Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Olivier and Shakespeare

Laurence Olivier may be one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. He is also, undeniably, one of the major interpreters of the plays of William Shakespeare in the cinema. While other filmmakers rival Olivier's Shakespearean work -- most notably Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa -- he has demonstrated a striking and intuitive sense of the language, and its meaning, of the Elizabethan bard. In our program, "Olivier and Shakespeare," we present three films -- two of which were directed by Olivier -- in which he presented his skills as both an actor and as a Shakespearean student.

It is appropriate that Olivier, who was born in 1907, would make his stage debut at the age of 14 as Kate in a school production of The Taming of the Shrew. Soon afterwards, he devoted his studies to acting at various schools and the Birmingham Repertory Company. He was encouraged in his dramatic studies by his father, an Anglican minister whose delivery of sermons were notoriously theatrical. His extensive training, combined with his own natural good looks, made it possible for Olivier to enter film acting in 1930.

His earliest films are, on the whole, uninteresting. Though he grew a moustache in order to emulate his screen idol, Ronald Colman, he did not succeed as a romantic leading man. His screen career would not really begin until 1935, when he signed a contract with the British producer Alexander Korda. It would be these early Korda films, as well as a variety of stage roles, that would begin to attract critical attention to Olivier. By 1937, he had joined the Old Vic theater company and had successfully played such roles as Hamlet, Henry V, and Macbeth.

Though Olivier was the star of one of the few major Shakespearean films of the 1930s, As You Like It (England 1936), he was not totally pleased with the stylistic approaches which the cinema had taken to Shakespeare's plays. Paul Czinner's production of As You Like It was most opulent and avoided the excessive superficiality of some of the other Shakespearean productions of the period. Like the other films, however, it made extensive cuts to both the text and the language in an attempt to reach a broader audience.

Fidelity to the text was not, however, Olivier's chief concern. In his own production of Hamlet (England 1948), he was willing to make numerous cuts to the text (in fact, he removed nearly an hour's worth' of footage from the film in order to bring it down to its release length). A fidelity to both the language and the spirit of the text were, however, very important to Olivier.

It is not surprising that his first film as director would be the 1944 production of Henry V, a role which was a favorite of his. The film was made by Olivier as a patriotic epic and it was produced by the British Ministry of Information as a morale booster during World War Two. Prior to the war, Olivier felt a hesitation about performing the part on stage because he felt that the audience might not accept the role's suggestively jingoistic sensibility. The hardships and devastation brought about by the war, however, convinced Olivier to produce the film.

In directing Henry V, Olivier attempted to unite the theatrical language of Shakespeare with the naturalistic qualities of the photo­graphic image. The film opens and closes within the confines of the Globe Theater, Shakespeare's own theater. By bracketing the vividly realistic scenes of the film between the opening and ending shots of the Elizabethan stage performance, Olivier attempted to bridge the distance between the artificiality of the theater and the realism of the cinema.

The making of Henry V had exhausted Olivier and he swore that he would never attempt a Shakespearean film ever again. With the 1948 production of Hamlet, he fortunately proved incapable of keeping that oath. He had also intended to only direct Hamlet, not to act in it. Money for the production, however, was only available if Olivier played the role. With great reluctance, he again functioned as both actor and director in a demanding production.

The filming of Hamlet took place during a difficult period in Olivier's career. He and his wife, Vivian Leigh, were just recovering from a Hollywood boycott against them that was allegedly sponsored by David 0. Selznick when they had bolted from their contract with him. In turn, a variety of strains were being placed on the marriage due to Leigh's increasingly deteriorating mental condition. Likewise, rumors of an alleged affair between Olivier and his co-star, Jean Simmons, did not help either.

In filming Hamlet, Olivier selected black and white as the photo­graphic tone for the work, contrary to the vibrant colors which dominated Henry V. He also decided upon using "deep focus" for the photographic structure of the film, thereby stressing the spatial relationships of the film's sets and giving an equal compositional balance to the film's characters. The fact that he achieved this complex balance in Hamlet is a tribute to Olivier's skills as an artist.

Orson Welles: The Artisitc Ego

"I believe, thinking about my films, that they are based not so much on pursuit as on a search. If we are looking for something, the labyrinth is the most favorable location for the search. I do not know why, but my films are all for the most part a physical search."
- Orson Welles

In 1938, Orson Welles directed a radio production of The War of the Worlds which so frightened the nation that many people actually fled for the hills. For an actor, writer, and director at the age of 23, it was an amazing acknowledgement of his talents and the first of many controversies that this wunderkind would provoke. His off-Broadway Richard Wright's Native Son in 1941 caused great social discussion just as his 1955 verse-play of Moby Dick provoked a storm of literary debate. When he made his film debut with Citizen Kane (USA 1941), a thinly disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst, Welles provoked more than just controversy, he also provoked Hearst. Hearst's power as a newspaper tycoon was waning when Citizen Kane was made, but he and his associates were still able to harass Welles for years.

