Archive for the 'People we like' Category
To Each His Own (1946).
Old friend and student, and proficient blogger, Paul Ramaeker writes:
I’m in the middle of Slayground now. In his Stark guise, Westlake as a writer really is as fearsomely directed and effective as Parker himself. I was thinking about the particular narrative pleasures here, like the way that delayed exposition works with the perspective switches between different sections. There is such precision to the way he builds certain effects in a systematic way, the way that we see Parker making plans, going around Fun Island doing things, but Stark not telling us what, exactly. I really did not get the logic of painting white circles in the house of mirrors–I thought of them as targets. Then, [spoiler excised] it makes so much sense, and becomes such a pure hit of storytelling, producing such a rush of pleasure in the reading.
That’s the way Donald E. Westlake worked. With Elmore Leonard and Ed McBain, he was one of the top crime-action writers to emerge in the postwar boom in paperback originals. He wrote a huge number of novels and some screenplays (The Grifters, The Stepfather), and several films, notably Point Blank, The Outfit, The Ax, and Made in USA, were taken from his books.
I’ve paid tribute to Westlake’s prose in this entry, but why not another Richard Stark passage to show how it’s done? Many of the novels start with a “When” clause, and upon relaunching the series in 1997, Westlake picked a dilly:
When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage.
The “When” clause hooks you in firmly, with the last word of the sentence locking in a framework that explains the opening. Here’s a simpler prototype Westlake himself picked, from Flashfire:
Parker looked at the money, and it wasn’t enough.
Anybody else would have cut the and and put in a period. This is better, I think because it quietly leads us to expect something more: a piece of action, a demand for more money. Anyhow, once we’re arguing about whether to put in an and, we’re talking about a real writer.
Slayground is one of those nifty experiments Westlake tried, this time putting two books in a divided POV arrangement. Both Slayground and The Black Bird begin with the same action, a getaway described almost identically in each one. Parker and his sidekick Grofield separate. One book follows Parker’s fate and other follows Grofield’s. I want to read both right now.
Before I do, though, I must signal (a) the University of Chicago Press’s brilliant idea of reprinting all the Stark novels; and (b) Levi Stahl’s wonderful compilation The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. This consists of essays, memoirs, and interviews, running from 1960 into the 2000s. There’s even a recipe for tuna casserole contributed by Dortmunder’s girlfriend May.
You learn a lot about Westlake’s life, of course; for one thing, you learn how Made in USA became unseen in USA for several years. A career-survey interview with a convicted bank robber is alone worth the price of admission. Stahl adds in fragments from an autobiography (“I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk”).
Westlake was a thoughtful observer of his tradition, and he offers historical surveys and close readings of his hardboiled predecessors. He compares the prose of Black Mask writers Hammett and Carroll John Daly, and calls Raymond Chandler “a bookish, English-educated mama’s boy whose raw material was not the truth but the first decade of the fiction. This is not to denigrate Chandler, or at least not to denigrate him very much.” He praises Richard S. Prather for his “bonkers” style (“She was as nude as a noodle”) and registers his admiration for lesser-known contemporaries like Peter Rabe. He offers the best analysis of George V. Higgins I know, and his appreciation of Rex Stout warms the heart. Acknowledging the cunning ways that Stout hides plot gaffes under Archie’s patter, Westlake notes that perhaps Stout had “an affinity with those Indian tribes who deliberately include a flaw in their designs so as not to compete with the perfection of the gods.”
You also learn about the market. Westlake was a “fee reader” for Scott Meredith literary agency, one of the most prestigious around. He became a self-supporting writer in 1959, when he churned out over half a million words, all published. Writing an Avalon paperback in 1960 would earn you $350, or $2800 in today’s money, but writing a serial for a magazine like Analog could net $450 for only 18,000 words. There’s a marvelous letter from that year in which a twenty-seven-year-old Westlake complains to a top publisher that he can’t get his best science fiction accepted, and that specific editors traduce the work of writers he knows. Stahl calls it “one of the most spectacular acts of bridge burning in the history of publishing.” Again, the author’s gesture recalls Parker’s chilly recklessness, but with jokes.
Popcorn and Red Vines
In his recent interview with the New York Times, Patton Oswalt included the Stark/Westlake Man with the Getaway Face as one of his favorite books of all time. It comes as no surprise that this gremlin polymath gets Stark/ Westlake. Those who know his fine Zombie Spaceship Wasteland will find more of the same in Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film. As ZSW traced his early standup career and its intertwined relation to nerd culture, this quasi-memoir traces his early years in LA, writing for MadTV by day, honing his comedy act by night, and watching movies obsessively at all other times.
Despite his fondness for sitting far back (I’m down front) and mixing popcorn and Red Vines (I’ve been a Dots man for sixty years), Oswalt has left us the best memoir I know of being a sheer headbanging movie geek. A sort of nonfiction Moviegoer (Walker Percy), or a prose version of Cinemania, that disconcerting documentary in which everything reminds you of you, Silver Screen Fiend takes us into hard-core hell-for-leather filmgoing.
Filmgoing is the operative idea, not just film viewing. The book is set on the cusp of the DVD revolution, when the big-screen experience was so much better in contrast with VHS. There are descriptions of favorite theatres and fetishized experiences like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and a Hammer movie marathon. At the same time, this “sprocket fiend” was also a “stage ghoul,” trying to out-kill the other standup comics at the Largo. The two obsessions fed each other, as when Oswalt arranged public readings of the script for Jerry Lewis’ legendary Day the Clown Cried.
Throughout, the movie madness emerges as another channel for the explosive energy of a young man burning with ambition. At the theatre the splendid lunacy might be onscreen, or in the row behind you, where Lawrence Tierney was talking loudly back to Citizen Kane. The moment pulsates because Oswalt wanted to be in movies too, maybe as a character actor.
The book hits one of its high points in telling of his big break, in Down Periscope (1996), where he utters one line as the camera sweeps past him. He describes the process of filmmaking as hammering slowly away at the movie that isn’t there yet. It’s like “blasting a tunnel through a mountain. Or brushing every grain of sand off of a fossil. You attacked it relentlessly.” Oswalt squeezes pages of entertainment out of brooding over how to deliver “There’s a call for you, sir. Admiral Graham.”
Rest assured that every movie you see where an actor delivers just one line? They’ve put this kind of thought into it. Sometimes you can see it. Sometimes they can hide it. But everyone who gets in front of that lens has this inner conversation. I was having mine now. I was about to speak on film.
The moviegoing spiral ends on 20 May 1999, when Oswalt sees Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The postmortem at a dinner marks the moment when the addiction subsides. “It hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed, exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film.” He realizes that film should be one ingredient in the fuel for your life. “But the engine of your life should be your life.”
The epiphany is movingly described. (I wish I could say I’ve learned the same lesson.) Oswalt implies that film frenzy was a phase he went through, and now he’s grown up. (I wish I could say the same for me.) Yet I’m encouraged that Oswalt has not gone cold turkey. He’s passed from gourmand to gourmet. “My love of movies has turned into a love of savoring them.” And he can’t resist movie comparisons when describing that day-and-date release sometimes called Life. “Faces are scenes. People are films.”
In the back of Silver Screen Fiend are thirty-three pages listing all the films Oswalt saw across four years, along with the theatres where he saw them (New Beverly, Nuart, Tales Café et al.). Plenty of pure storytelling hits there. Far from makeweight, these pages create a new list of the kind he obsessed over in Danny Peary’s books. How many twenty somethings will start checking off the titles here?
Charles Brackett, Gloria Swanson, and Billy Wilder.
On his very first night at the New Beverly, Patton Oswalt caught, and was caught by, Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole. He mentions they were “co-written and directed” by Billy Wilder. He doesn’t identify the other half of the co-.
Nor do most people. In the case of Sunset Blvd., that fellow was Charles Brackett, who now stands revealed as not only a gifted writer but the Samuel Pepys of classic Hollywood. “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” edited by Anthony Slide, is an absorbing chronicle of a tempestuous collaboration and the lifestyles of an era. A Harvard-educated WASP from Saratoga Springs, Brackett became a novelist, was made drama critic for The New Yorker, and sat at The Table with the likes of Woollcott and Parker. After some of his fiction was adapted to film, he moved to Los Angeles.
Brackett’s early work seems to have been undistinguished, though I’d defend at least Picadilly Jim (1936). Eventually he wound up at Paramount partnering with Wilder, and under the aegis of Lubitsch they clicked for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939). There followed Midnight (1939) and Hold Back the Dawn (1941) for Leisen, and Ball of Fire (1941) for Hawks–an early title of which, we learn here, was Dust on the Heart. Then came Wilder’s directed pictures, from The Major and the Minor (1942) to Sunset Blvd. (1950). Brackett was active in the Screenwriters Guild, became a producer, and continued to write scripts for his producing projects, including the delirious Niagara (1953) and the insufficiently delirious Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). The Uninvited (1944), Brackett’s first solo production, remains charming, and To Each His Own (1946) is an interesting wartime weepie, with Olivia de Havilland massively frumped up. Miss Tatlock’s Millions (1948) also has its defenders.
