Pola X & The New French Extremity

James Quandt’s concept of the New French Extremity, while striking at its time, has, with age, become somewhat outdated, a number of the films initially categorized as such have proven to be something else entirely.  Defined as having a leaning toward the exploitative, the New French Extremity can perhaps best be defined by the works of Walerian Borowczyk while he was living in France, though the last films of his career were released a good decade before Quandt coined the term.  With that in mind it seems rather peculiar that Leos Carax’s Pola X (1999) should be considered an early component of the “genre”.  What exploitative qualities possessed by Pola X can clearly be seen as being motivated, if not dictated, by Herman Melville’s novel Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities which provided the basis for Carax’s film.

Pola X

Melville’s novel, published in 1853, provides an early prototype for the psychological portraiture that became one of the fundamental aesthetic concerns of twentieth century novelists as diverse as Malcolm Lowry and Martin Amis.  Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities performs as a quasi-gothic rendering of a psychological portrait of the book’s title character, pinpointing a number of concerns regarding identity in all of its many facets in the face of social and political change halfway through the nineteenth century.  In translating Melville’s novel onto film Carax has found his cinematic footing somewhere between Robert Bresson and André Téchiné.  What exploitative qualities that exist in Pola X simply serve to better render Melville’s concepts within a filmic vernacular and do not, in my mind, constitute any fetishistic tendencies on the filmmaker’s part.

The single scene that is clearly informed by exploitation films is the love scene between Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) and his half-sister Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva).  The scene’s duration is long, explicit, and features a close-up of actual penetration.  Yet, within the context of the larger film, this scene of love-making serves two distinct purposes.  The first is to clearly allow the audience time to consider the event they are watching and its ramifications.  The second is a dramatization of a psychological anomaly in the film.  During this scene neither Pierre’s nor Isabelle’s face can be seen clearly, [similar to love scenes in John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) and A Woman Under The Influence (1974)].  It’s as though the physical union of these characters in this sexual act is an identity unto itself, with components of each.  Prior to this scene, and throughout the film, Pierre makes references to being an “impostor” and to finding his “true self”.  What’s intriguing is that these often rhetorical statements are motivated by his half-sister Isabelle.  So it seems Carax’s point to make visual Pierre’s statement that because of Isabelle he has “found his true self”, just as surely as Isabelle’s sense of “home” is derived from Pierre’s physical presence.

Another example of what might be construed as an influence from exploitation film could be the scene in which Marie (Catherine Deneuve) dies in a motorcycle crash.  The obvious artifice to the sequence, in which it is clear Deneuve is not actually driving the bike, recalls the low-budget effects of Borowczyk but with a self-consciousness towards genre one associates with Luc Moullet’s The Smugglers (1967).  The effect of this brief scene, however, is entirely expressionistic, making it akin to the Gothic imagery and language of Melville’s novel, though quite clearly rendered in a post-modern context (and not dissimilar in terms of lighting design to Carax’s Boy Meets Girl).  Again Melville is the catalyst for Carax’s stylistic choices, motivating the employment of cinematic tactics associated with exploitation films.

The single most stylized moment in Pola X has scantily anything to do with exploitation film genre mechanics or with the New French Extremity.  Not a conventional dream sequence but more of a fantasy interlude is a brief sequence in which Pierre and Isabelle appear naked in a river of blood rushing through a jagged stone ravine.  This nightmare speaks metaphorically to the strain of keeping the secret of familial relations experienced by Pierre and Isabelle.  There is no other sequence I can think of like this in Carax’s films.  Typically moments of fantasy employed to reflect the emotional states of a film’s characters are rooted in the reality of those characters.  So Pola X represents the inverse of Carax’s usual aesthetic as exemplified by the fireworks scene in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).

Pola X

What separates Carax’s use of exploitation film tactics from a filmmaker such as François Ozon or perhaps Pascal Laugier is that Carax uses these devices to articulate character and subtext within precise visuals and not merely to advance plot or shock the film’s audience.  What is shocking about Pola X is due to how visceral the fictitious world of the film becomes in the hands of its actors and the powerfully emotive soundtrack produced by Scott Walker.  Like Carax’s other films, Pola X fabricates a reality that is only the slightest apart from our own.

-Robert Curry

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Polanski, Shakespeare & The Art Of Adaptation

Anyone with the most rudimentary literary training should be struck by the perverse backwardness of the adaptation-as-betrayal approach:  The study of adaptation is clearly a form of source study and thus should trace the genesis (not the destruction) of works deemed worthy of close examination in and of themselves.”