The controversies are, however, insignificant in regards to Welles's films. He is one of the greatest, and one of the most idiosyncratic, film­makers in the cinema. His combination of brilliance and megalomania delight and annoy the viewer simultaneously. He refuses, however, to bore the audience and even his detractors cannot deny that his films are at least lively enough to enrage them.

Welles was born on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father was an inventor, industrialist, and hotelier and his mother was a concert pianist. His parents loved to travel and their friends included such people as Harry Houdini and William Randolph Hearst. His parents died while he was a child and Welles was raised by his guardian, Dr. Bernstein. When he was 16, Welles left school and traveled to Ireland where he attempted a career as a painter. Painting, however, was the one art form in which Welles failed. Finding himself stranded in Dublin with little money and an interest in working in the theater, he attempted to convince the owners of the Dublin Gate Theater that he was a famous American actor who had decided to grace them with his talents. They did not believe him, but were impressed by his audacity and hired him to play minor parts. By 1932, when he was barely 17, he was directing plays by Ibsen and Chekhov at the theater.

Welles returned to America in the mid-1930s and went to work in both theater and radio. He directed an all-black production of Macbeth and, for a brief time, provided the voice for The Shadow radio series. During this time, he and a group of other performers banded together as the "Mercury Theater" and produced a series of radio plays, the most infamous being The War of the Worlds. It was the "Mercury Theater" that Welles took with him to Hollywood for the production of Citizen Kane.

Welles was given total control over Citizen Kane, an unprecedented act by any Hollywood film studio. He filmed on a closed set and the details of the production were kept secret. Prior to the film's release, however, word leaked out that it was loosely based on Hearst's life and his news­papers began a protracted campaign against both Welles and the film. The release of Citizen Kane was delayed and Welles, who was already listed as 4-F, was repeatedly drafted by the Army, courtesy of Hearst's influence.

Hearst's outrage over Citizen Kane can be appreciated, for the film freely borrows from the various scandals which surrounded him. It is Welles, however, who is most exposed in the film. Welles lost both of his parents at the age of 8, the same age that Kane is sent away from his parents. The character of Bernstein in Citizen Kane was modeled after Welles's guardian. Kane's megalomania seems, in retrospect, to be a mirror image of Welles's own ego. In an interview, Welles once stated that Hearst did not have enough style to be Kane. Welles is notorious for style.

Perhaps Hearst should have been offended by the fact that his life was used as a stage upon which Welles strutted his own self-absorption. The dominant theme in all of Welles's films is that of the supreme egotist who must ultimately fail due to his inability to truly control the world around him. Welles may flaunt his own megalomania, but he does so in order to critique it and no other filmmaker has ever been so harsh when it comes to self-criticism.

For many critics, Welles's other films are elaborate footnotes to Citizen Kane. Though this is not true, and many of these films are unique in their own right, they certainly continue the concerns of Welles's original work. The Trial (France 1962) presents society as a cruel, irrational force which has an ego of its own; an ego to which the individual must either adapt or be punished. In this respect, it is as if Charles Foster Kane had succeeded in creating his artificial universe (the Xanadu of Citizen Kane) and we, the viewer, are trapped within it.

The Lady From Shanghai (USA 1948) deals indirectly with the destruction of the universe. All of the characters, except Welles's, are self-absorbed with their own fears, desires, and need to control others. The film's finale, a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors, presents the world as a complex series of self-reflections which are eventually shattered by a barrage of gunfire. In no other film has the self-destructive nature of megalomania ever been presented with such fascination as well as contempt.

With Falstaff (Chimes at Midnight - Spain/Switzerland 1966), Welles attempted in to explain himself. Like Kane, Falstaff is an egotist who seems concerned only with himself. His need, however, for love and approval from others is far greater and his inability to achieve this is painful to him. Kane's wealth insulated him from his own feelings. Falstaff has nothing but his feelings and in this regard, he is like a child. Unlike Kane, Falstaff knows that he does not control the world and, at the same time, he knows that he cannot change his nature.

Falstaff's ego is tempered by the fact that he knows better, and this conflict in his character makes him the most humane, and ultimately tragic, figure in all of Welles's films, It is as if Welles is saying that the overbearing nature of his ego is due to the fact that he has no other perspective from which to view the world. His self-absorption is actually a dynamic form of introspection.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Italian Cinema: Beyond Neo-Realism

In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Italy became the national force behind one of the most important movements in the modern cinema: the Italian Neo-Realist movement. Beginning with such films as Rome: Open City (Italy 1945) by Roberto Rossellini and La Terra Trema (Italy 1947) by Luchino Visconti, as well as the early films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica, the Italian cinema brought to the art of film making an overt social and political consciousness. With the fall of Mussolini's Fascist government and the end of the Fascist controls which had stifled the Italian cinema of the 1930s, an energetic spirit of film making literally took to the streets of Rome.

