Ramon Zürcher, The Strange Little Cat, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 72 minutes.
EVEN THIS NON-GERMAN SPEAKER caught the telling use of the word unheimlich in The Strange Little Cat, writer-director Ramon Zürcher’s shrewd first feature. Unfolding over the course of a Saturday in a modestly appointed, bustling Berlin family apartment, the film incisively defamiliarizes the quotidian.
The feline of the title—a beautiful orange tabby—is merely one of the many creatures busily circulating through this crowded high-rise dwelling. The ginger kitty also shares the same space with a black dog, a moth, and an ever-expanding group of siblings, cousins, in-laws, grandmothers, neighbors, and others. Unclear at first, the relationships slowly begin to establish themselves. Clara (Mia Kasalo), the little girl in the yellow sweatshirt who lets out a high-pitched wail whenever the cappuccino maker is turned on, is the kid sister of soft-butch Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and indolent Simon (Luk Pfaff), both roughly in their late teens to early twenties and visiting home for a few days. Their mother (Jenny Schily), though outwardly calm, seems constantly on the verge of erupting.
The tension that’s so palpable in Mutter, in fact, made me brace for an orgy of violence—which, fortunately, is never realized. But The Strange Little Cat does foreground more common, insidious acts of barbarity, adding to the movie’s odd rhythms and tone: a foot raised, then slowly lowered over the tabby’s head as it eats; a Hacky Sack chucked aggressively at the child who pleads for its return. As in the extended middle-class clans in the films of Lucrecia Martel, the bonds between Cat’s family suggest impropriety. Bathroom doors are rarely closed; the W.C., in fact, is where Karin and Simon engage in somewhat queasy-making horseplay—and where Mom can barely mask her attraction to her brother-in-law (Armin Marewski), who’s come over to fix the washing machine.
Zürcher occasionally takes us out of the film’s confining present tense by using flashbacks to illustrate a character’s peculiar tale, such as Karin’s account of tossing orange peels. Her weird chronicle typifies Zürcher’s unerring instinct for assembling familial rituals: OCD acts, such as Clara’s constant logging of her relatives’ blood pressure, that will be both instantly recognizable—and thus mildly discomfiting—to viewers who recall their own kin’s particular practices. Zürcher’s talent for illuminating the specific also extends to his precise arrangement of bodies in rooms and hallways; the various entrances to and exits from the kitchen, for example, reveal a tightly, yet never fussily so, controlled choreography. Similarly, many of the utterances—the chorus of byes (“Tschüss!”); the constant query of “Where’s ———?”; Clara’s coffeemaker-synched screams—ring sharply as the cacophonous sound track to the mundane chaos that seems to take over whenever blood ties gather. The noises produce a haunting echo in this uncanny valley, reverberating from character to spectator and back again.
The Strange Little Cat plays August 1–7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Nickolas Rossi, Heaven Adores You, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Elliott Smith.
“BEHIND THE EYES of the Oregon girls it was raining again in Portland,” Nelson Algren wrote in his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. “Somehow it was always raining behind the eyes of Oregon girls.” And so it always seemed to be for Elliott Smith, an extraordinarily gifted, peerlessly poignant songwriter and favorite son of Portland, who died in 2003 at age thirty-four of two knife wounds to the chest, an apparent suicide. As if to confirm Algren’s emotional weather report, the bleak refrain of the last song on Smith’s final studio album, released posthumously, was, “Shine on me, baby, cause it’s raining in my heart.” Those who had followed his solo career, consisting of six uniformly excellent LPs over ten years, would not have been surprised by this last will and testament. His searingly literary, harmonically gorgeous songs were populated by junkies, drunks, miserable and misery-inducing women, abusive stepfathers, bad dream fuckers, no confidence men, and inveterate losers who “got in a kind of trouble that nobody knows.”
As Nickolas Rossi’s reverential, meditative documentary Heaven Adores You is at pains to make clear, however, if you actually knew the songwriter, you thought of him as one of the funniest people you’d ever met, a class clown with a goofy, performative sense of humor, someone who could run a joke so far into the ground that it became hilarious again (and again). His smile—a transformative crack in his rough-hewn, taciturn face—was reportedly one of the most infectious enticements to joy his friends had ever known. In the film, Smith’s friend, photographer, and video director Autumn de Wilde recalls being stunned when seeing him for the first time on the cover photo of his third record, Either/Or (1997): “That sweet voice comes out of that intense face?” This was key to Smith’s appeal, his pretty-ugly-but-pretty-enough-for-you Everyman quality. The Beatles were melodic geniuses and were cute to boot. Smith was a Beatlesesque melodic genius who looked like he emptied spent oil pans behind a rural gas station.
He was an ur-hipster—the first musician I noticed wearing greasy trucker’s hats and ironic thrift-store T-shirts as a constant uniform—with an inherent distrust of fame, money, and all-American attitudes, but was gracious enough to defend Céline Dion to any and all because she had been nice to him backstage at the Oscars. (Smith had been nominated for “Miss Misery” from the sound track of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, a film which featured several of his songs and introduced him to mainstream audiences; unsurprisingly, he lost to Dion’s titanic power ballad from the James Cameron blockbuster.) As hackneyed as the singer-songwriter tag has become in the intervening years, it was radically against the tide to play quiet acoustic music under your own name in the mid-1990s, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which was in thrall to grunge and riot grrrl. It was so uncool it was cool. In short, it was punk as fuck—more truly punk, in fact, than the aggro post-punk rock he played with his band Heatmiser, an outfit that dissolved as Smith’s solo career flowered.
Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969, the son of a hippie, Vietnam vet father who was studying psychiatry and a sweet-natured, music teacher mother. They divorced before he reached his first birthday, and his mother moved to Texas and remarried a man named Charlie Welch, a figure so determinative of Smith’s adult psychology and songwriting that he seemed to be a character from an unsubtle bildungsroman. According to Smith, Welch was abusive, at the very least emotionally and physically abusive, though near the end of his life Smith imagined that Welch may have abused him sexually as well, an allegation that his parents deny. (Typical of Smith, he wrote an incredibly catchy, musically upbeat song called “Abused” that dances around the issue and was understandably not selected by his family for inclusion on his last LP.)
While Smith and many of his friends repeatedly reminded the press and fans that his songs were not all autobiographical diary confessions, but instead finely drawn character studies, a number of his lyrics seemed to address his childhood trauma directly, including the revenge fantasy “Roman Candle,” the first song on his solo debut of the same name, and “Some Song,” with its line, “Charlie beat you up week after week, and when you grow up you’re going to be a freak.” As soon as he could (age fourteen), Smith moved from Dallas to Portland, where his father lived with a new wife. He spent his adolescence there as a musical prodigy and National Merit Scholar, far more at home in the downbeat, overcast, lushly green Northwest than in sunny, violent, conservative Texas. As he does for New York and LA (where Smith lived later in life), Rossi illustrates Smith’s journey with sweeping long shots of Portland and environs, so damp you can smell the moss. Smith attended and graduated from Hampshire, the famously bohemian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and returned to Portland with best friend Neil Gust to start Heatmiser.
The film is at its best when resurrecting the ’90s Portland scene that shaped Smith musically and personally, drawing on intimate, original interviews with Smith’s friends and colleagues of the period—fellow musicians Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan; high school friend, bandmate, and producer Tony Lash; Kill Rock Stars label head Slim Moon; Jackpot! Studio colleague and posthumous tape archivist Larry Crane; ex-girlfriend and bassist Joanna Bolme; and others vividly recall the charmed backwater city on the verge of national exposure. It’s telling that nearly all of the interviewees tear up at some point during their segments, both for their late friend and their hipster paradise lost. Gust and Sam Coomes (Heatmiser, Quasi), both close friends and musical collaborators of Smith’s, are conspicuously absent, but otherwise Rossi thoroughly covers the Portland waterfront.
After Either/Or and the Oscar nomination, Smith signed to DreamWorks under artist-friendly veteran executive Lenny Waronker, and with some help from LA maestro Jon Brion and producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, recorded and released two brilliant, high-gloss LPs (XO  and Figure 8 ), adorning his acoustic guitar and piano with ornate chamber-pop arrangements, playing most instruments himself, and multitracking his voice in complex harmonic blends. Even as his career was at its peak (perhaps because of this), Smith was drinking heavily and flirting with the hard drugs that would nearly destroy him. Alarmingly, when living in New York, he would walk through the subway tunnels late at night, blind drunk, looking for Mole People or perhaps an easy way out of a trajectory he wasn’t sure he wanted to be on. Other times he’d call local friend and roommate Dorien Garry in the middle of the night, three sheets to the wind, ominously pleading with her not to be mad at him if he “did something to himself.”
