Friday, July 31, 2009

Old Stuff: Two Obits from Two Years Ago

Two years ago, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni passed away within twenty-four hours of one another. What follows are two Obit entries I wrote for my other blog a few days thereafter. They are what they are:

The Most Happy Auteur

Ingmar Bergman, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 89, was already one of the most celebrated film artists on earth by the age of forty; and not without good cause. Over the preceding fifteen years (and more than one decade thereafter) he had, through the force of his will and his talent alone, accomplished a feat that was almost miraculous: He brought to bear upon narrative cinema the most directly personal vision it had ever witnessed. Think about it. Personal expression in film arguably goes all the way back to the Brothers Lumiere, and directors always, to greater or lesser degrees, used their work to cast perspective on matters of far more immediate concern to them than the audience or their putative collaborators. But when people speak (rightfully) of intensely private dimensions in the work of, say, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, it has to be remembered that whatever core of inward reflection these directors sought could not have been achieved without the protective armor of commercially-viable genres. Inside the contours of a Western or a Suspense number they were, very often, poets; outside them, they were considered unemployable.

After a half-decade of slugging it out in the trenches of Sweden's film industry, Bergman had truck with genres only rarely, and when he did they never adhered to anyone's conventions. His was a process, almost from the start, of striking personal thematic chords again and again and again. With very few exceptions he wrote every film he directed, and not one could have been conceivable as the product of any other. His works were his, or they were no one's.

He was, in this sense, on the fast track of history. In 1948, just two years after Bergman commenced his directorial career, the novelist Alexandre Astruc thundered across the pages of L'Ecrain Francais with a piece that in its time was seen less an essay than a call to arms. In this article, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde", he advanced the idea of 'Le camera-stylo', and argued that film artists could only realize the full potentialities of the medium by means of direct, singular authorship, an authorship at once similar to that of a novelist or a painter but wholly dissimilar in that its methods were exclusively those of cinema. It was idealism run rampant, but that only made its allure, for some, all the more alluring.

It's a proposition with which one can, of course, dispute endlessly, but in the realm of narrative filmmaking Ingmar Bergman consummated Astruc's ideal more completely than any director of his day. So it falls, then, as naturally as night falls upon day, that in the full flower of his creativity he would often find himself dismissed by the high tide of auteurist movie reviewers, usually American, whose critical mandate was virtually fueled by such outlandishly romantic proclamations as Astruc's. The reason for this had little to do with his movies and everything to do with the attitudes of a certain breed of reviewer: Auteurist criticism, as it came to be, was essentially a sport, one where each critic mined a body of work for the oft-hidden authorial hand of its director and then wrote their way (often poorly) to Olympus. It's an engaging preoccupation, always good for passing the time, but Bergman made it too easy.

No one, after all, had to look very far or for very long to find the evidence of his hand. It was manifest from first frame to last. What else was there to say? When Jonas Mekas (more gadfly than auteurist was he) once stated somewhat foolishly that there was more cinema in Hawks's Air Force than in the entirety of Ingmar Bergman's ouvre, it was not without a particle or two of real frustration. It was as if, by so closely incarnating the auteur model, Bergman was somehow playing dirty pool. If he'd been laboring in the charnel house of a severely regimented film industry such as Hollywood's, cranking out genre assignments and sneaking whatever he could of himself into the most rote, impersonal material, then he'd be presenting critics with a challenge, something they could work with. But the way he was doing it, the way he always did it, there was nothing for them to write about. It was no fair; no fun.

In a 1972 interview with John Simon . . . published in Ingmar Bergman Directs; a book, by contrast, almost tumescent with admiration for its subject ("To be the most important man in the most important art must be a terrible responsibility. Does it bother you?") . . . he spoke of what inspired his works. "It starts with a sort of tension or a specific scene, some lines, a picture or something, a piece of music. It just starts as a very, very small scene. And from this little scene comes a trembling. I look at it and try to pull it out. And sometimes it remains just this little thing.. But sometimes it's more; I can't stop and suddenly I have a lot of material." If we warrant that this is so . . . and the thousand evasions movie directors employed in interviews could often be an art unto itself; one worthy of fuller exploration at another time . . . then what is remarkable about Ingmar Bergman is not that he would draw inspiration from seemingly odd and random elements, but that his engagement with his own sensibility, his supreme confidence in it, up to and including an acceptance of its unknowable corridors, was such that he could then use those random elements to construct, as he did, a wholly coherent, utterly compelling body of cinema.

