Thursday, February 28, 2008

His Girl Friday

I have a long-standing pet theory about Hawks' comedies that I'm starting to question. The theory is that the comedies contain two different kinds of characters, pitched at different levels of abstraction: one more plausible and naturalistic, the other more stylized and exaggerated. And that the films document the perplexity of the more naturalistic characters as they are confronted by refugees from a different and wilder movie.

One reason the theory is appealing is that Hawks' dramas clearly depend for their effect on the manipulation of multiple levels of realism. Hawks creates genre-based expectations using story, decor, secondary characters, etc., and then encourages the lead actors to play the movie faster, smaller, more casually than the setup leads us to expect.

I recently revisited His Girl Friday, no doubt the greatest Hawks comedy, for the first time in decades. (I watched it eleven times between 1973 and 1985, then gave it a long rest.) His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby (which I saw not too long ago) are the comedies that best support my old theory. But now I'm not so sure that the concept holds up.

Obviously Hildy Johnson would be the more scaled-down, psychologically readable character in my schema, and Walter Burns would be the creature from the House of Fiction. But, even in the first big duel between Walter and Hildy in Walter's office, one notices a great deal of choreography: stylized, balletic moves that seem designed to show off artifice. Hildy slips out of Walter's grasp with split-second timing; Walter knows when Hildy will throw that pillow at him, and at what angle. Surely there's a sense in which Hildy and Walter inhabit the same plane of abstraction, not different planes. Both actors play-act openly; and our pleasure comes from watching and sharing their delight in having pulled it off, or sometimes their amusement at not quite pulling it off.

Bruce Baldwin, Hildy's suitor, is really only slightly more plausible a lover than the absurd Miss Swallow in Bringing Up Baby. If we divide the film into opposing aesthetic principles, one more realist and one more fantastic, then Bruce has to follow Hildy into the more realist sector, and we must then account for her bizarre desire to settle down with this "paragon," who no less than Walter beckons Hildy into the realm of burlesque.

Instead of trying to justify such a bifurcation, it makes more sense to me now to view Hawks' comedies more in the way that I view his dramas. In other words, less in terms of one set of actors opposed to another, and more in terms of the actors working and playing together, opening up a gap between themselves and their genre-identified environment, and amusing themselves by acknowledging that gap.

Still, somehow there is a difference between the comedies and the dramas: all Hawks commentators have puzzled over it. It occurs to me that most adventure-based genres don't interfere very much with Hawks' desire to create the kind of idealized characters he enjoys. He evokes genre mostly with background elements and introductory passages; his actors perform their genre duties while both having fun and projecting Hawks' idea of what he'd like people to be. Whereas comedy, at least to the extent that it comes with genre coding, seems to require that actors behave in an eccentric or outrageous manner. This is a potential issue, because Hawks likes his characters to embody his ideals.

In my post on Bringing Up Baby, I talked about how the film seems to be split in two by these impulses: the need to create clear genre signals with goofy characters; and the desire to enjoy the company of ideal characters. I believe that this tension is what gave rise in my mind to the idea that Hawks' comedies are built around the formal conceit of the collision of characters from different kinds of movies.

Judging from interviews, His Girl Friday seems to have been a conscious effort on Hawks' part to tone down the unreality of the comic hijinks in Baby. The tensions within the earlier film have been reduced, or at least made less conspicuous. Modern audiences can admire and emphathize with Hildy Johnson in a way that they cannot with David Huxley.

There's a quietly stunning moment in His Girl Friday where Hawks shoots the works on two brief closeups of Hildy, eating lunch with Bruce and getting off a few wisecracks at Walter's expense: "He comes by it naturally - his grandfather was a snake." The background of the restaurant is suddenly dense: dark shadows overhead, bit players in motion, cigarette smoke. Hildy is eating her food, enjoying the ambience. The shots would work perfectly in a Hawks drama - in fact they look a bit like Only Angels Have Wings, the other Hawks film shot by Joseph Walker - and take their place with the many other idyllic interludes in bars and cafes in Hawks's work, evoking the pleasures of social intercourse. Bringing Up Baby couldn't have accommodated such images - it isn't drama-friendly enough.

