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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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Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

The Train

A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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