By using his imagination to plumb the deepest recesses of himself, he in turn gave us something we could then use to see ourselves, thereby succeeding where so many navel-gazers (and film critics) fail.

The Director of the Moment

It's an appropriate image, don't you think?

Not that he was any more at home in the treacherous expanse of Death Valley than Erich von Stroheim had been forty-five years earlier. Nor would I say that he emerged from that red-gold desert with a film anyone would call a triumph in the art of the motion picture (it was, in fact, the worst of his films; though not without its moments). No, I merely make this observation to point out that Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away last week at the age of 94, could find more in empty spaces and relative silences than any filmmaker in history. "I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible." he once said, "I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."

It was Antonioni's limning of that social context, his greater or lesser understanding of it, that enabled these realizations, gave them breath. Unlike Federico Fellini, the director he was so often and so foolishly pitted against by movie reviewers in the early 1960s, Antonioni had little interest in cramming his frames to their edges with human bric-a-brac (beauties, grotesques, endless, endless talkers) and a filming style unhinged yet, at its core, severely disciplined. He instead stripped the universe his narratives dwelled in of everything they (and, by extension, we) didn't need, making all he left in that much more stark and forbidding. With its awful history and abundant life-force, Italy is a country whose arts were never easily dispassionate, and no medium practiced there was ever more manic than its cinema (it's the one crucial, unbreakable link between that country's commercial filmmaking and its so-called Art cinema), yet Antonioni's work, at first glance, seemed oddly cold-blooded in comparison with . . . just about everyone's. But that was only their surface. His films were, in fact, intensely dramatic at their best, though totally bereft of the thousand manipulations of melodrama; and they could be excruciating in the utter persistence with which the background, as he put it, of his characters made itself known to us.

Michelangelo Antonioni was, if nothing else, a director of moments. This is not to say that he excelled at individual sequences at the expense of the whole, or even that he had an abiding gift for dramatic, carefully constructed epiphanies. His unique gift, his genius (to use a word pressed into backbreaking service this week) lay in depicting with immense precision the most agonizing hours of inner torment, documenting on film that which cannot be documented so directly: The moment when an artist begins to know the limits of art; the moment when a marriage can no longer go on; the moment when a man's inanition of will finally reduces every personal illusion to dust; the moment when a revolutionary impulse dies; the moment when loss becomes irretrievable. It was something no other filmmaker, then or now, was capable of. It was literally like photographing heartbreak.

In New York magazine earlier this week, Bilge Ebiri squeezed out the reflexive teardrop; lamenting the passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, placing these doubly sad events in contrast to the foul success of someone like Brett Ratner, then reading into it all the usual, sinister implications. Doesn't bode well for us, does it? Well, who knows. I won't go the Cassandra route (not this time) and foretell a dour and detestable future for those of us who are hopelessly obsessed with cinema. Frankly, I'm of the opinion (sometimes) that we cinephiles only rarely deserve to have artists like Antonioni . . . or Bergman . . . or whatever giant falls next (Godard? Rivette? Kenneth Anger??) walk among us and bring forth their works.

Let's just be thankful we have them for as long as they're around.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Judicious Answers to . . .

I've always wanted to participate in one of the periodic quizzes set before them what's in the film blogosphere by Dennis Cozzalio, author of one of the great blogs in this realm, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Dunno why I haven't . . . mebbe I thought I'd be tempted to cheat; pay somebody to slip me the answers. Any event, I'm doing this one, so here's my contribution:

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.

Toss up between Lolita and Full Metal Jacket; probably the latter. I could do a riff on the final scene of FMJ, and how it represents a kind of apotheosis of irony in his work . . . but I won't

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.

