Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wuthering Heights


* * * * *

How many ways are there to segue from a Blog-A-Thon on William Wyler to one on Luis Buñuel? More than you might think. Flickhead, the host of the latter 'Thon, has illustrated one pathway by posting a terrific photograph with the two men posed less than a yard apart from each other (Wyler's standing next to George Cukor, who's standing behind Buñuel). It was not the first time the directors had rubbed elbows. In 1971, in celebration the Cannes Film Festival's 25th edition, both men were among a group of twelve international auteurs honored. The others were Lindsay Anderson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Frederico Fellini, Vojtech Jasny, Masaki Kobayashi, Orson Welles (who was not present at the festival) and Serge Youtkevitch. You may say, "wait a minute, that doesn't add up to twelve!" Blame the New York Times article of May 13, 1971 from which I obtained this list, for coming up one short. Wyler biographer Jan Herman wrote that there were five directors honored, not twelve: Wyler, Buñuel, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Rene Clair. Obviously further research on this gathering is merited.

Another clear path between the two directors is that they, with apologies to Yoshishige Yoshida, Peter Kosminsky, Suri Krishnamma, Robert Fuest, A.V. Bramble and Jacques Rivette, directed the two most enduring film versions of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. It seems Buñuel had the idea first, as the book was a favorite of his surrealist crowd in the early 1930s. According to Francisco Aranda's Luis Buñuel: a Critical Biography he worked with Pierre Unik, and briefly with Georges Sadoul as well, to write a screen adaptation shortly after the completion of Land Without Bread in 1932. But Buñuel would not have the ability to get the project off the ground until after he'd established himself as a director of narrative features in Mexico. Wyler's Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, earning numerous Oscar nominations and establishing Laurence Olivier as an international star. Buñuel would not begin revising his old script until 1952. The film was shot in 1953 and released in 1954 under the title Cumbres Borrascosas (the title the Brontë book was known by in Spanish translations). Later it was retitled Abismos de Pasión.

Both the 1939 American version and the 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights were filmed in their respective countries' Southwestern scrub desertlands. Wyler's version had its outdoor scenes shot in the still-rural outskirts of Los Angeles. Buñuel, according to biographer John Baxter, shot the film
at the hacienda of San Francisco de Quadra in the barren uplands of Guerrero, near Taxco. Critics noticed immediately that this was pretty odd country. Thunderstorms crash and flare each night, but dawn reveals a land as parched and bare as the slopes of Paracutin. Most of the trees are dead, but Eduardo, the effete Hindley character, still finds plenty of butterflies and insects for his collection.
But Buñuel's Wuthering Heights makes no reference to geography, and indeed changes the names of its characters so that Cathy becomes Catalina (played by Irasema Dilián), and Heathcliff becomes Alejandro (Jorge Mistral). If Wyler's version attempted a recreation of Brontë's Yorkshire, down to the vast quantities of Calluna vulgaris imported from England and planted on the hillsides, Buñuel's version seems set in its own unique landscape if not land, an arid one all the better to inflame the illogical passions of the characters.

Buñuel wanted to enhance the l'amour fou aspects of Brontë's novel, and one way he achieved this was by beginning the film at the moment of Heathcliff/Alejandro's return upon having made his fortune. By spending so much time with Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley as youths, Wyler's film explains the tragedy of the romance quite plausibly. He shows how the connection between Heathcliff and Cathy is sown, and also how their class differences must keep them apart. Buñuel, by contrast, simply drops us into a world in which the fundamental bonds and barriers between the characters have long since been established, and insists we pay attention instead to just how they are resisted. As Sue Lonoff de Cuevas has so succintly put it, Wyler's version of the romance is "sentimental" and Buñuel's "anti-sentimental."

