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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Eating (and Drinking and Sleeping) Raoul

“Your idea of light comedy is to burn down a whorehouse.”
– Jack Pickford to Raoul Walsh

Does any major director from Hollywood’s studio system era remain as unjustly neglected as Raoul Walsh? In spite of the fact that I’ve loved a few of his movies forever (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat), the lack of critical writing about Walsh in comparison to some of his contemporaries, as well as the difficulty of seeing a lot of his best work, has tended to make him something of an admirable but shadowy figure for me. Until recently. Following a rare 35mm screening of Walsh’s excellent pre-Code comedy Sailor’s Luck in Chicago last year, I have made it a priority to see as many of his films as possible. The journey I have undertaken to get a fuller picture of Walsh’s career has led me to rent VHS tapes, purchase DVD-Rs from Warner Archives’ “burn on demand” program, watch entire movies on YouTube and even do a little illegal downloading. The result of my findings is that I have no qualms about calling Walsh one of the all-time great Hollywood directors — right up there with the likes of John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Like all American directors who started in the silent era and whose careers lasted into the latter half of the twentieth century, Walsh was a prolific director who worked for many different studios (though his best loved work was done for Warner Brothers). He also had to adapt to many technological changes in the industry including the coming of sound, widescreen, color and even 3-D. Nonetheless, there are many stylistic and thematic consistencies across his vast body of work. Some of these I will attempt to outline here.

1. His movies are filled with a singularly wild energy.

Raoul Walsh is most often described as a “master of action,” yet precious few critics and scholars have taken the time to elaborate on exactly what this means. Perhaps Andrew Sarris came the closest when he wrote in The American Cinema: “The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging ahead into the unknown and he is never too sure what he will find there.” This is a concise description of the propulsive, action-oriented heroes of Walsh’s best known work, many of whom have dangerous jobs: John Wayne’s western explorer in The Big Trail, Douglas Fairbanks’ title character in The Thief of Bagdad, Cagney’s gangsters in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, the long-haul truck drivers played by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft in They Drive By Night. What most impresses about Walsh though is his untamed sense of control in capturing the action: the violent movements of his heroes, which tend to occur in spasmodic, occasionally explosive bursts, are perfectly complemented by Walsh’s crisp editing and swift camera movements. This is true not only of action-based genres like the aforementioned gangster and western movies but of Walsh’s comedies and melodramas as well. In a savagely funny scene from Sailor’s Luck, James Dunn tears apart lingerie, newly purchased for his girlfriend, with his bare hands. In the anarchic comedy The Bowery, a bunch of old women destroy a bar with umbrellas. In the serio-comic The Strawberry Blonde, James Cagney resembles a pit bull in his attempts to launch himself over a fence to engage his college-student neighbors in a brawl. In the musical melodrama The Man I Love, Ida Lupino repeatedly slaps a male character in the face in a desperate attempt to talk him out of committing murder. The kineticism to be found in these and many other scenes, the feeling that anything could happen at any given moment, arises primarily from the intersection between the choreography of Walsh’s performers and the choreography of his camera, and renders his films 100% purely cinematic.

2. His characters tended to be beautiful losers.

The Walshian hero, “the lost child in the big world” in Sarris’ indelible phrase, tends to be a sympathetic loser. His most memorable characters are ordinary men and women — the blue collar, the downtrodden, the quietly desperate, the past-their-prime and the habitually passed-over: Cagney’s low-rent dentist Biff Grimes, always playing second fiddle to his best friend in The Strawberry Blonde, the ex-prisoners played by Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart, trying to make one last score, in Colorado Territory and High Sierra respectively, Gladys George’s aging, sad-eyed bootlegger in The Roaring Twenties, Robert Mitchum as a rancher who is the target of assassination attempts and he doesn’t know why in Pursued, and the hard-luck dames ferociously incarnated by Ida Lupino in They Drive By Night, High Sierra and The Man I Love. Manny Farber sensed Walsh’s identification with his characters when he called the director someone “whose feel for small-time, scrappy wage earners possibly came from his own cooperative, energetic function in the movie industry . . . Walsh, who wrote some scripts as bald copies of hit films he directed, and probably entered each new project with ‘Christ, it’s not bad. It reminds me of my last movie,’ never fights his material, playing directly into the staleness. He is like his volatile, instinctive, not-too-smart characters, who when they are at their most genuine, are unreclaimable, terrifying loners, perhaps past their peak and going nowhere.”

