Tag Archives: American Cinema

Jerry Lewis

I really like Jerry Lewis movies. My friend Thomas always made fun of me for it. He’d say I was the “only American who loved those films”. The first Jerry Lewis film I ever saw was The Disorderly Orderly (1964), one of Lewis’ films that Frank Tashlin directed, on Turner Classic Movies when I was in sixth grade. Not long after that my friend Dan and I saw Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy (1982). From there we began digging up radio and commercial outtakes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the internet and nurturing a slightly unhealthy fixation on Jerry Lewis’ unreleased film The Day The Clown Cried (1972). So my exposure to Jerry Lewis was both sudden and immersive. It wasn’t hard to find Jerry Lewis’ influence on films that I already liked. Paul Flaherty’s underrated Clifford (1994) is unimaginable without Jerry Lewis having come first.

Cinderfella

For me Jerry Lewis’ genius comes from his understanding of genre aesthetics and his ability to manipulate and subvert those aesthetics as well as from his many character iterations in his films which pinpoint the neuroses of masculine patriarchal culture (his persona always seemed born out of opposition to that of Dean Martin, a fact made even more clear in The Nutty Professor). Lewis’ criticism of our society is precisely what endeared him to filmmakers as renowned as Jean-Luc Godard (who would pay homage to Lewis in Tout va Bien and Keep Your Right Up). Lewis’ ability to satirize while always remaining silly, fun, childlike and escapist has never been equaled in this country since his heyday in the early sixties.

My two personal favorite Jerry Lewis films are Cinderfella and The Bellboy, both released in 1960. Tashlin and Lewis’ Cinderfella is as much a pastiche of MGM musicals of the fifties as it is an examination of male adolescence gone wildly out of control. The sense of design and of color in the film is breathtaking. Neither Tashlin nor Lewis ever made a film that looked more like a cartoon. In addition to being in black and white The Bellboy is far more minimal in its overall visual structure and framing than Cinderfella. Unlike Cinderfella, The Bellboy’s primary aesthetic interest is in silent film clowning. For a first time director such as Lewis The Bellboy is remarkably mature in how it handles the balance between “silent” and “sound” comedy.

It is more likely, however, that people my age know Jerry Lewis better for his Telethons or through some other form of media. I know the first time I was exposed to Jerry Lewis I didn’t even know it. It was on a John Lennon bootleg I had. There are a few tracks from Lennon’s appearance on a Jerry Lewis Telethon with Yoko Ono in 1972. Jerry Lewis was one of those truly versatile performers, he may even have been the very last of his kind. So it shouldn’t really be that surprising that different generations of audiences know him for different works in different mediums.

The King Of Comedy

Ninety-one is not young, and it is safe to say that Jerry Lewis accomplished much more than most people ever do in their lives. Still, it is saddening to know he is gone. There is no one I can think of working in the cinema today that could be considered a continuance of Lewis’ work.

-Robert Curry

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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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Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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Twenty Personal Favorites

“Memories of movies are strand over strand with memories of my life.  During the quarter of a century (roughly from 1935 to 1960) in which going to the movies was a normal part of my week, it would no more have occurred to me to write a study of movies than to write my autobiography”-from the preface of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections On The Ontology Of Film

I believe it’s true of anyone who feels passionately about the cinema that, as Cavell puts it, “memories of movies are strand over strand with memories” of one’s life.  Every time people even talk about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight I think of my first girlfriend and the man in the theater who overdosed and prompted the theater manager to empty the theater we were in.  Similarly, Ringo Lam’s City On Fire always makes me think of my walk to work at The Video Store when I was a Junior in High School (Sunday mornings my brother and I always watched a Hong Kong action film before I went to work).  I have found that the films that I have the strongest memory attachments or the most memories with tend to be my favorites; I suppose that is true of most people.

Yet conditions of viewership have changed drastically since Stanley Cavell first wrote those words in 1971.  The cinema is more a part of our homes than our nightlife, more of a private affair than a communal reverie.  Home Video formats of any type (even streaming) take the cinema from the cinemas and bring it home to us.  In addition the vast repertoire of titles available for the home far out number the annual re-releases.  

The audience owns the cinema now more than ever.  And as you read on it will become apparent that these are the recollections of a singular cinema.  It’s a series of highlights from the Robert Curry program of films that have played the Robert Curry theater at the Robert Curry film festival for only Robert Curry.  It may be disconcerting, but it is true.  The cinema has vastly diverged from the stage.  It is a private affair.  You are alone and the film you are watching is the only other sign of life in the room.  One might say that it is intimacy at its most convenient.

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Bathing Beauty (1944)

Dir. George Sidney, cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone

I have no clue when I first saw Bathing Beauty.  It had to have been after Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon but around the same time as Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate.  Though I probably enjoyed The Crimson Pirate more as a kid, Bathing Beauty has managed to endure more potently in my mind.  I directly credit this film and a slew of other Esther Williams’ films for instilling in me a love for swimming as well as photographing swimming (something I only got to do once in Boy+Girl, Girl+Boy).

Bathing Beauty is concerned, as so many old Hollywood comedy-musicals are, with the battle of the sexes.  Yet Red Skelton isn’t exactly the manifestation of macho idealism.  And Esther Williams comes across as tough, assertive, intellectual.  Psychologically it is a role reversal, with a focus on the physical of the sexes in Skelton’s comedy sketches.  This odd pastiche is probably why the film, intentionally or not, remains fresh even today for me.

But back when I was four years old and first becoming acquainted with Red and Esther what really got me was the music.  The songs still play my emotions today as effectively as they did then, to give you an idea of how much this film has endeared itself to me.  The Harry James numbers are especially enthralling, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful, but always shot with that trademark MGM dreaminess.

In 2012 when I was shooting a musical with Caroline Boyd (titled Michael’s Match; never released), I revisited Bathing Beauty for the first time in years.  It gave me two essential ideas which I used on my film.  The first I mentioned above, the psychological role reversal.  The second was to capture the numbers in as few shots as possible.  George Sidney does this better than any of the other MGM directors whose work I have seen (which is a lot, trust me).  His shot progression of Anne Miller’s first big number in Kiss Me Kate is a virtuoso exercise in cinematographic minimalism that is remarkably effective.

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The Strange Woman (1946)

Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward

I didn’t really immerse myself in the work of Edgar G. Ulmer till late in 2012 after reading Todd McCarthy’s indispensable The Kings Of The Bs.  This was the fourth film by Ulmer I saw, and I immediately fell in love with it.  Admittedly Bluebeard is more visually arresting, but Heddy Lamarr’s performance in The Strange Woman is simply staggering.  She is the epitome of sex-soaked camp enticing men to their doom.  George Sanders, cast against type, brings a sophistication unique unto himself to a role better suited to Edward Arnold.

Typically of Ulmer, he’s utilized his budget constraints on The Strange Woman to formulate a pseudo-expressionistic American frontier, parts Fritz Lang and parts Merian C. Cooper.  Yet, from a director’s perspective, the most inventive quality to The Strange Woman’s direction is how intimate the film feels without ever becoming claustrophobic.  More than any other Ulmer film The Strange Woman is overflowing with close-ups.  One scene in particular, when Sanders finally calls out Lamarr for what she is, features a close-up on Lamarr that is sustained just a beat too long which is devastatingly effective.  This moment in The Strange Woman inspired how I cut together the sequence where Jessica Mockrish murders Robin Friend-Stift in An Atrocious Woman.

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Bill & Coo (1948)

Dir. Dean Riesner, cast: George Burton’s Birds

“What the fuck is this!?!” was Thomas Lampion’s first response to when I showed him Bill & Coo back in 2010 as Julie Lovely was born.  It seems to be the reaction most people have to this film.  On an intellectual level, I agree, “what is this?  It won an honorary Oscar?”  Still, it’s closer to my heart than I should probably admit.  

I don’t know when I saw it first, but I had to have been very young.  In 2004 I remember going to Movies Unlimited in the Great North East when they were selling off all of their VHS.  That’s when I saw a copy of Bill & Coo.  Looking at it’s cover (I still own this copy) I remembered it somehow.  Needless to say I bought it, along with To Sleep With Anger, The Cars That Ate Paris and Blank Generation (I got some looks at the register).  Once I was home I watched it.  It was like a flood gate had burst.  I had seen this weird bird movie before.  I was transported to a safe and loving place of innocence.  That hasn’t changed no matter how many viewings later.  But I still have no clue as to why?  Maybe I am one of those damn birds reincarnated?

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Vengeance Valley (1951)

Dir. Richard Thorpe, cast: Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru

“The Skipper” was how I knew Burt Lancaster as a kid.  His real name was unmanageable to a three year old.  He was just “The Skipper” because that’s what his crew of pirates with hearts of gold called him in The Crimson Pirate.  I watched so much Burt Lancaster when I was three or four (who’s kidding, I still watch about two Burt Lancaster films a month even now).  

