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Archive for the 'Narrative strategies' Category

Reliable narrators? Telling tales on Trump

DB here:

Ten years ago on this blogsite, I wrote about the emerging meme treating political races as a struggle among “competing narratives.” I decided to take the notion literally and applied some principles of narrative analysis to the 2008 campaign biographies of John McCain and Barack Obama. You can read the results here.

Four years later, I tried to do the same thing with the Obama/Romney race. In both postings, I studied the candidates’ storytelling styles, their efforts at characterization, and the plot structures they presented. I didn’t try to repeat the effort in 2016, because the prospect of working through Trump’s Great Again: How to Fix Crippled America (2016) or Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices (2014) seemed like eating sawdust.

But my sensitivity feelers are twitching again because this year we’re awash in more pop narratology. By now references to The Narrative or The Alternative Narrative have become taken for granted. (As in: “Mr. Soros has been elevated by Mr. Trump and his allies to even greater prominence in the narrative they have constructed for the closing weeks of the 2018 midterm elections.”) What’s emerging is another notion swiped from the analyst’s toolkit: the Unreliable Narrator.

Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) appears to have invented the term. It’s become very common; Google lists over 629,000 mentions. Its meaning seems self-evident, but it can still be misunderstood. Some writers seem to think that any first-person narrator is inherently unreliable. Everybody is biased, right? But Booth intended the term to refer to narrators, first-person or not, that cunningly mislead us through such tactics as ellipsis, equivocation, faulty judgment, and outright lying. In film we encounter unreliable narration very often, as in the opening of Mildred Pierce (1945) or the initial voice-over in Confidence (2003).

Booth and the critics who followed him have shown the idea to be a useful tool of literary analysis. And now it’s become politicized. An NPR opinion piece is called “President Donald Trump, Unreliable Narrator” and compares Trump’s Twitter feed to the deluded and deceitful narration of Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

The issue of unreliability has come to the fore in three of the biggest-selling accounts of our monstrous presidential regime: Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, and Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House.

I’ll consider them as narratives, while warning you, as before, that I’m not very concerned with tracking down their factual accuracy. That’s an important task, but I want simply to study what Booth might call the rhetoric of nonfiction. By looking at each book’s plot structure (yes, they have plots) and narration, I want to understand how narrative analysis can help us better understand what counts as “reliability.” Fortunately for my purposes, the books nicely illustrate three different models of storytelling.

 

Truth’s gold standard: Washington’s Recording Angel

Many mainstream reviewers seem to have assumed that Woodward’s book wins the reliability award. The Washington Post review, written by a member of Harvard’s English department, notes:

His utter devotion to “just the facts” digging and his compulsively thorough interviews, preserved on tape for this book, make him a reliable narrator. In an age of “alternative facts” and corrosive tweets about “fake news,” Woodward is truth’s gold standard.

What makes Woodward seem so reliable? Partly it’s his research method. Publicly available sources and on-the-record interviews are cited in endnotes, but the real meat comes from “deep background,” an arrangement in which the subject willingly supplies information with the promise that she or he will not be identified. We trust that what Woodward tells us is based on what his sources told him, although of course we then have to trust what they said.

This aspect of reliability requires us to accept Woodward-the-narrator as a figure of scrupulous probity. He does everything he can to sustain this sense. He doesn’t even rely on his memory to report what he said on television.

Two days before the election, November 6, I appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. The discussion turned to the possibility that Trump could win.

According to the transcript, I said on the show….(44).

This appeal to personal trust is enhanced by a ruthless simplicity of style. Woodward writes short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters. The gray, graceless prose, adorned with times and dates like a Dragnet episode, seems to guarantee neutrality. Here are two complete paragraphs.

At about 9 p.m. Monday, November 27, more than four months after Priebus left the White House, the president reached him on his cell phone. They talked for 10 minutes (287).

In a meeting in January 2018, Navarro, Ross, Cohn and Porter gathered in the Oval Office. After months of arguing about tariffs from entrenched positions, debates had become heated and sharp (334).

My Word for Mac program lists these passages as readable at the 8.8 grade level. This is narrative transparency par excellence, flat and factual and a little clichéd (entrenched positions, heated debates). The irrelevant realistic detail (a conversation lasts 10 minutes, not 9 or 11) adds to the sense of verisimilitude. Even venturing into mental terrain is done guardedly.

Trump seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list–in his mind or anywhere else–of tasks to complete (233).

Trump seems, to an unknown observer, to forget his decisions. The following claim about his list-less mind becomes not a plunge into his psyche but a commonsense inference based on his work habits.

Woodward enhances trust by building the story out of scores of conversation scenes. Each of the 42 chapters consists of several incidents, presented with minimal intervention by the narrating voice. It’s as if a tape recorder is playing history back for us.

This strategy can produce powerful scenes. I won’t soon forget the lengthy efforts of John Dowd, Trump’s attorney, to rehearse his client testifying before Mueller. Over four pages, Trump reveals himself incapable of sticking to the point or telling the truth. In desperation (“Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jump suit”), Dowd goes to Bob Mueller and instructs his colleague Jay Sekulow to reenact highlights of the president™’s audition. After Sekulow executes a torrent of rambling, contradictory replies (“a perfect Trump”), Dowd brays, “Gotcha!” and explains that his client obviously can’t be dragged in. This Brechtian skit leaves Mueller largely unmoved.

Occasionally the objective surface is broken by the thoughts of selected participants. When this happens, Woodward’s reported conversations flow along like a pulp novel or a sitcom screenplay. Steve Bannon calls on Paul Manafort in Trump Tower.

Manafort’s place was beautiful. Kathleen Manafort, his wife, an attorney who was in her 60s but looked to Bannon like she was in her 40s, was wearing white and lounging like Joan Collins, the actress from the show Dynasty. . . .

[Manafort shows Bannon a draft of a New York Times story.]

“Twelve million fucking dollars in cash out of the Ukraine!” Bannon virtually shouted.

“What?” Mrs. Manfort said, bolting upright.

“Nothing, honey,” Manafort said. “Nothing.”

“When is this coming out?” Bannon asked.

“It may go up tonight.”

“Does Trump know anything about this?”

Manafort said no.

“How long have you known about this?”

Two months, Manafort said, when the Times started investigating.

Bannon read about 10 paragraphs in. It was a kill shot. It was over for Manafort (21).

This works by creating a POV character. It’s not Woodward but Bannon, ex-Hollywood bottom-feeder, who seems to be making the Joan Collins connection while talking/thinking like a second-tier hitman in Get Shorty.

Still, turbocharging other encounters in this way might seem a risky strategy. How is the reporter to gain our credence? How is he able to produce for our delectation pages of exact dialogue? Who remembers conversations so exactly? And how has Woodward reconciled the witnesses’ different recollections? “Deep background” supplies the material, but how much has Washington’s Recording Angel shaped the disparate stories he’s heard?

Henry James, reacting against the loquacious authorial-voice narrators of Dickens and Thackeray, argued that the novelist could learn from the playwright. A play doesn’t include a chatty narrator; the characters are on their own. “Dramatize it, dramatize it!” Roll out the novel’s action in “discriminated occasions,” concrete scenes that reveal the characters’ traits and desires through behavior–gestures, looks, speech. This presentation is subtler and more realistic than a commenting narrator’s explications. The reader has to work a little more to judge what she sees and hears, just as we do in real life. And there’s more artistry in implying the undercurrent of motives than in letting a godlike narrator state them baldly.

The admonition to dramatize went along with another Jamesian premise, that of limited viewpoint. Restrict what the reader knows to a “center of consciousness,” a single intelligence who registers the action played out. That viewpoint might be sustained for an entire story or novel, or it might be confined to a single chapter, with another chapter taking up another character’s perspective. Again, realism is enhanced (this is how we see the world, through a single mind), but so is artistry. There’s a skill to arranging your plot so as to let its implications register gradually on a character. (Especially when, as in “In the Cage” or What Maisie Knew, there are severe limits on the character’s knowledge.) Now the story would be about how characters try to understand and judge situations, and how their inferences shape their reactions.

James’s ideas were developed and formularized in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921), and they became commonplace in modern writing. We are so used to them that going back to read the classic nineteenth-century novels brings us up short: long paragraphs of authorial commentary can seem forbidding. Elmore Leonard’s laconic crime sagas epitomize the modern taste: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Bob Woodward is no James or Dutch Leonard, but he builds Fear out of “discriminated occasions” presented as dramatic clashes among characters. He also occasionally filters those scenes through the reactions of participants, as in the Bannon scene above. By following broad mandates of twentieth-century literary technique, Woodward gains the reliability of a unified fiction.

As in a novel, readers of Fear tap into several minds–not just Bannon’s and Dowd’s, as above, but those of other major players like Gary Cohn, Reince Priebus, James Clapper, and Rob Porter. The arc of the book, most of which covers the period from August 2016 to March 2018, surveys their activities planning policy and responding to Trump’s mischief and Mueller’s investigation. There seems little doubt that these gentlemen, all eventual exiles from the Trump White House, were the prime sources of Woodward’s narrative. As if in payback, our author breaks the impersonal surface to offer a mildly approving comment about them.

At the very start, amid a lump of exposition, Gary Cohn’s impressive credentials and bold initiative are spotlighted.

In early September 2017, in the eighth month of the Trump presidency, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and the president’s top economic adviser in the White House, moved cautiously toward the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office (xvii).

Cohn is swiping a disastrous letter that would terminate a free-trade agreement with South Korea. By burying it in a file, he keeps the chief executive from signing it, and Cohn trusts (correctly) that his boss will just forget. “I stole it off his desk,” he explains. “. . . . Got to protect the country.”

Cohn’s surreptitious heroism is abetted by Rob Porter, staff secretary and Trump gatekeeper. This “6-foot-4, rail-thin” Mormon “ordinarily tried to remain an honest broker who facilitated the discussion” (335). Porter weaves through the narrative, and we get his muted reactions to meetings. A scandal thrusts him out the door, but Woodward treats the alleged wife-beater with bland gentility.

