptual frameworks. For Nostromo, Lean solicited two screenwriters and oversaw their rather different versions of the novel. Ian showed that Lean seems to have found solutions to adapting the book by fitting it to the three-act structure advocated by Hollywood artisans, a concrete case of a filmmaker accepting a fresh “poetics” or set of creative constraints.
All of these inquiries could lead to more general thoughts about the creative process in cinema. For some filmmakers, it’s a professional task, undertaken with full knowledge that problems and constraints will have to be dealt with. For others, such as Bergman and Varda, it’s obviously deeply personal, even autobiographical. Perhaps most intimate was the film discussed by Hester Joyce. New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston based Home by Christmas (2010; above) partly on audiotape interviews with her father as he recalled his World War II experiences. Her script reconstructed her interviews with actors, then filled in scenes with documentary footage and scenes she imagined. It’s a family memoir on several levels: Preston’s daughter portrays her own grandmother.
The Screenplay: What is it?
Several of these probes into the creative process raise a more theoretical question. How should we best conceive of the screenplay? As a blueprint? A recipe? An outline? These labels all suggest something disposable preliminary to the real thing, the movie. But why can’t we think of the screenplay as a freestanding object? After all, there are films without screenplays, but there are also screenplays—some written by distinguished authors—that were never made into films. And some of these, like Pinter’s Proust screenplay, are read for their own sake.
In cases like this, should we consider the screenplay a literary genre? And if the screenplay for an unproduced film can be considered a discrete object, what stops us from treating a filmed script in exactly the same way? Moreover, why even speak of a single screenplay, when we know that most commercial films at least go through several drafts? Can’t we consider each one an independent literary text? We’re now far from Carrière’s idea that the script finds its consummation in the finished film and as a piece of writing it should wind up in the ashcan.
And not all screenplays are literary texts. The scrapbooks and databases that Varda accumulates are works of visual art, collages or mixed-media assemblages. Are these merely drafts of the film, or do they have an independent existence or value? We seem to be asking the sort of question that Ted Nannicelli poses in his Ph. D. dissertation. Is there an ontology of the screenplay?
Take a concrete example. Ann Igelstrom’s paper, “Narration in the Screenplay Text,” asked how literary techniques are deployed in the screenplay. When a passage in the script for Before Sunset begins, “We see…,” who exactly is this we? Ann argued that traditional narrative concepts involving the source of the narration, the implied author and implied reader, and the rhetoric of telling can illuminate conventions of screenwriting. Here the screenplay seems definitely a literary text.
In his keynote address, “The Screenplay: An Accelerated Critical History,” Steven Price (above) declared a more abstract interest in the ontology of the screenplay but proposed that there was no clear-cut way of defining it. Historically, the screenplay takes many forms. Steven pointed out that even in Hollywood, there were many alternative formats, ranging from detailed breakdowns to the “master-scene” method (the option that didn’t specify shots or camera positions). And conceptually, the screenplay carried traces of its original production purposes, as well as other constellations of meaning. (Mack Sennett scripts seem to him part of a Sadean tradition of dehumanized, repetitive recombination.) So if there is a distinctive mode of being of the screenplay, outside of its role in production, it will turn out to be a messy one.
J. J. Murphy presents a paper on Ronald Tavel. Photo courtesy Richard Neupert.
If we conceive studies of screenplay and screenwriting as revolving around specific research questions, those of us interested in film as art can learn a lot. If our interests are in film history, researchers can show how organizations of production and individual choices by screenwriters/directors can shape the final product. For those of us interested in more theoretical explorations, asking about the nature and “mode of being” of the screenplay can’t help but make us think more about the ontology of cinema itself.
And if we want to know films more intimately, being aware of the creative choices that were made by the filmmakers throws a spotlight on aspects of the film we might otherwise not notice. It’s all very well to say we’ll examine the film “in itself,” but our attention is invariably selective. Knowledge of behind-the-scenes decisions can sharpen our awareness of artistic matters. Anna Sofia’s research on Bergman, like Marja-Riitta Koivumäki’s paper on Tarkovsky’s screenplay for My Name Is Ivan, activates parts of the film for special notice.
Because there were split sessions at the conference, and because I was plagued by jet lag, I couldn’t attend every panel and talk. I regret missing papers I later heard were very fine, and I haven’t written up everything I heard. I haven’t sufficiently talked about screenwriting pedagogy, represented in papers like Lucien Georgescu’s dramatic appeal to rethink whether screenwriting should be taught in film schools, or Debbie Danielpour’s stimulating survey of her methods of teaching genre scripting. So this is just a small sample of what these folks are up to. But you can tell, I think, that they’re posing questions at a level of sophistication that my 1960s cohort couldn’t have envisioned. Despite what the cynics say, there is progress in academic work.
