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.