Archive for the 'Film technique: Staging' Category
“An auteur is not a brand,” argues Richard Brody. Not always, I’d suggest; but it can happen. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Wes Anderson has found a way to make films that project a unique sensibility while also fitting fairly smoothly into the modern American industry. He has his detractors (“I detest these films,” a friend tells me), but there’s no arguing with his distinctiveness. The Grand Budapest Hotel is perhaps the most vivid example of Andersonian whimsy as signature style.
In any case, before summer’s end I want to look at the auteurish aspects of another Anderson film. Whether you admire him, abominate him, or have mixed feelings, I think that studying this film can show us some interesting things about authorship in today’s film culture.
When I’m making a movie, what I have in mind, first for the visuals, is how we can stage the scenes to bring them more to life in the most interesting way, and then how we can make a world for the story that the audience hasn’t quite been in before.
A film auteur is often described as having a characteristic tone, an attitude, and recurring themes. But we also find more tangible marks of authorship. One is a tendency to create distinctive story worlds. Hawks gives us milieus filled with stoic, sometimes grimly resigned professionals. Scorsese presents manic, sometimes vicious worlds that encourage his protagonists to go too far.
If the auteur’s story world is the what, plot patterning and cinematic narration give us the how. How are the actions arranged to create an arc of engagement? How are the events rendered in film style—the texture of images and sounds?
It seems clear that no auteur can be absolutely unique; each one works with norms and conventions given by tradition. For instance, a great many US independent films subscribe to the Hollywood convention of the goal-driven protagonist. Moonrise Kingdom accepts it too: Sam and Suzy want to be together, and their aims propel the action. Anderson and co-screenwriter Roman Coppola even give us the classic formula of lovers, kept apart by society, who escape to freedom in the wilderness. Likewise, the film maintains the convention multiple lines of action: it creates parallels between the idealistic Suzy-Sam romance and the pallid routine of her parents’ marriage, as well as the hint of emerging affection between the phone operator Becky and Scoutmaster Ward.
Like a mainstream film, Moonrise Kingdom is at pains to build the plot toward a crisis—the second elopement of the couple and the massive storm that hits the region. The film turns the storm into a deadline: It will hit, says Bob Balaban’s narrator, “in three days’ time.” And as in a classical Hollywood film, the couple’s problems are solved and we get an epilogue showing their happy, if somewhat covert union.
Anderson has absorbed some lessons from mainstream cinema in more specific ways, I think. Since the Star Wars series (1977-on), we’ve seen Hollywood ever more eager to try “world-making”—adapting the traditions of fantasy, science-fiction, and comic books to creating fairly separate realms governed by their own rules. Batman and Superman adaptations of the 1980s and after followed this line, with Lord of the Rings proving that world-making could sustain long-running franchises (Harry Potter, the Marvel universe).
Anderson follows Lucas in creating his own worlds, but outside the conventions of space opera. We can find more or less parallel worlds in The Royal Tennenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but Moonrise Kingdom may be the most elaborate example. It takes place in terra incognita, a cluster of imaginary islands presumably on the upper Atlantic coast. The name of the primary island, “New Penzance,” reminds us of the fantasy-worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan. There are make-believe Amerindians (Chickchaws) and the Khaki Scouts are parallel to the Boy Scouts, with Accomplishment Buttons instead of Merit Badges. The Scout regalia are given us in the sort of fussy detail that Anderson has long enjoyed.
Parts of the story are relayed by a gnome-like Narrator whose range of knowledge includes past, present, and future. He suggests a fairy-tale wizard or bard. An ancillary film tells us that he’s the librarian of New Penzance—the tribal chronicler as small-town administrator. (The existence of this short film serves to reinforce the pretense that New Penzance exists.) Then there are the young-adult books that Suzy carries with her. They’re fictitious but they get strongly tagged to aspects of the action. The books and the scouting gear take on the same solidity as retro details like Suzy’s battery-powered phonograph and Sam’s jar of tang: 1965 stuff is recruited to flesh out Anderson’s miniature world.
Suzy’s books remind us that New Penzance, like other Anderson story worlds, is redolent of childhood. The film’s opening presents a family’s home as a dollhouse filled with toys and games. Once we’ve seen the fabric pictures rushing past on the walls, the landscapes they preview retain a miniaturized quality.
Those landscapes themselves have a childish defiance of gravity, as when we’re introduced to the poles at the tidal canals and when the Scouts build their tree house improbably high. This motif of top-heaviness eventually yields a sight gag when we learn the implausible fate of Redford’s motorcycle.
Childhood is everywhere. The music we hear in the opening is Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, played by three little brothers on a phonograph and narrated by a child for one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Throughout the film we hear grownup music designed for kids, such as bits of Bernstein’s rendition of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.
Benjamin Britten’s music is central to the film’s soundtrack, from his juvenilia (Simple Symphony, songs from Friday Afternoons) to his later opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its chorus of child fairies. A performance of Britten’s church parable Noye’s Fludde is the occasion of Sam’s first encounter with Suzy, and it prophesies the devastating storm of a year later. Carrying this kid-friendly ethos further, Anderson designs his closing credits so that Sam’s voice-over can anatomize Alexandre Desplat’s score, instrument by instrument.
If Britten suggests childhood vitality, the mournful Hank Williams tunes evoke adult disappointment. They’re associated from the start with the lonely, not-overbright Captain Sharp. When Sam’s canoe odyssey is accompanied by the fantasy Williams song “Kaw-Liga,” about a wooden Indian yearning for the carved woman across the street, Anderson suggests a parallel between two lonely, yearning males, and tagging it to Sam prefigures his eventual alliance with his surrogate father.
A tradition of twee
The density of this childish New Penzance, like that of other DIY cinematic worlds, supports a tendency I talked about in The Way Hollywood Tells It. For some time now, filmmakers have been filling their films with details that can be discovered on re-viewing, particularly on the DVD format, which allows us to stop and study a frame. The musical citations I just mentioned can be researched after an initial viewing, and perhaps cinephiles will notice that the therapy book’s cover is a riff on Saul Bass’s credit sequence for Bonjour Tristesse (like Françoise Hardy, a link to Left Bank pop culture).
Still, on the first pass we’re unlikely to notice that the stamp on Sam’s postcard to Suzy bears the likeness of Commander Pierce.
Likewise, only after many viewings did I notice that the peculiar flaming-scissors abstraction during the skirmish in the woods is given the same design as that on the motorcycle and helmet of the despicable, and rightfully lacerated, Redford.
And in the epilogue, we might spot that Sam, having cast off his Accomplishment Buttons, has kept his mother’s pin on his new Island Police uniform.
Art and commerce again: What exec could object to loading every rift with ore when it supports ancillary sales to the fan faithful?
Some people find an inward-turned world like this to be fey, coy, twee, infantile, precious, or self-indulgent. It seems to me, though, that Anderson’s work from The Life Aquatic onward links up with a literary tradition we associate with J. M. Barrie and G. K. Chesterton. These writers employed childhood fantasy in an effort to imagine a richer, livelier realm behind prosaic reality. Another kindred spirit would be Winsor McCay, like Anderson an obsessively meticulous stylist who gives heft and lilt to dream worlds. In cinema we might recall Greenaway’s The Falls (1980), as obsessive and precious a project as can be imagined.
Indeed, why not mention the most famous figure of all? There is a trace of Lewis Carroll in Moonrise Kingdom’s looking-glass world—its strangely safe tree house, its deadpan absurdity, the habit of lawyers talking as if always in court. Like Carroll, Anderson doesn’t shrink from cruelty; the death of Snoopy is as perfunctory as that of the oysters on which the Walrus and the Carpenter tearfully dine.
Significantly, modern efforts to reenchant the world are often framed by loss. Wendy comes back from Neverland, Little Nemo awakes with a thump, Alice must return to lazy and boring afternoons. Anderson too evokes the fading of enchantment. Moonrise Kingdom takes place at the onset of autumn, and Suzy’s family lives at Summer’s End. Unlike other modern explorations of faerie, however, this one lets its characters wake up in something approximating their dream life.
Day by day, with interruptions
In accord with the child-based story world, the plot of Moonrise Kingdom provides something of a modern fairy tale. A runaway orphan who retains a token of his parentage heads out for the wilderness. A princess imprisoned in a tower scans the horizon for her rescuer. Lovers exchange messages before they escape into a realm of danger and death. They are rescued by a beneficent authority who will allow them to stay together.