As for men’s underpants: All is explained here.
I’m grateful to conference organizers Ronald Geerts and Hugo Vercauteren for inviting me to speak at the gathering. I must also thank conference organizer and old friend Muriel Andrin, along with Dominique Nasta and their colleagues and students from the Arts du Spectacle Department at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. My friends at the Cinematek, Stef and Bart and Hilde, helped me with my PowerPoint. Thanks as well to the Universitaire Associatie Brussel (Vrije Universiteit Brussel / Rits-Erasmushogeschool Brussel) and Associatie KULeuven (MAD-Faculty / Sint Lukas Brussel). A high point of the event was the visit to La Fleur en Papier Doré. Special thanks to Gabrielle Claes for her heartfelt introduction to my talk, not to mention a delicious bucket of moules.
A founding document in the contemporary study of the screenplay is Claudia Sternberg’s Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text (Stauffenburg, 1997). Other books central to the conference cohort include Steven Maras’s Screenwriting: History, Theory, and Practice, Steven Price’s The Screenplay: Authorship, Theory and Criticism, J. J. Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work, and Jill Nelmes’s anthology Analysing the Screenplay, which includes many essays by members of the group. See also the affiliated Journal of Screenwriting.
For more information on the Screenwriting Research Network, go here. (Thanks to Ian Macdonald for the link.) The next conference will be held in Sydney, and the 2013 one will take place in Madison, Wisconsin.
P.S. 22 Sept 2011: A panel discussion with Jean-Claude Carrière held during the conference is available here. Although the site is in Dutch, the discussion is in English. Thanks to Ronald Geerts for the information.
P.P.S. Thanks to Joonas Linkola for a spelling correction!
Coke does go through you pretty fast. Richard Neupert at a Coca-Cola machine that exploits a Brussels landmark.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, CinemaScope).
Are blog readers book readers, let alone book buyers? I asked once before, but in a different tone of voice. Books are still being published, thick and fast, and everybody who cares about cinema should take a look at these.
In the frame
When the talk turns to the great film theorists of the heroic era, you hear a lot about Bazin and Eisenstein, less about Rudolf Arnheim. But the prodigiously learned Arnheim pioneered the study of art from the perspective of Gestalt psychology. Although he’s probably best known for his studies of painting in Art and Visual Perception, as a young man he was a film critic and in 1930 published a major theoretical book on cinema. First known in English as Film, then in its 1957 revision as Film as Art, this has long been considered a milestone. But Arnheim was famously skeptical of color and sound movies, and he had comparatively little to say about the many cinematic trends after 1930. (He died in 2007, aged 102.) While psychologists grew wary of Gestalt ideas, cinephiles embraced Bazin and academics moved toward semiotics and other large-scale theories. For some time Arnheim has seemed a graceful, erudite relic.
A new anthology seems likely to change that view. Arnheim for Film and Media Studies, edited by Scott Higgins, reveals one of the earliest and most energetic and pluralistic thinkers about modern media. The fourteen authors probe Arnheim’s ideas about film, of course–showing unexpected connections to the Frankfurt School and to avant-gardists like Maya Deren. But there are as well essays on Arnheim’s thinking on photography, television, and radio, along with studies that examine how his ideas would apply to comic books and digital media. Other contributors provide conceptual reconstructions, analyzing his ideas on composition and stylistic history.
This is no esoteric exercise. The essays present probing arguments with patient lucidity. Encouragingly, most of the contributors are early in their careers. (I have a piece in the collection as well, an expanded version of a blog entry.) The anthology proves that a seminal thinker can always be reappraised. There’s always more to be understood.
In the Higgins collection Malcolm Turvey furnishes an essay on Arnheim’s relation to various strands of modernism. That vast movement is treated at greater length in Turvey’s new book, The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s. At the book’s core are close analyses of five exemplary films encapsulating various trends. Turvey studies Richter’s Rhythm 21 and abstract film, Léger and Murphy’s Ballet mécanique and cinéma pur, Clair’s Paris Qui Dort and Dada, Dalí and Buñuel’s Chien Andalou and Surrealism, and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and the “city symphony” format. For each film Turvey provides informative historical background and, often, some controversial arguments. For example, he finds Léger to be surprisingly concerned with preserving classical standards of beauty. Indeed, one overall thrust of the book is to suggest that modernism was less a rejection of all that went before than a selective assimilation of valuable bits of tradition. (This applies as well to Eisenstein, I think, as I try to show in my book on his work.)
