Sunday, August 16, 2009

Modern Japanese Cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Debonairs: Gary Grant and William Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Point Blank: Films of Disenchantment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sembene: The African Screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberto Rossellini: The Neo-Realist Perspective

It is generally known, though not often well appreciated, that the Italian Neo-Realist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s had a profound effect on the direction of the modern cinema. It was not simply due to the fact that the Neo-Realist movement rejected the artificial and illusionistic tendencies of the Hollywood dream factory, though the documentary-like photographic style and open-ended narratives of the early Neo-Realist films did defy the sleek yet empty artifice of the commerical cinema. But the Italian Neo-Realist movement had several more serious objectives and it is these larger concerns, rarely dealt with by contemporary filmmakers, that still makes the movement supremely important to a critical understanding of film images and their relationship to society.

For the Neo-Realist filmmakers, the cinema was crucially concerned with ethical and political issues. To believe otherwise was not just an evasion of the artist's responsibility, but also invoked the false notion that any artist lived apart from the history and culture surrounding him. Further, for the Neo-Realists, the cinema had an obligation to critically confront the actual day-to-day realities of their society. Most Western filmmakers simply do not do this, instead they work within the confines of genre conventions, mock mythic perspectives, and predetermined middle-class ideology. The Italian Neo-Realist cinema, however, took to the streets and countryside of Italy, searching for the sense and feel of how people really lived, with an admitted bias toward the otherwise forgotten faces of the poor.

Roberto Rossellini is often wrongly credited with being the founder of the Neo-Realist movement. There was no single founder and Rossellini was one of several major Italian filmmakers who emerged from the fascist era with a vigorous desire to steer the cinema away from the banalities and lies of the Mussolini period. Rossellini was, however, one of the most gifted of the Neo-Realist filmmakers and was the first to reach a wide international audience through his production of Open City (Italy 1945). He was also the one filmmaker of the movement who adhered to the principles of Neo-Realism throughout his career and who most extensively explored the visual, moral, and historical ramifications of the main philosophical concerns of the movement.

Though Rossellini had directed several films during the fascist period, it was only with the impending liberation of Rome that he was able to create a work fully expressive of his experience of life under war and dictatorship. Open City was largely shot on location while the German army was still retreating from advancing American forces and some of the troops in the film were actual German soldiers who were unaware of the cameras. But the vivid documentary look of the film is not to be confused with objectivity. Part of the raw emotional power of Open City (and it still remains an emotionally potent experience on first viewing) is derived from its subtle use of comic and melodramatic conventions. Further, the seemingly improvised structure of the film belies its overt political agenda. Like all of the Neo-Realist filmmakers,Rossellini was a leftist and,while he was not a member of the Italian Party, he was interested in forging the foundation for a possible coalition between the party and the Catholic Church. The central narrative of Open City is an attempt to present points of commonalty between the two major social forces in post-war Italy.

The legacy of fascism and World War Two were two of the major subjects of the Neo-Realist filmmakers and Open City was the first installment in Rossellini's war triptych in which he relentlessly examined the personal and ethical conditions of the war and its aftermath. The other two films in this triptych, Paisan (Italy 1946) and Germany, Year Zero (Italy/Germany 1947), expanded beyond the immediate concerns of Open City as each work focused on the larger social and cultural effects of fascism.

Paisan is centered on the points of contact and misunderstandings that directly and indirectly arose between the Italians and Americans during the liberation of Italy. Even the film's title refers to this since the word "paisan" was a relatively archaic and unused term that was imported back to Italy by Italian-American troops. Throughout most of the short stories of Paisan, Americans and Italians confront each other through a series of linguistic confusion, cultural contradictions, and, in the film's finale, mutual sacrifice.

While Paisan deals with the war's final days in Italy, Germany, Year Zero explores the persistence of the fascist mentality in post-war Germany and Europe. It was a basic tenet of the Neo-Realist movement that history had to be critically examined, not forgotten, and that the failure to do so would merely pave the way for a resurgence of history's most recent horrors. Rossellini sensed that all of Europe was at a crossroad and that, like the character of Edmund in the film, the European mind was still conditioned to the mental and social structures of the recent past.

The satiric vein of The Machine to Kill Bad People (Italy 1948) was an unusual departure for Rossellini and it is no secret that he lost interest in the film just before the end of filming, leaving it to be completed by another director. Yet the film not only works as a surprisingly deft comedy, but its allegorical narrative actually delineates the philosophic attitudes of the Neo-Realist filmmakers to the photographic image. The camera was not a passive instrument for them, but rather a powerful weapon. The gaze of the lenses was not impassive, but rather a forum for moral judgement and political determination. Neither film nor photography were neutral, but rather loud voices in the greater struggles of the society.