3. His use of depth-staging was unparalleled.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh directed the cowboy epic The Big Trail in 70mm. In doing so, he achieved the landmarks of having cast John Wayne in his first leading role and, as Dave Kehr has noted, effectively inventing “the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself.” The film’s commercial failure meant that it would be another 20+ years before audiences would be able to enjoy widescreen movies again but The Big Trail, as Fox’s new blu-ray attests, remains breathtaking for its incredible panoramic compositions of the American West. Perhaps more importantly, he took the lessons that he learned from staging in deep focus and then immediately applied them to the Fox comedies he soon made after in the standard “academy ratio” (Sailor’s Luck, The Bowery, Me and My Gal). In particular, check out the swimming pool scene and the climactic dance hall fight in Sailor’s Luck to see how Walsh always has something interesting happening in the background as well as the foreground of the frame. Kehr has said that Walsh gives the impression that if he had moved his camera closer to the background extras, there would be a whole new and just as interesting movie going on. The use of depth-staging continued throughout Walsh’s career and is perhaps most brilliantly realized in the cosmic long shots of the title location that serve as the climax of his masterpiece Colorado Territory.

4. He had a terrific understanding of women.

It is well known that Walsh directed many iconic male movie stars in some of their most memorable, star-making or persona-defining roles (especially Fairbanks, Cagney, Bogart and Wayne for the performances already cited above). What’s too-little commented on is that Walsh “the man’s man” likewise directed many of the best Hollywood actresses in important roles. My god, just look at this list: Anna Q. Nilsson in Regeneration, Theda Bara in Carmen, Mary Pickford in Rosita, Anna Mae Wong in The Thief of Bagdad, Pola Negri in East of Suez, Dolores del Rio in What Price Glory?, Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson, Janet Gaynor in The Man Who Came Back, Joan Bennett in Me and My Gal, Fay Wray in The Bowery, Mae West in Klondike Annie, Claire Trevor in Dark Command, Marlene Dietrich in Manpower, Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, Olivia de Havilland in They Died with Their Boots On, Dorothy Malone in Colorado Territory, Virginia Mayo in White Heat and Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover. And Ida Lupino? Raoul Walsh was Ida Lupino. This is a far more impressive roster of female talent than what Howard Hawks or John Ford worked with in careers spanning roughly the same time frame. I once read a quote by Ford where he said he thought Walsh was a bit like him, only “more appealing to women.” At first I thought he meant that Walsh’s movies were more appealing to women because they focused more on romance (which is typically marketed more towards women). But I’ve come to realize that what Ford meant was that Walsh was more interested in exploring the feelings of his female characters. Unlike the Hawksian woman, who proves her worth by acting just like a man (only with breasts — but not too big) and the women of Ford, who tend to be desexualized mother-figures, Walsh was interested in women as women. See again the remarkable The Roaring Twenties, which is a Cagney vehicle that achieves its genuinely tragic quality primarily because of the poignant performances of Priscilla Lane and Gladys George – as the women who are too good for Cagney and not good enough for him, respectively. As is often the case with Walsh, the women make the film.

