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Tag Archives: John Belton

Sirk/Fassbinder: Melodrama Mutations

“This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”

– Jean Luc Godard writing about A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Godard on Godard translated by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press)

In the same way that the gangster movie can be said to belong to the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and film noir can be said to belong to the 1940s, the melodrama genre belongs more to the 1950s than any other decade. This is in part because the extreme stylization of mise-en-scene that we associate with the genre arguably required the “bigger than life” virtues of Technicolor and widescreen cinematography that didn’t become de rigueur until the 1950s. It is also in part because postwar societal changes saw more Americans rebelling against narrowly defined social roles, changes that were explicitly dramatized in melodrama masterpieces like Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. These two facets can be seen as neatly dovetailing when the filmmaking innovations of the day proved to be ideal tools for critiquing the specific climate of postwar repression that now seems synonymous with the “Eisenhower era.” In writing about Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Geoff Andrew has noted how “At every level the banal props of ’50s prosperity are turned into symbols of suffocation and trauma, from the X-ray machine used to diagnose (James) Mason’s ‘disease’ to the bathroom cabinet mirror shattering under a desperate blow.” To which one might add that it was precisely Ray’s masterful ‘Scope compositions and bold employment of color that made his critique so effective. Ray knew how to use the latest filmmaking technology to highlight the nightmarish undertone of these new “props of prosperity.”

The medicine chest, a broken “prop of prosperity,” in Bigger Than Life:

The melodrama has its origins in theater and actually predates the movies as a genre (the word literally means “drama with music” and was coined in 18th century France), and film scholar John Belton has provocatively argued that all silent movies, even comedies, are also melodramas. But the melodrama didn’t come into its own as a cinematic genre until the 1950s when Universal Studios produced a cycle of films directed by the Danish/German emigre Douglas Dirk. Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller, what Ford was to the western and what Minnelli was to the musical: its most famous and accomplished practitioner. The color melodramas that Sirk made for Universal between 1954 and 1959 are high water marks that virtually define the genre: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Imitation of Life. Of these, All That Heaven Allows is frequently cited as Sirk’s masterpiece, largely because it was loosely remade not once but twice: by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1973 and by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven in 2002. A comparison between Sirk’s original film and Fassbinder’s similar-yet-different remake offers an object lesson in how a genre can successfully mutate from one country and era to another, offering filmmakers living in different cultural climates the same framework in which to create diverse social critiques, while still retaining the same core characteristics.

These characteristics, which can be found in spades in both All That Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, include:

– the extreme stylization of not only mise-en-scene (as previously mentioned) but also dialogue and acting
– a foregrounding and heightening of the characters’ emotions
– the domestic sphere as a central location
– plots revolving around family tensions and romantic entanglements
– narratives involving incredible coincidences, accidents, last minute rescues and reversals of fortune

Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene combines different color temperatures, cold and warm, within a single frame:

All That Heaven Allows relays the dilemma of Carrie Scott (Jane Wyman), an attractive middle-aged widow who unexpectedly falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her much younger gardner. Their budding romance is frowned upon by the surrounding small town community, including Carrie’s grown children, because of both the age and class discrepancy that exists between them. The true subject of the film is the intolerance and hypocrisy of middle America, which Sirk shows as being rooted in prejudice and fear. This is best illustrated in two back to back scenes where Carrie is shunned first by her country club set friends at a party and then castigated by her son at home. The earlier scene offers some of the outrageously stylized, bordering-on-camp dialogue and acting for which Sirk’s movies have become beloved. When Carrie arrives at the party with Ron in tow, their “coming out” party as a couple, the reaction of her peers ranges from bemusement to envy to outright hostility. Mona, one of Carrie’s female acquaintances, references Ron’s tan from “working outdoors” before packing many layers of innuendo into a follow-up comment that he must be “handy indoors too.” Howard, a male acquaintance, likewise assumes that Carrie’s interest in Ron must be only physical and attempts to kiss her after drunkenly declaring “Line forms to the right!”