-from the editors’ (Andrew S. Horton & Joan Magretta) introduction

to Modern European Filmmakers & The Art Of Adaptation (1981)

Macbeth (1971)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) is an anomaly of sorts, given how rare an adaptation of William Shakespeare has become in the early seventies.  Macbeth also has the benefit of being “authored” by an auteurist filmmaker at a time when Andrew Sarris’ criticisms were still highly popular and still had a foothold in the public consciousness.  This second anomaly contextualized Macbeth within Roman Polanski’s oeuvre, and not strictly within the confines of that of the bard.  The great adaptors of Shakespeare to film who had come before, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, were indeed auteurist filmmakers but at a time when that notion had yet to be invented or clearly defined, let alone popularized.  Thus, one tends to think critically of Macbeth as a film by Roman Polanski first and a play by Shakespeare second.

Yet this serves my purposes.  I am by no means qualified to discuss Shakespeare with any authority.  But a film of a novel or a play represents, as alluded to above, a unique work of art in and of itself whose source originates in literature.  What follows will be an examination of Polanski’s Macbeth strictly within the confines of the cinema in general, and specifically in comparison with other film adaptations of Shakespeare.

There is a clear aesthetic connection between Polanski’s film and Olivier’s version of Hamlet (1948) that is articulated rather well by Terrence Rafferty in the booklet to the Criterion Collection release of the film.  To paraphrase, Polanski and his co-scriptor Kenneth Tynan have relegated a number of Shakespeare’s monologues to interior dialogues, a strategy utilized by Olivier a number of years earlier.  This tactic helps diffuse the inherent artifice of the theatre in its translation to film.  Olivier presents the antithesis to such a choice in his “campy” adaptation of Richard III (1955) where artifice is celebrated.  The theatricality of Richard III provides a strategic degree of detachment between audience and spectacle that intrinsically opposes Polanski’s style and his penchant for Freudian colorings of his narratives.  Polanski’s Macbeth, differing even from Olivier’s not dissimilar Hamlet, shows a preference for naturalism consistent with Polanski’s earlier filmography where suspense is born out of, rather than made to service, the psychological deficiencies and abnormalities of his films’ characters.  The first strong example of a filmmaker utilizing Shakespeare as a means to probe deep psychological questions is surely Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (1945) and later King Lear in 1971.  However, given the state of the Cold War at the time Polanski made Macbeth, one cannot be certain of Kozintsev’s influence on Polanski’s film.

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

Due to Polanski’s adherence to Freudian psychology the visual structure of his film is obliged to lean away from the classicism of Olivier as well as the neo-Expressionism epitomized by Orson Welles’ own 1948 film adaptation of the Scottish Play.  Rather, it seems apparent that Polanski drew heavily upon Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967).  Marketa Lazarová, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is set in the middle ages and deals with both pagan and Christian iconographies.  Vláčil’s style is to isolate his characters, often employing a snowy landscape or a shallow focus with the character positioned before some portion of a castle, church, or some other similar structure.  For Vláčil this represents the comparative isolationism of the era physically, as well as the psychological disparities between the films various characters.  Polanski does this in Macbeth, as well as following the course of Marketa Lazarová’s adherence to historical realism.  However the visual motifs of Marketa Lazarová only make up a portion of Polanski’s visual structure in Macbeth.

The close-ups in Polanski’s film derive from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible Part I (1945).  The exaggerating effect upon the human face of the camera angles exemplified by Eisenstein’s film permit a degree of artifice for Polanski, allowing the performers to emote with a theatricality only suggested by the dramatic mise en scene of Marketa Lazarová.  The fluid melding, as opposed to the over-the-top juxtapositions of style in Olivier’s Richard III, of these two visual aesthetics signals a cinematic bearing akin to that of Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1965), though Welles is concerned with two different aesthetics, neo-realism and expressionism, as a means of equitable dialectical exchange.

The above mentioned approach to aesthetical improvisation in Macbeth escapes the potential for dismissive claims of imitation on the part of Polanski himself based upon the merits of the filmmakers own psychological imprint upon the film.  Recurring visual motifs of a fetus recall not only his previous film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate; an incident that continues to inform Polanski’s work.  Similarly, Macbeth‘s sequences of “dream imagery” or surrealism have their root in an even earlier film by Polanski, Repulsion (1965).  These trends in Polanski’s films clearly indicate a degree of personal filmmaking absent from the majority of filmic adaptations of Shakespeare’s works.