Of course it’s a meta-exercise, since its authors and audiences are self-consciously deploying fairy-tale conventions. But as Barrie and Chesterton and Carroll show, enjoyment of artifice is central to art. Anderson accordingly stylizes both his plot structure and his narration.
He has long been drawn to block construction, building his plots out of big chunks that are often signaled explicitly. In Moonrise Kingdom, the chunks divide up in unusual ways—part, again, of this auteur’s cinematic signature.
At first we might think we can just track the adventure day by day. On 2 September 1965 Sam goes AWOL from scout camp and Suzy sets out with her belongings. On 3 September the couple fend off their pursuers—the battle of arrow, BB gun, and scissors—and make camp on Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet. There they swim, dance, and spend the night. On 4 September they’re captured and separated.
But that night the scouts help them escape again, and all head for New Lebanon. The “marriage” of Sam and Suzy on the 5th leads to their flight to Saint Jack Wood Island just as the storm hits. Before they can make a lovers’ leap from the church steeple, Captain Sharp rescues them and arranges to be Sam’s foster parent. These four days are sporadically marked by changes from day to night and some remarks, as when Scoutmaster Ward dictates into his tape recorder. An epilogue is reserved for 10 October.
Running athwart the day-by-day divisions are other blocks. Actually, the first day is shown us three times, via shifts in narrational attachment. First we’re with Scoutmaster Ward, his charges, and Captain Sharp, all of whom are searching for Sam. After Ward dolefully ends his audio diary entry (“Let’s hope tomorrow is better”), Anderson cuts to Sam in the stolen canoe.
You might think this scene of Sam paddling is taking place the next day, but actually it skips back to the morning of the 2nd, when he sneaked off. Thereafter we’re attached to him when he meets Suzy in the meadow and they share their first day on the run. Then the plot skips back again to earlier that night, when Mrs. Bishop calls Suzy to dinner and discovers that she’s gone.
The 2 September section is even more complicated than I’ve suggested. When Suzy and Sam rendezvous in the meadow, their encounter is interrupted by a flashback to their first meeting a year earlier (signaled by a title). Later, the Bishop-centered evening section is interrupted by another block, a flashback montage triggered by Mrs. Bishop’s discovery of the couple’s love letters.
Here Anderson provides important backstory paralleling the two kids’ reasons for running away. Sam is bullied by the older boys in the foster-family-compound run by the Billingsleys, and Suzy blows up at her parents and schoolmates. By the end of the third iteration of 2 September, all the major forces in the drama have been delineated.
The two expository flashbacks give us more reason to care about Sam and Suzy in the following scenes, particularly during their skirmish with the Khaki Scouts squadron. Redford’s bullying ways, ignoring Ward’s orders to avoid violence, earn him a lumbar thrust from Suzy’s scissors, and it’s a mis-aimed arrow that wipes out poor Snoopy.
The couple’s idyll, presented as more or less another block, becomes the center of the film. It ends, at the midpoint of the running time, with Suzy reading: “Part Two.”
After they’re captured, Mr. Bishop vows to keep Suzy from Sam. Worse, Captain Sharp learns that Sam is headed for an orphanage and maybe shock therapy. This will encourage Sharp to defend and rescue the two kids at the climax.
With this crisis looming, the plot gives us a sort of nocturne on the evening of September fourth and the dawn of the fifth. In the night, all the players mull over what has happened: Suzy and her mother, Sam and Captain Sharp, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop, and Scoutmaster Ward. But this isn’t merely downtime. The Scouts in their treehouse decide they’ve treated Sam unjustly and set out to help the couple. This decision propels the climax.
By the morning of the final day, Sam and Suzy are reunited and ready for their mock marriage. All that remains is for the storm to disrupt things (even giving Sam some shock therapy by lightning), but also to set things right. The epilogue shows the new stable state of the story world, tying together the plot action neatly. Scoutmaster Ward, reinstated from disgrace, has replaced Captain Pierce’s picture with Becky’s. Sam has a foster father, and he can covertly see Suzy every day.
The magic power of binoculars
Narration involves the moment-by-moment flow of story information, organized around the key question: Who knows what, when?
A simple example: Early in the film Suzy finds a letter in the family mailbox. She takes it to the bus shelter and reads it. When she’s done, she looks up resolutely at us and slips the letter into a shoe box.
What was in the letter? The narration has suppressed that information, stirring up curiosity and preparing us for what, many scenes later, Mrs. Bishop will reveal when she finds it: Sam’s final message about their rendezvous. Moreover, the narration flaunts its suppressiveness: She looks at us as if insisting that the message is private.
Unlike the letter scene, which suppresses information, the opening tours of the house give us a fair amount, but we’re not yet in a position to understand it. This applies to our glimpses of the scissors and the New Penzance locations, but there’s also the vertically rising shot shows Suzy’s suitcase in the attic along with her cat peeping out of the fishing creel.
This becomes significant only later, when we realize that Suzy is preparing to bolt.
The narrational process mobilizes film style, both visual and auditory, to engage us in a constant process of expectations—stated, prolonged, fulfilled, or cheated. Consider Suzy’s binoculars. Early in the film we see her looking through them, but we don’t see what she sees. What is she looking at? Or looking for? Soon enough we’ll see that she manages to learn of her mother’s affair with Captain Sharp.
Once we’re set up for the binoculars device, Anderson can use it elliptically. In the meadow we see Sam through binoculars, so we’ll assume that Suzy is looking at him, even if Anderson doesn’t show the customary head-on reverse shot of her.
In effect, this image of Sam is the answering POV shot that has been missing in the early sequences.
But at the climax, when Sam rushes back to camp to fetch Suzy’s binoculars, he’s again caught in their field of view. This immediately leads us to ask: Who’s watching him? Anderson has stuck to Sam in the scene, so we get a gratifying surprise when we learn that the odious Redford has grabbed the glasses and is watching Sam’s search.
Or consider the film’s opening as a narrational gesture. The toy world that the tracking shots present is packed with story information. The very first image shows a fabric version of the Bishops’ house, flanked by Suzy’s left-handed scissors; the picture will soon be echoed by an establishing shot.
Shot by shot, the film channels information in order to set up expectations, to prolong them, to confirm them, or to deflate them. This is how cinematic narration can engage us.
The gnome-like narrator is another source of information. Anderson has compared him to the Stage Manager in Our Town, who can address the audience but also interact with other characters. His opening explanation supplies factoids about this imaginary landscape, while foreshadowing things explicitly (the storm) and implicitly, as with this image that looks forward to Sam and Suzy’s interlude at Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet.
Narration doesn’t just pass along information; sometimes it suppresses it. It can point out when it’s hiding something, as when the film refuses to show us Suzy’s letter. Sometimes information is noticeably incomplete, as when only bits of Suzy’s and Sam’s correspondence are relayed to us. Another instance is the elliptical handling of the Khaki bullies’ attack on the couple, with a glimpse of an arrow and Paul-Sharits-ish flashes of scissors. Only quite a bit after the assault do we see the damage.
At other moments a film’s narration can create an informational gap that it doesn’t fill, only to do so later. During the central idyll Moonrise Kingdom omits a crucial piece of information and puts it in place only at the very end.
Down the aisle and face to face
Cinematic narration involves stylistic choices as well, and here again Anderson has sought an identifiable look and feel. In an earlier entry on The Grand Budapest Hotel, I talked about his adherence to planimetric images, the tendency to fix the camera at right angles to a background plane and then arrange figures either horizontally, like clothes on a line, or in profile.
Likewise, Anderseon employs what I’ve called compass-point editing. He usually puts the camera between the characters so that they face us in shot/ reverse-shot.
Or he films the action from straight-on, straight-back, or at a right angle. This geometry can be extended to camera movements: moving lateral and parallel to the planes of the shot, or panning at right angles, or zooming along the lens axis. Another extension is the straight-down angle, which is another variant of shooting at a different right angle to the action.
Planimetric shots and compass-point editing aren’t absolutely new with Anderson, but he uses them more thoroughly than most other filmmakers do. They govern his staging to the extent of pushing him away from realism. How plausible is it that all the Khaki scouts would line up on one side of the picnic table? Or that Ward wouldn’t notice, in a later scene, that all of them are gone?
Anderson’s use of such imagery evokes silent-film comedy, especially the compositions of Keaton, but these shots also suit a fairy-tale world. The stylized naivete of these compositions recalls children’s drawings, which tend to spread figures out against a flat background. (This was prefigured in the squashed perspective of the Bishop house as portrayed in the fabric picture.)
