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La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

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New Cinematic Languages

Recently I watched two films back to back that seemingly have very little in common.  Upon a superficial examination these two films appear to only contrast one another.  The first was made in the seventies as a reactionary portrait of the United States during the social unrest of the early seventies, executed with the kind of “underground film” aesthetic that could only be easily described as a Paul Morrissey film assembled by Stan Brakhage.  The second film is French, and makes every effort to employ the surrealist film tactics of Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau and Jean Epstein to deconstruct the novelistic conventions typical in narrative film of the fifties, epitomizing the lettrist movement.  Despite these contextual and aesthetic dissimilarities, these two films both achieve a dissociative examination of the cinematographic langue, deconstructing the modes by which the audience reads an image in film by filling the frame with smaller frames, whose relativity to one another is neither circumstantial nor contextual and predicated by the accompanying soundtrack or entirely invented by the audience as an attempt to link these images via a coherent association (compositionally, aesthetically, or simply via content).

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The first film I have alluded to is Nicolas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1971).  Produced as an extravagant student film based around Ray’s literal proposition that filmmaking by nature is a communal act, a proposition carried well  beyond the production of the film and into the personal lives of the students who contributed to it.  Therefore, though the film is not singularly the result of Ray’s authorship, it will be treated as such in this essay for simplicity’s sake, though it cannot be argued that Ray himself was not the principle guiding force behind the film.

Regardless of the legitimate authorship of We Can’t Go Home Again, it’s true significance resides in the film’s technical approach to montage.  As the film appeared at its premiere at Cannes in 1971 the film ran 87 minutes.  During those 87 minutes the film fills the primary frame, with an aspect ratio of 16:9, with a series of smaller frames which function as units within a larger composition (that of which I have referred to as the primary frame).  These units are composed of various narratives shot on a variety of film stocks and are arranged in a seemingly random fashion, devoid of any compositional or contextual unification.  The dissimilarities in the narrative content of these units prevents a unifying narrative from directing the audience’s understanding of the images, subverting their expectations and assumptions, forcing the audience instead to interpret the film as it appears as a whole in the primary frame and as an anthropological recording of a single year in the history of the United States.  The thematic connection is a presumptive one then.  One can assume that the socio-political upheaval of the early seventies recorded in We Can’t Go Home Again is reflected in the deconstructive approach of aligning dissociative units within a single primary frame.  Therefore in form and content We Can’t Go Home Again is able to epitomize the anti thesis to the formal understanding of the cinematographic langue.  By negating it’s direct employment in the film’s montage yet attaining it’s essential effects by another means suggests, on behalf of Ray and his students, that other cinematic languages must be invented to articulate new directions in socio-political growth on a nationalist level predicated by advents in technological achievement pertaining to the medium itself.

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The second film is Marc O.’s Closed Vision (1954), whose importance here is strictly that it alludes to the modes by which We Can’t Go Home Again would be able to subvert the critical assumptions of the cinematographic langue.  Closed Vision itself is a far cry from We Can’t Go Home Again, and presents itself as a muddled compilation of aesthetic approaches to film.  Firstly, a series of title cards make reference to the endorsement of the film by the surrealist Jean Cocteau, which isn’t surprising when one takes into account Marc O.’s allegiance to the lettrist movement.  Following Cocteau’s endorsement, more title cards follow that inform the audience of two intentions of the film.  Firstly, that the film may aid in the development of human psychological studies, the second that the film is a co-production between the French and the Americans.  The intention of these title cards is to legitimize the film and to provide an intellectual justification for the film.  However, each card manages to contradict the last, confusing the context of the film and its relation to its audience.  Likewise, a majority of the body of the film contains the lyrical stream of consciousness narrative similar to that which defined the films of the early surrealists and Dadaists, though in this instance Marc O. contrasts his loose narrative with a disjointed soundtrack whose primary purpose is to manufacture the illusion that Closed Vision does indeed simulate the effects of actual stream of consciousness.

