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Tag Archives: Howard Hawks

The Organization of Space in The Conjuring 2, Three and Green Room

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It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.

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The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.

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The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.

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In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.

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Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012

In spite of the ever-increasing popularity of downloading and streaming (with their attendant inferior image and sound quality, suckas!), 2012 proved to be yet another year of movie-watching paradise for crazy people like me who want to feel a physical connection to the movies we love (not to mention the bitchin’ artwork, liner notes and “special features” on the discs themselves that tend to go along with the increasingly outdated notion of “physical media”). All of the great home video labels (Criterion, Masters of Cinema, et al) continued doing great work, and a few smaller domestic and foreign labels (Flicker Alley, Kam and Ronson, etc.) even stepped up their rate of Blu-ray production. Olive Films deserves a special thanks for combing through the Republic Pictures catalogue, judiciously selecting all of the titles that cinephiles most want to see and presenting them in high definition (e.g., Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rio Grande, Johnny Guitar, and, most exciting of all, a newly restored version of The Quiet Man set to drop in 2013).

Below are my top ten favorite Blu-ray discs of 2012 as well as 30 additional runners-up. (I purchased no DVDs in the past year at all.) Being fortunate enough to watch all of the below discs, some of which I was even able to screen in classes, single-handedly made 2012 a very good year for me.

10. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Olive Films Blu-ray)

Olive Films has quickly established a reputation as a home video distributor known for putting out straightforward transfers (unrestored but also never overly manipulated) of classic Hollywood and foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray. They are also known for offering little-to-no extras (think of them as Criterion’s poorer little brother). While the new Blu-ray of Letter from an Unknown Woman fits this description exactly, I’m including it here because the movie is so friggin’ awesome and because it was only previously available in North America on VHS tape. Max Ophuls’ elegant, Viennese waltz of a movie is a devastating melodrama about a schoolgirl crush that turns into an unrequited lifelong obsession. A reviewer on a popular Blu-ray review site, who is apparently unaware of the conventions of the melodrama genre and should’ve known better, foolishly complained about the film’s plot contrivances and gave it 3.5 stars out of 5. I say this is one of the great American movies and if it doesn’t rip your heart out then I don’t want to know you.

9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, Fox Blu-ray)

20th Century Fox, who have a good track record when it comes to their catalogue titles, released a superb Blu-ray of Howard Hawks’ immortal Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to curiously little fanfare last July. Over time this musical/comedy has become my favorite Hawks movie, in part because I’ve come to realize that comedy is what Hawks, the proverbial “master of all genres,” did best but also because of how he used the Marilyn Monroe persona: together, Hawks and Monroe slyly suggest that her dumb blonde act is just that – an act – which makes her Lorelei Lee character seem awfully smart, after all. What impresses most about this specific release is how much the colors pop (has red ever looked so red?) and how remarkably blemish-free it is; Fox’s restoration of the film involved creating a new negative from the original three-strip Technicolor elements. I cannot recall seeing another movie from Hollywood’s studio system era that looked this pleasingly pristine on my television.

8. Lonesome (Fejos, Criterion Blu-ray)

My vote for the best Criterion release of the year is their incredible Blu-ray disc of the George Eastman House restoration of Paul Fejos’ essential Lonesome. I had previously only seen this lyrical masterpiece, a portrait of urban loneliness and love comparable to Sunrise and The Crowd, on a fuzzy VHS tape as an all-silent film in black-and-white. This new version restores it to its original theatrical glory as a part-talkie (there are three brief dialogue scenes) with a color-stenciled-by-hand Coney Island climax. Even more impressive is how Criterion bundles the main attraction together with two other Fejos features: a reconstructed version of the 1929 musical Broadway (whose generic story of a chorus girl mixed up with gangsters is merely an excuse for Fejos to show off some astonishingly fluid and dramatic crane shots) and the recently rediscovered The Last Performance, a Conrad Veidt vehicle that belongs to one of my favorite subgenres – films about the sinister goings-on within a circus. Oh yeah! Taken together, these three films offer a compelling argument that Fejos may have been the most unjustly neglected major filmmaker to ever work in Hollywood.

7. The Gospel According to Matthew (Pasolini, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s greatest achievement received the home video treatment it has long deserved with this definitive edition from the UK label Masters of Cinema. The tone of this much-beloved biopic of Jesus, based upon the book of Matthew, alternates between the reverent (the Neorealist but respectful treatment of the Christ story in general) and the irreverent (a deliberately anachronistic score, one of the best ever compiled, that mixes Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with cuts by Mahalia Jackson, Blind Willie Johnson, a Congolese mass and even snatches of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky score). That score comes through loud and clear via the uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack, and the film’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography has the thickness and pleasing graininess of an authentic, well-kept 35mm print. Also, the English subtitles are thankfully optional, not “burned in” as on the old Image DVD release. Finally, there are many welcome extras, the most important of which is Sopralluoghi in Palestina, a feature-length documentary about scouting the film’s locations directed by Pasolini himself. Essential.

6. The Mizoguchi Collection (Mizoguchi, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

This terrific box-set from UK distributor Artificial Eye collects the four best-known Kenji Mizoguchi films that pre-date the great director’s most famous period (the late masterworks he created in the 1950s). Unfortunately, it has been damned with faint praise by some critics who complained about the overall “softness” of the images, and the fact that two of the titles (Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion) have already been released by Criterion’s Eclipse DVD label in transfers that were clearly made from the same source material. But this is Blu-ray, folks, and there is an improvement, and no improvement is too small when it comes to the legacy of a giant like Mizoguchi. Granted, these films, like all Japanese films of their era, are not in the best physical shape but they are among the cinema’s finest achievements (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums in particular) and cinephiles therefore owe Artificial Eye a huge debt of gratitude for putting them out. Unsurprisingly, the best-looking film in the set is also the most recent: 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, the only postwar title in the bunch, is a delightful, autobiographical and uncharacteristically light movie (at least for Mizo) about an artist’s relationships to his female models.

