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My Cousin Rachel, Britain, USA 2017

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2017

Daphne Du Maurier published this novel in 1951. It offered a romantic and mysterious story with many of her familiar features. The novel is set in the C19th, but offers no particular dates. The setting is Cornwall, and the book includes descriptions of the Cornish countryside and, importantly, the coastline and the sea. There is a Gothic feel to the novel and there are traces of the influence of the Brontë sisters. The obvious reference is Du Maurier’s earlier classic, ‘Rebecca’. It shares the setting and the mystery from the past. However, instead of a young and naïve female narrator, we have a young, naïve and male narrator.

This is Philip Ashley who has been bought by up an older landowning relative Ambrose. Early on Ambrose’s death takes Philip to Florence and later leads to his meeting Ambrose’s widow Rachel.

Rather as with ‘Rebecca’ the book offers an investigation of a woman; in the earlier novel this was the dead wife of Maxim de Winter: this later novel investigates Philip’s cousin Rachel. However, the final resolution of this story holds ambiguities whereas in ‘Rebecca’ the mystery is fully explained. Just as Rebecca is aided by the intimidating Mrs Danvers Rachel is aided by the more slippery Rainaldi: [slippery perhaps because he is Italian]. Both films offer aspects of the Gothic. One genre that frequently has a Gothic feel are the ‘threatened wife’ scenarios. In these two works we have the ‘threatened husband’.

The ‘mystery’ offered by the novel is less deliberately ambiguous. However, I felt that this is not completely convincing. In ‘Rebecca’ the final conflagration of the house, with Rebecca working through the medium of Mrs Danvers, strikes down Maxim and is powerful and effective. In ‘My Cousin Rachel’ we have a death and then Philip’s anguished questioning, ‘Rachel my torment’. This ties in the narrative to the subjective narrator, often an unreliable source. Philip’s judgements are partially backed up by what he reads in the letters from Ambrose: but Ambrose was sick and could have been mentally unstable. What Philip recounts is partial and contradictory. A key element are the herbal drinks [tisanes] that Rachel makes. These may indeed be poisonous but in which case, if they did cause Philip’s illness, why does she nurse him so assiduously. Covering her tracks does not seem quite sufficient. The investigation of ‘cousin Rachel’ is carried out by Philip and in his mind the jury is still out. For the reader the problem is not just Philip’s subjective viewpoint but his failure to analyse what he has seen and heard fully. The written portrait of Rachel manages to present her as apparently quixotic which makes Philip’s uncertainty convincing. However, it is likely to be a problem when Rachel, as in a film, is literalised in a character that is both seen and heard.

The first film adaptation of the book was produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1952. In black and white and running 98 minutes the film was helmed by Hollywood professionals: script by Nunnally Johnson who also produced and direction by Henry Koster. The filmed starred Richard Burton as Philip and Olivia de Havilland as ‘my cousin Rachel’. This was Burton’s first film in Hollywood. Du Maurier was not keen on the initial screenplay and later unimpressed with de Havilland’s characterisation. She did, though, enjoy Burton’s Philip and some sequences actually filmed in Cornwall. An important change is that the key setting of an Italianate garden is replaced by a rocky seaside cove. The cinematography by Joseph LaShelle is finely done. And the visual chiaroscuro emphasises the Gothic feel more than the novel. There is a romantic and dramatic score by Franz Waxman. The screenplay is highly compressed: 98 minutes is really insufficient for the plot and characters. The setting of the film is the 1830s: information gained from Ambrose’s tombstone visited by Philip, something he avoids in the novel. Burton has Philip’s intensity and impetuosity but lacks the naivety in relation to women. De Havilland lacks the complexity of Rachel, but this is at least partly due to the scriptwriting. The film does retain some of the ambiguity of the novel, but the relationships do not convincingly prepare for the final questions. On a happier note Don, the Labrador, survives avoiding his accidental death in the novel.

Now, in 2017, comes a new adaptation. The main production company is Fox Searchlight, who presumably retain the copyright to Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. It is a company project and writer and director Roger Mitchell was recruited to this. The film has received quite a few favourable reviews. It is in colour, with a ratio of 2.35:1 and runs ten minutes longer than the 1952 version. It has also enjoyed location filming in both England and Italy, so the film should offer settings that would meet the wishes of Du Maurier.

The production offers some unknowns and some promising possibilities. This is Mitchell’s first screenwriting credit. His previous directorial record does not offer a lot of relevance to this type of property. He did direct Hyde Park on the Hudson (2012) which I enjoyed and which has some slight parallels with this story: an older man has a relationship with a younger cousin and visitors play important parts in the plotting. Rachel Weisz is cast as ‘cousin Rachel’. This would seem to be ideal. She has starred in some rather run-of-the mill genre films but also some fine dramas: of particular relevance here is her role as Hester Collyer in  Terence Davies’ beautifully judged version of The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Sam Claflin plays Philip. Rather like the director how appropriate he will be is hard to judge. The ‘Pirates’ film and the ‘Hunger’ series’ have little in common with Du Maurier’s romantic mystery. I thought he was good in Their Finest (2017) as Tom Buckley, but that character is far removed from Phillip Ashley.

Rachel Weisz is indeed fine as ‘cousin Rachel’. She offers real attraction, changeable behaviour and a certain ambiguity about her aims and motivation. Sam Claflin is very good as Philip. He achieves the gaucheness around woman which is important, however he does not really make the character naive. The supporting cast are good. Holliday Grainger gives Louise both her desires for Philip but also a much more down-to-earth understanding. Rainaldi is a much changed character in the film but Pierfrancesco Favino carries the part well. I should add that the numerous dogs are now only two unnamed Irish Wolf Hounds. As in 1952 we are spared a canine death, but only because [typical Hollywood] they disappear from the film about half-way through: [and Philip is wilfully responsible for the death of a horse]. Rainaldi also disappears abruptly from the plot for a time, unexplained.

The film has fine cinematography by Mike Eley. It uses locations in Italy [Florence looking fine in long shot] and Cornwall to good effect. The scope image is very effective for these landscapes. The cinematography in particular effects a Gothic feel. There are scenes heavily laden with chiaroscuro and we frequently see characters through framings such as doors, windows and banisters. There is fine period design, sets and costumes by Alice Normington, Barbara Herman-Skelding and Dinah Collin respectively. The editing rhythm at the hands of  Kristina Hetherington takes the film forward in many places at a fast pace, using ellipsis after ellipsis to drive the story on.

In fact I think this is often overdone. There are several places where the actions and/or motivations are not totally clear. Thus Rainaldi leaves Philip’s house after his first visit but it is only later in dialogue that we discover where and why. And I suspect that if one does not know the book the status and contents of the different wills will remain unclear; again only a later piece of dialogue fully explains about the marriage restriction that will limit Rachel’s inheritance.

The designs certainly achieve the period setting, as do the costumes. Note though, that following the book, the specific period in the C19th is not presented. There are some exaggerated differences. One is the state of Philip’s mansion. Early on Louise helps Philip prepare the house for Rachel’s visit. it is a dishevelled and grungy mess. Only a few months later, as Philip in an usually smart attire, waits for Rachel and the Christmas presents, the room is transformed, even with new and expensive wall paper.

The film takes much of the plot at a fast pace. But it also takes the time to dwell on particular cinematic moments. One is the Christmas party for the workers and tenants on the estate. During the revelling and carousing there is slow track along the seated labourers which achieves a fine feel.

At the point of Philips 25th birthday when he comes into his inheritance we follow the consequences of his gift of jewels to Rachel. This leads to a sexual act, quite clearly implied in the novel. Here the scene ends with a defocusing as Philip and Rachel lie back on the bed followed by a dissolve. This achieves the effect set out in the book. However, a little later there is a second sexual act in the woods: this I felt was a misjudgement, though Rachel’s stony face as Philip grunts on top of her spoke volumes.

Alongside this there is a important revelation late in the film when Louise translates an Italian letter for Philip. Enlarging on the book Louise comments that

‘Enrico [Rainaldi] is more Greek than Italian …”,

that is he prefers boys! I suspect this is part of an attempt to give the book a modern sensibility regarding gender and sexuality. However, like the editing, I find this overdone.

One of the most important sequences is Philip’s serious illness late in the film. The length of this is cut from weeks to days: an example of how the film speeds up the plot. This is still very effective. At one point we have a montage of what appear to be both flashbacks and hallucinations. The scenes show the manner in which Rachel tends Philip. It also prepares the ground for the shock that Philip receives on regaining some sort of health.

One space that this new version retains from the 1952 film is the replacement of the gardens by the seashore and cliff-tops as key settings. The accident on the cliff top sets up the later fatality effectively. In fact there are far more beach sequences in this film than either in the earlier film or indeed in the original novel;. Philip’s final remorseful voice-over as he sits on the beach uses this richly mythic setting to full effect.

 

The film opens and closes, as does the book, with Philip’s voice-over. The opening offers series of brief flashbacks that provide a helpful ‘back story’ to the main narrative. The ending here, with a carriage bowling along in the countryside, is possibly a little too pat. The novel seems to suggest that life after the events will be much darker. In this film Philip, [as did Richard Burton’s Philip] asks ‘why?, ‘did she?’. This is where the novel ends. However events in the film, for example the careful nursing of Philip [who may or may not have been poisoned] suggest that motivations are relatively uncomplicated. I did find that the novel failed to completely motivate this ambiguity. A weakness which the earlier ‘Rebecca’ does not share. Of course, the film does not need to strictly follow all the ins and outs of the novel. But I felt that ‘cousin Rachel’, despite Weisz’s fine performance’, is a less ambiguous figure. And therefore Philip’s tortured musings seem not properly motivated. As I noted I think there are unintentional ambiguities in the plot, partly because the film has such pace, presumably because it comes in at under two hours. Along the way it looks and sounds good and the characters are always interesting. But just as the novel of ‘Rebecca’, remains a superior work by Du Maurier I think the Daryl Zanuck production of that novel [directed by Alfred Hitchcock] remains the best film adaptation of her pen.

