Category Archives: Essays

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: City That Never Sleeps

“…from the Honky Tonks to the penthouses…the creeps, the hoods, the killers come out to war with the city!”

– Original tagline for City That Never Sleeps

Longtime readers of this blog know that prior to the rise of Hollywood, Chicago was the unlikely center of American film production in the early silent era. Unfortunately, in the decade following the U.S. Justice Department’s 1915 dissolution of Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, when powerful Chicago studios like Essanay and Selig Polyscope closed up shop and moved to California for good, my fair city went from being the nation’s movie capital to a veritable cinematic ghost town. Then, the arrival of “talkies” helped the major Hollywood studios to consolidate their power and location shooting (i.e., shooting outside of southern California) became virtually unheard of in the early sound era.

It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that a gritty new documentary-style aesthetic would become popular in American cinema, spurred on by the success of the massively influential New York-shot film noir The Naked City in 1948. Soon afterwards, Hollywood crews came to the Windy City for evocative crime films like Call Northside 777, which is often cited (with some justification) as the best “Chicago movie” of all time. I recently however stumbled upon a more obscure, lower budget Chicago noir from a few years later that, for me, easily takes that title from under Northside‘s nose – the 1953 Republic Pictures production of City That Never Sleeps directed by one John H. Auer.

I had heard of the title for years but was unaware of its significance until a piece in Film Comment by Dave Kehr last year offered a reappraisal of Auer as a forgotten auteur and cited City as his “masterpiece.” After tracking the film down on a dubiously legal DVD (the transfer I saw had a television station logo pop up occasionally in the bottom right hand corner), I can only concur with Kehr’s assessment. Aficionados of Chicago movies and/or film noir cannot afford to miss this small, quirky B-movie gem, whose tight budget and extensive use of real locations (which, judging by reviews from the time, may have seemed a liability) only serve to add an impressive feeling of authenticity as well as a certain oddball charm when viewed today; City That Never Sleeps is a genuinely strange combination of documentary realism, stylized noir visuals and a subtle, inspired tinge of the supernatural (it is strongly implied that one character is a guardian angel not unlike Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life). Somehow it all works.

The story concerns one long night on the beat of veteran Chicago cop John Kelly (Gig Young), who is suffering from burn-out when the film begins. Kelly is basically a good-hearted guy who occasionally works the other side of the law by doing favors for corrupt attorney Penrod Biddel (Edward Arnold). Kelly is also unsatisfied with his marriage and is involved in a tryst with a stripper known as “Angel Face” (Mala Powers). Like Kelly, Angel Face is a former idealist (she moved to Chicago with the dream of becoming a professional ballerina) who has since become beaten down and made cynical by the ravages of time. Steve Fisher’s script, ably assisted by Auer’s taut direction, details Kelly’s attempts to make some easy money off of Biddel by illegally escorting a crook across state lines. Kelly figures this will enable him to quit his job and run off to California with Angel Face in the morning. But, this being a true film noir, things don’t quite work out that way.

Like the horror film, noir is one of the rare genres (or historical movements, depending on your point of view) that is arguably more effective on a smaller budget and without the presence of major stars. The most memorable low budget noirs from Hollywood’s studio system era often relied on surprising, personal and quirky touches to elevate them above the other standard issue programmers of the day; City has all of these qualities in spades. Like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour or Jack Bernhard’s Decoy, City conveys an atmosphere of sordidness, sleaziness and rank desperation precisely because of its limited budget and resources, qualities that Hollywood’s major studios couldn’t have replicated if they tried. After Kelly endures a tragedy late in the film he angrily laments that he feels like he’s “in a cement mixer being slowly chopped and pounded to death.” Noir protagonists don’t get much more bitter than this.

For Chicagoans, the film has much added interest as it provides a look into the Windy City of a bygone era. John Kelly spends most of his free time hanging out at Angel Face’s place of employment, the “Silver Frolics,” a legendary Chicago strip club that plays itself in the film. Many of the movie’s most memorable exterior scenes take place in front of the Silver Frolics’ mammoth neon facade and in the surrounding north Loop environs. We also get several views of the Wrigley Building as well as evocative shots of back alleys nearby. As the plot progresses and Kelly’s situation grows more and more desperate, these nighttime exteriors are shot with increasingly high contrast lighting and canted angles that make downtown Chicago look like the Vienna of Carol Reed’s The Third Man.

As Kelly chases the chief antagonist, killer Hayes Stewart (William Talman), through this urban jungle, the action reaches a memorable crescendo on the ‘L’ tracks. Both characters end up on the platform of the Merchandise Mart stop where Stewart momentarily loses Kelly when he climbs onto the tracks and, in an impressive stunt, disappears between two trains traveling in opposite directions. Although the Merchandise Mart is close to the movie’s other downtown locations, the decision to shoot there may have been pragmatic – that particular stop had been renovated only the year before. According to, “the most significant alteration during this period was the installation of a 70 foot moveable platform at the south end of the northbound platform in 1952. The purpose was to extend the platform to allow longer trains to berth.” The expanded platform would have more easily accommodated the film’s crew and equipment and greatly facilitated shooting.

One of City‘s most intriguing aspects is a minor character named Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), who has the unusual job of performing as a window display “mechanical man” to draw attention to the strip club where Angel Face works. Warren’s job consists of covering his face in silver paint and moving about in a robotic fashion; he is so convincing at playing this role that passersby frequently debate if he is a real man or a robot. Like Kelly, Warren is also in love with Angel Face and the love triangle between the three of them leads to a surprising climax that is as poignant as it is clever. I won’t give it away except to say that, like the irresistible death scene of “Mr. Memory” in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, it is precisely the bizarre nature of the Mechanical Man’s job that threatens to cost him his life.

Dave Kehr sees the Mechanical Man’s station as a metaphor for Auer’s own entrapment. In his Film Comment piece, Kehr asks, “Was this how Auer came to perceive his own position, as a filmmaker of ambition confined within a commercial system? If it was, he found his way out much as his protagonists did: by accepting his situation – and turning it into the stuff of his art.” Amen.

Works Cited

1. “Chicago ”L”.org: Stations – Merchandise Mart.” Chicago ”L”.org – Your Chicago Rapid Transit Internet Resource! Web. 28 Oct. 2011.

2. Kehr, Dave. “Further Research: Inside Man.” Film Comment 47.4 (2011): 22+. Print.


Leos’ Love Letter

In honor of Valentine’s Day, today’s post concerns one of my favorite cinematic love stories, Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge from 1991.

Leos Carax’s years-in-the-making, instantly legendary The Lovers on the Bridge (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) was a scandal upon its initial release in France (the production went wildly over budget, becoming the most expensive French movie ever made up to that point) and sharply divided critics as to its merits. Cahiers du Cinema named it one of the ten best films of the year in 1991 but there were plenty of haters who labelled it pretentious and self-indulgent, predictably trotting out the old “style over substance” argument. The film was virtually impossible to see in America for years because no distributor was apparently willing to pay the hefty price tag for North American theatrical or home video rights. By the time I finally caught up to a 35mm print courtesy of Miramax’s belated 1999 release, I had already worn out my bootleg VHS copy from the good folks at Video Search of Miami. Revisiting The Lovers on the Bridge today, I have no qualms about calling it one of the key movies of the 1990s, a tour de force of filmmaking that functions simultaneously as a love letter to the city of Paris, leading lady Juliette Binoche, and the cinema itself. It also contains, thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, some of the most visually stunning passages in the entire history of the medium.

