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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

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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

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

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Archive for the 'Film comments' Category

NOTORIOUSly yours, from Criterion

DB here:

Notorious was the subject of the first piece of criticism I published. The venue was Film Heritage, one of those little cinephile magazines that flourished, if that’s the word, in the 1960s. My appreciative essay came out in 1969, as I was finishing my senior year in college.

I haven’t dared to look back at it. Actually, I’m not sure I have a copy. The soft-focus imagery of memory tells me that some things that would preoccupy me in the future–interest in narrative structure, style, point-of-view, the spectator’s engagement with mystery and suspense–are there, though in ploddingly naive shape.

Since those days Hitchcock has always been with me. He’s been the subject of articles and blogs and many, many classroom sessions. Now, thanks to the Criterion collection, I’ve had a chance to revisit Notorious.

The new Blu-ray edition includes a dazzling array of extras. Many were available on the now out-of-print 2001 Criterion DVD: two audio commentaries featuring Rudy Behlmer and Marion Keane, the Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Joseph Cotten, and newsreel footage of Hitchcock and Bergman. Added to that earlier material are an interview with Donald Spoto, a video essay on technique by John Bailey, a 2009 documentary about the film, a study of the film’s preproduction by Daniel Raim, and a print essay by Angelica Jade Bastien. Since I just got my copy and wanted to tell you about it, I haven’t had time to plunge into all of this, but the samples I’ve checked are exhilarating.

Hitchcock is the most teachable of classic directors. His strategies are just obvious enough for beginners to notice them, but they always open up new directions for more experienced viewers.

I reconfirmed all this when I decided to devote a chapter of Reinventing Hollywood to Hitchcock and Welles. These two masters decisively influenced the 1940s, the period I was considering. But they were in turn influenced by the crosscurrents in their filmmaking community. And they came to epitomize, for me, the artistic richness of what Hollywood could do in this golden age.

In addition, I tried to make the case that they carried storytelling strategies typical of the period into later eras. I declared, in a burst of geek recklessness:

Vertigo constitutes a thoroughgoing compilation/revision of 1940s subjective devices. The obsessive optical POV shots of Scottie trailing Madeleine give way to a dream tricked out with pulsating color, abstract rear projetion, stark geometric patterns, and animated flowers. . . . Along with all the other echoes–portraits, therapy for a traumatized man, voice-over confession, point-of-view switches, the hint of a reincarnated or time-traveling woman–the powerful probes of subjectivity make Vertigo, though released in 1958, one of the most typical forties movies.

But then so is Notorious, a film I had little to say about in the book. So I’m glad that Criterion’s invitation to contribute a 30-minute short on this new release led me back to a film I’ve loved for over fifty years.

 

Darned sophisticated, or dead

My supplement concentrates on the climax in Alicia’s bedroom and on the staircase of Sebastian’s mansion. Spiraling out from that sequence, I try to show how it’s the culmination of many storytelling strategies, from point-of-view editing to long takes. I also trace out something I didn’t fully realize until I researched the film’s reception: It was considered very sexy.

For one thing, Ingrid Bergman was associated with innocents, and her playing a promiscuous party girl (“notorious”) was a bit of spice. For another, Hitchcock’s earlier films, though they always had erotic overtones, didn’t really center on a passionate romance. His heroines didn’t convey much smoldering passion, despite all his prattle about glacial blondes thawing out fast. His darkly handsome protagonists (Maxim in Rebecca, Johnnie in Suspicion, Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt) are more steely than steamy. As for Joel McCrae in Foreign Correspondent and Bob Cummings in Saboteur, they seem virtual Boy Scouts. Only Spellbound, which introduces a psychoanalyst to ecstasy in the rangy form of Gregory Peck, seems a first stab at the sexual complications of Notorious. And the analyst is played, of course, by Bergman, radiant as soon as she takes off her glasses.

The 1940s had a well-established convention that a handsome friend of the family could rescue a wife from the predations of her husband (Gaslight, Sleep My Love) or other tormentor (Shadow of a Doubt). Film scholar Diane Waldman called this figure the helper male. In the second half of Notorious Devlin plays this role. The basic situation–a man stealing another man’s lawfully wedded wife–is pretty edgy in itself, especially since Sebastian is far more frankly in love with Alicia than Devlin is. I try to show that Hitchcock wrings new emotion from the convention by making the husband, trapped between his Nazi gang and his ruthless mother, sympathetic. Meanwhile, the helper male comes off unusually cruel, needling Alicia about the carnal bargain he plunged her into.

And then there’s all that snogging. The romance in Notorious is one long tease–between the characters, and between the screen and the viewer. The Los Angeles Times critic made it the basis of his lead:

Devlin and Alicia are all over each other, notably in the famous scene in her apartment. (Have they done The Deed? Obviously yes.) Their tight embrace, their constant pecking and nibbling and nuzzling as they float across the room, provoked a lot of notice. In the supplement I quote Dorothy Kilgallen, whom my oldest readers will remember from “What’s My Line?” on TV. She wrote this in Modern Screen:

So it makes a certain amount of sense for a power company to assume that incandescent stars can sell electricity, as below. In Toledo, too.

For this and other reasons, I’m happy to have a chance to revisit one of my very favorite Hitchcock films. I bet that you’ll enjoy seeing this stunning copy and immersing yourself in all the bonuses. Hitch is endlessly fascinating, and he’s one of the main reasons we love movies.


Thanks to Curtis Tsui, who produced my segment for the disc, as well as Erik Gunneson and James Runde here at UW–Madison, and all the New York postproduction team. Thanks as well to Peter Becker and Kim Hendrickson for all they do to keep Criterion at the top of its game.

Greg Ruth, designer of cover art for Criterion, explains his creative process on their site. More details on the release, with clip, are here.

The Los Angeles Times review comes from the issue of 23 August 1946, p. A7. The Kilgallen Modern Screen piece is available via Lantern, here. If you youngsters didn’t get her reference to Helen Hokinson, go here.

For another in-depth analysis of a single sequence, see Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin’s Filmkrant video essay, “Place and Space in a Scene from Notorious.” They showed me things I had never noticed–more proof of the richness of Hitchcock World.

Cary Grant’s image was used to sell oil a few years before, as illustrated in this entry.

Better Theatres (24 August 1946).

The spectacle of skill: BUSTER SCRUGGS as master class

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

DB here:

Craft isn’t everything in art, but it counts for a lot. Even when you’re going against tradition, you can’t just willy-nilly do whatever. You need to create a counter-craft (as Bresson, Brakhage, Ozu, and others showed us). Reviewers, in their urge to thump out quick judgments, often don’t address craft practice directly. So if we simply talk of the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a grim, occasionally grotesque and zany take on Western conventions, we’re apt to take for granted just what a trim, absorbing piece of sheer filmmaking it is.

It’s worth attuning ourselves to what Adam Gopnik called his collection of Robert Hughes’ writings: The Spectacle of Skill. Paying attention to that enhances our appreciation for what filmmakers accomplish, and maybe it can nudge aspiring filmmakers to consider things to try.

So, herewith a quick analysis of the very beginning of the film’s second episode. The whole piece is not as audacious as the title episode, and not as poignant as “Meal Ticket” or “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It’s more of a light interlude. But we shouldn’t let its shaggy-dog payoff (“Your first time?”) make us think there’s anything slapdash about it.

There follow spoilers.

 

All the meanness in the Used-To-Be

In the book that frames each tale, this one is called “Near Algodones.” As in the other episodes, an illustration prepares us for something we’ll see in the scene. The caption reads: “Pan-shot!” cried the old man.

 

Lesson 1: Make everything clear and simple, except what you want to suppress.

A master shot gives us the elemental situation: A bank, a well, and a lone rider with his horse.