And now, for my edification as well as yours, dear reader, here is a countdown of my top 20 personal favorite Raoul Walsh movies in order of preference:

20. They Died with Their Boots On (1941)
19. Regeneration (1915)
18. The Enforcer (1951)
17. What Price Glory? (1926)
16. Sadie Thompson (1928)
15. The Big Trail (Grandeur Version, 1930)
14. They Drive By Night (1940)
13. The Bowery (1933)
12. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)
11. Me and My Gal (1932)
10. Pursued (1947)
9. Sailor’s Luck (1933)
8. The Man I Love (1947)
7. The Thief of Bagdad (1925)
6. High Sierra (1941)
5. Gentleman Jim (1942)
4. The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
3. White Heat (1949)
2. Colorado Territory (1949)
1. The Roaring Twenties (1939)

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The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Gods Must Be Crazy (Uys)
2. The Report (Kiarostami)
3. The Silences of the Palace (Tlatli)
4. 14th Indie Incubator Film Festival (short films program)
5. Murder is My Beat (Ulmer)
6. The Revolt of Mamie Stover (Walsh)
7. When Strangers Marry (Castle)
8. Resident Evil: Afterlife (Anderson)
9. Resident Evil: Extinction (Mulcahy)
10. Manpower (Walsh)


Odds and Ends

This is the second installment of “Odds and Ends,” wherein I make brief observations about a bunch of different movie related things:

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA, 2011) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 9.0

Richard Linklater has described his latest movie as his version of Fargo, an intriguing analogy that makes sense when you consider what they have in common. Both are black comedies based on “true crime” stories whose central purpose is to portray a tightly-knit small-town community whose unique regional flavors have traditionally been ignored by Hollywood — rural Minnesota in the Coens’ case, behind the “pine curtain” of northeast Texas in Linklater’s. The most crucial difference is that Linklater has taken the warmth that the Coens only showed to Francis McDormand’s police chief character and courageously extended it to his entire cast of local yokels (many of whom are playing themselves). The result is a deceptively light film that poses complex moral questions about the interrelationships between individuals, the society in which they live and criminal justice. Is Bernie a diabolical manipulator or an essentially decent person who was pushed too far by his victim? To what degree should the answer to that question have influenced his sentencing? Should public sentiment ever be allowed to play a role in a criminal trial? Rare among contemporary American directors, Richard Linklater respects the audience enough to allow viewers to make up their own minds. Yet another way to describe Bernie via a movie analogy would be as an alternate universe version of Sunset Boulevard where William Holden kills Gloria Swanson instead of the other way around. Did I mention this is a Jack Black vehicle?

David Wants to Fly (Sieveking, Germany, 2010) – Streaming / Rating: 5.0

Making a very quiet local premiere this past Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center was David Wants to Fly, a feature debut doc by young German director David Sieveking that fascinates and irritates in equal measure. This begins with unemployed film school grad Sieveking on a quest to meet his idol, the great, eccentric filmmaker David Lynch, at a Transcendental Meditation conference in Fairfield, Iowa, but then transforms into an exposé and denunciation of the entire “TM movement.” The film is given a degree of credibility by the fact that Sieveking started out as a true believer who only gradually became disillusioned with the cult-like movement during the three years he was in production. But Sieveking’s arty persona (he wears fedoras and occasionally plays the harmonica in public) can be annoying and, speaking as someone who also attended the 2006 Fairfield conference, I long ago came to the same conclusion he did about TM after only a few minutes of Googling. Still, David Lynch fans will want to seek this out, especially those who haven’t yet learned to separate the artist from the art. Anyone who missed the screening can stream the film for free for a short time here: http://www.linktv.org/programs/david-wants-to-fly

