Saturday, August 18, 2007

Le Banc de la désolation: MOMA, August 19, 2007

If you're a Chabrol fan and haven't yet disposed of tomorrow afternoon, go to MOMA for the 5 pm screening of Le Banc de la désolation, which is quite good. Even if you can't make it, you might want to budget some time to catch the other 70s TV films that MOMA is screening in its Chabrol series: the other one that I've seen so far, L'Invitation á la chasse, is also quite personal and well worth your while.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bringing Up Baby

I saw Bringing Up Baby 12 times in my first 15 years of film-buffery, and then let 20 years go by before my13th viewing last week. My first impression this time around is that there are two films in there, fighting with each other.
  1. One film is about play: play with genre, play on the set. The first scene, in the museum, pushes the "screwball" aspect of screwball comedy so far that it becomes almost nightmarish. Characters like Huxley's fiancee exist only to amuse us with how far comic conventions can be pushed; and Huxley himself is at this point no more than a wink that Cary Grant and Hawks are giving to the audience. Every time the film threatens to wind down, Hawks finds some old vaudevillian to strut and fret through some well-honed bit of business; like Huxley, they tend to mix up the names of their own characters and the ones they are addressing, as if the problems of the set and the problems of the fiction were the same. When the plot depends on a coincidence, Hawks has the actors throw it in our faces. The nakedness of the contrivance is a source of humor in itself - as, for instance, when assorted human and animal characters march in single file into the jailhouse for the climax.

  2. The other film is about people. Hawks here introduces us to his distinctive take on the comedy of power and powerlessness: he likes pushing the protagonist's loss of control into the realm of humiliation, and then, in a compensatory gesture of equal force, he shifts the focus to the humbled protagonist's recovery of his dignity and power - sometimes via detachment, sometimes via exasperation. In the other corner, Susan Vance is explictly amoral, in rebellion against every rule society is selling - and extremely feminine, her strategems couched in the language of girlish seduction, her threat coded as the threat of femininity. Somehow Bringing Up Baby seems more explicitly about sex than other screwball comedies: partly because the focus remains squarely on the boy-girl thing, and partly because Hawks pushes Susan's antisocial qualities so far that it's easy to imagine her breaking the Hays Code as well.

The two films seem to fight with each other because they have different agendas for Huxley, who is a complete nincompoop in the genre-play movie, and a plausible, if displaced, Hawksian hero in the character-based one. One feels the pull even in the presentation of supporting characters: for every Catlett or Ruggles who underlines the screwiness of the film's premise, there's a Hawksian delivery boy murmuring "Don't let it throw you" as he makes his exit.

I don't think this conceptual conflict is a particular virtue. But the film is simply dazzling in the scope of its comic inspiration. Hawks' repertoire of comic modes seems unlimited: he gets laughs with shock cuts and by holding on to master shots, with classical cutting and by withholding the classical cut, with well-staged physical humor and with offscreen sound gags. The film seems improvised to a large extent, but not quite in the style of other improvised films: it's as if Hawks shot and cut the film to enhance the actors' efficiency and mental quickness. Hepburn in particular riffs with Robin Williams-like density.

As is his wont, Hawks pushes the project's comic concept to logical extremes, and Susan's feminine energy leads inevitably to apocalypse in the final scene. (It could be noted in passing that Hawks was happy to build his next comedy, His Girl Friday, around runaway masculinity.) The exaggeration of the movie's chaotic tendencies could be seen as another aspect of genre play, but I prefer to see it as Hawks creating a suitably existential setting for the rather poignant dilemma of his displaced hero.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Godard; Bodily Functions

I've been discussing Godard in the comments section of a post on Craig Keller's Cinemasparagus blog. I managed to work Bazin into the discussion, to no one's surprise, I'm sure. And I've also been participating in a discussion on Zach Campbell's Elusive Lucidity blog about scenes where characters eat and perform other bodily functions. (Zach's post was specifically about eating scenes in Cassavetes' films, but I ducked out of that specific topic, as Cassavetes' work isn't fresh in my mind; I've never warmed up to him.)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Double Life: Post-War Cukor

A Double Life, the first film George Cukor directed after WWII, seems to signal a change in Cukor's ideas about the plastic aspects of filmmaking. Here are a few of the devices I notice in the film that might be new for Cukor:

  • An interest in long-shot urban compositions that emphazise open space in front of the camera that extends in one or more directions into the urban environment. There is a certain documentary quality to these images, possibly because of the use of natural sound;

  • Art direction for interiors that emphasizes clutter, or a profusion of objects, kept in focus along with the actors;

  • Some rather long takes, sometimes with pans or tracks across a space;

  • An occasional use of extreme long shot in a dramatic scene where one might expect closer shots by default. I don't recall Cukor doing this when the plot is fully engaged, but it happens once or twice early in the film;

  • Lights shining into the camera, producing halation. Here, and also in A Star Is Born, the effect is associated with the experience of being on stage.

