Monday | January 2, 2017
La La Land.
After I see a new movie, I like thinking about its ties to film history. This isn’t a matter of sneering, “They did it better in the old days,” though often that’s true. Rather, I like exploring how our films both rely on and swerve from the traditions they invoke.
I’m not talking only about movies that self-consciously point at Hollywood’s past, as La La Land does. Every new release participates in film history—and sometimes changes it. Most critics don’t have the space or inclination to point this up, but those of us who study film as an art can. Looking closely at form and style makes the past present to us in a vivid way.
Students are taught that in the 1910s Griffith took crosscutting to a new level, and true enough. But it’s not often mentioned that crosscutting has remained a permanent expressive option for filmmakers today. Very often they use it as Griffith did: to build tension, especially in a chase or a race against time; or to highlight narrative parallels, as he did in Intolerance. What excites young audiences in the work of Christopher Nolan, for example, are in large measure smart elaborations on principles that go back a hundred years.
This isn’t to complain that Nolan isn’t original—originality in the strong sense is very rare—but rather to point up an overarching dynamic of continuity and change across the history of the art. We understand what Nolan’s doing better when we see how he recasts inherited techniques, as when Inception takes parallel crosscutting to a kind of limit in its embedded dreams.
My upcoming book, Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, is an effort to refine an argument I made in The Way Hollywood Tells It: that major narrative techniques of contemporary cinema got consolidated in the 1940s. The techniques I have in mind include general principles like non-chronological plotting and subjective probing of character’s experience, as well as particular devices like flashbacks, voice-over, and fantasy scenes.
I say “consolidated” because many of those strategies can be found sporadically in the silent era and the 1930s. Forties writers and directors adapted them to the sound cinema, made them popular, and explored them in ways that go beyond most earlier instances. These filmmakers added a body of resources to the classical tradition: after the 1940s, later filmmakers could develop the techniques in fresh ways. There were new colors on their palettes.
I talk about several films, and among those I significantly spoil The Shallows, Manchester by the Sea, The Birth of a Nation, Nocturnal Animals, Moonlight, and La La Land. But you should be able to skip the films you fear I’ve overshared on.
Schemas and their sneaky ways
Reinventing Hollywood argues that we can understand the process as one of schema and revision. I borrow from E. H. Gombrich the idea that a schema is a pattern handed down by earlier artists that becomes a point of departure for those who follow.
For example, shot/reverse-shot cutting is a stylistic schema, going back to the 1910s. Every professional filmmaker knows how to execute it, though some will find fresh ways to use it. The Shallows, a summertime thriller from the talented director Jaume Collet-Serra, uses it in orthodox ways throughout.
Most filmmakers apply the shot/reverse-shot schema to phone conversations as well. But here Collet-Serra innovates (mildly) by using cellphone technology to give us a phone conversation with a redoubled shot/reverse-shot pattern. The editing schema is given within a single frame as Nancy talks with her father.
This isn’t, I think, a mere gimmick. For one thing, we’re primed for it by the scene of Nancy’s arrival, when she browses through photos of her dead mother. Those are delivered to us as paste-ups in the same frame, rather than as optical POV shots of Nancy’s phone. Soon after, still during her ride to the beach, we see an instant message from her friend.
So the pseudo-shot/reverse-shot has been prepared for by these other displays of her screen. We’re ready for this to be an intrinsic norm of this film. Later we’ll get the ticking-clock deadlines through inserts of of her watch.
More generally, the film as a whole tightly restricts us to Nancy’s experience. Nearly everything we see and hear is filtered through her consciousness. (The film’s momentary detours from her range of knowledge work to maximize suspense, in the manner of the bomb under the table.) During the phone conversation, cutting back to her father at home in Galveston would have made him a more important character. As it is, the narration keeps the emphasis on her situation and the beautiful but menacing landscape, the “perfect beach” that she needs to conquer as her mother did.
Shot/reverse-shot is a schema for handling stylistic options. I suggest that there are narrative schemas too, tried-and-true storytelling patterns that filmmakers can repeat, reject, or revise. Novelty builds on familiarity. As Damien Chazelle describes La La Land: “I’m trying to hark back to certain old traditions but hopefully show you something you haven’t seen before.”
For the viewer, schemas supply a certain predictability. We’re used to the back-and-forth of shot/reverse-shot cutting. Likewise, we expect a flashback to supply background information that clarifies the situation in the present. In the American studio tradition, a filmmaker who revises a schema needs to give us enough of the pattern to make us realize the alterations. The Shallows‘ revision of shot/reverse-shot is clear to us because, given our knowledge of FaceTime/Skype technology, we can grasp the images as diagrammatic presentations of a familiar editing pattern. Similarly, we can sense a flashback even when it’s quick or cryptic, and we anticipate that things will clarify later. The dynamic of familiarity and novelty will work only if the the new twist plays off something recognizable.
Back in September, I noted that almost every film I was seeing seemed indebted to 1940s storytelling, but I talked only about Sully. Today I go wider and look at several 2016 films, both pop and prestigious, that rely on methods of roundabout storytelling that coalesced back then. We’re so used to these methods that we tend to forget their debts. By analyzing how our writers and directors draw on this tradition, we better understand their roots in film history–and their genuine contributions to changing it.
In her, and his, shoes
One of the most taken-for-granted narrative strategies is that of subjectivity. Here filmmakers use images and sounds to reveal a character’s mind and senses. The main schemas have become very familiar.
Today we scarcely notice optical POV shots or fantasy imagery. They were common in silent film, became less common in Hollywood in the 1930s, and grew very common in the 1940s. The sustained optical POV of Lady in the Lake (1947) is one instance, and so are the protracted dream and delirium sequences in psychological films like Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945).
Go back to The Shallows and you’ll find plenty of POV shots. When Nancy regains consciousness after the climax, we get a mixture of optical viewpoint and imaginary shots, when she first sees Carlos and then “sees” her mother’s approval of her courage.
Dreams are another common device for rendering subjectivity. They became commonplace in the psychoanalytical films of the 1940s, and have been used ever since to probe the more or less unconscious impulses of our characters. We’re let in on characters’ dreams in A Quiet Passion, Hacksaw Ridge, and Kubo and the Two Strings.
Both visions and dreams become important motifs in The Birth of a Nation. Early in the film, the child Nat Turner, who has been called “a leader and a prophet” by an elder slave, dreams of himself in tribal paint running through a forest. Later, grown-up and developing a sense of himself as a rebel against oppression, he re-experiences the dream, only now the child encounters himself as an adult, who moves to protect him. The child becomes father to the man.
These plunges into subjectivity run along with images of Nat’s revelation: an angel he sees at moments of greatest torment, on the whipping block and on the gallows.
On the second occasion, the figure is more fully revealed as an angel, and she seems ready to embrace him. The nocturnal spirituality of the opening has been counterbalanced by something like Christianity, but it’s hardly the white folks’ version: Nat sees a dark angel.
Frames and breaking frames
Subjectivity can also shape our sense of time, thanks to flashbacks. Very common nowadays is the brief flashback representing a sudden memory. In Allied, a shot of Max and Marianne on their rooftop bed-sit in Casablanca comes when Max is recalling their mission, after he’s learned she might be a German spy. A parallel device is the auditory flashback, as when a character recalls earlier lines of dialogue, which might not be accompanied by imagery from the past scene. Several of these films drop in sonic flashbacks, which serve as reminders to the audience as well as recollections for the characters.
A subjective push into the past can take over the whole structure of the film. This happens when big stretches of the plot are presented through flashbacks to events that characters tell or remember. A fairly pure case is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It intercuts three time periods: the present, as Billy and his comrades in arms visit a Thanksgiving football game; Billy’s return to his family two days before the game; and the more distant events of Billy’s tour of duty in Iraq, culminating in the death of his beloved sergeant Shroom.
Throughout the film we’re largely restricted to what Billy experienced in both present and past.
In most films, though, flashbacks don’t represent memories. Often a flashback is initiated as a character’s recollection or testimony, but it presents events that a character didn’t know about. In these cases, the film has it both ways–subjective when it wants us to feel with the character, but wider-ranging when the extra information can yield suspense or another perspective on what the character knows. This happens in Jackie, in which Jacqueline Kennedy tells a journalist about the JFK assassination and its aftermath. We mostly adhere to what she could have seen and heard, but some incidents occur outside her ken. The interview situation motivates the return to the past, and that’s usually what we find in these partly subjective flashbacks.
The flashback technique was fairly common in Hollywood’s silent era but rarer in the 1930s. It emerged as a major creative option in the Forties; there are more flashbacks in 1944 feature releases than in all of the Thirties. Nowadays most films, even Moana, resort to it. (Maui’s boasting song “You’re Welcome” reviews his gifts to humanity.) Virtually every film I mention today employs at least one flashback–a testimony to the enduring power of this storytelling norm.
Since even the most personal flashbacks tend to stray from what characters could have witnessed, it’s not surprising that today we commonly have completely “objective” flashbacks. The plot simply jumps to and fro through time without the alibi of character memory. Hollywood has occasional early instances (Beau Geste, 1927; A Man to Remember, 1938; Confidence Girl, 1952; The Killers, 1955), but the “external” flashback is rare before the 1960s. Over the decades, filmmakers and audiences became comfortable with the flashback that simply admits itself as such. The time shift may be signaled by a title (“Two Days Earlier” in Billy Lynn), but some films find other ways to announce the flashback.
A simple example is Ben-Hur. Steered by a voice-over narrator (who will turn out to be a character in the film), the opening shows the start of a chariot race in a Roman Circus. Two young bravos swap lines that arouse curiosity: “You should have stayed away.” “You should’ve killed me.” “I will.” Then the race starts, the camera pans left to follow it, and the shot dissolves (a graphic match) to an image of two horsemen racing around a rock.
They are youthful versions of the competitors we’ve just met, and we’ll learn that Messala is Judah Ben-Hur’s adopted brother. The rest of the plot follows the friends’ careers that lead them to the fateful chariot competition. And that opening stretch is replayed when the flashback catches up with the frame situation. We’re reintroduced to the Circus, and identical shots show them exchanging the same lines we heard at the start.