But the comedy-vs.-drama tensions of the earlier film haven't been eliminated altogether. Hawks and his writers (credited Charles Lederer, uncredited Ben Hecht and Morrie Ryskind, maybe others) devised a two-part structure in an attempt to balance the film's comic and dramatic needs. In the first section of the film, Hildy is firm in her desire to leave the newspaper business behind, and the film slowly sets up the pleasure-giving mechanism of the Earl Williams case. There is lots of fast dialogue and good comic business in these early scenes, but there are also daringly slow, pregnant passages: not only the celebrated scene where Hildy interviews Earl (precisely pitched between cynicism and empathy, readable either way), but also the remarkable, very long dead spot after the reporters torment Molly Malone, with bad conscience killing dialogue, leaving only the sparse ambience of the news room to fill the movie until Hildy's return.

The first section ends with the Earl Williams prison break and Hildy's instinctive reenlistment as an investigative reporter. This scene, invested with considerable weight by Hawks' framing and decoupage (Hawks holds a medium shot of Hildy as the news room goes wild, then tracks behind her as she casts her lot with the newspaper life), takes much of the suspense out of Hildy's dramatic arc. She will continue to resist her fate after this, but the filmmakers won't take her nearly as seriously. The second section of the film is a comic elaboration of the consequences of Hildy's backslide, and a mere coda from the point of view of dramatic development. Walter Burns, who has heretofore lurked in the film's margins, seizes center stage, now that the preeminence of his world view has been established; and Hildy begins to function as little more than one of his imps. As if to confirm the ascendency of the Walter principle, the second half is punctuated with as many affronts to decency as Hawks and the writers can fit in. The ending, with Hildy once again disappointed and humiliated, is probably best understood in terms of this current of nihilistic comedy: the tour that Hildy has signed up for is a lot of fun (in fact, it's where all the fun in the film is), but she cannot expect justice and dignity there.

It's an odd place for a Hawks hero to wind up, and there are moments along the way where the ego-negating farce isn't a perfect fit for the level-headed gal who sat in that dreamy restaurant. The question is not so much whether she would fall for the devil again, but whether she would keep the plot spinning by putting up token resistance after her fall.

Does this difficulty in reconciling characterization with the principles of farce constitute an imperfection? It feels that way at times. Do I wish the imperfection were eliminated? I don't think so. Without the introduction of farce, Hawks wouldn't have a logical path that he can follow to the point of chaos. Maybe the spots where the two aesthetic planes don't quite meet are the price we pay for the excitement generated by bringing them together.

David Bordwell recently posted an interesting account of His Girl Friday's critical standing over the decades.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ang Lee vs. Cheri Caffaro

As I watched Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, my mind turned to the 1972 exploitation film The Abductors, starring Cheri Caffaro as private investigator Ginger McAllister. Like the other films in the Ginger series, The Abductors uses the detective genre as an excuse for writer-director Don Schain (Caffaro's husband at the time) to combine sex and bondage in equal parts.

The Abductors, not a good film, features a ring of sex slavers who kidnap cheerleaders. Ginger and her cohorts enlist one of Ginger's young female friends to go undercover and get kidnapped by the slavery ring. After she is raped by the gang leader, however, the undercover agent gives information against the good guys. No torture is required for this purpose, just slow, persuasive sex.

Somehow Ginger's crew, which includes both men and women, wins anyway. At the end, the undercover agent apologizes for having betrayed her own team. Don't worry about it, say the magnanimous victors. And there are no hard feelings.

I was struck by two aspects of this dramaturgy. First, and most obviously, the sexual politics that underlie this plot are unusually retrograde, and would have seemed so even before the women's movement gathered steam. Schain assumes, probably without intending controversy, that a woman will naturally be unable to withhold information from a man who makes love to her effectively. No one in the film questions this.

Second, having established these caveman ground rules, the film uses them generously. It would have been easy, even normal, for the film to cast away the sex-addled undercover agent after her capitulation. But Schain never considers this option: the agent continues to fight on the side of justice, and does not lose her status as one of the good guys. Good nature is not the province of any one ideology.