This despite a romantic-style musical score adapted by composer Raul Lavista from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Buñuel had used this music before, in both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. When discussing these two films, and specifically in reference to the latter, Peter Conrad has written, "An orchestra happens to be playing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which treats love as a mystical rapture; for Dali and Buñuel, it is more like a demented regression." In Wuthering Heights Wagner's themes are rapture and regression all at once, the Liebestod endowing the final sequence in particular with a great deal of its disturbing resonance. Watching it recently, I found myself wondering if it was at all possible that Bernard Herrmann might have seen Buñuel's film before being inspired to masterfully borrow the same theme to signify the l'amour fou of Vertigo. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights, suggests that the film had not played in New York City (Herrmann's lifelong home) until 1976, except perhaps at one of the city's Spanish-language theatres. It's intriguing to imagine the composer catching a Mexican Buñuel film at a place like the Elgin (which played only Spanish-language films in the 1950s), but the connection is most likely to be happy coincidence, I suspect. Yet, apart from its placement in the final scene, Buñuel was not happy with the music in Wuthering Heights. At least, he said as much later in life. Aranda quotes him:
It was my own fault. My negligence. I went to Europe, to Cannes, and left the composer to add the musical accompaniment; and he put music throughout the film. A real disaster. I intended to use Wagner just at the end, in order to give the film a romantic aura, precisely the characteristic sick imagination of Wagner.
But Baxter notes that the director did not leave for Europe until April 1954, after the music track for the film had already been fixed in place. And Aranda quotes Buñuel again, this time from an interview that took place while he was in Cannes that year serving on the jury that selected Gate of Hell as top prizewinner: "For Cumbres Borrascosas I put myself into the state of mind of 1930; and since at that time I was a hopeless Wagnerian, I introduced fifty minutes of Wagner." Here Buñuel seemingly is taking personal credit for the abundance of music in the film, and in the context of a discussion of how much he generally dislikes film music, too. So did he change his mind, or just his tune? Another subject for further research, it appears.

More reviews of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights well worth reading include: Ed Gonzalez's take at Slant, Fernando F. Croce's capsule at CinePassion, and a review newly-written for this very Blog-a-Thon by Robert Monell of I'm In a Jess Franco State of Mind.

And if you're in the Frisco Bay Area wondering when your next chance to see a Buñuel film on the big screen might be, it looks like you may have to wait until December 17th, when Belle de Jour will be brought to Artists' Television Access along with a post-film discussion. It's part of a series devoted to silver screen sex workers presented by Whore! Magazine to benefit the health care efforts at the Mission District's St. James Infirmary. This fall at ATA looks particularly busy with interesting screenings in general, including the Other Cinema fall program, the ATA Film and Video Festival October 10-12, a continuing series of Guy Debord films, a stint as a venue for the 11th Arab Film Festival (which has just released the full contents of its program), and an October 26th evening of music and film entitled Roman Meal that you really do not want to miss. Trust me on that one.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

An Interview With Judy Wyler Sheldon


* * * * *

André Bazin once called him "the consummate artist". James Agee said he was "one of the great ones." He was William Wyler, and this weekend has seen a confluence of celebrations, re-evaluations, and analysis of the work of this director, in the form of the William Wyler Blog-A-Thon hosted by Mike "Goatdog" Phillips.

William Wyler and Margaret Tallichet ("Talli"), his wife, named their first two children after characters in his films. The eldest daughter Catherine was, like a great many girls born in 1939, named after Merle Oberon's character in Wuthering Heights. She would executive-produce a documentary on her father called Directed By William Wyler, built around the last interview he ever gave, three days before his death in 1981.

The second Wyler daughter was born just before the 1942 release of Mrs. Miniver, and was named Judy after the on-screen daughter of Greer Garson's title character, who was played by child actor Clare Sanders in the film. Now, under her married name Judy Wyler Sheldon, she is the president of the board of directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, an organization that I volunteer for. To contribute to this Blog-a-Thon, I thought it might be fun to interview a Wyler family member. Indeed, it was a delight to experience Judy's warm humor over the phone, and to hear her share a few reminiscences about a man who, as David Cairns succinctly put it, was "interested in human experience in its entirety." Here is my transcription of the conversation:

Hell on Frisco Bay: Though we've never met, I've seen you on the stage at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. How did you become interested in silent films?

Judy Wyler Sheldon: I really was neither interested, nor did I know a thing about them until my siblings and I were invited to go to the festival in Italy - the other big silent film festival, called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, which takes place in Pordenone every year up in the Friuli area of Italy. They were doing a retrospective of my father's silent films in '95, '96, something like that, and they wanted us to come over. I have two sisters and a brother, and we thought, "Oh! Film festival? Italy? Why not!" We were thinking it was going to be like Cannes or Venice: what are we going to wear, what jewels should we take...

HoFB: I hear it's a pretty down-to-Earth festival.

JWS: It's VERY down-to-Earth. Everybody was in blue jeans. So we went to the festival and had a wonderful time. I saw my father's silent films for the first time. He never talked about his silent films. He just considered that part of his schooling. We saw not only his but a lot of other people's silent films. It was a week-long festival. When I got back, I was talking about it, and a friend of mine said "Well you know San Francisco has a silent film festival. It's pretty young, and you should find out about it." I did, and I got involved a couple of years later, joined the board, and now I'm the president of the board. So that's how it came about, but until then I really didn't know anything about silent films. And of course seeing my father's films... you know he started very young. At Pordenone they showed the films that they had chronologically. They started with those two-reel Westerns, which we thought were perfectly horrible. I remember sitting in the theatre with my siblings and we're kind of elbowing each other as we saw one film after another, all kind of the same plots, terrible camera-work, and wondering "what are we going to say?" We knew we were going to be interviewed, and answer questions. Fortunately as he got a little more experienced they did get better, so the last few that they showed were okay.

HoFB: I think William Wyler is probably best-known today for all the Oscars and Oscar nominations his films were awarded. Did you watch the Oscar ceremony growing up?

JWS: Well, I don't so much remember watching them on television, but I did go to the Oscars a couple of times. I went the year that he was nominated for Roman Holiday but didn't win, and I went the year that he did win for Ben-Hur. Those were really exciting. Although it was embarrassing, as they'd always send a limo to take you to the Oscars. You'd collect into this long line of limos going to (wherever the Oscars were being held in those years), and there'd be fans there lining up to see the stars getting out of their limos. They'd come and look through the windows, which weren't smoked in those days. They'd peer in and they'd say "Oh, that's nobody," because my father wasn't recognizable except to a few people in the know. I just remember finding that so humiliating, that they'd dismiss us with "Oh, that's nobody" and go on to the next car trying to find some big movie star.

HoFB: I believe Roman Holiday is one of at least two of your father's films in which you can be seen in an on-screen role. Is that correct?

JWS: Right. There are only two, and the first one, which is the Best Years of Our Lives, I'm in for about three seconds in a scene in the drugstore. There are lots of clients in the drugstore, just sort of in the background, and I'm a child of five or so, with my sister.

HoFB: Is there any way we can recognize you if we play the DVD?

JWS: Gosh... I'm just a little girl in a dress, with my sister, who's three years older than I am. It's just fleeting, and I can't even remember which scene it is. It's obviously one of the scenes with Dana Andrews.

HoFB: I recently looked at those scenes and I think I spied a pair of little girls looking at him in the very first scene where he visits the store.

JWS: It could be that one. I'd have to go back and look myself, but it's really fast. In Roman Holiday I got a little bit more of a chance. It was maybe five seconds more (laughs) and I actually was supposed to mumble "don't take my camera," because I was wearing a camera and Gregory Peck wanted to take pictures of Audrey Hepburn getting her hair cut. His photographer friend Eddie Albert wasn't with him, so he goes out and sees a group of schoolgirls at the Trevi Fountain. He comes up to me and tries to take the camera from around my neck and I'm saying, "Don't take my camera." My sister, who was in the scene as another schoolgirl, calls the teacher. She says, "Oh, Miss Weber" and the teacher comes over and glares at him. We have a younger brother and sister who say that we did such a bad job in that scene that, as a result, none of us were ever asked to appear again in a movie. And my younger brother and sister were never in a movie. They blamed us completely!

HoFB: I read somewhere that there was an attempt to get them into Ben-Hur...

JWS: I don't remember that there was ever any attempt to get them in. They did both have these very elaborate costumes made for them by the costume department at Cinecittà. They were wonderful costumes. My brother and sister were six and eight. My brother had this wonderful Roman soldier costume made for him, with a helmet, you know, and the whole thing was just fantastic. My sister had a woman's kind of toga. The Roman soldier costume has passed around our family, and my two sons both wore it as a Halloween costume.

HoFB: Roman Holiday was notable for being shot on the streets of Rome, helping to take Hollywood out of a studio-bound mindset. Did you enjoy life on location with your family there?

JWS: Oh, yeah. Although I was in school in Switzerland for most of the time. I was in Rome during the summer, when he was first shooting the film. It was a lot of fun, and my father had lots of fun making that movie. It was the first movie he made in Europe on location, and I guess it was the first big Hollywood movie that had been made in Rome. I remember my parents saying how the city authorities leaned over backwards to make it easy for them to film there, closing off streets and all the stuff that's much harder to get done today. My father had just the most wonderful time, and my mother as well, living there while making this movie. They just had the best time, and my father ended up buying... well, I don't know if he bought it or if it was given to him... a Vespa, like Gregory Peck had in Roman Holiday . He careened around and then brought it back to the States with him. We were living in Beverly Hills when he had it. We had a weekend house in Palm Springs, and that's where he took it, and we have lots of home movies of the whole family piled on this Vespa: my father, my mother, the four of us. We even have one with the dog!

HoFB: I'd like to go back to the Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just a tremendous film. One of the very best of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. That film, and your father's direction in particular, have been praised as unusually sensitive in portraying a character who lost his hands in World War II. Your father lost most of his hearing in an accident while shooting documentaries of the war in Europe. Was his deafness something that was publicly known at the time?

JWS: It wasn't something that he was trying to keep a secret. He was deaf in one ear. He could hear in the other ear, so he wasn't totally deaf. He did come back from the war with that injury wondering if he'd ever be able to direct, because at first it was much more serious. I think that did give him a lot of empathy with the character you mentioned. And also just the experience of coming back and having to adjust to their old lives, or new lives. I think that made it very personal.

HoFB: Is it a coincidence that the Silent Film Festival uses American Sign Language interpreters for all the film introductions and q-and-a's? Was that policy something you brought to the festival?

JWS: No, no. That was not something I had anything to do with. In fact, I think it predated my being part of the festival. But it's such a natural for our audience because, I would guess, silent films could be very attractive to people who are hearing-impaired.

HoFB: In 2002 the festival brought the silent version of a William Wyler film called Hell's Heroes.

JWS: Yes, and that was the centennial of my father's birth, which is why they chose that one. And actually the year that I went to Pordenone for the first time with my siblings, they showed that.

HoFB: What was it like to bring Hell's Heroes to the Castro screen, and to the Silent Film Festival audience?

JWS: Well, it was wonderful, naturally. To get to see these films on a big screen with live music in an old movie palace. I mean, as you know, there's nothing like it! It was thrilling, and that year we were able to get Terrence Stamp to introduce the film. Obviously, he wasn't a silent film actor, but it's harder and harder to find any of those these days! It was wonderful to have him give some reminiscences about working with my father on the Collector. So, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. Most of my siblings were there, and other family, and of course my kids were there, and my husband, and it was just great.

HoFB: Do you often watch your father's films?

JWS: I watch them from time to time. I have DVDs of most of them, the ones that are available. But there's just nothing like seeing a movie on a big screen. I have to say I much prefer seeing a film in a theatre, if it's possible. Of course, that's not always possible.

HoFB: Hopefully somebody will put together a full retrospective of his films one of these days!

JWS: Wouldn't that be nice? We'd love that! When I say "we" I mean the family. We would encourage that, and support that, and work for that in any way we could. That would be great!

HoFB: Is there anything else you think film buffs might like to know about your father?

JWS: Well, he was my father, so I'm biased, but growing up, I never thought that much about the fact that I was the daughter of this well-known film director. It's only in my adulthood that I've begun to appreciate what he brought to the craft. But as a human being, he was a really wonderful guy. He was not only interesting, he was funny, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a humanitarian, and cared very deeply about all kinds of causes, and was just a great person. I feel very proud to have had him for my father.

HoFB: Well, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me, and with the readers of this Blog-a-Thon!

JWS: You're very welcome!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Steamboat Buster


* * * * *

This coming Wednesday, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the very best venues on Frisco Bay to view silent films with live musical accompaniment, will screen a pair of Buster Keaton features with Christian Elliot performing at the Wurlitzer organ: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the Navigator. Though it was filmed partially in this city, and is reputedly among his most crowd-pleasing films, I've never seen the Navigator. I've been saving it for just such an opportunity to be pleased by it among an appreciative crowd in a theatre like the Stanford.

Steamboat Bill Jr. I have seen, on video years ago as I was first acquainting myself with Keaton's work. I count it among my favorites and am really looking forward to finally seeing it in 35mm. In the meantime, I thought I'd contribute to Thom Ryan's current Slapstick Blog-A-Thon by taking a closer look at one particular gag from the film, one of the most renowned gags Keaton (or anyone) ever performed. Though calling it a gag may be inaccurate, as it's really more nerve-wracking than funny. In fact, Lincoln Spector says it's "probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star." If you've seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, you already know what gag/stunt I'm talking about. If you haven't, and you want to remain oblivious to one of the film's most breathtaking surprises, you'd better not continue reading this entry.

The concept of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was generated by frequent Charlie Chaplin collaborator Charles Reisner, who then co-directed the film with Keaton. Reisner is in fact the only director in the film's credits, as Keaton often relinquished official credit for the films he directed. This was the final film he made with the independence accorded during his longtime professional relationship with his brother-in-law and producer Joseph Schenck, before signing up with MGM in a move that many claim led to Keaton's artistic and creative downfall. As Sherlock, Jr. had taken its title from the fictional detective Keaton's character wanted to emulate, so too was Steamboat Bill, Jr. named for a character best known from a popular song. I'm not going to recount the film's plot. For my current purposes, it's merely important to know that at one point in the film Keaton's character Willie finds himself in bed, with the walls and roof over his head torn off and blown away by a cyclone. The winds carry his four-legged craft down the street, in an image somewhat reminiscent of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend or another Winsor McCay fantasy.

Soon the bed has been pushed in front of a large wooden house. Keaton has, as is his wont in any weather, fallen. This time, out of the bed and onto his head. The front wall of the house has been separated from the rest of the building, revealing a gaping crack and a terrified man on the top floor of the house. This bearded fellow jumps out of an open window, his fall softened by the bed sitting in the street below, and the would-be steamboat captain underneath it. The man runs away, and the bed is picked up by the wind and follows. No sooner has a rather battered and dazed Willie slowly stood up and staggered forward a few steps, than all two tons of the house's façade has crashed down all around him, the actor only saved from being crushed because of the open window he was perfectly placed underneath. The stunt, more than anything else he ever shot, emphasizes that aspect of the Buster Keaton screen persona which depends on an unwitting collaboration with fate or the forces of nature for his survival. And though Keaton-as-Willie survives through dumb luck, Keaton-as-actor's luck was not dumb; he knew what he was getting into. He had practiced a far less dangerous version of the gag using lighter walls in previous films Back Stage and One Week. He confidently, meticulously planned out the mechanics of the falling wall, giving himself only a few inches of clearance. Had there been the slightest glitch in the execution, Keaton would have been "Steamrolled Bill," and he knew it.

I heard about this sequence before I saw it. The way I was told, Keaton, who joked about suicide relatively frequently in his films (in Hard Luck and Daydreams, for example), was suicidal on the day of the stunt's filming. Several sources claim that just the day before, Keaton had been unexpectedly informed by Schenck that this would be their last film together. While crew members looked away, and even Reisner abandoned the set to pray in his tent, Keaton felt so despondent about his uncertain professional future that he was perfectly willing to risk, or perhaps even court, death. I haven't done the research to be sure if this version of events is the true one; it holds a ring of plausibility, but it may also be making more of a late-in-life quote from Keaton, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing," than was intended.

Whether or not the real turmoil inside Keaton during this stunt outmatched the simulated turmoil of the cyclone created by Keaton's production team, the result was iconic. Robert Knopf writes:
By showing the wall fall in one shot, Keaton emphasized his own performance: his ability to calculate and execute this stunt as well as his bravery (some would say his foolishness) in performing it himself.
The face-on, unbroken long-shot view is somehow reminiscent of the theatre, or at least it is until the moment of collapse. But again, "unbroken" may be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor. Though the camera holds its view of the entire house from before the moment its façade begins to tumble, until after it has landed, the impact of the shot is augmented by the shots preceding it. Though my research has been far from exhaustive, I have yet to find an analysis of this stunt that discusses the shots directly leading up to the death-defying one. Let me try a little, with screencaps.

Six shots prior, in the final profile view that puts the cracking façade and Buster in the same frame, we can clearly see the distance between the wall and the actor's position on the street. (He's under the bed.)

The next five shots do not contradict this geography, and the last of these is a full shot that ends with Keaton taking a few steps forward and away from the house. He still doesn't seem far enough from the building to escape being flattened should it fall.

But the next edit is a deceptive one. It's difficult to perceive this, even when analyzing the shots on DVD, but in the iconic wall-tumbling shot, Keaton is standing further from the house than he was just prior to the cut. He must be, or else he would be crushed.

I strongly suspect that even if we aren't anticipating the collapse, we on perhaps a less-than-conscious level assimilate this spatial discrepancy, and factor it into our horrified reaction of seeing the façade begin to come down, and our commensurate relief when our hero is spared by the open window. It makes the effect all the more impressive, and it exploits a dimension of the motion picture medium that, apart from certain observations by Rudolf Arnheim in his seminal Film as Art, I do not often encounter when reading film criticism: the control a filmmaker has over the perception of relative distances between objects in the frame, due to the nature of transposing three-dimensional space onto a flat surface.

A thrilling stunt like this one remains exciting to watch again and again. I'm not so sure a modern-day computer-generated effect can have the same kind of staying power, but that's a subject for another post sometime. It's no coincidence that successful silent-era comedians specialized in them. Chaplin would upon occasion perform a dangerous stunt, perhaps most memorably the Circus's high-wire scene in which he is beset by capuchin monkeys. And if there's any stunt sequence more breathtaking and iconic than Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. heart-stopper, it's surely Harold Lloyd climbing a department store and dangling from a giant clock in Safety Last (which, Frisco Bay audiences take note, is opening a week-long classic film series at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on September 28th.)

But here's a legitimate question about some of these stunts that provoke more gasps than laughter: is it slapstick? Is it perhaps beyond slapstick? Our host of this Blog-a-Thon has proposed that the key to slapstick is that, though violence may be "unexpected, socially unacceptable [and] exaggerated for effect" it must be "staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury." How does it work in gag situations in which there is threat of violence, but the violence is averted? Is slapstick funny because of schadenfreude? If so, are gags in which the victim escapes injury or humiliation as funny as those where he or she apparently (thanks to the illusion of film) doesn't?

What do you think?