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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

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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

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Archive for the 'Independent American film' Category

Un-Marry me a little: MARRIAGE STORY and LITTLE WOMEN

Little Women (2019).

DB here:

For a while The Blog conducted an annual ritual of analyzing storytelling techniques in year-end releases. I wrote entries from early in 2016, in 2017, and in 2018. Last year I muffed it, largely because of time spent revising our Christopher Nolan book. (Yes, we’re also looking forward to Tenet, especially after that hellah trailer.)

This time I’m trying an alternative. Instead of surveying a range of releases, I’ll focus on two that I think encapsulate some robust variants on familiar narrative strategies. Those strategies include choice of protagonist, linearity versus nonlinearity in time, and manipulation of viewpoint. While I’m concentrating on Marriage Story and Little Women, I’ll draw out some comparisons with other films.

Many spoilers follow, but of course you’ve probably seen all the new films. Except maybe Cats.

 

Protagonists, dual and dueling

Human nature is not given to a protagonist/antagonist three-act structure. Human nature is just one damn thing after another in which the only thing that matters is what went on today because yesterday is gone. And that is contrary to a lot of the business that we’re in, which makes sure that everybody understands the story by page 30 and is involved in the conflict.

Tom Hanks

You’re plotting a film. What sort of options do you face? A basic choice involves protagonists.

You might build the film around one character who pursues a cluster of goals. Examples this season would include Dark Waters, Motherless Brooklyn, Uncut Gems, and Harriet. The protagonist can have helpers, and will certainly have adversaries, but her or his initiatives, decisions, and responses propel the action. In addition, we’re usually attached to the protagonist’s point of view, which limits us to what she or he knows. Judicious widening of the horizon often takes place to enhance tension. In Uncut Gems we’re briefly attached to Arno’s thugs when they’re tailing Howard, and the climax crosscuts Howard in his office with Julia placing his big bet.

You could center the action on two characters, giving us a dual-protagonist plot. Here the goals may be shared or at least compatible. In The Aeronauts, a lady balloonist and a male meteorologist cooperate, with frictions, to break ascension records, while Ford v. Ferrari unites two men working together to win at Le Mans.

More rarely, a dual-protagonist plot can shift the protagonist in the course of the action. Good examples are Red River (1948) and The Killers (1946). I’d argue that Don Corleone functions as protagonist in the early sections of The Godfather (1972), while Michael takes up that role later. Similarly, Waves initially concentrates on Tyler, but he largely drops out of the plot and his sister Emily drives the film’s second half.

Alternatively, the plot can present two protagonists in competition. This season we’ve had The Current War, centering on the struggle between Edison and Morgan to transmit electrical power. The narrational weight is largely with Edison, but I think Morgan is characterized enough and we’re attached to his viewpoint frequently enough to present a counterweight. Morgan isn’t simply an antagonist but rather what Kristin calls a parallel protagonist, like Salieri in Amadeus or Captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October. As these examples indicate, parallel protagonists, although they’re trying to figure out each one’s aims and stratagems, often become fascinated with each other and recognize their affinities.

Paired protagonists are common in romantic comedies, which often consist of friction between the couple (due to clashing goals) but end in harmony and union. What’s striking about Marriage Story is that here the end, not the start, of a romantic alliance is treated through the dual-protagonist strategy. Charlie and Nicole struggle over the terms of their divorce, particularly the handling of custody of their son Henry. Unlike Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), which is organized chiefly around the husband’s viewpoint, this gives weight to both spouses.

Director Noah Baumbach achieves this balance through a cunning parallel block construction. The film opens with two montages of roughly equal running time. One surveys Nicole’s habits and accomplishments with Charlie’s voice-over praising her. (“She’s my favorite actress.”) Then we get a montage illustrating what Nicole loves about Charlie, with other incidents stitched together by her voice-over. Both montages weave in scenes of Nicole in rehearsal while Charlie, the director, makes suggestions.

Baumbach has compared these montages to an overture in musical theatre. The film’s score sets out themes associated with each protagonist, and the quirks and routines that rush by establish important motifs, like haircutting, Monopoly games, and Henry’s urge to sleep with his parents. With the he said/she said duality, the montages prepare us for the film’s strategy of parallelism, a compare-and-contrast attitude.

     

The montages are revealed as visualizations of two memoirs the couple have written for a mediator.

     

They’re planning to divorce, and he’s asked them to recall what they loved about each other. Charlie is willing to share his notes with Nicole, but Nicole won’t show hers. This hints that he’s more reluctant to separate than she is, planting a question about why she seems determined to pursue the divorce.

Just as important, we’ve been given privileged access to both characters’ minds, and this sort of alternating omniscience will proceed throughout the film. There won’t be any more plunges this deep into subjectivity, but we’ll always know more than either does, because after they separate we’ll be attached to one or the other in large stretches.

For a time, though, we’re with both. In the mediator’s office, and then during the play’s performance, in the bar with the troupe after the show, and in the family apartment, they interact as a couple. (True, Charlie sleeps on the sofa.) But once Nicole moves to California, the first block of action ends and we are attached to her and Henry as she launches her new project, a TV pilot.

Not until Charlie comes to visit Nicole, her mother, and her sister does the narration bring him back. There he’s officially served the divorce papers. This scene launches a discreet viewpoint pivot from her to him. The family cuddle ends when Henry banishes Charlie from bed, foreshadowing how marginal his father will be to him from now on.

     

     

The film’s next block attaches us to Charlie as he seeks out a lawyer, takes Henry on outings, and clashes with Nicole about how to celebrate Halloween. The couple wind up giving Henry two trick-or-treating trips, in different costumes, which reiterates the duplex structure of action we’ve been presented with since the start.

The alternation between Nicole and Charlie’s viewpoints quickens as their negotiations get more fraught. Their first legal meeting ends with Charlie’s losing faith in his easygoing attorney. The next meeting is an escalating confrontation between Charlie’s new hard-charging lawyer and Nicole’s equally tough Nora. In the courtroom exchange, the he said/she said pattern becomes vicious as each lawyer weaponizes minor incidents from scenes we’ve seen to cast shame on the opposing side.

The nastiness of the custody battle comes to a crisis in a ten-minute duologue in Charlie’s apartment, an all-out fight between Nicole and Charlie. They run through a repertoire of reactions, from assurance of mutual admiration to declarations of annoyance, unhappiness, frustration, and complaints. By the end they’re screaming insults. Charlie rages and then, as if aware of how monstrous he’s being, collapses sobbing at Nicole’s feet.

     

Most classically constructed films follow the pattern Kristin identified back when. The plot consists of a setup, a complicating action redefining the setup, a development section consisting largely of delay and backstory, and a climax that resolves the situation. An epilogue asserts a stable, if changed state of affairs. The four main parts are roughly equal in running time, with the climax tending to be a bit shorter and the epilogue being only a few minutes.

Up to a point, Marriage Story conforms to this architecture. The first thirty minutes set up the split in the family before focusing on Nicole’s new life in California. Both Charlie and Nicole had hoped to separate amicably, with no need for lawyers. But thirty minutes in Nicole hires Nora and sets in motion a more severe legal battle than the couple had expected. The complicating action is triggered by serving Charlie the divorce papers.

There’s no turning back, and the new situation centers on figuring out how to handle access to Henry. Charlie wants Henry to spend time in New York (“We’re a New York family”) but Nicole wants him with her, and as he was born in California the law inclines to her side. Hence the triple thrust of the Charlie block: visiting lawyers, trying to keep his Broadway production on track, and winning some loyalty from Henry.

The development section consists of characterizing stretches (Nicole indulges in a quick sexual encounter) and delays: the unsatisfactory first lawyer session, a power outage at Nicole’s house, and the courtroom showdown. What happens next, though, seems to me quite original.

