Criticism on Film

From Sight and Sound (Winter 1990/91). -– J.R.

It’s no secret that serious film criticism in print has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while ‘entertainment news’, bite-size reviewing and other forms of promotion in the media have been steadily expanding. (I’m not including academic film criticism, a burgeoning if relatively sealed-off field which has developed a rhetoric and tradition of its own-the principal focus of David Bordwell’s fascinating recent book, Making Meaning) But the existence of serious film commentary on film, while seldom discussed as an autonomous entity, has been steadily growing, and in some cases supplanting the sort of work which used to appear only in print.

I am not thinking of the countless talking-head ‘documentaries’ about current features — actually extended promos financed by the studios or production companies — which include even such a relatively distinguished example as Chris Marker’s AK (1985), about the making of Kurosawa’s Ran. The problem with these efforts is that they further blur the distinction between advertising and criticism, and thus make it even harder for ordinary viewers to determine whether they are being informed about something or simply being sold a bill of goods. What I have in mind are films about films and film-makers which seriously analyse or document their subjects. Many of these films surface at festivals, turn up on TV, and are used in academic courses, but very few ever wind up in commercial theatres, and so are rarely reviewed outside the trade journals. I can’t claim to be comprehensive in this survey, so what follows is merely meant to be suggestive, and mainly weighted towards what I’ve seen recently.

A few words about the conventions of this sub-genre. Most films about the work of a film-maker have a standard itinerary: a show-and-tell format, consisting of interviews (with the film-maker and friends, associates, biographers, critics), clips, and, if’ the subject is still alive, footage documenting work on a recent feature. The best examples from the past include Peter Bogdanovich’s Directed by John Ford (1971), Philo Bregstein’s Whoever Tells the Truth Shall Die (on Pasolini, 1980), Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Unknown Chaplin (1983) and Michael Ventura’s ‘I’m Almost Not Crazy’: John Cassavetes, The Man and His Work (1984), Patrick Montgomery’s The Man You Loved to Hate (1979), scripted by Richard Koszarski and intended as a companion to his Stroheim biography, illustrates the advantages and drawbacks of this approach. Clips from a good many rare films in which Stroheim acted are invaluable, and interviews with many people who knew Stroheim well give us a vivid sense of his personality; but the amount of concrete information imparted is minuscule compared with Koszarski’s book. Production histories of each film whiz by so rapidly that we are ultimately left with much more about Stroheim’s public profile than his directorial style. The commentary is certainly enlightened, but if we want any sense of how Stroheim’s style evolved, we have to look elsewhere.

Much the same can be said of Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer (1990), with the difference that here there is no satisfactory biography to fall back on — unless one counts the recently published Preston Sturges, skilfully edited and adapted by Sandy Sturges from her husband’s unfinished autobiography, letters and diaries. We do, however, have Manny Farber and W. S. Poster’s essay ‘Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies’ and Penelope Houston’s Sturges entry in Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, both of which contain critical insights which the film makes no attempt to approximate. Directed by Kenneth Bowser and written by the former Variety critic and reporter Todd McCarthy, the documentary competently lays out the basic facts and contradictions of Sturges’ life and meteoric career; and it’s notable for the variety of archive material it draws or, from radio interviews, through Sturges’ cameo appearance in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), to photographs and verbal accounts of the gabmaster at work.

Two facets of Sturges’ career are, however, regrettably glossed over: his extraordinary stock company of character actors and his last film. Andrew Sarris perceptively describes how these actors function in a typical Sturges scene, and the narration goes on to cite half-a-dozen names while subliminally quick close-ups from a group photograph flash by: William Demarest, Jimmy Conlin, Robert Warwick, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Frank Moran. But given the Bruegelian richness of this aspect of Sturges’ art, the list should have been much longer — at least a dozen major names are omitted, from Edgar Kennedy and Raymond Walburn to Lionel Stander and Akim Tamiroff — and a clip illustrating the choral function of these characters would not have been amiss.