One could think of many of these effects as being related to various "realist" influences that were operating at the time. For instance, the increased presence of newsreel footage might have something to do with the acceptability of natural sound, or of technical "imperfections" like lights shining at the camera; neorealist films from Italy may have suggested the more general use of long shots; the deep-focus photography associated with Toland seems to be influencing Cukor's decor decisions. If Cukor is indeed borrowing realist style elements, though, he is determined to make them look very nice. No jittery newsreel-style camera or hurried compositions will be found in his films - all the effects I mention are aestheticized and pleasing to the eye.

Because one tends to think of Cukor as an actor-centered director, it's interesting to contemplate this shift in his style toward a greater exploitation of the spatial properties of the image. His work in the 30s was not at all visually clumsy, but my impression is that he was principally interested at that time in varying shot length for dramatic purposes, to shift our attention between a theater-like sense of ensemble and the interior state of individual performers. But his visuals in the late 40s and early 50s become more evocative of space and time, even as he retains his primary interest in emotional revelation.

The acting style that Cukor encourages uses realist gestures in order to trick us, so to speak, into accepting extreme emotionality as naturalistic. For instance, an actor might interrupt a rapturous moment with a nervous giggle or a quick, embarrassed look at the character he or she is talking to. My sense is that Cukor likes to be big and over the top, and that realism for him is simply a tool to integrate wildness into an ostensibly natural dramatic context.

Do the realist visual gestures of the 40s and 50s serve the same effect, somehow? It's something to think about.

As for A Double Life itself, I can't say I enjoyed it much. I'm always tempted to lay blame at the feet of screenwriters Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, who generally bother me; and the script does occasionally seem to me ham-handed in laying out the interrelations of the characters. But I suspect that the real problem is that Cukor isn't the right director for this kind of material. The story (famous actor Ronald Colman identifies too much with whatever part he's playing, and therefore becomes a menace to womankind when he plays Othello) is potentially silly, and probably needed a cool-headed, analytic, distanced depiction of the theater world, so that the insanity of the protagonist could appear to be nurtured and disguised by his environment. But Cukor characteristically is fascinated by Colman's grandiose inner life, and the social context recedes behind his ecstatic self-projection.

(There were two scenes in A Double Life where I thought Kanin and Gordon wrote some really sharp, knowing dialogue. Maybe I need to make a fairer appraisal of their virtues and vices.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Ruggles of Red Gap: MOMA, August 15 and 31, 2007

I've always been amazed that Ruggles of Red Gap was adapted twice before Leo McCarey got his hands on it, because his version seems so pure an expression of his sentiments and style that I can't imagine the material predating him (or predating the rolling of the camera by more than a few minutes). Ruggles is not only one of the best films America has produced, but also the most eloquent cinematic valentine that America has ever received. MOMA is screening it on Wednesday, August 15 at 6:30 pm and again on Friday, August 31 at 8:45 pm.

Though they don't deal directly with Ruggles, here are links to two posts on a_film_by (from May 2004 and Feb 2006) in which I discuss McCarey's style.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Carriage Trade

As a young film buff, I used to enjoy Jonas Mekas's rapturous writing about (mostly) non-narrative film for the Village Voice. I remember him expressing an almost physical need to experience chunks of pure, full-bodied cinema. His enthusiasm stuck with me as a model for how non-narrative cinema might work - a model that I've rarely been able to instantiate for actual films. But I felt that Mekas feeling while watching Warren Sonbert's beautiful Carriage Trade last weekend. It occurred to me that my idea of "pure, full-bodied cinema" had been shaped over the years by Bazinian influences that took me far away from the film culture of many non-narrative artists; but that Sonbert was speaking to me from closer to home.

Sonbert's images, which we first see isolated by black leader and fades, and later see in various combinations, have a contained, composed quality that suggests that he is trying to sum something up with each shot: the quality of a place, or of an action, or of a person. When he sets a shot off by fades to and from black, he does an uncanny impersonation of the establishing shots of silent movies, because the shot seems to give us a complete enough account of what it shows that it could be illustrating a title card.

