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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

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A Dog Unarmed

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954)

Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954)

When one thinks of the American West one may recall the vistas of John Ford, prints by Mort Künstler, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, the music of Ennio Morricone, or even perhaps Tom Mix, though that seems somewhat doubtful today.  The West, with its legendary gunfighters, its promise of Western expansion, and the advent of railways that would unite the country have all worked together to solidify its myth in the consciousness of nearly every American.  The West provides such a rich mythology that, within the cinema, it has become the single most American of film genres.  It’s potential and versatility has even prompted filmmakers from without the United States to make films of the West.  Just as American filmmakers embraced Arthurian legend and Roman history, so have the Europeans embraced the Western.

Being the most popular genre in this country one can find an almost inexhaustible resource of film criticism and analysis on the subject.  Critics have been debating the many forms the genre has taken over the years since its inception in the late 19th century.  Due to this over abundance I have seen fit to isolate and examine a few key films from the last century that represent an international understanding of the genre.  Placing these films for discussion by order of release will help map the evolution of the genre from B-Movie to blockbuster and beyond.  But in selecting these films I have opted to avoid titles and filmmakers alike who have become iconic within the genre.  Names such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, George Stevens, John Sturges, Richard Thorpe, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, and Sergio Leone will not be discussed at great length.  Likewise, filmmakers who have been widely written about in cinema circles, like Monte Hellman, Sam Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray and Bud Boetticher will also not be discussed at great length.  As I stated before, the primary goal of this article is to examine films from around the world that have reinterpreted and expanded the genre beyond the parameters one commonly associated with Westerns today.

“Give a man a free hand and he’ll try to put it all over you.”-Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930)

John Wayne in The Big Trail

Raoul Walsh is one of the big names in studio-era Westerns, often appearing alongside names such as John Ford and Howard Hawks in film journals.  And like them, Walsh’s life was disproportionate to the rest of existence as if he were a character in one of his own films.  Still, despite his fame and reputation, Walsh’s silent films about poverty and his early “talkies” go unrecognized by most.  This is likely due to the fact that these early films by the director do not come equipped with a reputation earned during their original release.  These films, including The Big Trail, were rediscovered and re-evaluated some thirty years or more after the fact.

Raoul Walsh brings to The Big Trail (1930) something never seen on the same scope again in any of his films, an epic sense of mise-en-scène.  Walsh’s ability to control as well as to construct shots with gigantic set pieces and a horde of extras comes as a by-product of his years working under D.W. Griffith.  Add to that the new technology he was able to apply to the picture, 70mm film, and this particular talent is made even more apparent.

Lucien Andriot’s cinematography also recalls Griffith’s silent epics with its use of light; smokey and faded.  The dreamy effect of the photography instills Walsh’s images with a Romanticism fitting the films narrative which, from today’s perspective, seems a bit contrived and overly familiar.  But it is the Romantically pastoral images of The Big Trail that set it far apart from other early sound Westerns.  In 1930 Westerns were predominantly a genre of low-budget “quickies” meant to fill out a day’s worth of programing at the theaters.  The Big Trail was a prestige picture with a momentous budget and considerable resources.  The failure of the film to find its audience seriously jeopardized the careers of not just Raoul Walsh, but also the film’s star, newcomer John Wayne.

What’s problematic today about viewing The Big Trail is just how much we, as an audience, take sound for granted.  In terms of sound design and even the manner in which particular characters talk, The Big Trail established the codified sound cues that are essential to the contemporary Western.  Tyrone Power Sr.’s performance as Red Flack in the film invented what has become the archetypal villain in “wagon train dramas”, most obviously referenced in Anthony Mann’s Bend In The River (1952) with Arthur Kennedy’s portrayal of Emerson Cole or Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven (1992).  That The Big Trail was so hardly seen and yet so influential speaks to the uniqueness of Walsh’s talents.