The important portion of Closed Vision to my argument occurs early on, and lasts only briefly, and is stylistically quite different from the bulk of the film.  The contents of this section are precise and more highly articulate, despite the fact that the section appears utilizing the same basic unit structure of We Can’t Go Home Again.  The difference is that Marc O.’s film negates a direct confrontation with the cinematographic langue by restricting the content of his units to still images on a much larger collage (a concept adapted by the filmmaker from the Rythmus films of Hans Richter and the formal experiments of Marcel Duchamp in the twenties).  This collage (composed of roughly cut out images from different magazines) appears in wide shot, revealing all of it’s many pictures as individual units.  Then, Marc O. moves his camera in on single sections of the bigger collage, emphasizing single units.  Thus, Marc O.’s film provides a sort of blueprint for the mechanisms with which Ray would conduct his own deconstruction of cinematic linguistics.

The most striking element that links these two films is that any similarity is entirely unintentional.  It is unlikely Nicolas Ray ever encountered Marc O.’s film, as it is just as unlikely that Marc O. ever intended to suggest the cinematic possibilities of We Can’t Go Home Again.  What’s strange is that Ray’s effective call for a new cinematic language never found a more mainstream expression and only regressed back into the cinematic avant-garde.  In fact, the kind of cinematic expression that defines We Can’t Go Home Again and makes it such a singular viewing experience can be found more readily today in video art and installations.

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Consider Dieter Roth’s Solo Screens installation of 1997.  Roth replaces Ray’s primary frame reference point with an equally fixed and alternately flexible perspective, space.  However, while within a space, a spectator can navigate freely.  This freedom of movement simulates, to varying degrees, those instances when only a single unit appears in the primary frame during Ray’s film.  But unlike Ray, Roth’s units are more clearly defined, manifested as a series of televisions in an aluminum showcase.  It is in this way that Roth removes the role Ray played in the production of his film as primary director and editor, replacing those roles and the necessity for such roles by dissecting the cinematographic langue all together, allowing the spectator to dictate the content of his or her own subjective primary frame.  Similar effects have been achieved in other video installations, thus grounding the new cinematic language outside of conventional filmmaking as it is popularly thought of and grounding it in the vernacular of gallery art.  Some other primary instances are Elija-Liisa Ahtila’s Consolation Service (1999) and Darren Almond’s Traction (1999).  This singular evolution is therefore clearly indicative of the growth of cinematic language, as it has always been suggested by the avant-garde, has been growing beyond the theoretical confines of the standardized tools and mechanisms of both formal and traditional movie making and the modes of its spectatorship.

-Robert Curry

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Whity

“I love you.  Now I know I can finish this film!”-R.W. Fassbinder to production manager Peter Berling on the set of Whity.

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Whity (1970) is a first in many respects for its writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  For one, it is a Western, a genre of filmmaking foreign to Fassbinder.  But it is also Fassbinder’s biggest production up to 1970, costing about 680,000DM and shot in vibrant color on 35mm CinemaScope film stock.  For Fassbinder this was a tremendous move away from the small productions and formalist exercises of his previous films.  Whity is also the first of Fassbinder’s films where the influence of the French New Wave, in particular the films of Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard, cannot be felt in Fassbinder’s approach and at times appropriation of classic American cinema.

Whity takes its name from the film’s central character (played by Günter Kaufmann), the black valet and illegitimate son to Nicholson (played by American B-Movie star Ron Randell).  Eventually, Whity rebels against his father and brothers (played by Harry Baer and Ulli Lommel) as well as Nicholson’s manipulative young bride (Katrin Schaake), killing them all in cold blood with a revolver.  After these executions, Whity runs off with his saloon singer girlfriend Hanna (Hanna Schygulla), only to presumably die of thirst in the desert.

Whity (1970) marks Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last production with his own antitheater-X Films as a result of personal differences among many of his Anti-Theater collaborators, with whom Fassbinder had worked on all of his previous films.  Fassbinder himself was in the midst of emotional turmoil.  His lover and the star of Whity, Günter Kaufmann, had begun breaking away from the director sexually and emotionally.  As a direct result of this Fassbinder began exhibiting violent behavior toward his crew, climaxing with two physical altercations.  First with production manager Peter Berling, and second with the production’s script girl.  In both cases Fassbinder was beaten by his adversaries, most memorably by the film’s two stuntmen.  Fassbinder’s personal situation is essential to understanding the themes of Whity as well as providing a biographical context for the film in the author’s life.