5. The River (Renoir, Carlotta Blu-ray)

2012 was a great year for admirers of Jean Renoir. Out of all of the Blu-ray releases of classic films that came out this year that were based on new restorations, two of the very best-looking were for his masterpieces Grand Illusion (released by Studio Canal stateside and in Europe) and The River (released by the French label Carlotta). My favorite between them is The River, not only because I think it’s the better movie but also because it boasts the more impressive restoration work. Funded in part by Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation, the film’s original vibrant Technicolor palette (marking the first time Renoir ever worked in color), which irresistibly shows off the The River‘s colorful Indian locations, has marvelously been brought back to life. The movie itself, a coming-of-age story about three adolescent girls who fall in love with the same American soldier, is one of Renoir’s best and most humane. There are no English subtitles on this French disc, which shouldn’t really matter to English-speakers because the film was shot entirely in English.

4. Les Vampires (Feuillade, Kino Blu-ray)

Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking and deathless mystery serial was originally released in 10 parts over a span of several months in 1915 and 1916. Blu-ray, however, is arguably the ideal way to experience this 7-hour silent film extravaganza (spread across two discs in Kino’s set): one can dip into it at any given point at any time to experience its proto-Surrealist delights. And for those who have heard of Feuillade, a kind of French D.W. Griffith, but are not yet familiar with his work, this is also the best place to start: Les Vampires, a supreme entertainment about an intrepid journalist matching wits against a gang of master criminals, exerted a big influence on Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films, the entire espionage genre, and even the nouvelle vague in its pioneering use of self-reflexivity (most obvious in the fourth-wall-busting comic performance of Marcel Levesque). Full review here.

3. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, Flicker Alley Blu-ray)

Flicker Alley’s second ever Blu-ray release was this gem of a set combining both the restored black-and-white and color versions of Georges Melies’ classic A Trip to the Moon with The Extraordinary Voyage, an informative feature length doc about the making of the original film as well as the extensive restoration of the color version (the most expensive ever undertaken). The candy-colored hand-painted visuals from 1902 turned out to be a major revelation and a total delight: they radically change the experience of watching the film by providing greater separation between subjects within Melies’ compositions, providing a much greater illusion of depth, and subtly directing the viewer’s eye to important elements within single frames. Because the color version only comes with one soundtrack option, a space-age pop score by the French art-rock duo Air, some alleged cinephiles groused on internet message boards that they refused to buy this. If you are one of those people, you are an idiot. Full review here.

2. The Lodger (Hitchcock, Network Blu-ray)

The UK label Network released this sensational disc in September, which turned out to be in many ways the year’s most delightful home video surprise. The Lodger, Hitchcock’s first thriller, was originally released in 1927 and this version is based on an impeccable restoration by the British Film Institute that gloriously renders many heretofore unseen details in the luminous, Expressionist-influenced photography. I would go so far as to say I never realized what a truly great movie it is until viewing this Blu-ray. Hitchcock fans who haven’t yet seen it might be shocked at how fully formed the master’s style was so early on in his career: there are a series of murders, a “wrong man” plot, a beautiful “Hitchcockian blonde” and a highly memorable kissing scene. Network’s generous package includes a booklet with extensive liner notes about the film as well as an impressive 2-CD soundtrack of composer Nitin Sawhney’s newly composed, Herrmann-esque score. I normally include only one title per director in my “Best of” lists but it was impossible to leave off either The Lodger or the “Masterpiece Collection” for 2012. More here.

1. Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Hitchcock, Universal Blu-ray)

Universal Studios did the world a huge favor by releasing this “mother” of all movie box sets in late October. The 15-disc set, lovingly packaged with a 58-page booklet and beautiful artwork, contains 15 of Alfred Hitchcock’s best known and best loved Hollywood films, all of which are loaded with copious extras. The audio-visual quality varies from disc to disc but, fortunately, the very best films included here (e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho) also tend to be the ones that have the most impressive image and sound quality. The colors of Rear Window and Vertigo in particular are more saturated and feature warmer skin tones that feel truer to their original Technicolor roots. The most pleasant surprise though is The Trouble with Harry, whose blazing autumnal color palette truly dazzles in 1080p. Below are my grades for all 15 films in the set. The first grade is for the movie, the second is for a/v quality:

Saboteur: B+/A
Shadow of a Doubt: A+/A-
Rope: B+/B+
Rear Window: A+/A+
The Trouble With Harry: A-/A+
The Man Who Knew Too Much: B-/B-
Vertigo: A+/A+
North By Northwest: A+/A+
Psycho: A+/A
The Birds: A/A-
Marnie: A-/B
Torn Curtain: B-/B+
Topaz: B/B+
Frenzy: B+/A-
Family Plot: A/B-

Runners-Up:

11. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)

12. Bande à part (Godard, Gaumont Blu-ray)

13. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Kino Blu-ray)

14. Center Stage (AKA Actress) (Kwan, Kam and Ronson Blu-ray)

15. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Criterion Blu-ray)

16. Chinatown (Polanski, Paramount Blu-ray)

17. David Lynch Box Set (Lynch, Universal UK Blu-ray) This ambitious set was unfortunately marred by technical problems on its original release (a couple of discs contained audio and/or video glitches, while others were released in 1080i instead of 1080p and with 2.0 stereo soundtracks instead of the promised 5.1 mixes) and was subsequently withdrawn by Universal UK. When replacement discs were eventually reissued, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway were still unfortunately in 1080i though Wild at Heart, Eraserhead, Dune and Blue Velvet all look and sound terrific. Had it not been for the technical errors, this extras-laden set would have easily made my top ten list.

18. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

19. Film Socialisme (Godard, Kino Blu-ray)

20. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

21. Fort Apache (Ford, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

22. The Gold Rush (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)

23. Grand Illusion (Renoir, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here.

25. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Criterion Blu-ray)

26. Johnny Guitar (Ray, Olive Films Blu-ray)

27. La Jetee / Sans Soleil (Marker, Criterion Blu-ray) More here.

28. Life Without Principle (To, Mega Star Blu-ray) Full review here.

29. Die Nibelungen (Lang, Kino Blu-ray)

30. Notorious (Hitchcock, MGM Blu-ray) Full review here.

31. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray) Full review here.

32. Rio Grande (Ford, Olive Films Blu-ray)

33. Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Criterion Blu-ray)

34. Sansho the Bailiff / Gion Bayashi (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

35. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, Warner Bros. Blu-ray) More here.

36. Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

37. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

38. That Obscure Object of Desire (Bunuel, Studio Canal Blu-ray)

39. Ugetsu / Oyu-sama (Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

40. Weekend (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)


Getting Screwed

The screwball comedy is a beloved comedy subgenre that flourished in Hollywood from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s. The word “screwball” literally means crazy and therefore perfectly captures the spirit of fast-paced, zany mayhem that typifies many of the best comedies of that era. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is widely credited with kickstarting the genre by establishing its core conventions, the influence of which can still be found on Hollywood comedies today. Since the humor in screwball comedy is dependent upon language as much if not more so than sight gags, it is entirely logical that this genre would peak in the early sound era when sound recording technology was still relatively new.

The conventions of screwball comedy are:

– A battle-of-the-sexes love story (there is frequently a healthy sense of competition to go along with the courtship of the male and female leads)

– Rapid-fire, machine-gun paced dialogue (it is sometimes impossible to understand the characters, which doesn’t really matter as the sound and speed of their voices can be more important than what they’re actually saying)

– Female protagonists who are independent, strong-willed and free-spirited

– Situations that become increasingly ridiculous as the protagonists pursue their goals.

These conventions are all beautifully exemplified by three of my favorite screwball comedies, all of which I frequently show in film history classes: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941).

When Leo McCarey won a Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth in 1938 he noted in his acceptance speech that he had won the award for the wrong movie, a reference to his superb work on the tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, which he had directed the same year. Contemporary critics and viewers seem to have taken McCarey at his word; the reputation of Tomorrow has soared in recent years as that film has received deluxe home video releases in both America (The Criterion Collection) and the U.K. (a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray). It’s a shame though that the reputation of The Awful Truth, which is only available in a mediocre quality DVD released almost a decade ago, has been seemingly downgraded at the expense of Make Way for Tomorrow because the movie that actually won him the Oscar is one of the best and funniest screwball comedies ever made.

The Awful Truth tells the story of a married couple, Jerry and Lucy Warriner (the unbeatable pair of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne), who get divorced due to mutual suspicions concerning infidelity and then promptly proceed to sabotage one another’s new romantic relationships. The film is based on a stage play and yet, as was customary for McCarey, the final script evolved out of improvisations with the actors, resulting in a feeling of uncommon spontaneity. While a sense of carefully structured chaos characterizes McCarey’s very best comedies (he also directed the immortal and anarchic Marx Brothers romp Duck Soup), he lends the film’s two part structure a formal elegance and sense of harmony through a delightfully symbolic use of doors: characters are constantly hiding behind them or trying to knock them down, and scenes frequently begin and end with characters barging through them. The door symbology reaches its apex in the final shot of the film where a male figurine follows its female counterpart through the tiny door of a cuckoo-style clock, one of the cleverest instances of sexual innuendo in Hollywood’s studio system era.

The chemistry between Grant and Dunne is amazing. They make the viewer feel that, even though their characters seem to be at odds with one another, they each really want the same thing deep down inside, causing us to root for them into getting back together. A good example is the climactic scene where Lucy pretends to be Jerry’s drunken floozy of a sister in order to undermine his new engagement to a prim socialite. Jerry’s reaction to Lucy’s antics is a mixture of annoyance and barely concealed glee that lets us know he actually appreciates the cleverness of her performance. This makes us feel that these characters were meant to be together. If, as has been said, all screwball comedies are about either the construction or the re-construction of a couple, The Awful Truth is the best example of the latter that I have ever seen.

Bringing Up Baby, on the other hand, is a superb example of how the screwball comedy can chart the construction of a couple, which should not be surprising considering that screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde fell in love while writing it. They, along with director Howard Hawks, clearly used The Awful Truth as their model. Bringing Up Baby, made just one year after McCarey’s film, carries over both Grant and Skippy (AKA Asta) the dog, as well as a reference to Grant’s character having the ridiculous nickname of “Jerry the Nipper.”

Bringing Up Baby concerns the misadventures of David Huxley (Grant, playing the straight man), a deadly serious paleontologist whose life is turned upside down by the madcap heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn). After meeting cute on a golf course, Susan does everything she can to prevent David’s impending wedding to a frigid woman named Alice Swallow. This includes convincing David to help her escort a pet leopard (the “Baby” of the title) from her luxurious New York City apartment to her aunt’s house in the Connecticut countryside. The scenes become increasingly ridiculous as Susan, determined to prevent David from returning to New York, sends his clothes out to the dry cleaners while he’s taking a shower. This forces him to don a frilly, feminine-looking bathrobe, the only available clothing item in the house. When confronted by Susan’s aunt regarding his strange attire, the only explanation David can offer is that he “just went gay all of a sudden!” This line, which doesn’t appear in any known version of the screenplay, was apparently ad libbed by Grant and, due to the rapid-fire nature of the delivery, snuck past the censors of the time. It is now believed to be the first time the word “gay” was used in a Hollywood film to connote homosexuality, and the line always gets a big laugh from my students when I screen the film in class today.