When a director commits to a particular style, he or she may have limited choices on other fronts. A good example is the climactic confrontation of all the adults in the St. Jack Wood church. Anderson might have staged this in many ways, but his stylistic preferences make the central aisle the most feasible arena. So we get the groups facing one another, in reverse-angle depth, moving from one planimetric composition to another, the cutting being either 180-degree reverses or simple axial cuts (zero-degree changes of angle). Sometimes the actors pivot to provide foreground profiles and frontal faces in the distance.
Once you the filmmaker embrace such a marked style so thoroughly, how can you signal special moments? In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson does this by reverting to more commonplace technical choices.
When Suzy and Sam meet in the dressing room in 1964, we get straightforward 180-degree reversals.
And when they re-meet in the meadow, we get a mixture of profile and head-on shots.
But then Anderson starts to exempt them from the usual spatial strictures. The correspondence montage, for instance, retains the perpendicular framing but decenters his protagonists in mirror-image fashion.
As they get to know one another on their camping trip, the facing-front staging becomes less severe, more modulated.
And finally, when they admit their love to each other, Anderson gives us conventional ¾ views of faces and over-the-shoulder angles. These setups are reiterated when they embrace and dance.
At an emotional peak, Anderson sharply violates the film’s intrinsic norm by bringing in a common technique—which now gains a force it doesn’t customarily have.
The epilogue recapitulates both narrative and stylistic features. There’s another lateral tracking shot of the Bishop house, but now Sam is painting in a space that was empty at the start.
Again Suzy is using her binoculars, but now, dressed in cheery yellow, she has something worth seeing.
On the soundtrack we hear Britten’s “Cuckoo” song, a reiteration of the summer’s-end motif. The cuckoo, born in spring, enjoys the summer but must eventually fly. As we hear this over Sam’s departure through the window, Anderson’s camera slides down to reveal that Sam’s picture presents a landscape that has now vanished.
Here is the big ellipsis that Anderson didn’t flag in the central idyll. When Sam was painting a stretched-out Suzy at Mile 3.25 Tidal Inlet, they had agreed that the name of the place was insipid. She says she’ll think of a new name. But we’re told no more about the matter. In the epilogue, when we see Sam’s picture, we realize that they have given the place a better name: Moonrise Kingdom, inscribed in white on the shore.
“This is our land!” Sam had shouted when they looked out at the inlet. Like Anderson’s imagining of a parallel world of childhood, Sam has recreated, in the manner of modern fairy tales, something that is gone. As if in sympathy with the gesture, the film’s closing shot updates one that was given us during the scenes on the shore, with the yellow pup tent now pitched as the mist rolls in.
Did the couple really write MOONRISE KINGDOM on the shore during their stay? Hard to say. What matters is that, provoked by Sam’s picture, the film’s narration concludes by asserting the power of imaginative artifice.
Thinking about auteurs has always obliged us to focus on the interchange between industrial demands and artistic aims.
In general, I don’t see an inevitable conflict between market demands and artistic expression. (I argue for this here and elsewhere.) True, often producers and executives and censors mangle creators’ efforts. But some directors know how to do what they want with what they have. For example, Hitchcock’s artistry benefited from his status as a celebrity director. He won substantial budgets and greater control of his work. And sometimes the suits’ demands improve a film (as I suggest here).
Historically, it isn’t easy to separate auteurs from their brands. Let’s assume that a branded auteur is one who is known to a broad public for certain qualities of his or her films. A simple measure would be an ordinary viewer saying “I like X movies,” where X is the name of the director.
Hitchcock is nearly everybody’s clear-cut example of an auteur, but by the time the Cahiers du cinéma critics were forging their conception of cinematic artistry, Hitch was a brand too. How else to explain the 1940s-1950s book collections bearing his name, or The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, or the tag, “The master of suspense”? Hitchcock participated in this image-building with his jokey interviews, his walk-on appearances in his movies, and his reputation as a bland-faced prankster. Few directors today foster such shameless self-promotion. Also branded were Chaplin, Disney, Welles, and Cecil B. DeMille. Among the cinephilic public there was recognition of Huston, Sturges, and a few other hands.
Of course many of the auteurs discovered by the Cahiers critics were unknown to the public at large, and they didn’t make profitable pictures. In 1940s Hollywood, the successful Lang was Walter, not Fritz. But as the film industry developed, and as auteur criticism became prominent, directorial distinctiveness became a marketing angle. By the 1970s, the movie brats, along with older hands like Altman, were presenting themselves as having “personal visions” carried by their films.
More recently, US independent cinema has come to depend on several appeals (sex, social comment, and the like), but surely authorship is a central one. The indie scene exploits the signatures of directors as different as Lynch, Jarmusch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. The emergence of younger talent like Nicholas Winding Refn and Kelly Reichardt conforms to a similar pattern; people follow and support emerging directors, and distributors publicize the films that way. No wonder James Schamus, founder of Good Machine and late of Focus Features, once remarked: “I’m in the business of selling directors.”
This is just a fact of life for ambitious independent filmmakers. Wes Anderson’s cultivation of a distinct style is probably partly a genuine reflection of his personality and partly a matter of willed self-presentation. But of course we’re all indulging in self-presentation, using Goffman’s “impression management,” every time we interact with others.
Like an indie band, Anderson has created a marque unusual enough to let the fans feel they’re in on something keyed to their nonconformist tastes. He has provided the usual panoply of ancillary items, like soundtracks and bonus DVD tracks, but he has allowed others to participate in his world. Amateur videos comment on his style; graphic artists render their own versions of his posters. There are dozens of unlicensed Moonrise Kingdom tchotchkes. Anderson’s willingness to permit all manner of “tribute” memorabilia fits the handmade quality evoked by his films.
Call it Geek Chic if you want, but it exemplifies an important and potentially valuable part of modern popular culture. For such reasons, I don’t see anything inherently bad about being an auteur with marketing possibilities. People don’t seem to object to David Lynch’s coffee and his nightclub. With eccentricity, spontaneous or willed, all is permitted.
My argument assumes that the term “auteur” picks out something neutral. For some people, though, it’s not a description but a compliment; there can be no bad auteurs. But I think we can have both weak auteurs—filmmakers distinguished only by technique or tone or narrative strategy—and downright bad ones as well. I have my own list.
This piece is based on a talk I gave earlier in July at the Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film in Munich. Thanks to Andreas Rost and Michaela Krützen for arranging my visit.
In the New Yorker column I mention, Richard Brody develops an argument along a different line than mine. As I understand it, he’s replying to critics who claim that the auteur approach overrates individual creativity at the expense of collaborators. He’s also objecting to the expanding search for ever more auteurs, who turn out to be minor artisans at best. My remarks are focused on different issues.
For much more on Moonrise Kingdom consult Matthew Zoller Seitz’s indispensable The Wes Anderson Collection. Michael Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture examines Anderson’s cinema as a development of the “Quirky Indie.” The fan-generated merchandise exemplifies what Henry Jenkins, in his book Textual Poachers, called “participatory culture.”
My stills showing Sam’s painting and the extreme long shots of the shore can’t do justice to the originals; I tried bigger proportions, but the MOONRISE KINGDOM inscription remains hard to see. I have to assume that most readers have seen the movie, or will. The image below will have to do.
P.S. 21 July 2014: One sign of a distinctive authorial approach is that it can be parodied. James Fiumara writes to recommend the Saturday Night Live parody of Anderson, applying his style to domestic horror. “I frequently show this to students in discussions of both auteurism and genre conventions. The students all laugh at the parody and then I get them to try to recognize what the parody depends on (namely, their recognizing recurring styles and patterns distinct to Anderson films, recognizing the conventions of the horror home-invasion subgenre, and of course seeing the incongruity between Anderson’s films and the horror genre).” Thanks to James for the link.
P.P.S. 12 September 2014: Guillaume Campeau-Dupras writes to point me toward his 2012 blog on the film, which looks at the film from a perspective related to what Kristin and I have written about (but with many original ideas of his own). I think readers interested in Anderson would benefit from his entry.
Sansho the Bailiff (1954).
First things first: Happy birthday, Mizo-san! (He was born on 16 May 1898.)
Secondary things second: This entry is based on a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, as part of its comprehensive Mizoguchi retrospective. I want to thank my friends David Schwartz and Aliza Ma for inviting me to MoMI.
A fragile and fragmentary legacy
Mizoguchi, age twenty-eight, and Sakai Yoneko at Nikkatsu studio, 1926.