Lust, Caution uses almost the same plot. Here too, the undercover heroine's betrayal (much more costly than in The Abductors) does not alienate the filmmakers' sympathies, and the woman's betrayed comrade smiles his understanding at her. However, Lust, Caution announces itself as a tragic love story, whereas The Abductors is pretending to be an ensemble adventure film. By the rules of his chosen form, Schain is working against genre expectations; Lee and his writers are merely in compliance with their genre.

Otherwise, I can't see that Lust, Caution mined much more complexity from this concept than The Abductors did.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tobacco Road

Tobacco Road is a very strange movie. But it doesn't feel like the result of accident or tampering. It doesn't even feel like an experiment: Ford exhales the film as naturally as if it were a Cavalry Western. Ford's admirers should really try to get their minds around this one.

Kevin Lee's typically comprehensive blog entry on Tobacco Road synopsizes the critical reactions to the film over the years. I had had the impression that the film wasn't well liked, but many of the commentators quoted by Kevin have nice things to say about it. Nearly everyone observes an extreme mixture of moods, with crazy backwoods comedy bumping up against Ford's characteristic elegiac tone.

The crazy comedy is broad in the usual Fordian way. I rather like Ford's low comedy in general, and have been wondering lately whether it might be a more important component of Ford's art than is generally acknowledged. But what's unusual about Tobacco Road is that the comic characters, who are central to the story, can reasonably be described as degenerate or depraved. The depravity comes with the literary property, of course; but Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson do not try to dispel it. The most striking antisocial quality of the Lester family in the movie is not its criminal behavior toward the outside world, but its members' casual willingness to find victims within the nuclear family. Ford and Johnson have fun with this forbidden theme, using it to disruptive effect from first scene to last.

Because we tend to associate the Fordian tone of elegy with admiration and celebration, we might be surprised to see it crop up here. I briefly wondered whether the studio might not have concocted a Ford-like score of a mournful accordion playing "Shall We Gather at the River" and laid it over the resistant material. But music is only part of the integrated Fordian elegiac tone, which also draws on beautiful deep-space long-shot compositions, a slowing of rhythm, an emphatic isolation of individual shots, and the use of symbolic imagery. There's no mistaking that Ford is on the job.

Perhaps because of my preconceptions about Ford, I wasn't sure how to react to this odd blend of style and subject matter. Early in the film, we learn that the Lesters are likely to lose their shack and be forced into the poor farm. Ford handles the scene in elegy mode, and does not escape sentiment as Jeeter Lester mournfully recounts the generations of his family who have farmed the land that he is about to lose. The scene ends with the Lesters' sympathetic landlord making Jeeter and his wife a present of a few ears of corn. The mood changes instantly: the starving Lesters are as delighted by the corn as the clochards in Renoir's La Chienne are at finding a twenty-dollar bill, and resolve to go home and eat the food before their equally hungry children find out about it. Whether or not the elegy is a good move, it surely isn't a mistake: the juxtaposition is too blatant.

At this point I wondered whether Ford might not be trying to undercut his own mythology. But this cynical interpretation doesn't hold up. Soon after comes the film's finest scene, in which preacher lady Sister Bessie takes Jeeter's son Dude (one of the most hateful and obstreperous characters ever to serve as comic relief) to the county hall to marry him. Faced with bureaucratic resistance, Bessie falls back on her usual strategy of public hymn-singing: hilariously, she has already trained the sociopathic Dude as a passable tenor harmonist. (Scenes like this form a link between Ford's goofy comedy and his more solemn moments: in both cases, we see idiosyncratic characters lay down their personal traits and become one with a group function or a mythic role.) All the characters that populate this fictional version of rural Georgia drop whatever they are doing to join in a communal hymn; Ford ends the scene, not on Bessie's comic triumph, but on a lovely, slow pan across the county bureaucrats, finishing the hymn after Bessie and Dude's departure.

A more startling demonstration of the depravity/elegy symbiosis comes when Jeeter goes out into the fields to pray for help in saving his farm. Ford spares none of the signifiers of elegy in this visually striking scene; yet, if we listen to the dialogue behind the sad accordion music, we hear Jeeter blackmailing God, threatening Him with sin if He doesn't come across with the rent money. Here is no clash of moods: all the incompatible material is up there on the screen at the same time.

