Tag Archives: books

A Pair Of Book Reviews

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

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

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

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

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

Fassbinder and Thomsen

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

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

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

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

Ms. 45

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

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

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

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

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

-Robert Curry

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Silver Screens Are Larger Than Life

Recently I received as a gift ANDY WARHOL Polaroids 1958-1987, published by Taschen.  It is a marvelous presentation of Warhol’s work, quite fascinating when one begins to compare these original Polaroid portraits with the more famous paintings that were born from them.  However, given recent events this month I have been particularly drawn to a photograph Warhol took of David Bowie during his first visit to New York in 1971.

David Bowie, 1971

Polaroid of Bowie by Warhol, 1971

Bowie’s admiration for Warhol has been well publicized by Bowie himself during this period.  He did, after all, write a song for singer and actress Dana Gillespie about the Pope of Pop that he himself recorded for his own Velvet Underground inspired album Hunky Dory.  Similarly, Warhol’s dislike for Bowie’s song has been equally well publicized by Bowie biographers Tony Zanetta, Marc Spitz, and Warhol biographer Bob Colacello.

Despite these comic differences, Bowie and Warhol are both men of ideas.  Artists with the uncanny talent of taping into the zeitgeist, for surrounding themselves with fascinating, creative, and iconoclastic individuals.  Without these individuals, the productivity and innovation we have come to associate with Warhol and Bowie would look very different.  Bowie has credited a good deal of his glam rock persona to Andy Warhol’s Pork‘s London production, whilst Warhol very rarely ever credited anyone for giving him any ideas.  Though famously Warhol had his collaborators (Billy Name, Ondine, Paul Morrissey, Fred Hughes, etc) and so did Bowie (Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Luther Vandross, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar, etc).

All of this considered, this tangled web of celebrity, the portrayal of Andy Warhol by David Bowie in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) begins to be far more than it initially appeared to be on the surface.  In 1996, Bowie was Warhol, he had transformed, even if only on the screen, into one of his idols.  But if the Bowie of 1971 represented the absolute celebrity status of Warhol at that time, then Dennis Hopper must represent the beginning of the rise of Warhol’s star in 1963.

When Warhol had his second show in LA, it was Dennis Hopper who threw Warhol his first glamorous Hollywood reception (this reception began their lifelong friendship).  In Basquiat, Hopper plays Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol’s European art dealer.  When the film introduces us to Warhol, it is in the pairing of Hopper and Bowie, the “journey” and the “achievement”.  In Basquiat Warhol is more of an aura than a tangible character; other characters even talk about him as if he were somehow not of this world.  By 1996, this was undoubtedly true.  Warhol had been dead for nearly a decade.  His brand, his persona had since (as it very much continues to today) permeated our culture absolutely.  Warhol has become Mickey Mouse.

David Bowie as Andy Warhol, 1996

It’s as if no one can ever play Warhol, not even Crispin Glover.  Schnabel’s Basquiat does not rely on Bowie’s immense talents alone to give life to Warhol.  The film itself, through the script, through the performances, and through Hopper is coordinated to make Warhol this omnipresent being residing in the New York of Schnabel’s film, a New York that might as well be the entire country.  Schnabel wisely knows that this is the only effective tactic to give dimension to the unusual relationship Warhol had with the subject of his film, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a clear instance of immortality.  If Warhol’s presence in our mass culture has flourished after his death, why not David Bowie?  Bowie’s decade long hiatus has already proved the staying power of his art, image, and persona.  He has become an icon for LGBT groups, a musical deity for musicians, an inspiration for fashion, etc over the course of his life.  His powers as an artist were even celebrated in his own times as a kind of myth by filmmaker Todd Haynes.  Bowie and Warhol have been such an integral part of the 20th century’s cultural identity that they have negated death.

-Robert Curry

 

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“I’m a fraud and you’re a cock sucker.”

1969, Norman Mailer runs for mayor of New York City and loses.  A few months later, Mailer journeys to the Hamptons with a film crew and entourage to produce his film Maidstone.  Unseen till 1970, Maidstone represents one man’s vision of a nation in chaos, but it also presents its audience with Norman Mailer, warts and all.  Of all the personal films made by the Underground in the sixties, none was as honest a portrait of its maker as Maidstone.