In another memorable line of dialogue, David tells Susan that he’s strangely drawn to her in quiet moments . . . although there haven’t been any quiet moments. As McCarey did in The Awful Truth, Howard Hawks spins comic gold out of a scenario where Grant is tricked into going along with the harebrained scheme of a wacky female. Crucially, the success of this scenario in Baby stems from the audience’s belief that David has recognized that Susan, his opposite number, is somehow good for him and thus he has actually half-allowed himself to be virtually kidnapped.

While the battles-of-the-sexes on display in The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby prove that the women are at least equal to the men in terms of intelligence and cleverness, the balance shifts decisively in favor of the fairer sex in Preston Sturges’ 1941 film The Lady Eve. Sturges’ masterpiece concerns both the construction and reconstruction of the same couple. This is possible because the male lead, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda, sensational in his only comedic role), is so dumb that he never realizes the two different women he has fallen in love with, Jean Harrington and the Lady Eve Sidwich, are in fact the same person (Barbara Stanwyck in her prime). As the kids like to say, boo-yah!

The Lady Eve begins with Pike returning to “civilization” after spending a year up the Amazon studying snakes. (The snake imagery allows Sturges to sneak in a wealth of both biblical and sexual references.) While aboard a luxury liner that will take him back to America, Pike meets and falls in love with the con artist Jean. Although it is her initial plan to fleece the “tall, backward boy,” she unexpectedly falls in love with him. After Pike learns of her original intention, he unceremoniously dumps her, which causes Jean to create a new identity in an attempt to even the score. Preston Sturges was the first significant Hollywood director of the sound era to write his own screenplays and, elsewhere on this blog, I have compared him to Mark Twain for, among other things, his brilliant ear for satirical dialogue. Here is a small sampling from The Lady Eve to prove my point:

“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.”

“Well, it certainly took you long enough to come back in the same outfit.”
“I’m lucky to have this on. Mr. Pike has been up a river for a year.”

“You ought to put handles on that skull. Maybe you could grow geraniums in it.”

“If you waited for a man to propose to you from natural causes, you’d die of old maidenhood. That’s why I let you try my slippers on. And then I put my cheek against yours. And then I made you put your arms around me. And then I, I fell in love with you, which wasn’t in the cards.”

“I positively swill in their ale.”

“What I am trying to say is: I’m not a poet, I’m an ophiologist.”

And the memorable last line: “Positively the same dame!”

The specter of screwball still rears its head in the never-ending permutation of rom-coms today that, for many years running, all seem to star some combination of Kate Hudson/Gerard Butler/Jennifer Aniston/Matthew McConaughey/Katherine Heigl and blur together into one generic and forgettable movie. Sadly, Hollywood no longer produces comedic screenplays with dialogue like the kind cited above (which is not to say that such dialogue is no longer being written) and, for a variety of reasons, can’t seem to make movies that are nearly as funny today. But, to paraphrase Rick Blaine, we’ll always have the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of the still uproarious screwball comedy.


A Silent American Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of last week’s list of essential silent American films. The thirteen titles listed here begin with Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven from 1927 and continue through F.W. Murnau’s late-silent swan song, the Robert Flaherty co-directed Tabu: A Story of the South Seas from 1931.

In chronological order:

7th Heaven (Borzage, 1927)

Frank Borzage’s best-loved film details the touching romance between Parisian sewer worker Chico (Charles Farrell) and waifish prostitute Diane (Janet Gaynor), unforgettably set against the outbreak of World War I. Borzage believed in romantic love as a kind of transcendental force and nothing, not even death, could keep his lovers apart. Borzage’s sense of the spiritual aspect of love is conveyed nowhere more memorably than in the remarkable crane shots that follow the lovers in 7th Heaven up seven full flights of stairs to reach Chico’s garret apartment.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)

William Fox brought German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau to Hollywood in 1926 and gave him carte blanche to create this masterpiece, one of the most artistically ambitious silent films. The story is a simple “folk tale” about redemption concerning a farmer who very nearly murders his wife after being seduced by a wicked city girl. The low-key lighting and elaborate tracking shots changed the way films in Hollywood were made overnight (neither Frank Borzage nor John Ford would ever be the same again). One of the most influential films of all time and a kind of Citizen Kane for the silent era.

The Unknown (Browning, 1927)

Tod Browning is best known today for early sound-era horror classics like Dracula and Freaks but I think this dark and sinister tale of a love triangle set in a traveling circus represents the high point of his entire career; Joan Crawford (young and dishy) is the daughter of a circus owner who is torn between the affections of an armless(!) knife thrower (Lon Chaney) and the circus strongman (Norman Kerry). This singularly grotesque wonder unfolds with the terrible illogic of a nightmare and remains for my money the best of all silent American horror films.

The Crowd (Vidor, 1928)

King Vidor was the king of Hollywood following the boffo box office of The Big Parade and he admirably used that clout to realize this downbeat story of the dark side of the American dream: John Sims (James Murray) was born on the fourth of July in the year 1900 and dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Instead he ends up an anonymous office drone in a very impersonal New York City, which Vidor relates in a series of stunning (and hugely influential) tableau images. “The crowd laughs with you always but it will cry with you for only a day.”

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928)

Arguably Josef von Sternberg’s greatest film, this ravishingly photographed tone poem tells the story of a virile stoker (George Bancroft) who is tempted to give up his love ’em and leave ’em ways after saving the life of a suicidal prostitute (the revelatory Betty Compson). This sublime romantic melodrama is perfectly complimented by von Sternberg’s amazingly atmospheric mise-en-scene, which captures New York City’s dock-front milieu with an exquisite interplay of light, shadow and fog.