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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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Arrival – Philosophy on Film

Posted by keith1942 on January 14, 2017

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It seems to me that there has been an increase in writing on film that addresses philosophical issues. However, the content does not always match up to the traditional sense of this concept:

“the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence”

It is even less common for films to address such issues. But this science fiction film (USA 2016) seems to do this to a greater degree than is common, certainly with mainstream films. It is a complex film and I watched it twice before I was satisfied that I have completely grasped the plot. But a second viewing also made me consider some of the existential and moral issues that it raises.

The film is adapted from a short story by a US-based writer Ted Chiang. I have not read the original: our local library has not got a copy. But I have checked out some reviews which has given me a sense of how the film differs from the story. The story, and to a degree the film, address theories regarding language, perception, what we call time, and even cause and effect. Some of these theories are matters of debate among scholars. Some are certainly complex and I did not understand some of the more intricate aspects of some theories. What seemed clear to me was that certain concepts or phrases are treated ambiguously in the film. So I have noted this by using ‘…’ as for ‘present’, ‘past’ and ‘future’, all aspects in the story whose meaning needs to be tested.

The film centres on the character of Doctor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a linguistic scholar. When Alien spaceships arrive on earth Louise is recruited to assist in establishing communications with the Aliens. She works alongside a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Both are under the control of a Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and Agent Halpern (Michael Stulbarg). Most of the action takes place at a temporary military base at the site occupied by the Alien space craft. We learn that there are eleven other such space crafts at various sites round the world. Whilst the Doctors Banks and Donnelly pursue their research there is an interchange via video links with teams in other countries also attempting to communicate with the aliens.

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The concept and visualisation of the Aliens is brilliant. They are seven-limbed and christened ‘Heptapods’. Their spoken and written [graphic] language appear incomprehensible. At the same time they appear more interested in observing than [say] threatening earth. Donnelly christens the two that he and Louise [and we] meet ‘Abbott and Costello’.

Some of the most fascinating sequences are as Louise takes a lead in working out how to communicate with the Aliens. We are told that their spoken language bears no relationship with their written language. The latter appears more like graphic/symbolic displays than writing. And the symbols shoot out from one of the limbs of the Alien and are displayed on the glass screen between the Aliens and the scientists. As Louise develops her understanding of their communication she explains that each symbol is known completely before being presented: she uses the example of writing a sentence with both hands starting on opposite sides of  page. The writer would need to know the whole communication exactly in advance, even the space between letters.

Donnelly contributes to the understanding by identifying and explaining that the Aliens do not relate to what we call time in the same way as humans. Essentially he claims that they are aware of all parts of a series in a timeline at once. This seems not to be the same aspect as involved in time travel but is a mode of perception, even existence.

Since this is a mainstream release it also has an amount of action and suspense. Both are created by tensions and suspicions between the different countries working with/against the Aliens. It falls to Louise to prevent armed conflict at the moment of crisis and climax. She does this by conducting the Commander (General Shang / Tzi Ma)in charge of the Chinese effort and using knowledge she has gained from the Heptapods, defuses the situation. It is worth noting that the representation of the Chinese does not go beyond the Shang character and this presents an autocratic and militaristic regime.

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Interwoven with the somewhat conventional sci-fi plot are a series of sequences with Louise and her daughter Hannah (four actresses of different ages). These both open and close the film and appear frequently in between. At first they seem to be flashbacks: then they seem to possibly be flash-forwards. It is apparent that they are connected in some way with Louise’s contact with the Heptapods.

Another point that develops with the film is the assumption that the use of language affects the way of thinking. In Louise’s case this means as she develops her grasp of the Alien language she also acquires their perception of time. This only falls into place for the viewer towards the end of the film. At this point it becomes apparent that in terms of human perception of time the Alien arrival occurs at the beginning of the narrative that we witness: and that the birth, upbringing and early death of Hannah occur later. The sequences in which we see/hear what seem to be Louise’s perception of Hannah’s life are examples of seeing events across a whole timeline and not as human being usually experience this: in a linear fashion.

The interaction of the two plot lines presents a different manner of regarding time. This is a familiar trope in science fiction but treated in an atypical manner. It raises issues about philosophical questions and also about the film’s plot line itself. Apparently the conflict that develops between the different states engaging with the Aliens and the resolution of this have been added to the original story. I found this not completely convincing. Even at my first viewing the manner in which Louise ‘converts’ General Shang seemed rather pat. Moreover the film implies that the way the conflict and resolution is plotted follows a design by the Aliens. Their visit to earth is motivated by the fact that in several thousand years in the future they will need assistance from earth. So this plotting supposedly produces a unified earth community that will still be round when needed. This was not only pat but given human history [with which the Aliens are presumably conversant] seriously unconvincing.

A second plot problem relates to the personal. In the alternative time sequence we learn that Louise and Ian, now married and parents of Hannah, have separated. The reason is that Louise told Ian something and he could not accept this. What she told him is that she knew when they conceived Hannah that she would die young: he thinks she made the wrong decision. However, if Louise can see across the timeline she would know what Ian’s response would be in advance.

Some reviews suggest that Louise chooses to conceive Louise despite knowing the outcome. This could be applied to Louise telling Ian. I do not find that totally convincing. In both cases one could interpret the events and choices as fated, rather like a Greek tragedy. Another aspect would be other comments in reviews to the purpose that one can know the ‘future’ but not change it. This is intriguing because it separates the treatment of time in this work from that of time travel. It appears that not even the Aliens in ‘Arrival’ time travel. But they see across time, a skill that Louise develops. This aspect raises questions about the relationship between cause and effect.

Arrival appears to have been influenced by Chris Marker’s science fiction classic La Jetée (1962). That film appears to be about time travel as the protagonists goes forward in time and then backwards in time. However, the plot is really about his life story and centrally about memory. At the conclusion the viewer realises that his experience in what seems to be the ‘past’ has characterised all his other experiences. So something similar can be seen in the presentation of Louise and Hannah’s stories. The film and story seems to be playing with philosophical concepts of time. There is Immanuel Kant’s position that this is a ‘systematic mental framework’ and also Eisenstein’s argument in relativity that different observers see events in time differently.

It is worth noting how Louise appears to view across the timeline: the film does not give any idea of how the Heptapods do this. When she has been in close proximity to the Heptapods we see insert shots, as if she has been stimulated by the Aliens. Elsewhere she works at it rather in the way that people work at recovering memories: there is no sense that she has an overview of all elements or events at once. So in one scene she ‘remembers’ a concept taught her by Ian to solve a question by Hannah. The key example is her call to General Shang on a mobile, as she talks on the phone she ‘remembers’ the conversation she will have with the General after the crisis is over. In this case what is in the ‘future’ informs her actions at an earlier point in time. This is the paradox associated with time travel and which also appears in La Jetée  and numerous other science fiction works.

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Louise’s development of the ability to see across the timeline follows from an assumption that language affects the way that humans think. The alternative position is that the way humans think affects language. The film does not follow this through. In the film Louise publishes a book on the Alien language: it is visible at the reception where she meets General Shang and the logo on the book is seen several times in the ‘future sequences’. Are other humans learning the language? Is that the object of the Alien visit so that when the need arises humans will see across the timeline in relation to the Alien situation? Why does Ian not learn the language? He does not seem to display much interest in this. Perhaps he has picked up a smattering and that is the reason that Louise feels impelled to tell him about Hannah.

The aspect of the story that the film does emphasise is gender. Science fiction remains a predominately masculine genre, even after the appearance of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien (1979): and the same problem bedevils Passengers (USA 2016) despite the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Arrival Louise is more or less the lone woman in a man’s world. The leading  characters in the ‘present’ are all men. The only other important character is Hannah. Even when we see other research teams round the world on the video-call I do not remember any women members. The most notable females are the presenters on the Television News Broadcasts.

Moreover the male characters in the film display the stereotypical attitudes of men: prone to expect conflict and aggression. So Louis provides an alternative in terms of rationality but also emotional stability. However, it is not clear whether the Heptapods have different genders. Ian christens them as men, but that appears to be his unthinking gesture rather than based on any evidence. The film uses tropes relating to feminine characters repeatedly. The most interesting is Louise’s hair. There is a long tradition in film regarding a woman’s hair. Tied back in some fashion is represents restraint even repression. Hanging loose it represents openness and sexuality. Markedly women frequently cut their hair after moments of trauma, so the Jodie Foster character cuts her hair after the rape in The Accused (1988).

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In Arrival’s present Louise has her hair tied back for most of the time, we see her tying it back after the ‘shower’ on returning from the Alien craft. In the ‘other time;’ sequences with Hannah it is usually hanging loose, and we also see it loose in sequences with Ian from ‘the future’ but not in the ‘present’. The most notable differentiation from this in the film is a solitary visit that Louise makes to the Alien craft. This is approaching the film’s climax, conflict seems imminent. The Alien craft is hovering above the ground and when Louise runs towards it a pod descends and takes her up into the craft. Once in her hair flies free and is at its most unrestricted in the whole film. She is enveloped in mist and floating in the air. The sequence reminded me forcibly of a scene in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) where the David Bowie character (Thomas Jerome Newton) has coitus with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark). Whilst this film is not noticeable sexual this is a moment of real sensuousness. It is also the point that Louise realises she can understand the Alien language.