These are the central components of the sequence. The isolation of the bank makes it a plausible target for a holdup. The geography will become important in the second stretch of the scene, while the well will provide cover to the Cowboy. His horse will prove notably reluctant to move.

 

Lesson 2: Attach the narration to a single character.

Throughout this episode, we’re “with” the Cowboy, not always through exact optical POV but more generally: our range of knowledge of the unfolding situation approximates his. This sort of restriction arouses curiosity (what’s going on in the bank?), as well as suspense and surprise (as we’ll see).

 

Lesson 3: Motivate new shots by offscreen sound.

Attachment to the Cowboy is reinforced by the play of his attention. Over the Leone-esque close-up we hear a creak. This motivates a cut to the bank’s hanging sign. As we hear a thump, he shifts his eyes; we see it’s caused by the bucket bumping against the well.

     

 

Lesson 4: Delay when you can.

Attachment doesn’t mean immersion. Instead of a shot from the Cowboy’s POV as he’s entering the bank, we get him pausing to size up the scene.

Only then do we get a shot of the bare bank and the teller’s windows, which (thanks to a wide-angle lens) seem impossibly far away.

    

 

Lesson 5: Let expectations go to work.

The holdup scenario, a convention of Westerns, is surely hovering in many viewer’s minds. When the Cowboy advances, we wait to see if our expectations pay off. You get suspense simply by having your actor move forward; what could be more economical?

Lesson 6: Prepare for later shots.

The tracking shot of the Cowboy’s boots and spurs might seem mere decoration, but it further delays his arrival at the window and sets up an important shot to come.

 

Lesson 7: Scale your shots according to the information they present.

Reverse shots are the workhorses of mainstream storytelling cinema. They are vehicles for character interaction, either based in dialogue or just the exchange of glances. The over-the-shoulder (OTS) version specifies the spaces the characters occupy, typically in a conversation. OTS framings also serve as a transition to closer views. Here the Cowboy’s goal in the scene is to learn how fortified the bank is against robbery.

     

After the opening stretch of purely visual storytelling, dialogue takes over. For us to grasp it better, the OTS framings give way to singles, which enlarge the teller’s performance and the Cowboy’s reactions.

     

The geezer’s chatter joins the motif of flowery monologues and eloquent bafflegab we’ll encounter throughout the film. The framing also lets us enjoy the performance, which suggests that this scatterbrain might be an easy mark. He does, however, mention that he has put down one attempted robber and “shredded the legs” of another.

The climax of the exchange is the Cowboy’s drawing his pistol and the teller’s explanation that he has to stoop to get “the large denominations.” The result is more shot-scale calibration: We need a single to see the gun looming (an OTS wouldn’t be as punchy), but the reverse shot can be OTS because we need to see how the teller’s stooping maneuver is concealed from the Cowboy. We are still attached to him and what he knows–or doesn’t know.

     

Another benefit: as variants of framings we’ve seen before, we can quickly grasp what’s new in them (brandishing the pistol, ducking down).

 

Lesson 8: Use a cut, a crisp gesture, or a discrete sound to arrest attention.

Actually, the next shot does all three. The Cowboys tries to peer over the till, and a shot shows him taking a step forward as we hear a click. This framing pays off the shot of striding boots we saw in Lesson 6.

Within the same shot, the front of the teller’s window is blasted open. The Cowboy jumps sideways as another hole explodes, then another.

     

We’re back to visual storytelling. Now we understand why the teller has “shredded the legs” of another would-be robber. When the debris clears, a camera tilt shows that the Cowboy has sprung to the counter.

A mini-spectacle of skill: Handling the three blasts and the Cowboy’s evasion in a single percussive shot.

 

Lesson 9: Stagger the reveals.

Alexander Payne once remarked: “Whenever you can do a reveal, do it.” Here we have a suite of reveals, but they’re handled in a simple, cogent way.

When the Cowboy crouches on the counter, we have several questions. Is the teller going to fight? What created the blasts? And will the Cowboy get to the money?

These questions are answered, purely pictorially, in the shots to come. First, from his perch the Cowboy sees the partly open door. The teller has escaped, but because we’re restricted to the Cowboy’s perspective, we don’t know where he’s gone.

     

Just as one concise shot showed us the gunblasts and the Cowboy’s leap to the counter, now his descent and landing, followed in a single tilt, reveals the teller’s infernal machine: a row of shotguns poised to fire.

     

Another director would have devoted a POV shot to this revelation, but here it’s provided without fuss or forcing, as we follow the Cowboy’s crouch. He barely reacts and smoothly sets about finding the money. He grabs it in a single crisp close-up. And another cut takes us to the doorway, as the Cowboy hopes a view outside will reveal where the teller has gone.

     

Once more a POV is recruited, but it shows how much our protagonist doesn’t know.

The elements we were given at the start–bank, well, horse–are laid out again, from the opposite angle. Thanks to the clarity of presentation, we fully understand that the old teller is hiding somewhere (probably with his lauded scattergun) and the Cowboy has to make a run for it. But to where?

There are other things to talk about here, such as the homages to Leone (the mention of Tucumcari from For a Few Dollars More, the creaking of the sign recalling Once Upon a Time in the West’s operatic opening). Perhaps the device of the book owes something to William S. and Mary Hart’s Pinto Ben (1919).

But we’re so used to considering the Coens pasticheurs that these allusions don’t interest me as much as the compact finesse of their style.

The rest of this scene will depend on reworking the narrative, auditory, and pictorial elements we’ve already encountered. You could go through that, and indeed the rest of the film, and trace the artisanal precision on display. (Let alone the sheer boldness of certain depth shots.) And the Coens are expert at using visual ideas for humor, as in the later scene when the Cowboy’s horse, browsing for more grass to nibble, stretches his noose-rope to the limit (see top image).

But I think I’ve said enough to indicate how rich an apparently straightforward handling can be. When we speak of careful pacing; when we think of building a scene; when we think of a movie that’s easy and graceful to follow, what Otis Ferguson called “a smooth clear line”–this is what we’re talking about.

There’s plenty of spectacle here, what with landscapes and gun blasts, but there’s another sort of spectacle as well: the quiet virtuosity of craft. You don’t see it that often these days, so when we encounter it, we should acknowledge it.


For another study of the Coens’ technique, see Jim Emerson on No Country for Old Men.

Other blog entries celebrate this sort of precision. See, for example,  this analysis of Panic in the Streets, or the mind-boggling visual engineering of Fritz Lang (here and here). Otis Ferguson’s ideas about smooth cinematic storytelling are discussed in The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture.

My first impressions of Scruggs, after seeing a magnificent big-screen presentation in Venice, are here. Netflix and Annapurna are to be congratulated for backing this movie, but it really deserves a wider theatrical release than it got. At least, please give us a Blu-Ray!

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).

The ten best films of … 1928

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc

Kristin here:

Time for our twelfth annual alternative to the usual list of the ten best films of the current year. Instead, I offer a list from 90 years ago, in part for fun and in part to call attention to some lesser-known classics that are worth discovering. (See here for our lists from 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, and 1927.)

The year 1928 marked the triumphant conclusion of the silent cinema. Very few sound films were made that year, and those that were often included only music, perhaps sound effects, and occasionally some passages of dialogue. Sound was not innovated because the silent cinema was in aesthetic decline. Quite the contrary. It was initially an enhancement that film-industry people assumed would make films more lucrative. In most cases the “talkies” that followed over the next few years were  inferior to their silent predecessors, in part due to the limitations of the new sound technology. Those who opposed the addition of sound could point to the films of 1928 as evidence that the young art form had already reached a peak of perfection that was being tarnished by the addition of recorded sound.