Like all great love stories, the premise is a slender one: Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless, alcoholic, would-be circus performer, meets and falls madly in love with visually impaired street artist Michele (Binoche), loses her when she retreats into the embrace of her wealthy, conservative father (who offers to pay for an operation that will restore her sight), and finds her again in a deliriously uplifting finale straight out of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The love affair is played out on the Pont-Neuf, Paris’ oldest bridge, where the characters live while it is closed for renovations. As the movie’s production fell behind schedule and shooting permits expired, Carax had to resort to filming scenes on a massive replica of the famous bridge that his crew build in the south of France, which caused the budget to skyrocket tremendously. The alternation between real locations and elaborate sets in the finished film is no drawback however; if anything, it heightens the dichotomy between realism and artifice that runs through the entire movie (apparent from the very beginning when professional actor Denis Lavant is seen interacting with real homeless people) and enriches Carax’s potent metaphor for the city-as-a-giant-playground.

Lovers is indeed an outrageously stylized movie but the style, I would argue, is always pressed to the service of revealing something about the emotional lives of the characters. More specifically, I think the film’s greatness lies in its ability to find visual correlatives for the feeling of being in love. In scene after scene, striking camera movement, carefully selected color (dig the yellow!), an ingenious use of locations (whether real or constructed especially for the film) and the choreography of the performers all combine to convey feelings of euphoria or despair, depending upon the mood of the characters. This image-based approach to storytelling caused French critics to initially lump Carax together with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beneix under the umbrella term of “Cinema du Look” in the 1980s. But unlike his contemporaries, whose approach seems more influenced by MTV, Carax’s imagery harks back to the silent cinema as well as the most poetic movies of the early sound era (such as the aforementioned L’atalante), many of which Carax liberally quotes from. In addition to Jean Vigo, his main influence in The Lovers on the Bridge appears to be F.W. Murnau, whose Sunrise similarly attempted to whip up an intense visual frenzy by depicting scenes of urban life in a highly impressionistic and romantic fashion. The city, Murnau and Carax both remind us, can be a place of terror and magic, ugliness and beauty, loneliness and vibrancy, all at the same time. There is therefore no more fitting backdrop for a story revolving around the tumultuous emotions of young love.

Some of the more rhapsodic moments in Lovers: Alex and Michele getting drunk together for the first time, rolling around in the gutter and laughing, surrounded – in a stunning optical illusion – by giant cigarette butts and bottles of alcohol; a tracking shot that follows them moments later as they drunkenly dance across the bridge beneath an elaborate and very real fireworks display while songs belonging to wildly different genres of music (classical, rock, rap, middle-eastern, and even generic French cafe music) boldly segue into one another on the soundtrack; Michele waterskiing down the Seine at night and wiping out dangerously close to a stone wall. (While we expect this type of stunt work from Levant, who was trained as an acrobat and can be seen eating fire and walking up subway walls like Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain elsewhere in the film, it was arguably unconscionable for Carax to ask Binoche, with whom he was romantically involved at the time, to perform her own stunts. She nearly died during the waterskiing wipeout, a shot that made it into the final cut of the film.)

There are impressive moments of visual poetry in some of the subtler, quieter scenes as well. The movie’s third most important character is Hans, an older homeless man from Germany played with great authority by veteran theatrical director Klaus-Michael Grüber. Hans is a father-figure to Alex and he resents Michele’s intrusion upon their lives on the bridge. Hans is hostile toward Michele because he knows that she comes from an upper class background and, unlike them, is homeless by choice – an interloper in their world. However, as time goes by, Hans develops an affection for Michele in spite of himself, a feeling that reaches its apex in a scene where he grants her wish to see a Rembrandt self-portrait in the Louvre. Knowing that Michele’s eyesight is failing more and more every day, Hans helps her to break into the museum in the middle of the night and allows the nearly-blind woman to see the painting by holding a candle only inches away from its surface. According to Carax, this shot could only be achieved when the Louvre security guard who was watching the production relieved himself momentarily to take a leak. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, it reaffirms my impression of the director as someone who is fully committed to going to foolish and even reckless lengths to capture images of astonishing and improbable beauty.

The Lovers on the Bridge is Leos Carax’s third film out of only four total in a career that spans more than a quarter of a century. Holy Motors, his long-awaited fifth movie (and the first since Pola X in 1999), is currently filming. Let’s hope production doesn’t drag on for years.

The Lovers on the Bridge is available on DVD in North America in a serviceable edition from Miramax Home Entertainment but for such a visually stunning film, the image quality leaves much to be desired. An immaculately transferred Blu-ray edition would be very welcome.

2011: The Year of the Orson

Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year honor,” establishes a new tradition following last year’s tribute to Fritz Lang. It is also the first of three posts offering a round-up of the year in movies. Over the next two weeks I will also be posting lists of my favorite home video and theatrical releases of 2011.

This year White City Cinema’s Filmmaker of the Year honor is bestowed on Orson Welles, one of the all-time great directors and someone whose work seems to be in a perpetual state of restoration, re-release and rediscovery. 2011 saw the blu-ray debuts of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in mind-bogglingly elaborate box sets and The Stranger in a serviceable public domain job, as well as the first ever North American DVD release of The Magnificent Ambersons. In addition to purchasing all of these titles, I also showed Citizen Kane as part of a day-long seminar I gave to teachers at Facets Multimedia in July. (The subject? “How to Teach Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom.”) For these reasons, there was no other film director I spent more time watching, thinking about and wrestling with in 2011 than Orson Welles.

The visionary nature of Welles’ genius marked him as a man ahead of his time and, since his death in 1985, film critics, scholars and fans have all been playing catch up. While it was once commonplace to hear critics chalk up the plethora of unfinished Welles projects to some kind of “fear of completion” (usually tied to assumptions about Welles’ insecurity about living up to the early promise of Citizen Kane), history has since taken a kinder view of the twilight years of the boy genius from Kenosha. The 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band, included on Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of F for Fake, provided many Welles fans a tantalizing first glimpse of the tangled mess of unfinished movies Welles worked on in the last couple decades of his life, many of them of obviously high artistic quality. Recent books by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Discovering Orson Welles, 2006) and Joseph McBride (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, 2007) examine this work in detail, giving a more well-rounded view of Welles’ career as a whole. They also indicate that the primary reason for the unfinished nature of this work was a lack of money and resources. The fact that Welles was able to remain as prolific as he was is nothing less than a testament to his love for the act of filmmaking.

But even Welles’ earlier work, including the one movie he inarguably had complete creative control over, has been the subject of controversy. As I pointed out several months ago, Citizen Kane has been released in multiple VHS and DVD editions over the years that have failed to do justice to its original, revolutionary visual style. The new Warner Bros. blu-ray happily corrects the most egregious problems associated with previous editions by aiming for a greater film-like look. Welles’ last Hollywood masterpiece, Touch of Evil, a movie that was re-edited and partially re-shot against his wishes, was restored in 1998 as closely as possible to the director’s original intentions. And yet when Universal attempted to take a completist approach to Touch of Evil for their 50th Anniversary DVD edition in 2008 by including three different cuts of the film, they still courted controversy by only including it in a widescreen aspect ratio that some claimed was not the way it was meant to be seen. The new Eureka/Masters of Cinema blu-ray of Touch of Evil attempts to cover all bases by including five versions – all three of the extant cuts, two of which are presented in different aspect ratios: the academy (or television) ratio of 1.37:1 as well as the widescreen 1.85:1.

That the world can’t get enough of Welles now is ironic considering the tattered state of the director’s legacy in his own lifetime. (And there would be even more Welles releases on the market today if not for the intervention of his litigation-happy daughter Beatrice. She is now the only thing preventing the release of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ final unreleased movie.) It is tempting to invoke a parallel between Welles and Charles Foster Kane; like Thompson, the reporter in Kane who ends the film “playing with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” movie lovers too must sift through the films of Orson Welles, whether finished, unfinished or in multiple versions, none of which can be called definitive, in order to best understand and appreciate his artistry as a director. I would argue that the very act of familiarizing oneself with the Welles canon is akin to conducting an investigation. However, the “solution” that each viewer comes to is likely to be different. Unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whose authorial persona remains more stable and fixed in the minds of cinephiles, with each passing year Welles’ identity seems to multiply like the infinite reflections of Charles Foster Kane standing between two mirrors in the hallway of Xanadu. There are probably as many Orsons as there are viewers.

