Tag Archives: John Huston

The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Spring 2017

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Spring 2017

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Summer 2016

Listen To Me Marlon

Executed in 1966, Double Marlon is a celebration of a male icon.  Warhol has placed the double image of Marlon Brando, taken from his highly influential and controversial 1953 movie The Wild One, at the right-hand edge of a vast, deliberately unprimed canvas.” – William Paton, 2008

Andy Warhol's Double Marlon

Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon

Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon (2015) presents us with another doubled rendering of Marlon Brando.  Since Warhol originated his original silkscreen, Brando has lost none of his potency as a visual signifier.  Riley clearly understands this, as Warhol did, opting out of any contextualizing prologue in his film, favoring a direct descent into the “mind” of his subject, Marlon Brando.  The doubling in Listen To Me Marlon is not a visual one, but one of sound and image.  This coupling is one of the foundations of contemporary cinema, though it has been implemented in Riley’s film somewhat unconventionally.  That is to say that the images of Brando within the film, culled from motion pictures, news reels, and television broadcasts, rarely partner with the voiceover provided by the late Brando from his own audio journals.  Thus is the nature of the voiceover.  Where Ken Burns would rely upon Peter Coyote to dramatize the events recounted in a documentary, Riley has the luxury of the subject himself providing “his own” thoughts and recollections.

Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) implements the same technical and aesthetic techniques as Listen To Me Marlon.  Both films present unique portraits of their subjects in that these films are able to pass as authentic renderings of the subject within the confines of sound and image.  However, and this was more evident in Riley’s film than in Solt’s, the audio of the voiceover is actually a patchwork of dialogue edited together.  Obviously this is motivated by a need to make the subjects more succinct in their respective recollections and thoughts.  But another decisive proponent that often leads to such tinkering is the pressure upon the estates of both Lennon and Brando to preserve the brand they represent.  In Imagine: John Lennon May Pang is clearly edited into the relative footnotes of the film whilst Brando’s bisexuality and controversial relationship with fellow actor Montgomery Clift is overlooked entirely.  Both films reveal this white-washing in the filmmakers desperate need to make a film that appears all-inclusive of its subject.  May Pang is allowed a few fond recollections of her time with Lennon in 1974 while Riley uses a home-movie clip of Brando and Clift “goofing off” together in two brief instances early in Listen To Me Marlon.

The commerciality shared by Imagine and Listen To Me Marlon de-synchronizes the doubling of sound and image in a harmony that is authentic.  This is also expressed by Riley’s self-restriction when it comes to Brando’s career, bounding from the early sixties to Coppola’s The Godfather then to death.  Brando the brand that is seen on Turner Classic Movies’ websites and promotional materials, on t-shirts, handbags, buttons, and jackets, is almost always restricted to the Brando of the fifties.  This is another signal of Listen To Me Marlon‘s inauthenticity, as well as its power as a branding device.  Consider the effect this film will have as a form of advertisement for the products of the Brando brand?

What Listen To Me Marlon represents that is truly regrettable is that the film did not live up to its potential.  The vast scope of the material Brando had recorded onto cassette is astonishing.  If that had been coupled with exclusively the 16mm and Super 8 film of Brando’s own home movies then Listen To Me Marlon would have been unforgettable, if not unlike the films of Mark Rappaport.  If that had been the case, then the linear core structure of the film could have been replaced with a meditative, meandering one of self-reflection on the part of Brando, dictated by Brando himself by way of his tapes.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Listen To Me Marlon does redeem itself, and not just in its value as entertainment.  If one knew very little of Marlon Brando, one would have found Riley’s film informative and even engrossing.  Yet its true merits come from Brando’s insights into performance.  These insights, peppered throughout the film, are exactly the ideas young actors must be aware of, and these concepts are phrased in the manner that they should be.  The instructive possibilities of Riley’s film were something I had not anticipated.  The talents of the next generation would do well to have a look at Listen To Me Marlon.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Winter 2012

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard

“John Carradine was a person, like Arthur Kennedy, I could hang onto.  He knew what we were trying to do.  Yah, it (Bluebeard) was a very lovely picture.”-Edgar G. Ulmer to Peter Bogdanovich, February 1970.

