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A Sensually Complex World

To hell with it. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the people. Your job is to look. Your Vocation is to look, not to entertain. Entertaining comes second. You should consider yourself somebody who can be entertaining by virtue of the sincerity and the rigorousness of his ability to look. – Hal Hartley, 1994

Farber & Patterson

Lately I have been immersed in Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings Of Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito). Manny Farber has long been established as one of the great American film critics and it is easy to see why from this collection. For myself, I find that he has so much to say that is still relevant today, particularly as it concerns the American cinema. One piece especially, The New Breed Of Filmmakers, very succinctly pinpoints the aesthetic trends that have become the backbone of Hollywood cinema and how these trends have limited or even bankrupted the artistry of Hollywood films. What I found most compelling in this single essay was Farber’s and his co-author Patricia Patterson’s ability to articulate a device that can single-handedly render the most mechanical narrative so much more fascinating.

Farber is describing his favorite scene in John Frankenheimer’s The French Connection II (1975) when he writes “the car scene is played-photographed off-center, creating space that’s not dependent on virtuosity but lets in a sensually complex world”. Meaning that this scene diverts, just for a moment, from the thrust of the narrative, acknowledging a “state” of character and location that reaches out and connects to a wider “world”, or set of sensory experiences, beyond the claustrophobia of the narrative complex.

Immediately Robert Altman comes to mind. Having just revisited his film Short Cuts (1993), Altman’s “audio collage” technique and his “sloppy” montage technique were fresh in my memory, as was the effectiveness of his aesthetic for getting to moments that let “in a sensually complex world”. However, most filmmakers, especially American filmmakers, don’t prioritize this kind of narrative grounding. Farber is correct in his assertion that scenes which do “connect” are the exception rather than the rule.

Gene Hackman

The reason that scenes like these have merits is primarily because the suspension of disbelief is allowed to take in a broader scope of world experience and reflection. When such a moment occurs in a film like The French Connection II it is entirely unexpected and even a little subversive. When one goes to see a blockbuster, one does not expect reality to really find a foothold in one’s sensory experience. In fact American audiences most likely associate this set of aesthetic experiences more heavily with foreign films (particularly those of Jacques Rivette, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrzej Wajda and Jia Zhangke)  and underground films (those of Andy Warhol, James Benning and Shirley Clarke).

There also seems to have been a greater degree of such “moments” in the American films of the seventies. If memory serves, I can recall such instances very clearly in the films of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Elaine May, John Cassavetes, Jerry Schatzberg, and Barbara Loden; whereas in more contemporary films I find that such moments are much more scarce. In large part this is probably due to the “auteurist craze”, the power of the director, and the desire to disguise fundamentally formulaic films as art that was so prevalent in the seventies. Today, the producer is king again in Hollywood.

The roots of this aesthetic principle of “connectivity” could be easily attributed to the neo-realist films of De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini with their emphasis of showing characters at work (as Giles Deleuze argues in Cinema 2: The Time Image). But I find that older films, going at least as far back as Griffith, demonstrate the same aesthetic desire and impetus, even if through the employment of a synthesis of character and location as an alternate means of expanding the audience’s experience of a film’s narrative world. Consider for a moment Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). This Frantastique Val Lewton production has an added sense of urgency, despite its immense stylization, due to the “lived-in” quality of its art and set designs. This represents an even more primitive cue towards the same effect. This visual quality suggests that the narrative knows a greater, more inclusive expanse than we the audience ever get to see, and therefore is able to ground the “Fantastique” into a more accessible and complex vision of reality. Béla Tarr and Hal Hartley represent a more contemporary manifestation of this synthesis. Their highly stylized films investigate and question the “world” of a film through their compositions which almost always privilege location over character within the frame.

Ned Rifle

Be it a “moment” or a “cue” or even a “synthesis”, these components that align our spectatorship toward a larger view of filmic reality will, even inadvertently, imbue a narrative with a more visceral sense of reality. This procedure has, however, proven to be more remote and impossible in the, what Peter Biskind would no doubt term, post-Jaws age of American Cinema. The flexibility of green screen and it’s obvious artifice negates the tangibility of the sets in a film like Cat People or the sense of location in a Rivette or Akerman film. And it is this reliance upon green screen, with its inherent use of exact choreography and promise of spectacle, in the mainstream of American cinema which has dictated the closing in and entrenching of the narrative.

As suggested above there are still traces of these tactics in the American cinema. It is just that one must either frequent alternate means of film exhibition (film festivals, vimeo channels) or restrict oneself to a select number of American filmmakers.

-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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The Flame & The Arrow

By 1950, Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself as one of the most versatile and economic of filmmakers working in Hollywood.  He had helmed such acclaimed titles as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942) and I Walk With A Zombie (1943), garnering him much critical acclaim with critics like Manny Farber, before directing the swashbuckling blockbuster The Flame & The Arrow (1950).  Warner Bros. produced The Flame & The Arrow to cash in on the success of two other pictures, The Adventures Of Don Juan (1948) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), as well as to cash in on the popularity of rising star Burt Lancaster.