In 1968 Norman Mailer covered the Republican and Democratic conventions (Miami & The Siege Of Chicago), published his experimental novel Why Are We In Vietnam? And directed his first two features Wild 90 and Beyond The Law.  The themes in his work quickly evolved beyond the pulpy prose of An American Dream (1965) and the political idealism of The Presidential Papers (1963).  His book on the Pentagon demonstration, Armies Of The Night (1968), had jettisoned Norman Mailer into the liberal upheaval of the late sixties, which became the focus of his creative output in 1968, and the basis of his film Maidstone.

The violence and energy of the Pentagon peace rally and the Chicago demonstrations fascinated Mailer.  The power, both physical as well as abstract, that could be derived from politics became an obsession that, when coupled with his fatalistic Romanticism with regards to Kennedy’s assassination, provided the ground work for Maidstone’s narrative.  Unlike his first two features, Maidstone was to be about the urgent problems that were tearing America apart, designed to probe and explore the mechanics of politics and violence.

Maidstone focuses on Norman T. Kingsley (Norman Mailer), an art-house film director with ties to organized crime and high society who is running for president.  A secret society meets and decides that Kingsley is “ripe for assassination”, and this is the basis of the rest of the film.  From shooting a whore house drama to hosting a political convention, Norman T. Kingsley is at the center of the film, exerting his influence over all those he has gathered around himself, a patriarch in every possible way.

The patriarchal attitudes of Kingsley, as well as his passion for boxing, suspicion of women, his desire to be president and his delusions as a filmmaker are all exaggerated aspects of Mailer’s own persona.  The political stance of Kingsley is a direct response to Mailer’s own The Idol and The Octopus (1968), in which he outlines possible solutions to the problems that arose from the Johnson administration.  There is a lengthy scene in Maidstone where Kingsley addresses the Black Power movement that represents Mailer’s perspective as outlined in the White Negro (1957), that is in turn manifest in Kingsley’s proposal to eliminate ghettos and establish a stronger black presence in the senate.  There is a naïveté in how simple Kingsley’s solutions and ideas are, a distance so far from the reality facing America in 1969 that it soon becomes apparent that Mailer’s own understanding of the more radical political movements is inhibited by a conservativism, of which both Mailer and Kingsley seem unable to address.  In the context of Maidstone, it is necessary to assume that Kingsley’s partial understanding of the liberal movement and the naïveté of his ideals are precisely why there is a plot to kill him.  After all, Kingsley is a respected, popular filmmaker, often compared to Fellini and Bunuel in the film, who reaches a very wide audience.

The issue of filmmaking is also addressed.  The sex scenes Kingsley photographs for his “whore house drama” parody the Joe Dallesandro scenes in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), but also indicate the presence of Mailer’s long term desire to shock his audience, as he did in the misogynistic celebration that is An American Dream and the vulgar encapsulation of misdirected youth in Why Are We In Vietnam?  In Maidstone, Mailer describes his tactics as a means to reach some sort of truth.  This extends beyond the mere desire to shock to the very style in which Mailer creates his films.

By acting out the glamour and corruption Mailer witnessed in Miami, Chicago and Washington DC in a series of long improvisations, Mailer is attempting to present his audience with several views of the truth.  Maidstone opens with a fake news report that further solidifies the film as an extension of the search for truth that Mailer began in his journalism and prose.  That all the characters in Maidstone collapse into a decadent and corrupt free for all at Kingsley’s rally must then be interpreted as a signifier of the corruption of truth.  That there is no one truth, just various perversions of an idea or event, which is, in short, the message of MaidstoneMaidstone is then a logical conclusion to the exploration of paranoia Mailer began in An American Dream that found its foothold in reality with The Armies Of The Night.