Rancho Notorious

Arthur Kennedy & Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Cinemascope is not for men, but for snakes and funerals.”-Fritz Lang

Rancho Notorious (1952) is not unique in its inversion of the traditional female role in Westerns.  Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) accomplish this with more style and aptitude.  What Rancho Notorious has that makes it something unique during the height of the Westerns’ popularity in the United States is Fritz Lang.

Coming from years of working at Ufa as one of Germany’s most successful directing talents, Lang brings not just his experience, but weds that experience with his own sense of disenfranchisement that he was experiencing in America.  Lang’s own struggle to connect with American culture is in no film more apparent that Rancho Notorious.  Early in the film there is a montage in which Arthur Kennedy travels about looking for the man who killed his lover.  This montage resembles, in pace and content, those of M (1931) and Metropolis (1927).  Similarly, when Arthur Kennedy recognizes his lover’s broach on Marlene Dietrich in the scene where they first meet the lighting as well as the camera’s proximity to Kennedy recreate a number of similar shots of similar emotional content in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse The Gambler (1922).  The most striking sequence in the film in terms of technique occurs in the scene where Kennedy gets into a brawl at a barbershop.  This scene, unlike any other in Lang’s career to that point, features a roaming camera whose focus is the action.  That simple choice of camera work gives the scene a realism to its violence that is, even today, uncomfortable simply because it is not at all what one expects.  The fight from Rancho Notorious would recreate itself the following year though in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953).

It’s in these distinctly expressionistic tactics cited above that the audience finds the sense of “other worldliness” in Rancho Notorious.  It is an unreality more violent, more sexual than one is accustomed to in Westerns of this time.  And it is through this phenomenon that discerning viewers may realize that the “other worldliness” of Rancho Notorious is, at least for Lang, representative of his view of the United States.

“…a movie about a one-woman all-fag cowboy town“-Andy Warhol

Lonesome Cowboys

Joe Dallesandro in Lonesome Cowboys

If the fifties represented a trend in subverting the Western genre by inverting the sexual politics of the day, enhancing the explicitness of the violence, and embracing the sexuality of the films’ characters, then the sixties simply pushed those elements out and beyond into the realm of camp.  And it is in this realm that Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys (1968) lives.

Like most of Warhol’s films at the time Lonesome Cowboys was co-directed by Paul Morrissey, who was bringing a degree of legitimacy to Warhol’s productions via his knowledge of classic Hollywood.  So it is little wonder that Lonesome Cowboys follows the conventions, with regards to its sexual politics, set forth in Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar.  Except Warhol’s cowboys are all gay, thus relegating the “one-woman” in town into the role of mother and incestuous lover.  The significance of this film beyond that has little to do with re-writing the conventions of the genre.  Instead Lonesome Cowboys significance derives from the simple fact that it is a Western shot in Arizona.  Up until this time “underground” filmmakers the likes of Warhol and Morrissey were restricted to making genre films for almost no money within the limits of the city in which they lived, New York.

Ironically it was the foul language and the vulgarity of the sexuality depicted in Lonesome Cowboys that isolated mainstream audiences while the more legitimate production value drove off the “underground” audience.  Even Jonas Mekas had nothing good to say about the film in his column at the Village Voice.  Without any audience, Lonesome Cowboys wandered into obscurity.  However, the film has become a little more important in recent years when Gregg Araki cited it as an influence, thus canonizing it as part of the early Queer Film movement.  As Mark Rappaport points out in his Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997) the old Hollywood Westerns are brimming with homoerotic innuendos.  Lonesome Cowboys then represents the first major film to make the inherent homoerotic qualities of the genre its primary concern.

In art there is only artifice“-Luc Moullet

A Girl Is A Gun

Rachel Kesterber in A Girl Is A Gun

 Luc Moullet remains one of the most neglected filmmakers of all time, and certainly of the French New Wave.  Like Jacques Rivette, his films are near to impossible to obtain in the United States.  All of this in spite of a significant critical re-evaluation by the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum and others.  Still, Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun (1971) is the most unique and thought-provoking film on this list.

