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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, Andrea Arnold, Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, and Hal Hartley represent a more contemporary manifestation of this synthesis, albeit a diverse one. 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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Discoveries

It is relatively easy today to discover a film. It is certainly far easier today than it was when I was growing up. Online streaming platforms such as FilmStruck and Hulu bring a wide variety of titles, some obscure and some not, to curious spectators and cinephiles with far more ease and accessibility than a video store or a library ever did. Yet, somehow, this great abundance and variety becomes prohibitive after a fashion; inundating the viewer with maybe too many options. There is also something to be said about collecting films. Owning a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, possessing an object, gives one a sense of material satisfaction. This satisfaction, when so many things are available in the ether of the internet, is part of the appeal of these formats. One could even say that it is this impulse toward the tangible that has sparked the revitalization of vinyl within the music industry. And similarly to how vinyl records often sound better, a film often looks better on DVD or Blu-Ray. In my own experience I often have found prints of obscure films on different streaming platforms, like Netflix, to be rather poor when I know for a fact that a better print is available.

ktbomhcolor

There is also the matter of availability. Warner Archives, for instance, has brought out and continues to bring out what seems like a limitless supply of classic Hollywood fare. Most of these films will probably never be popular enough to find a place in the foreseeable future on Netflix or Hulu. So the only way to access these titles is on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, this doesn’t even get into films that are available only in other regions. Eureka!, Second Run, BFI, Edition filmmuseum, all release prestigious and scholarly packages of renowned films unavailable in the United States, making their home video releases essential to serious students of film. Ironically, the shift in the home video market, epitomized by the strategies exemplified by Warner Archive, only came about because of the immense popularity of online streaming. That is to say that home video has become a niche market after a fashion.

These circumstances that have made so many films available for study for the first time has such inexhaustible possibilities that it can be overwhelming and often times happens only as a sort of accident. Back in July I finally saw the Norman Foster film Kiss The Blood Off My Hands (1948), a sort of quickie noir piece that was the first film produced by Burt Lancaster’s Norma Productions (available as a Universal Vault Series DVD release). The opening chase sequence in which Lancaster evades the police on an elaborate expressionist set-piece with all of his athletic prowess was surprising not just for its length, but what evidence it provided of Orson Welles’ influence on his one time protege Norman Foster (Foster was at one time a co-director on Welles’ famous “lost” project It’s All True, directing the “My Friend Bonito” section). One can’t necessarily credit Welles with introducing Foster to the silent German Expressionist films of the twenties, but one can credit Welles with having imbued in Foster a sensibility for the importance of the seen and unseen in a sequence. Kiss The Blood Off My Hands, like Welles’ The Stranger (1946), uses shadow and dramatic angles (high and low) to focus the spectator’s gaze on specific details in a rapid succession of shots. Foster’s employment of Welles’ visual strategy in a run-of-the-mill “quickie”, for my money, positions him in favor of Jess Franco as the “kitsch Welles”. This aesthetic relationship between Welles and Foster was one that, like so many others, I had dismissed after having seen some of Foster’s work for Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. However, after viewing Kiss The Blood Off My Hands I revisited Foster’s most famous film, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier (1955) and was able to locate shades of Orson Welles yet again, though this time employed toward a more theatrical aesthetic end.

Poster - Lovely to Look At_08

I also found a trend in later MGM musicals upon revisiting Charles Walter’s Texas Carnival (1951) as a companion film to Mervyn LeRoy’s Lovely To Look At (1952); both available from Warner Archive and both featuring Red Skelton. First it may be helpful to note that the Jerome Kern musical Lovely To Look At was made quickly to cash in on the success of George Sidney’s film of Show Boat the previous year, employing almost all of the same cast but with Jack Cummings producing in place of Arthur Freed (Jack Cummings also produced Texas Carnival and handled a number of MGM’s lower budget musical productions). Both of these films star Howard Keel and each film stages an effective dream sequence around Keel as the romantic leading man. The earlier film, Texas Carnival, locates this dream as a kind of sexual reverie or fantasy that Keel is having about his leading lady, Esther Williams. LeRoy’s camera stays predominantly behind keel, though it concludes with Keel in a profile shot. LeRoy’s motivations for this visual structure are twofold. Firstly, Keel is the lesser star in 1951, and secondly this placement of the camera invites the audience to share and to participate in Keel’s gaze as an apparition of Esther Williams (courtesy of superimposition) swims around his hotel suite. In Lovely To Look At, Keel is the bigger star and has thus graduated to becoming the subject of the underrated Kathryn Grayson’s dream stuff in this film. Here, Grayson finds Keel gradually appearing in four full length mirrors as he serenades her, his voice quadrupling on the soundtrack. The camera sits behind Grayson, and the four Keels, forming an implied triangular formation, frame her. Both sequences, comic in their eccentricity, heartbreaking in their sincerity, prove just how important the commodification of a star was for MGM. Neither scene is important to characterization nor to narrative. The one aim that they prove and satisfy is in selling a star. This tactic, from today’s viewpoint, epitomizes the nostalgia and innocence promised by “classic movies”, thus rendering such scenes more memorable than some of those films’ finer sequences such as Vincente Minnelli’s uncredited climax to Lovely To Look At.

These discoveries may seem inconsequential or even mundane, but they prove that there is still so much to mine in the cinema. I chose these three films for their obscurity because it is in these films which are finally receiving a release, some for the first time ever to home video, that one can find the untold stories of film. The cinema will always be progressive, it will always move forward with hundreds upon hundreds of films completed each and every year, but it is our collective cinematic past, more than our present in this country, that is finally becoming available.

-Robert Curry

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