For Fassbinder Whity is a film whose central concern is American Romanticism in the classic Hollywood tradition.  In one respect Whity is a deconstruction of the Romantic elements of Raoul Walsh’s film Band Of Angels (1957).  For much like Band Of Angels, Whity’s central narrative is melodramatic and centered on the power struggles within a family unit.  But Whity also grapples with the tradition of the movies romanticizing American history, effectively transposing the melo-dramatic narrative devices of Walsh’s film into the heightened camp environment of Nicolas Ray’s masterpiece Johnny Guitar (1954).

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Thus, as a genre picture, Whity makes two essential gestures of deconstruction.  Firstly, Fassbinder’s narrative is as preposterous as that of Band Of Angels.  But to strengthen the artifice of this narrative proposition, Fassbinder slows down all of the character interactions with an almost novelistic approach.  Characters react with delay to reveals to the audience, often accompanied by slow camera moves whose composition and accompanying score raise the tension to Wagnerian heights and a sort of dream like reality.  In this way the mechanisms of Romantic story telling in Western genre filmmaking become clear to the viewer, challenging the audience to question their necessity to accept these mechanisms in the context of film as truth.

Secondly, Fassbinder will visually quote the trademark close-ups of Sergio Leone’s westerns.  This technique imbues Whity with self-awareness indicative of New German Cinema.  Yet, what is of primary importance concerning this quotation is the implication that Westerns are just as essential to the mythos of European cinema as they are to the American cinema.  By 1970 westerns had been part of the standard regimen of B-movie production in Germany for the better part of five years.  And it is during those five years, just as it occurred simultaneously in Italy; the Western became assimilated into the collective national consciousness.  This means that in Germany, as well as Italy, the Western genre existed as entertainment for the masses, the working class, functioning as a tool for communal unity.  This signifies a conscious effort on Fassbinder’s part to endow the genre, by making an intellectual Western, with a political relevance to contemporary West Germany, even going so far as to illuminate the pitfalls of leftist thinking among the working classes, primarily the growing Anarchist movement.

Whity is not, however, exclusively bound to the American cinema via its genre but also by it’s depiction of female sexuality and in particular one sexual relationship within the film.  The relationship between the valet Whity (Günter Kaufmann) and the singer/prostitute Hanna (Hanna Schygulla) is derivative of the relationship between Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Fassbinder’s favorite film by Josef von Sternberg Morocco (1930).  What attracts Dietrich and Schygulla to their male suitors above all others is their simplicity and their romantic devotion.  This is essential to the theme of Whity, that it is Whity’s intellectual simplicity and his willingness to accommodate his mistress that he in turn can be controlled and eventually (though the film never sees this through) oppressed by her.  This is an undercurrent that runs throughout Fassbinder’s work, that there are two kinds of people, the oppressor and the oppressed.  Fassbinder proposes that one needs the other, and that even when one relationship of this sort is destroyed (as it is in Whity), either the oppressed or the oppressor must then carry on the symbiotic relationship with a suitable opposite.

That relationship is in turn the center of Fassbinder’s political message within the film.  One can therefore assume, given Fassbinder’s fear and disdain toward West Germany’s Anarchist movement that this message is for them.  In fact, Fassbinder saw the Anarchists much in the same way he saw the protagonist of his film, as short sighted and prone to violent action and martyrdom that does not permanently resolve any conflict nor does it achieve any sort of solution.  The paradox described in the above paragraph applies again to either Whity or the Anarchists.  If one is oppressed and violently removes the oppressor, then one will inevitably seek out a way in which to be oppressed again.  So to continue the metaphor proposed in a political reading of Whity, the Nicholson’s are representative of the conservative West German government.

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For all the points I make about Whity above, the film has largely been either misread or dismissed for its affiliations with the Western Genre.  Even when the film premiered at the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival the film was received with a cool reserve.  Admittedly, Whity is a difficult film in many respects, but it is the many parts of its whole that allow the film to transcend the tropes of your standard deconstructionist Western, becoming a film of the highest order much in the same way Robert Bresson’s Lancelot Of The Lake (1976) did with French Romanticism.

-Robert Curry

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