Polanski's Macbeth

If one returns to Horton and Magretta’s phrase “adaptation-as-betrayal” one may begin to understand why the personal imprint of filmmakers is lacking in adaptations of Shakespeare.  Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968) as well as Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) are two films who prioritize a faithfulness to the original text to such a point that there is little to recognize as personal in the films.  However, there have been films that move so far away from Shakespeare’s original text, particularly Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), that they become irreverent post-modernist exercises in self-indulgence that render any contemporary relevance null and void.  The key to the success of Polanski’s Macbeth, Welles’ Chimes At Midnight, Kozintsev’s King Lear, and Olivier’s Richard III is that the films balance their affiliation with Shakespeare equally with the auteurism of their respective authors.

-Robert Curry

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Listen To Me Marlon

Executed in 1966, Double Marlon is a celebration of a male icon.  Warhol has placed the double image of Marlon Brando, taken from his highly influential and controversial 1953 movie The Wild One, at the right-hand edge of a vast, deliberately unprimed canvas.” – William Paton, 2008

Andy Warhol's Double Marlon

Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon

Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon (2015) presents us with another doubled rendering of Marlon Brando.  Since Warhol originated his original silkscreen, Brando has lost none of his potency as a visual signifier.  Riley clearly understands this, as Warhol did, opting out of any contextualizing prologue in his film, favoring a direct descent into the “mind” of his subject, Marlon Brando.  The doubling in Listen To Me Marlon is not a visual one, but one of sound and image.  This coupling is one of the foundations of contemporary cinema, though it has been implemented in Riley’s film somewhat unconventionally.  That is to say that the images of Brando within the film, culled from motion pictures, news reels, and television broadcasts, rarely partner with the voiceover provided by the late Brando from his own audio journals.  Thus is the nature of the voiceover.  Where Ken Burns would rely upon Peter Coyote to dramatize the events recounted in a documentary, Riley has the luxury of the subject himself providing “his own” thoughts and recollections.

Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) implements the same technical and aesthetic techniques as Listen To Me Marlon.  Both films present unique portraits of their subjects in that these films are able to pass as authentic renderings of the subject within the confines of sound and image.  However, and this was more evident in Riley’s film than in Solt’s, the audio of the voiceover is actually a patchwork of dialogue edited together.  Obviously this is motivated by a need to make the subjects more succinct in their respective recollections and thoughts.  But another decisive proponent that often leads to such tinkering is the pressure upon the estates of both Lennon and Brando to preserve the brand they represent.  In Imagine: John Lennon May Pang is clearly edited into the relative footnotes of the film whilst Brando’s bisexuality and controversial relationship with fellow actor Montgomery Clift is overlooked entirely.  Both films reveal this white-washing in the filmmakers desperate need to make a film that appears all-inclusive of its subject.  May Pang is allowed a few fond recollections of her time with Lennon in 1974 while Riley uses a home-movie clip of Brando and Clift “goofing off” together in two brief instances early in Listen To Me Marlon.

The commerciality shared by Imagine and Listen To Me Marlon de-synchronizes the doubling of sound and image in a harmony that is authentic.  This is also expressed by Riley’s self-restriction when it comes to Brando’s career, bounding from the early sixties to Coppola’s The Godfather then to death.  Brando the brand that is seen on Turner Classic Movies’ websites and promotional materials, on t-shirts, handbags, buttons, and jackets, is almost always restricted to the Brando of the fifties.  This is another signal of Listen To Me Marlon‘s inauthenticity, as well as its power as a branding device.  Consider the effect this film will have as a form of advertisement for the products of the Brando brand?

What Listen To Me Marlon represents that is truly regrettable is that the film did not live up to its potential.  The vast scope of the material Brando had recorded onto cassette is astonishing.  If that had been coupled with exclusively the 16mm and Super 8 film of Brando’s own home movies then Listen To Me Marlon would have been unforgettable, if not unlike the films of Mark Rappaport.  If that had been the case, then the linear core structure of the film could have been replaced with a meditative, meandering one of self-reflection on the part of Brando, dictated by Brando himself by way of his tapes.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Listen To Me Marlon does redeem itself, and not just in its value as entertainment.  If one knew very little of Marlon Brando, one would have found Riley’s film informative and even engrossing.  Yet its true merits come from Brando’s insights into performance.  These insights, peppered throughout the film, are exactly the ideas young actors must be aware of, and these concepts are phrased in the manner that they should be.  The instructive possibilities of Riley’s film were something I had not anticipated.  The talents of the next generation would do well to have a look at Listen To Me Marlon.