A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928)

Louise Brooks’ most well-known American film is also Howard Hawks’ first notable directorial effort, although she is given a relatively thankless role as the “love interest” in what is essentially a homoerotic comedy about the adventures of two brawling sailors played by Victor McLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Nevertheless this is unmissable as an early example of the same plot, themes and even dialogue that the mighty Hawks would continue to rework for the rest of his lengthy career.

Lonesome (Fejos, 1928)

Paul Fejos’ unjustly under-seen classic is a kind of smaller-scale version of The Crowd – though arguably an even better film. It begins by intercutting between the workday of a man who operates a punch press (Glenn Tryon) and a woman who works as a switchboard operator (Barbara Kent) in New York City. The two narrative strands become intertwined when these lonely people meet by chance at Coney Island and share a night of magic and romance. Tragically, they find themselves separated and realize that, since they never even learned one another’s names, they may never meet again. The plot is simple but the execution is passionate, capturing some universal and timeless truths about urban living.

The Man Who Laughs (Leni, 1928)

Director Paul Leni (Waxworks) and star Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) were major players and collaborators in the silent German cinema before migrating to Hollywood where they re-teamed for this influential Expressionist take on Victor Hugo’s novel. The plot concerns Gwynplaine (Veidt), the son of a Lord in 17th century England who, due to the sins of his father, is denied by King James II of the title that should be his birthright and has a hideous permanent smile carved into his face instead. He ends up becoming a popular stage performer (where his disfigurement is a source of morbid curiosity), but one day his past comes back to haunt him. This is similar to earlier literary adaptations/historical epics made by Universal like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, only it has the virtue of being directed by a real director; Leni, who started out as a set designer, makes the “period” truly come alive in this melodramatic quasi-horror gem.

The Wind (Sjostrom, 1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish in one of her finest performances) is a young woman who moves from the East to live with relatives in Texas. Once she arrives she finds that she must contend with a harsh, arid landscape, sinks into a depression and marries a man she doesn’t love (handsome Lars Hanson). The wind that is constantly swirling and blowing the sand into the air is a perfect metaphor for characters whose hearts are in tumult. The climactic sandstorm (shot, like the rest of the film, on location in the Mojave desert) is a thrilling piece of cinema, one of the highlights of the entire silent era.

Lucky Star (Borzage, 1929)

My personal favorite Frank Borzage film is this late silent masterpiece about a love triangle between farm girl Janet Gaynor and two World War I veterans – the duplicitous Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and nice guy Charles Farrell (whose war wounds have confined him to a wheelchair). Gaynor and Farrell made many films together and more often than not her fabulous acting is the point of interest. Here, Farrell is a revelation as a good-hearted man whose attempts to come to terms with his disability are heartbreaking. But, this being a Borzage film, the rural farmhouse setting is turned into a mystical, impressionist dream place where miracles can happen – and you’ll be very glad that they do. Originally released in a part talkie/part silent version, the lone print that survives today is completely silent and probably all the better for it.

City Girl (Murnau, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.

City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (Murnau/Flaherty, 1931)

F.W. Murnau teamed up with Robert (Nanook of the North) Flaherty for this independently produced, ethnographic excursion into the lives of native Tahitians. The documentary-minded Flaherty abandoned the project early, leaving Murnau the Romantic Artist to finish it on his own. And it’s a good thing he did: the story of a doomed romance between a fisherman and a young woman deemed “taboo” by the island’s Old Warrior in deference to the Gods – an exotic version of the Romeo and Juliet story – is a fitting epitaph for Murnau (who tragically died in a car accident on the way to the premiere) as well as the entire silent era. The film’s visually stunning images and Paradise / Paradise Lost structure would influence everything from Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.


A Serious Talk About American Comedy

Katherine Stuart, one of the brightest of my former students from the College of Lake County, recently asked to interview me for an argumentative research paper she is currently writing in an English class. The topic of the paper is why classic comedy films are better than the comedy films of today. With her permission, I am reprinting the wide-ranging interview in its entirety below.

KS: You used Bringing Up Baby in your class. What characteristics do you think this film has that make it a classic?

MGS: The screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde (who incidentally fell in love while writing it) is very clever and contains a lot of witty banter within a very solid narrative structure, the direction by Howard Hawks is flawless and, most importantly, the chemistry between the two leads (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) is palpable and irresistible. I always describe the mixture of their distinctive speaking voices as sounding like a beautiful musical duet. Furthermore, there’s a “wildness” to the film, an element of chaos represented by the leopard, that I think is crucial for a screwball comedy to be effective. The leopard is associated with Hepburn’s independence and untamed sexuality, which is presented in stark contrast to Grant’s frigid fiancé (“no domestic entanglements of any kind”). Plus, it’s just so damn fun watching this woman turn this man’s life upside down.

KS: What do you think are some of the best qualities of classic comedy films?

MGS: For the most part, it’s the screenplays. Look at the scripts for Some Like It Hot or The Apartment: they are completely sound according to the rules of narrative logic and the characters are three-dimensional and highly memorable. Billy Wilder could have made those films as dramas and they might have been just as effective but he chose to make them as comedies instead. Or consider any of Preston Sturges’ films. Those movies are just incredible pieces of satirical writing. It’s what I think Mark Twain would’ve done had he been born in the 20th century and decided to become a filmmaker. Nobody even tries to write comedy like that anymore. Or if they do, their screenplays certainly aren’t being produced.

KS: Why do you like Howard Hawks as a classic screwball comedy director?