In compiling this year’s list, I came up with eight titles that seemed unquestionably to belong on it. There were another six on a list of possibilities for the final two slots. More than in past years, this year gave me a chance to go back and rewatch films I hadn’t seen in a long time, in some cases since graduate school in the 1970s. Some held up well, some not so much. In a few cases, restorations made since my first viewings revealed new strengths in films I remembered from poor prints.

As always, there are films that have been lost but which plausibly could have filled out the list, most notably Ernest Lubitsch’s The Patriot and F. W. Murnau’s 4 Devils.

First, the eight obvious choices, in no particular order apart from #1.

 

1. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

Not every year includes a film that is not only one of the tops of its year but of all cinematic history as well. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final silent film is one such masterpiece.

Jeanne d’Arc seamlessly blended the stylistic traits of the great artistic film movements of the 1920s, German Expressionism, French Impressionism, and Soviet Montage and made something new and unique of them.

Expressionist designer Hermann Warm’s past credits had included two films that have featured in these lists, Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Die müde Tod. Warm collaborated with French theatrical designer Jean Hugo to create spare, white, off-kilter sets that focus our attention on the spiritual drama. Fast editing conveys subjectivity, as in the scenes where Jeanne is threatened with torture and where the citizens are suppressed when they riot after her execution. Rudolph Maté’s cinematography is startlingly dependent on close shots, particularly on the face of Jeanne, played by Renée Falconetti in one of the most intense and affecting performances in any film.

The steady progression of the action condenses days of trial testimony into one apparently continuous story. Between the sets and this inexorable march toward Jeanne’s martyrdom, there is a sense of both spatial and temporal disorientation that focuses our attention intensely on the central conflict.

Until 1981, prints of Jeanne d’Arc were indistinct and incomplete. A pristine print that restored the original visual quality and detail was found in Norway. (The film was among the early ones to be shot on panchromatic film stock without the actors’ using makeup. The result is a detail of texture in the faces that enhances the performances tremendously.) This print is the basis for the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film.

It’s a film that one can see over and over and still be overwhelmed at the originality and intensity of Dreyer’s vision. We saw it projected last November in Houghton, Michigan, with Richard Eichhorn’s recently composed accompaniment, “Voices of Light,” essentially an oratorio and film score rolled into one. We were somewhat trepidatious about whether the score would be distracting, but it proved very effective. Once again, I was reminded of how great this film is. (“Voices of Light” is an optional accompaniment on the Criterion edition linked above.)

 

2. October

If Jeanne d’Arc gains intensity through a nearly claustrophobic treatment of space, Sergei Eisenstein creates an epic tenth-anniversary celebration of the 1917 Revolution in his October (finished and released a year late).

Perhaps the most extreme example of Soviet Montage’s frequent avoidance of a single protagonist, October cuts among a wide variety of the people involved in the revolution. Workers pull down a statue of the Tsar. Lenin speaks at Finland Station. Kerensky and his officials luxuriate in their Winter Palace headquarters. Sailors wait on the Aurora battleship. Elderly citizens try to protect the specious February Revolution. Female soldiers are summoned to protect the Palace from the attacking Red forces. Looterssteal bottles from the Tsar’s wine-cellar. The result is a sort of patchwork collage of the Revolutionary events leading up to the storming of the Winter Palace and the attack itself, with a slow build to an exultant climax as the Red forces triumph.

Eisenstein was given extraordinary access to the locales of the actual events, so that the vast halls of the Winter Palace and the trappings of royalty (Fabergé eggs and fancy crystal liquor bottles) give a sense of reality rare in fictional reenactments. (There was a time when October was plundered for “documentary” footage of events which had not been recorded by cameras at the time.) He used the settings to ridicule the anti-revolutionary forces, as when young cadets are summoned to help fight the Red forces and are dwarfed by the muscular colossi that line one area of the Palace’s exterior (above).

The film also represents Eisenstein’s experiments with “intellectual montage,” where he attempts to convey ideas strictly through juxtaposing series of images. In belittling the phrase “for God and country,” he tries to reduce the notion of “God” to absurdity by linking a long series of increasingly exotic depictions of deities from different religions.

     

Whether Soviet audiences of the late 1920s could make anything of such passages is impossible to know for sure, but one suspects that some of them would have been incomprehensible. Still, it is exciting to see an artist playing with such possibilities. Certainly the technique lived on, whether from the simple juxtaposition of cackling hens and gossiping women in Lang’s Fury or Jean-Luc Godard’s dense, often impenetrable strings of images, especially in his political films.

October exists in many versions. Beware the heavily cut versions under the title Ten Days That Shook the World. These images were taken from the 2008 release by the Soviet Ruscico company in its “Kino Academia” series.

 

3. Spione

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for Lang’s Metropolis, his other big films of the 1920s–Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Die Nibelungen (Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache), and Spione–seem to me better. Metropolis is perhaps flashier in its design and conception and certainly very entertaining, but it’s also sprawling and implausible and essentially pretty silly.

Spione, on the other hand, has a tight, fast-paced narrative. It’s sort of Dr. Mabuse boiled down to one feature instead of two, and with the villainous Haghi (again played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) as a banker secretly masterminding a spy ring rather than a gambling racket. There are no great “heart vs. hand” themes here–just a rattling good tale stylishly presented. Expressionism has disappeared in favor of a streamlined look (above), and Lang’s editing has sped up since Mabuse.

There’s not much point in detailing the plot here, since it would involve too many spoilers. Discover it for yourself if you haven’t already.

Spione circulated for years in the truncated American release version, which is how I first saw it.  A 2004 Murnau Stiftung restoration of the complete version was a revelation, not only for its more complete narrative but for its superb visual quality. It’s a feast of shots that only Lang could have composed (above and bottom). These frames are from the Eureka! DVD, but the company has subsequently released it in dual format DVD and Blu-ray. Kino Classics has also released it in Blu-ray. The same company has put out a boxed-set of all Lang’s silent films (including Die Pest im Florenz, directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s script). We were given this recently and haven’t had time to explore it, but it looks like a must for any fan of Lang.

 

4. L’Argent

Marcel L’Herbier makes his second and final appearance on this annual list with his epic adaptation of Emile Zola’s L’Argent, updated to contemporary Paris. (See the 1921 entry for El Dorado; I also wrote about the Flicker Alley releases of the restored versions of L’Inhumaine [1923] and  Feu Mathias Pascal [1925].)

Inspired by Abel Gance’s even more epic Napoléon (1927), L’Herbier set out to make a film that would require a large budget. To obtain that, he made a deal for his own company, Cinégraphic, to co-produce with the mainstream studio, Cinéromans. The result contains brightly lit sets of big banks and expensive apartments, as well as shots made in the Paris Bourse over a three-day weekend (above). L’Argent also had an all-star cast. It included Brigitte Helm and Alfred Abel fresh off Metropolis, thanks to the German distributor, UFA. It also meant that Cinéromans tampered with the film, re-editing and shortening it.

Given L’Herbier’s reputation as an aesthete and an avant-garde filmmaker, L’Argent was dismissed by many at the time as a purely commercial endeavor. It remained unseen and hence virtually forgotten for decades. A screening at the New York Film Festival in 1968 surprised and impressed the spectators. The real recognition of the film as a major artwork came, however, in 1973, when critic and theorist Noël Burch published his monograph, Marcel L’Herbier (Paris: Seghers, 1973). In it he hailed L’Argent as a masterpiece, devoting the entire final chapter to an analysis of it. Burch also wrote the entry on L’Herbier for Cinema: A Critical Dictionary: The Major Film-makers ([New York: Viking Press, 1980], Vol. Two, pp. 621-28), edited by Richard Roud; again Burch devoted  much of his text to L’Argent.