Mumblecore. For evil if it keeps on the way it's going; for good if its core aesthetic is applied to a wider range of cinema (coughMusicalscough) and/or storytelling. As it is, it's shriveling faster than Dogme '95 did . . . and I didn't think that was possible.

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?

Buffalo Bill . . . even if he ain't ridin' that horse right, I took him for a King.

4) Best Film of 1949.

The Small Back Room (The Archers)

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?

Oscar Jaffe. Barrymore can take your breath away.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?

Depends. When it's used for effect (the camera operator deliberately destabilizing the image), as it is approx. 80% of the time, it's worse than a cliche; it's agressively phony. The other kind . . . where the cameraman is trying to keep it still . . . is not.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?

M (1931); back in 1980-1981. On a public television station that routinely ran Public Domain features in wretched-quality prints.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?

Moto. Peter Lorre's just-under-the-surface sense of the absurdity of his being cast in that role is a unending presence in these films.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).

Robert Aldrich's Attack

(shameful self-promotion, I agree; but at least my answer is true)

10) Favorite animal movie star.

Bitsy. He wasn't a big star, but he did a lot of film and television work from the 30s to the 70s . . . including a few of the RKO 'Tarzan' pictures of the late 40s . . . but his most famous (or infamous) work was in a film he was fired from: 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, the only scene in which he appears was removed by Stanley Kubrick just after the New York premiere; mainly to cut down the 'Dawn of Man' sequence.

I actually have the transcript of an interview conducted with Bitsy several years ago for a book on Kubrick I was going to write for Produit d'appel Press's Film Studies line where Bitsy describes the scene which was cut. I haven't yet decided whether to post it here or not, since Bitsy doesn't have much good to say about Kubrick . . . by contrast he was positively effusive in his praise of Kurt Neumann: "Kurt coulda wrapped that 'Space Odyssey' shit in two days; no overtime." . . . and he has a real enmity against Orson Welles ("You wouldn't believe what I got on him."), based on something he overheard at the Beverly-Wilshire back in 1962. Frankly, I don't know what to make of it.

Close Second: Flike.

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.

It's a terrible film from a terrible filmmaker, and had this not been done, for all I know the film would have been even worse; but when James L. Brooks removed all the musical numbers from I'll Do Anything based upon test screenings, he only codified that warped (and never aggressively challenged) view that there's something fundamentally dysfunctional about the relationship of cinema and the Musical form (aka, people breaking into song).

I can't get too crazy about it, because it's just one more chapter among many in the wretched history of that luckless genre; and, as I say, it may have saved us from an even worse film than the tabescent blob of good nature which finally surfaced.

12) Best Film of 1969.

The Wild Bunch (followed none-too-distantly by Aram Avakian's End of the Road)

(what's up wit' 1959?)

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.

Theatrically: There Will Be Blood. (I had to)

DVD: Ed Pincus's Diaries (1971-1976)

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.

The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988)

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?

Since I'm unsure what's meant by "independent outlet", I'll answer this one thisaway:

I own probably 400-500 books dealing in whole or in part with some element of cinema or another. About 6 years ago I bought the magazine collection of a now-deceased Canadian film critic (couple hundred issues of Film Comment, American Film, Sight and Sound, Film Quarterly, Cineaste, Film Culture; you name it); and I continue adding to both these collections.

And yet . . .

I try to read about film as little as I possibly can.

For good or ill, that is me in a nutshell.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)

I'm far from competent enough to answer that one, I regret to say.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?

The lady with the mystic smile (or her namesake)

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.

Nightmare Alley. Are you kidding? Jesus. Any movie set in both the Carnival and Spook rackets is something to cherish. Close Second (and another carny/spook melodrama) is Roy Del Ruth's The Mind Reader (1933)

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.

I . . . couldn't tell ya.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.

Unforgiven. (1992)

Let me amend this post-posting:

If the kind of movies Steven Spielberg made between 1976 and 1985 (in particular Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) constitute a genre, then Joe Dante's vastly underrated Explorers should be placed in answer.

21) Best Film of 1979.

