Sunday, October 29, 2006

Studs Lonigan

What was I saying about only one Lerner film under my belt? Well, now it's two--this and Murder by Contract ('58), both solid films (Contract's probably better) that make me think, in terms of both tone and subject matter, of the sort of films Scorsese might started out with had he been ten years older. In fact Studs Lonigan, a once-controversial screen adaptation project for Lerner and writer-producer Philip Yordan, seems like a quite viable inspiration for Scorsese's GoodFellas and Casino, possibly also Mean Streets (but it's been too long since I've seen that one). The difference is that in Scorsese's films, characters have the feeling (the thrill) of agency--they get to be movers-and-shakers, and when things come crashing down (or when the thrill simply decomposes into the mundane), it hurts. In Studs Lonigan, our hero (played by Christopher Knight) never even really gets to grasp that sense of being in charge of his own destiny ... he just spends the duration waiting for it. Flirtations with the underworld never go beyond a few fizzled get-rich-quick schemes or mobster handshakes; alcoholism is the greatest vice Studs can get himself into. In a way this makes it all the more pathetic. And if absolution never comes, the film also remains, because of it, more incisive about the vagaries and illusions of middle-class existence than Scorsese's ever are.

The camerawork (a lot of strange angles from below) seems to be a bit of a marriage of early 1930s Robinson or Cagney vehicles (the film itself takes place during the 1920s) with Cassavetes and Beat energy of the time, the sort of flexed-muscle pulsing improv realism that marked the emergence of Something New on mainstream American screens at the time. (Sorry, is that "x-crossed-with-y" description too The Player-ish?) I can't say that, on one viewing, the film had a particularly clear and meaningful aesthetic organization, but it's in the half-exposed formal blueprints that one may find the most interesting strategy anyway.

At one point, deep in the film, Studs and one of his friends are playing pool. The friend says, "I met a pig last night. How's your love life?" Studs replies, "Catherine and I ... we drink a lot of coffee." At several earlier points in the film, scenes that open up like this in the pool hall may last for several minutes, but right after the coffee line we get a jarring cut to the beach. There are several such jarring cuts which seem to deliberately "rough up" the surface of the smooth classical Hollywood narrative: that is, the film isn't avant-garde or experimental, it isn't a profoundly subversive take on the H'wood narrative--it simply wants to render it less invisible, less taken for granted.

Any Lerner fans out there? What else is worth catching?

Velázquez of the Day

A painting from one of the 17th century's great masters.

The Needlewoman (1640). A simple portrait in whose details we can find a template for the cosmos. Faint brushstrokes establish the play of movement in hands & shoulders.

The highlighted bust: a robust physical reminder in the middle of drab clothing and dutiful work. Our bodies are not ephemeral; and as Wilheilm Reich and Robert Bresson might have agreed after a long conversation (or a short one), we don't have bodies, we are our bodies. Appearance is only the first step towards recognition of immanence. Compare.

Intent eyes, downcast--concentrated upon labor, and mysterious and complete in themselves to the viewer. Here is evidence of a psyche that is opaque and inscrutable to us. Compare.

A Canon Tally

"If one took all the masters and models through whom the Filmkritik directors explored their own work, and if one looked at selected works in retrospect next to each other, one could very quickly see the points of aesthetic convergence, and through these roughly sketch out the Filmkritik-style. The next step would be to describe the differences between the individual filmmakers. The great unifying figure, the director whom all honour to the same degree, is Jean Marie-Straub. Among the classical masters, they love Rossellini, Renoir, and Ford; they discover Grémillon and Ophüls again (for themselves); they define their work ethos via the pragmatism of Hawks, Tourneur and Sirk among the acknowledged directors, and in their writings seek proximity to Daves, Lerner, Fejos, and Hurwitz. Among their contemporaries they surround themselves with Pialat, van der Keuken, and Nestler."

-- Olaf Möller.

The trio of "classical masters" and those three 'pragmatists' of the American cinema I have covered fair enough. But Straub & Huillet, as mentioned here recently, I've still seen too little of. Off the top of my head: Grémillon, only one film; Ophüls, I'm still missing a couple of big ones (like Letter to an Unknown Woman); Daves, two or three films; Lerner, only one film; Fejos, no films; Hurwitz, no films; Pialat, six or seven; JVDK, nothing; Nestler, nothing.