The More the Merrier (George Stevens, USA, 1943) – DVD rental

I stumbled upon this superior but too-little known example of the genius of the Hollywood studio system when looking for new screwball comedies to show in class (after having already overdosed on The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve). A single woman living in Washington D.C. (the glorious Jean Arthur) ends up with two male roommates during a wartime housing shortage. She bickers relentlessly with the younger of the two men (Joel McCrea), which, as any screwball fan knows, is a sure sign of romantic chemistry. The other man (Charles Coburn, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) consequently finds himself playing cupid to his new roommates in what amounts to an enormously entertaining, extremely witty and perfectly paced 104 minutes. The thing that really makes this film stand out when viewed today though is its unabashed eroticism. The scene where McCrea walks Arthur home, temporarily forgetting that it’s also his own home, is almost unbelievably sensual in the way the characters flirt with each other and, more importantly, interact physically; McCrea, one of Hollywood’s most reserved and laconic actors, continually paws Arthur (who, at 42 years old, never looked sexier), seductively encircling her waist and neck with his hands as she half-heartedly resists his advances. The More the Merrier was very well received in its time but is probably unknown today because George Stevens, the solid craftsman who directed it, is not an auteurist-approved figure. This is unfortunate because if a more erotic film was made in Hollywood in the 1940s I have yet to see it.

Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director – Nonfiction book by Marilyn Ann Moss

To accompany the Raoul Walsh retrospective that’s still ongoing in my apartment, I recently read with relish Marilyn Ann Moss’ superb 2011 biography of the very colorful and self-mythologizing man who directed, among many other classic titles, The Thief of Bagdad, The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde and White Heat. The fact that this is the first such book written about this old Hollywood master, whose life was as interesting as his movies, is just one indication of how sadly undervalued his massively important and influential body of work continues to be. Although I could have done without the dollar-book Freud of the opening chapter, which imagines Walsh’s grief over his mother’s death as the catalyst for his adventurous brand of filmmaking, this is still an impressive work of scholarship and analysis (I particularly enjoyed her observations about Walsh’s female characters) and an essential read for anyone who loves classic Hollywood movies. I will have two lengthy posts concerning Walsh in the coming weeks.


A Decalogue of the Dopest Dylan References in Movies

Bob Dylan turns 71 years old this Thursday. Following last year’s birthday post on Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, today I will pay a different kind of tribute related to Dylan and the movies. Below is a list of my top ten favorite Dylan references in cinema, excluding films that are actually about Dylan (e.g., Don’t Look Back, Eat the Document, I’m Not There), movies in which Dylan himself appeared (e.g., Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Renaldo and Clara, Masked and Anonymous) or films to which he contributed original songs (e.g., Wonder Boys, Gods and Generals, My Own Love Song). Instead, what you have is a list of great movies that just so happen to make significant references to Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite son through their soundtracks, dialogue, set design or props.

10. “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing at Emily Watson’s wedding in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves is a shamelessly manipulative but undeniably effective spiritual melodrama that probably still stands as Lars Von Trier’s finest hour. Set in rural Scotland in the 1970s, it poignantly depicts the relationship between Bess (Emily Watson), a woman from a deeply religious community and Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an oil rig worker and “outsider” who is paralyzed in an accident shortly after their wedding. Here, Von Trier eschewed the formalism of his early work, showing a greater desire to collaborate closely with actors (before his obsession with female suffering started to seem dubious) and a then-novel use of handheld cameras and grainy video textures (before such aesthetics became old hat). The film also has a superb period soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Roxy Music, et al. but Dylan fans might be especially pleased by the instrumental bagpipe version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that plays at Bess and Jan’s wedding.

9. Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower” in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet is a brilliant film adaptation of Shakespeare’s best loved play that keeps the Bard’s original dialogue intact while updating the sets and costumes to present-day New York City. The inspired casting includes Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrud, Bill Murray as Polonius and Dylan’s old pal Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. My favorite scene features Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet delivering the famous “To be or not to be” monologue in a Blockbuster Video store. My second favorite scene sees Jeffrey Wright’s Gravedigger singing “All Along the Watchtower” in a trench. Perhaps because the lyrics to “Watchtower” already sound like they could be from a Shakespeare poem, this touch feels ineffably right.