 

Between theatre and TV

To determine custody, both Nicole and Charlie must let an evaluator visit to observe each one’s treatment of Henry. In a more ordinary film, this stretch would initiate the climax. The visit from the evaluator would furnish a deadline for determining how custody would be handled. Then the film’s peak could be the vicious, trembling argument between Charlie and Nicole. This would be the explosion that reveals both their love and the impossibility of their staying together.

From this angle, Charlie’s guilt-ridden collapse would be the resolution–his realization of how he stunted Nicole’s life. A courtroom finale settling the terms of custody (a little more for Nicole than Charlie) would fill out the climax and lead to an epilogue, perhaps on the courthouse steps.

Excuse me for rewriting the film. I do it to show that Baumbach’s script does something daring. The big argument comes before the evaluator’s testing. After that brutal clash, we see Nicole rehearsing her answers in Nora’s office. Moreover, the blundering efforts of Charlie to convince the stiff evaluator he’s a good father play out in a lengthy comic scene with some gory sight gags.

     

A certain amount of suspense remains, I think, but the final cascade of gags works against the emotional pitch of the couple’s quarrel. Baumbach has, in effect, risked using an anticlimax to round out the normal climax section of the film. It also serves as a good-natured punishment for Charlie’s self-centeredness.

The same daring informs an unusually lengthy epilogue. It’s built out of the sort of modules we’ve seen already. Nicole and her friends and family celebrate her divorce with a party, while Charlie mopes around Manhattan and morosely salutes his play’s closing with his troupe in a bar. We might stop there, but Baumbach again does something original (though highly motivated). Charlie, now relocated for a teaching gig in LA, comes to pick up Henry and discovers the boy reading the note about Charlie that Nicole had prepared for the mediator session.

     

Not only does it reveal the feelings she had suppressed during the session, but the fact that she kept it shows she still harbors affection for that part of her life. Other films surprise us in the epilogue (Citizen Kane, for instance), but Baumbach’s use of the memoir in the film’s final moments remains a pretty bold, and moving, choice. This stretched and packed epilogue shows Charlie how much Nicole loved him, while also suggesting things that contributed to stifling her. Lines like “He’s very competitive” and “He loves being a dad” have a new impact now that we’ve seen his battle for his son.

In telling this story, Baumbach exploits a larger strategy of what theatre people call continuous exposition. Instead of giving the necessary backstory in a lump at the beginning or middle, major information is sprinkled through the ongoing plot. We’re familiar with this device in films that trigger fragmentary flashbacks, filling in backstory bit by bit. Baumbach goes with a more “theatrical” strategy using dialogue to invoke things that happened before the first scenes..

One of the major instances involves Nicole, who breaks down in an embrace with Nora, sobbing that Charlie slept with his assistant. Coming half an hour into the movie, it explains Nicole’s bitterness in the mediation session, as well as her larger reappraisal of her life with Charlie. At other points we learn of big events, like Nicole’s show taking off and Charlie’s long-term settling in LA, in casual conversation, not in extended scenes.

Crucially, in their climactic quarrel, Charlie justifies his affair by accusing Nicole of withholding sex for a year. We can’t appraise the truth of this, but it at least fills in a motive that more conventional exposition would have put into the setup. Resisting the temptation to supply flashbacks for all these revelations, Baumbach trusts our memory. That way the new data can color our ongoing understanding of the characters. The opening montages were generous but one-sided, chunks of incomplete exposition that suppressed important motives and behavior.

Continuous exposition is associated with Ibsen and playwrights who followed, but the theatrical patron hovering over the film is Stephen Sondheim. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird had used Sondheim as a touchstone for ambitious high-school players, but the parallel structure of Marriage Story makes more explicit references, this time to Sondheim’s Company. Nicole’s party features her and her mother and sister performing  “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” a saucy song about dumping a weak man. Soon in the bar Charlie is singing the yearning “Being Alive.”

     

Maybe a little on the nose (like the movie’s title), these citations seem true to the tastes of these show-biz mavens, while suggesting that at least some of Manhattan clings to Nicole in her exile.

Another parallel reminds us of a perennial Hollywood motif. Nicole began her career in a raunchy teen movie but thanks to Charlie’s stage shows she became a respected performer. Yet to establish her own identity more fully she agrees to shoot a TV pilot. Marriage Story positions itself between theatre (a little pretentious, but nobly struggling) and TV (dumb and superficial, but high-tech and well-financed). Worse, TV literally defaces Nicole.

     

Theatre, TV: what about film?

In this story about show-biz LA, movies and references to them are sparse. (I didn’t spot any.) So maybe we should take this film itself as standing in for righteous cinema, rather than the teenpic trash Nicole was in. Perhaps Marriage Story offers itself as its own example of the subtlety and risk-taking that cinema can embody. Even when streaming on Netflix.

 

Muses in the family

The family saga is one Hollywood genre that doesn’t get enough respect. We tend nowadays to celebrate the tough, not tender side of studio cinema. The cult of noir, the abundance of hard-edged action pictures, and the idolatry that trails Tarantino all tend to make us prefer force to gentleness. When families gather, we expect big trouble, if not outright murder (Knives Out). We decry weepies of any sort, and family sagas are often felt to be soft, schmaltzy, womanish. A male friend tells me that Little Women is “a movie about hugs.”  When NPR devotes a whole show to it, panelists ponder how to convince men to see it. No wonder the family film has migrated to daytime cable TV.

Yet the family saga is one of the nicest things American cinema does. Two of our greatest masterpieces, How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), are prime examples. The Forties were rich in such efforts, including Forever and a Day (1943),  Life with Father (1947), I Remember Mama (1948), The Human Comedy (1943), and Since You Went Away (1944). We ought to recognize as well the strength of later entries like The Joy Luck Club (1993), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), and Soul Food (1997), all trying out some of the fresh approaches to storytelling that were emerging in the 1990s.

And the sentiments informing domestic sagas seep into other genres. The Fast and Furious team, we’re told, come to be a family, as do the Avengers. The coming-of-age story, that perennial of indie cinema, inherits the aura of cozy warmth that is central to the family saga. I’d add one of my favorites, We Bought a Zoo (2011), which isn’t really a saga but does radiate a comparable warmth.

Although there are probably earlier examples (I think of Vidor’s 1924 Wine of Youth), it seems likely that the 1933 MGM production of Little Women furnished an important template. The four March sisters, each drawn to a different art form, are a model for the musically gifted sisters in the fine Four Daughters (1938).

And surely the fact that Katrin in I Remember Mama chronicles the family’s daily lives owes a lot to the example of Jo March, aspiring novelist.

The family saga poses at least three creative problems for the filmmaker. Since each family member is likely to confront personal problems (romance, finance, school, job) how do you weave and weight multiple storylines? How do you provide conflict to propel the action? And, since the “saga” comparison suggests development over years or even generations, how do you handle long spans of time cinematically?

Greta Gerwig handles all these problems adroitly in her version of Little Women. I’m going to concentrate on the film, but I’m aware that some of the narrative strategies are taken from Louisa May Alcott’s original novel. But much of what’s ingenious about Gerwig’s adaptation is of her own devising.

Start with storylines. In most such films, the trick is to create a group but then produce a scale of emphasis running from minor figures to the most important one typically, the “first among equals.” In How Green, that is Huw, also our narrator; in Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s Esther. But the doings of other characters shape the family’s destiny and the decisions made by the spotlighted figure. So the activities intertwine.

In Little Women, characters shape one another’s development. Jo, the first among equals, is nonconformist and self-reliant. Yet she needs steering–from Friedrich, the professor who tries to turn her away from sensation fiction, and more importantly from Beth, who in her sickness urges her to write “our story.” They give her the strength to persist and trust her sense of what her writing can be.

On the romance front, Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal of marriage opens the field for sister Amy, who has already supplanted Jo in the role of amanuensis to Aunt March. When Jo, out of loneliness, decides to welcome Laurie’s offer, it’s too late: he’s married to Amy. The tangled alliances of melodrama get tightly bound in the family saga.

The other sisters contribute to the causal weave of the plot, with Meg’s decision to abandon the stage reinforcing Jo’s stubborn attachment to her art. More generally, the fates of the sisters dramatize the tension between creative impulse and the social demands of domesticity. Meg wants a family more than fame. Amy, the indifferent painter, can hope only for a good marriage (the same prospect Aunt March makes explicit to Jo).

In family sagas, the siblings are put in parallel. Huw’s brothers leave the household, but he loyally stays, and Rose, the mature sister, has more trouble attracting men than the vivacious Esther. Here, Jo’s kindred spirit is Beth the pianist, whose playing gives solace to Mr. Laurence in his grief. But illness keeps Beth from fulfilling herself either as artist or grown woman. As for Marmee, we’re allowed to catch a glint of Jo’s defiance behind the older woman’s warmth when she confesses that she’s angry every day.

Jo’s main contrast is with Amy. Amy has done nasty things, but she accepts the burden, laid down by Aunt March, of marrying for money, not love, in order to benefit her loved ones. She does this even though, as she reveals in a key scene, she has always loved Laurie and has always felt herself overshadowed by Jo. (Those revelations are also suggested as what leads Laurie to fall in love with her, and not simply as a substitute for Jo.) Even the various suitors get ranged along comparative dimensions of class, strength of will, and temperament.

The need to provide a dense social milieu also creates parallels–here, in terms of good deeds. The Marches are lower middle-class, living on a parson’s income, but they share their Christmas dinner with a more deprived family. The primary family is constantly compared to the wealthy Laurences, who are generous and good-hearted. Even Aunt March, who married well and embraced hardheaded principles, wills her mansion to Jo. The contrast with the flinty publishing house and the imperious Dashwood is softened when we learn, surprise, that he has a batch of daughters himself.

What about conflict in the family saga? There’s often an external threat–predatory capitalism in How Green Was My Valley, the war in The Human Comedy–but not always a personified antagonist. Often these films have no straightforward villains. Parental error can move the plot, as when in Meet Me in St. Louis Alonzo Smith announces that he’s taking a job in New York. And crises are created by misunderstandings or happenstance, most commonly illness. Somebody almost always gets hurt (here, Meg’s twisted ankle, Amy’s plunge through the ice) or sick (Beth’s scarlet fever).

By and large, the conflicts come through romance and sibling rivalry. In Little Women, Meg loves John only somewhat more than she loves fine clothes, so their impoverished marriage nags at her heart. Amy, enraged at not going to the theatre, burns Jo’s manuscripts. Jo responds with hatred–until Amy falls through the ice and needs rescuing. Amy later considers marrying a rich nonentity, and instead acknowledges her long love for Laurie–who in turn loves Jo. As in most melodramas, we know more than any one character, so we watch as characters’ hopes rise against forces they don’t yet realize.

Even without a clear-cut antagonist, the family members can have goals. The March girls start out as aspiring artists, and stretches of the plot are devoted to them developing their abilities. As their goals change, swerving two of them to marriage and maternity, Jo keeps striving toward what we see her doing in the film’s very first scene: selling her stories. Her burning desire to write is a major through-line, and it encounters obstacles of many sorts, from the harrumphing Dashwood to the destruction of her manuscripts by Amy. And even Jo, as we’ve seen, recasts her goals: in offering solace to the dying Beth, she will write “all about us.”

That means writing about the family as it changes over time. Our third narrative problem, in other words.

 

“If I were a girl in a book, this would all be so easy”

Marriage Story‘s avoidance of flashbacks makes it unusual nowadays. It’s hard to find a movie without at least a few flashbacks. As mysteries, Motherless Brooklyn and Knives Out resort to them to replay scenes with new information. Other films make time shifts basic to their architecture. The Aeronauts uses flashbacks to supply the backstory to an unfolding crisis situation, while Hustlers switches between a contemporary interview and stages in the career of the woman questioned.

The Irishman goes for deeper embedding. The overall frame shows elderly Frank Sheeran in the care facility; the next frame is Frank’s trip with Russell Bufalino and their wives to upstate New York, where Frank will kill Hoffa. That trip in turn flashes back to the central story of Frank’s career with the mob. I try to show in Reinventing Hollywood that this sort of Russian-doll structure comes to be a major option in American film during the 1940s.

In Little Women, the years of change in the March family are given through alternating blocks. We start in the present, with Jo in New York struggling to get published. She’s summoned back to Concord because Beth is ill. Meg is living in poverty with husband John, and Amy is in Paris with Aunt March. For about eleven minutes, crosscutting carries us among the sisters.

This block of exposition is followed by a title, “7 Years Earlier,” that sets up the time oscillations we’ll get for the rest of the film. In chronological order we follow the sisters growing up. Chunks of scenes from the past, shifting viewpoint among several characters, alternate with briefer scenes of the ongoing present showing Jo’s settling back into the family. Sometimes the cuts break the blocks into smaller, interlocking bits, as when we shuttle quickly between Beth’s childhood illness and her fatal one years later.

Why split a linear story into two intercut strands? Flashbacks often create a specific sort of anticipation: Not just What will happen next? but What caused the outcome I already more or less know? In the first ten minutes we learn that Laurie proposed to Jo and she refused him; that Amy, not Jo, became Aunt March’s traveling companion; that Meg married John, the impoverished tutor. We’ll witness the development of all these turning points, and more. We must watch the rise and fall of characters’ hopes, knowing they will be dashed. But we also know, from Jo’s initial visit to the publishing house, that she will gain some success. This time-jumping gives us another level of omniscience, one that lets us savor the details of emotional scenes whose outcomes we roughly know. We’re in the theatre, after all, to enjoy the rapture of pathos.

Instead of tagging each time shift with a date, Gerwig expects us to keep track of the double-entry storylines. She assists us by making story motifs visual hooks between past and present. Silk for a dress, a key, Jo seen writing at a window–these link scenes but also carry dramatic weight in the ongoing action. Other echoes are longer-range. We’re invited to remember contrasting dance scenes (tavern, ballroom, porch), scorched dresses, and piano pieces.

Eventually the past scenes catch up with the present. The fusion comes with the burial of Beth and one more clutch of flashbacks, to Meg’s wedding. I take this as the end of the development section. “Childhood is over,” Jo says. Back in the present, Jo vows to abandon writing.

Now the present-time action dominates the climax. Grieving for Beth, distraught at Meg’s leaving the household, and crushed by the marriage of Laurie and Amy, Jo burns her manuscripts–except for the stories she wrote for Beth. She starts to assemble them and write more.

After a glimpse of Dashwood refusing the manuscript, we see Friedrich come to visit the Marches on his way to California. After he’s left for the station, the family claims that Jo obviously loves him.

At this point, in her most daring creative choice, Gerwig retains the crosscutting technique in a way that seems to continue the present/past alternation. Dashwood’s daughters have urged him to publish Jo’s manuscript. In New York, in a scene that rhymes with the opening passage, Jo negotiates with Dashwood.

     

Their conversation is intercut with views of Jo rushing to the station to catch Friedrich and ask him to stay.

The epilogue consists of more alternations. We see Jo watching Little Women being printed, crosscut with a party at the school Jo has founded in Aunt March’s mansion. There John, Friedrich, and Laurie can be glimpsed as Meg and Amy teach children the arts they had practiced. The celebration ends with a birthday cake presented to Marmee.

But there’s another way to take the final minutes. The alternation isn’t tracking two points in time–Jo’s rush to Friedrich and a later session with Dashwood–but rather a split between fiction and reality.

We’re coaxed to take scene of Jo’s pursuit of Friedrich as representing not her own action but the changes that Dashwood demands in Jo’s novel. “Who does she marry?” he asks, explaining that a book sells only if there’s a marriage. Jo reluctantly agrees. “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition, even in fiction.” Cut to Jo racing to the station. After the shots of her embracing Friedrich under an umbrella, we’re back in the office. Dashwood suggests the chapter title, “Under the Umbrella,” and Jo agrees. But in turn she makes demands: “You keep your five hundred dollars and I’ll keep the copyright. . . . I want to own my own book.”

We’ve assumed throughout that Jo’s book is highly autobiographical, but we’ve taken what we see and hear as actual events, the living source of a literary text. Instead, the crosscut climax allows a parallel reality to burst forth,  a road not taken. The epilogue yields another ambivalent passage of crosscutting. The school party might be veridical; certainly the family would likely gather for Marmee’s birthday. But the scene could as well serve as the fictional epilogue in Jo’s book (as it does in the Alcott original).

The true epilogue of Jo’s story would then be the moment when she sees her book printed, action that’s crosscut with the celebration. Jo gets the first copy. In the last shot, pleasure, apprehension, and determination play across her features. And she’s framed in a window, an approximate reverse shot to the image that opened the film (see image at the top of this section).

From the start Gerwig has shrewdly foreshadowed the turn to fiction by presenting the film’s title, after Jo has made her first sale, not as an inscription on the screen but as the physical book itself. That book is signed by L. M. Alcott. The apparently identical volume that comes off the printing press at the end bears the name J. L. March. Gerwig has let Jo appropriate Alcott’s story.

     

By giving us a double-voiced ending, Gerwig does something quite bold. Little Women becomes something of a “what-if” movie, positing two paths for her heroine. Alcott’s Jo had given up a literary career, whereas Gerwig’s Jo finds one by writing her own life and adding an optional ending. We’re free to think that Jo and Friedrich married and the family became a harmonious whole, as in Alcott’s book. A happy ending, we might say, for those who want one. But this film about hugs ends with the heroine hugging not a husband but her novel.

Unmarried in life, Jo can marry in fiction, and Gerwig can have it both ways. Narrative lets you do things like that.

 

I haven’t been able to do justice to the intriguing choices made in other films of the season. I appreciate, for instance, the nonlinearity in Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, where the interruptions of present-time action offer Harriet’s premonitions of future scenes. This sort of “prophetic” flashforward is rare; usually such passages are presented as omniscient narration, not assigned to characters. But the device does establish Harriet as a sensitive, almost angelic figure, and suggests that her quest to guide slaves to freedom is sustained not just by faith but by holiness.

Still, looking in a little depth at just two major films can make us aware of several choices available to filmmakers at this point in history. As Wölfflin said, “Not everything is possible at all times.” But film researchers can usefully trace the flexible menu of options that filmmakers work with, and film viewers come to master.


Gerwig has kindly made available a version of the screenplay, which I discovered only after I wrote this. (Thanks, Kristin.) The notations for the final sequences are pretty interesting. The most wide-ranging discussion I’ve seen of the ending, with plenty of links, is the conversation between Marissa Martinelli and Heather Schwedel in Slate. Among several perceptive reviews, I’d single out the one in Time by Stephanie Zacharek and Richard Brody’s review in The New Yorker.

I can’t help but think how central crosscutting, that technique pioneered by early filmmakers, is to both of these films. Techniques endure because they open up a lot of expressive possibilities.

Kristin elaborates on arguments for four-part plot structure in Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Extended examples on this site are here and here. I discuss family sagas of the 1940s, along with flashbacks, protagonists, and other narrative techniques in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. On 1990s revival of these techniques, see The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies.

Marriage Story (2019). Is this why the film includes few standing two-shots of Nicole and Charlie?

THE LIGHTHOUSE: A period film with period style

Kristin here:

David and I first saw Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and he wrote briefly about it at the time. About halfway through the screening or less, I realized that what I was watching was a modern combination of two important historical trends of 1920s German cinema: Expressionism and the Kammerspiel.

I am partial to German silent cinema, particularly Expressionist films, for their daring stylization. The movement gave rise to some great films by two masters, F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. I’m even fond of the leisurely pacing that characterizes so many Expressionist and Kammerspiel films. At times some scenes resemble the slow cinema of recent decades.

Kammerspiel was a larger trend in the theater of the day, and it has its equivalent in English and American drama, the chamber play. Most of the Kammerspiel films in Germany were written by the great scenarist Carl Mayer, also responsible for many of the Expressionist classics from Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari on. Kammerspiel films include most notably Hintertreppe (Backstairs, Leopold Jessner, 1921), Sylvester (1923) and Scherben (1923). Some would consider Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) to be a Kammerspiel. Carl Dreyer also made one in Germany, Michael (1924, with a scenario by Thea von Harbou) and one in Denmark, The Master of the House (1925). Such films typically involve a small cast of characters who come into conflict in various ways, invariably ending badly, typically with death, suicide, murder, and/or imprisonment. The Lighthouse clearly qualifies.

The Lighthouse is also a horror film, or at least a lot of critics think so. Thus it fits cozily into the Expressionist movement, of which several Expressionist films are now considered early classics of the horror genre: Caligari, Nosferatu, Der Golem, Warning Shadows, Die müde Tod and other less well-known films.

Critics did not fail to notice The Lighthouse‘s links to silent cinema, and in particular Expressionism. Richard Newby’s review in The Hollywood Reporter remarks on: “The filmmaker’s decision to shoot the film in black-and-white and in the aspect ratio of 1.19:1, giving The Lighthouse the appearance of a silent film born of German Expressionism.” He also calls it, “Equal parts Lovecraftian horror story and existential chamber piece in the vein of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.”

Screen Daily reviewer Lee Marshall caught both the Expressionist and Kammerspiel aspects:

Shot in an expressionist black and white that harks back to cinema’s earliest years, The Lighthouse provides a marvellous chamber-drama platform for two actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who seize the opportunity with gusto.

[…]

Referencing everything from German expressionist cinema of the 1920s to US silent comedy, the photography of Edward Weston and the from-the-ground-up perspective in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Jarin Blaschke’s photography is starkly compelling.

Manohla Dargis’ review in The New York Times explicitly notes German Expressionist cinema:

With control and precision, expressionist lighting and an old-fashioned square film frame that adds to the claustrophobia, Eggers seamlessly blurs the lines between physical space and head space.

The film’s more sustained pleasures, though, are its form and style, its presumptive influences (von Stroheim’s “Greed,” German Expressionism), the frowning curve of Winslow’s mustache, the whites of eyes rolled back in terror.

One might add that the dreams and hallucinations, shown from Winslow’s viewpoint, reflect the innovations of French Impressionist cinema of the 1920s. This sort of stylistic subjectivity, however, was highly influential and has been widely used ever since. It was quickly picked up in German cinema of the 1920s, and some of the classics of the day, especially The Last Laugh (1924) and Variety (1925), are more noted for their subjective camerawork than are the earlier French films that originated the practice. Overall, The Lighthouse has the flavor of a German film from the 1920s.

Lots of filmmakers have attempted to imitate silent cinema, and often they succeed to a degree. They shoot in black-and-white (but don’t add tinting and toning), put just music and maybe some sound effects on the track, and have some exaggerated acting. Perhaps they set the story in the past, as Michel Hazanavicius does with The Artist (2011). A more careful attempt is Blancanieves (2013).

No matter how careful the combination of such elements is, the result usually doesn’t really look like an old film. The Lighthouse really does look like a silent film, in the sense that it looks as if it were shot using the film stock available in that era. It does not, however, pretend to be a silent film, as The Artist does. The Lighthouse doesn’t eliminate the dialogue. Its narrative and tone bear distinct resemblances to those of German and French films of the 1920s, but its story is presented with more overt sexual content and extreme violence than mainstream silent movies would have included.

It helps that Eggers is clearly a cinephile and has watched a wide variety of films from many periods. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has also worked as a still photographer and also knows a great deal about older film stocks and lenses. They both knew a lot about films of all periods.

