Thanks for the Use of the Hall - Archive

This archive contains posts from May 2007 to November 2008. More recent posts are at:

Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Career discontinuities, part two: The nosedive

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about a phenomenon that has troubled me all my auteurist life: one discovers a director with an identifiable sensibility that operates over the course of his or her career; and then one sees a film by that director that a) doesn't seem to partake at all of said sensibility, and b) one actively dislikes. Trying to be open-minded, I speculated in that post that perhaps the discontinuity has to do more with the viewer than with the director - that a different viewer might say to me, "What are you talking about? Look, there's the director's typical compositional style, typical acting preference, etc." And I would say to that hypothetical different viewer, weakly, "Yes, but it's just not the same...." Weakly, because the all-important idea of "sensibility" is less quantifiable than the identification of elements of style, and may therefore reflect our subjectivity all too easily.

And I'm officially still open-minded in this way. But the film life is all about what we like and what we don't like, and when a director jumps from one side of that line to the other, you just have to take it seriously. Maybe it's partly about the viewer, but maybe it's about the director too.

If too many discontinuities crop up in one's appreciation of directors, then it's legitimate to wonder whether one is cut out to be an auteurist. And therefore, if even one discontinuity crops up, the seeds of identity crisis have been sown.

Of course, it's possible to be completely into directorial style without being too invested in the continuity among a director's films. The continuity itself isn't what makes the films good; but it provides a confirmation that one is on the right track, that one isn't simply making the director's identity out of whole cloth. Of all the auteurists I know, I'm probably the one who bases his auteurism the most on the content of individual films, rather than on career analysis. And yet I get rattled when that little je-ne-sais-quoi goes missing between projects.

A particular kind of career discontinuity is currently on my mind: the nosedive, the point where a good director becomes bad and stays bad. It would be better for auteurism if this were an unusual case. But I am forced to admit that it happens to me a lot, and has always happened a lot. In fact, the nosedive is so common that I live in fear of it: every time I see a new film by a director I love, I worry.

I'm currently having a run of bad experiences from good directors. I don't want to get too deeply into particulars at the moment. But:

  • Last night I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved Chopper to death, really thought that Dominik was a distinctive new voice. By the time Coward was over, I thought it likely that I would never enjoy one of his films again. And yet once in a while I saw a framing or a rhythm that I could imagine in Chopper. It didn't matter, because I was having such a hard time with what I perceived as the sensibility behind the film.
  • I know lots of people really like Secret Sunshine, and I've liked every one of Lee Chang-dong's previous films. In this case there was a lot of style continuity with the rest of Lee's career. And yet suddenly I felt a coarse sensibility at work, one going for superficial, hackneyed effects on the small scale. Because the style hadn't shifted that much, I found myself thinking, "Did I ever like any of this guy's films?" Now I'll need to go back and confirm - which is a tricky business in such cases; one really has to clear one's mind.
  • The most horrible black-hole disappearance of directorial personality I can recall is Married Life, which I saw at Toronto. Here I'm less sure that I've seen a nosedive, because the discontinuity is so spookily absolute. Maybe Ira Sachs will return to me.

I do believe that I am really an auteurist, that I have the calling. But the phenomenon I'm discussing is not at all part of the mythology of auteurism, and I see no way of harmonizing it with that mythology. It stands as a qualifier to my auteurism, an asterisk.

P.S. Of course, you can't be sure until later that a bad experience is a nosedive. Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the way things turn out. For instance, a few years back I saw Hur Jin-ho's April Snow at Toronto, and diagnosed the submergence of what I then considered a minor talent. But at Toronto 2007, Hur winds up and delivers Happiness, decisively his most exciting and confident film. A good discontinuity is just as perplexing to my auteurism as a bad one - but it's a lot more fun.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not Completely Frivolous Lists: Women's Names

In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name:

  • Daisy Kenyon
  • Esther Kahn
  • Cluny Brown
  • Vera Drake
  • Sylvia Scarlett
  • Lola Montes
  • Annie Hall
  • Vanina Vanini
  • Effi Briest
  • Nora Helmer

(Given how poorly Woody Allen's films have been faring with me on revisits, I'm hesitant to select Annie Hall...but I'll let it stand for now.)