No less controversial is Turvey’s careful dissection of what has come to be known as “the modernity thesis.” This is the idea that urbanization, technological change, and other forces have fundamentally changed the way we perceive the world, perhaps even altered our basic sensory processes. Specifically, some argue, because the modern environment triggers a fragmentary, distracted experience, that experience is mimicked by certain types of film, or indeed by all films. Step by step Turvey argues that this is an implausible conclusion. This last chapter is sure to stir debate among the many scholars who argue for film’s essential tie to a modern mode of perception.
Harper Cosssar’s Letterboxed: The Evolution of Widescreen Cinema begins in the heyday of Arnheim and the silent avant-garde. Indeed, some of the early uses of widescreen, as in Gance’s Napoleon, are indebted to experimental film. But Cossar’s genealogy of widescreen also mentions horizontal masking in Griffith films like Broken Blossoms and lateral or stacked sets in Keaton comedies like The High Sign. More fundamentally, Cossar develops Charles Barr’s suggestion that the sort of viewing skills demanded by widescreen (at least in its most ambitious forms) were anticipated by directors who coaxed viewers to scan the 4:3 frame for a variety of information. The “widescreen aesthetic” was implicit in the old format, and technology eventually caught up to allow it full expression.
Cossar advances to more familiar ground, studying early widescreen practice in The Big Trail and moving to analyses of films by masters like Preminger, Ray, Sirk, and Tashlin. Although most chroniclers of the tradition stop in the early 1960s, Cossar presses on to consider the changes wrought by split-screen films like The Boston Strangler and The Thomas Crown Affair. The survey concludes with discussions of cropping techniques in digital animation (e.g., Pixar) and web videos, which often employ letterboxing as a compositional device. In all, Letterbox traces recurring technological problems and aesthetic solutions across a wide swath of film history.
Two of America’s senior film writers have revisited their earlier writings, with lively results. Dave Kehr’s collection When Movies Mattered samples his Chicago Reader period, from 1974 to 1986. Disguised as weekly reviews, Kehr’s pieces were nuanced essays on films both contemporary and classic.
It resurrects the flashback structure of his 1950 Sunset Boulevard, but it goes further, placing flashbacks with flashbacks and complicating the time scheme in a manner reminiscent of such demented 40s films noirs as Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseille and John Brahm’s The Locket. . . But the jumble of tenses also clarifies the film’s design as a subjective stream of consciousness. The images come floating up, appearing in the order of memory.
How many of those reviewers whose flash-fried opinions count for so much on Rotten Tomatoes can summon up information about the construction of Passage to Marseille or The Locket? And how many could make the case that Wilder, in returning to the forms fashionable in his early career, would repurpose them for the sake of a reflection on death, resulting in “a film as deeply flawed as it is deeply felt”? Kehr’s work from this period is appreciative criticism at its best, and he never lets his knowledge block his immediate response. “I admire Fedora, but it also frightens me.” It’s time we admitted that Dave Kehr, working far from both LA and Manhattan, was writing some of the most intellectually substantial film criticism we have ever had.
Also hailing from the Midwest is Joseph McBride, a professor, critic, and biographer. Apart from his rumination on Welles, his books have focused on popular, even populist, directors like Capra (The Catastrophe of Success), Ford (Searching for John Ford), and Spielberg (Steven Spielberg: A Biography). The University Press of Mississippi and bringing first two volumes of this trilogy back into print, and it has just reissued the third in an updated edition.
Here Spielberg emerges as far more than a purveyor of popcorn movies. McBride sees him as a restless, wide-ranging artist, and the additions to the original book have enhanced his case. McBride offers persuasive accounts of Amistad and A.I., which he regards as major achievements. He goes on to argue that Spielberg’s unique power in the industry allowed him to face up to central political issues of the 2000s.
He made a series of films in various genres reflecting and examining the traumatic effects of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the repression of civil liberties in the United States during the George W. Bush/ Dick Cheney regime. . . . No other major American artist confronted the key events of the first decade of the century with such sustained and ambitious treatment (450).
McBride is no cheerleader. He can be as severe on Spielberg’s conduct as on his films, criticizing much of the DreamWorks product as dross and suggesting that Spielberg sometimes trims his sails in interviews. I’d contend that McBride underrates some of Spielberg’s work, notably Catch Me If You Can and The War of the Worlds. But McBride has perfected his own brand of critical biography, blending personal information (he reads the films as autobiographical), tendencies within the film industry and the broader culture, and critical assessment. All studies of Spielberg’s work must start with McBride’s monumental book. Ten years from now we can look forward to another update; surely his subject will have made a few more movies by then.