When asked in an interview for American Cinematographer what were the team’s “references” (films shown to crew members as models), Blaschke responded:

A bit of Béla Tarr for tonal dreariness and patient use of camera. Bergman’s camera language, as always. [Eggers’ liked the strong night lighting of In Cold Blood. There were some nautical silent films, including Flaherty’s Man of Aran, [which was shot] on orthochromatic stock with strong, direct close-ups. [The influence of] Eisenstein was there for montage, and bold, hard cuts. Optically, the films we watched from the ‘20s and ‘30s were very appealing in their subtle fringe distortions and the way highlights would shimmer. [p. 63]

In the end, the most influential references were M—an inspirational and modern film in terms of visual language—and Bresson’s Pickpocket, which influenced [our] use of close-ups, especially actions with hands. These helped steer The Lighthouse away from the purist confines of the turn of the century, and more toward early modernism.” [pp. 63-64]

M seems rather an odd choice, but Blaschke describes its inspiration in an interview for Kodak:

Watching that, I found a very modern film with surprising camera movement but more importantly: a modern, creative mastery in how visual information was withheld from the audience, how information was rewarded, and when,” says Blaschke. “With this new inspiration, I felt there was a highly-effective framework for me to express myself visually. Stepping away from a mere 19th-century emulation, we were on to something more surprising and layered.

In a DGA podcast interview, Eggers discusses the nearly-square aspect ratio:

And then, the boxy aspect ratio, we were shooting in 1:19.1, early-sound aspect ratio. There’s a Pabst film, Kamaradschaft, that takes place in a mine, which is probably the only other film that makes sense to use this aspect ratio, because Pabst is shooting vertical objects, like the smokestacks, and we have our lighthouse tower, and then the cramped mineshafts, and then the cramped interiors of this thing. Because we’re using spherical lenses, it’s actually taller, so it’s a great aspect ratio for these close-ups. You don’t need flab on the side. You just have Robert Pattison’s cheekbones, Willem Dafoe’s cheekbones in all their glory on these old lenses.

Who knows what other films are these two are familiar with? But one can assume that they watched some of the classic German films of the 1920s, both Expressionist and Kammerspiel.

 

The Lighthouse and German Silents

Early German Expressionist films often used jagged, abstract sets, more like paintings than like actual buildings or landscapes. Caligari is the most familiar instance, but here are a couple of examples from Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (1921, Karlheinz Martin).

  

The second image demonstrates particularly well how light was often represented by streaks of paint. The overhead hanging lamp at the upper left is a fringe of spikes, and the flames on the huge candlestick at the left are five wisps of paint. Highlights from these “lights” are painted on the desk and chair at the lower left.

Hollywood films have seldom used distorted sets of this kind. They appear occasionally, as in Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V. Lee) and Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton). Most of the time, though, when people speak of expressionist style in films noir or horror films, they’re talking about graphic effects created by lighting. That lighting is not created by streaks of paint but by fancy lighting effects. That’s mostly the case in The Lighthouse. The lighthouse tower and the service buildings around it were designed to be authentic copies of features in real historical lighthouses. The distorted stylization comes from lighting effects, from simple underlighting to patterns created by patterned holes in the lighthouse interior.

  

The same is true of acting. In German Expressionist films, actors’ faces were often painted, especially with dark patches around the eyes and pasty white skin. Compare this close-up of Ernst Deutsch’s face, as the Cashier in Von Morgens bis Mitternachts, with that of Robert Pattinson, where the distortions are created by light and shadow.

  

Most of the classic German Expressionist and Kammerspiel films were studio-created. Sets were built either in studios or on extensive backlots. In contrast, Eggers wanted to use an authentic lighthouse. Scouting failed to turn up one with adequate access roads, so the lighthouse and service buildings were built, with faithful adherence to period locales, near the tip of the Cape Forchu Lighthouse peninsula (down the road from a modern lighthouse).

This location is far from from isolated, but the film manages to create a sense of loneliness and dread nonetheless. The huge crashing waves and storms were not generated digitally but were practical effects. According to the Kodak story, “Most of the water work was shot in a large, emergency-responder’s training pool, capable of generating waves in varying sizes and patterns, located near Halifax.” The film contains a few digital effects, mainly to turn the peninsula into an island.

Eggers seems to share the sensibility of the German silent directors: “In a perfect world, I would have liked to have built every single building, for control, control, control, control, control.” (From the DGA interview)

As to Kammerspiel films, The Lighthouse reminds me most of Scherben, which deals with a man who works as a linesman for a railroad. He, his wife, and their daughter live in isolation in some woods and live a stultifyingly dull existence. The intrusion of a railroad inspector who seduces the daughter leads to drama as the linesman gradually becomes enraged and kills him. The style of the film is quite different from that of The Lighthouse, but the dynamics of conflict and gradual deterioration of the central character are somewhat similar–if more restrained in his slow burn and stolid demeanor.

Scherben only became generally available earlier this year, when I wrote about its Filmmuseum Edition DVD release. I have no idea whether Eggers ever saw it at an archive screening or in somewhere else. He more likely saw Hintertreppe, which has long been the only one of the classic Kammerspiele commonly accessible.

 

Bringing back orthochromatic, sort of

In the DGA interview, Eggers discusses the choice of film stocks:

We thought orthochromatic film stock would really be the way to go, which, among other things, the main thing about orthochromatic film stock is that it’s not sensitive to red, so red is rendered black. So the rosy skin tones on a Caucasian renders darker. So Eisenstein, that’s why all those Russian faces look so tan, and in Hollywood they’re wearing white pancake makeup to compensate for the orthochromatic stock [….] So we liked Double-X negative. The blacks bottom out suddenly in a way that’s very satisfying, as we remember it from watching old movies.

Apparently Eggers and Blaschke investigated having orthochromatic 35mm stock custom-manufactured for them, but the expense was too great. A cheaper way had to be found.

In the American Cinematographer interview, Blaschke describes testing Kodak’s Double-X 5222 35mm film, color 35mm negative film, and digital capture with an Arri Alexa: “In addition to much larger grain, the Double-X has more ‘tooth.’ Even if you match the overall contrast in the DI [digital intermediate], the Double-X had more ‘local’ or ‘micro’ contrast, which emphasizes texture and better differentiates similar tones” [p. 61]. (Double-X 5222 was introduced in 1959 and has been used on such films as Raging Bull [1980] and Schindler’s List [1993].)

Despite these advantages, however, Double-X is a panchromatic stock, with sensitivity to the entire visible spectrum. To solve this “problem,” Blaschke ordered a custom-made filter that would eliminate the red-to-mid-yellow end of the spectrum, thus simulating orthochromatic film effectively [AC, pp. 66-7].

The choice of lenses was also done with an eye to maintaining the artificial orthochromatic look. Blaschke tested many vintage lenses and settled on Baltars, designed in 1930s. The two used in the film were made in 1941 and 1944. In the Kodak interview, he says, “The vintage Baltars were the most shimmery of the bunch I tested, and really were the most stunning portrait lenses I have ever seen,” he says. “The highlights really glowed, but stopped just short of heavy-handedness. Optics like these could add a layer of complexity on top of our hard, orthochromatic look to pull people into the world of the film.” A rehoused 1905 50mm lens was used for some flashback images, and some replicas of 1840 Petzval lens designs were used in flashbacks and “heightened moments”[AC, p. 64]. Blaschke describes the effect in an interview on the Motion Picture Association website: “Blaschke says that for those more “out there sequences,” he had a special lens designed—called a petzval—that contains a lot of aberrations. “It creates a very squirrely look. The background almost falls out of focus, like a globe, and you get this very swirly effect.”

 

Lighting The Lighthouse

Those swirling light patterns you see on Pattinson’s face in the movie are a real phenomenon—we found ourselves just wanting to gaze into the Fresnel lens. We could have stayed all night staring into the light.