Mizoguchi Kenji’s renown in the West has flowered and faded. Like other Japanese directors, he was unknown in Europe and America before 1950. When Rashomon won the Golden Lion at Venice that year, Japanese cinema sprang onto the world’s radar. Just two years later, Mizoguchi began winning top Venice prizes with Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954). His old associate Nagata Masaichi saw export opportunities in Japanese costume pictures, especially after Gate of Hell (1953) won the Academy Award, and so Mizoguchi turned out several historical films with high-tone production values. He died in 1956, after Street of Shame (1956), a return to contemporary social commentary.
In just five years, this flare of attention and the praise of the Cahiers du cinéma critics made him second only to Kurosawa in Western recognition. During the 1960s, while Japanese critics were writing him off as outdated, international critics canonized him. Here’s Andrew Sarris in 1970.
I recently saw an obscure Mizoguchi film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art without any English subtitles, which left me up the Sea of Japan without a paddle. The program notes alerted me to the plot outline, but I was generally puzzled by the personal relationships, and the picture dragged along. . . . And then at the end the beleaguered heroine walks to a restaurant on a hillside overlooking the sea, and she orders something from a waiter in white, and the camera is high overhead, and the morning mists are bubbling all around, and the camera follows the waiter as he walks across the terrace to the restaurant and then follows him back to the heroine’s table now magically, mystically empty. It is as if death had intervened in the interval of two camera movements, to and fro, and the bubbling mists and the puzzled waiter provide the Orphic overtones of the most magical mise-en-scène since the last deathly images of F. W. Murnau’s Tabu.
Mizoguchi’s reputation was based almost completely upon his 1950s work. But as ever, film distribution shaped film tastes. Soon after the 1972 success of Tokyo Story in New York, Daniel Talbot’s New Yorker Films began circulating many major Japanese titles. Most electrifying for my generation was an abundant set of Ozu films, the arrival of which coincided with Donald Richie’s Ozu (1974). Twenty years after Mizoguchi’s emergence, Ozu began his ascent to the top of the pantheon.
Talbot’s catalogue included major Mizoguchi titles as well, notably Naniwa Elegy (1936), Sisters of Gion (1936), The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), Genroku Chushingura (The 47 Ronin, 1941-1942), Women of the Night (1948), and My Love Has Been Burning (1949). These showed us a new Mizoguchi, one that was more pictorially daring and more sharply socially critical, than the one we had known. Soon packaged programs toured by the Japan Film Library Council revealed other films by Mizoguchi and his contemporaries. At a certain point, a Japanese colleague told me at the time, it was easier to see his nation’s prewar films in New York than in Tokyo.
A broader recognition of 1930s-1940s Japanese film was crystallized in the 1978 publication of Noël Burch’s book To the Distant Oberver: Form and Meaning in Japanese Film. Burch urged the case that Ozu, Mizoguchi, and other “mature” directors had done their most ambitious work well before the Western festivals and critics had caught up with them–that in fact the venerated postwar films were mannered and unadventurous compared to the artistically radical prewar work.
Since then, as Ozu (and Naruse, and many more) have risen to the pantheon, Mizoguchi has become quite obscure. Critics haven’t really boosted him much; his most famous film, Ugetsu, ranked 50th in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll. Nor is the range of his work easy to sample on video. In 1976, Kristin and I were obliged to go to London to see the early Ozus not in US distribution; now, everything is on DVD. But many years later I went to Brussels for a complete Mizo retrospective, and the rare titles I saw there remain nearly unknown. His festival classics and the “Talbot canon” circulate on good-quality prints and DVDs, thanks to Criterion and Janus. But other films must be hunted down in obscure foreign DVD.
Worst of all, the survival rate of Mizoguchi’s films is appalling (although not exceptional for Japan). He made 43 films between 1923 and 1929; of these, only one survives complete. For the rest of his career he made or contributed to 42 features, of which we have 30. We lack over half his output. The physical quality of what we have varies a great deal, from gorgeous (Genroku Chushingura) to appalling (The Straits of Love and Hate, 1937, blown up from a scratched and contrasty 16mm copy). In fact, copies seem to have deteriorated. Prints I saw in the 1970s of Oyuki the Virgin (1935) were in decent shape, but many copies circulating now seem to be bad dupes of those prints, now much battered. There seems to be no systematic effort to restore what we have.
Tears are easy; tragedy is hard
I can’t deny that Mizoguchi’s fluctuating reputation is due to more than availability. He is easier to admire, even to worship, than to love. His films, though visually sumptuous, can be somber and bleak. Often unremitting tales of suffering, they lack humor (though not irony). Ozu’s mix of poignancy and comedy is much easier to enjoy than Mizoguchi’s forbidding, near-tragic despair. Ozu is also a more rigorous stylist; his signature is in every frame. While Mizoguchi was no less distinctive, he was more pluralistic in his technique.
Another obstacle: despite working with melodramatic material, Mizoguchi cools it down, sometimes to the point of remoteness. For many of his films, the prototype was Japan’s shinpa drama, an early twentieth-century theatrical tradition that blended kabuki themes and situations (e.g., the conflict of love and duty) with Western-style dramaturgy. Shinpa plays tended to concentrate on the sufferings of women in a male-dominated society. Shinpa women are victimized, exploited, and condemned; when they sacrifice themselves for men, too often the men attack them, betray them, or dump them. Mizoguchi worked many variations on these plot elements. When the American Occupation demanded more liberal films from the industry, he simply let the oppressed woman win some victory in the end.
Whether the woman wins or loses, Mizoguchi refuses to beg for tears. Some directors, notably Sirk, amp up melodrama; others, like Preminger, bank the fires. Mizoguchi seems to try to extract the situation’s emotional essence, a purified anguish, that goes beyond sympathy and pity for the characters. In The Poppy (1935), here’s how he renders the moment at which a father and daughter learn that the daughter’s suitor has abandoned her. The core dramatic action is the daughter moving from the foreground to console her father, at which point they embrace.
Some climax! No close-ups, no fast cutting, no camera movement; people withdraw from us and leave us on the outside. All of which suggests that one dimension of Mizoguchi’s artistry consists of exploring how human emotions, notably the unhappier ones, can be expressed in vivid, sometimes surprisingly “cold” pictures.
Pictures tell the story
Everybody grants that Mizoguchi makes magnificent images. He has gone down in history as a pictorialist. But his pictorialism is of a peculiar kind. We tend to think of pictorialist filmmakers as, for instance, masters of landscape, like Ford in My Darling Clementine; or exponents of abstract patterning, like von Sternberg in Shanghai Express; or buccaneers of aggressive depth, like Welles in Citizen Kane.
On each of these possibilities Mizoguchi can match the masters. Here’s a landscape from Portrait of Madame Yuki (1950; this is the scene that made Sarris swoon), a geometrical shot from Hometown (1930), and a bold depth composition from Naniwa Elegy four years before Kane.
It’s not surprising that Mizoguchi relies on the image; in his youth he studied painting (interestingly, Western-style painting at that). But he is, I think, a more fervent pictorialist than his peers.
Most movie scenes consist of a story situation mapped onto the space; the style follows, emphasizes, or shapes the story’s presentation. Suppose, Mizoguchi seems to ask, that we start with an image and ask it to become a drama. That’s in a sense what seems to happen with the Poppy example above: a striking picture develops into a story through a suite of compositional changes. Or consider this, from Sansho the Bailiff. A scene starts with a bundle of brush in a village street. Gradually it becomes the site of action: two children peep out, one by one.
Our view isn’t impeded only by the brush. A man bursts eagerly into the frame, blocking the boy and girl, followed by another man. The camera tracks a bit around the foreground post. As the scene goes on passersby will intrude into the frame.
You can’t, I think, imagine many more ways to suppress our views of the kids. We strain to see past all these obstructions, and when the view finally clears and the children are visible and come forward briefly, they turn from us…and more people pass in the foreground.
This is actually an important moment in Sansho the Bailiff: The children, kidnapped from their mother, are about to become slaves. It could be rendered with all the stops out, as a scene of brutality or high tension, but instead Mizoguchi let the dialogue (after some delay) explain what’s happening. At first you might think that Zushio and Anju have escaped from their captors and are in hiding; the unfolding image initially permits that possibility. Eventually, though, the shot, expressing the children’s fear and shame as they shrink from not only the men but the camera, holds us in its own right.