This sort of overlapping return to the frame is common when the flashback consumes a large chunk of the film. One traditional schema, used in Ben-Hur, presents the frame story as a situation in crisis. This serves to grab our attention, to raise questions, and to hold the outcome of present-time events in suspension while the backstory clicks in.
The crisis structure is seen in Hacksaw Ridge, when after glimpses of a ferocious battle we see the protagonist rushed along on a stretcher. Thanks to a title, “Seven Years Earlier,” we shift to the past in another “objective” flashback. Eventually we’ll loop back to the wounding and rescue of Doss at Hacksaw Ridge.
The earlier versions of Ben-Hur didn’t resort to flashback construction. Similarly, Sergeant York (1941), which has similarities to Hacksaw Ridge, relies on straightforward chronology. The crisis schema became popular in the 1940s (e.g., The Big Clock, 1947), but it’s even more common now than it was then.
So is a willingness to put flashbacks inside flashbacks. Hacksaw Ridge‘s main flashback breaks its own chronology to show scenes of domestic violence in Doss’s youth. The main flashback of Ben-Hur plays host to embedded flashbacks too. The large-scale Chinese-box construction of 1940s films like The Locket (1946) and Passage to Marseille (1944) is still uncommon, but brief flashbacks wedged inside a long-term one pose no problems for current audiences.
Ben-Hur and Hacksaw Ridge set up the Now situation straightforwardly and at some length. At the opposite extreme is the present-time opening of Don’t Breathe: a slow swoop down to a barren street along which a man drags a young woman’s body. A second shot isn’t very informative about him or her, and the two shots consume only 63 seconds.
Probably most viewers forget about this cryptic but intriguing crisis situation until it’s repeated at the climax–the shots in reverse order, the woman more clearly visible, and the two shots clipped to a mere nine seconds. This is compact storytelling.
The Shallows sets up its Now through attachment to a minor character. A little boy finds a video camera on a helmet floating in the surf. He plays the footage and, seeing a shark attack recorded there, runs to get help.
Later the boy’s discovery is shown again, and now we’re in a position to appreciate its importance. But like the opening sequence of Mildred Pierce, this prologue has omitted key information: the boy’s replay of Nancy’s recorded plea for help. At the climax that footage, which we’ve seen her make, is is now re-run for us as the boy watches it. Again the boy is shown running for help. This overlap brings us up to the original Now.
At the start there was an enigmatic rack-focus to the buoy in the distance. In the replay, while the boy studies the video, we see Nancy bobbing there, waiting for the shark to attack.
This scene, incidentally, shows how a flashback structure can take the sting out of a convenient coincidence. If something unlikely–the boy discovering the camera in time to help the heroine–is shown before the main action, then it doesn’t seem as out-of-nowhere as it would if presented in straight chronology. After seeing the somewhat cryptic opening, we might even be looking forward to the revelation, as presumably some viewers are when a scene in the flashback introduces the surfer with the camera helmet.
Interestingly, neither Don’t Breathe nor The Shallows resorts to a title announcing the transition from Now to the past. Can it be that our genre pictures can live with a little less redundancy than our Oscar bait?
Filmmakers never tire of tweaking flashback conventions. A more subdued variant of the crisis setup is used in Manchester by the Sea. Joe Chandler dies and his brother Lee, working as a maintenance man in Boston, is summoned back home to Manchester. These scenes alternate with episodes from the past, out of order, showing the brothers’ relationship and Joe’s eventual death. The crisis comes about fifty minutes into the plot, when in a lawyer’s office Lee learns that Joe wanted him to take custody of his son Patrick and move back to Manchester.
Lee’s resistance to this plan is explained in another string of flashbacks that show the disintegration of Lee’s marriage, the death of his children, and his attempted suicide. He has left the town behind and lives in self-inflicted pain and isolation.
At this point, the film reverts to chronology in the Now. The drama pivots around Lee forging a relationship with Patrick and coming to terms with his past. Only two brief flashbacks break up the story line, and those relate to Joe’s disappointment at Lee’s retreat from the world into a menial job. If the first half had been presented chronologically, we would have lost the sharp contrast between Lee’s scowling reluctance to reach out to Patrick and the more vigorous, emotionally open man he once was. Hollywood films may not excel at portraying gradual character change, but flashbacks allow a sharp sense of Before and After that can suggest how humans remake themselves in response to events.
The mosaic quality of the flashbacks dotting Manchester by the Sea can be seen to a lesser extent in Jackie. Here there are four principal strands of time to be interwoven, with glimpses of others. One strand involves the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath–the public ceremony of the display of his body and his burial in Arlington. Another involves Jackie’s consultation with a priest some time after JFK’s death, discussing her plans to bury their first two children, who died as babies, alongside him. A third strand, temporally pre-assassination, presents her famous 1962 tour of the White House. Finally there’s her post-assassination interview with a reporter who asks her questions about her role as First Lady and her handling of the horrific Dallas tragedy. We also get glimpses of the 1960 inauguration ball and Pablo Casals’ 1961 concert at the White House.
The film opens with the reporter calling on Jackie and the two settling down for their talk. He’s a bit provocative and probing, she’s guarded and self-censoring. The somewhat odd angle of the shot/reverse-shot framings, with her eyeline only a little off-center and sometimes straight at the camera, conveys an eerie ceremonial stiffness.
The reporter’s interview seems to be the frame for the flashbacks. Not only does their meeting occupy the normal position of a framing situation, but we’re aware that another schema triggering flashbacks is a testimony situation. In court, in a police station, at home quizzed by a reporter: These often set up a flashback narrative. The probing-reporter schema was crystallized in the 1940s with, of course, Citizen Kane (1941) but also with earlier films like The Escape (1939), Edison the Man (1940), and The Great Man’s Lady (1941).
Snowden is a good contemporary example of the reporter-interview frame. Long blocks of flashbacks are enclosed within a ticking-clock situation in the present. Snowden retells his life, in chronological order, for Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald.
The film’s narration is largely tied to his range of knowledge during those periods, especially when suspense is at stake. We get plunges into subjectivity when he’s struck by epilepsy, and much optical POV cutting, notably when he downloads the NSA files as officials mill around outside his cubicle. As often happens in classical filmmaking, the narration widens its perspective to provide montages of news reports and reactions to Snowden’s revelations by his associates around the world.
Snowden tidily frames its past episodes by the present-time action before and after the big interview. The final scenes, and the credits, show the consequences of his whistle-blowing in the days and years afterward. But Jackie revises the testimony schema in an unusual way.
As the film goes on, it’s revealed that the reporter’s interview with Jackie isn’t the ultimate Now. The last events in the story chronology are Jackie’s consultation with the priest and the burial of her children. But from about 45 minutes onward, the priest’s attempts to console her are intercut with the interview. They are, in other words, flash-forwards.
They’re initially concealed as such because they follow Bobby Kennedy’s suggestion, in the assassination’s aftermath, that Jackie talk to a priest. That cue inclines us to assume that the priest’s advice is given during her final days in the White House. Only when the reporter phones his editor and says Jackie intends to bury the children beside Jack, and when Jackie tells the priest that the reporter’s story went around the world, are we aware of the burial scene’s place at the very end of story chronology.
This is a cogent example of schema revision: a frame that doesn’t enclose everything that, by convention, it should. One effect is to make the burial of the children an unexpected climax–a revelation of how much death this woman has seen, and a counterpoint to the glittering image of “Camelot” on which the film closes.
So where you put your flashbacks turns out to be crucial. Had the flashbacks to Lee’s tragic mistakes in Manchester come earlier, we’d probably be less sympathetic to him than we are; by the time of their arrival, we’ve seen his long-term suffering and are prepared to have a complex judgment of him. The timing of flashbacks also shows to good effect in Nocturnal Animals.
Most of Nocturnal Animals is dominated by another device for braking chronology: the embedded story. Here a plot involving new characters is wedged within the main story. Novels have done this for some time, as when a character discovers a manuscript that opens a story world containing a completely new cast. In the comic book Watchmen, the story Marooned is read by a minor character in the main plot.
In films of any period, such discrete embedded tales are rare. In the 1940s, the chief variant involves dream plots: the protagonist falls asleep and the dream consumes the bulk of the film, as a long flashback might. The main character might retain her identity, as Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz (1939), or the dream character might be a new persona, as in Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), where Red Skelton becomes King Louis XV. Either way, an alien story world is opened up.
Nocturnal Animals contains an elaborate embedded story. Art-gallery owner Susan Morrow is in the dumps; her chi-chi friends are cold and her husband is having an affair. She receives the manuscript of a novel from her first husband Edward. Over some days Susan reads this harrowing pulp exercise set in west Texas, and it’s dramatized for us in chunks. interspersed with her daily routines.
At first we might think that the novelistic sections are “objective” presentations of the scenes, a parallel fictional world. But about 45 minutes into the film, we get a flashback to Susan meeting Edward at the start of their romance. (Actually, it’s a re-meeting; they had crushes on each other years before.) Thereafter flashbacks to their courtship and their marriage are interspersed with more stretches of the novel. Tony, the hapless, somewhat spineless protagonist of the novel, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Edward.
The flashbacks invite us to find a dose of subjectivity here. Is Susan reading the novel as a portrayal, deliberate or unwitting, of Edward’s feelings of inadequacy in their marriage? She cheated on Edward with the man who became her second husband, so she may also be projecting her own guilt onto the terrifying fate of Tony’s wife–interestingly, not played by Amy Adams, the actress portraying Susan.
In Nocturnal Animals, the frame is neater than in Jackie; at the film’s end we return to Susan’s present life. But an ambiguous ending asks us to consider how fully we have entered into her imagination.
There’s a more drastic revision of the flashback schema, or rather the audience’s presuppositions about it, in Arrival, which I’ve talked about here. But interesting flashbacks with a 40s flavor are also at work in James Schamus’s Indignation, analyzed here.
Strands or blocks?
I think these examples show that it can be useful to think about film narrative from the standpoint of craft. Since the filmmakers made choices, what rationale justifies them choosing what we have rather than what we might have had?
For example, it would have been perfectly possible to arrange the time-layers of Jackie or Manchester by the Sea as blocks, separate chapters (perhaps given titles or dates) rather than as interworven strands. Similarly, Nocturnal Animals could have shown us Susan’s marriage to Edward as one block, then her life with her second husband, and then the embedded novel as one long stretch. Thinking about how these alternatives would alter our experience can give us insight into the benefits and costs of the choices the filmmakers went with.