MGS: Hawks’ style is completely unobtrusive. It’s invisible. You’re never aware of where he’s putting the camera, when he’s moving the camera, when he’s cutting, etc. and that’s because he’s always making the right choices. He was the consummate professional Hollywood director. The first close-up in Bringing Up Baby doesn’t even occur until 17 minutes into the movie! It’s a close-up of Katherine Hepburn’s face expressing disappointment after she finds out Cary Grant is engaged. She doesn’t say a word and yet it’s an unbelievably effective moment. Hollywood comedies nowadays are slathered with close-ups from beginning to end and there’s no thought behind any of it. It’s just to try and make a movie star’s face fill up the screen.

KS: Do you think that classic comedy films are better than comedy films today and why?

MGS: It seems inarguable to me that the best comedies from Hollywood’s golden age are superior to the comedy films of today. The problem with today’s comedies is that the majority of them are nothing but a long string of jokes from beginning to end. The approach of most of these filmmakers is to throw everything they can think of at the screen and see what sticks. The end result is that even a relatively funny movie is going to have a lot of unfunny moments. (I do love the original Airplane! but I hate most of what it has spawned.) Also, the tone of today’s comedies is almost always uneven. In a movie like Superbad, there are some moments where the dialogue and performances are surprisingly naturalistic but then the next minute something completely absurd and cartoonish is happening. The problem is that the filmmakers can’t get from point A to point B smoothly. The tonal shifts are completely jarring.

KS: Who are some of your favorite classic comedy directors?

MGS: From the silent era, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were geniuses. Their humor is entirely visual and is therefore universal and timeless. Their best movies are just as funny today as they ever were. The reaction of students in my Intro to Film classes (the majority of whom have never seen a silent movie) is proof of that. In the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are my favorites. Sturges was the best comedy writer who also knew, as a director, how to get the best out of his actors. Everything William Demarest says in a Sturges movie sounds hilarious. Lubitsch’s movies are just so elegant and so damn effortless. In addition to being very funny, they are actually beautiful. No one tries to make comedy beautiful today. Also, the early Marx brothers’ movies at Paramount are among the funniest – and most insane – movies ever made, especially Duck Soup, which was directed by the great Leo McCarey.

KS: What are some of the characteristics of comedy films today?

MGS: Most comedies today fall into one of two subgenres: the gross-out comedy, which is aimed at male viewers and the romantic comedy, which is aimed at female viewers. The gross-out comedy is a more explicit, contemporary version of the “teen sex comedy” that was popular in the 1980s. It is characterized by humor involving bodily functions and fluids and was first popularized by There’s Something About Mary and American Pie in the late Nineties. The less said about contemporary romantic comedy, the better.

KS: Who are some of your favorite directors of comedy films today?

MGS: I think Woody Allen is still the best comedy director working in America today. His output might be hit or miss but I thought Midnight in Paris was a terrific movie. The premise of it was so clever and the tone of it so refreshingly sweet. I’m not surprised that it’s his highest grossing movie. Richard Linklater is a great writer and director of comedy. I especially like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset and School of Rock. I like Harold Ramis a lot. Groundhog Day is probably my favorite Hollywood comedy to be released in my lifetime. The Coen Brothers do comedy well even when they’re not making official comedies. I like the Farrelly brothers’ early movies. And I like a bunch of random comedies that you might say succeed in spite of who directed them – like Office Space and Borat.

KS: Are there any modern screwball comedy films that you think are not as good as classic screwball comedy films? What characteristics do you think it lacks?

MGS: I would say that almost all contemporary films that try for a screwball tone end up not measuring up to the classic screwball comedies of the Thirties and Forties. Most of the contemporary examples (e.g., Runaway Bride, Along Came Polly) are too tame, cutesy and formulaic. They lack the anarchistic spirit of the originals. Also important is that a lot of the original screwballs were about class difference and therefore contain a certain amount of social criticism as subtext. Contemporary Hollywood isn’t interested in doing that. The Coen brothers probably do screwball the best and yet, interestingly, the times when they’ve tried to work purely in that mode (The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty) resulted in what are probably their least successful films. They’re better at marrying aspects of screwball to other genres. Also in that vein, The Social Network, which is of course a great drama, does contain a surprising screwball vein in Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and in the delivery of the performers.

KS: As the expert, what do you think I should know that I did not ask you?

MGS: A couple of things: I do think comedy is alive and well in America, just not in the movies. Nowadays, most people get their comedy from sketch comedy shows, stand-up comedy, Comedy Central or even YouTube. None of those things existed during Hollywood’s studio system era. One could argue that there’s less of a need to laugh at the movies today because we’re surrounded by comedy everywhere else we go. Also, I’m not a reactionary; I don’t think that movies in general are any worse than they’ve ever been. But almost all of my favorite American films of the 21st century are dramas (Zodiac, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Mulholland Drive, Letters from Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood, The Hurt Locker, etc.) It seems that if you’re a serious, intelligent, artistically ambitious filmmaker in America today, comedy isn’t a genre that you’re going to try to get into. Therefore, as a filmmaker, I am naturally pursuing comedy.


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .


JLG: Now and Then

In honor of Jean-Luc Godard’s forthcoming Film Socialisme (the scandal of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, which will hopefully be opening in Chicago at the CIFF in October), I am reproducing a reworked version of an essay I wrote some years ago tracing the evolution of Godard’s art from Alphaville in 1965 to its semi-sequel Allemagne 90 Neuf Zero in 1991.

From Alphaville to Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro: The Evolution of Jean-Luc Godard

When writing about Jean-Luc Godard, most critics tend to separate his career into different phases, each embracing several individual works, in an attempt to view his prolific filmography in concise, easy correspondences. But this is a dangerous form of simplification, for most critics cannot agree on when a specific phase ends and when another begins -– or even how many phases there are. While many share a fondness for the iconoclast’s “earlier, more accessible work,” depending on the critic this might be a phase that ends with Weekend in 1967, Masculin Feminin in 1966, Pierrot le Fou in 1965, or even Breathless in 1960.

