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Thumbs Up for “Three Masters”

My latest film criticism, “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience,” excerpted in the previous post, is recommended reading for the week at RogerEbert.com. If that doesn’t get you to read, I don’t know what to do with you. (But I’ll think of something.)

A further excerpt:

In Saving Private Ryan, the film’s ultimate sentimentality, which sets it apart amid all of the hyperrealistic violence that is one mark of the anti-sentiment of the anti-war film,9 is Captain Miller’s dying charge to Ryan to “earn this.” Though Ryan expresses doubt in the final moments by asking his wife if he did, the audience has little doubt of the judgment. It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan, its raison d’être – it serves not a personal artistic vision but a social good – to validate the suffering and sacrifice of the World War II G.I. and claim that they all “earned it.” It is the purpose of Saving Private Ryan in its public role to “redeem the horror of what [the American soldier] experienced — and, perhaps, as well, participated in — in patriotic honor. This is the purpose of the (pro) war film. Spielberg chose to present war more graphically than any (pro) war film ever had before and still declare that the right, good cause can justify it and expiate the essential human crime of it.”10

Among the minority who vociferously dissent from the general acclaim for Schindler’s List, the objection, beyond other particulars, is to the same sentimental closing affirmation, even about the Holocaust. Most viewers, perhaps some part of almost any viewer, wish to believe that even in the face of the Holocaust, life can be meaningfully renewed, that the full realization of the Holocaust’s occurrence can be integrated into a human existence the moral worth of which does not need forever to be doubted. Even after all that, and that kind of barbarity and death, we – not just we but actual survivors from the list, including Oskar Schindler’s widow Emilie – can pass in procession before his gravestone to the exquisitely emotive music of John Williams, drawn from the violin by Itzhak Perlman, and place a commemorative stone in profound grief and honor and – and what? Have learned? Be deeply moved and made better?

Read the rest here.

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Three Film Masters

My latest film criticism is available now at Bright Lights Film Journal. “Three Masters: Spielberg, Anderson, Haneke, and Their Audience” addresses the question, as the tag line has it: “Is the filmmaker tyrant, aesthete, ringmaster, or hermit?

It is commonly claimed by artists that they create for themselves. Wrote Stanley Fish, to whom I respond,”If a reader feels consoled or comforted, that’s all to the good, but it’s not what writing is about.” Fish called the consolation and comfort of art a “rationale for the act that was not internal to its demands, a rationale that could take the form of an external justification.”

“Of course,” said Fish, “the words refer to events in the world, including events I may have witnessed or experienced, but to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.”

I challenge this stance, here particularly with regard to three filmmakers whose consideration of their audience is discoverable in their filmmaking. Spielberg is a filmmaker commonly charged with pandering to his audience. Anderson and Haneke may be characterized, peculiarly, by antagonism to their audience. When an artist claims to create only for himself, yet sets his work before a public audience, what is one to make of that? Is it contempt? Is something more complex at work?

An excerpt:

The notions of “external justification” and “effects” are complicated by the thought that the reader, viewer, or listener is the artist himself. I think, of myself, for instance, that I write for an ideal reader, and that ideal reader is me, with my sensibility, only smarter, someone who can read – decode – without knowing, as the reader, everything I as the writer write, or encode, and more. I wish, then, to consider with regard to three modern filmmakers and their most recent (at this writing) films – Steven Spielberg and Lincoln, Paul Thomas Anderson and The Master, and Michael Haneke and Amour, all released in 2012 – where they stand, as filmmakers, in relation to “I write because making things out of words is what I feel compelled to do” and “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Because the relationship of the filmmaker to his artistic act and also to his viewer is my focus, I wish very briefly to begin with their relationship to my viewership.

Remarkably, for completely different reasons, all three films are works I do not imagine ever viewing in their entirety again. Lincoln is a film I simply do not regard highly enough. I anticipate encountering it on television in the future and pausing to enjoy particular scenes, mostly for the pleasure of watching Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary act of possession. I do not believe in the future that the film will be especially esteemed for more, though certainly its supporting performances are very fine too, and Tony Kushner’s screenplay offers a vivifying extraction of the personalities and politics.