Though the filmmakers of the Neo-Realist movement were very different from each other, they shared certain common concerns. The recent political history and diverse social conditions of modern Italy were the central subject matter of the original Neo-Realist productions. Likewise, the Neo-Realist filmmakers combined a seemingly objective cinematic style with subjective, and overtly political, viewpoints. Whether they were moderate democratic figures like Rossellini and De Sica, or avowed Marxists like Visconti and, later, Bernardo Bertolucci, the filmmakers of the Neo-Realist movement immersed themselves in the vivid turmoil of contemporary Italy.

Aesthetically, the Neo-Realist movement presented the triumph of spatial realism over editing and montage. Long-takes and camera motion be­came the chief tools of this cinema. In these films, the artificial recon­struction of reality through the editing process was replaced by an intense concern for the ever changing nature of an open-ended sense of composition and perspective. The Neo-Realist camera would prowl the set (which often would be a real location), delineating the spatial dimensions perceived through the lens and allowing the compositional elements of the image to shift and change.

By the mid-1950s, the Italian cinema began to change, but the basic tenets of Neo-Realism remained an important influence. Increasingly, new forces were being felt by Italian filmmakers and the Neo-Realist cinema had to adapt to the unique demands of the period. The need for increased pro­duction monies led Italian filmmakers into a series of co-production ventures. This meant, however, that Italian films had to address themselves to broader European concerns and risk losing some of their Italian perspective. The Italian filmmakers also began shifting away from the special realism of the early films and toward the more internalized concerns of psychoanalysis. The short-lived economic boom of the 1960s and the rapid expansion of modern industrialization created an increasing sense of alienation in Italian society as the ancient landscapes and cities were seemingly replaced by the dehumanizing forms of modern technology. This resulted in a nostalgia for the pre-Fascist past, especially the 19th century and the agrarian culture of the Italian countryside. This nostalgia was not, however, uncritical; Italians explored their past in search of the roots of their contemporary problems.

It was because of these complex and diverse forces that the Italian cinema entered its second great period during the 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, a second generation of major film­makers emerged and many of the earlier artists of the Neo-Realist movement entered new stages in their own development, producing films which were sometimes even more impressive than their original work. It was an active and dynamic decade that still overshadows the minor achievements of the 1980s. In this program, we present some of the significant films in the Italian cinema during this last great period.

One of the most famous of the second generation filmmakers to appear in the 1960s was Bernardo Bertolucci. Though The Conformist (Italy/France/W.Germany 1970) was his first film to receive wide inter­national attention, Bertolucci was already known in Italy for his work both as a filmmaker and as a poet. His earliest films, such as Before the Revolution (Italy 1964) and The Spider's Stratagem (Italy 1970), were expressive of his political concerns with Marxist ideals as well as his revisionist view of recent Italian history. He became increasingly concerned, however, with Freudian psychology and sexuality, as demonstrated in his production of Last Tango in Paris (Italy/France 1972) and Luna (Italy/USA 1979). While Marxism and Freudianism are not necessarily contra­dictory, Bertolucci's growing interest in psychology paralleled his dis­enchantment with conventional Marxist politics. Both The Conformist and, especially, 1900 (Italy/USA 1976) are indicative of this developing con­tradiction in his films.

The question of sexual identity and political commitment are central to The Conformist. The film's narrative, in which Jean-Louis Trintignant's character attempts to hide a homosexual episode from his youth by mindlessly conforming to the Fascist society around him, suggests the coercive nature of ideology. Though his father is an imprisoned Leftist, Trintignant's character joins Mussolini's political party and becomes a member of the Fascist secret service. The meaninglessness and banality of his actions are ultimately exposed by a series of political, sexual, and finally, murderous confrontations in which his lack of convictions results in brutal­ity and betrayal.

Though his best-known films are those of the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni originally emerged as part of the Neo-Realist movement. His earliest feature films, such as Cronaca di un Amore (Italy 1950), were already moving toward a cool, austere stylization which prefigured the abstract and demanding aesthetics of his later works. With the production of L'Avventura (Italy 1959), La Notte (Italy 1960), L'Eclisse (Italy 1962), and Red Desert (Italy 1964), Antonioni created a stunning series of films which successfully redefined the spatial concerns of the Italian cinema.

In Red Desert, as in his other films, the spatial relationships of Antonioni's compositions emphasize negative space and accent the strange and ugly appearance of the industrial landscape surrounding the film's characters. This was also Antonioni's first film in color; he used a striking range of garish contrasts and monochromatic design in order to invoke the madness and alienation felt by Monica Vitti's character. With Red Desert, Antonioni created a genuinely disturbing vision of a world dominated by slag heaps, factories, and industrial waste.