Stromboli (Italy 1949) was the first of several collaborations between Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. Bergman, who had grown intensely dissatisfied with both her life and career in Hollywood, was extremely impressed by the film Open City and contacted Rossellini about the possibility of working together. It was not long after their first meeting that Bergman and Rossellini began their romantic relationship and when she left her Swedish husband for Rossellini, Bergman was systematically blacklisted from Hollywood for "immoral" behavior. She would spend most of the 1950s in Italy with Rossellini, raising their children and acting in his films. While the films they made together tended to be more melodramatic than his other works, Stromboli and the other films not only offered Bergman some of her finest opportunities for displaying a very naturalistic form of acting, but they also created an extensive portrait of the many emotional and psychological faces of a woman.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Self-Reflections: the West German Cinema

Since its beginning in the late sixties, the New German cinema has reflected the major social and political concerns of West Germany. These concerns have led the filmmakers of the New German cinema to focus either directly or indirectly on the moral and political problems of recent German history in a manner previously unexplored in the West German cinema. While older Germans would prefer to forget the Nazi era, younger Germans have felt it necessary to confront this problem. Contemporary German filmmakers realize that they must, in one way or another, deal with this legacy because they know their present world was shaped by these experiences.

The films presented in this program are four of the more important works which deal with the problem of fascism. David (1979) and Germany, Pale Mother (1980) are direct confrontations with the Nazi era. Young Torless (1966) explores the roots of fascism in German culture, while Katzelmacher (1969) presents a parable on the latent potential for fascism in modern Germany. Like mirrors, all four films present a critical self-reflection of the filmmakers and their culture.

Peter Liltenthal, the director of David, is the son of a Jewish family which immigrated from Germany to South America in the early 1930s. This, combined with his own experiences after returning to Germany as a film student, gives Lilienthal's direction of David a very personal intensity. His earlier films, which were concerned with totalitarianism in South America, were politically astute, but lacked the more intimate feel of David.

For Lilienthal, David is more than a search for his cultural identity as a German Jew. It is also a tribute to those who managed to escape the brutality of the Third Reich and to survive with their culture and spirit in tact. While the film is about the Holocaust, it is also about one person's ability to resist and survive and, ultimately, to find a renewed sense of personal strength.

Volker Schlondorff is one of the best-known filmmakers of the New German cinema. He learned film making in France while working as an assistant director to Louis Malle, and it was with Malle's help that he was able to produce his first feature film, Young Torless. The film was based on a novel, written by Robert Musil in 1906, which was a critical attack on the Prussian education system. The novel presented a system which encouraged the strong to prey upon the weak; a frightening study in sadism which foretold of later events in Germany.

Some critics felt that Schlondorff's film version was heavy-handed in its political viewpoint, and it is true that Schlondorff has the advantage of hindsight over Musil. The film is, however, faithful to the original novel, and Schlondorff may be right in his assumption that it is impossible to view Young Torless in any way other than hindsight.

When he made his second film, Katzelmacher, Rainer Werner Fassbinder was emerging as one of the most important figures in the New German cinema. He was already an extremely controversial actor, writer, and director whose theater pieces were considered both daring and outrageous. Fassbinder based Katzelmacher on a short play he had previously improvised for the "Anti-Theater" company he belonged to. It was the second of ten feature-length films made during a two year period that marked the
first phase of Fassbinder's artistic career.

The word "katzelmacher" is a derogatory slang term for foreign workers in Germany and it is the name the youths in the film use for the Greek portrayed by Fassbinder. The young gang in Katzelmacher lack both ambition and direction, and the hostility they feel for the Greek worker is a meaningless attempt to justify their own aimlessness. The youths have created a closed society in which an outsider, such as the Greek, is an open target for the venting of their frustrations. In this respect, Fassbinder reminds us that the basic driving force toward fascism is still active and can be found in any setting.

One of the most important women filmmakers currently working in Germany is Helma Sanders-Brahms. She has previously made several documentaries for German television as well as a biographical film about the writer Heinrich von Kleist. It was Germany, Pale Mother, however, that brought her to international attention. The controversy surrounding the film when it was released in Germany is not surprising, for it is the most direct confrontation with the Nazi era ever made by a German filmmaker.