Damn, I have work to do!

I plan on getting more regular, and extensive, posts up soon, but I still have problems with my DVD player--I think this is a software problem, as at least the brand new DVD-burner works just fine. All I've been waiting forever to do is take screen caps off of my computer ...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Modesty, Penguins, Thought Bubbles

Speaking of Losey, I haven't watched his Modesty Blaise (yet). But I did come across some great pulpish covers to the series that spawned the movie (try here and here). I love old, brittle paperbacks and comics--and I really love the covers, with with this range of (broadly) mid-20th century design. (For example, the sorts of things that Germano Facetti did at Penguin in the 1960s, the middle two covers being examples below.) The superb blogger Owen Hatherley sometimes writes about this sort of design. The basic illustrative invention on display in any number of 1970s-80s newsprint comic books, and the free play of panels across pages that could sometimes mark really interesting ones, attract me still, even though my days as a "comic book fan" are more than a decade past. (It wasn't long after I gave up or "grew out of" comics that I discovered films.) The fourth image below is from a '70s comic called Iron Wolf (which I've never read or even heard of, but I somehow stumbled upon that blog entry and it sounded fascinating), and the last image is of course the famous Pogo one ...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Losey's Klein

Michel Ciment: "For the grand rafle you used a lot of Jewish extras."

Joseph Losey: "Not only that--but many people of the crew had a direct experience of the period. Trauner for instance was a Hungarian Jew who had to work in a clandestine fashion when he was set-designing for Carné. The extraordinary casting director, Margot Chapellier, lost many of her family in the camps. The head of the laboratory at LTC, Claude Lyon, lost his mother this way too. We went to Jewish organizations for the final round-up of the Jews at the vel d'hiv. From them I had several thousand extras. On the first day of shooting at the stadium, quite a number of the older people just had to give up because they found it so close to what they had experienced that they couldn't stand it emotionally. They came to me and said 'We don't want any money but we're turning in our yellow stars because we simply can't stand and watch this for three days.'"

(Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey, London/NY: Methuen. 1985. p.346-7.)

* * *

With a DVD viewing of Mr. Klein last night, I think I'm finally starting to get Joseph Losey. I've basically liked the handful of films I've seen by him but I never could find a way in, totally past that old cliché of 'appreciation more than affection.' Now things are starting to make more sense. Thematically speaking, Losey seems to gravitate to protagonists who slowly, desperately come to realize (if not completely comprehend) the structure and parameters of the prison-narrative they've been built into. In Mr. Klein it's about a certain obsession with one's own (very civilized) complicity in utter social & political savagery.

At several points in the film, Alain Delon appears in a crowd, long shot, and our eyes are drawn to him (still) while the people around him are mainly in motion. The ocular attraction of the individual that we hold for Delon in this instances is grafted onto the more fleeting instances where Delon's Robert Klein spies the other Robert Klein, who (unwittingly?) flees our protagonist's grasp as easily as horror movie villains stalk victims by merely walking--it's irrational, but the film insists on our acceptance of it.

I'd have to look at the film again, but I got the feeling that the colors in Delon's wardrobe were slowly leeched out during the course of the film--when we first see him he's in a rich, mustard- or rust-colored coat. By the end of the film he's wearing a pale trench coat, as though this experience is draining him metaphorically as a character, literally as visual screen presence. (Very possibly my perception is off, however.)

After the movie was over I saw that Jesus Franco's Vampyros Lesbos was coming on some channel last night (Sundance, I think), and so I decided I'd watch a little bit of it just to see what it's like (thus far I'm not sold on Franco). Over the course of the last night, the anti-semitic drag act in Mr. Klein has blended a bit in my memory with the the wordless lesbian performance we see in the beginning of Vampyros ...

... Dan Callahan, writing a Senses of Cinema Great Directors profile on Losey, thinks
little of Mr. Klein: "though acclaimed by some, [it] is a laborious tale of the French Occupation told at a funereal pace. The customary nervousness of his camera had turned clumsy and awkward by this point." Do any EL readers agree!?

Andy Rector on The Lawless.

* * *

MC: "If you had not had your experience of McCarthy in America, you might not have been able to recreate so well this atmosphere of indifference and fear."

JL: "Certainly, because nobody was prepared to take a stand and say 'No.' Because if they did, then they were immediately blacklisted. The ultimate of that kind of attitude is what is happening now, torture as policy. Not torture to get information, because the police already have the information. Torture them long beyond the point where there would be any information that they could possibly give if they had it. The aim is to make everybody on the street so frightened that they won't even remotely engage in any kind of activity."

(p. 348)

* * *

MC: "Klein II must belong to the resistance. There's no other way of explaining his strategy."

JL: "Of course. That's why the girl works in a munitions factory. I wanted to show that he was a Rothschild type of Jew, who had musical gatherings and female companions, but who was at the same time committed. I'm thinking of Jean Lurçat, for example,a very cultured man, a remarkable painter, who became a leader in the Resistance. For if you are sensitive and enlightened, you make certain decisions in certain circumstances, you can't be an average bourgeois who eats at La Coupole. As Brecht said in Galileo, 'You can't pretend you haven't seen what you have seen.'"

(p. 354)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

VHS Eulogy

An inferior technology nobody wants; people have not even bothered to say goodbye to VHS, and why should they? Except in the sense that a standard video dub appears--at this point--to be more resilient and lasting than a standard consumer DVD-R, there are no advantages offered by VHS (as a medium) to the average person, and hence almost no more champions for its cause.

But it has a history, and I and many other cinephiles helped forge our cinephilia from this bastard thing, home viewing on television sets. The first good video store I knew was a local branch of Potomac Video, a local DC/Virginia/Maryland chain with pretty decent selection. There was one a five minute drive from my house, and I remember that when I was 16 I went to see a movie with my Dad at the second-run theater, and on the way back we stopped by Potomac, where we signed up for membership, and I checked out two videotapes--The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and (this was the really important one) Days of Heaven. Rentals were $2.50 for a week, and through my junior and senior years of high school I made a near regular habit of two rentals a week. (The other sources of film-viewing at this time were commercial theaters and the occasional foray into DC's small but competent repertory scene, as well as my growing collection of VHS tapes recorded off of television.) The "video store" had, until this time, meant Blockbuster and its ilk--now I had films to watch that I'd only been reading about for a few years: Godard, Tarkovsky, Tsui Hark. I remember renting and watching Playtime with my friend Sahar down in my basement-room one evening, and we laughed hysterically and we're moved by this profound comedy, and it was not long after that that I started calling Playtime my favorite film. I didn't even get to see it on celluloid until 4-5 years later. I can vouch--Playtime, as much as it should be seen on the big screen, really is a durable work of art.

When I was a senior in college, someone else I knew, Maureen, left my roommates & I a few videotapes that she no longer wanted--she was also from the DC area, and used to work at another branch of Potomac Video, and had purchased these trashy tapes for a buck apiece when her store was selling them off. I still have the tapes and have watched them--Enzo G. Castellari's 1990: Bronx Warriors and Steve Carver's Angie Dickinson vehicle Big Bad Mama.

Nothing can replace--and nothing should supplant--the experience of the cinema; but VHS and the presence of movies on the tube did offer a new set of possibilities for the cinema to allow people to relate with one another, directly or not, and this way is simply continued (possibly perfected?) by DVDs. But the idea of buying a packaged object with which is something that is not "of the future," and when DVD dies out too, it will only be as a facet of the blip of home viewing tradition initiated by videotape and laserdisc. Tomorrow we pay for a streaming video, or an account with storage space on a server somewhere, or something else ...

I can't be the only cinephile out there who's interested in rescuing rejects from these videotape purges, these trash bins, $1-5 for sometimes great and sometimes rare (unavailable on DVD!) titles. I can't be the only cinephile for whom VHS still offers some attraction, because sometimes the home viewing experience for me is not about approximating the best picture and sound possible, with proper aspect ratio even!--it may also be about reviving phantoms of what you already knew and saw, what you long only hoped to see, compromises intact, and simply keeping alive a trickle of an imperfect practice that helped open your eyes when you were an adolescent.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Quote of the Day (IMDB Special)

The Comment:

"I am aware that this has won awards. There is something to this, that this film, like Titanic, scratches some Emo-self pitying itch that a better film never could without letting us be aware of it and sickened at ourselves.