Porter quickly concluded it would be best for all–his former spouses, his family and close friends, the White House and himself–to resign. He wanted to focus on repairing relationships and healing (336).

Woodward inserts this into a studiously tame account of the allegations and Porter’s public reply, but there is a difference between writing this passage and writing: “He said he wanted to focus on…” Woodward’s phrasing tacitly aligns us with Porter. And who can condemn someone who likes “relationships and healing”?

Woodward is sometimes characterized as working in the space between journalism and history. I suggest that his techniques are borrowed from fiction as well. He uses the tactics of post-Jamesian literary narrative to dramatize his plot, to attach us to privileged centers of consciousness, and to secure our trust. Fear reads like a summer beach page-turner because, in its construction, it is.

 

Exaggerating the exaggerations

Cagle Cartoons, via The Brooklyn Eagle.

Michael Wolff, by contrast, is untrustworthy, according to many reviews. This one in The Atlantic is widely quoted online, perhaps because its author is Adam Kirsch, himself a novelist.

If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator:  “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,” he writes.  The traditional promise of the journalist is to find the single, fundamental truth obscured by all the partial, biased accounts he elicits. But Wolff explicitly declines to make that promise; he offers not the story but a whole chorus of stories.

But in the passage quoted, Wolff doesn’t actually claim to be unreliable. He isn’t asserting that his book is endlessly juggling incompatible accounts. Kirsch neglects to quote the sentences that follow the passage he picked out:

Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true (xii).

So no less than Woodward, Wolff is committed to finding out the truth. But he admits, as Woodward never does, that constructing an accurate account, in the face of disparities and incomplete information, can’t always be done. Some conclusions can be fairly well-founded, while others must be tentative and still others must be suspended. For example, Wolff borrows from Franklin Foer a set of possible reasons that Trump cozies up to Putin. Wolff offers what evidence he can for each hypothesis, but doesn’t rule any out, and he suggests that many may be at work at the same time.

In sum, Woodward’s story world is transparent, Wolff’s intermittently opaque, but both grant that there’s something out there to be seen. This isn’t what Kirsch calls “a perfectly Postmodern White House book.” More like Citizen Kane or The Thin Blue Line, I guess, than Last Year at Marienbad.

Just as Woodward’s narrative relies on our trust in him as the ultimate fair-minded chronicler, Wolff trades on his reputation as a somewhat sensationalistic media commentator. The author of a scathing biography of Rupert Murdoch, he’s often spoken of as a “columnist” rather than a journalist–a slight I take as a way of dismissing him. But he explains that he got access to this shambolic White House in a way that the orthodox press couldn’t. He just walked in and sat around and drifted into offices to listen to what people said.

Wolff claims, as Woodward does, to have nabbed these leakers’ comments on tape. So those who valorize Woodward’s meticulous recording ought to equally prize Wolff’s efforts.  I expect, though, that Wolff’s reputation and his more gonzo enterprise cast doubt on his reporting. Yet despite a few minor errors of fact widely reported in the reviews, nobody has to my knowledge shown fatal shortcomings in Wolff’s account. It corresponds closely to that of Woodward, and it shows a degree of skepticism, analysis, and brutal humor which the the staid Woodward never displays.

Wolff’s time span is tighter than Woodward’s, running from Election Day (8 November 2016) through August 2017, with an epilogue in October. Woodward’s episodic vignettes trace White House activities chronologically and topically; chapters are devoted to Russian hacking, Middle Eastern initiatives, tariffs, and the like. Although the chapters are untitled, you can practically see the labels on Woodward’s file drawers. Fire and Fury works in larger chunks: half the number of chapters, tagged with titles indicating either a specific time frame (the transition, “Day One”) or a topic or, in many cases, a player (“McMaster and Scaramucci”).

If Woodward’s book is largely about Trump as viewed by a cluster of hirelings assigned to damage control, Fire and Fury is about the struggle of Steve Bannon to make Trump act on his white supremacist, institution-wrecking impulses. Wolff’s story is about how a chief executive of no principles except selfish advantage lurches from one view or action or statement to another, depending on who influences him at the moment. Bannon steers him with the help of ad hoc allies (Reince Priebus, Katie Walsh), while Jared Kushner and Ivanka (named by Bannon “Jarvanka”) press him in another direction. It’s a zero-sum game, with fluctuating results. Bannon beats Ivanka on the Paris accords (“Score. The bitch is dead”), but he loses when Trump turns against Bannon’s ally Jeff Sessions. In this Jacobean, shiv-in-the-ribs milieu, eventually Bannon loses. Banished to Breitbart Central, he hopes to continue the Trump Revolution.

Figures who are center stage in Fear (Mattis, McMaster) are lucky to get walk-on roles in Wolff’s book. Woodward’s savior of the republic Gary Cohn is mentioned by Wolff only three times, and then as malleable clay brought on by the Jarvanka faction. (Bannon loyalist Sam Nunberg: “I beat the shit out of Gary whenever possible,” 144.) Cohn’s sidekick Rob Porter makes no appearance at all.

Call it Bannon-centric, but this book has a plot spine lacking in Woodward’s calmly appalled cavalcade of follies and indignities. Just as important, Wolff takes a notably different narrating approach. Nowhere in the book do we find passages like the back-and-forth between Bannon and Manafort. We get something more dense: the voice of a commentator scanning a range of events and extracting their gist, usually for purposes of mockery. Try this:

Intoxicated by Trump’s flattery during the campaign, Flynn–a lower-tier general and quite a flaky one at that–had become something of a Trump dancing monkey. When former generals make alliances with political candidates, they customarily position themselves as providers of expertise and figures of a special maturity. But Flynn had become quite a maniacal partisan, part of the Trump traveling road show, one of the ranters and ravers opening Trump rallies. This all-in enthusiasm and loyalty had helped win him access to Trump’s ear, into which he poured his anti-intelligence-community theories.

During the early part of the transition, when Bannon and Kushner had seemed joined at the hip, this was part of their bond: an effort to disintermediate Flynn and his often problematic message. A subtext in the White House estimation of Flynn, slyly insinuated by Bannon, was that Defense Secretary Mattis was a four-star general and Flynn but a three-star.

“I like Flynn, he reminds me of my uncles,” said Bannon. “But that’s the problem: he reminds me of my uncles (103).”

The comedy here (at a 12th-grade reading level) is wholly typical of the book as a whole, but I want to consider how Wolff deploys two classic narrational strategies. First, instead of scenes, he supplies what Gérard Genette calls summaries: concise overviews of action. In the passage above we get a summary of Flynn’s antics on the campaign trail, then a summary of many (untold) incidents of Flynn’s efforts to woo Trump, a summary of the tactics Kushner and Bannon employed to keep him at a distance, and a summary of Bannon’s initiative to lower esteem for Flynn. The whole is buttoned up by a zinger from Bannon, a discriminated occasion but hardly a scene.

The second narrational strategy at work here is what literary critics tend to call omniscient narration. This voice knows all the backstairs gossip. It knows what went on in Flynn’s mind (he was flattered by Trump), how he behaved at rallies, how he tried to sway Trump, what went on between Kushner and Bannon, and what Bannon’s scheme was. Granted, Woodward roams widely in his book, across many encounters and agents, but as he shifts the moving spotlight, he never offers this panoramic blend of different points of view and commentary. Nor would he venture Wolff’s judgments (dancing monkey, flaky general, ranters and ravers, Bannon’s slyness). Woolf’s viewpoint is unrestricted and it plunges deep into characters’ psyches.

I suspect that this combination of summary and omniscience has made Wolff seem less reliable to orthodox reviewers. Woodward’s “just the facts” approach, while no less carefully sculpted, allows the reader to feel smart: we appear to get to draw our own conclusions. Wolff’s evidence is packaged, wrapped, and tied in a bow. But that doesn’t make him unreliable. We can verify a lot he lays out in the passage. Flynn did criticize the intelligence establishment, he did misbehave at Trump rallies (“Lock her up!”), and he did eventually get sidelined, before being snagged by Mueller and hustled toward a guilty plea. And we have no reason to doubt that Kushner and Bannon, momentary allies, tried to sideline him.

In fiction, this is an old-fashioned way to write. It harks back to the nineteenth-century commentative author that the James-Lubbock orthodoxy found pushy and unsubtle. Like Dickens or Thackeray, Wolff tells us how to feel and what it all means. But this is not necessarily an inferior strategy. It allows Wolff to interpret the action to a degree that Woodward shrinks from. In one of many shrewd passages, Wolff notes the very choppiness that Trump forces Woodward into, the fusillade of outrages that exhausts pundits and citizens of conscience.

But before moving on to the next episode of ohmygodness, it is worth considering the possibility that this constant, daily, often more than once-a-day pileup of events–each one canceling out the one before–is the true aberration and novelty at the heart of the Trump presidency. 

Perhaps never before in history…have real-life events unfolded with such emotional and plot-thickening impact. In the fashion of binge-watching a television show, one’s real life became quite secondary to the public drama. It was not unreasonable to say Whoa, wait just a minute: public life doesn’t happen like this. . . . Contravening all cultural and media logic, Donald Trump produced on a daily basis an astonishing, can’t-stop-following-it narrative (250-251).

I think Wolff’s observation, hyperbolic as it is, rings true. During the Vietnam War years or the Watergate hearings, there wasn’t the pounding cascade of twists and jolts. I recall that during the 2016 campaign, an especially salubrious Trump consultant said in an interview that they aimed to win each day’s news cycle. Now, day by day, Trump has managed to elicit a paradoxical reaction: You’re always stunned but never surprised.

Perhaps it takes a media writer to notice this phenomenon, but it remains a level of essayistic reflection that one searches for in vain in Fear. Yet passages like this make many think Wolff is unreliable. Actually, he’s just opinionated. Fear is the story above the fold, Fire and Fury is the no-holds-barred op-ed. And it’s no less “novelistic,” though in a different fashion.