Ford clearly knows that these people are the scum of the earth. He likes them anyway, which is a challenge to some of our more simplistic ideas about Ford. And, above and beyond liking them, it looks as if he is game to use them as conduits to eternity. Which is actually pretty radical.

The moving final scene drives the point home. At least temporarily, Jeeter and his wife are restored to the old homestead, looking like the last stop in the autumnal Ford universe. More than anywhere else in the film, the Lesters are all of us, suspended in a present that is already the past, waiting with acceptance and stoicism for whatever immortality the continuity of collective memory can grant. As the characters settle into their familiar postures, Ford and Johnson uncork a few last bits of depraved humor: the grandmother who seems to live in the bushes outside the shack has been missing for a while; no one is very concerned about her probable death. Jeeter says he'll go to the woods to look for her "one of these days." Recent story developments had allowed us a small hope that Jeeter might actually try to raise a crop in time to save his land from another foreclosure; the filmmakers close that door in the film's final seconds, giving us a clear sign that the undeserving poor will remain undeserving. And yet none of this difficult content gives Ford pause. The Lesters are us, and that's that.

I think Ford is a great filmmaker, but I'm not used to thinking of him as a philosopher. And yet the most likely way to resolve the dissonances of Tobacco Road is to postulate that Ford simply has an unusual tolerance for the vicissitudes of the human condition.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Frivolous Lists: Japan, 1998-2007

A recent blog post by Michael Kerpan made me think about my favorite Japanese films of the last decade. In order of preference:
  1. M/Other (Nobuhiro Suwa, 1999)
  2. Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2003)
  3. Sharasojyu (Shara) (Naomi Kawase, 2003)
  4. Gaichu (Harmful Insect) (Akihiko Shiota, 2001)
  5. Yawarakai seikatsu (It's Only Talk) (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)
  6. Kanzo sensei (Dr. Akagi) (Shohei Imamura, 1998)
  7. Hush! (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 2001)
  8. Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
  9. Kaza-hana (Shinji Sômai, 2000)
  10. Yurîka (Eureka) (Shinji Aoyama, 2000)

There are countless interesting-looking Japanese films from this period that I haven't seen, so this list is even more frivolous than other lists.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Iron Horse; or the Ever-Popular Drunken Irishman Effect

My sense is that John Ford's breakthrough 1924 silent The Iron Horse isn't highly regarded by Ford fans, and I didn't have a strong reaction to it when I first saw it years ago. But the Museum of the Moving Image showed a good print in their current Ford at Fox series (which continues through February 24), and, I dunno, suddenly I really like the film. Certainly it seems to me the silent Ford that most conveys the directorial personality that we find in Ford's mature work.

The criticism of The Iron Horse that one hears most often is that the lead protagonists, and the story line relating to them, are banal. I wouldn't want to argue otherwise. The young hero, played by George O'Brien, is likable enough, not characterized too deeply. But his narrative task is to foil a bunch of mustache-twirling villains who not only want to ruin the transcontinental railroad project, but also killed the boy's father years before. Somehow this high concept gets muddled up with the boy's romance with the daughter (Madge Bellamy) of the railroad owner, so that she breaks off with her beau for defending himself against the bad guys.

But this personal story isn't the real point of the movie, as the most casual viewer will intuit. Ford principally intends to celebrate the transcontinental railroad, which offers him the potent symbolism of starting from both ends of the continent and making connection in the American desert. The boy's father was an idealist who dreamed of the project long before it was undertaken; when the boy and girl split up, they find themselves on opposite railroad teams, converging geographically and emotionally as the railroad is completed.