Block construction became a somewhat popular storytelling option in the 1940s. Long flashbacks balanced against one another can create blocks, as in Citizen Kane and A Letter to Three Wives (1948). Similar were “chaptered” films like Holiday Inn (1942) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and the episode-based films Fantasia (1942), Tales of Manhattan (1942), Flesh and Fantasy (1943), and others. Welles, always alert to trends, planned such a structure for It’s All True.
2016 has given us two pure examples of block construction, both of considerable interest. The most visible one is Moonlight, which tells its character-centered story in three phases of the life of Chiron: his boyhood, his teenaged years, and his early adulthood.
The sections are announced by titles: Little, Chiron, and Black. The first two stretch over several weeks and show Chiron bullied by other kids and neglected by his crack-addicted mother. He also encounters helpers, at first the easygoing drug dealer Juan and his girlfriend, and later his schoolmate Kevin, who in the second episode is forced by the other boys to beat Chiron. The final episode unfolds in a single night. Chiron, now called Black and grown to be a powerful man, has become a drug dealer and is filmed somewhat parallel to Juan.
Black visits a diner where Kevin works. Tentatively their affection and sexual yearning for one another are rekindled.
As with any creative choice, there are trade-offs. Moonlight‘s sharply-edged episodes refuse a smooth arc of action; they sample his life and deny us a clear “coming of age” process. There are gaps between the stories, and the one between the second and the third episodes is crucial. We’re left to imagine what happened to Chiron that turned him into the muscled, tough Black. Perhaps the fight that got him sent out of school–the moment when he fought back at the main bully–marks his turning point. Surely too his prison experiences shaped his transformation, but we neither see those nor hear him tell about them. Director-screenwriter Barry Jenkins has left us to note the vivid change in character without supplying what Henry James called the “weak specification” of all the events that shaped him. Block construction has left empty spaces for our imagination to fill.
Another fairly pure case of block construction is Paterson. (I discuss it briefly here.) The plot consists of a week’s worth of events, broken into days starting on Monday. We follow Paterson the bus driver on his daily rounds of going to work, doing his driving, coming home to his wife, walking their dog, and sometimes paying a night visit to a local tavern. Some incidents are variants of others, such as the morning conversations with Donny, Paterson’s supervisor, or the glimpses of different sets of twins around town.
The daily blocks are marked, at least initially, by a title stating the day of the week, but this pattern is varied: No titles for the weekend. Another marker is the opening shot of each segment showing Paterson and his wife in bed from straight above them.
This image varies too, with different compositions and shot scales each morning, and in one case, Paterson alone. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes explains that each day changes:
So there’s a routine. He’s going to leave and return to the house at the same time every day, so it’s going to look the same. I said to Jim [Jarmusch, the director], “It might be nice to have some gentle differences between them, to define one day from the next.” That became our task, finding ways of keeping things visually interesting without going too far.
Today block construction often calls forth the sort of stylistic tagging pointed out by Elmes. The same differentiation of visual textures is found in flashbacks. A funny example occurs in Sausage Party, when Firewater explains how the Non-Perishables created the myth of humans as kindly gods. The framing situation in the present is given in chiaroscuro imagery with thick volumes and plausible (for a cartoon) depth. The flashback to humans’ slaughter of the groceries is rendered in a screeching, retro/headcomix style and an abstract space.
This style is maintained for the fantasy version that Firewater and his cronies concocted to keep the groceries from panicking. Then we return to the narrating frame.
Not gentle differences here: glaring ones, suitable to comic exaggeration.
Something in-between operates in several of the films I’m considering. In Café Society, two cinematographic styles differentiate between the major locales, Hollywood and New York. Jackie‘s post-asssassination flashbacks are filmed in a free-camera style distinctly different from the locked-down, planimetric shots of the interview and the more studio-bound images of the TV filming of the White House Tour.
Likewise, Nocturnal Animals assigns three different “looks” to its three levels. DP Seamus McGarvey explains that Susan’s present had to be “colorless, [with a] low-contrast anemic aspect to it.” The story within the story is “colorful, more primaries.” The flashbacks to Susan’s and Edward’s marriage have a softer, glowing texture.
Visually tagging blocks, fantasies, and flashbacks wasn’t uncommon in the silent era, when filmmakers marked them with vignettes and soft focus. These optical devices, along with distorting lenses, were occasionally used in the sound era too, along with occasional shifts between color and black-and-white (The Wizard of Oz; Portrait of Jennie, 1949). On the whole, differentiating strands or blocks became a firm craft convention somewhat later, from the 1980s on. I talk about how that happened in The Way Hollywood Tells It.
Believe it or not, I haven’t exhausted the debts of 2016 movies to Hollywood in the Forties. There is, for instance, the device of voice-over, so common in that decade, which reappears in various guises, most notably that of the gossipy narrator of Café Society. There’s also the strategy of confining the bulk of the film’s action to a single location, which became notable in Angels over Broadway (1940), Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), and The Time of Your Life (1948). That method, common to low-budget thrillers, was ingeniously exercised in 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Shallows, and Don’t Breathe. In another entry I’ve discussed how Sully uses the device of replay that became common in the 1940s.
La La Land sums up several of the tendencies I’ve mentioned. It displays block construction, with sections labeled Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter… Five Years Later. The film’s first section uses the flashback technique too. After we follow Mia out of the traffic jam and to the party and the piano bar, the narration jumps back to the traffic jam and tracks Sebastian through his day up to the moment he pounds out jazz at the piano. This brings them together. As she’s about to compliment him on his playing, he brushes past her and leaves. At about 25 minutes in, this is the turning point ending the film’s first part.
The rest of the film traces their other coincidental meetings until they fall in love, try to maintain their relationship, and ultimately break up. They re-meet at Sebastian’s club, with Mia now married to a courteous side of beef. As the two look at each other and Sebastian takes over the piano to play their love theme, the film skips back to the first piano-bar encounter. Instead of passing Mia, though, Sebastian grabs her and they kiss.
Now the narration posits an alternative story line in which they marry, become parents, and still have success. This what-if scenario is rendered in stylized settings, accompanied by moments of dance.
Like the visual tagging of blocks and flashbacks, this sequence needs to abstract its settings, theatricalizing them so they’re set off from the real-world locales in which our characters have also been singing and dancing.
La La Land revisits a schema that was explored a little in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood: the alternative-universe story line created by forking paths. I’ve talked about the clearest early example, the 1934 film adaptation of the play Dangerous Corner. It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) did it negatively: Imagine a universe without you (or George Bailey). A little-known instance from that period is Repeat Performance (1947), which offers its actress-heroine a narrative reset like that to come in Groundhog Day (1993), Run Lola Run (1998), Source Code (2011, talked about here), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and many other media texts, including comics.
Again,the schema is creatively reworked. The past the couple might have had is played out with parallels to the real-world life that Mia found. The result is an epilogue balancing the traffic-jam prologue–these people, unlike the gridlocked drivers, have found their success in Show Biz–but at the cost of love. By showing us what might have been, the final sequence provides something both wistful and satisfying.
I regret missing certain films this year, particularly Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, which seems to constitute an intriguing instance of block construction merged with a minimal network narrative. I look forward to catching up with it. And I’ve confined myself to Hollywood and off-Hollywood films, but I could easily have stretched the boundaries to include Elle (flashbacks), I Am Not Madame Bovary (block construction), Sieranevada (confined-space shooting, discussed by Kristin), Julieta (flashbacks, voice-over, etc.. etc., discussed in another entry), and many other imported films. These narrative strategies now belong to contemporary movie storytelling as a whole.
I don’t want to leave the impression that as I’m watching new release a little homunculus historian in my skull is busily plotting schema and revision, norm and variation. I get as soaked up in a movie as anybody, I think. But at moments during the screening, I do try to notice the film’s narrative strategies. Later, when I’m thinking about the movie and going over my notes (yes, I take notes), affinities strike me. By studying film history, most recently Hollywood in the 40s, I try to see continuities and changes in storytelling strategies. These make me appreciate how our filmmakers creatively rework conventions that have rich, surprising histories.
Thinking along these lines has made my 2016 moviegoing all the more fun. And a happy 2017 to you too.
E. H. Gombrich explains the concept of the schema throughout Art and Illusion, particularly in Chapter V and on pp. 313-314.
My quotation from Damien Chazelle comes from Mark Dillon, “City of Stars,” American Cinematographer 98, 1 (January 2017), 57. The same issue’s story “Quotidian Vision,” by Iain Marks, includes the remark from Frederick Elmes (p. 22). Seamus Garvey’s comments on the visual styles of Nocturnal Animals comes from Carolyn Giardina, “Beginning First in the Darkness, Then Moving toward the Light,” Hollywood Reporter, Awards no. 1 (December 2016), 48; apparently not available online. In the same article Vittorio Storaro talks about differentiating New York and Hollywood pictorially in Café Society.
The cellphone conversation in The Shallows is an interesting turn back to a much older schema for representing phone conversations, using split screen. The first one below is is from College Chums (1907). We’ve seen similar phone-call diagrams since then in Pillow Talk (1959), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), and Down with Love (2003, also below). Everything comes back eventually.
Other discussions of stylistic schemas hereabouts are in entries on lipdubs, shot/reverse-shot cutting, and Wes Anderson’s narrative worlds.
There’s another flashforward in these films: La La Land embeds a montage of the couple’s creative work in their “City of Stars” duet at the piano. Another, smallish block, it anticipates the looped construction of the final fantasy epilogue.
Snowden: Yet another revision of the shot-reverse shot schema, adapted for what John Dean called “telephonic communication.”
Monday | December 26, 2016
The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Kristin (with some help from David) here:
David and I have been offering this greatest-of-90-years-ago series almost as long as this blog has existed. For earlier annual entries, see 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, and 1925.
I approached 1926 with the assumption that it would present a crowded field of masterpieces; surely it would be difficult to choose ten best films. Instead it turned out that some of the greatest directors of the era somehow managed to skip this year or turn in lesser films. Eisenstein had two masterpieces in 1925 but no film in 1926. Dreyer made a film that is a candidate for his least interesting silent feature, The Bride of Gromdal. Chaplin did not release a film, and Keaton’s Battling Butler, while a charming comedy, is not a plausible ten-best entry. The production of Lang’s Metropolis went over schedule, and it will appear on next year’s list, for certain.
