Saturday, December 9, 2006

Open Letter


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To the guy who decided it would be a good idea to loudly cough the word *boring* on his way out of the theatre in the middle of the Story of Marie and Julien Friday night:

It might please you to learn that, within a few minutes of your departure, the clarity of your critique had sunk in to each and every one of us in the audience. That, though we'd been too blinded by our allegiance to the ideal of "art cinema" to recognize it on our own, your analysis spurred us to realize that "the Emperor Had No Clothes", and to walk, one by one and two by two, out into the lobby of the Pacific Film Archive, where Susan Oxtoby herself reassured us all that never again would the PFA make the mistake of programming a film like it.

Well, I'm afraid that none of that actually happened. There were a few chuckles after your departing remark, and then we all remained in our seats, enjoying, or perhaps (as I didn't have the wherewithal to conduct a survey) being bored by the rest of the film. This does not make us more virtuous than the people who, in case you thought you were being terribly original, walked out of the film before you did. But it certainly doesn't make you any better or smarter or more "with it" or honest than us either.

To be sure, this is a challenging film, and I'm not all that surprised no Frisco Bay film programmer had wanted to bring it to us before. To be truthful, I'm not certain what I'd have made of its first hour or so if I hadn't seen its elder cousin Celine and Julie Go Boating last month. Both films are mysteries where the mystery is little more than hinted at during the first half of the film, which, on a single viewing apiece for me so far, I take as instead the terrain for helping us get to know the characters and the nature of their relationship. In each case the first half is the foundation for the truly astonishing material that comes in the second half. In the case of Celine and Julie Go Boating the title characters are so naturally appealing that I didn't care at all that I wasn't getting a sense of narrative driving the film. In the case of the Story of Marie and Julien that's slightly less the case, but I was no longer a Rivette virgin and it was probably my trust that the director would at some point take me into some extraordinary realm like the one I'd so loved in Celine and Julie Go Boating that prevented the sense that I might have been "missing something" (or that the director, or the rest of the audience might have been) from taking hold. It didn't even occur to me to look at my watch (though Rivette had placed all those clocks on the screen) or be bored; I was, as one character put it, "waiting." Which paid off in a big way, delivering a third act as emotional and suspenseful as a great Val Lewton film, while following Rivette's tradition of guiding his audience a step closer to an intellectual understanding of the nature and "rules" of character, drama and cinema. I'd be sorry you had to miss it, if only you hadn't been such an ass about it.

But most of all I'm confused as to how you could possibly choose a sex scene with Emmanuelle Béart to be the moment to walk out on. What's wrong with you, man?

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Everybody (in the audience) Is A Critic


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I feel a bit presumptious participating in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania blogger Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon. Though I have an inner urge to write about films, I must admit that the few times I've been described with the word "critic" I've had to supress a wince. Not that I feel I'm "above" such a label, quite the contrary. The critics I most admire seem able to carve a deeply insightful (whether I agree wholeheartedly or not) critical response to practically every slice of moving image they come across. I don't feel nearly as able to do such a thing. I strongly identify with something Jonas Mekas wrote about himself: "Maybe I am more a tinker than a thinker." I'm not exactly sure what Mekas meant by it when it was published May 29, 1969 (he proves himself quite a thinker discussing Arnulf Rainer in the very next paragraph) but in my writing I often feel like an untrained dabbler, most comfortable chiselling diligently at a tiny, underworked corner of knowledge. Most times when I feel tempted to make a grand pronouncement on the "big picture" issues of cinema, I feel like I'm just saying something that countless people before me have already said less clumsily. I'm mostly content to let others do the critical "heavy lifting" for me. It's one reason why I try to include so many links in each post I write at this site.

But there are lots of differing definitions of the word "critic". WordNet-Online has three. The first is "a person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art" and it doesn't seem like me at all- I earn my living working in libraries, perhaps helping facilitate others' analysis and interpretation, but not doing any myself. Definition #3 is the one the saying I riff on in the title of this post stems from: "someone who frequently finds fault or makes harsh and unfair judgments." Not me at all; I normally err in the other direction. But look at the second definition: "anyone who expresses a reasoned judgment of something." That's me. Not always, of course. Sometimes my judgments come purely from emotion, not reason (hopefully I can at least tell the difference.)

But if that's me, isn't it everybody else in the movie theatre too? I'm not trained in psychology, but I'm not one of those who believes that some, most or any people really turn their brains off when they watch a movie. Of course, people have different tools to help them analyze films at different levels. When I was a young child I didn't have the interest in or the ability to differentiate adult actors' faces from each other; I could only recognize types, which put me at a disadvantage for understanding a film with more than one brown-haired adult male character in it, for example. But I tried to use reason to figure out what was happening based on what I could understand. Many moviegoers may not understand the difference between what a film director and a screenwriter is (some days I'm not so sure I've got as firm a grasp on it as I think I do) but if that limits the types of rational analysis that can be performed when watching a movie, it certainly does not cease such analysis.

And everyone judges films. How many "big" film websites have recognized this and provided anyone happening to stop and look at a film's page the opportunity to rate it? Have you ever asked someone's opinion on a film, only to have them tell you, "I don't know"? Doesn't such a response pretty much imply that a person has too many opinions about a given film, rather than too few? And, of course, these opinions are constantly expressed. Let me for a moment step away from my pontificating to provide a concrete example from my primary area of expertise: the Frisco filmgoing scene.

The setting is the Castro Theatre last night, where the Silent Film Society hosted another highly successful event: a screening of the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille-produced original film version of Chicago (though there's evidence to suggest DeMille actually directed it but gave Frank Urson the credit.) The house was packed tightly enough that I had to find a seat way in the upper reaches of the balcony, where I had a much better view of a couple film cans labeled "the Flowers of St. Francis" than I had of the Baker-Mehling Hot Five providing the flapper-era jazz accompaniment for the film. No matter, I heard the band and saw the screen fine, and from my lofty position perhaps felt a little more prone to pay particular attention to reactions of the audience between me and the screen. It's a fun if occasionally over-telegraphed film and it certainly seems like it could be a pre-code DeMille to me: a morality tale in which the sinners are more irresistible than the saints.

Normally I find I can't stomach trial sequences. They've knocked the life out of many an otherwise enjoyable film from Mutiny on the Bounty to, well, Chicago. I've never been able to get past my dislike of film trials and appreciate what everyone else seems to love about something like Anatomy of a Murder. But the trial scene is surely the heart of this Chicago and its best sequence. I should probably exempt silent film trial scenes from my blanket scorn, as they so naturally rely on visual storytelling that they're more likely to overcome the problems so many talking trial scenes cannot (I'd supply details if it didn't feel like a subject for another post entirely.) the Passion of Joan of Arc and the Unholy Three are a rarely-compared pair that more than overcome, and gloriously. In Chicago, Urson/DeMille play up the scenario's farcical aspects perfectly by having everybody burlesque to a degree rarely seen in even the most overacted silent film. Throughout the film Phyllis Haver's performance as Roxie has been ramped up a notch in intensity over her costars Victor Varconi, Eugene Pallette, etc. But now, wearing a scandalously leggy, virginally white dress, she launches into the realm of parody and brings everyone from the flustered prosecuting attorney to the lecherously leering jurymen to the gumsmacking public along with her. The ludicrous acting styles are all the more effective for being incorporated into a quick-cut pattern of editing helping to give the sense of a courtroom about to explode. When she completes her dramatic testimony as if a beginning drama student hamming for her first audition, the Castro audience broke into a huge round of applause.

Now, who knows just what inspired hundreds of different people to spontaneously begin clapping in the very middle of a film whose creators were long-dead. For many this may have been a mainly emotional response, or a rational one far different from the one I found myself experiencing. There's really no way to tell if, like me, people were starting to wonder to themselves if the filmmakers were making a subversive commentary (criticism!) of silent film acting in general here at the dawn of the sound film era. The film does include a newspaper headline playing off of the first big semi-talkie, the Jazz Singer ("Jazz Shooter"), after all.

What I do know from the applause is that as a group this audience liked that scene. A lot. Almost certainly better than any scene appearing prior to it, and probably better than anything after as well (though plenty of enthusiastic hisses and cheers erupted during the film's coda of comeuppance). Is calling these kinds of mass responses (or the ones described here and here) real film criticism a stretch? Maybe. But if so, does this or this or this still get to be called criticism? How about this or this?

Thanks, Andy, for spurring me to write this piece for your Blog-A-Thon. It turned out better than I expected, and I don't feel quite as presumptuous any longer (though I'm not tempted to re-edit the beginning paragraph at all- sometimes my posts are like journeys through a writing experiment, and I feel like preserving that feeling.)

A final note for the day for my Frisco Bay readers, especially fans of silent films accompanied by top-class musicians: though the Berlin and Beyond festival at the Castro has not released its schedule yet, it seems that on January 15th Dennis James is slated to perform a score to a new restoration of a Bavarian silent called Nathan, the Wise, featuring Werner Krauss (of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) in the title role and Max Schrek (Nosferatu) to boot.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Single Screen Blues


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I suspect this post can be filed under the category of "too little, too late", but I've finally found a free moment to mention something I've been meaning to here for a while now.

The Roxie Cinema is among the contenders in a contest called Partners in Preservation, set up to determine how to distribute funds to help restore and preserve historic sites in the Frisco Bay Area. Anyone, no matter their location, is encouraged to set up an account and vote once a day, every day until October 31st. I hope everyone who reads this will do just that.

On the first day I learned about the contest, the Roxie was in first place, but since then it's steadily slipped down and is now out of the top ten (which I understand is where the theatre needs to be if it is to receive some of the funds.) I admit I haven't remembered to vote every day, and I even voted for another project once or twice while the Roxie was still at the top of the list, thinking that the independent cinema lovers who turned out initially would be a strong enough contingent to ensure its high placement throughout the polling.

An interesting aspect of the poll is that as you vote you can select a reason why you made your particular choice. Voters for the Roxie have tended to choose it because "it contributes to the vitality of the Bay Area" (as of now, 41%) or because "Saving it will improve the community" (25%) more often than because "it has historic or architectural significance" (20%). 20% is one of the lowest ratios in the latter category for any of the projects in the poll, and I suspect it's indicative of why the cinema has not ranked higher after that initial push. It's true that the building is not as striking or ornate a structure as, say, Oakland's shuttered Fox Theatre (currently holding at number four in the poll), but I for one think the Roxie, as Frisco's oldest theatre still in operation, is extremely historically and architecturally significant.

The Roxie and the 4-Star (which was twinned, non-identically, in 1996) are the only currently operating movie theatres in Frisco built specifically to show movies from what one might call the "pre-epic" era of cinema. Films were made for twenty years before the medium "came of age" as something for everyone up to and including the President of the United States, not to mention the NAACP, to take seriously, when The Birth of a Nation was released. Italian extravaganzas such as Cabiria had been imported here before, but the The Clansman (as it was originally called) was three hours long, used the most modern cinematic techniques of its day, and was controversial, to put it mildly. Incendiary may be a better word. These factors helped make it more than just a "blockbuster" film but a phenomenon that truly outlasted its moment. By March 8, 1915, the second of at least fourteen weeks at the long demolished O'Farrell Street Alcazar Theatre (which usually hosted theatre and opera at the time but made an exception for this film) it was already being advertised as "the World's Most Famous Motion Picture". To this day it's surely the most well-known film title of the silent era.

Of course the biggest cultural event in Frisco in 1915 wasn't a film but a fair: the Panama Pacific International Exposition which opened shortly before the Clansman did at the Alcazar, but outlasted the film's run there, continuing nearly all year. Stuart Klawans opens his book Film Follies with an appealing hypothesis that D.W. Griffith used the fair's architecture, a remnant of which still exists as the Palace of Fine Arts, as part of the inspiration for the gargantuan scale of Intolerance, his 1916 rejoinder to critics trying to censor the Birth of a Nation (Frisco's Board of Supervisors were among those who attempted this at the time). Intolerance was not the box office hit the previous feature was, but as Klawans points out, it wasn't the financial disaster it's been made out to be either, and it helped to inspire a wave of lavish historical epics. Interestingly, at around the same time a new type of movie theatre was emerging on the scene: the movie palace, grand and ornate, and designed to attract upscale customers to motion pictures.

Up until a few weeks ago there were two such theatres in Frisco still showing films and essentially architecturally unchanged (that is, still operating as single-screen theatres), though both were built to be neighborhood theatres, not quite as grand and ornate as a downtown theatre like the Granada. One is the 1922-built Castro, and the other was Union Street's Metro, originally opened as the Metropolitan in 1924, and renamed in 1941. Sadly, though not surprisingly, it finally closed down last month. I can't pretend that I was a regular customer myself; the fact that it was a great, recently refurbished space with a staff that took pride in its high-quality presentations, and that it even boasted the largest screen in town once the Coronet shut its doors for good in early 2005, couldn't make up for the unappealing selection of Hollywood movies that inevitably dominated its screen in recent years. The last film I saw there was the Village, more than two years ago. The SF Neighborhood Theatre Foundation has started a letter-writing campaign to try to keep the space a theatre, and I would think the Film Society might be invested in such a project too. The Metro was the site of its International Film Festival during its earliest years, including the very first festival back in 1957. (A year after the success of its first event, an Italian Film Festival including La Strada at the Alexandria. Fifty years later, the society still has an annual focus on Italian cinema, and this year's edition, November 12-19, will include a three-film tribute to Marco Bellocchio at the Embarcadero).

But the Roxie still survives intact as a single screen theatre, with the Little Roxie adjunct two doors down helping to keep it viable in a marketplace where flexible booking is a distinct advantage. The upcoming schedule is filled with documentaries, and the theatre rarely plays the sorts of overbudgeted monstrosities straining too hard to lend credibility to the cinematic medium that the likes of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance still serve as models for. Yet the Roxie isn't above (or is it beneath) putting a certain kind of epic on its screen once in a while, and will do so November 12 when the South Asian Film Festival brings the four-hour Hindi action classic Sholay there.

And the Castro still operates as a full-time single-screener for independent and classic films. More than a year ago I wrote about my ambivalence attending the venue in the wake of its owners' unexplained firing of longtime programmer Anita Monga, but I have to admit it's the kind of ambivalence that seems to fade somewhat with 1) the passage of time and 2) continuously improving programming choices. With the Balboa's turn away from repertory programming other than occasional events like the upcoming Louise Brooks centennial celebration, and Noir City's announced return to the Castro this January, I don't think there's much point for Frisco cinephiles to fight the urge to go the movie palace anymore. Even the Film Arts Foundation, which lists Monga among its board members, is returning the venue for its 30th anniversary November 14th. The next Castro calendar is not available quite yet, but it looks to be the best since her departure. It's a site for the Latino Film Festival November 3-5 (the festival continues at other venues through the 19th). Billy Wilder's best film Ace in the Hole plays there November 7th and a Douglas Sirk double-bill appears two days later. November 10 brings a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS breakdancing triple-bill (Breakin', Beat Street and, uh, Cool As Ice). A Tennessee Williams film series including films directed by Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, John Huston, and Joseph Losey runs November 12-15. Grey Gardens plays with the follow-up the Beales of Grey Gardens November 21-22. And November concludes with four days of Japanese New Waver Hiroshi Teshigahara's best films: the Face of Another (on the 27th), Pitfall (the 28th), Woman in the Dunes (29th) and Antonio Gaudi (30th). And that's all just next month! I'm not even sure just what's in store for December, except that it starts out strong with a Silent Film Festival presentation of the original Cecil B. DeMille-produced Chicago and a set of Silly Symphonies including the groundbreaking, gleefully macabre the Skeleton Dance on the 2nd.

As for the Birth of a Nation, it will have a rare screening with a recorded score at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on November 12, a day devoted to Griffith films and part of a weekend of silent films by notable directors (also to include Dreyer, Feyder, Lang & Hitchcock).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Adam Hartzell on Ali Kazimi


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The Pacific Film Archive has its new calendar up. It's unsurprisingly packed with must-sees. As disappointing as it's been to learn that my neighborhood theatre the Balboa would in fact not be a venue for a Janus Films tribute this fall, knowing that the PFA is tackling two such series, one largely Europe-focused and the other Japanese is something of a balm. Just as enticing are the Jacques Rivette series, a set of Beat-era films, and a fascinating series guest-programmed by Akram Zaatari. And more. It almost makes me want to move to Berkeley.

Adam Hartzell, who is currently in Busan, South Korea enjoying what is widely thought of as the best international film festival in Asia, the PIFF (and yes I'm extremely jealous that he gets to see stuff like Syndromes and a Century and Woman on the Beach and I don't), has been kind enough to let me publish a pair of reports on series devoted to documentarian artists-in-residence at the PFA. Here is a third one, on last month's resident Ali Kazimi. Adam:
Thanks to funding by a grant from the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley and presentation support by EKTA and 3rd I: South Asian Films, Indian-Canadian director Ali Kazimi came to town again, enabling Bay Area eyes their third chance to see Continuous Journey, a film which challenges the "liberal" history that is larger Canada's. In 1914, 376 citizens of the British Empire from British India sailed to Vancouver Bay on the Kamagata Maru. They should have been allowed entry onto the shores of Vancouver Bay since they were subjects of the King of England. But this was a year where Canadian pubs were rowdy with the chants of "White Canada Forever" and these subjects were denied entry. The hidden history that Continuous Journey reveals left an impact on me. Which is why I made the trek under the bay to the Pacific Film Archives to catch what I could of the rest of Kazimi's works. The other films and shorts screened in the weekend retrospective (September 14-16, 2006) demonstrated that Kazimi was not done teaching me.

Born and raised in Delhi, India Kazimi didn't grow up around "film", meaning the images shown on screens, but did grow up around film, that is, the material that enables those images to flicker on those very screens. His father worked for Kodak and the smells of chemicals and film stock still stimulate memory nodes of childhood in Kazimi as the smell of pine lumber brings back memories for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Indian-Canadian reporter in his documentary on Indian immigration in Canada. Although it makes sense that he would become a freelance photographer, Kazimi does not resign his path to that of a fated trajectory. He is well aware of all the work and risk required to bring him to where he is today. He taught himself photography from what was lying around his house rather than through mentored instruction. And his shift to film presents similar agency. While working on a marketing campaign in rural India to sell soft drinks, Kazimi asked his superior "Why?" That is, why were they selling hyper-sugar-ed drinks in an impoverished area where basic nutrients are commonly unavailable? A valid argument outside of standard business protocol. The "Why?" question was then thrown back at him, as in, 'Why are you here then?' Kazimi actively listened to this echo and changed the focus of his artistic lens towards film and radio projects. Kazimi would eventually realize that for him to make the films he really wanted to make, he had to leave India for Canada, where he found greater access to funding, intellectual freedom, and distribution, (although not a perfect scenario, as I will note later.)

'Who is speaking for whom?' is a constant question for Kazimi throughout his work. Although acknowledging the point can not be made without over-generalizing, he stated that upon coming to Canada he found the portrayals of people from the Indian subcontinent awash in stereotypes and other clichés and wanted to change that. Much of his work through the funding of the CBC and the National Film Board of Canada has enabled an opportunity to address these poorly painted pictures of a vast, diverse community. "Passage from India" was his contribution to a wider CBC series on the experiences of various Canadian immigrant communities. It follows a CBC newscaster who is the third descendent of Bagga Singh, one of the earliest Indian immigrants to Canada. The piece notes the Indian presence in the logging industry, placing Indians clearly within the iconic landscape that is Canada's symbol of herself.

And it is that landscape that follows Kazimi. Through the assistance of an interviewer's persistence to know whence Kazimi's ideas came, Kazimi realized he was searching for the answer to another question: How do people like him, relatively recent arrivals, fit into the Canadian landscape? He seems to have realized the answers to that question by emphasizing that all Indian immigrants to Canada will not "fit" the same way. In a piece about arranged marriages in the Indian-Canadian community entitled Some Kind of Arrangement, Kazimi follows three different Indian-Canadians from three different religious traditions: one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Sikh. Each has returned to the tradition of arranged marriages for a different reason. One subject comes to the arrangement quite quickly, at least in terms of physical presence. She only saw her future husband twice before their wedding week. Another subject comes from Marxist parents who met through falling in love rather than through arrangement. And another one comes from an ambiguous claim for "traditional" Indian values. Well-crafted and paced, this documentary allows for the emergence of the natural contradictions in our lives without appearing judgmental. The young Sikh-Canadian who longs for "traditional" values isn't able to explain in great depth what she means by "traditional". But when her arranged date demands he drive her car, she takes serious offence. These aren't moments to satisfy our sadistic chastising desires, but moments we can relate to, aware of our own trails as we try to negotiate romantic relationships that emerge through our familial, social, business, and computer networks. We might think we want one thing until the intersubjectivity with others causes us to adjust our categorization of our values so that they better explain ourselves to ourselves, let alone to others.

Kazimi said he was reluctant to do Some Kind of Arrangement, and not just because such would require him to go against the informal pledge made amongst his fist-raised, filmmaking buddies to 'Never Make a Wedding Video!!!' He was primarily reluctant because he had deep-seated prejudices against the practice. But he presents three vastly divergent personal stories surrounding an issue that is most often lazily described as an archaic illegitimate practice. It was a woman I dated in college who pushed me beyond the lazy perspective I used to have on arranged marriages. She explained to me why she wasn't averse to taking her parents up on their offer to arrange a marriage for her within the Korean Seventh Day Adventist community. She had final veto on who would be eventually chosen and she trusted her parents enough to find someone in tune with what she wanted as a modern American woman. Although still not an arrangement I would choose, as notes one of the friends attending the arranged Hindi wedding in the documentary, 'Don't our friends and family arrange parties or other get togethers in hopes of assisting in their child's romantic union?' Yes, and the marriage-proposal newspapers of the Indian community have similarities to the Evangelical Christian ruse of eHarmony or the more democratic forum of Yahoo! Personals. So continues the paradox that it is amongst our differences that we find our similarities.

But there are certain practices to arranged marriages, such as the speed with which some happen and the unequal power dynamics often involved, that allow arranged marriages to be vulnerable to certain dangers. The trust required in the process can be more easily exploited by less than trustworthy folk. And it is this "darker side" of such marriages that Kazimi was equally reluctant to explore in Runaway Grooms. This documentary for the CBC brought Kazimi back to India to interview women who have been abandoned by their arranged husbands after these husbands and their complicit family members extorted as much dowry money and jewels from the arranged bride as they could. This abandonment is enabled by the men having Non-Resident-Indian (NRI) status that allows them to evade legal prosecution and direct moral consequence. Left in India with sympathetic biological families, cultural traditions make it difficult for these abandoned brides to remarry, to work, and to interact socially, while international political options benefiting their deadbeat husbands allows the husbands to petition for divorces once they've milked all the money they could out of their arranged spouses. Kazimi utilizes regular documentary tactics of narration and expert commentary to explain the tradition of the dowry and the options available, and not available, to these women and men and how economics and politics truly benefit the men. Although I'm sure Kazimi would still refuse to do a wedding video, the archival footage of both arranged marriages in this short allow for a tense, suspenseful structure of the narrative as we sit with the unease of the ceremony and speculate about the unease on the face of the soon-to-runaway first groom and the disgusting disinterest on the face of the second.

Kazimi uses the documentary form to demonstrate that these are not just personal choices and cultural practices, they are political in that the legal structure acts as an accomplice to the crimes of the 'runaway grooms'. Feminists are often portrayed falsely as 'man-haters' when they dare to shed light on these patriarchal elephants in our rooms. Kazimi's direction helps limit the justification (when there ever is one) for such weak reactive arguments against Feminisms by introducing us to some of the people who are seeking to remove these patriarchal parameters, some of whom are men. And returning to Kazimi's concern about how Indians are portrayed in the media, coupling Some Kind of Arrangement with Runaway Grooms at a single screening in this retrospective allows for a fuller picture of Indian cultures, emphasizing the plural. Kazimi demonstrates through both these pieces that he strives to show the complexity of the Indian diaspora, which includes the cultural practices that need to be supported and maintained, revisited and revised, or condemned and abolished.

Kazimi carries this to portrayals of other cultures as well. His thesis film was a test of patience, patience with all the obstacles that come up when making a film, patience with the subject, and patience with himself. While doing research to find a topic for his thesis film, Kazimi came across the work of Iroquois photographer Jeffrey Thomas. Little did he know that a 12-year process was about to begin. The film, Shooting Indians, took that long to finish because Thomas had abandoned the project well before completion. (In the interim, Kazimi would go off to India to film Narmada: A Valley Rises about the activists who tried to stop the relocation of millions of Indian villagers to make way for the Narmada Valley Dam.) Kazimi was only able to return to the project when a chance meeting with Thomas's son enabled Kazimi and Thomas to reconnect. Thomas let Kazimi know that it was his own self-doubt that caused him to leave the project. But viewing the rough cuts of the earlier footage helped bring him back to the project. He remembered how he felt Kazimi was one of the few people he'd ever allow to follow him this intimately, because he felt he could relate to Kazimi as a fellow outsider within the Canadian landscape.

As the film demonstrates, it is difficult to talk about Jeffrey Thomas's photography without talking about Edward Curtis, the European-American photographer who made a name for himself taking portraits of his imagined images of what he felt Native Americans should look like. Thomas's initial approach to his work through Curtis's work is that of frustration when not outright anger. The communities Curtis visited were quite westernized when Curtis arrived, so Curtis staged many of the photographs to meet his required visions of how these Native Americans should look. In other words, they had to meet his stereotypes. Plus, Curtis followed a tradition of early ethnographers who came into indigenous communities, took what they wanted, but never returned to give anything back. The subjects of the photos were never paid and no photos were brought to them in return. In response to these images, Thomas's life's work was to represent the First Nations Peoples as they are now, not as they are imagined in Westerns or other iconic images controlled by institutions outside the First Nations community. One way Thomas controls the images is to place pictures of First Nations Peoples at various pow-wow events dressed up in traditional clothing amongst images of First Nations Peoples in their everyday clothing of jeans and t-shirts at the very same event. This disallows a static image of his people, demanding a more fluid, fluxing, non-stereotypical icon to emerge.

Shooting Indians had me thinking back to my first year in San Francisco when I attended an exhibition at the old Ansel Adams Photography Museum that used to be located on 4th Street between Folsom and Howard. Part of the exhibit was a series of photos of Native Americans taken by European-Americans juxtaposed against photos of Native Americans taken by Native Americans themselves. I have no way of confirming if these were images from the same exhibit curated by Jeffrey Thomas such as the one represented in this film, but I have a strong feeling what I witnessed back then was exactly that. That exhibit is partly responsible for why this Cleveland boy supports his hometown baseball team without displaying the racist Chief Wahoo emblem, instead wearing the cursive "I" used for holiday and Sunday home games. Kazimi helped me recover the memory of that exhibit that I hadn't purposely hidden, but hadn't recalled for some time.

And like my memory, Kazimi's filmmaking process has been anything but smooth. Although he has much praise for the National Film Board of Canada, an exemplary funding organization, and although he knows that his lot is better than his documentary-making friends in India, Kazimi still has run into his own problems. Distribution has been a particular burr in his side. The powers that slot documentaries on Canadian television wanted Kazimi to edit down Continuous Journey even though it was well within the usual length for films aired on the channel. Kazimi took this as an underhanded tactic to force him to get rid of the sobering portrayals of the less than honorable White Canadian populace of the time, portrayals to which some officials took offense. But the National Film Board of Canada provides its funding with flexible strings attached, so though he kept his film true to his vision, it was aired at an hour less hospitable to the average viewer.

Besides these political and economic obstacles, there were the general obstacles of the filmmaking process. I've already mentioned how Kazimi was shooting Shooting Indians for 12 years due to the disappearance of his subject. Creating Continuous Journey had its own obstacles because there was very little archival footage from which to work. This required Kazimi to repeat images in his film more often than I'm sure he wanted. But his tireless archival work resulted in two choice finds that have strongly affected audiences. The first is the "White Canada Forever" popular pub song that shocks Canadian audiences when they hear it. Many Canadians have taken great pride, justifiably so, in thier progressive multicultural policies. But to discover this bit of hidden celebratory racism is quite a jolt to the national consciousness.

The second moment is the moving highpoint of moving images in Continuous Journey. It is the kind of surprise moment in a film I don't even want to reveal here in this non-review format where Spoiler!-warnings don't apply. I restrain myself because my hope is that readers will seek out their own chance to see this film. (It is available for purchase on his website.) Perhaps you will experience the same moment of cinematic awe that my fellow ticket-paying travelers did when we saw it together at the 2005 San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival. Such are those collective connections one only has in the theatre, keeping us coming back again and again. But since this is likely to be a film not coming to a theatre near you, you'll have to settle for such an awe-full moment of an awful moment in Canada's history through the DVD format, the medium where this film's journey continues.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What Is It? and other questions


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This weekend is Crispin Hellion Glover weekend here in Frisco. Not only is the multifaceted artist bringing to the Castro Theatre three evening presentations of his controversial, finally-complete experimental film What Is It?, accompanied by his slide show presentation and a question-and-answer session with the audience, but there will also be an eight-film retrospective of his acting work matinees and midnights. From his Reagan-era roles in River's Edge and the jaw-dropping the Orkly Kid to more recent starring roles in the Herman Melville update Bartleby and the Willard remake, Glover's career highlights will finally be shown together on the largest screen possible. And if you can't bear a Crispin Glover weekend without seeing David Lynch's Wild At Heart, it will be playing at the Clay Theatre midnights Friday and Saturday (unfortunately, unless you can enlist the aid of Doc Brown and his Delorean, you'll have to give up one of the Castro midnight screenings to see it.)

I was invited to interview Glover about What Is It? on the Castro Theatre balcony a couple weeks ago. What follows is the first-ever Hell On Frisco Bay artist interview. I've edited out my star-struck stammering but have tried my best to leave the conversation very close to the way it actually happened:

Hell on Frisco Bay: You've been working for years on this film.

Crispin Glover: Yes.

HoFB: Did it evolve in shape and scope, or is it how you envisioned it from the get-go?

CG: Both, because originally it was going to be a short film to promote the concept of working with a cast the majority of whom would be actors with Down's syndrome. I was interested in selling a certain script to a corporation to another film I was going to direct, and they were concerned about the concept, so I wrote a short movie to promote this idea. The initial structure of a simple hero's journey story structure: somebody in their normal world being disturbed, having to go out of that world into a special world, find allies and enemies, and in the end learn a lesson...all of that sits within this film. What the character was going through changed vastly as it turned into a feature film, and then again when I put myself in, and the Steven Stewart character who is the fellow with cerebral palsy that chokes me to death. He's the main character and author of the second film [It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine!], which I'm very close to finishing.

HoFB: So after What Is It? we can look forward to that.

CG: I'm hoping. I never really like to say specifically because things can take longer than you think, but I'm hoping it will be relatively soon.

HoFB: It sounds like What Is It? started with an almost ideological desire to make a film with a particular kind of cast. It's certainly a rare thing to see characters with Down's syndrome played by actors with Down's syndrome in a feature film.

CG: Well, that's something I differentiate specifically though. When I was casting, I made it very clear to the people that I was working with that the film isn't about Down's syndrome and they're not playing characters that have Down's syndrome. It isn't about Down's syndrome. I was questioned about it a lot because the screenplay always had a lot of violence in it, and a lot of the guardians were concerned about the inaccurate portrayal of people with Down's syndrome as violent and the truth of it is that they're generally very genteel people and very nice people to work with. So I always make it exceedingly clear.

The fact of it is that really, the film is about my psychological reaction to certain restraints that are going on in corporate-financed film and the lack of taboo that I think is an extremely important barometer of what the culture is generally thinking about. It's being averted by corporate entities concerned that they're going to make audiences uncomfortable and lose money in the long run, and it ends up stupefying the culture. It's not a good thing. What's unusual is to see people with Down's syndrome making up the majority of the cast of a film and playing the lead roles. When I look into the face of somebody that has Down's syndrome I see, automatically, the history of someone who has lived really outside of the culture, and you can feel something from that when almost the whole film is made up of actors who have that quality.

HoFB: It seems like the film is an opposite of what we normally see in American films. Aesthetically, thematically, structurally, it's the complete opposite.

CG: A lot of people have said that. I agree, because there is the taboo element; it is what is not allowed and it genuinely does feel quite different because it is ubiquitous; you cannot at this point in time get funding from corporations if a film has any of those qualities at all. If you have one element they will not, even just one. This film has way more than one, so that makes it feel very different.

HoFB: Do you feel you're part of a tradition of oppositional cinema?

CG: Yes, absolutely. I don't feel like I'm breaking ground at all. I feel like I am reacting to this culture specifically. It is not something that has necessarily happened so much. I know there are people that want to react, and it's very difficult in this culture because it's expensive, and then you have to have distribution. I'm in a unique position from having worked in corporately-funded media so it does make it easier for me to contact media. If I didn't have that history and I made this very same film there's no way I would be able to get the kind of attention from media that I'm able to get. It's unfortunate because I'd still stand by the film if I was not. But there is definitely an integral part that I'm reacting to, and I've been part of that. It's been a part of my life so there's a genuine truth to it and genuine frustration that I've dealt with first-hand so it doesn't feel fake.

HoFB: It seems like a big part of the genesis of the themes and structure of the film is your place in the world, which is of course marked by your life in Hollywood as an actor.

CG: That's right. There is definitely an autobiographical element to the film, and there should be. People should make movies about what their experiences are. Often actors will write books or they'll make movies and it generally isn't about what their genuine experience is, and this one is really about that. Of course, it's poetically done so it's not like me walking into a casting office or a business meeting and having a particular discussion but I think the concepts -- ultimately it depends on the person, it seems like you're particularly sensitive to it, and some people just can't make any sense out of it all. It's rarer; most people do make some kind of sense of it, but it sounds like you're picking up on very specific things.

HoFB: I think it's definitely helped for me to have heard and read and talked about the film beforehand, and then I was able to view the film through that lens.

CG: That's one of the reasons that I go and talk about it. On some level, it's cheating because really a film should stand on its own one hundred per cent. It's one of the reasons why Rainer Werner Fassbinder's sensibilities are interesting to me. I discovered his filmmaking while I was working on this. I hadn't locked the film, but I was late in the process. Among the many things I admire about his filmmaking are the socio-economic, political, psychological commentaries that exist within the structures of his films, how clearly he understood those structures and how well he was able to illustrate those psychologies, the political/monetary backgrounds, and what they meant. It's extremely intelligent, extremely perceptive. I haven't seen another filmmaker that's come anywhere near the dynamic realms that he's gone into. It's unusual how intelligent that filmmaking is.

HoFB: You're making me think of Fox and His Friends.

CG: Fox and His Friends has it, Berlin Alexanderplatz has it, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven has it. He has it all the time, and I felt an obligation to ask myself, "what is this meaning specifically within the culture?" I felt the obligation to clarify in my own mind what some of these poetic things mean, because often I'll view something with an emotional reaction. I ask myself, "why am I reacting to that?"

HoFB: Fassbinder is definitely a kind of oppositional filmmaker, but aesthetically he's a lot less radical than what you're doing.

CG: Maybe. Cinematically, Herzog, Kubrick and Buñuel, really those filmmakers are more cinematic filmmakers, particularly Kubrick and Herzog.

HoFB: Fassbinder is cinematic, he's just not as...

CG: Fantastical.

HoFB: Yeah, exactly.

CG: But you can see later on he started working with sets, in his last film, Querelle. It's not my favorite of his films. Also he didn't finish it. There's a narration in it. When he narrates his own films, like the narration he does in Berlin Alexanderplatz which I think is my favorite narration I've ever heard in film, it's just so psychologically integrated into the moments, and he's a great performer, and intelligent. It's just phenomenal. In Querelle they have like an American narrator voice narrating this stuff. You just know if he'd finished the film it would've been a very different thing. His last film I think he was alive to finish was Veronika Voss, which had a beautiful look to it. He was so young when he died. It's really a tragedy. The amount of work that he did in his life; he made more films than years he lived, and one of those films is Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is fifteen hours long. I feel that if he had remained alive the face of cinema at this point in time would be totally different because he would have reacted to these very things that I believe are going on right now. I really do admire him very much.

HoFB: Is there anyone you would point to in the tradition you're operating in psychologically?

CG: Buñuel. L'Age D'Or specifically. I have my analysis of that film, and I think he was very much reacting to a Catholic-based situation. I feel these reactions in the film. It's maybe overlooked now, because these reactions are not necessary at this point in time. At that time when he was in Europe, Catholicism was pretty overwhelming. He grew up in Spain, so he definitely had that reaction his whole life, and it was a valuable thing for him to do, and it made sense for him. I don't live in a Catholic culture. It wouldn't make sense for me to be reacting to that. I live in a very different, maybe a little bit more difficult to define, or maybe certain things shouldn't be defined because if you define them you can get in real trouble, but there are different things that I'm reacting to, different control elements other than Catholicism.

HoFB: It's interesting how Buñuel did it in different ways at different points in his career. At first he was doing it very aesthetically radically with Dali, but later in films like Viridiana it's a more a narrative approach.

CG: And they're fantastic. I hesitate to call things narrative or non-narrative. All of Buñuel's films are narrative. What is It? was at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the oldest experimental film festival in the US, and it won Best Narrative Film. This is a narrative film, but it is in the tradition of the vocabulary that Buñuel was working with in his early career. I see clearly those poetic realms, but you have to work in those poetic realms if you really feel that you could be offending people sometimes. Buñuel had to work poetically because if he just made a film that specifically attacked Catholicism he would have been in even much greater peril. There was some genuine peril. People got mad! They didn't just think this was a nice little fun film. He produced the film in Spain and then he had to leave Spain because of Franco. That's why he went to Mexico and that's when he started directing films again. And it is great to see how he changed. And it's something that I've thought about a lot. Certainly, all of the films that I'm interested in making are not in this exact same kind of vocabulary.

HoFB: It seems like even your acting work in the past has sometimes dealt with the audience's stance in regard to celebrity, like in The Orkly Kid, or Nurse Betty, or even that line in Rubin & Ed where Rubin talks about "famous frauds". It seems that, especially in The Orkly Kid, you haven't been afraid of looking at ways the general public relates to celebrity.

CG: Yeah, and What Is It? definitely has something about celebrity. It's a funny thing, because I've known people that are, you know, very well-known, and there is a business to celebrity-dom. It's peculiar to me if somebody doesn't realize that. Celebrity does change one's reality; even I see that there's kind of a warped sensibility of things. Everybody to a certain extent is warped by whatever their own reality is, if you want to call it "warped". It's a pejorative but it doesn't need to be. There is something that can be played with. I think Andy Kaufman played with celebrity in ultimately a very intelligent fashion, but if one plays with it people can become very confused.

I feel like the persona that is put forth by some of the most well-known celebrities, who are very much in control of that persona, is often quite the opposite of what their real self is, and probably their own mind's eye of themselves, and that one of the reasons that they want to put this other persona so far forward is because they really don't feel like that about themselves. I feel that often, though not always, people that constantly play a heroic type of persona are actually cowardly, whereas I feel like it's a very brave person who plays the cowardly person, or the person that is not viewed as the best person or the good person or the person that one wants to be. Of course it isn't one hundred percent true. There are great performers who have played heroic people, but I think that often times it isn't that way.

HoFB: I think that everyone, celebrity or not, does it to some degree. Takes on a persona.

CG: Sure, sure. And there are positive things to it too. You want to be the best person you can be, hopefully. Or you want to be the worst person, if that's your persona.

HoFB: It seems you tend to play characters that are not always the "best person". They're often very subversive.

CG: Yeah, I find those characters really interesting to play. Sometimes when I play the characters that are a little less eccentric or something, I wonder, is that as interesting to me personally? I mean, I should do those. Sometimes it's good for me. I mean, like the Nurse Betty character I played was definitely an example, but I enjoyed very much working with Neil LaBute. He was really a great director and I'm really glad I did that film, but I remember thinking, "this good guy I'm playing isn't that...odd."

HoFB: Do you feel closer to the eccentrics?

CG: It depends. On some levels I don't feel eccentric at all. I dress fairly conservatively. I actually I have a good standard of living, my property in the Czech Republic, my house. I have some nice antique cars. I've acquired a certain amount of things, but really most of my monies are going toward making my films now. But, I try to go to nice restaurants if I'm going to go out, or cook food for myself that's healthy. You know, those kinds of things that are normal.

HoFB: You've got a niche in American acting, where you draw people who wouldn't normally be drawn to Hollywood films like Charlie's Angels.

CG: That I consider a positive, definitely. That is a good thing and it's something that I count on for this film, for touring around. I know there are people that have become interested in seeing me, and I'm very grateful for that. Now I'm touring around with the film and I really am cutting out the middleman. I'm working directly with the audience that is coming in and paying the money to the box office. Ultimately those people are paying me back directly for the investment I've made in this film. I don't have a corporate, intervening middleman that comes between me and the audience. So I am extremely understanding that each one of those people that comes in is helping me out, and it's a very direct relationship. When I'm doing the book signings and I'm personally talking to each person, I'm quite grateful to that person. It's a very direct working relationship with -- I don't even like the word "fan base", but whatever you want to call it. People that are interested in your work.

HoFB: One last question: It seems that, increasingly, the way that economic transactions take place in the film world is through the sale of DVDs. I understand you're not going to be making a DVD of What Is It? available.

CG: It's hard to know what will happen, but right now I have zero plans for it. I want to continue touring around with it for years to come, and I have a concept of growing a library that I can keep touring around with, because I know everybody that wants to won't be able to see it on those three days in San Francisco that I'm here. If I come back next year or later with another film and I have this film with it, some other people can come that didn't get to see What Is It? before. Or, if somebody's interested in seeing it again. Because I know I like looking at a certain kind of film over and over again, and I want to make films to see over and over again, that you want to see projected in a theatre like the Castro.

End of interview.

What Is It? screens at the Castro Theatre with Crispin Glover appearing in person at 7:30 PM on October 20, 21 and 22. The Crispin Glover Film Festival will be held at the same theatre on those dates.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon: Apache


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I apologize for the long silence on this blog; I can't believe it's already been more than three weeks since my last post. Some of that time has been spent watching movies but it still feels like I've missed an awful lot. For example I unfortunately ended up seeing only a single solitary film from the Mill Valley Film Festival lineup, the one I was able to catch at an advance screening here in Frisco: The Queen. This shiny new Oscar hopeful ought to satisfy just about anyone looking for an intelligent film, but will probably disappoint anyone looking for a brilliant one. Of course, intelligent films are rare enough that I expect this one to do very well against its as-yet unseen competition.

Arranging trips to Mill Valley or San Rafael is difficult enough but the past few weeks I've been stretched particularly thin. I hope I can figure a way to make it to the latter venue for an October 26 screening of the Magnificent Ambersons and at least one or two of the Otto Preminger films playing the first weekend of December. I'm disappointed I missed films argued for so beautifully in places like here and here, but I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to go on a road trip to the Lone Pine Film Festival with my dad and then report on it for Greencine Daily. One real highlight of attending the festival was getting a chance to meet and talk movies with one of the best filmbloggers on my sidebar, Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Dennis is hosting a Robert Aldrich Blog-A-Thon today, but since I've already got several unfinished pieces I want to finish up and publish here this week, I'd all but given up on the idea of contributing, especially since I'd only seen the director's two most widely-esteemed films, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Kiss Me Deadly. But then I read about the difficulties preventing fellow blogger Girish Shambu from contributing a post to today's event, and I realized that I had no good excuse not to come up with something, however lame. I popped in a previously unwatched videocassette of Aldrich's 1954 Apache to see what I thought of it on a first viewing. What I've come up with is far less a contribution to the blogosphere's Aldrich-knowledge than an apology explaining why I emerged from a viewing of a Robert Aldrich film without having much of anything to say about Robert Aldrich.

Though my decision to pick Apache from among all Aldrich films to watch and write about is essentially due to happenstance (it was the one title of his I had conveniently lying around the house), I also thought it might be fortuitous to look at a film in the genre (the Western) that was also the focus of the film festival I'd just attended and written about. My fascinations with film genres in which a talented auteur director might be easily able to slip in touches more interesting and unexpected than in a Hollywood "prestige" picture have led me to become particularly interested in Westerns, but not to the point of becoming any kind of an authority on them as my exposure is still too narrow. Focusing a large portion of my film-watching efforts on the offerings available on Frisco cinema screens has helped to ensure that; Westerns simply don't get screened in this town very often. Even those of the spaghetti variety, like the Leone films playing the Castro next Tuesday and Wednesday, aren't seen terribly often here. So after a weekend at Lone Pine I've definitely been spending more time than usual considering Westerns, and particularly the way they portray American Indian tribes.

But nothing could really have prepared me for the utter preposterousness of seeing Apache's stars Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters in Technicolor "redface" makeup for ninety minutes. (Angelina Jolie might do well to look at this movie right about now.) Well, perhaps I could have eventually gotten used to it if the dialogue and acting weren't so stiff and humorless (Lancaster's Massai makes a single joke toward the end of the film when he places a tiny cornstalk up to his ear, but even that feels like far too weighty a moment), or if the history lessons weren't so bizarre in their inaccuracy. The film's premise rests on an understanding that Geronimo's Apaches (and, as the film implies, all other tribes as well) had no knowledge of farming until they were introduced to it by whites. The screamingly ludicrous symbol of this is a sack of seed corn (corn!!!) given to Massai by an Oklahoma Cherokee with the intention of helping him mimic white culture.

The gaping erroneousness throws the entire film off-balance, to the point where it's difficult to unpack just what messages are being sent, other than misinformation. There are attempts to bring up issues like assimilation and cultural relativity, but they can't really go anywhere. Still, it's worth watching the engine of Hollywood narrative techniques for once applied to get us rooting for a character who in most Westerns would be an unqualified villain. Massai's freedom fighting often resembles terrorism but the deck is stacked to have the audience feel the maximum amount of pity for his tragic character. By the end of the film he turns himself in and lives happily ever after, which I understand departs from the actual, more tragic fate of the historical inspiration for the character. It made me think of the requirements of the Hollywood Production Code. It seems unlikely that a film with the stance of Apache could have been made much earlier than 1954, by which point the code was starting to become a little less tight of a straightjacket in its requirements for the depiction of protagonists. But at the same time there's no way filmmakers working under the code could ever consider showing the truth of the worst atrocities committed against Indians, as it would mean terrible crimes would have to go unpunished. One Code-friendly option could have been to show the crimes and then punish them, but that would go against the sweep of a history in which perpetrators of such crimes have long gotten away with their misdeeds.

There is my reaction to a single viewing of Apache. It would take a far greater investment of study of the film and of other Aldrich films for me to be able to look past the biggest stumbling blocks I found in this film, primarily the 1954 convention of casting white actors in non-white roles, the stereotyped dialogue, and Hollywood-style rewriting of history. I hope to inch my way closer to a better understanding of Aldrich and what exactly he brought to the table through the other entries in today's Blog-A-Thon, but to be honest I'm not too eager to revisit Apache anytime soon. In fact, I feel more like running in exactly the other direction from Hollywood depictions of American Indians right about now. Which means the 31st Annual American Indian Film Festival coming to the Lumiere and the Palace of Fine Arts Nov 3-11, including a screening of the Journals of Knud Rasmussen Nov. 9, can't arrive soon enough!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Frank Borzage and the "Classical Hollywood Style"


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The "Classical Hollywood Style" of the 1930s and 40s is often referred to as if it were a monolith. The achievements of Hollywood auteurs from the era, whether Chaplin or Welles, Hawks or Hitchcock, are usually illustrated in terms of their divergence from this so-called "invisible style". Less often discussed are the contributions individual directors (outside of D.W. Griffith) may have made to constructing the style.

The legacy of Frank Borzage, whose films have recently been on view in New York, Berkeley, California and elsewhere this summer, is perhaps an ideal battleground for some of these issues to be wrangled out. Borzage was certainly no "maverick" director like Chaplin or Welles; he earned the first and the fifth Academy Awards for Direction for his Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, respectively. Rather, he was a crucial developer of the ways that talking picture melodramas might resemble and distiguish themselves from their silent film predecessors. He was one of the first successful importers of European movements like expressionism and the Kammerspiel into his films (surely it was no coincidence that for a brief while he shared a studio, Fox, and a leading lady, Janet Gaynor, with F.W. Murnau). A silent-era Borzage film, especially a collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, contains a far more sophisticated interplay between shadow and light than most other Hollywood releases of the era. The result: these films look years ahead of their time.

But it's also interesting to take a look at Borzage flourishes that did not become assimilated into the "Classical Hollywood Style." Take Man's Castle, a beautiful film in spite of an apparant technical crudity even for a film made at the low-budget Columbia of 1933. I say "in spite of", but is it in part because of certain now-crude-seeming characteristics that the film is such a masterpiece? Frederick Lamster, in his 1981 auteurist survey Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity points out that after an early scene in which Spencer Tracy's Bill has just dramatically revealed his shared bond of poverty with the homeless Trina (Loretta Young, who developed a real-life romance with Tracy during filming), the couple are visually separated from the street crowd by a scale-distorting back-projection. The technical effect would be unacceptable by the standards of realism demanded for Hollywood product only a few years later, but the emotional effect of showing the pair all the more isolated from the world around them adds resonance to the film's romatic themes. I also noticed numerous instances in the film of what could be eyeline mismatch, but which also lent a dreamlike outlook to Borzage's starry-eyed characters.

Films like 1937's History is Made at Night and 1940's the Mortal Storm might be examples of the "Classical Hollywood Style" at its pre-war epitome, but the films Borzage made after the war have been characterized as increasingly out-of-step. His 1948 Moonrise, which led to a ten-year absence from feature filmmaking, has been categorized with the films noirs of the time, but it doesn't deal with the hardened criminals and cold-blooded schemers they do, nor does it utilize much of the gritty realism associated with the genre. Instead the film looks like a set-constructed exterior manifestation of the Dane Clark protagonist's increasingly tortured mental state, the bucolic decaying into full-fledged paranoia exhibited through the use of entrapping camera angles and POV-shots. The result seems more at home compared to Night of the Hunter or certain RKO Val Lewton films of the mid-1940s, than lumped in with Hollywood's increasingly "real" noir films of the time.

A wealth of recent web-based writing on Borzage has recently arisen along with the touring retrospective; Reverse Shot and Slant are two of the best places to find it. If you have your own thoughts on this underdiscussed filmmaker, the "Classical Hollywood Style", or the relationship between the two, please add a comment below!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Friz Freleng For All


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Welcome to the Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon, in celebration of the late animation master's 100th (or is it 101st, or 102nd?) birthday. The picture to the right is a caricature of Friz from the 1952 Chuck Jones cartoon the Hasty Hare. Links to other sites participating in the occasion will be listed at the bottom of my long-winded post. Thanks to everyone for participating! I think it's wonderful to have such a collection of writings on Freleng in one place on the anniversary of his birth!

I'm not an animator or an animation scholar, but I love to watch classic cartoons, and sometimes try my hand writing about them. Knowing that writers far more practiced than I can sometimes get their extremities caught in painful, embarrassing traps when trying to reach for analysis of cinematic topics outside their realm of expertise (Mick LaSalle being a recent example) might make me hesitant to write on the form. But, though I'm still in the beginning steps of understanding the animator's craft (a term I use because it parallels the commonly-used "actor's craft", not to imply that animating or acting are unartistic endeavors), I hope I have something to contribute to a discussion of cartoons, if only an expression of my passionate belief that the best are as essential as the acknowledged great works of the cinema.

One of the film critics I most admire, Manny Farber, was among the first non-specialists to treat the Warner Studios' cartoons as an important topic of discussion, with a piece published September 20, 1943 in The New Republic called "Short and Happy." It's a brief, six paragraph article, but it does a good job describing the amoral appeal of the Warner house style in the early 1940s when compared to the growing tendency of Disney (the only cartoon studio to have received widespread critical attention at that time) toward virtuous uplift. In 1941 Preston Sturges had made a similar, if perhaps unintended, critique of Disney's transformation by using scenes of pure slapstick from 1934's Playful Pluto in his Sullivan's Travels as the catalyst for the film director's conversion from would-be educator to entertainer, reversing Disney's path during the period. Farber praised Merrie Melodies for being "out to make you laugh, bluntly, and as it turns out, cold-bloodedly." The problem with his praise in the original article, however, is that it now seems rather misdirected. Repeatedly Farber gives the credit for the cartoons to the producer Leon Schlesinger and not any of the directors to whom we now know he gave relatively free creative reign. This is probably why, by the time "Short and Happy" was placed in the 1971 Farber collection Negative Space, it had been edited to attribute the cartoons' singular qualities to Freleng, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Robert McKimson. But the re-edit causes more problems than it solves, as by bringing McKimson into the equation Farber awkwardly conflates two eras of Merrie Melodie-making: 1940-42, when Jones, Freleng and Avery were directing but McKimson was still an animator, and the period that stretched from 1950 until the early 1960s, when nearly all the studio's cartoons were directed by Jones, Freleng or McKimson. An added paragraph constrasting the directors' styles feels like it belongs in a different piece; it was that paragraph's reference to the 1958 cartoon Robin Hood Daffy that made me feel the need to look up old issues of The New Republic on microfilm.

Sad to say, Freleng probably emerges from Farber's 1971 (or earlier?) re-edit worse off than if he, like Robert Clampett or Frank Tashlin, hadn't been mentioned at all. In the new paragraph, Freleng is simply described as "the least contorting" while Avery gets to be called "a visual surrealist" and McKimson "a show-biz satirist", with Jones receiving several sentences of praise all to himself. At least Freleng cartoons like the Fighting 69 1/2 and Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt get singled out for praise, but the latter is misidentified as a McKimson product in the re-edit. Perhaps the most enduring line Farber uses to describe the cartoons is: "The surprising facts about them are that the good ones are masterpieces and the bad ones aren't a total loss." In the original article three examples of "good ones" are identified as The Case of the Missing Hare, Inki and the Lion (both Jones) and Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt. But the lone counter-example is the "poor" Wabbit Who Came to Supper which is saved by a single gag (where Bugs tricks Elmer into celebrating New Year's Eve in July) from implied "total loss"-hood. I disagree; that's one excellent 'toon!

But here I am, already on the fifth paragraph of this post, and I still haven't gotten around to saying what it is about Freleng that made me want to initiate this Blog-a-Thon in the first place. The above stuff is important, I think, because Farber is a deservedly influential critic, and his damningly faint praise of Freleng's talents in the revised "Short and Happy" has probably held some sway over the many, many readers of Negative Space in the years since its publication. It, or other conventional wisdom like it, certainly held some sway over my own opinions of Warner cartoons when revisiting them as an auteurist-minded adult. I took the genius of Avery and Jones almost for granted, and it was Bob Clampett's extraordinarily distinctive (almost always MOST contorting) style that first caught my attention as something of a "new discovery" for me. But gradually I began to appreciate Freleng more as well, and now I think he among all the Termite Terrace directors most exemplified this original Farber quote, contrasting the studio's artistic method against "insipid realism":
It is a much simpler style of cartoon drawing, the animation is less profuse, the details fewer, and it allows for reaching the joke and accenting it much more quickly and directly: it also gets the form out of the impossible dilemma between realism and wacky humor.
Increased realism has been a constantly recurring ambition of animated and live-action filmmakers alike. The Warner cartoonists were not immune; most notably, Jones started his directing career attempting to draw simulations of the natural world in films like Joe Glow the Firefly. Avery would often take a scene to the technological limit of cartoon realism, then demolish that limit with a gag drawing attention to the cinema-unreality of any filmed image (the hair-in-projector gag in Aviation Vacation being a quintessential example.) Clampett, on the other hand, fought against tendencies toward cartoon realism, and usually ended up with an anything-goes cartoon universe of wackiness. What Freleng would do in his most effective cartoons was something else: he'd create a gag that, if not realistic, would at least be performed by his characters as it would be if they were vaudeville actors. Then he would repeat the gag to the point of ridiculousness, altering time and/or space to increase the impact of the humor, and creating a sense of inevitability that is funny in a completely different manner than the unpredictable hilarity of a Clampett cartoon. The Wabbit Who Came To Supper follows this pattern, as do many of the Sylvester-Tweety cartoons, but the most perfect distillation of the principle is probably the 1949 Yosemite Sam/Bugs Bunny face-off High Diving Hare.

As Greg Ford notes in his commentary on the Looney Tunes: Golden Collection disc on which this short appears, High Diving Hare has a long set-up. It's true that there is often some gag-light "dead space" in a Freleng cartoon, but at least in the case of this one, the set-up is necessary to build the gag premise that will so pay off in the second half of the cartoon. The premise, for those of you who may not have seen the film before but want to see me overexplain it (I really don't recommend that; please watch it right now or skip to the end of this post where the links to other bloggers are) is that Bugs is presenting a variety show at an Old West Opry House. Yosemite Sam's favorite daredevil Fearless Freep is on the bill, inspiring the diminutive gunslinger to lay down a pile of cash and plop down right in front of the stage. Carl Stalling's musical contribution increases the tension as the camera makes a vertical pan (Paul Julian's background using a perspective effect to simulate a live-action tilt) up the impossibly high ladder to the platform Freep is going to dive off of. But if Sam isn't impatient enough already, he really loses his temper when Bugs interrupts a lengthy introduction to accept a telegram from the weather-delayed diver. Of course, all this set-up isn't to make Sam's anger more believable; with Yosemite you believe his anger from the first cel. It's to create a situation in which Sam doesn't want to just kill Bugs in his usual way, but to motivate him to force Bugs up the ladder to the platform so he'll dive in Freep's place. Freleng and his crew don't have a pair of six-shooters that can make Yosemite climb that ladder himself; they have to construct and draw everything.

The first dive takes over a minute to unfold, but each second is perfectly used. First there's the climb, backed by Stalling's chromatically-rising violins, then acrophobic (or so he says) Bugs inching to the edge of the diving board, then clinging to Sam and to the board to avoid the fall. When Sam aims his guns and orders, "now, ya varmint! dive!" it seems like the moment of no return. But of course it's really the perfect moment for a Bugs switcharoo. He convinces Sam to turn around and close his eyes while he puts on his bathing suit (an absolutely absurd modesty since Bugs is naked to begin with!) With his adversary not looking, he's able to rotate the board around an imaginary center, then use sound effects he must have learned from Treg Brown to bamboozle Sam into thinking he'd actually jumped into the bucket of water at the bottom of the ladder, when he's actually just landed on the platform, only a few feet lower than where he started. What happens next is absolutely priceless: Sam expresses genuine respect for the "critter", and in his state of shocked admiration he steps off the board into a stagebound freefall.

I'm not going to detail each of the subsequent 8 times Yosemite tries to force Bugs off the diving board and ends up the fall guy himself, but in each iteration of the gag the climb-trick-fall cycle gets briefer than the previous, except for the third, and the ninth and last fall. Sam's third ascent takes a few seconds longer because it's the film's first real break with the rules previously established in the cartoon's exaggerated but thus far logical universe. When he steps out on the board, unable to figure out where Bugs went, the audience is privy to the knowledge that he's standing upside-down on the underside of the board. Or so we think; as soon as Bugs informs Sam that he's the one upside-down, he falls, illustrating the principle that Looney Tunes characters can do anything until they realize they've done something they can't. By falls number seven and eight Freleng leaves the camera trained on the middle of the ladder so that we see a sopping wet Sam climbing up, and soon enough falling down and making a splash, but we aren't shown what Bugs is doing up there to keep Sam's water wheel of torment turning. The moment when we expect to see him fall again, but instead the silence is broken by the sound of sawing, is a hilarious friction between anticipation and surprise. The resolution is perfect because it's simply too easy. When Michael Barrier in Hollywood Cartoons claims that "gags in Freleng's cartoons tend to be of equal weight, so that a cartoon simply stops when its time is up" he either isn't considering High Diving Hare or else he's thinking specifically of big, complicated, finishes like the ones Jones supplies in most of his Road Runner or Sam Sheepdog cartoons. High Diving Hare's "biggest" gag is the first dive, and the others are like ripples on the surface, keeping the laughter generated from the initial splash going and going.

This is all just how I see it. Please feel free to disagree with any or all of my train of thought by leaving a comment below!

Freleng appreciators in the Frisco Bay area will want to know that the Balboa Theatre will be holding a tribute to the director sometime this Fall, including a screening of Ford's 1994 documentary Freleng Frame-By-Frame. (I'll post the precise date when I learn it through the theatre's informative weekly newsletter, available on the theatre website and through e-mail.) In the meantime they're screening a (non-Freleng) cartoon before each showing of Little Miss Sunshine.

Once again, thanks to all the participants in this Blog-A-Thon! If you've written something you'd like me to link, please e-mail me or leave a comment. Here are the links I've collected so far; they'll be updated several times throughout the day:

Adam Koford at Ape Lad.
Akylea at Robots cry too (en Español / in Spanish).
alie at blogalie (en Español / in Spanish).
Brad Luen at East Bay View.
Brendon Bouzard at My Five Year Plan.
Craig Phillips at Notes From Underdog.
Dave Mackey.
David Germain at david germain's blog.
Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
Dennis Hyer at Atlantic County Cartoons.
Gir at Gir's room with a moose.
Harry McCracken at Harry-Go-Round.
J.E. Daniels at the Adventures of J.E. Daniels.
Joe Campana.
Josh at jazz::animated.
Kurtis Findlay Burnaby at animated toast!
Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
Mondoxíbaro (en galego / in Galician).
Peter Nellhaus at coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
Richard Hildreth at Supernatural, Perhaps -- Baloney, Perhaps Not.
Sean Gaffney.
Stephen Rowley at Rumours and Ruminations.
Steven at The Horror Blog.
Ted at Love and Hate Cartoons.
Thad Komorowski at Animation ID.
Thom at Film of the Year.
Tom Sito at Tom's Blog.
Xocolot (en Español / in Spanish).

UPDATE 8/22/06: Just wanted to point out that Wade Sampson published a MousePlanet piece on Freleng last week in honor of the centennial as well.

Also, thanks to Cartoon Brew, Greencine Daily, La Vanguardia and other sites that spread the word about the Blog-a-Thon. With more than two dozen officially participating sites, I'd call the day an unqualified success!