Thursday, July 23, 2015

Calling the Shots

I recently had the unexpected chance to see a brief interview from Spanish television of the American actress Betsy Blair, who is remembered for, among other things, her performance in Juan Antonio Bardem's film Calle Mayor (1956). Bardem is best known today for a handful of superb films he directed in the 1950s and '60s, notably Death of a Cyclist (1955), Calle Mayor and Nunca Pasa Nada (1963). Blair commented on Bardem's commitment to his work, and how that commitment helped everyone working on the film. And she mentioned something I didn't know: that Bardem had been arrested during the filming of Calle Mayor by the Spanish authorities of the Franco regime. Production was suspended for several days while the film's producer, who was losing money every day that the film was held up, negotiated Bardem's release. Blair consulted Jorge Semprun in Paris about what she should do, and he empahtically told her not to work with anyone but Bardem, to wait for his return to the production.

Her comments reminded me of a point I once made about the - to my mind mistaken - application of the so-called "auteur theory" to American film. While I am not an advocate of dead horse whipping, where's the harm in it? The horse, in this case, Andrew Sarris's Cahiers du Cinema-inspired Auteur Theory, isn't quite dead, even if the critical discourse that engendered it is practically forgotten. That, in itself, may be the best argument against the auteur theory - that most film critics aren't idealogues and aren't interested in orthodoxies. There remain the stalwart few, however, for whom it is second nature.

One of the most entrenched opponents of the auteur theory was Pauline Kael, who wrote a lengthy treatise attempting to debunk it called "Raising Kane." The greatness of Citizen Kane is, by now, without question. Until its latest international critic's poll in 2012, which is really no more or less spurious than any of the others going all the way back to 1952, BFI's Top Ten Films list was always topped with Kane. Choosing Orson Welles's first film to illustrate her thesis was unfortunate simply because Kane is a work of art.

In "Raising Kane," Kael strained credulity by arguing that Herman Mankiewicz, and not Orson Welles, was a likelier "auteur" of Citizen Kane. The only thing Kael actually proved, which was news to no one, was that Mankiewicz wrote a substantial part of the screenplay, with Welles giving himself co-writing credit. Kael might as well have argued that Gregg Toland, the film's cinematographer, and Van Nest Polglase, its production designer, were the film's auteurs, since they were responsible for the extraordinary look of the film. Obviously, Welles made everything happen. He didn't - of course, he couldn't - do everything himself, but nothing would've been done without him calling the shots. Despite RKO's advance hype for Kane, to which William Randolph Hearst contributed by threatening to sue the studio for libel, Citizen Kane was a box office disappointment.

The notion that a director, who is there to tell everyone what to do, is the author of a film, the guiding intelligence that realizes what eventually turns up on the screen, is theoretically a sound one. It didn't always work out that way in practice. Two of MGM's major productions of 1939, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, give directing credit to Victor Fleming. We now know that, due to MGM's formidable shooting schedules, several directors worked on both movies, including George Cukor and King Vidor. So who was the author of these two movies? Since neither film is all that good, does it really matter?

To a reliable extent, any number of Hollywood's auteurs were replaceable. The simplest way to prove this is to imagine what would've happened if Howard Hawks or William Wellman or Raoul Walsh had been incapacitated by an unforeseen accident while shooting one of their masterworks. Obviously, an assistant would have completed the movie without anyone noticing the slightest rupture in the authorial signature. Even Alfred Hitchcock regarded the physical process of making a movie as almost redundant, since, he often said, he had already made the movie in his head and had made such detailed storyboards for the framing of shots and the blocking of actors that someone else could've made them.

But trying to imagine an assistant finishing L'Avventura or Late Spring or Winter Light when Antonioni or Ozu or Bergman had been sidelined by an illness or injury is impossible. Even when a great director was assisted by someone of talent, it's still unthinkable that, for instance, Jacques Becker would've completed La Grande Illusion if Renoir had broken his back, or that Volker Schlondorff could've realized Le Feu Follet if Louis Malle had come down with severe dysentery.

Another reason why it becomes more than a little ridiculous to attribute the authorship of numerous movies to the likes of Hawks, Wellman, or Walsh (I just picked these names at random. I could as easily have used the names Mann, Wyler or Minnelli) is that making their movies wasn't their idea - they were almost always assignments, products of an inexorable process. If a producer didn't like the work that one of these directors was giving him, the producer could simply replace him, as Kirk Douglas did when he fired Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus and replaced him with Stanley Kubrick.