Still, when I put this challenge before the regular contributors to this blog and we all started working on our lists I surprised myself.  The Crimson Pirate, as beloved as it is, did not stay in my head the way Lancaster’s quickie B-Western Vengeance Valley did.  Being famous in my family for my love of “The Skipper” while also being somewhat surprised by this revelation I started second guessing myself.  I can vividly remember the Saturday afternoon I first watched the chase scene where Lancaster pursues Robert Walker, but that isn’t the image that remains vital in my mind.

There’s a scene right after Joanne Dru gives birth to Robert Walker’s illegitimate child.  Lancaster arrives, before his brother Robert Walker, to see the newborn child.  Lancaster looks rugged, dressed for the cold, unshaven, his large frame towering over Joanne Dru.  There’s hardly any dialogue.  Lancaster removes his gloves and takes his nephew in his arms.  The stoic features of Lancaster’s face give way to a vulnerability that is utterly disarming.  Dru looks at him, a face full of hurt, ambiguous.  Then Walker appears in soft focus behind Lancaster and Dru, who are now so close that if not for the baby it would be a love scene.  Walker’s appearance throws off the composition, casting a threatening presence into the tender moment.  That is what has stuck with me.

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Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Dir. Douglas Sirk, cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead

I don’t believe this is Douglas Sirk’s best film.  Still, it’s my favorite.  It probably has something to do with my background in Catholicism (CCD every Tuesday night).  Films that address an affirmation of faith or a crisis of faith tend to affect me in unusual ways.  Magnificent Obsession is never explicit in what matter of faith Rock Hudson finds after killing Jane Wyman’s husband and blinding her, but from the music cues and Sirk’s camera placement which clearly recall DeMille’s Biblical epics it has to be some form of Christianity.  And with Douglas Sirk being Douglas Sirk he subtly scrutinizes and evaluates man’s relation to faith.  When I first saw this film I interpreted its message being something along the lines of “faith in a higher power is stronger than faith in a master”.  Though that sophomoric interpretation at that time is probably some sort of subconscious projection.  Honestly I always thought that Magnificent Obsession would make a good double feature with Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?

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Princess Yang Kwei Fei (1955)

Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, cast: Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Sô Yamamura

I was in ninth grade when I first saw this film.  It was late Spring, the second week in a row that my father, brother, and I all drove down to Movies Unlimited together.  The fruits of the previous trip yielded Bill & Coo and an assortment of other cult classics, but this trip was all about Japan.  This is when I first became familiar with New Yorker Video with whom I would have dealings with some nine years later working for my friend Amber at CIP.  New Yorker Video put out this series, Japanese Masters, that collected major works by Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ichikawa all in beautifully letterboxed editions.  These were gorgeous VHS, I couldn’t believe I was getting so many amazing films so cheaply.  I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s van (a huge van that my brother and I often compared to the shuttles in Star Trek: The Next Generation) gazing over the titles I had purchased; Equinox Flower, Cruel Story Of Youth, Enjo, and of course Princess Yang Kwei Fei.

Strangely, I only watched Princess Yang Kwei Fei once early on a Sunday morning.  I never watched that VHS again.  But those images, those dreamlike pastel colored images remained etched into my mind’s eye for years.  There really was no reason to rewatch it when I was reliving it again at the most spontaneous of times daily.  So I gave it to my friend Josh.  

Yet, once I was working for Amber, I began to desire to see Princess Yang Kwei Fei again.  I thought it would be a great if somewhat unexpected representation of Mizoguchi for a program I was developing.  Nothing ever came of that.  Then three years later my collaborator Thomas got me really into Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor and the flames of desire were fanned again.  The spectre of what Princess Yang Kwei Fei had become obsessed me.  I had to see it again.

Finally, I ordered the Masters Of Cinema release a month or more back.  It was spectacular.  Mizoguchi weaves such a delicate fantasy out of such concise compositions and designs that the film transcends folklore and opera, achieving a symbiotic fusion of the two as flawless as a Mazarin stone.  Anyone invested in the lyricism of artifice, Kenneth Anger fans, fans of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T., and appreciators of technicolor will find this film indispensable.

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Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955)

Dir. Norman Foster, cast: Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conried

I have few vivid memories of my grandfather.  One of them is of going to a small carnival in the woods out near his home in Mt. Carmel.  I rode a wooden roller coaster with my dad that day which scarred me for life.  But I also got my first and only coonskin cap.

I had just discovered Davy Crockett, I watched this film so many times back then.  I read everything that was at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School library on the man and even gave a presentation in second grade as Davy Crockett relating the life of Davy Crockett.  Davy Crockett meant so much to me.  I wanted to be like him.  I wanted to end conflicts with good ole common sense, grin down bears, and give my life for something I believed in (not America, more like an endangered species such as Bison or for Captain Kirk)!  Not much has changed.

It’s so rare to find a film for children that actually follows a child’s logic in terms of narrative structure.  And when Davy Crockett can’t do that during the original episode breaks, there is an informative and catchy song ripe with puns.  It is easy to resent or harbor hostility for the Disney Corporation with all of the shady things they do.  Still, now and then, something a little more artful, meaningful can occur.

The day Fess Parker died when I was entering my Junior year of college was extraordinarily tough.  He had never been the “cinematic best friend” that Burt Lancaster was, but I still felt somehow close to him.  So my dear friend Lauren and I shared a bottle of Fess Parker wine and watched Davy Crockett.  I memorialized Fess Parker and Davy Crockett further a few months later when I made a video on the shift of American morality post-WWII and took all of my images from Davy Crockett (the audio came from all over the place).  My teacher, Pete Rose, said my piece, titled Davy Crockett & The Fall Of The American Dream, was “obsessive”.  

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The Red Balloon (1956)

Dir. Albert Lamorisse, cast: Pascal Lamorisse

When you are a little boy like I was when I saw The Red Balloon for the first time it has an indescribable effect on you.  Sure a film like Davy Crockett can instill a child with some moral values just as The Crimson Pirate can ignite one’s sense of adventure, but The Red Balloon poses a question that only a child might ask.  “What makes make-believe make-believe?”

Lamorisse is not interested in an answer.  The Red Balloon simply asks its audience to accept, to feel without thinking.  It isn’t one of those obnoxious children’s films that pretends to do that with talking animals or a superficial visual perfection.  The streets in The Red Balloon are real streets.  The faces of the people on those streets are just like anywhere in the world.  The only fantastic element to the film is the balloon.  It is in this contrast that the film finds its success.

It’s difficult for me to discuss the aesthetic virtues of The Red Balloon.  It’s a film that is just too close to me.  When I turned twenty-five a few years ago and my mother gave me the Janus Films restoration of The Red Balloon on DVD I’m sure she didn’t think I was grateful.  I just don’t have the words to really talk about this film.  Of all of the films on this list, this one has been the most important to me.  

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Marnie (1964)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel

Personally I find that this film conveys Hitchcock the person more clearly than any of the master’s films.  His chauvinism has been well documented by his countless biographers just as critics have so often cited his voyeurism and his fetishization of blonde haired women.  All those things are found in ample abundance in Marnie.  Though in the instance of Marnie these components become  a frenzied whirlwind of a nightmare equal parts Freudian and, in terms of design, heavily indebted to the films of Fritz Lang, a one-time mentor to Hitchcock early in the latter’s career.

Marnie is as disturbing as it is irresistible, the current of sadism wraps the viewer up in a setting as familiar as it is subversive.  The Birds prepared audiences for the spectacle of Tippi Hedren in jeopardy and pain, Dr. No established Sean Connery as a womanizing masculine ideal of heterosexual impulses bordering on the violent, but Marnie delivers both in extremes.  Gradually, over the course of the film, both attributes of these celebrity signifiers are amplified, culminating in the most degrading exploitation of someone with PTSD that I have ever seen in film.

Oddly, it is the familiarity of these celebrity players and what they signify within a narrative context that enables the viewer to invest in the film.  For a filmmaker that is no easy accomplishment and testifies to Hitchcock’s powers as a director.  Add to that the sensual set design, the sharp tweed suits, the lure of the American upper class, and the sexuality of Tippi Hedren and the film becomes almost as enjoyable as North By Northwest.  

When I first became acquainted with Marnie I had been reading Norman Mailer’s essays collected in Existential Errands.  Mailer, for a large part of this anthology, sought to tangle with the relationship between the binary sexes in the context of feminism and the sexual revolution during the sixties.  The rape that opens Mailer’s An American Dream serves as a precursor to his perspective of “conservative” masculinity as outlined in Existential Errands.  Needless to say, this brand of “manliness” shared by the protagonist of An American Dream and the authorship of Alfred Hitchcock provide a reflection of masculine identity at a major shift in sexual politics within American society.