The work of building the railroad takes up much of the running time of The Iron Horse, and the multi-ethnic nature of the real-life railroad workers gives Ford an opportunity to fill out the film with a supporting cast of garrulous, hard-drinking, aging Irishmen who adopt the young hero and are utterly invested in the great national enterprise. (One of the most visible of the old coots is actually a German; but a Gaelic tone prevails nonetheless.) As Ford's drunken-Irish comic relief is often regretted even by his fervent admirers, this story strategy may not register immediately as a virtue. Nonetheless, it's here that the Fordian spirit enters the movie. I'll mention three functions that the drunken Irishmen serve, and I certainly think that all three are important parts of the Ford experience.

1) They greatly enhance the connection between the personal and the national narratives. The connection between the film's protagonists and the American saga is necessarily very partial: not only because the protagonists' story is kind of dumb, but also because personal stories usually take on universal connotations. But the teeming cast of supporting characters, not much burdened with personal trajectories, is strongly associated with the transcontinental enterprise; and these "environmental" characters exert a strong influence on the story, pulling the young protagonist into their midst and blurring the lines between foreground and background story.

2) They are the occasion for a lot of behavioral "business." Watching a lot of early Ford films at once makes one aware of an aspect of his direction that is easy to overlook: he is both quite resourceful at creating little distinctive actions and gestures, and determined to allot a good deal of screen time to this practice. In the silent era, when filmmakers were obligated to expend 90% of their energy just to tell their stories in visual terms, the profusion of character-based business in The Iron Horse really makes the film stand out from less ambitious productions. Interestingly, the inventive comic-relief routines that Ford fans sometimes consider a defect, and which are very little changed from 1924 to 1966, probably create more of a challenge to our taste when juxtaposed with Ford's majestic post-World War II style.

3) They provide opportunities for Fordian transcendence. Surely one of the coups that we most associate with Ford are those moments of duress when characters discard their quirks and peccadillos and fall into a serene, imperturbable oneness with their mission or their group identity. Here is where The Iron Horse proves itself worthy of comparison with Ford's great films, and the moments in question all belong to the secondary characters. During the Indian attack on the railroad camp, one of the trio of grizzled track-layers who lead the comic-relief brigade takes an arrow in the back. As the seemingly doomed defense of the camp continues, the wounded man lies stoically beneath a railroad car, his friends fighting on either side; at one point Ford shows the man smoking his pipe tranquilly, staring into space. The residents of the nearby company town who rush to the camp's aid include a saloon girl (Gladys Hulette, my favorite actor in the film) who is injured by a gunshot; after the battle is over, Ford composes a beautiful shot of the fallen woman on a moving open railroad car, a circle of her female friends hovering around her, other survivors of the battle perched at the end of the car in the background of the shot.

When one thinks about it, the "foreground" stories in Ford's best films are almost always woven into the texture of the society behind them, and through that link into a social and historical setting. Rarely do his protagonists carry movies by the force of their personal drama alone, even when those dramas are less dorky than the one in The Iron Horse. Maybe we should think twice before we wish for Ford movies purged of low comedy. Personally, I rather like a lot of that rowdy Fordian humor.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Film Comment Selects: Walter Reade, February 14-28, 2008

A few of the films I most enjoyed at last year's Toronto Film Festival will screen in February at the Walter Reade's annual Film Comment Selects series, always one of the high points of the filmgoing year in NYC. I recommend:
  • Andrei Zyvagintsev's The Banishment, screening February 18 at 6 pm, February 20 at 3 pm, and February 25 at 2 pm
  • Jacques Nolot's Before I Forget (Avant que j'oublie), screening February 17 at 6:45 pm and February 21 at 3:15 pm (and picked up for theatrical distribution by Strand Releasing)
  • Nanouk Leopold's Wolfsbergen, screening February 16 at 5:30 pm, February 18 at 4 pm, and February 20 at 1 pm

If you poke around in my Senses of Cinema Toronto wrapup, you can find my comments on each of these films, as well as on Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais (Ne touchez pas la hache) and George Romero's Diary of the Dead, which are also screening.