Still, the Soviet directors were going full-tilt by this time and contribute three of the ten films on this year’s list. French directors on the margins of filmmaking created two avant-garde masterpieces. Two comic geniuses of Hollywood already represented on past lists made wonderful films in 1926. A female German animator made her most famous work early in a long career. I was pleased to reevaluate a German classic thanks to a sparkling new print. Finally, Japan figures for the first time on our year-end list, thanks to a daring experimental work that still has the power to dazzle.
The Russians are coming
Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother was a full-fledged contribution to the new Montage movement in the Soviet Union. By the 1930s, that movement would be criticized for being too “formalist,” too complex and obscure for peasants and workers to understand. Nevertheless, being based upon a revered 1906 novel of the same name by Maksim Gorky, Mother was among the most officially lauded of all Montage films. It tells the story of a young man who is gradually drawn into the Russian revolutionary movement of 1905. His mother, the protagonist of the novel, initially resists his participation but eventually herself joins the rebellion.
Along with Potemkin, Mother was one of the key founding films of the Montage movement. Its daring style is no less impressive now than it must have been at the time. One brief scene demonstrates why. Fifteen years before Mother, D. W. Griffith was experimenting in films like Enoch Arden (1911) with cutting between two characters widely separated in space, hinting that they were thinking of each other. By 1926, Pudovkin could suggest thoughts through editing that challenged the viewer with a flurry of quick mental impressions.
As the Mother sits beside her husband’s dead body, her son, a participant in the 1905 failed revolution, comes in. He is about to bend down and open a trap-door in the floor (73 frames). A cut-in shows her horrified reaction (12 frames), and there follows a brief close shot of some guns she had seen him hide under the floor in an earlier scene (11 frames). Even shorter views of a man clutching his chest (8 frames), two jump-cut views of the dead husband (3 frames and 2 frames), and a tight framing of the son being shot follow (8 frames). We return to her face, registering even greater horror (15 frames). A return to the initial long shot shows her leaping up to try and stop her son from taking the guns out to participate in a seditious act (31 frames).
The series of five shots goes by in a few seconds, and we are challenged to grasp that the guns are a real memory, while the shots of the man’s chest and her son’s anguished face are visions of what might happen. The shots of her husband’s body suggest that she could soon end up sitting by her son’s corpse as well. The jumble of recollection, imagination, and reality are remarkably bold for this relatively early era.
Mother also contains two of Pudovkin’s most memorable scenes, the breaking up of ice in the spring as a symbol of the Revolution and the final violent attack on the demonstrators, including the heroine.
Mother was released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 1999, but it seems to be very rare. An Asian disc, perhaps a pirated edition of the Image version, is sold on eBay. I’ve never seen the film on DVD and can’t opine on these. The time is ripe for a new edition.
Pudovkin was one of the filmmakers who had studied with Lev Kuleshov during the early 1920s, when Kuleshov made the famous experiments that bear his name. Pudovkin played the head of the gang of thieves in The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which I included in the ten-best list of 1924.
Kuleshov had moved on as well to direct his most famous film and probably his best silent, By the Law, based on Jack London’s story “The Unexpected.” Set in the Yukon during the gold rush, it involves five people who are cooperatively working a small claim and discover gold. Taking advantage of a warm autumn, they stay too long and are trapped for the winter. One of the men kills two of the others, and the heroine, Edith and her husband Hans are left to determine the fate of the killer, Dennin. Edith insists on treating him strictly according to the law. After enduring the harsh winter and a spring flood, the couple finally act as judge, jury, witnesses, and, after finding Dennin guilty, executioners.
The great literary critic and theorist Viktor Shklovsky (one of the key figures of the Russian Formalist school) adapted the short story, condensing it by eliminating the opening section of Edith’s backstory and a few scenes in which a group of Indians appear occasionally to help the prospectors. The result is a concentration on the tense drama of a three people trapped together in a tiny cabin.
In the 1924 entry, I mentioned that Kuleshov’s team emphasized biomechanical acting and that Alexandra Kokhlova was adept at eccentric acting. She delivers a bravura performance here, as Edith moves closer to a breakdown as the months go by.
Kuleshov also puts into practice the experiments in imaginary geography that his classes had made. Although in this film he didn’t unite shots made in widely separate spaces, he did favor scenes built up of a considerable number of detail shots before finally revealing the entire space in an establishing shot. Edith, for example, though glimpsed briefly asleep early on, is introduced in a later scene by a shot of her boots and Bible, followed by a shot of her head as she read the Bible. The scene also contains close shots of the other characters before a general view of the cabin interior shows where each of them is.
The scene of the execution includes one of the most famous images of the Monage movement, a framing with the horizon line at the bottom edge of the frame and the sky dominated by trees (see bottom). Any number of framings of tall features such as trees and telephone poles against a huge sky appeared in Montage and non-Montage films, and this device became so common as to be a trait of the Soviet cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The desire to hide the actual hanging led Kuleshov to stage is behind the larger of the two trees, as Edith and Hans struggle to carry out their sentence on Dennin. This leads to some eccentric framings, such as our view only of Edith’s legs as she teeters on the box where Dennin stands, presumably adjusting the noose (see top of this section).
A beautiful print of By the Law is available on DVD from Edition-Filmmuseum.
Grigori Kozintzev and co-director Leonid Trauberg did not study with Kuleshov, but they shared a passion for eccentricity. Having started out in the theater, in 1921 both contributed to the “Manifesto for an Eccentric Theater,” a dramatic approach based on popular forms like circus and music-hall. In 1922 they founded the “Factory of the Eccentric Actor” group and two years later transformed it into FEKS, devoted to making films.
The Overcoat (also known in English as The Coat), their second feature, was based on a combination of two short stories by Gogol, an author whose grotesque creations were very much in tune with their own tastes. It tells the story of a poor, middle-aged low-level government clerk, Akaky Akakievich, who is bullied over his shabbiness, particularly his worn-out overcoat. Scrimping to buy a new one, he finally purchases a magnificent new coat and finds his status suddenly raised–until the coat is stolen.
Andrei Kostrichkin was a mere twenty-five years old when he played the fiftyish clerk, but he was highly effective and provided another model of the eccentric actor. As Akakievich he stands with bent legs and twisted torso, as if flinching away from a blow, and walks in tiny steps along perfectly straight lines through the hallways in his office building. When he applies to a Person of Consequence for help in recovering his stolen coat, the official leans over his desk to look downward, with a high-angle point-of-view framing of Akakievich appearing dwarfed by the other’s superiority.
The script of The Overcoat was adapted by another Russian Formalist critic and theorist, Yuri Tynjanov.
Unfortunately The Overcoat does not seem to be available on any form of home video.
Petit mais grand
The IMDb lists 23 directing credits for Dimitri Kirsanoff from 1923 to the year of his death, 1957. He is largely remembered, however, for one film, the 37-minute Ménilmontant, a melodrama about the travails of two sisters orphaned as children by a violent crime. Each is later seduced by a callous young man who leaves the heroine a single mother and her sister reduced to prostitution. It belongs to the French Impressionist moment. (We deal with Impressionist films in other entries: La roue, L’inhumaine, L’affiche, Coeur fidèle, The Smiling Madame Beudet, Le brasier ardent, Crainquebille, and El Dorado, as well as DVD sets of Impressionist films by the Albatros company and by director Jean Epstein.)
The story itself is simple and indeed might be thought clichéd were it not for two factors. First, there’s the performance of the delicately beautiful Nadia Sibirskaïa as the protagonist. There’s also the lyrical, melancholy use of the settings, initially in the countryside and later in the desolate working-class Parisian district whose name gives the film its title. The simplicity of the narrative also makes it one of the most successful of the attempts to tell a story visually, eschewing intertitles.
The film’s most famous scene is its abrupt, shocking opening. With no establishing shot, there is a series of rapid shots of details of faces, hands, a window, and an ax, during which we can barely discern that a man has committed a double murder. The spectator cannot possibly know who these people are and why the murders occur.
Instead of offering an explanation, the action then shifts to two little girls playing in the woods. As they return home, the camera begins to concentrate on one of them, apparently the younger, as she arrives at the murder scene and reacts in horror. Kirsanoff presents her expression in a series of five shots, linked by what David has termed axial cuts, from medium shot to extreme close-up as she gradually realizes what has happened.
There had certainly been axial cuts before this, including in Potemkin, but Kirsanoff probably went further than anyone of the era by including so many shots, by making each so short, and by moving his camera forward in such small increments. It is difficult to notice every cut, particularly the one from the third to the fourth shot, and the effect adds an unsettling quality to an already intense moment.
After this opening, a funeral scene reveals through labels on the grave that the murdered man and woman are the children’s parents. We might have suspected that the killer was a jealous husband discovering his wife with her lover. As it is, we never learn whether the crime was the result of a love triangle or the random act of a madman.
The rest of the film establishes the sisters now grown up, working in a workshop making artificial flowers and sharing a small flat in Menilmontant. The heroine’s brief romance leads to a baby, and superimpositions and other Impressionist techniques depict her despair and contemplation of suicide. Beautifully melancholy atmospheric shots of the streets of the neighborhood punctuate the action and underscore the dreariness and hopelessness that the heroine faces. The ending, though an improvement in the heroine’s lot, does little to dispel the overall grimness of the story.
Menilmontant is included in the out-of-print set “Avant-garde – Experimental cinema of the 1920s & 1930s.” It has been posted twice on YouTube in a low-rez format.
Even shorter is Anémic cinéma, the only venture into film directing by the great French Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. It’s hard to compare a roughly seven-minute abstract film with narrative features, but this short is so innovative and influential that it’s also hard to leave it off the list.
Duchamp went through a phase of spinning artworks, including some “Rotoreliefs” that he attempted to sell as toys. These were similar to some Victorian optical toys, such as the Phenakistopscope and the bottom disks of Zoetropes. See Richard Balzer’s website for a collection of such devices, as well as “The Richard Balzer Collection” on tumblr, which contains gifs that animate some of the disks, done by Brian Duffy. Some of these resemble the spinning spirals and embedded circles that Duchamp used for his short. (See the top of this section.)