And, just to be comprehensively silly, here's a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's first name:

  • Gertrud
  • Christine (Alan Clarke)
  • Petulia
  • Alyonka
  • Raja
  • Marnie
  • Lola (Fassbinder)
  • Camille
  • Eva
  • Muriel

I made these lists because of an undocumented feeling that a disproportionate number of my favorite films are named after women. (I can verify that the list of films with men's names that I like at this level is about half the length of the women's list.) And I don't think this is a purely personal preference: I think that the auteurist tradition, which I absorbed as a novice cinephile, leans gynophilic.

The reasons for this leaning strike me as far from feminist. Certainly one notes that naming a film after a woman is akin to objectification.

To speculate further: tradition has ensured that male-centered films have often been about the exercise of power, about creating or altering destiny; and female-centered films have often been about being acted upon, about being at the mercy of larger forces, about destiny altering the protagonist.

It would follow that male-centered films would be more likely vehicles for the audience's power fantasies. Sometimes these fantasies are individualist: commercial cinema always has a prominent place for action-adventure films with powerful, victorious male heroes. Sometimes they are political - and cinema's political movements, which necessarily are built on power fantasies, have different ways of dealing with gender-based power issues. The Soviet cinema, for instance, made an official effort (I'll leave to historians the question of how successful the effort was) to invest women with a mythology of power rather than passivity; the woman's movement has had a similar tendency. On the other side, it often seems to me that the old American left, which grew as a social and cinematic force in the 30s, embraced the traditional masculine role, and occasionally risked misogyny by equating woman with the temptations of home and security that must be resisted by the politically committed male.

The politique des auteurs was associated in 50s France with a Catholic position, and frequently with a right-wing position. Positif, the magazine that most vigorously opposed the auteurism of Cahiers du Cinema, was committed to the political left, and saw the advocates of the politique as little more than fascists. (English-language readers who are interested in the history of the politique should try to find a copy of Peter Graham's out-of-print collection The New Wave, which translates and reprints articles from Positif, Cahiers and other magazines that illustrate the political issues at stake.)

I've always believed that the Catholic origins of auteurism, obscured over the years by other layers of ideology, had a lot to do with the prominence in the auteurist canon of films in which the world is a vale of tears, and protagonists (often women) are buffeted about by forces outside themselves, finding at best a spiritual victory. And Positif's tastes in American cinema, which reflected their political commitment, strike me as rather male-oriented.

I happen to feel that, in the final analysis, vale-of-tears movies reflect the human condition better than movies about victory over adversity. (As Pialat said in a late interview: "Death - it's not an improvement.") Not that you can't have good movies with active protagonists: the human condition covers a lot of territory. But this leaning of mine is probably the reason that my lists of favorite films contain so many movies with women's names.

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Traces of Love (Gaeulro)

Once in a while I see a film and think, "Boy, I wish there was a functioning auteurist movement these days, because here's a film that could use that perspective." The last time I thought this was yesterday, at the New York Asian Film Festival at the IFC Center, apropos the Korean tearjerker Traces of Love. Perhaps the auteurist connection is in my mind because contemporary Korean tearjerkers bear considerable resemblance to the ones that Hollywood used to turn out in the 50s, right down to the liberal use of classical piano music.

The title Traces of Love is for English-language audiences; the Korean title is Gaeulro, which, I read, translates roughly as Towards Autumn. The director is Kim Dae-Seung, whose bizarre but interesting Bungee Jumping of Their Own caught my attention a few years back. (I missed Kim's second film, the historical drama Blood Rain, which played at last year's Asian Film Fest.) Somehow the wacky aspect of Bungee Jumping had obscured its style in my memory, and I wasn't expecting much out of Traces of Love. But Kim must now be taken seriously.