A Girl Is A Gun follows the misadventures of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Billy The Kid.  Unlike most depictions of the famous gunslinger, Billy The Kid is depicted as a bumbling loser who, despite himself, manages to exact his revenge and steal the girlfriend of a man he has killed.  The narrative content of A Girl Is A Gun is completely vacant of the Romanticism that unifies most American Westerns.  Even Lonesome Cowboys plays into the popular Romantic notions of the Old West by being so totally dependent on the recognizable signifiers and tropes of the genre.  Billy The Kid in Moullet’s film is, therefore, the antithesis of the genre itself.

That said, A Girl Is A Gun brings a bit of that Romanticism into play in terms of the films theme song and visual structure.  But these mechanisms, in Moullet’s hands, work only to compliment and enhance the anti-Romanticism of the narrative.  A Girl Is A Gun only superficially functions as a Western.  As the film perverts the Romantic models it employs via the contrast of narrative content and technique, Moullet is able to disassemble and examine the Western Genre.

This deconstruction of the genre is playful, the precise opposite of the intellectualized genre deconstructions that Jean-Luc Godard became famous for in the sixties.  This playfulness derives from A Girl Is A Gun‘s relatively low-budget, forcing Moulett to make a Western without either the vistas of Ford, the violence of Anthony Mann, nor the horses of every other Western.  Moulett, like Warhol and Morrissey, is forced to make the film with the available resources, even if that restricts the films Western “look” to props and costume.

It must be said that this “superficiality of genre” in A Girl Is Gun comes from a unique place in the history of the genre.  Where Sam Fuller may make a low-budget Western and accommodate that budget by distilling the narrative down to a hard-punching tale of revenge, Moullet decides instead to pay for devices such as a theme song with his budget.  This decision on Moullet’s part places A Girl Is A Gun into the same category of “Western Camp” as Lonesome Cowboys, Rancho Notorious, Johnny Guitar, John Sturges’ Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957), and Douglas Sirk’s Taza-Son Of Cochise (1954).  Critics like Jonas Mekas would interpret this alignment of stylistic concerns with Pop Art, which seems to be what A Girl Is A Gun is getting at.

Luc Moullet obviously does not have a strong Romantic connection with the Western genre.  For him it is a unique spectacle in that it is a legitimate genre.  A Girl Is A Gun is a testament to Moullet’s view of the cinema as entertainment first and foremost.

So certainly, if we can tell evil stories to make people sick, we can also tell good myths that make them well.”-R.W. Fassbinder

Whity

Gunther Kauffman & Hana Schygulla in Whity

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1971), released the same year as Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is A Gun, adopts the “Western Camp” aesthetic of Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious and blows it up to Brechtian proportions.  Whity, more so than any other Western, infuses with its Historic Romanticism the rich melodrama of the fifties “Weepy” or “Woman’s Film”.  For Fassbinder the Western provides a means of examining the political and sociological relations between sex, class and race.  Taking his cues from Douglas Sirk’s period at Universal Pictures, Fassbinder seizes the chance to exploit the most American of movie genres to ironically critic the state of the world at large.

Firstly, the theatricality of “camp” is heightened not just in Fassbinder’s direction of his actors, but in the blocking and framing.  Photographed by Michael Ballhaus in a series of predominantly long lasting wide shots, the cast is positioned so that they are almost always facing out, regardless of how many characters are in a scene or the nature of this interaction.  This strategy, often summed up as Brechtian, allows the subtext of a scene to emerge superficially through the actors’ over-sized performances.  When contextualizing this choice by Fassbinder in the Western genre, Whity becomes a critique of the Western Romanticism and its own subtextual racism and sexism.  Westerns have functioned as allegories for contemporary issues before, it is true, but not so within the vernacular of Fassbinder’s particular brand of “camp”.

 At the heart of Whity is the story of an interracial love affair akin to his own Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1974).  Gunther Kauffman and Hana Schygulla play a house servant slave and a saloon mistress whose love is forbidden.  Their union, emotionally and sexually, is not only verboten, but reminiscent of Dietrich and Kennedy’s May/December romance in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious.  The very manner with which Schygulla performs her songs in the local saloon intentionally recalls Dietrich.  Kauffman’s dark skin that keeps him a rung below on the ladder in this Western town also recalls the “outsider” in films like Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (1939).  The difference being a matter of race rather than cowardice or femininity.