Based upon her parent's own experiences during World War II, Sanders-Brahms deals with the actions and moral responsibilities of the average German during this period. Further, she is concerned with the manner in which this legacy has affected her own generation. In doing this, she attempts to remove the silence that has existed for so long in Germany regarding this period. For this alone, Germany, Pale Mother may be one of the most daring films of the New German cinema.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

John Ford: A Changing Vision of the West

"John is half tyrant, half revolutionary; half saint, half Satan; half possible, half impossible; half genius, half Irish."
-Frank Capra

"(I admire)the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
-Orson Welles

"He sees more out of one good eye than two producers see out of four."
-Martin Rackin

"I'm John Ford. I make Westerns."
-John Ford

He was born John Augustine Feeney on Feb 1, 1895 in a farm house on Cape Elizabeth, Maine., Later, when he followed his older brother Francis to the desert boom town of Los Angeles, he changed his name to Ford and picked up odd jobs as an extra (in Birth of a Nation he's the Klansman wearing glasses) and stuntman in the blossoming movie industry. Francis Ford, already established as an actor, went on to direct silent films while his layabout brother spent most of his time hanging around the back lots with out of work cowboys (the last of the real ones) and making the acquaintance of a retired US Marshall named Wyatt Earp. Then in 1917, John Ford got his first chance to direct because he was the only member of the crew to show up sober one morning.

The West of cowboys and Indians, gunfights and Tombstones, had ended a mere twenty years before and now a new West was taking shape on dusty back lots under the guidance of a young, half blind Irish-American who would, between 1917 and 1966, direct over one hundred films, win six Academy awards, a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute and the Medal of Freedom from the US government. It is ironic that before he died from cancer in 1973, Ford commented that: "I certainly had no desire to go into pictures or have anything to do with them. Still haven't."

Ford's work ranged from the stark fatalism of The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive to the bucolic humor of The Quiet Man; the social concerns of The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley to the anti-social slapstick of Donovan's Reef and the just plain anti-social in Seven Women. The Western films, however, are the ones Ford is best remembered for. Not merely, as Howard Hawkes once said, because he did corn good, but because he took the Western genre and so extensively reshaped and personalized it that virtually every Western made within the past thirty years has been indebted to him. Of modern Westerns, the Italians pay him tribute in the Monument Valley sequences of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Sam Peckinpah - possibly the most self-consciously anti-Fordian director to ever work in the genre - gave homage in Ride the High Country before biting back in Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch.

The period of films this program is concerned with are the Westerns Ford directed between 1939 and 1962 and specifically with the changes that took place in the text of his films during that time. With Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, Ford creates his most eloquent statements on the survival of civil­ization against the hostile personifications of the wilderness. Nomadic and rootless, both the Ringo Kid (in Stagecoach) and Wyatt Earp (My Darling Clementine) appear out of the desert and they each carry with them a basic, primitive need for revenge, a need that could pose a threat to the community (the stagecoach and Lordsburg; Tombstone) they enter. Likewise both must confront evil families (the Palmer brothers and the Clantons) that are perversions of the values celebrated by Ford and both Ringo and Earp become a defender of communal life and values (even though the Kid and Dallas leaves Lordsburg and the "dubious gifts of civilization,"they do so only to go somewhere else and start their own families).

Their victories over these evil families (in effect, over the wilderness itself) reaffirms the moral and social order of the community, even if Ford does show at the beginning of Stagecoach some distrust of the self-righteous elements of society such as the Ladies Law and Order League.

In The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the nomadic figures of Ethan Edwards and Liberty Valance are at best destructive forces which must ultimately be rejected by society (the closing of the door at the end of The Searchers) and at its worst, a deranged thug who must be eliminated by a similar wilderness figure whose act of murder is in turn an act of self-destruction. The ceremonies and dances in My Darling Clementine re-enforces the shared values of the community,, In Fort Apache, the military and social rituals suggests the problems which divides the fort's self-contained society. The wedding ceremony near the end of The Searchers dissolves into chaos with Marty's and Ethan's return,. The fight which breaks out between Marty and Charlie is presented by Ford as rough house comedy but what it suggests within the larger context of both the film and Ford's work is a darkening of vision, a sense that what once seemed good and noble has turned sour and the values Ford once embraced are brought under critical scrutiny and found wanting. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford grows nostalgic toward the wilderness past and, while recognizing the historic inevitability of the emerging civilization, he seems to dismiss the future as a cruel sham.

That Ford became disillusioned with the society around him is evident from most of the films he made after the Second World War,, How deep his despair went is most noticeable in his Westerns. Ford once said that when in doubt, make Westerns and he followed his own advise only to carry his doubts with him into a genre that is often (and wrongly) assumed to be morally simplistic,, Even in his lesser films of this period, such as Cheyenne Autumn, his faith gives way to pessimism as he shows his much loved Seventh Cavalry mowing down unarmed Indians. The Wyatt Earp of My Darling Clementine is a near mythological hero, but in the Dodge City sequence of Cheyenne Autumn Earp is presented as a cross between a card shark and a pimp and, though he is slightly more honorable than the cowboys around him, both he and society carries the smell of corruption.