Traces of Love is a poor title, because the love that is cruelly extinguished in the film's first act lives on, not in trace quantities, but as a tidal wave that overwhelms all other psychic activity in the present. (Whereas the film does indeed contain a lot of autumn scenery.) There is nothing restrained about the film's sentiment: the characters exist only as vehicles of their passion; all other components of their psychology are excluded from consideration. The unthoughtful and maudlin aspects of the melodrama are real, not just apparent. That's why Traces needs auteurist support.

If Kim's limitations are obvious, so are his virtues. Traces of Love is visually stunning from beginning to end: not just when it photographs its characters against the vistas of the scenic island that is the film's capital, but even when one of them descends a flight of stairs in an urban walkway or crosses a cafeteria. Inseparable from the serenity of the widescreen compositions is Kim's love of stillness, his willingness to suspend the film in lengthy, contemplative passages that simply register the characters walking through air and light, the landscape shifting quietly behind them, a murmur of natural sound the only thing on the soundtrack. What makes Traces more than a stylistic exercise applied to inadequate material is that the eerie calm of the direction envelops the universal sentimentality of love and loss, turning the movie into a strange, heightened vision of afterlife rather than any kind of depiction of everyday psychology.

There are a number of short clips of Traces of Love on YouTube that manage to convey the film's weird and pellucid mood. Unfortunately, the clips cut off the edges of Kim's 2.35:1 compositions. A Korean DVD of the film with English subtitles is available, and is supposed to contain a 2.35:1 widescreen version.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Donovan's Reef, or the Soft Underbelly of Auteurism

"One sees the danger," said Andre Bazin of the fledgling politique des auteurs, "which is an aesthetic cult of personality." I thought of Bazin's warning as I revisited Donovan's Reef at MOMA last night. It's rather an amazing film, a John Ford home movie shot in Hawaii at Paramount's expense, a completely personal project that shows off Ford's effortless command of visual storytelling. It's also the distilled essence of all the bad taste that ever found its way into a Ford film. I watched openmouthed, astonished at how dense was the weave of unfunny jokes, offenses against human dignity, and ill-judged narrative tics.

I love John Ford, and I certainly feel the power of his regard in every one of the beautiful full shots that both propel the action and abstract each moment into a state of timelessness. But what does an auteurist do with a movie like this? It's like a child with Down Syndrome: perhaps at one point abortion might have been an option, but now that it's here, your parental instincts kick in, and in any case you can't just push it out the door.

Of course, a great many auteurists love the film without reservation. Would they be as enthusiastic if it were Ford's only film, if there were no career for it to be the summation of, if they hadn't received homeopathic doses of this vulgarity in even Ford's masterpieces? I think some of them would love the film for its own sake. And I can relate. But, jeez Louise, love or no love, it's a real problem for auteurism if we just advocate for movies like this without grappling with their peculiar problems of sensibility.

Just a note for the record: it's in the scenes of drunken, brawling male cameraderie where Donovan's Reef feels most natural and achieves some comic subtlety. The best thing about the film is Lee Marvin's Gilhooley, a force of destructive masculinity who, perhaps thanks to an improvised script, becomes a sort of domesticated housepet, idling childlike on the periphery of scenes, contained by social forces and not unhappy for it.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Pretty Poison, or Direction Hiding in Plain Sight

Some of the most important things a director can do are practically invisible even to specialists. Case in point: Pretty Poison, directed by Noel Black from a script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. Semple's script is quite self-sufficient in terms of both characterization and structure, and one can be forgiven for thinking that the director simply yelled "Action!" into a megaphone. (This post will contain a few spoilers.)

The script has potential problems. In its first half, it exemplifies the "wacky nonconformist" comedy that loomed large in America's movie mythology in the late 60s and early 70s. The danger in WNC comedy, for me at least, is that the filmmakers will get, and give, too much pleasure from the wit and power of the wacky protagonist as he or she evades the strictures of a dour society, and that the film will reduce to an us-vs.-them power fantasy.