However, the aspect of Louise’s femininity that the film emphasises is as a mother. The sequences with Hannah all give expression to a strong maternal instinct. And her life after the Alien visit, whilst it involves marriage with Ian, is most concerned with her as mother. Ian really is a plot necessity, he has to impregnate Louise, but at some point in Hannah’s childhood he leaves, so we have a single mother and child.

Ted Chiang’s original story was titled ‘Story of Your Life’. It presumably refers to the life of Hannah. In the film Hannah’s story is seen through the perspective of Louise, hence ‘your life’. So this is emphatically a mother’s point of view. The film clearly makes play with supposed gender differences between men and women. It would be interesting if the written story explores this in terms of the Heptapods. The handling of concepts of language, time, perception and related scientific concepts clearly makes this ‘hard’ science fiction’. The mother/daughter story falls into the realm of melodrama. Part of the effectiveness and success of the film results from the interaction of these two generic strands. As I write I see that Arrival has done well in the BAFTA nominations, better than in the USA Award Festivals. Is that a reflection of different attitudes to science fiction among audiences?

Directed by Denis Villeneuve: Produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levinem Aaron Ryder, David Linde: Screenplay by Eric Heisserer,  Based on “Story of Your Life”  by Ted Chiang: Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson:  Cinematography Bradford Young: Edited by Joe Young. The film was produced in Montréal and Québec in Canada.

It was filmed in colour and in anamorphic widescreen. The version I saw was masked to 2.35:1.

Posted in Hollywood, Literature on Film, Science Fiction | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Nocturnal Animals, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on November 27, 2016

50805_AA_4167_v4lo Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

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Academy Award nominee Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow in writer/director Tom Ford’s romantic thriller NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Merrick Morton/Focus Features

 

This is the second film directed by Tom Ford. I was not taken with his first, A Single Man (2009). It was accomplished and offered a fine performance by Colin Firth. But it was so beautifully designed with scarcely a hair out of place. It reminded me of The Hours (2002), which was extremely well done but even in the baking sequence no flour was spilt. It also reminded me of I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, 2009), another spotless movie which made me long for Boudu to wander in and spit in the extremely expensive soup. Tom Ford was a designer and worked for Gucci prior to moving into film. It shows. His films are rather like a mannequin parade, style over substance.

Having noted this I found Nocturnal Animals a lot more interesting than the first film: I suspect that is due to the source novel by Austin Wright. It has Amy Adams, but the tight design constrains her enormously. Interesting in terms of gender treatment Jake Gyllenhaal is not so severely restrained. He plays the ex-husband, Tony Hastings, of our heroine Susan Morrow. Her philandering second husband, Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer) is away and Tony sends Susan a draft copy of his novel, something she has waited years to see. The story in the novel works as an insert in the main film, and features Jake Gyllenhaal, but not Amy Adams, playing a character, Edward Sheffield.

The whole film is an exercise in noir though the inset story plays much darker and strays into horror. In Tony’s novel Sheffield’s wife and daughter becomes the targets in a rather nasty ‘road rage’ incident. The theme of Tony’s novel is revenge: a point made when Susan, who works in a gallery, passes a pop art painting constructed round this word. Revealingly she has forgotten the painting though she acquired it for the gallery.

The whole film is beautifully designed and in addition includes numerous art displays, including one by Damien Hurst. The film opens with a gallery display of actual women on show in ‘art works’. These appear to be designed to comment on the position of women in relation to sexuality and objectification. The art works continue throughout the film. I did not recognise all of them but I was aware that i was constantly seeing examples of ‘good taste’ in the sense used by Pierre Bourdieu. I did recognise settings modelled on the work of Edward Hopper, including the final shot of Susan, which presumably points up the moral of the film.

I was especially unhappy about the opening gallery presentation. This, like at least one sequence in the story within a story, struck me as pornographic: presumably deliberately. Evelyn Waugh in his masterpiece, The Sword of Honour trilogy, has a character remark that ‘all pornography is about death’. This is central to this film. However, unlike say in a film by Ingmar Bergman, I did not feel there was a redeeming theme to counter this. I thought that both Amy Adams’s Louise Banks and Arrival (2016) are a more worthwhile trip to the cinema.

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Hollywood’s ‘Un-American activities committee’.

Posted by keith1942 on March 23, 2016

huac_title

This committee did not really exist but there were plenty of possible contenders for membership. If it hadexisted, two definite members would have been John Wayne and Hedda Hopper. Both are characters in two recent films that include the infamous Congressional Committee hearings and the studio ‘blacklist’.

First up was Trumbo (2015), directed by Jay Roach and adapted by John McNamara from a book by  Bruce Cook, with a star turn in the title role by Bryan Cranston. The film starts in the late 1940s and follows the development of the HUAC witch-hunt, the craven appeasement by the heads of the studios and then the struggle by the famed Hollywood Ten [mainly writers] to continue working and finally end the blacklisting. The film works as a sort of biopic of Dalton Trumbo and over emphasises his role in the story. To give one example. The film includes the  dramatisation of Trumbo, along with the other nine ‘unfriendly witnesses’, being jailed for contempt of Congress. In a scene in jail he meets ex-Congressman Parnell Thomas, one-time Chair of HUAC, now in prison for misuse of his office payroll. In actual fact it was two other members of the Ten who were at the same prison as Thomas, Ring Lardner and Lester Cole. And it was Cole who exchanged the lines with Thomas [mis] quoted in the film.

But in other ways the film has merits. It seems to be the best treatment of the notorious era coming out of a mainstream US feature film. Early in the film there is space for the radical activities of the members of the Communist Party USA working in Hollywood, including supporting strikes and opposing victimisation of migrant workers. The political tensions between the various writers is also apparent; in a couple of scenes Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), another writers, draws attention to the contradictions between Trumbo’s radical sympathies and his privileged life style. Moreover the film treats the film footage, or recreations of the same, with proper respect and correct aspect ratios.

Trumbo and Hopper

Trumbo and Hopper

As you might expect the film has little sense of the actual politics of the Communist Party USA, or indeed of the International Communist Movement of which it was a member. Neither does it delve deeply into the politics that lay behind phenomenon like HUAC; for example the wartime alliance with the USSR and the question of the legacy of F.D. Roosevelt. It does though characterise the Hollywood conservatives, especially the aforesaid John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). The latter piece of casting would seem to continue the Hollywood convention of casting British actors as villains.

There is more British casting in the second film, Hail, Caesar! (USA 2015) with a Hedda Hopper style character played this time by Tilda Swinton. The film was by Ethan and Joel Coen. This is a pastiche of Hollywood at the start of the 1950s, revisiting the Capital Pictures studio of their earlier movie Barton Fink (1991). This is not serious drama like Trumbo. In fact it is pretty over the top. Despite being set in 1951 at one point a film is using Vista Vision, which only arrived in 1954: and the aspect ratios are all over the place. In the filming of a musical sequence Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum)  is aping not just Gene Kelly but also Fred Astaire.

Where HUAC and the blacklist make their entrance is when the Studio chief and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) finds that his biggest star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped and he is faced with a ransom demand. What the audience already know is that Whitlock has been kidnapped by a not very secretive group of blacklisted writers. They are assisted by Professor Marcuse (John Bluthall – I wrote that it is over the top). Of course, Trumbo is a political treatise compared with this film. I thought the plotline bizarre. However, on reflection it occurs to me that if you recognise that the paranoia of HUAC and the associated campaigns affected not just it proponents but many ordinary US citizens then the fantasy of the kidnapping might have been believed. In fact we have a sequence where the main communist subversive, Gurney, attempts to decamp to the Soviet Union with the ransom money.

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Kidnapped Baird Whitlock

Over the years Hollywood has ventured into the territory of what was popularly termed McCarthyism. During the actual period there were a number of films that supported the investigations, persecutions and reactionary rhetoric. John Wayne persuaded Warner Bros. to produce Big Jim McLain (1952), a supposed police procedural which used actual footage of the hearings edited [fairly obviously] into the studio-based sequences.

But there have also been critical forays into the territory. Trumbo details the way in which its protagonist and his follow writers survived by working under pseudonyms and ‘fronts’. This is the strategy highlighted for comic effect in Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). Howard Prince in  that film is a typical Allen creation. And there is little exploration of the actual HUAC and its activities. The film does also include the effects on the new medium of Television. A writer is also the focus in another film from the same studio, Columbia Pictures, The Way We Were (1973). In fact we have two writers, Katie (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbell (Robert Redford): though it is Hubbell who works as a screenwriter in Hollywood. There is an interesting sequence in which Katie and Hubbell return from the demonstration by Hollywood luminaries in support of the Hollywood Ten. However, the film was actually edited before release with a couple of scenes from this point in the film removed. It seems that the end product was more in line with Hubbell/Redford’s views than Katie/Streisand’s. She was clearly, like Katie, the more  radical. The film also suggests that the apolitical Hubbell has the greater writing talent. This is in line with Hollywood’s convictions that commitment and screenwriting are best separated.

Way we were

Guilty by Suspicion (1991) from C20th Fox was originally planned from a script by Abraham Polonsky, a writer and director whose best work [e.g. Force of Evil 1948) possibly came closest to a Hollywood critique of capitalism. However, Polonsky’s pitch for a filmmaker who was indeed a communist, was too close to history. The final film has a liberal filmmaker who finally testifies before the HUAC committee.

The Majestic (2001) from Castle Rock Entertainment has Jim Carey as Peter Appleton, a Hollyood writer accused of being a communist. The plot has Peter involved in an accident, suffering amnesia and turning up in a Californian town where he is believed to be missing war hero. Cleary the film sublimates the terrors of HUAC and allows the protagonist to indulge in a dream-like wish fulfilment. This continues when he recovers and appears before a Congressional Committee. An impassioned speech, relayed on television, sways the audience in his favour. Art least the film avoids a completely saccharine resolution as he finds he can no longer work within the required conventions of Hollywood.

