Thursday, November 28, 2013

Notes for a Retrospective of the Network TV Movie

After a recent discussion on Twitter in which Bilge Ebiri and I agreed that an impressive retrospective could be mounted in celebration of the network TV movies that flourished from the late 60s through the 80s, I thought I'd try my hand at programming said retrospective, with of course no consideration of availability or commerce, and without the opportunity to reconsider decades-old evaluations.

The Pantheon:



John Korty: GO ASK ALICE (72); CLASS OF '63 (73); A DEADLY BUSINESS (86)

John Badham: THE LAW (74)

William Hale: RED ALERT (77); MURDER IN TEXAS (81)

Joseph Sargent: GOLDENGIRL (revised 3-hour version) (79); AMBER WAVES (80)

Subjects for Further Research:

Richard Colla: THE OTHER MAN (70)

Fringe Benefits:

Don Siegel: STRANGER ON THE RUN (67)

George Cukor: LOVE AMONG THE RUINS (75)

George Armitage: HOT ROD (79)

Abel Ferrara: CRIME STORY (86)

William Friedkin: C.A.T SQUAD: PYTHON WOLF (88)

Because the interest of such a grouping is the specific cultural and functional context into which the movies were delivered, I've omitted PBS productions (THE MUSIC SCHOOL [John Korty, 74]; BERNICE BOBS HER HAIR [Joan Micklin Silver, 77]), episodic TV (ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: ENOUGH ROPE FOR TWO [David Chase, 86]; THE SOPRANOS first episode [David Chase, 99]), cable TV movies (PARIS TROUT [Stephen Gyllenhaal, 91]; THE WRONG MAN [Jim McBride, 93]; PRONTO [Jim McBride, 97]), and even movies broadcast outside the major networks (BLOOD TIES [Jim McBride, 91]), not to mention all TV work in countries other than the US.

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Girl in Every Port

A Girl in Every Port commands attention as the first Hawks film in which the filmmaker asserts the personality that we know from his later work. It’s not Hawks first completely successful film: Paid to Love, one year earlier, offered Hawks a Lubitsch-like story and genre that he was able to use as a springboard for continuous invention. But A Girl in Every Port feels to the modern audience less like a genre film than like a fantasia sprung from Hawks’ unconscious.

The film probably seems more weirdly personal today than it did to audiences of the time. Contemporary viewers would have noted the film's considerable debt to the success of the 1926 What Price Glory? (also starring Victor McLaglen), another story of two tough guys whose friendship takes precedence over the women for which they compete. Certainly Hawks dials up the “love story between two men” angle (Hawks’ phrase) by having his male protagonists enact a number of the dramatic conventions of love stories. (Robin Wood long ago noted Hawks’ willingness to give the same dialogue or situations to both men and women in different movies.) Yet, without being able to provide citations, I have the impression that cinema culture was, more then than in recent decades, permeated with a sense that the heterosexual love story was a concession to the commercial, and that reducing or eliminating the feminine aspect was a mark of integrity. Perhaps Hawks was able to hide his polymorphous perversity in plain sight. In any case, no contemporary review that I’ve read is fazed by the fervor of the protagonists’ friendship. (Here’s a review from Screenland that’s of particular sociological interest.)

For the modern viewer, the Hawksian tropes pile up quickly. McLaglen pulls on Robert Armstrong’s finger after fistfights to put it back in joint, as Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin would do in The Big Sky; McLaglen lights cigarettes for Armstrong, as, to pick one celebrated instance, Bacall would for Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Like Hardy Kruger and Gerard Blain in Hatari!, McLaglen is “broke out all over in monkey bites” – Hawks’ strange slang for being in love. Louise Brooks takes Armstrong’s pants so he can’t dress, as Monroe and Russell do to Tommy Noonan in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Intriguingly, Hawks wrote a script a little before his death for a loose remake of A Girl in Every Port called When It’s Hot, Play It Cool, a comedy about world-traveling oil-riggers with protagonists named Spike and Bill, after the heroes of the original. Hard to imagine the material playing as smoothly for audiences in 1977 as in 1928.