Finally, Wolff’s writing style would make nervous critics worry about reliability. He makes serious points with sarcasm, and I think that this blend comes off as Not Real Journalism to those who find his narration unreliable. I didn’t laugh once in reading Woodward’s book, except when he quoted Trump, but Wolff’s cynical wit is quite fetching. He calls Stephen Miller “a fifty-five-year-old trapped in a thirty-two-year-old’s body” (62). (It’s the fifty-five that makes it art.) The three-pole White House power center (Bannon, Kushner, Priebus) is “a 1970s video game, the white ball pinging back and forth in the black triangle” (117). No guess on who’s the white ball. Questioning Jeff Sessions, Al Franken “appeared to be casting blindly for an elusive fish” (151). And Trump and Hope Hicks court NYT journalist Maggie Haberman assiduously.

Haberman’s front-page beat at the paper, which might be called the “weirdness of Donald Trump” beat, involved producing vivid tales of eccentricities, questionable behavior, and shit the president says, told in a knowing, deadpan style. Beyond acknowledging that Trump was a boy from Queens yet in awe of the Times, nobody in the West Wing could explain why he and Hicks would so often turn to Haberman for what would so reliably be a mocking and hurtful portrayal (206-207).

Still, Wolff’s caustic byplay can’t match the Trump original. My favorite is Trump’s complaint about the media: “They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it. It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated” (98).

As if anticipating my comparison with Fear, Wolff cannily sets his book against the standard norm of White House reportage. Noting Bannon’s reverence for David Halberstam’s 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, Wolff argues that it became the template for high-tone coverage of national politics. Its chief heir is Bob Woodward, “a figure of unchallengeable presidential mythmaking” (54). Fire and Fury is deliberately the anti-Woodward Trump book. In a spirit of meta-mischief Wolff can even invoke the topic of today’s sermonette. He remarks that Trump and the mainstream media have created “two unreliable narrators dominating American public life” (38). For some of us, Wolff’s ironic acknowledgment of unreliable narrators can only enhance his reliability.

 

Omarosa Agonistes

Still from Our Cartoon President. Courtesy of Showtime.

Whatever doubts reviewers have about Wolff’s book, Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House struck a deeper nerve.  “This is what complicity looks like,” says a Mashable reviewer. The Columbia Journalism Review declares that Omarosa is “an unreliable narrator” because Frank Luntz and George Conway have denied quotations she attributed to them–not exactly the most corrosive counterevidence you might consider.

For these observers, what makes the author’s account doubtful largely depends on her reputation. Omarosa’s public image from the Apprentice TV show has been that of the villainness, and her willingness to work for Trump’s campaign and regime has made her seem compromised. Some remarks, notably the one predicting that all will have to “bow down” to her boss, the most powerful man in the universe (not mentioned in the book), have made her seem both ruthless and unhinged herself. More than one reviewer has declared that she learned aggressive self-promotion from the master, with the book becoming a plausible cash grab after she has been sacked.

Yet this problem would arise with any Trump confidant who broke with the master and decided to tell all. Trump has inoculated himself by assembling such a band of miscreants that any confessional book would be lambasted as the work of an opportunistic grifter. Should Stephen Miller or Sarah Huckabee Sanders be bounced from the team, find enlightenment on the road to Damascus, and publish critical memoirs, Trumpists would call them traitors, anti-Trumpists would call them fellow travelers, and everybody would call them opportunists. I’d wecome Allen Weisselberg turning apostate and telling us how the Trump organization has made its money, but he too would surely be castigated for years of complicity.

As with any such tell-all, the difficulties are compounded by a narrative technique that’s different from Woodward’s moving-spotlight survey and Wolff’s synthesizing summaries of cloak and dagger. Omarosa is obliged to tell her tale in the first person, so information is restricted to what she witnesses or hears from others. The advantage is that she becomes a more direct source than Woodward or Wolff; indeed, she might have been one of their “deep-background” sources. Had she not had the reputation of a cunning vixen, what she tells might prove more damning than anything the two men retail at second hand.

Yet for a moment let’s suspend Omarosa’s public image. Omarosa the writer (and her ghost collaborator, thanked in the acknowledgments) are flesh and blood. Omarosa the narrator of Unhinged is somewhat distinct: an image constructed for the sake of telling this story. Just as Woodward the reporter might be a closet Republican and Wolff might be a mercenary gossip, their narrative personas might still be trustworthy. Ms. Manigault Newman off the page might be a conniver, but Omarosa the narrator might be reliable. Maybe her story isn’t a con job.

Given that her reader knows her reputation, her first task is to earn trust. One way is to report things that we know to be true or will take to be plausible. Surprisingly, a lot of Unhinged consists of Trump’s public statements. What’s news in these instances are the reactions of those in the White House to the cascade of insults, lies, and blunders. And those reactions are no less implausible than the behind-the-scenes dramas reported by Woodward and Wolff. Details matter too. Everyone will recognize the book’s glancing account of Trump’s gestures, “the ‘cobra’ pointed finger and the starfish finger flail” (269).

Other items are in keeping with everything else coming out of the regime. It’s unfortunately plausible that Trump called Conway, who has Filipino heritage, a FLIP (Fucking Little Island People), or that Trump claims that the birther calumny was legitimate “opposition research” (260, 52). It’s wholly in character that Trump would use his leverage to keep Omarosa from suing his ally the National Inquirer over a distorted story about her brother’s death (55-57). The book makes nasty remarks about the vacuity of the Trump offspring and Kellyanne Conway’s predatory opportunism (having switched from supporting Cruz to supporting Trump). But these too don’t contradict well-established impressions from other sources. Even the claim that Omarosa saw Trump eat a document isn’t far-fetched to me. We’ve learned that he tears up papers that aides must tape back together to preserve presidential records, and he likes to eat.

Central to Omarosa’s thesis, and giving the book its title, is the claim that Trump is undergoing mental decline. Having known him since 2003, Omarosa claims that he was once a quick-witted calculator and a less rambling conversationalist. His admission that he fired Comey because of the Russian investigation convinces her there’s deterioration.

But what could I do? Declare a state of mental emergency for Donald J. Trump? Should I report this insight to . . . to whom, exactly? The White House doctor Ronny Jackson, whose job depended on Trump’s approval of him, a man who would go on to declare an obviously obese, sleep-deprived man in excellent health? To the chief of staff [Priebus], a man I didn’t trust or respect? To Don, Jr., Ivanka, or Eric, who had to be seeing what I saw, and had done nothing? To Melania? She was completely trapped herself. And what would I say? “I’m not a doctor, but I think the president is losing it.”. . . .

[She contacts Eric’s wife Lara.]

When she came by in a week or so, I said, “I’m really concerned about him.” 

She said, “I know. The whole situation is totally messed up.”

“No, I mean his language is incoherent. This is more than just a–“

“No,” she said, like she didn’t want to hear it.

“I think he needs to get checked.”

She shook her head and said, “It’s fine.” . . . .

I would eventually talk to several high-level people in the White House about my concerns, and they all shut me down quickly and decisively, with warnings (246-247).

Again, these episodes (mixtures of scenes and summaries) don’t seem implausible. Maybe Omarosa’s wrong, and Trump isn’t going gaga, but it’s not utterly far-fetched. She entertained the possibility. She’s not alone.

As for reporting White House activities, Omarosa seems to rely on both diary notes–some chapters are given in day-by-day chronology–and tape recordings. The big difference between her tapes and those that Woodward and Wolff draw on is that she has played a few for a skeptical press. Two passages of the book’s dialogue–her firing at the hands of General Kelly, and Lara’s offer of a $15,000 monthly stipend–are confirmed by recordings. (The very fact that she was able to tape so much supports her general picture of a chaotic administration.) She has also released a tape of Trump phoning her and claiming he was unaware of her firing, as recounted in the book. And Washington Post staff may have heard still others that support passages in Unhinged.

After the book was published, Omarosa claimed to have a great many tapes. Maybe she has a recording of the mental-health discussion with Lara.

In constructing her narrating persona, then, Omarosa has offered known claims, plausible claims, and a measure of hard evidence. If she weren’t notorious for scheming, that persona might have won over skeptical readers. But of course she’s considered a schemer, so she needs another way to earn our trust. She does it by offering a plot centered on conversion and redemption.

The protagonist of Unhinged suffers a childhood of food-stamp poverty in the decaying Youngstown projects. Her cousin dies in an apartment fire, her father at the hands of an assailant. She pulls herself out of it through beauty pageants and raging ambition, finishing college and going into politics. A staffer for Al Gore, she goes on to work in the Clinton White House. But she is angered by the Clintons’ failure to connect with black groups, and especially by the scandalous treatment of women during Lewinskygate. After a stint with CNN and the DNC, she joins the cast of The Apprentice and meets The Donald.

Omarosa the narrator has to finesse many matters in her telling, but race is central. She traces an oscillating arc. In the early years, she never heard Trump utter a racist word. He was, in a piece of hair-splitting, “racial” in using race to divide people and achieve his ends, but not strictly “racist”–at least not until he embraced birtherism. She prevaricated about Trump’s plot to “destroy” Obama, but decided that her work life mattered more. “If your boss expressed political views that differed from yours, would you protest and quit your job? I reasoned he had a right to his opinion, just as I had a right to mine” (46-47). Not least, Trump treated her very well; she considered him a friend.

The story starts to shift in recent years. A lot of what she sees is disquieting–the Access Hollywood Tape, Trump’s refusal to learn about racism and sexism, his apparent mental decline. She tries to push initiatives to help minority communities, but black leaders mostly shun and lambaste her. Within the White House, she fights other appointees–“tackled by her teammates.” But the pluses outweigh the minuses. Caught up in Trumpworld, she knows success and a sense of accomplishment. She admits enjoying the perks and prestige. She blocks out what everyone else sees. “It was difficult to process the anxiety and pain others were suffering as a result of the administration” (324).

The breaking point comes in August of 2017.

Until Charlottesville, I couldn’t allow myself to process how bad things had become, because that would mean confronting things I’d noticed and ignored about Trump all along. My blind spot was shattered during that press conference, though. I could see with my own eyes that Trump had no idea what people were so upset about. He just did not grasp it. He was disconnected from reality. . . .

He moved like he was being attacked. A young woman was dead, and he was only thinking about his own discomfort.

He said, “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” . . . .

