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Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

The Train

A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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Lulu In Berlin, The Supplemental Feature

Louise Brooks circa the 1920s

It’s not difficult to see why Louise Brooks remains one of the most captivating personas of the silent cinema.  Even in her day her look and her talent for acting on film were widely discussed, praised, and adored.  Her celebrity may even be so potent today that it alone is responsible for the deluxe editions of her two films with G.W. Pabst (released by Kino Video and the Criterion Collection respectively).  These two releases posses an abundance of supplements ranging from interviews with Brooks, latter day short films (Windy Riley Goes Hollywood of 1930 was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and, on the Criterion release of Pandora’s Box (1929), Richard Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin (1984).

Lulu In Berlin is, at essence, a filmic analysis of Brooks’ life in and around the cinema with a detailed foray into what was the climax of that relationship; her collaboration with Pabst on Pandora’s Box and Diary Of A Lost Girl (1929).  In conversation with Brooks, Leacock prompts his subject to recall all of the anecdotes and personal reflections that make her own memoir Lulu In Hollywood such a delightful read.  But what Leacock is able to do in Lulu In Berlin that Brooks was not in her book is to deconstruct the visual aesthetic of Pabst.  To do this Leacock, like any sensible video-essayist, slows down sequences, freeze frames on notable compositions, and replays sequences of particular importance.  What Lulu In Berlin manages, that is entirely unique in my experience, is to couple the subjective recollections of a subject with an objective aesthetic analysis of another related subject congruently.

Consider the many DVD special features that one is most familiar with.  A celebrity, either director or actor, recalls the pleasuresLeacock and Brooks of making a film whilst, via jump cuts, the film in reference is often cut to.  The difference between these supplemental features on DVDs and blu-rays and Leacock’s Lulu In Berlin is their motivation.  Where Leacock presents an analysis that is two prolonged and intent on enlightening the audience as to the mechanics of a film and the experience of constructing those mechanics that make the film your average special feature is nothing more than a prolonged advertisement for whatever film happens to be in question.  Even some of the most informative special features, like those on Warner Bros. DVD release of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), are, at their heart, commercials.

Leacock’s film of Louise Brooks, with all of its aforementioned merits, still would not likely to have been seen on a home video release if it weren’t for the fact that Louise Brooks is the subject.  In Barry Paris’ excellent biography on Brooks, Louise Brooks, Paris will, again and again, reassert this timelessness.  He points out that to many fans of the cinema today Brooks is more famous and recognizable than those actresses with whom she often competed, such as Clara Bow.  This observation, that is very true, was also shared by Leacock; who opened and closed Lulu In Berlin with the sequence pictured below.

freeze frame from Lulu In Berlin

-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.

flame2.jpg

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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