Like Antonioni's career, Pietro Germi's went back to the beginning of the Neo-Realist movement. Though Germi had a long film making career and had produced a substantial range of works, he is probably best known for two comedy films of the 1960s--Divorce, Italian Style (Italy 1962) and Seduced and Abandoned (Italy 1964).In these films, Germi presented a series of bitingly savage satires on Italian society and mores.

In Seduced and Abandoned, Germi deals with the contradictions of Sicilian culture and the self-serving mentality of the Italian male. The film's black humor systematically exposes the hypocrisies of the characters' actions and outlines the particular conditions of Sicilian life. As in Germi's other comedy films, the slapstick and farce of Seduced and Abandoned succeeds in chastening the more dubious aspects of Italian behavior.

As a filmmaker, novelist, poet, and essayist, Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the most important — and most controversial — Italian artists of the 1960s, Even his violent death in 1975 remains a subject of heated debate. His films, however, provide a complex legacy which ranged from the harsh Neo-Realist statement of Accattone (Italy 1961) to the psychological and political subject matter of Teorema (Italy 1968) and Pigsty (Italy 1969). The abrasive, and often extreme, nature of Pasolini's films made him an unusual director for a religious film. Yet his production of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Italy 1966) is one of the few serious and intelligent works ever made on the life of Christ.

The film was a fairly close adaptation of Saint Matthew's gospel, tracing the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Resurrection. By using a documentary style of photography and a cast of non-professionals for his cast, Pasolini invoked the spirit and stylization of the Neo-Realist cinema. In the film, he places a strong emphasis on Christ's place within the context of the politics and history of the gospel's time period. In making The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Pasolini attempted to create a grand synthesis of Christianity and Marxist politics. In the process, he created a film of unique intensity and integrity.

The paradoxical life and career of Luchino Visconti parallels the contradictions of modern Italy. A direct heir to the Visconti title, he rejected his aristocratic heritage and became a member of the Italian Communist Party. As one of the founding members of the Neo-Realist movement, Visconti actually lived with Sicilian peasants and fishermen during the production of La Terra Trema. Yet Visconti was a supreme aesthete whose films contained an odd combination of Marxist analysis and operatic grandeur. By the 1960s and 1970s, his films were obsessed by history and decadence as he articulated a series of visual treatises on the futilities and failures of politics and art.

Visconti's production of Death in Venice (Italy/France 1971) was a curiously personal production for him. Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, the theme of both the story and film were close to Visconti's own personal situation and concerns. His failing health and growing estrange­ment from the modern world was similar to that of the central character of Death in Venice and the eulogistic tone of the film was indicative of Visconti's own feeling of nostalgia as well as knowledge of the deceits of history and the social bankruptcy of the past.Bern

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ingmar Bergman: Major Works

"There are many filmmakers who forget that the human face is the starting point in our work. To be sure, we can become absorbed by the aesthetic of the picture montage, we can blend objects and still life's into wonderful rhythms, we can fashion nature studies of astonishing beauty, but the proximity of the human face is without doubt the film's distinguishing mark and patent of nobility.'
--Ingmar Bergman

Since 1945, Ingmar Bergman has produced a series of films that are critically notable for their emotional intensity and extensive philosophic reach. His films have consistently dealt with a highly defined set of evolving themes that have, at their core, an overwhelming concern with individual consciousness. With this acute sense of self-awareness, Bergman has repeatedly explored the repressive side of human nature, the potential sterility of intellectual ism, and God's apparent indifference to mankind. Firmly rooted in the literary and philosophic traditions of August Strindberg and Soren Kierkegaard, Bergman is an artist whose films asks questions rather than present answers and his search for meaning within a possibly meaningless universe brings Bergman to the forefront of existentialist inquiry in the cinema. Though some critics have periodically accused him of latent narcissism, Bergman is one of the few filmmakers whose work transcends the flat and shadowy limitations of the screen.

Bergman was born in 1918 to the family of a stern and aloof Lutheran minister. In his childhood, he received an extensive exposure to religious doctrine and education. The theatre, however, became Bergman's great interest and one of his fondest childhood memories would be of magic lantern shows. The magic lantern, a primitive forerunner to the cinema, would be an all important reference point for the mature Bergman in the 1930s and 1940s as he became a theatre playwright and director and, beginning in 1944, a regular screenwriter for Svensk Filmindustri.

His transition from screenwriter to writer-director would take place in 1945 with the production of Crisis. This was the first of 12 minor films directed by Bergman that would, in retrospect, present his crucial first steps toward his major works of the 1950s. While most of Bergman's early films were realistic studies on the increasing potential for alienation within modern Swedish society, these works also provided Bergman with a good training ground in which he finely honed his skills for narrative structure while collecting round him the actors and actresses who would form a virtual repertory company under his command.