I have expressed my reservations about L’Herbier’s films in earlier entries, but for me L’Argent is the big exception: stylistically daring and narratively engaging. Perhaps adapting Zola led L’Herbier to make a more conventionally suspenseful film than usual. Referring to the French Impressionist movement in general, Burch wrote, “L’Argent undoubtedly marks the end of the period of experimentation, since it is itself the culmination of all these experiments–not just L’Herbier’s, but those of the first avant-garde and even, to a certain extent, of the entire Western cinema (with the exception of the Russians)” (Roud, pp. 624-25).

The story involves two powerful bankers who spar for control of one large bank’s standing on the stock market. One, the villainous Saccard, aims to send a famous aviator on a perilous flight across the Atlantic to promote his bank’s oil holders in Latin America–while seducing the aviator’s wife during his absence. The other, Gundermann, tries to thwart him by buying up shares of his rival’s bank and then selling them to cause a drop in the bank’s value.

In portraying all the complex machinations going on, L’Herbier adopts a restless camera, frequently moving among and around characters rather than following them. The most striking example comes early on, when an underling comes to visit Gundermann and waits in an odd, unfurnished room decorated with a map of the world. As he looks around, the camera circles him until a servant unexpectedly appears through a door and escorts him in.

  

   

The odd distortions in these shot exemplify another cinematographic technique that was in increasing use during the late 1920s: conspicuous wide-angle lenses. On the left below, Saccard is nearly dwarfed by one of his telephones, while on the right the scene of the aviator’s departure makes the plane’s wings jut into the foreground and extend far into the background.

  

There are some subjective moments, carrying forward the tradition of French Impressionism. Yet for the most part the restless camera, the distorting lenses, the odd angles (see the top image of this section), and the unusual crosscutting are not subjective, which makes this an atypical Impressionist film. Instead they suggest the unnatural, disconcerting world of capitalism, of money and those who struggle over it. Perhaps by minimizing character psychology and striving to represent more abstract concepts, L’Herbier briefly carried Impressionism to a more political–and dramatic–level.

In 1980, L’Argent was released on DVD by Eureka! in the UK as a “Special 80th Anniversary 2 x Disc Edition.” The source material was a beautiful fine-grain positive struck from the original negative, with something close to L’Herbier’s original intended cut. It includes Jean Dréville’s Autour de “L’argent,” a 40-minute making-of (surely one of the first of its type), recorded during the original production. The DVD is still in print and is, as far as I know, the only release of this restored version.

 

5. Steamboat Bill Jr.

This was the first Keaton film I ever saw, and I immediately became a fan. (The director is credited as Charles Reisner, but we all know that Keaton was primarily responsible for the direction of his films of this period.) It’s not as good as The General (what is?), but it beats out The Cameraman, Keaton’s other feature of this year, by a nose.

Keaton plays the dandified son of a gruff steamboat owner. He returns home from school and gets put into working clothes by his father, whose deteriorating steamboat is competing for tourists with a larger, newer boat. Naturally young Bill is in love with the daughter of the other steamboat’s owner. The action mainly consists of Bill, Sr. trying to prevent Bill, Jr. from clandestinely meeting his girlfriend.

There’s lots of humor along the way to the climax, in which a huge storm hits the town. It’s a classic sequence of Keaton pulling variant gags on the situation of being in a high wind (above) and surrounded by collapsing buildings and flying objects. Perhaps Keaton’s most famous, and dangerous, gag comes when he pauses in front of a house’s façade, which tears loose and falls straight down on him–with a window sparing him from being crushed.

   

Reportedly the top of the frame missed his head by six inches, but we know Keaton was a little crazy in how far he would go for a laugh.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the last film Keaton made with his own production company. The Cameraman was made at MGM, and though it is very good, thereafter his career slowly declined after his move to that studio. This will, alas, be the last Keaton film represented in this series.

 

6. The Circus

Coincidentally, The Circus was the first Chaplin film I ever saw. I happened to take my first film course at the point where Chaplin had re-released The Circus, accompanied by a new musical score he composed himself. (Skip, if you can, the added opening, with Chaplin singing a maudlin song over an excerpt from later in the film.) The re-release was 1969, though I must have seen it in 1970 at Iowa City’s art-house, the Iowa. (Also coincidentally, my father managed the Iowa when he was at the university there on the GI bill in the years immediately after World War II. He was dating my mother at that point, and there she saw Day of Wrath. Hence when David and I became a couple in the mid-1970s, she understood what the book he was currently working on was about. But I digress.)

The print I saw at the Iowa was pristine.

Up to that point, The Circus had been unavailable to most viewers, though I suspect bootleg prints circulated among collectors. It’s among the least known of Chaplin’s features, and it’s still hard to see. There’s a Park Circus DVD available in England, consisting of the re-release version equally in mint condition; that’s the one I’ve taken these illustrations from. More recently the film has been released as a Blu-ray/DVD combination. There is also an Artificial Eye Blu-ray available, which gets high marks from DVD Beaver. I haven’t seen this and don’t know whether it’s the re-release version or the original.

Chaplin plays his Little Tramp character, introduced wandering around the sideshow attractions near a circus. Mistaken for a pickpocket, he flees among the booths, occasioning a brilliantly staged triple scene in a hall of mirrors. When he first enters it, he is alone and struggles to figure out how to exit. A short time later, pursued by the pickpocket, the two stumble into the room, and a comic chase ensues (above). Finally, a cop is chasing Charlie, who tries to confuse him by luring him into the mirror maze. It’s a set of gags that builds, with the figures popping unexpectedly into the foreground when we had assumed that the real actors were in the depth of the shot. Each scene in the maze is handled in a single take from the same camera setup.

The flight from the cop leads the Tramp into a failing circus cursed with a group of highly unfunny clowns. Charlie inadvertently and unwittingly becomes a sensation for his antics, including his invasion of a magician’s act.

The cruel circus owner hires him, supposedly as a prop man, and the show becomes a huge success. Charlie falls for the maltreated daughter of the owner, who in turn becomes smitten by a handsome tightrope walker. Trying to impress the daughter, the Tramp goes on when the tightrope walker fails to show up one day. The result is a classic extended scene of Charlie on the high wire, executing a series of comic moments before the whole thing is topped off by a group of monkeys who escape and end up swarming over him as he struggles to keep his balance.

I hope now that The Circus is becoming more available, it can takes its place beside Chaplin’s other features.

[December 29: Thanks to Valerio Greco for alerting me that a restoration of the original version of The Circus is underway in Bologna, to be released by The Criterion Collection.]

 

7. The Docks of New York

I’ve already written about this, Josef von Sternberg’s final silent feature, in 2010 on the occasion of The Criterion Collection’s release of it alongside Underworld and The Last Command in an essential box-set. The six films von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich after she came to Hollywood generally get more attention than any of his silents. If I were allowed three of his films for a proverbial desert-island situation, I would take Underworld, The Docks of New York, and Shanghai Express.

Docks is a concentrated dose of the atmospheric cinematography the director is famous for, in this case employed to create the grungy settings of the film. In the opening, the oil and sweat on the stokers’ bodies (above) is palpable, and the fog, handing nets and lanterns, and smoke of the dockside sets establish the sleezy, hopeless milieu that drives the heroine to attempt suicide.

Apart from the impressive visuals, the film gains much of its appeal from its two central performances. Betty Compson manages to gain our considerable sympathy for “the Girl” in a remarkably short time, and it has to–the film is only 75 minutes long and she spends her first onscreen appearances unconscious after her near-drowning. George Bancroft, known mostly for supporting roles in westerns, came into his own as the protagonists of three von Sternberg films–including Thunderbolt but not The Last Command. Here he again plays the big lug with a well-hidden heart of gold.

