Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Great Detectives Sleuth Again

Everyone loves a mystery, or so it seems from the continued popularity of the genre. Certainly, the puzzle-like structure of mystery novels and films offers both a challenge and a satisfaction rarely found in other genres. It is with this in mind that we present another series of films full of shocking murders, stunning deductions, and a host of unlikely suspects with even more unlikely alibies.

We begin this year's series with the 1938 production of the Sherlock Holmes tale Silver Blaze. The film was the last in the series starring Arthur Wontner, one of the most noteworthy actors to play the role prior to Basil Rathbone. Wontner played the part in five films made during the 1930s and, though each film varied in its fidelity to the source, Wontner's interpretation of Holmes remained faithful to Doyle's stories.

Though essentially based on the short story of the same name, Silver Blaze also borrowed plot elements and characters from The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Empty House." Although the film was updated to a contemporary setting and given a few "modern" touches, it retains the spirit of the original stories and a strong sense of authenticity.

One of the more popular movie detectives of the 1930s was Philo Vance. First portrayed by William Powell, the role of Vance established him as an important leading man. When Powell left the Vance series for the Thin Man films, he was replaced by Warren William. By the mid-1930s, Warren William had become known as a second-string William Powell--an ironic twist considering that in the early 1930s William had been a major romantic leading man.

The Philo Vance films starring Warren William tended to experiment with the material. A film which we have previously shown in this series, The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), was essentially a parody of the Vance films. This year we are showing The Dragon Murder Case (1934), which was produced as a mixture of murder mystery and horror film. The film's central plot device, a pool which is supposedly haunted by a ghostly dragon, allowed the photography and set design to exploit the gothic style that was common to horror movies of the 1930s.

While the character of "Bulldog" Drummond is little known today, during the 1930s numerous films were made about his adventures. The character of Drummond was played by a long and distinguished list of actors including such performers as Ronald Colman, Jack Buchanan, Ralph Richardson, and Ray Milland. Such was the popularity of these films that, by the mid-1930s, as many as two to five Drummond films were released per year.

The original character of Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond, as created by H. C. "Sapper" McNeile, was an ex-soldier who turned to crime fighting because he found peace time life too boring. The literary Drummond tended to be a rough and violent figure, but the screen-version of the character was the epitome of sophistication. His cases also tended to be a bit on the fantastic side, filled with daring escapes and beautiful women. In this regard, Drummond is the direct forerunner to the character of James Bond.

Bulldog Drummond Escapes (1937) was the first film in the American-produced Drummond series of the late 1930s. Both the film's narrative and Ray Milland's performance were based on the earlier Drummond films which had starred Ronald Colman. It was also the last Drummond film of the 1930s produced on an adequate budget before the series began to suffer from diminished popularity caused by overexposure.

Even though his career went through a gradual decline during the 1930s, Warren William frequently appeared in the mystery films of this period. By the middle of the decade he was appearing on screen as Philo Vance, the Lone Wolf, and Perry Mason. William would originate the role of Mason in four films, beginning with The Case of the Howling Dog (1934).

As the first in the series, The Case of the Howling Dog was produced on the largest budget. While this film takes certain liberties with the original novel, it contained the best-structured plot of the series and was devoid of any unnecessary comedy relief.

In contrast, humor is the central focus of the four Miss Jane Marple films made in England in the early 1960s. The series began in 1962 with Murder, She Said, a loosely derived adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 From Paddington. The film retained the basic plot points of the novel, but was extensively revamped in order to showcase the unique and eccentric talents of Margaret Rutherford, who played Jane Marple.

Rutherford, an actress, comedienne, and amateur psychic, represented a distinctly British combination of stubborn determination and whimsy. Though her portrayal of Miss Jane Marple was far removed from the character conceived by Christie, Rutherford did succeed in creating one of the more striking detectives to ever grace the screen.

The Great Detectives Part Two

In the thirties, the mystery film was one of the most popular genres of the Hollywood film industry. The audience's demand for the films was enormous and every studio had at least one detective series in production. Not only were many mystery novels filmed, they even had their plots recycled into other films in order to meet this demand. Though prints of many of these films no longer exist, there are still copies from some of the major detective series from the period. In this continuation of last summer's program, we present five examples of the genre, many of which have seldom been screened since the thirties.

For many viewers, Basil Rathbone is the definitive Sherlock Holmes. When he initially appeared as Holmes, however, Rathbone was unfavorably compared to Clive Brook, who played the role in only three films (The Return of Sherlock Holmes [1929] , Paramount on Parade [ 1930],and Sherlock Holmes [1932]), but made a major impression on viewers. Of the three films, the last is considered critically the best.

Based both on the play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and on the short story "The Red Headed League," the film Sherlock Holmes is best remembered for its confrontations between Holmes and his arch-enemy Moriarty. Like many of the Holmes films of the thirties, the story was updated to the period and Moriarty's antics were modeled after the gangster tactics of Al Capone. The possible incongruity of the part of Moriarty were smoothly handled by Ernest Torrence, whose performance was an excellent counterpoint to Brook's droll and extremely self-assured Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is also notable for its photography which was strongly influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the twenties.

The best of the Philo Vance films are those starring William Powell. Unfortunately, the only one of those films still known to exist is The Kennel Murder Case (shown last summer). Of the other actors who played the role, Warren William came closest to equaling Powell. In the 1939 film The Gracie Allen Murder Case, William made his last appearance as Vance in one of the strangest films of the series.

S. S. Van Dine, the author of the Philo Vance mystery novels, was a fan of Gracie Allen and wrote the original story for her. Critics were often annoyed by Vance's intellectual arrogance and demanding logic and the film may have been Van Dine's rebuttal to his detractors. In The Gracie Allen Murder Case, Vance remains coldly deductive, even when faced with Gracie Allen's puns and farcial comedy. It is not surprising that The Gracie Allen Murder Case has become a major cult film at repertory theaters.

Of the three versions of The Maltese Falcon, the 1941 film with Humphrey Bogart is undoubtably the best known. It was, however, modeled after the 1931 version starring Ricardo Cortez. Both films were faithful to the original novel by Dashiell Hammett and the two productions rival each other in the exactness of their casting of the major characters. Though Cortez was fashioned as a Latin lover in the Valentino mold during the twenties, he changed to playing tough guys and made an effective Sam Spade in the thirties.

The visual similiarities between the two versions are very striking. It is believed that John Huston, prior to directing the 1941 film, watched the earlier production and used it as a visual outline. That the compositions in many scenes are almost identical would seem to support this theory. Though Huston's version is still superior, the original The Maltese Falcon is one of the most engaging mystery films of the early thirties.

Only two Nero Wolfe films were made in the thirties before author Rex Stout withdrew the film rights to his other stories. Stout was appalled by the two films due to certain liberties taken with the main characters. In spite of their less than faithful approach, the two films were well crafted mysteries. Meet Nero Wolfe (shown last summer) had Edward Arnold more suitably cast in the title role rather than Walter Connolly who played Wolfe in The League of Frightened Men. But the second film had a better plot which compensated for any failings on Connolly's part.

The narrative of The League of Frightened Men is unique in that Nero Wolfe must first establish that a murder has taken place before he can solve it. Matching wits with Wolfe is a deranged playwright who was superbly played by Eduardo Ciannelli. The comedy relief provided by Lionel Stander will annoy the purist, but The League of Frightened Men is generally considered to be one of the better mystery films of the period.

The most successful mystery series of the thirties were the Thin Man films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Combining murder with sophisticated comedy, the Thin Man films maintained an unequaled level of quality. The interplay between Powell and Loy was graceful and effortless and the films were produced by MGM as large budget productions.

The third film in the series, Another Thin Man, was based on an original story by Dashiell Hammett. Viewers familiar with Hammett's novels will notice that the story was derived from The Dain Curse. While Hammett provided the story, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett supplied the witty dialogue. Another Thin Man veers so close to screwball comedy that the mystery is often less memorable than the funny banter between Powell and Loy. While many mystery films of the thirties attempted to include comedy relief, the Thin Man films were the only ones to successfully make comedy an integral part of the story.

The Great Detectives

Nowhere is the seductive lure of the narrative more evident than in the mystery genre. The puzzle-box of a mystery story traps even the most disinterested viewer into the inevitable desire to know "how does it end." The mystery genre follows a simple yet riveting set of rules: a respectable facade or order is disrupted by murder; an outside force in the person of the detective proceeds to expose the potential chaos behind the facade; the final discovery of the murderer restores order, but usually at some physical or psychological cost to the original order. Since Oedipus first demanded to know "who did it," the structure of the genre has remained relatively unchanged.

The thirties and forties were the two most active decades for mystery movies. While crime didn't pay, people were certainly willing to pay to see it and every studio had its various sleuths, gumshoes, Oriental masterminds, and bumbling policemen. So many mystery films were made during this period that plots were literally recycled with only the names of the characters changed to protect the screenwriters. The program The Great Detectives presents four of the best examples from this hectic period of gentlemanly mayhem.

Having appeared in over a hundred films since the silent era, the team of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson was undoubtedly best represented by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. When they first appeared together as Holmes and Watson in the 1939 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the studio was uncertain about the match but the film was so successful that a sequel was quickly produced the same year. This second film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, remains the best of the series due to the cleverness of its plot and the high quality of its production (it had the largest budget of any of the films). The film's greatest asset is the creation of a villain who is Holmes's equal. Professor Moriarty may be mad, but he is a brilliant and often engaging madman who divides his time between plotting elaborate crimes and lecturing people on the difference between a slave and a superman.

The snobbish and excessively erudite Philo Vance was one of the most popular detectives of the early thirties. Vance didn't simply solve the crime, he did a thesis presentation on all of the psychological nuances which led to the murder. A member of the velvet smoking jacket school of detection, Vance's early success on the screen was largely due to the abilities of William Powell to make the character both believable and sufferable. Previously type-cast as a villain, Powell proved himself as a leading man by breathing life and wit into a perpetual doctoral candidate.

The Kennel Murder Case is one of the most complex of the Vance mysteries and is still notorious for having one of the longest denouement scenes ever. This excessive attention to detail eventually led to the unpopularity of the Vance films as the Dashiell Hammett school of tough-guy detectives introduced a quicker and more physical method. It is ironic that the one flaw to The Kennel Murder Case is an incorrect detail. The set designer for the film altered one of the townhouses in a way that made the solution to the mystery impossible.

Perhaps fewer films where made about Nero Wolfe than about any other famous detective. Wolfe's creator, Rex Stout, disliked the media in general and films in particular, and while two Wolfe films were made in the thirties, Stout felt that they were not faithful enough to his stories and he refused to allow any further productions. The films, Meet Nero Wolfe and The League of Frightened Men, were taken out of circulation and were not commercially re-released until 1982. The reputation of the films, especially Meet Nero Wolfe, has remained strong, however, and Stout's criticism of the films is largely indicative of his own demanding temperament.

The casting of Lionel Stander as Wolfe's assistant was, admittedly, a mistake. One of the major flaws of the thirties mystery movie was the conviction that every film needed some broad comic relief. Edward Arnold as Wolfe, however, was an amply appropriate choice. An excellent character actor, Arnold specialized in playing arrogant, overbearing figures. Plump more than fat, Arnold made up for his lack of excess poundage by zeroing in on Wolfe's domineering personality. While the recent television series (with William Conrad) portrayed Wolfe as a gruff but lovable old bear, Arnold went directly for the jugular. His Wolfe is good at what he does and only does it because his client pays him very large sums for doing it. As Wolfe points out in the novels, his layers of fat insulate him from trite sentimentality.

Though not well known in the United States, the Inspector Cockrill novels have a strong following in England. The one film taken from these books, Green for Danger, is considered by many critics to be one of the best "whodunits" in the cinema. The director, Sidney Gilliat, had been one of Hitchcock's chief collaborators in the thirties and the film gave him an opportunity to pay homage to his mentor.

The role of Inspector Cockrill gave Alastair Sim's droll talent a near-perfect showcase. With his shabby mackintosh and crumpled, ill-fitting derby, Cockrill is seemingly slow and inept. Prone to rambling comments and pointless anecdotes, Cockrill actually has a shrewd, steel trap mind which seizes significant clues from seemingly innocent details.

By the mid-forties, the mystery film began to vanish from the screen. It is possible that the conflict inherent in the genre between chaos and stability ceased to make sense in an increasingly unstable world. In popular literature, the last detective to achieve widespread fame would be Mike Hammer, a character totally submerged in violence and brutality. The intellectual game of the mystery was irrelevant as the new anti-hero did his detecting with gun powder rather than brain power. Perhaps the secret charm of the thirties mystery film is our own nostalgia for an era when murder was a sport for gentlemen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Modern Japanese Cinema

The Japanese began producing films at approximately the same time as the West, but while the Western cinema was quickly taking shape, the Japanese cinema remained relatively stagnant. By the time the cinema became the major narrative art form in the West, the typical Japanese film served as a form of illustration for the bensei, the traditional storyteller. The center of attention was the bensei as he told the tale and the film was used primarily as a visual enhancement for tales that may (or may not) have been related to the original narrative of the movie. Meanwhile, film as an art in its own right for the Japanese only existed at certain specialty theaters which showed the major Russian, American and German films of the era.

It was not until the 1920s, when various film directors began resisting the use of the bensei, that the Japanese cinema began moving in its own unique direction. The foreign films of the 1920s were the original models copied by such early Japanese filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu, but this foreign influence was only the raw material that was quickly adapted and altered into distinctly Japanese forms. By the 1930s, the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi were considered too Japanese to be understood by foreign viewers.

The Japanese cinema is also one of the few national film industries in the world (the other main example being Hollywood) that has had a long, continuous history since the silent era. However, quantity does not always correspond with quality (as Hollywood also amply demonstrates) and the Japanese cinema's history has gone through periods of immense creatively - such as the late 1930s and the 1950s - followed by other, less interesting stages of standard genre melodramas, potboilers, and the occasional soft-core porn.

Unfortunately, the Japanese film industry is currently in the midst of such a period and the exciting and innovative films of the 1960s has been followed by economic problems within the industry and a reluctance on the part of producers to finance anything beyond quickie exploitation films. American movies dominant the marketplace and an upsurge in television viewing in Japan has not only made it more profitable for a Japanese director to work in television, but allows the director to achieve greater artistic independence on the small box rather than on the large screen. The few important artists still making films have found it necessary to either make blatantly commercial thrillers (which is what Kon Ichikawa has done) or else seek international backing for Japanese films (e.g. Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses was produced by a French company). After years of frustration, Akira Kurosawa found it necessary to accept the Soviet's offer to direct the non-Japanese film Dersu Uzala - either that or retire from film making altogether.

The 1960s stands out as the most recent period of major innovation in the Japanese cinema. It was a period that was fueled by national and international upheavals in the arts and by a growing sense of disenchantment among the younger generation of Japanese artists with many aspects of the society in which they lived. The spirit of compromise and mild optimism found among the Humanist filmmakers of the post-World War Two era was replaced with a more formalistic and rebellious attitude. New forms and structures were developed to deal more critically with contemporary subject matter while those filmmakers who dealt with historical subjects did so in a highly self-conscious effort to re-evaluate Japanese history and culture in light of the present situation. Double Suicide by Masahiro Shinoda takes a Brechtian approach to the traditional form of the Bunraka puppet play, purposefully exposing both the manipulations of the puppet-masters upon the actors and the film making process itself.

The avant-garde in Western art and literature had a strong influence upon many of the Japanese filmmakers of the 1960s, a "coming full circle" considering the influence of Japanese art upon the original avante-garde movement in the West. When Nagisa Oshima began working in the cinema, he was more impressed with the films of the French New Wave than he was with his own country's cinema and the stylistic similarities between his films and those of Jean-Luc Godard has not been overlooked by Western critics. Likewise, Woman in the Dunes is obviously derived from Franz Kafka's The Castle and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe's concerns are those of a European Existentialist. The allegorical content of the film is structurally austere and visually Woman in the Dunes is highly similar to a European "art" film.

As previously mentioned, Japanese culture was targeted for a critical re-evaluation. The new filmmakers were acutely aware of the changes that had taken place in modern Japan and of the apparent failure of traditional values. This failure in the face of recent history is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the way that Oshima chronologically structures The Ceremony. The various ceremonies of the film are set during politically important years of the post-war era. 1947, at the beginning of the film, was the start of the Cold War and the first wave of "Red Purges." In 1952, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was signed and Japan began to reap a profit from U.S. involvement in the Korean War. That same year, Japan's Communist Party broke with the students (one of whom was Oshima) in the radical movement. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was renewed in 1961 despite violent protests. 1964 was the year of prosperity and the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. In the year the film was made - 1971 - the Security Treaty was renewed again and the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima led a small private army in a take-over of the National Security Force headquarters. Mishima's siege - his impassioned speech in support of the Emperor and "true" Japanese culture - and his act of ritual suicide afterwards, had stunned his fellow artists. In spite of his fanatical right-wing politics, Mishima was an influential voice to both sides of the Japanese political spectrum and his spectacular death forced to the surface the self-destructive contradictions which the Japanese intellect is seemingly incapable of resolving.

These contradictions - the disastrous outcome of military imperialism in the 1930s and 1940s; the massive disruption of an age-old culture and the overly enthusiastic embracing of things American; the attempt to build a democracy out of the remains of a politically feudalistic nation while simultaneously maintaining the Emperor; the deep relevance for the beauty of nature while the modern landscape is transformed into an industrial wasteland - has produced, according to Kon Ichikawa's Odd Obsession, a particular kind of impotency in the Japanese soul.

Bitter, ironic and a lover of macabre humor, Ichikawa has been a major influence upon the Japanese filmmakers of the 1960s because, says Shinoda, "he makes films only for the sake of making films, (his) work has a kind of innocence and very pure pleasure. In the technical realm he has been the most influential in pointing out directions for the avant-garde...." His willingness to experiment (he made one film told from the point of view of a cat) and sheer audacity in subject matter (after Odd Obsession he made Fires on the Plains in which a group of stranded soldiers resort to cannibalism) is often combined with an ambiguous moral viewpoint. Unlike many of the other Humanist directors of the 1950s, Ichikawa ask questions rather than teach lessons and the vague optimism of his contemporaries is replaced with a biting pessimism.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Debonairs: Gary Grant and William Powell

The art of film acting is a difficult skill. Unlike the direct and immediate impact of the live theater, a film actor pokes his way through small, disorderly pieces of a screenplay, and the quality of his performance is often more dependent upon lighting directors, photographers, and editors than his own thespian talents. At best, a film actor can develop a personality, a distinctive style which becomes his "character" through a series of films. In other words, he comes to represent a specific type of character to such an extent that to cast him in a film would, in part, determine the nature of the film. Such actors do not merely play at being a character in a film but instead play "themselves." That is, they play a consciously created character that becomes their screen personality.

Of this type of performer, perhaps two of the most distinctive yet under-rated have been Gary Grant and William Powell. Both Grant and Powell became identified with a certain type of role, that of the urbane, sophisticated leading man in romantic comedies. As masters of the debonair, Grant and Powell developed personalities which allowed them to move through a performance with a smoothness and an apparent lack of effort which made their acting look all too easy and natural to be considered acting. Because of this, recognition of their talent was not given until late in their careers. Yet their popularity with audiences remains strong and, in spite of numerous recent attempts, no contemporary performer has been capable of matching them for grace, wit, and charming self-assurance.

The transformation from Archibald Leach to Gary Grant was, in itself, a major performance. As a shy and introverted child from a middle-class family in Bristol, England, Grant was surprisingly determined when, at the age of thirteen, he left home to join the Bob Pender Troupe. It was with this group that Grant learned acrobatics, dancing, pantomime,and a variety of other skills, as well as a motto which he later adopted as his own: "Never stay on too long. Never let the audience get tired of you. Always leave them laughing and wanting more."

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Kansas City, William Horatio Powell seemed an even more unlikely candidate for the debonair school of acting. Powell originally entered law school at the University of Kansas before he decided to defy his father's wishes. Borrowing $700 from his aunt, Powell left the legal profession after two weeks of classes and enrolled in New York's American Academy of Dramatic Art. While the English music halls became Gary Grant's training ground, Powell studied his craft through the more conventional route of stock companies and the Broadway theater.

The films in this program have been selected to emphasize particular aspects of both Grant's and Powell's screen personalities. The two films starring Gary Grant represent his portrayal of a distinctly masculine male who undergoes a series of humiliations that become a test of both love and character. In The Awful Truth, he plays the role of a philandering husband who discovers his own enormous potential for jealousy in the first ten minutes of the film. The mutual attempts of Grant and Irene Dunne to sabotage each other's love affairs become not only the proof that they still love each other, but is also the force by which they achieve a new equality in their relationship. Their romantic rivals (Ralph Bellamy and Molly Lament) are not so much sexual contenders as they are pawns in the marital game. By the end of the film, Grant and Dunne have to be reconciled because no one else can put up with them.

I Was a Male War Bride goes even further with sexual humiliation. Beginning with an antagonistic relationship of equality (Ann Sheridan's WAC lieutenant behaves in almost as masculine a manner as Grant's captain) the film follows a progressively unequal path. The more romantically involved Grant and Sheridan become, the more humiliation Grant must suffer, whether in the form of an errant motorcycle or the rigid bureaucracy of the U.S. Army. Grant's impersonation of a woman officer during the final third of the film is not only a travesty of his own masculinity, but also a satire on the military mentality. Never has a man looked less like a woman (even Grant's wig is obviously a bobbed horse's tail), but the fact that he's dressed like a woman and has signed all the forms as Mrs. makes him a woman according to the rules and regulations of the army.

The William Powell films are representative of the type of comedies which made him famous during the thirties and forties. In both films he is teamed with Myrna Loy, his most popular leading lady. Double Wedding is an ideal sample of the type of romantic screwball comedy films which they made during the period; films in which logic took a highly circular route and the most improbable events came about in probable ways. The central plot in Double Wedding, Powell's conviction that the only way to win the woman he loves is by courting her sister, only makes sense within the uniquely whimsical confines of a Powell-Loy comedy. Like the other films of its type, Double Wedding does not convince the viewer with its narrative rationale, but instead succeeds in winning our suspension of disbelief.

Shadow of the Thin Man presents Powell in his most famous persona as private detective Nick Charles. The fourth of a series of six Thin Man films, Shadow of the Thin Man was the last film of the series to be directed by W.S. Van Dyke before his death. Van Dyke had directed the previous three films, which accounts for their consistent wit and style. The two films which came after this one (The Thin Man Goes Home and The Song of the Thin Man) are noticeably lacking the urbane polish of Van Dyke's productions which lead to the films' loss of popularity at the time. As murder mysteries go, the Thin Man films became increasingly marginal, but as witty comedy films they remained fresh and inventive and were the best showcase for the "perfectly married" teamwork of Powell and Loy.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Point Blank: Films of Disenchantment

The Film Noir genre has functioned in the American cinema as a powerful fulcrum for the disturbances and discontent of modern society. The genre's tendencies toward glib cynicism and dark shadowy photography result in nightmarish reflections of a treacherous and claustrophobic world. Through this genre, numerous filmmakers have been able to express the negative underside to the optimism and complacency of mainstream culture. With its codes and generic conventions, Film Noir has created a large and substantial text of critical disenchantment.

The program "Point Blank: Films of Disenchantment" presents three significant examples of Film Noir from the late 1960s to late 1970s, when the genre reached its most extreme and experimental stage of development. Jack Shadoian, in his book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film, writes that at this time the genre "is forced inward, toward its own procedures, which become increasingly sophisticated. It used to be that well established procedures could be used to move outward toward an audience they could securely engage. Now the audience must be seduced into accepting new aesthetic resources and complex (and at times schizophrenic) attitudes."

The program begins with a screening of Point Blank (USA 1967), the second theatrical film to be directed by the English filmmaker John Boorman in his first, and nearly last, American production. The audacious and highly experimental style of the film alienated the American distributors, who proceeded to dump Point Blank on the second-run market. In spite of this, the film has proven to be one of the more important and influential works of the 1960s. It is also one of the most difficult to interpret. Even the existence of the film's central character is left open; Boorman himself has stated that Point Blank must be viewed as either a dream or as a ghost story.

The rampant ambiguities of the narrative are magnified by a visual structure based upon fragmentation and non chronological association. When Walker, the main character, traverses the length of the Los Angeles International Airport, his footsteps are inter-cut with scenes from the past and present. The ending shot is a duplicate of the opening shot. In addition, mythic references are invoked; for example, at the beginning of the film, Walker ascends from the water and, ultimately, descends into darkness and nothingness -- both suggestive of Boorman's interest in Arthurian legend.

Remember My Name (USA 1978) was the first of three overt excursions into Film Noir genre by the maverick American filmmaker Alan Rudolph. It is also an important example of a relatively recent proto-feminist variation on what has been traditionally a male dominated genre. This conversion of Film Noir into Femme Noir initiates a series of major shifts in the sexual codes of the genre and changes the traditional image of the femme fatale into an avenging angel.

The illusion of feminine vulnerability is one of the central themes of Remember My Name. Throughout the film, Geraldine Chaplin's waif-like appearance is suggestive of physical and psychological fragility. She displays, however, an iron-will and a sense of determination which is symbolized by her peculiar habit of stamping out her cigarettes in the palm of her hand. Several of the men in Remember My Name act on the mistaken assumption that they are either protecting her or manipulating her. Behind her doe-like eyes, however, Chaplin has a strength and a sense of personal justice that gives her control over the men around her.

Rudolph's mentor is filmmaker Robert Altman. Though Altman is today a virtual nonperson in Hollywood, during the 1970s he directed some of the finest films of the period, including M*A*S*H (USA 1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (USA 1971), Thieves Like Us (USA 1973), and Nashville (USA 1975). Subsequently, many of Altman's films were revisionist critiques of Hollywood conventions and established genres. With his production of The Long Goodbye (USA 1973), Altman entered into a problematic debate with the noir genre and the near-mythic stature of one of the genre's most important fictional figures, Philip Marlowe.

