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Caped Wonder Stuns City: The Cinematic Death and Rebirth of Superman

Justice League (2017) opens with a shot from a camera phone of Superman (Henry Cavill) rescuing people from a burning building.  It’s daytime, and Superman’s costume looks conspicuously like a Halloween costume, its airbrushed textures and fake muscles clearly evident.  He’s about to fly away when a child, the one filming this, asks if he could answer some questions.  Superman begins to give him a polite brush off when the child explains its for their podcast.  “Well, if its for your podcast…”  The little boy and his friends proceed to ask Superman a number of questions – “Does that ‘S’ really stand for hope?”, “Have you ever fought a hippo?” – before finally asking what Superman’s favorite thing about the human race is.  Silently, Superman thinks.  Then he smiles.  Cut to black. This opening shot, about a minute long, is easily the best part of Justice League, and is probably the best Superman movie since 1981.  

Henry Cavill

Justice League is a mess of a movie, a Frankenstein monster resulting from hasty reshoots, studio meddling, conflicting artistic visions, tight deadlines, and shoddy special effects.  It’s sloppy, stupid, cheap-looking, and a lot more fun than it has any right to be.  And one thing it gets absolutely right is Superman.

Despite being one of the most iconic fictional characters of the twentieth century, filmmakers and studio executives have struggled to understand the Man of Steel.  No one can seem to wrap their heads around what makes Superman work, operating under the conviction that this is some corny, irrelevant piece of pop culture ephemera that must be radically retooled in order to be popular.  But Superman is already popular.  People love Superman; they have his insignia tattooed on their bodies, adorning their cars, their shirts, their underwear.  All over the world, children are still tying blankets around their necks and jumping off the stairs pretending to fly.  Words like “kryptonite”, “Bizarro”, and “Brainiac” are part of the common English vernacular.  People discuss flight and x-ray vision in everyday conversation.  We don’t need to be sold on Superman; we’ve already bought in, and anyone who hasn’t isn’t going to be swayed by seeing the character brood and get blood on his knuckles.

In a way, Justice League marks the first appearance of Superman in the “DCEU”, Warner Bros’ shared “cinematic universe” for the denizens of DC Comics.  This continuity began in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) but it would be hard to mistake the protagonist of that film for Superman.  Snyder’s character is a bully and an idiot.  He makes out with his girlfriend in a pile of human ash before snapping his opponent’s neck and encouraging the audience to join the military.  Superman’s defining characteristic, more than flying or super-strength or changing in phone booths, is that he always does the right thing.  As soon as the character stops doing the right thing, he stops being Superman.  Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer are either wary of or uninterested in this.  It’s too simple.  It isn’t cool.  The fantasy of power abused is, on the surface, more compelling and relatable than power used righteously.  But that’s not the story of Superman.  Superman represents a kind of apotheosis of humanity, human flaws discarded in the Daily Planet storeroom so that human virtues may be elevated to godhood.  Superman is devoid of human flaws like doubt, jealousy, and anger.  Those are Clark Kent’s problems.  Superman is all-encompassing good, selflessness with the infinite capacity to commit selfless acts.   This is something that many of the older cinematic adaptations understood.  The Fleischer animated shorts of the 1940s, the film serials of the same decade, and the classic 1950s television series were all in close enough proximity chronologically to the character’s creation to not really questions any of this, to not feel the urge to deconstruct or retool the formula.  Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz , the creative minds behind Superman (1978) grew up on these adaptions and the comics of that era, and consequently, Superman understands the character perfectly.   Beautifully portrayed by Christopher Reeve, this Superman is kind, chivalrous, charming, polite, friendly, while Clark Kent is awkward, shy, bumbling, uptight, and also charming.  This was more than just the Superman from the comics.  It was like the character had stepped out of our shared cultural imagination and understanding of who Superman is.

Poster for Superman: The Movie

It would be unfair to expect as shaggy a dog as Justice League to pull all of this off, and it doesn’t.  But it does manage to give us the best cinematic version of Superman in decades.  Here, Superman smiles.  He actually laughs.  A great, big belly laugh.  His big entrance line is “I believe in truth…and I’m a big fan of justice!”, delivered by Henry Cavill (who had previously been confined by scripts that had him sulking in front of green screens) with the kind of cornball conviction that would do Kirk Alyn or Buckaroo Banzai proud.  The line got a big laugh.  It was ridiculous, but in a sincere, joyous way, and this was the biggest, happiest surprise – and achievement – of the film.  Superman radiates joy, not just fun or entertainment.  Joy.  It’s something that’s missing from most other modern superhero movies, including many that are much better than Justice League.  But that small, simple quality is worth celebrating.