Unfortunately the von Sternberg silents set from The Criterion Collection is out of print. Track it down somewhere or hope for a Blu-ray release.

[December 29: Peter Becker of The Criterion Collection tells me that, although a Blu-ray release is not yet scheduled, there is a good possibility that it will happen.]

 

8. Storm over Asia

After Mother and The End of St. Petersburg, Storm over Asia (the original title translates as “The Heir of Genghis Khan”) is the last of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s three great silent features. Unlike the first two, it is set in Mongolia. The Soviet industry officials were concerned to portray the Revolution in the various other countries that along with Russia made up the Soviet Union.

The story takes place during the Civil War years that followed the Revolution. A young Mongolian peasant tries to sell a valuable fox fur at a trading post, but the British dealer cheats him. The peasant strikes him and is forced to flee into the mountains, where he joins the Red partisans fighting the British imperialists. (This does not follow historical fact, since the British occupied parts of Siberia and Tibet, but not Mongolia. In reality, for a brief period in 1921, White Russian forces drove out the Chinese from Mongolia. In response, the Red Army moved in, supporting the Mongols in their quest for independence.)

The British shoot the protagonist but discover on him a document that seems to identify him as the heir of Genghis Khan. So they set him up as a puppet ruler in order to control the local population. Eventually he rebels and leads a storm-like assault that defeats his oppressors.

Storm over Asia uses many of the Soviet Montage devices that by 1928 were fairly conventional. For instance, there are many rapid, rhythmic alternations of shots. When the fur trader reacts angrily against the protagonist’s resistance to being cheated, brief shots of his angry call for troops to capture the young man alternate with shots of a drum being beaten. The final “storm” battle uses rapid montage as well. There is also the usual visual symbolism mocking the enemy, as exemplified by the empty officer’s uniform in the shot above.

   

Early Montage films tried to do away with a single central character in favor of a focus on the masses. October, for example, has no main hero. In Storm over Asia, though the story arc is definitely crafted around the Mongol’s growth into a rebellious leader of his people. We will see Eisenstein opting for a central identification figure in Old and New (1929).

My illustrations were taken from the old Image release, apparently no longer available. The Blackhawk print has been released by Flicker Alley.

 

Those are the eight films I put on my “top” list. I thought of stopping there, but the number ten is sacred for such lists, plus part of the point here is to throw a spotlight on lesser-known films.

I gathered a second group of films that might claim the remaining two slots. These were mostly films that were already hallowed classics when I was in graduate school: King Vidor’s The Crowd, Jean Epstein’s La chute de la maison Usher, René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat, and Victor Seastrom’s The Wind. Beyond that there were the more recently rediscovered and much admired film, Paul Fejos’ Lonesome and the still little-known The House on Trubnoya, by Boris Barnet.

Oddly, the three American films on this list have some distinct similarities. The Crowd and Lonesome are surprisingly parallel. Lonesome follows two lonely people in New York finding each other and falling in love in one hectic day. The Crowd starts with a somewhat similar situation–both even involve dates at Coney Island–but follows the couple through several years of happy times and misfortune during their marriage. The Wind is less realistic, dealing with a sensitive young woman who travels to the west and, plagued by the incessant wind and a real or imagined rape, slips into madness. All three strive to reject the conventional Hollywood romance. Unfortunately all three, however admirable for most of their plots, lead to abrupt, implausible happy endings.

I saw The Italian Straw Hat in my graduate-school days and found it remarkably unfunny, given its reputation. Returning to it now, I still find the first two-thirds largely devoid of humor. (The dance scenes during the wedding party seem interminable, with no little vignettes or gags among the characters at all.) The last portion picks up, but on the whole it’s hardly the model French farce it is held to be. Certainly Clair made a leap forward in skill and sophistication in his early sound films. (Les deux timides, also 1928, is no doubt a better film.)

The Italian Straw Hat probably owes its classic standing in part to the fact that the Museum of Modern Art acquired and circulated it early on. Curator and critic Iris Barry adored it and lauded it in a 1940 essay (reproduced in the booklet included in the Flicker Alley release.) I wonder how many others of the films considered classics have become so because they were among the few silents available in the decades before the 1960s, when film studies and archival curatorship began to be more comprehensive. Knowing the range of international films we know now, would these films have become quite so highly respected above others? I found myself reluctant simply to fill out my list with old standards. The choice was difficult.

Wanting to avoid carrying on the older canon at the expense of more recently rediscovered films for at least one of my films on this list, I always try to include a little-known but worthy film here. This year there is only one (if you don’t count L’Argent), and that is Barnet’s The House on Trubnoya.

The final slot goes to Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I have always considered this a somewhat tedious film, but the restoration of the film’s full length and improved visual quality in the Epstein box-set released in 2014 by La Cinémathèque Française makes it far more interesting and effective.

So here is the completion of my list.

 

9. The House on Trubnoya

Boris Barnet was a member of Lev Kuleshov’s school in the early years after the revolution. He played a major role in Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, and he began directing films on his own with the wonderful serial, Miss Mend. He made more films, and some others may show up in our coming lists. Right now, there’s The House on Trubnoya.

The House on Trubnoya is included in Flicker Alley’s major DVD set, “Landmarks of Early Soviet Film.” (I can’t believe that we didn’t feature this on our blog, but it includes eight major Soviet films of the silent era.) The copy on the back of the box describes Barnet’s film as “often described as one of the best Soviet silent comedies.” I’m not sure that’s a major distinction, though Kote Miqaberidze’s Georgian satire My Grandmother (1929; available on DVD and Fandor’s Amazon streaming site) is quite funny, as is Ivan Pyriev’s The State Functionary (aka The Civil Servant; not, as far as I know, available on home video).  But The House on Trubnoya is my favorite among the comedies I’ve seen.

It’s a satire on middle-class citizens’ maltreatment of their servants, though it doesn’t become Soviet-style preachy until well into the story. The film begins by setting up the titular house (on a well-known street in Moscow). We see it via its staircase and landings in the morning, rendered in a vertical view that looks startlingly like an iPhone image (above). It also recalls the seven levels in the staircase elevator shot climbing upward to 7th Heaven, though who knows whether Barnet had seen that by the time he planned his film. The residents of the various apartment emerge to use the communal stairway as a junkyard and work area, dumping trash, splitting firewood, beating curtains, and generally abusing the rules of the building, as one conscientious young Party member points out.

We are introduced to a barber, whose lazy wife makes him do all the chores. Then suddenly we’re with a professional driver with his own car. Just as suddenly we’re watching a peasant girl chase her runaway duck through a maze of traffic and nearly being hit by a tram. As the driver brakes hastily and jumps out to see if she’s hurt, there’s a freeze-frame.

A narrating title declares, “”But wait, we forgot to tell yo how the duck ended up in Moscow.” Reverse motion leads to another title, “A day earlier.”  A flashback to the heroine’s comic departure from a train station in the middle of nowhere shows the very uncle whom she is going to Moscow to visit arriving at the station just after she has left. Finding herself lost in Moscow with her duck, the heroine finds employment as a put-upon maid serving the barber and living in the house on Trubnoya. Her political awakening and the rehabilitation of the House on Trubnoya form the rest of the plot.

The House on Trubnoya is, in short, an imaginative, clever, and funny Soviet Montage film. Barnet’s other films are worth exploring as well. Check out The Girl with the Hatbox from 1927; it didn’t make last year’s top items, but it was on the long list.

 

10. La Chute de la maison Usher

Jean Epstein, who was probably the finest of the French Impressionist directors, has figured in these ten best lists before, in 1923 for Cœur fidèle, in 1924 for the little-known L’affiche, and 1927 for his masterly La Glace à trois faces.