There are rare instances of the shooting of a film being halted by the death or injury of one of its leading actors. Alexander Korda's now-legendary production of I, Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg, was scuttled a month into shooting when the film's star, Merle Oberon, was badly injured in a car accident. In the fascinating documentary, The Epic That Never Was (1965), Emlyn Williams, who was cast as Caligula, speculated that, had he or any of the other actors in the cast been hospitalized, they would've been replaced. Von Sternberg morosely said that "my film had been truncated by an actor." When Williams heard of Sternberg's (excuse me - Von Sternberg's) verdict, he pointed out that it was Merle Oberon who had been truncated. He might as easily have pointed out that if Sternberg had been thrown through the windshield instead of Merle Oberon, he, too, would've been replaced.

Whatever the reputation of any American director of Hollywood's Golden Age, none of them, not even John Ford, had contractural control over the final cut. Ford avoided drastic cutting of his films by so carefully tightening his scripts and his shooting schedules that his producers would have had little to work with if they wanted to change anything. The term "artistic control" was practically nonexistent in Hollywood until the Sixties and Seventies.

The interference of the producer Irving Thalberg in the career of Erich von Stroheim is legendary. Stroheim may have been something of a genius, but he was also an elephantine pedant. When a scene in his film Greed - that was taken out of Stroheim's hands and hacked to a small fraction of its original size - was set deep in a gold mine, Stroheim insisted that his cast and crew descend into an actual mine shaft to shoot the scene rather than simply create a set of the mineshaft in the studio.

But if one were to compare Welles's first two films, Citizen Kane, of which he had contracturally guaranteed final cut approval, and The Magnificent Ambersons, of which he obviously did not, it would demonstrate one of the fundamental flaws in the importance placed on the auteur of a film. Considerations of control aside, what most distinguishes Welles's first two films is the quality of their precises. Kane was an original work, from an idea by Herman Mankiewicz, borrowing some of its ideas from the life of flamboyant newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Ambersons was based, astonishingly, on a third-rate novel by Booth Tarkington. I can imagine reading Tarkington's novel if only to get some idea of what Welles saw in it.

With one of the most talented cinematographers in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, and a large budget, Welles set out in Citizen Kane to make what is easily the best film that could have been made by anyone in Hollywood at the time. Most contemporary critics - including one of the best, Otis Ferguson - didn't comprehend the extent of Welles's accomplishment and claimed that, far from being revolutionary, Citizen Kane was nothing but a catalog of visual effects that had been used before.

By the time Welles started working on The Magnificent Ambersons, the honeymoon was over at RKO. Kane had been a commercial disappointment, and a new head of production at RKO decreed that films released by the studio should not exceed ninety minutes in length, so as to capitalize on the war-time craze for double-features. When Welles completed shooting of Ambersons and it was handed to the producer (while Welles himself flew off to South America to make the abortive It's All True), its length was far beyond ninety minutes. Robert Wise, who also edited Kane for Welles, was told to trim the film down to size. His cuts were so ruinous to Tarkington's already shaky continuity that Wise had to shoot a different ending without Stanley Cortez, Welles's hand-picked cinematographer. (Welles famously said that it looked like it had been cut "with a lawnmower.") What's left of Ambersons is at times tantalizing but frustrating at others. It would be unfair to judge the film, in my opinion, in the condition the producers left it. Despite the obvious tampering by RKO, many critics - auteurists to the last gasp - claim that Ambersons is very nearly as great as Kane.

In an interview with Dick Cavett in the early '70s, Ingmar Bergman spoke about what happened to Orson Welles when RKO took The Magnificent Ambersons out of his hands. Bergman said that if a producer had come on the set of one of his films and told him how to make it, he would've told the producer "to go to hell." But Bergman was working under utterly different circumstances from those that Welles ever knew. Bergman never had to worry that a producer would even dream of removing a frame of The Seventh Seal or Persona. There was a world of difference in attitudes toward a director's place in the making of a film in Sweden, as there was in France, Italy, Japan and elsewhere. When Andrzej Munk was killed in a car crash during the shooting of The Passenger, the film was released with the unfinished scenes represented in still photos, out of respect to the dead filmmaker. 