As the film shifts into a noir register in its second half, a new set of dangers crops up. Innocent people are dying, and yet the film is presented as a love story. One of the protagonists has no conscience about her murders; the other cares mostly for the murderer rather than the victims. Will the movie seem as casual about killing as its characters? Can it give us genre pleasure while maintaining some sense of gravity? I mean, some viewers might not care about this sort of thing, but I do.

Noel Black isn't well remembered these days. I like him in general: in addition to Pretty Poison, I'd recommend I'm a Fool; A Man, a Woman and a Bank; and A Change of Seasons (allegedly largely directed by Black without credit). The visual scheme of Pretty Poison is pockmarked by the craft confusion that 1968 was all about - Old Hollywood or New? - but Black has a pleasing penchant for serene long shots that not only place the characters squarely in the bucolic-but-industrial small town environment, but also give full play to Anthony Perkins' unique bodily grace.

Still, I'd say that composition is a relatively small factor in how the direction helped out this project. The two story dangers that I described above aren't handled adequately in the scriptwriting. Semple did some writing work to keep the film in balance in the second half, but he didn't make the script foolproof; and I think he was way too seduced by WNC comedy in the first half. By my accounting, he left Black with one big problem that needed to be fixed, and one minefield to walk through.

A director can do a lot to level the tone of a script without being conspicuous about it. Black and Perkins take an interesting approach to the WNC comedy: Perkins spits out his wackiest lines with heavy sarcasm, or spins his CIA fantasy with straight-man dispatch that reveals a wry self-awareness. Instead of living in the character's fantasy world and being expected to like it, we find ourselves watching a smart guy coping with the real world, and revealing his personality in the process. Perkins is subtly marked as an object of study rather than as an identification figure. If the WNC problem isn't erased altogether, the film at least manages to lay the basis for a workable characterization while Black treads water, waiting for the next act.

As the noir plot engages, Black does the film an even bigger service by pegging its tone more and more to Perkins' Sternberg-like, resigned awareness that his love is fatal, and yet still redemptive for him. The riskiest scene occurs two-thirds of the way through the film, when Perkins proposes to Weld the morning after she has murdered for the first time and turned him into a fugitive. To pull the trick off, Black and Semple need to make Perkins' love so important to him, and so darkly portentous, that it can share the film's moral focus even though a body is floating in the river behind the lovers. I think Black manages this balancing act, and keeps Perkins' distracted romantic transcendence on the front burner through all the noir machinations that take the film to the finish line.

All this stuff is direction, just as much as a fancy camera angle is; and the auteurist aesthetic doesn't hold up well unless such subtlety can be documented.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Friedkin, Auteurism, and Bug

William Friedkin was for many years held in low regard by auteurist tastemakers. Part of the reason may have been that auteurism retained some of its original affinity for the filmmaking values of the classical cinema, and Friedkin seemed allied with the forces of dissolution: it was easy in the early 70s to dismiss his jagged cutting and irregular rhythms as messy semi-competence, at a time when many film lovers were worried about the destruction of Old Hollywood craft. And another part of the reason may have been that auteurism had traditionally been aligned with values that were religious or redemptive or in some way affirmative. Truffaut kicked the shooting match off with an essay that condemned the nastiness and anticlericalism of the French Tradition of Quality; Sarris felt obliged to exile his beloved Billy Wilder on charges of cynicism and sourness; Robin Wood linked auteurism to Leavis's moralist valuation of art. Whereas Friedkin's true metier is existential horror, and one finds no trace of uplift anywhere in his style.

However, there's a different sense in which Friedkin fits quite well into auteurist praxis. American auteurism had an M.O. that was fitted to the way Old Hollywood worked: auteurism's compelling message was that submerged directors who looked like anonymous hacks to the undiscerning eye were in fact transcending the limitations of the system and making art. When Old Hollywood collapsed, and New Hollywood began promoting the director as superstar in the hope of creating an un-television-like sense of event, auteurists found themselves in possession of an outmoded archetype. And, not surprisingly, they have had trouble ever since agreeing on which modern superstars are hip and which are square. Meanwhile, the workaday commercial cinema, where auteurism had always scored its big coups in America, began to look so rote and conformist that auteurists (with only a few exceptions, such as Michael E. Grost) couldn't force themselves to sift through it in search of a new generation of heroes.