Cradle Will Rock (1999) is set in the 1930s, when the HUAC predecessor, the Dies Committee, was investigating the Federal Theatre Programme: part of the New Deal. The film is based on actual events around the production of a theatrical musical The Cradle Will Rock. The film is very political by US mainstream film standards, [produced by Tocustone Pictures and distributed by Buebna Vista]. It uses what are usually described as ‘Brechtian techniques’ to present a radical representation of the events, issues and period..

There are also a number of US documentaries about HUAC and the blacklist. However, the radical screenwriters and other communist members or ‘fellow travellers’ in Hollywood were not greatly interested in the documentary. But after the blacklist at least three, Herbert J Biberman, Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico, were inspired to work in social realism – that memorable feature based on the real-life struggles of ‘Chicanos’ in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth (1954).

Posted in History on film, Hollywood, Movies with messages | Leave a Comment »

Of Presidents and Pistols

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2016

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

  This article was originally written shortly after the release of The American President (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1995). I have not updated the main article [except for one brief reference] but provided this introduction and an after-thought on the intervening years. The American President was directed by Rob Reiner and scripted by Aaron Sorkin: who subsequently went on to work on the enormously successful television series of The West Wing. My sense is that though we have seen a few ‘bad apple’ presidents onscreen (for example Primary Colours (Universal, 1998) and Absolute Power (Columbia / Castle Rock, 1997), the mainstream movie still privileges the supreme post in the USA. Of course, we now have Barack Obama in the White House – so the sacred office is no longer the preserve of the white male; we may even see a female president soon. There have already been screen female Presidents: Wikipedia has lists of the films and of the actors who played in them, it is very long. And Obama was preceded by several black screen Presidents, with Morgan Freeman establishing a special hold on the office. The Presidential Myth.

“Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from…” Myths today, Roland Barthes.

Barthes’ comment describes the way that stories often maximise our pleasure whilst minimising the content we have to grapple with. It would certainly seem an apt reflection on Hollywood films, which have in so many areas produced great entertainment which avoids unsettling the audience with the harsher realities of either the recorded or imagined events. The west, the U.S. family, the civil war, the space programme… the myth presented is wrapped up so that the memories we take out the auditorium are not too disquieting. One of the most powerful myths among the many generated by Hollywood is the presidential myth. One example is appropriately entitled The American President, with President Andy Shephard [Michael Douglas] generating real comedy as he battles to enjoy an ordinary romance with career woman, Sydney Wade [Annette Bening]. These are obviously not ‘ordinary people’, but the film works hard to make them seem so, even sharing a meat-loaf dinner. It knows the Presidential Office is serious, and injects serious matters into the narrative; crime, environment, policing the world. However, the seriousness is strictly controlled, so that the only issue to get extended attention is the environmental one. Crime is just rhetoric and policing the world, with Shephard authorising a military strike against a Gaddaffi-style figure, allows the President to display decisive leadership whilst expressing human feelings but at the same time it is safely tucked away from the dramatic crisis and climax of the movie, so that viewers don’t have to worry over it. president shepard speaks with staff the american president 1995 movie micheal douglas martin sheen micheal j fox The American President bears a fairly obvious political agenda. Andy Shephard has no military record, a musical daughter and courts a successful woman, who is so liberal she even helped burn the flag in her youth – predictably the production received strong co-operation from the Clinton White House. In fact, Clinton’s State of the Union tribute to Hilary suggests he was powerfully influenced by one scene in the film. The film most likely did not get help from republican Bob Dole [Clinton’s Republican opponent at the time for the Presidential Office], who also has his shadow – as the villain. With Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Entertainment, 1995) also released over here, the democrats had a filmic edge on republicans at this point in time. But many Hollywood films have serviced one or other party. Frank Capra, the subject of one of the best jokes in The American President, was the great polemicist for the New Deal. Intriguingly, several of the films I discuss were produced by Warner Bros., strong supporters of Roosevelt in the 1930s. The Wind and the Lion (Herb Jaffe, 1975), created by the right-wing libertarian John Milius, was homage to Theodore Roosevelt. Whilst the two parties might argue over the merits of particular movies, both are tied into the myths they create. The opening titles of The American President are a montage of images – portraits and photographs of past presidents intertwined with art objects and artefacts from the White House, home and symbol of the President. They all seem to be there, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, up to Kennedy and Johnson; [thus avoiding the more contemporary dilemmas like Nixon, Ford and Carter]. When Andy and Sydney first get together, they discuss and then tour this national treasury. Sydney’s problem is how to have romance with a man who she has to call Mr President – a living exhibit in this treasury. The tentative relationship between the two encapsulates the view of the President as shared by much of the American audience. The President must be at the same time the ‘boy next door’ and the most powerful man in the world – to span the log cabin and the white house. Anyone can make it to the White House, … Poster%20-%20Young%20Mr_%20Lincoln_02 In one of the classic renderings of the myth, Young Mr Lincoln (C20th Fox, 1939), we are presented with homespun Abe, a man of the people, who has to rise to become the figurehead of the people.  This film closes with the famous memorial statue on Capital Hill, accompanied by the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘. His passage from the backwoods to the White House is the clear expression of the US’s claim to be the open society. The associations around emancipation address a mythic moral nation which conveniently forgets the ambiguities in the practices of this Republican President and his party. A rather more contradictory view is espoused in Spielberg’s Lincoln (Dreamworks / C20th Fox, 2012), which film dwells on the manipulative and corrupt politics that were required to bring the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery] to the Stature Book. But even here the film leaves the audience with the celebrations by liberals and Afro-Americans at the passage of the Bill and then the death of the US’s ‘greatest’ president. The ordinary side of the Presidential myth has been expressed in a myriad ways. Lincoln’s chopping wood; Teddy Roosevelt’s sporting prowess; Kennedy humping ammunition in PT109 (Warner Bros., 1963), the film about his war service – the marks of difference are carefully deleted. Andy Shephard remarks that Franklin D Roosevelt would not have been elected as President in the age of television because of his wheelchair. At the time, newsreels appear to have avoided shots of Roosevelt in his chair (in the famous Yalta photograph a rug  covers his legs and chair), and in PT109 Kennedy’s chronic back problem gets no mention. These are all examples of the ‘evaporation of history’ described by Barthes. Sydney’s problem with Andy is one that all the films have to negotiate – the audience needs to both identify with the filmic hero, and stand in awe of the super-ordinary figure. The Cahiers du Cinéma article on Young Mr Lincoln discusses how that film dramatises the Lincoln figure above mere politics.

“the first scene of the film already shows Lincoln as a political candidate without providing any information either on what may have brought him to this stage….or on the results of this electoral campaign [his first – he lost]…..Lincoln’s character makes all politics appear trivial.”

The American President uses a similar approach, Andy spends much of the film wheeling and dealing for Senate votes for bills watered down to avoid offending interest groups. At the movies’ end, Andy drops his worries about image, re-election, and opinion polls and stands up for what matters, the well-being of the nation. His reward is a standing ovation in Congress, and presumably a silent one from the cinema audience. nixon_monument But the films also have to deal with the dark side of the myth – misdeeds, corruption and death. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (Cinergi Pictures / Hollywood Pictures 1995) presented one part of this darker side. Oliver Stone has already delved into villainy with J.F.K. (Warner, 1991). Much of that film has a noirish look as Jim Garrison [Kevin Costner] investigates the hidden worlds of intelligence, contras, right-wing militias and political manipulation, seeking the truth about the Kennedy assassination. The film, not too convincingly, posits a political-military conspiracy stemming from Kennedy’s supposed preparedness to exit the Vietnam conflict. What is interesting is not how accurate Stone might be, but how the film’s twinning of these two great national disasters struck so powerfully into the US psyche, drawing strong responses, for and against, in reviews. Thirty years on the loss of the Arthurian style president (there were frequent allusions to Camelot in the Kennedy era) and the US’s only major military defeat still rankles. In-the-Line-of-Fire-1993 The problem of the loss of this mythic president has also been worked out in several movies about the presidential bodyguard. In the Line of Fire (Columbia, 1993) has Tom Horrigan [Clint Eastwood] relive the failure of Dallas in 1963 as he attempts to ward off a contemporary Presidential assassin [John Malcovich]. The film reworks past Eastwood characters, [especially Dirty Harry, Warner, 1971] as Horrigan returns to the presidential bodyguard after years on other work. Like Jim Garrison, his search parallels a psychological rerun for the US public. In an early scene the re-called Horrigan puffs and pants during escort duty for the presidential cavalcade. Through the film he returns to fitness and successfully wards off the assassin, thus seeming to symbolise the way that the US has overcome its traumas about the loss of the presidential hero. In The Bodyguard (Kasdan Pictures / Warner Bros., 1992) Frank Farmer [Costner again] failed to protect Ronald Reagan, but the film reads just as well if Kennedy is substituted, especially as it was first written in the 1960’s (thanks to Michael Johns for this insight). In one scene Farmer rescues Fletcher, fatherless son of black entertainer Rachel Marron [Whitney Huston]. This would seen to twin concerns about fatherhood and racism – powerful motifs in the Kennedy myth. The father figure returns at the end of the film as the camera tracks in on Farmer whilst a minister addresses god – somewhat over the top, but US presidents, including Nixon, have happily used the portrait of the all-time patriarch that graces the dollar. In both these films and others which feature assassins, the favoured weapon is the gun. Historically this fits the record of attempts on Lincoln, Mckinley, Kennedy and Reagan. Even so, it is hard to resist a psychological response. Uniformly male, usually [in the terms of the contemporary culture] young, they seem to offer youthful rebellion against the father. Lincoln’s memorial is the perfect embodiment of patriarchy, as lesser mortals stand beneath and peer up at the personification of the law. But in a further contradiction, these patriarchal victims can also be young in years and ‘outside’ in terms of traditional values. Writing about the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King and Malcom X, Philip Slater perceptively remarked:

“It is probably not accidental that these recent figures were all rather young men – not conservative father figures trying to retain power and preserve old ways, but young liberals or radicals trying to effect social change. If we make the rather safe assumption that the potential assassin has conflicts about authority, the assassination of such men satisfies both their rebellious and submissive tendencies; the assassin does not really kill authority, he kills in the name of authority.” [Slater, 1970).