By the early 1950s, Bergman was increasingly directing films whose unique themes and stylization clearly identified them as the artistic achievement of his own singular vision. This was first, and most genuinely achieved in Sawdust and Tinsel (Sweden 1953). The film's barren landscape mirrors its emotional theme in which the bluster of masculine sexuality and pride is exposed as a shallow reservoir of guilt and spiritual impotency.

By the second half of the 1950s, Bergman created some of his most ambitious efforts. The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957) became his supreme state­ment on the human condition. In the film, idealism and pragmatism are divided between Max von Sydow's knight and Gunnar Bjornstrand's squire. Suggestively, through out the film, neither God nor devil exists and only Death, who engages the knight in an ongoing game of chess, seemingly represents the greater cosmic order. It is against this "silence of God" that Bergman also directed such films as The Virgin Spring (Sweden 1959) -- the one film by Bergman in which God answers -- and The Silence (Sweden 1963), a film in which even human communication ultimately fails.

Age and death are the final arbitrators of life in both Wild Strawberries (Sweden 1957) and Autumn Sonata (Sweden 1978). With age comes a lifetime accumulation of memories, regrets, and the deep self-awareness of a once possible happiness that was never achieved. The surrealistic veneer of Wild Strawberries contrasts sharply with the realistic and intimate structure of Autumn Sonata, but both films address themselves to Bergman's concern with mortality and the complex, and often failed, inter-relationship between love and family.

Bunuel's Mexico

"Whether he uses the device of dream or poetry or cinematic
narrative, Bunuel the poet penetrates man's profoundest being and
reaches the most unexpressed, deep-lying areas of his inner self.
His hell. And his heaven...."
--Octavio Paz

Luis Bunuel's reputation as an important and daring filmmaker was first established in France with Un Chien Andalou (1928)and L'Age d'Or (1930), as well as the Spanish documentary film Las Hurdes (1932). In these three early works, Bunuel's social and political concerns were already evident along with his surrealist convictions. For Bunuel, the difference between the surrealistic experimentation of Un Chien Andalou and the stark realism of Las Hurdes was only a matter of a slight shift in perception. Often, his surrealism was used to express a scathing sense of social criticism. In turn, his more realistic productions contained a striking sense of the dream-like nature of reality.

This unique quality of Bunuel's cinema is especially evident in the films which he made in Mexico during the 1950s. Virtually all of his Mexican films were made as "commercial" productions, ranging from light comedies to musicals to melodramas. Within the context of the commercial cinema, however, Bunuel was able to interject his own personal vision. With a combination of artistic skill and subversive charm, Bunuel created some of his most provocative films.

Two examples of Bunuel's ability to undermine a film's narrative context can be found in The Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953) and El Bruto (1952). The Illusion Travels by Streetcar is intended to be a picaresque comedy in which a junked streetcar becomes the central stage for a minor gesture of working class rebellion. The theft of the streetcar results in the creation of an extended feeling of community among the workers who travel on the car, and a sense of disturbance among the wealthy. The slight joke of The Illusion Travels by Streetcar allowed Bunuel to fashion a satiric presentation in which the streetcar becomes a microcosm of class-consciousness and anarchistic impulses.

The melodramatic conventions of El Bruto are subverted by Bunuel into a covert form of political criticism and a very overt expression of destructive sexuality. The principal character in El Bruto is largely incapable of understanding his role within a system of oppression until he himself becomes a murderous agent in the system's employ. His progression from butcher in a slaughter­house to hired assassin for a landlord is presented as a logical step in a brutal social order.

El Bruto's class awareness is raised, marginally, by the love he feels for a rent striker's daughter, but the more chaotic force of sexual desire finally consumes him. While the pure love he feels for one woman causes him to reassess his previous actions, he cannot cope with the seductive gestures of his employer's wife which, literally, reduce him to barking like a dog.

In both El Bruto and Los Olvidados (1950), Bunuel explores the condition of people who live on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The children who live in the slum presented in Los Olvidados exist within an environment in which the moral notions of good and evil have, for all practical purpose, no meaning. The innocence of Pedro, one of the film's main characters, renders him weak as opposed to the stronger, more corrupt figure of Jaibo. The horrific conditions of the slum world depicted by Bunuel essentially negates any and all moral possibilities.

The severe pessimism of Los Olvidados is balanced by the more dialectical structure of The River and Death (1955). The film's narrative is concerned with the irrational force of an ongoing blood feud and the need to overcome such impulses with reason and humanity. The village community of The River and Death is near feudalistic in its customs and behavior and Bunuel is not unduly optimistic. The pattern of reconciliation which forms in The River and Death is achieved only after a protracted process of systematic slaughter.