Today we regard Citizen Kane as a classic, if not the classic. But for several years after its 1941 release it wasn’t considered that great. It missed a place on the Sight and Sound ten-best critics’ polls for 1952; not until 1962 did it earn a spot (though at the top). Its rise in esteem was due to changes in film culture and, some have speculated, the fact that Kane was a regular on TV during the 1960s. Something similar happened with His Girl Friday, another stealth classic. I’ve traced what I know about its entry into the canon in an earlier blog entry.
What about the postwar classics like Open City and Bicycle Thieves and the works of Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni and Kurosawa and the New Wave? Surely some of the films’ fame comes from their intrinsic quality—many are remarkable movies—but would we regard them the same way if their reputation hadn’t spread so widely abroad, especially in America? Questions like this lead us to what film scholars have come to call canon formation: the ways artworks come to wide notice, receive critical acclaim, and eventually become taken for granted as classics.
Consider this. The Toronto International Film Festival’s recent list of 100 essential films includes thirty non-Hollywood titles from the 1946-1973 period, more than from any comparable span. Of the TIFF top twenty-five, twelve are from that era. You can argue that these years, during which several generations of viewers overlapped, set in place a system of taste that persists to this day.
Tino Balio’s Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973 reveals a side of canon formation that’s too often overlooked. Balio is less concerned with analyzing films than Turvey, Cossar, Kehr, and McBride are. He is asking a business question: What led the U. S. film industry to accept and eventually embrace films so fundamentally different from the Hollywood product?
Several researchers have pointed to the roles played by influential critics, film festivals, and new periodicals like Film Comment and Film Culture. Intellectual and middlebrow magazines promoted the cosmopolitan appeal of the foreign imports. By 1963 Time could run a feverish cover story on “The Religion of Film” to coincide with the first New York Film Festival.
Balio duly notes the importance of such gatekeepers and agenda setters. But he goes back to the beginnings, with the small import market of the 1930s. Turning to the prime postwar phase, he broadens the cast of players to include the business people who risked buying, distributing, and publicizing movies that might seem hopelessly out of step with US audiences. He shows how small importers brought in Italian films at the end of the 1940s, and these attracted New York tastemakers, notably Times critic Bosley Crowther, who were keen on social realism. Within a few years ambitious entrepreneurs were marketing British comedies, Swedish psychodramas, Brigitte Bardot vehicles, and eventually the New Waves and Young Cinemas of the 1960s. As distributors fought censors and slipped films into East Side Manhattan venues, an audience came forward. The “foreign films”—often recut, sometimes dubbed, usually promoted for shock, sentiment, and sex—were positioned for the emerging tastes of young people in cities and college towns.
Balio offers fascinating case studies of how the films were handled well or badly. Kurosawa, he notes, had no consistent distributor in the US, and so his films gained comparatively little traction. By contrast there was what one chapter calls “Ingmar Bergman: The Brand.”
Bryant Haliday and Cy Harvey of Janus Films. . . devised a successful campaign to craft an image of Bergman as auteur and to carefully control the timing of each release. . . . Janus released the films in an orderly fashion to prevent a glut on the market and to milk every last dollar out of the box office. No other auteur received such treatment.
The work paid off: Bergman made the cover of Time in 1960, and soon The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly won back-to-back Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Eventually, Bergman and other foreign auteurs attracted the big studios. Now that small distributors had shown that there was money in coterie movies, the major companies (having problems of their own) embraced imported cinema—first through distribution and eventually through financing. If you admire Godard’s The Married Woman, Band of Outsiders, and Masculine Feminine you owe a debt to Columbia Pictures, which underwrote them.
Work like Balio’s does more than bring the name Cy Harvey into film history. It reminds us to follow the money. If we do, we’ll see that not every “foreign film” stands radically apart from big bad Hollywood. More generally, The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens reminds us that even high-art cinema is produced, packaged, and circulated in an economic system. The distinction between commercial films and personal films, business versus art, is a wobbly one. Rembrandt painted on commission and Mozart was hired to write The Magic Flute. Sometimes good art is good business.
I couldn’t work this in anywhere else: The bulk of the essays in Arnheim for Film and Media Studies are by people associated with our department at Wisconsin. They do us proud, naturally. Incidentally, Joe McBride went to school at UW too, and Tino and I taught together here for over thirty years.
Dave Kehr maintains a blog and teeming forum here.