It should be a no-brainer for movie buffs to pick up the Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil blu-ray sets. The former is a cinephile’s paradise and includes among its many supplements the aforementioned DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons. The latter is available only as a “region B”-locked import, but it alone would justify the purchase of a multi-region blu-ray player. However, as those releases have already been written about ad nauseum elsewhere, I’d like to end this appreciation by offering a shout out to an outfit named “HD Cinema Classics” for putting out a blu-ray of The Stranger, a terrific minor Welles film from 1946 that has long been in the public domain. While today The Stranger technically belongs to the library of MGM, a studio notoriously reticent to release catalogue titles and who have no plans to offer a blu-ray of their own anytime soon, we should all be grateful that someone took a 35mm print, no matter how imperfect, and made a high-definition transfer from it. While HD Cinema Classics clearly don’t have access to the same high quality source materials that MGM does, I think their release should also be an essential purchase for Welles enthusiasts, especially considering its reasonable amazon price tag of only $11.99.

The Stranger has long been condescendingly referred to by film historians as the movie Welles made to prove he could direct something commercial and conventional but it is actually much better (and more Wellesian) than that reputation would suggest. In the first of a cycle of memorable Welles films noirs, the director himself plays Franz Kindler, an ex-Nazi who travels to America and starts a new life as a schoolteacher named Charles Rankin in a sleepy Connecticut town. Hot on his heels is Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson, a Nazi hunter for the U.S. government who must uncover Rankin’s true identity in spite of the disbelief of the stranger’s new acquaintances – including his fiance Mary (the lovely Loretta Young). The Stranger features several exciting set pieces, most notably an action climax set atop a bell tower, all of which are rendered in gorgeous high-contrast black and white by cinematographer Russell Metty who would later shoot Touch of Evil. But the film’s most memorable scene is a quieter one, a dinner table dialogue in which Rankin/Kindler accidentally lets his mask slip by denying that Karl Marx was a German because he also happened to be a Jew. It’s a little master class in acting that foreshadows the more famous fascist sentiments of Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man two years later.

When all of the legal disputes have been settled and The Other Side of the Wind finally does see a proper release, there still remains the question of how the film should be “finished.” Since no definitive cut is possible, who will be charged with the unenviable task of deciding “what Orson would have wanted”? Since there has already been some infighting on this very subject by Welles’ former collaborators, I think the sensible thing would be to have the film completed in multiple versions overseen by different editors with consciously different approaches in mind. I’d buy a mammoth blu-ray box set of that.

“Basic” Film Language

Most artistically ambitious film directors in the sound era have dreamed of returning to the aesthetics of silent cinema. Stanley Kubrick expressly stated his intention of creating a “visual, nonverbal experience” when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie’s lengthy dialogue-free passages (and, for that matter, passages where dialogue is present but ultimately unimportant) are what many critics had in mind when they recently invoked it in discussions of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – not coincidentally another unusually ambitious cinematic attempt to show man’s relationship to the universe. Other films in recent decades have impressed with audacious scenes of little or no dialogue: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge with its epic, climactic heist sequence, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West with its comically drawn-out train station showdown, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger with its virtuosic long take/crane shot accompanying Jack Nicholson’s offscreen suicide, Ken Ogata carrying his mother up the mountain in Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, and entire contemporary art films like Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia and most of the oeuvre of South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk. Then there is the matter of the curiously similar openings of Pixar’s WALL-E and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, both of which depict the solitary work of a lone protagonist in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. In both instances, more than fifteen minutes goes by before a single word of dialogue is spoken. And this is to say nothing of that earlier generation of directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, et al.) who actually started directing in the silent era and then applied its lessons to sound era filmmaking.

One of my favorite non-verbal sequences in any movie of modern times can be found in Paul Verhoeven’s darkly comic thriller Basic Instinct, which also has the added benefit of being far less ostentatious about calling attention to its virtuosity than any of the examples cited above. In fact, even though I had seen the film several times (including a 35mm print during its original theatrical release as well as the notorious “unrated version” when it bowed on DVD) it wasn’t until I recently watched it on blu-ray for the first time that I even became aware that Verhoeven had plunked down two back-to-back dialogue-free sequences totaling eight and a half minutes of screen time in the middle of his movie. As far as I know this aspect of Basic Instinct hasn’t even been commented upon in any critical writing about the film. This passage of pure visual storytelling is both the high point of the movie as well as a great example of why Verhoeven remains one of contemporary cinema’s unheralded masters.

It has been much commented upon that Basic Instinct is essentially a reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both films detail the relationships between a psychologically disturbed cop and two contrasting women – the beautiful, mysterious and dangerous blonde woman of his dreams vs. his pragmatic, maternal and glasses-wearing ex-girlfriend. Verhoeven’s movie however is no mere retread. He displays an extreme (and extremely clever) self-consciousness in regard to gender roles that mark Basic Instinct as a defining film of the early 1990s in much the same way that the portrayal of repression in Vertigo marks it as a defining film of the late 1950s. But what is obvious watching Basic Instinct now that was less clear in 1992 is the extent to which it functions, like most of Verhoeven’s work, as a satire. Decades removed from its status as an epoch-making “zeitgeist movie” (with its controversial depictions of bisexual killers and full frontal nudity), it positively delights today as a witty send-up of erotic thriller conventions. Verhoeven takes a prominent subtext of the genre – male sexual insecurity in the face of a powerful, domineering female character – and makes it the explicit subject of Basic Instinct. (Not for nothing does Camille Paglia refer to it as one of her “favorite works of art.”) Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in the aforementioned non-verbal scenes, in which Verhoeven effectively utilizes the “basics” of film language to drive his point home.

The first such scene occurs after Michael Douglas’ character, police detective Nick Curran, has become hopelessly infatuated with Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in her best performance), a famous mystery writer who also happens to be the chief suspect in a murder investigation Curran is heading. Off-duty, Curran follows Tramell to a decadent nightclub that apparently has been converted from an old church. A breathtaking crane shot introduces viewers to this beautifully designed location, which humorously mixes the sacred and the profane: pink and blue neon lights line the many archways of the club’s interiors as religious icons silently look down from stained glass windows on the swirling mass of frenzied dancing patrons below. The camera eventually picks out Curran, looking remarkably unhip in blue jeans and a green V-neck sweater with no undershirt, stalking through the club. Curran spies Roxy, Tramell’s lesbian lover, and follows her into the men’s bathroom, the site of a wild bisexual orgy of sex and drugs. Roxy enters a stall where Tramell and an unidentified man are doing cocaine. Then, in a series of highly effective eyeline matching shots, we see Curran (himself a former cocaine addict) gaze lasciviously at the forbidden fruit in the stall in front of him. Tramell returns Curran’s gaze but maintains the upper hand by slamming the stall door shut in his face.

Verhoeven then elliptically cuts to moments later on the club’s dance floor where Curran is watching Tramell and Roxy dance with and fondle one another. As Tramell turns her attentions to Curran, Roxy walks off in an angry huff. It should be noted here that Michael Douglas, admittedly a handsome man at any age, was forty-seven years old at the time (and thirteen years older than Sharon Stone), which makes Nick Curran look distinctly uncomfortable in this milieu. Curran’s attempts at dancing consist of nothing but light swaying and repeated attempts to kiss Tramell on the mouth, advances that she initially, playfully rebuffs. As Roxy looks jealously on from a distance, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the power dynamic between this trio. In hindsight, the protests that met the film’s original release look particularly misguided; the purpose of the Tramell/Roxy relationship isn’t to paint bisexual women as psycho-killers. It’s to highlight Curran’s insecurity about the fact that Tramell is the one who calls all of the sexual shots. Because Roxy is a woman, she can provide Tramell with something that Curran can’t, which heightens the viewer’s sense of the hero’s emasculation.