One of the pleasures of A Girl in Every Port is seeing Hawks successfully take on the silent tradition of physical comedy. The first half of the film is essentially one bar fight or drinking scene after another, and where a Walsh or a Wellman would let show some of their identification with the emotional intensity of the physical life, Hawks gravitates naturally to a Keaton-like comic distance. His typical reliance on long shots with a margin of space around the human figure lends itself well to physical comedy, and the roughneck subject matter encourages in him a comic cruelty that is perhaps closer to Arbuckle than Keaton. One funny bit of business has Spike (McLaglen) slamming into a cop as he flees a jealous husband: he picks the cop up off the ground, but impatiently lets him drop to the pavement when he sees that the man has been knocked out by the impact. A more elaborate comedy routine, based upon the use of extreme long shots, has Spike and Bill (Armstrong), who are looking for a place to fight, accidentally and unexpectedly walk off a pier and into the ocean. It turns out that Spike can’t swim, and Bill expends considerable effort to save him, after which the two bond over cigarettes. When a cop wanders by, the new friends’ only thought is to contrive a ruse to push the cop into the water, after which they walk away happily in long shot, the possibility of the man drowning not on their minds or on Hawks’s.

Despite the number of Hawksian signifiers in A Girl in Every Port, it still belongs to the period of Hawks’ career in which he made use of preexisting character structures instead of creating films around the kind of character relationships that he favored. Sometimes this relative lack of control over the story leads Hawks into barren terrain, most notably at the climax, where Spike’s pop-eyed, expressionist anguish as he learns the truth about his love affair with the circus performer Mam’selle Godiva (Brooks) is far away from any aspect of people with which Hawks can engage. (A sentimental scene in which Spike and Bill are deflected from an erotic mission by the pathetic story of the woman’s young, orphaned son is equally uncongenial material for Hawks, but in this case he acquits himself as well as can be hoped for.) But often enough the slight mismatch between Hawks’ usual interests and the story archetypes demonstrates pleasantly that Hawks’ imaginative approach to characterization is not restricted to the pet configurations that he would repeat throughout his career. Brooks’ character, functioning in the scenario purely as a gold-digger, is reimagined as a self-possessed and self-aware presence, communicating with small and decidedly unvillainous glances and knowing smiles. Her relationship with Bill, her former lover, is pitched somewhere between story-based antagonism and behavioral collusion, as if Hawks preferred to bring her over to our side by letting her in on the joke of pretending she’s a bad guy. A more unusual (for Hawks) but quite affecting idea is the depiction of Bill as an overgrown, amoral child vying for Spike’s somewhat more diversified attention. Armstrong, considerably smaller than the massive McLaglen, has a rather inexpressive face that is turned to the film’s advantage, as he often resembles an adolescent hoping for affection or punishment from an idolized older boy. At the film’s emotional climax, Bill lies unconscious on a barroom floor, his arms splayed and twisted like a rag doll, reproaching the vengeful Spike with the childlike innocence of his martyrdom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Antoine et Antoinette: Film Forum, through Thursday, October 3

I wrote a short piece on Jacques Becker's wonderful 1947 comedy-drama Antoine et Antoinette at the MUBI Notebook.  If you drop everything and run to Film Forum right now, the movie is in the last night of its one-week run.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

I Hate Myself :)

Joanna Arnow’s remarkable I Hate Myself :) presents as a diary film about Arnow’s attempt to document and thereby understand her bumpy relationship with her larger-than-life, serially provocative boyfriend James. The comparison that came to mind immediately was Jim McBride’s 1967 David Holzman’s Diary, which is a fiction film in documentary clothes. And Arnow too includes enough signifiers of fiction – most conspicuously the editing-room debates with her friend Max, who is accurately introduced as “The Naked Editor” – that we can’t comfortably regard the film as a pure document. But it seems impossible as well for it to be completely fictional: setting aside a host of practical considerations, James’s character is so extreme and so coherent in subterranean ways that one has difficulty imagining it as an actor’s or writer’s construction. Ultimately the film wends its way to on-camera display of erections and penetration, where the distinction between fiction and documentary loses relevance.

However we choose to frame them, the human issues that I Hate Myself :) deals with are unusual and compelling. James has a wide streak of rebellion in his personality that is directed against our values, the values of the presumed audience of the movie. As is often the case, his rebellion partly is channeled in constructive directions – his racially confrontational interactions with the residents of his Harlem neighborhood are clearly based on his conviction that liberal assumptions about race and class need to be broken down – and partly floats free to inflict collateral damage on Arnow and others. By contrast, Arnow is mild in demeanor, a good-girl type who tempts us to an early assumption that she is James’ masochistic subordinate. But we quickly see that she admires James’s rejection of societal niceties and counts herself as one of his tribe, even as his jagged social interface takes its toll on her peace of mind. The couple seems to split as the film-within-a-film she is making approaches the rough-cut stage, but the film itself, the one we watch, remains a record of her journey toward him and away from us. The scarlet letter that Arnow dons by including footage of her on-camera sex with James, and the outrage of showing the footage to her parents, are gestures of solidarity with the transgressive mode of being that comes so naturally to James.