“It’s the Pictures That Got Small” is a plump album packed with tiny but revealing snapshots. Although Brackett wrote entries nearly every day, he often made do with very brief mentions. Slide has edited them judiciously and arranged them chronologically, with some stitching to fill in events. A 1936 entry strikes a warm chord:
I am to be teamed with Billy Wilder, a young Austrian I’ve seen about for a year or two and like very much. I accepted the job joyfully.
By 1943, Brackett is recording something much more rankling:
My consciousness that, after years of partnership, his first free act was to stab me in the back…my conviction that he’s turned into a second-rate director…my knowledge of the awful thinness of his mind, his stupidly limited interests. Alas, alas. And my knowledge that I am as little stimulating for him as he is for me.
During this supposed phase of creative drought, they were working on The Lost Weekend.
Apart from charting this bumpy collaboration, Brackett gives us a lot of information about how films got made. We learn about studio differences (Paramount less disciplined than MGM) and the importance of telling stories to others, face to face. I found plenty to feed my act-structure appetite. I was happy to find how often moviemakers went to the movies. Brackett attends dozens, both premieres and regular shows, and he records how easily screenwriters could summon up an older picture to be screened, even at a rival studio. This from 1947:
In the afternoon Billy and I saw Mr. Deeds at Columbia to check on certain similar situations in The Hon. Phoebe. It proved helpful and an excellent picture despite curious non-sequiturs and at least one horrible scene, Cooper absolutely charming. I could see some loathsome Capra characters beginning to unfold, but still in the lovely promising bud stage.
As a writer, Brackett is no less captivating than Westlake or Oswalt. We can rejoice in his Algonquin acidity.
Chaplin seems to me as repellant a human being as I’ve ever been in the room with—a thin, reedy voice, a show-off-hog face, and hysterical protestations of liberalism.
Jean Arthur called us, worried about the fact that there’s another woman in the picture [A Foreign Affair]. “I have sex appeal,” she said calmly, but inaccurately.
Greeted at the office by a nasty little note from Charles Jackson [author of the novel The Lost Weekend]. I had addressed him as “Birdbrain” in a telegram, something I could do to any friend—but an unsafe term to use to a man five feet tall.
And there are flat-out funny stories. Here’s just one, reported by Wilder.
[Von Stroheim] has always thought Swanson too young and desirable for the role of Norma. “Look at her,” he said. “I would like to fuck her now.” “I,” said Billy, “would rather fuck you.” “You have,” von Stroheim retorted.
If it didn’t happen, I want it to have.
In short, three more items for your shelf—repositories of good stories in themselves, prods and teases for your own thinking about story-making.
The University of Chicago Press has mounted a fine infographic on Westlake/Stark’s Parker novels here.
P.S. 19 January 2014: Thanks to David Cairns for correcting a slip. My original entry said that Brackett co-wrote Ace in the Hole with Wilder. Actually, the collaborators on Ace were Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman. Be sure to check David’s excellent Shadowplay site.
Down Periscope (1996).
Richard Lester and Peter von Bagh, Cinema Ritrovato Bologna, June 2014.
Kristin and I have just learned of the death of Peter von Bagh. Critic, historian, programmer, and filmmaker, Peter was an indefatigable lover of cinema whose generosity and kindness was a model for all of us. He made the Midnight Sun Film Festival an obligatory stopping point for the world’s great directors, and as artistic director of the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna he helped push that event to its prominence in world film culture. His personal documentaries, most famously Helsinki Forever (2008), earned their rightful place in festivals.
Mention a film you hadn’t seen, and very likely a week or so later that film–at first in VHS and in later years a DVD–would materialize in your mailbox. I remember Peter asking if I knew Mika Kaurismäki’s films. I confessed ignorance, but when I got home from the trip, there was a parcel of his films waiting for me. Last year at Bologna, I wasn’t able to see Peter’s latest film Socialism; when our paths next crossed, he pressed a copy into my hand.
I will always remember the few days we spent together at a 1997 Archimedia symposium in Brussels. Having meals with him was an education in itself, and his talk–which began with a screening of the first few moments of Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas–radiated his passion, his deep knowledge, and his vast appreciation for all kinds of cinema. The brunt of his talk was that there was no unimportant film, that every movie deserved our attention. To call him a canon-buster would insult his gentleness, but through his writing, his lectures, and his programming, he drove home the idea that there was always another film out there that would speak to us, if only we would listen.
A warm and easygoing elder brother to us–most likely, to everyone he met–Peter will be remembered wherever film lovers gather.
For a comprehensive account of Peter’s career, see this interview in Cinema Scope 60. Colin Beckett has an informative interview with Peter about the Midnight Sun festival. A book of tribute essays, Citizen Peter, edited by Olaf Möller, is available here. See also Antti Alanen’s Film Diary.
P.S. 22 September 2014, later. David Hudson is compiling tributes to Peter at his invaluable Fandor Keyframe blog.
By the Bluest of Seas (1935).
Both David and I missed almost all of this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival. I was in Egypt wearing my archaeologist’s hat and working on ancient statuary, and David was attending the Hong Kong International Film Festival. (See his reports, here and here.) Luckily we made it back just in time for Alexander Payne’s spring visit to Madison.
I first met Alexander at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. He already knew who I was from having read Film Art: An Introduction, and we started chatting. We were in a small crowd outside the Arlecchino cinema, where a screening was running late. I asked Alexander what he had seen at the festival that he liked. He said he had come from a screening of Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and thought it was a masterpiece. Right away I knew that this man has impeccable taste in movies. (Alexander further proved this during his recent visit, saying that his favorite three films of Il Cinema Ritrovato were Ingeborg Holm, Naruse’s Wife, Be Like a Rose, and Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere.)
Alexander is a friend of Jim Healy, head programmer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Colloquium screening series and of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Jim seems to know half the people in the film industry as well as in the festival and archival spheres; he has already brought Tim Hunter and Joe Dante to campus. I knew he hoped to bring Alexander as well, so I put in a pitch for the idea, mentioning how enthusiastic the film students and buffs are in Madison and how he would enjoy speaking with audiences here, who would ask interesting questions. Luckily for me that turned out to be true, a mere nine months later. (Left, Alexander and Jim in a local Madison burger joint.)
Alexander Payne, cinephile
Alexander participated in a number of events here in Madison, some associated with the Wisconsin Film Festival and others with the Department of Communication Arts. These began with a session of our divisional film colloquium, which began with David and Alexander in discussion onstage (right) and then opened for questions from the faculty and graduate students.
The conversation began with Alexander recalling how he fell in love with movies, which he reckons happened at about the age of four. He watched mainly older movies. In those days there were rival houses in his hometown of Omaha. His father owned a restaurant in Omaha, and for some reason one of his suppliers, Kraft, gave him a regular-8mm movie projector. Alexander started collecting films, buying prints initially from the now defunct Castle company and later from the still functioning Blackhawk Films.
These included all twelve Chaplin shorts made a Mutual. Many years later, Alexander supported the restoration of the last of that set, The Adventurer. That’s what had brought him to Bologna. He introduced the film, which was shone as one of several new restorations in the Essanay/Mutual Project of the Fondazione Cineteca Di Bologna and Lobster Films. (See here for information on the project and program notes for this year’s screenings.) It was screened at one of the 10 pm programs in the Piazza Maggiore, with Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife, also nearly restored.
Jumping back to Alexander’s progress as a cinephile, he became an undergraduate at Stanford, studying history and Spanish. From there he moved on to UCLA for an education in filmmaking, and “thought it was heaven.” He loved it so much that he delayed starting his filmmaking career and staying on to see more film’s in the famous Melnitz Hall screening room. In those days, 35mm prints were regularly shown, including nitrate originals. (Probably around ten years ago I saw a nitrate print of Trouble in Paradise there, being screened for a class. It definitely was heaven.)
There he recalls seeing such things as an Antonioni retrospective and Double Indemnity. When he was in his 30s, he fell in love with Italian and Japanese cinema. Now that he has reached his 50s, he has broadened his interests to study the films of Hollywood directors like Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh. He admires the conciseness of their films: “Film,” he says, “is a constant search for economy.”
Alexander’s love of Italian films was in evidence at one of the final events of the Wisconsin Film Festival. He had been asked to choose an older film that he could introduce and answer questions about afterward. His choice was Il Sorpasso (1961, Dino Risi). The auditorium at our local arthouse multiplex, Sundance 608, was packed with a very enthusiastic audience indeed. (Left, Alexander after being introduced by Jim Healey.)