Ford was the cinema's folklorist and his hopes, and later cynicism, on the myths of the American West act as a barometer for the changes which were to come. As Andrew Sarris wrote, the films of John Ford are "a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and also in its ultimate memory-image on the horizon of history,"

The Laughmakers: The Comedians of the '30s and '40s

One sign of the changes that took place in American culture between the 1930s and 1940s can be found within the comedy film genre of the period. The comedy films of the 1930s were dominated by the "zanies," broadly played and clownish figures who represented a mix of vaudeville and the circus. The 1940s was increasingly represented, however, by comedians whose talents had been honed on radio and who were more comfortable with the one-liner rather than the baggy pants. Slapstick, the physically expressive humor of the silent cinema, had already been tempered by the 1930s to the verbal demands of the "talking picture." It became almost extinct, however, in the 1940s as the ear became more important than the eye.

Aside from being one of the greatest comedy teams of the era, the Marx Brothers also represented the changing spectrum of American comedy. Harpo was an overt throw back to the silent period as he combined his nonverbal tantrums and barrages with an anarchistic sense of innocence. Chico was a continuation of the vaudeville ethnic humor tradition in which bad accents and fractured English played to a sympathetic ear among the immigrant laborers who were a prominent part of the early vaudeville audience. Groucho, on the other hand, was the verbal specialist of the team and his nonstop banter of puns, non sequiturs, and one-liners more closely resembled the audio gags of radio rather than the broad farce of vaudeville. The Marx Brothers' successful transition from stage to screen in the 1930s was not surprising. Groucho's ability to continue his own career as a radio, and then television, comedian was due to his unique position within the changing context of American comedy.

W. C. Fields was the embodiment of the vaudeville performer. First trained as a juggler, Fields was able to use his skills to develop an extremely idio­syncratic form of physical humor. He also had a reputation for his fast wit and sharp tongue and he began interjecting his own brand of commentary into his sight gags. Further, Fields had a deep conviction that humor was based on cruelty and that the audience was laughing at you, not with you. Fields had a distinctive, though erratic, film career and his screenplays (usually written by him under a preposterous pseudonym) veered between surrealism and barroom braggadocio. His jaundiced view of the world was developed, in part, from Fields own harsh upbringing and he had a strong distaste for hypocrisy and conventional morality. He was also not particularly fond of either children or dogs.

Laurel and Hardy were one of the few comedy teams of the silent period who discovered a successful niche in the sound era. Though they rarely received great critical support and their films were mostly "B" productions, they retained a surprisingly strong sense of affection from their audience. This was due, in part, to the "everyman" nature of their characters. Throughout their films, they portrayed men of limited skills, dreams, and ambitions who simply wanted to get through the day with the least amount of agony. Repeatedly, they discovered themselves in a world in which petty pride, misplaced envy, and duplicity would systematically reduce their existence to a state of violence and anarchy. They would wade through the chaotic universe of their films with a nonchalance based not upon bravery but rather upon their inability to completely comprehend the world round them. In the face of adversity, they neither overcame nor endured. They simply muddled through.

At the height of his career, Bob Hope was the ideal radio comedian. His brand of humor was based on story gags and so-called "groaners," jokes that were meant to be bad so that he could milk the real laugh by his defensive come back to a groaning audience. Hope lacked the slapstick skills and strong personality of the earlier generation of film comedians and throughout his numerous movies he always played variations of the same character, an average guy with a smart mouth. This was indicative, however, of the direction of the comedy genre in the 1940s. Increased competition from radio programs steered comedy films toward the verbal rather than the physical and a form of comic realism began to take precedent over the extreme exaggeration of an earlier era. Hope was indicative of these changes in which the large screen found itself increasingly influenced by radio and, by the end of the 1940s, television.

Like Hope, Red Skelton was most successfully connected with radio and television. Unlike Hope, however, Skelton was able to create comic characters and handle physical humor. Originally trained as a mime, Skelton also benefited greatly from the comedy coach that M-G-M Studios hired to direct him through his scenes. That Buster Keaton, his coach, never received any credit for his labor is a mute testimony to Keaton's "nonperson" status by that time in Hollywood. Yet it was through his direction of Skelton that Keaton was able to stage the silent cinema's last stand as he created some of his final visual gags on the screen. Through this connection, as well as his own talents, Skelton provided a bridge between two generations of film comedians.