30 July 2007

On Marginality, Part II

This post constitutes the second of three parts about the genesis and implications of Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart. [Part One] [Part Three]

Incomplete is neither an epithet nor a judgment of Rose Hobart so much as a sad historical fact. The urtext of Cornell’s first film is frustratingly elusive: while all the extant copies of the film adhere to the same montage (a mélange of East of Borneo, along with some unidentified stock shots), the performative aspects of Rose Hobart have been in some state of dispute since 1936. For its premiere at the Julien Levy Gallery, Cornell reportedly screened his 16mm print of Rose Hobart at silent speed, through a blue glass, with musical accompaniment from a Nestor Amaral record Holiday in Brazil. Though ‘silent speed’ can refer to a range of different frame rates, Rose Hobart is usually screened or transferred to video at 18 frames per second—the probable ‘silent’ preset on most portable 16mm projectors—resulting in a uniform length of 19½ minutes. Color and sound are more contentious. When the first digital incarnation of Rose Hobart was presented on the fourth disc of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures from American Film Archives DVD boxset in 2000 (an expensive niche set, but still easily the widest distribution and exposure ever given to Cornell and his films), the film, taken from an Anthology Film Archives print, was bathed in deep lavender and accompanied by three tracks from the Amaral album—two instrumental and another vocal, called ‘Playtime in Brazil.’ When the film was released on Magical Worlds of Joseph Cornell disc put out by the Voyager Foundation through the Museum of Modern Art four years later, the color was a pale blue-purple and the soundtrack featured only two songs—both instrumental, and only one the same as on the Anthology/Treasures copy. To further complicate the matter, the Walker Museum holds a pink print of Rose Hobart—also the tint of the color plates from the film in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s widely-assigned Film History: An Introduction textbook. One suspects, though, that Cornell—an artist highly enamored of interactive objects, though that point is obscured when his boxes are presented under glass in museum collections—may have liked, or even wanted, it this way. [1]

The Rose Hobart premiere is a storied event in the history of both modern art and avant-garde cinema. The legend is famous enough—an exasperated Salvador Dali interrupts the film, screaming “Salaud!” and (in some versions) kicking over the projector. The timid Cornell, legend has it, wondered aloud ‘Why, why—when he is such a great man and I am nobody at all?’ (Dali’s official reason for mischief: he had once considered making a film exactly like this, but never wrote it down; Cornell had stolen it—from his subconscious). The riot of one was enough to frighten Cornell away from showing his films publicly for three decades. Private screenings at the Cornell colonial on Utopia Parkway in Queens were the only way to see the film. Nevertheless, the absence of Rose Hobart from most accounts of film history until recently is still rather mysterious, especially given that the leading mainstream American film historian of the thirties, Lewis Jacobs, author of the ubiquitous The Rise of the American Film, was also himself an avant-garde filmmaker (Footnote to Fact, Tree Trunk to Head) of some repute in New York and a chronicler of that New York avant-garde scene in a 1949 survey published in Roger Manvell’s international Experiment in the Film anthology. The film history textbook trade, even when conceding space to Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and loose antecedents like Ralph Steiner, neglected Cornell’s films for many years; one will not find a reference to him in anything by Gerald Mast or Louis Giannetti.

Even most purported histories of the avant-garde or underground cinema sidestep the Cornell problem, either entirely (c.f., James Peterson’s Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order; David Curtis’s Experimental Cinema: A Fifty-Year Evolution; A.L. Rees’s A History of Experimental Film and Video, published in 1999 when Cornell’s films were certainly in circulation; or the History of the American Avant-Garde Cinema catalogue issued by the American Federation of the Arts) or reference Cornell’s later collaborations with Brakhage, Rudy Burckhardt, and Larry Jordan without discussing Rose Hobart at all (c.f., Sheldon Renan’s An Introduction to the American Underground Film). To their credit, P. Adams Pitney and Dominique Noguez (the latter writing in French) analyze the film and attempt to ascertain its influence in their respective histories, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-1978 and Une Renaissance du cinéma: le cinéma “underground” américain—though both record East of Borneo as a Columbia release. Sitney even helpfully prints a hitherto unpublished Anthology Film Archives interview with Ken Jacob that puts to rest any assumption about the film’s influence on subsequent avant-gardists:

I was seeing Jack [Smith] again and I told him, “Jack, you’ve got to see this movie.” We looked at it again and again, and we were both knocked out. Jack tried to act at first like a little bit removed, like I was overstating it, and then he broke down and said, “No, it’s very good.” We looked at it in every possibly way: on the ceiling, in mirrors, bouncing it all over the room, in corners, in focus, out of focus, with a blue filter that Cornell had given me, without it, backwards. It was just like an eruption of energy and it was another reinforcement of this idea I had for making this shit film [Star Spangled to Death] that would be broken apart and then again there would be an order.

The circumstances of the premiere being what they were, one would expect some astute historian to seize upon the December evening as the American cinema’s Rite of Spring. Such a reading would, in the very least, be firmly in line with subsequent Cornell scholarship, which repeatedly revels in an almost gawking conflation of the artist’s life and work. Joseph Cornell: earl of Utopia Parkway, outsider artist toiling in his basement on brilliant Surrealist boxes to entertain his retarded brother to the indifference of his ailing mother. A homebody who never left New York, haunting recital halls and finding his artistic inspiration in antiquarian bookstalls. Never married, perhaps a lifelong virgin, definitely an innocent—a would-be queer aesthete had he known he could be one. In short, a kind of nebbish savant for the art world set. Although Cornell did not screen Rose Hobart publicly for many years, one obviously cannot and should not assume that Rose Hobart remained locked in storage unseen; Cornell screened the film privately and even lent it out on occasion.

Whether it is Sandra Leonard Starr’s reading that appraises his art through the lens of Church of Christ, Scientist founder Mary Baker Eddy and her writings or Michael Moon’s ‘revisionist’ reading that locates Cornell’s style in his fondness for sugar pixie junk food, the overriding tendency is to deify Cornell as an accidental, improbable, and dingy genius. Yet the biographical evaluation of Cornell is oftentimes so intent on mythologizing Cornell (as blissful dreamer, as lunatic seer, as self-styled schlemiel redeemed through homespun surrealism) that it obscures the Cornellial contradictions that account for most of his mystique. Cornell’s domestic difficulties and many accounts of odd pilgrimages to Utopia Parkway (c.f., that of John Ashbery) suggest an outsider artist par excellence, but before establishing Cornell as the patron saint of Art Brut, one should remember that he exhibited in the same gallery as Ernst, Dali, and Duchamp, served as a designer for Dance Index magazine, corresponded with Susan Sontag, hobnobbed over Kool Aid and cafeteria jellyrolls with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol, and lived the life of an amateur scholar much more than most are comfortable in admitting. Cornell’s knowledge of nineteenth-century theater and ballet, accrued from long days at the New York Public Library, was deep enough to make him a world authority on the subject. His pack-ratting was widely known and Cornell was enlisted to lend bits and pieces of his disorganized picture collection to MoMA and the NYPL for, respectively, a 1933 exhibition of film stills and a 1950 fairy tale exhibition. 

Even the standard interpretation of Cornell’s filmmaking—whether Jodi Hauptmann’s Mulvey-inflected analysis of Cornell’s exploitative gaze or Noguez’s description of Rose Hobart, ‘un bel album de "fan" cinephage’—tends to present Cornell’s cinephilia as slightly unhinged fan behavior, at the expense of considering Cornell as a true film historian. In a survey written for a MoMA catalogue on Cornell, Sitney quotes from an unfinished letter Cornell wrote to French film historian Claude Serbanne in 1946:

Still I think we owe [Ferdinand Zecca] a debt for doing what melies seldom did,—working en plein air, leaving a record Atget-like of so many of the Parisian fin-de-siecle landmarks (the unpretentious ones like the boutique of a charcutier such as I have in my “The Man with the Calf’s Head” which Dali liked so much and in which he [sic] a quality of Gérard de Nerval. And then again this type of work influenced René Clair in his early work.)