The next scene is the most infamous in the film – the first sex scene between Tramell and Curran, one that is so explosive that it will cause him to refer to her repeatedly as “the fuck of the century.” This is also the scene that was censored upon its original theatrical release in order to ensure an R rating, causing Paglia to memorably formulate that American audiences couldn’t fully appreciate the “choreography of the combat.” Far from being gratuitous, the point of this precisely storyboarded, Hitchcockian sex scene is to show, without dialogue, the struggle for power between these characters while simultaneously building suspense as to whether or not Tramell is the killer. At one point during their lovemaking, Curran becomes the dominant partner by initiating the missionary position but Tramell turns the tables on him by clawing his back with her nails and drawing blood. She then climbs on top of him and ties his hands to her bedposts with a white silk scarf. (This, of course, mirrors the murder scene that opens the film and thus causes our suspicions to grow that Tramell is indeed the killer.) After rocking spasmodically back and forth on top of him, we see Trammel reach beneath the sheets for what we assume will be an ice pick, the killer’s weapon of choice. Instead, Trammel merely falls forward, empty-handed, as the tension deflates and the two characters engage in a post-coital embrace. The non-verbal spell is finally broken in the following scene when Curran repairs to the bathroom and realizes that Roxy has been voyeuristically spying on them, with Tramell’s knowledge, all along.

Basic Instinct briefly made Paul Verhoeven the unlikely king of Hollywood but the Dutch master’s intensely cinematic, envelope-pushing style wouldn’t remain in synch with American tastes for long. His next film, Showgirls, would prove to be his most bitter satire, a remake of All About Eve that used the world of Las Vegas strip clubs as a jaundiced metaphor for the Hollywood star system. As with Basic Instinct, it too is full of wonderful cinematic conceits but audiences and critics expecting genuine titillation howled the movie right off of cinema screens. The critical and commercial failure of Showgirls unfortunately sounded the death knell for the mainstream viability of the NC-17 rating as well as Verhoeven’s Hollywood career, although he did stick around long enough to complete one more masterpiece (Starship Troopers) as well as a mediocre and impersonal genre exercise (Hollow Man). Since then he has returned to his native Holland where he triumphantly reunited with his old screenwriter Gerard Soeteman for Black Book, a highly subversive take on the Dutch resistance to the German occupation during WWII and arguably his greatest achievement. The two are currently working on another Dutch production, Hidden Force, that is scheduled for release in 2013.

The club scene from Basic Instinct can be seen on YouTube below. For the sex scene that follows it, you’ll have to rent the DVD or Blu-ray (or surf websites that exceed YouTube’s PG guidelines).

Universal and Timeless

In honor of Halloween, today’s post concerns two of my favorite horror movies – the Universal Studios productions of The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932) and The Black Cat (Edgar Ulmer, 1934).

The Old Dark House and The Black Cat came out just two years apart during the first beloved cycle of horror films produced by Universal in the early sound era, yet neither are as well known today as the studio’s more famous monster movies of the same period (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, etc.). Instead, The Old Dark House and The Black Cat, which exemplify the “haunted house” subgenre, have attained the status of cult classics while also remaining supremely recognizable works of “star directors” James Whale and Edgar Ulmer. They also both masterfully combine horror and humor, serve as great showcases for the versatility of actor Boris Karloff and clock in at barely more than an hour in length a piece. I therefore can’t imagine a more ideal Halloween double feature than watching these two chillers back to back.

The Old Dark House begins with one of the most charming pre-credits title cards in the history of cinema, one that perfectly captures the film’s spirit of mischievous fun. It is worth quoting in its entirety: “Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in Frankenstein. We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.” (Gee, kind of makes you wonder how many people left screenings of The Old Dark House on its initial run grateful for this information, lest they might have otherwise lost a tidy sum by making a wager on whether or not Karloff appeared in the movie!)

Karloff’s role is much smaller here than his impressive star turn in the previous year’s Frankenstein, which was also directed by Whale. In The Old Dark House, Karloff again plays the baddie but this time out he is just one of a family of freaks – their butler to be precise – who occupy a gloomy Welsh mansion and spend a night menacing two groups of travelers (including such prominent future stars as Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey and Charles Laughton) who are forced to seek refuge there during a thunderstorm. Karloff’s character, Morgan, is a drunken scar-faced mute who spends most of the film chasing Stuart, looking fabulous in a tight-fitting gown, around the mansion. The other family members, who make the family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like sitcom characters, consist of: an eccentric middle-aged deaf woman who badgers Stuart about her alleged promiscuity, a feminine man who is afraid of going upstairs, a crazed pyromaniac locked in an attic, and a one hundred and two year old man with a long white beard (played by a woman!) who is kept locked up in another room. The way these characters run around and bounce off each other like billiard balls produces enough scares (and laughs) to fill two movies.

But the film’s real appeal (and what makes it a kissing cousin of Whale’s other masterpiece The Bride of Frankenstein) is its genuinely unsettling use of wicked humor. This is perfectly illustrated by the scene early on where Eva Moore, the deaf woman, shows Stuart to her room and, even though they’ve only just met, launches into a bizarre monologue about sex and death. Stuart (best known for playing the old Rose in Titanic but young and dishy here) looks on uncomprehendingly while Moore compares her to her sister, a “wicked one” who died at the age of twenty one. We see a series of close-ups of Moore’s face reflected in a distorting mirror as she maniacally says that the house used to be filled with “laughter and sin, laughter and sin.” As Stuart slips out of her wet clothes, Moore offers the observation that Stuart thinks of nothing but her long straight legs, white skin and how to please a man. The scene reaches a delirious climax as Moore grabs hold of Stuart’s negligee and exclaims, “That’s fine stuff but it’ll rot.” She then points to Stuart’s chest and adds, “That’s finer stuff still but it’ll rot too . . . in time!”

Even better (and quirkier) than The Old Dark House is Universal’s The Black Cat from two years later, a film noteworthy for being the only A-list project ever helmed by B-movie king Edgar G. Ulmer. (Ulmer would shortly thereafter be blacklisted for having an affair with the wife of a well-connected producer and never again worked for a major studio.) The Black Cat is credited as an adaptation of the Edgar Allen Poe story with the same name although the two in fact have nothing in common. It is more notable as the first and best pairing of co-leads Karloff and Bela Lugosi (who would have seven more go-rounds together after this one). Since both were fresh off of career-defining performances (Frankenstein for Karloff and Dracula for Lugosi), pitting them against each other was a big deal, kind of like one of those comic book crossovers where Superman squares off against Spiderman or what have you.

Like The Old Dark House, The Black Cat is also set in Europe (Hungary this time) and also follows the misadventures of travelers (a honeymooning American couple) forced to seek refuge in a gothic mansion inhabited by a madman. Once there, the innocent couple (David Manners and Julie Bishop) become unwitting pawns in a life-or-death chess game between Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), the architect/war criminal who owns the mansion, and his adversary Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who is seeking revenge on Poelzig for the murder of his wife some years earlier. But the film unfolds less like a linear narrative and more like a troubling dream as scenes involving Satanic rituals, beautiful female corpses showcased in glass coffins, Werdegast’s irrational fear of cats and a literal chess game between Poelzig and Werdegast all demand to be put together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Binding these disparate narrative elements is Ulmer’s suitably dark and moody Germanic sensibility, which is reflected in the film’s Expressionist lighting, the Bauhaus architecture of the set design and a superb classical music score that prominently features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

The best piece of critical writing on The Black Cat that I’ve come across belongs to filmmaker and theoretician Raul Ruiz (RIP!), who only got around to watching the movie after having heard himself compared to Ulmer by Jonathan Rosenbaum and other critics. In a brain-twisting and witty essay in the indispensable collection Projections 4 1/2, Ruiz writes:

“(The Black Cat) presents itself as a series of situations, each of which has an independent existence of its own: a game of chess, Bela Lugosi’s cat phobia, allusions to an allegorical battle (Europe as a field of corpses), Bauhaus design. All these elements are stories that the film could do without, and which in the end stifle and obscure the central story. A bad critic would call these extraneous fragments ‘decorative’. Instead of helping to gradually reveal that narrative, as in a film which tells one single story, each of these stories dies outside the area of fiction that surrounds the narrative.”