Derek and Clive Get the Horn.

(sorry, it was the first one I could think of)

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.

Dadetown (1995)

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).

It's as much Science Fiction as Horror, but that big-ass demon in the sky at the end of Quatermass and the Pit is still memorable.

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.

The Rain People. For a filmmaker who spent most of the 1960s trying to imitate Richard Lester (and who, for whatever reason, became successful the minute he stopped), the first half-hour of that film is as close as he ever got.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.

Umberto D.

I tellya, that wily old codger and his pup; gettin' into all kindsa mischief. There's a series in that!

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.

Three words: Be. Black. Baby.

If the Brian DePalma who directed that sequence had been on the set of Bonfire of the Vanities, it would have been a masterpiece.

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.

Any randomly-chosen moment from The Gang's All Here (1943)

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn (1995)

(yes, I actually like that film)

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?

I'm sorry, but . . . once you get past Lloyd Bacon's Kill the Umpire (1950) I have zero tolerance for Baseball pictures. Too reverent.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.

Manhattan Murder Mystery . . . though maybe that's just his most underrated since 1989.

31) Best Film of 1999.



32) Favorite movie tag line.

"Real Life Shown More Daringly Than It's Ever Been Before"
-- The Magnificent Ambersons.

33) Favorite B-movie western.

Sissies 'n' Sixguns
(1940; dir. by Al Rogell).

From the Wikipedia entry:

Franklin Pangborn plays Osgood Boldwicket, a dressmaker from the east who moves west with his nephew Ambrose (Grady Sutton) to run The Stone Wall Saloon, a Sarsaparilla parlor he's just inherited. When it becomes wildly popular with the hands working at the Bar None Ranch, the owner of a rival saloon, Bertram 'Daddykins' Triller (Edward Everett Horton) tasks his most seductive Saloon Girl, Opal (Pert Kelton) to beguile the men of the Bar None away from their new haunt and back to his establishment, The Screaming Cowpoke. Daddykins' hopes are dashed when Opal instead falls head-over-heels for Ambrose; prompting him to hire professional gunfighter Ruff T. Rade (Ernest Truex) to shoot it out with the neophyte saloon-keeper in broad daylight on his wedding day. The worst is averted, however, when Daddykins discovers that he and Osgood were roommates at boarding school many years before, causing the two businessmen to merge in the final reel.

Though never released in the United States -- all prints of Sissies 'n' Sixguns were said to have been burned, then shredded, then dissolved in acid at the direct order of Republic Pictures chief, Herbert J. Yates -- rumors of prints languishing in Cinematheques all across Europe nevertheless persisted for the years; until 2003, when a complete 16mm print was discovered in Washington D.C., during the course of a routine inventory of the private film collection of J. Edgar Hoover.

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.

Dashiell Hammett. Two extraordinary versions of Red Harvest (three if you count Miller's Crossing); two versions of The Maltese Falcon (one very good, the other fantastic); two outstanding adaptations of The Glass Key (three if you count Miller's Crossing); one lovely film of The Thin Man.

I haven't seen the Television adaptation of The Dain Curse from the 1970s, but unless it's utterly stinkola, it might as well be listed here.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?

Irene Bullock. Call it heresy, but I don't think Hepburn was good at the Screwball stuff (brilliant at almost everything else, however). Bringing Up Baby succeeds in spite of her oddly self-conscious performance, not because of it.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?

'Subversve satire'. That's the idea anyway, but Cohen isn't doing anything in principle that Alan Abel (a true guerrila satirist) hasn't been doing more effectively for the last 50 years.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)

Adolph Zukor
D.W. Griffith
Erich von Stroheim
Gloria Swanson
Cecil B. DeMille

But only if I get to meet them at the same time, in the same restaurant, and at the same table. And one more thing . . . almost forgot . . . only if I get to referee.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Something to Ponder . . .

Just occurred to me while re-watching Inland Empire (had to hit the Pause button and everything):

Where would David Lynch be without Grace Zabriskie's cheekbones?

We now return you to 'Inmate Umpire', already in progress.