I have long considered La Chute de la maison Usher interesting for its use of German Expressionist-inspired sets, but the fuzzy, incomplete prints that for decades were the only available versions made it difficult to enjoy. The restored version on the complete DVD set of Epstein’s works, which I discussed here, makes it far more interesting.

Taking its slim plot from Poe, the film follows a visit by an elderly man to the isolated castle of his old friend, Roderick Usher. Usher is painting a portrait of his beloved wife, but it is soon made clear that each time he presses the brush to the canvas, a little of her life is drained away–though the local doctor is mystified by her decline.

The film retains some of the traits of Impressionism, as when Madeline’s reaction to the effects of her husband’s painting are rendered in a superimposition of negative and positive images of her face.

The film has a minimal plot, but its focus is largely on experimenting in creating an eerie atmosphere. Shots of books falling in slow motion from their shelves, of curtains blowing in a cold wind that seems perpetually to invade the house, of frogs copulating in a nearby pond, and of the Expressionist-derived decors contribute less to a linear plot than to a mood of undefined menace.

The castle’s exterior is represented by obvious cardboard models, which tends to undermine the effect created by the interiors. The cheapness of these models is particularly noticeable in the climactic scene of the destruction of the house. This is unfortunate, but one must give Epstein credit for having done so much with so little.

This will be Epstein’s final appearance in our “Ten Best” lists, but I would like to call attention to his other 1928 film, Finis Terrae, the first of what the Epstein box-set collects as his “Poémes Bretons.” These are less Impressionistic, though Finis Terrae has a few impressive subjective shots. They are more realistic and poetic, largely involving the sea.

 

As I wrote at the beginning, 1928 was part of the period when the American industry was on the cusp of making sound standard in its films. Other national cinemas followed at various paces. One film that did not quite make my top-ten list demonstrates what must have worried film theorists and critics–and no doubt some filmmakers.

The restored version of Lonesome includes some dialogue sequences in a film otherwise accompanied by recorded music. There is an enormous contrast between the silent and sound footage. The story is largely told visually, but the dialogue scenes, clearly done in a sound-proof studio, are delivered in a stilted fashion by the young actors who are otherwise so casual and lively. The prospect of whole films being made in that fashion clearly disturbed lovers of films like La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and Steamboat Bill, Jr. Watching Lonesome gives a dramatic insight into this slice of cinema history–a period that fortunately lasted only a few years as the technology improved and as filmmakers increasingly managed to make sound films that were just as imaginative, artistic, and engrossing as their silent predecessors.

 


January 6, 2019: Thanks to Docks of New York fan Tony Lucia for a correction on that section.

 

Spione

Pockets of Utopia: TRUE STORIES

True Stories (1986).

DB here:

Fall of 1986 saw two helpings of twisty Americana from a pair of Davids. Lynch’s Blue Velvet was released in September, and Byrne’s True Stories followed less than a month later. In a year dominated by the Goliath known as Top Gun, the Davids stood little chance. As of January 1987, Blue Velvet had made $3.5 million domestically, while True Stories, on a budget of $5 million, earned only $1.2 million, less than The Toxic Avenger. But both acquired cult followings, especially on videotape.

In the decades since, Blue Velvet has received luxurious DVD and Blu-ray treatment. True Stories, however, wasn’t well-served by Warners’ offhand DVD transfer. Now the Criterion people have given us a lustrous Blu-ray edition of another movie that shows that the 1980s weren’t all big hair, padded shoulders, and John Hughes pity parties. This will quickly become a fetish object for the vast True Stories cult. Visit us way down in the codicil for details.

This movie has been a favorite of mine since I saw it in 1986. Kristin gave me a 16mm print for a long-ago birthday. I’ve wanted to write about it for years, and the Criterion release provides a nifty opportunity. (Full disclosure: I’ve done work for the company. Fuller disclosure: I happily paid for this Blu-ray.)

But I realize that music is so ingredient to the sneaky pleasure of this film that I need expert help. Hence this entry will be followed by one by Jeff Smith. Jeff, as you probably know, is our collaborator on Film Art: An Introduction and our FilmStruck/Criterion series Observations on Film Art, as well as being a frequent contributor to the blog. His deep knowledge of music will yield an entry you’re sure to find interesting.

 

Many true stories

In the film’s publicity Byrne was at pains to claim that he drew the narrative material from tabloid articles he collected over years of touring with Talking Heads. These clippings supply the initial characterization of the lovelorn Louis Fyne, the Lazy Woman lolling in bed, and the Culvers who never speak directly to each other. Other aspects of the film come from fringe culture more generally, like conspiracy theories and extraterrestrial communication. (The Computer Guy sends signals “up”; in a cut scene available on the Criterion release, he’s transmitting New Age music to be picked up by aliens.)

At the end of the published screenplay, Byrne admits that he used these and other faits divers as inspiration more than as well-documented material. Is this stuff true? “I don’t even really care. . . . It seems to give the movie an extra little bit of excitement to think that maybe it could be true.” The dossier he collected includes not just weird anecdotes but articles about prefab architecture, the computer industry, the malling of America, and other social developments. These are just as important “true stories” as any tales from The Weekly World News.

Do all these stories add up to A Story? Sounding a bit like Wim Wenders, Byrne notes: “Movies are a combination of sounds and pictures, and stories are a trick to get you to keep paying attention.” So he began with drawings, which he posted on walls and kept shuffling around. Eventually two screenwriters, Beth Henley and Steven Tobolowsky, pulled a plot out of them, but Byrne went on to fragment that considerably. The result shifts between episodic and classically plotted cinema.

True Stories has a clear time frame: four days, from Wednesday to Saturday night in and around the fictitious town of Virgil, Texas. This period is followed by an indeterminate gap, ending in epilogue showing a wedding and the Narrator’s departure. The whole tale is framed, beginning and end, by the solfège song of a little girl on the road. Jonathan Demme told Byrne that a movie needs a clock, so the plot creates a soft deadline, the variety show on Saturday.

We get something like a tandem story line. First, there’s Louis Fyne’s quest for a woman to marry. More casually, we explore everyday life among the locals. Mostly these revelations come through the wanderings of the Narrator, a lanky outsider dressed in cowboy clothes nobody else wears and possessed of hesitant curiosity. At times, without his guidance, we get other glimpses of town life, such as the habits of the Lazy Woman and the divination powers of her servant Roberto. There are also some very brief vignettes on the margin. The big show ties up the romance line of action when Louis’s stirring performance of his song, “People Like Us,” rouses the Lazy Woman to propose to him. Despite Byrne’s desire to avoid “too much story,” I think most viewers are grateful for a fairly tidy plot that helps us engage with these offbeat characters.

 

Our Town (not)

Because of the film tries to survey small-town life, it’s been compared to Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and it seems that Byrne considered that one model. Still, the differences are pretty important.

Our Town concentrates on two families in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. People live close together and duck into each other’s kitchens and stop to gossip in front yards. But in Virgil there’s mostly no there there. That town is seen chiefly in empty night vistas, lit by blinking traffic lights. Only the parade seems to energize the fairly sparse main drag.

Virgil is hollowed out; all the big stores relocated to the mall. This is the new Main Street, the Narrator explains, and even the music club sits among boutiques and chain stores. Elsewhere, people’s homes homes squat in splendid isolation, like the Lazy Woman’s mansion, or in half-finished developments pasted against a desolate horizon. People have to reinvent themselves in new spaces, we’re told; the cloistered community of New England hasn’t been rebuilt in the exurbs of the New Southwest.

Hence the importance of driving scenes, of which the film has some of the most beautiful in all of cinema. The Narrator cruises the flat, baked landscape, the sky reflected gorgeously in the sheen of his red convertible. Without a car, you can’t join the community, and the Sesquicentennial Parade boasts its share of customized transport, from the Low Riders to the Red Mustang Shriners.