In a cheeky post-script, Ruiz notes that after watching the film, “. . . as in a melodrama, I exclaimed ‘Father!’ and (Ulmer) replied ‘My son!'” Writing as someone who counts many living and dead movie directors as “extended family” (including Whale, Ulmer and Ruiz), I know exactly what he means.

The Old Dark House and The Black Cat are available separately in serviceable standard-def DVD editions (the former via Kino, the latter via Universal). Along with many other things that I fantasize about large corporations doing that will probably never come to pass due to rights issues, I would love to see them both put together on a single Blu-ray disc (preferably with Criterion-like remastered sound and picture quality, thank you very much.)

Framing the Supernatural in Caligari and Nosferatu

My post for today concerns two of my favorite horror films – the German Expressionist masterpieces The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror. After showing both movies innumerable times in Intro to Film classes, I’ve come to believe that the awesome power of each ultimately lies in their shared sense of a wacked-out story structure: Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau didn’t just make films about the supernatural, they made films supernaturally.

One of the hallmarks of the German Expressionist cinema is a keen interest in the supernatural. Incorporating techniques borrowed from Expressionist artists in other mediums (painting, theater, architecture, etc.) the major German Expressionist film directors sought to create a new, more personal form of expression that favored the unknown to the known, the power of the human imagination to knowledge acquired only through sensory experience and a cinematographic style that consciously rebelled against the “invisible” techniques of Hollywood narrative continuity filmmaking. The arrival of Expressionism in movies is usually credited with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a low-budget but revolutionary film written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer and directed by Robert Wiene at the Decla-Bioscop studio. Two years later, F.W. Murnau directed the landmark Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for a small outfit named Prana Film (it would be their only release). These two works, which share a startling, little commented upon framing device, provided a shining example, in both form and content, for many other filmmakers to follow.

One of the key ingredients to the success of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is its narrative structure. Wiene employs a framing device so that the chief action of his film is a story being told within a story. This structure provides a wealth of stylistic and thematic possibilities that allow Wiene to bring out the haunting, mysterious nature of his tale to maximum effect. The movie begins with the protagonist, Franzis, telling his story to an old man on a park bench. These shots (and a few rhyming shots at the film’s conclusion) are the only exterior shots to actually be filmed outdoors by Wiene and his crew. The bulk of the narrative is comprised of Franzis’ story, about the sinister goings-on at a carnival, which Wiene presents as a lengthy flashback sequence. All of the exterior scenes inside of Franzis’ story (and there are many) were clearly shot on interior sets in the Decla-Bioscop studio and have a highly artificial, theatrical appearance. The discrepancy between authentic and artificial exteriors is the first subtle clue as to the fact that Franzis is an “unreliable narrator.”

There are several reasons why the framing device is effectively suited to movies involving fantastic and otherworldly elements. First, it provides the director with an ironic juxtaposition of tone and setting. This is immediately apparent in the opening of Murnau’s Nosferatu. The first several shots of the film are title cards, the first of which reads: “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg anno Domini 1838.” The second warns against speaking the word Nosferatu aloud lest “. . . haunting dreams will climb forth from your heart and feed on your blood.” The third title card is the most curious as it introduces the mysterious narrator: “I have reflected at length on the origin and passing of the Great Death in my hometown of Wisborg. Here is its story: Once in Wisborg lived a man named Hutter and his young wife Ellen.” Incredibly, it is never made clear who the narrator is, or even if he appears physically within the movie, although several more title cards crop up that indicate what we are seeing represents a first person perspective.

The first shots of Nosferatu (following the opening title cards) depict a scene of domestic contentment between Hutter and Ellen in their small-town bourgeois home. Hutter is excitedly getting dressed in front of a bedroom mirror, preparing to go to work for the day. Nearby, Ellen is laughing and playing with a cat and a ball of yarn in front of an open window. The counterpoint of the spectral opening titles – with their gothic font and multiple evocations of the “Great Death” – against this backdrop of newly wedded bliss allows Murnau to establish a mood of foreboding; a feeling of uneasiness has permeated the setting that will soon explode into horror once the narrative proper begins.

Another function of the framing device is to allow for multiple narrators. The first narrator of Caligari is Wiene himself – omniscient, God-like, paring his fingernails. He is the rational narrator who provides the “frame” for the fantastical portrait of the second narrator, Franzis. Wiene takes care to show the mesmeric effect of Franzis’ story on his listener (the old man) in the hopes that we, the viewer, will become hypnotized too. (The theme of hypnotism next raises its head in this same scene when Jane, the female lead, walks past the two men in a zombie-like trance. This theme will recur throughout the film.) Wiene will not however return to the framing story until the very end of the movie, a device that makes many first-time viewers forget that there even is a framing story. Nosferatu, on the other hand, only has one narrator, the “I” who mysteriously appears in title cards on a semi-regular basis throughout the movie. This suggests that what we are seeing is perhaps the illustration of someone’s diary and, unlike Caligari, we can never be certain whether any of what we see in Nosferatu is “real.”

After Nosferatu‘s opening titles, the narrator’s presence doesn’t crop up again until almost twenty-two minutes into the film, when Hutter has traveled to the Carpathian mountains in hopes of making a real estate sale to the mysterious Count Orlok. After a memorable shot of Hutter crossing a bridge, the following intertitle appears: “As soon as Hutter crossed the bridge he was seized by the eerie visions he so often told me of . . .” At the 38 minute mark, Ellen, at home in bed, is also seized by eerie visions (of her husband in Orlok’s clutches). After a doctor visits her, this intertitle appears: “The doctor described Ellen’s anxiety to me as some sort of unknown illness. But I know that on that night her soul heard the call of the deathbird.” Later, when Count Orlok departs for Wisborg, we see this intertitle: “Nosferatu was coming. Danger was on its way to Wisborg. Professor Bulwer, a Paracelsian who was then investigating the secrets of nature and its unifying principles, told me about it: Caskets filled with dirt were loaded onto the double-masted schooner, Empusa.” What these crucial title cards establish is that, although there may only be one narrator, what we are seeing has been passed through several subjective filters (the narrator’s as well as Hutter’s, Ellen’s, the doctor’s and Professor Bulwer’s).

As in Citizen Kane, what we think of as the “truth” of the events depicted onscreen in Nosferatu is really just the sum total of a bunch of stories that many different people have told to the narrator. The chief difference, therefore, between Murnau’s approach to constructing narrative and that of Wiene lies in Murnau’s self-consciousness in regards to form. While the narrative strategies of the two filmmakers work on the viewer in a similar, almost-subliminal fashion, the repeated intrusions of the unseen narrator in Nosferatu make the construction of narrative itself the subject of Murnau’s film as much as the mass death that Orlok causes to sweep across the German countryside like the plague.