The scenes of Kauffman at the rancher’s estate where he is a slave to his half-siblings are a step removed from the Western.  These scenes play out like an anti-white parody of Gone With The Wind (1939), complete with white actors wearing white face.  But it is the sadistic and exploitative quality of the sex and violence in these sequences that bolster the sense of artifice with not just their outlandishness, but in their striking similarity to Italian exploitation films of the same period.  Whity is very modern in this respect since its concerns have little to do with the world of the Old West as it was and everything to do with what a Western can say about society in the present.

The modernity of Whity can also be seen in another respect.  In scenes at the saloon when cowboys and gunslingers are hanging about, Fassbinder has positioned them so that their posture maximizes the homoeroticism of the genre.  In this he is more subtle than Morrissey and Warhol but also more realistic since most homosexuals are not as depraved or aggressive as the cowboys in Lonesome Cowboys.

The accumulation of all of these parts within the confines of a Western allow Whity to exist beyond the genre.  In terms of style one couldn’t call it a Western at all since there is no visual or narrative connection beyond some subtle allusions.  Pieces may be seen as distinctly Western, but the whole of the parts evolves into something so post-modern that it is uncategorizable.  As though he were aware of this, Fassbinder opens and closes Whity with a ballad about the title character sung by Gunther Kauffman.  This strategy forces the audience to take this non-Western and interpret it as such.

If only he had realized all his ideas, he could have become one of the greatest.”-Sergio Leone

The Great Silence

Klaus Kinski in The Great Silence

Sergio Corbucci has long-lived in the shadow of Sergio Leone.  One cannot read about Corbucci’s work without the inevitable comparison to Leone, despite the fact that the two men have highly contrasting styles and aesthetic concerns in their approach to the Western genre.  Corbucci’s films are noted for their loose style and hyper energy.  Sometimes a particular sequence seems muddy or out-of-place, but the overall feeling of Corbucci’s style is one of unbridled enthusiasm for the genre, very similar to Luc Moullet.  What the Italians did with the Western genre was to re-appropriate it after it had been filtered through Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961).  The Italian Western, Corbucci’s films included, champion an anti-hero, depict governments as corrupt, and exploit the violence and sexuality of the genre.

The Great Silence (1968) sees Corbucci taking the Italian Western a step further.  Though the Italian Westerns added a grittier element to the genre, they still followed the basic principles of good and evil that can be traced back to Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail and even further.  The Great Silence shatters this balance of negative and positive, concluding with a bleak, existential morality.

It’s interesting to note that The Great Silence pre-dates the shifts in the American Western aesthetic that would occur in the seventies.  Robert Altman’s meditative Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) would be the first to outright contradict the forms one associates with the Western film.  Prior to that, American filmmakers such as Sam Fuller, Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann preferred anti-heroes working within a corrupt moral system but still maintained the regular signifiers and conformed to the basic narrative expectations of the Western.

The Great Silence is like any other Corbucci film.  It’s violent, the characters are corrupt, the hero has a gadget gimmick and an odd name (in this case Silence) and the villains are sadistic.  Yet, in the last act when Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is expected to defeat his nemesis, despite his wounds, he fails.  Silence is murdered by the man he should have defeated, Locco (Klaus Kinski).  As a result of Silence’s death the starving townspeople living in exile, because of their differing ethnicity, are butchered by Locco and his gang.  This ending speaks to Corbucci’s bleak outlook on life.  For him the righteous are not always victorious.

That this ending comes in a film who, until its end, fits so nicely into the regular genre makes it all the more shocking and impactful.  The Great Silence, like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), addresses the Johnson County range war with a contemporary leftist commentary.  Corbucci treats The Great Silence as a sort of allegory for the failed student riots and demonstrations that occurred in Rome in 1967 and 1968.  In the following decade this is the role, the function, that the Western genre would play.  Marking the genesis of the revisionist Western.