Our Town builds its action out of work and family routines, ceremonies marking marriage and death. The pathetic fate of Simon Stimson, the church musician, warns of the perils of solitude. The romance of George and Emily shows that marriage at least provides companionship and at most nourishes devotion. Across three days separated by years (and with a flashback to a fourth day), Wilder tries to put this entire mundane rhythm into a cosmic context, a cycle of birth and death that should teach us to appreciate each precious instant of life.

So too, in its way, does True Stories. But here the work routines are post-Fordist: Earl Culver explains that people don’t differentiate between working and not working. He’s thinking of techies like the Computer Guy, who ransacks the mall for equipment to tinker with at home. But the blue-collar employees get into the 24/7 spirit. They make their day on the assembly line as casual as lunchtime, talking about love and money and quirks, even crooning to one another. Louis in the Clean Room can spare a moment for a monologue about his love life. At the bar and the mall, the same workers cross paths. In Greater Virgil, leisure is an extension of the break room.

The only family we see in detail are the Culvers, who under a surface perkiness play out rigid roles (and the parents don’t talk to one another). The Cute Woman and the Lying Woman seem to want more, as both meet Louis on dates, but neither can really break out of her obsession (smiling, lying). Even Louis’s eventual mate, the Lazy Woman, gets out of bed only to phone him. After the wedding he has joined her under the covers, presumably to watch TV forever.

Death haunts Our Town, and the same goes for True Stories in its original form. In the screenplay and footage shot, the Cute Woman dies during the parade (overcome by the sweetness emanating from the babies on display). The film’s final scene would have shown her funeral, where the Narrator shares thoughts with Roberto. Byrne deleted her death and burial as too sad, thereby also losing her melancholy Molly-Bloomish bed monologue. (These scenes are in the supplemental material as analog video; below are production stills.)

     

In a way, the burial would have rounded things off. While Louis’s quest for a wife is rewarded, the Narrator’s inquiry into Virgil’s not-so-wild life could have ended with his discovery of a death from pathetic obsession. It would have been marked by the Lying Woman’s pointless lie: “She was my best friend. . . . We had so much in common.” The comic grotesque would have become the pathetic grotesque.

Excising this scene leaves a gap. After Louis’s wedding (which the Narrator doesn’t attend), the Narrator is seen simply driving off and reflecting on why he likes to forget. Denying us a farewell between the two characters who have built up a friendship in the course of the film, expelling the foreign visitor back to the road and the horizon, Byrne gives us another flavor of sadness. Their encounter was as transitory as everything else in this post-Our Town landscape. And as we’ll see, the Narrator’s meditation as he drives off carries a burden as important as the postcard addressed to “The Mind of God” in Our Town.

 

Virgil’s guide

Our Town’s Stage Manager is omniscient. He knows everything about Grover’s Corners, past, present, and future. (He predicts the death dates of some people as he introduces them to us.) He indeed stage-manages the action, calling on experts and even summoning George and Emily to reenact their courtship. Yet although he can interact with characters, he can stand outside the story and address us directly. His presence comes to seem comfortable and reliable. He’s an all-controlling guide—at least until the climax, when Emily takes over the narration and tries to return to the world of the living.

The Narrator of True Stories doesn’t stage-manage anything. He starts out omniscient, lecturing to us about the history of Texas and the occasion for Virgil’s celebration. But once he steps through the slit in the screen, he mostly becomes a naïve, passive presence. He quizzes locals as they deliver monologues, and he seems politely puzzled by their outrageous claims. His dude-ranch getup and geeky silhouette make him almost childlike. He marvels at all the nicknames for highway drivers and is staggered when he sees a four-car garage. (“Who can say it isn’t beautiful?”) The film is almost over when he assures us that this is not a rental car: “This is privately owned.” Who ever thought to ask? And now that you mention it, who does own it?

True, the Narrator issues grown-up pronouncements about the Varicorp chip-assembly plant, but it’s in the bland tones of a PR brochure. He gives us stray factoids like a schoolboy proud of memorization. Even his pronunciation (“special-ness”) suggests either ignorance or awkward efforts to be cute. He might be the incarnation of the voice in one of Byrne’s Knee Plays (“Social Studies”):

I thought that if I ate the food of the area I was visiting

That I might assimilate the point of view of the people there

As if the point of view was somehow in the food….

When shopping at the supermarket

I felt a great desire to walk off with someone else’s groceries

So I could study them at length

And study their effects on me

What sort of narrative authority is this?

A sort, I think, we find in the calculated vacancy of post-Pop art culture. It’s the blankness of (Texan) Robert Wilson’s po-faced theatre spectacles, where counting off numbers and metronomic gesturing suggest behavior “on the spectrum.” It’s Jeff Koons, maker of gilded Michael Jacksons, saying, “Removing judgments lets you feel, of course, freer, and you have acceptance of things, and everything’s in play, and it lets you go further.” It’s above all Warhol, who perfected affirmative blankness in art and life.

I’m not more intelligent than I appear. . . . The world fascinates me. It’s so nice, whatever it is. I approve of what everybody does.

It’s an artistic strategy that invokes what Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization” and Brecht called “estrangement.”  The aim is to make us perceive ordinary life afresh, without the preconceptions we normally bring to it.

For Wilson, repetition and abstraction in the glowing stage box resensitize us to the unique signatures a body traces in space. For Warhol, and his decadent successor Koons, what gets “estranged” is contemporary mass culture, images of Elvis or soup cans or electric chairs or achingly cute balloon bunnies. We’re not far from Romanticism’s cult of the innocent eye, except that we’re not achieving a lyrical insight into nature but rather the thrill of seeing kitsch reveal elusive beauty and unexpected emotion. (I think that this is the point of Tati’s Play Time as well.)

Defamiliarization was of course on Thornton Wilder’s agenda too. Our Town’s bare-bones staging and breaking of the fourth wall aimed at refreshing our perception of stereotypes of rural life. The local-color writers before him had either celebrated small towns (Cather, My Ántonia) or condemned them (Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio), but neither had given them such archetypal poignancy. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River, we might say, gets redeemed by cosmic purpose.

Like others in the New York art scene, what Byrne sought to defamiliarize was American commodity culture. He had done it throughout the Talking Heads’s songbook, but with a sour, somewhat superior tone. That doesn’t entirely vanish here, I think, as in the moments of satire during Earl Culver’s dinnertime monologue, which becomes a pitch for letting a hundred Silicon Valleys bloom.

Such mockery is aimed mainly at corporate culture, while the community as a whole gets treated with a more grave affection. Does the sobriety check in the shadow of a Stop’n’Go (up top of today’s entry) owe something to Robert Wilson’s gestural tableaux? The gravity also stems from the planimetric framings, recalling not only Wilson but Walker Evans too.

     

     

These angles defamiliarize the landscape of exurbia, and their slightly comic monumentality will be echoed by Wes Anderson and other filmmakers of the 1990s.

As for the affection: I think the gee-whiz acceptance of commodity culture we find in Warhol and Koons becomes something different in True Stories. The good folk of Grover’s Corners, cradled among kin and friends, don’t need to assert their individuality, but the Virgilians define themselves by comparison shopping—and rebranding. True Stories is in part an appreciation of how people creatively remake all the crap pumped out for them to consume.

 

Amateur virtuosity

None of them seemed to feel alienated. They seemed to respond to mass culture in a very individual way—like, they take a prefabricated house and do something odd with it on the inside. I guess I was sort of proposing that here are these other possibilities—and maybe it was also a little bit of someone from New York imagining these little pockets of Utopia out there.

