Tag Archives: Charles Burnett

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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Face to Faces With Faces

By 1968, John Cassavetes had completed his fourth film Faces after three years of production.  It was then, and is now one of the seminal works of American filmmaking.  It is not an independent film in the sense a film is independent today, those films are usually “pick-up” films.  Films that are financed by small production companies in New York or California that become bankable because they’ve found distribution from a subsidiary distributor at a major Hollywood studio, Coming Home for example.  What Cassavetes did was self-finance and self distribute, a major act of rebellion that remains so even today, though it has become virtually impossible to do so.

Cassavetes’ prior film to Faces had been the star studded A Child Is Waiting [with Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland and Gena Rowlands respectively].  A Child Is Waiting [1962] was intended by it’s producer Stanley Kramer to be his humanistic follow-up to Judgment at Nuremburg, and whose appointing of Cassavetes as director had only been the result of Burt Lancaster’s insistence [Lancaster had wanted to work with Cassavetes since he had seen Cassavetes debut film Shadows in 1958, and had even considered contracting him for his own production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster].  The film A Child Is Waiting as it exists today is the Kramer cut, the Cassavetes cut has been destroyed, because of this Kramer got his nose broken and Cassavetes swore off directing for a major studio [A Child Is Waiting was an MGM and United Artists co-production, as had been Cassavetes’ film prior Too Late Blues].  This falling out set the stage for a new direction in John Cassavetes’ career, and put into motion the film we now know as Faces.

            Faces is different from many other Cassavetes’ films as well as the Hollywood mainstream.  The crew was self-taught out of necessity, the cast was little known, and the film was shot in six months on the basis of actor availability, which wasn’t even common in Cassavetes’ future productions.  But because the crew and actors were friends before shooting, the process of making the film became, as Cassavetes puts it “a way of life”.

It was a labor of love.  When Cassavetes’ ran out of sufficient funds, having already mortgaged his own home [where most of the shooting took place], he took roles in other more major films like Don Siegel’s The Killers and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen to finance his film.   This was a rebellion to the Hollywood system, and he knew that.  He believed, after his experience working for Stanley Kramer, that to make a film that he thought depicted and addressed the problems of American people he would have to do it alone, outside the glitz and glamour of MGM or Warner Bros.  In retrospect, he seems to have been correct.

Faces is not a marketable film.  It’s the story of a middle aged upper middle class couple on the eve of their divorce who happen upon affairs with younger people.  Faces avoids the turbulent revolutions of the sixties, negating politics and pop-culture to focus upon the emotional truth of the human condition among middle aged Americans.  Faces is raw in its material and in its execution.  There was no make-up on the players, which gave them a credible believability especially since the film is made up of mostly close-ups.  The editing and cinematography are throwbacks to the calculated cinema verte’ of Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive.  Even the soundtrack is strictly diagetic.  All these components suspend the film in a plastic reality whose placidity is so transparent and foreign that the film rings uncomfortably accurate, and undeniably truthful.  John Cassavetes, as writer and director, has so astutely represented his subject that even today the film is difficult, not because it is dated but plays on the audiences emotions so subtly with a brutality one does not expect from a film but only the real life conflicts when lived that are depicted in Faces.

            John Cassavetes knew the film was difficult, and in 1968 the critics agreed with him.  The critics would, however, hail it as a masterpiece.  Faces went on to enjoy acclaim and festival awards upon it’s limited release in film festivals and Cassavetes’ own take on block booking.  Subsequently, Cassavetes never again would make a film with the artifice of his Kramer production, remaining essentially independent and controversial for his brutally honest portrayals of the American every-family.

The type of filmmaking that defined Faces brought about a new wave of American filmmakers and a new corner to American cinema.  Though this influence would not become mainstream and therefore obvious till the late nineties in films such as Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy and David Gordon Green’s George Washington, a decade after Cassavetes’ death.  While Still in Cassavetes own life time, his influence could be seen in films such as Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Barbara Loden’s Wanda [though through her marriage to Elia Kazan procured a distribution deal], and Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep.  It was an American Cinema of outsiders even to the likes of the BBS production company and to Columbia Pictures at the turn of the decade [through 1969-1971, Columbia produced several films for new auteur directors with a million dollar budget and carte blanche for creative control, among these filmmakers were Monte Hellman, Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby].

No one person took up the precedent Cassavetes had set with Faces quite like Cassavetes’ own very good friend Elaine May.  In 1976, May wrote and directed her third feature which not only barrowed heavily from Cassavetes’ revolutionary technique, but starred the director as Nicky in Mikey & Nicky [1976].  Elaine May had been the sole author of the material for Nichols & May, and worked as a script doctor for Warren Beatty and Robert Towne.  Her admiration for John Cassavetes astute writing for realist characters led to their friendship and to the subsequent production of the film Mikey & Nicky.  Today, May’s film is considered a masterpiece of American Cinema as well as a film of considerably artistic credibility just as most of Cassavetes’ own films have.  At the time of it’s initial release, Mikey & Nicky was reprimanded for it’s long shooting schedule and inability to find an audience.  Her film went the way of Cassavetes’ Husbands and Opening Night.

It’s clear from the vantage point of a critic in 2010 that John Cassavetes tread water with Faces, and that as a filmmaker he has had an immeasurable influence.  Though in his day, he would always struggle to make his films and garner some recognition in the United States; he was either dismissed or neglected or even worse, rejected by critics.  At a time when the world had gone mad he had held a mirror to the most private lives of Americans, the domestic life.  Though his hopeful message is clear today, in the sixties and seventies he was seen as an exploitative mad man of the Art Houses.  John Cassavetes’ revolution of the cinema was a silent, covert revolution.  But it may just have been the most crucial career to the development of the artistic in American Cinema.

-Robert Curry

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