Robert Eggers, Cannes Press Release

Apparently the decision to set the film in the 1890s arose during the search for the ideal lighthouse. In an interview with Eggers in Architectural Digest, he remarks,  “‘I wanted there to be a mystery in the light. Inside the beacon. So we knew we needed to set it in a period where we would have a Fresnel lens,’ he explains. Not many lighthouses still have functional ones today. ‘They look like Art Deco spaceships, and they are very magical and jewel-like. So we knew that was going to place us in the second half of the 19th century.'” (See the bottom for an image of the film’s custom-made Fresnel lens mesmerizing Winslow in the climactic scene.)

The decision to imitate orthochromatic film had a considerable impact on the lighting used. Ironically, it meant that a great deal of light from modern lamps, had to be used. Eggers admits as much in the DGA interview.

Obviously we weren’t lighting it like an old movie. We were lighting it using our practical fixtures, but of course, if this were an old movie, you would see the flame of the kerosene lamp and there would be a movie light lighting the scene. But what we did was we had a 600W halogen bulb on a flicker dimmer in all those scenes. And it was really, coming from Alexa and fast film stock, it was so bright. People were wearing sunglasses when we were doing night interiors.

Double-X is slow, even slower than color negative stocks. Modern digital cameras can typically shoot with less light than shooting on film requires. Putting together slow film stock, a filter (albeit one that cut down the light availability by less than one stop), and older, slower lenses meant that the cinematography crew had to use huge amounts of light, as a Variety interview with Blaschke explains:

Blaschke says he prefers to model his lighting in a real-life way, which was tricky on “The Lighthouse.” He and gaffer Ken Leblanc worked with Kodak Double-X stock — Blaschke calls it the only practical black-and-white film left after Plus-X was discontinued in 2011 — which is much less sensitive to light than even color film stock. Between the optics, the film stock and the filtration, Blaschke and Leblanc had to use about 15 to 20 times more light on set to get the look they wanted than on “The Witch,” which was shot on an Alexa.

“Even though it’s a very dark movie, the sets were actually blindingly bright,” says Blaschke. “We’d put 500- to 800-watt halogen bulbs in the lanterns that would flicker and were only a few feet from an actor’s face. The way we make movies now, people have gotten used to a very low light level; it’s trendy to shoot wide open, digitally at 800 or even 2,000 ASA. Our actors talked about how they couldn’t see each other sometimes, which I felt bad about.”

This halogen light is used in the night interiors, such as the scene of the drunken dance, below, and the later scene of the pair drinking in their shared bedroom, at the top of this section and the entry.

This combination of a very bright lamp with slow film and a filter cutting down part of the spectrum of light entering the lens meant that the light fell off very quickly away from the lantern. That effect is also very evident in these scenes. Backgrounds are dimly visible, and the actors often become silhouettes.

The result is a heightened sense of the two main characters being trapped together in small islands of light surrounded by blackness. We have no sense of how many lanterns the house contains, but we never see more than one at a time. At one point Winslow is seen in bed with a book, and the dim light from the window above him makes it hard to believe that he can see well enough to read. Even the daytime scenes are gloomy and gray. A low angle with the blank, light sky as rendered by the “orthochromatic” film makes Winslow and the dark rocks around him look nearly black.

Few silent films shot on orthochromatic film look this consistently dark, and it’s clear that the filmmakers were not simply trying to replicate the look of an old film. Blaschke admits as much in yet another of the many interviews on the film’s techniques: “It wasn’t about trying to make it look like older films but rather choosing a frame that lends itself to the tall and narrow sets and helps you visually withhold information from the audience. It also had a secondary effect of evoking compositions of 20th century modernist photography,”

In the DGA interview, after describing the various technical details of design, setting, and cinematography, Eggers explains:

This is fussy and it’s nerdy and it’s fun to talk about in this forum, but why do this? One, it says the movie’s old; it takes place in a time when black-and-white photography existed. But two, this is a bleak, austere story, and I feel like black-and-white is the best way to tell this story, and color is only going to mar things. Again, with this orthochromatic filter, it knocks our blue skies, which if we have them—which we really did—into something white and bleak and stark and harsh.

To get really nerdy about it, panchromatic film stock had largely replaced orthochromatic by the late 1920s and early 1930s, the only period in which a nearly square aspect ratio was standardly used. Moreover, the Baltar lenses were invented in the 1930s. Halogen lamps are a comparatively recent innovation in film lighting. So the combination of the ortho and the boxy look and the rest of it aren’t “authentic” in any strict sense. The filmmakers were not using lighting equipment of the 1920s or any modern equivalent. In short, they weren’t trying to replicate the look of any one specific type of old film. As a way of creating the illusion of an old film, as well as an appropriately grim tone, it works better than anything else I’ve seen.

 

A few final notes

First, I have seen The Lighthouse’s budget given as $4 million. That’s in the film’s Wikipedia entry, which cites an AP release from May 2019  that says only that the film’s budget was larger than that of The Witch but still modest. The New York Times ran a story about the film’s trailer in July, noting that the budget for The Witch had been $4 million, which Box Office Mojo also gives as the cost of the earlier film.

I have not been able to find a reliable figure for The Lighthouse’s budget, but clearly it was distinctly more than $4 million.

Second, according to Eggers in the DGA interview linked above, that’s real dirt (sifted to rid it of the odd pebble) that Winslow shovels down onto Wake in the climactic scene–not some namby-pamby ground chocolate. Not to mention that the puddle he’s lying in was frigid. Even the Expressionist actors didn’t go so far. The Academy should give Dafoe his Oscar already.

Third, watching The Lighthouse with a sell-out crowd in the biggest venue at the Vancouver International Film Festival, The Centre for the Performing Arts, was one thing. There people were eager to see this film, which had premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight thread at Cannes in May. It won the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI)’s prize for best film. It was quite another thing to watch it by myself during its run at a local multiplex.

The Lighthouse played at three multiplexes in Madison, with full-day schedules at each. It’s still playing at one of them, twice a day. I was alone when I saw it a few days ago at a 10:25 am screening. After being in a crowded festival audience, the second experience made me wonder how in the world such a challenging film made it into such wide release and how a more mainstream audience would react to it. (It maxed out at 958 theaters November 1-6 and has been falling since. Its gross through November 10 is $8,915,216 domestically; Box Office Mojo so far has no figures for foreign markets.)


The frames from The Lighthouse have mostly been taken from trailers. I have not cropped the frames reproduced above to their 1.19:1 format, since on theatrical screens, the audience sees the image as window-boxed, with black stretches on either side. (The exception is the bottom image, a press image released by distributor A24; it is either a frame with the black sides cropped or possibly a production still.) Perhaps Eggers and Blaschke’s idea would have been for theaters to move the screen’s masking to the edges of their images. Given the realities of modern exhibition, however, such versatility is not part of the screening technology. I found that the window-boxing on the big screen was a constant, subtle way to call attention to the unusual compositional results. What The Lighthouse will look like on various formats for streaming is hard to imagine.

Speaking of the aspect ratio, a number of critics have called 1.19:1 a silent-film format. In fact it was only used in the early sound era, when room had to be made on the filmstrip for the optical soundtrack; later the image was shrunk slightly into the classic Academy ratio of roughly 4:3. During the silent period there was no absolute standard ratio, though the image was in usually not far from the Academy ratio.

The American Cinematographer article cited is Patricia Thomson, “Stormy Isle,” AC (Nov 2019): 60-67.

In one of the quotations above, Blaschke says that Man of Aran (1934) was shot on orthochromatic film. This seems unlikely, given that Flaherty had made one of the first American features to use the new panchromatic film stock, Moana (1926). Kodak stopped making ortho in 1930. Possibly Flaherty, who started work on the film in 1931, did revert to ortho for it, but it seems unlikely.

Ernst Deutsch, who plays the Cashier in Von Morgens bis Mitternachts, was one of the great Expressionist actors of stage and screen. I have mentioned him before, for his role in Der Golem; when Von Morgens bis Mitternachts was released on DVD; and for his role in the non-Expressionist Das alte Gesetz, released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley last year.