During this incredible unraveling, Trump also trashed John McCain for voting against his health care bill, called reporters fake news, pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners, questioned the validity of removing racist symbols like Confederate statues, defended the white supremacists and neo-Nazis for having the proper permits (they didn’t, actually), made a dig at Obama for not fixing race during his eight years as president, and touted that he’d brought a car factory to Wisconsin. Trump’s mental decline was on full display during this press conference (286).

All this precedes the most “incendiary” remark of all, the claim about “very fine people, on both sides” (289). After this, Omarosa plans her strategic exit. Her distinction between racial and racist “was a deception I had used to convince myself” (292). Either Trump wants to start a race war or has simply lost all judgment. Either way, she needs to get out of Trumpworld.

She waited, she explains, because she had a conference scheduled for student representatives of historically black colleges and universities. She claims to have resisted efforts by others to halt the conference; one official fears that after Charlottesville “they might riot. They might burn the place down” (302)  After the conference is held without incident, Omarosa settles on a January departure, to accord with tradition and to allow Trump to find another person to handle African American outreach. But then, amid many other crises, she starts to hear about a damaging Apprentice tape. She starts to investigate it, only to be fired in December by Chief of Staff General Kelly.

All of the books I’m considering have what I call in Reinventing Hollywood a “crisis” structure. The text begins at a major moment in the story and then flashes back to trace how events led up to it. In Fear, it’s the moment when Gary Cohn pulls the South Korean letter off Trump’s desk; Woodward wants us to ask: How on earth did things come to this pass? In Fire and Fury, the prologue (“Ailes and Bannon”) is a dinner between Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon after the election. This establishes Wolff’s major theme of Bannon becoming the new right-wing power broker, with the pattern rounded off by the epilogue (“Bannon and Ailes”).

For Unhinged, the crisis-driven Prologue is Omarosa’s firing by Kelly. It benefits from the first-person narrative because it creates both mystery and suspense, thanks to inner monologue:

“There are serious integrity violations,” he said.

Why was he being so vague? What violations?

“The staff works for me, not the president. So after your departure, I’ll inform him. With that, I’ll let you go.”

What is he talking about? Where is this coming from?

Quickly, I connected the dots.

This had to be about the N-word tape (xi).

At the book’s end, we return to this scene and pass beyond it to Omarosa’s efforts to get out the truth about Trump.

Once again we have a narrator resorting to a novelistic technique, but this one carries special weight because it puts us directly inside a participant’s mind. Of course, she may be misreporting, as those deep-background sources sharing their thoughts with Wolff and Woodward might be. But first-person narration produces a vivid sense of actuality. (Dramatize, dramatize.) Add to this Omarosa’s later discovery, in the final pages of her memoir, of a person who confirms what Trump said on the tape. This proves to her that he was a racist way back when she first met him. She was fooled for many years.

After all this, Omarosa can devote her time to the mission of warning us about Trump and his administration. But ultimately she has  found her true identity as a Baptist pastor and a loving wife. “I’ve escaped from the cult of Trumpworld. I’m free” (330). Going from rags to riches, learning the cost of those riches, the heroine, redeemed by suffering and now more aware of what she wants and the way the world is, has won. She too finds relationships and healing. If this were romance fiction, we’d call it a happy ending.

Unhinged is written at an eighth-grade reading level.

 

A narrative analysis like mine can’t guarantee the truth of what the story says. But it does point up factors in persuading us to trust it. I am not making the point–as you’ll sometimes see in caricatural portraits of Postmodernism–that all narratives are fictions. There is a fact of the matter, though usually we can’t determine it easily. Much of what Woodward, Wolff, and Omarosa write, often mutually reinforcing, will need to be confirmed independently.

Still, the way each writer has shaped and colored the material also plays a role in soliciting belief. More than we usually admit, those ways owe a great deal to the strategies of fictitious narratives. “Just the facts” isn’t enough. Our trust in the what is often dependent on the how.


Thanks to Deborah Blum of The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT for helping me clarify some conventions of reportage. She writes excellent books!

Henry James calls for dramatization in several of his writings. See the preface to “The Author of Beltraffio” and other tales in Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1241. He goes on to say that “that provided for all my ‘fun’.” Only James puts “fun” in quotes. Gérard Genette’s distinction between scene and summary can be found in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Cornell University Press, 1980), 94-99.

For Omarosa’s 2016 declaration of friendship with Donald, see here.

Vancouver 2018: Crime waves

Burning (2018).

DB:

It’s striking how many stories depend on crimes. Genre movies do, of course, but so do art films (The Conformist, Blow-Up) and many of those in between (Run Lola Run, Memento, Nocturnal Animals). The crime might be in the future (as in heist films ), the ongoing present (many thrillers), or the distant past (dramas revealing buried family secrets).

Crime yields narrative dividends. It permits storytellers to probe unusual psychological states and complex moral choices (as in novels like Crime and Punishment, The Stranger). You can build curiosity about past transgressions, suspense about whether a crime will be revealed, and surprise when bad deeds surface. Crime has an affinity with another appeal: mystery. Not all mysteries involve crimes (e.g., perhaps The Turn of the Screw), and not all crime stories depend on mystery (e.g., many gangster movies). Still, crime laced with mystery creates a powerful brew, as Dickens, Wilkie Collins, John le Carré, and detective writers have shown.

We ought, then, to expect that a film festival will offer a panorama of criminal activity. Venice did last year and this, and so did the latest edition of the  Vancouver International Film Festival. Some movies were straightforward thrillers, some introduced crime obliquely. In one the question of whether a crime was committed at all led–yes–to a full-fledged murder.

 

Smells like teen spirit

Diary of My Mind.

Start with the package of four Swiss TV episodes from the series Shock Wave. Produced by Lionel Baier, these dramas were based on real cases–some fairly distant, others more recent, all involving teenagers. The episodes offer an anthology of options on how to trace the progress of a crime.

In Sirius a rural cult prepares for a mass suicide in expectation they’ll be resurrected on an extraterrestrial realm. The film focuses largely on Hugo, a teenager turned over to the cult by his parents. Director Frédéric Mermoud gives the group’s suicide preparations a solemnity that contrasts sharply with the food-fight that they indulge in the night before. Similarly, The Valley presents a tense account of a young car thief pursued by the police. Locking us to his consciousness and a linear time scheme, director Jean-Stéphane Bron summons up a good deal of suspense around the boy’s prospects of survival in increasingly unfriendly mountain terrain.

Sirius and The Valley give us straightforward chronology, but First Name Mathieu, Baier’s directorial contribution, offers something else. A serial killer is raping and murdering young men, but one of his victims, Mathieu, manages to escape. The film’s narration is split. Mathieu struggles to readjust to life at home and at school, while the police try to coax a firm identification from him. This action is punctuated by flashback glimpses of the traumatic crime. The result explores the parents’ uncertainty about how restore the routines of normal life, the police inspector’s unwillingness to press Mathieu too hard, and the boy’s self-consciousness and guilt as the target of the town’s morbid curiosity.

This insistence on the aftereffects of a crime dominates Diary of My Mind, Ursula Meier’s contribution to the series. This too uses flashbacks, mostly to the moments right after a high-school boy kills his mother and father. But there’s no whodunit factor; we know that Ben is guilty. The question is why. Ben’s diary seems to offer a decisive clue (“I must kill them”), but just as important, the magistrate thinks, is his creative writing under the tutelage of Madame Fontanel, played by the axiomatic Fanny Ardent. Because she encouraged her students to expose their authentic feelings, Ben’s hatred of his father had surfaced in his classroom work. Perfectly normal for a young man, she assures the magistrate. No, he asserts: a warning you ignored. The shock waves that engulf onlookers after a crime, the suggestion that art can be both therapeutic and dangerous, the question of a teacher’s duty to both her pupils and the society outside the classroom–Diary of My Mind raises these and other themes in a compact, engaging tale.

 

Last hurrah of (movie) chivalry

Chinese director Jia Zhangke is no stranger to criminal matters. His films have dwelt on street hustles, botched bank robberies, and hoodlums at many ranks. Ash Is Purest White is  a gangster saga, tracing how a tough woman, Qiao, survives across the years 2001-2018. Initially the mistress of boss Bin, Qiao rescues him from a violent beatdown using his pistol. She takes the blame for owning a firearm. Getting out of prison, Qiao tracks down the now-weakened Bin, who has taken up with another woman.

Ash Is Purest White tackles a familiar schema, the fall of a gang leader, from the unusual perspective of the woman beside him, who turns out to be stronger than he is. Most of the film is filtered through her experience, and along with her we learn of Bin’s decline and betrayal, along with his integration into the corrupt and bureaucratic capitalism of twenty-first century China. The second half of the film shows Qiao forced to survive outside the gang’s milieu. A funny scene plays out one of her scams: picking a prosperous man at random, she announces that her sister, implicitly his mistress, is pregnant.  Just as important, Qiao’s adventures allow Jia to survey current mainland fads and follies, including belief in UFO visits.

Among those follies, Bin suggests, is a trust in mass-media images.  As Ozu’s crime films (Walk Cheerfully, Dragnet Girl) suggested that 1930s Japanese street punks imitated Warner Bros. gangsters, so Jia’s mainland hoods model themselves on the romantic heroes of Hong Kong cinema. They raptly watch videos of Tragic Hero (1987) and cavort to the sound of Sally Yeh’s mournful theme from The Killer (1989). They derive their sense of the jianghu--that landscape of mountains and rivers that was the backdrop of ancient chivalry–not from lore or even martial-arts novels but from the violent underworld shown on TV screens.

Bin’s decline is portrayed as abandoning those ideals of righteousness and self-sacrifice flamboyantly dramatized in the movies. But Qiao clings to the imaginary jianghu to the end. She explains to him that everything she did was for their old code, but as for him: “You’re no longer in the jianghu. You wouldn’t understand.” You can respect his pragmatism and admire her tenacity, but he’s still a feeble figure, and she’s left running a seedy mahjongg joint–one much less glamorous than the club she swanned through at the film’s start. Appropriately for someone who got her idea of heroism from videos, we last see her as a speckled figure on a CCTV monitor.