Instead of an image that is a vehicle for the story, the story is gradually born out of the changing image. To some degree, this happens in many films, but not with the persistence and rigor we find in Mizogcuhi. He talked of wanting to hypnotize the viewer, and this is done, I think, as much by the minute changes in the pictures as by the dynamics of the drama.
This version of pictorialism employs several strategies. I’ll mention just three.
Now you see it, sort of
Kiyonaga Toru, Interior of a Bathhouse (1780s).
Filmmakers must study the film image and its potential for expression. This is our primary responsibility.
Traditional Japanese cinema is itself heavily pictorial, from the zigzag excitement of the 1920s swordplay films to the dynamic modernity of the city dramas and the monumental gravity of historical dramas. Directors, I’ve argued in various places, cultivated a “decorative” approach to technique. Composition, camerawork, cutting, and other tactics often created flashier compositions than we find in other national traditions. As early as 1922, Ikeda Yoshinobu was creating arabesques with a bedstead, framing the faces of grieving family members (Cuckoo).
The gridded zones of the Japanese house seems to have invited filmmakers to explore a sort of Advent-calendar style, with bodies framed in different apertures (The Abe Clan, 1938). The same idea could be applied to a bar’s Art Deco wall divider (First Steps Ashore, 1932).
I’ve also argued that this love of pocketed compositions may be an effort to echo similar impulses in Japanese graphic art. The Kinoyaga woodblock print above, with its partial views of women bathing and the little windows through which we see the male attendant watching, is a beautiful example. Perhaps filmmakers adapted this eye-beguiling tactic as a way of giving cinema some cultural credentials (if not a national identity).
Most directors don’t sustain such flashy compositions. The shots function mostly as long-shots or establishing shots, or as in the Cuckoo example, as a series of brief extracts from the larger scene. Mizoguchi drew upon this decorative tradition but let it be sustained through figures moving into and out of the apertures within the frame. He creates a game of vision, a sort of fluctuating pictorial vividness that conceals or reveals or teases us with information.
One of the most vivid examples comes in this famous scene from Sansho the Bailiff. Tamaki’s leg tendons are cut, and the other enslaved women are forced to witness it. As the struggling Tamaki is peeled away from the wall and the slavemaster walks to her offscreen, the other women become visible and an older master comes slightly forward in the central square Tamaki had occupied.
As she screams, the grid isolates each woman’s fearful turning away. As with the earlier Sansho scene, dialogue comes to “button up” the unfolding of the image: The old man tells the cringing women that all runaways will punished this way.
The impact of the act is amplified not by, say, cutting to different women’s reactions, but by letting us see them all, simultaneously, in a choreography of terror.
Mizoguchi finds an abundant variety of ways to play his game of vision. Not only are figures and faces secreted in various pigeonholes of the frame, but he can tease us with some that are merely shadows or partial figures (The Poppy; Tokyo March, 1929). Sometimes the key element, such as a character’s reaction, is obscured by a semi-transparent surface, as when the embarrassed model is caught in a corner of a screen in Utamaro and His Five Women (1946).
What other directors treated as piquant flourishes, imaginative ways to arouse our visual interest before moving in to closer views, Mizoguchi saw as a way to activate any cranny of the image and invest it with expression. But for that process to unfold, he needed time.
Intensify and prolong
From the brief surviving fragment of Tojin Okichi (1930).
During the course of filming a scene, if an increased psychological sympathy begins to develop, I cannot cut into this without regret. I try rather to intensify and prolong the scene as long as possible.
Mizoguchi is famous as an exponent of long-take shooting. His earliest surviving film, Song of Home (1925) displays the Hollywood-style editing that most Japanese filmmakers mastered at the period. At some point–he says it was while shooting Tojin Okichi (Okichi, Mistress of a Foreigner)–he began using a method he called “one scene, one cut.” (Here “cut” apparently refers not to a shot change but to a single take, like a “cut” of meat. Hollywood filmmakers talked the same way sometimes.) That would suggest that he took every scene in a single shot, but actually he didn’t. Most of his scenes are built out of several shots, and throughout his career he would have recourse to standard analytical and shot/reverse-shot cutting for many sequences. He wasn’t as strict about the plan-sequence as, say, the Miklós Jancsó of the 1960s and 1970s was.
Still, he definitely used longer takes than most filmmakers of his day. Most of his films we have after 1935 average between twenty-five and forty seconds in length, which means that some shots run minutes. Many of his long takes are made from static camera positions, as in the above examples. But he didn’t shrink from camera movements, either tracking shots or crane shots. Kristin and I discuss an example from Sisters of Gion in Film Art, and in his later films he enjoyed establishing a setting with a high-angle crane shot before moving in to details. He also enjoyed riding the crane and directed from it even if the shot was static.
Fixed frame or moving shot, Mizoguchi’s long takes can extract an arc of pictorial-dramatic intensity. That arc can have a clear-cut ABA pattern. In My Love Has Been Burning, the liberal feminist Eiko finds her weak lover Hayase drunk and despondent. He’s no longer the idealist she thought he was, but he defends himself as changing with the times.
Hayase says he’s got some money now and they can marry. When she doesn’t warm to the idea, he attacks her, and suddenly her face gets enlarged, upside down, when he slams her to the floor. This is the first high point of the scene.
They struggle out of frame, but Mizoguchi doesn’t follow them.
Immediately there’s a second assault on our vision: a screen abruptly crashes into the foreground.
After it settles into place, Eiko flees back into the frame, pausing by the doorway. She leaves, and Hayase totters to the same spot looking after her.
The shot has built up to one spike, the image of Eiko on her back, her face close to us, and then to a second, with the collapsing screen. At the end, the site of action returns to the beginning: a figure near the doorway, something else (Hayase, the screen) in the foreground. But in the course of this ABA pattern, the game of vision has concealed as much as it has revealed.
Throughout his career Mizoguchi experimented with the patterning of his long takes, often building them around advances to and away from the foreground, as in these examples. This tactic can be seen in a pure state in the most intense scene of the Occupation feminist film Victory of Women (1946). Here the characters rush the camera and shrink from it as the emotional pitch rises.
Tomo’s husband has just died, and she has already told her friend the lawyer Hiroko that she has no more milk for her baby. Tomo calls on Hiroko, who invites her to come in. The camera obediently tracks back as she enters and sits.
Hiroko, at first oblivious to the distraught Tomo, begins to question her. At first Tomo says that nothing has happened to her baby, and she slides away from Hiroko. She tells her that her husband died the day that they had met in the street. She edges closer to the camera.
Sobbing, she tells Hiroko that the baby is dead; he died sucking her breast. She falls out of the frame and as the camera pulls back Hiroko bends to comfort her. But she also asks Tomo to tell her exactly what happened.
Tomo confesses that staring at her crying baby, she hugged it so close that she may have killed it. As she rises, she cries, “My baby!” And she turns and staggers, like Ayako in Naniwa Elegy, to the most distant point of the set–as if hoping to escape both Hiroko and the camera.
Track in as Hiroko goes back to her, at the spot at which the shot’s action started. Once more the two women advance to the camera, with Hiroko nearly dragging Tomo back to the center. But when Hiroko suggests she go to the police, Tomo slides quickly away from her, back to us, and the camera abruptly pulls back to accommodate her. As when the paper wall crashes into the frame in My Love Has Been Burning, a spike in the drama is accompanied by a second burst into the foreground.
Hiroko rushes to embrace Tomo, assuring her that “You must not run from life, but face it!” Mizoguchi’s staging favors the doubt and fear on the face of Tomo, not the somewhat complacent Hiroko.
As Hiroko hurries off to dress for going out, Mizoguchi’s camera lingers on Tomo, not only pitiable but justifiably worried that she is condemned. As she bends and glances to and fro, Mizoguchi ends the seven-minute scene on an image of a woman with nowhere to turn. This is a terrifying final image: Is this what Hiroko meant by “facing life”?
Some of Mizoguchi’s earlier works go further still. Instead of a coming-and-going pattern, in which the characters confront the camera and then retreat, offer a going-and-going one. The most famous, about which I’ve written probably more than I should, comes in Naniwa Elegy, when Ayako, telling her boyfriend of her sexual infidelity, retreats from him, and from us.
A Western director–Wyler, say, as in The Little Foxes, or Huston–would have put the camera at exactly the opposite point, in the corner of the wall, so that Ayako would advance toward us and Nishimura’s reaction would be constantly visible in the background. It’s as if Mizoguchi anticipated such full disclosure in advance (before these men had even made their films!) and dismissed it as too easy. By suppressing characters’ expressions, he throws our attention onto Ayako’s voice and her posture, while also sustaining some suspense about how Nishimura will respond to her revelations.