8. Dennis Hopper reciting a lyric from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977)

Wim Wenders’ film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel revolves around Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), an American con artist living in Berlin. The plot concerns Ripley’s contracting of a picture framer with a fatal disease (Bruno Ganz) to commit murder, but story ultimately takes a back seat to characterization in this slow-paced, moody, atmospheric neo-noir. A good example of Wenders’ existential bent can be found towards the end when Ripley half-sings/half-talks the opening line to a gem of a song from Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album: “I pity the poor immigrant who . . .” and then Ripley’s voice trails off. Any Dylan fan knows that had Ripley kept singing, the lyric would have described his character’s predicament exactly: “. . . wishes he would’ve stayed home, who uses all his power to do evil, but in the end is always left so alone.”

7. Myriad references in the films of Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has said that when he was a video store employee, long before he became a director, he aspired to be “as important for cinema as Dylan is for music and songwriting.” Since then, the two have become mutual admirers and occasional sparring partners. Some of the myriad references to Dylan in the films of Tarantino: in Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright’s DJ introduces “Stuck in the Middle with You” as a “Dylanesque pop bubblegum favorite,” single-handedly causing the song to be misidentified as an actual Dylan number on countless mp3 download sites. (This begs the question, if Tarantino had a bigger music budget at the time, would “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” be the song forever associated with Michael Madsen torturing a uniformed police officer?) Death Proof contains two very interesting Dylan references, which is hardly surprising given that Tarantino was listening to Dylan’s then-new album Modern Times while driving to the set every day; the jukebox in the film contains no less than six Dylan songs, including “George Jackson” (which, let’s face it, is Dylan’s blaxploitation song), and the magazine rack in a convenience store scene features the 2006 Rolling Stone magazine with Dylan on the cover. In Inglourious Basterds, the title characters are all Jewish American G.I.s, one of whom boasts the name of Zimmerman(!), while elsewhere Brad Pitt attempts to end a standoff by telling a German soldier “. . . you go your way and we’ll go ours.” For his part, Dylan’s only known public comment on QT was a nice acknowledgement on his Theme Time Radio Hour radio show that Bobbi Womack’s “Across 110th Street” was prominently featured in Jackie Brown.

6. Stephen Rea as a Bob Dylan impersonator in Lance Daly’s Kisses (2008)

One of the most Dylan-centric films ever made, this delightfully dark Irish fairy tale concerns two working class pre-adolescent kids who run away from their suburban homes at Christmas and spend a long night on the mean streets of Dublin. Along the way, the kids repeatedly encounter the music of Bob Dylan (including being serenaded by a barge skipper with “Shelter from the Storm”), a series of events that climaxes with them running into an Australian Dylan impersonator whom the kids mistake for the man himself. Ironically, Stephen Rea, wearing a cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette and wryly speaking in a low-pitched voice in his un-billed cameo, comes closer to nailing the essence of the real Dylan than any of the actors in I’m Not There.

5. Teenagers smoking hash and slow dancing around a bonfire to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water (1994)

My favorite film by formidable French helmer Olivier Assayas is this 400 Blows-esque ode to juvenile delinquency that apparently draws on the director’s own childhood experiences. The movie’s highly emotional climactic scene involves troubled teenaged lovers Gilles and Christine running away from home and attending a party where they smoke hash and slow dance around a bonfire to an incredible vinyl playlist that includes Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dare I say that the use of “Knockin'” here is even more effective than in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the film for which it was originally written)?

4. Nick Nolte painting to a live version of “Like a Rolling Stone” in Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989)

The undisputed highlight of New York Stories, an omnibus feature film comprised of shorts by Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, is Life Lessons, the Scorsese segment about an abstract expressionist painter who falls in love with one of his models. And what better song for Nolte’s volatile character, Lionel Dobie, to use as the soundtrack for an intense painting session than the angry, cathartic live 1974 version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan’s Before the Flood album?

3. Jean-Pierre Leaud asking “Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Femninin (1966)

Jean-Luc Godard’s zeitgeist film about the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” captures the spirit of what it meant to be young in the turbulent 1960s perhaps better than any other movie. At one point, while reading a French newspaper, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the boyfriend of a pop singer named Madeleine, has this exchange with a friend:

“What are you reading?”
“An article on Bob Dylan.”
“Who’s he?”
“He’s a Vietnik, you know.”
“What’s that?”
“It’s an American word, a cross between ‘beatnik’ and ‘Vietnam.'”
“Who are you, Mister Bob Dylan?”
“Madeleine never mentioned him? He sells 10,000 records a day!”