I created ‘The Westerner’ because of anger – anger at never-miss sheriffs, always-right marshalls, whitewashed gunfighters … anger at TV’s quick-draw tin gods who stand behind a tin star or ten cents’ worth of righteous anger and justify their skill and slaughter with a self-conscious grin or a minute’s worth of bad philosophy.”-Sam Peckinpah

Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid

The Revisionist Western that came to prominence in the early seventies at around the same time the New Hollywood began, like the latter, dissipated after Heaven’s Gate.  Since then filmmakers have tried to strike a balance between the philosophical complexity and grittiness of the Revisionist Western with the Historical Romanticism of the Western of the fifties and before.  Clint Eastwood has consistently made Westerns in line with Revisionism while others, such as Alex Cox with Walker (1987), attempted to fuse the genre with a blaring sense of post-modernism.

The least interesting and least successful Westerns have tended to be those dressed up in the grit of Revisionist Westerns that function on every other level as Romantic Westerns.  Unfortunately films such as these tend to be more popular.  In most recent years the best example of this nostalgic phenomenon would have to be the Cohen Brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).

It is unfortunate that the genre has been unable to perpetuate itself into a new form at the beginning of the 21st century.  This is even more unusual when one considers the renewed sense of nationalism America is still experiencing after 9/11.  Perhaps this is because America, as a nation, is attempting to move beyond its pre-WWII past?  That’s an essay for another time.

-Robert Curry

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A Hard Day’s Night Revisited

“We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie. We didn’t even want to make a movie that was going to be bad.”

-John Lennon, 1970

“Aesthetic experience exists. A Hard Day’s Night has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: Fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.”

-Jonas Mekas, 1st October 1964

promotional photograph taken on set

promotional photograph taken on set

In the wake of the Beatles break-up in 1970, John Lennon began to systematically debunk the public’s more romantic notions of the band he founded as a teenager. Despite Lennon’s somewhat abrasive interview with Rolling Stone that year, and a series of songs that attacked the Beatles myth, Lennon never really succeeded in retooling the public’s image of the Beatles. As much as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all worked to distance themselves from their Beatle identities to promote their first solo albums, those personas would forever prove inescapable. In truth, the Beatle personas that proved so inescapable were the product of the press, a product that found a physical, widely distributed manifestation in Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

George Harrison and Richard Lester

George Harrison and Richard Lester

Lester’s film, in terms of Beatle history, arrived in time to solidify their celebrity on an international scale. The film was released on the heels of their first U.S. tour, and in the proceeding months after John Lennon published his first book of comedic prose In His Own Write. Lennon’s literary achievement and the widely covered press conferences of the American tour would form the crux of the Beatle’s fictional counter-parts in A Hard Day’s Night. To lend a more intimate air to the film, Beatles manager Brian Epstein commissioned Allun Owen to pen the script after spending two nights on tour with the band. Owen’s script, despite capturing the tempo and mannerisms of the Beatles’ dialogue, still adheres strictly to the caricatures of the fab four that they themselves propagated, albeit inadvertently, by way of their momentous press coverage.

Lester himself was selected to direct the film because of his association with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester made a film with Milligan and Sellers titled The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film (1960) which reprised a number of comedic elements Milligan and Sellers employed while on The Goon Show; a radio program Lennon and McCartney adamantly followed while in school. Richard Lester’s style at this point was purely economical. His use of handheld portable cameras, and the cinema-verite style they represented, were simply a product of necessity. Lester’s follow-up film to A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack And How To Get It (1965), exhibits a far more formal approach to cinematic technique, marking the beginning of his move away from the kinetic energy that made A Hard Day’s Night such a novelty to critics and audiences alike.