Bluebeard

Edgar G. Ulmer represents a singular phenomenon in the history of American filmmaking.  In the twenties, Ulmer worked in numerous capacities on the films of such renowned German filmmakers as Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, F.W. Murnau and Paul Wegener.  And like these filmmakers, Ulmer immigrated to Hollywood when the Nazis began their climb for power.  The primary difference between Ulmer and his contemporaries is his position within the American studio system.  Where Siodmak and Wilder found both critical and commercial success in Hollywood genre films, Ulmer was relegated to making quick low-budget features.  The reason for Ulmer’s B-Movie exile has to do with the affair he had with a Universal Studio’s executive’s wife on the set of The Black Cat (1934).  By breaking up the marriage, Ulmer in essence had expelled himself from A-List features.

Ten years later, while making films for the Producers Releasing Corporation, Ulmer created a work of personal film art unprecedented when one considers the budgetary and creative restraints that were imposed upon him.  The film in question is Bluebeard, a film about a painter turned puppeteer when he begins killing the models that sit for him.  The script, penned by Arnold Phillips, Werner H. Furst, and Pierre Gendron is barely passable fare.  Yet, Ulmer is able to lift the film out of the realm of B-Movie mediocrity with the collaboration of his cinematographers Jockey Arthur Feindel and Eugen Schufftan (the cinematographer Ulmer always used on his more personal pictures).

For Ulmer, working in these conditions forced him to innovate elsewhere in the film, focusing on the image rather than the narrative content.  Bluebeard represents the most dramatic alternative in his approach, drawing on such diverse influences as German Expressionism, Eric Von Stroheim, D.W. Griffith, G.W. Pabst, and Carl Dreyer.  In essence, Bluebeard functions, on a visual level, as if the thirties had never occurred in American films.  The clumsy staging and flat lighting that were a technical necessity and still the relative norm in 1944 are totally absent in Ulmer’s film.  For Bluebeard, Ulmer designed all of the sets himself; he also manages to create and manipulate shadow to create not only depth and contrast in his compositions, but to add a level of psychological reflection, recalling his German roots in the industry.  In fact, two of the most compelling sequences in Bluebeard adopt the perverted landscapes of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) as their setting, distinguishing the flashbacks in Ulmer’s film from the rest of the narrative.  Likewise, Ulmer baths John Carradine’s character in shadows and puppet silhouette’s at the film’s climax, making a distinct reference to Murnau’s epic Faust (1926).

The most intriguing quotation in Bluebeard does not, however, have its origin in the German cinema of the twenties.  Instead Ulmer looks to Jean Cocteau’s Blood Of The Poet (1930).  In The Blood Of A Poet a man falls into a mirror as if the mirror were a pool of water.  This special effect is achieved by Cocteau through cross cutting two versions of the same shot in slow motion.  The image of a man falling into a black pool of water in slow motion is the last shot in Ulmer’s Bluebeard, when John Carradine falls off of a Parisian rooftop while being pursued by the police.  Logic suggests that through this quotation Ulmer is not only suggesting physical death, but spiritual death for the serial killing Bluebeard character John Carradine plays.

The myriad of silent film techniques Ulmer employs are all designed to illuminate the psychosis of the serial killer in the film.  These sequences of Expressionism are juxtaposed by long and sometimes languishing scenes of the police hard at work hunting down the killer.  The dramatic polarization that occurs visually between these two parts is a concept adapted from Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M (1931), a film on which Ulmer had worked.  But unlike Lang, Ulmer is more interested in the Expressionistic possibilities of his anti-hero than in the procedural details of justice.

Ulmer directing

Still, placing Bluebeard in a contemporary vernacular proves difficult.  Stylisticly it adheres to neither the popular blueprint provided by Citizen Kane (1941) or that of The Maltese Falcon (1941).  Ulmer’s approach and the odd nature of the film’s script defy any classification.  To approximate its standing in the context of cinema in the forties one has to innovate a new term, revisionist expressionism.  In other words, Bluebeard is a silent German film with sound.  Oddly enough, Bluebeard ends up having more in common with the films of Guy Maddin than with any of Ulmer’s then living contemporaries.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Winter 2012

Adaptation Or Translation?

Since the cinema’s invention, filmmakers have looked to literary sources for material.  This process has been called adaptation.  It’s a means of cinematic story telling that few filmmakers have not dabbled in.  In fact, it’s safe to say that some of the most highly regarded films ever made have been adaptations.  Few filmmakers rival John Huston’s skill and innovation in employing this tactic, though one can hardly claim that any of Huston’s film adaptations represent anything other than his own unique vision.  All of his films, from The Maltese Falcon (1941) to Wise Blood (1979) exhibit a uniformity in technical style and social concern that negates any closer affiliation with the source material Huston draws upon.  Huston’s relationship with the novel represents the ideal form of film adaptation.  Quite literally, Huston changes and amends his source material, so that it no longer truly resembles a novel, in form or in content for the most part.  In Huston’s capable hands, a novel is adapted, taking on a new form and a new language with which to communicate to the masses in an entirely different medium of artistic expression, the film.