After leaving the party abruptly, Carrie returns home where she is confronted by her son, Ned, who minces words even less: “I think all you see is a good-looking set of muscles!,” Ned hisses disapprovingly. This scene, literally the darkest in the film, shows off Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene to best effect. Both Carrie and Ned are cloaked in heavy shadows throughout their tense dialogue exchange, although Sirk also combines different color temperatures within a single frame in order to subtly comment on the characters: Carrie is bathed in a warm orange light while the light that falls on Ned is cold and blue. During this exchange, Carrie and Ned change places in the room and yet the light that surrounds them paradoxically remains the same. When the scene ends, Carrie pleads for Ned to not “let this come between us.” Ned replies, “If you mean Kirby, he already has.” Most directors would have isolated these characters from each other in separate alternating close-ups at this moment, in order to emphasize the emotional distance between them, but Sirk does something more interesting; he has the characters speak their lines to each other through a translucent Chinese screen-like room divider. By doing so, he creates frames within a frame that not only emphasize the distance between the characters but show them to be metaphorically imprisoned as well.

Frames within a frame in All That Heaven Allows:

One of the film’s most celebrated sequences (and one that Martin Scorsese chose to include in his Personal Journey Through American Movies before All That Heaven Allows had ever received a home video release) involves Carrie’s children presenting their mother with a Christmas gift of a new television. At this point in the movie, Carrie has called off her relationship with Ron, and her children clearly intend for the television to fill the new void in her life. This intention is made explicit when the television salesman informs Carrie “All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want . . . right there on the screen.” The scene ends with an image as clever as it is haunting, a somber Carrie staring at her own reflection in the switched-off television screen. Here, Sirk’s critique is twofold: as a prop of prosperity, the television is a poor substitute for a lover and, as a competing form of audio-visual entertainment, its image is inferior to that of the cinema!

The impact of Sirk on Fassbinder, while well-known, cannot be overestimated. Fassbinder’s earliest movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s were self-consciously intellectual, avant-garde-tinged works of political modernism. After discovering the films of Sirk, Fassbinder realized that not only could the cinema be simultaneously emotionally engaging and socially critical, but that audiences might be able to swallow such criticism more easily if it could be subversively couched within the conventions of a highly emotional genre like the melodrama. While many of Fassbinder’s best films from 1971 through the premature end of his career in 1982 show the obvious influence of Sirk, it can perhaps be most strongly felt in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the one time Fassbinder actively remade the plot of one of his master’s movies.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul updates the basic premise of All That Heaven Allows to the Germany of the early 1970s; it tells the story of Emmi, a middle-aged cleaning lady, who embarks on an unlikely romance with Ali, a much younger immigrant worker from Morocco. So not only does Fassbinder tackle agism and classism, a la Sirk, but racism and xenophobia as well. Similar to Sirk, Fassbinder’s unlikely scenario forces his disparate characters together in a way that will cause them to reveal prejudices that might otherwise remain hidden. But it’s worth noting that Fassbinder’s milieu is pointedly urban and multicultural (it takes place in Munich) so that the social ills he depicts, unlike those in All That Heaven Allows, cannot be seen as stemming from “provincial thinking.” Showing social prejudice to be a kind of disease underlying the facade of civilized German society is one of the links Fassbinder makes between the Germany of the time he made his film and his country’s Nazi past. This link is made explicit when Emmi takes Ali to a fancy restaurant to celebrate their engagement, one that she boasts was a favorite of Hitler.

Fassbinder’s mise-en-scene is likewise stylized along Sirkian lines with characters frequently framed behind windows or railings to suggest entrapment, although Fassbinder betrays his avant-garde roots by composing images that call more attention to themselves in their artfulness. This self-conscious use of form to explicitly comment on content was accurately and memorably described by Manny Farber as “snarl and decoration.” But taking a cue from his more urban milieu, Fassbinder also elaborates on the Sirk playbook in ways that are meaningful and original. For instance, he frequently shoots his characters from a distance, often through doorways, to give his scenes a more voyeuristic feel. Because these working class, city dwellers live in crowded apartment buildings and not, say, houses in New England, Fassbinder repeatedly makes viewers aware of the extent to which his characters are living in close quarters to each other, allowing us to read varying degrees of social prejudice into the silent gazes of his characters as they openly spy on one another.