A Hard Day’s Night’s visual virtuosity may have been widely praised, but in certain quarters the film was dismissed as a contemporarily dressed Elvis movie. The loudest spokesperson of this camp was Jonas Mekas. Mekas, an ex-patriot Lithuanian filmmaker based in New York, filled his column in The Village Voice with accusations directed more so at the film critics who heralded A Hard Day’s Night as opposed to the film itself. Mekas’ point was simple. He saw in A Hard Day’s Night nothing new. And it’s true, Richard Lester’s film, in so much as its visual style is concerned, offers the cinema nothing that hasn’t already been done by the “underground”, the likes of which include Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Mekas himself. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night’s greatest achievement in the vein of cinematic style is that it demonstrates that avant-garde tactics can be employed for commercial use, providing a blueprint for the music video format that would begin to evolve over the next two decades.

A Hard Day’s Night has an even more troubling relationsLennon and Anna Quayle hip to the Maysles Brothers film of their first stateside tour that has gone under several title changes before it’s contemporary DVD release as The First U.S. Visit. In fact, Mekas based one of his articles on the relationship between these two films: “The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what the Beatles are”. The First U.S. Visit demonstrates how effective the medium of the documentary is at handling musical subjects. The Maysles’ film of the Beatles pre-dates D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and is equally inspired and effective. When Mekas alludes to the truth of the Beatles, he is undoubtedly referring to the manufactured characters of Owen’s script like Paul’s grandfather, who are the catalysts of all the film’s plot points and the unwilling foils of the fab four. The problem with Mekas’ argument is that while the Maysles’ film may be more illuminating and visually inspired, it is not as traditionally entertaining and therefore not as accessible as Lester’s film, or to paraphrase Jonas Mekas, it isn’t as much “fun”. That being said, the Maysles’ film was also never as widely distributed as A Hard Day’s Night, which had been bankrolled and released by United Artists. Mekas’ attacks on critics for their praise of Lester’s film seem, with hindsight, off base.

-Robert Curry

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“I’m a fraud and you’re a cock sucker.”

1969, Norman Mailer runs for mayor of New York City and loses.  A few months later, Mailer journeys to the Hamptons with a film crew and entourage to produce his film Maidstone.  Unseen till 1970, Maidstone represents one man’s vision of a nation in chaos, but it also presents its audience with Norman Mailer, warts and all.  Of all the personal films made by the Underground in the sixties, none was as honest a portrait of its maker as Maidstone.

In 1968 Norman Mailer covered the Republican and Democratic conventions (Miami & The Siege Of Chicago), published his experimental novel Why Are We In Vietnam? And directed his first two features Wild 90 and Beyond The Law.  The themes in his work quickly evolved beyond the pulpy prose of An American Dream (1965) and the political idealism of The Presidential Papers (1963).  His book on the Pentagon demonstration, Armies Of The Night (1968), had jettisoned Norman Mailer into the liberal upheaval of the late sixties, which became the focus of his creative output in 1968, and the basis of his film Maidstone.

The violence and energy of the Pentagon peace rally and the Chicago demonstrations fascinated Mailer.  The power, both physical as well as abstract, that could be derived from politics became an obsession that, when coupled with his fatalistic Romanticism with regards to Kennedy’s assassination, provided the ground work for Maidstone’s narrative.  Unlike his first two features, Maidstone was to be about the urgent problems that were tearing America apart, designed to probe and explore the mechanics of politics and violence.

Maidstone focuses on Norman T. Kingsley (Norman Mailer), an art-house film director with ties to organized crime and high society who is running for president.  A secret society meets and decides that Kingsley is “ripe for assassination”, and this is the basis of the rest of the film.  From shooting a whore house drama to hosting a political convention, Norman T. Kingsley is at the center of the film, exerting his influence over all those he has gathered around himself, a patriarch in every possible way.

