Tag Archives: Manny Farber

A Sensually Complex World

To hell with it. Don’t worry about the audience. Don’t worry about the people. Your job is to look. Your Vocation is to look, not to entertain. Entertaining comes second. You should consider yourself somebody who can be entertaining by virtue of the sincerity and the rigorousness of his ability to look. – Hal Hartley, 1994

Farber & Patterson

Lately I have been immersed in Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writings Of Manny Farber (edited by Robert Polito). Manny Farber has long been established as one of the great American film critics and it is easy to see why from this collection. For myself, I find that he has so much to say that is still relevant today, particularly as it concerns the American cinema. One piece especially, The New Breed Of Filmmakers, very succinctly pinpoints the aesthetic trends that have become the backbone of Hollywood cinema and how these trends have limited or even bankrupted the artistry of Hollywood films. What I found most compelling in this single essay was Farber’s and his co-author Patricia Patterson’s ability to articulate a device that can single-handedly render the most mechanical narrative so much more fascinating.

Farber is describing his favorite scene in John Frankenheimer’s The French Connection II (1975) when he writes “the car scene is played-photographed off-center, creating space that’s not dependent on virtuosity but lets in a sensually complex world”. Meaning that this scene diverts, just for a moment, from the thrust of the narrative, acknowledging a “state” of character and location that reaches out and connects to a wider “world”, or set of sensory experiences, beyond the claustrophobia of the narrative complex.

Immediately Robert Altman comes to mind. Having just revisited his film Short Cuts (1993), Altman’s “audio collage” technique and his “sloppy” montage technique were fresh in my memory, as was the effectiveness of his aesthetic for getting to moments that let “in a sensually complex world”. However, most filmmakers, especially American filmmakers, don’t prioritize this kind of narrative grounding. Farber is correct in his assertion that scenes which do “connect” are the exception rather than the rule.

Gene Hackman

The reason that scenes like these have merits is primarily because the suspension of disbelief is allowed to take in a broader scope of world experience and reflection. When such a moment occurs in a film like The French Connection II it is entirely unexpected and even a little subversive. When one goes to see a blockbuster, one does not expect reality to really find a foothold in one’s sensory experience. In fact American audiences most likely associate this set of aesthetic experiences more heavily with foreign films (particularly those of Jacques Rivette, Werner Herzog, Chantal Akerman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Andrzej Wajda and Jia Zhangke)  and underground films (those of Andy Warhol, James Benning and Shirley Clarke).

There also seems to have been a greater degree of such “moments” in the American films of the seventies. If memory serves, I can recall such instances very clearly in the films of Monte Hellman, Bob Rafelson, Elaine May, John Cassavetes, Jerry Schatzberg, and Barbara Loden; whereas in more contemporary films I find that such moments are much more scarce. In large part this is probably due to the “auteurist craze”, the power of the director, and the desire to disguise fundamentally formulaic films as art that was so prevalent in the seventies. Today, the producer is king again in Hollywood.

The roots of this aesthetic principle of “connectivity” could be easily attributed to the neo-realist films of De Sica, Visconti, and Rossellini with their emphasis of showing characters at work (as Giles Deleuze argues in Cinema 2: The Time Image). But I find that older films, going at least as far back as Griffith, demonstrate the same aesthetic desire and impetus, even if through the employment of a synthesis of character and location as an alternate means of expanding the audience’s experience of a film’s narrative world. Consider for a moment Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942). This Frantastique Val Lewton production has an added sense of urgency, despite its immense stylization, due to the “lived-in” quality of its art and set designs. This represents an even more primitive cue towards the same effect. This visual quality suggests that the narrative knows a greater, more inclusive expanse than we the audience ever get to see, and therefore is able to ground the “Fantastique” into a more accessible and complex vision of reality. Béla Tarr, Andrea Arnold, Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, and Hal Hartley represent a more contemporary manifestation of this synthesis, albeit a diverse one. Their highly stylized films investigate and question the “world” of a film through their compositions which almost always privilege location over character within the frame.

Ned Rifle

Be it a “moment” or a “cue” or even a “synthesis”, these components that align our spectatorship toward a larger view of filmic reality will, even inadvertently, imbue a narrative with a more visceral sense of reality. This procedure has, however, proven to be more remote and impossible in the, what Peter Biskind would no doubt term, post-Jaws age of American Cinema. The flexibility of green screen and it’s obvious artifice negates the tangibility of the sets in a film like Cat People or the sense of location in a Rivette or Akerman film. And it is this reliance upon green screen, with its inherent use of exact choreography and promise of spectacle in the mainstream of American cinema which has dictated the closing in and entrenching of the narrative.

As suggested above there are still traces of these tactics in the American cinema. It is just that one must either frequent alternate means of film exhibition (film festivals, vimeo channels) or restrict oneself to a select number of American filmmakers.

-Robert Curry

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The Flame & The Arrow

By 1950, Jacques Tourneur had made a name for himself as one of the most versatile and economic of filmmakers working in Hollywood.  He had helmed such acclaimed titles as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942) and I Walk With A Zombie (1943), garnering him much critical acclaim with critics like Manny Farber, before directing the swashbuckling blockbuster The Flame & The Arrow (1950).  Warner Bros. produced The Flame & The Arrow to cash in on the success of two other pictures, The Adventures Of Don Juan (1948) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), as well as to cash in on the popularity of rising star Burt Lancaster.