That film history has still, by and large, failed to meaningfully assimilate Zecca into its grand narrative makes Cornell’s remark all the more beguiling. The difficulty lies in reconciling the Cornell mythos—a junk collector buying up random 16mm films by the pound from a seedy Jersey shore scrap yard, which, again, comes from Levy—and the evidence that he acted, on occasion, as a surprisingly sensitive art historian.

So Cornell remains a most perplexing enigma: neither urbane nor innocent, neither savvy nor vulgar, a great man who insisted he was a nobody or a nobody who everyone else pretended was a great man

[1] A further error is implicit in Levy’s recollection of the premiere, found in his Memoir of an Art Gallery, probably the only extant account of the first screening of Rose Hobart and certainly the one that all other accounts draw upon. According to Levy, Rose Hobart was preceded by Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, Man Ray’s L’Etoile de mer, and an earlier Cornell’s film entitled Goofy Newsreel. While Levy does not write about Goofy Newsreel in much detail (other than to point to its ‘unfortunate title’), he does imply that it is a Cornell film—as opposed to the program of films Cornell occasionally hosted under the Goofy Newsreel banner. P. Adams Sitney’s report on Anthology Film Archives’ Cornell holdings does not mention any extant film called Goofy Newsreel and it is quite likely that Levy confused Cornell’s usual assortment of silent shorts with a carefully edited film proper like Rose Hobart.

27 July 2007

The Hart of London (1970)

Jack Chamber’s longest film, called “one of the few great films of ALL cinema” by Stan Brakhage and ignored by most everyone else aside from Fred Camper, is a beguiling experience. Its first half consists of a series of dense superimpositions of material that seems to be stock newsreel footage of London, Ontario. Significantly, the forms buried here only begin to become legible when shadow crosses shadow—otherwise everything is a blown-out blur. There must be a profusion of contradictory images before any one image makes sense. That’s the theory that informs the flow of the whole film.

Chambers said that the theme of The Hart of London is ‘generations,’ which is accurate but something of an understatement. What comes through is a real feeling for the history of the city, and the relationship between children and their parents, but also the relationships between the residents and the city fathers, between local events and national attention, between daily life and its translation into news fodder, and finally between humans and the wider animal kingdom. It’s a film that studies particular cases and circumstances under wider notions of hierarchy, ancestry, and history. In a sense, it’s an ecological film.

Chambers utilizes found footage with a sincerity rare among North American avant-garde filmmakers. Unlike, say, Bruce Conner or Kenneth Anger, who take old stock footage or clips from a DeMille spectacle and deconstruct the ideological underpinnings of the footage, Chambers presents scenes of London life that could serve as a chronicle of local history vivid enough to impress the town council. The images of London professionals and politicians spill one into another like an arcane corner of memory yearning for resurrection and annotation. Rather than critiquing these images, Chambers uses them as a point of departure. By the time his chain of associations has led to a startling and unexpected full color scene, we’re clearly in the presence of a major film.

25 July 2007

Zabriskie Point (1970)

For its first two reels or so, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first and only American film, Zabriskie Point, fits squarely with the style of other contemporaneous youth chic ‘vignettes from the revolution’ productions like Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, and, for that matter, the Monkees’ Head. Which means that it starts with a procession of Maoist or black power sketches that flow endlessly and somewhat uncomfortably into one another. Some black revolutionaries question whether white suburbanites would ever really risk his life to kill a pig. One pasty student vows that he will do just do. But he’s lost amidst a sea of protests and billboard jokes.

Zabriskie Point was produced during the anarchic period when the American studio system— realizing that its idea of great youth picture, Doctor Doolittle, had become utterly irrelevant in the marketplace—opened the floodgates to anti-Establishment pictures and begged for its life. So here we have Antonioni under the imprimatur of MGM—a picture divided against itself, the product of an entertainment conglomerate that tells us that zombies in grey flannel suits run your father’s Corporate America. It’s a film by and about a ruling class eager to destroy itself for one last buck.

