Suzanne Simonin, La religieuse de Denis Diderot (1966).
The Wisconsin Film Festival is over, and already we’re looking forward to the next one. In the meantime, here are our last thoughts on some films that impressed us.
Dürrenmatt in Dakar
Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty is known mostly for his two feature films, Touki Bouki (“The Hyena’s Journey,” 1973) and Hyenas (1992), and less so for a handful of shorts. Though unable to direct for long stretches of time, Mambéty, who died of cancer in 1998, has been well-served by preservationists. In 2013, Touki Bouki was released by the Criterion Collection in a box set of restorations by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Now the Cinémathèque Suisse has sponsored a 4K restoration of Hyenas. As the echoes in the two titles suggests, Hyenas was intended to be the second film in a thematic trilogy about the corruption of ordinary people by greed. The third film, Malaika, was planned, but Mambéty’s early death intervened.
Hyenas is based on Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dark 1956 comedy, Der Besuch der alten Dame, known in English as The Visit. The film follows the story of the original fairly closely, at least in the play’s first two acts.
The action is set in the village of Colobane (Mambéty’s hometown, where Touki Bouki was also set). The village has fallen on hard economic times, and the genial local shopkeeper, Dramaan, helps keep the place going by extending credit to his regular customers. City officials announce the imminent arrival of Linguère Ramatou, a Colobane woman who left the village and has become extremely wealthy. Dramaan, who had courted Ramatou in their youth, is delegated to greet and butter her up (above). She, however, accuses him of having impregnated her and refused to confess to being her baby’s father. Forced to go abroad, she became a prostitute, was severely maimed in a plane crash, and ended up rich. (How is never explained). Now she promises the villagers great financial aid if they will agree to kill Dramaan.
Although the mayor indignantly refuses, Dramaan soon notices that his fellow citizens are buying luxurious goods that they should not be able to afford. He futilely tries to get local officials to protect him from assassination. All this is played for bitter comedy by an engaging cast of non-professionals. The thematic point is made clear, especially when Mambéty intercuts a pack of hyenas lurking in the nearby brush with a mob of locals who prevent Dramaan from fleeing the town.
It helps to know something about the setting, which would be familiar to Senegalese audiences. The film gives the impression that Colobane is a remote country village. In fact it is a small arrondissement of greater Dakar, a major port on the west coast of Senegal. In a lengthy overview of the director’s life, including an interview with Mambéty shortly before his death, N. Frank Ukadike explains:
The Colobane of Hyènes is a sad reminder of the economic disintegration, corruption, and consumer culture that has enveloped Africa since the 1960s. “We have sold our souls too cheaply,” Mambéty once said. “We are done for if we have traded our souls for money. That is why childhood is my last refuge.” But what remains of Colobane is not the magical childhood Mambéty pines for. In the last shot of Hyènes, a bulldozer erases the village from the face of the earth. A Senegalese viewer, one writer has claimed, “would know what rose in its place: the real-life Colobane, a notorious thieves’ market on the edge of Dakar.”
The last shot is startling, as it reveals for the first time (at least to non-Senegalese viewers) that Colobane is located right up against a city. Possibly in Mambéty’s childhood it was a village later absorbed by the spread of Dakar. It’s not clear from the film when the action is taking place, although Ukadike suggests that it must be in the 1960s or later. The implication of the final shot is that the corruption of the villagers is as much an urban problem as a rural one–if not more so.
The restoration has resulted in vibrantly colorful images that emphasize the indigenous costumes, particularly of Ramatou and her entourage (see bottom). Metrograph is releasing the film theatrically in the US, and with luck a Blu-ray will eventually make it more widely available.
Anomalies in the space-time continuum
Almost from the start, popular moviemaking has played tricks with linear time and space. Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903) contains both a dream and editing that replays key actions from two viewpoints. The more developed silent cinema explored flashbacks, subjective viewpoints, and other strategies. By the 1940s, filmmakers around the world were trying these tricks in sound movies, all seeking to enhance curiosity or suspense or surprise.
Most of the movies that play with space and time resolve the uncertainties clearly. The opening of Mildred Pierce skips over important moments without telling us, but by the end a flashback fills them in. This sort of gamesmanship has remained a permanent resource of mainstream cinema, especially in genres that rely on crime and mystery. Think of Pulp Fiction or Memento or The Usual Suspects, or more recently Identity, Side Effects, or the many heist movies that conceal crucial parts of the plan.
Börkur Sigpórsson’s debut feature Vultures is a good example of a conventional crime film made more intriguing by the way it’s told. The basic story is formulaic. An Icelandic real-estate developer needs to replace money he’s embezzled, and so sets up a drug-smuggling deal. He enlists his ex-con brother Atli to help the mule, a Serbian woman named Zonia, get through airport security. After that, Zonia has to be sequestered until she evacuates the pellets of cocaine she’s swallowed. In the meantime, Lena the policewoman gets on the trail. The whole scheme falls apart when Zonia collapses and Atli starts to take pity on her, while Erik decides to get the pellets by any means necessary.
This straightforward arc of action is presented in fragments that jump among time frames. Before the credits, we see Zonia hesitantly gulping down the pellets, getting sick on the flight into Reykjavík, and hiding in a toilet. She’s frightened when she hears a knock on the door.
Flash back to follow Atli and Erik planning the smuggling scheme. Then, via brief replays, we’re back with Zonia swallowing the pellets, Zonia on the plane (with Atli now revealed as a fellow passenger), and Zonia bolting to the toilet. He’s the one knocking on the door.
This sort of back-and-fill pattern sharpens our interest by delaying the revelation of who’s knocking on the door, while also filling us in on the brothers’ scheme. The interpolation also allots some sympathy to Atli. In the flashback he’s shown visiting his drug-devastated mother and trying to reassure his wife that he’s going to be providing for her and his son. Soon we see him distracting the airport police so that Zonia can pass through freely. The deal seems to have come off. All they have to do is retrieve the pellets.
Abruptly we skip far ahead in time to reveal a bit of the end of the story. I won’t provide a spoiler, but let’s just say that whatever certainty we gain about the outcome is provisional and partial. Still, with this small anchor in Now, the narration doubles back again through a long flashback that traces the unraveling of Erik’s scheme.
As often happens with flashback construction, the time-shifting in Vultures has a double impact. It teases us with hints about what will happen, and it forces us to concentrate on how and why it happens. (Something similar is at work in Duvivier’s Lydia, which I analyze in this month’s “Observations on Film Art” installment on the Criterion Channel.) Told more linearly, Vultures wouldn’t have been so engaging, I think. Nor would it have so sharply focused our concern about the characters’ decisions. And that crucial glimpse of the future allows us to hope that Zonia’s fate isn’t what it would have seemed to be if her story had been presented in 1-2-3 order. As usual, the how of storytelling is as important as the what.
During the 1950s, films not only fractured their action in challenging ways but also refused to resolve all the questions that were raised. We might not fully understand everything that happened. This strategic ambiguity has been central to what’s sometimes called “art cinema,” and is nicely showcased in Pause, another debut feature. If Vultures plays hob with the crime movie, Cypriot director Tonia Mishiali gives us a jagged domestic drama, a diary of a going-mad housewife.
Elpida is falling apart. The darkly comic opening scene, with a doctor ticking off a virtually endless list of her ailments, portrays her as enervated and beaten-down. How she got that way becomes clear. Her husband Costas shovels in food in angry silence. He watches soccer on their main TV, while she has to watch her violent crime videos with headphones. He comes and goes as he pleases; she steals time to attend a painting class or have coffee with a neighbor. When he decides to sell her car without further discussion, and when a young contractor comes to repaint their apartment house, Elpida dares to imagine life without the lout she married.
Imagine is the key word. From her drab routines we pass without warning into fantasies of resistance, escape, and payback. At first, the visual narration makes clear that these acts of rebellion are wholly in her mind. As the film goes along, however, the boundary gets fuzzy. Is the breezy workman making a pass at her, or is she just wishing for it? Is she really drugging Costas’ coffee? And is murder in the offing?
A woman’s domestic discontents, projected through fantasy, has been a mainstay of cinema since at least Germaine Dulac’s Smiling Madame Beudet (1923). Here, Mishiali’s careful pacing of Elpida’s household chores establishes a solid rhythm that’s broken by the imaginary moments. Like many modern films, the drama builds up by immersing us in the characters’ routines and then disturbing them with sudden outbursts. Yet the climax is remarkably quiet, further teasing us about what may or may not have happened. In any case, by the end, Elpida may be liberated. Yet her final laughter, echoing through the end credits, doesn’t feel especially jubilant.
Get thee from a nunnery
Suzanne Simonin, La religieuse de Denis Diderot was Jacques Rivette’s second feature. In 1962 he submitted a screenplay to censorship authorities but was told that if the film were made it would probably be banned. After another try in 1963, a third version was cautiously accepted, with the warning that it might well be forbidden to viewers under 18.
Shooting began in September of 1965. Catholic groups immediately objected. After a public outcry, in which Godard called on Minister of Culture André Malraux to intervene, there was a screening at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival. The film wasn’t released in France until July of 1967. Usually known as La religieuse (The Nun), it’s gone largely unseen in America. We were lucky to screen the sparkling 4K version that Rialto is now distributing.
The story is set in the years 1757-1760. Suzanne, illegitimate daughter of a prominent household, is parked in a convent, like many women who had no other life chances. Her first Mother Superior, who treats her with affection, dies and is succeeded by a harsh younger woman. Suzanne loves God but resists the rigid discipline. She’s beaten and starved, denied access to her Bible, and believed to be possessed.
She’s rescued by church officials and a kindly lawyer, who oversee her transfer to a very different convent. That’s run by a sexy, permissive Mother Superior who seems anxious to bed our heroine. Suzanne finds the license of her new home as disquieting as the asceticism of the old one. In the end, she escapes with a priest who abandons his vows. Soon she’s on her own in a grimy secular milieu.
No wonder the French church was outraged. True, Diderot’s novel was a classic, and Rivette had already mounted the story as a play. But on film the revelation of ecclesiastical corruption was vivid and shocking, and the presence of New Wave star Anna Karina gave it undeniable prestige. Popularity, too: It attracted more than 2.9 million spectators, making it the ninth most successful release of the year. (Films by Godard, Rohmer, Bresson, Bergman, and Chabrol drew fewer than half a million.) Rivette’s first feature, Paris nous appartient (1961) had drawn only about 29,000. As often happens, creating a scandal proved good for business.
Seen today, La religieuse is hard to imagine as a mass-audience hit. Rivette presents his inflammatory plot with a calm austerity. The dominant colors, at least for the first seventy minutes or so, are shades of beige, brown, white, and black. Shot in very long takes, usually at a distance from the action, the action is confined largely to chapels, corridors, and sparsely furnished rooms. La religieuse exemplifies what one wing of Cahiers du cinéma called “classical” direction. As a critic, Rivette admired Hawks, Preminger, Rossellini, the American Lang, and late Dreyer for their sober, unemphatic staging of performances. In place of flashy angles and aggressive cutting, mise-en-scène should center on expressive bodies and faces captured from a respectful distance.
In a 1974 interview, Rivette explained that his most proximate influence was Mizoguchi Kenji–a director who made the restrained, long-take scene central to his style. While most scenes in La religieuse are cut up a little, Rivette seldom moves nearer than medium-shot distance. He uses close-ups with the same parsimony that Mizoguchi displays. Most directors would have cut in to a closer view of Suzanne when, kneeling, she’s asked to pray to Jesus, but Rivette obstinately makes her gesture part of a nearly two-minute shot.
This might seem a stagy approach, especially if you remember Rivette’s interest in varieties of theatre. But like other Cahiers critics, he believed that “classical” filmmaking harbored qualities that also kept cinema “modern,” on the aesthetic and moral edge.
In the abrupt editing of the long takes in Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Rivette found a revival of the powers of montage. Dreyer didn’t hesitate to interrupt moving shots. Rivette felt that the film exploited “tantalizing cuts, deliberately disturbing, which mean that the spectator is made to wonder where Gertrud ‘went’; well, she went in the splice.”
In La religieuse, most cuts within scenes are axial, not reverse angles, and they often mismatch action in ways that break the flow of the long takes.
At other moments, Rivette’s editing subjects his distant shots to ellipses that recall Godard’s jump-cuts and Resnais’ experiments in Muriel. We get space-time anomalies more abrasive than those in Vultures and Pause.
Suzanne is in her cell, fretfully pacing. She pauses and, thanks to a cut, seems to look at herself at prayer.
She drifts to her needlework, and suddenly a cut takes her back to the other side of the room.
While she looks in the mirror, the camera backs up and, continuing over a cut, arcs to the right to reveal that she’s already flung herself onto her bed.
Where did Suzanne go? Well, she went in the splices.
It’s wonderful to have this quietly astonishing film available again. The ever-reliable Kino Lorber is bringing out a Blu-ray edition next month, with commentary by Nick Pinkerton, a critical essay by Dennis Lim, and a new documentary about the production. Don’t you want one? I bet you do.
Thanks as usual to the coordinators of our film festival–Jim Healy, Ben Reiser, Mike King, and Zach Zahos–as well as their colleagues and the hordes of cheerful volunteers who kept everything running smoothly.
The information about Colobane from N. Frank Ukadike is from his article on
With this elbow room I could pay attention to three documentaries I’d been looking forward to. They had all the appeal of a fictional film, with keen plots and tricky narration and fascinating characters. It didn’t hurt that two were about world-class celebrities and the third appealed to my deepest conspiracy-theory instincts.
Heart of Glasnost
Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev was a surprisingly conventional effort for this legendarily odd filmmaker. As my colleague Vance Kepley remarked, Herzog typically makes documentaries of two types. He probes eccentric personalities (the “ski-flyer” Steiner, or a man trying to hang out with grizzly bears) or he treks into remote, dangerous landscapes (Antarctica, a swift-moving volcano, the fires of Kuwait).
But this portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev is neither. Herzog’s interview with the elderly but still vigorous Soviet leader is interrupted by biographical inserts tracing his career, his struggles, and his policies. Newsreel footage and other talking heads provide context in a mostly straightforward account of the man’s life and work. Only a story about tree slugs briefly diverts Herzog’s attention.
The film revives our appreciation of a politician many people have tried to bury. Gorbachev emerges as a thoughtful, upbeat man who tried to make the Soviet Union more democratic and open to the popular will, to create Communism with a human face. But he triggered events that cascaded too quickly. He broke up the USSR but also cleared a path for economic collapse and a corrupt kleptocracy. His suggestion for his tombstone inscription: We tried.
Herzog’s montages dramatize the breakdown of national borders, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the coup that destabilized reforms while Gorbachev was away from Moscow. The main principle of swimming with sharks in a bureaucracy is: Don’t tell anybody what you’re going to do until you do it. The 1991 unseating of Gorbachev by Yeltsin reminds me of a second: Don’t take vacations.
Meeting Gorbachev is actually a double portrait, because Herzog puts a good many personal feelings into it. He remembers the emotion he felt as Germany reunited. Gorbachev’s call for “a common European home” rouses him to recall his youthful Wanderjahr when he walked across the continent.
Although I don’t think the name Trump is mentioned, his shadow falls over the whole film. Portraying a sane, reasonable leader today seems virtually a bid for controversy. Gorbachev reminds us of the reductions in nuclear weaponry that he negotiated with Reagan and Thatcher. “People say that Reagan won the Cold War. Actually, it was a joint victory. We all won.” The idea of pursuing policies that benefit the whole world seems oddly old-fashioned right now.
When Herzog gives us a glimpse of a robotic Putin peering down into the casket of Gorbachev’s beloved wife, we’re forced to register what Russia has become, and how the US is now complicit with it. Maybe this film has more of the director in it than I initially thought. As Herzog dared to declare in an earlier film, Nosferatu lives.
Unmaking an icon
Whenever I see Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift kiss in A Place in the Sun, I think: Here are the two most beautiful people in the Western world. I’m not alone. Clift was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated stars after the war, partly because he didn’t easily fit the molds of either the old guard or the new.
The dapper guys with mustaches (William Powell, Frederic March, Melvyn Douglas) and the bashful beanpole boys (Cooper, Fonda, Stewart) were being challenged by what I’ve called in an earlier entry the brawny contingent. I’m thinking chiefly of Robert Ryan, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster, beefcakes with big hands and thrusting, sometimes confused energies. The hero might be a heel (Douglas) or a beautiful loser (Lancaster) or a bit of both (Ryan).
In this context, Clift looks like cannon fodder. Put him alongside Lancaster in From Here to Eternity, and you’ll find it hard to believe he’s the prizefighter; in that movie, only Sinatra looks skinnier. Delicate, with an innocent stare and an angular body, a wide-eyed Clift takes over his debut film, Red River (1948), from the lumbering John Wayne. Hawks claimed he told Clift that if he quietly watched the action from behind his tin coffee cup, he could steal every scene.
Clift carved out a space all his own. Late in his career, the tremor in his voice and a wary tilt of the head gave him antiheroic quality, as in Wild River (1960). Not for him the over-underplaying of Brando or the unpredictable gestures and dialogue cadences of James Dean. He has his own method, not The Method.
One of the many merits of Making Montgomery Clift, a fascinating documentary by Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon, is that it triggers such thinking about the actor’s craft. Emerging from a hillock of papers, home movies, video tapes, and audio tapes, the film documents two dramas–that of Clift’s life, and that of the process through which complex human beings get flattened into media clichés. As a bonus, we reap many insights into how actors shape their performances, sometimes against the grain of the script they’re handed.
On the life, we learn that Clift was often a buoyant, bisexual fellow, not the brooding and moody figure of legend. He was also a demanding artist who turned down juicy parts. When he signed up for a role, he insisted on vetting the script and sometimes rewriting it. In split-screen Clift and Demmon present the page on the left, scribbled up with Monty’s notes and excisions, and then run the scene alongside. The excerpts they give us from The Search and Judgment at Nuremberg show how a committed actor can strip an overwritten scene down to an emotional core.
If nothing else, Making Montgomery Clift shows us how performances shape movies: the actor as auteur. But it’s exactly this analysis of craft that’s missing from most film biographies. Those doorstep volumes revel in scandal and exposés because publishers think that a straightforward account of hard-won artistry–the sort of thing we routinely get in biographies of composers or painters–don’t suit movies. The result is glamor, excitement, sad stories, and banal interpretations rolled into one fat book.
This is the other drama so patiently traced by Clift and Demmon. They show how two 1970s biographies set a mold for the Tragic Homosexual story that has dogged the Clift legend ever since. Just as they pay attention to the movies, they provide close readings of passages in the books, and the evidence of sensationalism, inaccuracy, and offhand speculation is pretty damning. One description of Clift’s injured face after his 1957 car crash savors brutal detail. And it’s not just the ambulance-chasers; passages from John Huston’s autobiography also radiate bad faith.
Clift understood that cookie-cutter journalism would oversimplify him. Thanks to the endless tapes he and his brother Brooks made of their phone conversations, we hear his quick condemnation of “pocket-edition psychology.” There’s a continuum between the tabloid headline, the talk-show time-filler, the celebrity memoir, and the bulging star bio. All try to iron out the wrinkles. During the Q & A, Robert Clift talked about traditional biographies as exercises in taxidermy: “It feels so real because it’s dead.” Hillary Demmon remarked that they wanted to “open up Monty to more readings.”
Making Montgomery Clift proves that academic talk about the “social construction” of this or that isn’t hot air. The film ranks with Errol Morris’s Tabloid as combining a fascinating life story (full of, yes, drama) with a serious argument about how celebrity culture reduces that story to captions and soundbites. Let’s hope the film makes its way to wider audiences, in theatres and on disc and streaming services. It belongs in the library of every college and university, so that students can get acquainted with an extraordinary performer, appreciate the art of star acting, and witness how the media shrink people to less than life size.
In the crosshairs of history
Like other baby boomers, I’m a connoisseur of conspiracy theories. But we have an excuse. Today’s kids grow up with school lockdowns and street shootings; we had assassinations. Patrice Lumumba (1961), Medgar Evers (1963), John Kennedy (1963), Lee Harvey Oswald (1963), the Freedom Summer murder victims (1964), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King (1968), and Robert Kennedy (1968): this cavalcade of killings made political life seem a theatre of Jacobean intrigue.
Not the least of these was the 1961 death of the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjöld. Hammerskjöld had pressed for peace in the Middle East and was a patient advocate for decolonization in Africa. En route to the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga, his plane crashed. For years many people, including former President Harry Truman, believed that the plane was shot down in order to murder Hammerskjöld.
So of course I had to see Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammerskjöld. It did not disappoint.
At first it seems cutesy, with the filmmaker dictating his findings to two African women typists, who occasionally turn to question him. He’s both pedantic and flamboyant (wearing white clothes to match the habitual outfit of a villain he will expose). In contrast there’s the veteran Hammerskjöld researcher Göran Björkdahl (on the right above beside Brugger). Björkdahl is a steady presence as the men question witnesses to the crash and then, crazily, set out to dig up the site. When they’re forbidden to do so, you might think that we’ve got another film about not making a film.
Instead, in the spirit of Morris’s Thin Blue Line, the story we’re investigating drifts into another story, and then another, as documents and witnesses and people who refuse to talk to the filmmakers lead to some appalling charges. Let’s simply say, to preserve the film’s shock value, that the Hammerskjöld case reveals SAIMR, a white supremacist militia for hire. The most horrifying claim about SAIMR and its leader is broached by a well-spoken mercenary purportedly haunted by guilt. His claim has been contested by researchers (as reported in the New York Times). Even if his charge doesn’t hold water, though, the existence of SAIMR seems well-documented.
We conspiracy theorists are often told that history proceeds by accident, not by intention. Yet some intentions succeed splendidly (viz. the killings itemized above), and some succeed by luck. Perhaps the darkest intentions chronicled in Cold Case Hammerskjöld were too crazy to be implemented. But that doesn’t lift responsibility from the feverish minds who dreamed them up, or from the institutions–perhaps mining companies, perhaps MI6 and the CIA–that gave them a hand. In an era when white supremacy has come on strong, Brügger’s film will remain the provocation it was intended to be.
One more entry will talk about still more films at this festival which so generously spoils us.
Thanks to film festival coordinators Jim Healy, Ben Reiser, Mike King, Zach Zahos, and their dedicated staff for this year’s wonderful event.
The Wisconsin Film Festival is all too rapidly approaching its end, so it’s time for a summary of some of the highlights so far.
New films from around the world
We have not quite managed to catch up with all the recent films by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, but we took a step closer with Hotel by the River. It’s an impressive film, in part by virtue of its setting. The Hotel Heimat stands beside a river which is covered in ice and snow. Even the further shore with its mountains, is reduced to shades of light gray in the misty, cold light. All of this is enhanced by the black-and-white cinematography that creates a background against which the characters and the small trees create simple, austere compositions.
The story involves an aging poet who somehow senses that he is going to die soon and settles in at the hotel to wait for death. His two sons, one a well-known art-film director with a creative block and the other secretly divorced, come to visit. A young woman who has recently broken up with her married lover is visited by a sympathetic character who may be her sister, cousin, or friend. They encounter the poet by the river, and he compliments them effusively for adding to the beauty of the scene. Conversations about life ensue. The women take naps, the men bicker. Sang-soo’s typical parallels and repetitions unfold. It’s a lovely film.
Yomeddine, an Egyptian film, created something of a stir last year when it was shown in competition at Cannes. It was a surprising choice, given that it is writer-director A. B. Shawky’s first feature.
It’s also a modest, low-budget film, and like so many such films made in countries with limited production, it’s a road movie. No need to build sets or use complex lighting. The two central characters are Beshay, dropped off as a small child at a leper colony by his father, and Obama, a young orphan who knows nothing of his birth parents. Coincidentally, they both come from Qena, a city north of Luxor on the great Qena Bend of the Nile. Longing for links to their origins, the two set out there. At first they ride in the donkey cart that Beshay uses in his work as a garbage-picker, but later, when the donkey dies, they travel on foot and occasionally by train, riding without benefit of tickets.
There’s no indication where the orphanage and leper colony are and thus how long a trek the two face. I’m pretty familiar with the Nile, but they follow the large canals and track tracks that run parallel to the river on both banks. The villages along their route look pretty much alike. Shortly into the trip, however, Shawky suddenly confronts us with the Meidum pyramid (above), which acts as a handy landmark to reveal that the pair have a long way to go. It’s Shawky’s only display of an ancient site. Beshay and Obama have no idea what it is, but they explore it and spend the night in its small chapel.
Yomeddine is a likeable film blending humor, pathos, and a little suspense as it follows the pair on their quest. It’s also a plea for tolerance. Beshay’s deformities scare off those who wrongly think that leprosy is contagious (with treatment it is not), and Obama is denigrated by his classmates as “the Nubian,” for his relatively dark skin. Their sometimes prickly odd-couple friendship is a demonstration of how people of various backgrounds, including those on the margins of society, can get along. That, I suspect, is what led Cannes programmers to include it in the competition.
Overall it’s a well-made, entertaining film, perhaps an indication that we shall see more from Beshay on the festival circuit in the future.
Ralph and Venellope Back in 3D
Phil Johnston with Ben Reiser, Senior Programmer, Wisconsin Film Festival.
UW–Madison grad Phil Johnston was a key participant in the festival. Not only did he program one of his favorites, Ozu’s Good Morning (1959), but he also visited a class and ran a public event around Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet. Phil was a writer on both entries and co-director on the second, while also providing screenplays for Zootopia (2016) and Cedar Rapids (2011). We’re very proud of him, and we were happy to welcome him back home.
I love both the Wreck-It Ralph films, but I don’t like to go to hit movies early in their runs. We usually wait a few weeks till the crowds die down. As I recently pointed out, though, that means risking no longer having the option of seeing a 3D film in that format. So it happened with both Ralph Breaks the Internet and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Fortunately for us, the UW Cinematheque added permanent 3D capacity to its projection options, so Ralph 2 was shown in that format. The 3D much enhances the sense of being surrounded by the myriad “websites” in the scenes showing general views of “the internet,” as well as by the vehicles and netizens that flash past in their travels.
Both Ralph films display a non-stop inventiveness, and I agree with Peter Debruge’s comment that Wreck-It-Ralph “ranks among the studio’s very best toons.” The sequel is, if anything, even better. The scene in which Venellope von Schweetz confronts the full panoply of Disney princesses and tries to prove herself one of them became a classic before the film was even released.
The notion of Venellope moving from the sickly sweet “Sugar Rush” arcade game to the wildly dangerous online “Slaughter Race” (see bottom) is a great concept to begin with, and her rendition of her “Disney princess” song, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” is hilarious. The film was robbed, in my opinion, when her song didn’t get nominated for a Oscar.
The film has jokes to burn, as in the clever puns on the signs that flash in the internet and game scenes. I look forward to being able to freeze-frame the images to catch the many I missed. Unfortunately the Blu-ray release will not be in 3D. Disney has been phasing out releasing its 3D films in that format ever since Frozen, but you could for a time order such discs from abroad. (Other studios are following suit, and our 3D copy of Into the Spider-Verse is wending its way from Italy as I type.) I am told that the only 3D Ralph will be the Japanese version, at something like $80. Fortunately, it looks great in 2D as well, but I’m glad to have seen it on the big screen in 3D once.
So old they’re new again
Recent restorations have become a increasingly important component of our festival’s wide variety of offerings. Selections from the previous year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna are now regularly programmed, and we had visiting curators presenting their new projects. (For a brief rundown of the Bologna offerings this year, see here.)
Another film taking advantage of the Cinematheque’s new 3D capacity was Jivaro, a jungle-adventure film of the type more popular in the 1950s and 1960s than it is now. Having seen a such films when growing up, I can say that Jivaro is better than many of its type.
It was made late in the brief early 1950s vogue for 3D, so late in fact that the studio decided to release it only in 2D. One attraction of its screening at the WFF was the fact that it was screening publicly for the first time ever in its intended format. Bob Furmanek, 3D devotee and expert, introduced the film and took questions afterward; he has been a driving force in the restoration of this and many other 3D films. (His immensely valuable site is here.) Below Bob shows one of the polarizing filters used in projection booths.
The film was highly enjoyable, partly for the 3D (shrunken heads thrust into the lens and spears coming at us!) and partly for the comfortable familiarity of its genre tropes. There’s the genial South American trader who has gained the respect of the locals, the seemingly deluded adventurer with a map to a lost treasure who turns out to be right, the gorgeous woman who shows up dressed in tight blouse, skirt, and high heels, the beautiful local girl in hopeless love with a white man, and so on. (The beautiful girl was an early role for Rita Moreno, who labored as an all-purpose-ethnic bit player for years before West Side Story made her a star.) Stars Fernando Lamas and Rhonda Fleming supply beefcake and cheesecake, respectively, at regular intervals. Lamas (as you can see above) barely buttoned his shirt across the whole film. It’s hot in jungles.
The Museum of Modern Art has followed up its restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) with one of Forbidden Paradise (1924). Both were shown at this year’s festival. We saw Rosita at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival and wrote about it then. In preparing my book Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood (2005; available free as a PDF here), I saw an incomplete copy of one preserved in the Czech film archive–a key element in constructing this new version. Naturally I was eager to see the new scenes and much-improved visual quality of the MOMA restoration. Archivist Katie Trainor was present to explain the process, which yielded a version that is about 90% the length of the original.
Of all Lubitsch’s Hollywood films, this is the one that looks back to his German features of the late 1910s and early 1920s. For one thing, his frequent star of that period, Pola Negri, was by now in Hollywood and worked here with him again here, their sole Hollywood collaboration. She stars in a highly fanciful tale of Catherine the Great, and the quasi-Expressionistic sets present a fanciful version of historical style. The set in the frame above (taken from a 35mm print, not the restored version) is my favorite, with its lugubrious creatures crouched atop the wall. Grotesque sphinxes? (The designer might have been thinking of the the two beautiful granite sphinxes of Amenhotep III that sit to this day by the Neva River in front of the Academy of Arts, though they were brought to Russia decades after Catherine’s reign.) Or just elaborate gargoyles?
The plot centers around a brief affair between a young officer (Rod La Rocque) and the licentious Catherine. A brief attempt at revolution flares up. All this is deftly dealt with by the Lord Chamberlain, played by Adolf Menjou, hamming it up with eye-rolls and knowing chuckles.
It’s not first-rate Lubitsch, largely lacking the lightness that one associates with the director, and which he had already achieved in his second Hollywood film, The Marriage Circle (1924). But it’s a pleasant entertainment, and the set and costume designs are visually engaging–especially in this excellent new restoration.
David watched None Shall Escape (1944) for his book on 1940s Hollywood, but I was unfamiliar with it until its restored version was shown here as one of the Il Cinema Ritrovato contributions. The film was originally made by Columbia and was presented at our fest in a 4K restoration from Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company of Columbia. Rita Belda, SPE’s Vice President of asset management, was here to explain the complicated process. She summarizes it here as well.
The film had been carefully preserved, probably because of its historical importance as a unique fictional depiction of Nazi atrocities. The original negative and three preservation positives survived. These had the usual scratches and tears, as evidenced in the first comparison image above. A significant challenge, however, was that the prints had all been lacquered in a misguided attempt to preserve them. The result was staining throughout, evident in both comparison images. Digital removal allowed for a stunningly clear image throughout the finished version.
None Shall Escape is notable as the only Hollywood film made during the war to depict major aspects of the Holocaust. It begins with a frame story set in the future. This postwar trial of Nazi criminals remarkably prefigures the Nuremberg trials. Testimony is given against a single officer, who stands in for all the accused officers and collaborators. Wilhelm Grimm begins as a schoolteacher in a small Polish city but proves so devoted to the Nazi cause that he rapidly rises through the ranks. After the city is seized during the German invasion, Grimm comes to rule the city. At the trial, townsfolk who had resisted and suffered under his domination testify, and their stories unfold as a series of lengthy flashbacks.
The film is an effective and moving drama, not least because it demonstrates the explicitness with which it was possible to depict Naziism in this period. It shows, as Hitler’s Children (1943) did, the insidious indoctrination of young people by the Nazi party. But no other film depicted the rounding up of Jews and their dispatch to concentrations camps–named as such.
Director André De Toth, though not a top auteur, again proves the value of sheer skill and artistry in filmmaking, a value that David recently discussed in relation to Michael Curtiz. None Shall Escape is an impressive example of the power of the classical Hollywood system–and a beautiful film, as one might expect from cinematographer Lee Garmes. Marsha Hunt gives a moving performance as Marja, another schoolteacher who fearlessly persists in opposing Grimm and his oppression of the townspeople; it is a pity that she never achieved the stardom that she merited.
Perhaps most notably, De Toth stages a powerful scene in which Jews rebel against being packed into trains and are ruthlessly mowed down by their captors. It must have given many Americans a first glimpse of what would soon be revealed by newsreels and personal testimony.
Now, back to the movies. More festival coverage to come, when we get time to write!
The Criterion Channel is up and streaming in the US and Canada as of today. Some basic questions are answered here. For help activating your account, try here.
Using Apple TV, I found it very easy to get access. I was immediately and flawlessly playing The Big Heat, Taipei Story, La Pointe Courte, and Le Amiche, that unjustly ignored Antonioni masterpiece.
For background and news on forthcoming options, check out this interview with Peter Becker. For those who miss the Hollywood side of FilmStruck, the Channel will be streaming studio-era classics as well as silent, foreign-language, and independent titles.
And all the extra features from FilmStruck–Adventures in Moviegoing, Ten Minutes or Less, Split Screen, Short + Feature, plus the supplements and interviews and bonus felicities you’ve come to expect from Criterion–will continue and accumulate in an archive. The menu includes our Observations on Film Art series, re-launching this month with me talking about flashbacks in Lydia. (It was up briefly in the waning days of FilmStruck. There’s a blog entry about it too.)
At some point, a vast array items from the Criterion/Janus library will be accessible as well. That’s the iceberg underneath the surface. How many films? Wait and see, and be astonished.
This is truly a momentous event in our film culture. We want to thank the Criterion team, all of them devoted film lovers, for working so hard to make this ever-expanding treasure-house available.
Under our Criterion Channel category, you can find all the blog entries devoted to our installments there, including those from the FilmStruck days.
Given the current year-round feverish speculation about the Oscars, it was perhaps inevitable that the campaign for performer-awards nominees for the three leading ladies of The Favourite was what drew attention to their relative prominence in the film. As Gold Derby (the website subtitled “Predict Hollywood Races”) said during the lead-up to the announcement of the nominees, “The film inspired a lot of debate in the early days of the Oscar derby as to what categories the film would campaign its three actresses [for].” Ultimately it was decided to place Olivia Colman in Best Actress and Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in Best Supporting Actress. (For those who are interested, this story gives a detailed run-down of those occasions on which two or even three performers from the same film were nominated opposite each other in the same category.)
Esquire was one among many media outlets stating the same opinion: “Yes, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are both leading players in The Favourite, and yes, it’s probably category fraud that they were submitted in the supporting category to bolster Olivia Colman’s chances to win Best Actress. It is what is, and we must live with the fact that these two will get the nomination.” Indeed, that was what happened.
Stone and Weisz showed good grace in reacting to the studio’s decision–wise even without the benefit of hindsight–to campaign for Colman as the sole best-actress nominee. They did not, however, suggest that she was the sole protagonist of the film. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Weisz remarked, “I think Fox Searchlight was quite brave to make a film with three really complicated female protagonists. It’s doesn’t happen every day, sadly.” Every year The Hollywood Reporter interviews prominent but anonymous Academy members about their opinions and preferences in the main categories. This year an unknown director complained of the best-actress race, “I don’t understand what [Olivia Colman’s] doing in this category, or what the other two [Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz] are doing in supporting–all three should be the same.” The notion that the three roles were roughly equal in importance was expressed widely during awards season. Google “The Favourite” and “three protagonists,” and many hits will show up in the trade and popular-press coverage.
This notion of three protagonists intrigued me. I believe that the structures of many classical narrative films depend to a considerable extent on how many protagonists they have, what those protagonists’ goals are, and what sorts of obstacles they encounter along the way–often obstacles that lead or force them to change their goals. I based my book, Storytelling in the New Hollywood (1999), partly on that idea. For close analysis I chose four exemplary films with single protagonists (Tootsie, Back to the Future,, The Silence of the Lambs, and Groundhog Day), three with parallel protagonists (Desperately Seeking Susan, Amadeus, and The Hunt for Red October), and three with multiple protagonists (Parenthood, Alien, and Hannah and Her Sisters).
Single protagonists are the commonest, and their obstacles are typically generated by single antagonists. Multiple protagonists are somewhat less so. They tend to break into at least two types. There are shooting-gallery plots like Alien, in which the protagonist is the one who, predictably or not, survives the gradual killing-off of the other main characters. Then there’s the network-of-relations plot, like Parenthood and Hannah, in which separate plotlines are acted out, with the protagonist of each related by blood or friendship to the protagonists of the others. More difficult to pull off is the multiple-protagonist plot where the characters are linked by an abstract idea and have minimal or tenuous relationships to each other–Love Actually being a masterfully woven example. (Would that it had existed when I wrote my book!)
The parallel-protagonist plot is relatively rare. I’m not talking about a film with two main characters who are closely linked and sharing the same goal. The buddy-film, most obviously two partner cops as in the Lethal Weapon films, is a common embodiment of this goal, as is the romance where the couple are in love from early on but face obstacles posed by others, as in You Only Live Once.
Parallel protagonists are not initially linked but pursue separate goals that usually bring them together. This might involve a romance conducted from afar, as in Sleepless in Seattle. One character may know the other and seek to be more like him or her, as in Desperately Seeking Susan and The Hunt for Red October. In those two cases, the main characters end by succeeding as they come together and become friends. (Hair would be another example I could have used.) In Amadeus, on the other hand, Salieri fails in his desperate attempt to replace Mozart in public favor and to essentially become him by stealing his Requiem and passing it off as his own.
The triple-protagonist plot
I never considered the category of triple protagonists, simply assuming they would belong within the multiple-protagonist films. Perhaps they do, but The Favourite raises the possibility that such films have a distinctive dynamic, somewhat akin to the parallel-protagonist plot but more complex, or at least more complicated.
Balancing two protagonists who have more-or-less equal stature in the plot is probably not much more difficult than the other types of classical plots. I think that’s largely because these two main characters can come together by the end and become the romantic couple or the buddies who could easily have been the main figures in a dual-protagonist film. Three protagonists, however, are very difficult to balance without one or two of them becoming mere supporting players by the end.
Across the history of classical filmmaking, there are probably a fair number of examples of such a balance being achieved. It’s not easy to think of more than a few, though. The first one that came to my mind is Otto Preminger’s underappreciated Daisy Kenyon (1947). In it Daisy is the mistress of a prosperous married lawyer, Dan, who refuses to divorce his wife and marry her. She meets a genial but traumatized war veteran, Peter, and marries him, but when her initial lover finally files for divorce, she is torn between the two. More about Daisy Kenyon later, the point here being that a triple-protagonist plot is not out-of-bounds for Hollywood and that two people struggling to win a third’s favors is an obvious situation to use in such a film.
The first half of The Favourite displays the long-established relationships between Queen Anne and Sarah. Sarah is stern and commanding with Anne, even cruel at times, and she runs political affairs in the Queen’s place. It is also clear, however, that the two love each other and that Anne, with her various physical and mental frailties, heavily depends on her friend. This half also traces the rise of unfairly impoverished Abigail, Sarah’s cousin. She ingratiates herself with Anne by helping nurse her gout and providing sympathy and deference; she even induces the semi-invalid Anne to dance.
Up to this point we are cued to sympathize with Abigail. She has been the innocent victim of misfortune and is treated cruelly once she arrives at court and Sarah hires her as a scullery maid. The midway turning point, as I take it, happens in the scene where Abigail shoots a pigeon and the blood spurts onto Sarah’s face. Immediately after this a servant arrives to say that the Queen is calling for Abigail rather than Sarah. Abigail is implied to have tipped the balance toward her being accepted as Anne’s favorite.
After this point, we suddenly start to see Abigail’s conniving side, and the pendulum swings as we grasp that Sarah has been displaced in the Queen’s affections through Abigail’s lies about her. In this second half, we are led to recall that Sarah, dominating though she is with Anne, truly loves her and is far more qualified to help run the state than frivolous Abigail is. By the end, all three have managed to make each other and themselves miserable, though Sarah still has her husband and manages to take exile abroad in her stride. None of them emerges as the most important character.
One might argue that Abigail functions as a conventional antagonist. After all, she drugs Sarah’s tea, nearly causing her death–and showing no compunction about it. Yet she, too, is pitiable. Her father gambled her away into marriage with a stranger, and early in the film she is bullied by the other servants. Sarah has her unlikable side and at one point attempts to blackmail Anne by threatening to make public the Queen’s love letters to her–an act that finally drives Anne to reject her. Before that rejection, however, Sarah burn the letters instead, confirming her inability to betray queen and country.
In a review on tello Films Karen Frost writes,“While Stone may receive a modicum more screen time than the other two, this movie really has three protagonists, all of whom are compelling in their own way.” I suspect a lot of spectators, including me, share this impression that Abigail is onscreen or heard from offscreen marginally more than Anne or Sarah. That said, it’s very difficult to measure the presence of each character, given how short the scenes are and how often the women come and go from the rooms where the main action is occurring. And does a scene like the one at the top of this section, where Anne and Sarah converse while Abigail stands mutely in the distance, give equal weight to all three? Perhaps, in that we are here conscious of the latter’s simmering resentment.
In a comparable scene, Abigail is pushing the Queen in a wheelchair. Anne becomes upset and tries to stagger back to her room. We follow her and concentrate on her struggle and emotions for some time before Abigail appears again with the chair. Should we consider this one scene between the two, or actually three scenes, with the two together, then Anne alone, and then the two together again? Even within scenes where two or three of the women are present, weighing their relative prominence in the scene presents difficulties.
The casting is crucial in such a film, since the relative prominence of the actors tends to affect our judgment of their characters’ importance. Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone were both Oscar-winning stars before The Favourite‘s release. Olivia Colman was not well-known in the US, but she had had a long and prominent career on television and occasional films in the UK, The Favourite‘s country of origin. Certainly as Anne she gains the audience’s sympathy early on and becomes plausible as a protagonist alongside the other two.
Scenes and twists
I decided that rather than attempt to clock screen time, I would count how many scenes each character had alone, how many involved two of them, and how many showed all three together. When I say “alone,” I mean only one of the three women is present, though often she is interacting with the main male characters, Lord Treasurer James Godolphin, Leader of the Opposition Robert Harley, and Baron Masham. Given the many very short scenes, the intercutting, the presence of the characters in the backgrounds when the others are emphasized, and the brief intrusion of a character into a scene that overall emphasizes one or two of the other women, my breakdown into segments can’t be precise.
I’ve compared the numbers of scenes devoted to the various combinations of characters in the first and second halves of the film, given the reversed situations of Sarah and Abigail in those large-scale sections.
First, the characters alone:
Anne has only 1 solo scene in the first half/3 in the second. (Total 4)
Sarah is alone 2 times in the first half/8 in the second. (Total 10)
Abigail is alone 7 times in the first half/9 in the second (Total 16)
Abigail’s larger number of scenes apart from the other two women occur largely because she is duplicitous and her situation changes drastically. Anne and Sarah behave straightforwardly, the former because she is too addled to be capable of deception and the latter because she is fundamentally honest, if sometimes brutally so.
Abigail’s duplicity must be revealed gradually. This is done to a considerable extent through two important relationships that help reveal that she is not the sweet young thing that we may have initially taken her to be. In the first half, Harley tries to bully her into acting as a spy in Anne’s bedchamber, passing on to him the political tactics and decisions of the Queen and Sarah. At first it is not clear that Abigail will comply. She also has aggressively flirtatious scenes with Masham. Initially she seems to be Harley’s victim and genuinely attracted to Masham, if in a rather eccentric fashion. Almost immediately after the midway turning point, however, Abigail passes secret information to Harley for the first time. Later, after Anne permits her to marry Masham, it is revealed that Abigail’s primary motive was to restore her lost social standing.
Scenes with Queen Anne with one or the other or both other women:
Anne with Sarah: 6 times in the first half/7 in the second (Total 13)
Anne with Abigail: 3 times in the first half/10 in the second (Total 13)
Anne with both: 6 times in the first half/5 in the second (Total 11)
Here the balance among the three protagonists becomes apparent. Whether intentionally or not, the scriptwriters gave Sarah and Abigail the same number of scenes alone with the queen. Abigail’s access to the Queen is naturally considerably greater in the second half of the film, as she gains her status as the favorite. Surprisingly, though, Sarah’s scenes with Anne are balanced between the two halves. I take this to reflect the Sarah’s determination not to be defeated and also the lingering friendship and genuine love that the two have shared since childhood. If we are to realize by the end that Anne has made a dreadful mistake by rejecting Sarah and sending her into exile, we must be reminded at intervals of how vital Sarah had been in helping Anne run the affairs of state.
The fact that Anne’s scenes with both other women are balanced between the two halves functions to allow us to continue comparing the behavior of both women toward the Queen. We slowly grasp Abigail’s perfidy and Sarah’s prickly steadfastness. The latter is made particularly poignant in Anne’s and Sarah’s final conversation, which takes place through the closed doorway of Anne’s room and ends with Anne rejecting her old friend, despite apologies and pleading.
Queen Anne is in a total of 41 scenes, Sarah in 44, and Abigail in 50, which does suggest that the latter has more screen time overall. The reason for this is probably not that she is more important, but that Sarah and Anne have an established, loving relationship at the beginning, which is easy to set up. Abigail must claw her way up from the scullery to the Queen’s bedroom, which takes more time to accomplish.
The screen time, however, is not the key factor. The film’s impact on the spectator depends to a considerable degree on our struggle to figure out which, if any, if these characters we might identify or sympathize with. There are such frequent shifts of tone and of what we know about each of them that our expectations are systematically undermined in the course of the plot.
I thought it would be hard, but it was actually kind of liberating to have three, because it just gave you more options and places to go. Often, an action in a script has a reaction, but just one antagonist and protagonist. But because it’s three protagonists, there was always this cascading effect, and there were more twists. It was fun to have options, [though] there was work to do, making sure that the three were in balance, throughout.
Twists the film has in abundance. Our attitudes toward the characters change time and again. The scene in which Sarah starts letter after letter to Anne, trying to regain her favor, encapsulates all three women’s mercurial behavior. Her openings range from violent resentment (“I dreamt I stabbed you in the eye”) to fondness (“My dearest Mrs Morley”–her pet name for the Queen). The latter is the one she sends, but Abigail consigns it to the fire, finally making any reconciliation between her rival and the Queen impossible.
The ending, with its superimpositions of Anne’s rabbits over the faces of her and Abigail has been criticized as a failure to provide a satisfactory conclusion to the tale of the three protagonists. I’m not sure it is a failure of invention. Abigail’s insinuation of herself into the Queen’s favor began when she noticed the rabbits in the royal bedroom and elicited Anne’s tale of the loss of all seventeen babies she had had, with the rabbits acting as substitutes for them. Abigail had expressed an apparently deep sympathy, but in the final scene Anne sees Abigail capriciously and cruelly press her foot down on one of the rabbits. All illusions that her new favorite has loved her better than Sarah had vanish at this point, if they had not already. The two are portrayed as trapped in a relationship based on grief over unthinkable loss on the part of one and hypocritical manipulation by the other.
Preminger’s balancing act
Daisy Kenyon differs vastly from The Favourite, to be sure. Still, it’s a romantic triangle situation, and the woman who must decide between her two suitors is indecisive up until just before the ending. Dan and Peter are equally plausible as a final choice. Both have faults. Dan is content to carry on his adulterous affair with Daisy indefinitely, and Peter spies rather creepily on her after meeting her, secretly following her to a movie theater so that he can “accidentally” meet her when she comes out. Both clearly are in love with her.
Preminger also managed to cast three stars of more-or-less equal stature. Andrews had gone from supporting roles to the lead in Laura (1944) and was just coming off the success of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Fonda had had both leading and supporting roles since the mid-1930s and starred in such films as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and My Darling Clementine (1946). There is no Ralph Bellamy, the obvious Other Man, here.
There’s another resemblance to The Favourite, in that the man Daisy ultimately chooses then says something that creates a final twist–indeed, it’s the last line of the film. He reveals that not all is as we assumed, and we may be left wondering if, like Queen Anne, Daisy may regret her choice.
Another obvious triple-protagonist film is Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), which once again presents a romantic triangle centering on a heroine who is understandably indecisive in choosing between Gary Cooper (George) and Fredric March (Tom). She moves in with both with an agreement that they will avoid sex. She succumbs to George’s charms when Tom is away and to Tom’s when George is away, and when jealousy between the two men breaks out, marries her rich but boring boss (Edward Everett Horton). The pre-Code ending sees Gilda back with Tom and George in an arrangement that seems no more likely to remain sexless than the first one had.
Again the casting makes the two male protagonists seem equal. March and Cooper were both rising stars at the time, with March..
From “The Killer,” Spirit Comics (8 December 1946), by Will Eisner and studio.
This is my final effort to cram my latest book down the resisting gullet of the reading public. Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling has just come out in paperback and I’ve been using our blog to trace out some relevant ideas that surfaced in recent books and DVD releases. The first entry dealt with some general issues, the second with popular culture’s drive toward variation, the third with craft and auteurism. This one has murder on its mind.
Noir as mystery and mystique
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
Crime looms large in Reinventing Hollywood. But I forsake the usual category of film noir. It didn’t exist as a concept for the filmmakers or audiences of the day. It’s the creation of critics, first overseas and then, much later, here at home. That doesn’t make the category invalid, though. Many art-historical categories (Baroque, Gothic) are later inventions, and those can be illuminating. Still, I think we gain some understanding if we situate our inquiry, for a time at least, at the level of what people seemed to be trying to do at the time.
Put it another way. By focusing on noir as the model of Forties narrative, we miss the ways in which the films we pick out under that rubric participate in wider trends. We miss, for instance, the new importance of mystery in all plotting of the period.
In the 1930s, mystery was mostly confined to detective stories. Think of your prototypical 1930s movie; it’s unlikely to have a mystery at its center. (Okay, maybe we’re curious about the identity of Oz the Great and Powerful.) In the 1940s, though, filmmakers began to scatter mystery devices into other genres. Mystery became a central storytelling strategy for personal dramas (Citizen Kane, 1941; Keeper of the Flame, 1943), romantic comedies (The Affairs of Susan, 1945), war films (Five Graves to Cairo, 1943), social comment films (Intruder in the Dust, 1949), and domestic melodrama (Mildred Pierce, 1945; The Locket, 1946; A Letter to Three Wives, 1948). Some of what we call noir is part of this trend.
Over the same period, a fairly minor genre got promoted. Psychological thrillers can be traced back to Gothic novels and sensation fiction, but they became a distinct part of crime literature in the 1930s. They became an important genre for cinema in the 1940s, and so Reinventing Hollywood devoted a chapter to films like The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).
These aren’t canonical “noir” films, at least if your notion of noir stems from hard-boiled fiction. Some stem from the guilty-man plot exemplified in C. S. Forester’s novel Payment Deferred (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope (1929), and Anthony Berkeley Cox’s novel Malice Aforethought (1931). Less famous but just as interesting is the “woman-in-peril” thriller.
This was an upmarket version of romantic suspense novels associated in earlier decades with Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), one of the top-selling books of the 1940s, lifted the genre to respectability. Revisiting traces the wide-ranging variations that followed in film, fiction, and theatre. (An early draft of that chapter is elsewhere on this site.) Mystery is central to this subgenre. Who is endangering the protagonist? What are the real motives of the people around her, especially her lover or husband? Are her friends complicit? How will she escape?
The gynocentric thriller remains powerful in popular literature today. We’re currently in a rapid-fire cycle of it, typified by the work of Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Some of the books have come to the screen: Gone Girl (2014), The Girl on the Train (2016), and A Simple Favor (2018). The HBO series Big Little Lies (2017-on), turns a fairly satiric domestic-suspense novel into a heavier exploration of spousal abuse. I’ll be writing more about this cycle later (and giving a paper on it this summer), but let me note two recent examples. One takes its Forties sources for granted, the other flaunts them. Both are coming to a screen near you.
In Alex Michaelides’ new novel The Silent Patient Alicia Berenson, an emerging painter, is found guilty of shooting her husband. Because she seems in permanent shock and refuses to speak a word, she’s confined to a mental institution. There the ambitious young psychotherapist Theo Faber tries to ferret out why she remains silent. The narration alternates, Gone Girl fashion, between Theo’s first-person investigation and Alicia’s diary of events leading up to the killing.
It’s a spare tale narrated in a clumsy style that doesn’t distinguish the two voices. And it reminds us that if you become a character in a novel or movie, don’t get into a car. But it does show the persistence of Forties strategies.
There’s the Crazy Lady (recalling Shock of 1946, above, and Possessed of 1947, as well as John Franklin Bardin’s 1948 novel Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly). There’s the sinister side of the artworld, with a predatory dealers, a demented painter, and portraits that suggest sinister psychic forces. There’s the apparently rational man who becomes obsessed with a woman in a picture (as in Laura, 1944). There’s a mythological parallel to the heroine (here, Alcestis; in The Locket of 1946, Cassandra). There’s the therapeutic motif of a doctor falling in love with a mentally disturbed patient (Spellbound, 1945). And there is, of course, a twist depending on suppressive narration.
The Silent Patient quietly absorbs these Forties conventions, with virtually no mention of the tradition. At the other extreme sits the self-conscious geekery of A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window. In an earlier entry on the eyewitness plot I swore I wouldn’t give space to this novel, largely because I resist people swiping titles of movies I admire. But after alert colleague Jeff Smith told me, “It’s as if he read your Forties book,” I figured I could break my rule.
Indeed this eyewitness thriller relies on a great many narrative tricks from the period. We get a Crazy Lady, dreams, hallucinations, an unreliable narrator, the drama of doubt, flashbacks within flashbacks (with the revelatory one coming at the end), and a Gothic climax punctuated by lightning bursts. Also, inevitably, a car crash.
The book’s epigraph comes from Shadow of a Doubt, and the pages that follow are littered with references to 1940s movies. Our homebound heroine lives in thrall to DVDs and TCM, though her impending fate gives a new meaning to “Netflix and chill.”
The Woman in the Window is soaked in contemporary movie-nerd culture. The heroine updates Jeffries’ tech gear in Rear Window by shooting video footage of the suspects across the way. She mentions Kino and Criterion discs, and even refers to “diegetic sound.” (Has she read Film Art: An Introduction?}
Like The Silent Patient, Finn’s book illustrates how much modern thrillers owe to Forties movies. But it also exemplifies how noir has become a kind of brand and a signal of hip tastes. Maybe that’s a reason to back off the label for a while.
Noir in brief
But let’s not back off too far. Any student of 1940s Hollywood can learn a lot from the vast literature on noir. The most recent item to cross my desk is James Naremore’s Film Noir: A Very Short Introduction. (It’s due to be published in April.) As you’d expect, the author of More Than Night will bring a wide-ranging expertise to a compact survey of books, films, and ideas.
I wish I could’ve signaled his study of “the modernist crime novel” in my book. I emphasize how modernist narrative techniques shaped middlebrow fiction, which in turn made their way into movies. Naremore points out some more direct affiliations:
In the previous two decades modernism had influenced melodramatic fiction of all kinds, and writers and artists with serious aspirations now worked at least part time for the movies.
When the trend reached a peak in the early 1940s, it made traditional formulas, especially the crime film, seem more “artful.”. . . And yet there was a tension or contradiction within the Hollywood film noirs of the 1940s. Certain attributes of modernism—its links to high culture, its formal and moral complexity, its frankness about sex, its criticism of American modernity—were a potential threat to the entertainment industry and were never fully absorbed into the mainstream.
Naremore goes on to discuss several influential writers—Hammett, Greene, Cain, Chandler, Woolrich—and key films such as The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity as examples of “tough modernism” in fiction and film. One of the virtues of the book is its sweep: it covers nearly eighty years of noir on the page and on the screen. Like everything else Jim writes, it’s essential for film fans and researchers. His recently inaugurated webpage displays his range of interests.
The Big Nutshell
Did the 1940s give us the habit of calling a movie The Big Whatever? True, we had The Big Parade in 1925 and The Big Broadcast of 1935 but it seems that the next decade was quite big on bigness. Apart from The Big Sleep (1946), we had The Big Store (1941), The Big Street (1942), The Big Shot (1942), The Big Clock (1948), The Big Steal (1949), and The Big Cat (1949). Many episodes of Dragnet, as both radio show and later TV program, had The Big . . . as their title prefix.
So I wish I’d known about David W. Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It’s hard-boiled reportage in the vein of Courtney Riley Cooper’s flinty Here’s to Crime (1941). Maurer introduces us to a repertoire of grifts that will nimbly extract dough from the mark (aka the fink).
There are small-scale operations (the short con), as well as complex ensemble efforts using, naturally, the Big Store (fitted out with a fake racetrack wire). The scam shown in The Sting (1973) is a Big Store con. Maurer provides a sociological study as well: “Confidence men, like civilians, mate once or more (usually more) in their lives.” I don’t know exactly how I would have worked in a footnote to The Big Con, but I would have tried.
While Maurer was writing The Big Con, something more sinister was going on. In her four-story farmhouse, Frances Glessner Lee was laboring over the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.
These were crime scenes presented on an itty-bitty scale. Little corpses—stabbed, drowned, hanging—are surrounded by the most banal furnishings. Exquisitely miniaturized chairs, rugs, lamps, beer bottles, calendars (“Corn Products Sales Company”) surround the pathetic figures. A woman stares up from a bathtub alongside tiny towels, hanging socks, and even a simulacrum of tap water endlessly gushing. Frank Harris is found drunk and crumpled in front of a saloon; the next scene shows him dead in his cell. What happened?
Ms Lee, a wealthy devotee of criminal investigation, recreated these grim tableaus as audio-visual aids for police training. Exactly how useful they were as pedagogy isn’t clear. The imagery recalls classic mysteries, and it’s not surprising that Lee was a friend of Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. Yet her scenes have a creepy melancholy quite alien to Golden Age puzzle plots. As a testimony to the 1940s fascination with aestheticized homicide, they’re close to Weegee or Chester Gould. But they’re rendered as fastidiously as a Joseph Cornell box. I see in the Nutshells the populist Surrealism that led, at the other end of the scale, to Wisconsin’s House on the Rock (which began construction in the 1940s).
Corinne May Botz is the David Fincher of the Lee oeuvre. Her camera in The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death gets deep into the scene and renders the most upsetting images with a cold precision that matches the staging. These bits of cloth and plastic, sculpted and arranged with maniacal precision, make death at once childish and bleak. Blown up in Botz’s photos, the scenes radiate anxiety and menace. Dollhouse noir?
Will Eisner, “Beagle’s Second Chance,” Spirit Comics (3 November 1946).
In Reinventing Hollywood I suggest that techniques we find in the films have their counterparts in popular novels, short stories, plays, and radio shows. Artists in these media were also exploring shifting time frames and viewpoints, voice-over narration, and other devices. I called it the multimedia swap meet, where mass-culture wares were available for use and revision (thanks to the variorum).
A Christmas gift from alert programmer Jim Healy reminded me of my neglect of a major medium. Jim gave me the wondrous Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey. Each teeming page is jammed with facts, figures, and follies from the history of American comic art, illustrated with frantic drawings and exploding panels. As a comics fan, I should have mentioned how the narrative strategies I traced in film have counterparts in many of the trends Van Lente and Dunlavey cover.
One example is shown at the top of today’s entry: an effort toward optical POV in Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Eisner renders almost all the panels on that page as subjective. At the time, films were exploring the same idea for certain scenes (e.g., Hitchcock’s work), for long stretches (Dark Passage, 1947), and for nearly the whole movie (The Lady in the Lake, 1947).
Of course Eisner’s Spirit tales evoke noir visuals as well–and become more noirish as the Forties go along, at least to my eye. Other cartoonists, particularly Chester Gould and Milton Caniff, push toward the steep compositions and chiaroscuro lighting we find in the films. I’m inclined to say that the movies got there first; I argued in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that noirish visual designs were often recruited for scenes of crime and mystery in the 1920s and 1930s. (A blog entry found examples from the 1910s.) I suspect that artists of the comics adopted those schemas when they started to make cops-and-robbers strips. By the 1940s, though, with Eisner and others, the visual dynamism pushed beyond what we see in most films. Except, as always, for Welles: Mr. Arkadin seems an Eisner comic brought to life.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950).
Noir is a tricky category because it’s a cluster concept. It can refer to visual style, matters of narrative or narration (haunted protagonists, plays with viewpoint), genre (drama, not comedy), and themes (betrayed friendships, dangerous eroticism, male anxiety). Take away one dimension and you might still be inclined to call the movie a noir. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) has a noir plotline, but its disarmingly drab images mostly lack the low-key look. And maybe someone would call Murder, He Says (1945) a noir comedy.
A good example of mild noirishness is The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), now made available in a handsome UCLA restoration from Flicker Alley. Ed Cullen is a tough homicide cop lured by a rich woman into a murder plot. He helps her cover it up, but his younger brother, just starting out in the police force, gets too close to solving the case.
The action climaxes in a vigorous showdown in San Francisco’s Fort Point compound. Director Felix Feist, who gave us the better-known The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) and The Threat (1949), exploits this impressive location.
Most of the film is more soberly shot, but one long take of an interrogation uses the typical Forties image: a low-slung camera, figures deployed in depth and rearranged as the pressure intensifies.
On February 13, the day after I posted my blog entry, “3D in 2019: Real Dvided?,” I received an email message from Belgian film critic David Vanden Bossche. He had been intrigued enough by my post to investigate the number of 3D screenings on offer in Belgian cinema chains in comparison with “standard” or “premium” 2D screenings. I had found 3D screenings the distinct minority in our local Madison theatres, even early in films’ runs. David found the opposite in Belgium
To extend his investigation, David enlisted his colleague Tim Bouwhuis to analyze the proportions of 3D screenings in the Netherlands.
David and Tim’s resulting online article, “Filmbeleving als Format: A 3D State of the Union,” was posted on March 13 on Enola.be, a film and music site in Flemish. David kindly offered to send me an English translation of the piece. It turned out to be quite intriguing, since 3D in Belgium and the Netherlands is considerably more robust than in the US. I mentioned in my post that areas of the world outside North America have a higher proportion of 3D-equipped screens than we do here. The attention usually focuses on the Chinese market’s enthusiasm for 3D. This enthusiasm is often credited with encouraging Hollywood studios to keep making 3D films despite their waning popularity in North America. But other countries favor 3D as well, and it’s valuable to have an examination of a pair of small European markets.
Our thanks to David and Tim for allowing us to present their article here as a guest post.
On 12 February, following the American premiere of Alita: Battle Angel, Kristin Thompson posted a new entry, 3D in 2019: Real Dvided? Thompson investigated the state of 3D within the contemporary theatrical environment in the United States. Her conclusion was crystal clear: 3D’s share within American movie screenings has steadily declined in the last decade, when Avatar urged most theatre chains to make the switch to 3D projection. The numbers Thompson presents abundantly show that American multiplexes are less and less inclined to include large numbers of 3D screenings in their programs, and that 3D is losing ground to another ‘premium’ format such as IMAX.
Those findings were intriguing enough suggest a closer look into the Belgian situation. Because that is ultimately a small market, I contacted fellow film critic Tim Bouwhuis, who lives in the Netherlands and could thus provide some information on the particular situation in his home country. Our research allowed us to collect an acceptable amount of material and provide us with numbers that paint a rather different picture than the one to be found in Thompson’s piece. The data we collected show a different evolution for 3D in these two countries and possibly in the whole of Europe. Further research could shed some light on this. Even a limited study, however, offers some possible explanations for these differences. This entry will tackle some of them.
United States: RealDvided
Before dealing with the situation in Belgium and the Netherlands, it is probably a good idea to summarize what Thompson presents in her piece.
Starting with screenings in her hometown Madison, Wisconsin, she observes that 3D’s share in the number of screenings of recent blockbusters is surprisingly limited. Thompson broadens the scope with additional numbers from other cities, concluding that this is definitely not a local issue.
The growth in 3D emerges with the success of Avatar and the consequent peak in 3D earnings in 2010. Since then, 3D’s share of film grosses has been in decline. Production of 3D television sets – a prime feature in store windows just a few years ago – has all but halted. Even if one should exercise some prudence in declaring the death of 3D in a theatrical environment, it is safe to state that its intrusion into the living room has failed spectacularly.
It is remarkable that other ‘premium formats’ (Thompson refers to these as PLF – Premium Large Formats,’ a term we will stick with here) such as IMAX or various “ultra” and “grand” large-screen auditoriums (usually offering extra comfort and superior sound) are gaining in popularity, while 3D is on the decline. That means the public is willing to pay extra for a ‘premium’ – PLF upcharges are as high or higher than those of 3D – and apparently often prefers to pay for PLF rather than for 3D. This process obviously suits the theatres’ economic agenda: a large part of the extra income returns to the distributor and – as Thompson points out – there’s also the extra cost for 3D glasses. The upcharges may also make the visitor less inclined to spend money on food & beverages, a vital source of income for theatres. That means the final balance might be rather negative from the theatre’s point of view in the case of 3D revenues. The fact that PLF’s may net a larger profit thus adds another extra factor working against 3D.
One might expect that in case of Alita the figures would be rather different. The film is produced by James Cameron, one of 3D’s most prolific advocates and arguably one of the few directors – along with Ang Lee, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Gan Bi and (even) Jean Luc-Godard–who actually tried to explore the true potential of 3D’s formal cinematic language.
The numbers Thompson presents, however, show that even an “event” film such as Alita does not always encourage US theatre owners to schedule more 3D screenings. Thompson points out that there might also be a more practical issue at work here: the clarity of the image is one of the more troublesome issues 3D faces. To solve this, Cameron and Roberto Rodriguez (who took the directing honors when it turned out Cameron was too busy preparing the Avatar sequels) made sure the DCP’s (digital cinema package, used to send movies to theatres since the disappearance of film stock) came with a set of guidelines. These technical complexities, combined with pricey investments and low returns, make for a cocktail that encourages theatres to drastically cut back on the number of 3D screenings.
Belgium: The Kinepolis experience
Intrigued by Kristin Thompson’s article, I gathered comparable statistics for Alita in Belgium. See the top image for an ad listing the formats available during the first week of release at Kinepolis Group theatres in Belgium.
That’s a lot of 3D ! No fewer than four of these six formats integrate 3D into the theatrical experience. Obviously, a film such as Alita is likely to receive such a treatment and definitely during its first week. It is also necessary to look – as Kristin Thompson did – at the relative percentage of 3D versus “standard” 2D screenings. A ten day interval seemed ideal to reassess the situation. Here are schedules for two Kinepolis theatres ten days after the film’s opening.
As it turns out – depending on the Kinepolis theatre one chooses to visit – 3D still makes up between 42 and 67 percent of Alita’s daily screenings. The highest number is reserved for Kinepolis Brussels, with the theatre being the only one equipped with a full-fledged IMAX screen. IMAX as a PLF in Belgium is used exclusively for 3D screenings, save for some very rare exceptions.
As pointed out already, Alita can be regarded as an exceptional production that integrates 3D as part of its raîson d’être and its promotion. Alita’s figures might be exceptional, so looking at a comparable title might be necessary. The Lego Movie 2 made its debut about three weeks later, is also shown in 3D and thus makes for a perfect comparison.
3D’s share is smaller here, but still 40 percent of the screenings are in the 3D format, a number well above the American averages.
Because two titles might still represent a distorted sample, we contacted Kinepolis Group Belgium and asked them to provide us with some material that would allow to have a better general idea about the significance of 3D within their total number of screenings and their profits and the way this share has evolved (or is evolving).
These numbers are clear enough to allow some conclusions. Both in 2017 and 2018, 4 out of 5 of the most popular films for Kinepolis Belgium were 3D movies. 2018’s numbers even show that both the relative share and the absolute numbers (and thus the weight of the top 5 and 3D) are indeed increasing. Obviously that does not mean that every paying visitor opted for 3D (or one of the various combinations of 3D and PLF), but as the general share of 3D screenings for every movie released in this format at Kinepolis theatres in Belgium is situated anywhere between 40 and 60 percent of the total number of screenings. That means this percentage can be applied to these numbers.
The Kinepolis representative pointed out that the percentage of 3D screenings for a movie is determined on the basis of the quality of the 3D imagery and the way the 3D format enhances the viewing experience. Alita is perceived to be a prime candidate for these arguments and thus the number for 3D screenings is very high and at the lower end for The Lego Movie 2. Even if one sticks to the lower end of the scale, however, the importance of 3D screenings within the total number of screenings is still remarkable.
All those results lead to a single clear picture: unlike the American situation, 3D is still positions itself as the preferred “premium format” in Belgium. Its impact on the total number of screenings (in Kinepolis theatres) is still very significant and shows no signs of diminishing.
I believe there are a few elements at play to create this situation. One of the first emerges when we take a look at the Alita screenings outside of Kinepolis theatres. Another large chain of theatres, UGC, provides a useful comparison. (Most independent movie houses have not screened Alita). The schedule immediately below is for a UGC cinema in Antwerp, and below that, one in Brussels.
In Antwerp there is not a single 3D screening to be found; in UGC Brussels, there’s just one, while the same day lists 8 standard screenings. The discrepancy between these numbers and the ones at Kinepolis are easily explained: UGC has a very limited number of 3D screens.
Slowly it becomes clear that the very specific situation of the Belgian movie theatre environment is an important factor in all of this.
Kinepolis Group was formed through the joining of two large family companies, the Claeys & Bert Groups. At the start of the 19080s, they began setting up a chain of theatres that no longer consisted of the smaller movie theatres Belgium had known up to that point. Their theatres introduced multiplex to the country. “Decascoop” in Ghent (first 10 screens, with two added later) and the other early Kinepolis theatres benefited from the rise in ticket sales in the early eighties and consolidated their position by being the only theatres around the country able to show box-office hits such as E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial and the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, on multiple screens. 1988 saw the inauguration of Kinepolis Brussels – at that time one of the largest theatres in Europe – along with the first IMAX screen in the country (and most neighbouring countries).
At that time though, IMAX was a used only to screen spectacular documentary films that offered the sensation of flying through the Grand Canyon, diving into the ocean or being in outer space. Production of these films was rather limited. When the audience started to lose interest, Kinepolis halted its programming in 2005, just when the US market was taking its first steps towards IMAX screenings of regular releases. Christopher Nolan’s films were instrumental in the process that eventually turned IMAX into a popular “premium format.”
More or less simultaneously 3D resurfaced. The format enjoyed some popularity during the fifties (Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder comes to mind) and returned in the early eighties, blessing film history with a few horrendous films as Jaws 3D and Friday The Thirteenth – Part III 3D. The more recent revival of 3D gained impetus with the releases of animated films, notably The Polar Express (2004) and Chicken Little (2005) and was given a boost by U23D (2008). Other animated and concert films followed, but it was Avatar, with its combination of 3D with the latest state-of-the-art special effects technology, that pushed theatre owners to convert their screens to digital projection, the necessary prerequisite for add-on 3D capability. Its huge success started an evolution that promised the full potential of the 3D cinematic language would finally be explored. When Scorsese, Lee, and Godard took up experiments, it even briefly seemed this would actually be true.
In the US, although Cameron’s smash hit dictated the rapid spread of 3D technology, the format still had to face competition from the already established IMAX format. That was not the case in Belgium or the Netherlands. Kinepolis Group – the dominant chain by now – solely promoted 3D, and this position dictated the whole theatrical environment. The IMAX screen reopened in 2016, when 3D was well established as the preferred premium format. IMAX was (and is) used almost entirely for 3D screenings.
It is necessary to include another element here: the exceptionally high projection standards at Kinepolis Group. When John McTiernan came to Brussels in 1988 to launch Die Hard, he claimed that there was probably no better projection of his film to be seen anywhere in the world. Those might have been the words of an overly enthusiastic director, but they illustrate the high technical standards within Kinepolis Group. Other theatre chains were more or less forced to follow suit.
Because quality projection became the standard, any other “premium” format faced a high hurdle when it came to distinguishing itself. “Laser Ultra” already offers an exceptional viewing experience on a very large screen, so further investment had to be justified by something beyond image quality or a larger screen. 3D offered such a distinctive element and extra added value and initially did not face any competition from PLF’s. When that changed, Kinepolis kept promoting 3D, with combinations: “Laser Ultra 3D” and “4DX,” which adds vibrations to the experience.
All of the above means that 3D’s position in the Belgian environment is very different from its position in the US. Obviously Kinepolis also needs to pay the distributors, but a new deal with RealD on the use of 3D glasses consolidates Kinepolis’ position and intensifies their efforts to promote 3D. All of this means that the format will remain popular in Belgium. In this way, Kinepolis Group’s market position also dictates 3D’s standing as the preferred “premium” format in Belgium.
The Netherlands: Experiences & attractions
The Kinepolis Group is also a dominant factor in the Netherlands, which makes comparing the situation in both countries an interesting endeavour. The Netherlands’ theatrical environment has two major chains, Pathé and Kinepolis, both of them part of larger European concerns. Pathé is part of the French group ‘Les Cinémas Gaumont Pathé’ – a company that has its roots in the early days of cinema. Pathé owns 28 theatres, spread out over 20 Dutch cities. Kinepolis is a branch of the Belgian company and owns 17 theatres in the Netherlands.
With 21 theatres, “Vue Nederland” also deserves to be mentioned, although their total seating capacity is rather limited and has its main focus on smaller provincial towns.
The rise of new technologies, PLFs and “extra” movie attractions such as 4DX, has lead to a situation in which standard screenings have become something of a curiosity in the multiplexes of most major cities. Almost every theatre in a major city boasts 3D, Dolby Atmos or another premium feature. Developments in sound and imagery are promoted: Pathé even distinguishes between Dolby Atmos and Dolby Cinema, with the first emphasizing immersive sound.
Six IMAX screens are spread throughout the country, although most of them would not stand up to a purist’s scrutiny: the largest one – Pathé Arnhem – measures 21×12 metres, whereas a standard IMAX screen is supposed to be at least 22x16m. The Dutch IMAX venues pale in comparison to Brussels’ enormous 27.6 x 19.3 screen.
This variety of screens, systems, and venues makes it difficult to get a good grip on the partition of different formats, so once again we turned to specific Alita screenings available on February 2, 2019 :
At first glance, standard 2D and 3D screenings are balanced by premium screenings. That perception changes, when we take into account that only 5 out of 25 theatres feature 4DX, 5 offer Dolby Atmos 3D and 6 offer IMAX. That means that in some theatres it has become all but impossible to see a standard 2D screening.
The most important factor here is the fact that theatres that offer 4DX/Dolby Atmos 3D/IMAX, focus almost entirely on these formats. Those theatres are usually situated in larger cities, thus rendering it almost impossible to see a standard screening there. Amsterdam/Rotterdam (see above and below) are prime examples: out of 44 combined screenings only three of them are standard screenings. In Scheveningen, Maatsricht or Eindhoven there are no standard screenings to be found at all on the same day.
Most theatres are still located in smaller cities, and a general overview would thus suggest a rather balanced field of standard and 3D screenings. But even in those smaller venues – that do not offer the extra attractions 4DX, Dolby Atmos 3D or IMAX, the 3D screenings still outnumber standard screenings (see below)
3D vs 2D in theatres without 4DX, Dolby Atmos and/orIMAX as of February 15, 2019:
With 1 out of 3/3/4 , it is clear that 3D screenings are dominant in Pathé theatres. Even daytime screenings on weekdays are 3D, which relegates standard 2D screenings to the..
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Production still from lost scene.
This is the third blog entry amplifying on the paperback edition of Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling. This mini-series tries to enhance the book’s arguments by taking into account books and DVDs that have come out since the hardback publication in 2017. (Previous entries are here and here.) Today I want to talk about what T. S. Eliot called “tradition and the individual talent” in a realm Eliot would disdain: American studio cinema.
Curtiz, pronounced Cur-tess
Noah’s Ark (1928).
Reinventing Hollywood offers itself as an alternative to two major ways of understanding the films of a period. One angle is to see creativity flowing from gifted filmmakers. The story often concentrates on how they have to struggle against the constraints of the film industry. In the Forties, Orson Welles would be a prime instance, though Preston Sturges and others could also be invoked. Without denying the talent and originality of key filmmakers, and without neglecting the stubborn ignorance of many executives, I wanted to show that in many ways creativity can be enabled by the conditions of the industry.
Genre is an obvious instance. Without the Western, where would John Ford be? The musical brought out the gifts of Minnelli and Donen, just as the crime film spurred Huston and Anthony Mann. I wanted to suggest that filmmakers were challenged to work with other normative factors than genre—factors centering on how stories were told. Writers and directors collectively amassed a menu of narrative options, from flashbacks to voice-overs, that got quite refined in the course of a dozen years or so.
Some sympathetic readers have considered the book anti-auteurist because I emphasize those pooled resources that any filmmaker, weak or strong, could draw upon. To some extent, that’s right: stretches of the book resemble “art history without names.” Tony Rayns warned readers that they should read Reinventing Hollywood with Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide at hand.
Not a bad idea. A single paragraph compares A Child Is Born (1940), One Crowded Night (1940), Busses Roar (1942) and Dial 1119 (1950). None of them is exactly a lustrous classic, and I didn’t mention the directors or the screenwriters. My main point is that these films play out variants of the Grand Hotel plot, and they show how even artisans can take the opportunity to revamp current norms.
So for my project, creators of whatever rank matter. In the course of my research, it struck me that three “creative producers”–Hal Wallis, David O. Selznick, and Darryl F. Zanuck–are as important as many directors. The same goes for screenwriters, such as Casey Robinson, Vera Caspary, and Ben Hecht. And now that we have biographies of Victor Fleming and William Wellman, we’re starting to understand the importance of skilled directorial artisans. I’ll take even so-so craftsmen (and craftwomen) if they can teach us secrets of Hollywood carpentry. Charles Lang and Walter Lang are no Fritz Lang, but they made more popular films, and we can study the ways they instantiate filmmaking norms.
Then there’s Michael Curtiz.
Andrew Sarris claimed that “Curtiz reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the studio system,” and most writers have agreed. Although Curtiz is mentioned by name only twice in Reinventing Hollywood, I draw examples from ten of his films, from Four Daughters (1938) to Young Man with a Horn (1950). I devote most space to Passage to Marseille (1944). Mildred Pierce (1945) is absolutely central to the book’s arguments, but as I’ve written about it before, both in print and online, I didn’t rehash my argument in the book.
Which is to say, I guess, that Curtiz exemplifies what I was analyzing. He was a master craftsman who has a lot to teach us about norms, both inside and outside Hollywood.
Alan K. Rode’s biography, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Movies, focuses on the man and his accomplishments, and it paints a vivid portrait of a director of intense creative and sexual appetites. He also liked polo. Drawing on memos, production records, and memoirs published and unpublished, Rode provides brisk, telling background on dozens of films. He dwells, as you’d expect on the milestones: Noah’s Ark, the early 30s horror films like Dr. X, Angels with Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, and the Flynn vehicles. But he doesn’t neglect the fleet-footed programmers like The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), projects enlivened with fancy angles, propulsive pace, and bold tracking shots.
On-the-set anecdotes keep things lively. Rode is careful to debunk some of the most famous stories, but he leaves a lot of good ones in. His conversational style is likewise engaging. He compares Peter Lorre to “a sinister kewpie doll” and calls Alexis Smith lissome, using a word I had forgotten exists. Although Rode isn’t as interested in the questions I pursued, his book set me thinking about creativity in the studio system. Specifically, we can broaden our view of Curtiz’s career, which ran from 1912 to 1962, and see it as encapsulating some major trends in commercial entertainment cinema, inside Hollywood and out.
Starting well before DeMille, Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Walsh, and other Hollywood auteurs, he was initiated into the standard tableau style of the 1910s. Fairly distant shots in long takes relied on deep sets, staging and performance. Cutting was used principally to shift the scene, show adjacent locales, or occasionally enlarge a detail. The Undesirable of 1914 (available in a stunning restoration distributed by Olive) shows fairly orthodox choreography of figures in depth and across the frame, with foreground figures masking irrelevant background action.
Apart from Lubitsch and DeMille, most of the directors who had long careers in the studio system didn’t come out of tableau cinema. They began by practicing the rapid editing and close-up framings that emerged in America in the mid-1910s. Curtiz was more or less up to speed with them in his stupendous Viennese production Sodom und Gomorrha (1922, available on a well-restored DVD version). He breaks up vast shots with axial cuts, close-ups, and occasional reverse angles. This nutty film, surely one of the biggest productions of the day, used kitschy modern sets for the contemporary story, expressionist ones (with cadaverous jailers) for dreams, and gigantic pseudohistorical ones for Biblical bacchanals.
His first American film, The Third Degree (1926), tries to bring into Hollywood the fashionable European stylization. Curtiz showcases flashy camera movements, rapid rack-focusing, swift montage, and distorted subjectivity reminiscent of French Impressionist cinema. The specific reference is Dupont’s Variety (1925). Curtiz’s tightrope shots recalling Dupont’s trapeze angles and prismatic superimpositions of eyes during the cops’ third degree recalling the swirl of the spectators’ eyes in Variety.
When a detective drops down to investigate a clue, Curtiz doesn’t hesitate to cut to a skewed view framed by the arm and leg of his crouching colleague.
Much of Noah’s Ark (1928) uses standard silent-film continuity style, although Hal Mohr’s lighting sparkles even more than in The Third Degree. Curtiz’s opening montage relies on wide-angle compositionss of a type recalling Murnau’s pictures of the period. Here we dissolve from Biblical worshippers of gold to modern stockbrokers, and the dense packing of figures recalls William Cameron Menzies’ work of the same period.
But Curtiz’s most flamboyant effects are reserved for the spectacle, especially in the preposterously vast flood scenes with devastation that recalls the rain of fire in Sodom und Gomorrha.
In his sound pictures Curtiz was less outré, but he never lost his taste for momentary flourishes. Anybody who starts a film called The Keyhole (1933) by moving the camera through a keyhole gets points from me.
Curtiz made his name as a master of crowd effects, and he didn’t shrink from handling groups in tight interiors. A hotel-suite party in Kid Galahad (1937) runs thirteen minutes and is packed with movement. The first shot starts on a phonograph, two abandoned drinks, and a carelessly smoldering cigarette: details indicating a wild party, and setting up the importance of serving drinks in the scene to come. Tilt up to a mirror that hints at a space we’ll soon visit.
The next shot launches a leftward track across two rooms, motivated by a damsel’s wild shimmying. People are packed into the foreground and distance. In the next room the dancing woman carries us to card players before we settle on the fight promoter played by Edward G. Robinson, who calmly gets a haircut amid all the revelry. (After all, the party has lasted three days.)
As these Kid Galahad shots show, Curtiz favored low angles and moderately wide-angle lenses to jam his figures together. In the party scene, he multiplies setups freely, almost never repeating one exactly. (Compare the slightly different framings of the second and third image.) The confrontation of two prizefight gangs is played out in a tricky mirror shot.
By comparison, W. S. Van Dyke’s handling of an apartment party in The Thin Man (1934) looks timid.
Watch Four Daughters (1938) and Four Wives (1939) to see how adroitly you can choreograph a big bunch of people strewn around a parlor. In the first film, Curtiz never lets us forget the defensive outsider Mickey (John Garfield), disturbed by this loving household and shielding himself behind the piano. Some might..
Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling came out about eighteen months ago in hardcover. Amazon and other sellers have been offering it at robust discounts. Now there’s a paperback, priced at $30, though that could also be discounted. I hope all these options put it within the range of readers interested in the period, in Hollywood generally, and in the history of storytelling in commercial cinema.
But of course time doesn’t stand still. Since I turned in the manuscript around Labor Day 2016 I’ve encountered some intriguing things that were more or less relevant to my research questions. (I’ve also found a few errors, most of them corrected in the paperback edition. Meet me in the codicil if you’re curious.) In this blog entry and some followups, I’ll discuss some films, books, and DVD releases that came out after I finished the book. They don’t force me to change my case, I think, but they’re things I wish I could have cited, if only in endnotes.
Seeing Happy Death Day 2U reminded me of one of the central arguments of Reinventing. But before I get to that, let me talk about English drama of the years 1660-1710. No, really.
500 plays and more
In the late 1960s a young scholar named Robert D. Hume became curious about Restoration drama. Going beyond the canon, he started reading minor works, eventually discovering a collection of microform cards that included virtually all English plays between 1500 and 1800. The set cost about 10% of his pre-tax annual salary, and he struggled to read the bad reproductions of 17th century printing. Still, the effort revealed something important. “All the modern criticism was so radically selective that the critics had no grasp at all of what was really being performed in the theatre.”
Hume’s method was simple and drastic. He read all of the preserved plays publicly performed in London between 1660 and 1710. Along with revivals, pageants, translations, and adaptations, there were about five hundred “new” plays, and these he concentrated on. They included famous ones like Marriage à la Mode and The Way of the World, as well as many obscure pieces.
The result was The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1976). Its first part surveys the conventions and formulas found in subgenres of comic and serious drama (sentimental romance, horror tragedy, and many others). In the second part Rob traces the development of these types across the period.
From the standpoint of my research I was fascinated to see that Rob reveals a teeming set of variations on generic schemas. Characters, situations, and plot twists are mixed and matched. A plot based on romance leading to marriage commonly shows the couple outwitting blocking characters. Sometimes, though, the man must win the woman over. Or she must conquer him. Similarly, when extramarital seduction drives the action, a man may pursue a woman but
occasionally an amorous, often older woman is the pursuer (She wou’d if she cou’d; The Amorous Widow) or an ineffectual male, usually a henpecked husband, is a comic pursuer (Sir Oliver Cockwood in She wou’d).
In Planet Hong Kong I called this tendency of mass entertainment a “variorum” one, by analogy with editions that print all the versions of a major text.
Once a genre gains prominence, a host of possibilities opens up. Horror filmmakers are likely to float the possibility of demonic children, if only because the competition has already shown demonic teenagers, rednecks, cars, and pets. Similarly, once the male-cop genre is going strong, someone is likely to explore the possibility of a tough woman cop.
You might object that using the term “variorum” is just a fancy way to talk about the mechanical formulas of mass entertainment. But by putting the emphasis on variety within familiarity, the label points up the need for constant innovation, great or small. Fans of film genres readily recognize this churn, but what I began to realize is that it’s common as well in both folk narratives and more “industrialized” ones, like theatre and popular literature.
Monuments of scholarship like Hume’s Development remind us that the variorum principle is a primary engine of popular entertainment. The urge for novelty puts pressure on artists to try to fill every niche in the ecosystem, sometimes forcing competitors to strain for far-fetched possibilities. The wild treatment of noir conventions in Serenity is a recent example.
Beyond genre: Style and narrative
Cover Girl (1944).
Some time in the 1990s I began to realize that a lot of my research applies the variorum principle to domains outside genre. For instance, Figures Traced in Light and the last chapter of On the History of Film Style look at cinematic staging from this standpoint, showing how basic principles of staging got realized in many ways across film history. I applied the variorum principle to particular narrative techniques in some essays in Poetics of Cinema, considering the options of forking-path plots and network narratives.
Reinventing tries to trace a wide range of storytelling options as they consolidated in the 1940s. Rob Hume could study every preserved play, but I couldn’t do that for films. I managed to watch about 600. (Later entries in this blog series will mention some I missed.) Not surprisingly, I found the variorum principle at work in the narrative techniques on display.
I set out a couple of prototypes for the most common plots: the single-protagonist one (Five Graves to Cairo) and the plot based on a romantic couple (Cover Girl). Beyond those, I considered less common plot options, such as multiple protagonists and network narratives. Then I went on to consider narrational strategies that cut across all types. What strategies were available for mounting flashbacks, or expressing subjective states? In effect, I tried to reconstruct Forties Hollywood’s storytelling menu, largely independent of genre.
Another way to put this is that I was tracking norms. But the variorum principle shows that a norm isn’t just a mandate: Do this. Any normative practice is a cluster of stronger and weaker options.
These options lead to a cascade of further (normative) choices. Shoot a dialogue scene in a two-shot and you’ll need to adjust performances for viewer pickup. Shoot using a lot of close-ups and you’ll need to cut among your actors more frequently to keep everybody “in the scene”–that is, salient for the audience.
Choose a flashback and you’re forced to decide how far back to start it, what to include that’s relevant to the present action, and how to remind the audience of action that preceded the flashback. Of course you may also choose to try to make viewers forget, because you’ve misled them. That’s what happens in Mildred Pierce and Pulp Fiction.
Usually we find the variorum principle working among several films. What if creators put the principle to work within a single film?
The first day of the rest of your life
Every now and then filmmakers try out forking-path narratives. These plots, I suggest in this essay, trace out alternative futures for their characters. Blind Chance and Run Lola Run are prototypes, though there are plenty of examples earlier and later.
Sometimes the protagonist is dimly aware of the options. The protagonists of Blind Chance and Run Lola run seem to learn from their mistakes in the parallel lines of action. This can yield “multiple draft” narratives in which later story lines show characters struggling to achieve the best revision of circumstances they can.
I’d distinguish plots like these from Groundhog Day, which presents not alternative futures but identical replays of a specific time period. What makes each iteration different is that Phil, realizing he’s living the same day over and over, struggles to behave differently. This pattern has come to be called a time-loop narrative.
The time-loop and forking-path patterns usually provide only changes in the story-world elements of each track. Phil’s changing his routines takes place against a background of recurring situations. Similarly, the protagonist of Source Code gets to try out different ways to stop a train bomber.
What, though, if a looped or forking-path movie tried to survey several alternative genre conventions? That would give us a sense that the variorum idea has been swallowed up within a single film.
This happens, I think, in Happy Death Day. By now it’s not a spoiler to indicate that this slasher movie borrows the Groundhog Day premise and loops a single day in the life of mean girl Tree Gelbman. Each day she’s killed by a stalker in a babyface mask. Each time she dies, she awakes in the bed of Carter Davis, who brought her to his dorm room (without sexytime) to recover from a night of partying. As the days repeat, Tree becomes more desperate to avoid her fate and tries a variety of stratagems. They fail, until they don’t. In the course of them Tree learns to become a nicer person.
What’s interesting to me is that several variorum alternatives of the slasher genre are squeezed into this one film. The stalker kills Tree in a shadowy underpass, in a bedroom during a frat party, in her sorority bedroom, under a friend’s window, on a campus trail, and after chasing her through a hospital, a parking ramp, and a highway. She’s knifed, bludgeoned, hanged, run over, and stabbed with a broken bong.
Of course the shooting-gallery premise of slasher films often generates a string of variations across the film. Boyfriends, girlfriends, figures of authority, and passersby are dispatched by Jason or Freddie Krueger in ever more exotic ways. But in Happy Death Day, the sense of genre replay is heightened by Tree’s being the sole target of the ten variant homicides (one of which is a forced suicide). It’s as if we were watching a performer auditioning for screen tests in which she might be cast as one victim or another. But here the victim is always the Final Girl.
The comedy that haunts many slasher films is enhanced by the preposterous premise that Tree will survive. The deaths become vivid as replays by virtue of their tongue-in-cheek humor, as each slaying tries to outdo the earlier ones and as Tree sarcastically comments on her fate.
With the time-loop convention put into place by Groundhog Day, our interest goes beyond changes in the story world and concentrates more on narrative structure. We watch for scenes we’ve already seen, expecting them to be revised in surprising ways. The handling of the replays foregrounds film technique as well, as when in Happy Death Day Tree’s frantic walk across the quad after a late reset is rendered in distorted imagery reflecting her confusion. We register this as a variant on her earlier stride down the same route–hung-over, but not yet desperate.
One virtue of such repetitions for low-budget cinema is that the variant passages can be shot quite economically. You can save time on location by reusing camera setups, with the actors altering their performance, or their costumes and makeup. In the DVD bonus material, director Christopher Landon talks of following this production strategy. Why does low-budget cinema explore odd narrative options? They can come cheap.
Variants times 2 or 3
Happy Death Day 2U (2019).
A film series often self-consciously varies the story world that the continuing characters confront. In the studio era, Charlie Chan went to the circus and the opera, Mr. Moto got involved in a prizefight scheme, and Ma and Pa Kettle visited Waikiki. Today’s superhero franchises rely on fully-furnished, constantly changing story worlds. Back to the Future, though, launched a series that did more than present a story world that shifted from film to film. The trilogy self-consciously reorganized its plot structure and narration, with replays and alternative outcomes enabled by a time-travel premise. We’re expected to appreciate the altered replays as part of the film’s experience.
The sequel Happy Death Day 2U has just been released in that Dead Zone in which low-end American genre cinema flourishes. I have a lot to say about it, but it’s probably too soon. Still, it’s no spoiler to indicate that it offers a set of variants on the givens of the first film. For one thing, what caused the time loop of the original is now explained. The birthday motif gets elaborated via Tree’s backstory, with strong doses of sentiment. And suspects who were eliminated in the initial film step forward as plausible culprits in this one.
Just as important, there’s an added structural premise that gives the new entry an acknowledged affinity with Back to the Future II and other forking-path tales. To top things off, the second installment supplies a revised version of the outcome of the first one.
I have the third movie and I have already pitched it to Blumhouse. Everybody is ready to go again if this movie does well. I keep shifting the tone, genre a little bit. The third movie I know is going to be a little different. It’s going to be really bonkers and really fun.
Bonkers or not, having another version would show that the Variorum never sleeps.
Two last points. First, a film I discussed last time, Confession (1937), internalizes the variorum impulse in a milder way, by replaying a key scene from a different character’s viewpoint. More unusually, Confession is a remarkably close remake of a German film, Mazurka, and thus constitutes a homegrown variation on the original.
Secondly, why study the variorum principle? Hume points out:
To insist on analyzing the famous writers and plays in isolation is a mistake: much may be learned by viewing them as they originally appeared–variably successful in the midst of a prolific, unstable, and rapidly changing theatre world.
So one argument is that we can best understand and appreciate masterful filmmaking against the background of normal practice. That seems right to me, but I think there are other good reasons to ask these questions.
For one thing, through bulk viewing of a lot of films, you may discover accomplished works. Many well-regarded films have gained their renown through accidents of release and critical reception. (His Girl Friday is one such.) Good films lurk in many crevices of film history.
I also think that the norms are of interest in themselves. They can show that craft practices harbor more variety than we sometimes think. Studying norms can also reveal offbeat possibilities that are sketched for future development. In Reinventing, I sometimes point to films, either obscure or awkwardly constructed or both, which anticipate trends to come. One example would be the strange, time-shifting exercise Repeat Performance (1947). It’s a Forties counterpart to Dangerous Corner (1934), a two-path plot looking toward more elaborate forking-path storytelling. It shows as well that rather unusual options can float around the edges of the variorum.
My quotations from Rob Hume come from correspondence and The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, pp. ix and 129. Thanks to Rob for sharing the backstory of the book’s composition. Readers interested in his method can learn much more about it in his later study Reconstructing Contexts: The Aims and Principles of Archaeo-Historicism (Oxford, 1999).
This entry relies on a distinction among a film’s story world, its plot structure, and its narration. The idea is explained in this essay and applied to a single film in a blog entry on The Wolf of Wall Street. Plots with loops and forking paths are connected with the idea that “form is the new content” in films from the 1990s and after. I try to chart that ecosystem in The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. See also this entry for a quick summary of early examples of multiple-draft plotting. For more on the virtues of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, go here.
The following errors in the hardcover version of Reinventing Hollywood are corrected in the paperback.
p. 9: 12 lines from bottom: “had became” should be “had become”. Oops.
p. 93: Last sentence of second full paragraph: “The Killers (1956)” should be “The Killing (1956)”. Arrgh. Elsewhere on this site I discuss Kubrick’s heist film at some length.
p. 169: last two lines of second full paragraph: Weekend at the Waldorf should be Week-End at the Waldorf.
p. 334: first sentence of third full paragraph: “over two hours” should be “about one hundred minutes.” Doggone.
We couldn’t correct this slip, though: p. 524: two endnotes, nos. 30 and 33 citing “New Trend in the Horror Pix” should cite it as “New Trend in Horror Pix.”
Whenever I find goofs like these, I take comfort in this remark by Stephen Sondheim:
Having spent decades of proofing both music and lyrics, I now surrender to the inevitability that no matter how many times you reread what you’ve written, you fail to spot all the typos and oversights.
Sondheim adds, a little snidely, “As do your editors,” but that’s a bridge too far for me. Instead I thank the blameless Rodney Powell, Melinda Kennedy, Kelly Finefrock-Creed, Maggie Hivnor-Labarbera, and Garett P. Kiely at the University of Chicago Press for all their help in shepherding Reinventing Hollywood into print.
Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling came out about eighteen months ago in hardcover. Amazon and other sellers have been offering it at robust discounts. Now there’s a paperback, priced at $30, though that could also be discounted at some point. I hope these options put it within the range of readers interested in the period, in Hollywood generally, and in the history of storytelling in commercial cinema.
But of course time doesn’t stand still. Since I turned in the manuscript around Labor Day 2016 I’ve encountered some intriguing things that were more or less relevant to my research questions. (I’ve also found a few errors, most of them corrected in the paperback edition. Meet me in the codicil if you’re curious.) In this blog entry and some followups, I’ll discuss some films, books, and DVD releases that came out after I finished the book. They don’t force me to change my case, I think, but they’re things I wish I could have cited, if only in endnotes.
Apart from studies of single creators, film historians have often sought to go macro, to tie the films to a broader cultural context. Elsewhere on this site I’ve criticized claims that films directly reflect national character, zeitgeist, or a mood of the moment. There’s no denying that films bear the traces of the societies that make them. The question is how to understand that process—and how to explain it.
I vote for seeing cultural material as filtered through the constraints and choices of the institutions that filmmakers work in. Writers, directors, producers, and other participants (deliberately or unwittingly) pick out bits of cultural flotsam and reshape them. Buzzy ideas become plot premises. New technologies fulfill old functions. The newspaper-headline montages of the 1930s are replaced by shots of chyrons and cable news feeds today. Stereotypes become characters-sometimes unstereotypical ones. Not reflection, then, but refraction, with agents and social institutions recasting some trends that are out there.
But the macro level shapes cinema in another way: as a set of economic and technological preconditions. Around 1900, a society without a market economy and access to machine technology couldn’t have invented cinema. Before the smartphone, people living in certain countries lacked the infrastructure to access the Internet.
Historians sometimes distinguish between proximate causes—factors we can trace with some specificity—and distal causes, those more basic and pervasive preconditions that provide a background for the proximate causes. Along these lines, I wish I’d drawn on Robert J. Gordon’s 2016 masterwork, The Rise and Fall of American Growth.
Gordon proposes that the century from 1870 to 1970 saw five great clusters of technological innovations: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine, and modern communication systems. Most became feasible at the end of the nineteenth century, but they took some years to develop, starting to disseminate through the US population from 1920 onward. They peaked, he claims, by 1970 but a significant threshold was crossed around 1940.
Thanks to the Great Depression, FDR’s recovery scheme, and the start of World War II, both the American economy and most American lifestyles improved dramatically. Home electricity, refrigerators, washing machines, radios, telephones, central heating, cheap clothing, sanitation (no more horse droppings on Main Street), the rise of life expectancy, and the fall of infant mortality transformed everyday life. Most of these improvements were tied to the growth of cities. As Gordon puts it:
Except in the rural south, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940. Urbanization brought fundamental change. The percentage of the population living in urban America—that is, towns or cities having more than 2,500 population—grew from 25 percent to 57 percent. By 1940, many fewer Americans were isolated on farms, far from urban civilization, culture, and information.
Reinventing Hollywood emphasized the boom in movie attendance that took off around 1940. Surely American migration to cities fed into this.
The growth of the film industry in the early and mid-Forties parallels a surge in everyday circumstances as well. By 1950, 92 percent of households had a motor vehicle. Penicillin and streptomycin had begun to drastically reduce instances of pneumonia, rheumatic fever, syphilis, and tuberculosis, while a new vaccine eliminated polio. And the rural population continued to dwindle, particularly when people were lured by the fat paychecks in war-related industries.
Did the diffusion of the major consumer technologies through American society directly affect the form and style of the films? No. Just as the struggle with the Axis didn’t demand flashback structure or voice-over narration, neither did the economic forces in society at large. But they did provide a basis for a leisure economy in which filmgoing could flourish, especially when the war cut down rival entertainments and provided more discretionary income. I discuss these processes at some length in Reinventing. Likewise, radio technology didn’t automatically create new narrational devices like voice-over and auditory flashbacks. Radio’s creative artists chose to develop specific techniques to achieve immediate ends. The rise in American standards of living is not a proximate cause but a powerful precondition for the 1940s surge in innovative storytelling, I could have signaled that factor more strongly.
Hollywood Palladium Café.
If the bottom-up approach I tried out is to get anywhere, it needs to show that there’s a community of creators aware of what other folks are doing. Accordingly, the first chapter of Reinventing argues for the importance of Hollywood as bristling with social networks that facilitated cooperation within competition.
Formal organizations, which Kristin, Janet Staiger, and I traced out in our Classical Hollywood Cinema, include professional associations, supply firms, trade papers, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. These served as clearing-houses for filmmaking information. Reinventing adds in the more informal ties among personnel on the job or outside work hours (partying, playing cards or polo). In that era of loanouts and independent production, people who socialized might wind up working together.
I mention a few Hollywood hangouts, but now I wish I’d done more with the night spots that sprang up in the 1930s, most notably the Hollywood Derby, the Cocoanut Grove, and the Trocadero.
Most of the watering holes lingered into the Forties, when new attractions like Ciro’s and the Mocambo were added to the list. There were some more risqué ones, like Club Zombie and Florentine Gardens, which advertised topless/ bottomless performers. And there was the vast Palladium café, with a dance floor that could accommodate 7500 people.
I did edge into this area by discussing Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) as a network narrative. It features Bonita Granville, Zasu Pitts, Spike Jones, Nat King Cole, Hedda Hopper, and, I’m told, the mothers of Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford. The movie was a spinoff of a current radio show that broadcast from Sardi’s before moving to a dedicated venue on Vine Street. An enormous sign promised “Glorified Ham and Eggs from Pan to Mouth.”
The minimal switcheroo
Reinventing Hollywood surveys flashbacks, subjectivity, voice-over, ellipsis, multiple-protagonist plots, and other techniques. They were taken up widely and explored in various directions.
But they weren’t brand-new. Apart from voice-over, of course, these storytelling strategies appeared fairly often in the silent era. And although the 1930s largely swerved away from these strategies, they did pop up occasionally. I discussed several examples, such as The Power and the Glory (1933), The Life of Vergie Winters (1934), Peter Ibbetson (1935), and the crazed Poverty Row item The Sin of Nora Moran (1933).
Tom Gunning reminded me of another important precursor. Confession (1937), a Warners melodrama starring Kay Francis, tells of a young woman becoming the prey of a suave but rapacious composer. When she leaves a supper club with him, he’s shot by the woman who has just performed a song. In the singer’s trial, she reveals that he seduced and abandoned her and that his target is her daughter. The court goes fairly easy on her.
The tale is told through some devices that would proliferate in the 1940s. Voice-over monologue to let us in on a character’s thoughts? Check, although it’s very minimal. Flashback to illustrate trial testimony? Check, although that was already a fairly common option from the silent era onward. And a replay of events that show us an event from different viewpoints? Check, although another trial drama, the RKO Ann Harding vehicle The Witness Chair (1936) had pursued the same strategy. (It can be found as far back as The Woman Under Oath (1919), as discussed in an earlier entry.)
What makes Confession more interesting, as Tom also told me, is that it’s a maniacally close remake of Willi Forst’s Mazurka (1935). Here Pola Negri plays the avenging discarded lover. Joe May was a very talented director, but in Confession, he was content to copy the original scene for scene, and sometimes shot for shot. A portion of the German version’s first shot is re-used in the beginning of the American film.
The courtroom is one of several sets that are more or less replicated. Again, the Mazurka shot is first.
Both versions include a replay of an earlier scene. In the first instance, the daughter is unaware that her mother hovers in the hall outside. In the replay, we’re attached to the mother watching the young woman with her adopted mother. The parallel Mazurka sequences are on the top, the Confession ones below.
May’s remake supports a couple of points I made in the book. One source of Hollywood’s 1940s narrative ambitions was foreign cinema. French, German, and British films were exploring these techniques in the 1930s, and some relevant titles got exported to the US. A few were remade, with The Long Night (1947), based on Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939), being one of the most famous. At the same time, some European directors, like May, started working in Hollywood. Julien Duvivier, for example, leaped into the new US trends with Lydia (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942), and Flesh and Fantasy (1943).
Hollywood endlessly recycles material, as the new Star Is Born shows. Remakes weren’t as common then as they are now, but they did exist. We might see them as part of the process that includes the switcheroo, the habit of varying an existing premise or gimmick with a change that makes the thing look fresh. I suppose the most famous switcheroo comes in His Girl Friday (1940), where the male protagonist of The Front Page (1931) becomes a woman. Neatly, the name Hildy Johnson works both ways. Even Lydia can be seen as a switcheroo on Duvivier’s own Carnet de bal (1937). Everything, as we know, is grist for the Hollywood mill.
Most broadly, popular entertainment exemplifies what I call the variorum impulse, the urge to tweak or twist existing materials and devices. The aim is to produce something new that’s at once novel and familiar. More on the Variorum in a later entry.
Bing and Bob
I’ve had reason to praise Gary Giddins elsewhere on this site, but I never got around to talking about the wonderful first volume of his biography of Bing Crosby. Now he’s come up with Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years 1940-1946. Of course he deals with the musical career in definitive fashion, but just as important for me is his in-depth coverage of Der Bingle’s movies.
Reinventing, alas, devotes no space to Going My Way (1944), but after reading Giddins’ fifty pages on the film’s production, with sharp excursions into McCarey’s working methods and the tug-of-war about billing in the credits, I wish I had. It’s of course an extraordinary movie, loosely plotted and irresistible in its gentle momentum.
McCarey sold Crosby on the part as if he were peddling a modern High Concept project: “You’re going to play a hep priest.” Giddins carefully traces how the film took the country by storm and led to Crosby’s new, extraordinarily powerful contract with Paramount.
Bing enters my book in Chapter 11, as partner to Bob Hope in the zany Road films. These, along with other Hope vehicles, exemplify for me the acute movie-consciousness we find throughout the 1940s. Of course silent films and early talkies were often set among moviemakers (one of my favorites is Boy Meets Girl, 1938). But the theme shifted into higher gear in the 1940s and early 1950s, when we got films that exhumed Hollywood’s history (The Perils of Pauline, 1947; Singin’ in the Rain, 1952) and comic films that made fun of cinematic conventions. The latter is most wildly illustrated in Hellzapoppin’ (1941), but we get comparable cinematic in-jokes in the Road movies.
Giddins leads us behind the scenes, showing how the Road scripts, tentatively approved by the Breen Office, would get pulled apart during shooting and naughty bits of impromptu got shoved in in.
The writers aimed not only to make scripts funny but also to bamboozle censors. As Bing and Bob crisscrossed the set between takes, like fighters going to their corners, they would receive whispered zingers from personal gagmen, each star looking to unbalance the other; the constant comic rigor roused players and crew. Breen had no knowledge of the ad libs or how scenes would play.
Giddins is constantly throwing crosslights on these films. He shows, for instance, that the “high-velocity raillery” of The Road to Zanzibar (1941) owes something to producer Paul Jones, who had worked on Preston Sturges’ comedies. “The pace of the dialogue between crooner and comedian is impeccable, unforced, and funnier than the actual lines.”
To greater or lesser degree Giddins plumbs all the fourteen films Crosby made in these years, weaving them into the spectacular radio, touring, and recording career of one of the most popular stars in American entertainment. There’s plenty of sadness to go around too.
I could go on and on, as you know. After I finished the book I discovered George S. Kaufman’s 1945 play Hollywood Pinafore; or, The Lad Who Loved a Salary. It uses Arthur Sullivan’s score for H.M.S. Pinafore to mock the movie capital. Here’s a sample featuring the gossip columnist Louhedda:
Somehow all the weekly checks/definitely hinge on sex./ One man fills another’s shoes./Hard to tell whose baby’s whose./ Many autographs annoy/ Ella Raines and Myrna Loy./Goldwyn claims that all our ills/ Can be traced to double bills.
Et cetera. A bit labored, but cute.
Next time: Reinventing Hollywood and Happy Death Day 2U.
Thanks to Tom Gunning, Dan Morgan, Ally Nadia Field, Jim Lastra, Richard Neer, Jim Chandler, Mike Phillips, and Gary Kafer, as well as those who attended my lectures at the University of Chicago in January.
The following errors are in the hardcover version of Reinventing Hollywood but are corrected in the paperback.
p. 9: 12 lines from bottom: “had became” should be “had become”. Yow.
p. 93: Last..