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Flesh (1968)

dir. Paul Morrissey, cast: Joe Dallesandro, Geraldine Smith, Patti D’Arbanville

Kenny used to manage TLA video back before it shut its doors forever in 2010.  In 2006 he held onto copies of Flesh, Trash and Heat for me, for about two weeks, till I could purchase them.  The Image DVD release of Paul Morrissey’s films was such a big deal for me.  I had wanted to see these films ever since I had gotten Andy Warhol’s Bad a couple of years before.   I love all of Paul Morrissey’s oddball films, but Flesh in particular.  At one point I was so enamored of Joe Dallesandro in this film that I painted three portraits of him, one in color, two in black and white.

Flesh, much like Trash, isn’t a film where narrative is particularly important.  The films Morrissey made before relocating to Europe in the mid-seventies are characterized by their emphasis on interactions in the form of brief encounters.  As Joe hustles his way from client to client in episodic form each interaction becomes a piece in a larger tableaux.  The overall achievement of the film is that, in this loose form, it still manages to say so much about how people not only relate to one another but also accomplishes a comic critique of American life in 1968.

When I had the chance to speak with Paul Morrissey at length about his career in 2012 I was surprised that he didn’t seem to realize the extent to which his films still matter to so many young people today.  The free spirit and subversive sexuality of Women In Revolt and Flesh in particular represent some of the few truly articulate commentaries on non-binary sexual relations and kink lifestyles.  Though, I suppose, it would be nice if these films were indeed more popular than they already are.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)

Dir. Werner Herzog, cast: Helmut Döring, Gisela Hertwig, Gerhard Maerz

This is another of those films I purchased on a trip to Movies Unlimited.  It swept through my consciousness again and again all through the summer of 2003 after I first saw it.  I credit it with sparking some of the more cruel images that appear in my first films shot on VHS.  There are few films as cruel as Even Dwarfs Started Small.  The excess of its cruelty, its absurdity, its sheer volume often give way to comedy, which is perhaps why this is still one of the least popular of Werner Herzog’s films.

I have heard Even Dwarfs Started Small compared to Jodorowsky’s El Topo, though I find all they really have in common is their multitude of dwarfs.  Herzog’s film, as with much of New German Cinema, is a distinctly German in its execution of allegory.  The notion of having a dozen psychotic dwarfs stand-in for the whole of society in an anti-fascist tale is very much in line with a German’s sense of humor.  To go further, the degree of artifice it conveyed by performance and framing in Herzog’s film recalled Brecht.  

Now imagine the effect all of this must have had on me as a teenager.  It was completely inspiring.  I clearly remember showing some of Even Dwarfs Started Small to my friend Dan and can recall how it inspired him as well.  Then, some years later, I can remember my one girlfriend’s reaction to the film, “How can you like this?”.  She was mortified by the chickens fighting and the blind dwarfs flailing their sticks.  I was watching it for a paper I was writing for class while she was working on her own paper concerning Madame Bovary.  A couple of strange kids I suppose.

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Husbands (1970)

Dir. John Cassavetes, cast: Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes

For a long time this film was nearly impossible to see.  John Cassavetes is my favorite filmmaker and for a long while this title eluded me.  My friend Dan had a bootleg of which I was insanely envious, largely due to the fact that it came with the BBC documentary on the production of the film.  Then in my sophomore year of college I was able to persuade my friend Jennifer to rent a VHS of Husbands from TLA video.  I quickly made a DVD copy of that VHS.

Immediately it surpassed all of Cassavetes’ other films I had seen to that point (which was all of them except Love Streams, which Jennifer kindly rented for me the following week).  It’s not as emotional as A Woman Under The Influence or as poignant and timeless as Love Streams, yet Husbands spoke to me in a very specific and personal way.

Unlike Cassavetes’ other films Husbands is focused on friendship, the very nature of that relationship, as opposed to romantic, sexual, or career oriented relationships.  To put an even finer point on it, Husbands is about the friendship between men, linking it thematicly with Elaine May’s masterpiece Mikey & Nicky (in which John Cassavetes and Peter Falk also star).  The theme of friendship amongst men is so very often relegated to the War and Western genre films that seeing a straight contemporary narrative with such a focus executed in Cassavetes’ brutally honest realist style is a revelation.  So many filmmakers would have opted to make every character redemptive within the narrative, but not Cassavetes.  Like all of his works Husbands is about truth.

To attempt a comparison, the literary equivalent of a John Cassavetes’ film, Husbands in particular, I believe would be the works of Richard Hugo.  Hugo and Cassavetes both seek to reveal the truth of their own inner emotional lives tirelessly.  The truths they find often being so undesirable that their work, be it a poem in Hugo’s case or a film in Cassavetes’, is often interpreted as controversial at best and chauvinistic at worst.  Hence the debate that Kathleen Hanna articulated so well in her Le Tigre song What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes; “genius or chauvinist”?

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The American Dreamer (1971)

dir. Lawrence Schiller & L.M. Kit Carson, cast: Dennis Hopper, Lois Ursone,

My copy of this film was procured from a gentleman out in Colorado in 2008 by mailing him a check for thirty dollars with a slip of paper attached with the titles I desired written inside.  I requested The American Dreamer, My Hustler, and The Connection.  All three arrived roughly a month later in the mail; three DVDs of 16mm prints.  It was an unorthodox transaction, but at the time none of these films could be found in any other way and certainly not in their entirety.  My friend Dan had turned me on to this reclusive cinephile gentleman when he began tracking down and collecting obscure films as well.  

At the time I was just becoming aware of L.M. Kit Carson’s work, which is as eclectic as it is fascinating; I have nothing but admiration where Kit is concerned.  But in that moment it was Lawrence Schiller who fascinated me more.  I knew of Schiller from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  Schiller researched that book and packaged the project for Mailer, as he did with Mailer’s Marilyn (Schiller also directed the film of The Executioner’s Song as scripted by Norman Mailer).  What was really chilling was that the project that was eventually published as Marilyn got its start because Schiller was the last photographer to do a photo session with Monroe before she died (all of this celebrity fetishization and morbidity definitely informs The American Dreamer).

The American Dreamer is part documentary and part performance piece, but it is wholly hypnotic.  The film focuses on Hopper at his home in Taos New Mexico where he is completing post-production on his film The Last Movie in 1971.  And Dennis Hopper has never played Dennis Hopper better than this.  Anyone fascinated with 1970s culture is sure to revel in this crackpot film which has more to say about the “New Hollywood” than Hopper’s own masterpiece The Last Movie (a film which almost made this list).  Hearing Hopper espouse on subjects such as why he is really a lesbian, Orson Welles, and burning all of his possessions is the closest most people should get to the kind of serious drug abuse Hopper was indulging in at the time.

In 2011 when Thomas was staying with me, sometime between watching Bill & Coo and The Jolson Story, we watched The American Dreamer.  We quickly became obsessed with the Hello People song Pass Me By used in the film.  In fact, I believe we were singing it in a pool one night and, if memory serves, Lertch might also have been there.

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Agoniya (1975)

dir. Elem Klimov, cast: Aleksey Petrenko, Anatoliy Romashin, Velta Line

There is a surprising lack of literature in English on Elem Klimov.  His films are neither the fantasies of Tarkovsky nor the character portraits of his wife Larisa Shepitko’s films, but meet somewhere elusive in the middle.  Much of Bela Tarr’s latter works remind me of Klimov’s Come & See in their expert blocking and fluid long takes.  Come & See is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I have ever seen, but not my favorite.  Agoniya, the first of Klimov’s films I ever saw, tells the story of Rasputin and his power over the last Tsar of Russia; this is my favorite.

A series of experiences as a child sparked a fascination with Russian history which was only encouraged further by my mother.  In fact Agoniya was a Christmas present from her and my father.  Unlike many other Russian films I have seen on the history of their national identity, Agoniya beautifully slips from “fantastique” expressionism to an almost Peter Watkins-esque factual account.  The overall experience is thusly as informative as it is overwhelming to the senses.

I would now like to clarify that it was not Don Bluth’s Anastasia that introduced me to Rasputin, nor was it Hammer Horror with their free Rasputin Beards!  In fact it was Richard Boleslavsky’s Rasputin & The Empress, released in 1932 and starring John, Ethel, and of course Lionel Barrymore at his best (post Tod Browning’s West Of Zanzibar) as Rasputin.  I rented this film from the library as a little kid, probably when I had run out of new Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes mysteries to watch.  Anyway, it was my love of Russian history and of Rasputin that probably prompted my parents to turn me onto Klimov’s beautiful film, and I’m glad they did.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made dramatic films that convey more emotional desperation and philosophical nihilism than any other filmmaker and this is his Magnum Opus.  My relationship with this film is one of obsession.  Despite its running time of over twelve hours I must have seen it at least six or seven times.  Recently I showed three excerpts to my students who were stupefied by this film’s brilliance.  I think Jonathan Rosenbaum has summed up Fassbinder’s legacy best when he said that Fassbinder’s films had become “ever fresher” with the passing of time.  The reaction of my students clearly supports this thesis.