The images in Carriage Trade often have a bit of narrative, a bit of drama attached to them. Sonbert doesn't use that narrative charge to create a bigger story, but he is friendly to the narrative impulse, and begins and ends shots to enhance the import of what happens within them. If the shot portrays an action, Sonbert will often wait to cut until a moment that gives the action a shape; when his camera moves, it often traverses a static or repetitive scene as if to give it directionality, a sense of development. The appeal of the film for me comes, not only from the beauty and serenity of the compositions, but also from the bit of mystery that comes from so many shots having a minute, self-sufficent quality of narrative representation.

After a while Sonbert begins grouping shots together, or intercutting between groupings of shots: not unlike Vertov, though somewhat gentler and more meditative. Inevitably my mind turned to the issue of the film's global structure, and I never found any large patterns that gave me much satisfaction; my appreciation for the film remained on the shot level. Once in a while I would perceive a connection between shots - for instance, a circular pan around a group of people cuts to a circular window in a wall - and I would just let the connection drop. I've trained myself over the years to avoid an interpretive, thematic experience of the image, and without that arrow in my quiver, I didn't know how to profit artistically from whatever connections I detected.

It must be said that every account of Sonbert that I've read has put heavy emphasis on his use of montage; I presume Sonbert started that trend with his self-analyses (which I'd love to read, if anyone knows where to find them). I wonder if my own training in film blocks me from following Sonbert from the shot level to the level of intermediate structure, structure on the sequence level. Now that my interest has been piqued, I need to visit Sonbert again and try on different approaches to that problem. But I do believe that Sonbert's many admirers might perhaps profit from adjusting their focus and considering his shots as entities in themselves, as well as in connection to each other.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success is pretty much universally regarded as one of director Alexander Mackendrick's best films - in fact, it's usually regarded as the best. And yet Mackendrick's contribution is hard to detect. The overpowering creative presence here is the powerful dialogue by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; and it's almost as easy to attribute the film to James Wong Howe's stunning night photography or Elmer Bernstein's signature score. So Mackendrick's is actually the fourth most palpable crew contribution.

And Mackendrick's style is instantly identifiable both before and after this movie. No one who appreciates film direction could miss his presence in The Man in the White Suit or A High Wind in Jamaica.

I certainly don't believe that a director's best films are always the ones in which he or she is the most dominant. But, I dunno, the issue should be raised at least.

Here are a few of the aspects of Mackendrick's style that I can pick up in Sweet Smell:
  • An interest in the external qualities of the performer, especially as these external features create a sense of the uncanny or incongruous. I feel this more in the supporting cast (and the supporting cast often seems unusually important in Mackendrick films for this reason), but I pick it up also in his regard for Burt Lancaster's genteel monster, a quiet, hulking man who holds a teacup delicately in his massive hands, his expression obscured by low-rimmed glasses. (Mackendrick often suppresses facial expression in his actors.)
  • The use of obvious dubbing, which has the effect of lifting passages of dialogue out of the warp and woof of the action, and turning them into a floating, radio-like commentary. Sometimes this effect is enhanced by having the dubbed dialogue bridge a cut.
  • A pleasure in creating an elaborate background environment (with attention to both decor and supporting players), and then inconspicuously shifting our attention back and forth between the lead performers and the background, sometimes with routine cutting, sometimes with gentle camera movements.

And still, Mackendrick's personality is rather ethereal here, like a watermark on paper that can be seen only by holding it up to the light.

The screenwriters' presence is not ethereal. The crazy, inspired stunt dialogue, the quotable lines, nearly all go to Curtis and Lancaster, the villains who rule the film and create and control its melodramatic plot. The embodiments of decent living, especially young lovers Martin Milner and Susan Harrison, seem quite bland in comparison: probably no one watches the film for them. And yet the script's sincere preaching against the evil of unrestrained conservative power and amoral opportunism comes out of the mouths of these non-entities. One concludes that the film is governed by a fascination with the evil that it is condemning, and does not realize that it is bored by the kind of world that it advocates.

This is not a quality I associate with Mackendrick's other films. Yet neither do I detect that Mackendrick is trying to undermine this quality. He knows full well the nature of the project, and he executes it with enthusiasm.

And so I consider Sweet Smell of Success a very interesting failure....