While I have been an admirer of Anderson and think There Will Be Blood a magisterial achievement, I found The Master almost unbearable and nearly impossible to sit through, which I managed only out of cineastic duty. Despite the nearly universal critical encomia, I do not personally know a single individual who did not hate the film.

Of Amour, I can say that my disinclination ever to sit through the whole film again is based tellingly and contradictorily in Fish’s observation that “to locate the value of the writing either in its effects or in the verisimilitude it achieves is to grab the wrong end of the stick.” Toibin’s admiring readers had been profoundly touched by his artistic realization of their painful experiences, which is to say moved both by the artistry of the realization and by the painful fulfillment of the art’s effect. They did not separate the two. Nor I with Amour. My response to its artistry is refined to a form of admiration beyond only aesthetic pleasure, in which the bleakness of the emotional response is inseparable from the “value of the [filmmaking].” The aesthetic pleasure resides in the artistic compulsion of the craft, which is precisely to seek its “external justification” in the profound and painful verisimilitude of its effects.

Whatever Haneke is compelled to do with an image, with mise en scene, in for instance the closing shot of Isabelle Huppert’s Eva entering the apartment of her now dead parents and feeling their absence, the unsentimentalized empty space of their having vanished completely from the world, that compulsion is unfulfilled if the bleakness of Eva’s realization is not stunningly visited upon the viewer just as it is upon her.

Read the rest here.

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Culture Clash The Political Animal

Zero Dark Thirty and Torture

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I held my peace during the controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty because I was working on an extended consideration of the film and preferred to make my case fully in that venue. Suffice it to say as brief introduction that I think the criticisms of the film, those that accused it of justifying or endorsing torture, or even of misrepresenting the factual record regarding the role of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, to have been grossly wrong. I did not think ZDT to have been the best of the high profile films of 2012 – I give that title to Michael Haneke’s Amour, a very great film – but Bigelow and Mark Boal produced an exceptional work of art. It was an honest and rigorous work chewed up by the political mill and abandoned by a weak-minded and cowardly Hollywood establishment.  Here is how I begin at The Fortnightly Review, in “Zero Dark Uncertainty.”

On December 21, 1817, John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas that “at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The capacity to be in uncertainty, without any – how apt the adjective– irritable reaching after fact and reason: how best to describe that penumbral sphere of presence reaching toward meaning that is the realm of art. How not to describe the world of politics. How not to describe GOP members of Congress over many months insisting upon the certain nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. How not to describe the irritable John McCain, the irritable Lindsey Graham, irritable others insisting that there were facts that the Obama administration was obscuring, facts different from any facts to which the administration itself laid claim, even damning facts, such as that the President had watched the attack in real time from the White House situation room and done nothing. The point is made still clearer: the dominion of politics is a far land from the realm of art, one in which facts are irritably asserted and reasons reached at, even if they need to be manufactured. So, then, the response of some, the purely political response, to Zero Dark Thirty.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have produced a depiction of modern intelligence and war craft that is austere, tense, and riveting in its power and sense of reality. In its restraint neither a glorification nor a facile critique of the national security danger zone, its mission is to tell an essential story of perhaps history’s greatest manhunt and to depict the concentrated focus of those professionals who dedicate themselves to such tasks in their lives at a level approached by few. It does not champion or excoriate them, though it does at times honor their dedication and expose – for the viewer to judge – their excesses.

Politicians and ideologues cannot have this complexity.

Read the rest here.

AJA

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Zero Dark Art vs Journalism

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Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

There is a quite extraordinary article on Huffington Post today by G. Roger Denson. It addresses the controversy over director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal‘s film Zero Dark Thirty and the matter of torture. It is somewhat extraordinary for its length, by HufPo standards, but truly for for the quality of its perceptions and the depth, rigor, and range of its arguments. It raises time-honored issues about the nature and role of art, particularly, explicitly and implicitly, in relation to what I shorthand here partly as journalism, but which I use also to stand in for all the avowedly objective modes of knowledge – including official and unofficial government dissemination of information.

