Monday, October 01, 2012

What White Collar Is

Let us begin with what the USA Network's White Collar (2009-2012) is not: prestige, long-form television  of the HBO-Showtime-AMC variety. It lacks the novelistic structure and density to make it hipster/Slate/coastal water-cooler fodder. In a writer's medium (to cinema's director's art), White Collar is not particularly well written, especially on the level of dialogue - David Milch, Jeff Eastin and company are not. Nor is it particularly well acted in its forty or so minutes each week, especially within a cable world that gives us the extraordinary work of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Giancarlo Esposito, et al., on television's current best, and most consistently well-acted program, Breaking Bad (2008-2012). In short, White Collar does not correspond to the way that we, which is to say those of us with some stake in elite culture, consume quality television. White Collar just doesn't figure in the public discourse - and understandably so.

What White Collar is, however, is the most consistently visually compelling hour on American television; it is a series, almost without parallel for contemporary works of the medium, that thinks first, and quite a bit, of how to gracefully compose the visual field. If show-runner Jeff Eastin has not created a series that conforms to our idea of what makes television good, he nonetheless has created a visual style of exceptional density and moment-to-moment optic interest that competes with if not outright distracts us from the banalities of what we are hearing. White Collar in this regard tells us one thing about how we in-the-know types watch narrative television: we don't actually attend to the plasticity of the image. When we do consume television visually, it is typically for its sexy mid-century design aesthetic or the undeniable pleasures of seeing Christina Hendricks in a plunging neckline, not that we should take either for granted.

White Collar is different, as the above, more characteristic than you might think image, clearly attests. From about the middle of the first season, Eastin's series began increasingly to attend to the graphic possibilities intrinsic in its Midtown Manhattan settings, with particular attention lavished on its narratively focal high-rise boardroom settings. In this sense, White Collar adheres to USA's loose location-centric house style, which might otherwise be defined by its Sony CineAlta F35 HD camera work - White Collar uses the same technology - and its clean, even lighting strategies. However, there is not an once of White Collar's visual interest in all of Royal Pains' (2009-2012) Long Beach-shot images combined, with the latter opting for shallow medium set-ups tagged with the bright local yellow light. This is just to say that though White Collar shares some of the technical specs and even the fidelity to location of its fellow USA programs - one of White Collar's pleasures for this former New Yorker is its very recognizable mapping of Midtown East, from Gramercy to Kips Bay - White Collar has an aesthetic ambition all its own.

What makes White Collar's visual strategies so singular is again the use the show makes of its New York interior sets/locations. Among the most paradigmatic of the camera crews' strategies - one that since it developed, once again, midway through the first season, has reoccurred in every episode - are its wispy, lateral, mobile travelling set-ups, which cue into the impossibly reflective surfaces that predominate within the show's FBI headquarters in particular. For these typically short though frequently repeated compositions, White Collar's camera crew (helmed by a number of different directors over the course of four seasons) shoot through the space's glass walls as they compress numerous planes into a single, visually quite complex graphic field - one that asks to be looked at first, as we hear the perfunctory conversation on the other side of the semi-visible barrier. Thanks to the stylistic program that Eastin has instituted for his directors and cinematographers, we have the makings in White Collar of a whole new generation of "wagon wheel" Joseph H. Lewis's who have not yet met an intermediate object through which they did not look to shoot (see the lelouch below).

What these 'White Collar shots' encourage, whether inside the show's FBI sets or increasingly in whatever interior or even exterior locations the makers can find to enact their baroque visual program, is a pleasure in looking - a pleasure that I think we can all concede is all-too-often unknown in narrative television. This is the modest, though in another sense significant accomplishment of what would initially seem another USA Network throw-away - another show that cries out for a "What is Burn Notice?"-style parody. Of course, there are other pleasures to White Collar, beginning with Matt Bomer's (pictured right) forceful charisma and abounding sex-appeal, and the easy rapport he has created with co-stars Tim DeKay (left) and Willie Garson. In the terms of contemporary world cinema White Collar is a middle-of-the-road or better Milky Way product to the better respected (and often rightfully so), though also stodgier festival feature; though it might not have what we expect from the best of the art, we would be unwise to sleep on its many commendable qualities. Eastin's show is indeed easy to overlook - at least for those who have not spent time looking at it.

This piece was co-conceived by Lisa K. Broad, with whom I have watched most of the first three seasons, all of which are available on Netflix's instant streaming service.

Monday, September 24, 2012

New Film: Trouble with the Curve (2012) & The Master (2012)

Robert Lorenz's Trouble with the Curve (2012), from a Randy Brown screenplay, represents Clint Eastwood's first on-camera work since Gran Torino (2008), the multi-hyphenate's final extraordinary entry into the "Dirty Harry" cycle, and the auteur's first role in a film by another director since In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993). What emerges, despite Eastwood's lack of credited presence behind the camera, is some of the most personal Hollywood filmmaking of the year, with the actor's long-standing, psychoanalytic preoccupations with estranged father-daughter relationships (True Crime, Million Dollar Baby) and child victimization (A Perfect World, Mystic River) confirming the filmmaker's secret authorship over his former assistant-director's debut. Much more meaningfully, Trouble with the Curve also extends the self-reflexive project of the actor-director's work, with the star's latest explicitly ceding control to a younger generation. Eastwood's sight-impaired Gus Lobel begrudgingly gives his daughter (Amy Adams as Mickey) his keys - only to wreck his vehicle later, in a moment of characteristic self-deprecation - before literally receding into the background of the frame, as Mickey rushes to be with Justin Timberlake's Johnny in the focal foreground. Trouble with the Curve indeed marks a handing over of sorts, to Adams and Timberlake - the latter representing the 'Ice Cube' generation of actors with whom Gus and his fellow scouts needle one of their colleagues - no less than to Lorenz.