Made in France in 1956 in separate French and English versions, Les Carnets du Major Thompson and The French They Are a Funny Race/The Diary of Major Thompson — Sturges’ rare swan song is the only film he directed not to be accorded a clip. Apart from Pauline Kael’s judicious short notice in 5001 Nights at the Movies, almost every critical reference to the film in print writes it off as dreadful, and this documentary clearly concurs by so hastily gliding past it. Having seen the English version, however, I beg to differ. While it is far from a masterpiece, the film has sweetness, gallantry, wit and an uncharacteristic leisurely pace that is elegiac rather than inert. (If there is a dreadful film in the Sturges canon — and I am afraid there is — it’s The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend.)

These cavils aside, the picture is a good example of what the conventional show-and-tell format can accomplish. The same is true of Paul Joyce’s Motion and Emotion: The Films of Wim Wenders (1989), though here the film’s principal value is as a work of criticism. This is a rare virtue in American show-and- tell documentaries, which usually try to hide their critical biases — as the Sturges documentary does with its disdain for the director’s last film. Motion and Emotion, on the other hand, conveys a sense of what is both questionable and praiseworthy about Wenders’ work. Without being malicious or polemical, it also offers the best ideological critique of Wenders I have encountered: much of this comes from the critic Kraft Wetzel who remarks, during a fascinating discussion touching on the director’s use of women and children, that Wenders will be remembered as the Christian Democrat of the New German Cinema. As a detailed investigation of a major contemporary film-maker, this documentary strikes me as a more valuable overall appraisal than any book or article I have read on the director, even providing the basis for a critique-in-advance, as it were, of Wenders’ Notebook on Cities and Clothes.

Christian Blackwood’s Signed: Lino Brocka focuses more on its subject’s life than on his

films; considering Brocka’s career, however, this approach seems sensible. (It worked

less well when applied to Raul Ruiz in Jill Evans’ Exiles series on Channel 4; there the

emphasis on how nice a fellow Ruiz was didn’t leave much space for dealing with the

more subversive aspects of his work.) The film opens with shots of Manila, while we

hear Brocka speaking on the phone in English to someone in France. He tells Blackwood

he is responding to a French survey about why he makes films; then he reads his reply,

a lengthy statement which concludes, ‘Film for me recaptures the spontaneous, pure,

no-nonsensical relationship I had with the world as a child. This is why later, when I

learned what was happening to my countrymen, I decided I also wanted to be part of

those who tell the truth — I wanted to cry and I wanted to disturb. . .signed, Lino

Brocka.’

Cut to a shot of Brocka directing. The movie-in-progress, we learn, is being made as a

favour to a producer who paid Brocka’s bail bond when he was arrested for acting as a

negotiator in a 1985 jitney transit strike. Brocka goes on to describe his difficult childhood,

his varied background (including work as a monk in a Hawaiian leper colony), his developing

relationship to his homosexuality, the local film industry, his hatred for Ferdinand and Imelda

Marcos, and his growing activism. What impresses one most through this extended

illustrated conversation with Blackwood is the courage and intelligence of Brocka’s candour.

When clips from his films are shown — shot directly from a screen or movieola — Brocka

translates the dialogue, explains the plots and offers some self-critical asides to Blackwood.

The documentary assumes, as well as demonstrates, a continuity between Brocka’s passion

as a director and his passion as a human being, and while Brocka speaking cannot wholly

take the place of seeing a Brocka film, it provides an absorbing introduction.

The French emphasis on style and form has on occasion breathed new life into the standard

show-and-tell format, notably in André Labarthe and Janine Bazin’s TV series Cinéastes de

notre temps, which has been appearing since the 60s and which often imitates the shooting

and editing styles of the directors interviewed. Thus, Josef von Sternberg was accorded