On horror and fantasy in German silent films, see my “Im Angang war …: Some Links between German Fantasy Films of the Teens and the Twenties,” in Paolo Cherchi Usai and Lorenzo Codelli, eds., Before Caligari: German Cinema, 1895-1920 (Pordenone: Edizioni Biblioteca dell-Immagine, 1990), pp. 138-161.

Baschke mentions Eisenstein as an influence in the editing, but presumably neither he nor Eggers had read Eisenstein’s essay arguing in favor of a square aspect ratio. His belief was that such a frame would give equal compositional weight to the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the screen. (“The Dynamic Square,” Jay Leyda, ed., Film Essays and a Lecture [New York: Praeger, 1970], pp. 48-65.

The photograph of the lighthouse set on Cape Forchu is by Dan Robichaud and appears in Carla Allen’s story on the filming in the local Digby Courier. A search for “Cape Forchu Lighthouse” on Google Maps yields many photos of the area and reveals the very rocky terrain over which Winslow pushed his wheelbarrow. The modern lighthouse is a popular tourist attraction, in case you ever visit Yarmouth in Nova Scotia. There is even a restaurant inside it. (Appropriately enough, “The grilled lobster and cheese sandwich was amazing,” according to one visitor.)

[January 13, 2020. Blaschke has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Cinematography category. Unfortunately the film was not nominated in any other category, as it deserved to be.

February 8, 2020. Blaschke has won a number of awards for the film, most notably the American Society of Cinematographers Spotlight Award, and, just today, the Film Independent Spirit Award for best cinematography.]

Some highlights of Venice appear at last

Sunset (2018).

Kristin here:

Going to the Venice International Film Festival in 2017 and 2018 has been a joy. Still, there’s a downside for our readers. We write about the films that premiere there in early September, but the films themselves appear months–sometimes many months–after the festival ends.

Of course, two titles, Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scrugges, appeared fairly soon on Netflix, and First Man had an October opening. After a delay, one of David’s recommended films, Dragged Across Concrete, had a quick, spotty theatrical release and is now available on several streaming platforms, as well as DVD and Blu-ray.

Two others of our Venice favorites are in narrow theatrical release only now, and we think you should seek them out.

 

The other Manson film to see this year

One film is Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, about the lead-up to and aftermath of the Manson killings. David wrote about it in a report on crime-related films at the festival. We both liked it very much, as a very original approach to the subject. Now Manohla Dargis has published an enthusiastic review, calling the film “powerful and deeply affecting.” Critics have split in their opinions, but we’re with Manohla on this one.

In all the complaints last year over Venice only having one female-directed film in competition, the many women whose films premiered in other threads were largely overlooked. I saw several of them, and I was very glad I put Harron’s film on my viewing schedule.

 

Seeking out Sunset

My favorite film from the festival was Lázló Nemes’s Sunset. Yes, I loved First Man, Roma, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but Sunset was an instant classic, a film I wanted to see again while I was only a third of the way through the initial viewing.

Usually at festivals we have to include groups of films in each blog entry, even though they deserve more attention. In Sunset‘s case, I waited until I could see a screener and read the interviews with the filmmakers in the special Hungarian journal issue devoted to the film. I devoted a single analytical post to it (which links to an online version of that journal issue).

Without serious spoilers, since it’s a film of mystery and suspense, I tried to convey its unconventional approach to extremely restricted point of view and its brilliant camerawork and design. Many reviewers, however, have dismissed it as baffling or incomprehensible. I obviously disagree. It’s a challenging film, there’s no question about that. But aren’t there great artworks that are challenging in various ways? Works that mystified their original audiences? In order to appreciate them, don’t we expect that we’ll need to experience them more than once or twice? Of course, most reviewers don’t have that option before publishing their responses, but all the more reason to be cautious about condemning something because it’s thoroughly unconventional.

We looked forward to another chance to see Sunset on the big screen, and now it is in release. Its only local venue was at the AMC Classic Desert Star 15 just north of Baraboo, on the edge of the Wisconsin Dells. About 40 minutes of driving brought us to an impressive multiplex from 1999 with a desert theme. The Desert Star name comes from the fact that the theater is located in a much larger Kalihari entertainment complex, with indoor miniature golf, an amusement park with Ferris wheel, and other attractions. An odd venue, but a pleasant one.

For me, on third viewing, the film held up entirely, and I think I figured out a few of the things that had been unclear to me before. I’m sure another viewing will be illuminating as well, though there are clearly ambiguities that can never be resolved, intendedly so. David, seeing it for the second time, was even more impressed than at Venice.

Sunset is not coming out in the UK until May 31. Nemes himself is currently touring theaters showing the film on 35mm (schedule here). It was shot in 35mm and looked great on the huge screen of the Lido’s Sala Grande. Artificial Eye has announced that a Blu-ray will be released in the UK later this year.


Thanks as ever to Michael Barker of Sony Pictures Classics for his help with this and our earlier entry.

AMC Classic Desert Star 15, Baraboo Wisconsin.

Accident forgiveness: J.J. Murphy’s REWRITING INDIE CINEMA

Maidstone (1970).

DB here:

Did you ever want to beat up Norman Mailer? The impulse must have flitted through the minds of many who paged through his work, saw him on TV, or encountered him swaying pugnaciously at a party. Rip Torn took the opportunity. One day in 1968, he whacked Mailer with a hammer and started to strangle him. As the distinguished author tried to bite off Torn’s ear, Mailer’s wife leaped into the fray and his children shrieked with fear.

This scene, totally unscripted, appears in Mailer’s film Maidstone (1970) and opens J. J. Murphy’s new book Rewriting Indie Cinema: Improvisation, Psychodrama, and the Screenplay. Nothing could better prepare us for his exploration of the traditions–and sometimes jarring consequences–of spontaneous performance in modern American movies.

I couldn’t have predicted that J. J., who was in grad school with Kristin and me, would turn to research. He began as part of the Structural Film movement, achieving wide renown with Print Generation (1974) and (my personal favorite) Sky Blue Water Light Sign (1972). After he was hired here at Wisconsin, he rejuvenated our production program and went on to make independent features: The Night Belongs to the Police (1982), Terminal Disorder (1983), Frame of Mind (1985), and Horicon (1994).

At the same time, he was teaching both production and screenwriting. His books reflect his deepening interest in the creative process of making a film outside the Hollywood system. His initial study, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (2007), focused on the principles of screenplay construction that emerged with US indie cinema. Then, in The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012), J. J. offered the most complete analysis of this superb body of work. In the process, he opened up a new vein of exploration. The idea of psychodrama proved an exciting way of explaining the fascinating, awkward performances in films like Kitchen (1965), Vinyl (1965), and Bike Boy (1967).

Now the concept of psychodrama gets full play in an ambitious account of the changing role of improvisation in off-Hollywood cinema. What happens, J, J. asks, when filmmakers give up the screenplay? How do they construct a story, define characters, build performances? Rewriting Indie Cinema sweeps from the 1950s to recent films like The Rider and The Florida Project. By looking for alternatives to the fully prepared screenplay, it posits a fresh way of thinking about American film artistry.

 

Human life isn’t necessarily well-written

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968).

To start off, J. J. proposes that we think of improvisation in a systematic way. Of course, the concept can be treated broadly. Even Hitchcock, we learn from Bill Krohn, improvised on the set much more than he claimed. But J. J. suggests that improvisation can be considered as a basic creative concept, a founding choice for art-making.

In the 1950s, many American artists began to embrace chance, accident, and personal expression. Abstract Expressionism, bebop, the Judson Dance Theater, Robert Frank’s snapshot aesthetic, and other tendencies valued spontaneity as both authentic self-expression and a challenge to conformist culture. The idea of spontaneity was carried into cinema by Jonas Mekas and fueled what became the New American Cinema of John Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke, and other filmmakers.