James E. Cutting provides an unusually precise account of canon creation in his 2006 book Impressionism and Its Canon, available for free download here. I’ve written an earlier blog entry discussing Jim’s research into film.
My mention of American generations is based on Elwood Carlson’s study The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom. Carlson examines the varying experiences and life chances of people who fought in World War II; people who came of age during the 1960s; and the less populated cohort that fell in between. Doing some pop sociology, I’d hypothesize that the art-film market’s growth relied on a convergence of all three, which were more disposed to art film than cohorts in earlier periods. For example, veterans who had served overseas and gone to college on the GI Bill were more familiar with non-US cultures than their parents and, I surmise, weren’t entirely put off by foreign films. When I first met Kristin’s mother, Jean Thompson, she already knew the work of Carl Dreyer, having seen Day of Wrath at an art cinema in Iowa City. She was in graduate school after World War II, on the G.I. Bill, as was her new husband, Roger, also in school on the G.I. Bill and managing that art cinema. They saw Children of Paradise and other wartime foreign films just getting their releases in the U.S., as well as post-war films like Bicycle Thieves.
The Lucky Few, also known as the Good Times generation, were born between the late twenties and the early 1940s. They were well placed to enjoy postwar prosperity and the period’s explosion of artistic expression. The Lucky Few cohort includes powerful film critics like John Simon (born 1925), Andrew Sarris (1928), Richard Roud (1929), Eugene Archer (1931), Susan Sontag and Richard Schickel (1933), and Molly Haskell (1939). Aged between twenty and thirty when the foreign-film wave struck, they were mighty susceptible to it. (Pauline Kael, though born in 1919, had a delayed career start, entering film journalism in the 1950s along with Sarris et al.) You might slip in David Thomson (born 1941), Jonathan Rosenbaum (1943), and Richard Corliss (1944).
The Baby Boomers jumped on the carousel in the 1960s, with results that are all too apparent. Dave Kehr and Joe McBride are Boomers, as are Kristin and I. Tino, for the record, is ageless.
The President (1919).
Has any other director received such a comprehensive, authoritative treatment on the Web? Carl Theodor Dreyer: The Man and His Work is a pathway to all things Dreyerian: biographical background, documents from his career (over 4000 letters alone!), gorgeous stills, film clips, and news of current Dreyer-related events. There’s a library of video and audio interviews (with English translation). There are also essays on his life and working methods, his themes and techniques. The site will grow as well. (I’ll be adding an essay, mostly on The President, later this month.)
We’re deeply grateful to the Danish Film Institute for all their years of effort in making this lode of material available to scholars and admirers.
PS 4 June: I told you the site was growing fast! A new entry supplies anecdotes–some charming, some disconcerting–about Dreyer’s days running a movie theatre.
PPS 8 June: Jon Asp writes that Ingmar Bergman has earned a vast site that rivals (and precedes) the Dreyer one. It’s here. Embarrassing for us Yanks! Where’s our comparably rich site on Griffith, Ford, et al.? Thanks to Jon for the link.
The Master of the House (1925).
Watching the film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded me how common fragmentary flashbacks have become. Granted, we’re living in a period of flashback frenzy, one comparable to the delirious 1940s and 1960s. But the format of the flashbacks has changed a bit. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, like many other films, gives us mere glimpses of earlier events–literally, flashes back to the past.
The technique is actually quite old. American films of the 1910s often interrupted present-time scenes to remind us of actions we’ve already seen or been told about. But the fragmentary flashback waned during the heyday of sound cinema. There conversations did nearly all the work. Of course there were flashbacks, as I’ve discussed in an earlier entry. But those flashbacks tended to be extended scenes, not the jagged bursts we get now.
A cynic might say that today’s audiences are so thick-headed and impatient that simply mentioning what happened earlier isn’t enough. Viewers now would chafe at the long interrogations in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The scenes would need to be split up by images showing what the characters were explaining. The new rule: Add redundancy, but dress it up in whipcrack visuals.
So are the flurries of mini-flashbacks there just because filmmakers doubt that viewers can follow a twisty intrigue given in dialogue? Not necessarily. I suspect that these flourishes are traceable to a piece of current screenwriting advice. It’s usually formulated as Show, don’t tell.
The very distinction has some ancient ancestry. Plato and Aristotle both distinguished between verbal narration, as in the Homeric epics, and theatrical presentation. Aristotle, always more interested in craft than Plato, went on to point out that the distinction couldn’t be absolute. Epic narration could include simulated conversations, for example. Aristotle did not, so far as I can tell, urge composers of epics to avoid “showing” or dramatists to avoid having characters report offstage action.