These spinning abstract circular images alternate with slowly spinning disks with sentences laid out as spirals. These involve either alliteration or puns or both. Unfortunately the English subtitles cannot render these in a way that conveys the original intent. For example, “Esquivons les ecchymoses des esquimaux aux mots exquis” becomes “Let us dodge the bruises of Eskimos in exquisite words.” The meaning is the same, and even the echo of the first syllables of “Eskimos” and “exquisite” is retained. Nevertheless, the similar syllables in two other words in the original are lost, as are the echoes of “moses,” “maux,” and “mots.” It is rather as though someone attempted to render “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” into another language quite literally. (The Wikipedia entry includes a complete list of the sentences in French.)
Duchamp’s purpose was presumably to create an artwork with minimal means, including quasi-found objects, the disks he had made for another purpose. His idea is clearly reflected in the title, Anémic cinéma, which suggests a weakness or thinness of means. “Anémic” is also an anagram for “cinéma.”
Anémic cinéma is available in the same collection as Menilmontant, linked above. it is also available in the similarly out-of-print set, “Unseen Cinema.” There are numerous versions on YouTube, varying in quality. Some of these have been manipulated by other artists.
Lloyd and Lubitsch
Though Chaplin and Keaton might have had off-years in 1926, Harold Lloyd did not. Over the past several years, Lloyd has gradually been gaining the admiration he deserves. He used to be known largely for Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925), two excellent films which, however, are not his finest. Girl Shy (1924) and The Kid Brother (1927) are better known now for the masterpieces they are. For Heaven’s Sake (directed by Sam Taylor), which clocks in at a mere 58 minutes, is just as good.
Lloyd plays a breezy millionaire, J. Harold Manners, who unintentionally helps Brother Paul found a mission in the downtown slums of Manhattan. He falls in love with Hope, the missionary’s daughter, and decides to help out around the place. By this time Lloyd was known for his spectacular chase scenes, and there are two here. Initially he puts a twist on the chase, luring a growing crowd of criminals into racing after him, ending in the mission. Gaining their respect, Harold makes the mission a happy social center.
The romance provides one of my favorite comic intertitles, leading into a love scene: “During the days that passed, just what the man with a mansion told the miss with a mission–is nobody’s business.” The love scene in turn includes a visual joke that emphasizes the rich boy – poor girl contrast.
Harold’s rich friends hear that the pair are to be married and determine to kidnap him to prevent the inappropriate match. The result is a lengthy chase through the streets of Manhattan, with the drunken thugs rescuing Harold and using a variety of means to get him back to the mission in time for the wedding–as when the drunken leader of the group demonstrates his tightrope-walking abilities on the upper railing of a double-decker bus (see above).
Two years ago, when I put Girl Shy on my list, the New Line Cinema boxed set of Lloyd films was out of print and hard to find, and the separate volumes appeared to be going out of print as well, with Volume 1 not being available at the time. The situation has changed, and the boxed set, though apparently still out of print, is now available at reasonable prices from various third-party sellers on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The set contains a “bonus disc” with extras, including interviews and home movies. The same is true for the three individual volumes (here, here, and here). For Heaven’s Sake is in Volume 3.
Inevitably, coming directly after Lady Windermere’s Fan, probably Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest silent film, So This Is Paris does not quite live up to its predecessor. Still, it’s a very fine, clever, and funny film, and it marks Lubitsch’s last appearance in these lists until sound arrives.
The opening scene, running nearly twenty-five minutes, is as good as anything Lubitsch did in this era. Set in Paris, it’s a slow build-up of misunderstandings and deceptions involving two affluent couples in apartments across the street from each other. One couple, Maurice and Georgette Lalle, are practicing a melodramatic dance in Arabian costumes. Their marriage seems to be a rocky one. Across the street, Suzanne Giraud is reading one of the lurid “Sheik” novels that were popular at the time, involving “burning kisses” in its final scene. Put into a romantic mood by this, she looks out her window and sees the head of a man in a turban at the window opposite–Maurice relaxing after his strenuous rehearsal.
Her husband Paul arrives home, and she kisses him passionately. Apparently not used to such affectionate greetings, he is puzzled until he, too, looks out the window. By now Maurice has doffed his turban and necklaces and appears to be not only naked but also examining a piece of his anatomy.
Paul jumps to the conclusion that this sight is what caused Suzanne’s unaccustomed display of passion. He calls her to the window, and we see Maurice in depth through the two windows.
Suzanne then asks if Paul is going to stand for such a thing, and he goes to the other apartment to confront Maurice. Instead he finds Georgette, who turns out to be an ex-lover of his. She introduces him to Maurice, who is very friendly and charms Paul. The latter who returns home and claims that he has beaten Maurice and even broken his cane on him, though in fact he had simply forgotten it. Shortly thereafter Maurice visits Suzanne to return the undamaged cane and takes the occasion to flirt with her. It’s a beautifully plotted and developed farcical scene. The film is based on a French play and could easily have become stagey in its adapted form. Yet the byplay between the two apartments via the windows allows Lubitsch to avoid any such impression; the misunderstandings based on optical POV recall the racetrack scene of Lady Windermere.
The rest of the film develops the two potentially adulterous affairs, primarily with Paul secretly taking Georgette to the Artists’ Ball. Here Lubitsch uses an elaborate montage sequence to convey the wild party, with superimpositions and shots taken through prismatic lenses.
Such sequences were primarily developed in German films and were still fairly rare in American ones in 1926. Similar techniques convey Paul getting drunk on the champagne he and Georgette are awarded when they win a dance contest–the announcement of which on the radio broadcast of the ball alerts Suzanne to her husband’s presence there with another woman.
So This Is Paris is less famous than Lubitsch’s earlier American comedies primarily because it has never appeared on DVD. Marilyn Ferdinand, in a blog entry that gives a detailed description of the film, writes that Warner Bros. claims not to own the rights to the film anymore and therefore has made no effort to bring it out on home video. On the other hand, a four-minute excerpt of the dance montage sequence was included in the Unseen Cinema set (disc 3, number 18), and the credit there is “Courtesy: Warner Bros., Turner Entertainment Company.” Whatever the rights situation is, a home-video version of this film is in order. A beautiful 35mm print is owned by the Library of Congress, so there is hope.
Two German flights of fancy
I must confess that I was disappointed the first time I saw F. W. Murnau’s Faust, and I have never warmed up to it in later viewings. I am delighted at having occasion to look at it again for this 1926 list, since a recently discovered and restored print reveals that the main problem before was the poor visual quality of the print formerly in circulation.
Different local release prints survived in a number of countries, but there were basically two original versions made: the domestic negative for German release and the export negative. These were shot using two camera side-by-side on the set, as was the standard practice in much of the silent era, given the lack of an acceptable negative-duplicating stock. The primary camera contributed most of the shots to the domestic negative, though in some cases where the second camera yielded a superior take, that was used in the domestic negative. Conversely, inferior takes from the primary camera sometimes made their way into the export negative. The result, as we now know, was that both the visual quality and in many cases the editing of the scenes was markedly different in the two negatives.
The version familiar for decades originated from the export negative. Recently the domestic negative was rediscovered, and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung restored the that version using the that negative, supplemented with material from a variety of other prints. The result closely approaches the original German release version, including the original decorated intertitles. The contrast in quality between this restoration and the old, familiar Faust is remarkable.
Given how dark the film is, details in the backgrounds could easily be lost. The scene in which Faust is called to help a woman dying of the plague is revealed to have dramatic staging in depth against a very dark room contrasted with the stark foreground underlighting of the woman’s haggard face. Faust enters from behind the daughter and comes forward to her, after which his movement is balanced by the daughter retreating into that same dark background.
The famous aerial journey of Mephisto and Faust from Germany to Italy (below left) always looked rather hokey, but the detail revealed in the extraordinarily extensive model makes it far more impressive. Similarly, when one can actually see the sets, visual echoes become apparent. For example, Faust first encounters Gretchen and follows her into the church, where he finds himself barred from entering by his pact with Mephisto. Later, when Gretchen has been abandoned, she laments when not permitted to enter there.
No doubt some motifs of this sort were visible in the earlier print, but their clarity here enhances both the beauty and the craft of Murnau’s film.
Faust is available in several editions on DVD and Blu-ray. DVDBeaver ran a detailed comparison among seven of these, including a selection of frame grabs. To my eye, the 2006 DVD “Masters of Cinema” version of the domestic print, released by Eureka!, looked the best. (The two-disc set also includes the export version.) The Blu-ray from the same source, released in 2014, looked slightly darker. The box for the Blu-ray also includes the DVD, however. These releases are Region 2. The film is available on Blu-ray in the USA from Kino.
Both Eureka! releases’ supplements include a booklet, a commentary track, a Tony Rayns interview, and a lengthy comparison of the domestic and export versions. One particularly striking example is drawn from the scene in which Mephisto talks with Gretchen’s brother in a beer hall, with the domestic version on the left.
While watching Faust, I kept grabbing frames, far too many to be used in this entry. They were simply too beautiful or impressive to be passed over, and they made my final selection of illustrations difficult. The only other film for which this was true this year is Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette-animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The restored, tinted print that is currently available is even lovelier than the older black-and-white version.
Reiniger seems to have invented the use of jointed silhouette puppets, and she still is the first artist one thinks of in relation to this form of animation. She continued to practice it until the 1970s. (See the link below to a collection of many of her short films.) Her one feature film remains her most famous and is probably her masterpiece.
It involves far more than simple black figures moving against a light background. As the frame at the top of this entry shows, her characters, furnishings, and locations, all rendered in paper with scissors, were often elaborate indeed. Characters wore feathers, jewelry, fancy wigs, and other decorative elements. The hanging platform has many little tassels, and the lamps are rendered in delicate filigree. The backgrounds are not blank but have varying layers of saturation that suggest a depth effect, the equivalent of atmospheric perspective. At the left in the top image, a series of identical curtains start out a dusky orange and in three stages lighten until there is a bright, solid glow at the center.
In the frame at the left below, the same sort of shading creates the depth of a cavern, setting off the tracery of the foliage and the kiosk in which the hero finds the magic lamp. On the right, very simple shading suggests a vast and elaborate palace in the background, while Reiniger fills the foreground with many small figures, all marching out to surround the procession of the caliph.