Dylan and Godard have spoken of their mutual admiration for each other over the years and two of Godard’s films from the 1980s (Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma and Puissance de la parole) feature Dylan’s Slow Train Coming classic “When He Returns” on their soundtracks.

2. A black and white photograph of Dylan from the mid-1960s hanging on the wall in the central location of Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang’s masterpiece, one of the great final films of any director, is an almost impossibly rich, tragicomic, multigenerational family saga that also functions as a vivid snapshot of Taiwan at the dawn of the 21st century. Taipei’s unique East meets West culture is illustrated in ways both obvious (N.J., the protagonist, leaves a wedding early so that he can take his son to eat at McDonald’s) and subtle (a framed black and white photograph of Bob Dylan is prominently displayed in N.J.’s home). Since N.J. is a businessman and music lover who abandoned his youthful idealism in the late ’60’s, the latter is a very nice touch indeed.

1. A vinyl LP of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an important prop in Jacques Rivette’s L’amour Fou (1969)

L’amour Fou, Jacques Rivette’s four hour improvisational film about the construction of a play and the destruction of a marriage, is one of the high points of the entire French New Wave. Jean-Pierre Kalfon plays Sebastien, a theater director who cheats on his actress wife, Claire (Bulle Ogier), with another actress named Marta (Josée Destoop). In one key scene, Sebastien is in Marta’s apartment helping her sort through vinyl LPs that she could potentially re-sell in order to raise some quick cash. He holds up her copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which she declines to sell on the grounds that she still listens to it. Good girl!

Dylan fans reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorite Dylan references in the movies in the comments section below.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bernie (Linklater)
2. The More the Merrier (Stevens)
3. Gentleman Jim (Walsh)
4. Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Witt)
5. They Died with Their Boots On (Walsh)
6. Me and My Gal (Walsh)
7. Grand Illusion (Renoir)
8. Sadie Thompson (Walsh)
9. What Price Glory? (Walsh)
10. The Big Trail (Walsh)


Let’s Talk About Poetic Realism

Adrian Nambo, a former student of mine from Harold Washington College, asked to interview me on the topic of Poetic Realism for a paper he recently wrote for another class. Because our interview nicely coincided with my "Classic French Cinema" posts from last week, I thought I would post our interview here today as a kind of postscript.

AN: There isn’t really much said about Poetic Realism on Wikipedia (which is a horrible way to look things up anyway), but can you elaborate a little more on it?

MGS: Poetic Realism was a movement that existed in France in the early sound era. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, it is a movement that is easy to look at but hard to define. This is because the conventions aren’t as clear cut as those of, say, German Expressionism or Soviet Montage. Nonetheless, I would define the basic characteristics of Poetic Realism as a focus on working class characters and the theme of doomed love, the blending of comedy and tragedy, the use of long shots and long takes, and narratives that function as critiques of society.

AN: French Impressionism is an influence of Poetic Realism correct? What influences did it have on the movement (i.e. what techniques, stylizations, and subject matter did it contribute to Poetic Realism)?

MGS: Both Impressionism and Surrealism, which were avant-garde movements in France during the silent era, were big influences on Poetic Realism. Impressionism used stylized cinematography, optical effects and editing to render reality as it is subjectively perceived by the individual. Directors like Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein and Dmitri Kirsanoff would use superimpositions and slow dissolves, or would shoot the reflection of a subject in a distorting mirror, in an attempt to show the inner lives of their characters. Surrealism, as in the early films of Luis Bunuel, was all about the aggressive use of bizarre, dreamlike imagery to subvert the conventions of Hollywood-style “narrative continuity” filmmaking.