Film Comment Selects also includes Richard Fleischer's admirable Mandingo (February 23 at 2 pm), a daring experiment in inverting audience identification; and Fleischer's rare 10 Rillington Place (February 21 at 1 pm and February 24 at 1:30 pm), which I've never seen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Une Vie: French Institute, February 12, 2008

I wish the Alliance Française would fix the horrible wrinkle in their screen, so I could recommend films there with a clear conscience. But Alexandre Astruc's 1958 Une Vie doesn't come around every day, and it screens at the Florence Gould Hall on Tuesday, February 12 at 12:30, 4 and 7:30 pm. A surprisingly classical gesture from a filmmaker and writer who was associated with experiment and innovation, Une Vie is an adaptation of a de Maupassant story about a young woman (Maria Schell) trapped in a troubled marriage. Today's film buffs are probably more familar with the Cahiers critics' praise for the film than with the film itself; I like it a lot but haven't seen it in decades, and so will defer discussion.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Michael Clayton; or, Why Do We Even Bother Trying to Communicate about Movies?

I really didn't want to see Michael Clayton. The trailer looked bad to me: I have a problem with movies in which sympathetic characters yell at the representatives of social evil on my behalf. No one I talked to made it sound exceptional, though I heard a fair amount of uninspiring half-praise. Finally I perked up when Jean-Michel Frodon recommended the film in passing in the new issue of Cahiers du Cinema. I saw it on Saturday night and fell a little bit in love with it - it's probably my favorite American film of 2007. I like to fantasize that Cahiers has some special pipeline to my movie sensibility; but Hervé Aubron's full review on Cahiers #627 was definitely in the half-praise category.

I am not indignant at the restrained reaction to this amazing movie in my usual circles. On the contrary, I'm forced once again to wonder whether "amazing to me" bears any relationship to "amazing."

Sometimes I think that the most important things about filmmaking are the smallest in scale, the things that are hardest to talk about. There's a sensibility at work in Michael Clayton that shifts the timbre of every scene slightly: inner conflict is driven to a place that is usually detectible only by inference; the difference between legal authority and legal obfuscation is expressed only by a certain needless repetition in the argument, and the occasional glance at the side of the room. If Sidney Lumet had made a film on this subject, I would have clawed my way through concrete with my fingernails to get out of the theater. And yet Lumet is the reference point used most often in reviews of Michael Clayton.

I've never seen anything written by Tony Gilroy before. I'm impressed with the way he confronts the central problem of story construction in this genre: how to make it plausible that characters will rebel against a professional life in which they are deeply ensconced and to which they are inured by decades of familiarity. The usual technique is to invoke the magic of fiction: at some key dramatic point, the emotions evoked in the audience are transferred to a privileged character via sleight of hand. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: fiction has its charms, as does reportage. But Gilroy thinks he might be able to reconceive the problem so that he doesn't have to do the work to hide a magic trick. He decides that the most plausible explanation for this kind of break is insanity. And so the character who actually ruptures his life is in the grip of clinically diagnosed mania. The effect of conscience and the effect of mental illness cannot be teased apart here, which sounds just about right to me. The protagonist is drawn into the plot, not by a crisis of conscience, but by an attempt to cover up for his crazy friend. The rest of his conversion can be chalked up to the desire to avoid car bombs. He actually never has a crisis of conscience. The great beauty of the serene taxi scene under the end credits is that we are free to believe that Michael Clayton is now, as the movie ends, at leisure to start thinking about the big issues that have heretofore preoccupied only the insane.

Gilroy uses flashback in a way that I can't remember seeing before. By taking a chunk of the penultimate section of the story and sticking it at the film's beginning, he accomplishes more than the usual goal of tantalizing the audience with mystery that must be explicated. The scenes that Gilroy puts up front are actually not redolent of mystery: they play out like an introduction to Clayton's professional life, not like the endgame of a drama in progress. After the film is over, we can see that this flash-forward contains some of the most tricky and abstract material in a mostly pragmatic procedural: Clayton's veneer is beginning to crack; he describes his life in terms borrowed from his insane friend; and he flirts dangerously with lyricism in being drawn to the sight of horses grazing on a hill. Those horses would have gone badly for Gilroy if the story were told in chronological order. But the flash-forward is a win-win situation: the abstraction happens early, when we can accept it as foundational material; and the exposition is so convincing that we are surprised when Gilroy jumps back in time.

There's a lot more to be said about this movie, which I plan to see often over the coming decades.