Sternbergian lighting while he spoke about The Saga of Anatahan; Samuel Fuller’s

anecdotes and two-fisted aphorisms were punctuated with staccato editing; and

Cassavetes was filmed around the time of Faces (by Labarthe and Hubert Knapp)

with a. hand-held camera in his own home and environs. One sometimes regrets

the absence of any impulse to contextualise the directors’ remarks in a more

critical light. Like most of Sternberg’s critics, Labarthe seems to accept at face

value the director’s insistence that apart from the sea everything in Anatahan

is artificial and created for the camera. But what of the key archive sequence

of Japanese soldiers returning after the war? Without the dialectical power of

this documentary intrusion — particularly in relation to the abstract homecoming

sequence — the greatness of Anatahan would be substantially diminished. More

recently, in Cinéma de notre temps, a successor to Cinéastes…, David Lynch is

filmed by Guy Girard at his home, dictating a script to a secretary while the camera

drifts dreamily into the next room to pick up a slanted view of Eraserhead on a TV

set before gliding back to Lynch again. Thanks partly to the questions offered, this

is a sharper portrait of Lynch than the usual promos, but it is still some distance

from a genuine critical overview.

Labarthe has recently applied similar tactics to a semi-fictional feature in English

about the last days of Orson Welles — called The Big O in English, and L’Homme

qui a vu I’homme qui a vu I’ours in French — and in several ways this uneven

work summarises the achievements and pitfalls in the sort of mimetic journalism

which has engaged Labarthe over several decades. Described as a ‘fictional essay,’

The Big O resurrects the fictional Laszlo Kovacs — an alias of Michel Poiccard

(Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Breathless, reprised by Belmondo in modified form in

Chabrol’s A Double Tour – played here by New Wave bit actor (and post-New

Wave director) Laszlo Szabo, serving as Labarthe’s virtual stand-in. Trying to

launch a feature of his own in Los Angeles, Kovacs becomes obsessed with

investigating what Welles was up to before he died. With the aid of friends,

he improbably arranges a series of interviews with former associates and

acquaintances of Welles, most of them conducted in Szabo’s heavily accented

English (although John Houseman, filmed shortly before his own death, speaks

in French). Eventually, Kovacs moves to New York and Paris for further revelations

and metaphysical speculations.

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Although the film improves as it proceeds, it is limited by a perverse capriciousness

in terms of style and scholarship: a plethora of tilted angles, dominating the first

half, conveys only a superficial notion of Welles’ mutable style (although later the

film becomes more subtle when it imitates the lighting scheme of the Orly

sequence of F for Fake); and the treatment of Welles as a mythic father figure,

the subject of an Oedipal search, oscillates uneasily between genuine investigation

and a refusal to sort out truth and legend. Houseman’s frequent claim that Welles

never wrote a word of Citizen Kane has been definitively disproved, but you would

never guess it here, where Houseman’s repetition of this lie — refuted even in his

own correspondence with Welles while Kane was in production — is permitted to go

unchallenged.

By contrast, Henry Jaglom’s assertion that he openly taped many of his conversations

with Welles at the latter’s own request is refuted in detail by Welles’ long-time associate

Alessandro Tasca di Cuto, reportedly the last person to have seen Welles alive, who

states that the taping, belatedly discovered by Welles, was done without his prior

knowledge or consent. Labarthe is somewhat cavalier about distinguishing between

authorities and braggarts; many of the participants, moreover, were interviewed

without knowing that they were appearing in a semi-fictional work, so levels of

deception come into play on both sides. What this adds up to may not be entirely

satisfactory as either research or criticism, although as a tortured. reflection on the

lures and snares of French cinephilia, it is often a pungent document.

Some of the most interesting documentaries adopt some or all of the show-

and-tell format only to subvert it, and in ways that are more fruitful than

Labarthe’s. Orson Welles’ Filming Othello (1978), a prime instance of this

skullduggery, features clips from Welles’ 1952 Othello, yet all but the first of

these are substantially re-edited by Welles and shown silent while he offers

commentary over them. While Welles never alludes to this procedure –

except perhaps in an aside on ‘quoting or misquoting’ critical comments by

Jack Jorgens and André Bazin — it has the provocative and unsettling

effect of continually transforming the supposedly fixed object under

examination. We are hearing about a film made in 1952, but what we are

seeing is the scrambled shards of a dream of Othello, oddly akin to the

dreamlike prologue of Citizen Kane, rather than the film itself.