"For my part, I say everything you can learn about absolute control of shots and minimalistic pedestrian acting, you should just see the later film Wall Street, it's very controlled, and it's actually about money, instead of about idiocy." (Final paragraphs,

The Film:

L'Argent. Not joking.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Death (but not of cinema)

I'm not particularly well-acquainted with the films of Straub and Huillet, just a small handful, but the news of Danièle Huillet's recent death comes as a painful blow for those who would hope to make a better world (and make or advocate art that can help in that struggle). I can't say anything meaningful about Huillet's passing right now--and anyway Andy has already said a few words very well, so I can only endorse what he wrote, from my vantage point, which is less informed about the Straubs than his.

Who in cinema has left us these last few years (in this PB, Post-Bresson, age)? Andre De Toth, Jean Rouch, Walerian Borowczyk, Stan Brakhage, Maurice Pialat, to name a few that hit hard for me. Giants who aren't walking the earth any longer. But I suppose the cinema would not be the cinema without the threat of death and loss looming all around it--inside and outside of it. That's something John Ford might have understood better than anyone, and the Straubs, great admirers of Ford, surely had a enviable grasp of this basic truth. I find something oddly compelling in the fact that, at this moment, this by-all-reports fundamentally symbiotic filmmaking couple is now straddling the divide between the living (Straub) and the dead (Huillet). Jean-Marie Straub will never read this, but, regardless, I offer these images of Fordian communion ...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Book Meme

I don't normally do these things, but (a) Matt tagged me and (b) this one's harmless. You may have seen this meme making its rounds all over already. Books are my great weakness as far as spending money & taking up apartment space--my ideal home would basically be a library with a bed & a kitchen. I don't own thousands of books, but I have enough to groan at the thought of my next move (whenever that will be).

1. One book that changed your life?

When I was a junior in high school I read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which got the ball rolling (at first only slowly) to undo the damage of the previous 3-4 years of intellectual stagnation brought on by the middle of adolescence.

2. One book that you have read more than once?

The Communist Manifesto. (Since Matt mentioned a Barthes book, I could also choose my own: Mythologies.) I'm not much of a "re-reader" in the sense that I read a book from cover to cover multiple times. I have done that, of course, but because there are so many titles I feel compelled to read, I'm more likely to revisit passages of an old favorite rather than go through the whole thing again. I tend to tell myself I'll go through the whole thing again a little bit later in life. (I do the same with films.)

3. One book you would want on a desert island?

This question is impossible! Let me sketch a few scenarios. Am I deserted on the island with friends or acquaintances--i.e., we all survived the same shipwreck and are together on the beach? Then, if not a survival manual (that's really the #1 answer in all cases, but subverts the spirit of the question), I'd want something in which I could indulge contemplation and solitude amidst these people ... maybe I could finally read The Tale of Genji. Am I deserted all alone but have a big box of supplies, some booze, and reason to believe that I'll be picked up in a few months? Then I'd want a big, vaguely "literary" potboiler of a novel to pass the days and read several times--a really rich, compulsive page-turner, which could be The Count of Monte Cristo (if I'm in a 19th-century novel mood) or maybe something by China Miéville (if I want something weirder). If it's just me on the island, probably facing a gradual death, then I think I may want a book where I can gain comfort from my solitude--on the island and in the cosmos--say, W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, or a book of Paul Bowles' short stories.

4. One book that made you cry?

Elective Affinities. I think it's even sadder than Young Werther, at least the translations that I've read. It's one of my very favorite books.

5. One book that made you laugh?

I never finished it, I took it on a train ride from New York to my parents' house years ago, and only got halfway before accidentally leaving it behind ... but I remember thinking that Booth Tarkington's Seventeen was one of the funniest things I've ever read.

6. One book you wish you'd written?

How about Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema?

7. One book you wish had never been written?

Nobody seems to like this question, and for good reason. Can I make the socially responsible choice and say Mein Kampf (thereby suggesting that I wish to use my hypothetical powers to avert Nazism and the Holocaust)? If I wanted to be snide I could point out one of those screenwriting or "how to break into Hollywood filmmaking" manuals, but I don't know the titles of any ...

8. One book you are reading currently?

I'm in the middle of several, but the that I started most recently was Parker Tyler's Underground Film: A Critical History.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?

There are a million--but the most imposing/inviting one that I actually have on my bookshelves is the Donald M. Frame translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel. I'll get to it sooner or later.

10. Pass it on.

Whoever might want to do this meme should just do it, and link to it in the comments so we can read. I don't want to pick just three people.