Near Spring Green, Wisconsin, sits the House on the Rock, a wondrous homage to the maxim “Too much is never enough.” In one hall a pneumatically controlled orchestra plays while you wander among a brewery, a pipe organ, and display cases, while above you hangs the engine of a whaling ship. With its carousels, dollhouses, Titanic souvenirs, and calliopes, welling out of the darkness in spotlights and glowing primary colors, the House on the Rock shows that if you plunge deeply enough into kitsch you come out the other side with something sublime, or at least surreal.

True Stories is in part about that plunge into tackiness, steered by a very 80s concern with the intersection of high and low. Can you endow kitsch with an avant-garde disorientation? Can you infuse avant-garde art with the good dirty fun of kitsch?

Byrne tries. The fashion show blurs the line between inspired tastelessness (a wedding dress like a wedding cake) and PoMo gallery art, the grass leisurewear provided by Bill Harding of Chicago. In the Criterion Making-of, Byrne insists that Adelle Lutz’s costumes are only one step beyond what you could find in Sears Roebuck of the day.

The Red Mustang Shriners, genuine as can be, constitute straightfaced populist eccentricity in a House-on-the-Rock vein. So do many of the variety acts, such as the Apache Belles and the eerie Shadow Dancers. And Mr. Tucker’s bungalow is actually the home of artist Willard Watson (aka The Texas Kid); footage of his encounter with Pops Staples is featured in the Criterion disc. This is another way the title levels with us: Many of the disconcerting images and sounds we encounter are as true as any story.

Some of the moments present authentic local music, like the accordion number in the Tex-Mex club where Ramon performs. Yet more often Byrne navigates the meeting of high and low in a striking way. While artworld-based Performance Art was going mainstream in the 1980s, Byrne starts from the other end and gives highbrow legitimacy to outsider performance art.

Virgil’s routines and ceremonies become occasions for impromptu performance. Instead of a traditional Happy Hour dance competition, there’s a lip-sync contest (“Wild, Wild Life”), with performers using their body to spin associations off the lyrics. A fashion show gets its own catwalk waltz, and a sermon on conspiracy theories becomes a stomping gospel tune. (It provocatively incorporates video clips assaulting the blue-sky tech promises of Earl Culver and Varicorp.) The Talking Heads music video “Love for Sale” absorbed TV commercials; now the film makes the video part of the flow of ads and programs on the Lazy Woman’s monitor. In Virgil, a parade can be a variety card, and a talent show can be as off-kilter as a string of pieces in a SoHo loft.

Amateurism isn’t necessarily clumsy; it has its own virtuosity. Why shouldn’t auctioneering be a sort of rap? Why shouldn’t children enact a love story with ventriloquist dummies? Why can’t people on the prairie come up with mysterious shadow choreography? At the climax, Louis is able to channel his search for love into a country and western song that he belts out with a confidence we haven’t seen from him before.

“Ideally,” Robert Wilson told an interviewer, “what we’d like to do onstage is to present ourselves.” The songs in True Stories, Byrne said, aimed to

give relatively placid people—like you or me—a justification for being vibrant and full of energy, for expressing themselves and exposing their insides to everyone else in the town.

Yet an audience isn’t necessary. Late at night a businessman dances alone at his office window, and a carpenter takes the empty stage to sing an aria. At the beginning and end, on the endless road, a little girl murmurs a song and makes mesmeric passes at nothing. She expresses herself in a fusion of naïve art and Downtown minimalism: It’s at once childish warbling and a Meredith Monk tune.

 

Our (favorite) town

That song stands out as a sort of primal beginning of all the film’s performances. It becomes the orchestral underpinning of the Narrator’s introduction to Texas history and his first trip down the expressway. The same spirit emerges in the 4H kids’ spontaneous brick ballet “Hey Now.” Childhood, it seems, is media-free, back to the basics of bodies and castoff noisemakers.

The kids’ direct expression is starkly different from the media-enabled activity we see among the grownups. One character, Ramon, is associated with radio; he thinks that each of us transmits our feelings on wavelengths he can pick up. Naturally, he’s written a song about it. The Lazy Woman, on the other hand, is identified with television, her main contact with the outside world.

Mr. Tucker is an LP aficionado; the Computer Guy works on early digital sound. Documentary film is represented as a collage of Puzzling Evidence. Print media surface as the sensational tabloids read by the teenagers.

The sensational stories in the tabs, the wellspring of Byrne’s film, shape the Lying Woman’s confabulations. Grover’s Corners was never plugged in to the flow of information like this.

All these factors—the mix of avant-garde and down-home artmaking, the nutty byways of populist performance art, people responding to a multimedia environment—heighten the effect of estrangement. The film’s opening montage has an arch knowingness, anachronistically mixing Raquel Welch cheesecake with dinosaur lore. Call it comic defamiliarization. But things grow more sincerely felt as we go along, so that the crazy grotesques of Virgil become not so crazy or grotesque after all. Many are waiting on love.

The Narrator, a tenderfoot in a Stetson, is curious and unflappable. His puzzled acceptance of everything that comes his way encourages us to forget what we think we know about hayseeds, the sovereign state of Texas, high-tech industry, suburban sprawl, prefab buildings, and dorky parades. The last we hear of him, he’s already deleting the file, but I doubt we can.

Well, I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks, the color of white paper, the way people walk, doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things any more. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

In the film’s final moments, the Narrator’s confession of Warholian passivity turns into a defense of defamiliarization that could have come from Shklovsky. “Art,” he wrote, “exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” We can perceive true stories only by stripping away our preconceptions.

Byrne the creator has suggested that the film allowed him to find his way back to emotions beyond comfortable irony. “It was hard to go around not liking everything.” We can debate a long time why the end of Louis’s song, “We don’t want freedom/ We don’t want justice/ We just want someone to love,” both shocks and satisfies us. (Today, a Deplorable would change only the lyric’s last word.) But as an expression of sheer self-presentation, it’s hard not to sympathize with this Texas Bachelor.

Although the Narrator can forget, we don’t have to. According to the final song, we can remember this as our favorite town. With this film, Byrne makes sentiment safe for hipster consumption.


Working with Byrne and DP Ed Lachman, producer Kim Hendrickson and her team have supervised a brilliant 4K edition, the first time the film has been presented in 5.1 sound. They’ve included some precious material culled from new interviews, period footage, and excised scenes. There are also informative essays by Rebecca Bental, Joe Nick Patoski, Spalding Gray, and Byrne. The making-of is the best example of the genre I’ve ever seen, and the documentary on Tibor Kalman is quite informative on Byrne’s visual imagination. (The Criterion cover art is one of Kalman’s rejected designs.) One bonus short is a piece of analog video shot behind the scenes; another, by Bill and Turner Ross, is a contemporary return to the places shown in the film.

The film was shot full frame, to be masked in projection; some video versions displayed it at 1.37:1, others at 1.85:1, which is the one presented here. Kim was assisted by technical director Lee Kline, and audio supervisor Ryan Hullings. Also very helpful in the restoration and supplements was Christina Patoski, who organized a large portion of the original production. Many participants supplied photos and notes from preproduction.

Most of my quotations from David Byrne come from the Introduction in the book of the film: True Stories (New York: Penguin, 1986). Byrne’s remark about pockets of Utopia is quoted in Michiko Kakutani, “David Byrne Turns His Head to Movies,” New York Times (5 October 1986), 92.

The Warhol passage comes from Gretchen Berg, “Nothing to Lose: Interview with Andy Warhol,” Cahiers du cinéma in English no. 10 (1967), 40-42. The Robert Wilson quotation comes from Calvin Tomkins, “Time to Think,” in Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images, 2d ed. (Harper and Row, 1980), 84. The Shklovsky quotation is in “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marian J. Reis (University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 12. I say more about Shklovsky and narrative here.

True Stories.

David Bordwell
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