Mizoguchi finds a huge variety of ways of turning images into drama, and he has left us a rich repertory of staging strategies–if we only look. Young filmmakers, are you looking?
Tanaka Kinuyo and Mizoguchi Kenji in Venice, early 1950s.
[The long take] allows me to work all the spectator’s perceptual capacities to the utmost.
Once Mizoguchi enhances the decorative frame with surfaces and holes bristling with possibilities, and once he sustains it in time through the long take, he can build his scenes out of slight changes in the image–changes that add nuance and expressive depth to the drama. We’ve seen this already in several passages, but I want now to stress how this sharpens our attention and engagement. The restraint of Mizoguchi’s handling (restraint within sumptuousness, I should say) trains us to watch for the tiniest shift in pictorial emphasis. This is the third strategy I want to mention.
In Lady of Musashino (1951), minor changes around the deathbed drive our eye to the profile of the dying Michiko.
Likewise, when Oishi in Genroku Chushingura reads the master’s poem, sent to his vassals after his suicide, he lowers the paper just a little at the climax, and the gesture is echoed in the men’s slumping forward even more. (This is a movie largely made of just-noticeable differences.)
The just-noticeable differences can be triggered by tiny changes in the avenues of our vision. In Street of Shame, the brothel owner, turned from us in the middle ground, first reveals Mickey and the delivery boy down the left corridor. When he shifts his head, Mizoguchi closes off that view and allows faces and bodies of the prostitutes to fill up the corridor on the right.
Bolder movements can yield even briefer glimpses. When Oharu reads the message from her dead lover, Mizoguchi gives us a “decoy” shot: Her mother stands guard on the left and in the distance we see the door through which the father is expected to come. But the scene’s real action is taking place behind the hanging kimono, where Oharu reacts painfully to the letter. Since we can’t see her, only her wavering voice and the trembling of the kimono convey her emotion. Suddenly she starts to thrash around, her mother leaps toward her, and a tussle ensues. The kimono is pulled down in a heap.
What’s all the fuss? What is Oharu doing? The answer is given to us in an almost subliminal detail, the knife that flashes through the lower right corner of the shot in only two frames on the 35mm print. Oharu races out of the shot, bent on suicide.
So the nuances that spring up may be protracted or simply glimpsed, but either way they become the product of the image giving birth, through its transformations, to the drama. The strategy is just as applicable to closer views as to long shots. In one scene of Woman of Rumor (1954), the keeper of an elegant brothel notices a young man getting cozy with her daughter. The tension is exacerbated by the fact that she hopes to nab Dr. Hatoba herself. As the two talk, Mizoguchi buries Hatsuko in the rear of the scene, her presence signaled by a shadow and her kimono sleeve poking out from a screen.
Mizoguchi cuts directly in and provides a medium-shot of Hatsuko peeking. This might seem safe and conventional, especially in the light of daring choices like those made in Naniwa Elegy. But Mizoguchi now wants to trigger the game of vision around the woman’s face and the edge of the screen. As she listens, he teases us with a little suite of changing expressions and minute gradations of partial blockage–a sort of pictorial vibrato.
As Hatsuko edges out to approach the couple, Mizoguchi switches our attention to small, nervous hand gestures.
Once installed behind the couple, Hatsuko starts the whole process again, from eye-catching sleeves to peekaboo eavesdropping.
Mizoguchi was a fairly pluralistic filmmaker, so the strategies I’ve itemized don’t exhaust everything we encounter in his movies. Sometimes he builds scenes in a fairly orthodox way, with traditional framing and cutting. But taken as a whole, his films offer a magnificent repertory of ways in which the image can, under pressure, deepen and enrich a dramatic situation. Unlike most of today’s filmmakers, he cares about rigor, nuance, and austerity–while at the same time working with scenes of intense emotion. Admire him, worship him, love him, or just respect him: film culture can’t live fully without him.
Thanks, over forty years of viewing, to the Japan Society of New York, the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute (formerly the Japan Film Library Council), Dan Talbot and José Lopez of New Yorker Films, and the Brussels Cinematek, especially Gabrielle Claes.
The MoMI series runs until 8 June. It begins on 16 May at the Harvard Film Archive and on 19 June at Pacific Film Archive. For Fandor’s Keyframe daily, David Hudson has a varied roundup of response to MoMI’s series.
Both Criterion and Masters of Cinema offer many Mizoguchi films on DVD, some on Blu-ray. See also Criterion’s Hulu Plus offerings. Digital Meme sells DVDs of some early Mizoguchis, with benshi accompaniment; the exasperatingly brief fragment of Tojin Okichi is on volume 2..
My quotation from Andrew Sarris comes from “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1970,” in The Primal Screen (1973), 60-61.
Good clichés will never die as long as journalists need to crank out copy. The MoMI retrospective has revived the Kurosawa-Mizoguchi tug-of-war, this time among New York critics (here and here). Such sideswipe critiques and hosannas can’t really be backed up within the space limits of popular publishing. Moreover, I think that such quick assertions of taste block close consideration of the work. Once you’ve dismissed a filmmaker, you’re unlikely to probe further, and your readers will probably be even less curious. I defected years ago from the Kurosawa-Mizoguchi skirmishes.
The fact that every decade or so Mizoguchi is “rediscovered” through a retrospective indicates his elusive reputation. Among English-language scholars, the 1980s was the big period. Dudley Andrew wrote a still indispensable reference book on Mizoguchi in 1981, and Keiko McDonald offered a penetrating critical survey in 1984. Both volumes, now rare and costly, deserve to be made available in digital editions. Robert Cohen’s two-volume dissertation “Textual Poetics in the Films of Kenji Mizoguchi” (UCLA, 1983) was also significant. Since then, incredibly, we have had only one more overview in English, Mark Le Fanu’s Mizoguchi and Japan, along with an in-depth analysis of some 1930s films, Don Kirihara’s award-winning Patterns of Time. Sato Tadao’s monograph was published in Japanese in 1982, but it’s only recently been available in (a somewhat problematic) English translation (as Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema). Two of my stills are drawn from this book. The French have been more consistently productive, with several studies over the years. A thorough account in Spanish is by the prolific Antonio Santos.
For some background on Western rankings of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, and Ozu, see this interview with the late Hiroko Govaers. Hiroko was instrumental in bringing many classic Japanese films to Europe and the U.S.
Some of the material in today’s entry comes from Chapter 3, “Mizoguchi, or Modulation,” of my Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging. That offers a much fuller account of what I think Mizoguchi is up to, although today’s blog offers some points and examples not in the chapter. Offshoots of the book’s argument can be found in this online update, and in this blog entry, which compares Mizoguchi with his sort-of-rival Wyler. My oldest piece on the director, “Mizoguchi and the Evolution of Film Language,” in Stephen Heath and Patricia Mellencamp, eds., Cinema and Language (1983), 107–117, contrasts his work with Western practitioners of deep-space staging. Background on the “decorative” impulses in traditional Japanese cinema can be found in Essays 12 and 13 in my Poetics of Cinema, and in early portions of Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema.
P. S. 29 June: Thanks to Jeff Fort for correction of a title in the original blog post!
Sansho the Bailiff.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Be shot-conscious! I urged in a blog entry some years ago. I illustrated the point with a tradition of staging and shooting that seemed simple and modest but was actually quite flashy, and even fashionable. Although many filmmakers resorted to it, either often or occasionally, critics hadn’t attended to it. Wes Anderson’s work yielded one of many examples of what I called (swiping from art historian Heinrich Wölfflin) a “planimetric” style.
Ideally, you should look at that entry before reading this one. (To encourage you, I link it again. Not for the last time.) Very briefly, this style involves a frontal presentation of the action. You frame people against a perpendicular background, as if they were in a police line-up. Usually you face them to camera, as in this shot from Godard’s Made in USA.
As we’ll see, sometimes you can frame the characters at right angles to the camera, or turned directly away from the camera. Here are examples from Napoleon Dynamite and from Angelopoulos’ The Traveling Players. (Is this the first time these two movies have been mentioned together?)
The key idea is that the people and the setting aren’t observed from an oblique angle; if the background is perpendicular, the people will stand or sit at 90 or 180 degrees to that.
You can arrange them in some depth too, but again, they are stacked in perpendicular fashion, making each area a pretty strict plane. Here’s an example from Pulp Fiction.