The next evening, Alexander did the same for a screening of Nebraska at Union South. Again a full house, and again an audience eager to ask questions.
In between such events, we shared some restaurant meals. Alexander, Jim, and David sounded like some contrapuntal version of the Internet Movie Database, tossing titles, directors, and other film credits back and forth.
During these conversations, and indeed every other conversation we had with him, Alexander would pull out a small pocket notebook (though paper napkins sometimes substituted) and write down any intriguing-sounding title of a film he hadn’t seen. Not only a cinephile, but a systematic one.
Not surprisingly, during the colloquium discussion the issue of Nebraska being shot in black-and-white came up. David mentioned that Bong Joon-ho had said to him (while they were both jury members at this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival) that every director wants to make a black-and-white movie.
Given his love for older films, Alexander considers that “Our great film heritage is black and white.” Inevitably, during the press junkets for Nebraska, reporters asked him why he made the film in black and white. What he wants to know is, “Why is that the first question?”
Alexander agrees with Bong: “I don’t think a director is really a director until he or she has made a film in black and white.” He approached Paramount with the idea of making Nebraska as a black-and-white film and argued that it would be viable because it had a low budget of $12 million. He adds that directors have faced the same arguments against black and white since the 1970s, as when Peter Bogdanovich was making Paper Moon. The TV contracts specify color.
Alexander wanted to shoot Nebraska on film, but the only black-and-white stock available had an ASA of 200, which would not be effective for night shooting. He had to shoot digitally and add contrast and grain afterward to get a film look.
He definitely regrets the loss of film, which he considers superior to video: “I think flicker will always be superior to glow.”
Alexander says he is a big fan of the 1970s because he was a teenager at the time. He thinks that a lot of films made then and released into regular theaters could not be shown today outside arthouses. Films then were judged by their closeness to reality, not their distance from it. For him, “There’s just a consistently fine product being turned out between The Graduate  and Raging Bull .”
It was the period when a generation of filmmakers came to prominence, filmmakers who today are the grand old men of Hollywood. David pointed out that Alexander has often been mentioned as part of a later generation that included such directors as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Alexander agreed that there was the “Class of 1999″ that included films like Election and Fight Club (putting David Fincher in the same group). He says of these directors, “We’re friendly enough.” But he envies the Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas generation because they were able to help each other out in filmmaking. His generation doesn’t socialize much, though he said he had seen Soderbergh recently.
The Milos Forman of Nebraska
For anyone who had been unaware that Payne comes from the vast territory in the middle of the USA that encompasses the Midwest and Great Plains and is generally known as Flyover Territory, his latest film makes that point clear. He was born and raised in Omaha, and still lives part of the year there. As he explained in the colloquium discussion, “I’m one of those people in the arts who are interested in exploring where they’re from.” This is not to say that all of his films are set in Nebraska, but four of the six features take place there, explicitly or implicitly.
Citizen Ruth has not identifiable setting, as far as I could tell, though its milieu is clearly centered in small-town life in the country’s midsection. It was shot in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha. Election doesn’t stress the fact, but close shots of newspaper stories reveal that its story is set in Omaha. Warren Schmidt lives there as well, and his road trip to his daughter’s wedding takes him to Denver and brings him back home. Payne’s next two films were set in quite different parts of America: Sideways in San Diego and California wine country and The Descendants in Hawaii. Nebraska chronicled David Grant’s journey with his father Woody from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, taking in several rural and small-town locations along the way.
Each story mixes humor and pathos, including both satirical swipes at locals and great affection for them. It’s hard to pin down their genres. (The Internet Movie Database classifies About Schmidt as a comedy/drama and Nebraska as an adventure/drama.) In the colloquium, Payne remarked of Nebraska, “I call it my own Czech Republic. I get to make Milos Forman films about it.”
It is a cliché to say that the settings in which a film’s action takes place become a character in the drama, but Payne’s films really do manage to keep us aware of the surroundings to surprising extent. Payne says that when he discusses a film with his cinematographer and production designer, he says he wants “Vividly shot reality.”
Vivid can simply mean beautiful, and there are many such landscapes, as in The Descendants:
But it need not mean that. The choice of framing in the opening scene of Election, with the fence in the foreground and the school crouched ominously high on the hill tend to make it look like a prison:
Emphasis on locales can be created by something as simple as a slight wide-angle lens that adds dimension to a house, making it more prominent within its surroundings, as in The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Nebraska, where the vegetation framing the building, ranging from lush to ordinary to sparse, help define the homes of the main characters:
To achieve the desired vividness, Payne often chooses to use real interiors, even if that limits the types of set-ups he can make. The result can be busy but spacious and attractive, as in The Descendants:
Or the constraint can turn to an advantage, as in the confined arrangement filmed from a television’s point of view for the “That Impala you used to have …” long take in Nebraska:
This latter scene exemplifies something else that Payne considers crucial for achieving realism: the addition of extras and small roles, often played by non-actors found in the area where location filming is occurring.
Alexander sometimes uses symmetry to make a fairly ordinary locale more vivid, as in these planimetric shots from Sideways and About Schmidt:
Vivid shots can make a thematic point, as in The Descendants. Shots of Matt and his daughters being driven through their unspoiled ancestral land lead to a view of them being driven up to the sort of elegant resort that could be built on that land if they sell it. The second shot is pretty and well composed, but the juxtaposition with the series of shots that preceded it should make us sense it as slightly menacing as well:
I’ve stuck mainly to long shots here, since that’s where the vivid realism tends to come. There are many unusually close views of characters as well, which contrast with these long shots. There we tend to get the psychological side of these films, which are basically character studies. This contrast may be what gives Alexander’s films a sense both of place and of intense concentration on characters.
Alexander Payne, storyteller
We all know that Oscar wins and nominations don’t always go to the actual best films of the year. But they do reflect something about the reputation of a filmmaker within the industry. Alexander has had two films nominated for best picture: The Descendants and Nebraska. That these nominations are not simply the result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s switch to a ten-nominee best-picture category is reflected in the fact that he has been nominated for best director three times: Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska. He and his co-writers have also been nominated three times for best adapted screenplay: Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. The only film which Payne did not co-write, Nebraska, received an nomination for best original screenplay, by Bob Nelson. All these nominations produced two wins, for the screenplays of Sideways and The Descendants. Clearly Alexander is recognized in Hollywood as a fine storyteller.
Apart from Citizen Ruth and Nebraska, all of Alexander’s films are based on novels. In the colloquium discussion with David, he said he prefers adapting novels, which are ready-made stories. He doesn’t have the original ideas, but he can deal with them almost like a documentarian filming an imagined reality. Most of the novels have been based on the authors’ own experiences, and most of them are regional. “You can find a world and have a dialogue with it.”
His sources are generally not well-known novels. None of the Jane Austen-style prestigious literary property here. Neither Election nor Sideways had been published at the point where he decided to adapt them. The Descendants was not a well-known book. As his first project out of film school, Alexander and Jim Taylor, who would collaborate on several scripts, wrote an original one about a retired man in Omaha. When no one in Hollywood was interested, they went on and made Citizen Ruth and Election. Once Election became a critical, if not a commercial, success, they were able to move on to a more ambitious project. In the late 1990s, Louis Begley’s novel, About Schmidt, was suggested to them as a possible vehicle for Jack Nicholson. They derived some elements from it, combining them with their earlier script. It was, by the way, Alexander’s most expensive film at $32 million, half of which went for Jack Nicholson’s fee.
[Thanks to Jim Healey for clarifying About Schmidt's origins; this paragraph has been re-written to incorporate the information he provided.]
Clearly he values the tight unity and narrative economy that are characteristic of the studio age of Hollywood filmmaking: “You want your screenplay as streamlined as possible.” That doesn’t mean following a formula, however. He considers that the screenplay manuals that have been so influential, like those of Syd Field and Robert McKee, “destructive.” He dislikes their blanket generalizations. David pointed out that Matt’s voiceover narration in The Descendants is used to provide exposition, but then tapers off at about the midway point. Alexander responds that manuals claims that voiceover should not be used, but that if it is, it should either be used throughout or only at the beginning and end. These strictures he considers absurd. (Interestingly, many classic studios films start with a voiceover that doesn’t return at the end.)
During the colloquium discussion, Alexander remarked, “I like films which are entertaining and charming.” It’s a generalization that could apply to classical studio filmmaking, and it applies to his films as well. These are well-made films made on the whole along classical lines. Their main characters have goals, struggle toward them, meet obstacles, and usually follow an arc at the end of which they have a sudden realization.