Finally, the most important function of the framing device, at least in relation to supernatural subject matter, is the distancing effect it has on the viewer. When filmmakers set their narratives in the distant past or in faraway lands (as Wiene and Murnau both do), they are, somewhat paradoxically, lending credence to otherwise fantastical tales in the mind’s eye of the viewer. This technique is still common in campfire ghost stories and urban legends today where “Something once happened to a friend of a friend of mine . . .” Because most of us do not experience supernatural phenomena in our daily lives, we are more ready to accept such phenomena when it is packaged in a story taking place outside the realm of our concrete experience. Hence the evocation of “exotic” settings in both of these films: Romania and the mid-19th century in Nosferatu, Italy and the early 18th century in Caligari.

In Caligari, the most obvious narrative function of the framing device is that it allows Wiene to set up his famous “trick ending” (the story Franzis tells turns out to be no more than the ravings of a madman). As disturbing as this conceit is on the surface, it provides the audience on a deeper level with a sense of relief (i.e., it explains why the rest of the film looks so bizarre, it allows us to feel that Caligari’s counterpart, the asylum director, may be able to cure Franzis, etc.). If Nosferatu remains the more unnerving film today, it’s partially because its ending offers the viewer no comparable sense of relief. Towards the end of Nosferatu the narrator informs us, “I have wondered for a long time why it was said that Nosferatu took his coffins with him filled with dirt. I have surmised that vampires can only draw their shadowy strength from the cursed earth in which they were buried.” In other words, Murnau’s narrator is just as clueless as the viewer, merely speculating as to the causes of the horror to which we have born witness. When the vampire is finally vanquished (through the self-sacrifice of Ellen), the abiding tone is one of bleakness and despair. For a country that had just lived through and lost an unpopular war (for which Nosferatu can be seen as an allegory), the end of the “Great Death” was no cause for celebration.

Few movies have proved to be as enduringly popular as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu; Shutter Island and most of Tim Burton would be unthinkable without the former and many key elements of vampire mythology were first introduced in the latter – such as the notion that vampires cannot be exposed to sunlight. As to the reasons for this popularity, some would credit the masterful use of atmospheric lighting, the brilliantly innovative set design, the unforgettable monster make-up or the legendary performances of the villains played by Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt and Max Schreck. Personally, I think both films still resonate today because Murnau and Wiene both illustrated that form is the most direct route to emotion.

The most complete versions of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are available on DVD from Kino Video. The most essential critical writing on the German Expressionist movement is Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen.

The Poetic Realism of Jean Renoir

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the world premiere of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in Paris. It is the movie I show most frequently in Intro to Film classes to illustrate the slippery yet vital French movement known as Poetic Realism.

Jean Renoir is the most famous and critically renowned of all the great French directors who have been lumped together under the difficult-to-define umbrella term of “Poetic Realism.” In contrast to silent French film movements like Impressionism and Surrealism (both of which can be considered avant-garde or non-narrative), Poetic Realism, which flowered in the early sound era, integrated poetic, non-narrative innovations into the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking. The end result was a cycle of films that took some of the aesthetic concerns of those earlier movements and wedded them to traditional movie realism in a way that exhibits a socially conscious perspective while simultaneously remaining accessible to mainstream audiences. The Rules of the Game, released in 1939, is the most famous of all Poetic Realist films and is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It also represented the end of the first phase of Jean Renoir’s career. It was banned by the French government shortly after its initial release (a ban maintained by the Nazis when their occupation of France began), causing Renoir to flee to America where he worked for the better part of a decade. Upon returning to Europe in the early fifties he would be a very different type of director and would make very different (though in many ways equally wonderful) types of films.

The Rules of the Game tells the story of a group of aristocrats and their servants who have gathered for a holiday weekend in the country at a mansion belonging to Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This makes Renoir’s film the spiritual godfather of a certain strain of European art film of the 1960s, one that Pauline Kael derisively dubbed the “come dressed as the sick soul of Europe party,” a category including films as diverse as L’avventura, Last Year at Marienbad and La Dolce Vita. Like those later modernist films, The Rules of the Game has widely been interpreted as an attack on the bourgeoisie (one of the reasons it was banned to begin with), but it is truer to say that no one is spared in Renoir’s social critique; the working class characters are just as flawed as the masters they serve and in some cases more so (witness the scene where the servants gossip about Robert’s Jewish ancestry). It is also worth noting that Renoir extends sympathy to all of his characters as well. He refuses to valorize or demonize any of them; instead, he shows them in their full humanity and that, I suspect, is what some find unbearable.

These are the ways in which The Rules of the Game can be said to exemplify Poetic Realism:

– The blending of comedy and tragedy

At times the film’s comedy is surprisingly physical and slapstick in nature but it can also turn on a dime, unexpectedly shifting to tragedy and becoming deadly serious in tone. If we are to take Charlie Chaplin’s formulation that “comedy is life in long shot” at face value, it is worth noting that all of the violence in The Rules of the Game plays out in long shot, which indeed makes it seem farcical in nature. This is especially true of the scenes where Schumacher the cuckolded husband (Gaston Modot) is chasing Marceau the poacher (Julien Carette) throughout the mansion. But when Marceau accidentally shoots and kills Andre the aviator (Roland Toutain) in the film’s penultimate scene (mistakenly believing him to be yet another character!), Renoir pulls the rug out from under us; there is nothing funny about the real death resulting from Schumacher’s fickle behavior.

– The use of cinematic techniques to provide social commentary not always readily apparent in the dialogue

These are the poetic innovations to which I alluded in the opening paragraph. To give one prominent example, the most famous scene in the movie is a hunting expedition involving all of the principle characters. In this remarkable sequence, Renoir shows a fast-paced montage of birds and rabbits being killed in rapid succession and the dynamic cutting (presented in stark contrast to the way every other scene in the film is edited) suggests that Renoir is trying to draw a parallel between the slaughter of the animals and the behavior of the human characters towards one another. After the outbreak of World War II, this would make Renoir’s movie look positively prophetic. Although the upper class characters in the film are not bloodthirsty, their hypocrisy is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Nazi appeasement with which their real life counterparts would soon engage.

– The employment of long takes and long shots

The great French critic Andre Bazin was an early proponent of Jean Renoir; he championed the long take/long shot style evidenced by Renoir’s films of the 1930s, which he referred to as mise-en-scene aesthetics and which he explicitly contrasted with the rapid editing of Sergei Eisenstein and the directors of the Soviet Montage school. Bazin saw montage editing as being more conducive to propaganda filmmaking and long shots and long takes as giving viewers more freedom to pick and choose what they wanted to see within the frame. (Orson Welles and Gregg Toland would take this principle to an extreme with the deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane two years later.) An excellent example of a scene unfolding in both long shot and long take is when Robert and Andre are walking down a hallway in the foreground and talking about their “good friend” Octave (Renoir himself) who, unbeknownst to both men, is creeping around in the middle-ground behind them, preparing to steal away with Christine (the woman that all three men love). Finally, in the extreme background a servant snuffs out a candle at the end of the hallway as if to accentuate the point that Octave is not who Robert and Andre think he is. In a long shot like this, viewers are free to choose the characters on whom they’d like to focus – and thus “edit” the film for themselves.

Like Grand Illusion, Renoir’s other Poetic Realist masterpiece, the title of The Rules of the Game is simultaneously simple, evocative and ambiguous. I have personally always felt that it referred to the “rules” by which one must abide in order to survive in a ruthless world like the one depicted in the movie. Naturally, this involves lying, which nearly all of the film’s characters do. For instance, Christine (Nora Gregor), Robert’s wife, pretends to have known all along that her husband was cheating on her with Genevieve (Mila Parély) after spying them together during the hunt. This lie causes Genevieve to remain at the house for the weekend so that the facade of civility can perpetuate. But there is one character in the film who is incapable of lying; Andre makes a historic flight but is unable to conceal his disappointment on a live radio interview that Christine failed to greet him when his plane landed. Later, Andre seals his doom when he insists on telling Robert that he and Christine plan on running away together. Had they left in secret like Christine wanted, Andre never would have gotten killed. Renoir knew that to refuse to play by the rules of a strict social code was to risk being slaughtered like an animal in the hunt. That he could dramatize this not only without a trace of cynicism but also in a spirit of great generosity was one of the secrets of his genius.

