Tag Archives: Abel Gance

A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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The Stillness Of The Moving Image

“I read, some days past, that the man who ordered the erection of the almost infinite wall of China was that first Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who also decreed that all books prior to him be burned.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, The Wall & The Books

La Jetée (1962)

One can find no better example of cinema’s most cherished illusion than in Chris Marker’s landmark work La Jetée (1962).  Marker’s filmography obsesses over humanity’s relationship with time and how that relationship can be articulated within film; La Jetée is no exception.  La Jetée is most commonly analyzed and interpreted within this auteurist context, as a piece of the larger puzzle that is comprised of Marker’s works, indicative of singular interests, concerns and general preoccupations that are often compared with the writings of Henri Bergson and Jorge Luis Borges.  However the technique that first rendered La Jetée as an avant-garde masterpiece has had ramifications that have only begun to be understood and appreciated.

The technique Marker employed in La Jetée that was so controversial was to strip down the illusion of motion in film to its absolute minimum, debunking an illusion that still is essential to the cinema even today.  Marker’s approach, derived equally from the works of Dziga Vertov and Edweard Muybridge, was to tell a non-linear narrative in still images that, when juxtaposed with the preceding and proceeding images, created a suggestion of motion.  Typically this is exactly what film is, 24 frames flying past in a second, each, individually, appearing to be still.  Yet, in a sequence (and to the human eye), appearing to be in motion.  By allowing the images in La Jetée to represent a disjointed sequence Marker was able to get down to the very mechanics of how the mind of the spectator interprets both a sequence and the individual images that make up a sequence’s composition.  In undoing this illusion, Marker has inadvertently opened the doors to a new kind of film scholarship.

One must first consider the history of film, the march of time, that has left so many films of the silent era either in serious stages of deterioration or alternatively in total decomposition.  Then one must consider the history of various assemblages of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The controversy of the Francis Ford Coppola re-release of Napoleon versus Kevin Brownlow’s in the late seventies and how the publicity of the Coppola/Brownlow conflict sparked a renewed interest in silent film.  Finally, one must consider the most radical effect that home video has had on spectatorship in terms of taking the responsibility of film programming out of the hands of distributors (for the most part) and putting it in the hands of the consumer public.

All three of the aforementioned factors have provided a motivation for silent film reconstruction.  Film historians, scholars and academics who once feared for the cinema’s silent heritage suddenly found that “big money” was interested in silent film restoration and reconstruction for monetary gain in both the theatrical and home video markets.

With regards to the nature of film reconstruction, La Jetée merely proved that the aesthetics necessitated by the process of reconstruction would be enough to create an approximation of a fully realized film from its few surviving parts.  For instance, around the time La Jetée was garnering praise, Pera Attasheva began collaborating with Sergei Yutkevich, Naum Kleiman and composer Sergei Prokofiev on a reconstruction of her late husband’s film Bezhin Meadow (1937).  The techniques that made La Jetée groundbreaking were now being used to bring Sergei Eisenstein’s most infamous work to audiences for the very first time.

Bezhin Meadow set a trend in terms of how reconstruction would be approached from a marketing standpoint.  Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) and Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) would also find new life in the form of reconstruction (in 1999 and in 2002 respectively).  Though the choice of films to undergo this treatment is predominantly dictated by the fact that audiences desire to see these films and will therefore pay money to do so.  In this way the trap of film production is sprung again during reconstruction.  

Bezhin Meadow (1937)

What’s more troubling than this trend is the rare occasion when a reconstruction is attempted without the proper scholarly research.  The reconstructions of Greed and London After Midnight were undertaken and overseen by a reputable film scholar, Rick Schmidlin, so despite their shortcomings they remain the closest approximations of either film possible right now.  On the other hand, Jess Franco’s reconstruction of Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote that was completed in 1992 is best known amongst scholars for having neglected much of Welles’ original intent.  Franco’s version of Orson Welles’ Don Quixote becomes doubly troubling since Franco not only knew and worked with Welles but because he also had access to so much of Welles’ materials in addition to hours upon hours of footage from Welles’ unfinished personal masterpiece.  Since Don Quixote, Greed, and London After Midnight are all marketed in the same manner, it becomes problematic for audiences to discriminate between the useful and the useless reconstructions.

At best a useful reconstruction such as Greed, London After Midnight and Bezhin Meadow gives the spectator a sense of the atmosphere of the narrative world as well as a sense of the filmmakers’ style and technique.  These approximations, no matter the effort nor the skill that is invested in them, can never convey the rhythm of montage, the nuance of performance, nor any subtleties that are typically afforded by either contribution.  These are half films, or ghost films in an almost literal sense.  The eerie quality of most reconstructed films is born out of the lack of their traditional filmic motion (a byproduct anticipated and used to great effect in Marker’s La Jetée).  One can, however, never detract from these reconstructions their usefulness from an anthropological standpoint nor from the perspective of auteurism.

-Robert Curry

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