By choosing a classical fantastic tale, Reiniger found the perfect subject matter to fit the technique that she invented. Both the subject matter and the sophistication of the animation give her films a timeless look. Her reputation remains high today as a result. One scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” was made in a style inspired by Reiniger’s work. (I discuss it here.)
A restored, tinted version of The Adventures of Princes Achmed is available from Milestone. A combination Blu-ray/DVD release of the film is available from the BFI. (I have not seen this version.) Note that these have somewhat different content. The BFI version has five Reiniger shorts from across her career along with a booklet. The Milestone version has only one of the shorts, but it includes a documentary about Reiniger. (This documentary was on the 2001 BFI release of the film on DVD but is not listed among the extras on its Blu-ray.) See also the BFI’s collection of many of her shorts, “Lotte Reiniger: The Fairy Tale Films,” which I discussed here.
[Dec 27: Thanks to Paul Taberham for pointing out that Prince Achmed also has no intertitles and gets along without them very well.]
Into the asylum
Few western viewers of 1926 saw any Japanese films, but Japanese audiences had been watching imported films for a long time. Hollywood films could easily be seen in the big cities, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (released in 1922), La Roue (released in early 1926), and other films from Europe had made a strong impression on local filmmakers. One fruit of this influence was the wild Page of Madness (Kurutta ichipeiji, aka “A Crazy Page”).
Directed by Kinugasa Teinosuke and based on a story by the renowned experimental writer Kawabata Yasunari, the film bore the influence of German Expressionist and particularly French Impressionist cinema. Page of Madness set out to be a bold exercise in subjective filmmaking. But it wasn’t widely seen at the time, and wasn’t revived until 1971, when Kinugasa discovered a print in his house (reportedly, among cans of rice). Apparently the version we have is slightly edited.
A woman has been confined to a madhouse, and her husband has taken a job as a janitor there to stay in touch with her. Many of the scenes are presented as the hallucinations of the wife and other inmates, while abrupt flashbacks attached to the husband fill in the past. But this story is terribly difficult to grasp. There are no intertitles (perhaps an influence of The Last Laugh, shown in Japan earlier in 1926), and the film is a blizzard of images, choppily cut or dissolving away almost subliminally.
Viewers of the period had the advantage of a synopsis printed in the program, and there was a benshi commentator accompanying the screening to explain the action. Because we lack those aids, the film seems more cryptic than it did at the time. Even when you know the story, though, Page of Madness often surpasses its foreign counterparts in its free, unsignalled jumps from mind to mind and time to time. It remains a powerful example of narrative and stylistic experiment, from its canted framings and single-frame cutting to its frenzied camera movements and abstract planes of depth (thanks to scrims à la Foolish Wives, 1922).
For nearly fifty years it has remained a milestone, a grab-bag of advanced techniques and likely the closest Japan came to a silent avant-garde film.
Page of Madness is not commercially available on home video. It is occasionally shown on TCM, and a reasonably good print is on YouTube. Aaron Gerow’s A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan is an indispensable guide to Kinugasa’s eccentric masterpiece.
By the Law.
Monday | December 19, 2016
Our contributions to FilmStruck’s Criterion Channel continue. Last month brought Jeff Smith’s analysis of musical motifs in Foreign Correspondent and his celebration of the skill of Alfred Newman, supplemented by a blog entry here. This month it’s my turn, taking on Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943; all Japanese names hereafter in Western order, family name last). My presentation is here, if you are a FilmStruck subscriber. A bit of it is available to all at the Criterion site. Today’s entry fleshes that out with some contextual background.
If the streaming version of Observations on Film Art is a bit like a bonus material on a DVD, think of these blog entries as liner notes with clips. This format allows us to tackle the films from an angle not covered in our videos. We’re sorry that not all of our readers can access the Criterion Channel. But if these entries inspire you to go back to the films in whatever form you can find them, that would be all to the good.
Conquering the self
Sanshiro is a film à clef, using martial arts to promote a nationalistic cultural pride. The character of Sanshiro was based on Shiro Saigo (above), who was one of the first pupils of the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano. (In the film, Kano is called Yano, below.) Kano learned the traditional fighting technique called jujutsu (aka jujitsu). Like jujutsu, judo involves grappling, locking, and throwing, and it deploys the opponent’s force against him (or her). But Kano tried to refine the art, eliminating some of the harsher techniques, like biting and kicking, and aiming for maximum efficiency of energy.
By treating judo as a sport and encouraging sparring and public matches, Kano led judo to prominence. His pupils defeated jujutsu challengers. In 1885-1886 matches against Tokyo police champions, Kato’s star pupil Saigo proved judo’s prowess.
In the hands of Kano and Saigo, unarmed fighting techniques were turned to spiritual ends. Ju-jutsu, “flexible technique” was replaced by ju-do, “the path of flexibility”—a devotion to a way of life rather than mere mastery of grips and throws. This distinction is enacted in the film, when Sanshiro, having learned enough technique to bully people with abandon, must learn to master himself.
Judo’s emphasis on spiritual seeking fitted an ideology that emerged in the Meiji period (1868—1912). Japan’s elite was bent on incorporating Western technology and social institutions while maintaining, or rather constructing, a distinct national identity. Accordingly, jujutsu, whose origin lay in Chinese boxing, came into disfavor as part of “feudal” traditions. With young people becoming entranced by Western sports like boxing and wrestling, the government encouraged the development of judo as both modern and uniquely Japanese. As often happened, these “inherently Japanese” cultural forms were of recent invention.
Kano became a public figure and oversaw the introduction of judo into the public school system in 1908. At the same time his pupil Saigo featured in popular culture as a hero of novels, often as the quasi-mythical Sanshiro Sugata. By then, judo was well established as recreation. And by 1943, when Kurosawa made his film, he was at pains to show judo as the progressive force replacing old-fashioned jujutsu.
There’s another dimension to the story. John Dower has pointed out that imperial wartime propaganda tended to emphasize not triumph over the enemy but the need to purify the self. Accordingly, judo’s victory in the social sphere parallels Sanshiro’s conquest of his anger and egotism.
In the film, Sanshiro comes to Tokyo in 1882, the year Kano actually founded his school. After training, both physical and spiritual, the young man proceeds to defeat the surly jujutsu master Monma. Bristling with youth and vigor, Sanshiro then comes to represent a rising generation capable of surpassing its elders. The next fight references Saigo’s most famous combat during the 1886 police tournament. He must defeat the kindly jujitsu master Murai. But he is attracted to Murai’s daughter Sayo, and so it pains him to trounce her father. But Murai acknowledges judo’s superiority and easily forgives Sanshiro. Judo, he says, awakens his senses.
Most intently, Sanshiro’s purity of spirit clashes with the foppish, Europeanized Higaki, who exploits judo for aggression and self-aggrandizement. Their big fight comes on a wind-swept hillside, perhaps a reference to Saigo’s signature technique yama-arashi (“mountain storm”). The polarity Japanese/ Western would become even stronger in the film’s sequel, Sanshiro Sugata II (1945), in which Sanshiro must fight an American boxer. But from fight to fight, Sanshiro gains greater and greater self-possession, so that in the climactic combat, he can spare time to stare at clouds and envision lotus blossoms.
The film’s plot reverses Saigo’s actual life course: He became a street brawler after he won his tournament victories. More basically, Sanshiro Sugata goes beyond its historical sources and political program, as ambitious films tend to do. Nationalistic messages appropriate to wartime are transformed, reworked—”cinematized”—through Kurosawa’s remarkably dynamic approach to film style.
A resumé film?
Sanshiro is a young man’s first film. Kurosawa started on it when he was thirty-two (within my magic-number deadline). In the Criterion Channel video, I treat the movie as an occasion for an ambitious director to display his versatility—a sort of resumé film, as we’d say nowadays, and maybe a little showoffish.
He was ready for the project. He had a busy several years as an assistant director and screenwriter at the fast-moving Toho studios. He worked on twenty-eight dramas and comedies between 1936 and 1942. When he read Sanshiro’s source novel upon publication, he urged Toho to buy it, and he plunged into his project with fervor.
Like other young directors in Japan, he was well aware of developments abroad. His autobiography records seeing many imported films, from Broken Blossoms (1919) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to Metropolis (1927) and The Blue Angel (1930). Interestingly, he claims to have seen Storm over Asia (1928), Epstein’s Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), and even films by Buñuel and Man Ray. His viewing included Hollywood fare by Ford, Lubitsch, Borzage, Wellman, Sternberg, and others. Indeed, he could have kept up with American cinema right up to Pearl Harbor; prints of Edison the Man (1940), Morocco (1930), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) seem to have been playing in Tokyo in late 1941. Then all American films were banned.
So he was a cinephile director, perhaps not quite as passionate as Ozu, but a young man who looked and learned. Like most Japanese directors, he had mastered Hollywood continuity staging and cutting. I’ve argued elsewhere that many of his contemporaries were bolder stylists than the Americans. Whether it’s a matter of long takes, camera movements, rapid cutting, or subtle transitions—the Japanese found their own striking innovations.
Ozu’s distinctive 360-degree staging space, low camera height, and play with graphic editing constitute an extreme example of Japanese pictorial invention, but he wasn’t alone. Take this passage from Naruse’s Street without End (1934). The heroine has left her husband’s hospital bed after denouncing him, his mother, and his sister for selfishness. Servants and family rush past her; he may be dying. She hesitates in the corridor. Should she return?
The pattern of cuts and frame entrances accentuates her uncertainty—taking a step, and halting—while the clashing directions in which she moves (right, left, right) have a Soviet-montage flavor. So do the blank frames at the start of every shot, since we have no idea of where we are in the corridor, or where she is, until she thrusts into the frame. And we don’t know whether she chooses to return or not; the geometrical cutting expresses her hesitation.
This geometrical approach to editing is one of the characteristics of Sanshiro I discuss in the video entry. You see it near the start, when alternating single shots of Yano, back to the river, are intercut with slow tracking shots across Monma and his truculent students. To push the pattern further, the tracking shots alternate—first in one direction, then another. Like two rhyming lines in poetry, each of these cinematic couplets brackets one futile attack on Yano after another. Later fight scenes will get more complicated, but no less rigorous patterning. And the purpose is always to add to the tension and excitement of the combat.