The phrase “poetic realism” is kind of an oxymoron because we think of poetry as being the opposite of realism. That is to say, poetry uses the figurative language of metaphor to communicate thoughts and feelings that can’t be expressed in a straightforward way. Conversely, when we think of something as being “realistic,” we tend to think of something that is being communicated simply and directly. So the movement of Poetic Realism basically synthesizes these two different approaches. It takes the poetic innovations that we associate with Impressionism and Surrealism and then weds them to the more realistic style of narrative continuity filmmaking. To give you a concrete example of what I mean, Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’atalante tells the story of the tribulations of a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon on a barge delivering cargo along the Seine River. The film was shot entirely on location (with a lot of shots done on a real barge) and the milieu depicted is that of working class people. So there is an impressive quality of documentary-like realism to the film. But then there are also these very poetic interludes like the scene where the husband jumps into the river and sees his wife’s image superimposed all around him as he swims underwater. This incredibly poetic scene makes us identify with the husband’s emotions and Vigo does it purely through images.

AN: Some major figures were Pierre Chenal, Marcel Carne, Jacques Feyder and Jean Gremillion. Can you tell me a little bit more about them and their work?

MGS: Marcel Carne is the major director out of the ones you mentioned. He made these great atmospheric crime films in the late 30s like Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve (both of which star Jean Gabin). I’ve often said that the reason why the French film critics were the first to identify the new trend of “film noir” in America in the 40s is because they had already kind of done something similar a few years earlier. Carne’s masterpiece though is Children of Paradise from 1945. A lot of critics consider it the apotheosis of Poetic Realism and it’s a movie that everyone needs to see. It’s an epic tale of doomed love set in the world of the 19th century Parisian theater. It was made during the Nazi Occupation and there are all sorts of subversive aspects to the film where the Occupation is being criticized in an oblique, allegorical way. It’s sometimes called the French Gone with the Wind but I think that does it a disservice. It’s a better film than Gone with the Wind! Thankfully, it has just been re-released in theaters this year in a brand new restoration, which will also be released soon on DVD and blu-ray. You can read all about that here: http://criterioncast.com/2012/02/27/janus-films-to-tour-new-4k-restoration-of-marcel-carnes-children-of-paradise/

I don’t think that Chenal, Gremillon or Feyder are very important directors. They belong more to the “tradition of quality” that was much derided by a future generation of French film critics. To me, the other great directors of Poetic Realism are Jean Vigo (as I mentioned), Julien Duvivier, whose masterpiece is Pepe le Moko from 1937, and, of course, Jean Renoir.

AN: I know Jean Renoir is one of your preferred directors, can you tell me about him and his films?

MGS: Renoir is one of the greatest directors of all time. The films he made in the 1930s are just indescribably great: Boudu Saved From Drowning, La Chienne (which translates as “The Bitch”), The Crime of Monsieur Lange, La Bete Humaine and his two supreme masterpieces, Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. As I wrote about those last two films elsewhere on my blog, “Renoir showed, allegorically but with great generosity of spirit, a Europe that was tragically and inexorably heading towards World War II. His use of long shots and long takes, abetted by an elegantly gliding camera, allow viewers to observe his characters from a critical distance even while the folly of their behavior makes them intensely relatable on a human scale.” He never judges his characters. They’re all flawed and they’re all likable. The Rules of the Game is like a Shakespeare play; it captures timeless truths about the workings of the human heart. I think it will be appreciated as long as movies are watched.

AN: In your class you had said that Jean Renoir is still seen as a Major Figure in film history, what influence has he had on films that filmmakers look back on?