-Robert Curry

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A Dog Unarmed

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954)

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954)

When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today.  The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American.  The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres.  It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West.  Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.

Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject.  Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century.  Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre.  Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond.  But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre.  Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, Preston Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length.  Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length.  As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne in The Big Trail

Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals.  And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films.  Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most.  This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release.  These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.

Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène.  Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith.  Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.

Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded.  The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar.  But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns.  In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters.  The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources.  The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.

What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted.  In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western.  Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992).  That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.

Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy & Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang

Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns.  Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude.  What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.

Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America.  Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious.  Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover.  This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927).  Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922).  The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop.  This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action.  That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects.  The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).

It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious.  It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time.  And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.

“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol

Lonesome Cowboys

Joe Dallesandro in Lonesome Cowboys

If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp.  And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.

Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood.  So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar.  Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover.  The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre.  Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona.  Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.

Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience.  Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice.  Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity.  However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement.  As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos.  Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.

In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet

A Girl Is A Gun

Rachel Kesterber in A Girl Is A Gun

 Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave.  Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States.  All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others.  Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.

A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid.  Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed.  The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns.  Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre.  Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.

That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure.  But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative.  A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western.  As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.

This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties.  This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western.  Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.

It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre.  Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget.  This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954).  Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.

Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre.  For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre.  A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder


Gunther Kauffman & Hana Schygulla in Whity

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions.  Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”.  For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race.  Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.

Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing.  Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction.  This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances.  When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism.  Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.

 At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974).  Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden.  Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.  The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich.  Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939).  The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.

The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western.  These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face.  But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period.  Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.

The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect.  In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre.  In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.

The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre.  In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions.  Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable.  As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman.  This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.

If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone

The Great Silence

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone.  One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre.  Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy.  Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet.  What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.

The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further.  Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further.  The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.

It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies.  Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film.  Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.

The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film.  It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic.  Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails.  Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski).  As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang.  This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life.  For him the righteous are not always victorious.

That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful.  The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary.  Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968.  In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play.  Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.

I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate.  Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before.  Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.

The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns.  Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular.  In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).

It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century.  This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11.  Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past?  That’s an essay for another time.

-Robert Curry

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The Intruder: An Appreciation

Charles Beaumont made a career of writing macabre stories whose slight removal from the reality we know and share gave them a urgenency and horror that would influence a generation.  In popular culture he is most renowned for his work writing for The Twilight Zone.  Though his career spanned just less than twenty years Beaumont’s work provides today’s audiences and readers with a unique glimpse at the psychology of America at the height of its social and political upheaval.  In adapting his novel The Intruder for the screen as a project for producer/director Roger Corman in 1962, Beaumont has given us what may be the best account of the racial violence in the deep south of the time.

The Intruder

The film follows Adam Cramer (William Shatner), who arrives in a small town called Caxton.  Cramer is charming, intelligent, and does not appear at all threatening at the outset of the film.  But when it becomes clear that he has come to Caxton with the intention of halting the court-ordered integration of the local high school, a darker, hateful side of his character comes to light.  The ominous quality of Taylor Byars’ photography of Shatner clearly signifies that the audiences’ sympathies should not be with the pro-segregation characters.  This is reinforced by Corman’s choice of casting locals, and presenting African-American characters first within the context of a functioning family unit (a rarity at the time).  Later this will serve to dramatize the ramifications of Cramer’s allegations of interracial rape; a sequence whose macabre design, complete with Klansmen, foreshadows Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death (1964).

In the tradition of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), The Intruder packages its edgey social commentary in the vernacular of the B-Movie.  But it is Corman’s film that truly confronts the controversial issue of its day head-on.  What the B-Movies of the early sixties didn’t have to worry about, at least not to as great an extent, was the press.  Films such as Martin Ritt’s Edge Of The City (1957) and Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) cost nearly three times as much as The Intruder and featured big-name stars like Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis (William Shatner would not be a household name for four more years when he is cast as Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek).  The mainstream could not afford to isolate its audiences with either the truth of racial violence or the bluntness of their liberal message.  What filmmakers like Ritt and Kramer could do was to suggest the injustice of laws such as segregation and allude to racial violence in their films.  The minute Corman shows us Cramer driving into the “black neighborhood” of Caxton with Klansmen in the back seat he has immediately surpassed these other films in terms of the directness of his political and social agenda.