 

From dailiness to darkness

Burning.

Often the crime in question is presented explicitly, but two films leave it to us to imagine what shadowy doings could have led to what we see. In Manta Ray, by Phuttiphong “Pom” Aroonpheng, we get the familiar motif of swapped identity. A Thai fisherman finds a wounded man in the forest and nurses him back to health. The victim is a mute Rohinga whom the fisherman names Thongchai. They share a home and the occasional dance and swim, even a DIY disco.

But who attacked Thongchai in the forest, and why? And what is the connection to the unearthly gunman who paces through the forest, bedecked in pulsating Christmas bulbs? And what makes the foliage teem with gems glowing in the murk? Somewhere, there has been a crime.

Manta Ray accumulates its impact gradually, with the scenes of the men’s routines giving way to mystery when the fisherman vanishes and Thongchai (named by the fisherman for a Thai pop singer) is trailed by a ninja-like figure clad in a red cagoule. A disappearance and a reappearance (of the fisherman’s wife) punctuate moody scenes of trees and sea. The opacity of the action makes a political point: offscreen, Thais brutally hunt down the refugee Rohingas. But the critique of anti-immigrant brutality is intensified by the lustrous cinematography (Aroonpheng was a top DP). You can feel the texture of the planks in the cabin and the sharp edges of the gems that fingers root out of the forest floor. This is probably the most tactile movie I saw at VIFF.

Then there was Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Lee started his career strong and has stayed that way. The slowly paced, Kitanoesque gangster story Green Fish (1997) and Peppermint Candy (1999), with its reverse-order chronology, both achieved local popularity and established him as a fixture on the festival circuit. Oasis (2002), a daring romance of a disabled couple, won a special prize at Venice. Secret Sunshine (2007) brought Lee even more widespread fame. Like the episodes of Shock Waves, it dealt with the aftereffects of a horrific crime. Virtually everyone I know who saw the film remembers most vividly a particular scene: the heroine, having converted to Christianity and at last ready to forgive the perpetrator, visits him in prison. It’s one of the most nakedly blasphemous scenes I’ve ever seen, carried off with a shocking calm. Crime–this time, a gang rape–is also at the center of Poetry (2010), with another mother facing familial tragedy.

Most of these plots, particularly Poetry, are rather busy, but Burning is more stripped down (though not short). Lee Dong-su maintains the shabby family farm while his father is in jail awaiting trial. In town Dong-su meets Haemi, a former classmate now running sidewalk giveaways.

She lures him into her life by asking him to feed her cat while she’s in Africa, but before she leaves they start an affair. But he seldom breaks into a smile, favoring a puckered-lip passivity. After their coupling, we get his POV on a blank wall.

This turns out to be the first of many disquieting passages. Between bouts of tending livestock, feeding Haemi’s cat, and masturbating to her picture, Dong-su gets mysterious phone calls with no one on the line. He meets Haemi at the airport only to discover that she’s formed a friendship (or more?) with the suave Ben, whose gentle courtesy makes Dong-su feel an even bigger bumpkin. Soon the three are hanging out together, but at parties Dong-su can only stare at Ben’s yuppie friends. Dong-su, who wants to be a writer, is a fan of Faulkner, but Ben compares himself to the Great Gatsby.

After a long night of relaxing at the farm, with the men watching Haemi dance topless, she disappears. A black frame, a dream of a burning greenhouse, and Dong-su is left alone halfway through the movie. What happened to Haemi? And why does Ben say he enjoys torching greenhouses? Dong-su turns detective,

Lee is a master of pacing, and the deliberateness of the film delicately turns a romantic drama into a critique of entitled lifestyles and then into a psychological thriller. We are locked to Dong-su’s consciousness except for a couple of telltale shots of Ben calmly studying his rival from afar. We get Vertigo-like sequences of Dong-su trailing Ben and probing for clues and perhaps having more dreams. At the same time, Dong-su starts writing, as if Haemi’s disappearance has inspired him, but he finds more violent ways to release his simmering bewilderment.

After only one viewing, I didn’t find Burning as devastating a film as Secret Sunshine or Poetry, but I’d gladly watch it again and probably I’d see more in it. Lee manages to sustain over two and a half hours a plot centering on three, then two principal characters. He has earned the right to soberly take us into the mundane rhythm of a loner’s life and then shatter that through an encounter with two enigmatic figures who may be playing mind games. As with Manta Ray, we have to infer some of the action behind the scenes, but that just shows that in cinema, classic or modern, crime can pay.


Thanks as ever to the tireless staff of the Vancouver International Film Festival, above all Alan Franey, PoChu AuYeung, Shelly Kraicer, Maggie Lee, and Jenny Lee Craig for their help in our visit.

Snapshots of festival activities are on our Instagram page.

Japadog, a Vancouver landmark.

On the Criterion Channel: Five reasons why HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR still matters

Often this scandalous or honorable story, this beautiful or ugly one, will be told you the next day or the next month, sometimes in fragments. There is nothing that is of a piece in this world, everything is a mosaic.

Balzac, Une fille d’Eve

DB here:

We’re not big fans of listicles. Our only effort in this direction is our annual review of the 10 best movies of 90 years ago. But now the streaming service FilmStruck is running my Criterion Channel installment devoted to Hiroshima mon amour. (There’s a sample here.)  The installment is focused on the film’s use of editing. That topic does allow me to touch on wider matters of storytelling and theme, but I found myself struggling to squeeze in all I wanted to say. So. . . .

If you haven’t seen the film, both this and the Criterion Channel segment will teem with spoilers. Now I’ll give a plot synopsis, but the shocks in the film’s early stretches are probably softened if you know the story’s premises. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, you’re advised to stop reading now.

Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 feature film directed by documentarist Alain Resnais, tells the story of a brief sexual affair between an unnamed man and woman. She has come to Hiroshima to make a film about the effects of the US nuclear bombing of the city in 1945. Her plane is scheduled to leave the following day, but he asks her to stay longer in Japan. As a result, what drama there is becomes psychological—pressured by her deadline, but complicated by her memories.

After their first night of lovemaking, she tries to break with him, but in the course of the day he pursues her and they meet at intervals. They go to his house for another bout of lovemaking, to a bar called the Tea Room, to the train station, and back to her hotel, where the film began. In the course of their affair, she recalls and recounts her wartime romance with a German soldier stationed in her city of Nevers. At the liberation, he was shot by a sniper. The townsfolk punished her by cropping her hair and confining her in a cellar.

In a gesture characteristic of ambitious cinema of the period, we don’t definitely learn that the woman decides to leave. The final scene, suggesting that she will always think of the man as Hiroshima, does imply that they’re parting. More important, in the course of their affair she has realized that her memories of her first love are fading, and she fears that makes her deeply disloyal to him. Worse, she feels that she’s already forgetting her Japanese lover. The passage of time and the waning of emotion come to feel like a betrayal.

Hiroshima is one of the most important films ever made, summing up many tendencies of modern cinema but also indicating new directions for later filmmakers. Its implications and possibilities radiate out in several directions, like the spidery silhouette (in negative?) under the opening credits. So a listicle format seems, for once, justified.

 

(1) The opening

Two bodies, from the waist up, are locked in an embrace. The faces aren’t visible. At first, the bodies are powdered with dust but as the images dissolve into one another, the limbs are glittering and then oily with sweat.

     

These images give way to documentary-style shots of Hiroshima, both in the present and in newsreel footage. We see modern architecture, a hospital, museum exhibits, city streets, a cheerful lady bus conductor, victims of the nuclear blast, and even restaged scenes of the bombing’s aftermath, taken from fiction films.

     

Over all the footage float a male voice and a female voice: “You saw nothing in Hiroshima–nothing.” “I saw it all…” She describes what can be seen and understood, while he contradicts her. We return intermittently to their bodies. The sequence concludes with her voice: “I met you here.”

Thus ends one of the most daring sequences in film history, a dense thirteen minutes of  imagery, music, and dialogue. I think it’s hard for us today to grasp just how jolting this opening felt in 1959. Ten years after its premiere, when I first saw it (and without much foreknowledge), I was overwhelmed. For me, and I think for many others, cinema wasn’t quite the same after this.

For one thing, there’s the sex. Although it’s portrayed abstractly, the voluptuous skin tones and clutching, twisting arms are powerfully erotic–and poetic. The oily skin might be considered realistic, but the dust particles can’t be justified as anything but metaphorical, perhaps nuclear fallout or the ashes of a city in flames. (Is this like the embracing couples discovered in Pompeii by the heroine of Voyage to Italy?) Later the sexual angle will become more socially specified; it’s an “interracial” coupling, involving a French woman with a Japanese man. An entire “social problem” movie could be made about this situation, which this film takes utterly for granted.

Then there’s the juxtaposition of this stylized intercourse with the bombing of Hiroshima–and naked bodies very different from the ones we see in bed. We’re given smooth tracking shots through a hospital and a museum. In some of his documentaries Resnais had presented locales in solemn, slightly disquieting traveling shots, mimicking a tourist-eye view into a library (Toute la mémoire du monde, 1956) or a concentration camp (Nuit et brouillard/ Night and Fog, 1956). Here, similar traveling shots are more or less anchored to the unseen woman reporting on her impressions.

I say more or less because, in a slippage characteristic of the film, sometimes the camera height is lower than an adult’s eye level, as in the second shot above. And often the camera is withdrawing along the line of the museum exhibits, as if looking backward.

     

Already the imagery is rendered a little detached from a human perspective. More generally, by suppressing the woman’s face and eliminating diegetic sound, the shots for all their concreteness seem unreal, as if pulled up from memory or imagination.

When the shots segue to found footage (“I saw the newsreels”) and then to strident reenactments, those too seem less historical records or blatant fictionalizing than part of a phantasmagoric vision.

     

Maps and twisted relics, faces and stones, kitsch and authentic suffering are all put on the same plane, with a disturbing neutrality.