Those goals, struggles, and growth also follow a pattern that one could point to in making a case for a thematic consistency in Alexander’s work. These are mostly films where characters struggle against some misfortune or obsessive hatred and eventually come to some sort of reconciliation with their situation.
Warren Schmidt deals with retirements, the death of his wife, and the marriage of his daughter into a family that disgusts him. He concludes that his life has been an utter waste, and yet a sudden realization that a casual act of kindness has made a difference to another person (a six-year-old orphan in Africa whom he has “adopted” through a charity) rescues him from his despair.
In Sideways, Miles cannot accept that his ex-wife has left him and is about to remarry, and he also hopes to find a publisher for his unwieldy, long novel. Only after he accepts both the failure of his marriage and the impossibility of publication can he move on to a possible new romance. In The Descendants, Matt overcomes his rage over his comatose wife’s infidelity in time to bid her a sincere, grief-filled farewell before she dies. In Nebraska, David Grant struggles to convince his father Woody that his delusions, perhaps brought on by increasing dementia, are absurd, but he finally realizes that humoring the old man is a kinder approach for all concerned.
Election, being an early work, largely avoids this pattern. Jim conceives a hatred for Tracy that he never overcomes. He manages to pull himself together after the failure of his marriage and his firing from his high-school teaching post, finding a new romance and a modest job as a guide in a New York museum. Still, his last glimpse of Tracy as an apparently successful assistant to a major politician is resentful and dismissive, as he continues to view her as he had during her candidacy for student president. Here there is no reconciliation in the main plotline.
The films also tend to follow a well-balanced structure that at least sometimes conforms to the four-part structure I have outlined in Storytelling in the New Hollywood and in this blog entry. Election, for example, has a major turning point that comes halfway through: Tracy notices that one of her posters has begun to peel off the wall (see top), and her struggle to re-attach it leads her to lose control for once and destroy her opponent’s posters. It’s a moment that Jim could legitimately use to disqualify her as a candidate, but his own incompetence and her cleverness and ruthless resistance of his accusations ultimately lead to his failure and her success. The Descendants has a well-balanced four-part structure as well.
There is also a playfulness about these films that fits Alexander’s “entertaining and charming” description of classical films. Both Election and About Schmidt, for example, contain inserts showing the protagonists’ absurd visions of themselves as wildly successful, Jim as a Marcello Mastroianni-like sophisticate and Schmidt as a business tycoon:
What about the future? Alexander revealed that after Sideways, he and Taylor embarked on an original screenplay, which now has been revived as a current project. It would be a big-budget, effects-driven film. If the project comes to fruition, he dreads the prospect of doing storyboards for the first time. His devotion to historic films remains unchanged, however. He plans to be at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, where we hope to catch a meal with him and go on throwing favorite titles back and forth.
Why do reporters start by asking why Nebraska is in black and white? Having studied press junkets for The Frodo Franchise (see the section on frequently asked questions, pp. 123-132), I suspect that the studio is behind it. Basically publicity departments plant a small number of subjects they want reporters to talk about in the press releases, EPKs, and other items they use to guide the press. Reporters batten onto these as the things their readers would be most interested in, and they ask about them and write about them ad nauseum. All this means that filmmakers have to suffer through this same limited repertory of questions dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, struggling each time to say the same thing in a different way. The price of fame.
We have long included an example from Election in Film Art, where we quoted Alexander as a way of showing that directors deliberately set up patterns of motifs.
Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
It has been suggested by some that Mr. Farber’s prose style is labyrinthine; they fidget as he picks up a complex sentence full of interlocking clauses and sends it rumbling down the alley. I do not share this view. With men who know rococo best, it’s Farber two to one. Lulled by his Wagnerian rhythms, I snooze in my armchair, confident that the mystique of the talking picture is in capable hands.
S. J. Perelman, 1946
This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The first installments are here, here, here, and here. This is the second devoted to Manny Farber; the first considered his writings on visual art during the 1940s.
As I indicated earlier, Farber’s 1940s work breaks into two phases. First, from 1942 to 1946, he wrote for The New Republic, replacing Otis Ferguson. “Ferguson went off patriotically to war in the Merchant Marine and died. The next day I was asking for a job as movie critic. I was never very sentimental in that period. I was ambitious.” After a couple of years off, he did a stint at The Nation, during which he continued sporadically to review art but concentrated on film. In the second phase, from 1949 to 1954, he moved toward the positions he highlighted in Negative Space. This 1971 collection of essays consolidated his reputation and put in place the critical persona we still associate with him.
What’s fascinating is that the late 1940s-early 1950s pieces cast off many of the commitments he made during his first encounters with cinema. To become our Manny Farber, he had to become a somewhat different Manny Farber than the one who came to New York in late 1941.
The Ferguson legacy
In the previous entry, I suggested that Farber’s art reviews ran in parallel to that of a more famous critic, Clement Greenberg. Film criticism was dominated by another senior figure, James Agee.
The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and a central player in New York literary culture, Agee commanded a following. Farber became friends with him and they socialized frequently. After Agee’s death, Farber would write rather brusquely about him, praising him but also calling him a thoroughgoing middlebrow, “a fall guy,” a master of “verbal stunting,” and a purveyor of “arrogant, omnipotent decisions.” During Agee’s life, Farber never seems to have mentioned him in print, although Agee occasionally mentioned the younger man and arranged for Farber to become his successor at The Nation.
In 1942, when both Farber and Agee started writing about films, both faced the same conventions of journalistic reviewing that are in effect today. The reviewer had to sketch the film’s plot (without revealing the ending); dwell on performances; convey something of the film’s look and feel, perhaps with reference to direction, camerawork, editing, and music; and render a summary judgment. For economy’s sake, the writer typically dealt with these matters through a rhetoric of faults and beauties and a selection of a few vivid moments that counted for good or ill.
The challenge to any writer with pride was to do all these things in subtle, engaging ways. The review had to seem less a checklist than a flowing discourse, a controlled literary essay that happened to take a new movie as its pretext. Agee found ways to refresh these conventions, largely by treating the movie’s overall qualities and its striking moments as harboring the sort of power that Romantic aesthetics attributed to poetry.
Today the ambitious critic will accomplish these tasks so as to project a public persona, a distinct critical identity. I suggested in this entry that it was during the 1940s that the groundwork for this tradition of celebrity film criticism was laid. Agee presented himself as an eloquent but anxious, introspective personality, a stance that also dominates Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Farber constructed a different persona: the straight-shooting, hard-hitting, cultivated roughneck.
That critical voice wasn’t entirely new, though. It had already been heard a bit in the work of Otis Ferguson, Farber’s predecessor at The New Republic. Agee and Farber tacitly accepted the invitation that Ferguson issued when he went off to war:
More people go to good and bad movies than read good and bad books, and surely the top layer of this vast audience is as discriminating of taste and exacting of standards as the top layer of the reading public. . . . There are plenty of young people growing up to whom the films are so natural that they do not have to play the snob about them.
Agee and Farber had both loved movies since their teen years, and now they had a chance to exercise their love unsnobbishly.
Ferguson left more behind than admonitions. Through the 1930s, he had set out the premises for a defense of the Hollywood movie. Perhaps a younger critic could test these premises within the changing situation of 1940s filmmaking. What progress had been made? Had current filmmakers forgotten the lessons of the traditions recently established by talking pictures?
We find both Agee and Farber accepting, for instance, Ferguson’s general antipathy to arty pictures, talky pictures, “theatrical” pictures. Ferguson had developed the idea, going back at least to Gilbert Seldes, that what made movies art was their dramatic and pictorial organization of motion. But not motion as sheer movement; rather, movement made significant, turned into action.
For Ferguson, a good film flowed. It harnessed image and sound to the clear, vivid presentation of the story. Echoing Hollywood’s own aesthetic, Ferguson insisted that the audience shouldn’t notice the artistry. “Its main problem always is story, story, story—or, How can we do it to them so they don’t know beforehand it’s being done?” Ferguson’s adverse comments on Citizen Kane summarized his conception of the Hollywood craft. The italics are his.
The most important thing in the technique of a motion picture–and here director and writer are in varying degrees interdependent–is its construction shot by shot, not for the effect or punch line of any one fragment, but for such devising and spacing as avoid monotony, hold the interest, and lead easily from one thing into another, the devices for illusion being always and necessarily hidden in the natural emergence of the illusion itself.
This straight, clean storytelling is endorsed by Agee, though he’s willing to grant a little room for flourishes. Farber is stricter, pushing Ferguson’s idea of invisible style to a new level. Farber notes:
If the events are arranged to progress as though there were no camera present, if the camera merely watches and records what those events look like, the movie is to my mind the true nature of a movie; that is it is non-theatrical. . . . . The actions and procedures of the event will be seen propelled solely by factors within the event itself, irrespective of the camera.
A good director, says Farber, is always “seeking the idea in the visual world of action and movement, which is the more suitable, and so more emotionally vital, manner for the movies.” Like Agee and Ferguson, Farber held that this quality had been achieved during the silent era; all three held up Griffith, Chaplin, and the rest of the silent-film canon as the sort of thing that sound cinema would have to match.
More importantly, the demand for invisible illusion and narrative continuity ran against the deepest commitments of the Greenbergian modernism that dominated Farber’s gallery-and-museum milieu. Greenberg and his followers declared that painters who accepted the challenge of history would explore anti-illusionistic devices like surface values and spatial contradictions. Storytelling was best left to middlebrows like Norman Rockwell, who had mastered all the tricks of Victorian narrative painting. Modern painting, Greenberg thundered, should not illustrate. But according to Ferguson and company, a movie was at its core an illustration–a story told in action, by means of cinematic technique, made smooth and deft and emotionally absorbing.
Ferguson’s imprint was especially deep on Farber. His later work paid homage to Ferguson frequently, and without his usual acidity. Farber’s classic 1952 piece, “The Gimp,” borrows ideas and phrases from Ferguson’s review of Citizen Kane ten years earlier. As late as 1977 he was referring to “what Ferguson wrote about the iron fence in Citizen Kane,” as if every reader would have known that rather obscure critique.
Manny and you (and me)
Juke Girl (1942).
I think what I set out to do with criticism in the Forties . . . was to set out the movie before the reader’s eye in as much completeness as I could, in that topography. I had to develop a picture which could pull the audience in and give them these sights without their realizing it, and which would divulge the landscape of the film as accurately as I could get it. That involved a lot of color work in the language and in the insights—color work in the sense of decorative quality.
Manny Farber, 1977
Owing so much to Ferguson, running alongside Agee, and facing the constraining conventions of movie reviewing, Farber had to distinguish himself. One tactic came naturally: his style. Ferguson had brought to serious film criticism the tang of Depression newshawk jauntiness. Every paragraph is a freewheeling adventure in slang, mixed metaphors, and yoyo syntax.
Having expended so much care to such effect, [the makers of The Philadelphia Story] might have considered also that it is only brooks in poems that go on forever without somebody’s beginning to yawn, scratch, and wonder seriously whether it is the suspense or just his underwear that is climbing. They might have cut out the boob move of the writer proposing at the wedding and right before his own fiancée . . . . They could, I suppose have extended the very funny business at the expense of Timelife and its prose-bearing oracular baby-talk—though I wonder whether even the keen edge that is present as it is cuts any of the dull butter that must be out there haw-hawing at the performance and trundling up with a ring in its nose to the same newsstand afterward. . . . But there is nothing served in figuring out how to do something after someone has very well proved that it’s done already because he did it.
This is tough to beat. Farber brought some of this élan to his art reviews; maybe he thought that Ferguson had established lithe vernacular as the New Republic house style. In any event, across the 1940s, Farber raises Ferguson’s demotic prose a couple of notches in intensity. For example, masculine values (physical work, comradeship) were central to Ferguson, and both Agee and Farber use “virility” as a term of high praise. But characteristically Farber ups the ante, calling Maya Deren’s films “lesbianish” and warning us against their “pansyish composing and lighting.” (Remember, he was still in his twenties.)
Farber’s inflation of critical rhetoric is most evident when he ransacks the resources of figurative language. Usually it’s recruited for ridicule, but it can add wiseacre humor to anything.
*Hyperbole: Juke Girl is “the most belligerent thing you’ve ever seen.” None But the Lonely Heart is “one of the biggest hodgepodges Hollywood ever constructed.” Val Lewton is “the least commercial film maker in Hollywood by about a hundred miles.” Murder My Sweet is “by all all odds the most incomprehensible movie in years.”
*Metaphor: The protagonist of Open City “reminds you of a wet string.” Bing Crosby “chews gum with jet-propelled jaws.” All-purpose, and a bit mysterious: “Soft-shoe” applied to film direction, usually Howard Hawks.
*Comic personification: Hitchcock “impregnates costume and décor with so much crackling luster, so much tension and latent evil, that the spectator expects a stair corner or tie clasp to start murdering everyone in sight.”
*Comic understatement: The hero of The Razor’s Edge is “deeply distressed by his war experiences.” The hero’s office in A Rage in Heaven is “rather stunted. . . . couldn’t house more than eight or nine trains.”
*Comic overstatement: Ann Blyth is “about eighty years too young for what she is doing.” The home in Since You Went Away contains “several hundred photographs” of the absent father. In We Were Strangers “the tunnel dug in a week by six proletarian heroes is the size of the Holland Tunnel.”
*Burlesque (Gertrude Stein dept.): “But most of all this picture was not very good and was made by MGM and that clinches the argument.”
*Paradox: The Postman Always Rings Twice “is almost too terrible to walk out of.”
Then there’s his gift for paraprosdokian, the sentence with a surprise ending. The most famous example is “Stalag 17 is a crude, cliché-ridden glimpse of a Nazi prison camp that I hated to see end.” Here’s another: “The attempt seems to be to give the sensation of reading the book rather than looking at a movie, and I think it succeeds to a certain extent, anyway sufficiently to paralyze the movie.”
One of Farber’s most robust rhetorical strategies involves personal pronouns. Agee’s paragraphs are studded with I’s as he reenacts the squirming push-and-pull of arriving at his judgments. Farber, who never enacts the hesitating agonies of appraisal, seldom resorts to I. He is a man for you. In The Big Sleep “you try to decide what motivates the people.” For Open City: “No one opens his mouth or takes a step without reminding you of dozens of other movies.” Farber’s review of North Star is a cascade of you’s, creating a reader who is simultaneously following his prose and watching a virtual movie.
The strategy is shrewd. When the critic’s impressions are transferred to the hypothetical viewer (you), you’re already halfway to agreeing with him. Moreover, the reader is flattered, especially when the critic attributes to you a knowledge of dozens of other movies. This just-pals mind-meld asserts authority while implying equality. Ferguson resorts to the device occasionally, and Pauline Kael lived off it. (I flinch every time I remember her claim that after seeing Roxanne “You want to go to the town; you want to go back to the movie.”)
Forms and feelings
Farber’s rhetorical maneuvers are often aimed at sharpening the sort of detail we find in his art criticism of the same time. In a short review, the critic must fasten on moments. These are typically faults or beauties, and perhaps they quietly signal how attentive the critic’s eye is. Both Agee and Farber followed Ferguson in looking for vitality, authenticity, and well-managed storytelling. Agee went further, seeking in the privileged moments a glimpse of transporting beauty. Farber, no Romantic, looked in cinema for the flares of expressive significance he prized in painting.
So in Casablanca he’s fascinated by Peter Lorre “wrinkling and unwrinkling his forehead faster than ever” or Humphrey Bogart, who “seems to be holding back a mouthful of blood.” The Glass Key lets us dwell on the way a character “fondles a bottle he is about to crack over a skull.” Farber mocks implausible neatness, as when five people enter a crowded movie house and conveniently get five seats together. By contrast, Youth Runs Wild plays out “the whole visual vocabulary of a group like [Lewton’s] high-school kids: their stance and gestures playing handball, smoking.” Fresh details are best when casually caught, not studiously inserted. Laboring over striking effects would hurt the sense of action moving along without special concessions to the camera.
Just as we get more concrete evidence in Farber’s art reviews than in Greenberg’s, we get more of it in his film reviews than in Agee’s. For Agee, Counter-Attack (1945) is something of a gimmick film. The movie confines itself mostly to a chiaroscuro-drenched cellar in which two Soviet partisans try to guard seven German soldiers while a battle rages above them. It isn’t really hard, Agee says, to keep a movie alive in a confined space. He praises and criticizes the film in generalities: some formulaic defects, some virtues.
Farber devotes a long column to Counter-Attack, and he too has some objections, typically phrased more pungently than Agee. (Agee: Paul Muni is “too often an over-generalized, stagy embodiment of Russia.” Farber: Muni’s acting “is in a heavy, emphatic style that could be studied in detail from any distance up to a mile.”) But in scrutinizing Counter-Attack, Farber soaks us in minutiae. We learn that the Nazis are seldom seen in close-up or from within their group; that movements away from the group are “given grandeur” by the lighting and a building tension about exactly how far Muni will let an enemy walk toward him; that Muni delivers his orders like a whipcrack; and that the film makes
. . . the magician’s performance of magic a hypnotic, dance-like affair with an insinuating pattern of sound supplied to identify the noise cigarettes make hitting the inside of a helmet as the magician throws them.