Eastwood's withdrawal, however, is by no means unambiguously positive. On the one hand, Adams and Timberlake's chemistry does provide much of Trouble with the Curve's pleasure, whether Johnny is chatting up Mickey beside the chain-link or the beaming couple joins the clogging in a backwoods North Carolina watering hole. On the other hand, Trouble with the Curve is diminished, though not so much for this writer to cancel his recommendation, by Lorenz's direction, which oscillates between the perfunctory and the overly literal (in his point-of-view framings of Gus's deteriorating sight), as well as by Brown's screenplay, with its frequently too-on-point dialogue. Then there is the film's denouement that violently strains credulity, even if its counter to the statistics-driven analysis of Bennett Miller's Moneyball (2011), a film that it should be admitted is superior both on the level of its writing and also in its direction, is both plausible on the microscopic level and also ably integrated into Trouble with the Curve's cliché-riddled narrative.

At this point, it would seem germane to turn to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012), which shares not only Adams with the Eastwood film - albeit to lesser effect - but also Philip Seymour Hoffman with another superior Bennett Miller film, the latter's biopic Capote (2005). Here, however, the comparison essentially ends, with Trouble with the Curve's opening scene urination announcing Eastwood's return to a low-brow aesthetic, while The Master declares its significance in not only its title, but in its selection of a 70mm format and even, perversely enough, Joaquin Phoenix's more intellectually respectable masturbatory gestures that take the place of Eastwood's prostate. The last of these sets the tone for the taming of Phoenix's primitive, which all too often Anderson squeezes into standard-issue shot/reverse-shot decoupage - thereby belying the selection of the more expensive and expansive format. Of course, The Master does have its visual moments, whether Phoenix's Freddie Quell is racing over a California field or exploding in an ably chosen static two-shot with his impassive seducer Hoffman in the next cell; it is simply that these passages are more the exception than the rule.

In the end, however, The Master's problem seems perhaps less its ability to sustain visual interest - after all, Trouble with the Curve rarely achieves any, save for its atmospheric Carolina pinewood exteriors and freshly groomed ball-fields - than that there seems to be little beneath its surfaces, behind Phoenix's and Hoffman's scenery-chewing push-and-pull (to Adams and Timberlake's gentle courtship). The Trouble with the Curve is of course predominately what exists beyond the frame, a work that invites if not actually calls its viewer to consider its place in Eastwood's career as both an extension and a new direction. The Master by comparison seems to exist in no world other than those of its characters, who enact a psycho-sexual drama that fails to offer viewers anything meaningful about post-war America or a Scientology faith that Anderson seems far less comfortable criticizing than the Christian fundamentalism of There Will Be Blood (2007). Despite the ambitions of its title, 'the Master' appears to have lost his nerve in what may well be his weakest film of his career.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hulu Plus on Tativille: Jean Grémillon's Remorques

Begun in 1939 but not completed until well after Germany's 1940 occupation of northern and western France, Jean Grémillon's masterful Remorques (Stormy Waters, 1941, 82 mins.) may well stand as the last 'Brillante' gasp of the pre-World War II French cinema, with its consistently inventive mobile framings, fragrant mise-en-scène and lush musical accompaniment all certifying a by then lost golden age. Grémillon and cinematographer Armand Thirard immediately establish a potent, personal form of expressionism, with an inebriated forward tracking shot stumbling along with a boozy minor player. He brings the camera to a glimmering, though on occasion ruggedly cut wedding banquet, where Grémillon organizes the elegantly keyed interior in a receding series of luminous planes that rapidly fall out of focus. As the dancing proceeds, Grémillon's camera waltzes with lead, married guests-of-honor Jean Gabin and Madeleine Renaud as they converse beneath a heavy orchestral canopy. A sudden, brisk, punctuating track backward will momentarily close the scene - though it will soon re-commence with the consequent arrival of one of Gabin's tugboat employees on the back of his speeding motorbike, having arrived out of the onyx night.

In the poetically under-lit nautical scene that follows, Grémillon's mise-en-scène becomes increasing haptic, with the cold Atlantic rains piercing through Gabin's outerwear. The filmmaker liberally alternates between pleasurably quaint models and second-unit documentary set-ups that feature the sailors at work as they labor to rescue a storm-tossed vessel. Inside the cabin of the tugboat, Grémillon's tripod set-ups swing violently with the ship, thus extending the film's expressionistic program. Gabin and his crew save a soaking, slick-haired Michèle Morgan as she risks her life in an attempt to flee from her soon-to-be estranged, villainous husband's ship. Back on shore, the previously happily married Gabin and Morgan abruptly begin an affair, one that opens with a now lighter-haired Morgan expressly taking the place of Gabin's absent, ill wife. As they arrive at an unoccupied beachfront cottage, Morgan observes that the place reminds her of a ghost film she once saw - an apt citation given the low-key visual and model work (reminiscent of James Whale) and the angular architecture drawn from German Expressionism that in this space in particular, strongly obtains. A second meeting in another flat coincides with a powerful lightning storm that both extends the metaphor that brought Morgan into Gabin's life and also externalizes the couple's electric passion. For its visual pursuit of its thematic motifs alone, the Jacques Prévert-scripted feature matches if not exceeds any of the screenwriter's prewar work with Gabin, Morgan and the far-better known Marcel Carné.

Remorques concludes with one of its most inventive, if also somewhat primitive passages: the spectator hears a voiced-off funerary oration that doubles as a moral chastisement of the unfaithful Gabin. In this moment, Grémillon re-frames his cardinal storm metaphor within an ancient tradition of divine judgement that stretches back to the Book of Genesis. On the very waters that by 1941 would be controlled by the Nazis, Gabin is fated to travel life alone aboard his ghost ship.

A special thanks is due Lisa K. Broad for her observations included in this piece. Remorques is available on both Hulu Plus and in the Criterion Collection's Eclipse-label Jean Grémillon During the Occupation box set.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"After the Crash: European Film ca. 1929-1930"

What follows is a combination of my partial program notes for After the Crash: European Film ca. 1929-1930, and my further reflections on those titles about which I did not specifically write this year. Before these short synopses, I have post my historical overview for the immediate post-Crash period. 