John Huston directing The Man Who Would Be King

Despite the artistry of the adaptation or its adaptor, critics and audiences still find it difficult to separate their evaluations of the film from the novel.  Almost everyone has complained at one time or another that the film did not follow the novel closely enough.  This kind of accusation and aesthetic ignorance provides the keystone to arguments against films such as David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1984) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1972).  These films, along with all others made following similar parameters, should not be considered in comparison with the novels on which they were based in regards to narrative content, but as the unique expressions of the filmmakers who have authored the adaptations.  The argument against the adaptation of novels into films ignores entirely the human tradition of classicism.  Of so many novels and films it can be said that there are only about a dozen stories, upon which there are a million or so variations.  This kind of classicism, and the perceptive critical thinking behind such criticism make evident the rudimentary argument against adaptation.

Those who stand in opposition of film adaptations of novels are not thinking in terms of adaptation, but in terms of translation.  By this I mean the exact replication of an author’s words into images on the screen.  To film a novel in this way, one would be forced to shoot in isolating close-ups and obscured wide shots, in effect, decontextualizing the characters who inhabit the narrative.  What the filmmaker cannot show is discarded, and what they can show is photographed so as to not add any extraneous data such as an object or background not described in the book.  A translation of this sort could not adhere to the conventions of narrative filmmaking, but would instead approximate the dissociative effects of Tony Conrad’s Flicker (1965) or Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959).  Such an approach to the novel would be no more effective than the adaptations of John Huston, but would however serve to reinvent the cinematographic langue so that it’s mechanisms begin to resemble those of the novel, or at the least, how the mind processes the information within a novel as one reads.

Brakhage

The proposed concept of translation from novel to film is an endeavor I plan to execute in the spring of this upcoming year.  The idea is to find a short story, then strip it down of all extraneous information that pertains to the psychological make up of its characters.  The film’s script will be written entirely with the nouns, dialogue, and verbs within the story after the initial purging.  In the editing, images will be aligned simply, utilizing numerous jump cuts from one image to the other, stopping only when there is a chapter break in the original story.  By testing my theory this way, I believe I will find a cinematic language that will allow both the sentimentally dramatic character arcs and the formalist approach to reflexivity in the film’s technical execution to coexist and better inform one another.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn 2012

Politics, Brando & Burn!

“He (Pontecorvo) has no fucking feeling for people.”-Marlon Brando

By the time Marlon Brando signed to star in Burn! (1969) he had starred in a string of box-office flops including The Night Of The Following Day (1968) and John Huston’s lyrical erotic masterpiece Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) as well as having turned down the lead in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969).  Brando’s expectations for Burn! were matched only by the film’s director, Gillo Pontecorvo, who hoped to combine the romantic adventure film with the “idea movie”.  Unlike Brando,  Pontecorvo’s previous film The Battle Of Algiers (1966) had been a critical sensation, as popular as it was influential.  Perhaps Brando’s decision to work with Pontecorvo was motivated by the need to achieve both a critical and commercial legitimacy that had sorely been lacking from Brando’s career during much of the decade.

Burn! follows William Walker (a character of fiction named for the historical revolutionary who is the subject of the Alex Cox film Walker) as he instigates a rebellion in Queimada, only to return a decade later to suppress it.  Both the character of William Walker and the location Queimada are fictitious inventions of Pontecorvo’s, designed to stand in for the actual events that occurred in Guadeloupe during the early nineteenth century.  Allegorically speaking, the film is intended to indict colonialism and capitalist intervention, two themes that dominate Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers.  Where The Battle Of Algiers focused on a contemporary uprising intended to instigate anti-imperialism, Burn! works as a metaphor for the American involvement in Vietnam, with the Brando character representing America.

The technical mechanisms at work in Burn! are not unlike The Battle Of Algiers.  The intervening years between the two films saw a tremendous number of imitators of The Battle Of Algiers aesthetic.  This prevents Burn! from achieving the sense of urgency at the heart of The Battle Of Algiers, or the freshness of its cinematic style.  By 1968, numerous films had employed the kinetic camera movements and the hand held camera techniques Pontecorvo employs in Burn!  This doesn’t hurt the film, it simply inhibits the films ability to emote, relegating those duties almost exclusively to Brando.

