26 September 2009

Book Review: British Cinemas and their Audiences

Once I get outside a cinema I return to real life, and though I may have enjoyed a film immensely, it does not, and never has affected my everyday existence, with the exception of the shoes and the impressions of fear which I have experienced. – “No. 4”  
In the case of film history, this impulse speaks to obvious and wholly legitimate lines of inquiry: how did audiences really feel about the films they watched and about the whole apparatus itself? How did they regard this complete transformation of the order of things and why did they so quickly adopt cinema as a regular and serious pastime?  

To ask these questions is not only a matter of curiosity but inevitably an implicit corrective to earlier versions of film history. Anglo-American pioneers in this field, such as Terry Ramsaye, Benjamin Hampton, Paul Rotha, and Lewis Jacobs quite plainly did not re-view the films they wrote about and often just gussied up their own memories with trade articles and newspaper clippings. Probably apocryphal anecdotes—like the bumpkins running in terror at the projection of an approaching train—became part of the very fabric of film history with minimal effort. The end result, obviously unintended by the first generation of historians, was a tendency to transform every snap misinterpretation of an old film into evidence of the feeble primitiveness of these artifacts and their audiences.

And so we arrive at the value of an unassuming title like British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies, a 1948 volume compiled by one J.P. Mayer and published by Dennis Dobson, Ltd.  This is the kind of book that isn’t discussed much or found in most bibliographies, that is not ever actively sought out but nevertheless leaps from the shelf at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where it probably sat unmolested for thirty years. It’s a simple book—sixty ‘motion picture autobiographies’ and fifty short essays on ‘motion picture preferences’ collected in Britain in 1945, along with brief interpretations.

Mayer was far from the first to undertake such a project. Many of the professors involved in the eight-volume Payne Fund Studies (officially Motion Pictures and Youth) in the early ‘30s procured their data about cinema and its relation to children’s morals, sleep patterns, delinquency, etc., through similar means. What sets Mayer apart is his project’s complete removal from academic decorum and other niceties of twentieth century sociology. He solicited his accounts in the fan magazine Picturegoer in 1945 and offered £3, 3 shillings for the prize entry. Whether this meant the liveliest, the wittiest, the grimmest, or the strangest remains unclear.

The reasons that we should be interested in these accounts today are quite different from Mayer’s aims in collecting them. In the introduction he spot-checks Seneca, Jaspers, Burke, and Rilke (among others) before settling on Pascal as his empathetically Christian model. Reading Mayer’s accompanying commentary is often frustrating, for he willfully ignores many nuances to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions about the need to keep children away from horror films and such.  Needless to say, Mayer’s enterprise is ill-equipped to deal with an extraordinary passage like this one from a 22-year-old medical student:
I remember vividly a scene in Laurel & Hardy’s The Bohemian Girl where the gypsy girl was being dragged out to be whipped. She was stripped & lashed to a post. Of course, she was saved at the last minute. That scene stimulated me a great deal, & I would enact over & over again in the privacy of my own bedroom any scenes like that, with me playing the heroine, of course I usually altered it so that I was not saved so promptly. My saviour was never the film hero, but the particular boy in my class at school that my imagination had fastened on for the time being. This effect of being excited by a scene of a girl being badly treated went on for a long time, until I was 16 at least, I am sure. It gradually faded, but it can be still reactivated occasionally.
It is doubtful Mayer had the vocabulary, much less the inclination, to understand such unrepentant and suggestive kink. Similarly, he cautions that ‘it is quite impossible even to attempt to isolate the effect on the writer of his attendance at the cinema and the effect of other circumstances’ when confronted this totally swish response from a 15-year-old schoolboy: 

I have imitated many things from the films but mostly my hair has suffered. Yes suffered. I used to Bleach it when in the bathroom. I copied smoking from the films. I started at nine and am still going strong. When courting at school I used to put flowers in my sweethearts desk.

My film idol is Errol Flynn and I fell madly in love with him after seeing Dawn Patrol. I think about him at nights, pretend I am with him and dream about him. I have never felt about a film actress in this way.

I would not know much about love making. Although I may say that most love making goes on in the pictures.

A 30-year-old clerk (female) recounts excursions to see ‘sex films’—though it’s not clear whether she means sex hygiene exploitation pictures or something closer to DeMille’s comedies:
 At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon—with another small and curious-minded friend—to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at age eight I sneaked off at twelve—now unescorted—to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes—I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame … Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass.
An 18-year-old shorthand typist (female) writes about a prototypical and evocative moment of displacement that nearly earns a place in our euphemistic lexicon:

My enthusiasm [for films] became so infectious that my parents decided to take me to an adult show, and so with many warnings about being quiet and threats that I’d get a pasting if I wasn’t, we sallied forth equipped with a bag of bullseyes and an extremely large and juicy orange.

Of that first adult film I remember nothing except the fact that just as the hero kissed the heroine I commenced to suck my orange. Never again vowed my parents, and so back I went to my weekly twopenny rush.

By and large, however, most of the responses printed in Mayer’s book are considerably tamer. They tell of being frightened by Dracula or The Black Room (but no mention of Tod Slaughter, unfortunately) or finding great escape in Betty Grable and Deanna Durbin pictures. Some of the respondents are more articulate than others about their tastes. A 23-year-old R.A.F. veteran and letter sorter submits an eloquent apologia for Hollywood:
Broadly speaking, I suppose that of the number of films I have seen over the past five or six years, very few can be called to mind as deserving a lode of brickbats. Let it not be thought, however, that all the rest brought me applauding to my feet. Truth to tell, most of them are completely forgotten, yet they possess virtue even in oblivion. The inability of some of the most recent films I have seen to stir my memory must surely prove that they served a purely relaxative kind. If they were meant by their producers for nothing more, then, on the whole, those gentlemen have succeeded in their modest aims.
And a 23-1/2-year-old housewife succinctly defines the difference between life and art, the former only turning into the latter through the infusion of craft: 
One can have too much reality—e.g., The Grapes of Wrath—I thought it was an unusual film, brilliantly acted, but it was not entertainment. It was the sort of thing that happens to many of us, without the touches of humour or grand drama or sinister twist that would make it entertainment. One lives that sort of thing, and does not go to the cinema to meet it again, but to get away from it.
Unfortunately, though, when the cases get down to the specifics we are left wanting more. The largely low-income, white-collar professionals who read Picturegoer proved quite homogeneous in their taste. Worse, they are cursed by short memories, with a mixed bag of a dozen or so then-recent films like A Song to Remember, Henry V, Waterloo Road, Frenchman’s Creek, This Happy Breed, The Lamp Still Burns, and Laura cited repeatedly. Two or three iconoclasts praise Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Respondents are divided roughly evenly between those who find Hollywood pictures inferior to British productions and those who prefer Hollywood to their own drab provincial lives. Many confess an urge to travel prompted by Fitzpatrick Traveltalks and Jon Hall-Maria Montez vehicles!

We see, nevertheless, that many complaints oft-voiced today are not new. A 25-year-old clerk (male) reports:

I went to see the re-issue of Dodsworth. The cinema announcements gave the stars as David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Walter Huston. Yes, in that order. No mention at all of Ruth Chatterton, whose brilliant portrayal of Fran Dodsworth was in the nature of a swansong to a distinguished career.

To add to the irony of the situation, a young Waaf (though not so very much younger than I) remarked to her companion: ‘She’s good, isn’t she? I wonder who she is. Mary Pickford or somebody.’

Yes—somebody, indeed.

Another 22-year-old cinephile (a jack-of-all-trades who served as an errand boy to a clerk and later an underground pit worker and G.P.O. employee) laments that his girlfriend ignores critical opinion and earnestly invokes cinema lecturer-spokesman Roger Manvell:

My girl friend is only eighteen years of age and to a large extent judges a good or bad film according to the facial attributes of the male stars … My girl states that she is really interested in films and expect [sic?] that she considers taking a film book each week and writing fan letters to be a practical sign of her interest. (It was whilst reading her film book that I learnt of your request) I recently bought two copies of the book Film by Roger Manvell, if her copy ever gets opened it will surprise me

As brief evidence of how film societies, Close-Up, Soviet films, and the like fit into Britons’ workaday lives, a handful of these accounts are invaluable. Others, though, are so tantalizing as to be cruel, such as one artist’s very protracted bit about the influence the now-lost Technicolor Gold Diggers of Broadway had on his design work. The 39-year-old secretary (female) whose quote opens this review recounts this:

I was four years old when I saw my first film. It was given in a tent at a Vicarage fete and to me its principal feature was a train. When a close-up was shewn of the engine, I piped: ‘I hope it doesn’t come out of the picture’ and was rather frightened, but only momentarily.

And then proceeds to write, like almost everyone else, about that season’s junk without setting down her unique historical insights in any greater detail!

Another entry, from a 20-year-old short-hand typist (female) shows great promise:

Only once have I seen an experimental film made in America. It was badly made and the story was piecey, but there was enthusiasm oozing through the lens of the camera.

What had the girl seen? A Maya Deren? The Last Moment? Geography of the Body?

The Seventh Victim was the title—I have yet to find out who the second victim was. This film was trying to break away from the usual run of mysteries, to bring its art to the man in the street and if they failed, it was through no fault of trying. Taking all defects into consideration, I admired the work put into it and the acting of the unknown young actors and actresses who had been given a chance to show what they could do. That chance means a great deal when you are striking out for yourself.

This is a fascinating contribution to our understanding of both the Lewton unit and American avant-garde cinema of the 1940s. B-movies really were, as exhibitor Arthur Mayer (no relation) claimed in Hollywood Quarterly, formative, ‘experimental’ productions that brought innovation to the industry as a whole, whatever their ‘defects.’ And the films on Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 programs (and those of the dozens of film societies Vogel spawned) were promoted as off-market novelties with the emphasis on ingenuity as often as it was on provocation.

British Cinemas and their Audiences is short on such insights but long on elaborations of what it meant to go to the movies in 1945 in England. That’s more than we usually get.

•  •  • 
Have I ever fallen in love with my screen idol—what is love? I don’t know. My ‘favourite’ at the moment is Bing Crosby. He is my favourite actor, crooner, singer, comedian, radio artist, human being, everything. I think of him constantly: I wonder what his reactions are to certain news items; I try to imagine what he is doing at different times during the day; I plan various films for him, and think up ideas for his radio show. I wonder how his wife and kids are, and I wish I could meet him some day before he gets any older.
I listen to people’s conversation about him, read every news item about him, study the daily newspapers to see what he is broadcasting, and plan my day as far as possible not to interfere with my listening. When two programmes, which might possibly feature Bing, are broadcast simultaneously, on different wave-lengths, I wear out the dial on the radio switching from one programme to another, in case I should miss any ‘Bing’ time.
I worry over his publicity, note whether he gets top billing etc. I would rather hear Bing sing not too well, than hear anybody else sing superlatively. I enjoy a Crosby musical flop better than anybody else’s hit. I love the sound of his speaking voice.
When I read that Mr Crosby is standoffish to press-men I defend him; some call him lazy but I applaud his unwillingness to be pushed around. In the same way that Sinatra causes ‘teen-age ‘bobby-socks’ to swoon, so Bing produces a comparable limp when I hear him; relaxed and soothed. His voice makes me happy so that I smile and feel I want to laugh out loud. When I see Bing on the screen my heart thumps and I want desperately for everyone to like him.
– No. 2, 18-year-old female, no occupation.

21 September 2009

On Tod Slaughter

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the cinephilia we find most familiar and legible—the Sirk auteurists and the Tarantino fanboys, the art house connoisseurs and the chick flick loyalists, the western buffs and silent scholars—are not necessarily those with the deepest roots. Time and again I have been impressed by the quite genuine commitment of the original cultists—the horror aficionados. I’m talking here about those who grew up watching Lugosi and Karloff on local television stations and remember these transmissions with undiminished affection. Nowhere will you find less careerism or pretense. In my experience those who propound the virtues of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or I Spit on Your Grave are often exceedingly sweet and sincere.

Unfortunately there are many discoveries of the horror archeologists that are not generally disseminated. The subject of today’s post is preposterously little known and invisible to the general film histories. One would think that a horror star with a name like Tod Slaughter would be hipster catnip.

Truth be told, I did not learn about Slaughter or his very interesting films Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and Crimes in the Dark House (1940) until Dave Kehr’s column last year:
Slaughter, born in 1885, was a Victorian by birth as well as by sensibility: his grandly theatrical acting style reflects decades of touring the hinterlands in road company productions of shopworn melodramas. To hear his demented chuckle as he strangles a helpless victim or chases a shrieking virgin up the stairs, to watch as he literally rubs his hands together in evil glee or smoothes down the ends of his handlebar mustache, is to be transported back to an era of footlights and greasepaint. This is not camp exaggeration but a genuine relic of the time before Ibsen’s naturalism tamed the stage.
This is a broadly accurate account of Slaughter’s appeal.

I might add that the primitivism of Slaughter’s films remains their most absorbing quality. His victims may plot and strategize and concoct fantastic schemes to expose his villainy, but Slaughter approaches every obstacle in a remarkably consistent, untroubled way. No matter the threat, he strangles the bloke, or bludgeons him, or slits his throat. Strictly speaking, there’s no suspense on offer: Slaughter simply steps out of the shadows and eliminates his victim with sadistic relish. These nearly pre-narrative pleasures would be strikingly anti-social if the violence happened on anything resembling a social plane, but again Slaughter sidesteps the issue: despite the scenes being laid down in a specific historical milieu, Slaughter is a generic caveman mercenary. He makes lustful advances but thinks nothing of killing the busty biddie at the hint of an imagined threat. He plunders from his cadavers but has no nouveau riche ambitions. One supposes that he seeks only to implicate in situations with maximal potential for terror.

Which is all a way of saying that Slaughter is not only an assault on spectators’ stomachs but a formal affront to narrative cinema itself. His Sweeney Todd dates from 1936, but it feels more like a film from 1929 in its incessant, underdetermined underscoring. The same jaunty theme accompanies most every scene in the first half, whether expository or ghastly in its content. There is positively no attempt made to marshal the power of sound to foreshadow events or dictate a shift in audience emotion. This is not some aesthetic deficiency, for it clarifies the fundamental aim of the enterprise, namely to present a series of loosely connected, semi-narrativized feats of violence as if from some gruesome music hall revue. There are production values (low-budget but decent) and scripts and other characters, but these are formalities, concessions to more delicate sensibilities. We all know what we’re here for.

If anything, the violence in Sweeney Todd is even more liberated and comical than it is in something like Hawks’s Scarface. Children are abused with Fieldsian abandon. Every murder is performed with a smile. The audience is most definitely in on the whole dirty thing. One late scene finds a policeman obliviously eating one of Mrs. Lovett’s pastries. That the cannibalistic flavor of these baked goods is never explicitly spelled out in the film (and how could it be?) matters little, for anyone familiar with the legend of Todd is already complicit in this joke. The movie demands a certain knowing incredulousness that is not so far removed from leering at a railway disaster.

Crimes at the Dark House is, if anything, more vile, opening as it does with Slaughter driving a spike into a sleeping prospector’s ear. The camera’s quick pan away from this disgusting act is among the most transparent moments of feigned tastefulness in film history. There is also the intrusion of false etherealness, represented by an elusive woman in white who materializes by the window off and on. But lyricism is basically incompatible with lines like “I’ll feed your entrails to a pig!” As well it should be, I suppose. In the very least, Slaughter’s films represent some kind of outer limit for the number of convolutions and facades that a respectable, highly regimented production system thought necessary to present the lowest of thrills.

18 September 2009

There'll Be No Distinction There: The Blood of Jesus (1941)

When Washington Phillips, probably the greatest of the preacher-troubadours captured in the recording industry’s first flush of Southern gospel fever, begins “Lift Him Up That’s All” with the line, “When Jesus was around here / on this land …” one senses that he’s not kidding. Phillips isn’t singing about Palestine in the time of Christ—he’s singing as if the very dirt beneath his feet still bears Christ’s footprints. It’s a sentiment related to the indelible Mormon conviction that Christ visited America’s shores, but the stress falls on something quite different—not asserting a literal reordering of history but rather claiming a personal, easygoing, intimate, and thoroughly unremarkable relationship with the Son of God, as if he were just another buddy from down the road apiece. This strikes me as a particularly American tendency, not limited to any one denomination—an unpretentious democratic divine.

Spencer Williams’s consistently extraordinary directorial debut, The Blood of Jesus, exhibits this quality with clear-eyed, undiluted devotion. Yet no amount of scholarly attention can ever assimilate this film into the American canon—it’s too ruddy and rough, too incidental and leavening, too small-scaled and magnificent. The morals are commonplace and one-note: a scorn of material things, a condemnation of hot temptation, the consequences of lazy unbelief. Indeed, everything about The Blood of Jesus is second-hand: its actors tired, its refrains repeated, its costumes cheap, its special effects pilfered from other movies and softened through gauze. A magical gunshot in close-up is seemingly achieved through scratching out the emulsion.

The story is simplicity itself: a rural woman (Cathryn Caviness) finds herself at death’s door after her layabout husband (Williams) accidentally discharges his hunting rifle. The local faithful pray over her while a cosmic morality play plays outs: an angel guides her through a ghostly cemetery but satan’s envoy impresses her with a new dress. But all enticements come with a price, in this case the expectation that our heroine with all become a wallet-lifting whore in a basement dance hall.

The Blood of Jesus proved enormously successful on the race film circuit—the black movie theaters, churches, and meeting halls cited by many a progressive white liberal in their day, even as their products remained invisible to the very same commentators—and yet commercial polish is nowhere in evidence. There’s no profit motive in sight, just a film arising from convictions so plain and honest that they require minimal critical clarification. It looks like it was spliced together with sweat alone, if it even passed through human hands in the first place.

We glimpse heaven as a moving diorama, hell as a real-life juke joint. Purgatory is a sunlit garden that looks out upon stock shots of a neon downtown at midnight. These profound dislocations harm neither continuity nor comprehension—each image works on its own terms. Naturally these unearthly places are approximated no better with a million-dollar budget than with the rather limited resources of the Sack Amusement Co. Indeed Williams’s itinerary is exuberantly, ridiculously Christian, finding grace in every craggly dune and valley path.

What, if anything, do we gain by claiming The Blood of Jesus as a piece of American folk art? Would not such a declaration prematurely concede the film’s crudity as a legitimate mark of defining difference, as something that must be ‘excused’ at the outset lest someone charge routine incompetence viz ‘real’ cinema? Williams’s work is markedly more ‘authentic’ than the still-outstanding and not dissimilar Cabin in the Sky but besting M-G-M at verisimilitude was never a very high hurdle.

My inclination to affix this ‘folk art’ label has more to do with how plainly unaccountable The Blood of Jesus is. There is no exposition offered or any symbols to be parsed: we’re invited to witness a spiritual struggle on the most literal level. Late in the film, a cross suddenly materializes in the countryside, marking a fork in the road: HELL in one direction, ZION in the other. Caviness collapses in front of it and her pursuers, angry juke joint patrons with rocks in hand, beg God to allow their stoning to proceed. “But she stole my wallet, Lord!” exclaims one, making Him party not only to prayers but also to personal grievances, timorous excuses, and all manner of half-assed tribulations. Sensing the score, the devil rides away in his rickety pick-up truck as his ad hoc jug band of sin disperses. Soon the eponymous Blood of Jesus drips from the cross.

In other words, The Blood of Jesus aggressively elevates the vernacular, forcing it to take on the character, air, and hayseed grandeur of something rather more mysterious. Like that other great work of American folk art, James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, The Blood of Jesus begins with painfully material objects and renders them ineffable, as artifacts outside mortal purposes. It’s about getting to heaven with what you got, in the terms you talk.

13 September 2009

The Limits of Control (2009)

Is it not somehow appropriate that Jim Jarmusch’s latest film vanished from theaters with barely a word of notice, as if it were some hot piece of contraband? Though undeniably of greater interest than Coffee and Cigarettes or Broken Flowers, The Limits of ControlDead Man. All this despite a masterful trailer, an awesome one-sheet, and a hipster nod to Boorman’s Point Blank. Unlike that Lee Marvin classic, though, The Limits of Control scarcely revels in violence and, more unforgivable, attempts nothing like a wholesale appropriation and satire of the more vulgarian strains of its day. provoked critical rebukes like nothing since

Indeed the most startling quality of The Limits of Control is its muted coolness. It proceeds by evocations so sanguine that even Bill Murray’s neocon villain feels like a breezy afterthought. That’s a compliment; so many American films of the last eight years have either ignored the gravity of the Bush administration malfeasance or ‘addressed’ it with incoherent and ultimately cowardly speechifying (c.f., Lions for Lambs). It’s refreshing that Jarmusch simply takes this ideology as a given, something that can be detected, understood, and condemned through temperament alone—that is, as a pervasive and arrogant fact of the modern political landscape.

It is too simple (and generous), however, to regard The Limits of Control as a leftist revenge fantasy. If this is a revolutionary call to arms, it is one delivered in pictograms. Faux antique matchboxes act as conduits for international intrigue, pervasive enough here to inspire a semiological tract. Boring, barely whispered conversations impart clues dangerous enough to imperil lives. Above all, The Limits of Control comes across as the illegitimate great grandchild of Louis Feuillade’s serials. Jarmusch achieves the same fugitive quality as Fantômas or Les Vampires, as if the pedestrian material of mere reality had been coerced into smuggling all manner of obscure terror. The café, the train station, the hotel—these are sites of unconscious menace. J. Hoberman once invoked the poet Paul Éluard—“There is another world, but it is in this one”—to describe Feuillade; that surrealist epigram applies no less to The Limits of Control, where two espressos portend a global conspiracy and “I don’t speak Spanish” stands in for the devil’s passkey.

10 September 2009

Three-Card Monte: This Is Cinerama (1952)

I have slowly come to suspect that most of what we believe we know about the early CinemaScope productions—that they’re turgid and static and none too exciting, and thus, implicitly, an anomaly of film history that forces us to conclude that the audiences who flocked to them must have been dupes—is either wrong or grossly misconceived. No amount of empathy will make Biblical pageants profound or explain Victor Mature’s brief bout of widescreen superstardom, but at some point we must admit that for many years these films were available in nothing like their original states: crisp Technicolor IB prints from original Eastmancolor elements, with four-channel magnetic sound and a full 2.55:1 aspect ratio. It was not simply an experience akin to seeing a modern release print in a good-sized multiplex; the color was deeper, the sound mix was decidedly, even eccentrically, geared towards demonstrating discrete and directional stereophonic effects, and the screen was rather larger than the one found at the nearest downtown house. (Even picture palaces of several thousand seats boasted screens that look modest today; in the forties Radio City Music Hall screened features at 22' 8" x 31' 3".) Obviously little of this grandeur translates well to TV, or even to a basic, no frills 35mm preservation.

Yet these genuine problems look like quibbling caveats next to the impediments that stand between us and a fair accounting of the Cinerama experience. Only three venues worldwide—the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, the Cinerama Theatre in Seattle and Pacific’s Cinerama Dome in Hollywood—can exhibit this unwieldy three-projector, five-projectionist, six-perforation, seven-channel, twenty-six-frames-per-second, one-hundred-and-forty-six-degree-curvature peripheral vision parody today. It was not without some justice that CinemaScope was considered a poor man’s Cinerama.

Today the rare Cinerama screening—only seven true three-panel Cinerama films were made before the trade name was re-appropriated for single-strip 70mm presentations like 2001: A Space Odyssey and only two of these seem to be available these days in restored prints—is met with a predictable audience: kids, nostalgia buffs, and the walking encyclopedias of Cinerama exhibition history. You will know them by their Theatre Historical Society or Cinerama t-shirts.

Yesterday’s presentation of This Is Cinerama at the Cinerama Dome (ironically, a venue built for the 70mm single-strip It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and never home to This Is Cinerama during its original Los Angeles run) held up surprisingly well, the limitations of the medium being a small price for the clarity and brilliance of this truly high-definition experiment. The seams joining the three images were always evident, like a fold-out map folding in on itself, with creased peaks and concave valleys. Indifferently placed editorial splices were gapingly present on screen. Lens flares appeared once or twice—nearly two decades before this ‘mistake’ became fashionable in the New Hollywood.

These ruptures were all somehow appropriate. Suspension of disbelief was never the name of the game with Cinerama. This Is Cinerama, in fact, foregrounds self-conscious spectacle. Producer-investor-narrator Lowell Thomas opens the film with a (pre)history-of-cinema prologue presented in a tinny, black-and-white small screen set-up. Zoetropes, Muybridge’s horses, a Fractured Flickers tribute to The Great Train Robbery—“and This -- Is -- Cinerama -- !” The curtains fly open and we’re in a roller coaster car, with all manner of whispers, carnival music, ambient sound jumping from one speaker to another at random. (The sound in this impressive segment is closer to Harry Partch than Westrex Noiseless Recording.) It’s a thoroughly technological kind of pleasure, though one image that follows shortly thereafter is a different sort of stunner: a view of Niagara Falls and a seemingly prosperous Upstate New York!

The first, and somewhat less interesting, half of This Is Cinerama takes a circuitous Grand Tour of Europe. Aside from the canals of Venice, all of the attractions are disarmingly unembarrassed retreads of Vitaphone and Movietone material: operas, boys’ choirs, Catholic solemnity. Unlike the early soundies, though, these segments inscribe the audience within the scene—indeed, the sight and scale of the gracious crowds are an integral aspect of the spectacle. With the tempo being as slow as it is, the attentive masses suggest the whole enterprise aspires more to being an implacable monument than a mere movie.

Following an intermission the Cinerama demonstration continues, but with the added interest of an undiluted Pax Americana flavor. Thomas boasts that his travels have taken him across this great country, but even he has never seen it like this. Cinerama is realer, and more legitimate, than real life—a crackpot version of peripheral vision that could only reach its apotheosis in the USA.

A digression: it rankles me when baby boomers of my acquaintance happen upon an episode of Leave it to Beaver and declare something like, “Boy, look how backwards things were in the fifties.” Backwards as the fifties most certainly were, it gives sitcoms, pinups, magazine advertisements, and similar kitsch too much credit to presume they offer an, at best, slightly exaggerated reflection of how people really felt and acted in that time. It’s more productive and honest to regard these things as artifacts of commercial calculation, what rich people believed middle- and lower-class people wanted (or would swallow) and what men thought they understood about women.

Thus the danger in looking at a film like This Is Cinerama almost sixty years on is in taking it at face value. It’s too easy to accept its ideological convolutions and patriotic pyrotechnics as an accurate distillation of national sentiment, as something that prompts derision today but did not back then.

What remains is a spectacle of breathtaking candidness, with the seeds of archetypes taken to the logical conclusions few would dare speak. Here are sun-kissed Southern belles who cavort by the Everglades, pure in morals and free from history, fully-formed dream visions made flesh. After preening hither and yon, and with no irony whatsoever, they shed their dresses and become bathing beauties, pliable bikini props for a round of water stunts. This Is Cinerama is, of course, hardly the only film to register femininity as the fulfillment of so many puerile clichés, but it goes about this with especially cardboard conviction.

Not for nothing does Thomas describe the Arches National Park as “pure fantasy”—the American wilderness itself being nothing if not the literal embodiment of manifest destiny. Indeed, This Is Cinerama achieves an astounding reversal: the American psyche is the canvas, natural wonders its artful contrivances. We do not project feelings onto landscape; landscape is, perversely, the projection of our dreams and desires.

A seven-channel stereophonic rendition of “America the Beautiful”—the ultimate product we never knew we needed until now—accompanies a helicopter tour of Square America. “This is how it feels to land a plane at the Kansas City Airport,” booms Thomas, presumably answering some imaginary, oft-voiced children’s prayer. Whilst in Washington, D.C., we glide silently past the White House and the Washington Monument, but the Pentagon receives a lengthy, purple prose tribute. By the time we reach Gary, Indiana, This Is Cinerama feels like the world’s most interminable and improbable slideshow, images from the family ‘vacation’ taken by the Junior Vice President in Charge of Marketing, Midwest Territory. They are the landmarks so bland and industrial that they barely rank as fifth-tier emblems of Americana.

Luckily Lowell Thomas finds an American Zion to wrap things up—literally, the Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah. From there, up and up to the pearly, soft clouds of the heavens. Of course.

This Is Cinerama presents a stunning collection of half-believed postures. As an artifact of imperial belligerence, directed within, it is appropriately rousing. It presents principles too essential for mere conversation or civic discourse. The purpose is not to persuade or indoctrinate, per se; indeed, the case for “America, the Beautiful” is incoherent, poorly researched, and insufficiently prescriptive. The object of this conquest is vision itself, the subject matter only the most uncontroversial, inconsequential approximation of mass feeling that could be harnessed to attain that bounty.  With a title like that, who’d have guessed that This Is Cinerama is, at heart, only an advertisement for itself?

04 September 2009

Reply to Jason Guthartz: Film as Object, a contrarian view

My recent post about LACMA prompted an extended comment from my friend Jason Guthartz, who raised a few issues (which seemed admittedly rather specialized for my initial piece) that demand a post all on their own:

I think there's a much deeper cultural issue here, more pronounced in popular culture but more problematic within film culture. LACMA would never close their modern painting wing due to the availability of posters of Pollocks and Rothkos, and the public wouldn't accept it either. So there's a basic question of where the "art" and aesthetic value is seen to reside within a particular medium. If film is seen as primarily a story-telling medium, then who cares if you're watching something on 35mm, TV, or DVD. If film is seen, per Brakhage, as "on-off illumination of individual still images in sequence," that creates a different attitude towards the medium and a deeper appreciation of the need to see films in their "original" (print issues notwithstanding).

A respected archivist once told me that he would welcome the (probably imminent) day when all first-run houses project content digitally. Only then, he reasoned, would archives and museums have a rightful claim to something special—the cinema as it was meant to be seen. Now, he was no elitist, mind, but he had no problem with film exhibition taking on a more rarefied air either; it would be like going to the concert hall to attend an opera or going to the museum to study a painting, he thought. Tickets might be $25 and the venue might be paying $1,500 for the rental of this 35mm “museum artifact.” (We’re close enough to the $25 ticket already.) It would be a trade-off, no doubt, but it would be the only reasonable recipe for survival.

I’m uneasy about this path, largely for the reasons that Jason outlines above. Simply stated, I do not believe that critics, academics, archivists, and exhibitors have adequately laid the medium-specific foundation for such a pitch to rest upon. Admittedly, this is a harder case with motion pictures, one without ready parallel.

Reproductions and ancillary forms are not inherently bad. Recorded sound has not brought about the extinction of live opera or symphony performances but most anyone can succinctly differentiate between a CD and a live performance of the same. Paintings are reproduced all the time (and often badly) but, again, most anyone can distinguish between a photocopy and a canvas. The availability of these substitutes does not deter people from seeking out the real things—and, indeed, a preference for the real thing marks one as a connoisseur.  No one has ever questioned a tourist’s interest in visiting the Louvre—or maintained it was unnecessary because a poster of the Mona Lisa already hangs over the credenza. Brushstrokes and texture and the third dimension upon which they intrude are not incidental elements of a painting.

But arguments about film and video are not so common sensical; invoking them often invites semi-sympathetic nods of agreement. Fact is, the great majority cannot tell the difference between a beautiful 35mm print and a projected DVD, even when the latter is shown on the same screen via an LCD projector better suited to PowerPoint slides and corporate adverts. Part of this problem doubtless arises from home theater, whose enthusiasts tend to place a premium on superficially sharp, plastic images and view scratches and grain as the unacceptable artifacts of outmoded technology. Consequently, cinema audiences tend to complain more about an elfin base scratch than they do about a reel projected out-of-focus—the unspoken presumption being that film never could give us High Definition detail in the first place and its tendency to fray and scratch deservedly hastens its obsolescence. And so we begin to hear that the DVD of a particular film definitely looks better than that groddy print that a theater deigned to show last week.

Can anyone imagine an art critic praising a postcard in the museum store at the expense of a canvas in the gallery?

In short, film prints are not generally seen as art objects and there is a considerably high burden of proof to be surmounted when we assert that they are. Perhaps it is even legitimate to insist that the performances of actors, the unfolding of stories, the delivery of witty dialogue, the atmosphere advanced through music cues and familiar editing schemes lifted from serial television, etc. are conveyed perfectly well in a video reproduction. So long as a film is valued on these terms alone there is indeed little reason to prop up the over-engineered and cumbersome celluloid delivery system.

The only argument for medium-specificity, and one well-worth making, has to do with material integrity and its aesthetic implications. It has to do with grain being an active and crucial element of the film image, really the mediating aspect of the medium itself. Screen movement and color and light are, instead, will o’ the wisp approximations of the real things perceived as fluctuations in the density of discrete, irreducible units of visual data. They congeal before our eyes, but their character and quality are essentially random—the constituent elements of an initial impression modified, augmented, and inflected at each stage of the photoduplication chain and reflecting the peculiar circumstances of how photochemical emulsion reacted to each successive exposure. Film grain is indeed an artifact—the immutable evidence of material intervention and contamination, the unassailable reminder of film’s physicality and its place in our physical world. It is the remnant of a process and, until now, an inherent aesthetic quality. Artifact, then, should not be taken as a slur.

Now, when the above is applied to a feature-length narrative film it indeed sounds pretty silly at first blush. Indeed, it is presently a minority position. I once complained to a veteran projectionist that the innovation of digital intermediate post-production work, coupled with the subtler grain level achieved through Kodak’s proprietary T-grain emulsions, tended to make release prints look much less film-like. Grain is the image, I said, to which he replied, “Nah. Grain is just the thing we used in the old days to make sure the image was in focus.”

(Even this, though, is not nothing; grain is, among other things, an artifact of labor and its survival as an index of this labor—the human judgment intrinsic to exhibiting a product correctly and the means by which this was achieved in a particular time and place—is important, too.)  

The case is plainer with avant-garde films such as Paul Sharits’s appropriately named Axiomatic Granularity from 1973. Strictly speaking, there are no images in the twenty-odd minutes of this extraordinary film, only the hints of grain recorded onto exposed emulsion through colored filters. For all that it is not a static film, but instead one marked by intractable swirls of activity and a concrete suggestion of mass. Sharits inconveniently proposes that this information is indeed axiomatic—that even a film “without images” contains a complex, inexhaustible sequence of images created by grain alone. Presumably films with more assertive “content” impart images beneath images (or perhaps even motion within motion). Indeed, this fascinating film plays out concurrently with every other film we encounter. This is not merely a pernicious accident of history or the problematic residue that marks pre-video objects, for the presence of grain makes the other films we enjoy more experientially, aesthetically, and, yes, emotionally complex rather than less. The stasis of an Antonioni, a Stroheim, a Hou, a Benning, a late period Minnelli is markedly more complicated and mysterious because it is transposed over an ever-shifting backdrop of restless material transformation.

A filmmaker possesses a sort of general control over grain, selecting a particular camera negative stock and the corresponding shooting parameters that will yield a certain ‘look.’ But beyond that grain is a product of industrial, rather than artistic, logic.

This industrial character of all film production is precisely what leads to the problems that Jason outlines here:

Isn't film undervalued at such institutions precisely because it is so cheap? There being no "original" as there is in painting or sculpture, a film print can't be commodified. And to the extent that a work's value in the art market influences (and can be influenced by) it's value in art culture, I'm afraid film will always be the black sheep (cheap whore?) in the art family. Which is why the whole repertory system -- even calling it "repertory" is a weird concession to market logic -- is being sustained on life support by those few individuals […] who remain dedicated to the medium rather than the market.

These issues are not new. Benjamin taught us long ago that works subject to mechanical reproduction lose aura, vulgarly translated in market terms to the monetary value of the piece in question.

If anything, film curatorship and collecting should be liberated by the fact that they do not carry this baggage. In all but a few extraordinary circumstances, films are not worth more than the stock they’re printed on. Few film archives have a robust acquisition budget—and even those that do command the barest fraction of funds that might more lavishly be applied towards once-in-an-institutional-lifetime art opportunities at Christie’s.  Contra countless people who find an 8mm reel in the attic and presume that they might lure a few archives into a bidding war, film is stubbornly resistant to commodification.

This is ironic, of course, as the film industry is obviously dedicated towards creating durable, highly profitable commodities. The fact that all but a handful of individual prints are destroyed or recycled into other prints a few months after a film’s initial run would seem to bode well for film-print-as-commodity. Yet demand does not sufficiently outstrip this handful of surviving prints to make a film anything resembling an investment for a collecting institution. The studio could always make another print. And even if the studio lost the ability to make another print, it would still own the copyright to the film, effectively preventing our collecting institution from capitalizing on its rare material.

I repeat that this is an almost wholly positive thing. When a collection is only as good as the endowment an institution can marshal to outbid a peer institution, we are scarcely in the realm of history and scholarship. A film archive can acquire a cinematic masterpiece or an anonymous piece of poverty row hackwork for the same price provided a new print of either requires the same amount of work for the film laboratory. (If anything, the danger is that a film archive, constrained only by price-per-foot rather than the inflated costs that accompany stature, focuses too strenuously on masterpieces and fails to collect a broad portfolio of lesser works.)

This should make the whole work of film conservation, preservation, scholarship, and exhibition more convivial and less corrupt. Dare I suggest that film may not belong in a museum after all and might be better off for it?

Insisting again and again that film is a museum object does not make it so. An acquisition number and provenance record do not transform a print into a valuable art world commodity. If film remains in a museum, it certainly affects a radically different appearance and provokes an entirely new set of assumptions from the assets that surround it.

To an extent this is already acknowledged and confirmed by many august institutions, which scarcely treat films like any museum object I know. How often are exhibitions of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and the like supplemented with film clips, delivered in indifferent aspect ratios on a video monitor off in the corner of a gallery? It is as if museums used the slippery reproductive character of film to justify any and all ‘educational’ ancillary alterations to it. Film, video, magnetic or digital signals—they’re all essentially interchangeable.

In this climate the medium specificity argument is indeed a difficult, if not impossible, one to mount. The only plausible case entails accounting for film as an industrial object with its own mass consumption implications. I would even go so far as to say that Jason’s concerns about the rhetoric of the debate being ceded to ‘market logic’ misstates a fundamental aspect of film.

Film is art. Film is entertainment. Film is history. But above all, film is a particularly industrial triumph, a medium that quite literally dominated twentieth century communication and thought. Film had no daguerreotype period—its logic always dictated a mass audience with an infinitely reproducible product. The enormous expense of film manufacture, the precision of perforation, the pressure to produce a consistent and convincing facsimile of motion at every projection under whatever circumstances an exhibitor could afford—all of these factors meant that filmmaking for private pleasure or local consumption could never justify the development of this new system. Those things came later after the development of a market infrastructure. (One wonders about a passage in Patricia Zimmerman’s otherwise quite informative Reel Families when the author denounces Kodak’s successful efforts to dominate the 16mm field and laments that its early monopoly on the gauge prevented the preposterous if beguiling possibility of artisanal production of raw small gauge stock.)  Film needed volume to succeed—it needed to colonize every territory and become a conduit for entertainment, advertising, information, and experience.

Surely there have been films made without any concern for the market, but they nevertheless look and sound the way they do due in no small to market trends. Rarely do we consider Markopolous’s early films as masterpieces in Kodachrome and vindicate that process or Warhol’s talkies as (admittedly perverse) demonstrations of Auricon’s 16mm sound reversal system. These films had to be made within the material parameters that had been developed for other purposes. And the labs that processed these films were not philanthropies either—they took on independents but made their real money (and justified the enormous investment in equipment) from industrial, educational, and advertising clients.

This is not an apology for Kodak or Edison or ERPI or M-G-M, but instead an assertion that a responsible accounting of film-as-art (and especially film-as-art-object) must come to terms to fact that any film is irrevocably complicated by its place at the intersection of technology, mass consumption, and industrial logic. It is not only that film has no original fit for display (when was the last time a museum hung an original camera negative on its walls?) but that the display of any film artifact entails a creeping destruction that is fully consonant with the dictates of the form. A single exhibition of a film requires more human and mechanical intervention (and hence, more risk) than it takes to leave a painting hanging for six months. And because we consider a new print produced by any quality lab as an adequate substitute, and sometimes an agreeable replacement, for an original print itself produced by whatever anonymous lab the filmmaker or studio contracted with—as opposed to, say, valuing a photographic print only because it was personally printed and developed by the artist—we’re in quite a bind as the art world goes. To commodify the individual print beyond the going rate it would take to print it again would be a betrayal of the whole industrial basis of cinema.

This is only the sketch of an argument. But I don’t know another one that works.