This journey, which can reasonably be called spiritual, is expressed via increasingly wild formal play that blurs the distinction between film-within-a-film and film-we-are-watching, to witty effect. Arnow’s first rough cut, already topped with the cherry of unsimulated sex, is subjected to a hall-of-mirrors effect, as she screens the film repeatedly for its cast of participants, each time photographing their reaction and inserting the footage into subsequent cuts. The trick is more than mere play, as the repetition creates a crazy centrifugal effect that latches onto and accelerates the transgression that Arnow rather joyfully embraces. I especially liked the clever way that Arnow excerpts the film’s soundtrack as we watch the faces of her perplexed preview audiences. At one point we think that a piece of dialogue has accidentally been repeated, only to realize that the cut we are listening to has already looped back on itself with multiple iterations of the same dialogue. And it gradually dawns on us that the unfamiliar music we hear during the rough cut screenings is surely the end-credit music that we’ll be the very last to experience.

I left before Arnow’s question-and-answer session at Rooftop Films last week, not because I didn’t want to hear what she had to say – she’s clearly an intelligent and aware artist – but because her post-film commentary was necessarily going to add yet one more layer of reflexivity to the viewing process, and I found myself deciding arbitrarily to stop the merry-go-round at the point when the projector was turned off.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Notes on the Extant Films of Mikio Naruse

I've been writing short blurbs on Mikio Naruse's films as I've been seeing them over the last eight or so years, and recently I came to the end of the pile and compiled the blurbs of all extant Naruse works into a 35-page document.  Sadly, I wrote much shorter and sketchier blurbs at the beginning of the project than at the end, and the compilation is way too inconsistent to be publishable, but Naruse buffs may want to use it as a reference.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rio Bravo

Generally regarded as a career peak for Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is both the culmination of the Hawksian action ethos and the gateway to Hawks’ relaxed late period. In his ground-breaking 1968 book on Hawks, Robin Wood identified a post facto trilogy - Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo - that forms the backbone of Hawks’ oeuvre. Though Wood described the films as loose remakes of each other, their plots aren’t very similar. On the surface, what they have in common is a lot of recycled dialogue and bits of business. Below that, all three films are centered on idealized characters whose state of being is not at risk. Because they themselves are not put up as the stakes for the drama, the drama is subtly devalued. More important to the film’s effect is a performance space, carved out from the plot, where these heroes and their group of allies and comrades can enjoy themselves when they are not dealing with story issues. Though that space corresponds to real locations – in Rio Bravo, the jail and the hotel – it’s really more of a space within the fiction, in that events there enjoy some degree of independence from story concerns.

In addition to being the capstone of this central trilogy, Rio Bravo also bears a relationship to the five films that Hawks would make in the final decade of his career. Rio Bravo was a substantial commercial success, after a dodgy period in the early 50s when Hawks wondered how to position himself with regard to a changing industry. Speaking to Peter Bogdanovich, Hawks described the lesson he took away from Rio Bravo: “I also decided that audiences were getting tired of plots and, as you know, Rio Bravo and Hatari! have very little in the way of plot – more characterization and the fun of just telling a story. And it worked out very well. People seem to like it better than the other way.” Certainly Hatari!, Hawks’ next film, pushed the boundaries of how little narrative structure a Hollywood film could get away with. Here the performance space expands to become the film’s dominant feature: it’s the lightly-borne plot that is hemmed in by walls of behavioral pleasure. The genie would not go back into the bottle: though none of Hawks’ later films were quite as daring as Hatari! about discarding narrative, all of them liberate performance from story to a large extent, and wind up feeling like documentaries of actors hanging out on sets.

But, though one understands why Hawks thinks of Rio Bravo as a film of characterization, its plot is more prominent and functional than Hawks lets on. In fact, if Rio Bravo stands out in Hawks’ filmography, I’d say it’s because it adds to Hawks’ more familiar virtues a distinctive command of storytelling, organizing small events within overarching story movements so adroitly that the viewer has few opportunities to check his or her wristwatch during the film’s 141 minutes.