This changes when the film slows down and moves out to the desert. Mark, the cop killer from the first scene, has stolen a private plane and, like all horny revolutionaries, uses his propeller to flirt with Daria, an alienated chick driving alone on the desert road. He buzzes over her car, swoons down towards it, nearly collides with it, only to pull back up at the last minute. She eventually flags him down. They talk, wander, and eventually make love. These sections are the film’s most accomplished—a startling union of exact cutting and ‘Scope composition that ascends to a kind of beatific plane.

Critics spat upon Zabriskie Point upon its first release in 1970, pointing to incoherence, pretentious dialogue, absurd pretexts for desert orgies and the like. But over thirty years later, it’s clearly a great, precise film of its time. The last reel elevates the whole piece to one of the saddest films I know. Daria stands on the side of the road, listening to a radio report about Mark’s death. She stands with her back to the camera, crying. It’s here that the relation between Zabriskie Point and Antonioni’s earlier output becomes clear. In that moment, when she realizes the bleak fate of her privileged life after one sullied and extinguished spark, she is no different from the bored aristocrats that populate L’Avventura. She has come as close as she ever will to radical excitement, knowing that she could never die for a cause as casually as her boyfriend. Daria, deflowered flower child of privilege, knows that she will never do anything so exciting for the rest of her life.

In short, Zabriskie Point becomes, like Easy Rider, a bleak vision of a generation’s demise. The fatalism is understated and subtle but much more affecting.

21 July 2007

Reign of Terror (1949)

Henry Sheehan once speculated that the current vogue for film noir stems from the fact that the heightened stylishness of the pictures allows viewers without much sensitivity to lighting and camera angles to pretend they know something about film style—Mise en Scene Made EZ. Anyone can look at The Third Man and spout something about unsettling, crooked angles and ‘the influence of German expressionism.’ Film noir suggests a pre-packaged stable of themes, situations, and, above all, postures and attitudes: in today’s terms, it’s shorthand for a caustic, cynical wallop of baroque style that’s notable for its position as an implied opposite to the dangerous melodrama assumed typical of vintage Hollywood product. Old movies are dreary things you see on TV and can’t believe anyone was ever cowed over. Film noir is something that makes you sit up and marvel at the coarseness of the sensibility—and to think, right alongside those silly, sappy things. Instead of laughing at vernacular dialogue that now comes across as camp to the untrained ear, the noir buff prefers to indulge in stylized banter that was pure excess in its day.

Needless to say, the predilection for noir often but not always entails some condescending notion about what the movies used to be. Amidst a sea of weepies, here’s something modern and sexy. Noir buffs will pack the house for the most undistinguished, ‘re-discovered’ noir but steer clear of contemporaneous masterworks. Film noir, a term never used by its practitioners but applied liberally by critics and copyright holders, wouldn’t be such a frustrating conceptual framework were it a more productive one. The greatest noirs, it seems to me, are constricted, rather than made more legible, by that label. Sexual humiliation and moral degradation form the thematic heart of the genre, yet to simply pass off the pathetic scent of Scarlet Street as the apogee (or would it be nadir?) of noir pessimism seems to diminish the unique achievement of that picture. And even Kiss Me Deadly doesn’t approach the apocalyptic fatalism of Criss Cross, which ends with Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo escaping to the figurative edge of the earth—still unprotected, still ill at ease, still waiting only for death.

Reign of Terror, directed by Anthony Mann and photographed by John Alton, stands as a great noir that forces modern viewers to accept an even more elastic definition of that elusive style-genre. Unlike most noirs, Reign of Terror moves outside the city and outside the cynical present into the tortured anarchy of the past. Set in 1794, it’s a gloss on the French Revolution that turns the fall of Robespierre into the most rollicking string of outlandishness criminal episodes that Feuillade never made.

It unfolds with the impossible but unassailable dream logic of a séance. Among its special details: an underground bakery that hides plutocrat henchmen; a quest for a single black book hidden somewhere in the rows and rows of empty ones; a bodyguard conquered by a gang of children armed only with pillows; a man strangled to death in one scene and perfectly conscious (and duplicitous) in another; guards who fire into a cage of a condemned prisoners without provocation; two lives spared with the promise of poultry; the same two saved later because a heavy kicks a kitten against a wall. It concludes with this divine joke: the only man whose word might free your lover from death has just been shot in the mouth, never to speak again. To subsume all of these surreal moments under the aegis of film noir expands the aesthetic possibilities of that style but shackles them to a set of expectations that remains stale and unedifying.

All of the above hints at why the film is interesting; an account of its singular skill and sophistication should demonstrate why it is good. Reign of Terror surely ranks as one of the most resourceful B picture programmers. Mann does not present the storming of the Bastille or any comparable spectacle. The crowd scenes are accomplished with clumsy rear projection photography. But most of the picture unfolds under endless shadows. The first meeting of Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl is a fine example of the whole. He stands behind her in his dark hotel chamber, maintaining his grim composure and hoping that his allegiance to oppositional leader Barras will constitute the right answer to her question about loyalty. The wrong one will land him a knife in the abdomen. His face barely emerges from the shadows, yet hers seems submerged in them, a lovely spectre with tentative corporeality. They hold the pose while they exchange their dialogue, They deliver the lines so coldly and nervously that, for perhaps only a moment, they do seem like little more than figures drafted to demonstrate all the gradations of light that an ace cinematographer like Alton can pull out of a set-up like this. The shot exudes such palpable desperation, such eloquent fear that both actors will dissolve into shades. This is more than noir moodiness—this is a moment wherein line and weight and depth alone wholly express the urgency and fright of recognition and obscurity dictated by the plot.

Reign of Terror, then, is a drama of connection and communication. Its mode occasionally slips into excess, as when Danton and others leer into the camera, eyes cast straight ahead, forehead engulfing the screen, and deliver an exhortation. It is a direct, disarming mode of address that could, in any other context, come across as crude theatrics. But as Reign of Terror takes as its subject the thorny divide between democracy as an ideal and democracy as a back-stabbing, intrigue-heavy mode of political practice, the style is appropriate. These direct appeals to the mad mob in the audience stand as but one kind of rhetorical conflation practiced by Mann in Reign of Terror. Logically enough, a story of popular uprising in one period finds its expression in the popular narrative entertainment of another. A low genre and style designed to shake and startle its spectators to the core with thrills becomes the closest aesthetic and emotional equivalent to the political upheaval of a distant revolution. This is not the kind of historical film that draws a simple parallel between modern anxieties and portentous allegorical modes of the past, such as The Seventh Seal. Instead Mann demonstrates that the modern thriller, with its immediate emotional register and synaesthetic ambitions, approximates and replicates the paranoia of the past.

These parallels work so well because the film functions expertly as a thriller. Its assaults and conspiracies come across splendidly because Mann and Alton construct each episode with admirable rigor. They try as much as possible to keep all the action in a single shot, resorting to shock cuts only sparingly. Instead of letting a kidnapping or a beating simply interrupt the action (through a cut), they offer terror as an intrusion upon the continuity and harmony of the compositions themselves. Attacks come from within—brute violence that halts a character from crossing the frame or traversing its depths.

Again, though, the thematic unity of the thrills is the remarkable thing about Reign of Terror. The film’s anxiety over identity and loyalty has struck some as veiled commentary about the coming HUAC storm. This interpretation is too simple, both because it obscures the other major cultural message that might reasonably be taken from the film (one about fascism and mob rule and totalitarian dictatorship perpetrated through democratic means, whether in 1794 or 1933) and because its fears are more elemental. Reign of Terror justifies and elevates the Hollywood thriller because it, however improbably, aims to show that the routine tropes familiar to anyone with a knowledge of serial novels, detective pictures, propaganda stories, neighborhood theater productions, comic books, and the like actually drive the forces of history.

17 July 2007

On Marginality, Part I

This post constitutes the first of three about the genesis and implications of Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart. [Part Two]. [Part Three].
On 21 June 1930, Universal Pictures announced twenty forthcoming films in its Universal Weekly trade paper, among them an unassuming jungle thriller called Ourang:

A startling dramatic romance filmed in the unexplored wilds of Borneo. Unique with almost unbelievable thrills and overflowing with virgin jungle color. The picture tells an absorbing tale of love and sacrifice in which a white derelict and a native girl find the only road to happiness stemming the stampede of the fierce ourangutans [sic]. Filmed by an expedition headed by Harry Garson.

Universal never completed, let alone released, Ourang. The demise of the project is unrecorded, but Garson incorporated most of the Universal footage into his subsequent feature The Beast of Borneo, issued in 1934 by his ad hoc road show company Far East Productions, Inc. By the time The Beast of Borneo was taken off the shelf, Universal had already recycled Garson’s Ourang footage for its 1931 Rose Hobart vehicle called (fittingly) East of Borneo.

Despite an aberrational sensation like All Quiet on the Western Front, Universal was a minor studio at the dawn of sound. Its assets hovered at $15.5 million in 1931—ahead of Columbia’s $6.35 million, but far, far behind the $173 million of Fox, the $213 million of Warner Brothers, and the $306 million of Paramount. East of Borneo was a cheap picture for a cheap studio, shot in four weeks by director George Melford.

Melford had been directing films since 1911. By the early thirties, the best gig he could find was Paul Kohner’s unit at Universal. Kohner headed the studio’s Spanish language unit—a truly marginal little department that turned out full Spanish language versions of the bigger studio properties (shot after hours on the same sets as the English versions, but with entirely different casts and crews) before the studios settled on dubbing as its standard for distributing their fare internationally—and hired Melford to direct a few features, despite the latter having no knowledge of the language. Given their working conditions, Melford and Kohner ground out a remarkable product—including their 1931 Spanish version of Tod Browning’s Dracula, by common consensus superior to the English version in every technical respect but not screened outside of Latin American cinemas for decades. Given the thriftiness of the unit, the trade buzz on East of Borneo—namely that the shoot was “begun in Sumatra, Shanghai, and the Far East by a sound-equipped expedition”—is rather difficult to swallow, unless read as an oblique reference to the Ourang expedition. East of Borneo, despite its English soundtrack, is every bit as threadbare as Dracula; Melford even recycles that film’s leading lady, Lupita Tovar, in a smaller role (though East of Borneo exploits Miss Tovar’s cleavage with aplomb equal to that of Dracula).
East of Borneo opened at the RKO Mayfair in New York on 25 September 1931, playing on the top half of a double bill with Murnau’s even more exotic Tabu (recently reduced to “popular prices”). The New York Times noted that East of Borneo ‘has its full quota, in fact a plethora, of jungle thrills.’ The Times’ Mordaunt Hall (clearly not the target audience for the film) admits at the end of his review that amid the amusing but juvenile pleasures of the jungle spectacle one finds ‘Miss Hobart ... serv[ing] the picture in her usual intelligent fashion.’ Variety’s review, published four days later, opened this way:

Sensational jungle and animal story loaded with thrill and natural for the neighborhood trade, even if it is pretty naive in treatment for the deluxers. For the class spots, however, it is promising for a week. Picture that ought to be great in the right places and moderately strong anywhere except blue-stocking clienteles.

Variety, too, singled out Hobart, noting she “plays a stilted role with the maximum of plausibility, and is even more than ever suggestive of Norma Shearer.” Another trade review, published as a preview in the 23 August issue of Film Daily, was more enthusiastic, calling East of Borneo “a colorful Oriental jungle meller that has practically everything ... it pours in everything of showmanship with prodigal profusion.” Photoplay wrote that East of Borneo was “a splendidly photographed thrill-story … exciting enough and beautiful enough to satisfy theater-goers with adequate work by Charles Bickford, Rose Hobart, and Georges Renavent.” neglected the matter of Hobart’s performance, they rated the direction “excellent” and the photography “the best”—the highest accolades Film Daily accorded to any of that week’s eight previews. Photoplay wrote that East of Borneo was “a splendidly photographed thrill-story … exciting enough and beautiful enough to satisfy theater-goers with adequate work by Charles Bickford, Rose Hobart, and Georges Renavent."

Universal touted the early success of East of Borneo with a subsequent ad in Film Daily (“universal gave rko a smash picture[.] rko gave it a smash ad campaign[;] a smash lobby ... a smash 24-sheet campaign[;] a smash exploitation resulting in smash business at rko’s mayfair), but the picture was not a sustained success: in the 1932 Film Daily Yearbook, Universal’s ad read, “The company that gave you frankenstein and strictly dishonorable takes great pride in calling your attention to this imposing list of hits,” followed by two columns of twenty-three titles—East of Borneo buried in nineteenth place. The next page of Universal’s big ad buy featured a full-page publicity pic of studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr., followed by one of Strictly Dishonorable director John M. Stahl. Similar treatment was never accorded to marginal Melford and East of Borneo failed to crack the top fifty of the Film Daily Yearbook critics’ poll. So after a circuit of cheap runs, the picture built from the scraps of the never-completed Ourang disappeared from public view. That is, until December 1936 when Joseph Cornell would take the scraps of East of Borneo and fashion his perpetually incomplete masterpiece Rose Hobart.

11 July 2007

Recent Screening Notes: Hawks, Walsh, Resnais

A Girl in Every Port (1928)
This film belongs in the second tier of Hawks’s credits, though it contains in embryo many of the situations and attitudes that would be crucial to his best work. It’s the template of all the Hawks pictures that came after it, as well as most of the derivative ‘buddy’ pictures that owe a debt to Hawks. It doesn’t reach the highest level of Hawks’s achievement because the whole film basically just follows the episodic carousing of randy sailors Victor MacLaglen and Robert Armstrong. Its limited scope only allows for so many variations upon a theme, as opposed to the polyphonic exploration of human dignity found in a film like Rio Bravo or To Have and Have Not.

Louise Brooks emerges in the second half of the film as a carnival performer who must hide her past with Armstrong to secure a future with MacLaglen. (Brooks is introduced, it should be noted, literally gliding across the screen in an amazing low angle shot that simulates the point-of-view of a water bucket. Hawks was still evidently in the fussy, Murnau-influenced stage of his career that he would later denounce.) Brooks’s role is underwritten and her presence, though lovely, is ultimately problematic because it throws into relief the brawny limitations of MacLaglen’s own acting style.

This may be the ultimate MacMahonist movie. Raoul Walsh directs an improbable story of two roughneck linemen buddies (Edward G. Robinson and George Raft) who nearly kill each other over ex-con and clip-joint ‘hostess’ Marlene Dietrich. The filmmaking here is as strong as anything Walsh ever did. The opening five minutes—a crazy montage of big machines, downed power lines, ringing telephones, fast trucks, and loose dancing—features constant camera movement as spectacular as anything in L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1928) and a devotion to speed that would impress any Futurist.

After that things settle down a tad, but the film still derives it effect from unexpected juxtapositions. The most economical and expressive is a memorable image of Dietrich, the night after her honeymoon with Robinson, bending over the kitchen stove in an apron, smoking a slim cigarette. Like everything else in Manpower, this image contributes to a rather discordant fantasy of blue-collar American life. Another image that falls under that index: the grubby linemen playing poker in their well-decorated, white-telephone boarding house. And the subsequent image of a forty-year old kid sliding down the banister of said boarding house with his ass to the camera.

Also notable is the wedding scene in which the traditional bride-and-groom figures atop the cake have been replaced by two towers linked by electrical line. It’s a curiously phallocentric image in this, one of the most homoerotic of studio pictures. If nothing else, it clarifies the implications of the earlier scenes of the linemen bending over an unconscious Robinson and taking turns pumping up and down on his shoulders.