Perhaps this is the tragedy of Hiroshima as absorbed by a consciousness unequal to it. But what consciousness could comprehend it? Night and Fog openly proposed that our minds couldn’t grasp the enormity of the Holocaust. Not that this was a counsel of despair; our very helplessness was a warning to remain vigilant against the next glimpse we might get of human monstrousness. Here another voice challenges the limits of our sympathetic imagination: “You saw nothing.”

What about the film’s soundtrack? Plaintive piano music, Debussy-ish, passes to strings and woodwinds–slow and brooding, but sometimes disarmingly bouncy. Nothing could be farther from the Mahleresque scores of Hollywood cinema or most documentaries than this chamber-music intimacy. The score pulls a bit away from the images, we might say, seldom emphasizing them even at their most horrific.

In his documentaries, Resnais had pioneered a lyrical, somewhat dry voice-over quite different from the conventional nudging or hectoring Voice-of-God commentary. Like the tracking shots, though, this vocal technique takes on a new effect in a fictional cinema. For one thing, when and where is the conversation occurring? Not evidently during the lovemaking. Before? After? Maybe never? Is it a sort of telepathic exchange, expressing the essence of her tourist-level days in the city and then his assured sense that such an experience blinded her to the real Hiroshima? Interestingly, we’ll learn that he wasn’t in Hiroshima during the attack. So perhaps he, like the narrator of Night and Fog, is warning her against premature confidence in understanding any historical event on this scale.

The woman’s voice dominates the soundtrack, meditating on her lover and her surroundings. Again, it might be a monologue addressed to the man at some point, but thanks to rushing shots through Hiroshima streets, it equates his body with his city. This motif will culminate at the climax, when she compresses her memories of 1944 down to landscapes in Nevers and she decides to give her lover a name: Hiroshima.

Since the mid-1940s, André Bazin had argued that the future lay with long take filming that respected the continuum of reality–the continuum that Soviet filmmakers had freely splintered in order to make rhetorical and poetic points. Yet with this overture, Hiroshima revived and revamped the Soviet tradition of montage-based moviemaking. The sequence averages a little more than six seconds per shot, a rate seldom seen in European fictional film of the 1950s. The result yields somewhat recalls the free editing of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, but it anchors the visual disjunctions in psychology and a personal drama yet to be specified.

Bazin had worried that by chopping the world into little fragments, editing by its nature ruled out ambiguity of expression. Yet here was a film that showed, as avant-garde filmmakers had done, that montage could generate poetic ambiguity. Editing patterns could create analogies and associations. The spatter on a rock could evoke the scars on a victim’s head, and the dusted couple of the opening could become ghostly doubles of a victim of radiation.

     

One could even intercut staged footage and documentary material without hiding the filmmaker’s artifice (as Citizen Kane does with the faked footage in “News on the March”). Free montage and collage-like mixing of documentary and fiction would be hallmarks of 1960s and 1970s films by Alexander Kluge, Dušan Makavejev, and of course Jean-Luc Godard.

Something similar happened with the soundtrack. Detached, unemphatic scores would become part of the repertoire of modern cinema, as would floating voice-overs. Films like Chungking Express and Wings of Desire, to say nothing of the work of (again) Godard, would show the expressive power of voices cut free from story time and space. Montage, as Eisenstein prophesied, related not only image to image but image to sound.

No later passage of Hiroshima mon amour is as aggressively disorienting as this overture. It’s as if Psycho started with the shower sequence. This opening not only introduces a lot of cinematic and thematic material. It also seeks to sensitize us to images and sounds, as a poem at the start of a novel might sensitize us to language. My discussion of editing in the Criterion installment points out that most of the ensuing film is cut in a pretty orthodox way, respecting the rules of continuity construction. But the sheer disjunctiveness of this prologue prepares us to notice whatever abruptness and juxtapositions do arrive. Assailed by this opening, at once jagged and eerily smooth, we’re set to register some even finer-grained shifts in time and sequence to come.

 

(2) Flashbacks that aren’t flashbacks

Hiroshima’s script by Marguerite Duras was, Resnais claimed, based on “parallel editing” that would link wartime France and contemporary Japan. But Resnais insisted that this editing didn’t create flashbacks.

Here is another movie, one that Resnais and Duras didn’t make. A French woman visiting Hiroshima on a film shoot turns tourist. She then meets a Japanese man and they have sex. Next day she avoids him, but he pursues her and eventually she agrees to spend the evening with him. In a bar we get the big reveal: the woman explains her wartime love affair and the punishment that drove her out of Nevers. Her past episodes are given in large blocks, perhaps one long flashback. The plot concludes with the man and the woman forced to choose their future.

We’ve already seen that the woman’s tourist-eye view has been fragmented, scrambled, and stylized in the opening montage. We might be tempted to call those images flashbacks, were they not so firmly part of an overall collage including purely documentary material. But once the story proper begins, we, or at least I, am inclined to call the bursts of images from 1944 Nevers flashbacks–brief ones, but flashbacks.

I say this because I take the primary purpose of a flashback is to present story material out of chronological order. A secondary purpose, not always in force, is to represent a character’s memories. Some films, especially after Pulp Fiction, rearrange story order without appeal to character memory. In classical studio cinema, though, flashbacks are usually motivated by a character recalling or recounting an event that she remembers. More often than not the scenes we see in the past aren’t restricted to what she witnesses or even knows about. Memory provides a rationale for the main purpose–revealing action in the past.

But there’s a contrary line of thought that says that a character’s memory ought not to count as a flashback because memories exist in the present. Arthur Miller took this line with respect to the time-shifts in his play Death of a Salesman, as I discuss in Reinventing Hollywood. Resnais, it turns out, felt the same way. For him, the fragments of the past that interrupt the present-time scenes of Hiroshima exist in the present because they’re being remembered. He wrote to Duras during shooting: “The past won’t be expressed by true flashbacks, but will be felt to be present throughout.” In 1968 he reiterated: “In Hiroshima there is not a second’s worth of flashbacks.”

There’s no point in quibbling about terms, but we should note that Resnais thought his interruptive images of the past were capturing something important about how memory works. Memory is fragmentary and jumbled, not operating in the big chronological blocks given us in 1940s Hollywood flashbacks. When asked by his producer if Citizen Kane hadn’t already shifted chronology, Resnais replied: “Yes, but with me, it’s all disordered.”

Moreover, memory is abrupt and fragmentary: Resnais uses cuts, not dissolves, to deliver his memory images. The first instance in the film has become a locus classicus. The woman sees her Japanese lover’s hand twitch, and that leads to another hand, a quick pan to a dead man being kissed, and then the Japanese lover again. This time-shift is literally a flash, lasting only a few frames.

     

     

    

And to insist that memory operates in the present moment, Resnais uses present-time diegetic noise–a train whistle in the scene above, a pop tune on a jukebox later–providing something that literature can’t: the absolutely simultaneous presence of now and then.

Again, Resnais brings into sound cinema narrative strategies that had emerged in silent film. Gance in La Roue, Fredrikh Ermler in Fragments of an Empire, and others had provided rapid-fire memory montages. In most commercial sound cinema, this sort of mental imagery was largely confined to one-off sequences depicting dreams, hallucinations, or mental illness. Resnais and Duras boldly made an entire film in which recollected moments unexpectedly erupt into present-tense action.

Again, though, the filmmakers introduce ambiguity. It’s hard to plausibly assign some of the “memories” of Nevers to the female protagonist. Bare landscapes and abrupt tracking shots of empty streets seem more like Eliot’s “objective correlative,” more oblique representations of feelings, than traces of what the woman has witnessed. Even the invasive images from the past aren’t free of the uncertainties that hover over the opening sequence. This strategy of hovering between subjectivity and “authorial commentary” would become central to 1960s art cinema–perhaps most obviously in Red Desert, where the unrealistic color can be taken as both an expression of the protagonist’s alienation or a more detached, stylized  presentation of a modern wasteland.

 

(3) Talkies and walkies

     

Griping about Antonioni’s longueurs, Dwight Macdonald remarked that “the talkies have become the walkies.” His complaint captures something important. From Bicycle Thieves through La Strada and L’Avventura up to Linklater’s Before/After trilogy, the idea of building a plot around two characters’ more or less mundane traipsing became a salient option for filmmakers who wanted to stray from classical narrative organization.

But settling down in one place to talk became important too. Serious European cinema often featured dialogue scenes of a length that would have been discouraged in American cinema. Play adaptations like Sjöberg’s Miss Julie (1951) naturally featured such protracted conversations, but so did works by Bergman such as Waiting Women (1952), Wild Strawberries (1957), and Brink of Life (1958). Having revived silent-film montage in Hiroshima‘s early stretches, Resnais and Duras makes peace with their contemporaries in the second part by settling their characters down for two good chats broken by a long stroll.

It all starts when the man declares, after a second bout of lovemaking, that they have sixteen hours to kill before her departure. By Hollywood standards, this period should be handled with dramatic crises leading to the deadline. Instead, we get a quick montage of the city at dusk (with figures unnaturally still, as if rehearsing for walk-on parts in Last Year at Marienbad) and the two of them at a table in the Tea Room bar.

It’s in this lengthy scene that the woman’s memories become most coherent for us and the man. What was private in earlier parts of the film–flashes like the hand on the bed–become externalized in her confession. Again, though, we get Resnais’s version of “disorder.” For one thing, her Nevers story isn’t given in a block, but rather as a burst of fragments. After their second lovemaking, she had already begun to tell her lover about her affair with the German, and the editing was rather choppy: six alternations of past and present in about seven minutes. Now at the Tea Room she’s more explicit about his fate and her punishment. Over twenty-four minutes, the action alternates between Hiroshima and Nevers seventeen times. Often a single shot breaks into her confession.

For another thing, the incidents remembered tumble out of order. Glimpses of her imprisoned in a basement are followed by her ritual haircutting before being sent there. Image and sound fall out of true: we see her pedaling to Paris, we hear her telling us what she read in the newspapers upon arriving. We need to integrate what she’s recounting now with what she’s recalled earlier.

By the time the couple leave the Tea Room, we have a fairly coherent account of the woman’s Nevers trauma. In our alternative film, we’d now have a climax in which she decides to leave Hiroshima or stay. Instead, she and the man separate. She returns to her hotel, washes her face, accuses herself of betraying her German lover with the Japanese, and. . . wanders back outside.

