Thursday, August 01, 2013

Links for Movie buffs

Almost anyone with an interest in the history of film criticism knows about the great debates that took place around the auteur theory in the 1960s, with publications like Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight at Sound, and individuals like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, in the eye of the storm. But one journal that doesn’t get mentioned as much these days – though it was central to those conversations and provided some of the most intelligent, passionate film writing of its time – is Movie, the little magazine started by Ian Cameron in 1962.

I didn’t know much about Movie myself until a few years ago, but I came to feel a distant kinship with it when I learnt that two of the film writers who had most influenced me – Victor F Perkins (author of Film as Film) and Robin Wood – were part of the magazine’s core group in its early years. I knew of no connection between Wood and Perkins when I first read them, but I knew both stressed the importance of assessing film as a form with its own distinct language – subject to careful visual analysis that goes beyond the bare bones of story or plot – rather than as an underling to literature. Naturally, this meant according serious attention to works that lay outside the circles of cultural respectability at the time. (Wood’s path-breaking study of Hitchcock began with this now-famous passage: “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It is a pity the question has to be raised: if the cinema were truly regarded as an autonomous art, not as a mere adjunct of the novel or of drama – if we were able yet to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature – it would be unnecessary.”)


Anyway, I mention this because I just came across this website with content from a recent revival of the journal, with Perkins – now in his mid-70s – still involved. There are older articles as well. Some of the writing is intense (and needless to say, requires familiarity with the films being discussed) but do bookmark and take the plunge once in a while; it’s worth it.

Some recommendations (the links are all PDFs):

“Films, Directors and Critics” – an important 1962 piece by Ian Cameron, which responds to charges of “over-analysis” in the first issue of Movie, spells out some of the journal’s main concerns, and takes a jab at the cultural conservatism of Sight and Sound (while also rejecting the most extreme definitions of auteurism proposed by the French critics). I think this piece should be read in conjunction with two other famous essays: Pauline Kael’s “Circles and Squares” and Andrew Sarris’s “Towards a Theory of Film History”. (Kael berated the Movie critics in her piece, even asking the – in my view bizarre – question “If they are men of feeling and intelligence, isn’t it time for them to be a little ashamed of their ‘detailed criticism’ of movies like River of No Return?”)

A 2010 editorial by Perkins, with context for the Movie revival and a reminiscence of the winds of change in the early 60s. (“1958 was the key year. It was the year of The Tarnished Angels, Touch of Evil, Party Girl and Vertigo, films to revere, to see and see again, but loftily dismissed by the critical establishment … The depth and eagerness of [Orson Welles’s] response to admiring interrogation about Touch of Evil did two things. It showed us that film makers might rise to the level of the questions put to them, and it stoked our fury at the blinkered terms of this film’s and others’ reception in the English-writing world.”)

A detailed piece by Alex Clayton about “the texture of performance” in Hitchcock’s Psycho and its “shot-by-shot remake” by Gus Van Sant. Probably best read with DVDs of both films handy, but there are useful insights of a general nature here too. I particularly like Clayton’s observation that the concept of a shot-by-shot remake is inherently flawed, being based on the idea that “the figures who populate film shots are not essentially constitutive of them, except as hominid-shaped design elements”. (In other words: casting Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in iconic roles formerly played by other actors is one thing; but confining them in a pre-determined pattern of shot compositions and gestures that requires them to exactly mimic the original performers is another thing altogether.)


Andrew Sarris's essay on Luis Bunuel and Viridiana, from the first issue of Movie. ("There is a danger in attaching an explicitly political moral to Bunuel's career [...] His camera has always viewed his characters from a middle distance, too close for cosmic groupings and too far away for self-identification. By focusing on the abnormality of life, Bunuel forces his audience to accept man unconditionally.")

Also: two long pieces about Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner and Lang’s You Only Live Once, which I will read after watching the films again, but which look interesting if you have the films in recent memory.

Full table of contents here and here. Also, here is a listing of contents of old Movie issues. Wish all the pieces were available to read online.

[Related posts: Perkins on subject and treatment; a tribute to Robin Wood; thoughts on story and storytelling]

18 comments:

  1. I will not be surprised if the whole point of the Gus Vant Sant movie was to make Alex Clayton's point, i.e. to invalidate this - “the figures who populate film shots are not essentially constitutive of them, except as hominid-shaped design elements”.

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  2. Rahul: you mean he might have deliberately made a flawed film, just to show that the shot-by-shot concept doesn't work? Or did I misunderstand your comment?

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  3. Thanks for the links!

    takes a jab at the cultural conservatism of Sight and Sound

    I don't think cultural conservatism is the right word. If anything it is the reluctance of the critics to embrace films that seem "culturally conservative and old fashioned" on the surface that infuriates Cameron.

    For instance he mentions how the critics at S&S airly remarked that Liberty Valance was too old-fashioned for 1962! In fact many others (including Kael I think) made similar remarks at the time. The same crowd went gaga over culturally rebellious, stylistically "fresh" films like Bonny and Clyde and The Graduate. Mainstream critics back then were showing an impatience with the classical style and were too eager to embrace the New Hollywood films that were anything but classical and anything but culturally conservative in their tone.

    50 years later the attitudes evinced in those reviews strike us as immature! Most people today regard Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo as having aged more gracefully than the chic films of the era like Bonny and Clyde, The Graduate or the numerous spaghetti westerns.

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  4. Also during the 60s it was the lukewarm reception accorded to the late-classical westerns of Hawks and Ford by the critics that eventually led to the abandonment of the "classical western" genre altogether and the emergence of the new-style western - where directors became too scared to engage in nuanced meditations on the great American westward expansion and instead resorted to simplistic comic westerns like Leone's GBU.

    Was this an outcome of cultural conservatism? I believe quite the opposite. It was an outcome of the emergence of the far-left as a force in American politics which resulted in a climate where the American Indian, the negro and the woman as abstract entities were almost canonised and the "white male" ended up being perceived as the root of all the world's troubles.

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  5. Shrikanth: no, conservatism is what I meant (though I sort of understand your spin on it too). I'm talking of the sort of attitude that had Penelope Houston (the Sight and Sound editor) rejecting Robin Wood's deeply insightful and engaged essay on Psycho on the grounds that that film was "intended as a joke" and not meant to be taken seriously. And the faux-high-culture stance that would automatically elevate a "prestige production" like Ben-Hur over a great personal film like Rio Bravo or Kiss Me Deadly.

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  6. What a brilliant extract this is (from the Cameron piece)

    It is only over American movies
    that the trouble starts, and reviews are like to end with a
    desultory ‘George Cukor directed efficiently’. The reasons
    are easy enough to find. Hollywood pictures are not so
    much custom-built as manufactured. The responsibility for
    them is shared, and the final quality is no more the fault of
    the director than of such parties as the producer, the set designer, the cameraman or the hairdresser. Only by a happy accident can anything good escape from this industrial complex. The good American film comes to be regarded as the cinematic equivalent of a mutant


    And the funny thing is..nearly ALL critics have harbored / continue to harbour this attitude. Be it old-time critics like Crowther/Agee, modern mainstream critics like Kael/Ebert or for that matter even auteurists like Sarris/Wood. There is a knee-jerk tendency to dismiss "collaborative art" as being lesser than auteurist art.

    You even sense this with Sarris who is quoted as saying - "Welles minus Toland is a mountain compared to the molehill that is Wyler minus Toland". Immense arrogance and condescension towards Wyler evident in that line.

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  7. "Most people today regard Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo as having aged more gracefully than the chic films of the era like Bonny and Clyde, The Graduate or the numerous spaghetti westerns."

    Shrikanth: It's difficult to fathom how either Bonnie and Clyde (which I love) or The Graduate (which I don't really care for) can be dismissed as 'chic films'. Also, when did 'ageing gracefully' become an important criterion? I can think of a number of films which will never age gracefully but will nevertheless remain vital: Greed, Metropolis, The Lady from Shanghai, Pickup on South Street, The Battle of Algiers, The Wild Bunch.

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  8. Also, I'm not sure that Liberty Valance is widely perceived as having aged gracefully. In any case, Ford's reputation is constantly under scrutiny and there is an ongoing debate about whether he was stodgily conservative (I know you don't like the casual use of that word, Shrikanth!) or whether there was more to him than the surface reputation of his films suggested. (Was it Peter Bogdanovich or Joseph McBride who pointed out that for all the sentimental, mythologising resonance of the line "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", Ford himself DID "print the facts" in films like Valance and Fort Apache?)

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  9. And Shrikanth, just a small point about that extract you quoted from the Cameron piece. When he says that "everyone accepts the cinema of directors for France, Italy, Japan, India, Sweden..." it may relate to something I touched on in this comment on a recent post. Namely, that too many people (including some professional critics) in the US thought that the "cinema of Sweden" was represented mainly by Bergman, the "cinema of India" mainly by Ray, Japan mainly by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, etc. Their perspective was limited by the fact that they were mostly exposed to the most acclaimed films from other countries (the cream of the crop if you like), but had to deal with the entirety of American cinema - good, great, bad and terrible.

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  10. It's difficult to fathom how either Bonnie and Clyde (which I love) or The Graduate (which I don't really care for) can be dismissed as 'chic films'. Also, when did 'ageing gracefully' become an important criterion?

    By "chic" I meant fashionable films that captured the spirit of the times they were released in.
    Good point about "ageing" : Personally I don't think any film can be expected to speak for all times! That's not what I expect at all.

    In this context what I meant was that Liberty Valance and Rio Bravo enjoy a better reputation today among critics in general than several famed New Hollywood works of the late 60s (including the two I mentioned).

    In fact I find Leone's westerns a bigger pain to endure than even Ford's less memorable westerns.

    In any case, Ford's reputation is constantly under scrutiny and there is an ongoing debate about whether he was stodgily conservative

    Ford remains a master. Though there are some people like David Thomson who don't like him very much.

    Was he stodgily conservative? I am not comfortable with the word. There weren't any Mrs Robinsons or Norman Bates in his films. But that doesn't mean he was "conservative".

    He made revisionist westerns long before the term was invented!! Films like Fort Apache. His films grappled with the complexity and the inevitable tragedy that had to ensue when a very advanced and complex western civilization clashed with a very primitive Indian civilization in the 19th century. He is not a racist. He doesn't condone violence. But his films make us understand
    why this meeting of cultures was painful and why it had to be painful (there was no other way).

    Sadly people continue to judge him and his films with 21st century Mayfair/Manhattan lenses and pass ignorant judgments.

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  11. Their perspective was limited by the fact that they were mostly exposed to the most acclaimed films from other countries (the cream of the crop if you like), but had to deal with the entirety of American cinema - good, great, bad and terrible

    That's part of the story yes. Definitely a selection bias was at work. And I think the politics of it is an underrated factor.

    Ben Hur was liked by critics not just because it was "mainstream" but because it was anti-imperialist (and took a very simplistic view of the Roman Empire - a civilization that was way ahead of its time). Dr Strangelove was celebrated partly because its bitter tone was so very fashionable in 60s America. In contrast a very nuanced movie like Advise and Consent was airly dismissed by many as a pretentious drama because its uncomfortable and nuanced criticisms weren't palatable to either the McCarthyites on the right or the America-haters on the left.

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  12. Another point that concerns the condescension of critics towards collaborative art -

    Collaborative art by its very nature demands compromise. It demands the reconciliation of conflicting sensibilities as well as conflicting objectives. The critics (who tend to be instinctively averse to the market system of wheeling and dealing) do find this jarring and hence the attempt to come up with this idea of "film authorship" where the director is placed on a pedestal and the work of other accomplices downplayed.

    The promotion of this "auteur theory" meant two things -

    - Overstatement of the deleterious impact of collaboration in movies. Eg: Censorship, imposition of happy endings by producers, star culture etc

    - Understatement of the value of diversity that these various collaborators bring to the table.

    So starting in the 60s we had this auteurship movement that downplayed the role of great writers in the movie business. The likes of Ben Hecht, William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, Charles Brackett, Raymond Chandler, Herman Mankiewicz among others.

    Can one imagine Notorious without Hecht, Citizen Kane without Mankiewicz, AMOLAD without Alfred Junge, Shadow of a Doubt without Thornton Wilder, Nashville without all those numerous actors-cum-songwriters, White Heat without Cagney?

    These films will be immeasurably poorer without these great unheralded accomplices. However the understatement of their role was necessary in order to realize the larger objective of taking snipes at the very culture of collaboration in movies (which is a very conservative culture by nature that goes contrary to the idea of the artist as an unfettered free spirit)

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  13. Shrikanth: oh come on, you're really going overboard now. None of those "accomplices" you mention was unheralded - in fact, many of the early excesses of the auteur theory were a reflexive, hit-back response to the fact that too many American directors were being unheralded and not recognised for the vital role they played in overseeing those creative collaborations.

    And leave us not forget that critics, by virtue of being writers themselves, tend to have an instinctive sympathy for a film's credited screenwriters. As late as the 1970s, Kael wrote a blinkered book in which she strongly undermined Welles's contribution to Kane in favour of Mankiewicz's. Read that book and you constantly sense Kael the writer taking up cudgels on behalf of someone from her profession (and in the process compromising her own integrity as a reporter/researcher by selectively using only the information that fit her thesis).

    We've had this conversation before I think, but once again: the auteur theory that I personally know, and have time for, is a more nuanced and accommodating one than the straw-man version you have chosen to attack here.

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  14. I am a bit skeptical when you say that ageing well is not very important while judging an art-piece or for that matter anything. Again, it's very subjective and what is also very subjective is what ages well. For instance, in case of Metropolis, production values may seem to be dated today. Acting also seems to be dated. But, its ideas and philosophy are very contemporary.

    I remember getting shocked when I watched Ray's Pratidwandi. The attitude of middle class people who select only those people for a job who sing their tune is very very prevalent today as well. Besides, the attitude towards Naxalism hasnt changed either.

    Again, very subjective. But, to me, if I have to pick between Chinatown and Manorama Six Feet Under (which is a beautiful film), I might just give Chinatown extra score as it is so high on production values, quality of visual and even acting. The story with so much corruption happening in India and elsewhere may seem a bit dated.That's also because a number of cities across the world have witnessed pretty much similar development model.

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  15. We've had this conversation before I think, but once again: the auteur theory that I personally know, and have time for, is a more nuanced and accommodating one than the straw-man version you have chosen to attack here.

    Jai : Don't get me wrong. I am not attacking the auteur theory over here. I have a lot of time for it as well. I am just trying to understand why ideas like the auteur theory in film criticism emerged when it did. It captured the spirit of the times. It was a part of a larger social movement that was militantly non conformist and intolerant of the older conservative culture that emphasized compromise, negotiation, wheeling and dealing.

    As the 60s wore on there was a reaction among critics against directors and movie-makers who represented that old culture. Unfashionable directors like Wyler, Curtiz, Capra among others. Mainstream critics like Kael chose to champion the youth who were coming through (people like Penn, Scorsese, Altman). At the other end we had men like Sarris who chose to hark back and redeem some of the old directors who purportedly exhibited an "independent, auteurist" sensibility (people like Anthony Mann, Walsh, Wellman).

    The main losers of this battle was the studio establishment itself - the vast majority of Hollywood filmmakers who had churned how films by the dozen during those crowded decades between 30s and 60s.

    It is only very recently that those forgotten directors are coming back to prominence thanks to men like Scorsese. This would include men like Tashlin, John Stahl and Albert Lewin. Forgotten names which are slowly back in circulation these days.

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  16. lololololol, defender of "white males" in the hawse y'all!

    dear shrikanth,

    are you actually pat buchanan disguised as a young Indian libertarian?

    love,

    sapera

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  17. sapera: You have a fertile imagination. I haven't defended anybody on this thread. Barring John Ford.

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