Casual listeners may be surprised by half-sister Ashley Welch’s claim in the film that Smith—whose eponymous second record was essentially a heroin concept album, painting such nuanced, convincing portraits of strung-out half-lives that Lou Reed would have had to hit the bricks back up to Lexington 125 but quick to top them—had never used heroin when he wrote those songs. Croghan and Crane concur, flatly stating that the early heroin songs were about junkies Smith observed in Portland, not himself; instead, he exploited the metaphorical possibilities of addiction as a way to write about ordinary human misery and dysfunctional relationships. In this he recalled William S. Burroughs, using tableaux of drug addiction as stages where other human feelings and failings, rituals of power and abnegation, could be dramatized and explored.
Sadly, the drugs took over with fearful symmetry, as if Smith had tempted fate by describing heroin addiction too acutely to be able to escape its warm embrace—a dark karmic payback. His smack and crack years were in LA, first in a bona fide Disney dwarf cottage and then in a mansion in the hills of Malibu, where he had come to record and live with producer David McConnell. From these and other sessions, Smith’s posthumous LP From a Basement on a Hill was cobbled together by Schnapf and Bolme, with Smith’s family having the final say on which tracks to include. Songs McConnell knew were slotted for the record, “Suicide Machine” and the aforementioned “Abused,” were rejected by the family for being too close to home. Both are great songs, but so are the others that made the cut. Far from being a botched grave robbery, Basement is as strong a musical statement as Smith ever made, with clear evidence of growth and experimentation and, as ever, near-perfect songs, some of which are truly heartbreaking in light of what happened. Unfortunately, with an apparent mandate to avoid any tawdry or exploitative corners of Smith’s life, Rossi gives this period and album short shrift, which is a mistake. I could see the same episode as the basis for a feature-length screenplay, taking as its guidestars Performance (1970), Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Last Days (2005), and perhaps Moon (2009).
Smith’s last months found him cleaning up with reckless rapidity, dropping drugs, alcohol, coffee, refined sugar, and his oversubscribed battery of psychiatric meds. Living hopefully with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, he seemed to be on the mend and working on new music. But as Chiba later indicated, the security blanket of substances had kept a lot of unresolved trauma tamped down and unseen for decades; Smith’s precipitous detox allowed these painful, previously hidden memories to flood back. After an argument, Chiba went to the bathroom. Hearing a scream, she ran into the kitchen to see Smith with a kitchen knife stuck in his chest. She removed the blade and called for help. Smith died in the hospital that day.
Rossi’s first involvement with Smith was to film the ad hoc tribute that arose in front of the Solutions Audio store mural in LA, used for the cover shot of Figure 8. By traveling back in time with his camera to explore everything that led up to that day, Rossi fills in texture where there was once only tenderness. This is a sweet, generous film, as sweet and generous as its subject was known to be. The dark stuff will have to wait.
Heaven Adores You plays Saturday, August 2 at the Inspire Theatre in Las Vegas, and Saturday, August 9 at the Kino Cinemas in Melbourne. Further screenings will be announced on the film’s website.
WHEN THE DIRECTOR MARTIN RITT DIED in 1990 at the age of seventy-six, the headline for his obituary in the New York Times damned him with faint praise, labeling him a “maker of socially conscious films.” That’s certainly one way to categorize many of Ritt’s best-known movies, such as Sounder (1972), about black sharecroppers in Depression-era Louisiana, and Norma Rae (1979), a chronicle of a single mother’s efforts to unionize her fellow textile workers. This well-intentioned, often starchy nobility also marks Paris Blues (1961), a more obscure work by Ritt focusing on two American jazz musicians—Ram (Paul Newman) and Eddie (Sidney Poitier)—gigging in the French capital. But puncturing the film’s earnestness—a burden that fell upon Poitier to carry, as he had to do in so many of his films from the 1950s and ’60s—are moments of saucy, slinky mischief.
Paris Blues opens wordlessly, and promisingly: At Marie Séoul’s, a club privé on the Left Bank, Ram (on trombone), Eddie (on sax), and their band play “Take the ‘A’ Train,” one of many Duke Ellington compositions on the sound track. The camera pans across the boîte’s multiracial, hopped-up patrons, lingering on one intergenerational couple: a fiftyish, corpulent woman possessively hanging on to her ephebic lover’s hand. Behind them, two soignée women discreetly nuzzle each other. These atypical jazzhead dyads, however, soon give way to the film’s more conventional twosomes, starting with the bickering buddies Ram and Eddie; the former takes umbrage when his pal impassively notes that the melody of his latest composition is “too heavy.” That assessment also applies to the treatment of the respective romances that develop between the performers and two vacationing women from the States, friends Lillian (Joanne Woodward) and Connie (Diahann Carroll).
Lillian, as we learn during her morning-after chat with Ram in his garret, is a small-town divorcée with two kids. Though she coolly tries to pretend otherwise at first, she would like nothing more than to be the trombonist’s helpmeet, a wish that only amplifies Ram’s insistence that music is his sole mistress. However wearying, this back-and-forth at least rings as somewhat natural dialogue, unlike many of the lines Poitier and Carroll must deliver to each other. Connie, a schoolteacher back home, upbraids Eddie, a five-year resident of Paris—a place where he can “sit down to lunch without getting clubbed for it”—for abandoning the “cause”: “This is not your home. This is a place you’ve run to.” (The frequently on-the-nose screenplay, based on a 1957 novel by Harold Flender, was cowritten by Walter Bernstein, whose most famous collaboration with fellow Hollywood blacklistee Ritt was 1976’s The Front.)
Yet despite how square this movie about hepcats seems—if only from the admittedly unfair vantage point of more than five decades on—expressions of raw emotion stir Paris Blues to life. Among the transfixed clubgoers listening to Ram play “Mood Indigo,” none seems more turned on than Lillian; the look of pure, dreamy pleasure on Woodward’s face gives a hint into what sustained the actress’s long, happy marriage to Newman, then in its third year. Just as memorable is Eddie’s farewell to his returning countrywomen: Poitier’s tender embrace of Woodward, followed by two passionate kisses of Carroll, reminds us just how rarely black men on screen—whether big or small—were allowed any displays of affection during that pivotal decade.
Paris Blues is available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning July 29 from Kino Lorber.
“DON’T TELL HIM ANYTHING.” In 1963’s The Damned (aka These Are the Damned), a sign bearing this motto is passed through a classroom of cloistered children—in fact prisoners being kept under constant surveillance by government forces. Such a scene takes on different implications when you know the story of its director, Joseph Losey, one of scores of Hollywood personnel who found themselves out of work beginning in the late 1940s because they were presently or previously affiliated with the Communist Party USA, and were unwilling to clear themselves by going through the degradation ceremony of “naming names” of former associates. Losey was, after a fashion, one of the lucky ones. He found work abroad, principally in the United Kingdom, although it is not to be supposed that the reach of HUAC ended back home. A story has it that Losey had to be smuggled off the set of his first British film in the trunk of actor Dirk Bogarde’s car, to avoid the attention of Ginger Rogers’s red-baiting mother, then visiting.
The trunk anecdote appears in Rebecca Prime’s Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture (2013), a study of politically compromised American directors after they uprooted their careers to Europe. Prime also cocurated the fifteen-film, three-week rep series at the UCLA Film & Television Archive to which her book lends its title. “Hollywood Exiles” is the first of a group of upcoming programs oriented around the traumatic rupture caused by naming names: Beginning on August 15, Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York hosts “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist,” timed to its theatrical run for Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s 1996 essay film Red Hollywood, and featuring a few of the same titles playing the Billy Wilder Theater. A week after that, New York’s Anthology Film Archives begins the collaboratively programmed “Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During, and After” which includes, among other films, Losey’s nonconformist 1948 fable The Boy with Green Hair, scripted by Ben Barzman.
Barzman’s widow, Norma, will appear as a friendly witness before the first screening of the UCLA series, 1949’s Christ in Concrete (aka Give Us This Day). An adaptation of Italian-American writer Pietro Di Donato’s 1939 proletarian novel of the same title, Christ in Concrete was originally intended as a Hollywood debut for Roberto Rossellini but was completed instead by an all-star blacklistee lineup, written for the screen by Barzman, directed by Hollywood Tenner Edward Dmytryk, and starring actor Sam Wanamaker, who would remain abroad and later be instrumental in rebuilding the Globe Theatre on London’s South Bank. For the shoot, the filmmakers took on the no less daunting task of re-creating New York tenements in the UK facilities of producer J. Arthur Rank. The moments of communal cooperation between Wanamaker’s bricklayer Geremia and his fellow immigrant laborers are especially touching in light of the fact that much of the same share-and-share-alike arrangement existed between blacklisted émigrés, but for all of the film’s evident conviction, the stagebound final product is wrong in specificities of culture, period, place, and speech. (The scenes with Dean Martin’s Italian family in 1953’s The Caddy feel more authentic!) Scarcely a year after Christ in Concrete opened in New York, Dmytryk agreed to rehabilitate himself by singing for the House Un-American Activities Committee, and it was another pigeon, Elia Kazan, who was ultimately responsible for the defining work of American Neorealism: 1954’s On the Waterfront.
Christ in Concrete was the first production by political exiles from Hollywood, made before the walls of the blacklist had hardened into institutional impassability, and while many of its future victims were still nervously going about their work. At approximately the same time that Dmytryk was at Denham Film Studios, Jules Dassin was poking around the grubbier corners of Soho and the East End Docks, preparing to shoot Night and the City. Richard Widmark, playing harried “club tout” Harry Fabian in the film, embodies the particular hustler’s combination of neediness and arrogance, sealing his fate when he hatches a scheme to corner the professional wrestling business in London. The appropriately bleak Night and the City would be Dassin’s last within the old studio system. He decamped for Paris once his name had been named—by Dmytryk, among others—and there eventually managed to make the film that re-established his reputation and salability, 1955’s heist-pic standard Du Rififi chez les hommes.
Dassin would move still further east to Greece after this, and make ever more ambitious films, although his strongest work abroad was in line with the socially conscious thrillers that he’d made stateside, like The Naked City (1948) or Thieves’ Highway (1949). The latter is almost certainly an inspiration for Cy Endfield’s 1957 Hell Drivers, a film that immerses the viewer in the world of lorry drivers charged with transporting loads of gravel at suicidal speeds. As in Christ in Concrete, Hell Drivers illustrates how management breeds competition between coworkers at the cost of safety and sanity, all as seen through the eyes of a new arrival among the drivers—an outsider twice over, as a Welshman and an ex-con. Star Stanley Baker, a strapping, sullen actor who bears a passing resemblance to a middle-aged Morrissey, would collaborate six times overall with writer-director Endfield, credited here as “C. Raker Endfield.” (On 1954’s Impulse, also at UCLA, he used the sobriquet “Charles de la Tour.”) Baker and Endfield’s most famous outing, not least because it made a star of Michael Caine, is Zulu (1964), screening at both the Laemmle and Film Society. (The “50th Anniversary Release from Rialto Pictures” is the only DCP title playing in the series, which has otherwise located film prints.) As in Hell Drivers, Endfield proves he has a nose for the particular pungency of festering masculinity in all-male enclaves, here a remote British Army supply depot under attack by a far larger Zulu force—the film is based on the events of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift. Peppering the ebb-and-flow of combat with lucid human vignettes, Endfield achieves something far more unsettling than the antiwar nostrums of The Victors (1963), the three-hour World War II epic that is the lone directorial outing of blacklisted High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman.
When these films are viewed together, grouped because of the shared circumstances of the personnel involved in making them, it’s easy to find a reflection of the political exile’s experience wherever one looks. A direct causal relationship is usually difficult to prove— well before expatriation, paranoia, persecution, and pursuit were all key to film noir, the loosely defined genre in which many of the blacklistees, including Dassin, Endfield, and Losey, worked. In the case of the last named’s 1956 The Intimate Stranger (aka Finger of Guilt), however, the temptation to draw parallels becomes fairly irresistible. The film’s protagonist, Reggie Wilson, is a refugee driven from Hollywood by scandal—in this case, an indiscretion with an executive’s wife—who has reestablished himself in England and married his way into the front office of “Commonwealth Pictures Ltd.” Wilson is undone by a series of letters from a woman alleging to be a former lover, and his past sins sow present doubt as to his guilt, in the minds of others as well as his own. The lead is played by Richard Basehart, an actor who specialized in gnawing away at himself on-screen in films like the 1949 noir Tension, whose director, John Berry, is represented at UCLA by the 1955 Eddie Constantine vehicle Headlines of Destruction. A film about the fast-spreading poison of rumor and insinuation set in the context of the film industry, The Intimate Stranger is a kind-of cousin to the graylisted Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), with the screenplay by fellow blacklistee Howard Koch (here, “Peter Howard”) taking a cosmic view of disgrace and punishment: “Sometimes it’s the things we haven’t done that pay us back for the things we have.”
Losey, a high school friend of Ray’s from their Wisconsin days, is the best-represented filmmaker in the “Hollywood Exiles” lineup, with The Damned and Intimate Stranger (both featuring American interlopers as protagonists), as well as Stranger on the Prowl (1952), Time Without Pity (1957), and Eve (1962). The Barzman-scripted Time Without Pity has a knockout cold open and a truly harrowing performance by Michael Redgrave, playing an alcoholic racing against the clock to save his wrongly convicted son from execution. Didactic, anti–death penalty material is clumsily integrated into what’s otherwise a corker of a thriller, and by Eve five years later, Losey has jettisoned the remnants of 1930s social consciousness to match himself against the European art-house masters, with far more favorable results than his Yank peers achieved. (See Dassin’s horrid 1966 Marguerite Duras adaptation 10:30 P.M. Summer.)
The ubiquitous Stanley Baker plays Tyvian Jones, a louche celebrity novelist living abroad in Venice and self-described “full-time exile in my Babylon” who harbors a secret—his best seller was in fact written by his deceased brother. This begs comparison to the cases of many blacklisted screenwriters who managed to get by giving their work to be used by “fronts,” a transaction that fostered shame on both ends. Tyvian exorcizes his own self-disgust by entering into a slave/mistress relationship with an adventuress played by Jeanne Moreau, fresh off of Antonioni’s La Notte (1961). Losey is self-consciously stepping into Antonioni/Visconti/Fellini territory, but his elastic and unexpected way of scrolling over a scene is entirely his own, as is his keen outsider’s perspective. By this time, with credits for blacklisted screenwriters appearing on Exodus and Spartacus (both 1960) and the increasing cosmopolitanism of the picture business, the shameful studio conspiracy had already begun its inexorable crumble. What remains are the films—the best of them exemplars of grace under pressure.
“Hollywood Exiles in Europe” runs July 25–August 17 at the UCLA Film & Television Archive in Los Angeles. “Red Hollywood and the Blacklist” runs August 15–21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. “Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During, and After” runs August 22–September 2 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Chuck Jones, Beep Beep, 1952, animation, color, sound.
A FEW IMAGES, to set the mood: Daffy Duck being bullied by the pencil and paintbrush of a persecuting artist/vengeful God in Duck Amuck (1953); the stricken expression on Wile E. Coyote’s face at the moment when he realizes that he is standing on thin air and a catastrophic canyon plunge is imminent; the lovelorn line teaching himself to make geometrical bouquets in The Dot and the Line (1965).
These moments, and countless others, can be traced back to the pen of Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones, who, when he died in 2002 at the age of eighty-nine, was one of the most honored animators that the world has ever known. Jones was born in Spokane, Washington, and raised in Los Angeles, which his father saw as fertile ground for his own get-rich-quick schemes. Jones père unsuccessfully tried his hand at geraniums and avocados—shades of the Sisyphean trial-and-failure that would be essential to Jones’s comedy—while other recently arrived carpetbaggers were making a pile, as the creation of the West Coast motion picture industry was in full swing. Jones, who was a child extra in Mack Sennett short subjects, might’ve gone into pictures straightaways, but instead he enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute, a fine-arts academy that was later merged into CalArts. Jones graduated with the intention of becoming an easel painter but instead found work under former Disney associate Ub Iwerks as a cel washer—cleaning the clear celluloid sheets on which character drawings are done, for later reuse—and was thereafter lost to cartooning. From the Iwerks Studio, Jones moved to Leon Schlesinger Productions, an independent which cranked out the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animations for Warner Bros. After Frank Tashlin’s (temporary) departure from the studio in 1938, Jones earned his first director credit. He would work for Schlesinger, then Warners, until they closed their cartooning studio in 1963, and in animation until the end of his life.
The artist’s ink-stained seventy-year career is the subject of “What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones.” Jointly organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, this exhibition of artifacts opened to the public last Saturday and will remain in place for six months before embarking on a three-year, thirteen-city tour. While at MoMI, the show will be augmented by weekend matinee screenings of Jones’s films, epiphanies when seen in 35-mm Technicolor prints from the director’s personal archive. At a public preview of “What’s Up Doc?” last Thursday, the crowd was treated to a restored print of 1949’s Academy Award–winning short subject So Much for So Little, an awareness-raising plea for proper health care facilities that is both a sterling illustration of Jones’s dynamic visual imagination and a memento of a time in which a reasonable proposal for the public welfare was not considered un-American.
“What’s Up Doc?,” which occupies most of the museum’s third-floor exhibition space, is made up of a sequence of galleries wrapped around a small theater in which a program of Jones’s most famous works are projected on continual loop, the bill-of-fare “hosted” by Pixar’s John Lasseter, one of Jones’s many, many disciples. Numerous smaller screens and projectors scattered throughout the galleries play excerpts from Jones’s oeuvre, a journey leading from his early work (Jones disowned his pre-1948 output) to his 1950s apex to his 1960s adaptations of the works of Dr. Seuss, with whom Jones had previously collaborated on the Private Snafu cartoons, a World War II–era series of instructional shorts for servicemen. Prominent niches are dedicated to Jones’s acknowledged masterpieces, like 1957’s What’s Opera Doc? (a Wagner pastiche with Elmer Fudd as Siegfried pursuing Bugs, who cross-dresses as Brünnhilde) and 1952’s Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (a sci-fi burlesque in which Rocket Age techie ambition leads to mutually assured nuclear destruction). There is also a shrine to Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, two characters that Jones himself invented in 1949, the former inspired by a description of a coyote in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.
Chuck Jones, Duck Amuck, 1953, animation, color, sound.
Twain was a lifelong inspiration to Jones, who writes in his 1989 autobiography Chuck Amuck that the author “used words the way the graphic artist uses line control.” Viewing Jones’s cartoons—or re-viewing, as will be the case for most visitors, for they are part of a shared world heritage—you appreciate just how much of the humor is in the details: a pivot of the hip, a sidelong glance at the audience, various bits of filigree in both scripting and animation. Wordplay-based Duck Seasoning (1952), for example, is all about pronoun switcheroos, but Jones also worked extensively in “silent” comedy, like the Road Runner ’toons or One Froggy Evening (1955), dialogue-free save for vaudeville outbursts at every moment but the crucial one from a singing frog.
In common with Warners stalwarts like Tashlin, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett (the proverbial underrated genius), Jones was master of the killingly funny detail, given resonance through isolation on the screen-canvas. The studio’s house style, determined in part by budgets that were a fraction of Disney’s, was minimalism—this aligned the Looney Tunes look of the late ’40s and ’50s to then-contemporary currents in streamlined design. The history of pre-CGI American animation in the twentieth century is in many respects a story of gradually cutting corners, from the teeming detail of Disney’s first features to the bargain-basement product that Hanna-Barbara assembly-lined for television, the medium which effectively administered the coup de grâce to Warners. The heyday of Looney Tunes was a moment when poverty and ingenuity miraculously aligned, creating works that thrived through what Jones called “the ability to live by the single line—that single, honest delineation of the artist’s intent.”
The “What’s Up Doc?” galleries are anything but minimalist, crowded with posters, promotional folderol, cel art, exposure sheets (a table layout of the shot selection and timing of an animation, down to the last frame), bar sheets (same, showing the relationship between image and musical notation), and other production ephemera, some 125 pieces overall, hung in close proximity to video excerpts of the finished product. Jones’s character style sheets, annotated guidelines as to how to illustrate Bugs or Wile E., offer a privileged perspective on the top-down creative process, while the display items which are of the most interest as standalone objets d’art are the background paintings, like Maurice Noble and Philip De Guard’s futuristic world-building pieces for Duck Dodgers or the southwestern vistas of the Road Runner shorts. Using Jones’s career as a specific point of entry, “What’s Up Doc?” provides an education in the step-by-step collaborative process whereby cartoons were constructed in the cel animation era—the same process that is deconstructed on-screen in the Pirandellian Duck Amuck. (Which may have taught Godard a thing or two about sound track subversion.) Not only does all of this aid in understanding what it is precisely that a cartoon director (or “Supervisor,” as Jones was sometimes credited) does, but it also highlights the contributions of his regular collaborators at the run-down “Termite Terrace” building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, including Noble and De Guard, writer Michael Maltese, musical director Carl Stalling, and man of a thousand voices Mel Blanc.
One can eavesdrop on Jones and Blanc in the middle of Warners voice-recording sessions in the two listening stations which are part of the exhibition, or listen to latter-day interviews in which Jones discusses his formative influences and his technique. Jones was unusually articulate analyst of his own work, a fact that the wall text benefits from, setting up side-by-side illustrations of his inspirations from fine art—Degas, Van Gogh, and Japanese printmaking—as reflected in his cartooning. The former aspiring painter had no thought that he was making anything gallery-worthy, though: Jones didn’t collect the by-products of his cartooning, and that so many artifacts have been assembled in one place and formed into a coherent show is a small miracle. The type of materials on display here were traditionally destroyed as soon as they had served their purpose—remember Jones’s tenure as a cel washer?—and sometime in the mid-’60s a great deal of the Looney Tunes “archive” was unceremoniously put to the torch in the Warners parking lot. As Daffy says in Duck Amuck: “Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”
BY THE SPLINTERY MID-1960s, John Wayne was a hotheaded, potbellied anachronism riding the slow trail to extinction. Lee Marvin had emerged as a cagey new breed of movie tough guy, a resourceful, silver-haired nihilist who climbed out of the slough of deadweight heavies, TV cops, and mobster sadists to stardom. Marvin had sparred with the Duke in a few films before he got his late break with the spoofy-squishy Cat Ballou and won a fluke Academy Award in 1965 (a piece of cute stunt casting and almost a parody-in-advance of Wayne’s self-glorifying, self-burlesquing Oscar victory lap in 1969, True Grit). Then he established himself as a hard-case male presence in The Professionals (1966) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), roles he gave the disturbing conviction of someone who had been in battle, seen actual atrocities, killed men, and been wounded himself.
Defining performances by Wayne and Marvin are found on the newly issued Blu-ray editions of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), a pair of myth-worthy American man vs. world tales. Hawks’s film helped write the western playbook—we tend to forget that, not coincidentally, the big, freighted sagas of the West as a crucible for manhood mostly emerged after World War II. Red River is a tug-of-war where the open-air grandeur and harsh imperatives of a giant cattle drive meet human resistance—eventually mutiny—from the uneasy subordinates of Wayne’s rancher-tyrant Tom Dunson.
Dunson is the rugged individualist as an empire of one, taking all the land and cattle he can seize. His reluctant counterweight is the adopted son played by Montgomery Clift, giving an intently sly and appealing performance that unobtrusively presages the rebellions of Brando, Dean, and Elvis (the beautiful icon, not the stiff actor) all at once. For a film that trafficked in on-the-spot classicism, Red River’s chuck wagon full of cowhand archetypes, magisterial wilderness, and Oedipal conflict is studded with modern inflection and attitude: Clift’s bashful ironic-erotic shadings; Wayne’s notably self-aware take on a figure who is part Lear, part Odysseus, part purebred mule–stubborn Texas sonovabitch; Joanne Dru’s no-bullshit interlocutor/love interest who establishes her Hawksian bona fides by taking an arrow in the shoulder as nonchalantly as one of the boys.
Point Blank is an indirect descendent of Hawks’s modernist jaunt The Big Sleep (1946) and a close relative of Don Siegel’s 1964 daylight noir remake of The Killers. (Marvin could be playing the same hit man, returned from the dead for his damn $93,000.) Boorman also borrowed some useful avant-garde tokens and trinkets from Godard and Antonioni, scattered through Point Blank like glittering confetti at a New Year’s party. But the picture belongs to the relentless Marvin, who is practically never off the screen. Boorman’s memoir describes him accepting the role on one condition, and then wordlessly throwing the script out of the window. “His acting was a continuous search for the cinematic metaphor, and this one was so perfect both he and I were in its thrall.”
Marvin’s Walker strides through the movie with a purposefulness that is frightening and thrilling to behold. Unlike contemporaries Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, Marvin projected an air of unhistrionic menace—next to him, McQueen was an earnest, unmarked lightweight and Eastwood a stick figure caricature, playing at being cool where Marvin embodied an icy intractability all the more persuasive for the shards of pain and doubt and exhaustion you glimpsed around his razor sharp edges.
The John Wayne of Red River gives you the sense of being present at the revival of something ancient and rigid thrust into the cinematic West like a Grecian spear. Homer would have “got” Dunson—more force of self-willed nature than man, imbued by Wayne with a consciousness of duty if not a conscience. He represents one strain of narrative—violent, tragic, and unappeasable—while Clift and Dru set up a counternarrative where love and rationality conquer unreason. Whether the reconciliation that finally results is “believable” and “in character” is beside the point: Hawks loved to play sex roles off each other, reconfigure and rejigger them, and in Red River the biggest sparks fly among Wayne, Clift, and John Ireland’s sultry gunslinger Cherry Valance. Fourteen years later, Marvin would play Liberty opposite Wayne’s Tom Doniphon in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—what goes around comes around, as either Fred or Jack Nietzsche used to say.
Actually, Hawks intended to make Red River the most sexually frank western ever shot until the censors nixed most of the lonesome-cowboy banter. (Appropriately, his next project was I Was a Male War Bride: Nothing for the pencil-pushers to worry about there!) It’s an odd masterpiece, heading toward the inevitable via digressions and feints, until it throws inevitability out the window and shifts into marital comedy (with fist-fight) mode, Wayne and Clift’s symbiotic characters suddenly brought together through the angry ministrations of bride-to-be Dru—though Hawks was prohibited from even implying as much, it’s self-evident they are entering into a marriage à trois whether they realize it or not.
Point Blank, for all the immaculate deadliness of Marvin, wouldn’t be anywhere the same without its secret linchpin, Angie Dickenson. Playing a hardheaded woman who could have stepped out of a dozen Hawks films, Dickenson had the composure to look Marvin in the eye and meet him as an equal. Or smash him over the head with a pool cue, as circumstances and/or foreplay warranted. (Dickenson cut her teeth holding her own with Wayne in Hawks’s 1959 Rio Bravo; she also featured in The Killers, famously getting belted in the chops by Ronald Reagan.) Of all the mod action-figure couples, they had a more viscerally melancholy chemistry than Belmondo and Karina (too convoluted and intellectualized), Beatty and Dunaway (too expedient), or Delon and his mirrors (a hair too perfect).
There was something perversely real about them, their casual alienation, and about the LA caught in Point Blank’s allegorically pictographic net. Boorman and Marvin knew the gangster thriller was done for, but they sensed the idea of a wounded man trying to find his way back from the dead by forging a path up the faceless rungs of a corporate Organization would resonate in all kinds of ways. For one, it made a perfect metaphor for the studio system, with its layers of toadies and cutthroat executives and killer accountants, where your best friend will double-cross you, cut you out of your percentage of the take, and steal your wife, all in a day’s work. Nothing personal.
Wayne in Red River encapsulates virtually his entire future: the honorable stoic in Ford’s cavalry movies, the wild-eyed avenger in The Searchers, the charismatic father-confessor under the forbidding disciplinarian, the broken-hearted lover hiding his feelings under a horsehair shirt, the fading aura of man who fought Indians or his own people as if they were mere stand-ins for Time and Fate, and the anachronism doomed to fall off a generational Clift.
After Point Blank, what was left for Marvin to prove? In 1969, he impetuously ditched the lead in The Wild Bunch to sing opposite Clint Eastwood in Paint Your Wagon, needless to say a disaster of epic proportions. He bounced around for another decade or so until he found one last, fitting apotheosis. He starred in Sam Fuller’s highly personal war-is-hell story, The Big Red One (1980), a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for more than twenty years. Fuller had previously had a chance to make it in 1959, but the deal fell apart when he decided he didn’t want the predictable, overly orthodox star the studio had lined up: John Wayne.
Red River is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection; Point Blank is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.
THOUGH BASED on James M. Cain’s first novel, published in 1934, Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was the last of the original page-to-screen transfers of the exalted crime writer’s most celebrated books, following Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945). More precisely, Garnett’s film was the last Hollywood adaptation; Cain’s slim pulp classic had already been the inspiration for a French drama, Pierre Chenal’s Le Dernier Tournant (The Last Turning, 1939), and Luchino Visconti’s first feature, Ossessione (1943). Cain’s Depression-era, SoCal-set story, in fact, has traveled widely outside not just US borders—German director Christian Petzold’s Jerichow (2008) is the most recent Postman rethink—but also genres, having inspired a play and an opera.
Yet of all these iterations, Garnett’s rendition of Cain’s tale of torrid triangulation—involving a drifter, Frank, the book’s first-person narrator who both cuckolds and murders his boss, Nick, with Cora, his employer’s wife—remains the best known, even though this film noir is a heavily bowdlerized version of the original. No official tasked with upholding the sanctimonious standards of the era’s Motion Picture Production Code could ever have allowed the dramatization of passages like this one in Cain’s novel, indelibly laying out the woozy s/m dynamic between Frank (played in the film by John Garfield) and Cora (Lana Turner): “I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.” The censors, however, did permit this imperative from Frank to Cora, delivered after they’ve tried to kill Nick the first time—and crucially softened by Garfield’s grin—to stay in the script: “You gimme a big kiss before…I sock ya.” (The Bob Rafelson–directed, David Mamet–scripted 1981 remake of Postman, starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, could honor the book’s savage lust, but, unlike Garnett’s film, it strays wildly from Cain’s ending.)
More puzzling, though, is the utter deracination of Nick, whose original surname, Papadakis, is anglicized to Smith (Cora’s maiden name in Cain’s novel); the diner owner is played by the jowly, rotund, South African–born character actor Cecil Kellaway with an accent that betrays his many years in England and Australia. Forgoing the pivotal ethnic anxiety that Cora, who cooks and waits tables at her husband’s eatery, displays in the book—“It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn’t white,” Frank says—Garnett’s monochrome film instead makes Lana Turner a near-blinding vision of alabaster. Turner is first introduced in the movie via a slow tilt up from her white heels to her snowy turban, the camera lingering on her likewise luminous short-shorts and halter top. The dazzlingly peroxided actress, one of MGM’s biggest stars at the time, looks as if she’s just emerged poolside from the Beverly Hills Hotel rather than taking a breather from making enchiladas on the griddle. (Cain’s original title for Postman was Bar-B-Que.)
With such radical surgery done to the source material in its transition to the screen, it’s no wonder that Turner’s temptress is the least enthralling of the Cain-based femme-fatale movie trio; her predecessors—Barbara Stanwyck’s “rotten to the heart” Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (especially) and Joan Crawford’s pathologically daughter-devoted mother of the title in Mildred Pierce—are modeled more closely on Cain’s originals and endure as noir paradigms. Yet twelve years after Postman’s release, Turner’s life offscreen was consumed by an episode tawdrier than any Cain plot: the fatal stabbing of her thug boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, by her fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, an act quickly ruled a justifiable homicide. Turner’s histrionics on the witness stand during the murder trial and the reams of publicity surrounding her private life after this scandal helped her secure the lead in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), in which she, an actress of limited talents, gives the greatest performance of her career.
The Postman Always Rings Twice screens at Film Forum July 18 and 19 as part of the series “Femmes Noirs,” which runs July 18–August 7.
THEY ARE A SUMMER STAPLE—geezer road movies—as attractive as a humidity-inspired influx of giant water bugs. Though it follows many rules of the genre, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! is a movie of a different order; its scenic wonders, off-kilter humor and pathos, and the unforced chemistry between its two central characters and the actors who play them will appeal to an audience broader than the senior-ticket set (of which I am a member).
Former brothers-in-law, Colin (Paul Eenhoorn) and Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson) have been out of touch since Colin’s wife died and Mitch’s wife divorced him. Now Mitch, regretfully retired from his medical practice, shows up on Colin’s doorstep with a vacation package for two in Iceland. As generous as he is emotionally needy, Mitch won’t take no for an answer, and although Colin claims he’d rather stay home, the two soon are ensconced in an elegant Reykjavik hotel, eating four-star cuisine, drinking good wine, and smoking pot a lot more potent than Colin remembers from forty years ago.
As an odd couple, Colin and Mitch are better than the sum of their parts. It’s Colin’s empathy for Mitch that allows us to see him as more than a compulsively profane old man, desperate to prove that he’s still a sexual being. It’s an empathy that’s tested almost every hour, even in the middle of the night. Mitch simply can’t bear to be left alone. As for Colin, it’s easy to imagine that if Mitch hadn’t come back into his life, he might have retreated into his shell forever. Instead, here he is eating, drinking, toking, hiking, swimming, dancing a jig on the beach, and talking not only to his old friend but to perfect strangers—most of them women.
By chance, Mitch’s cousin-once-removed and her girlfriend, both doctoral candidates at Columbia, are passing through Reykjavik. Within minutes of their meeting we see what a dinosaur Mitch is in his attitudes about women and can suspect why, even though he’s all bark and no bite, he was forcibly retired. Colin, on the other hand, is simply a lovely man, and, much later, it’s no surprise that he, not Mitch, has a brief fling with a Canadian tourist, with whom the two men luxuriate in a hot spring. What’s unexpected is that Mitch discreetly withdraws, happy to let his friend enjoy the moment.
The idea for Land Ho! originated with Stephens, who proposed to Katz that they take Nelson, her distant cousin and a natural performer, to Iceland and build a film around him. Nelson had played a miniscule role in Stephens’s second feature Pilgrim Song (2012), but was holding on to his day job as an oculoplastic surgeon. Eenhoorn, a professional actor for four decades in Australia and the US, won the attention he long deserved playing the titular role in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013). That Nelson, an enthusiastic, even reckless amateur, and Eenhoorn, a nuanced, controlled straight man, could jell into an inspired comedy team is one of the joys of the film. The director/writer collaboration of Stephens and Katz, longtime friends who met in the University of North Carolina’s film department, is more difficult to parse. One of the most talented young American independent filmmakers, Katz has a distinct lyrical style that is punctuated by sweetly strange humor. His Dance Party, USA (2006) is a coming-of-age classic, and his more expansive, Portland-based Cold Weather (2010) bends the mystery/thriller genre every which way. Land Ho! seems very much like an Aaron Katz movie, barring that without Stephens, he never would have made it.
Never sentimental, except perhaps for a brief coda that panders to the comedy audience’s desire for a big-joke ending, Land Ho! juxtaposes two intimate character studies—and the overwhelming desire for intimacy on the part of those characters—with the gorgeously rugged, grand-scaled landscape of Iceland. Shooting with the Red camera, Katz’s longtime cinematographer Andrew Reed fashions images of rough beauty. One of them—a startled, upward tilt when a geyser suddenly erupts—is the best visual joke in a movie where great timing—that of the actors and of Katz’s editing—not only belies the seeming casualness of the plot, but proves to be the source of immense pleasure on-screen and in life.
Land Ho! opens on Friday, July 11th at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.
THE JOURNAL ENTRY ABOVE, dated October 4, 1969, was written during the second week of shooting Tristana (1970), Catherine Deneuve’s second—and final—collaboration with Luis Buñuel after the enormous success of Belle de Jour (1967). Abounding in bizarre detail, the jotting succinctly captures Tristana’s impeccable balance of precision and perversion.
As in Belle de Jour—in which Deneuve’s character, Séverine, a YSL-clad haute bourgeoise, finds erotic liberation through byzantine psychosexual fantasies and part-time work at a boutique bordello, where she is christened with the nom de pute of the title—Tristana hinges on the defilement of its eponymous character. When the film opens, Tristana is all in black, still in mourning for her recently deceased mother. The innocent, timid, orphaned teenager becomes the ward of Don Lope (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), a lecherous, hypocritical, overweening Manchegan aristocrat who wastes no time in seducing her. “I’m your father and your husband,” the Vandyked grandee crows to his charge, who remains a virtual prisoner in the Toledo home they share despite Lope’s professed beliefs in personal freedom and other ostensibly progressive views.
Yet Tristana, all too aware of her life “as a slave,” is not entirely without agency. On one of the surreptitious constitutionals she takes with Lope’s maid, Saturna (Lola Gaos), she meets, and later runs off with, Horacio (Franco Nero), a handsome young painter. But two years later, after a tumor has been discovered in her leg, Tristana demands to be returned to the address of her parent/lover/jailer. “She still thinks of you as her father,” the abased Horacio explains to Lope. This reunion, though, signals a complete shift in power: After the amputation of her afflicted limb, Tristana has the senescent Lope, now all too eager to minister to her, fully under her control.
Tristana, one of the greatest films from Buñuel’s extremely rich late period, bookended by Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) and his final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), exemplifies the director’s skill in skewering the entitled classes. Lope is especially pathetic whenever his false virtue is exposed: Smugly spouting, “Down with work that you have to do to survive,” like some second-rate Oscar Wilde, the nobleman is soon accosting his sister for ten thousand pesetas during a chance encounter in a park.
The mordancy of this project—which Buñuel, cowriting with Julio Alejandro, adapted from Benito Pérez Galdos’s 1892 novel (they set the film roughly three decades later)—is further heightened by the tarnishing of Deneuve’s porcelain perfection. As soon as the actress (who, twenty-six during Tristana’s filming, was already five years into her superstardom) speaks, she is already estranged from us, the Castilian lisp she affects obviously not her own: “This will be a proper Spanish film, I’ll be dubbed, which I sometimes find hard to accept,” Deneuve writes in her Diaries. Playing an amputee was even harder; on the penultimate day of shooting, the actress recorded, “Problems with my artificial leg: it has to be fixed on, turning is disastrous, and we’ve rehearsed so much today that the crutches are hurting my armpits.” But as she prepares to shoot the final scene—when Tristana, now an imperious doña, reveals her capacity for utmost cruelty— Deneuve happily reports a victory: “[Buñuel’s] compliment of the day, and it is one: ‘You’d be great in a vampire film.’ ” Thirteen years later, Tony Scott’s The Hunger would prove how accurate the Spanish master’s prediction was.
Tristana screens at BAMcinématek July 19 and 20 as part of the series “Buñuel,” which runs July 11–31.
Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 83 minutes.
THERE MAY BE no historical evidence to support the veracity of the strange tale of René Descartes’s robot daughter, but the story remains compelling for anyone who’s ever been troubled by the emotional currents that run between humans and their handiwork. According to one version, Descartes was so devastated when his daughter Francine died of scarlet fever at the age of five that he used his expertise as a physician to construct a life-size mechanical doll in her likeness. The philosopher was so attached to this surrogate that he brought it with him everywhere—at least until it was discovered during a sea voyage by a ship’s captain, who was sufficiently horrified to throw it overboard.
It’s not surprising that the anecdote is a favorite of Mamoru Oshii, especially in light of the director’s ongoing fascination with technologically enhanced humans and their synthetic peers, who often ponder whether their newly acquired sentience means they get to have souls too. The Japanese filmmaker includes the Descartes myth among the array of references that add a pensive air to the ultra-stylized gun battles and explosions in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2005), one of five anime features by Oshii screening this week and next in a series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Oshii’s futuristic visions are infused with his unique brand of dualism, one that freely pursues heady ruminations about technology’s transformative effects on human consciousness while continuing to indulge the visceral thrills and visual panache expected by anime’s traditional fanboy constituency. First released in 1995, just as audiences in the west were discovering the more adult-themed varieties of Japanese animation, Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell remains the most famous and accomplished example of this tricky synthesis.
In the year 2029, Major Motoko Kusanagi—a cyborg cop with a shapely feminine form—pursues the Puppet Master, a mysterious criminal that has been hijacking the cybernetic bodies that are used as downloadable surrogate selves by much of humanity. Though much pilfered by The Matrix—and just about every other Hollywood science-fiction blockbuster in which minds and bodies roam free from each other in spaces both actual and virtual—Oshii’s film retains its power to startle and seduce. It helps that the film got a gorgeous upgrade in 2008, when Oshii released a revised and re-edited version with the cheeky title Ghost in the Shell 2.0. Most provocative was Oshii’s decision to change the Puppet Master’s gender, a move that further complicates the film’s take on sexual identity and the possible futures for our bodily forms and reproductive urges once the usual strictures of the flesh become irrelevant.
More of a companion piece than a sequel, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence trades in many of the same themes with similarly vivid if more lugubrious effect. (Conversations are riddled with quotes from Nietzsche and Milton.) Here, the partner of the former film’s cyborg heroine investigates a string of deaths involving “sexaroid” units with an unfortunate tendency to blow themselves up. Never particularly interested in the demands of narrative, Oshii uses the noirish plotline as a framework for more idiosyncratic strategies, like a hallucinatory sequence that’s as jarring as anything conceived by the late Satoshi Kon, the fellow anime maverick whose films Perfect Blue (1996) and Paprika (2006) are unparalleled exercises in self-destructing storytelling. Oshii also finds ample opportunity to display his savvy about the ways that technology amplifies an age-old human desire to create real-world vessels for our desires. Thus do the pleasure-bots of our future (and present, for that matter) represent “the ancient dream of artificial life” just as strongly as that mechanical daughter did for Descartes. But whereas the corporeal characters in Spike Jonze’s similarly speculative Her (2013) may despair over the inevitability with which our creations will surpass us, Oshii’s visions of things to come are enlivened by a sense of awe and curiosity about these imminent unions between human and artifice, these mergers whose states and shapes we’re just beginning to imagine.
IN THE YEARS of its rise to prominence, Columbia Pictures was famous for a couple of things, neither of them having anything to do with crime thrillers. The first was its possession of the most horrible studio chief in Hollywood, Harry Cohn, an ardent admirer of Mussolini and a serviceable noir heavy. The second was the one employee who Cohn needed and hated for needing him, the studio’s superstar director, Frank Capra.
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single film by Capra among the twenty-five titles that make up the Museum of Modern Art’s “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures” series, which runs for three and a half weeks beginning this Friday. The lady in question is Columbia herself, the torch-bearing female personification of these United States who appears on the studio logo. (That, in this case, most of the films that follow her appearance contain some pretty scurrilous material and an unflattering picture of our national life can be mined for some cheap irony.)
MoMA is screening two samples of Columbia’s output from the early- to mid-1930s, when the studio had successfully clawed its way tooth-and-nail out of Poverty Row. Both are heavily indebted to the classical detective group-of-strangers-gathered-at-an-isolated-location model of storytelling. By Whose Hand? (1932) takes place on a night train to San Francisco, while The Ninth Guest (1934) is confined almost entirely to a queer party in a Deco dream apartment where the gathered company are knocked off one by one. The film is generally credited as the progenitor of the boy-count thriller, predating Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). Proposed alternate title: It Happened One Night.
The ’30s were the decade when Capra put Columbia on the map, but “Lady in the Dark” is squarely centered on the ’40s, the decade that belonged to Margarita Carmen Cansino, reinvented (and anglicized) by the studio as Rita Hayworth. MoMA has Gilda (1946), Hayworth’s most popular teaming with fellow contract player Glenn Ford, and Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by Hayworth’s estranged husband, Orson Welles, who took brattish glee in undoing the studio’s star-making efforts by chopping and dyeing his wife’s famous locks. (She is ravishingly photographed in both films by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who must receive some credit for Lady’s surreal visual effects, including the famous aquarium rendezvous and funhouse climax.)
Charles Vidor, Gilda, 1946, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
Alongside Welles we find fellow canonical directors Max Ophuls (1949’s The Reckless Moment) and Nicholas Ray (1950’s In a Lonely Place) in MoMA’s series, but their films, which I trust will live to be projected another day, aren’t necessarily the chief inducement to head for Fifty-Third Street. The program was organized by Joshua Siegel and Dave Kehr, the former New York Times critic who joined MoMA’s curatorial staff in fall of last year, and it’s the first series that shows the fingerprints of carry-me-out-in-a-box auteurist Kehr, who specializes in distinguishing the individual idiosyncrasies of gigging directors who never had high distinction conferred upon them in their lifetimes. When the notes for the series refer to the “crisp impersonality” of Seymour Friedman’s direction of Chinatown at Midnight (1949), for example, this is not meant as a slander. While Capra famously billed himself as The Name Above the Title, here we have names that were happy enough to appear on the paycheck, though in some cases talent exceeds reputation.
“Lady in the Dark” offers a couple of opportunities to sample the somewhat-less-crisp impersonality of Lew Landers—including Man in the Dark (1953), his eleven-day-wonder 3-D noir—as well the early works of William Castle, known more for later experiments in ballyhoo than his workmanlike direction. (Both Landers and Castle contributed to the film franchise created from CBS radio hit “The Whistler,” a whopping four entries of which are playing MoMA, each starring Richard Dix in a different role.)
Let Us Live (1939) is a good introduction to the work of one undeservedly forgotten director, John Brahm, a German émigré who made several ingenious, somewhat baroque films over the decade to come before shrinking into television. Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan’s engagement is rudely broken when he goes up for murder charges surrounding a stick-up at a movie house, its flashlight-lit staging one of several conspicuous set pieces. Subsequent events contrive to smother the “Aw, Shucks, Gee Whiz” Fonda character’s faith in the American system, and Let Us Live may have an even more dejected ending than the film it most recalls, Fritz Lang’s 1937 Depression-era downer You Only Live Once. (It should be noted that Lang’s particularly vicious 1953 Glenn Ford vehicle, The Big Heat, is also playing MoMA.) Brahm’s visual invention is only equaled here by Joseph H. Lewis, whose Gun Crazy (1950) would later make him a cult property, and who is represented in “Lady in the Dark” by two early, watershed works: My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a gothic melodrama that offers kidnapping and brainwashing as a metaphor for marriage, while So Dark the Night, from the following year, is a corker of a mystery set in the French countryside.
Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
Lewis’s mature talent is evident in both films, while Oscar Boetticher, Jr. shows little enough promise in 1945’s B-thriller Escape in the Fog. Rechristened as “Budd,” however, Boetticher would later direct a renowned cycle of Westerns for Columbia—if there was, per Thomas Schatz, a genius to the studio system, it was in keeping its workers busy enough to develop their talents. Escape in the Fog, which has Nina Foch and William Wright busting up a ring of Axis spies with the help of clairvoyant visions, was released a few months before V-J Day. The designation film noir is inextricable from the end of the war and, more specifically, its immediate aftermath. This is the setting of John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), a curio sodden with tropical showers and unnecessary voice-over which stars Humphrey Bogart as Capt. “Rip” Murdoch, an ex-paratrooper who returns from the European front only to find more insidious enemies in “Gulf City,” a Floridian pastiche. Dead Reckoning seems like an attempt to return to the Gilda well with its mildly exotic setting, gambling tables, and even a musical number for the female lead, here Lizabeth Scott’s femme fatale, which wholly fails to eclipse the memory of Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame.” (The film is an interesting showcase for Scott, she of the extraterrestrially planar features and subterranean-deep line readings.)
One foreign menace vanquished, another rose to take its place, and Columbia, like the rest of Hollywood, got a case of the Red Scare jitters. The results were films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), a patently silly piece of Cold War skullduggery done with a bit of dash by Gordon Douglas, who would go on to do a brisk business in anti-Communist fare in the next few years. This stretch was not so kind to Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk, who dutifully named his names and returned from blacklist purgatory to the director’s chair with The Sniper (1952), thanks to the intervention of producer Stanley Kramer, who’d recently entered into an ultimately star-crossed agreement to set up his own production unit at Columbia, which meant much butting heads with Cohn.
Dmytryk had helped to invent the hate-crime noir with Crossfire, his 1947 film about an anti-Semitic killing, and The Sniper seems intended to reproduce the success. The issue examined here, however, is woman-hate—not standard-issue film noir “Can’t trust them dames” woman-hate, as found in Dead Reckoning, but the homicidal rage of Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a blue-collar San Francisco man who does target practice on local ladies using his Army issue M1 carbine. The Sniper is held up by the presence of a much-too-old Adolphe Menjou—Dmytryk had to use the blowhard red-baiter as proof of his rehabilitation—and psychiatrist speechifying, but Dmytryk quite effectively plays out his sensationalistic story against an uncommented-on background of everyday misogyny, and the film’s last shot is positively chilling. (’Frisco becomes a gridwork of slashing, perilous diagonals thanks to the great DP Burnett Guffey, who also shot In a Lonely Place and both of the Lewis films, and who may be the secret star of “Lady in the Dark.”) Franz’s all-American psycho proves a vital point as regards the crime thriller: While Nazis and Commies have their place, nothing’s so disturbing as the evil we find at home and within.
“Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–57” plays July 11–August 4, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.
NOW IN ITS SIXTIETH YEAR, the Flaherty Film Seminar is an annual occupation of the Colgate University campus that gathers around 170 filmmakers, scholars, critics, programmers, artists, and cinephiles in an unlikely, weeklong cohabitation devoted to an exploration of nonfiction filmmaking. Not quite so free-wheeling as a film festival nor quite so focused as an academic conference, the seminar is named for Robert Flaherty, whose own place and stature within the institution of documentary has ebbed and flowed just as documentary practice itself has migrated among different media: from cinema (independent, experimental, and commercial) to television, contemporary art, interactive media, and beyond.
This year’s programmers, the artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy, marked this trend in their opening remarks, addressing the increasing incorporation of documentary practice into the art world following Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 and Manifesta 5 in 2004, directed by Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma. Fittingly, two alumni of these events, Johan Grimonprez and Hito Steyerl, initiated the week’s programming with two complementary works: Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), and Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010). Both works concern hijacking as a trope of midcentury terrorism and political action, and both draw upon similar compulsions, scavenging in the audiovisual junkyard. Grimonprez named his film for the archival process he engaged in when making the film, dialing into history via metadata and keywords, and Steyerl—appearing, appropriately enough, as a Skyped-in image—noted that their films arose on either side of a historical shift in the circulation, even inescapability, of moving images.
With this inescapability in mind, Monroy and Stracke laid out a particular set of concern about the contexts and forms of the moving image, emphasizing in their programming hybrid, essayistic, and collectively made work, including forty films and a half-dozen installations. One persistent theme during the week was the notion of the image as an object to be shaped, collected, and curated by the archivist/artist. Duncan Campbell’s latest film, It for Others, continues his project of collaging archival media, reenactment, and poetic narration, but is still more discursive, polemical, and off-kilter than his earlier work. Departing from Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s 1953 film Statues Also Die, which critiques an imperialism of objects formed around the European market for African statuary, Campbell’s film constructs a theory of value around the use of images, their extraction, reuse, and recirculation. The Marker and Resnais film, Campbell noted, functions like an artifact in his own film, suggesting the many roles that found or appropriated footage takes on in contemporary cinema: as property, commodity, raw material, or waste product.
Of course, no engagement with found or appropriated media would be complete without addressing the intensification, and even standardization, that digital media and the Internet have afforded in recent years, and here again, Steyerl offered characteristically insightful work. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (also on view through August 15 at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York) conflates the imagistic and the human in provocative and playful ways. Here, humanity appears as either a pixel or a nonperson in an architectural rendering, each struggling for recognition. But Steyerl’s work also revels in this anonymization of subjecthood, and the artist herself appears modeling the gestures of digitalization by performing grandiose swipes, pinches, and double-taps, as if operating (or inhabiting) a giant invisible iPad.
If Steyerl’s works are winning mostly in their exuberant play of ideas, Jesse McLean’s works are still more convincing in their rigorous composition and canny balance of irony and sincerity. The Invisible World matches the commodity fetishism of hoarder videos with the artist’s own compilation of science films and Hollywood spectaculars. Both cosmic and colloquial in scope, the work earns its apocalyptic ending through a quiet engagement of the senses. Similarly, in Just Like Us, McLean uses deadpan subtitling to relate the memoir of a former Hollywood body double against images of parking lots and big-box stores. But here again, the once empty posteverything world is mined for surprising emotional resonance, and the insertion of an erotic interlude from Top Gun serves as one part kitsch object and two parts affective release.
The image doubling suggested by McLean’s video was just one instance of many hauntings and correspondences in the program. In one discussion, featured artist Karen Mirza spoke of exorcizing the “ectoplasm of neoliberalism,” but there were more salutary forms of possession, too. Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998), in which she attempts a shot-for-shot remake of the German director’s The Inexhaustible Fire, is a peculiar kind of channeling, once again bringing home the Vietnam War, the manufacture of napalm, and the deep and extensive modes of involvement of a country’s citizens in the atrocities its governments commit.
Flaherty’s ghost, too, is always present at the seminar—often in discussions about representational politics and the ethics of othering—but actually very little in this year’s edition could be described as traditionally anthropological. The closest came in Cao Guimarães’s The Soul of the Bone, which begins reassuringly as a deadpan vérité portrait of Dominguinhos, a seventy-two-year-old cave-dwelling hermit, then veers into psychedelic ethnography, with the old man, wizard-like, summoning a ring of fire and strumming an eerie Jandek-like dirge on a detuned guitar. Situated in a program alongside Patiño’s In Landscape’s Movement, an HD upgrade of Caspar David Friedrich, Guimarães’s film inspired conversations about images of Man in Nature, but there’s something more anthropocenic about Guimarães’s dense, fragmented images, which find Dominguinhos collecting rainwater in Coke bottles, using the ends of plastic bottles as finger-bowls, and expounding visions to gawking tourists arriving by bus.
Still more works effected a certain polyphony by means of collaboration, splintered perspectives, and hybrid authorships. All of Eric Baudelaire’s films serve as correspondences—often literal ones—between the filmmaker and his collaborators, giving his work a wayward epistolary form. In Letters to Max, a new work previewed here in a presentation with brief excerpts, Baudelaire engages in a sustained correspondence with the ambassador of Abkhazia, a country on the Black Sea that, without official statehood, effectively does not exist. Three of the featured artists were explicit partnerships, such as Brad Butler and Karen Mirza of the organization no.w.here. Their project The Museum of Non-Participation suggests a degree of institutional critique in their work, but also a desire to engage beyond such circuits, forming new networks and ley lines from Karachi to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir to Bethnal Green. With its dizzying mixture of textures and media—film and video, performance, writing, and curation—their work seems more the result of their participatory practice than of a particular formal program. Indeed, Deep State, a collaboration among Mirza, Butler, the writer China Miéville, and many others—a history of revolutionary struggle from Occupy into the distant future—is formally and tonally all over the place, but the obvious collective fever in which the film was made seems more its point than its crazed hybrid construction.
By contrast, the works of Raqs Media Collective (here represented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, but also including Monica Narula and Jeebesh Bagchi) suggest a more coherent aesthetic program—for better or worse. The Capital of Accumulation, an oblique, unstable diptych compiling Rosa Luxembourg’s missing body, talking animals, and a forensic analysis of global capital, suggests a consistent compositional logic at work: the structure of accumulation itself as an organizing principle, often overwhelming and exhausting the viewer with logorrheic overload. If this proved frustrating for the Flaherty audience, there was perhaps a lesson about accumulation nonetheless: Saturation is a process of accumulation whereby nothing ultimately is retained.
The work of the collaborative studio CAMP, represented here by Shaina Anand, seems by comparison to strive for a much tidier organizational logic. Rather than modeling accumulation, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf opts for seriality and the structural logic of the supply chain, mapping images sourced from the cellphones and Bluetooth networks of sailors and traders navigating the “free trade zone” from India to Dubai to Somalia and back. In all their work, CAMP’s response to the ubiquity of images seems first to be concerned with their origin and circulation beyond the commodities market. In The Neighbor Before the House (2009–12), eight evicted Palestinian families in various neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem/Al-Quds are given access to CCTV cameras so that they can spy on the Jewish settlers currently occupying their homes. The result is, perhaps inevitably, an unnerving exploration of issues of surveillance, control, and the position of the camera, but there’s something comforting about the film, too: As kids yell orders to “zoom in!” and family members fill in details of local history, the project becomes a kind of joyous collective imagemaking.
The sixtieth Flaherty Film Seminar ran June 14–20, 2014, at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.