One point of my earlier entry is that this is a surprisingly old strategy; Keaton used it occasionally, and Godard was using it heavily fifty years ago. Here are two shots from Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963).
It has endured in some surprising places. It’s now a go-to option for one-off effects in mainstream cinema. Here are examples from Shutter Island and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 version).
A few filmmakers make it the basis of an entire film, as I indicate in this entry on Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow. And since I wrote the original entry, I’ve drawn on other examples from time to time, particularly from directors who are pastiching Ozu to some degree or another.
Still, Anderson is today the most widely visible example of the style, partly because while others use it sporadically, he is single-minded about it. He has made people shot-conscious (at least when they watch his movies). So after seeing his newest film, I thought it would be fun to think about what distinguishes his approach.
Playing with planes
With the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, several bloggers have pointed to recurring compositional features, most obviously bilateral symmetry. I’d just add that such symmetry is often used by practitioners of the planimetric approach, with results that sometimes exceed Anderson’s. Here are two shots from Angelopoulos’ Weeping Meadow.
When you think about it, it takes a brave filmmaker (e.g., Godard) to use this approach and not deploy symmetry.
Anderson has used the planimetric approach more extensively in recent years, and he modifies it some distinctive ways. I think particularly of his habit of crowding people together in layers rather than stretching them along a single line. He makes some images look like group portraits or over-posed highschool yearbook shots (The Royal Tenenbaums; Fantastic Mr. Fox).
By employing the planimetric strategy, Anderson gains a somewhat awkward formality, a sense that we are looking from a distance into an enclosed world that sometimes looks back at us. There are as well the sort of comic possibilities that Keaton recognized in Neighbors and The General. A rigid perpendicular angle can endow action with an absurd geometry.
These apparently simple framings often evoke a world of childhood. Just as Kitano Takeshi shows us gangsters behaving like little boys, Anderson’s dollhouse-room frames make adults seem to be toy people arranged just so–like items laid out in a Joseph Cornell box. It’s a style suitable for magical-realist premises like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and in Moonrise Kingdom it finds its echo in children’s illustrated books.
All in all, then, I have to salute an American filmmaker who thinks about his images carefully and has incited sensitive viewers to notice them. I think we should go further, though. We can ask: How does Anderson, staying loyal to this tradition, vary the look of the shots? And how does he cut them together?
Consider the editing option first. Unless every scene is to consist of only one shot, the question comes up: How do you maintain the style while cutting? Either you make all your cuts axial, straight in or straight back.; or you create a sort of compass-point editing. This can involve cutting 180 degrees, to what’s “behind” the camera in the initial shot. So if characters are confronting one another, the camera is in effect sitting between them as each looks over or through the lens at the other (Ozu’s Late Autumn).
In effect, this option respects the classic 180-degree line, or axis of action, between the characters. It’s just that the camera sits right on that line. Parking the camera on the axis is a common tactic for subjective cutting, showing us first a person looking, more or less at the camera, then what she or he sees from their vantage point. Our example in Film Art: An Introduction comes from Rear Window.
Ozu used this 180-degree reversal often, but not absolutely; he had a more complicated way of conceiving space, and the 180-degree frontal cuts were only part of it. Kitano made a simpler variant central to his early films.
When I asked Kitano why he did it, he explained that it was exactly the way people saw each other in ordinary life. We face each other. He then added that he was such a naive director when he started that it was the only way he knew to set up scenes. We get kindred images in Terence Davies’ work; his frontality may owe something to the Hollywood musical.
Compass-point editing offers another possibility, that of cutting at 90-degree angles to the background plane or the figures’ position. Chantal Akerman does it throughout Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
Anderson exercises all these cutting options inThe Grand Budapest Hotel. Here a planimetric profile 2-shot yields two frontal shots; we shift 90 degrees and then 180 degrees.
Now here’s a 90-degree shift for the reverse shot.
In the passage below, the first cut rotates 90 degrees, and the second cuts in right on the lens axis. In this tradition, an axial cut respects the perpendicular layout of the space.
In such cutting patterns, the compositions keep the action in the same upper zone of the frame from shot to shot. As a result, our eye doesn’t wander much. In long shots, Anderson sometimes follows the classic Hollywood practice of allowing some decentering, as long as the cuts balance one off-center composition against another. Here the changing angles obey the compass-point principle across three shots, and they crisply shift the emphasis from the right side of the frame to the center to the left.
Someone who wanted to deflate Anderson’s visual ambitions could say that his shots are monotonous. Having imposed a big constraint on himself, he’s now obliged to show us that this approach can be varied–in obvious or subtle ways.
One way is through lens length. Most planimetric filmmakers use long lenses, which flatten the space even more. The figures can look like clothes hanging on a line. But Anderson favors quite wide-angle lenses (often 40mm). These make horizontal lines bulge, as in early CinemaScope films (Rushmore, The Life Aquatic).
You can see similar distortions in the straight-on shots of the hotel desk in Grand Budapest, above.
Another way Anderson varies his images is by departing from straight-on angles. As long as the framing maintains a planimetric geometry, we can look down or up at the action. In this passage, again the camera makes 180-degree reverses. This contrasts with the more orthodox shot/reverse shot framings in a comparable scene in The Little Foxes.
In this spirit, Anderson can give us bird’s-eye views, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his sumptuous book-length interview with the director. It’s rare, but there are precedents, as in the work of the Coens. In one shot of The Hudsucker Proxy, a movie with an inordinate number of straight-down angles, the inflexible framing creates a joke.
Grand Budapest Hotel has room for some classically funny framings. If you want somebody to look lonely, common practice says, frame the figure off center in a long shot. Here Anderson seems to be having a joke on the convention. He presents it as a POV, although presumably if the Writer were looking at the mysterious man he would put the object of attention in the center of his field of vision.
I think that Anderson’s earliest films weren’t quite so strict in obeying the planimetric and compass-point strategies. Those options were often slipped in as alternatives to more orthodox framing and cutting. But as he’s become more rigorous about using them, he has found ways to put his stamp on some common techniques. Like Ozu incorporating devices of classical continuity into his unique stylistic system, Anderson can recruit certain conventions while staying faithful to his basic approach.
For instance, Anderson sneakily brings in the OTS–the over-the-shoulder framing standard in shot/ reverse-shot dialogue scenes. In one prison scene, Harvey Keitel’s Ludwig is granted an OTS that varies subtly from the more purely straight-on views.
Much the same thing happens with in the punching scene at the reading of the will, when frontal characters are assaulted by fists coming in as if in reverse angles.
Anderson has figured out another way to vary his compositions. I learned this before I saw the movie, thanks to some comments by the cinematographer Robert Yeoman (great name).
High or wide, and handsome
To get the criticky part of this entry out of the way: The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the charm, fussiness, and intricate whimsy typical of Anderson’s work. As often in his films, it cuts its preciosity with moments of offhand brutality (sliced-off fingers) and flashes of naughty sexuality (fellatio, the lesbian painting). With its ensemble cast, sometimes deployed in cameos, it suggests a PoMo remake of those sprawling, self-congratulatory spoofs of the 1960s like The Great Race, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (The film’s title evokes those all-star films set in hotels, like Grand Hotel and Hotel Berlin.) It’s much better than those, partly because it engages in an oblique way with history, creating a comic-pathetic alternative account of Nazi imperialism. It imagines the collapse of Europe in operetta terms, filtered through Anderson’s pawky humor and distinctive style. I admired the film but don’t feel able to analyze it much after only one viewing. Fortunately for me if not you, its stylistic aspects fit today’s sermonette.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in several time periods, and they’re presented via The Blog’s old friend, the device of flashbacks within flashbacks. One character recalls the past or tells a story, and inside that line of action another character recalls or recounts a story, and so on. In Grand Budapest Hotel we move from the present, more or less, to events in the 1980s, then the 1960s, and eventually the 1930s, which constitute the central episodes.
Anderson has shot the frame stories in different aspect ratios. It’s 1.85 for the near present and the 1980s, when the Author recounts meeting the hotel owner. That meeting, set in the 1960s, is shown in 2.40, the anamorphic aspect ratio. The central story, taking place in the 1930s, is presented in classic 1.37, or 4:3 imagery. With typical Anderson butterfly-collector wit, each era gets a ratio that could have been used in a movie at the time. It’s remarkable that Anderson could persuade Fox Searchlight to let him do this.