So, bring your kids to see Justice League.  They’ll probably love it, warts and all.  And they’ll finally get to see Superman on the big screen.

-Hank Curry

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Godard & Ishaghpour: A Review

“Looking at Histoire(s) du cinéma, the first chapter especially, I got the impression there had been three major events in the twentieth century: the Russian revolution, Nazism, and cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, which is the power of cinema, the plague as you (Jean-Luc Godard) say.” – Youssef Ishaghpour to Godard, Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

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Jean-Luc Godard may come in and out of fashion, but it seems indisputable that he, more than any other filmmaker, is the most important artist of the cinema in the twentieth century. One doesn’t need to particularly like or enjoy Godard’s work to appreciate its singular accomplishments. In fact, in the book I wish to address, Youssef Ishaghpour himself, despite the high regard in which he holds Godard, often challenges the filmmaker’s own ideas and readings concerning his films. Godard certainly has his fair share of detractors, certainly with concerns towards his latter period, but to summarily dismiss a work because it is difficult or unconventional is more an act of self-betrayal than a critique of a film or filmmaker.

The book in question here is the brilliant Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (first published in 2000) by Jean-Luc Godard and Youssef Ishaghpour. This publication is part of a series titled Talking Images, edited by Yann Perreau, which is primarily interested in investigating the usefulness and purpose of the cinema at the start of the twenty-first century. So it is fitting that the text of Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century, a lengthy conversation between Ishaghpour and Godard followed by an essay by Ishaghpour, should focus on Godard’s mammoth Histoire(s) du cinéma.

In Histoire(s) du cinéma Godard employs a variety of avant-garde video tactics (superimposition, text overlays, dubbing, looping, etc.) to create a visual complex that is the equivalent in cinema to what Alfred Döblin and James Joyce achieved in literature. At the center of this complex is Godard himself, and from this center spirals the cinema in a series of rhyming and juxtaposing rhythms whose images are linked by Godard’s own subjective interpretation of his memories of the twentieth century which are, in-turn, embodied on the audio track and in text overlays. This complex yields over its 8 parts and 266 minutes a series of patterns and intersections, both formal, calculated and accidental, that locate a broader sense of purpose to the very design of cinema as a social and political form of art.

From this jumbled description, of what I consider to be Godard’s greatest achievement, above, one can begin to understand how complicated Histoire(s) du cinéma truly is and why it continues to perplex, enrage and enthrall audiences. Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century is the most practical and useful guide one could hope for to dissect Histoire(s) du cinéma. The intimate, conversational quality of the “interview” section of the book gives Godard, by way of Ishaghpour’s insights and careful readings of the film, the opportunity not only to describe some of the specific meanings of certain images in Histoire(s) du cinéma, but to also address his own desired outcome of the project in terms of its spectatorship. This essentially serves to direct the reader’s focus to different elements of the film during different sections, though the conversation never becomes a matter of “mapping out” Godard’s complicated visual and audio complex.

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There is also a casual, somewhat anecdotal quality to Ishaghpour and Godard’s conversation that is likely to be of interest to the viewer who never bothered to look at Godard’s work post-Weekend (1968). For instance, Godard’s interest in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Orson Welles and his aesthetic relationship to John Ford, Henri Langlois, Jules Michelet, Jean Mitry, Georges Sadoul, Gilles Deleuze and Truffaut are all discussed and will no doubt satisfy the appetites of many a film major.

But to separate one element of the interview from the other is to dispense with the overall purpose of the text as a whole which is to rediscover Godard the filmmaker and critic in his Histoire(s) du cinéma. Ishaghpour’s closing essay, Jean-Luc Godard Cineaste of Modern Life: The Poetic in the Historical, eloquently argues that, with Histoire(s) du cinéma, Godard locates the cinema as a means of contesting History/Histoire(s). Ishaghpour very succinctly presents his idea within the wider context implied by Histoire(s) du cinéma, the state of contemporary art, by drawing on a variety of scholarship from Deleuze’s notion of the time-image to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories of montage.

I will say that some of the material in Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century can be a bit forbidding insofar as it references an equally wide variety of texts as it does films (some more obscure than others). If one prefers a less focused study of a single Godard film, or is interested in films from earlier in his career, I would recommend Forever Godard, edited by James Williams and Michael Temple. Forever Godard is a fascinating volume that anthologized a series of essays about the filmmaker on various parts of his career that is fully illustrated with stills from his films (which make this volume a beautiful object as much as a book).

-Robert Curry

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A Pair Of Book Reviews

On Tuesday, May 9th, 2017 two stories broke on my facebook feed. One was from indiewire that detailed David Lynch’s “retirement” from making films (2006’s Inland Empire is to be his swan song). The second appeared courtesy of the Sydney Film Festival blog and explained why Martin Scorsese believes that the cinema is dead. If one is to take the statements of these two filmmakers at face value than the forecast for motion pictures seems to be pretty dire. However, it seems to me that both filmmakers are speaking with too much haste.

Desiree Gruber, David Lynch and Kyle Maclachlan in Paris

It is true that the mainstream of Western film production is relatively bankrupt. I myself have gone on and on about the irredeemable qualities of the current Hollywood franchises. Yet, this corner of the cinema, the one that dominates our media intake online and on television, represents only a fraction of what the cinema is today. One cannot gauge the current state of affairs in the cinema by using something like the Academy Awards or the Cannes Film Festival as a barometer. Films from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia all indicate innovation and progress in the tradition of such renowned filmmakers as Fritz Lang, Elaine May, Stanley Kwan, John Cassavetes, Ousmane Sembène, Nagisa Oshima, Alan Clarke, Béla Tarr, and Abbas Kiarostami just for starters. Not to mention the legions of underground filmmakers working in the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, etc. This, the underground, is where the majority of films are being made today (this leaves out, of course, the iconoclastic filmmakers still working within the mainstream that Lynch and Scorsese have given up on such as Jim Jarmusch, Andrea Arnold, Terence Davies, Atom Egoyan, Claire Denis, Charles Burnett, and Abel Ferrara; to name just a few).

As someone who works as an educator in the medium of film I can attest to a continued interest in the history of world cinema amongst my students. During this last semester I had a student who made weekly trips to his public library to rent Criterion Collection DVDs. I also had a student who, at age 16, had already made two documentaries and has decided she would like to focus on making some comedic short films. I was also fortunate enough to work with some acting students on two short film adaptations of works by Hal Hartley and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. So as far as I can see, the cinema is nowhere near dying off anytime soon.

In the interest of preserving the cinema I would like to recommend two books on the cinema. I often wish I could assign more readings to my students during the time I have with them, but the length, the specificity and some of the academic language of these books would render them inaccessible to my students in the context of the classes I teach. So I will relate some thoughts and reflections concerning these two publications to those who read this blog instead (which, to my delight, does include some former students).

Fassbinder and Thomsen

The first text I would like to address is Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: The Life & Work Of A Provocative Genius. First published in 1991, Thomsen’s piece is unique in the realm of studies surrounding Fassbinder’s work in so far as Thomsen actually knew Rainer Werner Fassbinder quite well and can offer some qualified analysis of his films. The title speaks to Thomsen’s regards for Fassbinder and the text makes quite an argument in support of those regards.

Unlike the work of Wallace Steadman Watson, Thomsen succeeds in contextualizing Fassbinder’s work in the theatre within his filmography. Drawing on aesthetic and political similarities, Thomsen paints a clear portrait of Fassbinder’s artistic development in both mediums. Their mutual friendship also gives Thomsen some unique insights into the more psychological readings of films such as Fassbinder’s segment in the anthology film Germany In Autumn, In A Year With Thirteen Moons and other personal films. Thomsen also brings the importance of the novels Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz as narrative influences to clearer light, going so far as to identify character types outlined by these two novels that find their echoes as early in Fassbinder’s career as Love Is Colder Than Death.

The true highlight of Thomsen’s book is the close analysis of Fassbinder’s more avant-garde films and videos such as Bremen Coffee, Nora Helmer, The Journey To Niklashausen, Pioneers In Ingolstadt and Eight Hours Are Not A Day. These titles in particular are often overlooked in studies of Fassbinder.

Thomsen’s weakness as a writer, and this may be due to the fact that the text is translated from Danish, is in the prose style. There are a number of instances where the language is casual, lending the text an air of amateurism that I am sure is quite unintentional. This style maybe appropriate for the anecdotal elements of the book, but it reads poorly in the sections of concentrated and deliberate analysis of specific works. That said, while Thomsen’s book is a highly informative and accessible piece of literature on the subject of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it is not as exhaustive in its presentation of information on Fassbinder as The Anarchy Of The Imagination, published by PAJ Books in 1992.