I could easily write about Berlin Alexanderplatz again here.  Yet, having already written about this film roughly three times for this blog, I think that I will just simply recommend that if you want to know more, please just search this site for either the film’s title or its director.  Thanks.

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Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

dir. Nagisa Oshima, cast: David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tom Conti

Guilt and regret are two emotions that I have personally always found overwhelming, primarily because they are responsible for so much of my character.  It is those two emotions that are at the heart of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence uses these two emotional experiences to explore the nature of war; the way war distorts and perverts the mind and the soul, how violent conditions can propel, strengthen and shatter human beings.  Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is by no means a violent film.  It often comes off as placid till an eruption occurs.

Nagisa Oshima is, in my mind, one of the most important filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, at least equal to Godard.  And given the stylization of so many of his films it is always surprising to me how fragile Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels.  Oshima’s delicately lit close-ups, his slow panoramas through the prison compound, the gentility of movement in his tracking shots all work in coordination to convey an existence that is hardly truly there, always on the brink of collapsing.  

As if to accentuate Oshima’s visual dialect in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, David Bowie was cast as Major Jack Celliers, the primary point of contention between the British POWs and their Japanese captors.  As with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie utilizes his inherent alien qualities to create a distance between himself and his fellow characters in the film.  Though in this instance that “outsider” quality is not indicative of a literal other-worldliness, but rather of a character so bereaved with guilt that he simply cannot emote as other people do.

The greatest strength of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it never addresses these concepts head-on.  The film is ambiguous.  It conveys all of these emotions with the faintest clues as to their cause and effect.  So one can imagine what an intense experience this was for me in 7th grade.  I had never been moved by a film in such a way before.  I believe it is also responsible for solidifying my love of David Bowie.

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Rendez-vous (1985)

dir. André Téchiné, cast: Juliette Binoche, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Wadeck Stanczak

I bought this film on DVD six years ago when I was at the Princeton Record exchange with my friend Josh.  There were three reasons for my purchase.  The first is that Josh and I both love the Princeton Record Exchange.  But being that we only get out there every couple of months and they are an independent business one is likely to feel terribly guilty if one does not buy something.  The second reason is that I had always wanted to see an André Téchiné film.  I had read about him and read about him in numerous books at the UArts library but had not seen one of his films (I’ve seen ten of them now and they are all excellent).  The final motivating factor was that Rendez-vous stars Juliette Binoche.  Binoche’s performances are always revealing and captivating, I will at least see any of the films she is in once because it is absolutely worth it.

Rendez-vous is relatively early in both Juliette Binoche and Téchiné’s careers.  Binoche had yet to develop the kind of kinetic energy she would while working with Leos Carax (another favorite filmmaker of mine) while Téchiné is in transition between the more formal approaches exhibited in his films The Bronte Sisters and Hotel America and the visual stylization and cinematic improvisation of I Don’t Kiss.  I could go on and on about the aesthetics of Rendez-vous but I won’t since I have written about this film three times already for this very blog!  What I am willing to elaborate on is how Rendez-vous taught me a very valuable lesson.  

Unlike most reflexive narrative films (Jean-Luc Godard is a good example of such a filmmaker), Rendez-vous is less concerned with its commentaries on the cinema and more concerned with the lives and world of its characters.  This gives the film a density, a sophistication.  The revelations concerning the very notions of cinematic performance within the film are tucked beneath the surface of the drama.  This opens Rendez-vous up for multiple viewings very easily.  For the combinations of dramatically diegetic and the abstract reflexive components of the film are layered so densely that the dialogue they create feels different during any and every viewing.

I attempted this a little bit myself on Bitches, then I made this aesthetic the stylistic crux of A Debauched Little Rogue without too much success.  I eventually accomplished maybe 15% of what Téchiné had done aesthetically in Rendez-vous on The Blasphemy Of Owen Barnes, but I am still going to try again some day.  As a filmmaker there is nothing more delightful than a film that pushes and shoves your own aesthetic possibilities and understandings, even if it does become endlessly frustrating.

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Mélo (1986)

dir. Alain Resnais, cast: Fanny Ardant, André Dussollier, Sabine Azéma, Pierre Arditi

In many ways Mélo feels like Resnais’ homage to Josef von Sternberg.  Josef von Sternberg’s films are noted for their theatricality, expressionist lighting, romantic melodrama and, above all, their sensuality.  Nicolas Roeg is the only filmmaker I can think of who rivals von Sternberg’s cinema for sensuality.  When one thinks of Resnais’ films, one does not usually associate them with any of these elements.  Mélo, however, is ripe with tragedy, romance, theatricality, and sensuality.  In many respects Mélo may be Resnais’ best film because, not only is it a master class in cinematic technique, it is brimming over with authentic human emotion.

Mélo exists in another world, a Paris exclusive to the cinema, found in the works of Minnelli, Carné, and Demy.  This is a world of Romanticism.   Mélo functions as a fairytale for adults, extending Life Is A Bed Of Roses that much further conceptually.  It warns of love pursued at all costs, of love given beyond selflessness, and it does so in a space of fantasy so closely tied with a sense of secure escapism in its audience’s mind that as Mélo descends its characters further and further to their fates the emotional impact is quadrupled.  

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The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

dir. Hal Hartley, cast: Adrienne Shelly, Robert John Burke, Chris Cooke

When Hal Hartley first emerged on the American Independent Film scene with The Unbelievable Truth it was like nothing else.  The fusion of the literate with the plastic, his long takes, the off-beat blocking, and his own signature style soundtracks stood out from the pack, announcing a new and wholly unique voice in American cinema.

When I discuss low-budget and independent filmmaking with my students I assign them an interview with Hartley that was originally published in Sight & Sound to read; they all end up loving him if not his films.  When we work with blocking I often screen a scene from The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Surviving Desire, one scene apiece.  Again, most of the students fall in love with his style.  Which is no surprise since his influence can be felt in both Noah Baumbach’s and Wes Anderson’s films.

I saw No Such Thing before I saw The Unbelievable Truth.  Dan lent me his copy of The Unbelievable Truth in the summer of 2011 so I came into Hartley’s early films rather late.  The impact of this film on my own work is rather considerable and certainly more obvious on the shorts I made back in the summer of 2011.  I would recommend that anyone interested in making a film on their own should invest some time in studying Hartley’s works.

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Beyond The Clouds (1995)

dir. Michelangelo Antonioni & Wim Wenders, cast: Chiara Caselli, Irène Jacob, Vincent Perez

In my adolescence I had acne, I was at least 8” taller than any other kid my age and I had the face of someone four years older than I actually was.  I was an outcast, just like everyone else.  That’s how I felt when I saw Beyond The Clouds.  I had seen The American Friend so I knew who Wim Wenders was but I had not seen any of Antonioni’s films.

What struck me was how Beyond The Clouds so delicately recreated so many emotions, both familiar and unfamiliar.  So seamlessly do these narratives intwine and accent one another that one might miss the dialogue occurring between each separate vignette.  This was Antonioni’s last film and I think he finally said everything he ever wanted to say about how our contemporary existential quandary subverts human romantic impulses.  He takes an existentialist’s view on questions like “is there just one special person for all of us?”, “is love eternal?”, “would things be different if I had told her how I felt?”; that answer is always “no”.  And yet, despite these cold realizations each character still remains somewhat hopeful.  The hope that the Romantic could be the truth is what sustains, that is what Beyond The Clouds is about.

When I was fourteen or fifteen that meant something to me, it sustained me I suppose, in a way.  Today it represents a bittersweet truth.  Having been in some relationships, having experienced the euphorias and the suffering life has to give that are just incomprehensible when you are twelve, I have to admit my perspective on Antonioni’s last film has changed.  You realize that the only way one can remain hopeful in the face of the existential machinations of our society and our relationships is to learn to live with regret.  Regret is what unites all of the narratives, all of the characters in Beyond The Clouds.

Afterward

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When I first thought of having the Zimbo Films’ staff write about their “twenty favorite films” I was thinking that it would help demonstrate our collective aesthetic interests and sensibilities in preparation for fundraising for Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  The experience of actually writing this piece and reading Thomas’ contribution for the first time a month ago was one of both catharsis and renewal.  Renewal in the sense of rekindling a thought process surrounding the cinema that is more subjective than say the academic realm in which I often find myself and ground my own works as a filmmaker.  Though I honestly doubt that the casual reader will take away the same emotional responses as the authors of these posts will, I do hope that they, the readers, do find a renewed interest in avenues of cinematic expression that they may have though they out grew.