The patriarchal attitudes of Kingsley, as well as his passion for boxing, suspicion of women, his desire to be president and his delusions as a filmmaker are all exaggerated aspects of Mailer’s own persona.  The political stance of Kingsley is a direct response to Mailer’s own The Idol and The Octopus (1968), in which he outlines possible solutions to the problems that arose from the Johnson administration.  There is a lengthy scene in Maidstone where Kingsley addresses the Black Power movement that represents Mailer’s perspective as outlined in the White Negro (1957), that is in turn manifest in Kingsley’s proposal to eliminate ghettos and establish a stronger black presence in the senate.  There is a naïveté in how simple Kingsley’s solutions and ideas are, a distance so far from the reality facing America in 1969 that it soon becomes apparent that Mailer’s own understanding of the more radical political movements is inhibited by a conservativism, of which both Mailer and Kingsley seem unable to address.  In the context of Maidstone, it is necessary to assume that Kingsley’s partial understanding of the liberal movement and the naïveté of his ideals are precisely why there is a plot to kill him.  After all, Kingsley is a respected, popular filmmaker, often compared to Fellini and Bunuel in the film, who reaches a very wide audience.

The issue of filmmaking is also addressed.  The sex scenes Kingsley photographs for his “whore house drama” parody the Joe Dallesandro scenes in Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968), but also indicate the presence of Mailer’s long term desire to shock his audience, as he did in the misogynistic celebration that is An American Dream and the vulgar encapsulation of misdirected youth in Why Are We In Vietnam?  In Maidstone, Mailer describes his tactics as a means to reach some sort of truth.  This extends beyond the mere desire to shock to the very style in which Mailer creates his films.

By acting out the glamour and corruption Mailer witnessed in Miami, Chicago and Washington DC in a series of long improvisations, Mailer is attempting to present his audience with several views of the truth.  Maidstone opens with a fake news report that further solidifies the film as an extension of the search for truth that Mailer began in his journalism and prose.  That all the characters in Maidstone collapse into a decadent and corrupt free for all at Kingsley’s rally must then be interpreted as a signifier of the corruption of truth.  That there is no one truth, just various perversions of an idea or event, which is, in short, the message of MaidstoneMaidstone is then a logical conclusion to the exploration of paranoia Mailer began in An American Dream that found its foothold in reality with The Armies Of The Night.

The crossing over of themes between Mailer’s writing and his films has been the major obstacle in any critical evaluation of Maidstone.    To discuss Maidstone in the film vernacular is a mistake.  One must evaluate Maidstone as a continuation of Mailer’s literary pursuits; it’s even broken up into chapters.  During production Mailer has admitted that the final shape of the film was unclear to him, that he had no finished product in mind.  The assembly of all the parts in post-production of Maidstone is where the narrative is made.  Before hand Mailer has only ideas for scenes and a vague sense of linear direction, “I know where I’m going, more or less.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get there” (see page 62 of Joseph Gelmis’ The Film Director As Superstar, copyright 1970).  The manifestation of traditional film techniques is reserved for the cutting room.  So it becomes pointless to analyze shots for their significance, which is why Mailer’s films are so far removed from the films of John Cassavetes, Paul Morrissey or any of the major Underground filmmakers.  Norman Mailer is essentially making his films backwards.

The lack of traditional directing during the production of Maidstone left the film open ended when Mailer called cut for the last time.  The first ninety minutes of the film follow Kingsley and his entourage as they debate, argue, fight, make a movie, and have a party.  The tension slowly builds towards an assassination promised at the outset of the film, yet never appears.  After Kingsley’s rally, the film cuts to Mailer addressing the cast out of character.  As reflexive as the inclusion of this scene is, it does more to stress further the likeness between Mailer and Kingsley.  However, this scene is brief, and gives way to a long sequence of Mailer strolling with his wife and kids through a field on the estate where the film was shot.  What happens next is the most famous scene in the film and the reason for the film’s infamy.  Actor Rip Torn describes it in Peter Manso’s book Mailer: His Life & Times– “Everyone was saying to me, ‘You gotta save this film, you gotta do something.’ …”The film was supposed to be over and I was supposed to be in Stockbridge.”