The scenario works exactly in J.F.K., and also in Anthony Man’s  The Tall Target  (MGM, 1951). There, the attempt on Lincoln’s life portrayed in the film is organised by pro-slavery southerners, and there is a real sense of Lincoln as outsider and disrupter. In one scene passengers on a train argue strongly for and against Abe. The potential assassin is a young man with a rifle, but his mentor (Adolphe Menjou – a crucial casting choice) is both older and more established. At the closure Lincoln expresses his contradictory position with the metaphor of himself `stealing into the White House like a thief`. the-tall-target Yet the film is aware of the need to maintain Lincoln’s stature, dramatized by the attitude of the detective who saves him, not a supporter but impressed with Lincoln as the man. So another recent foray, Dave (Warner, 1991), has an undesirable president replaced by his look-alike, innocent, but honest in the mould of the classic Capra hero. All The Presidents’ Men (Warner, 1976) essays a similar task as the journalist heroes, in the gleaming White Washington Post offices, uncover the dark deeds of White House, FBI and Republican activists. Interestingly, we only see Nixon at one remove – on a Television monitor. Regardless of party politics or federal/state antagonisms, the presidential figure rises above ordinary political concerns.  This elevation correspondingly demands the vilification of the assassin. They are beyond ordinary evil in a world of psychosis or underhand and subversive forces. The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, 1962 and Paramount, 2004) uses malevolent communist brain washing to produce its assassin [and a corporate/military conspiracy in the remake]: the earlier film has some parallels with The Tall Target secessionists. In the Line of Fire uses dissident CIA operative, as does J.F.K., where the world of the assassins is a disturbing noir world both threatening and sleazy. Given Slater’s comments, the national guilt over Lincoln, Kennedy, King and Malcom could be working out both admiration and resentment. Thus the extremity of the narrative motivations for the assassins would seem to be a displacement for these ambiguous emotions. Not all filmic Presidents are quite as patriarchal, not all assassins so demonised. In Twilight’s Last Gleamings (Lorimar, 1977 – originally released in a shortened version] the well-meaning President dies, shot by his own men, as they attempt to silence dissident military bent on exposing the partial truth about the Vietnam war. This film by the consistently liberal Robert Aldrich was savagely cut on release and is still hardly ever seen. It is possible to argue that the equally liberal Oliver Stone, despite ostensibly addressing the Vietnam War in both JFK and the Vietnam trilogy (Platoon, Hemdale, 1986; 4th of July and …Heaven & Earth, Warner 1993), avoids seriously addressing the issue. JFK does attack the Washington/Pentagon establishment, but the presidency is rescued in the person of Kennedy, who retains his position above politics. The American President travels this same territory when, at the film’s closure, Andy Shephard embraces unpopular environment and gun controls because it is his responsibility as leader of the nation.  The father knows best, the law is right even if sometimes misapplied. After-thought: abraham-lincoln-wallpaper It seems to me that not a lot has changed since the 1990s. There is the film with the occasional ‘rotten apple’: Absolute Power  is a good example. But the norm is the films that valorise the President. Thus in Independence Day (C20th Fox 1996) President ‘Pullman’ leads the sorties against he alien space ships, having first stolen a rousing speech to his men stolen from William Shakespeare’s Henry V. Harrison Ford has to lecture a misbehaving Present in Clear and Present danger (Paramount, 1994) but then represents a President who can outwit and outfight Kazakhstani terrorist in Air Force One (Columbia, 1997). The Vice-President in The Day After Tomorrow (C20th Fox, 2004) has a closed mind, but ‘the office maketh the man’ and he redeems himself when the President’s death elevates him to the supreme office. Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln manages the tricky feat of valorising the most famous President whilst exposing the political manipulations that he indulged in. The sort of satirical exposure typified in Oliver Stone’s Nixon remains rare. W. (Lionsgate 2008) is in some ways an inferior remake, but Stone is a Hollywood Maverick, possibly the exception that proves the rule. Sources: There doesn’t seem to be much writing specifically on Presidential films. A famous analysis of Young Mr Lincoln, was done by Cahiers de Cinema, reprinted in Movies and Methods, Vol. 1 Ed Bill Nichols, Univ. California 1976. J.F.K. has an accompanying book and was also debated in Cineaste, 1992 vol.19, no 1. Sight and Sound has discussed The American President, and Dave in September 1993 issue; and JFK, in February 1992. Presidential movies get a mention in From Personality Cult to Apotheosis in Politics and Film, Furhammar and Isaksson, 1968.  

Thanks to Michael Walker for suggesting The Tall Target.

Posted in History on film, Hollywood | Leave a Comment »

‘The Male Gaze’?

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2015

Mulvey This term goes back to a well-known article in Screen Journal by Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). Feminist film writing has been greatly influenced by psychoanalytic theory since the mid-1970s. Laura Mulvey’s influential article was one that had an impact on feminist film theorists and critics. It was part of a general theoretical attempt to use the work of Freud and Lacan for the analysis of mainstream cinema. In her piece, Mulvey claims,

“that psychoanalytic theory can be appropriated… as a political weapon.”

There have been plenty of critiques of the article. One that I find especially helpful includes this:

“She argues that it offers a causal analysis of women’s oppression under patriarchy which can provide the foundation for political action and social change. Concerned with the relationship between the gendered spectator, the cinematic image and the pleasures of dominant cinema, Mulvey asserts that mainstream cinema organises the spectator in a gender-specific way. She argues that the visual pleasures of popular film are associated with fetishistic and voyeuristic ways of looking. These looks are organised so that the spec-tator has no choice but to identify with the narrative’s male protagonist and thus becomes complicit with his objectification of female charac-ters. Women, according to Mulvey’s article, are theorised as the passive `sexual Spectacle’,’ at the mercy of the active male gaze. In popular film Mulvey argues, men look and women are looked at; men act and women are acted upon. This claim may emphasise male control, but it tends to obscure differences between definitions of masculinity and femininity within society. It also, and perhaps most worryingly, tends to emphasise domination rather than struggle, contestation or resistance. In this way, it tends to reproduce the very ideas of women as victims which many feminists have criticised so vehemently.” From Psychoanalytic feminism to popular feminism by Liza Taylor in Approaches to Popular Film edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich. 1995.”

Mulvey’s concept appears to have enjoyed a new lease of life over the last couple of years. It turned up in a film review in Sight & Sound of Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle 2013): not without some justification in terms of the film’s treatment of female sexuality. Then it reappeared again in a letter of fulsome praise in the same magazine.

“So whether we are born biologically female, male or other; whether we subsequently define our gender as feminine, masculine or other; and whether we define our sexuality as gay, straight, bisexual or other; we have all already adopted the male gaze.” (S&S July 2014).

This would seem to go beyond Mulvey’s own arguments. And it overlooks people who define their sexuality through chastity. Still, one can recognise the absolute nature and application of the concept. I do not want to address the psychoanalytical arguments offered by Mulvey, the comments by Liza Taylor seem to me very apt. However I do want to criticise a couple of her specific arguments regarding cinema and its audiences and then look at some examples of films that appear to not fit into her construction. At one point Mulvey discusses the concept of scopophlia [sexual pleasure from looking at erotica] and following this she claims:

“Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world.”