But the idea had deeper sources in another trend that J. J. painstakingly brings to light. The Austrian theater director Jacob L. Moreno developed in the 1920s what he called the Theatre of Spontaneity (Das Stegreiftheater). Performances consisted of purely improvised dialogue. When Moreno emigrated to America, he founded “Impromptu Theatre” in the same vein. His 1931 performance at Carnegie Hall was greeted by the New York Times with some disdain:

The first play, like the ones that followed, turned out to be a dab of dialogue uneasily rendered by its hapless players. . . . It became more and more evident that heavy boredom, rather than “forms, moods and visions,” were [sic] the product of the actors. De­manding wit above all else, the Mo­reno players lacked that essential as fully as the premeditation upon which they frown so heartily. The legitimate theatre, it can be reported this morning, is just about where it was.

Of course improvisation had already proven its worth in vaudeville and in jazz and other musical idioms. Today versions of Moreno’s “spontaneous theatre” flourish in comedy clubs.

Before coming to America, Moreno had discovered that improvisation had therapeautic functions as well. When a couple enacted the frustrations of their marriage, the audience was moved and Moreno was convinced that this “psychodrama” harbored artistic possibilities. Moreno’s wife Zerka called psychodrama “a form of improvisational theatre of your own life.”

J. J. shows Moreno’s pervasive influence on the postwar American scene. Psychodrama became one trend in social psychology, used to help prisoners, narcotics addicts, and even business executives. Woody Allen, Arthur Miller, and other artists were aware of Moreno’s work as well.

Drawing on Moreno but recasting him for film-related purposes, J. J. proposes a spectrum of improvisational options. There’s the completely improvised, ad-lib option, seen in Maidstone and much of Warhol’s work. Here the performers just make it up as they go, though with minimal framing of a situation. Then there’s the possibility of “planned” improvisation, in which there’s a story outline and more or less pre-set scenes. Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), for example, was made from a seven-page treatment that included only a couple of lines of dialogue. Then there’s the “rehearsed” option, in which the players collaborate to prepare the scenes and develop the characters, workshop fashion. In production the performers mostly stick to the “script” they’ve created. J. J. points to the films of Cassavetes as a clear case.

Any given film can mix these options, so that some scenes are planned roughly while others are purely ad-lib. And a filmmaker can explore the spectrum across several films, as Joe Swanberg has done.

Where does psychodrama come in? J. J. shows that any of the three points on the improvisation spectrum–pure, planned, and rehearsed–can yield performances that are based in the actual mental states and personal histories of the players. In our Cinematheque screening devoted to his book, Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993) served as an example. Harvey Keitel invested his character, an intransigent film director, with the still simmering emotions he felt after his breakup with Lorraine Bracco. Meanwhile Ferrara set up scenes that would provoke Madonna, playing Keitel’s actress, to break character and reveal her immediate responses.

Ferrara wanted to attack Madonna’s celebrity image, and J. J. reads the aftermath to a rape scene in the film being made as projecting the star’s own stammering outrage at having been exploited.

Throughout the book, when improvisation becomes psychodrama, fiction moves closer to documentary. The last chapter examines how certain films considered documentaries, like Robert Greene’s Actress (2014) and James Solomon’s The Witness (2015), cross over into psychodrama from the other side, so to speak.

A detailed study of William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) shows how Greaves used psychodramatic techniques to create an even more complicated film-within-a-film than Dangerous Game. Two characters, Freddie and Alice, are played by five different pairs of actors, with all their scenes recorded by a bevy of camera and sound staff.

Greaves also incorporates self-criticism. When crew members object to the script, another participant remarks: “Human life isn’t necessarily well-written, you know.”

Given these conceptual tools, J. J. goes on to trace the production methods employed by a wide range of filmmakers, from Morris Engel in The Little Fugitive (1953) and Cassavetes in Shadows (1959) to Mumblecore and after. Through a mixture of film analysis and background research, he brings to light a vast variety of creative options that can bypass fully-scripted cinema.

 

Rewriting the unwritten

Paranoid Park (2007).

J. J.’s survey of production methods is embedded in a new historical argument about the shape of off-Hollywood filmmaking. The New American Cinema of the 1950s, which Mekas called “plotless cinema,” was wedded to a sense of realism. But it operated within limits. Cassavetes serves as a benchmark: “I believe in improvising on the basis of the written work and not on undisciplined creativity.” By balancing the planned with the impromptu, his films allowed for the actors to surprise one another. At the same time, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) showed how psychodrama could pass easily into documentary, exemplifying Erving Goffman’s theory that everyone is playing theatrical roles in everyday life.

This open approach to screenwriting and screen acting was explored by many filmmakers in the 1960s and a little after: not only the well-known Warhol and Mailer but also Kent Mackenzie, Barbara Loden, William Greaves, and Charles Burnett. J. J. examines all this work in admirable detail. I was especially happy to see that he includes Jonas Mekas’ The Brig (1964), the harrowing film that showed me, in my undergrad days, what the New American Cinema could do in filming a play.

By the time Ferrara made Dangerous Game, most independent filmmaking had moved away from improvisation toward more tightly scripted expression. J.J. traces the institutional pressures operating here. The Sundance Film Festival and PBS’s American Playhouse favored fully-planned projects compatible with the Hollywood standard. The Sundance Institute, launched in 1981, explicitly aimed to correct what was considered the two faults of  independent production: screenplays and performances.

The success of polished work like sex, lies, and videotape (1989) and Pulp Fiction (1994) created new norms for American indie cinema. Director-screenwriters like Soderbergh, Tarantino, David Lynch, Hal Hartley, Todd Haynes, the Coens, and Todd Solondz were models for younger filmmakers. As J. J. points out, their screenplays were often published as part of the marketing of the films. Framing the new trend as dominated by the screenplay helped me understand why Bryan Singer, Doug Liman, Karyn Kusama, and other indie filmmakers who came up in the wake of this generation moved so easily to mainstream genres and big-budget projects.

But history plays strange tricks. In the 2000s, filmmakers who felt constrained by the demands of tight scripting began to try something else. J. J. pays special attention to Gus Van Sant, who after proving his commercial craft, made some films with varying degrees of improvisation: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005), and Paranoid Park (2007). Some of the Mumblecore directors relied on screenplays, but the prolific Joe Swanberg adopted a free-form approach, to which J. J. devotes a chapter.

J. J. goes on to survey the work of Sean Baker, the Safdie brothers, Ronald Bronstein, and other directors who have revived the New American Cinema’s impulses in the digital age. He concludes:

Digital technology in effect, democratized the medium, allowing young filmmakers to revive cinematic realism precisely at a time when indie cinema was at risk of losing its identity. In the new century, the use of improvisation and psychodrama provided a sense of continuity with indie cinema’s roots.

 

J. J. retired from UW–Madison at the end of 2018, and last Saturday night he was honored at our annual screening of student projects. He has been a constant force for good in our department, and we owe him more than we can say. Among those debts is this outstanding contribution to US film studies.

The book’s title carries a double meaning. American independent cinema has been, at crucial periods, “rewritten” by filmmakers who relied on spontaneity rather than a cast-iron screenplay. At the same time, J. J.’s panoramic research in effect rewrites that history. I’m sure that other researchers will build on his wide-ranging arguments, which put the creativity of artists–filmmakers, performers–at the center of our concerns.


J. J.’s books join a cascade of recent work by other colleagues here at Wisconsin. This blog has highlighted Jeff Smith’s Film Criticism, the Cold War and the Blacklist (2014), Kelley Conway’s Agnès Varda (2015), Lea Jacobs’ Film Rhythm after Sound (2015), Lea’s and Ben Brewster’s enhanced e-book of Theatre to Cinema (2016), and Maria Belodubrovskya’s Not According to Plan: Filmmaking under Stalin (2018).

P.S. 9 May 2018: Thanks to Adrian Martin for correction of a misspelled name!

Kelley Conway awards J. J. Murphy a gilded Badger at the Communication Arts Showcase, 4 May 2019.

David Bordwell
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