Three academic studies of early cinema deserve attention. While some of the historical

assertions in Noël Burch’s Correction, Please, or How We Got Into Pictures (1979) and

What Do Those Old Films Mean? (1985) are open to debate, the use of fiction in the former

film to illustrate theories about the evolution of film form between 1900 and 1906 is

imaginative and inventive, and both works offer sustained looks at rare archive footage in

near optimum conditions.

Thom Andersen’s Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1976), by contrast,

seems unimpeachable both as history and film-making. Beginning with a

quote from Mao and ending with allusions to Zeno and Da Vinci, it is remarkable

for the amount of information it imparts in an hour, and for the economy with

which it suggests the philosophical, sociological, scientific, aesthetic, optical,

technical and theoretical implications of Muybridge’s motion studies without

belabouring any of them. Using split-screen effects to juxtapose simultaneously

two or more angles and/or speeds in these studies, and even simulating one

Muybridge study in colour, the film superimposes its own analytical grids over

Muybridge’s, and thus yields a complex historical meditation.

A more recent theoretical study is Godard’s TV series Histoire(s) de cinéma (1988) –

an extremely hermetic (if fascinating) work using dozens of clips, stills, printed titles

and fragments of soundtracks, many of them simultaneously or in rapid alternation,

along with his own fragmented commentary, to tease out various apparent

relationships between film and history. Godard concocted this delirious exercise in

associative collage at precisely the point where the cinephilia that launched his own

generation is nearing extinction, which means that most of his linkages are bound

to be semi-comprehensible at best, even to specialists.

The printed title ‘le cinema substitue’ ushers in alternating snatches of Murnau’s

Faust (Faust and Mephistopheles at the crossroads) and Minnelli’s The Band

Wagon (Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dancing in a bar), accompanied by a few

lines of dialogue (the narrator seducing the heroine) from Last Year in Marienbad.

That the dance occurs inside a stage musical based on Faust may be apparent

to some spectators, although not many of them are likely to recognise the Murnau

clip or the Marienbad dialogue, much less make the Faustian connections. Even if

they do, what are they (or we) then to make of the apparently unrelated, subliminal

glimpses of films by Renoir and Mizoguchi which follow?

Local clusters are often witty, or at least until further clusters come along to interrupt or

dissipate them: Howard Hughes is identified by the title Only Angels Have Wings, followed

by shots of an airplane, Charles Foster Kane, the RKO logo, and then, through a kind of

delirium of association, the arrival of the aviator in Paris at the beginning of La Règle du jeu.

The old woman being burned as a witch in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath is accompanied by Rita

Hayworth singing ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ from Gilda. But when the latter linkage is then

followed by old Borgen calling for his son Johannes in Ordet, thereby establishing a link

with Dreyer which seems to cancel out the feminist wisecrack, one feels cast adrift

in a private reverie. ‘Let’s say, for example, that the history of cinema is the history of all

the films that have never been made,’ Godard suggests, and promptly illustrates with

evocations of Welles’ Don Quixote, Othello, Kane, Journey into Fear, It’s All True and F

for Fake – only two of which qualify as unfinished, much less unmade.

Given the perpetual drift in and out of meaning, this on-going series might be regarded

as Godard’s Finnegans Wake. But half a century of scholarship has decoded or at least

illuminated the meaning-clusters of Joyce, while it is difficult, alas, to foresee comparable

efforts being made on behalf of Godard. There’s something quixotic about this last-ditch

effort to process the history of cinema through his fanciful and cryptic pronouncements

– a kind of shorthand synthesis of (or desperate aide memoire for) what we’ve already

forgotten, or at best, like Godard himself, only half-remembered. In so far as all the films

about films discussed here are efforts to retrieve or resurrect continuities of film history

that the marketplace continues to rend asunder, Godard’s desperate magpie assemblage

– dedicated to Mary Meerson of the Cinémathèque Française — at least has the virtue

of suggesting the range of what is being lost and squandered.

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