Tag Archives: Peter Bogdanovich

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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Filed under Spring 2017

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Bluebeard

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

Bluebeard

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

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

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

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

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

Ulmer directing

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

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Winter 2012

Gone, But Not Quite Forgotten

Few film directors have been granted the kind of critical reassessment Orson Welles has.  It is a widely acknowledged fact in the film community that during his life Welles’ films post-Citizen Kane (1941) were largely ignored and that the director spent much of his time attempting to raise money to complete what few films he could make.  Since the eighties, the Hollywood machine has done its best to gloss over their poor treatment of Welles, labeling him both an icon of the old studio system as well as a rebellious auteur.  In reality, a majority of Welles’ films were made over seas, and those that were made in Hollywood, with the exception of Citizen Kane, were never under the director’s complete control.

Simon Callow’s two-volume biography on Orson Welles, The Road To Xanadu and Hello Americans, does much to explain Welles’ tumultuous relationship with Hollywood.  For starters, Welles had a tremendous ego; often he would offend or undermine the authority of those upon whom he relied for financing.  Second, Welles refused to compromise, tyrannically pursuing his ideal visions despite monetary or personal repercussions.  In short, Orson Welles was a visionary genius, a loud mouth, an egotist, self indulgent, and controlling filmmaker.  These attributes, no matter how unseemly, made up a large portion of his style and his process as a filmmaker.  In old Hollywood, Welles’ personality alone was enough to be banned from the industry, without taking into account the controversial subject matter of his material.

Thus, Welles departed from the studio machine (with the exception of Touch Of Evil in 1958), and began making films independently in Europe, beginning with an adaptation of Othello (1952).  The monetary restrictions of these European productions were inhibiting at best, often Welles would end up shelving entire projects due to his financial situation (1969’s Don Quixote).  The conditions surrounding Welles forced him to adopt a style in total contrast with the grandeur and nuance of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), shooting instead when actors, sets, and money were available, often traveling across Europe to best accommodate these circumstances.  The kinetic energy of Mr. Arkadin (1955), The Trial (1962), and Chimes At Midnight (1965) often appears to be the work of an entirely different director than the Orson Welles that brought us The Stranger (1946) and The Magnificent Ambersons.  Budget problems did not allow Welles the visual style he pioneered with Gregg Toland, so Welles opted for fast camera moves and jump cuts that pre-date the French New Wave by almost a decade.

The richness, and the texture of Welles’ scripts remained, for the most part, consistent in his later films as it had in the early studio pictures.  The differences are in the visual style of Welles’ films, clearly divided by what came before Othello and what came after Othello.  This division presents us with an interesting contradiction.  Orson Welles, the big studio icon, made his most influential films in Europe.  Take the battle scene in Chimes At Midnight for example.  Welles shot the sequence with a moving camera, reserving stationary shots for the comic relief of Falstaff or for close-ups.  These moving shots are cut based upon the action in frame to other moving shots, playing up the energy of the violence in the sequence to maximum effect.  The pace of these cuts is unprecedented in scenes of epic battle, yet gave Hollywood the blueprint from which to stage their battle scenes in more contemporary films such as Braveheart (1994).  The reflexivity and self-awareness of Welles himself in F Is For Fake (1974) predates Jean-Luc Godard’s film Keep Your Right Up (1987).  It quickly becomes evident that the second half of Welles’ career is far more expansive and meaningful in its influence than the first half.  Even considering Citizen Kane; it is the only film Welles made in Hollywood over which he exerted complete control, the other studio films are mere approximations of his original intentions (if we’re lucky) as they are available today.  In recent years this argument has gained strength from new “restored” versions of his uncompleted (Jess Franco’s edit of Don Quixote) and lost (the Criterion Collection’s release of Mr. Arkadin) films.

Now, let us return to the allegation that Orson Welles is a studio icon.  If we compare his films and his filmmaking process to other directors and their respective movements, he is more akin to the classic European auteur like Max Ophuls and Luchino Visconti, the French New Wave, or the early American Independents than to the studio films of Hollywood.  So is there even a “reassessment” at work here?

When Welles died, filmmakers such as Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Robert Altman who had been praising Citizen Kane for years were finally heard.  Directors had become superstars in the seventies, and the studios knew there would be much to gain by supporting the opinions of these filmmakers when it came to marketing the Welles’ films that they owned.   So what we are faced with is not a critical reassessment in the classic sense, but a marketing ploy.  This begins to explain why so many of Welles’ later films have yet to find distribution in the United States thirty years after Welles has died; there just isn’t a big enough demand.  The average filmgoer or amateur “movie buff” is entirely ignorant of the Welles films of the sixties and seventies precisely because of the studio’s “reassessment”.  When an audience doesn’t know a film exists, why would they want to see it?

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Summer 2012

Peter Biskind & His History Of Hollywood

Peter Biskind is an entertainment journalist, though not in the classic sense like J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) in the film Sweet Smell Of Success (1957).

Biskind offers his readers something human about the otherworldly celebrities whose lives he reports.  The fact that he has been able to remain so objective over the course of his long career is a marvel unto itself.

Biskind’s first book published in 1983, Seeing Is Believing follows the course of popular American filmmaking in the fifties.  Biskind singles out a dozen film titles that he then gives a brief production history of and some mild mannered criticism.  The book maintains a casual tone throughout, but what makes the read truly intriguing is how the book soon becomes a portrait of its author.  Biskind’s mild mannered criticism is just that, amateurish film analysis whose primary concern is the historical context of the film.  However, Biskind’s own nostalgia for most of the films is at conflict with the context he forces himself to place the titles in.  A worthwhile example of this would be his piece on Fred Zinnemann’s film From Here To Eternity.  Stylistically speaking, the most important aspect of Biskind’s first book is how well he draws illuminating parallels between the moviemakers and the movies they made.

This device is what makes his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998) his masterpiece.  Most readers go digging for stories about Robert Towne’s dog, Francis Coppola dropping his pants, Peter Bogdanovich’s sexual triumphs, William Friedkin sadistically torturing Ellen Burstyn, and of course everything having to do with BBS or Roman Polanski.  The book focuses on Hollywood from the rise of Warren Beatty’s producer power on the production of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde to the death of Hal Ashby.  It seems likely that the book sold so well based exclusively on the strength of its gossip, and the extreme living the books subjects were a part of.

But, as I implied above, to dismiss Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as an anthology of 1970s Hollywood gossip would negate the most compelling component of Biskind’s writing.  Let me make use of the most obvious example, Roman Polanski.  Biskind can find Polanski’s personal grief, obsessions and paranoia manifesting them not just on the screen, but also during production.  Thus, Biskind provides an accurate portrait of Polanski the film artist.  Amazingly, Biskind accomplishes what he did with Polanski with almost all of his subjects, and he is even able to tie all their stories together cohesively (one is may be tempted to say Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is to Hollywood what Robert Altman’s film Nashville was to Nashville).

What works better in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is that Biskind does not attempt the analysis of these films as he did in Seeing Is Believing.  It succeeds better as factual reporting, allowing contexts and connections to slowly and organically reveal themselves to the reader, who can then quite easily make applications to the films discussed in the book as an active audience member.  It cannot be stressed enough how important the history and lives of filmmakers are to understanding the films they have created.  Lets just say then, that Peter Biskind’s books are a good place to start.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Spring 2012