Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Otis and Art

Otis Ferguson was one of the first of a long line of great American film critics that includes James Agee, Robert Warshow, Dwight Macdonald, and Stanley Kauffmann. Along with his brilliant writing on jazz, he wrote on film for The New Republic from 1934 until he left the post to enlist in the Merchant Marines when America entered the war in Europe. He was killed at Salerno on September 14, 1943 at the age of 36.

He loved film for many reasons, not least of which was because it was - like jazz - a popular medium, at a time when "popular" was not a dirty word and when it was still possible to call oneself a populist with unapologetic pride. Because of this he was always wary of films that wore their art of their sleeves or that gave advance notice of their high seriousness. This aesthetic squint led Ferguson into some perilous territory, as when he swam with all his might against the swift critical current that was sweeping Citizen Kane into history.

Ferguson's objections to Kane were well-defended, but wrong. But when he sat through Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, he wrote a review that dismantled the film with such expert skill that it still stands as an object lesson for filmmakers and film critics on the often elusive art of film.


ARTISTS AMONG THE FLICKERS (1934)
By Otis Ferguson

In Vertov’s Three Songs about Lenin the Soviets come forward to bury the great leader in Westminster Abbey, with something of the atmosphere of Patriots’ Day. Objectively, it is an attempt to idolize, not so much a man as his concepts; it is thus rather limited in appeal. Washington in boats with his ragged army, Lincoln freeing the slaves – these things could be dramatized in some fashion. But when Lenin tots up a column of figures to give some of the Eastern peoples economic freedom, what are you going to do about it in terms of pictures? Near the end of the film there is a moving section of Lenin’s Russia today, with men working, tractors, forges, the dams, etc.; but on the whole it seems poorly melted newsreel material with a poetic cast. I would not have brought it up except that it has gone the way of many foreign films in its reception here, and got its most honorable citation on the grounds of its being pure cinema.

And this suggests the subject of film criticism in general, which is really the subject of this piece. The appreciation of pictures is much like all other forms; but there is the sad fact of its having thus far got so little intelligent consideration that intelligence, when it appears, tends to become the high priest guarding marvels. Everyone goes to the movies, to laugh or to delight his heart; they are a part of common experience – and very common at that, usually. Now and then one is good, but in thinking of it we do not think of art. It’s just a movie; we only went for the fun. So when someone comes along and says down his nose, Art in the cinema is largely in the hands of artists in cinematographic experimentation, we think, Mm, fancy such a thing, I wonder what that is like. When someone, almost holding his breath, says, Well, there is surely no better montage (or regisseur) than this montage (or regisseur), we are apt to be discouraged: Oh damn, I missed it again, all I saw was a story with people and action. And when someone says of Three Songs About Lenin, This is pure cinema, implying that you couldn’t say more for it, we think, Well, well, can’t miss that surely.

The pay-off is that regisseurs are in ordinary life directors, that montage is simply the day-in-day-out (in Hollywood) business of cutting: all you need, except for the higher technical reaches, is a pair of shears and a good sense of timing. As for pure cinema, we would not praise a novel (in which field by this time you must, to be intelligent, be intelligible, or perish) by saying merely that it was pure roman. I do not wish to pull rabbits out of the hat, but here is a fact: you too can make pure cinema.

Given the proper facilities and scientific advice, anyone can, me for instance. Out of my window I can see a rather mean-looking tenement. Doors, windows, a sidewalk. Just above it, rising over it, is a tall very recent building, elevator apts, electrolux, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 rooms, etc., but wait, we’ll not open there. We will catch the meanness of the mean street by opening on pages 18-19 of The New York Times for last week, dirty and blowing along the mean sidewalk in the morning wind. Dust, desolation. The paper blowing and on the sound-track a high piccolo note – wheeeeeeee – and the street empty, deserted, it is morning. Now (take the shots separately; cut and paste them together afterward): the sky (gray), the house (sleeping), the paper, the sky, the house, the paper (whee). Follow the paper down to, suddenly, the wheel of a milk truck (Ha! Truck – life, the city stirs; throw in a tympani under the piccolo for the city stirring) which goes down to the mean house, stops, the driver gets out: follow him with one bottle of Grade B up three flights of mean stairs to a mean door where – stop.

Down in the street the driver comes out, yawns. Up the house front slowly to a top-floor window where a man, touseled, yawns. As the truck drives off its wheels turn, gain speed, and suddenly there are other wheels (the city awakes): trucks pounding down the Concourse, the subway, the “El,” streetcars and the trucks pounding, the “Els,” the subways, and now (on the sound-track, the piccolo goes a fifth higher) you cut in the big dynamo wheels, all the wheels, all the power houses, wheels and wheels, Rah, montage. Then from the dynamo out (space, motion, speed) to – what do you think? An electric grill in the big stinking apartment house, with a colored servant in white, frying bacon and looking at the dumbwaiter. Title: WHERE ALL IS THAT MILKMAN NOHOW. Now down to the milkman, taking in a bottle of heavy cream (flash: SERVANTS’ ENTRANCE) to the dumbwaiter; now back to the poor house, and out over the city and up over the high, proud bulge of the apartment house to the high gray clouds, over the city, over the rich and poor getting up, getting their separate service from the milkman. And on into a great dither of wheels, clouds, gaping windows, yawns, men walking – into plush elevators, on the hard, mean sidewalk, faster, faster, everybody getting into motion, the same city, the same sky, the two remote worlds rich and poor. For special effect, let us say, a kid coming out of the door of the mean house, with pennies for a loaf of whole-wheat, and running past the feet and in front of the wheels, and tripping on the broken cement, falling, smack. Close-up of the head showing a splash of blood spreading on the mean stones, and flash to the apartment house, up, up, to a window, in through the window to the cream being poured into the coffee, being drunk in bed, in silk pyjamas, spilling, a splash of coffee spreading on the silk pyjamas.

Any good? I’m afraid not. But it is pure cinema. Pure cinema can be anything: the important thing always is whether it is done well, whether you can pile one thing on another in a clear beautiful moving line. The wonderful and humbling thing about the movies in general is the skill and sure judgement behind this mechanical transfer of images to strips of celluloid, of a certain number of feet of celluloid into a moving series of images that will have a certain effect on those who watch. It doesn’t matter whether the result is a story of a Significant Experiment: what we have got to single out is the difference between a picture that catches you up in its own movement, and a picture that stammers, stands doubtfully, hammers at a few obvious meanings, and leaves you with a feeling of all the mechanism used to capture emotion, without the emotion. Three Songs about Lenin may have been attacked with a new attack, may be an awesome experiment. My point is that it is not a good picture, and my quarrel with movie criticism is simply that if it was, those who thought so have not done one thing to show why, in so many simple honest words.

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