William Shatner in Roger Corman's The Intruder

Though The Intruder can be seen today as a remarkable film for its time, when it was originally completed Corman had to struggle to find it distribution.  Even then audiences were not receptive to the films shocking portrayal of racism despite the fact that The Intruder was getting predominantly favorable reviews.  It’s been due to William Shatner’s and Roger Corman’s ever evolving cult statuses that The Intruder has remained in print and available for viewing in the years since.  Though it has been confusing at times since I have seen home video releases of the film under the three different names the film was originally marketed as, both nationally and internationally, including the comical title I Hate Your Guts!.  But that just goes to show that it is the film’s makers who are the selling point not the film.  Hopefully, that will change.

-Robert Curry

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Goodbye David Fincher

When you write about films you try very hard to give a film a chance based upon its own merits and not those of the filmmaker’s previous films or what you thought of those films.  Personally I can say that I have given David Fincher more than a fair chance.  Having viewed a number of his films, some even multiple times, I can safely say with certainly that after viewing his most recent film, Gone Girl (2014), I have officially given up on Mr. Fincher.

Gone Girl

David Fincher is one of those filmmakers whose style has become a commodity unto itself; often imitated, more often admired, and tremendously marketable.  Like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Ridley Scott before him, Fincher’s signature aesthetic has transcended style, evolving into a signifier of sorts in its own right.  His astute attention to detail and visual texture has been rightly praised, but his films in their entirety, with the sum of all of their parts and attributes accounted for, remain void of any unique or personal cinematic expression.

Gone Girl, much more than The Social Network (2010), conforms to a genre without offering any new revelations about the sociological issues it supposes.  Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) provides a clear-cut blueprint for the narrative arc of the film as well as the basic positions of power inhabited by the films characters.  Interestingly, the recasting of the female as the cold-blooded and violent possessor of men is a distinctly male reaction to feminism, inverting the sexual politics of films like Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964).  Neither rendering of the sexual politics at work in a heteronormative relationship escape the chauvinism of the films author.

Hitchcock is often compared to or cited as an influence on Fincher.  Clearly The Game (1997), Gone Girl, Panic Room (2002) and Seven (1995) speak to the extent to which Fincher follows in the steps of his legendary predecessor.  But Fincher’s cinematic heritage does not end with Hitchcock.  Stephen Frears is another obvious influence on Fincher, and, like Fincher, Frears’ projects are not his own, often based on books, and representative of a variety of narrative approaches.  But where Frears immerses himself in a number of different genres with an ironic sense of self-consciousness Fincher prefers to revisit the same genre over and over again, going so far as to project the tropes of that genre onto narratives where it seems oddly out-of-place (Social Network).

The other dividing factor between Frears and Fincher is Frears’ uncanny ability to select projects possessing an immediate potency, rendering them relevant in their moment as well as documents of a moment that once was, particularly with My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Grifters (1990), and Dirty Pretty Things (2002).  Fincher’s attempts to be relatable in this way never surpass a superficial level.  If one examines Fight Club (1999), which is perhaps his most popular film with audiences, one is struck that it’s two primary concerns are with violence for the sake of violence among the upper middle class and the duality of man’s personality.  Alan Clarke’s film The Firm (1989) presents the first of Fight Club‘s two concerns as its singular thesis.  With Clarke’s harrowing approach to realism, The Firm examines how a group of well-to-do men spend their time in violent confrontation with other teams of “soccer hooligans” as they’re dubbed.  Clarke’s approach negates the facelessness of the combatants in Fight Club, endowing his film with the kind of social critique that is as confrontational as it is inescapable in its realism.  As for Fight Club‘s duality, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968) represents an uncomfortably similar visual rendering.  But where Fight Club employs this duality to comment on the primal nature of civilized man, lurking just under the surface, Bertolucci sees his split personality protagonist as a metaphor for the political divisions in Italy’s youth movement of the late sixties.


Of all the films David Fincher has made, Zodiac (2007) remains the standout.  Visually speaking it is Fincher’s most mature effort, featuring some outstanding work by Harris Savides.  With regards to narrative, Zodiac is unique in that it defies, by virtue of its subject, the thriller genre.  There is no clear resolution of any kind to the film, proposing instead that violence and moral corruption are inescapable by-products of American society.