Another sort of pattern we find in Sanshiro is simpler, but Kurosawa works some nifty variations on it. It’s also somewhat geometrical, but it serves mostly to accentuate a moment of stillness. This is the axial cut, the shot change that moves in or back along the axis of the camera lens. The effect is of sudden enlargement or de-enlargement, a popping out toward the viewer or a sudden withdrawal. Like most directors, Kurosawa uses the axial cut to enlarge something–here, Sayo’s act of praying for her father at a temple.
When the axial cut is justified as a character’s viewpoint, it has the effect of signaling a sharp narrowing of attention. This happens here, when we realize in the voice-off remark (“How beautiful”) and a fourth shot that Yano and Sanshiro have come upon her. That exemplifies an axial cut that moves backward rather than inward.
I discussed Kurosawa’s fondness for axial cuts years ago, but it’s interesting to see their origins here. They’re present from the earliest years of cinema, but Kurosawa, again like the Russians, used them expressively. Most uses in Hollywood consist of just two shots, a long shot and then a closer one on the camera axis. But the Soviets, perhaps starting with Eisenstein, multiplied the number of shots and made them fairly brief, so the effect is of a person or object punching out at the viewer. Eisenstein uses the device throughout his silent films, but in both Alexander Nevsky and the two parts of Ivan the Terrible, he develops the device in a very virtuoso manner. Here’s Ivan, standing above the battlefield.
Eisenstein adds to the popout effect by cheating Ivan’s position between shots, so he jumps forward out of his tent.
I’ve found some axial cuts in Japanese films before Kurosawa started directing. One of the most “Kurosawa-ish” comes in a minor 1939 Nikkatsu swordplay film called Faithful Servant Naosuke (Chuboku Naosuke). Again, the cut-ins emphasize a poised moment.
Even if Kurosawa didn’t invent the technique, he made it more prominent and percussive in Sanshiro. It makes the pauses within combat as staccato as the action of fighting. I spend some time in the video talking about how this all works in particular scenes.
Kurosawa’s next film, The Most Beautiful (1944), itself a real beaut, uses the technique quite differently, mainly for tension. His later films continue to explore its possibilities. Sanshiro Sugata Part 2 (1945) resorts to the device to express our hero’s lingering departure for the big duel. He trots toward us, and each time he pauses to look back, Sayo bows.
Today’s filmmaker would probably pull us back with a tracking or crane shot, but by relying on editing Kurosawa gives us his typical crisp geometrical patterning. The abrupt cuts underscore Sanjuro’s realization that he may not return from this life-or-death confrontation. Sanshiro Sugata Part 2, along with the first film and The Most Beautiful, is available from Criterion, as a disc and on FilmStruck streaming.
My streaming presentation discusses other cinematic strategies Kurosawa employs, but these remarks should give you a sense of just how energetically creative he’s being in his first film. It’s a very flashy item, and it looks far into the future. Decades of kung-fu films have been based on dueling dojos, rival fighting methods, and escalating challenges. In addition, Kurosawa’s technique, moving lightly under the weight of an official message, seems very modern.
Youthful, too. As he told Donald Richie, “I really make my films for people in their twenties.”
The information about the history of judo comes from Gabrielle and Roland Habersetzer, Encyclopédie des arts martiaux d’extrême orient (Amphora, 2000), 265-268, 300-301, 549, and 765. Kurosawa lists films he saw in his youth in Something Like an Autobiography, trans. Audie Bock (Knopf, 1982), 73-74. John Dower’s discussion of Japanese propaganda is in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1987). The closing quotation comes from a 1962 conversation reprinted in Akira Kurosawa Interviews, ed. Bert Cardullo (University of Mississippi Press, 2008), 8. Thanks to Hiroshi Komatsu for information about Faithful Servant Naosuke.
Street without End is available in the Criterion Eclipse collection Silent Naruse. If you don’t have this set, get it pronto.
Informative books about Kurosawa and Sanshiro include Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa third ed. (University of California Press, 1999); Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, rev. and exp. ed (Princeton University Press, 1991); and Stuart Galbraith IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (Faber, 2001). Especially revealing about Kurosawa’s production methods in his later films is Teruyo Nogami, Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter (Stone Bridge Press, 2006). On the “spiritist” trend in government policy in the media of the period, see Peter B. High’s magisterial The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War, 1931-1945 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), Chapter 6.
For more on axial cutting in Soviet and modern films, and The Simpsons, go here. I discuss Eisenstein’s axial cutting in The Cinema of Eisenstein, Chapters 2, 4, and 6. On Ozu’s characteristic staging, shooting, and editing system, see my Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, available for download from the University of Michigan Library site. The full PDF takes a while to download, but you can get access quickly by clicking on “List of all pages.” I discuss other aspects of the tradition from which Kurosawa comes in Poetics of Cinema, Chapters 12 and 13. See also the Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Shimizu entries on this site.
Kim Hendrickson, Criterion producer, and Grant Delin, DP, filming DB from a closet.
Saturday | December 10, 2016
Moses and Aaron (1974).
When the stack of books by friends threatens to topple off my filing cabinet, I know it’s time to flag them for you. I can’t claim to have read every word in them, but (a) we know the authors are trustworthy and scintillating; (b) what I’ve read, I like; (c) the subjects hold immense interest. Then there’s (d): Many are suitable seasonal gifts for the cinephiles in your life (which can include you).
Happy birthday, SMPTE
Starting off in 1916 as the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, this peerless record of American moving-image technology has gone through many changes of name and format. It’s now The SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. Its back issues have been a treasure house for scholars studying the history of movie technology, and it has outdone itself for its 100th Anniversary Issue, published in August.
It includes survey articles on the history of film formats, cameras and lenses, recording and storage, workflows, displays, archiving, multichannel sound, and television and video. There’s even an overview of closed-captioning. The issue costs $125 for non-SMPTE members, and it’s worth it. Many libraries subscribe to the journal as well.
A highlight is John Belton’s magisterial “The Last 100 Years of Motion Imaging,” which includes twenty-two pages of dense timelines of innovations in film, TV, and video. They stretch back beyond 1916, to 1904 and the transmission of images by telegraph. John’s article is provocative, suggesting that we might think of digital cinema as returning to film’s origins in handmade images for optical toys.
Lucas predicted that digital postproduction brought film closer to painting, and for more and more filmmakers that prediction is coming true. I was startled to learn that 80% of Gone Girl was digitally enhanced after shooting.
Yes, sir, that’s our BB
Die 3 Groschen-Oper (1931, G. W. Pabst).
During the 1970s, Bertolt Brecht’s name was everywhere in film studies. He epitomized what an alternative, oppositional, or subversive cinema ought to be. Cinema, even more powerfully than theatre, was a machine for producing illusions. So in his name critics objected to happy endings, plots that tidied up reality, characters with whom we ought to identify, messages that masked the real nature of bourgeois society. Films made all these things seem part of the natural order of things.
The Brechtian antidote was, as people used to say, to “remind people they were watching a film.” This was done by rejecting what he called the Aristotelian model and replacing it with the “alienation effect”: a panoply of distancing devices like intertitles, characters addressing the camera, actors confessing they were actors, and a display of the means of cinematic production (including shots of the camera shooting the scene).
The promise was that once viewers were banished from the imaginary world of the film they would exercise their intellects and coolly appraise not only the fiction machine but its ideological underpinnings. Godard was the chief cinematic surrogate for Brecht, and La Chinoise (1967) became the big prototype of Brechtian cinema—unless you preferred the more austere version incarnated in Straub/Huillet’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and their adaptation of Othon (1969). The ideas spread fast, helped by the user-friendly Brechtianism of Tout va bien (1972).
Brecht became part of Theory. In French literary and theatrical culture of the 1950s, his ideas on staging and performance had claimed the attention of Roland Barthes and other Parisian intellectuals. Godard was alert to the trend early, it seems; he had fun in Contempt (Le mépris, 1963) citing the two BB’s (the other was Brigitte Bardot, bébé), and letting Lang quote a poem by his old collaborator and antagonist. By the time Anglo-American film theorists were ready for semiotics, Brecht was offering support. Didn’t his anti-illusionism chime well with the belief that all sign systems were arbitrary and culturally relative?
My summary is too simple, but then so were many borrowings. Soon enough any highly artificial cinematic presentation might be called “Brechtian,” though usually minus the politics. In the academic realm, Murray Smith’s book Engaging Characters (1995) pointed out crucial weaknesses in the anti-illusionist, anti-empathy account. By then, the certified techniques were becoming part of mainstream cinema. Thereafter, we had Tarantino’s section titles and plenty of movies breaking the fourth wall. Brecht might have enjoyed the irony of using the to-camera confessions of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) bent to support cynical swindling. Isn’t The Big Short (2015) a sort of Hollywoodized lehrstück (“learning play”)?
Brecht’s writings should be read and studied by every humanist and certainly everybody interested in film. They’re clear, blunt, and often sarcastic.
This beloved “human interest” of theirs, this How (usually dignified by the word “eternal,” like some indelible dye) applied to the Othellos (my wife belongs to me!), the Hamlets (better sleep on it!), the Macbeths (I’m destined for higher things!), etc.
Now Marc Silberman, our colleague here at Madison, has completed a trio of books that make the master’s work available. Bertolt Brecht on Film and Radio includes essays, scripts, and the Threepenny Opera lawsuit brief. There’s also Brecht on Performance and a complete revision of that trusty black-and-yellow volume dear to many grad students: Brecht on Theatre. The latter two collections Marc worked on with collaborators. All are indispensible to a cinephile’s education. As Brecht imagined a bold political version of music he called misuc; can we imagine a cenima?
From BB to S/H
Speaking of Straub and Huillet, every decade or so somebody comes out with a book about them. This time we have to thank the admirable Ted Fendt, in the twenty-sixth volume in the series sponsored by the Austrian Film Museum (as well as the Goethe Institute and Synema). Like the Hou Hsiao-hsien volume (reviewed here), Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet is fat and full of ideas and information.