Farber also registers current trends in theme, form, and style. He is exceptionally sensitive to the portrayal of African Americans in movies and never misses a chance to observe how stereotypes, even those in earnest problem pictures, abridge their identities. His brother was a psychiatrist, so he can spray mordant humor on the vogue for psychoanalytic mysteries: the doctor goads the patient into “recalling his one trauma—straining like a man lifting the Woolworth building.”
He notices flashbacks (though he usually dislikes them), the emerging conventions of war pictures, and the roles ascribed to the hero. Farber salutes the clever opening of Sturges’ Palm Beach Story as an experiment, a “miniature movie” left hanging until the film’s final shot. One funny essay on the prospect of Hollywood Dada targets a host of clichés: tears welling up, entire meals finished after we’ve seen people eat only a few bites, cigarettes smoked down in a couple of puffs, immaculately handwritten notes executed in fast motion. What the critics of mass culture saw as stultifying mindlessness, Farber treats as a familiar joy in conventions that do neat work and seem silly only when you stop to think about them.
Farber fills out Ferguson’s dicta about flowing continuity with an emphasis on feeling. He worries that Sturges’ films aren’t “emotionally evocative,” and he praises the lovers’ kiss in The Clock as “one of the most awesome and emotionally accurate scenes in years.” Even a weak film like Rage in Heaven can be redeemed by the spasms of fear we notice in Robert Montgomery’s performance. The Dark Mirror gains its emotional truth in a remarkably visual way: the differences among the three main characters are underscored by each one’s distinctive manner of kissing. As with the paintings that Farber prizes, a movie excells when it presents feelings briskly, without leaden emphasis.
Negative space, 2D and 3D
“The dotted tension lines indicate the amount of negative space that exists between the positive volumes. This negative space should be understood as a concrete and essential part of the structure. Emptiness or lack of structural necessity are [sic] certainly not implied” (Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition, 1943).
Is this all? Isn’t Farber’s main contribution to the critical conversation his expertise as an artist and a critic of modern painting? The 1940s criticism has fewer references to painting than we’re used to in the later work. But he does, rather tentatively, start to consider movies pictorially. What’s striking about his angle of approach is that he treats cinema as different from painting.
Most generally, he claims that images are central to artistry in the medium. But although his painting reviews often emphasize the geometry of pictorial composition, in films he cares less about this than he does about the way the filmmaker captures the event with emotional force. In The Stranger, Welles creates excitement with moments that are “shot at an angle that gives you the hardest impact of the action.” Tay Garnett’s The Cross of Lorraine presents combat “with striking pictorial truth, complexity and force. He is always forcing the emotion of an action by getting the clearest, most direct views of it, by cutting his film so that the action continually strikes out at the audience.”
Most 1940s films, Farber maintains, aim at a bland sheen but not purposeful images. When a film is weak, “there is nothing in the people, costuming or acting that will intrigue your eye enough to keep it focused on the story.” Heaven Can Wait is content to set the camera ten to fifteen feet from its actors and center the people squarely and at eye-level. Lost Boundaries, despite a laudable message about black Americans, is pictorially “as spineless as vanilla pudding.”
The photographer’s head evidently comes off if he tries anything but the orthodox, group-portrait composition: central details a little above screen enter, neither close to nor far from the camera.
In Mildred Pierce, “people are arranged for each scene as though at a first rehearsal, all squared off facing the audience.” What would the young Farber have made of Wes Anderson?
For Farber, the most memorable images carry the story’s idea through both framing and staging: the political meeting in The 39 Steps, a scene in The Ox-Bow Incident with cowboys studying a painting over the bar. Mr. Lucky exploits “the position of a person in relation to his environment and the people occupying it with him.” Farber goes on at length about how the scenes in a War Relief office jammed with people and partitions combines “architecture, pantomime and movie devices. . . with almost acrobatic invention.”
The whole sequence “uses all the components of a fluid medium, and the effect is a real movie one, neither theatrical nor literary.”
This fluidity was crucial for Ferguson too, but Farber realizes that it runs athwart the modernist demands about the frame edge. “Having a voice, eyes and legs, [film] is more fluid than any other medium. Like the mind, it is physically unbounded and can paint.” It paints, he implies, not a Mondrian or a Malevich, in which the frame edges create their own dynamic, but something like what we find on an unrolling picture scroll. James Wong Howe’s shots in Air Force reveal a space “uncentered in the old sense taken from painting, so that it seems to spread out in all directions past the boundaries of the screen.” Anticipating Bazin’s conception of the porous frame, Farber finds the unboundedness of cinematic space central to its power.
Accordingly, cinematic space that is too exactly composed seems overbearing, designed to be appreciated. Many 1940s films display tight composition with deep perspectives. But perspective was under suspicion in Manhattan’s 1940s art world. According to Hans Hofmann and other theorists, composition by line (e.g., linear perspective) was less forceful than composition by planes and masses. With these resources, the painter can build up volume through negative space.
The term became a buzzword in the Manhattan artworld of the 1940s, having been emphasized in Hofmann’s lectures and given explicit definition in Earle Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition (1943). For Loran, positive space consists of the masses in the depicted scene. Negative space amounts to the relations in depth among the masses. (See the diagram above.) These spaces should be felt as forces, creating a three-dimensional dynamic, a “push-and-pull,” as Hofmann called it. Parallel to negative 3D space are negative shapes, which are the unfilled portions of the 2D composition.
Farber would use the term broadly and metaphorically in later years, but he explicitly invokes negative space in the narrow sense in 1953, significantly in relation to the enhanced depth of stereoscopic cinema. When 3D films frame the shot through a horse’s legs or wagon wheels, they create “a sort of hole” between the front plane and more distant ones, and the result is “a more exact impression of masses.”
I think Farber applies the idea of negative space earlier, in an important 1946 comment on The Searching Wind. As with Mr. Lucky, it’s not a film he especially likes, but it does provide something quite different from the “stiff, contrived shot” that rules Welles’ films. Although Farber doesn’t spell out the difference, I believe he’s objecting to Welles’ habit of filling every inch of the frame, including pasting a big head in the foreground.
We speak of images like these as deep, but instead of summoning up negative space through tensions between the masses, Welles gives us something closer to a collage. The low angle of the Wellesian shot makes the three-dimensional relations less concrete; different-sized figures and faces seem jigsawed into the frame. There’s less a sense of varying distance (3D negative space) than varying size (2D placement). Moreover, there’s less of negative shape as well, since every inch of the frame seems stuffed with points of interest.
Farber asks us to contrast William Dieterle’s The Searching Wind:
The spaces between people are made concrete and of varying distances so that the movie has not only the three-dimensional but the dispersed look of real life.
The more open compositions of The Searching Wind create a naturalistic array of figures and lay out the sort of axes of tension seen in Loran’s diagram above. The people have room to breathe, with well-articulated negative shapes of varying sizes spacing them out. They gain the volume proper to distinct compositional masses. “Garmes’ photography,” Farber adds, “makes the people seem bulky.”
He goes on to another important point. A Searching Wind shot also “gives you the feeling that you’re in the room where the action is taking place.” To the naturalism of spatial arrangement is added a sense of our presence. We look at the scene in a non-theatrical, plausibly offhand way. But Welles’s compositions makes sense only when seen from a single vantage point; the shot is designed around our eye.
Shift the camera a little to left or right in my Welles illustrations, and the composition collapses. Shift the Searching Wind camera, and the action would still cohere. This is an example, I think, of what Farber suggests when he claims that an event can be presented in such a way that we believe it would unfold with the same force if the camera had not captured it.
In sum, Farber accepted that it was legitimate for contemporary painting to insist on the picture plane, to refuse illustration and illusion, and to recognize the active role of the frame edges. But at this point in his career he saw cinema as bound up with storytelling. That demands an art that hides art.
Farber had a stronger pictorial sensibility than either Agee or Tyler. His gifted eye sized up cinema’s visual possibilities. But he didn’t see those possibilities as akin to modernist painting. Cinema was a new medium of pictorial artistry, with its own demands—demands for story, illusion, incisive action, indefinite boundaries, loosely composed figures—all those pictorial considerations that the Manhattan gallery scene found suspect. Cinema was at its best when it blended authenticity and feeling with vivid but subtle visual form. Hollywood cinema, a popular art, could flourish through expressive naturalism.
The movies go modern
A Place in the Sun (1951).
Farber left The New Republic when Henry Wallace, having been fired from Truman’s cabinet, became editor. After over two years away from film reviewing, Farber returned to writing in 1949. His work for The Nation demands intensive study and appreciation in its own right, but I want here just to indicate how it displays a sharp shift in Farber’s aesthetic and in his attitude toward what happened in the 1940s.