Bunuel once stated that "In the hands of a free spirit the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon." During his Mexican period, Bunuel worked within the confines of commercial concerns and budgetary limitations. In spite of this, he produced a series of works which are unique in the cinema. He remained, most defiantly, a free spirit.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hitchcock: Two Lost Works

Though he directed nine feature-length films during the silent era, Alfred Hitchcock's early works are rarely revived. With the exception of The Lodger (England 1926), Hitchcock's silent productions were non-thrillers and for most of the 1920s he was best known for directing domestic melodramas and, occasionally, comedies. Yet it was during this period that Hitchcock learned his skills as a filmmaker and his silent productions often display a surprisingly strong sense of visual daring and technical virtuosity. Further, his silent melodramas tend to reveal aspects of Hitchcock's thematic concerns that are often hidden beneath the more overt chills of his suspense films.

A film that was of major importance in the critical advancement of Hitchcock's reputation was The Ring (England 1927). Written by Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, the film was his first production for British International and the producer John Maxwell. Though the work relationship between Hitchcock and Maxwell would last until 1932, it was often strained by Maxwell's insistence on producing films adapted from the theater. Hitchcock was more interested in exploring his own emerging sense of cinematic art and The Ring was a determined effort to combine photographic naturalism with the experimental techniques of the Russian Avant-Garde and German Expressionist cinemas.

The Ring was also the first of ten films in which Hitchcock collaborated with the cinematographer Jack Cox. Together they successfully created images of stark light and dark, smoke-filled shadows that would have a profound effect upon a generation of English photographers, including Bill Brandt who was especially attracted to the visual structure of The Ring. Within the traditionally stage-bound English cinema of the 1920s, The Ring was like a gauntlet being thrown by a young director who was already in command of his art and was anxiously attempting to test the limits of film further than the constraints of the British film industry would allow.

His second film for Maxwell, The Farmer's Wife (England 1928), was based on a popular play of the period. This gesture of appeasement to Maxwell's sense of standards persuaded Hitchcock to approach the film as an act of mere craftsmanship. It did, however, allow him a chance to display his gift for comedy, a skill that Hitchcock would slyly use in many of his later suspense films.

In a way, The Farmer's Wife represents a light-hearted variation on one of the major themes in The Ring. The conditions of marriage, the illusions of love, and necessary betrayals forced by conflicting social and psychological, was a recurring concern that dominated much of Hitchcock's work. In The Ring, these contradictions can only be resolved through a perverse combination of pain and sentimentality. In The Farmer's Wife, a surprising act of good common sense is all that i takes to end the ever escalating humiliations suffered by the film's romantically inclined character. In both cases, masculine pride proves worthless against the forces of love and matrimony.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The 1920s: Films of the Deco Decade

Art deco, art nouveau, and the Viennese secession styles are all prevalent in the vibrant photography and set designs of many of the grandiose and decadent films of the 1920s. This unique combination of grand, sweeping visual gestures and, at times, delirious excesses embodies a dominate strain of the culture and, in some cases also reflects, the contradictions that were evident in both the cinema and the history of the period. This program presents four of the major films of the deco decade -- works that represent a distinctive sampling of the period's popular aesthetics and its own unique image.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (England/Germany 1925) was a co-production between the British producer Michael Balcon and the German Erich Pommer who was one of the key figures in the development of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock was an unknown quantity in 1925 since, prior to his direct­orial debut on The Pleasure Garden, he had worked primarily as an art director on Balcon's films. The film was made as an English production set in London and Africa and totally filmed in Pommer's studios in Munich. It was to be a challenging introduction to film making for the future "master of suspense."

The heavy German Expressionistic influence found in The Pleasure Garden is due not only to the location of the film's actual production, but also to Hitchcock's great fascination with the works of such directors as Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. Added to this was an unusual mix of set designs, ranging from the gaudy glitz of the theatre scenes to the pseudo-exotical of the English's notion of colonial Africa. The film's narrative of betrayal, madness, and miscegenation is, in part, indicative of the racial ideology that underlined British Imperial thinking. It also represents, however, a first-step in Hitchcock's recurring theme of marriage as a state of danger rather than bliss.

Hitchcock once stated that he learned how to make movies by watching repeated viewings of Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (Germany 1922). This film, which was the first part of the epic-length production Doktor Mabuse, der Spieler: Ein Bild der Zeit, presented Lang's vision of a modern Germany collapsing under the weight of economic chaos, social instability, and extreme decadence. Against this backdrop, the half-mad master criminal Mabuse thrives through combined cunning and pure will as he murders and extorts his way to power. The obvious political implications of the story were developed further by Lang in his two sequels -- The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Germany 1932) in which Mabuse directly prefigures the Third Reich, and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Germany 1961) in which the doctor's will power proves strong enough to transcend both death and the passage of time in order to attempt the creation of a new Germany in his own image.

Lang utilized a variety of stylistic designs in the film's photography in order to invoke the period. Sharp angles and distorted perspectives create a subtle sense of disorientation through out the film as Lang depicts a society increasingly dominated by Mabuse's paranoid megalomania.

Though he was critically considered to be one of the major filmmakers of the 1920s, Rex Ingram remains largely unknown by modern audiences. His most successful film of the period, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921), has become mainly a footnote in movie history books, despite the fact that this production not only made Rudolph Valentino a star but also made it financially possible for M-G-M Studios to be formed. Yet the film still has a striking pictorial power that may come as a surprise for viewers unfamiliar with the expressive qualities of the silent cinema. In fact, many of the scenes in the film were based on oil paintings, especially the works of Maxfield Parrish. This, combined with Ingram1s almost obsessive quest for exotic details, gave his films a stylistic polish that helped to balance his unpredictable wavering between excessive profundity and sentimental superficiality.

Based on the popular novel of the period by Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was originally intended as an anti-war epic in which World War One is literally shown as fratricide. The film's noble aspirations, however, were presented within the context of a very American view of Europe, and upon its release, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was protested against by the English, French, and German governments. Even though it is now clearly dated, the film remains a fascinating and vivid document of its era.

If sentimentality was one of Ingram's flaws, the lack of it was worn as a virtual badge of honor by Erich von Stroheim. In his production of Foolish Wives (USA 1921), von Stroheim proceeded to scandalize the American film audience by presenting a caustic portrait of European cynicism and debauchery that would reconfirm his title as "the man you love to hate." While he was overtly flaunt­ing his self-created image of European corruption, von Stroheim was also attacking American naivete, xenophobia, and middle-class hypocrisy while simultaneously insulting the honor and privileges belonging to the alleged nobility. That an artist like von Stroheim was able to make Foolish Wives is a testament to both his skills and his special self-destructive nature.

Though at the time it was claimed to have been the first film ever to cost a million dollars, the actual production of Foolish Wives was not that expensive. Von Stroheim did, however, pursue his notion of realism to new extremes as he completely reproduced Monte Carlo as a full scale working model on Universal's back lots, including a completely operational casino. For von Stroheim, his sets had to be as authentic as possible since his artistry was based upon the massive accumulation of physical details. As with the naturalist writers of the late 19th century, von Stroheim was interested in presenting the realities of the world with all of its warts and blemishes carefully cataloged. It was in this manner, he felt, that something resembling truth could be reclaimed from the lies and illusions of society.

New Films From Taiwan

In recent years, the film industry of Taiwan has gained increasing pro­minence in the East Asian film market. Many recent Taiwanese films represent the rise of a new generation of Chinese filmmakers whose work displays a significant break from the traditional concerns of the past in favor of a more idiosyncratic, personalized approach to film making. The six films presented in this series is a major sampling of the films and filmmakers who are currently reshaping the Taiwanese cinema.

The development of the Taiwanese cinema has proceeded in three stages. The first major period, during the 1960's, was characterized by the work of writers and directors who were part of the Shanghai film studios of pre-Revolutionary China. The second, and most commercial period, occurred in the 1970's when a large number of martial arts films and contemporary melo­dramas were produced. This development coincided with the formation of close commercial ties between the Taiwan and Hong Kong film industries. While some critics view the 1970's as an artistically unsatisfying period, the cultural and commercial contact with Hong Kong helped to produce the more personal and daring cinema of the current period.

One of the most important figures of the new Taiwanese cinema is writer/ director Hou Hsiao-hsien. He is represented in this program by two of his own films — Green, Green Grass of Home (1982) and A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) - as well as his script for Ch'en K'un-hou's production of Growing Up (l983). The films of Hou Hsiao-hsien are often concerned with the feelings and perceptions of children. This concern for childhood and the child's perception of the adult world is a common theme in the East Asian cinema, but for many Taiwanese filmmakers it takes on a special significance. Hou, like many of his fellow Taiwanese directors, is sharply aware of the immense changes which have taken place in Taiwan during the past 30 years; an essentially rural culture has been transformed into a highly urban, Westernized society. This has resulted in a "coming of age" for Taiwanese society—one that closely parallels the growth and experiences of the children in Hou's films.

The complex nature of the cultural ties between mainland China, Hong Kong,and Taiwan were strained with the production of If I Were For Real (1981), directed by Wang T'ung. The film, a Taiwanese-Hong Kong co-production, adapted from a play by three mainland writers who were, supposedly, jailed after the play had been banned by authorities in the People's Republic. The completed film was also banned from public screening in Hong Kong for fear of offending mainland China. This complex system of give-and-take between the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, is not uncommon in the East Asian film industry.