She returns to the Tea Room, now closed. The plot’s irresolution is prolonged. Her lover materializes, as if summoned by her voice-over. The woman, now distraught, tells him she’ll stay. Immediately she tells him to leave. He says he could never leave her. Then he leaves her.

What follows is a string of further evasions and encounters, almost a suite of variations on how a couple can seek to connect and avoid connecting. The film becomes a walkie. Resnais planned the street scenes, he explained in a letter to Duras, by listening to a tape of her reading the commentary and blocking the actors’ movements with wooden dolls.

The woman moves down the street, trailed by her lover. He follows her to a train station, and then to a bar called–you must remember this–Casablanca. She eludes him by letting a slick stranger join her for a drink. The night goes on. Dawn arrives.

In the course of these stop-and-start ramblings, memories return, but images of her lover dwindle, to be replaced by those of Nevers; he has faded into the landscape. As I indicated, these might as well be narrational commentary rather than her memories, with the film’s overarching form juxtaposing the French city with the Japanese one in ways she doesn’t yet grasp.

     

Now you know why people say art movies seem never to end: They tease us with closure and then deny it. Extended talk scenes and walk scenes, however realistic they may seem in contrast with busy Hollywood plots, are also conventions of this mode of filmmaking. It’s up to the filmmakers to shape them to their immediate purposes.

 

(4) At the limit

In a plot centered on action–goals, blockages, clashes among characters, struggles to accomplish some feat–you typically have a clear-cut climax and resolution. The protagonist either succeeds or fails. But when you deny that sort of arc, you have to find other ways to inject drama. In Hiroshima, we have a classic instance of the undecided protagonist, who can’t settle on a goal and so drifts from situation to situation, each one of which dramatizes a facet of her character, or of her indecision.

Sooner or later, the plot has to stop, so if there’s no decisive way to end the action, how do you conclude? The most favored option, borrowed from serious literature, involves what literary theorist Horst Ruthrof calls a “boundary situation.” Instead of creating a resolution by what the protagonist accomplishes, the plot confronts the character with something that forces a reevaluation of his or her life. The drama is psychological, not physical; the resolution involves insight, not action of the normal sort. As Ruthrof puts it, the character “in a flash of insight become[s] aware of meaningful as against meaningless existence.” The boundary situation is existential, consisting of “a final vision or revelation, rejection of false moral premises, and the gain of a state of authenticity.”

James Joyce called such bursts of recognition “epiphanies,” and he employed them in his Dubliners short stories. Ruthrof argues persuasively that they can be found throughout modern European literature, from Flaubert and Tolstoy to Conrad and Thomas Mann. In Narration in the Fiction Film, I proposed that many films in the European tradition had recourse to boundary-situation plots. Guido’s acceptance of all the contradictions of his life in 8 ½ and Isak Borg’s reconciliation with his past in Wild Strawberries are fairly clear examples.

Instances of boundary situations are central to two Marguerite Duras novels of the period. The Square (1955) consists of routine encounters on a park bench between an unnamed man and woman. They talk at length each time, and the climax comes when the man declares suddenly, “I’m a coward.” Moderato Cantabile (1956) is set in a cafe, and the conversations are broken by time shifts to piano lessons and a party. Again we get laconic exchanges between a man and woman who don’t know each other, culminating in confession and tears. (“I wish you were dead.”/ “I am.”) Resnais said that he wanted to work with Duras after reading Moderato Cantabile.

In Hiroshima, what, finally, provides closure for the plot? Not the woman’s decision to stay or not; we never know what she chooses. Instead, her affair has forced her to psychological crisis. She realizes that her memories of her first love are partial and impermanent. This shocks her as an act of disloyalty. And she feels that she’s already forgetting her Japanese lover. The passage of time and the waning of emotion come to feel like a betrayal.

The film’s climax is a personal epiphany, not a clear-cut showdown. The woman has come to accept that her past and present are ephemeral, that even the memories she’s making now–of the lover whose skin she adores–will wane. What remains? The late sequences that take her wandering through his city cement the relation between his body and the town: her voice-over repeats the exultant incantation that opened the film, but now we hear it over shots of neon signs and empty streets. So she can name the man: “Hiroshima.” And although we have never had privileged access to his mind, the fact that he rejoiced in hearing her story of her past, in being the only person she had told of it, he may well have achieved a similar epiphany. He reciprocates, calling her “Nevers. Nevers in France.”

This is of course just one interpretation. Whatever thematic implications a critic constructs from the film, though, I think that those will depend on acknowledging the transformative boundary situation that functions as a climax. The woman’s confrontation with the man and the city has forced her to a self-recognition, putting her life in a new light.

Cinema of character rather than plot, we sometimes call it. I’d rather say it’s a particular breed of plot, one that replaces achievement of external goals with achievement of partial, tentative, but still life-transforming insight. A different dramaturgy for a different tradition.

 

(5) Consolidating innovations

     

Voyage to Italy; La Pointe Courte.

Hiroshima mon amour changed the way movies told their stories, not least because it revised some trends that had emerged in two other European films of the 1950s.

One was Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (released late 1954). Despite featuring two major American stars, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, it was far from an ordinary Hollywood picture. It pushed further that conception of “plotless,” anecdotal narrative on display in Neorealist films like Paisá and Umberto D. The center of the tale is a couple whose marriage is quietly dying. Having inherited a villa in Naples, the characters must decide to sell it. But instead of building a conflict out of this goal, the film fills itself with episodes of the husband’s philandering and the wife’s touring of the region. It settles its plot by an epiphany in which man and wife are mysteriously reconciled.

Voyage to Italy, wrote Jacques Rivette, “opens a breach. . . . All cinema, on pain of death, must pass through it.” “The story is loose, free, full of breaks,” said Eric Rohmer, “and yet nothing could be further from the amateur. I confess my incapacity to define adequately the merits of a style so new that it defies all definition.” Rivette again: “Here is our cinema, those of us who in our turn are preparing to make films (did I tell you, it may be soon).”

The Cahiers du cinéma critics weren’t so eager to welcome Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1956). A married couple drifts through a fishing village, and their meditations on their life together are woven into documentary recording of the locals’ work and relaxation. André Bazin championed the film, but others in the Cahiers team were cool, objecting to the stylized photography and performances. The fact that it was made by a woman probably didn’t help. Against Varda’s wishes Cahiers ran a photo of her as a martyred angel, and it’s hard not to see it as mockery, especially since the caption revels in Henri Agel’s “wicked manhandling” of the film in his review.

Because La Pointe Courte was produced by a company registered to make only short films, it couldn’t achieve commercial distribution and so circulated mostly to ciné-clubs. But most reviews were praising, and today it’s recognized as a bold anticipation of the Nouvelle Vague.

Among those films that La Pointe Courte anticipates is Hiroshima. Resnais, was editor on La Pointe Courte. He initially resisted the job, telling Varda: “Your explorations are too close to mine,” but he wound up working for free.

Three films about couples, then, rendered in a strikingly episodic way. All use long walks and extended talks. All three display a dual structure as well. Rossellini intercuts the activities of husband and wife. Varda, influenced by the parallel structure of Faulkner’s novel Wild Palms, alternates scenes of village life with the couple’s wanderings. And as we’ve seen, Resnais asked Varda to build Hiroshima  upon an editing strategy that set the past against the present.

There are probably other antecedents of the film (Resnais was reminded of Il Grido when cutting La Pointe Courte), but I hope I’ve said enough to indicate how Resnais recasts an emerging tradition of ambitious European cinema. He goes beyond it in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more I haven’t, but like all art works it owes part of its power to its reworking of techniques it inherits.

 

We could list more reasons that this film endures, certainly. Not least: Its unforgettably enigmatic title. Even that offers us ambiguous fragments, in something like an abrupt cut. “Hiroshima mon amour” might suggest “I love the city of Hiroshima.” But there’s no punctuation, no comma or dash that would equate the two terms. Instead, we might take it as a splice. It might be a contrast: “Hiroshima” versus “my love, the German soldier.” But then, since the Japanese comes to stand in for the German, the title would equate “Hiroshima” to him. This would be consistent with the final dialogue: “Hiroshima, that’s your name.” The film’s very title implies the ambivalent juxtapositions that Resnais will build up through cutting.


Thanks as ever to Peter Becker, Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, and their colleagues at Criterion for making this installment. Thanks as well to old friend Erik Gunneson and to Kelley Conway for discussion of Resnais and Varda. Our entire Criterion Channel series is here.

Bazin’s worries that montage lacked ambiguity are set forth in various essays in What Is Cinema? vol. I, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (University of California Press, 1967), particularly “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” 36.

Resnais’s comments about Hiroshima‘s avoidance of flashbacks are quoted in Jean-Louis Leutrat, Hiroshima mon amour, 2nd ed. (Armand Colin, 2006), p. 84. He describes his film’s “disorder” in conversation with Anatole Dauman, quoted in Jacques Gerber, Souvenir-Écran: Anatole Dauman, Argos Films (Pompidou, 1989), 86-87. He mentions his use of puppets to plan his staging in a letter reprinted in Tu n’as rien vu à Hiroshima, ed. Marie-Christine de Navacelle (Gallimard, 2009), 66. This lovely edition shouldn’t be confused with Tu n’as rien vu à Hiroshima!, ed. Raymond Ravar (Brussels: Institut de Sociologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, 1962). This remarkable volume is a detailed book-length analysis of the film and includes interviews with Resnais.

Horst Ruthrof’s discussion of boundary situations appears in The Reader’s Construction of Narrative (Routledge, 1981), 101-108.

See Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (Harvard University Press, 1985), 192-208, for Rivette and Rohmer on Voyage to Italy. The macho mockery of Varda occurs in Cahiers no. 56 (February 1956), 29. For a comprehensive discussion of La Pointe Courte, see Kelley Conway, Agnès Varda (University of Illinois Press, 2015), 9-26. We consider Kelley’s book and Varda’s film here

In Narration in the Fiction Film, I argue that the ambiguous interplay of objective realism, subjective projection, and external narrational commentary is a major strategy of “modernist” cinema or “art cinema.” That argument is sketched in an earlier essay available here, with an update.  See also the blog entry, “How to watch an art movie, reel 1.” 