Ms. 45

The second publication I will address exists on the total opposite end of the spectrum of the literary discourse of the cinema. Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara, published in 2007 as part of the University Of Illinois Press’ series on contemporary filmmakers, is an entirely scholarly piece of writing and represents the best of what film academia has to offer in the way of auteurist theory. The structure of Brenez’s book is to present a close analysis of Ferrara’s films in the first half, ending with a second half that is a transcription of a question-and-answer session following a screening of the film ‘R Xmas at the highly regarded Cinémathèque Française in 2003. By structuring her text in this manner Brenez allows her subject to support her own interpretations of his work in his own words, though in a less detailed and more casual conversational context.

Brenez’s book looks at all of Abel Ferrara’s films from Driller Killer to The Blackout in varying degrees of detail. The films that receive the most attention are Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, Bodysnatchers, The Funeral, New Rose Hotel, and The Blackout. Brenez’s exhaustive and highly specific analysis of these films is singular in film scholarship. The kind of thorough and detailed readings Brenez offers us of Ferrara’s films cannot be found elsewhere. Abel Ferrara is a filmmaker who is, for the most part, largely ignored within the discourse of film, often surfacing as a topic of interest in a limited capacity primarily in general overview studies of American Independent Filmmaking and its history.

Perhaps the most delightful portion of Brenez’s work on Ferrara is her analysis of the “time image” in relation to The Addiction. Brenez very successfully argues that the shared traumas of war and genocide in the 20th century are in fact what prompts the highly allegorical vampirism of The Addiction’s narrative. Not only that, but she successfully ties in the commentaries on society found within Bodysnatchers and King Of New York as being earlier iterations of the same social analysis found in The Addiction. Likewise, Brenez’s investigation into the modes of character duality in Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Funeral and The Blackout is equally as impressive.

Brenez is wise in her analysis not to look to hard at Ferrara’s filmic influences. Often these kinds of studies on specific filmmakers become bogged down in the auteurist trap of tracing influences as a kind of aesthetic genealogy.  The weakness of Brenez’s book is that, for a few readers at least, the language is extremely academic and the prose highly refined and elaborate.

John Huston, Orson Welles, and Peter Bogdanovich
In conclusion I would like to return to the catalyst for this piece and discuss briefly my approach to writing this post. Originally I was going to open this piece with a quote from Orson Welles taken from This Is Orson Welles  concerning the nature of film in academia. But given the bleak forecastings of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese I think that the discourse that these two publications represent as well as the example of Orson Welles will dispel any anxieties surrounding the future of the cinema. Consider that these publications represent only a minute sampling of the literature on the subject of film. Then consider that Orson Welles spent the last decade of his life trying to complete a number of films that remain unfinished and yet he never lost hope nor did he ever give up. The cinema is alive and well, without a doubt.

-Robert Curry

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The Kitschy King Of New Germany

“The cinema of postmodernity suggests a society no longer able to believe fully its received myths (the law of the father, the essential goodness of capitalism, the state, religious authority, the family).  Yet it is also unable to break with these myths in favor of a historical materialist view of reality.”-Christopher Sharrett

Der Tod der Maria Malibran

If we accept Sharrett’s de facto definition of a postmodern society, we will find it realized in the paradoxical network of Metz’s cinematographic langue as employed by West German filmmakers beginning in 1966 and continuing through to 2016 in many respects (particularly with Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy).  West Germany was the pinnacle of postmodernism.  Shame, guilt, fear, and the necessity of economic rebirth mandated a national amnesia.  As if German identity had been on an extended hiatus between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1950s.  Desperately, post-WWII West Germany came to define itself through appropriated American popular culture and the myths and folklore of Bavaria.  Sharrett points out, rather astutely, that the myths of a postmodern society are no longer useful as myths, for they carry no true belief.  Thus, this is the paradox of Young German and New German Cinema.

Two generations of German filmmakers mined the past, realigned, and redressed it in a series of films whose intention was to debunk these mythic accounts with the intention of centering them on the contemporary desire to define the “self”.  The “self” of such films is typically an outsider, a superman of sorts, a homosexual, an immigrant, or a woman meant to represent that which is German.  Werner Herzog does this explicitly in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Heart Of Glass (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder also employs a similar tactic in Die Niklashauser Fahrt (1970).  Other German filmmakers asserted a new “Germanness” by aligning in opposition to American culture as opposed to Germanic myth, such as Wim Wenders.  The most explicit champion of a “New German” identity could be found in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his films.