An important development in the Taiwanese cinema of the 1980s has been a sharp increase in realism and social criticism. This is especially evident in Chang Yi's production of Kuei-Mei, A Woman (1985). Based on the novel by the Taiwanese feminist writer Sho Sa, the film presents a surprisingly bleak view of working-class life in Taiwan. This film is also an example of the degree to which modern Taiwanese filmmakers are willing to explore contro­versial issues despite the traditional censorship previously imposed upon Taiwanese cinema.

One of the most important and critically acclaimed films to be made in Taiwan is Edward Yang's That Day, On The Beach (1983). The film attempts to encapsulate, through the memories and feelings of two female friends, the past 13 years of Taiwanese history. The film's ambitious scale and complex experi­mental structure started a critical debate which still rages in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It has also been an increasingly influential film on the East Asian cinema, an achievement that speaks well of the promise of the new Taiwanese cinema and its filmmakers.

The New Australian Cinema

An innovative group of filmmakers has emerged from Australia within the last ten years. Their films have combined a unique blend of tradi­tional narrative film making with themes and concerns that are indigenously Australian.

George Miller has become one of the most successful film makers of the New Australian cinema as a result of his highly charged visual style. Such films as Mad Max (1979)and its sequel Road Warrior (1981) have established a strong commercial niche for Australian films on the international market. In the process, Miller has fashioned a distinctly Australian form of film genre. Although his Mad Max films borrowed heavily from Hollywood examples, he reshaped the conventional forms of American cinema into a strange and fatalistic new manner that defies easy classification.

The first Mad Max film is derived from such traditional genres as police thriller, and motorcycle gang movies, but is combined with a darkly satiric tribute to the Australian's obsession with automobiles. Miller has stated that Australia has a car culture in much the same way as America has a gun culture. In Mad Max, Miller depicts a crumbling future society in which the automobile has become the chief weapon in a manic fight for survival.

While Miller has created Australia's commercial cinema, Peter Weir is the creator of its philosophical context. When Billy Kwan, a character in Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), says that "We are not quite at home in this world," he speaks for all of Weir's protagonists. Weir is sharply aware of the fact that Australia is a land in which European culture has been transplanted and that Australians are not exactly Westerners. In all of Weir's films, the ultimate conflict exists between the materialistic-based rationalism of modern Western society and the metaphysical, seemingly irrational beliefs of non-Western cultures.

In The Plumber (1979), Weir presents an absurdist comedy in which a well-ordered academic household is turned topsy-turvy by the increasingly illogical and aberrant behavior of a plumber. The apparent insanity of the plumber proves to be a force which nearly overwhelms reason. The film also suggests that the plumber is somehow an agent for revenge by a tribal shaman, who the wife admits to having previously insulted. Weir repeatedly returns to the photograph of this shaman and this visual counterpoint reinforces the film's main theme concerning the inevitable clash between a well-ordered universe and the irrational forces which lurks within it.

Even before the international success of My Brilliant Career (1980), Gillian Armstrong had received attention for several short films. She especially won praise for her direction of The Singer and the Dancer (1976), the film which launched her professional career.

The film was adapted from a short story by the Australian author Alan Marshall. With Marshall's approval, she changed the original characters from two young boys to two women, one young and the other old, and restructured the story into an emotionally charged critique of women's role within Australian society. With The Singer and the Dancer, Armstrong provided a balance to the chiefly masculine concerns of the Australian cinema.

Phillip Noyce is best known to American viewers for his feature film Newsfront (1978), but he has also made an impressive series of documentaries and short films. One of the best of these early films is his dramatic production Backroads (1977).

The film explores the darker aspects of racial problems in Australia. The two main characters, a white drifter and an Aboriginal, are both presented as outsiders from mainstream society. Together, they steal a car and travel through the Australian wasteland, picking up hitchhikers and forming their own makeshift society. During the journey, however, the Aboriginal remains an outsider who is refused admittance even within this limited white social group.

For many critics, the New Australian cinema came of age with the production of Sunday Too Far Away (1975). It was the first film made by the South Australian Film Corporation which had been specifically created to produce and encourage regional film making.

The extreme realism of Sunday Too Far Away was achieved by the use of real locations and exact recreation of the harsh, dangerous lives of shearers in the Australian Outback. The cast and crew spent several months living under primitive conditions in this hostile environment, which took both an emotional and physical toll on the cast members. In one scene, when Jack Thompson's character begins weeping from the physical strain of his life, both the strain and the tears were real.

Originally three hours long, the producer of Sunday Too Far Away cut the film in half. Even with the drastic cuts, the film was highly praised by both Australian and foreign critics. It was presented at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where it played to an enthusiastic audience and its critical success paved the way for the international respect which the new Australian cinema now enjoys.