What is significant about Burn! is its depiction of European intervention in the South Americas.  Walker arrives in Queimada to help overthrow a Portuguese ruler and liberate the island.  The liberation is achieved with considerable damage to the economy.  The ruler Walker set-up becomes disinterested in trading with the European nations, plunging the country into poverty.  Years later, Walker returns as a British representative and aids in the execution of the very ruler he had put into power.   Walker’s behavior is motivated solely by monetary gain.  Though he is aware of the sociological ramifications of his actions, he suppresses them in favor of his benefactors.  The imperialists of Burn! are completely detached from the human conflict at hand, treating the people of the island with a cold harshness.  Pontecorvo is able to convey the polarity of the conflict by reserving his documentary style for when he photographs the rebellion, opting to photograph Walker and his allies with more conventional tactics.  The polarity between these two parties does however suffer from being too extreme.  Pontecorvo’s style pushes either side of the conflict close to caricature and cliché.  The result of this side effect is an artificial sensation that foregrounds the political agenda of the film over the character arc of the film’s lead, Walker.

Of the political messages that abound in Pontecorvo’s film the most troubling is his revisionist approach to slavery.  His depiction is all too accurate and all too brief within the film, standing alone as a haunting two minutes lost in a film that runs just shy of two hours.  In Burn!, Pontecorvo presents his audience with a Europe of imperialist governments whose primary motive for discarding slavery was not a moral one, but an economic one.  When the slave trade was no longer profitable, the slave trade ceased to exist.  In popular western cinema such a radical depiction was unprecedented and may help to explain why it was so lightly touched upon, avoiding villainizing the character of Walker.  The depiction of slavery outlined above would later be given a clearer voice in the late seventies by the Cuban filmmaker Gutierrez Alea, whose film The Last Supper (1977) is instrumental to understanding the perspective of the South American in the conflict.

The Battle Of Algiers also shares with Burn! a tragic ending.  The instigators of revolution in both films are assassinated at the films conclusion.  The concept of the “legend” is also approached in a similar way.  Pontecorvo suggests in both films that the leaders of rebellion die in a sort of martyrdom, that their contributions ensure that the revolution carries on and that their names become synonymous with it, achieving a legendary status.  In hindsight, this is not entirely true.  Let us reconsider the Vietnam analogy.

The French once had a colony in Vietnam as they had in Algiers.  When the French were met with resistance, they called upon the United States for assistance, just as the rebels initially call on William Walker in Burn!.  The French all but disappear from the Vietnam conflict after a few short years as America wages war in the name of democracy.  This transition in Vietnam into an American conflict is represented by Walker’s return to the island to quell the rebellion.  Again, Pontecorvo insists that his audience see the political agendas in his film and in real life in black and white terms.  Pontecorvo’s stance is clearly anti-Vietnam just as it is anti-colonialism, which in this case seems to overlap somewhat.  Pontecorvo has cleverly villainized all political movements and ideas that do not exhibit and interest in the needs of the people, particularly the impoverished and the minority.  Such a position was typical of the “artist” in the late sixties, and prevents a contemporary audience from easily engaging Burn!.  This two-dimensional perspective of Pontecorvo’s political ideology is indicative of a naïveté’ and only a mild comprehension of world events.  Burn! has the benefit of exhibiting historical concepts that are easily understood from the perspective of hindsight, but suffers as an allegory for more contemporary political conflicts.

The two dimensional depiction of politics in Burn! indicates a trend in the mainstream of narrative filmmaking of the late sixties.  Comparing Pontecorvo’s work with that of Costa-Gravas certain tendencies become more and more evident.  That the revolutionary tactics of the left during the late sixties, even their views, do not translate easily into the narrative form.  For example, Pontecorvo’s attempt to codify the Brando character by naming him William Walker appears contrived and pretentious.  In contrast, the avant-garde narratives of William Klein and Jean-Luc Godard not only succeed in communicating leftist views, but also manage to manifest those concepts into the technical execution of their films.  I don’t mean we should dismiss the films of Pontecorvo or Costa-Gravas, rather, consideration of those films within a political context should never go beyond simple representation and signification.

Interestingly, Marlon Brando’s liberalism is what first attracted him to Burn!.  Though his views were more to the extreme than Pontecorvo’s, their personal conflicts stemmed from a different place entirely.  The production of Burn! was troubled by non-actors and problems arising from the multitude of locations used in the film.  Brando had to pass on a number of projects because of production delays and his own inflated ego that dictated his celebrity treatment.  Despite all of these conflicts, Burn! contains one of Brando’s very best performances, on par with his work in The Fugitive Kind (1959) and The Godfather (1972).

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under Autumn 2012