“Snarl and decoration” in Fear Eats the Soul:

Fassbinder’s cleverest Sirk homage in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes in a scene that also includes a television as a prop; Emmi never bothers to inform her grown children of her relationship with Ali until after the two have married. She invites over her two sons, daughter and son-in-law (played by the director himself) with the promise of a big announcement. Once the children are seated in the living room in front of her, Emmi brings out Ali, wearing his best suit, and formally introduces him as her husband. A slow pan across the children’s faces registers their silent disgust. Then, one of her sons, stands up and proceeds to kick in the screen of his mother’s television set. The difference between the television scene in each film illustrates the extent to which the television ceased to be a prop of prosperity for the rich and had instead become a ubiquitous fixture of working class homes. In the earlier film, Ned sheepishly apologizes for only being able to afford a “table top” model. In the latter, the T.V. is no longer a status symbol and a novelty but a necessity that is both practically valueless and easily disposable.

One of the joys of raking through the history of cinema is to note the kind of explicit repurposing of genre conventions that I’ve outlined above. Fassbinder, a keen student of film history himself, was acutely aware of this impulse but also of the importance of elaborating upon and adding to that from which he borrowed. The radical nature of Fassbinder’s art is of the kind that can only stem from a true reverence for the masters who invented the very rules he intended to bend. I will leave the last word to him from his famous essay on Sirk:

“‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore.’ America is really something else.”

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Like Dylan in the Movies

Something’s always happening in the world of Bob Dylan, even if you don’t know what it is, but this fall sees an unusual amount of activity on the part of the Bard of Minnesota. Before the end of the year, he will exhibit new paintings in Denmark (and release an accompanying coffee table book, “The Brazil Series”), as well as release two new CD sets: the 9th installment of the official Bootleg Series, focusing on demos recorded in the early ’60s, and an 8 disc set of his first 8 albums in mono (the way they were originally meant to be heard), all on compact disc for the first time. And of course, his never-ending tour will roll on with fall dates across the U.S., including a show in Champaign on October 22nd.

To commemorate, here is an essay I wrote about Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s unjustly maligned 2003 movie collaboration with director Larry Charles. The original version appeared in the English Dylan fanzine “Isis” but this has been substantially reworked.

Masked and Anonymous Unmasked

“I’m in the amusement business, along with theme parks, popcorn and horror shows.”
– Bob Dylan

“What’s so bad about being misunderstood?”
– Bob Dylan

You would probably have to look to Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless Bob Dylan has cited as the kind of film that made him feel like he could make films himself, to find a movie as audaciously perverse in its analysis of the uneasy alliance between art and commerce as Masked and Anonymous, Dylan’s 2003 (and presumably final) foray into fictional narrative filmmaking. Indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum might as well have been describing Masked and Anonymous when he wrote in the late 1980s that Godard’s King Lear “. . . has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form – director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics – look, and presumably feel, rather silly.” Like most of Dylan’s post-Don’t Look Back filmic output, Masked and Anonymous was considered a mess by most critics upon its initial release while simultaneously being hailed as a masterpiece by members of the Dylan faithful. Larry Charles, the film’s director, would later split the difference, pronouncing the film a “messterpiece.”

When news broke in 2002 that the legendary singer/songwriter might return to the big screen after a fifteen year hiatus (his starring role in Hearts of Fire in 1987 being the arguable nadir of his career in any medium), it was couched in the disingenuous terms that Dylan was “in negotiations” to star in a new film. It was soon discovered that Dylan was in fact responsible for the film’s conception and that he and Charles co-wrote the film under the pseudonyms Sergei Petrov and Rene Fontaine. Yet right up until the film’s Sundance premiere, many Dylan fans thought it was some kind of elaborate hoax. And who could blame them? Prior to production, press reports suggested Dylan would play the ridiculously named “Jack Fate,” a jailed musician sprung from prison to play a benefit concert, the aim of which was to “save the world.”