Pas sur la bouche
A companion piece of sorts to Resnais’s great Mélo (1986), Pas sur la bouche is another unfashionable descent into the popular theatrical forms of the 1920s. Instead of a melodrama, the genre here is the operetta. Resnais preserves (and makes newly legible) the wit of the original piece, but also infuses it with a strange, distanced melancholy. Rather than crafting a reactionary antique, Resnais presents topical satire of the past without any ironic affectation. So, in a small way, he restores the relevance of immigration hysteria of the twenties by unflinchingly, if implicitly, presenting it in the light of recent EU anxieties. More significantly, though, he resurrects an unfashionable style not to evoke nostalgic feelings, per se, but to demonstrate the superficiality of fashion as such: as with Mélo he wrings some enormous emotional depth from a disreputable tradition and, in doing so, confronts his audience with a question about the very meaning of style and form. Caught in the past but pungent in the present, Resnais’s adaptation presents most of the musical numbers in single, gliding takes that play so subtlety with depth, perspective, gesture, and movement that a full appreciation can only be gained after multiple viewings. Again like Mélo (and, for that matter, like Gertrud), much of the feeling and impact of Pas sur la bouche come from the evident and exacting care put into giving each line of text its most sympathetic and supple airing. It’s not a translation of theater so much as a complete consideration of how its materials might best be rendered organic and new for the cinema. About as entertaining as any two hours in the movies and a masterpiece. 

01 July 2007

On the Waterfront (1954)

For whatever reason, I came to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront after seeing eight or nine Frank Borzage films. According to the American Film Institute, On the Waterfront is one of the great American films while Borzage’s work—like that of Sternberg, Vidor, Ophüls, or Lubitsch—remains unsanctified and unsanctioned. But, given the proximity of a 35mm screening and some sense that I was unduly dismissing a film I simply never had much of a desire to see, I trudged to On the Waterfront recently.

There are certainly great things buried here. Boris Kaufman’s photography deserves special mention: he attempts a sort of Life Magazine version of neo-realism—gritty but not cock-eyed, superficially immediate but geometrically precise. Whatever coherence the film has emerges from Kaufman’s camerawork. It certainly doesn’t come from the directing and scripting. Kazan and Schulberg keep their eyes on the morals here; all the points are underlined, all the metaphors made explicit, telling business and expressive gestures strictly aberrational and never fully part of the larger atmosphere. In other words, reminiscent of the Ford of The Informer rather than the Ford of How Green Was My Valley. The mood is unrelentingly grim in a way that forsakes the possibility of the elegant digression; instead the elegance quota must be satisfied with the trite symbolism of pigeons flocking around Brando the stoolie. Brando's performance, as some have remarked, is pretty good, but that’s easy compared to narrative and psychological cipher that is Eva Marie Saint. Karl Malden’s performance as the priest is histrionic and pitched unevenly enough to begin with; it is seldom helped by Leonard Bernstein’s underscoring, which often aims to elevate this scraggly proletariat fairy tale to a soaring middle-brow outing to Lincoln Center.

The political theme is rather dubious. Perhaps best understood when clustered with other contemporaneous liberal-rightwing Hollywood movies such as The Sun Shines Bright and Bad Day at Black Rock, On the Waterfront infamously, if only implicitly, equates speaking surly truth to mob power with naming names for HUAC. But an ideological critique of On the Waterfront need not venture outside the film itself, which essentially presents the dockworkers as a gullible mass with such limited class consciousness that they actively sabotage their own interests (shades here, too, of Metropolis). Kazan presents the Hoboken underclass as an amalgamation of unthinking automatons, ready to toe the mob line and spit upon their martyr until he demonstrates anew his capacity for righteous violence. For a film supposedly on the side of the people, On the Waterfront fits rather snugly in the rightwing tradition of celebrating unabashed individual courage, even if that means turning a real political situation into an abstract match between heroes and villains. Classic this ain’t.