During the 1940s, as I’ve mentioned, many American filmmakers began to stage and shoot their scenes in various degrees of depth. If Kane did not start the trend, it provided a vivid demo. Very soon after its release many films—The Maltese Falcon, Kings Row, The Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, and others—displayed big foregrounds, steep diagonals, and several planes of action in more or less sharp focus. These techniques became salient features of black-and-white Hollywood dramas, and many color ones, into the 1960s.
What’s striking, however, is that few American critics of the time bore witness to this as it was happening. Welles’ technical innovations were well-covered in the press, so most reviews mentioned what Toland had done, but as far as I can tell the widespread adoption of the style went almost completely unnoticed in film reviews. Even Farber’s New Republic pieces refer to depth staging in the oblique ways I’ve just mentioned, and he doesn’t go into lens length, film stocks, lighting, and other matters that were fairly common in the technical journals of the day.
By the early 1950s, however, Farber had time to register what happened to the Hollywood style he had celebrated. Not only were movies becoming more middlebrow, with prestigious projects trying to bring back the audience. Not only were acting styles becoming more extroverted, even neurotic. Movies were also becoming more stylistically aggressive—more, in a way, like modern art.
1950: American film-makers have suddenly learned how to make movies work as plastically as Mondrian paintings, using bizarre means and gaucherie.
1950: Directors, by flattening the screen, discarding framing and centered action, and looming the importance of actors—have made the movie come out and hit the audience with almost personal savagery.
The bland, stolid style he deplored in the 40s kept the camera far back, but now filmmakers had gone to the other extreme.
1951: The new close-up style of camera work . . . is evidently aimed at fetishists who like to study pores.
1951: [My Son John works] powerfully in the new style of close-ups, disembodied faces, and immobilized groupings.
1953: [In Member of the Wedding] you are practically on top of the human figure when, trapped in the most intense motion and feeling, it is cut off from the surrounding things that make life seem ordinary and fairly secure.
Certainly several directors used extreme close-ups in the 1950s, but then so did several directors in the 1940s, particularly in B films. A look today at My Son John doesn’t back up the sense that it’s full of close-ups and disembodied faces. The occasional big faces in A Place in the Sun are a bit more blatant, but most of the film is shot in the normal range of distances, and one long-take scene employs a distant high-angle recalling Mizoguchi. In all, I think that Farber is after something more general concerning the stylistics of space.
It sounds odd to say that the deep-focus style of the early 1950s yields flat and shallow images. But the big foregrounds and background figures squeezed into a locked-in frame seemed to Farber a legacy of Welles’s “stiff” shots. Directors were abandoning the spacious, dispersed framings of The Searching Wind and other films that balanced figures and landscape in a harmonious flow, that created solid masses and expressive tensions in the negative space. And the frames are so crowded that there are scarcely any negative shapes to offset the areas covered by the figures.
In sum, the recent films brought home to him a stylistic change that had been gathering force under his nose earlier. In 1952, he offers some complementary historical accounts. From one angle, he suggests that there was a kind of lag in picking up the excesses of Citizen Kane. He claims that Welles’ film initially made little impact on veteran directors. Only now, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun, People Will Talk, and other Gimp movies has “straight storytelling” lost out to an overbearing style, with shallow perspectives, “low intimate views,” rigid staging, and always faces in our faces—“huge, florid, eccentric, and somewhat sinister.”
From another angle, Farber senses that the decay wasn’t delayed but rather was setting in very early, at the start of the 1940s. There were filmmakers like Lewton who always respected the balance between his characters and the scenery, along with non-intellectuals (Walsh, Hawks) who at their best conveyed “the truth of American life and the excitement of American movement.” (Again Farber echoes Ferguson, who pledged Hollywood cinema to “the truth of life and the excitement of movement.”)
But, Farber insists, early 1940s Hollywood also played host to Times Square intellectuals fed on left-wing theatre and fiction. Their films pushed symbolism, political criticism, and fragmentary form. In this version, Welles isn’t the only culprit; there are Sturges (The Great McGinty), Kanin (A Man to Remember), and Huston’s Maltese Falcon. All displayed “very close, snarling presentation which put the actors practically in a nose-to-nose relationship with the movie spectator.” And now we had William Wyler’s Carrie, with its shallow space, “the actors arranged parallel-fashion and statically on the front pane of the scene.” Paradoxical as it may sound, American cinema had achieved the pictorial flatness Greenberg prized in painting.
Years later, in the introduction to Negative Space, Farber would add a few data points to this little history, looking backward to What Price Glory? (1927) and its “illustrational” style, “scaled in human terms for the space of the screen.” The Big Sleep (1946) is more compact and parsimonious in its coordinates, but it’s still worlds away from Touch of Evil’s “disorienting, illogical, allegorical” space—“prismatic and a quagmire at the same time.”
In the 1950s, on the whole, American movies had become worse than ever. There were, of course, the exceptions that he became identified with. A mild advocate for B films during the 1940s, Farber now found them preferable to bloated prestige pictures. White Tower (1950), Union Station (1951), and Kansas City Confidential (1952) maintained “present tense-realism through low-budgeted, off-the-cuff, on-location technique.” Later he would look back at the masters of the studio action picture and discuss them in the painterly terms—e.g., cubistic lapels and hat brims—that would dominate his writing in later years.
Manny and the Man
We Were Strangers (John Huston, 1948).
Farber’s 1950s denunciation of much 1940s cinema made for contradictions that he didn’t confront. In 1943 he had praised Kane highly, finding it a challenge to the “visual sterility” of most Hollywood films: it made each scene “a vigorous new visual experience.” No trace there of the Times Square leftist influence. The Story of GI Joe carried its point with “real cinematic strength” in 1945, but in 1957 Farber considers it flat, sentimental, and merely a MoMA classic. In 1943 he greeted Hitchcock as “producing movies of high quality,” but eight years later the director became the master of “cheap, glossy, mechanically perfect shocks” whose “only really punchy Hollywood job was ‘Lifeboat.’”
Sometimes the shift is startling. Upon release in 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives earned about the most consistent praise Farber lavished on any film of the decade. It was “far and away the least sentimental, most human of current films . . . an extreme sensitive and poignant study of life like your own.” A decade later, however, it became “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz,” one of those “solemn goiters” that get by because “they bear the label of ART in every inch of their reelage.” Critics can of course change their minds, but it’s a disconcerting when praise and criticism are pressed with equally vehement confidence, and the critic castigates his fellows for not looking “straight backward” to reappraise the films he too elevated.
Looking straight backward at Farber’s comments on John Huston, we find him declaring that “The Maltese Falcon is a good story which director John Huston told brilliantly on the screen” (1942). San Pietro has “breathtaking reality, fullness of detail and sharp effect from shot to shot” (1945). Yet by the time he returned to reviewing he found Huston wanting.
Agee, as I indicated in the previous entry in this series, found in Huston a rare level of excellence. His review of Treasure (1948) is purely in the Ferguson spirit:
There is not a shot-for-shot’s-sake in the picture, or one too prepared-looking, or dwelt on too long. The camera is always where it ought to be, never imposes on or exploits or over-dramatizes its subject, never for an instant shoves beauty or special meaning at you. . . . His style is practically invisible as well as practically universal in its possible good uses; it is the most virile movie style I know of; and it is the purest style in contemporary movies, here or abroad.
At this point Agee was hoping to get into moviemaking, with either Chaplin or Huston, and more than one observer has speculated that Agee’s genuine admiration for Monsieur Verdoux and Sierra Madre was reinforced by personal ambition.
It seems likely that Agee’s praise for Sierra Madre triggered Farber’s demolition job on Huston. Farber was between jobs when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) was released, but soon after he was hired on to The Nation, he seized upon We Were Strangers (1949) as an occasion to dismantle the director’s whole career. He redoubled his assault when The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was released.
Taken together, the two pieces set out to refute Agee point for point. Huston’s characters are oversimplified, the stories are moralizing, and his vision of life comes down to the futile quest for money. Far from having an invisible style, Huston has an aggressive one. “The texture of a Panama hat is emphasized to the point where you feel Huston is trying to stamp its price tag on your retina.”
More broadly, Farber revisits a leitmotif of his early work, the idea that the best Hollywood cinema rested upon the “unbroken action sequence” that presents a balance of figures and environment. The classic filmmaker viewed life “from a comfortable vantage point, one that is so unobtrusive that the audience is seldom conscious of the fact that a camera had anything to do with it.” By contrast, Huston is confining and static, relying on pyramidal compositions and “close three-figured shots.” Often his staging leaves his actors little room to move. I offer these examples from We Were Strangers and The Asphalt Jungle.
Here’s another passage Farber doesn’t cite, but he might have. One shot from Key Largo (1948) presents actors sliding into slots to create a “stiff” composition reminiscent of Welles.