However, Zodiac is not a great film.  It meanders much in the same way that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) does, without a clear sense of purpose to many of the films characters.  All of Fincher’s films could fit that assessment.  As a director, Fincher has never truly gotten an outstanding performance from any of his casts.  That, combined with the arguments preceding, account for my decision to give up on one of the most popular filmmakers working in America today.

-Robert Curry

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The Birdman Of Alcatraz

Of the films John Frankenheimer directed Burt Lancaster in, Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) is perhaps the one that displays the full array of Burt Lancaster’s scope as an actor.  The only other film that comes close from their collaboration is The Gypsy Moths (1969), where Lancaster is cast against type and utilized much in the same way as Luchino Visconti employed the matinée idol in The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974).  But there are also a number of technical merits to The Birdman Of Alcatraz, Frankenheimer’s fourth feature, that have maintained the films reputation as a remarkable cinematic achievement in the twilight of the studio era.

rare behind-the-scenes photograph

rare behind-the-scenes photograph

Guy Trosper’s screenplay adaptation of the book by Thomas Gaddis lends itself well to Frankenheimer’s style.  Frankenheimer’s films are direct, methodically paced ruminations on human character, particularly instances when character is put to the test by outside political forces.  This social conscious in both Frankenheimer’s directorial approach and Trosper’s writing beg comparisons to the “social action” films of Sam Fuller.  Unlike Fuller, Frankenheimer’s direction avoids any direct confrontation with either genre or audience expectations.  Frankenheimer’s subversions in this realm are restricted to the casting of and direction of his actors’ performances.  Consider the tone and pace of Birdman Of Alcatraz compared to Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry (196).  Both films feature Burt Lancaster in what is ostensibly a character study on both accounts.  Elmer Gantry is a fast paced, raucous, and over the top film while Birdman Of Alcatraz veers in the direction of realism.

What’s also compelling about what Trosper brought to the project is Edmond O’Brien’s voice over as the author Gaddis himself.  This voice over accomplishes two things.  Firstly it signifies a reliable source of information about the Lancaster character Robert Stroud that, until the film’s conclusion, has no face to it on-screen.  This tactic represents the illusion of objectivity and thus a clearer relationship to our shared reality as opposed to a subjective interpretation where, as in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), the perspective is that of an on-screen character’s mind and thus a world apart from our shared reality as an audience.  Secondly, the voice over provides a degree of self-awareness by simply being a fantastic device, working along Brechtian parameters to keep the audience at arm’s length from a subject (the American penal system) that, more often than not, makes an audience uncomfortable.  The antithesis to this being well represented by Alan Clarke’s television version of Scum (1977), which accounts say was seen as so realistic that it was mistaken by viewers as being a documentary.

Visually, Birdman of Alcatraz maybe the best film about solitude within the penal system ever produced by a major studio.  In high contrast black and white photography, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Burnett Gufey, construct compositions where light is a microcosmic invading force, emoting the loss, desperation, and despair of the physical space referred to as “solitary confinement”.  The best example of this occurs when the food slot is opened in Lancaster’s cell door and the guard slides a plate of food through the slot.  A burst of light in the shape of an elongated rectangle cuts across the floor, barely illuminating Lancaster.  This stark approach, while not derivative of either German Expressionism nor Film Noir (primarily because this choice does not reflect the subjective reading of physical space by Stroud), recalls an earlier Lancaster film directed by Jules Dassin, Brute Force (1947).

The Birdman Of Alcatraz

As a whole, these various elements come together under Frankenheimer’s direction as a sort of Odyssey through the gradual psychological metamorphisis of Robert Stroud.  These elements are reigned in by Frankenheimer to contain and at times compliment Lancaster’s performance.  The effect is subtle in the immediate experience of viewing The Birdman Of Alcatraz, but quite dynamic in retrospect.  In just a little over two hours one sees Burt Lancaster’s Robert Stroud transform from a violent convict into a pacifist intellectual.  Though this crude summation may give the impression that Frankenheimer’s film advocates incarceration it must be firmly stated that it does not.  Repeatedly throughout the film one observes Stroud’s reformation and the various catalysts for this change.  And in every instance it is the penal system that impedes these changes.  If one were to compare the narrative trajectory of Robert Stroud in The Birdman Of Alcatraz to the career of its director John Frankenheimer, one might suppose that, for Frankenheimer, the penal system is a kind of metaphor for the major studios in which he worked.

-Robert Curry

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