Most commercial releases in the 1950s and afterward were filmed in some widescreen ratio. In the early days, a popular option was a sort of clothesline staging, centering a single character or balancing others around the central axis: two side by side, three across, four as a pair of pairs, and so on. These shots are from Demetrius and the Gladiators and How to Marry a Millionaire.
Thanks to the widening of the frame, there is less air above the characters and less ground below them. The empty spaces are typically on the sides, particularly in the anamorphic 2.40 ratio. The problem of filling that up was solved, at least for some directors, by moving the camera very close to the actors. Spielberg remarked that he began shooting more close-ups when he filmed in anamorphic.
If you’re inclined to the planimetric approach, it fits the wider format nicely. Anderson wasn’t worried by the extra acreage; he just used the set or empty areas to balance one side against the other. Shots of only one character could be centered, as if posed, and shots of groups could be arranged more or less symmetrically, as in this passage from Moonrise Kingdom. Central perspective helps drive your eye to the main items.
In Grand Budapest, Anderson’s signature framings fit snugly into the scenes shot in 1.85 and 2.40. (The latter has been his favored ratio over the years.) But what about the 1.37 scenes? This brings me to Mr. Yeoman’s remark.
Explaining why he and Anderson watched a lot of films from the 1930s, especially by Lubitsch, Yeoman notes:
We looked at those more to familiarize ourselves with the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which Wes wanted to use for the 1930s sequences. This aspect ratio opens up some interesting compositional possibilities; we often gave people a lot more headroom than is customary. A two-shot tends to be a little wider than the same shot in anamorphic. It was a format I’d never used before on a movie, and it was a fun departure. You can get accustomed to 1.85 or 2.40 to the point that the shots become more predictable.
Put it another way: Anderson’s penchant for centering and symmetry inclines him toward widescreen compositions that could be simply cropped right and left to fit the 1.37 ratio. His single characters and huddled groups could remain much as before. But in more distant framings you might get a lot of extra space at top and bottom–areas that simply aren’t there in the wide ratios. In other words, Anderson’s multi-format strategy gave him a new problem in maintaining his signature style.
How did he solve it? Many Budapest Hotel shots do leave considerable headroom, as you see in most of the 1.37 examples above. But other shots show Anderson filling his 4:3 frame in varied and engaging ways.
As Ozu showed, for instance, the planimetric option can fill the frame’s upper area when the camera height is below eye level. During the conversation in the car, above, Anderson gets the head of M. Ivan (Bill Murray) in the top of the frame thanks to a low angle. Here are two more examples of filling the upper reaches of the format by use of a lowish camera position.
In the elevator shot, the headroom becomes comic, with M. Gustave and Madame D. seated on the right, the morose bellboy filling the vertical area on the left, and Zero in the middle. The empty space above the couple creates a lively imbalance emphasizing them in a way different from the very balanced framing that centers Henckel among his men.
The set can cooperate. In the first shot below, Zero’s and Agatha’s centered embrace leaves lots of headroom, but the slightly disheveled stack of pastry boxes in the upper background contributes to the sense that they’re engulfed. In the second shot below, part of its humor comes from the rigid geometry of the grid and the way M. Gustave and his colleagues fill in the matrix with their intent faces and busy hands.
In all, Anderson seems to me to find intringuing ways to create visual interest in the 4:3 format. But as with any severe style, you wonder about what’s been lost.
Most obviously, Anderson loses some of the intimacy that comes with more angular and less strict approaches to the classic ratio. We like to see people from 3/4 views too. We also like depth shots that plunge us into a dynamic, diagonal playing space. Here’s a shot from John Huston’s In This Our Life, as precious in its own way as Anderson’s imagery.
As Hogarth pointed out, with the serpentine line in painting and drawing, such shots can lead our eye on “a wanton kind of chase.”
Because directors of the 1920s-1940s accepted a wider range of compositional options than Anderson embraces, headroom simply wasn’t an important problem, as in the Huston shot. Even in simpler shots, classical uses of the 4:3 ratio permitted a flexible organization of figures.
Centered symmetry against a flat ground is a fairly easy compositional strategy, after all. It wasn’t used much in the mainstream tradition because it looks artificial; perhaps only with the rise of art cinema was this sort of self-conscious composition welcomed. In any case, sticking with symmetry sacrifices the more delicate spotting of figures and faces around the frame.
A lot of visual art tries for more supple and subtle twists, torsions, and counterbalancing. Apart from organizing your space along the horizontal and vertical axes, you can try to set figures in delicate array along diagonals. This is why some old-time cinematographers argued that the 4:3 ratio was the best suited to the human body: it can flatter it from any angle.
To get a sense of these possibilities, I’ve compiled a little collection of images from a film that doesn’t boast any outrageously pretty shots: Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953). It’s typical of the unassertive approach we find in Preminger’s work of the 1940s and 1950s. He avoids the flashy depth of the post-Kane directors and offers something less aggressive but no less fascinating. Composition and staging integrate expressions, posture, glances, and gestures to create a smooth flow of action. My samples also indicate how rare straight-on views of faces and bodies are in American studio cinema. The 3/4 angle rules.
As with the American films of Lang, Preminger’s work displays a style that’s tough to analyze because the technique isn’t obvious. There’s a marvelous variety in the ways that the 4:3 ratio can render a single figure or two figures, or three, shifting them not around the perfect center of the picture format but around curves and diagonal axes–that yield interest in their own right.
This last comparison isn’t a slam on Anderson. I think well of many of his films, particularly the most recent ones, and I appreciate anyone who takes on a challenge of narrowing his range of creative choices. Once you narrow that range, it turns out there’s a host of new possibilities that pop out. Call it the Ozu strategy: refine your means and you discover nuances nobody else notices.
Still, in art as in life, every choice is a trade-off. It’s worth remembering what one loses by pursuing a particular path. By sticking to his signature look in working with 4:3, Anderson gave himself a problem that didn’t exist for directors of an earlier time, the problem of maintaining a frontal style in a squarish format. I’m glad he faced it and solved it. But I’m also glad that classical filmmakers, quite intuitively, showed how much you could do with an alternative option.
Iain Stasukevich’s American Cinematographer article on the making of The Grand Budapest Hotel is well worth your attention beyond the technical matter I latched onto.
The Huston image came to hand because of the previous entry. Go there for more instances of the sort of framing and staging that Anderson and his planimetric colleagues don’t aim at.
I survey the planimetric style in On the History of Film Style and in Figures Traced in Light. A search of this blog’s archive will bring other instances to light. I analyze Ozu’s style in Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, available as a pdf here. For more on CinemaScope, you can visit my online lecture.
P.S. 27 March (Hong Kong time): Jonah Horwitz writes with a useful point:
One thing I would add to your summary is that as early as Rushmore, most notably in The Darjeeling Limited, Anderson purposely inserts into his limited stylistic palette selected, isolated “foreign” devices like loose framings, handheld camera, and relatively aimless zooms (as opposed to his more common precise shock-zooms). In some cases, as in the drama-club staging of “Serpico” in Rushmore, these devices serve as citations, in that case to “realist” New Hollywood cinematography. But they also feel very much like the exceptions that prove the rule: they stand out from his usual stylistic register so much that they effectively reinforce the latter. I’m looking forward to seeing Grand Budapest to see if this continues, or if he emphasizes instead a further refinement of his typical gestures.
I agree with Jonah that importing foreign devices often throws into relief a filmmaker’s signature style–a matter of a film’s intrinsic norm getting reinforced by some marked deviation from it. I think of Ozu’s pans or tracking shots, which occur in all his black and white films, and which often just remind us how narrow the style is in the rest of the movie. And sometimes, as in The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice, those camera movements are hybrids or compromises with with his static style. Thanks to Jonah for corresponding.
P.P.S. 27 March: This entry has been revised to eliminate an error. Originally I had said that the play with aspect ratios in the film wouldn’t have been possible before digital projection. Bryce Utting wrote to point out that it was indeed possible on film, since Peter Greenaway’s Pillow Book used both 1.85 and anamorphic widescreen. I had even seen the film and forgotten that! Thanks to Bryce for the correction.
P.P.P.S. 30 March (Hong Kong time): Jim Healy, impresario of our Wisconsin Cinematheque, writes to point out several other films that mix aspect ratios:
The first hour of Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, the urban-set part, is in 1.85. When the characters make it to the open horse country, the image widens to ‘scope. . . . The 2002 Disney animated feature Brother Bear (which isn’t so bad) is 1.85 for about the first 20 minutes and when the principal Inuit character (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is transformed into a bear, the picture goes to Scope.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
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).