The critics (Agee included, presumably) consider Huston “Hollywood’s fair-haired boy,” but he is merely “a vitaminized photographer.”
Putting aside Farber’s objections to Huston’s recurring themes, what Farber dislikes in Huston’s visuals is already there latently in some of the pre-Sierra Madre films, such as In This Our Life (1942) and Across the Pacific (1942).
At times, The Maltese Falcon is as bold a depth-oriented film as Citizen Kane, and it dares some strange asymmetries that Welles doesn’t.
Huston may like pyramidal layouts, but in the second shot above, it’s fairly audacious to make the recumbent Falcon and Joel Cairo form such a low-lying base. In shots like these, Huston can provide subtler push-and-pull dynamics than Farber allows.
Huston does have a fondness for aggressive compositions, but I see that as a more general tendency of the deep-focus aesthetic, from Anthony Mann’s in-your-face foregrounds (Raw Deal, 1948) to pictures with no tony ambitions like Jungle Patrol (1948). The latter’s framing, like the Key Largo shot above, leaves its actors no room to move.
Even a problematic film like We Were Strangers can create tense compositions in a shootout that takes place in nearly total darkness, adding some percussive abstract shots of sparks and bullet spatters.
Moreover, Huston had plenty of competition for outré images. Many memorable ones were given us by John Alton, cinematographer for The Crooked Way (1949), or William Cameron Menzies, production designer (Kings Row, 1941).
Oddly, Farber had praised Rudolph Maté’s shooting in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). “With Maté, an expressive shot is never one that whams you over the head.” But this comment ignores Menzies’ eccentric shot designs (discussed in more detail here and here). If any images seem either airlessly clenched or preciously arty, it would be shots like these.
It may be that some Hollywood filmmakers pushed mannerist visuals further during Farber’s 1947-1949 leave, so that when he returned to reviewing he was more aware of these devices. Nonetheless, I think that Farber considered Huston’s crowded frames more unusual than they were.
Agee’s 1950 Life profile of Huston came out after both of Farber’s pieces. Rebutted in advance, Agee appears to have conceded some of his adversarial friend’s points. Although he reiterates his praise (Huston’s framing is “simple and spontaneous”), he does admit that the recent films show him to have become “more of a ‘camera’ man,” with the result that the camera sometimes imposes on the story, the lighting becomes nearly arty, and “the screen at times becomes rigid, over-stylized.”
Farber didn’t let up, poking at Huston again and again for years. Almost capriciously, he turned generous, calling The Asphalt Jungle “visually interesting and emotionally complex,” and he found much to praise in The Red Badge of Courage (1951), which has its share of wide-angle depth (below left). Another hiatus from writing seems to have kept him from reviewing Beat the Devil (1954), whose low-slung and intense close-up staging (below right) might have brought forth some entertaining invective.
In any case, Huston’s films had already provoked Farber to expose the depredations of the new Hollywood. His 1949 and 1950 pieces on one offending director started his revaluation of the 1940s and put him on the scent of White Elephant Art.
For all his brawling energy, Farber didn’t achieve the renown of Agee at the period. An artist yet to break out on the gallery scene, Farber worked as a carpenter and picked up other casual writing jobs. But he did distinguish his critical voice enough to become a minority taste in the 1940s and 1950s. Later he would be recognized by a public ready for his pungent provocations. That recognition was helped by his eagerness to write about contemporary European and avant-garde cinema for art mavens (in Artforum) and cinephiles (Film Culture, Film Comment).
What can we learn about 1940s film aesthetics from all this? The split decision on Huston opens up a problem in the Ferguson legacy. If two sensitive critics with so much in common can’t agree when a director is doing smooth, straight work and when he is showboating, how can we understand the distinctive features of American filmic storytelling? Was Hollywood cinema of the 1940s an era of expressive naturalism, integrating details with unassuming fluency, or was it an era of over-fancy filigree?
Both, I think. In every era Hollywood swings between plain style (whose norms shift somewhat) and self-congratulatory virtuosity (ditto). With Agee and Farber we have, for the first time, critics carefully charting the arc swinging between forms of realism and forms of artifice. Just as important, Farber’s exacting eye and bebop prose complemented Agee’s moody lyricism in registering the power of Hollywood’s exuberant creative ferment—a ferment that remained invisible to the Partisan Review critics of “mass culture.”
On the other hand, who says we have to respect the Ferguson legacy anyhow? Maybe we should give up authenticity and naturalism and “continuity” and fluidity and all the rest? Parker Tyler gives that option a try.
Thanks once again to Kent Jones and Jim Naremore for exceptionally generous email correspondence. Kent has been indispensable in helping me think about Farber’s achievement. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this blog series.
Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce photographs of Farber in the course of this series.
Again I must express gratitude to Robert Polito’s Library of America collection Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. It’s particularly precious for including all of Farber’s earliest work, as well as identifying what Time reviews he probably wrote. (Following Farber’s wishes, those reviews aren’t included in the anthology.) Thanks to this compendium, along with the detailed timeline, Polito’s wide-ranging introduction, and the massive index, we can take Farber’s measure as never before. If only a digital edition were available for us scholar-squirrels to search!
Farber’s death in 2008 triggered a new wave of affectionate appreciation that has not subsided. David Hudson tracked the responses on Green Cine Daily. Especially important is “The Adventure of Perception,” two interviews with Kent Jones conducted by Eric Hynes on the occasion of a 2008 homage to Farber. Noel King’s interview with Robert Walsh of 2001 furnishes valuable information; see for fuller thoughts Walsh’s introduction to the 1998 reedition of Negative Space. Richard Corliss wrote, as is his wont, a sparkling appraisal for Time.
I’ve benefited as well from Donald Phelps’ early and prescient appreciation, “Critic Going Everywhere,” in Covering Ground: Essays for Now (Croton, 1969), 115-121. Phelps’ little magazine, For Now, published a Farber collection in issue no. 9 (1968); several of his art reviews are included. Also invaluable is Greg Taylor’s lively Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism (Princeton University Press, 1999). Farber’s unattributed borrowing from Ferguson’s Kane essay is discussed by Colin Burnett here. Most recently, we have James Naremore’s compact, discerning essay on Farber in An Invention without a Future: Essays on Cinema (University of California Press, 2014), 264-274.
On negative space, see Earle Loran, Cézanne’s Composition (University of California Press, orig. 1943). The 1950 edition of Loran’s book thanks Hans Hofmann’s lectures and writings for helping him formulate his ideas. Hofmann’s ideas, which seem to owe a good deal to Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane (orig. 1926), are condensed in Search for the Real (1948). It’s likely that Farber, a fervent admirer of Cézanne in his youth, knew Loran’s book, and Hofmann’s teachings were circulating throughout the Manhattan art world of Farber’s day.
Incidentally, it seems that over the years the term “negative space” has become equated with what Loran calls negative shape–a two-dimensional graphic phenomenon, as in the Gestalt figure/ground flipping we see here. For Loran, negative space creates plastic, three-dimensional relations, and Hofmann agrees: “Space discloses itself to us through volumes. ‘Objects’ are positive space. Negative space results from the relation of objects. Negative space is as concrete to the artist as is objective-positive space, and possesses an equal three dimensional effectiveness” (Search for the Real, 66-67). Farber’s introduction to Negative Space would expand the term to indicate “the command of experience which an artist can set resonating through a film, a sense of terrain.” Still, even this metaphorical broadening suggests not empty areas but rather relationships.
There are affinities between Ferguson’s aesthetic, which I’ve sketched here, and Monroe Stahr’s advice to a screenwriter here. The history of deep-focus cinematography, with some emphasis on the 1940s, is considered in Chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema, as well as in my On the History of Film Style and Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. See also Patrick Keating, Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir.
My epigraph comes from S. J. Perelman’s satire on Farber and location-based movies, “Hell in the Gabardines,” Keep It Crisp (Random House, 1946), 3-14.
P.S. 24 March 2014: Through simple forgetfulness, I neglected to mention Jonathan Rosenbaum’s acute memoir-appreciation of Farber in Placing Movies, now reprinted with revisions on his website. Jonathan traces important contrasts among Farber, Sarris, and Kael, while interweaving recollections of his encounters with Farber. In his online introduction, he points to other useful items, including his review of Farber on Film and an online version of Donald Phelps’ For Now collection.
P.P.S. 24 March 2014: Adrian Martin has written to tell me that his online journal Rouge published a Farber dossier in 2009, which included the Donald Phelps essay I mention above, as well as memoirs and appreciations by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Bill Krohn, Patrick Amos, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and Adrian himself, as well as a Farber piece on late-night radio. I regret not knowing about this dossier when I composed this entry, but it certainly merits the attention of every Farber-phile.
The Maltese Falcon (1941).