Tag Archives: Alan Clarke

A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-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.

Zodiac

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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