After the Crash 

While the events of October 1929 would be felt immediately throughout Europe, the force with which they were to be experienced, both in the short term and long, would vary markedly throughout the continent. Having endured a postwar ‘era of inflation’ that brought with it “hyperinflation” by the summer of 1922, Germany had corrected its economic course by the “golden” middle years of the decade, only to plunge deeply into the financial crisis as American banks called in their short-term loans. By the beginning of 1932, as Weimar historian Eric D. Weitz has pointed out, six million Germans or one-third of its workforce would be unemployed, with two million more “unofficially” unemployed, bringing the total to an “almost unbelievable forty percent.” Figures in industries such as iron and steel and shipbuilding were even higher ranging from 41.9 percent in the case of the former to a staggering in 63.5 in that of the latter. All told, GNP declined from a high of nearly 89,000,000 RM in 1928 to less than 56,000,000 in 1932. As the new decade was dawning, Weimar Germany was experiencing the Great Depression as acutely as any nation in Europe.

America’s closest cultural ally in Europe, Great Britain, likewise felt the full force of the Stock Market Crash almost immediately with demand for its industrial products collapsing over the course of the winter of 1929-1930. Especially hard-hit would be the nation’s industrial and mining regions, with thirty percent of Glaswegians, for example, unemployed by 1933. However, in the case of Great Britain, unemployment itself was not a new problem, though its scope certainly would make it a much greater one. Rather, when Britain’s second Labor Government ascended to power in June 1929, high unemployment, according to British historian Peter Clarke, “was already the key issue,” with the nation’s lack of jobs alternately blamed on Britain’s capitalist economy, its Free Trade policies, its “painful” decision to revert to the gold standard and its industrial decline. What the Stock Market Crash effectively meant for Britain was that “economic depression was no longer a peculiar British problem but a world problem, bringing cyclical unemployment on top of pre-existing structural unemployment.”

Ramsay MacDonald’s Labor Government acted quickly in 1929 to relax borrowing limits for the long-term unemployed on the ‘dole,’ while removing the stipulation that claimants must be “genuinely seeking work.” As a result, the nation’s unemployment statistics saw a substantial increase from 1.5 million in January to 1930 to 2.5 by the end of that same year, placing great stress on the National Insurance Fund. Early in 1930, Labor politician Sir Oswald Mosley issued a memorandum proposing that the workforce be cut by raising the school-leaving age, reducing that of retirement and easing credit to stimulate trade behind a “tariff wall.” Mosley’s memorandum was rejected, leading to his resignation from the Government in 1930 and to his eventual turn toward fascism as the decade progressed. In any case, his final suggestion of a system of tariffs did find currency in the Labor Government, where protectionism experienced greater gains in 1930-1931 than in it had “in the whole of the previous quarter-century.” The Second MacDonald Ministry also succeeded in passing the (perhaps under-enforced) Coal Mines Act of 1930, which reduced workdays to seven-and-a-half hour shifts in exchange for allowing owners to form cartels and also the Housing Act of 1930, which provided subsidies for slum-clearance.

Across the English Channel, French Prime Minister André Tardieu (1929-1930, 1932) championed a ‘national retooling program,’ which sought, through public works, to “stimulate prosperity and bind peasants and workers to liberal capitalism.” While it would be deliberately sunk by radical opposition, the work of Tardieu governments was partially carried on by those of Pierre Laval. As for the economic crisis, unemployment in France during the Great Depression was “notably lower” than it was in its contiguous nations. In part, this was the result of France’s comparative lack of manpower brought on the nation’s steep World War I casualties: France lost more than 1.3 million soldiers, of which more than one in four was younger than twenty-four, with three million more wounded in battle. However, even if the Depression was not quite as severe in France from an economic standpoint, it remained very serious indeed from a political perspective, with the French populace voicing countless fears as the Depression deepened: “peasants complained of falling prices, civil servants feared wage-cuts, businesses faced bankruptcy, students and professionals resented foreign competition for jobs, [and] white-collar workers demanded the return of women to the home.” For Kevin Passmore, “the result was extreme governmental instability,” culminating in the rise of the Leftist Popular Front in 1934.

On the other side of the Pyrenees in Spain, 1930 began with the resignation of dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera on the twentieth-eighth day of January amid rising inflation and a currency whose value was plummeting. By August of the same year, the Socialists signed an agreement with the nation’s republican parties to work towards the installation of a democratic Republic. That goal would be achieved following the municipal elections of 12 April 1931, which were assumed by monarchists and republicans alike to be a “plebiscite on the constitutional future of Spain.”

There was no similar challenge to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy during the first few years of the Depression. In power since 1922, Mussolini pursued an economic strategy during the Depression years that was more propagandistic, according to modern Italian historian Martin Clark, than it was targeted toward concrete achievement. In general, Italy pursued policies of protectionism and proto-Keynesian demand-side economics, with public works and welfare spending peaking during the four years that followed the stock market crash. When a number of debtor firms became insolvent in the year following the Stock Market Crash, the Fascist government rescued the nation’s largest banks, with its first act to supply industrial credit beginning in 1931. This policy would prove especially popular in Fascist Italy. At the same time, the Fascists cut wages by twelve percent, encouraged price-fixing and arranged cartels. The money supply declined from 19 billion lire in 1927 to 16 billion lire in 1932, with cost-of-living experiencing a dramatic 16 percent decline over a concurrent five-year period. In total, Italy fared the early Depression years better than many of its rival nations, which in the minds of the public, seemed to add legitimacy to the Fascist regime’s anti-liberal economic policies.