I would argue that for Godard, every film represents a beginning and an end in itself. Not one to stay in the same place for very long (how many have still not forgiven him for not making another Breathless?), nearly all of Godard’s feature-length film and video works can stand alone as individual “phases,” complete unto themselves while simultaneously looking forward to the next project. Charting the progression of Godard’s career can be a difficult task then, especially in short essay form. However, Godard has occasionally looked back, as in his 1991 film Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro (released stateside under the ungainly title Germany Year 90 Nine Zero), a surprise sequel to his popular 1965 film Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution. A comparison of these two films should provide some insight into the evolution of this mercurial director’s style.

When Alphaville was first released, it was successful with critics and the public alike and remains one of Godard’s most enjoyable and accessible films; it is also one of only a handful of his films to have been released on home video in the U.S. in successive VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD editions, the latter two in deluxe versions from the prestigious Criterion label. (Unfortunately, Criterion has since lost distribution rights, which means Alphaville is not one of the half-dozen[!] Godard films to have already received a release on Blu-ray disc in the still relative-infancy of that splendid new HD format.) Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, by contrast, is typical of Godard’s late work in that it has never been released on home video in the U.S. in any format. This is partly due to the “difficult” nature of the work. It is neither pure narrative fiction nor essay, neither entirely film nor video but rather a crazy-quilt mixture of all of the above. Also typical of late Godard is that its challenging hybrid nature seems to deliberately mark it as a work of art that stubbornly refuses to function as an easily consumed cultural object.

The plot of Alphaville concerns the mission of secret agent Lemmy Caution to infiltrate the totalitarian society of the film’s title and destroy Alpha 60, the super-computer that controls the lives of Alphaville’s inhabitants. In keeping with a trend of the French nouvelle vague directors of the day, one of the film’s aims is to mix genres in order to explode them — Alphaville has been summarized as a “science fiction / detective thriller / romance comedy / with heavy political overtones.” (Dixon) While this genre-riffing aspect of the film goes a long way towards explaining its popularity, it does not, I believe, illuminate Alphaville’s most important function. Understandably, a lot of critics and historians have focused on the film’s nightmarish depiction of a negative utopia, which is destroyed, finally, by the transformative power of love. For them, the key reference points are the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World and they usually interpret Alphaville along similar lines -– as a fictional narrative set in an imaginary future in order for its author to comment on the horrors of the present day.

I believe, however, that Godard is more concerned with the relationship between the past and the present, especially in terms of film history. Keeping in mind that Godard wrote film criticism for nearly a decade before making his first feature, his early films can be seen as an extension of that criticism; “Instead of writing a critique, I direct a film,” Godard famously stated in a 1962 interview. When Alphaville is viewed in this light, as critical essay as much as narrative fiction, its key reference points are no longer George Orwell and Aldous Huxley but instead F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks. This is because, as criticism, Alphaville’s chief objective is to point up the link between two important movements in film history: the German Expressionist films of the post World War I era and the American films noirs of the post World War II era.

It is well-known that many of Germany’s top filmmakers, technicians and actors immigrated to Hollywood in the 1930s in order to escape the rise of Nazism. The new “Germanic” sensibility that could then be felt in American cinema was the direct result of the arrival of expatriate directors such as Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, 1944), Edgar Ulmer (Detour, 1945) and Edward Dmytryk (Murder My Sweet, 1947). The much beloved film noir cycle they helped to inaugurate might best be defined as a marriage between the shadowy visual style and exaggerated lighting effects of German Expressionism and the downbeat and fatalistic plot lines of the hardboiled American detective novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Since these new “black” films struck a chord in post-Pearl Harbor America, it wasn’t long before they proliferated, being created by both the original German Expressionists and the American directors, such as Welles and Hawks, on whom they were an influence.

So how, in Alphaville, does Godard use cinema to chart this evolution in film history? Most strikingly, he employs the self-conscious stylistic conventions of German Expressionism, such as exaggerated high-contrast and low-key lighting, but carries them to an almost operatic extreme. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has perceptively noted, “(Godard) comments on the implicit thematic values of light and darkness in German expressionism by making them explicit, even self-conscious, in the film’s symbology.” Self-conscious because the very concepts of light and darkness are so prominent in Alphaville’s universe that the film’s characters frequently discuss them. For instance, when interrogating Lemmy Caution, Alpha 60 asks, “What illuminates the night?” Lemmy responds, “Poetry.” Later, in his hotel room, Lemmy teaches his love interest, Natasha, the meaning of love by having her read a Paul Eluard poem: “Light that goes, light that returns . . . sentiments drift away . . . I was going towards you, I was perpetually moving towards the light,” she reads. (Of course, Godard also pays homage to specific German Expressionist films: a dolly shot through a revolving door is a visual quote from Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann [1924]. One character is named Professor Nosferatu and some scenes use negative film stock in reference to Murnau’s pioneering vampire film, Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens [1922]. Several of Alphaville’s inhabitants cling to walls like Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari [1920], and so on.)

If the film’s style, then, embodies Expressionism, it is the characters that embody film noir. With his trench coat, fedora and ever-present cigarette, Lemmy Caution is clearly modeled on Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade by way of Humphrey Bogart. This allusion also becomes self-conscious — Lemmy is seen reading Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep in his hotel room. (It’s also worth noting that Eddie Constantine was an American expatriate actor.)  Alphaville’s “seductresses” have an equivalent in the femmes fatales of film noir, while the presence of actor Akim Tamiroff is obviously meant to invoke Orson Welles. Here, Tamiroff essentially plays the same seedy characters that he essayed in Mr. Arkadin (1955) and Touch of Evil (1958), two Welles films for which Godard has professed his admiration.