Not too many careers these days fit the old auteurist model, but lo and behold, Friedkin's is one of them. From the high-water mark of The French Connection and The Exorcist, his clout gradually declined to the point where he needed to accept assignments of truly unpromising material. But he never seemed completely to lie down for his corporate masters, and on a few occasions (like Rules of Engagement and The Hunted), he actually managed to realize the auteurist dream and put across a semi-coherent, powerful vision over the dead body of his scripts. With the exception of Jim McBride (where are you, Jim?), I can't think of another director of his generation who waged a successful fight against such adverse commercial conditions.

The only thing this discussion has to do with Bug, Friedkin's new release, is that Friedkin has for the moment given up trying to turn sow's ears into silk purses, instead mounting a film version of a rather good play by Tracy Letts. I like Bug, and there's no doubt that it's more of a piece than anything Friedkin has done lately. But the auteurist in me resists the idea that Friedkin is "back"; and, after all, filming theater is tricky business, maybe trickier than filming mediocre action scripts.

I said just about all I have to say about Friedkin's style in an old 24fps piece on The Hunted. Bug doesn't show off Friedkin's sensibility as much as some of his films, but it's a smart movie, and not just on the script level. I was especially impressed by the way Friedkin approached the film's most dangerous scene, in which Ashley Judd delivers a long manic monologue that doesn't travel all that well from the stage. Yet Friedkin almost manages the trick by using cross-cutting to throw emphasis upon Michael Shannon's joyous, nearly tearful reaction to the speech; the effect is to move Judd out from under the stage spotlight and make us see her as an object of scrutiny rather than a vessel of pure drama.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fleischer vs. Auteurism

I'm on record as being a Richard Fleischer fan, but boy did I not enjoy The Spikes Gang, which I saw tonight for the first time in 30 years. The screenplay, by Martin Ritt's regular writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., is a hopeless case, pleased with its laborious verbiage and pitched at a level of parable/cliche that excludes all references to real life except for a few reflexive socialist and anticlerical gestures. What really struck me this time is that Fleischer clearly perceived the tenor of the project as the screenwriters conceived it, and set out to work within their vision. All the stuff that interests me from other Fleischer films was banished: for instance, he clearly saw that too much deployment of natural sound, or emphasis on spatial continuity, would perturb the surface of Ravetch and Frank's moralistic nega-fantasy, and so he opted for a more abstract, elementary soundtrack and a simpler decoupage.

The film made me think about the dominant mythology of auteurism: the director who, knowingly or unknowingly, is true to his or her world view, struggles against bad material, and sometimes is lucky enough to overcome it by dint of sheer personality. The kind of transformation that I perceive in Fleischer between The Spikes Gang and, say, Mandingo (released almost exactly a year later) seems uncanny according to auteurist dogma; and yet outside of that dogma it seems not just possible, but an expected skill for a commercial director.

I'm not saying that the auteurist paradigm is invalid (trying to realize a screenwriter's vision certainly does not disqualify a director for auteurist consideration), just that this is a case where I personally am not working within that paradigm. It's not as if there are infinitely many Fleischers. The fact that I see multiple Fleischers may have a lot to do with my particular movie values: a more open-minded filmgoer, or one more attuned to Fleischer, might see the commonality among his different directorial identities. (I actually perceive some Fleischer-ness in The Spikes Gang - just not the level of Fleischer-ness that could make a film good. His weakly diagonal compositions were quite recognizable, for instance.)

Maybe the real division isn't between directors who assert themselves and directors who interpret, but rather between viewers who can conceptually integrate a director's work and viewers who can't feel the connections.

Only one scene pleased me: the final, heavily edited, disorienting, Madigan-like showdown between Gary Grimes and Lee Marvin.

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