Lastly I would like to pay my respects to the films and filmmakers that did not make my final list.  The journey to the list you have just read was a long one; sometimes it was excruciating.  Different iterations of this list were born out of two motivating factors, mood and ego.  Regardless as to why the following films did not make the list in the end I believe that their inclusion here will serve as an appendix that will illuminate and accent the twenty films listed above.  Without further delay those films are Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009), Histoire de Marie et Julien (dir. Jacques Rivette, 2003), Pola X (dir. Leos Carax, 1999), Naked (dir. Mike Leigh, 1993), The Last Bolshevik (dir. Chris Marker, 1992), Wild At Heart (dir. David Lynch, 1990), Bad Timing (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1980), In A Year With 13 Moons (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978), Mikey & Nicky (dir. Elaine May, 1976), Der Tod der Maria Malibran (dir. Werner Schroeter, 1972), Goodbye, Columbus (dir. Larry Peerce, 1969), The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry, 1968), Faces (dir. John Cassavetes, 1968), Reflections In A Golden Eye (dir. John Huston, 1967), Revenge Of A Kabuki Actor (dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1963), The Leopard (dir. Luchino Visconti, 1963), Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (dir. Fritz Lang, 1959), The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (dir. Roy Rowland, 1953), Earth (dir. Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930), Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, 1929), and lastly The Dying Swan (dir. Evgeni Bauer, 1917).

by Robert Curry

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Holding Out For A Hero

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When Bonnie Tyler recorded Holding Out For A Hero for the film Footloose in 1984 it’s certain that she had no idea that her song would epitomize the sentiments of the American people as we prepare to elect Obama’s successor to the presidency.  A “hero” is just what the U.S. needs.  However, none of the candidates in the running quite fit the romanticized description of the song.  Luckily we are fortunate that an answer to Bonnie Tyler’s song and our needs as a nation does exist in the cinema in the form of Harrison Ford.

Air Force One (1997) trades on the image of Harrison Ford in our culture as no other movie has.  His character, President James Marshall, exists in name only; his character is simply the accumulation of Ford’s career in the movies up to that point.  President James Marshall is capable of the charm of Jack Trainer, David Holloran and Linus Larrabee, the resourcefulness of Indiana Jones and Allie Fox, the traditional family values of Jack Ryan, Henry Turner and Dr. Richard Walker, the determination of Dr. Richard Kimble, Rick Deckard and Det. John Book, and the sarcasm of Han Solo.  President James Marshall is the idealized white heterosexual male of three generations of film goers primed to defend the American dream to the last breath.

And who better to helm a fantasy film of American politics and nail-biting action than Wolfgang Petersen?  Air Force One could easily be described as In The Line Of Fire (1993) reset within the world of The NeverEnding Story (1984).  A German, Petersen’s view of America and it’s fetishization of actors and Hollywood symbols is akin to that of Sirk and Fassbinder in that this plastic brand of the American Dream is as preposterous as it is frightening.  In many ways Petersen’s Air Force One revels ironically (consider the choice of music cues for one) in its own ability to offer Americans a unique wish fulfilled in seeing Harrison Ford as our Commander and Chief; a president who perfectly represents an amalgamation of JFK for the post-Vietnam America.  It was never anyone’s wish to see Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen or John Travolta as our president anyway.

The passage of time has also helped to further fetishize Harrison Ford as the U.S. President.  Not only are Americans nostalgic for the wealth and power we enjoyed as a nation in the 1990s, but our feelings toward terrorism have also drastically changed.  In 1997 the World Trade Center still stood.  Today, however, Ford’s policy of literally going toe to toe against terrorists would seem too good to be true for most Americans.  Obama certainly hasn’t thrown any “bad guys” off of Air Force One lately (and I’m afraid Donald Trump might throw the whole country from a plane).

air-force-one

Air Force One is so heavy-handed in its own self-awareness and desire to fulfill its audience that it escapes reality altogether.  If I were to compare it to Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story I would have to say that Air Force One is more representative of fantasy.  Yet I do not mean this negatively.  Air Force One is a tremendous fantasy that engaged a nation in 1997, representing desires en masse.  This is the power of the cinema and the ultimate goal of any Hollywood feature.  Yet, if one should ever find themselves too immersed in the fantastic escape of Air Force One, remember Harrison Ford’s words to Donald Trump, “Donald, it was a movie.”

-Robert Curry

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BUSTER KEATON: AN ORAL HISTORY PART II

On October 4, 1895, Joseph Francis  “Buster” Keaton was born.  In the one hundred and twenty years since his birth, Buster Keaton has become an iconic clown and one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.  To commemorate this landmark anniversary, I have compiled a three part oral history of Keaton’s life and career, allowing us to read, in his own words, how he made the silent films that have become classics of comedy and world cinema.  [NOTE: This oral history has been compiled from a number of readily available interview sources and biographies.  I and all Keaton fans around the world are heavily indebted to the interviewers and historians who have conducted those interviews.  It is not the intention of this editor or Zimbo Films to take credit for this interview material or to profit from it.  For a full list of citations, please see below.]

Buster Keaton's Hat

Three Ages (1923)

BUSTER KEATON:  [Producer Joseph] Schenck said [moving to features] was the only way to get big rentals.  The exhibitor, anyway, was often featuring our two-reelers over his main film.  So why not make him pay for it?  It would more than double the rentals – would mean twenty-five hundred dollars and more a week from each theatre.  As for me personally feature stories meant something else again…I had begun to want longer stories.  A challenge, yes, but also room to develop the thing.  To really say it.1

…what I did [with Three Ages] was just tell a single story of two fellows calling on a girl…And in fighting over the girl and different situations we could get into, and finally winning her.  But I told the same story in three ages.  I told it in the Stone Age, Roman Age, and Modern.2 I was thinking of Intolerance (1916) when I made it.  I told the three separate stories same as Griffith did; and of course in that film I did take liberties, because it was more of a travesty than a burlesque.  That’s why I used a wristwatch that was a sundial, and why I used my helmet the way I did.  Fords at that time had a safety device to stop people from stealing the cars…which looked just like my Roman helmet.  So I unlocked my Roman helmet off me and locked it on the wheel of my chariot.  At that time the audience all compared it with the safety gadget for a Ford.3

CLYDE BRUCKMAN, co-director, The General:  Bus wanted one of the cavemen to heave a big rock at him; he would take a batter’s stance, swing his war club, bat the rock back, and it would bean the other guy.  Now, you do this easy by the cutting technique.  One shot of the guy throwing.  Next shot, someone out of camera range lobs it up to Buster and he bats it.  Final shot, close-up of the rock beaning the guy.  Put it all together.  Easy as duck soup…the studios do it every day.  It rolls across the screen with a whoosh – but you never saw the thing really happen; it’s a patchwork of half-truths.

Now, Buster accepted the fact that this rock must be papier-mache.  But he wouldn’t accept action trickery.  It had to be continuous action, from the moment the caveman picked it up and heaved it straight through to the moment it homed back and coldcocked him.  “We get it in one shot,” he said, “or we throw out the gag.”

We set up the cameras for a long profile shot – this rock was going to sail for thirty feet – and we worked for hours.  Seventy-six takes, all for one little gag.

“Okay,” said Buster, “now they’ll know it was for real.”4

BUSTER KEATON: [For the film] I went to jump across an alleyway on top of a tall building.  We built the sets over the Third Street tunnel – or the Broadway tunnel – looking right down over Los Angeles.  Now, by getting your cameras up on a high parallel and shooting past our set in the foreground with the street below, it looked like we were up in the air about twelve, fourteen stories high.  And we actually had a net stretched from one wall to the other underneath the camera line so in case you missed any trick that you were doing…you had a net to fall into, although it was about a thirty-five foot drop.  So, my scene was with the cops chasing me, that I came to this thing and I took advantage of the lid of a skylight and laid it over the edge of the roof to use as a springboard.  I backed up, hit it, and tried to make it to the other side which was probably about eighteen feet, something like that.  Well, I misjudged the spring of that board and I didn’t make it.  I hit flat up against that other set and fell to the net, but I hit hard enough that it jammed my knees a little bit, and hips and elbows, ’cause I hit flush, flat – and I had to go home and stay in bed for about three days.

And of course, at the same time, me and the scenario department were a little sick because we can’t make that leap.  That throws the whole chase sequence…right out the window.  So the boys the next day went into the projecting room and saw the scene anyhow, ’cause they had it printed to look at it.  Well, they got a thrill out of it, so they came back and told me about it.  Says, “Well, if it looks that good let’s see if we can pick it up this way.  The best thing to do is put an awning on a window, just a little small awning, just enough to break my fall.”   ‘Cause on the screen, you could see that I fell about, oh I guess about sixteen feet, something like that. So, now you go in and drop into something just to slow me up, to break my fall, and I can swing from that onto a rainspout and when I get ahold of it, it breaks and lets me sway, sways me out away from the building hanging onto it.  And for a finish, it collapses enough that it hinges and throws me down through a window a couple of floors below.