Unlike a majority of his counterparts, Syberberg does not restrict his films to the traditional narrative three-act structure.  Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) and Karl May (1974) are epics dependent upon a synthesis of opera, set design, rear projection, performance, and cinematic montage.  In the history of the cinema, no other filmmaker can lay claim to having constructed Eisenstein’s proposed synesthesia on such a spectacular or massive scale.  Syberberg’s postmodern strategies juxtapose signifiers representing the immediate German past and the contmporary, pursuing their contrasts to the point of an implosion of meaning, as if he were wiping away cobwebs, unmasking denial, in a celebration of German identity and German cinematic heritage (a heritage, as for Herzog, rooted in the works of Pabst, Lang, and Murnau).

Syberberg and Fassbinder represent two of the most renowned names of German Cinema.  Though, beyond Germany itself, little is known of Werner Schroeter who represents an aesthetic forerunner to Fassbinder and Syberberg.  Both filmmakers have acknowledged Schroeter as a significant influence on par with that of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in shaping the “alternate style” of New German films (a style opposed to the realist and the literary traditions as exemplified by the films of Helma Sanders-Brahms, Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff).

Syberberg’s spectacles of a postmodern synesthesia invariably have their root in the visual language of Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (1969) and Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972).  The plasticity and expressionism of Schroeter’s set pieces are clearly echoed in Syberberg, as is Schroeter’s use of auditory cues lifted from Wagner and Verdi.  Likewise, Fassbinder’s kitsch codification of histrionics within the context of classic German Romanticism are also born out of Schroeter’s films.

The need to define “self” that unifies the films and filmmakers of New German cinema across differing styles and approaches is also evident in Werner Schroeter’s films.  However, Schroeter’s films find that identity in the “self” reflected.  That is to say that the individual “self” of a character is found in the definition of that “self” as reflected by another character.  A communal quality permeates Schroeter’s early features.  Bands of outsiders, banished for their sexuality or race, or crimes, congregate in groups, creating a substitute family (a hallmark of John Water’s early films as well that also focus upon gay and outsider cultures).  This renders Schroeter’s films in opposition to the maladjusted families that threaten “self” in the films of Fassbinder and other German filmmakers.

Schroeter’s short films also have an outsider focus with a historical preoccupation.  His filmic meditation on Maria Callas is obsessive in its fetishization of the film’s subject.  This fetishization carries over into the long close-ups that begin  Der Tod der Maria Malibran.  The beauty of unconventional beauty is Schroeter’s most personal preoccupation early in his career.  In this way the very landscape of Schroeter’s psyche becomes part of the structure of his films, a singular anomaly in the canon of New German Cinema.

Eika KatappaHistorians such as John Sandford may relegate Werner Schroeter to the footnotes of New German cinema history, but Schroeter’s actual importance is critical to understanding the dialogue between the avant-garde and the mainstream in German cinema as well as the linear trajectory of influence.  Werner Schroeter’s cinematic standing is perhaps better understood beyond the confines of Germany.  Schroeter’s “outsider” persona, the homo eroticism of his work, and the repertory nature of his productions are the German equivalent to either Jack Smith or Andy Warhol.  Whilst his highly personal mode of filmmaking along with the camp elements of his visual style are akin to the 16mm features of Derek Jarman.

Personally the experience of watching Der Tod der Maria Malibran was shattering in both its beauty and its poetry.  It is perhaps the most moving cinematic experience since I first saw Kenji Mizoguchi’s Yōkihi (1955).  So I would like to conclude by quoting Werner Schroeter himself.  He better than most can find the proper words to articulate the effect truly substantial art has upon the spectator, which, needless to say, is Schroeter’s primary motivation and the source of his “Germanness”.

“It would be absurd to argue that the desire for beauty and truth is merely an illusion of a romantic capitalist form of society.  Without a doubt, the desire for an overreaching, larger-than-life wish-fulfillment, which we find everywhere in traditional art, which by all means includes the modern trivial media such as the cinema and television, signifies a need that is common to every man; for his all-too-definite appointment with death, the single objective fact of our existence, is an a priori forfeit of the prospect of tangible happiness.” (Werner Schroeter, Der Herztod der Primadonna, 1977)

-Robert Curry

 

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Conversations With Joan Crawford

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Wittgenstein, Bazin, & Godard

Reality: The world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them: “he refuses to face  reality”. – Webster’s English Dictionary definition

In 1921, Ludwig Wittgenstein published his most significant philosophical writing Tractus Logico-Philosophicus.  In his book, Wittgenstein does not argue on behalf of his beliefs as they pertain to reality, but instead presents his reader with a number of observations whose validity he believed to be self-evident.  The sum of Wittgenstein’s observations present the reader with a perspective of our shared reality that is designed to undermine the conventions and the stability with which man kind has always employed when grappling with the world around him.  In summation, Tractus Logico-Philosophicus presents a reality without any definite truth, where knowledge as we know it is nothing more than a human invention.  The components of this “human invention” consist of numerical labels and names that allow the human intellect to reason with his/her surroundings, to navigate a reality as subjective as it is believed to be objective.