The curiosity and confusion aroused by the film’s seemingly outrageous concept was then exacerbated by the secrecy surrounding the film’s production and the almost daily updates of an increasingly long list of Hollywood stars (Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, Luke Wilson, Jessica Lange, John Goodman, and so on) who agreed to work for scale for a chance to share the screen with Dylan. Shot on digital video in just twenty days in the summer of 2002 and apparently made in the same freewheeling spirit that Bob Dylan likes to record albums, the end result turned out to be a dense collage of image and sound, a film that almost overwhelms the senses but never quite does, regularly threatening to plunge the viewer into some horrific, unfathomable abyss but continually pulling back from the brink in a strange spirit of shaggy-dog-tale charm.

The film is, at turns, poetic, playful, political, personal and portentous, all adjectives we’ve come to associate with Dylan’s work as a recording artist. Larry Charles has been quoted as saying, “I tried to make it like a Bob Dylan song,” which appears to be the strategy of anyone directing a Bob Dylan film, including Todd Haynes and Dylan himself. Whether or not this is desirable or even possible is open to debate but Masked and Anonymous is probably more successful in capturing the “feel” of Dylan’s music than any other Dylan movie. This is no doubt in part due to a cut-and-paste style of screenwriting that mirrors Dylan’s own songwriting process; in describing the writing of the film, Charles said, “He [Dylan] had a pile of scrap paper with little notes written on them. He threw them down on the table like a jigsaw, and we started playing with the pieces. . . . One thing about working with Dylan is you learn to trust your instincts.” Charles also confirmed that lines that began as dialogue in Masked and Anonymous ended up as lyrics on Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album and vice versa (“I’m no pig without a wig” from the song “High Water” being one such example).

Of course, songwriting and filmmaking are vastly different art forms and Dylan-the-songwriter’s latter-day fondness for allusion, quotation and theft doesn’t always successfully translate into film dialogue as meant to be spoken by coherent, three-dimensional characters. But in a risk-averse age where more and more American indie films function merely as Hollywood calling cards, Dylan and Charles’ complete lack of interest in creating Screenwriting 101-style characters is so pronounced that they should be applauded for the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the demands of commercial narrative cinema alone. Unfortunately, Dylan’s status as an interloper from another medium, even if a legendary one, has made it all too easy to write Masked and Anonymous off as nothing more than a “vanity project,” as Roger Ebert and many other mainstream critics have done.

One thing we didn’t know in 2003 that has since become obvious in hindsight is that Larry Charles, a veteran Seinfeld writer making his feature film début with Masked and Anonymous, developed into a very interesting director, a kind of “invisible auteur” along the lines of Raul Ruiz. Although all of Charles’ movies share stylistic and thematic similarities, he is hardly ever credited as the dominant creative force behind these films; due to his habit of collaborating with co-writers/lead actors with bigger than life personalities, Masked and Anonymous is seen as a “Dylan film,” Borat and Bruno are seen as “Sasha Baron-Cohen films” and Religulous is a “Bill Maher film.” Yet all of these movies are unified by their status as subversive political satires that attempt to blur the line between documentary and fiction. Masked and Anonymous is especially interesting as a companion piece to Borat in this regard since both films are essentially about the creation of government-sponsored, made-for-television documentaries (the aforementioned “benefit concert” and Baron-Cohen’s foreigner’s eye-view work of video journalism).

If Borat and Bruno seem like quintessentially 21st century, YouTube-age films (especially by way of enticing audiences into google-searching anecdotes about their methods of production so as to determine what is “real” and what is not), Masked and Anonymous melds fiction and documentary in a way that looks more to Hollywood’s past. In writing about the musicals of Hollywood’s golden age, film scholar John Belton has noted, “Musical sequences interrupt the linear flow of necessity – the narrative – and release the actors from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a world of pure spectacle: in this fantasy world, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and others drop the pretense, for a moment, that they are playing characters and perform for us simply as Astaire and Kelly.”