Well, when we got back and checked up on that this chase was about – the chase was this: I was getting away from policemen, and used the old Hollywood Station on Hollywood, which was right next door to the fire department.  Well, when this pipe broke and threw me through the window, we went in there and built the sleeping quarters of the fire department with a sliding pole in the background.  So I came through their window on my back, slid across the floor, and I lit up against the sliding pole and dropped to the bottom on the slide.  I bounced from that to set on the rear of one of the trucks and as I hit the rear the truck pulled out, so I had to grab on for dear life, but I’m on my way to a fire – but the fire was in the police department.  So we went back and shot the scene where I accidentally, not knowing it, had set fire to the police department before the cops started to chase me.  Well, it ended up…it was the biggest laughing sequence in the picture.5

Our Hospitality (1923)

DAVID ROBINSON, film historian/Chaplin biographer:  The leap from The Three Ages to the masterpiece Our Hospitality is one of the most startling revolutions in Keaton’s career.  Our Hospitality shows Keaton in full possession of his mature gifts: as a filmmaker he is as assured as a [Henry] King or a [King] Vidor; and certainly the superior of Chaplin, who at the time that Keaton was making Our Hospitality was preparing The Gold Rush (1925) – a beautiful film, but technically archaic and visually feeble when seen alongside the Keaton film.6

BUSTER KEATON:  On Our Hospitality we had this one idea of an old-fashioned Southern feud…our best period for that was to go back something like eighty years.  “All right,” we say.  “We go back that far.  And now when I go South, am I traveling in a covered wagon, or what?  Let’s look up the records and see when the first railroad train was invented.”  Well, we find out: we’ve got the Stephenson Rocket for England and the DeWitt Clinton for the United States.  And we chose the Rocket engine because it’s funnier looking.  So we build that entire train and that set our period for us: 1825 was the actual year of the invention of the railroad.7…and they weren’t so fussy about laying railroad track [then] – it if was a little unlevel, they just ignored it.  They laid it over fallen trees, over rocks (laughs).  So I got quite a few laughs ridin’ that railroad.

[In the film] when I got down South to claim my father’s estate, I ran into the family who had run us out of the state in the first place.  And the old man of the outfit wouldn’t let his sons or anybody shoot me while I was a guest in the house ’cause the girl had invited me for dinner.  Well, I’d overheard it and found out.  As long as I stayed in the house, I was safe.  But I had a good story to tell and it rounded out swell and it was a big seller for me.8

For that scene in the rapids…we picked the best rapids from a pictorial point of view, a two-hundred-yard stretch where the water moves fast and white.  I’m supposed to grab onto a sixteen-foot log and float out into the bad water.

“Can you hold on to the log?” [Technical Director Fred] Gabouri asked me.  I said, “Yes.”  So he put a holdback wire around the log, ran the wire out about sixty feet, and then anchored it tightly around a baseball bat.  There were three men holding that bat.

The idea was to shoot this close up to establish the action while they keep me from getting swept away.  Then we’d go into a more distant profile for long stretches of milder water, where they can control the log and me.

Fine, we’re shooting, then the wire goes pop, real soft, and – bang! – the log and I are in the rapids, and off to hell we go.  I hear the guys yell and start into the rocks and underbrush along the river.  But I’m thinking about myself – think fast or forget it.  I sure as shooting have to shed that log or it will beat me to death against the boulders.  So I kick loose and spring ahead. The main thing is to keep from whirling.  I’m fighting for breath and trying to remember how long the rapids are and how much of them are left.

It starts to quiet down, and I think, I’ve made it! Then suddenly I’m in foam a foot deep.  You don’t breathe very well in foam, and you sure as hell can’t swim on top of it.  It was a bend in the river that saved me.  I grabbed some overhanging branches, pulled myself out, feet still in the water and just lay on my face fighting for air.

All of that took maybe a minute and a half, two minutes.  It took [the crew] nearly ten minutes to fight through the underbrush.  I don’t suppose they knew what they would find.9

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

BUSTER KEATON:  I liked Sherlock.  It was a good picture for me.  It was the trickiest of all the pictures I ever made because there were so many camera tricks and illusions.  We spent an awful lot of time getting those scenes.10 That was the reason for making the whole picture.  Just that one situation: that a motion picture projectionist in a theatre goes to sleep and visualizes himself getting mixed up with the characters on the screen.  All right, then my job was to transform those characters on the screen into my (the projectionist’s) characters at home, and then I’ve got my plot.  Now to make it work was another thing: and after that picture was made every cameraman in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes.11  I think the reason we started off on that story is because I had one of the best cameramen in the business, Elgin Lessley.  We laid out a few of these tricks; some of these tricks I knew from the stage.  I seldom did camera tricks.  I tried to do the real illusion.  I have done an awful lot of camera tricks too, as far as that goes.  But I laid out some of those gags.  And the technical man that builds the sets, I showed him how I have to get them built for the things I had to do.  When I got that batch of stuff together, he said “You can’t do it and tell a legitimate story, because there are illusions, and some of them are clowns gags, some Houdini…It’s got to come in a dream.”  And all I had to round out was that I was in trouble at the start of the picture with my girl’s father.  He thought I stole his watch.  Well, on the screen I became the world’s greatest detective, to solve this mystery.  Of course, while I’m asleep the girl finds out that I didn’t steal it, and she’s the one who woke me up at the finish.  But on the screen I was a son-of-a-gun, the world’s great detective.  No matter how they tried to surround me and kill me or get me, I got out of it.12

Oh, there were some great shots in that baby!…I got up on the screen and they threw me off back into the audience.  I finally get back up there again and the scenes changed on me.13  [For that] we built what looked like a motion picture screen and actually built a stage into that frame but lit it in such a way that it looked like a motion picture being projected on a screen.  But it was real actors and the lighting effect gave us the illusion, so I could go out of semi-darkness into that well-lit screen right from the front room of the theater right into the picture.  Then when it came to the scene changing on me when I got up there, that was a case of timing and on every one of those things we would measure the distance to the fraction of an inch from the camera to where I was standing, also with a surveying outfit to get the exact height and angle so that there wouldn’t be a fraction of an inch missing on me, and then we changed the setting to what we wanted it to be and I got back into that same spot and it overlapped the action to get the effect of the scene changing.14

…I didn’t use stunt men for me, but I doubled them.  There’s a scene in Sherlock Jr. when I call a motorcycle cop, and I say, “Follow that car.”  And I jump on his handlebars, we hit a bump in the street, and I lose the cop.  Well, the cop that fell off was me.  Because what I did was take Ernie Orsatti, an assistant props man with me, who was my size.  Put my clothes on him.  I put the cop’s clothes on, drove the motorcycle, hit the bump and fell of the motorcycle.15  [For that] I’d just go out and learn to handle a motorcycle on the handlebars16… hell of a job.  Number one.  The control of the gas is here [on the handlebars] for speed, but I’ve got no brakes.  You’ve got to have a strong arm to get your feet back down there, ’cause it was footbrakes, see.  Well, I got some beautiful spills before I could get back.  Some beauties.  I parked right up on top of an automobile once.  I hit it head on, and I ended up with my fanny up against the windshield, my feet straight in the air.  [Laughter]  Parked car!17

They found a fracture – years later – I didn’t even know it.  I was doing a scene in Sherlock.  I was running along the top of a freight train, and I grabbed the rope of a water tower to get on the other train, and of course all my full weight pulls on the rope and of course I pull the spout down and it drenches me with water.  Well, when you’re on top of a freight car you’re up there twelve feet high and that water spout is a ten inch pipe.  I didn’t know how strong that water pressure was.  Well, it just tore my grip loose as if I had no grip at all and dropped me the minute it hit me.  And I lit on my back, with  my head right across the rail – the rail right on my neck.  It was a pretty hard fall, and that water pushed me down.18  I said, “I want a drink.”  So, that numbed me enough that I woke up the following morning, my head was clear, and I never stopped working.  But fourteen years later, I’m in the Soldier’s Home down here in Sawtelle.  The doctor calls me in and says, “When did you break your neck?”  I said I never broke my neck.  He said, “Look at this X-ray.  This callus has grown over the crack, it’s next to the top vertebra.”  I didn’t know it.  I said, “How long ago was this?”  “That looks like it could be somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago.” I started thinking back.  “I know when it happened.  It’s that goddamn fall on the track.  It cracked this vertebra.”  I never stopped working, never knew it.  Well, that’s luck.  No nerve pinched or anything in the healing – and I never knew it.19

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: We had a pool-table shot where he had to pocket a number of balls in one stroke of the cue.  The camera at high level had to show it all happen.  Set up the balls, Whang away and miss.  We worked an hour.

“You know, Buster,” we said, “this thing can’t be done.”

This made him mad.  “It can be done.  Give me fifteen minutes with those stupid goddamn balls.”  He coated each ball with white chalk, then shot it separately into the proper pocket.  Each ball left the line of its path on the green felt.  Then Buster placed each ball exactly where the line indicated, called, “Camera!” and took one shot and pocketed them all.20

The Navigator

The Navigator (1924)

WOODY ALLEN, comedian/filmmaker:  City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925) and The Navigator and The General (1927) are the four great comedies, aren’t they?21

BUSTER KEATON:  We were workin’ on a story, the scenario department, and we didn’t have a good idea yet …And I had just lent my technical man to Metro, to Frank Lloyd.  He wanted to do The Sea Hawk and that called for about five fourteenth-century sailing vessels.  So he was up and down the Pacific Coast lookin’ for those hulls that they could build up into those pirate ships…But he had just gotten back in town, and he says, “While I was in ‘Frisco, I ran into an ocean liner – five hundred feet long – a passenger ship.  And they’re just about to sell it for junk.”  Says, “You can have it for$25,000 and do anything you want with it.”

Well, we went to work right then and there and says, “Now, what could we do with an ocean liner?”  Says, “Well, we can make a dead ship out of it.  No lights aboard.  No water running.  Just afloat.”  How could we get it afloat?  Well, we set out to figure out how to do that and to write a story around it.  Only to get a boy and a girl alone, and adrift in the Pacific Ocean.  And we plant the characters so that the audience knows that she never saw a kitchen in her life, doesn’t know how to boil a cup of tea.  I am the son of a very wealthy man in San Francisco, so I’ve been waited on all my life with valets, chauffeurs, and private tutors and everything else.  So I don’t know what I’m doin’.  And set those two characters adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a dead ship.  Well, that’s The Navigator.  And it worked out beautifully.

…The opening gag in that picture with me is one of the most stolen gags that was ever done on the screen.  I think I knew at one time of twenty-seven times it had been done by other companies.  With us, the gag was more to establish the fact that I was so helpless, that I went to call on the girl, and I came down and got in my car with a chauffeur and a footman.  The footman wrapped a blanket around my knees … and drove [me] across the street.  That’s all.  I got out to call on the girl.,  I asked the girl if she’d marry me and she said, “No,” and I come back down.  The guy opened the door in the car for me, and I said, “No, I think the walk will do me good.”  So I walked across the street with the car followin’ me, makin’ a U-turn.22

…when we first laid out the story of The Navigator ahead, a few dramatic scenes at the start of it were legitimate and not done in a comedy way…you get a good dramatic director to take care of those sequences in the picture. The only one mistake we made there, and that was Donald Crisp – he was strictly from the D.W. Griffith school, a topnotch dramatic man…But when he joined us, he turned into a gag man.  He wasn’t interested in the dramatic scenes, he was only interested in the comedy scenes with me.  Well, that we didn’t want.23  He was actually annoying as a gag man, see.  Actually, after I let him go, I went back and shot a couple of the dramatic scenes again.24

I’ll show you how seriously they used to take our stories.  In The Navigator…we run aground stern first off a cannibal island, and through the binoculars I can see that they are wild type of cannibals, they are headhunters.  Well, it was just a matter of time that they are going to come out there and get onto this ship.  And we spring a leak in the stuffing box, which means we can see this water pouring in around the driving shaft.  It can’t be plugged from the inside; it’s got to be done from outside.  Well, automatically there’s deep-sea diving equipment right there in the set with us.  So, the girl helps me put it on, and she’s up there to pump air to me.

Well, we laid out this gag in advance and had it built by the Llewellyn Iron Works in Los Angeles.  We got about twelve hundred solid rubber fish about a foot long and hung ’em on cat gut, violin strings that are transparent under water.  And then hung ’em from this rigging so that a school of fish…we could make a school of fish go past, circle around back of the camera and continue, and with one spot to break it when we wanted to.  So my gag was, while I’m down there trying to fix that stuffing box, that a big fish came up and tried to go through the school and couldn’t make it. And I see a starfish clinging to a rock, so I got the starfish off of the rock and let it grab my breastplate.  I stepped into the middle of the school of fish and brought it to a stop, and then turned and brought the big fish through, and then turned – I directed traffic – and then went back to my job.

Well, the gag photographed beautifully.  We preview the picture, and it lays a beautiful egg, not a giggle from the audience.  We can’t figure it out. Well, says, we’ll try it at the next preview and see.  Next preview, the same thing.  It finally dawned on us what it was.  I went down there to stuff that stuffing box to keep the girl and me from falling into the hands of these cannibals, and I had no license in the world to stop to go help a fish go through the traffic.  Simple as that.  Now to prove it, we take it out of the picture and of course our picture travels the way it is supposed to and finished great.  And I took that sequence and put it in with what they call the trailers.  And this scene was in it, and it got an out-and-out belly laugh.25

[We had] terrible problems [with the underwater sequences]… I was one month up [at Lake Tahoe] shooting that sequence.  One of the worst problems in Tahoe was the water so clear you could really see, but so cold that I could only stay down about thirty minutes at a time.26

…we built this camera box for two cameras…with a big iron passage up to the top with a ladder on the inside. That box, of course, was built of planks and sealed good so that there’s no leakage.  But it’s wood and there has to be added weight added to it.  Well, I added about a thousand pounds of weight to it.  Now we find out the inside’s got to be kept at the same temperature as the water outside.  So we hang a thermometer out there so the cameraman can look through the glass and read it – and one on the inside.  And we got cakes of ice out there…to make sure to keep the temperature of the camera box the same as the water on the outside, so it won’t fog up the glass.  Either one side or the other will fog up on you, see.  The difference was that when the two bodies are in there, the body heat…that means add more ice immediately.  So, as you put the cameramen in, you also put more ice in.  [Laughter]  Dressed them warm enough to take it.  So, there’s the whole outfit and me with that deep-sea diving outfit going down there, and the cameraman says, “I’m too close.  I want to be back further.”  I moved that camera box under water – I moved it!  That’s how much you can lift when you’re down around fifteen or twenty feet deep. The box must have weight about fourteen hundred pounds or something like that.  Two cameramen and two cameras and about two to three hundred pounds of ice, another thousand pounds of weight on it, and I picked it up and moved it.27

[The Navigator is] an out-and-out novelty – such a screwy story, starting with using an ocean liner, for the love of Mike.  It lent itself to gags that you’d never think of.28

Seven Chances

Seven Chances (1925)

BUSTER KEATON:  A certain local screwball…sold [Joseph Schenck] a story – a Belasco show called Seven Chances – twenty-five thousand dollars.  The money wasn’t much, but the show!  I had seen it in New York – 1916 for heaven’s sakes – and it was a flop then.  Closed in a week, if I recall.  The type of unbelievable farce I don’t like.  We made it anyway and got a fair picture.29

[For the climax of the film] I am running away from a batch of women who are chasing me.  A friend has put it in the paper that I’ll marry anybody so long as I can be married by five o’clock – it has to do with inheriting an estate or whatever.  So all the women in the world show up to get married.  They chase me out of the church, and so on.  I went down to the dunes just off the Pacific Ocean out at Los Angeles, and I accidentally dislodged a boulder in coming down.  All I had set up for the scene was a camera panning with me as I came over the skyline and was chased down into the valley.  But I dislodged this rock, and it in turn dislodged two others, and they chased me down this hill.

That’s all there was: just three rocks.  But the audience at the preview sat up in their seats and expected more.  So we went right back and ordered fifteen hundred rocks built, from bowling alley size up to boulders eight feet in diameter.  Then we went out to the Ridge Route, which is in the High Sierras, to a burnt mountain steeper than a forty-five degree angle.  A couple of truckloads of men took those rocks up and planted them, and then I went up to the top and came down with the rocks.  That gag gave me the whole final chase, and it was an accident in the first place.30

[There’s a scene where] I had an automobile, like a Stutz-Bearcat roadster.  I was in front of an office building.  Now it’s a full-figure shot of that automobile and me.  I come down, got into the car – there’s a lot of people walking up and down the sidewalks, office building in the background – I release the emergency brake after starting it, sit back to drive – and I didn’t move.  The scene changed, and I was in front of a little cottage out in the country.  I reach forward, pull on the emergency brake, shut my motor off, and went on into the cottage.  I come back and after I visit her, get into the automobile, turn it on, sit back there – and I and the automobile never moved – and the scene changed back to the office building in New York, in the city.  Now that automobile’s got to be exactly the same distance, the same height and everything, to make that work, because the scene overlaps but I don’t…for that baby, we used surveying instruments, so that the front part of the car would be the same distance from [the camera], the whole shooting match.31

PIERRE ETAIX, filmmaker/clown: Buster Keaton, in anything he did – for example, the whole stunt sequence at the end of Seven Chances where he tumbles down a hillside, somersaulting and flipping, with the rocks at his heels, and the women pursuing him – what a magnificent scene!  What a performance!  He wasn’t acting there.  His movements are true acrobatics.  It’s marvelous.  That’s a legacy from the circus and variety shows.33

Go West (1925)

BUSTER KEATON: [We shot that] about sixty miles out of Kingman, Arizona.  We were really out in open country34…I ran into one disappointment on that film.  One of the most famous Western shows ever seen in the United States was called The Heart of Maryland, in which these two guys are playing cards, and one guy calls the other a name, and he takes out his six-shooter and lays it down on the table, pointing right at this fellow’s middle, and says, “When you call me that, smile…”  Well, because I’m known as frozen face, blank pan, we thought that if you did that to me an audience would say, “Oh my God, he can’t smile: he’s gone; he’s dead.”  But it didn’t strike an audience as funny at all: they just felt sorry for me.35

I had [another] bad disappointment in that thing.  I thought I had a funny sequence when I had my cattle…and I actually turned ’em loose in Los Angeles in the Santa Fe depot in the freight yards, and brought ’em up Seventh Street to Broadway (no – up to Spring Street).  And we put cowboys off on every side street to stop people in automobiles from comin’ into it.  And then put our own cars with people in there.  And I brought three hundred head of steers up that street.  I’d hate to ask permission to do that today.  But then I thought that by goin’ in a store, and I saw a costume place, and I saw a devil’s suit… well, bulls and steers don’t like red, they’ll chase it.  ‘Course I was tryin’ to lead ’em towards the slaughter house.  I put that suit on and I thought I’d get a funny chase sequence, and have the cows get a little too close to me, and get scared.  Then really put on the speed tryin’ go get away from ’em.  But I couldn’t do it with steers – steers wouldn’t chase me.  I actually ran and had cowboys pushin’ ’em as fast as they could go, and I fell down in front of ’em and let ’em get within about ten feet of me before I got to my feet.  But as I moved, they stopped, too.  They piled up on each other.  But they wouldn’t come near me.  Well, that kind of hurt when you think that’s going to be your big finish chase sequence.  We had to trick it from all angles…Some parts I like, but as a picture, in general, I didn’t care for it.36

Battling Butler (1926)

BUSTER KEATON: Battling Butler I liked.  It was a good picture.  I told the original story that was taken from the stage show except that I had to add my own finish.  I couldn’t have done the finish that was in the show…[where] he just finds out in the dressing room up at Madison Square Garden that he don’t have to fight the champion and he promises the girl he’ll never fight again.  And of course the girl don’t know but what he did fight.

But we knew better than to do that to a motion-picture audience.  We couldn’t promise ’em for seven reels that I was goin’ to fight in the ring and then not fight.  We knew that we had to fight.  So we staged a fight in the dressing room with the guy who just won the title in the ring – by having bad blood between the fighter and myself.  And it worked out swell.37

CLYDE BRUCKMAN: My God, it was a really dramatic fight, not a comedy fight.  Yet it stood up in a comic picture – one of the best closings of any Keaton film.  You’re all in there rooting for this little guy against the world’s champion.38

edited by Hank Curry

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Whity

“I love you.  Now I know I can finish this film!”-R.W. Fassbinder to production manager Peter Berling on the set of Whity.

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Whity (1970) is a first in many respects for its writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  For one, it is a Western, a genre of filmmaking foreign to Fassbinder.  But it is also Fassbinder’s biggest production up to 1970, costing about 680,000DM and shot in vibrant color on 35mm CinemaScope film stock.  For Fassbinder this was a tremendous move away from the small productions and formalist exercises of his previous films.  Whity is also the first of Fassbinder’s films where the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the films of Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, cannot be felt in Fassbinder’s approach and at times appropriation of classic American cinema.

Whity takes its name from the film’s central character (played by Günter Kaufmann), the black valet and illegitimate son to Nicholson (played by American B-Movie star Ron Randell).  Eventually, Whity rebels against his father and brothers (played by Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel) as well as Nicholson’s manipulative young bride (Katrin Schaake), killing them all in cold blood with a revolver.  After these executions, Whity runs off with his saloon singer girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), only to presumably die of thirst in the desert.

Whity (1970) marks Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last production with his own antitheater-X Films as a result of personal differences among many of his Anti-Theater collaborators, with whom Fassbinder had worked on all of his previous films.  Fassbinder himself was in the midst of emotional turmoil.  His lover and the star of Whity, Günter Kaufmann, had begun breaking away from the director sexually and emotionally.  As a direct result of this Fassbinder began exhibiting violent behavior toward his crew, climaxing with two physical altercations.  First with production manager Peter Berling, and second with the production’s script girl.  In both cases Fassbinder was beaten by his adversaries, most memorably by the film’s two stuntmen.  Fassbinder’s personal situation is essential to understanding the themes of Whity as well as providing a biographical context for the film in the author’s life.

For Fassbinder Whity is a film whose central concern is American Romanticism in the classic Hollywood tradition.  In one respect Whity is a deconstruction of the Romantic elements of Raoul Walsh’s film Band Of Angels (1957).  For much like Band Of Angels, Whity’s central narrative is melodramatic and centered on the power struggles within a family unit.  But Whity also grapples with the tradition of the movies romanticizing American history, effectively transposing the melo-dramatic narrative devices of Walsh’s film into the heightened camp environment of Nicolas Ray’s masterpiece Johnny Guitar (1954).

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Thus, as a genre picture, Whity makes two essential gestures of deconstruction.  Firstly, Fassbinder’s narrative is as preposterous as that of Band Of Angels.  But to strengthen the artifice of this narrative proposition, Fassbinder slows down all of the character interactions with an almost novelistic approach.  Characters react with delay to reveals to the audience, often accompanied by slow camera moves whose composition and accompanying score raise the tension to Wagnerian heights and a sort of dream like reality.  In this way the mechanisms of Romantic story telling in Western genre filmmaking become clear to the viewer, challenging the audience to question their necessity to accept these mechanisms in the context of film as truth.

Secondly, Fassbinder will visually quote the trademark close-ups of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  This technique imbues Whity with self-awareness indicative of New German Cinema.  Yet, what is of primary importance concerning this quotation is the implication that Westerns are just as essential to the mythos of European cinema as they are to the American cinema.  By 1970 westerns had been part of the standard regimen of B-movie production in Germany for the better part of five years.  And it is during those five years, just as it occurred simultaneously in Italy; the Western became assimilated into the collective national consciousness.  This means that in Germany, as well as Italy, the Western genre existed as entertainment for the masses, the working class, functioning as a tool for communal unity.  This signifies a conscious effort on Fassbinder’s part to endow the genre, by making an intellectual Western, with a political relevance to contemporary West Germany, even going so far as to illuminate the pitfalls of leftist thinking among the working classes, primarily the growing Anarchist movement.

Whity is not, however, exclusively bound to the American cinema via its genre but also by it’s depiction of female sexuality and in particular one sexual relationship within the film.  The relationship between the valet Whity (Günter Kaufmann) and the singer/prostitute Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) is derivative of the relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Fassbinder’s favorite film by Josef von Sternberg Morocco (1930).  What attracts Dietrich and Schygulla to their male suitors above all others is their simplicity and their romantic devotion.  This is essential to the theme of Whity, that it is Whity’s intellectual simplicity and his willingness to accommodate his mistress that he in turn can be controlled and eventually (though the film never sees this through) oppressed by her.  This is an undercurrent that runs throughout Fassbinder’s work, that there are two kinds of people, the oppressor and the oppressed.  Fassbinder proposes that one needs the other, and that even when one relationship of this sort is destroyed (as it is in Whity), either the oppressed or the oppressor must then carry on the symbiotic relationship with a suitable opposite.

That relationship is in turn the center of Fassbinder’s political message within the film.  One can therefore assume, given Fassbinder’s fear and disdain toward West Germany’s Anarchist movement that this message is for them.  In fact, Fassbinder saw the Anarchists much in the same way he saw the protagonist of his film, as short sighted and prone to violent action and martyrdom that does not permanently resolve any conflict nor does it achieve any sort of solution.  The paradox described in the above paragraph applies again to either Whity or the Anarchists.  If one is oppressed and violently removes the oppressor, then one will inevitably seek out a way in which to be oppressed again.  So to continue the metaphor proposed in a political reading of Whity, the Nicholson’s are representative of the conservative West German government.

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For all the points I make about Whity above, the film has largely been either misread or dismissed for its affiliations with the Western Genre.  Even when the film premiered at the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival the film was received with a cool reserve.  Admittedly, Whity is a difficult film in many respects, but it is the many parts of its whole that allow the film to transcend the tropes of your standard deconstructionist Western, becoming a film of the highest order much in the same way Robert Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1976) did with French Romanticism.

-Robert Curry

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