Wittgenstein’s work has become one of the most influential philosophical studies of the twentieth century, and is, along with the works of Henri Bergson, essential to the development of film theory and criticism.  Consider that everything contained within a frame and the accompanying soundtrack of a film is a “reality”.  To navigate this reality, the filmmaker has broken it up into various shots.  These shots, aligned during the film’s post-production, allow a fluidity of experience, simulating the human experience of time or life.  The denominations of a film’s parts (shots, sequences, scenes, acts) are therefore synonymous with the numerical labels Wittgenstein attributes to man’s invention of a “shared reality”.

The parts of the film, assembled by the filmmaker, each represent a distinctly emotive signifier that the audience utilizes to navigate the film’s narrative.  Each member of the audience, with his or her own subjective perspective, will interpret these signifiers differently, though without much variation.  This phenomenon speaks directly to Wittgenstein’s observations regarding mankind’s experience of reality.  There can, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, be no definite reality if there is no universally uniform reaction or perception to an event, object or thought.

Film is the most illustrative medium of the arts when put in terms of philosophical translation. Yet, in an issue of Cahiers du Cinema published in December 1956, Andre Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard became embattled in an argument over the validity of film art and its ability to reflect or capture reality.

Bazin’s article, “Editing Forbidden”, advocates a cinema of long takes shot with a deep focus.  Bazin believed that it was the cinema’s responsibility to translate our reality as we see it to film, creating the illusion that we, the audience, are occupying the same space and time as the character’s of the film’s narrative.  This translation of reality is more literal than Godard’s interpretation, standing in direct opposition of the theories of montage originated by Eisenstein and Vertov in the twenties.  The films Bazin supported, such as the early films of Orson Welles and John Ford, present a perverted reflection of our reality, and therefore inherit the same non-truths as those outlined by Wittgenstein.

Godard’s article “Editing, My Beautiful Concern”, takes the opposite approach as Bazin’s.  Godard argues that the films of Nicholas Ray, F.W. Murnau, and Fritz Lang, with their use of elaborate montage in the tradition of Eisenstein, present a cinematic experience closer to our reality, and perhaps even closer to a true reality in general.  By breaking a narrative up into numerous signifying parts as opposed to a few, these films create a more powerful emotional and psychological reaction in the audience.  Though most of these films are highly stylized and melodramatic, their ability, through montage, to capture human emotion does represent a more accurate reflection of the human experience.  Despite the fact that these films are subject to Wittgenstein’s observations because they exist in our reality as works of art, within their own insular world they come closer to a true definite reality than those films advocated by Bazin.

For instance, a film by F.W. Murnau such as Faust (1926), with its expressionist and romantic tendencies, creates a world within the film that is entirely reflective of the emotional and psychological truth of its characters that is indisputable to the audience, though the audiences’ own reaction is subject to debate.  A less stylized film such as Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train (1951) presents a world so much like our own that the truths experienced by the film’s characters are just as ambiguous and artificial as our own.

Godard’s observations are nonetheless in direct opposition of the basic language of film criticism.  Godard’s film Made In USA (1966) utilizes cultural signifies constantly, just as it employs a complex editing strategy.  Made In USA presents its audience with more truth through these tactics than most films, but is labeled avant-garde or experimental.  Yet, a film like Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) that utilizes a number of long takes, and avoids using signifiers of any cultural significance is labeled naturalistic.  The paradox that exists here is the direct result of what Wittgenstein outlined to be mankind’s desire to make sense out of the chaos of his existence, to label and categorize what there is in the world.  I don’t mean this in terms of the titles avant-garde or naturalism, but in mankind’s desire to confront reality on the terms of his experience of his perceived reality.  That is to say, the reality of Last Tango In Paris is closer to our own in how it deals with the concept of reality as an aesthetic illusion whereas Made In USA avoids all confrontation with our perceived reality, preferring to manufacture its own world of truths.

-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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