A similar shift occurs in Masked and Anonymous whenever “Jack Fate” plays a Bob Dylan song with Dylan’s touring band, and Charles and Dylan muddy the waters further by self-consciously studding the film with references to Dylan’s life and career. The result is a fascinating self-criticism of the myth by the author, perhaps the only kind possible when the author is a “living legend.” In this respect, the film most comparable from the history of cinema may be Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, another highly personal and thinly disguised self-portrait by a master in his autumn years. (One obvious allusion to Dylan’s career is the character of Uncle Sweetheart, a portly, overbearing manager played with great panache by John Goodman, who is meant to suggest Dylan’s own former manager, Albert Grossman. If Goodman’s size and boorish demeanor don’t give it away, the Coke-bottle glasses do. And a similar case can be made for Luke Wilson’s Bobby Cupid, who bears a strong resemblance to Dylan’s former road manager, Bobby Neuwirth.) Ultimately, what these personal references suggest is that, like Chaplin’s Calvero, Jack Fate the washed up troubadour is both Dylan’s fear and, more importantly, his victory over that fear.

The story: in an alternate-reality, civil war-torn America, Jack Fate, a legendary singer jailed for unspecified crimes, is released from prison on the condition he agrees to play a benefit show live on television. As he gradually makes his way to the sound stage where the show will be held, Fate’s first significant encounter is on a bus with a confused young soldier played by Givovanni Ribisi. The soldier regales Fate with a monologue about joining a group of insurgents, only to realize that these rebels are being funded by the very government they mean to topple. When the young man finally admits that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality, you don’t know whether to laugh or scream; it’s the story of John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” as told by Italo Calvino. Fate laconically responds that he no longer pays attention to his own dreams. This scene sets a tone and a narrative pattern that the rest of the film follows; the plot proceeds in fits and starts as the taciturn Fate encounters a series of eccentric, speechifying characters, each of whom reminds him in some way of his past. Flashbacks are introduced to Fate’s childhood and we learn that the troubadour is actually the son of America’s dying, dictator-like President.

Subplots involving the President’s former mistress (Angela Bassett) and a Vice President (Mickey Rourke) who is preparing to take over the position that once seemed destined for Fate, indicate that Charles and Dylan had Shakespeare on the brain. Apparently without trying to be perverse, Charles has mentioned Shakespeare and John Cassavetes in the same breath as influences on Masked and Anonymous. As befitting such a wild hybrid, the film’s structure is alternately “loose” (a bunch of actors wandering around warehouse-like interiors and shouting cryptic, occasionally meaningless dialogue at each other) and “tight” (a surprisingly elegant symbolic use of staircases in the film’s most crucial scenes). To direct the heavyweight Hollywood cast to speak the script’s poetic, ornate language could not have been easy but the actors, for the most part, do an exemplary job. Nearly all of them manage to hit just the right note of cartoonish hysteria to give the film a sense of unity and harmony.

Everyone that is except for Bob Dylan. Jack Fate is the calm in the eye of the storm, the one rational character surrounded by a world of swirling insanity and Charles gets a lot of mileage out of the contrast between Dylan’s deadpan delivery and the over-the-top performances of nearly everyone else; it’s like taking a Humphrey Bogart character out of the 1940s and plunking him down in the middle of a massively absurd science fiction landscape – the resignation and world-weariness of the film noir hero remain hilariously intact. Of course, Dylan’s non-acting was offered as Exhibit A by most critics who wanted to write the film off as a folly but I would give most of post-9/11 American cinema for that one shot, “badly acted” but infinitely moving and worthy of Robert Bresson, in which Fate visits his father’s deathbed and looks toward the heavens with glycerine tears streaming down his cheeks.

At the film’s Sundance premiere, Charles said he never worried about finding a distributor for the film and that Dylan had told him not to worry about the film “in the short term.” The film was indeed a critical and commercial disappointment in 2003. But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, years later Masked and Anonymous is holding up just fine on DVD, looking better and more interesting than most of the acclaimed American films that surrounded it at the time of its release.


Me and director Larry Charles at the film’s 2003 Sundance premiere

For  a list of Dylan references in my own short film, At Last, Okemah!, go here:

http://www.atlastokemah.com/2009/10/dylan-fans-guide-to-at-last-okemah.html/

Works Cited

1. Gunderson, Edna. “USATODAY.com – Tell It like It Is.” News, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, U.S. & World – USATODAY.com. 09 Sept. 2001. Web. 19 Aug. 2010.

2. Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Importance of Being Perverse”. Placing Moives. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. 1995.

3. Belton, John. American Cinema, American Culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.


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