The Rules of the Game was released in a splendid DVD edition by the Criterion Collection in 2004. A forthcoming Blu-ray by the same company has been rumored since last year.

John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

The following essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave in my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University in January. The subject of the class was “The Cinematic Meal.” No sex toys were employed during the lecture.

The concept of “the meal” is a prominent and crucial aspect of the John Ford universe. Scenes set around dining room tables are more important in Ford than almost any other director I know. (The stiffest competition would probably come from his contemporary equivalent Clint Eastwood.) But the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Ford is just one facet of the director’s larger obsession with home and the domestic sphere, which is somewhat ironic considering Ford’s association with the western genre. When one thinks of a Ford movie, the first thing to come to mind is probably the spectacular outdoor location photography – in particular scenes shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the central location of thirteen of Ford’s most well known films. I personally associate Ford primarily with the Technicolor imagery of films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, where the big majestic rock formations of Monument Valley appear almost orange under a bright blue sky. Yet it’s one of the central paradoxes of Ford’s work that although his movies may be full of outdoor adventure, typically taking place in an “uncivilized” corner of his mythological version of the 19th century American West, the man always juxtaposed those scenes with equally essential interior scenes depicting domestic life.

This dichotomy between exterior/interior is also closely related to another Fordian paradox, which is that Ford can be viewed simultaneously as a “masculine” and a “feminine” director. In Ford’s own lifetime he was perceived critically as a man’s man and someone mainly interested in male worlds and masculine codes of behavior. Following the lead of critic Janey Place, Joseph McBride, author of the indispensable Searching for John Ford, has more recently argued that Ford can also be seen as an essentially feminine artist. McBride points out that the things Ford values the most – home, family and tradition – are typically thought of as feminine concerns. This is an acute insight because in order to fully understand Ford’s movies one has to understand how they show, and even obsessively dwell on, the disintegration of the family unit; in film after film, John Ford is continually mourning the loss of the things he loves the most.

There are a couple of mealtime scenes in Ford that perfectly illustrate the aforementioned paradoxes, albeit in strikingly different ways. Take for instance The Searchers from 1956, considered by many to be Ford’s masterpiece; early on in the film, Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, arrives at the home of his brother Aaron’s family after a mysterious three year absence. Almost immediately upon Ethan’s homecoming, a band of Comanche Indians run off with the prize cattle of the Jorgensens, the family who live next door to the Edwardses. In a highly memorable scene set around the Edwards family breakfast table, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, the local lawman (who is also a clergyman!), arrives to swear in as deputies the male members of seemingly every family within a hundred mile radius in order to form a posse to reclaim the cattle.

A depiction of community in long take and long shot (The Searchers):

This swearing in scene, which occurs over coffee and doughnuts, is a good example of how Ford depicts a community of people coming together over a meal. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Ford scenes because of what he refers to as the “love” depicted onscreen – not only the love that the characters so obviously have for one another but also the love one feels Ford has for all of them. The feeling of a closely knit community is revealed through the dialogue and the acting, of course, but finds its perfect compliment through the way Ford stages the action. For instance, it is absolutely crucial that this scene unfolds mostly in long takes (i.e., with minimal cutting) and in long shots (i.e., where the camera is at a distance from the characters). This allows Ford to more effectively record the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the dining room; the togetherness of this fledgling society is highlighted by the fact that we can see all of these characters in relation to one another at all times. There is a little bit of tension in the scene, between Ethan Edwards and Captain Clayton, which is typified by cryptic dialogue about the possibility that Ethan might be wanted for a crime in his recent past. Ford underscores the tension between these characters by having the camera track in to a close shot of the two of them. But because Ford never cuts to separate camera angles that isolate Ethan and Clayton from each other, he also lets us know that the conflict between them is ultimately not that serious. The real conflict, Ford seems to be telling us, will lie elsewhere.

The depiction of community in The Searchers can be fruitfully contrasted with a very different mealtime scene from another one of Ford’s best movies, How Green Was My Valley from 1941. The earlier film depicts life in a Welsh coal mining village around the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, it deals with intergenerational conflict within a single family, the Morgans. The sons in the Morgan family, mostly in their teens and twenties, want to join a newly formed workers’ union but their father opposes the idea. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is an old-fashioned patriarch who grew up without unions and thinks that joining one will only lead to trouble – he dismisses the talk of his sons as “socialist nonsense” even though the mine owners have recently slashed employee wages. This impasse reaches a state of crisis at the Morgan family dining room table when the sons, one by one, stand up, leave the table and walk out of the home for good. Ford stages this tragic scene from How Green Was My Valley with brisker cutting than in The Searchers and by frequently showing the Morgan men in separate close-ups, emphasizing their isolation from each other. It is a perfect example of Ford illustrating how the dining room table can be a place where families break apart as well as come together.

The scenes outlined above have another fundamental thing in common; they both succeed brilliantly as primarily visual storytelling (which should not be surprising given Ford’s origins in the silent cinema). In both instances, if you were to watch the scene with the sound turned off you would still be able to understand everything you need to know about the relationships between the characters because of the framing, the camera movement, the cutting and the lack of cutting. Daryl Zanuck, the longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox (with whom Ford frequently butted heads), said late in his life that he came to realize Ford was the greatest of all directors because of his uncanny ability to shoot scenes in such a way that made “even good dialogue secondary or unnecessary.” There is no higher compliment that a movie director can be paid.

Isolating characters in separate close-ups (How Green Was My Valley):

Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan

Bob Dylan turns 70 years old today. To commemorate, this post concerns Todd Haynes’ wild Dylan biopic I’m Not There, a film that has been an object of fascination for me since its release in 2007. Not a straightforward retelling of the musician’s career in the generic mold of other recent biopics like Ray and Walk the Line, Haynes instead concocts a fantasia where six different actors (of various ages, races and genders) portray a different aspect of the life and/or music of the ever-mercurial Dylan. Although I would rate it somewhat less highly now than when I first saw it, it still irks me that film critics and Dylan fans alike have derided the film as willfully perverse or, worse, something designed to “make no sense.” If anything, I’m Not There is a film that makes too much sense; every aesthetic decision seems rationalized on an intellectual level – usually by tracing it back to a song, album or another movie – which lends the film an academic flavor that is occasionally off-putting. Nonetheless, few American films of recent years have been as formally audacious as Haynes’ movie, and its more off-the-wall experimental aspects are arguably perfectly suited to chronicling an artist whose work has been as revolutionary as Dylan’s has been.

What follows is a rewritten version of a post I originally made on a Dylan message board in 2007 (on the indispensable website Expecting Rain). Rather than integrate these notes into a formal essay, I’m keeping them fragmentary in nature, which I hope is fitting given the kaleidoscopic nature of the film:

I’m Not There has a unique mirrored structure. It seems to me that large chunks of the beginning of the film are consciously mirrored by large chunks of the ending. I would even go so far as to say that the Jude Quinn segment (in which Cate Blanchett notoriously plays the “Dylan” of 1965/1966) is the literal center of the movie, with the narrative strands that come before and after it falling on opposite sides of the “mirror”:

– The movie begins and ends with a motorcycle crash.

– It also begins with Woody (Marcus Carl Franklin, a young black actor playing “Dylan” as a Woody Guthrie wannabe) hopping a train and ends with Billy (Richard Gere as “Dylan”-as-Billy-the-Kid) hopping a train.