I played awhile with the idea that the floating voice-overs in the opening sequence might have been Duras’s efforts to capture what Nathalie Sarraute described as sous-conversation, the unarticulated subtexts that shape what we actually say. The historical timing fits, as Sarraute’s essay positing the possibility, “Conversation and sous-conversation,” appeared in early 1956. (See Sarraute, The Age of Suspicion: Essays on the Novel, trans. Maria Jolas, Braziller, 1963). But I’m not fully convinced of a direct debt. More generally, though, Sarraute’s insistence that the contemporary novel must replace external action with dialogue that hints at internal states seems in accord with the way Duras and Resnais conceived Hiroshima. Maybe here the image track does duty for Sarraute’s “subterranean conversation”? And perhaps the idea of sous-conversation is more relevant to Duras’s own films, particularly the masterpiece India Song (1975).

Hiroshima mon amour.

Is there a blog in this class? 2018

24 Frames (2017)

Kristin here:

David and I started this blog way back in 2006 largely as a way to offer teachers who use Film Art: An Introduction supplementary material that might tie in with the book. It immediately became something more informal, as we wrote about topics that interested us and events in our lives, like campus visits by filmmakers and festivals we attended. Few of the entries actually relate explicitly to the content of Film Art, and yet many of them might be relevant.

Every year shortly before the autumn semester begins, we offer this list of suggestions of posts that might be useful in classes, either as assignments or recommendations. Those who aren’t teaching or being taught might find the following round-up a handy way of catching up with entries they might have missed. After all, we are pushing 900 posts, and despite our excellent search engine and many categories of tags, a little guidance through this flood of texts and images might be useful to some.

This list starts after last August’s post. For past lists, see 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

This year for the first time I’ll be including the video pieces that our collaborator Jeff Smith and we have since November, 2016, been posting monthly on the Criterion Channel of the streaming service FilmStruck. In them we briefly discuss (most run around 10 to 14 minutes) topics relating to movies streaming on FilmStruck. For teachers whose school subscribes to FilmStruck there is the possibility of showing them in classes. The series of videos is also called “Observations on Film Art,” because it was in a way conceived as an extension of this blog, though it’s more closely keyed to topics discussed in Film Art. As of now there are 21 videos available, with more in the can. I won’t put in a link for each individual entry, but you can find a complete index of our videos here. Since I didn’t include our early entries in my 2017 round-up, I’ll do so here.

As always, I’ll go chapter by chapter, with a few items at the end that don’t fit in but might be useful.

 

Chapter 3 Narrative Form

David writes on the persistence of classical Hollywood storytelling in contemporary films: “Everything new is old again: Stories from 2017.”

In FilmStruck #5, I look at the effects of using a child as one of the main point-of-view figures in Victor Erice’s masterpiece: “The Spirit of the Beehive–A Child’s Point of View”

In FilmStruck #13, I deal with “Flashbacks in The Phantom Carriage.

FilmStruck #14 features David discussing classical narrative structure in “Girl Shy—Harold Lloyd Meets Classical Hollywood.” His blog entry, “The Boy’s life: Harold Lloyd’s GIRL SHY on the Criterion Channel” elaborates on Lloyd’s move from simple slapstick into classical filmmaking in his early features. (It could also be used in relation to acting in Chapter 4.)

In FilmStruck #17, David examines “Narrative Symmetry in Chungking Express.”

 

Chapter 4 The Shot: Mise-en-Scene

In choosing films for our FilmStruck videos, we try occasionally to highlight little-known titles that deserve a lot more attention. In FilmStruck #16 I looks at the unusual lighting in Raymond Bernard’s early 1930s classic: “The Darkness of War in Wooden Crosses.”

FilmStruck #3: Abbas Kiarostami is noted for his expressive use of landscapes. I examine that aspect of his style in Where Is My Friend’s Home? and The Taste of Cherry: “Abbas Kiarostami–The Character of Landscape, the Landscape of Character.”

Teachers often request more on acting. Performances are difficult to analyze, but being able to use multiple clips helps lot. David has taken advantage of that three times so far.

In FilmStruck #4, “The Restrain of L’avventura,” he looks at how staging helps create the enigmatic quality of Antonionni’s narrative.

In FilmStruck #7, I deal with Renoir’s complex orchestration of action in depth: “Staging in The Rules of the Game.”

FilmStruck #10, features David on details of acting: “Performance in Brute Force.

In Filmstruck #18, David analyses performance style: “Staging and Performance in Ivan the Terrible Part II.” He expands on it in “Eisenstein makes a scene: IVAN THE TERRIBLE Part 2 on the Criterion Channel.”

FilmStruck #19, by me, examines the narrative functions of “Color Motifs in Black Narcissus.”

 

Chapter 5 The Shot: Cinematography

A basic function of cinematography is framing–choosing a camera setup, deciding what to include or exclude from the shot. David discusses Lubitsch’s cunning play with framing in Rosita and Lady Windermere’s Fan in “Lubitsch redoes Lubitsch.”

In FilmStruck #6, Jeff shows how cinematography creates parallelism: “Camera Movement in Three Colors: Red.”

In FilmStruck 21 Jeff looks at a very different use of the camera: “The Restless Cinematography of Breaking the Waves.

 

Chapter 6 The Relation of Shot to Shot: Editing

David on multiple-camera shooting and its effects on editing in an early Frank Capra sound film: “The quietest talkie: THE DONOVAN AFFAIR (1929).”

In Filmstruck #2, David discusses Kurosawa’s fast cutting in “Quicker Than the Eye—Editing in Sanjuro Sugata.

In FilmStruck #20 Jeff lays out “Continuity Editing in The Devil and Daniel Webster.” He follows up on it with a blog entry: “FilmStruck goes to THE DEVIL”,

 

Chapter  7 Sound in the Cinema

In 2017, we were lucky enough to see the premiere of the restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) at the Venice International Film Festival in 2017. My entry “Lubitsch and Pickford, finally together again,” gives some sense of the complexities of reconstructing the original musical score for the film.

In FilmStruck #1, Jeff Smith discusses “Musical Motifs in Foreign Correspondent.”

Filmstruck #8 features Jeff explaining Chabrol’s use of “Offscreen Sound in La cérémonie.”

In FilmStruck #11, I discuss Fritz Lang’s extraordinary facility with the new sound technology in his first talkie: “Mastering a New Medium—Sound in M.”

 

Chapter 8 Summary: Style and Film Form

David analyzes narrative patterning and lighting Casablanca in “You must remember this, even though I sort of didn’t.”

In FilmStruck #10, Jeff examines how Fassbender’s style helps accentuate social divisions: “The Stripped-Down Style of Ali Fear Eats the Soul.”

 

Chapter 9 Film Genres

David tackles a subset of the crime genre in “One last big job: How heist movies tell their stories.”

He also discusses a subset of the thriller genre in “The eyewitness plot and the drama of doubt.”

FilmStruck #9 has David exploring Chaplin’s departures from the conventions of his familiar comedies of the past to get serious in Monsieur Verdoux: “Chaplin’s Comedy of Murders.” He followed up with a blog entry, “MONSIEUR VERDOUX: Lethal Lothario.”

In Filmstruck entry #15, “Genre Play in The Player,” Jeff discusses the conventions of two genres, the crime thriller and movies about Hollywood filmmaking, in Robert Altman’s film. He elaborates on his analysis in his blog entry, “Who got played?

 

Chapter 10 Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Films

I analyse Bill Morrison’s documentary on the history of Dawson City, where a cache of lost silent films was discovered, in “Bill Morrison’s lyrical tale of loss, destruction and (sometimes) recovery.”

David takes a close look at Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental final film in “Barely moving pictures: Kiarostami’s 24 FRAMES.”

 

Chapter 11 Film Criticism: Sample Analyses

We blogged from the Venice International Film Festival last year, offering analyses of some of the films we saw. These are much shorter than the ones in Chapter 11, but they show how even a brief report (of the type students might be assigned to write) can go beyond description and quick evaluation.

The first entry deals with the world premieres of The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and is based on single viewings. The second was based on two viewings of Argentine director Lucretia Martel’s marvelous and complex Zama. The third covers films by three major Asian directors: Kore-eda Hirokazu, John Woo, and Takeshi Kitano.

 

Chapter 12 Historical Changes in Film Art: Conventions and Choices, Traditions and Trends

My usual list of the ten best films of 90 years ago deals with great classics from 1927, some famous, some not so much so.

David discusses stylistic conventions and inventions in some rare 1910s American films in “Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone: The 1910s tonight.”

I give a rundown on the restoration of a silent Hollywood classic long available only in a truncated version: The Lost World (1925).

In teaching modern Hollywood and especially superhero blockbusters like Thor Ragnarok, my “Taika Waititi: The very model of a modern movie-maker” might prove useful.

 

Etc.

If you’re planning to show a film by Damien Chazelle in your class, for whatever chapter,  David provides a run-down of his career and comments on his feature films in “New colors to sing: Damien Chazelle on films and filmmaking.” This complements entries from last year on La La Land: “How LA LA LAND is made” and “Singin’ in the sun,” a guest post featuring discussion by Kelley Conway, Eric Dienstfrey, and Amanda McQueen.

Our blog is not just of use for Film Art, of course. It contains a lot about film history that could be useful in teaching with our other textbook. In particular, this past year saw the publication of David’s Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Hollywood Storytelling. His entry “REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD: Out of the past” discusses how it was written, and several entries, recent and older, bear on the book’s arguments. See the category “1940s Hollywood.”

Finally, we don’t deal with Virtual Reality artworks in Film Art, but if you include it in your class or are just interested in the subject, our entry “Venice 2017: Sensory Saturday; or what puts the Virtual in VR” might be of interest. It reports on four VR pieces shown at the Venice International Film Festival, the first major film festival to include VR and award prizes.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

David Bordwell
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