Torn returned to the set to deliver Kingsley’s assassination.  Torn attacked Mailer with a hammer, hitting his head.  The fight was brief, but entirely real.  Mailer’s head was bleeding when the two men were separated; Rip Torn had had a piece of his ear bitten off.  The horror captured in this scene, Mailer’s screaming children, provides Maidstone with an unexpectedly haunting conclusion.  There is no assassination, but something more poignant, real violence.  1968 had been a year of political assassinations, whose terror and shock were perfectly captured in the conclusion of Maidstone.

I have tried to contextualize as much of Maidstone as possible above, but now it is time to place Maidstone into the larger context of the Underground Film movement.  Critic Parker Tyler has described the Underground film of the sixties as a “peepshow”.  Tyler is referring to the introspective nature of Underground films.  The mechanics by which this is achieved involve cinema verite’ camera movements, insular sets/locations, non-actor friends, and a personal subject.  The implication of voyeurism is too vague and abstract to justly dissect the modes by which Underground films function.  However, “peepshows” will do.  Considering Maidstone as a peepshow at first seems ridiculous.  On a superficial level there is nothing claustrophobic about the Hamptons.  So the application of Tyler’s term must be metaphorical.  The alignment of parts in Maidstone present perhaps a series of vignettes, each vignette is in turn a miniature window into the mind of Norman Mailer.

Like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, scenes unravel at a natural pace in the hands of non-actors and hand held cameras.  Both films focus upon one central character whose journey through the narrative brings him into contact with a variety of characters.  Each encounter is designed to explore a singular theme or idea, maybe not until its end, but to some sort of mutual understanding.  It’s interesting that Jonas Mekas, in his book Movie Journal, attributes Mailer’s interest in the cinema to the films of Andy Warhol.  Morrissey made countless films for and with Warhol before Flesh, but like Mailer, has sought to expound upon the devices of Warhol’s aesthetic in a strictly narrative form.  In comparison to Empire (1964) or Blow Job (1964), Maidstone and Flesh are strikingly narrative driven.  Yet, neither film strays too far from Warhol’s use of long takes or his preoccupation with natural human behavior.

Though Morrissey scripted Flesh, he allowed a certain amount of improvisation with his actors, just as Mailer relied only upon improvisation.  The concept of “high brow” art films utilizing improvisation began with John Cassavetes’ first version of Shadows in 1959.  Cassavetes implemented more control over the improvisation in his film than either Mailer or Morrissey, but his film does not capture the “real-time” behavioral responses that make Mailer’s film so compelling and Morrissey’s narrative believable.

The effect in Maidstone is almost surreal.  Mailer’s players are extremely self-conscious about the validity of their improvised dialogue, yet maintain a naturalism exclusively because not a single expression or facial tic is manufactured.  Flesh cannot escape the campy artifice of its hammy players, which is precisely Morrissey’s point.  Mailer on the other hand perceives this anomaly as a means through which his films can reach a wider audience.  The associative powers of human experience and understanding lend Beyond The Law, Wild 90 and Maidstone an earthy credibility that is absent in Morrissey’s film.

Despite the positive and innovative tactics at work in Mailer’s films critics were unable to excuse the lack of mise en scene or the abrasive cuts in the films.  The cinema of Norman Mailer was all but dismissed before Maidstone had its release in 1970.  This prompted Mailer to withdraw from his cinematic pursuits.  Having self financed all three of his films; he had made a large investment with almost no pay off.  Even Mailer’s celebrity as an author could not draw the audience or the serious criticism he desired.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Mailer directed again when he adapted his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance into a film for Golan-Globus.  Tough Guys Don’t Dance was a Hollywood production, not the self financed “peepshow” that Maidstone was.

By the time Mailer published Existential Errands in 1971, the hey day of Underground films had passed.  Yet, in Existential Errands (an anthology of personal essays), Mailer tries very hard to justify Maidstone.  The financial problems in the wake of Maidstone and the critical beating of the film prompted Mailer’s essay.  The tone of Existential Errands is one of sorrowful defeat.  Again and again, Mailer attempts to persuade his reader to reevaluate his film.  Sadly, this would be the recourse of many an Underground filmmaker.

-Robert Curry

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