There are interviews, tributes from filmmakers (Gianvito, Farocki, Gorin), and Fendt’s account of distribution and reception of their films in the Anglophone world. This last includes charming facsimile correspondence, with one Huillet letter pockmarked by faulty typewritten o’s. As you’d expect, she is objecting to making a 16mm print of Moses and Aaron (1974) from the 35. (“No, definitively.”)
Starting things off is a lively and comprehensive survey of the duo’s careers by Claudia Pummer, with welcome emphasis on production circumstances and directorial strategies. The book wraps with a detailed thirty-page filmography and a substantial bibliography.
My thoughts about S/H are tied up with their earliest work, when I first learned of them. So I loved, and still love, Not Reconciled (1965) and The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. I also have a fondness for Moses and Aaron, Class Relations (1983), From Today until Tomorrow (1996), and Sicilia! (1998). I find others out of my reach, and several others I haven’t yet seen. People I respect find all their work stimulating, so I suspect it’s really a matter of gaps in my taste.
Whether you like them or not, they’re of tremendous historical importance. Without them, Jim Jarmusch and Béla Tarr, and of course Pedro Costa and Lav Diaz, would not have accomplished what they have. And especially in December 2016, we ought to find their unyielding ferocity inspiring. Remember them on Dreyer: “Any society that would not let him make his Jesus film is not worth a frog’s fart.” Brecht would have approved.
To the minimalism of Straub and Huillet we can counterpoint the maximalism of Oliver Stone, the most aggressive tabloid American director since Samuel Fuller (although Rococo-period Tony Scott gives him some competition). After two books on Wes Anderson, Matt Zoller Seitz has brought us a booklike slab as impossible as the man’s films. Can you pick it up? Just barely. Can you read it? Well, probably not on your lap; better have a table nearby. Does its design mirror the maniacal scattershot energy of films like JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and U-Turn (1997)? Watch the title propel itself off the cover.
The Oliver Stone Experience is basically a long interview, sandwiched in among luxurious photos, script extracts, correspondence, and the sort of insider memorabilia that Matt has a genius for finding. We get not only pictures of Stone with family and friends, on the set, and relaxing; there are bubblegum cards from the 40s, collages of posters and filming notes, maps, footnotes, and shards of texts slicing in from every which way. Newspapers, ads, and production documents are scissored into the format, including a Bob Dole letter fundraising on the basis of the naughtiness of Natural Born Killers. Beautiful frame enlargements pay homage to the split-diopter framings of Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and the shadow of the 9/11 plane sliding up a facade in World Trade Center (2006). When Stone had second thoughts about things he’d said, Matt had the good idea of redacting the interview like a CIA file scoured with thick black lines.
The whole thing comes at you in a headlong rush. Amid the pictorial churn and several essays by other deft hands, we plunge into and out of that stellar interview, mixing biography and filmmaking nuts-and-bolts. Matt gets deep into technical matters, such as Stone’s penchant for rough-hewn editing, as well as raising some big ideas about myth and autobiography. There are occasional quarrels between interviewer and interviewee. Out of the blue we get remarks like “Alexander was not only bisexual, he was trisexual,” which was not redacted.
The book’s very excess helps make the case for Stone’s idiosyncratic vision. Matt’s connecting essays, along with the vast visual archive he’s scavenged and mashed up, made me want to rethink my attitude toward this overweening, sometimes crass, sometimes inspired filmmaker. He now seems a quintessential 80s-90s figure, as much a part of the era as Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. Stone emerges as a resourceful defender of The Oliver Stone Experience, articulating a radical political critique with gonzo verve.
Rhapsody in white
If lifting the Book of Stone doesn’t suffice for exercise, try another weighty and sumptuous item, King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman’s Technicolor Revue, by James Layton and David Pierce. Last spring the Museum of Modern Art premiered one of the most ravishing restorations I’ve ever seen, a digital version of King of Jazz (1930).
This period piece is in its own way as wild as an Oliver Stone movie. From its opening cartoon of Paul himself as a Great White Hunter bagging a lion, it’s a virtually self-parodying account of how a black musical tradition got netted, trussed up, and caged for the swaying delectation of white audiences. (No need to mention the irony of the name of our King.)
Along the way we have some straight-up songs (including some by Bing Crosby) spread among extravagant dance numbers. The Universal crane gets a workout as well. The music is infectious, the performers sweating to please, and the restoration–coming, I hope, to your screen soon–finally shows what two-color Technicolor could do. This is the definitive version of a film too often known in cut versions with shabby visuals and sound.
The book is an in-depth contextualization of the film, the studio, and the tradition of musical revues, both on stage and in film. It records the production and reception, with rich documentation throughout. The story of assembling the restoration is there too, and it’s a saga in itself. David is one of the moving spirits behind the online Media History Digital Library and its gateway Lantern. James is Manager of the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center at the Museum of Modern Art. Their collaboration has given us both a lush picture book and a serious, always enjoyable piece of scholarship. Their book proves the value of crowdsourcing: funded by online subscription, it was self-published. In this and much else, it can be a model for film historians pursuing questions that commercial and university presses might find too specialized. The result is a model of ambitious research, writing, and publishing.
Visiting Radio Ranch
Gene Autry in The Phantom Empire (1935).
For about thirty years I’ve been arguing that one fruitful research program in film studies involves what I call a poetics of cinema: the study of how, under particular historical conditions, films are made to achieve certain effects. This program coaxes the researcher to analyze form and style, study changing norms of production and reception, and consider how filmmakers work in their institutions and creative communities, with special focus on craft routines, work methods, and tacit theories about the ways to make a movie.
A sturdy example of this approach has appeared from Scott Higgins. His Matinee Melodrama fulfills the promise of its subtitle: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial. Scott has closely examined this widely despised genre, plunging into the 200 “chapterplays” produced in America between 1930 and 1956. They offer bald and bold display of the rudiments of action-based storytelling: “If Hitchcock built cathedrals of suspense from fine brickwork of intersecting subjectivities and formal manipulations, sound serials used Tinkertoys.”
Scott traces production practices and conventions, focusing in particular on two dimensions. First, to a surprising degree, serials rely on the conventions of classic stage melodrama, such as coincidence and more or less gratuitous spectacle. Second, the serials are playful, even knowing. Like video games, they invite viewers to imagine preposterous narrative possibilities, not only in the imagination but also on the playground, where kids could mimic what they saw Flash Gordon or Gene Autry do.
Matinee Melodrama investigates the implications of these dimensions for narrative architecture, visual style, and the film and television of our day. Scott closes with analysis of the James Bond series, the self-conscious mimicking of serial conventions in the Indiana Jones blockbusters, and the Bourne saga, and he shows how they amp up the older conventions. “Like the contemporary action film generally, the Bourne movies participate in a cinematic practice vigorously constituted by studio-era serials. That is, they blend melodrama with forceful articulations of physical procedure in scenes of pursuit, entrapment and confrontation.”
Poetics, frank or stealthy
The Red Detachment of Women (1971).
Scott’s book acknowledges the poetics research program, and so, even more explicitly, does a new collection edited by Gary Bettinson and James Udden. The Poetics of Chinese Cinema gathers several essays that usefully test and stretch that frame of reference.
One standard challenge to the poetics approach is: How do you handle social, cultural, and political factors that impinge on film? I think the best way to answer this is to treat these factors as causal influences on a film’s production and reception. More specifically, in the production process, what we now call memes function as materials—subjects, themes, stereotypes, and common ideas circulating in the culture or the filmmaking institution. In the reception process, they provide conceptual structures that viewers can use in making their own sense of the films that they’re given. And such materials will necessarily include other art forms; films are constantly adapting and borrowing from literature, drama, and other media.
Both of these possibilities are vigorously explored in several essays in The Poetics of Chinese Cinema. For instance, Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh traces how Taiwanese and Japanese cultural materials are reworked by Hou Hsiao-hsien in his Ozu homage Café Lumière (2003). Peter Rist, a long-time student of Chinese painting, shows how Chen Kaige deploys cinematic means to revise landscape traditions to create a “Contemplative Modernism.” Victor Fan shows how the Hong Kong classic In the Face of Demolition (1960) adapts and revises a mode of narration already established in Cantonese theatre. In a clever piece called “Can Poetics Break Bricks?” Song Hwee Lim considers how digital technology feeds into a poetics of spectacle, specifically around slow-motion techniques that were emerging in pre-digital filmmaking.
Tradition is a key concept in poetics, and the editors explore important ones in their own contributions. Gary Bettinson studies the emergence of Hong Kong puzzle films in works like Mad Detective (2007) and Wu Xia (2011). Are they simple imitation of Hollywood, or are they doing something different? Gary shows them to have complicated ties to local traditions of storytelling. Jim Udden focuses more on stylistics in his account of Fei Mu’s 1948 classic Spring in a Small Town, remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002. By examining staging, cutting, and voice-over, Jim shows that the earlier film is in many ways more “modern” than it’s usually thought and is somewhat more experimental than the remake.
It might seem that the “model” operas and plays of the Cultural Revolution, epitomized in The Red Detachment of Women (1971) would resist an aesthetic analysis; they’re determined, top-down fashion, by strict canons of political messaging. But Chris Berry’s contribution shows that they’re amenable to close analysis too. Like Soviet Socialist Realism, they may be programmatic in meaning, but not in every choice about framing, performance, cutting, and music. Indeed, the fact that people both inside and outside China (me included) still find them pleasurable probably owes something to their “Red Poetics.” And in true Hong Kong fashion, many filmmakers in that territory plundered those soundtracks with shameless, drop-the-needle panache.
I should probably add that I have an essay in this collection too. It’s called “Five Lessons from Stealth Poetics,” and it surveys things I’ve learned from studying cinema of the “three Chinas”: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. What attracted me were the films themselves, but in exploring them I was obliged to nuance and stretch the poetics approach. Readers of this blog know the trick: in talking about particular movies, I also try to show the virtues of the approach I favor. In other words, stealth poetics.
This is a good moment to pay tribute to Alexander Horwath, moving into his final nine or so months of directing the Austrian Film Museum. He has been a major figure in European film culture, through his inspired programming and leadership in publishing the books and DVDs issued by the Museum. We’re very grateful for all he has done for us and for film historians around the world.
P.S. 11 December 2016: Thanks to Mike Grost for a title correction and John Belton for a name correction!
King of Jazz (1930).