Such respect for a filmmaker's intentions would be unthinkable in America. Since there is so much money involved, and since a movie's investors don't want their money to be wasted, insurance companies are involved in contract negotiations that provide them with guarantees of a film's completion, whether the contracted director completes it or not. If a director is reputed to be "difficult" and is notorious for going over-budget and over-schedule, the insurance company is empowered to step in when necessary and take the film out of his hands and give it to someone else to complete. It is impossible to imagine someone like Bertrand Tavernier or Hirozaki Koreeda being bound by such a contract.

Richard Brody, who has staked his critical reputation on the auteur theory (or, as he corrects it, the "auteur policy"), has tried to clarify what the Cahiers du Cinema crowd (Rohmer, Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette) were intending to do in the 1950s. Because they still felt the deep sense of betrayal by their parents' generation that resulted in the four-year German occupation of France, these young critics wanted to use whatever influence they could bring to bear to discredit the established film directors of France (with the exception of Renoir, of course). Godard told Brody in 2000, "We saw that we had to continue the Resistance against a certain type of occupations of the cinema by people who had no business being there. Including, at times, three-quarters of the French [directors]." This pretty much explains the antagonism of the Cahiers gang toward French cinema and its love of American cinema. The Americans liberated France, after all.

The adaptation of this parochial and highly political approach to film by Andrew Sarris became suspect the moment Sarris failed to notice the importance of the word "politique." For Sarris, auteurism was a purely aesthetic dogma - which is why he made it seem - to me - ridiculous. The auteurist orthodoxy becomes unmistakably political when it attempts to cross the line - indeed, to obscure the line - between art and non-art. Many critics and filmmakers have remarked at how they warmed to Sarris precisely because he re-introduced them to a pantheon of films - by American directors. Suddenly, thanks to Sarris's efforts, films that had never before been taken seriously, whose directors had never been mistaken for artists, were - abra-cadabra - welcomed into the winner's circle. American films were no longer mere "entertainment" (genre musicals, westerns, thrillers, etc.), but were the worthy objects of serious discussion.

One of the reasons why I have never taken Sarris seriously is simply because films that I had seen with my own eyes, that had made no deeper impression on me than a circus performance or a comic book, were somehow as deep as Dostoevsky or Debussy. I had by then (by my mid-teens, that is) encountered enough of literature and so-called "classical" music to have felt the tug on my intellect and my soul of great art. I knew that Sarris's argument was baloney because I experienced an opposite trajectory. I had not been given the slightest indication from my moviegoing that American films, with singular exceptions, were worthy of any serious consideration. I saw them as nothing but commercial products, and their makers as nothing but studio employees. I wasn't even aware of the wider world of film art until - in 1971 - I was shown Fellini's La Strada and was so deeply disturbed by it that it led me to investigate how the film came about, seventeen years before I was given a chance to see it. Not only did the experience introduce me to other films, and the artists who created them, it made me turn against every other film I had seen until then - and a movie industry that had actively worked to deprive me of them.

The appropriation of the American film industry of film markets - theater venues - in Europe and everywhere else in the world is a different, and ongoing phenomenon. But few film critics have bothered to address how the American industry has so pervasively monopolized movie theaters in the U.S. that only independently-owned - and independently-minded - theaters have provided a space for films from abroad.

The only reason why I had the opportunity to see La Strada was because a Roman Catholic nun, who was a teacher at the elementary school I was attending at the time, had seen the film and had found a Christian "message" in Fellini's story of the carnival strong man Zampano and the waif Gelsomina. What bowled me over was the film's streaks of poetry that seemed to come out of nowhere, like the Fool's toy violin that was made to sound like a full-sized one, or the strange and inexplicable appearance of a rag-tag marching band in the middle of nowhere. I had never known that a film could do what Fellini was doing in La Strada and it both delighted and depressed me. I was in love with something that was totally new to me - cinema. But where had it been all my life?  

That it had always been there, beyond my horizon, just waiting for me to make the effort of discovering it for myself, soon made me resent American films in general. At last seeing what films could do, through Fellini, Bergman, De Sica, Kurosawa, etc., it became an exclusive standard to which I compared every film I encountered. When I encountered Sarris's book, The American Cinema, I already knew that its propositions were foolish - and that I was not alone.     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nice new-to-me picture of Betsy.