– Near the beginning, a faux documentary segment of Jack Rollins (Christian Bale as “Dylan” the protest singer) is clearly mirrored by the faux documentary segment towards the end of Pastor John (Bale as the same character but now a born again Christian 25 years later). Haynes’ masterstroke is having Bale appear in both segments since those two seemingly disparate eras in Dylan’s career are actually unified in several interesting ways – most notably in the impression Dylan gave in interviews during those times that he actually did, for once, “have the answers” and in the way his sense of humor, usually one of his strong suits, appears to have deserted him.

– The depiction in the first half of the movie of the relationship between Robbie and Claire (Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Mr. and Mrs. “Dylan”) focuses primarily on when they first met and things were good and mirrors their estrangement and divorce in the film’s second half. There are also two sex scenes between these characters, one in each half of the film (à la A History of Violence).

– My favorite symmetry might be Gorgeous George, the famous wrestler, telling Woody “Secrets are for keeping” in the beginning, which echoes Billy’s line to Homer at the end: “God save the secrets.”

Although there is obviously a lot of intercutting between the various stories, I think Haynes structured the movie somewhat like this:

1. Woody
2. Jack Rollins
3. Robbie Clark’s marriage
4. Jude Quinn
5. Robbie Clark’s divorce
6. Pastor John
7. Billy

For me, the real power of the film lies in its depictions of the characters of Woody and Billy and the implied transition from one to the other. Woody is a “fake,” trying to convince everyone who he is and what he’s done, and Billy is completely “authentic”, inhabiting a mystical folk music world of his own design. I think this speaks volumes about the irony of how people have responded to Dylan’s career over the decades; the young Dylan was a charming and talented bullshit artist while the Dylan of today is one of the last living links to authentic folk and blues music. It reminds me of something I read in a newspaper review of a Dylan concert in Nashville a few years ago. The writer said that the long-haired Dylan of 1966 was almost run out-of-town when he showed up to record Blonde on Blonde but locals embrace the Dylan of today when he returns for embodying the true spirit of country music (“he used to hang out with Johnny Cash, don’t you know?”).

A few more things I noticed:

– The hobos that Woody meets when we first see him hopping a freight train (listed as “Hobo Joe” and “Hobo Moe” in the credits) are the same hobos he says good-bye to before going to the hospital to visit the real Woody Guthrie. This slyly implies that what happens to young Woody on the road – his playing the blues with Old Man Arvin, being menaced by the scary hobos, being swallowed by the whale, charming the rich white southern family – are just more tall tales that Woody is telling Moe and Joe.

– Woody tells Mrs. Arvin that he is from Stockton, California. At the end of the movie we learn this is where the Gateway Church is also located.

– Billy the Kid wakes at three different points in the movie: once at the beginning, once towards the end when his dog is barking and his story begins proper and finally at the end when he wakes up on the train and finds the guitar.

I’m Not There features almost as many references to movies from the late ’50’s through the early ’70’s as it does to Dylan’s music.

Here is a list of notable references:

– Woody’s punning dialogue with the hobos about “composite” and “compost heap” is from Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. When Woody says “It’s lonesome roads we shall walk,” he’s probably referring to the protagonist of that movie (Andy Griffith’s “Lonesome Rhodes”) as well as Dylan’s song “Paths of Victory.”

– In terms of composition and editing, the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg scenes are heavily influenced by Godard’s films of the mid-’60’s: the scene where they buy a motorcycle is reminiscent of Pierrot le Fou and Weekend. The overhead shots of her cooking and cleaning are reminiscent of La Chinoise and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. More specifically, the shot where a camera circles around the face of a statue during the “Visions of Johanna” sequence is identical to several shots in Le Mepris. Later, Ledger’s voice over narration about Gainsbourg’s disappointment in his movie Grain of Sand is an almost exact quote from Masculin Feminin.

– In terms of style, the Richard Gere sequences are very similar to Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. This is particularly true of the color scheme (earth tones) and use of the zoom lens.

– One of the movie’s best throwaway jokes is a nod to The Graduate. We see a montage of different characters addressing Richard Gere under different pseudonyms. The last one, a bellhop, calls him “Mr. Gladstone.” This is the name Dustin Hoffman used when checking into a hotel to rendezvous with Ann Bancroft.

– The Beatles being chased by a screaming mob is an obvious allusion to the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. More obscure is a reference made to Petulia, another film by the same director Richard Lester; both movies contain shots of elderly party-goers in neck braces and wheelchairs.

– The Jude Quinn sequences are highly reminiscent of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Specific visual quotations include the shot of Blanchett as a human balloon and the entire garden party sequence.

– Woody dresses up as Charlie Chaplin in the town of “Riddle.” Woody’s quoting of the song “Lo and Behold” (“This is chicken town!”) might also be a specific reference to the scene in The Gold Rush where Chaplin’s starving friend sees him as a giant chicken.

– Also in “Riddle,” the scene where a family is loading a jalopy with furniture is straight out of John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath (a favorite of both Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan).

– An overhead shot of people holding umbrellas on a sidewalk is a visual quote from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

I still don’t know why Billy has a female dog named Henry though.

From the Minx Archives: Jeremy Quinn Essay

Volume 2 in the “From the Minx Archives” series is an essay I commissioned about the film for the now-defunct website from my good friend Jeremy Quinn. Jeremy played a bit part in The Minx as “The Bartender,” a role he reprised in my short At Last, Okemah! and which I hope he will continue to reprise in future projects. (This could be considered typecasting as Jeremy is the sommelier for Webster’s Wine Bar on the north side of Chicago. He also maintains the fantastic Webster’s wine blog.)

The Minx: An Exploration Into the Surface

It is productive to view the character of the ‘Minx’ – who is not, after all, ‘Linnea Chiang’ – as enzymatic, a pure catalyst for reactions in which she does not participate. Linnea comments on why she becomes the Minx only once (rather weakly, and in a tone implying that she would be the last to know): ‘I feel the deepest part of me come alive’. At her ‘deepest’, we’re invited to think, Linnea Chiang is no longer recognizable as Linnea Chiang at all, and it is here where she seeks to see herself reflected.

As Harry Lime might say, people are ultimately unknowable, for knowledge is a very partial thing: it’s merely a tool, valid for certain tasks and useless for others. The Minx as enzyme brings this limited nature of knowledge to light; seeking explanations for her, each character confronts the narrow scope of their own perspective. The film is very deliberate as it presents the Minx as an obstacle to understanding – most so, perhaps, in an early set of humorous cross-cuts between Rollo and Jeremy, who, as they confidently direct their respective agents to discover quite different, even opposite, ‘truths’ about the Minx, highlight the incapacity of any such success to fully describe the Minx at all, not even as ‘a flesh-and-blood human being’. Joe ‘gets’ her as a common criminal, yet breaks down at the Robin Hood angle; the news media can understand ‘daring acts’, but has a tough time conceding her femininity; Edgar digs puppy love with a tough tobacconist, but can’t jive with the thief who won’t turn herself in to marry him. The players on the screen (and also we, the viewers) may comprehend her so far, but no farther. There is no compromise to her mystery, and that’s the chief joy of the film. Both Linnea and the Minx are as inscrutable at the end as at the beginning. There is no private confession, no sticky psychology, no tearful history and no reasoned motivation. It’s all surface.

The Halloween party is the film’s centerpiece. Its gathering drift and off-center framing distills the sweet and off-balance tone of the entire film. One has the sense that it could go on forever. Earlier, Linnea paraphrases Cervantes, stating that ‘life is a series of masks, and death strips them all to leave us equal in the grave’; to that observation, this party scene, with every character costumed, in what increasingly strikes one as a ‘parade of life’, serves as a fine parallel. Virginia Woolf has spoken of a certain shade of meaning which, at any time, for no reason, “decends on people, making them symbolical, making them representative”, and it’s this quality of symbol which the filmmaker, with wry humor, explores; very much through Linnea, who, via the Minx, herself explores the ‘representative identity’ as another available way of being.

– Jeremy Quinn, 2007

%d bloggers like this: