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An American Tragedy, the novel and the films.

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2017

One of my potent memories from my early film going days is of Montgomery Cliff and Elizabeth Taylor entwined in a kiss in A Place in the Sun (1951). For years the sequence remained the embodiment of romantic desire for me. I was not familiar with the literary version from which the film was adapted [via a play], Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ [published in 1925]. Then more recently I saw the 1931 version of the novel [with the original title] directed by Josef von Sternberg. By this time I was also aware that a version of the novel had been planned as part of Sergei Eisenstein’s abortive attempts to make a film in Hollywood. So I read the book: I also read ‘Sister Carrie’, another  Dreiser novel adapted by Hollywood, Carrie (1952), with fine direction by William Wyler and fine performances by Jenifer Jones and Lawrence Olivier.

An early 20th century novel, which judging by the library copy I borrowed is now little read, and two adaptations made in Hollywood more than fifty years ago sounds a little esoteric. But in its day the book was a best seller and very influential. Many critics and commentators also saw it as a compelling commentary on US society. Theodore Dreiser used a real-life murder as the basis for his plot of a young man who loves both a working girl and a rich socialite. Faced by the former’s pregnancy, he first tries abortion then killing. Dreiser maintained

“it could not happen in any other country in the world”.

That claim was illuminated by another book, Mandy Merck’s study of the novel and film versions [2007]. She comments

“the novel and its adaptations both constitute and are constituted by the convulsions of the nation state that is its protagonist and its theme”.

The book is concerned with the sociology of the protagonist’s fate, not the drama.

Merck discusses in detail the origins of Dreiser’s novel, (written whilst he worked in Hollywood), and the three film versions: one by Sergei Eisenstein, unrealised; one by Josef Von Sternberg for Paramount in 1931: and the most famous, directed by George Stevens for Paramount in 1951, A Place in the Sun. Merck points out in her introduction that she studies the authors, who include Dreiser, the directors who worked on the adaptations, and the economic authors, the Hollywood studios. She does this in an exemplary fashion, having clearly engaged in very detailed research.

So we get the development of Dreiser’s mammoth novel, running to 800 pages. Dreiser was an important contributor to a movement for realist fiction. He himself had researched the real-life love and affairs and subsequent murders that are the prime focus. He always carefully researched the places and people who fill his novels. H. L. Mencken commented,

“When he sent some character into an eating-house for a meal it was always some eating-house that he had been to himself, and the meal he described in such relentless detail was one he had eaten, digested and remembered.” (Introduction to the 1948 edition).

Another writer quoted in Merck’s volume opined,

“No one else confronted so directly the sheer intractability of American social life and institutions, or … the difficulty of breaking free from social law.” (D. Denby in 2003).

The length and complexity of this novel made for a daunting adaptation. It was one of the projects worked on by Sergei Eisenstein when he sojourned briefly in Hollywood in 1929. Dreiser’s depiction of class divisions and his sociological standpoint clearly appealed to Eisenstein. He worked up a script for a 14-reel version. Merck studies this in detail, and it promised to be an intelligent and cinematic version of the novel. Dreiser certainly gave his approval. However, it did not get past the studio bosses, presumably made nervous by moral and red-baiting would-be censors. The author’s discussion is interesting in terms of Eisenstein’s career, though I always wonder how either he or his companions seriously imagined they could make a film in Hollywood.

The Sternberg version seems mainly to have been an attempt to recoup some of the costs by the studio. Sternberg was interested in illusion and artifice rather than realism. A quote by Selznick runs,

“I don’t think he has the basic honesty, the tolerance, the understanding this subject absolutely requires, . . .”

Moreover, the imminent arrival of Hollywood system of censorship, the Hays Code, made the explicit subject of the novel difficult. On completion, Dreiser was appalled at what his original had become, and undertook legal action, but he lost.

The post-war version that was very much Stevens’ own project. But Ivan Moffat complained,

“Stevens was a romantic, so the bleak social picture painted by Dreiser took second place to the steamy love-affair between George and Angela” (the protagonist and his privileged amour).

Certainly the film’s centre was the on- (and off-) screen romance: which I vividly remember. It does also have the put-upon workmate/victim of George; a fine performance by Shelley Winters as Alice.

All four versions of the story suffered from censorship and social outrage, since the original plot contained seduction, attempted abortion, murder and official corruption. Some of those involved in the 1950s version were also caught up in the HUAC’s attack on the Industry’s ‘liberals’. Merck spends time on these various social angles and their impact on the succeeding projects, and the overall discourse of book and films.

The book develops into a compelling and informative study of Hollywood and its relationship to US society and the wider world. At the end of the book Merck notes that 2005 saw a version of the original novel at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House: and a faintly disguised borrowing in Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005, inferior). Even Jean-Luc Godard joined the act with a brief reference in Histoire(s) du cinéma (1989 – 1999)..

I certainly recommend Mandy Merck’s authoritative study. I also recommend Dreiser’s original ‘An American Tragedy’. The 800 pages do not seem so many when you get involved in the novel. Coincidentally, I have also recently re-read novels by Dreiser’s fellow realist, Upton Sinclair. So I am now resolved to read that other doyen of North American realism, Frank Norris. Hollywood famously filmed his ‘McTeague’ as Greed (1923), with equally problematic results. The director was Erich Von Stroheim, who, along with Eisenstein, was one of the filmmakers preferred by Dreiser for his own epic work.

‘Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens’ by Mandy Merck, Berg 2007.

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Fifty Contemporary Film Directors

Posted by keith1942 on April 26, 2011

Edited by Yvonne Taker. Published by Routledge 2011.

A second edition, the first was titled Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers, edited by Yvonne Tasker, published by Routledge 2002.

Reviewed in the Media Education Journal 2011. The Publisher’s WebPages only give twelve of the fifty names featured in the book. So I have reproduced the whole list below, showing the changes between editions. It also seems a good opportunity to add some brief profiles of filmmakers who I thought should have been featured and weren’t.

KEN LOACH

Probably the most impressive body of work in British film since the industry petered out in the 1960s. However, to be fair, Loach is not strictly speaking an auteur. He does have a recognisable style, which is a variation on the neo-realist approach. But his work is not actually thematic: what is common across his films is a political and ideological line. [[I use ideological in the sense of uncovering the underlying and overlooked social relations in which people are involved]. British film critics are probably more resistant than most to the idea of a didactic cinema, i.e. one where the political values are overt rather than covert. I have always thought it revealing that so many critics pick Kes (1969) as their favourite or his best film. Whilst it is overtly political it can be consumed as an individual tragedy and drama; whereas so much of Loach’s work forces us to confront the issues of class and conflict.

Moreover, Loach’s work is the result of a collective approach rather than the expression of a distinct personality. His early television work, like Cathy Come Home (1965), was strongly influenced by the producer Tony Garnett. His cinematic work relies very much on the input by the scriptwriter, for a long time the now-lamented Jim Allen and more recently Paul Laverty. I am sure that some of the more rigorous [or extreme] champions of the auteur approach regard him as a metteur en scène. That would be find if it were not the case that one can always discern a slight note of disparagement in the use of that term.  In fact, as with the marvellous films of Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, the precision and power of the film drama arises from the meshing of different minds coming together in a common enterprise.

Loach’s films also rely very strongly on the contribution of the players before the camera. Acting is not quite the way to describe this. Whether it be a professional actress like Carol White in his early Poor Cow (1967), or semipro Ricky Tomlinson in the later Riff-Raff (1991), his films capture the language and the world of ordinary working people. And indeed ordinary working people are key to his representations. One scene I have often used in classes is the sequence in Raining Stones (1993) where Bob and Tommy attempt to sell the stolen sheep joints in a Working Men’s Club. The place, the people and the urban landscape are instantly recognisable to those that have experienced this world.

Importantly he presents not just the everyday world of the working class, but their political world. What some viewers [especially critics] often find difficult are the sequences that directly address the self-activism at moments of heightened political conflict. Land and Freedom (1995) contains the justly praised sequence where the proletarian fighters together with the indigenous villagers argue over land collectivisation. This is the political heart of the film, and many celluloid feet away from what passes for political drama in the mainstream. Loach’s political stance is inspiring but also problematic. The struggles he dramatises frequently centre on the question of betrayal: true of Land and Freedom and also of his television series Days of Hope (BBC 1975). To a degree the personal relations take precedence over the social relations in these films.

This limitation would seem in part to relate to the degree that Loach and his colleagues still use the conventions of the mainstream or of popular cinema. Essentially the films are melodramas of protest and the focus is predominantly on individuals working within the movement. Thus Loach shows only a limited influence from the work of the key political filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. We have identifiable personalities in Loach’s films rather than types. And we have personal motivations central to the drama. In Land and Freedom a central motif is lying: by the western governments and media: by members within the mainstream Communist movement: and by the protagonist David. All of these lies contribute to the melodramatic climax of the film, when Blanca is shot and dies. Mainstream conventions tend to defy the analytical stance needed to contexualise such events: for example the values and practices of the Communist Party, the Anarchists, the Fascists and the Imperialist powers.

This is clear in his most recent film, Route Irish (2010). In some ways the film seems to revisit the issues in Hidden Agenda (1990), which dealt with political assassinations by the British in Ireland. Here the Route Irish refers to the Iraq war and the work of mercenaries in that conflict. The new film is dominated by the personal angst of Fergus over the death of his lifelong friend Frankie. And the resolution of the film offers personal vengeance rather than a social solution. As in mainstream drama the focus is on an ‘evil’ entrepreneur and much less centrally on the British State.

If this sounds rather grim Loach and his team frequently display not only emotion but also humour. Route Irish features the recurring gag of recent films, a three-legged dog. Perhaps that is an authorial signature?

The listing:

 

Names that appear only in the first edition are in brackets: names that are added to the second edition are underlined.

 [Alison Anders by Yvonne Tasker]: Pedro Almodóvar by José Arroyo: Wes Anderson by Devin Orgeron: Aoyama Shinji by Aaron: Gregg Araki by Glyn Davis: [Jean-Jacques Beineix by Phil Powrie]: [Bernardo Bertolucci in context by Mary Wood]: Luc Besson Bard and filmmaker [by Susan Hayward], by Rosamund Maule: Kathryn Bigelow by Yvonne Tasker: Charles Burnett by Chuck Kleinhans: Tim Burton by Yvonne Tasker: James Cameron by Alexandra Keller: Jane Campion [by Justine Ashby],       by Shelley Cobb: Gurinder Chadha by Rayner Denison: Jackie Chan by Leon Hunt: The Coen Brothers by Jon Lewis: [Francis Ford Coppola by Scot Mackenzie]:       Sofia Coppola by Pam Cook: David Cronenberg by Marc O’Day: Julie Dash by Terry Moore: Guillermo del Toro by Lindsay Steenberg:  Atom Egoyan by Geoff Pevere: David Fincher by Devin Orgeron: Hal Hartley [by Lesley Deer], by Sebastian Manley:  Todd Haynes by Justin Wyatt: Peter Jackson by Paul Malcom: Jim Jarmusch [by Mark Peranson],  by Jason Wood: Neil Jordan [by Fidelma Farley], by Maria Pramaggiore: [The Kaurismäki brothers by Tytti Soila]: Aki Kaurimäki by Tytti Soila:  Abbas Kiarostami by Sharon Lin Tay: [Krzytof Kieślowski by Paul Coates]: [Diane Kurys by Carrie Tarr}: Ang Lee by Ian Haydn Smith: Spike Lee by Yvonne Tasker: David Lynch by Marc O’Day   : Michael Mann by Christopher Sharrett: Shane Meadows by Martin Fradley: Hayao Miyazaki by Rayna Denison:  Michael Moore by Diane Negra:  Mira Nair [by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster], by Sue Brennan: François Ozon by Ginette Vincendeau: Park Chan-Wook by Anne Cieko and Hunju Lee: Sally Potter by Anne Cieko: John Sayles by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons: Martin Scorsese by George S. Larke-Walsh: [Coline Serreau by Brigitte Rollet]: Steven Soderberg by Jennifer Holt:  Todd Solondz by Dean Defino: Steven Spielberg by Peter Krämer: Oliver Stone by Martin Fradley: Quentin Tarantino by Glyn White: [Tsui Hark by Julian Stringer]: [Christine Vachon, Independent film producer by Ros Jennings}: Lars Von Trier by Mette Hjort: Gus Van Sant by Harry M. Benshoff: [Wayne Wang by Scot Mackenzie]: [Peter Weir by Ros Jennings, Australian auteur / Hollywood director]; [Wim Wenders by Stan Jones]: Wong Kar-Wai [by Stan Jones],  by Julian Stringer: John Woo by Tony Williams : Zhang Yimou [by Sheldon H. Lu],  by Haomin Gong: Zhang Yuan by Zhang Zhen.

 

 

 

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