The crossing over of themes between Mailer’s writing and his films has been the major obstacle in any critical evaluation of Maidstone.    To discuss Maidstone in the film vernacular is a mistake.  One must evaluate Maidstone as a continuation of Mailer’s literary pursuits; it’s even broken up into chapters.  During production Mailer has admitted that the final shape of the film was unclear to him, that he had no finished product in mind.  The assembly of all the parts in post-production of Maidstone is where the narrative is made.  Before hand Mailer has only ideas for scenes and a vague sense of linear direction, “I know where I’m going, more or less.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get there” (see page 62 of Joseph Gelmis’ The Film Director As Superstar, copyright 1970).  The manifestation of traditional film techniques is reserved for the cutting room.  So it becomes pointless to analyze shots for their significance, which is why Mailer’s films are so far removed from the films of John Cassavetes, Paul Morrissey or any of the major Underground filmmakers.  Norman Mailer is essentially making his films backwards.

The lack of traditional directing during the production of Maidstone left the film open ended when Mailer called cut for the last time.  The first ninety minutes of the film follow Kingsley and his entourage as they debate, argue, fight, make a movie, and have a party.  The tension slowly builds towards an assassination promised at the outset of the film, yet never appears.  After Kingsley’s rally, the film cuts to Mailer addressing the cast out of character.  As reflexive as the inclusion of this scene is, it does more to stress further the likeness between Mailer and Kingsley.  However, this scene is brief, and gives way to a long sequence of Mailer strolling with his wife and kids through a field on the estate where the film was shot.  What happens next is the most famous scene in the film and the reason for the film’s infamy.  Actor Rip Torn describes it in Peter Manso’s book Mailer: His Life & Times– “Everyone was saying to me, ‘You gotta save this film, you gotta do something.’ …”The film was supposed to be over and I was supposed to be in Stockbridge.”

Torn returned to the set to deliver Kingsley’s assassination.  Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer, hitting his head.  The fight was brief, but entirely real.  Mailer’s head was bleeding when the two men were separated; Rip Torn had had a piece of his ear bitten off.  The horror captured in this scene, Mailer’s screaming children, provides Maidstone with an unexpectedly haunting conclusion.  There is no assassination, but something more poignant, real violence.  1968 had been a year of political assassinations, whose terror and shock were perfectly captured in the conclusion of Maidstone.

I have tried to contextualize as much of Maidstone as possible above, but now it is time to place Maidstone into the larger context of the Underground Film movement.  Critic Parker Tyler has described the Underground film of the sixties as a “peepshow”.  Tyler is referring to the introspective nature of Underground films.  The mechanics by which this is achieved involve cinema verite’ camera movements, insular sets/locations, non-actor friends, and a personal subject.  The implication of voyeurism is too vague and abstract to justly dissect the modes by which Underground films function.  However, “peepshows” will do.  Considering Maidstone as a peepshow at first seems ridiculous.  On a superficial level there is nothing claustrophobic about the Hamptons.  So the application of Tyler’s term must be metaphorical.  The alignment of parts in Maidstone present perhaps a series of vignettes, each vignette is in turn a miniature window into the mind of Norman Mailer.

Like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, scenes unravel at a natural pace in the hands of non-actors and hand held cameras.  Both films focus upon one central character whose journey through the narrative brings him into contact with a variety of characters.  Each encounter is designed to explore a singular theme or idea, maybe not until its end, but to some sort of mutual understanding.  It’s interesting that Jonas Mekas, in his book Movie Journal, attributes Mailer’s interest in the cinema to the films of Andy Warhol.  Morrissey made countless films for and with Warhol before Flesh, but like Mailer, has sought to expound upon the devices of Warhol’s aesthetic in a strictly narrative form.  In comparison to Empire (1964) or Blow Job (1964), Maidstone and Flesh are strikingly narrative driven.  Yet, neither film strays too far from Warhol’s use of long takes or his preoccupation with natural human behavior.

Though Morrissey scripted Flesh, he allowed a certain amount of improvisation with his actors, just as Mailer relied only upon improvisation.  The concept of “high brow” art films utilizing improvisation began with John Cassavetes’ first version of Shadows in 1959.  Cassavetes implemented more control over the improvisation in his film than either Mailer or Morrissey, but his film does not capture the “real-time” behavioral responses that make Mailer’s film so compelling and Morrissey’s narrative believable.

The effect in Maidstone is almost surreal.  Mailer’s players are extremely self-conscious about the validity of their improvised dialogue, yet maintain a naturalism exclusively because not a single expression or facial tic is manufactured.  Flesh cannot escape the campy artifice of its hammy players, which is precisely Morrissey’s point.  Mailer on the other hand perceives this anomaly as a means through which his films can reach a wider audience.  The associative powers of human experience and understanding lend Beyond The Law, Wild 90 and Maidstone an earthy credibility that is absent in Morrissey’s film.

Despite the positive and innovative tactics at work in Mailer’s films critics were unable to excuse the lack of mise en scene or the abrasive cuts in the films.  The cinema of Norman Mailer was all but dismissed before Maidstone had its release in 1970.  This prompted Mailer to withdraw from his cinematic pursuits.  Having self financed all three of his films; he had made a large investment with almost no pay off.  Even Mailer’s celebrity as an author could not draw the audience or the serious criticism he desired.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Mailer directed again when he adapted his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance into a film for Golan-Globus.  Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a Hollywood production, not the self financed “peepshow” that Maidstone was.

By the time Mailer published Existential Errands in 1971, the hey day of Underground films had passed.  Yet, in Existential Errands (an anthology of personal essays), Mailer tries very hard to justify Maidstone.  The financial problems in the wake of Maidstone and the critical beating of the film prompted Mailer’s essay.  The tone of Existential Errands is one of sorrowful defeat.  Again and again, Mailer attempts to persuade his reader to reevaluate his film.  Sadly, this would be the recourse of many an Underground filmmaker.

-Robert Curry

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Peter Biskind & His History Of Hollywood

Peter Biskind is an entertainment journalist, though not in the classic sense like J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in the film Sweet Smell Of Success (1957).

Biskind offers his readers something human about the otherworldly celebrities whose lives he reports.  The fact that he has been able to remain so objective over the course of his long career is a marvel unto itself.

Biskind’s first book published in 1983, Seeing Is Believing follows the course of popular American filmmaking in the fifties.  Biskind singles out a dozen film titles that he then gives a brief production history of and some mild mannered criticism.  The book maintains a casual tone throughout, but what makes the read truly intriguing is how the book soon becomes a portrait of its author.  Biskind’s mild mannered criticism is just that, amateurish film analysis whose primary concern is the historical context of the film.  However, Biskind’s own nostalgia for most of the films is at conflict with the context he forces himself to place the titles in.  A worthwhile example of this would be his piece on Fred Zinnemann’s film From Here To Eternity.  Stylistically speaking, the most important aspect of Biskind’s first book is how well he draws illuminating parallels between the moviemakers and the movies they made.

This device is what makes his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) his masterpiece.  Most readers go digging for stories about Robert Towne’s dog, Francis Coppola dropping his pants, Peter Bogdanovich’s sexual triumphs, William Friedkin sadistically torturing Ellen Burstyn, and of course everything having to do with BBS or Roman Polanski.  The book focuses on Hollywood from the rise of Warren Beatty’s producer power on the production of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde to the death of Hal Ashby.  It seems likely that the book sold so well based exclusively on the strength of its gossip, and the extreme living the books subjects were a part of.

But, as I implied above, to dismiss Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as an anthology of 1970s Hollywood gossip would negate the most compelling component of Biskind’s writing.  Let me make use of the most obvious example, Roman Polanski.  Biskind can find Polanski’s personal grief, obsessions and paranoia manifesting them not just on the screen, but also during production.  Thus, Biskind provides an accurate portrait of Polanski the film artist.  Amazingly, Biskind accomplishes what he did with Polanski with almost all of his subjects, and he is even able to tie all their stories together cohesively (one is may be tempted to say Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is to Hollywood what Robert Altman’s film Nashville was to Nashville).

What works better in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is that Biskind does not attempt the analysis of these films as he did in Seeing Is Believing.  It succeeds better as factual reporting, allowing contexts and connections to slowly and organically reveal themselves to the reader, who can then quite easily make applications to the films discussed in the book as an active audience member.  It cannot be stressed enough how important the history and lives of filmmakers are to understanding the films they have created.  Lets just say then, that Peter Biskind’s books are a good place to start.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012