Here’s an example of how Hawks uses the jail/hotel axis and the characters’ motifs to sustain actions for long stretches of time. The night of the story’s second day starts with Dude fighting the DTs in the jail, prompting Chance to take him out for “a turn around the town.” (The last sentence, like those to follow, represents a fully developed and leisurely paced scene.) The walk gives rise to a number of small events (a few false alarms, a confrontation with a Burdett henchman) and, in the fullness of time, carries Chance and Dude to the busy hotel bar, where Chance has a long talk with his friend Pat Wheeler about the futility of offering help to the lawmen, ending with Wheeler’s employee Colorado opting for “minding my own business.” Chance’s attention shifts to a card game in a corner of the room, and he follows Feathers upstairs as she leaves the game, leading to a confrontation in which Feathers is accused of cheating. Colorado interrupts their talk to propose that “the man in the checkered vest,” not Feathers, was the cheat in the card game, and everyone goes downstairs to watch Colorado expose the perpetrator. Chance and Feathers have one more conversation, partially resolving their conflict, before Chance and Dude finally leave the hotel – only to see Wheeler gunned down on the street. The pursuit of Wheeler’s killer begins, first with Chance charging into a barn from which the killer manages to escape, and then with the famous saloon confrontation, itself a graded dramatic module in which the alcoholic Dude, seemingly heading for public humiliation, shoots the killer out of the rafters with angelic grace, setting the stage for Chance’s vengeful, act-closing warning to the Burdett men. In a lengthy postscript to the night’s action, the heroes talk over their exploit in the jail, with Dude’s inability to roll his own cigarettes signifying his continued psychic vulnerability; finally Chance goes to sleep at the hotel, where he has a late-night talk with Feathers in which he makes peace by offering to call in the sheriff’s flyers that identify her as a criminal’s accomplice. Only here does the action that began with Dude’s DTs in the jail, nearly 35 minutes of screen time earlier, come to rest.

This long continuous development of a single action is not unique in Rio Bravo. Perhaps an even better example occurs on Day Four, in which a jail-to-hotel-to-jail movement that encompasses both the flowerpot-throw gunfight and Dude’s uncanny redemption from alcoholism is honeycombed with ancillary conversations in which Dude, Feathers and Colorado are pushed along a step or two in their journey to membership in the Hawksian commune. One wonders which of the script collaborators was principally responsible for the film’s intricate, difficult plotting, or how this job of work fell out of Hawks’ memory. In any case, the pleasure of watching Rio Bravo is slightly different from (and, I would say, slightly greater than) that of any other Hawks film, thanks to the intertwining of Hawks’ ambient, behavioral vision and this framework of deceptively compelling storytelling.

More than any Hawks film I can remember, Rio Bravo is keyed to characters watching each other, to cross-cutting on glances. Chance and Stumpy watching Dude's withdrawal symptoms in the jail; Dude watching from across the street as Chance’s authority forces a Burdett henchman to retreat; Feathers wincing as Chance pulls a chair from under a bad guy; Chance monitoring Dude’s performance in the precarious saloon confrontation with Burdett’s men; the glances of amazement as Dude pours the whiskey back into the bottle – in all cases the cross-cutting feels primary rather than secondary, a way of creating a film about relationships rather than exploits. Robin Wood, noting that Chance is a moral leader but dependent on his cohort’s help at every turn, and that his virtue seems to exclude him from the communal song sequence, suggested that Hawks was problematizing the image of the self-sufficient hero. But I'd say that Hawks was never deeply invested in the notion of self-sufficiency. He uses it as part of the thematic structure of films like Only Angels Have Wings and To Have and Have Not, but Hawks is always inclined to start his movies from a foundation of such genre-defined cultural associations, and the solitary inclinations of Geoff Carter and Harry Morgan are more story premises than sources of artistic inspiration. (Don Siegel would be a counterexample of an artist whose exciting ideas generally form around the mystery and mythology of solitary figures.) Hawks’ greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the web of personal connections that his characters happily weave around themselves. That Rio Bravo contains no substantial struggle between self-sufficiency and communal life feels less like a new tack for Hawks than a step in the process of purification and de-genre-fication that was to become marked in Hawks’ late period.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012 Manhattan One-Week Premieres

I've done as much post-Christmas viewing as I'm likely to do, and am ready to make a list of my favorite films that played at least one week in Manhattan for the first time in 2012. I exclude films that were made too long ago to feel contemporary (such as Lucien Pintilie's Niki and Flo).

In order of preference:

1. The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo)
2. Michael (Markus Schleinzer)
3. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
4. Alms for a Blind Horse (Gurvinder Singh)
5. Amour (Michael Haneke)
6. This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino)
7. Generation P (Victor Ginzburg)
8. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
9. Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
10. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
11. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
12. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

Runners-up: Bernie (Richard Linklater), The Avengers (Joss Whedon), Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve), Happy Few (Four Lovers) (Antony Cordier), Artificial Paradises (Yulene Olaizola), and maybe even Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik).