Thursday, August 21, 2008

Billy Wilder's America

Throughout his film making career, Billy Wilder has displayed an unusual appreciation for the mannerisms and slang-filled language of American culture. As a native European, Wilder's foreigner status made it easier for him to perceive the unique, to him even exotic, nature of American customs and mores. His hasty approach to learning English through radio programs, baseball games,and tabloid newspapers allowed him to develop a strong sense of how the language was actually spoken by various Americans. His early experience with destitution when he first arrived in California (for a brief while, Wilder lived in a deserted ladies room in a hotel), as well as his later wealth and success, gave Wilder a sharp Knowledge of society's highs and lows.

As much as Wilder admired his adopted country, however, he never completely abandoned either his Viennese accent or his European-based perspective. This dichotomy between the two cultures directly and indirectly infuses his films with a sensibility that often reveals new angles on common sights, an outsider's more critical view on the very things that we take for granted.

This peculiar mix of America and Europe became evident early in Wilder's life. Born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, he got the nickname Billy because of his mother's fondness for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Raised primarily in Vienna, Wilder spent his childhood witnessing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the ensuing social and economic chaos that followed after World War One. He became a newspaper reporter in Berlin during its most extreme period of decadence and run-away inflation in the 1920s and occasionally worked as a dance instructor and gigolo just to survive financially. His great passions, however, were American movies and jazz.

Through a lucky, and rather bizarre coincidence, Wilder was able to gain entry into the Berlin film industry and, beginning with Menschen am Sonntag (Germany 1929), he was quickly established as a major new screenwriter. The rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party forced Wilder, who is Jewish, to flee to Paris. There he was able to find work as the co-director of the low-budget production of Mauvaise Graine (France 1933). Wilder's preference, however, was the role of screenwriter and it was this talent that first brought him to work at Paramount Pictures in 1935.

The German director Ernst Lubitsch was at this time not only Paramount's most successful filmmaker, but also one of the most influential people at the studios and he was able to secure jobs for many Central European emigres, especially in the screenwriting department. This unusual mix of accents among the writers once led to a sign being hung on the Writers Building's door: "You must work here. It is not enough to be Hungarian." Wilder was hired to lend a sense of authentic Viennese wit to a few minor productions and was otherwise so under-used that he spent many of his days reading the Help Wanted ads. It was not until he was teamed on a script with Charles Brackett that Wilder's own best qualities came forward, The extreme differences between the two men inspired their scripts as Wilder's liberalism and European worldliness squared off with Brackett's New England-bred conservatism and idealism.

It was, however, Wilder's transition from screenwriter to director that allowed his own themes and concerns to become overt. Initially, Wilder became a director in order to protect the integrity of his and Brackett's scripts. Increasingly though, he found his directorial vision at odds with his collaborator and finally, when Wilder's macabre sense of humor took control on Sunset Boulevard (USA 1950), their work relationship ended.

The similarities and differences between Wilder and Brackett's work can be traced through the dark and light qualities of The Lost Weekend (USA 1945). Brackett had a very personal interest in the film due to his wife's own alcoholism and, in certain ways, Jane Wyman's character is a stand-in for him as she attempts to comprehend the nature of the illness. Wyman's sense of ideals and feelings is indicative of Brackett's own combination of despair and a strong sense of self. However, the film's vivid sense of degradation and madness, especially the infamous bat/mouse nightmare, was gleaned from Wilder. The increasing destitution experienced by Ray Milland's character was familiar to Wilder from his own days of extreme poverty and the nightmare scene has been described by him as a conflict between two sides of his own subconscious, a conflict in which one side feels compelled to devour the other.

Brackett's concerns in The Lost Weekend were central to the script. His intentions in Sunset Boulevard were ignored. Brackett originally conceived the idea for Sunset Boulevard as a screwball comedy. As he and Wilder repeatedly rewrote the screenplay, the narrative evolved into a dark, gothic vision that was uniquely Wilder's. Brackett continued to provide his sense of craftsmanship to the script, but he realized that he was now involved in making someone else's film. Further, his own sensibilities were now submerged beneath the weight of Wilder's propensity toward megalomania, decadence, and black comedy.

It was not so much that Wilder had changed. Instead, Sunset Boulevard represented the complete emergence of the caustic, hard-edged vision already obvious in his earlier production of Double Indemnity (USA 1944). The novel's tale of adultery and murder played out against a Southern California milieu of bright sunlight and quiet stucco houses intrigued Wilder. The ambivalent psychology and poetic texture of Cain's book were less appealing to Wilder. With the help of Raymond Chandler, he fashioned the narrative into a flinty, flippant view of corruption and betrayal, all played out against the most banal of settings. In a way, the American author Cain wrote a very European novel and the European Wilder directed an extremely American film.

Further, while Brackett was an idealist, Wilder was often capable of being a sentimentalist. Despite the cynicism and seeming fatalism of Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, Wilder often seems to be a pessimist with a romantic dreamer screaming to get out. That is especially evident in the contrary tendencies of Ace in the Hole a.k.a. The Big Carnival (USA 1951). The film offers a sarcastically devastating critique of American journalism and commerical exploi­tation. It also contains an abrupt sense of belated spiritual redemption through the power of emotional release. If a worldly spark of cynicism is Wilder's European heritage, then this latent streak of romanticism and sentimentality is, in part, what led him to America.

The Films of Bernardo Bertolucci: Marx and the Oedipus Complex

A long-standing, and often antagonistic, division has existed between Marxist political theory and Freudian psychology. One example of this split was the official Soviet rejection of psychoanalysis during the rule of Stalin. Likewise, there have been numerous accounts from the Hollywood blacklist period of Party members who were convinced by their psychoanalysts to "name names" as part of their therapy. For many Marxist thinkers, the subjective universe of Freud was a narcissistic rejection of scientific materialism. In turn, many psychoanalysts treated communism as a neurotic manifestation of the Oedipus complex. Within the orthodox views of both camps, no point of reconciliation seemed possible. It is within this framework that the films of Bernardo Bertolucci occupy a unique position.

Bertolucci first became prominent in Italy for his work as a poet and critical essayist. He was, however, increasingly drawn to the cinema through his friendship with Pier Paolo Pasolini and his work as assistant director on Pasolini's production of Accattone (Italy 1961). Pasolini's own position as poet and filmaker, as well as his status as a renegade Marxist, demonstrated to Bertolucci that a complex synthesis of politics, art, and psychology was possible. Further, the cinematic legacy of Italian Neo-Realism gave Bertolucci a model from which he could freely borrow, even while he was rejecting much of its simpler, more sentimental vision of left-wing politics (though his 1977 production of 1900 is virtually the last Neo-Realist epic ever filmed).

From Pasolini, Bertolucci derived a sharp awareness of the interaction between the personal and political worlds, especially in the arena of sexual politics. From the previous generation of Neo-Realist filmakers, he inherited an appreciation for the formal and moral possibilities of the cinema. With his discovery of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Bertolucci learned to view the cinema as a uniquely political medium. This pedigree enabled Bertolucci to mix his commitment to radical politics within a framework of psychoanalytic concern.

A recurring theme in Bertolucci's films is the Freudian concept of the Oedipus complex. This theory concerning infantile sexuality, in which the child subconsciously wishes to usurp the position of the father in relationship to the mother, is traditionally presented in psychoanalysis as the primal event in a person's mental development. Further, the resolution of this conflict through the repression of the oedipal urge is viewed not only as the first step toward therapeutic adjustment but also as one of the major foundations of the social structure. Bertolucci sees the Oedipus complex as a primary component to both psychological and political awareness. He does not, however, view repression as the only correct resolution of the complex. In turn, the father figure represents more than simply parental authority, but also the patriarchal structures of the state.

The failure to resolve this conflict in either direction is part of the text of Before the Revolution (Italy 1964). Though the title of the film is taken from Talleyrand -- "He who did not live in the years before the (French) Revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is" -- the emotional tone of the work is more directly summarized by the hero's admission that for him, "life will always be before the revolution." This alienating sense of being suspended between a complacent middle-class and a radical proletariat permeates the film as its central character finds himself dissatisfied with his own class, but also realizes that he is not capable of being culturally aligned with the communist workers. He rejects the world of his father (and the affair with his aunt is a substitution for the mother), but he cannot sucessfully follow the revolutionary path advocated by his intellectual mentor, the second father figure in the film. He fails to come to any significant resolution of the crisis and, seemingly, is destined to drift.

In The Spider's Stratagem (Italy 1970), the enigmatic figure of the father still controls the son despite the father's own death years earlier. Supposedly, the father died a martyr in the fight against fascism. History, however, can be a deceptive web through which one generation is capable of ensnaring the next. The degree to which the father has imposed himself upon the son is reinforced in the film by the fact that the same actor plays both parts. Throughout The Spider's Stratagem, the romantic entanglements and political betrayls of the father systematically envelop the son, entrapping him within a personal history of deceit.

Bertolucci's most direct confrontation with the Oedipus complex is presented in Luna (USA/Italy 1979). The title symbolically refers to the mysterious qualities of sexuality contained within the figure of the mother in relationship to the ambivalent sensibilities of the adolescent male. Framed within the context of opera (the mother is a prima donna on tour in Italy), Bertolucci uses the artificial stage worlds of Verdi and Mozart as a means of reflecting the potentially destructive psychological events within the film's narrative. Like the myth that is its namesake, the Oedipus complex contains within it the brutal possibilities of tragedy, and the son's passage through his interior crisis will be critical in determining his entry into maturity. The ambiguous ending of Luna, in which the father must finally assert himself, is not so much a reconciliation as it is a brief pause in a process of psychological development that must continue long after the film has ended.

Luna recongizes that the Oedipus complex, when viewed from the position of the mother and son, contains a potential for tragedy. In The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (Italy 1981), the complex is presented from the father's perspective. From this viewpoint, the complex becomes the basis for black comedy. The father is the ridiculous man of the film's title, the contradictory representative of a previous generation who must eventually be replaced by the new. The convoluted, and ultimately unresolved, mystery plot of the film is indicative of the father's inability to accept his powerlessness in resolving, and eventually manipulating, his son's crisis. In turn, he only gradually realizes that the crisis is actually his own and that he must simply accept the fact that "the son always replaces the father."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Women Film Makers: An Outline of Herstory

The history of women filmmakers in the American cinema is often most visible by its absence from the history books and movie theatres rather than by its works or artists. This is caused, in part, by Holly­wood's long standing bias against employing women as directors as well as by the traditional male domination of the film critical establishment. As a consequence, much of the work of women filmmakers has traditionally taken place on the periphery of the established film industry. In turn, much of this history has been largely forgotten due to genuine ignorance combined with willful neglect. Only recently has this hidden history been given some measure of attention and study and, in the process, been historically placed within the growth and development of the cinema.

Alice Guy Blache is generally believed to have been the first woman filmmaker. Born in Paris in 1873, she began working in France as a filmmaker before the end of the 19th-century. Her most active period of work, however, occurred in the United States where she eventually formed her own production company. From her studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, she created a series of short films and, along with Georges Melies and Edwin S. Porter, was one of the original architects of the narrative cinema. Her works range from romance to comedy to science fiction, and the few surviving prints of her films attest to her innovative approach as an early filmmaker. Girl in the Armchair (USA 1912) is especially interesting for its use of color tinting as well as Blache's expedient handling of melodramatic conventions.

The first American born woman filmmaker was Lois Weber who, with occasional collaboration with her actor-husband Phillips Smalley, wrote, produced, and directed a series of dramas that she filmed in a studio leased from Universal. These independent productions were notable for both their technical polish as well as their willingness to confront controversial social subject matter; during her career, Weber produced films in support of birth control, women's suffrage and interracial love. Not surprisingly, she had tremendous difficulty in getting some of her films distributed and, by 1927, she found it financially impossible to continue producing films.

The Blot (USA 1921) is one of the few of Weber's feature-length films that has survived intact. Like most of her films, it overtly deals with an area of social concern, specifically the need for teachers and the even greater need to provide educators with equable pay. The Blot presents its social message within the larger context of its narrative, and one of the most striking aspects about Weber's work is her ability to present overt political concerns without being either heavy-handed or didactic. If any­thing, her films display a matter-of-factness that eschews the more excessive melodramatic conventions of the 1920s American cinema.

Through her work as both a filmmaker and as a mentor figure, Maya Deren was one of the major founding figures of the modern American Avant-Garde movement. With the production of such early experimental films as Meshes of the Afternoon (USA 1943), At Land (USA 1944), and Choreography for Camera (USA 1945), Deren established the basic directions the avant-garde cinema would follow throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Her brief fall from critical grace during the 1970s was, in part, a late rebellious reaction to the enormous shadow she cast throughout the early American experimental cinema movement.

Deren was strongly influenced by the theoretical principles of modern dance as well as by the surrealist cinema of the 1920s. Her films were often autobiographical in their references as she created a cinematic form of psychodrama. In At Land, she created a set of symbolic references while pursuing a study on the illusory structure of cinematic space.

Shirley Clarke began her career in the 1950s as both a dancer and an experimental filmmaker. She emerged most forcefully, however, as a documentary and narrative artist with such films as The Connection (USA 1960), The Cool World (USA 1963), and Portrait of Jason (USA 1967), films in which the romanticism of her early works gave way to a raw and direct look at people who existed on the edge of mainstream American society. In turn, her films achieved a sense of gritty realism rarely attempted within the American cinema. Clarke's career as a filmmaker and videographer has taken place totally outside the context of the American commercial media which has resulted in the limited amount of exposure her work has received. Yet, she remains firmly committed to this independent path which has allowed her to deal with a range of subject matter that is, for all practicable purposes, forbidden for presentation within the mainstream.

The Cool World was filmed on location in Harlem, using a cast composed of professional actors and local residents. Clarke's use of naturalistic photography and direct sound recordings was influenced by the original films of the Italian Neo-Realist movement and her non-judgmental presentation of the film's narrative forces the viewer, in part, to experience the ghetto environment and gang psychology on its own terms.

Before her untimely death, Kathleen Collins was a teacher and filmmaker of increasing critical prominence. Her work, as represented by her best known feature film Losing Ground (USA 1982), dealt with both feminist and African-American issues and concerns in ways that were both politically complex and narratively engaging.

Hitchcock: Variations on a Theme

In his nightclub routine, Woody Allen once joked that he had written a short story about his first year of marriage. No one would publish it, but Alfred Hitchcock had expressed interest in the film rights. The joke is surprisingly accurate in what it says about Hitchcock. Marriage, and the tangled relationships between men and women, is a major theme which Hitchcock would hammer away at in all of his films. While the conventional dogma of the happy ending in the traditional Hollywood film stated that marriage brought continued bliss, Hitchcock saw it as merely a transition in the tense, and usually tainted, nature of sexual relationships. In the 1964 film Marnie, the couple's ultimately therapeutic relationship is rooted in their mutually sick, pathological behavior patterns. Sabotage (England 1936) concludes with the wife stabbing the husband to death over the dinner table. The newlyweds in Rear Window (USA 1954) are, by the end of the film, on the same path to mutual hatred that had led to the murder at the beginning of the film. Instead of happiness, marriage caused paranoia, distrust, and many violent deaths.

That marriage may be built upon mutual weakness rather than strength was examined by Hitchcock in two films: Marnie and Suspicion (USA 1941). The two films bear some striking similarities. Sean Connery's obsessive love for Tippi Hedren is caused by the fact that she is both frigid and a pathological liar. Not only is his love for her sick, but his method of curing her involves a subtle use of psychological torture. In Suspicion, Cary Grant plays an amoral, pathological liar whose obvious illness makes him romantically attractive to Joan Fontaine. She, in turn, is not only exceedingly naive, but is also willing to nurse and even protect his sickness up to a certain point. Her own behavior is remarkably child like and her constant fumbling with her eyeglasses is a visual indication of her own blindness. Her love for Grant's character is largely based on her need to escape from her parents, just as his love for her is based on an innate need for nurturing, yet the only thing she nurtures within him is a continuation of his pathological behavior. The film's climax (which was not the original ending of the film) literally pushes them to the edge of their relationship, a point at which they must make the decision to mature.

Their mutual illness even takes certain mutual forms. One of the few times that Fontaine's character shows signs of great vitality is when she is horseback riding. Likewise, Grant's great passion is betting on the horses. Grant plays an immature man, and when they first meet she is reading a book on child psychology. The weakness that threatens to separate them is also the very bond that holds their marriage together.

For Hitchcock, things other than mental illness can hold a marriage together. In Rich and Strange (England 1932), the banality of middle-class life is the thread that ultimately binds. The couple in the film are bored with life and each other and their unexpected inheritance enables them to take an exotic world cruise, a trip that quickly turns into a surrealistic journey of the soul. Taking the title from a line in Shakespeare's The Tempest ("Nothing of him that doth fade/but doth suffer a sea-change/ into something rich and strange"), the film's visual strangeness clearly demonstrates the influence of Luis Bunuel on Hitchcock, but the central theme is strictly his own. The couple's escape from banality leads only to a false glamour and a realization of the precarious nature of life. The security of boredom is seen by Hitchcock as being preferable to the horrors of reality.

Spellbound (USA 1945), like Marnie and Suspicion, returns to the notion of romantic love and mutual mental illness. While Fontaine's character in Suspicion is symbolically blind, Peck's character in Spellbound is an amnesic whose loss of memory is needed to blind him to his inner sense of guilt. Ingrid Bergman's own aloof and cold personality in the film is a facade covering her own vulnerability and her protectiveness of Peck becomes obsessive.

The film may now be best known for its dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, although only a fragment of the complete sequence was actually used in the film. An element of surrealism is always evident in Hitchcock's films, but in very subtle ways, and he felt uncomfortable with the extreme artificiality of the sequence. During the forties, when he made Spellbound, Hitchcock had adopted a classical, invisible film technique more in line with Hollywood film making of the period. An important aspect of this kind of film making is maintaining the illusion of reality, and while Hitchcock was not a realist, he was fond of the illusion. His films of the forties were more subdued than either his more experimental films of the thirties or his great masterpieces of the fifties.

Perhaps one of the most under-rated films ever made by Hitchcock is Mr. and Mrs. Smith (USA 1941). Directed as a favor to Carole Lombard, the film was a late entry by Hitchcock in the screwball comedy genre. Lacking the larger subject matter of his other films, Mr. and Mrs. Smith concentrates completely on the theme of marriage. The couple in the film are a pair of egotistical, over-grown children whose behavior pattern holds them together as much as it drives them apart. They are clearly made for each other as their petty destructiveness makes them unsuitable for anyone else.

The weak critical reputation of Mr. and Mrs. Smith may leave the viewer unprepared for what is actually a genuinely funny film. Hitchcock's flair for comedy is evident in many of his thrillers. Certainly Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a minor film in that it limits itself only to this one idea, making it a sonata when compared to the grand symphony of a film like Vertigo (USA 1958). As a sonata, however, it is delightful and is especially light-hearted as opposed to Hitchcock's own darker viewpoint.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sci-Fi: The Early Classics

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once suggested that science-fiction would in­creasingly have to deal with the immediate past rather than the future. The theory behind this thought is that the acceleration of technological advancement makes it impossible to second guess the reality of tomorrow without that gadget or gizmo appearing in the most recent issue of Time magazine. With the advent of the atomic bomb, space travel, computers, robots, and the digital watch, the future seems ridiculously close (films like Dark Star and Blade Runner are already viewing a future in which all the sci-fi gadgetry is breaking down). For this reason many science-fiction films age badly. The first lunar voyage in the pseudo-documentary film Destination Moon (USA 1950) comes too close to reality to be accepted as stylization (as opposed to the 1902 trick-film A Trip to the Moon) yet is too inaccurate to be acceptable in comparison to the actual event. Viewing early science-fiction films tells us more about the way we were rather than the way we shall be, and films like Metropolis (Germany 1926) and The War of the Worlds (USA 1953) actually are perceptive symbols of their own time periods.

The early science-fiction cinema can be divided into two periods. The first age was from 1926 to 1936, beginning with Metropolis and ending with Things to Come (England 1936). Industrial development and its consequences; the effect of World War I and the possibility of another world war; and the sprawl of urban society comprised the subject matter of this period. Fritz Lang's Metropolis set the basic themes and standards for the films that came afterwards. One of the most expensive productions of the twenties, Metropolis used massive sets to articulate its vision of a futuristic industrial society. The fact that the society in the film is industrial and not technological (the creation of the robot in Metropolis is magical rather than technological), clearly demonstrates that Lang is not concerned with the year 2000, but with the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century.

Borrowing heavily from Ignatius Donnelly's novel Caesar's Column, Lang creates a vision of an industrial society in which the working class is literally enslaved by the machines they operate. (In one scene, a worker is strapped to the erratically moving hands of a gigantic clock.) Rigidly organized masses of workers are marched through geometrically designed areas of space, emphasizing their entrapment within a system of industrialized slavery. However, Metropolis avoids political analysis and concludes with a compromise built upon nothing more than emotional response. After the rise of Nazism, Lang rejected the film as politically naive, and the fact that Metropolis was one of Hitler's favorite films caused Lang to completely reject his early masterpiece.

Four years later, the American film Just Imagine (USA 1930) would attempt to imitate the grandiose sets of "Metropolis." Part science-fiction and part musical, the failure of Just Imagine to predict what life would be like n 1980 has made the film an inadvertent camp classic. Just how seriously the producers intended their predictions to be is anyone's guess, but the visual impressiveness of the film is undeniable and many later works have referred to it — often sardonically. The film's plot, in which vaudeville star El Brendel awakens from a state of suspended animation, was also the basis for Woody Allen's Sleeper. While the society in Metropolis was grounded in the misery of the Industrial Revolution, the futuristic city in Just Imagine was a combination of American optimism and Busby Berkley.

The last significant film of science-fiction's first era was the 1936 production Things to Come. Authored by H.G. Wells, the film was a didactic overview of future history. In this respect, Things to Come is an epilogue to Wells's massive book The Outline of History and the film is generally locked into academic observations. Wells's faith in the enlightened glories of scientific development may seem, in retrospect, too naive, and the film's explicit equation that technology means democracy would be undercut twenty years later by George Orwell. However the key scenes of Things to Come still have a strong, dramatic sweep, aided in no small part by Raymond Massey's sonorous authority figure.

The second era of science-fiction film making took place in the fifties and, superficially at least, was dominated by the special effects techni­cian's passionate desire to destroy the world in ninety minutes or less. The atomic bomb, radioactive beasties and irrepressible bug-eyed monsters from outer space repeatedly staged their own version of an apocalypse now and the creatures who weren't busy wiping out humanity were preoccupied with taking over your neighbors' brains. While the first era retained a basic optimism about the future, the fifties science-fiction films left little hope that there would be a day-after-tomorrow. Mankind had entered a cataclysmic funhouse as film goers contemplated the world's — and their own — destruction.

In Things to Come, science is mankind's last hope. In the 1953 production of Wells's The War of the Worlds, science is helpless against the Martians' attack. Divine intervention (in the form of the common cold) is the answer as the science-fiction films of the fifties became increasingly theological in their concerns. In the finale of The War of the Worlds, the survivors of the invasion seek refuge in a series of religious sanctuaries, progressively moving from a simple Protestant church to a Catholic cathedral. Science-fiction increasingly began using science not as an end in itself (as was advocated by Jules Verne), but as a device with which to structure allegorical tales.

One of the most overtly allegorical films of the fifties was Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man (USA 1957). The fear of atomic annihilation — man's ultimate helplessness against his own technology — is reduced to the poetic symbol of a mysterious, radioactive cloud. Its effect, an irreversible process of shrinking, becomes a form of impotency not just for the shrinking man but for the world in general. Science has become, in­advertently, the enemy, and the film's metaphysical finale expresses a meek acceptance of the problem rather than a solution. Everything has gone out of control and the film opts for humility and a final mystic union with the universe. In this respect, The Incredible Shrinking Man anti­cipates the conclusion of 2001: a Space Odyssey, the film which began the current era of science-fiction cinema.

Fassbinder: Life on the Edge

Rainer Werner Fassbinder became during his brief life one of the most dynamic and controversial figures in the modern cinema. Before his death in 1982, he completed over 40 film and television productions and created numerous works for the stage and radio. He performed as an actor in over a dozen other films and was one of the central artists in the New German cinema movement of the 1970s. Despite the fact that his career lasted for less than two decades, he was a torrential force whose self-destructive behavior was capable of producing an energetic degree of inventiveness and creativity. He continually led his life on the edge of a great abyss and became the poet laureate of angst, perversity, and a powerfully genuine emotionalism.

Fassbinder was born in 1945, though he would later change his birth date to 1946. His parents divorced when he was six and Fassbinder spent his childhood being moved back and forth between his aloof father and his seemingly disinterested mother. While his mother spent time in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, his father lived in Munich and was a doctor whose patients mostly were prostitutes and their clients. Except for the sporadic company of his father's patients and a few friendly relatives, Fassbinder grew up primarily alone and once boasted, "I'm my own father." If he was his own father, then the movies were his mother as he spent hours each week in darkened theaters watching American films. He was especially intrigued by gangster pictures and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. By his late teens, after displaying an indifference to school and leading a brief career as a street hustler, Fassbinder became convinced that he had to make films.

He attended drama school intermittently in Munich and, by 1967, was acting with a small group called the Action Theater. Fassbinder systematically took control of the group through the combined forces of hard work, an overmastering ego, and sexual liaisons with theater members. By the time the police had closed the theater during the May 1968 uprisings, Fassbinder had already formed the core of the Anti-Teater which he would use on stage and in film.

Improvisations and guerrilla theater tactics formed the basis for the Anti-Teater and, in 1969, Fassbinder directed the group in his first four feature films. Each film was made within a matter of a few weeks and represented a mix of experimental stylization, psycho-drama, and autobiographical details. These earliest films ranged wildly from the extremely studied and classical design of Effi Briest (West Germany 1974) to the excessive Gotterdammerung mentality of The American Soldier (West Germany 1970); yet the common ground among all the films was a focus on redefining the structure of narrative film making. Each film also exposed, directly and indirectly, glimpses into Fassbinder1s psychology.

Effi Briest is a close adaptation of Theodor Fontaine's 19th century novel which was, in turn, a variation on Madame Bovary. When developing some of his previous adaptations of novels to film, Fassbinder simply neglected to read the novel. In producing Effi Briest, he deviated from this practice, actually reading the book, and quoting directly from it throughout the film. The narrative of Effi Briest attracted him as it provided a compelling delineation of Fassbinder's own overwhelming need for love, his inability to achieve it, and the underlying sadomasochistic pursuit of power that can so easily dominate the emotions.

Brutality as a substitute for love is part of the subtext of the early gangster trilogy including Love is Colder Than Death (West Germany 1969), The Gods of the Plague (West Germany 1969), and The American Soldier. In these films, he created a Teutonic underworld of smoke and shadows in which preposterously laconic hoods kill and are killed amid the bathrooms, bars, and supermarket aisles of modern Germany. Sex is reduced to a ritualistic game of power and the characters behave with the somnambulistic motions of "B" movie automatons.

Indirectly, the films in the gangster trilogy express Fassbinder's own ambivalence concerning his sexuality and his artistic methodology. Fassbinder had an enormous and even, perhaps, desperate need to be loved, yet he would eventually reject virtually every lover he had, and psychologically drove two to suicide. Likewise, despite the fact that his method of work relied heavily upon the contributions of his cast and crew, he would periodically "punish" them in films like Satan's Brew (West Germany 1976), one in which many of the film's characters are caustic caricatures of the cast members. Fassbinder even parodied part of himself in the form of the film's half-demented poet.

The ambivalent characteristics and attitudes that surfaced in Fassbinder's personal life also permeated his political perceptions of modern Germany as well as his directing practices. He viewed Germany as still being a proto-fascist state and his political beliefs were ostensibly committed to the collective ideal as formulated by the original Anti-Teater group. However, the Anti-Teater group was never a collective in its actual method of operation: Fassbinder ruled as a "Fuhrer" figure, a manifest contradiction between his actions and beliefs which he recognized and lampooned in Satan's Brew. Similarly, he was extremely ambivalent about the radical terrorist movements of the 1970s, although some of the original members of the Baader-Meinhof gang were his acquaintances.

In his production of The Third Generation (West Germany 1979), Fassbinder set forth the conclusion that terrorism and the modern security state fed upon and needed each other in order to exist. He viewed his contemporaries as a lost generation doomed to "act in danger but without perspective." Likewise, he suspected the state of using terrorism as a pretext in order to justify its own repressive policies. With the vitriolic satire of The Third Generation, Fassbinder attacked the growing nihilism of power politics.

Despite his outpouring of bitter commentary on the modern state, a combination of decadence and nihilism were becoming increasingly obvious in Fassbinder's own life. His omnivorous sexuality was proving increasingly destructive to his friends and lovers; his consumption of drugs and alcohol was reaching life-threatening proportions; and he was rapidly gaining weight from compulsive eating. The recurring line in Berlin Alexanderplatz (West Germany 1980), "There is a reaper and his name is death," became a virtual leitmotif for Fassbinder. He had always lived on the edge, but increasingly he seemed to have been dancing on his grave.

In many respects, In a Year of Thirteen Moons (West Germany 1979) was Fassbinder's most personal film. Written, photographed, edited, and directed by him and starring only his closest associates, including his ex-wife, mother, and several ex-lovers, the film was Fassbinder's curious act of contrition for the suicide of his most recent male lover. The film's highly experimental structure and conflicting blend of pathos and black comedy reflected Fassbinder's own confusion over his contradictory emotional drives. In a way, Fassbinder was both a seducer and a spurned lover, a man who was ruthlessly incapable of accepting the emotional needs which he compulsively sought to fulfill. The title of his first film, Love is Colder Than Death, would prove to be prophetic of his real role throughout his career.

His sudden death in 1982 did not come as a real surprise to those who knew him. Fassbinder's overindulgence in virtually everything consumed him and he died, ironically, while in bed. His battered felt hat still on his head and a clinched cigarette in his hand, watching an old American film on the television set. His final epitaph surfaced inadvertently in the documentary film The Wizard of Babylon (West Germany 1982), the filming of which had ended earlier that day. One of the policemen who were originally called to the death scene later commented to reporters, "Even Fassbinder's just a man." His own mortality which he had tested and challenged during the final years and finally won out.

To some critics, Fassbinder's death practically marked the end of narrative film making in the New German cinema. Fassbinder's demise did mark the closing of a unique and extra-ordinarily vital chapter in the modern cinema. He remains an audacious and combative figure and his work retains the power to shock and offend. Yet, his stylistic control and diversity are virtually unequalled in the cinema and his boldness of vision and purpose railed against the increasing banality of the modern screen.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The New German Cinema

During the 1920s, Germany was the center for one of the most artistically ambitious cinemas in the world. Such artists as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Georg Wilhelm Pabst created a body of work unsurpassed for its boldness, originality, and expressiveness. The rise of Nazism, the ensuing war, and the protracted period of reconstruction, however, left the German cinema in shambles. By the early 1960s, the German cinema consisted largely of pseudo-English detective mysteries and mediocre film versions of Karl May's Westerns.

This artistic vacuum made the rise of the New German cinema especially unique. An entire generation grew up without any immediate film heritage except that of Hollywood movies and American rock 'n' roll. The pre-war culture seemed distant, aloof, and essentially meaningless, while the period prior to the American occupation was rarely discussed. Because of this, the New German cinema had to formulate an aesthetic response to the gap in German culture. As Wim Wenders stated in Kings of the Road (W. German 1976), the Americans had colonized the German sub-conscious. The roots of this New German cinema is, in part, a response to this colonization.

Nowhere is this influence more evident than in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. An incredibly prolific director, Fassbinder's work is remarkably diverse, yet the influence of Douglas Sirk pervades his style. Sirk used the conventions of melodrama to produce films which were critical of the American society of the 1950s and many of Fassbinder's films operate with a calculated sense of melodramatic excess.

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (W. German 1969) represents an important early statement of one of Fassbinder's major themes. Fassbinder essentially sees society as a dehumanizing set of structures and institutions which are designed to deny an individual's need for love and affection. The alienated, and ultimately psychotic, figure represented by Herr R. is simply the logical result of a society which crushes a person's basic capacity for affection and sense of self-worth, and the film's title is rhetorical. For Fassbinder, the mystery of Herr R.'s behavior is that it should be mysterious to anyone in the first place. What else could one have expected?

While Fassbinder adapted certain American influences, Werner Herzog created his own unique form of film language. Reaching back to the Germanic Romanticism of the 19th century, Herzog's protagonists are either obsessed by a singular, overwhelming vision (as in his recent Fitzcarraldo - 1982) or else driven mad by it. In Signs of Life (W. German 1968), a landscape filled with wildly twirling windmills is, like the landscape in all of his films, elevated to the level of visionary experience. Proclaiming that "I am my films," Herzog does not make films about madness, he champions it instead. Unceasing circular movement, traditionally a symbol of chaos, is Herzog's recurring motif.

Though not as well known as either Fassbinder or Herzog, Volker Schlondorff is nonetheless of equal importance as a director. His best films, such as The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (W. German 1970) and Coup de Grace (W. German 1977), delved into the repressive nature of traditional German society. While these films are unremitting in their critical nature, Schlondorff has been remarkably successful at producing a more commercial form of film making. A Free Woman (W. German 1972), retains its integrity even while operating in a more conventional manner than some of his other works. A Free Woman, like many of his other films made in collaboration with his wife Margarethe Von Trotta, intricately examines the problems faced by an ordinary woman in contemporary German society.

While Schlondorff's subtle commercialization makes him more immediately accessible to American audiences, Reinhard Hauff often works within the conventions of extremely Germanic genres. Primarily a social realist, Hauff's films contrast sharply with that of his fellow artists. The Brutalization of Franz Blum (W. German 1974) rigorously details the everyday, banal cruelties of life in prison. Striving for authenticity rather than dramatics, Hauff's camera work is often flat and matter-of-fact in its presentation. This authenticity is further accentuated by Burkhard Driest who based his screenplay on his own experiences after serving five years for bank robbery.

Of all the filmmakers in the New German cinema, undoubtedly the most difficult and experimental is Jean-Marie Straub. Along with his wife and co-director Daniele Huillet, Straub has created some of the major works of structuralist cinema. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (W. German 1968) was constructed by Straub not to be a biography of Bach and his wife, but a series of sound and images, attempting to preserve the integrity of Bach's music. The musical performances are interspersed with calmly composed visuals and the reciting of letters written by Anna to her husband. By not predetermining the film in advance (as happens in a narrative film), Straub allows the audience to construct the film themselves and to do so by way of Bach's own work.

Dreyer: From the Real to the Transcendental

"Realism in itself is not art, but there must be harmony between the genuineness of feelings and the genuineness of things. I try to force reality into a form of simplification and abbreviation in order to reach what I call psychological realism."
—Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889 - 1968)

Carl Theodor Dreyer once referred to himself as the leader of an artistic movement without any followers, and certainly the unique nature of his sparse and rigorous cinematic aesthetics has few equals in the cinema. Though Dreyer was one of the three artistic founding figures of the Scandinavian cinema, the extreme asceticism of his films is only suggested in the works of a more conventional filmmaker such as Ingmar Bergman.

Dreyer was born in Copenhagen on February 3, 1889. Originally interested in journalism and theater, he worked briefly as a reporter and critic for the Copenhagen daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende. By 1912, he began working for the Nordisk Films Kompagni as a script reader and, eventually, scriptwriter. His success as a screenwriter led to the oppor­tunity to direct his first film, The President (Denmark 1918).

Most of Dreyer's films made during the silent era are generally con­sidered to be relatively minor works, though some are-currently experiencing critical reevaluation. The Passion of Joan of Arc (France 1928) has long been considered his first truly important film in which Dreyer begins to break away from the rules and structure of the conventional Western cinema.

The screenplay for The Passion of Joan of Arc was based upon the actual transcripts of St. Joan's trial in 1431. Marie Falconetti, an actress whom Dreyer had discovered in a comedic play in Paris, was selected for the role largely on the basis of her appearance without make-up. This became an important attribute, for The Passion of Joan of Arc is largely composed of an unrelenting series of extreme close-ups in which Falconetti's face becomes one of the most expressive elements of the film.

Dreyer explored the suffering and martyrdom of St. Joan through an intensely detailed presentation of visual reality. The nearly claustro­phobic series of close-ups which dominate the images of The Passion of Joan of Arc forces the viewer into an intimate and contemplative relationship with the film. It is through the over-powering nature of these images that Dreyer communicates the strength of St. Joan's spiritual faith in the face of doubt and persecution.

While the dominant form of expression in The Passion of Joan of Arc is the vividness of the photographic image, verbal language is the chief concern of Gertrud (Denmark 1964). In this film, Dreyer gives equal weight to the dialogue and image, allowing a series of extreme long-takes and protracted monologues. By choosing to use a highly rhythmic and artificial-sounding form of Danish for all the dialogue, Dreyer creates a distinct form of intonation.

Gertrud presents an inwardly focused, psychological form of spiritual conflict and an emotional sense of isolation which is so prevalent in Dreyer's films. In this regard, Gertrud is one in a series of Dreyer's portraits of women faced with either an overt or covert form of martyrdom. Along with The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath (Denmark 1943) it forms a thematic triptych.

Day of Wrath was filmed by Dreyer during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Although Dreyer had already firmly established an interest in portraying themes about intolerance and persecution, this film shows an almost obsessive concern with this subject matter.

The central character is a woman accused of witchcraft, although her only real crime is the rejection of a system of organized deceit fostered by her society. The film creates a frightening portrait of a society controlled by repressed hatred and systematic brutality. Although the story is set in 1623, the society depicted is hauntingly parallel to the modern age in its capacity for organized murder.

The bleak vision presented by Dreyer in Day of Wrath is, in a way, the counter-point to his vision of faith in the film Ordet (Denmark 1954). The Christ-like figure of Johannes in Ordet is the personification of Dreyer's view of pure faith and, despite the tragic narrative of the film, Ordet represents the optimistic side of Dreyer's theological viewpoint.

Ordet was based on the play by Kaj Munk, a prominent Danish play­wright and Lutheran minister who was executed by the Nazis during their occupation of Denmark. The film was made with the cooperation of Munk's widow and filmed in Munk's native village. Dreyer clearly felt a special affiliation to Munk's work, once stating: "I was so much happier doing Ordet when I felt myself very close to the conceptions of Kaj Munk."

When Dreyer died on March 20, 1968, he was preparing the screenplay for the film project Jesus, a detailed study on the beginning of Christianity and the origins of anti-Semitism. The surviving screenplay of this project attests to Dreyer's intense concern with prejudice as well as the unique nature of his artistic gift and vision.

Dementia: The Gothic Influence in the American Cinema

The traditional stylization of classical Hollywood cinema was dominated by the desire to present a carefully crafted appearance of reality. This photographic presentation of reality was achieved using an elaborate arsenal of optical illusions, beguiling the viewer into accepting the cinematic image as an accurate vision of the real world. This form of pseudo-realism remains one of the major legacies of the American cinema.

Not all American films, however, worked within that stylistic vein. The unreal subject matter of horror films allowed for a variety of styles which created a world more akin to a nightmare than to reality. The film noir genre also allowed an entire generation of filmmakers to create bleak and expressive films which presented a dissonant view of the turmoil and contradictions present in the American society of the post-World War Two era. Many of these "non-classical" Hollywood films were also strongly influenced by European film movements such as the German Expressionists.

The 1955 production of The Night of the Hunter was Charles Lauqhton's only work as a film director. Though he had worked extensively on stage as both an actor and director, the box office failure of The Night of Hunter abruptly ended Laughton's attempt to make more films. This was extremely unfortunate as Laughton displayed both a highly developed visual sensibility and an audacious gift for narrative in this film.

The screenplay for The Night of the Hunter, adapted by James Agee from a novel by David Grubbs, was largely ignored by Laughton who actually wrote the final shooting script himself. Therefore, the idiosyncratic quality of The Night of the Hunter is probably an accurate reflection of Laughton's own temperament.

Designed as a combination of morality play and modern fairy tale, The Night of the Hunter contained one of the most memorably deranged characters of the 1950s, Robert Mitchum's "preacher." Most importantly this character is the personification of the film's central theme: morality can exist only within the context of the never ending struggle between good and evil. The words "love" and "hate" tattooed on each of the Mitchum character's hands express this dichotomy.

A pair of hands are also of great importance in the 1935 film Mad Love, directed by Karl Freund. The film suggests the possibility that one's hands can control a person's character -- a bizarre premise that nonetheless becomes frighteningly logical within the nightmare world of the film.

Mad Love (USA 1935) was originally intended to be a remake of the 1924 German Expressionist film The Hands of Orlac by Robert Wiene. While Mad Love used this earlier film as its primary inspiration, the themes of the narrative were developed to a more excessive conclusion. The influence of the German Expressionist cinema is overtly evident in the film and derived not only from the mvoie's original source but also from the photographic skills of director Freund. Though he only directed a few films during his career, Freund was one of the greatest cinematographers of the period; some of his earliest photographic credits include such German films as The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1926).

Mad Love also marked Peter Lorre's American screen debut. Lorre had gained critical attention for his portrayal of the murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931) and as the spy in Alfred Hitchcock's original English production of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). He was able to convert this screen notoriety into a Hollywood film career which allowed him to leave Germany and Europe where his name was on a Nazi death list.

Perhaps the most peculiar film in the program is Nightmare Alley (USA 1947). How this film was produced by a major Hollywood studio during a time when caution and compromise were major considerations in the making of so-called "Grade-A" films, remains something of a mystery to film critics and historians. Its bleak and caustic view of American society seem excessive even for the film noir genre of the late 1940s. The film's narrative, in which a cynical con-artist manipulates his way through an even more cynical society, was totally contrary to the mainstream cinematic mood of the time.

The oddity of Nightmare Alley becomes even more obvious when one considers those who made it. The film was produced by George Jesse, who had previously produced only a few musicals, and directed by Edmund Goulding, a "prestige" director best known for such high-class dramas as Grand Hotel (USA 1932) and The Razor's Edge (USA 1946). It is most likely that the caustic sensibilities of Nightmare Alley can be attributed to the film's scriptwriter, Jules Furthman. It is also possible that Furthman was one of the few people involved in the film who actually grasped the unusual nature of Nightmare Alley.

In retrospect, some critics now feel that the film is more indicative of its time that was realized upon its original release. In the aftermath of World War Two, many American films attempted to create an artificial sense of normalcy. In rejecting this, Nightmare Alley offered a powerful antithesis, presenting the dark underside of that period's culture.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ken Russell: The Early Films

"Biographies seem to me rather like detective stories. You're given the clues of a man's life and you supply the motive for the crime, the crime being the work of art or the body of art produced by the man."
--Ken Russell

For the past 30 years, Ken Russell's work in British film and television has been the subject of praise and, often, intense condemnation. Though his films have ranged from experimental productions to Hollywood-style indulgences, Russell's most notable achievements have been within the genre of biography films. Virtually the entire first half of his film making career was dominated by this form, which he has recently returned to with his 1987 British television production of Clouds of Glory on William Wordsworth and the Romantic movement in English poetry. Granted, Russell's concerns are not necessarily rooted in either the facts of history or of the individual artist's life. Rather, he is obsessed by the larger and more fantastic meaning of an artist's life in relationship to the society and culture around him. In this regard, Russell's biography films are meant to be phantasmagoric evocations rather than strict documentaries and his own subjective viewpoint as the film's director is used freely as a referential guide to the facts and fictions surrounding the object of his attention.

Russell began his career as a photographer and independent filmmaker in the 1950s. Through the early critical success of his experimental films, especially Amelia and the Angel (England 1957), he was able to secure a film making position with the British Broadcasting Corporation. From 1959 to 1970, he directed 4 features and 30 shorts on subjects ranging from the British comedian Spike Milligan to the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. His 4 feature films for the BBC would, however, bring him his first taste of critical acclaim and near ruinous controversy. His last BBC film, The Dance of the Seven Veils: A Comic Strip in Seven Episodes on the Life of Richard Strauss (England 1970), was permanently banned after its only telecast and Russell found it best to pursue a "theatrical" film making career.

Yet his early BBC films remain, in many respects, among his finest accomplishments as a filmmaker. The 3 films that are available for public viewing—Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World (England 1966), Dante's Inferno (England 1967), and Song of Summer (England 1968)--represent Russell at his most disciplined and artistically controlled level. Arguably, the tight shooting budgets and greater aesthetic restrictions of television provoked him to a high degree of imaginative circumvention. The smallness of the screen, as well as Russell's perception of the potential narrowness of the viewer's mind, led him to develop a biographical cinema based upon shock values (e.g., the opening scene of Dante's Inferno); an editing structure built upon abrupt transitions; and an ability to radically shift in his films from the sublime to the ridiculous, from placid beauty to surreal absurdity. Most of the techniques he would expand upon in his "theatrical" films had their origins in his early television productions.

Russell's first feature-length television film was Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World. It was produced at about the same time as Karel Reisz's theatrical film Isadora (England 1969) and Russell was handicapped by the fact that the producers of the other film had acquired the rights to virtually every biography that had been written on Duncan. The one biography that they had overlooked was an obscure book about Duncan's travels in Russia and South America. Further, one of Duncan's biographers, and personal acquaintances, Sewell Stokes, was still alive and Russell correctly reasoned that they couldn't have bought the film rights to Stokes' memories. This eclectic set of sources formed the basis for Russell's perspective in the film.

In Isadora Duncan: The Biggest Dancer in the World, Russell created one of his first sustained statements on the artist as part genius and part posturer. The film swings wildly between moments of near transcendental splendor and sudden outbreaks of vulgar showmanship as Russell mediates upon the gap between Duncan's artistic drives and the effect of time that gnaws at the dancer's physical and personal stamina.

The painful distance that can exist between an artist's ideals and his or her own life is a central concern of Dante's Inferno. In his approach to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Russell was less concerned with the minute details of history than with the larger philosophical and psychological significance of the movement's failure. For Russell, Rossetti is a paradox of idealism and crude appetites. Rossetti's poetic concept of platonic love is contradicted by his overt sexual desires and his idealized art is increasingly consumed by the dictates of merchandising. As he dissipates himself, Rossetti increasingly realizes how he has failed both his art and those around him. The film's final image, an abrupt cut from a drugged and aging Rossetti to the ending credits played out to a calliope version of the song "I Just Want to be Happy," summarizes the elusive nature of his desires.

The contrast that can, and often does exist, between great art and the personality of its creator is the subject matter of Song of Summer. Co-written by Eric Fenby, Frederick Delius' personally selected biographer, the film avoids the one-dimensional tract of a mere hagiography. Rather, it concentrates upon the demanding nature of art and the sacrifices that are made for the artist by those around him. Song of Summer is based upon the brief work relationship between Delius and Fenby and the philosophical difference that existed between Fenby's Catholicism and Delius' atheism. Russell's own unorthodox, and occasionally heretical, notion of Catholicism allowed him a strangely emotional and sympathetic attitude toward Fenby's biographical viewpoint and, in that regard, toward Delius himself.

Godard: The Last Revolutionary

"The Right is stupid because they are cruel; the Left is stupid because they are sentimental,"
--Jean-Luc Godard (from Made in USA)

When the French New Wave movement swept through the cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard quickly became the most prominent and, increasingly, most controversial figure among.this unique collection of critics turned filmmakers. Even at the beginning of his career, with the production of Breathless (France 1959), he was the most experimental of the New Wave artists. During the 1960s, however, he also became the most overtly political filmmaker in France as his cinema increasingly maneuvered between post-Modernist aesthetics and Maoist politics. Not that Godard viewed film as a mere platform for political expression. For Godard, the cinema was already an extension of the political world and the film maker's sense of camera framing and editing were the equivalent of an ideological statement.

During the 1960s, Godard became concerned with the dismantling of narrative cinema and the eradication of the potentially reactionary political content inherent within traditional cinematic forms. Rather than create comfortable "stories" for his audience to watch, Godard concentrated on exposing and fragmenting the techniques and structures of film making itself. In turn, his films increasingly juxtaposed the narrative text with the actual process of film making, thereby forcing the viewer into an active engagement with the screen instead of a merely passive acceptance of the film. Further, Godard's experiments were not simply an intellectual exercise. They were the first steps toward a new, and highly radical, reassessment of art, language, society, and political ideology.

Pierrot le Fou (France 1965) is loosely based on a second-rate American paperback novel that was originally a cross between a mystery thriller and Lolita. Godard, however, was more interested in the political crisis that dominated the early 1960s, including the wars in Vietnam, Yemen, and Angola, the aftermath of the Algerian Revolution, and the Kennedy assassination. His producers were, on the other hand, hoping for a gangster film. In Pierrot le Fou, Godard essentially took all of the above references and mixed them into a colorful wide screen collage in which the greater whole of the narrative is purposefully meant to be less important than the contradictory statements of the film's various scenes.

For Godard, the political world expresses itself through the structures of personal life. Une Femme Mariee (France 1964) is, on the surface, a sardonic view of modern marriage. However, the film really concerns itself with the way in which advertising controls our subconscious and thereby conditions the attitudes of society. Godard has accused advertising of being a form of fascism because of the way it attempts (often successfully) to bypass rational thought and manipulate people's needs and desires at an irrational level. The title character of Une Femme Mariee is framed through-out much of the film against a backdrop of billboards, neon signs, and other ads. She is a product of a society controlled by the marketplace.

A recurring motif in Godard's films is the idea that modern society is predicated upon the buying and selling of people's bodies, minds, and talents. In such films as Une Femme Mariee and Vivre sa Vie (France 1962), prostitution is presented as the major metaphor for modern life (or as Bertolt Brecht wrote when he worked in Hollywood: "Each morning I go into the market­place to sell my wares"). The need to sell one's self in the marketplace is, according to Godard, what modern society has reduced humanity to.

Vivre sa Vie is also the first film in which Godard completely integrated style and subject matter, Divided into twelve tableaux, Vivre sa Vie is constructed more as an essay than a novel. Each section of the film is a different paragraph in the discourse, and the fragmented theme music by Michel Legrand is used as a punctuation. Godard's camera movements and long-takes are the methods by which he constructs his sentences. As in a fugue, the soundtrack in Vivre sa Vie is meant to counterpoint the visual images rather than to accentuate them.

Superficially, Masculine-Feminine (France 1966) is a character study of three Parisian youths. The personal details of their lives, however, are actually an extension of the events surrounding them and throughout the film the violent schisms of society intrude into the film's foreground. Further, the film freely flaunts the artificiality of the narrative form by interjecting into the text references to other narratives, including the play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones and a film-within-the-film which presents a sadomasochistic Swedish version of a story by Guy de Maupassant. The real subject matter of Masculine-Feminine is the decade itself and the contradictions of the 1960s.

The production of Le Gai Savoir (.France 1968) marked a crucial transition in Godard's cinema. The experiments of the early and mid 1960s, and Godard's attempt to reform narrative film making, were over. Now, Godard was determined to destroy narrative film making and force the cinema to a "zero-degree" style from which a new, politically radical, form of film making could emerge, Further, Godard's critical concerns had gone beyond the limited world of the cinema as he became increasingly preoccupied with language and its ideological content. The meaning of words, and the way these meanings shape our understanding of the world, is presented in Le Gai Savoir as the first major battleground for revolutionary change.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Milos Forman: The Human Comedy

The difference between the cinema of Eastern and Western Europe is, in part, a difference in history. The post-World War II period - from 1945 to the present-widened the gap. Western European cinema has been largely influenced by the commercialism of the United States. Eastern European cinema, however, has been dictated by the ideological demands socialist state. Not that Eastern European cinema has been reduced to simple propaganda. Instead, the filmmakers of such countries as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland have developed their own unique traditions and the concerns of their films are complex and surprisingly non-dogmatic.

The mid-sixties in Czechoslovakia, prior to the 1968 Soviet invasion, was an especially active and inventive period. A new generation of film­makers were breaking away from the legacy of social realism and the Stalinist era. Artists like Milos Forman, Jan Kadar, and Ivan Passer began exploring contemporary subjects and the realities of life in modern Czechoslovakia. Highly satirical, and often controversial, the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave recorded the minor triumphs and major defeats of the human spirit when confronted with the burdens of politics, history, and life in general. In a land where Franz Kafka is considered a humorist, comedy is a little darker and largely derives from the subtle observations of one's own entrapment.

One of the most important of the Czech New Wave filmmakers of the mid-sixties is Milos Forman. Born in 1932, Forman grew up during the critical periods of the Nazi rule of Czechoslovakia in the forties and the purges by Stalin in the fifties. As with every filmmaker in Eastern Europe, history was an important force in shaping Forman's attitudes. He studied at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Prague and by the late fifties he was writing screenplays and radio scripts. It was not until 1963, however, that Forman would direct his first film, a short called The Audition (Czech 1963). This film also marked the beginning of the collaboration bet­ween Forman and co-screenwriter Ivan Passer.

Though a minor film, The Audition is worth noting for two aspects that became common traits in Forman's films. The first is the performance of music, in particular the actual act of playing music and the personali­ties of the performers. The second is the generation gap. Like many of his fellow Czech New Wave filmmakers, Forman explored the aspirations and disappointments of young people confronted by a society made rigid by political dogma, a strict social structure, and an official obsession with recent history (i.e. World War II and the fight against fascism). This, along with the increasingly liberal policies of the Czechoslovakian government during the sixties, allowed Forman to humorously explore the problems and contradictions of present society. Though his films were never as controversial as those of other Czech New Wave filmmakers like Jan Nemec (whose film A Report on the Party and the Guests - Czech 1966 - has been banned forever in Czechoslovakia), Forman humorously dealt with the disappointments and bewilderments of his generation.

Forman's first feature film, Black Peter (Czech 1964), has a strong resemblance to the Antoine Doinel films by Truffaut. Peter, like Antoine, is a young man who seems unsure of his place in society. His job as a store detective places him in a position as an agent of established order, yet he looks on complacently when a stout woman shop­lifts candy from the store. His father, a part time bandmaster, is a petty dictator who becomes embarrassed when lecturing his son about a book on the human body. As is so often the case in Forman's films, the older generation lacks any direction for the future and the new generation is confused and adrift.

Black Peter has a very improvised, cinema-veritie appearance which would change in Forman's work to a progressively more structured approach. His second feature, Loves of a Blonde (Czech 1965), is more carefully constructed than Black Peter. However, Forman retained his strong sense for the details and ironies of everyday life. Forman once said in an interview, "All the most important and immediate conflicts in life are between different, equally well-intentioned people's conception of what the best is." This conflict of intentions, which is first stated in Loves of a Blonde, would become the central thesis of Forman's films. Andula, the blonde of the title, discovers that the forces of society, family, and propriety are stronger than romantic love. Though her lover's parents are distrustful and protective, they have only the best of intentions.

The ruthless tyranny of good intentions is the central point of Forman's best known and, perhaps, greatest work. Although the subject of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (USA 1975) seemed quintessentially American, Forman's sensibilities added depth which the novel essentially lacked. In the novel, the character of Big Nurse was a crude, two dimensional figure of malevolence. But in the film, with Forman's rewrite and Louise Fletcher's understated performance, the character's evil stems from her blind adherence to official policy. Her intentions are, arguably, better than those of Nicholson's McMurphy, but McMurphy's instinctive mis­behavior may be more therapeutic.

The novel's essentially Freudian viewpoint is still evident in the film, in which the central battle is between McMurphy's father figure and Big Nurse's mother figure and McMurphy's ultimate fate is a form of cas­tration, but Forman is more interested in the social implications of the narrative rather than the psychological. As is the case in Eastern European films about the Stalinist era, the real evil comes from the unbending and unforgiving rule of a supreme authority figure. Having fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 in order to escape the Soviet invasion, Forman has a strong intuitive knowledge of authority figures who forcefully impose their own particular notions of good intentions.

Forman arrived in the United States during the turbulence of the late sixties. His first American film, Taking Off (USA 1971), attempts to summarize his bemused first impressions of his adopted country. It is not surprising that Forman's first American film would concern the generation gap, but unlike Black Peter, Taking Off viewed the gap from the parents' perspective. Their attempts to bridge the gap takes the parents through a series of misunderstandings and failed intentions before they realize that they, like their daughter, are equally confused. In this respect, Buck Henry's father in Taking Off is directly linked with the young man in Black Peter. Being older does not mean greater wisdom, but only an increase in perplexity. For Forman, perplexity is the one thing in life you can be sure of.