Did torture play a role in extracting information that led, finally, to the killing of Osam bin Laden? Writes Denson,

It is time that U.S. officials do more than admit that the parties responsible for the discrepancies between the film Zero Dark Thirty and the facts of the real interrogations are not the film’s screenwriter and director. The discrepancies are the direct result of the contradictory messages sent by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the Department of Defense, the CIA and FBI, and successive Senate Intelligence Committees to the American public. In short, the film reflects the changing face of politics precisely as the best art should. And as for the debate ensuing over the use of torture by U.S. interrogators, that too is a positive effect of the film, especially as it may yet bring to the surface the shadowy officials past and present who advocated waterboarding and other physically coercive means of intelligence gathering throughout the War on Terror.

….

It is the severe deficiency of public knowledge concerning the everyday workings of the War on Terror that makes the fictionalization in Zero Dark Thirty not only defensible but necessary for filling the voids in the public’s knowledge required to follow a story about intelligence gathering. Intelligence gathering has always been the filler for fictions involving espionage and military maneuvers.

Current governmental and journalistic critics of the film pretend that there exists and is available, settled knowledge about the role of torture and information extracted by it in the War on Terror. It is the nature of governments, however, to pretend to such knowledge, and of journalists, in thinking they have fulfilled their own mission, to believe they have determined it. Not so for art.

Since Gibney proclaims Bigelow and Boal to be “irresponsible,” he might benefit from considering what responsibility during wartime requires — for instance, that human responsibility must be conditioned on the knowledge of one’s own limits. We have to know our limits to know what we as individuals can and can’t do, in essence what we are and aren’t responsible for, and thereby free to act on. It follows that in not knowing the limits imposed on interrogators with regard to their recourse to torture, Bigelow and Boal as artists are not only acting responsibly in resorting to fictitiously shading in the empty spaces between known CIA activities and the fragmented information released officially by both the Bush and the Obama administrations. The filmmakers are also made more responsible by representing the Bush and Obama administrations precisely as those administrations had represented themselves at the times of their press conferences. Which translates to the American policy on coercive interrogation methods being decidedly pro-waterboarding under Bush-Cheney, and famously anti-waterboarding under Obama-Biden.

….

But even if Bigelow and Boal were the ones responsible for the discrepancies between the intelligence community’s activities and their depictions of that community in their film, their responsibility as artists is only to their art, not to the intelligence community or the government. The confusion lies within the journalists and the Senators who see the responsibility of artists to be the same as their own responsibilities. But the artist’s responsibility is not akin to those of the journalist or the Senator, whose commitment to the public is to report, or to legislate, morally. Yes, it would be good if the artist were morally and politically on the high road — and Bigelow and Boal are. But there is no requirement that art be honest, which is why Plato banishes the poets from his republic.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has challenged the filmmaker’s with this question: “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” Responds Denson,

That’s not to say that Zero Dark Thirty is without moral and political implications. It is filled with them at every step and turn — including the scenes of waterboarding and other coercive methods of interrogation. What the filmmakers decline to do — yet what their critics demand of them — is deduce for the viewer what the final judgments regarding torture should be. … But that is what the art of democracies are supposed to do — allow us our diverse opinions even when they lead to discord. And that is the reason that both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty avoid the pitfalls of propaganda that the film’s critics and the Senate Intelligence Committee seem to be calling for.

Government officials and legislators, seeking the certification in art of their official version, and journalists desiring ratification by art of the fruits of their own work, wish to shape knowledge as objectively determined and settled. But what we claim to know – and where more so than in particle physics and clandestine warfare – is riddled with interstices. Beware of those who, without acknowledging doubt, seek to fill those interstices for us.

Bigelow in 2009 went on record in an interview with the New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis concerning her aim as a filmmaker of exposing how “fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time,” not merely on the extreme right or left. It is Bigelow’s curtailment of her own manipulative impulses that resonates with the restraint that we read throughout Zero Dark Thirty.

Denson concludes by challenging, at the very least in principle, if not necessarily in fact, even the received version and reality of bin Laden’s death, which some many journalists, many of whom proved so uncritical and susceptible to official versions regarding Iraq and the War on Terror, nonetheless once again accept on so little evidence.

For the life of the sad red earth until now, I have resisted use of that favored bloggers’ shorthand, which I now employ for the first time.

Read the whole thing.

AJA

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Season’s Jeer and Cheer

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No doubt many will be ritually watching It’s a Wonderful Life this holiday season. I recall with satisfaction when my brother, Jeff, and I discovered the film on late night television after a print was finally turned up in distributor mothballs, many years before the film became, for some, the tiresome phenomenon it has now long been: the Pachelbel canon of movies.

There is another Jimmy Stewart film waiting to be similarly discovered, the very next film, in fact, that Stewart made after Wonderful LIfe, William Wellman‘s 1947 Magic Town. The largely forgotten Wellman directed the first A Star Is Born as well as Jimmy Cagney‘s The Public Enemy. He teamed on this film with Robert Riskin, who wrote, interestingly, several of the famous Capra films, though not Wonderful Life. Magic Town is probably the best Frank Capra film not made by Frank Capra (much as I think Roman Polanski‘s Frantic – with Brian DePalma‘s Obsession second – the best Alfred Hitchcock film not made by Alfred Hitchcock).

In Magic Town, Jimmy Stewart’s character arc is reversed from that of the previous film. He plays a cynical if naturally “charming” pollster who surreptitiously seeks to use the mathematically and naturally perfect American small town of Grandview in order to advance his career. In the process, he ruins the town and then has to save it, discovering his goodness. Jane Wyman plays the daughter of the editor of Grandview’s newspaper, the lovely and decent, but wily foil to match the big city huckster. As in any Capra Capra film, there is a full cast of supporting characters – and a town meeting hall with a pot belly stove.

Like its predecessor, the film was a commercial flop. It remains so obscure that there is to be found only this “charming” clip on the web.

 

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Purity & Invention: a Claude Sautet Retrospective

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From August 1-9 this summer, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a long overdue retrospective of the films of Claude Sautet (1924-2000). Probably best known to younger, more contemporary audiences for his late flowering of 1990s films Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (Nelly and Mr. Arnaud), Sautet established his reputation during a 1970s peak – with semi-regular actors such as Romy Schneider, Yves Montand, and Michel Piccoli – that included such films as Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970),Vincent, François Paul et les autres… (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, 1974), and Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978). My consideration of Sautet’s aesthetic and themes appears in the September issue of Senses of Cinema.

Sautet told stories mostly of middle class French life, for which detractors – those for whom the middle class must always be a political object lesson – criticized him. For some, middle class life can never be particular, personal lives contextualized in culture, time, and place; rather, middle classness must be depicted always as a social malady, either ideological cause or spiritual symptom. In these cases, then, we do not even refer to the “middle class,” which is often, in liberal democracies, a political designation of striving national aspiration and economic empathy. When, rather, it is aesthetically or ideologically politicized, the middle class is the bourgeoisiehaute when ridiculed, petit when contemned.

However, Sautet represented his characters at an immediate temporal and relational level, without historical or ideological didacticism: they are indeed striving, small, loyal and compromised, friends, bon vivants, failures, and sell- outs, despairing and hopeful, passionately in love and out, and fully, sensuously enraptured and ensnared by “the things of life,” the title of the film that gave Sautet a reputation, and which seems so aptly to sum up his vision and his style. How best to convey this immersion in a certain French quotidian – what became for so many the vision of French life in those years – than to utilize fully, symphonically all the elements of film together?

Frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie’s screenplay of Vincent, François, Paul and the Others is literate and sharp, like a reasonably smart and entertaining friend at a party, but you will go home recalling not a single brilliant thing that was said. No one quotes favourite lines from Sautet films. The plot consists, as in The Things of Life and A Simple Story, of only the smaller and greater crises in the lives of some middle-aged and younger people. Composer Philippe Sarde, another regular collaborator, still at work, and ubiquitous in the French cinema of the 70s, provides a score alternately melancholy and unobtrusively buoyant, projecting both the intense drama of our personal turning points and the common hopefulness that will lead us from one day to the next.

From a middle distance in Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, characters are often seen through glass, of home windows, office windows, car windows. They appear less theatrically arranged than observed, even spied upon, as in the closing shot, when the four male friends, three older, one younger, emerge from a café as from all of their recent travails, talking in tones, along with the music, of mild, probably fanciful hopefulness for the future. They are picked out in the camera’s focus amid the many pedestrians and the busy traffic through which they cross the street, and when they pause at the next intersection, the camera freezes them still in the most artful, causal assemblage of postures and gazes – a mid-shot, through a telephoto lens, as from a spy film. From somewhere in the galaxy, they came to watch and study, a slide presented of some people of a certain age in a city at a given time in a region they call France.

You can read the whole essay here.

AJA

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CineFile – Drive

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with Ryan Gosling, by Nicolas Winding Refn.

Primal eruption  and withdrawal.

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CineFile: A Serious Man

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Before the Law. Waiting for Godot. Meeting Marshak.

Anticipating the week ahead…

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CineFile: Let There Be Light

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four-color National Film Registry Logo on blac...
Image via Wikipedia

I wish I’d had this for Veterans Day, but the following day nor any day is too late to view it. Let There Be Light was the last of three films made by John Huston for the Army Signal Corp during and just after World War II. Because of its frank, documentary record of the treatment of veterans for neuropsychiatric disorder – what today would more commonly be called post-traumatic stress disorder – the military quashed distribution of the film for thirty-five years. In 2010 it was entered in the National Film Registry as a film selected for preservation because of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. You can view the entire 58 minute film at the Internet Archive. This 14-minute excerpt begins in the stark shadows and angles that presage the psychic struggles to come.

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CineFile – Nobody’s Fool

In my previous post I offered a couple of links to video excerpts from Paul Newman films. Sometimes, though, people don’t click on links. (What’s that all about? Don’t they know how web surfing works? How else are they going to go down the rabbit hole?) So I thought I’d offer one of those excerpts again, directly.

After all of the emblematic performances of Newman’s career, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler and Hud, to Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, and The Sting, he capped the later autumnal performances of The Verdict and The Color of Money, with his performance as Sully Sullivan in Robert Benton‘s film adaptation of Richard Russo‘s novel, Nobody’s Fool. Sullivan, an aged and breaking down good-for-nothing is a cross between a proto holy fool and an energetic Bodhisattva in the making. He’s every Newman rake and ne’er do well finally arrived at a creaky sixty.

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CineFile – Manhattan

I’m home in New York for awhile – Manhattan to be precise. Film by Woody Allen. City a joint project.

The clip ends with the night of my arrival.

Manhattan (1979) from circeo59 on Vimeo.

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CineFile – Farley Granger

Farley Granger, who died a week ago today, was a second level movie star for only a brief period – the late ’40s through the mid ’50s – but any fan of Hollywood’s Golden Age, even that tail end, will inevitably know him for his appearances in two notable Alfred Hitchcock films, Rope and and the more famous Strangers on a Train. His other film career highlights were two classic film noirs, Nicholas Ray‘s first film, They Drive by Night, and Anthony Mann‘s lesser known Sidestreet, and Granger’s own proudest work, Luchino Visconti‘s Senso. Admirably, Granger preferred a lesser-light New York theater career over Hollywood and he lived out his life primarily as a stage actor.

The scene below is the opening, inciting incident of Rope, a classic moment from the classicist of suspense. In it, the extraordinarily handsome Granger actually does the deed, but then plays out in the film what was a common state of mind and being for his otherwise not very often extraordinary characters: distress and befuddlement before circumstance. Late in life, Granger acknowledged publicly what was known to those who knew him, that he was bisexual. He lived most of his life with men. But he did say of the late Shelley Winters that she was “the love of my life and the bane of my existence.” In this film, it is the cool guile of John Dahl that is the bane of his existence. (The music, in this only version of the scene I could find, is not the original, but a new score as part of an exercise.)

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CineFile – Movies, Music, Motion, Minimalism

As a youth riding buses and subway trains in New York City, and as a child in the backseat of the family car, I loved to stare out windows in silence, even if everyone around me was loud with conversation. I lived inside my head, not the world, and observation was a form of contentment. All this was concurrent, I think, with my love of movies, long before I studied them. Watching the scene go by through a window offers an experience of the world arising and receding from moment to moment, a constant flux of apparent continuity. Within the flux come the greater eruptions, a house, a car, a fence post, a shrub in a field, a tug on the water, the World Trade Center Towers twenty miles in the distance.

Subway cars even afforded the opportunity to sit and travel backwards. Rather than catch the next landmark passing only in an instant before my eye and be gone, during those many years when I rode the subway out from the bowels of city tunnels and into the light, across Jamaica Bay and to the Rockaway Peninsula,  I could watch the world recede long and far in the distance. I was a melancholy child and youth, and I felt the loss of things I never possessed, or even knew until I knew of their loss, and I mourned them.

While I loved movies for a reason that I loved reading, for the stories to be found in them, I loved film, too, for the graphic and plastic motion in it, and my appreciation for the malleability and interaction of motion, light, texture, and line developed with age and study. But the most fundamental and easiest way to experience them is to stare – or point a camera – through a moving window. An obverse experience is to visually track a moving object.

The footage in the video below was taken by the video’s creator from open source material at the Internet Archive, from the Prelinger Collection. A Pathé production from the 1950s, the short covered the “The End of the ‘El’,” the Third Avenue El, the last of Manhattan‘s elevated, rather than subterranean, subway lines. The creator of the video has replaced the original spoken soundtrack with “Closing,” the last track on Philip Glass‘s 1982 Glassworks.

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CineFile – The Thin Red Line

“In this world, a man, himself, is nothin’. And there aint no world but this one.”

If you’ve read the blog this past week, you’ll have some idea of why I’ve chosen Terrence Malick‘s The Think Red Line for this week’s CineFile post. There is that crushing illusion in which war between states and armed conflict among contending forces, and the ideas and human drives that dress them, is the vehicle of human meaning.  There is also that naked truth of individual lives, every life, carried along in the vehicle, yet stripped of the illusion. In Malick’s masterpiece, situated within the history of the greatest, most just of wars, there is no ideology or politics. There are no national leaders or popular encomia to rescue the warrior and pull him from beneath the wheel. We barely know these are American soldiers or where the battle is being fought. While other, contemporaneous combat films have sought to vivify to new levels the destructive physical horror of war, The Thin Red Line is saturated in the spiritual desolation and moral despair of war balanced against a dream of transcendance.

Though I couldn’t find an acceptable video of any individual scene, I came across this fan re-edited distillation of the film in just over four minutes. It is remarkably well done, especially over the first three quarters, after which a rough transition and some deterioration in the video quality take us to a fitting and apposite close.

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Jazz Is: 29 – Dexter Gordon, “Body and Soul”

While I was laboring over the Wisconsin labor crisis and neglecting my regular features, Dexter Gordon, much beloved sax man, had a birthday. Gordon, who died in 1990, was born on February 27, 1923. Here is how his Wikipedia entry introduces him:

Gordon is one of the most influential and iconic figures in Jazz and is largely credited for establishing the classic, modern sound and stylistic concept for the saxophone in general, and the tenor in particular.

In 1986, Gordon played Dale Turner, a jazz musician not unlike himself, an expat living in Paris and with a drinking problem. A young Frenchman, admirer of the saxophonist’s music, takes him in care. The film Round Midnight, by Bertrand Tavernier, won Gordon an Oscar nomination.

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CineFile: Mothers, Sons, & Political Paranoia

In the 1950s there really was a communist threat. It just wasn’t in the United States, even though there were surely many more American communist supporters and sympathizers then than there are Americans today who are supporters of any form of Islamism. Even then Joe McCarthy claimed that there were communists in the Pentagon, and Robert Welch, founder of The John Birch Society claimed that President Eisenhower – a Republican – was secretly a communist. With, today, a Democratic president asserted by a broad fringe to be a clandestine Muslim and literally un-American (that is, not really born in the U.S.), we see that Richard Hofstadter‘s 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics extends both backward and forward in time.

In film, in the 50s, the paranoia was a major B movie mood, in substitute narratives of dormant, monstrous creatures awakened – The Thing, Them – and invasions from outer space of conquering aliens, some who even took our form. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade multiple times, is the greatest metaphor of this alien assumption and theft of our identity.

Sometimes, though, the films directly addressed the sinister, internal communist threat. Among the great embarrassments of those film productions was Leo McCarey‘s 1952 My Son John, starring Robert Walker. Note in the scene below, how Walker plays John with a bland, even-keeled normality, much like a body snatcher pod become a substitute person, and the insinuations of Helen Hayes, as the mother – because mother knows – that he has changed. There is something not quite right about him.

Call me a commie pod, but if she had bounced him on her knee one more time, my fingers would have been irretrievably down my throat.

Paranoia of a far higher aesthetic quality is a much more histrionic, Beckian feature in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate. Here Mom is paranoid in a much bolder manner.

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CineFile – Five Easy Pieces

It isn’t the most famous scene in the film – that would be holding the chicken between her knees – but it is the film’s most emotionally naked, its thematic center. As Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea reveals himself to his stricken, speechless father, played by William Challee, whose apparently compassionate face bears, in its unresponsive immobility, any reading, Bobby might just as well be talking to God. It is hard to overstate the emblematic character of the currently forgotten Bob Rafaelson’s Five Easy Pieces during the film era of Easy Riders and Raging Bulls .

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CineFile – The Farewell Waltz

Mervyn LerRoy’s Waterloo Bridge is a quintessential Golden Age Hollywood romance of love tragically interrupted by war. Both of its stars, Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, later recalled their roles as perhaps the favorite of their careers. This is its most exquisite scene, offering a typically sentimentalized representation of high-cultured English civilization before the coming barbarity.

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CineFile

Hans Richter (1888-1976) was an early Dadaist, and along with Futurists Bruno Corra and Arnaldo Ginna and fellow German Walter Ruttmann, was among the earliest makers of abstract film. Filmstudie (1926) was his third film, following on Rhytmus 21 and Rhytmus 23. Richter moved to the U.S. in 1941 and in the 1950s was Professor of Film at the Institute of Film Technique at the City College of New York, one of my almae matres, twenty years too early for me to study with him. One can easily see in the film, a transitional work using both geometric abstraction and naturalistic images, the  influence Richter might have had on filmmakers like Fritz Lang and Luis Bunuel.  The music is by Darius Milhaud.

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How We Lived on It (32) – All I Need

Footage from the 1996 French film “Microcosmos.”

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CineFile – Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick‘s first masterwork, an essential artistic consideration of the political nature of war. One of the defining performances of Kirk Douglas’s career. This is the execution scene, of three French soldiers during the First World War chosen at random, yet with bias, for trial on trumped up charges of cowardice because of the failure of a foolhardy attack. Note the monumental government building that looms over the proceedings, and in all the fine acting, look near the very end, for Ralph Meeker’s insightful and subtle physical response when Wayne Morris, who scapegoated Meeker to protect himself, apologizes. Meeker is a man given up to the momentary loss of his life, and beyond angry response.

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