As the Great Depression arrived in Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia was finally “returning to normality,” following an exceedingly tumultuous 1920s. The summer of 1929 witnessed Millenary celebrations in honor of Bohemian prince St. Wenceslas, which culminated in the completion of the medieval Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague. Politically, the nation had achieved an “ideal half-way” between extremes of Right and Left in the judgment of Czechoslovak historian R. W. Seton-Watson, thanks in no small measure to the power of the Roman Catholic majority that opposed both Clerical rule and Communist revolution. The Great Depression however would hit Czechoslovakia hard, with 750,000 unemployed by 1932. Amid the sudden economic chaos, the nation’s governing Coalition would be threatened by collapse, with thirty Communist deputies and a new Fascist formation actively working to discredit those in power – though ultimately with a “singular lack of success.”

The situation of course was very different to the east where 1930 would mark the second anniversary of the Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. With the Politburo resolved to complete the massive economic transformation in four rather than five years, despite the concerns of sympathetic economists, the Soviet Union undertook the “gigantic task of amending schemes involving the country’s industry, agriculture, transport and commerce”: cities such as Magnitogorsk were being built, the White Sea-Baltic Canal was dug, mines were sunk and factories were put on seven-day work weeks – all of which helped to transform the Soviet Union into a great industrial nation, even as the rest of the West was experiencing steep economic decline. The Soviet Union indeed was one of the rare success stories during the Depression years, at least from the standpoint of economic markers: gross industrial output had risen 137 percent between 1928 and 1933; capital goods increased by an even more impressive 285 percent; and the total employed labor force, which numbered 11.3 million under the new economic policy, reached a total of 22.8 million.

In the countryside, Stalin introduced two types of collective farms in 1929, the sovkhoz and the kolkhoz, which though officially voluntary would rely on a set of coercive levers for total implementation. By December 1929, however, these collective farms would no longer be open to all Soviets as the kulaks (a comparatively affluent class of farmers) would be banned from becoming collective farm workers. On 30 January 1930, the Politburo approved the kulaks liquidation as a class, sending many in their ranks to concentration camps while others were sent to distant places within the Soviet Union or to other sections of their home provinces. By July 1930, over 320,000 households were subjected to “dekulakisation.” Stalin’s persecutions did not stop at the kulak class naturally, but extended to “bourgeois nationalists, priests and private traders… as well as recalcitrant economic experts.” Leading figures in these groups (save for religious leaders whose persecution, along with the Red Army’s, remained out of the public eye) were subjected to show trials in 1929-1930, after being tortured and forced to read rote confessions. “Hundreds of defendants,” according to Stalin biographer Robert Service, “were either shot or sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment” in the nation’s Gulags, with many of those that survived the former ultimately losing their lives as forced laborers in the construction of an industrial Soviet Union.

Select Bibliography 

Clark, Martin. Modern Italy: 1871 to the Present. Third edition. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Educational Limited, 2008.

Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Passmore, Kevin. “The Republic in crisis: politics 1914-1945.” Modern France 1880-2002. James McMillan, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Macmillan, 2004.

Seton-Watson, R. W. A History of the Czechs and the Slovaks. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1965. Vincent, Mary. Spain 1833-2002: People and State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Weitz, Eric D. Weimar Germany. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Program Notes and Reflections

Regen / Rain (Joris Ivens, 1929, Netherlands, 14 minutes)

Though it clocks in at less than fifteen minutes, Joris Ivens’s lyrical portrayal of a sudden rainstorm as it descends upon a sunny Amsterdam was more than two years in the making. With the subject first suggested to Ivens in October 1927 by his soon to be estranged collaborator Mannus Franken – Franken like many of Ivens’s subsequent co-conspirators would complain of the filmmaker’s propensity to monopolize credit – Ivens proceeded to shoot Rain in between his various other projects for the next two years, relying throughout much of the period on “rain spotters” to “alert him to appropriate images” that would fit his shooting script. The finished short, which debuted in Amsterdam in December 1929, manufactures a “poetic impression of Amsterdam as seen through the eyes of an introvert observer wandering through the city during a rain shower,” with imagery ranging from the single beads of rainwater collecting on the metal tips of an open umbrella to the aerial set-ups of the rain-soaked metropolis. While Rain no doubt owes to Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) in its lyrical treatment of urbanism, Ivens’s micro-scaled adaption of the formula favors the presence of the natural in the built environment. To echo graduate film scholar Grant Wiedenfeld, Ivens's is an extraordinary piece of “pure cinema.”

This short is available on a variety of home video formats including on Kino-Lorber’s Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s. 

Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930, Germany, 73 minutes)

A wellspring for postwar film noir with collaborators Siodmak, Ulmer, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann all making significant contributions to the later mode, People on Sunday nevertheless looks forward less to the Hollywood that this decorated collection of émigré filmmakers would soon shape than it does to the concurrent transformations in the European cinema, where the non-professional strategies of the German feature shortly would be re-played (in the fascist south especially). People on Sunday, however, differs ontologically from this nascent art cinema as reality does not so much protrude on the filmmakers' fiction, but rather, fiction supervenes, through Wilder's screenplay, on the reality of five non-actors, drawn from the 4 million Berliners, whom the filmmakers take as their subject. (The non-narrative digressions substantially ground the film's grafted on fiction.) In this sense, People on Sunday is even more modern in its prediction of Abbas Kiarostami and his twenty-first century followers Lisandro Alonso and Miguel Gomes, whose hybrid creations have enlivened the last decade of international art cinema.

This film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on the Criterion Collection label. 

K.Sh.E / Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii / Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification (Esfir Shub, 1933, Soviet Union, 54 minutes)

A friend of Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Mayakovsky, Esfir Shub got her start in the Soviet film industry re-cutting and titling foreign films in order to make them ideological “suitable” for domestic audiences. From this point of departure, Shub transitioned into the work of editing and assembling newsreel footage, which commenced with her feature-length archive-footage compilation, The Fall of the Roman Dynasty, in 1927. Five years later, Shub attempted her first work in the sound cinema with K.Sh.E (short for 'Komsomol – Sponsor of Electrification'), which would focalize not only the subject of its title, the contributions of the “komsomol” (or youth division of the Communist party) in bringing electricity to the nation, but also the sound technology that Shub was employing for the first time. In fact, before K.Sh.E moves to its primary ideological purpose – one it should be noted that was born out of the conclusion of Stalin’s “five year plan” – Shub begins with a prologue filmed inside a Moscow “sound factory,” where the “futuristic” and exceedingly magical theremin is debuted as Shub and her crew look on, their cameras rolling and directional microphones recording in a testament to the film’s post Man with a Movie Camera (1929) self-reflexivity.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929, United Kingdom, 88 minutes) 

Begun in early 1929, a few short months after The Jazz Singer became the first talking picture to screen in Europe, Anthony Asquith’s fourth and final silent feature (as it is remembered and screened today), would also be his first to bear a synchronized soundtrack, now lost, which according to Variety featured ‘six percent’ spoken dialogue. A Cottage of Dartmoor in fact announces its very position on the threshold of this new technology, and in so doing the historical accident of its silence, through a focal set-piece near the picture’s midpoint that shifts attention away from a boisterously scored and edited crescendo of an off-screen Harold Lloyd short, to an “all talking, all singing, all dancing” dramatic adaption of W. Shayspeare’s My Woman. With the orchestra laying down their instruments in exchange for a round of pints and decks of playing cards, Asquith’s previously breakneck montage thusly proceeds according to a newly measured pace that more closely reproduces the slower, dialogically calibrated rhythm of early sound cinema. A Cottage on Dartmoor however will remain more the creature of the silent cinema’s last dizzying gasp with topics of conversation figured in illustrational inserts and the act of speech itself in visual metaphor. Then there is Asquith’s infinitely more memorable inclusion of a gushing sprayer hose, following a percussive series of visual metonymies, to mark a sudden outburst of workplace violence. At this moment, Asquith demonstrates a pitch-black visual wit to equal that of his countryman Alfred Hitchcock – just as he has produced a work of the crime thriller genre to match anything that the 'Master of Suspense' produced during his highly accomplished silent period. The very peak of the After the Crash program.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the British Film Institute, with live accompaniment provided by Donald Sosin. 

Die Drei von der Tankstelle / The Three from the Gas Station / Three Good Friends (Wilhelm Thiele, 1930, Germany, 99 minutes) 

A major popular hit in Weimar Germany, outpacing even Sternberg and Dietrich’s iconic teaming in The Blue Angel (1930), Wilhelm Thiele’s The Three the Gas Station, opens with a briskly cut passage of transitional montage that will slow to a multi-figural crawl as Thiele stages his three male leads in a series of medium set-ups as they declare their eternal loyalty. From this point of departure, The Three from the Gas Station abounds with both charm and kitsch, with the consequent, unexpected appearance of trick effects only adding to the quotient of each. The beautiful English-born Lillian Harvey also contributes more of the same, thanks to her thick, unmasked Anglo accent – The Three from the Gas Station trades heavily on early sound forms of spectacle – and also her keenness to raise her skirt high above her thighs, revealing her badly bunched stockings as she awkwardly hooves to a musical number. Ginger Rogers Ms. Harvey is not in this ultimately minor entry into the After the Crash corpus.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of Transit films. Special thanks to David Pendleton of the Harvard Film Archive.

Prix de beauté / Beauty Prize / Miss Europe (Augusto Genina, 1930, France, 93 minutes)

Originating from an idea by France’s greatest film artist of the transition-to-sound period, René Clair (Sous les tois de Paris, À Nous la Liberté), “able” Italian craftsman Augusto Genina’s expertly paced Prix de beauté remains best known today as the final major performance by the iconic Kansas-native Louise Brooks. Breaking her Paramount contract in 1928, which in turn led to her unofficial blacklisting in Hollywood, Brooks departed for Germany where she made her masterpiece in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) later that same year, to be followed in quick succession by a second significant collaboration with the same director, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). While Prix de beauté accordingly would prove only the third performance of Brooks’s ultimately brief European sojourn – following three short years in Southern California – the impression that the talented raven-haired actress would leave with her boyish bob and shapely lower physique was more than enough to cement her consequent, post-1950s rediscovery reputation beside such screen legends as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (with whom the avowedly heterosexual Brooks reportedly once claimed to have a romantic dalliance). In Prix de beauté, Clair and Genina deliver a subject that befits both her immense appeal – Brooks stars as a newspaper typist who, despite the objections of her fiancé, enters and wins a San Sebastian-set beauty pageant – and also her tragically short film career, one that would conclude more than four-and-a-half decades before her 1985 death. Prix de beauté’s final act surprise resounds with both this latter professional intertext, as well as with a sharp formal self-awareness that in Brooks’s last appearance as a screen star highlights the post-synchronous nature of the film’s Clair-inspired sound experimentation, separating as it does Brooks’s visage from the sound of Edith Piaf’s overdubbed vocals. In this moment as throughout the film (which originated as a work of the silent cinema), we see silence but hear sound.

This film is available on DVD through Kino-Lorber. 

L’Âge d’or (Luis Buñuel, 1930, France, 63 minutes) 

Withdrawn from circulation less than one month after its late November 1930 premiere – following a Ligue des Patriotes attack on the Studio 28 theatre where it was receiving its premiere Parisian engagement – Luis Buñuel’s second film would primarily remain an object of rumor and dimmed recollection for the next half-century, appearing only in the occasional private screening, as would occur at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933. It was not until November of 1979 that L’Âge d’or would receive its proper U.S. theatrical premiere, once the “gates protecting [Western society] from sex and blasphemy,” as Dudley Andrew has put it, had been thrown open. Appearing in the breach was a work, from a Buñuel and Salvador Dalí script, which belonged unequivocally to the earlier moment, to that of surrealism’s revolutionary “Second Manifesto,” as well as to the last gasp of postwar France’s modernist avant-garde. Much more than any of the director’s later works, L’Âge d’or also bares the influence or at least an affinity with the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein, with which it shares a fundamentally linguistic orientation and a corresponding interest in audience response – which perhaps accounts for its successful appeal to a more passive spectatorship, despites its undeniable thematic density. If L’Âge d’or therefore does not feel entirely familiar in view of the proceeding forty-seven years of narrative practice with which audiences of 1979 (as today) would have been aware, Buñuel’s first feature does still disproportionately anticipate the corpus that would follow, from its satirical engagement with bourgeois values and the dispersed (social) focalization strategies that would mark such masterpieces as The Exterminating Angel (1962) and of course The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) to the liebestod and fetishism that would define the very great Él (1953) and its many followers. To echo Dudley Andrew, particularly in view of its checkered reception history, “long live L’Âge d’or.”

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the British Film Institute. It is also available on DVD through Kino-Lorber. 

David Golder (Julien Duvivier, 1930, France, 86 minutes) 

In a great year for the French cinema, Julien Duvivier stands out for the appreciable force of his anti-corporate diptych, with David Golder analogically marking the post-Crash fall of Au bonheur des dames’s (1930) all-powerful retail juggernaut. Elegantly shot in a rich variety of grays – cinematographically speaking David Golder looks very modern indeed – Duvivier’s novelistic adaptation possesses many of the qualities of nineteenth century Russian literature, beginning with its abiding predilection for psychological nuance; this alone sets David Golder apart from and above much of the 1930s field. On his death bed (aboard a Soviet ferry), the eponymous protagonist Golder (Harry Baur in a magnificent grounding performance) makes belated contact with a braided earlier version of his Judaic self, who happens to be in transit to Capitalistic capital of New York. At this moment, Duvivier appears to be neither for not against his capitalist hero, though this concluding meeting does signal the return of the culturally repressed - amid the mists that would soon come to define an entire 'poetic realism.'

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of Conaissance du Cinema. Special thanks to Cecille Lagesse of Yale University. 

Bezucelná procházka / Aimless Walk (Alexandr Hackenschmied, 1930, Czechoslovakia, 8 minutes) 

The inaugural feature in the Czech avant-garde (drawn again from the city symphony corpus of the 1920s), Hackenschmied - aka Alexander Hamid - would become best known as Maya Deren's partner and collaborator on the no-less epochal Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). Rather than read my inarticulate thoughts on the Hackenshmied film, a film for which I will admit no powerful impression, I would suggest viewing the work in full at this link.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic.

Ze soboty na nedeli / From Saturday to Sunday (Gustav Machatý, 1931, Czechoslovakia, 69 minutes)

An extraordinary summation and ultimately optimistic reconsideration of After the Crash’s accidental obsession with the romantically disadvantaged working-class male and his upwardly mobile feminine counterpart – Lisa K. Broad has rightly pointed to this subject’s tragic contemporary resonance amid America’s endless Recession – From Saturday to Sunday makes explicit the corresponding sex for money calculus that in its cinematic predecessors rules out the aforesaid male. In From Saturday to Sunday, however, Machatý’s fleshy, very average heroine runs from sexual payment (as she approaches a clandestinely arranged hotel), opting instead for a night spent floating in and out of waking consciousness – and characteristically postwar adult situations – in the flat of one of After the Crash’s surprisingly numerous working-class type-setters. The space itself, designed by the great experimental filmmaker Alexandr Hackenshmied (see above), contributes to From Saturday to Sunday’s rich social panorama, one that finds memorable object-centred expression in the film’s competing menus. Machatý’s gracefully experimental and lightly surreal From Saturday to Sunday accordingly represents the most welcome discovery of the 1929-1930 series.

This film screened on 35mm courtesy of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic. 

Select Bibliography 

Andrew, Dudley. “L’âge d’or and the Eroticism of the Spirit.” In Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema. Ed. Ted Perry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

British Film Institute. K-SH-E. http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b735daa98.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 5th edition. Revised by Fred Klein & Ronald Dean Nolen. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

Ryall, Tom. Anthony Asquith. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006. Schoots, Hans. Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens. Trans. David Colmer. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Special to Tativille: The Eternal City at Forty: Fellini’s Roma (1972), by Jeremi Szaniawski

Woody Allen will delight his undiscriminating group of fans (but no one else) with yet another sloppy, inept comedy this year, this time located not in Paris, but in Rome—you have such exquisite taste and you like to share it, Woody. Although an event of admittedly lesser importance, another film set in and dedicated to the eternal city turns forty this year: Federico Fellini’s Roma (1972). A germane opportunity to return to an underestimated crepuscular masterpiece, to which, sadly, not all roads have necessarily led since.

I was recently sitting at a café telling my friend, the one-time feature filmmaker, self-published writer and dilettante extraordinaire Patrick de Selys Longchamps, about my enthusiasm upon seeing the film at one of Paris’s repertory theaters this summer. This prompted a fascinating anecdote. Back in the days when he was a dashing, independently wealthy aspiring filmmaker, Patrick had used family connections to spend a day on a Federico Fellini film set, where he reportedly learned much more than he had in film school.[1] The year was 1971 and the film was Roma.

Patrick enthusiastically recalled witnessing Fellini at work, his meticulous approach and authoritative search for perfection, in this case with an elaborate tracking shot across the crowd of diners eating ‘al fresco’ in a typical Roman street filled with restaurants. While the result on the screen might convey, to the inexperienced eye, the appearance of a merry ebullient mess of hungry Italians captured spontaneously (it is its greatness), everything here was rehearsed to the minutest detail, from each of the extras’ positions, timing and movement, to focus pulling. It took a whole day of work to set up this one sweeping tracking movement across the crowd. By the time the crew was ready to shoot, it was late at night already and the residents of this popular neighborhood started complaining about the bright lights and noise generated by the production. The police showed up on the set to stop work for the night, but Fellini was not to be denied his shot: after a brief discussion, growing impatient, the mercurial director exclaimed some insult in Italian and slapped the agent who had dared slow down his work—worse even, threatened to interrupt it as it was picking up and finally acquiring its desired shape. Any other man, probably, would have been arrested and thrown to jail for the night. But this, after all, was Federico Fellini, and at the peak of his artistic powers and reputation as a world cinematic genius, to boot. The policeman left the premises, the shoot was resumed and the shot successfully completed. On the screen, it is one of the many instances of seemingly effortless bravura featured in the film, which is a majestic experience, imperious and, like Fellini, possibly tyrannical and even punishing—but in a sovereign, legitimate way, like a bolt of lightning that the common mortal will admire and thank the Gods for.

Roma is composed of a mosaic of episodes, all connected through electrifying non-sequiturs, rarely returning to previously visited locations, and set in a variety of timescapes, divided among Fellini’s youth in Fascist Italy and the director’s everyday life and entourage in the early 1970s. It constitutes the zenith in the new turn the Italian director’s aesthetics had taken at the time. Initiated in 1969 with another film set partly in Rome, Satyricon, it was continued with equal aplomb (but gradual declining rigor and power) in films such as Amarcord (1973), Casanova (1976) up through And the Ship Sails On (1983). In Roma, Fellini depicts a city that is in turn sublime and decadent, the ideal locale for powerfully evocative images alternating realist and oneiric tones in quick succession, one of the artist’s trademarks. Often, scenes segue into one another almost unexpectedly, even if the general structure is of a progressive lengthening of sequences culminating in the 10 minute long clerical fashion show—one of the summits of Fellini’s collaboration with genius set and costume designer (and notorious substance abuser, something probably in evidence, here) Danilo Donati and legendary composer Nino Rota. In its climax, this hypnotic scene borders on the hallucinatory, as the audience of decadent aristocrats and high rank clerics bow in awe and ecstasy to an uncanny and bespectacled impersonator of the Pope dressed in a garish illuminated garb. Or, where the pomp of the church meets the garishness of the carnival, and a stark critique of idolatry is hammered home. The scene also rhymes and parallels the somewhat sickening parade of grotesque prostitutes in a cheap brothel earlier in the film. All three universes ultimately blend together, as Fellini’s Rome is the Rome of the spectacle, but also the Rome of dirt and decay, of vulgar yet oddly poetic attractions while death and tragedy are at hand, something nowhere better encapsulated than in another one of the film’s centerpieces: the music-hall sequence. In this long and multi-layered sequence, and while the more interesting drama and comedy unfolds in the audience and orchestra pit, half pathetic, half inspired performers do their best to keep the ‘show’ going, as fascist Rome succumbs to the Allied forces’ bombs. The film’s politics are thus never left behind, with the director’s brilliant ridiculing of fascism’s histrionic nature and liberal democracy’s inner contradictions clearly at the fore. Fellini may actually be ultimately less tender with the present than the past, as the nostalgic tone of the film would seem to call for: Italy’s operetta fascism seems less disturbing than the indifference of a dining bourgeois crowd looking on as the police beat a group of peaceful hippies to vacate some historic landmark. All the while exhibiting his intelligent libertarianism, Fellini conducts a corollary self-critique, allowing for his motto, ‘be faithful to yourself’ to take its full expression.

Roma is striking in its apparent refusal of adopting any leading character—even the young Fellini (Peter Gonzales) is only one among the very many characters seen just in passing. It would be incorrect, however, to consider that Rome herself is the main character here, just as it is to state that there is no guiding principle or real structure to the film. Articulated, like a poem, around motifs and themes, of course, Roma also boasts another form of narrative progression. An obvious trajectory is that moving from early childhood to old age (even if this is not done in any strict chronological manner), but there is also a fascinating work at play in the film in terms of modes of enunciation. At first, it seems as though the film is a monological affair—Fellini looking at himself and at the object of his love. Yet things are not that simple, being instead of a different, dialogical nature. The stronger the artifice, the more particular and personal a reminiscence, the more we feel as though we can relate to it. As a consequence, the dialogue between the discreet yet overbearing narrator/image-maker (Fellini) and the viewer makes for a tremendous, almost overpowering experience, allowing us to experience our own childhood (but also to gaze into future departures of all sorts) and our own city of choice through Rome. In this, the film is creating a new connection between techniques of literary modernism and cinema. Many parallels can be established here, from the masters of English modern novel and its stream of consciousness to Proustian recollections. But credit must be given where it is due: the genius behind the genius here is almost certainly the problematic Curzio Malaparte, a writer as admired by some (he was among Stanley Kubrick’s professed favorites) as forced into the vaults by the literary establishment and academia for his discomforting lack of political allegiance. His wartime recollections, deformed and magnified through imagination, yielded a score of semi-grotesque and unforgettable characterizations and representations such as in the extraordinary Kaputt and its companion piece, La Pelle. This way of blending recollections and a strong sense of authenticity with fabrication and a satirical emphasis on details is clearly at play in Fellini. Malaparte’s striking images drawn from wartime Italy have also had a lasting, if substantially repressed influence on another major Italian film director, for that matter. Roberto Rossellini actually plagiarized entire passages of Malaparte’s La Pelle in Paisa and clearly references him in passages of Rome, Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948). It is not by chance that Jean-Luc Godard elected Malaparte’s beautiful Capri villa to shoot his aptly titled Contempt (1963).

As far as references and intertext go, Roma relates most strongly to two other Fellini films: the pessimistic, resigned yet elegiac tone vis-à-vis lost opportunities in the vibrant eternal city reminds one of La Dolce Vita (1960), while stylistically the film’s treatment of childhood recollections announces Amarcord (set in the director’s native Rimini), with which the opening part of Roma shares a great many attributes, also in terms of tone and casting. But unlike Amarcord, Roma is not exclusively composed of burlesque if poignant reminiscences: it proposes a dual, internal and external view, negotiated formally through the grotesque and parodic bits, and a more ‘objective’ quasi-documentary (yet just as heavily composed and rehearsed) vision of the director and his world. More the latter than the former, indeed: this is Fellini’s Rome, a most personal and idiosyncratic vision, which reduces or derides the ‘academic’ glory of yore. The Rubicon is shown as a small stream whose crossing hardly invokes a fateful or irreversible action; and Julius Caesar is played by an old overly made-up thespian, revered but clearly way past his prime (Fyodor Chaliapin Jr.). As for historical monuments, they are expedited through a slide show shown by a priest to schoolchildren, until the photograph of a naked woman, placed in the sequence by some mischievous hand, short-circuits the proceedings to the children’s irreverent glee.

La Dolce Vita, Roma, Amarcord: all three films (but they are hardly alone in this case in the director’s corpus), riding on their episodic structure, are powerfully invested in the female body and the mother figure, although the latter is always relegated to the fringes of the narrative, indispensable yet covered up, as if in a gesture of respect. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) compares Rome to a warm jungle where one can hide easily, clearly attributing feminine and womb-like qualities to the city. In one of Roma’s comical scenes, a young Fellini, freshly arrived to Rome, discovers an intricate apartment on a sweltering hot day, peopled with children of all ages, and whose mother is a huge obese slob (at first only heard, as if hidden or displaced) who can’t move out of bed. Roma, whose opening music evokes a sad, brooding lullaby, also invites the spectator to discover the entrails of this city where a multitude of unforgettable women come and go, some grotesque and some mesmerizing. Much like the city, women are endowed with a familiar mystery that men never seem to possess. In this sense, the image that captures the film best might be that of the silhouette of a woman under a bridge at night, in extreme long shot, her shadow as dark as her body, standing still yet filled with the anticipation of the moment, while a siren alerts the people to take shelter from the impending bombings. The stillness and the tension of this tableau are rendered palpable yet elusive, visible yet unknowable. As another silhouette runs to the woman and causes her to motion again, her movements might be panic-stricken and filled with dread, they are nonetheless graceful and intensely captivating in their quasi abstract quality.

It is impossible not to conceive of Roma as an allegory for femininity and motherliness, something announced already in one of its memorable posters (the Romulus and Remus she-wolf replaced by a slender woman on all four and boasting three breasts), but this interpretation does not suffice to explain the film’s appeal. The latter resides also in one of the best meta-commentaries ever made about cinema. The overt references to the proscenium are numerous, here: from stage and cabaret representations to the actual screening of a 1930s peplum that the whole family religiously rushes to. But more importantly, the film embodies the real spirit of cinema in its virtuosic use of movement. Two sequences are little else: one composed of shots of the highway in the rain and the Roman roads, witnessing the heavy traffic and its own brand of sublime while also revealing Fellini and his crew on the car from which the camera and its crane are suspended; and the closing episode, where roaring bikers circle around Rome before leaving town and into the night.

In movement—this very essence of cinema—we find the inevitable corollary: time, for which Rome serves as the paradoxical crucible, as when modern highways and antique buildings are made to co-exist, or old American tourists dress pretty and arrive in flocks, more so to be picked up by young Italian gigolos, making them forget their age, than to photograph ruins that allegorize their own process of decay, and will survive them nonetheless. After all, as Gore Vidal puts it in one of the ‘candid’ interviews the film portrays, Rome is the city where life and death co-exist to the point of becoming non-differentiated. The city becomes a haunted place of a myriad of geological layers of history and stories, which appear as though in a cross-section before us in the contiguity of peace-and-love professing hippies sitting next to the Coliseum. Time, but also tenses are played with here in a variety of ways: the past and present, and perhaps the future, too. In eternity they are all blended and become meaningless. The scene in which bulldozers and drills dig the Roman subway and unearth a Roman villa is a fine illustration of this conundrum: as air penetrates the previously interred place, it destroys the beautiful paintings on the walls. Here the paradox of a time that can be captured and yet cannot escape its own passing in a purportedly eternal city evokes a perpetual present that is also perpetually effaced or covered up, offering a not-so-distant geo-historical equivalent of Deleuze’s crystal image. In a brief yet unforgettable appearance, Anna Magnani, the eternal Mamma Roma, in her final screen role, captures this paradox: refusing to grant an interview to Fellini, she is still captured by his camera. The cinematic icon, this quintessential Roman woman, fierce and nurturing like Romulus’ wolf, although 64 at the time, has the energy of a young woman, married to the experience of a lifetime. Magnani (1908-1973) appears before us like an antique statue suddenly endowed with the gift of movement, rich with a thousand years of experience and the admiration of spectators, a second before it freezes again forever.

Combining the heathen element of epiphany through art (found most clearly in Satyricon) with the angelic intervention of an icon (such as Giulietta Masina’s look at the camera at the end of Nights of Cabiria; 1957), Roma is almost inexplicably, miraculously touched by Grace. Better than any other Fellini film, it combines sheer beauty with grotesque ugliness, cultivating in the process the essence of the Italian master’s cinema, intensely pure and intransigent, fun yet filled with regret, one that we watch with a smile, while a tear wells up our eyes, as this is a cinema of what is lost, and can only be retrieved in the symbolic realm.

Forty years after its release, twenty years after Fellini’s death which it announced better than any other of his films, Roma might have emerged as his most personal and, perhaps, greatest cinematic achievement.

Jeremi Szaniawski holds a PhD in Film Studies from Yale University. The author wishes to thank Michael Cramer for his assistance in editing this piece.



[1] Inspired by Fellini, Patrick directed a remarkable, if uneven, adaptation of Georges Bataille’s ‘L’Histoire de l’oeil’ (Simona, 1972). When the film was confiscated by the Italian authorities on counts of obscenity, Patrick had to resort once again to his family connections, which led directly to the Pope’s confessor, in order to obtain the church’s benediction and a prolonged distribution in the Peninsula. Reportedly, the film, now lost, made a lot of money before falling in the hands of some distributors of ill repute.