audience 1940s

This is not an uncommon comment on cinema exhibition; hence also the frequent use of the dream parallel. But this ignores the actuality of cinema, especially cinema during the era of the studio system, which is the period that Mulvey focuses on. I am not sure if there are any statistics, but descriptions, records and my own experience seem to indicate that the majority audience in cinema then were the couple, the group or the family. The isolated film fan or viewer was a minority, possibly quite a large one. In fact the power and popularity of cinema probably related to this aspect. The darkened auditorium and the dominating screen and sound system certainly worked, but there was also the atmosphere of a communal ritual. One could follow the narrative partially at an individual level, but the group response was also important. This was most obvious in comedy, where the laugher in the auditorium was a stimulant and an encouragement. But it also worked in drama. Those great moments of élan or surprise: the singing of the ‘Marsellaise’ in Casablanca (Warner Bros. 1942): the opening graveyard scene in Great Expectations (Cineguild 1946): the ironic dialogue as Holly Martin mistook matters in The Third Man (London Film Prod. 1949). Other audience members could be disruptive but the majority respected the attention of their fellow members: a discipline that spoke to the importance of the group experience. What is noticeable about Mulvey’s article is how few film titles actually get discussed. Those included comprise Marilyn Monroe, in The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall’s songs in To Have or Have and Not, Busby Berkeley, Marlene Dietrich and Morocco, Alfred Hitchcock and Vertigo, Marnie and Rear Window. The majority of the ten pages in Mulvey’s article are taken up with references to and comments on Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. This is THEORY rather than the ‘concrete analysis of concrete things’. The films that Mulvey refers to in her article are predominantly those of Holywwod in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. They certainly were films where the contemporary audience enjoyed them in large, usually fairly full auditoriums. An important element in the pleasure they offered was this collective experience. When you examine many of the studio films one finds that they offer pleasure for a varied audience: a ‘male gaze’, a ‘female gaze’; and one that was likely not gender specific. I want to look at some examples of films where the audience is offered dynamic active women characters, and where male characters are offered as objects of pleasure for women [and other men], both onscreen and in the auditorium. The Flesh and the Devil, MGM 1926 FleshAndDevilD Greta Garbo was one of the great icons of early cinema. But she was not just the object of male subjects. In this film, she plays the siren Felicitas, who has a dramatic effect on both Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hansen). She actively seduces Leo and manipulates Ulrich for her own ends. She does, of course, suffer a conventionally moral fate at the film’s end, but that is for villainy as well as for her gender. And for the many women in the audience her obvious desire for the character played by Gilbert must have offered a fulfilling experience. The love scenes between the two characters are torrid, and Garbo generates as much sense of physical desire as Gilbert. This is an aspect that re-appears in a number of their films together. Queen Christina (MGM 1933) has a scene set in an inn, with Christina (Greta Garbo) reclining and Antonio (John Gilbert) seated at her feet. Her gaze upon Gilbert embodies physical passion and desire. Morocco, Paramount 1930 This film stars an actress referred to by Mulvey, Marlene Dietrich as Mamoiselle Amy Jolly. To imagine, after The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel UFA 1931), that Dietrich could be constrained within the gaze of a mere man seems misplaced. This film also stars Gary Cooper as Légionnaire Tom Brown. Cooper was noted in his early career for his physical beauty. In The Wolf Song (Paramount 1929) one of the pleasure of his appearance as Sam Lash is a scene where he is nude but not quite completely exposed. Lupe Velez as Lola Salazar certainly lusts after him. And in this film he becomes the object of Dietrich’s explicit desire. Moreover the film has a delightful moment when Dietrich, dressed in male attire, gently kisses a female member of her audience. Gone With the Wind, Selznick International Pictures 1939 Gone With the Wind movie image This is in many respects the seminal film of the Hollywood Studio system. Its immense popularity, at the time and subsequently, likely follows on from the pleasures it offers specifically to women; pleasures Mulvey does not seem to recognise. Certainly the film offers the pleasures of the male object. Primarily this is in the character of Rhett Butler, played by Clark Gable. Within the film diegesis he is clearly an object of pleasure for Scarlet O’Hara; one has just to watch how Vivian Leigh [as Scarlet] looks at him; repeatedly, at different stages of the film. And Gable was clearly an object of pleasure for substantial part of the audience. The petitions to cast him in the role of Rhett, long before the film entered actual production, speak volumes about his attractions. But there is an alternative object for female pleasure, Ashley Wilkes (Lesley Howard). So Scarlet, and the audience, had a choice – in fact in terms of plot a number of choices. Ashley is the domesticated male, whilst Rhett is the lover male: the equivalents of male choices in other genre films. It might seem that Rhett matters as the active character. But the film deliberately subverts this role. Thus after having rescued Scarlet from burning Atlanta, Rhett leaves the narrative to volunteer in the Confederate army. A decision scornfully criticised by Scarlet. Then, as the film reaches its closure, he again leaves; and thus it is Scarlet and the plantation that dominate the final frames of the film. The potency of this ending is demonstrated by the failures to ever provide a satisfactory sequel to the film and the book. And Scarlet is equally forceful in social and economic matters. For much of the film she scorns traditional conventions. And her business prowess comes to the fore in the period of construction. Much of this is a repeat of the presentation in the novel by Margaret Mitchell. The latter raises another issue that Mulvey does not address. How films work with non-cinematic sources. Whilst the racism of the book is diluted in the film, the centrality and dynamism of Scarlet is apparent in both. This sort of novel, with its female protagonist, would require substantial subversion to fit into Mulvey’s frame. His Girl Friday, Columbia Pictures 1940 Despite the title Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is not the subordinate of editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant). This is a very clever and very witty reworking of the classic comedy The Front Page [now filmed at least five times]. In this version gender and sexual politics get one of the most entertaining outings in the studio era. Hildy can handle her editor, the governor, the prison warden, her newspaper colleagues, the chief of police and anyone else who stand between her and her story. As well as a remarkably doughty fighter Hildy is the investigator par excellence. Here she crosses over with a series of female investigators in newspaper stories, crime thrillers and film noirs. [See the excellent study – Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film, 2011 by Philippa Gates]. Double Indemnity, Paramount 1944, This is another film adaptation from a novel, an example of extremely tough pulp fiction. In the book the femme fatale Phyllis has a scene with Walter Neff in which she almost seems to devour him. Whilst the operation of the Production Code meant that the film toned down aspects of the book Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis embodies her strength and her active sexuality. Aspects of her character that her husband, Mr Dietrichson (Tom Powers), Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson – indirectly) all learn to their cost. Duel in the Sun, Selznick Studio 1946. Duel in the Sun This is a film that Mulvey comment upon in her “Afterthought’. She sees Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) as caught between two masculine views of her as an attractive woman. Pearl’s active presence in the film is finally subsumed under the ‘male gaze’. It is probably the case that for some men in the audience this is the way the film works: personally from the first screening I was always rooting for Pearl. And I am sure that this was also the case for many women. Lewt McCanies (Gregory Peck) and Jesse McCanies (Joseph Cotton) represent two conventional types of men, the domesticated male and the lover male. Pearl, however, neither fits neatly into the domesticated women nor into the lover woman. This is one of the aspects that make the film so interesting. There are a number of scenes where Pearl’s gaze upon Lewt is full of laviscious desire: returning the gaze that Lewt directs at her. In the climatic showdown Pearl actively lays hands upon and fires the gun: so frequently seen as a stand-in for the phallus [penis] in psychoanalytical commentaries. This is followed by the terrific sequence in which she crawls to the dying Lewt and they expire together in a dramatic crane shot. If, as Mulvey seems to think, the phallus denotes activity, then it is a mute point who has a stronger hold in the film. River of No Return C20th Fox 1954. This film features Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston, basically a good-time girl: a role she reprised a number of times. Here she is paired with Robert Mitchum as Matt Calder, unusually for Mitchum he is a domesticated male with a son. The film includes a dangerous ride down river torrents. It closes with Matt carrying Kay away from her work as a saloon moll and home to cabin and family. Whilst Mitchum’s Matt is an action hero Marilyn’s Kay is more than a moll or perspective wife and mother. Like Pearl she has a choice between two men. Like other western heroines she has to survive physical danger, here river rapids, and hostile Indians. And at a key moment in the film she not only chooses but also provides care and attention for Matt. Rear Window Paramount 1954 Rearwindow This is one of the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock that is referred to by Mulvey. Hitchcock is, of course, a favourite with writers interested in psychoanalytical and voyeuristic standpoints. This is currently my favourite Hitchcock and I have seen it on number of occasions. Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is no mere object for L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). He is wheel-chair bound for just about the whole film. And whilst he spends time playing with the phallic telephoto lens of his camera, he is not really potent. It is Lisa who ventures into the dangerous territory of the apartment in which a murder may have been committed. It is Lisa who makes the running in their romantic relationship and in a scene like the evening dinner ‘Jeff’ is clearly the object of Lisa’s attentions. And it is likely at the end that it is ‘Jeff’ who has been landed by Lisa rather than the other way round. Of course, the film is full of male voyeurism but it is a voyeurism that comes badly unstuck in the climax of the film. I am sure readers could think of many other examples. And these are all films that are products of a studio system. It is not just a question of certain directors, but includes writers and performers. There is The Wind (MGM 1928), scripted by Frances Marion. In this film Lillian Gish plays Letty and what the film shows us is predominately her view or gaze. And I should definitely mention Dance Girl, Dance (RKO 1940). It is directed by Dorothy Arzner. But it is actually Maureen O’Hara’s Judy O’Brien who delivers the lecture to the mainly male audience about their ‘gaze’. I note that MGM and Paramount get more mentions in my examples. An intriguing question would relate to how distinctive on this issue were any studios? Mulvey’s article would appear to be about fitting the studio cinema into framework of the ideas of Freud and Lacan. But as the quotation from Liza Taylor suggests, if you take the analysis’ claims seriously then women in the audience have ‘no choice’. In fact, Mulvey wants to deconstruct the ‘male gaze’. She identifies the mechanism in mainstream film as follows: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience.” I am not convinced by the arguments about how audiences watch films, popular or otherwise. It does seem the norm for films presented as entertainment that audiences do not pay much attention to the camera, or other technical aspects. But there is a fourth aspect, which is the projection and its environs. Depending on the lighting, the seating and the audience one can be more or less involved in the film drama. And that involvement is a matter of choice for every individual. That choice is affected by the amount of sympathy or empathy we have for the film’s content. So our responses and involvement vary across a range films. But Mulvey’s argument sees the female audience as determined within the whole output of a particular form of cinema. This is a tendency I find in psychoanalytical analyses, and also in semiotics. My sense of film, popular or otherwise, is that only proportion of the meanings in films are denotative, and that far more are commentative. It should be a matter of empirical investigation as to what meanings particular audiences take from particular films. If we do identify with a particular character in a film we may accept the point of view they offer. But it can be complete and it can be only partial. In my experience and in discussions with friends and fellow viewers it is clear that on many occasions they and myself have opted for different identification figures. Just as the commentative language of film allows for multiple readings so do the films allow for multiple identifications, for multiple ‘gazes’.   Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey. Originally Published – Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18 Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun by Laura Mulvey  

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Polanski’s Ghosts

Posted by keith1942 on June 30, 2015

Polanski directing The Ghost.

Polanski directing The Ghost.

 

There is an off-quoted line in the Black Audio Film Collective’s documentary Handsworth Songs (1986):

“There are no stories [in the riots] only the ghosts of other stories.”

I remembered the line when I was mulling over Roman Polanski’s film The Ghost (2010). As with other directors honoured as auteurs his films often stimulate recollections of his own earlier films: ghostly traces or memories from the previous works. Thanks to Channel 4 (who screened the film more or less in the original aspect ratio) when I watched The Ghost again some of these ghostly references reminded me strongly of his classic Chinatown (1974) The S & S review also rightly suggested ‘ghosts’ from Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), Cul-de-sac (1966) and Frantic (1988) among others. The reviewer (Michael Brooke) makes the point that the film closely follows the original book by Robert Harris (who scripted the film with Polanski) but suggests that the plot and story world are in part what attracted Polanski to the property. Of course, both the book and the film use familiar generic elements, but the parallels seem to be to be stronger than that. Much of the film does adhere closely to the plot found in the book, as indeed does the dialogue. However, there are two significant changes, which I comment on below.

Filming Chinatown

Filming Chinatown

In Chinatown a private eye investigates first an affair with and then the death of a prominent Los Angeles citizen Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Swerling). The private eye becomes involved with the widow and her father, a corporate baron. His investigations lead him to discover fraud and corruption in the L.A. Water and Power Company. In The Ghost a writer who polishes and re-writes autobiographies for prominent people is hired to  ‘ghost-write’ the memoirs of ex-British prime minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). His predecessor, Mike McAra, has died in a drowning at sea. When Adam Lang is publicly pilloried for aiding secret CIA rendition of suspects, political secrets surface and become threatening.

The parallels with Chinatown are there most obviously in the two male protagonists of these films. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye in Chinatown, thinks he knows his trade, but by the film’s finale he is clearly out in depth in the world of criminality symbolised by the Chinatown district of Los Angeles. Ewan McGregor’s Ghost appears to be a smart member of a little-publicised authorial profession; but he also is soon out of his depth in the murky world of power politics. Both men appear in a scene where they look at evidence but fail to unravel the meaning of a word at the time. Jake talks to the Japanese gardener by the Mulwray pool, and only later realises the possible meaning of ‘glass’. The ghostwriter reads the opening chapter of Adam Lang’s memoir without realising the significance of ‘beginnings’. In the end Jake survives, unlike the ghostwriter, but he is equally destroyed by a world that is far more sinister and complex than any he has previously experienced.

Both men are victims of a woman who is essentially a femme fatale, alluring but dangerous. The women are deceptive and it is unclear to what degree they are responding to the hero or merely manipulating him. Ruth Lang [Olivia Williams] of The Ghost survives unlike Evelyn Mulwray née Cross (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown, but both are equally the puppets of powerful men: men whose public persona is far removed from their actual ruthless real selves. John Huston’s corporate baron Noah Cross is prepared to go to any lengths to profit from the exploitation of L.A.’s dependence on water: and he is equally determined in pursuing his personal power. Tom Wilkinson’s Professor Paul Emmett pursues political power and profit with an equivalent ruthlessness, though we learn far less about his personal pursuits. Noah Cross is an actual father who literally embodies a classic myth of incest and the sexual exploitation of the child: Paul Emmett is a father figure rather than literal parent: but indirectly he controls Ruth’s sexuality through the arranged marriage to Adam Lang.

The secret in Chinatown is the manipulation of water whilst in The Ghost it is the identity of a CIA agent. However, in both films it is the search to crack the secret than impels the narrative. Moreover, that basic element water is key in the mise en scène of both films. We see water in Chinatown in the reservoirs, in the ocean, in a boating lake and in the pool of the Mulwray mansion. In The Ghost it surrounds the main action, on Martha’s Vineyard Island on the US eastern seaboard, and characters constantly cross over it or walk alongside it. And in both films the action that starts to crack open the secret is the drowning of an innocent man, Evelyn Mulwray’s husband in Chinatown, previous ghostwriter Mike McAra in The Ghost. Both are made to look like suicides but in reality they are the victims of a secret conspiracy. Moreover, a female witness in the case also dies, literally in Chinatown, comatosed in The Ghost. The first significant change from the plot of the book is related to the death in The Ghost. Late in the book the writer, fearing the close attentions of the CIA, meets an ex-colleague of Adam Lang, the politician Robert Rycart (Robert Pugh). He travels to New York City for the meeting. In the film they meet at the motel alongside the mainland ferry terminus for the Island. The sequence includes the writer joining and leaving the ferry, as he fears a repeat of the death of his predecessor Mike McAra. The change immediately conjures up both the plot and the symbolism of the earlier Chinatown.

There are crossovers elsewhere in the mise en scène. Both protagonists wander in desolate places like beaches and dried-up riverbeds. The framing and blocking in particular scenes offers hints as to the way the mystery will unravel. This is particularly true of the Asian servants in both households. One intriguing plot piece is that in Chinatown it is the Japanese gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) who inadvertently reveals to Gittes the key information around a man’s death by the pool in the Mulwray garden. In The Ghost, as in Chinatown, house servants are Asian, Dep and Duc. And it is the Vietnamese gardener (Hong Thay Lee) who offers the use of the car to our ghostwriter, and it is the car, which leads him to Paul Emmett and the secret behind the death of Mike McAra.

In both films photographs provide key evidence for the investigation. In particular a photograph of long ago that reveals an important but unknown relationship: Adam Lang with Paul Emmett in The Ghost and Noah Cross with Hollis Mulwray in Chinatown. The more recent film also uses technologies not available when Chinatown was produced or set. But in both cases the investigation depends partly on information provided by individuals and partly by commercial or state institutions: public records in Chinatown and the Internet in The Ghost. Both the L.A. Water and Power Company and the Central Intelligence Agency appear as large, secretive and corrupt institutions, balefully exploiting rather than protecting the citizenry they are supposed to serve.

Chinatown

Chinatown

In particular it is the final scenes of the films that have so many common elements. Both Jake Gittes and the ghostwriter are bought down by hubris. Jake meets the chief villain Noah Cross to expose his crimes, only to be overpowered by his henchman. The ghostwriter presents his discovery of the secret to Rachel Lang, who tells Emmett and death follows. In the final sequence of Chinatown shots are fired as a car drives away, the car halts, horn sounds and a girl screams. A crowd gathers, and then we see the dead woman. As Jake is led away into the darkened and emptying street, newspapers blow across the desolate space. In The Ghost a car speeds towards the writer and us. We hear a car bump, and see concerned or shocked pedestrians run towards an ‘accident’. As the light fades the pages of a manuscript blow across the desolate space. The latter is the second major change from Harris’ book and is similar to the way that Polanski altered the original script for Chinatown by Robert Towne.

The Ghost

The Ghost

Viewers are likely to take away a similar feeling from both movies, a tragic end in failure. The powerful remain unscathed and unexposed: the innocent have died: and the well-meaning but ineffectual hero has failed in his quest. There is a telling line in Chinatown spoken by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez) to Jake Gittes, “it takes a while for a man to find himself’. The tragedy of both of these films is that the man in question fails to find himself, or at least finds himself too late.

Originally posted on ITP World.

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HUAC – PARANOIA – FILM NOIR

Posted by keith1942 on June 19, 2015

Paranoia

The House of Representative Committee on Un-American Activities was most prominent in the late 1940s and early 19150s, at the same time as the genre of classic  film noir was at its peak. Whilst HUAC or its members or agents rarely get literal representation in these films, the subtexts seem to be full of them. The one notable example is not a film noir:  the pro-Committee Big Jim McLain (1952) has John Wayne  hunting down communists and includes actual film of the Committee hearings with studio inserts. Both the actual Committee and the fictional film world of noir have common qualities, notably a strong sense of paranoia.

HUAC

The discussions of the Committee are primarily of the 1940s and the 1950s but the roots of what has become known as ‘McCarthyism’ goes back several decades. There was anti-working class USA state action in the years prior to World War I, primarily directed against the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World). 1917 saw the Socialist Revolution in Russia and 1918 the official end of the W. W. I. However, a joint military expedition by the UK, USA, France and Japan involved an invasion of the new socialist state in an attempt to suppress the revolution.

The 1920s saw heavy oppression and repression in the USA against working class militancy and the young socialist movement. Edgar Hoover’s new Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the front line here. Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil gives a dramatic representation of these events; [representations completely excised from the film adaptation There Will be Blood, USA 2007].

1929 saw the great financial crash and in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt inaugurated the National Recovery Programmes with radical economic policies. The conservative elements in the political establishment, notably in the Republican Party, regarded this as ‘socialist’: their common language reflected what can be described as ‘political illiteracy’. It in this period that the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities [also known as the Dies Committee, from its chair Martin Dies Jr.] was set up, to expose ‘communists and subversives’. One of their targets was the Federal Theatre Programme, which provided employment for theatre professionals and theatrical presentations for ordinary people across the states. It included many radical elements, among them members of the Communist Party USA. It is worth noting that many of the people who joined the Party in this period were motivated by anti-fascism; their grasp of the analysis of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels was often limited.

One important factor in the conflicts were strikes by Hollywood workers, notably by members of the Screenwriters’ Guild. Walt Disney, whose autocratic style occasioned one strike, blamed it on ‘communist subversives’. In 1938 Dies conducted an early investigation of Hollywood including questioning actors and film crafts people. One actor, Lionel Stander, was fired from the Republic Studio: in No Time to Marry (USA, 1938) the film, [scripted by John Howard Lawson, another blacklisted writer]  has him whistling the Internationale.

Committee

Cradle Will Rock (USA, 1999) presents a picture of some of the work of the Dies Committee in relation to the Federal Theatre Programme. John Houseman and Orson Welles produced the show of the title, which was a sort of Brechtian musical exposing the exploitation and oppression rife in the USA. The play’s opening night coincided with the shutting down of the Federal Theatre funding. In the film [written and directed by Tim Robbins] there are several sequences that show the Dies Committee in action  One sequence [80 minutes into the film] has the Committee grilling a Federal Employee re this ‘subversion’: humorous but frightening. The exchanges with the Committee in the film are based on actual records.

The agitation around left politics continued at the end of the Second World War. This period was characterised by Winston Churchill [and George Orwell] as the ‘cold war’: with the Soviet Union and its allies. It is worth noting that there was wholesale repression of National Liberation Movements in the colonised countries and a rapid expansion of US neo-colonialism. Racism, including what is termed anti-Semitism, and homophobia were also rife. And there was a strong strand of misogyny in the culture. In this atmosphere HUAC pursued the phantom of communist infiltration across a host of US institutions, including the media.

Between March and September 1947 HUAC, under the chairmanship of Parnell Thomas, launched an investigation of Hollywood. It is clear that this was partly motivated by the desire for publicity: at the later hearings Arthur Miller was advised he could be excused a hearing if his wife, then Marilyn Monroe, would agree to have her photograph taken with members of the Committee. The initial response of the Industry was strong resistance. But as the investigations continued, with public hearings, the producers buckled. When the Committee cited ten ‘unfriendly witnesses’ for ‘contempt of Congress’, with subsequent jail terms, the Motion Picture Producers Association of America responded with the ‘blacklist’.

The Hollywood Ten – Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole, Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Samuel Ornitz.  Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Adrian Scott.

The ‘Ten’ can be seen in the film produced to defend them in 1950 when they were fighting their sentences for ‘contempt of Congress’ in The Supreme Court, The Hollywood Ten written and directed by John Berry.

Red Hollywood (1995) is a documentary that studies the influence of radical filmmakers on Hollywood’s output in the period: a contentious area. It uses an opening clip from Johnny Guitar (1954) as an example: there are numerous references to ‘naming names’ in Hollywood films of this time. But the opening of this documentary also briefly displays the operation of the Committee with clips from films of the period. The film does not really address of the post-war politics of ‘the left’ and the Communist Party USA. The subservience of  the CPUSA to the interests of the Soviet Union meant that revolution in the USA was no longer on its agenda.

When HUAC returned with a fresh investigation between 1951 and 1953 the industry and its members generally collapsed before this attack. Actors and craftspeople who had been friends and/or colleagues of the ‘Ten’ now confessed their activities and even named names. Apart from The Ten many other people in the industry suffered blacklisting and there were similar purges in Television, the media and institutions like the State Department. One result was refugees working in the UK and Europe – Joseph Losey’s career in British film was a direct result of HUAC.

Ten demo

The Way We Were (1973) has a sequence from 1947 presenting a fictionalised version of one attempt by Hollywood stars and filmmakers to support the ‘Ten’. This is followed by a sequence with a conversation between Hubble (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbara Streisand) that shows some of the attitudes and arguments circulating in Hollywood at the time. Some of the filmmakers involved in the project [like writer Arthur Laurents] had suffered during the blacklist:  it is worth noting that the film was cut of several important scenes for general release.

Film Noir

This Hollywood genre has its roots in German expressionism and many of the filmmakers involved were either émigrés or refugees from Europe, especially Germany. It was also influenced by the French poetic realism of the 1930s. The genre’s title was only applied in retrospect: at the time most of the films fell into crime genres or similar.

The most common and basic plot involved a hero [nearly always male] who is drawn by an attraction, commonly a femme fatale or dangerous woman, into a world of criminality and chaos. The main focus of the plot is whether the hero wills survive – the seeker hero; or whether he will perish – the victim hero.

Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944) has a victim hero: Murder My Sweet / Farewell My Lovely (RKO, 1944) has a seeker hero. The latter film also has filmmakers involved who suffered under HUAC and the blacklist: Adrian Scot and Edward Dmytryk. A number of the radical and noir films were made at the RKO Studio: Orson Welles worked there. When Howard Hughes acquired the studio in 1948 he closed it down for six months whilst he carried out a check [witch-hunt] of the studio personnel; followed by a number of sackings.

Both of the above  films above demonstrate the stylistic tropes of the genre, which make it rather distinctive for the time. Extensive use of chiaroscuro or light and shadow: notable camera angles: the voice-over and confessional mode. And overall the films frequently project an atmosphere, of cynicism, fear and paranoia.

Critics have offered many suggestions for the rise and influence of this genre in the 1940s particularly. There were the dislocations and uncertainties in the post-war world. An air of cynicism was common. The changing roles of women with changes in the mores of sexuality produced a reaction and often misogyny. Despite the horror at the excesses of the Third Reich there was frequent public anti-Semitism, racism especially directed at Negroes or Afro-Americans, and pronounced though not usually explicitly articulated homophobia. But undoubtedly the activities directed at so-called Un-Americanism also had a powerful effect, especially on the workforce in Hollywood.

Arthur

Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947, written and directed by Orson Welles) offers an example of coded language which could be seen as anti-capitalist [the dominant value system in the USA] or anti-USA  values, with subtle allusion to US racism. The scenes with an argument between Michael (Orson Welles) and Arthur (Everett Sloan), with Elsa (Rita Hayworth) and George  (Glenn Anders ) looking on, is a good example.

Red Menace (Republic, 1949) shows some of the attributes of noir being used to attack ‘anti-Americanism’ and communist ‘subversion’ with a portrayal of a villainous Communist Party USA akin to the mafia.

Another critical example  is Body and Soul (Enterprise, 1947) which was written by Abraham Polonsky, later one of the Hollywood Ten. The film demonstrates how crime organised crime is effectively ‘business’ and capitalist business.  The film stars John Garfield, whose treatment by HUAC was possibly a factor in his early death. Both men were involved in a number of film noirs or films with liberal values and both had Jewish heritage. Polonsky would go on to write and direct Force of Evil (MGM, 1948).  This is the great ‘political’ film noir. The drama is set in the numbers racket, [organised gambling controlled by a criminal ‘mob’]. During the story a take-over is organised by a larger combine: the parallels with a critical observation of the operation of capitalism run throughout the film. The film includes wire-taps, surveillance, the ‘naming of names’, betrayal and tragedy. And in the personal dramas, interweaved with this corporate action, there is a frequently a strong sense of paranoia.

Named

The above is taken from the notes for a Study Day at the Swarthmore Centre in Leeds.

Wikipedia has detailed pages on ‘The Hollywood Blacklist’ with links to other Webpages.

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the film community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press, 1983 is the best study of HUAC in Hollywood that I have read.

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Strangers on a Train, USA 1951.

Posted by keith1942 on May 8, 2015

strangers on a train poster

I was able to revisit this film at the Leeds Young Film Festival. We were fortunate to have the film in a relatively good 35mm print. Intriguingly I realised later that this was the ‘pre-release’ version, which only came to light in 1995. Michael Walker, in Hitchcock’s Motifs (2005), provides a description of this version: it has additional footage but lacks the final humorous encounter by Guy and Ann on a train. Michael also makes the point that Strangers on a Train has the greatest number of the motifs that he identified across Hitchcock’s work: this makes it not only a very enjoyable but also a very interesting film.

The film has a striking opening as we follow two pairs of shoes from a taxi rank through Central Station to a waiting train. The shoes suggest something of the owners. The camera shots are deliberately placed in opposing angles. And when the shoes finally meet in the lounge car on the train a slight nudge provides an introduction. Guy Haynes [Farley Granger) is a restrained conventional character, a successful tennis star: he works for a US senator and is having a romance with his daughter Ann (Ruth Roman). Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) does not work but lives off his affluent parents: He is coded as gay. He appears exuberant and is obviously unconventional. What they have in common is a problem: in Guy’s case a separated and pregnant wife who will not divorce him: in Bruno’s case a father who he finds oppressive, ‘I hate him’. Out of this chance encounter the original Patricia Highsmith novel developed a distinctive murder mystery. If you are familiar with Highsmith’s writings then it will come as no surprise that the film makes considerably alterations to the plot of the novel, especially in the latter stages. Whilst the script removes the darker aspects of the novel it also introduces effective additions: for example the issue of competitive tennis which provides a suspenseful climatic sequence.

The audience can enjoy a film that has many of Hitchcock’s virtues. The plotting is ingenious and absorbing. The mechanics of the murder investigation are carefully spread out over the film. The character of the apparently innocent man provides a moral force to the tale. And the stylistic touches, including expressionist techniques and carefully suspenseful editing, add to the brio and allure of the film.

The most notable of these techniques is a reflection of a murder in the lenses of a pair of spectacles. The spectacles are passed to Guy by Bruno and then seem to disappear from the plot. They clearly suggest overtones of guilt but unlike another object – a lighter – their fate is unknown. Michael Walker also draws attention to another facet – both Miriam and Ann’s sister Patricia (Patricia Hitchcock) have a similar look, partly due to the spectacles they wear. He makes a general point regarding women characters who wear spectacles:

strangers-on-a-train

Apart from the connotations of ‘cleverness’ (in itself, a potential threat to a man), they also serve to draw attention to the fact that she was looking and lent her a certain intensity, the sort of intensity that men, apparently, find disturbing.

This is apt, for both Miriam and Patricia are ‘sassy’ women: they answer back to men. Miriam does this in an argument with Guy: Patricia to her father, a patriarchal figure who is also a lawmaker. Ann on the other hand is the dependent non-threatening woman. She stands by Guy even to the point when he appears to be guilty of a crime.

This gives the film a subversive edge, but the resolution – different from that offered by Patricia Highsmith – recoups this for the audience.

 

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