Ultimately, Alphaville is the work of a cinephile. Through a complex series of inter-textual references, Godard successfully illustrates how film language evolved in the first half of the 20th century. In so doing, Godard is also celebrating the directors and films that helped make that evolution possible. But when he chose to resurrect the character of Lemmy Caution 26 years later, Godard’s purpose could not have been more different.

In 1990, Godard was commissioned by French television to make a documentary about the collapse of communism in East Germany. The resultant film turned out to be a semi-sequel to Alphaville with Eddie Constantine again playing the lead role. Although shot in 35 millimeter, the film premiered in France on television, thus lending ironic credence to Alphaville’s prophecy of the death of cinema in a line about movies only being shown in “Cinerama museums.” The title of the film, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, is an untranslatable pun; the word “neuf” in French can mean either “nine” or “new.” The title therefore refers to both 1990, the year the film was made and to Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film, Germania Year Zero.

For Rossellini, “Year Zero” referred to the first year after the end of World War II when Germany had to start over from scratch, socially, politically and economically. For Godard, “Year New Zero” refers to the first year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Germany has to make a similar painful transformation. What does this have to do with Alphaville? Where Alphaville examined film history and the artistic impact of German cinema on a fledgling American cinema, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro examines world history and the impact of American cultural colonialism on a fledgling German society. In other words, it was a perfect time for Lemmy Caution to return.

As alluded to earlier, Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro is not a fictional narrative (not even tangentially, like Alphaville), but neither is it a non-fiction documentary or, in the manner of Godard’s compatriot Chris Marker, an “essay film” (the category into which most critics feel comfortable lumping late Godard). It features fictional characters and a series of scenes but there is not the dramatic shape that we usually associate with commercial cinema and the dialogue consists mainly of quotations from literature, philosophy and other movies. At the film’s opening, Lemmy Caution, referred to as “the last spy,” is hiding out in East Germany under an assumed name. He is visited by an intelligence agent, Count Zelten, who informs him that the Cold War has ended and that it is safe to emerge and return to the West if Lemmy so desires. The remainder of the film is a rich tapestry of sound and image upon which Godard hangs his thoughts and feelings about Germany at the end of the millennium. Lemmy wanders around the newly reunified Germany, asking the people he encounters, “Which way is the West?” The first sign of encroaching capitalism comes in the form of a street vendor selling “a piece of history, only ten cents, stones from the Berlin Wall.” Scenes such as this are juxtaposed with clips from classic German films (some of which have been digitally slowed down) and punctuated with inter-titles quoting German literature. The film’s dense soundtrack gives Godard the opportunity to craft a kind of German fantasia, mixing quotes from Hegel and Goethe in voice-over narration with snatches of music from Bach and Beethoven. (The sound design, always a highlight of late Godard, won a special award at the Venice film festival in 1991.)

The film’s use of quotation is also in marked contrast to that of Alphaville. For example, when Lemmy first arrives in Berlin, he says, “Once I was across the frontier, the shadows came to greet me.” This is an allusion to a similar scene in Nosferatu where Hutter, the film’s Jonathan Harker figure/protagonist, crosses a bridge that will take him to the castle of the vampire Count Orlok. The corresponding inter-title in Nosferatu reads “When he reached the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to greet him.” No longer content to merely celebrate the films he loves, Godard instead uses this reference to make an equation between capitalism and vampirism. This point is furthered, hilariously, by an advertisement for “West” cigarettes featuring a scantily clad woman. For Godard, the corporate capitalism that brought down the Berlin wall has already begun to “feed” off of the citizens of the former East Germany by wasting no time in aggressively marketing to them as consumers. As Lemmy surveys Berlin at night, all gaudy neon lights and department store window displays, he ruefully states, “Christmas with all its ancient horrors is on us again” (a quote from Raymond Chandler).

It is not until the final scene, however, when Lemmy checks into the Berlin Inter-Continental Hotel that Godard seemingly alludes directly to Alphaville. In the earlier film, Lemmy refused to let the hotel staff handle his bags, telling them to “Get lost” instead. In Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, not only does the more world-weary Lemmy relinquish his suitcase, he only gets it back after tipping the bellboy. Upon entering his room, Lemmy says, “Someone forgot this,” indicating a book on his bedside table. The hotel maid responds, “No sir, that’s the bible, it’s always there.” In Alphaville, the “bible” was a dictionary from which all words connoting emotion were systematically removed (hence, the need for Lemmy to teach Natasha the meaning of the word love). In the final shot of Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, Lemmy opens the slim volume and says with resignation, “The bastards.”

In the span of a quarter of a century between the release of two of his best films, Godard’s art had undergone a radical transformation. In 1992, the year after Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro was released, he described it thus: “When I made (Breathless), I was a child in the movies. Now I am becoming an adult. I feel I can be better. I think that artists, as they grow older discover what they can do.” For Godard, discovering what he could do meant broadening his concerns from film criticism to social criticism, from an appreciation of plastic beauty to an appreciation of pastoral beauty. After watching Alphaville, one knows that Godard loves movies, but after watching Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro, one knows that Godard is deeply concerned about the world he lives in. The difference between the two films is the difference between criticism and philosophy, between innocence and experience.

Works Cited

1. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. SUNY Press: New York, New York. 1997.

2. Jean Luc Godard Interviews. Editor, David Sterritt. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, Mississippi. 1998.

3. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Theory and Practice: The Criticism of Jean-Luc Godard”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

4. Godard, Jean-Luc. Alphaville. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc.: New York, New York. 1984.

5. Allemagne 90 Neuf Zéro. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard. Perf. Lemmy Caution. Film. Gaumont, 1991.

6. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Dir. F.W. Murnau. Perf. Max Schreck. Film. Prana-Film GmbH, 1922


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