The mood and aesthetic of The Flame & The Arrow is a dynamic departure for Tourneur.  Tourneur’s biggest success to date had been the Robert Mitchum thriller Out Of The Past (1947), whose use of expressionist shadows and languid plotting contrasts harshly with the Technicolor bombast of The Flame & The Arrow.  But Tourneur saw himself as a craftsman, not an auteur.  His duty was to fulfill an assignment to the best of his abilities and to comply with the wishes of Warner Bros. Studios.

flame2.jpg

To help make his film a success, Tourneur had to meet a tight shooting schedule.  This required him to recycle the sets of both The Adventures Of Don Juan and The Adventures Of Robin Hood.  These sets were redressed and slightly modified to comply with the number of acrobatic stunts Burt Lancaster and his co-star Nick Cravat planned to perform.

From the outset it was clear that The Flame & The Arrow was going to make Lancaster the kind of star Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn had been.  Lancaster himself had been an acrobat for many years before appearing on-screen and Cravat had been his partner.  Together they not only performed their own stunts, but also designed them.  With so few actors even being capable of performing such stunts, Warner Bros. decided to play up the acrobatics in the film’s marketing.  To solidify Lancaster’s position as a superstar and sex symbol the studio also elected Virginia Mayo to play his love interest.

The narrative of The Flame & The Arrow concerns the free-spirited Dardo (Burt Lancaster) who forms a gang similar to Robin Hood’s Merry Men with the sole task of defeating The Hawk (Robert Douglas) and rescuing Dardo’s son.  Acrobatic antics, sword fights, betrayals, and faked deaths abound in The Flame & The Arrow, yet, it cannot escape the shadow of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, even if it was a commercial smash for Warner Bros. The most interesting similarity between The Adventures Of Robin Hood and The Flame & The Arrow is the hero’s relationship to the female lead.  The role of the Maid Marian character is replaced in The Flame & The Arrow by Anne De Hesse (Virginia Mayo).  Stockholm Syndrome seems to be the best explanation for the direction that this relationship takes since both Maid Marian and Anne De Hesse fall in love with their captors while under duress.  The civility afforded Maid Marian in The Adventures Of Robin Hood looks chivalrous in comparison to how Dardo treats Anne De Hesse; which is where the similarity ends.  Once captured by Dardo and his men, Anne De Hesse is bound to a chain link leash connected to an iron collar latched tightly to her neck.  When the other end of this chain is not tied around a tree, Dardo has it in his hands.  This makes Dardo and Anne’s relationship far more violent and sexual than that of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.  Tourneur seems to have no qualms about heightening the fetishism attributed to bondage by dressing Mayo in skimpier and skimpier outfits.  Dramatically speaking, this makes the sexual tension between Anne and Dardo problematic since Dardo’s motivation to “possess” Anne is predicated upon the notion that his son needs a new mother.

It was, and still is, a popular narrative construct to pit a single parent against a villain who has captured his/her, going all the way back to Tod Browning’s underrated West Of Zanzibar (1928) and further.  In The Flame & The Arrow the world of the parent is no better than the world of the villain.  Dardo is impoverished and often starving, living off of only what he hunts in the mountains whereas The Hawk is a Count, born to majesty and privilege and susceptible to the depravities we associate with his title.  The conflict of morals casts Dardo’s mock-socialist values against The Hawk’s Fascism.  In the wake of WWII it’s not surprising that the hero is a would-be-socialist, even if it is never made explicit, and the villain a Fascist.  What is perverse is that the conflict between these two kinds of political ideas is acted out in violence, sexually and physically, in such simplified black and white terms.

This simplification akin to the good guy on the white horse and the bad guy on a black horse is regularly called into question. The villagers who champion Dardo and are oppressed by the Count often have a more communal perspective, offering an alternative to the single-mindedness of the hero or villain. To Tourneur’s credit the camera often privileges these spokes-people of reason with close-ups the beg not only for Dardo or the Count’s sympathies, but those of the spectator.

Though The Flame & The Arrow has the makings of a real entertaining extravaganza, the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, delivered a rather routine and mediocre screenplay whose most original quality are a few comical lines that recall his un-credited work on The Philadelphia Story (1940).  In one scene, Lancaster threatens Mayo with the line “Next time I’ll throw you over my knee and give you a spanking!”  Apart from a few other comical allusions to the power plays in sexual politics, Salt’s script cannot escape being overly genre heavy and cliché’, a problem shared with his script for Taras Bulba (1962).

For a film like The Flame & The Arrow it is no surprise that it was a tremendous hit when it was first released.  It cashed in on a popular genre, featured two popular leads, and boasted enough action for two films.  The Flame & The Arrow solidified Lancaster’s position as a superstar just as it was meant to, and inspired a follow-up vehicle for Lancaster called The Crimson Pirate (1952) and directed by Robert Siodmak.  The Flame & The Arrow’s assessment within the context of Jacques Tourneur’s career is still elusive, though it appears to be a surprisingly logical stepping-stone from films like Cat People to his later work such as War Gods Of The Deep (1965).

-Robert Curry

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