In the novels by Raymond Chandler and the films adapted from them -- including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and Lady in the Lake -- Philip Marlowe has come to represent the archetypal private eye, a tattered and worn gumshoe whose verbal flippancy masks a surprisingly chivalrous code of honor. In the film The Long Goodbye, however, Altman views Marlowe as an anachronism of the 1930s; an honorable man adrift within an uncaring and amoral culture. When Marlowe awakens at the beginning of the film, he is like a modern Rip Van Winkle who finds that the world as he knew it has irrevocably changed. Though Altman views both Marlowe and his moral code with nostalgic sympathy, he also realizes the degree to which modern society has turned cold and decadent. In making The Long Goodbye, Altman presents and shares in Marlowe's genuine sense of disenchantment.

Sembene: The African Screen

"We must understand our traditions before we can hope to understand ourselves."
--Ousmane Sembene

Though the typical American film goer is largely unfamiliar with the African (and especially the country of Senegal)cinema, nonetheless the name of Ousmane Sembene has emerged to great critical prominence on the international screen. As the leading filmmaker of the surprisingly active Senegalese cinema, Sembene has created a body of works that artistically probes the historic and contemporary problems of Africa. In the process, his films has given an expressive voice to the thoughts and feelings of his fellow countrymen and Africans.

Sembene was born in 1923 in the village of Ziguinchor in southern Senegal. At an early age he choice not to follow in his father's profession as a fisherman. Instead, he drifted through a series of jobs as a mechanic, a mason, and a sharpshooter in the French army during World War Two. By 1948, he had traveled from Senegal to France where he worked as a longshoreman in Marseilles and became a militant union organizer.

It was also during this time that Sembene began to write poems and stories. His first novel, Le Docker Noir, was published in 1956 and earned critical praise in both Africa and Europe. With such other novels as Xala, Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu, and Dombaye, Sembene established himself as a major writer.

By 1961, Sembene had become increasingly interested in film making and he received a grant to study at the Moscow Film Institute under the Soviet director Mark Donskoi. When he returned to Senegal, Sembene began working on a series of short films and, in 1965, made his first feature with the production of Black Girl.

The films in this program represent two specific aspects of Sembene's concerns. The October 10 presentation of Ceddo (1977) is a major example of Sembene's interest in critically reconstructing the events and issues of Senegalese history.

The word "ceddo" refers to the common village people who live under the feudalistic system presented in the film. While the power struggles and revolutions of the film are motivated by the political desires of the various tribal and religious leaders of the film, it is the "ceddo" who are presented by Sembene as the heroes and victims
of historic events.

The October 17 screening of Xala (1974) presents Sembene's caustic view of modern Africa and the problems of the independent African state. The main character of Xala is a successful African businessman who, despite his talk of African heritage and identity, speaks in French instead of his native language, drinks only bottled water from Europe, and can't live without the air conditioner. Then he is struck by the "xala," a curse of impotence which sends him on a panic-ridden search of doctors, soothsayers, and shamans, a journey which forces him to face his own identity. Sembene's unrelenting attack upon hypocrisy and self-deceit has made Xala one of his most controversial films.

The film Emitai (1971), to be shown on October 31, invokes recent African history and tribal mythology and religion. The film is set during the final days of World War Two and describes the clash which took place between the French army and the Diolas tribe in the Casamance region of Senegal.

The word "Emitai" is the name for the god of thunder in the religion of the Diolas people and the unique relationship between these people and their gods is one of the major themes of the film. For the Diolas, the gods and spirits are real and Sembene attempts to capture in Emitai the unique sense of reality as it is felt and seen by these people.

The 1968 film Mandabi concludes the series on November 7. In Mandabi (translation: the money order), Sembene creates a poignant satire in which he details the bizarre clashes which exists between the influences of European culture and ancient African customs. The film's main character quickly discovers that the simple task of cashing a money order can, and does, become a major point of conflict between Third World bureaucracy and the surviving structures of European colonization.

Mandabi also becomes, for Sembene, a study of the vices and virtues of the common people of Africa. Sembene is sharp and bitter in his attacks on the deceptions used by many of the characters in Mandabi. In turn, he finds in his hero an ultimate expression of traditional virtue.