Today’s bias in favor of “showing” is probably traceable to the emergence of the modern novel. “Dramatize, dramatize!” Henry James (a failed playwright) advised the novelist. That is, make the action on the page seem vivid and palpable. It was Joseph Conrad, not D. W. Griffith, who first claimed that his purpose was “to make you see.” A major trend in the theory of prose fiction ca. 1900 was the effort to turn words on the page into a surrogate for visual storytelling; hence the very term “point of view” and James’ comparison of unfolding narrative to a “corridor” that we traverse. It remained for Percy Lubbock, in The Craft of Fiction (1921) to sum up this trend. “A novel is a picture,” he claimed, and he suggested that novels, either “panoramic” ones like Vanity Fair or “dramatic” ones like The Awkward Age, can make us forget that they are actually verbal contraptions:
The art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself.
Screenplay manuals have picked up on the general advice, even while modifying it to suit the particularities of film. Novices are advised to reduce dialogue to the minimum. Even a novel committed to “showing” will rely on conversation, but in cinema long stretches of dialogue, and especially, God forbid, monologue are uncinematic and run the risk of boring the audience. Cinema, the reasoning goes, is a visual medium, and whenever you can replace a word, or a string of them, by images you should try to do so. The aim is what we now call visual storytelling.
Now I’m all for presenting the story through pictures. Show, don’t tell can challenge the screenwriter and director to get story points across through imagery and character behavior rather than expository dialogue. One mark of filmmaking skill is to guide the audience to make inferences rather than simply take in bald information.The question is: How far to go?
In their urge to picture every bit of action, contemporary filmmakers may be missing a chance to exploit another resource of cinema: the sustained scene in which a character talks about a past event without any visual supplement. A long verbal account of the past has unique virtues.
In other words: Filmmakers, consider telling and not showing what’s told.
Talking it through
In Persona, the nurse Alma has grown more intimate with her patient Elisabeth, a famous actress who has frozen on stage and now refuses to speak. During their time together, Elisabeth’s treatment becomes therapy for Alma. Compelled to fill the silences, she gradually reveals more about herself. Tonight, a little drunk, Alma confesses something shocking. Once, while her lover was away, she and a girlfriend had sex with a couple of young men. Her telling of it makes her more and more distraught, until she breaks down weeping in Elisabeth’s arms.
In this nearly seven-minute monologue, Alma describes the incident. She mentions a few details, such as the weather on the isolated beach and the blue ribbon on her straw hat. Mostly, though, she simply describes what happened, in laconic but vivid sentences. The result is an anecdote of absorbing eroticism. Lacking any images of the events, we get to imagine the scene of sexual exchange. Bergman releases us from what James once called “weak specificity”: perhaps no imagery this side of pornography could be as arousing as this bare-bones account.
But the fairly neutral words are given emotional coloration through Alma’s manner of telling. Her reaction mixes astonishment at the pleasure, guilt at betraying her lover, and shame in telling it to Elisabeth. By the end, she collapses into weeping confusion; the incident has made her doubt what sort of person she is. Here Bibi Andersson’s performance is crucial, with trembling sincerity giving way to anguish and self-reproach.
In sum, by presenting this monologue wholly in the present, Bergman gives us two layers of action simultaneously, a charged sex scene and its long-range emotional consequences. But there’s more. Had he given us flashbacks, he could not preserve the flow of the present-time action. The staging and cutting during Alma’s confession use simple film techniques, but they add another layer to the scene.
The master shot, seen above, gives us the two women as Alma begins her tale. Then straightforward analytical editing isolates each woman.
In a classic gesture of intensification, the next shots of Alma and Elisabeth are closer than the earlier ones. This pair of shots accompanies the highest point of what Alma is telling us—the first couplings.
The tight shot of Alma, in which she describes achieving orgasm, lasts almost two minutes and is the lengthiest shot in the sequence. Then the action pauses as Alma nervously curls over to grab a cigarette, goes toward a distant window to light it, then settles on the sill to resume her story.
The earlier close shot of Elisabeth had hidden her reaction behind her hand. Now she watches Alma in a sort of enjoyment. Friendly empathy or triumph at eliciting a damaging admission? It’s hard to say. Alma retreats to another window and turns away, as if responding to Elisabeth’s smile.
Alma finishes her tale by saying that that night, reunited with her lover, she had the most pleasurable sex of their relationship. Turning from the window, her face is angled in such a way that her confession seems at once indifferent to Elisabeth (the eyeline doesn’t seem angled toward the bed) and challenging to her: “Can you understand that?”