MGS: Well, he’s one of those people whose influence is so pervasive that it’s almost invisible. But, for starters, Orson Welles was very much influenced by Renoir. A lot of the pioneering deep focus cinematography that Welles did in Citizen Kane was inspired by a similar use of depth staging that he saw in The Rules of the Game. And I think the depiction of war in Grand Illusion, in particular the blending of comedy and tragedy to highlight the absurdity of war, was a big influence on all subsequent war movies. Finally, I would just like to say that the adjective “humane” is the one that seems to be applied to Renoir more than any other and I think this is very apt. There are a lot of French movies, even today, that deal with extended families getting together for holidays or weekend-long parties that have this same quality and they seem to me to have their roots very much in The Rules of the Game. See for instance Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours or Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale.

AN: What three films if you can name three, from this period do you think best represent the movement and why?

MGS: L’atalante (1934), The Rules of the Game (1939) and Children of Paradise (1945), for the reasons already cited above.

AN: What are your favorite characteristics and or techniques of this movement and why?

MGS: I love Renoir’s use of long takes and long shots. These are the “mise-en-scene” aesthetics that were famously championed by the critic Andre Bazin. Bazin thought that this style was the opposite of Soviet Montage, where the preference for rapid cutting was more conducive to propaganda and telling viewers what to think. Renoir has a lot going on in the foreground, middle-ground and background of his shots and, because he tends to hold his shots for a while without cutting, it gives viewers the freedom to kind of focus on whatever they want to. For instance, you can choose to look at a character in the foreground or one in the background. It’s like you’re “editing” the film yourself in your mind while watching it. This quality makes his films endlessly re-watchable for me.

AN: How did this movement influence Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave?

MGS: I think the focus on working class characters and the use of plots that revolve around social problems make Poetic Realism an influence on Italian Neorealism. (The key difference though is that the cinematography in Poetic Realism tends to be far more polished than the rawness of what you see in Neorealism.) The French New Wave was more obviously influenced by Poetic Realism. Remember that the directors of the New Wave started off as film critics and so they basically hero-worshipped the likes of Vigo and Renoir and explicitly quoted their films. (Truffaut’s 400 Blows, for instance, would be unthinkable without Vigo’s Zero de Conduite.) I would say that the New Wave directors were most influenced by how intensely cinematic and alive and personal the films of Poetic Realism are.

AN: Can you summarize real quick what Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave are if you haven’t already?

MGS: Italian Neorealism was a movement in post-war Italy where directors attempted to make films that were far more realistic, in terms of form and content, than what had ever been achieved before. The French New Wave was a movement of critics-turned-directors in France in the late 50s and early 60s who used filmmaking as a means of celebrating and critiquing the cinema itself. (That’s a bit reductive and simplistic but you said to “summarize real quick!”)

AN: Can characteristics of this movement be seen in film today? If so can you name a couple of modern films to reference from after that time period.

MGS: There isn’t much around today that looks like Poetic Realism. But, in addition to the French films I already cited above, I think that American directors as diverse as Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger) have been specifically influenced by Jean Renoir.

AN: Is there anything you would like to add that I may have forgotten to ask or mention?

MGS: See the restored Children of Paradise as soon as you have the chance. You will thank me for it.


Film Festival Screening and Lecture Alert!

Next Tuesday, May 22nd, my short film The Catastrophe will screen at the 14th Indie Incubator Film Festival in Chicago. This delightfully laid-back but competitive festival will take place at The Original Mother’s, a bar located at 26 West Division, at 8 PM. Admission is FREE. Popcorn is FREE. There will be kick-ass drink specials. Most importantly, this screening marks the debut of my new definitive cut of the movie, which clocks in at 14 and a half minutes. I will be present along with members of the cast and crew.

You can learn more about the screening here:

http://indieincubatorfilmfest.com/wordpress/

Also, in July I will once again host a session at the Facets Summer Film Institute, a unique, intensive week-long film camp. Chicago-area teachers especially might be interested to learn that the Film Institute offers 30 CPDUs to all attendees (although anyone is welcome to register). The subject of my day-long seminar, to be held July 27th, will be “Classic Hollywood Movies.”

You can learn more about the Facets Summer Film Institute here:

http://facets.org/filminstitute/

Hope to see you at one or both events!


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