The mood and aesthetic of The Flame & The Arrow is a dynamic departure for Tourneur.  Tourneur’s biggest success to date had been the Robert Mitchum thriller Out Of The Past (1947), whose use of expressionist shadows and languid plotting contrasts harshly with the Technicolor bombast of The Flame & The Arrow.  But Tourneur saw himself as a craftsman, not an auteur.  His duty was to fulfill an assignment to the best of his abilities and to comply with the wishes of Warner Bros. Studios.

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To help make his film a success, Tourneur had to meet a tight shooting schedule.  This required him to recycle the sets of both The Adventures Of Don Juan and The Adventures Of Robin Hood.  These sets were redressed and slightly modified to comply with the number of acrobatic stunts Burt Lancaster and his co-star Nick Cravat planned to perform.

From the outset it was clear that The Flame & The Arrow was going to make Lancaster the kind of star Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn had been.  Lancaster himself had been an acrobat for many years before appearing on-screen and Cravat had been his partner.  Together they not only performed their own stunts, but also designed them.  With so few actors even being capable of performing such stunts, Warner Bros. decided to play up the acrobatics in the film’s marketing.  To solidify Lancaster’s position as a superstar and sex symbol the studio also elected Virginia Mayo to play his love interest.

The narrative of The Flame & The Arrow concerns the free-spirited Dardo (Burt Lancaster) who forms a gang similar to Robin Hood’s Merry Men with the sole task of defeating The Hawk (Robert Douglas) and rescuing Dardo’s son.  Acrobatic antics, sword fights, betrayals, and faked deaths abound in The Flame & The Arrow, yet, it cannot escape the shadow of The Adventures Of Robin Hood, even if it was a commercial smash for Warner Bros. The most interesting similarity between The Adventures Of Robin Hood and The Flame & The Arrow is the hero’s relationship to the female lead.  The role of the Maid Marian character is replaced in The Flame & The Arrow by Anne De Hesse (Virginia Mayo).  Stockholm Syndrome seems to be the best explanation for the direction that this relationship takes since both Maid Marian and Anne De Hesse fall in love with their captors while under duress.  The civility afforded Maid Marian in The Adventures Of Robin Hood looks chivalrous in comparison to how Dardo treats Anne De Hesse; which is where the similarity ends.  Once captured by Dardo and his men, Anne De Hesse is bound to a chain link leash connected to an iron collar latched tightly to her neck.  When the other end of this chain is not tied around a tree, Dardo has it in his hands.  This makes Dardo and Anne’s relationship far more violent and sexual than that of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.  Tourneur seems to have no qualms about heightening the fetishism attributed to bondage by dressing Mayo in skimpier and skimpier outfits.  Dramatically speaking, this makes the sexual tension between Anne and Dardo problematic since Dardo’s motivation to “possess” Anne is predicated upon the notion that his son needs a new mother.

It was, and still is, a popular narrative construct to pit a single parent against a villain who has captured his/her, going all the way back to Tod Browning’s underrated West Of Zanzibar (1928) and further.  In The Flame & The Arrow the world of the parent is no better than the world of the villain.  Dardo is impoverished and often starving, living off of only what he hunts in the mountains whereas The Hawk is a Count, born to majesty and privilege and susceptible to the depravities we associate with his title.  The conflict of morals casts Dardo’s mock-socialist values against The Hawk’s Fascism.  In the wake of WWII it’s not surprising that the hero is a would-be-socialist, even if it is never made explicit, and the villain a Fascist.  What is perverse is that the conflict between these two kinds of political ideas is acted out in violence, sexually and physically, in such simplified black and white terms.

This simplification akin to the good guy on the white horse and the bad guy on a black horse is regularly called into question. The villagers who champion Dardo and are oppressed by the Count often have a more communal perspective, offering an alternative to the single-mindedness of the hero or villain. To Tourneur’s credit the camera often privileges these spokes-people of reason with close-ups the beg not only for Dardo or the Count’s sympathies, but those of the spectator.

Though The Flame & The Arrow has the makings of a real entertaining extravaganza, the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, delivered a rather routine and mediocre screenplay whose most original quality are a few comical lines that recall his un-credited work on The Philadelphia Story (1940).  In one scene, Lancaster threatens Mayo with the line “Next time I’ll throw you over my knee and give you a spanking!”  Apart from a few other comical allusions to the power plays in sexual politics, Salt’s script cannot escape being overly genre heavy and cliché’, a problem shared with his script for Taras Bulba (1962).

For a film like The Flame & The Arrow it is no surprise that it was a tremendous hit when it was first released.  It cashed in on a popular genre, featured two popular leads, and boasted enough action for two films.  The Flame & The Arrow solidified Lancaster’s position as a superstar just as it was meant to, and inspired a follow-up vehicle for Lancaster called The Crimson Pirate (1952) and directed by Robert Siodmak.  The Flame & The Arrow’s assessment within the context of Jacques Tourneur’s career is still elusive, though it appears to be a surprisingly logical stepping-stone from films like Cat People to his later work such as War Gods Of The Deep (1965).

-Robert Curry

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