The next line of dialogue—“And I got pregnant of course”—introduces a rupture in the action’s space and time.
Now Alma is in bed with Elisabeth, as if her question had impelled her to the closest physical contact yet. As Alma twists in pathetic uncertainty, weeping, Elisabeth’s reaction is again initially suppressed (Alma’s arm blocks her patient’s eyes) before finally revealing Elizabeth’s face during the embrace. Yet the expression remains ambiguous—sympathetic, or victorious in having exposed her nurse’s inner life.
Later we will learn that Elisabeth’s caresses aren’t as affectionate as they might first appear. In any event, given the tenor of Alma’s revelation, it is hard not to see them as erotic gestures in the present, parallel to those Alma recounted.
By telling rather than showing, then, Bergman has been able to tell and show. Bergman lets Alma’s telling provide a sort of virtual flashback, while he also creates a ripening interchange between characters in the present. Instead of simply sandwiching fragments of the past into the present action, he has built up two smooth arcs of action, one that we imagine and one that is set before us in precise detail, with its own emotional modulation. The bliss of the past events is refracted through the pain of telling them.
Telling as therapy
Part of the rationale for telling rather than showing the beach orgy is, of course, the fact that much of it couldn’t be presented so literally on film; censors would object. More important is the fact that showing a heavy-breathing sexual encounter would be likely to undercut the developing revelation of Alma’s present feelings, the tension between the memory of uninhibited pleasure and the lingering shame and confusion.
The issue of what should be shown comes up in another classic scene of confession, the moment in Exodus when the Jewish teenager Dov Landau admits that he was an accomplice in running a concentration camp. Again the result is a tearful breakdown. Here, however, a conversational partner coaxes out the truth by quietly corrosive questions.
Dov is trying to join the Irgun, a guerrilla band seeking to drive the British out of Palestine. The senior officer, Akiva Ben Canaan, lets the cocky youth expand on his boast that he began fighting Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto but then was captured and sent to Auschwitz. At first Akiva probes gently. How did the camp officials decide who would live? And what did the Nazis do to the girls? Dov starts to shift uneasily. How was the killing accomplished?
Like Bergman, Preminger employs the standard method of providing closer views as the tension rises. Dov starts to relax as Akiva provides softball questions, but then he has to confess that the bodies were dumped in mass graves. Who dug the graves? Dov admits that demolition squads used dynamite to blow out trenches. Akiva induces him to admit that this was Dov’s job.
In the course of all this, Akiva moves around the room and leans closer to Dov, but the boy remains motionless in the same setup. The fixed framing accentuates his subtly changing expressions across the scene.
Akiva retells what Dov must have done: shave heads, collect bodies, harvest gold fillings. Dov crumples like a child under the admission (see the frame surmounting this entry), and like Alma at key points in her monologue hides his face in shame. “What could I do?”
What else has he to confess? Dov won’t say, until he collapses again: “They used me . . . like you use a woman.”
The distant framing here prepares for the scene’s final phase: the men rise and swear Dov into their group.
Today a filmmaker would be tempted to show at least some of what Dov tells us. We could get glimpses of life in the camp, along with subjectively distorted imagery of sexual abuse, perhaps from Dov’s point of view. But this could turn out to be James’ “weak specificity.” “Let the reader think the evil,” James advised. Accordingly, Preminger sticks obstinately to what Dov says and how Akiva’s softly voiced but damning interrogation brings out the truth.
Again, the scene’s power comes from the character’s emotional development during the telling. We can imagine the horrors that Dov faced as a boy, and our pity comes from empathizing with his changing expressions–bravado, ruffled concern, realization that he has been caught lying, revulsion at his betrayal and the sexual assault. That is, we sympathize through his response now, rather than through direct vision of what he encountered. We react to his reactions.
By the end, Dov seems dazed that his confession has been accepted. Partly this is surprise that he isn’t being rejected, but also it’s as if he has awakened from a dream–that of himself as a resistance hero. Akiva Ben Canaan forces him to confront what he had not faced. Once more, the confession becomes a talking cure.
As in Persona, the confession also characterizes the interlocutor. Akiva ‘s gentle manner fuses wisdom and severity, making him a quietly stern father confessor. He’s also a shrewd exponent of psychology, one who picks the moment of the boy’s greatest self-revulsion to declare that Dov is accepted into the Irgun. The confession has broken him; the Irgun will remake him. Having surrendered himself utterly he will prove a more loyal soldier than any recruit with an innocent past.
Again, the scene of telling has given us two continuous emotional arcs in two time frames, one concrete and one virtual: a past event we’re cued to imagine and a present stripping away of the teller’s defenses. People who complain that the dialogue scenes in Inglourious Basterds are overlong should consider the tradition of movies like Exodus and Persona.
Persona and Exodus suggest two virtues of sustained recounting: arousing the viewer’s imagination, and providing an unbroken arc of present-time action that can generate sympathy through face, gesture, and voice. There’s one more advantage that isn’t perhaps so evident nowadays.
Current films give us “lying flashbacks” fairly often. But in the old days, with very few exceptions like courtroom films and tales like Rashomon, a flashback was veridical. In recounting a story action, a character might lie or make mistakes, but if the film’s narration showed us that action, we could trust that as the truth. As a result, many detective stories presented suspects’ versions of events through question and answer but climaxed in a flashback that showed us what really happened.
If, however, you want to induce doubt about what really happened, you might have the detective’s climactic explanation pricked by inconsistencies. This is what seems to me to be happening at the finale of Psycho. (Do I really have to warn about spoilers here?)
After Norman Bates has been captured, halted in another murder attempt, the psychiatrist Dr Richmond explains the young man’s split personality—part Norman, part Mrs. Bates, his mother. Richmond claims to have gotten the truth “from the mother.” At this point, he says, the Mom part of Norman has taken over wholly, a claim confirmed when we hear Norman speak in an old lady’s voice in the epilogue. Richmond goes on to claim that his questioning determined that Mother “killed the girl.” To get literal, it was as Mother that Norman murdered Marion Crane.
A contemporary film would very likely replay the murder so as to validate the psychiatrist’s analysis: Norman dressing up as his mother, assuming a cackling old-bat accent, killing Marion in images that fill in the silhouette that we saw in the shower sequence. We would see that Norman-as-Mother is the culprit.
But this visual confirmation of Richmond’s diagnosis would be made problematic by the epilogue that Hitchcock includes. In the final sequence we see Norman, staring out at the camera, and hear Mother’s voice declaring that her son committed the murders. According to her, Norman is the culprit; she wouldn’t hurt a fly. How then can Richmond declare that Mother told him that she killed the girl?
We might say that the doctor is extrapolating: the truth he took from the mother is that she is dissembling, shifting the guilt to Norman. But Richmond could have stated that was his reasoning, and he doesn’t. The incompatibility between his explanation and Mother’s soliloquy opens up the possibility that he has not probed to the depths of Norman’s madness.
Despite the fact that the psychiatrist’s analysis arrives at the moment when a conventional movie delivers the whole truth, the very last minutes of the film incline me to doubt Richmond’s ability to grasp the whole situation. It’s as if our parting vision of the character disturbs the smug certainties of the diagnosis.
I haven’t dived deeply into the Talmudic sea of Psycho commentary, so it’s likely that this issue has been hashed out extensively. Perhaps my construal won’t stand up. Take it, then, as a possible instance of the ways in which a verbal recounting, “unconfirmed” by a tangible flashback, can stand as only a candidate explanation rather than the whole truth. In general, telling and refusing to show can induce what Meir Sternberg calls “anticipatory caution,” a warning that the telling is only one, and not necessarily the most truthful, version of events.
Show, don’t tell is usually good advice. But I’m suggesting a codicil. Consider showing the telling. Fill it out. Pack it with actorly detail and psychological implication. Stage and shoot and cut it so as to create an engrossing, unfolding rhythm. That’s visual storytelling too, and it requires fine judgment. Who knows? More scenes relying on telling might also teach audiences to be a little patient.
The best modern account I know of the subtle differences between showing and telling, and the cases when the categories blur and fracture, can be found in Meir Sternberg’s Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction. I talk a little about the distinction in Chapter Two of Narration in the Fiction Film. See also The Way Hollywood Tells It for some comments on today’s vogue for unreliable flashbacks. And way back in 2006 Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a passionate attack on the idea of “Show, don’t tell” while defending the value of voice-over narration.
N. B. I’m not ignoring the possibility that film can present showing and telling in two simultaneous streams: imagery of the present situation accompanied, perhaps alongside, by continuing imagery of the past scene, as in Suddenly Last Summer. This can be a fruitful option, but it relieves the spectator of the obligation to imagine the past—an important advantage of the pure telling. There’s also the tricky matter of giving the two streams of information enough density. The past event needs to gain enough body to be more than a simple illustration, while the present-time telling could become merely a prop for the flashback. In the dual-presentation mode, the filmmaker risks dividing our attention and thinning the texture of each time frame, with the result that both lose vividness. That seems to me to happen in Suddenly Last Summer.